Thursday, June 21, 2018

Bizarre Rituals and Ethical Commands

I am thinking that the Torah does not matter.

I spent the better part of the morning reading the day’s paper. I read in detail about the struggle of immigrants on our country’s southern border. Despite the fact that President Trump issued an executive order ending the practice of separating families caught sneaking across the border, over 2,000 children remain separated from their parents. How can we remain indifferent to those running away from persecution and poverty? Whether people entered the country legally, or illegally, there must be a better way.

We are a nation of immigrants. We have offered the promise of better lives to countless generations. Securing our borders, and protecting our citizens, must go hand in hand with the vision of hope and idealism our nation provides the world. My grandparents journeyed here and built better lives for themselves and their families. I wish for others to have similar opportunities.

I turned to the Torah and to this week’s opening lines. “Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid. You shall give it to Eleazar the priest. It shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence.” (Numbers 19) What follows are the inordinate details surrounding the ritual of the red heifer.

I sought comfort. I longed for answers to our contemporary struggles.

I found instead a stupefying ritual. Where is the Torah for today?

The red heifer is a ritual that is no longer performed. Since the destruction of the Temple we no longer offer sacrifices. The red heifer was nonetheless a peculiar ritual. It, and it alone, offered purification for the ritually contaminated. Because it is today inoperative no Jew can find such purification. This is why some authorities prevent Jews from walking on the Temple Mount, and where the Dome of the Rock now stands, for fear that they might walk on where the Holy of Holies once stood.

It is a bizarre ritual. “The cow shall be burned in his sight—its hide, flesh, and blood shall be burned, its dung included—and the priest shall take cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff, and throw them into the fire consuming the cow.” Commentators suggest that this ritual defies rational explanations. Searching for explanations lead to only one possible conclusion. This is a commandment because God says it is commandment. Its meaning is discovered in affirming that God knows better.

Are these the spiritual insights I crave? Where are answers addressing our contemporary concerns? Offer me wisdom. Offer me guidance. Let the Torah grant me teaching. Let it lead me to learning.

I read on. The details of the ritual are concluded. A reminder is offered. “This shall be a permanent law for the Israelites and for the strangers who reside among you.”

I recall. Amidst the Torah’s ritual obsessions I discover the reminder of another. Again and again it commands that there shall be one law for citizen and stranger. Why? Because we were slaves in the land of Egypt. Because we know the feelings of the stranger.

The Torah is clear. Our memories of enslavement are to make us more compassionate. Our memories of suffering are intended to make us draw the stranger in.

I take comfort in the Torah’s words. It speaks to today.

I continue to draw inspiration from the Torah’s laws.

“There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you.”

Until tomorrow’s challenges.

Remembering the Immigrants Who Believed in America

I am thinking about my grandfather, Papa Bill.

He came to this country in 1906 at the age of two. He was accompanied on this journey by his mother Leah and older sister Hannah, age six, and brother Grisha, age four. They traveled by train from Katrinaslav, a city in Ukraine, to the port of Hamburg. There they boarded a ship for the ten day trip to New York.

I am imagining my grandfather as a toddler. He clutched his mother’s hand for the two week journey. She held him in her arms when he became sea sick. She chased after him when he started crawling away from her on the train. She comforted him when he cried from hunger. I imagine his mother’s fear. Would they be allowed to enter? At the time, the United States was allowing able bodied men, and their families, into the country, but turning away those showing any signs of illness. People were, in particular, terrified of tuberculosis.

Leah wondered. Would she be turned away before being reunited with her husband, Moses?  It remained a possibility...

Friday, June 15, 2018

Debating Not Attacking

This week’s portion, Korah, details the great rebellion against Moses and his authority. Korah and his followers gathered against Moses saying, “You have gone too far! For all 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)

One can understand their complaints. It is easy to imagine what people might have been saying about Moses. “Can you believe this guy? He keeps telling us he talks to God and that everything is going to be wonderful. He is so full of himself. The land is so beautiful, he keeps saying. But when are we going to arrive there? How much longer are we going to wander around this barren wilderness? Day after day we eat this manna. Day after day we keep walking and walking. And then we walk some more. Every day is the same. And then this guy Moses seems to change his mind and points us in other direction.”

One can be sympathetic to their grumblings. On the surface the criticisms appear legitimate. Examine the Torah’s words. Judaism does indeed believe that everyone can speak to God. Our religion requires no intermediary. Moses is not holier than any other human being. Yet Korah and his followers are severely punished. Why?

The Midrash suggests an answer. It imagines Korah asking Moses these questions: “Does a tallit all of blue still require blue fringes? Does a room full of Torah scrolls still require a mezuzah?” In the rabbinic imagination Korah’s questions are brimming with disdain. His words suggest that he questions the entire system. Because Korah is so disrespectful he is punished.

We often do the same. We highlight inconsistencies in our religious systems, and in our political systems. We seek not to correct but instead to mock. It is of course far easier to make fun of something rather than to affirm. It is far simpler to make ad hominem attacks rather than criticizing in order to improve.

We live in an age when too many have become Korah. We seek to amuse. We mock those with whom we disagree. We even call those with whom we disagree traitors. Our culture measures an argument’s winner not by the merit of the ideas offered but by the reactions of participants. If someone is made to cry or stammer then they have lost the argument, even better if they are made to do so on TV.

We no longer debate ideas. Instead we attack others.

We have become Korah. And for this we should ask forgiveness and mend our ways. If we are ever going to make it to our promised land and improve our society we must not attack each other. We must instead debate and argue about ideas that might change our world.

What Korah failed to understand we as well fail to grasp. We are all in this together. And we are all in the wilderness. We had better master debating the ideas that matter without seeking to undermine the entire system. We had better figure out a way to argue with each other while not shouting at each other words of hate.

Of those who left Egypt only two made it to the Promised Land.

I imagine Joshua and Caleb missed their brethren. I also imagine that they understood why they stood alone.

A nation cannot be built in the wilderness. A nation can only be sustained—first by love and then by debate.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

My Nana Was So Tall

If the books of the Torah were named for the content of their stories then the Book of Numbers would be called Complaints. The Jewish people spend the better part of this book complaining, and even rebelling.

“The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept all night. All the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron. The whole community shouted at them: ‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt. If only we might die in this wilderness!’” (Numbers 14)

What precipitates their griping? It is not the demanding conditions of the wilderness with its lack of water. It is not that they have to eat the same meal day in and day out (manna!). It is instead that the scouts have just returned from reconnoitering the land.

All but Joshua and Caleb offer a negative report. The scouts cry out: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size…and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” Here the people’s complaining reaches a crescendo.

God loses patience. It is at this moment that a brief journey is transformed into forty years of wandering. God decrees that the generation who went free from Egypt must die in the wilderness. Only those who were born in freedom will be privileged to cross into the Promised Land. Joshua and Caleb are the only exceptions because they bring a positive report.

The people, however, are terrified: “’Why is the Lord taking us into the land to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be carried off! It would be better for us to go back to Egypt!’ And they said to one another, ‘Let us head back to Egypt.’”

Can a slave ever truly appreciate freedom? Do memories of persecution and terror overwhelm their psyches? God’s response suggests that such memories are impossible to overcome. The people see overwhelming odds and respond, “We should go back.” Let us turn around. Let us go back to yesterday.

How many times do we fall victim to mythologizing the past?

It was so much better when the Jews lived in the shtetl. There, everyone, was certain about their Jewish identities; everyone attended synagogue on a regular basis. Then the Jewish people were not divided by ideologies.

Once I asked my beloved Nana about her memories of her shtetl outside of Bialystok. “It was awful,” she responded. I continued my query. (Imagine that!) “Yes, I know you had little food, but didn’t everyone get along better because it was such a small town.” And my Nana looked at me as if I was crazy but she would never shout at her grandson and say, “Are you nuts?” Instead she said, “Steven, we were fighting for food. And we were always nervous that the Cossacks might come and kill us. That doesn’t bring out the best in people.”

And no matter how delicious the meal or how expensive the restaurant, she always offered this report: “It was tasty.” That’s what food meant to her. Meals did not earn stars or accolades. She would of course offer praise for my mother’s cooking but that was more about praising her daughter than the taste of the food.

The memories of trouble and deprivation had forever diminished her taste buds. She could never become a foodie.

And yet she never wanted to go back to that shtetl. She never wished to turn back the clock. She never sought to return to the land of her childhood.

This is why. As petite as she was, she never saw herself as a grasshopper. And thus the most remarkable of all the Israelites’ gripes are the words “And so we must have looked to them.”

The reason why the memories of persecution did not overwhelm my Nana is because she never thought much about how others saw her. Success is really about self-image.

Realizing your promise is really about how tall you see yourself.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Judaism Commands Us Not to Cry Alone

Last week I encountered old words that suddenly struck me as new.

I opened my Bible to the prescribed weekly reading. I skimmed through the familiar opening. “The Lord spoke to Moses…”

These same words are read every year. That is the ritual of the Torah reading cycle. That is the demand that we never skip chapter or verse, that we read this central book from beginning to end in one’s year time. After decades devoted to this practice, the words often appear all too familiar and sometimes even tired and worn. I read again and again. “The Lord spoke to Moses…”

This year, however, they appeared different....

This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.