Running With the Weight of Gold — Letters to a young man
17: Ten Words
Jerusalem — 27 January 2019
Dear D –
In this week’s Torah reading (Ex. 18:1–20:23) Moses ascends Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. In the Hebrew they are called “the ten words,” or “ten things that were said.” There is a Hebrew word for commandment, which is actually not used here. It is better to call these “the ten principles.” The specific rules, laws and observances commanded in the Torah are not meant to be exhaustive; as the rabbis teach, they are expressions of God’s will, principles that God wants us to apply in our behavior. These fall generally into the categories of our relationship with God, our relationships with one another, and our relationship to ourselves. Principles governing ritual practice, societal behavior, and personal ethics and spiritual growth.
The Ten Commandments is not a unique event. The principles enunciated at Sinai comprise all of God’s Torah, all of God’s message for humanity: how to deal with God, how to build a just society, how to work to realize our personal potential and to help others to realize theirs as well. These principles are eternal. They are not things that God said — they are definitional to who God is.
The weekly Torah portions are named by the first key word of the portion. Thus the first three readings are “In The Beginning,” “Noah,” and “Go.” This week’s portion is named “Jethro,” after Moses’ father-in-law. God’s law is given at Mt Sinai in a reading that bears the name of an outsider. Jethro was the priest of Midian — not an Israelite, and not destined to become part of the Jewish people. The rabbis say he was an idolater; the reason he recognized the power and greatness of God is because he had worshiped every other god and he recognized the difference. Far from making him suspect, the rabbis give him great honor. And this portion is named for a non-Israelite, a non-Jew, to teach us that God gives the Torah to the Jewish people because of the Covenant between God and Abraham. God’s promise reaches down through the ages. We benefit from it whether we deserve it or not, but we are also bound to live with its consequences. Jethro demonstrates wisdom far beyond that of his son-in-law, and he explains why Moses needs to radically change his mode of leadership. Without Jethro the Torah would quickly disappear from history.
The rabbis of the Talmud make a clear distinction between Wisdom and Torah: the Torah is given for the Jewish people to exercise their unique relationship with God. Other people may also have relationships with God — from the Torah’s perspective, anyone who embraces pure monotheism is not an idolater and is observing a legitimate religion. But no one has an exclusive on wisdom. Every belief system models a unique way of perceiving the world. In so doing, each system channels wisdom and certain fundamental principles of human existence, dressing them up and making them recognizable in their own cultural context. The challenge for each of us is to tease out what is unique in our system of belief, versus what is general human wisdom.
Moses stands all day as, from morning to night, the Israelites line up with their questions (18:13–23.) The rabbis tell us the people came not to charge one another with wrongdoing, but for Moses to correct their own behavior. Not to claim that others had taken from them, but concerned that they might have received something not rightfully theirs.
Jethro tells Moses (18:18) “You will surely wither away, you and also this people who are with you.” This is understood to mean: This judging is too much for one person to take on. You need to share the burden. But the Hebrew word translated “wither away” also means a dead body — specifically applied to animals who die of natural causes. Jethro is not merely saying, Moses, you work too hard. He is saying, God’s message and the Torah will die with you unless you take steps now. Not merely to choose leader to fill your sandals, but to forge a robust system of governance that will retain its integrity down through the ages. Jethro tells Moses to create a society.
Jethro — who acknowledges all God’s miracles — says, This generation experienced the miracles. They stand before you today in humility, afraid to take one penny that doesn’t belong to them. But after you are gone and after they die out, future generations will argue bitterly over what the Torah means. If the plain law is not clear to these people who actually experienced God’s presence and miracles, how will people react after a generation, a century, a millennium?
Nothing disrupts a society like money. Today they stand in line to ask whether they are entitled to keep their own money. Tomorrow they will kill each other over pennies. And it will all come down to leadership.
At the end of the reading (20:19–20) God says, “You shall not make with me gods of silver and gods of gold, you shall not make for yourselves.” The rabbis say that the gold and silver vessels and ornaments that will be made for ritual use in the Tabernacle are not to be worshiped. Even the gold cherubim atop the Ark of the Covenant are not holy in themselves, but only insofar as they enable holiness to be practiced.
And money has the power to rip the fabric of the social system. Says God, I expect you to create justice on the ground. Do not invoke My Name to take from others. In today’s world, where the marketplace is enshrined as the ultimate deity, it is no wonder people are ignorant of these verses.
God says, Don’t think I will be flattered by your money. When you lie and cheat and steal and take unfair advantage of the weak — or even when you are one of those fundamentally decent people who benefits from the injustices that have crept into the fabric of society — do not think I will be appeased if you put your name on a $100 million university research facility or library. People speak about “Giving back.” But no one questions how they got it in the first place. The myth of people rising in a capitalist system purely by dint of individual effort is precisely that: a myth. Yes, people work hard, and yes, people earn. But the infrastructure that protects our earnings also increasingly keeps other members of society at a distance. One statistic: social scientists tell us that in America today, more than at any time in history, the greatest determining factor of a person’s future earnings is the economic status of their parents. More than ever before, America has become a society of rigid barriers, of impenetrable economic class lines. When we “give back,” we need to acknowledge that we took. Otherwise it is just “giving,” and not “giving back.”
Before you take silver and gold, says God, examine carefully how you came to receive it. Specifically with regard to business and money matters, go out of your way. Be careful. The way to create and maintain harmony in society is to be careful of the property of others in the first instance. Giving back what was taken away merely restores the arithmetic, not the moral balance. Think of the man jailed for a crime he did not commit. Freed after a year — or four decades — he will say, I am glad justice was finally done. But then, the abstract notion of justice is all he has. No court on earth can restore his lost years, his lost mental health and dignity or the family whose lives have been wrecked.
We must be infinitely mindful of each thing that comes to our hand. So little of what we possess is truly ours.
What does this have to do with the giving of Torah? Everything. It has to do with examining the inner nature of righteousness. That Right and Wrong are not defined by what I like, but depend on objective standards, especially on protecting the weak, the few, the disenfranchised. We dare not assume that we are in the right. Through ceaseless contemplation and self-observation, through constantly challenging our own assumptions, and through bottomless compassion for the rights of others, we must apply justice in every aspect of our lives.
It’s tempting to get hung up on the letter of the law, because that doesn’t require us to think about the world from anyone else’s perspective. This is true whether discussing the Torah, the New Testament, or the US Constitution. But in every case, the foundational document is just that: a foundation, and we are responsible for building and maintaining a structure based on it. The Talmud says Jerusalem was destroyed because the people became obsessed with the letter of the law and forgot that the letter is but the starting point. God requires us to go beyond the letter. To apply the underlying principles — rigorously and with compassion and mercy. Therein lies the difference between Law and Justice. Let us continue to apply the lessons.
Yours for a better world –