Archive for the '4.06 Chukat / Balak' Category

The Secret Sauce of Duality: Being Jewish for Micah and Today

This week’s Haftarah comes from the book of Micah. Micah’s messages were directed chiefly toward Jerusalem. He prophesied the future destruction of Jerusalem and Shomron and then future restoration of the Judean state. He rebuked the people of Judah for dishonesty and idolatry. The Haftarah starts off by saying:

The remnant of Jacob shall be,
In the midst of the many peoples,
Like dew from the Lord,
Like droplets on grass—
Which do not look to any man
Nor place their hope in mortals.

The remnant of Jacob
Shall be among the nations,
In the midst of the many peoples,
Like a lion among beasts of the wild,
Like a fierce lion among flocks of sheep,
Which tramples wherever it goes
And rends, with none to deliver.

Micah 5:6-7

The recurring language of “remnant of Jacob” in these two sentences is striking. Will this remnant be enough? Will we the Jewish people survive? It seems to be our question throughout history, from Micah’s time until today.

While the language here is parallel, it draws attention to the contrast in images. In the first is an image of “droplets on grass”. In the second one we have an image of a fierce lion. While the dew is giving nutrients to its environment, the lion is fighting for survival/dominance.

This juxtaposition is as relevant now as it was for Micah. He is pointing out the duality of the Jewish condition. Is our survival wrapped up in our capacity to sustain the world around us (like the dew) or our ability to be defensive and protect ourselves (like the lion)? Is the secret to our longevity our commitment to universal causes and our investment in the larger ecosystem or is it dependent on our particularism and our fiercely looking out for our own?

To resolve this question I go to one of my favorite essays by Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik‘s on Ger v’Toshav. His thesis is derived from the duality in the language Avraham uses when buying a burial plot for Sarah. There is says, ” ‘I am a stranger and a resident with you: give me a possession of a burying-place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.'” ( Genesis 23:4) What is he telling them? Is he a stranger or a resident? The Rav points out that the nature of being Jewish is holding this duality as being true. We are always strangers and residents. Like Micah we are always dew and lions. We are resident committed to nurturing the universal cause around us and strangers who are fierce like lions looking after our own. The secret sauce to our surviving and thriving if our dual commitment to continuity and contribution.

Being Mortal and Moral: Gawande and the Red Heifer

In 2014 Atul Gawande wrote Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End addressing end-of-life care, hospice care, and his reflections and personal stories. It is one of those paradigm busting must reads.

Being Mortal is a meditation on how people can better live with age-related frailty, serious illness, and approaching death. Gawande calls for a change in the way that medical professionals treat patients approaching their ends. He recommends that instead of focusing on survival, practitioners should work to improve quality of life and enable well-being. Gawande shares personal stories of his patients’ and his own relatives’ experiences, the realities of old age which involve broken hips and dementia, overwhelmed families and expensive geriatric care, and loneliness and loss of independence.

I got to thinking about this in the context of reading Chukat, this week’s Torah portion. There the Israelite people are instructed to bring a red heifer without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid to sacrifice. The critical ritual involved the ash from this perfect cow. There we read:

Another party who is pure shall take hyssop, dip it in the water, and sprinkle on the tent and on all the vessels and people who were there, or on the one who touched the bones or the person who was killed or died naturally or the grave. The pure person shall sprinkle it upon the impure person on the third day and on the seventh day, thus purifying that person by the seventh day. [The one being purified] shall then wash those clothes and bathe in water—and at nightfall shall be pure. If any party who has become impure fails to undergo purification, that person shall be cut off from the congregation for having defiled God’s sanctuary. The water of lustration was not dashed on that person, who is impure.

Numbers 19:18-20

While Israelite society was much more at home with death than our own, there is an interesting notion that there is no room for death in God’s house. Just as Gawande points out, there is a taboo of death that we are struggling to make sense of in their lives.

Gawande also points out how this dynamic impacts how generations deal with each other. This comes into focus when we think about the exceptional and rare case of actually finding a perfect red cow as we learn about in our Torah portion. In the Gemara we learn an amazing story about Dama ben Nesina. There we learn:

Rav Yehuda says that Shmuel says: They asked Rabbi Eliezer: How far must one go to fulfill the mitzva of honoring one’s father and mother? Rabbi Eliezer said to them: Go and see what one gentile did for his father in Ashkelon, and the name of the son was Dama ben Netina. Once the Sages wished to purchase precious stones from him for the ephod of the High Priest for six hundred thousand gold dinars’ profit, and Rav Kahana taught that it was eight hundred thousand gold dinars’ profit. And the key to the chest holding the jewels was placed under his father’s head, and he would not disturb him. The next year the Holy One, Blessed be God, gave Dama ben Netina his reward, as a red heifer was born in his herd, and the Jews needed it. When the Sages of Israel came to him he said to them: I know, concerning you, that if I were to ask for all the money in the world you would give it to me.

Kidushin 31a 

Gawande offers us a lens to see our distance from death and an older generation. Like Being Mortal, the ritual of the Red Heifer gives us a window into how we might reconnect with our own mortality and morality.

Other posts on Gawande:

A Very Old Tale: Balak, Anti-Semitism, and Education

As Charles Dickens famously wrote

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. (A Tale of Two Cities)

This seems like an apt description of our times today as well. It is confusing. Which narrative is it any way? Are things getting better or worse? Are we as a society advancing or regressing? Is the long arc of history bending toward justice or is the world filling like a cesspool with hate? The new Pew report came out recently. The rate of Inter-marriage is still really high AND the rate of anti-Semitism is way up. It is dizzying. Does the world want to marry or kill us?

Recently I found myself inundated with calls from people wanting to combat this new wave of anti-Semitism. They seemed to be screaming that this has got to be priority number one. Yes this is important, but is it urgent?

I was thinking about this week when reading Balak, this week’s Torah portion. Balak, the king of Moab recruits the prophet Balaam for the purpose of cursing the migrating Israelite community. As the story goes Balaam does not curse them, but instead blesses the people. It is interesting that we just accept and assume it is normal for Balak to want to curse the Israelites. We have always been perceived of as the other. Here we are migrants. In Egypt we were a potential threat to Pharaoh’s power. To Amalek and then with Haman, we were weak, vulnerable, and an easy target. Anti-Semitism is clearly not a new phenomenon.

So it is important to confront Anti-Semitism, but I think this misses the point of the Parshat Balak. Prioritizing teaching how we have been and are hated is off base. I understand that it might be seen as educational expedient, but I am less interested in communicating to another generation how Jews died, than how we lived. While it take less time it also say that being Jewish is a reaction to hate and not a proactive activity of love. We have done a great job communicating how we have been cursed, how are we doing telling another generation about the blessings of living a Jewish life? When it comes to Jewish education we have spent too much of our sacred limited time educating our youth about Anti-Semitism. Yes, they know they are coming for us, but I am afraid that with little else to keep them there when the haters come the next generation will have long ago left the city.

Don’t Be an Ass: Chukat Balak and this Moment in History

In Chukat-Balak, this week’s Torah portion, we read various stories regarding animals.   Long before we get to the climax of this story where Bilaam’s donkey talks to him, we meet Balak. There we read:

And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. ( Numbers 22:2)

Balak the king of Moav was afraid of the Israelites and  he sent messengers to Balaam. We wants this prophet to curse the Israelites.  But what is his name? Balak the son of Zippor- Balak the son of Bird. And of course this story of animals fits into the larger context of the book of Numbers where the people of Israel are acting like animals. We saw this last week from when they were being struck down by snakes and at the end of this week’s Torah portion when they succumb to animal-like sexual promiscuity. What do we make of all of this “parsha menagerie“?

To understand this we need to focus in on the story of the Bilaam’s donkey. In the story the donkey understood the Angel’s presence while Bilaam just did not understand. And Bilaam a prophet of God not only missed the Angel, but in the process also revealed his own ugly side by striking the donkey. The donkey is able to perceive the divine in ways that Bilaam is not initially able to perceive the divine in the Israelites. What happens to us when we do not see the divine in each other?

Balaam, the Ass, and the Irony of the LORD – naSlovensko

Well it seems that we are in the situation we are in this moment in history. This is the moment when people are not observing social distancing because it is perceived as more of an infringement of their rights than a protection of the vulnerable. It the pervasive and unchecked violence of police against black and brown people. It is the rising levels of antisemitism. We do not need perfection, but we must do better. We do not need to be angels, but we need to strive to see the divine in each and every person we come across in our path. If I do not, I am just being an ass. Don’t be an ass.

Killer Shot: On Kawhi and Pinchas

Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist and a Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University. In 2008 he delivered a great TED Talk on the moral roots of liberals and conservatives. Haidt studies the five moral values that form the basis of our political choices, whether we’re left, right or center. In this talk he said:

The third foundation is in-group/loyalty. You do find cooperative groups in the animal kingdom, but these groups are always either very small or they’re all siblings. It’s only among humans that you find very large groups of people who are able to cooperate and join together into groups, but in this case, groups that are united to fight other groups. This probably comes from our long history of tribal living, of tribal psychology. And this tribal psychology is so deeply pleasurable that even when we don’t have tribes, we go ahead and make them, because it’s fun. Sports is to war as pornography is to sex. We get to exercise some ancient drives. (TED.com)

On one level these things are all about practicing and on another level sports, war, pornography, and sex are about power and teams. 

I was thinking about Haidt’s thoughts while reading the end of Balak, last week’s Torah portion. There we see Zimri and Kosbi, an Israelite man and a Midianite woman, fornicating in public. With a horribly miraculous shot, Pinchas kills them both with a toss of a spear. Falling short of war, this shot woke the people up by pulling them away from sex. And in a profound way this shot reestablished the teams. This shot seemed to so extraordinary that it must have been divinely ordained. So much so that in this week’s eponymous Torah portion Pinchas is given a “blessing of peace” because put an end to their lascivious behavior.

Lihavdil– making a totally separation, I was reminded of Pinchas’s shot in 2019 when Kawhi Leonard hit a miraculous shot to end the playoff series and beat the 76ers. Everyone knew that he was going to get the ball and at the last moment he hit a shot that bounced close to 5 times before going in, winning the game, and sending the Raptor to the NBA championship. It seemed to be ordained to go in. After that it was not surprising to see the Raptors go on to win their first NBA championship. 

 

 

While Pinchas brought that “ancient drive” to a pointed end, Kawhi’s  killer shot defined the team and unlocked their tribal drive. If there is no depth of this juxtaposition, we can just chock it up to the fact that I am a long suffering and disgruntled 76ers fan. I guess that 76ers are my tribe.

All of Them: Hearing the Question, Adaptive Change, and Parshat Chukat

In Chukat, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the continued travails of the Israelites in the desert. Here we learn the people were kvetching and Moshe struck the rock to get water.  There we read:

The community was without water, and they joined against Moshe and Aaron. The people quarreled with Moshe, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of the Lord! Why have you brought the Lord’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there? Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!” ( Numbers 20:2- 5)

Moshe’s response to their myriad of questions was to come with Aaron to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and they fell on their faces. God instructs him to go and speak to the rock to get water for the people. Instead of speaking to the rock he admonished the people and stuck the rock.  The water poured out and God punished Moshe. There we read,“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.” ( Numbers 20:12) He spent his life to get his people to the Promised Land and just like that he could not join them. The punishment seems to far outweigh the crime. What did Moshe do that was so wrong?

From their herd mentality to only thinking about food and water, throughout the book of Numbers we see the Israelites acting like children. On the simple level in our case they were complaining for water. One of Moshe’s missteps is that he reacts to their childish kvetching instead of actually answering their questions. Yes he does get them water, but their questions linger.

I was thinking about this recently when a friend recounted a story about  Libi, our three-year-old who is about to turn four this week. My friend asked Libi, “How many legs does an octopus have?” As it was shared with me, Libi looks at my friend with indignation as if it was a stupid question and said, “All of them”. All too often we get swept up into the questions that we think people are saying without just dealing with the simple level of the actual questions they ask.

Why did God need them to go into the wilderness and almost die? Why was it important for them to leave Egypt to subside without “grain or figs or vines or pomegranates”? There is some depth to their questions. Why do we suffer? How do we make meaning when things do not go as planned? Surely they were thirsty, and they were also asking questions which could not be quenched by water.

The notion of ever getting to a Promised Land without suffering or issues of theodicy might always be beyond our reach. Moshe gave them a technical solution to what was clearly an adaptive problem.  In words of Martin Linsky, “An adaptive change that is beneficial to the organization as a whole may clearly and tangibly hurt some of those who had benefited from the world being left behind. “(Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading) The Israelites needed an adaptive change which would help them as an organization, but sadly to achieve this Moshe needed to be left behind. 

-It is crazy to imagine fOuRLOW turning four. Happy Birthday Libi. Thank you for reminding us to not lose the question in the process.

Animals: Balak and Maroon 5

In Balak, this week’s Torah portion, we read various stories regarding animals.   Long before we get to the climax of this story where Bilaam’s donkey talks to him, we meet Balak. There we read:

And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. ( Numbers 22:2)

Balak the king of Moav was afraid of the Israelites and  he sent messengers to Balaam. We wants this prophet to curse the Israelites.  But what is his name? Balak the son of Zippor- Balak the son of Bird. And of course this story of animals fits into the larger context of the book of Numbers where the people of Israel are acting like animals. We saw this last week from when they were being struck down by snakes and at the end of this week’s Torah portion when they succumb to animal-like sexual promiscuity. What do we make of all of this “parsha menagerie“?

To understand this we need to focus in on the story of the Bilaam’s donkey. In the story the donkey understood the Angel’s presence while Bilaam just did not understand. And Bilaam a prophet of God not only missed the Angel, but in the process also revealed his own ugly side by striking the donkey. Even this prophet who can see the will of God cannot see what the donkey can. A human being is the blend of divine and animal qualities. The question is how we choose to show up.

Even as the Israelites are spared the curse of Bilaam and instead are blessed, they are still cursed in the end by being seduced by the Moabite women.  This reminds me of Animals by Maroon 5.

In this super disturbing video a guy is obsessed with either an ex, or just a random woman (customer) in his life. He’s convinced he means as much to her as she does to him. The song seems to be celebrating their basic animal qualities. In the books of Numbers and in life we are animals, but we can decide to be so much more if we open ourselves up to see that.

 

The Trump Holy Bible: Lessons from the Red Heffer

At the start of Chukat, this week’s Torah portion, God tells Moshe and Aaron to instruct the Israelites regarding the ritual law of the Red Heifer (פָרָה אֲדֻמָּה‬) used to create the water of lustration. The cow was to be without blemish, have no defect, and not have borne a  yoke. Eleazar the priest was to take it outside the camp, observe its slaughter, and take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the Tabernacle. The cow was to be burned in its entirety along with cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff. The priest and the one who burned the cow were both to wash their garments, bathe in water, and be unclean until evening. The ashes of the cow were to be used to create the water for purification from having had contact with death.

It is noteworthy that all other communal sacrifices were of male animals, but the Red Cow was of a female animal. Rabbi Aibu explained the difference with a parable: When a handmaiden’s boy polluted a king’s palace, the king called on the boy’s mother to clear away the filth. In the same way, God called on the Red Cow to come and atone for the incident of the Golden Calf. (Numbers Rabbah 19:8)

To me this parable is relevant in at least four ways to the horrid events from this last week when the Trump administration took to separating children of immigrants from their parents. On the most basic level, this Midrash suggests the sense of connection between a mother and her child. Just as the Red Cow has to clean up for the Golden Calf, children cannot be separated from their parents. On a second level it points to the fact that it will take a miracle for this administration to cleanse themselves  of their sins. Ain’t no magic burnt dust going to help them at this point. Thirdly we need to have more female leadership to clean up Washington. I am having trouble believing that a female commander-in-chief would have suggested this idea.I might be wrong about the gendered assumption, but we do need to clean up our government.  Finally this use of this Midrash comes to point that you could take almost any proof texts from almost any where to prove almost anything you want. AG Sessions will be damned by any God he believes in.  Immorality is immorality, it has no place to hide behind religion or scripture.

 

The Painted Bird

In Balak, this week’s Torah portion, we read various stories regarding animals.   Long before we get to the climax of this story where Bilaam’s donkey talks to him, we meet Balak. There we read:

And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. (Numbers 22:2)

Balak the king of Moav was afraid of the Israelites and  he sent messengers to Balaam. We wants this prophet to curse the Israelites.  But what is his name? Balak the son of Zippor- Balak the son of Bird. And of course this story of animals fits into the larger context of the book of Numbers where the people of Israel are acting like animals. We saw this last week from when they were being struck down by snakes and at the end of this week’s Torah portion when they succumb to animal-like sexual promiscuity. What do we make of all of this “parshamenagerie“? Why does Balak hate the Israelite people?

This animalistic vision of Balak the son of Bird’s hate evokes for me images from the cover of  Jerzy Kosinski‘s  book the Painted Bird.

Image result for painted bird jerzy

In this controversial 1965 novel by Kosinski describes World War II as seen by a boy wandering about small villages scattered around an unspecified country in Eastern Europe. Like the book of Numbers, this book describes the boy’s encounter with peasants engaged in all forms of sexual and social deviance such as incest, bestiality and rape, and in a huge amount of violence – often at the expense of the child. While the book has been said to depict peasants in a derogatory fashion, some argue that it was not a particular social group, but all people, who are viewed as inherently predisposed to cruelty.

The title is drawn from an analogy to human life, described within the book. The boy finds himself in the company of a professional bird catcher. There we read:

One day he trapped a large raven, whose wings he painted red, the breast green, and the tail blue. When a flock of ravens appeared over our hut, Lekh freed the painted bird. As soon as it joined the flock a desperate battle began. The changeling was attacked from all sides. Black, red, green, blue feathers began to drop at our feet. The ravens ran amuck in the skies, and suddenly the painted raven plummeted to the freshly-plowed soil. It was still alive, opening its beak and vainly trying to move its wings. Its eyes had been pecked out, and fresh blood streamed over its painted feathers. It made yet another attempt to flutter up from the sticky earth, but its strength was gone. (Jerzy Kosiński, The Painted Bird)

When the man is particularly upset or bored, he takes one of his captured birds and paints it several colors. Then he watches the bird fly through the air in search of a flock of its kin. When it comes upon them, they see it as an intruder and tear at the bird until it dies, falling from the sky.

Back to Balak, what separated the Israelites from other nations? There was no biological difference. The soul difference was their faith and practice. But if they lost their faith or stopped their practice, what separated the Israelites? There in the story of their Exodus we read:

You shall keep watch over it until the fourteenth day of this month; and all the assembled congregation of the Israelites shall slaughter it at twilight.They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they are to eat it. ( Exodus 12:6-7)

We separated from our neighbors by painting our door posts. The book of Numbers is the story of the nation of Israel wandering in the desert after having been liberated from their slavery in Egypt. Like the Painted Bird, we see the Israelites being sent back to interact with the flock of humanity after having been painted as different and their struggle to keep their faith and practice. While the authorship or authenticity of the book might be suspect, for me the Painted Bird has always been a haunting portrayal of what happens when humanity gives into hate and scorn, we are all but savage animals ripping apart what we perceive as a threat. Sadly we have to ask if  anything has really changed?

 

Perfect Selfless Gift

In Chukat, this week’s Torah portion, we read about Mosche striking the rock to get water. There we read:

“You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.” Mosche took the rod from before the Lord, as God had commanded him. Mosche and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Mosche raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. But the Lord said to Mosche and Aaron, “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.” (Numbers 20:8-12)

Mosche has given of all of his blood sweat and tears to liberate his people, but in the end will not be given the satisfaction of joining them to complete the mission of entering the Promised Land. And why is this the case?

It seems from hear it is because he did not follow God’s instructions to the letter. Instead of talking to the Rock he hit it. On another level Mosche is excluded because there is a greater lesson to be taught to the Israelite people as to the value of talking over jumping to the physical violence of hitting. But, maybe there is yet another reason Mosche cannot join them on this final journey.

I was thinking about this part of the Torah recently when I saw this amazing video of Mandy Harvey and her tryout for America’s Got Talent. If you have not yet seen it, you must. Check it out:

Her performance is inspiring. What does it mean to see yourself as an aspiring singer and then losing your hearing?  Yes she attributed her ability to her muscle memory, ability to feel the rhythm through her feet, and the use of a tuner. None of those techniques account for her strength in character. How do you bounce back from that? She is  truly impressive. As she sings about in the song, the only barrier was herself getting in the way. And the performance itself was amazing. What does it feel like to share a gift with millions of people without being able to experience it yourself? It seems like the most perfect selfless gift.

 

Mandy Harvey is a fascinating foil to Mosche in our Torah portion. Like Mandy Harvey being deaf being a reason that she did not want to sing, Mosche has a stutter that was preventing him from taking a leadership role. We read :

“Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” ( Exodus 4:10)

Like Mandy Harvey, Mosche perseveres beyond physical limitations and leads his people out of Egypt. Here in Chukat Mosche is being asked again to lead and get water from the Rock. This time he is asked not to strike the rock, but rather to use his voice. This is the core of his insecurity as a leader. Using his voice is a challenge to his leadership. Instead of stuttering in front of his people he hits the rock. The consequence of this that he will not be able to join them when they go into the Land. But maybe it is not a punishment. Like Mandy Harvey standing there giving a gift of her performance without being able to experience it herself, maybe Mosche needs to give a similarly selfless gift of having the people complete the mission without him joining them in the Land.


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