Friday, February 25, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Vayakhel 5771-Giving Up the Gold Standard

What is it about gold? Though centuries separated their times, both Moses and Betzalel, and later Hiram and Solomon, fashioned the most central items for the mishkan/temple of gold. Though millennia separate us from Moses, Betzalel, Solomon and Hiram, today gold seems as precious and revered now as it did then.

It’s sort of yellow-ish, malleable, and can be polished to a bright shine. It certainly stands out among other materials and metals. It is generally not found in plentiful supply in the area of Israel or neighboring countries. Though gold was important in Egypt, it isn’t found in any great quantity there, though could be found in nearby Nubia. Nubia, in fact, comes from the Egyptian word “nub” meaning gold.

Though Egypt had literally thousands of mines (one ancient map notes over 1300 sites) total production is thought to maybe have averaged about one ton per year – not a particularly impressive amount.

The Egyptians considered gold a “divine” metal, and, due to its color when refined, it was associated with the sun, and the sun god Ra. As important as gold was, because it was somewhat difficult to find and refine, its use was limited and reserved for particular purposes (like funerary masks. How odd and ironic that this most precious of metals dug from the ground was destined to spend most of its time buried again!)

In liberating the spoils of Egypt, the Israelites were lucky indeed to have come away with enough gold jewelry to be smelted down to create first the covering of the golden calf, and latter the few ritual items for the mishkan made of gold (the menorah, the cover of the ark and the cherubim, and a few others.)

Solomon and Hiram seemed to have a little better supply of gold available to them, and they used it a bit more freely, but only a bit. Solomon’s source was named Ophir, but to this day, scholars disagree as to its location. Various parts of Africa. India. Some even have suggested Peru! (There’s even a weird theory out there that Solomon actually got a lot of the gold by raiding Egyptian tombs, but not many scholars lend credence to the idea.)

The lust for gold can do strange things to people. We’re all familiar with the dramatic versions of these cautions from films like Treasure of the Sierra Madre and similar classics. In American history we have the several gold rushes, and even today, people are still trying to find that one lucky strike, and I don’t mean a cigarette.

We have the Romans to blame, perhaps, for spreading the gold lust, for it was in their empire that gold coinage became a standard. Gold mines were a monopoly of the empire. The Romans were certainly a bit more extravagant in their use of gold.

Gold became a standard against which value could be measured. It remained so for millennia.

In our own modern world, we gave up using the “gold standard” to back the value of money some time ago, though there are those out there suggesting maybe we ought to go back to it.

I have a rather radical thought related to all of this. While I am one who deplores extravagance and displays of wealth and ostentation, I do think our ancient Jewish ancestors were on to something.  They recognized gold as a rarity that deserved to only be used for a few very special things. By so reserving it, they put it somewhat beyond the ordinary. While one could argue that this might make it seem all the more valuable and cause people to desire it even more, and there is certainly evidence for this, I still believe it is possible to generate the opposite effect. Use just enough of it that people, while overwhelmed by its beauty and value, still recognize how rare it is, and that perhaps it should be set aside only for the most special uses.

This requires a lot of faith in human nature, and the overwhelming sense of history would dictate otherwise. Is there something in how our ancestors viewed gold that we can find and renew that would enable us to learn that not all precious things are desirable for individual ownership? Consider that our ancestors actually gave up their gold so that the artifacts for the mishkan could be made (sadly they also gave up their gold for the calf, but then everyone makes mistakes.) They valued gold for themselves, but somehow they knew that the gold would be put to better use serving and honoring G”d.

There’s a metaphor here, and clearly it speaks to us of more than just gold. There are perhaps many things in our lives that are of value to us but might be of even greater value if we surrendered their use to only the most special and holy of uses. Not all of these things are physical or tangible.

Ready to surrender your “gold” in service to the One?

Shabbat Shalom,

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

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Other musings on this parasha:

Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5770-Corroborative Detail
Vayakhel-Pekudei 5769 - There Are Some Things You Just Have To Do Yourself
Vayakhel 5768-An Imaginary Community?
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5767-Redux 5760-The Lost Episodes: Too Much of a Good Thing
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5766 - So How Did Joseph Get Away With it?
Pekude 5765-Redux 5760-Pronouns
Vayakhel 5765-The Wisdom of the Heart
Vayakhel/Pekude 5764-Comma or Construct?
Vayakhel 5763-Dayam V'hoteir
Vayakhel/Pekude 5762-Sacred Work
Vayakhel/Pekude 5761 (Revised from 5758)-Craftsman. Artisan. Artist.
Vayakhel 5760-The Lost Episodes: Too Much of a Good Thing
Vayakhel/Pekude 5758-Craftsman. Artisan. Artist.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Ki Tissa 5771 – Still Waiting for the Fire

It’s a lesson I’ve expounded upon many times – that we all wait for the big demonstration when all around us little miracles (and not so little miracles) take place all the time. It takes so much to impress us and that makes me wonder why. Would that it were that we were all extremely conscious of the everyday miracles that surround us that it truly takes something impressive to draw our attention.

Lately, foods seem to have been getting spicier. Now major burger chains have burgers with hot peppers ground right into the mystery meat. Hotter and hotter, as if daring our taste bids (and our stomachs) to revolt.

At the same time, all is not lost. We do seem to have developed a penchant for waters with just a hint of a flavor. So we do seem to appreciate some subtlety.

Elijah, too, offered the extremes – water literally dousing the altar, and fire from G”d consuming the offering despite its wet state.

Elijah mocks the prophets of Baal when their efforts seem unable to bring forth fire from their god to consume their offering. He uses mockery that seems almost modern and contemporary in its style, suggesting that perhaps their god was busy elsewhere, or asleep. These are the same sort of mocking arguments used today by atheists, agnostics, and even many believers who wonder about the apparent absence of G”d from our everyday lives (at least in terms of major miracles.)

My problem with the story in this  haftarah is its resolution. The prophets of Baal are unsuccessful, but Elijah calls upon G”d and on cue G”d produces fire that consumes the offering, whereupon all the assembled people say the ancient equivalent of “yep, that must be G”d.”

One miracle and they are convinced? How atypical of humans, and especially atypical of the Israelites. If you think it took a lot to convince Pharaoh (and remember, G”d cheated and made it harder to Pharaoh to acquiesce) think how much more it took (and continues to take) to convince the Jews.

Of course, we know that the convincing was temporary-the people soon returned to their stubborn ways. So the effect of the big miracle was only temporary. That seems to often be the case.

G”d, in many but not all understandings, has unlimited power, so producing big miracles on a daily basis shouldn’t be a big deal. However, if G”d is spending all that time and effort regularly to convince us of G”d’s existence and to follow G”d’s instructions, it doesn’t seem a very happy situation all around. Not much gets done except the regular re-convincing.

It’s easy to reject the other guy’s god. Sadly, it seems even easier to reject our own G”d. Time and again it became necessary to give us a demonstration. Time and again we briefly acknowledged the effectiveness of the demonstration and then went back to whatever it is we were doing anyway.

Since those days, we’ve had ample opportunity to come to realize that life isn’t about big miracles, but the little ones that happen all around us all the time. Given what we know about our universe, the true miracle is that we, as a species, even exist at all.

Yet, here we are, thousands of years later, still waiting for the fire to consume the offering before we’ll be convinced. Have we really learned nothing in all this time?

Shabbat Shalom,

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha

Ki Tisa 5770 - A Fickle Pickle
Ki Tisa 5768-Not So Easy? Not So Hard!
Ki Tisa/Shabbat Parah 5767-New Hearts and New Spirits
Ki Tisa/Shabbat Parah 5766-Fortune and Men's Eyes
Ki Tisa 5765-Re-Souling Ourselves
Ki Tisa 5764-A Musing on Power Vacuums
Ki Tisa 5763-Shabbat is a Verb
Ki Tisa 5762-Your Turn
Ki Tisa 5760-Anger Management
Ki Tisa 5761-The Lesson Plan

Friday, February 4, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat-T’rumah 5771-TorahLeaks

Religion, and in particular, religious rites and the places and accoutrements that accompany them, tend, in general, to have some level of mystery and secrecy. Priestly classes develop which become the keepers of the mysteries, the secret knowledge. We find this across a broad range of religions, not just Western ones.

While architectural details or cultic structures (like the Mishkan/tabernacle) are sometimes, perhaps even often found in the writings of cultures in the ancient world, one will generally not find descriptions as detailed and complete, not only in architecture but implements, ritual objects, and ritual activities as one finds in the Torah, and, in particular, this weeks parasha, T’rumah.

Not only is history replete with with examples of religions closely guarding secrets and mysteries (though the actual realities may be exaggerated, consider Freemasonry, for example) even future history, in the form of literature, especially science fiction, is also replete with examples where even science has, in some future time, become like magic to the people, and a priestly class closely controls and guards the secrets and mysteries.

To some extent, this has even happened in Judaism. The story of the oven of Akhnai (Talmud, Bava Metzia 59b)shows just how far the rabbis would go to assert their authority. In fact, I actually believe they usurped authority here-not from the Divine, but from the people.  The story of the oven of Akhnai is linked with the Deuteronomic statement in Deut 30:12-14 of “lo bashamayim hi” – the Torah is not in heaven – meaning that understanding of the Torah (and by extension G”d’s covenant and laws) is not beyond the ability of any human.

In our own time, though the role of the rabbi is largely changed, except, perhaps, in parts of the traditional/orthodox/haredi community, the rabbi is still perceived by many as a holder of secret or arcane knowledge. Jews the world over abrogate their responsibilities and allow the rabbi (or the cantor, or the educator, or simply the more knowledgeable congregant) to become their surrogate or substitute.

Yet, if we examine what we read in T’rumah, along with Deut 30:12, I believe the rabbis usurped an authority that was never intended for them (despite their protestations that in the face if the diaspora it was necessary.) I believe the evidence is clear. Judaism was not intended to have secrets and mysteries (beyond the essential mystery that is G”d.) The Torah goes into intricate details of the construction of the mishkan/tabernacle and all it contains (and all that takes place inside it) precisely because it intends this knowledge to be available to all, and not kept secret.

Yes, the Torah provides for the creation of a priestly class (though, as I argued in another musing, just last year, for the next parasha, Tetzaveh) perhaps it was just a crumb thrown Aaron’s way by G”d at the behest of Moses.) However, the Kohanim and the Levites are not given knowledge that isn’t available to everyone. They are the carriers out and teachers of the rituals and the knowledge, but the knowledge is not theirs alone-it is available in the Torah for all who seek it. (An example: the Torah later tells priests how to know determine the seriousness of skin diseases. Yes, the priests are the ones who perform the examinations. But the criteria are right there in the Torah for all to know-and presumably, when appropriate-used to question the priest’s decision.)

Yes, later in our history both the priests and the rabbis (and later the mystics) sought to become the controllers of the ritual knowledge, and, to a great extent, succeeded.

Modern liberal Judaism has been fighting back to regain control from the rabbis, with a modicum of success. However, these efforts cannot and will not succeed as long as (in particular liberal) Jews continue to abdicate their responsibilities to learn all that the Torah has to say to them and teach them.

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that we don’t need rabbis, and that they are irrelevant (though, as it is often pointed out, one does not need a rabbi for a wedding, and other Jewish rites.) In the traditional community, rabbis continue to play a very important role. I may disagree with their interpretations, but I cannot pretend knowledge of our traditions to even a small fraction of their scholarship. They and their adherents may interpret Judaism as they please-as long as they don’t tell other Jews that theirs is the only way.

In the liberal community, rabbis serve many functions. They are part of the fabrics of Judaism as it exists today, and perform many important functions and roles. It is only their role as “surrogate Jew” that I seek to eliminate. (I suspect many of the rabbis I know would equally welcome a congregation full of members as knowledgeable as they themselves are-though I do know some who do relish a certain amount of the authority that greater knowledge gives them.)

So my charge to all of you this Shabbat is to do your part to become an informed, well-read, knowledgeable Jew. What you do, armed with that information, is up to you. Here is where liberal and traditional Judaism part company, to a great extent. That’s okay with me. On the other hand, I might suggest that the differences need not be so wide. Even the most liberal Jew would do well to study and understand the classic rabbinic interpretations that are found in the Talmud, commentaries and other writings of these great (and not so great) sages.

Whatever your understanding of the origin of Torah, it’s difficult to avoid the realities thrown in our face by this parasha (combined with Deut 30:12.) The Torah lays it all out for us because the Torah intends for us to know it. Don’t that power away through inaction, abdication, or assigning it to a surrogate. Torah is our Wikileaks. That power is the Torah’s t’rumah to you.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

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Other musings on this parasha (on my web site:)

T'rumah 5770 - Finessing Idolatry, or Outgrowing It?
T'rumah 5769 - Planning for Always
T'rumah 5767-You Gotta Wanna - The Sequel
T'rumah 5766-No Tools Allowed
T'rumah 5765-Ish Al Akhiv
T'rumah 5764-Redux 5760-Doing It Gd's Way
T'rumah 5763-Semper Paratus
T'rumah 5762-Virtual Reality or Real Virtuality?
T'rumah 5760-Doing It Gd's Way
T'rumah 5761-You Gotta Wanna

Index to all my musings from 1997-present on my web site: