What is valuable?

I am blessed that my children generally get along well. Now that they are 3 1/2 and 1 1/2, however, they do tussle over toys. A few times, my son, the elder, has screamed the toddler credo — “It’s mine!” — right in his sister’s face.

In light of such indignation, I reminded them of the rules against grabbing (her offense) and yelling (his). And then I introduced a meta-rule that seems to have touched and influenced my son: “People are more important than things.”

When I first said it, the rule stopped him in his tracks. He paused to think about it. Since then, at least so far, he has shared more graciously with his sister.

Fast forward to yesterday, when I lost my engagement ring. Like many Jewish women, I lose weight in my fingers first — an issue of theodicy for another column. Somewhere between my house, the library, the community center and a dinner meeting, the ring slipped off my newly svelte finger. I retraced my steps, I apologized to my husband, I cried. The meta-rule helped me to let go and to pray for serenity and gratitude, whether the ring is found or not.

My son kept me company as I searched through the trash today. We opened just two bags before we found it. This time, I cried tears of joy. I explained to my son when and why his dad gave me the ring. I asked, “Do you remember what I told you about people and things?”

He did.

We agreed that, the meta-rule notwithstanding, some things are very special.

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, tells the ultimate cautionary tale about becoming enamored with things. Losing hope and patience as they wait for Moses to descend Mount Sinai, the Israelites build a Golden Calf and worship it.

We may have trouble relating to “primitives” who ascribed redemptive power to molten metal. Yet, gold is an idol in our culture, as much as it ever was in theirs. We readily assert the supremacy of people, values and, certainly, God over things. But, like the ancient Israelites, we pay homage to spiritually empty products of our own hands. We are regularly seduced by what glitters pleasingly, demands little and offers nothing of ultimate value. We conflate money with security, influence, approval, love and countless other projections.

Social scientists tell us that Americans in every income bracket believe they would be happy, if only they had one-third more income. Yet, by every available measure of happiness, additional “gold” makes no difference whatsoever in a person’s well-being — none — once they earn $50,000 annually. At the time of the Israelites, it was the calf that people mistook for a god. In our day, it’s the gold that people think will save them.

The Torah’s answer to materialism doesn’t lie in decrying money or renouncing things. At the start of our portion, God demands a census through a half-shekel — money that serves as a means of atonement. God then details things of worship and their uses: a bronze laver, anointing oils, incense. Five verses into the next Torah portion, Moses instructs the Israelites to bring gold as an offering to God for the Tabernacle. What built an idol will now build God’s house. Certain things and certain uses of money are very special indeed.

Some commentators believe that using gold in the Tabernacle aided the Israelites’ repentance, converting shame to glory. Others find inspiration in the idea that the Israelites merely needed to redirect their focus. Their service to Calf and Tabernacle used the same tool (gold) and relied on some of the same impulses (participation in community, connection to something larger than themselves, generosity). But one school of thought is troubled precisely because of the continuities.

Ask the Israelites for gold to fashion a calf and they freely give it; ask them for gold to build a Tabernacle and they do the same. Have they learned a lesson, or are they indiscriminate? Obviously, lucre can be used for good ends or bad. We could say the same thing of every tool, form of energy, ability and power. The question is not only where or how the Israelites use gold, but why. What do they really value?

Ki Tisa holds up a mirror and pushes us to ask ourselves the same question: What do we really value? What core principles and assumptions underlie our choices?

What is worthy of elevation above all we have, all we give, all we want and all we think we want? What has worth — not just as a commodity, but also as a reminder and promoter of righteousness, goodness, and holiness? What supersedes even iconic objects and symbols? Who and what are more important than our most treasured gifts and possessions? What is ultimately valuable?

Only in answer to these questions can we properly decide where to invest our time, energy, faith and money.

There are traditional answers — some of them (e.g., that the mitzvah of Shabbat and organizing time “trumps” the mitzvah of building the Tabernacle and organizing space) found in this very parsha. There are spiritually glib answers that can make you sound holy. But to be useful, the answers must be brutally honest and deeply personal. They must go beyond lip service to Torah and conscience to articulate — each of us in our own voice — the meta-rules we deliberately choose to live by.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life,” is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom synagogue (www.makom.org).

Analysis – Leftists Try to ‘Take Back God’ in 2008

The 2008 election may be more than three years away, but one group is hoping to press the Democratic Party to infuse spirituality into its platform for that campaign.

“The right is correct; there is a huge spiritual crisis in America,” said Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun magazine. “And the left doesn’t get it.”

Republicans and their allies on the religious right have “done a good job” of articulating that crisis, Lerner said, but their analysis is “fundamentally flawed” because it’s based on demonizing “feminists, gays, liberals, African Americans.”

Lerner made his comments before an opening-night crowd of 1,200 attendees at a four-day interfaith conference on spiritual activism.

An initiative, as several speakers put it, to “take back God” — and the White House — from the religious right was the principle behind the forum, held July 20-24 at UC Berkeley.

The real crisis in the United States, according to Lerner, is generated by the “ethos of greed and materialism” that drives Western culture and impoverishes human relationships. And until the left and the Democratic Party understand that deep human hunger for meaning, the religious right will continue its ascendancy.

“We have not yet built a movement that speaks to those human needs, and until we do, the right has cornered the market,” he said.

The organizers hope to create a “network of spiritual progressives” who will, over the course of the next three years, develop a spiritually based platform they hope to take to the 2008 presidential elections.

They also plan to call for various international initiatives, including a “Global Marshall Plan” in which the developed countries that are part of the G-8 group of nations would each donate 5 percent of their gross domestic product for the next 20 years to eradicate poverty and hunger and rebuild the infrastructure of Third World economies.

“We’ve created this gathering for people who want to challenge the misuse of God and religion by the religious right and build a new bottom line whereby institutions will be judged rational, productive and efficient not only to the extent that they maximize money and power, but also to the extent that they maximize love and caring, generosity and kindness, ethical and ecological sensitivity,” Lerner outlined.

Although the conference organizers insist they’re apolitical, they’re clearly aiming their words at the Democratic Party, which like the rest of the left is, they say, tainted by “religio-phobia.”

“It’s easier to come out as gay in Boston than as religious in the Democratic Party,” said the keynote speaker, Rev. Jim Wallis, a well-known progressive evangelical Christian and the author of the best-selling “God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.”

Wallis, who has just wrapped up a 47-city book tour, told the crowd that many Americans consider themselves people of faith but don’t feel the religious right speaks in their name.

“The religious right think they own God,” he continued. “They think there are only two moral issues: abortion and gay marriage.”

Instead, he said, ending poverty should be the highest priority of a faith-based politics. “Now that’s a moral value,” he stated.

This isn’t the first faith-based progressive movement to champion social justice. Groups including the Clergy and Laity Network, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and the Nevada Interfaith Council for Worker Justice also try to bring together representatives of various religious organizations in the name of specific social or economic issues.

But the Berkeley initiative, a project of the Tikkun community created by Lerner, reaches beyond synagogue, church or mosque walls to “people who are spiritual but not religious,” organizers said.

Although the gathering’s theoretical underpinnings — merging traditional leftist ideas of social justice with spirituality — are very much Lerner’s, the conference itself featured speakers from Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and nonsectarian backgrounds, and its focus was clearly nondenominational.

There was just a handful of rabbis and no leaders of major Jewish organizations in attendance. Some people who helped put the conference together admitted privately that they were “disappointed” at the lack of response from the organized Jewish world.

“We are definitely interested in reaching out to them,” said Lerner, adding that he expects that the network’s next conference, in February in Washington, “will attract much more of the Jewish establishment.”

He hopes that this new network and the movement it spawns “will provide a way for Jewish liberals and progressives to unite around issues of concern” to them.

Throughout the conference, speakers urged participants to “go home and organize locally” and spoke of creating progressive, spiritually friendly caucuses within the Democratic and Green parties “and maybe even the Republican Party,” Lerner said.