The Weight of Gold — Before the Great Sabbath

moshe silver
11 min readSep 10, 2020

I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness or abilities that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.

– William Penn

This week’s Torah reading is very short. In fact, the action from here to the end of the Torah covers only one day — the last day of Moses’ life.

Deuteronomy features Moses exhorting repeatedly, “This is the covenant I establish with you, and not only with you, but with your descendants.” At 29:14, Moses says explicitly that this covenant is “with whomever is here, standing with us today before God; and with whomever is not here with us today.”

What is this concept of a covenant? And how can future generations be held to a contract when they weren’t even born when the contract was signed?

At Mount Sinai, God gives the Torah to all generations of Israel, those who stand at Sinai and those of us who have come into this world in the 3,500 years since. And we can understand how a gift can be given to a family and its generations — an heirloom, an inheritance. A person acquires real estate, and the property remains in the family for generations. We know of people who have used their great-grandmother’s wedding ring for their marriage, of men who carry their great-grandfather’s pocket watch or smoke their grandfather’s meerschaum pipe.

But a covenant is different. It is a type of contract, and it requires two parties to participate. How does this devolve on generations unborn?

Nechama Leibowitz, one of the great Jewish scholars and teachers of the twentieth century, explains the notion of a covenant as a unique type of contract. Normally, a contract requires what lawyers call Offer and Acceptance, and Performance and Consideration. You and I agree that, if I do activity X, you will pay me amount Y.

Not so a covenant. If you look through the Torah, you will see God granting a covenant to Noah after the Flood, to Abraham after his circumcision, to Israel at Mount Sinai. But the actual establishment of the covenant depends on the recipient. A covenant, explains Leibowitz, is an unconditional offer. How can this work? Because in order for the covenant to be sealed, it must be equally unconditional on both sides.

God makes an unconditional — and unilateral — offer to Abraham: I will give this land to you and to your descendants. But the culmination of the covenant is when Abraham accepts in similar fashion, unilaterally and unconditionally committing his faith and belief in God. This is what I call the “bi-unilateral” unconditionality that makes a true covenant.

In this week’s Torah reading, Moses describes punishments that will be visited on future generations “because they forsook the covenant of God” (Deut. 29:24) and served other gods.

Again: if my ancestors agreed to a contract, how does that make me liable to be punished?

It is a constant principle in society that you can’t take advantage of the benefits of an offer without ultimately becoming liable for the associated negatives. If you live in a house, after a certain time you become responsible for its upkeep. If you eat from an orchard, after a certain time you become responsible for tending it. If you live with a woman, after a time she becomes your common-law wife. If you father children, you are responsible for raising them.

So too, we cannot take advantage of God’s gifts without acknowledging where they come from. We can’t accept the blessings that come into our lives without also taking responsibility for how we treat others; for ensuring that others also have the ability to enjoy God’s blessings, that they have the freedom and the resources to live their lives to the fullest and achieve their potential in this world.

The rabbinic commentators have much to say about the notion of individuals losing themselves in the crowd; people who avoid responsibility by hiding behind those who accept responsibility. In a fascinating insight into human nature, the verses describe a person who rejects the Torah, and the consequences: “When he hears the words of this rebuke, he will say to himself, ‘I will be all right, though I walk as I see fit’” (29:18, and see also v. 17). How often do we decide to do what we know is wrong, and justify it simply by saying, “But this is what I want to do, so I’m going to do it”? Commentators say this describes a person who says to him- or herself, “God only punishes those who reject the covenant. But I have not even accepted it in the first place! I will be safe!” Or one who says, “Even though I personally reject the Torah, I will be safe, because I am surrounded by those who accept it.” In both cases, we see the individual gladly taking the fruit of God’s bounty but squirming out of responsibility for the consequences of his actions. More, we see the Torah’s insightfulness into the convoluted process of self-justification that we go through each time we make what we know is the wrong decision.

The text tells us, “This commandment that I command you today, it is not hidden, and it is not far distant. It is not in heaven, so that you will say ‘Who can go up to heaven and take it for us so that we can hear and perform what is demanded of us?’ And it is not across the sea, for you to say ‘Who can cross the sea for us and take it for us so that we can hear and perform?’ But this matter is very near to you — in your mouth and in your heart — to perform it. Behold: I have placed before you today Life and the Good, and Death and the Evil” (30:11–15).

This says it all. God has given us an amazing handbook for the human soul. And lest we think it is all abstract, that it applied thousands of years ago but not today; in these final pages, the Torah rubs our faces in its profound understanding of human nature. You can’t wriggle out of it, the Torah is telling us. Life is a gift; do not squander it. God’s blessings are given freely — and unilaterally. But if we do not respond in kind, it is as though we have tossed them on the trash heap.

Which kind of descendants of God’s covenant are we? What kind of beneficiaries? Do we take what is offered, yet offer nothing in return? Or do we embrace our life in this world as an opportunity to make the most of all that God has blessed us with, and to work as hard as we can to put back into the world more than we ever take out of it?

This day I breathed first; time is come round.

And where I did begin there shall I end.

My life is run his compass.

Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar”

This week’s Torah reading is the shortest in the Torah, consisting of a mere 30 verses. What it lacks in length, it makes up for in drama.

“Be strong and be courageous,” Moses exhorts the Israelites (Deut. 31:6). Moses is preparing to take his leave of his people. For forty years he has led them, taught them, interpreted God’s word for them, interceded with God on their behalf — defending them when they were at their very worst and defying God by offering himself up in their place. This is Moses’ overriding message. Be strong and courageous. Do not be awed by life’s challenges and do not fear, because the Lord your God who is going along with you will not forsake you and will not abandon you.

In the context of the book of Deuteronomy, this exhortation is perhaps more frightening than it is reassuring.

The notion of being the Chosen People is so often misunderstood, perhaps more by Jews than by the non-Jewish world. We are not chosen for special gifts and privileges; we are singled out to be held to a higher standard. The Torah tells us repeatedly that it is our obligation to be a light to the nations (see, e.g., Is. 49:6), a kingdom of priests and a holy people (Ex. 19:6). All the nations of the world will be blessed through our relationship with God (Gen. 12:3). This is a lot to carry, which may be why so many reject it.

In last week’s reading, Moses announces that “today” is the day of his birth: “I am one hundred and twenty years old today, I can no longer go out and come, and God has said to me, ‘You will not cross this Jordan’” (31:2).

Why is the date of Moses’ death important, and why does he die on his birthday?

It is a fundamental religious notion that God’s time is not human time. Time itself does not exist until God creates it. The created cosmos is the world of space, time, and motion, all of which require each other in order to exist. Planted at a focal point within the cosmos, we humans are the observers that make all these have meaning. In this way — and with this gift — God makes us partners in Creation. And when God’s plan for us is fulfilled, we leave this plane of the cosmos to continue our partnership on another plane.

The notion of God’s omnipotence does not clash with the idea of human freedom of choice. We often use the term “free will,” which is misleading. It is more accurate to say free choice, because most of the time we face binary either/or decisions. Our lives are bound by conditions, and our actions are determined by the set of choices we face each moment. And the choices we face in the moment are nothing more than the result of the choices we have made in the past.

God demands that we act now. Not that we be perfect — but we are not permitted to cease trying to attain perfection. We follow the string of choices in our lives, making a decision-tree pattern as each choice leads to further sets of choices. If we choose right, our choice-making can bring us to a result that corresponds to God’s plan for us. This must be viewed as a successful life.

What kind of life did Moses live? Let us recognize first that he was born to die. Moses was born in Egypt under Pharaoh’s decree that all newborn boys be strangled on the birthstool. When the midwives did not comply, Pharaoh decreed that newborn boys be thrown into the river. Thus, Moses was slated to die on the day he was born. Instead, he is hidden for three months, after which he is committed to the uncertain care of the Nile, where he is rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter.

Moses’ first act as a mature youth is to kill an Egyptian — for which Pharaoh orders Moses put to death (Ex. 2:11–15). Moses flees to Midian, where he settles and becomes a shepherd. All is peaceful until God calls to him at the burning bush where, oddly, Moses does not object that he can’t return to Egypt because there is a price on his head. It is not until after he has not only consented to go, but publicly announced his intention, that God tells Moses he is no longer in danger (Ex. 4:19).

Moses is fearless. Perhaps he possesses the fearlessness of one born with the knowledge that life is but an instant. That the day of our birth may as well be the day of our death; that so many souls never are brought into the world at all. And that so many perish so quickly.

Moses fearlessly defends the covenant between God and Israel in the face of God’s outbursts of rage. Stand aside, God says over and over, and I will destroy them. This comes to a head after the sin of the Golden Calf. At Exodus 32:32, in the face of God’s threatening to destroy the people yet again, Moses says, “If that’s what You plan to do, then please erase me from the book You have written!” And God relents. There are many ways of stating this principle: you have nothing to live for until you recognize what you are prepared to die for.

But Moses goes one giant step further, because he accepts the leadership position that is thrust on him, not because he wants it (he doesn’t) and not because, once having tasted power, he relishes it and can’t relinquish it. But because, having accepted it, this is now his responsibility, and Moses fully embraces the responsibility he has accepted.

Now, coming to the end of his own story, Moses is indeed vanishing from God’s Book.

Moses was given his name by Pharaoh’s daughter, who spoke ancient Egyptian, not Hebrew. The name by which our leader is known to us, the political leader who created this nation in earthly terms — as surely as God formed us spiritually — is not his actual name. His earthly, given name is hidden from us, lost forever.

Similarly, we read that Moses is buried in a place in the land of Moab, “and no one knows his grave to this day” (34:6). The request Moses makes of God is fulfilled: he has been erased from the Torah. Why? Perhaps to emphasize that it was not Moses; it was never about him. Rather, it was God who walked at our side all those years — and we never even acknowledged it. We were never aware.

Moses dies on his birthday. It is as though he has vanished, the film has been run backwards, from Moses’ last day, to the hour before his birth. As though he had never been born. It is difficult to imagine that Moses, of all people, did not lead a life that fulfilled God’s destiny for him. And so perhaps it was a blessing, and not a curse. Perhaps God rewound time for his sake. Instead of perishing, by human decree, on the very day he was born, Moses lives for 120 years, saves the Hebrew people from slavery, brings God’s Torah into the world, and forges a pack of miserable slaves into the nation of Israel. But the puny human power to issue a decree is not to be taken lightly. With a gap of 120 years, Moses was one of many newborn Hebrew boys slated for extermination on the day of his birth.

The account has finally come due.

Be strong and courageous, Moses exhorts the people. I shall die, he says, but do not be afraid. In reality, it is God who is walking with you, who has been walking with you all along. I am no more than the middleman.

Moses’ greatness emerges in his unflinching ability to put his entire life into the task assigned him. Not a task he chose, and certainly not one that he asked for. But once he saw the duty devolving on himself, he took it up and carried it through with all his might.

One final thought. There is Midrashic literature explaining the special significance of Moses dying on his birthday. Because the fixed limit of human existence is 120 years and Moses reached it, the time has come for him to die. But this is his actual birthday, which means he has lived for 120 years and one day. There is a special blessing set aside for those rare righteous ones who merit a unique measure of God’s grace.

What we do in this life determines the extent and the quality of the reward we receive in the life to come, but none of us can know what that reward shall be. And thus we fear death. Moses’ lifespan, as dictated by the Torah, came to its end the day before, with the completion of his 120th year. His afterlife, his death, will ensue the following day. This extra day is the unique gift of God granting Moses one day when he can experience his reward of the world to come, while still inhabiting this world.

We must strive to fully embrace our responsibilities, the ones we have asked for, and also the ones we never wanted. We are measured by how we respond to getting what we want. Are we gracious winners? Do we recognize that blessings come to us, not because of our merit, but in order that we will strive to merit them? We are measured too by how we deal with burdens that come unbidden upon us, and which we are nonetheless powerless to dispose of. When the film of our life is run back to the beginning, what story will it have told?



moshe silver

Writer, rabbi, teacher, thinker based in Jerusalem. Partner at Hedgeye Risk Management, LLC.