Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Balak

Believing is Seeing

"Whoever ayin tova, a good a student of Avraham; whoever has an ayin ra'ah, a bad a student of Balaam," the Rabbis tell us in Pirkei Avot (5:22). Avraham sees well, whereas Balaam sees poorly. How so?

On the face of it, the stories of Avraham and Balaam are parallel. Both Avraham and Balaam are called to leave their land and go westward, to or near the land of Canaan. But while Avraham is called by God to go, lekh likha, Balaam is told by God to stay, lo teilekh. The first lesson, then, is that it is not the going that is important; it is the listening to God. If God says go, you go, and if God says stay, you stay. So they are both commanded by God, and Balaam, at least in principle, is willing to obey. But whereas Avraham follows God's command, Balaam resists it. Why? The difference lies not in how they are prepared to act, but how they are prepared to see.

God does not just command Avraham to go to Canaan. God commands him to go to the land asher ar'ekha, that I will show you. To fulfill that command, it is not enough to obey. One must also learn to see. To find the chosen land, Avraham has to be able to see what God is showing him. He has to learn to see. This is why the climax of Avraham's trials, the akeida, which also begins with a lekh likha, is all about seeing properly: seeing the place from a distance, telling Yitzchak that God will see the sheep, seeing the angel, seeing the ram, and even naming the place "the mount where God is seen." Avraham's career begins with seeing and ends with seeing, seeing what God is showing him, seeing as God would see.

Balaam is a different story. Balaam is prepared to do "as God speaks to me," that is, to listen to God (Bamidbar, 22:8). There is a huge difference between obeying and agreeing. Balaam continues to see things differently than God. If he obeys, he will do so with reluctance and resistance: "God refuses to let me go with you," he says (22:13). I still want to go, but God is holding me back.

God tries to teach Balaam otherwise. God tells him not to go with the messengers, not to curse the people, for "they are blessed." God is letting him know what the true, deeper reality is. But, of course, Balaam continues to see things his way. As Rashi comments, "He saw that it was evil in God's eyes, and yet he desired to go" (32:22). Balaam did not care how God saw the matter; it was his perspective that mattered.

However, as we see in the bizarre story of the speaking donkey, God isn't done with the education of Balaam. The point of the story is clear: the donkey is able to see what Balaam cannot. Three times we hear, va'teireh ha'aton, "and the donkey saw." It is remarkable that the verse does not indicate anything miraculous about the donkey seeing the angel; it is only when the donkey speaks that we read, "And God opened the mouth of the donkey" (22:28). Animals, as we know, can sometimes smell, hear, and see things that we as humans cannot. This is partly because of the way their senses have adapted to their environments, but it is also partly because they experience the world for what it is. They do not have the same subjective lens through which we humans view our experiences, filtering, shaping, and seeing things in ways that are consistent with our worldview. The simple, unfiltered seeing of the donkey is like the simple seeing of children, free from the rationalizations and self-deceptions of adults. It allows them to see what we so often cannot.

Balaam's arrogance, self-importance, and desire for fame and enrichment blind him to the obvious facts. And now, just as God opened the mouth of the donkey, God miraculously opens the eyes of Balaam so that he can see the angel, and the truth. But does Balaam learn? Hardly. "Now, if it is evil in Your eyes, I will return back," he responds (32:34). It is still not evil in my eyes. I understand that it may be evil in Your eyes, and if you tell me not to go I am prepared to listen. You can get me to obey, but I refuse to see things Your way.

At this stage, God allows for a compromise. If Balaam can't be taught to see right, God can at least get him to say the right thing, force-feeding him lines, putting the very words in his mouth. Perhaps there is a lesson here: even when we disagree with someone, it can pay to say the words that they want to hear. "Yes, dear," can be the two most important words in a marriage. Insincerity is never good, but words do have a power of their own. If we choose to say the desired words, even if we do not fully believe them, then not only can they be helpful to the one hearing them, but they can also help shape our own perception, helping to change the way we see.

This is what happens with Balaam. When he begins working with Balak, he of course continues to see things his way, even as God is working against this. Balak helps with this, making sure that Balaam only sees the "edge of the people" and does not appreciate their totality and their blessedness (22:41, 23:13).

Choosing to see selectively is a key strategy in reinforcing the way we see the world. Consider how rare it is that we try to see the true complexity and scope of a matter, to realize that things aren't so black and white, to see all the nuances. In fact, it was initially thought that all the information easily available on the Internet would lead people to develop more informed and nuanced views. What actually happened, and what continues to happen, however, is that people choose to see only the "edge of the people," seeking out the information that reinforces their established position. It is so much easier to see selectively, to see just what we want to see.

That was the attempt. But the words that Balaam utters begin to have their effect. In his first two poetic prophecies, we hear him declaiming-with the words fed to him by God-how the people are truly to be seen: "For I see them from the tops of mountains, and from the hills I behold them"; "He has not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither has he seen perverseness in Israel" (23:9, 21). It seems that these words start to seep in to his own consciousness, so that by the third prophecy, he begins to actually believe them. It is now, at this third and final stage, that Balaam truly begins to see: "And Balaam saw that it was good in the eyes of God to bless Israel" (24:1).

This is the turning point. Before it was "bad in God's eyes" to curse, but he refused to see and resisted. Now it is "good in God's eyes" to bless; he sees this and he embraces it. It is these very words tov, "and he saw....that it was good," that echo the very first act of seeing in the Torah: va'yar E-lohim ki tov, "And God saw that it was good." This is an act of divine seeing. Balaam is now seeing as God sees.

Finally, he can now see. He can now lift up his own eyes and see the people as they truly are (24:2). It is now that he declares that he can see "the vision of God" and see with "eyes open," self-descriptions that have been thus far absent (24:3). And it is now and only now that he is filled with the "spirit of God." He is not simply parroting back words. He is elevated and inspired by what he sees, and he speaks from his heart.

With this Balaam's education is complete. Sadly, however, the change is short-lived, as the remainder of the parasha bears out, for learning to see properly is not something that can be done in an instant. Even when our eyes are open, we often resist and choose to remain blind. It is a life-long struggle to be the students of Avraham, to learn to see the "land that God will show you." The keys are given to us in this parasha: see fully, not partially, and say the right words even if you do not yet believe them. Ultimately, you will be able to see rightly, to see with a "good eye," to see as God would have you see.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Chukat
Leadership for Self-Reliance

Transitions are hard. As the period of wandering in the desert begins to draw to a close, Bnei Yisrael encounter many changes and they anticipate many more. Their leaders begin to die: Miriam and Aharon both die in this week's parasha, and Moshe will pass away a few months hence. The people are also facing a shift in the very nature of their lives. For forty years they have been living an otherworldly existence, wandering in the wilderness, existing in a vacuum with all their needs being provided for directly by God in miraculous ways. Soon they will be living in the Land of Israel, fighting wars, planting and harvesting crops, living in a real society, and building a country. Will the people be ready for this change? What is necessary for a transition that is as smooth as possible, and what is required?

Perhaps the first thing that is needed is new leadership. Moshe and Aharon were the perfect leaders to bring the people out of Egypt, but they may not be the perfect leaders to bring them into the Land of Israel. They have led with the aid of ongoing and direct communication with God and with God's direct intervention through miraculous acts. Now, however, the people need leaders who don't need this option available to them, who can function without turning to God and expecting an answer. The people need leaders who can be effective when forced to work out real-world solutions for themselves, leaders who will be self-reliant and who can teach the people to be self-reliant as well.

Just as Moshe and Aharon have developed a reliance on God, the people have grown habituated to a reliance on Moshe and Aharon. This is not a healthy relationship, not for Moshe and Aharon and certainly not for the people. Consider the situation: The people have now spent forty years in the wilderness, and yet our parasha reads like a replay of their complaints as they left Egypt at the beginning of Parashat Beshalach. They lament the lack of water and food, they utter words against Moshe and God, and they ask to go back to Egypt.

Shouldn't they know better? They presumably know by now that God is able to provide for them. They also have presumably learned that complaining only leads to bad results. And yet what do they do? They whine; they repeat the old line, "Why did you take us out of Egypt?" Their request for water at least reflects legitimate need, even if they ask for it inappropriately, but the grumblings about the man is nothing but ingratitude and small-mindedness. And the divine response is predictably deadly. Really, don't they ever learn?

The truth is that it is one thing to learn intellectually and quite another to change the dynamics of a relationship. We so often revert to old patterns and old roles, even when we know better. A person could be a mature, accomplished professional, but when she goes back to her family for Thanksgiving or Pesach, all of a sudden she is playing her old role of middle sister and interacting with her parents and her siblings just like she did when she was a teenager. A couple could have worked through a difficult relationship, learning the behaviors that set one another off and that need to be avoided, but without a lot of effort, when those old triggers are encountered they will again act in their old, counterproductive ways.

Moshe and Bnei Yisrael have been working on their relationship now for forty years, and it seems like those old patterns are not going to break. Bnei Yisrael somehow fall back into their teenage child mode when facing challenges and turn to Moshe. And Moshe falls back into his familiar mode and turns to God for an answer: "And Moshe and Aharon went from the presence of the assembly unto the door of the Tent of Meeting, and they fell upon their faces: and the glory of the Lord appeared unto them" (Bamidbar, 20:6).

Moshe may not be aware of how little his own behavior has changed, but he certainly sees the people as failing in this regard: "Hear ye rebels, must we fetch water for you out of this rock?" (20:11). The word for rebels, morim, is echoed in his valedictory address to the people in a way that makes explicit the sense that the people's wayward behavior is hopeless and unchanging: "Rebels, mamrim, you have been against God, from the day that I have known you" (Devarim 9:24).

This, then, might be what the sin of Moshe and Aharon is really about, but it is all so mysterious. What was their sin? Was it hitting the rock rather than speaking to it? Was it calling the people rebels? Was it getting angry? Even if their sin is a combination of all these, do they really justify the punishment of dying in the wilderness without entering the land?

The answer might be that their sin is all of those and none, that it lays not in the acts themselves but in what they demonstrate. For each one of these things shows that Moshe is still the leader of old, and that he is unable to adapt to the changes ahead. Think of what he could have done differently: He could have engaged the people rather than running to the Tent of Meeting and calling on God to help. God even told him to break the old patterns and commanded him to speak to the rock, not to hit it, but he couldn't do it. Instead, he fell back into what was familiar, hitting the rock rather than speaking to it.

There is a lot of symbolism in the choice of whether to speak or to hit. Does one speak, trying to engage, thinking that there can be a meaningful connection with the other side, believing that both are receptive to the change that can emerge when two sides meet in open and reflective conversation? Or does one hit, believing that no true conversation can take place and that behavior can only be modified by brute force from above? If after all this time Moshe still sees the people as incorrigible rebels who can only be beaten into submission, then it is time that Moshe step back and allow a new leader to take over.

And, lo and behold, even though Yehoshua is not selected yet, as soon as Moshe and Aharon are told that they will not take the people into the land, the people start acting in a more mature and self-reliant fashion. After Aharon's death, Israel suffers an attack by the king of Arad. Their response? Not to turn to Moshe, but to take matters into their own hands: "And Israel vowed a vow unto the Lord, and said, If You will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities" (21:2).

They prayed to God, they went to battle, and they were victorious. This was no replay of the war with Amalek, another parallel to Parashat Beshalach. Here, the people were not dependent on Moshe or a miracle wrought by his hands raised to heaven. This war was won by the people themselves, by their skills in battle, their prayers, and their relationship with God.

Perhaps the event with the poisonous serpents represents a relapse, with their complaining about the man and turning to Moshe to pray to God to save them. But in the end, even with the miraculous intervention, there was something more empowering this time. Moshe didn't save the people with his prayers, and Aharon didn't save them with the incense. Moshe made a physical object, a serpent on a flag, which the people then used to save themselves. Each person's healing was in his or her own hands. This healing may have been a little too miraculous for the real world they would soon be encountering, and in the end the brass serpent was destroyed by King Hizkiyahu (II Kings, 18:3). But in the wilderness, where the supernatural was taken for granted, this was how healing took place. And they did it themselves.

And so it continues. The song that they sing, "Az Yashir," echoes the song sung by Moshe and Miriam back in Beshalach. But now it is not "az yashir Moshe," but rather, "az yashir Yisrael" (21:17). And by the time they are encountering Sichon, it is no longer Moshe who is sending the messengers, as was the case with Edom (20:14), but rather, the people themselves: "Then Israel sent messengers to Sichon the king of the Amorites..." (21:21).

The people are learning what it means to be responsible for themselves; they are growing up. And sometimes to grow up and escape all those old behaviors and dynamics, you have to leave the parental home. Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam are left behind in the people's childhood home, in the desert where the people were raised. The people are now ready to leave home, to become adults as they learn independence and self-reliance, and as they prepare for the challenges that lie ahead in the Land of Canaan.

Shabbat Shalom! 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A Though on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Korach
Parashat Korach is not just about rebels; it also affords us a look at different models of leadership. Both Moshe and Aharon are attacked. The latter remains markedly silent during the confrontation while Moshe defends both his position and his brother's. Aharon's response, as we will see, comes later and in a different form. 
Moshe's response is all about proving who is right and who is wrong. He speaks to, or more accurately, at, Korach but not with him. He summons Datan and Aviram but does not go to them. He makes no attempt to genuinely engage his opposition, to listen to them and try to understand their complaints or their motivations. He points out Korach's hypocrisy, noting that he is not after equality for the people but leadership for himself. And while Moshe may be completely correct in this point, revealing this truth will hardly win Korach - or even the people - over.

Moshe may be rightfully hurt that the people are shifting the blame for their failures and their current predicament onto him, but calling out to God and focusing on the wrongness of that claim rather than the people's reality gets him nowhere. In the end, Moshe demands a showdown with one ultimate winner and one ultimate loser, and the consequences are drastic and deadly: truth wins out, but its price is the complete destruction of the other side.

This is one way of approaching conflict, but it will not necessarily lead to the best results. Here, the focus is on a narrow, abstract truth, not the deeper truth of human beings, human emotions and motivations, societal realities, or interpersonal relationships. An approach such as this can even be quite counter-productive.

What is the aftermath of Moshe's proofs? Are the people satisfied now that they know he was right and Korach was wrong? Quite the contrary: "But on the morrow all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moshe and against Aharon, saying, 'You have killed the people of the Lord'" (Bamidbar, 16:41). The people do not see justice in Moshe's actions; his response was too violent, even if he was right. And perhaps the people aren't even sure in the end that Korach was wrong. They still refer to him and his followers as "the people of the Lord." It is hard not to hear an echo of Korach's claim that "All the people are holy and the Lord is in their midst" (16:3). The people were taken with Korach's vision, and they remain sympathetic to it. Moshe might have proven once and for all who was right, but the people-who exist on an emotional and psychological plane-may still feel that Korach was innocent, even right in some ways, and that he was killed unjustly.

Here is where Aharon comes in. On Moshe's direction, Aharon runs into the middle of the people and puts incense on the fire censer, staying the plague that was decimating the people. Rashi notes that the incense has an opposite effect here than it had earlier, bringing life now rather than death. But the point is larger than the effect of the incense, for the incense represents closeness to God. Closeness to God, if approached incorrectly, can lead to death. We saw this earlier with Nadav and Avihu and their wrongly offered incense, and we see it here with the story of the 250 men. But closeness to God can also bring life: "Seek me out and live," says God (Amos, 5:4). Whether this closeness brings life or death has to do with how we approach God, but it also has to do with how God approaches us.

The Rabbis speak of two aspects of the Divine: the side of Judgment and the side of Compassion. When God interacts with us in the mode of Judgment, every misstep is noted and punished accordingly. To use a gendered stereotype, we may think of this as the mode of the stern father. But there is also the mode of the forgiving, understanding mother, the mode of Compassion. Operating in this mode, God looks to find ways to connect, to nurture and give life, rather than focusing on an exact sense of right and wrong or on missteps and failures.

These two modes are paralleled in two types of leadership: that of Moshe and that of Aharon. Moshe's leadership was one of judgment, of right and wrong. Aharon's leadership was one of compassion, of forgiveness and understanding. This is vividly illustrated in God's response to the people's outcry. God tells Moshe to take twelve staves and to place them by the ark, one for each tribe, including Aharon's staff for the tribe of Levi. Moshe does so, and by the next day, Aharon's staff had blossomed and brought forth almonds. This, the Torah tells us, demonstrated that Aharon and his tribe had been chosen.

But how did this miracle accomplish anything more than the previous miracles? On an intellectual plane it added nothing, but on an emotional level, it made its point through beauty and life, not through destruction and death. It showed that leadership - as symbolized by the staff - should be nurturing and life-giving. If attached to its original source of life, the same stick that can be used as a rod to smite can also be a living branch, the source of flourishing and growth. The miracle of the staff demonstrated to the people and to Moshe that a different type of leadership was possible. Let us not forget that Moshe's sin at the end of the forty years was that he continued to use the staff as a rod, smiting the rock rather than talking to it.

This is not to say that the approach of Aharon can exist by itself. The staff must be both a rod and a branch. In the end, we need both a father's sternness and a mother's compassion. The Gemara in Sanhedrin (6b) addresses this in its discussion of whether a judge should strive for justice (din) or compromise (peshara). It associates the former with Moshe and the latter with Aharon:

Such was Moshes' motto: Let the law pierce the mountain. Aharon, however, loved peace and pursued peace and made peace between man and man, as it is written, "The law of truth was in his mouth, unrighteousness was not found in his lips, he walked with Me in peace and uprightness and did turn many away from iniquity" (Malakhi, 2:6).

Now truth and peace are not always compatible. The famous Midrash tells how Aharon would pursue peace: When two people were fighting, Aharon would approach each one individually, saying, "Your friend wants to make up with you, but he is too embarrassed to come and apologize." This would evoke sympathetic feelings, and the next time they met, the two would embrace and make up. This is the way of peace, but it is not exactly the way of truth: white lies were necessary to achieve the end.

The world needs judgment and compromise, truth and peace. We may have to choose between the two, but the choice is not necessarily either/or. Maharsha already notes that the verse regarding Aharon and peace also states that "the law of truth was in his lips." Peace can be integrated with truth. In halakhic literature this is referred to as peshara krova li'din, a compromise which approximates the just resolution. This integration can come in terms of proportions, some elements of a decision being based on the letter of the law and others on compromise. It might also come in terms of a larger perspective. Truth does not exist solely in terms of abstract realities or the letter of the law; it can also incorporate equity, fairness, the condition of human relationships, and societal well-being. When Aharon said, "Your friend wants to make up with you," he was not lying. He was communicating a deeper, human truth.

Peace by itself, if it fully sacrifices truth, is also a perversion. It was Aharon's desire to find peace that led to his giving into the people at the Sin of the Golden Calf. We must strive for peace as the ultimate goal, but it must be a peace that approximates and integrates truth.

As it is with leadership, so it is with our interpersonal relationships. How many couples waste needless hours and emotional angst, at times even fracturing, over pointless arguments about who is right and who is wrong? What larger truth is achieved by demonstrating that one is right about a trivial detail? On the other hand, never standing for anything and simply giving in all the time leads to resentment and a compromise of one's sense of self. The goal is to seek out the larger truth, one that incorporates not just abstract questions of fact but also the truths of human emotions and human relationships. "'Kindness and Truth have met up' [Tehilim, 85]: This is Moshe and Aharon" (Shemot Rabbah, 5:10).

Shabbat Shalom! 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Thought on the Parsha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Shelach
Parashat Shelach is as much a story of leaders as of the people. It is a story of leaders both poor and good. The poor leaders-ten of the twelve spies-saw the challenges that confronted them in the land of Canaan and ran: "We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we" (Bamidbar, 13:31). The good leaders-Yehoshua and Calev-saw the same challenges and pushed forward: "Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it" (13:30). What accounts for this difference?                                                                                                                  
The simple answer is fear. When a person is afraid, all he or she can see is the object of his or her fear. Even for those who had seen all the miracles, who have all the reasons to believe in God, faith faltered when they were confronted with fear. The people had seen the hand of God in Egypt, at Har Sinai, and in the Wilderness, and still here, they were unable to believe that God would save them. Their reaction was the same as the people's reaction at the Red Sea. The people prefer to go back and be slaves in Egypt or to stay in the Wilderness rather than confront their fears. Fear is irrational; it paralyzes.

The answer to fear is faith. Where fear sees only obstacles, faith sees opportunities: "We are able to overcome it!" This is what separates good leadership from bad. Leadership based on fear is no leadership at all. Good leadership must be based on faith in God and Torah, faith in others and in one's self. Only leadership of faith could take the people into the Promised Land.

This is one of the things that distinguishes Modern Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy has in many ways become a religion of fear: fear of the outside world, of asking hard questions, of delegitimization, and of being honest with ourselves about our own shortcomings. It is much safer, some say, to reject the outside world, protecting ourselves in a cloistered environment.

There is much to be afraid of in the unknown, outside world. What will happen if we confront postmodernism, archeology, science, history, philosophy, academic Talmud, Biblical criticism, feminism, and homosexuality? What will happen-how might the world judge us-if we confront spousal abuse, rabbinic sexual abuse, alcoholism, and drug abuse? What will happen if we genuinely address the marginalization of single mothers, converts, the developmentally disabled, those suffering from depression, and children with special needs? Many in the Orthodox community have chosen to look at these challenges and say, "We cannot go up, for they are stronger than we!" The response is to put up walls and to remain in the desert.

But there is more than fear of the outside world. There is fear of losing full control, of granting the people a degree of autonomy. It is scary for some to imagine individuals and communities-or even local rabbis-thinking for themselves. For some, the answer to this is to have communal issues decided by a Gadol and his da'as Torah, to say: "Is it not better for us to return to Egypt? Perhaps we were slaves in Egypt, but everything was secure and predictable. In Egypt, someone else did the thinking for us." This is leadership of fear, a yiddishkeit destined to stay in the desert and never go into the Promised Land.

Calev was a different kind of leader with a ruach acheret, a different spirit. He saw the formidable challenges and most certainly experienced fear, but he did not give into it. He responded to his fear by reaffirming his faith, and we must do the same. We must trust in God. We must trust in the Torah and its ability to confront life's challenges. We must trust that it can be taken out of its shell and brought to bear on theological struggles, the economy, and injustice. We need to have enough faith in the Torah that we can honestly face up to the challenges of agunah, homosexuality, universalism, and particularism. We need to trust that it can help us embrace archeology, science, history, and feminism rather than rejecting them, allowing us to see a larger and deeper truth.

We also need religious leaders who trust in the people as well as the Torah. We need leaders who do not withhold information or misrepresent halakha out of a false belief that the people can't handle the truth, leaders who value the expertise and the voice of every member of the community, respecting them and including their voices in its piskei halakha and its decision-making process.

Leadership and a Torah based on faith, not fear, will be open to hearing other voices, even those in opposition. The natural response is to try to shut these voices down, as even Yehoshua did when Eldad and Meidad were prophesying in the camp: "My master, Moshe, restrain them." It requires a great leader to resist this response, to recognize that we as a people will only be richer and wiser if we can listen to and respect visions that are different from our own. It is a rare leader who has enough faith in himself that he can welcome challenge.

What we most desperately need are religious leaders who have enough faith in the people, whose deepest desire is not to lead the people but to empower them. Such leaders know that they will only truly succeed when they have inspired each individual to find his or her unique vision and follow it, not when everyone conforms to their vision. We need leaders who can say, "Who would give that all the nation of God would be prophets, that God should give God's spirit upon them!" We need leaders who will take us into the Promised Land.

Shabbat Shalom!