Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Parashat Hukat: In Memory of Joel Linsider, z"l

Our very dear friend Joel Linsider, z”l, passed away this week. He was a person whose life was deeply intertwined with Torah texts, so that it seems significant that he left us on the week of this particular parsha, parashat Hukat, a parsha whose theme is death.

The parsha begins with the red heifer ritual, a procedure used to purify individuals contaminated by an encounter with a corpse. And it also includes, at its beginning, Miriam’s death, and toward its end, Aaron’s death.

What strikes me about these descriptions of death is that they are centered not on the experience of death for the one who is dying, but on the experience of death for those who remain. The red heifer ritual sets us up with this perspective: death has some effect on the living, some effect that must be ritually responded to.

The deaths of Miriam and Aaron are similarly framed. The ancient commentaries are quick to draw a connection between Miriam’s death and the Israelite complaint about thirst that immediately follows. Miriam’s death caused this complaint because Miriam, in her life, provided something that only she could provide and that therefore disappeared upon her death – a well of fresh water.

That’s what happens when someone dies--we are all left crying out in thirst; we feel as if a vital source of water has suddenly dried up. No one else can really quite provide in the same way. Moshe, in the story that follows, tries to get water out of a rock for the people. He succeeds, but in a clunky manner, hitting the rock instead of speaking to it, hitting it twice to make it work, . . . He just can’t do it the way she did; hers was a natural, regular flow.

When Aaron dies, we hear that the people cried for him for 30 days. 30 days?! The midrash explains that it is because of his special peace-making trait, that he was constantly involved in bringing people together, that the people cried for so long after his death. Another midrash notes that, as with Miriam, something difficult happens immediately following Aaron’s death – there is an attack by the Canaanites. What provoked their attack at this particular moment? The midrash explains that Aaron’s death caused the divine cloud of protection which had accompanied them up to this point to disappear; the Cannaanites saw this and attacked. This cloud, like Miriam’s well, only accompanied the people due to Aaron’s special merit, says the midrash; when he died, the loss was felt; his special contribution, his special ability to make peace and to bring God’s peace and protection into the camp, was suddenly gone.

When someone dies, we lose his special contribution to the world. Joel Linsider is gone. Like the people after Miriam and Aaron’s deaths, we are pained at the loss; we cry out in thirst for his special Torah, for his special way of being in the world.

Each person is an individual with a special gift he brings to the world – this is a point that makes life – each individual life -- worth living, but also makes it hard to lose any one special person in the world. May Joel’s memory be for a blessing. I feel grateful for the gift of his Torah and of his friendship to myself and my family and of his model as a person of humility, faith, intelligence, humor and integrity. His passing has left us with an unquenchable thirst for his company and his Torah.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Parashat Korach: On Stepping Aside

The problem with Korach, says the Netivot Shalom, is that he had too much yeshut, too much sense of his own “existence,” the importance of his own place and ego in the world.

“A person who is in the aspect of yesh [“existence”], who takes up space in his own eyes -- it seems to him that his fellow is bothering him and standing in his way. Even if the friend has not done any harm to him in any way, because of his trait of yeshut [his concern for his own existence], he has the feeling that he is bothering him and taking up his place, and out of this he comes into conflict” (Netivot Shalom on Parashat Korach).

Too much ego, too much concern about ourselves and our own existence, is what leads us into conflict with others. Korach felt that Moshe and Aharon had what he should have; they were occupying his space, he felt, standing in his way, bothering him by their very existence, all because he felt strongly the importance of his own self.

On the other hand, the way of peace, says the Netivot Shalom, is the way of ayin, of nothingness, of self-abnegation. When we become like “nothing” in our own eyes – through constant breaking down of the ego and submission of the self to God, according to Hasidic thought – then no one stands in our way; we feel that no one is bothering us and are at peace with the world. Moshe was known for his humility, his ability to see himself as nothing, as he says of himself and his brother, nachnu mah – “We, who are we?” (Ex 16:7).

I am reminded of a Dr. Seuss story about two Zaxes. The north-going Zax and the south-going Zax are each going on their way on the same road, when they bump into each other. Each one refuses to move to the side, insisting that the road is his. They stand there for years, decades, stuck in conflict, while the world builds bridges and roads and buildings all around them.

That’s what it is to be in this kind of a Korach ego conflict; it means to be stuck in a spot where you are unable to step aside for your fellow, where you feel that another’s existence stands in the way of your own, where your particular personal road, your personhood, is the most important thing in the world. It means holding a grudge over some slight against your ego, insisting on your view just because it is yours, or being jealous when it is you (or your child) that isn’t the one picked for an honor. It means viewing the world as your own personal road north or south, never stepping to the side for another.

It’s really mostly ourselves that we hurt in this way. The Talmud reads the first words of the parsha, vayikah Korach, as indicating that Korach made a bad “purchase” (mekach) for himself (Sanhedrin 109b). Refusing to step aside, to learn to push our ego concerns to the side, means becoming stuck. The world swirls and moves forward around us, but we, through our blind allegiance to ego, cannot move forward, cannot join that swirling movement.

Negation of the self sounds harsh and unappealing. Perhaps it is easier to think of it as a connectedness to something larger than ourselves. The Hasidic commentators point out that Korach makes a fundamental mistake in his assertion that kol ha’edah kulam kedoshim¸”The whole congregation, they are all holy.” Yes, the whole congregation is kadosh, holy, but not in the plural, kedoshim, as separate individuals. Rather, holiness only exists when the whole congregation is in the singular, at peace, each individual yielding, not worrying about his individual place on the road, but thinking of herself as a part of the whole.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Parashat Shelah: On Faith and Large Carrots

Is the glass half empty or half full? It all depends on your perspective.

That’s the difference between the 10 scouts and the 2 scouts in this week’s parsha. They all saw the same reality: A land so fertile that both its fruit and its inhabitants were extraordinarily large. Is this “information” a cause for celebration – God has given us a great land—or a cause for despair – we will never be able to conquer these giants? It is all a matter of perspective.

Everything can be skewed. The over-sized grapes which should have been a source of gratitude and excitement, instead illicit a kind of fear – it is as if the land is too bountiful for their tastes, bountiful in a kind of creepy, unnatural way. That’s the way it is in life. Even when things seem not just good, but over-the-top great, we can find a way to view them negatively.

The problem is a lack of trust. The 10 negative scouts say that the land is a “land that devours its inhabitants.” Rashi explains that they came to this conclusion because everywhere they went in the land, people were occupied with burials. God caused this to happen, says Rashi, so that the inhabitants of the land would be so preoccupied with their dead that the Israelite scouts would go undetected and unharmed. But these scouts had no trust; they could not see that both the over-sized grapes and the dead inhabitants were signs of God’s care for them; they assumed the worst.

Such perspectives – both good and bad – do not just frame the reality of the present; they shape the reality of the future. The 10 scouts who said concerning the conquest of the land – “It can’t be done” – in fact did not do it, but died in the desert. The 2 scouts – Joshua and Caleb – who said “We can surely do it” – led a successful conquest of the land. Faith makes things happen, creates the positive outcome it foresees.

In the classic children’s story The Carrot Seed, the father and the mother, the sister and the brother, all say of the carrot: “It won’t come up.” But the little boy has faith, and because of his faith, he tends the garden; he waters it and weeds it, and out of his faith comes not just any carrot, but the largest carrot ever seen, carried away in a wheelbarrow. Faith creates large carrots. It tends their seeds, makes them grow and blossom.

The scouts were given a vision of their future – over-sized grapes, like the little boy’s large carrot. But most of them could not see, could not really believe that this was their future. And so they could not do the work needed to be done to get there.

We are all scouts, travelling through life, taking in the sights and evaluating them: Good or bad? Will it/we succeed or fail? The trick is to be like Joshua and Caleb, to maintain a can-do, positive attitude, to have faith that things will work out for the best, because it is through such faith that we ensure that things do work out for the best; it is through such faith that we are capable of growing giant carrots and conquering giant giants.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Parashat BeHa'alotekha: On Not Going it Alone

Torah – Jewish life -- is not a solitary project. No one can do it alone. It requires an entire camp of 12 tribes to carry the Torah in its midst.

In this week’s parsha, we see what happens when the Torah is carried by one person alone, even if that person is Moshe. All around him, the people start complaining. They have left Mount Sinai and begun their long journey through the great wide desert – and they have lost faith. How will we eat? How will we survive? Their “souls” are “dry,” they say; even though they are daily fed by the manna, they are restless and faithless malcontents.

The Torah cannot exist in such an environment of general faithlessness. Even Moshe can’t maintain his faith surrounded by such voices of negativity – When God tells him the people will eat meat, Moshe is uncharacteristically incredulous: There are 600,000 of them; how are you going to provide meat for so many? See how low even Moshe’s faith has sunk through the general malaise of the camp! Indeed, God is angry: Hayad Hashem tiktzar? Why are you underestimating Me?

There is only one response to such pervasive faithlessness – to increase the number of people carrying the spirit of God, the spirit of Torah in the camp. Moshe cannot carry this alone; even to maintain his own faith, he needs the support of a community of believers. (Maybe that’s why Jewish prayer is generally done in a minyan; a community of people praying together helps support each other’s faith).

And so 70 elders are picked to receive a piece of the ruach, the “spirit.” Note that the elders are not appointed, as elsewhere, to help Moshe judge the people or care for them in some practical way. They are given some of Moshe’s divine spirit, so that they can support a sense of hope and faith in the camp. Their job is to improve morale.

Moshe has a deep understanding of the nature of the divine project. He knows that he cannot do it alone; he understands that the Torah was not given to an individual, but to a nation, and that it is the nation as a whole that must carry it forward. And so, when he hears about Eldad and Medad – two men prophesying within the camp, outside of his supervision – he does not punish them (as Joshua suggests), but celebrates them. Umi yiten kol am Hashem nevi’im. If only the whole people of God were prophets! This is a people of God, not a people of Moshe. The more Torah, the more divine spirit within the people, the better, whether or not it goes through me, says Moshe.

Moshe exults in the spread of the divine spirit because he understands that this is what it is all about, creating a community in which God’s spirit resides; he, as an individual, cannot do it alone. Perhaps he is especially pleased that it is a pair of prophets working together; working together is the only way to maintain the faith, to carry the Torah in one’s midst.