Saturday, July 26, 2008

Matot (Mitzvot)

This issue is dedicated in loving memory of Hendry March Champion (Chaim ben Ibrahim [Avraham] and Ruth; died 17 Tammuz 5756), by his mother Ruth Sager and by Michael Sager.

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at July 2006.

Three Brief Comments

This parashah includes three mitzvot or imperatives, each one of which we shall discuss briefly:

The opening section (Num 30:2-17) from which this parashah derives its title, Matot, states the obligation of a person to honor any vow or oath he has made, but continues with the qualification that a father or husband has the prerogative of cancelling the vow of a woman (daughter/wife) who is under his aegis (we discussed oaths in general, and their nullification, a while ago, in HY IX: Naso). This rule, to which most of the chapter is devoted, seems alien to modern, egalitarian thinking about the sexes. What is behind this? First, it is rooted in a patriarchal system, in which there was a natural assumption that men had considerable dominion over their womenfolk. Nevertheless, the halakhah in fact restricts its applicability to an oath which in some way impinges upon the husband/father’s interests: for example, given that he is obligated to feed his wife/daughter, should she make an oath restricting her diet in some way or another—not eating meat, or not eating food from a particular source—this may require that he go to considerable trouble and expense to find things that she can eat; hence he has the right to cancel it. (Think of the conflicts in homes where a teenage child decides to become, e.g., vegetarian / kosher / organic / eat whole grain only) Secondly, the fact that the man's option to veto the oath is restricted to “the day on which he hears it” seems significant. I envision his nullifying the oath as a spontaneous reaction to the oath. If he mulls it over for several days, this is no longer the result of direct, immediate feeling, and is more likely to be the result of his reflecting on it, maybe even brooding about it, possibly turning it into an issue of control or authority over his wife/daughter.

A second mitzvah appearing in this parashah is hag’alat kelim—the rules of scouring kitchen utensils which have become unkosher. These are inferred from a few verses (31:22-23) in the lengthy section about the war with the Midianites, the detailed enumeration of the booty taken and its distribution between the combatants and the rest of the people, and the percentages (or per-mils) given to the Sanctuary. Almost in passing, mention is made of the need to purify metal vessels: ”whatever passes through fire, you shall pass through fire; whatever passes through water, you shall pass through water.” This serves as the basis for an entire major topic in the laws of kashrut: kashering dishes and the manner in which forbidden foodstuff is absorbed by dishes. This is, inter alia, the origin of the famous rule, which non-observant Jews find so perplexing, of two sets of dishes—that not only food, but the very dishes they are served on, can be kosher or unkosher, because the vessels themselves can absorb the “taste” of the things cooked therein, driven into them by fire or boiling water, which subsequently is released when again heated. The possibility of kashering only exists for metal utensils, such as those mentioned in the verse (or glass, with somewhat different rules, which had not yet been invented in Torah times); the rule for earthenware, which is extended even to glazed ceramic dishes, is “an earthen vessel in which it [holy stuff] is cooked shall be broken” (Lev 6:21) is based on their being indefinitely porous and absorbent. (But some Hasidic homilists read this as a metaphor for the process of spiritual purification through a person “breaking” his stubborn and willful heart.)

The third item I’d like to note is more an ethical principle or imperative than an actual mitzvah. Our parashah concludes with the story of the tribes of Gad and Reuben (and half of Manasseh, who suddenly appear in v. 33) who had large flocks of sheep and wanted to settle in Sisjordan—i.e., the far side of the Jordan—which, as high steppe country, was particularly suitable for grazing sheep. What is interesting is Moses’ reaction, and the underlying moral assumptions in his words: “shall your brethren go to war and you remain here?!” (Num 32:6). Essentially, this was a violation of an intuitively felt sense of equity, of the idea of collective responsibility: that one group cannot opt out of a strenuous or dangerous effort at the expense of another. All must participate equally in conquering the land; they were allowed to leave their wives, children and livestock behind, but could return to the piece of land they desired only when and if they had done their share of the collective effort.

Perhaps, too, Moses felt the need to transform a motley collection of clans and tribes and clans into one people. Between the lines of the Former Prophets—i.e., the books describing the history from Joshua down to the end of the divided monarchies of Israel and Judah—one senses the strong tension between the attempt to centralize and unify the nation, vs. the “centrifugal” force of the various tribes, each one pulling in its own direction. (See especially the Book of Judges: the caustic remarks davka about Reuben in the Song of Deborah [Jdg 5] or the war of all against the Benjaminites following the incident of the “concubine in Gibeah” in Jdg 19-21; and cf. Joshua 22 for the follow up on the two-and-a-half tribes). And the contemporary reader, observing both an Israel and a Diaspora divided among numerous ethnic and ideological groups, may well feel that we are still a people of at least twelve tribes, struggling to find some strong unifying factor.

There is another element in Moses’ reaction. In his lengthy response to their request, which is almost a harangue, he invokes recent memories of the incident of the spies, who brought back a negative report about Eretz Yisrael. He saw these tribes, too, as expressing a kind of defeatism, an attempt to avoid battle for which the needs of the flock served as merely a screen—and feared that their action would spread among others, undermining the nation’s and courage and confidence and belief in their own cause.

We also find here, in passing, the basis of misphetei tennaim, the halakhic procedure required to set up a binding condition or rider to an agreement: “If you do A, then B will follow; but if you don’t do A, then you won’t have B.” (For those interested in the intricacies of lamdanut, this rule is mentioned in two very different contexts in Rambam, that of ordinary business contracts and that of marriage and divorce, prompting Rabad to make an interesting observation in his gloss; see Zekhiyah u-Matanah 3.7-8 and Ishut 6.1-2)

A Correction and Some Remarks re Haftarah Pinhas

Last week, I erroneously referred to that week’s haftarah as the “a paradigmatic confrontation in Israel’s history”; I was thinking of Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18), which is in fact read for Ki Tisa, due to the association with the story of the Golden Calf). The haftarah for Pinhas—which, as I noted, is read only infrequently (the previous time was in 2000; the next will be in 2014; it is only read when Matot and Masei are separate, making Pinhas fall prior to the 17th of Tammuz; otherwise one reads the first of the three “haftarot of rebuke” connected with the Destruction of the Temple), is the almost immediate sequel to that story, beginning with 1 Kings 18:46, and relating two stories: Elijah’s journey into the desert, all the way to Mount Horeb, where he experiences a personal epiphany; and his anointing of Elisha as his successor (as well as coronating two new kings, Hazael over Aram and Yehu over Israel).

It occurred to me that there is a double reason for the choice of this passage as haftarah. One, that Elijah is seen as a doppelganger of Pinhas, both being noted for their quality of zeal: “I have been very zealous for the Lord of Hosts” (I Kgs 19:10). Secondly, Elijah here appoints Elisha as his successor, just as Moses does to Joshua in our parashah, as discussed. The Moses “topos” is reinforced by Elijah’s going for forty days without food or drink, and his going specifically to the site of Moses’ revelation: Mount Horeb (Sinai). (By the way, this is doubtless the source of the English idiom, “to pass on the mantle”; here, Elijah literally covers Elisha with his cloak or mantle; when he ascends heavenwards, in 2 Kings 2:14-15, the garment becomes his permanently.) For further discussion of this interesting chapter, see my essay, “Elijah in the Desert: The Still Small Voice,” at HY II: Pinhas = Pinhas (Haftarah).


Chapter One

We have once more come full circle, and this Shabbat begin the third cycle of reading Pirkei Avot.

4. Yossi ben Yoezer of Tzereda and Yossi ben Yohanan of Jerusalem received from them. Yossi ben Yoezer of Tzereda said: may your home be a meeting place of the sages; and you should sit at the dust of their feet, and drink their words with thirst.

This mishnah presents a striking contrast to 1.1, which speaks of the importance of exercising care and deliberation in judgment, raising many students, and making fences around Torah. Clearly, the former is part of the internal discourse among the sages, concerning their responsibility, as teachers and leaders, towards the people as a whole; here, and in the next mishnah, we have advice directed to the ordinary person, the ordinary “householder.” He cannot engage in Torah study on the same level as the sages, but he can provide them with the material setting for them to engage in teaching, and he may himself listen to them (“sit in the dust at their feet”) and absorb what he can, in a passive, receptive mode (“drink their words with thirst”).

It is also interesting to contrast this mishnah to 2.15, warning a person against a ferocious side to the sages: “Warm yourself before the fire of the sages, but take care of their sparks, that you not be burned; for their biting is like that of a fox, and their sting is like that of a scorpion, and their hissing is like that of a snake, and all their words are like coals of fire.”

5. Yossi ben Yohanan of Jerusalem said: Let your house be wide open, and let the poor be as members of your household, and do not engage overly much in conversation with women. This is said even regarding his own wife; all the more so regarding his neighbor’s wife. From this, the Sages said: Whoever overindulges in conversation with women causes himself harm, neglects words of Torah, and his end is to inherit Gehinnom.

The first half of this mishnah is again addressed to the householder: he should engage in hospitality to the stranger (the famed Abrahamic virtue!), and in particular make the poor, who are likely to feel downtrodden and miserable and lack the comforts of a home of their own, take succor in being in a comfortable home. (The phrase ben-bayit, literally, “son of the house,” is used of a person who is a regular guest in a particular home; it is a uniquely Hebraic expression, expressing this ethic.) Taken together, these two mishnayot provide a warm, positive image of the Jewish home, as the center from which the Jewish householder is able to engage in acts of kindness and helpfulness to others, as well as contribute towards Torah discourse by providing a venue for such. (The assumption seems to be that the sage himself is either itinerant, without a home of his own, or else his home is not large enough or “presentable” enough to serve as a dignified center. In our own south Jerusalem community, there are a number of wealthy people with large homes who regularly open their homes to serve as a venue for Torah lectures.)

But then comes the final, clause in this mishnah: to avoid excessive conversation with women. I cannot help but contrast this with a remark I once read by Salman Rushdie: he said that, in India, the conversation among women is infinitely more interesting than that of men: the men are always talking about business, the stock market, real estate; whereas women in India, perhaps like their sisters in the West, are in the midst of a period of dynamic change, breaking through into involvement in the great world, and are filled with interesting observations about society, culture, human behavior, etc.

Were the rabbis simply afflicted with misogyny? Or does this reflect an exaggerated fear of female sexuality—the idea that every encounter between the sexes inevitably carries sexual overtones. Needless to say, this is no entire untrue; the question is whether strict social separation is not “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” We moderns prefer to deal with the problem by internal controls; some Haredim would doubtless suggest that we are less than successful. Or is it rather a matter of women not studying Torah, and therefore not having anything of value to say? Again, in our generation there are increasing numbers of women who too study and are even learned in Torah, suggesting that they have much to contribute to the overall discourse—and it is good that this is so.

But I must conclude by defending our Sages, and not leaving them simply as woman-hating primitives. First, that in their time the role and situation of the two sexes was so different that excessive mingling did present certain dangers. Second, even in our own day, notwithstanding “unisex” and egalitarianism and liberation and the like, there is such a thing as conversation among each gender by themselves, which is certainly of a very different tenor, and in many ways far more comfortable and easy, than that of mixed groups—which is, of course, not to exclude the validity of the latter. And these matters deserve much more extensive discussion than I can give them now.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Pinhas (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at July 2006.

“… A Man over the Congregation”

The central mitzvot appearing in this parashah are not applicable today. Rather, they are either specific commands related to the situation of preparing to enter the Land (as famously explained by the Sefat Emet; see below) or to the service in the Temple. Following a repeated census of those alive at the end of forty years of wandering, the portion focuses upon three central topics: (1) the division of the land among the tribes, with a side discussion of inheritance by women following from the special case of the daughters of Zelophehad; (2) the appointment of a new leader to succeed Moses; (3) the daily and occasional sacrifices in the Temple (temidim ve-musafim) to be offered once they enter the Land. These, inter alia, form the basis for our daily and weekly liturgical cycle (for a discussion of the tension between fixity and kavvanah, and between the public and private aspects of worship, see what I wrote earlier this year, HY IX: Hayyei Sarah).

I will focus here upon the issue of leadership. We are today suffering through a nadir in leadership in Israel and, some would say, in the Jewish world generally. There is no need to waste words on the scandal of political leadership, which have more than once over the past two years led me to wish they would at least have the integrity and sense of shame of Richard Nixon (!). But our Rabbinic leadership, too, seems mediocre, caught in hyper-conservatism and halakhic rigidity, and lacking in any broad vision. (Incidentally, the division between “spiritual and “secular-political” leaderhsip is foreign to the Torah as such: Moshe Rabbenu was clearly both; later there was a clear split between prophet and king.)

But perhaps this is a subjective perception. When a person is young, the leaders of society always seem larger than life; as one matures and reaches middle age, and the leaders belong to one’s own generation or are even younger (Obama looks practically like a Bar Mitzvah bokhur!), they are seen as ordinary people, with clay feet. All one can hope for is that mima’amakim, from the depths of corruption and mediocrity, we may find the energies as a society to rise upwards and find sources of inner renewal. (It is said that the sons of Korah were uniquely qualified to be singers in the Temple because they had, quite literally, plunged the depths.)

To turn to our text: there is no commandment to appoint a leader but, to the contrary, it is Moses who addresses God “commanding” Him, in the imperative, to appoint a leader (Num 27:15-23). This section is divided into two main parts: the description of the desired leader, and the actual process of appointment.

“May the Lord appoint a man over the congregation—איש על העדה—who will go out before them and come before them; who will bring them out and bring them in.” Why the duplication? Perhaps these phrases are intended to suggest that the leader is both a model to be emulated by others, a figure who himself goes out and does whatever needs to be done (like officers in the Israeli Army, whose motto is Aharay—“After me!”), as well as a “mover and shaker” of others. He knows how to perform the actual cajoling, coaxing, persuasion to get the people to do whatever is needed at the time: “who takes them out and brings them in.” He is not only himself a paradigm, a sterling example, but he also knows how to be a nudnik!

“That the congregation of the Lord not be like sheep without a shepherd.” Sheep are dumb animals, who easily wander off and get lost. They evidently have no innate herding instinct. That’s why shepherds are so important, and that is why they use sheepdogs, who run alongside the flock to keep them in line. Though they easily stray, they are also easily frightened and brought back in line.

Following this overall vision, the Torah describes the process of the leader’s (here: Joshua’s) actual appointment. This involves three phases: (1) “take a man in whom there is spirit”—that is, the person must have the basic qualities needed for leadership in himself to begin with; he cannot be anyone off the street. He must have, not only ethical qualities, as well as intellect and knowledge, but also a certain spiritual quality, a connection to the transcendent. (2) “and place your hands upon him”: that is, the retiring (or, in this case, soon-to-die) leader publicly conveys his own authority upon the new man. Continuity is important: the people have learned to trust the old leader, and need this affirmation from him that the new one is also trustworthy. And, in Jewish life, tradition as such is a major value. (3) ונתת מהודך עליו, “place your glory upon him.” The word hod may be translated as radiance, beauty, glory, but I would translate it as “charisma.” Even beyond wisdom, skill and understanding of what the people need, and even beyond “spirit,” a leader must have charisma—that mysterious quality which makes people listen to him. A person may be the most brilliant expert in political theory, but if he is a Casper Milquetoast who fails to inspire others, his leadership is valueless. Moshe Rabbenu, despite being “heavy of speech,” and notwithstanding his numerous tiffs with the people, was both a beloved and a strong leader who gradually taught the people how to become what they needed to be.

How sad it is to read such things in our present predicament! I hope readers will indulge me if I engage in a litany about our present leadership: If there had only been the Second Lebanon War, with its colossal misjudgments: Dayenu, we would have said “Enough!” If it were only that he openly displayed contempt towards, the Winograd Commission (which he himself ordered!), we would have said “Enough!” If there had been no war, but only Talansky’s envelopes stuffed with cash, and the free flights and hotel rooms and sweetheart real estate deals and all the other scandals and corruptions, we would have said “Enough!” If there had been neither of those, but only the recent hostage exchange, which was a great psychological victory for our enemies, and can only encourage them to kidnap more soldiers, and hold out for ever higher ransoms, making us, in the words of the long Tahanun we said the day after the deal, “we have been a ridicule and laughingstock among the nations”—we would say “Enough!” How much more so that he has done all these things, that we must shout from the rooftops “Enough!! Go home! Smoke your cigars and pay your own way! Stop taking stupid risks with the precious treasure of the entire Jewish people in our day, the Third House!”

A Watershed: From Divine Providence to Earthly Life

In looking through my past files for a certain teaching, I discovered that five years ago, when I was writing about Hasidism, I had almost fully prepared one of my favorite teachings, a certain Sefat Emet on this week’s parashah, but never sent it out. I am now rectifying this oversight.

Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, explains this week’s portion and its seemingly diverse and unconnected subjects, as a watershed chapter, one making a fundamental change in the pattern of Israel’s relationship to God, to the physical world, and to the various challenges presented by life. Whereas until this point the life of the Israelites in the desert was under miraculous, transcendent Providence, it now turned to a more down-to-earth, reality bound path, based more upon human initiative. The previous generation had been sustained through miracles, all of their physical needs being provided directly by Heaven: they ate manna, drank water from a miraculous well, their shoes and clothing did not wear down, etc. Moreover, they heard the Divine voice and their leader, Moses, received directives from God face to face. The new generation, born in the desert, is faced with new challenges. Sefat Emet, Pinhas, 5640, s.v. semikhut parshiyot:

[What is the reason for] the contiguity among these passages: the priesthood of Pinhas [Num 25:12-13], the enmity towards the Midianites [25:17], the census [26:1-51], and the [announcing of] the death of Moses Our Teacher [27:12-23]? At this point there began a different manner of behavior, [that of] of the generation which was to enter the Land. Hence there was a new census [i.e., in place of that in Numbers 1:1-47]. Just as in the generation of the desert they were given Aaron the priest, so in this generation there was the priesthood of Pinhas. For previously they had been on a supernal level, above nature, under the power of Moses our Teacher, and therefore the priesthood of Aaron was a gift from heaven. But Pinhas received his priesthood by right, because it was in accordance with the changing nature of the generation: for now things began to be according to human service, and awakening from below, in the aspect of Oral Torah. And this itself was the matter of “zealots strike him” [i.e., the phrase used by Hazal to explain why Pinhas killed the fornicating couple without a trial]. For he [i.e., Zimri] was not subject to the death penalty by the Sanhedrin, for according to law one could not put him to death, but in the case of one who is zealous for the Lord, the law is different, allowing one to kill him—and this is the law of the Torah.

(NB: this concept, known as קנאים פוגעים בו, is very difficult both legally and ethically; for a discussion, see Pinhas [Torah])

We thus find that the children of Israel, by means of their own deeds, change all of the conduct of the Torah. And this is the matter of Oral Torah: that all was given at Sinai, but the children of Israelite needed to realize it, to take it from a state of potential to one of actuality. And that is why Moses Our Teacher did not kill Zimri, but only Pinhas did so: not that Moses was inferior to him, but that Pinhas came and did that which was “his.” For in truth, because the generation of Moses our teacher was on a very sublime level, their behavior was not in accordance with human powers, but only through supernal guidance. For on such a high level as that, the intellect and power of comprehension of human beings were negated. And thereafter, when the generations declined, the arousal from below was recognized and needed, as we said, in the same way as the light of the moon is nullified in respect to the sun.

Therefore it is written “Hate the Midianites.” That is, you need to detest them: that is, the smiting of the Midianites took place through the hatred of the Israelites. And this is what we wrote, that the conduct of things began to be according to the arousal from the lower realms, but the earlier battles only took place through the miracles of the Creator alone. And indeed, it is written “[the Lord shall wage war for you] and you shall be silent” [Exod 14:14]. [And one might say that this is also the significance of, “And Moses and Eleazar spoke” [Num 26:3]—that is, that you need to do the counting; that is, that the census took place by means of an arousal of their own souls, as above.]

This week’s parashah gives several signs of the transition: the appointment of Joshua as the successor to Moses; the second census of the people, marking the end of the 38 years (which, as we mentioned in our introduction to Bamidbar, is the second major watershed in the Book of Numbers); and the rules concerning the fixed animal sacrifices, establishing a regular form of worship—temidim kedsidram umusafim kehilkhatam. (This in turn relates to another issue: the entire problematic in religion of fixity vs. emotion. Was this the beginning of the transition from the spontaneous, charismatic prophetic leader to that of the priest, as described in Ahad Haam’s essay on “Prophet and Priest”?)

Two incidents in the chapter are particularly characteristic. We have already noted how Pinhas’s act was marked by human moral initiative. But no less interesting is the story of the daughters of Zelophehad, who approached Moses to ask what would happen to their father’s inheritance, seeing as how he had died leaving only daughters. A mundane concern—but one of great importance, insofar as it concerns the application of principles of equity and fairness to an immediate, practical situation.

There seems to be an interesting dialectic here: the generation of the desert were in some sense closer to God, seeing with their own eyes the constant miracles He performed for them; but their existence was also more child-like, bereft of the responsibility and choices that typify adult life. Some Hasidic teachers, following some Midrashic motifs, see the desert period as an almost Edenic existence (or, for that matter, Jeremiah 2:2: “I remember for you the devotion of your youth, your bridal love, following Me in the wilderness, in an unsown land”). In any event, the entrance into Eretz Yisrael, which is tantamount to “real life,” demands leaving the womb.

One may connect this with a larger tension within religious life, and in life generally: that of quietism vs. activism. Is the truly authentic religious posture that of sitting quietly, waiting upon God, doing what one has to do, but with a certain inner sense of dependence, of being a mere vessel or channel of God acting through one? Or is it that of the active person, always striving to do more, judging himself against the yardstick of his ideal, constantly seeking to fill his life with more positive contents: more Torah, more kavanah (inner devotion), more creativity, more deeds of kindness towards others? Sefat Emet even connects this with halakhic creativity and innovation, by means of Torah shebe’al peh, in which the element of human understanding and input play a crucial role. He seems to be playing the groundwork here for a modern theology, even one that is radically so.

Christian mystics may have a more highly developed language for this sort of thing—they speak of via activa and via passiva, Martha and Mary, etc.—but it is certainly a central theme in Jewish thought, in Hasidism and elsewhere. (See on this the opening chapters of Rivka Schatz-Uffenheimer’s Hasidism as Mysticism [Jerusalem, 19883; English: Jerusalem-Princeton, 1993, my translation], as well as J. G. Weiss’ pioneering article on ”Via Passiva in Hasidism,” Journal of Jewish Studies 40 [1960], 137-155).

Judaism speaks of this problem more in terms of the debate between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai (Berakhot 35b). The former insisted that one must live a normal life, engaging in worldly activities: “and you shall gather your grain.” The latter protests that, “if a person sows at the time of sowing, plows at the time of plowing and reaps at the time of reaping,” when will he have any time left to devote himself to Torah? Rather, when Jews fulfill the will of the Almighty, “their work is done for them by others.” In brief, work and other worldly activities are a necessary evil, to be avoided if at all possible. This is a perennial debate: Are spirituality and worldliness in fundamental conflict with one another, or can they be reconciled? Or, in William James memorable phrase, is one’s religion “world-affirming” vs. “world denying”? This is, of course the crux of the conflict today between Haredi Ultra-Orthodoxy, which fosters a cloistered, life-long-study-centered pietism, and other schools in religious Jewry, who championed the combination of Torah ve-Avodah or Torah im derekh eretz, Torah combined with labor and with worldly involvement.

Due to time constraints, I cannot write about Pirkei Avot this week. I will merely suggest that readers study and reflect on the mishnah of the “48 ways” (6.5), which are really prerequisites, seemingly indirect, for becoming a “Torah personality.” One should also take special note of this week’s haftarah, which is only read infrequently, and which is particularly interesting.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Balak (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives to my blog, at July 2006.

“How Goodly are Your Tents”—at the Head of the Column

It is difficult to isolate any specific mitzvah in this parashah. I will therefore begin with an almost trivial, technical halakhah, which we will then see to have far-reaching implications. Some decades ago, during a period when synagogues were fearful of thefts of Torah scrolls, my congregation decided to call upon an organization called Makhon Ot to help protect our scrolls by registering them in a central data base, in which the unique characteristics of each Torah scroll was recorded. In addition to the obvious external features—the height of the scroll, the number of rows in each column, the type of skin used (kelaf or gevil), the style of writing, and various miscellaneous features—each Sefer Torah had a unique “fingerprint.” This was based upon the fact that the verse Mah tovu (“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob”—Num 24:5), in this week’s Torah portion, always appears at the top of a column. The “fingerprint” of the Sefer Torah is thus taken by placing a ruler 10 cm. to the left of the beginning of that phrase, and recording the first ten letters in a vertical line going straight down from that point. In every sefer this combination of letters is different and unique.

The actual “layout” of the Torah scroll, the manner in the sofer writes it, the size of the script, the width of its columns, is left to the scribe’s discretion (notwithstanding that there is a fairly common “standard” model, with 248 columns, that serves as the basis for the Tikkun Korim used by readers in preparing to layn). However, there are six places in the Torah where the column must begin with a specific phrase or letter. Taken together, these spell the phrase ביה שמו (“in He whose name is Yah”; Ps 68:5); they are: בראשית (Gen 1:1; the very beginning of Torah, which is obviously at the top of the first column); יהודה אתה יודוך אחיך (Gen 49:8; Jacob’s blessing of Judah, the progenitor of future royalty); הבאים אחראיהם בים (Exod 14:28; the beginning of the column containing the Song of the Sea, written in a special format suggestive of alternate overlapping rows of bricks; is this perhaps meant to be reminiscent of the Egyptian servitude?): שמר לך (Exod 34:11; the beginning of a brief group of laws that follows immediately upon the Thirteen Divine Qualities); מה טובו (as already mentioned); ואעידה בם את השמים ואת הארץ (Deut 31:28; several lines before Song of Moses, set in two parallel columns, but not completed on one page). It is interesting that four of these six passages are poetic ones.

This custom is mentioned in the Rema’s glosses on Yoreh Deah 273.6 (cf. Minhat Shay & Da’at Kedoshim), and may be traced back to the Ashkenazic pietists of the twelfth or early thirteenth century. Perhaps it is related to the idea, current at that time, that the Torah in its entirety is in some sense the mystical name of God; hence, these columns spell out a phrase relating to God’s Holy Name. (I wish to thank my friend, the sofer Rabbi Akiva Garber, for illuminating this subject.)

Turning to the subject matter of our parasha: it is unique in that it might be described as the only “non-Jewish” parashah in the Torah—one which portrays the world and the Jewish people within it from the viewpoint of those outside—i.e., Balak king of Moab, and the sorcerer Balaam son of Beor. There is an interesting dynamic here of inside-outside: perhaps through the eyes of the outsider we are able to see more clearly the nature and uniqueness of the Jewish people.

Two important points here. First, that Jewish peoplehood is part and parcel of Jewish identity, if not its very core; Jews are not religionists in the conventional sense of belonging to a particular church or sect. This conception lies at the heart of a movement like Zionism, as well as, for example, the notion of Jewish history as encompassing not only religious thought and jurisprudence, or even culture in the literary sense, but the concrete geopolitical and demographic aspects of the life of a human grouping over the centuries. This conception also lies at the heart of the current dispute in Israel regarding the nature of giyyur, conversion to Judaism. Is the proselyte primarily one who adopts a certain set of beliefs and practices, as seems to be implied by the Haredi position? Or is he/she primarily an adopted son or daughter of the Jewish people/family—or perhaps even one who is literally reborn as a Jew upon immerging from the waters of the mikveh, which are described as analogous to the womb of a Jewish mother, and vice versa? This latter approach underlies the religious-zionist approach, and I believe it to be closer to the classical understanding of giyyur.

Secondly, Jews have an ambiguous relation to the Gentile world. Already in the first of Bilaam’s three blessings he utters the words (which became the title of a well-known book by Yaakov Herzog), “Behold, they are a people that dwells alone” (Num 23:9). Jews are distinct, apart, separated from the other nations of the world; at times (or shall we say, often?) the object of hatred; always inspiring a certain curiosity, a sense of strangeness and anomaly. This parasha, along with the first half of Vayishlah, with its struggle between Yaakov and Esau, have been taken as paradigmatic for relations between Jews and the Roman empire, the Christian Church, and Western or non-Jewish culture generally.

Turning to this specific verse: there is an interesting Rabbinic interpretation (Bava Batra 60a) quoted here by Rashi: “’How goodly are thy tents’—that their openings are not situated opposite one another.” In other words, there is a certain insistence upon the privacy of the home of each family. In the Talmud, this appears in the context of hezek re’iyah—the idea that there is a certain harm caused a person merely by knowing that others are able to see into his private space. How different this is from the modern style of middle and lower-middle class housing, where windows are often placed directly opposite one another! Here, too, there seems to be a certain tension or balance between inside and outside, between the spheres of the public and the private: Klal Yisrael, the congregation or people as a whole serves as the basis of the covenant with God and the focus of religious worship, whether in the synagogue or, as here, in the Tabernacle; and then there is the intimate life of the family, in which man and woman, parents and children, live their own individual personal lives in a sanctified way.

This is a point that has been forgotten at various times in history. The great ideological movements of the twentieth century—Communism, fascism, and the various kinds of national liberation movements, including Zionism—called upon the individual to give his all for the cause. In the Soviet Union, excessive interest in family life was condemned as bourgeois; romance and sexuality were frowned upon and subordinated to the cause. Youth movements educated young people to think in terms of the group, to engage in “collective thinking.” In Nazi Germany, the woman’s role was to breed as many sons as possible for the Faterland. And it would seem that milder forms of such thinking existed even here in Israel, during the early days of the State.

In reaction to this, the pendulum has swung today to the opposite extreme: we live in an age of rampant individualism; juridical thinking seems to focus upon individual rights, at times at the expense of the public weal; on the Left, the “politics of identity” has supplanted the struggle for basic social justice, so that those who once championed the working class are now the advocates of individual rights. To me, it seems clear that excessive individualism is as much a threat to human dignity and a decent, humane culture as is the other excess (with God’s help, we shall elaborate upon this theme at greater length in the near future). A brief postscript: I continue to be puzzled by Hazal’s condemnation of Bilaam, referring to him as ha-Rasha, the evil Bilaam, even after he seemingly accepted God’s authority, and humbly, even reverently, spoke His words. Likewise, in the midrash in which Job, Jethro and Bilaam advise Pharaoh, Bilaam is the “bad guy”; elsewhere, there are even suggestions that he had an unnatural sexual connection with his famous she-ass. Why are the Sages so down on him? There is even a passage in this Shabbat’s reading from Pirkei Avot contrasting the “disciples of Abraham our Father” with those of “the Evil Bilaam” (m. Avot 5.23; I cannot expound upon this at present, but see my essay “Bilam and Human Decency” at HY V: Balak = Balak [Rambam]).


Chapter Five

This chapter, as mentioned last time around (Bamidbar), is organized around a series of sayings based upon numbers: mostly, ten, seven, four. We shall skip number seven for now, and focus on four. Four, perhaps more than any other number, represents symmetry and balance: it is two, the first even number, raised to the next highest power. In religious symbolism, we have the mandala of ancient India; the four gospels and the “four-square” hermeneutics of medieval Christianity; and the four levels of interpretation (PaRDe”S) in Judaism—not to mention the four cups, the four sons, etc.

In this chapter, fours (§§13-19) are used mostly as a way of presenting alternatives to a situation in which there are two variables, each one of which entails two possible options: e.g., a person may be either stingy or generous, and this may be the case with regard to himself or to others; he may learn easily or with difficulty, and may retain his knowledge well or poorly; he may anger easily, or only after great provocation, and may be appeased in like fashion. In all these cases, the number of permutations and combinations of all options are four in number; these may be represented schematically as AA, AB, BA, BB. Each mishnah here has a different subject (generosity, anger, study, charity, and “those who go to the Study House”), the mishnah presents each option, and then renders judgment on each one in one or two words. We shall discuss here only the first one in the series:

5.14. There are four characters among people: One who says, ‘Mine is mine and yours is yours’ is a mediocre character, and some say, this was the quality of Sodom. One who says, ‘mine is yours and yours is mine’ is an ignorant person [lit., am ha-aretz]. ‘Mine is yours and yours is yours’ is pious. ‘Yours is mine and mine is mine’ is evil.

The last two options are the easiest to understand: one who is generous to a fault, who sees the need of the other person and shares his own wealth with him without rendering accounts, who gives the other the proverbial “shirt off his back,” is the pious soul, the exemplary religious person. He sees his own belongings as not really belonging, but as something temporarily ion his domain, as a kind of pledge from God with which to do mitzvot. But, one must hasten to add, the hasid is not the normative Jew. As Gershom Scholem put it in his essay “Three Types of Jewish Piety”: “The radical Jew who, in trying to follow the spiritual call, goes to extremes… the enthusiast, who isn’t deterred by bourgeois considerations… Whatever he doss, he does in a spirit of spontaneous exuberance and of supererogation; that is, far beyond the requirements of duty” (On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time and Other Essays, 184-185).

Similarly, one who says “it’s all mine” is clearly an evil type, who does not even respond to the cries of his fellow human being, but wants everything, or as much as possible—all the wealth, all the pleasure, all the goods, all the women—for himself. He is the supreme egotist.

The second case in our mishnah, the one who says “what is yours is mine and what is mine is yours” is considered a fool. He is the person who is not only unaccustomed to think seriously about abstract principles, but does not even consider the long-range consequences of practical measures. If he were to have his way, if the very concept of private property were to be broken down, the end result would be anarchy and chaos. While Hazal of course did not know and could not have imagined the state socialist movements of the twentieth century, the goal of true socialism, of complete sharing of wealth in an equal way among all members of society, is one which to date has never been realized in human society (unless in some primitive society in hoary antiquity). Unlike the idealism of certain latter-day ideological anarchists, the end result has been shown as more likely to be violence and the domination of the strong over the weak.

Finally, the initial case brought in this mishnah: one who says “mine is mine and yours in yours.” On the face of it, this is the norm, the actual situation in real life: each person owns whatever he owns, whatever he has accumulated through his labor over the course of a lifetime, or what his parents have inherited to him. Each person tends his own garden, worries about himself and those closest to him. Yet this is at best a “mediocre quality” or even “the quality of Sodom”—of the corrupt city of those who were “very evil and sinful before God.” The Jewish ideal is thus found somewhere between the bourgeois attitude of self-satisfaction combined with indifference and apathy towards the other, and complete anarchy and the breakdown of all property law. The ideal is a sense of fellowship with one’s fellow human, of responsibility radiating outward from one’s family to the community and to the world as a whole.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Hukat (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives to my blog at June 2006.

The Red Heifer

The latter part of this parashah contains a series of interesting narratives about the battles fought by the Israelites with the Amorites and the Bashanites before entering the Land (events much celebrated in half-a-dozen Psalms and elsewhere); the songs sung in connection with them, including the rather strange “Song of the Well” (Num 21:17-20); the brazen serpent, that healed those who spoke against God and Moses regarding the manna (which centuries later became an object of fetishistic worship); and more. But there is only one practical mitzvah fund therein—parah adumah, the ritual of the Red Heifer—and the related procedure for purification from contact with the dead.

Death, and contact with the dead, is the most frightening and traumatic experience known to human beings. One could argue that all traumas, ultimately, hearken back in one sense or another to either our own or to other’s mortality. Rav Soloveitchik, in one of his hespedim, speaks of death as a “grizzly experience…. that makes a mockery of all our pretenses to be spiritual beings.” Hence, when death strikes, Judaism does not allow one to pass over it as if nothing has happened. It is seen as an event that requires healing, and its rituals may be seen, among other things, as intended to provide a certain catharsis.

It is in this light that I wish to offer my own allegorical reading of the ritual of the parah adumah. The red heifer is both a powerful and a perfect creature: the presence of even three non-red hairs was enough to disqualify it for use in this ritual. It is filled with animal energies: red is the color of blood, as well as that of rude, “ruddy” animal vitality; in Kabbalah, red is the color of din, of stern judgment. As a female, it is also a source of new life. This vital, massive creature, at the prime of its bovine career, is slaughtered and burned completely, to fine ash. Such is the way with death: a human being begins his/her life filled with vitality, which reach their peak as he/she ripens into maturity. Death—whether the slow decline of old age, the rapid deterioration of virulent illness, or sudden death by accident or violence—destroys all that. To this is added cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff (19:6; perhaps the worm from which crimson dye is derived?). Together with the heifer, these items span the gamut of the animal and vegetable kingdoms; their burning to ashes symbolizes the transient nature of all physical things, both large and small.

These ashes are then mixed with water, drawn under special conditions of purity, and sprinkled upon the purificant. The Torah recounts several other rituals involving ashes or ash-like substances: the sotah, the wife accused of adultery, must drink water intermixed with dirt from the floor of the Tabernacle, plus the ink used to write solemn curses about her (Num 5:17, 23-24); after the sin of the Golden Calf, the Israelites are made to drink water mixed with the burnt ashes of the calf (Exod 32:20). Water, a symbol of flowing, perpetually renewed life, is mixed with ashes: as if to say, both sexual licentiousness and idolatry damage the human image, so much so that its very vitality is mixed with the bitter poisons of the end of dignity and integrity. (When I was contemplating divorce, a friend told me, “Your life will turn to ash.”) Here, the ashes serve a somewhat different function: they are not drunk, but rather sprinkled on the one who has had contact with the dead, thereby serving a healing function.

Today there is no red heifer. What we do have are laws of mourning, the halakhic institution of aveilut. (The Biblical source for this is Shemini, where it is inferred from one of the verses portraying the aftermath of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu; see Lev 10:19-20). I will not elaborate upon this mitzvah, which has been discussed at length in many excellent books (and also by us; see, e.g., HY I : Simhat Torah). Psychologists have observed that these laws are particularly sound from the viewpoint of spiritual and emotional health. In this respect, they are in striking contrast to modern Western society, in which there is almost a denial of death, a busy society in which people are expected to return to work shortly after a death in the family, allowing no time for such “frills” as mourning. Judaism insists on a period of a full week, during which family, friends, and community mark the death together—a time of remembering, of talking about the deceased, of freedom from all other responsibilities; a time to begin the process of healing, of the family reconstituting itself in the absence of the deceased. Symbolically, it is kind of acting out of the repercussions of this death, in which the mourner is outside the normal circle of society. After seven days he returns to the circle of life outside the home, but even then the mourner maintains a disheveled appearance and avoids any public occasions of joy until a full month has passed or, in the special case of parents, even longer, certain mourning observances being continued throughout the year.


“One Does Not Redeem Prisoners for More than Their Worth”

This past week the Israeli government approved a prisoner exchange, arranged through European intermediaries, whereby Israel will return to Hizballah long-term prisoner Samir Kuntar, convicted of the terrorist killing of two Israeli civilians, in exchange for the release of two Israeli soldiers captured during the incident that led to the Second Lebanon war in 2006. There has been considerable public controversy about this prisoner exchange—particularly in light of intelligence that the two Israelis are in fact dead, the exchange thus involving exchanging dead bodies for a live prisoner.

The mishnah at Gittin 45a, part of a series of edicts made “for the welfare of society” (tikkun ha-olam), states that “One is not to redeem captives for more than their value.” Rambam, in Hilkhot Matanot Anniyim 8.12, states the reason for this law as being so as not to encourage brigands to kidnap more people.

Olmert and other politicians spoke of the centrality of “moral considerations” in making this decision, as if concern for the suffering of the families outweighed all else—the implication being that morality involves absolutes. While it is that, it is more as well: a truly moral decision is not merely one of blind devotion to a single principle, however powerful and sacred it may be; rather, it involves soberly weighing and balancing the overall effect of a given action on a situation, in light of the often conflicting values involved. In the 1960s a Protestant theologian named Joseph Fletcher—part of the “death-of-God” or movement towards “radical theology” of those days—wrote a book entitled Situational Ethics, in which he argues the relative, situational nature of morality, as if this were a daring, radical idea. But in fact, in Judaism morality has always been a matter of weighing different values and considerations.

The central point is not whether or not Samir Kuntar as such constitutes a concrete danger to Israel. By now well into middle-age, he will no doubt leave active terrorist activity against Israel to younger men. But the present exchange will be taken as a psychological victory for Hizballah and its leader, Hasan Nasrallah. And, since Israel cannot use its overwhelming military superiority due to moral and geo-political constraints, the psychological struggle is all important—particularly in the Middle East. A psychological victory for one side is, of necessity, a strategic defeat to the other, and by extension to the security of its 5 million-odd citizens.

All these need to be weighed against a certain peace of mind and “closure” that the release of the bodies will provide to the Regev and Goldwasser families. It is not even particularly needed in order to free Karnit Goldwasser of her agunah status, because the IDF rabbinate was evidently prepared to declare the two dead, thereby enabling her to remarry in due course should she wish to do so. (Evidently, some of the intelligence Israel has received is treated as tantamount to גוי המספר לפי תומו, a “Gentile relating what he has seen in all innocence” which is, as is well known, an accepted halakhic option in the case of freeing an agunah, an “anchored wife.”)

The whole thing has been rather like a soap opera, with the media repeatedly interviewing the various families involved: of the two missing solders in Lebanon; the Shalit family, whose son Gilad, evidently alive, is being held by the Palestinians in Gaza; that of Ron Arad, missing in action since the first Lebanon War over 25 years ago; and even Mrs. Haran, the bereaved widow and mother whose husband and infant son were killed by Kuntar in the incident for which he landed in an Israeli prison in the first place. Now, all of these people are the salt of the earth, productive, positive members of Israeli society, whose quandary inspires immediate empathy. But serious ethical and halakhic thinking requires that the interest of the individual be weighed against the welfare of the community. This is what Hazal, and what medieval, so-called “Galuti” Jews, understood instinctively, and which we seem to have forgotten. “He who is merciful toward the cruel will in the end be cruel towards the merciful.” This was a softhearted, short-sighted, sentimental decision, which has little in common with either morality or halakhah.

In general (and I hope to write about this more fully in the future), one of the ills of late 20th and early 21st century culture, in the United States, in Israel, and elsewhere, is an excessive focus on individualism, to the almost total exclusion of communal consciousness. Many years ago, then-MK Geulah Cohen (someone with whom I don’t usually identify), in a debate about a similar prisoner exchange, said something like this: If my son Tzahi were to fall into captivity I would want the government to pay any price to release him; but on the level of statesman-like thinking, I would expect them to refuse to do so, for otherwise they would be amiss in their responsibility. (Incidentally, I am happy to report that the opposition to soft-headed, mushy thinking on this issue was not confined to the right-wing: Yossi Beilin was interviewed on TV and also spoke out about the deal, citing many of the same reason.)

A concluding comment: later in the week, there was the bizarre and bloody rampage, in which a Palestinian construction worker used the caterpillar tractor he was driving to kill and injure as many people as he could who happened to be on a Jerusalem street before he was stopped. Ehud Barak promptly ordered the leveling of his family’s home. I see this, once again, as a heated emotional response, guided neither by morality or Jewish teaching, nor by true “security reasons.” Both the Torah and the prophet Yehezkel state that children may not be punished for the sins of their father, nor fathers for those of their sons. As for security: is there a shred of evidence that acts such as this, of destroying the home of an elderly couple, who probably didn’t even know of their son’s plans, have ever served as a deterrent against terrorist actions? It seems far more likely that they produce more hatred and bitterness, fueling the next round of violence.

Responses to Korah Article

My friend Rabbi David Greenstein, Head of the Academy of Jewish Religion in New York City, sent me the following illuminating comments in wake of my Korah piece:

Re your comment from the Izhbitzer that Korah’s “only” error was in “jumping the gun”: This is also a view in Kabbalah regarding the greatest sin of all time—eating from the Etz ha-Da’at [Tree of Knowledge]. See, e.g., the end of Gikatilla’s Sha’arei Orah, where it is explained that the prohibition was temporary, analogous to orlah, and the fruit of that tree would eventually have been permitted. But human beings jumped the gun.

This brings up the role of time in the definition of sin. The problem of how evil can exist in God’s creation (or, as the Izhbitzer would ask: how can anyone do something that God does not want—i.e., to be “free” in the conventional sense) is answered in terms of the creation of time. That is, “evil” is not evil per se, but only in not having its proper place/time. Thus, in the End of Days—the end of time—this rule of temporal ordering will disappear, and the essential goodness of all will be restored. It is only in this created world of temporality that evil “has a place” or a mis-place. Korah’s mistake is thus alluded to in his very claim: he charges that “all the people are holy,” reading qedoshim tihyu [“you shall be holy”–Lev 19:2] as descriptive in the present tense. But the verse should be read “you will be holy,” in the future tense (if, etc.). Korah, as you say, jumped the gun.

I was also approached this week by a stranger who recognized my name from reading the Hebrew version of the same devar torah, who suggested a parallel between the Korah story and the Greek myth of Antigone, who lead a rebellion against royal authority based upon certain moral principles. וצריך עיון