August 17, 2019

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 (