Monday, June 30, 2008

Korah 5768: Rebellion and Purpose

This week we have the story of the Korah rebellion and its aftermath. Korah, 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. 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. Korah, Dathan and Abiram and their families are swallowed up by the earth, literally going straight to hell, and the 250 men are burned alive by a fire from God. The people murmur against this and a plague ensues. To settle the matter of leadership once and for all, another contest is performed. This time the leaders of each tribe place their staff in the Mishkan and leave them overnight. In the morning, Aaron’s staff buds and blooms with almonds. Yet, there are still murmurs.

This week we hit one of the biggest hurdles in getting to the Promised Land, the internal rebellion. In the Torah this is represented by Korah and the related rebellions. We’re all familiar with the concept in our own lives, a sense of self destruction of the path. One day you are on the top of the word, successful and ready to have your dream come true. The next you do one very stupid thing and the world come crashing down. One feels like Korah’s final fate. The ground under your feet opens ups and you fall straight to Sheol. We’ve seen it happen all too often to people in view of the media both in the political and entertainment realms. Then there are the times it has happened to us as well. It’s happened to me numerous times to be sure

As outside observers of such events, we always think “why was he so stupid?” The self-destructive behavior seems to make no sense. After the event on many an occasion when I’ve done something that stupid, I’ve noticed how much I think the same about my own behavior. This is our inner Korah, the rebel who refuses for us to grow. The Korah within us might start as one other form of resistance such as a craving, yet gathers together other thoughts, as Korah gathers around him all other others in his conspiracy.

To understand how Korah affects we must first look at what he was really after, and why that was so destructive in the text. Most of this portion is about who is and isn’t a priest. Korah’s original rhetoric is:

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? [Numbers 16:]

But Moses replies personally to Korah:

Does it seem but a small thing to you, that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself to do the service of the tabernacle of the Lord, and to stand before the congregation to minister to them? And he has brought you near to him, and all your brothers the sons of Levi with you; and do you also seek the priesthood? [Numbers 16 9-10]

The thing that Korah wants seems democratic if we were talking about people. All the people should be priests Korah seems to say. But if we think in terms of the journey or getting to a goal, then things are a bit different. It’s a lot like 600,000 backseat drivers and no front seat driver – one would never get to the destination. As we already know, many want to turn back and go back to being slaves in Egypt. From last week, some want to haphazardly go into the land. There is no organization to this mess because there is no singular vision to unite so many people – except Moses and Aaron.

The rebellions and murmurings effectively end after the contest of the rods. Once it is clear Aaron’s rod was selected, and then the people no longer conspire against him. Aaron’s singular authority as a priest is made clear. We cannot go in a million directions at once to get to our goal – we must plan one particular route. Anything else leads to paralysis.

The resistance that is Korah is there are visions of what we want, and visions of what we are used to. Often one causes problems for the other. In the text once again we see that with Dathan’s and Abiram’s charge against Moses referring to Egypt:

13. Is it a small thing that you have brought us out of a land that flows with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you also make yourself a prince over us? 14. Moreover you have not brought us into a land that flows with milk and honey, or given us inheritance of fields and vineyards. Will you take out the eyes of these men? We will not come up.[Numbers 16:13-14]

This time Egypt is so inflated as to be indistinguishable from the Promised Land, both are described as a land of milk and honey. That old vision of ourselves as being in a good place, no matter how horrible it really was, gets in the way. We get so used to it, we can’t think any other way. When there is a chance for us to get something really good, we go out of our way to make sure we keep the old way, and like Dathan and Abiram and many of the people think of the path to change, traveling through the wilderness, as a fatal mistake.

The fourteen year old computer geek I once was is not the guy I am today. That guy I was last week who was always upbeat, Said Hello to every conference attendee, and try to lift the spirit of everyone he met is a far cry from the kid cowering behind his Apple ][. Yet there is always something in me that tries to pull back to that time. Friday, as I tried to get this piece written I noticed that – a lot. It did in fact sabotage me enough that I did not finish this piece until Sunday. My inner Korah, that servant of my Yetzer ha ra, tried to derail me after a very successful, though busy week.

Even eliminating this self-sabotage can cause resistance. In the text the people begin to murmur:

But on the next day all the congregation of the people of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, saying, You have killed the people of the Lord.[Numbers 17]

Of course this is a ludicrous charge. Moses goes out of his way to tell the people it’s not him doing this, but God, and because these people are not as holy as they claim. Indeed all the people were witnesses to an event only a few months before that was identical to the death of the co-conspirators in the rebellion: the death of Nadav and Abihu, Aaron’s sons. At that point, no one claimed Moses or Aaron killed any body.

Memory is a curious thing. To remove the self destructive parts of ourselves we must remove memory. But such removals remove part of ourselves, and we feel guilty about such removal because we are no longer who we used to be. We do not read it in the text, but had God not started a plague then, the people very likely would have grabbed shovels and would have started to dig for Korah. Such guilt often brings back the self destruction.

Before they have a chance, God starts a plague, one that Moses and Aaron stop in a very ironic way:

11. And Moses said to Aaron, Take a censer, and put fire in it from the altar, and put on incense, and go quickly to the congregation, and make an atonement for them; for anger has come out from the Lord; the plague has begun. 12. And Aaron took as Moses commanded, and ran into the midst of the congregation; and, behold, the plague had begun among the people; and he put on incense, and made an atonement for the people. 13. And he stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stopped.[Numbers 17:11-13]

The same incense that killed Aaron’s sons and killed the 250 co-conspirators saves the day. It’s not the incense offering that is bad, but its use and who uses it. Memories and mental constructs can be for our benefit or our destruction. Sometimes they are for both, and some memories were okay for our protection in the past, but are in the way in getting to our future. A three year old might find the world a big scary place. When he’s thirteen or even twenty two, He needs to get beyond that construct; otherwise he will be painfully shy. On the other hand, memories can prevent us from getting into true hazards, such as someone who really does want to hurt us. Memories, like incense is all in how it is used.

Yet what makes the difference and what really calms the people down the most is the proof that there is one dominant vision of how to live. Aaron’s staff growing almonds is the evidence of a dominant position, one picked by God. We too need to find our singular vision of what our promised land should look like, and make it so strong that resistance is not just destroyed but so overpowered by that vision the distractions and resistance is drowned out. Rebellions are silenced because they can never get as loud as the way we know is right. They are still there, of course. While my inner rebellions and resistance didn’t bother me while I was at my meetings last week, when I slowed down on Friday they exploited the pause. Even after the contest of the rods, there are still murmurings, but no longer are there revolts.

Sometimes the stuff that was once our most powerful allies on the journey might become new resistance when we reach our goal. Next week we’ll look at what happens when we really do start to become successful.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Parshat Shlach Lecha 5768: The Killer vs. Y-C-L

As I’ve mentioned before, this is a special portion to me since it is my bar mitzvah portion. It would not surprise me that my ongoing writing here comes from trying to make up for something: I never gave a bar mitzvah speech. Why I didn’t have a speech goes to the heart of this week’s Torah portion. Something happened in the desert that effectively killed 600,000 people before they stepped foot into the Land of Israel. That something has been driving all of the resistance I mentioned in the portion from last week. It probably will also drive the resistance we will see next week in the Korah rebellion.
We actually begin the portion on a happy note, the people are on the border, ready to cross into the land and end their journey. God tell Moses:
1. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2. Send men, that they may spy the land of Canaan, which I give to the people of Israel; of every tribe of their fathers shall you send a man, every one a leader among them. [Numbers 13:1-2]

Twelve chieftains are picked to enter the land and report back on the conditions there:
18. And see the land, what it is; and the people who live in it, whether they are strong or weak, few or many; 19. And what the land is that they live in, whether it is good or bad; and what cities they are that they live in, whether in tents, or in fortresses; 20. And what the land is, whether it is fat or lean, whether there is wood in it, or not. And be you of good courage, and bring of the fruit of the land. Now the time was the time of the first ripe grapes. [Numbers 13:18-20]

Forty days later, the twelve spies return to the camp bearing a grape cluster so big it needed two people to carry it. Their report begins on a sweet note, but quickly turns sour:
And they told him, and said, We came to the land where you sent us, and surely it flows with milk and honey; and this is its fruit. 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…

There is one lone voice, crying over this din of a horrible report:
And Caleb quieted the people before Moses, and said, Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.[Numbers 13:30]

Yet the other Spies retort:
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.[13:31-33]

The English translation of Caleb’s response does not show the power of what he said in Hebrew. For we are well able to overcome it is in Hebrew ki yachol nuchal lah. In the two verbs in this sentence the root is Y-Ch-L. This verb has an interesting usage in Hebrew as it really is a verb which acts like an adverb, modifying another verb. Usually, it means to be able to and requires another verb to have any meaning. For example, the other Spies retort to Caleb, lo nuchal la’alot meaning we are not able to go up. Yet in Caleb’s phrase there is no infinitive to modify the verb. To make thing more curious, is the use of the infinitive absolute, which strengthens the verb. Infinitive absolutes have the meaning of surely, or without a doubt. So this is a long chain of adverbial expressions meaning “can.” And while earlier in the verse Caleb mentions to ascend into the land, here it is missing. Caleb does not mean just that they can go into the land, but that they can do anything. More than that, he’s completely certain of it, expecting a good outcome.
Caleb was not the only one who thought that, Joshua did too.
6. And Joshua the son of Nun, and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, which were of those who spied the land, tore their clothes; 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. [Numbers 14:6-8]

Not only did these two men have confidence in their abilities, they also expected only one outcome if they kept their faith in God. Unfortunately, no one else did, and they began to pelt these two with stones. God then intercedes and plans to destroy the people. In a way he does so slowly: they are condemned to wander the desert for forty years, enough time for the entire generation to die off.
At a bat mitzvah last weekend, I re-iterated the theme I am giving this go-around in the reading of B’midbar. The question was asked in discussion: why is God so vengeful, killing so many people? Maybe one answer to that is that we should not look at this as individuals but the Israelites as a collective, the characters within different parts of a collective soul. The story of B’midbar is a story of those voices in our heads that keep us from our promised lands. They are the resistance in our lives. Our higher self in this scenario is what the text calls God. God is not killing people but instead removing the resistance in reaching the Promised Land. Remember, after the report of the spies the people said Let us choose a chief, and let us return to Egypt. [Numbers 14:4] Their point over and over again is to go back to the way things were, even if they were horrible. Such thoughts must be eliminated, and that is what is happening in the story of the wilderness.
I thought about that when my 3-year old nephew was moving around some small kid-size beach chairs lately. He wanted to stack them on top of one another, and as often is the case, instead of stacking them, he began to whine two words: “I can’t.” over and over again. Being three years old he had a valid point, but how often do we keep that three year old whine within us, even when we are 40? In Hebrew, the spies whine of lo nuchal, “we can’t” dooms them, just as Caleb’s yachol nuchal, we surely can allows him and Joshua to enter the Promised Land. The greatest monster of all, the killer of 600,000 people is two simple words “I can’t.”
When I was thirteen, I said those words many times. I was painfully shy. “I can’t go up to the grocery counter and buy something” “I can’t ask someone for something” “I can’t go up in front of others and talk.” The boy in the powder blue three-piece suit and messy hair would rather not have a bar mitzvah speech than speak in front of maybe twenty five or thirty other people as his very small bar mitzvah. Since he was so shy he had no friends, indeed he was so shy it was easy for others to hurt him for fun and throw him to the bottom of pre-teen social pecking orders, and so he hid. He became the completely isolated 14 year old computer geek I talked of last week. In other circumstances, maybe the isolation would have spiraled down to my own complete destruction. There were two stubborn dogs who wouldn’t allow that, who kept telling me I could accomplish great things if I only put my mind to it. My own internal Caleb and Joshua are always at it.
They were at it last Friday morning too. Once again this is posting late, indeed I’m writing this first somewhere over Kansas Friday morning, and then in a Tucson Starbuck’s. I have for the last three years been presenting at my national professional society. This year I’m not presenting once, but presenting three times, and moderating several more. For someone who couldn’t bear to be in front of four congregants and some family, to get up in front of hundreds is quite ironic, and I have to give my Caleb and Joshua a pat on the back for getting me here. But there was a moment this morning in the airport where I felt afraid. And like some junkyard dog (Caleb means dog in Hebrew by the way) Caleb was there beating the fear down. He was jumping on it and tearing it to shreds with the teeth of a rabid animal. The fear disappeared. I was ready for this trip even if I’m not as prepared as I’d like. Caleb is sure that I walk in to the sessions I’m presenting, including the one on public speaking, knowing the consequences can only be good.
I once said “I can’t” to being any good at art. A lot of people have. But most kids don’t flunk art in elementary school, or even ridiculed by the teacher for his work. Besides the usual “I can’t,” I also have some slight disabilities, including color blindness which makes art harder for me. But it did not stop me, as I was reminded by an art teacher of mine who thought I should go for my MFA. I’m still learning art, but I know I can do art, even when the results are not what I exactly wanted.
Once you say “I can’t,” It’s hard to take it back. We see this with the Israelites, who being told they are to die in the wilderness over forty years go ahead and try to ascend anyway.
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 14:44]
Amalekites are the notorious cowards of the Bible. They only attack anyone who cannot fight back. This is an indicator of the kind of people who tried to ascend. Once the people said “I can’t” they never really believed they could. They were the weak that the Amalekites picked off easily. Their weakness was in God not being with them – they still did not believe they could ascend to the land, so they fought half-heartedly. Whether it is loving God or perusing your goal of your personal promised land, there is only one way to do so: with all your heart, soul and might. When they do not do this, they set themselves up for a failure.
With all the successes I’ve had, there are also failures, and most of them come down to this lingering “I can’t.” Much of the resistance in keeping on a diet is this lingering “I can’t.” The cravings are bred from a self image that we can’t be successful with maintaining weight. For me, I cannot get it into my head that I could actually date, there are always doubts that I could find a partner. The shy kid I once was is still lingering there; my old identity from my teen years of the lowest on the social order still restrains me from being as sure of myself in dating as I am while speaking to hundreds. Even my inner Caleb fails to control these nagging thoughts. Some destroy themselves, but some are more insidious. They create rebellions inside.
Next portion we’ll see that rebellion come to a head by a very bald head.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Parshat B’haalotecha 5768: Resistance

Last week the theme was change, but what happens when you do change?

If you read much of the self-help literature out there high self esteem and a commitment to change should magically change your life. If all you need is to have high self esteem and be committed to your goals, then you too can be rich, successful and keep to a healthy diet. This week in the Torah, we run into several situations which point to why most people’s experiences are very different than this. They are the stories which point to resistance to change. Probably the incident most known from this portion shows us one kind of resistance.

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. [Numbers 12]

Miriam’s slander and leprosy is as an issue of Moses ignoring his wife by the Sages. Yet most don’t understand the reason for Moses to stay away from his wife. According to the Talmud, this was one of “Three things that Moses did of his own understanding, and the Holy One, blessed be He, gave His approval”. [Shabbat 87a] Moses made up mitzvot without God’s permission, yet God approved. Many are familiar with the story of the revelation at Sinai, when all the people heard God. There is some preparation before hand:

15. And he said to the people, Be ready by the third day; do not come near a woman. 16. And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the sound of a shofar exceedingly loud; so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. [Exodus 19:15-16]

After Sinai, Moses reasoned that he might have to speak to God in this manner at any time. God notes in rebuking Aaron and Miriam that Moses kept the level of prophecy he had at Sinai:

6. And he said, Hear now my words; If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord will make myself known to him in a vision, and will speak to him in a dream. 7. Not so with my servant Moses, for he is the trusted one in all my house. 8. With him I speak mouth to mouth, manifestly, and not in dark speech; and he behold the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses? [Numbers 12:6-8]

After Sinai, only Moses is granted the direct revelation that everyone experienced that day. Miriam and Aaron are not granted this. Moses thought he had to maintain the level of preparation all the people did before the Revelation at Sinai at all times. In order to do so he continually avoided his wife. [Shabbat 87a] His avoidance did not sit well with Miriam and Aaron, who believed that the marital obligations of Moses towards his wife were critical, and thus their words against him.

Moses changed on Sinai, and became a unique person who had a unique mission. The expectations of the normal Israelite did not apply to him, but the expectations of family who knew him before Sinai was the same. Miriam didn’t understand the difference in Moses, and so expecting him to be the same Moses she knew since his birth, criticized her little brother. One immense source of resistance to personal change comes from our family, friends, and those we are closely associated with. With change in ourselves there is a required change in those around us, who may not want that change. They might be comfortable with the way things are, or are afraid of how that change might change them. But most times, one does not even see the change in the person changing and continues to treat that person just like they always did. Miriam still sees her little brother, not the only man in history who talks to God face to face, or the only man until the destruction of the temple to author halakah. When Moses doesn’t act like her little brother, she gets upset.

All we hear is about Moses in response to Miriam’s criticisms “Now the man Moses was very humble, more than any other men which were upon the face of the earth.” [Numbers 12:3] We do not hear a response, because he didn’t know what to say. He loves his siblings but doesn’t want to hurt them, and anything he could say would do so, and indeed break into argument. Like many people in this situation, he may fear he will lose support from his family in what he is trying to do. Moses, however, has the intercession of God. Generally that doesn’t happen, and instead we are in a bad spot, unable to respond to the criticism of our changing for the better, because it seemingly makes things worse for those close to us, and subsequently for us. We can hope for understanding, but that may not be there. The only response for many, so as to not to have an ugly situation with those they love is to buckle under, and not change. The risk of losing what one already has outweighs the reward if one does change. Such people never make it to their personal promised land so they don’t hurt those who don’t want them to undertake the journey, and so those people do not abandon them. Yet, the best we can do is getting them away from us, just as Miriam spends time away from Moses with her bout of Leprosy.

Such is external resistance, often slowing things down. Yet there is another resistance that can be truly fatal to one’s personal journey across the wilderness. That is the internal resistance to change. We read about such resistance in the cravings of the people for something other than their diet of manna.

4. And the mixed multitude that was among them had a strong craving; and the people of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us meat to eat? 5. We remember the fish, which we ate in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic; 6. But now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes. [Numbers 11:4-6]

As the Torah points out, they shouldn’t be complaining

7. Now the manna was as coriander seed, and its color as the color of bdellium. 8. And the people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in a mortar, and baked it in pans, and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was like the taste of fresh oil. 9. And when the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the manna fell upon it. [Numbers 11:7-9]

Manna was the food granted the last time the people complained about not having anything to eat after crossing the Red Sea. This time as well, these people's request is granted but at a high cost:

31. And there went forth a wind from the Lord, and brought quails from the sea, and let them fall by the camp, about a day’s journey on this side, and about a day’s journey on the other side, around the camp, and as it were two cubits high upon the face of the earth. 32. And the people stood up all that day, and all that night, and all the next day, and they gathered the quails; he who least gathered gathered ten homers; and they spread them all abroad for themselves around the camp. 33. And while the meat was yet between their teeth, before it was chewed, the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord struck the people with a very great plague. 34. And he called the name of that place Kibroth-Hattaavah; because there they buried the people who had the craving. [Numbers 11:31-33]

To give into your internal resistance is death to the whole venture. Of all the things to use as a way of describing internal resistance, nothing is better than food. This week, when I got on the scale for the first time in a month, I read a number I was not pleased with: 206. That same scale read 194 last year at this time, and 191 the year before. What happened? The answer is simple. I gave into cravings. Be it a hot fudge brownie sundae, sweet potato chips, or virtually anything I’d eat at McDonald’s, what I eat got the best of me. Resistance to my healthy diet is everywhere.

Cravings will do it to you almost any time. Playing with my e-mail while I’m supposed to be doing something else is another craving that gets me. All of it is resistance to what really matters. But unlike the external resistance of others this is more insidious – it is the yetzer ha-ra, our evil inclination. As the rabbis note when it entices, it is as frail as a spider web, but with time it becomes as strong as cart ropes [Sukkah 52a]. One ice cream sundae two years ago leads to me continually breaking my diet. “This is the last one” is a common reply from the Yetzer Ha-ra when we see something we crave.

Craving does something else too. Cravings increase the value of what we are craving beyond its real value. Note how slaves who probably never got such foods wax nostalgically about the abundant foods of Egypt. One would think by their description, slaves ate like they were at the midnight buffet of a cruise ship all the time, never having to pay the bill. Of course this was illusion. What was truly incredible food stuff, manna, was ignored for this illusion. When we have resistance, we do the same things. With a diet, it’s how delicious that candy bar will be. Yet after eating it, I’m not satisfied. Just one square of that chocolate bar won’t show up on my diet, but how often does eating one square become eating the whole bar, or two or three bars, because there was no satisfaction in just the one square?

Like Miriam remembering a pre-Sinai Moses, the resistance is anchored in the past, to what we once had “We remember the fish, which we ate in Egypt for nothing.” The people cry, “Now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all” Keeping the present the same as the past is what resistance is all about. What is ahead is bad, according to the yetzer ha-ra, what you already have is good and comfortable, don’t go about changing it. For example my yetzer ha-ra continually comments “I’m familiar and comfortable with being alone and independent, why would I want to mess that up with a relationship?” “Loneliness I might compliant about but can handle. I can’t handle break-ups, betrayals or having someone else running my life” It continues inside of me, stressing the bad parts of growing. Like the manna, It ignores or even denigrates the good. It does not think of the bitterness, and tight places of my personal Egypt, my personal slavery.

The most important lesson of all from the Story in Numbers 11 is that the people who gave into their cravings die instantly. This is not a salmonella outbreak taking a few days to kill – they choke on their food because they give into their cravings so much they do not even chew it, nor look at what they are eating, and thus it kills them. We may not die instantly but our lives can be as one who is dead from giving into resistance, both internal and external. Giving into my own resistance will leave me for dead. I would be a fourteen year old computer geek who truly had no life, isolated from everything and everyone but his Apple II, as obsolete and meaningless as that antique computer. I would be that until the day of my physical death from clogged arteries or some such diet related condition. There is only one way towards life, and that is to change and improve. We cannot go back into slavery nor can we stay still in the wilderness. We can only move forward. We must fight the internal and the external resistance, though it is far from easy. It already has a strong grip on us. But to survive and get to our promised lands, it is a battle we must win.

There is one more type of resistance to take into account. It is the most insidious and the most dangerous. In the story of B’midbar, the wilderness, it kills all 600,000 Israelites but two. It fuels all other resistance, and mutates into even more dangerous forms. In next week’s portion we’ll talk about this danger of all dangers.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Naso 5768: Lifting the Head.

This week we have the census continued from last week, then laws seemingly regarding the detection of adultery. We then learn of the oath of the Nazir, and the physical and dietary requirements such a person must endure. We end with sacrifices in the Mishkan and the Kohanic blessing:

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

We begin with:

22. Take also a census of the sons of Gershon, throughout the houses of their fathers, by their families; [Numbers 4:22]

The word for census in Hebrew gives our portion its name. Naso in Hebrew means to lift or carry. The phrase used to mean takes a census is naso et rosh, Literally lift the head of. There is more to this head count than meets the eye. The rabbis noticed this phrase naso et rosh, occurring both at the beginning of our portion (4:22) and a few verses before in 4:2 was different that the rest of the counts in the book of Numbers:

LIFT UP THE HEAD OFS THE SONS OF KOHATH (IV, 2). It does not say Number (pekod) but LIFT UP THE HEAD OF, an expression denoting ‘elevation’. When they were numbered for the purpose of being put in charge of the work of the Sanctuary they received thereby Promotion [Numbers Rabbah IV:12]

To lift the head up is to promote according to this midrash. While the rabbis are discussing why the Levite clans of Kohath and Gershon are promoted and no one else is, I find deeper meaning than that. When walking on any street in any town note how many people look down. Most people do and for good reason. One might need to watch their step from uneven surfaces, cracks or holes in the sidewalk, and anything left by dog owners who were out walking their pet, or to be more specific, anything the pet left. Yet looking down also indicates something else: submission and obedience.

When one looks down it means that the person looking down has less value than other people. All too often this is the end result of a simple nonverbal gesture, an affirmation of one’s own inferiority by looking down too much. In contrast to this, one needs only to look up. To look up, indeed to look into someone’s eye is paradoxically a source of incredible power and an incredible signal of equality. Such a paradox is resolved in that a person who has power over themselves does not need to play the game of who has more power. Such a person wants to be on a strong, equal connection with another person.

In such a context, the Kohanic blessing has incredible meaning. In two different expressions, God faces us as equals. Interestingly, the ancient sage Shammai said something similar to the second blessing that God should shine upon you. Shammai believed we should receive everyone with a bright beautiful face [M. Avot 1:15]. I’ve always thought that meant a smile. One might go as interpreting the anthropomorphism that “God shines his face on you” means God smiles. The Kohanic blessing does not just bless us as equals but does so with a smile.

If God is in the heavens, then God cannot lift his head. Instead God “lifting his face” towards us to greets us as a neighbor and an equal. One interpretation in the Midrash notes this:

Another exposition is that THE LORD LIFT UP HIS COUNTENANCE, etc., means that He will turn His face towards you; for it is not the same thing for a man to greet his neighbor while looking him in the face as to greet him with his head turned to one side;[Numbers R. XI:7]

When a man and his neighbor both lift their heads towards each other there is connection: so too with a person and with God, or with Israel and with God. But such a connection requires habit and requires discipline. Much of this portion deals with the issue of commitment. Towards the end of the portion we have the sacrifices given by each of the tribes. But in the middle we have two curious customs.

The first is the bitter waters rite. In the case where a woman is accused of adultery with no evidence, essentially she is to drink a combination of dirt from the floor of the Mishkan, water and ink. If her belly and thighs swell she is guilty of adultery, if not, she is innocent. The second is the case of the Nazir, someone who dedicates themselves to God for a period of time. Such a person, as part of such an arrangement, must not drink or eat anything made from grapes, cut their hair, nor go anywhere near a dead person. If they go near a dead person accidentally they must wash, cut all their hair and start all over. In the Talmud, Nazir, the tractate about the Nazir is followed by Sotah, the tractate concerning the bitter waters rite. The rabbis start the discussion in Tractate Nazir, with the concept that these two are part of a string of tractates related to commitment, starting with Ketubim and ending with Sotah [Sotah 2a].

The bitter waters rite seems to be rather sexist, only concerned with the adultery of a woman, but I don’t read this literally. In prophetic literature and in the writings, Israel is the woman of the relationship. Such imagery even occurs in Deuteronomy

And the Lord said to Moses, Behold, you shall sleep with your fathers; and this people will rise, and play the harlot after the gods of the strangers of the land, where they go to be among them, and will forsake me, and break my covenant which I have made with them.[Deut 31:16]

When Israel breaks the covenant, she is called a harlot and adulteress. How the faithful city has become a harlot! cries Isaiah concerning Jerusalem [1:21]. The bitter waters is exile as Isaiah describes strong drink shall be bitter to those who drink it [Is 24:9]. Israel must commit to God, and no one else. To stray from that commitment is to partake of the bitter waters rite, not something fatal, but something potentially embarrassing and uncomfortable. Such is true of exile as well. It does not kill Israel, but it does embarrass and brings discomfort to the connection.

While Parshat Naso does not read like story, I think it is an important part of story. Before the journey to the Promised Land begins there is a need to do two things. The first is to look up and forward to be in connection with God and with the goal; the second is to commit to the journey, even if it is uncomfortable or requires sacrifice or discipline. The Israelites need to do the sacrifices in this chapter, and commit to the goal. For one to remove all grape products from their diet and not cut their hair is a commitment. Neither might follow the social norm and the Nazir might suffer for it in daily life, but to do so is to commit to something bigger.

On our personal journey towards our personal promised lands, our first two steps are to raise our heads high and to commit to the journey. Neither is easy. Commitment requires a day-in and day out consistency. It is not something one does sometimes, or does recreationally. Not eating or drinking any grape product nor cutting one’s hair are examples. Daily sacrifices which morphed into daily prayer is another. Lois Jacobs once defined mitzvot into three types: those which we understand because of their practicality, those we don’t and those that are abhorrent. The class of those we don’t understand are functionally signs of commitment.

Yet for commitment to work to its fullest we must do something else first. We must raise our heads, and promote ourselves. If we do not believe we can do the commitment or if we believe we will fail, then we will fail. In two weeks, in Parshat Shelach Lecha, we’ll see this thinking in action. We must move beyond the submission of the slave with his head facing down, to the place of the free, proud to hold our heads high. This might be the greatest challenge of the journey. It’s too easy to fall into old patterns of submission. God does not want a timid, submissive concubine, but a confident, committed wife. In order to be fully human and holy beings, we too need to be both confident committed people.

Many have noted the Irony of Shammai’s statement in the Perkei Avot I quoted earlier. In full it reads:

Shammai used to say: Make your [study of the] Torah [a matter of] established [regularity] speak little, but do much; and receive all men with a beautiful shining face. [Avot I: 15]

Many know the story of Shammai and his rival Hillel. When a series of strangers asks stupid questions of Shammai, he chases away each of the three questioners with a yardstick, seemingly breaking his own statement. Hillel, on the other hand, answered the questions at the questioner’s level. Two of Hillel’s statements in the Perkei Avot are also significant:

Hillel used to say: be one of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, one who loves [one's fellow] creatures and brings them close to the Torah. [I: 12]

Brachot 34b in the name of Abbahu Comments on Isaiah 57:19 Peace, peace for him who is far off and for him who is near, says the Lord; and I will heal him. Abbahu believes those far off are those who are the biggest transgressors. To bring them close to Torah is holier than to bring one already there. This is the difference between Hillel and Shammai. While Shammai greeted friendly, he lost his patience with those who were far from Torah. Hillel on the other hand did not just have patience, but that such patience would bring close those who would otherwise not get close. He lifted the heads of those who didn’t even know they needed lifting.

Hillel also had one other well quoted statement as well.

He [also] used to say:
If I am not for myself, who is for me?
But if I am only for my own self, what am I?
If not now, when? [I: 14]

The phrase “self-esteem” is bandied around a lot today. Hillel would not have liked it, he probably would have preferred the term Value. It’s not that you need to increase your value alone, to raise your own head, but that you also increase the value of everyone around you. Shammai did not have the patience to increase those of low value. Hillel questioned what kind of person he was if he did not bring those who were far to be close, if he did not help others increase their value. Indeed, his own value increases even more by increasing the value of others.

This is something that cannot be procrastinated according to Hillel. It must be done, and it must be done now. In a sense it too is a commitment, one feeding all the other commitments. It is therefore interesting that the heads of the Kohahtites are lifted up first in the census. Among the Kohahtites are Aaron and his sons, who will give the priestly benediction to the people. In order to raise the heads of other people, God orders Moses to raise the heads of the Kohanim first who then learn a blessing to raise everyone else’s head by wishing them that God will raise his face towards them with a smile.

After my downer of column last week, I thought a lot about Hillel’s line “if not now, when?” Over Shabbat I thought a lot about them, and came to a few decisions, ones I had begun to hint at in my last column. My head has been looking down for months. As one colleague noted this is probably a function of my finishing Grad school. Another is that the Perkei Avot honors scholars, the world of 21st century America doesn’t. Since January, society has effectively told me “over my dead body will you be a Jewish scholar.” I realized over Shabbat to believe such a thing was to lower my head. So I made a conscious decision to raise my head instead. During the week I made a conscious effort to pick up the heads of as many people as I could, and the results were astounding. When one gives value, it almost always comes back with interest. It was poignant moment this week when one morning when I was getting ready for the day, Jack Gabriel’s version of the Kohanic blessing came over my iPod. I cried listening to the words of this blessing to the tune of the Beatles Let it Be, knowing how true that blessing is not just for God but for the Image of God, Humanity.

So let’s lift our heads and let it be. Cayn Yehi Ratzon.