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Archive for Juny de 2015

Parashat Chukat deals a lot with death. At the beginning we find the mysterious laws of the Red Heifer, which is used to ritually purify those who have become impure due to contact with a dead body. We then read a brief description of the death of Miriam, the prophetess who was the older sister of Moses and Aaron. Her passing is followed by the people’s outcry for water. A connection between these two events is drawn by our commentators who determined that it was because of Miriam’s merit that water was provided to the Israelites in the wilderness — “Miriam’s Well”. We then read about the death of Aaron and the people’s mourning for him for thirty days. This is really one of the saddest portions of the Torah.

What makes this portion even sadder is that we witness Moses at his weakest. The long time leader of the Israelites, the greatest teacher and prophet of our tradition, loses control of himself. As a result he is punished by God.

The Israelites are camped at Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, when Miriam suddenly dies. The people start complaining of their thirst to Moses and Aaron, who go to confer with God. God instructs them both to take a rod and, in full view of the community, they are to order the rock to give water. Moses and Aaron begin to do as they are told and they gather all the people together. But then, instead of commanding the rock as instructed, they castigate the people. They proclaim, “shall WE get water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses hits the rock twice with the rod. As God promised, water flows from the rock, but God then takes Moses and Aaron to task for not doing exactly as instructed.

God declares their punishment: because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the people, you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them. Neither Moses nor Aaron will be allowed to enter the Promised Land.

Commentators throughout history have struggled with this passage, trying to come to terms with the severity of God’s punishment. After all, this is Moses, the great leader of our people, the one who stood up to Pharaoh and led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, and then continued to lead them for forty more years, molding them into a people and coping with their day to day gripes. After schlepping around with this contentious people for four decades, should Moses not at least be allowed to enter into the Promised Land? Was he not a fully human leader, surely subject to bouts of self-doubt and frustration? Let us remember also that Moses was grieving. He had just lost his big sister, the one who helped save his very life when he was an infant. The loss of a close family member must have surely impaired his functioning. What exactly then did Moses do to deserve such a severe punishment? Should God not have shown more mercy to his most faithful servant?

Generally it is understood that Moses was punished for disobeying God’s instructions. God clearly instructed him to “speak” to the rock, but instead he hit it, not just once, but twice. Rashi suggests that God was dismayed that Moses denied him the opportunity to impress the people with the miracle. More simply, Moses displayed a lack of faith and compliance with God’s command, something that might have been common among the people but was certainly expected of their leader. Moses was not just an average Israelite; he was expected to set a higher example. As the Zohar (2:47a) teaches, “The acts of the leader are the acts of the nation. If the leader is just, the nation is just; if he is unjust, the nation too is unjust and is punished for the sin of the leader.”

Aaron the High Priest, who witnessed the incident, was also held accountable. If Moses had only hit the rock once, then he alone would have been punished for the act. But since Moses hit the rock twice, Aaron is deemed culpable as well. After seeing Moses hit the rock once, Aaron should have stopped him before he did it again.

According to Maimonides, the main sin of Moses and Aaron was the contemptible language they used when they spoke to the people. Certainly all the prophets spoke to the people in harsh tones, but it was effective and deserved. But here the language is deemed inappropriate since the people only sought water, a basic human need. There was no reason to speak to the people as Moses did, except to satisfy his own needs. He compromised his own leadership and therefore was punished by not being allowed to lead the people into the Promised Land. Moses was, indeed, human, and therefore he could only the lead the people so far.

Moses’s sin may not have been so great. If anyone else had done the same, they surely would have been given a second chance. We may feel that, under the circumstances, Moses should have received some compassion. But even at the time of his greatest vulnerability, he was held accountable for his actions. As the leader of the people, he was expected to be a paragon of faith and virtue.

We understand that Moses was human. Like all of us, grief, frustration, weariness and stress can certainly add up to make us less then our best selves. But in positions of highest leadership, the tough decisions and constancy of action are expected even during the toughest of times. That’s what separates a great leader from a good leader. Moses was great leader, but had his moments of weakness. For that, he was held accountable.

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This week we read the story of Korach and his followers, who led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. When Korach began the rebellion against Moses, he stood up and said: “all the house of Israel is holy, every one of them, what is it that makes you think you are better than us and can lead us?”. These sentiments seem quite reasonable. Yes, we are all holy; God told us so earlier in the Torah: “kedoshim tihyu — you shall be holy because I, God, am holy”. Korach was swallowed up by the earth. So, why such a severe punishment for saying something that God has already said?

Rabbi Arthur Waskow offers in interpretation. He says that Korach’s problem was that he assumed that everyone was intrinsically holy, and that they need do nothing to nurture or develop their holiness. He believed that no matter how a person behaved – whether or not we follow God and God’s laws – is irrelevant. That we are all holy just by being human. This mistake, says Waskow, was his downfall. God does not actually say that we are all holy. God says we all can become holy — that we all have the potential, but it is still up to us to realize that potential within us. It is not enough to just be a part of the world, our actions determine how we will be; we are not all holy automatically, we must work to become the best that we can be.

Korach was looking for the quick fix – benefit without work, glory without responsibility – and he was not nurturing the potential for goodness within himself and his followers.

Korach did not make himself holy, and he was swallowed up by the earth. Like a seed, he needed to be planted in the earth so that his potential could be realized. Korach’s descendants became the priests, and many of his children wrote some of our most beautiful poetry and psalms. That was his legacy and it could also have been his future, had he accepted responsibility for his actions rather than believing that we are all deserving without any effort at all. Korach and his followers were quick to complain about the leadership, yet they offered no constructive suggestions for change; no opportunity for the leadership to address their problems. Instead they complained, it would seem, for the sake of complaining. They did not take responsibility and rather sat in the background; offering complaints, seeking glory and avoiding accountability.

But what of the others who were killed in the plague? What was their crime? We are told that those who stood up and supported Moses were spared, whereas all the vocal supporters of Korach were killed, along with those who said nothing. Again, it is an example of not taking responsibility. God is saying that even when we do not speak, that can sometimes be the strongest support of all. When we do not stand up to wrong and injustice, when we remain silent, we become complicit. When we are standing on the sidelines watching, we are involved.

So often, it is easier and more convenient to drive on by. Not to stop and help, but rather to stay in our own sheltered worlds — as so many did in the face of Korach’s rebellion. Instead of standing up to Korach and defending Moses’ leadership they fell silent, not wanting to be involved. This is not the path to holiness.

Korach is looking for the easy solution; the quick path to fortune and fame. He wants to be the leader and suggests that everyone is intrinsically holy, independent of our actions and behavior. Moses and God on the other hand remind us that being holy is not easy. It is not something that just happens. Rather, it involves us in an active way; and that is why Korach was so successful. We want to believe that he has the answer; that we can have it all without consequence nor responsibility. But that is not the way of this world. Our actions do have consequences. We live with other people, and what we do affects them also. We need to get involved and to be a part of this world; to work to be as good as we can be and to be a holy people.

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In our parashah this week, God instructs Moses to, “Send for yourself men that they may scout out the Land of Canaan that I am giving to the Children of Israel” (Numbers 13:1–2).

Always sensitive to the language of this text, a challenging midrash focuses on the actual words of God’s command to Moses, “Send for yourself men that they may scout out the Land”. The wording, “send for yourself” suggests that God is saying, “I have already assured you that you are being led to a good and beautiful land. Included in this promise is the assurance that I you will be able to conquer the Land and establish yourself there as a nation. However, if that assurance is not enough, if you have doubts, then send scouts. If this is what you need, then go ahead and do it.” Clearly this was a concession to the human insecurities of the Israelites, not the concern of an all-powerful God.

This understanding of the text reflects one of the great theological conundrums of our religious tradition: the tension between the omnipotence of God and gift of free will with which God created humankind. As free agents, we are empowered to choose our courses of action, regardless of the foreseeable consequences (foreseeable by God, or by us). If God can see bad things ahead, does God have a responsibility to intervene? If an all-knowing and all-powerful God chooses not to intervene and allows us to proceed despite the obvious dangerous consequences of our behavior, who should be held responsible for the inevitable outcomes? Should a merciful God not intercede for the benefit of all? Should we as humans? Would we feel more secure with a more interventionist God?

The notion of free will is a highly complex concept. Our tradition maintains that the God-given human freedom to choose between good and evil is a divine gift. There are consequences to our choices, but the choices are ours. And, for those choices, we must take responsibility. That is how we grow and develop as human beings.

I like to view life through relationship paradigms. In families, parents are often faced with the hard question of whether to intervene to prevent a child from making a bad choice. This never changes, despite the age of the child. As children get older, we always fear the risk of infantilisation, possibly damaging the relationship as a result. We must struggle with the urge to protect our children, while recognizing that to be an adult requires making personal choices and learning to take responsibility for the consequences. Too much “Helicopter Parenting” can thwart a child’s independence and march to maturity.

For Israel, as a people just out of slavery in Egypt and experiencing freedom for the first time, God had to take them by the hand and provide for almost all of their needs. But our God is no “Helicopter God”. Our rabbis taught that God certainly has the power to intervene but chooses not to. Being human means having the freedom to choose how you wish to lead your life. That is how God created us. In our relationship with God, this is no less true than in any other significant relationship we maintain in our lives.

As instructed, Moses did send the scouts into the Land of Canaan and, as expected, they result was not so good. The scouts spoke their truth, shared their perception, and responded out of their insecurities. This was their choice. As a result they ended up wandering in the wilderness for forty years, allowing that older generation to shed their insecurities and strengthen their faith in God and themselves. It required a new generation to achieve success in the Land. Despite the fact that God could have easily brought the generation of the wilderness into the Land, they were not yet ready. The older generation had to pay the price for their decisions, but that allowed the nation as a whole to grow and develop into a people of courage and faith.

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Poor Moses!” I often find myself lamenting. He was a truly remarkable man. Moses confronted the pharaoh and left a life of luxury to stand up for what he believed was right. He led a complaining, disparate group of former slaves through the harsh and unyielding desert, dealing with their problems while also talking with, and often placating, God. He had a tough life and, in this week’s parasha, it all becomes too much for him. He cries out to God; “I cannot carry these people by myself, for it is too much for me. If you would deal thus with me, kill me rather and let me see no more of my wretchedness!” (Numbers 11:14–15). Moses finally reached his limit. He could no longer shoulder the burden alone. God responds by telling him to gather seventy elders of the people to help share the trials and struggles of leadership.

Rabbi Bradley Artson notes the significance of God’s suggestion of seventy elders. He points out that the number seventy in the Torah is the number of completion, and he brings Ramban’s teaching that “the choice of seventy elders is not fortuitous, since this number includes all opinions that are possible in any given case” (Bedside Torah, p 236). So right there, in the Torah itself, is the endorsement for multiple opinions and diversity within Jewish leadership and tradition. When we open a page of the Talmud, we find a multiplicity of views. We find records of the debates of our great sages. They disagreed often and were an example of the adage: “When there are two Jews there are three opinions.”

Debate, discussion and an acknowledgment and celebration of difference are among the core values of our tradition. Rabbi Hillel and his school were praised because they taught the opinions of others alongside their own. They also gave honor, and treated with respect, the rabbis and others with whom they disagreed. They were able to make a distinction between the people and their positions and arguments. It is taught that disagreement is healthy as long as the argument is for the sake of heaven. And that is the crucial point. Diversity of opinion is welcomed, debate and discussion encouraged, provided it is carried out in a respectful and honorable way.

Unfortunately today we see too much of the opposite; people being personally attacked for views they hold; debate about certain issues being stifled and, within the Jewish community, an insistence on a uniformity of belief and practice which is an anathema to Judaism. Pluralism and diversity – healthy, respectful differences – are what bring life and dynamism to our traditions; creating an environment rich with learning, growing and spiritual fulfillment. Too often, today, we find statements of vitriol being hurled from one group to another. We don’t see people respecting the opinions of others with whom they disagree; instead we find attacks not only on the issues but on the people who hold positions which are different. As a result we are seeing less expression of views because nobody wants to be the subject of a hateful tirade or vicious character assassination. It is happening in our political arena and, tragically, in the Jewish community.

Healthy debate and discussion keep our tradition dynamic, alive and spiritually rich. From its very beginnings – from the choosing of the seventy elders – Judaism has been concerned with discussion, hearing all views, speaking and challenging one another. We have never been a people with one single unanimous voice, and we have been far richer as a result.

Rabbi Artson writes: “In the process of expressing commitment to Judaism through a celebration of Jewish diversity, we affirm the traditional Jewish characteristic of unity without uniformity, a goal established so long ago in the wilderness of Sinai” (Bedside Torah, p 237).

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