Sunday, June 28, 2015

Haftorah of Balak--The Prophet Micah: What Does God Want, When the Rich Oppress the Poor?

Haftorah of Balak: Prophet Micah, 5:6-6-8

            It is useful to turn from the well-known tale of Bilaam’s donkey to the life-story of the Prophet Micah, who spoke Truth to Power in his day (end of 8th Century BCE). He was a younger contemporary of First Isaiah, and lived in a small town about twenty miles southwest of Jerusalem, Moreshet Gath. Like his forebear prophets, Hosea and Amos, he was no professional prophet, no hireling of the power elite, the kings, nobility, or the wealthy; he was a simple man of the country, whose heart ached to see the poor oppressed by the city dwellers.
            On the international scene, Micah was perspicacious enough to note that Assyria, the upstart world-empire to the north, was a threat to the Kingdom of Israel, whose corrupt leaders were busy playing power-politics in their little corner of the world, foolishly believing that they could arrange military alliances with a weakened, sabre-rattling Egypt to the south, or with the mini-kingdoms among their neighbors. He could sense that Northern Israel was doomed to be conquered by Assyria, and tried to warn the rulers, but they would not listen. He even tried to point out that Babylonia, the next area Power, would eventually conquer the Southern Kingdom of Judah, but this future event was too far-off to be believed. Yet he was right: a prophet can only proclaim the words which the Lord God places in his mouth; he is but the instrument of Destiny, and God’s Will.
            Amid all this local corruption and international chicanery, what hope could remain for the Jewish People? The Book of Micah is difficult to follow; its organization is loose and seemingly poorly edited, as if it were composed under circumstances of flight and emergency. Still, its central theme, that of preserving the People Israel, no matter what the cost, comes thundering through, even to us, who live amid far safer, if not saner, conditions. In the end, Repentance from moral and ritual corruption will serve to restore the people to their land, under a kingly Messiah, who will take charge of the erring Nation and lead them onto the proper path of Limud Torah (Torah Study) and Ma’asim Tovim (Good Deeds).
            Finally, what about the lengthy list of mitzvote, the Commandments, whereby we Jews have always  sought to imbue our lives with Holiness? There is a famous passage in the Talmud, Masechet Makkot 24a, wherein Rabbi Simlai taught that there were 365 negative and 248 positive commandments given in the Torah; King David came and reduced them to eleven, as he showed in Psalm 15. Isaiah then came and further reduced the number to six (Is. 33:15-17). Micah reduced the number to three (Mic. 6:8):
“It has been told you, O’ Mortal, what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you—to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”
            In Isaiah 56:1, the number became two—“Observe the right and do the just,” and, finally, the Prophet Habakkuk (2:4) concluded the matter as one, shining pinpoint of moral light—“The righteous shall live by their faith.”
And so they must.

Works Cited

Plaut, W. Gunther, Ed., The Haftarah Commentary. NY: UAHC Press, 1996.

Nelson’s Complete Book of Bible Maps & Charts: Old & New Testaments, Rev. & Updated Ed. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1993. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Torah Portion Chukat: Miriam Comforts Aaron in Heaven


Miriam and Aaron: A Dialogue in Heaven

Note: This Torah Portion includes the deaths of both Miriam (related in one scant verse, Num. 20:1) and Aaron (eight verses, 20:22-29), as well as the tragedy of Moses, whom God commands to speak to a rock, which will split and bring forth water for the thirsty, quarrelsome Israelites. Losing his temper, something he does rarely but here fatally, Moses strikes the rock, not once but twice, which splits, allowing water to gush forth. God punishes Moses’s seemingly mild infraction by predicting that he will perish in the Wilderness, rather than merit to lead the people across the Jordan and into the Promised Land. After the people continue to complain, God sends a plague of seraph-vipers, whose fiery bites kill many, until Moses performs a charm of casting a brazen cobra and hanging it from a pole; those who gaze upon it recover from the plague; the idol is later placed into the Holy Sanctuary, a mythic relic, until the time of King Hezekiah’s (739-687 BCE) anti-idolatry reforms. Finally, Moses leads the people in battle against the Emorite Kings, Sichon and Og, and conquers their territories.

Miriam: It was hard for me, as a woman in those days, to make my mark on my family and my people. I did love them so—only after my death did the legend begin about my miraculous well, which supposedly followed the people through the Wilderness, slaking their thirst until the time of my death. Well, it is true, up to a point: never did anyone who visited my tent go away hungry or thirsty; I fed them all, and I was a good cook. And, today, many Jewish families put a “Miriam’s Cup” on their Passover Seder Meal table, which they fill, to honor me—but I choose to believe it means they are also giving tsedakah-charity to feed and nourish the hungry.

Aaron: Miriam, my Sister—can you finally forgive me for not having been stricken with tsaraat, the same skin-disease with which God punished you, when we were gossiping about our baby brother, Moses?

Miriam: Aaron, you must stop thinking about that; I forgave you, long ago. It is clear that, in those days, men were favored in our religion, even by God. I was not gossiping about our sister-in-law, Tsiporah; I was speaking on her behalf. Our brother Moses was wearing himself out, like a candle! Jethro, his father-in-law, had helped him greatly, by setting up a system of judges, magistrates, and bailiffs, so that Moses himself did not have to go from trying a capital case to determining whether a housewife’s chicken was kosher. But, as soon as Jethro left, and Moses climbed up Sinai, the people began their orgy—

Aaron: --and so, you blame me for that? I lost control; I tried to delay; I—

Miriam: Aaron, let me finish. It is clear that your control of the people could have been better. But we do know this, for a fact: the system of judges broke down; no one could trust them after the Sin of the Golden Calf, since so many supposedly “learned” men had participated. Even the Council of the Seventy Elders did not work; they ascended in a prophetic vision with Moses; they saw the pavement of Sapphire Stone up in Heaven (Ex. 24:10), but the experience altered their minds so that they were unable to return to the petty, day-to-day affairs of judging the people. And so, in the end, Moses had to do it all, again, by himself. He became a workaholic, rarely going home, never spending time with Tsiporah, not to speak of their boys Gershom and Elazar, who ran away. That was what I was protesting. Aaron, you were a good man, who did the best you could. You will be remembered well.

Aaron: Yes: I was a peacemaker, a “lover of peace, and pursuer of peace.” At least, I tried to be…the work in the Sanctuary was so hard; all those animals to slaughter….

Miriam: But do not forget your wife, Chochmah, whose very name means “Wisdom”—after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu at the hand of God, she grieved, but then, she worked through her grief, in the same way that bereaved parents have done, all through the millennia—she went out, to help you serve the people, by making peace. And, truth to tell, Aaron, she made peace between families more often than you did. You were always busy at the Sanctuary, making offerings to God, while your wife—

Aaron: Yes: Chochmah, my Dearest One, was making peace between people, even of warring tribes, like Benjamin and Ephraim (Book of Judges, chap. 12, 19-21). But my dear Sister, never forget your own, illustrious relatives: you are the mother of Bezalel, the master planner, architect, artist, and sculptor of the Mishkan, the Wilderness Sanctuary, and you are also an ancestor of King David, in the far future. Perhaps there really was a Miriam’s Well, a well of peace and of harmony, and all would prosper who drank of it. Amen!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Korach: Royal Egyptian Fortress #14 Reports Capture of a Hebrew Refugee Claiming to Flee an "Earthquake"


Royal Egyptian Army Military Dispatch: Official Eyes Only

Garrison Report, Fortress #14, South-West Boundary, Kingdom of Pharaoh Merneptah, Year 1209 of the Reign of Sacred Pharaoh-Father-Ruler Merneptah-Baenre-Merynetjeru.
Greetings! I, Horemheb, Lieutenant-Colonel Commanding, 57th Battalion, “Battle-Falcons,” Royal Egyptian Infantry, do submit the following Monthly Report of Our Troop Activities Guarding the South-West Boundary of Merneptah’s Sacred Lands, Canaanite Territories:

Item: Ten Canaanite Terrorists, probing our positions: repulsed by Patrol from “Osiris’s Revenge” Chariot Troop, Major Khafre Commanding. Results: five Terrorists killed; three wounded, two escaped—two Canaanite terrorists dispatched, one captain, held for ransom; no losses to our troops, by the Grace of Sun-God-Re

Item: Two Troop-Probes of Canaanite Territory as Retaliation for Their Violation of Our Border: Treacherous Canaanite Archers Attempt to Ambush our Chariots, but Our Men retired in Good Fighting Order; No Losses to our Glorious Soldiers; One Horse Killed

Item: Four Wagon-Loads local provisions received by our Cook—fruit, vegetables, wheat; payment made, bills enclosed for Royal Commissary’s Receipts; See Attached

Item: Sergeant Muwatallis found Guilty of Drinking Alcohol While on Night-Watch; Jailed Two Weeks as Punishment, Reduced to Private; Lance-Corporal Amennemhet Promoted to Acting-Sergeant in His Place; His Promotion Ceremony to follow when our Unit returns to Barracks during Rainy Season, Sun-god-Re Willing

Item: One Israelite Refugee, Ziphron ben Abiram by Name, Wandered into our Garrison from Wilderness Direction, Coming from North-Eastern Territory; Fear of his Being Hittite Spy; Interrogated by Capt. Meryibre with Lt. Nebkaure as Interpreter.
 Transcript Follows: Sgt. Merenre, Scribe, Recording. Note that Hebrew is designated as H; our Questions as E.

E: Before we begin, Hebrew, let me state that you are in no danger, if you answer all of our questions fully and truthfully. If you lie to us, your punishment will be swift and terrible. Do not forget that your ancestors were our slaves, years ago. For the Record, Hebrew, state your full name, family, and tribe.

H: My name is Ziphron ben Abiram. My father, Abiram, is a Levite, and dared to rebel against the leader of our people, one Moses.

E: Moses? I recall hearing this name, during History Class in Egyptian Officers’ School. He was a wizard who angered our ancestor, Ramesses II, and was speedily driven out of our land, but not before stealing much gold, silver, and precious raiment, as well as taking with him a few common Habiru slaves. We heard stories of your god, as well, but our god, Pharaoh Ramesses, was mightier, and was able to chase him away, despite losing two or three chariots at the Reed Sea.What brought you to our Canaanite Border Garrison, Hebrew? Are you a spy?

H: My father, Abiram, dared to challenge Moses for leadership of our tribe, our people.

E: Was your father a more powerful wizard than Moses? What was his challenge?

H: Moses spoke to our God, and He told us all to appear before Him the next day, with special priestly tools and fire-pans for incense.

E: Were these—fire-pans?—the weapons you were to use to fight this Moses?

H: All we had were fire-pans and prayers.

E: But you believed Moses was a more powerful god?

H: He is but a man, able to speak with our God as I am speaking to you. We were challenging his leadership. We believed that any of us, of our tribe, the Levites, could lead the people, as well as he. Why should he raise himself up over us?

E: And what happened the next day?

H: As we stood before Moses and his brother Aaron, the sky grew dark. We waved our incense-pans; we prayed to God, as he did. I heard my father call to Korach, our leader, “Look, look at the sky! See there: Pillar of Cloud, Pillar of Fire! Who can tell whom the Mighty God of Israel will choose?”

E: Did your god favor you, or Moses? Speak, Hebrew, speak! (At this point, the Prisoner seemed to freeze, unable to speak further. Capt. Meryibre slapped the Prisoner across the face, to break his trance.)

H (began to shake and cry; we stopped the interrogation to fetch him some wine, to calm his mind): The sky went black, and it began to lightning and thunder. The ground opened up; I turned, and dropped my fire-pan—but before I started to run, I thought I saw Korach being lifted up into the air, and I called out, “My Father! My Father! The Chariots of Israel and Its Horsemen!”—it was as if the ground was splitting under my feet; there was a burning sulphur smell, and I heard screams—I ran and ran (Prisoner began to sob and cry uncontrollably, and would not speak further; we called soldiers to take him under guard).

Note from the Commander, Fortress #14, to Main Army Base Commander, Heliopolis:
This Hebrew has gone mad; he would not further answer any of our questions. Recommend he be placed in the Hospital-Annex of the Temple of Aescelapius, god of Healing, and appropriate incense-offerings and prayers be made on his behalf. We cannot contact the Israelites by messenger or via signal-smoke; they cannot be found. The Wilderness, it appears, has swallowed them up; they are lost. Here ends our Report. All Hail our God-King-Father-Ruler, Pharaoh Merneptah-Baenre-Merynetjeru!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Shlach: The True Story, as Recounted by Palti-El ben Rafu, the Last Surviving Spy

Shlach: The Tale of the Spies

Scene: A tribal harvest-feast, in Canaan, c. 1380 BCE. Israelites of the tribe of Benjamin have celebrated with food, barley beer, wine, dance and song, thanking their Desert God, Adonoi, or He-Who-Is, for a bountiful harvest and large flocks of cattle, sheep and goats. The cooking-fires have died down, hearts are warm and bellies are full, and all are feeling well-content in the bounty granted them by a beneficent, if demanding, God.

As the desert night settles over their farms and fields, they settle around the fires to warm themselves, and call for a story from one of their Elders, Palti-el ben Rafu, of the Tribe of Benjamin, the only remaining member of the spying-party which Moses, their earliest and greatest leader, rabbi, and teacher, sent out to explore this strange and challenging land, some generations ago. As yet, these stories are still being passed down literally—orature, rather than literature, and it is important that their young people listen to the tales of their past.

"Before I speak, give me a drop of that barley beer—you, Even-Ezer, you son-of-a-sheep, where are you hiding it?—thank you; no, don’t fill it up to the top; I am old, and am better served with the plain, cold water of this Israel, our native land, an inheritance from God, blessed be His Name! And where is Kessem, my littlest great-granddaughter? Ah, there you are, sweet little brown-eyed one; come, come sit by Savta, your great-gran’ther, and hear this story of how I carried the Great Bunch of Grapes over the Jordan River—bless me, how long ago was it?

A Voice from the back calls, “Ten years, Lord Palti!”
Other Voices object:
“What do you know?”
“ It was at least twenty rains—“
“I recall how the floods came, when my boy Sodi-el was but a babe!”
“Silence, All! We must hear the story,” etc.

So: Rabbi Moses was old, and he assured us that we would conquer, surely conquer the Land, for our Lord God would go before us, as He did at the Reed Sea, and shatter the stone houses of the Mighty Canaanites—

Voice: I wish He would, and welcome. My Canaanite neighbor throws trash from his Idol-Offerings over his fence into my yard.

Another Voice: Will you not be quiet? I told you before, to bring that complaint to the Philistine Chieftain in charge of your District! Silence!

--But we doubted; we were free in name, but slaves in mind, still, and He-Who-Is had threatened us, because we Doubted Him—this we heard from Moses, by way of Aaron (Elder Aaron was no young man, either; he could no longer go out nor come in, and his grandsons had to lift the heavier bull-carcasses of the offerings), by way of Joshua and Caleb—that we were doomed to wander in the Wilderness of scorpions and serpents, to toughen us up; that was what God said—but Moses agreed that we, princes one and all of our tribes
--(I was a prince, truly, younger then, and handsomer too; you needn’t giggle at me, from behind your hands, you young’n children, for these aged ears can hear your laughter, Shame!)
--Where was I? O yes; that we should spy out the land; yes, that was to be our task—and so, we packed matzos for the trip, and dried fruit in leathern bags, and crossed via the mountain-range, the better not to leave a trail; the Egyptians, y’see, had fortresses and sentry-posts and checkpoints all along the boundary-lines ‘twixt them and Canaan—and suspicious folks, they are, too, the Egyptians, always checking us innocent farmers, shaking us down, to make sure we weren’t bringing in any contraband—

Voice: tell us about the cities walled-up-to-the-sky, Great-Uncle Palti, and the Giants you saw!

Hm? What? Cities? Well, there were cities—not walled that high, I must admit; that was a story Shammua ben Zakoor, of the Reuben-tribe, cooked up in his head; those Reubenites—well, you can’t trust ‘em—they always have to make a big deal of everything, they do; they never liked being passed over to lead the People, their ancestor being the Firstborn Son, but what with Judah being the biggest tribe, and God choosing Levi to serve in the Mishkan-Sanctuary—it’s a family-tribal-thing with the Reubenites.
--(Moses said God made the Choice, but, betwixt you and me and tent-flap, I call it Politics, and Who Y’Know, not What Y’Know.)
And it only ended up by getting us all in trouble. Me, I agreed with Joshua ben Nun of Ephraim (a small tribe, that one, but still, my scrappy little Joshua managed to become Our Leader ‘til his death; a good and honest man, God rest his soul!) and Caleb ben Yefuneh of Judah, but somehow, the records weren’t kept, and it wasn’t ever written down in the final Report. It doesn’t figure anyway, because Moses tore it up; God was unhappy with what we said….

Voice: Why, Second Cousin Palti?

Hm? Why? Well, we were country bumpkins, d’ye see: a bunch of scapegrace slaves, herding goats and such, going up against a settled, advanced, farmer-folk, living in fortified cities—fifteen cubits or “up to the sky,” I believe the Report said, well, it didn’t matter; we had no way of storming any city. No ladders; nothing for a siege, not even a shovel to dig a ditch. Besides, they had iron weapons—wonderful metal, iron is, so strong and sharp, and we were still wielding ours of bronze, silly and soft—I tell you, there was no way we could beat them. We needed to use a—a—Trick! A Subterfuge, I believe it’s called, in the end.

Voice: And what did you do, Neighbor Palti?

Do? Well, we spies did all we could. But later, when Joshua led us, there was no such rigamarole as marching ‘round Jericho’s walls seven times and blowing shofarote, I can tell you, with “The walls come a’tumbling down.”
Nonsense. It was like the Conquest of the City of Ai, more like: we fooled the warriors and their king into an ambush; when they chased after us, they left the city gates open, the fools; one squad of our boys ran into Ai and set the city ablaze, and then, when our pursuers left off running after us, and turned round and gasped and gaped to see their beloved city and houses afire, we turned about, surrounded ‘em, and massacred ‘em all.
A bloodbath, ‘twas—I feel bad about it, to this day. They never had a chance….

Voice: But Ai is a thriving city today!

What? Is it? Well, perhaps it was a different city we sacked and burned—Beth-El, or Nachal-Roi, or some such. My memory fails me, here and there. It’s old, like me.

Voice: What about the punishment from God, the forty years of wandering in the wilderness?

Oh, that. Well, we shouldn’t have gone against God’s judgment, bad-mouthing the Land like that. But we never heard about the forty years, y’see: Moses kept it to himself. He believed that another few years in the wilderness would toughen us up, give us a better outlook, not on his leadership—poor man was getting too old, after all, and he was never much of a warrior; yes, I know, he killed that Egyptian, but that had been long ago, and he was angry, full of fight—
Moses wanted to make certain that the younger folks and babes born in the wilderness would be born into freedom, and follow only God and our brave Joshua. That was the main thing.
Any beer left? I’m dry, and tired. Story’s done. Bless you all, my children….

Voice: Thank you, bless you, Lord Palti. Nitza, Ish-Baal! Give us a song, while Divri and Achva play the drum and flute. A Harvest Song, All!

Now, everyone sing: Halleluya L’Adonai, Ki Tov—O Give Thanks to the Lord, for He is Good….

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Haftorat Naso: The Annunciation of Shamira, Mother of Samson, Wife of Manoah

Call me Shamira, “Guardian of the Israelite God.” It is not my real name—you, Stranger, could not pronounce the name my parents gave me, and it makes no difference, now. You would not realize it to look at this sun-baked old crone, but I am still a young woman, only twenty years old.
Manoah is my husband, an Israelite man of the Danite Tribe who captured me, who came to my father’s Philistine ship on the seacoast in the dead of night and carried me off, his filthy, chapped farmer’s hand covering my young mouth so I could not cry out. I was too young to resist, and too sleepy to complain—I was only twelve years old. Such are the ways of the Israelites, to kidnap young maidens from alien peoples, to marry and raise up sons thereby, bulking out their scanty tribe here in Canaan, and to please their mysterious, thundering Sky-God, He-Who-dwells-amid-the-clouds (whispering), not in wheatfield or sea-scape, like our sensible, bread-providing Philistine god, Dagan.
Why do I whisper to you, Stranger? Because I am Israelite, now, at least in name, as Manoah’s father, Chai-Baal, chief of the Tribe of Dan, pronounced me, when he changed my name to Shamira.
Still, I do believe that Dagan, my true Philistine god, was angry with me for deserting my people, although I was kidnapped while still a child—for now, he shut my womb tight, and I cannot bear children—so says my lord-and-master, Manoah (whispering) that blockhead! Believe me, Stranger, when I tell you that, had my own father (whom I barely remember) chosen a husband for me, he would have been strong and potent, making me Matriarch of a legion of sons, of warriors—but Manoah? He is weak, in both body and mind….
Come, hear me! I have a tale for you: come sit by the fire, and listen, while I pound the barley-grains to flour, and hear a young woman’s talk. It is dull here, in the desert, not like the seashore, where my Philistine sisters smell the salt-air, and dream of sailing on the waves, back to the Aegean islands, our lost homeland (sighs)….
The tale? Oh, yes: I had a Visitation. What is that? It came to me—was it a dream? No: I saw—I saw—a winged creature, clothed in white samite, crystal clear, with silvery hair all flowing, flowing, and a voice of sweetness, that bade me leave the tent, this smelly, goatskin hovel which Manoah calls our home—his, perhaps, but not the clean and airy seaside lodge I lived in, years ago, the Happy Time, when I lived beside the Great Sea, all cerulean and aqua….
What did he say? Manoah? Ah, the Visitor: he said that I would bear a child. A son! But there were rules to follow: I was to drink no wine, no beer, no mead; no grapes, even, and no unclean food—I have foresworn all meat; one never knows how fresh it is; I see the Israelite women, my sisters, they call themselves—they soak-and-salt the goat-meat, before they serve it; I will eat only fish, as do my people…. What else did the Visitor say?
My Son! He will be Samson, “Little Sun,” after the brightest god in the daytime sky, my Helios, who rises in the fiery dawn, and rides the Heavenly Chariot from one end of the sky to the other, the whole day long—
But can you imagine how that fool, Manoah, doubted me? He said there was no Visitor, no angel, no Heavenly Messenger, no Winged Glory, come to me; he had not seen Him, or It, himself, though I reassured him, so many, many times—
“If you had truly seen an Angel,” he said, looking at me with his goggle eyes (he really is not bright, My Lord Manoah, wood-for-brains), “you would be dead; the Celestial Fire would roast you whole!”
I took his hand—how cold it was, and how it shook!—and placed it on my breast, to calm him, hugged and shushed him, the way one would soothe a nervous child—
“Had your—that is, our—Israelite God sent an Angel to destroy us, why would he bring us such good news? How good this news is, how wonderful, Manoah, dear—“ I patted his back, embraced him close, the silly oaf, until his heart stopped pounding. And I believed: the Angel had promised us, He would come back; He’d reappear.
I went on, believing, pounding barley-lumps. Days passed. Long days, and hot ones. Manoah grazed the sheep far closer to the tent than usual, I noticed.
But then, one day, all of a sudden, the Angel came back! All ablaze, on fire, hovering there before my eager eyes, wings moving slowly, smiling brightly, hair adrift, like the waves of Nereids, sea-nymphs, coming close to shore, as in my people’s tales; an Angel, truly….
There went Manoah, fool as always:
“Let me make a roasted offering to You!” he shouted, and made a run for the flock, but tripped over his own feet, and scared the sheep and goats away, to the far reaches of the pen, all meh’ing and baa’ing….The Vision raised its hand.
“Though you delay me, I will not eat your meat,” It whispered, in a voice like waves of gold, “But make a simple Offering of Thanks unto the Lord your God”—and vanished.
O Israelite God, Who dwells amid stormclouds and thunder, let Shamira, Mother-to-be of Samson, “Little Son of Helios,” hear me! I will forsake my dearest god, my Philistine-grain-god, Dagan, if You let my Unborn Son become a Hero to his people! And may Yah grant him the wisdom to make peace between his mother’s people, the Philistines, and his father’s people, Israel! Amen!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Bamidbar: Take a Census--but be careful not to count too closely. It's an Evil Eye, God forbid.


I turn to this week’s Torah portion, the first in the Book of Numbers, Sefer BaMidbar, literally, “In the Wilderness.” It is a relief, after the dry, priestly-purity legislation of Vayikra/Leviticus, to find some narrative leavening the endless Torah laws. God commands Moses to number the people, and here, my hackles rise: census-counting is never a good sign in our Jewish Bible:
Rule One: don’t ever know exactly how much you have of anything; it’s a major kinnehurra (evil eye).

“Dad, how much money do you earn?” I remember asking my father.
“David,” my father would reply, solemnly, “I make enough.”
And leave it at that: Sha! Shtill!
Never question. No answer is also an answer.

My father, who grew into manhood during the Great Depression, was not alone in this attitude of Not Discussing One’s Finances in Public. In traditional congregations even today, when worshipers count to see if they have enough Jews to make a minyan, the prayer quorum, they count, “Nisht ein, nisht tzvei, nisht drei—Not One, Not Two, Not Three….”
The taboo against numbering continues. Some old-country Jews will not clip their nails in order, from thumb to pinky; they must follow an abstruse digital dance to fend off the demons; otherwise, a simple nail-clipping may resemble and symbolize the Chevra Kadisha, the Burial Society, preparing a corpse for its final rest (there is a measure of Counting in the Jewish Last Rites; I have attended, and I know), and may, God forbid, lead to one’s death, God forbid.
 There is a noble irony in belonging to a people who are at once so worldly and over-educated, including doctors, lawyers, and captains of industry, and who yet cherish their superstitions. These pre-Scientific beliefs evolved from an age when Death was always at one’s elbow, and, in the words of Philosopher Mel Brooks, “A splinter could kill ya.”
As for the census, Moses calls upon people-counters from each tribe, and I love the archaic, long-forgotten names of his assistants in this undertaking, names like Shelumiel ben Tsurishadai—“Complete Peace of God, son of the Almighty is my Rock,” and Nachshone ben Aminadav—“Big Snake, son of My People are Generous”—the midrash-legends tell us that this latter worthy was the first to plunge into the Reed Sea at Moses’s command, and that it was for his merit and daring that the waters split, allowing the doubting people to cross, dry-shod, to the other side.
The names sound quaint and curious to us moderns, but the Bible-era listeners must have nudged one another as they heard the Torah-reading centuries ago, smiling, “That was my father’s father’s uncle!” and, “You’re wrong, he married the lady next tent over, I can see her face before me, now,” and other reminiscences.
How sad that no little Jewish boys in temple preschools today bear the names of large snakes or generous people. Instead, we are Jacob’d and Ethan’d to distraction. O for one Tsurishadai Levine, shooting spitballs at the head of Aminadav Negnewitsky, while the Rabbi’s back is turned!
The results of the census are swift and sure, if exaggerated and symbolic: 603,550 males over the age of 21, every man-jack of them capable of wielding sword or spear in defense of the Israelite nation—which is still a Wandering Jewish rabble at this point: Bronze Age herdsmen, albeit monotheistic (if not entirely ethical), and expected to conquer Iron-Age Canaanite farmers living in walled cities surrounded by stone battlements, three-feet-thick—not unlike bringing a popgun to a fortress.
Yes, it was hard then to be a Jew, terribly hard, even when you were being led by the thunderous, cloud-commanding Desert God, El-Shaddai Himself. Assailed by doubts and fears of the future, the dubious congregation marched on, following their mysterious, invisible Deity, working hard to merely survive in a hostile Wilderness, let alone believe in and follow His Torah. Some things don’t change: the Wilderness may have metamorphosed into the space between your cellphone and your laptop, your hard-taxed Brain and your fingertips (with your Heart and Soul somewhere in between) but it’s just as tough to navigate as it was in those long-remembered Desert Days.
What Jewish, what Spiritual, Deeds have you accomplished today, Fellow Jew, Fellow Human? Are you satisfied with the results? Don’t be: the World, the Universe, remains broken, very broken. You mustn’t ever let yourself become complacent, when there remains Holy Work to be done. You must try harder, just a little bit harder. You will always have another chance, for the rest of your life. Amen!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Behar-Bechukotai: A Slave to the Cellphone, or, Overcoming Technology: The Gift of Shabbat

We Jews have every reason to be proud, since we gifted Shabbat, the Holy Sabbath, to the world. Originally, Shabbatum was a gloomy day the Babylonians invented, sort of a Friday-the-Thirteenth, a bad-luck-day coming each week, during which superstitious pagans would stay at home, scared to go outside, lest something evil befall them. We took that miserable concept, cleaned and polished it up, added a soupcon of sanctity, and invented (with God’s help) the Holy Sabbath, the one day of the week on which all of humankind is commanded to rest.
But observing Shabbat doesn’t mean spending the entire day in bed or lying in a hammock, concentrating on moving as little as possible. No: it means refraining from creating, from causing anything to happen—a formidable challenge in our age, where we live surrounded by more machines than ever.
To what extent do those machines serve us, or we them? How often do you reach for that amazing marvel, your cellphone, that either hangs on your belt-loop like an albatross, or reposes noisily in your pocketbook? I am a member of that formerly-fortunate Baby Boomer Generation who can recall telling our mothers, “Ma, I’ll call you when I get there,” and then, conveniently forgetting to do so.
My poor Nana z’l, who passed away over three decades ago, is still waiting for me to call her up when I get home from visiting her. She lived on the seventeenth floor of our Co-op Apartment Building on Grand St., the Lower East Side of NYC; my family, on the seventh, a short elevator ride away. I would visit her in the evening, once a week. Together, we would enjoy one of her only-slightly-burnt homemade baked apples, lovingly lapped in a sauce of No-Cal Ginger Ale mixed with raisins, topped with a generous dollop of Breakstone’s Tangy-Style Cottage Cheese. This was her diet dessert of choice (she was always on a diet, though she did not have a weight problem), and one of the few things she was able to cook. We would watch “Chiller Theatre” together, on WOR-NYC, Channel 9, holding sofa pillows to hide behind during the scary parts of the movie. I never called. Sorry, Nana (I think that she has forgiven me, up there in Heaven. Grandmas will do that.).
How long has humanity been a slave to technology, or a servant to Work? It actually predates the Creation of Man and Woman: the Midrash, the legends which grew up around the Torah, tells us that, following God’s Creation of our Galaxy, the Milky Way, all the planets were racing about madly; the stars twinkled and flared in their courses; the sun and moon rose and set with punctual regularity. On Planet Earth, all of nature grew, flourished, and died with enormous speed, until the Sovereign of the Universe called out, in Yiddish, of course, “Shoin genik—Enough! Let there be menucha, rest, and oneg, enjoyment—let there be Shabbat!”
In this parsha/Torah reading, we find the concept of the Shabbat raised to an even loftier eminence: the shemita, or Sabbatical year, during which the land was to lie fallow. Laying aside the technical difficulties of observing this mitzvah—it continues to be a challenge for Israeli agriculture—we can admire its original intent: that of allowing even the land to rest on a regular basis. Everything on earth is subject to the mitzvot of God, and enjoys that benefit.
God pledges to shower the Israelites with prosperity, as long as they follow Torah Law and practice justice and mercy with one another. Should they become corrupt and fall away, God will send enemies to attack them, and in the end exile them from their land. And yet, God will not forsake them completely: even in exile, God will never end His sacred covenant with the people of Israel. This is the promise which sustained us through the long centuries of wandering and persecution; it is a holy bond which has lasted until the present day. We pray that it will continue until the Messianic Age, may it come speedily, and soon. Amen!