Shabbat Pinhas: Too Easy to Blame a Person

This parashat hashavua is troubling; in the last verses of last week’s parashah, a young man named Pinkhas (or Phineas in English) who serves as a kohen, a priest (grandson of Aaron the High Priest, no less) has murdered two people who were perceived to be publicly flouting the authority of Moshe. The parashah clearly describes his extrajudicial action: he saw the behavior, and he picked up his spear and ran the two through.
The opening verses of our parashah do not describe his punishment for going outside the legal system, for neglecting to give each person the benefit of the doubt, or for taking the law as he saw it into his own hands. Rather, the opening verses describe G*d’s “reward” for his behavior:
פִּינְחָס בֶּן-אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן-אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, הֵשִׁיב אֶת-חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת-קִנְאָתִי, בְּתוֹכָם; וְלֹא-כִלִּיתִי אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקִנְאָתִי. ‘Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, turned My wrath away from the children of Israel, in that he was very jealous for My sake among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel in My anger.
לָכֵן, אֱמֹר:  הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת-בְּרִיתִי, שָׁלוֹם. Wherefore say: Behold, I give unto him My Covenant of Peace;
וְהָיְתָה לּוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו, בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם–תַּחַת, אֲשֶׁר קִנֵּא לֵאל-הָיו, וַיְכַפֵּר, עַל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. and it shall be unto him, and to his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was jealous for his G*d, and made atonement for the children of Israel.’  (Num. 25.11-13)
This is upsetting to read, and it was so for the Rabbis, our ancient Sages, as well. They did their best to rule out Pinkhas’ behavior as an aberration, as something not to be emulated, nor he himself to be held up as a role model. Not unlike what we ourselves do when we rule something to be “the exception that proves the rule.”  Some have taught that you could expect nothing less of a priest, a descendant of Levi, that bloodthirsty son of Jacob, anyway; best that they be the ones assigned to slaughtering animals for sacrifice.
But the reality is more difficult and more compelling. The argument that sometimes a stroke of violence is necessary has fueled every assassin’s argument, from Gavrilo Princip to John Wilkes Booth to Brutus – and as well to those who, at a cocktail party, ask you if, having the chance, you would have killed the leader of Germany in World War II.
The belief that a well-placed murder will change the world is deep enough to emerge in a muted form in social media, as Kathy Griffin and Johnny Depp have recently demonstrated.
In Jewish history, the murder of the Babylonian-appointed governor of Judea, a man named Gedalyah. To this day, the Jewish people has kept this day as a minor fast day on our calendar of religious observances. This murder, of a man who was no doubt considered a tool of the enemy by many Jews, in essence made us worse off, for it ended Jewish autonomy in Ancient Israel after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire.
If only it was so easy to remove all that plagues us – by doing away with the person who represents it, who is empowered by it, who seems to be controlling it – when in reality, we have placed that person there, and we empower it. He does not control it, any more than the symptoms of dysfunction in a family are caused by the person who acts them out.
Pinkhas did the lazy thing. It’s so much harder to work for real, deep, thorough-going social healing. Or personal healing – much easier to find some one thing or person to blame, when, really, that thing or person is doing G*d’s work as a holy messenger of Truth, if we learn how to hear it.
The work that heals us is more difficult and less dramatic. We’re engaged in it every time we see a mitzvah and do it. We’re closer to the world we want every Shabbat, and every time we pause to encourage each other and ourselves by being together and comparing notes.
During these Three Weeks, when we focus on all that has gone wrong, and the sadness we carry in our peoplehood and in our own hearts, may we help each other remember that every goodness also counts, and is gathered up.

Shabbat Hukkat: The World in a Word

This week’s parashah is called Hukkat, a word that can be translated as “statute,” “ordinance,”, or, simply, “law.” We often find it as half of the hendiadys hukkim umishpatim, which you might have seen translated as “laws and ordinances” or some such. Of course, one of the basic rules for Torah study is that there is no such thing as a simple synonym; the Rabbis of antiquity sought to understand what nuance was inferred by the use of two words where one was clearly not enough.
One compelling answer is revealed by the root of the second word, which is ש.פ.ת [sh.f.t], a root that refers to judges and judgements. This word evokes the world of the courtroom, and of the human process of judgement. Mishpatim, then, are laws which are worked out by human agency, wherein the Torah’s commands are applied to real life through human discernment and understanding.
The 12th century philosopher and jurist (and mystic and physician) Rambam, also called Maimonides, explained mishpatim as that category of law that we could figure out for ourselves. The revelation at Sinai was not really necessary for this category of law, since any sane society could work out for itself that murder, theft and the like must be prohibited for human beings to be able to live together.
Hukkim, on the other hand, said the Rambam, required revelation, since hukkim don’t obviously make sense; we are not able to work out the meaning of hukkim by ourselves. Our parashat hashavua offers us the chance to consider what this means.
First of all, the word itself is hard, grammatically, to pin down. The word itself, hok, plural hukkim, can also be found in the Torah as hukah, plural hukkot. The form hukkat, the name of our parashah, is an additional form used when a feminine noun is modified by another noun immediately succeeding it. Note that the word hok/hukkah can be found in both the male and female forms (all Hebrew is gendered).
Second, the word itself comes from a root that also can be translated “etch.” This is fascinating, since one would think that such a word would connote certainty, and perhaps it does, but not of the logical sort. That is, Rambam’s definition of a hok or hukkah is that it designates those Torah laws that cannot be understood with logic, and that therefore had to be revealed.
Sure enough, the Hukkah that we find at the beginnning of this parashah is not only difficult to understand logically, it is famous in Jewish tradition as a law so difficult to understand that even King Shlomo, considered the wisest of all in his lifetime, confessed that he could not understand it. This hukkah of the Red Heifer describes a recipe to create a substance, a potion that changes the status of those made tame’ by death to tahor, and therefore capable of approaching G*d in ritual communication. The part that is most difficult to understand is that the one who creates the substance is made tame’ by contact with it…..
Or perhaps the part that is most difficult to understand is the way that Jews and non-Jews alike have seen this mysterious potion as essential to the summoning of the End of Days. The logic goes like this: until the ancient Jewish sacrificial system is reinstated in Jerusalem, the Jewish End of Days cannot come. There are Christians who believe that their End of Days cannot arrive until all the Jews are returned to Israel and to their ancient form of ritual communication with G*d.
And since the potion requires an all-red heifer, there are actually people who scour the world looking for one, for upon it all depends. (And if you have not read Michael Chabon’s novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, I recommend it for a highly enjoyable treatment of this topic.)
Hok, as the Hebrew word which refers to all the laws that we cannot logically understand, comes to signify something much larger than the guiding law of Judaism; hok or hukkah reminds us that many of our rituals are not logical, even as much of our lives will not yield to logic. And how glorious and vital that is! There is a mystery at the heart of life which commands our humility and our gratitude. Not all can be understood, not all is subject to human discernment and understanding.
Like everything else in our spiritual tradition, we balance that which we can know with that which we will never understand. The two terms are not, however, opposites; they inform each other in a necessary dance, just like another common hendiadys in Torah Hebrew, which is tzedek umishpat, “righteousness and judgement.” Here is our same root, ש.פ.ת [sh.f.t]. Here it is contrasted and balanced with tzedek, “justice” or “righteousness,” to remind us that even when we understand the law, it is quite possibly not just, for it is only human law, humanly arrived at.
Even as we must infuse the mishpat of law with the tzedek of righteousness, may we find ourselves able to recognize the presence of the mystery of hok and hukkah even within what we believe are our logically-derived judgements of mishpatim.

Shabbat Sh’lakh L’kha: Don’t Be Afraid, Together We Can Do This

We are learning, as a human family and as Jews, the price of fear, and of second-hand information. It’s a long road, stretching all the way back to our parashat hashavua. In Sh’lakh L’kha, we have crossed the wilderness, we are camped on the edge of the Land of Promise. Perhaps it’s only human that we do not go immediately forward, trusting in G*d to support us into this final form of the unknown. Instead, Moshe our leader sends twelve scouts ahead of us, to travel the length and breadth of the land, and to bring back a report to the People Israel, waiting breathlessly, excited and, yes, also afraid. There is, after all, something about the final moment of truth from which we quail.

Why is the language of lovemaking so hard to learn?
Why is the body so often dumb flesh?
Why does the mind so often choose to fly away
at the moment the word waited for all one’s life is about to be spoken?

– Alice Walker, The Temple of My Familiar

The scouts complete their mission and return. They all agree that the land is beautiful and fertile. Then one of them begins to relate the size of the fortified cities and their inhabitants. “Really?” I can imagine the response. “How big are they?” asks one. “Are they fierce?” another anxiously inquires. “Do they eat people? I heard they eat people!” And before long Moshe has a full-fledged panic on his hands. Fear is electric, and it can bond us all together in a syngergistic current that makes of a casual remark a trigger for all the terrors an active imagination can create.

What makes the final step, that move from almost to arrival so terribly difficult that we begin to imagine all the ways that it cannot possibly succeed?
The entry into the Land of Promise is not only a geographical move. Viewed from the mythical perspective, we can feel the resonance to anything that is longed for, anything that is promised in some wonderful perfect future. It is no accident that in many stories of the journey to fulfillment, monsters must be battled. In Judaism those terrors are sometimes in the world around us, as we can see in the form of those who fight against change even when it is manifestly for the better, for themselves and for the world.
But the terror are also that which we conjure up inside us, and that urge, which our tradition names the yetzer hara’, the “evil impulse,” is often our most significant challenge. The yetzer, we are taught, is not only an impulse to do evil; it is also that impulse which keeps us from believing in ourselves and in our ability to reach our Promise.
Why would the Israelites hesitate to enter the fulfillment of the Promise they lived for?
Why do people vote against their own interests?
Why do we so often run away from the love and wholeness
that is so close to our grasp,
and for which we so long?
On this Shabbat, Pride Shabbat, we celebrate the power of love in all its forms. Judaism teaches that love is the highest human expression, and Jewish mysticism promises that when we reach understanding, judgement and mercy will merge into compassion.
Don’t misunderstand me: there is evil, and there are real dangers. That’s why we have to always remember to stick together. There are real monsters out there. But the Israelites didn’t check on that report; didn’t consider the effect they might be experiencing, of the fear of the unknown. They panicked – without ever verifying if there really was anything to fear. That second-hand information cost them forty years more of wandering before another chance would come to reach the Promise.
Look inside: is there a magnifier there, enlarging every fear until they seem like monsters? The answer is to reach out of yourself. Get a new perspective: check what you think you know. Question your doubts as well as your beliefs. Ask someone you trust for another opinion – and not someone who will only agree with you. Get a second opinion about that which most terrifies you – there’s no need to add to the real monsters with those we construct out of fear, second hand.
Don’t be afraid, said Joshua and Caleb, the only two scouts who disagreed with the rest. Together we can do this. The Israelites did not hear them. Can we, so much further (we hope) down the road of learning about letting fear control us, hear them? When we support each other, we will find a way to let go of those fierce, people-eating monsters that appear between us and our wholeness when we are nearly, almost there. When we defeat the mirage of terror created by our own yetzer hara’ we will see it: the Land of the Promise we all long for.

Shabbat BeHa’alot’kha: Light the Way Forward

Our parashah begins with these words:
 
דַּבֵּר, אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, וְאָמַרְתָּ, אֵלָיו:  בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ, אֶת-הַנֵּרֹת, אֶל-מוּל פְּנֵי הַמְּנוֹרָה, יָאִירוּ שִׁבְעַת הַנֵּרוֹת.
“Speak to Aaron, tell him: in your lifting up of the lamps, it is toward the front of the menorah [lamp stand] that the seven lights should illuminate.” (Num.8.2)
This is difficult to understand without visualizing the menorah. It is a large, seven-branched lamp stand, and at the top are not seven candles, but seven oil lamps. They look like a simple example of the famous Aladdin’s lamp; they are designed to hold oil, poured in the larger end’s hole, which feeds the wick protruding from the hole at its smaller end.
These small oil burning lamps are ubiquitous in archaeological digs in Israel. They are about the size of your hand, and constitute the equivalent of a torch in a land without so much wood to burn.
Aaron is told to situate the lamps in the menorah in such a way that they give light at the front of the menorah. While this is a reasonable safety measure against setting the Tent of Meeting in which the menorah stood on fire, the seven-branched lamp stand and the direction of its light also invites us to consider a deeper, more symbolic level of meaning.
What does it mean to say that when you lift up a light, it should burn forward?
It is taught that the menorah might symbolize the Jewish people: seven branches, multiple paths in Jewish life. Yet the menorah is fashioned of a single piece of precious metal, demonstrating that the different paths we take need not detract from seeing our community as fundamentally united. Diversity need not lead to division. Rather, differing individual talents can be brought into a synthesis stronger for its various nuances.
Similarly, the menorah can symbolize our society: especially as we enter Pride Week it is appropriate to note the many colors of the Rainbow Flag and the beauty of diversity it evokes. Different paths need not detract from the essential light shed by the human menorah we can become together.
But it’s the light, not the seven branches, that most compels this week – a week in which we experienced the darkness shed by those who rally for racism and lift up the flag of hatred. And so Torah comes on this Shabbat to remind us that we have light to shed, illumination to direct forward. It is not enough for us to share our light among ourselves – Jewish tradition commands us to direct it forward. Onward, despite the demoralization and confusion sown by fear; upward, as our former First Lady taught: “when they go low, we go high.”
The menorah demonstrates that each of us need not agree with each other on what act is the right one for this day and this time; there are many ways forward, and we must understand that to which we are best suited, so that the light we each bring will shine as brightly as it can.
Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.

Shabbat BaMidbar: Fire, Water and Wilderness

The name of our parashah this week is the same as the name of the Book we are now beginning, once again, to study: BaMidbar, “in the wilderness,” the Book called Numbers in English. So far in our journey from Egypt toward that which is Promised, our Torah has recounted for us the escape itself, the arrival at Mt Sinai, the building of the Mikdash, the sacred space, and the details of how we are to approach the Presence of G*d, in that space and, for that matter, everywhere else. From the arrival at Sinai, all the action has taken place at the foot of that mountain. Now, “on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they came out of Egypt” (Num.1.1), we are preparing to leave Sinai, and to strike off across the untracked wilderness.

This parashah is always read just before Shavuot, the Festival of the giving of the Torah which we will celebrate next Tuesday evening through Wednesday (and Thursday, which is the 2nd day of the Diaspora). Our ancestors, contemplating the context for our receiving the Torah, note that it was given “amidst three things: fire, water, and wilderness” (Midrash Rabbah).

Fire, as we learn from the account of Sinai enveloped in smoke and fire, G*d appearing in a burning bush, and the pillar of fire that will lead us onward, symbolized in the fire that is to be kept ever-burning on the altar and in our hearts.

Water, as we know from the story of our people entering the Sea of Reeds in an act of faith, and crossing through it in a way as miraculous as if on dry land.

Wilderness, for the thirty-nine years our ancestors will make their way, each day in the faith that they are slowly approaching that which has been Promised, that safe resting place which will be Home.

The Lubliner Rebbe noted that the first two of these elements are momentary occurrences: our people came through fire and water, and it was done. But the wilderness journey was a sustained, on-going struggle in uncertainty.

The Festival of Shavuot is often described by our tradition as the wedding between G*d and the People of Israel, and the Torah is, therefore, our ketubah. And we can see the similarity: the fire and water of initial passion and emotion, which in time settles into the daily wandering in the wilderness which is a true, living relationship. Whether with another individual or with one’s kehillah, one’s intentional Jewish community, an initial attraction and excitement will inevitably settle into the real struggle to deal with all the uncertainties of living, evolving, and growing – as an individual and with others.

To truly exist in the wilderness takes dedication, strength and courage: the courage to stay engaged when one’s certainties are upset, the strength to hold still and listen to that which is new, and the dedication to stick with the meaning of the journey on the bad days, the days of mokhin d’katnut, as the mystics put it, when we are small-minded and not kind, neither to others nor to ourselves.

On this Shabbat, we are invited to dive deep into remembering the state of wandering – not in the easy way of the bumper sticker, wandering among institutions that do not ask for our personal loyalty, but in the difficult way of being that leads to that which is Promised:

The wilderness is not just a desert through which we wandered for forty years. It is a way of being. A place that demands being open to the flow of life around you. A place that demands being honest with yourself without regard to the cost in personal anxiety; a place that demands being present with all of yourself.

In the wilderness your possessions cannot surround you. Your preconceptions cannot protect you. Your logic cannot promise you the future. Your guilt can no longer place you safely in the past. You are left alone each day with an immediacy that astonishes, chastens, and exults. You see the world as if for the first time.

Now you might say that the promise of such spirited awareness could only keep one with the greatest determination in the wilderness but for a moment or so. That such a way of being would be like breathing pure oxygen. We would live our lives in but a few hours and die of old age. As our ancestors complained, It is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness (Exodus 14.12). 

And indeed, that is your choice. (Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, Honey From the Rock)  

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other for the journey, in Israel, in the U.S., and in our own intentional communities –  that journey which continues at our feet right here, right now.

Shabbat BeHar/BeHukkotai: Taking Refuge in the PaRDeS of Learning

Yesterday I was on a conference call with a national social justice organization, during which we were told that “usually, we expect to operate with a six-month window. Lately we have revised that to six days.”  Such is the sense of frantic, non-stop chaos in the political sphere of our nation’s existence.
Thank G*d that we Jews have the ability to balance our necessary social and political awareness with a much longer, calmer perspective: that of the halakhah, the structured path, and the aggadah, the informing narrative, of our people’s long history. No matter what is happening in the moment, you can gain a moment of calm with which to view a wider horizon by going through a simple mental exercise: what’s the parashat hashavua (the parashah, or section, of the week), and how does it offer resonance in this moment?
The parashah this shavua is a double: BeHar, “on the mountain”, and BeHukkotai, “with My laws.”  Applying our four-fold PaRDeS tool for exploring Torah we find much that can help us put the latest news of today and every day into a manageable context. Consider it a refuge from immediacy. Pardes is an ancient Persian loan word meaning “garden”; it is also the root of the word “paradise.”
1. P is for peshat; on the “simple” or surface level of meaning we have this teaching: BeHar, on the mountain, refers to Mount Sinai. It’s a surprising reminder that here, as we finish up the Book VaYikra (Leviticus) we haven’t yet left the mountain where we stood all together to enter into the Covenant. It took us only fifty days to arrive there, but we have been there ever since. And when we do leave, soon enough, to begin the wanderings described in the Book BaMidbar (Numbers), we will take with us a souvenir in the most significant sense of the word. That eternal reminder, or azkarah (memorial) of the Sinai experience, is referred to in the name of the next parashah, BeHukkotai, “with My laws.” On the first day that our people ventured forth from Sinai, and on every single day since, we have had with us the gift of the guide we got there.
2. D is for drash (interpretation), and yes, the letters go out of the word’s order: on this deeper level of investigating meaning we dive beneath the surface meaning of a verse. These two parshiyot are full of the laws that are meant to create an ethical Jewish society, among them this one: “when you buy and sell property, you shall not defraud your neighbor” (Lev.25.14). Rabbi Simkha Bunem of Pyshiskha (1765-1827) “drashed”, i.e. taught as a midrash (interpretation) on this law: “Legally, it is only forbidden to defraud one’s neighbor. But a good Jew must go beyond the letter of the law, and take care not to delude oneself, either.” Understood this way, we are commanded not to cheat ourselves in terms of value, mentally, physically or spiritually. You know what you’re worth, as an Image of G*d in the world, and what your neighbor is worth, too.
3. R is for remez (hint). In parashat BeHar we are commanded to count 49 years and to declare every 50th year to be a Yovel (“Jubilee”) year, a holy time: “you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants….you shall not sow, neither shall you reap.” (Lev.25.10-11) Hints might come from noticing context and juxtaposition, and just before this command is that of sounding the Shofar on the Day of Atonement in order to declare the Yovel year. Might we understand from this that the year cannot be considered holy, a year when there will be enough to eat without sowing and reaping, if Atonement is not achieved first? Could we understand this, further, as a warning that unless we care for the land and its inhabitants appropriately and ethically, it will not yield its abundance to us? The Torah itself leads us to this conclusion in parashat BeHukkotai, in which we are warned that if we abuse the land and its inhabitants, sooner or later the land will rest, but we will not be there to see it.
4. S is for sode (secret). We are aware of this level of understanding, but we cannot achieve it. There is that which will remain beyond us, and there is a mystery at the heart of life we will never understand. Rabbi Hayim of Tzantz taught that our awareness of our inability to understand life makes our lives a constant search through a dark, trackless forest. All we can do, the Rebbe said, is to hold hands, and look for the way together.
On this Shabbat, give thanks for sun and longer days in which to enjoy life as we can, understanding what we might of the chaotic days in which we live, grateful for learning that leads to deeper interpretations and community that supports us in our common seeking. This, too, is Torah, and we need to learn it.
Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.