Monthly Archives: July 2012

Persecution Colored Glasses

This week’s portion Devarim (Deut. 1:1-3:22), is the first in the book of Deuteronomy, or Devarim in Hebrew . It is a recap of everything that has happened with the Israelites since leaving Egypt and landing on the east side of the Jordan River. A whole lot of it is Moses saying “Shame on you!” to the Israelites for constantly complaining and misbehaving. To highlight this, the haftarah portion is from the book of Isaiah (Is. 1:1-27). The entirety of it is God telling the Israelites through Isaiah that they’re pretty awful and miserable people, and that they’re going to be punished and kicked out of their land.

Putting these two things together, we see a historically based accusation against the Israelites for misbehaving and bringing misfortune upon themselves. In the Jewish calendar, this portion comes at a pretty appropriate time. Tisha b’Av, the holiday where Jews mourn basically every misfortune that has ever happened to us. The name of the holiday is actually just a date: the 9th day of Av, the fifth month.  The mourning is mainly focused on the destruction of the two temples, the first of which the portion of Isaiah here is alluding to, but we tend to throw it all in, claiming that both of the temples were destroyed on this day, that the expulsion from Spain happened on this day, that Hitler was born on this day, and on and on. If you check out the Wikipedia page I linked above, they’ve got a pretty good list of things that happened on Tisha b’Av. It’s just a crappy day for all of us, and we are supposed to fast and do all kinds of other difficult and painstaking things, like reading the book of Job.

I’m a little ambivalent about the holiday. This is mainly because I feel that so much of my Jewish identity has been built up around these tragedies, even outside of the holiday. As a people, we tend to focus on all of the horrible, terrible things that have happened to us throughout history as one of the (maybe even the) defining characteristics of our peoplehood. Now, I am not here to discount the huge and long lasting impact of all of the terrible things that have been done to us as a people throughout our history. They have certainly been a continual trend, and continue to this day. To focus on them as the central locus of our identity, though, leaves us in a pretty difficult spot as a people.

Throughout my childhood, I can remember a few instances of us celebrating something good happening to the Jews. We received the Torah at Sinai, and we love to celebrate that. God led us out of Egypt, which we also love to celebrate. We also love to celebrate when we end the Torah cycle for the year. These three things, though, were a mystery to me as a child. As a Reform Jew, there’s always a strange and difficult tension about religious celebrations. A product of modernity, Reform Judaism pulled off a pretty strong disenchantment of our tradition. This is particularly confusing for children. I deal with this tension daily when school is in session. Kids always ask “Did this really happen?” or “Are we supposed to really believe this?” The party line for Reform Judaism on both questions is a definitive “No.” But I don’t say that. I ask them to think about it themselves, and I try to encourage them to develop their own opinion on the matter. Unfortunately, the only concrete things we do offer the kids about history tend to circulate around the historical persecution of the Jews, and the foundation of the modern state of Israel.

This was also true for me. What you end up with as a Reform Jew is often a general lack of clarity on what we are supposed to believe or think about our religion, but a definite clarity on most of history being a terrible place for Jews, with the exception of the modern state of Israel. Of course, you eventually find out that Israel can be a pretty terrible place for Jews too, especially due to the ever-looming war and carnage. As a child, though, it’s just a wonderful place of magic and mystery where everyone is a Jew and you are welcome because you are too!

Now, I’m not going to delve into my feelings about the place of the state of Israel in contemporary Judaism. It’s too complicated a subject to do justice in this post. I will say, though, that the foundation of being Jewish that is offered to most kids (which is basically a mixture of the constant persecution of Jews in the pre-Israel world, and the magic and glamor of the world with a Jewish state), is highly problematic. What you end up with is a general sense that the world is hostile for a Jew, which bleeds into your Jewish identity in the Diaspora as being something inherently negative. I can tell you that there is certainly some truth to this. I was referred to as “the Jew” in high school (I went to a highschool of about 2100 with a population of about 5 Jews), and have definitely experienced the whole stranger in a strange land thing. My home synagogue was vandalized a few times while I was growing up, too. So yes, anti-semitism exists still today, but like any other minority identity, to allow the tragedies and the persecution to be the center locus for identity only creates an identity dependent upon our persecutors.

To create a healthy and strong Jewish identity in a form of Judaism that does not create binding religious strictures on what it means to be a Jew, we need to focus both on the positive and wonderful things that have happened throughout our history along with the negative and horrible things. Throughout history we have flourished in many places, allowing for people like Rav, Rashi, Moses Maimonides, Moses de Leon, Spinoza, and many more to continue adding to our amazing religious, literary, and cultural tradition. We can also consider our existence in America a similarly positive experience. When we talk about the Diaspora, why do we never talk about this?

On this Tisha b’Av, let us mourn the things we have to mourn. They are certainly there, and there are certainly a lot of them. At the same time, let us not forget some of the wonders that have occurred in the Jewish Diaspora. We are not simply a collection of grievances against the persecutions of our past. We are also a collection of  wonderful experiences had throughout the world as Jews, that have continually added new, amazing, and positive aspects to our peoplehood. The world has not been only hostile to us. Maybe on Eser b’Av (the 10th of Av) we should celebrate our victories, our accomplishments, and the moments of peace and harmony we have experienced throughout our history.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Fraught With Background

This week’s Torah portion, Mattot-Masei (Num 30,2-36,13), begins by focusing on vows. Moses explains to the leaders of the various tribes that vows are serious business. There’s a bit of good, old fashioned anti-equality for women stuff in here, but that’s not the important part. What’s important is that there are clearly many different types of vows that people took back then, all of which were to be taken gravely seriously. We then get a chapter on the Israelites wiping out the Midianites, and a chapter on a couple of the tribes (Reuben and Gad) deciding that they were pretty much done with the trekking, and would rather rebuild the towns they had just destroyed in their violent rampage against the previous inhabitants and settle down east of the Jordan River. Moses doesn’t take too kindly to this, and tells them that if they don’t want God to go off on one of his violent rages, they’d better commit to helping their Israelite brethren conquer the rest of Canaan. They agree, and then the Israelites continue on their way until the end of the Book of Numbers.

One of the most interesting segments of this portion is one that isn’t really highlighted. We see Moses being pretty irascible. He lays down some strict legislation about vows, especially in relation to women, gets pretty mad at everyone for not killing all of the Midianite women (they were previously accused of having lured those good, God-fearing Israelite men into idolatry with their Midianite sexiness), and gives the leaders of Reuben and Gad a good, firm talking to without even consulting God on the issue. So what’s got Moses all in a tizzy? I think it’s probably that he had to send his entire nation against his wife’s people for coupling with their women.Tzipporah, and her father Jethro, are stated pretty clearly to be Midianite. Jethro is actually a Midianite priest, which must make the situation even more difficult. The mixture of guilt Moses must have felt for being hypocritical and also for massacring the home nation of his wife and father in law, who helped raise his children, must have been too much to bear.

So we’ve got a full-on family drama here. Adding to this is the fact that Moses and Tzipporah’s son, Eleazer, is the high priest overseeing the splitting up of the spoils of war against the Midianites. Earlier on in the Torah, Eleazer is said to have been living with his grandfather and mother while the beginning of the Exodus took place, so this Israelite high priest definitely experienced Midianite culture  as a child. Interestingly, we don’t see Tzipporah or Jethro mentioned in this segment at all. One would figure a Midianite priest would have something to say about all of this. Instead, we just see Moses and Eleazer coldly and calmly legislating the laws of war.

One would imagine this to be a pretty catastrophic event for the family, but it’s never mentioned as such. The drama continues unfolding as we step into the second portion of this week. We see Aaron die, and the continual movement of the Israelites towards their Promised Land, which ultimately means the continual movement of Moses towards his death. This week is the end of the book of Numbers. In many ways, it is the end of the narrative of the Torah. Deuteronomy is Moses’ last speech to the Israelites. So this is the end of the drama of Moses’ life.

Contextualizing it like this, it makes the vow portion at the beginning look a little like foreshadowing. Moses married his wife, but we get very little description of the proceedings. Moses had kids, but we see him interact very little with them. Moses had a father in law that advised him at times, but who was also a Midianite. What we mainly get about Moses throughout the Torah is his relationship with God, and his relationship with the Israelite people.

One of the best articles I’ve ever read on the beauty of the narrative of the Bible is Odysseus’ Scar by Eric Auerbach. Auerbach compares Greek myth and Biblical narrative to show one of the unique aspects of the Bible’s literary style: its pregnant silences. He uses one of the most dramatic and well known stories in Genesis, the Binding of Isaac, to show how the silence between Abraham and Isaac as Abraham walks his son up the mountain to sacrifice him creates an incredible tension in the narrative. I think we have something similar here at the end of the book of Numbers.

Throughout the Torah, we never see Moses really vowing anything to anyone. In fact, he has very little to say for himself in his life. God speaks through him, tells him what to say and do, and Moses just acts the puppet. He doesn’t get to be a real father to his sons, or a real husband to his wife. Instead, he is forced into the role of leader of a malcontent, thankless nation.

Before his role as prophet, before the burning bush, Moses was a stranger in a strange land. Moses fled Egypt for fear of being found out as a murderer. He ran to a land where he thought he would be safe, and through his good deeds and works, established a family for himself. The people he found there were welcoming, and they were Midianites. He never asked to be a prophet. He never for the role of midwife to the Israelite people, but he got it nonetheless. Along with this role, he got the job of wiping out the very people who provided solace for him when he most needed it.

Moses, as the last major step in the narrative of his life, is forced to undermine the one choice we ever really see him make in life – the choice to marry Tzipporah. He never gets to fully actualize this relationship, never gets to spend time with his family, and therefore never really gets to enjoy the fruits of making such a choice. He is instead robbed of the one vow he ostensibly did make in life — that of his marriage. And in his reticence, and his focus on his son Eleazar as the one he chose to help him with the destruction of the Midianites, we see his final chance to choose his family over his role as leader of the Israelites slip away.

We all have similar choices to make, but few of us have as serious of a life calling as Moses. As we age and grow into our careers, our families, our hobbies, and our passions we choose daily which pieces of our lives define us most; which pieces get the most focus, the most time, and the most energy. Something is always going to fall by the wayside. And as we get older, the responsibilities only grow, causing each choice to become that much more potent. Our silences, like in the Bible, are as powerful as our shouts. The things we ignore or avoid have as much, if not more, defining power as to who we are as the things we focus our energies upon. Moses didn’t have much of a choice, in reality. He had the supreme creator of the universe breathing down his neck. But one wonders if, in the end, as he continued to lead the Israelites into Canaan, his silence was covering his regrets.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Inheritance of Your I

This week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, (Numbers 25,10-30,1) is almost entirely about inheritance. It outlines the priestly lineage, the divvying up of the land for the many tribes once they enter the Promised Land, and even gives a bit of case law about how inheritances are to be passed down which includes women being able to inherit property from their parents, a rare practice in the ancient world. All in all, pretty dry fare. But it got me thinking about our conception of inheritance in society today.

Lets look a little bit more closely at the Torah’s conception of inheritance. In a beautiful scene in Exodus 34:4-7, when God finally acquiesces and shows himself bodily to Moses, God focuses on the inheritance of behavioral dividends. He says:

“The Lord! The Lord! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.”

So, we’ve got a couple different forms of inheritance here in the old Torah. Sure, people get their parents belongings when they pass, but they also get their parents’ punishments from God. So if you were lucky enough to be born to parents who were both rich and pious, you had it made! But we see no explanation as to why this is the case. This very well may be because this document was written in a time when the idea of individuality was not yet taken for granted as it is today. But we still have very similar conceptions of property inheritance, so what happened to our conception of divine punishment being inherited?

Nature and nurture, biology and psychology, are oft debated topics when we start talking about individualism. How much of an individual is actually unique? How much is actually in that individual’s control? Can people be held responsible for their lives if their lives started out with deep difficulties that no one would be expected to overcome? Is the individual simply a twining coil of biology and psychology created by their parents, or is there something more to the human being?

It is a lovely thing to do to just make the a priori claim that we are clearly each unique individuals, with souls distinct and solid enough that we would be who we are regardless of anything else. That we stand above the muck of our material world, and have the ability to separate ourselves from our nurtures and our natures completely, as shining, Nietzschean supermen of will. But I don’t think this is the case.

If anything, our essence, the thing inside us that makes us the person that other people recognize as a whole being, are those things that we do carry with us from our nurtures and our natures. I do believe in the soul, but I do not believe in the primacy of the soul, especially in regards to the person we are in our day-to-day lives. More than anything we are the accumulation of the detritus of our history, both personal and familial. The effects of our own personal collected detritus, though, are the things that make use unique.

In the conception of the soul that I tend to lean on, it is the soul that collects this detritus. The I you think of when you think of yourself isn’t in very good control of his or her soul. Instead, the soul helps to guide the I’s attention towards the little detritus that the I needs to continue forming into the whole person the soul wants. In a way, this is similar to the process by which oysters create pearls. If the detritus is the intruder into the oyster, and I is the oyster, then the soul would be whatever it is that guided the intruder into the oyster in the first place. So maybe, instead of our conception that the soul is the little light shining inside each and every one of us, the soul is actually something outside of us, pushing our attention (attention is another great mystery of humanity) to focus on specific pieces of our experiential history based on whatever need our I has at the time. Our I is then free to begin the pearling process on this new piece of detritus, and we begin behaving accordingly.

For instance, my wife and I often agree that we would be awesome trust fund kids. We’d still do what we are doing, we would just be able to live in a nicer apartment and not have to worry about student loans. But this is the real conundrum, isn’t it? Were we magically gifted this money right now, this might be the case, but had we grown up with it, we probably wouldn’t be the people we are today. Having the freedom and ease of an endless inheritance to fall back on makes everything that much less important. As the flip side to the coin of a past post, if you knew that failure had no effect on your comfort or livelihood, would you ever really bother to work hard enough to accomplish anything? If our Is hadn’t been fed the detritus of having to both chase our desires while simultaneously having to provide for ourselves, would we even have the desires we have today?

Inheritance can then be seen as a double edged sword, and one that isn’t necessarily sharper on either edge. It is clear to me, based on this understanding, that the estimation of inheritance put forward in the Torah is still pretty spot on. If we do, in fact, generate our Is in the method described above, we can see our inheritances of both blessings and curses, wealth and poverty, are so intrinsic to our person that we can not be separated from them.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

What Does Your Donkey See?

We often think of the Torah as being only told from the perspective of Moses, who is held by many traditions to be the sole author of the book. This week, though, the focus of the Torah shifts away from the Israelites and Moses to a completely different character. We’re given a totally different kind of fable, focused entirely on God’s interaction with non-Israelites. Balaam, an Ammonite prophet, is summoned by the Balak, the king of the Moabites for which this Torah portion is named (Num 22:2-25:9), to help him with his Israelite infestation. In fact, Balak describes this huge migratory group of Israelites as insects as he sends his best advisors and prophets to ask Balaam to curse the people of Israel. Balaam attempts to say no, as God informs him immediately that he will fail in any attempt to curse the Israelites, but Balak and his messengers will not take no for an answer.

This leads to Balaam saddling up his trusty donkey which he rides out to the mountain above the Israelites. As he ventures forth to cast his hex on the unwitting Israelite masses, he is confronted by an angel of God who is brandishing a sword which stops the donkey in its tracks. Unfortunately for Balaam, this angel is visible only to the donkey. Balaam beats his donkey three times, trying to get it to continue forward towards the angel, and eventually God makes the donkey speak to Balaam. They have a very interesting conversation:

Num. 22:28 The donkey said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?”

Num. 22:29 Balaam said to the donkey, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.”

Num. 22:30 The donkey said to Balaam, “Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?” And he answered, “No.”

The most striking part of this exchange is that Balaam is apparently unfazed by the fact that his donkey is suddenly speaking to him. This animal that he has trusted as his mode of transportation for however long has all of a sudden both decided to stop carrying him, and to begin speaking. The message that the donkey conveys is central to the entire portion. Balaam sees the donkey behaving strangely, and instead of trusting the animal he has been riding for quite a long time, he believes she has all of a sudden decided to stop obeying him.

I think that many parts of our lives that we take for granted often get relegated to the role of Balaam’s donkey. Most of us have aspects of our lives, be they our body functioning healthily, our family supporting us, or our minds being able to process and effectively solve problems, that we just assume will work the same as they always have. But when something goes wrong, or they don’t do exactly what we expect, we either lose it completely or keep trying to force the issue. We see this theme expanded all the more when Balak forces the issue with Balaam.

Balaam attempts  to dodge out of the task assigned to him by Balak since the beginning of the story, as he knows that God will not curse the Israelites. But Balak refuses to take his word for it. One would assume that if you were hiring someone for their prophetic prowess you would accept it when they told you that the deity you’re asking them to gain favor with is telling them no. Instead, Balak assumes that with enough bribery, Balaam will just do it. So, similar to Balaam striking his donkey three times, Balak pushes Balaam to curse the Israelites three times from on top of a mountain overlooking their camp. Each time, Balaam shouts more pronounced and powerful blessing over the Israelites in place of the curse. After the third time, they both give up and walk away.

So what are we to learn from this fable-like story? Although the most simple reading is that God has power over every nation, not just the Israelites, and this is how he exercises it to the Israelites’ advantage, that could have been conveyed in a much simpler way. I think that this is simply a universal story, as all fables are supposed to be, pointing out a pretty simple truth. Balaam, when confronted with a change in the behavior of a usually consistent and reliable facet of his life, becomes angry and violent. He implicitly assumes that the donkey is misbehaving for the sake of misbehaving. Similarly, Balak implicitly assumes that Balaam is attempting to avoid doing the job he is being tasked because he wants to. Instead of either of these men assuming that their employee has good reason to be behaving in a way not exactly to his liking, they both leap to the conclusion that their subordinate is being insubordinate.

This lesson can be applied to many things in our lives. Sure, it acts pretty analogously to work environments where we might have similar interactions with people. But it also works with other factors in our lives that slip out of our control. Sometimes even our most powerful desires and efforts for something to work a certain way, or for an event to unfold in a specific manner, will be stymied by forces unknown to us. Our otherwise reliable resources and methods sometimes simply stop dead in their tracks, refuse to continue forward, or even cause the exact opposite of what we intend. It is our instinctual reaction to get angry, or to keep trying the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. Well, one wise old Jew once said that this endless recursion into the same behavior expecting different results is the definition of insanity. And I’m pretty sure getting angry and reacting violently like Balaam did is borderline insane too. So what would have been a better reaction? Had either Balaam or Balak stopped to think about what they were asking of their subordinate, or maybe considered that the individual refusing to do the task may have very good reason to not do it, they could have avoided some pretty deep embarrassment.

If we are to learn one thing from this portion, let it be that we must make our judgments slowly, listen to those around us carefully, and consider what those people or things that we have trusted in the past might be trying to tell us by behaving differently than expected. Sometimes these undesired behaviors are shielding us from a fate unseen, but much worse.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,