Shabbat Pinkhas: Our People’s Feminine Side

There is quite a surprise in our parashat hashavua, called Pinkhas. Our ancient Israelite religious narrative presents us with what we presume to be a Patriarchal framework for understanding our lives. Certainly, the caricatures of traditional Judaism (and, sadly, often the reality) diminishes and even calumniates the strengths and characteristics of the feminine. This has led to the political and social oppression of women in Jewish culture.

But how much of the ancient narrative is actually Patriarchal, and to what extent has it been taught through a lens which emphasizes the Patriarchal, while ignoring the evidence of strong women, and the presence of much feminine imagery? Books such as Merlin Stone’s When God Was A Woman or Raphael Patai’s The Hebrew Goddess trace a pre-Patriarchal world in which spirituality was equally male, female, and included other genders as well.

But what of the Torah? This is where parashat Pinkhas comes to surprise us. The Israelites have been journeying toward the Promised Land for nigh unto forty years at this point. To recap in a nutshell: our ancestors are led out of Egypt, brought to Mt Sinai, entered into a Covenant, given laws by which to frame their lives and thrive as free people, and are now pretty much settled into a routine. Pitch camp, feed the sheep, settle whatever differences are currently causing social upset, and then, at a propitious moment, strike camp and travel onward.

Then something happens that hasn’t been foreseen by the Giver of the Halakha, the path we are following. A man named Tzelafkhad dies. He had five daughters, no sons. And the rules for inheritance as the Israelites have them do not allow for that situation, for they specify that when a man dies, his son shall inherit him. Tzelafkhad’s daughters go to Moshe and ask the obvious question: if there is no son, shall not the daughter inherit? 

A wonderful thing happens: Moshe indicates that he does not know, and rather than try to work out the correct halakha on his own, he asks the women to wait while he goes to ask G*d. And then another wonderful thing happens: G*d tells Moshe that the women are right; they should inherit. And so the law stands to this day. Jewish law, challenged, expanded and changed by women. This is not a singular narrative; it beckons us to examine our inherited texts ourselves, rather than let another’s lens tell us what we see.

There is nothing particularly misogynistic about the story of Tzelakhad’s daughters, although the narrative, by assuming that fathers will have sons, is clearly Patriarchally biased. But there is hope for a bias, especially when one who carries it is willing to be enlightened, expanded, and changed through lived experience and learning – and, most of all, willing to hear questions and admit ignorance, just as Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Teacher, did.

This week, our parashah acknowledges the strengths and gifts of the feminine side of life, even as Jewish mystics teach the essence of G*d as equally feminine and masculine – as are we ourselves. This week, the United States sees a woman nominated for President by a major political party and hails this new thing. But we know that  women as well as men have always been building human life, discerning the path, and summoning the future. It is only a matter of seeing, and lifting up the good that we see beyond the cultural expectations that we are supposed to have.

Shabbat Balak: Not Just a Funny Story

This week the Torah abruptly turns away from stories of Israelite society in terrifying disarray to what seems at first glance to be an absurd parable: a frightened king, a greedy hired mercenary, and a talking ass – and none of them are Jewish. Perhaps this week might offer some comic relief? Let the camera turn elsewhere, and the media pick up a different, feel-good story?

Not so much. When we look closer, and allow the parable to do its work of telling truth in disguise, layers of illumination unfold before us.

King Balak of Mo’ab sees a group of migrants encamped at the borders of the land in which the Moabites dwell. He worries that the Israelites and their herds of animals will consume the resources of his land. Determined to drive them off, he seeks out Bil’am, a locally famous seer. The plan is for Bil’am to curse the Israelite people; as the Midrash explains, “to kill them with words”.

Bil’am, offered riches for his work, accepts the mission and travels to the King. On his way, the donkey he is riding begins to act strangely, shrinking from forward movement, turning off the road to one side and then the other. Bil’am, seeing no reason for the donkey’s behavior, beats her, seeking to force her forward. Finally she lies down – and he beats her again.

This premise is strikingly familiar: the powerful leader, threatened by a group seen as foreign, hires a maker of words to vilify and so to destroy them. The mercenary who accepts the job harms not only the target group but everyone around, everyone associated with the word-making, everyone who reads and hears the words. And then there’s the donkey, the only one exhibiting any common sense:

Bil’am was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him. And the ass saw the Angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and the ass turned into the field; and Bil’am struck the ass. Then the Angel stood in a hollow way between the vineyards, and the ass saw, and thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Bil’am’s foot, and he struck her again. The Angel then stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn. The ass saw the Angel, and she lay down under Bil’am; and Bil’am’s anger was kindled, and he struck the ass with his staff. 

G*d opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Bil’am: ‘What have I done to you, that you beat me these three times?’ 

Bil’am said to the ass: ‘Because you have make me a mockery; if only it was a sword instead I would have killed you.’ 

The ass said to Bil’am: ‘Am not I your ass, upon which you have ridden all your life long until this day? have I ever done anything like this before?’ He said: ‘Well, no.’ 

Then G*d opened the eyes of Bil’am, and he saw the Angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and he bowed his head, and fell on his face.  (Numbers 22.23-31 excerpted)

The parable may be explained: 

The King is no one person, but rather those who allow, encourage, support, or simply stand by. Without them the curse-makers would have neither audience nor power. This week, once again, the King is those who support violence against those they define as Other.

The mercenary is no one person, but rather those who carry out the mandate of the King: those who carry out the violence. This week, they are those who beat up peaceful protestors, those who vote for hate, those who shoot. Like Bil’am, they, and we who are carried along with them, cannot see the catastrophic destruction that lies directly ahead in the path we are taking.

And the donkey, this week, is Charles Kinsey, a behavioral therapist in North Miami, who in the course of taking care of a patient with autism who had run away from a group home was shot while lying on the ground. Bil’am is so busy being embarrassed because his servants are laughing at his inability to control his ride that he does not even notice that the animal is suddenly expressing human sensibilities – moreso than any human in the story.

In the end, King Balak does not succeed. Bil’am attempts to create a curse on the Israelites, but it is turned into a beautiful song of praise, the Mah Tovu. And the donkey with common sense is justified, in the end, by G*d. The Israelites in their peaceful encampment on the steppes of Moab don’t even seem to know what’s going on.

Neither do we, and there is no respite today from horror either. We, who have no clear sense of how to turn a curse into a blessing, can only look around and wonder how we might learn to more closely listen to the voice of our own G*d given common sense – even if it seems to be awakened from an unlikely place. Even – perhaps especially – if it seems to be coming from that at which we are angry, or that of which we are afraid. The Other, after all, is a part of the All of which you and I are also, after all, a part. We have to realize what we don’t know, and calm down enough to seek out and listen to the human sensibility we need.

Shabbat Hukkat: Don’t Be Angry

The center is having a hard time holding. Moshe Rabbenu, “our Rabbi [read: teacher] Moshe” has already withstood the upheaval of the Golden Calf incident, the Korakh rebellion, and the catastrophe of the scout’s report only last week, the aftermath of which saw the generation of the wilderness doomed to die before reaching the Promised Land. 

This week, in the midst of a continuing stream of legislation coming from On High, he suffers the most personal, and perhaps, most significant blow. Not to his leadership, but to his heart: his big sister, Miriam, dies. She who watched over him when he floated in the bulrushes, she who adroitly managed the princess who found him so well that his own mother was hired to be his wet nurse; she who led the people in song and dance, feeding their souls as Moshe challenged their physical and mental readiness to leave slavery, over and over again.

The Israelite people, insensitive as we all are to another’s grief, start up again with the complaining. This time it’s about the water: the water is undrinkable. Once again, Moshe brings the people’s complaint before G*d; once again, G*d provides a remedy. And once again, Moshe is to duly carry it out.

But this time he snaps. Instead of doing what G*d has commanded, he – Moshe – the one who has stood between the people and G*d’s anger countless times, he, this time, breaks out in anger against his people. Commanded to speak to a rock in order to bring forth its water, he instead strikes it with his staff. Water flows, regardless – but nothing is ever again going to be the same.

Not for Moshe, who is doomed in his turn by G*d’s decree to die before reaching the Promised Land because he struck the rock.

Not for the people, caught in one more violent upheaval which they caused by their lack of ability, or perhaps it’s willingness, to learn.

And not for us, who read this parashat hashavua and will, once again, not be able, really, to change.

All this comes about because of anger. Anger causes Moshe to lose it; anger born of fear, of frustration and of confusion, closes the people’s ears; and we – we are no different than our ancestors. Still prey to overwhelming emotions, still to ready to be angry. 

The Sages teach that of all the emotions, anger is the most dangerous. This parashah gives us the paradigmatic example of its destructiveness. They taught: “Whoever tears garments in anger, breaks vessels in anger, and scatters money in anger, regard that person as an idolator” (BT Shabbat 105b), and “anger in a home is like a worm in a fruit.” (BT Sotah 3b) 

But is it not true that righteous anger is a virtue? Here Moshe, even in his fault, can teach us. From him we learn this week that anger which causes harm is not righteous. It is never ad hominem, focusing on the person rather than the problem; it never descends into self-righteousness; it lives alongside the mitzvot, rather than leading into transgression. It’s hard to find, in short.

This week has been no less shocking than last, and we must find a way to keep our center, and that of our community, strong, as a bulwark against the madness. We do so, ironically, by recognizing that our own small acts, here where we are, share the same world as Nice and Ankara, as Baton Rouge and Orlando and Minnesota, and wherever the next terror will arise. It’s all the same darkness, and we must continue to defy it by taking care of each other, by practicing kindness, and refusing to air our own angers – how petty they might seem in comparison! Anger is a natural response to stress, but it is one we must work to overcome, if we would do what little we can to work toward the redemption of this terrifying world.

We take care of each other by showing up for each other, not least by coming to shul or attending a minyan, but also by being present whenever we are with each other – even by email, even on the phone, and especially in person. Don’t be angry – be determined. Don’t be angry – take that energy and blast the love you have within you instead. Love will only conquer hate if it’s just as loud.

Shabbat Korakh: We Need Light Now

Things are going from bad to worse, worse that we thought they could get, in our parashat hashavua, called Korakh. Hundreds of Israelites, led by Korakh, rise up against the leadership. Hundreds of people die as a result, and – most horrifying – the situation at the end of the day is not fundamentally changed. We are still lost in the wilderness, still doomed to wander for a generation – and still angry.

These repeated cycles of rebellions put down, deaths of guilty and innocent alike, and growing discontent produces a certain demoralization for the survivors. And so we feel in these days, after a week of three shootings that we know about, three separate instances of gun violence that we know are connected. They are linked by our common sense that we are lost, and wandering through a wilderness of anger that grows with each tragedy.

“It produces a certain fatigue,” said Teressa Raiford, an organizer with Don’t Shoot Portland, on OPB’s Think Out Loud today. It makes you want to throw up your hands with a defeated sense of helplessness. And, more significantly, it makes one tend to move toward abandonment of the rest of the world for the sake of trying to keep one’s own loved ones safe. That way lies another generation of wandering, and we dare not take that road.

How did this happen? The Rabbis ask the same thing about Korakh’s rebellion. Perhaps considering the one will help shed light upon the other – and we need some light right now.

Korakh is Moshe’s cousin, a Levite just as thoroughly. He and the others who rebelled against Moshe’s leadership were passed over for positions of priestly authority. When G*d handed out the duties of the Levites, they were assigned chores of porterage, roles of singing Psalms, and, according to Divre HaYamim (the Book of Chronicles) the Korahites were also doorkeepers of the Mishkan, the holy space.

Korakh rebelled because, as he put it, “all the people are holy” (Numbers 16.3). He wasn’t wrong. So why does he die, along with those who rebelled with him? 

Some commentators find him arrogant: Korakh and those others with him should have accepted their lot in life. But I see his mistake as one of timing. Yes, all the people are holy, and his anger is genuine. But last week the Israelites experienced a terrible national trauma, and their ability to tolerate this uprising was seriously impaired. There could be no realistic attempt at rational discourse while they were still in the midst of mourning the loss of the Promised Land.

And so we are commanded by Jewish tradition: Do not try to console a mourner while her beloved dead is still before her.

Our United States society is plunged into mourning. We have lost, and are still losing, so much: our sense of safety, our trust in the public square’s security, our ability to see a way forward. We are doing terrible things to each other on a national scale. Even as the July sun, obscured by dark clouds, casts a gloomy darkness over us, the darkness of rising fear and anger and confusion is upon us. 

We have no clear answers for the healing of our society anytime soon, yet we cannot give in to helplessness or cynicism any more than we can rush to false conclusions. Yet our Jewish tradition offers us a powerful way to respond: light a candle.

Every erev Shabbat we are bidden to kindle the light of Shabbat at sundown. On this erev Shabbat, join me in lighting one extra: a light to shine against the darkness, a declaration that ner HaShem nishmat adam, “G*d sees by the light of the human soul” (Proverbs 20.27). Declare with me that every human soul increases the light of the world; every death brings darkness. Light an extra candle on this Shabbat in memory of a tragic death, among all those who are murdered by the violence in our midst.

And after Shabbat is over, and you have rested your soul, consider how you want to act. Because we must, if we would bring light to this darkness. This must be a summer of action for us: if not now, when? Here are three ideas to get you started:

*find out the Black-owned businesses near you, and choose them when you can

*sign up with SURJ (Stand Up For Racial Justice) and support them

*demand, agitate, and vote for gun safety laws

Shabbat Sh’lakh-L’kha: When the Safe Choice is a Dead End

This week in our parashah it all goes wrong, suddenly. Moses sends twelve scouts, each of them a leader of a tribe, to survey the land just ahead, the Land to which G*d promised to lead them. We are literally there already – until the Promised Land abruptly becomes a place to far to reach in one lifetime, it’s really not a long distance. The Israelites were standing on the threshold of the promise geographically, yet they discovered that they were not, spiritually, anywhere close.

What went wrong? The scouts return with two reports. Ten of these leaders of the people tell stories of large, fortified cities guarded by foreign giants; the Israelites seem justified in being shocked, and frightened. They paint a lurid picture of the dangers that lurk so close by. And all the while, two scouts keep on insisting that yes, it did seem scary, but it’s not as if we are unprepared, and, after all, G*d is with us.

Elected leaders of a people who use fear to rally people to their version of reality, while other leaders try to offer a reasonable voice that respects both sides. At its essence, there is no difference between this ancient story and our own day – immigration, gun safety, treatment of minorities among us, all these conversations are held hostage by fear mongering.

Panic ensues. Grumblings over the discomforts of the trail, which started last week, become louder, and the idea that someone threw out last week as an obviously absurd expression of disaffection – “let’s go back to Egypt” has actually become, this week, a plan that people are taking seriously.

No one really believes that so-and-so can become an elected leader, really…..

No one really thinks that the referendum can possibly go that way…

No one would really credit that we were better off before the Affordable Care Act….

Until it happens.

Fear has led them to rebel against the authority they elected to follow out of the hardships of slavery in Egypt. Not only the authority of Moshe and Aharon, but of the G*d they represent as well. Everything had seemed so settled and organized: the Ten Words that become a Covenant, the Mishkan built, the priests ordained and ready to go. But now the seeming stability is a crumbling facade. 

Back to Egypt? can anyone truly believe that this nonsense is the right path forward for our people?

Why do the Israelites give in to their fear? Is it only logical that they opted to believe the majority report? Neuroscience has established that “when the fear system of the brain is active, exploratory activity and risk-taking are turned off.” Even if the only way to survive is to take a risky leap, fear will keep most of us crouched in place. 

In our own lives we face choices that seem risky, of which we are afraid. We may seek a sort of majority report from modern scouts (aka anyone who we think knows more than we do), and if a number of studies align we may be persuaded of a truth. Yet we have come to know that another study will be published next year, or in another generation, or when the technology improves, and we will discover that, perhaps, the opposite is true. 

There are limits to what we can know based on evidence. Sometimes – especially when fear is a factor – the majority is wrong. Unfortunately, it is only after the irrevocable step has been taken that we can clearly see where we went wrong.

The Israelites knew immediately after that they had blown it. And while repentance may heal relationships, it does not repair consequences. The generation of slavery has forever missed its chance to enter the Promised Land by demonstrating that they are too afraid to take the necessary risks. 

What went wrong? The ancient Sages of our tradition found a hint in last week’s verse: “They traveled from the mountain of G*d” (Numbers 10.33). Rabbi Hanina explains: this teaches us that they turned aside from following G*d” (BT Shabbat 116a), and in the Middle Ages the scholar Nakhmanides adds: “they traveled away from Mt Sinai gleefully, like a child who runs away from school, saying, ‘Perhaps G*d will give us more commands [if we stay]!’” (Ramban to Numbers 10.35).

The Israelites gave in to fear because – if we allow anachronism in order to suggest relevance – they were not immersed deeply enough in their Torah learning and in their Jewish practices. Ignorance allows fear to take hold – and for Ramban, the first step that leads away from mitzvot ends in an avoidable catastrophe that some grownup thoughtfulness – the kind afforded by learning, and faith in the community’s vision – could have prevented.

May we keep ourselves far from fear, with each other’s help and support, and may we do what we can to allay our neighbors’ fear through doing justice with them and for them.