Sunday, July 28, 2013

Me and Us / Parshat Re'eh

In 1990, a delegation of Jews was invited to visit the Dalai Lama at Dharamsala in India, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile. The Dalai Lama wanted to learn the “Jewish secret for surviving exile.” After all, we were going on two millennia. Whom better to ask?

Nathan Katz, professor of religions of India, the history of religions, and spirituality at Florida International University, and a member of the delegation, has written:
The Dalai Lama is intrigued that Jews are able to embrace both secular and religious members within our family. Paul [Professor Paul Mendes-Flohr, scholar of Modern Jewish History and Thought at Hebrew University and University of Chicago Divinity School] eloquently articulates the dilemma of modernity: personal fulfillment is the watchword of the modern world, whereas communal responsibility is the hallmark of tradition. Jews are perceived as the first people to find a balance between the two — individualism and community — providing a model for any traditional people confronting the modern world.
Balancing individualism and community is no easy task. I see the earliest echoes of that effort in Parshat Re’eh in and around the question of the consumption of meat and tithes. We find, in Torah, an interesting progression of ideas about when, and for what purpose, meat is eaten.

We know that the patriarchs made sacrifices wherever they found themselves. Jacob built an altar in Beth El. There was a cultic center in Shechem for a many centuries, particularly after the nation split into a Northern Kingdom and a Southern Kingdom following the reign of King Solomon. And indeed, Exodus 20:21 seems to permit sacrifices to be made anywhere.

Leviticus 17:2-7, however, already knows of a centralized sanctuary:
…This is in order that the Israelites may bring the sacrifices that they have been making in the open — that they may bring them before the Lord, to the priest, at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, and offer them as sacrifices of well-being to the Lord… (Leviticus 17:5)
Deuteronomy reflects the centralization of sacrifice, but also recognizes that animals might be slaughtered in a non-cultic setting; that is, merely for food. In this week’s parashah we read:
Take care not to sacrifice your burnt offerings in any place you like, but only in the place that the Lord will choose in one of your tribal territories. There you shall sacrifice your burnt offerings and there you shall observe all that I enjoin upon you… You may not partake in your settlements of the tithes of your new grain or new wine or oil, or of the firstlings of your herds and flocks, or of any of the votive offerings that you vow, or of your freewill offerings, or of your contributions. These you must consume before the Lord your God in the place that the Lord your God will choose — you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, and the Levite in your settlements — happy before the Lord your God in all your undertakings. Be sure not to neglect the Levite as long as you live in your land. (Deuteronomy 12:13-14, 17-19)
What might we do with this? What message is there for us beyond an interesting little lesson in the historical and political development of Israel’s sacrificial cult?

There are two poles of Jewish life: home and community. Home is the locus for the celebration of many holidays and rituals. It is the mikdash me’at (“small sanctuary”) reflecting the values and aspirations of the larger nation in an intimate miniature — home and hearth, with the ones we know best and who know us best. But the mikdash me’at (home and hearth) is not sufficient. Home alone is life in isolation. We need the Mikdash itself — the broader community. Torah seeks to strike a balance between home and sanctuary, between individuality and community. We are best off when we have both in our lives.

It’s worth reiterating Nathan Katz’s summary of Paul Mendes-Flohr’s observation:
…personal fulfillment is the watchword of the modern world, whereas communal responsibility is the hallmark of tradition. Jews are perceived as the first people to find a balance between the two — individualism and community — providing a model for any traditional people confronting the modern world.
Mendes-Flohr’s observation is worthy of our serious consideration. The key is the word “responsibility” which is perhaps another way to say commitment and involvement. While some sacred moments and rituals are best reserved for the intimacy of the family dinner table (shabbat dinners, Pesach seders, and Chanukah celebrations come to mind here), others are far more meaningful in the context of community (here High Holy Day worship, a child becoming bar/bat mitzvah, and Shavuot celebrations jump to mind). There is immeasurable value in coming together as a community — and accordingly reserving certain sacred moments, rites, and experiences to be with the broader community — and not just family or those whom we adopt as family.

It helps to remember that it’s not just that each of us needs a community to be part of; the community needs each one of us.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Baby play is serious stuff / Parshat Ekev

As the world giddily awaits the birth of the youngest heir to the British throne, a child that will enter the world and grow up in storybook fashion, so too do we watch the torturous and heartbreaking case of Baby Veronica. There are so many complex and perplexing issues that surround fertility, childbirth, and parenthood. Here is NPR’s synopsis of the case:

Before Veronica was born, [biological father Dusten] Brown had given up his parental rights, but he began seeking full custody of his daughter after finding out that she had been put up for adoption. In 2011, the South Carolina court ruled that under the ICWA — which was enacted in 1978 to prevent the separation of Native American children from their biological families and tribes — the Capobiancos [Veronica’s adoptive parents since birth] had to turn Veronica over to her biological father. But in June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Brown could not claim parental rights under ICWA because he "abandoned the [American] Indian child before birth and never had custody of the child."[1]

Thus Veronica returns to the parents who had raised her since birth, from the beginning, and will continue to have a relationship with her biological mother, Christy Maldonado, under the terms of the open adoption. This case was complicated by the fact that although Dusten Brown, the child’s biological father, is registered with the Cherokee Nation as a Native American, he has been described as being 2% Cherokee — yet any degree is sufficient to register. In 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was passed to "promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and Indian families by the establishment of minimum federal standards to prevent the arbitrary removal of Indian children from their families and tribes and to ensure that measures which prevent the breakup of Indian families are followed in child custody proceedings."

Torah, in this week’s parashah, Ekev, acknowledges fertility as a blessing that results from Israel’s loyalty to God and faithfulness to her covenant with God. In other words, it’s conditional. In this case, I provide the Hebrew as well as a translation because a peculiarity in the Hebrew leads to a most interesting story in the Talmud.

And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers: he will favor you and bless you and multiply you; He will bless the issue of your [masculine singular] belly (p’ri bitnkha) and the produce of your soil, your new grain and wine and oil, the calving of your herd and the lambing of your flock, in the land that He swore to your fathers to assign to you. (Deuteronomy 7:12-13)

The peculiarity occurs in verse 13 where “your womb… your soil… your new grain and wine and oil… your herd… your flock” are all couched in the masculine singular possessive form. This means that, “He will bless the issue of your womb,” is couched in the masculine singular possessive. How can that be? Only women have wombs. It is clear from context that Moses speaks to the people as one; his words are addressed to the entire nation as an aggregate. This anomaly leads to a story in the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) in which someone named Ulla (itself a marvelous gender joke: Ulla is a man) travels from the Land of Israel to Babylonian and finds himself a guest in the home of R. Nachman, where it is customary to pass a cup of wine called the Cup of Blessing around the table after the final blessings after eating so each person present can call upon the blessing he or she wants. In one swift and nasty move, Ulla redefines fertility as a divine blessing given only to men (based on the masculine singular possessive in our verse above) and then reduces the scope of the Cup of Blessing to fertility alone. Hence, women can be entirely excluded from the Cup of Blessing. Yalta, the wife of R. Nachman, is not pleased, nor is she passive. The consequences are not pretty. Here’s the story:

Ulla once happened to be a guest at R. Nachman’s house. He ate a meal, led the grace after meals, and passed the Cup of Blessing to R. Nachman. R. Nachman said to him: Please pass the Cup of Blessing (kasa d’virkhata דברכתא כסא) to Yalta. He [Ulla] replied: This is what R. Yochanan [ben Nappacha] said: “The issue of a woman’s belly (bitna בטנה) is blessed only through the issue of a man’s belly (bitno בטנו) as Scripture says: He will bless the issue of your [masculine singular] belly (p’ri bitnkha) (Deuteronomy 7:13). It does not say “her belly” but rather “your belly.” So too a baraita teaches: R. Natan said: Where is the prooftext in Scripture that the issue of a woman’s belly is blessed only through the issue of a man’s belly? As Scripture says, He will bless the issue of your [masculine singular] belly (p’ri biknkha). It does not say “her belly” but rather “your belly.” When Yalta heard this, she got up furiously angry, went to the wine storeroom, and smashed 400 jars of wine. R. Nachman said to Ulla: Please send her another cup. He [Ulla] sent it [with this message]: All of this is a goblet of blessing (navga d’virkhata).” She sent [this reply]: From travelers come tall tales and from rag pickers lice.” (Berakhot 51b)

Ulla refuses to pass the Cup of Blessing to Yalta because he claims that her ability to bear children derives not from her fertility; it is all about her husband, and only he need receive the Cup of Blessing. Yalta’s point is clear and dramatic: if blessings come from the cup of wine, how many can she deny the men by smashing 400 jars of wine?

Ulla’s attempt to define Yalta out of the process of blessing and fertility and childbirth came to mind when I learned that Baby Veronica was torn away from her adoptive parents — the only parents she had ever known — because of a law that defines her as Native American and despite her father having signed away all rights to her. I have the utmost respect for the aim of the Indian Child Welfare Act, supported by a sensitivity born of the controversial baptisms of Jewish children during the Holocaust, which continues to be a controversial concern. But I know too that the ICWA was designed to benefit and protect children, not wrench them from loving parents after a proper legal process has been followed.

There is a conflict of interest in many court cases: Parents come to court to seek what they understand to be their rights. The courts are tasked with protecting the welfare of children. An article published in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, explains it this way:

Child protection cases are under the jurisdiction of juvenile or family court under the parens patriae role of the court, the state’s interest in and responsibility for the well-being of all children in the state. The state, recognizing that the parens patriae role conflicts with common law reflecting children as chattel (personal property) of their parents, will exercise its authority with caution. Although no state now recognizes parental ownership and unrestricted control of children, each state is committed to protecting a family’s autonomy and privacy and the parents’ right to decide how to raise their children. (Pediatrics Vol. 104 No. 5 November 1, 1999
pp. 1145 -1148)

Children are a blessing (the greatest blessing most of us will ever know) but they are not chattel, to be transferred and traded by adults. A society’s decency and justice can be measured by how it treats its most vulnerable members. Our children are the most vulnerable members of our society. The welfare of children must be made paramount. South Carolina's Supreme Court is to be applauded for doing just that.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ambassador-at-large / V'etchanan

Diplomat Sir Henry Wotton wrote: “An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” That may hold for politics, but what about the realm of religion?

Rabbi JonathanSacks, writing about how we might draw close to God during the y’mei-teshuvah, the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, exhorts us to find God’s divine presence through, “Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying God’s name in the world by acting as God’s ambassadors. "The roots of the notion that we are God’s ambassadors are deeply embedded in this week’s parashah.

See, I have imparted to you laws and rules, as the Lord my God has commanded me, for you to abide by in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment  [chochmah and binah] to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people [chacham v’navon].” For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is the Lord our God whenever we call upon Him? Or what great nation has laws and rules as just as all this Teaching that I set before you this day? (Deuteronomy 4:5-8)

The notion that we are God’s ambassadors is not new, and is closely tied to the controversial, confusing, and uncomfortable notion of chosenness. Rabbi Uziel Milevsky provides a traditional explanation in a column: “In essence, Jews are God's ambassadors in this world. When a non-Jew commits a sin in public, he alone bears the consequences. In contrast, when a Jew sins publicly, he is not the only one affected ― through his sin God's esteem is diminished among people and His Name is desecrated. As the most advanced society of its day, Egypt represented the world at large. For this reason God set out to elevate the Egyptian conception of God, through the experiences of the Jewish people. Thus the ultimate role of the Jews in Egypt was to bring the world to a clearer understanding of God.”

This idea of ambassadorship is riddled with problems and concerns. We could certainly jettison the idea as untenable and inappropriate in our day, but I prefer to explore it further. It seems to me that the underlying question boils down to this: Does this “clearer understanding of God” mean that Jews should run out and become evangelists for Torah toward the end that in the fullness of time everyone becomes Jewish? Or, alternatively, does it mean that Jews should share with humanity Jewish insights and wisdom, Torah’s exhortation to build a justice, moral, and compassionate society?

I would hold no to the former, and yes to the latter.

We are not evangelists, holding that our perspective on God and our traditions are superior to others and that to be saved, fulfilled, or made whole, other people need to “see the truth” which only we possess. Such thinking is obnoxious and offensive. Our prayers make this abundantly clear. Our public prayer services end with Aleinu, which closes with a verse from this week’s parashah, V’etchanan:

Know therefore this day and keep in mind that the Lord alone is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other. (Deuteronomy 4:39)

In the context of parshat V’etchanan, this verse enjoins the Israelites to scrupulously observe God’s laws for them and thereby ensure their success and longevity in the Land of Israel. In the context of Aleinu, however, the same verse expresses the hope that some day in the future, the evil of idolatry will disappear and no longer lead people morally astray, and of course this can include Jews; but it does not suggest that everyone will become Jewish.

The alternative to understanding ambassadorship as license to go out and convert the world is sharing Jewish insights and wisdom. This is a bit more complex. We quoted Torah above a saying: Observe [God’s Torah] faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment [chochmah and binah] to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people [chacham v’navon].” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) understands chochmah to be absorption of truths, and binah to be the intelligence needed to draw the correct inferences and conclusions from what one has learned. He writes in his commentary to this passage from parshat V’etchanan:

Whatever arts and sciences may characterize the heritage of other civilized nations, yours, the Jewish arts and sciences, are the knowledge and skills needed to build up all of personal and national life upon two foundations: your awareness of God and your awareness of your duties to human beings. These are the arts and sciences entailed in knowing the Law of God and translating it into reality, the arts and sciences of truth and of a harmonious life.

Hirsch is attempting to convince the Jews of his day, who are just beginning to be accepted into secular European society, to retain their heritage and not assimilate. We, however, can understand Torah’s comment about “wisdom and discernment” together with Hirsch’s observation in another way: We have something to offer the world and therefore the obligation to do so.

Struggling with diaspora Jewish existence, Hirsch comments further:

You are the only nation on earth that possessed laws before it possessed a land of its own. Furthermore, these laws that have been given to you are the only laws extant that are not intended as a means for building up a national existence and for achieving national independence and prosperity based on the possession of a land of your own. They represent, instead, the sole end for which you were given existence as an independent nation on your own soil. Every other nation becomes a nation solely by virtue of the fact that it has a land of its own; only after that does it create its own laws to be observed in that land. You, by contrast, became a nation solely by virtue of your Law and were given a land of your own solely for the purpose that you may observe that Law. (p. 668)

In essence, Hirsch is saying that while other nations developed their laws and cultures because people living together in one geographic area needed to do so to survive, Israel came into existence as a nation with its own turf in order to promote Torah.

Today, we have our turf back. The State of Israel, for all its struggles and challenges, is thriving and contributing to the world in many areas, from Jewish studies to high tech biomedical innovations. But most Jews live outside Israel, in countries around the globe. There are many people today hungering for wisdom, insights into the complexities of life, and spiritual connection. Judaism has much to offer without presenting itself as the only legitimate wellspring of wisdom and truth. This is happening.

As an example, Rabbis Without Borders is working to achieve this goal. Their mission “is to nurture and develop a network of rabbis with a shared vision to make Jewish wisdom available to anyone looking to enrich his or her life.” Many rabbis and others write and blog in an effort to share — not evangelize — Jewish moral values, spiritual models, modes of thinking, and methods for exploring and analyzing difficult issues. Many of us speak with and teach classes for both Jews and non-Jews; our goal is to enrich, not convert. This, for me, is what ambassadorship is all about.

The claim to exclusive wisdom and truth should have no place in a diverse and highly connected modern world. Intellectual integrity should reign supreme, lest we fall into an abyss of fundamentalist, anti-intellectual, regressive ideas and beliefs. Our society needs a marketplace for ideas, competing not on platforms of claims of exclusivity and superiority, but on their own merits. Caveat emptor. Our job is to be ambassadors; not of the sort Sir Henry Wooton knew, who while constitutionally honest are compelled to lie when doing their job, but rather who seek truth and wisdom and feel privileged to share what they have discovered with interested others.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Mea Culpa / Devarim

Those of us who grew up with Mad Magazine have the image of Alfred E Nueman emblazoned in our memories, as it was so often on the covers of Mad, and can see him saying, “What, me worry?”;  When God asks Adam if he has eaten the fruit from the forbidden tree, he replies, “The woman You put at my side — she gave me of the tree, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:12) Not only does Adam refuse responsibility, he shifts the blame to God: “the woman You gave me…”

From our earliest days, we have the sense that denying responsibility is the best strategy for evading punishment: “I didn’t spill the milk.” “I didn’t break the vase.” “I didn’t hit him.” “I didn’t take her toy.” We would hope that with time, we all learn to accept responsibility for our mistakes, but how many CEOs and bank executives have we seen stand before a Congressional hearing, or a TV camera, and deny responsibility for actions that sent our entire economy into a tailspin and caused immeasurable suffering in the lives of tens of thousands of people?

Accepting responsibility is a tough thing to do given the human tendency toward denial, and the seduction of shifting responsibility onto someone else’s shoulders. It appears that even Moses is struggling with accepting responsibility for his mistake.

This week we read parshat Devarim, the first portion in Book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is a collection of Moses’ final speeches, recapitulating the Israelites’ four decades in the Wilderness and the laws they received there.

Moses emphasizes what a burden the Israelites have been: rebellious, distrustful, and disloyal. He recounts the disastrous episode of the spies sent to reconnoiter the Land of Israel. But the account in the Book of Numbers and Moses’ retelling in the Book of Deuteronomy, don’t line up.

In the Book of Numbers, parshat Shelach Lekha, when the people are terrified by the report brought back by the spies and refuse to entertain the possibility that they can defeat the inhabitants of the Land God grows furious and says to Moses:

“How long will this people spurn Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me despite all the things that I have performed in their midst? I will strike them with pestilence and disown them, and I will make of you a nation far more numerous than they!” (Numbers 14:11-12)

In the B’midbar (Book of Numbers) account, God makes a similar threat as was made in the incident of the Golden Calf. Here, as there, Moses talks God into forgiving, rather than destroying, the people. God decrees, however, that this generation will die in the Wilderness and a new generation will enter the Land. No mention is made of Moses dying in the Wilderness. Yet when Moses recounts the episode of the spies in this week’s parashah, note how he tells the story:

When the Lord heard your loud complaint, He was angry. He vowed: Not one of these men, this evil generation, shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers — none except Caleb son of Jephunneh; he shall see it, and to him and his descendants will I give the land on which he set foot, because he remained loyal to the Lord. Because of you the Lord was incensed with me too, and He said: You shall not enter it either. Joshua son of Nun, who attends you, he shall enter it. Imbue him with strength, for he shall allot it to Israel. (Deuteronomy 1:34-38)

Is this why Moses will not enter the Land? Is it the people’s fault? Has their rebelliousness poisoned God’s view of Moses’ faithfulness?

When we look back, again in B’midbar (the Book of Number) we find that Torah tells us that it is the incident, shortly after the death of Miriam in Kadesh, which leads to God’s decree that Moses will die in the Wilderness:

Moses took the rod from before the Lord, as He had commanded him. Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:9-14)

However we understand the meaning of the incident, it is clear that this act — striking the rock twice — is why Moses will never enter the Land of Israel. Yet in his retelling, Moses shifts the blame onto the Israelites: Because of you the Lord was incensed with me too, and He said: You shall not enter [the Land] either (Deuteronomy 1:37). It appears that even Moses, like Adam, evades responsibility and foists blame on others.

I found this helpful explanation of why we are so reticent to admit our mistakes to the point of concocting lies and blaming others. (This explanation appears on several websites attributed to different authors.)

“When our behavior threatens our self-concept, our ego automatically goes into hyper-defense mode, circles the wagons, and begins issuing self-justifications designed to protect itself. The higher the moral, financial, and emotional stakes, the more our self-concept – our very identity — is threatened, the greater the dissonance that arises, the harder it is to admit a mistake, and the more we seek to justify ourselves to preserve our self-image. Self-justifications are not lies, where we know we’re being dishonest, nor are they excuses; rather, we believe the justifications to be true, and truly think that they show we are not to blame.”

It’s much too easy to criticize this all-too-human tendency, which is linked to a powerful need to defend one’s sense of self. It is easy to empathize with someone who wants to avoid admitting a mistake. Perhaps more helpful than criticism and judgment, is inspiration. I have two examples: one from the Mishnah, and one from the 21st century.

First the Mishnah. Tractate Eduyot 1:12-14 records a series of halakhic decisions in which the rival schools of Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai disagree. In each case cited in these three mishnayot, Bet Hillel admitted that they were in error and Bet Shammai was correct, and accordingly changed their opinions. The cases cited cover a wide range of topics. In each case, Bet Hillel had to overcome their sense that their pre-eminence in the early Rabbinic world made their halakhic judgments correct, and admit their mistakes.

Fast forward to this century: In 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry, killing all seven crew members aboard (including Ilan Ramon, a colonel in the Israeli Air Force) and creating a debris field stretching from Texas to Louisiana. The disaster resulted from damage sustained during liftoff: a small piece of foam broke off, struck one of the wings, and damaged the shuttle’s thermal protection system. The launch integration manager, N. Wayne Hale Jr. certainly could have denied responsibility, given the complexity of the shuttle, the number of people involved in its construction, maintenance, and operation. Instead, he said:

“I had the opportunity and the information and I failed to make use of it. I don’t know what an inquest or a court of law would say, but I stand condemned in the court of my own conscience to be guilty of not preventing the Columbia disaster… The bottom line is that I failed to understand what I was being told; I failed to stand up and be counted. Therefore look no further; I am guilty of allowing the Columbia to crash.”

Whatever else may be said of N. Wayne Hale Jr.’s competence (something else I don’t wish to judge), his forthright admission and willingness to take responsibility for his mistakes marks him as a man of courage and integrity, a fine model for all of us.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Bring it on — imaginatively / Matot

Although Leviticus 19:18 counsels us not to bear grudges or seek vengeance in our personal relationships, Torah tells us that just prior to his death,

Adonai spoke to Moses, saying, “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.” (Numbers 31:1)

Moses accordingly rallies the troops, chooses 1,000 fighters from each of the twelve tribes, and dispatches them under the priestly authority of Phinehas ben Eleazar.

They took the field against Midian, as Adonai had commanded Moses, and slew every male. Along with their other victims, they slew the kings of Midian: Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian. They also put Balaam son of Beor to the sword. (Numbers 31:7-8)

They then seized women and booty, burned the encampments of their enemies, and brought back the spoil to Moses and the waiting Israelite nation. Torah knows this as vengeance with divine imprimatur.

But let’s look a little closer at the details of the story. Recall that,

Adonai spoke to Moses, saying, “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.” (Numbers 31:1)

Midianites? Really? The Midianites are the people of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, who graciously welcomed Moses into his tent, gave him his daughter Tzipporah in marriage, advised Moses on how to organize the community to better dispense justice, and blessed the people.

And while we’re at it, why kill Balaam? He, too, blessed the people. And anyway, Balaam is not a Midianite; he is a Moabite. What’s he got to do with a war against Midian?

Then there is geography. The Midianites live down in the wilderness of Sinai, not on the eastern border of Eretz Yisrael in the land of Moab. Torah supplies a reason for going to war against the Midianites: the incident at Baal-Peor recounted in parshat Balak. Here, too, there is confusion about whether we’re talking about Midianites or Moabites. Six chapters earlier in the Book of Numbers, we are told:

While Israel was staying at Shittim, the menfolk profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women who invited the menfolk to the sacrifices for their god. The menfolk partook of them and worshiped that god. (Numbers 25:1-2)

But when God instructs Moses to slay the men who worshiped idols at Baal-Peor, we find just four verses later:

Just then one of the Israelite notables came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and the Whole Israelite community who were weeping at the entrance of the Ten of Meeting. (Numbers 25:6)

Biblical historians suggest that these stories constitute the recreated history of an ancient people: there is a basis in fact, but much has been altered and reflects the realities of the time in which it was written, in this case during the reign of King David. Historians further suggest that the story of the antagonism between Israel and Moab may have been rewritten to move Moab out of the spotlight for political expediency: King David was descended from the Moabites through his grandmother Ruth. Identifying the Midianites, rather than the Moabites, as the troublemakers would protect David’s lineage. (As a point of interest, we are probably seeing the same phenomenon in the story of how Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Genesis chapter 37. Do they sell Joseph to Midianites or to Ishmaelites? Depends which verse you read.)

It’s curious that when we read the Torah on the level of pshat, we might well ask how this war of vengeance squares with Torah’s interdiction on seeking revenge. Are there times when revenge is permissible? When we read the passage through the spectacles of a biblical historian, an ancillary question emerges. What is the purpose and value of what appears to be imagined revenge?

If, as the Roman poet, Juvenal, claimed, "Revenge is always the weak pleasure of a little and narrow mind," we all have little and narrow minds. Psychologists have learned much about our oh-so-natural and altogether human proclivity to seek revenge, immortalized not only in the Bible, but in the works of Homer and Shakespeare, Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni, and countless movies from Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, to Kill Bill, to The Princess Bride. The theme of revenge permeates children’s literature; my favorite is Mathilda by Roald Dahl. There is even a TV series entitled Revenge.

Some years back, Swiss researches designed an experiment in which subjects had reason and opportunity to punish greedy partners in an economic exchange game. Scanning their brains, they discovered that contemplating revenge caused heightened neural activity in the caudate nucleus, a part of the brain that lights up when cocaine and nicotine are used. The researches concluded that on some level, the old adage is true: revenge is sweet. Actually caring out revenge, however, is far less flavorful and satisfying. In fact, it tastes bitter, exacting a high price in time, physical and emotional energy, and even lives.

It turns out that the emotional catharsis of revenge does not purge negativity from the body but in fact does the opposite. What is more, people inaccurately predict how they will feel after wreaking revenge. The bad feelings do not quickly dissipate, and they do not feel happier; perhaps surprisingly, revenge prolongs their misery. Francis Bacon got it right when he wrote: “A man that studieth revenge, keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal, and do well.” The bottom line is that contemplating revenge tastes sweet, but exacting revenge taste bitter.

I’m wondering if this is a case in which the historians’ perspective helps us best extract the wisdom Torah has to offer.  The biblical historian would say that the story of a victorious war of vengeance against the Moabites, together with the overlay of the Midianites, is mostly a fantasy that can be played and replayed with each telling — in a sense it is equivalent to contemplating revenge. In each iteration of the story the people are victorious and avenged, and their need for retribution is quenched without any more than words only they hear. 

There is wisdom here for us. Desiring revenge is assuredly part of human nature, and often our grievances against others are legitimate, but if seeking revenge to punish others is not appropriate, it helps to know that it wouldn’t make us feel better anyway. Conscious and controlled imagining, however, can provide a balm that will help us move past the hurt. In our imaginations, we can be victorious, justice can prevail, and we can let go much more quickly. What do you think?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman