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. See at: https://tikkunolam613.com
Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.
— Abraham Lincoln
Here’s the mock-profound question, “Why is there something instead of absolute nothingness?” Here’s the real question: Why is there more than one thing? If God desired to create something, whether as an act of will, love, compassion, or loneliness, it would suffice to create just one thing. The great mystery of the universe is its diversification. Is the infinite diversity of Creation necessary?
In the Neo-Platonic world of Jewish thought, diversity proves the perfection of Creation; there is nothing that the universe does not contain. This week’s Torah portion presents a microcosm of Creation, laying out ways for us to make our unique contribution to God’s world. It does this through the elaborate preparation of the priestly clan to serve in the Tabernacle, and by portraying Moses as having the greatest leadership quality of all: that of knowing when to step aside.
This portion is voiced in future tense, beginning with the words “And you will command.” God is not merely commanding, but also describing the actions that Moses will take at the dedication of the Tabernacle – and also reassuring Moses that he will, in fact, perform the rituals of the consecration of the Tabernacle, anticipating next week’s portion, where the sin of the Golden Calf threatens to derail God’s enterprise. Despite this portion being a sequence of instructions to Moses, the formulaic verse, “And God spoke to Moses, saying,” which appears repeatedly throughout the Torah, is absent. In fact, this is the only portion from the beginning of Exodus to the end of the Torah in which Moses’ name does not appear at all. Aaron’s name, however, appears seven times.
Maimonides says the importance of the opening words of the portion is the word you: do not delegate to another. Moses’s name is missing from this portion because he must stand aside and relinquish all claim to the priestly title, yet he must personally ensure that the priestly role is perfectly executed.
Dividing the leadership
Throughout the Exodus narrative, God works to transfer power and authority to humans. At first, Moses is the absolute, political and religious leader of the nation. He exercises the power God has urged on him, for example. It is Moses who raises his rod and his hand at the splitting of the sea, causing the waters to flow back and drown the pursuing Egyptians. It is Moses who ascends Mount Sinai, who sits face to face with God, and who returns bearing the Tablets of the Law. Not long afterward, Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, teaches him that differentiation of authority is critical to a functioning society, whereupon Moses turns over political authority to a leadership structure. Later, he will further differentiate authority by turning over the religious leadership to his older brother, Aaron.
The rabbinic understanding is that Moses was supposed to be both king and priest, but he is disqualified from the post of High Priest on two grounds. First, he hesitated at the Burning Bush: when God called him, he was not ready to serve. Second, Moses killed the Egyptian, and one who has blood on his hands is not permitted to serve in the Temple, a theme that finds its apotheosis in the narrative of King David, who consecrates the ground on which the Temple will be built, yet who will not live to see the building itself. Instead, his son Solomon will build the Temple – and though the Temple will stand, Solomon will subsequently fall through his own shortcomings.
Moses transfers his religious authority to Aaron through the act clothing him. Although born the rightful bearer of the priesthood, Moses must transfer the priesthood of his own free will. If he does not give it over, then the priestly function, and with it the ability of the nation to seek closeness with God, will die with him. God instructs him to invest Aaron and his sons with their priestly office, describing their garments in detail. (“Investment:” literally, to be clothed in a garment.) Aaron remains in place as the religious figurehead and communicator. Moses announces and enacts the law, while Aaron tends to the ritual and spiritual needs of the nation. In this partnership, science and religion find their balance. Aaron is not a pretender, not a substitute; he steps into his brother’s sandals and fully assumes the priesthood. This is a radical restructuring of society.
The Talmud says the priests had to be properly clad in their ritual garments, otherwise the Temple service was not valid: At the time that their priestly garments are upon them, their priesthood is upon them. Without being properly clothed, the sons of Aaron are only potential priests, not empowered to perform the divine service. Outside the Tabernacle, they remain bound by the prohibitions of their clan, but are not permitted access to God except under rigid rules of time, place, dress, and preparatory rituals. Even when not performing their official ritual duties, they are to behave with the dignity required of their roles as the representatives of the nation in the service of God.
Moses’ embrace of God’s instruction to give over the priesthood is the key to Moses’ greatness. We saw this with Joseph, who reaches the fullness of his powers once he is freed from the need to be at the center of his family’s narrative. So too, it is only when Moses emerges from the shadow of his birthright that he becomes free to achieve his own greatness. We are what we are born, yes. But may we not become more than that? To the extent we fall back on our birth identity, we deny ourselves the world and all that we can become. By contrast, the greatness we craft for ourselves is immeasurably superior to anything we are born with.
Of locusts and mobs
Recall the plague of locusts. Locusts move in great clouds like a giant, evil spirit. Observing their behavior at close range, the rabbis of old pronounced that locusts have no king. Though they come and go together in tight formation, when they alight it is every locust for itself. They are a mob, not a society. If you have ever experienced a swarm of locusts, you will sympathize with Pharaoh. So terrifying was the plague of locusts that it is the only time Pharaoh expresses fear. “Pharaoh hurried to call Moses and Aaron and said, ‘I have sinned against the Lord your God, and against you. Now please remove my sin also this time and entreat the Lord your God that He should remove from me this death!’” The locust swarm is terrifying in itself. It is also a frightening metaphor for human behavior. The identity of the raging mob is humanity’s bottom-line birthright.
Before Sinai, the Israelites are a mob. They move together, but they look out only for themselves, driven to survive. Jethro instructs Moses in structuring a hierarchy, enabling orderly human expression within the infinite differentiation of God’s Creation. Once we relinquish our mob identity, we can become aware of our unique place in the world. We can embrace our unique gifts. Once we become aware of our uniqueness, we can appreciate the uniqueness of others. We can band together in a community. Only once we embrace our own – and each other’s – unique place in God’s infinitely differentiated world are we ready to receive the Torah. Yet true spiritual practice comes not from withdrawing from society, but through embracing our role as a contributing member of society. It is neither challenging nor spiritually defensible to be a moral person when you are alone on a mountaintop eating carob fruit and drinking from a stream.
Moses accepted Jethro’s advice and radically changed his approach with regard to political leadership. The establishment of hierarchy tamed the mob and pushed people to embrace their unique roles in society. So too with the priesthood. Like society itself, religion is also a team sport. Our yearning for spiritual fulfillment stands in service to organized religion, and not the other way around. One should never make the mistake of believing otherwise. Organized religion arises of its own in human society. Like the locust, it seeks neither good nor evil, but merely to thrive. And like every other organism in nature, it will consume everything in its path.
Secular political structure, wherein power is based on earthly principles, is subject to challenge. Not so the authority of religion. Kings are bad enough, but so are priests. History reveals again and again the terrible destruction that follows when the two combine. Religion has been the too-willing handmaid to war; the government the too-eager enforcer of the church’s agenda for the state’s illegitimate gain.
Here, right where it all begins, God makes the determination to separate church and state. And it is precisely because of Moses’ greatness in stepping down from the priesthood that the Torah can teach this eternal lesson. He lost part of his birthright, only to forge ahead and create greatness in the way he lived his life.
The greatness of Aaron and his sons lies in their acceptance of their place within society. Priests must be clothed: their role must be made visible. They are not inherently close to God, but have the ability to approach God when properly prepared. The rest of the time, their uniqueness rests not in closeness to God, but in guarding against behavior that would prevent their coming close when called upon.
Throughout history, church and state naturally arise as twin pillars. They are both the critical foundation, and the necessary evils of human society. To purposely combine them is to guarantee disaster. Yet power seeks to absorb everything within its reach. Like a state collapsing into corruption and decay, we as individuals are ill-served when we allow our appetites, our urges, and especially our anger to rule our actions. Just as a functioning society requires each member to do their part, we can only achieve our own destiny when all that is within us works in harmony.
Yours for a better world.