The Weight of Gold — Learning to See
All that glitters is not gold.
– Shakespeare, “Merchant of Venice”
All that is gold does not glitter.
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
The book of Deuteronomy is fundamentally different from the first four books of the Torah, offering a highly selective commentary on what has transpired since the Exodus from Egypt. Moses’ retelling of the last forty years is clearly slanted by his own perspective, and the rabbis understand this book as Moses’ harsh reproof to the Israelites for their behavior: they do not stay constant in their faith in God; they complain constantly, and once they finally take possession of the Promised Land, they will abandon God altogether. When God sustains them in the wilderness with the manna, they complain that they lack meat; God splits the Sea of Reeds and brings the Israelites through on the dry land, but no sooner do they emerge safely on the other side than they look around and, not finding water to drink, immediately complain that God has abandoned them. And so it goes….
This week’s portion opens with the word “See,” a clear literary signal: where have we encountered this word before? In fact, the act of seeing is one of God’s four fundamental acts of Creation: God spoke, God saw, God divided, and God called. Look back at the opening section of Genesis and you will see: it’s all right there.
In the Creation narrative, God’s act of seeing is God assessing the extent to which what has been created actually performs as God intended it to. This may not make sense to us; how can a rock be anything other than a rock? And the Torah makes it clear that our capacity for free choice is among the defining factors of being created in the image of God. But God seems to be either testing out the elements of Creation one by one, or at least confirming them once they are in place, like a proud parent praising their child.
There is much to say about the Bible’s use of imagery of sight and seeing — as well as of not seeing what is right before one’s eyes. I’m thinking of the moment in Genesis where sight is invoked in the created world, the first time a human sees in the Garden of Eden: “And the woman [Eve] saw that the tree was good for eating” (Gen. 3:6). When God saw during the days of Creation, it affirmed the rightness of what had been brought into existence. Now Eve exercises her Godlike power of sight, but instead of seeing the world as God intended her to see it, she sees it from the perspective of her own appetites. Instead of her gift of sight enabling her to treat the world the way God wanted her to, she ties it to its physical source. She thinks it is her own seeing, and that the world is there for her to perceive, to use. To eat.
Later in this week’s portion (Deut. 12:29–31), we are warned about the idolatrous practices of other nations: “Beware lest you seek out their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations worship their gods? I will do the same’” (12:30).
On its face, this seems to be a warning against “going native,” against abandoning God and the Torah and fleeing to the embrace of idol worship. To be sure, when we find ourselves in a new situation, there is always the risk that we will relinquish our values and adopt those which are completely foreign, even contrary, to what we believe, all in order to fit in.
The great medieval commentator Nachmanides has a subtle and profound take on this. He says the real danger is not that we will abandon God, discard the Torah, and take up a whole new religion. Or rather, yes, this threat is always there. But the more pernicious threat, the hidden threat, is that we will allow ourselves to believe that the practices of the idolatrous nations are themselves valid; that by doing what we saw them do, we are merely adopting new ways of serving God, new ways of living the life the Torah commands us to follow.
How many times have we come to the realization that our behavior was completely contrary to our own deepest values? That in the moment, we justified what we were doing, saying, “It’s all right. It only looks like I’ve abandoned my moral principles. But inside, I’m really the same person.” In the Torah’s frame of reference, this is like saying, “All these idolatrous practices, they’re just outward motions. It’s just another way of doing what God wants.” On reflection, after we calm down, our own sense of remorse is unerring in revealing thoughts and behavior that we have worked hard to hide from ourselves.
This is something we witness again and again in the world of business. Wall Street, where the temptations are so massive. We want success, we want money. We want as much money as the next guy — or as the biggest guy. We want more expensive clothing, a more expensive car. A bigger house. A more glamorous wife. Pretty soon, we get so caught up in the externals of life that we literally turn ourselves inside out: where once we tried to live by our own inner guide, by the principles we believed in, now our whole belief system is based on “How much?” “How big?” “How expensive?” Truly, it’s not that there are some rotten apples; rather, the barrel itself is rotten, and we enter it at our peril.
This is but one example of how readily we can go wrong. How easy it is not merely to make the wrong choices, but to doggedly justify those choices, until we come to fervently believe that we have made the right choice. That our choice, not God’s, is the right one.
The portion begins, “See, I have set before you today a blessing and a curse” (11:26); life and what is good, and death and what is evil. By using the word see, a word so charged with meaning, the Torah is not merely calling our attention to two mountains that stand before us (11:29). The Torah is challenging us: when we are faced with a moral decision, do we decide based on what God would want us to do, or based on our own appetites? As the rabbis say, we must weigh the short-term sacrifice involved in doing what is right against the long-term benefit of our proper behavior. And we must likewise weigh the momentary benefit of choices we make based on our animal appetites, versus the lasting negative effect of living with the knowledge that we have failed to be our best self.
You are on a long path. If you follow it carefully, striving always to do what is right, this path will not only carry you forward throughout your entire lifetime but will extend to allow others to continue your journey. Those you teach, those you influence — both consciously, and simply by the example of the way you live your life. Whatever behavior we embrace — whether we seek to do God’s will, or stubbornly insist on our own — that is what we teach others. Not least of all, it is what we teach the children we bring into this world.