Friday, June 25, 2010

Balak 5770: Breaking the Cub's Curse

This week we have the story of King Balak, who watches all of his neighbors go down to defeat militarily, at the hands of the Israelites. He decides to do something other than a military solution, so sends envoys to the greatest magician in the area, Baalam, to curse the advancing Israelites. Balaam first refuses and then after a large amount of money and ego massaging, he reluctantly goes. But there is a condition; he can only speak whatever God put in his mouth. Baalam heads towards the camp of the Israelites, only to be blocked by a rather disturbing angel of the Lord with an even more disturbing sword. Saved by his donkey from being a real cut up, 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 the king is furious. Three strikes, and Balaam is out. Though at his next at bat, he gives the king a really good idea.

Balaam's and Balak's Story is one about Magic and the nature of magic. Back in 2004, I took a graduate level course on the history and theory of what is known as Jewish magic or Jewish wonder-working. On the take home final, one of the questions intrigued me:

The Chicago Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908 or a National League Pennant since 1945. Many people believe that the reason is because they were cursed years ago. As a famous wonder-working Chicago rabbi, you are hired by the Cubs to help them win the World Series in 2004. How will you do this, and why have you chosen the particular techniques, strategies, rituals, etc. that you intend to employ both to remove the curse and to help ensure victory in the World Series?
After going to the Cubs vs. A's game last week I thought I'd bring back that paper. Using Balak as a background let me summarize that answer I gave back in 2004.

For those not familiar with the curse, the classic "Billy Goat curse" begins many years earlier. In 1934, Bill Sianis bought The Lincoln Tavern across from the Chicago Stadium. Sianis also had a live billy goat in the back of the tavern and thus was known as “Billy goat.” Later, Bill Sianis would open a tavern on Michigan Avenue named the Billy Goat. As part of the publicity for the taverns, Sianis regularly brought a billy goat named Murphy along with him on trips to sports arenas and other events. In 1945 during the World Series against the Detroit Tigers, when Bill Sianis brought Murphy along, he was denied admission. Murphy had entered the park before to see another game earlier that year. This time security believed that the goat's odor was objectionable. After Sianis' protest that the goat did have a ticket, the matter was referred to Owner P.K. Wrigley. Wrigley denied the goat admission, again because of the smell. In anger, Sianis cursed the Cubs, with the words "The Cubs, they not gonna win anymore." After their defeat in the 1945 World Series, Sianis sent a telegram to Wrigley, stating "who smells now?" and stated that the Cubs were never going to win the World Series, let alone the National Championship. From that day on they have not.

An important recent episode of the Billy goat curse was when the Cubs were only five outs from successfully entering the World Series in game 6 of the National League championship in 2003. Fan Steve Bartman interfered with a foul ball that would have otherwise been caught by Moises Alou. This was followed by a wild pitch by Mark Prior. The Cubs lost the game and all subsequent games to let the Florida Marlins win the pennant. The Marlins would go on the World Series against the New York Yankees.

Jewish magic may seem like a contradiction in terms, as Modern Judaism is usually known for its rationalist position. Indeed, there are prohibitions against the use of magic in Torah. For example in Exodus 22:17 we read “You shall not suffer a witch to live.” More inclusively, there is the following:

There shall not be found among you any one who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or who uses divination, or a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a witch Or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination to the Lord; and because of these abominations the Lord your God drives them out from before you.[Deuteronomy 18:10-12]

In the Talmud, we read “A sorcerer, if he actually performs magic, is liable [to death].”[Sannhedrin 67a] All of these indicate that is forbidden to use magic, although Sanhedrin does go on to exempt mere illusion.

However, there still is an old, ancient tradition of Jewish wonder working, going back to Moses. Moses did many things which we might call either miracles or magic. Later prophets like Elijah and Elisha were also renowned for their abilities to work wonders, including, torching altars, making jars never empty, split rivers, and resurrect the dead. How are these to be distinguished from magic?

There are differences between the two in how magic and wonder working operates, visible in the two times Baalam is to be employed by Balak's people. The first one is simple version of pagan curses:

9. And God came to Balaam, and said, What men are these with you? 10. And Balaam said to God, Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent for me, saying, 11. Behold, there is a people come out of Egypt, which covers the face of the earth; come now, curse them for me; perhaps I shall be able to overcome them, and drive them out. 12. And God said to Balaam, You will not go with them; you will not curse the people; for they are blessed.[Numbers 22]
on a second attempt, with agents holding out a bigger fee they are successful:
20. And God came to Balaam at night, and said to him, If the men come to call you, rise up, and go with them; but only that word which I would say to you, that you will do. [Numbers 22]
There are differences, which highlight the issue of magic versus wonder-working. In the pagan world, it was the belief that the forces of magic were independent of the pagan gods. The power of the gods was something that the gods could harness to do things. Yet as this was independent of the gods, people could use it too. Thus the abilities of people who could harness this like gods, the magicians, would work on both people and gods. Magicians could thus control the gods. The control of the magic was the magician himself, not God.

However, Jewish Magic is not independent of the god. God is the source: We are merely the instruments or conduits of holiness. Hence Balaam's already been set up for blessing and not cursing these people, by saying exactly what God tells him to say. No matter the number of changes of procedure or change of where the altar is, or even where one looks at the people works. Wonder-working is doing God will, not your own.

Where this is underlined deeply is that healing is God's will. The Talmud holds that “Whatever is used as a healing is not [forbidden] on account of the ways of the Amorite [i.e. prohibited magic]” [P. Shabbat 6.9, B. Shabbat 67a]. Therefore where there is healing we are allowed to use the power of God to intercede.

What about the Cubs? In this case, the healing would be for a team in order for them to win a game and increase profits of the Cubs organization and other local establishments and not for physical health. This would not be an ethical use of our wonder-working in this case.

However, there was window of opportunity in Steve Bartman. Due his unfortunate actions, he has been threatened and has needed security to prevent personal injury from happening to himself and his family. Even with the burning of the ball he caught, he is still concerned for his safety. Until October 2003, the curse has only made a ball team lose. Now the curse has threatened a human being. There is a tradition among Jewish wonder workers that they are entrusted to prevent such a loss. In 2004, when I wrote this paper, the Cubs winning the World Series will remove the threat of physical harm from Mr. Bartman. Of course, memory fades and even now the 2003 game is mere point of history of the curse. Without someone in physical danger, this plan for removing the curse won't work anymore. Yet it is interesting to look into the way ancient rabbis looked at magic, and how they would have removed a curse.

In our tradition, words are very powerful. The world itself is made of letters.Thus to utter something is to create something. Jewish mystics have for millenia worked with permutations of letters, numbers, and the holy names to create things. In the Talmud, R. Hanina and R. Oshaia often would study such texts on Friday nights creating a third grown calf, then eat it for Shabbat dinner [B. Sanhedrin 67b]. While making things are difficult, things are different when it comes to curses. Ordinary people can produce effective curses.

Of course this again underlines Balak's fallacy. Balak thinks he needs an expert to do the curse right -- because only an expert can control magic stuff. When Balak uses the best in the business, Balaam, he's sorely disappointed, since this guy has to follow the Word of God. Fortunately he didn't realize had he cursed the people himself, like Sianis did, it might have worked.

The belief is verbal curses may create or activate invisible agents of destruction, which bring the desired result of the curse to bear. These agents of destruction are often referred to as ruach ha ra, evil spirits, or mazikin, demons. Some demons have names and different behaviors. However there are a few behaviors which are common among most demons. Demons for example, tend to appear around transitions, both in time and space. Often demons are found at life cycle events where there is a major change in a person or their family’s life. Thus births, weddings and deaths are common problems with demons. The tradition of throwing rice at weddings is actually a way of bribing demons to leave the newly weds alone for example. There are also times of the year where transitions cause demons to be common. Also physical transitions such as doorways are also places for demons to hide. One 5th to 8th century CE practice began to equate the mitzvah of posting a Mezzuzah on the door post as also an effective device for repelling demons from a doorway. [Targum to Song of Songs 8]

The Cub's curse in this light is based on the words of Bill Sianis, not the goat. Once the demons were activated, it is not possible for the person to simply retract it. This would also explain why bringing goats into Wrigley did not work, as it is the words, not the goat that is responsible.

Demons change the course of games. Often it takes the form of the players suddenly under-performing. Balls roll between the legs of outfielders, otherwise intractable pitchers can’t throw a strike. It is possible that some form of possession is involved retarding motor and critical thinking skills. Until the 2003 season, this seems to be isolated to the players and thus the playing field. However, with Mr. Bartman this changed. As photographic evidence shows, his hand was in the transition point between the stands and the playing field. As already noted, this would be a point where demons would more likely accumulate and attack, and thus possessed Mr. Bartman before he had a chance to realize what he was doing. Demons like to hang out near front row seats.

In this case, there are three possible methods to provide success in removing the demons involved in the curse: transformation, repulsion, and trapping.

Transformation is based on the concept of taking the existing demons, whose purpose is to make the Cubs lose, and transform their purpose into one to make the Cubs win. Transformation is often used in Alchemy, changing one substance to another. However in Avodah Zara 12b and several other places, there is discussion of drinking water at a jug or pond in the middle of the night. There is the danger in that case of Shabriri, a form of blindness. Here the solution is to take the word Shabiri and reduce it by one letter at a time, ending with the last two letters only. Thus the drinker would recite:


We would think we would try to destroy the shabiri by removing all the letter, instead of stopping the sequence stops at two letters. Ri, is the participle of the root word RVH, meaning to be drinkable. Thus we have transformed a dangerous situation of drinking a Shabriri to safe potable water. A similar reduction from the words of the curse to the words “Cubs win” will achieve the same effect as follows:

The Cubs they not gonna win anymor
Cubs they not gonna win anymo
Cubs they not gonna win anym
Cubs hey not gonna win an
Cubs ey not gonna win a
Cubs y not gonna win
Cubs not gonn win
Cubs ot gon win
Cubs t go win
Cubs g win
Cubs win
Cubs win
Cubs win

The second strategy is that of repulsion through the use of amulets. Amulets are written prayer and symbols used to repel demons. The formula for the creation of an amulet is the following:

  1. In the name of…
  2. Divine name
  3. Angels
  4. Reason for amulet (i.e. prayer, )
  5. For the protection of A the son of B(mother’s name)
  6. Amen amen amen selah selah selah
Often the amulet may contain other magical symbols or pictures. These include symbols for angels, hexagrams and the “script of the angels” a symbolic writing system.

In a Cub's amulet these elements would be written as follows: The phrase “in the name of” followed by divine name. This is followed by the names of appropriate angels. As this is a amulet of protection, we might use the same archangel configuration as the prayer for protection found in the bedtime prayers.

"At my right Michael, at my left Gabriel, before me Uriel, behind me Rapahel"

Assuming the speaker is found at the pitcher’s mound, and thus each archangel is also guarding an infield position. Many amulets have another angel, Nuniel, who in this configuration is at shortstop. The outfield had three additional angels, Galaretz, Querespar, and Tebachsadeh. In the original prayer, over the speaker, here associated with the pitcher’s mound, is the Shechina, the presence of God. There is no mention biblically of the presence of God having a strong arm necessary for this position. We have thus replaced the presence with the Arm of God, as written in Psalm 98:1 “his holy arm, have gained him the victory.” Thus the first parts of the amulet would read as follows:

In the name of (divine name) and in the name of his hosts Gabriel on first, Raphael on second, Michael on third, Uriel on home, Nuniel as the Short, and, Argamon as infield, Tebach-sadeh on right, Gal-aretz on left, and Qere-sapar in the middle and over the thrower is the Arm of God.

Secondly various biblical quotes are given. Here we have the following from Psalms 98:1, Proverbs 17:12-13 and Leviticus 16:22. While some amulets are direct, most cannot directly say what it does. Instead, it must be circumspect. These quotes accomplish the task using key words and double entendres to create meaning:

O sing to the Lord a new song; for he has done marvelous things; his right hand, and his holy arm, have gained him the victory. Let a man meet a bear robbed of her Cubs, rather than a fool in his folly. Whoever rewards evil for good, evil shall not depart from his house. So the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities to a land not inhabited; and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.

Finally an incantation, here given as a blessing and the person this amulet is protecting is identified,

May the (divine name) and his host throw swing and catch truly and in righteousness for the protection of Steven the son of (mother's name) . Amen Amen Amen Selah Selah Selah.

The amulet is written under all rules for sacred calligraphy applicable to Torah, mezuzot, and tefillin. While the best material for parchment is usually deer-skin, for this amulet it is best to be written on goat skin parchment. In addition the amulet writer might include the positions of the angels on the field graphically, and other symbols which would increase its efficacy. One set of such symbols would be pictographs of angels, another would be the language of angels, with symbolic meaning of a blessing used at Wrigley when a home run is hit by the Cubs. We will also include the transformation sequence noted above. Note this amulet is missing critical elements, notably divine names, as this is an example and it is not proper to use such names for an example. After the amulet is completed it is to rolled up in leather and hung on the neck of the pitcher by a leather strap, as the orientations of the angels is based from that position.

Our final strategy is to render harmless demons associated with the curse in a form of a demon trap know an incantation bowl. Originally found in Babylon this appears to be a common method during the time of the late Talmudic rabbis. On the inside surface of the bowls would be written a writ of divorce between demons inhabiting a house and the house's human inhabitants. Based on one of these inscriptions we can adapt it to trap bind and render harmless the demons in Wrigley Field. The location of these bowls should be somewhere close to where demons would be hiding. One place involved in the Bartman incident is the foul line, a transition between a fair and foul ball. Currently on the two foul-line posts are the retired uniform numbers of Ernie Banks (14) and Billy Williams (26). The gematria, or numerical value, of the four letter God Name is 26 and the gematria of the word for hand or pwoer, yod, is 14. Thus, as in all working, the Power or Hand of God is involved here, so the incantation bowls should be placed on these posts, in a weatherproof housing to prevent breakage during the winter months.

I concluded the paper by noting in the nature of a curse, words can be removed with manipulation of words. Wonder workers, in breaking this curse, are not involved in getting the Cubs to win. They would be involved removing the pressure upon Steve Bartman by removing the curse and letting the Cubs skill and talent alone decide the fate of the Cubs, and for them to get into the World Series by their own merit. We can use methods of trapping, repulsion and transformation to repel negative spirit elements. But in the end, it will still be the performance of the Cubs themselves that will determine whether they will win the World Series. Standing in Wrigley field at the seventh inning stretch, though, planning to blog this this week I realized something else. The words of Baalam came back to me:

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, and your tabernacles, O Israel![Numbers 24]

There is a great blessing, a great and powerful magic that does exist at Addison and Clark. It is Wrigley field itself, an old ball field almost as rare as a magical dragon. I've been to many parks, but there is some magic about Wrigley that makes it special. Some claim that everyone has such a good time at Wrigley as a ball park, that there is no need of fielding a good team. That might be so. From the scoreboard changed by hand to the closer seating only available at a smaller stadium, there is something about a ball game at Wrigley that is a great blessing. It is a feeling found not only in any other ball park, but in any neighborhood around a ball park. Wrigleyville is aptly named. The curse doesn't thrill me as much as the magic in the stadium, one I have no idea how to describe.

Though wining the World Series against The Boston Red Sox, or to be more precise against Fenway Park, might just come close to a thrill....

Note: For those interested in what happened to that paper. My professor, Byron Sherwin, put the question in since he was writing a novel at the time about the Cubs Curse, and was deep into research into the curse. His book does not begin with the Sianis curse however, but retribution for anti-Semitic and racist tendencies of early 20th century Cubs fans, particularly against Hank Greenberg and Babe Ruth. I got an A on the paper. Later he told me there was stuff in my paper there he didn't even know, including why an exorcism by Father Guido Sarducci from Saturday Night Live fame might have actually worked and the gematria about the foul posts. If you want to read his version it is available from

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Hukkat 5770: Who Mourns with Moses?

We read this week:

1 And the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month; and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there. 2 And there was no water for the congregation; and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. 3 And the people strove with Moses, and spoke, saying: 'Would that we had perished when our brethren perished before the LORD! 4And why have ye brought the assembly of the LORD into this wilderness, to die there, we and our cattle? 5 And wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in unto this evil place? it is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink.'[Numbers 20]

Once again we have mumbling in the camp. Yet this time there is another element: Miriam has died. Tradition tells us that the two events were related. From early in the exodus Miriam was responsible for the micracle of a continuous water supply for the people. With her death, the water stops.

Moses, as Miriam's brother, is probably distraught. While for much of the rebellions we have seen in the book of Badmidbar be keeps an even temper even in the face of a very angry God. Yet here, he loses his temper, and in the aftermath he loses the privilege to go into Israel.

8. Take the rod, and assemble the congregation, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes, that it give forth its water; and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock; so thou shalt give the congregation and their cattle drink.' 9 And Moses took the rod from before the LORD, as He commanded him. 10 And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said unto them: 'Hear now, ye rebels; are we to bring you forth water out of this rock?' 11 And Moses lifted up his hand, and smote the rock with his rod twice; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their cattle. {S} 12.And the LORD said unto Moses and Aaron: 'Because ye believed not in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them. [Numbers 20]

The interpretations of this event have been many, but here I stick with one of the simplest and most emotional: Moses was not allowed to mourn for his sister. Additionally, the people were too busy complaining to pay respect to Miriam. While they showed her respect when she was ill with Tzarat by keeping the camp near her, in this case she was totally ignored. Or was she?

At the time of her illness, the people were not respectful but selfish. Their aim was simple: stay close to the water supply. It had nothing to do with honoring Miriam, but honoring the water she supplied. They liked their infrastructure but never really gave the person a second thought. This was what angered Moses. Not only was everyone complaining, which was nothing new, they did not honor either Miriam, Moses or Aaron as people. They did not honor Miriam's memory by giving Moses space to grieve. So, as many of us would probably do, Moses lost his temper.

I started to write this last week about this at the same time someone I knew in college died of a sudden heart attack. While I did not know him very well, he was part of that circle of people who I spent time with. For some reason, this death hit me very hard. I cried when I heard it, and could not stop. For some reason, I needed to grieve. I've realized we often have different levels of grief for people who are varying distances from us. Immediate family and spouses we of course we grieve the most. Friends we grieve for too. But as we get further away, this are a bit more spotty in our grieving process. Some who died halfway across the planet we hardly give a second thought to. As I found this week, sometimes we just need to grieve, we need to release the feelings we have about Death. Some do this by burying them, some release them. I needed release. I needed something to do. With no address of his widow, I did the best thing I could think of: I wrote the blessing for bad news on my deceased friend's Facebook page: Baruch Dayan HaEmet. I then wrote to his closest friends, who were also friends of mine and gave my condolences to them on their pages. It did in some way help. I also cried, before I left my office to take the long drive home. I cried some more on several occasions during that evening.

That reminded me of another friend of mine from college. We were in the same dorm freshman year, the year he pledged to a fraternity. As pledges they had to put on a party and he was in charge of a lot of it. Suddenly his mother had a dangerous relapse of cancer. Instead of being there for support him in his time of crisis, the other pledges were only yelling at him to get things done for the party. Not only was he hundreds of miles away from his mother, but getting grief from his pledge brothers to put the party together. Following a bit of advice from me, he ended up quitting the fraternity over the lack of support he got.

Moses and Aaron must have felt this way, with all the responsibilities on them. Always in the spotlight and required not by just the people but by God to be something other than human. While God seems to punish Moses and Aaron for their crankiness, thinking of my friend, I believe the dynamic here my be something else. There is point when we do need to grieve and deal with our personal emotions. We cannot be Moses and Aaron all the time. Even Moses and Aaron cannot be Moses our teacher and Aaron the High Priest all the time. There are personal moments they need for themselves and their own emotions. Sometimes the only thing we really need at that point is just to have someone listen, to have people give us the permission and the space to grieve. I remember calling my friend one summer break when his mom did succumb to the cancer. While he talked for an hour, I remember one sentence he told me form that conversation. He was grateful that I just sat on the other side of the phone and let him unload everything he was thinking. I just listened, not consoled or any thing else, just listened.

No one listened to Moses and Aaron when Miriam died. Water is a critical component of tears. Maybe the water stopped flowing because the people didn't flow water from their own eyes for Miriam. Why did God say to speak to the rock? God directions was a very deep, healing wisdom. Like I typed my grief and mourning into an inanimate keyboard to some Facebook database, when we are grieving, and there is no one to listen we can even talk to a rock.
8. Take the rod, and gather the assembly together, you, and Aaron your brother, and speak to the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and you shall bring forth to them water out of the rock; so you shall give the congregation and their beasts drink.[Numbers 20]
The text does not say what they were to say, if there was an incantation or formula for bringing for the water from a rock. Not apparent in the English is that God commands both Moses and Aaron to speak -- the "you" is plural. The Brothers of Miriam were to speak of their pain to the rock, because the people were not listening nor empathizing with it. Their job was to eulogize Miriam on that rock and let the tears flow from everyone, and then the rock would flow water.

They may not have learned many lessons in their time in the desert, but this idea of mourning they did learn. We read at the end of the chapter:
28 And Moses stripped Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son; and Aaron died there in the top of the mount; and Moses and Eleazar came down from the mount.29 And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they wept for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel. [Numbers 20]

This time, with Moses the people mourn thirty days.Today we have learned to mourn differently.From the funereal to the seven days to the thirty day to the eleven months there are different stages of mourning. There is saying Kaddish, and there is the responsibility of the community to visit the mourners during shiva, the seven days. As part of that tradition I gave my friend probably the greatest gift -- a shiva call of just listening, something that is so rare these days in most of society. There are immense numbers of commentaries on this portion, trying to figure out why Miriam, Aaron and Moses died when they did, never to see the Promised Land. I believe it was to teach their very last very important lesson: to grieve with the mourners.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Korah 5770: The Inner Korah

I'm writing this late once again, and I keep wondering, "Why am I late?" I vowed a few weeks ago not to stop writing and not to skip a piece, but here I am again, in the same situation. Why? Parshat Korah may have an answer.

This week we have the story of the Korah rebellion and its aftermath. Korah, Dathan and Abiram, along with 250 of the leading figures in the community rebel against Moses and Aaron, and want to be included as priests. Moses tries to dissuade them, but is unsuccessful. In a contest the next morning, the rebels light incense in their censers, to determine who is chosen by God. Korah, Dathan and Abiram and their families are swallowed up by the earth, literally going straight to hell, and the 250 men are burned alive by a fire from God. The people murmur against this and a plague ensues. To settle the matter of leadership once and for all, another contest is performed. This time the leaders of each tribe place their staff in the Mishkan and leave them overnight. In the morning, Aaron’s staff buds and blooms with almonds. Yet, there are still murmurs.

I went to a D'var Torah last Shabbat where parshat Korah was discussed. Very unlike my usual participation in discussion, I kept silent. There was a mistake in her speech, and noting the mistake would have damaged her whole speech. So I kept silent as a matter of respect. In the questions she asked as part of her discussion, another thing I kept silent about was the question of why did the households of Korah, Dathan and Abiram have to die so quickly. Most thought it a little heartless. We know that the Talmud teaches that in capital crimes to be slow to justice while in monetary crimes to be quick. Why was judgment so quick here?

The book of Bamidbar has many of these dilemmas, and a lot of people die. Indeed, as a consequence of last weeks portion, all 600,000 Israelites but Joshua and Caleb die. Two years ago I wrote a series of these where I came up with an idea bout that. Eretz Yisroel, the Promised Land is who we can be in all of our potential, and Egypt is who we were, constrained and enslaved by many things inside ourselves. Bamidbar is a struggle inside of us, not just of a people. This week we hit one of the biggest hurdles in getting to the Promised Land, the internal rebellion. In the Torah this is represented by Korah and the related rebellions. We’re all familiar with the concept in our own lives, a sense of self destruction of the path to success. One day you are on the top of the word, successful and ready to have your dream come true. The next you do one very stupid thing and the world come crashing down. One feels like Korah’s final fate. The ground under your feet opens ups and you fall straight to Sheol. We’ve seen it happen all too often to people in view of the media both in the political and entertainment realms. Then there are the times it has happened to us as well. It’s happened to me numerous times to be sure, I'm pretty certain it happens to us all.

Korah personifies the self destructive element within us. Korah and his allies are deluded into believing how we existed in the past is better than the present. Dathan and Abiram for example ask:

13. Is it a small thing that you have brought us out of a land that flows with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you also make yourself a prince over us?[Numbers 16]

Egypt, the place of oppression, has become the promised land here. Who we were at the beginning of our quest seems to be what we are striving for. Of course to reach the true Promised Land, this is nonsense. It is merely the comfort of the familiar, the road ahead is very scary, though it will bring great success. We want to go back to slavery to our bad habits rather than change and become something more, and fully realize our potential. The Inner Korah is there to sabotage that effort, in any way possible. He is based in fear, but uses rhetoric to confuse us. Our Inner Korah, if let alone for any amount of time, will restrain us from our goals. To answer that bat mitzvah question, Korah needs to die and die quickly. He is a threat to all and can ultimately make us slaves once again. That assumes the Egyptians, that which enslaves us are merciful. More likely they would slaughter the people as punishment, like many self destructive behaviors lead ultimately to an untimely demise.

Like the last time I addressed this, I am fighting another battle with the Inner Korah, one that keeps this column from getting done. While it is best for him to be swallowed up by the earth, we are not as fortunate as Moses was. It is a great battle to defeat self destructive behaviors, one that needs to happen every day. The mistake in the D'var I heard was from a later part of Bamidbar when we find the "The sons of Korah did not die"[Numbers 26:11] While everyone else perished, they were saved. According to the Rabbis because they sang psalms of praise and repentance. Ironically their descendant was the Prophet Samuel, who is mentioned in the traditional Haftarah for this portion. One way to defeat Korah, the lesson seems to be, is to transform him into something constructive.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Shelach lecha 5770: Viewpoints

This week we have the well known portion of the spies, Moses sends ten spies, one from each tribe into the land of Israel to scout out what is there. On their return, ten of the spies start by giving a positive report, only to tell the people that there are people inhabiting the land are unconquerable.
27 And they told him, and said: 'We came unto the land where you sent us, and surely it flows with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it. 28 Yet, the people that dwell in the land are fierce, and the cities are fortified, and very great; and moreover we saw the children of Anak there. 29 Amalek dwells in the land of the South; and the Hittite, and the Jebusite, and the Amorite, dwell in the mountains; and the Canaanite dwells by the sea, and along by the side of the Jordan.' ... the men that went up with him said: 'We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.'

Two, Joshua and Caleb report other wise.

30 And Caleb stilled the people toward Moses, and said: 'We should go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.'
When the people believe the ten spies, and want to go back to Egypt, God punishes them by the 40 years wandering in the desert effectively killing off this generation by attrition. The twelve spies saw the same things but came to very different conclusions. I hear such opposing voices all the time. It indeed makes it difficult to watch the news for me. There seems to be only two polarized voices shouting at each other. One is wrong and one is right. To even acknowledge the legitimacy of the oppositions point of view is considered a sign of weakness.

Indeed, even an opposing view is given a name connoting evil, "the devil's advocate." Such a term again shows there is a right way and a wrong way, and to even acknowledge the wrong way is evil. However, a wrong way may not be wrong, just different.

Rabina said in the name of Samuel: The Cherubim [made by Solomon] stood by a miracle; for it is said, And five cubits was the one wing of the Cherub,’ and five cubits the other wing of the Cherub,’ from the uttermost part of the one wing unto the uttermost part of the other were ten cubits, where, [then] were their bodies standing? Consequently it must be inferred that they stood by a miracle. Abaye demurred: They might have been standing [with their bodies] protruding [under the wings] like [those of] hens! Raba demurred: perhaps they did not stand opposite one another! R. Aha b. Jacob demurred: They might have been standing diagonally. R. Huna the son of R. Joshua demurred: The house might have been wider from above! R. Papa demurred: Might not their wings have been bent? R. Ashi demurred: Their wings might have been overlapping each other![Baba Bathra 99a]

In this discussion in the Talmud we see an interesting idea not in the content but how it was argued. When we have a cherub who is ten cubits long from wing tip to wing tip, yet each wing is five cubits long it leaves no room for a body. How could such a statue, found in the temple stand? Instead of one answer which is definitive, we have six different answers, each taking a very different approach and adding a piece of information to make their approach work. This is not keeping one right opinion, but listening and understanding all of them which is important. The truth is not a coin with two sides, but a precious gem of many facets. In another example, the rabbis, ever practical and spiritual come up with reasons for wiping with the left hand when going to the bath room:

Why should one wipe with the left hand and not with the right? — Raba said: Because the Torah was given with the right hand, as it says, At His right hand was a fiery law unto them.Rabbah b. Hanah said: Because it is brought to the mouth. R. Simeon b. Lakish said: Because one binds the tefillin [on the left arm] with it. R. Nahman b. Isaac said: Because he points to the accents in the scroll with it. A similar difference of opinion is found among Tannaim. R. Eliezer says, because one eats with it; R. Joshua says, because one writes with it; R. Akiba says, because one points with it to the accents in the scroll.[Brachot 62a]

Here the rabbis have a theme of course. A hand that has touched fecal matter should not come into contact with Torah scrolls, Tefillin, food or our mouths. They are, of course, all correct. Indeed it is our tradition that when there are multiple viewpoints at the table, then we have a holy understanding. Perkei Avot makes this rather clear:

Mishnah 3. R. Simeon said… if three have eaten at one table, and have spoken there words of Torah, [it is] as if they had eaten at the table of the all-present, blessed be he, as it is said, this is the table before the lord. (Ezek 41:22)

Mishnah 6. R. Halafta [a man] of Kefar Hanania said: [When there are] ten sitting together and occupying themselves with Torah, the Shechinah abides among them, as it is said: God stands in the congregation of God.(Ps. 82:1)[Avot 3]

There is not one viewpoint but many. We are all witnesses to Creation and all that is in it. That means we will all be different. Identical testimony in court according to the Talmud indicates a lie, since no one has identical viewpoints.
In my own thinking, I try to avoid putting situations in the good/bad flip of the coin. There is always facets. To think of a viewpoint other than your own as a devils advocate is highly inaccurate. Caleb and Joshua both held a minority opinion, but it held merit. While we call the 10 spies evil, they did have a viewpoint, though based primarily on fear and not trust in God. This all could have gone differently, if there were more consensus and less position taking. In the end, the 10 spies doomed their generation, and their “devils advocate” lead the next generation into the land of Israel.
I believe when we think, we need to consider all views, even if they are a bit uncomfortable. Even if we do not agree with another view, we at least gain the ability to talk in the same language as someone not agreeing with us. Ideally, they will do the same. I tend to do this and work out everyone else’s view first before my own. My only problem with this is other people misinterpreting my view as the ones I'm trying to appreciate first.

I have no idea what to do about others. It is a great puzzle to me how to communicate that there are many facets to any situation. I am not championing a point of view but exploring it, to understand it and acknowledge the truth of that and any other viewpoints. All I know so far is to listen to other viewpoints, and understand where the other has validity. To scoff categorically at another's viewpoint accomplishes nothing.
There is the old joke about two Jews, three opinions. The rabbis personified this type of thinking. The third opinion was a synthesis of all viewpoints, and that synthesis, not polarity, was a holy thing, one where we find God. I'm still a beginner in such Jewish thinking, but it is something we should all strive for.