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!