Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Parashat Korach - Monsters From The Yid


In the classic 1956 science fiction film Forbidden Planet, the dashing space ship captain, Commander John Adams, played by the handsome Leslie Nielsen, confronts the evil Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) in a climactic scene of hand-to-hand combat that personifies the Struggle Of Good Versus Evil. Nielsen / Adams, trying to wrestle Morbius / Pidgeon to the ground, shouts, "People can't just do what they want - that's why we have laws and religion!" (I'm quoting from memory, so FP fanatics, please cut me some slack!)

Did you ever notice how so many science fiction stories are about the theme of incredible new discoveries, or amazing new technologies, that somehow get out of control and destroy themselves, taking with them their inventor / discoverer, and most of the human race?

We have our hands on the most amazing technology of all: Torah. The Torah, through which G-d created Yesh Me'Ayin - Being Out Of Nothing. And in creating the Jewish People, G-d also created something from nothing. From an oppressed group of slaves whose only identity lay in the commonality of immense suffering, G-d fashions a Nation - 'Am Israel.

Dr. Morbius shows Captain Adams the amazing technology of the Krell civilization - the extinct inhabitants of the Forbidden Planet. Then he explains ominously that their own technology ultimately destoryed them. That, out of their darkest unconscious thoughts and desires, demons arose that slew a great civilization. In the culminating scene of mano-a-mano combat, Morbius shouts "That's what destroyed them Monsters from the id!" Captain Adams, all-American jock astronaut, while pursuing Morbius across the laboratory and trying to get him in a hammerlock, shouts, "The id? The id? What's that?"

Put simply: everybody wants to be Daddy's favorite. Or: some people will do anything for attention.

As to Korach, the question is not, Why does he rebel. The question is, Why now?

The brewing crisis of leadership in Klal Israel may begin with the gifts of the Nesi'im at the end of Parashat Naso, when the Nasi'im of the twelve tribe bring identical offerings on successive days, and the Ba'al Koreh has to read each of them - and we have to listen to each of them. The Midrash tells us that the Nesi'im argued amongst themselves, for only one of them could be the first to bring his gift. You can only throw out the first pitch one time. But G-d, wishing to make each of them feel important, permitted each to bring the same gift, and made each new, unique, based opn the one who brought it. Sort of like our Paskening that we say the Berachah of Shechechiyanu on the second day of Yom Tov because it's the first time that we observe the second day...

No sooner have the Nesi'im been placated, relates the Midrash, but Aharon voices his displeasure. G-d's policy of No Nsai Left Behand has now left Aharon feeling slighted. After all, he reasons, the Mishkan was supposed to be all about me, Aharon, doing the Avodah. Why didn't I get to bring anything? But, G-d croons soothingly, Aharon, see, you get to light the Menorah, and that is something you get to do every day. And no one else gets to do something every day, and that's much more important than a bunch of stones and basins and what not... But Aharon, not to be outdone, has no sooner agreed to this "higher" form of honor, in Parashat Beha'alotcha, than he and Miriam fall to criticizing Moshe. They attack his character and say that his involvement with the Cushite woman makes him unfit to lead. After all, they reason, G-d speaks with us also. It's not only Moshe who hears G-d's word. (The Cushite woman, by the way, is never identified, and heard from again. She is the Dark Lady of the Chumash.)

Last week, in Parashat Shelach, twelve Princes were dispatched to spy out the Land. Bamidbar 13:2 "... one man of his father's tribe shall you send: each, a prince among them." Note that the verb "shall you send" is voiced in plural. It is all of 'Am Israel that send the spies, not Moshe alone. And things get out of control. It is precisely because the entire nation sends the spies that we believe we have the right to tell Moshe what to do, to argue with Moshe's leadership. Like the contingent in a synagogue who voted against hiring the new rabbi, anything they disagree with is met with the complaint: "I didn't check that box on the New Rabbi Search Committee Questionnaire!" And the immediate result is that the ten spies who spoke against proceeding to enter the Land are smitten with a plague and die.

This week, Korach - like Moshe and Aharon, a Levite - gathers around him 250 of the princes of Israel and stages a showdown with Moshe and Aharon. The same word describes the 250 (Nesi'ei Israel) as described the twelve sent to spy out the Land of Canaan. They are the class bretheren of the ten whom G-d slew. Korach is standing up for the ruling class and asserting their right to participate in the direction of the nation. Korach and his passle of princes demand nothing less than their own Magna Carta, insisting that Moshe and Aharon share the power.

And why now? Why just at this moment? The Midrash on Beha'alotcha, quoted by Rashi, tells that Eldad and Medad prophesied the death of Moshe at the moment we entered the Land. Korach has been able to bide is time, knowing that Moshe would soon be out of the way, and already having seen the people immediately descent into disarray and despair - remember the 'Egel, where we counted wrong by half a day, and it very nearly wrecked the nation? - Korach knew that those truly focused on power would soon have free rein to ascend. Now, though, with the foray into the Land thwarted, Korach sees himself trapped in another thirty-eight years of kowtowing to the leadership of Moshe and Aharon. This was not the plan. He takes action.

The Midrash tells us that Korach discovered one of Joseph's secret treasure troves, and that there was so much wealth inside that it took 300 donkeys just to carry the keys to Korach's new hoard. Korach, it should be noted, did not side with Aharon and Miriam, nor with the 'Am - the hoi polloi - when they tried to attack Yehoshua and Caleb. Now, though, that G-d strikes down the aristocracy, Korach sees that wealth and status do not confer power in this society, nor even protection. It is this realization that galvanizes him into action. For the Wealthy, the natural order consists in the wealthy attaining power, and in the masses following dutifully. Wealth should guarantee power. The Powerful must cede some of their power to the wealthy - just as Moshe shared his Wisdom with the Elders, so must he share his Power with the Rich.

A brilliant elitist leader, Korach does not attack head on. He does not confront Moshe and say: Since I'm so rich, you should accord me special status. He does not seek to buy influence by contributing to the Mishkan treasury, or by offering Moshe and Aharon an all-expenses-paid junket to the Jordan Sands Hilton Hotel and Casino. Nor, interestingly, does he offer to buy the Land of Canaan from its current inhabitants, as did his ancestor Abraham.

Rather, Korach address the entire assembly - people he characterizes in his private moments as "rabble" - and says, pointing to Moshe and Aharon: "These men think you are not good enough to control your own destiny." His question "Who put you in charge?" is patently ridiculous, for it was G-d who put Moshe and Aharon in charge of 'Am Israel. Yet, this is the Revolt of the Princes, and so such a question may be posed, must be taken seriously, and needs to be answered.

In a poignant outcry [16:10] Moshe snarls at Korach, "... and the One that brought you near, and all your bretheren, the Sons of Levi with you - and you seek to take the Priesthood (Kahuna) also?!" For Moshe was originally supposed to be both the political and the spiritual leader - to be both King and Priest - yet lost the Kahuna because he delayed in carrying out G-d's word. "Even I didn't get the Kahuna," Moshe seems to say, "and now you want it too?"

The Gemara in Shabbat tells the story of a non-Jew who came to Shammai with the following taunt: Convert me to Judaism, on the condition that I be made Cohen Gadol. When he approached Hillel, Hillel first converted him, then told him: If you want to be Cohen Gadol, you need to study all the laws. And of course, the new convert quickly discovered that he would never become any kind of Kohen, much less Kohen Gadol. And yet, the story ends with all the new converts praising Hillel for bringing them under the wings of the Shechinah. Such is the awesome power and beauty ofTorah for those who embrace it.

Korach's argument is seductive. And dangerously wrong. At 16:3 he states, "All the Congregation, all of them are holy..." To believe that being born Jewish imbues one with an intrinsic holiness is the pinnacle of Avodah Zarah (Idol Worship): the worship of the self. Like all myths of national uniqueness, it is based on a lie so seductive none of us is wholly immune to its charms. All the more so because at its core lies something almost exactly identical to Truth. Almost. But not.

We were given the formula for seeking holiness a scant five verses before, in the Parasha of Tzitzit which ends Shelach-Lecha. There, we are commanded to be guided by the Tzitzit to remember, to observe and to perform all of G-d's Mitzvot, and thereby to become holy to G-d. Halacha is the process whereby we strive to become holy. And holiness in Torah is a process, and not a static state. Only G-d IS holy. The rest of us are presented with infinite opportunities for attaining holiness, but each pinnacle has a downward slope immediately behind it, and so we must repeat our observance of the Mitzvot and adhere continually to Torah. Our holiness is not innate. It is based on What We Do, not Who We are.

Now we also understand the true Sin of the Spies. We say the Sin of the Golden Calf, yet it was not the Calf that sinned, but we ourselves who sinned through the Calf. We say the Sin of the Spies. Yet it was not the Spies who sinned. We sent them, acting collectively. And when they returned, we wanted to be guided by them. They were the aristocracy, and we wanted nothing more than to cede to them our own moral responsibility. And, incidentally, to be able to blame them, and not ourselves, if things went wrong. Korach plays the political game brilliantly, for he sees that the lower classes are eager to ape their betters, rather than thinking for themselves. We have become a rabble, a mob.

We are ripe for having others do our thinking for us.

At 16:13, Dathan and Abiram snub Moshe's invitation to dialogue, saying "... you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness, and now you want to make yourself a ruler over us?" And then, [verse 14] "And you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us an inheritance of field and vineyard..."

In our eyes - for we all stood at Sinai - there is no difference between Mizraim and Eretz Israel. They are interchangeable. The only difference is that, in the Land of Israel, we shall be the landowners. In Mizraim, we owned nothing - not even our own bodies. Should we derive from this Pasuk that, in the Land of Israel, the indigenous inhabitants will be our slaves, just as we were slaves to the Egyptians?

We sent Spies to bring back a report of the Land. They came back and told us that it flows with milk and honey, which means nothing more to us than merely a comfortable place to live, rather than having to wander in the desert. The Spies did not even see the holiness of the Land, and we did not want them to see it. Their sole disappointment is that they no will have to wait a further 38 years before they become the Landed Gentry. And our disappointment?

After the death of the 250, there are rumblings of insurrection. We murmur against Moshe and Aharon saying "You have killed the people of G-d." A fanciful reading of the Hebrew word "Va-yilonu" - "and they murmured" - is to read in it the word YUD LAMED NUN - meaning To spend the night. It is as though under cover of darkness, we stir ourselves up to acts we would not contemplate in broad daylight. Korach's message was that poweful. We actually believe that Korach and his crowd were holy. More significant, we do not include ourselves in the rebuke. We do not say, "You have killed our bretheren." We do not consider that we ourselves may have just had a close call. No. We are celebrity woshippers. Korach and the Princes, the Aristocracy of the Nation. Korach says we are holy. Now Korach is gone. And now who can we turn to to make us feel special?

The Sfas Emes, on Parashat Shelach, writes that the verb LaTur - in the instruction to the Spies "LaTur et haAretz", to explore the Land - means, "To bring Torah into the Land". In that, we failed miserably. For Torah is not yet in ourselves. Hence the corrective of the Tzitzit, telling us "lo taturu..." - "do not explore your own desires, your own ideas," do not think - as G-d placed the Land before you and invited you to see it before you embraced it eternaly - that you should embrace your own thoughts and whims and notions as though they were given by G-d. Embrace rather the Halacha.

Finally, the Parasha ends with an extended and detailed discussion of all the obligations and gifts, therituals and the responsibilities given over to the Kohanim. As if to remind Moshe not to chafe at his own loss of office. Just as Korach could never be Moshe, so Moshe can never be Aharon. The Torah goes to great lengths to "rub it in."

Yet, there is room in Torah for everyone. Not because we ARE holy - for we are not - but we have been given a way to strive after holiness. We are Chosen, not because we are better than anyone else, but we have been chosen for a life of obligation to strive to better our own selves. To fulfill the Mitzvah and the potential of becoming a Holy Nation. One of the reasons Jews have been so successful at sustaining morality is that, for the last two thousand years, we have all known, as surely as any human being knows anything, that we would never be In Charge. And so we turned our Torah inwards, seeking to improve ourselves, our families, our community.

Korach's partner, On Ben Peleth, is singled out, and his lineage traced all the way back to Reuven. Reuven, who attempted to take control of the family by taking his own father's wives during Yaakov's lifetime. It is a nice literary twist - and no coincidence - that the text ties Korach's behavior directly to that of the son who sought to unseat his own father.

Lineage is only lineage. It does not guarantee moral behavior. It is certainly not a substitute for it. The Rambam says that the Exodus from Egypt was the first experience of Exile, setting the stage for the eternal theme of Exile and Redemption that spans our history. If, in our eyes, both Egypt and Israel are the Land of Milk and Honey - if we can not tell the difference for ourselves between Exile and Redemption - if we believe Korach's Yiches is more important that G-d's Torah - then are we ready for anything? Do we really deserve to Be In Charge?

If, in this historical time and place where we are, in fact, in charge, do we strive to attain the Torah's level of morality? Or do we take it as our due that we may behave with impunity? That all Jews are intrinsically holy, and that any act committed by a Jew oozes a natural holiness, and must not be criticized?

Because this leads not only to Jews despising Goyim. It leads to Jews despising one another.

If we are a Holy People, it is only in potential. The rabbis who teach that there is intrinsic holiness in the body of a Jew have spread Avodah Zarah among Klal Israel.

Monsters From The Yid.

In our comfort, in our sense of security, we may come to believe that we intrinsically deserve what we have. We may come to stop asking difficult moral questions: about the place of the Jewish community in American society; about the moral obligation of rich, safe, secure Jews towards poor, frightened, hunted non-Jewish victims of Ethnic Cleansing; about the duty we owe Jews in other parts of the world - Jews who are poor, and frightened, and abused - and who may not be so appealing to us because they are culturally so different from us that... they don't Look Jewish... We may stop worrying about the rights of others, rights that sometimes suffer when we get what we want. It's OK, we might argue, it's all right, we might say. The world owes it to us for a change.

If we believe this - even for a moment - then maybe even thirty-eight years won't be time enough for us to prepare.


Yours for a better world.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Parashat Shelach-Lecha - Seeing Is Believing


In Parashat Yitro, G-d introduces the Decalogue by saying "I am the L-rd your [singular possessive] G-d who took you [singular] out of Mizraim..."

Why does G-d start the grand eternal process of Mattan Torah by addressing the individual Jew? Does it work? What does it lead to?

The Meraglim - the Spies sent to reconnoiter the Land of Canaan prior to the planned ascent and possession of the Land by Bnei Israel - represent the first recorded case of mass Apikorsut. And it is the Apikorsim who are the true foundation of all Avodah Zarah (Idol Worship). The most powerful form of Avodah Zarah, precisely because we do not recognize it as such.

When Moshe instructs the Meraglim in what to look for, it is obvious that no one knows what the land of Canaan looks like. We know it is our Eternal Prmise, and that we will receive certain blessings once we possess the Land. But we have no idea what we will find there. It is a mystery, and one that must be taken entirely on faith.

A nation of slaves went through tribulation and the pain of escape, of wandering in the desert - and will suffer through an additional thirty-eight years as a direct result of the actions of the twelve men who were sent to spy out the Land - all for a plot of real estate none of them has ever seen.

Caleb actually instigates the whole mess by speaking up - unasked - in the middle of the detailed descrption of the Land and urging the People to "go up, go up!" It is only then that he unleashes the others' vehement doubts, and the anger and disappointment rises to such pitch that the crowd is about to stone Caleb and Yehoshua.

What is Avodah Zarah? And what is an Apikoros?

It has been said that, in order to qualify as beintg an Apikoros, one must first become a Talmid Hacham. It believe the more accurate assessment is that, as Apikorsut is an outgrowth of the intellect, the Apikoros tends to be a supremely intelligent person. An Apikoros believes the testimony of human perception. But the determining factor is: the Apikoros believes that the human perception and feeling actually creates the underpinning of the inner truth of Torah.

A Rasha' - a Wicked Person - says: "I know G-d commanded us to keep kosher, but I don't care." An Apikoros says: "Three thousand years ago it was dangerous to eat meat in dishes that milk had been cooked in. You could get food poisoning. Nowadays, we have refrigeration and sterilization, it's OK." What most people do not expressly state, but what underlies this statement, is "And that's the way G-d wants it to be."

A Rasha' understands perfectly well that the Torah operates on its own internal principles but rejects them because the Rasha' refuses to yield his or her personal will to the Will of Torah, expressed most succinctly in living Halachically.

An Apikoros accepts the testimony of human perception and believes the world can be known thoroughly by means of logic, applied to the perception of our own senses. Paradoxically, the Apikoros is more likely to believe that he or she is submitting to the "true" Will of G-d. The Apikoros believes that the Will of G-d infuses Torah, but that the rules and behaviors dictated by Torah rise from the Time and Place in which they were written down, and thus no longer accurately reflect the original Will of G-d.

The Rasha' completely accepts that Torah binds us, yet she or he rejects it nonetheless. The Apikoros often accepts Torah as "a way of life," paying great homage to the importance of "our eternal tradition". It's just that, when it comes to what the Torah really means to say (or really should have said), the Apikoros knows better.

This week's parasha elevates the act of Seeing to unprecendented heights. In this parasha, we are shown Seeing as both Faith, and as Apikorsut. We are shown Seeing as an act that simultaneously humbles us, and elevates us.

And what is Avodah Zarah, but the spiritual attachment to what we see.

If G-d had shown us a map, a photographic guidebook of the Promised Land, how manyt people would have actually chosen to go there? Imagine you are sitting in the parched desert and are offered a holiday brochure. Do you want to go to this arid patch of land, sparsely covered with grass and stunted trees, and populated by ioncredibly ruthless people at constant war with one another? My reaction would be: Maybe you have a cruise to the Greek Isles? A weekend in Paris?

We could not have been shown the Land, but have to come to it on our own terms. As an act of faith.

This is the greatness of Caleb - which, by the way, merits him a comparison with Abraham, the Man of Faith. In chapter 14, verse 24, G-d says G-d will single out Caleb and bring him into the Land - "ve 'avdi Caleb 'ekev hayita ruach acheret 'imo..." - "And my servant Caleb, BECAUSE ['ekev] there was a different spirit within him..." This word - 'ekev - is the word with which G-d uplifts Abraham at the Akeidah, granting him an eternal covenant "BECAUSE ['eikev] you listened to my voice..."

What is the message of this Parasha, which ends - inexplicably, it would seem - with the paragraph on Tzitzit?

The paragraph of Tzitzit actually leads up to a restatement of the First Commandment - only this time it is cast in plural form: I am the L-rd your [plural possessive] G-d whoi brought you [plural] out of Mizraim...

The Meraglim went up to Spy Out - la-tur - the Land. The verb carries a sense of expoloiting, of appetite, of taking what we want. And the Mitzvah of Tzitzit is not merely to wear them - indeed, this is a complex discussion, for there is no Mitzvah to wear Tzitzit at all! The Mitzvah is: "And you shall see them, and you shall not go after [taturu - the same verb that applies to the Meraglim] the whims of your mind and the whims of your eyes..." There is more, in fact. I read the entire string of verbs that follows the act of seeing the Tzitzit as a single Mitzvah:

Look upon them. Remember all of G-d's Mitzvot, and do them. And do not follow the whims of your mind (the Torah's word "lev", meaning Heart, has the same meaning as the modern term Mind: it is the organ of thought, of understanding and comprehension.) and do not follow the whims [appetites] of your eyes. These are whorish desires. So that you remember and do all of G-d's Mitzvot and become holy like your G-d.

The Meraglim saw with their own eyes. They say (13:33) "we appeared in our own eyes as grasshoppers - and so we appeared to them too."

We followed the whim of our eyes. We went with our first feeling - our own conviction that this would not work out.

Jews are not often big on talking about Faith. But it takes tremendous faith to get up in the morning, to cross the street. To put one's children on the schoolbus and take the train into the office. If our history of enslavement in Mizraim did not teach us - if the return after the Babylonian Captivity did not teach us - if our survival after the Expulsion of 1492 did not teach us - if the emergence of a nation after the Holocaust did not teach us - if the great moments of human history do not teach us, then perhaps it is because we see the world topo much through our own eyes.

Wipe the strings of techelet across your eyelids and pray that it clarifies your perception. Life is short - whatever destiny awaits, it awaits us now. If we put it off because of a momentary feeling, we might wander for thirty-eight more years, then die in the wilderness, even with our goal within sight.

Yours for a better world.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Beha'alotcha - Altar Egos and Split Parshan-alities

Those of us who have been longing for certainty can now breathe easier with the announcement that the Great Sanhedrin has been reconstituted and will soon announce itself as the sole arbiter of Right and Wrong in the world of Torah.

We'll come back to this story later in the hour. First, the latest on the Parasha.

Bamidbar 8:14 - "And you shall separate the Levi'im from the midst of Bnei Israel, and the Levi'im will be mine."

Chapter 9:1 "And G-d spoke to Moshe in the Midbar of Sinai, in the second year of their coming out of the Land of Mizraim, in the first month, saying:" - Did you notice that this parsha precedes Parashat Bamidbar? Which occurs "... on the first day of the second month of the second year..."? Rashi states that the purpose of this juxtaposition is "to teach that there is no order of 'before' and 'after' in Torah. Why does Rashi state this principle at this juncture? It is sometimes more startling to contemplate Rashi's underlying reasons for making a statement, than to learn the content of the statement itself.

The first part of the Sedra deals with the sanctification and setting-apart of the Kohanim. Note that this section follows on the heels of the action of Parashat Naso', which describes the dedication of the Mishkan. Logically, the section describing the setting-apart of the Kohanim should be the final section of Naso', and its actions should follow chronologically on the heels of the closing section of last week's Parasha.

Parashat Naso' ends with Moshe entering the Ohel Mo'ed to listen to G-d's words: according to Rashi's dissection of the incredibly precise wording of the pasuk, G-d speaks in a soliloquy, which Moshe is privileged to overhear. Immediately after this, the first Pasuk of our Parasha states: "And G-d spoke to Moshe..." The Speaker's focus seems to have shifted - the actor speaks his innermost thoughts aloud on an empty stage, then changes his tone as another figure emerges from the wings. The beginning of Beha'alotcha logically continues the flow of action from last week. It is only after the Kohanim have been sanctified that the text rewinds to a month before the activities that have been described in such detail. The sanctification of the Kohanim actually happens AFTER the actions of chapter 9, which is the bringing of the Korban Pesach. (Rashi also observes that this is the only time during the forty years in the Midbar that we bring the Pesach.)

G-d tells Moshe that G-d will take some of Moshe's wisdom and distribute it among the Ziknei Israel. It appears that Moshe's own share of wisdom does not diminish, but that the same quality of Wisdom is now shared out among seventy additional individuals, each of whom will become part of the leadership of Bnei Israel.

When the Elders were called out to receive the Wisdom, two of their number - Eldad and Medad - remained behind in the camp, where the spirit of Chokhmah descended on them too. Why does G-d instruct Moshe to bring the Elders to a place outside? Why does G-d not simply instill them with Wisdom where they stand? Coming from Moshe's first encounter with G-d, there is a combination of the physical with the spiritual which lies at the very heart of Judaism. Torah recognizes the tension inherent in Existence - that we inhabit the world of Space, Time and Motion - indeed, that this world makes us who and what we are. That, but for our flawed physical and temporal existence, we could never have Torah. In the very first encounter, G-d does not tell Moshe "You are about to receive holy teachings," G-d does not say "Pay close attention to these holy words." Rather, G-d instructs Moshe "Remove your shoes from your feet, because the ground you are standing upon is holy." It is the receiving of G-d's message that imbues the spot with holiness. Once the message has been received, the spot may retain a residual holiness, but it is the holiness of the "Mantel", the cloth covering that wraps the Sefer Torah, rather then the holiness of the Torah itself. It is only through our actions, the performance of mitzvot, that we continue to imbue objects and places with holiness.

Eldad and Medad remain where they were, and yet the spirit of Chochmah descends upon them, and they begin prophesying freely. Yehoshua', incensed, tells Moshe to kill them, whereupon Moshe replies - "Would that all Bnei Israel were Prophets!"

Aharon and Miriam mutter between themselves and disrespect Moshe over his Cushite woman, and G-d physically comes down and stands before the opening of their tent and hollers for them to come out. G-d rants at them, and G-d punishes them, and it is only through the intervention of Moshe that they are spared - using the word TZ'AQA - the same word G-d applies to the murder of Abel ("Dmei achicha TZO'AQIM elai min ha'adamah.") ("The blood of your brother CRIES OUT to me from the earth.")

And after the Pesah, G-d immediately gives the laws of Pesah Sheni, a make-up observance for those who were ritually impure, or on the road - in short, for those who had other things to do that prevented them from bringing this all-important Korban in its proper time.

Why does Rashi emphasize this discrepancy of time? Is this strong evidence of an agenda behind the planning of the parshiyot?

If the actual chronological sequence had been followed, we would first learn that a Tamei person has the opportunity to make up what he or she missed, by simply repeating it a month later. In preparation for the dedication of the Mishkan, all Tamei persons are ordered removed from the Machaneh. The dedication of the Mishkan is exactly parallel to the cosmic occurrence of the first Sabbath - a once in cosmic history occurrence - but it is one that is symbolically repeated (symbolically? Or actually?) each time the Mishkan is taken down, moved and set up anew.

So, again, if the section of the Pesach in the Midbar came in the narrative where it comes in time - which is before the setting up and dedication of the Mishkan - then we would not be so focused on doing things right. Then setting up the Mishkan would be just another activity, a Mitzvah , but one that can be done on our own timing.

There are certain mitzvot that are constant renewals. When we say the Shema in the morning and evening, each saying is a new acceptance of the Yoke Of Heaven, each recitation creates anew our relationship with G-d. This is perhaps comparable to the Ner Tamid - the Eternal Light - which was not kept lit constantly, but was lit every day, without fail. It is certainly akin to the Mishkan, the construction of which is viewed as a reenactment of Ma'aseh Bereshit - the Work Of Creation. Renewed each day, as we say in the morning prayer.

The deeper message underlies the ongoing dispute between Rash and the Ramban. In the sequence of Matan Torah, for example. Rashi does not follow narrative sequence, but believes all is conflated to Moshe ascending twice, coming back down twice.

The Ramban, on the other hand, reads the text of Torah in direct narrative, argues with Rashi in vehement terms. Does not the Torah, he argues, know what it means to say? Or was its Author so confused as to state something three times when only two actually occurred?

This gives us insight into the fundamental differences of Rashi / Ramban, and perhaps into underlying differences of Ashkenazi versus Sefardi peshat. Ashkenazim, following Rashi, tease out the secrets, the sequences of events that are hidden in the Torah narrative, make them explicit, and go on to derive principles from them. Sefardim, following the path laid down by Ramban, insist on the integrity of the text as it stands. The inner secrets of Torah remain hidden, and are for us to uncover in our own manner and in our own time. It is as if to say that secrets do not stand revealed, but disclose themselves to us when we are prepared. Rashi, on the other hand, uncovers the inner structure of Torah and brings its secrets to the surface.

The Ahskenazic Haggadah asks the Four Questions in the order of what it considers the importance of the Mitzvot; the Sefardic asks in the order in which the elements of the night appear at the table. Ahskenazim say we are responsible "to view oneself" as though we had been personally redeemed from Mizraim; Sefardim say "to show oneself" - "viewing" means we have taken in the message, that we have our own inner interpretation of events. "Showing" means we conform to an outer behavior that is broadly and uniformly recognizable, both by outsiders and by each other. The Ashkenazic texts seems to give the responsibility for interpretation to the individual; the Sefardic, to the Klal.

And, of course, one imagines that Rashi and Ramban do not fundamentally differ on the inner meaning of Torah, any more than did Shammai and Hillel - but that Ramban inherited something of Shammai's sternness and insistence on conformity, while Rashi carries on Hillel's tradition of permitting individuals to seek their own level, to find Torah for themselves and ultimately embrace it as a process of discovery and falling in love.

Meanwhile, back at the Machaneh... Eldad and Medad pop up like two characters in a Star Trek episode. They have been struck by the Spirit of Prophecy, and they appear not to know what hit them as they spout prophesy in midst of the camp. Is this different from any modern concept of the evolution of rabbinic Judaism, which emerged when one group muscled another aside and claimed for themselves the direct line of SMICHA from Moshe? The first Mishna in Pirkei Avot speaks directly to that notion: Moshe received Torah from Sinai, and then passed it on directly in unbroken line down to... to whom? To the Chief Rabbis of the state of Israel? to this or that Rebbe? To the Yeshivas?

It depends who you ask.

Which makes it all the more fascinating to read in the press that Adin Stenisaltz has accepted the post of Nasi of the new start-up (or is it "upstart"?) Sanhedrin now being created in Israel.

A perfunctory viewing of some of the names of people associated with the project - it is notable that the majority do not want their names revealed - shows a distinct tendency towards Mashiach, Beit Shelishi, and the re-establishing of the monarchy of Beit David. None of which is likely to find instant acceptance with the Rabbanut, the Yeshiva world, or the Security Council...

The comparison to the END OF DAYS series of highly popular novels depicting Armageddon, the Rapture, etc for the ultra-radical Christians with what appears to be leaking from the all-but-hermetically-sealed container of the Sanhedrin Project is instructive and not a little scary.

What has led Jews to the step of seeking to establish a Biblical Theocracy in the State of Israel? Where do they think their support will come from? Do Steinsaltz et al really believe the American ultra-right Christians (Or is it the Ultra-Christian right...?) are on the side of the Jews? Their entire rhetoric is xenophobic and anti Jewish (not to mention anti Muslim, black, women, etc) and anti human rights. These are frightening people. all the more so because the John Kerrys and Hilary Clintons of the world are standing by and reassuring the American voter "Hey guys, we're religious too! We believe in G-d, Jesus, America, Family Values!" They don't want to be left out. Perhaps the only area in which these strange bedfellows overlap is in the extrmism of their rhetoric. And, frightening to contemplate, the extremism of their underlying belief systems.

The Ultra-Christian Right have dedicated two decades of highly organized, laser-focused work on attaining political clout. They have an Approval Rating process, which they publicize, and members of the House and Senate are constantly checking their ratings, which equal votes. A surprising level of members of both houses enjoy approval rating approaching 100%. Is Rabbi Steinsaltz next to attain a Perfect Score on the Christian Right chart for his stance on the major issues?

When the Psalmist admonishes us to Put Not Our Trust In Kings And Princes, it refers to members of the Senate too. Especially when their underlying philosophy embodies an eschatology that has us all being vaporized. Is it too simplistic to ask this particularly nasty question: if the eschatology of the Christian Right requires the Return of all Jews to the Land of Israel - which then precipitates the Rapture in which all Jews will be instantly (and painfully) destroyed - are we essentially being herded into a small plot of real estate so that we can be exterminated?

If all this is simplistic and excessive in tone, let us remember that it is simplistic communication that moves vast numbers of people, that motivates crowds. That fires up mobs. The people at the forefront of the current movement in America are not Billy Graham, they are not John Paul II. Time will tell who and what they are, but I, for one, believe The Time is already here. There are people in the State of Israel who yearn for the Land of Israel, people who believe the way to bring Mashiach is to rebuild a gigantic stone temple and resume the slaughter of sheep and goats. Might I suggest that this approach might risk losing sight of G-d's historical imperative?

In Torah, there is no word that corresponds to our contemporary word "Nature." Everything that occurs is either at the hand of humans, or at the Hand of G-d. Perhaps the State of Israel had to be created by non-religious Jews. This was Jews acting, not be-derech haTorah, but be-derech ha-teva'. It is the "natural" Jews who, without relying on G-d, forced the issue and created a State out of a blighted Land. We should all be extremely wary of attempts to "imbue the State with holiness." Because the definition of Holiness varies with the speaker.

And we should be even more cautious in our choice of friends. History proves time and time again that no one supports the Jews' agenda. Especially not the Jews.

Joshua comes to Moshe in a rage when he hears Eldad and Medad are publicly prophesying. "Wipe them out!" he demands.

Moshe looks sideways at Yehoshua and grins. The lad is full of the righteous fire of youth. Moshe, who has been to the mountaintop, has a longer perspective. "Destroy them?" he asks quietly. "Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp, and you want me to destroy them? I wish ALL the people were prophets!"

Moshe stretches his legs, cradles his head in one arm and reaches for his Bombay and tonic on the rocks. "Don't worry," Moshe reassures his young amanuensis. "Let them all become prophets. They'll destroy themselves...!"

Yours for a better world...

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Parashat Naso - The Strong and the Weak

The news of the Republic is dim today.

The Air Force Academy has been commandeered by the Jesus Brigade. The Air Force football team has a huge banner in the locker room announcing TEAM JESUS, and anyone who is not an Evangelical Christian is being harassed. It is not clear whether the Evangelicals constitute a majority of the student and faculty population, or just an extremely well-organized minority, but there have been complaints from cadets, and a visiting delegation from Yale Divinity School were horrified to witness the trampling on human rights in the name of religion. The response of the "Christian Right" has been: "So... what's your point?" And Congress does not appear to have the bandwidth to deal with the matter. It makes one wonder how non-Evangelical cadets are going to feel about laying down their lives in foreign lands to defend the rights of Americans to control Moslem oil abroad, while enjoying freedom of religion at home... (NB: Capitalism and Free Enterprise extend to Halliburton - and by extension, Jesus - but not to Moslems. The Saudis, of course, enjoy a special exempt status, as the Bush Dynasty appear to be serving in the role of Palace Eunuchs to the Saudi Royal Family.)

This gets even scarier when you realize that the American Evangelicals, in their tens of millions, are the earthly guarantors of the continued existence of the State of Israel - at least as far as continued US financial and logistical support is concerned. We have managed to hang on long enough for the wheel to turn, maybe not full circle, but far enough to reveal that the Arabs may not really be friends of the Western governments. (The Mufti of Jerusalem was not willing to help Hitler solve his Jewish Problem by encouraging mass emigration of Jews from Europe to Palestine. Supposedly, when he arrived at Wannsee, the Mufti was so shocked by the proposal that he told Hitler "I'd rather you just killed them all." And so it was done. This, despite the Mufti's reported cordial relations with leading European rabbis who had made their way to Jerusalem in the 1930's.) The question remains: when will the American Evangelicals decide that They, too, have gotten the message wrong, and precipitate the Rapture?

We have it stated clearly in Thucydides at the siege of Melos. The Strong do what they will; the Weak do what they must.

This week's parasha - incredibly rich in event and meaning - features two powerful instances of the Strong versus the Weak, as well as few other choice tidbits we shall attempt to cover without spending more ink on the commentary than was used for the text itself. (NB: Naso is the single longest parasha in chumash, so... You've been warned!)

Chapter 5, starting at verse 5, discusses theft. The gemara makes it clear that a very specific type of theft is being discussed. The reference in verse 6 - "... le-me'ol ma'al laShem..." refers to a person who was responsible for taking care of someone else's property. The property was destroyed (or lost) while under that person's care, and the watcher or guardian was actually at fault, but lies to the owner and says it was a case of unavoidable loss, and there is thus no liability. This is "treachery towards G-d", because in such a case, the Shomer (Watcher - can also be a borrower) must swear an oath that the loss was not preventable. Thus, the first injured party is actually G-d.

The word "ma'al" - spelled Mem, 'Ayin, Lamed - also means "Covering" or "Upper part", such as a shoe upper. Homiletically we might interpret this to mean that the individual is Covering Over sin with a good exterior, just as a well-polished upper may conceal a worn sole (as it says in Merchant of Venice when Shylock is stropping the knife on his shoe: "Not on they SOLE, Jew... on thy SOUL...!")

And who else is helpless in this scenario? The owner, who must bear the economic loss. Because we assume that people will tell the truth, and will not swear falsely. Thus, in swearing a fraudulent oath, one damages both G-d and one's fellow, as well as undermining the Torah's legal system. This is about as bad as it gets.

Or is it?

Immediately after this section comes one of the most inflammatory - to modern Western readers - passages in all of Torah: the laws of the Sotah. The rabbis' apology is that the wife's behavior, even if she is not guilty of adultery, has provoked her husband to take action. Sort of an ancient equivalent of not being able to find any Weapons of Mass Destruction...

True to its profundity of insight into human nature, the Torah gives an explicit literary picture of the effects of male jealousy. That an adult male, once in the grip of sexual jealousy, gives in to unbelievable and unappeasable rage, and extreme measures are required to calm the conflagration. Alas, it is so common to see sexual anger destroy relationships, destroy families, lead to wanton and unjustified acts of violence, even murder. Indeed, in verse 29 the entire ritual of the Sotah is called "Torat haKna'ot" - the Torah of Jealousies, and it is explicitly given as a remedy for male jealousy, even if unjustified. We do not have to approve of human behavior, yet the Torah acknowledges it.

Perhaps G-d has learned a thing or two about the incorrigibleness of human nature. Remember Parashat Noach: Bereshit 8:21. G-d smells the aroma of burning flesh, the sacrifices that Noach offers spontaneously after exiting from the Ark. G-d's reaction is: "... The YETZER of the heart of a human is wicked from childhood..." The word YETZER means Image, Created or Fashioned Thing. The translation "Evil Inclination" for the Hebrew YETZER HA-RA' doesn't give the full flavor of the word, for it is a word of action, of creation. G-d recognizes that, left to our own devices, we fashion evil images, then we live by them. We make them our gods. The saving grace of Judaism is that a basketball team (Jews don't play football,l let's face it!) called "Team Torah" would only suit up to play against "Team Moishe" for the Purim Tournament.

This is not to apologize for an obvious Double Standard. The Torah, in fact, is full of them, whether between Jews and Non-Jews, men and women, slaves and free, or any of the other dichotomies that underlie halacha. But recognize that the Torah knows human nature. The Torah knows there is no simple cure for jealousy - it goes back at least as far as Cain and Abel. And so this complex and unpleasant ritual stands in as a way of dealing with it. If it can not be eradicated, perhaps it must be flushed out into the open. Could it be that, by forcing the issue, the Torah desired to shame the jealous husband into silence, forcing him to address the matter in private? The thought of having to go publoic with the accusation of adultery is perhaps an even greater blow to a man's ego than the notion that it may - or may not - have actually happened. Please, the Torah seems to be begging, let's not air our dirty talleisim in public.

When G-d asks Adam whether he ate of the Fruit, what is Adam's response? Does he not swear falsely? He blames Chava. Adam tells G-d, in effect, that it was an 'ONES - a forced action, not under his own control. And in so doing, he deprives another - Chavah, the only other at the time - of her own right to stand before G-d and state her case.

And her answer also lays off responsibility onto the serpent.

No one is responsible for their own acts. What a world...

Finally, the Mishkan is dedicated.

It is famously told of the Nesi'im - the Princes of the People - that they held back and did not bring their gifts, but rather said "We will wait until everyone else has brought their offering, and we will make up the difference." This brings us back to our original topic of the Guarantors of the State of Israel.

We Jews in America are very much like the Princes. We are checkbook Zionists. We are very comfortable living in America - the perceived level of safety for the American Jewish community is greater than at any other place and time in history - especially including the modern State of Israel. We don't have to learn another language, we don't have to learn to count different currency. We don't have to spend every waking moment dealing with Jews...

Some of the Religious condemn the State of Israel because Mashiach has not yet come. Others agree, but take hope from the Taking Into Our Own Hands that led to the establishment of the State. Indeed, some go so far as to say that the State of Israel had to be created by secular Jews, because it is that fact that keeps Jews together no matter what their beliefs, that throws the Religious and the Non-religious in together and creates a Bottom Line identity for 'Am Israel.

And what of the Nesi'im? They are given a bit of a bad rap. They did not rush in to bring their offerings, but hung back, saying they would make up the difference. The rabbis tell us they thus showed their lack of faith in 'Am Israel - for the people rushed in, so eager were they to participate in the building of the Mishkan, and soon there was nothing left to give. Like the Religious, who pined for Zion... until a bunch of scrabbling street fighters took matters into their own hands and plunked Zion down onto the map - a fait accompli - without waiting for America, Britain, Russia... or Mashiach.

Who are the Nesi'im, anyway? Rashi, at 7:2, tells us they were the men who had been appointed the Overseers in Mizraim. There, in Parashat Shemot, Rashi explains that these men had sacrificed themselves, permitting themselves to be beaten for the shortfall of bricks, rather than permitting the Mizrim to beat their Hebrew brethren. As a consequence of this selfless act, Rashi says, they merited to become the Sanhedrin. Yet, because of holding back at the building of the Mishkan, Rashi says, they were not permitted to ascend Har Sinai together with Moshe to receive Torah, but were ordered to remain below.

Clearly, every act has its consequence. The Torah demonstrates over and over again the reality of Karma. But perhaps we can learn something else about these men and leave with a higher opinion of them than we came in with.

The Zohar says Moshe is the sun, and Yehoshua and the Ziknei Israel - the Elders - are the moon and the stars. The Zohar then poses a question: is it not true that the only thing we know about Moshe's personality is that the Torah tells us he was the most humble of people? How do we reconcile humility with the image of the sun? For is the sun not the very brightest light in the sky?

Humility, says the Zohar, does not consist in pretending to be what you are not. Moshe, the sun, recognized that the moon and stars could only shine after he was no longer in the sky. And so Moshe appointed the Elders to judge in his place, while he withdrew to his tent. Moshe willingly withdrew to permit those charged with the future oversight of Klal Israel to take their own place of brightness in the firmament.

So too, perhaps the Nesi'im - who had been the Ziknei Israel, who had been the Overseers and Taskmasters in Mizraim - perhaps they held back, not because of lack of faith in the 'Am, but to permit each one of us to shine individually. The Midrash tells us that, after all else had been brought, the Nesi'im brought gifts of their own free will - there was nothing left on G-d's shopping list, for we had brought it all. Moshe, remembering the consequences of an earlier offering brought out of greatness of heart, at first declined to accept the gifts of the Nesi'im, fearing they would suffer the fate of Nadav and Abihu. But G-d instructed Moshe to accept the gifts of the Nesi'im, even though they had not been commanded.


It so often happens in life that we deprive others of what is rightfully theirs, all because we want something. We take, we assume that we are in the right, we assert our own desires. Our egos are overwhelming. And we forget that every little act of our own ego has its impact on other people. Usually by taking something away - be it possessions, or opportunity, or dignity.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the tiger is the symbol of humility. "A tiger?" people ask. "Humble?" But notice: When the tiger walks, all other animals flee. Yet, the tiger does not roar, it does not threaten. It merely walks. Why does the tiger not need to roar to announce itself? Because it knows it is the tiger.

We must learn to withdraw our own sun from the heavens at times. For the sake of those we love. For the sake of those we honor. And when we neither love nor honor, then perhaps for the sake of the Just Society which Torah commands us to build.

Every star has its own bright light to give.

Yours for a better world.