The Weight of Gold — The Unbroken Circle
May God bless and keep you always, may your wishes all come true,
May you always do for others and let others do for you.
May you build a ladder to the stars and climb on every rung,
May you stay forever young.
– Bob Dylan, “Forever Young”
Let us rise up and be thankful; for if we did not learn a lot, at least we learned a little.
And thus we come to the end of the Torah.
This final portion is not read in the synagogue on the Sabbath, as is done every week. It comes after the end of the annual cycle of holidays known in the Jewish calendar as the Days of Awe: Rosh Hashana — the new year, on which we coronate God as King of the world; and Yom Kippur — the day of atonement, where we reconcile with God for our failures in the past year and resolve to do better. These are followed by the week-long holiday of Sukkot, the festival of booths. This final Torah portion will be read on the day immediately after the end of the Sukkot holiday, known biblically as the Eighth Day Closing Festival, and referred to as the day of the Rejoicing of the Torah, because on this day we complete the reading of the Torah and immediately begin reading again from the first verses of Genesis, the ceremony which is the focus of this joyous festival.
The Torah is the heart of our life. It governs all aspects of our lives, not merely the few hours each week we spend in synagogue. And although our behavior and our ritual, as well as our social and philosophical and spiritual thought, are guided by centuries of rabbinic writings, we return each week to the source, the received Word of God, unaltered after more than 3,500 years.
In a tangible sense, this holiday is a return to the moment of receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai. The Torah scroll is opened for all to see, then each member of the congregation is called up to read, until the last verses of the Torah are completed. The highlight of the evening is the ecstatic dancing with the Torah scrolls themselves, dancing which often continues long past midnight.
In the Torah’s final verses, we read of the death of Moses. This is one of the most emotionally charged moments of the year, as we watch our beloved leader depart this world. Never mind that he will be back on the stage right on schedule with the next year’s reading of the book of Exodus. We listen, choked with tears, as the final verses are read.
What is Moses’ final message to us?
The key resides in the first word of the portion, which in Hebrew means “and this”: “And this is the blessing that Moses, man of God, bestowed upon the children of Israel before his death” (Deut. 33:1).
The connective particle “and” links this verse to the passage immediately preceding it (32:49–52), in which God tells Moses to go up to the top of Mount Nebo and look out over the Promised Land. Says God, “I will give this land to the children of Israel, but you, Moses, will not enter, because you failed to sanctify Me in the eyes of the nation of Israel at the waters of Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin.” This is harsh. Moses has been God’s dutiful servant and earthly partner, shepherding an unruly mob through the wilderness for forty years. Not only will he die without entering the land, but in his final moments, God throws this incident in Moses’ face.
Moses’ “And this” is not merely a look forward to the future of the Jewish people. It is a direct response to what God has just said.
“You are being punished, Moses,” says God, “because you failed.”
“And this is the blessing I will give to the people,” answers Moses. Immediately we recall that the entire book of Deuteronomy comprises Moses’ recounting of the multiple ways in which Israel caused him to fall out of favor with God. Yet rather than blame us, he blesses us. The lesson of selfless leadership could not be more powerful.
The Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land, and Moses is the only one who will not cross over. Knowing this, Moses accepts his lonesome and lonely fate, and with his last breath, seeks God’s assurance that Israel will remain faithful. Moses begs God to promise that Israel will never stray from the Torah.
This was the very argument raised at the creation of Adam. The Midrash says the angels warned God not to create humans. With their freedom of choice, the angels said, humans would stray from God’s commands. They would forget. They would sin. They would rebel. Now God takes the other side of this argument. Moses begs for certainty, for assurances that Israel will remain faithful. But, God seems to reply — gently, perhaps somewhat sadly — they have free choice.
Indeed, even the greatest teacher cannot ensure that the student will learn; the greatest leader cannot guarantee that the people will follow. It is, after all, up to each one of us. As Maimonides repeatedly exhorts us — do you want to be wicked? Do you want to be righteous? It’s in your hands, and in your hands only.
Now, at the end of our tale, God the Teacher gently reminds God’s own finest pupil: These are the consequences of creation — and of the Creation. These people you have led from slavery to nationhood, from deprivation to plenty, from agony and debasement to spiritual royalty. From blind and desperate obedience to the rule of law. From animality to the creation of a just society: these people are only human. They will choose for themselves; they must. Some will follow, many will strive and struggle, but many will fail. All you can do, Moses, is place your Torah before them and pray that, in whatever measure they are able, they will embrace it.
How do we teach and encourage others to follow the right path in life? In particular, how do we do it in such a way that they can hear the message and embrace it? Recall the teacher’s constant watchword: “It’s not what you say; it’s what they hear.” These are words to take to heart.
Few things can wreck a life lesson like absolute certainty. How often have we been told, “This is how you must behave”? When we were wandering in the wilderness, Moses repeatedly said, “This is the law.” “This is the rule.” “Give this to that person — take that away from that other person.” And even, on occasion, “Take them outside the camp and stone them to death.” Moses speaks with unerring certainty, and we obey with alacrity.
But I am not Moses, nor is there a Moses in our world. Moses took his orders directly from God; none of us does. Yet so many teachers deliver their lessons with a harsh certainty. What a recipe for turning others away. Living a life of Torah is not about certainty. It’s about being open to the infinite range of meaning that God’s word can bring into our lives, if we will only permit it.
How can it be, we wonder, that you know — that only you know, and everyone else is wrong? That you know, and what I so deeply feel in my heart is wrong? How can it be that I am not even permitted to question, to ask…to doubt? Is this really what God expects of me? It is no wonder so many people reject God, when all around them they are beset by God’s self-appointed representatives.
Even the written word of God’s law can be misused, can be perverted — intentionally or, more often, with the very best of intent — and used not as a tool for compassion, but as a bludgeon to force obedience, to enforce utter conformity. I have no idea, truly, what God wants from all of us, but I am sure that God does not want us to stifle our individuality, our capacity to think and learn and wonder at the ongoing miracle that is life. Because accepting the harsh outlook of our worst teachers — and there are many, alas! — leads us to harshly reject other people. In order to grow we must be permitted to ask, even if — or especially when — we interrogate the Torah itself. For it is only by confrontation and struggle that we can make their meaning our own. And only when we truly own our own truth can we turn with compassion to others.
Moses has the authority to speak with absolute certainty; he takes his orders directly from God. For the rest of us — students, and especially teachers — we need to go through life with the humble awareness that we do not know everything. Indeed, we may not know anything. Our job is not to speak, but to listen. Not to tell others how to live their lives, but to learn by watching and listening to others how we might better live our own lives. Not to meaninglessly recite the written words, but to struggle to understand the meaning that lies beneath. We must each struggle with God’s word and make it yield its special meaning for us alone. Only then can we truly be said to possess some smidgen of truth.
Through a rigorous process combining intuition with an honest struggle to understand and to continually generate the contemplative and active process whereby Torah becomes ingrained in our very being, and through lifelong dedication, we can bring God’s truth into this world day by day, moment by moment. And to the extent we engage in that struggle for ourselves, we may, with God’s help, be able to serve as a teacher for others; teaching not so much by the words we speak as by the example of our lives. This is truly cause for rejoicing. It is up to us. If we have learned anything at all about God’s Torah, it is this: It is not carved in stone.
Like Moses on the eve of his departure, I leave you with a blessing: May God’s grace rest upon you. May God bless and establish the work of your hands and the sincere efforts of your heart, and may you live a life that makes your Creator say, “I did well to bring you here.”
Yours for a better world.