Sunday, July 26, 2015

Vaetchanan: Meet Kai, a real-life Egyptian Scribe from 2450 BCE


            In the Musee du Louvre, the world-famous art museum in Paris, France, there stands—or, rather, sits—a statue dating from Egypt, in 2450 BCE (Old Kingdom, Fifth Dynasty). It is not a dramatically tall depiction of a rampant Pharaoh, striding forward boldly with spear and shield in hand; neither is it a scarab-beetle, or dragon-like crocodilian of the River Nile. It depicts a scribe named Kai, a government official of some importance in his time—he was sufficiently well-off to commission both the statue of himself doing his job, and a tomb to house both his earthly and heavenly remains, though we know nothing more of him than his statue tells us.
Kai’s statue is composed of painted limestone, standing (or sitting) a respectable, but not ostentatious, one foot, nine inches high. The scribe sits, cross-legged, on the ground, holding a long-ago-lost reed pen in his right hand, and a papyrus roll in his left, on which he is writing. His kilt, customary dress for Egyptian men, is stretched over his thighs as he sits Indian-style, and it serves him well as a portable writing surface.

Kai’s facial expression is alert and attentive, eyes wide open, ready to take dictation from whichever High Officer or Pharaoh should need his services. Unlike other Egyptian sculptures, which nearly all conform to an identical style, Kai’s likeness is individual and unique: he appears to be a man of intelligence, a mere civil servant, true, but a man confident in his abilities and functions as part of the Egyptian Body Politic. We may assume that his statue was made in the same workshops which turned out royal sculptures, giving it an importance, indeed gravitas, that it does not loudly proclaim (10,000 Years of Art, NY: Phaidon Press, 2009, p. 29).
Why do I use the image of this workaday scribe to illustrate this parsha/Torah reading? This is where Moses (1393?-1273?BCE) orates about the desert wanderings of our people and describes the theophany at Sinai:

“Face-to-face did God speak with you on the mountain, from the midst of the fire; I stood at that time between you and God, to tell you the Word of God, for you were fearful of the fire, and did not ascend the mountain” (Deut. 5: 4-5; translation mine). And Moses, the Great Teacher and Rabbi, follows this stirring introduction by again reciting the Ten Commandments.

After the smoke, thunder, and lightning vanished into the tribal memory of our ancestors—indeed, after they themselves died, being doomed by God to perish in the wilderness as punishment for sinning with the Golden Calf—what remained?

Only the power of the Divine Word, as transcribed by Moses. One could do worse than be a scribe to Royalty, whether Kai of Egypt or Moses of Israel. Growing up as a young man in Pharaoh’s palace (whether that of Ramses II, Merneptah, or even the woman pharaoh, Hatshepsut—we will never know for certain), possibly being groomed for a role in the Egyptian regime, Moses may well have known and appreciated the worth of men like Kai, and certainly learned to respect the power of the Recorded Word. It served him, and us, well.

Fast-forward to generations of scholars—gentiles and Jews among them—carrying handwritten scrolls, printed books, and now, electronic tablets, which serve the same purpose, only using light-strokes within glass panels, rather than ink-dots on animal-skin, vellum, leather, or paper. Such is the power of the Word, to transform Thought. If I tell you a story, and you like it enough to tell someone else, it is no longer my story, or that of Moses, Shakespeare, or even God: it has become Your Story. If enough people from the same tribal background tell it and believe in it, it becomes their own, common linkage, their own heritage.
That is what we Jews do. Years ago, a Christian minister friend paid me, and our people, the highest compliment:

“If you ask a Christian minister a theological question,” he told me, “he’ll give you a theological answer. If you ask a rabbi, the rabbi will tell you a story.”

Yes: it is the stories that keep us alive. And, as I write these lines, somewhere on earth, another baby is being born, whose parents will decide what faith to raise their child in, or no faith at all:

“When she is old enough enough, she will choose her faith,” they may say.

This is folly: the child will be, for many years, too young to choose a pair of socks, and it takes far more planning to decide on a faith. As you, her parents, would make certain to clothe her warmly from the world’s cold, would you not fortify her with a particular belief in both a God and her own, personal history? She is a member of a people; she has a past; she must contribute to their future. It is her fortune, her burden, and her destiny.
Regardless of how we envision God, this is what remains to us today: we are the People of the Book. Although many of us never read beyond the Chumash/Five Books of Moses, and neglect the study of the remainder of the Tanach/Bible (which is a shame), it remains our people’s gift to the world, and we should pledge ourselves to its study and practice. Torah may not be logical; it may be self-contradictory; parts of it may not have aged as well as we might like—but it is still our heritage, our legacy. Moses, Kai, and all other recorders of pre-history and history would have had it no other way.


Sunday, July 19, 2015

This Tisha B'Av, Remembering Dr. Janusz Korczak (1878-1942)

This Tisha B’Av, Remembering Dr. Janusz Korczak

By David Hartley Mark

Betty Jean Lifton, The King of Children: A Biography of Janusz Korczak. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988.

            He was not religious, but he became a saint. He did not go to synagogue, and knew no Hebrew, but he was a martyr. In a world where men changed themselves willingly into beasts, he dedicated his life to saving children.
He was Dr. Janusz Korczak (1878-1942), physician, sociologist, psychologist, father, author, poet, and a man who gave his career, his life, to working with orphan children. In these dog days of summer, with the flames of History licking at the Holy Temple, I remember him. Born Henryk Godszmit in Poland in 1878 (I, too, am part Polish; it is not a legacy of which I have ever really been proud—the Poles, if they did not invent anti-semitism, certainly refined and contributed to it), he introduced the first progressive orphanages for both Catholic and Jewish children into Poland, founded the first children’s newspaper, and testified on behalf of children in juvenile courts. He wrote a novel, King Matt the First (1922), about a child-king who dreamt of a children’s crusade that would eliminate evil from the world. He organized his own orphanages to resemble “children’s republics,” in which his young charges took on a portion of self-government.
And he lived, and died, with his orphans. When World War II began, he might have escaped from Nazi-occupied Poland, but he chose to stay. A hero of World War I, he dressed himself in his old uniform and went to the Nazi authorities demand more food rations for his orphans. He was beaten and thrown into a cell. Released, he returned to his children, there in the Warsaw Ghetto, determined to survive and flourish, for however long they could.
He described himself as a “sculptor of a child’s soul,” and understood how children need, require, yearn for, a sense of order. In Betty Lifton’s words, “He would tell a misbehaving child, ‘ I’m angry at you till lunchtime or supper.’ …The child would understand that he was being punished, but also that there was a time limit, after which would be forgiven and could begin anew.” I wonder how many children there are, out there in the World, who would benefit from such a loving regimen.
Finally, there came the end, to which nearly all the young members of Korczak’s Children’s Republic were sacrificed: the death camp of Treblinka, where flowers were planted along the tracks, and where the hands of a fake painted station-clock pointed forever to 3. About four thousand children and their teachers and nurses were deported from Warsaw that day, brutally escorted by the Jewish Ghetto Police and the Nazi soldiers and SS. Korczak’s group was one-hundred-ninety-two children and ten adults, with himself at the head. He had been offered a last-minute chance to escape, but refused: he wished to stay with his children.
Korczak was at the head of this little army, the tattered remnants of the generations of moral soldiers he had raised in his children’s republic. He held five-year-old Romcia in one arm, and perhaps Szymonek Jakubowicz, to whom he had dedicated the story of Planet Ro, in the other.

Stefa (his head nurse) followed a little way back with the nine- to twelve-year-olds. There were Giena, with sad, dark eyes like her mother’s…. There were Jakub, who wrote the poem about Moses; Leon with his polished wooden box; Mietek with his dead brother’s prayer book; and Abus, who had stayed too long on the toilet. …

The sidewalks were packed with people from neighboring houses, who were required to stand in front of their homes when an Aktion was taking place. As the children followed Korczak away from the orphanage, one of the teachers started singing a marching song, and everyone joined in: “Though the storm howls around us, let us keep our heads high.”

…Korczak headed the first section of children and Stefa the second. Unlike the usual chaotic mass of people shrieking hysterically as they were prodded along with whips, the orphans walked in rows of four with quiet dignity. “I shall never forget this scene as long as I live,” [Nahum Remba wrote; he was a Judenrat official, who had offered to save Korczak’s life, but without the children’s; Korczak had refused] “This was no march to the train cars, but rather a mute protest against this murderous regime…a procession the like of which no human eye has ever witnessed.”

As Korczak led his children calmly toward the cattle cars, the Jewish police cordoning off a path for them saluted instrinctively. Remba burst into tears when the Germans asked who that man was. A wail went up from those still left on the square. Korczak walked, head held high, holding a child by each hand, his eyes staring straight ahead with his characteristic gaze, as if seeing something far away
(Lifton, 1988, pp. 340; 344-5).

            This Tisha B’Av, I turn from other Jewish catastrophes to this one: a small teardrop in an immense ocean of tragedy, perhaps—and there are other children, thousands, perhaps millions, suffering as I write, out there in the World; how can we save those children, in memory of Dr. Janusz Korczak?

The Question stands….

Devarim: Yet Another Speech by Moses, Poor Fellow: His Voice is Old, and Crackt, and Weak, in the Desert Wind....

Call me Avishai ben Bered, of the Tribe of Zevulun, but my name and tribe are not important. I am a recorder, who remembers the stories and chronicles of us Israelites in the Wilderness, to tell my sons and my son’s sons, so that these stories will not be lost, forever.

Here it is, another baking-hot, desert day, around 1440 BCE (Before the Christian Era). Poor Old Moses has asked his disciple—more like a son, really—Joshua, to blow the shofar and summon us people from our tents to the central square around the Mishkan, the desert shrine where, they say, the Spirit of our Invisible Desert God hovers, both inside and outside of the tent, and all at once—I cannot fathom how. Who can be in two places, all at once? It puzzles me; but then, I am a mere Rememberer, and do not have to worry if the Stories Make Sense; I merely have to re-tell them, the best way I can.

“You young people were born in this wilderness,” Moses calls at the top of his voice—

What voice? It’s old, and weak; it’s hard to hear him; the rooks cawing and the vultures circling are a distraction, as are the tumbling desert weeds which the hamseen, the dry wind, continually blows through the camp, and sand blasting into our faces, and so Joshua ends up repeating all that the Old Master speaks, as we bend our ears to him to listen—

“And I will not be with you much longer; the God-Most-High has declared that I shall be gathered unto Him, but on such a day as I do not know. And so it is important, most important….”

Here, the old man is seized by a fit of coughing, which does not cease until Pinchas, that zealot!—he who tip-toes ‘round the tents of us Israelites on Friday nights, making certain that no one is breaching any cohabitation laws—if he were in his own tent, minding his own business, we could all enjoy a peaceful evening—what’s he doing there? Ah! That’s charitable: he’s fetching the Old Man a goatskin of watered wine mixt with cinnamon and honey, to soothe his throat—

“That you hear what I have to say....”

Hearing that, we all squat down, for these discourses by the Old One can go on, even for hours, until we break camp—will that be soon? There’s no fruit left to pick off these skinny date-palms, and the creek’s gone bone-dry: it would serve El-Shaddai, the Mountain-God well (He goes by many Names, he does), to find us new digs, in these desert-lands, like he promised our Poppas and Mommas, long ago, in Egypt-land….

The sun beats down, and we shift from ham to ham, trying to avoid the stings of the desert bugs and the evil scorpions which are our constant companions; we joke that they are “Honorary Israelites” whom the Mysterious One has, like us, freed from Egypt, along with the Mixed Multitude of necromancers, harlots, and ne’er-do-wells who have gotten us into so much trouble: the Rebellion of Korach, the Golden Calf, the Temptations of Baal Peor, and so many more; so many have died, in this long, endless Wandering….

As the day’s heat builds, and Moses’s voice creaks on, many of us begin to dream, to remember, past speeches: he’s told us of the times before our births, and our tribal history, and about our God. Moses calls him “Lord,” and “Master God,” and other names; and why not? He speaks with Him, so he does, and Face-to-Face, at that—this God who freed us and our ancestors from Egyptian slavery, and how they rebelled, and wished to go back to that cursed land—he warns us, now, not to do so. But why should we? We have no memory of it, no indeed!

All we have ever wished for is some variety, some respite, from the manna, that “What-is-It?” bread, which falls daily, and which we gather never-endingly, that white, flakey stuff that we’ve been eating all of our lives: it is a curse. The one time, only once! That we—not we, but our parents—rebelled—a small rebellion—by asking for meat, some tiny bit of poultry, perhaps—how was Old Moses to fetch it for them? Was he to mount up to heaven, to beg the birds from the One Most High? But no: instead, the Mysterious One sent flocks, flocks of quail—at least, that is what my old mother and Uncle Ener told me, years before, when I was but a young lad—

and, so Uncle Ener said, “We had caught a covey of quail, Young Avishai, and were sitting down to eat, when you know what happened?”

“No, what, my Uncle?” I asked, though I had heard the tale, so many times told, many times repeated.

“Why, He-Who-Is smote us with a harsh smiting, kicked us in the guts! We all scattered for the bushes, quickly enough, and moaned and groaned the whole night long—no more meat for us, not for a while!”

And Uncle and Mother laughed about it, laughed until they cried, while I wondered at the thought: a God Who supplies His people with meat, but grudges them the eating of it—it doesn’t seem right, somehow—

What’s that? What’s Moses saying? Oh, the Land: the Land, again: a Land most fertile, most good and moist, a Land where we will eat a-plenty—a land of wheat, and barley, and oil; a land of honey, and oats—and are we to share this Land? I suppose there will be Other Tribes there—Moses? Moses? I am raising my hand—tell us about the Other Tribes! Moses, Please!

Too late—see there, Old Moses is done: he is leaning on Joshua’s shoulder, and going into his goatskin tent, the one with the brazen serpent at its door-flap; that’s how you can tell it, from afar. Old Serpent! Now, what was Serpent’s purpose? Can’t recall—

Poor Old Moses—and, now that I look at his back, Joshua is looking older, too, with some more gray hairs on his beard and the back of his sturdy, warrior's back—what remains, O’ Mysterious One? What remains for us to see and conquer, begging Your grudging help for Your rebellious children? The rest is silence....

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Mattot-Massay: Some Words from Pagiel, War-Priest Pinchas's Recording-Secretary, on Israelite Co-Existence with the Midianites

Scene: A storage-tent, full of bags of gold and silver, vessels of copper, iron tools and weapons, tin gimcracks, leaden vessels—“any vessel that can withstand fire” (Num. 31:21-23). These items of booty are waiting to be “passed through fire” and thereby ritually purified of their pagan connections, while other items—fine glass, coated pottery, enamelwork—lie, carefully stacked, in an opposite corner, to be “passed through water.” These will, afterwards, be declared hekdesh, “dedicated to God’s holy service in the Mishkan/Sanctuary,” or  divided “equally between those who went forth to war, and the rest of the community” (Num. 31:27). 

Off to one side, sitting cross-legged on a prayer rug, is Pagiel (Pah-GHEE-el) ben Machli ha-Levi, secretary-recorder-accountant to Pinchas ben Eleazar ben Aaron Ha-Kohen, Avenger of God against the sinning Israelites in Baal-Pe’or, Wielder of the Lance Against Zimri and Kozbi, and Official War-Kohen-Priest against the Midianites, who tempted the Israelites to sin there, and who were, therefore, attacked and conquered by the Israelites at God’s Command (Num. 31). 

It was Pinchas who, we may assume, led the Levites who carried the Holy Ark into battle to boost the morale and give courage to the triumphant Israelites, as they defeated the Midianite troops, whom they afterwards decimated, by God’s command. As the dawn sun lights up the contents of the tent so that it shimmers and shines, Pagiel, who has been napping over his papyrus-sheet, suddenly jerks awake, dropping his stylus.

H’m? I am Poor Brother Pagiel, by your leave! You need not thrust your weapon in my face (waving his hand at the loot, still fuddled at being suddenly awakened by You, Reader, the Intruder)—there’s booty here—I mean, hekdesh, that which is sanctified to the Lord God above, Blessed Be His Name!, and will be apportioned out to Ourselves Below, as well—and counting, reckoning, and recording it’s my job—and all alone, mind you. Not much coin in the Accountant’s Fund, apparently—well—I better move along, and get to it—

What? Battle? Where? Oh, the killing-fields: poor Midianites, they never stood a chance (he drops his voice) for when you’ve got the Lord God Almighty on your side, the Thunderer Who moves both heaven and earth, there’s none can stand before you—Oh, pardon me, Friend—

(He grunts, rises, stretches)

--But I must be about my work. That Pinchas—Kohen Pinchas, All-Holy-Priestly-Prophetic-Pinchas, if you please—he’s not the patientest fellow to work for, I can tell you—but battle? Well, let me tell you—I was there, right in the thick of it, holding on to the Holy Ark, brought it right into the middle of the combat, me holding tight onto the left-hand carrying pole, rearward there, giving morale and buck-up-courage to Our Boys, just hacking, hacking at those Midianites—Ohoo, the blood that was spilt!

We caught them off their guard, there: don’t you see? They thought they’d hidden all their weapons away, but we knew where they were; some Midianite secret-agent had told our spy, who told another spy, and Hey Presto! There we were, and there were they; poor devils! We surrounded them, drew our swords, and they—well, it was Katie-bar-the-door-there: those Midianites never stood a chance.

Prisoners? Humph! Can’t take prisoners. By order of the God-Most-High, don’t-cha-know: they’re all pagan-folk; can’t help themselves. (whispering) Oh, I suppose a wench or two might slip by his Pinchas-ness, but doubtful, considering the way he skewered Old Zimri ben Salu, that Simeonite prince, there, and that Midianitish girl of his, that Cozbi bat Tsur—but, consider! They were asking for it, they were, just rolling about in the dirt, there, in front of the Holy One’s Holiest Shrine—damnfool behavior, I call it; Zimri ought to’ve known better, him being a prince, and all—

Share the land? With whom? The Midianites? The Amorites? You know, I’ve never really thought of that, we being all alone in this ungodly Wilderness, and all—nothing but enemies, all around, it seems—and besides, the Lord-God-He-Who-Is has promised it to us, and every inch! (Reaches down to a beautiful golden goblet, embossed with precious stones; holds it up and turns it, glinting in the morning light) As this gold cup I hold doth witness to me—I have set my eyes upon it; yes, I have, and told my Boss—my Pinchas, just this morning, so I did—

“This one’s for me, M’Lord Kohen, what d’ye’say? Hey?” I asked him, just to make it right and proper.

“Just keep accounts, Pagiel,” so he said, “we’ll settle up when all the fighting’s done.”

“We’re not done fighting?” so I asked him back, and he looked at me, distant, eyes-far-off, as though he were receiving Prophecy—the sort that Moses gets—poor Moses! He’s so old now, losing track, and no control o’er the People….

And Pinchas tells me, 
“I know, Pagiel, that I will be the next, to lead this People. God has told me so, rewarding me for killing Zimri, that abject sinner and fornicator. God knows, it takes a warrior-priest to keep His flock in line. And once our purpose melds together with God’s—why, there’s no end to all the Good we can do!”

I moved away: there’s something strange to me—though I’m religious, make no doubt of that—when a man—be he priest, or something even more—tells me that God speaks clear only to him, so that, whatever he—this man, this mortal, this flesh-and-blood-being (same as I, and You, you understand) decides to speak, and do, even to the extent of killing people in cold blood, why, he’s doing it—in God’s Name!

I tell you, Friend, I am no Scholar, like the High Lord-Priest Pinchas, there—I’m just a Clerk, common as mud— but, somehow, it don’t sit well with me. I went, and sat, and ticked away accounts, ignoring him, his eyes closed, praying there, off in a corner of the Tent, lips moving silently, to his own God, alone. Receiving Personal Instructions, to go out and kill more pagan Midianites, no doubt. (Sighs) But isn’t our own Zipporah, Moses’s wife, a Midianite? Wasn’t Jethro, who advised Moses how to set up our system of judges? (To himself) Oh, never mind, Pagi; these things are too deep for you. Just count the gold pieces, here….

God knows that I’m no scholar, as I said, not learned in the Holy Scrolls, nor in talking, private-like, with He-Who-Is, our God, the Invisible One, but I do recall that when Our Boys, all armed, booted and belted, were rounding up the young girls and little, innocent, dirty-faced, crying, orphaned kids left over from the fight (Num. 31:17-18), all of them in a panic over their dead parents and burnt-down homes—I couldn’t help but feel so sorry for them.

Was it their fault, for listening to wicked leaders? Or were their leaders all that wicked, then? They were just kids. Just kids.

When all the tragic, bloody business is done—my God, will there ever be an end to all this fighting, all this bloodshed?—all I want’s a plot of land, a place to farm—perhaps a little house, a fence to lean upon—and a neighbor close enough to talk to, laugh with, no more foe—and why can’t he be Midianite? Why, what bloody difference would it make?

That’s all I’d like to know.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Pinchas--From Zelophechad's Daughters to Rabbi's Weiss's Maharote: Jewish Feminism Progresses

This parsha/Torah reading presents more evidence of Moses’s continuing decline as a leader, poor fellow, due to years of overwork, as well as old age. Here is the aftershock of a plague which God sent to punish the Israelite men for their succumbing to the temptations of Moabite and Midianite temptresses. Sadly, Moses is unable to restrain their excesses, and he no longer has either Aaron or Miriam’s counsel to assist him. It is left to a young hothead, the kohen/priest Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson, who seizes a lance and skewers Zimri, a prince of the tribe of Shimon, and a Midianite woman, Cozbi, while they are sinning in the presence of the portable mishkan/shrine of God. One wonders how Moses, in his prime, would have dealt with this challenge to God’s authority—would he have spoken to the sinful pair in blood-and-thunder tones, or would God have split the earth open, and, Korach-like, plummeted the fornicators down to Gehenna?
For the feminists among us, here is the episode of the Daughters of Zelophechad, whose father died without leaving what used to be genteely called “male issue.” They petition Moses for the right to inherit their father’s property. This legal question never having been raised before in the history of Judaism, Moses consults with God, who grants the women their wish. (Of course, their property ownership rights will pass from them to their husbands when they marry, but that’s a question for a later era to settle.) It is curious to read this as having been “progressive” in an era when even our Orthodox co-religionists (at least the Moderdox, or, as Rabbi Avi Weiss would term them, the “Open Orthodox,”) now enjoy the ministrations of Orthodox Maharotote (women rabbis by any other name)—three fresh-faced young women, eager and earnest, who have been busily serving their own, Orthodox, branch of Klal Yisrael, the People of Israel, while their more haredi (ultra-Orthodox)—dare I call them colleagues?—look askance, full of forboding—for their own positions, or the shocks to the system of organized Orthodoxy? Only time will tell. It does seem odd that only we non-Orthodox clergy and laity are happy and anticipating of their success, while their own denomination’s rabbis are so full of trepidation!
Finally, we learn why this parsha is so crucial to every Jewish holiday: it contains the paragraphs listing the holiday korbanote/sacrifices which were formerly offered during Temple days, and which are read from the second Torah scroll on almost every major Jewish holiday, from the High Holies through Shavuote. Why so? According to the prophet Hosea, “the words of our lips take the place of the bullocks and rams” which were sacrificed on these holidays. In other words, when the holidays arrive, Chant a Portion, and Save a Cow: it’s a vegan’s dream.

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!