Shabbat Matot-Masey: We’re In This Together

Shalom Shir Tikvah Learning Community,
On this Shabbat we read a double parashah, both Matot and Masey, and at the end of it we finish the Book BaMidbar, the account of much wandering in geography and in relationships.
And in this specific Torah narrative, part of the second year of the Triennial Cycle of reading, we begin with the story of two brothers who decide that they will better off if they separate from the larger family.
The tribes of Reuven and of Gad were herders, and they saw that the land on the east side of the Jordan river was good grazing land. So they said to Moshe, “this land through which we are traveling is good land for grazing. Rather than cross the Jordan river, we prefer to stay on this side and settle here.”  –BaMidbar 32.1-5, excerpted.
It seems a reasonable statement of intent, not unlike the act of the one who gets to camp first and chooses the best spot available for her tent, or the volunteer who joins the moving crew on behalf of a helpless older person but leaves when it suits him. We’re all part of the group, until the individual in each of us emerges to claim our individual status. And it’s all innocent enough, until the desire to take care of oneself becomes après moi le deluge, as King Louis XIV was supposed to have said: after I get mine, who cares what happens?
In times like ours, fear of personal danger or loss may cause us to feel something similar, to hesitate before joining a group to protest, or putting oneself at the front line of a cause. It’s a natural enough human desire, to stay safe and to keep those one loves safe with one – to circle the wagons against the common threat, but to look for the best and safest place among those wagons for oneself.
And so Moshe confronted the leaders of the tribes of Reuven and of Gad, saying “will you abandon your family now, when you are needed to help protect and defend the group? Will you betray the people of which you are a part because you have found a separate place to which to escape?” – BaMidbar 32.6, more or less.
Moshe’s point echoes that of Mordecai, the Jew in Persia who confronted the Queen his niece at a similar moment:
Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will will escape with your life by being in the King’s palace. One the contrary, if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, while you and your family’s house wil perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained your royal position just for this purpose?” – Megillat Esther 4.13-14.
None of us can truly separate ourselves from what is happening all around us. Those people who are homeless are no different from us, and thus all our homes are less secure. Those children who are separated from their parents are our children, and the world of our children is less safe. Those immigrants, people of color, Muslims, trans people, and all other targeted human beings are us, and we are all in this together.
If we have position, privilege, and resources, now is not the time to hoard them, but to hear Mordecai’s question: what have you been given these blessings for? If we would leave the group because there may be a more comfortable reality that presents itself to us, would considering Moshe’s demand change our thoughts? Would you leave your people – your fellow Jews, your companions in Portland citizenry, those who are not your social class but who share your life with you every day?
During the Three Weeks period we are encouraged to reflect upon not our personal faults, as we do on Yom Kippur, but upon our communal failings. What part did each individual play in the fall of the Jerusalem Temple on the 9th day of Av, Tisha B’Av, 2000 years ago? What part does each of us play in the destruction we fear in our own lives?
Neither personal, nor local, nor national borders will protect us from the acts we allow, enable, or fail to stop. This is one of the first lessons of Jewish ethics: that which you do to another affects you as well. But let this also be a reason for hope: when each of us commits to each other, none of us need ever be alone.
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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.