Friday, July 31, 2009

Vethanan 5769: Sweetie and the Shema

The Shema has changed this year.

If you were to ask anyone who knows what the Shema is, they would probably think such a statement is ridiculous. But it has changed. Along with the Ten Commandments The Shema is prominent in this weeks Torah Portion:

4. Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord; 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. 9. And you shall write them upon the posts of your house, and on your gates.[Deuteronomy 6]

One morning this week, while filling out a survey about Jewish leadership, I thought of that. One of the question was about moments when your Jewish life changed. As I've written before, While in Rome in July 1995 I had a dream, and the dream had a lot to do with the Shema. A bearded rabbi told me to fresco the words above in Hebrew on the walls of a blank room. When I was halfway done, the letters spun around me up into the sky. It was then I started to my journey back to Judaism.

Before the Dream, the Shema was another route prayer I had to learn. Given its fundamental nature in Jewish thought and liturgy, Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is in any Jewish prayer book you pick up. The problem with the Judaism I grew up in was the hypocrisy of people practicing. The Shema was said cold and emotionless as a robot by the students in my Orthodox Hebrew School I used to prepare for my Bar Mitzvah. Congregations would say it, but would rarely actually take the words of education and practice to heart. While it buried itself in my psyche, it had little meaning. So I went looking else where, mostly in Taoism for spiritual meaning.

The dream changed my thoughts about the Shema, and thus changed the Shema. It was no longer a mere set of rote Hebrew words I could recite without reading. It was something else. The Shema, for lack of a better word, lived. There was something more to teaching and reciting and putting on tefillin and putting up mezuzot. There was deeper meaning to these words.

In the ensuing years I would learn Hebrew and begin to recite the Shema at least twice a day. The first minyan I would attend as an adult taught me to chant the Shema, and I saw even more possibilities. But time and circumstance once again changed the Shema. I was also in grad school for my Master's in Jewish Studies, and in doing too much I lost the Shema, and stopped reciting it every day.

Then this year, something happened, and the Shema changed again. With Sweetie in my life, the Shema has returned. We are diligent in our observance of "talk of them...when you lie down" and as part of our own goodnight ritual, making God a part of it as well. We are still in a distance relationship for a few more days, but for many months in cities over a thousand miles apart on our nightly phone calls to each other, we end with the Shema, and then say good night to each other. We just begun a ritual to find a way to say it together every morning as well.

As we got closer to living under the same roof, Sweetie, who is not yet Jewish, asked me a question that was to floor me. She asked that since we would have more doorposts once we moved in together, could we shop for a mezuzah together? We're still trying to find the one we want on our bedroom door, since all the cute ones seem to be missing the letter Shin on them required by Halakah. We both insist on it being prominent. But when we put up my apartment Mezuzah on our new home's front doorpost, I cried. While I expected to find a mate, I never expected one who would share the Shema and its mitzvot quite like this.

There is wonderful midrash about the words for man and woman by Rabbi Akiba. Ish, the word for man is spelled Aleph-Yud-Shin (איש). The word for Woman is Isha, spelled Aleph Shin Hei (אשה). Take away God in the Yud and the Hei of God's name and you are left only with Aleph-Shin (אש) Aish, Fire. There always needs to be a spiritual component in every relationship. Sweetie and I get that every day in our joint recitation.

The Shema changed. When I once said, "God is one" I thought it an obvious statement of monotheism. When we now say "God is one" Sweetie and I are one, for God is part of both of us. May it be the will of Hashem for many years to come that every night before I turn off the light, Sweetie and I will look into each others eyes and say "Shema Yisrael..."

Friday, July 24, 2009

Dvarim Second Chances.

This week we begin the book of Deuteronomy, described by some as Moses’ last words to the people before his death, and by some as at the Mishneh Torah the repetition of the entire Torah. Indeed much of this week’s portion reviews events from the book of Numbers.
In the book of Numbers there is a curious ruling. In Numbers 9:10-12 If someone cannot make the Passover sacrifice due to being defiled or too far away from a place to make a sacrifice, a month later, when they are now able to make that sacrifice, they do. They get a second chance.
As I wrote in Shlach Lecha 5769, I just passed my 30 anniversary of my bar mitzvah. For a lot of reasons, I was unable to do what I wanted to do to commemorate thirty years of personal responsibility for the mitzvot. My wish was to lead a Torah discussion in my Shabbat minyan. This week, Moses retells the story of the spies which makes up the bulk of Shlach Lecha. So it was with a bit of surprise and delight when I found out not only was Deuteronomy open to lead discussion, but our organizer of those discussions was desperate for someone to fill the spot. Slightly more than month later, I got a second chance.
While Deuteronomy repeats the Mitzvot and events of the Exodus from Egypt, it does not have a carbon copy. In next week’s reading we will read a different set of Ten Commandments. Exodus 20 for example commands to remember the Sabbath day, while Deuteronomy 5 commands to observe it. Similarly the setup for why the spies enter the land is different, if not contradictory.
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]

But Deuteronomy reads:
22. And you came near me every one of you, and said, We will send men before us, and they shall search us out the land, and bring us word again by which way we must go up, and to what cities we shall come. 23. And the saying pleased me well; and I took twelve men of you, one from each tribe; [Deuteronomy 1]
Numbers Rabbah XVI:7 does give a way of reconciling both texts. The people wanted to send the spies but God was reluctant, believing that the promise was good enough. God finally agrees and thus we start with God commanding to send spies into Israel. When the spies bring back a bad report the people begin to murmur and cry in their tents.
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. [Deut 1]
The Midrash then makes a rather startling statement:
For Israel had wept on the night of the Ninth of Av, 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; [Num R XVI:20]
Both temples were destroyed on the 9th of Av. The Expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 to Treblinka ovens lit for the first time, bad things happen on the 9th of Av. It is a day of sorrow where we read the book of Lamentations. Interestingly, the 9th of Av always occurs after this Shabbat reading, which the rabbis at least linked to the incident of the spies and the causeless whining of the people. It is clear that the Torah cycle is set up to read next week’s portion after the 9th of Av as the Sabbath of Comfort, with the Shema and Ten commandments read as consolation for that horrible day. Parshat Devarim and its stories may well be set here in that cycle to bring warning and a hint before the 9th.
For many moderns, the 9th of Av is rejected as a date in the Jewish calendar, and rarely commemorated. In their minds it speaks to a god who is heartless and cruel, a god who would say, as in the Midrash “I’ll give you something to cry about.” Yet, in my mind, the 9th of Av can be thought of as a second chance, and in that it is a blessing. Sometimes it is only in remembering tragedy, in some shock to the system that we wake up and realize what we are doing wrong. It should not be surprising therefore that the 9th of Av also marks the time where we begin to prepare for the High Holiday season. The repentance we do then starts with the soul searching of what we are doing wrong.
The Hasidic Master Levi Yitzchak or Berdichev went to bed every night thinking of all the mistakes he made. HE would then promise to correct them the next day, and then scold himself out loud “that’s what you said yesterday!!!” “I’ll try harder!!!” he would reply to himself. How much is that every one of us, except unlike Levi Yitzchak we don’t bother to admit our faults? Instead our faults become habitual and normative. We can be told what we are doing wrong or even understand but often we don’t listen, much like the people didn’t listen to the prophets.
Deuteronomy itself may have been a prophet too. In II Kings 22 there is the story of a discovery of an unknown Torah scroll in the Temple, which gives such a dire warning itself. Many scholars do believe that lost scroll was Deuteronomy. Given the differences in the stories, grammar, and tone some believe it was not written by Moses but by the scribes of King Josiah in order to substantiate his reforms and enforce centralized worship in Jerusalem. If written by the hand of Moses or a conspiracy of Josiah’s court, the content is the same. Bad thing are coming unless you change – it is your choice.
I’ve been given some incredible second chances in my life. But I wonder about this portion and the idea of a second chance. So I’ve been contemplating some questions to which I don’t have any definite answers.
I believe this portion, and indeed the rest of Deuteronomy is about getting another chance. But more to the point it is about those who don’t take second chances properly. My problem is I don’t know how to connect the dots. I found questions that hint at an answer, but not the answers.
  • Why some of the content change in Deuteronomy? In particular why did the episode of the spies change in Josiah’s time. What was the point? If it was written by Moses, a participant in the event, why did he change the story? Or was it like the rabbis said two parts of a bigger story?
  • Is there such a thing as second chances?
  • What brings about second chances?
  • Did the Israelites of Numbers get a second chance?
  • If all that generation is dead, why does Moses keep saying “you?”
  • Is the 9th of Av really a call for another chance?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Mattot-Masei 5769: Tzelofchad's Daughters Strike Back

This week's column is a reprint from 2005. Moving has me a little bit behind in writing.

Reading this week's portion something bothers me. After about my fourth or fifth reading a word popped into my head of what was bothering me: Misogynist. This didn't seem not a complementary section for women. First, women are told that men are bound by their vows, but the vow of a woman may be overturn by the man who has power over her, such as father or husband. Secondly, the non-virgins of the Moabites were executed, but the virgins were made captives, for the "use" of the army. The last slight was a little subtler. While two tribes Gad and Rueben ask about staying on that side of the Jordan, three are granted land by Moses. The third, is a part of Menasseh.This quite coincidentally, happens to be the same part of Menasseh the Daughters of Tzlofchad belong to. For those who remember last week, these are the same women who stumped Moses in halakic debate, and even got a compliment out of God. One has to ask, was Moses trying to keep these women away from everyone else?

It's this last question which finally caught my interest. What did happen with the daughters of Tzlofchad?
1. And the chief fathers of the families of the sons of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of the sons of Joseph, came near, and spoke before Moses, and before the princes, the chief fathers of the people of Israel; 2. And they said, The Lord commanded my lord to give the land for an inheritance by lot to the people of Israel; and my lord was commanded by the Lord to give the inheritance of Tzlofchad our brother to his daughters. 3. 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. So 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. (Numbers 36:1-4)

This problem with inheritance is solved with the strictest ban on intermarriage: In the case a daughter inherits, then she must marry from within her own tribe only. The daughters do follow this, and marry their cousins. But note in our section

39. And the sons of Machir the son of Manasseh went to Gilead, and took it, and dispossessed the Amorite who was in it. 40. And Moses gave Gilead to Machir the son of Manasseh; and he lived in it.(Numbers 32:39-40)
Back in Numbers 27:1, the daughters were described as
Then came the daughters of Tzlofchad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph; and these are the names of his daughters; Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah.

Thus to bring the point so far, the daughters were not allowed to enter and live in the land of Israel. Their portion was apportioned on the east side of the Jordan, decided for them by Moses and their kinsmen, the sons of Machir, for taking the city of Gilead. They must live only there as they must marry within their own tribe, so living in Israel as a wife in another tribe was out of the question. Until the land was conquered, they were also locked up in fortified cities. If you wanted to keep the smart girls as far away from the action as possible, one couldn't come up with a better plan.
Oddly enough, there is another who is finding the same fate, but with a shorter ending. This week, God notes to Moses that its time to die, implying he will not set foot in the land of Israel. But very much unlike Moses the daughters do make their way into the land despite everyone's best efforts to keep them out. We have in the text two possibilities for them to enter the land.
The first is a legal loophole. Only half of the land of Menasseh was to be Transjordan, the other half was to be in the land of Israel. Even if their inheritance were apportioned in Transjordan, they could marry family from Israel, and enter through marriage. Then there is the biblical story in Joshua, where these women show their stuff. In the time of Joshua, the daughters come in front of Joshua and demand their inheritance, not from Gilead but from the land of Israel, recalling that God through Moses promised them a portion. (Joshua 17:3-6) Joshua gives each a portion of the land, along with five male descendants of Menasseh of their grandfather's generation, for a total of ten portions in the land for Menasseh.
At least in this last bit of this week's rather misogynist portion we see some empowered women. One of the daughters, Tirzah will have a city named after her, at one point the capitol of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. In the Song of Songs, Tirzah is also mentioned as the city in the Song of Songs 6:4-5
Beautiful one, you are like Tirzah comely as Jerusalem .
Awesome to behold
Turn your eyes from before me.
They make me tremble
Your hair is like a mighty flock
Which are bounding down Gilead

Even in Midrash Rabbah VI: 14 to the Song of Songs the rabbis praise the women of the wilderness:
THOU ART BEAUTIFUL, O MY BELOVED, AS TIRZAH: this refers to the women of the generation of the wilderness, for Rabbi said: The women of the wilderness were virtuous and made up their minds not to give their rings for the calf. They said: ‘If the Holy One, blessed be He, could break the hard idols, how much more so the soft one! COMELY AS JERUSALEM: because whoever was looking for likenesses of Peor could find them in Jerusalem, as it says, Whose graven images did exceed them of Jerusalem and of Samaria (Isa. X, 10)

The women of the wilderness refused to worship the stone idols of Egypt, and saw what God did to the Egyptian gods. They realized the God would find toppling the soft gold idol of the calf easy. In later times, The women of Jerusalem, once again resist what the men cannot, Baal-Peor, the god of the people of Moab, the people destroyed this week over the same god. There are always righteous women who don’t fall to idolatry. Not only that, but as the verse 5 of the Song of Songs notes, the daughters are the mighty flock descending from Gilead, into Israel. They reject living in Gilead, on the sidelines. Their eyes are intense on their prize, enough to make others cringe. If there is one thing to pull from the text this week, it’s the will and righteousness of these women, who stood up for what God promised them, and never took second best, like some of their kinsmen. We look into their story, spread out in small piece throughout the biblical text, and their fight for their portion of land, even when others would restrict their rights.

Interspersed with the story of Tzelofchad's daughters in Torah, is the seduction of the men of Israel by the unrighteous women, the seductresses of Baal-Peor. I wonder if they might be intentionally in contrast to one another. Righteousness, strength, determination and Law, even in the most extreme conditions are what is to be praised, not idolatry and seduction. Both women and men have a choice in life, which of these paths to follow. Tzelofchad's daughters are there to point us in the right direction.

Pinchas 5769: Throwing out the trash

Yes folks, I know I'm still a week behind. I'll be posting an old posting for this week shortly, and will have a new piece for D'varim. --Shlomo

In the wake of the Baal-Peor incident, Pinchas is promised the job of high priest.
11. Pinchas, 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. [Numbers 25]

Pinchas as it may be remembered stopped a plague that was killing the people because of their straying from God and worshipping Baal-Peor. His solution was pointed: a well known man, Zimri, a prince of the tribe of Simon, was doing rather obscene things in front of the Mishkan with a Midianite princess, while some were crying to God.
7. And when Pinchas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from among the congregation, and took a javelin in his hand;8. And he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague ceased from the people of Israel. 9. And those who died in the plague were twenty four thousand. [Numbers 25]

The brutality of this act and it s significance seems odd to reward. How are we to think of this act? I came up with one solution in an odd place: my upcoming move to a new apartment. After living in the same place for sixteen years, I'm now moving. When I was younger, I tended to move once every three years, no where seemed to be a comfortable home for me. But when I moved where I live now, I stayed. After thirteen years, a lot of stuff ended up in my small studio. There is of course my rathere extensive library, which took 42 boxes to pack. There is always stuff that gets under other thing like beds and shelves. Then there is the stuff that accumulates in drawers. The net result is every time I think I finished in one area I find more things to do underneath it. This can of course be very frustrating.
I of course have two options. One is to take all that stuff as it is now and move it. This would mean moving extra stuff I don’t need and may not even want. But there is a second idea – throw stuff out. There are a lot of my clothes in my closet that don’t fit me anymore. In my electronics drawers I have 9-pin serial connectors, which fit no computers made today. There was dried up paint and broken sculpture from my early attempts at art. Since I’m moving in with the love of my life, there really is no need anymore for that whole bookshelf of dating books either. Such stuff of course has no real use. So instead of wasting my time packing it and moving it, I threw it out or donated it.
The key to doing so is not having to move it, it’s not having to deal with it in the new apartment. Having uncomfortable clothes around means I can waste storage space and also wear uncomfortable clothing. The 15 year old VCR doesn’t even have the right connections to hookup to my television anymore. Why keep it around?
It is interesting to note this will be the last time we will hear of the people dying en masse in Torah. The attack on Midian will incur no casualties. Starting with Numbers 26, the tone of Torah changes. It is no longer about wandering in the desert but about moving in to the new neighborhood. It is therefore reasonable to believe the last of the first generation, the generation of the spies, were among the 24,000 who died in this plague. God removed the junk before moving into the land.
Now for some that seems heartless, but I often look at such passages about the Israelites not as a people but as thoughts in our minds. And here again is something important I’ve been thinking about my move. There are a lot of old habits and ways of thinking that were once important in my current apartment and my current life. Some were not important but did also become habit. In my new place, they will become problematic. I am no longer coming home to an empty house but for the first time in my life to someone else I love very deeply. I cannot come home at 9:00PM from work anymore, nor eat out every night. My patterns will need to change to reflect the new reality of my life.
We all have such things, many times to the change in someone else and not in ourselves. The classic of course is the parent who treats their college grad son or daughter like they are still five years old. It’s hard to break such patterns but to make relationships work, we must be able to break and bend such things.
Sometimes it takes one small effort to realize our thinking is faulty. There is one story in the Talmud that the reason the first goblet was broken at a wedding was a party for a great Rabbi’s son was getting out of control. The crash of the 400 dinar goblet brought everyone to their sense again. The plague ended because the death of Zimiri and Cozbi at the hands of Pinchas woke everyone out of their trance of faulty thinking. Suddenly they realized what they were dong and that it was wrong. God was going to kill anyone doing wrong in the Plague, but those that repented were spared. The death of two by someone other than God brought everyone to their senses. It takes a shattering moment to realize what we really need to do.
In a change of any kind there are moments which you realize the change is real and true and embrace it. One of mine came from a very little thing actually. It was a graphics tablet I had for years, stuffed into a desk I rarely use. Looking at the plug I realized it was a 9-pin serial connector, which hasn’t existed on most computer systems for quite a long time. There was a lot of the old me in that desk along with that graphics tablet. Most of what was in that desk is no longer in my apartment but a dumpster. In throwing it out I changed too, I threw out the old me who used such stuff instead of talking to people. I need to be a loving caring human being now, not some shy geek behind a computer screen. For Pinchas it was a javelin or spear, for some it may be a painful argument, for me right now it’s a trash bag. So I’m getting rid of the old me so, I can look to the bright future ahead of me.
Though Pinchas needed only one spear, I think I might need a lot more trash bags.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Hukkat Balak 5769: Blessings and curses?

This week, we have a double portion, and a lot of story, but there are a few episodes I’d like to highlight. In Hukkat, Miriam dies, which starts the people complaining there's no water. Moses in a hissy fit strikes a rock instead of talking to it like God wants. God responds by telling Moses that he's never going to set foot in Israel for that stunt. Later the people will not complain about water, but dig their own wells.
Then in Parshat Balak, King Balak of Moab has watched all of his neighbors go down to defeat militarily at the hands of the Israelites. Realizing military solutions are a bad idea, he sends envoys to the greatest magician in the area, Balaam, to curse the advancing Israelites. After some odd adventures, Balaam meets up with Balak, and sets up the curse. Three times in a row, the curse ends up as a blessing, the most famous being “ma tovu” and Balak is furious. The only thing that actually seems to slow down is another suggestion by Balaam. The Midianite women seduce many of the Israelites, including senior officials, to start worshipping Baal-Peor. God gets upset with this and starts a plague. One such tasteless coupling happens in front of the Mishkan, in sight of a shocked Moses and congregation. Aaron’s Grandson Pinchas gets up, grabs a javelin and runs them through, ending the plague.
This is a week late for a reason. I haven't been in the best of moods to write this, because I was in an auto accident. While I’m uninjured, my car wasn’t. After a lot dealing with auto body people, tow truck companies and insurance companies, I’m rather rattled.  Then there is the “should have” thing that keeps running in my head. I keep thinking when I decided to get into the car I should have gone with my first idea of taking the bus.  It’s not very inspiring to write this. Then I remembered some words of a rather disappointed Balak talking to his hired spiritual gun Balaam
11. And Balak said to Balaam, What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, and, behold, you have blessed them. [Numbers 23]
Such is not a new phenomenon. When god first talks to Abraham, we read:
1. And the Lord had said to Abram, Get out from your country, and from your family, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you; 2. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing; 3. And I will bless those who bless you, and curse him who curses you; and in you shall all families of the earth be blessed.
What is considered a blessing or what a curse. Can we really tell which is which? A Zen parable describes a farmer who once has a series of events, some fortunate and some unfortunate. While his neighbors all make judgments of whether it is fortunate or unfortunate, all the framer says is “could be”
I’m still rattled by the accident. Dealing with body shops, tow companies and insurance companies seem out only out to victimize and exploit those who were in the accident,a long drawn out affair to get back to normal seems a curse in my mind.  Was it? It is indeed a blessing there was no real injuries, or loss of life. Not having my car for a few weeks is a curse. There may yet be a blessing in this, that I was not in another accident somewhere else which could have been life threatening. I cannot know.
Yet I think of another event that may have been a curse for some. For me, it is the greatest blessing bestowed on me, an answer to a prayer I made at the Wall in Jerusalem. The weekend after Christmas last year, a freak snowstorm shut down a large city that rarely sees snow. Someone who rarely checks their e-mail who I knew twenty years ago sent me a birthday greeting, and I sent a thank you back. Since she was trapped at home and bored, she wrote me back. We wrote each other five times that day. The next day, three times, the next two days very long letters about Hebrew and Aramaic. Then we had a chat via Facebook on my birthday, and more e-mails over the next week while I was on vacation. By the end of the next weekend, we were calling each other daily. We have every day since then. Sweetie’s moving in with me next month.  The love of my life never would have happened if not for the curse of a snowstorm.
Curses and blessing are not absolute, but a matter of perspective. I can think that Insurance companies, auto body shops and the like are also blessings: I don’t have to fix my own car. I’d still like my car back, but eventually that will happen too. Balak got it wrong: cursing doesn’t make a good weapon, they can become a blessing far too easily.

The Israelites learned this with water as well. When Miriam dies, their source of water died with her. But later in the text not having Miriam or Moses give them water led them to finding their own. The curse of losing a constant supply meant the blessing of learned skills to find water everywhere.
May you find many blessings in your life.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Korah 5769: What's my place?

This week we have more rebellion in the camp. Right after the debacle of the spies and being condemned to exile in the wilderness for forty years, a Levite and relative of Moses, Korah, leads a rebellion against Moses. This is no armed rebellion however; Korah actually convinces a lot of the prominent people in the community to confront Moses on an Issue:

You have gone too far, for all the community are holy, all of them, and the lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourself above the Lord's congregation?"[Num 16:3]

Why are only the priesthood allowed to perform sacrifices? If all the people are holy, why can't everybody? From a modern viewpoint, this seems like a perfectly valid argument. Why a theocracy, with Aaron and his male descendants being the only ones who can make offerings? How can a nation of priests not perform priestly duties?

We have to remember it was less than a year from this incident when Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu were fried alive by the Ark for offering an "alien fire" in their incense pans [Lev 10]. They didn’t follow proper procedures and they died. Both Moses and Aaron are all too aware of what happens if you do the wrong thing in the Mishkan.

Moses nonetheless lets them try their hand, although he's all too aware of what’s to happen. Like Moses’ nephews before them, the conspirators are fried alive. Korah and the chief conspirators are swallowed up by the Earth. The only exception is the sons of Korah, who not only knew their place, but according to the Talmud were practicing their place at the time:
The sons of Korah did not die. A Tanna taught: It has been said on the authority of Moses our Master: A place was set apart for them in the Gehenna, where they sat and sang praises [to God].[Sanh 110a]

The sons of Korah were musicians, and they knew it. So instead of aspiring to other things they could not have done, they sang. Everyone has a calling. Some are musicians, some builders like Betzalel, some warriors like Joshua, some are priests like Aaron and Elezar and Pinchas. The conspirators in this rebellion see that they are good managers, so they think they can be good leaders too. Leadership is fraught with many dilemmas that managers don’t have to deal with. Leadership expert Peter Drucker said it best. Mangers do things right, Leaders do the right thing. There's a big difference there. When a Leader doesn't do the right thing, other people suffer- sometimes the whole organization gets swallowed up by the earth.

I spent the last week thinking about that. I realized last week how many hats I do wear. I am an artist, photographer, food safety consultant, health educator, quality assurance auditor, social media expert, educational psychologist, computer support tech, instructional designer, blogger, biblical historian, Jewish scholar, kashrut expert and spiritual pundit. These just the things that I consider professional. What really were Korah’s talents? Numbers 3:31 tells us of the responsibilities of the Kohathites, of which Korah was one.
And their charge shall be the ark, and the table, and the lampstand, and the altars, and the utensils of the sanctuary with which they minister, and the screen, and all its service.[Numbers 3:31]

The Kohathites then, were in charge of the most sensitive stuff in the temple, carrying the sanctuary to the place they were to camp, and quickly set it up before the people arrive [Num 10]. The Gersonites and Merarites were in charge of mere construction materials: walls and outer curtains. Korah had some of the most important jobs of all out side of the Levites. He had little to complain about, with a rather elite role already. Yet it was a backstage role, and he may have wanted that front stage role Of Aaron.
Nowhere in Numbers 3 does it mention who sings in the Temple. The Sons of Korah singing psalms is also remarkable as there is nowhere that God mentions one set of Levites to be Musicians. They too went past their appointed role, yet somehow survived. The difference between their father and themselves was a small but important one. They knew who they were. They were musicians and understood that calling and used it constructively. How they figured it out one cannot know, but in the putting together of the tabernacle, they knew Singing for them was Life.

Like me, we may all do a lot of things, all with a thread of who we truly are underneath. Hidden in many of the things we do are some of our own identity and who we need to truly be, to be a spared and blessed as Korah’s sons were, and not thrown into Sheol like Korah. The trick is to find what they are and weave them together to form a cohesive whole.

I spent last week with a lot of fascinating people and places, which is why this was late. One was a former pediatrician, another one was a litigation attorney. A scientist, a health educator, and a lot of passionate health inspectors also made me think. What they all made me think about was a simple question, the one Korah never asked: Who am I really? What do my skills and abilities and personality lead me to do? How did these people get to where they are today?
With all my talents and new ones I acquire every day, I’m still looking to find my place and to stand on it like Korah’s sons. But I know it can be done, not by knocking off any of those people, and standing in their lime light, but in creating my own place, my own calling, and standing in it.

May we all hear our inner calling.