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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A great embarrassing fact…haunts all attempts to represent the market as the highest form of human freedom: that historically, impersonal, commercial markets originate in theft.
― David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
In this, the longest weekly portion in the Torah, the dedication of the altar in the Tabernacle is completed. Before the grand finale, in which the leaders of the twelve tribes bring sumptuous gifts in a lavish procession, the Torah deals with the inevitability of human dishonesty, the devastating power of sexual jealousy, and finally, the need of some people to withdraw from society in search of spiritual experience.
The section of those who break faith – who embezzle or who steal by false oath – is the shortest of these three intervening segments, but with the broadest implications. The Torah’s choice of wording is very precise: “A man or a woman, when they shall do any sin against people, to break faith with God, and their soul shall become guilty…” (Num. 5:6). The Torah’s choice of the word “when” (in Hebrew, ki) is an acknowledgment that people are not capable of attaining perfection. We will sin, the Torah tells us, and here is the mechanism for expiation: “They shall confess their sin which they committed, and they shall return the value for which they are guilty, adding one fifth to the principal” (5:7–8).
Commandments and prohibitions fall into two categories: those between individuals or between persons and society, and those between us and God. This passage makes it clear that, while ritual acts are clearly between us and God, the Torah’s God-given social structure sees human acts of kindness and charity as the mechanism through which God works in this world. Acts of dishonesty, of violence, or of disregard for others injure God’s Torah, which is in fact God’s own Self.
What’s pernicious here is not the theft itself; the Torah deals with theft elsewhere. It’s the cover-up. Indeed, the word used to describe the prohibited act literally means to cover: someone took something that doesn’t belong to them and now they cover it up with a false oath. This violates God’s commandment against swearing falsely. Worse, it undermines the social contract.
As anthropologist David Graeber points out in his book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, the less people trust one another, the more they require a clearly defined mechanism of exchange. He refers to what he calls a natural communism of so-called primitive societies. Historically, societies that thrive on barter quickly develop extensive and highly sophisticated systems of tracking who gave what to whom, and what they might expect in return. Historian Gordon Wood, in his The Radicalism of the American Revolution, describes the minutely detailed records kept in colonial American communities that thrived on intricate barter relationships, a complex set of interlocking transactions spread over long periods of time, and accepted throughout the community. The use of an easily agreed-upon medium of exchange – money – becomes necessary when people need to trade outside their communities, when they face others with whom they did not have a communal bond of trust. “In God we trust,” reads the sign in the corner grocery store, “all others pay cash.”
This concept of trust lies at the heart of all societies: regardless of differences between cultures, all participants within a group must have faith in how their group works. Theft is a crime, but it doesn’t undermine society. But the false oath about the theft does. As we have seen throughout history, the insistence that one’s false oath – the Big Lie of those in power – must be accepted as true is the wedge that rips apart nations from within.
Next in the reading comes what, for modern readers, remains one of the Torah’s most problematic passages, that of the wife suspected of adultery (5:11–31). While from our contemporary perspective the process seems unutterably primitive, the rabbis say this is the Torah’s ingenious solution to the problem of honor killings. To be both intellectually and morally honest, we can’t judge the Torah – or indeed any historical document – strictly by contemporary moral standards. The Torah is a single document setting forth an ethical, religious, societal, and national project, all in one, and all in the context of its time and place. The Torah speaks for all time, but it speaks from a world in which slavery was common; in which women were the outright property, first of their fathers, then of their husbands; in which clans carried on blood feuds over generations; and where people killed strangers. If we look into our own time, we will see that very few modern legal systems have confronted societal issues of the magnitude and scope undertaken by the Torah – and with the express purpose not of keeping a ruling class in power, as is typically the case, but of protecting the weak and creating a society founded on equal justice.
This section gives a detailed and disturbingly accurate literary picture of the effects of male jealousy, acknowledging that a man in the grip of sexual jealousy gives in to unappeasable rage, and extreme measures are required to calm the conflagration. Even today it is common to see sexual anger destroy relationships and families, leading to violence – even murder. The Torah introduces a long-drawn and complex process as a counter to the devastating effects of male jealousy, in a world where men bought their wives and could dispose of them as they pleased: casting them out, or simply killing them. The ritual surrounding the suspected adulteress serves as a slowing-down mechanism, requiring many days and many steps along the way before the woman can be formally charged – not even yet punished – for her behavior, whether proven to be true, or merely imagined on the part of her husband. We cannot rewire human emotions. Rather, in order for society to function, we create mechanisms for curbing behavior. The Torah goes a major step further, making sure that the weak are protected from the strong.
The third intervening section in this week’s reading deals with the nazir, a person who takes a vow of abstinence from drinking wine. The vow of the nazir entails other behaviors, notably allowing the hair and the fingernails to grow long, which emphasize that the individual has entered into a period of self-ostracism. The Torah frowns on asceticism. God creates the world as an act of generosity; our task is to make the most of it, not to take the least from it. The Talmud says that when we arrive before the heavenly tribunal, we will be asked to justify every permissible pleasure that we failed to take advantage of during our life. Yet the Torah also recognizes that people sometimes need to withdraw, that sometimes the world can be too much with us and we need to diminish our sensory input – sometimes in search of higher spirituality, sometimes merely to keep a grip on our sanity. The thirty-day withdrawal of the nazir is the Torah’s way of dealing with this need. Take a break, the Torah says, and we have a way to bring you back, too.
Tying these three sections together is the concept of the vow: the one who breaks faith by vowing they did not steal, the woman forced to vow she was not unfaithful, the one who withdraws by taking a temporary vow of abstinence. All these are tied to notions of faithfulness, of adhering to what is required for a society to run smoothly. Those who steal must admit their act and make restitution. Society must do all it can to reconcile spouses who don’t trust one another, who cannot live in harmony. Some people need to withdraw from society; the Torah offers a mechanism for people to do this without completely severing their relationships.
The vow transforms private troubles into societal concerns. A breach of trust between friends is transformed into an attack on the fabric of society. The family unit is the basic building block of society; trouble between husband and wife is brought not only before the nation, but before God. Feelings of alienation are acknowledged and society permits the individual to separate, then reenter in a ritual that sanctifies their withdrawal rather than condemns it.
Finally, the altar is dedicated. The leaders of the twelve tribes bring their offerings – twelve identical contributions on successive days. As the half-shekel was an equal donation from each adult male for the construction and maintenance of the Tabernacle, now each tribe gives an equal gift to the Tabernacle. The “flat tax” serves not to oppress those for whom it is a hardship, but to raise everyone to equal footing. The Tabernacle and its altar, whose purpose is to seek atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf, must treat each individual equally. This is the most profound of the Torah’s social and political messages: that equality in the eyes of God must be reflected in human terms as equality before the altar of God and before the law. Only then will the Tabernacle stand. Only then will the sacrifices be acceptable on the altar. Only then will God speak to Moses from between the hovering golden wings of the cherubim, atop the Ark of the Covenant, out of the eternal emptiness.
Yours for a better world.