By Rabbi Naftali Reich
In this week's Torah portion of Devarim, Moshe begins the book of
Deuteronomy with a detailed recounting of the nation's long and painful
journey through the wilderness. Rather than spell out all the unflattering
incidents where the Jewish people stumbled spiritually, Moshe refers to
names of places in which these episodes transpired.
He delivers his message in veiled but pointed language. As an example, when
referring to the incident of the aigel, the golden calf, Moshe omits the
official location, calling the place of sin, 'Vedi Zahav,' the "place of
Instead of issuing a stern rebuke to the Jewish people for abandoning the
Torah they had just been given and dancing around the golden calf, Moshe
seems almost to be offering an alibi for their shameful behavior. He
mentions the excessive gold with which they were laden as if to imply that
they erred only by dedicating their newfound wealth to idolatry.
That prompts another question: why then Moshe change his tune and use
harsher language when it came to actually detailing the sin of the golden
calf later in the Torah?
The commentaries explain that Moshe's veiled reprimand about "the place of
excessive gold" was probably the sharpest rebuke of all. They note that when
G-d showed Moshe the first Jewish currency, the shekel, it was enveloped in
fire. That symbolized that just as fire is marked by dual properties in the
sense that it can destroy but also provides warmth and nurture-so too, money
can be potently dangerous or immensely beneficial.
Moshe was alluding to this challenging dualism in his reference to "Vedi
Zahav"-the place of excessive gold," reminding the people of how they had
As we prepare for Tisha B'Av, it is worthwhile for us to reflect on the role
money and materialism play in our life. After all, on Tisha B'Av we express
our yearning for a messianic era, a time of spiritual bliss and delight when
swords will be crushed into plowshares and the lion will walk docilely next
to the lamb.
It all sounds very picturesque and idyllic but I'm not ready just yet to
give up my brand new Bose speaker system or my luxury car. How will Moshiach
affect my desire to live the American dream and how will he affect my
All of these questions and similar ones naturally lurk in our subconscious
mind. Although we give voice to our yearning for the geulah, how much do we
really need it and how much are we really prepared for it?
Preparing for Moshiach's times requires us to be ready to divest from many
of our materialistic attachments and transition into a different modus
operandi, in which money and materialism is not the central focus of our
life. It is fine to have another home at the beach or a comfortable car and
financial security. But all of these things should be secondary to our
primary goal to be bonded as one with Hashem and secure in our relationship
The concept is well illustrated in the following story.
A computer scientist received an important assignment in a top-secret
government project and was urgently called out to Dayton, Ohio to join an
elite team of engineers that were being hastily assembled to initiate the
projects development. Arriving in the airport with his suitcases Sunday
morning, he was dismayed to hear that his luggage would not be allowed on
board the plane. He complained bitterly to the supervisor, to no avail. She
showed him the plane sitting on the tarmac. It was a little twin propeller
turbo jet that could only hold twelve people. She told him apologetically
that only his hand luggage and a suit bag would be allowed on the plane.
Since the mission was so critically important, he left the luggage to the
porter and boarded the plane, readying himself to launch the new project at
8:00 the next morning.
Right behind him came another fellow who was part of the same team, a
brilliant programmer who happened to be massively built, weighing over 500
pounds. The supervisor soberly told him that she could not accommodate him
on the flight. "But I have my ticket!" he protested. "If I need two seats
I'll be happy to pay." He slapped his Amex platinum card on the counter but
the supervisor wouldn't budge. She took him to the window and showed him the
little plane. "Look," she said, "the door is only 24 inches wide; you just
don't fit on board. I'm sorry."
If material possessions define our identity, and we are laden with "vedi
zahav," excess gold that becomes our primary objective in life, it is truly
difficult to transition into a spiritual world. But if we regard our
possessions as mere baggage that can be left behind, then we can easily free
ourselves from attachments that tie us down to a physical existence and
enjoy the spiritual bliss that awaits us in the Messianic era.
Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.