The Weight of Gold — In The Greedy Mind of the Beholder
And it was towards evening and David rose from his couch and strolled about the roof of the royal palace, and from the roof he saw a woman bathing, and the woman was very beautiful.
– II Samuel, 11:2
This week’s portion has numerous references to marriage and divorce, and to improper sexual relations.
It opens with the case of a woman taken captive in time of war. The Torah describes her as “a woman beautiful of form” (Deut. 21:11), and tells the warrior how to treat this woman if he desires her sexually.
The Hebrew vocabulary resonates on many levels. The term “beautiful of form” is based on the word see, and ties textually to Eve eating the forbidden fruit, to the sexual wantonness of Egypt, and directly to the family of Abraham: three of the four Matriarchs — Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel — are described using variants of this term, as is Joseph, Rachel’s son, whose good looks get him into significant trouble.
These echoes are not mere accidents of the limitations of the Hebrew vocabulary. The case of the captive woman is one of lust: a man sees an attractive woman, over whom he exercises the power of life and death, and he desires to have sex with her. The Torah lays upon him the obligation to wait thirty days, to permit her to mourn the loss of her family, and to then not merely have sex with her, but to take her as a wife. This is striking: the captive woman is not to be raped, abused, or disposed of, and explicitly not to be sold for money if she displeases him.
The captive must marry him; she clearly has no choice. But this is just one example of the ways in which the Torah protects women. In its place and time, 3,500 years ago in the deserts of the Middle East, the Torah was a revolutionary document of social justice. Imagine telling a conquering soldier he is not allowed to rape a woman he has captured? Imagine telling him he is obligated to marry her — which means provide for her and protect her for life. Imagine telling him that if he then decides to divorce her, he is not allowed to sell her for money but must give her unconditional freedom. Imagine: she is not of his tribe, not even an Israelite, yet she is a human being, and her dignity must be preserved as best as possible, given the brutal circumstances under which she came into the community.
Another case in this Torah portion describes a man who has married two wives; one beloved, one hated. He may not favor the children of the preferred wife. There is also the case of a man who spreads a malicious lie that his wife was not a virgin when he married her, and the example of a man who marries a woman and then divorces her, and then wishes to remarry her. Finally, there are a series of scenarios dealing with rape, seduction, and consensual illicit sex.
It is striking that the Torah spends so much time on sex; this is hardly the only section dealing with prohibited and permitted relations. Elsewhere, the Torah prohibits incest, homosexual rape, and honor killings — all common enough practices in certain places and times.
It is said that we use only 5 percent of our brain. If men are honest with themselves, they will recognize that it’s because the other 95 percent is taken up with thinking about sex. It is the way males are hardwired. Which means it is nothing to be embarrassed about.
But it is also nothing to act on.
Sex is a powerful force. How often do we listen to our hormones rather than to the voice of reason? Rabbi Shlomo Zalman of Liady, the first rebbe of Lubavitch (Belarus, 1745–1812), lays out the psychological process behind this behavior:
The mind perceives a stimulus. At this point it is a neutral event, mere sensory input. The emotional system then places an emotional value on it. This emotional value gets booted back to the mind, which now believes the emotional reaction to be the objective truth. The mind thinks through how to respond to this misunderstood interpretation, giving rise to concrete thoughts, to speech, and ultimately to action. In this way, we repeatedly ruin our own lives, and often the lives of those around us. By believing our own thoughts to be objectively true, we cast away the unique power God has given us — the ability to sift through chaos and create order. If our creative ability is what defines us as being made in the image of God, the power to create stability in the world around us is among our most important attributes, and one we often ignore.
Wanton sexual behavior is a problem. It is also a powerful metaphor for all the other things we do wrong in our lives — all the times and situations where we act on pure impulse. The Alter Rebbe teaches there are two levels of analysis we must perform before we act. First: where does the impulse come from? Is it from the animal part of me, a purely visceral reaction, or is the impulse to act the fruit of intellectual analysis, of spiritual introspection? In other words, who’s in control, my body chemistry or me? My sex organ or my brain?
Second: what effect will my speech or action have on the world? Will my actions make the world better? Worse? Unchanged? As the Rebbe teaches, nothing is ever neutral. And the default position — or doing nothing — usually leads to evil. In order to do good in the world, and to bring good into the world, we must act. And our actions must arise from conscious thought and self-analysis. We must be aware of the power and the potential danger of our emotions and impulses.
Weighing justice in the balance
Toward the end of the portion, we read about the laws of keeping just weights and measures. The Torah prohibits cheating customers by using improper weights and measures. The text says, “Do not have two stones [weights used in the marketplace] in your pocket: a large one and a small one. Do not have in your house two measures: a large one and a small one” (25:13). Furthermore, “You shall have a full and just weighing-stone; you shall have a full and just measure” (25:15). The Torah’s concept of justice includes the notion of completeness (a “full” stone, a “full” measure). The Hebrew word for “full” has the same root letters as the word for peace — shalom, so that maintaining peace in a society is a form of wholeness. In order for society to be whole, unbroken, the Torah requires that we use accurate and standard weights and measures. In the marketplace — and we define this in its broadest sense, meaning in all social and financial dealings — all persons must be treated equally. Using just weights and measures is necessary for peaceable coexistence, for societal harmony. As Peter Tosh sings, “No justice — no peace.”
But there is also a deeper message. We are not commanded not to use improper weights and measures out in the marketplace. The Torah commands us not to own them, not to carry two different weights in our pocket, not to keep two different measures in our house. It is not enough to conform outwardly to the standards of a just society. We must internalize those values. We must live them. We must rid our moral and spiritual house of unjust weights and measures — of our propensity to justify our own desires and passions, our own improper acts. Don’t keep unjust measures in your house or in your pocket. Don’t act one way in public, while despising everyone around you.
We often go through the process of rationalizing, which is actually the misuse of God’s greatest gift to us: the mind. Given the infinite things the mind is capable of, isn’t it pathetic how much energy goes into thinking up ways to justify our worst behavior?
When we are out in the world, we generally conform to the standards of society. We are often on our best behavior — and we are swiftly called to account when we slip.
But what do we really think? How do we really want to behave in our secret times and places — in our pocket, in our house — in our real and private view of the world? There we judge the world by our own standards rather than judging ourselves by the standards of a just society. When we are in public, we think before we act. But if in private our “lizard brain” takes over, then we are not truly part of society. We are behaving under constraint, and not out of an internal sense of right and wrong. Paradoxically, it is when we are most in the grip of this behavior — animal-like and unthinking — that we perceive ourselves as being free.
What does this lead to? I see a woman who excites me. Without thinking of the consequences, I act out my desire. I marry a woman who does not live up to my every expectation. Shall I compromise? No! Better to dispose of her. I have sex with a woman, driven by uncontrolled lust. Once the act is done, she disgusts me, and I can’t throw her out of my bed fast enough.
The world is not given to us to take great bites from, then discard like the rind of a fruit, like a despised woman. The world depends so much, so very, very much, on each of us accepting responsibility for keeping the balance.
Living in the world is a challenge. The Torah urges us over and over again to understand our own inner workings in order to control our passions rather than allowing them to control us. Self-control leads not only to a better society, it leads to a better self. What a tremendous challenge it all is. Indeed, the work is the work of a lifetime. The path is the journey of a lifetime.