Friday, June 28, 2013

Pinhas

I am pleased to share that this week’s "Torah Thoughts" was published and distributed nationally by the Jewish Federations of North America.  It can be found at this link and read below.

The Talmud counsels: “Rabbi Hisda taught: 'If the zealot comes to seek counsel, we are never to instruct him to act.'" (Sanhedrin 81b)

And yet the Torah reports that Pinhas was rewarded for his actions.  Here is his story. The people are gathered on the banks of the Jordan River, poised to enter the land of Israel.  They have become intoxicated with the religion of the Midianites, sacrificing to their god, Baal-Peor and participating in its festivals.  Moses tries to get the Israelites to stop, issuing laws forbidding such foreign practices, but they refuse to listen.  God becomes enraged. 

"Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions...  When Pinhas saw this he left the assembly and taking a spear in his hand he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly."  The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Pinhas has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I do not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion."  (Numbers 25)  Pinhas' passion tempers God’s anger.  Thus Pinhas renews the covenant between God and the people.  

It is for this reason that Pinhas’ memory is recalled at the brit milah ceremony.  As we renew the covenant through the ritual of circumcision we recall Pinhas.  We then welcome the presence of the prophet Elijah who, in the future, will announce the coming of the messiah.  We pray, “This is the chair of Elijah the prophet who is remembered for good.” Perhaps this young child will prove to be our people’s redeemer. 

Elijah is as well a zealot.  He, like Pinhas, has a violent temper and deals with non-believers with an equally heavy hand.  He kills hundreds of idolaters and worshipers of Baal.  So why are these the heroes we recall when we circumcise our sons?  Is it possible that the rabbis saw this ritual and its demand that we hold a knife to our sons as a zealous act?  Was this their nod to the intense passion that is required to perform this mitzvah? 

The Torah suggests, in this week’s portion, that an act is made holy by one’s intention, that the ends justify even extreme means.  Pinhas succeeded in ridding the Israelites of idolatry.  Elijah as well bests the prophets of Baal, bringing the people closer to monotheism.  They are thus revered by our tradition.  I remain troubled and even appalled.  I wonder: why must our passions lead to zealous actions? 

Zealousness and passion are too often intertwined.  Passion is desired.  Zealousness must be quelled.  The knife can be an instrument of holiness or a tool for murder. 

My teacher, Professor Israel Knohl, once remarked that monotheism is given to such violence.  Because it is adamant that there is only one God it promotes the destruction of other gods and occasionally, or perhaps too often, their worshippers.  Monotheism is exacting, and even ruthless.  While I hold firm to its belief I remain distant from the actions it too frequently deems holy.  

And so I draw a measure of comfort from the very same prophet whose actions I abhor.  Elijah’s story concludes with a beautiful estimation of where we might find God.  It is not in a thunderous voice or mighty actions. "There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind...  After the earthquake—fire; but the Lord was not in the fire.  And after the fire, a still, small voice."  (I Kings 19)

This is the Haftarah that is often paired with this week’s portion.  The rabbis offer this reading as a counterweight.  We require passion, but not zealousness.  Not every disagreement is a threat that necessitates radical action.  Believing in one God does not require that we destroy others, or their followers.  A plurality of beliefs does not negate our own firmly held convictions.

The Rabbis teach! If the zealot comes to seek counsel, we are never to instruct him to act. Rely instead on the still, small voice.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Balak

Balak, the king of the Moabites, grew frightened by the growing numbers of Israelites, saying,  “Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.” (Numbers 22:4)  He sent for the prophet Balaam and commanded him to curse the Israelites.  Balaam saddled his donkey for the journey.  Lo and behold the donkey saw an angel of the Lord and spoke to Balaam preventing him from cursing the Israelites.  The animal helped to open the prophet’s eyes so that he might bless the people.  The story’s irony cannot be missed.  The prophet is blind.  The animal sees.

A talking donkey?  The tradition of course views this as a miracle that we should not question.  The 20th century Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig, suggests that he believes the story only when it is read in synagogue or perhaps it is better to say, at that moment he suspends disbelief and doubt.  He said, “On the Shabbos when they read it from the Torah, I believe it.”

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes: “Taken literally, the whole story is obviously silly.  Or is it?  Even though it makes us uncomfortable, animals can and do know things hidden from human perception and people do routinely communicate with them.” (Lawrence Kushner and David Mamet, Five Cities of Refuge)

Anyone who has a pet will affirm this observation.  Animals have an awareness that humans sometimes lack. Birds for example are able to weather hurricanes and storms far better than we are.  Not only are the blessed with the ability to fly outside of the storm’s path but they are also endowed with an inner barometer that forewarns them about impending storms.  Each species of birds has developed different strategies for dealing with the weather.

Since the hurricane we have noticed, for example, that the local osprey have changed their nesting patterns.  In the days following the storm we spied an osprey on our neighbor’s front lawn.  Recently as I rode towards Target Rock along West Neck Road I discovered an osprey nest on the edge of the causeway.  In the past these birds could only be seen off in the distance atop tall poles.  Since Hurricane Sandy they apparently were forced to build nests in whatever trees were still left standing.

Usually when riding, I never stop, except at traffic lights of course.  But this moment took my breath away.  There, only a few feet above the road was an osprey nest with chicks in it.  Their parent (I have no way of determining whether it was the mother or father) stood near its young with a fish in its talons.  I stopped to marvel at nature.

I breathed in God’s creation.  I discovered amazement at its ability to find rejuvenation.  Even after the devastation of Superstorm Sandy nature returns and is restored.   I listened to the osprey’s call and its chicks’ whistle.  And like Balaam I sang: “How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob/ Your dwellings, O Israel!/ Like palm-groves that stretch out,/ Like gardens beside a river,/ Like aloes planted by the Lord,/ Like cedars beside the water…” (Numbers 24:5-7)

Friday, June 14, 2013

Hukkat

The Israelites are nearing the end of their wandering and will soon cross into the Promised Land. They will require new leadership.

We see the beginnings of this transition in this week’s portion. We read of the deaths of Miriam and Aaron. We also learn that Moses will only be allowed to take the people to the edge of the land. He is punished for an incident that occurs in this Torah portion. The people were without water and again they complained against Moses and Aaron. God instructs these leaders to command a rock to provide water.

Instead Moses hits the rock with his staff. He and his brother Aaron scream at the people, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you from this rock?” (Numbers 20:10) Water flows from the rock, but still God is disappointed and responds, “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.” (20:12)

For millennia rabbinic commentators debated Moses’ sin. Was it that that he did not follow God’s instructions to the letter? Was it that he hit the rock rather than commanding it? Perhaps he did not give proper credit to God for the miracle. Or was it instead that he showed condescension and disdain towards the people he led.

Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman, an early 20th century Orthodox leader of Polish Jewry, who was murdered in the Holocaust, wrote: “There is a deeper leadership lesson behind the incident of Moses striking the rock. In order to secure obedience Pharaoh appointed taskmasters who shouted, “Do it or else!” Once the Torah is given, the leaders are to direct the people by speaking and teaching. When people refuse to follow, one should inspire them with words—not sticks.” (Wellspring of Torah)

His interpretation offers an inkling to Moses’ sin. Sometimes successful leadership is a matter of tone. It is about temperament. Moses lost patience with the people he led. His frustration is understandable. Too often the people failed to appreciate the blessings of freedom and instead saw only its struggles and challenges. Nonetheless leadership demands understanding. It requires patience. This week, the elderly Moses loses faith with the people he leads.

And so Moses is forbidden from entering the Promised Land. More often than not we see this as God’s punishment for our hero’s great sin. Perhaps we should read this not so much as punishment but instead as God’s recognition that people will no longer follow a leader who exhibited such disdain towards them. The people could no longer follow a leader who shouted, “Listen, you rebels…”

Today’s leaders no longer have miracles to support their pronouncements. They no longer carry sticks. They have only their speaking and teaching. Sometimes we are tempted to think this is not enough. We see our leaders become frustrated when their visions appear unattainable. We witness people becoming disheartened when dreams go unfulfilled. We are tempted to resort to sticks, to coercion. Then we become like Pharaoh’s taskmasters.

And then no one reaches the Promised Land.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Korach

This week’s Torah portion is about Korach and the rebellion he leads.  Korach and his followers rebel against Moses and his leadership, claiming: “You have gone too far!  For the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst.  Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)  Korach is severely punished for questioning Moses.

There is a debate regarding Korach’s sin.  What was his terrible wrong?  Most agree that he should not have questioned Moses during such a difficult period.  The people were wandering through the wilderness.  They required decisive leadership.  The community needed to be unified.  Korach sought to sow divisiveness when unity was demanded. 

But there appears more to Korach’s words.  Yeshayahu Leibowitz, an Israeli scientist and Jewish philosopher, offers an intriguing interpretation.  Korach’s sin is revealed in his claim that “all the community are holy.”  Korach implies that the people have already achieved their goal of holiness and nothing more is demanded of them. (Etz Hayim Torah Commentary)

The Torah challenges us, however, to become holy.  “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” the Holiness Code admonishes us. (Leviticus 19).  What follows then are primarily a list of ethical demands.  The intention is clear.  What makes us holy are our every day actions.  “Do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich…  Love your neighbor…  You shall have an honest balance and honest weights…”    

But there are people who believe that just by virtue of their being Jewish they are already as close to God as they need to be.  They do not see the challenge in the Torah’s command.  They see it only as privilege.  Chosenness in this worldview is not the call to improve the world that it must be for the Jewish people to realize its birthright but instead only a blessing conferring privilege. 

Holiness is a goal that we must strive to achieve each and every day.  It must forever remain a future goal not a present day boast.  The sin of Korach was not that he sowed dissent, but instead that he thought the work was already finished. He believed that there was nothing more he needed to do.  There were no improvements to be made.  His world was already holy, he appeared to believe. 

Holiness must not be a claim of privilege.  It is a demand of us made each and every day, each and every hour, each and every moment.  We become holy by what we do.  Our birthright only acquires holiness through our actions.