Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Parashat Mas'ei - Full Circle


This week's Parasha is effectively the end of the Torah. In literary terms, it is the end of the "omniscient narrator" version of the story of Klal Israel. Next week, with Parashat Devarim, we enter into a first-person retelling of the story from Moshe's POV. Before there was Modernist and Post-Modernist Meta-Literature, there was the Torah. The Torah as a literary work parallels and supports its internal Halachic processes: both the literary and the lawmaking functions are marked by an astounding economy of language and statement, and both narrative and Halachic passages are stated in ambiguous terms that are infinitely rich in interpretation and meaning.

As we bid farewell to the Omniscient Narrator ("ON") we are also transitioning, as we have seen over the last few Parshiyot, from a group led by fiat and designated leaders, to a society where individuals rise to the occasion, then take on responsibility, thereby becoming the new leadership. This was prominently exemplified by Pinhas - who has the zeal and passion, though not the self-control, to take on the Kahuna - and by Banot Tzelophechad, who change the course of human history by speaking up for what they believe is right. Their reward is to be singled out by name: twice in their own Parasha, then specifically at the very end of this week's Parasha. And so it is that the narrative ends with the names of five women who broke the mold and changed the world forever.

And where are we, now, at the end of the narrative?

In the profoundest sense, we are right back where we started. The literary parallel structure whereby Moshe mirrors Abraham has been pointed out. The ON's version of the story of 'Am Israel begins with Abram at Parashat Lech Lecha. At that point, Abram is about to pick up and leave Haran and enter the Land of Canaan. Remember that Haran was merely a resting place. It was Abram's father, Terach, who actually determined to set out from Ur Kasdim and take select members of his family along. On the way they paused at Haran, and ended up settling there. Rather too long, it turns out, for Terach dies there, and it is only with a further push from G-d that Abram continues on the path his father set out on many years before.

Similarly, we left Mizraim, headed for Canaan. It has taken us forty years, but now we are almost there. Like Abraham, we have been sidetracked. Like Abraham at Haran, we have put down roots in a place were we do not belong. Like Terach, those who set out on the first leg of the journey will not live to see its completion - rather, their children will complete it, and will gain much glory in the accomplishing. With few exceptions - Aharon, Miriam... Moshe - the exploits of our children will far outshine those of us who perish in the Midbar.

The recounting of the stages of our journeys through the Midbar makes an important point. Contrast it with the passage (33:54 notably) which describes the apportionment of the Land of Israel among the tribes. The message could not be more plain: in the Midbar, G-d has led us every step of the way (Rambam explicitly makes the point that our "Wanderings" were not mere stumblings-about, but that G-d led us with the Pillar of Smoke and the Pillar of Fire), our comings and goings were at the Divine word. Now, once we enter the Land, we are left to our own devices. G-d will not lead each tribe to its inheritance, but gives Moshe a general schematic for figuring it out. The message is coming through loud and clear: we are on our own.

This is not to say that G-d abandons us. But there is a handing-over of authority, a theme we have seen emerging since the beginning of Sefer Shemot. Just as Ya'akov is handed off from the Angels of Eretz Israel to the angels of Chutz La'Aretz - and then handed back again on his return - so too there appear to be aspects of G-d that traveled with us in the Midbar, but that will not accompany us into the Land.

We see from the Midrash that Miriam's Well dries up when she dies, that the Ananei HaKavod (Clouds of Glory) vanish with Aharon's passing. With the death of Moshe, a palpable link to G-d's authority, to G-d's presence will be severed. We will not have a single leader to dispense G-d's word to us. Not ever again. Lo kam be-Israel ke-Moshe 'od. There never arose again a Prophet in Israel like Moshe.

Now, coming as it does in the season of Tisha Be'Av, what links do we see in the Parasha to this time of year? And how does it tie back to the message of the Parasha: the end of the Torah. Again: when I use the phrase "the end of the Torah", it marks the ON leaving off, passing over the narrative to Moshe. Sefer Devarim - the Book of Deuteronomy - is also called "Mishnei Torah" the Second Torah. It is of a different character from the other four books. As we shall see, BS"D, the method of composition is different from the first four books. This is Moshe's story, his narrative, his voice. Like an operatic hero who has been stabbed in the heart, Moshe is given a thirty-minute aria before he is carted off the stage to thunderous applause.

Before we touch on the parallels to the Parasha, we should raise one concept. I warn you that we are about to enter a politically explosive area.

The Rambam makes a point of what he believes is our ultimate goal: a direct relationship with G-d. Discussing the Exodus, and the commandments regarding animal sacrifices to be brought in the Mishkan, the Rambam makes the observation that these rituals and practices are not for G-d, but for ourselves. We leave a country rich in tradition, in stylized and ritualistic behavior. A country where gods literally roam the earth - in the person of Pharaoh and his household - and in which religious symbolism is part of everyday life.

How are we, then, newly-liberated slaves, to establish a relationship with our newfound G-d?

Our path is obvious to us: a deity requires ritual, lore and infrastructure. To make sure we understood that we now have our own religion, G-d commanded upon us the construction of a sacred space (Mishkan), the performance of sacred rituals, using sacred objects, within that space, all to be ministered by a sacred family. Now that is something we can understand. Otherwise, it would be as though, Rambam says, G-d had commanded us to no longer wear Tefillin. "Not wear Tefillin?" you ask. "What kind of religion is that?!"

But our ultimate spiritual goal is not the wearing of Tefillin. It is the relationship with G-d. And while certain aspects of that relationship - like Torah study and Tzitzit - may be permanent aspects of our way of life, other parts of our practice are intended to fall away. It is a positive development that we no longer bring animal sacrifices; that we have replaced sacrifice with Tefilla - prayer. This, the Rambam would argue, constitutes Progress.

I put forth the suggestion that the contrasting of our wanderings, specifically guided by G-d, with the haphazard allocation of parcels of land, indicates that our true relationship with G-d is not tied to a piece of real estate. That it is when we are wandering that we can commune with G-d. This theme finds strong expression in Sefer Bereshit, where cities are explicitly tied to the evil that humans do - starting with Ur Kasdim - whereas the open spaces, the Midbar, is the place to which we must escape to find our soul.

There are two key links between the Parasha and the period of the Three Weeks, and both emanate from the Daughters of Tzelophechad who, in a very real sense, embody the new Klal Israel - the enthusiasm, the purity of intent, the volunteerism that will characterize the best of our nation as we go forward.

When, in Parashat Pinhas, G-d tells Moshe that he will not live to enter the Land (27:14 ff.) Moshe's response is to ask that G-d appoint a successor. The Midrash tells us that, just as G-d permitted Tzelophechad's Daughters to succeed him, so that his name could be carried on, Moshe was secretly hoping that his own sons would succeed him in the Leadership of Klal Israel. The unfortunate sequel to this secret prayer is that Moshe's grandsons do, in fact, become Priests - Priests of Ba'al serving the Idol Worship at Shilo.

Shilo is also the focus of the tragic story of the Tribe of Benjamin, which was all but exterminated by the other Tribes over the savage murder of the Pilegesh. In compassion, so that the Tribe not die out completely, the men of the other tribes brought their daughters to Shilo on Tu Be'Av and allowed the men of Benjamin to abduct them into marriage - a practice which still survives in certain central Asian cultures.

The Gemara in Ta'anit tells of two significant restrictions that were lifted on Tu Be'Av: the prohibition was lifted and the Tribe of Benjamin was brought back into the fold. Also on Tu Be'Av, the Daughters of Tzelophechad were permitted to marry men of their choosing, and not only men of their own tribe, as Moshe decrees at the end of this week's Parasha.

And Shilo is the place where animal sacrifice gives way to prayer. The story of Chana, the central image of the High Holy Days, is the story of the first person who substituted all-out fervent prayer for ritual, who substituted a broken-hearted crying out to G-d for the slitting of animals' throats, the dripping of blood on the altar. And what to we see is the ultimate fate of Shilo? The place itself becomes corrupted, becomes associated with Idol Worship. It is associated with Belial and with the birth of the enemy of the Men of Belial - the Prophet Shmuel.
Shilo - the birthplace both of Jewish prayer, and of Jewish Avodah Zara'.

Is it possible that we have mis-read Ya'akov's blessing? In Bereshit, 49:10, Ya'akov's blessing on Yehudah contains the phrase - 'Ad ki yavo shilo. This is generally interpreted as a prophesy foretelling the coming of Mashiach. "Until Shilo shall come..." But clearly Shilo represents a transitional stage, an inflection point. It is a historical place and time in which the future of Klal Israel truly was in doubt. It could have gone either way; and, for a significant moment, it did. It went the way of Idol Worship, only to be saved by the prayers of a broken-hearted woman who realized the emptiness and futility of ritual. An early student of the Rambam.

The word "Bo" - literally meaning "Come" - is also used at Bereshit 28:11. Ya'akov, fleeing from his brother, stops and spends the night - "Ki ba ha-shemesh" - "Because the sun had set."

Perhaps Ya'akov's blessing on Yehudah, the leader of the family, soon the be the leader of the nation, was not that some magical future moment would come. Perhaps Ya'akov's blessing is that Yehuda will weather all storms. That neither the authority of leadership, nor the guardianship of tradition and Torah wisdom shall depart from Yehudah, but he shall weather the storm, even until the going-down of Shilo. Then the ingathering of all nations shall be his.

It's just a thought, but it seems to me that is what true spiritual and moral leadership is all about.


And so Moshe's career comes to a close. And before he shuffles off this mortal coil, G-d gives him one final command. Chapter 35, starting at verse 15, constitutes the last Mitzvah, the final commandment given by G-d to Moshe. The coda of this Parasha, the instruction from Moshe to the Daughters of Tzelophechad, comes out of Moshe's own legal analysis, and from his consultation with G-d. But the final command given by G-d to Moshe is that of the Cities of Refuge.

Banot Tzelophechad step forward, the true inheritors of the spirit of Abraham Avinu. Like Abraham, they heard G-d's call. "Lech Lecha!" G-d calls: "Come for yourselves! Come to me!" And they step into the breach, taking on all the risks and all the consequences of their choice.

Pinhas takes up the role of Aharon and his sons. This man who is guided by a wrathful zeal - who can stand against him? Like the certain of the more strident fundamentalists in our own midst, we are uncomfortable in his presence, we wish he would go away. Yet, there is a sense in which we can not, in good faith, attack his fundamental position. G-d has done the best that could be done under the circumstances, by imposing upon Pinhas the Covenant of Peace. He is going to need it.

Moshe hands off to Yehoshua, who Moshe seems to think not fully up to the task.

And now, the final commandment closes the last literary loop. The Cities of Refuge are established for those who unwittingly kill someone. They are to flee there, and there they are to remain until the death of the Kohen Gadol, at which point they may re-enter society.

Moshe, too, started his career as an accidental murderer. His slaying of the Egyptian was an act of momentary passion, of Pinhas-like zeal. If, the next day, when Moshe sought to intervene between two Hebrews, they had listened to him, instead of "outing" him, the Redemption would have taken place on the spot. Instead, one of the men announced to the world that Moshe had killed a man.

And so he fled. Fled to Midian where he was to spend a lifetime, returning to Mizraim, his home, only after the death of "those who sought his life."

This, too, is embedded in our law. Not everyone who kills is on the level of Moshe Rabbeinu. But all who kill are entitled to a lifetime of contemplation of their act. Their remorse is a societal value, with perhaps a far greater societal effect in its compassion that the exaction of stern justice.

Moshe does his own penance. His early experience - when Gautama-like, he goes out of the Palace and sees how people actually live - turns him into a reluctant and highly effective leader. He does not act out of self interest - though there are those who speak of him as Casca and Cassius speak of Caesar - he does not lose sight of the goal. He argues with us for G-d's sake, and with G-d four our puny sakes.

And so the final Mitzvah is rendered in his honor. Moshe, who was a Stranger In A Strange Land, fled from one exile into another. We, who are not made of the same stuff, are given the mercy of being permitted to seek refuge among our own people. And just as we sit behind the walls of our City of Refuge and contemplate what we have done, our brethren on the outside must also contemplate what kind of society gives rise to murder, to the killing, literally of one family member by another.

The Gemara tells us that Rage is a form of Idol Worship.

The Rabbis tell us that the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed because of Sinat Hinam - Baseless Hatred. Is there really any other kind? Doesn't hatred stem from believing that we know what is right, and other people refuse to concede? Doesn't hatred arise when we create idols out of our own self-image, when we make our own peevishness and appetites and egos more important that peace and justice and compassion?

When is it time for the going-down of Shilo? For the creation of a Just Society? For us to become a Nation of Priests and a Holy People?

If not now, when?

Yours for a better world.



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