Friday, June 30, 2006

Shlomos Drash Korach 5766 - The Good Sanitarian

Numbers 16:1-18:32

This week we have the story of the Korach rebellion and its aftermath. Korach, Dathan and Abiram, along with 250 of the leading figures in the community rise up against Moses and Aaron, and want to be included as priests. Moses tries to dissuade them, but is unsuccessful. In a contest the next morning, the rebels light incense in their censers, to determine who is chosen by God. Korach Dathan and Abiram are swallowed up by the earth, literally going straight to hell, and the 250 men are burned alive by a fire from God. After this, the people begin to call Moses a murderer, and God gets angry and a plague ensues. Aaron lights more incense, and the plague stops. There is another contest where each of the chiefs of the tribes places their staffs in the Mishkan overnight. In the morning, Aaron's staff grows almonds. God reiterates the role of the priests and the Levites.

There is a lot of internal fighting in this portion, all of it based on whether Moses and Aaron are valid in their claim of leadership. Every time I get to Korach’s story, I wonder about leadership and identity. For the last two years it seems my professional meetings for the National Environmental Health Association Annual Educational Conference were the same week I wrote my Drash on Korach, and I ponder.

What I ponder is the very beginning of the portion

1. Now Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men; 2. And they rose up before Moses, with certain of the people of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, regularly summoned to the congregation, men of renown; 3. And they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said to them, You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you lift up yourselves above the congregation of the Lord? 4. And when Moses heard it, he fell upon his face; [Numbers 16:1-4]

In modern society, particularly an American society which has raised democracy to an evangelical fervor Korach’s argument seems a rather reasonable, indeed patriotic request. To say that all the people are equal and all should rule and not only a few is at the basis of American and democratic thought. But, if that is so, then why does Korach Dathan, Abiram and the 250 die? Does Torah tell us that oligarchy is the holy form of government?

It is here at this meeting, the professional meeting of those of us called by the public “health inspectors” and often called by us old-timers "sanitarians," that I ponder this, while listening to various sessions and networking. As I wrote last week, I was afraid I wouldn’t network well, but fortunately the fear disappeared. Yet, there were a bit of networking that I was not able to do. Usually this meeting is full of military uniforms from all five branches of the military, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and the Public Health service. (Yes, the surgeon general really is a general) But this year, budget restrictions and a military version of our meeting made the flood of uniforms to be a slow trickle of public health service, and Navy. So the military Public Health people, those defending our troops from pathogens, did not get to interact and learn along with their civilian colleagues. More budget restrictions kept some of the best people from FDA at home too. During some of the conference meals, and posted on the walls of the hotel there was a political announcement for us to contact our senators regarding the proposed budget cut to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) of 10 million dollars. Among many of their duties, the CDC is the primary civilian detection and response agency to bioterrorism, and prevention of disease after natural disasters like hurricane Katrina. The agency most likely to shield us from the threat of an epidemic like avian flu is not being bolstered up, but having its budget cut.

As we continue to read the Torah portion, we find that what these 253 people want is to be able to make their own sacrifices at the temple, to offer directly to God in front of the ark. Moses when he hears this falls on his face, he prostrates himself. Moses takes the posture of a servant, not a leader. He then proposes the contest of the fire pans.

Now it is important to realize that fire pans, the incense offering has it hazards. In Leviticus 10, we read:
1. And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire in it, and put incense on it, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not. 2. And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. [Lev. 10:1-2]

As a friend of mine, a trainer for the Nuclear Regulatory Agency once commented this was the first industrial accident. Moses’ nephews died only months before this contest with Korach. And of course we read further into our Torah portion that history repeats itself, with even more tragic events.

35. And there came out a fire from the Lord, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who offered incense. [Numbers 16:35]

The next day, the people claim that Moses and Aaron murdered “the people of the Lord”. God starts a plague and Aaron, once again with an incense offering, stops the plague. Aaron “stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stopped” [Numbers 17:13]

It was Aaron’s actions that saved the people, although he did not act fast enough to prevent the death of 14,000 people according to the text. But he did save the rest. Coming home from the NEHA meetings I thought a lot about how Aaron represents of all of us in public health, and those of us in environmental health, dedicating our lives to preventing disease by making sure the conditions are never there for it to happen. If a disease outbreak does happen, we are there to do what is necessary to find the cause and end the outbreak.

But if Aaron used incense offering successfully and the 250 leaders lost their lives doing the same thing, what was the difference that let Aaron be successful? The obvious answer is that Aaron was picked to do the job. Yet, that does not describe two others who were also picked to do the job, Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu. Something else must be involved. I believe that extra element was what I saw at the standing room only presentation I gave, and indeed at all of the over-packed presentations I saw at NEHA. The people there had a thirst for knowledge and skill, to know what we don’t, to constantly perfect our craft of protecting the public. From the keynote on readiness for a pandemic to lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina to outbreaks of E.coli at petting zoos to my own Session on Faith based foods, these were people coming together to see presentations and to talk among themselves about the issues that makes us better Environmental Heath practioners. We were there to learn.

It is skill that Aaron had; it was gained through learning, not just some natural attribute. Not everyone can give an offering -- it requires hard won skills and knowledge. Not everyone can just investigate an outbreak or find what could cause one in a restaurant. Not everyone has the ability to change the behavior so people do not hurt themselves or others. It needs skill. To think that anybody could do this is a big, if not fatal, mistake. Such is true of any profession or skill. To just let anyone do brain surgery, or offer an incense offering, is a recipe for disaster. Even what looks simple can be very complicated. Even those of us in the profession for decades are still swapping ideas and techniques every time we get together.

This portion talks about something that we all can take to heart, not just environmental health professionals. The part of democracy we do not often honor very well is how those who work hard for their skills do not get the rewards or recognition they deserve. We’re too busy saying anybody can do anything, reducing the value of many contributors of our society. Teachers, most healthcare workers, social workers, or public health are the ones who get the low salaries and smaller budgets. Aaron and the priesthood was an inherited position, yet it also was one of intense skill and danger, when procedures were not followed precisely. By not honoring these people and acknowledging their skills we only reduce their desire to keep their skills. Indeed we often trivialize their skills and believe anyone can do it - and get the quality of practioner who knows little of their skill set.

But here are phrases and words spoken at the last five of these conferences that shows the danger of doing that.

9/11. Bioterrorism. SARS. Avian flu. Katrina.

Remember all the people of skill this week, and every week. Sometimes those skills don’t show themselves until we need them. Let’s make sure we support these people so they are there when they are needed. They might, like Aaron, stand between Life and Death.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Drash Shelach Lecha 5766 - Fear

This week, we have the portion of the spies. God authorizes a recon mission into the land of Canaan, and twelve spies, including Joshua and Caleb enter the land of Canaan. When they return, they bring back amazing things, like enormous grapes, and seemingly bad news. Ten of the spies report that the people of the land are unconquerable.

28. Nevertheless the people, who live in the land, are strong, and the cities are walled, and very great; and moreover we saw the children of Anak there. 29. The Amalekites live in the land of the Negev; and the Hittites, and the Jebusites, and the Amorites, live in the mountains; and the Canaanites live by the sea, and by the side of the Jordan.(13:28-29)

Two spies, Joshua of the tribe of Benjamin and Caleb of Judah, report the opposite: that because God is on their side, this will be a piece of cake. But they are shouted down by the ten spies.

31. But the men who went up with him said, We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we. 32. And they brought up an evil report of the land which they had spied to the people of Israel, saying, The land, through which we have gone to spy, is a land that eats up its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are men of a great stature. 33. And there we saw the Nefilim, the sons of Anak, who come from the Nefilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so were we in their sight.

All of Israel spends the night crying in their tents. In the morning Joshua, Caleb and Moses almost get killed when a riot breaks out. God intercedes, and condemns the Israelites to wander in the desert for forty years, one year for every day the spies were in Canaan. After this incident, a man goes and gathers sticks on the Sabbath, and is punished by being stoned to death. Finally, God gives the mitzvot of tzitzit.

As I’ve mentioned before, Shelach Lecha is my Bar Mitzvah portion, so like many, it has a lot of nostalgic value when I get to this week’s portion. And I’ve also thought a lot about that given a little irony about the day after Shelach is recited in most Synagogues. I once again will be in front of a lot of people talking Torah, presenting for the first time at a national conference of public health officials. To add to the excitement, I’ve not only got a live audience, but the cameras will be rolling for a production of a distance learning DVD. As I get the last things done and ready for that conference, I’m getting nervous, but even with all that, not about my speech.

It’s the parties afterwards that scare the willies out of me.

This week’s portion is one of the best to note how fear grips us. The spies go into the land and ten bring back a negative report, which they keep embellishing. First there is the Anakites and Amalekites. Then it’s the Hittites, and the Jebusites, and the Amorites. But that’s not anything new. In Exodus 23:23 and 23:28, at Sinai, God makes clear theses people are there and these people are going to get seriously trounced. The Amalekites, remember, attack Israel not long after they cross the Sea leaving Egypt (Exodus 17:8-14). A lot of the people might have bad memories of that incident, except the guy who was drafted to lead the troops in battles against them. As for the overly tall Anakites, this guy will pretty much wipe the floor with them, leaving their only survivors in the cities of the Philistines. But to all of this, the ten spies then begin to exaggerate and say that they looked like grasshoppers to the Anakites and thus Israel could be easily stomped. This guy and his buddy, Caleb, reply to all this:

7. And they spoke to all the company of the people of Israel, saying, The land, which we passed through to spy, is an exceedingly good land. 8. If the Lord delights in us, then he will bring us into this land, and give it to us; a land which flows with milk and honey. 9. Only do not rebel against the Lord, nor fear the people of the land; for they are bread for us; their defense is departed from them, and the Lord is with us; fear them not.

In short, God is on our side, not theirs and we’re going to eat them alive, so stop being afraid of them. Only if you are afraid will we not be able to pull this off. This guy of course is Joshua.

And this sets up the contrast I have between public and private speaking. In front of twenty or two hundred I have no fear of speaking in public on just about anything. I just get up there and do my stuff. Even if the room is SRO, this is no problem. I have no fear here, even though this is one of the most common fears anywhere around the world. But on the other hand, try to get me to approach any one particular person, even more so an attractive woman, and then I am a bowl of jelly. They’ll seem miles taller than me and I’m not just a grasshopper but an ant. I have a serious case of shyness.

But using the story of the twelve spies, we can begin to see what’s true here. While Caleb’s history is not clear prior to the spies’ story, Joshua is easy to see. He’s already engaged the Amalekites and won, though clearly with God’s help. He’s the only non-Levite to get really close to the divine presence, the only person hanging out on Sinai while Moses is at the summit. He has something that keeps him objective and positive of their chances -- experience. The other ten spies seem not to have this experience, and thus become so afraid they cannot do their jobs accurately, In fact they exaggerate the problem.

To show one exaggeration, we can figure out how tall the Anakites were. In Joshua 11:21-22 we read

21. And at that time came Joshua, and cut off the Anakim from the mountains, from Hebron, from Debir, from Anab, and from all the mountains of Judah, and from all the mountains of Israel; Joshua destroyed them completely with their cities. 22. There was none of the Anakim left in the land of the people of Israel; only in Gaza, in Gath, and in Ashdod, there remained.

After Joshua's rout, the Anakites were only in the cities of the Philistines, notably Gath. Yet in I Samuel 17:4 we read

4. And there came out a champion from the camp of the Philistines, named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span.

It is likely that Goliath is a descendant of the Anakite remnant. Goliath according to the text stood somewhere at about the height of a grizzly bear on its hind legs, ten to twelve feet. The Israelites might have been smaller, but not like a grasshopper. And it is interesting to note what David says when Saul questions his ability to kill Goliath - “I’ve killed bears and lions, this loser’s going down just like them ” (I Samuel 17:34-36) David calls on experience to overcome the fear everyone else seems to have.

Was David or Joshua scared at their first time against a bear or the Amalekites? Probably. Yet, it was their job to protect those around them, be they the stragglers in the congregation or defenseless sheep. Thus they swallowed their fear somehow and did the job. After that, fear vanished, to be replaced with confidence.

And yet, how do we get that first experience? That’s the really hard one. In the case of my shyness since I’m too scared to try, I never get that experience. There is, unfortunately only one way to do that and that is to dive in. David and Joshua had their initial situation thrust upon them, but in most cases that not the case. Here again the other failure of the ten spies comes into the picture.

40. And they rose up early in the morning, and went up to the top of the mountain, saying, Behold, we are here, and will go up to the place of which the Lord has spoken; for we have sinned. 41. And Moses said, Why do you now transgress the commandment of the Lord? But it shall not succeed. 42. Do not go up, for the Lord is not among you; so that you should not be struck before your enemies. 43. For the Amalekites and the Canaanites are there before you, and you shall fall by the sword; because you are turned away from the Lord, therefore the Lord will not be with you. 44. But they presumed to go up to the hill top; nevertheless the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and Moses, departed not from the camp. 45. Then the Amalekites came down, and the Canaanites who lived in that hill, and defeated them, and pursued them, even to Hormah. (Numbers 14)

They do go into the land, and died trying to take it, since God is not with them. God was with Joshua when he fought Amalek in Exodus, and to make sure it was, Aaron and Hur kept Moses’ hands propped up. Back in Exodus they were told several times they could trounce these people, and they didn’t listen. Here in Numbers they are told because they didn’t believe God, they are forced to wander in the desert forty years until they are all dead. So they once again don’t believe God and go in too early. God was not with them because they were not with God -- and thus they were defeated.

But had they believed in what God said, and believed it truthful in the first place, they would have been successful. It’s that faith that David had when he wrote in Psalm 23:4

4. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no harm; for you are with me; your rod and your staff comfort me.

The Valley of Death is much worse than getting a rejection from some cute woman, yet both fade in believing God is with me in everything I do. The more I remember God is with me, the more I remember that in every human being I am looking at is the face of God, each is Part of Echad. The more I remember that, the less the fear. And with those experiences I gain confidence to have more positive experiences, and minimize the negatives ones, like receiving rejections or rude comments, making those who once made me look like grasshoppers into grasshoppers in my eyes. In the end, I get that experience where the fear fades completely.

I’m going to this conference not as much as my first presentation at a national conference, but to engage in conversation with colleagues I’ve been too scared to talk to in the past. I will begin to beat my shyness there, once and for all. For all of us who have a hard time talking to others, May my example bring hope and advice to get out there and connect.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Shlomos drash Behaalotecha 5766- Lights

In this week's portion, we have a lot going on. We have the kindling of the Menorah of the temple, the consecration of the Levites, a repetition of Passover and the 2nd Passover rules and a more detailed description of the navigation methods of the Israelites first mentioned in Exodus 40:36-38. Then God instructs Moses how to play the trumpet, and the people move out from Sinai. Moses' father in law leaves for his home, and the people begin to complain about the food service. In response to Moses complaining he can't do it all, God convenes the Sanhedrin of seventy elders to help Moses delegate. For the people who complain about the foodservice, God sends massive flocks of Quail near the camp. Those who eat it end up dying of food poisoning. Even Miriam and Aaron get cranky with their little brother, leading to a chewing out of Aaron and Miriam by God, Miriam's bout of leprosy and Moses' famous Healing prayer El na R'fa na la.

The portion starts with

2. Speak to Aaron, and say to him, When you light the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the lampstand. 3. And Aaron did so; he lighted its lamps to give light in front of the lampstand, as the Lord commanded Moses. 4. And the workmanship of the lampstand was of hammered gold, its shaft, its flowers, was hammered work; according to the pattern which the Lord had shown Moses, so he made the lampstand.
We have heard about the lampstand, the seven branched Menorah of the Mishkan before, in Exodus 25:31-40, where it‘s construction is described in more detail. We also read in Leviticus 24:2-4 about the light of the lamps

2. Command the people of Israel, that they bring to you pure oil olive beaten for the light, to cause the lamps to burn continually. 3. Inside the veil of the Testimony, in the Tent of Meeting, shall Aaron order it from the evening to the morning before the Lord continually; it shall be a statute forever in your generations. 4. He shall order the lamps upon the pure lampstands before the Lord continually.

The Mishkan and the later Temple can be used as a metaphor for our body and soul. As I mentioned last week, Shammai in Avot 1:15 mentions that we are to receive everyone with a bright countenance. There is a part of our soul with illuminates our selves, and when bright enough illuminates far beyond it and to other people. Indded the rabbi note that the windows in the temple were constructed not to bring light in, but to send it out. As Leviticus notes, this lamp within our selves should be continually burning. This is our internal menorah, which brightens everything around us.

Later in the portion, when Moses complains he can’t do everything by himself, we read

16. And the Lord said to Moses, Gather to me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people, and officers over them; and bring them to the Tent of Meeting, that they may stand there with you.17. And I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take of the spirit which is upon you, and will put it upon them; and they shall carry the burden of the people with you, that you carry it not yourself alone.

The rabbis wonder about taking some of the spirit of Moses. (Numbers Rabbah XV:19)

If you ask: Seeing that the elders derived their prophetic spirit from that of Moses, was the latter deprived of any of his prophetic spirit? The answer is in the negative. To what may this be compared? To a candle that was burning and at which many candles were kindled, yet the light of the flame of the first did not diminish. So it was here also. Moses lost nothing of his own; for it says, And there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses (Deut. XXXIV, 10).

In the language of light and lamps, the light within us does not diminish when we light the lamps of others. When we give our inner light to them our friendliness our warmth and joy, we do not lose - we gain more light in the world as a whole.

Yet, this week another question has been plaguing me, why would your ner tamid go out? Why would the inner light of joy and holiness fade and sputter into darkness? You see, mine did this week. Not long before last Shabbat, it just snuffed out, to be replaced with deep darkness. With some serious thinking and work, I got it started again, though it’s still a bit dim. And after a week of thinking about it, I finally figured out why all this happened, and it required me to look at the last story of this week’s portion in a way I hadn’t before.

Numbers 12 begins
1. And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Kushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Kushite woman. 2. And they said, Has the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? has he not spoken also by us? And the Lord heard it. 3. And the man Moses was very humble, more than any other men which were upon the face of the earth.

The Midrash says that Moses had not had his required marital relations with his wife, and Miriam was angry over that. Yet the second verse mentions what becomes the real subject of God’s rebuke to all this, Moses ability to prophecy, the same ability given to the seventy elders.

At the core of this is Moses' reason for celibacy. In Shabbat 87a and in several other places, we read that this was Moses’ decision, not God's commandment. Using a fortiori reasoning, know in Hebrew as qal v’khomer, he deduced that if the Israelites needed to abstain from sexual relations prior to their one-day exposure to God at Sinai, then he, as the one who met with God daily, needed to abstain every day. And, according to the Rabbis, God agreed with Moses’ deduction. Miriam, a prophet herself, thought this was wrong. He was abstaining from things that other prophets were not, and that all of Israel were required to do, according to Exodus 21:10. To Miriam, Moses was ignoring his wife and making her suffer so he could be a holy man though every other holy man was required have sex with their spouse.

Of course in this debate, God sides with Moses and even punishes Miriam with Tzarat. God speaks only to Moses mouth to mouth, while all others see in visions and dreams (Numbers 12:6-8). His kind of prophecy is different, and requires different rules. But Moses remains silent until he pleads for Miriam’s healing. Instead giving a response to Miriam’s charges, the text merely states he was the most humble man on earth, implying his humility prohibited him from speaking. Yet, I believe something else is true of this humility. In his humility, he also saw the merit of Miriam’s argument and the anguish of his wife, thus he was unable to defend his actions.

Moses, in seeing that both are correct, becomes torn between two opposing views, with no room for compromise while deeply sympathetic to both. That’s a lot of stress for anyone. If one were to place too much stress from two opposing forces pulling on a lamp, it will crack, tear or bend out of shape enough for its precious fuel to leak away. The lamp sputters and may even go out from the lack of fuel. Moses’ lamp sputtered to the point he is speechless.

So, like Moses here is where my lamp sputtered and dimmed, almost going out. I was torn, and did not know how to find a way to stop the forces tearing me up inside. On a very personal level, and not for the first time, I ran into a crisis about the life choices I have made, including some recent events which have made me consider some of problems of the life path I have chosen, I’ve had to deal directly with how some in the Jewish community disapprove of my decisions, accusing me of murdering the Jewish people because of those choices.

Without fuel there is less energy, and it is in this portion we see the shortest prayer in all Torah, El Na Rafa Na La. Please God heal her. Of course Moses, still weak and torn, is praying for his sister Miriam, but as the words Menorah is also feminine, it could be on another level asking for healing to the inner light of the soul as well.

Of course Miriam healed, Moses’ light did not go out, and I too will heal. I am no Moses, no one is and thus no had to face the hard decisions Moses did of spirituality, community, and family. Yet this story makes me think deeply about the choices we all have to make in life, for ourselves, for our religious community, and for those who are close to us.

May God make your light continue to shine on you, and may it be bright enough to shine on all those around you.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Shlomos Drash Parshat Naso 5766 - Raising Heads

This week the census continues with the census of the Levites. Afterwards, God tells Moses to isolate the lepers, and then explains a sin offering. Following this, God explains the procedure for the bitter waters rite for women suspected of adultery. We then get the instruction for a Nazirite, one who consecrate oneself for divine service for a period of time. Then the famous blessings of the priests to the congregation

May the Lord bless you, and keep you;
May the Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
May the Lord lift up his face upon you, and grant you peace. [Numbers 6:24-26]

Yet in all that is going on in this portion, for the second time in a row I can’t get past the first two verses. For that matter, once again I got stuck on the word which gives this portion its name Naso. Naso literally mean lift, carry or Take away. The word that follows this is rosh, Head. Yet if you read a translation, there is

21. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 22. Take also a census of the sons of Gershon, throughout the houses of their fathers, by their families; [Numbers 4:21-22]

The phrase to lift the head is a way of saying take a census. But is there more nuances of meaning from this phrase?

I’ve found four ways to think about this phrase. The first is to understand it in this literal way of taking a census. This, of course is not the first time the issue of a census this has come up. God in the beginning of Parshat Ki Tisa gives directions for the census:

12. When you take the census of the people of Israel according to their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul to the Lord, when you count them; that there should be no plague among them, when you count them. 13. This they shall give, every one who passes among those who are counted, half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary; a shekel is twenty gerahs; a half shekel shall be the offering of the Lord. [Exodus 30:12-13]

Again the term here for take a census is lift the head. But interestingly one does not count people but money. The tradition is that one does not count people, so that people become mere numbers. Yet one can count objects, like coins. In one classic dodge of this rule, people counting for minyans might use the phrase “not Nine…not eight…etc.” or some will count by a ten word phrase.

Then again, we must remember the reason for this census. It is to establish the number of active individuals for service. Among the Levites it’s for the various function of Temple service, but for the other tribes it is military service. And so, as in English to be counted means also to participate.

Secondly we have the use of the phrase in Genesis. Joseph while in Jail interpreted the dreams of the chief butler and chief baker of Pharaoh. After the butler tells his dream Joseph responds:

And within three days shall Pharaoh lift up your head, and restore you to your place; and you shall deliver Pharaoh’s cup into his hand, after the former manner when you were his butler.[Gen 40:13]

But for the baker, Joseph says, in a bit of a very interesting double entendre which happens to work in both English and Hebrew.

And within three days shall Pharaoh lift up your head…off you, and shall hang you on a tree; and the birds shall eat your flesh off you. [Gen 40:19]

Then we read
20. And it came to pass the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, that he made a feast for all his servants; and he lifted up the head of the chief butler and of the chief baker among his servants. 21. And he restored the chief butler to his butlership again; and he gave the cup into Pharaoh’s hand; 22. But he hanged the chief baker; as Joseph had interpreted to them. [Gen 40:20-22]

Here we have the second meaning, that to lift the head is to pay attention to a person, for good or bad. It is a sense of acknowledgement, of noticing the person as a person, and not as a number.

The third way to lift the head is one I mentioned two weeks ago. In Numbers 1:2, we find another way of taking the census besides shekels,

2. Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of names, every male by their polls;

The phrase by the number of their names is in Hebrew b’mispar shemot. The root word for number s-p-r (ספר) is also the root word for story by recounting events. The word Shemot usually means names. But can also, as it does in the very beginning of the book of Exodus Eileh shemot, translate to these are the genealogies, the stories of our ancestors and our own stories. Telling stories means that we transmit the information of the past to the present and hopefully the future. By telling our individual stories to the collective group our story become more than just ourselves it become part of our family or of our community.

Yet to tell a good story, one that people will listen to, we must raise our heads up for people to hear us. In my job I often have to do corporate training of adults. One thing I am very careful about when I conduct training sessions is making eye contact and looking at the face of the people in the room. There is the story of a miraculous thing that happened when the Hasidic masters, starting with the Baal Shem Tov, would give talks. The people listening would believe that the great master was talking specifically to them. Some of this is the skill to look at everyone in the room and make eye and face contact with every person. Another is to keep our head up to shine confidence. Then it becomes an upward spiral. As we tell our story, people will pay attention to our story, raising their heads, and as people pay attention to us it raises our own heads in confidence about our story.

The last meaning for our phrase comes from a rather interesting if not ironic, source. Its source is the very early legal authority Shammai, a character in a well-known story about his counterpart, Hillel:

On another occasion it happened that a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him, ‘Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.’ Thereupon he repulsed him with the builder's cubit which was in his hand. When he went before Hillel, he said to him, ‘What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary; go and learn it.’`[Shabbat 31a]

Yet Shammai, the guy who goes chasing after people with a t-square was also recorded as saying in the Perkei Avot:
Shammai used to say: Make your Torah a habit; speak little, but do much; and receive everyone with a beautiful glowing (friendly) face. [M. Avot 1:15]

Shammai, rather ironically, states that we should greet everyone with a smile. Friendly expressions happen when we lift our head up enough to make eye contact and for others to see that glowing smile.

So the question remains… which one of these?

I posed that question as a Torah study question last weekend at my synagogue. And it was interesting all the answers we discussed. One rather interesting idea noted that the census of the first chapters of numbers is concerning military enrollment. Giving the example of World War Two oral history and letters home, the oral history given before one enlists or leaves for war becomes the record for future generations of their personal past. In the case of the Israelite soldiers or those Levites who are involved with the very dangerous work of handling holy objects, such things may be insurance about being remembered if one is killed in the line of duty. Another thought that developed within the group was that as we each tell our story within the group, the group becomes closer and with a more common purpose with the collective story. This grew to an interesting suggestion of having among the members of the group a way of collecting the personal stories of the group. One thought was to have everyone write a short version of our stories into a collective loose-leaf binder. Another was to take a few minutes to tell our stories within the group before the Torah service to make sure all new members felt welcome and their story was shared. Yet this last idea was met with an attack by one member who sharply shouted out: “then get here before services start!” reducing the person who gave this idea to tears. Oddly enough, this same attacker also came up to me afterwards and commented to me, that I needed to be brief in my D’var Torah and cut out all the stories.

I mention this because it was also the attacker who was almost crying about being not included in ongoing conversations, and I often do feel sad for her. I’ve been in that position myself many times. My own experience on this tells me we must lift all heads in conversation, and pay attention to listen and hear. If we are not open to recognize and acknowledge others, they will not acknowledge and recognize us. To tell our story we must be able to give and receive stories, otherwise the head does not lift. It is mutual. As I wrote this sitting in my favorite hangout spot, in an area of Chicago with many young beautiful women, I thought of one other issue about raising the head. Looking out the window at some of these beautiful women, I noticed the one thing that can kill the raising of one head is another head raised too high. As King David notes, in Psalm 101:5 “I will not endure the person who has a haughty look and an arrogant heart.” Here too the raising of the head is not mutual.

But I think in that Torah Study session, the comment that was the most mind-blowing was the person who said, “If you do the first three, then you get the fourth.” To get everyone participating, acknowledge them and to get them to tell their story leads to the smile.

Wow. Not much to say after that.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Drash Shavuot 5766

There are four things which are making writing this Drash very, very difficult this week.

The first was a finally reading the news and finding out about the situation with Mordechai Gafni. The second is Shavuot. The third is that due to a conflict between the Reform and the traditional calendar I have to think about two different Torah portions between Shlomo’s Drash and what goes on at my current Reform synagogue for the next couple of weeks.

The fourth was a social experiment in how many men are desperate to learn a fool-proof method for picking up women. And while I was very skeptical of the web-based sale of 375 sets of DVD’s recording a seminar which was supposed to make you into Casanova, it was interesting to watch the phenomenon of the internet breaking loose into a week-long panic as men worldwide tried to get their hands on those DVD’s. It was interesting to watch competitors slam the product even when they were featured in that product. It was interesting to watch the utter stunned silence and then slander from his competitors on the net when everyone found out that they were all part of a major social experiment taken on by a man going by the nickname Style, a Rolling Stone reporter turned pickup artist and author, who was using all this to research his new book. All these would-be pickup artists had just been seduced by the man they wanted to call master.

As far as the Gafni situation is concerned, while he was once my teacher, and indeed the inspiration for Shlomo’s Drash, I had my problems with him in terms of academic integrity far before this current incident. Those earlier issues led me to go elsewhere for knowledge. I also respect that others might still have learned something from him, many of whom I call friend. I’ve also learned in the time I was in the Renewal movement, to never knock a teacher for any perceived imperfection no matter how valid, since it only gets you hated by everyone else. Given the number of loyal Gafni students on this list, I’ve kept rather quiet about my own concerns.

Yet I am also one of his former students. In all the lashon hara I heard blogging the internet, much of it from people using this as an excuse to go after other targets such as Arthur Waskow, the one opinion I have not heard so far is how formerly loyal students of Gafni feel right now -- if it’s anything like me, pretty crappy.

As it is Shavuot, and the celebration of the Ten Commandments we need to remember one of those commandments

Exodus 20:12. Honor your father and your mother; that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God gives you.

And in relation to that quote another interesting quote from Brachot 19b

R.Samuel b. Nahmani said in R. Jonathan's name: He who teaches the child of his neighbor the Torah, Scripture ascribes it to him as if he had begotten him, as it says, Now, these are the generations of Aaron and Moses;(Num 3:1) whilst further on (v. 2,3) it is written, These are the names of the sons of Aaron: thus teaching thee that Aaron begot and Moses taught them; hence they are called by his name.

In many ways, the teacher is the parent, with the same responsibilities of the parent and child relationship in the student and teacher relationship. We honor our teachers the same way we honor our parents. We trust our teachers the same way we trust our parents to steer us away from harm. I’ve never had to be in the situation where I have been ashamed of my parent’s behavior, where they did something that would harm either my sister or me. Like most children I’ve had my moments of exasperation with them, but never have I felt betrayed by them -- that the life they led was all a lie. So even for a teacher I have moved on from, it is difficult to deal with all the conflicting emotions in me about what to feel.

If we keep this idea of the parent child relationship, we can see another problem inherent in the laws of Leviticus 18 -- incest. Sex with a student is equivalent with incest, and there is no idea of consent with incest. Whether the women involved were involved consensually or not, they are victims of a kind of incest. A person of power used that power to have sex with a person of lower power. And those of us who were mere students are very much like the brother and sister who did not know about a parent abusing our sibling. We feel betrayed. We feel bewildered in understanding that verse from the Ten utterances on Sinai. Are we to honor a parent capable of such an act? It’s difficult to believe or trust anyone. The pain of others mocking and harassing you and this parent you are supposed to honor is difficult to bear or even understand. Trying to determine what one’s own role is in all this, that sound of mocking inside your skull that you should have known and done something, tears you up inside.

I cannot understand child abuse, be it from the point of the abuser, victim or those who were around and did nothing, either through the abuser’s deceit or through denial. However, eighteen years ago, I did learn about partner abuse the hard way, as the survivor of an abusive relationship. I did try to accuse this person and stop her from hurting others, and even with the blatantly obvious in front of them I was the one who ended up hated and discredited among my friends. All this has brought a lot of old and very painful memories to surface once again. That very painful episode of my life can give me insight to the current situation and to those of us who were students. Like the charismatic Style who could convince a bunch of grown men looking for superficial love to fight each other to dish out $4000 for a set of DVD’s they really don’t know are effective, my ex girlfriend could convince anybody of anything and make you want to believe. That’s the power of a charismatic individual who knows your needs. And while all this has been a little bit of a backslide for me in my own healing, maybe it does have a silver lining, that I am able to articulate what many who are right now silent want to say but are too numb to even find the words to say.

But there is two words which I’m sure have left many a set of lips: What now?

Ironically, it was my first Shavuot Tikkun L’eil that introduced to me an answer: the story of Elisha Ben Abuya and R. Meir. Ben Abuya’s story, in Hagiga 15a-b is called Aher, “the other.” The story was also lengthened into Milton Steinberg’s novel As a Driven Leaf. It is the story of a rabbi and of his apostasy during the early Mishnaic period. Yet this apostate continues to have an important student, R. Meir. One of the study sessions that first Tikkun L’eil in a small house in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago brought up the opinion that Aher was not an apostate after all. While I do not agree with that opinion, I ask the same question the rabbis ask in Hagiga 15b, how can Meir learn from this guy?

But how did R. Meir learn Torah at the mouth of Aher? Behold Rabbah b. Bar Hana said that R. Johanan said: What is the meaning of the verse, For the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the Law at his mouth; for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts? (Malachai 2:7) [This means that] if the teacher is like an angel of the Lord of hosts, they should seek the Law at his mouth, but if not, they should not seek the Law at his mouth!

But the teaching goes further when Resh Lakish has a response to his debate partner Johanan.
— Resh Lakish answered: R. Meir found a verse and expounded it [as follows]: Incline thine ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply thy heart unto my knowledge. (Proverbs 22:17) It does not say, ‘unto their knowledge’, but ‘unto my knowledge’.

To Resh Lakish it is God’s knowledge, not the knowledge of the teacher no matter how corrupt. Another two answers follow:

When R. Dimi came [to Babylon] he said: In the West, (i.e. Israel) they say: R. Meir ate the date and threw the kernel away.

Raba expounded: What is the meaning of the verse: I went down to the garden of nuts, to look at the green plants of the valley etc.?(Song of Songs 6:11) Why are the scholars likened to the nut? To tell you that just as [in the case of] the nut, though it is spoiled with mud and filth, yet are its contents not contaminated, so [in the case of] a scholar, although he may have sinned, yet is his Torah not contaminated.

These three answers are the guide I will follow in this case. Gafni said and did a lot of things, many of which are very difficult to forgive, and the man may be even more difficult to trust again. Yet he also taught a few kernels of truth that were God’s words, those were important. He inspired a lot of people to embrace Torah that never would have otherwise done so. Like the nut, we can remove the shell, follow the ethical path of Torah in our deeds and plant that seed of his truly holy ideas for further growth and learning. I am reminded of two other stories. Even the Great Hillel the Elder has fewer rulings in the Mishnah than his students, Beit Hillel. It is up to the students to find the good and grow it into something more.

As we get ready for the great holy erotic moment that is Sinai we also must remember that this was to lead to the dark erotic moment while Moses descended from Sinai: the Golden Calf. From the revelation at Sinai through the book of B’midbar, the men who witnessed those words would test God with repeated mistakes and sins. As we will read within the Book of B’midbar over the next couple of weeks, that testing will end not in the parents entering the Land of Israel, but the children. The teacher is gone: we can take time to weep and mourn and maybe even say the mourner’s Kaddish for a man who is still alive. For me at least, like a modern Aher, it would be impossible to believe or trust anything from him from this point on. Maybe we as the students with a little more rigorous and critical study methods than the master can find the nuts in the shell and the flesh of the date found in the teachings, and what was important can be transmitted on by us, and what can be thought of as holiness will survive and even thrive without the teacher.

I know there is a lot of emotion out there, I apologize to those who find this offensive right now. It would not surprise me if a lot of negative energy is about to be directed my way for writing this, but I needed to put out my opinion, in the hope it is a comfort to some, and admittedly to myself. There was a silence I could not let keep silent.