Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Parashat Pinhas: On Taking Your Part

Ashrei Adam she’hamakom modeh lidvarav. “Fortunate is the person whose words God agrees with,” says the midrash Sifre Bamidbar. It doesn’t happen often, that God affirms the words of a human being. But it happens in this week’s parsha.

The 5 daughters of a man named Tzelafhad approach Moshe with a request. The land of Israel is being divided among tribes and families and their own father is no longer alive and left no sons, through whom the inheritance would normally flow. “Why should our father’s name be lost? Give us a portion,” they say. This is one of 4 legal questions recorded in the Torah which Moshe did not immediately know the answer to, and had to turn to God for guidance. God’s response: Ken bnot Tzelafhad dovrot. “Rightly speak the daughters of Tzelafhand.” Ken. Yes, in modern Hebrew. True. Just so. God affirms these women’s views.

But why? What’s so great about their request? It is essentially a “gimme” request, “Give us some land.” Is such grabbiness to be admired?

The midrash says that their father was the mekoshesh etzim, the man who gathered wood in violation of the Sabbath and was stoned to death (one of the other 4 cases in which Moshe consulted God). To gather wood on Shabbat – that is grabbiness. There are 6 days to do plenty of taking and gathering in the world. But on the seventh it is time to acknowledge that none of it is ours.

These daughters, like their father, wanted to take something, but they took in a way that was appropriate and even admirable. What they wanted to take was their helek, their “portion” in the land that God was giving them. They wanted to “take their part” in the community’s new undertaking. Taking your part is not just a privilege, a gift, but also an obligation, the daughters understood. This is not a time to plead humility, to hide yourself and have your father’s name erased, as if you don’t exist and don’t matter. This is a time to stand up, as the Torah explicitly says they did – vata'amodnah –and demand to take your part.

There is a famous Talmudic saying that when we get to heaven we will have to account for all of the world’s great pleasures that we did not enjoy during our lifetime. The world that God created was meant for taking and enjoying.

There is also another sense of helek, “portion.” When we finish a section of Talmud, the traditional blessing thanks God shesamta helkenu meyoshvei bet hamidrash, for having made our portion, our helek, that of Torah study and not some other less meaningful activity. Such a helek is both a gift and an obligation, as the daughters of Tzelafhad understood. It is the kind of helek that one must not let pass by, but demand to play a part in.

And God celebrates the part we play in his Torah. That is the meaning of the ken He gives to these women. When He created the world, He commanded the earth to bring forth grasses and animals, and the waters to create fish. Vayehi khen. And so it was. The world responded with a ken to God’s commands. Here, the converse occurs in a beautiful way. These daughters take their part in Torah, pointing out a problem in the existing system and a possible solution, and God, for His part, says ken back to them. God affirms our role as His partners in His world and in His Torah. The partnership has limitations, as Tzelafhad, the Sabbath wood-gatherer and his daughters, learned. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t obligated,like those daughters, to take in proportion, to take our helek, to demand that we participate.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Parashat Hukat:The Changing of the Guard

The school year is ending. Summer vacation is beginning. It is a time of transition, in our lives and also in this week’s parsha.

The Israelites are in their fortieth year of desert travel, most of the generation that left Egypt has died, and now, in this week’s parsha, two of the leaders, Miriam and Aaron, die, too. It is the end of an era, and also the start of a new one, the entrance to the land of Israel.

With the death of one generation and the birth of a new one, there must be some continuity, some passing on of the mantle. The first time messengers are sent from the Israelite camp to a king in this week’s parsha (Num 20:14), Moshe is the sender; the second time, though, the Torah says that the Israelites themselves did the sending (21:21). The passing on of the mantle happens in a literal way,too, with Aaron and his son Eleazar; as part of the ritual of Aaron’s death, Aaron takes off his high priestly clothing and Eleazar puts it on, symbolizing Eleazar’s new status.

Eleazar is also the named priest who is said to enact the ritual of the Red Heifer which begins this parsha. The Red Heifer ritual seems to evoke a feeling of just such continuity in the face of death. The ashes of this red heifer (made redder by the addition of some “crimson stuff”) are mixed with water, to create a red water which must have looked something like blood, and is then sprinkled on any person who comes into contact with the dead. It is as if the continuity of life, its flow from generation to generation -- like the blood that courses through our veins in life -- must be affirmed in the face of the disruptive presence of death.

According to one midrash, Moshe finds God studying Mishnah Parah -- the rabbinic tractate dealing with the Red Heifer -- and quoting one of its great sages, Rabbi Eliezer. Moshe is impressed by the honor God gives to this future sage’s Torah learning and says: “May it be Your will that he (this sage) be among my descendants.” Just as the Red Heifer ritual itself is a response to death, Moshe’s request is also a response to death – hope that his children carry on his Torah project and take it to new heights, making themselves a part of the living, eternal Torah, as the mishnaic Rabbi Eliezer does.

After Miriam dies, there is no water in the camp. The midrash says the well which had accompanied the Israelites in her honor had dried up. Torah is often compared to water. When Miriam died, a well, a source of Torah, died too. It was time for the people to learn to dig their own wells, to take their part in Torah, to become active and creative partners in the Torah’s transmission.

Later in the parsha, the people sing a song about a well. The Torah uses the same phrase to refer to their song here as to the song at the Sea. Az yashir. “Then he sang.” (Num 21:17). The Sefat Emet points out that there, at the Sea, Moshe led the singing, while, here, only Israel sings. He explains that this second song about a well refers not to the Written Torah that Moshe brought down from Sinai, but to the Torah Shebe’al Peh, the Oral Torah which involves active human participation. With their leaders dying, the people are learning to take part in the continual unfolding of Torah, to keep it a Torah that is alive, like the mayim hayim, “the living waters,” which are used in the Red Heifer ritual.

All endings are beginnings. In the face of death, we sprinkle a kind of ritual “blood-water,” a symbol of the new life to come and its continuity to the past. In the face of their leaders’ death, the people face new challenges and responsibilities. They also, like us, bear the burden and the privilege of keeping the Torah alive and vibrant from one generation to the next.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Parashat Korah: Wholly Holy?

Korah seems to be right. In this week’s parsha, Korah the rebel gathers a gang around him, complaining that Moshe and Aaron have usurped too much authority. Korah and his gang make a populist argument, saying, “The whole congregation, they are all holy, and within them is the Lord. Why then do you lord yourselves over the community of God?” Isn’t Korah right? Aren’t all the people kadosh, “holy?” Isn’t God in every one of us?

Yes and no. Yes, we are all capable of kedushah, holiness, but no, we are not all automatically, intrinsically holy. As Yeshayahu Leibowitz argues, kedushah is not a natural-born privilege, a prerogative of “the chosen people,” but a responsibility, an obligation, a goal to work toward. In the book of holiness, Leviticus, God does not say, “You are holy (already),” but rather, “You shall be holy,” kedoshim teheyu. The only one who is intrinsically holy is God Himself, and it is our project in life to mimic Him through our actions, to strive toward that goal.

The midrash says that Korah and his gang came to Moshe wearing cloaks made entirely of techelet -- that special blue thread normally used for tzitzit, for the ritual fringes worn on garments – and said, “Why would we need to wear tzitzit on such garments as these, when the entire garment is made of techelet?” Moshe responded that such garments would nonetheless require tzitzit, a response that elicited mockery from the rebels.

Here is what they were saying: We, the people of Israel, are like these techelet garments. We are already all holy; we do not need any special rituals and we do not need any special leaders to make us holy. We are of our very essence techelet, nobility.

Ahh. But humans are never of their very essence techelet. That is the whole point of tzitzit. It is a much needed reminder to be holy, because humans err, humans forget, humans get distracted by unimportant things.

The people’s time in the desert, and indeed much of the Torah’s narrative, is filled with complaints and mistakes and wrong turns. Just last week the people wrongly followed the 10 scouts into a state of despair about the conquest of the land of Israel. This is not a perfect total techelet people, a people so holy they have no need of laws and leaders to help them in their holiness quest. Perhaps the Torah deals at such length with all of these failures to make this point abundantly clear -- kedushah is not a given, but a goal. The Torah is a process book; it offers tools to help in this life struggle, not congratulatory handshakes on our natural holy state.

As Rabbi Yossi says in Pirkei Avot, you should prepare yourself to work hard at the Torah, to really earn it, because the Torah is not your yerushah, your inheritance, automatically yours (1:1). Korah thought holiness was his inheritance, his prerogative. He prepared himself not to toil and struggle, but to take and receive – vayikah Korah, “Korah took.” But, as the last line of Pirkei Avot says, no pain, no gain – lefum tzara agra -- according to the pain, the dedication, the struggle, so is the reward.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Parashat Shelach: Different Kinds of Vision

Shelach lekha -- send out 12 scouts to the land of Israel in preparation for its conquest -- is God’s command to Moshe at the start of this parsha. The command is similar in sound to another, much earlier one in history, God’s command to Avraham also to go to the land of Israel, lekh lekha.

Both Avraham and the 12 scouts traverse the land from one end to the other, but in opposite directions. Avraham arrives from the north, makes his way to the south, out to Egypt and then back up again from south to north. The scouts begin in the desert south and move up to the hilly north and back down again and out through the desert to meet up with Moshe and the Israelites.

They travel in opposite directions and they react in opposite ways. Avraham is a visionary. When he sees the land, he does not just see soil and produce, people and fortified cities. He sees God; he sees the future; he sees his descendants’ destiny. His faith in God’s promises is so strong that the future – though 400 years away – seems real and secure to him; he can see it and imagine it. Avraham is the kind of person of whom it is said, on multiple occasions, that “he raised up his eyes and saw.” When he sees, he looks upward, to heaven, and to the stars which represent his future of innumerable children.

Not so his great-great-great . . . grandchildren, the scouts (or at least 10 out of 12 of them). They were not visionaries, but land appraisers. They looked not up at the stars, but down at the grapes. They did no stand tall with faith in God and their promised destiny, but squatted like grasshoppers in the fields, burdened down by the weight of the fruit they carried.

Mired in physical realities, the 10 scouts return to report that the land will be impossible for the Israelites to conquer. They have no vision, no faith, no imagination, no spirit. And so, their words come true. For them. For such as them, the land is indeed impossible to conquer. Great things happen only to those who believe in them. Yehoshua and Calev, the 2 lone good scouts, say “Yes, we can do it,” and so, eventually, they do. But to the 10 doubting scouts, God says He will do exactly as they predicted; they will indeed not enter the land; “In this very wilderness shall your carcasses drop (14:32).” They have turned themselves into nothing but carcasses, flesh without spirit.

The antidote to such an attitude, the key to having a more Avraham-like frame of mind is given in the final part of this parsha -- tzitzit, the fringes worn on four-cornered garments. What is the point of wearing such strings on the corners of one’s garments? “You shall see it and you shall remember all the commandments.” Vision. Learning how to see right. Rashi suggests that one of the roots for the word tzitzit is in fact related to seeing, to being metzitz. Tzitzit are a visual reminder of how to view the world, of how not to be, like the 10 scouts, merely appraisers of physical reality, of how to train oneself to see like Avraham, with vision, faith and imagination.

The Torah says tzitzit should have one cord of blue, techelet. The rabbis suggest that this color was chosen in order to remind one of heaven, to remember to look up. The word used to refer to the corners of the garments on which tzitzit are worn is kanaf, a word that also refers to a bird’s wing. Tzitzit are an attempt to give humans, mired to the ground through forces of gravity, the wings to fly high, to lift themselves up like Avraham, and become aware not just of the grapes below but also of the heavens above.