Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Tammuz (Months)

Tammuz. The time when the sun is at its zenith. Long days of intense, often harsh heat. Tammuz is the turning-point of the seasons; Tekufat Tammuz is the Hebrew counterpoint to the summer solstice. The beginning of the proverbial “long hot summer.” In one Talmudic tradition Tammuz is described as a time of special danger, when a person who walks alone in mid-day of Tammuz is exposed to the deleterious effects of ketev-merari (an enigmatic phrase from Deut 32:24), a vague, harmful demonic force…. The light and warmth of the sun, one of the ultimate sources of all natural blessing and even of life itself, can be a curse when there is too much of it, too intense (shades of global warming?).

In Jewish history, too, Tammuz is a time of harshness. Midway through the month is the 17th of Tammuz, the second of the four fast days for the destruction of Jerusalem, the traditional date of the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem (before the Destruction of the Second Temple; 2 Kings 25:3-4 gives the date for breaching of the walls in the First Temple period as the 9th of Tammuz). As such, it is the beginning of the Three Weeks, bein ma-metzarim, “between the breaches”—the period leading up to Tisha b’Av. It is a time of mourning, of denying ourselves certain physical pleasures and comforts, and of sober reflection—not so much over individual faults, but of collective responsibility and sin.

An important Rabbinic tradition notes that, whereas the First Temple was destroyed because of “bloodshed, licentiousness, and idolatry”—the three cardinal sins in Judaism—the Second Temple was destroyed “because of causeless hatred”—what we might today call factionalism: a situation in which religious and national-political ideologies become the center of individual identity, running amok, and simple human empathy was lost in the shuffle.

But one ought not to make light of the sins of First Temple paganism either. Sexual licentiousness and ritual bloodshed seem to go hand in hand with certain kinds of paganism. Interestingly, Tammuz was the name of one of the pagan deities worshipped during that age—the only such whose name is associated with that of a Hebrew month. Tammuz—originally the Sumerian shephered god Dumuzid, or the Akkadian Dumuzzi—was consort of the female Inanna/Ishtar, whose death and rebirth were associated with the intense like heat and drought of mid-summer followed by rebirth, through rituals of mourning. “The women weeping for the Tammuz” described by the prophet Ezekiel (8:6-14) was among the shocking sights he observed when he was taken to the inner sanctum of the Temple in Jerusalem.

A third feature signaling the character of this month is the sequence of Torah portions read. During Tammuz, we read and almost always complete the second half of Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers. As we have observed on other occasions, this is in some ways the most difficult book on which to get a handle. It seems a potpourri of laws, stories, rebellions, and disasters.

In the first half of the book (roughly speaking: the parshiyot read in Sivan) , there is a sense of timelessness, of suspended animation, of being “nowhere” in the desert. There is no interaction with other peoples; no real material needs (the Israelites eat the miraculous manna that falls every morning; they drink water from the “Well of Miriam”; their garments and shoes don’t wear out). To be flippant, one might compare it to a reality show, in which people are thrown upon their own resources simply to get on with one another, and the strengths and weaknesses of human nature (mostly the latter) are revealed in all their nakedness. Or perhaps it can be compared to Sartre’s play No Exit; in which three people are shut in a room for eternity and the conflicts among them play themselves out. “Hell is other people” becomes the motto.

The second half of the book is somehow more down to earth: there is interaction with other nations, as well as a sense of expectancy, of readiness, of preparing to enter the land. A number of sections go down to the smallest technical details of how to settle the Land, of its boundaries, of dividing the land among the tribes, of “extra-territorial” Levitical cities and cities of refuge—and even of how to handle an unusual case of inheritance in a family where there are only daughters. There is also a change of leadership: Joshua instead of Moses; Pinhas instead of Aharon.

In Hukat and Balak the focus is on interaction (mostly violent) with other nations: the battles with Sihon and Og; fragments of ancient war poetry; and the strange story of the sorcerer/prophet Bilaam, in which the people of Israel are observed entirely from without. There are more rebellions and examples of poor behavior on the part of the people: the plague sent among the people for their lack of faith, and the brazen serpent sent to cure it; and the sexual straying with the Midianite women at Baal Peor.

If one were to seek one central theme, it would be: the confrontation with a harsh, difficult reality (like that symbolized in Jewish history by the three weeks?). The basic question asked by the Torah, if one may put it thus, is: how does one bring the lofty, unitive vision of Sinai down into the nitty-gritty harshness, even cruelty, of the desert? Ironically, as these words are being written we find ourselves in the midst of a mini-war with the Palestinians, one more chapter in a seemingly endless, “no exit” situation of ultimately pointless, un-winnable tribal warfare not so different from that portrayed in these chapters of Torah.

As for the astrological symbolism: Tammuz is the month of Cancer: the crab, a sea crustaceans, living within a hard, protective shell (a symbol of turning inward?); a dangerous creature that can snap and bite and even hurt badly. A crabby person is constantly grumpy and complaining. I don’t know whether the two are connected (although whenever believers in astrology say “So-and-so is a Cancer” it always seems to have a particularly sinister ring), but the homonymous cancer is a dreaded disease in which unseen disease cells multiply silently, destroying healthy organs over a period of months and years. All of which are an apt enough collection of metaphors for what can go wrong in life, on both the personal and national level.


Just as, in the biblical chronology, the giving of the Torah is followed in short order by the Golden Calf, so too in the liturgical year Shavuot is followed by series of catastrophes, of rebellions, in which the people are shown at their weakest and most petty-minded. A friend of mine once commented, only half facetiously, that immediately after the two inverted nuns in this week’s parsha, the Torah, so to speak, “has a nervous breakdown” (or, alternatively, the nuns are like the iceberg struck by the Titanic).

In other years, I’ve addressed the catalogue of human weaknesses elaborated in these parshiyot. This time I shall focus on issues of leadership, and especially on the personality of Moses as leader.

Beha’alotkha: The first major crisis is that in which the people complain about the steady, bland diet of manna, “lusting” for meat. Moses is angry—it’s not clear whether with God, with the people, or with both—and does not respond directly to the people, but rather addresses God with his complaints. Why, he says, have you placed the burden of all this people upon me? You’ve made me no more than a glorified nursemaid (“as the nursemaid carries a suckling…”)!

A Digression on the Lust for Flesh: On one level, this whole story may be taken as a fable about flesh eating and vegetarianism: the bland, calming, but nourishing (perhaps grain like?) manna vs. the raw desire for animal flesh!—a tension not uncommon in many communities today. Moreover, it’s not far-fetched to draw a connection between the two kinds of carnal lust: that for eating flesh (carnis in Latin) and that for sex: a) note the use of the word ta’avah here, used for all forms of desire, wish, or appetite, associated elsewhere with sexual lust, for the desire to eat flesh; b) in a well-known comment, Rashi interprets the verse “the people were weeping by their families” (Num 11:10), as “regarding matters of family”—i.e., sexual impropriety; c) in Far Eastern culture, the two lusts are linked as that which is eschewed in monasticism. Thus, in Buddhism and Hinduism monks refrain both from sexual relations and from eating meat, as part of a path to a more subtle spiritual consciousness. Neither of these is seen as “evil,” as sex is in historical Christianity, but as obstacles to a certain detachment from the grossly physical.

An interesting sidelight on all this. The leader of the most successful anti-clerical party to have existed in Israel in many years, Shinui (which, for a variety of reasons, suffered a dramatic plummet in the most recent elections), was Yosef (Tommy) Lapid. Besides his career in politics and journalism, Lapid was the author, with Ruth Sirkis, of a cookbook of Hungarian food, Paprika. The opening page of that book, roughly translated, states that “any self-respecting Hungarian lives to eat.” This doubtless gave fuel to his secularism—Rabbinic control over the kinds of meat sold in Israel interfered with his freedom, if not passion, to buy and enjoy the full gamut of meats! But the irony in all this is that I can hardly imagine the likes of Lapid, or any other meat enthusiast, going crazy about quail, the subject of the meat craze in our parashah. I once bought a pair of quails for our Friday night supper one year on Shabbat Beha’alotkha: scrawny things, each bird was barely the size of a quarter-chicken!

To return to our parsha: God’s response is very interesting: He deals with Moses’ frustration and impotence by assigning him a group of “assistants,” seventy elders (an already existing group?), delegating or “infusing” them with some of the “spirit” which is upon Moses. There is a certain parallel here to the story in Yitro (Exod 18): there, Moses’ father-in-law Yitro sees that Moses is working too hard, and suggests a system of delegating certain more routine aspects of his authority to a series of lower officials. But there, it is a purely administrative or juridical authority: the sort of division of tasks which can be made in any human society, based upon rational, exoteric abilities. Here, the Torah speaks about infusing some of Moses’ spirit, his charisma, upon these people, the clear implication being that this would somehow help him to deal with the people at large—it’s not clear exactly how. It’s also not clear whether these were prophets who conveyed an ethical message of some sort, or ecstatics, like the band of prophets playing musical instruments whom Saul encountered while looking for the lost donkeys (1 Sam 10:5-6, 10-11), with whom he entered into mystical ecstasy? In any event, all this is intended merely as a temporary measure: “and they prophesied and did not continue” (11:25; but compare Onkelos there, and also Deut 5:19, where there are two diametrically opposed views of the meaning of the word pasak: whether the great voice “did not stop” or “did not continue”). We are left with a certain sense of failure, of a weakness of leadership on Moses’ part—he simply cannot cope.

But on another level, this retreat on Moses’ part may be seen as in some sense praiseworthy. He does not desire power or position for himself. Thus, when two men, Eldad and Medad, continue to “prophesy in the camp,” Joshua is upset, seeing them as rivals or even usurpers of Moses’ unique prophetic gift. But Moses accepted this with equanimity. “Would that all of God’s people were prophets!”

We again see Moses’ humility in the next scene, the episode in which his siblings, Aaron and Miriam, speak against him because of his “Kushite” wife—it is not clear whether they disprove of his marital choice, or whether they are troubled by his treatment her—perhaps eschewing her sexually. In any event, this chapter includes a little speech by God, no more than two lines long, which is central source in the Torah on the subject of Moses’ virtues—particularly his modesty and self-effacement—as well as his unique prophetic gifts.

Shelah lekha: Here, Moses again initially seems rather passive, falling on his face in shock and bewilderment when he hears the blasphemous, defeatist tenor of the report brought back by the spies. But it is left to Joshua and Kaleb to argue with them, to attempt to win over the trust of the people.

But at a certain point, when the issue becomes God’s threat to punish the people, Moses emerges as the great mediator, the “defense attorney” for the people of Israel, arguing on their behalf before God. This sequence is strongly reminiscent of the incident of the Golden Calf, even down to the same arguments: what will the nations say if You abandon them in the wilderness? He even throws back in God’s face, so to speak, the thirteen Attributes of Mercy that had been revealed in the crevice of the rock. The scene ends with God declaring His forgiveness—albeit with a big BUT (ve-ulam…, 14:21). He immediately makes a a certain qualification; all those who went astray, who doubted Me, who were part of the “old generation” born in Egypt, will have to wander about and eventually die in the wilderness, until a new generation, who never knew what it meant to be subjugated to others, will come of age and take over the mantle of leadership.

This paradigm of the Desert Generation is a central idea in Israeli social mythology, a kind of model for the transition from the Exilic Jew who founded the Zionist enterprise, and the New Jew, born in the Land. Several recent books on the Six Day War, such as Tom Segev’s 1967, describe how the “Israelis”—the brash young group of “Tzabar” Army officers: Rabin, Sharon, Yigal Alon, Moshe Dayan, Ezer Weizman, Uzi Narkiss, et al—saw themselves as diametrically opposed to the “Jews”—the older, mostly European-born generation of government leaders—Ben-Gurion, Eshkol, Burg, Maimon, Pinhas Sapir, Shazar, etc.—who were more hesitant and cautious about daring, far-reaching operations.

Korah, the third parashah in this group, involves a frontal challenge to Moses’ and Aharon’s leadership, spearheaded by a charismatic charlatan, the type of smooth-tongued, glib demagogue who utters convincing half-truths, who is again a familiar figure in our modern world. Here, Moses comes into his own, standing up to the challenger, with a two-pronged attack: on the one hand, speaking firmly, with logic and reason, rebuffing the other’s arguments; on the other, with the “subtext” of asserting his own inner personal power to the people, reinforced by dramatic, Divine miracles.

Who, then, was Moses? What manner of man was he? In these parshiyot, we see him gradually growing, developing into the role of leader of the people. There was a certain inner conflict, if not contradiction, within Moses’ character. On the one hand, he had the modesty and even bashfulness suitable to a man of God, a man who spent hours and days in communion with the Ineffable—so such so, that one feels that he is somehow more comfortable with the Almighty than with the rough-and-tumble company of his fellow human beings. And, on the other hand, he had the potential for forcefulness and assertiveness needed by a leader.

Moses’ early life is marked by both these aspects: on the one hand, a passion for justice—visible already in Egypt, in the encounter with the taskmaster and with the two Hebrews fighting, as well with the shepherds in Midian who pushed aside the young girls at the well waiting to water their flock. But there, it is spontaneous, almost instinctive, flaring up as almost uncontrolled anger (a trait that remerges later now and again as well).

On the other hand, there is a tremendous sense of modesty, of self-effacement. Thus, in the scene at the burning bush, he gives God a long list of reasons as to why he cannot go to Pharaoh, and in the end, after all the other reasons, turns to what may be the real focus—his own feeling of self, of inadequacy as a leader of men. “I am not a man of words.”

The other conflict or polarity in Moses character (or is it really the same?) is the following: is he more “up above” or in the world (see my discussion of this, including quotes from Aviva Zornberg’s excellent insights on this, in HY III: Ki Tisa). Moses is a real mystic, a natural prophet, who feels more at home in the Divine realm than in the human; for whom being in the spiritual realm seems perfectly natural. And whom, by contrast, must painfully learn, through trial and error, how to become a leader of men.


Post a Comment

<< Home