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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If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is: Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.
– Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
The textual point I want you to consider in this week’s Torah portion is the opening clause of the first verse. This verse teaches an important societal and moral principle. But the opening words also reveal greater depth when interpreted according to Jewish textual traditions.
The first verse of this Torah portion opens: “Judges and officers shall you appoint within all your gates…” (Deut. 17:18). This has the simple meaning that each city must establish a court of law. The words judges and officers mean those who judge – judges, and those who enforce – police. In fact, in modern Hebrew, the words for judge and police are the exact words used in the Torah text.
The word gates is taken to mean the city as a whole, because in the societies described in the Bible, the city gates were the meeting place, the place where business was transacted, where public notices were announced, where the king’s councilors would meet, and where the local court would sit in judgment. Thus, establishing a court according to the Torah’s principles means that each city can rely on a presumption of justice, an objective and universal standard, rather than live in fear of the arbitrary whim of the local warlord.
There’s also a Hasidic take on it, one that speaks more to the individual. This reading says the “gates” in the verse are not just the actual gates of the city; they are also the individual’s gates of perception – in particular, one’s moral sense.
Two weeks ago we read about the sense of hearing: “And it shall be because you listen to these ordinances…” (7:12). The Hebrew word for “listen” also has the very definite sense of understand, take to heart, and obey. Last week we read about the sense of sight: “See, I have set before you today a blessing and a curse” (11:26).
In this portion, say the Hasidic rebbes, we broaden the admonition to encompass our entire mechanism of perception. It’s not merely the senses of hearing and sight, it’s how we understand what enters through the ears and through the eyes – or via taste, touch, or smell.
The Buddhists count six senses: the same five as we Westerners, plus the mind. Including the mind as a sense organ is a brilliant and profound insight because what truly drives our behavior is not the stimuli that our senses perceive, but rather what our mind does with those stimuli as they enter our consciousness. The Hasidic approach says, take responsibility for how you perceive the world. The world doesn’t just “happen to” you.
You object – “But I have no control over what the world throws at me!” True, but meaningless. The one thing over which each one of us might exercise control is how we respond to what the world throws at us. Nothing else is of consequence. The events themselves are not of consequence, dreadful though they may sometimes be. We are responsible for analyzing our response to the world. When we allow ourselves to respond automatically – unthinkingly, instinctively, viscerally – we reduce ourselves to the animal at our core. We give up that Image of God stamped on our soul. And for what?
We are often told to watch our speech, to watch our behavior. But how often are we reminded to watch how we understand and perceive what is happening to us? Because wrong speech and wrong behavior have a common origin, which is the refusal – or more gently, the inability – to understand the world on any terms other than that of our own, puny ego. When we look at it closely, unafraid of what we will find, we often see that our ego is nothing more than a trembling, frightened, broken-winged bird, a feeble being terrified of the light. No wonder we don’t go there.
The Hasidic masters have quite a lot going for them. Their level of understanding of human behavior and human psychology is immense, as is the degree of unstinting compassion they show for all humanity. Pay attention to what’s going on around you, they say. And more important, pay attention to what’s going on inside you. When we are passive, the world changes us. When we are attentive, when we explore ourselves deeply and understand how we react to people and events, then we have the capacity to change the world.
May God continue to give us strength as we dive into the uncharted waters of the soul. It’s the only way to find the sunken treasures.
Yours for a better world.