Every week, parshaoftheweek.com brings you a rich selection of material on parshat hashavua, the weekly portion traditionally read in synagogues all over the world. Using both classic and contemporary material, we take a look at these portions in a fresh way, relating them to both ancient Jewish concerns as well as cutting-edge modern issues and topics. We also bring you material on the Jewish holidays, as well as insights into life cycle rituals and events...
I have to say that when Trump appointed Anthony Scaramucci to the position of Director of Miscommunication at the White House, I breathed a sigh of relief. Thank God this thuggish, cartoonish clown is not Jewish! We have seen Trump appoint so many creepy, clueless Jews to so many positions lately, all kinds of Jews; Orthodox, apparently secular, even one prize petunia who is a former Jew – where does he find these guys? - that it was a real relief when this vulgar, foul-mouthed crooked little punk turned out to not be one of us.
Which raises the question: where DO these Jews come from? How is it possible that so many Jews, many of them traditional, Orthodox, yarmulke wearing, active in the community, theoretically knowledgeable about their religion and its values, are supportive of this disaster of a president and his inhuman “policies”? Are close to this repugnant, crass, mean-spirited caricature of a human being? Voted for this cowardly, nasty, misogynistic bully?
This week’s parsha, Devarim, which opens the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), is extremely depressing, as is much of the entire book. Essentially, this is Moshe’s farewell address. He is east of the Jordan River, close to the Land of Israel, to which he has been denied entry. Very soon, he will die, having accomplished much, but having failed to bring his mission to its conclusion: leading the Jewish people into their homeland, Israel, where they will live as free men and women under the laws of the Torah.
His anger and disappointment are palpable. He retells the story of how the Israelites let him down, tried his patience, complained and rebelled, and ultimately, with the sin of the spies, refused to enter the Land of Israel. There is even a verse in which uses the word איכה – “how” - which would, centuries later, be central to Jeremiah’s Book of Lamentations - to ask how he could possibly bear the burden of this impossible nation alone. Tellingly, when we read this verse, which is always read just before the 9th of Av, we read it to the tune of the Book of Lamentations, the central reading for that fast day; that’s how upset Moshe is.
The explanation of how the Jewish people could have let down Moshe – and God – so badly has been asked and answered in quite a few different ways. In our parsha’s first verse, we are told “These are the words which Moshe spoke to all of the children of Israel across the Jordan, in the desert, in the wilderness across from Suf, between Paran and Tofel, and Lavan and Hazerot and Di Zahav. This seems to be an impossible to parse list of places, a jumble of disparate sites. A normative explanation is that Moshe spoke these harsh words to the people when he was “across the Jordan”; detailing their unacceptable actions at these other various places, over the forty years in the desert. This is a list of the places where they sinned.
The last one, Di Zahav, contains the word Zahav, gold, and is usually understood to refer to the sin of the golden calf. The word “Di” is unclear. The Rabbis of the Talmud, in Tractate Berachot (32,a), say the following: “The house of Rabbi Yannai taught: This is what Moshe said to the Holy one Blessed be He: Master of the Universe, it is because of the silver and gold which you bestowed upon Israel, so much so that they finally said ‘enough’ [which reads the word ‘Di’ in the verse as meaning ‘enough’, so the phrase means ‘enough gold’]; that is what caused them to make the calf.”
On the one hand, this reading is a kind of exoneration of the Israelites: it’s God’s fault they made the calf. Had he not showered them with riches – the silver and gold they were given by the Egyptians at the exodus – they would not have rebelliously built a golden idol, they would not have come to worship gold. On the other hand, this explains something crucial about the nature of wealth, and greed: it is those who have silver and gold who come to worship it. As poor slaves, it was God to whom the Israelites turned. As wealthy free men and women, they turned from God and began to worship their wealth.
In this generation, God has given the Jewish people silver and gold. Yes, there are many among us who are poor and struggling to make ends meet, but, as the Trump freak show has illustrated so grotesquely, there are a hell of a lot of rich, powerful Jews in America. And in Israel. And in France, and Britain, and elsewhere. The position in which the Jewish people find themselves as we approach the end of 5777 is about as good as it has ever been: a free and thriving State of Israel, and a wealthy, influential, comfortable Jewish community in North America and much of the Western world. God has indeed showered us, just a generation or two after the Holocaust, with silver and gold, and we are apparently responding according to plan: “And Yeshurun [that’s us] got fat and rebelled” (Devarim, 32, 15). We, whose grandparents and great-grandparents fled the Nazis, sold shmattes from a pushcart on the Lower East Side, struggled to carve a small, free, independent Jewish state from the swamps and deserts, against an implacable, violent, imperialist enemy, have more than enough silver and gold, and live, many of us, like kings and queens. And that has made us slaves of that gold. We worship it. It determines our values and interests. It dictates who calls the shots in our community, who gets the loudest voice in our deliberations, who our “leaders” are.
Our commitment to the wealth we have accumulated – and such is the power of wealth: it takes over one’s value system and world view - actually defines us as Orthodox Jews. As my friend and colleague Rabbi Avi Orlow has said (I am paraphrasing): being Orthodox in America today is not a religious choice; it is a socio-economic status. To be a fully functioning member of the community one must pay the tuition – for school and camp – and the membership fees, and the hotel bills for Pessach, and live in the right neighborhood, and wear the right clothes, and the list of ridiculously high expenses goes on and on and on. Our financial success has become, to a large degree, what defines us as Jews.
And it has affected us. Unlike Moshe, I am not trying to ameliorate our sins by blaming them on God; we have learned the story of the Golden Calf, we don’t have that excuse any longer. I would add that I am also not so sanguine about “God bequeathing us silver and gold” – a lot of Jewish wealth, to judge by the bios of some of Trump’s henchmen, as well as fairly regular newspaper stories, is certainly ill-gotten. Be that as it may, we need to see what has happened to us, what all this success has done to us, what our wealth has turned us into, and try to fix it.
Too many of us pay lip service to “being good Jews” while ignoring the central values and concerns of our tradition. The Israelites who worshipped the golden calf saw themselves as good Jews – they got Aharon, the high priest, to make the calf for them, and, like true philanthropists, they were willing to donate gold for the project. We, too, go through the Jewish motions; while we forget what our faith is really about. Moshe says it, just a few verses after reminding the Jews of their parents’ love of gold: “And I commanded your judges at that time, saying: listen to your brothers and judge righteously between a man and his brother and a stranger. Do not show favoritism in judgment, the small and the great shall you hear, do not be afraid of anyone, for justice is the Lord’s”.
We have been blinded by our wealth, and power, substituting an irrelevant, superficial obedience to small bits of our tradition for what Judaism really asks of us: a commitment to justice, to the “small” as well as the “great”, to the “stranger”. As often happens to the rich, our wealth and power have become what we really believe in, which places us at odds with the God who “does justice for the oppressed, gives bread to the hungry…frees the imprisoned…protects the strangers; the orphan and widow he supports, and the ways of the wicked he makes crooked.” (Psalms, 146).
One must choose sides, and, looking at all the yarmulkes and other Jews surrounding Trump, I fear we may be making the wrong choice.