Parashat Tetzaveh

All That's Gold Doesn't Glitter

Behind every gold ring are mountains of waste and trails of destruction.

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The United Nations Development Programme's Global Mercury Project states that between 30%-40% of all man-made mercury pollution in the world comes from small scale or "artisanal" gold mining, a situation the Project describes as "of grave ecological significance."

The mercury is used to separate the gold from the ore, and is then volatilized off to purify the gold; the mercury is then disposed of, often into the local streams. Up to 1000 tons of mercury a years are released annually from artisanal gold mining. The severe impact of mercury releases from mining camps goes beyond streams into soils, vegetation, and also the contamination of fish, making it a major contributor to the long-range transport of mercury throughout the world.

Exposure to mercury by the indigenous populations who practice artisanal mining of gold is a major issue for native tribes in the Amazon Basin, in Africa, Indonesia, Philippines, Laos, and China. Estimates say there may be over 10 million people involved in artisanal gold mining, up to 500,000 women and children directly mining gold and being exposed to mercury. There is little or no provision of health services to miners or their families.

Holy to the Lord

Injustice. Pollution. Poison. Waste. This is the legacy of today's gold. And yet the Torah prescribes the clothing of the Priests "L'kavod ul'tifaret--for honor and splendor (Exodus 28:2)."

The exquisite golden appointments of the High Priest and the Mishkan concentrated the power of the world's gold on a singular aim--creating a space for God's presence in the midst of humanity. It would be impossible for this sacred craftsmanship to be done with dirty gold.

In fact, the Mishkan was made entirely of reused and recycled materials.  As we see in the Torah portions Terumah and Ki Tissa, the Children of Israel donate the materials for the Mishkan as part of a process of spiritually rectifying and elevating the wealth taken from Egypt. Through the building of the Mishkan, we learn that all of our possessions should be sourced and used conscientiously, especially the most precious. 

The High Priest's pure gold headplate bore the engraved slogan "Holy to the Lord." Gold that originates in injustice and destruction and is used to satisfy individual desires does not reflect this holy potential. Such adornments serve our vanity, but do not promote our awareness of the Divine, or the unity of our world. The time has come to follow the Torah's example by ensuring that our gold is attained and used with a pure conscience.

The first step in any process of Divine awareness and environmental consciousness is education. The Internet has a vast collection of resources on mining practices and problems. Notable sites include EarthWorksAction and No Dirty Gold (a cooperative project of Earthworks and Oxfam), which feature information and opportunities to take action to promote safer mining practices.

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Shimshon Stuart Siegel is studying for rabbinic ordination at the Bat Ayin Yeshiva in the Judean Hills.