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Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God; the Lord is One.
– Deuteronomy 6:4
Several times in this portion, the Israelites are exhorted to “hear,” notably, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God; the Lord is One” (Deut. 6:4). Repeated each morning and evening, this is the core declaration of Jewish faith in the existence and essential nature of God, and of Israel’s unique relationship with the One God.
When the Torah exhorts us to “hear,” it carries the sense of both “understand” and “obey.” Understanding is the ideal toward which the Torah guides us; it is the work of a lifetime, requiring constant mindfulness. Until we come to understand – or when we forget and lose focus along the way – we are called on to obey. This is no different from child-rearing, where the parent balances the need for education with the child’s ability to absorb information. At the first stage, the parent says “Do this…” (or more often, “Don’t do this…”) “…because I said so.”
At a later stage of development, the child needs to process information for him- or herself; they resist a simple Do or Don’t because the maturing brain no longer acts merely as an extension of the parent’s will. Now the parent must add, “Don’t do that because it’s dangerous and you’ll get hurt.” Now every admonition requires its reason.
Later still, with the child on the brink of independence, the parent says, “What do you think will happen if you do that?” Finally, the child will leave the parents’ control and will be in the world alone, making decisions on their own. No parent can watch this without a mix of anticipation and unease: will they make good decisions? Did they learn enough? Did I teach them properly? We experience our children’s trajectory as an unbroken commentary on our adequacy or utter failure as parents.
Moses is not a timid father to the Israelites, and here in Deuteronomy, the gloves are off. He wades right in, taking a confrontational approach learned directly from God.
Moses’ retelling of the wanderings in the wilderness started last week with his narrative of the appointment of a leadership structure, one ratified by the people. He charges (1:22–32) that the Israelites asked him to send spies to scout out the land of Canaan, and that he agreed. When the spies returned, the Israelites despaired and refused to ascend to the land, rebelling against God’s command. “You murmured in your tents,” says Moses, a down-to-earth description of a group when everyone recognizes that they have failed and are casting about, desperate to throw the blame onto someone else. They shut themselves up in their rooms, angry at each other and themselves, and afraid and ashamed to go out in public.
Now look back at the event itself (Num. 13:13). God says, “Send men and have them search out the land of Canaan.” God unambiguously commands Moses to designate the spies and to send them to reconnoiter and bring back a report. The rabbis are so upset with the outcome of the spies’ mission – despair, rebellion, and forty years of wandering – that they too shred the plain meaning of the text (taking their cue from Moses?) and lay the blame on Moses. In the rabbinic reframing, Moses approaches God with the idea, and God resignedly says, “Go ahead.”
Now Moses turns this onto the Israelites, saying the tragedy arose because they pressed him to send a scouting party. Worse, as a result of Israel’s pigheadedness and rebellion at the incident of the spies, Moses is denied entry to the land. Not only will he not live to enter the Promised Land; unlike Joseph, whose bones he has carried since leaving Egypt forty years ago, and whose remains will be laid to rest in Shechem, Moses will suffer the indignity of being buried outside the Promised Land, on the other side of the Jordan in an unmarked grave.
In a perhaps ungenerous, but all too human reading, we might ask: Where did Moses learn this behavior of blaming others? Of shrugging off responsibility? Moses struggles to reach the borders of the Promised Land, only to see it slip from his grasp. Rather than take some share of the blame, rather than calling it a failure of leadership – which it surely was on many levels, Moses blames his loss on the people.
Is this fair? Is it good leadership? What lesson is Moses conveying?
The text itself makes plain the enormity of the Israelites’ refusal to go up to the land of Canaan. Moses recounts: “They turned and ascended the mountain and came to the valley of Eshkol and spied it out. They took in their hands of the fruit of the land and brought it down to us…but you did not wish to ascend, and you rebelled against the word of the Lord your God” (1:24–26). In the Garden of Eden, Eve and Adam eat the fruit that is forbidden to them; as a consequence, they are expelled from Paradise. Here the Israelites are presented with the fruit of the Promised Land, yet they don’t even taste it. They refuse to take what is not only offered; it is commanded. And thus the promise is put off until those of the generation which did not go up have died.
If one thing can be said about life, it’s that it is unpredictable. Random, as we experience over and over in the book of Numbers. If any one thing can be said with certainty about the Torah, it is that none of us can truly state that we comprehend God’s meaning. The Torah exhorts the Israelites to sanctify the world in God’s Name, to make of this world a better world, a just world, a compassionate world. In the absence of a clear path to righteousness, in the face of the utter randomness of our existence, we can at least obey the fundamental principles of God’s will while we learn, then apply what we learn. Taking this process ever higher, we learn by doing, then do what we have learned – an endless cycle of improvement repeating in our own lives and down the countless generations.
The eternal theme of exile and return runs through the Hebrew Bible. As a historical process, this continues today with the existence of the State of Israel – a concrete, historical return. As a religious and spiritual process, we recognize that the world leads us to lose touch with our spiritual core. Our soul goes into exile. Our spiritual and emotional lives are ongoing cycles of distancing and return; of seeking to come home to our deepest, finest, and most pure spiritual selves.
All the way back at the beginning – Genesis 1:1 – Rashi, the medieval rabbi revered by Jews everywhere as the greatest rabbinical commentator of all time (France, 1040–1105), asks why the Torah, a book of laws, begins with the Creation. We read through the entire book of Genesis, plus the first eleven chapters of Exodus, before we come to the first law commanded to the Israelites. Says Rashi, future generations will rail against us. “You are thieves!” they will say. “You have stolen the Land of Israel from its inhabitants.” In reply, we shall point to the opening verse of the Torah. God made the world; the world is God’s, and God gives the land to whom God pleases. Whereas once it pleased God to give the land to the Canaanite nations, it then pleased God to take the land away from them and give it to us.
Writing from my desk in Jerusalem, I experience keenly the other side of Rashi’s message: our inheritance and safety and ownership of this land are all tied to a moral imperative. Rashi’s clear message is that the land does not belong to us forever. God can change God’s mind.
God promised this land to Abraham and to his descendants. Thus, the Bible assures us the people of Israel will always return to ownership. But there are conditions. “I will die on this side of the Jordan,” says Moses. But, he continues, you will go into the Promised Land. There, after two generations, you will forget your covenant with God; you will become corrupt, making and worshiping idols. Then, warns Moses, you will be destroyed. God will drive you out of the land and scatter you among the nations, where you will worship idols, gods made of wood and stone (Deut. 4:22–31).
The sin of the Golden Calf makes for dramatic reading. The imagery of the molten idol come to life, the wanton, lewd dancing and shouts of mass hysteria – all very cinematic. But Moses dwells tellingly on the episode of the spies. In the sin of the Calf, we did not believe what we did not see with our own eyes; when Moses failed to return, we gave up hope. In the incident of the spies, we refused to believe that which we did see with our own eyes: God has promised us this land, God has brought us to the borders of the land, has permitted us to walk the roads and fields and mountains of the land, to taste its fruits, to breathe its air. Yet we refused to enter.
The Israelites made the Golden Calf because they lost faith in Moses. But when they followed the despairing message of the spies, they denied faith in God. Rather than dwell on the sin that caused the loss of faith in Moses’ leadership, Moses points to the nation’s abandonment of God. That is his greatness; he, of all of us, understands that he lives in service of something far greater than himself.
Seeing, it turns out, is not always believing. Listen, says the Torah. Pay mindful attention. Learn true wisdom, and until you have learned wisdom, follow the basic principles of behavior. When in doubt, says God, do it because I said so.
The price for rejecting God will be exile and the decimation of the people (4:25–28). We – the Jewish people – have certainly witnessed this in the course of history. Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel, in a typically astonishing insight, tells us that above and beyond exile from the land, the decline of our numbers, the living in poverty and misery and terror – beyond all this, the agonizing, constant reminder of our denigration is that we shall worship other gods (4:28). All the while we shall know that God is truth (“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God…”), yet we shall turn our backs on God and on Torah. We abandoned God by making and worshiping idols. Now, says Abarbanel, idol worship is not merely the cause of punishment; it is the ultimate punishment itself.
Let us not worship false gods: gods of money, of power over others, of racist ideology or nationalism, of our own rage, of our own close-mindedness. Of our own ego, of our grasping after objects – mere outer symbols of power and success. Like the Land of Israel to the Israelites, each one of us has her or his own particular promise, a deep and unique gift implanted in us by our Creator. Will we, like the Israelites, fear to embrace our particular destiny? Let’s not pray for land or wealth or material success, for this passes away. Let’s pray for humility and the ability to make that unique gift resonate in the world, lest we lose it.
I have been taught that our task is to make the world a better place, one person at a time. In this lifetime, I pray that person will be myself. I urge you to do the same.
Yours for a better world.