Thursday, July 14, 2016

Death in Living Color / Parshat Chukkat 2016-5776

Last week the phone rang. The caller asked if I would lead a shiva minyan for her family because the rabbi who had officiated at the funeral was obligated elsewhere. When I arrived, her uncle said, “As sad as this loss is, I have wonderful memories of my brother’s death. You were there. Do you remember?” I certainly did. His brother had been in a hospice facility, no longer responsive by the time I was called in because I am a hospice rabbi. When I first arrived, and each time I visited, he was surrounded by his large and loving family: siblings, cousins, children, nieces and nephews, all their spouses. There was a mixture of both sadness and partying in the air—tears and laughter in two-part harmony. They were holding vigil and someone was with him around the clock. After several days, I brought everyone together and suggested that their loved one might prefer to die alone, with no one else present.  In particular, I suspected that he did not want to die with his wife present. His wife and soulmate was in the beginning stages of dementia and confused about what was happening. I suspected that he didn’t want her to see him die. I explained this to the relatives and asked them to each say goodbye, assure him of their
 commitment to care for his wife, and tell him that they were leaving for an hour to get dinner and he would be alone for that hour. They weren’t entirely comfortable with this suggestion but, to their credit, they were willing to trust me—at least for one hour. At 5:30 pm they all said goodbye, promised they would care for his wife, and told him they were going for dinner and would not be back for an hour. At 5:40 pm, he passed away. “Ten minutes! Just ten minutes after we left, he died!” the brother recalled at the shiva minyan. “That was exactly what he needed—to do it on his own terms.”

Parshat Chukkat is saturated with accounts of death and concerns for mortality. (Not exactly summer beach reading.) Sometimes we feel overwhelmed by death. In Chukkat, we read the accounts of the deaths of two great souls: Miriam and Aaron. Miriam dies in Kadesh in the wilderness of Tzin. Surprisingly, despite saving Moses’ life when he was an infant and her role as a prophet and leader of the people for four decades in the Wilderness, Torah devotes precisely five Hebrew words to her passing (I need seven to translate) and without telling us that the people mourned her passing: Miriam died there and was buried there (Numbers 20:1). The well that accompanied the Israelites through the wilderness on Miriam’s account disappeared when she died. The Israelites immediately complain and quarrel with Moses about water—they fear they will die of thirst. The old trop of how much better life was in Egypt is resurrected: Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink! (Numbers 20:5-6) Moses must return to an earlier method of bringing water: striking a rock with his staff. Most likely because Moses was consumed with grief over the passing of his beloved sister, he loses his temper and strikes the rock twice in anger. Water emerges, but God promulgates the harsh decree that Moses will not enter Eretz Yisrael with the people, Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people (Numbers 20:12). Moses, too, will die in the wilderness. It is then time to move on and the people need to pass through the territory of Edom. Moses sends a message ahead containing Israel’s promise to the Edomites: We will not pass through fields or vineyards, and we will not drink water from wells. We will follow the king’s highway turning off neither to the right nor to the left until we have crossed your territory. (Numbers 20:17). Edom refuses to grant Israel passage even after Moses offers to pay for any water they consume, and instead sends a heavily armed force to back up their refusal with the threat of violence and death. The Israelites arrive at Mount Hor. God instructs Moses to strip Aaron of his priestly garments and place them on Elazar, Aaron’s son, who is designated to be the next High Priest. Aaron died there on the summit of the mountain… All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days (Numbers 20:28-29). Two deaths and the decree of a third. After thirty days of mourning, the Israelites set out from Mount Hor by way of the Sea of Reeds in order to skirt the land of Edom. And again the people take up the trop, “Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food.” (Numbers 21:4-5) At this, God attacks the people with seraph serpents that bite and kill many. Miriam and Aaron are dead, along with all those bitten by the seraphim, and in between the people fear they will die of thirst or at the hands of the Edomites. It seems that death gives way to more death and even more death.
Fearing and abhorring death is a measure of how much we love life. But it is not the only attitude toward death one can hold nor the only way to express love of life. I recently read Deathbed Wisdom of the Hasidic Masters (2016: Jewish Lights Publishing) by Rabbis Joel H. Baron and Sara Paasche-Orlow. Their joint project is a lovely translation, annotation, and expansion of Benjamin Mintz’s Sefer ha-Histalkut (“Book of Departure”), originally published in 1930, which contains forty-two accounts of the final days and the deaths of hasidic masters from the Baal Shem Tov (d. 1760) through his disciples’ disciples’ disciples at the end of the 19th century. Baron and Paasche-Orlow’s translation includes explanations of Scriptural references and rituals mentioned in the stories, and also a generous menu of essays on topics ranging from pragmatic concerns (e.g., dealing with dementia, depression, doctors, and cemeteries) to religious and spiritual concerns (e.g., meditation, liminality, unification, and talking with God). Many will be surprised to learn that for the hasidim, death is considered a joyous occasion, the moment when one will finally be fully united with God. Many of the stories recount singing and dancing toward the end of life. Rebbbe Nachman of Bratzlav continued to teach, tell stories of the Baal Shem Tov, and pray until the very end. R. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk refused medication and the services of a doctor. His loved ones called a doctor anyway, so he refused to speak to anyone. R. Yitzhak Meir Rotenberg-Alter spent his last hours teaching Talmud to his young grandson, and then covered himself with a tallit (perhaps so the child would not see his beloved grandfather die). The stories reflect all the realities we are familiar with: people who want to push death away for a while longer, people who are ready to die, people who are seek to make connections with their loved ones and students before passing, and those who push everyone away and wish to be alone.

 As a hospice chaplain, I see all these approaches to dying, from those who make their hospice room party central, to those who stop communicating and withdraw into their own thoughts and feelings. Each person has their own Torah for dying, and many of us might not know what ours is until the moment arrives. But thinking about what dying can be affords us the opportunity, if we also have the possibility, to shape our leave-taking to some degree. Just as how we live our lives determines our legacy, so too how we take leave of life is part of the legacy we leave those closest to us.

The stories of death and mortality in Parshat Chukkat are bookended by passages about life: Chukkat opens with the ritual of the red heifer, an arcane ritual purification practice that removed the taint of tuma’ah (ritual impurity) imparted by contact with death. At the other end, Chukkat closes with a note about a be’er (“well”) — water being the quintessence of life in the desert — and Israel’s conquest of the Amorites and Bashan just prior to arriving in Jericho. The well brings water — life-giving, life-sustaining water. Certainly we’d much prefer to think about and plan for living, rather than dying. But our leave-taking is not only part of our life (the last chapter) but a significant part of the lives of those who love us.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Friday, June 24, 2016

Prophets: Real Isn’t Always the Real Deal / Parshat B'haalotekha

How do you know if a prophet is the real deal? Let me acknowledge from the beginning that you might not believe that prophecy itself is real, but rather that the words and ideas of self-proclaimed prophets derive from their own minds and agendas, and lie along a spectrum from truly righteous teachings to dangerously incoherent rantings. In fact, history is riddled with false prophets, and they leave a trail of death and destruction in their wake (David Koresh and Jim Jones jump to mind). False prophets have two things in common: charisma and narcissism. It’s no surprise that the Rabbis were very wary of self-proclaimed prophets and pronounced the age of prophecy closed.

In Parshat B’haalotekha, we meet Eldad and Medad, who seem to be ecstatic prophets. Torah tells us that Moses gathers the seventy elders of Israel around the Ohel Mo’ed (Tent of Meeting). God descends in a cloud, siphons off some of the divine spirit that God had given Moses, and transfers it to the elders. The elders then “prophesied” (some translations suggest “spoke in ecstasy”) but did not continue. This is where Eldad and Medad enter the picture.

 וַיִּשָּׁאֲרוּ שְׁנֵי-אֲנָשִׁים בַּמַּחֲנֶה שֵׁם הָאֶחָד אֶלְדָּד וְשֵׁם הַשֵּׁנִי מֵידָד וַתָּנַח עֲלֵהֶם הָרוּחַ, וְהֵמָּה בַּכְּתֻבִים, וְלֹא יָצְאוּ, הָאֹהֱלָה; וַיִּתְנַבְּאוּ, בַּמַּחֲנֶה.  כ וַיָּרָץ הַנַּעַר, וַיַּגֵּד לְמֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמַר:  אֶלְדָּד וּמֵידָד, מִתְנַבְּאִים בַּמַּחֲנֶה.  וַיַּעַן יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן-נוּן, מְשָׁרֵת מֹשֶׁה מִבְּחֻרָיו--וַיֹּאמַר:  אֲדֹנִי מֹשֶׁה, כְּלָאֵם.  וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מֹשֶׁה, הַמְקַנֵּא אַתָּה לִי; וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל-עַם יְהוָה, נְבִיאִים--כִּי-יִתֵּן יְהוָה אֶת-רוּחוֹ, עֲלֵיהֶם. וַיֵּאָסֵף מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-הַמַּחֲנֶה--הוּא, וְזִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

Two men, one named Eldad and the other Medad, had remained in camp; yet the spirit rested upon them—they were among those recorded, but they had not gone out to the Tent [with the seventy elders]—and they began prophesying [or: “spoke in ecstasy] in the camp. A youth ran out and told Moses, saying, “Eldad and Medad are acting the prophet in the camp!” And Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ attendant from his youth, spoke up and said, “My lord Moses, restrain them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you wrought up on my account? Would that all Adonai’s people were prophets, that Adonai put [the divine] spirit upon them!” Moses then reentered the camp together with the elders of Israel. (Numbers 11:26–30)

This account of Eldad and Medad raises numerous questions. If Eldad and Medad are prophets, why are they not among the seventy elders, or at least with them? How does Moses know they are the genuine article? What is the content of their prophecy? (Torah doesn’t tell us.) Why is Joshua upset and why does he want Moses to restrain Eldad and Medad? What are we to make of Moses’ democratizing view of prophecy?

The Bavli (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 17a) has an interesting view of this whole affair. It begins by telling us that Eldad and Medad were authentic prophets, as evidenced by their humility: they considered themselves unworthy for the role.

R. Shimon said, “[Eldad and Medad] remained in the camp. When the Holy Blessed One told Moses, Gather to Me seventy of the elders of Israel, Eldad and Medad said, ‘We are not worthy of this greatness.’ The Holy Blessed One said, ‘Because you have humbled yourselves, I will add yet more greatness to your greatness.” What greatness did [God] add to them? All the prophets [the seventy elders] prophesied and stopped but [Eldad and Medad] prophesied and did not stop.”

This, in itself, is a fascinating point: Prophecy is a reward for their humility. Moreover, genuine prophets (whether the source of their message is God or their own inspiration) are not narcissistic, self-aggrandizing, publicity-seeking, power-hungry, or self-absorbed. That disqualifies a great many people throughout history who have dubbed themselves prophets.

The Talmud then offers three opinions concerning the content of Eldad and Medad’s prophecy, a subject that Torah does not mention.

And what was the content of their prophecy? They said, “Moses will die. Joshua will bring Israel into the Land.”

Abba Chanin said in the name of R. Eliezer, “They prophesied concerned the quails, ‘Arise, quails! Arise, quails!’”

Rav Nachman said, “They prophesied concerning Gog and Magog, as it is said, Thus says the Lord our God: Why you [Gog] are the one I spoke of in ancient days through My servants, the prophets of Israel, who prophesied for years (shanim) in those days that I would bring you against them! (Ezekiel 38:17). Do not read shanim (“years”) but rather sh’nayim (“two”). Which two prophets prophesied the very same thing at the very same time? You should say: Eldad and Medad.”

The first view is that Eldad and Medad forecast the death of Moses, and Joshua’s succession to leadership, suggesting that they sought to influence the power structure of Israel. The second view, attributed to Abba Chanin, is that the prophetic duo delivered messages of immediate concerning; this entire account is set against the background of the Israelites’ complaint that they are tired of manna and long for tasty food. According to this view, as prophets, Eldad and Medad are focused on the timely needs and concerns of the nation. The third view, attributed to Rav Nachman, is that Eldad and Medad’s  prophecy concerned eschatology: they spoke about the end game of history.[1] 

Despite Talmud’s claim that Eldad and Medad are the picture of humility, it appears that they are full of themselves: they prophesy inside the camp. Even the seventy elders “licensed” by God to prophesy do so outside the camp. How can this be a problem if their prophecy comes from God? Perhaps it is the very fact of their charisma, which attracts people to their opinions and pontifications and threatens to derail the leadership structure of the nation. Most of us have had experience with, or seen the effects of, charismatic figures, who are consummate communicators and strike a deep, emotional chord with their listeners. The first experience I was conscious of and recognized as problematic occurred in fourth grade. A charismatic girl who was sufficiently powerful determined who could be friends with whom and who could play with whom, both on the playground at recess and after school in our private lives. While my rational side watched and said: “This makes no sense; people decide who they want as friends,” both the reality and the pain this caused was staring me in the face. I saw the effects of charisma as a teen in the world of dating; charismatic figures seemed to have a mystical hold on people and often exploited them. And time and again, we’ve all seen charisma at work in the world of politics: charismatic narcissists whose only priority and agenda item is themselves, yet they have beguiling influence on others who are inexplicably drawn to them. Although Eldad and Medad’s prophecy was genuine, I suspect the problem the both Torah and Talmud have with them is their charisma.

Returning to the Talmud’s discussion of the content of Eldad and Medad’s prophecies, the Rabbis reject all three opinions, but especially the second and third. They are uneasy with Eldad and Medad, just as Joshua is. Joshua goes so far as to request that Moses shut down their prophecy booth in the camp; he seems to perceive them as competition for the authority he is being groomed to assume when Moses is no longer able to lead Israel. In this sense, the first Talmudic opinion is the least threatening because it reconfirms Joshua’s position after Moses’ death; for the Rabbis, it is inappropriate, not incorrect. Yet on the basis of the second and third opinions, Joshua, whom Torah goes to the trouble to tell us had been Moses’ attendant from his youth could find himself in competition with these prophetic upstarts who are riding the wave of their charisma. Talmud’s second opinion concerning what Eldad and Medad said speaks to the current administration and leadership of Israel: they are co-opting Moses’ position of authority by prophesying about the quails. The third opinion similarly threatens to undermine the current leadership by suggesting a direction the nation should pursue—follow Eldad and Medad, of course. This is as dangerous as the rebellion of Korach and his minions, who attempted to seize the reins of power and steer Israel off course.

Why, then, does Moses respond that he wishes everyone in Israel could be a prophet? Wouldn’t that undermine the leadership and authority structure of the nation even more? Or would it be a democratizing phenomenon, affording everyone access to God’s will and hence foreclosing the possibility that Israel could be deceived by a false prophet?

Clearly, Eldad and Medad are full of themselves: they prophesy inside the camp; even the seventy elders “licensed” to prophecy by God do so outside the camp. How can this be a problem if their prophecy comes from God? Perhaps the unarticulated concern in both Torah and Talmud is that charismatic leaders are highly volatile. Their prophecy may be genuine today, but once they have the ear and pull the heartstrings of the people, who is to say that they will not infuse their prophetic pronouncements with their own views and agendas? Writing in the context of the world of business, Margaret Heffernan[2] poses an important question and supplies an interesting answer:

How do you spot a charismatic leader? Most people will say you know them when you see them but if in doubt, go looking for award winners or the CEOs most frequently decorating the covers of magazines. According to [Christian] Stadler[3] [Professor of Strategic Management at the Warwick Business School, who surveyed a century of European business leaders], six out of the last 18 Chief Executives who won the title "Manager of the Year" in Germany presided over huge strategic blunders. By contrast, he says, you can spot the "intelligent conservatives" who are the better bet. They're most likely to be insiders who know the company from top to bottom. And in a meeting, they always stand out because they're the ones doing all the listening.[4]

This could well explain why Eldad and Medad are prophesying inside the camp, rather than outside, as the seventy elders did. Proximity to the people allows them to exercise their charisma more effectively. Stadler, together with his co-authored Davis Dyer, observe:

The problem with charismatic leaders is that exceptional powers of persuasion make it easy for them to overcome resistance and opposition to their chosen course of action. If your company is heading in the right direction, a charismatic leader will get you there faster. Unfortunately, if you’re heading in the wrong direction, charisma will also get you there faster.[5]

They conclude:

We don’t mean to imply that charisma is a calamity. A leader with a gift for being the center of attention can still have a very productive career. However, such a CEO is more likely to succeed if he or she spends more time learning and listening than cheerleading.

It’s not too hard to translate Stadler and Dyer’s business terms into biblical prophetic and leadership terms. Leaders and prophets are listeners, not just talkers. As Sara Bareilles sings of another context,King of Anything,” You’ve got the talkin’ down, just not the listening.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] The prophet Ezekiel was a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem before it was destroyed in 586 B.C.E. He prophesied its destruction and went into Exile in Babylonia with his people. In chapters 38 and 39 of the Book of Ezekiel, Gog is presented as the ruler of the country of Magog. The prophet says that Gog will lead the people of Magog into battle against Israel, Israel will prevail, and then a third Temple will be built and God will reign supreme. Later Jewish writings present Gog and Magog as persons, and the war as eschatological in nature. Hence the war with Gog and Magog comes to be seen as a prelude to the coming of the messiah.
[2] Heffernan authored Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, which explores a repeating phenomenon: after major blunders, people invariably look back and ask, “How could we have missed that? Why didn’t we see the obvious?” Heffernan explores the work of psychologists, neurologists, and people in business that explain why individuals and groups are blind to impending crises even though the signs were visible. It turns out we choose to ignore much in order to feel secure, avoid conflict, and reduce anxiety. This thesis could well apply to our reading of the parashah.
[3] Heffernan is referencing this article: