Parashat Shemini: Dvar Torah for the Trans Jews Are Here Convening

This convening was scheduled to coincide with the International Transgender Day of Visibility, which falls on Sunday. In recognition of this fact, I would like to talk a little bit about the issue of visibility in Jewish tradition and in our own lives. Fundamentally visibility is about the possibility of being seen, a subject which immediately raises issues of power. Everything in our society, our culture, conditions us to understand seeing as a manifestation of power over the one who is seen – simply put, sight is connected to knowledge and knowledge is a kind of power. This is why the experience of being observed by another can feel so invasive and uncomfortable – we instinctively feel that the gaze of the other puts a kind of hold on us, pins us to the wall and lays us out as an object of the other’s understanding. 

This is one way of understanding the relationship between the one who sees and the one who is seen, but it isn’t the only one. In fact our parsha for this week, parashat Shemini, contains a different approach to understanding the power dynamics of visibility. In chapter 9, verse 6 it says:

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה זֶ֧ה הַדָּבָ֛ר אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה הה תַּעֲשׂ֑וּ וְיֵרָ֥א אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם כְּב֥וֹד הה׃

Translation: And Moses said, “This is what HaShem has commanded that you do, so that the presence of HaShem may become visible to you.”

This statement is somewhat confusing for two reasons: First, because we may not be in the habit of thinking of God as visible. Regarding this, it is important to remember that God’s presence appears often throughout the Torah as a visible phenomenon, most often as a “cloud” resting over or within the sanctuary. God’s visibility is also closely connected with the festival holidays. Deuteronomy 16:16 reads:  

 שָׁל֣וֹשׁ פְּעָמִ֣ים ׀ בַּשָּׁנָ֡ה יֵרָאֶ֨ה כָל־זְכוּרְךָ֜ אֶת־פְּנֵ֣י הה אֱלֹקיךָ

Which is typically taken to mean: “Three times a year all your males shall appear before HaShem your God,” except that, given the odd use of the object marker אֶת, it seems more appropriate to read yeraeh as yireh, in other words: “Three times a year all your males shall see the face of HaShem your God.” This reading had its supporters even during the rabbinical period, as in the opening of masechet Chagigah where it is used to justify a ruling that one who is blind is exempt from the obligation of making pilgrimage during the festival. 

But there is another confusing aspect of our passage from Leviticus, and that is the way it reverses the equation when it comes to visibility and power. Here it is not the seer who gets to define the conditions of being seen, who gets to say, “This is what you must do in order to be seen.” On the contrary, it is the one seen, namely Ha Shem, who gets to define the conditions of Hir own visibility by saying, “This is what you must do in order for My presence to appear to you.” By reversing the equation, the dynamics of power between the seer and the one seen shift in surprising ways. No longer a position of command, the act of seeing here reappears in the vulnerability of desire, while God, the object of that desire, has the power to be seen or not seen according to conditions Zie Hirself lays out – in other words, the power to fulfill that desire… or to hold it in suspense. 

An important concept to consider in this context is the role of the garment. To the ordinary way of thinking, the role of clothing is to conceal the nakedness which lies beneath. Nudity is a shameful reality, clothing a means of covering up that reality. Thus, the first man, in response to God’s call, replies, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” (Genesis 3:10) In making this statement, Adam reveals that he has completely failed to understand the spiritual significance of the garment, which is not in fact to conceal, but rather to reveal. It is an important, if somewhat paradoxical insight of the sages of the Zohar that one phenomenon which becomes “clothed” in another is not concealed, but rather revealed by its garment. The spiritual essence in itself, denuded of its garments, is too ethereal and abstract to grab hold of. It is the “garment” which encloses and gives form to an aspect of reality which had hitherto been completely internal with no exterior existence, and thus it is precisely in the act of covering itself that the inexpressible reality lays itself bare to the other, concealing its essence but opening itself up thereby to the outside, and therefore to a new possibility, the possibility of communication.

So – in the mystical tradition garments fulfill simultaneously the apparently contradictory roles of concealing and making manifest that which is concealed. But garments have an additional function – that of transformation. In the opening pages of the Zohar Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and his son Rabbi Elazar explore together the relationship between two different feminine aspects of God, described as Mi and Mah, “Who” and “What,” Mother and Daughter. Ordinarily separated by a vast metaphysical gulf, on the day of the festival assembly when the Divine presence is said to make itself visible, the Daughter is adorned with “her Mother’s ornaments” and then, clad in male garments, is revealed before the assembly of festival goers gathered together in the Temple’s sacred precincts. It is in this moment that the higher aspects of God’s essence are drawn down and made manifest here on Earth as a visible presence before the assembled worshipers. That this sacred moment, in which divine absence is converted suddenly into presence, rests on an act of gender transgression is, I believe, no coincidence. For what is gender transition if not the trick of taking an absent but deeply felt reality and making it manifest in this world we all share as a palpable presence? In both cases what is at stake is visibility, or to put it another way, the leap in the dark necessary to bridge the gap between an impossible interior truth and an unbearable external reality.

Given the degree of power associated with seeing in a society increasingly structured around systems of surveillance, it is valuable to consider for a moment that the reverse is also true: There is power in being able to establish our own conditions for being seen. This power, which in our tradition falls under the heading of tzniut or “modesty,” does not often register for us as a form of power because its strong associations with femininity tend to render it invisible or trivial in the context of patriarchy, which seizes hold of what could have been a source of power and leverages it as a source of oppression. Nevertheless, the power to set our own terms for visibility can be a deep wellspring of self-determination and self-affirmation for those of us who have spent so many years of our lives literally begging to be seen – by family and friends, by the healthcare professionals we rely upon to provide lifesaving care, by employers and government officials. In a world in which being seen is so often associated with vulnerability, there is something profoundly transgressive, not to mention revolutionary, about taking on the authority to dictate to others the conditions which must be met to get a glimpse of our own transcendent and ineffable presence.

The kavanah I want to leave us with this shabbat morning is that we, like God, have a presence which brings blessing to those who are privileged to look upon it, and that, like God, we are the ones who ultimately get to define the terms of our own visibility. May we all be blessed in our lives to behold the divine presence, and may we all give blessing to others by the light of our own presence in the world.

D’var Torah for GJC Pride Shabbat – Parashat Korach

כל מחלוקת לשם שמים סופה להתקים ושאינה לשם שמים אין סופה להתקים…

“Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, its fate is to endure, and any that is not for the sake of Heaven, its fate is note to endure.” (Mishnah Avot 5:21)

For our rabbis, the dispute recorded in parashat Korach is the very archetype of the dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven. But while the end of the dispute may be quite clear, its origins and significance are more difficult to understand. Who are the disputants, and what is the nature of their complaint?

The Torah identifies four principle members of the group – Korach, of the tribe of Levi, is the apparent leader, the one to whom most of Moses’ responses are directed and the one whose name is attached to the group as a whole – they are referred to in Num. 17:5 as Korach and “his band” (עדתו). Along with Korach appear Datan, Aviram and On, all of whom are Reubenites. The question which remains is how to identify the two hundred and fifty others who appear alongside them, and who are identified only as “Men of Israel” (אנשים מבני ישראל) without any tribal designation.

This question is more important than it may at first seem when it comes to unraveling the nature of the dispute, since the tribal makeup of the disputants will have a significant impact on how we understand their social standing within the community and the nature of their demands. The criticism they level against Moses and Aaron – “All the community are holy, all of them, and HaShem is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above HaShem’s congregation?” – seems to be that of a group made up of Reubenites, or perhaps a mixture of tribes, who are arguing against the attempt to endow a particular group of Israelites with a heightened level of sanctity. However, there are a number of points that make this egalitarian reading of the dispute somewhat doubtful. First, the unnamed “Israelites” are not from the ordinary rank and file – rather, they are identified in the text as “chieftains of the community” (נשיאי עדה). Second, their leader, Korach, is himself a Levite and therefore part of the system of social distinction the group is supposedly trying to protest. Finally, when Moses refers to them as a group, he addresses them not as “sons of Israel” but “sons of Levi,” suggesting that Korach’s band is comprised primarily of Levites like himself.

So what is it that has motivated this group comprised mostly, but not entirely, of Levites to rise up and oppose Moses and Aaron’s leadership? As we have said, their ostensible argument – that “all the community are holy, all of them, and HaShem is in their midst” – seems to be surprisingly reasonable, couched as it is in language evocative of the same values Moses himself has been trying to teach, that Israel’s role is to be “a nation of priests” and that at all times Israel should strive to be holy as God is holy. But appearances can be deceiving, and just because an argument seems to evoke values that are near and dear to our hearts, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the argument is being used in a way that ultimately supports those values. On the contrary, just as the language of religious freedom can be twisted and misused in support of bigotry and discrimination, so too can language of holiness be employed in support of a cause which in reality is anything but holy.

We should take a moment to consider how Korach’s followers are described – as “chieftains of the community” who are “called to the assembly (קראי מועד). The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra understands this last phrase to be related to the tent of assembly (אהל מועד), a central feature in the sanctuary precincts – a reference to the service the Levites were required to provide in attending to the sanctuary and supporting its regular functioning. “Men of repute” (אנשי שם) Ibn Ezra understands to be a reference to the period before the exodus from Egypt, indicating that they enjoyed a great deal of prestige within the community of Israelite slaves. What emerges then is a picture of a group of men who before Moses came along were reckoned as important people and leaders of the community, now relegated to the apparently unglamorous role of shleppers, responsible for setting up, taking down and transporting the portable sanctuary – work which, from their perspective, is considerably beneath their dignity.

Never mind that to be a shlepper among free people must be considered to be far superior to being a prince among slaves. Never mind that the labor they have been given involves transporting the literal dwelling place of God from place to place, enabling the very indwelling of the divine presence that they so cavalierly use to justify their complaints. These Levite followers of Korach are deeply resentful of the lose of privilege and prestige they used to enjoy, and they are determined to reclaim their former place of glory by usurping the priesthood from Aaron and his offspring.

Concerning this attitude, the Zohar has this to say:

בל דרדף בתר דלאו דיליה, איהו עריק מקמיה. ולא עוד אלא מה דאית ביה אתאביד מניה. קרח רדיף בתר דלאו דיליה, דיליה אביד, ואחרא לא רווח.

“Anyone who chases after what is not his, it flees from him. And not only that – what he does have is lost. Korach chased after what wasn’t his, what he had was lost, and nothing else could give him comfort.”

But what is it, precisely, that Korach has lost? What precisely has he failed to understand? To explain this, the Zohar takes us back to the creation of the world, to the very moment when Creation first looked upon the beautiful, terrifying face of the first human being and saw in hir splendor the sign of its own completion. At that moment, when the human was complete and, by extension, so too was the world, the day itself desired to be sanctified, and so it was – Shabbat was born, and with it peace and rest came into the world.

But – and here is where the authors of the Zohar are so insightful – there cannot be rest if no work remains to rest from. In that moment when the world was declared complete and Shabbat rose to sanctity, there were as yet spirits waiting to be given physical form. Owing to the sanctification of the day, this never happens, and these spirits – the Zohar calls them demons – remain as they are, merely potential rather than actual, trapped in between being and nothingness by the imposition of a definition of completeness which does not include them. And because of this, the newly completed and perfected world… remains both incomplete and imperfect.

This incompleteness can only be repaired through the holy labor of the Levites, who have the capacity to fix the gap in the world left by these uncreated spirits by transporting the holy sanctuary from place to place. But this repair can only happen if the Levites themselves are willing to give up some of the power and prestige of their old lives as chieftains among the people and accept upon themselves the new role which God has ordained for them – outwardly humble, but so deeply important for the completion of the work of creation.

Preparing these words for Germantown Jewish Centre’s first Pride Shabbat, I couldn’t help but see parallels between the metaphysical struggle depicted in the Zohar and the social and political struggles that have been going on within our own communities in the present day. In our time, too, we hear the voices of the “uncreated” calling out – those whose essential selves have gone for so long without recognition in a world whose understanding of completeness and perfection simply does not include them.For some, particularly those who have been placed in a position of privilege within the prevailing order, there may indeed seem to be something demonic about these voices. But just as in Korach’s time, it is necessary to recognize the truth that honor and privilege are worthless so long as they are granted within the context of a system which ultimately enslaves us all. It is a far greater honor to accept upon oneself the labor which has been ordained for us – the labor of repairing and remaking our communities, our nation, our world, in the name of a broader and more complete definition of perfection.

What I Learned About Changing the World From Parashat Vaera

The first parsha of Shemot ends on a down note. Moses has done exactly what God asked of him, and yet everything seems to have turned out wrong. Rather than listening to Moses and letting Israel go free, the Pharaoh has only been irritated enough to inflict further hardships on them. Meanwhile, the people Moses was sent to save now look on him as the source of their problems rather than the solution. Moses’ feelings about his mission at this stage can best be summed up by the anguished cry he calls out to God – “Oh Lord, why did you bring harm on this people? Why did you send me?”

The despair felt by both Moses and the Israelites at this point is not difficult to understand, inexperienced as they all are with the task they have been called to undertake, which is nothing less than working to bring an end to their own oppression and subjugation. Caught up in the idealism of his mission and still not used to thinking of himself as a leader (or even an Israelite for that matter), there are still a few lessons Moses has to learn before he can lead his people out of slavery and into freedom. It is precisely in this parsha (Parashat Vaera) in which God begins to see to it that he learns them.

Lesson 1: Everything is a process. Everything.

Moses and the Israelites are discouraged at the beginning of the parsha because they all at some level expected the experience of liberation to be simple, easily attained and above all quick. When carrying out God’s first set of instructions did not immediately lead to an improvement of their situation but, to the contrary, seemed to worsen them, Moses and crew reacted with justified surprise. After all, with God on their side, how can they possibly fail? What they fail to understand is that even for God (maybe especially for God) everything is a process. It took seven days for God to create the world, and it’s going to take some time to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. We might ask, if God knew beforehand that in the end it would take the death of the firstborn to get Pharaoh to finally capitulate, why then not try that first and have done with it? It may be, however, that without all the other plagues, the threats and back-and-forth between Moses and Pharaoh, this final plague would not have had the same impact and might not have succeeded at all. All the previous efforts Moses, Aaron go through, apparently futile on the surface, actually prepare the ground for the final victory.

Lesson 2: To make change happen, you first have to believe change is possible.

At this low point, when Moses is feeling so lost and dejected, God prefaces the next set of instructions by recounting all the signs and promises made to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – that the Israelites would be redeemed from exile and would come at last to inherit the land promised to their ancestors. Not only this, however: In this speech God emphasizes that even Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who merited to receive such promises, knew God only as El Shaddai, not by the four-letter name that most closely and intimately connects God with the people Israel. In this way, God seems to be saying: As close as I was to your ancestors, I never revealed My own special name to them, and yet I sheltered and cared for them in times of trouble. How then can I fail to take care of you, who have been permitted to be so much closer to Me?

Lesson 3: When things are looking bad, it’s important to remember who you are and where you came from.

Even after being reminded of God’s promises, Moses still doesn’t feel confident in the eventual success of his mission. The source of this lack of confidence seems to come primarily from a breakdown of trust between the people and its leader. The Torah clearly tells us that the Israelites’ reason for not listening to Moses at this point is because of their circumstances – the harshness of their labor and the constriction of their spirit – nevertheless Moses himself can’t help but attribute his failure to the inadequacy of his leadership skills, regretting once more his deficiency of speech.

It is no coincidence that the Torah chooses this moment to recount in part the genealogy that led up to the birth of Aaron and Moses. This is to establish beyond a shadow of a doubt the close connection between the two brothers, and between Moses and the Israelites. In this way God seems to be saying: Though you were raised in different households and under very different circumstances, still you are brothers and nothing can break that bond. Just the same, though the Israelites may have lost their confidence in you for the moment, you are bound together by ties that cannot be broken. Now get up and get to work!

These are only a few of the lessons Moses needs to learn as we watch him develop! over the course of the next several parshiyot from an insecure outsider suffering from lack of confidence and a very really difficulty connecting with the people he’s supposed to save, into a strong and capable leader able to face down Pharaoh, discontented Israelites and even God in order to protect the people from harm and bring them through the wilderness. May we all learn from them as well as we work to find solutions to the difficulties facing our own communities and in our own days.

The works of our hands

One of the fundamental ways in which the Torah conveys meaning is through juxtaposition – the deliberate placement of two pieces of text close to one another so that it becomes natural to read the one in the context of the other. This notion of meaning drawn from proximity was known to the rabbis, and they made it one of the basic principles of midrash, the uniquely rabbinic mode of scriptural interpretation. In our own time, as we become more aware of the historical process of the Hebrew Bible’s composition through the editing together of many pre-existing texts, we are once again struck by the ways in which juxtaposition plays an important role in the literary technique of the Bible’s editors as they stitched together the various legal and literary traditions of to form a greater whole.

In parashat ‘Ekev, two passages in particular strike me as interesting for the way in which they are placed side by side in such a way as to speak together:

The first passage is an injunction to the people of Israel not to forget, once they have been firmly established in their land, not to forget that it was not by their own might and virtue that they came to conquer and settle the land, but by the power of God who delivered them from Egypt, who led them through the wilderness, and who delivered the land’s former inhabitants into their hands.

The second passage is Moses’s retelling of the story of the golden calf. In this story Moses is gone for forty days and nights up on the mountain, fasting and praying in preparation for God to deliver the tablets of the covenant into his hands. In his absence, the people grow impatient and make themselves a golden calf to serve as an object of worship in Moses’s absence. God makes the people’s transgression known to Moses and he storms down the mountain to reprimand them, destroying the tablets in the process.

After both Moses and God have calmed down a bit, God once again gives Moses the tablets of the law – but this time, in a different way. Rather than simply giving Moses the tablets ready-made, God instructs him to carve the tablets himself which God will inscribe, and furthermore to build an ark to contain them.

The message I draw from these two passages is this: that though it is certainly important to remember that it is not by our own power alone that the healing of the world can be accomplished, nevertheless true transformation cannot take place without the involvement and participation of those who are to be the beneficiaries of the change.

In the story of the golden calf, both of the objects of veneration, the original tablets and the golden idol, were doomed to destruction from the start – the calf because it was the work of the people without the participation of God, and the tablets because they were the work of God without the participation of the people. It is only by the coming together of the two, working together toward a common goal of sanctification, that a lasting and truly sacred home for the laws can be built.

In the same way, as we work for social change in the world, we must remember that justice is never simply handed down from on high, nor can it ever be the sole possession of a single individual or group within society. Rather, real change is built by many different hands working together, each contributing what they can to the common goal. And if, as the Torah tells us, it is not by “my own power and the might of my own hand” that justice is forged, neither can it happen without the contribution that we ourselves bring.


This is a Dvar Torah I did a couple weeks ago at Dorshei Derech for parashat Bamidbar. As such, it’s probably a little late to be posting this, but since we’re still in the middle of Bamidbar, and because the themes it addresses are feeling pretty relevant right now, I thought I’d put it up anyway.

It has always seemed a little ironic to me that the parsha entitled Bamidbar should be so obsessively concerned with the organization of people and space. For the Biblical authors the midbar (usually translated as “wilderness”) is a complicated place. Most basically, the midbar is the wasteland, the uncharted wilderness outside the boundaries of the community, and even outside of normal space and time. In some ways, one might look at it as the dry-land version of the wild and unpredictable sea that in ancient Near-Eastern mythology represents the primal chaos that must be tamed and held back in order for the relatively sane world we live in to exist.

As a place, or better yet as a state of mind, the midbar has an important role to play in the world of the Bible. On the one hand, it is a dangerous and frightening place. It is a place where the ordinary rules of time and distance don’t seem to apply, a place where somehow it becomes possible for the relatively modest journey from Egypt to Canaan can take forty years. It is a place where the Israelites can wander for ages without encountering another settled people, and yet wicked tribes bent on slaughter or corrupting the values of the community seem to lurk behind every rock.

On the other hand, the open and unbounded nature of the midbar can be a source of profound insight and creativity. It is the place where prophets go to have their most profound encounters with God–where Moses encountered the burning bush, where Elijah heard the “still, small voice” of revelation. It is the place where Sinai stands, where the descendants of Jacob made their pact with the Eternal. It is the place where we had to go in order to become who we are.

It becomes necessary, therefore, to strike a balance between the midbar and the camp, to find a way to live amidst the unbounded highlands of the spirit without becoming disoriented and drifting off, never to be seen again. This perhaps is why the first parsha of Numbers is called Bamidbar–because in its detailed enumeration of people by family, clan and tribe, and in its careful arrangement of space, arraying the twelve tribal camping grounds in a precisely delineated ring around the holy sanctuary like the numbers on a clock, we can catch a glimpse of the ways in which a wandering people made their peace with the wilderness, staking their claim at each new campsite to which God led them and carving out, however temporarily, a patch of order and stability amid the creative chaos of life. These are the terms on which the children of Israel were able to cope with their forty year sojourn in the wilderness, and they are not so different from the terms by which we are able to live today.

In recent weeks, my partner Emily and I have felt like our lives were being turned upside-down as we’ve scrambled to prepare for a series of journeys culminating in our upcoming year in Israel. Recently, Emily was feeling pretty overwhelmed by some packing she was doing. It’s something I’ve been feeling myself–the difficulty of knowing what to bring and what to leave behind, of how to fit your life into the smallest possible space so you can take it with you. In the end, the only way to overcome this anxiety and put the logistical and emotional problem into some kind of perspective was, funnily enough, to make a list.

Like the Israelites in parashat Bamidbar, we get by and face the challenges life throws at us by trying to impose a little order on what can sometimes be a terribly confusing world. In doing so, we can make a little ground for us to stand on, a place from which to reach out and engage with life in all its wild, creative glory.

The questions I put to the kahal when I gave this talk are the same ones I’ll put to you, my readers:

  1. The Israelites ordered their world by family and tribe, and by the organization of space, and by designating roles for the different groups to fulfill in attending to the needs of the community. What are some of the fundamental ways in which you order your life?
  2. In encountering the wilderness of the midbar, sometimes we feel opened up and exhilarated, freed to shake up old patterns and explore new things. Sometimes we feel anxious and unsettled, reaching out desperately for something stable and familiar. What are some ways you’ve reacted to change and the breakdown of old patterns in your life?

Dvar Torah: Parashat Vaera

Well it’s Parashat Vaera and the story is starting to heat up. Like the producers of a really good television drama, the authors of our previous parsha started by introducing us to our main characters and built us up to a tense cliffhanger of an ending, with Pharaoh casually disregarding the message Moses brings him from God and only increasing the harshness of the burdens upon the Israelites. As this parsha opens, even the Israelite leaders seem to have given up their initial hopefulness that salvation is attainable and we are left wondering what assistance God will provide to ensure Moses’s success.

Now that the story of Moses is starting to really get underway, I thought it might be interesting to draw back from the action for a moment and take some time to look at what happens to him after the Bible is through with him. Those of you who know your Chumash will be able to tell me pretty flatly that, in a narrative sense, the answer to this question is nothing, because by the time we get to the end of Deuteronomy, Moses has died, having shepherded the people through forty years of wilderness wandering and brought them almost, but not quite, to the land promised to them by God.

But even though in a certain sense the story of Moses is over by the time we get to the first chapter of the book of Joshua, in another sense it has only just begun. That’s because in the Jewish tradition the way in which later generations re-imagine the stories and characters depicted in the Bible is often just as important as the “official version”–sometimes even more so.

As an example of this, I thought it might be interesting to look at a discussion that takes place in masechet Berachot of the Talmud. The conversation begins by quoting a saying  of Rabbi Haninah: “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven, as it is said: “And now, Israel, what does Ha Shem ask from you but to fear (Ha Shem your god)?” The biblical passage rabbi Haninah quotes to back up his saying is from Deuteronomy chapter 10, in which Moses is reminding the Israelites of their responsibility to fear God, to love God and to walk in God’s ways. By quoting this passage Rabbi Hanina seems to be saying that because God asks for fear “from you,” we can infer that fear of Heaven–by which is meant a sense of awe and respect for God–is special in that God cannot simply cause it to happen but must receive it from us.

But the Talmud has a problem with what Rabbi Haninah is saying. “Do you mean to say,” it asks, “that fear of Heaven is a small thing?” The Torah passage Rabbi Hanina quotes asks us “what does God ask of you, except to fear God?” The question seems to imply that fear of God is an easy thing to ask of us, and even to carry with it a note of exasperation that it had to ask us in the first place. We can imagine the tone of this passage to be almost like that of a mother surveying her children’s messy rooms and saying, “All I ask you to do is clean up after yourselves. Is that so hard?”

But fear of Heaven is hard. To carry ourselves at all times and in all circumstances with an awareness of the divine and the responsibilities it has placed on us is incredibly difficult. What then are we to make of this passage? Rabbi Hanina responds with a clever point: Fear of Heaven is an easy thing, he says–for Moses. And in fact, it is Moses who is speaking the words of this passage, speaking of the fear of Heaven as the easy thing it is for him, and not as the hard thing it is for us. As Rabbi Hanina says, it is as if you asked a person for something big and he happened to have it–to him, it would seem like a small thing. But if you asked someone for something quite small, and he didn’t have it, it would seem to him as if you’d asked for something big.

But is fear of Heaven really such a small thing for Moses? From what we see of him in this week’s parsha, it would be quite hard to make such a claim. Far from carrying himself with a constant awareness of God’s power, Moses seems much more concerned with the power of Pharaoh. “I am the LORD,” says God, “Speak to the king of Egypt all that I will tell you.” And Moses responds with nervousness and lack of confidence: “See, I am of impeded speech! How then should Pharaoh heed me?” It isn’t until God agrees to send Aaron with him to act as his spokesman that Moses agrees to go.

Is Rabbi Hanina wrong about Moses? We might say so, but I can’t help but feel that this would be overly simplistic. The truth of the matter is that we are all complicated human beings, and none of us is ever completely consistent, either in our virtues or our flaws. By choosing to focus on one aspect of Moses’s character and ignore others, Rabbi Hanina is making a point to help us better understand ourselves and our place in the world. In a way, part of what fear of Heaven implies is the awareness that our own perspective is limited, and there is always some new way to see a subject or a person. This awareness is one of the strengths of our tradition, because it helps us grow and adapt to a changing world. And so, as we continue to read again the ancient tale of our people’s redemption from slavery, may we blessed with the ability to look upon it with new eyes and find new ways of making it speak in our lives.

Dvar Torah: Parashat Matot

When studying the Torah, I think that sometimes it’s as important to pay attention to what the text doesn’t say as to what it actually says. This is what I found myself thinking as I read through the Torah portion for this week, which contains what I can’t help but see as one of the darkest moments in the Tanakh, the war of revenge waged against the Midianites. It is difficult to understand some of the things that happen to the Israelites in the Torah, harder still to understand some of the things they do, but hardest of all for me to understand are those moments when the bloodiest violence seems to be sanctioned by divine commandment. At moments such as this, the question ceases to be how we can justify our lives in light of the Torah, but how we can justify the Torah in light of our own lives.

Let’s approach this carefully, then: The parsha begins with a series of legal pronouncements carefully establishing the limits of vows taken by a woman. In the case of men, a vow must be carried out once taken. In the case of a woman, however, her ability to make a pledge is limited in this patriarchal society by the men who control her life, either her father or her husband, both of whom can annul it upon first hearing about it. Only in the case of a widow is she absolutely free to make a pledge on her own account, without the possibility of it being nullified by another.
Immediately after this discussion God instructs Moses to take care of one final item of business before he is gathered to his ancestors: Waging war against the Midianites in revenge for the “trickery they practiced” against the Israelites. This is a complicated story, stretched out over the past two parshiyot, so it might be a good idea to go back and see if we can recall how we got up to this point.

Back at the end of Parashat Balak we read about an episode where the people “profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women, who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god” (Num. 25:1-2) and Pinchas, one of the sanctuary guards, averted God’s anger by impaling a Midianite woman along with her Israelite lover.

The connection between this Midianite woman, Cozbi, and the Moabite women who were apparently primarily responsible for the whole affair, is never clearly explained. Nevertheless, it seems clear from God’s instructions to “assail the Midianites and defeat them” (Num. 25:17) that they were somehow associated with the plot to corrupt the Israelites by tempting them over to the worship of a foreign god.

One confusing question to arise from this narrative is, why the Midianites? Unlike the Moabites, when we’ve encountered them before it was mostly as friends and allies. Moses’s wife was a Midianite, as was his father-in-law, whether we go with the passage in Numbers that identifies him as Hobab, or the ones in Exodus about Jethro, the Midianite priest who seems to be basically monotheistic in religious outlook. It seems strange, therefore, that the Midianites, of all peoples, should be blamed for attempting to sway Israel over to idol-worship, especially with Balaam, another non-Israelite monotheist who we’ve seen portrayed in a much more positive light just a few chapters earlier, supposedly acting as ringleader.

In this parsha, the Israelite army comes back from waging its successful campaign of vengeance against the Midianites, only to be berated by Moses for killing only the men, leaving the women and children alive as captives. He goes on to tell them to kill the women and boys, leaving only the girls to be divvied up between the combatants, their tribes and the sanctuary, presumably as slave labor.

There’s no other way of saying this: This conclusion to the story is basically shocking to me. I can understand the necessity of fighting a war to defend ourselves and our families. I can appreciate the fact that the world of the Bible is a hard world, where tribal rivalries frequently force a kill-or-be-killed attitude. What is harder to understand is the necessity of such deliberate slaughter, especially in light of our extremely sketchy understanding of the Midianites’ involvement. Significantly, nowhere in this fragmented story are the voices of the Midianite women recorded. At no point do they get a chance to speak for themselves. This silence, especially in light of the pointed reminder we get at the beginning of the parsha about the extremely limited autonomy of women in the societies of that time, makes me wonder whether the blame for the incident truly lies with the women themselves or with the kings, priests, husbands and fathers using them as pawns in a campaign of ethnic and religious violence.

One answer to these concerns is that this is one of those occasions when it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that we are actually dealing with different textual traditions living along side each other in uneasy peace after having been combined to form a single text. An argument along these lines might point to the numerous inconsistencies in the text and theorize that we’ve got several different traditions here, some of which remember the Midianites as monotheists, friends and allies, while others identify them as idol-worshipers, tricksters and enemies. We could say therefore that part of the problem might result from missing material from one or many of these traditions that didn’t get included for some reason–material that might better explain the Midianite women’s’ involvement in the seduction of the Israelites, or outline a distinction between groups of Midianites friendly to the house of Israel and other groups whose immoral religious practices brought the two peoples into conflict. This argument is plausible, but not terribly satisfying. It doesn’t really answer the question we’re putting to the text, which is what kind of life lesson we can draw from it.

Another approach that has been taken by some commentators is to regard the whole episode as basically metaphorical–an external, physical representation of an internal, spiritual conflict. “Midyan” shares the same Hebrew root as “dimyon,” imagination, fantasy, or illusion. Hence, these commentators say, what Moses and Israel are actually being asked to do is clear away the influence of illusion and false consciousness in preparation for their entry into Canaan–the task of conquering the land is something that must be tackled with clear eyes and a steady heart. This is an attractive option, as it resolves a great many of our moral problems with the text, though it seems to me this is an approach that demands some caution. Regarding enemies in the Torah as manifestations of sinful urges and attitudes may help us draw valuable life lessons from problematic texts, but we should be careful not to reverse this approach, projecting our own fears and insecurities onto the very real flesh and blood people we come into conflict with in our own lives.

One more possible interpretation might be to look to the individuals involved in this episode to show that at least some of the bloody excess in this story springs not from God’s commands, but from the over-zealous passion to carry them out. God tells Moses twice to attack the Midianites. In the first instance, He instructs him to “assail and defeat them. Then, in the current parsha, Moses is instructed to “take revenge against them.” In neither case does God explicitly tell Moses to inflict cherem, or complete destruction, against the Midianites, nor does God call out the women as specific targets of revenge, except of course for Cozbi, who is already dead.

We might also note the fact that Pinchas, the slayer of the Israelite man and Cozbi at the beginning of our story, is sent along to serve as priest for the raiding party. Pinchas, as we’ve come to know, is not the kind to shrink away from shedding blood in order to protect the moral fabric of the people. And yet, it doesn’t seem to have struck him as necessary to kill anyone but the men. Moses, we should remember, has been informed by God that this military campaign will be his last significant act in the public sphere before his death. Is it possible that in his passion and conflicted emotion at the awareness of his impending death, Moses is desperately trying to leave the people with a “clean slate,” to remove any possible influence that could turn them astray in his absence?

Something that was pointed out to me as I was trying to work out what to say about this parsha was that the text does not actually record Moses’s orders being carried out. The young women are included in the spoils of war to be divvied up, but when it comes to actually killing the married women and male children, the book is silent. If so, then perhaps we can take this episode as an opportunity to meditate on the price of purity, whether ideological, moral, spiritual or of whatever kind. It could be that the really important question for us to ask isn’t what those people chose to do at that moment, but what we ourselves would do in a similar situation.

D’var Torah: Parashat Chukat

Parashat Chukat is bound up with the theme of death. The parashah starts out with a set of regulations for the ritual of the red heifer, which is intended to purify a member of the Israelite community from the contamination incurred through contact with a dead body. Almost immediately after this the Torah reports the death of Miriam, the prophetess and sister of Moses and Aaron, and not long after this Aaron too is called to his death, leaving Moses alone to lead the people during this last phase of the journey to the land of Canaan.

Two deaths, two significant and very different deaths.

Given the prevalence of death throughout, it seems significant that its name is Chukat. Chok, from which chukat is derived, is one of a trio of terms used by the Torah to refer to mitzvot commanded by G-d. We’re used to talking about positive and negative commandments, but another of the traditional ways of talking about mitzvot is to divide them into mishpatim, edot and chukim. According to the rabbis, mishpatim are rational commandments–things we would be able to know were right or wrong independently of the Torah, purely through the power of reason. Edot are commandments intended to memorialize or represent something, such as eating matzah on passover to remember the haste with which the Israelites were forced to depart Egypt–not derivable a priori without the text of the Torah to serve as a guide but nevertheless rationally connected with the historical narrative contained therein. Chukim, however, are commandments with no logical basis, not grounded in any apparent external justification save for the transcendent word of G-d breaking forth like lightning through the clouds of the rational order.

In a sense, the death of Aaron is similar to a mishpat: Bound up with G-d’s decree that neither Moses nor Aaron will live to cross over the Jordan to set foot in the land, it seems to follow logically from the episode almost immediately preceding in which the brothers stumble in the matter of the waters of Meribah. What is more, his death is decreed ahead of time by G-d. Aaron is given the chance to prepare, emotionally as well as practically, for his own death, and clear instructions are given for the transfer of priestly authority from him to his son Eleazar.

Not so with Miriam. Her death seems to come out of nowhere, interrupting the normal flow of life like a clap of thunder from a cloudless sky:

The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. (Numbers 20:1)

No warning, no clear justification, no chance to prepare. And no clear mention made of anybody, whether the people as a whole or her brothers Moses and Aaron, mourning her. Aaron the people mourn for thirty days, but for Miriam, not a peep. What we get instead is an immediate narrative jump to an account of the people panicking because they are thirsty and there isn’t any water. Given what we know about the importance of juxtaposition in biblical narrative, this shift is too sudden for us to be without suspicion that there’s a connection, and indeed the rabbis are with us in our suspicion. Because as it turns out there is a tradition in the midrash that associates Miriam with the supply of water that kept the people from dying of thirst in the desert. As one midrash has it, the manna that fed the people was provided on account of the merit of Moses. Aaron’s merit was responsible for the pillar of smoke that guided the people through the wilderness. But it was on account fo Miriam’s piety that the people were able to find water. Some accounts talk of a miraculous “Well of Miriam” that followed the Israelites wherever they went, springing up from the ground every time they made camp. These stories aren’t so far-fetched when we consider that Miriam’s most significant moments are associated with water–waiting by the banks of the Nile to observe and intervene in the fate of her infant brother, and leading the women of the people in song and dance on the shore of the Sea of Reeds in praise of G-d’s miraculous deliverance of the people from the clutches of Pharaoh’s army.

So, Miriam, the largely unsung prophetess who has been responsible for ensuring that there is water for the people to drink dies suddenly, without warning or any indication from G-d as to how this important responsibility is going to be handled in her absence. The people are understandably upset, especially given that as far as we can tell the water pretty much immediately dries up after this. Moses and Aaron seek G-d’s help, and are instructed in what to do. But–instead of simply following G-d’s instructions and commanding the rock to bear water “before the very eyes” of the community, Moses peevishly berates the Israelites, calling them “rebels,” and strikes the rock twice with his staff. A subtle variation between intent and execution, its seeming insignificance is belied by the harsh judgment attendent on it–that neither Moses nor Aaron will ever set foot in the promised land.

So what, exactly, is the failing that prompted this judgment? There are many opinions about this, but here’s one interpretation in light of what we’ve surmised about Miriam’s role: The sudden and unexpected death of an important and respected member of the community would understandably come as a great shock to the people. It’s significant that in this instance G-d does not begrudge the people for their fear and confusion. Moses’s accusation in this case is unjust–the people are understandably and deservedly upset. But rather than confidently and compassionately stepping forward and demonstrating to the people that life will go on, that despite the great loss of her passing others will step forward and shoulder the responsibilities she held, Moses, whether out of grief or his own sense of frustration at having yet another responsibility thrust upon him, lashes out at the complainers in anger. And Aaron, who might have remonstrated with his brother and made him see that the people were more deserving of his sympathy than his anger, remained silent, perhaps too bound up in the chamber of his own grief to respond to the emotional needs of others.

If this is so, then perhaps it explains why Miriam, unlike Aaron, goes unmourned in the text. Moses and Aaron, too bound up in their own highly personal responses to their sister’s death, are unable or unwilling to externalize their grief, share it with the community and begin moving along the painful path from despair to healing. If so, their stumbling at this crucial juncture is a powerful reminder to us of the importance of  coming together in the wake of a disaster, of forging a collective response to the sometimes incomprehensible decrees of G-d that, in the depths of our isolation, can only ever appear starkly meaningless.

Dvar Torah- Acharei Mot (Shabbat Hagadol)

Today is Shabbat HaGadol, the last Shabbat before the beginning of Pesach. One of the explanations I’ve heard for why this day is called the Great Shabbat is that in the past it was customary for the people to ask the rabbi all their last-minute questions concerning the halachah for the upcoming holiday. I think most people would agree that Passover is one of the more complicated Jewish festivals to observe, and it makes sense to me to imagine a kind of informal Q-and-A session very similar to our discussions here in shul the past several weeks, with the rabbi explaining the finer points of kashrut to a community of people happy for the shabbos break in the long and hectic process of eliminating every last trace of hametz from the house. Unfortunately, I’m barely qualified to answer questions about my own kitchen, let alone anyone else’s, but I thought it would be nice to commemorate the day by taking a look at the special haftarah we read for Shabbat HaGadol.

There’s a strange dynamic that plays out in the section of Malachi that makes up this passage. The prophet’s theme is the coming of the Messianic era, envisioned here as God’s return to His Temple. Malachi doesn’t see this powerfully redemptive event as something gradual or subtle, the slow fade of night’s giving way to the light of dawn. On the contrary, as it says in a passage a little before the beginning of our haftarah, “the Lord whom you seek shall come to His Temple suddenly.” (Mal. 3:1) A frantic energy pervades this text, a sense of great, world-shattering change just around the corner, not yet here but already filling our ears with the echoes of its impending arrival, causing the wicked to tremble and the righteous to rejoice. “For lo!” says Malachi, “That day is at hand, burning like an oven.” (Mal. 3:19)

And yet, when I read this passage I detect a certain tension in the prophet’s words. He seems unable to resolve the question of how this day is to come about. On the one hand, God’s sudden arrival is treated as something fixed and inevitable, seeming to arrive out of nowhere like a whirlwind or a flood, sweeping everyone and everything along in its inexorable path. But inserted into the midst of this powerful language of upheaval and reversal, of God stepping forward to act as an accuser against those who have subverted the moral order of society, there seems to be a note of pleading, a sense in which God is virtually begging the people to return to Him. “You have been suffering under a curse, yet you go on defrauding Me–the whole nation of you. Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, and let there be food in My house, and thus put Me to the test–said the Lord of Hosts. I will surely open the floodgates of the sky for you and pour down blessings on you…” (Mal. 3:9-10)

This sense of pleading, of God’s unfulfilled desire for the repentance of His people, inserts an element of conditionality that seems to contradict the sense of inevitability that otherwise pervades this passage. These two conflicting visions of the coming of God and the establishment of the Messianic Age–the overwhelming flood on the one hand, the uncertain event balanced tentatively on the knife edge of the people’s repentance on the other–form a counterpoint to each other, a question that rings unspoken throughout the text: Is the world to be repaired through a unilateral act of God or through the repentance and patient effort of humanity?

Malachi never explicitly answers this question and the tension it creates is never fully resolved, even by the later rabbis, who could not agree on whether the coming of the Moshiach was something we could bring closer through repentance and good deeds or whether it was a fixed event the time of which is established by God and which nothing we say or do can alter. In the end, Malachi leaves the matter thus:

“Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.” (Malachi 3:23-24)

One thing I note about this passage is that the coming of the day of the LORD does not seem to be reliant on any particular change of heart in Israel. It isn’t as if Israel finally shapes up and God returns. On the contrary, when the day arrives it requires Elijah’s preparatory work simply to make sure that Hashem’s presence doesn’t utterly destroy the land. And yet, this process of social reconciliation at the most basic and intimate level is something that evidently must take place before God can return. This seems to hint at a particular attitude toward sin and transgression, namely that the prophet (and by extension God) understands that transgression is going to be a part of life, the cost of the divine coming into relationship with flawed, limited humanity.

To clarify what I mean, let’s take a look at a passage from today’s Torah portion, where it talks about the ritual the priest must undertake on Yom Kippur to cleanse the people of their sins:

“Thus he [i.e. the priest] shall purge the Shrine of the uncleanness and transgression of the Israelites, whatever their sins; and he shall do the same for the tent of meeting, which abides with them in the midst of their umcleanness.” (Leviticus 16:16)

The word that’s suspiciously absent from this passage is “if.” The possibility that there may not be any transgression to purge is not even entertained. One might accuse the author of being a bit uncharitable. In fact, this is evidence of the kind of understanding to be found only in the relationship between parents and their children and God and His people. God is recognizing the fact that the establishment of a relationship between Him and us inevitably implies the breakdown of this selfsame relationship, and rather than taking this as reason to simply give up on the whole thing before it has begun, God is taking this fact into account by building the mechanism for repairing the relationship into the terms of the relationship itself.

In Rabbi Sloveitchick’s book Halakhic Man, he argues against the mystical idea that the holy is something separate from the world, separate from experience. On the contrary, he says, Judaism teaches us that the holy is a basic category of experience in the world as we experience it. In other words, God’s natural home is among us, and the notion of His dwelling on some lofty, transcendent plane utterly separate from the world in which we live is indicative, not of the natural state of things, but of a profound breach in the way the world is supposed to work. God’s yearning to be with us is at least powerful enough that He is willing to look past the inevitable breach toward the possibility of repair. This awareness of the inherent limitations of a relationship between humanity and the divine is present as well in the concluding passage of Malachi.

This sense of God’s constant yearning to be closer to us, and willingness to tilt the balance in favor of reconciliation between us and Him, is something I’d like to carry with me as we enter into the festival celebrating the most profoundly redemptive event in our people’s history. With this sense in mind, the intensity and violence of Malachi’s vision of the God’s return can be seen not as something unnerving, but as a powerful expression of God’s desire for our participation in the repair of the world. A desire strong enough to free a people of slaves from the clutches of Egypt thousands of years ago must surely have echoes strong enough to inspire us to devote ourselves to creating the conditions for similar redemptive events in our own time.

D’var Torah for Bar Mitzvah: Parashat Yitro

“What is this thing you are doing to the people?” Jethro asks at the beginning of this parsha, referring to Moses’ attempts to administer to every detail of the community’s functioning himself, without assistance or any alternative authority. Later on, in this same parsha, we find an event which I believe illustrates exactly what Moses had been doing to the people, and to himself. Hard on the heels of this fatherly conversation about community organization and the dangers of stretching oneself too thin, Israel is camped at the foot of Sinai, about to have the single most powerful religious experience in our history, one that will reverberate throughout the life of our people through all time. Instead of simply receiving God’s instructions through a prophet or leader, at Sinai the whole people, together, is having a direct, unmediated encounter with God.

And how do they react to this experience? What’s it like to have a first-hand encounter with God? If the Torah can be trusted on this point the answer is fairly clear: absolutely terrifying.

“Let not God speak to us,” say the people, “lest we die.” Their first instinct in the face of this cosmic experience is to turn away, to retreat back to the way things were. Just as the strangeness and uncertainty of freedom in the wilderness makes them long for the familiar oppression of Egypt, here the terrifying immediacy of a direct contact with God leaves them grasping for something a little more mediated. And Moses, perhaps himself a little uncomfortable with the new, strange world of shared authority introduced by his father-in-law, seems only too willing to fall back into the exhausting but comfortable role of central authority and intermediary. “Don’t worry,” he says, “this has all been a test to make sure you fear God. It’s alright–you passed!” It almost makes you wonder who he’s trying hardest to reassure, the people or himself. But what is the test here, and did they pass?

It seems to me that in turning away as the people did from the awesome, terrifying experience of encountering God face-to-face, delivering the Law amid the “thunder and lighting, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking,” the people are basically trying to avoid a certain kind of responsibility. Not the responsibility to hear, as it might appear at first, but rather the responsibility to speak.

What is the responsibility the people are trying desperately to hand back to Moses? To encounter God, surely, to brave the fiery mountain top. But also, and perhaps just as importantly, to descend, to return to the messy, complicated world of the tents at the base of the mountain and try to communicate that pure, ineffable experience in words comprehensible and relevant to that world–which is, after all, the world in which life has to be lived.

Perhaps in that terrible moment of God’s self-revelation at Sinai the people caught a glimpse of what it means to come face-to-face with the transcendent power at the heart of the world and then be faced with the responsibility of folding that experience, twisting it, shaping it into something that can be not only felt but acted upon, and not in the gleaming light of a perfected world to come, but here and now. Perhaps in that moment they knew all this, and it was simply too much for them, and they were all too willing to leave the burden of that responsibility to Moses, the “man of God” who had led them out of Egypt and who, they were willing to believe, might be uniquely able to go through all that and live. Perhaps in that moment Moses, still not entirely sure how to share that responsibility, is all to willing to take it all back on himself.

If the story had ended there it would have been understandable. It might not have been a good ending, or a comforting one, but we would have understood it because the failings on display here are perfectly, naturally, understandably human. And yet, if it had ended there, would we all be here three thousand years later, gathered together to read these words and reflect on their meaning? It is not surprising that the people reacted in terror to the responsibility that had been thrust upon them and pushed it away. What is surprising, and inspiring, is their subsequent efforts to reclaim that responsibility, to make it their own. It is the story of those efforts that forms a shining thread running throughout Jewish history–through the lives of this generation of former slaves struggling to find their way in the wilderness, the lives of Judges willing to risk death to end slaver and oppression, the lives of Prophets willing to challenge the self-satisfied religious and political establishment of their day in the name of justice and compassion, and in the lives of Rabbis carefully moulding the received tradition into new forms capable of surviving centuries of exile and persecution. The thread that runs through their lives continues to run through our own, and through the lives of every generation that finds the voice to speak in the name of GOd–that is, in the name of the divine challenge to all human systems of injustice. It is this thread that allows us to read the words of this parsha, “Let not God speak to us, lest we die,” not as a prophecy, but as a challenge–the challenge to reclaim, for ourselves, the responsibility to speak.