Thursday, June 28, 2007

Parshat Balak 5767: The Peor Outbreak

Numbers 22:2-25:9

In this portion, King Balak of Moab watches all of his neighbors go down to defeat militarily at the hands of the Israelites. He sends envoys to the greatest magician in the area, Balaam, to curse the advancing Israelites. After a series of adventures, 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 now known as the prayer “ma tovu” and Balak is furious. But Balaam comes up with a plan for biological warfare. At the very end of this section, we read:

Israel stayed in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab. They called the people to the sacrifices of their gods; so the people ate, and bowed down to their gods. Then Israel attached himself to Baal-Peor; and the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. [Numbers 25:1-3]

A plague ensues, killing 24,000 people, more than any other plague. The plague ends in a bizarre manner:

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. When Pinhas, 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;

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]

I’m obsessed about this plague. Actually I’m intrigued by what the rabbis did with it. There are two clues in the text that explain how they come to their conclusions. The first is the name of the pagan god, Baal Peor. Baal in Hebrew means master or lord, and the common beginning of a number of such pagan god-names. So in Hebrew for example Zebuv means flies. Thus the Baal Zebuv (Beelzebub in Greek) of II Kings 1 can be translated the lord of the flies. Breaking the word Peor into syllables we have Peh meaning opening and Ohr meaning skin. Thus Baal Peor is lord of the skin orifices.

The second is a phrase in the text the people ate, and bowed down to their gods [Numbers 25:3] The Rabbis believed that there was significance to this sequence, best explained in the following story:

Rab Judah said in Rab's name: A gentile woman once fell sick. She vowed, “If I recover, I will go and serve every idol in the world.” She recovered, and proceeded to serve all idols. On reaching Peor, she asked its priests, “How is this worshipped?” They replied, “People eat beets, drink strong drink, and then uncover themselves before it. She replied, I would rather fall sick again than serve an idol in such a manner.” [Sanh. 64a]

As an Environmental Health professional I see this as an outbreak from fecal sources. When one eats and sacrifices in a room full of sewage bad things are going to happen.

Last week I began a speech at my professional association’s conference with the Peor incident. In Hebrew there is no word for enforcement, the modern word actually is a word for oppression. The point of my speech was good EH people modify the behavior of others instead of enforcing behavior. Health inspectors need to be more story tellers and less cops.

While attending sessions at the National Environmental Health Association (NEHA) Education Conference and talking to many people between sessions, I kept getting a sinking feeling. Environmental Health Professionals, what some people call health inspectors or sanitarians get a bum rap. We either get ignored or blamed for not doing the right thing. Yet we are rarely given the resources to do our job properly in the first place. From government regulators to industry auditors, the story was the same. Environmental heath is the under funded orphan of public health.

We are often confused with environmental protection. Environmental protection might be described as protecting the planet from environmental contaminants. On the other hand environmental heath is protecting people from biological and chemical contaminants in the environment.

Environmental Health is a prevention, investigation and education activity, and thus its benefit is difficult to see. If done well, nothing happens. It thus becomes the last thing to be funded either in industry or in government.

Yet this is not the frame of mind in Biblical thinking. Prevention, from the fence on the roof to the fence around Torah is deeply rooted in biblical tradition. One example given not long after the Baal Peor incident is this one:

You shall have a place also outside the camp, where you shall go out to it; You shall have a spade among your weapons; and it shall be when you will ease yourself outside, you shall dig with it, and shall turn back and cover your excrement;[Deut 23:13-14]

It is a matter of environmental heath to keep fecal matter away from public areas and to dispose of it properly. It’s a commandment to dispose of sewage properly.

The lead character in the biblical environmental health story is the Priest, which throughout both Leviticus and Numbers we hear of the number of health related issues the priest was responsible for. Yet the priest who was responsible was not the High Priest, but the vice priest. The High Priest, in order to do his sacrificial duties, could not be involved with public health. Too many situations required quarantine and decontamination procedures which would make him unfit for performing sacrifice. Instead it was the second in command who did these things.

The man who stops the plague of Baal Peor is none other than the vice priest, Pinhas. He stops it by killing just one Israelite having sex with a Midianite in the Mishkan. In doing so he changes the minds of everyone who was seduced into Baal Peor worship. The seduction had reached the point of addiction according to the rabbis. By changing people attitudes he saves everyone. In my mind Pinhas is the first Environmental Health official, the first good Sanitarian.

While I don’t condone throwing javelins through health regulation offenders, Pinhas begins a model which we find throughout the tradition. Balaam in this section is involved with magic and in many places in the Torah we find prohibitions against magic. Yet, there is one kind that the Talmud condones: Magic that keeps people healthy. Such practices can be curative, but even more important is preventative magic. Pinchas in killing one person broke Balaam’s spell of seduction. Exposure to the pathogens hovering around Baal Peor’s temple stopped, and contamination waned. It was miraculous, but it also was good science through prevention and behavioral science. Following the ideal of building a fence around Torah, the Rabbis did the same thing for human beings, noting preventative practices. Describing many of the microorganisms of today as demons they instituted many policies that still stand the test of time. For example, they advised against spending time in swamps or sewers, advocated washing hands before eating, and prohibited eating food which has sat out too long or under a bed.

When I wonder about environmental health I go back to the ancient sources, and see that it has always been there. It may have been demons instead of microorganisms back then, but the world still had EH in some form or another. We in EH have been protecting the population since the Exodus from Egypt, and I truly hope we will do so till the end of time.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Parshat Korach 5767: Too Rational to Live

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 rebel against Moses and Aaron, and want to be included as priests.

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]

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.

Something bothers me about this story. Korach is too rational to live.

Korach is making a good rational argument. Before the revelation on Mount Sinai, God told Moses to tell the people you shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation [Exodus 19:6]. God also states I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will be their God [Exodus 29:45]. If this is true, argues Korach, then they should all have the duties of the priesthood, not an elite. Nice rational argument, yet it leads to the death of the conspirators. Korach was too rational, and did not see the irrational, which was just as important.

For a little over a year I’ve been on a strange journey which has taken me to some rather unexpected places. It started with a sex scandal involving someone I knew. At the time I wondered how such a thing could happen.

I’ve done a lot of research since then. I’ve studied seduction, pick up artists, and social psychology. I learned a few magic tricks. I’ve read dozens of marketing books and books on influencing people’s decisions. While they all have their own themes and ideas there’s one thing that I find true of all of these books and workshops I’ve experienced in the last year. Man is not completely rational. Ironically, one of the most irrational things humans do is believe they are rational. Pick up artists, con men, salesmen and politicians all exploit this. I’ve learned the more we think ourselves rational the more submissive to mind control we become.

There is more to life than rational. But it would be a mistake to believe that we are totally irrational either. Completely emotional, experiential situations can be just as dangerous. Reading case studies about the mass suicide of members of the People’s Temple in Guyana or cult indoctrination strategies, I realize how far people will go to irrationally follow the lead of another.

In one story that has become one of my favorites in the Talmud, the two sides of this in Jewish thought become clear.

R. Abbahu and R. Hiyya b. Abba once came to a place; R. Abbahu expounded Aggada and R. Hiyya b. Abba expounded legal lore. All the people left R. Hiyya b. Abba and went to hear R. Abbahu, so that the former was upset. [R. Abbahu] said to him: ‘I will give you a parable. To what is the matter like? To two men, one of whom was selling precious stones and the other various kinds of small ware. To whom will the people hurry? Is it not to the seller of various kinds of small ware?’ [Sotah 40a]

In Jewish thought we have two ways of thinking. One is Agada, the story. The other is law, Halacha. R. Abbahu compares these to ceramic jars and diamonds. Abraham Joshua Heschel in God in Search of Man describes them differently:

Halacha represents the strength to shape one's life according to a fixed pattern; it is a form-giving force. Agada is the expression of man's ceaseless striving which often defies all limitations. Halacha is the rationalization and schematization of living; it defines, speci­fies, sets measure and limit, placing life into an exact system. Agada deals with man's ineffable relations to God, to other men, and to the world. Halacha deals with details, with each commandment separately; agada with the whole of life, with the totality of re­ligious life. Halacha deals with the law; agada with the meaning of the law. Halacha deals with subjects that can be expressed literally; agada introduces us to a realm which lies beyond the range of ex­pression. Halacha teaches us how to perform common acts; agada tells us how to participate in the eternal drama. Halacha gives us knowledge; agada gives us aspiration. (336)

Yet neither is sufficient by itself. “Halacha without agada is dead, agada without halacha is wild.” Heschel writes. They are not mutually exclusive, but instead a polarity. Neither dominates and within one is the seed of the other. It is a blending and balance of the two which is optimal.

Everything has it place. Rationality may let us look at an issue with diamond clarity. But rationality does not allow us to be in awe of the world around us, to ask new questions, only derive answers from old answers. It is not rational to say WOW! Proverbs 9:10 describes the polarity: The Awe of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; and the knowledge of holy matters is understanding. Understanding may be rational knowledge, but wisdom comes from the irrational, from what Heschel calls it radical amazement: being able to say WOW!

Neither Korach nor any of his party could say WOW! When exposed to the ultimate WOW! Korach and the rest could not withstand such an event, and died. Trying to define and categorize that which cannot be defined leads to confusion. It is something quantifiable logic cannot handle. To those who try to quantify, they fail, and might even lose their mind and life.

There were three survivors of the Korach rebellion however. They do the opposite of Korach: They get irrational. In Numbers 26:11 we will read but the Sons of Korach did not die. They were musicians. Their lyrics we still have preserved in the book of Psalms.

As the deer longs for water streams,
So does my soul long for you, O God.

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God;
When shall I come and appear before God?

My tears have been my bread day and night,
While they continually say to me, Where is your God?

When I remember these things, I pour out my soul;
How I went with the multitude,
leading them in procession to the house of God,
With the voice of joy and praise,
A crowd keeping the festival.

Why are you cast down, O my soul?
Why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God;
For I shall again praise him
for the help of his countenance. [Ps 42:2-6]

This is not rational thinking but emotional longing, it is not logical and objective but personal and subjective. Most of the songs of Korach’s sons are in a similar vein, often about the longing of the soul to cleave to God. Yet they also wrote

My mouth shall speak of wisdom;
And the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.

I will incline my ear to a parable;
I will open my riddle to the lyre. [49:4-5]

They understood the polarity, that wisdom and understanding are related to story and song. We move seamlessly from one to the other. There is knowledge and law, there is story and ethics. Both are necessary, both are needed by the other. We live interdependent lives, a tapestry of all things. Our lives are full when we remember that. When we forget this, as did Korach and his rebellion, we are headed for disaster.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Parshat Sh’lach-Lecha 5767: How to Doggedly Get Over Fear.

Numbers 13:1-15:41

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. Two spies, Joshua of the tribe of Ephraim 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, who magnify their claims. 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.

For Many Jewish adults, there is one protion of the year which is dearer to them than any other. Like the ten spies, the first time they looked at that portion they freak. But, like Joshua and Caleb, most stick to it, and somewhere near their 13th birthday, they get up in front of the congregation at their Bar or Bat mitzvah and read Torah and Haftorah. Shelach Lecha is my Bar mitzvah portion…and a lot more.

It also is the first D’var Torah I gave at a synagogue, though not at my bar mitzvah. It was twenty years later, celebrating the 20th anniversary of my bar mitzvah and my return to Judaism. If you would have asked me back when I was 13, I would have told you that I didn’t give any speech since I found the traditional “Today I am a man” speech trite and meaningless. But the truth is I was so painfully shy and afraid to get up in front of the twenty or so people at my Bar Mitzvah I didn’t have a D’var. Twenty years later things had changed – a lot. It’s been eight years since that first D’var, and in two weeks I’m getting up at my professional conference and speaking to a ballroom (hopefully) full of people. How things have changed!

Shelach’s meaning is not merely in my reading the mafitr and Haftorah in Hebrew of this portion. Its meaning continues to challenge me personally every day. To be honest, I’m scared about doing that lecture in a few weeks. This is my second time speaking at this conference, and my last performance was stellar – Standing room only into the hallways. Yet given my topic and a disastrous presentation the last time I had a sophomore effort at a conference I’m a bit scared.

That’s when I read the words of Caleb:

And Caleb quieted the people against Moses. He then said “we can surely go and posses it, because we surely can.” [Numbers 13:30]

Caleb rather short answer radiates confidence and strength. He knows they will succeed. Yet when the people do try to take the land after a lot of whining, they fail miserably. They miss one of the critical things Caleb is trying to convey. “We” includes God. This is not false confidence but a measured response to every situation. Joshua, as he trains and leads the troops in every campaign both on the east and west sides of the Jordan, shows such measured response.

For my presentation, I’m nervous, so I did send out spies in a sense. This week I ran a trial run of my presentation. A lot went well, but there were things that didn’t. I could fret that the whole will collapse because of this. I don’t. Instead, I’ve learned from Caleb to take the next two weeks to correct them.

While in public speaking and in much of my professional life I’ve gotten good at this, there is still one place that the fear still overwhelms me. I still am incredibly afraid of going up to another person I don’t know and starting a conversation. I wrote about that last year in this Drash actually, and made it my goal at this same conference, which I was very confident about the speech I gave, but very uncertain in my abilities to converse with others. I didn’t do too hot in that arena, I was still too afriad. Like the Israelites I’m still left to wander in the wilderness.

We all have our fears, many of them keeping us from our goals. I was thinking of fear this weekend when my niece was afraid of a thunderstorm that rolled by. My fears are different than the fears of a child, but they are real to me. Yours are probably real to you. I’ve had many fears in my life from roller coasters to thunderstorms to fireworks. All have become thrills and joys instead of fears. Public speaking in not only a thrill for me now, it’s a living.

Caleb and Joshua, the day after they return from their mission, and a night after the people have spent the whole night in defeatist disappointment says something incredible.

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. [Numbers 14:7-9]

We must believe in God. God will provide one thing we need more than miracles, the strength and confidence to complete our goals. God is a source of strength. When we know that, our enemies, our own fears, we will eat like bread. Saying God is out to get us like the Israelites do is assuring defeat. Saying God is with us provides us with an extra added amount of confidence, and that shows in our actions. The root word for Caleb means dog. Caleb was doggedly stubborn at getting to the goal, and even more than fellow spy Joshua, succeeds brilliantly.

As I did last year before my speech, as I did at my bar mitzvah, in two weeks I will say a blessing before this presentation I am giving. I need to thank God before I begin to present. That I even got to this time, let alone how I perform. Maybe a blessing or prayer before every time I try to approach a stranger in conversation, to remember who is with me brings that confidence I find so hard to have.

Fear is strong, but with the inner strength of devekeut, we can accomplish what would otherwise seem impossible.

May you accomplish the impossible.