When I helped guide 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. Follow this blog each week for new insights into this ancient text. The book is now available through Amazon and in select bookstores. All profits from book sales are contributed to charity. See at: https://tikkunolam613.com
Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred.
– Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
In the midst of the Tabernacle’s bringing order to the world, we are forced to confront death and disorder. Tragedy erupts amidst rejoicing as Aaron’s sons perish in divine immolation, which sharply underscores the harshness with which we experience the randomness of life and the desperation of our struggle against chaos. We crave continuity, and we cannot find it. Not from day to day, nor even from moment to moment. God provides a shaky foundation at best. When we most need them to act boldly, our leaders frequently provide only vague murmurings that “God runs the world.” Is this all there is to the Torah’s theology, here at this critical inflection point?
It is folly to take a person at their word; rather, we see a person’s fundamental beliefs in their actions. God’s apologists – our religious leaders – tell us over and over again of God’s eternal love for all humanity. But Creation is shot through with fatal design flaws, for which the Torah blames us: humanity’s overriding activity at all times, in all places and in all conditions, is to wipe one another out with extreme violence. It is natural to question this: How can I believe in a God who allows my loved ones to die? How can I believe in a God who permits slavery and war? How can I believe in a God who allowed the Holocaust? The standard answer is: the problem lies not with God, but with the imperfections and evil of humans. This answer is not satisfactory, and our leaders fail us when they do not address it.
The Tabernacle narrative embodies the incomplete nature of the relationship between God and humanity. God expects created beings to conform to the original design concept. But the project stumbles in the fluid world of space, time, and motion. The serpent challenges God’s rule, Eve and Adam eat from the forbidden tree, and Cain kills Abel. God saves Noah from the Flood, only to realize that human nature is eternally flawed. Later, Abraham takes God to task, charging that divine justice is nothing more than collective punishment and mere wanton cruelty.
By explaining how humanity will interpret God’s black and white definition of justice, Abraham is telling God that God does not know how to communicate with us. There the confrontation has an unsatisfactory outcome, for humanity at least. The Midrash takes Abraham to task, saying he should have insisted that God back down entirely. And would God have listened? We shall never know, but it’s fair to speculate that God has an aspect of divine stubbornness. Perhaps Abraham sensed this and feared to press too forcefully. Perhaps, after the Flood, Abraham felt he should settle for the lesser victory.
We perceive the death of Nadab and Abihu as a punishment; it is our unavoidable habit of mind. Perhaps it is better to say, as the rabbis do, that once the elements and energies of Creation are unleashed into the world of space, time, and motion, God chooses not to control either natural or divine processes. It appears that, from God’s perspective, the flow of energy must run its course in this world. Nadab and Abihu place themselves in the way: it wasn’t that they did what they were commanded not to do, but that they did what they were not commanded. They die, which we experience as God abandoning us. The Torah rushes to reassert linear order: these are the foods you shall not share with Me, says God, these are the times when you shall not approach Me.
The restrictions imposed by the Torah establish a hierarchy of who is allowed to approach God, placing Aaron and the priestly clan in charge of overseeing all interactions. These restrictions also create a baseline of shared expectations, a shared routine with God. No less than we, God desires a world with no surprises, with laws designed to create predictable cycles. The consuming fire on the altar, the unleashing of fire and brimstone on Sodom, the Flood, the Revelation at Sinai – these are unbearable and terrifying moments when God is fully revealed in the world.
This same phenomenon plays out in microcosm in our relationships: our interactions are forever colored by our first encounter with one another. Only once we establish a shared routine – when we are not overwhelmed by the strangeness of their presence – can we build a relationship with another person. We are not comfortable with people who are unpredictable. We may enjoy their energy, we may be excited and amused by them. But we crave stability. If we cannot find it with God, at least we seek it in our relationships with one another.
Last week’s reading ends with the laws of ritual impurity transmitted by animal carcasses and exhorting Israel to remain pure – to remain obedient and not fall into the messiness of an unbridled nature. Having introduced the concept of impurity in terms of permitted and prohibited animals and birds, this week’s reading lists a range of human cases of ritual impurity, all of which require people to separate from the community for a period, and to go through ritual cleansing before being permitted back into the encampment and to engage in the sacred rituals of the Tabernacle.
Then the Torah leaps into laws of ritual impurity relating to childbirth; after senseless death, the creation of life: the means and signature whereby we give meaning to life. The miracle of birth is every bit as astonishing as the harsh mystery of death – and every bit as laden with social taboos.
Ritual impurity is transmissible, and the ritually impure stay away from others for fear of contaminating them. A woman who gives birth dwells apart for a time, then brings a sacrificial offering of an animal, with poorer women permitted to bring doves, the least expensive living being. When Abel offered an animal, it resulted in the first death in history. The act of giving birth, every bit as chaotic as death, requires the offering of Abel to bring the mother back into the camp, to make society whole.
Next, the Torah addresses a person afflicted with one of the skin conditions lumped under the Hebrew term tzara’at, (frequently translated as “leprosy,” which is misleading in the modern context) is required to live outside the main encampment. He is visibly distinguished by torn garments and wild-grown hair. He covers his mouth with his garment and calls out in a loud voice, “Unclean! Unclean!” And he must live outside the camp until his affliction passes (Lev. 13:45–46). The parallel to isolation of those bearing infectious diseases is unavoidable, even down to the covering of the face with the garment. Here, though, it is only the lips that are visible – the mouth which attests to its own guilt, for in the rabbinic understanding, blemishes which cause uncleanliness are the result of evil speech.
But if he lives outside the camp during the term of his affliction, to whom does he address his cry of “Unclean!”? Those who do leave the camp do so only to dispose of remnants of sacrifices – which likewise render the one who bears them temporarily impure – or to dispose of noxious trash. The image is of a bleak society of wanderers, prohibited from all human contact, cast out of society until the priest once more declares them healed of their uncleanliness. Until then they wander, keeping their distance from society and even from one another – the repeated cries of “Unclean!” driving away all who approach.
This is the punishment of Cain, who is sent forth to the east and caused to wander all his days, who bears an indelible mark for all to see – to keep others from approaching too close – and who tells God, “My iniquity is too great to bear!” (Gen. 4:13). Cain’s sin lies forever in his heart. It accompanies him throughout his wanderings.
Cain was sent east of Eden to the land of Nod – from the Hebrew root meaning “to wander.” And God says, “You shall be a vagrant and wanderer [nod] in the world” (Gen. 4:12). The Hebrew word for the ritual impurity of a woman who gives birth (12:2) is nidda, from the same root meaning to wander – she too is sent out of the camp. The parallel between taking a life, and bringing one into the world – the blood of murder and the blood of chuildbirth – is embedded in the text. And no less so, in our culture.
Ritual impurity arises from nature, emanating from our physical selves and surroundings, and affecting them as well. It arises from forces forever beyond our control. It is partly a response to natural squeamishness about bodily functions; but whereas one person can leave a room if they become uncomfortable, a society is the room, and what on a personal level might be mere discomfort, becomes harsh disgust at the societal level and quickly morphs into hatred. Societies respond to this anxiety by expelling their members, and by enforcing clearly defined acceptable behaviors meant to cover up natural tendencies, if they cannot control them. And which society does not impose this type of rigid order, this expectation of sameness? Again and again, it is the weaker members of the community who are made weaker still by harsh judgment. Again and again, societies seek to protect themselves by punishing people for their weakness, for doing what in many cases is unavoidable – menstruating, carrying on homosexual relations, or falling in love with someone deemed inappropriate – rather than embracing them, rather than offering them strength.
The fact that these restrictions arise in all societies makes it that much more urgent that we should challenge them. Societies rush to eliminate people who seem different, to shut out ideas and practices they don’t understand. Yet they continue to creep in, because reality is messy. The more people a society deems “unclean,” the weaker the social fabric. The more ideas a society bans as “dangerous,” the weaker the foundations of the social order. Those societies that insist on the greatest degree of conformity are the weakest of all.
Rather than imposing restrictions on us, the Torah thrusts to the heart of human behavior. You desire a structured way of religious worship? I give you the priests, the Tabernacle and the sacrifices. You desire a societal hierarchy? I give you Moses and the Elders as chiefs of groups of tens and hundreds and thousands. You recoil from fear of death – or from the ability to bring forth life? I give you the laws of ritual purity.
The Torah gives us boundaries for containing our worst tendencies, while exhorting us to confront them. We believe God wants us to be partners in an ongoing act of Creation, but the Torah doesn’t assume that we know how to do that. God gives us the basic ingredients; it remains our challenge to apply our unique talents to perfect the world. We do this by sorting out our own fears, our false assumptions. Our urges, appetites, and inclinations. By examining our inner selves to see where justice truly lies. Only through fearless introspection can we realize our own potential, and only by ceaselessly working on ourselves can we help others. Underlying it all is our obligation to relieve suffering in the world, because it is difficult to reach for an exalted prize when we are in pain.
We should not be too full of ourselves. It is God who invites us to be partners in Creation. This is God’s doing, not ours. God draws a line. I determine life and death, says God. If you challenge My decision to create death, so much the worse for you. Do not believe, says God, that death is the most terrible thing in My world. And do not believe that merely because life emerges from your bodies, you have made life. The rabbis say, “Against your will you are formed; against your will you are born; against your will you live; against your will you die” (Ethics of the Fathers 4:22).
In times of greatest challenge, some fall back on a theology of submission: God runs the world, let us bow to the will of the Creator. Yet why should we not demand answers to the hardest questions? Or at least the honest and ongoing attempt at an answer? Surely, we must demand this of our leaders, of our teachers. Even – and particularly – we should demand answers from God.
The tragedy of human suffering – is it the doing of humans, despite the desire of the Creator? Or is this the will of God? I, for one, cannot answer the question. Yet, I insist that it be asked. Again and again.
The Freedom To Choose
We must believe in free will, we have no choice.
– Isaac Bashevis Singer
This week’s text continues the Torah’s treatment of ritual impurity, describing the purification of people and objects afflicted with tzara’at, which, as we learned above, is often (mis)translated into English as “leprosy.” Once the condition passes, the person who suffered it must undergo a ritual of purification before reentering society.
We are far from finished with the issues raised in these central passages of the Torah. What kind of God does the Torah command us to serve? And how do we survive when God has planted us in a hostile world? Can we reconcile our obligation to worship God with the horrors with which God burdens us – horrors which emanate from the very nature of Creation itself? Which appear to lie at the heart of the divine plan? It is critical to address these questions. Not to answer them; for when we arrive at an answer for any fundamental question we can be certain that it is, at best, only partially correct. Such answers must be viewed out of the corner of the eye. If we look directly at them, they evaporate, leaving behind a derisive, laughing ghost. But it is increasingly urgent to acknowledge these questions now, as the Torah transitions from the exposition of Genesis and Exodus, through the cataloging of commandments, into the political turmoil of Numbers – fraught with power struggles, bursting with avoidable disasters – and the book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ personal account of the Israelite nation, his brilliant and poetic, peevish and majestic, farewell to his flock as he chastises them, then blesses them, for being merely human.
Leviticus is a fulcrum between two very different sets of narratives, serving both as the coda to the first two books of Torah and the overture to the last two. Now, right now, we need to figure out who God is.
Ritual impurity arises when we focus too much on ourselves. We find ourselves faced with a God who is not so much unforgiving, as impenetrable. We cannot refrain from asking why. Why did Nadab and Abihu die? The very structure of our mind screams for meaning; we cannot relinquish the thought that God killed them on purpose. We cannot let go of the very human notion that God punished them. And for what?
God seems not so much distant as disconnected. God keeps saying, This is how I expect things to be, this is how I expect you to behave. And we, for our part, say the same to God: Please pay attention, try to see things our way. This was the crux of Abraham’s conversation with God before the destruction of Sodom. It is a history of God and us forever talking past one another. We are never certain how it is that God speaks to us, but we do know how we attempt to speak to God, which is through prayer. Does God hear? And if so, of what does that hearing consist? In what does it ever result?
We need God to hear us. We humans are hardwired for two unshakeable habits of mind. The first is that everything has meaning. The second is that we are important – and thus that everything has meaning for us. These phenomena of brain activity can distract us endlessly from the task at hand, which is to live our lives in a meaningful way. Meaningful is as meaningful does, not as meaningful merely contemplates or intends.
The Torah never tells us why God created the world. It tells us how the world works and, most important, it tells us what we need to do about it. It is a set of instructions for the human soul and a guide to creating a society that is just and righteous in our generation, and where justice will be renewed perpetually, creating a sustainable and repeatable process for maintaining a just society. The book of Leviticus will close with precisely this, bringing together the three main purposes of religion: the individual and communal relationship with God; maintaining a balance of stewardship with the natural world we inhabit, and for which we are responsible; and creating a society based on justice, and in which justice self-renews from generation to generation.
This week’s reading leaves the door open to the Torah’s message of the importance of our own decisions – to act, not to act – the exercise of our free choice. Look at this: “God spoke to Moses and to Aaron to say, ‘When you arrive in the land of Canaan which I am giving you as an inheritance, and I inflict a house of the land of your inheritance with the affliction of leprosy…’” (Lev. 14:33–34). The Talmud quotes an opinion that this affliction – leprosy of houses – never happened, and never will. Rather, the Torah mentions it so that we can study God’s word, because both the spiritual growth and the merit derived from knowing God’s laws override their practical application.
But the discussion recorded in the Talmud is troubling, because neither Moses nor Aaron will enter the land of Canaan. Does the notion of God’s omniscience make the statement, “When you arrive in the land of Canaan,” a black and white contradiction? Is God saying something which God knows not to be true? What might be the purpose in God stating a falsehood? In human terms, we lie to manipulate, to obtain an outcome. This raises the uncomfortable possibility that God is misleading Moses and Aaron so that they will not despair, so that they will continue to throw their energies into leading the people. But if God is going to lie in order to manipulate the Israelites, why not intervene at the episode of the spies (Num. 13–15) which results in the Israelites’ wandering forty years in the wilderness? Wouldn’t it be in the best interest of God’s plan to fool us into changing that outcome?
This is the Torah’s message of our freedom to choose, of our responsibility in shaping our future. God has not yet barred Moses and Aaron from entering the Land of Israel. At this point in the narrative, both men have the ability to direct their future behavior in such a way as to ensure that they will enter the Promised Land. Consider also that the Torah from which we are reading is the text written by Moses, who took dictation from God on Mount Sinai. Moses already knows his own fate, and still God implicitly tells him, You can create a different future. It is difficult for us to contemplate the immensity of our own power to change the world.
However we express it – through the Buddhist notion of Karma; through the Torah’s notion of measure for measure; through the Christian admonition, As ye sow, so shall ye reap; or through the Muslim concept of reward and punishment – all wisdom traditions recognize an inexorable link between our present actions and our future condition. By our actions today, we create our own future world. Never mind the world God created; what kind of world are we making for ourselves?
When we pray, rather than asking God to change the future, we should ask for the insight to change our own behavior in order to bring about a better future for ourselves and for those around us. Are there matters beyond our control? Of course. Should we then ask God to alter the course of nature on our behalf? Rather, to quote the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer, let us ask for the wisdom to know the difference between what we can change, and what we shall never be able to change. And let us then change those things we can. God at least has given us that much. Let’s take advantage of that.
Yours for a better world.