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.
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
You who choose to lead must follow,
But if you fall you fall alone.
If you should stand then who’s to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home.
– Grateful Dead, “Ripple”
This week’s Torah portion begins with God telling Moses, “Speak to Aaron and say to him, when you kindle the lamps, the seven lamps shall illuminate toward the front of the Menorah” (Num. 8:2).
The Menorah, the seven-branched oil lamp, is among the very oldest Jewish symbols. It was among the chief vessels that God instructed Moses to have crafted for the priestly service, first in the Tabernacle in the wilderness and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. It is featured prominently in the massive relief carving atop the Roman Arch of Titus, showing the spoils of Jerusalem being carted off to Rome, where it vanished and was never seen again.
This portion comes immediately after an extended section which describes the offerings brought by the princes of each tribe of Israel in the process of dedicating the Tabernacle (ch. 7). The rabbis of old ask, why does God tell Aaron about his task now? Aaron and his sons, the Kohanim, the priestly clan, come from the tribe of Levi, which is the one tribe not represented in the dedication process. This is because the Levites have special tasks pertaining to the construction and maintenance of the Tabernacle. They also take it down and carry it on Israel’s journeys through the wilderness. This closeness to God should be enough, the rabbis say. The traditional commentary says that Aaron was dejected because he had not brought an offering, so God told him about his own special task, which was to light the Menorah every day.
Outside of the fact that this makes Aaron seem like a spoiled child, we have to ask why this particular action is singled out. The great rabbinic commentator Nachmanides observes that Aaron performed many special acts in the Tabernacle. Indeed, there are many acts that only Aaron may perform. So first we can ask, why do the rabbis think Aaron is upset over not having brought an offering? Perhaps more to the point, why is God telling Aaron about this one action, his daily lighting of the Menorah, when he has so many other exclusive tasks? Nachmanides’ answer points to the distant future.
The Torah was given some 3,500 years ago, and the story of the Tabernacle follows closely thereafter, within the same year. It would be hundreds of years before King Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem (the Temple was destroyed in Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem in 587 BCE), and hundreds more until the Second Temple would be built. In around 170 BCE, Jerusalem was invaded and the Second Temple was looted. The practices of Judaism were outlawed and the Temple was converted to use for pagan ceremonies. This led to the revolt of the Maccabees, a priestly clan in Judaea.
When the Maccabees and their minions won the military victory, the first thing they did was clean out the Temple and prepare it for the daily ritual offerings that had been suspended. The story is told that they wanted to light the Menorah – a biblical commandment that had to be carried out daily – but they could not find the special ritually pure oil that was required. Only one flask of oil was found, containing only enough oil for one day. They used the contents in the flask and, so the story goes, miraculously, the Menorah lamps burned for eight days. This allowed the victors to complete the purification of the Temple and to prepare more oil for the daily lighting of the Menorah. This is commemorated in the Hanukkah festival (hanukkah is the Hebrew word meaning “dedication,” describing the dedication of a new house as well as the consecration of the Temple). Thus, the Temple was rededicated to its proper service.
Nachmanides says God is not telling Aaron to be happy over his special task. God is saying: Aaron, look deeply into your own distant future. More than a thousand years from now, your descendants will save Judaism, will save the Torah, will save the Jewish nation, and their accomplishment will be symbolized in this simple act which you perform each morning, the lighting of the Menorah. This is not a special gift to appease Aaron. It is an exhortation for Aaron to remember how critically important his job is, how essential every single task he undertakes – a charge to not let his guard down, so to speak. Not ever. You think you’re just lighting the lamp each morning, says God. What you’re actually doing is preparing an eternal spiritual and national practice that your descendants will return to, more than a thousand years in the future, to keep alive the Torah you have just received at Mount Sinai. More than any other symbol or practice in the Tabernacle, the Menorah symbolizes the unity of the spiritual with the societal – religion and nation in one.
But wait. According to the Midrash, there is another aspect to Aaron’s displeasure – if indeed he is displeased, which is not at all clear from the text. Characteristically, the Midrash reads the unspoken message glowing between the written lines of Torah text, and here it identifies that Aaron is displeased. Is he sad? Is he angry? That much is not clear. What is clear is that the Midrash finds something troubling about the passage that has gone before, and sees a remedy in this Torah portion. Some wrong has been done, and Aaron is suffering. What could it be?
At the end of last week’s Torah portion comes an extended passage describing the offerings brought at the dedication of the altar (7:1–88). There is great pomp and circumstance as the heads of the twelve tribes bring forward twelve identical offerings of silver, gold, flour and incense, and great quantities of livestock for sacrifices. Only the tribe of Levi is left out. The heads of the other tribes appear at the dedication ceremony with wagons laden with gifts. God did not command or request that they bring anything, but now that they have brought their offerings, God instructs Moses to take them and use them for the service of the Tabernacle.
What might be going through Aaron’s mind as he stands by watching all this? When his sons brought spontaneous offerings, they died. They were chosen to minister in the Presence of God, to bring offerings on the altar. Yet, when they brought additional offerings out of their own depth of spirituality, it cost them their lives. Now Aaron watches the heads of the tribes bearing ostentatious gifts while God tells Moses to accept them. A cynic might say that the spiritual no longer matters, that the religion has been turned over to the wealthy, and that the clergy are no more than the hired help.
This remains the profoundly disturbing reality of life, of the Torah, and of our relationship with God: the world is a place of random danger, and neither moral behavior nor piety guarantees our well-being. All around us the wicked prosper, while the good are crushed and trampled underfoot. The heads of the tribes are praised for bringing identical offerings; like King Arthur’s knights, they all are rated equal. By the sheer weight of the description – at 89 verses, this is one of the longest chapters in the Torah – the text places heavy emphasis on the heads of the tribes and their lavish gifts. The rabbis, too, heap praise on the leaders for their generosity, and for working to ensure that each leader’s gift is exactly equal to the others’. What is missing is the connection between God’s acceptance of the magnificent wealth brought as freewill offerings, and the spontaneous offering of Nadab and Abihu: the heads of the tribes reap God’s acceptance and the praise of the rabbis; Nadab and Abihu reap instant death, and condemnation from the commentators. Aaron, with his own bitter experience behind him, must be reeling at God’s behavior.
We rush to combat evil. But we accept mediocrity, particularly when it comes bearing silver and gold. We decry business owners over practices such as slavery and child labor, then we praise them and graciously accept their money, even putting their names over the doors of libraries, hospitals, and universities. Look at how much wealth we have! the princes say. Look at how much we have given to the Tabernacle! It is not blatant evil that endangers society, but the gradual lowering of moral standards. Moses and Aaron are designated to perform their service. The others have purchased their place at the altar. In such a society, it is only a matter of time before the rot eats through to the very foundation. The princes of the tribes bring their gifts sincerely – yet they are shallow, believing that silver, gold, and slaughtered animals are what God truly wants of us. It is inevitable that this society will ultimately tear itself apart. What is not inevitable, and what God now rushes to reassure Aaron, is that the day will come when Aaron’s own descendants will rescue God from the clutches of the rich, and will return the altar, not to those who write the biggest checks, but to those who cherish it for its own sake as the place where God chooses to communicate with us directly.
There is a spiritual practice of meditating on the future. We sit and contemplate who we are, where we are. Then we envision our children. It doesn’t matter if we don’t have them yet; the purpose of the practice is to develop a sense of our own importance in the world, of the very long-term impact we create. The legacy we will leave. Visualize your children. And their children. And their children, and theirs, and theirs….
We try to support our loved ones in different ways: often emotionally, frequently financially. It is in this regard that we contemplate God’s message to Aaron: if you think what you are doing has importance now, you can’t begin to understand how important it will be in some distant future, a future so far away that you cannot imagine it. A future in which your impact will have spread out in the world.
But yes: imagine it. Envision it. Every smallest act we perform today ripples across the years stretching out in front of us, almost to infinity. Certainly beyond any time we normally contemplate in our daily life, when our focus usually stretches no farther than lunch, our afternoon meetings, and the football games we’re planning to watch over the weekend.
Give yourself the gift of envisioning a vast future. More, give your future the gift of paying attention to it today. You deserve it. And your future needs you.
Yours for a better world.