Va’etchannan: Moses’ Mistake

If we take it seriously, Parashat Va’etchannan (“And I pleaded…”) is full of love so tough that it breaks the heart.

The parashah begins with Moses pleading to enter the Land. God answers roughly, “Enough!” then directs him to go up Mount Pisgah (aka Mt. Nebo)  and take a good look at the Land, because he will not be allowed to enter. This passage troubles many who read it; on first reading it seems to be a punishment that far outstrips the crime.

After all, one of God’s early commands to Moses had to do with striking the Nile, and then striking a rock:

The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.  I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. – Exodus 17:5-6

Then, much later, during another water crisis, God gave Moses a slightly different command:

“Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.”

 So Moses took the staff from the Lord’s presence, just as he commanded him. He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.

But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.” – Numbers 20: 8-12

Every sage has some commentary to offer, and none of them agree. When I look at it, I see Moses making at least two serious mistakes: he doesn’t listen (strike vs talk to the rock) and he appears to take credit for God’s work (“must we bring you water?”) I also see God saying, “You did not trust me enough to honor me as holy.” A literal translation of verse 12 is tough to make: depending on what one does with the prepositions, either Moses did not give God enough credit before the Israelites, or something was lacking in Moses’ faith.

What if the two are really the same problem? Moses was accustomed to doing things the way he had always done them. God used to say, “hit the rock” and Moses hit the rock. When God commanded “Talk to the rock” Moses failed to register the change.

Also, Moses was cranky with the people and he did take rather much credit for what was about to happen. The humility for which he was rightly famous slipped a bit. What I see is an aging man who is really not up to adapting to new circumstances, exactly the situation as they enter the Land.

As we age, we get used to things being the way they “always were.” Whether we remember them accurately or not, we can become very stubborn about our way of doing things. And sometimes, out of pride, anxiety, or maybe a bit of hearing loss, we don’t listen very well.

At that point, when we’ve quit listening, and we’re set in our ways, we are no longer fit for leadership. God delivers the news to Moses very sharply; there is to be no discussion. While it seems unkind, maybe God knew that this was the only way Moses would hear it at all.

I think about Moses, sitting on Mt. Nebo, looking at the land he would never enter, and I feel very sad for him. It must have been bitter to hear that his time of leadership was nearly done. But it must have been bitterer still that he had to be told, instead of figuring it out for himself. Surely he knew that he would not live forever: after all, he had groomed Joshua for leadership. But apparently, at the crucial moment, he could not see it; he wanted to continue leading into the Land.

Lives were at stake. There were wars ahead, and a group of people to hold together despite the attractions of a seductive land and its strange gods. Joshua son of Nun was better equipped for the next phase of the journey; indeed, he had spent most of his life preparing for that role.

After this short passage, things seem to go back to normal: Moses resumes teaching the people his final lessons, a recounting of their journey. Then, in chapter 34 of Deuteronomy, the story on Mt. Pisgah resumes: God shows Moses the Land again, tenderly this time, the whole land. The text says “He buried him,” suggesting that God personally buries Moses in a secret grave on that mountain in Moab overlooking the Land of Israel.  It’s clear, from the conclusion, that God holds Moses in high esteem.

What can we learn from this? We can learn that even the greatest people who ever lived have their flaws, because they are human. We can treat a leader with honor and still say, respectfully, “It’s time for new leadership.” We can learn that only God or a very close friend should deliver a message like, “Enough!”

And if I am that leader, I can make way for new leadership before someone has to tell me.

Moses our leader, Moshe Rabbeinu, our teacher, was certainly one of the greatest men who ever lived. Some of his greatest teaching follows later in this same parashah: the 10 Commandments, the Shema. Still, that one day at the spring, when he struck the rock, he taught us a very important lesson: even the best and the brightest can make crucial mistakes.

Don’t Give Up – Even on Korach!

This week we read about Korach and his followers in Numbers 16-18, one of the grimmest stories in the Torah. Korach, a Levite, challenges the leadership of Moses. Moses refers the dispute to God. God blasts Korach and his followers, causing some to be consumed by fire and some to be swallowed by a huge opening in the earth. Frankly, it’s the stuff of nightmares.

Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:3 offers us a list of those “who have no portion in the world to come:” the Flood generation. the Babel generation, the men of Sodom, and the Spies who rejected the land of Israel. Then it offers us an additional list about which the sages disagreed: according to Rabbi Akiva, the generation of the Wilderness, the congregation of Korach, and the Ten Tribes also have no place in the world to come. Rabbi Eliezer disagrees. For each of those, he cites a text suggesting that redemption is possible. For the people of Korach, he cites a line from the prayer of Hannah: “The LORD kills, and makes alive; He brings down to the grave, and brings up.” (1 Samuel 2:6)

The Torah text seems unequivocal in its condemnation of Korach: all is lost, the men offering incense are burnt up like Nadav and Abihu, and God commands Moses to order Eleazar remove the fire pans and have them made into plating for the altar, as a warning.

But our sages were not content to give up on the followers of Korach. From the time of the Mishnah, the rabbis persist in a hope that they will yet be found, like “a lost object that is still being sought,” in the words of R. Yehudah ben Betera (Sanhedrin 109b.) Shall we not follow their example, then, and refuse to give up on our fellow Jews, even when we think they are utterly wrong about something?

A version of this drash appeared earlier this year in the CCAR Newsletter.

Beha’alotecha: “When You Ascend”

The student and her rabbi, six years after the events in this story, just before ordination.

Once upon a time, thirteen years ago this month, a certain rabbi was in Jerusalem to attend the World Zionist Congress. While he was there he met one of his students for lunch. The student had been in Israel only two weeks, but she had already begun to fear that she had made a terrible mistake.  She had broken up housekeeping, sold her house, and moved to Israel to go to rabbinical school.

El Al security had questioned her for two days before they let her even get on the plane. Border security had quizzed her for another two hours upon her arrival. Two weeks later, all of her clothing – all of it! – was still lost somewhere in the labyrinthine bureaucracy of Israeli security. It had never occurred to her that her story might sound odd to security, or that sounding odd might generate so many problems.

She could not speak Hebrew very well and she felt lost nearly all the time. She had already begun to suspect that she’d spend the year near the bottom of her class, struggling with the language.

It was June in the Middle East. She was hot, dirty, and scared. But she was determined not to disappoint her rabbi, so she met him for lunch with her chin up. Because he was a wise man, he saw right through her. Because he was a very gentle man, he chatted with her about this and that. Then right before lunch was going to end, and he was going to go home to Oakland, he said something to her that would carry her through the rest of a wonderful, difficult, terrible, miraculous year of transition:

“Do not be intimidated.”

She clung to those words through the next eleven months, through her struggles with her studies, through the violence of the Second Intifada, through the beginning of the Persian Gulf War, through the deaths of friends back home, through the cancer treatments of her dearest friend, through illness of her own, through everything that year threw at her. Those words reminded her that someone whose judgment she trusted believed in her.

She heard his words again and again in the words of the Torah, every time there was a challenge to be met, or a transition to be made.

Sometimes it was direct, as in Exodus Chapter 20, when Moses told his people, “Do not be afraid.” They were trembling at the foot of the mountain, afraid of the God with whom they were making the Covenant, afraid to move forward to become the People they were destined to be.

I hear those words, less directly but still quite clearly, in the words of this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotecha. The Hebrews are making the final preparations before leaving Sinai and going out into the midbar, into the wilderness.

They’ve gotten comfortable in their camp while they built the Ark of the Covenant. Now the time is coming to leave that comfortable camp to move onwards into the unknown. They’re scared.

To help them, God gives Moses a ritual for the beginning and the end of every day of marching:

In the morning, when the Ark was to set out, Moses would say:

Advance, Adonai! May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You!

And when it halted, he would say: Return, Adonai, you who are Israel’s myriads of thousands! –Numbers 10:35-36

When we are starting a new phase of life, two things can make all the difference: first, the encouragement of a mentor, and secondly, ritual that marks the passage of time and works to contain the stress. During my long, tough year, I held on to my rabbi’s reassuring words while self-doubt battered me.

And during that year, ritual sustained me. Every week, Shabbat would come and for a few hours, put a pause to the study. I would email my kids and write in my journal. I’d pray and listen to Torah for sustenance, not for recitation or a test.

Even more homely rituals sustained me day to day: in the morning I made eggs sprinkled with za’atar on my hot plate and ate them, always the same way. And at the end of the day, I’d put on my nightgown, creep into bed, and read the bedtime Shema from my old prayer book from home.

There are things we can learn here: first, it is normal to be nervous about a big life transition. Graduations, weddings, funerals, new jobs, new cities – all are scary. Second, there are things we can do to make these transitions easier: we can accept encouragement from our mentors (as opposed to pushing them away with “I’m fine!”) and we can look for rituals to help us persevere in the task before us. Neither is a magic pill (there are no magic pills.) Rather, they will sustain us as we put one foot in front of the other, traveling a challenging road towards a distant goal.

If you are on a new road right now, I wish you a kind mentor and comforting rituals. I wish you a safe arrival at some future time and place, when the unfamiliar has become familiar, and the wilderness has given way to home.

The Nazirite Puzzle

This week’s Torah portion, Naso, describes procedures for exiting a mysterious state: the vow of the Nazirite. (It is sometimes spelled Nazarite.)

First of all, if you are thinking, well, Nazirite and Nazareth sound similar, sorry to disappoint. They are not related.

In Numbers 6, we read about the Nazirite vow. A person taking the vow promises to abstain from certain pleasures for a named period of time. They vow not to drink wine, grapes, grape products, and any fermented drink, including vinegar. They vow not to cut their hair, and they vow not to come in contact with, or even come near a dead body, even a close relative. The only reason given in Numbers 6 for taking these vows is “to set themselves apart for the Eternal.” The Nazirite vow is a Jewish practice so far out of use that it is largely a puzzle to us.

This week’s Haftarah (prophetic reading) gives us one of the two examples of a Nazirite in Tanakh, Samson. You can read his story in the book of Judges, chapters 13 – 16. The other Nazirite in Tanakh was the prophet Samuel. In both of those cases, the Nazirite himself didn’t make the vow; it was made on his behalf before his birth by his mother. Nor did either man seek release from the vow; Samson was clearly not happy with the vow, but he seems unaware of any exit from it. The fact that the two “case studies” we have seem divergent from the description of it in Torah contributes to the puzzles around the vow.

Today it is still theoretically possible to make such a vow, but there are some difficulties. The main issue is that since the Nazirite requires a Temple rite to reunite with the people and conclude the vow, any Nazirite vow taken today is permanent.  The other issue is the seriousness of taking vows. A vow, or neder, is a very serious matter in Jewish tradition. There is a large body of Jewish law concerning vows. However, the short version is very simple: Jewish tradition discourages us from making vows.

It is now extremely rare in modern Jewish practice for anyone to make a vow, because it is understood to be a binding step. You may hear someone make a statement about something he or she will do in the future, but they will hedge that statement with “blee neder” – “without a vow” – so that should something fall through, they do not incur the penalties of breaking a vow.

How hard do you think it would be to keep the Nazirite vow? Can you imagine reasons anyone might take it today?

The Corners of My Field

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not completely reap the corners of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Eternal am your God. – Leviticus 23:22 (Parashat Emor)

It looks so simple, on the surface: when you gather the harvest, leave some for the poor. Why, then, do we need an entire tractate of the Talmud to talk about it, and why does Maimonides devote an entire volume of the Mishneh Torah to it?

The commandment may be simple, but human nature is not. The minute people heard “leave the corners, leave the gleanings” the questions began: how much of the corners? On every field of any size? And what exactly are gleanings? What if a worker drops an entire basket of produce? What if you don’t have a field, but a silver smithy? What if the harvest is really bad that year? What about… on and on.

There are also questions about the recipients: who gets the gleanings? Who are the poor? Who is the stranger? Why do they deserve free stuff?

Actually, that last question is a ringer. The rabbis addressed the question of fraud but they don’t question that a poor person deserves food to eat. Indeed, Maimonides says that while we can question a beggar’s request for money, if a person asks for food, if they say they are hungry, the observant Jew has to give, or at the very least, speak kindly when they say a regretful “no.”

I live in a part of the country where I am asked for money on the street on a regular basis. I have a son who trained as a social worker who feels very strongly that one should not give street people money. I have a colleague who has made a very cogent argument for giving money to people who ask for it on the street. And I hear Maimonides’ words scolding me when I pass someone and say, “No, I’m sorry, not today.”

I resolve my dilemma by giving as much cash as I can to my local food bank. Canned goods are nice, but the truth is they can do a lot more with cash. They can buy what people actually need as opposed to our fantasies of what they need. They can buy at steep discounts, too. My “harvest” doesn’t involve corners of fields or gleanings, it is in my checkbook, and so I give what I can.

There are a growing number of poor families and individuals in the United States. The recovery from the Great Recession has left many behind.  We live in a cruel economy at the moment, and funds for food stamps have been cut again and again. It is up to us to dig deep and give to organizations that feed hungry people. Our tradition demands no less.

Rx for the Human Spirit

This week’s Torah portion, Tazria/Metzora deals with genital discharges and skin diseases, very unpleasant things. Worse yet, people have taken this portion to some very unpleasant conclusions, framing human illness as a punishment from God.


What if, despite the lovely descriptions of skin eruptions, this portion isn’t about a physical illness at all? Let’s take a short passage:

18 When an inflammation appears on the skin of one’s body and it heals, 19 and a white swelling or a white discoloration streaked with red develops where the inflammation was, he shall present himself to the priest. – Leviticus 13: 18-19

What if we reread this, but instead of someone having something on their skin, it’s a moral failing: racism, sexism, enviousness, unkindness? Perhaps some family member has pointed out our unkind behaviors, or a friend has mentioned that a dearly-held opinion is actually quite racist. Our first impulse on realizing these things is to deny it or hide it, because we’ve been told it is shameful. (We have also been taught to feel shame about skin diseases and genital discharges, come to think of it.)

What if, instead of hiding or denying, we went to a counselor, our rabbi or a therapist, and said, “My wife says I am unkind,”  “I am envious when I see friends get honors,” or “I would hate it if my son dated a black woman.” The good counselor would take a close look at the evidence and the context. They’d explore it with us. And perhaps things are not what they seem (“he is clean”) or perhaps there are changes that need to happen. Then they could help us toward the changes until we are “clean.”

This is not an easy fix. It requires honesty, humility, and bravery. It is not fun saying to a counselor, “I have unkind/envious/racist thoughts.”  We hear over and over that nice people don’t have those thoughts. We may have them and then squish them down quickly, because we are ashamed. On some level, we know it isn’t OK.

But as with the mysterious disease in the Torah portion, these things affect others in our community. Some of them are communicable (children learn racism and sexism from someone) and some are just plain contagious (I am unkind to Joe, and Joe kicks the dog.) Some can’t heal on their own; we may need help to change.

Here in the 21st century, there are many diseases we can cure, and many more that we can manage; even AIDS and some cancers are now somewhat manageable. However, besides physical illnesses there are other plagues with which we have made much less progress. Perhaps the prescription in Tazria/Metzora is really for them, the plagues of the human spirit.

Sh’mini: Back to Basics

Several years ago I heard Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin give a wonderful sermon on Parashat Sh’mini. She pointed out that the first part of the portion has to do with the tragedy of Nadav and Abihu, the sons of Aaron. Immediately after their ordination as kohanim [priests] they experiment with making a burnt offering. Instead of working properly, the offering goes horribly wrong and the two of them are burnt up in an explosion of fire from the mishkan, the portable dwelling of God.

Then, she noted, the text swiftly shifts topic. Instead of continuing with the esoteric topic of sacrifices, Chapter 11 of Leviticus switches abruptly to the topic of Jewish dietary laws: “These are the living things which you may eat…” I had always been bothered by this sudden shift, but Rabbi Mates-Muchin explained it: God understood that the Israelites were not in the right place spiritually for the intricacies of the sacrificial cult. What they needed were the basics: “here is the food you are supposed to eat.” That sermon comes to my mind whenever I explain to an Introduction to Judaism student that I don’t cover kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) in the “Intro” class.

There is something in us human beings that makes us think that “more advanced” equals “best.” Some of it is ego: we want to be black belts, not yellow belts. And we think that if we can do some of the “more advanced” exercises that makes us better than if we were only doing “beginner” things. So we want to jump ahead to advanced Judaism: we don’t want to know about dietary laws, we want to learn about kabbalah or gematriaBut beginning Hebrew? – that’s so boring!

The trouble, of course, is that when we jump ahead to the things we are sure will be more interesting, we miss the beauty of the basics, and we will be studying whatever it is without the tools we need. Learning Hebrew is a basic skill for study in Torah and rabbinic literature. The stories in Torah and Tanakh are the building blocks of Jewish ethical and legal thought. But even in English, on the simple peshat level –the level of surface meaning – they are a rich treasury of wisdom.

A life of Torah is a journey. Every step of the way can be a thing of beauty, a precious jewel, from “Aleph, Bet, Gimel” to the most complex lesson in the Talmud. May we each learn some new bit of Torah every day, and value it for the treasure it is!