Tag Archives: parshah

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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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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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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