Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Parashat Korah: On Envy

If only Korah had gone to our local synagogue (CBAJ) preschool with my kids. When the children are given differently colored pieces of paper or differently flavored popsicles, their teachers tell them: “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.”

Korah never learned that lesson. He did get upset. He got upset about what other people, Moshe and Aharon, got -- namely leadership and priesthood -- and was not content with what he himself got -- the job of Levite.

This week’s parsha tells the story of Korah’s complaints and of the rebellion he tried to incite against Moshe and Aharon. He and a large group of followers, including two men named Datan and Aviram, gathered together against Moshe and Aharon, saying: “Rav lachem. You have too much. Everyone in the congregation is holy. Why are you two lording it over everyone else?”

The complaint sounds familiar. It is like the complaint of any kid who sees her sibling get a larger slice of cake: “Hey! No fair! Why does so-and-so get such a big piece and not me?” Korah was in fact a first cousin to Moshe, and an older one at that. Clearly, he thought the divine division of family goodies unfair.

The Torah holds up this example of envy as a reflection of the envy we all feel, whether in family relationships or in the world at large. And it is through this story that we can see what is wrong with such feelings.

First, envy is a form of greed. It is no accident the parsha begins with the word vayikah, “He [Korah] took.” The commentaries go wild trying to explain what it was he took, for in the Torah the word is without an object. Maybe that is the point. That one word tells us all we need to know about this Korah character – he was a taking kind of person. He was not content with his lot, but wanted a piece of the lot assigned to others.

Second, the Torah makes it clear that such a feeling of envy is in fact a rebellion against God. As Moshe says, “Truly, it is against the Lord that you and all your company have banded together” (16:11). In the desert, the roles of the high priest and the head-leader and the Levite all clearly originate from God, so that to complain of one’s role is to complain against God. The same is true in our own lives, though it is sometimes harder to see. God has granted each of us certain talents, strengths and challenges in life, so that to envy another’s lot is indeed a kind of rebellion against the God who made us the way we are. As an on-line Bnei Akiva article on jealousy puts it, “The life that God has given you is the life that you were meant to live.”

Third, the Torah shows us, quite graphically, the natural consequences of these feelings of envy and greed. What happens to Korah and his cronies when they try to raise themselves up by putting down Moshe and Aharon? Instead of going up, they go down, down under the ground: “The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up . . . They went down alive into Sheol” (16:32). The midrash points out that Datan and Aviram predict their own downfall when they say lo na’aleh, “We will not go up.” What they mean is: “We will not go up to talk to you, Moshe,” but through these words they predict their end -- they will indeed not go up, but down. Their attempt at self-aggrandizement has led to self-destruction. They have been literally swallowed by their own greed.

Emotionally, that is the way it works with people. Envy is not healthy. It lowers us, debases us. Its drive is an essentially negative one, the tearing down of another’s good fortune, and this negative tenor seeps into our souls. King Saul is a classic example of this process. One day Saul hears the people singing higher praises of David than of himself, and develops a ferocious jealousy of David. “The next day,” the verse tells us, "an evil spirit of God gripped Saul and he began to rave in the house” (I Samuel 18:10). Jealousy causes the unraveling of Saul’s spirit.

What is the alternative? How can we stop these natural feelings of envy, the natural desire to get a larger slice of cake than our siblings? The answer is in Moshe’s response to Korah.. Korah looked at Moshe and Aharon and said: Rav lachem. “You have much.” Moshe says back to Korah: Rav lachem benei levi -- “It is you sons of Levi who have much.” Instead of thinking about the greatness others have, says Moshe, think about the greatness you have been given. PBSkids has the following advice: “There is one really helpful way to beat the jealousy monster: Instead of concentrating on what you DON’T have or who you AREN’T, concentrate on what you DO have or who you ARE.”

As parents, we do everything we can to avoid provoking jealous feelings among our children, but we can’t make things perfectly equal and even, and we probably shouldn’t even try. Life is not always fair. Moshe and Korah were indeed given unequal portions, as are our children. The goal is to be able to face those differences and those inequalities with a comfortable, content sense of self, a self that focuses on one’s own gifts of rav, “much,” rather than desiring the rav-ness of others.

But the goal is not just to ignore another’s good fortune, but to be able to celebrate it. As Nehama Leibowitz points out, Korah was wrong when he said: Kol ha’am kulam kedoshim. “The whole nation, every one of them is holy [plural].” We are not each of us holy on our own, as individuals. We are an am kadosh, “a holy nation.” It is only together, as a group, that we become truly great, truly holy. Once we understand how inextricably linked we are, it becomes easy to celebrate others’ successes; their greatness makes us all great.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Parashat Shelah I: Of Grasshoppers and Giants

Riddle: What do Bob the Builder and Calev ben Yefuneh from this week’s parsha have in common? Answer: They both say: “Can we do it? Yes, we can!”

This week’s parsha, Shelah, tells the story of the 12 meraglim -- scouts who were sent by Moshe from the desert to survey the land of Israel in preparation for the people’s entrance. 10 of the scouts came back saying, “We can’t do it. We won’t be able to conquer the land.” They reported that the land does indeed produce incredible fruit (one bunch of grapes can be carried only by two people using a pole!), but that efes, “no matter” (Numbers 13:28), because the land’s inhabitants are giants, and their cities are well-fortified. The other 2 scouts, Calev and Yehoshua, were steadfast and confident, arguing that since God is with the people of Israel, they will succeed in conquering this great land. They said: “We can surely do it,” which in Hebrew sounds like a double can-do -- yakhol nukhal lah (13:30).

Why were Calev and Yehoshua so confident and positive, while the other 10 spies so hopeless and negative? What made Calev and Yehoshua see the challenge of the conquest of the land as an exciting opportunity to be seized, and the 10 spies see it as an impossible task, doomed to failure?

The 10 spies were intimidated by the largeness of everything they saw – the fruit, the fortifications, and most especially the people. All that largeness made them feel small, like “grasshoppers" (13:33), they say, like efes, zero. Why did they feel so small? Because they were evaluating everything on a purely physical basis, by size and strength. If that is all that a human being is, then indeed, the Israelites were doomed to failure, doomed to the ultimate end of all things physical -- death.

But Calev and Yehoshua understood that a human being is made up of more than flesh and blood. They say, Hashem itanu, “God is with us” (14:9). Perhaps what they mean is not just that God Himself is with the people, but also that God is inside all of us, that we all have a divine spirit, a special ruah. Yehoshua himself in fact carries God’s name inside of his own, having had his named transformed from Hoshea to Yehoshua through the addition of a yod from God’s name (13:16). And God says of Calev that he has a ruah aheret, “a special spirit” (14:24). These two felt that any task could be accomplished with the help of God and His spirit. They understood that it is this divine ruah which changes the equation, allows the weak to defeat the strong, the few to defeat the many. What is there in this world to be intimidated by when one has one’s eye on God?

If we are only flesh and blood, as the 10 spies feared, then we will inevitably feel small, and death is our end, towards which we crawl on the ground, like grasshoppers. The punishment of death in the desert for the 10 spies and their generation was thus a fitting one. But if we are more than flesh and bones, if we also have a divine ruah, as Calev and Yehoshua believed, then we can do greater things than even Bob the Builder; reaching up to the sky to assert our connection to the Eternal One, we can conquer giants.

Parashat Shelah II: Thoughts on Tzitzit

The commandment to wear tzitzit, special fringes worn on four-cornered garments, appears at the end of this week’s parashah. Here are two thoughts on this commandment:

1. The Torah makes a linguistic connection between these tzitzit and the scouts who are spoken of in the beginning of the parsha (thank you to Joel Linsider for first pointing this connection out to me). With reference to the scouts, the Torah says, vayaturu, “And they scouted [or toured] (Numbers 13:21)” and with reference to tzitzit, the Torah says that their purpose is lo taturu, so that one should not be led astray by one’s heart and eyes (Numbers 16:39). Rashi, citing Midrash Tanhuma, says that the heart and the eyes are like scouts for the body, looking out for good places to wander and sin. The four corners of the tzitzit also imply a sense of movement, a sense of existing in a world with four directions to turn towards, like a scout touring a land. Perhaps the idea, then, is that the tzitzit serve as a kind of guide as we tour this world, a guide that reminds us that wherever we go, we carry God and His commandments with us.

2. There is a midrash which tells the following mashal (parable) to explain the significance of tzitzit: “It is like a man who is thrown into the sea and the captain of a ship throws him a rope and says to him: ‘Hold on to this rope and don’t let it go, because if you let it go, you will lose your life.’ “ (Bamidbar Rabbah 17.6). Tzitzit are a lifeline, connecting a person to the source of life, God. The image also reminded me of an umbilical cord, with all its associations of attachment and life dependence.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Parashat Beha'alotekha: The Israelites as Whiny Children

The Israelites behave in this week’s parsha like whiny children. Anyone who has (or has had or has been anywhere near) young children knows how irritating whining can be. How does our experience of whining children shed light on the parsha and how does the parsha shed light on our experience?

First, note that in many ways the Israelites are young children. The crossing of the Red Sea has often been compared to the experience of coming through the birth canal, so that here, in Numbers, in their second year after leaving Egypt, the people may be considered toddlers. Experts say that whining peaks from about 2-4 years of age.

Their whining begins here (Numbers 11) after a journey of three days from Mount Sinai. The Rashbam suggests that the people started complaining as a result of the difficulties of travel. Note that a parallel complaining incident takes place immediately after a similar three day journey from Egypt to Sinai (Exodus 15-16). Traveling with young children is indeed trying. Their sleep and eating cycles are disturbed and they become fragile emotionally. “Are we there yet?” and “I want to go home” are common refrains.

In Numbers, though, there may have been an added reason for their troubled emotional state. Children often start to whine after spending a particularly close period of time with their parents. It comes from a feeling of let-down after a good time, and the fear of distance and loneliness after intimacy. The people have just moved away from Mount Sinai, from the closest experience of God they have ever had. No wonder the move away from that place causes some emotional distress.

There are two stories of complaint in Numbers 11; the first is without a specific point of reference and the second complaint concerns food, namely meat. The doubling up of complaints rings true emotionally. Once the whining begins, it often comes in a series before it is over. And it often starts as a generalized feeling of discontent before it settles on some specific unsatisfactory item. As Rashi points out, the complaint about food was an alilah, an excuse. The Torah text in fact follows their complaints about the manna with a description of its look and taste, as if to show that there was no real reason for complaining other than a generalized bad feeling. When your toddler whines “I wanna coooookie,” it’s usually not about the cookie; he feels bad, and he’s expressing it through food.

The emotional tone is indeed quite low here. The “riffraff” may have had a genuine craving for meat, but the people are simply crying all the time. They cry in verse 4 and again, quite pitifully, in verse 10, “Moses heard the people weeping, every clan apart, each person at the entrance of his tent.” That last line, “each person at the entrance of his tent,” makes it seem like part of what they are looking for is individual attention. Note also that the initial complaint was done specifically “in the ears of the Lord” (11:1). The midrash points out that the people were not hiding their complaints but very much wanted to be heard by God. Maybe that was the whole point, divine (parental) attention. That’s why they say, not “We want meat!” but “Mi ya’akhilenu basar” (11:5), “Who’s going to feed his meat?” We feel scared and alone; who’s going to take care of us?

From the parental point of view, we can easily relate to Moshe’s response, too. Whining can really wear you down. He says he feels like a mother; “Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant?’” (11:12). How does a mother (or a father, or any caretaker) feel after an episode (or two) or whining? Like she wants to die; “If You would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness!” (11:15).

What about God? What is God’s response? First, anger, like any parent. Note that it is hot anger, the ultimate hot anger, fire. My therapist says that if you’re going to get angry at your kids, it should be hot, not cold, meaning it should be the kind of anger that is warm and present, not cold and calculating and distancing. God may be angry and hurtful, but at least He is not turning away from the people.

Moreover, there is a certain subtlety and complexity to His response which makes it clear that He understands the issue is not just one of food. Meat is only one of the issues to be dealt with, the presenting symptom. To be sure, He does deal with the meat issue; He deals with it in true Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle fashion, by giving them so much meat that they themselves will get tired of it, “until it comes out of your noses” (11:20). (Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle employs this trick regularly; the kids who won’t go to bed at bedtime are allowed to stay up as late as they want for nights on end until they beg for a bedtime; the kid who won’t pick up toys is allowed to not pick up toys in his room for so long that he ends up unable to move; the point is always to let the child experience for himself the problems which arise from the extreme of whatever behavior he considers desirable. This way they teach themselves the lesson.)

So God does deal with meat, but He also deals with the real underlying problem, the people’s feeling of distance from His Presence, their need for more of His and Moshe’s attention. (What else do children really want from us other than our attention?) He deals with that problem through the establishment of the institution of the 70 elders as Moshe’s assistants. Moshe and God both understand that with toddlers around, there is a great need for parental attention and that one Moshe and one God simply cannot satisfy that need.

The solution is not to simply appoint the elders as Moshe’s helpers. No. The people want a piece of Moshe and a piece of God; they don’t just want babysitters. So what God does is He takes a little piece of the stuff that makes Moshe special, a little of the stuff that really makes Moshe God’s representative, his ruah, his spirit, and He transfers some of it onto the elders. Now the elders can carry the spirit of God and Moshe with them through the camp as they deal with the people. Now maybe the people won’t feel so alone and distant. They will have 71 representatives of God to give them hugs instead of just one.

The Torah itself emphasizes God’s ruah (spirit) as the solution. Indeed, it is this word which joins the two sections of the chapter into one piece. It is the ruah which is transferred from Moshe to the 70 elders, and it is also the ruah (meaning “wind,” 11:31) which brings forth the quail for the people to eat. The whole point of both solutions is to bring God’s ruah back into the camp, so that the people feel loved and cared for. Perhaps that is part of the point of the story of Eldad and Medad as well, two men who prophesied inside the camp while the 70 elders were receiving Moshe’s spirit outside the camp. The point is that God’s ruah is overflowing everywhere. It encircles the camp from the outside through the 70 elders and the quail and it overflows into the camp through Eldad and Medad.

Here’s where our experience of young children helps shed light on the Torah. Chapter 11 is a very complicated chapter. There are really two stories woven together, one about the people’s complaint about meat and the other about the 70 elders. Understanding that the people’s real problem was an emotional one and not just a physical one explains why the solutions also needed to be on both planes, both in terms of the physical wind of the quail and the spiritual wind of God’s presence in the elders.

Note that in the parallel quail story in Exodus (16), the solution offered by God is only physical. The people complain about lack of water and food, and God simply gives them water and food, without anger and without offering any extra helpers to deal with the emotional fallout. Perhaps the difference is that in Exodus the people are still babies. Their crying is the real cry of thirst and hunger; there really is no food or water at the time, and their crying is their only mode of communication, their way of asking for these essentials. By contrast, in Numbers, the people already have manna. Their cry is more complicated, no longer merely a sign of a physical need, but also a sign of an emotional one. God therefore offers them an emotional as well as a physical response.

The other part of the response, of course, is anger and punishment. Whining is not a good way of asking for something (either physical or emotional) and the people need to learn to ask in a nicer way. When they do ask nicely, without crying, as earlier in the parsha (Num 9:1-14) in relation to those who have missed the Passover sacrifice, they get a calmer, more measured response. But learning to ask nicely, when one is upset, takes time. It takes a few years, and most of the book of Numbers. In the mean time, God and Moshe (and we parents of young children) just have to bear with them.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Parashat Naso I: The Blessing of Satisfaction

“More! More! I want more!” say the children. More toys, more beautiful dresses, more treats. It is never enough. For them, and sometimes, for us. How does one learn to feel satisfied, to feel the peace of not wanting? Consider the parsha’s perspective.

This week’s parsha, parashat Naso, includes the classic priestly blessing, “May the Lord bless you and protect you . . .” (Num 6:23-27). This is the same blessing the kohanim (priests) recite in the synagogue on holidays and that many parents use to bless their children on Friday nights.

Concerning this priestly blessing, the midrash (Numbers Rabbah 11.7) tells the following story. A large family sits down to a very meager meal, some small bits of bread. Now the Torah says, “And you shall eat, and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless [here meaning thank] the Lord your God” (Deut 8:10). This is the biblical source for benching, the saying of grace after meals. What do the members of the midrash’s family do after eating their decidedly unsatisfactory meal? They bench anyway; they thank God despite not being full. According to the midrash, it is this action, this lifting of one’s face toward God in blessing and thanksgiving (brachah) which leads God to lift His face toward us in blessing (brachah), and to bestow upon us the favors of the priestly blessing. It is like we tell our children: “If you say thank you, they’ll invite you back.” The first step in receiving the blessing involves appreciating that we already have been blessed. And thus begins the cycle; our appreciation, our brachah, leads to His further brachah which leads to our brachah of thanks and so on.

Note that the midrash’s family begins the cycle by feeling blessed and save’a, “satisfied,” in the face of small amounts. This sense of satisfaction, of fullness, no matter what the quantity, is the kind of perspective which is the beginning of religious experience; it is a perspective which opens the heart to seeing, really seeing God’s gifts and blessings in all their tiny minutiae – the single moment of a child’s laughter (even amidst a day full of tears), the moment when a group’s voices merge in Shabbat song, or the sweet taste of one small piece of juicy melon. The goal is to look at these small things and to feel full, to be able to say: If that is all the good that comes of today, that is enough.

The Hasidic commentator Sefat Emet suggests that the last part of the priestly blessing, “And He will grant you peace” refers not only to shalom, “peace,” but also to shleymut, “wholeness,” to precisely this feeling of fullness. This perspective is then both the beginning and the end of the cycle. We must begin with a heart that is full and blessed, but it is also such a heart that we pray for; such a heart is also the blessing itself. We ask God to help us become people who do not constantly want more, but feel a sense of wholeness and satisfaction in small things.

Parashat Naso II: The Nazirite: Good or Bad?

This week’s parsha includes the laws of the nazir, the nazirite (Num 6:1-21). The nazir is a person who voluntarily takes upon himself or herself certain life restrictions for a prescribed period of time. There are three such restrictions: 1) no eating or drinking of wine or any grape product (including raisins!); 2) no cutting of one’s hair; and 3) no contact with a dead body.

These restrictions imply a special level of purity (like that of the priest), and also a certain removal from society with all its attendant pleasures and social contacts (even with the dead). The free growing of one’s hair may be part of this removal from society; the Torah describes the resulting hair as pera, “wild” and unkempt, possibly rendering the wearer unfit for proper social company. Indeed, this separation from society is one of the ways the nazir differed from the priest; the priest kept himself holy in order to serve as a vehicle for the people to access God. The nazir kept himself pure in order to fulfill his own idiosyncratic religious inclinations. (See Jacob Milgrom’s JPS commentary to Numbers, Excursus 11, for more on this idea).

Nehama Leibowitz cites a long history of debate over whether such voluntary asceticism is a good thing. She first points to the Torah itself. On the one hand, the Torah calls this person kadosh, holy. On the other hand, when he is finished with his prescribed period of consecration, he brings a sin-offering, implying that there is something sinful about his actions.

As Professor Leibowitz points out, this biblical ambivalence is played out in the Talmud (Ta’anit 11a) as a debate. Rabbi Eliezer Hakappar says that anyone who, like the nazir, purposefully does not take part in something allowable and pleasurable in this world, is considered a sinner. On the other hand, Rabbi Elazar says that anyone who, like the nazir, takes upon himself any additional restriction in life is considered kadosh, holy.

Finally, Professor Leibowitz points out that the medievals continued the debate. Maimonides, advocating the golden middle road, considers the nazir too extreme. One should not stop drinking altogether; one should simply drink in moderation. Nachmanides, on the other hand, sees the nazir’s actions as essentially laudatory; in fact, he claims that the nazir brings the sin-offering at the conclusion of his prescribed period because it is a sin for him to return to his normal state after his period of holiness.

What do we make of this debate? Elu ve’elu divrei elohim hayim, “These and these are the words of the living God.” Both points of view must have some truth to them. There is value to a person’s intense desire to serve God in an extra rigorous and ascetic fashion, but it is also dangerous and certainly not the way to run a society. Perhaps that is why the Torah suggests that the nazir , as an individual, take on these restrictions for a prescribed period of time. This type of behavior is good, but it is not for everyone and not for all the time; it must be contained in time and person.

A Note on the Haftarah:

The haftarah deals with another nazir, Samson (Judges 13). Samson was not a temporary nazir, but a life-long nazir from the time of his conception. His final downfall comes when a woman he falls in love with, Delilah, reveals to the Philistines that the secret to his physical strength is his uncut hair. It is significant that his downfall comes from a woman. He is portrayed throughout these narratives as being in constant pursuit of women. One wonders whether this sexual appetite is connected in some way to his status as a nazir. Perhaps the nazirite restrictions caused an imbalance in him so that his other appetites grew stronger and less controllable. In some ways, his sexual life seems like his hair, wild and uncontrolled. Perhaps it was not the feeling of restrictiveness that led him in that direction but the feeling of unrestrictiveness with regard to his hair, the lack of adherence to societal norms. Either way, the parsha’s suggestion that such nazirite practices should be restricted to a short period of time seems in some ways to be an attempt to prevent exactly the kind of excessive behavior seen in Samson.