Friday, June 22, 2007

Hukat (Rashi)

"And He was sanctified therein"

This week's parasha relates, among many varied incidents, the story of Moses' hitting the rock at Mei Merivah rather than speaking to it so as to draw water, thereby diminishing one of God's miraculous acts. For this seemingly trivial offense, more peccadillo than sin, Moses was punished by not being allowed to enter the Land of Canaan, for which he so longed. Rashi, on the final verse of this short section, comments as follows:

Numbers 20:13. "These were the waters of Merivah upon which the Israelites quarreled with the Lord, and He was sanctified thereby." Rashi: "And He was sanctified thereby." That Moses and Aharon died on their account. For when the Holy One blessed be He performs judgment upon His sanctified ones, He is feared and made holy over people, as it says "Awesome [are You], O God, from your sanctuary" (Ps 68; interpreted according to the midrashic pun, do not read "Your sanctuary" [mimikdashekha] but "your sanctified ones" [mimkudashekha]), and it also says, "by those who are close to Me I shall be sanctified" [Lev 10].

This Rashi is puzzling, at least at first blush. The argument made here is similar, if not identical, to that made in Leviticus 10 regarding the sudden death of Nadav and Avihu, in the midst of their offering a "strange fire… that they had not been commanded." The idea is that, in some paradoxical way, God is made holy when those who are closest to Him, priests and prophets and holy men who are wholly dedicated to the service of the Divine and whose lives have been almost entirely blameless, commit some trespass and are punished with great severity. Why should this be so?

Such events serve to emphasize the sense of God's Otherness, His transcendence, specifically, the fact of His ultimately being beyond the understanding of even the wisest and smartest and most profound human being. This God is not the warm, kindly, loving, familiar, almost cuddly "Eibeshter" of a certain kind of Hasidic and Yiddish folk tale. He is frightening, unpredictable, even vengeful, exacting punishment from miscreants to the full measure—and perhaps then some. Human beings try in vain to understand the justice or even logic of such events. This is precisely the root meaning of the word qadosh, which is used in this context: to be holy means to be separate, transcendent, strange, apart, all that is not of this world.

It occurs to me that this insight may help to explain two seemingly unrelated facets of this section of the Book of Bamidbar/Numbers. In the last three weekly portions (which I have been unable to discuss in these pages this year due to my travels)—Beha'alotkha, Shelah Lekha, and Korah—the Torah tells of a series of incidents in which the people of Israel murmur and rebel against God, complain about various aspects of Moses' (and by implication, of God's) leadership: the manna-food is bland and boring and they miss the spicy diet they enjoyed in Egypt; they are frightened at the prospect of having to do battle with the unknown and seemingly super-human indigenous inhabitants of the Land they are going to enter; and, in general, they mistrust Moses' leadership and are attracted to the charismatic, demagogic alternative style of leadership proposed by Korah.

A second, less obvious theme relates to broader issues of what might be called faith vs. reason. In the section on tzitzit, we are told not to follow our eyes or our hearts after which we are wont to go astray—a warning, not only against the temptations of the instinctual life, but also, at least according to Rambam in Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 2.4, of the dangers of untrammeled intellectual speculation, certainly for the majority of people who do not have finely trained and disciplined minds. Then, in Korah, as seen through the lens of midrash, there are the dangers to religious faith and adherence to mitzvot posed by sophistic, glib polemics of a certain ilk. Finally, in this week's parasha, there is the title motif of hukkim, regarding those laws of the Torah that are seemingly paradoxical and even senseless, as exemplified by the law of the red heifer. I will quote briefly the well-know Rashi on our opening verse:

Num 19:2. "This is the statute of the Torah." Rashi: Because Satan and the idolators taunt Israel, saying, What is this commandment and what reason does it have? Therefore it is written concerning it "statute" (hukkah)—it is an edict before Me and you haven't permission to question it.

I have commented on this verse on a number of occasions in the past, so I will not elaborate on it now. But an important insight I gained for the first time this year is that our verse—viz. God being sanctified through the death of His holy ones—also fits under this rubric: that is, that God's ways are ultimately inexplicable. Human reason cannot hope to fully comprehend this. It is "above rationale or reason."

In terms of the relation of this idea to the first theme: on a purely human level, the murmurings of the people are eminently understandable. We may criticize the Israelites, bewail their lack of faith, of discipline, of toughness, of the ability to look beyond the immediate situation—but each of us knows that, on a certain level, had we been there we might well have taken the side of the rebels, for the weaknesses portrayed here are all too human. The demands of a high-minded, holiness-centered orientation towards life are beyond the capacity of most human beings. (The conflict between religion and human sentiment is a perennial problem. I recently read a rather strange and powerful short novel on this theme by Par Lagerkvist, The Sibyl.)

But the real problem is how to maintain a proper balance between accepting the legitimacy of the intellect, and knowledge of its limitations. There are many schools today within Judaism which emphasize almost exclusively the concept of hukkim and unquestioning submission to God, the heteronomous nature of the Torah, the inadequacy of the human mind, and the need to rely upon the tradition and its spokesmen, the gedolim. But that way can lie an arid and at times cruel authoritarianism—not to mention distortions of the Torah message to which this may at times lead (e.g., if a woman is left an agunah—thus it will be argued—she must suffer it with resignation, accepting this as somehow being God's will as expressed in the Torah, rather than the community seeking solutions within the Torah, even to the extent of challenging the halakhic policy of current Rabbinic leadership). I believe that a certain measure of what might be called "humanism" or even "anthropocentrism" is valid, albeit balanced by a certain humility and sense of limitations. But care must be taken against the other danger as well—of making the Torah speak only of human well-being and good feeling—a motif too much prevalent in certain kinds of popular Jewish teaching and writing these days (a feeling, I might add, reinforced by my present visit to the United States). But more on that another time.

Reb Dovid Zeller ztz"l

This Shabbat marks the sheloshim of the passing from this world of Reb Dovid Zeller. Though I was neither a student of his nor a colleague or friend in any real sense, his life—and death—left their mark on me. He was my wife's first real Jewish teacher, and was among those that officiated at our wedding, wearing his signature multi-colored vest. To my mind, Dovid represented the finest example of a new type of rabbi that has emerged in recent years on the Jewish scene: what one might, for want of a better term, call a spiritual teacher.

Dovid was not a product of the classical yeshiva world in any classical sense, nor did he fulfill the role of halakhic authority or teacher of and expert in traditional texts. He himself went the route of the latter-day hozer be-teshuvah, as a spiritual seeker from an assimilated American Jewish home, albeit one greatly informed by the spiritual dimension of existence (he once described himself as having been raised as "an Orthodox Jungian and a Reform Jew" and having become "an Orthodox Jew and a reformed Jungian"). He spent a number of years in India, seriously trying the Eastern spiritual path, even to the extent of living as a sadhu—an itinerant monk-beggar. Along the way he met Shlomo Carlebach, whose path spoke to his soul—and the way was paved for him, not only to take on traditional Jewish observance, but to become a teacher of souls. His way, in the broad sense, was that of Reb Shlomo—through Hasidic tales and songs, by encouraging each person to discover and tell his own story. But these were combined with what he had learned from the new schools of psychology and psychotherapy: he had been trained in and practiced transpersonal therapy; he was deeply engaged in and taught meditation and showed others the path to the inner journey afforded through Jewish meditation and other techniques. (He once described himself as "California Hasidic"). He spread his message through both personal teaching, as well as books, tapes, CDs, through story telling, song (both his own and classical Hasidic melodies; his rendition of some old Bratslav niggunim are especially moving), and more traditional kinds of teaching.

There was something very gentle about Reb Dovid, a sense of inner quiet and peace, of great sweetness and kindness, that was often somehow lacking in Reb Shlomo's restlessness. Among all the disciples of Reb Shlomo Carlebach, perhaps the one who most embodied the quality known in Yiddish as eidelkeit, which is inadequately translated into English as "refinement," or what the Sages called nikayon ha-da'at. He taught people how to pray; he taught people how to live in harmony, with themselves, with their partners, with their families. For many years, throughout the period I knew him, he lived on the town of Efrat, where he served as rabbi of one of the neighborhood shuls, known as the "Happy Minyan"—a minyan which tried to emulate the joy and tolerance and openness of Reb Shlomo.

Last summer, just about this time, we celebrated his sixtieth birthday at a friend's home. That same month his mother died, at a ripe old age. We had all hoped for many more years of teaching and friendship. But it was not to be. This winter he was stricken by a rare respiratory disease, and on Friday, two days after Shavuot, on the Eve of Shabbat Naso, he surrendered his soul to his Maker. May his memory be a source of blessing.


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