Friday, March 24, 2017

For Good & For Ill / Parshat Vayakhel-Pikudei 2017-5777

We humans have an unfortunate, but entirely human, tendency to brand others as “all good” or “all bad.” This week’s combined parshiot, Vayakhel and Pikudei, offer a response.

The Book of Exodus is divided into three sections: First, the narrative of the Exodus, from the Israelites descent into Egypt through their ascent out of Egypt, crossing the Reed Sea, and arrival at Mount Sinai, where they entered into a Covenant with God. With Matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah), Torah proceeds with the second section of Exodus to recount many of the mitzvot that comprise the Covenant. With parshat Terumah, we enter the third section of Exodus, which concerns the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle).

Parshat Terumah begins by announcing that the contributions to build the Tabernacle were voluntary. People would bring what they were inspired (אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ) to donate:

 דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ-לִי תְּרוּמָה:  מֵאֵת כָּל-אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ, תִּקְחוּ אֶת-תְּרוּמָתִי
Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. (Exodus 25:2)

In Vayakhel we find similar language in the description of the Israelites’ enthusiastic and generous donation of their gold to fashion the vessels used in the sacrificial service.

 וַיָּבֹאוּ, כָּל-אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר-נְשָׂאוֹ לִבּוֹ; וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר נָדְבָה רוּחוֹ אֹתוֹ, הֵבִיאוּ אֶת-תְּרוּמַת יְהוָה לִמְלֶאכֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וּלְכָל-עֲבֹדָתוֹ, וּלְבִגְדֵי, הַקֹּדֶשׁ.  כב וַיָּבֹאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים, עַל-הַנָּשִׁים; כֹּל נְדִיב לֵב, הֵבִיאוּ חָח וָנֶזֶם וְטַבַּעַת וְכוּמָז כָּל-כְּלִי זָהָב, וְכָל-אִישׁ, אֲשֶׁר הֵנִיף תְּנוּפַת זָהָב לַיהוָה
Everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved him came, bringing to Adonai his offering for the work of the Tent of Meeting and for all its service and for the sacral vestments.  Men and women, all whose hearts moved them, all who would make an elevation offering of gold to Adonai, came bringing brooches, earrings, rings, and pendants—gold objects of all kinds. (Exodus 35:21–22)

The Rabbis note that this is not the first time the Israelites have donated their gold: they handed it over to Aaron to make the Golden Calf (as recounted in Exodus chapter 32). They further note that in other instances, the Israelites engage in specific behaviors—both for good and for ill. In the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim 1:1) we read:

R. Yehudah bar Pazzi said in the name of Rabbi [Yehudah ha-Nasi]: When we read these verses, do we not tremble?—

On the good side: כֹּל נְדִיב לֵב All who were of willing heart (Exodus 35:22).
On the bad side:  וַיִּתְפָּרְקוּ, כָּל-הָעָם, אֶת-נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב, אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם; וַיָּבִיאוּ, אֶל-אַהֲרֹן So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron (Exodus 32:3).

On the good side: וַיּוֹצֵא מֹשֶׁה אֶת-הָעָם לִקְרַאת הָאֱלֹהִים Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God (Exodus 19:17).
On the bad side: וַתִּקְרְבוּן אֵלַי, כֻּלְּכֶם, וַתֹּאמְרוּ נִשְׁלְחָה אֲנָשִׁים לְפָנֵינוּ Then all of you came to Me and said: “Let us send men before us” (Deuteronomy 1:22).

On the good side: אָז יָשִׁיר-מֹשֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת, לַיהוָה Then Moses and the people Israel sang this song to Adonai (Exodus 15:1).
On the bad side: וַתִּשָּׂא, כָּל-הָעֵדָה, וַיִּתְּנוּ, אֶת-קוֹלָם וַיִּבְכּוּ הָעָם, בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא Then all the congregation raised a loud cry and the people wept that night (Numbers 14:1)…

R. Abba bar Acha said, “You cannot truly make sense of the character of this nation. When they are approached to build the Golden Calf, they contribute. When they are approached to build the altar, they contribute.”

R. Yose b. Chanina taught the following tradition: וְעָשִׂיתָ כַפֹּרֶת, זָהָב טָהוֹר Then you shall make a mercy seat of pure gold (Exodus 25:17). Let the gold of the mercy seat come and effect atonement for the gold you gave for the Golden Calf.”

First, let’s explain the three sets of verses and then explore R. Abba bar Acha’s and R. Yose b. Chanina’s comments about them. We have already mentioned the first set of verses.

In the second set, the people step forward: In the first instance, the Israelites take their places at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive God’s Torah—that is good. In the second instance, they defy Moses and God because they did not trust either to lead them into the Land, and demand that spies scout out the land before they agree to enter it—clearly this is bad.

In the third set of verses, the people speak up: In the first instance, having crossed through the Reed Sea and experienced God’s salvation, they sing God’s praises—this is meritorious. In the second instance, after the spies bring back their report, the people again raise their voices, wailing, weeping, and railing against Moses and Aaron, refusing to enter the land—this is deplorable.

The three juxtapositions inspire R. Abba bar Acha to observe that the Israelites are a confounding nation: At times they are exceptionally obedient and pious; at other times they are contentious and rebellious. They contributed gold to make the Golden Calf as readily as they contributed gold to build the altar. What is one to make of such a people?

R. Abba bar Acha’s frustration is palpable and surely reflects God’s exasperation with the Israelites, who were in turns loyal and contumacious, courageous and cowardly, loving and ungrateful. Does this characterization of Israel sound surprising? Or does it sound entirely human? Perhaps it sounds like someone you know.

How does God respond to Israel’s extreme vacillations? R. Yose b. Chanina tells us that God expressly planned for this behavior, establishing a golden seat of mercy to serve as atonement for the gold donated to build the Golden Calf. God built into the Mishkan a mechanism for forgiveness and atonement. God didn’t have to think about and consider every rebellion—God was poised and prepared to forgive Israel as soon as they repented.

It would be easy to paint the Israelites a nation of rebels and ingrates, ever trying God’s and Moses’ patience, but this passage from the Yerushalmi reminds us that one-sided views are rarely accurate. They’re more about our tendency to demonize those whose behaviors or views rankle us and a reminder of our capacity for compassion and forgiveness. Would that we could stop and search for the “good verse” when the compulsion to criticize and condemn comes upon us; then we could access the golden seat of mercy in our souls.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Theological Revisionism: Parshat Ki Tissa 2017-5777

Budapest’s Szabadsàgtèr Park (Freedom Square) has become a gallery of monuments to a spectrum of political ideologies:

A stone’s throw from Budapest’s majestic Gothic revival parliament building, Freedom Square teems with monuments attesting to Hungary’s turbulent 20th century. Dominating the north side of the plaza is a giant obelisk constructed by the Soviet Union and dedicated to the city’s Red Army liberators. A few paces south one finds a statue of Imre Nagy, the executed hero of Hungary’s 1956 anti-Soviet revolt, standing on a bridge looking forlornly on parliament. At the southern end of the square, outside a Calvinist church, stares a bust of Admiral Miklós Horthy, the authoritarian regent under whose reign Hungary passed the first anti-Semitic law of 20th-century Europe in 1920, allied with the Axis powers, and deported some half-million Jews to Auschwitz in the largest and swiftest mass transfer of the Final Solution. In the middle of it all, a bronzed Ronald Reagan walks briskly toward the nearby U.S. embassy. With its abundant memorials, this one plaza commemorates the grand sweep of Europe’s most influential 20th-century ideologies: communism, nationalism, fascism, and democracy.[1]

Today a fifth monument, the pet project of Hungary’s nationalist prime minister, Victor Orbán has been added: the Memorial to the Victims of the German Occupation. A German imperial eagle attacking the Archangel Gabriel, symbol of Hungary, conveys a clear message: The Hungarian nation was a victim of German aggression during World War II and, as an occupied country, bears no responsibility or guilt for its complicity in the Holocaust. In the world of Orbán’s historical revisionism, the “victims of the German occupation” are not Jews; they are non-Jewish Hungarians. In response to a Hungarian art historian who questioned the meaning of the monument, Orbán wrote that “it can hardly be disputed that Germany bears responsibility for what happened in Hungary after March 19, 1944… We cannot bear a responsibility that is not ours to bear… The victims, whether Orthodox, Christian, or without faith, became the victims of a dictatorship that embodied an anti-Christian school of thought.”[2] In sculpture and words, Orbán rewrote history: he made invisible the nearly one million Jews who were the primary victims of the Nazis and declared the Hungarian state’s enthusiastic endorsement and active collaboration in mass murder evidence of its “victimhood.”

Revisionist history takes many forms and it is always noxious, shifting blame from the guilty to the innocent. It happens not only in the post-Holocaust world of lies, distortions, “alternative facts,” and deceptions, but in the world of theological retellings, as well.

This week’s Torah portion, whose most salient story is that of the Golden Calf, and Talmud’s reflection on, it provide a case in point. While Moses is still at the summit of Sinai, God tells him what is happening down below and urges him to hurry down.[3] God’s declared intent is to annihilate the people, but Moses successfully talks God out of it. That accomplished,

וַיִּפֶן וַיֵּרֶד מֹשֶׁה, מִן-הָהָר, וּשְׁנֵי לֻחֹת הָעֵדֻת, בְּיָדוֹ:  לֻחֹת, כְּתֻבִים מִשְּׁנֵי עֶבְרֵיהֶם--מִזֶּה וּמִזֶּה, הֵם כְּתֻבִים

Thereupon Moses turned and went down from the mountain bearing the two tablets of the Pact, tablets inscribed on both their surfaces: they were inscribed on this side and on that side. (Exodus 32:15)

The first set of tablets that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai, which he subsequently hurled to the ground, were engraved on both sides. (They are typically depicted as being engraved on only one side; for example, see the image to the right.) The language used to express this idea is mi-zeh u-mi-zeh (lit: “from this [side] and from that [side]).

A similar construction involving zeh…zeh appears in the Book of Esther. To set the scene: Mordechai has just learned about Haman’s decree to kill all the Jews of Persia. He rends his clothes, puts on sackcloth and askes, and walks through the city wailing. Jews throughout the kingdom have also heard the news of Haman’s decree. Like Mordechai, they are mourning, fasting, weeping, and wailing; like him, they don sackcloth and ashes.

Esther, in the palace, sends clean clothes for Mordechai, but he refuses to remove his sackcloth. Here is where we find zeh…zeh.

וַתִּקְרָא אֶסְתֵּר לַהֲתָךְ מִסָּרִיסֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱמִיד לְפָנֶיהָ, וַתְּצַוֵּהוּ, עַל-מָרְדֳּכָי--לָדַעַת מַה-זֶּה, וְעַל-מַה-זֶּה

Thereupon Esther summoned Hathach, one of the eunuchs whom the king had appointed to serve her, and sent him to Mordechai to learn the this and that of it all. (Esther 4:5)

On the basis of the use of zeh…zeh in both Esther and Exodus, the Talmud observes:

לדעת מה זה ועל מה זה אמר רבי יצחק שלחה לו שמא עברו ישראל על חמשה חומשי תורה דכתיב בהן (שמות לב) מזה ומזה הם כתובים

…“to learn the this and that of it all.” R. Yitzhak said: [This teaches that Esther] sent a message to [Mordechai, saying]: “Perhaps Israel has transgressed the Five Books of the Torah, of which it is written, “they are inscribed on this side and on that side.” (BT Megillah 15a)

R. Yitzhak’s suggestion, that persecution and suffering are divine retribution for sin, is a theological staple of the rabbinic stable. The presumption that God’s power trumps the power of all human rulers leads the Rabbis to analyze history along a single vector: Bad things happen to Israel in response to Israel’s sins. The mere use of zeh…zeh is enough evidence—and, indeed, the sole “evidence”—to draw this conclusion and blame the Jews rather than lay the blame on the proper doorstep: a narcissistic and maniacal prime minister.

And, in the words of too many infomercials, “Wait, there’s more!” Earlier in the same tractate, R. Shimon b. Yochai explained that the Jews of Esther and Mordechai’s generation deserved the genocide Haman devised for them:

R. Shimon ben Yochai’s students asked him, “Why did Israel’s enemies in that generation deserve extermination?” He said to them, “Because they derived pleasure from the feast of that wicked one [i.e., Ahasuerus].” “If so, [only the Jews] of Shushan should have been [subject to being] killed; [Jews] throughout the rest of the world should not have been [subject to being] killed.” They [the students] said to [R. Shimon b. Yochai], “You tell us [why our reasoning is flawed].” He said to them, “Because they prostrated themselves to an image [i.e., engaged in idolatry].” They said to him, “Should favoritism be should in such a matter?” [I.e., if they Jews were engaged in so heinous a sin as idolatry, why did God permit them to be saved?] He said to them, “They performed [the prostrations] only outwardly [i.e., without genuine conviction]. So, too, the Holy Blessed One dealt with them only outwardly. Thus it is written: For [God] does not willingly [lit: “from the heart”] bring grief [or affliction to people] (Lamentations 3:33). (BT Megillah 12a)

When R. Shimon says, “Israel’s enemies in that generation,” he does not mean the Persians: he means Jews![4] The students assume that the Jews who suffered did so deservedly—they have been taught to think this way. Their teacher, R. Shimon b. Yochai, supplies the sin to justify the punishment: They participated in the king’s lavish banquet, which is described in Esther chapter 1. But that’s illogical, the students point out, because only the Jews of Shushan could have attended the king’s party. Yet Jews throughout all the provinces of Persia were designated for destruction. Okay, R. Shimon says, then it’s because they were engaged in idolatry, the catch-all sin. All of them? Really? There is not a single word in the Book of Esther that supports R. Shimon’s claim, nor does he attempt any fancy interpretive footwork to pin his claim on a verse.

R. Shimon reconstructs history from out of his theological framework; his is a theologically-inspired revisionist history. He blames the victims and thereby absolves the guilty.

Stepping away from Jewish tradition for a moment, we see that this is not merely an attribute of the ancient world and far from a uniquely Jewish phenomenon. Every time tragedy strikes in America, someone steps before a microphone or camera or keyboard and opines that this event was the just punishment of God in response to our sins. No sooner had Adam Lanza killed his mother and massacred 20 first-grade children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 than the radio show host Bryan Fischer declared, “We’ve kicked God out of our public school system. And I think God would say to us, ‘Hey, I’ll be glad to protect your children, but you’ve got to invite me back into your world first. I’m not going to go where I’m not wanted. I am a gentleman.”[5]

Journalist Brandon G. Withrow has written:

This phantom idea of God’s judgment eagerly waiting to drop the sickle “haunts” — to use a term of Flannery O’Connor — the conservative Evangelical mind in America, whether or not they know its roots. That is why a pastor can blame a hurricane on the so-called “homosexual agenda” and not feel in any way unjustified in doing it, and why those outside of that dark worldview might find it to be an absurd idea.

I think there might be a better way: If you are unable to console, consider silence.[6]

If the best you can do is silence, that is certainly far better than theologically-inspired revisionist history and victim-bashing. But Withrow is entirely right: consoling is a far holier response.

There is a deep connection between truth in the factual sense and truth in the religious sense. When we untether ourselves from factual truth and go chasing after lies, distortions, and revisionist history, we disconnect ourselves from morality and decency, and thereby from genuine holiness.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


[1] James Kirkpatrick, The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age (2017: Yale University Press), pp. 40–41.
[2] Ibid., p. 44.
[3] That, in itself, is strange because God’s declared intention is to destroy the people and start anew with Moses. How will that happen if Moses hurries down and is destroyed in the ensuing genocide?
[4] This viewpoint is consistent with another famous story in the Talmud in which R. Shimon b. Yochai severely criticizes Roman society and culture and, by implication, Jews who indulge in Roman society. As a result, the Romans place a bounty on his head and he is forced to hide for twelve years in a cave. This story is found in BT Shabbat 33b-34a.