Friday, July 3, 2015

The Race Against Racism Revs Up / Parshat Balak


From Columbia to Columbia; from degradation to dignity; from static to dynamic liturgy. And a talking donkey, to boot.

On the evening of June 17 2015, Dylann Roof entered the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, sat for an hour in a Bible study class, and then shot nine people dead, igniting a wave of grief, horror, anger, despairand frustration that violent racism is still a fact of life in this country, and that civil rights are as much a dream as they are a reality for far too many Americans. Ten days after the Emanuel AME Church shooting, Bree Newsome shimmied up the flagpole in front of the South Carolina State House in Columbia and unhooked the Confederate battle flag that has flown there since 1961. Whatever it may once have symbolized, the Stars and Bars is today an emblem of hatred and racial violence.

Permit me a moment of home town pride: Bree Newsome grew up in another Columbia, Maryland (not South Carolina), where I have lived for the past three decades and where we raised our four children. It was Newsomes actbold, forthright, proactivethat launched a serious discussion in this country about the meaning of the Confederate flag in the 21st century, the power of symbols, and the importance of taking them seriously. We see where that has gone in a short time: S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley has called for the permanent removal of the flag from the capitol. Walmart, Amazon, Apple, Sears, eBay, and others have pulled all merchandise with the Confederate flag. Yet it is abundantly clear that as far as we have come in the realm of civil rights, we have a long way to go before everyone in this country is assured of living the American dream without worry of discrimination and violence. Redemption is still a far-off dream for far too many Americans.

This weeks parashah, Balak, tells a story that would seem wholly unconnected to the events in South Carolina and the crying need for redemption from racial bigotry and violence in this nation. The Talmud, however, provides a wonderful bridge. The story told in Parshat Balak is simultaneously serious, and seasoned with burlesque comedy and satire. The Moabites go-to prophet is a man so daft that his donkey can see and comprehend what he cannot, and proves this by uttering human speech.

But the prophet Bilaam is out to make cold, hard cash by doing the bidding of King Balak of Moab, across whose land the Israelites are traveling on their way to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). Bilaam presents a real and present danger to Israel:

Balak son of Tzippor, who was the king of Moab at that time, sent messengers to Bilaam son of Beor in Petor, which is by the Euphrates, in the land of his kinfolk, to invite him, saying, There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me. Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.
(Numbers 22:4-6)

If Balaks speech reminds you of the paranoia of the bloodthirsty pharaoh of Egypt, you are on the right track. While the Moabites are the latest in a string of enemies Israel encounters in the Wilderness who seek her demise (joining the ranks of the Amalekites, the Edomites, and the Amorites) King Balak reminds us of Pharaoh in a way the others do not. Balak identifies Israel as the people that came out of Egypt but even more, his comments are reminiscent of Pharaoh, who tells his people:

Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground. (Exodus 1:9)

Where Pharaoh decrees the death of the Hebrew baby boys lest they rise up against him and assigns midwives the gruesome task of rooting them out and killing them, Balak hires a prophet to curse Israel. Is Israels escape from the murderous intent of Balak and the greedy grasp of Bilaam another exodus?

The Exodus we celebrate each year on Passover is on-going; redemption is continually and crucially needed.  Our story of national redemption is the core of our identity as a people. What it representsarising from degradation, striving for freedom and dignity is the universal dream of all humanity. It is an essential plank of our mission as a people. Our Sages recognized and honored the centrality of the meaning of the Exodus by assigning it a place of honor and prominence in our liturgy: it is the organizing principle in the section of prayers known as the Shema and its blessings. Twice daily we recite prayers that sketch out the Jewish view of history, from creation to ultimate and culminating redemption; the account of our redemption from Egypt presages the messianic future.

There is a suggestion in the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 12b) that some or all of the story of Bilaam ought to be included in the prayersspecifically the Shemaas a reminder of the Exodus. Are you surprised?

R. Abbahu b. Zutrati said in the name of R. Yehudah b. Zevida: [The Rabbis] wanted to include the section of Balak in the Shema, but they did not do so because it would have meant too great a burden for the congregation.

R. Abbahu learned from R. Yehudah b. Zevida that when the earlier Sages shaped the liturgy, they considered including the story of Balak in the Shema, but decided against it because it is so long. Perhaps youre wondering: Why not include a verse or two? They tell us further along that we only make separations between Torah passages where Moses did.[1] The question posed here is: Why include this passage at all?

Why [did they want to include it]? Because it contains the words, God who brought them forth out of Egypt (Numbers 23:22). Then let us say the section on usury or weights, in which the exodus from Egypt is mentioned.

The first answer offered to explain why one might include the Bilaam passage in the Shema is that Bilaam, in his second oracle, refers to the Exodus from Egypt. But this is hardly an unusual thing. If that alone qualifies for inclusion in the Shema, we might consider the passages in Leviticus that forbid usury and the use of inaccurate weights and measures when conducting business.[2] An obvious response to the challenge posed by comparing Bilaam with usury and false weights is that the Exodus from Egypt involved the redemption of Israel from the jaws of an enemy that sought her destruction. Usury and false weights are not in this category. R. Yose b. Avin, however, rejects the very suggestion that the mention of the Exodus is the reason the Sages considered using the passage about Bilaam. There is another verse, he tells us, that makes the passage relevant to the recitation of Shema:

Rather, said R. Yose b. Avin, [the reason is] because it contains the verse, They crouch, they lie down like a lion, like the king of beasts; who dare rouse them (or: get them up) (Numbers 24:9). 

The connection, according to R. Yose b. Avin, is forged by the image of the lion. Its crouching and arising evokes lie down and rise up in the first paragraph of Shema.[3] If that is the salient element in the story of Bilaam, then why not excerpt that verse alone to recite with Shema? The Rabbis explain that doing this is inappropriate because we follow textual divisions as Moses set them out. Rather than Bilaam, we have a paragraph about tzitzit (fringes).

Why did they include the section of fringes[4] [instead of the passage about Bilaam]? R. Yehudah b. Chaviva said: Because it makes reference to five [alt: six] things: the precept of tzitzit (fringes), the Exodus from Egypt, the yoke of the commandments, [a warning against] the opinions of the minim (heretics), the hankering after sexual immorality, and the hankering after idolatry.

(The Talmud proceeds to explain how the third paragraph of the Shema, which became a fixed feature of the liturgy, in fact addresses the six concerns expressed above.)

I am intrigued by the Talmuds suggestion that an alternative passage to the paragraph about fringes could be brought to illuminate the theme of Redemption.

How might we use Bilaam? Here, the plan of a powerful king, employing a powerful wizard-prophet, is foiled by a simple creaturethe donkeywho is attuned to God. The story can be interpreted as a reminder that power and position do not always succeed in enslaving, oppressing, and destroying people. How many powerful kingdoms throughout history have disintegrated as a result of their own internal corruption and the perseverance of idealistic opponents? The story of Bilaam is one of hope that corruption and evil intent do not always succeed, and redemption and wisdom sometimes come from unexpected placesthe stubborn donkey becomes a model for our refusal to accept injustice and oppression.

While the Talmud brings the passages concerning usury and false weights as examples of Torah texts that mention of the Exodus but would not be suitable for inclusion in the Shema, Id like to suggest that they might well serve that purpose admirably. The modern corollary to the Egyptian enslavement is the chronically impoverished who suffer from the systemic problems in our society that prevent them from experiencing redemption and true freedom. The passage concerning usury and false weights can serve to remind us of the need to clean up the system and employ honest weights so the poor can experience their own Exodus from the Egypt of poverty.

I can envision a dynamic liturgy with a space created in the Shemaperhaps weekly?to bring a text that mentions the Exodus or suggests a model for redemption. We would pause in our rote recitation of prayers and consider and discuss the interpretations and ramifications of the guest text in the service, thereby reminding ourselves of our obligation to not only be grateful benefactors of Gods redemption, but instruments for bring about other peoples Exoduses.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


[1] This is, of course, a highly subjective matter. Determining where and how Moses partitioned the text of Torahwithout even addressing the historical source of Torahis all but impossible to determine. The Rabbis seem concerned that the story of Bilaam, which extends from Numbers 22:224:5 (three chapters) should be considered one indivisible unit.
[2] Leviticus 25:34-38 instructs the Israelites not to lend the poor money or give them food at interest, thereby taking advantage of them and, in the long run, increasing their debt. It closes, I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God. Similarly, Leviticus 19:35-36 forbids the use of false measures of length, weight, and volume in the conduct of business and similarly closes, I the Lord am your God who freed you from the land of Egypt.
[3] The first paragraph of Shema instructs us to teach, speak, and live by the words of the Torah at all times and in all places, including this phrase: bshoch-bcha uve-ku-mekha  (when you lie down and when you rise up).
[4] Numbers 15:37-41.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

3 Takes on Jewish Mission / Parshat Shelach-Lecha 2015-5775

Hearing the phrase “a mission from God” conjures the image of the “Blues Brothers,” Elwood and Jake (AKA Dan Akroyd and John Belushi) who, in the 1980 movie were on a self-proclaimed “mission from God” to “put the band back together” in order to raise $5,000 to save the orphanage in which they grew up. No easy task, this one—along the way they are relentlessly pursued by the police, and run into a hoard of strange characters, including neo-Nazis and a woman who attempts to kill them with a rocket launcher and a bomb.

How many missions of divine or cosmic proportion are easy? The mission of the twelve spies described in this week’s parashah, Shelach Lecha, turns out to be far more complicated than Moses ever imagines and far less comical than the Blues Brothers. At God’s behest, Moses sends twelve tribal leaders to reconnoiter the land of Canaan in preparation for the Israelites’ incursion:

When Moses sent them to scout the land of Canaan, he said to them, “Go up there into the Negev and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land.” (Numbers 13:17-20)

Despite an initially favorable report filed by Joshua and Caleb, things soon go sour and catastrophe ensues. The other ten scouts dissent, protesting, “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we” (Numbers 13:31). The effect of their words is instantaneous. The Israelites are terrified. The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept all night (Numbers 14:1). The “mission from God” is scuttled and the Israelites are consigned to spend 38 more years wandering the Wilderness.

The very claim of having a “mission” implies a connection between the individual, the community, and the larger world. It raises many questions. While we have always rejected the notion of being a missionary or proselytizing religion, we have in the past embraced the self-understanding that we are a nation with a mission—a purpose as a people in covenant with God.

I want to share three diverse understandings of the notion of mission with you. The first is that of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, writing in the latter half of the 19th century in Germany—a time and place in history not made famous by statements of humility—and Hirsch’s formulation of the Jewish mission is no exception. Commenting on Leviticus 16:5, Hirsch tells us:

What the priest should be to the nation, the nation should be to the rest of humanity: a ‘lead ram,’ so to speak, striding steadily forward and upward at the head of all humanity, the flock of God, leading the way to the fulfillment of all that is noble and good.

For Hirsch, God brought the Jewish people into being to lead humanity, or perhaps seduce humanity, into what is “noble and good” in God’s eyes, which he understands to be the opposite of the wanton materialism Hirsch observes around him. He goes so far as to suggest that God intentionally made the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs challenging—even painful—because had their lives been easy:

…then this nation would never have become “the people of God,” the people who are to reveal God in the quality of Adonai. Then this people, too, like all the other nations, would have been rooted solely in the world of material things that can be seen and touched; like them, they would have had only physical foundations and would have understood their greatness and might only in terms of physical size and strength, aspiring to spiritual and moral attainments only as long as these would have been compatible with, and beneficial to, their material ambitions. (Commentary on Exodus 6:3)

Our purpose as a people, according to Hirsch, is to share with the world the moral and spiritual values that we learn from Torah and are supposed to practice in our family and communal lives.

Standing now at the beginning of the 21st century, at a time in our history when the stench of the crematoria still assaults our sensibilities, and we are keenly aware that the last of the survivors of the Holocaust will die within the next few years, in the minds of many “Jewish survival” has become our reason d’être. How much Jewish fundraising, albeit for wonderful causes, has referenced anti-Semitism and not-so-subtly suggested that we face threats ultimately as ominous as those of the Holocaust and therefore must contribute our resources to ventures that will insure “Jewish survival”? Indeed, when was the last time you saw fundraising that did not, in some way or another, push that alarm bell? In this context, I find value in Hirsch’s approach, if not in the particulars, of how he believed we ought to fulfill our mission. Hirsch’s rigid (indeed, reactionary) view of Jewish law and practice stemmed from a dire fear of secularism and deep distrust of modern science, particularly Darwinism, which he likened to worship of the idol at Ba’al Pe’or:

…a god of shamelessness, who was worshipped by giving brazen prominence to the most bestial aspects of human life… a manifestation of the kind of Darwinism that revels in the concept of humanity sinking to the level of animals and divesting itself of its divine nobility, learning to consider itself merely a higher class of animal. (Commentary on Numbers 25:3)

I do not share Hirsch’s fear of secularism; it is not a yawning moral chasm. I embrace the truths of science and the concomitant intellectual standards of rationalism and empiricism by which it operates. But I appreciate Hirsch’s assertion that Judaism has something positive and enormously valuable to contribute to the larger world.

The second formulation of Jewish mission I want to share with you, by contrast, is that of Leonard Fein, whose activism and writing on behalf of Jewish social justice concerns is legendary.  In 2010 he addressed a large segment of the liberal Jewish community that had made its conception of tikkun olam not only the core of their Judaism, but Judaism’s very reason d’être—in other words, its mission. Fein begins his famous essay by asserting that, in adopting the term tikkun olam to bespeak the Jewish mission, we have opened the term so broadly to anything and anyone who contributes to society that it has become “vague” and lacks the specificity necessary to be genuinely meaningful. As an example, Fein notes that these days “under the heading of healers we can place the neurosurgeon and the novelist, the community organizer and the honest broker and the devoted teacher, the benefactor of the arts and the heritage farmer, the caring bartender and the FBI agent”—in other words, virtually everyone. Acknowledging that talking about a “Jewish mission” opens the door to the dangerous and oft-misunderstood theology of “election,” Fein offers us this formulation of the Jewish mission:

The Jews are the quintessential witness. By virtue of our longevity, by virtue of our classic marginality, by virtue of the need for self-preservation, we have been precocious observers of our typically multiple worlds, witnesses to grandeur, to folly, to evil, to redemption. Our task is to speak out, to tell what we have seen, to say what we know.

He warns that this role will not garner us the admiration of others; indeed, it will breed resentment. Nor is it a reflection of our virtue. Rather it is about what have come to know through our experience, “by living in the interstices and learning there to keep our balance.” Fein was correct when he said that we have a vantage point that can inform conversations around the globe about justice and human rights, but I wonder if that alone constitutes a mission. How many others have suffered attempted genocide? The Armenians, the Rwandans, Darfur, the Bosnians, and the Rohingyans jump immediately to mind—all occurred within the past century. We are not alone in experiencing exile; consider the Poles after the partitioning, the Crimean Tartars in 1944, and the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala. Nor are we alone in cherishing a set of social values that include justice, compassion, human dignity, and human rights.

What, then, do we bring to the table that is unique? Perhaps the fact that that we have endured persecution, exile, and genocide repeatedly, for so long and in so many locations around the globe is a factor, but I think it must be far more. The ethical and spiritual values that have sustained us and continue to inspire and motivate us, are the very values the world needs—particularly in the face of the harsh reality of the capacity of humanity for cruelty and depravity. That we maintain a fervent believe in the capacity of humanity for, and its obligation to, justice and compassion; the premium we uncompromisingly place on human dignity and human rights; our willingness to engage in deep self-reflection and self-criticism in the commitment to live by our highest values; and the clear, unwavering goal of redemption for all humanity that we hold out as our guiding banner—these are the attributes that define our mission.

The third view of Jewish mission that I want to share with you this week bespeaks a hasidic perspective, at once deeply spiritual and universal. To appreciate this third perspective, let us return to the Torah’s account of the spies’ “mission from God.” Upon returning from their venture, Joshua and Caleb bring a positive assessment of the Israelites’ ability to fulfill the mission God has given them. The other ten spies issue an unfavorable report that terrifies the Israelites and convinces them to reject the mission to enter the land. Acknowledging that the land does, indeed, flow with milk and honey, the ten spies also note that its people are powerful giants living in fortified cities. As the people tremble and cower at this description, Caleb nonetheless asserts that despite all that has been said, the Israelites are capable of taking possession of the land. Yet the ten spies persist and warn that it is אֶרֶץ אֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ הִוא A land that devours those who dwell in it (Numbers 13:32). As a result, Torah tell us that The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night (Numbers 14:1). The people shrink from their mission, and tradition holds that the Israelites’ cringing and recoiling from their mission is the reason they spent another 38 years in the Wilderness: the time it would take for the generation born into slavery and unable to adapt to freedom and the responsibility it entails, to die off. Maimonides generously tells us that:

One cannot be expected to leave the state of slavery, toiling in bricks and straw, and go to fight with giants. It was therefore part of the divine wisdom to make them wander through the Wilderness until they had become schooled in courage, until a new generation grew up who had never known humiliation and bondage.

For Rambam, the Israelites were lacking in courage, not faith. Given their lives in Egypt, we should not wonder that the idea of attacking the Anakites, Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, and Canaanites was daunting.

This brings us to the third perspective on mission I want to share with you. The hasidic master, Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch (18th century, Poland-Lithuania) focuses on Numbers 13:32, אֶרֶץ אֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ הִוא A land that devours those who dwell in it. The Maggid hears the verse not only in the context of the story about the spies, but also lifts its meaning from off the page and raises it to a level of universal truth. It is not the spies, alone, who are sent into the land, but metaphorically, all of us, as well. The spies are not alone in becoming entangled and lost in the the concerns of physical life and thought, but we do, as well. Just as the spies were frightened away from their mission of finding a way to conquer the land so, too, are we often distracted from our true mission in life. (We’re going to dive into the pool of Kabbalah here, but please keep treading water; an explanation will follow.) The Maggid tells us:

Everything contains the ten qualities. That is what is meant when we say that the entire Torah is God’s delight: even its narratives speak of some quality [such as] love or awe, and this is the cloak of the Holy Blessed One. One must take care to raise up each and every thought. If it is a matter of love, raise it up to the attribute/quality of love. Similarly with fear. But don’t sit in it immobilized—because that would be enormously foolish. For example, a person travels to a city to conduct business but [rather than conducting his business] then just sits there, having left a family behind. Is there any greater foolishness than this? In the same way, the Holy One Blessed be God sends you to a thought in order that you should raise it up, but if you sit with it and do not restore it to the Holy One Blessed be God, is there anything more foolish than this? This is “eretz” (“land”), the corporeal realm, that consumes those who just dwell in it immobilized. (Or Torah)

The Maggid tells us that the lesson of the ten spies is a hint that everything contains the ten divine attributes conveyed by the ten sefirot (see Sefirotic tree below). The attributes with which God brought the universe, even existence itself, into being, depicted in the Kabbalistic tree, are implicit in everything—every material object, every act, every thought we have. All of creation contains at least the implicit potential for love, awe, wisdom, splendor, etc. This suggests that the full range of spiritual possibilities lies in every aspect of the universe, every facet of our lives, every object with which we interact, every thought that enters our heads. All the spiritual potential of God’s divine attributes is present, available, and, if we can focus our minds and energies to find it and realize it in our lives, accessible. Our job—our mission—is to elevate these qualities to a spiritual level. The man who traveled to do business is each of us every day: we are always traveling through the world engaged in the business of life. If we become immobilized by the material essence of things—focused merely on physical reality without a thought to the potential and meaning in everything and everyone we behold—we sit immobilized, foolishly missing the opportunity to raise up the divine sparks in whatever object or thought is before us, sadly missing the opportunity to transform it into something of spiritual meaning and purpose. Like the ten spies, we are mired in the lowest level of reality, unable to see beyond. (There may be a connection here with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in which those chained to the wall see only shadows.)

The Maggid interprets the idea of mission in a very personal, spiritual sense. Our job is to go through life seeing the “invisible value,” divine meaning, and cosmic connection of everything and everyone we encounter. We do not live in a “merely material world.” We live in a world of miracles, which is not to say abrogations of the laws of nature, but rather the world filled with such vast potential and purpose, meaning and magnificence, that in order to fulfill our own potential we must tap into it and see the world “through God’s eyes.” I would suspect that Dov Ber understood and intended that when we fulfill our personal, spiritual mission, each of us is better prepared to join with the community in a broader Jewish mission to the larger world, for the very idea of mission rests on a sense of connection: the individual to the community to the larger world.

Imagine that you could see beyond the physical reality of the elements of your life, or the immediacy of your thoughts, to a spiritual realm of potential and possibility, to the realm of holiness. That is the possibility—and reality—that the Maggid holds out for us by reminding us of the potential inherent in everything, and power of mindfulness to transform our lives. The possibilities do not end with us as individuals; they begin with us. Once we have begun to succeed as individuals, imagine how much we can accomplish as a community.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Fine Art of Complaint / B'haalotkha 2015-5775

Samuel Johnson once observed that of all the species on earth, “Man alone is born crying, lives complaining, and dies disappointed.” Crying and disappointment are sometimes unavoidable, but complaining is a choice. Is complaining good or bad? Is it Step One in identifying a problem, and thereby the launching pad to change and progress? Or is complaining an exercise in self-pity and therefore a dead-end street? As Shirley Chisholm once said, “You don't make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas.”


Parshat B’haalotkha gives us two examples of complaining that evoke diametrically opposite reactions from God. The first complaint is from the Israelites. If complaining is a trait exhibited only by humans, the Israelites have developed it into a fine art. From the moment they leave Egypt, they bemoan the “loss paradise” of the land of pharaohs and focus on the privations of life in the Wilderness rather than on their newfound freedom.

וַיְהִי הָעָם כְּמִתְאֹנְנִים, רַע בְּאָזְנֵי יְהוָה; וַיִּשְׁמַע יְהוָה, וַיִּחַר אַפּוֹ, וַתִּבְעַר-בָּם אֵשׁ יְהוָה, וַתֹּאכַל בִּקְצֵה הַמַּחֲנֶה.  וַיִּצְעַק הָעָם, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל מֹשֶׁה אֶל-יְהוָה, וַתִּשְׁקַע הָאֵשׁ.  וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא, תַּבְעֵרָה:  כִּי-בָעֲרָה בָם, אֵשׁ יְהוָה.  וְהָאסַפְסֻף אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבּוֹ, הִתְאַוּוּ תַּאֲוָה; וַיָּשֻׁבוּ וַיִּבְכּוּ, גַּם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֹּאמְרוּ, מִי יַאֲכִלֵנוּ בָּשָׂר. זָכַרְנוּ, אֶת-הַדָּגָה, אֲשֶׁר-נֹאכַל בְּמִצְרַיִם, חִנָּם; אֵת הַקִּשֻּׁאִים, וְאֵת הָאֲבַטִּחִים, וְאֶת-הֶחָצִיר וְאֶת-הַבְּצָלִים, וְאֶת-הַשּׁוּמִים. וְעַתָּה נַפְשֵׁנוּ יְבֵשָׁה, אֵין כֹּל--בִּלְתִּי, אֶל-הַמָּן עֵינֵינוּ.

The people took to complaining bitterly before Adonai. Adonai heard and was incensed: a fire of Adonai broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp. The people cried out to Moses. Moses prayed to Adonai, and the fire died down. That place was named Taberah, because a fire of Adonai had broken out against them. The riffraff in the their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!” (Numbers 11:1-6)

Hot on its heels is the second complaint, issuing from Moses:

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-יְהוָה, לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָ לְעַבְדֶּךָ, וְלָמָּה לֹא-מָצָתִי חֵן, בְּעֵינֶיךָ:  לָשׂוּם, אֶת-מַשָּׂא כָּל-הָעָם הַזֶּה--עָלָי.  הֶאָנֹכִי הָרִיתִי, אֵת כָּל-הָעָם הַזֶּה--אִם-אָנֹכִי, יְלִדְתִּיהוּ:  כִּי-תֹאמַר אֵלַי שָׂאֵהוּ בְחֵיקֶךָ, כַּאֲשֶׁר יִשָּׂא הָאֹמֵן אֶת-הַיֹּנֵק, עַל הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ לַאֲבֹתָיו.  מֵאַיִן לִי בָּשָׂר, לָתֵת לְכָל-הָעָם הַזֶּה:  כִּי-יִבְכּוּ עָלַי לֵאמֹר, תְּנָה-לָּנוּ בָשָׂר וְנֹאכֵלָה.  לֹא-אוּכַל אָנֹכִי לְבַדִּי, לָשֵׂאת אֶת-כָּל-הָעָם הַזֶּה:  כִּי כָבֵד, מִמֶּנִּי.  וְאִם-כָּכָה אַתְּ-עֹשֶׂה לִּי, הָרְגֵנִי נָא הָרֹג--אִם-מָצָאתִי חֵן, בְּעֵינֶיךָ; וְאַל-אֶרְאֶה, בְּרָעָתִי

And Moses said to Adonai, “Why have you dealt ill with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed Your favor, that You have laid the burden of all this people upon me?  Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant,’ to the land that You have promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people, when they whine before me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I cannot cary all this people by myself, for it is too much for me. If You would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness!” (Numbers 11:11-15)

Business consultant Isaiah Henkel contends: “Your problems are proportional to the amount of time you spend complaining about your problems: The less you complain, the fewer problems you will have. This is because complaining about your problems keeps your attention on your problems. And attention generates force.” Incessant complaining, Henkel suggests, generates an emotional black hole that sucks in energy, focus, attention, and resources that could otherwise be used to solve challenges. While this is sometimes the case, perhaps a more nuanced view of complaining reveals a subtler truth. This becomes clear when we compare God’s reaction to the Israelites’ complaint with God’s reaction to Moses’ complaint.

God reacts to Israel’s complaints with rage and fire, but responds to Moses in an entirely different manner:

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אֶסְפָה-לִּי שִׁבְעִים אִישׁ מִזִּקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר יָדַעְתָּ, כִּי-הֵם זִקְנֵי הָעָם וְשֹׁטְרָיו; וְלָקַחְתָּ אֹתָם אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, וְהִתְיַצְּבוּ שָׁם עִמָּךְ.  יז וְיָרַדְתִּי, וְדִבַּרְתִּי עִמְּךָ שָׁם, וְאָצַלְתִּי מִן-הָרוּחַ אֲשֶׁר עָלֶיךָ, וְשַׂמְתִּי עֲלֵיהֶם; וְנָשְׂאוּ אִתְּךָ בְּמַשָּׂא הָעָם, וְלֹא-תִשָּׂא אַתָּה לְבַדֶּךָ.

Then Adonai said to Moses, “Gather for Me seventy of Israel’s elders of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people, and bring them to the Tent of Meeting and let them take their place there with you. I will come down and speak with you there, and I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them; they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone.” (Numbers 11:16-17)

Both the complaint lodged by the Israelites and that of Moses are marked by specificity. The Israelites want the foods of Egypt; Moses wants to be relieved of the overwhelmingly crushing burden he feels. How do they differ? If we didn’t know better, we might imagine that the Israelites lived like royalty in Egypt, dining daily in the palace on haute cuisine that was not only exceptionally good, but entirely free. The Israelites’ complaint leaves no room for resolution: returning to Egypt is
not an option. They imagine a fictional past, something akin to revisionist history, concerning their lives in Egypt. This leaves no room for a solution. Eric Berne, the creator of Transactional Analysis, described a phenomenon in Games People Play in which one party complains (“we’re hungry out here in the Wilderness”), the other party suggests a solution (“here’s manna”), and the first party replies, “Yes, but…” (“it doesn’t taste like the wonderful food we ate in Egypt”) thereby rejecting any solutions offered. The Israelites don’t want a solution; they want to complain and garner pity and attention. Torah tells us that God provides them manna that וְהָיָה טַעְמוֹ, כְּטַעַם לְשַׁד הַשָּׁמֶן tasted like rich cream (Numbers11:8), and midrash reports that, to the young [manna] tasted like bread; to the elderly it tasted like honey; and to infants it tasted like oil (Exodus Rabbah 25:3)—but even manna does not satisfy the Israelites. “Yes, but… the food in Egypt was so much better!” God’s response to the Israelites’ “Yes, but…” is fire.

Moses’ complaint, however, signals openness to finding a workable solution, to accepting or perusing possibilities to remedy the problem. Accordingly, rather than express anger and impatience with Moses, God sketches the outline of a solution: the burden will be shared with seventy elders, each of whom will be imbued with the ruach (divine spirit) that Moses possesses. Moses’ legitimate complaint, which seeks a genuine solution, elicits a very different response from God than the Israelites’ complaint and “Yes, but…”

In a recent study published in The Journal of Social Psychology, researchers found that those who complained not merely to get attention or sympathy, but rather to achieve a specific result, tended to be happier. The key, they discovered, is mindfulness. Those who engage in strategic complaining (think of Moses here) make a deliberate decision to complain; they employ facts and data to bolster their complaint. These are people who search out, and are open to, solutions. Those who are not mindful in their complaining generally whine far more and to less effect (consider the Israelites here). The outcome is therefore not surprising: God is furious with the Israelites and sends fire. With Moses, however, God offers a solution: Seventy elders of Moses’ choosing will share the burden of leadership with him.

The social psychology study does not suggest that we should never complain. Rather, it suggests that if our complaints are merely venting, they will not net positive results, and may come at the cost of irritating and alienating people who brand us as chronic complainers.  As Stephen Hawking noted, “It is a waste of time to be angry about my disability. One has to get on with life and I haven't done badly. People won't have time for you if you are always angry or complaining.” There are occasions when complaining is a constructive approach to a situation if we are careful to marshall facts and remain open to finding solutions.

The next time you feel a complaint formulating in your mind and about to sneak out your lips, perhaps this is worth considering.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


Friday, May 29, 2015

Pocket Knives & Precedence / Parshat Naso

I was given a pocket knife when I was six. I spent many happy hours playing mumblety-peg with that knife. I became quite adept at it (practice does pay off). When my kids were young, my son (second born) was given a pocket knife which he thought was awesome and grownup. His older sister (first born) objected vehemently that, as the older sister, she should have a pocket knife before he did, and not only that, but three years before he did because she was three years older. This is the only instance I can recall of my kids expressing concern about birth order and precedent, but it has stuck in my mind, and came to mind when reading this weeks parashah, Naso.

Parshat Naso opens with a description of a census taken of the Gershonites, members of the clan of the eldest son of Levi. Levi had three sons: Gershon, Kohat, and Merari. We find their names in Genesis 46:11, listed among the names of the Israelites, Jacob and his descendants, who came in Egypt.[1] Together, the three clans of Gershon, Kohat, and Merari constitute the Levitical Priesthood. Therefore, they have special responsibilities pertaining to the service in the Mishkan (Wilderness Tabernacle), as well as its disassembly, porterage, and re-assembly. Parshat Naso lists these duties. It reads like a government manual, which it essentially is:

זֹאת עֲבֹדַת, מִשְׁפְּחֹת הַגֵּרְשֻׁנִּי--לַעֲבֹד, וּלְמַשָּׂא. וְנָשְׂאוּ אֶת-יְרִיעֹת הַמִּשְׁכָּן, וְאֶת-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, מִכְסֵהוּ, וּמִכְסֵה הַתַּחַשׁ אֲשֶׁר-עָלָיו מִלְמָעְלָה; וְאֶת-מָסַךְ--פֶּתַח, אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד. וְאֵת קַלְעֵי הֶחָצֵר וְאֶת-מָסַךְ פֶּתַח שַׁעַר הֶחָצֵר, אֲשֶׁר עַל-הַמִּשְׁכָּן וְעַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ סָבִיב, וְאֵת מֵיתְרֵיהֶם, וְאֶת-כָּל-כְּלֵי עֲבֹדָתָם; וְאֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר יֵעָשֶׂה לָהֶם, וְעָבָדוּ.

These are the duties of the Gershonite clans as to labor and porterage: they shall carry the cloths of the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting with its covering, the covering of dolphin skin that is on top of it, and the screen for the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; the hangings of the enclosure, the screen at the entrance of the gate of the enclosure that surrounds the Tabernacle, the cords thereof, and the altar, and all their service equipment and all their accessories; and they shall perform the service. (Numbers 4:24-26)

Since this is the beginning of a parashah, we might not have noticed that the duties assigned the Kohatites are listed earlier in the same chapterbefore the passage about the Gershonitesbecause that passage is contained in the previous parashah, Bmidbar. It is standard practice to list the eldest first. Rachel cannot marry Jacob until her older sister, Leah, is married, which is why Laban slyly slips Leah into Rachels place on the wedding night. Why are the Kohatites named before the Gershonites in this matter of divvying up the duties related to the Mishkan? Why did they get a pocket knife before their older brother?

This violation of the eldest first rule of the Bible attracts the attention of the Rabbis and inspires them to ponder the question of order, precedent, and priority. In midrash Bmidbar Rabbah (6:1), the Rabbis provide a comprehensive list of who takes precedence over whom for the purpose of redemption [from captivity], lifesaving, and clothing but not for a seat [position] in the House of Study.  Since the passage is long, I have provided it below in both Hebrew and English translation; by all means, read it now. I will summarize it and comment here. The order of priority is: a sage, the king, the High Priest, a prophet, various kinds of priests, Levites, Israelites, mamzerim, natinim, proselytes, and manumitted slaves. This list inspires a host of questions, and many concerns, not least of which is why there is such a list, how can the claim be made that some people are more inherently valuable than others, and why are proselytes last on the list. All good questions, and far more than I can discuss in one drash.

What is instantly apparent is that the Rabbis, who promulgated the list, put themselves at the top of the priority pyramid, above even the king and High Priest. A cynic might be tempted to say that this is a self-serving list. An historian might respond that there were no longer kings, High Priests, prophets, natinim, or manumitted slaves when the midrash was written, nor is it clear that anyone was searching out mamzerim, so much of this is theoretical, at best. The Rabbis replaced the priests as leaders of the community after the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E.; they correctly saw themselves as the leaders upon whom the continuity and survival of the Judaism and the Jewish people depended. What is more, the status of Levite and Israelite are orthogonal to the status of sage, which is to say, one could be a Levite or an Israelite and also be a Sage. More likelyand most importantlythis passage is an expression of the prioritization of  values, not people.

The Rabbis are asserting the primacy of Torah learning as the most important attribute, skill, and value in Jewish life. First, let us ask: How do the Rabbis make this claim in the midrash? (Next we will discuss why they make this claim.) Their argument for the primacy of learning hinges on Proverbs 3:15 She is more precious than rubies and all the things you can desire are incomparable to her. Proverbs is speaking of wisdom (the she in the verse) which the Rabbis identify with Torah: Torah is the core of Jewish covenant, the foundation of Jewish life, the most precious thing to the Jewish people; all else is incomparable. The phrase than rubies מִפְּנִינִים can also be parsed than in the innermost sanctuary, which allows the Rabbis to cleverly and subtilely equate she (Wisdom=Torah) with the inner sanctum=Holy of Holies. More to the point: the Rabbis have replaced the Priests, the activities of the House of Study (Torah study and prayer) have replaced sacrifices, and the Bet Midrash (the House of Study) is the new Holy of Holies for the Jewish community in the Diaspora. Paul Simon once sang, Its all happenin at the zoo. The Rabbis sang, Its all happenin at the Bet Midrash.

The exception to the precedent list is important: it does not apply to a seat [position] in the House of Study. Perhaps the most telling sentence in the midrash is this: But if the mamzer was a scholar he takes precedence over an ignorant High Priest. The highest communal priority is Torah scholarship. The Rabbis made knowledge, learning, and reasoning the backbone of Jewish life and communal well being. They established a primary and foundation priority of learning that saw Jews through nearly 2,000 years of Diaspora. The result? Consider this:

The Jews have a high percentage of Nobel Prize laureates in all fields: In literature, science and economics. It's an amazing achievement. We tried to understand the secret of the Jewish people. How do they more than other nations manage to reach such impressive achievements? How is it that Jews are such geniuses? The conclusion we reaches is that one of your secrets is studying Talmud. Jews read the Talmud from an early age, and we believe it helps them develop great abilities. This understanding led us to the conclusion that we should also teach children Talmud. We believe that if we teach our children Talmud we could also be geniuses. And that's what stands behind the decision to read Talmud at home.

These words were spoken by South Korean Ambassador to Israel Young Sam Ma on the Israeli TV program Culture Today. He expressed a belief commonly held in South Korea, where Korean-translated editions of the Talmud are common, and mothers read Talmud to their children in the hopes of creating geniuses. I am not claiming that studying Talmud will transform anyone into a genius and insure his/her financial success, but its worthwhile asking: Where did South Koreans get the idea that reading the Talmud infuses one with intellectual power that translates into economic prosperity?

Two economists, Maristella Botticini (Boccini University) and Zvi Eckstein (Tel Aviv University) ask the question that inspires South Koreans to have their children read Talmud. In The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70-1492 (Princeton University Press), focusing on human capital, the authors explain how investment in religious education effected choice of occupation and earnings in the Jewish community. The seismic events of the first centurythe destruction of the Temple and the imposition of Roman rule that decimated the Jewish state with war, famine and exileled to the rise of a new class of leaders, the Rabbis, who replaced the priests. The Rabbis promoted the primacy of Torah study not only for themselves, but for the community, necessitating general literacy and numeracy. They advocated strenuously for the first system of universal public education in human history. As Jews moved from rural agricultural settings to more urbanized environments, the skills acquired to live and study as Jews transferred well, enabling them to enter new trades and take advantage of new economic opportunities. By and large, Jews were far more literate than the populations of their host countries, lending them a significant advantage, particularly in urban centers where reading, writing, numeracy, reasoning, knowledge of laws and contracts, and negotiation skillsall of which are requisites for, or derivatives of, Torah studywould translate to success in business, trade, and finance. What is more, Jews were networked with one another by religion and language (Hebrew), so that when a Jew traveled through Europe or the Middle East on business, he would be welcomed and find food and shelter in any Jewish community. This reality facilitated business arrangements and trade based on common culture and hence trust.

Yet is this the reason to retain learning as the primary religious value that undergirds Jewish living and Jewish community? Hardly. Certainly the Rabbis did not have this in mind. They understood that in studying Torah and Talmud, Jews would learn a host of wonderful values about living life with integrity, strengthening family and community, and contributing to the betterment of the world. The literacy and numeracy requisite to study, and the intellectual and reasoning skills developed through study are not ends in themselves. Rather, the Rabbis understood that those invested in Torah study will absorb Gods priorities: justice, compassion, kindness, honesty, loyalty, human dignity, the sanctity of life, humility, righteousness, and the pursuit of peace. Those who invest in Torah study are transformed by the texts they imbibe, reshaped by the ethics they absorb, and go out into the world imbued with a sense of their personal obligation to tikkun olam (the repair of the world).

The South Koreans who ply their children with translations of the Talmud have quite understandably missed the point. My daughter may have resented the fact that the gift of a pocket knife violated her sense of proper precedent among siblings, but not every hierarchy is inherently bad. The message concerning the primacy of Jewish learning the lies just beneath the surface of the list we find in Bmidbar Rabbah is a fine one.

When the Rabbis established Sages at the top of the hierarchy, perched on the tip of the pyramid, they were promoting the value of Torah study as the highest social priority, knowing that all the things we would want as the hallmarks of a civil, compassionate, and just society would arise from Torah learning. These are values for a the ages, values that strengthen family and society, and their byproductsfrom success in academic endeavors, business, and yearly tally of Nobel Prize winnersis icing on the cake. Do we today understand and appreciate the message? I think we could and should work assiduously to ensure that the primacy of Jewish learning retains its rightful and exalted place at the top of the pyramid of priorities. Our future depends up it.


Bmidbar (Numbers) Rabbah 6:1

נשא את ראש בני גרשון וגו' הה"ד (משלי ג) יקרה היא מפנינים וכל חפציך לא ישוו בה תנינן תמן חכם קודם למלך ישראל מת חכם אין לנו כיוצא בו מלך ישראל שמת כל ישראל ראויין למלכות המלך קודם לכהן גדול שנאמר (מ"א =מלכים א'= א) ויאמר המלך להם קחו עמכם את עבדי אדוניכם וגו' כ"ג קודם לנביא שנאמר (שם /מלכים א' א'/) ומשח אותו שם צדוק הכהן ונתן הנביא צדוק קודם לנתן ר' הונא בשם ר' חנינא אמר נביא כופף ידיו ורגליו ויושב לו לפני כהן מה טעם דכתיב (זכריה ג) שמע נא יהושע הכ"ג וגו' יכול בני אדם הדיוטות היו ת"ל (שם /זכריה ג'/) כי אנשי מופת המה ואין מופת אלא נבואה שנאמר (דברים יג) ונתן אליך אות או מופת משוח בשמן המשחה קודם למרובה בגדים נביא קודם למשוח מלחמה משוח מלחמה קודם לסגן סגן קודם לראש משמר ראש משמר קודם לראש בית אב ראש בית אב קודם לאמרכל אמרכל קודם לגזבר גזבר קודם לכהן הדיוט כהן הדיוט קודם ללוי לוי קודם לישראל ישראל לממזר ממזר לנתין נתין לגר גר לעבד משוחרר אימתי בזמן שכולן שוין אבל אם היה ממזר ת"ח קודם לכהן גדול עם הארץ שנאמר יקרה היא מפנינים סברין מימר לפדות להחיות ולכסות הא לישיבה לא אמר רבי אבין אף לישיבה מה טעם יקרה היא מפנינים אפי' מזה שהוא נכנס לפני ולפנים.

"Take the sum of the sons of Gershon also," etc. (Numbers 4:22). Hence it is written, She [Torah] (wisdom) is more precious than rubies; and all the things you can desire are incomparable to her (Proverbs 3:15). We have learned elsewhere (BT Horayyot 13a): In matters of life and death, a Sage takes precedence over a king of Israel, for if a Sage dies there is none to replace him, while if a king of Israel dies-well, all Israelites are eligible for the kingship. A king takes precedence over a High Priest;for it says, And the king said unto them: Take with you the servants of your lord, etc. (I Kings 1:33) A High Priest takes precedence over a prophet; for it says, And let Tzaddok the priest and Nathan the prophet anoint him there (I Kings 1:34). Tzaddok is mentioned before Nathan. R. Huna in the name of R. Chanina said: A prophet must bend his hands and feet and sit before a High Priest. What reason is there for saying so? Because it is written, Hear now, O Joshua the high priest, you and your fellows that sit before you (Zechariah 3:8). You might think they were ordinary folk. It is therefore stated, For they are men that are a sign (Zechariah 3:8), and the expression sign can only refer to prophecy; for it says, And he give you a sign or a wonder (Deuteronomy 13:2). A High Priest anointed with the anointing oil takes precedence over one who is consecrated only by the additional garments (BT Keritut 5b). A prophet takes precedence over a priest anointed for war. One anointed for war takes precedence over a deputy High Priest. A deputy takes precedence over a chief of the guard. A chief of the guard takes precedence over the chief of a priests division. The chief of a priests division takes precedence over an amarkal (one of seven Temple trustees). An amarkal takes precedence over a Temple treasurer. A Temple treasurer takes precedence over an ordinary priest. An ordinary priest takes precedence over a Levite. A Levite takes precedence over an Israelite; an Israelite over a mamzer[2]; a mamzer over a natin[3]; a natin over a proselyte; a proselyte over a manumitted slave. When does this order of precedence apply? When they are all equal in other respects. But if the mamzer was a scholar he takes precedence over an ignorant High Priest. They thought that this order of precedence applies to redemption [from captivity], to lifesaving, and to clothing; not, however, to a seat [position] in the House of Study. R. Avin, however, said: To a seat at the House of Study also. What is the reason? She [Torah] is more precious than rubies (peninim); this means, more precious even than he who goes into the innermost precincts of the Sanctuary (lifenei vlifenim).


© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


[1] Gershon, Kohat, and Merari are listed in this order in I Chronicles 6:1, as well.
[2] A mamzer, often translated bastard means something different in the Jewish context than in common parlance. A mamzer is a child produced by an illicit relationship, most often adultery.
[3] Temple assistants. Originally, in the time of Joshua, this referred to the Gibeonites.