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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.

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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.

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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.

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Beating a Dead Rock

This week’s Torah portion is called chukat, Numbers 19:1-21:1. It starts very abruptly (much like this blog post) informing the reader that what is to follow is a fixed commandment of the Torah, a rule of divine knowledge for the nation of Israel. Throughout this week I’ve been in an argument on reddit with a Chabadnik about the nature of the relationship between God and the Jews. It is generally understood that the Torah contains, amongst other things, contractual obligations between the Jewish people and God. In fact, the book of Deuteronomy mimics a contractual formula found throughout the ancient Near East used between larger nations who were going to become the rulers of smaller nations. My argument is that much like other contracts, our contractual relationship with God has changed throughout time, resting my proof on the fact that we simply can’t do most of the things we agreed to, as the Temple was destroyed. In my mind, the post-Temple shift is just one instance of our continually changing, developing (dare I say reforming?) relationship with God. The Chabad fellow, though, holds that we are still bound to the exact same covenant as before, but that the Oral Law, which he believes was handed down in an unbroken chain from God, to Moses, to many intermediaries, and eventually written down in the Talmud, is what lays out the practices required of us. It is my belief that the unbroken chain tradition is simply another example of certain religious and political leaders using their authority to proclaim their laws and beliefs as divine.

The Chabad fellow did make some interesting points. A big portion of our conversation, beyond the rifts in our theology, was the question of what it is that Chabad is doing right. They are poaching Jews from synagogues of all flavors all over the world. My home community in Tacoma, WA is one example of this. According to my mom, who still lives there, the Reform synagogue is struggling greatly, while the Chabad synagogue is flourishing. And there simply aren’t that many Jews to go around in ol’ Tacoma. So lets take it as a given that there’s something that Chabad is doing that Reform is not doing that is making Reform (and other) Jews head to Chabad. I’d bet that most of these people haven’t fully adopted the Orthodox strictures of Chabad, but they are at least relying upon to them for their ritual and communal needs.

So what is it? The Chabad fellow claims that people want things that are binding. In short, he’s saying that all of the people leaving Reform synagogues to go to Chabad want to be told, “These and these are the divine rules for the nation of Israel.” Interestingly enough, this week’s Torah portion has a piece of narrative that ends up being deeply related to this. The people of Israel, still wandering in the wilderness, run out of water and complain once again that they’d rather be dead and rather go back to Egypt, the whole shebang. But this time God tells Moses to go talk to a rock, and that it will flow freely with water. Moses and Aaron instead go and say in front of everyone, “You want us to give you water? Here. We’ll give you water,” then, instead of speaking to the rock, Moses hits the rock. This angers God, and he says that Moses and Aaron will die before they reach the Promised Land. In fact, Aaron dies at the end of this Torah portion.

Instead of following God’s directions, Moses and Aaron claimed that they were going to make the water appear, and then Moses hit the rock instead of just speaking to it. As I’ve said before, it appears that God initially chose Moses because he didn’t want the power or the honor. Now we see Moses, the great prophet who speaks with God face to face, given the ultimate punishment for his moment’s hubris. In Moses’ rush to claim this power for himself, he didn’t follow God’s actual instructions of asking the rock for the water. Instead, he leaned upon the past commandment God gave in a different time, place, and circumstance in Exodus 17 where he was told to strike a rock to procure water. Maybe this points to the middle ground to the argument I was having with the fellow from Chabad.

We should not be so quick to rely wholly on our past understandings of God’s expectations of us. The original commandments from and contract with God may have been written in stone back at Sinai, but today, we have no trace of these stone tablets. The Oral Torah is a great treasury of thought, knowledge, and tradition, in the same way that the Written Torah (Tanach/Old Testament) is. But in the same way that the rabbis of the Oral Torah didn’t follow the exact word of the Written Torah, we today need not follow the exact word of either of these documents. Things change. Unfortunately for us, though, we don’t have a direct line to God like Moses did, so there is no way for us to claim a binding commandment from the mouth of God today.  But if we look at Moses’ relationship to the rock in this story, we see someone so caught up in the moment, so ready to do the great act and take the leadership role once again, so ready to quell the herd of whiners and gripers, that he didn’t even stop to think about what he was doing. He fell into the patterns of the past.

So maybe my Chabadnik friend isn’t right about what people want. Just relying upon age-old power structures probably isn’t the answer. Maybe what everyone really wants is something different, something that feels matched to their time and place, and definitely something authentic. Now, authenticity is a huge problem in and of itself, and one form of “authentic Judaism” isn’t something that I think exists. But I do think the feeling of authenticity comes with just the right mixture of knowledge and passion. Chabad definitely has both of those things down. It also has the youthful vigor of a movement just now finding its full stride. As an individual devoted to the Reform movement, I hope that we can find the rocks that we’re still hitting, and instead start speaking to them in a way that can renew our knowledge, passion and vigor to create a way of channeling God and Torah that matches our time, place, and needs as a movement.

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Revolution Without Resolution

This week’s Torah portion is a doozie. Parshat Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32) focused on yet another set of rebellions, but this one ends up a bit differently. Instead of God getting all angry and threatening violence, then Moses interceding on behalf of the rebels, Moses doesn’t intercede, and God opens up the ground which then swallows up half of the rebels and everyone associated with them, then sends out fire that engulfs the other half.

So what was different this time? This time, we see real, organized groups rebelling against the system with the distinct goal of gaining more power. The tribe of Reuben, one of the dissenting groups, is attempting to gain greater political power (as a side note, the tribe’s namesake was the first born son of Jacob, which adds another element to this as traditionally in the ancient Near East the firstborn got the greatest share of wealth). The other group, led by a priest named Korach, is challenging Aaron, the high priest, and the Cohenim, his sons.

Some scholars of the Bible think that this story is a later addition to the book of Numbers, and that it is possibly referencing an actual attempt by the group of priests named after Korach (of which Psalms 42-48, along with a few others, are attributed to) to usurp the priesthood during the First Temple period. This could then be seen as a piece of priestly propaganda, attempting to show that these Korachite priests come from a line of ne’er-do-wells.

Although I find this proposition pretty interesting, I think there’s something else to be said about this portion. We’re living in a time of many organized rebellions. The Arab Spring swept far beyond the borders of the Arab world to inspire people all over the planet. Although we’re just on the cusp now of seeing the fruits of the labor of the Egyptians, the one thing that is certain is that these rebellions have brought mass chaos to the region. Nothing has settled yet, and although it is wonderful that so many people are now free of dictators, it’s definitely too early to celebrate. I think that we can take a lesson from God’s reaction to the organized rebellions.

On many levels, I agree with the movements that have cropped up around the world. There is definitely a great disparity of power and resources in many countries, and I too would like to see something done about it. Unfortunately, I think that many of the mass movements of the past couple of years have put the cart before the horse. Disagreeing with the hierarchy ,and taking the time to look at it critically, is a venerable pursuit. Peaceful resistance and consistently questioning the wisdom of those in power are the tools of true freedom fighters. But attempting to usurp power and uproot the hierarchy without a cogent plan for change is an act that is just as likely to lead to more tyranny as it is to more freedom.

Korach and his followers, and the members of the tribe of Reuben, both demanded more power, and refused to respect the order of their society without a clear reason as to why. Neither group presented a plan as to what they would do differently were they in power.  A desire to destroy a social hierarchy without a plan for the new system to fill the void leaves everyone in the society deeply vulnerable. It is just as wise for critical thinking individuals to be suspicious of those attempting to gain power as it is to be suspicious of those already in power.

On this eve before the announcement of the new leader of Egypt, let us maintain our critical thought. It is clear that it was time for Mubarak to go, but it is unclear that the replacement will be any better. If the Occupy movement of America wants to actually accomplish anything, they had better keep their eye on the outcome of the Egyptian saga. The hope for a bright new future, unshackled from the chains of the past with truly benevolent leaders in real control of governments, is a great and beautiful one. But let us not forget that those who seek power are those to be most wary of.

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All That You Can’t Leave Behind

This week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach (Numbers 13-15), has one clear focus: Moving forward. The portion focuses on the 13 Israelite scouts sent forth into the land of Canaan to report back on who and what was in the land. To make a long story short, they find incredible fruits of gigantic size, but also people of gigantic size. The scouts spend forty days looking around, then come back and report on both of these things. Unfortunately, most of the scouts that return bear a bad report, saying that the giant people are too strong to fight, and that it’s not worth it. The minority, Caleb and Joshua, try to get the people to keep faith in God and go forward anyway, but to no avail. The Israelites get mad, say they should just head back to Egypt, and start to throw stones at Aaron, Moses, Joshua, and Caleb, but God swoops down in a cloud to protect them. Per usual, God gets mad and Moses has to talk him out of killing everyone. Instead he just says that this entire generation must die off before he will lead the Israelites into the promised land, and that is that.

The theme of this portion builds pretty well on the last one. Last week, we read about the Israelites attempting to upset the hierarchy laid upon them. Now we see the next step in development – nostalgia and fear of the unknown. The people are being asked to accept a lot in a short period of time. Freedom from slavery, a new hierarchy, a new God, new roles within society, and now, a new land that they’ll have to fight for themselves. Who can’t identify with the impulse to look back on the past in all its shiny glory? It’s arguable that most versions of religion are based on this. We look back in wonderment on the history of our faith, to times when gods and humanity walked together. We raise up our holy books as the lens through which we can recount what it meant to, long ago when things were ever so different and so much better, see the divine face to face. In fact, in Jewish literature, Heaven, or the World To Come, is also often called “Gan Eden,” or the Garden of Eden. How’s that for looking back? Even the future is the past!

I know I fall into this trap all of the time. Wouldn’t it be nice to just be able to go back to the way it was 10 years ago, when I didn’t have as many responsibilities? Wouldn’t it be better to attempt to recreate that, rather than struggling forward into the unknown? Who’s to say that this future I see before me isn’t just going to be a big fat flop? What if the great giants that are already in the space I’m geared up to attempt to occupy are just going to use their power to destroy me before I can even get what I’m working for? Might as well turn back now and just go back to what I’m used to.

This impulse, to over exaggerate the dangers of the future while playing down the hardships of the past, may be as much of a limiting factor to the progress of humanity as sheer laziness. The deep, dark fear of the unknown mixed with our incredible ability for selective memory of the past holds us back from both being present in the present, and from acting upon our futures. It’s quite easy to claim that with a direct connection to a deity of untold power we wouldn’t balk on the possibilities of the future for a second, but this clearly wasn’t the case for the Israelites. They were still haunted by the fear of failure.

In spite of their fears and faithlessness (keep in mind, these folks have seen God do some pretty heavy things, like the Ten Plagues, splitting the Red Sea, and pretty much explode a mountain), the Israelites end up making it into the land of Canaan a couple of books later, in the book Joshua. This also happens to be the haftarah portion for the week – Joshua sending spies into Canaan again and then leading the conquest of the land. This Torah portion, especially linked to the haftarah portion, points to the incredible uselessness of the fear of failure. To quote a wonderful TED talk by Regina Dugan, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”

Dr. Dugan is speaking about human achievements in technology at DARPA. I try not to be too cynical, but it is much easier to not be worried about failure when you’re the director of a government agency with a $3.2 billion budget. If anything is comparable today to having the support of a deity, though, I’d say this would be it. We all wish we had something akin to this week’s haftarah (or a budget in the billions) to help assuage fears about the future, but unfortunately, all we really have is the fact that we’ve made it this far. Now, I’m not claiming that I’ve had God descend in a cloud of smoke in front of me and tell me that I am certainly going to get anywhere. I’m generally suspicious of anyone that claims they have. But if instead of looking back to our own personal Egypts with the rose colored glasses of the fearful wanderer, we look back at the actual struggles, hardships, successes, and failures we’ve overcome in the past, we have something very close to as good. We’ve made it to where we are today.

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Be Careful What You Wish For

In this week’s Torah portion is Beha’alotecha, we have a cycle of boundaries being tested and defined. As the Torah is the record of the birth of the Israelite nation, we’re approaching the Israelite toddler phase: Lots of whining, attempts at asserting individuality, challenging authority, and even a diffusion of power. The Israelites complain that they want their diet raised up from the miraculous manna that God has been raining down on them throughout their journey in the wilderness to actual meat. Moses can’t stand the constant whining of the Israelites so God, at Moses’ behest, takes some of Moses’ prophetic power and doles it out to the 70 elders who are tasked to aid him. This leads a couple of the elders (Eldad and Medad) to prophecy in the camp, which raises Joshua’s hackles. Keep in mind, Joshua is basically Moses’ protégé, so the next in line to have this special relationship with God.  Joshua tells Moses that he thinks the El- and Medad are overstepping their bounds with their prophecy, but Moses responds in an extremely interesting way. Moses responds in a way that recontextualizes the entirety of the Torah portion. He says, “God should give all of his people prophecy, and let his spirit reside upon all of them!” This becomes even clearer in the conflict between God and Moses’ older brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam.

Behind the complaints of Aaron and Miriam is the desire to have the prestige and power of their younger brother. Miriam even goes so far as to insult Moses for having married a Cushite. God immediately and abruptly descends in his cloud and calls Miriam and Aaron to explain to them that Moses is the only person that he speaks to face to face, and no other prophet has or will ever be as close to him. God’s explanation as to the difference is not based in the character of Moses, but in the character of God. God then gives Miriam a horrible skin disease for good measure and only heals her once Moses, who is apparently entirely unfazed by his siblings’ disrespect, asks for her to be healed. Again, Moses seems unconcerned with the hierarchy of his society, or his role at the top of it.

The echeloning of society is what is necessary at this specific point in the birth and growth of the Israelite nation. Although Moses wishes for true spiritual egalitarianism amongst the Israelites, it is clear that ambition, jealousy, greed, and avarice still run rampant amongst the Israelites, and this is especially true amongst the people just under Moses in the hierarchy – his siblings and Joshua. God’s plan for his people is contingent upon these issues being governed by the people themselves.

While the rest of the Israelites are complaining about the limitation of their roles in society, asking for greater power, asking for more from God, and generally displaying the elements of terrible two-ness, Moses, in his response to Joshua, shows very clearly why it was he who was chosen by God to be the leader. He didn’t want to be. Moses never wanted the role, doesn’t want to be different, doesn’t want to be set above everyone else. All Moses ever asks God for is for greater knowledge of God himself, so that he can understand more clearly who it is that he is serving. This becomes a trope amongst many of the prophets of the Tanach, but in this instance it makes strikingly clear the issues of the hierarchy of the Israelite camp, and what it is that actually does set Moses apart.

In our lives we have similar issues. Everyone has specific roles of power in every relationship they hold. Our jobs inherently have limitations; our personal lives also have inherent power dynamics that are agreed upon by all involved, either implicitly or explicitly. These boundaries, either spoken or unspoken, are what we learn to navigate in our infancy. Pushing the boundaries of our relationships with our parents, then within our communities, and ultimately working out where we fit into these spaces is a growing process each of us need to experience to successfully integrate into society. Moses’ wish, that all people be privy to God’s plan and act accordingly, is echoed by many people. A society of true equality, egalitarianism, and freedom is an admirable dream. Unfortunately, many more of us are like the Israelites, always asking for more miracles to fulfill our base desires, or like Aaron, Miriam and Joshua, always striving and fighting for more power for power’s sake.

The name of the portion comes from the first sentence in the portion – when Aaron is given the specific directions for when he lights up the great candelabra (menorah in Hebrew) of the Tabernacle. At the beginning of the portion, God commands Moses to command Aaron to make this menorah in this specific way. A couple of chapters later, we see Aaron complaining that he wants a piece of Moses’ pie, while Moses complains that he didn’t want any of the pie to begin with, and in fact would rather die than eat the whole damn thing. And so it is with us.

Although there are innumerable instances of deep injustice and suffering caused by power differentials people claim to be “God given,” I think it is worthwhile to consider our own strivings and ambitions in light of what the individual we are using as the example of our ambition actually experiences. When you complain that your boss is inept, and that you’d be better at his/her job, you must also consider what it means to actually HAVE that job. When you wish for more, you must consider what the more would actually look like. Do you want so much of it that you’d have it coming out of your nose, as God tells the Israelites they will have of meat (Num 11:20)? Do you really want the power and responsibility that causes the individual who actually has it to wish for death? When we wish for things, be it greater power, greater wealth, someone else’s job, or a different position within the hierarchies we exist in, we must really consider the reality of what we are asking for. Sometimes it’s best to simply count your blessings, and not asked to be raised up for more. Sometimes, like the 70 elders, you get picked for it simply by being a righteous, wise, and good person in your current role. But often, like in the case of Moses, being raised up isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

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The Priestly Blessing

One of the most famous, beautiful, and ancient passages of the Tanach, the Priestly Blessing, is a simple and poignant poem. You’re supposed to be a Jewish Priest, or Cohen (like Leonard), to give the Blessing, but nowadays it gets used by all kinds of people in all kinds of situations. Some give it to their children every Shabbat, and it was definitely said at my wedding in January. And it’s also one of the oldest pieces of the Tanach we have found in outside sources. Some amulets with an abbreviated version of the blessing were found in an archaeological dig in Israel and have been dated to around 600 BCE.

But so what? On the face of it, this blessing is a pretty normal, platitude-laden selection of poetry. In English, you probably wouldn’t even call it poetry. In Hebrew (which you can hear recited by the foremost priest of our time by clicking the Leonard link above), the rhythm of the lines flows beautifully together. I think that with this blessing, as with most liturgical pieces, it is easy to accept it as sodden, stagnant, and stale ancient work. If we can give the writers of the original blessing, who lived around 3000 years ago or so, the benefit of the doubt, let us accept that they were probably trying to transmit something of value. In fact I find this the most meaningful way to approach the traditions found in Judaism. As a people we have somehow managed to survive beyond the bounds of any great empire or great culture, and although we have clearly changed and grown throughout the millennia we are still Jews. So there must be something worthwhile that our ancestors are trying to pass down through these pieces that have survived for so long.

With each line of the blessing, the perception of the Israelites relationship to God is revealed more concretely. The first line is the most clear. The word “bless” in Hebrew is related to the word for knee. This is often used to explain why, in certain Hebrew prayers, we bend our knees and bow. So the idea that God would take a moment to “bend his knees” before us means for God to take notice of us — to stop for a moment and give us his full attention. Anyone who has read much of the Tanach, though, knows that it isn’t always so good to have God taking notice of you. Sometimes things like this happen. So to clarify what is meant by seeking God’s attention in the first line, the writers wrote “guard you” which is often translated as “keep you,” but means ultimately the same thing. But even this must be clarified in the next line. The blesser asks for God to be gracious upon his reflection about the blessee, letting his “face shine,” which is clearly related to smiling or looking upon someone with favor. Finally, the graciousness is clarified in the third line as meaning bringing the blessee shalom. Shalom is most often translated as peace, but it also means wholeness.

Each line, then, begins with the blesser asking for God to pay attention to the blessee, and each line is concluded with a hope for this attention to be favorable. In this day and age of aggressive atheists and burgeoning scientific materialism, it seems unfathomable to believe that these people’s deepest anxiety, revealed in this revered and ancient blessing, was God’s attention. Similarly, the fact that this blessing reflects a view of God’s face directed at an individual being of great importance makes it easy to discount the blessing as a primitive people’s reaction to the uncertainty of life, in hopes that their huge man in the sky would keep an eye on them.

In some instances this might be true, but I think we can give our ancestors greater honor than that. Look only so far as God’s name in the poem, and Exodus 3:13-14. God’s name, as used here, is related to the verb “to be,” and in Ex. 3:13-14 God explains his nature, or being, as entirely existential. By this I mean that God, even in his own words (or however we want to explain how Moses interacted with God), is that which is constantly becoming. The Hebrew verb in 3:13-14 can be translated it many ways, and the line is most famously translated as “I am that I am.” It’s not that simple, though. The verb is not in a perfect tense, which is to say the “being” act is still unfolding when he is speaking, and I’d argue is still unfolding today. So if God is the unfoldment of everything, as he appears to say in Exodus 3:13-14, what would God “raising his face” to an individual mean?

Everyone knows the deep anxiety of living in time. We all keep an eye on our watches, our youthful marking of the years passing with cakes and candles become less celebrations and more fearful as our age accrues, and the speed of the year seems to accelerate as we move further and further away from our births. This God of the Israelites revealed himself most candidly as time, and his name (יהוה) is repeated over and over again in the blessing is clearly related to the verb “to be” (היה). If we look at this God as being the director of time’s passage, this prayer is asking for something we all want. We want time to be gentle. We want the future to unfold in a way that makes us whole and at peace. And when I think of what the metaphor of the face of time would mean, I think it would mean the cutting edge of the future. It would mean the moment where the unfoldment occurs, when the present becomes the past and we can feel the formless void of the future beginning to coalesce into the present. I think that this blessing in particular has been brought forward to us along this constantly destroying and rebirthing stream of history simply because it charts this anxiety so very well. Who doesn’t want the future to unfold in such a way that guards them, smiles upon them, and brings them wholeness and peace? Who, when they consider our relationship to time like this, doesn’t feel the same anxieties that this blessing is so clearly attempting to ameliorate?

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Samson, the Impious Demigod

The section of Parshat Nasso focused on the restrictions of being a Nazirite are pretty cut and dry: Don’t consume any grape products, don’t cut your hair, and don’t be near any corpses. This is all, apparently, so that these individuals can cut their hair as an offering to God. There is no clear rationale for why anyone would want to do this, what other roles Nazirites might have played in ancient Israelite society, or where the category came from in the first place. The only clarification we have is oblique and from much later: the haftarah portion of Nasso, Judges 13:2-25.

This portion of the book of Judges is the opening of the most widely famous story from the book: the story of Samson. The book of Judges is one that often goes unread. It is full of strange, disturbing, and violent stories, many of which seem to have little to no moral or ethical value. One of my professors at JTS convinced me that the book of Judges is a satire. The stories are lampooning differences between the ancient Israelites, and using over the top imagery and behavior as the vehicle for these often humorous criticisms.

So, Samson is no exception to this case. The satirization of his story, though, is twofold. One piece, and the one that is much less obvious, is in this haftarah portion. Without going into the details of Hebrew grammar and deep comparison of Biblical stories, the basic gist of the Hebrew of this story makes it, at the very least, unclear of who Samson’s biological father is. The messenger of God, or man of God, who comes to visit Samson’s mother multiple times has a pretty questionable relationship with her, and some of the verbs used to describe their interactions describe people gettin’ down elsewhere in the Bible. Similarly, it is never said that Manoah (Samson’s assumed human father) ever got down with his wife.

This puts Samson in the company of Chuchulain,  Hercules, and Gilgamesh – part human, part divine. Along with this, Samson is pledged by his mother to be a Nazirite, to follow the laws laid out in this week’s portion of Numbers. Now, when most people think of Samson they think of his long hair, his great strength, and his betrayal by Delilah. The rest of the story is usually forgotten. The rest of the story, though, is about Samson summarily disregarding his Nazirite status by breaking all of the restrictions, betraying his parents, and destroying most everything he comes in contact with. He was then tricked into allowing his hair to be cut by Delilah. According to the story, his great power resided in his hair, which clearly relates to the Nazirite restriction on cutting hair.

The story of Samson can be read as a diatribe against both the piety of Nazirites, and the idea of demigods so prevalent in the Bible’s age. According to this reading of the story not only was it ridiculous that a man could be part deity, part human, but also that an individual with this kind of power isn’t therefore inherently more holy, or to be regarded with great respect. Instead it is a warning tale: a demigod isn’t to be trusted with their power, and a being born a Nazirite doesn’t make you holy. In a way, these two things are extraordinarily similar. Your birth and the intentions of your parents do not necessarily directly inform who you are.

Now, Samson’s end came at his own hands, and in fact, he killed more Philistines through his suicide attack on their Temple than he did throughout the rest of his life. Which is again a warning. This man’s great power, and all of his parents’ pious intentions, led to a life full of destruction and drunkenness, and a tortured suicide-attack of a death.

Like many of the characters in the Tanach, Samson is fraught with a human spirit of being torn between the good and the bad, the selfish and the altruistic, and the sacred and the profane. Having this haftarah portion matched up with the portion laying out the laws of the Nazirite brings this into greater clarity. Pious ritual without the proper intention, or to put it more Jewishly a lack of kavanah, can be much more destructive than having not attempted the piety in the first place. Especially if you’re a super strong demigod.

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Jealousy and Control

This week I was given the opportunity to lead an adult Torah study class. This class meets weekly to go over the Torah portion of the week, and is usually led by a rabbi in the congregation, but every so often I’m asked to stand in for him. The group is made up predominantly of senior women, a few senior men, and a few middle-aged men and women. The rareness of my interaction with the senior crowd makes it pretty uncomfortable for me to lead the class sometimes, though, as it seems both impudent and imprudent to attempt to correct or guide people so obviously my superiors in age. It takes a certain finesse and a very light touch to reign conversations in or to focus the discussion back onto the text when it appears that the strand of discussion isn’t leading anywhere fruitful. This wasn’t needed at all when we got into the sotah ritual.

The sotah ritual is a strange, archaic and seemingly magic-based practice that is alien to the Torah. To boil it down into a sentence, if a husband is jealous and suspects his wife of cheating he can take his wife to the priests who will publicly shame her and make her drink a mixture of water and dirt from the Tabernacle floor as a trial by ordeal. According to the text if the woman is guilty she will become barren or possibly miscarry, and if she is innocent she will be made more fertile. I expected this topic to be wildly uncomfortable for me to discuss with a room of something like 20 women and two other men (the other men were conspicuously silent throughout), but instead it was just extremely interesting.

In particular, there was a dialogue going on between two of the women, one who must be in her 80s, and one who looked to be in her late 30s or early 40s. The woman in her 80s, a firebrand that always speaks very passionately about equality, individual rights and empowerment, and is always deeply concerned with empathy and morality, spoke about the nature of adultery. I’m still not quite certain that I fully understand what she was saying, but her point of view seemed to circle around the idea that individuals have a certain level of unrestrainable impulse that leads them to do things such as cheat, accuse each other of cheating, and punish each other for cheating. She appeared to be saying that humanity must accept these as realities, and deal with them as inevitable.

In a way, the middle-aged woman was agreeing with her. She described the ritual as being a sort of sublimation of male rage and desire to exert power over women. Although she was careful to say that the sotah was clearly not a positive practice (and the practice was done away with by the leadership of the Temple during the Second Temple Period) she believed that, similar to the older woman, there are certain men who cannot restrain their impulses, and that this ritual gave them an outlet to exercise their “power” rather than being openly violent towards their wives.

One of the other women pointed out that it seemed pretty insane that these ancient Israelite men would be so deeply concerned with such an issue when they were faced with so many other problems, like wandering in the desert without any kind of real stability.  This apparent irony led us to one of the greatest points that can be drawn from this awful ritual. It is entirely clear why this would be such a popular issue in the community, and I believe it is for the same reason that domestic violence happens so often in socioeconomic areas where people have the least control over their lives.

To spin all of the reflections and reactions these women had to the ritual into one thread, the act of men exerting power over women has been a consistent outlet for anxieties related to individual disempowerment throughout human history. When people feel deeply that have little to no control over their lives, but do not recognize it for what it is, they tend to clamp down on whatever it is that they do have control over. Tyrannical bosses, abusive partners or parents, anyone with a modicum of power over others can be seen to exhibit these tendencies. As the older woman in the class pointed out, this is an almost universal tendency in humanity: passions cause us to act irrationally, and often cruelly, when we are put into tenuous and difficult situations. As the younger woman in the class pointed out as well, this ritual may very well have been an attempt at a pressure release valve for men who had the tendency to sublimate their power and control issues into something more devastating than causing the public humiliation of having to drink water and dirt.

I think the authors, priests, or whoever decided to include this ritual in the Torah included it for this reason. It shows that a person inflamed by jealousy is bound to do some kind of damage. In fact, jealousy is often used in the Torah and the Tanach to explain God’s angry reaction to the Israelites, which often led to violence against the Israelites. We all know that we have done regrettable things based on false assumptions and deep-seated control issues. I honestly believe most neuroses stem from a perceived or very real lack of control over our lives, and the incredibly anxiety caused by the lack. The sotah as a construct for ritual release of these powerful forces has been, and surely should have been, done away with. Regardless, the basis for it is still important to remember. There is a great lesson we can take from such an archaic and unsettling practice: As a moment of reflection, the next time you feel the need to knock someone else down a peg through any means, including but not limited to public humiliation as seen in the sotah, consider what is driving your desire. Is it jealousy? Or is it a need to exert what little control you have? Either way, I doubt that the mixture of dirty water you are attempting to force someone else to drink will have any real effect at all.

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