When I helped guide a young Christian business associate through a spiritual crisis, little did we know that it would result in a life-altering book. The Weight of Gold brings out the Torah’s universal messages for personal growth and social justice, showing that the Torah is indeed the User’s Guide to the human soul. Follow this blog each week for new insights into this ancient text. The Weight of Gold – now available. Contact the author.
The Bible is very easy to understand. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know that the moment we understand it, we are obliged to act accordingly.
In this week’s Torah reading Moses ascends Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. In the Hebrew they are called “the ten sayings.” There is a Hebrew word for commandment, which is actually not used here. It would be more precise to call these “the ten principles.” The specific rules, laws and observances commanded in the Torah are not meant to be exhaustive; they are expressions of God’s will, principles that God wants us to apply in our behavior. These fall generally into the categories of our relationship with God, our relationships with one another, and our relationship to ourselves. Principles governing ritual practice, societal behavior, and personal ethics and spiritual growth.
The Ten Commandments is not a unique event. The principles enunciated at Sinai comprise all of God’s message for humanity: how to deal with God, how to build a just society, how to care for others, and how to work to realize our personal potential. These principles are eternal. Far beyond being merely words spoken by God in a particular setting, they are definitional to who God is.
The weekly Torah portions are generally named by the first key word of the portion. Thus the first three readings are “In The Beginning,” “Noah,” and “Go.” This week’s portion is named “Jethro,” after Moses’ father-in-law. God’s law is given at Mt Sinai in a reading that bears the name of an outsider, a non-Israelite. Jethro was the priest of Midian and he is not destined to become part of the Jewish people. He was an idolater. The rabbinic tradition tells that Jethro recognized the power and greatness of God, because he had worshipped every other god and thus was able to recognize God as authentic. Of course, this is still tainted by the fact that Jethro accepts God as true because of the miracles, the Exodus from Egypt, and the splitting of the sea. In short: seeing is believing. At this point in the Torah’s narrative, we still need concrete experience as our touchstone for religious faith.
Even after affirming the greatness of the God of Israel, Jethro will return to his homeland and, presumably, to his position of leadership, with all the priestly duties that entails. Yet, far from criticizing him for not following Moses into the wilderness, the rabbis give Jethro great honor, naming this portion after him. During his brief stay in the camp of the Israelites, the people benefit from Jethro’s involvement. Jethro demonstrates practical wisdom beyond that of his son-in-law and explains why Moses needs to radically change his mode of leadership. Without Jethro, Moses’ teachings would die with him. Without Jethro, the Torah would disappear from history.
Acting in his role as judge and lawgiver, Moses stands all day as, from morning to night, the Israelites line up to present their questions (18:13-23.) Consistent with the Torah’s overarching message of creating and maintaining a just society, the rabbis tell us that people came to Moses, not to charge one another with wrongdoing, but to ask whether they themselves had behaved properly, and if not, how to remedy the situation.
Observing his son-in-law, Jethro tells Moses (18:18) “You will surely wither away, you and also this people who are with you.” This is understood to mean: This judging is too much for one person to take on. You need to share the burden. But also, the Hebrew word translated as “wither away” means a dead body – specifically applied to animals who die of natural causes. Jethro is not merely saying, Moses, you work too hard. He is saying, This system of government, this Torah will die with you unless you take steps now to create a structure. Not merely to choose leader to fill your sandals, but a robust system of governance that will retain its integrity down through the ages. Jethro tells Moses to create a society.
Jethro – who acknowledges all God’s miracles – says, This generation experienced the miracles. They stand before you today in humility, afraid to take one penny that doesn’t belong to them. But after you are gone and after they die out, future generations will argue bitterly over what the Torah means. If the plain law is not clear to these people who actually experienced God’s presence and miracles, how will people react after a generation, a century, a millennium?
Nothing disrupts a society like money. Today they stand in line to ask whether they are entitled to keep their own money. Tomorrow they will kill each other over pennies. And it will all come down to leadership.
At the end of the reading (20:19-20), God says, “You shall not make with me gods of silver and gods of gold, you shall not make for yourselves.” The rabbis say that the gold and silver vessels and ornaments that will be made for ritual use in the Tabernacle are not to be worshiped. Even the gold cherubim atop the Ark of the Covenant are not holy in themselves. Rather, they enable holiness to be practiced.
On the societal level, money has the power to rip the fabric of the social system. Says God, I expect you to create justice on the ground. Do not invoke My Name to take from others. In today’s world, where the marketplace is enshrined as the ultimate deity, it is no wonder people are ignorant of these verses.
God says, Don’t think I will be flattered by your money. When you lie and cheat and steal and take unfair advantage of the weak – or even when you are one of those fundamentally decent people who blithely benefits from the injustices that have crept into the fabric of society – do not think I will be appeased if you put your name on a $100 million university research facility or library. People speak about “Giving back.” But no one questions how they got it in the first place. When we “give back,” we need to acknowledge that we took. Otherwise it is just “giving,” and not “giving back.”
Before you take silver and gold, says God, examine carefully how you came to receive it. Specifically with regard to business and money matters, go out of your way to ask, to be careful. The way to create and maintain harmony in society is to be careful of the property of others in the first instance. Giving back what was taken away restores the arithmetic, but not the moral balance. Think of the man jailed for a crime he did not commit. Freed after a year – or four decades – he will say, I am glad that justice was finally done. But then, the abstract notion of justice is all he has. No court on earth can restore his lost life, his lost years, his lost mental health and dignity or the family whose lives have been wrecked.
We must be infinitely mindful of each thing that comes to our hand. So little of what we possess is truly ours.
What does this have to do with the giving of Torah? Everything. It has to do with examining the inner nature of righteousness. That Right and Wrong are not defined by what I like, but depend on objective standards, especially on protecting the weak, the few, the disenfranchised. We dare not assume that we are in the right. Through ceaseless contemplation and self-observation, through constantly challenging our own assumptions, and through bottomless compassion for the rights of others, we must apply justice in every aspect of our lives.
It’s tempting to get hung up on the letter of the law, because that doesn’t require us to think about the world from anyone else’s perspective. This is true whether discussing the Torah, the New Testament or the Quran, or the US Constitution. But in every case, the foundational document is just that: a foundation, and we are responsible for building and maintaining a structure based on it. The Talmud says Jerusalem was destroyed because the people became obsessed with the letter of the law and forgot that the letter is but the starting point. God requires us to go beyond the letter. To apply the underlying principles – rigorously and with compassion and mercy. Therein lies the difference between Law and Justice. Let us continue to apply the lessons.
Yours for a better world.