Beshalach: The Road Not Taken

January 30, 2015
ShoreRoad

The red line is the shore route through Philistine lands. The Israelites took either the blue or green routes instead.

 

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was near. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” – Exodus 13:17

Who were the Philistines? Theories vary, but most scholars believe that they were originally from Greece and/or Crete, since their pottery looks very much like that of Mycenae. They were a non-Semitic people, city dwellers who lived in five cities along the coast: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron.

They were known as iron-workers, and if they were the descendants of Mycenae they were the heirs of Agamemnon, the victor-king in the Trojan War story. They would have been scary opponents for a gaggle of runaway slaves traveling with elders and children.

The Exodus writer tells us that the Israelites were not ready to face such formidable opponents, so instead God sent them home by an indirect route. Midrash suggests the Israelites needed time in the wilderness to toughen up before they faced their ultimate challenges in the land of their ancestors. Another midrash suggests that without Torah, they would have been unequipped to live in the Promised Land, so the apparent “detour” was actually the best route.

Somewhere around middle age, many of us look back over our lives and wonder what we were thinking as young people. Why the youthful marriage that was doomed from day one? Why the unfinished education? Why the “wasted time” and the “false starts?”

Maybe we weren’t ready. Maybe there were lessons to learn without which we could not become our best selves. Maybe something we did along that circuitous route was very important, as it was important for the Israelites to visit Sinai and accept the Torah.

Perhaps, as the poet Robert Frost wrote. the road we took “has made all the difference.”  I would not be the person I am today without the twisting path of my life. You would not be the same person had you made different choices in your youth.

We can’t redo the past and take a different route, and who is to say that it would truly have been better?

What we have is today. What we have is the person we have become. The question is, what are we going to do now?

 


Va’era: It’s Not About Us

January 15, 2015

Open_Torah_and_pointerTo modern ears, there’s an odd digression in Chapter 6 of Exodus. Just as we become engrossed in the narrative of the struggle between God and Pharaoh over the Israelites, everything stops for a genealogy of Moses and Aaron in verses 14 – 29.

Why the digression?

Notice that the digression is bracketed by Moses’ plaintive cry, “See, my lips are uncircumcised! How is Pharaoh going to listen to me?” There are at least three ways to understand that repetition. The first is that Moses is truly desperate. Whatever he means by “uncircumcised lips,” he is frantic that he does not feel like the right man for a very important job. He’s not going to be side-tracked or ignored. And yet that’s what God seems to do as the text meanders off into a genealogical treatise on the line of Aaron.

The second possibility is that the digression is evidence that this story started out as oral history. In Sarna’s commentary on Exodus, he suggests that this digression is a literary device to separate the first part of the story from the next. He points out that this interruption comes at a low point in the story: the Israelites are suffering and so far, divine intervention has only made matters worse. Moses’ repeated line is the storyteller’s signal that we are getting back to the story now after the break.

There’s a third possibility: both times, God seems to ignore Moses’ objection. The genealogy seems to say, “Look, you are from a long line of people with the Right Stuff. Buck up!” The second time Moses’ says it, God pushes him aside:

See, I give you as God to Pharaoh,  and Aaron your brother will be your prophet!” – Exodus 7:1

or in a more vernacular form: “Lookit, Moshe, this is not about you!”

So often we get distracted from an important mitzvah by our own insecurities:

  • I can’t make a shiva call because I don’t have the right clothes.
  • I can’t speak up against a racial slur; no one listens to me.
  • I can’t chant Torah – my voice isn’t pretty.
  • I can’t give tzedakah – what I have to give will not make a difference.

Moses felt he couldn’t speak clearly and be heard. Because of that, he wanted God to call someone else, anyone else. But in this story, God wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

God says “I give you as God to Pharaoh.” It’s a curious phrase. Who can “be” God? And yet that is exactly what we are each called to be dozens of times a day, every time there is a mitzvah to be done. We are the hands of God in the world. We are the comforters at the shiva house, the ones who can speak up against slurs, the ones who give tzedakah to relieve suffering.

No matter whether we believe in a personal God or in a God beyond human understanding, most of the work we attribute to “God” in the world must be done by human hands. None of us are up to the job, the boundless needs of a suffering world. None of us will complete the task. And that’s OK – it’s not about us.

Rabbi Tarfon used to say: “The day is short, the work is much, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master is pressing.”

He also used to say: “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it. If you have learned much Torah, you will be greatly rewarded, and your employer is trustworthy to pay you the reward of your labors. And know, that the reward of the righteous is in the World to Come.” – Pirkei Avot 2:15-16.


A Last Lesson from Jacob & Joseph

December 29, 2014
"The time drew near for Jacob to die. (1984 illustration by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing)

“The Time Grew Near for Jacob to Die” – Jim Padgett

The end of the book of Genesis offers us two end of life accounts, those of Jacob and Joseph. In their deaths, they leave a legacy not only for their immediate descendants, but for all Jews.

Both are models for us in that they are clear about their wishes while they are still able to convey those wishes. Jacob calls Joseph to him, as the son with executive power, and specifies exactly what he wants long before he needs it: “Bury me with my ancestors, not in Egypt.” Joseph takes an oath to carry out that wish.

Later, when Jacob knows that he is actually near death, he calls all his sons together. First he blesses them. Then he informs them of his wish to be buried in the cave of Machpelah, this time with great specificity: “with my ancestors… in the cave in the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre, in the land of Canaan.” He then lists his ancestors and kin who are buried there, teaching them the mitzvah of burial in a family plot.

In his great specificity, and in choosing to speak with the brothers as a group, he is a role model for end of life instructions. Even though he had already spoken with Joseph, Jacob gave his disharmonious sons the gift of certainty about his wishes. That way, when the time came, Joseph could direct that Jacob’s body be embalmed in the Egyptian fashion for transport to Canaan. He and his brothers traveled together to the Cave of Machpelah without unnecessary arguments – they all knew exactly what their father had wanted.

Later Joseph followed his father’s example, gathering his family and blessing them with a reminder of the covenants God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He then made his own request: “Bring my bones up from this place.”  He prophesied that someday they would leave Egypt, and in fact, Moses remembered:

Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for he had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, “God will surely take care of you, and you shall carry my bones from here with you.” – Exodus 13:19

In our own days of advanced medical technology, there are many more things about which we should be specific with family. It is important to have the proper documents prepared: advanced health care directives, valid wills, and instructions for executors. However, those documents are limited unless we also take the time to talk about these matters with our loved ones in such a way as to minimize conflict and confusion at a difficult time.

Our ancestors Jacob and Joseph teach us the value of these conversations, a value that has only grown over time. If you have not had such conversations, if you have so far not created those documents, do not delay!


Creation: Monkeys or Mudpies?

October 17, 2014

When God was creating the heavens and the earth…. – Genesis 1:1

Depiction of Genesis 1:2 by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677)

Depiction of Genesis 1:2 by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677)

I’m from Tennessee, home of The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, the infamous “Monkey Trial” in which Clarence Darrow faced off with William Jennings Bryan in the tiny court house in Dayton, TN. I learned as a child about Creationism and its variants: Young Earth Creationism, Gap Creationism, Progressive Creationism, Intelligent Design, etc. And no, I am not providing links: google them if you want. As far as I’m concerned, they are all nonsense.

Lately I’ve heard from the New Atheists (ok, I’ll give them a link) that “all religion” teaches such nonsense, and therefore religion is bunk. None of these folks appear to have been near a synagogue lately, because I don’t know of a branch of Judaism that espouses a literal understanding of the Creation stories in Genesis. I’m sure that there are Jewish fundamentalists somewhere who believe it, but if you ask a panel of rabbis, from Modern Orthodoxy to Reform, we’ll all say politely that the Creation stories are meant to be understood as metaphor. Then we’ll disagree about how to interpret it, and that’s where it will begin to be interesting.

Anyone who gets all hot and bothered over six days of Creation and monkeys and whatnot is missing the point of the Creation stories. (Yes, stories plural, because there are two of them in Genesis, and they contradict one another in more than details. Read Genesis 1 and 2, if this is news.)

Among other things, these narratives point to a notion of the world as a place that teeters between order and chaos. At the beginning of Genesis 1, all is tohu-va-vohu: a sort of murky chaos where “darkness was over the surface of the deep.” God makes order of the chaos, separating light from darkness. Then this same God makes new things with words: light, sky, dry land, sea, plants and animals. Every step of the way, God is separating, organizing, making order out of that original, chaotic tohu-va-vohu. 

And then, with words and clay and breath, God makes human beings. We are different from plants and animals; it took more than words to make us. We make choices, sometimes bad choices, sometimes good choices. In that, we are like the Creator. As the story says, we are made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.

Which brings us back to the Monkey Trial: the distress of the Creationists was twofold: first, that the scientists seemed to be saying that the Bible was not true. Certainly scientists say that Genesis is not literally true. Science does not comment on whether Genesis may convey some other kind of truth, because all it can speak to is scientific knowledge.

The second thing that bothered the Creationists was the idea that somewhere back in the past, grandpa might have been a monkey, or a monkey-like being. This idea was profoundly repulsive to them, because they saw in the Biblical story and they felt in their guts that human beings are different from animals in an important way.

I agree that they are seeing an important Biblical truth: humans are different from animals. We have responsibility for our behavior in a way that animals do not. Where the Creationists and I differ is that they think it is important that human beings were never anything but human. I would argue that in the Bible it already says that we were something else: in the Bible it says we were clay. Frankly, I don’t think it matters whether grandpa was a monkey or a mudpie.

And what about God? What if we were to see “God” not in some cartoon image, but as a Factor that moves the world from tohu-va-vohu, from entropy, towards something organized and meaningful, separating light from darkness, sea from dry land?

The real problem with Creationism and its ilk is that it wants answers, not questions. Good science asks questions, and when it gets an answer, looks for more questions. Judaism does the same: it seeks questions, and more questions. The more often we read the Creation stories, the more questions we will ask.

 


Joshua and His Trees

July 10, 2014

With Jim, at Joshua Tree National Park

I love this photo. It was taken in one of my favorite places, and it’s me and my kid. (OK, so he’s a 30 year old man now, he’s still my kid.)

The place is Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. The weird looking plants around us are Joshua Trees, yucca brevifolia. They are native to the southwestern deserts, especially the Mohave Desert.

Joshua trees live in a harsh environment to a very great age; some have lived almost a thousand years. In the springtime, if the winter has been wet enough and there has been a freeze, the tree blooms. Its flowers are heavy clusters of blossoms the size and appearance of quail’s eggs, and they have a pungent stink.

The trees are known as Joshua Trees because when Mormon travelers saw them in the 19th century, they thought the trees looked like Joshua, lifting his hands to the sky in prayer. Now I have looked and looked in Torah, and in the book of Joshua, and I have never been able to find an account of Joshua lifting his hands in prayer. Moses does so, most famously in Exodus 17, when Joshua is leading the battle against Amalek, and things go well only as long as Moses’ hands are lifted up. But never could I find the story to which the Mormons referred. (Readers, if you find it, please let me know in the comments!)

But when I look at the trees themselves, I can easily imagine naming them for Joshua. They thrive in the wilderness. They are prickly, and stinky, and yet still they command my attention, pulling at all my senses. I imagine Joshua was such a man, different from Moses, perhaps more charismatic. Moses led the people out of Egypt, fussing and challenging him all the way. Joshua led them into the Promised Land, and they did not challenge him.

Joshua was born in Egypt. He was true to the covenant to his dying day. He led his people into battles and lived to a great old age, as do his namesake trees.


Pinchas: A Remedy for Extremism?

July 5, 2014
What are we to do with violence in Torah?

“Violent Volcano” by Trey Ratcliff

What are we to do with the violent stories in Torah?

Parshiot Balak and Pinchas bring us yet another disturbing story. After Balaam blesses the camp of Israel against his will, Moabite women visit the Israelites as they are camped at Shittim. They engage the men in “whoring” (there’s really no other way to translate liznot) and then invite them to the sacrifices to their god, Ba’al-peor. The people join in and the God of Israel is incensed, commanding Moses to have the ringleaders among the Israelites impaled. Moses makes the order, when a prince of the tribe of Simeon, Zimri, brings a Midianite princess, Cozbi, to the camp right in front of him.

Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas, follows Zimri and Cozbi into Zimri’s “chamber”, and impales the two of them with one thrust of his spear. And in the following portion, titled “Pinchas,” he is rewarded by God, who says that the line of the High Priest will come from his descendants.

Most modern liberal readers go into shock at about this point. What? He’s rewarded for such awful violence, coming upon a couple in a vulnerable moment of privacy and running them through with a spear? And God commanded this, and rewarded it? Oy!

One interpretation of this story is that it is a warning against intermarriage. Hilary Lipka points out that first Zimri introduces Cozbi to his kin, which doesn’t look like “worshipping idols.” Secondly he takes her to his kubbah, a word that appears nowhere else in Torah, but which many translators interpret as “chamber.” She argues that this isn’t about idolatry, it’s about intermarriage. She also points out that it reflects a different point of view on intermarriage than another place in the Torah: Moses marries Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest, and she’s a righteous woman! So perhaps this is an early example of the argument about intermarriage in Jewish tradition.

Another interpretation is that when God rewards Pinchas, he does so by giving his decendants an honor that will also be a burden. God recognizes the passion of Pinchas as matching the passion of God, and promptly gives Pinchas an outlet for that passion that will serve both to focus it and contain it. Being High Priest was a tremendous responsibility, because there were sacred duties that only the High Priest could do. He could not allow himself to be distracted from those duties, and he had to practice a high degree of self-control to carry them out. The descendants of Pinchas would not have the luxury of vigilantism, because they would have their hands full policing themselves.

Perhaps this story is a recognition that there are always going to be those among us who get carried away – maybe violently carried away – by their passion for God, and that it’s important to contain those passions. If the individual can’t do it for himself, maybe he needs to be given a job that will do it.

We are living in a passionate time, when many people seem driven to extremism and zealotry. I wonder if there are ways that those passions could be channeled into good?


“These People Scare Me!”

June 30, 2014
"Immigrant Rights" by Michael Fleshman, some rights reserved.

“Immigrant Rights” by Michael Fleshman, some rights reserved.

“These people are too numerous!”

The Torah portion Balak opens with the worries of Balak, son of Zippor, the king of Moab. He’s frantic about the Hebrews – there are so many of them! So he sends a message to Balaam, a powerful magician, saying:

“There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me. 6 Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” – Numbers 22: 5-6.

Does this sound familiar? Remember back at the beginning of Exodus, when the Pharaoh “who did not know Joseph” said:

“Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us; come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there befalleth us any war, they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land.” – Exodus 1:9-10

One of the things I love about Torah is the deep insight into human nature. It is an ordinary human impulse, when we see strangers becoming “too numerous”  or “too mighty” to start worrying that they may be a threat to our well-being.

The genius of Torah is that in describing a normal reaction to something that happens from time to time (“Too many outsiders!”) it chooses to do so from the point of view of the strangers. The Israelites had to leave Egypt because the Egyptian Pharaoh had the normal sort of fears about strangers. Now the Moabite prince is worried about the same thing. We get a clear picture, reading this story, identifying with the Israelites, of what it is to be unwanted outsiders.

Interwoven with these stories we are given commandments:

Do not mistreat or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. – Exodus 22:21

and again (many times, actually):

The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. – Exodus 19:34

It is good to recognize human nature; that’s reality. But Torah calls us to something higher than ordinary impulses. It calls us to holiness, which is an opposite of ordinary. The test of this comes when we try to live in the ordinary world. Not everyone plays by these rules!

Living a life of Torah means living a life of risk. Will those strangers take advantage of me? Will there be enough to get by? One of the ways to see the Talmud as a series of conversations about (among many other things) practical conversations about how we will live this out in the world. Lucky for us, we can access thousands of years of discussion on how to live the commandments in the world.

Fulfilling ritual commandments is challenging. Fulfilling these ethical commandments that challenge our very nature is the work of a lifetime.


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