A Jewish Birthday Greeting

You may hear one Jew say to another on a birthday: “Ad mea v’esrim!” [Ahd MAY-ah v’es-REEM] If you know your Hebrew numbers, you’ll know that this means “To 120!”

What on earth?

Parashat Vayelech begins:

Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel. He said to them: “I am now one hundred and twenty years old.” – Deuteronomy 31:1-2

This is the beginning of the death narrative of Moses, which will consume the rest of the book of Deuteronomy. We know from this that Moses was 120 at the time of his death. Yes, I know: awfully old. Perhaps Moses meant, “I FEEL 120.”

At any rate, when we say to a birthday person, “Ad mea v’esrim!” we are saying, “May you live to be a ripe old age, and as righteous as Moses!”

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.

Yitro: A Tantalizing Gap

Open_Torah_and_pointerThere’s a tantalizing little gap at the beginning of Parashat Yitro:

Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent home, and her two sons … Gershom… and Eliezer… Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought Moses’ sons and wife to him in the wilderness where he was camped at the mountain of God. – Exodus 18:2-5

What? I remember the first time I read this, flipping back to see when it was that Zipporah and the boys had been sent back to Midian. I could not find the story, because the story wasn’t there. Looking closely at the Hebrew, I noticed that the verb usually translated as “sent home” is shillach, which is more commonly translated as “sent away” or “divorced.” And yet this text emphasizes the marriage: over and over, Yitro is designated “father-in-law” and Zipporah is “Moses’ wife.”

No doubt about it: a piece of the story is missing. Moses and Zipporah had some kind of separation. She went home to her father’s house, and he went to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt. Was he simply off on a “business trip” while the family remained safely in Midian? Or was there an estrangement between Moses and Zipporah? The text doesn’t say. All it tells us is that Yitro brought Zipporah and the boys to Moses, after he heard how Israel had made a successful exodus from Egypt.

Yitro is a wise man and a capable leader, and he is also a role model for in-laws everywhere. Whatever had caused the separation, he supported the couple in their reunion. He brought them safely back together.

It is tempting to pick sides when there is discord in a family. It is tempting to listen sympathetically to grievances. The ego expands when one’s child comes home, asking for a shoulder or for help. But a couple cannot work out their troubles when each can “run home to mama” to complain: it is better to say, “Go back, work it out, talk to each other, not to me.”

Obviously there are limitations. Domestic abuse is a serious matter, for instance. But even in such a case, the job of a parent – an in-law – is to support their adult child in working towards a resolution, whatever that may be.

In a marriage, as in any other human relationship, working things out requires the couple to interact directly. Talking to third parties is rarely helpful unless it leads to talking to one another. Those of us who want to be good parents and good in-laws or even good friends to a married couple can take a lesson from Yitro.


Joshua and His Trees

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.

A Lesson on Comfort (Parashat Shimini)

Nadab and Abihu Destroyed by Fire (Matthäus Merian the Elder)
Nadab and Abihu Destroyed by Fire

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Eternal strange fire, which God had not enjoined upon them.  And fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Eternal.  Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Eternal meant when by saying:

    Through those near to Me I show Myself holy,
    And gain glory before all the people.”

And Aaron was silent. -Leviticus 10:1-3

Aaron’s sons have improvised a ritual that resulted in catastrophe. Moses responds by “comforting” his brother Aaron with words that offer no comfort whatsoever.

There are pairs and parallels in the passage: two sets of brothers stand before God. Two sets of brothers mess up. Nadab and Abihu bring “strange fire” and are killed by another [strange] fire. Moses and Aaron confront the disaster. Moses, who described himself as “slow of tongue” gives a speech. Aaron, the man who is first mentioned in Exodus 3 as one who “speaks exceedingly well” is starkly silent.

It’s horrifying and unsatisfying, a passage that we will forever puzzle at, trying to plumb its depths.

On a human level, I am struck by Moses’ insensitivity. He responds to the horror by quoting and interpreting God in a particularly heartless way: “this is God’s plan!”  Moses is not comforting Aaron; he is comforting himself that this horrible event somehow makes sense.  Aaron is silent.

There is something in us human beings that wants to make sense of dreadful events. When we are caught in that impulse, we say terrible things such as:

  • “This is God’s plan!”
  • “He’s in a better place!”
  • “At least she’s not in pain anymore.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”

What Jewish tradition teaches us is that the best way to comfort a mourner is to be quietly present. Sitting with a grieving person and being present to them is both difficult and easy. We have to let go of our need to explain, our need to make better, and instead simply be there. We have to sit with the mystery and the pain and endure, so that the mourner does not have to sit, like Aaron, silent and alone.

Moses was a great and good man, but even he had his off days. It is one of the beauties of Torah that those are not hidden from us: our greatest leaders had bad days, and we can learn even from those.

Image: Matthäus Merian the Elder (1593-1650) Public Domain

Names and Deeds

Moses in the Bulrushes
Miriam & Moses (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love the little ironies that pepper the text of the Torah.This week’s Torah portion, Shemot, begins with the line:

“These are the names of the sons of Israel…” (Exodus 1:1)

and sure enough, it’s a list of men’s names. There is not one woman’s name in the list. For the first fourteen verses of the portion, it’s just boys, boys, boys. One might get the impression that Judaism really has no place for women from reading this stuff.

But here’s the irony: the rest of this portion is full of the daring actions of women, actions without which there would have been no Judaism!

In Chapter 1, we get the story of Shifrah and Puah, two midwives who refused to murder Hebrew babies.  In doing so, they defied the most powerful man in the world to his face. Pharaoh understood that they weren’t cooperating, even if he could not catch them at it, and he moved on to another plan. But the fact remains: children survived because they looked the King of the World in the eye and defied him.

In Chapter 2, we get the story of the mother of Moses, a Levite woman who hid her son from the king’s minions for three months. Again, a woman defies Pharaoh! And when she can hide him no longer, she puts him in a basket and puts the little bundle in the Nile – a desperate act indeed, considering that the river was full of crocodiles – but her daughter, Miriam, follows along on the bank, watching over the baby to see what happens. Midrash tells us that Miriam had the gift of prophecy, that she knew her little brother would grow up to be someone remarkable. But think for a moment about a girl, who sees her mother lose her nerve, putting the baby into the arms of God, as it were, but who follows along. There were crocs on the bank, too – yet little Miriam still watches over her brother.

In Chapter 4, Moses has grown up, and left Egypt, and his young wife, Zipporah, sees that he has a mysterious encounter with God that nearly kills him. She decides that it has something to do with Moses’ failure to circumcise their son, so she takes a knife and performs the circumcision herself. It is a very mysterious story, but one thing is definite: Zipporah’s name may mean “little bird” but she is no shrinking violet.

So yes, Exodus may begin with the names of  men, but it is the deeds of  women that set this great saga in motion.


How Do Jews Pray for the Sick?

A Prayer for healing. . .
A Prayer for healing. . . (Photo credit: Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton)

I got a question via Twitter: “How do Jews pray for the sick?”

The simplest prayer for the sick is one we learn from Moses. In Numbers chapter 12, Moses’ sister Miriam falls ill with tzra’at (tzah-RAH-at), a terrible sickness something like psoriasis. (It’s often translated “leprosy” but that translation is inaccurate.) Horrified, Moses blurts out the shortest prayer in the Torah, indeed, in our tradition: “El na refah na la!”  “Please, God, heal her!” God’s response is to say that she will be healed, after it runs the minimum course of seven days and she follows the rules for those who have tzara’at, living outside the camp.


In this story, Miriam gets the disease because she gossiped with Aaron about their brother Moses. Tzara’at was understood to be the result of the particularly pernicious sin of evil speech. Notice, though, that Aaron was not struck ill even though he was a full participant in the sin. Some suggest that Aaron’s punishment was to see his sister suffer when he knew he was partially responsible. I think it is a message to the reader that wrongdoing and sickness are not always linked.

Today this is only one prayer we say for the sick. We recite a “Mi Shebeirach” (mee sheh-BAY-rach) (“May the One Who Blessed”) prayer during a Torah service for the sick, and in some congregations the same prayer is said or sung at other services as well. We pray extemporaneously, as Moses did, and we also say prayers for the healthy body. Some of us pray for the sick in other ways, by doing medical research, or caring for the sick and their families, or by doing other things. My next blog post will be about one of those prayers. (Stay tuned!)