Gold and Silver and Wisdom

By Burton L. Visotzky

Published February 27, 2004, issue of February 27, 2004.
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In the book of Job, the title character asks, “Where can wisdom be found? Where is the source of understanding?” (Job 28:12). Not bad questions, all in all. Rabbi Tanhum ben Hanilai suggested that these questions refer to King Solomon, who spent so much of his life seeking wisdom. God rewards Solomon, explaining, “Since you have asked for neither silver nor gold, but instead for wisdom, both ‘wisdom and knowledge are granted to you’” (2 Chronicles 1:12).

It is perhaps a bit too facile for a full-time academic to endorse the pursuit of wisdom as the ultimate reward from God. After all, gold and silver certainly also have their uses. Indeed, this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, extensively lists the uses that gold, silver and other material possessions serve in our devotion to God. When God asks for a freewill offering from the Israelites, God is quick to specify that what is desired is a contribution to the building fund: gold, silver, brass, linens, fabrics of purple and scarlet, precious stones and even acacia wood, which may grow in thin branches but is long-enduring.

The lengthy listing of the contributions quickly turns to an architect’s supply sheet; the precious gifts are enumerated specifically for the purpose of building the Mishkan, God’s portable sanctuary. It is essential for the Jewish community, a disparate confederation of tribes, to have a central locus, a physical institution to remind them of their common endeavor, the covenant that binds them together with God. As God tells Moses, “Make me a Sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8).

God dwells with the Israelites, for better and for worse, during their sojourn in the wilderness for 40 years. Centuries after their conquest of the Holy Land, God’s gift to Solomon bears fruit. As this week’s haftarah opens we learn, “God gave wisdom to Solomon as God had promised.” The result of this wisdom is, again, a sanctuary for God to dwell among the Jews. As the haftarah sweetly puts it, “Solomon built a house for God.”

If gold and silver are the elements common between the portable sanctuary of the wilderness and the monumental Jerusalem Temple that Solomon built, the question we began with wants asking again with a new focus: “Where can wisdom be found?” Surely not in anything so crass as gold and silver! Yet one might answer that Solomon’s wisdom was in taking what had been a temporary portable structure, the Mishkan, and through judicious use of gold and silver making it a permanent structure through the addition of “bricks and mortar.” There is great wisdom required to make institutional structures that last centuries. Solomon’s Temple endured approximately 400 years. The Second Temple lasted almost six centuries.

Our modern Jewish community has built institutions galore to God’s glory. We have established many, many structures in the service of the Lord. Gold and silver, stocks and bonds — in fact, a list of various contributions as long as this week’s Torah reading — have been voluntarily given as freewill offerings unto the Lord. They have served their purpose, and we might proudly say that God has dwelled among us.

Yet we must wonder whether we have been as wise as King Solomon. In order to build God’s house, he first made peace with his neighbors. To do the work of the Lord, Solomon united the fractious tribal confederation under one strong monarchy. In our own modern Jewish world we may build walls, but these are to keep our neighbors out. We do not even attempt to unite the Jewish community, but instead build institutions that variously exclude women, gays and lesbians, intermarrieds. Sometimes it seems that the test of our piety is whom we exclude, whose kitchen we will not eat in, what synagogue we will not step foot in.

This week’s haftarah ends with God’s warning to Solomon: “As for this house you are building, only if you follow My statutes, perform My judgments and observe My commandments will I keep My promise to you… to dwell among the Israelites, and not forsake My people Israel.”

We may disagree about just how to observe God’s commandments, but one thing is clear: So long as we continue to exclude members of the Jewish community, so long as we build walls of separation rather than bridges of peace with our neighbors, our institutions will be bereft of God’s Holy presence. This week’s Torah portion commands us still to build a sanctuary, so that God might dwell among us.

Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky is the Appleman professor of Midrash and inter-religious studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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