Thursday, July 27, 2006

Drash Devarim 5766 - The Words of Moses

Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22
This week we begin the book of Deuteronomy, which is sometimes called the Mishneh Torah, or repetition of the Torah, as described by Moses. Instead of Cliff's notes, Deuteronomy is Moses' Notes of the Torah. We are at the Jordan, across from Jericho. Deuteronomy is also Moses' last address before his death. In this week's portion, Moses summarizes the journey from Egypt to this point.

Deuteronomy 1:1 reads:
These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel in Transjordan into the wilderness in the Arabah, opposite the (sea of) reeds between Paran and Tophel and Laban and Hatzrot and Di Zahav.

This is very different than the beginning of the last two books of Torah. Leviticus begins:
And the Lord called to Moses, and spoke to him out of the Tent of Meeting, saying,(Leviticus 1:1)

And in Numbers begins
And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they came out from the land of Egypt, saying, (Numbers 1:1)

Since the burning bush, God has been speaking to Moses, but in Deuteronomy we begin with Moses’ words, and that is to the congregation of Israel. This is significant because one book of Torah was not given by God to Moses, but Moses actually wrote it. This is the first human written book of Torah. As long ago as the 2nd century CE rabbis, there was a strong belief in this idea. In Talmud tractate Baba Batra, we read:

Who wrote the Scriptures? — Moses wrote his own book and the portion of Balaam and Job. Joshua wrote the book which bears his name and [the last] eight verses of the Pentateuch. [B. Baba Batra 14b]

Thus the rabbis tell us that with the exception of the death of Moses, which Joshua wrote down, Moses wrote Deuteronomy. A folio later we read.
The Master has said: Joshua wrote the book which bears his name and the last eight verses of the Pentateuch. This statement is in agreement with the authority who says that eight verses in the Torah were written by Joshua, as it has been taught: [It is written], So Moses the servant of the Lord died there.9 Now is it possible that Moses being dead could have written the words, ‘Moses died there’? The truth is, however, that up to this point Moses wrote, from this point Joshua wrote. This is the opinion of R. Judah, or, according to others, of R. Nehemiah. [B. Baba Batra 15a]

There is, of course a dissenting opinion. R. Simeon claims Moses wrote of his own death just minutes before it happened, shedding tears as he wrote [B. Baba Batra 15a]. Yet there is a long tradition that Deuteronomy was the first human written book of Tanach. For the most part Deuteronomy or its nickname the Mishneh Torah is a summary of the law that the Israelites are to follow in their new land. It is such a good summary that Moses Maimonides called his own compilation and codification of Jewish Law the Mishneh Torah, quipping “from Moses to Moses.” The core of the book is law and the consequences for breaking the law. Yet then, why is this first section so full of history, a lot of it happening within the last few months of the journey?

Deuteronomy 1:1- through 2:14 recounts the events in Numbers 11-14 after leaving Sinai, forty years ago. The complaining about the lack of food and the episode of the spies are recounted, including the forty years of wandering. Yet, in Deuteronomy 2:24 - 3:22 Moses recounts the defeat of Sihon and Og, which as verse 1:1 tells us, just happened. Everybody listening to this speech not only knows this, but experienced it. Why then is it necessary?

One answer came out of my adventures in the last few weeks. I’ve been working on how people are convinced to do things, both personally and in groups. Last week, I took the lecture part of my Graduate class in Modern Jewish thought and history. Since events in late May, I had been bothered by a question that has become my research topic for the final exam in that class. How does a false messiah like Sabbatai Sevi or a Tzaddik like the Baal Shem Tov get followers so rapidly and so devoted? While it is a gross oversimplification, the Baal Shem Tov’s Hasidic movement spread like wildfire over an emotionally depressed Eastern Europe Jewry based on the mere idea of “don’t worry be happy.” Yet say that to a bunch of depressed people and they are not likely to believe you. What did the Hasidim do to inspire the masses?

Moses and some psychological theory might provide part of the answer. There is a concept among social psychologists that people need consistency. If someone does something they will be committed to do it not just that time but again. They might even do more the second time than the first, just to do the thing they wanted to. For one example, a sales man can bait and switch using this idea. When A customer comes in to buy an Air conditioner advertised for a low price, the sales man can tell the prospective customer they are out of that air conditioner and then try to sell a more expensive product of the same type to the customer. The customer, already deciding that they wanted an air conditioner buys the more expensive one. It is not a rational thought, but it happens all the time. Wi-fi hotspots work the same way. Whether free or subscription wi-fi, consistency has us buy the product of the store in order to use the internet in the store. I’ll buy coffee in Starbucks, even though I don’t have to, just to check my e-mail.

Moses may actually be doing the same thing, but with two more constructive goals in mind. In Deuteronomy 1:38 we read:

38. But Joshua the son of Nun, who stands before you, he shall go in there; encourage him; for he shall cause Israel to inherit it.

And in Deuteronomy 3:21-22

21. And I commanded Joshua at that time, saying, Your eyes have seen all that the Lord your God has done to these two kings; so shall the Lord do to all the kingdoms which you pass. 22. You shall not fear them; for the Lord your God shall fight for you.

Joshua is to be the leader after Moses’ impending death. Moses is bulking up the idea of Joshua as leader using his own authority as a leader. But just an endorsement is not enough. Moses takes victories fresh in the minds of the congregation for them to believe in their victory against the yet to be conquered Canaanite peoples. Victories against Sihon and Og translate to continued victories against everyone else, no matter how big or powerful they are. And the leader for that job is of course Joshua who had been consistently winning in combat sine the Amalekites forty years earlier. Moses uses the stories of the spies to remind everyone that their ancestors died for not believing they could take the land and only Joshua and Caleb believed otherwise and thrived. But this generation is stronger and can do the job when led by the man who believed. But Joshua is not the only leader of import. Even more important of a leader than Joshua is the very last line of the portion: “the Lord your God will fight for you.”

Deuteronomy’s summary of laws pivots on this. The consistent victories happen because of the following of the mitzvot. Joshua’s combat record throughout Tanach is often linked to his belief in God. As the rules are told to the people again in the next couple of weeks, two positions come clear: If you do the laws then victory and prosperity will be yours. If you do not you will be defeated and stricken with poverty. Even the history before crossing the Jordan bears this out, according to Moses. Remain consistent with the mitzvot; God will remain consistent with you.

This simplistic view of following the mitzvot is of course difficult to swallow millennia later. 9/11 Katrina, and the Shoah make it hard to believe, as much as fundamentalists of many faiths would demand us to do so. Yet as part of a motivational speech, one devoted to creating a consistent message to a bunch of people who might be very afraid of the unknown leader and land they are about to cross into, it is very comforting and motivating. History was used to provide a consistency issue that says the land can be taken, if the people don’t make the mistakes of the past. Moses was not really recounting history but setting up the argument about following God, both before and after the land is conquered. Moses would not be there to see his task completed but after 40 years of vexing work, he wanted the task he started at the burning bush to continue. Moses in his use of consistency to motivate the troops to remain with God and obey the mitzvot provides me with an important clue as to how leaders motivate people through the consistency of history.

Watching the lines four weeks ago weave into a small stone building in downtown San Antonio Texas I can remember that we all have used this. On my trip to Hawaii I too remember how much we still use it today. Both the Alamo and the U.S.S. Arizona show us how we still use this today. With the 9th of Av approaching, I really wonder about that.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Drash Matot Masei 5766 - Pick Up Artists and Seductresses

Numbers 30:2- 36:13

This week we have the end of the book of Numbers in a double portion, however I’m going to concentrate on the first portion this week, which starts with the aftermath of the Baal-Peor idolatry mess with the Midianite women, God mentions some rules for making vows, and how women might have their vows invalidated. The discussion of land apportionment begins, ending the book of Numbers with the objections of the elders of Manasseh concerning the inheritance of daughters who have no brothers.

In case you didn’t notice last week, I am overwhelmed and wiped out. If I were to blame anything it would be something I thought would be an important self improvement exercise ended up much harder than I thought. Add to it a rather intense sixty hour work week spread over two states and I was out of it. By Friday, not only was Shlomo’s Drash not done, but I was so out of it everything I did went wrong, probably because I did not have the energy to pay attention to anything. My exhaustion and subsequent carelessness got so bad, I even got yelled at publicly by the Gabbai for tying the Torah bindings backwards after rolling the Torah for the Gabbai.

And so I get to this week’s portion and the story of the attack on Midian. Moses assembles 12,000 troops to attack and sack Midian. But things go well but not as Moses planned:

7. And they warred against the Midianites, as the Lord commanded Moses; and they slew all the males. 8. And they slew the kings of Midian, beside the rest of them who were slain; that is, Evi, and Rekem, and Zur, and Hur, and Reba, five kings of Midian; Balaam, the son of Beor, they also slew with the sword. 9. And the people of Israel took captive all the women of Midian, and their little ones, and took the booty of all their cattle, and all their flocks, and all their goods. (Numbers 31:7-8)

Moses then scolds the officers

15. And Moses said to them, have you kept all the women alive? 16. Behold, these caused the people of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord. 17. Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that has known man by lying with him. 18. But all the young women, who have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. (Numbers 31:15-18)

At the heart of this matter is the sparing of the women, who as Moses did note were the ones who actually did the thing that affronted God, not the men. Thinking about this brings me back to my own dilemma of the last two weeks. We read in the beginning of the portion

If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. (Numbers 30:3)

Back On July first I took an oath, though not to Hashem. It was a challenge to get and go on a date within one month, if the person running this challenge would teach the skills necessary to do so for free through an on-line course. This person, known by the nickname Style, has been described as one of the greatest pickup artists in the world. By July 1, there were about 2500 people, almost exclusively men, who signed to learn from such a master. For someone like me, this was too good an opportunity to pass up, to finally defeat one of my biggest problems, an acute shyness around attractive women. When many get to see the public speaker who is Shlomo, most don’t get to see the wallflower -- he’s hiding in the wall too much, and he’s keeping me very lonely.

The first week went well, and I did make many improvements which I am proud of. There were some changes in appearance which I think were good and necessary. Although there were some bumpy spots, I did go up to a few women cold and talk to them, something I never was able to do before. The second week, things did not go as well. The reading assignments were longer, the amount of time need to spend in the field to do these things was greater. And my schedule did not allow for such time. I worked very long hours, and then there was an urgent and immediate call from a client who needed me to go out of state. So I went. Between travel and work, I was busy about 65 hours last week. And there was the building pressure of the challenge.

And it wasn’t just me. There were several things that people were having problems with in the challenge. Much was the same thing I was having problem with, the thing I wanted to get rid of in this mess-- approach anxiety. For much of childhood, to protect their children, parents tell them not to talk to strangers. We tell children, in many different ways, women are the fairer and weaker sex, even in these times of sexual equality. We see this was true in biblical times, with the sparing of the Midianite women and children. Yet we also tell our young girls to protect themselves from young boys, not physically but emotionally and verbally. By playing on the emotions of young men, young women have built a set of defenses that are essentially ways of insulting and hurting young men with Lashon Hara, to get men they don’t want to leave them alone. Yet such systems also keep those who are worthy away too, and girls are lonely. For many sensitive caring men, the one best for relationships with these same lonely women, they are incredibly vulnerable to such Lashon Hara, and it hurts. For some, like me, it triggers bad memories of times when a lot worse happened to them. For most in the challenge, they had twenty years of this belief that they will be hurt if they approach a woman, and for some it becomes a crippling fear. I of course have had double that amount. The only answer is to get tough to it -- to approach, get rejected and move on. If the Lashon Hara is meaningless, the fear disappears, at least according to theory.

But getting to the point where you get yourself exposed that much is difficult, and requires a lot of practice, which the fear inhibits. The challenge due to its 31 day timetable pushed too much too fast and kept building on itself every day. Today on day 20, between my schedule and the number of field exercises, I’m way behind, and my anxiety is worse. But fueling the anxiety is something I found out that first week that really bothers me. For the pickup artist, the way to deal with the Lashon Hara is to dish out more Lashon Hara, to lie. It’s called an opener. In reality it’s a way of asking an open ended relationship question, and thus begins a conversation, which is harmless enough. But such openers all too often are memorized lines about jealous girlfriends you don’t actually have and other such little lies.

But I have a real problem with those lies. I have a problem with the seemingly intrusive way I’m to jump into a group of women and start asking them about my jealous girlfriend , even when I don’t have one. I have a problem using little magic trick and mind reading routines to generate interest in me. It all seems so false, like the ultimate Lashon Hara, presenting a Shlomo who isn’t Shlomo. I think of Reb Zuzya, whose concern on his death is not whether he will be asked why he was not like Moses or Abraham, but why he was not like Zuzya. The way I thought this about a day or so ago was I was not sure anyone who would fall for all this would actually be someone I would want to date. What I am doing seems morally wrong, to myself and to others.

And this is the situation in Midian. The officers apparently order that the women and children are to be taken captive, not killed like Balaam or Zur, Cozbi’s dad. If it had been only the women that the Israelites had been seduced by, then we could conclude this was done purely out of lust. But it isn’t. Both male and female children and virgins are spared, along with the seductresses. At least from our modern viewpoint, this was an act of morality and mercy -- of sparing those who could not defend themselves, much in accordance with Exodus 22:21 to not afflict widows and orphans.

Moses on the other hand seems bloodthirsty, and orders all captives except virginal females executed. Yet Moses also points out something: it was these same people who were spared who caused all the trouble. They are most guilty of all. He orders both the males, who might avenge the deaths of their parents and the seductresses killed.

Our portions are the last of the book of Numbers, and indeed the journey. Deuteronomy, for all intents and purposes adds only one story: the death of Moses. The Midianites are the last hazard to getting to the land, the last ones stopping the Israelites from the east bank of the Jordan, ready to cross into the Promised Land. Their defeat is the last thing that must be done before the people are allowed to cross. God implies this when he says to Moses in Numbers 31:2 “afterwards shall you be gathered to your people,” Moses will be the last to die of the old generation before the crossing. With Moses’ death they will cross.

The Midianite women represent the last thing we need to cast off before we are allowed to enter our own promised lands, something that is hard to get rid of because it is a moral thing to keep it, even when it is really a detriment. The Midianite seductresses dragged into idolatry the men of Israel, and most likely they would again. Their elimination was vital, yet there is something good in being good to orphans, especially when you’re the reason they have that status, and the virgins are spared. So too is our own stuff that needs to be removed from our own psyche. In my challenge, there is much which I find immoral abut the world of the seducer, the pickup artist. Yet in there is a kernel of truth which can be changed and adopted. We will read in Deuteronomy 21 the procedure for making those virgin captives into brides, and part of that is to wait a month, and to shave their heads. In our section, the soldiers are to take seven days after the war to purify themselves. We take time to pause, and remove much of the outside to see the inside. So too we remove from these last sticking points to reach our personal goals or promised lands and transform ourselves. We use the pure parts of these things, yet over a time period where we can reflect what we are doing, not in the passion of the moment.

I believe there is a kernel of truth in the world of the pickup artist. I do believe a series of linguistic and social patterns have trapped both men and women to loneliness and to some rather bad behaviors by implication. I am afraid of approaching women who are attractive, whether I really want to date them or not, because I am afraid of the verbal abuse I might get if I talk to them. Style’s idea is to not bring up that defense mechanism through talking girl talk, and to show a man to be a good social catch to a woman. Confidence, charm and thinking about others first are all admirable ideas in this challenge. Some of techniques used to demonstrate higher social value, like magic tricks and mind reading tricks, may need to be modified or substituted before an authentic social value can be demonstrated.

All of this will require time, and as such I come back to that oath. If the challenge was the oath I’m going to have to break it, I will not finish the challenge in the allotted time, though I will try to do the theoretical work as we get it. I don’t have the time or energy to get this done; it saps my energy away as did the plague of Peor sucks the vitality of the people. I will back off, learn and adapt over the next few months and come up with something that is very much Shlomo and not as much Style, that is energizing and autherntic. But really my promised land, and the oath I wrote down was that I could approach and gain rapport with people by the end of this and that I will continue to strive for as I get rid of my own internal Midianites.

Then, I too will cross into the Promised Land.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Drash Hukkat - Balak 5766: Transformation

This week, we have a double portion, and a lot of story. In Hukkat, we start with the rules for the red heifer. Then Miriam dies, which starts the people complaining there's no water. Moses in a hissy fit strikes a rock instead of talking to it like God wants. God responds by telling Moses that he's never going to set foot in Israel for that stunt. The Israelites are on the move, when they very politely ask for permission to cross the land of Edom. They are told very rudely if they do, they will be attacked. So they start going the long way. After this, God tells Aaron to ascend mount Hor, where he dies. Then a Canaanite king attacks and takes hostages. The Israelite response is to raze the city involved to the ground. Then after more grumbling there's a plague of snakes. When they get to the land of the Amorites, they politely request of King Sihon to cross the land, promising to keep on the king's road and not damage anything. Deuteronomy tells us Moses even opened the door for a hefty profit by offering compensation for any food set at whatever price the Amorites want. Sihon, not understanding the concept of “tourist rates,” decides to attack the wandering tribes only to be totally annihilated by Israelite troops, and all of the Amorite land is taken. Sihon's neighbor, King Og of Bashan attacks without any provocation, only to find the same fatal fate as Sihon.
Then in Parshat Balak, King Balak of Moab watches all of his neighbors go down to defeat militarily at the hands of the Israelites. Realizing military solutions are a bad idea, he sends envoys to the greatest magician in the area, Balaam, to curse the advancing Israelites. Balaam first refuses and then after a large amount of money and ego massaging, he reluctantly goes. But there is a condition; he can only speak whatever God puts in his mouth. Balaam heads towards the camp of the Israelites, only to be blocked by a rather disturbing angel of the Lord with an even more disturbing sword. Balaam doesn’t see this, only his donkey does, and steers out of the road to avoid this angel, often identified as Satan. Balaam strikes the donkey each of the three times this happens. Then the donkey speaks and asks Balaam why he doesn’t trust her. It is then that Balaam sees the angel, who says if it weren’t for the donkey; he’d be a very dead magician. After this encounter, Balaam meets up with Balak, and sets up the curse. Three times in a row, the curse ends up as a blessing, the most famous being “ma tovu” and Balak is furious. The only ting that does seem to slow down the Israelites, Midianite women prostitute themselves with the Israelites. They seduce many of the Israelites, including senior officials, to start worshipping Baal-Peor. God gets upset with this and starts a plague. One such tasteless coupling happens in front of the Mishkan, in sight of a shocked Moses and congregation. Aaron’s Grandson Pinchas gets up, grabs a javelin and runs them through, ending the plague.

To say the least, a lot is going on, indeed an overwhelming amount to write a commentary about. But starting with the red heifer, we see a theme in these two portions. We read of the red heifer
This is the ordinance of the Torah which the Lord has commanded, saying, Speak to the people of Israel, that they bring you a red heifer without spot, which has no blemish, and upon which never came yoke; 3. And you shall give it to Eleazar the priest, that he may bring it forth outside the camp, and one shall slay it before his face; 4. And Eleazar the priest shall take of its blood with his finger, and sprinkle of its blood directly before the Tent of Meeting seven times; 5. And one shall burn the heifer in his sight; its skin, and its flesh, and its blood, with its dung, shall he burn; 6. And the priest shall take cedar wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer. [Numbers 19:2-6]
The red cow without any spots and that never worked is nothing by itself. It must be burned with Hyssop and cedar and the ashes of the three, when mixed with water, becomes a powerful method of removing the spiritual uncleanliness found in death from those who are living. It is not the heifer, but the ash solution that does this. The cow must be transformed by fire.

When in Numbers 17:11 Moses tells Aaron to stop a plague with incense, it is Aaron and Moses that stops the plague. But this week we read

6. And, behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought to his brothers a Midianite woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the people of Israel, who were weeping before the door of the Tent of Meeting. 7. And when Pinchas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from among the congregation, and took a javelin in his hand; 8. And he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague ceased from the people of Israel. [Numbers 25:6-8]

It is now Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson, and interestingly, the one designated to supervise the burning of the red heifer that saves the day. Pinchas is the vice-priest, since earlier in the portion, his grandfather dies and his father Eleazar has now become the High Priest [Numbers 20:28]. While Aaron was alive, however, we read in Numbers 19:3, that it is Eleazar who is to make the waters of lustration, thus we can assume it is the next priest in succession that is to supervise the burning of the red heifer, the one who will in time become the high priest, when the high priest dies. And, also interestingly, it is death contamination which the waters of lustration made from the red heifer remove.

The stories of the death of Aunt Miriam and Eleazar’s dad Aaron follow the red heifer. The one most in need of removing death contamination has made that which is necessary to remove it. Getting prepared for death is followed by transforming the preparer into the high priest. All of the next generation becomes transformed and ready for their new role. This next generation often does do their jobs well; Sihon and Og find that out the hard way-- the Israelites are not the cowards of the generation of the ten spies; the lowly grasshopper has transformed into a dreaded swarm of locusts. The number of such transformations are rather incredible: Donkeys talk, Balaam unwittingly transforming curses into blessings, Sihon turns a great opportunity for making a hefty profit by gouging foreign customers into his people's total destruction. These two portions are about transformation and change.

All of this works as a metaphor for how we can change too. I’ve been thinking a lot about change, as I take the next month to do my own makeover and transformation. At my conference last week, I met a man I really liked and admired, and really wanted to be him. Thing was, it was the guy in the mirror, or rather the person I was at the conference. This was a man who inspired others, who was incredibly funny, confident and friendly. This was a man who attracted people to him. For the regular me, the shy boy who is afraid to ask someone for the time of day, to the guy who has such trouble dating, this man at the confrence was a man to be admired. This is the man at the podium or bimah. Put me in front of twenty to two hundred fifty people and I become a different person, many who have seen me in action probably have only seen me as that man. Put me in a room of people, such as a cookout, cocktail party or such, and if I was any more of a wall flower, I’d be able to walk through walls.

I want to be that man at the confrence. Not just some of the time, but all the time. I know he’s in me. I have the potential to transform myself into something special, just like the live red heifer and hyssop and cedar trees have the potential to become the powerfully holy waters of lustration. I believe we all have that potential to become what we want -- to change and transform. Like the waters of lustration made by the one who will eventually transform into the High Priest, there are transformations in transformations. The world is about change.

And over and over in this change we see two important elements we all should remember when undergoing our own transformations. In the plague of snakes (Numbers 21:5-9), it is not Moses who has to yell at the Israelites like evry other time they're doing something wrong, but the people themselves who admit their mistake, taking personal responsibility. While earlier they complained about no water, now they sing while digging. (21:17-18) The first element of change is taking responsibility for the transformation. The only one who transforms us is ourselves. We are the one who have to change inside. Change does not happen by reading a self help book or blog, watching a DVD or motivational speaker. It is not even buying the latest from Revlon, Gillette, or Ford, no matter what the ads say. Change happens when we get up and do it.

Yet in all of those transformations of these two portions, whether directly or indirectly stated, it is clear there is one other very powerful element. God is also involved in these transformations. God is always there and we need God to transform. By knowing and showing that we are close to God, through Torah, Prayer, and Acts of Kindness provides the push to actually succeed in our transformations.

Somewhere deep inside we all have something we want to change about ourselves. It may be losing a few pounds. It may be getting over shyness, or having the endurance to run a marathon. It may be playing a musical instrument, or learning to do art. There are so many things we all want to improve about ourselves. Let us all take the lesson of Torah and remember it is up to us and up to God for us to succeed.