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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:
- 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?
- 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Well, it’s been a long, bumpy ride for this family and what I’d like to do is take the time to pause and ask ourselves what, if anything, has been resolved.? This is an important place to ask this question because here at the end of Genesis we’ve reached a narrative break. When we return to the story of our people again at the beginning of Exodus, it is already four hundred years later and the camera has panned out considerably–whereas powerful, individual personalities will continue to play an important role in the sweep of the biblical narrative, the stage on which they act will be wider, the stakes greater, more political and less personal.
But the personal is political. Certainly all three generations of patriarchs and matriarchs would have been able to agree with that one. And so it makes sense at this point to reflect on what the final situation is between Jacob and his children, between Joseph and his brothers, and what lessons they’ve internalized along the way. It makes sense because the effects of these deeply troubled familial relationships will have their echoes for many generations to come. This is something Jacob seems to recognize and acknowledge in his final poetic/prophetic summing-up of his sons, of his relationship to them and of theirs to each other.
So the question again is, has anything been resolved? Has the messy tale of family resentment and sibling rivalry come to a close in anything resembling a satisfactory way? I want to hear what others think about this, but before I open the floor I’ll make a couple of comments.
First, this is the first point in the narrative where the “official” Abrahamic line–the list of sons in each generation who are not rejected or excluded in some way from the family tree–it’s the first time this line actually branches off. It’s important to remember that this fact is not (or at least not simply) the result of divine decree, but of a very human inability for members of the family to get along with each other.
Until now, the seemingly inevitable rivalry between brother and brother (and let us not forget, between husband and wife, between wife and wife) has come down to a question of either/or. In the conflict between Sarah and Hagar, Ishmael is cast out, along with his mother, to survive as best they can in the desert, a sacrifice to family harmony, leaving his brother Isaac to face sacrifice of a different kind. Esau too, and by extension his descendants, are ultimately excluded as the price of losing the struggle that had been going on between him and Jacob since before they were born. In both cases, and entire potential branch of our extended Jewish family is lost, and G-d’s promise to Abraham that He would make his descendants into a great nation is held back for a generation.
If we were reading the beginning of the story of Joseph, knowing what had ome before but not how it was going to turn out, we would probably assume that the ending would turn out the same as it did for Isaac and Jacob–rivalry between brothers ending only when one had emerged triumphant and the others had been excluded from their inheritance and the story of our people. This is almost certainly why Joseph’s brothers, who after all must be aware of their family history, are terrified, despite his apparently heartfelt joy when they are reunited, that he is secretly holding a grudge against them and planning to take his revenge after their father’s death.
It isn’t as if reconciliation between brothers is totally alien to the biblical narrative before now–Isaac and Ishmael, after all, come together to bury their father (you have to wonder what kind of conversation they had at that funeral. I’m willing to bet that each came away with the feeling that the other brother got the better deal when it came to their treatment by their father). Jacob too has his emotional, if brief, reunion with Esau. But in neither case is the reconciliation complete, and both Ishmael and Esau ultimately go off to found peoples of their own–powerful peoples with important places in history, but not our people, not our history.
It is only here in the case of Joseph and hist brothers that forgiveness and reconciliation seem to finally “take.” There is certainly a great deal of anxiety and discomfort that remains in their relationship, and Jacob’s deathbed prophecy to his sons certainly contains more than a little of the old favoritism that set this whole drama in motion to begin with, but in this generation at least these tensions are not great enough to pull the family apart.
I find it significant that it is from this generation that our people takes its name. Cartainly we are all children of Abraham, and Isaac too is one of our common fathers. But when it comes to the question of identity, we are and have been throughout history b’nai Yisrael–that is to say, the children of Jacob. The symbolic significance of Jacob’s G-d-given name, of Yisra-el as those who wrestle with G-d, is very powerful and important. But I believe that at least part of the reason why we are called by this name is as a testament to the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. In other words, perhaps in calling our people b’nai Yisrael we can detect a kind of prophecy or expression of profound hope, that we be worthy of the name of a generation that was able to look past fear, resentment and conflict and to find peace on the other side.
This parsha strikes me as an opportunity to think a little bit about prophecy. Prophecy plays such a central role in Judaism that it can be, ironically, easy to overlook. Our entire religious tradition is based on the prophetic experiences of our ancestors as recorded in the Torah. We’re familiar with the prophets, the speakers of prophecy, and with prophecies, the content of their statements. But what can we actually say about the institution of prophecy itself?
We might say that a prophet is someone to whom God speaks. In a certain sense, this is true. When we are first introduced to Moses he is an infant. Flash forward a number of years, and he is a young man enraged at the mistreatment of a Hebrew slave, then a husband and sheepherder in the land of Midian. Only after he hears the word of God calling from the burning bush–”Moses! Moses!”–does his career as a prophet truly begin. And yet, as the rabbis remarked, he was Moses before God had spoken to him, and Moses after God had spoken to him. Might we perhaps regard his slaying of the Egyptian overseer, as well as rising to the defense of Jethro’s daughters at the well, as prophetic acts?
At its most basic level, prophecy is about the right to speak, to innovate, to have one’s words and actions carry authority. For our tradition prophecy represents the wellspring of religious inspiration, the impassioned word that shakes up the status quo in the name of God’s moral imperative and establishes a new order, a new understanding, a new way of doing things. How people have understood this creative impulse has changed over the generations, as has our understanding of who has the right to speak prophetically and under what conditions. Nevertheless the impulse–in one form or another–has been with us throughout history and, I would argue, is with us still today. It is the constant companion of the Jewish people, the itch that refuses to allow us to rest comfortably while there is injustice in the world.
There’s an episode in chapter 11 of this week’s Torah portion where Moses, frustrated as usual by the people’s complaints, complains bitterly to God about the burden of leading such a difficult, intractable people. God responds by commanding Moses to gather together seventy elders “of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people.” (11:16) These elders will have a portion of the prophetic spirit which Moses enjoys placed upon them, so that they can share in the burden of the people with him. Moses does as God commands, and as the Torah puts it, the elders “spoke in ecstasy, but did not continue.” (11:25)
Meanwhile, back in the camp, two men named Eldad and Medad have not joined the other elders with Moses at the mishkan. Nevertheless, they too begin to prophecy, and this fact is reported to Moses. Joshua, who serves as Moses’ attendant, protests that he should put a stop to this, presumably indignant that prophecy should be “springing up wild,” as it were, among the people, outside of the carefully orchestrated transfer of authority taking place at the tent of meeting. Moses, however, tells Joshua to be still. “Are you wrought up on my account?” he says, “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD put his spirit on them!” (11:29) And nothing much more is said of the matter.
The lesson I take from this episode is that although the broad sweep of the narrative we find in Torah is linear, focusing on a successive chain of great leaders with uniquely powerful connections to God, whose struggles and triumphs shape us and our relationship of God to this day, we should not assume that everything that can be said about and in the name of God must come from the mouth of a Moses or an Isaiah. Even in the time of Moses, the greatest of the prophets, there were things God wanted the people to understand that God apparently felt were better communicated by other mouths than his.
According to one source in the Talmud, after the deaths of the last prophets recorded in the Tanakh, the holy spirit–that is, the genius for prophecy–departed from Israel. Some connect this with the destruction of the second Temple. According to this narrative, out of all the world only the Temple at Jerusalem was considered a worthy resting place for the divine Presence, and until it is rebuilt in the messianic age we remain cut off from the powerful experience of God that prophecy represents.
Personally, I take more comfort from a statement recorded of R. Avdini of Haifa, who said, “Ever since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy was taken from the prophets and given to the sages.” I think we can interpret this statement to mean that in some small way the prophetic impulse is present in anyone willing to look at the world with eyes eager to better understand what God asks of us. Can any of us ever be a Moses or an Isaiah? Of course not, but neither do we need to. They had their own extraordinary tasks to achieve, and we reap the benefits of their encounters with God to this day. But neither should we ever deny ourselves the authority to speak, to broaden and deepen in whatever way we can the understanding of those who came before.