Thursday, July 24, 2008

Parshat Matot 5768: Boundaries

Last week we talked about one need for boundaries, but left a question unanswered: what are boundaries? We now have some ways of looking at that question. We start with the rules concerning a woman making vows and who and when they can be annulled. The attack on the Midianites is set up and executed, though not with the results Moses expected. This brings up issues of how to divide the spoils of war, and how to deal with female war orphans. In the third part, the tribes of Gad and Rueben want to settle east of the Jordan and not cross, which brings up new issues.

We read at the beginning of the Perkei Avot:

Moses received the [oral] Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the men of the great assembly. The latter used to say three things: Be patient in [the administration of] justice, rear many disciples and make a fence round the Torah. [M. Avot 1:1]

This is the classic statement of the Oral Torah, the laws spoken between the lines of the written Torah. But the key to such a transmission and use is the curious phrase “make a fence around the Torah.” What does a fence, a boundary do? At its most basic, it keeps something in or something out. We have examples in this week’s portion of the basic use of a fence or a boundary. As part of their land deal, the tribes of Gad and Reuben propose

And they came near to him, and said, We will build sheepfolds here for our cattle, and cities for our little ones; [Num. 32:16]

Sheepfolds are fences to keep sheep in. Walled cities are walls to keep wives and children safe from outside forces. Of course they do not have one function at a time. A fence does both simultaneously. The sheep may be kept penned in but they are also safer from wolves and bears. The walled city may keep invaders out, but it also keeps little ones from wandering around. When we talk about a fence around Torah we talk of it often in this simple sense. It is a protective barrier for a mitzvah. The mitzvah prohibiting boiling a kid in its mother’s milk can through a series of fences creates a halakah mandating separate dishes and utensils, one for milk and one for meat and poultry for example. Since we are not sure what the original mitzvah truly means, we put a series of protective measure in place to make sure we do not transgress it even accidentally.

Yet fences are physical. Often territories are not marked by fences but by flags and banners. Indeed the name of our portion matot is such a boundary. The word means staff or stick, denoting the staff or stick or standard that each tribe used to identify itself, hence its meaning here of tribes. Many times boundaries are set not by a physical barrier, but by a grouping of attributes in one place. These are indentified by some symbol, like a flag or staff or standard. Each tribe is marked by their staff and the tribe groups around that staff. Go to any major tourist destination and you will see such things today. Tour groups or field trips will gather around a flag, sign, tour guide, or teacher in order to keep together. Sometimes the tribe will share some visual component for the entire group to find such as a badge or t-shirt. Having the visual attribute keeps the group together

Sometimes the boundaries don’t even have that. We can have a hard time telling where one boundary ends and another begins. To make things worse, no tribe has completely identical people, everyone has some attribute different. For example imagine two people we’ll call AC and AB. They a share a common trait “A” and thus are the tribe of A. But AB does something B. Is this act good, bad, or indifferent for AC? The answer is not clear, but that is a question addressed in this portion.

The portion begins with the annulment of vows made by women. Vows made in the name of God are hard and fast we are told. However there is a set of exemptions. If a father hears that a daughter in his home has made a vow, then he can annul it only on the first day he hears of the vow. If he delays, the vow stands. If the girl vows in her fathers house and then gets married, her new husband only on the first day of hearing of the vow may also annul what her father did not. In a similar case, if a wife vows a vow, her husband may annul it on the first day he hears of it. Otherwise, the vow stands. For widows and divorcees, no one can annul the vow.

Some vows do not affect other’s boundaries and some do. A vow not to eat cheeseburgers for six months crosses no boundaries. One kind of vow which becomes problematic is a vow not to derive benefit from another person for a period of time. One particular benefit which comes from women is the gestation of children. As the daughters of Zelophehad made clear in last week’s portion, children become the mechanism for inheritance. If a woman vows not to go near men, then we have a problem, since this affects the inheritance chain. Without any children, a man’s inheritance goes to distant relatives. Secondly, the potential for a girl to get married and have children is strongly inhibited by such a vow, since she has less value to suitors than a woman willing to have children. Thus she becomes a permanent financial burden on her father and family. Such a vow by a female dependent on her husband or father violates communal and familial boundaries. If a man vows not to go near women, he is merely spiting himself in terms of the inheritance system.

Said another way, we have a girl called AB. AB’s father, AC finds out that AB has vowed to abstain from something that might get her married and give AC grandchildren. AC is obligated to care for AB until such time as she is married. AC is thus stuck providing for AB his entire life. If AB had a brother, he would be stuck too. If she had no brothers, she does inherit her father’s inheritance, but on her death it goes to an uncle, breaking the chain and increasing the uncle’s inheritance. AC’s property and boundaries are violated by AB here. He thus has a chance to annul her vow in order to correct for this boundary violation. But he has a short window to do so in order to minimally violate AB’s boundaries and personal space. If he fails to do so, there is still a possibility for annulment. AF, a potential husband, might marry AB anyway, and on the day he learns of the vows annuls them as her husband, bringing his boundaries of inheritance back into alignment.

This can get increasingly complicated, and whole tractates of the Talmud deal with cases of how this all applies. But at the core is one person breaking someone else's boundaries to the latter’s detriment. Indeed we even use such a word for sinning. Transgressions are when we break a boundary of God’s making. The Midianites were worse than that: they did not just break boundaries of others, but they enticed transgression, to spread boundary breaking like a virus. That was why God told Moses to avenge the people against the Midianites. They have caused people to transgress once, and were likely to do it again.

Knowing where the boundaries are is different for different people. Moses, as we’ve mentioned before had an all-or-nothing thinking. When he said to attack Midian, he meant killing everyone. But the actual troops on the mission thought along different boundaries. Their boundaries were based on the census that counted them: you weren’t a real person unless you were a male of military age. So they didn’t kill the women and children. Moses, as the text tells us, freaks out

14. And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, with the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, who came from the battle. 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.[31:14-16]

The agent of transgression that Moses most wanted to destroy in the Midianites was left alive, all because boundaries were not clearly communicated. This can cause conflicts for us. One person’s boundary is not necessarily another’s. If we do not communicate and agree on boundaries, problems ensue.

There are plenty of stories of boundaries and boundary violation in the story of the attack on Midian and its aftermath. Yet the last third of the portion is one I want to focus on next. Reuben and Gad come to Moses with a request about physical boundaries:

4. The country which the Lord struck before the congregation of Israel is a land for cattle, and your servants have cattle; 5. Therefore, said they, if we have found grace in your sight, let this land be given to your servants for a possession, and bring us not over the Jordan:[32:4-5]

This can be taken two different ways, and again two different views of boundaries come out of it. First there is Moses’ view, that these two tribes are lazy and cowardly. They do not want to do what is good for the rest of the tribes. They set their boundaries in what they already have, the lands conquered in the last few months. Gad and Reuben might see differently. That the land starts on the west side of the Jordan is a boundary that Moses assumes. They break that boundary to include more land, to the east of the Jordan. Yet they understand Moses’ boundary issues as well. So they come up with their solution of both settling west of the Jordan and all the military age men remain as part of the military contingent of the people in entering the land.

This suggests the most difficult types of boundaries: ones imposed on us. Sometimes we are told that there are things we can and can’t do. Sometimes we come to that conclusion ourselves. Like the walled city or the sheep pen, those boundaries keep us limited. Sometimes they are completely valid boundaries and limits. I’m color blind for example and that disability makes it impossible for me to discern certain shades. Trying to figure out what are flesh tones from a box of crayons or pastels is near impossible for me. Since second grade, I’ve had a self imposed boundary that I am not an artist. That boundary however is an illusion. Limitations do not always equal boundaries. I only need look up from this keyboard to a wall covered with my own watercolors, or click a link to my on-line gallery to remember that. Limitations may mean there will need to be some adaptations, but those boundaries can be crossed, and we can become better people for it.

I was once painfully shy. I’ve found as I’ve become less shy that most of my shyness was due to boundaries set up long ago. Some of them made sense at the time, but the boundaries remained outside of their usefulness. Many people live in fortresses built on false assumptions. I think it is not coincidental that we hear mention once again of Caleb and Joshua in Moses’ response to Reuben and Gad. According to the Sages, Caleb did not just spy out the land; he decided while there that he wanted Hebron and the surrounding area. He did not say “we can’t enter because the boundaries are too great” but he said “we surely can, (and I’ve already picked out where I’m going to live.)” When the land is distributed, he does get Hebron because he changed his boundaries.

There are boundaries that are agreed on. There are boundaries that are imposed. There are boundaries that are crossed and there are boundaries that isolate. There are boundaries that are clear and understandable and boundaries that are blurred and misunderstood. The art of living in the Promised Land is knowing when a boundary is each of these things and how one is supposed to deal with them. It is the art of relationship, relationship with ourselves and relationship with others, and even our relationship with God. Setting boundaries can protect use and make us grow. Setting the wrong boundaries can hurt, isolate and stifle us. Being in the Promised Land is not a static endgame, but a new stage of living. Living in the land requires understanding boundaries, but it also requires something else found at the very end of the journey in the wilderness.

Next week, to finish the journey, we’ll see why that last commandment is so critically important.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Parshat Pinhas 5768: Boundaries and Generations

Among the many activities of this week’s portion, there is a census similar to the one that began the book of Numbers back at Sinai. The generation who will enter into the land is ready to do so, and throughout this portion we have examples of why this generation is ready. Pinhas is blessed by God for stopping the plague of Peor single handedly. During the census we learn one more interesting detail about the Korah rebellion “But the sons of Korah did not die.” [26:11] After the census, we have the first halakic debate, brought by the daughters of Zelophehad. To finish the portion we have again a list of all the holidays and the requirements for sacrifice for those days in the calendar cycle.

We read about Pinhas in the beginning of the portion

10. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 11. Pinhas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned my anger away from the people of Israel, while he was zealous for my sake among them, that I consumed not the people of Israel in my jealousy. 12. Therefore say, Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace; 13. And he shall have it, and his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the people of Israel. [25:10-13]

What Pinhas did was rather startling:

5. And Moses said to the judges of Israel, Slay you every one his men who were attached to Baal-Peor. 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 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; 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. [25:5-8]

Moses was ready to kill all those attached to Baal Peor. This pagan worship is a form of resistance. After he was fired by Balak, Balaam suggested to the Midianites and Moabites to try seduction instead of cursing. In doing so he more effectively stopped the Israelites than any of his true attempts with cursing. Moses’ solution to this resistance was his usual solution: everyone who’s a problem dies. His mental models remain the same.

Pinhas conversely attacks two people who are doing the most scandalous things in the most scandalous place to do it. To Pinhas this is not rebellion but a hypnotic spell. Such spells are a lot like balloons: they form a barrier between us and the rest of the world clouding our judgment. Yet like balloons, one pointed shock to the balloon and it bursts. Pinhas realized this. It is written in 25:13 that he made atonement for the people Israel by this act. The shocking stab through both Cozbi and Zimri burst the spell, everyone suddenly realized they were doing wrong things and the people repented.

Pinhas did not use the all or nothing mental model of Moses. He made boundaries around what was the critical thing to deal with. Killing only two he probably saved thousands of lives. The rest of this portion deals with exactly that issue, boundaries.

14. Mark well her bulwarks, consider her palaces; that you may tell it to the following generation,
15. That this is God, our God for ever and ever; he will be our guide till death. [Ps 48:14-15]

Sings the sons of Korah, who in this portion we learn did not die. Such psalms according to the Sages saved them from the fate of their father. A place was fenced in for them when everyone else around them fell into Sheol. [B. Megilah 14a] They made a boundary with their songs.

We are told they did not die not in the portion about their father Korah, but in the middle of the second census where it fits the pattern of others in their generation. This census has several purposes to it. First, it validates God’s conditions for entering into the land from the time of the spies:

64. But among these there was not a man of them whom Moses and Aaron the priest counted, when they counted the people of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai.65. For the Lord had said of them, They shall surely die in the wilderness. And there was not left a man of them, save Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun.[26:64-65]

Thus the people can enter the land. What should do once they get there? That is the other reason for the census:

53. To these the land shall be divided for an inheritance according to the number of names.54. To the more numerous you shall give a larger inheritance, and to the fewer you shall give a smaller inheritance; to every one shall his inheritance be given according to those who were counted by him. 55. However the land shall be divided by lot; according to the names of the tribes of their fathers they shall inherit. 56. According to the lot its possession shall be divided between many and few. [26:53-56]

The population of each tribe decides the amount of land they will get in the Promised land. Where that land will be will be decided by random chance. Once this is set up the land will be transferred through inheritance of those counted, namely sons.

In the wilderness, we read that there was an order to how the people marched. That order to some extent is preserved in the inheritance plan. The tribes have their own distinct personalities. To keep them distinct they are kept separate. Boundaries are established to keep this order in place, to keep the attributes of each tribe pure.

From a modern political or social standpoint there is a lot of debate over homogeneity and heterogeneity, of equality versus identity. But in the allegory of the people as mental models within our soul, there is a different logic to this. While our internal tribe of Benjamin does interact with our internal tribe of Judah, the two are distinct because they perform different functions within us. To have them at full power, to allow us the greatest use of the attributes they represent, requires us to have them as pure attribute.

Let me compare this to two artists: a child and a professional. If you’ve ever watched a young child paint or use a box of crayons, the work almost always turns out the same. Every color in the box of crayons is used and every color in the watercolor set is slopped on. I remember when I was younger and this would happen to me. The end result was all too often a gray- brown blob, and my watercolor sets would be thrown away after one use. They were now nothing but one color since everything mixed with one another in the box. As an adult artist, I keep boundaries between colors. I control the colors, how much and how little to use of each. I do what is necessary to keep my yellows staying yellow and my blues staying blue. What I put on the paper is what I wanted. Dull grays of my youth disappear, replaced with bright color.

We segregate things from paints to parts of our soul for a reason. We want the pure attribute so we have control of mixing it. Those attributes in our soul are segregated so when we need it we can use it with control, and use as much or as little as necessary. Pure colors allow us to do shades. We are out of the black and white zone and into shades of crimson and violet. Young children don’t understand the idea of shading, they plop things on, leading to the results they get.

Moses in this view was like a child. He knew only two states: followers or rebels. Rebels were removed from the congregation, followers remained. It’s not so easy in the Promised Land. It requires a different thinking, of using all the crayons in the box, but using them when appropriate and in appropriate measure. It means segregating some colors from others and, if a speck of blue gets into a yellow, removing the blue not removing the yellow and the blue. Blending happens on the paper or in your mixing box, not the palette. This new generation, about to enter the Promised Land understands this.

The new generation also understands there are shades of gray, that nothing is absolute. This inheritance plan in the land provides some problems that are immediately addressed in the text. The five daughters of a man named Zelophehad of the tribe of Manasseh bring an objection

3. Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not in the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah; but died in his own sin, and had no sons.4. Why should the name of our father be taken away from among his family, because he had no sons? Give to us therefore a possession among the brothers of our father. [27:3-4]

Moses just telling the rules no longer applies. In many ways, it is the daughters of Zelophehad who bring us the Oral Law. What do we do when there is a conflict between laws, or a case that was never thought of? I do not think that it is coincidental that Moses is told it’s time to die right after the daughters of Zelophehad episode. He had a very hard time dealing with what it implied: that there is such a thing as objecting legitimately. This is not rebellion. Indeed the daughter’s objection will get an objection in turn in Numbers 36, the last commandment in the book of Numbers. The ruling that if there are no sons daughters can inherit creates the situation where the boundaries leak. If Tirzah from Manasseh marries a Benjaminite, and they have a son, would not Tirzah’s inheritance then go to Benjamin? We have one color running into the other. We lose control of the palette. The well-known story of Moses being transported to Rabbi Akiba’s classroom and being totally lost. Moses may not have been lost about the subject but the style. Debate between students and teachers for Moses may have a totally alien concept, which is why he was so comforted by Akiba’s response “it is a halakah of Moses from Sinai.”

Getting to the Promised Land was one thing and needed a very direct and absolute approach to get to there. But getting there and living there are very different things. The new generation, never living in Egypt, has different mental models than the previous generation. They can see in degrees and understand the need for blending at times and separating at times. They can see that measured responses are even more effective that all or nothing thinking. Setting boundaries are meant to do that effectively.

Next week we’ll look at the nature of such boundaries.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Parshat Balak 5768: Fame and Seduction

In this portion, King Balak of Moab has just watched all of his neighbors go down to defeat militarily at the hands of the Israelites. He therefore tries another strategy. He sends envoys to the greatest magician in the area, to curse the advancing Israelites. After a series of adventures, and a bit of resistance from a reluctant talking donkey and a sword wielding angel, 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 of these blessings is now known in the liturgy as Ma Tovu. Balak is furious. But Balaam comes up with a plan for biological warfare, killing 24,000 before Pinchas stops the plague.

The Israelites have found some serious successes last week. So much so they have two nations quaking in their boots:

3. And Moab was very afraid of the people, because they were many; and Moab was distressed because of the people of Israel. 4. And Moab said to the elders of Midian, Now shall this company lick up all who are around us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field. And Balak the son of Zippor was king of the Moabites at that time. [Numbers 22]

So a plot is hatched to get Balaam to curse them, but at first Balaam is reluctant but eventually agrees. His attempt leads to a very unexpected outcome: The Israelites are blessed instead of cursed.

Why is the story of Balaam and Balak here? And why, in the chapter that follows it do we have a story of another plague on the people? I believe those questions are related. In the story of getting to the Promised Land, the answer has to be the successes of the people in getting there. But like Balaam’s donkey, we first have to take a bit of a detour.

My iPhone isn’t working. If anything applies to the issues of dumb mistakes it’s my iPhone. I bought it a week too early to be eligible for the upgrade to the 3G. When I went to download the software this morning, well, it crashed, hanging on the wonderful words “verifying iPhone software.” I should have known better than to update on the first day. Apple on the other hand should have seen this coming as well.

In both my case and in Apple’s case we thought we knew what we were doing – and we were both wrong – Hubris got the better of us. Balaam and The Israelites messed up in the same way, and for much of the same reason. They had had successes, but they were not yet in their promised land, and that can lead to some serious mistakes. Balaam could not curse to save his life. Now some might mention a disclaimer to that:

20. And God came to Balaam at night, and said to him, If the men come to call you, rise up, and go with them; but only that word which I shall say to you, that shall you do. 21. And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab. [Numbers 22]

What’s missing there is and important phrase “and the men called him.” Balaam did not follow directions here. He went without being called. His own arrogance is what got him into trouble. As a result God gets angry and sends angel against Balaam. For the first time in this story we see the resistance that we’ve been trying to get rid of the entire journey come to a good use. That resistance takes the form of a talking donkey, who moves away or stops every time she sees this angel.

Resistance in is most basic form is to keep us from harm. We’ve been talking about more complex forms of resistance, resistance to non-existent hazards, and even resistance to good stuff. But here it’s clear resistance is a good thing because the angel of his own admission was out to kill Balaam. Resistance keeps us from harm. Yet, Balaam pushed forward against the resistance, beating it. The donkey’s response is essentially “I’ve never steered you wrong, why are you beating me?” Balaam’s Arrogance leads towards his self destruction, just like my attempting to upgrade my iPhone on a day I should have known would have been a disaster left it a mere brick. There are times we should listen to our resistance.

Maybe the episode of the angel is to remind Balaam who he serves, and who word he must give. He didn’t follow directions once; he is not to do it again. So when he gets to the Israelites, no matter what happens, he invariably blesses instead of curses the Israelites:

1. And when Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he went not, as at other times, to seek for enchantments, but he set his face toward the wilderness. 2. And Balaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel abiding in his tents according to their tribes; and the spirit of God came upon him. 3. And he took up his discourse, and said, The speech of Balaam, the son of Beor; the speech of a man whose eyes are open; 4. The speech of him who heard the words of God, who saw the vision of the Almighty, falling down, but having his eyes open; 5. How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, and your tabernacles, O Israel! [Numbers 24]

Balaam tried using enchantments the first two times, and found they didn’t work, the enchantments were resistance, as noted in 23:23

23. Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, nor is there any divination against Israel;

So he stops resisting and gives a great blessing. He also noticed something on the mountain he was on.

28. And Balak brought Balaam to the top of Peor, that looks toward Jeshimon.[23:28]

He had been ignoring and beating legitimate resistance due to his own arrogance. Sitting on top of Peor, he realized something important. We read immediately after Balaam’s story:

1. And Israel stayed in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab. 2. And they called the people to the sacrifices of their gods; and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods. 3. And Israel attached himself to Baal-Peor; and the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel.[25:1-3]

A plague ensues which Eleazar’s son Pinchas stops by killing an Israelite and a Moabite copulating in front of the tabernacle. What is significant in next week’s portion is how this mess started:

16. Behold, these [women] 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. [31:16]

Balaam reasoned correctly that if he was arrogant enough to fall into a trap, so would a people who had just tasted their first taste of victory. They could easily be seduced because they were both naive to the danger and arrogant enough to ignore it. For the last few years, I’ve studied the theories of a modern Balaam and some of his disciples. His name is Eric Markovic, he is stage magician, but most in the seduction community call him Mystery. For many he is the ultimate Pick-up artist, able to sleep with any beautiful woman he wants.

At the core of his technique is something very simple, so simple I find it disturbing. Mystery plays on one’s successes and failures. He is very good with beautiful women because they have had an inherent success of being told repeatedly they are beautiful women. Yet, while talking to these women; he disqualifies them for being slightly less than beautiful. For most of these women their only victory in the world is their beauty, for anyone to think them slightly less than beautiful, means they feel compelled to prove otherwise. So over a conversation they more and more fall into his trap, all their resistance to sleeping with him shattered in their wanting to prove the one thing they know is true about themselves.

The rabbis in the Midrash Numbers Rabbah give a similar story of the seduction into Baal-Peor worship. Step by step the Moabite women entice the men first to talk to them then to eat with them, and then they make the condition the Israelites can only sleep with them if they make a sacrifice to Baal Peor. The Israelites prior to the victories against Og and Sihon did not know real victory. They had that boost to their ego, along with the word of Balaam only able to give them blessings. They must have felt on top of the world. To then hear from the people around them some praise of them would have brought their first resistance down to the Moabite women. It could have been something like “Hey I never met a soldier before come over here big boy” Yet that was followed up by something simple, maybe “but you can’t be a real man, since you don’t eat my food like beets and beer” the poor guy in trying to fix his self esteem of being a true man, goes and eats the beets and beer. This goes on until he is sacrificing in front of a pagan god. The resistance found in the stubborn donkey was wiped out by our own arrogance about ourselves. In the end the Israelites are not only worshipping this pagan god, but are out right addicted to it.

Such seduction happens to us all the time; it is not just one pickup artist. It is the core element of most marketing campaigns. Much of the irrational side of my trying to get that iPhone to work is a completely irrational belief that having the new software gives me some kind of higher status. It plays on my own lack of self-esteem, a lack we all have in ourselves. The dating coach community is far bigger than Mystery’s antics, though his story told by one of his disciples is arguably the most significant reason the dating coach industry has blossomed in the past few years. While most of the criticism is directed as the lack of ethics found in Mystery’s type of pick-up, even by the community itself, overwhelmingly the response back to such criticism has been the same: People are already being seduced, and that seduction is even less productive. Our loneliness is being exploited for profit for all kinds of products, from beer, to makeup, to clothing, to cars. Each promises us that we will get the ideal mate by buying something instead of connecting with another. Our legitimate internal resistance, our internal talking donkeys are removed because of our insecurities and our arrogance to believe we are something we are not. The result is to act irrationally, and the irrational act leads us into self destruction.

So what are we to do? How do we fight this?

Interestingly, a lightning pointed attack on this can change everything, and the spell can be lost. Next week we’ll address the end of this portion with the hero next week’s portion is named for.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Parshat Hukkat 5768: Success Begins with Endings

In the book of Numbers, translated literally from the Hebrew B’midbar as In the Wilderness, we’ve watched a journey from Sinai to the Promised Land of Israel. I’ve spent this round of Shlomo’s Drash looking at this book as though the people are not individuals, but a collective, one that makes up our own mind and soul. The Promised Land in that view is this thing called success. For the story of B’midbar, success is a bunch of whiny slaves entering an abundant land where they are free from slavery, one where they can worship God. We began that trip by the simple act of looking up so we can see in front of us and show our commitment to getting to the Promised Land.

Yet as we’ve seen, there has been resistance. Getting to the Promised Land is not easy, because it requires change. Resistance takes many forms, from our friends and family wanting us to be our old selves, to intense cravings. We’ve seen fear, lack of confidence and rebellious self-sabotage slow down the journey. The cry of resistance has been the same each time: let us go back to Egypt, let us go back to the way things used to be. Each time, our seemingly comfortable old selves wants to go back even though it is oppressive slavery. The only way forward was elimination of the resistance. In the biblical text often this has been symbolized by the death of individuals like Korach, Dathan and Abiram. Some have been by attrition. The forty years in the wilderness was such elimination.

This week, things really begin to change. Spanning the forty years in the wilderness, we start with the ordinances regarding the red heifer. Miriam dies and then the water disappears, which causes the people to complain. Moses is instructed to speak to a rock and water will come out, but he yells at the people and strikes the rock instead. For that, he will not enter the Promised Land. The Israelites are on the move, when very politely asking 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 and Eleazar his son becomes High priest. Then a Canaanite king attacks and takes hostages. The Israelite response is to raze the city involved to the ground. Then after more grumbling about all this moving around, there's a plague of snakes. Yet the next time they look for water, the leaders, not Moses digs the well. When they get to the land of the Amorites, they once again 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. That turns out to be a big mistake. Sihon and his people are totally annihilated by Israelite troops, and all of the Amorite land taken. Sihon's neighbor, King Og of Bashan attacks without any provocation, only to meet the same fate as Sihon.

Hukkat presents us with a transition. We still hear grumbling. First after the death of Miriam over water, and then in the middle of all the movement north once again concerning food. Both times we hear the same chorus about Egypt, yet these two times there are missing elements: nobody is proposing to go back to Egypt. Things are different. In this portion, we also read of Israelite chieftains who dig their own well, and an Israelite army who barely blinks and destroys whole nations, a far cry from the whimpering spies of Shlach Lecha. By the end of Hukkat, this is a far different people than the beginning of our story of B’midbar. Success is within reach, and the first signs of such success has begun.

At the same time, we lose three major characters before we get to the Promised Land. Both Miriam and Aaron die in the wilderness, and Moses is told he isn’t going to make it in either. Many commentators have asked why these three had to die before the Promised Land. One answer extends the literal answer: Moses messed up at the well of Meribah. Just after Miriam’s death the water disappears. The people once again complain:

3. And the people quarreled with Moses, and spoke, saying, Would God that we had died when our brothers died before the Lord! 4. And why have you brought up the congregation of the Lord into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there? 5. And why have you made us come out of Egypt, to bring us in to this evil place? This is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; nor is there any water to drink. [Numbers 20]

Moses and Aaron get instructions from God on how to handle this. Moses, with his staff in hand, is to speak to a rock and water will flow out of it. But all doesn’t go according to plan:

10. And Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation together before the rock, and he said to them, Hear now, you rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock? 11. And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he struck the rock twice; and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also. 12. And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, Because you did not believe me to sanctify me in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.[Numbers 20]

Moses not following directions is the direct cause of his and Aaron’s never crossing the Jordan. This is not the first time water came out of a rock. Shortly after leaving Egypt there was a similar incident:

3. And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moses, and said, Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst? 4. And Moses cried to the Lord, saying, What shall I do to this people? They are almost ready to stone me. 5. And the Lord said to Moses, Go on before the people, and take with you of the elders of Israel; and your rod, with which you struck the river, take in your hand, and go. 6. Behold, I will stand before you there upon the rock in Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, that the people may drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. [Exodus 17]

What Moses did in the book of Numbers was follow forty year old directions, not the latest set. Note the people’s rhetoric seemingly remains the same about dying in the wilderness, but in Exodus they are on the edge of rebellion, and do not believe in either God or Moses. In Numbers, years later, there is a significant change. While they talk of Egypt they also talk of wanting their fate to be dying before the Lord, not returning to Egypt. While in Exodus there was no belief, there is belief here. They murmur against Moses in Exodus, yet they quarrel directly with him in Numbers.

What we are seeing here is indeed growth on the part of the people. There is no talk of Egypt as a land of milk and honey, like Dathan and Abiram did. The people’s complaining that there are no Vines figs or pomegranates is not a reference to Egypt, but instead to Israel. Numbers 13:23 tells us that grapevines figs and pomegranates were what the spies brought back to the camp. Deuteronomy 8:8 mentions the same three in terms of the Promised Land as well. No longer is their complaint that they want to go back to Egypt, but instead, their complaint is “When are we going to get there?”

If they are growing, why did they mention Egypt at all? For the same reason Moses struck the rock. Over time we get used to doing things one way, we have an internal script to follow. In a positive sense such scripts saves us time from having to think out a reaction. But in the negative it can also be inappropriate to the situation. We can get stuck in the script. It’s a lot like the boy who continues to breastfeed from his mother even when he’s thirteen years old. Not only is that inappropriate, it’s perverse. Both the provider and the receiver of the milk got stuck in one type of behavior, and never realized it really needed change. While that example is extreme, people in relationships, be they parents and children or husbands and wives, often fall into patterns of knowing how to push buttons to get certain automatic behaviors. The people knew how to push Moses’ buttons. If you want something, mention Egypt and Moses goes into action. What they forgot was the entirety of the script. Egypt was always mentioned when a resistance was breaking out in the camp, and Moses or God would have to stamp it out. Even when it wasn’t a real rebellion, Moses’ script thought it was, so he did the same thing the last time such a thing happened, striking the rock, and not speaking to it.

If you’ve ever been in the Negev, or in Transjordan you know it is not milk that is the stuff of life, but water. Water is preciously rare in the world the people wandered in. In my recent trip to Israel and Jordan I learned how the Nabatean empire, with its capital in Petra, became massively wealthy by monopolizing all the wells in the area, thus forcing traders to stop there, buy water supplies and trade with others, all at a hefty tax profit for the Nabateans. You can’t survive without water, the same way an infant can’t survive without milk.

Most rabbinic opinion describes Miriam, Moses and Aaron as support systems for the people:

Three good leaders had arisen for Israel, namely. Moses, Aaron and Miriam, and for their sake three good things were conferred [upon Israel], namely, the Well, the Pillar of Cloud and the Manna; the Well, for the merit of Miriam; the Pillar of Cloud for the merit of Aaron; the Manna for the merit of Moses. When Miriam died the well disappeared, as it is said, And Miriam died there, and immediately follows [the verse], And there was no water for the congregation; [Ta’anit 9a, cf. Numbers Rabbah I:2]

In the wilderness, the providing of water to the people was due to the merit of Miriam. Even in her name is the word for water: MYM. When she died the water stopped according to the Sages. The reason the verses about each are so close is that her death stopped the miraculous providing of water. Conversely, as long as she was alive the water would flow. Thinking in those terms we begin to see that Hukkat is a weaning. When the people enter than land they will have to get their own food and water, they can no longer depend on a well of Miriam for water or Moses’ Manna for food. To do so even before the journey is done holds them back from their full potential as does a pre-teen who only drinks from his mother’s breast. The support system that got them to success on the East bank of the Jordan now must make way for new support systems when they cross that river.

Moses, Aaron, and Miriam represent the support system that got the people through the wilderness to the banks of the land. As they proceeded towards the land, their usefulness actually wanes. It may even be a form of resistance itself. The scripts that were run at the beginning of the journey don’t work now, even tripping one up. God prohibiting Moses from entering the land was because Moses could not change to fit a new role within the land. He was still reacting to rebellions, even when it may be a legitimate complaint of dehydration. Like Miriam’s death, the people needed to be weaned from Manna as well as water. Manna fell on Moses’ merit, and as long as he was alive it would have fallen. As long there was free food around, no one would have worked the fertile land to cultivate all those figs, grapes and pomegranates.

Changing the support system is never easy. Often our support systems, both internal and external are beloved parts of our lives. Externally it may be parents, family and friends. Internally, it may be scripts so successful, we can’t believe they’ve stopped working. Yet, it must change for continued growth.

In B’midbar, it is not an easy transition. But it happens. We see that success in each of the military engagements, how the strength of the people increases. After Miriam dies and the incident with water, they plan to cross into Edomite territory. Unlike previous engagements, they do not cower or get defeated. They stand their ground until they are outnumbered, then politely and quietly walk around Edom. After Aaron dies and another support system is replaced with Eleazar, Arad the Canaanite attacks and takes hostages, only to be wiped from the face of the earth. After digging their own wells for the first time, they encounter Sihon, and have the exact setup as Edom. This time however the outcome is very different – Sihon’s nation of Amorites is wiped out. Og of Bashan attacks, only to also lose his life, people and land. As the people have to depend on themselves more, their success grows – and they move closer to the final destination of the Promised Land.

Early indicators of success can still be problematic. Next week, with Midian and Moab, we’ll look at what hazards there are when you finally figure out how successful you can be.