Tag Archives: book of numbers

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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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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Parashat Nasso

This week’s parshah is Nasso (Numbers 4,21-7,89), the second in the book of Numbers. The book of Numbers is one that gets overlooked pretty often, I think, because it starts out with a really, really boring census of the Israelites. This second parshah, though, has some interesting pieces to it. I’m going to break this post up into three different segments, as there’s just too much in here to write as one post. The first segment will be about a strange, archaic, and abusive ritual that is described in Numbers 5:12-31, called the sotah, or “unfaithfulness” ritual. The second segment will be about the nazirites (Numbers 6:1-21) and the haftarah portion of the week, which is Samson’s birth (Judges 13:2-25). The third segment will be about one of the best known, oldest, and most beautiful passage in the Torah – the priestly blessing which is found in Numbers 6:22-27.

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