Archive for July, 2012

D’varim: What is Within Your Heart

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger
 
Torah Portion: D’varim./ Shabbat Chazon 
 

“You murmured in your tents and said, ‘Because the Lord hates us, God took us out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand[s] of the Amorites to exterminate us.’ “  (D’varimi/ Deuteronomy 1:27)

 
Good afternoon! 
 
We are starting the book of D’varim, which begins with Moshe recounting the history of the people from the Exodus till the end of the 40 years of sojourning. In the verse above, Moshe recounts how the people wailed and cried after the spies came back with a discouraging report about the Land of Israel; they said “the Lord hates us,” imagining out of their anxiety that they were brought forth to die in the desert. 
 
Rashi, as usual, has an acute insight, noting that it was not God who hated Israel, but the other way around. He quotes a folk saying to the effect that “what’s in your heart about your companion, you think he thinks about you.” Psychologists call this “projection;” the basic idea is that we deal with unwanted or unacceptable feelings within ourselves by “projecting” them onto others. 
 
In other words, the Israelites could not admit that they were scared, angry or anxious about the changes and challenges that had come so quickly since Egypt, so instead they blamed others- Moshe, Aharon, even God- for putting them in a terrible situation. This is a common response to stress and crisis, but it’s not a particularly helpful one; Judaism stresses instead the concept of “cheshbon nefesh,” or “soul-accounting,” so that we may discern what role we played in whatever befalls us. Please note: introspection is not the same as blame or self-recrimination; we assume that in messes both historical and personal, there is enough responsibility to go around. 
 
This fits in well with the prophetic message we’ve been hearing in the weeks leading up to Tisha B’Avthe sad memorial day which begins right after Shabbat. The prophets challenge the people Israel to connect their situation to their sins, but also reassure them that a covenant with the Divine will ultimately sustain them. Tisha B’Av is a time to ask: what accountability do I have for the world and its brokenness? What is within me that is broken? It’s an introspective time, in which we remember the tragedies of our people but also seek to understand our own role in healing the world. That can only happen with self-knowledge and appropriate humility, so we do not hate others for what we have not healed within ourselves. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 
Advertisements

Leave a Comment

Mattot-Maasei: Torah and Peace

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mattot-Maasei 

“They took the field against Midian, as the Lord had commanded Moses, and slew every male. . . .” (Bamidbar 31:8)

Good afternoon!

The double portion which concludes the book of Bamidbar [Numbers} contains laws of vows, laws of property, a recounting of the history of the journeys of the Israelites. . . and a narrative of total war which is shocking to read. Chapter 31 relates a war against the Midianites in revenge for the events at Baal-Peor back in chapter 25.The troops kill every male, capture the women, children, and animals, and burn the towns. Upon their return, Moshe commands the troops to kill every male child and every female  from the age of sexual maturity and up (verse 17, if you don’t believe me.)

We are taught that Judaism is a religion of peace, and so we read these words with some disbelief- how can a Torah of life and peace teach ethnic cleansing? Well, it turns out that we are not the only people to ask that question; as far back as the Talmud, there is an opinion that in laying siege to a city, one side must be left open, so people who wish to escape rather than fight may do so. Maimonides picks up on this opinion as well as the verse from Deuteronomy (20:10) which commands the Israelites to first offer terms of peace to a city before attacking it; if the residents accept basic Israelite law and taxation, then there can be no further fighting. (Cf.Mishnah Torah, Law of Kings, ch. 6).*

I am somewhat comforted knowing that at least some of our ancient sages could not look on these verses comfortably, nor allow them to stand unchallenged, but there remains the question: so what do we do with this story now? If Torah is not only history, and not only law, and not only sacred narrative, but a reflection of the inner life of the Jewish people, as individuals and as a nation, how shall we understand the commandment to kill every male, even the children, in Midian?

For me, encountering the story of the war against the Midianites- man, woman and child- is like doing a “fearless moral inventory” of my Jewish soul. As we go into the introspective time before Tisha B’Av, leading within weeks to the Days of Awe, we are reminded that the world cannot be neatly divided into “us” and “them,” with all the good on one side of the ledger and all the evil on another. Each of us is the inheritor of a complex history; each of us is capable of making peace and making war, capable of greatness and cruelty. This is not a matter of moral equivalence across time or between nations. Rather, it is a simple acknowledgment that some of what Judaism stands against is found within our own texts and history, and therefore self-reflection is required when seeking to bring light to our broken world.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

P.S.- for more on the rabbinic interpretations of these difficult verses, see Shlomo Riskin’s weekly commentary here. 

Comments (1)

Balak: Hatred Twists the Soul

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Balak

In the morning Bilaam arose, saddled his she-donkey and went with the Moabite dignitaries. ” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 22:21) 

Good afternoon! Many of you know the story of Bilaam, the sorcerer hired by Balak, the king of Moav, to put a curse on the Israelites as they traveled through the land. (If you don’t know the story, or how it turns out, there’s a summary here.) While the text of the Torah seems to portray Bilaam as motivated more by greed than animus, the ancient rabbis clearly thought he wanted to curse Israel out of ill-will towards them. 

In fact, our old friend Rashi quotes an earlier text on the verse above, noting (by way of comparison to our father Avraham) that “getting up in the morning” seems to connote a special zeal for the task at hand. Rashi also notes that Bilaam saddled his donkey  himself, and comments that “hatred spoils the standard,” meaning, he was so consumed by hatred for the Jews that he disregarded the protocol due a man of his rank and saddled his own donkey, rather than having a servant do it for him. 

Now, I don’t have a servant to saddle my donkey (ok, truth be told, I don’t have a donkey either), but I’ve seen many times how resentment and negativity causes people to act in ways unbecoming their dignity. In fact, I might even propose that remembering that you and I and every person is created in the Divine Image is a way to regain the composure and thoughtfulness which resentment “spoils,” to use Rashi’s image. If we remember not only that the person or people towards whom we have anger, frustration or ill-will are children of God, but so are we, then perhaps a desire to live on that spiritual level will enable us to re-center and remember that anger and hatred rarely solve our problems, nor leave us feeling any better. How should we behave? Not like Bilaam, who gave up his dignity out of hatred, but like Aaron, who spent his live seeking peace and pursuing it. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

RNJL 

Leave a Comment