Seeking Affirmation: Korach and Trump

In Korach, this week’s Torah portion, we see the most brazen challenge to Moshe’s authority. For Korach there was no Arab spring. His uprising against Moshe is put down, way down. Korach and his band get swallowed up by the ground.

It is interesting to juxtapose this story to Aaron’s appointment to becoming the High Priest that we read at the end of the Torah portion. There we read:

17 ‘Speak to the children of Israel, and take of them rods, one for each fathers’ house, of all their princes according to their fathers’ houses, twelve rods; you shalt write every man’s name upon his rod. 18 And you shall write Aaron’s name upon the rod of Levi, for there shall be one rod for the head of their fathers’ houses. 19 And you shall lay them up in the tent of meeting before the testimony, where I meet with you. 20 And it shall come to pass, that the man whom I shall choose, his rod shall bud; and I will make to cease from Me the murmurings of the children of Israel, which they murmur against you.’ 21 And Moshe spoke to the children of Israel; and all their princes gave him rods, for each prince one, according to their fathers’ houses, even twelve rods; and the rod of Aaron was among their rods. 22 And Moshe laid up the rods before the Lord in the tent of the testimony. 23 And it came to pass tomorrow, that Moshe went into the tent of the testimony; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and put forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and bore ripe almonds. 24 And Moses brought out all the rods from before the Lord unto all the children of Israel; and they looked, and took every man his rod.25 And the Lord said unto Moshe: ‘Put back the rod of Aaron before the testimony, to be kept there, for a token against the rebellious children; that there may be made an end of their murmurings against Me, that they die not. Numbers 17: 17-25

As compared to the story with Korach, this process of determining leadership is marked by transparency. While many people died with Korach for the restoration of Moshe’s authority Aaron’s authority was established with no harm done to anyone. Korach was seeking affirmation and with that many people died.

From a moral perspective the story of almond blossom seems a lot better than the loss of human life, but in another context it is much worse. When Korach is gone there is no evidence. The miracle of Aaron’s authority is kept as a reminder of his authority. It resonates with the whole tragedy of the sin of the Golden Calf. The Israelite could not sit with the trust in a God or a leader which they could not see, touch, or hold. It was Aaron himself that helped them craft the Golden Calf.

But, it is not just the Israelites. We all seek confirmation and validation in our lives. While compliments are great, a physical representation of that affirmation makes all the difference. It is hard to live with ideas, we all seek a physical manifestation in our lives.  It is interesting to see in our own lives that we keep these things as totems of our achievements, but at the same time it could be idolatry.

I have no idea what Mueller will find in his effort for transparency in his investigation of Trump’s presidential campaign. I am not saying that the Russian handed Trump the election, but I think we can safely say that it is was not as clear as a budding almond staff. It is really weird how Trump is always looking for compliments, physical representation, and affirmation of his leadership. This was very apparent when you look at his response to the comparison between attendance at  his and at Obama’s inaugurations.

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No one was denying that Trump is the President, but it was clear that Obama’s was bigger. Trump’s profound narcissism makes me afraid that we will not see a peaceful transfer of power when he is down his presidency. I would hate to see a repeat of the Korach situation.

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Emil Fackenheim Day

It was recently brought to my attention that yesterday was being 6/13 was a Mitzvah Day of sorts in our Gregorian Calendar. I will take any excuse to reflect on our collective accountability to keeping these 613 commandments.  If that is the case, that would make today 6/14 Emil Fackenheim Day.

Fackenheim was a professor of philosophy who researched the relationship of the Jews with God, believing that the Holocaust must be understood as an imperative requiring Jews to carry on Jewish existence and the survival of the State of Israel. He was always saying that continuing Jewish life and denying Hitler a posthumous victory was the 614th commandment.

I consider remembering Emil Fackenheim today a win.

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Humble Masterpiece: Original Hoodie

The Torah does not command wearing of a unique prayer shawl or tallit. Instead, it presumes that people wore a garment of some type to cover themselves and instructs us in Shelach, this week’s Torah portion, to attach fringes (ציצית‬ tzitzit) to the corners of these garment. We read there:

Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the LORD and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.(Numbers 15:38-40)

These fringes are there to remind you when you look at them to keep the commandments. Still the commandment is to have tzitzit with the tallit. Do you have to wear a four-cornered garment?

The Shulchan Aruch (אורח חיים סי’ ח:ב) and most of the Achronim are of the opinion that one should wear aTallit over their head the whole time while praying. The Mishna Brura explains that the reason for this practice is that it “subdues man’s heart and induces him to fear of God.” Since getting married and wearing a Tallit I have to say I enjoy wearing the Tallit over my head in prayer. I enjoy the seclusion it provides me in this experience. Long before the 1930’s Knickerbocker version the Tallit is the original Hoodie .

You have to check out this amazing short TED talk on this humble masterpiece :

It is interesting to look back at the history of the hoodie in light of the original charge to where a Tallit. It is also interesting to look back at the experience of wearing the Tallit in light of the history of the hoodie. It is truly a humble masterpiece.

Ugly Delicious: Exploring the Taste of Authenticity in BeHalotecha

In BeHalotecha, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the Israelites wandering in the desert. Sick of the tofu bland Manna day after day they complained saying that wanting meat to eat. (Numbers 11:4) To deal with them Moshe asks God to give them meat to eat. God concedes and gives in to desires. I have always been mystified by their kvetching. There we read:

We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!” ( Numbers 11: 5-6)

This seems a little hyperbolic. The Israelites lack any expression of gratitude. What could have been so good about the food in Egypt that made them yearn the place of their slavery? On top of that I wonder if the food was even that good. Memory is a fickle thing. Where they just yearning for the taste of a knish from an Anitevka which might never have been?

I want to suggest that this kvetching in our Torah reading might really be a discussion about authenticity. When it comes to food we have deep feelings about what is genuine. Even if what we are eating is good if not better that we used to eat, we often think that it could never be as good as it was in the old country.

In Pastrami on Rye, a history of the New York Jewish deli, Ted Merwin argues that deli did not reached its full flowering in the immigrant period, as some might assume, but in the interwar era. Deli’s glory days were when the children of Jewish immigrants celebrated the first flush of their success in America by downing sandwiches and cheesecake in theater district delis. Today, after a long period languishing in the trenches of the hopelessly old-fashioned, deli is experiencing a nostalgic resurgence. People are eating pastrami dripping with all of the imagined leeks, the onions, and the garlic of the old country.
We see the same dynamic being played out in other cultures while watching my new favorite binge worthy show Ugly Delicious. Each episode examines the cultural, sociological, and culinary history of one specific popular food. The show’s creator David Chang challenges and explores the attitudes in each dish’s lore in all of its varieties and orthodoxies. In my mind this is not just another food channel show that challenges my practice of keeping kosher and my desire to lose weight, but rather, like our Torah portion, a very subtle conversation about authenticity and its limits. 

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What makes “Ugly Delicious” compelling, ultimately, is Chang’s commitment to rejecting purity and piety within food culture. Chang said, “I view authenticity like a totalitarian state…It’s not that I hate authenticity, it’s that I hate that people want this singular thing that is authentic.” wrote in a review of the show in the New Yorker said:

In food culture, particularly American food culture, the concept of authenticity is wielded like a hammer: This pizza, made with San Marzano tomatoes and mozzarella di bufala and a yeast-risen dough, blistered in an ultra-hot wood-fired oven for less than a minute, is authentic; that pizza, ordered on the Domino’s Pizza Now™ mobile app, dressed with toppings that arrive at a franchise location pre-sliced in a vacuum-sealed bag, passed through an industrial conveyor-belt oven, is not. The problem with such rigid categorizations, according to “Ugly Delicious,” is, for one thing, creative stagnation. Chang, after all, made his career on an exuberant disregard for convention. His restaurants—with their Japanese names, Taiwanese pork buns, Korean rice cakes, Continental flourishes, and intellectual-bro Americana twists—remix and subvert everything from ancient culinary traditions to standard restaurant-service expectations. ( New Yorker February 23, 2018)

I can only imagine what David Chang would have said to the  Israelites in our Torah portion. I would love to actually have this conversation with today’s Rabbinical students. That would be delicious.

 

The Other Foot: Shimshon and #metoo

In Naso, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the laws of becoming a Nazir. The Nazir is someone who  takes a vow to “consecrated” or “separated” themselves. This vow means that they need to abstain from wine, wine vinegar, grapes, raisins, and eating or drinking any substance that contains any trace of grapes. It also means that they are going to refrain from cutting their hair on one’s head. The final aspect of this vow is that they cannot become ritually impure by contact with corpses or graves, even those of family members.

It is not at all surprising that the haftarah coupled with this Torah portion is the origin story of Shimshon, the most famous Nazir in the Bible. Shimshon is not a normal Nazir in that he has superhuman strength. He also not a particularly good Nazir in that he appears to break his vows, by touching a dead body (Judges 14:8–9) and drinking wine (he holds a “drinking party”, in Judges 14:10). Lucas Cranach d. Ä. - Samson's Fight with the Lion - WGA05717.jpg

What is not covered in the origin story is the tragic end of his life. His immense strength to aid him against his enemies and allow him to perform superhuman feats came from his hair. Shimshon was betrayed by his lover Delilah, who used the secret of the origin of his strength against him. She ordered a servant to cut his hair while he was sleeping and turned him over to his Philistine enemies.

Delilah’s betrayal of Shimshon is an interesting foil for us today. As a nation we are reflecting on bringing sexual misconduct to light. The #metoo movement has surfaced the many situations in which men have used their power to take the hidden strength from women. For their pleasure men have compromised women and as a society we have been complicit in not making room for their voice. How do we all understand the power we have and the power we might take? As a man I read the Haftarah this week with an eye to asking myself to put the this shoe on the other foot.

 

Tent of God

These days Yadid is a big 14-year-old who likes his alone time, but a few years ago he used to smother his sister Emunah with love.  I remember distinctly one time he asked me if I would let her sit with him on the ground. He proceeded to spread a blanket on top of her. Not having any of it Emunah pulled the blanket off of her head. But Yadid was not deterred so he asked his sister to join him in the  “Tent of God”.

I was thinking about this tender image when reading BaMidbar, this week’s Torah portion. In Torah portion we read about the census of the Israelites, the priests’ duties, and their configurations of tribes as they broke down camp to move.  The Tent of God was at the center of their world. We learn with a lot of detail how they encamped and traveled around the Tent.

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Even if they might smother each other at points, it is thrilling to imagine my children’s relationships evolve over the years. I would like to think that at the center of that will be an abiding love and desire to be close to each other throughout life’s journeys.

What If God Was One of Us

In 1995 Joan Osborn released her one hit song ” What If God Was One of Us.” The song received Grammy nominations in 1996 for Best Female Pop Vocal PerformanceRecord of the Year, and Song of the Year. Written by Eric Bazilian (of The Hooters), the song deals with various aspects of belief in God by asking questions inviting the listener to consider how they might relate to God.  Here is her original vide:

 

All of these years later I have to admit that I still cannot forget the lyrics. The song goes:

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Tryin’ to make his way home?

How would we experience the corporeality of God?

I was thinking about it while reading Behar Behukotai, this week’s Torah portion. There we read God saying, ” I will walk among you: I will be your God, and you shall be My people.” ( Leviticus 26:12) About this Rashi write:

 

I will walk among you— I will, as it were, walk with you in the Garden of Eden as though I were one of yourselves and you will not be frightened of Me. One might think that this implies: you will not fear (reverence) Me! Scripture however states, “but I will be your God” (Sifra, Bechukotai, Chapter 3 3-4).

I think it is interesting to think about the idea of reverence without being frightened.  Personally, I cannot even imagine the experience of the presence of God in my life. Thinking about these ideas open me to the divine potential of  the “stranger on the bus”.  It does not change my faith or struggle with the idea of God in my life, but it does improve my commute through life.

 


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