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.


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