Thursday, July 21, 2016

O, Say Can You See?

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

O, Say Can You See?

Speech is central in the story of Balak and Balaam, from Balaam’s blessings to the talking donkey. But as much as this parasha is about talking, it is also about seeing.

“And Balak the son of Beor saw, va’yar, all that Israel had done to the Amorites.” (Bamidbar 22:2). Balak not only saw what Israel had done to the Amorites, he saw it in a particular way. He saw a threat, and he responded accordingly. Had he been watching more carefully, he would have seen how the Israelites skirted the edge of his territory to avoid engaging his people in battle (see Devarim 2:8–13, already implicit in Bamidbar 21:11–13). This whole story, then, is the result of his failure to see correctly.

Balaam also fails to see clearly. What he sees is informed not by fear, however, but by ego and ambition. Balaam is certainly prepared to obey God. Although he wants to go with Balak’s messengers, he chooses not to, saying, “God will not let me go with you” (22:13). And on their second visit, he tells them, “I cannot do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the Lord my God” (22:18). But it is clear what he really wants to be doing. As any parent of a teenager knows, there is big difference between reluctant compliance and enthusiastic participation. How does a person move from submitting and obeying to embracing his charge? By internalizing the values and priorities of the other, by seeing as the other sees.

It is instructive in this regard to compare Balaam’s response to God’s command with that of Avraham. When God commands Avraham to leave his faraway land, God does not simply tell him to go to Canaan. God says: “go to the land asher ar’ekha, that I will show you.” God was teaching Avraham that a person cannot simply obey God. Rather, it is our duty to see what God is showing us; we must learn to see the world as God sees it, particularly when the task is arduous and the challenge is great.

In contrast, Balaam is told by God not to go, lo teileikh rather than lekh lekha. Here, mere passive compliance would have sufficed, and yet Balaam resists and continues seeing things his own way. Balaam need not embrace God’s way of seeing to drive him to change the world as Avraham had before him, but he must at least embrace it sufficiently so as to not contribute to the evil in the world. God not only tells Balaam not to go, but why he should not go: “do not curse the people for they are blessed” (22:12). Balaam has been shown the true, deeper reality, but is determined to not see, to not internalize this vision as his own. As Rashi comments, “He saw that it was evil in God’s eyes, and yet he desired to go” (22:22).

But God isn’t done with Balaam’s education, for as Balaam goes on his way, his donkey rebels against him. The point of this bizarre story is clear: the donkey can see, but Balaam cannot. Three times the verse states, “va’teireh ha’aton,” “and the donkey saw.” A simple animal could see the deeper reality that Balaam could not. Remarkably, the verse only mentions God giving the donkey the ability to speak, indicating nothing miraculous about its ability to see the angel. Animals, as we know, can sometimes sense things we humans cannot, like an impending earthquake or even the impending death of an ill patient. Their interaction with the world is guided less by thoughts and emotions and more by acute senses able to perceive a more subtle, hidden reality. Animals are free of the subjective lens through which we view our experiences, filtering and shaping things for consistency with our worldview. The simple, unfiltered seeing of the donkey is like the seeing of a child, free from the rationalizations and self-deceptions of adults. This allows them to see what we so often cannot.

God now miraculously opens the eyes of Balaam so that he can see the angel, and the truth.  God shows him how his arrogance, self-importance, and greed blind him to the truth. But does Balaam learn? Hardly. “Now, if it is evil in Your eyes, I will turn back,” he responds (22:34). It is still not evil in my eyes, he is saying to God. I understand that You think that it is evil, and if You tell me not to go, I am prepared to listen. You can make me obey, but You can’t make me agree. I will see it my way, not Your way.

At this stage, God allows for compromise. If Balaam can’t be taught to see rightly, God can at least make him say the right thing.  God will force-feed him his lines, putting the very words in his mouth. There is a  lesson to be learned here: even when we disagree with someone, we can still say the right thing. Sometimes the most important thing is simply to stop insisting that we are right. “Yes, dear” can be the two most important words in a marriage, for words have a peculiar power. The desired words can be helpful to the one hearing them, and they can also shape our own perception and change the way in which we see.

This is what eventually happens with Balaam. Knowing what it means to see through one’s own lens, Balak tries to make Balaam see in a way that is not accurate, but that serves his own ends. He takes Balaam to places where he will see only the “edge of the people,” not their totality or their blessedness, hoping that this partial, biased vision will allow Balaam to curse them (22:41, 23:13).

Choosing to see selectively is a key strategy in reinforcing the way we see the world. Consider how rarely we try to see the true complexity and scope of a matter, to move beyond the black and white and to appreciate all the nuances. It was initially thought that all the easily available information on the Internet would lead people to develop more informed and sophisticated views. The actual result was the opposite; what happened was a phenomenon known as “confirmation bias.” People chose to see only their own truth, seizing on information that reinforced their established position and filtering out the rest. It is so much easier to see selectively, to see only the “edge of the people.”

This was Balak’s plan. But the words Balaam utters, that God puts in his mouth, begin to have their effect. In his first two poetic prophecies, we hear him declaiming in words fed to him by God how the people are truly to be seen: “For I see them from the tops of mountains, and from the hills I behold them….He has not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither has he seen perverseness in Israel” (23:9,21). These words start to seep in to his consciousness, so that by the third prophecy, he actually begins to believe them.
This is the turning point of the story.  Balaam starts to see through the eyes of God: “And Balaam saw that it was good in the eyes of God to bless Israel” (24:1). Before, Balaam could only acknowledge that it was “bad in God’s eyes” to curse the people, but he refused to adopt that perspective. Now he sees that it is “good in God’s eyes” to bless the people, and rather than resist, he follows this vision and lets himself be led accordingly. 

The words describing this pivotal moment are, “vayar … ki tov,” “and he saw … that it was good”.  These words echo the very first act of seeing in the Torah: “Va’yar E-lohim ki tov,” “And God saw that it was good.” From the beginning of creation this is our mandate - to see as God does, to know what is truly good and what is not.

Balaam can finally see. He can lift up his eyes and see the people as they truly are (24:2). He declares that he can see “the vision of God” with “eyes open,” self descriptions thus far absent (24:3). And it is only now that he is filled with “the spirit of God.” He is not simply parroting words that have been forced into his mouth. He is elevated and inspired by what he sees, and when he speaks, he speaks from his heart. With this Balaam’s education is complete.

Sadly, the change proves to be short lived, as the remainder of the parasha bears out, for learning to see properly cannot be accomplished in an instant. Even when our eyes are open, we often resist and choose to remain blind. It is a life-long struggle to be the students of Avraham, to learn to see “the land that God will show you.” The keys are given to us in Parashat Balak: to see fully, not partially; to move beyond our biases and fears; to say what we know is right even if we do not yet believe it, knowing that this can help shape our vision and make us see as we know we should. In this way, we will not only resist the forces of evil, but we will be driven by the right vision to do good and to bring blessings into the world.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

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

Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

Much ink has been spilled by the commentators—classical and contemporary—to explain Moshe and Aharon’s sin of smiting the rock, but the matter remains quite opaque. Greater clarity can be gained by comparing the story of the smiting of the rock in our parasha with the hitting of the rock in Parashat Beshalach.

The first difference one notes is the term used to refer to the people. In our parasha that term is “kahal,” congregation. This term, in its noun and verb forms, appears seven times in the story of the rock, indicating a particular significance. In contrast, the word used in Beshalach is “am,” a people, and again, we find this term seven times in that section. An am is a collection of people united in some way; they are most likely related to one another. A kahal are people with a corporate identity. The act of gathering, hakhel, refers to bringing people together for a purpose, the hakhel gathering to hear the Torah, for example, or the gathering of the people by blowing trumpets. A kahal, then, is a people with a collective identity, with a shared past, way of life, and sense of purpose.

When the people left Egypt they were a ragtag bunch. Having shed their identity as slaves, the people had yet to adopt a new one. This is not only a new sense of purpose, but more fundamentally, a sense of self as an autonomous and empowered agent. It is therefore no surprise that, when faced with hardship, their immediate reaction was to return to Egypt, to retreat to the one identity familiar to them. When they complained to Moshe about the water in Beshalach, their complaint was simply, “Why did you take us out of Egypt?”; you should have let us continue to live our lives as slaves.

Now, however, forty years later, the people have developed a sense of who they are. This is true collectively and individually. On the collective level, they have entered into a covenant with God and received the Torah and its mitzvot, giving structure and meaning to their lives. They have also built the Mishkan and placed it in the center of their camp. They identify as a people with a Divine mission and with God in their midst. In fact, the phrase they use to refer to themselves here is “kehal Hashem,” the community of God, a phrase we have only heard once before, in the mouth of Korach: “Behold the whole nation is holy, and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves over kehal HaShem, the community of God?” This identity had been formed thirty-eight years earlier, and it was still with them and defining them now, on the cusp of their entry into the land.

They also had a sense of identity on the individual level. This was a new generation, one that had grown up free from the bonds of slavery and with a life of mitzvot, the very core of which emphasizes that we are free, that we live in a world of choices, and that we must choose wisely and correctly. This is why the people do not simply say, “Why did you take us out of Egypt?,” but rather, “Why did you bring the congregation of God to this wilderness?” (20:4), and again, “Why did you take us out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place?” (20:5). This generation has no want to return to Egypt; their complaint is not why they left, but why they hadn’t arrived. They want to be in a “place of seed, figs, vines, and pomegranates” (20:5), which is none other than the land of Israel (see Devarim 8:8).

Significantly, the people do not complain that they have not been brought to “a land flowing in milk and honey,” the complaint we heard from Datan and Aviram (16:13–14). A land flowing in milk and honey is a miraculous land, where God will provide everything without any effort on the part of the people, the dream of a people who had just been slaves. This generation, however, wanted to be in a land that must be worked, a land where they will toil, seed and harvest, and chart their own destiny.

We can now begin to understand the differences in the two narratives, and the sin of Moshe and Aharon. Here, God instructs Moshe to gather the people and speak to the rock in their presence (20:8), while in Beshalach, he is told to pass before – in front of and away from - the people, after which he performs the miracle in the presence of the elders (Shemot 17:6). Here, the people can be engaged, and they become participants in the miracle. In Beshalach, however, the people can only receive, and they can only be the beneficiaries of a miracle performed from afar.

Another key difference is the staff.  In the earlier event, God told Moshe to take “the staff with which you smote the river,” that is, the staff that does miracles (Shemot 17:5). Here, Moshe is told to take “the staff” (20:8). As the next verse makes clear, and as Rashbam notes, this is none other than Aharon’s staff, which was placed next to the ark. This is not a staff that does miracles, but one that represents leadership, specifically religious leadership. The role of the first staff is to produce miracles, to show God’s power. God thus tells Moshe, “I will stand before you on the rock,” that is, I will demonstrate My presence and power (Shemot 17:6). The role of the second is to lead, to engage the people directly. In this leadership, God’s presence is less “front-and-center,” less overwhelming, and thus there is no mention of God’s presence at the rock. God will still be making it all happen, but from behind the scenes.

The rock is also different. In Beshalach, the rock was a “tzur,” a word indicating a hard, flinty rock and suggestive of a holy place (see Shoftim 6:21, 13:19). A little later in this narrative, tzur is also used to refer to the place where God reveals Godself to Moshe (Shemot 33:21–22), and it is even occasionally used to refer directly to God (see Devarim 32:4, 15, 18). The message is clear: this tzur will be a place of God’s presence, where God reveals Godself. In contrast, the rock here is a mere sela. This sela is a simple rock, one that carries no religious weight, where no obvious miracle will occur.

Thus we arrive at the difference between hitting and talking. Hitting represents force: forcing something on the people; talking at them, not to them; forcing a miracle on the natural order of things. Talking represents engagement: leading the people through discussion and persuasion, and working within the natural order of things. Thus, in Beshalach we read that the tzur, the hard rock, will “bring forth water,” a true miracle. Here, however, the sela, the soft rock, will bring forth “its waters,” suggesting that the water was already present in the rock and just had to be extracted. Similarly, in Beshalach we are told that the waters will come out – on their own, through the miracle - and the people will drink, while here we are told, “You [Moshe] will take out the waters, you will make the people drink” (20:8). Moshe must now demonstrate leadership and a way of living that does not depend on miracles but that demands from us that we engage the world, work within the natural order, and yet still continue to see the hidden miracles and God’s hidden presence.

This was the type of leadership and the relationship with God that was now required. The people were ready for this, not just because they were about to enter the land, but because after forty years living with God in their midst, this congregation of God had internalized their reliance on God and God’s presence in the world. But Moshe was not able to make this transition. Despite all the differences in God’s instruction, Moshe was still hearing as he had thirty-eight years ago. He calls the people rebels, perhaps because he hears in their behavior, in their demands for a land of seeding and planting and harvesting, a rebellion against God, a desire to break away from full reliance on God. Perhaps this is why he says, “Shall we take the water out of the rock?”

This is exactly what God told him to do, but for Moshe, only God could take the water out of the rock. It could only be a miracle. The idea that it would be a human effort—even one with God distantly behind it—was blasphemy for Moshe. But this blasphemy was now the proper faith. The people were not rebels; it was Moshe and Aharon who “had rebelled against My words at Mei Merivah.” (20:24). The new faith is one of God’s hidden presence in the world, and the new leadership is one that shows the people how to live as a free, empowered, and self-directed nation. This is what it means truly to become the “congregation of God.”

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Being Holy or Becoming Holy?

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

As published in the Jerusalem Report, July 11, 2016

Being Holy or Becoming Holy
The Torah commands us not to be holy, but to become holy

Is kedusha, holiness, a good thing or a bad thing? Certainly, in its privileged and particularist expressions it can lead to conflict, discord, war and violence. Fights over who has rights to sacred ground, which religion is holy and whose scripture is sacred have plagued us for centuries and have been the cause of immeasurable loss of life. 

But what about an egalitarian approach to holiness?  Why not believe that we are all equally holy?  The first person to express this notion was Korach. Challenging Moshe’s leadership, he declared, “The entire community, they are all holy, and God is in their midst. So why do you lord it over the community of the Lord?” (Num. 16:3). Now, Korach was making cynical use of this universal concept of holiness.  In order to promote himself as leader, he was saying that we are all equal, that no one had a right to be leader. 

Putting aside Korach’s obvious demagoguery, we can still ask if his approach to holiness was in fact correct. What could be wrong with seeing everyone as holy?

The problem with this sentiment is not its egalitarian nature, but its fundamental misunderstanding of what kedusha truly is. Korach saw kedusha just as he saw leadership - as a lofty status, a rank, a privilege.  This is why he wanted to be leader, not to serve the people better, but to have all the honor that comes with being a leader. 

A true leader, however, sees leadership as an obligation, a responsibility, and as a sacred duty.  Moshe’s only goal was to serve God and to serve the people.  This humblest of all men, never wanted the honor: “God, send someone else.  Anyone but me.”  Of course, too much humility is also a failing. A leader who does not recognize his role and his status will ultimately fall short of leading and serving the people properly. But one who leads for the sake of the honor serves no one but himself. If leadership comes with status it does so for a purpose: to serve and to lead others. 

As it is with leadership, so it is with kedusha. For Korach, holiness was a status, a static state of being. It implied privilege and entitlement. True kedusha, however, does not reassure us that we are better.  True kedusha calls upon us to become better. The Torah commands us not to be holy, but to become holy. “Kedoshim ti’hiyu, Holy you shall become, for I the Lord your God am holy.” (Lev. 19:2). The command to become holy, to strive for holiness, points us upwards and outwards. Each day, we must strive to become more God-like, to transform ourselves and to transform the world.  This kedusha is not about being, it is about becoming.
Shabbat exemplifies this. Shabbat is a kedusha that is ultimately focused outwards. It starts with our being distinct – the covenant between ourselves and God. But its end is to bring holiness into the larger world – the universal message of God as creator, of human dignity, of the right to rest and to be free.  The holiness of Shabbat spreads into the week, making our work holy as well, pointing us towards a higher purpose, towards tikkun olam, and finally towards a world that is a more perfect world, a messianic world.

The kedusha of the Kohanim is similar. The priestly caste was given special honor. But this was to enable them to serve effectively as God’s representatives both within the Temple and outside it. To honor that kedusha, a Kohen would have to devote his life to spiritual growth and Godly acts. To make the kedusha an ends in itself would be to defile it.

The same is true in regards to us as a people. The concept of chosenness is perhaps one of the most challenging for a Jew to articulate and defend in today’s egalitarian society.  A close look at the relevant verses, however, reveals that we are not told that we are chosen and that we are holy; rather, we are commanded to become chosen, to become holy: “If you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then you shall become a chosen treasure… And you shall become unto Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6).  It is a kedusha that does not tell us that we are better than the rest of the world, but asks us what it is that we can do to make the world a better place.

Kedusha as a state of becoming is an elusive destination always to be reached for, yet never to be grasped. It inspires us to grow, to become closer to God.  As soon as believe we are holy and entitled we fall prey to the Korachs of the world.  It is our task to reject Korach’s assertion that we are all holy. To embrace the Torah’s mandate we all must become holy.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, June 30, 2016

It's Good Because I Say So

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

It’s Good Because I Say So

The story of the spies returning with their evil report is well known, but the reason they were punished is not commonly understood. What did they do wrong? They reported what they saw accurately. Ramban suggests an answer. The key, he says, is in their use of the word efes, “however”: “However, the people be strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled, and very great” (Bamidbar 13:28). Ramban says that efes means “nothing” here (it later came to mean “zero”): “Their wickedness was in their use of the word efes, which indicates that the matter is completely impossible” (Ramban on verse 27). To say that it was impossible demoralized the people and demonstrated, perhaps even propagated, a lack of faith in God. I would like to suggest that the key is a different word, one that they failed to use. That word is tova, “good,” a word introduced by Moshe.

Before sending out the spies, Moshe instructed them to search out the land, to assess the military strength of its inhabitants, and to consider the best tactics for invading and conquering it. True, God had promised to give them the land, but it was their responsibility to wage the war for its possession as strategically and intelligently as possible. All this is well and good, but then comes a troubling phrase in Moshe’s instructions: “And what of the land that they dwell in, is it good or bad?” (13:19). This is not a question of description or fact, rather, it is a request for an evaluative assessment. The question also seems unrelated to issues of military strategy. That Moshe would ask whether the land was good or not is quite astonishing given that God explicitly told him that God would bring them to “a good land, one flowing in milk and honey” (Shemot 3:8).

To resolve this problem, a number of commentators interpret this question as one of military assessment, not one of judgment of the overall quality of the land. Rashbam, for example, states that Moshe was asking if the land was full of grain in trying to determine if the people could sustain themselves through the invasion. Rashi and Ibn Ezra, however, understand that Moshe was asking a general question about the quality of the land: Are there plentiful sources of water? Are the air and water of good quality or bad? Regardless of Moshe’s intent, the request for an overall assessment of the land—is it good or bad—had been made.

How was this question answered? It was not. When the spies came back, they accurately reported that the land was “flowing with milk and honey” (13:27). What they failed to say was that the land was “good,” and this amounted to a refusal to give the land their approval and to affirm God’s promise. On the other hand, we have the crux of Calev and Yehoshua’s response: “And they spoke unto all the company of the children of Israel, saying, ‘The land, which we passed through to search it, is good, very, very much so’” (14:7). The spies understood their mission to be not just to report on facts or to evaluate what they saw from a military perspective; but to determine whether the entire endeavor was worthwhile in the first place. Was the land good? Was it worth the battle? In contrast, Calev and Yehoshua came in committed to the goodness of the land and the rightness of the enterprise. For them, it was given that the land was good and that God would help them conquer it. They did not need to spy out the land to determine this. Their mission—as they properly understood it—was only to determine how best to go about waging the war, how best to make God’s plan succeed.

For those who were not committed to the enterprise from the outset, who did not believe that the land was good, every problem loomed large, and every challenge became an obstacle. It was different for those who began with a fundamental belief in God’s promise and the goodness of the land. Whatever the problems or challenges, they would be met and dealt with: “We shall surely ascend and conquer it, for we can surely do it!” (13:30).

Quite often, our expectations of worthwhileness or the likely success of our endeavors become self-fulfilling prophecies. When we start believing that something is impossible or that the effort is not worth it, then it will be impossible, and we will fail. But if we believe that the cause is good, that it is achievable, and that God is on our side, then we are likely to make our imagined future a reality. To quote from the late Muhammad Ali, “Impossible is just a small word that is thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in a world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It is an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It is a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing!”

This is also true of our relationships, as our assessments of others so often become self-fulfilling prophecies. The Gemara (Berakhot 8a; Yevamot 63b) tells us that when a man would get married in the land of Israel his friends would ask him, “matza or motzei,” “found or find?” Is the marriage a matza, as the verse states, “matza isha matza tov,” “a man who has found a woman has found goodness” (Mishlei 18:24)? Or is it a motzei, as the verse states, “u’motzei ani mar mimavet et ha’isha,” “I find the woman more bitter than death” (Kohelet 7:26)? On the face of it, this was a roundabout and clever way of asking the man if his wife was a good match for him (although it needs to be acknowledged that the second verse seems to communicate a strongly negative attitude about women in general).

There is, however, another way to understand this, namely, that the question is not so much about the bride as about the groom. What type of person is he? Is he a matza or a motzei? Is he “one who has found,” or “one who is always finding”? No match will be perfect. There will always be things one spouse will do that will annoy the other and ways in which the two are not fully compatible. The question is, with what mindset does one enter the relationship? If a person enters the relationship believing—like Calev and Yeshoshua—that it is good, that they are fortunate to be marrying this person, then they will most likely be happy in the marriage. Such a person is a matza, one who stops looking once they have found the thing they are looking for. And thus, matza isha matza tov; if he comes in believing it is good, it will indeed be good.

However, if a person—like the spies—enters the relationship constantly asking, “Is this good or bad?,” “Did I make the right decision or the wrong one?,” then he or she is bound to be dissatisfied and unhappy. Such a person is a motzei, a person who, even after finding what they are after, is constantly looking and never satisfied. For such a man, any problem he finds in his wife or in the relationship will be proof that the match is not a good one, and he will find it or her to be “as bitter as death.”

This is not to say that a person should sacrifice his or her critical faculties. Some marriages are not meant to be, and some endeavors are truly not worth the effort and should be abandoned. The question is with what attitude we choose to undertake our tasks, enter into our relationships, and think about our lot in life. If we start with the belief that “it is very good,” then in most cases, it will remain good and beautiful, warts and all. But if we hold onto the need to constantly assess whether it is good or bad, then we will see the good but discount it. The land may be flowing with milk and honey, but in our eyes, it will be a “land that eats its inhabitants.”

If we are able to embrace this attribute of matza, to see the land that God has given us—the land of Israel and the State of Israel—as a blessing, and to see our spouses, children, parents, and friends as gifts from God, then we will find the wherewithal to face the problems and challenges, come what may. If we believe that our endeavors are good and worthwhile, if we believe that they are possible, then they will be. “We shall surely ascend, for surely we can do it!”

Shabbat Shalom!