Imitating Others is Fool's Gold
Of Deuteronomy and Di Zahav
These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.—Through the wilderness, in the Arabah near Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-zahav. (Deuteronomy 1:1)
The verse states: “And Di Zahav” (Deut. 1:1). The school of Rabbi Yannai said: Moses said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: Master of the Universe, because of the gold and silver that You lavished upon the Jewish people during the Exodus from Egypt until they said enough [dai], this wealth caused the Jewish people to fashion for themselves gods of gold… (Sanhedrin 102a)
“The experience of the twentieth century made highly problematic the claims of progress on the basis of science and technology. For the ability of technology to better human life is critically dependent on a parallel moral progress in man. Without the latter, the power of technology will simply be turned to evil purposes, and mankind will be worse off than it was previously.” (Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man)
The Book of Deuteronomy begins with Moses retelling the story of the people’s journey in the wilderness. But the retelling is no neutral story of balanced reporting. It’s not a description of “the past as it really happened” (Leopold van Ranke). No, Moses, like all ancients, is more of a Nietzschean, for whom history has its uses and abuses—the point of the past is to discern a moral teaching from it, and so we should not be surprised that there are many subtle discrepancies between Moses’s account in Deuteronomy and previous accounts given in other parts of the Torah. The Midrash tells us that anytime the word Devarim (“words”) appears in the Torah it means words of rebuke. The final Book of the Torah is a series of rebukes. The purpose of Moses’s speech is to instill conscience in the people, which is a different project than simply reminding them of past events.
Why does Deuteronomy begin with rebuke? A commentary from Talmud Sanhedrin gives us a psychological answer. There is no place called Di Zahav, rather the pseudo-place-name is a reference to the Golden Calf. The people left Egypt with wealth (gained during the plague of darkness), but then used that very wealth for misdirected ends. We could imagine numerous reasons for the error. But I propose that the text is offering a point about complacency. The liberation from Egypt should lead to more gratitude, more awe, more faith—but often greater comfort leads to less religiosity, less piety, more arrogance, more entitlement.
The people are about to enter the land and their greatest risk is that they will become victims of their own success. In Fukuyama’s terms, they will have made scientific and technological progress, but no moral progress—and they will mistake their newfound power for moral authority, committing the very error that all Empires make. The upstart nation will become an incumbent, and once it does it will be subject to the very “innovator’s dilemma” that it once used to its underdog advantage. How to protect against this?
Sanhedrin makes a deeper point than just “the people used the same materials they found in Egypt to make an idol when they left.” It tells us, rather, that the people sought to emulate Egyptian values. They remained “mentally enslaved” to Egypt even after they left, insofar as they desire to be Egyptian overlords. But liberation from Egypt doesn’t mean you go from being an Egyptian slave to being an Egyptian overlord; it means that you abandon the Egyptian constructs of both success and victimhood. To be liberated, Israel must pursue its own mission, not somebody else’s. It must reject the inbuilt human tendency to covet, to desire something because others desire it. Israel becomes free only when it stops comparing itself to other civilizations. Just as the Israelite God is categorically different than pagan gods, the Jewish people must become categorically different than other peoples. They must become apples to oranges. They must differentiate and individuate. They must embrace the secret that only they know. They must be contrarian, individual, dissident.
This may be of the metaphoric reasons why the people are told not to cross through the land of other nations on their way to the Promised Land. They must make their own path. Idolatry is a difficult concept to grasp, but a contemporary way to put it is: don’t assume that someone else’s path must be yours. You can take inspiration from others, and even seek out advice from others, but your life is yours. In a new book, Wild Problems, Russ Roberts writes that the most important questions in life have no prescribed answer and cannot be resolved using big data. He shows that Darwin decided to marry even though his own rational reasons for not marrying were stronger. (Darwin was worried he’d stop writing if he married. But he ends up having 10 kids and composing his best work as a a family man.) Becoming who you are is a wild problem, not a tame one. But if we treat it like a tame problem we may be setting ourselves up for a midlife crisis, or worse, a life of humdrum despair and unfreedom.
Gold is nice. Gold is valuable. It is good to have some gold on hand in a pinch. The Mishkan is also made of gold. You don’t have to be an ascetic. But gold should not define value. Restricting our sense of value to material asset classes is irresponsible. The value of the gold consists in what we do with it—and using it to keep up with the Egyptian Joneses is a kind of negative wealth, especially when it distracts you from pursuing self knowledge and self expression. If you have a high salary but you spend it satisfying Egyptian desires, there is no end to your discontent. Your paper wealth hides a soul in the red. The people need to be in the economic green to run a nation, but how will they protect themselves from worshipping at the altar of GDP? How will they protect themselves from falling for Bastiat’s broken window fallacy? How will they know the difference between true, holistic wellbeing and mere purchasing power? By knowing who they are. By being faithful to the covenant. By recognizing that who we are is a wild problem.
The people have lost themselves many times in the wilderness. Their confusion about who they were brought them psychological and spiritual impasse. The story of entry into the land is in some sense a story of hope and in some sense of realism. The hope part is that despite their idolatry and waywardness, the people as a whole don’t lose their claim to the land. The realism part is that although Israel eventually gets there, the first generation does not. Some impasses just are intractable in our lifetime. It’s worth emphasizing that the major transgression which leads to the first generation’s failure to enter the land is a sin of looking, of spying, which is to say, at looking at others for clarity on matters that are between us and God. It is a sin of Mimesis, imitation. Once you see imitation you can’t unsee it. One could argue that animates most of the sins in the Torah. A sin committed authentically, as it were, is rare. If you want to put it Midrashically you might say:
Had Adam and Eve eaten from the tree of knowledge for its own sake they could have remained in Eden. The reason for their Exile is that they only desired it for mimetic reasons.
The passage about Di Zahav suggests that Moses’s rebuke is not just aimed at the people, but also at God. God—you gave the people this gold—you set them up for failure. God, why did you give the human being the capacity and propensity for envy, for comparison, for mimetically bread discontent? I imagine God’s answer to be something like:
Competitiveness is the yetzer hara, evil inclination, but it’s necessary. Without a yetzer hara people wouldn’t desire at all. Without a competitive spirit people would just lay about. But competition is there to help people to feel not just a sense of accomplishment in their effort, but also a sense of boredom and futility at the entire endeavor of trying to beat the competition. For the only real and meaningful competitor is oneself. And soulcraft is not something that you win at through optimization techniques.
The people are called on to be singular, to worship a singular God in a singular way and to create a singular society in which the singularity of its members is recognized and affirmed.
The world viewed in haste is uniform. The world encountered with presence is various. To make room for singularity requires presence. Had the spies been present to the land rather than scouts, driving in and out, their perceptions already determined by ideological blinders and expectations, they might have seen something new. They might have found themselves anew.
As we mourn the loss of the Temple and all that it comes with this Sunday—on Tisha B’Av—consider the idea that the Temple was destroyed because we mixed up the names of Kamtza and bar Kamtza; we treated them as interchangeable instead of finding the distinctiveness in each. It’s hard—it’s hard not to be a type and it’s hard not to typecast others. But destruction will visit us if we progress technologically without progressing in self-understanding. The greatest blessing and the greatest protection you have is to be yourself and none other. The Fifth Book of Moses is called the Mishna Torah, the repeated Torah. For it is not enough to receive the Torah; we must repeat it until it is ours, until it is no longer just the Torah, but our Torah.
Zohar Atkins @ Etz Hasadeh