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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Moses: Judge And Lover


Dvar Torah For Parshat Devarim, Shabbat Hazon: Third Of The Tlata D’Puranuta, 5770.

From the very beginning of Deuteronomy, the Moses that we encounter is a contradictory man who defies what we have known about him previously. All through Exodus, our law giver has shunned the role of public speaker, preferring to hand that task to his brother, Aaron. The reason for his reticence? Exodus 4:10 tells us the whole story. Desperately attempting to get out of God’s charge to him to go to Pharaoh and demand the release of the Israelite slaves, Moses begs: “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” After a bit more haggling with God, God appoints Moses’ brother to be his mouthpiece, and Moses is then dispatched to a life of leadership, struggle and nation building. Fast forward from that moment at the Burning Bush when Moses complained about his oratorical disabilities to this very first verse in Deuteronomy: “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.” Note what is so significant about this verse. Moses, the man who is not a man of words, addresses an entire assembly of over a million people with words. The Hebrew words, devarim (words) and dibber (addressed) are grammatically related, thus intensifying the meaning of what is happening here: Moses is about to pour out a profusion of words, specifically words of warning, admonition, complaint and judgment upon the motley and rambunctious Israelites prior to his death and their entrance into the promised land. Not only that, Moses –the same man who is slow of speech and tongue- will speak to his charges for a total of 33 long, eloquent, and haranguing chapters, all in God’s name! (Note of course that throughout Deuteronomy we never hear what the people think about his speeches. Is it that, like the overly long rabbinic sermon, his words simply made everyone go to sleep? We’ll come back to that question, maybe.)

Clearly, words matter to Deuteronomy, and placing them in the mouth of Moses is of the greatest importance. What we see as a contradiction between the Moses of Exodus and the Moses of Deuteronomy may in fact be that. Scholarly consensus identifies Deuteronomy as a book that was composed and edited later than the first four books of the Torah and then appended to the Torah during the age of religious reform of the Judean king, Josiah, around 621 BCE. However, that historical fact does not do justice to the inspired religious and literary purposes of whoever attached Deuteronomy. Whatever the histories of her respective sources, the Torah as she stands is a literary and spiritual unity. The Moses who reluctantly accepts his mission, then gives the people God’s law, then begins to burn out as the Israelite trek wears on for forty years, is the Moses who now will reflect upon his life, the failings of the Israelites, and his insights about how the people can succeed in the promised land as a people of God. He is a man with one last opportunity to tell this people he loves so much, how angry they make him and God at times. And tell them he will.

From the very beginning of his final addresses to the people, Moses does sound like a man haranguing and judging them, quite harshly. This morning, only 12 verses into his first address, we read these words of his to Israel, at Deuteronomy 1:12: “How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden and the bickering?” Note that this verse, in Hebrew, begins with the word Eichah, “how?” You may have noticed that it was sung using the tune of the book of Eichah, also known as Lamentations, that we will read on Monday night at Tisha B’Av services: a not too subtle reminder that the people who tried Moses so sorely in the desert later wound up in exile from the land of Canaan as a result of their sinfulness. For the following 33 chapters, Moses will really annoy them about worshipping only one God, remembering their earlier backsliding, preparing to live according to the covenant, and accepting that they will likely fail at doing what God wants anyway. Like an emotionally abusive parent whose child can never do right, Moses does not exactly seem to be interested in warm nurturance and positive reinforcement. He is all judgment all the time.

But this analysis of Moses’ relationship with the Israelites, even and especially at the end of his long life and tortured dealings with them, barely scratches the surface. Moses could never have spoken to the children of Israel this way effectively were there not something much deeper to their relationship that gave his words credibility. Consider the insight of our rabbis who commented upon this first verse of Deuteronomy, which is found in the great midrashic compilation, Devarim Rabbah:

The words of rebuke and judgment found in Deuteronomy really should have been spoken by Bilaam the prophet, who was originally sent to curse the people of Israel. The blessings that Bilaam gave them back in the book of Numbers really should have been spoken by Moses, their leader! However, had Bilaam rebuked and judged them, the Israelites would have dismissed him, saying, “Of course Bilaam’s berating us. He hates us!” Had Moses blessed them, the nations of the world would have scoffed at him, saying, “Of course Moses is blessing them. He’s one of them, so he’s biased towards them and he loves them! Thus God decreed that Moses their lover should rebuke and judge them, while Bilaam who hated them should bless them. (Devarim Rabbah 1:4)

Recall, of course, that Bilaam is the non-Israelite prophet and magician sent by the Moabite king Balak to curse and destroy the Israelites. He ultimately blesses them because, as he warns Balak, he can only speak what God puts into his mouth. Later biblical and rabbinic traditions cast Bilaam not as a hapless hired gun, but as a person who actively hates the Israelites. He is the perfect person to bless them in this reversal of fortune. Yet what is most significant about this rabbinic teaching is the way it applies good political and psychological insight to talking about rebuke and judgment between people: to avoid others’ accusations of gushing bias, you want to show that you can criticize the folks you love for their shortcomings, even more than the folks you hate. Even more important, your judgment of others can only possess the highest credibility and human authenticity when you do it out of genuine love. It is easy to tell off the people in your life for whom you have no use or who are your enemies, but such judgment often carries little moral or spiritual weight with it, weighed down as it is by bias. It is much harder to criticize those you love, yet only with love as the basis for a real relationship can your more harshly critical words have any value or impact. This certainly seems to underlie the sharp critiques by the prophet Isaiah of the people of Israel in the haftarah that we are about to read. After chastising them for their sins, and calling them to do justice, God has Isaiah tell the people: “Come let us reach an understanding. Be your sins like crimson, they can turn snow white. Be they red as dyed wool they can become like fleece!” (Isaiah 1:18) God and Isaiah speak in judgment with the people because their judgmental words emerge from real love, passion, and investment in their well being.

In our own lives, we learn over and over again that judgment and criticism have to be balanced with rahamim, mercy and compassion for the person we are critiquing, that is founded upon love and respect for that person. Certainly, there are many times when judgment and criticism can be excessive, and when a great deal more compassionate and humble understanding of a person’s actions and attitudes is called for, and when we would do well not to be so quick to judge. However, a truly authentic moral choice for human beings is not only between total neutrality and excessive judgmentalism. That is a simplistic pseudo-choice concocted by a culture that often wants to live by the relativistic motto of “everything goes.” Like Moses, we human beings who are defined by loving relationship can also carefully choose between criticism of others that is based upon love and respect, and criticism that seeks only to hurt and denigrate. As we approach these final days before Tisha B’Av, may we learn from the words of our teacher Moses, who judged us precisely because he loved us and wanted the best for us. Shabbat shalom.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Microfinancing Zelophehad's Daughters


Dvar Torah For Parshat Matot/Masei and Second Week Of Tlata D’Puranuta 5770/2010.

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad that we read in last week’s Torah portion, comes back to haunt us this week in an inverted way. Recall what we learned in Parshat Pinchas. As Moses is preparing the Israelites for entering and conquering the promised land, five women –the daughters of a man named Zelophehad- approach Moses with an unprecedented concern. The inheritance rules given to the people by God privilege sons over daughters. Only sons inherit their fathers’ estates. But the daughters pose a unique problem: they have no brothers to inherit their deceased father. Is it fair that his property and legacy should be lost because they, his descendants, are forbidden from inheriting him? This is one of four “on-the-spot” cases that are brought to Moses and God in the book of Numbers, generally as complaints, because they present the potential for injustice and unfairness. God addresses the daughters’ complaint by ruling that in a case of a man who has only daughters, his estate reverts to them upon his death. At the very end of Parshat Masei that we just read, the leaders of Zelophehad’s tribe approach Moses on the eve of entering the land of Canaan and press the matter of his daughters’ inheritance in the other direction: if these five women, and other women in the tribe, inherit their fathers’ estates then marry out of the tribe, the tribe’s property holdings will be diminished. Once again, God engages in an on-the-spot ruling that the daughters are only to marry within the tribe itself, so that the tribal property will be maintained. The book of Numbers ends with the five daughters marrying their cousins within their clan.

As I have mentioned in the past, these two stories about Zelophehad’s daughters fascinate me because they show us how even God, as it were, has not anticipated each real life situation of injustice encountered by the Israelites that requires rectification. Even God has to be moved by the complaints of human beings who see an injustice being created inadvertently. Back in Genesis, Abraham challenged the Judge of all the earth to act justly by distinguishing the righteous from the evil citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah before punishing the cities. Here in Numbers, the same challenge to God to rectify potential injustices is brought up, howbeit on a smaller scale. Continuing this theme of human beings alerting God to potential injustices, note of course that God only modifies the ruling about the daughters’ inheritance rights with respect to their marriages after their tribe complains.

As I noted last week, this is not the feminist text that some would like to read it as. The daughters do not press their case with Moses as an issue of fairness to women: “Why should we not be able to inherit like the men? Aren’t we as good as any brother?” They pose their question to Moses in order, ostensibly, to achieve justice for the memory and honor of their deceased father. Further, what we would think of as the ultimate injustice –that daughters were not allowed to inherit equally with sons- is never really addressed in this story at all. Nor is it ever rectified in later Halakhah, even though in much of the ancient world women did inherit equally with men. Nonetheless, as the basis for a discussion about Judaism and women’s empowerment, our story is remarkable, given the boldness of these daughters in even making their case before Moses and God. I believe that this is the only case of bold women pressing God directly for justice in the five books of Moses. Generally when biblical female characters advocate for themselves or for others, they do so surreptitiously, well behind the scenes, and as it were, behind the backs of God and men.

What more can we take away from this unique story about the proactivity of Zelophehad’s daughters? Is it there to teach us more than what we have analyzed? Though what I am about to say is admittedly a midrashic stretch, I think its spirit has a basis in the bold spirit of these women as narrated by the Torah. I imagine the following scene. Zelophehad has died, as the Torah tells us in Numbers , ch.27, because of his sinful behavior, something that his daughters make very clear to Moses and the community. Later rabbinic commentators identify Zelophehad with the man who was put to death for violating Shabbat, a story found back in Numbers , ch. 15. The daughters pick up from shivah, grieving, distraught, and humiliated. They are now tainted as a family by daddy’s public behavior and execution, they lose pedigree that will help them to find husbands, and worse yet, they have no property rights. Soon enough, the males in the family will grab everything, leaving them even less empowered than they already are. Surely, the God who commanded their community to love one’s neighbor and to protect the orphan and the widow would not want them to lose their one source of empowering livelihood—the ancestral property of their father! With that land, they can grow their own food, make money, and support themselves. However, no matter how just God may be, the men in the community are very set in their traditions, especially when it comes to women inheritance rights. The daughters huddle one night. “Look, we know what we need to have happen here, but if we argue this with Moses in our own behalf, he’ll never go for it. He simply lacks God’s expansive vision for equality and justice, as great a man as he is. Besides, the community overall will have too many problems with this. We need to frame this demand of ours as being about daddy: how can the community allow his name to be utterly obliterated just because he was unlucky enough to only have girls?” The next day, they call out Moses and the community. God, Who wants these women to have real earning power, but Who also knows that even He can’t change a community’s attitudes over night, gives Moses the ruling. A man dies, leaving only daughters? Let them inherit his property. Yes, Zelophehad’s tribe will come back and complain about the negative effects this may have on their property holdings, but God will deal with that later. For now, five women have taken one small step forward in preserving their family’s livelihood with God’s backing. This is my modern midrashic take on the story.

In a world very much controlled by a male power structure, the daughters needed courage, ingenuity, and a lot of help from God to secure their father’s property for their well being. We should not think that the reality for women is all that different in many parts of the world today; if anything, it has always been much worse for women and their children, especially in vast parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, than it had ever been for them in the times of the Torah, a book that does care deeply about loving one’s fellow human beings. In their powerful book, Half the Sky, journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wu Dunn describe the hideous treatment of women in a good part of the developing world today. They are often viewed as subhuman compared with men, they have no real access to health care, no political rights, and most of all they lack the two things that actually give them status in their largely rural communities: property on which to grow crops, and resources to make money by starting their own modest businesses. The authors advocate strongly for an empowerment tool for these women –and many poor men as well- that is both simple and very Jewish: microfinance, which is the brain child of Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed Yunus, a Pakistani economist. Yunus realized that the best way to empower poor women economically and emotionally is to give them small loans to build businesses, grow food, or stabilize their families so they can build their earning power. Since the time that he developed this practice through his Grameen Bank, microfinance has “gone viral”. Its benefits to poor but proactive women are obvious: like Zelophehad’s daughters, they don’t just get hand outs from government or private sources, they get tools for taking care of themselves and their families in the dignified form of loans that they can pay back after making money. With increased earning power, their status in their villages and towns increases –thus bettering their lives with the men among whom they live. Its benefit to you and me, Western benefactors, is the incredibly small amount of invested –not donated- money it takes to help them. My family recently made a modest investment with Kiva, a major, reputable clearing house for microloans, to six entrepreneurs and business groups in Africa and Asia, many of whom are women or made up of women. Together with others around the world, we are lending them amounts, which to Westerners, are very low, but to them will make all the difference between chronic poverty and self subsistence. This kind of lending also gives them the ability to contribute to their nations’ emerging free market economies, something that can only make them stronger. Finally, in case this was not clear, microfinance is exactly what our teacher, Maimonides, was talking about when he taught that the highest level of Tzedakah is when you lend money or give a job to a needy person. By doing this, you are restoring his or her independent earning power and dignity.

One of the best things to do during these three weeks of contrition and sadness leading down to the Tisha B’Av, the day of mourning and fasting, is to do mitzvot that help others, thus contributing to the redemption of one small piece of the world. I strongly recommend that you think about the traditional mitzvah of microfinance as one way of making a difference in the world. and American Jewish World Service’s website at can tell you more about how to do this. The daughters of Zelophehad could easily have despaired themselves into a cycle of endless poverty and misery, following the death of the most powerful male in their lives. Instead they took a small but significant action, with God’s support, an action that provides us with an empowerment model for all people –women and men- throughout the world today. We have a positive role to play in helping the modern day daughters of Zelophehad. Let us do our best to play that role.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Paradoxical Peace


Dvar Torah For Parshat Pinchas, First of Tlata D’Puranuta, 5770/4th of July Weekend, 2010.

Often when I deliver a d’var Torah, I point out grammatical anomalies in the Torah scroll – strange or out of place words, phrases, and grammatical features that hint at some deeper message or teaching. Certainly, many of these anomalies abound. However, equally prominent and suggestive in the Torah text are what I call orthographic anomalies: the strange ways in which letters, words, paragraphs, and verses are actually spelled or written. In the brief course of a mere 13 verses, the first aliyah of Parshat Pinchas contains three of these strange features. Let’s look at each of them and ask ourselves what they may be teaching us, separately and together. Unfortunately, our version of the Humash has expunged a number of these features to make the text cleaner. As I guide you through each of them, I ask you to imagine what they look like. After services, I’ll be happy to show them to you in the Torah scroll itself.

The first anomaly is found at Numbers, 25:11, which you can find on page 918. Notice the name of Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas. Though you can’t see it here, in the Torah scroll the yud letter in his name is written smaller than the other letters. Though it may have originated as a scribal error, it has persisted as the standard way in which to write his name here. It is known in ancient scribal tradition as a Yud Zeirah, a miniature yud. Further, that yud letter is actually not entirely necessary for the spelling of the name. This is an example of ketiv malei, or full script, a full writing of the name Pinchas that uses the yud letter as a vowel. Without that letter, we could still pronounce the name Pinchas properly.

The second anomaly is found in the last word of Numbers, 25:12, shalom, which is on page 919. Again, our Humash version lacks this, so please imagine that you can see it. In the Torah scroll, the vav letter of the word shalom is actually split in half. It is known in scribal tradition as Vav Ketiyah, a snapped or broken vav. This broken vav may also have originally been a scribal error or the result of a crack in ancient parchment. Nonetheless, the tradition of writing this letter in this way is very ancient (it is mentioned by a Talmudic rabbi who lived in the 3rd or 4th century), and it obviously has stuck with us for millennia.

The final anomaly is found in the middle of Numbers, 25:19 and 26:1, on page 920. Our Humash clearly indicates this strange feature with a small star near the final word of verse 19, and by leaving out a colon next to that word that would normally indicate the completion of a verse. This is called Piska B’Emtza Pasuk: a sentence break in the middle of the verse. What this means is that the three words of 25:19 are actually the middle of a sentence, but we treat them as if they were their own separate verse. They form what grammarians call a dependent clause that, translated, reads simply, “When the plague was over…”

All three of these curiosities in our text are emphasized by the Baalei Hamesorah, the very exacting schools of scribal scholars who lived in the land of Israel between the 8th and 10th centuries. They assembled literally thousands of notes on features of the Torah scroll’s script and wording based upon even older traditions that have survived in the Jewish community for millennia. As I alluded to before, what is so amazing about these three is that they are all found in one short 13 verse passage of Parshat Pinchas. What might they be telling us, or more likely, screaming at us?

A good way to begin answering this question is to recall the back story to this morning’s Torah portion. Last week we read about how Pinchas engaged in vigilante justice by killing an Israelite chieftain who engaged in lascivious behavior with a Midianite woman in front of the Tent of Meeting. He did this to avert a virulent plague caused by God that was already in progress, the result of God’s anger at the Israelites for idolatrous behavior with the Midianites. When we reentered the Torah this morning, we encountered God granting Pinchas and his descendants a pact of peace and friendship, as well as the mantle of the priesthood in perpetuity. God did this, according to the Torah, because of Pinchas’es act of impassioned and zealous violence that calmed down God’s fury with the Israelites.

The comments in our Humash summarize the two main explanations for this covenant of peace and friendship given by God to Pinchas. The first one, that the Torah and a number of later commentaries on it, makes clear that God’s violent anger was averted by Pinchas’es violence. Presumably this is because Pinchas satisfied God’s need for one person to empathically feel and act upon God’s fury. It may also be that his curative act of violence is an echo of a distant, ancient belief that the two victims were some kind of a sacrificial offering to appease God. This is pure speculation on my part. However, it is clear that without Pinchas’es belligerent behavior, God would have continued plaguing and killing the people. For the Torah, his act was thus justified and desirable, even if shocking and unacceptable to our modern ears. Thus, the pact of eternal peace, friendship and favor was Pinchas’es reward. The second explanation is far more qualified in its praise of Pinchas. His passion and violent behavior were not good, because of the bloody destruction they wrought, and the way in which his vigilantism dangerously ignored the rule of law. The pact of eternal peace, friendship and favor was hardly a reward for his behavior, and more of an attempted antidote to his violent tendencies.

These two opposing explanations for God’s grant of peace to Pinchas actually give way to a third, more subtle explanation, one that members of our Monday morning minyan advanced the other day during the weekday Torah service. The Torah is quite clear that God’s wrath was averted when Pinchas killed the man and the woman. 24,000 people had already died from the plague, and Pinchas’es actions saved even more from being killed. He did what needed to be done for the sake of the entire community. However, his necessary act of violence had a horribly disruptive effect upon the rest of his life, because that is the price we pay for acting aggressively, even if the aggression is warranted in the name of peace. Thus, the small yud in his name symbolizes the way in which part of his identity shrunk after his drastic action. The broken vav in the word shalom indicates how broken Pinchas became after he acted, and how the peace he found in serving God and averting disaster was forevermore broken and incomplete. The strange interruption in the verse about the ending of the plague reminds us that Pinchas’es act of self sacrifice interrupted the peaceful flow of his life.

This interpretation of the aftermath of Pinchas’es actions underscores the paradox of peacemaking, something I suspect every soldier understands all too well. It is all well and good to love peace and detest war, which of course we should. But, until the Messiah arrives, military intervention often remains the only feasible option for protecting fragile democracies, thwarting thug leaders who oppress their own people in rogue states, containing genocidal violence between warring groups, and defending one’s borders and one’s citizens. Our American soldiers –and our brothers and sisters in the Israel Defense Forces as well- are similar to Pinchas in the following way. They perform the dirty, hand bloodying tasks of peace keeping that everyone wants done, but that no one else wants to do. They depart from family and friends for long periods of time with no guarantees of safe return. This is traumatic enough. During their tour of duty they are faced with helping Iraqis and Afghanis to build peaceful, democratic lives, while being forced to take their lives into their own hands and to take the lives of terrorists and Taliban. At times they are tragically killed while defending others. At times, they return home broken by the bloodiness of their peacekeeping efforts, and forced into the living death of disabling war injuries, deep depression, drug use and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Right after President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote about the acceptance speech that he wished the president would give. It went like this:
“Members of the Nobel committee, I accept this award on behalf of all these American men and women soldiers, past and present, because I know — and I want you to know — that there is no peace without peacekeepers. Until the words of Isaiah are made true and lasting — and nations never again lift up swords against nations and never learn war anymore — we will need peacekeepers. Lord knows, ours are not perfect, and I have already moved to remedy inexcusable excesses we’ve perpetrated in the war on terrorism. But have no doubt, those are the exception. If you want to see the true essence of America, visit any U.S. military outpost in Iraq or Afghanistan. You will meet young men and women of every race and religion who work together as one, far from their families, motivated chiefly by their mission to keep the peace and expand the borders of freedom. So for all these reasons — and so you understand that I will never hesitate to call on American soldiers where necessary to take the field against the enemies of peace, tolerance and liberty — I accept this peace prize on behalf of the men and women of the U.S. military: the world’s most important peacekeepers.”

This July 4 weekend, as we enjoy, and perhaps take for granted, the blessings of liberty and peace, let’s take a moment to think of, thank, and find ways to support our soldiers. Like Pinchas, they enter the paradox of peacekeeping every day. We are better off for their efforts.