The Weight of Gold — When the Mountain Meets the Man
Great things are done when men and mountains meet.
– William Blake
This week’s Torah portion is the penultimate in the yearly cycle. Last week, God instructed Moses to write a poem as an eternal reminder of Israel’s obligation to follow, serve, and obey God, and of the consequences for straying from the path. Here is that song in its entirety, full of powerful imagery and frightening portents.
“Be strong and courageous,” Moses charged us on this, the last day of his life. And while the text of this poem is one of blame and condemnation — a call to heaven and earth themselves to bear witness to the behavior of the Jewish people — Moses has also buried a hidden message: In this intense poem, Moses reviews the history of the cosmos, as seen from God’s perspective. And, as we are God’s partners in Creation, that perspective should be ours as well.
Moses’ song begins with a poetic echo of the first six days of Creation evoking the negative association of human behavior. The sins of the first humans; of Adam and Noah, the first leaders of humanity, are sins of appetite. Adam’s sin is one of carelessness, while Noah’s sin comes from drunkenness — loss of control — which will be mirrored yet again in the story of Lot and his daughters. In this poem, the name given to Israel is Jeshurun (Deut. 32:14–15), which derives from the Hebrew root y-sh-r, meaning straight or upright. Homo erectus.
Upright, in the physical sense. Now the challenge is to become morally upright as well. As we come to the end of the Torah, Moses holds out the clear criticism that we have failed; and that we will fail repeatedly.
The section opens with twin images of water: “May my teaching drop like rain; may my utterance flow like dew” (32:2). The Zohar, the central text of Jewish mysticism, says the image of rain represents the Written Torah — which God hands down from heaven, and dew is the image of the Oral Torah: the teachings of the rabbis, first received from Moses and then passed through Joshua, the Elders, the Sages, and down to our day. Moses is referencing the Written Torah, but also showing us that we can, indeed must, take upon ourselves the work of interpreting it — the Oral Torah.
On a cosmic level, our constant striving to learn and teach and perfect the Oral Torah is the way in which we unite earth and heaven, bringing down the Creator to dwell in the physical world. This is the spiritual task the Torah sets for us.
On a much more urgent level, it is only by constantly examining the Torah, by constantly looking at the world through the lens of Torah, by constantly striving to see ourselves from God’s perspective, that we have any hope at all of living properly. Of living a moral life. Of realizing our potential. Of creating a just society, protecting the weak, improving the lives of those around us, and supporting others in their quest to attain their potential in life.
Thus, we are all students and teachers simultaneously. While many of us are aware of being students in life, we often forget that we are teachers too. The way we live our lives is the most powerful lesson we teach to those around us. We attract people with our words, but our actions prove who we truly are.
It is our task to reunite heaven and earth, yet we must also recall that division and differentiation are among God’s fundamental acts of Creation. The task of unification is not that of undoing God’s work. It is to drill down to the fundamental level where the underlying unity of God’s universe emerges. Torah is one. Not Written and Oral. Not Written versus Oral. Just Torah. The Word of God is ultimately indivisible, much as this concept is impossible for us to grasp.
Moses’ poem tells us that a terrible fate awaits us. The gloves have come off, and he gives it to us straight from the shoulder. The Jewish people will suffer. We will be scattered and will come near to total extinction. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” says Moses. God is demanding. God is vengeful and will turn on you in a heartbeat. I had to tell you this story — all of Deuteronomy — so that you would understand how many times you came to the brink of destruction, only to be rescued at the last minute by my intercession. Now, says Moses, you no longer have me to step between you and the wrath of God. Study this Torah and take it to heart, says Moses, because the tragedy and suffering foretold in this poem will unfold throughout the generations of your future history. And yet, you are not free to walk away from God, nor from the task God has set for you in this world.
In the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, Moses took pains to explain the explicit meaning of God’s message. Now, throughout Deuteronomy, Moses has been showing us that the true question we must ask is not what does the Torah mean, but what can it mean? Because the only meaning Torah can have is the meaning expressed by the work of our hands. How do we enact God’s word in this world? In our lifetime? When others see God expressed in our actions, which God do they see: a peevish, narrow-minded God ready to lash out at those with whom we disagree, or a God who is infinitely expansive, infinitely patient, infinitely caring of others? Who is generous, compassionate, and willing to stand by them to help when life tests them?
Do they see a God who is ready, even at the worst moment, to be reminded of the purpose for which all of us were created — which is to make this world whole?
Moses begins his poem with the recap of Creation because it is up to each of us to re-Create, to make anew. While there is the breath of life in us, we are God’s partners in the ongoing act of Creation whereby the world continues to exist. And during those dark times when God seems to have left the scene, we must stand in for God and keep the spheres turning.,.
And sometimes, like Moses, we must be the ones to stand up and confront God and say, “No! This was not Your plan, not Your promise.” “We are made in Your image!” we shout. “You put us here to continue Your work!”
We will never be able to say for certainty what the Torah means, nor should we desire so narrow an outcome. But we are blessed to be the vessels by which this eternal quest continues to be carried on. Even in the darkest times that have, or shall, come upon us, there is this: the Torah was given for all humankind. But it was given first to Israel. This is our responsibility. The idea of chosenness is not a gift to play with when new, and then to lay aside when we are bored. Those of us whose souls are touched by the words of God’s Torah bear a great responsibility, for we must store up the message, and care for it and keep it very much alive until the time comes when the rest of the world will flock to its Truth.
Yours for a better world.