Shabbat Pinhas: The Three Weeks

This year, Shabbat Pinhas is the first Shabbat of the Three Weeks.

 

These three weeks are the least auspicious period in the entire Jewish year, leading up as they do to Tisha B’Av, the day on which, two thousand years ago, the Second Jerusalem Temple was destroyed. Our people began a two thousand year Exile of homeless wandering, stateless immigrants, without rights, escaping one persecution only to find another, over and over again.

 

Since the establishment of the modern State of Israel, there are those who have suggested that Tisha B’Av should be superseded by celebrating the homecoming of Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israel Independence Day.  Yet old traditions die hard, and it is much more like us to mine them for the continuing relevance they offer – thus, it has been suggested by religious Zionists that Tisha B’Av now becomes an opportunity for a collective Yom Kippur of the State and People of Israel.

 

Simply put, Yom Kippur is a time of mourning the destruction we contribute to by our individual human behavior, as well as resolving to  atone; Tisha B’Av is a time to mourn our behavior as a people, and to seek atonement on a national level.

 

We are a people; when one Jew acts, all Jews are implicated, for good and for ill. To understand this is to see the need to look closely at events as they transpire, and consider what action we might take on behalf of our people’s well-being and ethical conscience.

 

The first day of the Three Weeks is Tzom Tammuz, the Fast of Tammuz, marking the day the Romans breached the outer walls of Jerusalem and began their relentless destructive march toward the Temple Mount. All that was left when the smoke cleared and the bodies were buried was the retaining wall; a section of that became the famous “Wailing Wall” at which Jews would weep for the home that was lost.

 

We are taught that Jerusalem was destroyed by sin’at hinam, “baseless hatred” toward each other and others beyond our people. Not just violent hatred, but also the quieter but no less destructive postures of cynical indifference, callousness, and turning away.

 

In our own day, the outer walls are breached by our own kind of sin’at hinam: by our community infighting, by the fear that makes us pull away from trusting each other, and by our cynicism and despair.

 

For two thousand years since the destruction, the bad energy of these Three Weeks has caused Jewish communities to avoid scheduling happy events during this time; no weddings, no young person called to the Torah for the first time.

 

In our own day, Tisha B’Av has become a stark reminder that nothing lasts, and that small acts of evil undermine the institutions we once believed in. According to the Rabbis’ teaching, it was a small act of public humiliation which triggered the destruction of Jerusalem and all Judaea. In this way they remind us that every act can, in a small but real way, bring about a better world – or lead us toward misery and death.

 

This year consider some way in which you will spend these weeks in awareness of the sadness of all that is destroyed, all the lives that are lost. Cease to do, or change in some way, a practice that normally brings you joy and comfort between now and Tisha B’Av. Let that small reminder, cumulatively over this time, show you the true power of the way we spend our days, and re-inspire you to acts of compassion, of kindness and of justice.

Shabbat Balak: Fear and Loathing, and a Talking Ass

This week, parashat Balak allows us to appreciate the importance of parables to communicate difficult truths concisely and memorably. As our story opens, one King Balak of Moab hears his people talking about the immigrants – the Israelites – nearing their border:

 

“This horde will consume everything around us like cows eat all the grass of a field.” (Num. 22.4)

 

Balak’s full name is Balak ben Zippor, “son of a bird,” and true to his name, he is carried along by the gathering storm of public opinion. He turns to Balaam, a prophet famous far and wide, and puts into place a plan to attempt to destroy the immigrant population that so threatens his people.

 

“Put a curse on this people for me so that I can defeat them and drive them away. I know that you are effective: your blessings bless, and your curses curse.” (Num. 22.6)

 

And so the destructive wheels are set in motion. As a prophet, Balaam knows that his power to bless or curse is really just an ability to see what already exists. Yet his greed is aroused by the reward the King promises, and so he saddles his ass and heads for the Israelite camp.

 

Neither he nor the King can see the truth of the situation: that the death they plan for others will also threaten them. As many human beings, they believed that they could make themselves safe by destroying others, unaware of the deeper network of connection that ensure, in ethics no less than in physics, that an individual’s acts echo and reflect in widening ripples that, in the end, include us all.

 

In this parable, only the ass sees it, in the form of an angel holding a threatening fiery sword in their path. Predictably, she turns aside from the certain death before them; Balaam, who does not see it, beats her repeatedly until finally “Hashem opened the ass’ mouth” (Num. 22.28) and she is able to enlighten the human being.

 

The Torah does not record what Balaam learned in that moment; it is only when he stands and looks at the Israelites that we see the change in him. The words he utters are of praise, so beautiful that unto this day we recite them as the opening song of our prayers:

 

מה טובו אוהליך יעקב משכנותיך ישראל

Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov mishkenotekha Yisrael

How beautiful are the tents of Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel! (Num. 24.5)

 

Were the people of Israel really that beautiful on that day? We’ve seen our ancestors act as badly as any other people – no better and no worse. Perhaps what Balaam learned was that there is so much we cannot see, and that invoking the possible beauty of the immigrants at the border was as easy as fixating on the fear of other possibilities. Perhaps, in that moment when he blessed them, the people of Moab were able for the first time to see past their anxiety to consider these strangers, perhaps, as peaceful; perhaps, even, as friends.

 

It is not enough to denounce weak leaders who follow the winds of nativist bigotry for their own political gain. Although some will denounce those of us who see immigrants as our friends and act to demonstrate it, we make a powerful statement when we show up. We have done so, more times than we should have to, and we will do so again. As Jews, we know the heart of the immigrant, since we ourselves have been immigrants, we ourselves have been strangers, we ourselves have been vulnerable.

Israel and Palestine: Come and Learn

Jewish? Ready to see the real Israel, ask any question, face every reality?

Join hands with children learning to love in the face of trauma in a Palestinian School; link arms with Israeli activists working for a more just world. See for yourself ,and transform your feelings of inadequacy to know with the understanding born only of first-hand experience.

Go to https://www.daattravel.com/ShirTikvahPR2020 and click on “register now.” Trip limited to 20 people.

 

Shabbat Hukkat: I Have Seen Outrage

This parashat hashavua, this Torah reading of the week, chronicles a time of terrible crisis for our people. The leaders we rely on are disappearing; the path is lost in a cloud of doubt and fear; the G*d of justice feels very far away.

 

The relevance of parashat Hukkat is profound and somewhat unnerving to those who believe that human nature forces us to repeat our mistakes unendingly. I’m grateful that Judaism offers a more hopeful answer to our existential questions: we are capable of learning from the past, and doing better.

 

In this parashah, Miriam dies, shortly followed by Aaron; in between, Moshe makes the fatal mistake that dooms him to die before the end of the journey. For the people of Israel, we are losing our parents. In these moments we see them for who they really are – flawed and precious human beings – and realize that it is now our turn. Old certainties die with the elders who knew more than we, and we see that there is no one else to lead us forward in these times but us.

 

And these times: the Psalmist offers a striking description of our situation.

 

Listen to my prayer, do not ignore my plea

I sway and moan

From the crushing force of the wicked

My heart quails within me

And death-terrors fall upon me

Fear and trembling enter me

And horror envelops me

I say “would that I had wings like a dove

I would fly off and find rest.”

I have seen outrage and strife in the city

Day and night disaster upon the walls

Guile and deceit never far from the square.

Tehillim 55.3-12 (excerpted)

 

In these times there is no one who can say with a voice we innately trust, as a parent might, that everything will be all right; many of us find ourselves following one voice, then another, as if jumping from rock to rock to cross a stream. This, too, is progress of a sort, and it can even be constructive, if we are choosing well where to put our feet.

 

Our Jewish tradition offers support for our feet as well as our tired hearts in an obscure story at the end of our parashah. It records that our people found themselves in a wilderness called by the Torah’s narrator Be’er, a word for “well” in Hebrew.

 

The people sang a song to the well:

Spring up, O well – sing to it!

The well which the leaders dug,

Which the generous of the people started

With their own hands.

BaMidbar 21.17-18

 

For Jewish tradition, a well is a common symbol for Torah. Even as water is life, for Jews, Torah is life-giving. Not the scroll itself, but what it represents: the Jewish community gathered around it to together puzzle out our responses to the mysteries of our lives; the source of the Jewish ethics and history that reassure us that we are not the first to struggle.

 

The leaders we seek – the leaders we must ourselves become – are those who dig for that sustenance; they are those who are generous with their time, the fruit of their study, and their resources that support our Torah study. Each one of us has a role to play in making sure that we all have access to life-giving, passionate Torah – the supportive source of that which sustains our ability to survive in these times of wandering and fear.

Shabbat Korakh: A Time To Rebel

There is a time for every purpose under heaven – Kohelet 3.1

 

This week’s parashah recounts a familiar place to we who are living the nightmare of what the United States has become. As our ancestors in parashat Korakh, we find ourselves in the middle of a long wandering. As then, we are lost, with no clear end to the frightening uncertainty in sight. Friends are irritable with each other, fights break out, people use unkind words. Those with selfish motives take advantage of the confusion.

 

Out of the general misery, some step forth and offer the clarity of their leadership – and just as now, our ancestors were faced with the question of whose voice to heed. Was it right to continue to follow Moshe, Miriam and Aaron? Or was another Levite, their cousin Korakh, correct in his assessment that those who led us out of Egypt had lost their way?

 

The Rabbis of antiquity experienced the oppression of the Roman Empire, out of which Jewish voices such as that of Bar Kokhba, the leader of a great rebellion against Rome, promised release. Then as now, rebellion against unjust power may be called for, but how are we to discern the best way, the proper time, the reason and the rationale?

 

They developed an effective way to judge which of the charismatic voices clamoring for our attention might be the right ones to follow:

 

Makhloket l’shem shamayim, “strife for the sake of heaven,” according to the Talmud, refers to honorable dissent. Its opposite, makhloket which is not for “the sake of heaven” is that which is self-centered, indulges in ad hominem attacks, and is doomed to fail.

 

Korakh is the classic case of the wrong kind of strife, teach the Rabbis: he failed because his words showed that, in essence, he did not care about the best leadership for the Israelite people. He simply wanted to be leader himself, and resented having been relegated to a supportive role in the community structure.

 

The doctrine of makhloket l’shem shamayim is still a Jewish ethical ideal today, encouraging us to engage with our opposition respectfully when we disagree. We are commanded to use just weights and just measures in our communal interactions with each other; just ends require just means.

 

As for the right time, and the right way, to rise up against power, rabbinic Judaism teaches that the highest value is that of preserving life: both the lives of the oppressed and the life of one who would act for justice. Martyrdom is not a Jewish value; living to fight another day is.

 

You are not required to complete the work, yet neither are you exempt from doing your part. – Pirke Avot 2.16

 

The wandering is long and uncertain; the work is piecemeal and slow.

 

True voices of justice are full of patient compassion, true arguments leave room for learning and growth, and true leadership rallies the best of the entire community. May we find it within ourselves to step up with our best when we can, despite the stress of fear, and may we never forget that kindness toward each other is the only firm grounding upon which we may expect to build a more just world.