Location, Location, Location?

The book of Deuteronomy begins with an introductory verse:

“These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel, on the other side of the Jordan, in the wilderness, in the Aravah, opposite the Red Sea, between Paran and Tophel, and Lavan and Chatzeiros and Di Zahav.”

Rashi explains that this apparently cryptic listing of places refers to the places where the Jewish nation angered G‑d. Out of respect for the people, Moses did not rebuke them directly; rather, he hinted at their sins by mentioning the places where they sinned.

In truth, Rashi observes, the last location Moses mentioned, Di Zahav, is not the name of a place but rather an allusion to the creation of the Golden Calf. The words “Di Zahav” should be translated as “abundance of gold.” The sin of the Golden Calf was made possible because of the abundance of gold with which the people were blessed.

The Four Questions

Several questions come to mind:

First, why is this the only sin Moses alluded to by its cause and not by location or by the description of the sin itself?

Second, did G‑d implicate gold as the cause of their sin? The people created the Golden Calf as a replacement for Moses. Now if they hoped to replace Moses with an inanimate object, what difference would it make whether it was fashioned out of silver, copper, or even stone or wood?

Third, why did G‑d give them an abundance of gold if it He knew that it would lead them to idol worship? Why did they need all that gold?

Fourth, why is the allusion to the sin of the Golden Calf the last of the hints of rebuke? Wasn’t their worship of the Golden Calf one of the first acts of rebellion against G‑d?

Extrinsic or Intrinsic Value?

When a useful commodity is rare people ascribe greater value to it. If our streets were paved with gold or if it grew on trees, gold would lose its appeal. This suggests that we ascribe value to most things based on their availability. We attribute very little value to the dust of the earth because it is so plentiful.

There are, of course, some notable exceptions to the rule. A parent does not lose feelings for his children when a new child is born. Every child has inestimable value to a parent. But, the exceptions prove the rule. A stranger may not feel the same way about many acquaintances as he or she would about just a few.

And even parents, while never losing feelings for their children, may have a special place for a single child that a parent with many cannot understand.

The psychology behind this phenomenon is rooted in our inability to truly appreciate the intrinsic value of material things. When items are rare we are attracted to them by their uniqueness, but when they are easily accessible, we ascribe little importance to them. If we could see beneath the surface and appreciate the material’s G‑d given importance, abundance would not detract from real value.

This phenomenon, where proliferation of an object overshadows its intrinsic value, can be found in the realm of time as well. We may value Shabbos more than the weekdays because it comes only once a week, not because of its real spiritual value. But we also value Holidays over Shabbos because they occur only once a year, despite the fact that Shabbos is considered to be more intrinsically holy.

In summary, the value of all three aspects of existence, space, time and soul (the three elements which comprise all of physical and spiritual existence, as described in the early Kabbalistic work Sefer Yetzirah) is challenged when they are ubiquitous and in great abundance. The more we can see of them actually diminishes the way we value them.

Dispelling the Smokescreen

However, human nature notwithstanding, the Torah was given to us to change that mindset. The objective of the Torah is to keep repetition from weakening our appreciation for G‑d’s gifts, whether they be an object or place, a time or experience, or another person.

One description of the events surrounding the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai was that “the entire mountain was engulfed with smoke.” The Hebrew word for smoke, oshan, is said to be an acronym for the three aforementioned elements, Olam-world or space; shanah-year or time, nefesh, soul or energy. When we examine these three words we can see how they obscure the idea of intrinsic value and serve as a smokescreen.

The word olam, we have pointed out on many occasions, is related to the word which means concealment. When we look at physical objects that occupy space we tend to measure their value by the amount of space they occupy, which eclipses its internal and spiritual value.

The word shanah, which means year, is related to the word for repetition. As stated above, time loses its value when it is repetitive. People need new experiences to get excited.

The third smokescreen is nefesh, which means soul and is a word shared by the animating force of every creature. However, the human being is a composite of a G‑dly soul as well as an animating soul. The Animal Soul, which gives us life, is also responsible for all of our physical desires and frailties. When we fail morally we often hear the refrain, “I’m only human.” In truth, a human being’s animating soul is not his or her true essence. It is the G‑dly soul, which desires a relationship with G‑d, which is the true source of life and the true identity of the person. To say, “I’m only human,” without the smokescreen of the Animal Soul is to say, “I have a G‑dly soul, which can exercise control over our Animal nature.”

However, because we only see the effects of the animating soul it obscures the existence and expression of the G‑dly soul.

The Challenge of Humanity

One of the challenges of humanity is to open our eyes to see beneath the surface of an object, experience (or time) or person. One with a perceptive eye will see the beauty and sanctity of everything and realize that these qualities stem from G‑d, and ought to be harnessed for a higher G‑dly purpose.

We can now appreciate the Torah’s identifying the cause of the creation of the Golden Calf as an abundance of gold. Contrary to the perception that gold was enticing to the people, the abundance of gold actually diminished its value to them. Due to its profusion, they failed to see gold’s intrinsic value and saw only its extrinsic value. Seeing only the exterior of an object, situation or person separates that entity from its G‑dly source and sets it up as an independent existence—this is the essence of idolatry.

If they had not possessed gold in such great abundance they might have reflected on its inner value. They would then have concluded that it must have been created for a G‑dly objective, such as the creation of a Sanctuary for G‑d. The devaluing of gold engendered an attitude of detaching it from G‑d, which allowed the people to degenerate into idolatry, which denied our connection to Him and solidified our glorification of the material world.

Messianic Age: Opens our Eyes

This phenomenon of not seeing the intrinsic value of things is one of the defining characteristics of Galus-exile and being able to see beneath the surface of everything is one of the defining aspects of the Messianic Age.

“In that time,” Maimonides writes at the very end of his work, Yad Hachazakah, “… all the delicacies will be as abundant as dust, and the preoccupation of the world will be knowing G‑d exclusively…”

The fact that all the delicacies will be so abundant means that we will no longer be enamored by the exterior of all that we possess but by its internal and intrinsic value. Since the world will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d we will be exposed to the real value of gold and every other element of our mundane existence.

We can now answer the four questions we raised at the beginning of this essay:

The Answers

First, why is this the only sin where Moses alluded to its cause rather than the transgression’s location?

The answer is that the location was not responsible. On the contrary, they were situated at the foot of Mount Sinai, and empowered by G‑d to see through the smokescreen. That location was certainly not the reason they constructed the Golden Calf. Rather it was the proliferation of gold and uncoupling of the exterior from its Divine essence that was the cause of their rebellion.

Second, why is G‑d implicating the gold as the cause of their sin?

In truth, it’s not the gold itself, it is the sense that our physical world is detached from its G‑dly source, which empowers us to create our own leader, even if it is a Golden Calf.

Third, why did G‑d give the people an abundance of gold if He knew it would lead them to idol worship? Why did they need all that gold?

The proliferation of gold was intended to help them overcome the challenge of seeing only the exterior of things. Instead, G‑d challenged them to see the true spiritual value of gold so they would use it to create the Mishkan, the Sanctuary in the desert.

Fourth, why is the allusion to the sin of the Golden Calf placed at the end of the hints of rebuke?

It may be suggested that the order of the sins relates to the time when that particular sin will be corrected. The very last vice that we will be rid of is the devaluing of everything around us. That will happen, as Maimonides suggests, in the more advanced stages of the Messianic Era, when the entire world will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d. Meanwhile, we prepare for such time by endeavoring to “open our eyes” to see beneath the surface and thereby connect everything to its Source.

Moshiach Matters:

Our Sages relate the holiday of Purim with the Jews' maintaining in actual deed the Torah which they accepted at Mount Sinai. On a basic level, each person should realize that no matter how complete his service was until now, he must make an increase. This will lead to the ultimate elevation of the Jewish people. Haman and his entire household will be obliterated; the remembrance of Amalek will wiped out entirely and all the seventy nations will assist in the ingathering of the exiles of the Jewish people who will proceed to the Third Holy Temple.