Friday, August 29, 2008

Parshat Reeh 5768: What are Curses and Blessings?

This week our portion begins:

26. See, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse;[Deuteronomy 11:26]

For the last few weeks or so I’ve been wondering something: what exactly is a blessing and a curse? The answer from the biblical text seems simple:

27. A blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you this day; 28. And a curse, if you will not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside from the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods, which you have not known.[Deuteronomy 11:27-28]

It seems obvious, yet it also seems a little unjust. It presents the dilemma many have asked: what happens when bad thing happen to good people? In this simple version, there’s only one answer: you did something bad. The Midrash gives a parable of a king who holds a gold necklace in one hand and Iron chains in the other and asks his servant: make a choice of how I am to handle you.

Many have also asked these questions about big events, like 9/11 or the Shoah. I’m more interested in smaller, more personal events. We’ve all have them – they may be very small things like a bad day, to more significant events, such as an auto accident, and disability, or other tragic trauma to our lives.

I have disabilities I genetically inherited from my grandfather. I also have had two rather traumatic events in my life, leading to other disabilities. Looking at these events against what I did wrong just doesn’t make sense. So I’m left asking: why did these things happen to me?

I was contemplating this last Friday afternoon, frustrated with many of these problems in many spheres. The easiest one to talk about is my summer long frustration with two problems I was born with: motor hand coordination problem and color blindness. When I was young I frequently flunked art and got horrible grades in handwriting. The classic story which I’ve told many times was the time I was ridiculed in front of the class for coloring Abraham Lincoln’s face sea green, since I couldn’t tell the sea green from the peach crayon. Even in my first graduate school, when I did my comprehensive examinations, I almost failed due to my inability to write fast and legible enough to complete the exams.

To think I was taking a life drawing and painting class this summer when I had such horrible experiences is amazing. I have learned to use watercolor, and most of my issues can be addressed in that media. When I switched to pastel and Acrylic for this class, my past came back. While I can make color by laying two colors over one another in watercolor, picking out a specific pastel stick, or mixing my own colors was not so easy. It was near impossible. I thought about that last night as I was panicking in the middle of mixing the right skin mid-tone color. I’ve though about that on many occasions when I am unable to perform some function or another. Like I said I’ve had a lot of those happen recently and some not as innocent as what color to make a face.

So I was feeling down on myself last Friday, when I started to listen to an interview with Sean Stephenson on a podcast I subscribe to. Stephenson was born with a bone disease which does not let his bones grow. Indeed they are extremely brittle. Most die in childhood, though Stephenson has survived and is now in his thirties. Because of this, he has only grown to three feet high and is confined to a wheel chair, always concerned about breaking his fragile as glass bones. He told the interviewer the story of when his life changed around. He was in fourth grade and it was Halloween, the only day of the year he wasn’t stared at like a freak. Unfortuantely, he accidentally broke his leg. Crying “Why did this disease happen to me?” his mother responded by giving him a choice: this could either be a curse, or this could be a gift. It was up to him to decide. It was for him a defining moment.

Stephenson told another story in the interview of a girlfriend who broke up with him. She complained to him that had the mind he has been in a different body, she would have loved him. He retorted back “my mind is because of this body.” Many times our world has things in it which seem negative. Though our own effort and God’s will, curses may be turned into many positives. The first time I experienced it, was in a high school elective of fencing for my PE class. My lack of coordination made it difficult for me to catch or throw balls, run, or do many of the athletic things most kids take for granted. I often was the kid who nobody wanted to pick because I was so inept at sports. That was until senor year of high school when I took the fencing elective. Another way I am not ‘normal’ is I am left handed. Picking up a left handed foil I ended up going undefeated against a class of right handed students who had no defense against me. I ended up coaching fencing in college.

But I look at my paintings, including that acrylic one I did finish last night, and I can be proud of my work. As I have learned from my teacher I have turned my colorblindness to my advantage. When I paint, I do not think that this thing has to be green or this thing has to be yellow. I think this thing need to be dark and this thing has to be light. I don’t get tripped up by color as do many students. I get incredibly methodical in my mixing of colors. Ironically, being colorblind means my pieces are glowing and fresh with color. A curse is really a blessing – but only because I made it so and learned color theory.

While the rest of the section reviews many mitzvot, this one line may be at its heart. How we view and act in the world may change what happens to us. We can see anything for good or ill. It may be a blessing or a curse. The mitzvot is a tool for keeping us in the right frame of mind to see things as blessings. When a date who was non religious asked me about some mitzvot mentioned in this week’s portion, kashrut, I told her it was important to me not because it was a rule forced on me but because it was a way of making my life a bit more holy. Granted, I’m not the most observant when it comes to kashrut. Kashrut for me means I’m looking in the world for blessings, not curses. When I say all the blessings of the morning service, I notice more blessings around me, from a beautiful painting on my wall to an interview of Sean Stephenson showing up exactly when it did. Some of my supposed curses, like Stephenson, gave me opportunities that others don’t have to grow and build my self in ways I never could have imagined.

Curses and blessings? Maybe only God knows. Or maybe God only gives challenges and it is up to us to make them a curse or make them a blessing.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Parshat Eikev 5768: God: Fear, Love or Awe?

Moses continues his speech, with plenty of admonishments to go around about previous failures. In mid-speech he says something most of us are familiar with:
12. And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13. To keep the commandments of the Lord, and his statutes, which I command you this day for your good? (Deut 10:12-13)

What is this thing we call the fear of God? A lot of people call themselves “God fearing,” but what does that mean? In a patriarchal sense it may mean we believe in a God who is ready to mete out punishment. Yet at the same time we read in the Shema to love God, with all our heart soul and might. Deuteronomy 10:12 here paradoxically tells us we are to both fear and love God. How do you do both?
As students of Hebrew will tell you the word in Hebrew for fear, yarei’ also means awe. As beginning students of Hebrew will also tell you, they often get the word for fear mixed up with the word for seeing, ra’ah. The reason is grammatical. Hebrew most often uses a three letter root as the basis for a verb. Verb conjugation is the addition of letters to this three letter root. There are problems with this system, however, as some three-letter roots use consonants that are considered weak, either due to their use as a semi vowel like vav (v or w) or like yud (y). Another reason a word could be weak is that it contains a guttural sound, some of which are so un-pronounceable they have become silent letters like the aleph and ayin, or close to silent like the hay(h). For the purpose of Verb conjugation, the roots of Yarei (YRA) and ra’ah (RAH) are doubly weak, the reish being the only letter that can stand on its own in any conjugation, so words tend to get confused for letters disappearing in the conjugation. Add to that the letter yud (Y) is used for the future tense and things get confusing fast.
Such confusion has led some language theorists to believe there was a proto-Hebrew with a two letter system. Many of these semi vowels and weak gutturals which present problems pronouncing were themselves modifiers of the biliteral root. This allows for a certain amount of word play. Rabbi Akiba once quipped an interesting lesson on marriage doing this. The word for man in Hebrew is spelled Aleph-Yud-Shin (ish) and woman Aleph-Shin-Hay (ishah). If one were to remove God (Y and H as a god name) from the relationship, all that is left is fire Aleph-Shin (aish).
Last night, I had an odd thought staring off into space towards a painting I did of Akiba’s commentary. I realized that Y and H surround the root Reish-Aleph in the words fear/awe and see. Is there a connection there?
I believe there is. We read in Proverbs:
5. A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain to wise counsels; 6. To understand a proverb, and a figure; the words of the wise, and their riddles. 7. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; but fools despise wisdom and instruction. [Proverbs 1]

8. Reprove not a scorner, lest he hate you; rebuke a wise man, and he will love you. 9. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser; teach a just man, and he will increase in learning. 10. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; and the knowledge of holy matters is understanding. [Proverbs 9]

Proverbs also tells us about scorners:
24. The proud and haughty, scorner is his name, acts in arrogant wrath. [Proverbs 23]

To learn we must perceive, we must see what the world is like. There are two ways of learning: One where we continue to support our own conclusions by finding new evidence that we are right and one where we delve into the unknown. One requires arrogance, one requires humility. IN the first of many paradoxes we must learn, whoever looks at the world and realizes how small he really is and how little he really knows is the wise one, a deep sense of humility about learning. The beginning of such wisdom is the fear of the Lord, knowing how great and vast God is compared to us, looking at the world and seeing more than can ever be explained rationally.
We can learn from God, and God is always teaching us, and telling us the path to walk. Is the phrase to “walk in his ways” different than “to keep his commandments?” I think so. One might think it is the difference between mitzvot and ethics, as did the early Reform Movement. Yet I think it is two aspects of God reflecting on ourselves. There is the God who personally and directly, yet subtly affects each of our lives every day, telling us how to live our lives in subtle ways. There is also the God who is far away and has left us a set of rules to follow with our free will for all time. God is so vast, infinite and omnipotent that both are true simultaneously. The scorner can only arrogantly believe his one model to be true and never understands this. To realize how terribly little one knows is a terrifying thought. Hence the Fear and the Awe, a fear so great the scorner scorns it, replacing God with his neat little illusion of a world.
Models are never the same as a real thing. A plastic model airplane of a 747 might look like a real airplane, but it will not fly. Another model airplane such as a cheap balsawood model might fly, but look nothing like a real passenger jet. Both are too small for human passengers. Like the passengers on a model airplane, for the scorner there is one thing they always leave out of the details of their models, because that too is rather scary: Ahavat Hashem, the love of God. They might intellectualize it, but they’ll avoid feeling it, for to feel it is to do the other thing true lovers do: love back equally. Such a love of God takes many forms from a deep emotionally spiritual state to our adherence to the mitzvot as love notes to God. For one who has a view of the world with limits and boundaries, such a world must be frightening. Even to the wise such a world is frightening, but in the acknowledgment of not knowing and the joy of learning, the wise embraces instead of rejecting the Divine, with all his heart, soul and might.
When one clings to God with Ahavat Hashem, the world changes and the hand of God is everywhere, Message abound in signs found in the everyday. A red flower on a billboard might contain a message about your future. A random song on the radio or a bird might help you with a decision. A freak thunderstorm might be trying to tell you something. They, as is every human being, plant animal and rock are part of God. As such the hand of an infinite, transcendent, yet personal God in way we cannot comprehend plays out messages to us in our lives, maybe in dreams events and omens. All we need to do is trust and love God, then observe. They will be there.
I spent ten years of my life as a “scorner,” or so I thought. It turns out the opposite was true. I went east into Taoism and Zen because my Ahavat Hashem could not be fulfilled by an institutional Judaism which was more about rules than Ahavat Hashem. I was told what Yirat HaShem, the fear of God was by teachers and Rabbis, and it was a very limited model based not on Divine existence but the most childish form of human experience: a parent scolding a naughty child. Yet in returning I have learned that Yirat Hashem is the beginning of wisdom, realizing how awesome God is and how much I have yet to learn, more than I ever will. In that knowledge is Yirat Hashem and Ahavat Hashem, for they really are the same thing.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

V’ethanan 5768: Six Little Words, One Big Idea

This Shabbat is also known as Shabbat Nahamu, the Sabbath of comfort, whose name is taken from the Beginning of this week’s Haftarah portion.

1. Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.

2. Speak comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry to her, that her fighting is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. [Is 40:1-2]

This Shabbat always happens the Shabbat after Tisha B’Av. I quoted a story last week which works as a great metaphor for Tisha B’Av:

R. Ashi made a marriage feast for his son. He saw that the Rabbis were growing very merry, so he brought a cup of white crystal and broke it before them and they became serious. [Brachot 30b-31a]

Our world is shattered on the Ninth of Av, much like the crystal goblet. We are all in pieces. Yet in the theme of comfort there are six little words

Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad!

4. Hear, O Israel; The Lord is our God the Lord is One! [Deut 6:4]

When our souls are still recovering from being in a thousand broken pieces, were are told that God is One. The Socino translation gives a common version that this means one god, a statement of monotheism. In a more mystical and universal bent, I take this as more than that. God is a unity of all things. God is transcendent – God is Life, the Universe and Everything – and then some. Shattering a glass seems to be a loss, yet in the unity of the ONE there is no such thing as loss or gain, just change. It was not a complete catastrophe on the Ninth of Av. Things will regenerate says the prophet Isaiah in the Haftarah.

But what do we do to get to such regeneration? How do we do it? Deuteronomy continues:

5. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6. And these words, which I command you this day, shall be in your heart; 7. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. 8. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. [Deuteronomy 6:5-8]

This is such a profound idea we must keep it close to us and not only think of it intellectually, but live it. Abraham Joshua Heschel, in Quest for God writes:

He who loves with all his heart with all his soul with all his might does not love symbolically…When a person is appointed honorary president or honorary secretary of an organization he is serving symbolically and is not required to carry out any functions. Yet there are others who actually serve an organization or a cause.

What was it that the prophets sought to achieve? To purge the minds of the notion that God desired symbols. The service of God is an extremely concrete, and extremely real, literal and factual affair. We do not have to employ symbols to make Him understand what we mean. We worship Him not by employing figures of speech but by shaping our actual lives according to His pattern. [Heschel 1954, 132]

The Shema is not a symbolic thing but something that is to be lived, to be done. The Torah requires us to recite these words twice a day in all of our being, heart soul and might. This means we are required to recite them with deep concentration according to the Talmud:

Our Rabbis taught: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Up to this point concentration is required. So says R. Meir. Raba said: The halacha is as stated by R. Meir. [Brachot 13b]

To say the words Hear Oh Israel we must do so with an incredible sense of attention, one the Talmud literally calls Kavvanat Ha- Lev, an intention of the heart. The rabbis spend much of the second chapter of the Talmud Tractate Brachot discussing this issue of Intention. The Mishnah that starts this section reads:

If one was reading in the Torah [the section of the Shema’] when the time for its recital arrived, if he had the intention he has performed his obligation. [Brachot 13a]

This seems like an odd occurrence, how often does one happen to be reading Deuteronomy 6 at the time one is supposed to be praying? But the Mishnah is here making an important distinction. Reading something and giving something attention with intention are two different things according to the rabbis. There are two Hebrew terms used to distinguish between these two: Keva, the regular structure of the prayer, and Kavvanah the intention of prayer. Abraham Joshua Heschel described the problem with these two:

THERE IS a specific difficulty of Jewish prayer. There are laws: how to pray, when to pray, what to pray. There are fixed times, fixed ways, fixed texts. On the other hand, prayer is worship of the heart, the outpouring of the soul, a matter of devotion. Thus, Jewish prayer is guided by two opposite principles: order and outburst, regularity and spontaneity, uni­formity and individuality, law and freedom. These principles are the two poles about which Jewish prayer revolves. Since each of the two moves in the opposite direction, equilibrium can be maintained only if both are of equal force, However, the pole of regularity usually proves to be stronger than the pole of spontaneity, and as a result, there is a perpetual danger of prayer becoming a mere habit, a mechanical performance, an exercise in repetitiousness. The fixed pattern and regularity of our services tends to stifle the spontaneity of devotion. Our great problem, therefore, is how not to let the principle of regularity impair the power of devotion. [Heschel 1953]

Prayer need both. Without the regularity and structural support of keva we soon lose energy to pray spontaneously, and stop praying. The uniformity of Jewish prayer, the prayers we find in the prayerbook, is the Keva. The personal passion that we pray with is the kavvanah. The keva of six words is rather simple; it is the kavvanah of those words which the rabbis of the Talmud were insistent concerning the Shema.

Yet even they had problems defining what that intention should be:

Our Rabbis taught: The Shema’ must be recited as it is written. [i.e. in Hebrew] So Rabbi. The Sages, however, say that it may be recited in any language. What is Rabbi's reason? — Scripture says: and they shall be, implying, as they are they shall remain. What is the reason of the Rabbis? — Scripture says ‘hear’, implying, in any language that you understand. [Brachot 13a]

Such debates of course continue about what language the prayers should be written in, and the same two positions remain. The thing about Kavvanah is that it is personal. There is no right answer for a congregation. When the answer becomes a congregational answer or a movement’s answer, it is no longer Kavvanah but Keva. Rabbi and the Sages debate other points as well, such as should things be said out loud or silently. But most interesting is the idea of greeting someone while saying the Shema. One must pray with enough attention that under normal circumstance while reading, you will not greet anyone. If there is a danger or there is the need to greet someone due to the high amount of respect afforded that person, then one may stop reading. But only between paragraphs can some stop and greet someone.

While rabbis could argue at this incessantly, the question remains how do we as individuals find our own sense of Kavvanah? How do we in a sense connect spiritually and with intention? Many of the traditions, such as not only closing your eyes, but shield your eyes with your hand, are traditions which are there as ways of enhancing our own way of finding intention. But there are some things that are more personal. When the kavvanah is right for a person it is something that they never forget.

Shlomo Carlebach in his early years purportedly “raided” Hindu ashrams looking for wayward Jews to return to their birth faith. Often he would sing the Shema in the middle of the ashram, and noted who looked up. Most Jews who leave Judaism for Buddhism, Taoism, Zen, and even the odd label Spiritual but not religious don’t forget the Shema. Indeed many I believe leave because as Heschel pointed out, the Keva got in the way of the kavvanah. They are looking East or elsewhere for the Judaism of the Shema, which was lost in the Keva of the modern synagogue service.

So what is the proper Kavvanah for the Shema? This is one of those posts where I have no answer. I know what works for me, but that might not necessarily work for you. It’s nice, however to share ideas, to find out how someone else thinks about how to do the liberating spontaneous Kavvanah. This works better in discussion, and that discussion I will have in my Torah Study session during Kahal services at Beth Emet in Evanston this Saturday. You are welcome to attend.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Devarim/ Tish B’Av 5768: These are the Words

This week we begin the book of Deuteronomy, which is sometimes called the Mishneh Torah, or repetition of the Torah, as described by Moses. Instead of Cliff's notes, Deuteronomy is Moses' Notes of the Torah. We are at the Jordan, across from Jericho. Deuteronomy is also Moses' last address before his death. In this week's portion, Moses summarizes the journey from Egypt to this point. Interestingly he mentions the episode of the spies in more detail than the rest. While some of those details differ from what was written in the book of Numbers two things are significantly similiar:

26. However you would not go up, but rebelled against the commandment of the Lord your God; 27. And you murmured in your tents, and said, Because the Lord hated us, he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us. 28. Where shall we go? our brothers have discouraged our heart, saying, The people are greater and taller than we; the cities are great and fortified up to heaven; and moreover we have seen the sons of the Anakim there.

The people’s murmuring is the same as Numbers'. The second part that is the same is God’s final reaction, though adding an interesting detail:

34. And the Lord heard the voice of your words, and was angry, and swore, saying, 35. Surely there shall not one of these men of this evil generation see that good land, which I swore to give to your fathers, 36. Save Caleb the son of Jephunneh; he shall see it, and to him will I give the land that he has trodden upon, and to his children, because he has wholly followed the Lord. 37. Also the Lord was angry with me for your sakes, saying, You also shall not go in there.

According to his text it is the incident of the spies which causes Moses not to enter the Promised Land, not the striking of the rock. But according to Numbers Rabbah, Moses and the people not entering the Land was only the first round of punishment.

This alludes to the punishment which you received as a heritage for future generations. For Israel had wept on the night of the ninth of Ab, and the Holy One, blessed be He, had said to them: ‘You have wept a causeless weeping before Me. I shall therefore fix for you a permanent weeping for future generations.’ At that hour it was decreed that the Temple should be destroyed and that Israel should be exiled among the nations.[Numbers R. XVI:20]

The Midrash gives as its proof text Psalm 106:24-27

24. And they despised the pleasant land, they did not believe his word;
25. And they murmured in their tents, and did not listen to the voice of the Lord.
26. And he lifted up his hand against them, to make them fall in the wilderness;
27. And to make their seed fall among the nations, and to scatter them in the lands.

While our texts in Deuteronomy and Numbers explain verse 26 as a punishment, it does not explain verse 27, which does not happen until the time of the destruction of the Temple. Therefore, according to the Sages this must refer to the Ninth of Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the First and Second temples, and a whole slew of bad events for the Jews.

With precision set by the Sages’ calculations for the calendar, of The Ninth of Av always occurs after this week’s Portion is read for Shabbat. This year it occurs immediately on the heels of Shabbat. Sitting in the dark, reading Lamentations Saturday Night I’ll think a lot about the story that supposedly caused the destruction of the second temple, the story about a man named Bar Kamza [Gittin 55b]. A simple mistake in party invitations brought an enemy instead of a friend to a party. Because the host threw this man bar Kamza out of the party after seemingly inviting him, Jerusalem and the temple was destroyed. The host of the party feared Bar Kamza would talk about their why they were enemies. But Bar Kamza was hurt by the words of the host’s refusal. As the Talmud continues It has been taught: Note from this incident how serious a thing it is to put a man to shame, for God espoused the cause of Bar Kamza and destroyed His House and burnt His Temple. [Gittin 57b] An exchange of words destroyed the Temple.

Our portion this week is the word for words in Hebrew, Devarim. Words can be building blocks or forces for destruction. We can use constructive words to be constructive. We could do the opposite and say something destructive bringing a destructive outcome. But one does not follow the other. There are cases where we may say something constructive but its outcome is destructive because of miscommunication or conflicting agendas. Finally there are cases where we say something destructive to bring about a constructive result. This last case we know as rebukes. Much of Deuteronomy is a verbal rebuke by Moses to the Israelites, and this portion is particularly stinging as Moses enumerates the many failures of the Israelites in the wilderness, in the hope that when Moses is gone, they will not make the same mistakes again. Yet rebukes are not something one can do casually. They need to carry a sense of authority and creditability with them. The rabbis in the first chapter of Deuteronomy Rabbah give multiple explanations of the beginning to Deuteronomy. All of them are about the rebuke, and how to do it right. In several places Moses is compared to Balaam. If, according to this comparison, someone’s reputation and behavior is usually the opposite of their communication it helps the veracity of the statement. Balaam blessing instead of cursing the people lends credence to the blessing. Moses’ rebuke to the people is from a man who saved that people from God’s anger on multiple occasions. Secondly, a rebuke from an honest man carries more credence than a hypocrite. Moses was the most honest of men, one who did not take even a donkey from the people. This lends creditability compared to someone who broke the rules himself. It isn’t easy for everyone to rebuke. Do it wrong and you hurt someone. The party’s host and Bar Kamza show that to the extreme.

What the rabbis don’t talk about rebuking is one other way of showing authority and changing people’s behaviors. There are people who used to do a certain thing, say robbery, and then learned it was a bad thing to do. So they repent, stop doing it and start doing good. They know this sin or transgression well, but can show from the insider’s perspective how wrong it is to do from the knowledge of their own experience. Some can go to other robbers, talk in the language and experience of robbers and convince robbers to stop robbing. Such people are in a very literal sense masters of repentance. They are not only ones who can repent, but one who can get others to repent not by rebuke but by sharing their story.

But what gets the robber to make such a realization to change into such a master? There are two parallel stories which I tend to think of in this respect, the source of a venerated Jewish tradition:

Mar the son of Rabina made a marriage feast for his son. He saw that the Rabbis were growing very merry , so he brought a precious cup worth four hundred zuz and broke it before them, and they became serious. R. Ashi made a marriage feast for his son. He saw that the Rabbis were growing very merry, so he brought a cup of white crystal and broke it before them and they became serious. [Brachot 30b-31a]

The shattering event of something valuable gets people’s attention and they look at the world differently instantly. Such acts could be of destruction, as in these cases. Yet such acts, verbal and non-verbal can backfire. R. Ashi’s attempt to make his students serious at a wedding is now the sign to start the party at any Jewish wedding: the breaking of the glass by the groom.

One of the saddest kinds of backfiring of all is the one that is not even paid attention to. Outside of Orthodoxy, the 9th of Av is not observed by most Jews, let alone known. Tisha B’Av’s function may be very well set on the calendar not for the wimpy murmurs of the Israelites in desert, but as a precious shattered glass. It is the start of the season of repentance. We have only a few weeks to prepare ourselves for the High holidays. Like the robber who might have gotten caught or shot as his defining moment to give up his illicit profession, the completely depressing day known as the 9th of Av is that crystal-breaking moment when we realize we need to take stock and begin the cycle of repentance that will lead to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is not a punishment at all, but a chance for redemption.

Moses rebukes in the weekly portion. The Jewish world is shattered on the 9th of Av. In the broken pieces, we begin the process of re-building through our repentance and the ability to help others by sharing our story of what we did wrong and how to do it right. That rebuild is not easy and is often a seemingly lonely process. Next week, in response, we are given a little help in six little words.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Parshat Masei 5768: The Last Commandment.

This is the last portion of the book of Numbers. In this week’s portion we start with a summary of all the places the Israelites visited during the journey. God then gives Moses the boundaries of the territory of Israel. Moses appoints representatives for each tribe to receive the lots. Levi, who has no land, is given forty eight cities, of which six are cities for refuge in the case of accidental homicide. The procedures for the case of accidental homicide and the legal procedure for homicide cases are enumerated. Finally, the tribe of Manasseh has an objection to the ruling made for some of their own tribe, the five daughters of Zelophehad.

3. And if they are married to any of the sons of the other tribes of the people of Israel, then shall their inheritance be taken from the inheritance of our fathers, and shall be given to the inheritance of the tribe where they are received; so shall it be taken from the lot of our inheritance. 4. And when the jubilee of the people of Israel shall be, then shall their inheritance be given to the inheritance of the tribe where they are received; so shall their inheritance be taken away from the inheritance of the tribe of our fathers. [Num 36:3-4]

The daughters had made an objection earlier that as their father died before having sons, and the inheritance chain was through sons, then the daughters would lose the inheritance of their father. The resolution was to allow in the case of a father who had no sons but did have daughters to let the daughters inherit. The elders of Gilead, relatives of the Daughters have brought this objection because such a system presents the problem of diluting the family and tribal holdings.

The resolution to this objection is rather simple:

5. And Moses commanded the people of Israel according to the word of the Lord, saying, the tribe of the sons of Joseph has said well… 8. So every daughter, who possesses an inheritance in any tribe of the people of Israel, shall be the wife to one of the family of the tribe of her father, that the people of Israel may enjoy every one the inheritance of his fathers. 9. Neither shall the inheritance move from one tribe to another tribe; but every one of the tribes of the people of Israel shall keep himself to his own inheritance.

With this commandment and the daughters of Zelophehad’s compliance with this mitzvah, we end the book of Numbers with a concluding statement.

13. These are the commandments and the judgments, which the Lord commanded by the hand of Moses to the people of Israel in the plains of Moab by the Jordan near Jericho.[Numbers 36:13]

Thus the commandment for daughter who inherit to marry within their tribe is the last commandment. This last commandment in the book of Number is remarkable in many ways. It contains a rather curious expression Moses commanded the people of Israel according to the word of the Lord.

Part of the curiosity is the rare forms of commanding used here, and only in this sequence in this verse. Moses, not God, first of all is doing the commanding. He is doing this commanding by the word of the lord, which is literally by the mouth of the Lord.

By the Mouth of the Lord is rare except for the book of Numbers. In Hebrew it is usually part of the expression al pi Hashem b’yad Moshe. Literally it means by the mouth of the Lord by the hand of Moses. It’s literal connotation is the dictation of the Torah, God spoke and Moses used his hands to write it down. It may also mean God gave a commandment and Moses executed it. One such use is the counting of the tribes at the beginning of the journey, but there it is often accompanied by another phrase: as God commanded. But in the last commandment, it’s not God doing the commanding, but Moses. One way of understanding this is a comment by the Talmudic sages:

Our Rabbis have taught…‘By the hand of Moses’ refers to the Gemara. I might include also the Mishnah; therefore it reads ‘that ye may teach’. [K'rithoth 13b]

By the hand of Moses means the Oral law, but a very specific one. The classic statement of the oral law is found in the Perkei Avot:

Moses received the 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. [Avot 1:1]

According to tradition, this was an oral transmission of the stuff that explained the details of the written Torah. After the destruction of the Temple, it was compiled into the book we refer to as the Mishnah. A work expanding on the Mishnah with both new rulings to reflect new living patterns, explanations for the rules of the Mishnah, and a lot of stories for illustrative purposes became known in Aramaic as the Gemara. The Gemara along with the Mishnah is the work we refer to today as the Talmud.

This was not the first time Moses commanded something. Back in Exodus we read:

4. And all the wise men, that did all the work of the sanctuary, came every man from his work which they made; 5. And they spoke to Moses, saying, The people bring much more than enough for the service of the work, which the Lord commanded to make. 6. And Moses gave commandment, and they caused it to be proclaimed throughout the camp, saying, Let neither man nor woman do any more work for the offering of the sanctuary. So the people were restrained from bringing. [Exodus 36:4-6]

Moses stops the donations of materials to the Mishkan. He evaluated the situation by himself and came to a ruling. The stopping of the Mishkan donations and the last commandment, though backed by the word of God, was a judgment of Moses, not the direct commandment of God. It was Gemara: human and not divine derived rules to live by.

The last commandment was also the result of an objection to an objection. It could have been just as easy to blindly obey the original rule. But neither the daughters nor the elders of Gilead did. They saw a legitimate problem in the commandments, and brought it up for discussion. One solution led to another problem, and then that problem has to be resolved. This became the pattern of rabbinic thought. Once again look at the rhetoric used in the rabbinic statement:

Our Rabbis have taught…‘By the hand of Moses’ refers to the Gemara. I might include also the Mishnah, therefore it reads ‘that ye may teach’. [K'rithoth 13b]

The rabbis qualify themselves due to a possible objection that “by the hand of Moses” includes both parts of the Talmud, Mishnah and Gemara. They state that a proof text qualifies this and excludes the Mishnah. This passage is actually part of a bigger argument about whether one should study teach, or make rulings in the Law while intoxicated, and as such was part of a much bigger objection and question. That was part of a bigger objection itself and so on.

The last commandment was not as significant in its content but in its process. It is the idea behind rabbinic thinking: everything you need to know is in the Torah, yet some things are not written down. There will be times where things contradict or cause problems with the text. It is our duty as to question them, take from the ancestral sources and resolve the problem. Such thinking expands the texts and reveals new ideas which can be added to the body of thought. It is that thinking more than anything else that has kept the Jewish people alive to the present day.

For the book of B’midbar we have been looking at the text in terms of internal change from being in a place of slavery to getting to some personal goal or accomplishment in ourselves, we looked at the resistance that can occur to such goals and in the last few parshiot, how we need to prepare for the Promised Land. Some comments to me describe this process as a transformation from child to adult, which I find very wise and true. The last thing we need to learn is that the world is not static, but dynamic. Things change and our rules and boundaries will need to change with them. Moses and the miracles of God in the wilderness, what we might call parental support and protection, are not coming with us. We have to think on our feet like adults. We need to understand a process to make such changes. The last commandment, the last oral one, in B’midbar does exactly that. Things will change and there will exceptions and exceptions to exceptions. When necessary, change them in the spirit of the texts that came before you.

We do not enter the Promised Land in the Torah nor in the book of Numbers. We are lead to the banks and have a short crossing over yet to do. The land has yet to be fought for, as we will learn in Joshua, and starting with Judges all the way through the rest of the prophets, there is always a fight against idolatry among the people. The last commandment may be fighting Idolatry too or more accurately, Idle-atry. Part of the problem of Idolatry is one does not have the chance to grow and change, as all is in the hands of a capricious god. There is no incentive or even concept to do so. Progress is an alien concept to the pagan. Learning is meaningless. Learning’s use to create something new to adapt to changing conditions is meaningless too because nothing changes in their world view. But we must learn, as the law must be derived from the precedents of our ancestors, our true inheritance. It should not be derived from not our own emotional whims nor the emotional and manipulative arguments of outsiders.

We have come to the end of the journey, only to find that it never ends, just starts new chapters, and new books. Now we have the tools to take on those adventures.