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.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Torah in the Wilderness of Life / Parshat B'midbar and Shavuot 2015-5775

Challenge #1: In twenty-five words or lessWhat is Torah? In ten words? In one word? Did your definition contents (the Five Books of Moses), components (laws, legends, religious history, social and ethical values), what Torah means to you, or something else altogether?

Challenge #2: We begin reading Sefer Bmidbar (the Book of Numbers) this week and usher in Shavuot the moment shabbat departs. Is there a connection between the Wilderness experience and Matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah), or is this just a curious juxtaposition?

Sefer Bmidbar opens where Sefer Shemot (the Book of Exodus) leaves off: the beginning of the Israelites second year in the Midbar (wilderness). Before them is wilderness in every direction, and 39 years of wandering to go. With the Torah safely tucked away in the ark, the Israelites set out into the Wilderness. The first chapter of Bmidbar paints a picture of exceptional organization and efficiency. On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt (Numbers 1:1), God commands Moses to take a census of the 600,000 males of military age: 20 year and up, and capable of bearing arms. Torah names the chieftains of each tribe and reports the census tallies, tribe by tribe. (It is not for naught that the book is called Numbers in English.) We are then told precisely where each tribal grouping was camped around the Tabernacle: the Israelites, counted and catalogued, are arrayed in perfect precision. Here is one depiction that captures this sense of the Israelites orderly and efficient encampment:

As marvelous as the literary image is, its only an image. The reality is turmoil and chaos. From their plaintive cries at the shores of the Reed Sea that slavery is preferable to freedom, to their worship of the Golden Calf at the base of the very mountain at the very moment where God was delivering the Torah to Moses, to the endless complaints, quarrels, and rebellions that characterize the Israelites next 39 years in the wilderness, we can confidently say that the Israelites time in the wilderness is characterized by discord, dissent, and disorder.

The one semblance of order and continuity in all this is the Torah itself. Shavuot comes to celebrate the gift of Torah, a gift that truly keeps giving. How so? I turn to a commentary by the hasidic master, Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev in Kedushat Levi. Commenting on כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה, אֶת-מֹשֶׁה; וַיִּפְקְדֵם, בְּמִדְבַּר סִינָי As Adonai commanded Moses, he counted them in the wilderness of Sinai (Numbers 1:19), the Berditchever rebbe writes:

The verse would have made more sense in reverse order: Moses counted them, as God had commanded him [which, indeed, accords with Numbers 1:2-3, where God commands Moses to take a census]. But this appears to be the meaning: God gave the Torah to Israel, and the souls of Israel form the body of the Torah. There are six hundred thousand Jewish souls, parallel to the number of the letters of the Torah.[1] Israel, in other words, are the Torah. Each one of us constitutes one of Torahs letters. By counting Israel, therefore, Moses was learning the Torah. This is the meaning of the verses order. As Adonai commanded Moses means that the Torahs commandment to Moses was the very act of counting Israel. That is also why it says, but do not count the tribe of Levi or lift up their heads among the Israelites (Numbers 1:49). Israel represents the Written Torah while the Levites stand for the Oral Torah. Therefore, of the Levites it says, [Moses] counted them by the mouth of God as he was commanded (Numbers 4:49).

Heres Rabbi Levi Yitzhaks answer to Challenge #1: Torah is people. Certainly it contains the Five Books, and we can categorize its contents as laws or legends or history or ethics or social values, but Torah is people. How do we learn Torah? By counting people, by attending to the needs and concerns of those around us. Torah is all about creating a compassionate and just society; it is about counting people and making people count in our lives. To keep the commandments without regard to the needs of people is unthinkable. To treat Torah as a mere compendium of arcane ritual laws for the truly devout or worse, as a vehicle for boosting ones stature based on scholarshipwithout regard to the needs of everyone, the concerns of the poor, and justice for those sufferingis to violate Torahs core and thereby nullify its holiness. The Berditchever Rebbe understood this well. He is often called the defense attorney of the Jewish people before God. Filled with compassion for people, he would plead with God on their behalf.

The  Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) expresses this understanding in another way, one that has more universal sensitivity. It interprets verses in Sefer Bmidbar chapter 21 that preserve a song the Israelites sang concerning their route through the Wilderness, with stops at Midbar, Mattanah, Nachaliel, Bamot, and Pisgah:

 וּמִמִּדְבָּר, מַתָּנָה.  יט וּמִמַּתָּנָה, נַחֲלִיאֵל; וּמִנַּחֲלִיאֵל, בָּמוֹת.  כ וּמִבָּמוֹת, הַגַּיְא אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׂדֵה מוֹאָב--רֹאשׁ, הַפִּסְגָּה; וְנִשְׁקָפָה, עַל-פְּנֵי הַיְשִׁימֹן

And from Midbar to Mattanah, and from Mattanah to Nachaliel, and from Nachaliel to Bamot and from Bamot to the valley that is in the country of Moab, at the peak of Pisgah, overlooking the wasteland. (Numbers 21:18-20)

In tractate Nedarim 55a,b the Sages explain:

[55a] What is meant by, And from Midbar to Mattanah; and from Mattanah to Nachaliel; and from Naxhaliel to Bamot? He replied, When one makes himself as the Midbar (wilderness), which is free to all, the Torah is presented to him as a gift [mattanah means gift] as it is written, And from the Midbar to Mattanah. And once he has it as a gift, God gives it to him as an inheritance [nachaliel comes from the root meaning inheritance], as it is written, And from Mattanah to Nachaliel. And when God gives it him as an inheritance, he ascends to greatness, as it is written, And from Nachaliel to Bamot [bamot means heights]. But if he exalts himself, the Holy One, blessed be God, casts him down, as it is written, And from Bamot to the valley [the valley is lower than the heights]. Moreover, he is made to sink into the earth, as it is written, Which is pressed down into the desolate soil [pressed down is a play on the word Pisgah, meaning overlooking; here it is understood instead as pressed down or stepped on]. But should he repent [of exalting himself], the Holy One, blessed be God, will raise him again, [55b] as it is written, כָּל-גֶּיא, יִנָּשֵׂא Every valley shall be exalted (Isaiah 40:4).

The Rabbis describe the spiritual and emotional process of making Torah our own. If we view Torah as free such that all are welcome to subscribe to it and draw wisdom from it, then it is truly a divine gift. Once we understand it to be Gods gift, we come to see it as our sacred inheritance, something that is intimately a part of who we are: where we come from and who we ought to be in the world. But if we misunderstand the inheritance of Torah as a vehicle for self-exaltationa means to raising ourselves above others, be they fellow-Jews, or non-Jewsthen we sink into the earth. The greatness we might have brought to the world through Torah is as if it were trampled underfoot or buried in the ground; it is lost to the world when Torah has become a means of self-aggrandizement. This is a trap it is all too easy to fall into. One who repents of such arrogance, however, will be raised up again by virtue of Torah to participate with humanity in tikkun olam, the repair of the world.

Challenge #2: Is there a connection between the Wilderness experience of the Israelites and Matan Torah (Giving of the Torah)? I believe the answer is yes. The Wilderness experience was one of turmoil and chaos amidst the vision of order and peace. Torah is the means to transforming turmoil chaos into order and peace, person by person, problem by problem, moment by moment. Torah is more than text(s). It is an attitude and a value system and a connection with the divine that inspires us with a vision of what ought to be and suffuses us with the conviction that much is possible.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] In point of fact, there are 304,805 letters in the Torah. Im not sure what the precise source of the tradition is that the number of letters in the Torah corresponds to the number of souls who left Egypt with Moses.It is mentioned in Zohar Chadash, Shir ha-Shirim, p. 74: There are 600,000 letters in the Torah, just as there are 600,000 souls in the twelve tribes of the Israell". It may well be that Kabbalah is the source of this tradition. A popular tradition has it that Yisrael is an acronym for Yesh Shishim Ribo Otiot la-Torah (there are 600,000 letters in the Torah).