Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Parashat Beha'alotekha: On Humility

When Gooney Bird -- a children’s book character in second grade-- takes out a bib to wear at lunch one day, the other children wonder why she isn’t embarrassed to wear something so babyish, and she says simply, “I am never ever embarrassed.”

What does it take to not be embarrassed? A healthy ego? A feeling of self-confidence and security? Yes. But surprisingly, the Torah tells us it takes something else, too. Humility, a sense of one’s small place in the universe, a sense that one’s ego is not so important as to warrant constant defending.

In this week’s parsha, Beha’alotekha, Moshe is faced with two situations in which he might have been embarrassed or angry, but in both, like Gooney Bird, he is not. 70 elders are taken to the Tent of Meeting to receive a little of Moshe’s divine prophetic spirit. When someone comes to inform Moshe that two other elders, Eldad and Medad, have been prophesying, on their own, inside the camp, instead of under Moshe’s direction, Yehoshua is outraged on Moshe’s behalf, suggesting the two be imprisoned. But Moshe himself? He says: “If only the whole nation of God were prophets!” (Num 11:29). Because he is not concerned with his own ego, he does not feel threatened, but can honestly celebrate others’ success.

In the second situation, Aharon and Miriam, Moshe’s brother and sister, gossip and complain about him. The Torah does not record a reaction by Moshe, but instead tells us that Moshe is “a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth” (12:3). Being a truly humble person, Moshe does not consider such slights against his person worthy of attention.

King David was also known for his humility. Even though he was a powerful king, he danced like a peasant before the Holy Ark as it was being transferred from city to city. His wife, Michal, peeking from a window, thought he should be ashamed, that such frolicking did not befit royalty. But David, like Gooney Bird, was not embarrassed. He understood that to humble oneself in joyful servitude of God is never embarrassing.

Moshe’s humility, too, must have stemmed in part from his sense that what he was doing was working and dancing before God. His constant and intimate contact with God – it is in this week’s parsha, too, that we hear that he spoke to God “mouth to mouth” (12:8)—must have given him a sense of perspective on his smallness, and also, a sense of the largeness of something else, the largeness of God and of God’s project, the Torah. In relation to these large projects that really matter, concerns for one’s own ego become petty, frivolous, unimportant.

This exceeding humility is the only great quality explicitly attributed to Moshe. Not intellectual brilliance. Not physical prowess. Humility. Moshe was the person who wrote the whole Torah, was God’s conduit for it all. Why? According to one ancient rabbi, Torah is compared to water because it flows to the lowest place, to the person who has managed to make himself most humble, and therefore most open to divine gifts. Such a person was Moshe.

Such a person was also the great sage Hillel. The law is decided according to the House of Hillel, says the Talmud, because of their great humility, because they always quoted the opinion of their rivals, the House of Shammai, before their own opinion (Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 13b). Humility leads to a kind of openness to all truths, an acknowledgment that each of us has only a small piece of the truth and that we therefore need to be open to one another. If you’re too worried about your own performance, your own ego, you often can’t hear what anyone else has to say. The humble person, by not worrying about embarrassment, becomes a vessel into which water flows easily from all sources.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bemidbar/Shavu'ot: Linking Arms

In a children’s book by Lois Lowry, second-grader Gooney Bird Greene, who has no siblings, is charged with the task of writing a short poem about her family. When it is her turn to recite her poem, she requests others to come stand up at the front of the classroom with her. Her teacher and all the students in the class stand with her, holding hands in a long line encircling the classroom, as she reads: “I’m an only/ But not lonely.”

This week we start a new book of the Torah, Bemidbar. We are all fundamentally bamidbar, ”in the desert,” alone. Perhaps that is why the Torah begins this book with a census. Counting people puts them together into a group, reminds people that they have each other, that they are part of a larger entity.

My 3-year old loves to count. Lately, what he is fascinated by is how numbers are surrounded by one another. “4 comes before 5 and after 3, right? 6 comes before 7 and after 5?” That’s what numbers do; they form a line, connecting one digit to the next one. We are in the midst of counting from the holiday of Passover to the holiday of Shavuot for precisely this reason, to form a chain of links from one holiday to the other, to attach them to each other.

Devek. That’s the modern Hebrew word for glue. It is also the word used in this week’s chapter of Pirkei Avot to describe one of the attributes associated with Torah study, dibbuk haverim, “attachment to friends or fellows” (6:6). And it is also the word used to describe Ruth’s activity in the book of Ruth, to be read on the upcoming holiday of Shavu’ot. Rut davkah bah. “Ruth stuck with her,” stuck with Naomi, her mother-in-law.

Here is the context: Naomi and her husband Elimelech leave the land of Israel during a famine and settle in Moab. According to the midrash, they were a wealthy family and left the land because they did not want to share their bread with all their hungry brethren during a famine. In Moab, the family’s two sons marry Moabite wives, Ruth and Orpah, and then father and both sons die. Naomi and her two daughters-in-law set out to return to the land of Israel. Orpah, whose name means something like “back of the neck,” turns her back on Naomi and returns to Moab, while Ruth sticks with Naomi.

Ruth’s act is a tikkun, a reparation, for the act of her father-in-law in leaving the land of Israel in the first place. He did not “count” himself to be one of his brethren during their time of trouble. Ruth, though a foreigner, counts herself a part of Naomi’s family and nation, even during hard times, after both sons have died.

That is what it means to be loyal, to stick with someone through thick and thin, like a 3 sticks to a 4. Another of the attributes associated with Torah study in that same Pirkei Avot list (6:6) is nose be’ol im haveiro, “one who shares in the burden of his fellow,” one who links arms with his fellow in times of trouble as well as times of joy.

Such behavior is modeled by God Himself, who, Rashi says, is constantly counting the people of Israel because He loves them so much. When does He count them? Through good times and bad, when they triumphantly leave Egypt together, their first act as a nation, and again, after their first big sin, the sin of the Golden Calf. Here, now, in the beginning of the book of Bemidbar, God counts them again, this time because He wishes to reside among them, to count Himself a part of them as they travel through the lonely desert, their camp like linked arms surrounding His tabernacle home.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Parashat Behar/Bekhukotai: Walking with the Torah

The first of this week’s double parshiyyot, Behar, begins by telling us that the commandments which follow, mostly concerning the Sabbatical (shmita) and Jubilee (yovel) years, were delivered Behar Sinai, at Mount Sinai.

Rashi, citing the midrash Sifra, asks the famous question: Mah inyan shmita etzel har Sinai? What does the law of the Sabbatical year have to do with Mount Sinai? Why tell us that Mount Sinai was the location for this mitzvah?

I want to spin this question and broaden it. Mah inyan shmita etzel har Sinai? Why is it relevant for the Israelites to study shmita – which only applies in the land of Israel – at Mount Sinai, in the middle of the desert? And why is it relevant for us, who live in the exile, in America, to study this portion of the Torah at all? Moreover, on a larger scale, one could and often feels like asking this question concerning the whole book of Leviticus, which we are concluding this week: Why bother reading about all of the priestly and sacrificial laws when we no longer have a Temple? Mah inyan Vayikra etzel Albany? Of what relevance is the book of Leviticus to the Jews of Albany today?

Notice that the Torah’s Temple laws are taught primarily in relation to the mishkan, the Tabernacle, a home for God each part of which has holes and poles for transportation. It is God’s mobile home, a portable Temple for the long desert journey. The Tabernacle’s portability symbolizes the Torah’s own portability. The Torah – land-related laws like shmita and all -- was not given in the land of Israel, but in the desert, as part of a long journey. It is a portable book, meant for all people, in all places and at all times.

Parts of the Torah cannot always be applied or enacted, but they can always be studied. Rashi, again following the midrash Sifra, emphasizes the study element of our relationship to the Torah in his interpretation of the first verse of the second of our two parshiyyot, Bekhukotai. The second phrase in that verse, “And observe My commandments,” clearly refers to the observance of the laws, so what does the first phrase –Im bekhukotai telekhu, literally, “If you walk in My laws,” -- tell you? That you should be amelim baTorah, “working at the Torah,” engaged in the work of its study. How can you “walk” with God’s Torah, make it portable, and carry it with you from place to place and age to age? By studying it. Some laws may not apply, but they can always and everywhere be studied. The laws of shmita were given on Mount Sinai, where they did not apply, to show that from the start, the Torah had parts that were not immediately applicable, but that were nonetheless to be studied and honored.

Parashat Bekhukotai presents a choice between the observance and non-observance of God’s laws. But there is also another choice, the choice of how to view the Torah, whether as a source of continued relevance for study or as a dead, antiquated book. A midrash on parashat Behar speaks of the power of the tongue to either bring life or death. If the mouth breathes on a coal, the coal comes to life and burns brightly, but if the mouth spits on the coal, the coal dies. The Torah is the same. We can either view it as a dying ember, or as a coal we can ignite into flames.

The reward is commensurate to the task. If we do “walk” with God’s Torah, and keep it relevant and aflame, the parsha tells us that one of the blessings we will receive is that God will “walk along with us,” vihithalakhti betokhakhem. The Sforno points out that the word vehethalakhti does not imply a particular destination, but a kind of wondering from place to place. If we walk with the Torah, bringing it wherever we go, then God promises to walk alongside us, too, wherever we go.