Friday, March 26, 2010

Tzav 5770: The Embarrassment of the Moderately Affiliated.

Recently I noticed something I do. In some ways this is a sequel to last week's commentary, and thinking about that one was what got me to notice this one.

The incident itself was simple. Someone asked me to buy something on Shabbat. Instead of mentioning I don't buy anything but food on Shabbat, I gave excuses. I complained that the store would be too busy. I didn't even notice I did it, till afterwards and felt something odd. Then I realized what I was feeling: embarrassment. I was embarrassed that I was trying to be observant.

I wonder about this embarrassment. It's not one the extremes have to think about. Both Orthodoxy and secularism is all or nothing. There is a consistency in each system of thought: You either do or you don't.

Both take a argument of consistency, one this weeks portion suggests with the operation of the altar
5. And the fire upon the altar shall be burning in it; it shall not be put out; and the priest shall burn wood on it every morning, and lay the burnt offering in order upon it; and he shall burn on it the fat of the peace offerings.6. The fire shall be burning always upon the altar; it shall never go out.[Leviticus 6 ]
While the light of the menorah is the one we usually associate with the Ner Tamid or Eternal light, it is also suggested by the altar as well. These all suggest a burning consistent observance of the mitzvot, as the Orthodox do. There is a burning consistent effort to not follow the mitzvot by secular people. I do not mean they are evil, but anything that does not have an ethical basis to it, a basis of practice without ethical reason, they do not follow. For example there is a part of the kosher code in this weeks portion:
26. Moreover you shall eat no kind of blood, whether it is of bird or of beast, in any of your dwellings. 27. What ever soul it is who eats any kind of blood, that soul shall be cut off from his people.[Leviticus 7]
The prohibition of blood and many of the rules around change the way people will approach a steak. For the observant, a steak thoroughly salted and drained of blood, then heated to well done will be the only way to eat a steak. There is the least possible amount of blood in such meat. Non observant people will eat it any way they want believing such rules silly. I for one don't eat blood, and since I don't like overly well done meat, I don't eat red meat at all-- kosher or otherwise.

But then I'll do something that the Orthodox will not do: put cheese on a chicken breast sandwich, which in their view is mixing milk with meat. I do follow an actual opinion here of Yosi of the Galilee, a Talmudic sage who made the simple argument that chickens don't have milk so the prohibition of boiling a kid in its mother's milk is silly when applied to poultry. The majority disagreed, stating that any sacrificial animal subject to slaughter and sacrifice using the methods described in Vayikra and Tzav was considered kosher meat, and so most Jews take chicken as a meat, though I still don't.

Interestingly, I don't have problems often with Orthodox practices: they often see my attempts as at least I'm trying. When eating with Orthodox, I'm probably eating in a kosher restaurant or home so there is no cheese for my grilled chicken sandwich anyway. The problem is in secular settings where I am the only one restricting myself for religious reasons.

To be observant in any way seems to often gain derision. In a conversation I had recently with a friend she observed something that unfortunately tends to be true. Observant is the same thing as radical to many today. She does have her own observances where she notices this. I'm no radical or fundamentalist to say the least. To many people I'm so inconsistent, I'm hypocritical. The problem of course is all or nothing thinking. If you don't eat pork or shrimp, then your'e assumed to be Shomer Shabbos, and thus get derided for driving to services.

The writing of Abraham Joshua Heschel addresses this problem. To him it is the difference between western, or what he calls Greek, and Jewish thinking. Greek thinking is categorical, placing things in well described categorical boxes. One such categorization is Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. Another such categorization is whether one is completely observant or not. Thing smust fall in the box, they cannot be in two boxes at once, or between boxes. Heschel believes that we each are unique and can only be described by our own story. Applying Greek thinking to Jewish concepts only creates a mess which isn't very Jewish in his view.

Applying this concept to observance, each Jew has a way to observe the 613 mitzvot and the countless halakah. We observe some but not all of them -- it is truly impossible, since some are biologically gender related and some, like those in this week's portion, requires the Temple. We cannot categorize even among the Orthodox. All we can do is a lot like Passover, tell a story. Yet that is inconvenient to Western sound-bite, categorical thinking. And that really is the tension that causes my embarrassment. For many I am categorized, while I know better. I make a categorical false assumption that those who do not observe or observe differently will disapprove of my limited observance, and thus disapprove of me. I am embarrassed to show my observance in such circumstances. The answer here again is the statement of Hillel.

I must be true to my own observance first. This is not easy of course. Some of my fear is learned and historical. Observance means that the majority religion might attack me for doing a minority practice. But maybe it is in spite of this, one must act according to one's observance. By observing the way I find meaningful, I separate myself from everyone else, and set my own identity. My actions say that I am strong enough to set such an identity.

As I get ready to follow one of those very visible practices, there is some words from Exodus that puts this all into perspective.

7. Unleavened bread shall be eaten seven days; and there shall no leavened bread be seen with you, neither shall there be leaven seen with you in all your quarters. 8. And you shall tell your son in that day, saying, This is done because of that which the Lord did to me when I came forth out of Egypt. 9. And it shall be for a sign to you upon your hand, and for a memorial between your eyes, that the Lord’s Torah may be in your mouth; for with a strong hand has the Lord brought you out of Egypt. 10. You shall therefore keep this ordinance in his season from year to year.[Exodus 13]
Passover will mean a lot of Dietary Changes next week. While Verse 9 is commonly interperted to mean one should wear Tefillin, it may also mean to think, act, talk and eat according to belief. To do so says I do this because it is spiritually meaningful to me. Maybe embarrassment is unnecessary. To be myself is just who I am and is meaningful to me, Anyone else's categorization of me is meaningless.

Next time I begin to feel embarrassed about observance, I think I'll say Hillel's quote above: Im ayn ani li mi li?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Vayikra 5770: Keva and Conflict of Shabbat

This week we have seemingly endless procedures for sacrifices. Since the destruction of the temple, this would seem to be also completely meaningless. What can we gain from such knowledge? For example, we have:

1. And when any will offer a meal offering to the Lord, his offering shall be of fine flour; and he shall pour oil upon it, and put frankincense on it;2. And he shall bring it to the sons of Aaron the priests; and he shall take from it his handful of its flour, and of its oil, with all its frankincense; and the priest shall burn the memorial part of it upon the altar, to be an offering made by fire, of a sweet savor to the Lord. 3. And the remnant of the meal offering shall be Aaron’s and his sons’; it is a thing most holy of the offerings of the Lord made by fire.[Leviticus 2]

When reading these verses, I am always reminded of the prophetic quotes about sacrifice:
11. To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to me? said the Lord; I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of male goats. 12. When you come to appear before me, who has required this at your hand, to trample my courts?[Isaiah 1]

If God commanded the sacrifices, why is he spurning them here?
19. Hear, O earth; behold, I will bring evil upon this people, the fruit of their thoughts, because they have not listened to my words, nor to my Torah, but have rejected it. 20. To what purpose comes to me incense from Sheba, and the sweet cane from a far country? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor are your sacrifices sweet to me. [Jeremiah 6]

There is a difference between practice and intention, one the people of Jeremiah's time didn't understand. Both are necessary and both are interdependent. In Judaism we refer to practice as keva, and the intention as kavvanah. This week’s portion is primarily keva in nature giving specific instructions how to perform a sacrifice. Most siddurim today are keva as well. They lay out a specific prayer service.

Liberal Jewish movements like Reform tend to emphasize kavvana over keva, and more conservative movements like the conservative and Orthodox tend to emphasize keva. This is of course not always true. Classical Reform for example has a strong keva about not wearing tallit and kippot. The inception of the Hasidic movement was a rejection of the keva centered movements of the time with a Kavvanah centered one. Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah were condemning the people doing the motions without any real meaning or devotion to God.

As a liberal Jew, I have often emphasized Kavvanah in Shlomo’s Drash. Yet, I have been thinking a lot lately about keva and what it means. Keva is often found in the Mitzvot. Mtzvot are laws written into the Torah. We can explicitly understand not to eat pork sausage for example, since Leviticus clearly states:

7. And the swine, though its hoof is parted, and is cloven footed, yet it chews not the cud; it is unclean to you.8. Of their flesh shall you not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch; they are unclean to you.[Leviticus 11]

Yet not having a cheese burger is not directly mentioned in Torah, since the text states:
You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.[Exodus 23]

We have a halacha that tells us that eating meat with milk in any form, or even storing them together is a violation. Halacha like the separation of meat and milk are part of the Oral law, and what was derived from many debates and opinions from many sages on what boiling a kid in its mother's milk actually means.

Both mitzvot and halacha however can be positive, telling us something we should do, or negative, something we should not. This week’s sacrifices as would giving charity to the poor are positive mitzvot. Not eating pork or not working on the Sabbath would be negative cases.

It is often hard to tell if someone is talking about a mitzvah or a halacha if you do not know the law yourself. The words themselves are confusing. The word Mitzvah can be brought to a very general case. Indeed mitzvah can mean any good deed. Halacha can also mean the entire corpus of Jewish law, and not just those rulings made in the oral law. When we talk about positive and negative we usually use the term mitzvah however.

Negative mitzvot have been problematic for me. When I was young, I thought the negative laws were fundamentally restrictive and meaningless. About thirteen years ago, I got back into Judaism, and began to explore the world of mitzvot and halacha. One of the things I came up with was my Shabbat rules – my ideal Shabbat practice.

Live Juicy one day a week. Celebrate it with candles. Read Torah and Talmud and contemplate them. Wear Hawaiian shirts. Do not use electronic devices-no Internet, iPods, or TV.Don’t buy anything but food or medicine. Eat a REALLY good meal. Love. If no one else is around love yourself. Remember to hug! Dessert and sweets were created for Shabbos!!! Try to walk. Be sensual. Use all your senses to consciously: taste, smell, see, touch, and hear. Sense how wonderful everything is. Read and study. Read spiritual books and novels of imagination. Take naps. Paint the beauty in the world. Pray and Play. It doesn’t matter what or how -just play. Sing for the joy of singing, sing for the joy of God. With instruments, even if you can’t. Don’t do anything that has to do with work-unless someone's life is in danger. Spend time relating to other people. Have outrageous conversations. Bless yourself, everyone, and everything else.

Interestingly, my usual objections with the negative halacha show up here too. There are far more positive than negative. Often I use the positive instead of the negative. Instead of saying “don’t ride” I say “try to walk” for example. But there are a few negatives in there:

  • Do not use electronic devices-no Internet, iPods, or TV.
  • Don’t buy anything but food or medicine.
  • Don’t do anything that has to do with work-unless someone's life is in danger.

I have ironically found these three negatives are the three rules I adhere to the strongest. The positives come and go. I do some of them on some Shabbats while others on different Shabbats. Not buying things on Shabbat has been rather strongly observed. Listening to music, or watching TV or movies has been a granite structure in my Shabbat observance. All of this surprises me of course, since I once thought these were needless restrictions. As with many negative mitzvot there are exemptions. Buying stuff has the explicit exemption of food and medical supplies. For most of my single life, I never ate at home. Even today, Sweetie and I are very likely to go out for lunch after morning services. The electronics prohibition is a bit more problematic. I intentionally left off that list my cel phone. Communication with others I find important. In what I used to do, it may be a matter of someone else’s health. So as a communication tool I continued to use it on Shabbat, mostly for incoming calls. When I bought my iPhone, I ran into a bit of dilemma, as the phone was the same device as the music, movies and Internet. Then there was Sweetie’s introduction to me of text messaging. It has been a not so successful struggle to allow myself only phone calls, and then texting. Right now I will allow incoming calls, but try to refrain from initiating a call.

A negative mitzvah, denying yourself something, has a lot similar with the positive mitzvah of an animal sacrifice. In both you lose something for God. I prohibit myself from listening to music or the radio, and I lose the ability to listen to things others do. A person bringing a sacrifice to the Mishkan is removing one of their assets from their household to give to God. I think the loss actually has a gain. I can't speak to animal sacrifices, since I have never done one, nor have any desire to. However, my Shabbat prohibitions I can speak to.

Earlier this week, I stopped into an auto shop to have a car stereo installed. This store had won many an award at car shows for their awesome audio systems. Indeed one of the award winning cars was in the show room with more speakers than I have ever seen squashed into a hatchback. Had all of the speakers started to blast music, the building would have shook. I wondered about the people who have such stereos. That morning walking to the drugstore, I had heard seagulls and birds around me, I heard the wind in my ears as well. None of those listening to their music in that car would have heard either. On Shabbat we are to witness God’s creation. The rest of the week we are blanking out everything around us. We do not notice the little things. On Shabbat we stop. We stop and listen and see and breathe and feel. In my mind, leaving the stereos blasting or e-mail and Internet running masks out God’s creation. To do so is a statement of Human arrogance that tells God we are superior to Him and do not need to listen to the still small voice that is the Higher Power. We deny our role as partners in Creation, and act as agents of its destruction.

Yet there is another level to this negative mitzvah. When I follow these proscriptions something happens to me: I feel relaxed and happy. Not only do I stop, but stress stops. The things which cause stress disappear from my life. It often amazes me how much stress comes from media sources. Stop and live a simple low-tech uninformed life for one day, and I am refreshed to take on another six days of modern living. I have often thought of this in a tongue-in-cheek metaphor. Abraham Joshua Heschel described Shabbat as an palace in time on an island in time. For me the island is tropical with some really good beaches and beach bars, and the palace is a nice resort hotel. I've given such an idea a Jimmy Buffet motif by calling it Shabbosville, and even added a positive mitzvah of wearing Hawaiian shirts to Friday services to remind me of where I’m heading for the weekend. But in Shabbosville I want to listen to the surf and seagulls and watch the waves on the water. I want to listen chiming sound of ropes hitting masts in a near-by marina. Many people on vacation would want the same. Shabbat is my vacation.

Of course someone coming to that same beach with that very loud booming car is going to mess it up. Here is the dilemma I really have been mulling over this week. There are differences in the way we believe in God. How we observe keva changes greatly, as our structures made with keva change greatly. In the ideal we simply let each other follow our ways and leave others alone. What happens when that conflicts?

Let’s set up a story. Let’s say I have two friends, Hayyim and George. Hayyim is Orthodox. He is scrupulous concerning the halacha. George, on the other hand, has no religion unless you consider an obsession about cars a religion.

Hayyim needs to follow every law. If I were to spend a Shabbat afternoon by Hayyim, I would be sure not to ring the door bell, but walk right in since ringing would be considered a transgression. My cel phone is turned off and stored into the car before I walk into his house, and I carry nothing into the house. Hayyim never really enjoys Shabbat, he sees it as the obligation God gave our people. My enthusiastic Shabbosville Kavvanah is lost on him, including the wild Hawaiian shirts. I do not judge him harshly for that, actually I respect him. That is who he is and how he wants to serve Hashem, and to do so in such a restrictive manner takes a lot of discipline. In his home, I have to respect his way and while for a short time sublimating my own for his is fine, for a longer period, it does seem restricting and dull.

On a warmer day, since I do not live too far away, Hayyim might also visit me. Once again I try to respect all of his observances. Sometimes this becomes difficult. Since I live in a building with an elevator, we probably have to meet downstairs, and just hang on the street and not really go up to my apartment. Even if he did visit my apartment, I’m sure he would never eat anything in my home. It’s not rudeness, but that I do not keep kosher enough for him. When he visits me on a weekday, packaged kosher cookies are always ready for such occasions. Unfortunately, since we can't tear open the package, there's nothing for him on Shabbat. Hayyim and I do understand one thing about our observances: they are different. While some who are observant might be arrogant and think what they do is the superior, Hayyim is not one of these. This is a paradox of keva and kavvanah. If done right, one can have such a strong keva,the kavvanah follows from it. Hayyim is such an example. He actually has gained a sense of humility by doing his mitzvot so scrupulously. Even if he thought he was superior, he would hide it, because he also scrupulously follows the ban on lashon hara, the ban on evil speech, slander, and embarrassing someone else. We have a sense that we both observe in our own way, and as long as one person doesn't interfere with the other’s observance that is okay.

I have my moments with Hayyim where things can be awkward and restrictive, if not outright boring. His observances do have a tendency to mean he will interfere with my boundaries. I can't go out for a good Shabbat lunch when he is around. But that is not half as much of a problem as George. While George I’d at first expect to be the easier of the two friends, he’s much more difficult in my view. George’s love of cars is absolute. He spends a lot of his weekend working on his car, and most importantly listening to his favorite show, Car Talk.Though Hayyim and George know each other, they rarely talk at all, mostly due to Car Talk. George has this odd notion that if you don’t listen to Car Talk, you are not worth talking to. The problem is Car Talk comes on during Shabbat, so Hayyim cannot listen to it.

Since both Hayyim and I don't listen to the radio on Shabbat, I’ve mentioned to Hayyim my dodge to his problem – podcasts. Shabbat is about stopping, which means it is also about delayed gratification. Some things you just wait a little longer to do. I wait a day, download Car Talk and listen to it on Sunday. I have no problem if George finds Car Talk that important that he listens to it. If George is visiting, I’d honor him as a guest and let him listen, even though it comes close to breaking my no electronics rule.I might find another room or something else to do and leave him alone. Everyone should be able to observe Shabbat however they want.

The problem is, George doesn't see it that way. He gets upset with me when he comes over to my house, turns on Car Talk in my home, and then watches me leave the room. In his mind, Car Talk is important to him, something he cherishes. It is something that he wants to share with his friends because it is so precious to him. When a friend doesn't want to listen, he is hurt. It may be that friend is not interested in cars, and since George is so about cars he takes it personally. On the other hand there Hayyim and me. We don't listen because Car Talk is on the radio on Saturday. Even in this case George gets upset with us because we don't want to share his world.

For those on the extremes like Hayyim and George the answer is easy -- ignore each other and just not talk. In our own society we can see the strong polarization between the strongly secular and religious of all faiths. The two don't really understand each other, though in many ways they have a similar position: they have a practice and want to follow it. They also want you, a least when you are in their presence, to also follow it. This strong polarization puts those looking for balance, those who are moderately affiliated into a no win scenario if dealing with either group. In the moderately affiliated respect for others, others will impose their will on us. The belief of the moderately affiliated is non existent, or at least very malleable to either group. In the thought experiment, I at least have Hayyim happy that I'm trying to observe, and to honor his observance when I can. He's very cool about me disappearing if I need to tear a piece a paper or turn on a light. What he doesn't see doesn't make him uncomfortable. George is actually a bigger problem. If I want to keep my friendship with George I have to listen to Car Talk, and listen to it with him when it airs. George is making me choose between Shabbat observance and our friendship. George does not see the meaning of Shabbat to me, and how much it is vital to my own revitalization for the upcoming week. He doesn't see how precious it is to me and to my way of associating with God. He just thinks I'm being lazy and selfish and hurtful to a friend.

George and Hayyim are mere story characters, but I think anyone who is moderately observant will see themselves and those they know in the conflicts and relationship with the Hayyims and Georges of the world. It's not easy, as it is unfair to those who try to accommodate everyone. For me, I follow Hillel's sage advice about this:

If I am not for myself, who is for me? If I am for [only] myself, what am I? If not now, when?[Avot 1]

I come first, then I will deal with being considerate with everyone else. With George, this might mean I lose a friend, but what kind of friend is he? If he is a good friend, I won't lose him and he'll understand my point of view, and be fine with my compromise, waiting a little longer to hear on podcast what he want to hear broadcast. I'm the kind of friend who will make sure there's some already torn toilet paper in the bathroom when Hayyim visits. Hayyim for his part doesn't demand that I do anything, indeed he wants me to do nothing at all, but is honored that I do care enough about him to make his observance as good as it can be, so he can actually use my bathroom on Shabbat. I'm sure there are more than a few things I make Hayyim uncomfortable doing, but he's a good friend and understands that embarrassment is worse than blood shed. Vayikra is all about sacrifices, and we all do need to make them. It may not be the animal sacrifices here, but other things that are Keva in our contemporary world. Keva may not be directions for killing a dove or baking fine meal, but how to observe God in the way we find meaningful.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Vayakhel- Pekudei 5770: Who was Betzalel?

This week we have Moses first giving the instructions for creating the Mishkan he learned to make on Sinai, employing the people to help in the construction with Betzalel as lead craftsman and architect. The people enthusiastically help out in its construction, so much so Betzalel has to ask for the donations to stop. When all the pieces are done Moses puts the components together for the first time, and the Cloud of Glory covers the Mishkan.
Early on, we read:
30. And Moses said to the people of Israel, See, the Lord has called by name Betzalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; 31. And he has filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge, and in every kind of workmanship; 32. And to devise finely done works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in bronze, 33. And in the cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of wood, to make any kind of skillful work. [Exodus 35]
Who is this Betzalel? Why him? What do we know about him? From this passage, we know a few things about him. We know his father and grandfather. We also know he is from Judah. This not the only genealogy we have of Betzalel though:
18 And Caleb the son of Hezron begot children of Azubah his wife--and of Jerioth--and these were her sons: Jesher, and Shobab, and Ardon. 19 And Azubah died, and Caleb took unto him Ephrath, who bore him Hur. 20 And Hur begot Uri, and Uri begot Betzalel. {S}[1 Chron. 2]
The passage in 1 Chronicles links Betzalel to several other names found in out text. Hezron is Judah's grandson from his night with Tamar[Genesis 38] and one of the seventy who went down into Egypt to meet and live with Joseph. [Genesis 46:12] Hezron is also the ancestor of the prince of Judah, Nachson ben Amminadab, at the time of Betzalel. Nacshon is the man who Midrash tells us entered the Red Sea before it split, having faith God will do something. Nachshon's descendants, as given in the book of Ruth will eventually lead to King David.

Betzalels' great grandfather's big moment is in the book of Numbers. According to most Midrash, Caleb son of Herzon is Caleb son of Japunneh, who was one of the two spies who brought positive reports of the land and one of two men who made the entire journey and settled in the land. The rabbis, in a play on words, say Japunneh means he turned his face away from the counsel of the other ten spies[Sotah 11b]. Caleb's wife Ephrath, is another case where there is a name change:

And Caleb took unto him Ephrath,’ this is Miriam. And why was she called Ephrath? Because Israel were fruitful (paru) and increased, thanks to her.[Exodus R I:17, Sotah 12b]

While the multiple names of Miriam are more complex than this, the rabbinic literature clearly defines that Miriam and Caleb had a son Hur. This means that Betzalel is related to Aaron, Moses and the priesthood through marriage. It also adds another layer of context to a Midrash from last week. Betzalel's grandpa Hur, who tried to stop the Israelites from idolatry and building the golden calf, was murdered for his efforts. When Aaron saw his nephew Hur's body in front of him, andthe people asked him to make the golden calf, he had a hard time refusing. [Exodus R. XLVIII:3, Leviticus X:3]

Betzalel was connected by family to all the major people in the story of Torah. We can also note something else about Betazalel. The rabbis bring one objection to connecting Caleb son of Japunneh and Caleb son of Hezron together. We know Caleb was 40 years old when he goes on his spying mission, which means to have great grand-kids he would have to have been pretty young when he had children with Miriam. It becomes near impossible to have three generations in that short a time. It means Betzalel is either not Caleb's great grandson, or else he was very young. Yet the text this weeks says
2. And Moses called Bezalel and Aholiab, and every wise hearted man, in whose heart the Lord had put wisdom, every one whose heart stirred him up to come to the work to do it; 3. And they received of Moses all the offering, which the people of Israel had brought for doing the work on the sanctuary, And they still brought to him free offerings every morning.4. And all the wise men, that did all the work of the sanctuary, came every man from his work which they made;[Exodus 36]
The use of a colloquialism for every man in 36:4 (איש איש ) the rabbis took to mean Betzalel was an adult. The solution was rather simple. He had just become an adult, and had just reached the age of bar mitzvah, so he was 13 years old. [Sanhedrin 69b] He was a boy genius.

The Talmudic Sages ascribe other things to Betzalel, one such thing many have taken in a more mystical way is this one:

Rab Judah said in the name of Rab: Bezalel knew how to combine the letters by which the heavens and earth were created.[Brachot 55a]
Most today think this means Betzalel knew the mystical way to take letters and make them into things the same way God used them to make creation. Yet Betzalel and his craftspeople needed materials from the people, so this doesn't make sense. There is another possibility. Betzalel knew how to delegate and to communicate. He knew how to talk to people and motivate them. He also knew how to listen and then translate instructions to the way others think. There's a few more stories which put this more into context. Numbers Rabbah XV:10 tells a story that Moses had a hard time with the specifications for the Mishkan, most significantly how to make the menorah. He just couldn't understand what to do. God tried telling him and even made him a model but Moses just couldn't' remember. Exasperated, God tells Moses to just tell Betzalel what he wants and he'll get it right. Moses give a confused definition yet Betzalel immediately understands and builds it correctly.

The Mishkan should be a very difficult structure to put together, but instead it was incredibly easy. It was so easy when it was put together for the first time, Moses could do it himself. There are hundreds of parts. Many parts are identical, but need to fit perfectly. To track and organize such an effort with not a single mishap during production is quite the engineering and organization feat. To put it together for the first time and it all fits perfectly is also an engineering and organization feat. We also know also that Betzalel's efforts last. The original altar was durable enough for hundreds of years , as it is the same altar Solomon uses in the first temple [II Chronicles 1:5]

Betzalel was described as
30. And Moses said to the people of Israel, See, the Lord has called by name Betzalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; 31. And he has filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge, and in every kind of workmanship;[Exodus 35]
He deserved this title. He had the spirit of God in him but could handle the organizational, and engineering parts just as elegantly as anything else. Moses difficulties with control and delegation are never seen in Betzalel. He even runs a tight inventory so well he doesn't come in over budget. While modern projects always come in over-budget, and are able to the spend all available resources, Betzalel is alone asking his boss Moses to have the people stop bringing things, [Exodus 35:5-6]

Who was Betzalel? He was a young prodigy, gifted by God in both craft and interpersonal skills. He understood his craftsmen and women. He knew the end users, those who were going to use the altars and lamps for the rest of time: they were his cousins. The deep faith of his grandfather seems to have clinched the deal, that those who murdered Hur to build for an idol of gold would find that this man's grandson would fashion out of gold an ark to the Lord. He is unlike any other character in the Torah, able to make things even Moses had no comprehension of.

Biblical characters are often described as human though only more so. There are few engineers in the bible. Betzalel stands out in his role of creating by words spoke to his crafts people, not some mystical magical words spoken. For a mere teen, he could communicate and inspire his workforce better than anyone else in all Torah.

On time, under budget, and 100% correct all at thirteen. In short Betazel was the greatest production manager ever.

Wish I was that good.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Ki Tissa 5770:Why are we stupid?

For all eight years of Shlomo's Drash, I have avoided one particular part of this weeks portion. This was done intentionally, as writing about the Golden Calf debacle is, in my opinion, overdone. But staring at of all things a cup of tea, there is an issue that I keep thinking about lately. In the biblical text, we have the immense glory and power of the revelation of the Ten Commandments. Forty days later, we have the debacle of the golden calf. This is a people who within a four month period saw their redemption from Egypt, walked across the bottom of the red sea, and the thunder and fire at Sinai. With all that evidence of what God is, how could they do something stupid like the golden calf?
1 And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him: 'Up, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.' 2 And Aaron said unto them: 'Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.' 3 And all the people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron. 4 And he received it at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it a molten calf; and they said: 'This is thy god, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.' 5 And when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said: 'To-morrow shall be a feast to the LORD.' 6 And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt-offerings, and brought peace-offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to make merry. {P}[Exodus 32]
How can they be so stupid? This has been a question though about for ages. The rabbinic lore tells in us various places in Midrash and Talmud that they went further than the text. Hur, who was Betzalel's grandfather, objected to their plan and told them so. As a result, he is murdered. Aaron's reason to build the golden calf, according to the rabbis, was for fear of his life at this murderous mob mentality. Why all this craziness? What drives people to such destructive behaviours? There is a set of stories in the Tractate Taanit that might shed some light. It concerns Honi the circle maker, a Jewish wonder worker who has the uncanny ability to make it rain by yelling at God, getting instant results.

He drew a circle and stood within it and exclaimed, Master of the Universe, thy children have turned to me because they believe me to be as a member of thy household; I swear by thy great name that I will not move from here until thou hast mercy upon thy children. Rain then began to drip, and thereupon he exclaimed: it is not for this that I have prayed but for rain [to fill] cisterns, ditches and caves. The rain then began to come down with great force, and thereupon he exclaimed; it is not for this that I have prayed but for rain of benevolence, blessing and bounty. Rain then fell in the normal way until the Israelites in Jerusalem were compelled to go up [for shelter] to the temple mount because of the rain. They came and said to him: in the same way as you have prayed for [the rain] to fall pray [now] for the rain to cease.[Taanit 19a]

One day he was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree; he asked him, How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit? The man replied: Seventy years. He then further asked him: Are you certain that you will live another seventy years? The man replied: I found [ready grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted these for me so I too plant these for my children. Honi sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept a rocky formation enclosed upon him which hid him from sight and he continued to sleep for seventy years. When he awoke he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and he asked him, Are you the man who planted the tree? The man replied: I am his grandson.[Taanit 23a]
Honi has a problem, one shared by most of us. He can only think short term. His way of rainmaking requires throwing a temper tantrum to God and getting instant results. In this story, we find such behavior can be dangerous, giving extremes of an ineffective too little and a damaging too much. Like Goldilocks in the house of the three bears, Only after the extremes do we get just right, though in his case the rain became a minor flood before he stopped it. He does not plan his result and gets thus gets erratic ones. He can only think of the moment, and not of the consequences of a crop destroying hard rain or of an overabundant rain leading to flood. He thinks so much in the immediate, The carob tree which requires generations before it's fruit can be harvested is inconceivable to him. Honi's story has a tragic ending. Have accomplished this time travel, he cannot go back, nor does anyone know him in this time, including his family. Not willing to try to take the time to make a new life, he prays for his death and it is granted.

We as humans have this thing I'll call the limitation of the local. We have limitations in space, time and even relationship. Honi could only think in his circle drawn around him. The world beyond in in both time and space he never payed attention to. We all fall victim to this all the time. One of my favorite examples is the honking driver. Imagine there are ducks crossing the road. I would slow down and stop to let the ducks cross. The driver behind me cannot see the ducks, and starts angrily leaning on his horn, believing I'm stopped for no apparent reason. His experience does not take into account there is a reason I'm stopped. For many drivers, their world ends outside their car. A driver who is using text messaging or talking on their cell phone while driving may fall victim to a similar problem. For such a driver, it is inconceivable that anyone is really outside the car, let alone that could cause an accident. The number of fatal accidents however witness the fallacy of this thought.

Time is just as victim to this as space. Or more to the point, memory and time are. The longer between one event and another, the harder it is to tie the two together. Imagine someone goes to a casino and loses $200 by the time they are done gambling that day. One should learn from the loss that one loses from gambling and should find something more constructive to do, like planting carob trees. Yet, go to any casino and you will find people who have returned time after time to lose more money. They forget about their last loss when they go the next time. Also long term exposure to substances has similar results. A cigarette which would kill you instantly would not sell very well. One which has a high probability of killing you after 30 years of prolonged exposure people easily purchase by the carton. I know that molten chocolate desserts is really bad for me with tons of fat and cholesterol, but I keep eating them still for a similar reason. I like the immediate taste of chocolate too much, and I don't think too heavily about how that dessert will affect my heart in twenty years.

Recently reading Nicholas Nassim Taleb's Book, The Black Swan, I appreciated one of his themes: we are all stupid, it's part of human nature. The only way we can get any more stupid is to believe otherwise and trust an expert. An expert is just someone who denies, sometimes with really elegant mathematics, how stupid they really are. The Israelites waiting for Moses at Sinai were just as human as you and me. The Midrash points out their great sin was not worshipping the calf, but by calling Moses "this man Moses"(Exodus 32:1) Moses in their eyes is objectified, not a person they knew but a stranger. They also completely forget God, as they believe it was this Moses, not God who brought them out of Egypt. Forty days and they forget everything of the few months before. As will become clear in the book of Numbers, their memory of slavery will get foggier and foggier as they travel in the wilderness, making Egypt from the world of slavery into an enormous buffet. This is of course not Egypt but their desires at the time, their immediate needs. What was their immediate need when Moses did not come down from the mountain? They said to each other about the calf "This is thy god, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt."(32:5) They wanted something or someone to make immediate why they were in the wilderness. The big plan for a people who would span millennia, the longest running religion of any on earth, was not of interest them. Neither was their wish to be the special people of Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu, or the promise of a land to be free and prosperous in.They apparently had no need for Torah, and the answers it would give to those questions. They forgot the power and glory that came before that stupid moment at Sinai, when gold was worshipped instead of God. They needed the immediate and concrete form of something. That need was so great they did a lot of awful things to get it.

I do enough stupid things in my day. I'll totally admit it. I'll leave the toilet seat up, or forget to turn off the light in the closet. I interrupt in the middle of a conversation, and sometimes not listen too well. More than once I've forgotten flowers for a special occasion, and I've definitely eaten a lot of things I really, really shouldn't have. The key to being stupid is the instant fix, or the thing that gets done now the thing within reach, versus the thing we think out the consequences and may be far away. The golden calf was an instant fix. Why was the first rules after the Ten Commandments civil law? God knows we're stupid too, and we need a few laws from from doing really stupid things, like hurting other people or their property. Not that such things stops people of course, but it slows down or deters most. Oddly enough while ethics and law might help stop the stupidity, I think something else does a better job.

While I never mention the golden calf for Ki Tissa, I almost always mention that thing that does work. It's mentioned not once, but twice. It's really a simple word:STOP. In Hebrew it's Shabbat. I believe that truly stopping and doing a bit of nothing for a day does something to you. For one you actually notice beyond the car door or Honi's circle the world around you. You get this time which is only about time to be in relationship with others. And thirdly, if there's anything you want, you may just have to wait to get it. All of this does something that seems to have been impossible for far too many people for thousands of years: actually begin to think. Maybe in the V'shamru, where we read about va'yinafash, God resouling himself by resting, is the key to stopping stupidity. We stop being stupid on Shabbat, if we observe it properly, by bringing some holy soul-rest to ourselves.