When I guided a young Christian 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.
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The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
– William Faulkner
Deuteronomy is unlike the four books that precede it. It is unlike them in language, as it abandons the omniscient narrator’s voice, and instead is told in Moses’ own words. It is unlike them in content, because rather than a forward-moving narrative, it is a retelling of the central three books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. And it is especially different with regard to its audience. Until now we, the readers of this magnificent epic, have lived the Israelite experience: we fled Egypt, we crossed the Sea of Reeds with Pharaoh and his chariots in hot pursuit. We stood at Sinai and we muttered against Moses in the wilderness. We fled from Amalek, we thirsted in the wilderness and argued against God. We ate the manna, but then we made and worshiped the calf of molten gold – then, when called upon, we slaughtered our own brethren. We made the Tabernacle, watched in bliss as it was inaugurated – and in horror at the death of Nadab and Abihu. We sent the spies into the Promised Land, then rebelled at their word and cast off both God’s promise and God’s command. We rebelled with Korach, died in the plagues, and in between all our sufferings, we retreated to our tents and wept in solitude, with none to give us solace.
Between the portion in which Korach’s rebellion is narrated and the portion directly after it, thirty-eight years have elapsed in which the Israelites have neither heard from God nor moved camp. It is no coincidence that the portion opens with the inexplicable law of the red heifer, whose purpose is to cleanse from the impurity of death (Num. 19:2ff). Consistent with God’s dreadful ruling in the aftermath of the incident of the spies, all the adult males of the generation of the Exodus has died, with few exceptions such as Elazar and Phinehas, Aaron and Moses – all of whom shall die before entering the Promised Land; and those designated to cross over, Caleb and Joshua.
The book of Deuteronomy is addressed to those born in the wilderness, and to those where were children at the time of the Exodus. Most of them will have little or no recollection of the events in Egypt, of the splitting of the sea – or even of the revelation at Mount Sinai – except what their parents have told them. They are like the children of Holocaust survivors, heirs to a once-in-history, traumatic past, but also removed from the experience, receiving it as filtered through their parents’ own trauma. Were those born in the wilderness torn awake at night by their parents’ nightmare shrieking? Did they wonder at their parents’ odd silences, their sudden bursting into tears? Because even though the Exodus was a redemption it also, as Nachmanides points out, constitutes the foundational experience of exile that remains the core of Jewish identity. And even though the Israelites escaped Pharaoh and his armies, they then watched as their own brethren died in the wilderness, struck down by God, whether by plague or by fire – if not killed by their own family members at God’s instruction. The very God who worked mighty wonders to free them from Egypt. The very God who has promised again and again to bring them into the Land of Israel.
All this is foreign to the generation who are about to enter the Promised Land. How is Moses to prepare them? While reading the sometimes incredibly harsh chastisements of Deuteronomy, it is important to remember to whom Moses is speaking: not to those who actually transgressed, not to those who actually forgot God’s graciousness, God’s miracles, and God’s promise, but to their children, those with no firsthand experience of the miraculous. Those for whom the splitting of the sea is perhaps just as distant as it is for us when we retell it each year at the Passover table.
Moses must make a leadership choice. How is he to prepare this generation to take possession of the land? Should he tell them how wonderful they are, that there is no other people in all of history whom God has so favored? This he does. But he delivers this message bound up in harsh criticism. You were responsible for things going wrong! he tells the people. Moses implants in the generation of the conquest an a priori notion of ancestral guilt. It is the original Original Sin: despite God’s graciousness, God’s love for us, God’s immense generosity – to say nothing of the miracles wrought on our behalf – our parents constantly wavered in their faith, to the point of outright rejection at the episode of the spies. You dare not let that happen again, says Moses. Let your parents’ error of faithlessness be a lesson to you.
And thus the book of Deuteronomy begins.
From Moses’ perspective, this is also a case study in the burdens of leadership. Textually, this is the transition from the unfiltered Word of God to our attempts to understand God’s will, and to the practical application of the laws enunciated in the Torah. In traditional Jewish terms, Deuteronomy is the transition from the Written Torah to the Oral Torah: from the printed text to the ongoing act of interpretation. And as it draws to a close, Deuteronomy also contains some of the Torah’s most powerful poetic passages.
Throughout the middle three books of the Torah, we encounter one brief, ubiquitous verse: “And God spoke to Moses, saying.” It always introduces something new. It is tied to God’s fundamental act of Creation, accomplished through speech: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” God “says” to Moses repeatedly, each time revealing a new legal or religious concept, a new act of Creation.
The verse, “And God spoke to Moses, saying,” does not appear anywhere in Deuteronomy. The book opens, “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel.” The text that follows is visibly different from anything that came before. Instead of God, Moses does the talking. Moses recounts the history of the Israelites’ travels, up to the moment, forty years later, when he stands before them “on the other side of the Jordan” (Deut. 1:1). What is striking about the location, as given explicitly in the text, is that it is “the other side of the Jordan.” Moses’ words are addressed to those who have not yet entered the Land of Israel; they will be read by those who come after them, those who shall be born and live in the land. Even by those who, thousands of years later, shall be flung to the far corners of the Earth.
Moses enumerates the exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, and the events that led to the forty years of wandering, to people one or two generations removed from the events – and he is telling it in a framework intended not only for his listeners in the moment, but for future generations. The leader realizes that in order to give us a sense of our destiny, he must paint the complex picture of our history. Otherwise, we are not a people, but merely a bunch of individuals who happened to go through similar experiences. This is simultaneously spiritual instruction, tough love, and creating a vision of peoplehood for future generations.
Moses is forward-looking and personally fearless – two essential qualities for a leader. He takes it upon himself to retell the story God has revealed to us at Sinai. He is audacious, he is powerful. Moses is the very essence of a leader and teacher; a philosopher-king. And he does not hesitate to put himself on the line for the cause, for those he leads. We saw Phinehas risk his own life for the honor of Heaven, but that was a spontaneous, onetime act. Moses lays it on the line every day, and in Deuteronomy we get to see the enterprise from his perspective. It’s tough going, because Moses doesn’t hold back, neither about Israel’s failings nor about how difficult it is to be in his position. These are the words, not of God, but of a man who has seen God, who has spoken with God, who has learned Torah as God’s intimate study partner, and who now turns to pass on to us what he has learned. Moses’ reflections on his own role make this book is a paradigm of leadership.
“Moses began to explain this Torah, saying…” (1:5). The Hebrew word translated as “he began” has multiple layers of meaning, including the spontaneous desire to act, venturesomeness, and risk of failure. The root of the word translated as “explain” also means to engrave. Moreover, the verse ends with the word “saying,” the very word with which God created the cosmos. We have become the creators. Indeed, this is our destiny, the purpose for which we are created: to be partners with God in the ongoing creation and perfection of the world.
Indeed, later in the book of Deuteronomy (30:12), we shall read, “It is not in heaven”; the Torah is not some remote, mysterious object to be revered from afar. It is a handbook, a user’s manual for the human soul, and we are meant to get our hands dirty with turning its pages over and over, learning how to apply it in our own lives. Unlike what many perceive as a strictly dogmatic approach to religion, the rabbinic model is not, “What does the Torah text mean,” but rather, “What can the Torah’s text mean.” Now. Today. To me and to you.
The transfer, the giving-over of Torah – the engraving on our souls, the explanation – requires someone who is willing to take the initiative to dive in. To be willing to begin, to take the risk of getting it wrong, and to revisit the text over and over again.
Interpreting God’s word is an overwhelming responsibility. Most people can’t handle it, which is why they look for leaders. More troubling, it is why people look for simple answers. People want the world to be binary, to be purely black and white. In the present moment, we see clearly a massive race to the bottom, both intellectually and spiritually. We are surrounded by people who can’t bear the complexity of life. Like children, we are still playing Good Guys and Bad Guys, when we really need to be exploring each other’s minds from within, trying to put ourselves in the other person’s place. To see the world through their eyes, and ourselves through their eyes. For that is the only way to make peace.
The book of Deuteronomy is not the perfect book handed by God to Moses. It is one man’s version of events. And while Moses is unique, what he teaches us is that each person’s unique understanding of God’s message is no less important than anyone else’s interpretation. This is why Deuteronomy is part of the revealed Torah: it is an exhortation to engage profoundly with this text. To make the Torah belong to us, and us to it. God’s revelation is an ongoing process. The rabbis are clear on this point: the giving of the Torah at Sinai is the beginning of a process that continues to flow to this day. Moses is a tough act to follow, but the message is: follow we must. God’s Torah is revealed at Sinai, and again through Moses’ retelling. And again each day by me, by you, and by everyone who seeks God’s truth. It is our job to continue to work on ourselves, to strive to understand those around us, to teach, to lead, and to constantly help others bring out the best that is within them. Only when we all take on the responsibility for making ourselves better will we be able to build a better world for all.
This is Moses’ lasting message: spiritual growth requires constant vigilance. It’s easy to believe when faced with outward signs of God’s favor. It’s easy to have faith when things are going well. And it’s easier still to lose faith or – worse – to cast God aside in anger. May we be blessed to continue in vigilance, to grow and learn and deepen in wisdom. To grow as individuals, and as leaders and teachers of others. Each one of us has the potential to become a very tough act to follow.
Yours for a better world.