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 book is now available through Amazon and in select bookstores. Please contact the author.
Seek the wisdom that will untie your knot. Seek the path that demands your whole being.
In this week’s Torah portion God launches the campaign of plagues against the Egyptians. But first, God designates Moses as the earthly leader of the Israelites, the man without whom the divine plan cannot be implemented. If we are here for any purpose, the Torah teaches us it is to be active partners in God’s work. The opening passage of this section spells out a profound difference in the way God is presented in this book, in contrast to the way God appears in Genesis.
Says God to Moses, “I am God [the four-letter spelling of the Divine name, represented in English by the letters Y/H/W/H]. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as ‘El Shaddai,’ but with my name Y/H/W/H I did not make myself known to them. In addition, I established my Covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan… In addition, I have heard the groan of the Children of Israel being enslaved by Egypt and I remember my Covenant. Therefore, I say to you, I am God (Y/H/W/H) and I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt…”
The introduction of the Divine Name mirrors the first two chapters of Genesis; God is called by the name Elohim in chapter one, designating the God of the world, the God of nature, and the God of judgment. Once humans are created, the world becomes a much more complicated place. The name Y/H/W/H is introduced in chapter 2. This is God’s aspect of mercy and compassion. It is also the name of the God of Israel and, as we are about to see, the God who gets directly involved in human history.
God tells Moses “I appeared to [the Patriarchs] as ‘El Shaddai’…” This name represents a transition from the universal God of nature to the personal and national God of the Hebrews. The name El is a generic Canaanite name for a deity. The name Shaddai invokes the mountains and the mystery of great heights. Indeed, among the most striking features of the land of Canaan are the mountains dominating the landscape. Upon entering Canaan, Abraham co-opts the local chief deity – he enables the revelation and transformation of the local chief deity into the One eternal God.
Historically we know that older local rituals and practices are subsumed into newer religions when they take over. Ancient springtime fertility festivals were brought forward and associated with Passover, and thence with Easter. Winter solstice observances found their way into Hanukkah and Christmas. The spread of religion comes hand in hand with political or military conquest. Alexander the Great used local religions to his advantage, leaving troops in each place he conquered where they would marry and integrate into the local population, taking on the local gods – a good way to ingratiate the conqueror with the locals. The opposite approach was applied in Islam, where faith was spread at the point of the sword and local practices often discouraged.
The Torah’s narrative advocates a third way.
God interacted with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the outward guise of the powerful local deity El, as appropriate to the time and setting where the Patriarchs lived. The notion of monotheism was too great a challenge to the established order. But within this world view it made sense to the locals that Abraham’s God could become “top god,” dominating all other local deities. There is also a historical argument that says that monotheism creates a particularly pernicious form of intolerance – that the notion that there is only one God means that everyone else is wrong. This is seen as a frightening development that gives to organized religion an unprecedented destructive power.
For those who complain that, if only there wasn’t religion, there wouldn’t be war, I say this is too simplistic – another way of giving overly much power to the Deity. Wars erupt in violence because people aggregate into groups; rivalries grow up, and the broad phenomenon of tribalism takes hold, setting groups against each other. Organized religion is a pillar of tribalism and thus inseparable from conflict – but not its sole cause. Necessary, but not sufficient.
One of the great modern rabbinic thinkers and leaders was Rav Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook (pronounced “cook”), the first chief rabbi of the new State of Israel. A visionary saw the world with an intense clarity, Kook wrote that the individual quest for spiritual realization lies at the core of organized religion. But on no account should you believe that the purpose of organized religion is for you to realize your spiritual quest. Indeed, it is only once we accept the dual role of religion – its primary function as a social adhesive, and only secondarily as a means for individual growth – that we can tend to our own spiritual needs without resenting religion’s demands on us as part of the herd, and its indifference to us as individuals.
God says to Moses, when I appeared to the Patriarchs, my purpose was to form a personal bond with each of them; as El was the god of Canaan, I became for each of them the unique God whose place was wherever they were. (As God said to Moses last week, “I shall be,” meaning, “I shall be what and where I shall be…”) But now, says God, I come to you as both the God of Creation, and the God of a nation. God of the world, but also a personal God to each of you. The rabbis tell us that the unique concept of personal divine providence is born with this relationship, binding forever the fate of the individual to the destiny of the nation.
God has taken great pains to craft a relationship with each of the Patriarchs. God speaks to their weaknesses: God tests Abraham, whose core quality is loving-kindness, by making him give far in excess of anything that might be required of any human being. In passing God’s test, we might say Abraham also fails humanity’s requirement. But how to combine and reconcile his duty to his son – which is also a duty to literally keep alive God’s promise of a future – with his duty of obedience to God?
The Torah introduces us over and over to the human reality that life doesn’t make sense. God is irrational, arbitrary and harsh with Isaac. The Kabbalists assign to Isaac the attribute of Judgment and Limitation. Isaac limits Abraham’s excess of kindness. In doing so, he also suffers, for when we withhold from others, we deny ourselves interaction with the world, that contact with others which is the touchstone of our humanity. God is remote with Jacob; present in promise, though not always palpably so, and at critical moments Jacob loses his nerve. Jacob’s greatness is that, despite feeling cut off from God, he nonetheless forges ahead. In Kabbalistic terms Jacob symbolizes balance, synthesis. He reconciles the excessive generosity of Abraham with the restriction of Isaac. Finally, Jacob begins to be able to live in the world.
Joseph is a transitional figure, left on his own, notably without any communication from God. And he succeeds. Just as the Covenant passes from personal to familial, now in Exodus, it will pass from familial and tribal, to a national identity.
Moses’ task is to create that national identity. Says God – I never showed myself in the fullness of my own Self. Now I come to you, just as I did when I placed Adam in the Garden. Humans are problematic, and so I needed to temper my own aspect of Truth, which is Judgment, with my own softer aspect of Compassion and Mercy.
I had to delve deep within myself, says God, in order to complete the task I had set myself, that of creating a world. I had to learn to relate to the world I had created. To learn to bring out the Patriarchs’ inner qualities without disturbing the balance. To shake them up without tearing them to pieces. I needed to probe deeply into their unique essence, for each person’s unique strongest point is also where they are most vulnerable. We never grow until we push ourselves beyond where we believe we can go.
Moses must learn this about himself – and what better guide than God? What better role model? Moses must learn to delve within himself, to learn and understand and develop each of his unique inner abilities and strengths, to understand his weaknesses too, and to know his true limitations. Not those limits he fears to go beyond, but he needs to know that he actually can go farther than he ever believed. And he needs to know what will happen when he does.
A true leader touches that which is unique in every person they encounter. Is capable of bringing to the fore each person’s strengths. As we shall see, Moses’ greatness as a leader emerges in moments when he believes in us, even when we have given up hope. Indeed, his greatest moments are when he believes in us, even when God has given up on us completely.
The truest role of a leader – of a captain, of a teacher, of a spiritual guide – is to help their teammate, or pupil, or friend to identify what is greatest within themselves, and to bring that selflessly to fruition.
May God bless and sustain the work of our hands.
Yours for a better world.