Can We Move From Suspicion to Trust?
Commentary by James R. Hearst - date unknown
“YHVH Spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them:
If any man’s wife has gone astray and broken faith with him in that a man has had carnal relations with her unbeknown to her husband, and she keeps secret the fact that she has defiled herself without being forced, and there is no witness against her
But a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over one and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself
The man shall bring his wife to the priest.
And he shall bring as an offering for her on-tenth of an epah of barley flour. No oil shall be poured upon it and no frankincense shall be laid on it, for it is a meal offering of jealousy,
A meal offering of remembrance which recalls wrongdoing.”
Numbers 5:11 – 15
The marriage bond is sacred
Man seems paramount
This determines if the woman is holding a secret that she has gone astray
What if the man goes astray?
Attempt at judgment through the process of ordeal
This is to appease the man’s suspicions or jealousies
The woman could be justly accused
What if the woman suspects her husband is holding a secret?
A meal offering of jealousy
Remembrance which recalls wrongdoing
A form of coercion or torture to initiate confession
Jealousy is justified for the man, not for the woman.
The priest has great power
He mixes a potion which induces a trance
He protects the woman from an unjust husband
He is involved as a judge who must weight the evidence
The intervention prevents the husband from acting in some other way, taking justice into his own hands
There must be some public demonstration for resolution.
As Sotah is described, it is apparent that the innocent woman would pass the test and remain unscathed, a means of silencing a husband’s unfounded accusation. The guilty woman will become sterile, with belly distended and thighs sagging. Within the context of the times, this is better than the Code of Hammurabi in which a wife so suspected would have to prove her innocence by throwing herself into the river.
There is a symbolic aspect to the trail, in that the nation of Israel is also like the unfaithful wife. Moses administered a potion to the people of Israel and made them drink of it. (Exodus 32:20 – 21)
To what extent is a person who commits adultery devoid of sense? No person sins without losing a grasp on reality. Harmful decisions are made by those who fail to understand the consequences of their actions. To what extend are such actions or persons self destructive. Fields 19
Fortunately, in these modern days, the Women of Reform Judaism have provided some corrective surgery.
“Where was the woman’s voice? She may have sounded like this:
I am accused. My husband is jealous. He is jealous of my friendship with any man. … My husband has warned me to stay away, telling me in front of his friends who were with him. He is a big man in their eyes. I have not been alone with a man whom I have seen. Yet I still stand accused.” Feigenson 131
There is a need for determining the truthfulness and openness of such an act, and then a method of atonement and rebuilding of trust.
“The suspicion or lack of trust can come from either party, and may well be mutual. In the Bible, the woman is brought to an authority and is an object of the priest’s actions; in the following ritual, the couple approaches the clergy as equals, and both are immersed in waters, as both seek renewed commitment and trust.
Thus our way of commenting on this biblical passage is not only to use as a model, but also to transform it into something new and respectful of both parties.”
July 21, 2006
This was without question the hardest d’var I have ever had to prepare. I had more false starts, more crumpled up pieces of paper, more feelings of desperation in the wee hours over this than I ever had before and certainly more than I ever hope to have again. For most of the portion for this week--the one I chose included-- we want to shudder and say ‘God who?’ Many of God’s commands to the Israelites fly in the face of everything we have learned and come to know, some of our most treasured values about tolerance, patience, acceptance of strangers. There are things I gleaned from this portion, certainly, as measured by my desire to rant and harangue, speak too much about some peripheral matters and not enough and not in the right way about the meaty ones.
In the end, I decided that I will focus tonight on just two sentences. One is a verse from the section of Torah you just heard: (Numbers 33:50-56) Verse 55. The other is from a newsletter I received at an Israeli support rally earlier this week. In the section you heard, after telling the Israelites that they have come to their homeland, their inheritance, God admonishes them that they have work to do; they must possess the land and take it for their own in the face of opposition from the Canaanites. In verse 55, he warns them “...if you do not dispossess the inhabitants of the land, those whom you allow to remain shall be lesikim be'eyneychem “stings in your eyes and velitsninim betsideychem “thorns in your sides” and they shall vetsareru etchem “harass you in the land in which you live. I used the Hebrew words because if you say them three times fast--once you get your tongue untwisted-- it almost sounds like a swarm of buzzing, stinging insects.
And these words have echoed with me; they seem so prophetic. They are reminiscent, too, of a story a little later in the book of I Samuel in which King Saul is ordered to destroy all of the Amalakites, including women,children and livestock. The Amalakites were noted Jew-haters. King Saul did as he was told--except that he spared the life of Agog, the Amalakite king, and some livestock. As far as I know, the cows were harmless, but Agog was left to propogate and promulgate, and he was the ancestor of the infamous Haman. There is some modern midrashic opinion, I believe, that Haman and his sons were not killed in time to prevent them from having offspring, one of whom was the ancestor of Hitler.
I do not think that most people or people are Jew-haters, but there has always been a remnant of Jew-haters and Jew-baiters. They have existed in almost all places and in almost all times in history since there have been Jews. They have been known as the Crusaders, the Inquisition, pogroms, the Shoa--and the Intifada. They have been called Haman, Hitler, Farrakhan, among others--and Hamas and Hezbollah.
Their currency is lies--inventions to justify their hatred of Jews and of Israel. These are the “stings in the eyes,” of verse 55 which blind otherwise good people and confuse them--e.g, the blood libel or the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” The thorns in the sides are provided by the deceptive practices--sometimes intentional, sometimes not--of some of the people whom we thought we could trust: The media, who talk about militants, dissidents or even freedem-fighters--who in any other context would be known simply as terrorists. Religious leaders who refer to murderers as martyrs. And all of the misguided and misguiding souls who drive us nuts with their earnest analyses of the Middle East: occupation, settlements, fictional massacres in Jenin and elsewhere, refugees, economic factors, the WALL( which becomes higher and more forbidding with each mention); they do not mention that all of these are not causes but products of Jew-hating and attempts to destroy the state of Israel from day one.
The second sentence, found in a special issue of a newsletter entitled “The State of Israel Today,” provides wise counsel regarding a response. At least to me, because I’m inclined to become angry when discussing these issues, and, in addition to talking too much and too loudly, I tend to get incoherent and inarticulate-- and, despite my efforts, no one listens. The sentence reads “We must speak quietly, say little and tell the truth.” The State of Israel must do battle now with guns and rockets, but our best weapon here, our best response to the lies and deception, is clear, reasoned truth. Not to the creators of the lies (They don’t want to know) but to their targets--an uninformed public.
The truth that is Israel is not harsh or difficult. No other country in the world has provided a refuge, a haven, a home to Jews from all over the world, while welcoming people of other religions and ethnic groups. Few countries have lived in a continual state of siege, beset by almost daily attacks, and still managed to maintain a democratic government, a relatively stable economy, universal health care, and extremely humane and ethical standards regarding all human beings. And Israel invented cell phones. We don’t have to apologize, or rationalize or lie.
I think that we can also be consoled somewhat by another truth, supported by history, that, while bullies may prevail for short periods of time and may do a lot of damage in that time, they seldom thrive or survive over the long haul-- but the people of Israel have. Stings and thorns can hurt and distract us, but they’re not nearly as large or powerful as they seem.
8 Tammuz 8 5765, July 15, 2005 Mark Segal
This week’s Parsha is Balak, from Bemidbar, the Book of Numbers. Balak, king of Moab, has seen how, while journeying to the Promised Land, the People of Israel defeated the Amorites. In defense, he sends messengers to Bilaam, a pagan prophet, to curse the Israelites.
God forestalls this curse, but in ways that confuse Bilaam, using hidden angels and a talking ass. Eventually, things become clear. Bilaam sees all Israel camped tribe-by-tribe, the spirit of God comes upon him, and he recites “Mah tovu, ohalecha Ya'acov, mishk'notecha Yisrael - How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel! ” Strife and confusion yield to peace and clarity.
So, how can Jews in a liberal community think about Israel? The simple answer: “any way we wish”; the reality, like that initially facing Bilaam, is complex. How can we, like Bilaam, reach peace and clarity?
Gary and I explore this in detail in [the Temple’s online journal] Open Space, and we hope you will read it. Despite our differing views, this project has strengthened our common ground as fast friends and fellow Jews. It is a vivid example of how our Temple can thrive with differing views on hard issues
This evening, I will touch on a few themes.
Can you be a Jew and not a Zionist? Of course, although this places one outside Jewish mainstreams and guiding principles of Reform. An even deeper test is to answer this question, echoing a famous Haggadah passage: is Israel “we” or “they”?
Of course, even as we identify with Israel, other Jews will judge the impact of our actions on our tribe, a term many of us use tongue in cheek, or with scorn, but which captures who we are. We are a people in covenant with God and each other, with Israel our eternal homeland.
So, where does this leave us? There truly is a wide range of “inside the tent” positions within our Jewish community on Israeli actions. What these share is a commitment to Israel as a Jewish state and homeland. Israel is “we.” I have many close friends who shade well left of my views on Mideast issues, while being deeply and vocally committed to Israel
Certainly, Israelis have always had a wide range of views; though such debates are within the “family.” For American Jews, I suggest that responses to Israeli actions should be more restrained. This view troubles and even offends many, but Diaspora critiques of Israel can reinforce broader attacks on its legitimacy. They can strengthen Israel’s adversaries, and those who serve their purposes.
And make no mistake; Israel is at war, with mortal enemies, no less so than the Moabites. And, like Balak, these enemies use others, including those of good heart, like Bilaam, to seek Israel’s defeat.
Many Mideast activists use the Occupation as the rationale to criticize Israel, arguing that without occupation, there would be peace, Israel would be secure, and terror would end. These arguments ring true to many Jews, for whom the notion of Jews as occupiers is repugnant.
My reading of history is that this view on the role of the occupation, held by many on the Left and not a few Jews, is wrong and, deeply harmful, in its effect, to Israel. It leads to a fundamentally unbalanced stance that makes Israel’s action, or inactions, the sole driver of current hostilities.
Arab hostility to Israel long predates the Occupation, and extends far deeper. And the Occupation itself emerged from Israel’s 1967 victory in the Six Days War, a war of self-defense against Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. Moreover, the West Bank is the historic heartland of Israel. It is Hebron, not Tel Aviv, that has had a central role in Jewish religion and history over millennia.
So, though I favor a two-state solution, with Israel leaving Gaza and much of the West Bank, Jewish presence in the West Bank is neither illegitimate nor to be given up lightly. In calling for evacuation of settlements, we must do so with a heavy heart and not ease. Finally, we must be mindful that, to military experts, the 1967 Green Line is not a defensible border.
The writer Yossi Klein Halevi has crystallized our internal tensions and how they must be resolved. He argues that the “right, has won the argument over the true nature of Palestinian society, but the left has won the argument over the disaster of occupation” and that “left and right have to listen to the warnings of each other.” He reminds us that “[t]he twin teachings of our past are ‘Beware of Amelek’ -- those who are out to destroy the nation of Israel -- and 'Remember you were once strangers.” Halevi’s point is that, while “the ideas that we have real enemies and that we must treat others justly are on the surface contradictory,” it is that very “paradox our history and tradition forces us to wrestle with.”
Closer to home, we need to reframe the “dissent” issue, which Gary discusses so well, whose latest incarnation dates back three years to the effort to bring Israeli Refusers to our Temple.
Much that has been called dissent, by “both” sides, is really not. Disagreement is not always dissent; it is often simply disagreement, freely expressed. Moreover, when Temple leadership does not agree with or act on the views of some congregants, or communicate those views through Temple channels, it is not chilling dissent; it is simply agreeing to disagree and acting on formal mandates for leadership.
Of course, no member should be ostracized or penalized for holding or expressing specific views – opposing the Sharon government, agreeing on dividing Jerusalem, opposing single payor health care, even voting Republican. But life does not guarantee comfort and these are serious matters. The freedom to disagree with others implies their freedom to disagree with you.
Our recent Scholar-in-Residence, Zohar Raviv addressed this tension between two essentials: community norms and individual viewpoints. Zohar emphasizes the importance of a “commitment to the communal aspect of Judaism: understanding that one’s view – as cherished as it is – is exactly that: one view. It is therefore essential to come to dialogue with other views, even if risking one’s own preconceived assumptions.” He emphasized that we can simultaneously maintain community norms and values, properly arrived at, while encouraging learned, and informed free expression.
We must also be open to the fact that profound insights come from unexpected places, just as a pagan prophet is the surprising source for one of our most famous prayers, Mah Tovu.
Together, we must build the internal connections and common identity that can foster shared norms and weather inevitable, and indeed, indispensable, disagreements. With these connections, we need not fear losing a friend or congregant because of our views . . . or theirs. Shared worship, in this Sanctuary, is one powerful way to build those connections, but that is a topic for another time.
To close; in approaching Israel-related issues as a community, we should be intentional, acting consistent with our mission statement’s call for support for Israel. In this regard, let me draw on the latest Reform Judaism magazine, which has excellent essays on Zionism.
Two essays are especially on point. One author, finding herself estranged from Israel for reasons familiar to many of us, reports growing up in a deeply Zionist home and then, as an adult, joining a Reform synagogue characterized by critiques of Israel and a focus on Israel's negative treatment of Reform. She asks, “how is one to feel ‘spiritual closeness’ with Israel amid the swirl of critiques and contentiousness.” How indeed?
Building on this theme, ARZA’s President notes in that same issue the “difficulty of communicating liberal Zionism to a richly diverse American Reform constituency [born after the 1967 and 1973 wars] and those who were not born into Jewish families.”
In considering, therefore, how we approach Israel as a synagogue and community, we must recognize that, to paraphrase Kohelet, we reap what we sow. So, let us take care that our congregation acts in ways that sow love of Israel in the hearts of our children and our members.
Thank you and Shabbat Shalom.
8 Tammuz 8 5765, July 15, 2005 Gary Wainer
In a recent edition of the B’nai Brith Magazine a group of Jewish notables were asked what they thought Judaism would look like in 350 years.
Rabbi David Wolpe said that he thinks that “…we will still avoid the plague of unity. I hope our ancestors will never suffer the stultifying effects of universal agreement….Each Jewish stream…will be willing to do only intellectual battle.”
Blu Greenberg said “We will have learned to celebrate each other’s differences and distinctiveness without compromising our own strong beliefs.”
And Francine Klagsburn believes that “Jews will still be fighting with each other as they have for thousands of years.”
Those were only some of the thoughts contained in the essays but you can see the drift.
Jews like to argue.
Three Jews and four opinions- so what’s new about that? By the way, I would highly recommend reading that article. Dennis Prager, who I normally don’t think of as a funny guy, has a hilarious section on the 17 Jewish sects that will have been founded 350 years from now and how they find it necessary to ague about kosher water.
But in any event, for the past five thousand, and according to these folks, the next 350 years, our tradition has been, and will continue to be, one of argument.
Argument with each other and argument with God. In Genesis 32:28 Jacob wrestles with the angel at the crossing of the Jabbok and is renamed Israel, because: “you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” So we certainly appear to have ancient hard wired genetics that not only allow us, but probably compel us to argue with one another and with God. But this hard wiring also defines us, Israel, as that people who wrestle with one another in an attempt to continually define our nature.
You have to know that wrestling with anyone for me is difficult. I gave up wrestling with my brother Brad when he turned 14 and got bigger than me, and in intellectual wrestling, being the good doctor that I am, I want to be the peacemaker and have people like me. That is really hard when you need to hold on to a position that is contrary to others and sparks debate.
Mark and I took up our “Open Spaces” project because we both identified the need for open dialogue and argument and at least the perceived lack of it here at the congregation. That problem was repeatedly identified in our long range planning committee, as well as by multiple individuals throughout the community, including me. I and others felt that certain topics had become taboo.
When as a Board member years ago I suggested that we withhold a portion of our Israel Bond money to express displeasure with the then developing settlements in the occupied territories the idea was summarily dismissed. What concerned me was not the outcome, because I truly now believe that would have been a bad idea, but rather the lack of conversation and discussion around the idea. No discussion, it was out of bounds, and not even a rational argument as to why. No one even tried to convince me; it was just a non-issue.
As we proceeded along our “Open Spaces” project this spring, we also began to identify, sometimes in parallel, sometimes in conjunction, that this element of inability to openly disagree really takes on broader perspectives.
During my tenure as President, I identified the fact that one of our Exec Committee members had very different set of political and social views than the rest of us around the table; He did not believe in the Reform perspective on gun control or abortion, and disagreed on many other social issues on which we as Reform Jews pride ourselves as being somewhat left of center. But at the same time I realized that his “conservative” ideas were dismissed out of hand, and there was no real forum or even context within which he could express his dissent. He too was shut off and dismissed because his views were right of center and did not conform to so called normative Reform Judaism.
Believe it or not, there are congregants, who like our Exec Committee friend, don’t believe in gun control, those who oppose abortion and even those who think homosexuals should keep to themselves. And yes, there are even congregants who believe in financial divestiture from Israel and a single Israeli state with full citizenship for the Arab and Palestinian populations. There are congregants who think that we should proceed to become more observant and learn more Torah. And then there are congregants who cringe every time they see a kippah and Tallit.
Yet we all seem to be here; only we are not talking about those differences and why we believe in them. Our conversations have become sanitized.
In the world of addiction and recovery medicine we frequently deal with dysfunctional family systems. There is a saying that many of you have heard, that there is an elephant in the room and no one will talk about it. The unhealthy family will step around it, step under it, avoid it, but no one will talk about it. That elephant here in our family is our differences; in an attempt to assimilate and become like our secular neighbors, we have lost the ability to talk about those differences that make us Jews; we have become Jewish Vanilla and dare I say, white bread and mayo !!
What I propose to you tonight is that we need to rejoice in those differences that make us liberal Jews, those differences that make us conservative Jews,
Those differences that make us financially conservative, those differences that make us fiscal liberals,
Those differences that make us rejoice at even the thought of Israel so that it can do no wrong, and those differences that make us cringe every time an Israeli politician speaks.
And so on and so on.
As Mark and I became closer, and I have to tell you that if nothing else comes from this project, if not one ounce of change occurs here in our community, this will still have been a success for us in the formation of our relationship and understanding of each other and each other’s views. And needless to say we don’t generally live on the same side of the political spectrum.
But as Mark and I became closer we also realized that there was a built in forum in our tradition for these discussions and arguments that we as a community do not use as readily as we should. That forum is what you have come to tonight; that forum is to use Shabbat services as community time. To use Shabbat services as a true place of community and a place where as Francine Klagsburn would note that we could continue to argue for another thousand years.
You may not like services, you may not believe in God ( and yes, we have those Jews also), and you may find the seats uncomfortable, but where else, other than in the House of God , the house of your family, can you come and safely wrestle with your community and wrestle with God ? Certainly not on the soccer fields and not in Scoville Square; those all take on different perspectives. Here it should be safe; we have a single understanding of one another, and the ability to talk about the elephant.
And we do need to talk about that huge gray thing until it is gone, diminished or reshaped into something less foreboding, something less obtrusive. We hope that this evening’s attendance is reflective of a yearning to interact and converse and disagree and argue; and to leave the Oneg arm in arm as family.
We hope that this presence here tonight will be recreated in the week’s to come. And if you want, we will also announce more controversial topics just to entice you in.
Some of those D’variim could be dovetailed with our next volume of “Open Spaces” which we will probably get together sometime after High Holidays. Some topics we have been talking about are such things as “Your belief in God”, “the nature of observance-how far should Reform Jews go ?”, “Public Prayer-should Jews participate ?” and my recent favorite- “Should the public display of the Ten Commandments be written in Hebrew as they were intended to be ?” (All right, I know someone will say they were actually in Aramaic- so OK, we can have two editions-one about Aramaic and one about Hebrew).
In this week’s parsha, Balak, we are told about the inability of Balak to obtain a curse for the Israelites from Balaam, a prophet of God. Every time he is instructed by Balak to curse Israel, God instructs Balaam to bless them.
Blessings and curses seem to be another of our hard wired chromosomes but that is for another D’Var. But one of the commentaries also notes that this is the first time that Israel is called “am”, “a people”. It is the first time that they are identified as a single group who possess genetic, cultural, and social bonds that unify them. It is those bonds that unite us and it is those bonds that allow us to disagree and wrestle with one another. We have an opportunity here this evening and going forward at Oak Park Temple to bless ourselves, bless our ancestors, and bless our house by living up to our God given and historical nature of argument.
And with that would like to leave you with a blessing tonight:
Hinei mah tov uma nayim, shevet achim gam yachad. Behold how good it is and how pleasant when brethren live together in unity. Shabbat Shalom
August 8, 2003 by Carol Gerson
This sidra can be summarized like this: God is talking…
There are rules and I am giving them to you. Here they are, you need to follow them. If you do, things will be good for you and if you don’t things will be bad for you. Here are all the things I’ve done for you, and I will do for you. You get this land, all set up with good things that you did not grow or build, you just get them.
IF you do what I tell you.
This basically gets repeated about a zillion times. Over and over, with slightly different phrasing, but the same message. Let’s face it, us Jewish mothers come by it honestly. Skilled nudging can be learned from Torah study.
So here I am, raised in a very intellectual, classical reform, home. I do not relate to this God. In fact, that is my problem with fundamentialist Christians who believe that God looks and talks like us, and talks directly to them telling then that they are doing it the right way and all the rest of us are going to hell.
So, how does someone whose concept of divinity leans much more toward the ineffable than the anthropomorphic deal with a portion like this? The only possible approach is to see it as metaphor. A metaphor for what?
Having mulled this over for a long time, mostly while commuting, I have concluded that it is about community. That is so relevant today because most what we see in the media and popular culture is about individual needs and wants. How do I win? How can I beat out the next guy for more money, for the better looking mate. How to I get the better car? How do I actualize myself? How do I get to be the last one on the island? In short, how do I get?
This sidra says, it’s not about you. It’s about guidelines, rules, a system that allows us to function in community. It’s about giving rather than getting. It’s not about moral relativism, but about moral reality. This portion is the antithesis of the “whatever feels good” approach to life. It tells us that unless we function as a community, bad things will happen.
In this world, so different from the world in which these words were written, the community in which we have to function is truly a global community. If we fail to create a system of guidelines that will allow this country and this planet to function as a community we do so at our peril. AIDS and SARS have taught us that we are a community when it comes to health care. Care not provided to all puts everyone at risk. Poor education for some, puts the progress of this country and this world at risk. Environmental neglect and destruction by the few, put all at risk. Restricted civil liberties for some, put everyone’s civil liberties at risk.
This sidra is about the dangers of selfishness and about redemption through community. May we strive toward creating community in our homes, our villages, our country and our world. Ken Y’hi Ratzon. Amen
June 13, 2003 by Steven Jordan
This chapter of the Torah is dramatic, vivid, troubling, magnificent. I will outline the story, and then touch upon one recurring theme - the revelation of God to his people. Here are the sections -- for each item we can ask "what is this really saying," and "why" and "what does this mean for us?"
- The Lord has just given the priestly benediction to Moses
- The second Passover, and interesting laws
- The wondrous silver trumpets
- The sacred cloud of the Tabernacle lifts and the Israelites begin a splendid procession, but Hobab and his people do not go.
- In 10:35-36 we have the marching song of Moses, bracketed with inverted nuns -- this is a treat for esoteric scholarship.
- The people complain bitterly, and a fire of the Lord breaks forth at the camp.
- The riffraff in their midst feel a gluttonous craving, because they were tired of eating manna.
- Moses tells God he cannot bear the burden of the demands of the people.
- The Lord tells Moses to set up a leadership council of 70 elders.
- The spirit of the Lord visits the elders and then leaves them.
- Eldad and Medad, who are not elders, prophesy in ecstasy; Joshua objects, but Moses says, "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets."
- Because the people demand meat, the Lord gives the Children of Israel so much quail meat that they get sick. The language is terrifying and so is the thought.
- Miriam and Aaron chastise Moses for taking a Cushite wife; God speaks to them; Miriam is stricken, and Moses prays for her.
Why are the Israelites complaining again? Are they merely fickle, neurotic whiners? This is the stereotype. Is it because they are the generation of Egyptian slaves, only impressed by magic and not ready for freedom?
But why should the Israelites embrace the Lord? Because Moses is their leader? Where is their revelation? They see signs and wonders and the outstretched arm of the Lord. There are speeches and songs and miracles and rituals and adventures. Wonders and magic speak to their Egyptian roots. And signs are profoundly important for us all -- but the signs and symbols must echo our experience and reality. Moses and Aaron see an urgent reality behind the symbols. The Israelites do not see God face-to-face, nor hear his word directly. Their signs and symbols are transitory.
One theme of the book of Numbers is revelation. This is the blessing when the Lord shines his face upon us. How can a person see the way of the Lord? In Numbers there are a few suggestions -- the dedicated ascetic Nazirite (a route looked upon with caution by the Rabbi's), -- the way of ritual and service -- the path of righteousness, especially for the community -- the study of the word of God -- the praise and fear and delight in God.
There is a hierarchy of Jewish mysticism. First, experience with the world. Next, study, with the goal of maturity, and wisdom. The unexamined life is not worth living. Isn't it a blessing to have clear goals and priorities! We all relish meeting people who show us a clarity and dedication to the path to righteousness. But beyond ethical humanism, with the spirit of God comes revelation. Then, prophecy. That sounds like a word we hear when surfing the cable channels on Sunday. But it is a Jewish word that did not disappear with Daniel.
The Talmud shows that the most important revelation is not merely an awakening, but prophecy, when God tells a person in ecstasy what he or she must do. Prophecy is genuine in the Torah; a prophet does not have to prove himself.
The great Maimonides devotes 17 chapters to prophecy in the Guide to the Perplexed
. He calls prophecy, "The highest degree and greatest perfection man can attain." As an Aristotelian philosopher, Maimonides searches for the First Cause of prophecy, which must be God or his agent, an angel. Sounding like the physician, Maimonides gives a fascinating diagnosis of 11 degrees of prophecy, including psychic, emotional, and religious aspects.
These prophetic dramas start within our experiences. Maimonides writes, "The first degree of prophecy consists in the divine assistance which is given to a person, and induces and encourages him to do something good and grand..This degree of divine influence is called 'the spirit of the Lord.'"
Revelation and prophecy seem so un-American, such quaint ideas -- so uncomfortable words for a well-read, Reform Jew. But let us put aside our modern prejudices, open our hearts and minds, and listen to the priestly blessing with less intellectual arrogance and more humility -- may we see God reveal his way as we walk down the path.May Adonai bless us and keep us!
May Adonai shine his face upon us and deal graciously with us!
May Adonai lift up his face towards us and grant us peace!
Roberta Baruch, August 23, 2002
Parshat Ki Tavo is a description of entering the land, that is Israel, and begins by describing the annual mitzvah for the farmers of Israel to bring their bikurim, or first fruits, to the Kohen (priest) in the Temple. Also there is a description of how stones shall be found and Torah written on them. Following a recounting of the wonderful blessings that God will bestow upon the Jewish people for remaining faithful, Moses gives a chilling prophecy of what will befall the Jewish people for not following the Torah. Known as the tochachah (admonition), Moses graphically describes the horrible destruction that would come to pass if we stray from God.
Ki Tavo tells us to get into action, it plays out at the margin between curses and blessings, chaos theory in action if you will. A very simplistic definition, based on Donahue's explanation, is that chaos theory is a study of unstable aperiodic behavior in deterministic nonlinear dynamical systems. Aperiodic behavior never repeats and it continues to manifest the effects of any small perturbation; hence, any prediction of a future state in a given system that is aperiodic is impossible. Whether or not you understand this definition, and I understand it only in its most simplistic form, I see its application to Torah, and to Ki Tavo in particular.
The blessings and curses are listed as a result of behaviors. Although the curses are pronounced for seemingly specific actions, in the case of blessings, behaviors are not spelled out, one is simply to observe faithfully the teachings. Thus, receiving a blessing or a curse by performing any specific action cannot be predicted. Torah is not temporal, Judaism manifests the effects of perturbations, and since the teachings are ambiguous, I describe the action of Ki Tavo as being at the margin of the curses and blessings. That is why taking action, and thereby, risks, I believe is the lesson of this parsha.
Being Jewish has always been a risky occupation. Besides the risks of the responses and reactions of the external world, very much on our minds right now, there are personal and internal risks - of choosing to do the right thing, when for so much of our lives, we do not know what the right thing is. We do not know what the outcomes of our actions may be. The future of our actions is unpredictable.
Let's take the simplest of the curses "Cursed be he who insults his father or mother." How are we to know what insults our mother or father? For instance, it is accepted in our society that when elders become too disabled, whether from physical deterioration or mental incapacity, to maintain a home, they are institutionalized, even though a parent may protest at length-and even revile us for our decision. What is the proper Jewish action? Is giving a parent a safe place to live with adequate supervision and activities that a working adult child cannot provide an insult? Or a necessity? Or even a blessing and a joy, for the elder, for the family, maybe even for the institution? One can't know, at least not in one's own lifetime, the real outcomes of such an action.
That's why I say being Jewish is risky. We have to make our decisions at the margin of the blessings and curses without full knowledge of where our behaviors or the perturbations of Judaism will lead us. We know what not to do, at least according to this list of curses, but as my example shows, even the most simple of the curses is not at all clear. The real question is what to do, what actions to take. I think Ki Tavo tells us not to stay on the margins, where perturbations of dynamical systems can confuse us about Jewish values. Ki Tavo says take action and not only that, to take action with joy, because it tells us if we are not joyful in our actions, God is not pleased, and the action has neither the right intent or nor the proper meaning God requires. We will have strayed from God. So we must try to make our lives for a blessing. Enter it, as God told the Jews to enter the land. Take risks. And give thanks, if not on stones, then at least by reciting the blessings. One joy we can all agree on. A bat mitzvah is for a blessing.
Mark Burger DVar Torah Balak, Bemidbar/Numbers 22:2 - 25:9
(Chant 25:1-9) 12 Tammuz 5760, July 14, 2000
The Torah portion of Pinchas is controversial in modern life. To a conservative, or fundamentalist, viewpoint, the slaying by Pinchas of the two sexual partners is a clear signal that loose morals are not to be tolerated. Theres a further, nastier undertone that because the two illicit lovers are of different tribes, read, different races, any kind of relations between different types of people is punishable by death. In the ugly world of racists a band called the Sons of Phineas, the anglicized version of Pinchas, takes upon itself to violently punish couples of different ethnic backgrounds, as well as gays and anyone else that they hate, which is everybody. The Pinchas episode ranks up there by those I call reactionaries with the casting of one of Noahs sons as the beginning of a so-called inferior race, forbidding dancing due to the Golden Calf and the allowance of having your bratty kids lit up when they dis you. Well, as the father of teenagers, maybe that ones not so bad
Flipping over to the liberal side, horror is expressed at Pinchas double killing, graphically portrayed. Its barbaric, at the very least an example of ancient mores run amok, and not allowable in todays progressive society. Taking it further, to many on the so-called left, it makes Torah and the organized religion it represents a repository of bigotry, repressed sexual envy, and lust for violence as a means of control. How can any progressive, inclusive and diverse civilization accept this behavior as a basis for worship
Not so fast, not so fast. Things aint what they seem. Sorry, right wing racists. Pinchas skewering was not an Aryan act. The name Pinchas derives from Egyptian language, meaning the Negro or the Nubian. It is doubtful Pinchas acted from anything approaching a racial notion. But this doesnt let the live and let love crowd off either. The coupling of Zimri and Cozbi, and the orgies in Shittim were not merely lust, they were political acts.
The enticement by the Moabities was a coup detat, the use of sex as a means of worship a graven image, with the result of Israel disappearing as a people. This was not just a roll in the hay, but statecraft. In Judaism, a Jew is supposed to avoid three things even at the threat of death: murder, idolatry and sexual immorality. The combining of the last two compounded what went on at Shittim. On top of that, after disease ravaged Israel and plunged them into mourning, two people of very important families, engage in sex in front of everybody. Pinchas may not have been the only person who wanted to kill them, but he was the fastest. Interestingly, commentary states that had Pinchas not acted in hot pursuit he would have been guilty of murder.
In Jewish oral law, one of the worse things is entrapment. That is why people suspected of wrongdoing are not allowed to swear an oath, because it could ensnare the swearer and court in a form of idolatry, taking Gods name in vain. It is one thing, when alleged sin takes place behind closed doors that, in the end, requires reflection on what was done. Its quite another when the object is power and destruction of a people. In the end, I suppose you had to be there. Amen.
D'Var Torah Balak 12 Tammuz 5759 25 June 1999 Mark Burger
In the play "Becket", King Henry asks Becket when is one immoral and when is one amoral. Becket smiles and replies "It depends what you mean". In the dictionary, "amoral" means not admitting to moral judgements or values, not caring about right or wrong. "Immoral" means contrary to established moral principles.
Which is worse? Depends what you mean. Immoral means something obvious - evil, bad, violent. It fits in well with good and evil, if one talks about being immoral. Duality is very comforting; you're either one or the other. Christianity can be considered dualist; God or Satan, Heaven or Hell. Judaism can travel the dualist path as well.
But there's something else about Judaism that considers something worse than heaven or hell. And that is nothing. Oblivion. What may be considered a desirable state in some Eastern religions is intolerable in Judaism. To have nothing, to not exist is the worse thing that can happen, literally the disappearance of the soul. No wonder one of the greatest Jewish fears is not having someone to say kaddish after you're gone. No wonder one of the harshest curses or oaths is to have someone's name vanish.
Amorality may be considered a form of oblivion while still being physically alive. And a form of amorality that threatens all of us is passivity. Going with the flow, just doing your job, not making waves. Almost everyone does it to some extent because the alternative can often be unpleasant, painful, even dangerous. So what's so bad about it? Two things. Eventually it is a horrible way to live. Secondly, it can make God mad.
Balaam was a man who, depending on your view, was a prophet or a sorcerer. He was ordered by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Israelites. Okay. But then God told Balaam not to curse them. Okay. Balaam goes back and forth between God and Balak with some real comedy. There was the talking ass seeing the guardian angel where Balaam didn't. There's Balak acting so enraged he might explode like the fairy tale troll at the bridge, and so on. It ends up with Balaam stating to Balak face-to-face why he blessed, not cursed Israel. And Balaam rides off into the sunset.
Now on the surface, Balaam looks good. He says wonderful things about Israel, including a verse found in our liturgy "How lovely are thy tents". So why am I picking on him, and why do a lot of Jewish commentators pick on him as well? When I agree with many of the ancient ones, I get nervous. I have problems with Balaam because he reminds me of the corporate suits that say the right thing to everybody, whether he believes it or not. He reminds me of a Tanakhic George Stephanopoulous, with just the right level of involvement between two big, conflicting clients.
At one point, God gives Balaam a choice to go or not go to Balak and his clique. Balaam went, angering God. Apparently Balaam didn't himself see that what he was participating in was wrong. Later, after the taking ass and angel incident, Balaam asked the angel what he should do, after abusing his more discerning donkey. Balaam said to Balak that he could only say what God told him to say. Numerous times afterward, Balaam did not go one inch outside of what God told him, but did not tell Balak to hang it up, letting the incident just peter out.
Jewish commentators scorned Balaam as later turning to sorcery, inducing Israel to idolatry and dying ingloriously later on. I have problems with Balaam because he seemed to have no moral center, doing what ever he was told to do by a strong enough voice, or purse. As unspeakable as evil is, it does serve a purpose if only to really show us what it is to be wrong. Pharaoh gave clear lessons in being wrong. Korah gave clear lessons in being wrong in his rebellion against Moses and God, although Korah's lineage did survive
Ambivalence leading to amorality can happen to the best of us; that's why it's so dangerous. It can be the gateway to evil, as the force of nature hates a vacuum. Noah can be considered to be ambivalent or amoral when he didn't confront God over the Flood. Perhaps that's why Noah drank himself into oblivion. Job can be considered to be ambivalent or amoral when he did not confront his children over their decadent ways. Amorality is just as dangerous as evil, maybe even more so, because it can appear so nice. Sometimes it doesn't pay to be nice. Amen.
Parsha Shelach-lecha, Numbers 13 - 15
Judy E. Gross, June 11, 1999
Fear is politically incorrect now. Several years ago, the movie Defending Your Life made fear the reason to be rejected or even ejected from Heaven. More recently, an epigram of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav has made the rounds of Jewish studies, slightly misquoted to say "life is a narrow bridge, and the important thing is not to be afraid." And within the last several weeks, my kids report that the new Star Wars movie includes Yoda's wisdom that fear is bad because it engenders hate and all kinds of bad stuff. This week's parsha, Shelach-lecha, is a study of fear, but it instructs us that fear is only bad if you fear the wrong things or cannot act in spite of your fear.
The portion begins with the Israelites almost in the Promised Land of Canaan, still guided by God in the form of the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, but they still are uncertain why they left Egypt and if God, who forgot them for four hundred years of slavery in Egypt, really is giving them something worth having, including a good land.
Because the Israelites do not really trust God, God tells Moses to send spies or scouts into Canaan so that the Israelites can learn from the scout's reports about the land. These scouts are not just anyone: Moses is to pick a prince from each tribe so that each tribe will have a report from someone it trusts, and these princes' names and their fathers are listed at some length. People can know the princes at least by reputation and have reason to believe their report.
The scouts go throughout Canaan and find various tribes living in the land. The scouts return with a mixed report. The land is, indeed, flowing with milk and honey. They brought back a grape cluster, which was so large that two men had to carry it between them on a pole, as well as pomegranates and figs. But all the scouts except for Joshua and Caleb are afraid and insist that the land is dangerous - it eats its inhabitants- and giants live there. Indeed, the scouts report that when they saw the inhabitants, the scouts in their own eyes looked like grasshoppers in comparison and believed that that is how the inhabitants must have seen them. Their fear has made them believe that it is impossible for the Israelites to defeat the Canaanites. Despite Caleb and Joshua's urgings, the people refuse to enter the land to fight for it, instead repeating their refrain that they wish they had stayed in Egypt or would die in the wilderness rather than have their children carried off by the Canaanites. This is definitely a case of being careful what you wish for.
The people are so frightened that they start to stone Moses and are only deterred when the Presence of the Lord appears before the whole community. God repeats his offer or threat to Moses to destroy all the people and give Moses a different set of people to lead; Moses pleads on behalf of the Israelites on the familiar ground that the Egyptians will think God was not powerful enough to bring the Israelites into the land. Apparently, the Egyptians would have been right. God informs the people that as a punishment, they will not be able to enter the Promised Land immediately and will not be able to defeat the inhabitants of the land if they try to go in. Instead, they will wander for forty years in the wilderness until all of them over 20 years of age except for Joshua and Caleb have died; only the children will be able to enter the promised land. At this, the people decide that maybe they can change God's mind if they show they are not afraid of the Canaanite and overcome their fear to try to capture Canaan. God is not with them, and they fail. In a truly Shakespearian ending to the story, the scouts who gave the bad report of the land all die of the plague.
So what do we make of this story? Throughout the parsha, we and the Israelites are given pairs of choices. Some of these choices include that they could believe God that the land is good or send for themselves ("shelach-lacha") important people to give human opinions; see from the evidence of the fruits that the scouts brought back from the land that God truly was giving them a land of milk and honey or believe that the land was wilderness that ate its inhabitants; believe that the Nephtallim - the giants that God had destroyed with Noah's flood - lived in the land or that people that they could overpower lived there; believe that the scouts appeared to the inhabitants as grasshoppers or remember that even if they were grasshoppers, God had used a plague of locusts against Egypt. Their choice was to trust God or fear the land. They chose to fear the land.
Now, this parsha does not say that there is nothing to fear except fear itself. The Israelites had many things to fear, but the Israelites guess wrong and fear the wrong things. They fear the land that eats its inhabitants instead of fearing survival without God's help. They fear Nephtallim and wilderness when they should fear lack of order, rebellious people, sin that isn't forgiven, or God's punishment, including plagues. They should have feared not getting what they prayed for - or getting what they prayed for, believing their eyes when their fear made them see themselves as grasshoppers rather than as people or rather than believing their eyes when they saw the fruit of the land. They would have done better to follow Admiral Fisher's motto when building the last wooden warship for England: Fear God and Dreadnought.
Unfortunately, the people had reason to fear at the end: they were sentenced to die in the wilderness. This death sentence had a predictable result. The Israelites unsuccessfully tried to change either change God's mind or win Canaan on their own. When that was unsuccessful, the people lost all hope, which in the next parsha leads to a major rebellion against Moses.
I say the result was predictable, but, in fact, this parsha does provide some protection for the Israelites; they do not need to be so afraid. First and most important, God is present for them. He has delivered them from Egypt and guided and protected them with the pillars of smoke and fire. He directly intervenes to save Moses. And even after sentencing the adults to die in the wilderness, He makes it clear that the children will enter the land. The guilty will be punished for the third and fourth generations - those that have to wander for 40 years - but the punishment will then be remitted.
After the bloody end of these chapters, the parsha continues in Chapter 15 with God giving rules to permit forgiveness of inadvertent wrong acts once the children are in the land. The Israelites are told that all, including the Israelite and the stranger who resides with them, are subject to the same laws, and are told that different rules apply to intentional violations of the law. When they find a man gathering wood on the Sabbath, presumably intentionally violating the law, they ask God the proper punishment. God instructs them to stone the man to death. They do. God then instructs the people to wear fringes on the corners of their garments to remind them of the laws.
At first blush, these provisions seem unrelated to the preceding story, but, when you think about them, you can see that they, in fact give the Israelites some protection and hope. First, it is absolutely clear that God's covenant with the Israelites was not abrogated. The group will survive the sojourn in the wilderness and will get the land. God has not withdrawn the promised land permanently. The children will not be carried off and killed as they had feared. God will accept prayers and sacrifices from them in the land - He has not turned away from them. He has reassured them that justice will prevail by preventing them from stoning Moses but telling them to stone the woodgatherer. (As I said, they are shown that there is plenty of reason to fear God. Moreover, the Illinois criminal justice system apparently could use a little more direct input from God on which people really are guilty and deserve the death penalty.) By making us cringe at the wood gatherer's punishment, He is perhaps even making us think a bit about our urges toward vigilante justice or following the precepts of Torah too closely.
God also provided equality as a protection. There was one law for the Israelites and the stranger residing among them. The princes of the people were subject to the same laws and the same punishment as the ordinary woodgatherer. All were to follow the law, but they were not excepted to be perfect. All could receive forgiveness for inadvertent transgressions. All were to wear the same fringes on their garments. It is notable that these fringes serve only to remind us of the law - God apparently gave up on visible signs of His presence as a way to make us believe in Him or trust Him. Even those who doubt Him or fear for the future could follow the law.
In the end, the people were not punished for having fear. When the people were afraid to go into the land, God suggested that they send the scouts to assuage their fear, but He did not punish them. They were only punished when they chose to ignore the visible evidence from the scouts and not trust God despite their fear. God gave them visible evidence of His support and the goodness of the land. If the people had believed their eyes, they could have gone into the land, albeit fearfully. To restate Rabbi Nachman's point about fear, life is a narrow bridge and the important thing is is not whether you are afraid; the important thing is that you choose to try to cross the bridge.