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
If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now;
if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.
– Shakespeare, “Hamlet”
This week’s Torah reading presents a long list of individual laws, then Moses ascends Mt Sinai where he receives the entire Torah over the course of forty days and nights. The Torah is a cosmic fractal pattern wherein each component both embodies and reflects the whole. Approach any verse of the Torah and the commentaries will lead you to another, and to another and another in an eternal hyperlink. The entire Torah will emerge from any starting point. The Ten Sayings are categories of behavior God wants us to internalize. The meta-message of this week’s reading is that individual laws are themselves categories of principles.
Before receiving the Torah the Israelites loudly exclaim (24:7) “Everything that God commands we shall do and we shall hear!” The word “hear” in Hebrew here means “pay attention to,” “obey,” and “understand.” This is universally interpreted to mean the Israelites are eager to assume their obligations under God’s Covenant and agreed in advance to observe all the rules, even the ones they didn’t know about – which at that time was nearly all of them. This is a clear and straightforward statement of what is expected of the adherents of any religion: to observe all its practices, even – or especially – the ones you don’t understand.
This is a useful misinterpretation. Maintaining a society’s identity rests upon a history of those who unquestioningly embraced the core message in the past. Like a nation’s war dead, ancestors who clung unquestioningly to a belief system stoke flames of empathy and identity in our breasts. How can we turn our backs on them? And weren’t they somehow superior in their simple faith to us in our shiny modernity? Do we really believe that being better educated makes us superior to their simple faith?
The challenge is to bring that faith forward into the realm of modernity – a task at which religious educators often fail, because they are charged with maintaining homogeneity and exhorting their charges to embrace the core values of their closed religious community. Thus religion comes to be represented by its lowest common denominator.
While there is much to criticize in organized religion, most people who challenge religion seem to do so out of peevishness. They don’t like being told what to do, and they believe a purely secular society provides utter freedom to the individual. But living organisms thrive in relational structures. We are only individuals insofar as we have a group against which to differentiate ourselves; from which we can distance ourselves or against which we can rebel.
If you reject existing structures, you must come up with a structure to replace them. Many people who vociferously reject religion are not capable of articulating on what their Goodness rests. They often define it in vague and general terms: I don’t kill; I don’t lie; I don’t cheat. This level is the moral equivalent of a society of three year-olds; they participate correctly in group games, because they mimic the older children with whom they play. But they can’t explain what the rules are. They are members of the group, but they will never lead until they mature and examine the rules for themselves. We will never build anything of lasting value as long as our relationship with the world remains unexamined and our identity and self-image go unchallenged.
The purpose of applying the Torah’s laws is to constantly learn the underlying principles. Religious observance should be an iterative process. Says God, (Genesis 18:17-19) “Shall I conceal from Abraham what I am about to do…? Because he will command his children and his household after him to keep the way of God, doing charity and justice…” Torah observance is not only the performance of ritual acts and specific commandments; the action must be paired with the lessons derived therefrom. Our job is not to serve God in a vacuum; it is to teach others to serve, to create a society based on charity and justice, a world in which God will be fully at home.
It’s much easier to cling to the externals. And therein lies the danger, because people tend to subvert any ideology to their own ends – our finest institutions are misused to create human suffering for the benefit of the powerful and no institution, no religion, no system of government and no social philosophy is immune.
Those who reject organized religion – and there are good reasons to do so – should be encouraged to come up with a robust alternative and not rely merely on being “good people.” This one-sided morality is an abdication of responsibility that permits the worst excesses to take control of society. The market has become our religion, and “business” is our creed. Warren Buffet is “The Prophet of Omaha.” The dollar bill trumpets “In God We Trust.” Under Socialism the state owns the means of production. Under the latest avatar of capitalism, the means of production now owns the state. I lift up mine eyes unto Mammon. From whence cometh my salvation, if not from a bull market?
The message emanating from the Ten Sayings on Mt. Sinai in this week’s Torah reading is that moral leadership requires clarity of vision. And make no mistake, the Torah demands moral leadership, not mere naked power and the force of arms or wealth. It is not sufficient to know what is right, we also must know how to implement what is right within our sphere of influence. In our personal lives. In our family. In our work life – among our peers and counterparts. In the broader society and in the world. The Torah insists that there are, in fact, objective moral standards. This week’s portion ends with a striking image of how difficult it is to bring them into practice.
Moses ascends Mount Sinai to sit with God (24:13) while Joshua remains partway downhill. Joshua and Moses call to one another, but Joshua can’t see God. Further down stand Aaron and the Elders, and the Israelites are gathered at the foot of the mountain. The imagery is powerful: every person and group stands in their designated spot within the hierarchy – yet none of them can see any of the others. If “seeing is believing,” then what is the message of disembodied voices and indistinct sounds echoing up and down the mountainside in the mist and the dark clouds?
Joshua stands alone. He knows Moses is above, but he can’t see what is going on. He hears sounds from the camp at the foot of the mountain, but cannot discern their meaning. Neither Moses, nor Aaron, nor the Elders will enter the Promised Land. Joshua, unprepared as he is, will be called upon to lead the next generation.
How will he lead them? What will he teach them? Joshua stands in a fog on the mountainside, perceiving only bits and pieces from above and below. This is the image of leadership: how to cut through the fog and learn the true core of the message; and how to cut through the confusion and communicate that message to the community. The process of continually learning the lessons of Torah provides the foundation for a just society. The danger is that people and their leaders alike cling to the outer framework and not do the challenging work of delving to the heart of God’s message. Where they risk finding out that they are wrong. Where they risk finding out that they are not as important as they thought. Remember that this was Joseph’s greatness: the realization that his story was but a small piece of a great narrative. And once he embraced his role, his own true greatness emerged. How many of us are capable of such clarity of vision? Of such self-abnegation in service of a higher cause?
Joshua will not be ready when Moses hands over the mantle of leadership, just as Moses was not ready at the burning bush. The only figure in the Torah who was ready when God called was Abraham. God said “Go,” and he went immediately. Will we be ready when our moment of destiny calls? When the world needs us to stand up and act? And when will that moment come? Or has it come already – and we were not prepared?
As the Israelites said, we will do – and in the doing, we will also study and learn from our doing. We must. We will learn the Torah’s principles, and we will learn to apply them more and more. And we shall learn yet again each time we do. We must constantly work to derive the eternal principles from the ongoing Revelation of Sinai; we must stay attuned to God’s message in every aspect of our daily lives. Destiny takes us by surprise. Let us nonetheless do everything we can to not be completely unprepared.
Yours for a better world.