Tag Archives: Torah

The Pattern of History

In this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11,26-16,17), we are presented with some of the legal reforms that Deuteronomy is famous for. They aren’t described as such, as they are couched in the narrative of the Torah as having been given to the Israelites by Moses at the moment before he died. Scholars now believe that these shifts in the law were put in place by King Josiah. As interesting as ancient legal reform might be, let’s move on to the actual implications of the shift in the law. If looked at holistically, based on its place in the historical timeline and the Torah, the reforms laid out here give us an excellent point of perspective on a broad historical theme.

The goal of the reforms found here were centralization of religious practice around the Temple in Jerusalem, and the destruction of local places of worship scattered throughout the land of Israel. The Temple isn’t mentioned by name, but the reason is pretty clear: If the writers of Deuteronomy were attempting to project this document back in time, the Temple wasn’t to be built for hundreds of years. So the document instead states that local worship is no longer allowed, and that individuals are required to go to “the place where God chooses to place His name” for religious practices. There are two very important pieces of ancient Israelite culture that are revealed by this shift. Prior to the reforms, there must have once been a varied, local practice led by Levites, and meat was only eaten in the context of these practices. This portion does two things with these facets of Israelite life. It allows all Israelites to slaughter animals for eating outside of the religious realm, and it displaces the Levites from local religious leadership, instead grouping them in the category including the poor, the widowed, and the orphans. Quite a fall for the local priests.

What were the Levites doing that was such a challenge to the central leadership that it had to be legislated out of existence? The religious ceremonies led by the Levites are thought to have been based around what we now have as the book of Psalms. Over time this book was changed and eventually compiled from the many psalmic traditions of ancient Israel. This may be why we have different psalms attributed to different authors – they were used in different places and for different purposes.

These ceremonies led throughout the land of Israel by the local Levites might ring some bells with you: They lit incense, played music, sang Psalms, and, prior to the Deuteronomic Reform laid out in this Torah portion, were probably in charge of sacrificing animals for religious, communal feasts. When the Deuteronomic Reform hit, though, the religious authority of these rituals was removed. Secularity was to reign supreme everywhere outside of the Temple. Deuteronomy called for the total destruction of the places that Levites would have led these ceremonies, with the understanding that they were old Canaanite places of worship. They very well may have been. We know that today, when larger, hegemonic religions have spread throughout the world, they tend to adopt local sacred sites as the new sites for their religion. Why would it have been any different then? These local, dispersed practices were brought down with their sites, and all religious or cultic practice was relocated only to the Temple.

The picture I’m trying to paint here is the difference between pre-Deuteronomy and post-Deuteronomy Israelite religion. What was accomplished by these legislations was nothing less than civilization shaking. The entire focus of the Israelite nation became the Temple. A religious centralization, mixed with a demystification and destruction of local holy places, must have entirely changed the way that the Israelites related to their land. This also came in the wake of the displacement of the northern kingdom by the Neo-Assyrians, which basically left Jerusalem as the last surviving center of the Israelite world.

Is there anything that we can learn from these reforms then? Not long after the decree of King Josiah, the Babylonians came knocking at Jerusalem’s door. Having placed all religious importance upon the Temple, there was a great movement within the Israelites that led them to believe that Jerusalem and the Temple were invincible. A large subtext to the writings of Isaiah and Jeremiah is a disagreement about this belief. Turned out the believers were wrong, and pretty much all of the holders of the ancient Israelite tradition were exiled to Babylon.

It would be easy to see this this as a warning against the dangers of extreme centralization, had the exiles from Jerusalem not somehow held on to the religion. This experience of exile, regarded universally in the Tanach as horribly traumatic, was the birthing place of the core that has allowed our religion to exist outside of centralized, national bounds for millenia. Most scholars believe that the portable tradition of the Torah was created as a reaction to the trauma, and this innovation is what has let us exist as a landless nation proudly carrying on the history of our people.

There is another great example of a very similar understanding of the nature of centralized power in the Jewish tradition: the Lurianic Kabbalah creation myth. The basic idea of the Lurianic creation of the cosmos is that God concentrated all of its divine energy into the creation of a series of layers of reality that descend in divine power from top to bottom. As God’s energy seeped through into the lower layers, these layers were no longer strong enough to contain this divine ray, and shattered. This misjudgment in the ability for our reality to contain the full power of divinity in a concentrated form led to our current state in the world today, where we must work to repair our reality through our own self-chosen actions. This sums up the theme of our weekly portion very well. Concentrating all of the most valued aspects of society in one spot is not that different from God attempting to concentrate the most distilled version of its power into a vessel that simply could not hold it. It leads to breakdown and dispersion.

The theme of concentration and then dispersion echoes throughout both Kabbalistic thought and Jewish history. The narrative of the Israelites in the Tanach has a pendulum like swing from central authority to dispersed local practices. By tracing this theme through history, we can gain some perspective on the state of our world today. As we watch some of the most powerful political and economic entities in human history struggle with containing and controlling concentrated authority, let us not fear the outcome too much. As a controversial Jew once said, a diamond is a chunk of coal that is made good under pressure. Only through this process of concentration and dispersion can we continue to develop and evolve as a species. Let us hope that the pressure we see and feel all around us today is readying itself for a great dispersal of new forms of more resilient and refined culture.

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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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Persecution Colored Glasses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fraught With Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Inheritance of Your I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Does Your Donkey See?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Beating a Dead Rock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Revolution Without Resolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All That You Can’t Leave Behind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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