Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha

The Vessel or What’s Inside of It?

A story is told that when Rav Soloveitchik’s wife Tonya, z״l, was hospitalized due to an illness, he and Haym had the run of the house. Following the technical laws of kashrut, they proceeded to eat cold milkhig food on fleishig dishes. When Tonya returned from the hospital, she was apoplectic. The Rav explained that he was doing nothing more than following the halakha of the Shulkhan Arukh, to which Tonya replied: “You and your Shulkhan Arukh are going to treif up my kitchen!”

This story gets to the heart of what keeping separate dishes
is all about. Most classically, it is treated as a concern that any flavor that might have seeped into the walls of the dish will transfer to the food currently in it – if there is no heat to transfer the taste, it shouldn’t be a problem. Alternatively, however, it may be about maintaining a strict division, of keeping like with like, of keeping the status and identity of things well defined – milkhig food gets milkhig dishes, fleishig food gets fleishig dishes. This latter approach is often thought of as one that more reflects the understanding of the laity, one that does not reflect the true halakhic concerns. The matter, however, is not so simple.

When the people come back from the war against the Midianites in this week’s parasha, they bring with them the booty of war, including vessels and clothing. Elazar instructs them in what must be done with these items:

Everything that goes through fire, you shall make it go through the fire, and it shall be clean: nevertheless it shall be purified with the sprinkling water; and all that does not go through fire you shall make go through the water (Bamidbar 31:23).

The simple sense of these verses is that this is a purification process, since the people have just come in contact with dead bodies, and this is presumably the meaning of the “sprinkling water,” that is, they must be sprinkled with the ashes of the red heifer. This is certainly true regarding the purification of clothes mentioned in the following verse. However, this would not explain why the vessels in this verse must also be passed through fire or water. Rather than conclude that the Torah is introducing a new purification process, the Rabbis understand that a different issue is at play.

These cooking vessels, say the Rabbis, must not only be purified due to contact with the dead but purged of the non-kosher tastes that they have absorbed. Thus, vessels used directly over the fire, such as a spit, must be purified or kashered, as we would say, by putting it over a fire, and similarly vessels used with boiling water, such as a pot, must be kashered with boiling water. This is the principle of ki’bolo kakh polto, just as it absorbed the taste, so it expels it.

But maybe not. Maybe this whole process is not primarily about removing problematic absorbed taste. Maybe it is about changing the identity of the vessel, taking a treif vessel and redefining it, through this ritual, as a kosher one.

What is the evidence for this? First, this verse appears in the context of ritual purification, which is all about effecting a change of status. Second, note that the Rabbis also learn from this verse that there is a mitzvah to immerse even brand new vessels purchased from non-Jews, the mitzvah of tevilat keilim. This is most easily understood as a ritual to change the status of the vessel – from a non-Jewish vessel to a Jewish one. The juxtaposition in the verse of this requirement to kashering one suggests that the two are serving a similar function – change of status. Reflecting and reinforcing this is the Mishna in Avoda Zara (75b) which deals with kashering and toveling vessels all in the same discussion. Taken together, it seems like we are dealing with issues of status and not necessarily absorbed taste.

Other halakhot and Talmudic discussions support this approach. When we kasher a vessel, we only look at its primary use – on the fire, with boiling water, etc. – and not at all the ways it might have absorbed the taste of food. After we do the kashering we have the custom of immersing the vessel in cold water, akin to a purification process (and what is done with a chatat, see Vayikra 6:21). Perhaps more significant is the fact that the requirement to kasher these dishes from Midian may not fit the general rules of absorbed taste, either because the taste would have already been spoiled, lifgam (Pesachim 44b), or as the 13th century Rav Aharon HaLevi (Ra’ah) points out, because there would not be enough of it to be considered the true taste of the original food (Chezkat HaBayit on Torat HaBayit 4:1, 11a).

If this isn’t about the taste of the absorbed food, what is it about? Ra’ah states, in the name of his teacher Ramban, that the prohibition to use vessels that were used with non-kosher food is because of what they are. Don’t use treif vessels. Whatever is in their walls doesn’t matter, if they were used to cook treif food, they are treif. In this way, kashering vessels is a form of purifying them, of changing their status and transforming them.

So who was right? Was it the Rav or was it Tonya? Is it the vessel, or is it what is in it? The truth is that both of these approaches exist within halakha, and an ongoing dialectical tension exists between them.

And so it should be. For while Rebbe Yehudah haNasi famously teaches, “Do not look at the vessel, but at what is inside it,” the reality is that we are always looking at the vessel, and this is not necessarily a bad thing (Pirkei Avot 4:20). We need to organize our reality. We need to assign labels, to categorize, to understand where one thing stands in relation to others. And the way a thing or a person appears, the identity they project, helps us do this in an efficient and effective way. There is a reason doctors go around wearing white coats and stethoscopes. It is true that this might lead to us dismissing someone who is not wearing that white coat or to giving too much weight to one who is, even if she is not such an expert, but it is better than the alternative – not having any idea who is who and how to navigate our way.

Tonya was right. Eating cold cheese off of a fleishig plate might be halakhically permissible. But blurring the boundaries and mixing categories is also a sure way to treif up the kitchen.

This approach is also central to the halakhic system, or any legal system for that matter. Halakha mostly operates with formalistic categories. Certain concrete, objective, quantifiable criteria are assessed, and that dictates what category something is in and what halakhot obtain. What halakha doesn’t do, except in rare cases, is look at the full context, the circumstances relevant to an individual or thing, and apply one law to the whole as a category rather than apply a different law for each facet of the case. This is the principle of lo plug – we don’t make distinctions. It would be highly inefficient, if not impossible, to have a legal system that operated on principles and not on formal categories. Looking at the vessel is absolutely necessary.

But if Tonya was right, so was Rebbe Yehudah haNassi. For a system that only looks at status and identity, that places labels on people and things and makes decisions on that basis, will lead to cases of error and injustice, to marginalization and exclusion. The woman in the white coat may not be a doctor, and even if she is, she may not know what she is talking about. If we are able, we need to stretch ourselves and go past the quick, easy categorization and its conclusions. We need to do our research, find out what truly is contained in the vessel.

Similarly with halakha. While a non-formalist approach undermines the halakhic system, an overly formalist approach can be blind to real people and real human suffering. There are times that we have to push ourselves and find ways to look at not just the category, but the real live person that is in it. There are ways that halakha accommodates this – concepts such as sha’at ha’dechak, an exigency where exceptions can be made, or times when we don’t say lo plug, where situations are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. And then there are times when, like the laws of kosher vessels, the two exist in an ongoing dialectic relationship, where the particular circumstances and context can influence how the formal categories are defined.

In the end, we must find a way to keep our kitchens kosher, and we must find a way to know and care what each and every vessel contains.

Shabbat shalom!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha

There has been much talk this past week about vengeance. In this regard, it is instructive to explore what our parasha says about zealotry – which is a close cousin to vengeance – and peace. Consider the following: A religious zealot witnesses a person who is flagrantly violating religious standards of behavior and, acting in the name of God, picks up the nearest available weapon and violently slays this sinner. If this happened today – and it does – we would be outraged and call for this act to be condemned. The Torah, however, praises it.

“Pinchas… has turned My anger away from the people of Israel, when he was zealous for My sake among them, that I consumed not the people of Israel in My jealousy. Therefore, say, Behold I give him My covenant of peace… a covenant for eternal priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the Children of Israel” (Bamidbar 25:13).

Is religious zealotry, then, an ideal to be emulated? While recognizing that such actions were praised after the fact in the Torah, the Gemara states that halakha, as a normative system, would never give prior warrant to such violence, and that, from a halakhic point of view, Pinchas was actually a “pursuer” who could have been killed to prevent him from taking Zimri’s life (Sanhedrin 82a). License can never be given to violence, even if it is motivated by religious zealotry.

One can detect a similar concern in the blessing that God gives to Pinchas: “Behold, I give him My covenant of peace.” While after the fact and in this unique set of circumstances, this act of zealotry was praiseworthy, the blessing for eternity, the guiding principle for life, must be one not of violence but of peace.

One must hold strong to this zeal for truth and for God, but to realize it in the real world – the world of human beings and imperfection – one must actualize it in ways of peace. God's seal is truth (Shabbat 55a), and truth is absolute and unbending. But even God's name is erased for the sake of peace (Shabbat 116b). For the Torah of truth to be a Torah for life, one needs to be guided by the principle of peace

When Torah and truth run up against error and sin, the response need not be violence; the response can be understanding and compromise.

Thus, we find that, later in life, Pinchas becomes the embodiment of peace. In the book of Joshua, when the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and half the tribe of Menashe return to the Transjordan and build a large altar, the Israelites prepare to wage war against them, believing that they have abandoned God. Pinchas, however, is sent to lead a delegation, and he brokers a peace and averts war (Joshua 22). He has moved beyond his zealous uncompromising youth, to become an elder statesman who pursues diplomacy, compromise, and peace. Significantly, the Talmud records the opinion of Rav Ashi that Pinchas did not even become a kohen until he brokered this peace (Zevachim 101b). His “covenant of priesthood” could only be realized when he realized his “covenant of peace.”

It is instructive in this regard to contrast Pinchas with Eliyahu. The midrash states "Pinchas is Eliyahu," and indeed, both of them were “zealous for God.” In response to the rampant idolatry in the Land of Israel, Eliyahu decrees that there be no rain in the land and after three years of famine, in a great public demonstration, slays the prophets of the pagan god Ba’al by the edge of the sword. He runs to hide in a cave, and there God appears to him:

And he came there to a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, What are you doing here, Eliyahu?

And he said, I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword; and I am the only one left; and they seek my life, to take it away. 

And God said, Go out, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake; And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice
(Kings I, 19: 9-13).

Eliyahu has indeed been “zealous for the Lord,” and as a result, many have died by sword and by famine. God, however, has a lesson to teach him – God is not about violence, but about the small, still voice, the voice that will speak to a person’s heart, the voice that will bring about peace. Eliyahu, however, cannot comprehend this message:

… And, behold, there came a voice to him, and said, What are you doing here, Eliyahu?

And he said, I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; because the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword; and I am the only one left; and they seek my life, to take it away.

And the Lord said to him, Go, return on your way … and Elisha … shall you anoint to be prophet in your place (Kings I, 19: 14-16).            

Eliyahu is so committed to his absolute sense of truth that he cannot understand that the time for zealotry has passed, and that for the people to reconcile with God, a small voice, the voice of peace, is needed. If he cannot understand this, then he can no longer lead the people, and Elisha the prophet must take his place.

Pinchas is Eliyahu, but he develops and matures. Eliyahu, on the other hand, is Pinchas but only the younger Pinchas. Eliyahu is taken heavenward in a whirlwind; he is not a person of this world. His zealotry for truth and for God could not be reconciled with the frailties of human beings. He is never to become the older Pinchas. At least not in this world. But Eliyahu will become the ultimate emissary of peace in the future world:

Behold, I will send you Eliyahu the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord; And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a curse (Malachi 3:22-23).

He will be the one to bring about peace to save the world for the harsh judgment that God, in His attribute of truth, would demand.

In the end, the Sages debate how much Eliyahu’s final mission of peace will in fact trump his earlier mission of truth and zealotry. Regarding those whose personal status had prevented them from marrying within the Jewish people, we find the following discussion in the mishnah:

R. Yehoshua said: I have received a tradition from Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai, who heard it from his teacher, and his teacher [heard it] from his teacher, as a halakhah [given] to Moses from Sinai, that Eliyahu will not come to pronounce unclean or to pronounce clean, to put away or to bring near, but to push away those brought near by force and to bring near those pushed away by force…

R.Yehudah says: To bring near, but not to push away…

The Sages say neither to push away nor to bring near, but to make peace in the world, for it is said, “Behold I send to you Eliyahu the prophet, etc., and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to their fathers” (Mishna Eduyot 8:7).

According to R. Yehoshua, even in the future, Eliyahu will not compromise truth one iota. Peace will only be a possible byproduct of truth. Eliyahu’s mission will be to rectify falsehood, to ensure that a person’s status is true to reality. R. Yehudah, however, believes that, in the end, truth will serve the interests of peace, and that it will be called on only to bring close those who have been distanced. The Sages, however, reject both of these positions and believe that for Eliyahu these two principles will never be able to be reconciled. Eliyahu will only be able to devote himself to peace by allowing the work of truth to be done by others.

Eliyahu was not of this world, but Pinchas was of this world. He was given God’s covenant of peace, and was able to realize in his own lifetime true religious leadership, a leadership that brings an unflinching devotion to God and to truth in one’s service to the people, and a leadership that actualizes this truth in ways of peace.

Shabbat shalom!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha

"Whoever has… an ayin tova, a good eye… is a student of Avraham; whoever has an ayin ra’ah, a bad eye… is 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 to 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 God. 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; 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” (Bamidbar 22:8), that is, to listen to God. 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” (22:13), he says. I still want to go, but God is holding me back.

God tries to teach Balaam otherwise. God tells Balaam 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 (32:22): “He saw that it was evil in God’s eyes, and yet he desired to go.” He did not care how God saw the matter. It was his perspective that mattered.

God, however, isn’t done with the education of Balaam. Hence the bizarre story of the speaking donkey. 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 signal that there is 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 in the environment that we as humans cannot. Partly this is because of the way their senses have developed to adapt to their environment. But partly it is also because they experience the world for what it is. They do not bring the type of subjective lens that we as humans do to 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 is a seeing that allows them to see what we so often cannot.

Balaam’s arrogance, self-importance, and desire for fame and enrichment blind him to seeing the obvious facts. And now, just as God had opened the mouth of the donkey, God miraculously opens the eyes of Balaam, so that he can see the angel, see the truth. But does Balaam learn? Hardly. “Now, if it is evil in Your eyes, I will return back,” (32:34) he responds. 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 the lines, putting the very words in his mouth. Perhaps there is a lesson here, that even when we disagree with someone, it can pay to say the words that they want to hear. “Yes, dear,” can often be the most important two 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, help change the way we see.

This is what happens with Balaam. When he begins working with Balaak, 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” (22:41, and later 23:13), not to appreciate their totality, and their blessedness. To pick on particular aspects that one can see with a jaundiced eye. 

This is a key strategy to reinforcing the way we see the world: choosing to see selectively. 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 with all the information easily available on the Internet, people would develop more informed and nuanced views about matters. What actually happened, and continues to happen, however, is that people choose to see only the “edge of the people,” and seek out the information that reinforces their already 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” (23:9), “He has not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither has he seen perverseness in Israel” (23:21).  It seems that these words start to seep in to his own consciousness, so that finally, 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 vayar… ki 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. 

He can now, finally, see. He can now that he 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.” (24:3) – self-descriptions that have been absent until now. And it is now, and only now, that he is filled with the “spirit of God.” It is not just words that he is parroting back. 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 to learn how 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!