Tag Archives: God

Vayeira: We Reflect God, and God Reflects Us

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, holds many well known and central stories of the Jewish people. The angels visiting Avraham and Sarah, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Binding of Yitzhak, are all in this one division of Genesis. Literal tomes have been written on each segment of each of the stories that comprise this portion. Usually, we talk about what we can learn from the behaviors of the characters in these stories. Avraham and Sarah’s hospitality for the angels, Avraham’s bravery in arguing for the lives of those in Sodom and Gomorrah, the many difficulties of the binding of Yitzhak – much ink has been spilled using these stories as examples for our own behavior.

Our sages of the past saw that these stories all have a very strong theme in common: God’s relationship to humankind. The human characters interact directly with divine beings, be they angels or God. This is a real rarity in the narratives of the Tanakh, and I’d imagine it was for this reason that our classical interpreters of the text focused on this so intently. Rashi, arguably the most important interpreter of Jewish sacred text, who lived in the first and second century of the second millennium CE in France, focused his interpretation of the story of Avraham’s hospitality towards the strangers (who turn out to be angels of God) on the way that God and the angels reacted to this behavior. His conclusions are quite striking.

In this story, three strangers are walking through the desert when Avraham spots them, runs over to them, and invites them to his tent to relax and eat. Lo and behold, these three strangers turn out to be messengers of God. According to Rashi, the angels and God saw Avraham’s behavior, and their immediate response was to mimic it. In Rashi’s understanding, God later mimics Avraham’s sending of water to them via a messenger, when God sends water via a miracle to the Israelites in the desert much later in the Exodus story.

If we assume that the writers of these texts were trying to reveal a truth about our place in the world and our relationship to God through a story, and that Rashi was also attempting to accomplish the same, we can come away with a very interesting and complex understanding of our relationship to the divine. Most conceptions of the divine are extraordinarily hierarchical. Divinity is above, and we are below. We are at the mercy of God or gods, mere mortals living out small lives. If, instead, we see the relationship carrying some mutuality, as it is apparent that Rashi did, the hierarchy gets turned on its Rashi isn’t just pointing out some similarities between Avraham’s hospitality and God’s. In his interpretation, Rashi is showing us something much more intrinsic to our relationship to the divine. Not only are we reliant upon the divine for what we need (for example, during this visit to Avraham, the angels announce the miraculous pregnancy of Sarah, and the imminent arrival of the new baby Yitzhak), but the divine reflects our own actions back to us. Avraham, consistently cited by those who came after him as the lifeline to God, affected the continuity of his offspring, and ultimately the successful formation of the people of Israel, by displaying his magnanimity to the angels. God reflected this behavior back to the Israelites by gifting them with water in their time of need, while wandering the desert during the formative stage of the newly free Israelite people.

Instead of looking at this text as a mythological narrative simply attempting to explain the roots of chosenness of the Jewish people, which this miraculous birth is so often cited as, maybe we should try to apply these lessons in our own lives. Throughout our liturgy and our history, and actually throughout the rest of the Tanakh from this point on, it has been the tradition to invoke God’s special relationship with Avraham whenever seeking something from God. Traditionally, the deeply troubling story of the binding of Yitzhak is even recited during Jewish morning worship as a way to attempt to convince God of our worth, based entirely on Avraham’s unflinching willingness to sacrifice his son to God. Maybe, instead of just citing Avraham’s deeds as rationale for our own worth, we should instead look at what the story is trying to tell us about his deeds, and why they are special at all.

Rashi’s interpretation of the story hints to us that human actions of kindness reverberate throughout time. By citing this one instance of Avraham’s kindness as the impetus behind God having provided the Israelites, the many generations later grandchildren of Avraham, with the miraculous water that sustained them in the desert, Rashi is telling us that our own acts are similarly important. Were it not for Avraham’s kindness, the Israelites never would have made it into the Promised Land, and we wouldn’t be here to discuss the outcomes. God’s reflection of Avraham’s behavior was the linchpin on which the Israelites’ future hung. By using this example to pattern our own behavior, by viewing our actions as reverberating throughout history as the mutual relationship between us and God, forged initially by Avraham and renewed by every one of us, we can be guided by our tradition towards lives of great meaning. Each action we take can be viewed as having endless consequences based on the value of our works. Rashi and our Torah beseech us to view Avraham not only as the pillar of righteousness that our tradition rests upon, but also as the exemplar for us all to follow to build our own lives into similar pillars of righteousness for the generations to come.

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Faith and Grace in Judaism

This weeks Torah portion, Tazriah-Metzorah, continues the theme of structure that pervades the Priestly literature. An obsession with order is the central concern of all of these pieces of ritual legislation, and this week we dive into purity associated with bodies. The priests are commanded to diagnose and treat a couple of different skin conditions, along with similar conditions afflicting buildings, and how to deal with all kinds of other fun things like genital discharge and menstruation. As I wrote last year, this was my bar mitzvah torah portion. It’s not much easier to write about now than it was then.

Mining meaning from Torah portions is really an act of faith. Judaism often balks at the topic of faith, but in my opinion, faith is a huge portion of our religion. For Christians, faith in Christ as the eternal savior and redeemer is central. For Jews, though, faith is an entirely different construct. Faith in God has been tough for us since the get go. Heck, one of the etymologies for Israel is to struggle with God. To struggle with the concept of God is inherent to the religion. Faith is not focused in the supernatural for Jews. We learned long ago that we don’t really understand and certainly can’t control whatever supernatural powers are out there. Faith in tradition is our cornerstone.

Faith in tradition doesn’t mean that one must believe that our texts are handed down from on high. In fact, I believe that does us a disservice. Our texts were never something to be accepted as directly perfect revelation for simple, easy human understanding. They are to be read, poured over, debated, critiqued. They are to be put through the cognitive grinder in an attempt to distill them, and that takes a lot of work and devotion. In fact, faith in the texts is only really upheld by the grace of their abilities to withstand the tests of time and to continue to transmit meaning to those who attempt to distill it.

Delving into Jewish text, be it Torah, Tanach, Talmud,Midrash, or even a Siddur, is actually very much like the ritual prescribed in this weeks portion.

Leviticus 14:

God said to Moses, “This is to be the law concerning the person afflicted with tzara‘at (a skin disease) on the day of his purification. He is to be brought to the cohen, and the cohen is to go outside the camp and examine him there. If he sees that the tzara‘at sores have been healed in the afflicted person, then the cohen will order that two living clean birds be taken for the one to be purified, along with cedar-wood, scarlet yarn and hyssop leaves. The cohen is to order one of the birds slaughtered in a clay pot over running water. As for the live bird, he is to take it with the cedar-wood, scarlet yarn and hyssop and dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird slaughtered over running water, and sprinkle the person to be purified from the tzara‘at seven times. Next he is to set the live bird free in an open field. He who is to be purified must wash his clothes, shave off all his hair and bathe himself in water. Then he will be clean; and after that, he may enter the camp; but he must live outside his tent for seven days. 9

It is kind of a troubling ritual, especially for the two birds. But in a way it’s also quite beautiful. One bird is sacrificed, and the other acts as a kind of  homeopathic magical surrogate for the person recovering from the skin disease. Faith in sacrificing the one bird, while setting the other bird free, carrying a magical concoction on with it, is quite similar to faith in these ancient texts to help clarify the still entirely confounding world thousands of years on.

As one devotes his or her time, ultimately our most precious commodity as it is the quantifiable measurement of our lives, to studying these texts, one sacrifices all other possible uses of the time with faith that the tradition will help to free us from whatever bindings we are being tied down by. These bindings may be simple human limitations, such as needing a framework for which to understand our lives, or just the limiting nature of our current, disenchanted material reality. The time spent reading our tradition’s stories and writings is not just an act of sacrifice and devotion to God, it is an act of sacrifice and devotion to the composers, compilers, editors, translators, and interpreters that came before us. We bathe our minds and spirits in these texts and traditions in hope of being set free. May it be that we, like the bird allowed to live on anointed by the sacrifice of its friend, are set free by the sacrifices of those who approached our tradition with faith in its grace to help guide our lives, and transmitted their findings to us in the faith that we would continue the process.

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The Ins and Outs of Hoopoes and Bovines

This weeks Torah portion, Sh’mini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47), is all about defining in and out. Starting with a depiction of the first major cultic sacrifice, which leads to God appearing to the whole of Israel, the portion tailspins into the death of Aaron’s sons as punishment for their having offered an unsuitable sacrifice of incense. God forbids the family of the dead any mourning. This scene is immediately followed by the prohibition of alcohol to any of the priests while in the Tabernacle (no sacrificing while drunk!), and the categorizing of animals into pure or impure (kosher or unkosher).

So we’ve got some pretty clear in grouping and out grouping. Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, are certainly out. But what did they do wrong? The text is really ambiguous. They are accused of having offered God “alien fire.” There are plenty of theories on what this means, but none of them help to clarify our main concern here, which is what is it that makes one part of the in-group.

If we assume that the breaking up of the Torah portions was done with distinct purpose and thematically, the idea that a couple of people in the high priesthood stepping slightly, and possibly only mistakenly, out of line could be so immediately dangerous says a lot about the rest of the portion. Offering something unacceptable or simply not commanded as deadly, grouped together portion-wise with the laying out of the laws of purity of animals might give us a hint at a deeper meaning behind the relation of these two segments. If we are explicitly told here which animals are to be eaten, which animals are not to be eaten, and which animals cause impurity, we may be able to derive a boundary for ourselves based on the qualities that makes these animals kosher or unkosher.

Most of the things that are impure are animals that will eat other things within their same category. Four pawed animals often eat other four pawed animals, birds of prey often eat other birds. Things in the sea without scales and fins are also often carnivorous within their own category.  And we all know that pigs will eat anything. Their corpses are treated similarly to that of human corpses by the law, too. So their status can then be seen as similar to us. This animal that has a relationship where it consumes other animals makes them in some way akin to us.

Mary Douglas has pointed out that the animals considered clean are generally ones that are domesticated by humans as food sources, or are closely related to these animals. In this case, we see their purpose within the world as being their identifier. So let us combine these qualities:  animals whose actual purpose is feeding us are to be eaten, while those who function is eating other animals are not.

Relationships between eater and eaten are actually interesting when you think about it. Why is it that something is appetizing? How can one account for what one has a taste for? It’s certainly not just that the nutritional value is high. There are plenty of things that I crave to eat that aren’t good for me. And I don’t ever seem to crave something I’ve never tried before. In a way, purpose is similar. How does one figure out one’s purpose? By trying things out, and finding what speaks to you. Many humans have this luxury, but it is arguable that animals do not. Despite what those conniving, tricky folks at Pixar might have us believe, I have the sneaking suspicion that animals don’t really have an issue with a sense of purpose in life. So if an animal’s purpose is decided for it, and the animals whose purpose is service are the kosher ones according to the Torah, then the Torah-described kosher ones of humanity must also be those whose purpose is service.

This then makes a  case for the Jew as one whose innate purpose is service. That isn’t to say that those outside of Judaism don’t serve a purpose, it is simply a different one, and one of much greater freedom. There’s nothing wrong with a cougar or a hoopoe. They’re very beautiful animals that have purposes within their own biomes. Should one of these hoopoes decide that a life of service to humanity through the Jewish covenant with God is a beautiful thing, I don’t see what the hoopoe shouldn’t be allowed to join in as well. We Jews, though, like the sheep, goat, bovine, are born into service. We don’t have a choice. Some of us are even born outside of Jewish families and find our way into service as Jews later. What kind of service are we born into? We are born into the service of God, according to the Torah. But as Abraham was promised at the moment Jews point to as the beginning of the everlasting covenant between us and God, we are to be a blessing to all of the nations.  And as our prophets told us even before the destruction of the first Temple, it is not that God wants us to make sacrifices, which today is akin to the prayer services and the ritual mitzvot, it is that God wants us to deal with humanity in a righteous way. So our purpose carries us even outside of our biome, into the realm of the universal, as a people meant to bless the world with righteousness.

This may be pie-in-the-sky idealism about what Judaism means, but we are talking about religion and mythology here, so idealism fits. One of the greatest concerns today in Reform Judaism is also the issue of who is in and who is out, as can be seen in this exchange between two rabbinical students about intermarriage.   At one point, these two rabbinical students start talking about  “ultimate concerns” in regards to Jewish theology when discussing intermarriage, but neither broach the subject of what the ultimate concern of the Jew should be. Maybe with a little more focus on an idealistic ultimate concern as being our defining factor, the ultimate litmus test of our in-group would simply be commitment to our mission to be a blessing to all nations through our covenant.

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You Didn’t Build That

This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, is yet another round of recapping with exhortations to the Israelites to heed God. There are a few verses that stand out, though, describing the relationship between God and the Israelites. If we’re considering this text to be an ancient person (or people’s) best attempt at explaining their experience of God, and one that should still be taken seriously, if not literally, there is one theme that appears throughout this portion. No matter how comfortable, powerful, or wealthy the Israelites get, they’ve got to keep one thing in mind: They didn’t build it.

This has been a theme ringing throughout American society recently as well. No matter how you feel about the politics being played out here, there is a certain truth to this theme that resonates universally. No matter where we are in life, to a great extent, we didn’t build it. We only get to our stations in life by standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. Surely some of us have much more help than others. I’ve certainly had more than my fair share. The key here, though, is to take a step back from our material existence, and look at the broader picture.

Chapter 8 of Deuteronomy has some very interesting theology that clarifies this for us. First, the Israelites are told that they were made to suffer in the desert not for fun, but because God was both testing them and teaching them. Their experience of hunger, of affliction, and of general chaos was all manifested by God, and their lives were extended and sustained by God as well. In fact, the relationship between Israel and God is compared to the relationship between a father and his son.

God then reminds all of the Israelites that it is not by their merit that they were given anything, or their work that any of this is theirs. It has all been God’s will, and that should they abandon their relationship with God, all they have gained could be lost. The portion then leaves off with God telling the Israelites to “circumcise the foreskin of their hearts,” to be less stubborn, and to make sure that justice is at the core of their nation.

Let me combine all of this into something more easily digestible. To set the scene from which I’m reading it, let us assume for a moment that whoever wrote this text was trying to honestly and accurately represent their conception and experience of God. The God we have represented here is deeply concerned with the development of the Israelite people (who, in the timeline of the text, are just about to start governing themselves as a nation for the first time in their own land). This God is explaining that these people have had the long, toiling experience that they had in the desert as a learning experience. It wasn’t that they were being tortured, led astray, or punished for God’s amusement. They were being taught something. And what is it that they were being taught? Humbleness, compassion and justice.

It would be very, very easy to just say this is a bunch of pre-modern mumbo-jumbo, probably written by a bunch of guys in power attempting to control an illiterate population. This might, in fact, be true. I have enough faith in the text and the tradition to give it the benefit of the doubt, though. Hang in there with me. I know this is a lot of anthropomorphising of God for one sitting, but I’ll put it all in perspective shortly.

The ultimate kicker here, though, is this: In this text, no matter how many times there are human-like qualities attributed to God, we are never given a fully human God. And that’s the point. There isn’t some symbol, some icon, or some fully fleshed out archetype for the individual Israelites to worship or emulate. Instead, there are directives as to how to be a good person. God isn’t attempting to lead by example. God is attempting to empower through directive and experience. What we have here is someone attempting to describe their experience of a thoroughly pedagogical God.

Learning is the core of Judaism, and always has been. Here, we’re given a boiled down lesson on both the history of the Israelites, and the ways that the Israelites were supposed to act based on this history. As Jews, we are supposed to be today’s Am Yisrael, or nation of Israel. Therefore, the lessons that our predecessors were taught are supposed to have been transmitted to us, and we are supposed to build on them. We are not supposed to repeat history, or attempt to emulate any of the people of the Tanach. We are supposed to learn from them.

So this portion in particular is telling us something. God is repeatedly making sure that the Israelites understand that the land their about to receive, the homes and comfort that they will inherit, and the freedom that they have been gifted were not merely the fruits of their own labor. It was God’s work, given to them as the next step in their lesson in peoplehood. Would they succeed? Would they manage to incorporate the humbleness, compassion, and sense of responsibility that their God was attempting to impart upon them?

For a time, sure. But what we eventually see in the Tanach is that these teachings were tossed by the wayside, and the Israelites were left just as they were before – homeless and despondent. We can’t possibly know the exact historical details of any of this. In fact, our contemporary ancient history is deeply colored by the narrative of the Tanach, and the sources we have from the ancient Near East in regards to these moments in Israelite history are sadly lacking. What we do know, though, is that in our current age of great literacy and freedom of speech and thought, we can look at these lessons and stories from every angle.

Our world often feels like it’s on the verge of chaos. The economies of the West are all in crisis mode. The environment is doing some pretty crazy things, like giving North America the hottest year on record. There are constant rumblings of war or conflict. I’m sure that there are plenty of anxiety producing insecurities in your life that are boiling just below the surface. What this portion, Eikev, is telling us is that yes, we are all roaming the wilderness, just on the boundary of our Promised Land. We have been given lessons, not always easy, not always pleasant, on the way here. We didn’t build this. Anything we have, anything we’ve earned, was not solely our own accomplishment. So let us remember, with great humbleness and compassion, with circumcised hearts and un-stiffened necks, that just as we are struggling in the wilderness, so are those around us. Some of our neighbors may have it even worse than us — they may still, in fact, be all the way back in Egypt. So like the last segment of this portion adjures the Israelites, let us impress this compassion and humbleness upon our very hearts, keep them with us always, and teach them to our children so that they too may endure.

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Radical Prayer

In Parshah Vaetchanan (Deut. 3:23-7:11) we’ve entered the meat of Deuteronomy. More recap of already established law and narrative. I think it’s exceptionally difficult to charge this material with anything interesting unless the reader has a sense of the historical context of the book.

Deuteronomy is more or less a contract between God and the Israelites. It recaps a lot of what happened previously between them simply because this is part of the contractual framework used very regularly throughout the ancient Near East at this time. The contract which openly states that this God is the one and only God, and that the Israelites swore fealty only to this God, was compiled in the face of the two major empires of the time (Assyria and Babylonia) baring down on the small nation of Judah. Assyria had already destroyed the Northern Kingdom, and this new book that rounds out the Torah was written in conjunction between the Northerners who had escaped the destruction, and the Judahites who were still hoping to survive in the face of the greatest powers of the era. Most scholars think that the canonization of Deuteronomy continued into the eventual exile into Babylon, and that the redactors and writers of this book, or their successors, also wrote much of the rest of the Tanach. They call these books the “Deuteronomistic History.” If nothing else, Deuteronomistic is a hell of a scrabble word.

This places Deuteronomy in a very interesting space, and actually ends up making Deuteronomy arguably the most important book of the Torah in regards to the core of Judaism (notice,we call it Judah-ism today). It’s by no means the most entertaining or engaging, but it holds the heart of Jewish thought. Nothing makes this more clear than this Parshah.

In Deut. 6:4-9, we find the core creed of Judaism, the Shema. It is supposed to be the first thing we say when we get up, the last thing we say when we go to sleep, and even the last thing we say in our lives. What I find so striking about it is that, in many ways, the basic meaning of it (monotheism) has become so prevalent throughout the world. Up until Christianity and Islam came to power monotheism was not a generally accepted belief. In comparison to the Romans, Greeks, or Mesopotamians that the ancient Jews lived amongst, monotheism might as well have been atheism. Reciting the Shema was often seen as public disrespect towards the gods of these other nations. If you think about it in reference to the fact that this prayer was composed to rebuke the polytheism of two of the greatest empires of all time, reciting it really was an act of defiance. In this day and age where monotheism is the most popular form of religion in the world it is hard to keep this in mind. If monotheism has become mainstream, though, is it then time to re-radicalize the Shema?

One of the most frequent questions I get when conversing with Orthodox Jews is “How is your approach different than Christianity’s?” Now, I’m pretty sure they’re at least partially just trying to push my buttons, but I do think it’s fair. When you boil down liberal Judaism and liberal Christianity, everything outside of the whole Jesus controversy starts to look a lot alike. The very nature of liberalism means that this should be the case, though. Unfortunately, once that road is paved, it’s much easier to just move on with the liberalism and without the Judaism or Christianity, and that’s one of the great fears and struggles of the Reform movement today. This is not only unfortunate for the religions, though. I am not one to argue that the irreligious or atheistic are inherently less moral than those who ascribe to one of the world’s traditions. I do think that what Western liberalism, which informs Reform Judaism, lacks on its own is guidance in determining personal values in life, and ways to orient and divide up time in a manner that helps to infuse life with meaning.

In Deuteronomy chapter 5, we’re given a restatement of the Ten Commandments. From the perspective of Judaism, these are just about as basic as it gets. Since we’ve already been talking about the Shema, let’s talk about Commandments one (There is only one God) and two (You may not worship idols). I’ve previously written about my conception of God, but let me try to lay it out simply (as one wise Jew once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”) The monotheistic God, in my opinion, transcends the God of the Bible, and can be described most basically as being the flow of meaning and purpose that pushes time forward.So what commandments one and two are saying is that the true power in our human universe is a singular force of value and meaning, and must not be confused with anything other than that which it is. Money, power, status, or anything else is merely a manifestation or human-created fetish of this force.

This is what the Shema is saying. Although we all have other things we find important, what we must always keep at the forefront of our mind is that this singular charge, this power and force of meaning and purpose behind creation, is the one object that should be placed above all. All else is interpretation attempting to explain the best way to integrate this understanding into your life. Like the great Rabbi Hillel said when asked to teach the Torah on one foot, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary.”

As I stated before, the Shema is the central creed of the Jewish religion, focused entirely on the fact that we have one, and only one, God. It is followed immediately by another prayer, both in the Torah and in Jewish liturgy, called the V’ahavtah, which is focused on loving God. The Torah is the most important and ancient Jewish record of our interactions with God. According to Hillel (arguably the greatest Rabbi of all time), the quickest way to summarize the Torah is to say “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” So, I think that we can logically reason that what the shema is saying, then, is that our behavior, above all else, should be focused on empathy and kindness. Instead of focusing on predicting the future, or unravelling the past, the Shema asks us to live in the now, to hear, state, and know that the oneness of God is central, and that our purpose is found in lovingkindness. If we began our days and ended our days contemplating this, even just ever so briefly in the six words of this prayer, would this not reorient us in a way that might actually help shift the world we live in?

The Shema is a radical prayer, written in defiance of the greatest human forces on the planet. It not only outlived these forces by thousands of years, its basic meaning has become accepted worldwide. Maybe by re-charging this prayer with a new meaning, we can affect a similar change on our world today. Isn’t that the purpose of this whole Judaism thing?

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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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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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