Tag Archives: Torah

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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Jealousy and Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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