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).

Through God’s Eyes


One of my students once asked me what was the greatest gift that my teacher Reb Shlomo Carlebach gave me. My reply was immediate: “He gave me a new pair of eyes.”

I had grown up praying from the first day I could speak.

I was raised observing Shabbat from the moment I learned to distinguish between “permitted” and “forbidden.”

I grew up believing that God cares about every detail of my life, even before I had completed the psychological development of separation and individuation.

But how was I to actually see God in my life? How was I to close the gap between what my mind constantly repeated but my heart so deeply questioned? Or rather, how could I wed what my heart knew with what my mind continuously challenged?

This week’s Torah portion is laden with details and hence, God’s presence, in each and every step that we take. It leads us through a legal maze of issues touching upon social justice and the holidays, in addition to laws of property and ownership.

The Torah portion teaches us of four distinct paradigms of damages that one’s possessions can cause (a goring ox; the damage caused by their eating or kicking; fire; a pit) and the nature of responsibility that the owner of the animal or the digger of the pit, or the source of fire is obligated to compensate the offended party with. It is not the immediate damage that an individual causes, but rather his or her possessions that are the cause of the damage. One could presumably claim that the person carries no responsibility to the damage that an object in that person’s possession causes, for it is not really that person; it is that person’s possession.

It is my belief that the Torah is challenging us to respond to that initial reaction and to inquire to what extent do we assume responsibility for our possessions? It is our answer to this pressing question that will illumine the space we are willing to give God in our life, bringing God into realms far beyond what meets the eye.

The Ishbitzer Rebbe (R’ Mordechai Yoseph Lainer of Isbitza, 1800-1854) addresses the parameters of the laws of damage and reflects on the boundaries with which we choose to identify our selves. How do we define who we are? If I were to ask you “Who are you?” how would you answer this question? With your name? With your profession? With your marital status? Would you respond to my query with where you were born, or perhaps where you currently live? Better yet, you might share with me your philosophical truths? To what extent are the titles you hold on to and the possessions that you own an expansion of who you are?

For the Ishbitzer Rebbe there are multiple concentric circles that we inhabit. There are concentric circles of time: the present (ata); forever (l’olam) — our lifetime; and eternally forever (l’olmei ad) – which exists beyond our particular lifetime. Another concentric circle is the one that surrounds our soul and the multiple layers that we garment it with — starting with our body and expanding outward to all those answers that you offered to the question “Who are you?” Our possessions are but one extension of who we are, and reflect one facet of who we are in the world. The nature of an object changes by virtue of its owner.

The Ishbitzer Rebbe’s teaching invites us to expand our sense of self and by doing so, to expand our sense of responsibility to the injustice in the world. It doesn’t allow us to be indifferent to what surrounds us. If we are moral and ethical people, our possessions will reflect this. If my dog eats my neighbor’s roses, the Ishbitzer Rebbe will tell me that I am not the person I claim to be. If someone trips on my doorstep or my guest stubs his or her toe on a chair in my home, I am not the person I claim to be. If my hammer falls off the table and hurts someone, I am not the person I claim to be.

There will not be an immediate and evident correlation between the damage caused and the part of my soul that needs mending. For this we need to be willing to bring God into what appears as a “coincidence” and to observe ourselves through God’s eyes, to scrutinize ourselves from the viewpoint of the divine: Eyes that will not be afraid to see deeper. Eyes that are simultaneously honest and compassionate. Eyes that demand us to embrace our greatness and the role that we are to play in God’s world.

I’m a city girl, born in the Bronx, bred in Yerushalayim, living in Los Angeles. I have no idea what a goring ox looks like or what constitutes the acceptable or nonacceptable way for it to walk the paths of the world. But when I will read this Torah potion on Shabbat morning, I will read it with one eye looking outward, and one eye looking inward.

I believe that a new pair of eyes is the greatest gift a teacher can give.


Reb Mimi Fiegelson is lecturer of rabbinic literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

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