Parashat Devarim (Haftara to Shabbat Chazon)

In the following post, I am primarily going to discuss the Haftara to this week’s parasha. This Shabbat is the last shabbat before Tisha b’Av, and we read Isaiah’s entreaty, prophesied in the name of God, begging the people of Judah to reform their ways so that they may avoid the calamity that is about to befall them:

“Woe to a sinful nation, a people heavy with iniquity, evildoing seed, corrupt children. They forsook the Lord; they provoked the Holy One of Israel; they drew backwards. Why are you beaten when you still continue to rebel? Every head is [afflicted] with illness and every heart with malaise (…) Your land is desolate; your cities burnt with fire. Your land – in your presence, strangers devour it; and it is desolate as that turned over to strangers.

(…)

Of what use are your many sacrifices to Me? says the Lord. I am sated with the burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle; and the blood of bulls and sheep and hegoats I do not want. When you come to appear before Me, who requested this of you, to trample My courts? You shall no longer bring vain meal-offerings, it is smoke of abomination to Me; New Moons and Sabbaths, calling convocations, I cannot [bear] iniquity with assembly. Your New Moons and your appointed seasons My soul hates, they are a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing [them]. And when you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you, even when you pray at length, I do not hear; your hands are full of blood.

(…)

Wash, cleanse yourselves, remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes, cease to do evil. Learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the robbed, perform justice for the orphan, plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:4-17. Translation from chabad.org)

What strikes me in this passage is the recognition that man can go either way – man can be kind or wicked, can produce good or evil, and most importantly, man can change. Just because men have been acting badly does not mean that they need to continue to act badly; they can choose to reform their ways, “cease to do evil” and “learn to do good, seek justice, strengthened the robbed,” etc. But becoming good is a process – notice the verbs “learn”, “seek”, “strengthen” – they all point to a process that takes place over time, in the same way that the Jews’ descent into corruption was a process: “They forsook the Lord; they provoked the Holy One of Israel; they drew backwards.” Rome was neither built, nor destroyed, in a day, and neither was Jerusalem.

I would like to compare this to another vision of man – I’ll call it a Christian vision of man, but I am aware that Christianity is complex and multifaceted, and I am using “Christianity” more as a foil for Judaism than to say something about Christianity itself.

From what I understand, a Christian understanding of man is much more black and white. Man is born in sin, and remains steeped in sin, unless he accepts the salvation that Jesus offers, at which point man is transformed into a sinless person. Man is either saved or damned; and the process of salvation, of transformation from bad to good, is instantaneous and involves appealing to forces outside of the self (Jesus).

Isaiah, on the other hand, offers us a different path towards “salvation.” The salvation in question is not a state into which man passes once he’s saved. According to Isaiah, if the Jews reform their ways, they will have a chance “to redeem Zion.” The salvation will come to Zion, but not necessarily to man. For the process of man is never over. The struggle between our baser and higher instincts will continue. Isaiah doesn’t offer man a remedy that will free him from his evil inclinations, but he does remind man that there is more to him than just evil, and encourages him to try to be good instead.

And the reward for being good, rather than evil, is a redeemed Zion. We might not be able to change our essence, or eradicate the mean and petty that is within us, but if we try and be good, just, and kind, we can change the world around us, and mold our environment to be more good, just and kind – redeemed.

Parashat Pinchas

Already in parashat Chukat, God announced to Moses and Aharon that they will not be leading the Israelites into the land of Canaan, as a punishment for striking the rock to get its water rather than talking to it like God had commanded. Aharon dies shortly thereafter, but Moses continues to lead the people. In chapter 27 of this week’s parasha, after Moses and Elazar, Aharon’s son who took over as high priest, count the Israelites and ascertain that the entire previous generation had been replaced, God reminds Moses of the punishment.

The Torah is full of the phrase: “And God spoke to Moses saying”. Here, for the first time, following God’s reminder that Moses is not going to lead the Israelites to their final destination, we have the phrase “And Moses spoke to God saying.” (Numbers 27:15).

And what does Moses have to say that is so important? “God, the lord of the spirits for every flesh, should appoint a man over the congregation, who will go out before them and come in before them, and who will take them out and bring them in, and the congregation of God shall not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (27:16-17).

From the unusual phrasing “and Moses spoke to God saying”, it seems as though asking God to appoint a successor for Moses was wholly Moses’ initiative. How can that be though? The past couple of parashas describe the nation challenging Moses’ (and Aharon’s) leadership time and time again. The nation is not an easy nation to lead, and when the nation does not feel safe and cared for, they make trouble. What was God going to do had Moses not asked for a replacement upon his death?

I think that God actually wanted to lead the people directly, without mediation. I was reminded of the scene right after God tells the people the ten commandments. It’s supposed to be a moment of deep spiritual communion between the nation and God, but the nation can’t handle such intensity: “And the entire nation saw the voices and the flames and the sound of the Shofar and the mountain smoking and nation was scared, and they trembled and stood far. And they said to Moses: “You speak to us and we’ll listen, and God won’t speak to to us, so that we don’t die.”

The deeper the nation settles in the physical world, the less of a place for God there is. He is too majestic, too unstable, too powerful, too disrespectful of the natural, rational order of the world, and it is impossible to really build a life for oneself so long as God can come at any minute and turn everything upside down. But God, who created the world and the laws of nature and mankind, is unable to recognize that for his world and his creation to function, he needs to take a step back. Moses, the human, needs to remind him.

This episode reminds me also of the story that takes place towards the end of Samuel the Prophet’s reign. Samuel has gotten old, his children are corrupt, and the people, no longer satisfied with having only a prophet in the highest seat of authority, demand a king to lead them. The tell Samuel: “Here you have gotten old, and your sons have not followed in your path. Now place upon us a king to judge us, like all the other nations.” (Samuel 1, 8:5). Samuel is upset and goes to talk to God, who comforts him, saying: “Listen to what the people are saying to you, for it is not you that they have grown tired of; it is me.” A king derives his authority from his position; a prophet derives his authority from his connection to God. Thus, having a king lead the nation is one more distance between the people and God. But by now, God understood the creature that he created, and He (very reluctantly, especially if you take into consideration the rest of that story) agrees to do what is right for man, even if it hurts God a little. 

 

 

Parashat Chukat

A lot happens in this week’s parasha, and I am going to share the thought I had on the beginning of the parasha. The parasha opens with the instructions to the ritual for purifying people who come in contact with a dead body. The ritual involves cremating an unblemished red cow, and splashing a person who needs to be purified with water sprinkled with a little red cow ash. This ritual is described as a “chukat olam” – a “forever statute”.

image (1)Having detailed the ritual, the parasha returns to the narrative:

“The children of Israel and the entire nation came to the desert of Zin on the first month. And the people sat in Kadesh, and Miriam died there, and she was buried there. And the nation had no water, and they united against Moses and Aharon.

And they quarreled with Moses and Aharon, saying: “If only we had died the way our brothers before the Lord. And why have you brought God’s congregation to this desert to die there, us and our livestock?” (Numbers 20:1-4).

At first glance, it appears that the nation is worried about survival: “why did you … bring us to this bad place … and there is no water to drink” (Numbers 20:5). But they could also be upset about their inability to properly perform their newly assigned burial ritual, which requires spring water. They had just been told that they are all going to die in the desert, that they will be impure when they come in contact with a dead body, and that the only way to get pure again is to be splashed with some ash water. And then, one of the most prominent people in their community dies, and they cannot perform the purification ritual because they are stuck in a desert without water.

This may seem like a far-fetched explanation, but here is a little support for it. I highlighted the word “livestock” above, because that is the the translation for the Hebrew word “בעירנו” that the Chabbad translation provides. But I didn’t find anywhere else where that word refers to livestock (if you know otherwise let me know please), and the root of the word actually is flame, or fire – so maybe that word refers to the red cow ash, that needs water to be “alive” and working for the ritual.

Moses and Aharon are really flustered by the people’s demand for water. Although God tells them to get water by talking to the rock, Moses ends up hitting the rock, twice. Water gushes out, but God is upset and tells them that do believe in him enough, and so they won’t be completing the journey to Israel. I’m not sure how all of this ties together, and I would love to hear your thoughts!

Parashat Shelach

This week’s parasha recounts the story of the spies. The main points are well known: At God’s request, Moses sends twelve spies, one representative from every tribe, to tour the land of Canaan and report back their findings. The spies then report back that although the land is fruitful, it is inhabited by giants and other intimidating warriors who will make conquering the land impossible. The Israelites hear this and become very distressed, crying and complaining that they would have rather stayed in Egypt. The Israelites prepare to stone Moses and Aaron, when God suddenly appears. He is very angry, and he tells Moses that he is going to kill all the Israelites and create a new nation out of Moses’ descendants. Moses, who was about to be murdered by the Israelite mob, nevertheless tries to appeal to God’s pride and insists that God complete his original plan, which is to bring the Israelites safely to the land of Israel. God relents, but announces that he will lead the Israelites through the desert for forty years – one day for each day the spies toured the land – so that the current generation that rose up could perish. Some Israelites try conquering the land right away, but they are killed in the battle.

The parasha continues with the story of the “mekoshesh etzim” – the “wood gatherer”. The community finds one of their members gathering wood on the sabbath – an act which is forbidden. Not knowing what to do, they ask Moses, who asks God, who answers that the man must be stoned, outside the camp, by the entire community. Overall, it is an incredibly violent parasha, with a lot of the violence coming directly from God.

Instead of understanding and trying to calm the Israelites’ fears, God is ready to kill the entire community and start again; how can He then expect blind devotion and faith from the people if, in His eyes, they are so replaceable? And why order a public stoning for a man who was merely gathering some wood?

I usually find a lesson or a deeper meaning if I only read the text enough times, but this week I’m coming up short. I’m really struggling to understand what positive message I am supposed to take away from this – about my relationship with my community, with my leaders, and with God. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Parashat Bo and Beshalach

I didn’t post last week, so this week I’m writing on both last week’s parasha (Bo) and this week’s parasha (Beshalach). And this post is le’ilui nishmat evelyne gabrielle bat dina, my grandmother.

Parashat Bo recounts the actual exodus: the final plagues; the instructions to the Israelites of the day to prepare for the exodus; the instruction to commemorate these events for the Israelites of the future; the death of the Egyptian first-borns; the actual exit of the Israelites from Egypt; more instructions regarding the commemorations.

Parashat Beshalach recounts the aftermath: God deciding and leading the way; Pharaoh’s second thoughts about sending the Israelites out, leading to a final show-down between God and the Egyptians at the Red Sea; the splitting of the sea and its closing again on Pharaoh’s army; Moses and the men’s poem of thanksgiving; Miriam and the women’s spontaneous celebration through song and dance. The second half of the parasha recounts the end of the honeymoon period between the Israelites and God, with the hungry and thirsty Israelites complaining that their basic needs aren’t being met, and God obliging them before getting fed up with the complaining.

A large chunk of Parashat Bo is spent with God describing the proper way to remember the exodus, and the symbolic acts and ceremonies that should happen, now and in the future, to mark the day. The story that is to be told on those future occasions will be one of success, of strength, and of triumph:

“And the blood will be for you a sign on the houses in which you are, and I will see the blood and I will pass over you and there won’t be a plague that will decimate you when I strike in the land of Egypt; and this day shall be commemorated, and you shall celebrate it, a festival for your God, for all your generations, forever.” (Exodus 12:13-14)

“And when your children shall ask you, what is this work for you? and you shall tell them, it is the Passover offering for God, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when he struck Egypt, but our houses He saved.” (Exodus 12: 26-27)

“And Moses said to the nation: ‘remember this day that you went out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, for with a strong hand God took you out of this; leavened goods should not be eaten.'” (Exodus 13:3)

The exodus is a big deal in the history of the Israelites, and must be commemorated accordingly: with symbolic acts, with ceremony, and with a narrative that tells of the triumph of God and the docility and ultimate rescuing of the Israelites. This is not so different from other nations’ “national day” (Fourth of July in the US, Bastille day in France, etc.) that come with their own symbolism and their official narratives about beating the bad guys and triumphing as the good guys.

However, this isn’t the only narrative that is presented. In fact, already in the following Parasha’s (this week’s Beshalach), we see a more complicated story emerge: the Israelites are in fact not so docile and appreciative, and actually complain quite a bit about their circumstances and even about the exodus itself; Moses gets annoyed at the people, and then at God; the people get attacked by Amalek, and must give a hard fight before prevailing instead of being easily saved by God.

The problems that emerge in the aftermath do not detract from the triumphant moment that is the slave Israelites leaving Egypt with the permission of the Pharaoh and the (maybe not totally freely given) blessing of the Egyptian people. And when we take one day, as a nation, to commemorate the exodus, we commemorate the triumph. But we, as a people, were also given the entire Pentateuch to study, so that we can become aware of the context for the exodus which we celebrate, and so that we can learn the history of our people beyond the simplified story of success in the face of adversity that we tell once a year.

My grandmother was a historian, and I remember wondering as a child why it mattered what happened hundreds of years ago. We know the basic chronology; what’s the point of digging deeper? But if we only have a basic grasp of the foundational events in our history, we risk caricaturing ourselves, our opponents, and our past. If we only learn about the exodus once a year, at the seder, and we learn that we were slaves and God intervened and saved us, we have a different image of ourselves then if we also learn that before we became slaves, Joseph had all the Egyptians enslaved in exchange for food in a time of hunger (Genesis 47:19-25); or that after God took us out of Egypt we complained that we missed it there (Exodus 16:3).

I don’t want to conclude with a lesson as to what exactly we’re supposed to learn from studying the history contextualizing foundational events, because I don’t think there’s only one lesson to be learnt, and I think that the lesson is different depending on the person who’s studying the history and the time period in which it’s being studied. My point is more that it’s important to study history, period, because that’s the only way to truly understand where we come for and what we are made up of in the present. And it’s the only way that we can really try and see the world that we live in, with its messes and its complications. If our history is simple, how can we make sense of and accept a complicated present?

If we don’t study history, we are relegating our present stories to be overly simplified. We are forcing onto ourselves a myopic view of the present in which every complication, every bit of data and every experience that doesn’t fit in with the abstract narrative that frames our present is simply ignored. Only by accepting that the past is multicolored will we be able to stop seeing the present as monochrome.

Parashat Va’era

Last week’s parasha ends badly for the Israelites, Moses and Aaron. After Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh to demand from Pharaoh that he let the Israelites go so that they may worship God in the desert. Pharaoh feels that the Israelites – the slave class – is getting restless, and has enough leisure time to think about their situation, which could prove dangerous. As a result, Pharaoh decrees that the Israelites will hence forth collect their own raw materials, in addition to making their regular quota of bricks. The Israelites are distraught, and get angry with Moses and Aaron who upset the status quo. Moses questions God, who sent him on a mission that so far has only worsened the Israelites’ condition. But God remains confident, and tells Moses: “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh, for with a strong hand he will send you out and with a strong hand he will expel you from his land” (Exodus 6:1).

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Parashat Shemot

While the book of Genesis tells the story of individuals, the book of Exodus tells the story of a nation. The transition from individual to nation can be felt in the first couple of verses of this week’s parasha:

And these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob; each man came with his household: Reuven, Shimon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zevulun, and Binyamin; Dan, Naftali, Gad, and Asher. Altogether the descendants of Jacob numbered seventy, and Joseph was in Egypt.

And Joseph died, and so did his brothers, and so did that entire generation. And the children of Israel grew fruitful and multiplied and increased and became very great and the whole land was filled with them.

And a new king arose over Egypt, who had not known Joseph. And the king said to his people: Behold, the nation of the children of Israel is greater and more numerous than us. Let us outsmart it, lest it become more numerous than us, so that in the event of a war, it might join with our enemies, fight us, and expel us from the land” (Exodus 1:1-10)

The book begins with the individual names of Jacob, the last patriarch, and of his twelve sons, but the focus quickly shifts to the collective: “And Joseph died, and so did his brothers, and so did that entire generation” (Genesis 1:6). Already in describing the passing of the previous generation, the movement towards the collective and away from the individual can be felt. “And a new king arose over Egypt, who had not known Joseph” (Genesis 1:7). The new king does not know the individual Israelite. He only knows the children of Israel as a collective, and it is this collectivity, this nation, that is threatening.

The rest of the parasha switches off between the individual and the collective. We have the story of the “Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shifra and the other was named Pu’a” (Exodus 1:15), whose names are mentioned explicitly, but whose only role in the story is to ensure that the next generation is Israelite gets born, and thus to help build the nation.

The story of the birth of Moses begins in chapter two: “And a man from the house of Levi went and took a daughter from the house of Levi” (Genesis 2:1). His parents are introduced only by the communal affiliations. Moses then is born, must be given away. Pharaoh’s daughter takes him in, and gives him his name, Moses, which is derived from the phrase “I plucked him out from the water” (Genesis 2:10). Figuratively, we could understand the water to be the Israelite collective – Pharaoh’s daughter took Moses out of the nation, and only then he could be an individual. Only after Moses grows up, can he go back out to “his brothers, and see their suffering” (Genesis 2:11).

In a similar way, the book of Genesis tells the story of the individuals whose descendants will make up the nation. Each link in the lineage is selected individually: Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob, each has an individual story, but are not yet part of a nation. Joseph, whose individual story is the most fleshed out of all his brothers, doesn’t make it into the list
of the tribes of Israel; rather, his two sons, of whom we know almost nothing, become two of the tribes.

Indeed, there is a constant tension between the individual and the collective; the more individual experiences we have, the further removed we are from the collective; but the deeper we fall into the collective, the harder it is for us to stand up for ourselves when our individual rights are abused, and the easier it is to forget that we are owed, and owe others, respect as individuals. Indeed, the Israelites in Egypt cannot stand up for themselves: they need Moses, who was raised away from his nation, to come and save them, for they cannot save themselves.

The story of Genesis is the story of the individual in this world. The first chapter opens with the creation of the world, and culminates with the creation of man in God’s image. Man in God’s image is the individual par excellence. After all, God has no peers. Genesis chronicles man’s existential struggles, his urges, his passions, his desires, and his moments of transcendence. Exodus, and the rest of the Bible, chronicles man as part of a collective. But as this parasha shows, the collective needs individuals. And so, in order to be part of the collective in a healthy way, we need to pass first through Genesis – we need to learn how to be individuals.