Thursday, July 25, 2019

Passion and Zealotry

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

And yet the Torah reports that Pinchas 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 enthralled with the religion of the Midianites, sacrificing to their god, 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 Pinchas 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, "Pinchas has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me." (Numbers 25) Pinchas' passion tempers God’s anger. Thus Pinchas renews the covenant between God and the people.

It is for this reason that Pinchas’ memory is recalled at the brit milah ceremony. As we renew the covenant through the ritual of circumcision we recall Pinchas. 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 Pinchas, 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 take a knife to our sons as a zealous act? Was this their nod to the intense passion that is required to perform the mitzvah of circumcision?

The Torah suggests that an act is made holy by one’s intention, that the ends justify even extreme means. Pinchas succeeds 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. I stand appalled.

I wonder. Why must passions lead to zealous acts?

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 at the Shalom Hartman Institute, Dr. Israel Knohl, once remarked that monotheism is given to violence. Because it is adamant that there is only one God it promotes the destruction of other gods and occasionally, or perhaps it is better to say, too often, their worshippers. Monotheism is exacting. It can be as well ruthless.

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.

Hold fast to your own beliefs. Leave room for others’ convictions.

The Rabbis teach! If the zealot comes to seek counsel, we never instruct him to act.

Rely instead on the still, small voice.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

King David's Footsteps

Several days ago, I hiked in the footsteps of King David. The words of the Bible became real. They became filled with life.

In Israel one can literally walk where our biblical heroes traveled. One can stand where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac or where the prophet Amos admonished the Jewish people or where David composed his sweet psalms.

In the land of Israel our Bible takes shape. It is here that the soil adds flesh to our legends.

Before beginning the hike, we stood on the heights of Tel Azekah where the Israelites spied the Philistine army. It was there that our people cowered in fear before the mighty Goliath. A young David volunteered to battle the giant. He refused the offer of King Saul’s armor and spear. He thought them too cumbersome and heavy. David killed Goliath with a small pebble thrown from his slingshot. The Israelite army then routed the Philistines and the Israelites soon crowned David as king.

The legend of David and Goliath was born here, in this place....

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Pattern of Failures

I am writing from Jerusalem where I am studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Rabbinic Torah Study Seminar. I remain grateful that our congregation recognizes the need for me to deepen my learning and recharge my commitments. There is really nothing like studying with colleagues and learning from remarkable teachers, and most especially, to do so here in Jerusalem. No matter how many times I may visit this city, every time I return becomes a pilgrimage in which my spirit is renewed.

This morning I was reminded of a favorite saying of my teacher Rabbi David Hartman, may his memory be for a blessing. He often said that the Bible is an indictment of the Jewish people. Like so many of Reb David’s teachings, this appears counter intuitive. We often look to the Bible as inspiration. We hold it up time and again as the best source to motivate us to do good or for that matter, the justification to observe the Jewish holidays, or as in my present case, the cause for me to return to this holy city, year after year, or, and perhaps most especially, to re-establish sovereignty in this land after 2,000 years of wandering.

Rabbi Hartman of course saw something far different and perhaps far more in the Bible’s words. It was more about our failings than our successes. It was more about not living up to what was asked of us rather than fulfilling God’s commandments. Take the prophets for example who over and over again chastise the Jewish people for failing to live up to God’s expectations. Each and every one of them, from Amos to Isaiah, say in effect, “Do you think this is all God wants you to do!” They thundered, “It is not enough to go to services. It is not enough to light candles.”

Their exhortations can be summed up with the words, “It is not enough.”

And when one looks at the grand narrative portrayed in the Bible, as we did this morning with Micah Goodman, the author of the acclaimed book Catch-67, one realizes that the story does not culminate with the Jewish people establishing a nation in the promised land of Israel, but instead with their return to Egypt. We leave Egypt following Moses’ lead, wander the wilderness, conquer the land under Joshua, establish the rule of kings and build the Temple. But then during the years that the prophet Jeremiah prophesies, the Babylonians destroy the holy Temple and establish Gedaliah as their puppet king. He is soon assassinated by a fellow Jew.

The Book of Kings then concludes: “And all the people, young and old, and the officers of the troops set out and went to Egypt because they were afraid of the Babylonians.” (II Kings 25). History is cyclical. We were taken out of Egypt only to return to Egypt. Our powerlessness was transformed into power and then again to powerlessness.

The movement, and struggle, between power and powerlessness continues in our own age.

Back to the Bible and in particular this week’s Torah reading. Even the Five Books of Moses is not the crowning achievement of the very person who heralds its name, but instead stands as an indictment against Moses and an elucidation of his shortcomings. We read about why God does not allow him to enter the land. The people are once again complaining. There is a lot of that in the Book of Numbers. (That alone should stand as evidence of David Hartman’s teaching.) There is not enough water. God tells Moses and Aaron to instruct a rock to bring water. Moses instead hits the rock and says, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20)

And with that, God decides that Moses does not get to enter the land. Commentators debate what was Moses’ exact sin. Was it that he hit the rock not just one time, but two? Was it instead that he became angry, again, at the people? Was it that he took credit for God’s miracle? Was it that he drew a stark line between the people and their leader and insulted them by calling them rebels?

The Bible is unclear. It is however clear that God thinks Moses’ time is done. He failed as a leader. The Five Books of Moses indicts its very own author.

Perhaps that is the Bible’s very inspiration. Failure is part and parcel to our lives.

Failure is part of our history.

Leaving Egypt and then returning to Egypt, and then leaving again and returning again, is the pattern of our destiny.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Why I'm Both Celebrating the Myth and Honoring the Anger

I wonder how Korah’s descendants describe this week’s events described in the synagogue’s weekly Torah reading. Would it be akin to the accolades we heap on Bar Kochba who led a failed a rebellion against Rome in the second century? To this day we sing of his courage when we recall Rabbi Akiva’s martyrdom on our holiest of days, Yom Kippur. Akiva was one of Bar Kochba’s greatest supporters.

Moses ruthlessly quashed Korah’s rebellion (revolution?). He killed Korah and 250 of his followers. Would my hero Moses be called a murderer by Korah’s descendants?

“Blasphemy!” one might say.

Years ago, I traveled to Israel on a UJA mission. It was during the second intifada and we were there to show our support and express our solidarity. Yitzhah Rabin was assassinated five years earlier and my companions and I were deeply traumatized by his murder and the increasingly deadly Palestinian terrorist attacks.

We mourned the soldier turned prime minister turned peace maker....