Thursday, June 25, 2015

International Relations - Reflections on Chukat 5775

(Numbers 19:1 - 22:1)

Knock knock? How to get in.

That was the problem for Moses and the Jewish People. After forty long years of perambulating in the desert, they were itching to settle down, plant fields and vineyards, and get to work. But every route was blocked; how were they going to get in to the Land of Israel, long promised to them by Gcd?

Edom controlled the region south of the Dead Sea, straddling the Negev and the Arabian desert. When Moses sends emissaries asking to transit through Edom, he is met by a threat of war. 

What could Moses do? Israel had no quarrel with the nation of Edom; they inhabited their ancestral homeland of Mount Seir and surrounds, on which Israel had no territorial claim. Edom had every right to grant safe passage through his land - or not. His answer was 'no', and the Children of Israel withdrew.

Similarly, the Moabites and Ammonites resided on their ancestral homelands and (up to this point in the history) Israel had no quarrel with them either. 

But this state of affairs effectively blocked both the southern and eastern approaches into Israel. There was simply no way to sneak three million people, and untold millions of head of livestock, through the cordon set up by these nations.

And then the status quo changes dramatically. Sihon, the king of the Amorites, attacks Moab. Why? The Torah doesn't say, but wars are usually started over one of three reasons: power, wealth or women (Helen of Troy comes to mind.)

The Torah also suggests that the Amorites were an unstoppable military force: 

"Thus did the troubadours say: 
A fire came forth from Heshbon, a conflagration from the city of Sihon...
Woe unto you, O Moab, you are lost, O people of Chemosh,
His sons became fugitives, his daughters captives...(22:27 ff.)
Blitzkrieg! When the dust of war settles, the new map looks like this:

The Torah records that the Amorites conquered a large swath of Moabite land east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, from the Arnon River in the south to the Yabok River in the north. 

The Amorites were an altogether different beast: unlike Edom, Ammon or Moab, they were one of the Seven Nations whom we were bidden by Gcd to expel from the Land for their evil and perverse behavior.

Sihon's little military adventure temporarily gained him territory, riches and fame. But without his even realizing it, he had also solved our problem, for in displacing Moab he had also created a corridor for the Jewish People directly into the Land of Israel. 

When the Jews request safe passage through his newly-won territory, Sihon, drunk with victory, responds to the overture by waging war against us. The Jews not only repel his unprovoked attack, but the unconquerable Sihon and his army are swept aside like so many bowling pins. In a Six-Day-War-style rout, the Jews conquer and subdue all Amorite territory east of the Jordan River.  

In an amazing about-face, the Jews suddenly find themselves standing on the threshold of the Land of Israel. Yesterday, every door was slammed in their faces; today they stood within grasp of the dream.

We must conclude that the evil, pagan king Sihon, in launching a war against Moab for his own craven ends, was, in some crazy way, actually doing Gcd's will.

Like the Pharaoh, who, by refusing to free the Jews from bondage, was doing Gcd's will.

Like the early Zionist pioneers, who thought they were building a socialist utopia, but with every whack of the hammer and cut of the saw were unwittingly heralding the coming of the messianic age.

In 1898, Kaiser Wilhelm II visited the Holy Land. Theodore Herzl arranged for an audience with the Kaiser in Jerusalem. There, Herzl made an impassioned plea for the case of a Jewish State in Palestine.

The Kaiser replied (in a very patronizing tone) that in order for there to be a Jewish State in Palestine, the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, and the German Empire would all have to consent. Alternatively, all four dynasties would have to fall. 

The Kaiser dismissed him by concluding, "And neither, my dear Mr. Herzl, is ever going to happen."

Image result for Kaiser wilhelm Holy Land 1898

Kaiser Wilhelm was a prophet. For not only did those four great powers of 19th Century Europe get thrown onto garbage heap of history, so, too, did the British Empire, which worked tirelessly to prevent the Jews from getting to the Land of Israel, both before WWII and and after. (They even threatened death camp survivors with deportation directly back to Germany if they attempted to enter Palestine illegally.)

"Our enemy said, 'I will hound them, I will overtake them, I will dole out the plunder; I will fill my lust for their blood, I will unsheathe my sword, and I will take everything from them.'  [But what happened?] You [Gcd] blew your wind, he [the enemy] was covered by the sea; he sunk like lead in the deepest waters." (Exodus 15:9)

Even in our day, there are those in the world who still attempt to close Israel's borders with boycotts and sanctions; who attempt to wrest Israel from her rightful owners, by diplomacy if possible, or by war and nuclear weapons if necessary.

They should pay heed to the fate of their predecessors. Presidents and potentates may craft foreign policy based upon their narrow self-interests, but it is the King who reigns over all kings that directs the events on the stage of history - and often in the most unlikely and unexpected ways.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Candy Store - Reflections on Parashat Korach 5775

(Numbers 16:1-18:32)

Korach was one clever cookie.

By dangling plums of power and glory, he cobbled together a rebellion from the most improbable group of malcontents: (1) some firstborn among the various Tribes of Israel, who sought the restoration of the traditional priesthood to the eldest sons; (2) some Reubenites, who, as descendants of Jacob's firstborn son Reuben, felt entitled to the priesthood; and (3) some Levites, who were dissatisfied with the support role they were assigned in Gcd's service, and coveted the priesthood for themselves.

These rival factions could agree on nothing - except that the High Priest Aaron (and his sons the Cohanim) had to go.

Korach knew that he couldn't keep his promises to them all, but no matter: they were useful idiots in the advancement of his secret agenda: a coup d'etat to topple Moses, to be replaced by none other than - Korach himself. 

And why not? Korach was rich where his cousin Moses was not; charismatic where Moses was reserved and stern. (Korach probably had whiter teeth, fresher breath and could bench press twice his body weight, too.)

But for all his advantages, Korach, as his name hints in the Hebrew, was cold as ice and just as slippery. Wealth made Korach insufferably arrogant (as wealth is wont to do), and his natural charisma drove his limitless ambition.

At the heart of Korach's insurrection is a question which bears heavily on Jewish life to this day: does "religion" serve Gcd, or is religion meant to serve us?

Korach stroked the egos of the insurrectionists by arguing that the purpose of religion was to serve them: after all, "kulam kedoshim," all the people are holy. Accordingly, Moses' lawbook should be edited to conform to the evolving needs and aesthetic sensibilities of the people. 

In this view, the synagogue is a spiritual service center, where people turn to have their afflictions comforted, their marriages sanctioned, their dead buried, their children bar-mitzvahed. And just like the local tire shop or dry cleaner, you don't give the place much thought when you aren't in need of the services provided.  

The consumerist view posits that religion is like powerful medicine: good to know it's there when you need it, but who takes Dayquil if you don't have the flu?

In the spiritual marketplace, the customer is king. Is your rabbi coming down a little hard on your lifestyle choices? No problem, go rabbi shopping! There are boatloads of others, one of whom is sure to give religious sanction to anything - and I mean anything - your little heart desires, and all for the most reasonable of fees. 

As savvy consumers, Korach and his motley crew were trading up - on both Moses and Aaron.

By contrast, Moses, the eved Hashem, the servant of Gcd, embodied the opposite view: that the religious life is a life of service, first to Gcd and then, by extension, to our fellow man.

Avodah, service, is all about performing Gcd's mitzvot with joy. Avodah is recognizing that the mitzvot come from Gcd through Moses, but not from Moses. Thus it's about doing the mitzvah even if we don't fully understand why, (and even as we resolve to gain deeper understanding) because we trust the Source. Avodah is about loving Gcd by doing His mitzvot with all your heart and all your soul and all your might.

In other words, true piety is not about calculating the take, the bennies that we extract from our religious experience as a spiritual consumer. Rather, it's all about the moment-to-moment hard work of spiritual growth and development, of what we give of ourselves to Gcd, quietly and without fanfare.

This contrast between Moses and Korach's view of the utility of religion is reflected in Pirkei Avot (5:17):
Every argument that is for the sake of heaven is destined to endure. But if it is not for the sake of heaven -- it is not destined to endure. What is an example of an argument for the sake of heaven? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of an argument not for the sake of heaven? The argument of Korach and all of his followers.
Korach wasn't casting his eyes heavenward, in the service of Gcd, he was casting his eyes downward, dispensing candy to the Jews. Moses had nothing to offer them but spinach and hard work. 

Which is easier to sell?

Tragically, there is a lot of candy for sale in the Jewish world today. We live in a time when it has become fashionable to modernize Judaism with all kinds of updates and tweaks and improvements. 

The thorny problem is Moses' Lawbook, which is an obstacle to the new-and-improved Judaism. So Job One must be to delegitimize the Torah, undercut its authority. Then we can begin crafting a Judaism in our own image.

Don't like the wording of a particular prayer? A little liturgical nip-and-tuck is in order. Trim the fat. Cut out the parts you don't like, or better yet, write your own prayer book, which reflects your uber-sophisticated modern sensibilities (because let's just say it - it's all about you.)

Don't like a particular mitzvah? Cut and paste it out of the Book. Better yet, chuck the Torah out the window altogether and design your own customized faith system. Invent your own mitzvot. Then head out to the marketplace where you're sure to find a rabbi to call it "Judaism." 

And the pluralism thought-police demand that we equate candy corn and corn corn.

The Edward Scissorhands routine has become so pervasive in American Judaism that it becomes harder by the day to find the simple faith of our forbears, that dedication to truth, so nobly embodied for all generations by Moses.

Ultimately, Gcd had to intervene to remind people that the heart of the Jewish faith is not the Jewish People or Jewish Tradition, but the service of Gcd. Korach was literally swallowed by his own ambition, and his rebels destroyed. But as the parsha goes on to tell, the ripples of that rebellion spread in their time and in ours. 

Candy tastes good going down, but you will get sick and die if candy is your only food. Snickers doesn't satisfy. 

So it should come as no surprise that many Jews are rejecting the empty spiritual junk food on which they were raised in their suburban temples, or, at the other extreme, certain yeshivot where rigid conformity substitutes for honest intellectual inquiry. The spiritual seekers look instead to feed their souls from someone else's garden.

But more than a few have turned inward to discover the rich spiritual nutrition of avodah.

"Behold the days are coming, saith the Lcrd, when I will send a terrible famine in the land; not a hunger for bread or a thirst for water, but a hunger to hear the authentic words of Hashem." (Amos 8:11)

My prayer is that the entirety of the Jewish people will drink from the vivifying waters of Torah, and come to merit the great appellation conferred on Moses, Eved Ne'eman, the faithful servant of Gcd.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Humble Pie - Reflections on Parashat Ba'Haalotecha 5775

There is a well worn story about the rabbi who, looking out upon his flock on Yom Kippur, prostrates himself before Holy Ark and declares, "Oh Gcd! Before you, I am as nothing!"

The cantor, upon seeing the devotions of the rabbi (and never to be outdone), quickly falls upon his face and also cries out, "Oh Gcd! Before you, I am as nothing!" 

A simple congregant, deeply moved by these acts of piety, prostrates himself as well and screams out, "Oh Gcd! Before you, I too am as nothing!"

To this, the cantor whispers to the rabbi: "Ha! Look who thinks he's as nothing!"

Don't hate me for my bad jokes.

This week's parasha describes Moses as the humblest man to ever walk the earth. (Numbers 12:3)  How does that statement help us understand the personality of Moses? Did he see himself as a 'nothing'? How do we define humility anyway? And lastly, why is this character trait so important? 

The definitions of humility are all over the map. Rashi succinctly defines humility as being of lowly spirit and patient. The Ibn Ezra says that Moses was humble in his estimation of himself, in that he never aspired to greatness, to be elevated above his brethren. The Ramban says Moses' humility was defined by his willingness to remain silent in the face of the hurtful rumors against him. And so, says the Ramban, Gcd Himself rose to his defense. 

In the 19th century, Rabbi Israel Salanter defined humility as focusing on our own personality flaws (for the purposes of self-improvement) while overlooking the flaws in others. And in the 20th century, Rabbi Avrohom Twerski in Let Us Make Man defines humility as always looking forward, towards the next task to which we can apply our unique talents and gifts, rather than looking backwards at our accomplishments, constantly pointing to a mantlepiece bulging with awards and trophies.

Perhaps humility is, as Oliver Wendell Holmes observed (on a very different subject) hard to define, but you know it when you see it.

I suggest that Moses' humility was rooted in another key concept Gcd uses in these verses to describe him: Avdi, My servant. 

Moses' life was utterly devoted to the service of Gcd and to the service of his fellow. He was indefatigable in this. Unlike the rest of us, he never needed a mental health day, or "me" time, or summer vacation. Moses was forever thinking about the needs of others; and when a person is wholly, utterly preoccupied with the needs of others, there is simply no time to consider the self. 

That's an almost impossible standard, and that's why Moses was in a league by himself. 

Humility is not lack of self-esteem,  a sense of worthlessness or self-abnegation; it is rooted in selflessness and service to others. C.S. Lewis once said that, "True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less."

And it must be said that arrogance and narcissism, the great spiritual scourges of our time, are the polar opposites of humility. The Arizal understands arrogance to be the root of all sin, so we can infer that humility is the root of Gcdliness.

Humility comes from being a holistic, centered person, one with an healthy sense of their own strengths and weaknesses. When a person has a balanced life and healthy relationships (see more on this subject HERE) they have a clear sense of the contribution they can make, and are thereby in a position to truly serve others.

By contrast, off-center people who feel some lack in their lives are perpetually focused on themselves, vainly attempting to fill the unfillable black hole of "what-I-need." Any service such a person may attempt to render to Gcd or their fellow man is flawed because it is ultimately self-serving.

I am indebted to my friend Brian Goldman for sharing a recent David Brooks op-ed in the New York Times. In it, Brooks asked readers to describe where they found fulfillment and meaning. Many of the respondents found meaning in a "small, happy life."

He recounts the story of a young man

...who was asked by a journalist to show his most precious possession. The man...was proud and excited to show the journalist the gift he had been bequeathed. A banged up tin pot he kept carefully wrapped in cloth as though it was fragile. The journalist was confused, what made this dingy old pot so valuable? ‘The message,’ the friend replied. The message was ‘we do not all have to shine.’ This story resonated deeply. In that moment I was able to relieve myself of the need to do something important, from which I would reap praise and be rewarded with fulfillment. My vision cleared. [My emphasis. - YM]  
Moses, as great as he was, was the icon of humility because he tackled the challenges Gcd had assigned him to tackle. It is not for us to do Moses' task. For the rest of us, humility is a willingness to accept the challenges and solve the problems that Gcd presents in our own lives, and to do so with quiet dignity, with grace, and without fanfare.

The verse in Psalms 131 states: "My heart was not proud, nor my eyes haughty, nor did I pursue matters too great and wondrous for me." 

Most of us are not kings or generals or captains of industry; it's probably not your job to single-handedly to invent "the-next-big-thing" or abolish hate or war or hunger or avarice. So instead of stressing out over things we have no power to control, better to do those mitzvot that Gcd lays at our doorstep: study Torah; feed the poor; care for our cherished ones and our community; plant a tree, tend a garden or put up a bird feeder.

And as we learn in this week's parasha, those who cultivate within themselves a spirit of genuine humility can be assured that Gcd will rise to their defense.

Ours is to apply our efforts to the task ahead. As Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short; there is much work to do; yet the workers are lazy though the incentive is great; and the Business Owner is insistent. (Avot 2:20)

Shabbat Shalom.