Category: Shabbat Shalom Message
I, like many of you, was amazed once again by the American gymnast, Simone Biles. Biles made history this past week with a dismount from the balance beam that no one had ever done before. Even in slow motion I could not believe what this amazing athlete was able to do with her body, sending it spinning and flipping in the air as she gracefully and effortlessly stuck her landing. Even prior to her dismount, the balance beam routine was breathtaking (click here to view it). read more
I am either young enough to remember, or my English teachers made such an impression on me that I recall with some clarity, how to craft a persuasive paper. Paragraph one begins with a hook to engage the reader, followed by stating your argument, and closing with an overview of your points. The proceeding paragraphs then lay out your argumentative points, which are supported by two to three sub-points. The concluding paragraph recaps your argument and implores the reader to side with you. I liken the structure of the Torah to the persuasive papers I once wrote, especially the book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy, which we begin reading this week, starts with a recap of the Israelites journey out of Egypt and wanderings through the desert. read more
Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall provide yourselves with places to serve you as cities of refuge to which a manslayer who has killed a person unintentionally may flee. (Numbers 35:1-0-11) Mas’ei’s, two central themes, the importance of fairness and having evidence comes to light. As our ancestors journeyed across the desert, they probably didn’t have much time to think about forming a society. But when they finally settled in the Land, it was time for them to develop the laws and rules that would help them all get along as part of a sacred community. read more
Al Ta’avireinu — Do not move us. In the last half of this week’s Torah portion, Matot (“tribes”), we learn that the tribes of Reuben and Gad possessed a great amount of cattle, had been traveling to Israel for 40 years, and felt that the lands of Jazer and Gilead would be a more suitable place to settle because they possessed enormous amounts of livestock. They came to Moses with this seemingly innocent request, אֶת הַיְַרדֵּן אַל תַעֲבִרֵנוּ–“do not move us to Jordan.” But they were met with great anger and scorn by Moses, who accused them of turning the minds and hearts of the Israelites away from crossing into Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). Moses reminded them that their fathers, after surveying the Land at Moses’ request, had influenced their people in the same way decades earlier, forcing the Israelites into 40 more years of wandering in the wilderness. So they struck a deal with Moses: they would build homes for their families and livestock to stay back in these fortified towns, but they themselves would go out as shock-troops, promising not to return to their homes until every Israelite possessed a portion of the land. Moses accepted this offer.
This notion of “do not move us” is a great fear that many of us have, particularly as we move on in years. We begin to establish roots, normalcies, patterns, and deep connections with our homes, in some cases, whether we like them or not. I can remember my mother complaining year after year about the town we grew up in downstate. However, when the time came for them to leave (they have since returned to a town close by our original home), it was one of the most difficult things she had to experience. Al ta’avireinu. Do not move us. Yet often, when we take that leap of faith and move, we may experience a complete sense of destruction—the tearing down of what was familiar to us—and eventually, a rebirth and rebuilding of something else, which helps us to grow as human beings even more than we had thought possible, and would not have occurred without the destruction.
Next month in the Jewish calendar will bring the fast holiday of Tisha B’Av, which falls on August 10th this year. This day, known as the saddest day of the Jewish year, commemorates the destruction of both the First and Second Temple (in 586 BCE and 70 CE, respectively). It is also believed that on this date, several other tragic events occurred in Jewish life, one of which links us to this Torah portion: God’s decree that the Israelites would wander in the desert for 40 years until a new generation would be ready to enter the Promised Land. Other events include the Bar Kochba Headquarters and Jerusalem falling to Rome in 135 CE, resulting in Hadrian, the Roman emperor, establishing Jerusalem as a pagan city in 136 CE.
When the Second Temple fell, the devastation and utter hopelessness that ensued the Jewish people could have quite possibly led to their demise. Instead, and after much time passed, we turned our mourning into dancing. Once there was no place to make sacrifices to God, Jews had to figure out another way. Thus, the Temple became “temple(s)”—smaller, multiple versions, and the sacrifices became prayers, which were eventually recorded in prayer books. Many liberal Jews are not waiting for the Messiah or the Temple to be re-built and are thrilled and happy to be able to pray in our temples, with our written or personal prayers, and are not keen on reinstituting animal sacrifices.
It is also customary to do a teaching about Tisha B’Av in a wedding, believe it or not, because while we are to celebrate the simcha (happiness) that the wedding brings, we are to also remember that with the sweet came the bitter and sadness, as both go hand in hand. Sefat Emet, a Chassidic Rabbi and master teacher wrote a commentary for his son’s wedding in 1893. He references Psalm 95:6, “Come let us bow down and kneel, bend the knee before God our maker.” Regarding this Psalm, Sefat Emet writes that “Moses foresaw, through the Holy Spirit that the Holy Temple would be destroyed and the offerings of first fruits suspended.” Thus, Moses used this Psalm, along with Psalm 141:2, which states: “Take my prayer as an offering of incense, my upraised hands as an evening sacrifice,” as metaphors to begin to establish a three times a day prayer practice which would eventually take the place of sacrifices. The Sefat Emet writes, “Prayer is beloved of the Blessed Holy One beyond all other good deeds and all the sacrifices.” Rabbi Jonathan Slater teaches that it was possible that even before both Temples were destroyed, there were smaller versions, similar to those today, in which prayer was taking place instead of sacrifice. But many of the Israelites said, “Al ta’avireinu,” “do not move us from the Temple,” and worship as they knew it. Thus, they were never fully able to embrace this practice until they experienced its utter destruction and were left with no choice but to rebuild.
Fasting on Tisha B’Av can serve as a metaphor for the destruction and redemption we often feel in our lives as humans. It is intentionally short because it begins at sundown, typically with a service where the book of Eicha (Lamentations) is read. There is even a different trope—a sad, more contemplative sound. It ends in the sunlight of the afternoon traditionally with a mincha (afternoon) service. The fast and reading of Eicha at sundown allows us to experience this utter sadness and emptiness that comes with destruction. There are morning services also, and no Torah is read, or no tallit or tefillin are worn. However, in the afternoon, the hopefulness comes along with the breaking of the fast as the thirteen attributes of God are recited, along with special prayers of comfort.
The message of Tisha B’Av is not just one of sadness and destruction. It is one of God’s first ways of showing us that things sometimes have to be utterly destroyed so that we can rebuild and begin anew. If you choose to, I wish you a tzom kal (easy fast) for Tisha B’Av, and that this holiday will help you to keep breathing through destruction and hanging onto the hope that redemption is on its way.
Cantor Susie Lewis Friedman
Have you ever watched an episode of a TV show that ends on an incredible cliffhanger? Maybe a main character suddenly dies, or someone’s true identity was shockingly revealed, or a huge plot twist was introduced just seconds before a fade to black. Whatever it might be, you sit there shocked, numbly watching the credits start to roll, trying to get your brain to function enough to formulate a response. It might take you minutes, hours, or even days to have processed the shock enough to be able to talk about it.
That feeling is the feeling I get from last week’s Torah portion. Most of the portion focuses on the story of Balaam, the non-Israelite prophet who despite setting out to curse the Israelites, blesses them – a blessing we still invoke every Shabbat morning with the words of Ma Tovu. But in the last few verses of the portion, there’s a sudden, dark turn. The Torah tells us that a number of Israelite men were having sexual relations with the nearby Moabite women – a big no-no in God’s mind as the men were going beyond carnal pleasures to making sacrifices to Baal-Peor. God then commands Moses to have all of these men impaled and killed. Pinchas, taking this command to heart, grabs his spear, follows one of these Israelite men entering into the woman’s chamber, and in one swift move stabs them both.
A Torah portion not for the faint of heart.
How suddenly the narrative of the Torah shifts! Our sacred scroll is certainly not lacking in PG-13 or R-rated stories. But this shift from blessing to promiscuity and holy murder is more than a little jarring. And then, it just stops. And we spend all week waiting for the next episode, concluding this sub-plot.
There are so many directions this story could go. God could punish Pinchas for taking too much initiative, echoing God’s message from Deuteronomy, “Vengeance is mine.” Pinchas could have jump-started a war between the Israelites and the Moabites. Moses could reward Pinchas for relieving him of this bloody task, allowing Moses to remain pure. Pinchas could start imagining his hands stained in blood long after he’s been cleansed, giving rise to Lady Macbeth’s “out, out, damn spot” centuries later.
What really happens, however, on the next installment of Torah is that God recognizes that Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, was jealous on God’s behalf. In gratitude, God grants Pinchas a Brit Shalom, God’s covenant of peace, and a promise of eternal priesthood.
It is hard for me to get on board with God’s reward to a man so zealous and impulsive that religious murder is condoned. It’s hard for me to read a story of such extreme xenophobia from our ancestors that the only response was to swiftly strike the perpetrators and their lineage from the tribe. It’s hard for me to even speak about this story without heavy judgment and disappointment.
More and more, I find myself hearing or reading stories and struggling to form words or remain open to other points of view.
It’s not just Pinchas who shocks me into silence. It seems like everyday something happens, and it feels too shocking to respond. I know I’m not alone in this. And I also know that I’m not alone when I say that my usual first response after shock is anger. But anger is a tricky thing. It’s genuine and heartfelt, it usually comes with some form of pain and sadness. And it’s particularly hard for someone else to hear. All too often, anger stops conversation.
We don’t live in the time of Pinchas anymore – where tribes were forbidden from interaction. We don’t live in the time of shtetls anymore – where minorities stuck to a corner of the world to inhabit but go no further. We don’t live in the time of isolation anymore – where we can shrug off events and opinions because “they’re not speaking for me” or “they don’t affect me.”
Today, in our multicultural, multi-vocal, multi-political, and multi-ideological world we are bombarded with “different” – different moralities, different behavior norms, different beliefs. When we encounter them we are often shocked into silence, or shocked into anger, and close ourselves off from conversation, thereby closing ourselves off from understanding. We instinctively react like Pinchas, thrusting our spears into those whom we deem as wrong, eagerly expecting our actions to lead to peace.
But we don’t live in the time of Pinchas anymore, and peace is no longer bestowed by divine proclamation. Peace is now in our hands to create, and it is never complete if it is done alone. It is natural and healthy to have knee-jerk reactions when surprised by the world, but that cannot be the end of the episode. We must follow through. We must strive, not to convince, but to understand those who are different from us. We must work not to kill, but to inspire honest sharing of the ideals that we hold most dear. We must push aside our jealousies and judgements to invite a frank and open vision of who the “other” is, and perhaps to meet in the middle.
It seems that nowadays, the world leaves us hanging from so many cliffs. The only way to continue the story, is to write it ourselves, and to write it together.
The Torah portion of this week is called Balak. The name is that of the Moabite king who wished to destroy the Israelites. In order to make this easier, Balak hired the pagan prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites in order to weaken them. In Pirkei Avot 5:19 we read that whoever possesses an ayin tovah, a good eye, is of the disciples of Abraham. Whereas one who possesses an ayin ra’ah, an evil eye, is of the disciples of Balaam.
Abraham looked at the good in every situation. Perhaps this is best seen in the defense of Sodom and Gemorrah. Abraham searched for the good that would save these towns from destruction. Balaam did not bother. He was willing to help Balak destroy the Israelites. He, unlike Abraham, saw the world within an ayin ra’ah, an evil eye. It is ironic that Abraham could not save the two cities while Balaam ends up blessing the Israelites and not cursing them, thus foiling Balak’s plan to destroy them.
How do you see the world? Do you possess an ayin tovah, a good eye that allows you to see the good despite the darkness? Or do you see the world through the lens of an ayin ra’ah, an evil eye that blocks out the good allowing the darkness to prevail. Today I fear that too many succumb to the perspective of Balaam, only seeing the negative, allowing the evil to dominate the vista.
Many today look at the crisis in our southern border and only see what fear allows them to see. They see criminal invaders who are looking to harm us, our families, and our nation. Reacting out of this fear, seeing only with an ayin ra’ah, an evil eye, does not allow for one to see the goodness of humanity; to see fellow human beings, seeking safety, refuge, and opportunity. These human beings, forced from their home country by violence and poverty, are looking for refuge and a place where they can rebuild their lives and raise their families. Just as my family did and many of yours, as well. How easy it is to react from a place of fear created by the view of the evil eye. How important it is to reframe our response through the lens of the good eye. The good eye, as it did in Abraham, sees injustice and speaks out against it. The good eye, moves us to act in accordance with the command to “care for the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
To be a disciple of Abraham we must be committed to see the good. This is increasingly hard as our society become more and more polarized. The dominant idea is that if you do not believe what I do you are my enemy. Our tradition calls on us to reject this attitude, to see the good even coming from people who hold ideas different from our own, to possess an eye that sees good when it is most difficult to do so.
As a congregation we strive to look with a good eye, to be able to see the good and focus our attention on how we can build on that foundation. The prophet Jeremiah calls upon us to seek the Shalom of the people among whom we live, for by their Shalom, will we have Shalom. How true this is of us, the members of this vibrant congregation. When we seek the Shalom, the well-being, the wholeness of one another we, too, enjoy that same gift. We are not a congregation of Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives. We are a congregation of human beings striving to lead lives of blessing in accordance with Jewish values. Let us be as the disciples of Abraham who possess a good eye that opens us to this reality. Let us make room for ideas and views that are different from our own in social justice responses and in Israel advocacy as well as worship and study. Perhaps this is why our founders allied themselves with the prophet Jeremiah. Though he was not an easy person in any way, shape, or form, he was a disciple of Abraham who possessed a good eye, an ayin tovah. May this Shabbat find each of us seeing the world this way seeking the well-being of the people living where we live even when we disagree for “with their well-being shall we enjoy the same.”
Rabbi Paul F. Cohen, D.Min., D.D.
I am not certain if I shared one of my great fears with the congregation–having my blood being drawn. The mere sight of someone getting blood taken makes me queasy and I recoil in utter fear that I’m next. I have gone to such great lengths in my lifetime to avoid having my blood drawn that I have actually locked doctors out of an exam room and forbade temple staff from including pictures of blood drives on the digital signs just in case I get a glimpse of someone’s extended arm with a needle in it. Just writing this drash is causing me to cover my inner elbows. I know that I am not alone in this fear. Fear also played a huge role in the journey of the Israelites during this week’s parasha, Chukat.
In this week’s parasha we read about the famous red heifer, the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, and God punishing the Israelites for their disloyalty by sending “burning snakes” to bite them. I want to focus on the burning snakes. In what seems to be a more regular occurrence in the later books of the Torah, the Israelites are complaining. They don’t have enough food. They don’t have enough water. Why did they ever leave Egypt? So, God does something we have become accustomed to– punishes the people for their transgressions.
And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food.” The Eternal sent seraph serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites dies. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned by speaking against the Eternal and against you. Intercede with the Eternal to take away the serpents from us!” And Moses interceded for the people. Then the Eternal One said to Moses, “Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard. And anyone bitten who then looks at it shall recover.” Moses made the copper serpent and mounted it on a standard; and when bitten by a serpent, anyone who looked at the copper serpent would recover. [Numbers 21:5-9] read more
I would tend to believe that there is not a single soul on this earth who has not struggled with some conflict, seeking peaceful resolution. This particular Torah portion, Korach, has so much to teach us. But first, I ask you to go on a ‘history’ lesson with me, provided by a number of commentators, that will eventually take you to one of the most important messages in this parasha.
It is said that the Korach rebellion was the single most dangerous challenge to Moses’ leadership during the forty years that he led the people through the wilderness. The precise outline of events is difficult to follow, probably because the events themselves were tumultuous and disorderly. The narrative makes it clear, however, that the rebels came from different groups, each of whom had different reasons for resentment: “Now Korach, son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and One son of Peleth – descendants of Reuben – to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourself above the Lord’s congregation?” (Num. 16:1-3)
Confusing, right? Rashi suggests that Korach, main mover of the uprising, was aggravated that Moses had appointed Aaron as High Priest. Korach felt that he should have received that appointment, and the fact that Moses had appointed his own brother to the role struck Korach as unacceptable favouritism.
And the history lesson continues: The Reubenites, descendants of Jacob’s firstborn, felt they were entitled to leadership positions. The final straw may have been Moses’ appointment of Joshua as his successor. Joshua came from the tribe of Ephraim, the son of Joseph. This may have revived memories of the old conflict between the children of Leah (of whom Reuben was the firstborn) and those of Rachel, whose first child was Joseph. The 250 other rebels were firstborns, still unreconciled to the fact that after the sin of the golden calf, the role of special service to God passed from the firstborn to the tribe of Levi. Whew – talk about frustration and simmering anger.
Each faction had grounds for feeling that they had been passed over in the allocation of leadership positions. But the irony of their challenge is unmistakable. They pose as egalitarians: “All the community are holy, all of them . . . Why then do you raise yourself above the Lord’s congregation?” What they say is that everyone should be a leader. What they mean is: I should be a leader.
The revolt takes place following the debacle of the spies, and the subsequent decree that the people would not enter the land until the next generation. As long as the Israelites, despite their complaints, felt that they were moving toward their destination, Korach and the other malcontents had no realistic chance of rousing the people in revolt. Ah, but once they realized that they would not live to cross the Jordan, Korach knew that rebellion was possible. The people were disillusioned, and they had nothing to lose.
Thus far, the story of Korach is intensely realistic. A leader is able to mobilize a people by sharing a vision. But the journey from starting point to destination is fraught with setbacks and disappointments, and that is when leaders are in danger of being deposed or assassinated. Korach is that symbol of a coldly calculating man of ambition who creates discontent against a leader, accusing him of being a self-seeking tyrant. He opposes him in the name of freedom, but what he really wants is to become a tyrant himself.
What is exceptionally unusual is how the story ends. Moses had initially proposed a simple test. The rebels, and Aaron, were to prepare incense the next day. God would then signal whose offering would be chosen. Before this could happen, however, Moses found himself unbearably provoked by the unacceptable attitude of Dathan and Abiram. Sensing that the situation might be getting out of control, he sought an immediate and dramatic resolution: Moses said, “By this you shall know that it was the Lord who sent me to do all these things; that they are not of my own devising: if these men die as all men do, if their lot be the common fate of all mankind, it was not the Lord who sent me. But if the Lord brings about something unheard of, so that the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, you shall know that these men have spurned the Lord” (Num. 16:28-30).
No sooner had he finished speaking, than the ground opened up and swallowed the rebels. The miracle Moses had counted on, happened. We would logically expect that this would end the rebellion and vindicate Moses. Heaven had answered his call in the most dramatic way. He had been proved right. End of revolt. End of story. This is precisely what does not happen – a powerful example of what makes the Torah so challenging, its message so unexpected. Instead of quelling the revolt, we read the following: “The next day, the whole Israelites community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. ‘You have killed the Lord’s people,’ they said.”
This time, it is God who intervenes, telling Moses to take twelve staffs, one for each tribe, and deposit them overnight in the Tent of Meeting. The next morning, the staff bearing the name of Aaron and the tribe of Levi had sprouted, budded, blossomed and borne almonds. Only then did the rebellion end. What this tells us is profound. The use of force never ends a conflict. It merely adds grievance to injury. Even the miracle of the ground opening up and swallowing his opponents did not secure for Moses the vindication he sought.
What ended the conflict was something else altogether. We are taught that what we needed was the visible symbol that Aaron was the chosen vehicle of the God of life. The gentle miracle of the dead wood that came to life again, flowering and bearing fruit, reminds us of the famous words of the book of Proverbs about the Torah, and of a favourite song of our children: “It is a tree of life to those who embrace her; Those who lay hold of her will be blessed” (Proverbs 3:18).
Moses and Aaron stood accused of failing in their mission. They had brought the people out of Egypt to bring them to the land of Israel. After the debacle of the spies, that hope had died. The stick that came to life again (like Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones) symbolised that hope was not dead, merely deferred. The next generation would live and reach the destination. God is a God of life. What God touches does not die.
The episode of Korach teaches us that there are two ways of resolving conflict: by force and by persuasion. The first negates your opponent. The second enlists your opponent, taking his / her challenge seriously and addressing it. Force never ends conflict – not even in the case of Moses, not even when the force is miraculous. There never was a more decisive intervention than the miracle that swallowed up Korach and his fellow rebels. Yet it did not end the conflict. It deepened it. After it had taken place, the whole Israelite community – the ones that had not been part of the rebellion – complained, “You have killed the Lord’s people.” What ended it was the quiet, gentle miracle that showed that Aaron was the true emissary of the God of life. Not by accident is the verse that calls Torah a “tree of life” preceded by these words: “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, And all its paths are peace” (Prov. 3:17).
That is conflict resolution in Judaism – not by force, but by pleasantness and peace. May this be a lesson for us all as we face challenges and conflicts in our own lives, remembering that a gentle, loving manner, rather than an aggressive one, has a better chance to bring about peaceful resolution. Shabbat Shalom.
In this week’s Torah Portion, Sh’lach L’cha, we witness firsthand how God feels about rumor, racial profiling, racial and physical discrimination, and gossip, which we refer to as “La’shon ha’rah” in Hebrew. We also see the importance of showing gratitude, which is an important theme for many of us as of late. God asked Moses to send one representative from each of the 12 tribes of Israel to scout out the Land of Canaan, which God had promised to them. This was a tremendous gift that God was giving the Israelites. It seems likely that even when God requested this of Moses, God knew of its abundance in agriculture, beauty, and food. Almost like a spouse who has purchased a gorgeous dream home for their partner, hoping that the partner will go and check it out and show gratitude.
Instead, the opposite occurs. The scouts cannot see the “forest from the trees,” if you will. Moses gives them specific instructions of what to look for: Is the soil rich and fertile? Are the inhabitants strong or weak? Are there many inhabitants or very few? The scouts bring back some fruit of the land, grapes and pomegranates, finding that it is fortified, healthy, and delicious. They also report that it is indeed flowing with milk and honey, and that there is a community there, and while they may act and look a bit different from them, they are strong, prosperous, and fortified.
When the emissaries, namely Caleb and Joshua, report back to the Israelites, instead of being excited about all the goodness of this community, they become fearful, ungrateful, and insist on going immediately to Canaan to overthrow its inhabitants and take possession of the land, before God instructs them to do so. The emissaries are also not great at managing the fear of the Israelites. Instead of calming them and refocusing them on the good things, they simply discourage them from attacking, saying that the people inhabiting the land are stronger than the Israelites. Soon, the rumors are spreading full force, the anxiety of the Israelites is through the roof, and they completely lose trust in God. This hurts God a great deal, and God threatens to wipe them out entirely. However, Moses intercedes on their behalf, yet again, and God has mercy on them, but not without setting some pretty strict rules and reminders about how they are to treat strangers and those who are different from them.
Sadly, it seems as though many in this country have not learned anything from this parasha or are deciding to cherry pick things they like and don’t like from our Torah (or in some cases, the Bible) in order to keep people down in today’s society. The month of June is LGBTQ Awareness Month, and this Friday, we will observe this with a special Shabbat service honoring Gay Pride and LGBTQ Individuals. We will hear from Essie Shachar-Hill of Keshet, who had come to teach our Temple Jeremiah staff about LGBTQ awareness. Like the inhabitants of Canaan, many individuals in our society do not fit into the same molds as the Israelites did. Many individuals today find that they do not fit into a strict male or female gender category. We will learn about about how we can welcome people of all gender identities, we will share their story, and will inspire us to be thankful for the many gifts that all individuals bring to our society.
It is my prayer that instead of making judgments based on appearances, rumor, or differences, that we at Temple Jeremiah will be models for celebrating the bounty and beauty that individuals of all genders, identities, sexual orientations, abilities, and races bring to our world. I hope you will join me on Friday, June 21st, for this very special Shabbat.
Our Torah goes by a number of aliases: Eitz Chayim (Tree of Life), Pentateuch (Greek for “Five Books”), Torah she’bi’ktav (The Written Instruction) …but one that has always seemed to stick out to me is The Five Books of Moses.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Moses seems to be a great guy and everything – he’s a prophet, he helped to free the Israelites from slavery and put up with their grumbling for forty years in the wilderness – but he’s also a reluctant and flawed leader. Why would our foundational and [divinely] inspired text be named after a man so inherently human? What made Moses so great?
Now that our weekly readings have continued into the Book of Numbers, we’ve had example after example of imperfection of humanity. Genesis describes our foremothers and forefathers who were prone to fits of doubt, competitiveness, anger, and greed. Exodus tells the story of a group of people who never appreciated what they had, only ever thinking of satisfying their baser needs where the grass might be greener. Leviticus gives law after law, boundary after boundary, desperately trying to keep our ancestors on the right path to becoming God’s Kingdom of Priests. Even in this week’s portion, B’haalot’cha, the people kvetch about the lack of meat in their diet, despite receiving the daily miracle of mana to sustain them throughout their long journey. Week after week, we struggle with a text that reminds us: “you are imperfect, your ancestors were imperfect, humanity will forever be imperfect.”
Also, in this week’s portion are three mini-Episodes, each providing an insight into Moses’ equally flawed character. First, after wondering if the Israelites will ever be satisfied with God’s miracles and provisions, Moses gathers seventy elders from the community and puts upon them the Ruach/spirit that enables them to prophesize. Next, when two of the seventy were seemingly left to their own newly prophetic devices, Joshua (Moses’ second in command) calls him out in a jealous rage, but Moses simply responds, “If only all of Adonai’s people were prophets.” Third, Moses’ siblings – Aaron and Miriam – speak against Moses and his special treatment by God. Miriam is punished with skin disease and exiled from the camp, but Moses intercedes and pleads with God to heal her and allow her to return.
Just in these few chapters, we see Moses’ inability to take command and control of the people whom he leads. And yet, his response to all this adversity is what sets him apart from this herd. When the people are unsatisfied with God’s gifts, he gives them more. When his officers worry that the people have too much power, he dreams of a world where everyone has a direct and personal connection with God. When his own family takes him and his privilege for granted, he uses his position to care for them. Just in these three examples we see that Moses is different not because of his relationship with God, but because of his relationship with people. Even when, maybe even especially when, the people move against him, Moses acts for the people.
In short: Ha-ish Moshe anav m’od, Moses was a very humble man (Numbers 12:3).
No other person in the Torah or the rest of the TaNaCh, is described as humble. We have plenty of prophets, plenty of leaders – elders, judges, and kings. But none of them are described as humble; only Moses, the man who graciously lends his name to our Torah.
What does this tell us about Torah itself?
That even though we put our leaders, learnings, and texts on exceedingly high pedestals, we must remember that perfection is an unrealistic ideal. We must remember that each of us are flawed, and sometimes forget what’s most important. We must remember that the things that last, the things that have the most to teach us, are the things that tell us to get out of our own way and instead send us back to each other.
Moses was a wonderfully imperfect leader, just as Torah is a wonderfully imperfect text. Through both example and deed, they teach us that the most important part of our lives isn’t power, fame, or fortune. Rather the most important part of our journeys is the person on either side of us. And all the rest is commentary.