Thursday, June 23, 2016

A Holy War

Feel free to download and print the Parashat Behaalotecha sheet and share it with your friends and family.

A Holy War

Now in the third parasha of Bamidbar, the Children of Israel have not moved since the middle of Shemot. God has descended upon Mount Sinai, proclaimed the Ten Commandments, laid the civil laws before all, and commanded the building of the Mishkan and its attendant laws. The people have organized the camp, they know how they are supposed to march, and they have the banners of the tribes, the trumpets of silver, and the Divine cloud to lead them. Everything is in place, and the time has finally come to move forward. All systems are go, and now? Immediate murmuring, stumbling, and failure: “And they marched from the mountain of the Lord a distance of three days….And the People took to complaining bitterly before the Lord” (Bamidbar 10:33, 11:1). What went wrong?

The answer, I believe, can be found in the Song of the Ark that comes between the leaving of Mount Sinai and the complaining that immediately followed. The song is set off by inverted letter nuns and, according to the Rabbis, divides Bamidbar into two parts (Breishit Rabbah 64). On one side of the divide is the Divine plan, on the other, its harsh encounter with reality.

The song thus serves as the crucial transition from theory to practice. It describes how the ark is to journey, how the people are to make the transition and move forward from Har Sinai:

And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moses said, Rise up, Lord, and let thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee. And when it rested, he said, Return, O Lord, unto the many thousands of Israel (10:35–36).

On first reading, this passage is quite jarring. Seemingly out of nowhere, we are presented with a militaristic image; the peaceful journey through the wilderness has now become an event of God rising up, attacking, and dispersing God’s enemies. On further reflection, however, we realize that the Torah has been using militaristic imagery all along: Moshe is commanded to count all those who are yotzei tzava, able to go forth to war, and they are to be numbered by their armies (1:2). Indeed, the camps are divided with banners li’tzivotam, according to their troops. The Song of the Ark states clearly what has been implicit all along: the people are preparing to engage in battle. But what is the nature of this battle?

Some commentators take this passage quite literally: we are to wage war against God’s enemies. This is not to say that we should attack them physically, but rather, that we must focus our religious energies and passions on attacking those we view as a threat to our Torah and our way of life. Others turn this battle inward. For them, when we leave Har Sinai to engage the world, we must be ready to do daily battle with our evil inclination. We will be sorely tempted, and to remain true to God and Torah requires constant vigilance and struggle with our baser instincts.

However, one cannot only fight against the bad, be it inside or outside of oneself. One must also fight for the good. The Peace Corps and the Salvation Army are organizations that understand their mission in terms of going to war and whose names communicate a warlike image. The war that they fight is a war against the evils of hunger, poverty, illness, bigotry, and violence. There is also Tzivos Hashem, God’s Army, the organization started by the Lubavitcher Rebbe almost forty years ago to fight against assimilation, alienation, and a growing loss of identity. These wars are not fought with violence or aggression. They are fought through education, leadership, role modeling, and acts of kindness. We win our wars when we focus our energies on amplifying the goodness and the Godliness in the world.

If the journeying forth was indeed a march into such a war, why did the people begin murmuring as soon as they encountered the first harsh realities? The answer is simple: they were not prepared for war. Dividing the people into camps, counting the troops, and even being led forward by the Divine cloud could not accomplish anything if the people only saw themselves as following orders. The verse, “By the word of God they encamped and by the word of God they journeyed,” defined their actions (9:10). In marching forward, the people had no purpose, no destination. And if they did have a destination, it was the “land of milk and honey,” not the “Promised Land.” As Michael Walzer writes in Exodus and Revolution: “The people, dreaming of milk and honey, are materialists; Moses and the Levites, dreaming of holiness, are idealists….The people see and want; Moses has a vision and program” (103). Following orders does not give one the sense of purpose or the steel necessary to face and endure hardship and privation. This can only be achieved by internalizing a sense of vision and higher calling.

But it is not enough to embrace a sense of purpose and work to implement it; one must also become a partner in the very articulation of the vision itself. As Hazal note, the Torah told us that the people obediently followed God in their journeys: when the cloud moved, they moved; when the cloud rested, they rested. But in the Song of the Ark, Moshe calls upon God to rise up and move forward, and Moshe calls upon God to return to the camp. This teaches, say Hazal, that both were necessary: “When the time came to travel, the cloud pillar would uproot from its place on God’s word, but it did not have permission to move forward until Moshe told God (to rise up); it is thus fulfilled, ‘by the word of God’ and ‘by the word of Moshe’” (Sifre Zuta 10, emphasis added).

God can give us all the systems and point us in the right direction, but if we don’t partner in the shaping and articulation of the vision, we will never journey forth; we will never fully be able to bring the Torah from the foot of Mt. Sinai into the larger world. I know many people who complain that they go to shul and leave uninspired. “Davening just doesn’t do it for me,” they say. But that is the root of the problem: they are waiting for davening—or learning Torah or keeping Shabbat—to do it for them. What is required is not just a sense of mission, but intentionality. We must take the mitzvot that God has given us—the direction that God is pointing us towards—and be intentional about them: how can I make this mitzvah achieve its purpose? How can I help realize the Divine purpose in what I do?

For so many of us, the failure goes beyond not being inspired when doing mitzvot. There is a much more pervasive and, indeed, pernicious problem. Namely, the Torah we learn and the mitzvot we perform do not sufficiently translate into the way we act in our “regular” lives, when we go to work, go shopping, log onto Facebook, or interact with our family, friends, or strangers. We are very good at compartmentalizing our lives, at leaving the Torah at the foot of Mt. Sinai and journeying forth without the ark of God to accompany us.

The key is to realize that carrying forth the ark will not happen on its own. The ark will only move forward, and God’s presence will only move with it, if we call upon it to do so. The cloud did not have permission to move, it could not transition into the real world, until Moshe became a partner in bringing God into the process. This requires an enormous amount of work, planning, setting of goals, and developing strategies. It is just like going to war, except that this is a war to bring God’s name into the world, to act in ways that serve as a model of religious and ethical behavior. Whatever we do, it demands that we not expect the Torah that we have learned and the mitzvot that we have performed to do the work for us. We must call upon the ark to move; we must shape or direct our actions to reflect the Torah, its values, and its mandates. We must move forward, and we must call on God to move forward with us. Thus it will be fulfilled, “by the word of God” and “by the word of Moshe.”


Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Words that Heal

Feel free to download and print the Parashat Nasso sheet and share it with your friends and family.

Words that Heal

The Temple rite of the suspected adulteress, the sotah, is profoundly challenging to our contemporary sensibilities. As the Torah describes it, a man who is seized by a fit of jealousy and suspects—with no corroborating evidence—that his wife has committed adultery can bring her to the Temple and force her to undergo a trial by ordeal to prove her innocence. This ordeal contains elements of shaming and a presumption of guilt: The woman’s head is uncovered. The kohen proclaims curses that will befall her if she has sinned, and the water mixture that she must drink is described as “bitter, curse-bearing water” that will enter her body “to cause bitterness.” In contrast, the kohen never proclaims the blessings that she will received if she has not sinned, and the water is never described as “blessing-bearing.” Additionally, when describing the possibility that she has not sinned, the Torah uses the word “im,” “if.” When describing the possibility that she has sinned, the Torah uses the word “ki,” a word that means both “if” and “because” or “inasmuch as,” the subtext being, “because you have strayed, you will be cursed.”

Modern readers are likely to find all of this deeply disturbing. First, the whole idea of trial by ordeal is foreign not only to our notion of earthly justice, but even to that of the Torah. Indeed, Ramban remarks that this is the only time in the Torah that a case is decided by invoking a miraculous process. More challenging, however, is the degree of control and power that a husband can exercise over his wife. He can suspect her of adultery and force her to undergo this procedure, but she cannot do the same to him.

In a polygamous society, marriage limited the wife by demanding her complete fidelity to her husband, but not so for the husband, who was still free to marry (or have sex with) other women. For a woman, to commit adultery was to betray her husband, to violate the fidelity of the relationship, what the Torah refers to as ma’alah bo ma’al, to trespass against him. In contrast, for a husband to have sex with another woman was not considered adultery if she was not married, and even if she were, it was a trespass against the other woman’s husband, not against the man’s own wife.
This asymmetry is true in general, but the case of the sotah demonstrates that this difference in law translates into a significant imbalance of power. Because his wife has trespassed against him, the husband has the power, based on nothing more than a suspicion, to force her to undergo a shaming ordeal. Read this way, the Torah is giving license to an abuse of power by the husband against his wife. But perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps the Torah is trying to protect the wife and rein in the degree of control that a husband might otherwise have had in ancient society.

It is notable that Hazal, in their distilling of the religious message of the rite of sotah, did not overly focus on the husband’s power or even on the consequences of sexual infidelity. For Hazal, the primary lesson of the ritual was, “My name that was written in holiness should be erased into the water in order to make peace between husband and wife” (Shabbat 116a). That is, the lesson was the great extent to which God was willing to go in order to reconcile husband and wife. For them, the purpose of this ritual was to create peace, not to heap blame and shame upon the wife.

What does it mean to see this ritual through such a lens? First, we might wonder how such jealousy could have played out in the absence of this ritual. It is possible that, in surrounding societies, a husband suspecting his wife of adultery would have been able to punish her as he saw fit, perhaps even by killing her. The Torah is circumscribing this “tribal law” response and insisting that the case be dealt with through more central, controlled, dispassionate means, much like it did in the case of the redeemer of blood.

Jacob Milgrom points out that the Torah never uses the word no’ef here, the legal term for committing adultery, underscoring that we are only dealing with the husband’s suspicions, that there is no legal basis to punish the wife in the courts or elsewhere. In fact, if the woman was indeed guilty, the Torah only states that she will suffer and presumably become sterile (in contrast to Hazal’s understanding that she would die as a result). Thus, since there was no objective basis for prosecuting her, even an actual act of adultery would not be punished as severely as it would have been in the courts.

The sotah rite could be seen as a corrective even if the husband would not have been able to punish his wife solely on his suspicions. Nevertheless, such claims would mean that she would have to go through life with a cloud of doubt; she would be shunned by society. The Torah creates this ritual as a way of cleansing her of this guilt and restoring her position in society.

It is safe to say that there were few cases that merited the miraculous intervention and Divine action required by the ritual. Indeed, the Gemara states that, in general, miraculous events associated with the Temple ceased in the Second Temple period.  Elsewhere it specifically lists many reasons why the sotah ritual was so often ineffective. Thus, the result of God’s Divine name being erased and the absence of a visible Divine punishment were an affirmation of the wife’s innocence and thus helped bring peace between husband and wife.

The ritual itself was also not as degrading as we might imagine it to have been. Unlike the description of the ritual in the Mishna, there is no indication that it was public or otherwise intended to shame the woman. The only act that might have had this effect, to some degree, was uncovering her hair. The Torah does not tell us what the purpose of that act was, stating it as matter-of-factly as the putting of the meal offering on her hands. Perhaps it was intended as a minor shaming, allowing the husband to feel that his wife at least received some punishment for what he imagined were her improper acts. Perhaps it served some other purpose. Regardless, we are not dealing with a public shaming ritual.

Hazal’s statement of God declaring that the Divine name should be erased is, in my understanding, a play on the use of me’ilah, trespass, to describe the woman’s act, a word that almost always denotes a trespass against God. Hazal are saying that God is actually allowing a trespass against God’s name for the sake of clearing a suspected trespass against the husband.

Hazal’s invocation of God’s name also alludes to a section in the Torah that is juxtaposed the rite of sotah, namely, the blessing of the kohanim, which ends with the words, “and God will place upon you peace.” The Torah concludes that section by stating, “And they shall place my name on the Children of Israel, and I will bless them.” Here, we are being told, is a fulfillment of that blessing: God’s name is placed on—given to—the Children of Israel so that God may create peace between husband and wife.

This lesson has guided many areas of halakha. Because of what God has allowed to be done to God’s name, halakha dictates that similar accommodations can be made in halakha to achieve marital peace; there are times when halakha can be overridden for the purpose of “making peace between husband and wife.” And as regards the suspicion of adultery, halakha has made it enormously difficult to determine that a woman has committed adultery. Even overwhelming circumstantial evidence, even a woman’s own admission, is not sufficient proof that an act of adultery has occurred. If the couple wants to reconcile and remain married, halakha almost always finds a way to make this possible.

At the end of Tractate Nedarim, which deals with the power of words, the Talmud relates a story of a husband who came home one day to find another man jumping out of his bedroom window and his wife naked beneath the covers. Rava declared that we are to presume that the wife did not commit adultery since, had he been an adulterer, the other man would not have allowed himself to be seen by the husband. Besides the fact that the man may not have had a choice as to whether or not he was seen, Rishonim are bothered by the necessity of such an explanation. There is no direct evidence of adultery, so as a matter of halakha we can assume that no adultery took place. Ran explains that, nevertheless, the husband would have believed that his wife committed adultery and felt the need to divorce his wife. Rava’s words serve to reassure the husband that, as a matter of law and as a matter of fact, his wife had not slept with another man. These words, like God’s name and God’s words scraped into the water, served the purpose of bringing peace between husband and wife, the enduring message of the rite of sotah.


Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Was the Mishkan Wheelchair Accessible?

Feel free to download and print the Parashat Bamidbar sheet  and share it with your friends and family.

In Parashat Bamidbar, the Torah tells us how to construct a community that has God and Torah at its center. God’s command, “They shall make for Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst” (Shemot 25:8), is now given true shape as the Children of Israel depart from Mount Sinai and begin to move as a community and settle as a camp. The Sanctuary, the place of God’s presence, is in the center of the camp, and the tribes, each with its individual banner and distinct position, are arranged around it.

First, we learn that after we have departed from Mount Sinai, when we are engaged in the activities of encountering the world, we must remain oriented towards God and God’s presence in our midst. Whether we are encamped or marching, whether our lives are stable or in transition, we must always strive to direct our actions towards serving God. We must realize that to describe where we are in life, where we are encamped, is to describe where we are in relation to the goals of kedusha and to God. But we also learn that we need never enter the Temple to have God in our midst. Some people will seek to enter the Temple on a regular basis, others may only enter once a year or even never, but all of these people can have God in his or her midst.

Further, we learn that to be a people is not to be a homogenous mass; unity is not to be confused with uniformity. True unity, a cohesive community, comes from respecting differences: “each person on his banner,” each tribe with its distinctive qualities preserved. Some are on the left, some on the right, some north, and some south. What holds them together is a shared commitment to respect each other’s boundaries, to value their distinctive banners, their diversity, and to exist together as one people with a shared orientation towards God’s presence in their midst.

The final lesson is one of accessibility. True, a small number of impure people were temporarily excluded from the Sanctuary during their period of impurity, and the Levites comprised the innermost ring around the Sanctuary. Nevertheless, any person had the ability to enter the Levite camp and even the Sanctuary itself. All the people participated in making the Sanctuary, and all the people had access to it and a part in it.

Just as the Sanctuary was accessible, so was the leadership. Moses’ tent was no longer outside the camp; it was in the very center of it, open to all who would come. Only in a camp where every individual understood that he or she counted and had a right to engage and be heard could those who were impure say to Moshe, “Why should we be excluded from bringing God’s sacrifice in its appointed time?” (Bamidbar 9:7). Only in such a camp could the daughters of Tzelafchad approach Moshe and say, “Why should our father’s name be excluded from his family, because he has no son? Give us a portion together with the brothers of our father!” (Bamidbar 27:4). Only in such a camp could inclusion be assumed and exclusion be seen as a profound affront. And only in a camp led by a leader such as Moshe would the response not be condemnation and silencing, but a humble bringing of these just concerns before God.

This is the model of a camp with God at its center, and it must be our model for a Jewish community. To build such a community we need a laity that embraces these values and leaders who embody them. A leadership that embodies these values is accessible. It is a leadership that believes in unity through diversity, not through sameness. It is a leadership committed to ensuring that all are included, that no one is rejected or left outside the camp. Sadly, there are those in positions of rabbinic leadership who do not share this vision, who believe that the only Jews who count are those who fit a narrow definition, one that is getting narrower each day. Such is a leadership is fearful of diversity, believing that unity can come only if all Jews act and believe exactly the same way—their way.

The leadership that should be our standard is of a different sort. It is a leadership that spreads God's Torah in a way that teaches respect for all Jews. It is a leadership that teaches that Jews who never enter the Sanctuary can still have God in their midst if they orient their lives towards God in ways that are less obvious or ritualistic. It is a leadership that values and respects difference and diversity and believes that we are enriched by it. In a world where small-mindedness and intolerance are rife, where Jewish identity and shared values are elusive concepts, it is no small matter for a community to embrace this alternate vision, and asking a leader, a rabbi, to help shape such a community may seem like asking the impossible. But in striving to achieve this vision, we will do much to transform the Jewish community and our respect for one another.

Building on the foundation of diversity and respect, we can create a welcoming and accessible community that builds bridges rather than walls, that reaches out to those who are marginalized or who have been excluded. It will be a community that believes that any Jew—regardless of denomination, background, observance, sexual orientation, skin color, ability of sight, mobility, or neurotypical status—has a fundamental right to be included, to find his or her place in our camp. It will be a community that is exquisitely attuned to the cry of “why should I be excluded?!,” verbalized or non-verbalized, and that will remove any obstacle and create any accommodation to ensure that everyone is present and valued.

And it will be a community whose leadership is accessible, humble, and responsive. At a time when rabbinic leadership as a whole is becoming more authoritarian and unbending, the leadership that we most desperately need has pride for the Torah and the tradition that it represents, but with humility, it also seeks participation and collaboration. The community needs leaders who can admit their mistakes and learn from them. Such leaders, in the end, are loved and respected all the more.

This type of camp, this type of community, along with the leadership required to create it, will truly fulfill God’s command: “They shall make for Me a Sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.”

Shabbat Shalom!



Thursday, June 2, 2016

Has our Relationship Lost its Sizzle?


There is a bizarre verse in this week’s parasha. In listing the blessings that will be bestowed on the people if they follow God’s commandments and observe God’s laws—the rains will come in their appointed season, the land will bring forth its fruit, there will be peace in the land, and the people will be fruitful and multiply—the Torah reaches a climax with, “I will place my Tabernacle (mishkani) in your midst, and My soul will not abhor you” (Vayikra 26:11). What are we to make of this anti-climax? Of course God will not abhor us! We are living a fully religious life and are worthy of all these blessings. Why should this blessing—if that’s what it is—be necessary?

The answer is found in the first half of the verse: things may change once God has put God’s Tabernacle in our midst, and not necessarily for the better. We know that we are lacking as long as we are without a mishkan, a physical embodiment of God’s presence, a concrete and institutionalized structure of kedusha. We understand that we have not yet achieved our full religious potential, and that we must continue to strive and reach. Without a mishkan, we will live our lives driven by the mandate of kedoshim ti’hiyu, you shall become holy, striving to better actualize the divine within ourselves, knowing that we will never reach our ultimate goal.

Once God’s mishkan is in our midst, however, we may think that we have arrived. If God dwells among us, then there is no striving left do. We are fully holy, and we have the mishkan to prove it. With this attitude comes great danger, for if we are already holy, we will not stop to take stock of ourselves and our actions. We will not ask if there is more that we could be doing, if we are doing everything properly, or if we are being properly responsive to the world around us. We will become religiously complacent and self-satisfied. If we go down this path, we will hurt ourselves and others. We will come to believe that we are the only ones with the truth. Our sole mission will be to protect the truth and our mishkanim—our concretized embodiments of God’s presence—against defilement and impurity. We will divide the world into insiders and outsiders, with outsiders seen as people of no consequence at best, and at worst, as dangerous, threatening, and even evil. And it does not end there. The institutionalization of God’s presence can also lead to great corruption, as with the sons of Eli (I Shmuel 2) and as we see today when religion institutions gain power over people’s lives.

God’s placing of God’s mishkan in our midst, then, is a two-edged sword, a blessing that entails a very real risk. Seen this way, we can understand why the verse continues, “And my soul will not abhor you.” This is not a consequence of what has preceded but, rather, a second blessing. You will be blessed that, even with the mishkan in your midst, you will not become complacent, sanctimonious, and corrupt. You will not become a people abhorrent to God, a people who have abandoned the path of true kedusha and become so self-righteously satisfied with their own religiosity. You will succeed at having God’s mishkan while remaining true to God’s Torah.

How will this be achieved? The answer is found in the verse: “And I will walk (vi’hithalakhti) in your midst, and I will be your God and you will be my people” (Vayikra 26:12). God will move about among us. We will experience God as a moving presence, one that is constantly urging us to act, respond, and not stay still or dig in roots. When God is moving, you will know that God is near, but you will never know exactly where God is. There is uncertainty, and that keeps us striving, looking inward to take stock of ourselves and where we are, and looking out to seek that connection with God’s presence.

In fact, this word, hithalekh, to move about, occurs multiple times in Breishit in the context of the human relationship to God. The first occurrence is in the story of Gan Eden, when Adam and Eve hear the sound of God moving about, mit’haleikh, in the garden. The sense of an imminent encounter with God forces them to hide out of shame; they look at themselves honestly, knowing that God will soon be looking at them. Perhaps more to the point are all the instances in which becoming righteous is defined as walking before God: “And Hanokh walked before, hit’haleikh, God” (Breishit 5:22); “Before God did Noah walk” (Breishit 6:9); “God appeared to Avram and said to him: Walk before Me and be perfect” (Breishit 17:1); and finally, “And [Yaakov] blessed Yosef and said to him: The Lord before Whom my fathers have walked…” (Breishit 48:15).

If we see God’s presence in our midst as static, then our religiosity will be static. If, however, we see God as moving in our midst, then we will seek God out. We will seek opportunities to grow, to reach God, to understand what it is that we must do in the world. The relationship will be dynamic; it will be alive. Hence the verse that begins with, “I will walk in your midst,” concludes with, “and I will be your God and you will be my people.”

The Orthodox community has fallen short of this vision of a vibrant, dynamic religiosity. Orthodoxy, with its various mishkanim, its institutionalized embodiments, often leads to stasis, complacency, and religious self-satisfaction. Only by reintroducing the mandate to be mithalekh—to move, grow, and respond to the outside world and all its contemporary challenges—can we hope to maintain a true relationship with God. Only a religious vision such as this can allow us to connect to all those who have become alienated, who have been told, implicitly or explicitly, that they have no place in our mishkan, that they are threats, that they are not worthy and not wanted. Only such a religious vision will bring life and growth to those who are committed to Torah and mitzvot but who see in religion only the forms, only preserving and protecting rather than moving and growing.

We must be prepared to look honestly inward to see what must be changed, and to look outward to see what must be done to bring the light of Torah to the larger Jewish world. May we have God’s help to continue on this path and to have hatzlacha in all that we do, so that we may all be blessed to see fulfilled in our days the blessing, “and I will be your God and you will be my people.”


Shabbat Shalom!