Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
The Numbers:13 Project
They shall remove the ashes from the [copper] altar and spread a purple cloth over it. Numbers 4:13
I am a big fan of ritual, especially when it has the capacity to convey meaning that might otherwise been left unexpressed. Such ritual exists in abundance in my own tradition and in other faith traditions as well. Ritual in social interactions may vary from society to society, but every one of them has some version of “I see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do; they’re really saying, ‘I love you.’”
In my opinion, there is no more expressive ritual than a military burial in Arlington National Cemetery. I have attended almost every variation of interment and inurnment and, for a few years, even served as the officiant when Jewish chaplains were unavailable. (My own discomfort with placing cremains in a columbarium, often months after death, led me to relinquish the contract.) I am always moved by the ceremony and by the exquisite detail with which it is conducted.
With full honors, a caisson with the casket aboard is pulled by a team of horses behind a mournful marching band. With simple honors, the deceased is delivered to the graveside by hearse. In either circumstance, as the flag that adorns the remains passes, those in uniform salute and those in civilian garb – like me – place their right hand over their heart until it passes.
Next to the bereaved, on the arm of a uniformed escort, stands the wife of an officer past or present. She is an Arlington Lady, a sweet anachronism, who stands in support of the survivors and delivers oral and written condolences. Many times I have seen these volunteers provide the necessary unscripted comfort to families both buoyed and mystified by the formalities.
An honor guard carries the casket to the grave and placed on the lowering device. The flag is stretched above the casket and whatever service is to be conducted takes place. The rifle volleys are fired; “Taps” is played. The graveside is very quiet.
For me, no matter how much respect I have tried to show to the flag, no matter how startled I am by the volleys, no matter how saddened I am by the bugler’s call, the most important moment is yet to come.
The honor guard, still holding the flag taut, folds it in very specific movements until it is shaped into a crisp triangle. In measured steps, with military bearing, the leader of the team approaches the next of kin, drops to one knee, presents the folded flag and says, quietly and gently, “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States (Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force or Coast Guard ), and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service.” There is no more powerful moment in which so many aspects of American life intersect, including the acknowledgment of the importance of every life.
Every veteran leaves something of herself or himself on the altar of national defense. The most fortunate never see combat. The next fortunate see combat but survive it. The least fortunate make the ultimate sacrifice. Those who are interred among the veterans in Arlington (or, for that matter, in any national cemetery) spend their last few moments in the sight of their loved ones under the canopy of the flag, which covers them like the purple cloth covered the altar in the Tabernacle.
In order for ritual to be effective, it must carry meaning for those who perform or witness it. Lost in our era is a visceral connection to the Tabernacle and the Temple. Losing in our day is the visceral connection to waving a palm branch, kissing a fallen prayer book, reciting the descriptions of rituals past.
But essential to the renewal or innovation of the rituals that sustain us is the moment when the pomp and history distill into the human connection that creates some version of an opportunity for a young person, likely unknown, to drop to eye level with a stranger and recite words appropriate to the circumstance that mirror these: On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States (Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force or Coast Guard ), and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service.
The Numbers:13 Project
For every first-born is Mine: at the time that I smote every first-born in the land of Egypt, I consecrated every first-born in Israel, man and beast, to Myself, to be Mine, the LORD’s. Numbers 3:13
I never really understood the value of being first born. And I say that as a first-born son myself, the child of two first-born children. Some things are better (nobody’s reputation precedes you) and some things are worse (your parents work out all their inexperience on you), but the accident of birth order seems to be irrelevant to anything of real consequence.
The concept of privilege is so embedded in so many cultures, however, that I must admit I think about it plenty. In a society in which lineage and succession are central concerns, I suppose it makes sense that the first born enjoys a special status. (And mostly, we are talking about a first-born who is a son, not necessarily the first son born after one or more daughters.) But in a society in which we recognize that all people are created equal and that achievement is the result of personal effort, what possible difference could it make? For example, I am father to a first-born who is not a son, a son who is not a first-born and a child who is neither. Each of them is equally loved and valued, sharing plenty of traits, but following very different paths of accomplishment. None of them elected to succeed me or my wife in our chosen endeavors or, for that matter, in defining their lives according to the contours we decided on (except in both contexts by very broad definition).
I think there is no denying that this first-born designation has mixed reviews. And I think the verse we are considering this week is a great indication as to why. I write these words in the midst of the Passover festival in which the deaths of the first-born males among the Egyptians is the last necessary ingredient in the long process of liberating the Israelite slaves. On the plus side, this final catastrophe (from which slaves who followed God’s instructions were passed over by death) left Pharaoh no choice but to free the oppressed, and it required a society based on lineage to completely redefine itself. So much for the privilege of being first. On the other hand, I have never attended a seder at which someone does not note that the child chosen for involuntary privilege pays the ultimate price to right a moral wrong that was not their sin. The text of the Bible notes the anguish of the parents but notes no regret for the loss of innocent life. Moreover, if part of the lesson is that the moral shortcomings of one generation should not be considered the privilege of the next, then why do the instructions given to the liberated tribes codify the very same privilege?
Yes, it is possible to read the verse above as a caution – the price of freedom is a recognition that what a father thinks he can pass along to his son has been transferred to God to decide. And yes, despite this appropriation by God there is the instruction to “redeem” the first-born from this designation in favor of the tribe of Levi, designated to serve the divine will in place of the first-born. But this whole notion of privilege nonetheless survives, sometimes individually and sometimes collectively.
The saga of the family of Joseph Kennedy is a great example. Kennedy, not himself the most admirable of figures, placed the highest of expectations on his first-born and namesake. When Joe, Jr. was killed in World War II, those expectation shifted to John, and then to Bobby, and then to Teddy. Whether you were a fan of any or all of them, you must acknowledge that their place in the birth order had nothing to do with their similar (but by no means identical) accomplishments.
The religious sense of a permanent legacy of chosenness also plays out in America today. Our country was founded a group of white men who, though they differed widely in their beliefs and devotions, nevertheless were possessed of the conviction that they were in service to the divine will. Perhaps they were, but the subsequent generations of white males who viewed themselves as primary successors of the Founding Fathers relied more on that sense of being inheritors of privilege and authority than on the values of that exceptional generation. They had to be persuaded – sometimes violently – to extend the blessings of liberty to women, people of color, immigrants from around the globe, diverse faith communities and, most notably in our day, people of differing orientations and gender identities.
Matters of policy aside, the basest expression of this sense of entitlement has resulted in the wistful (and often pathetic) desire to “make America great again.” Led by old white guys and enabled by those who want to preserve a crumbling hierarchy of privilege, the look backward in an attempt to move forward has widened a gap that was narrowing by inches. Underlying this aggressive reassertion of dominance is not “birth order” in a biological sense, but an assertion made with umbrage and conviction that the United States was founded by the Fathers who intended the legacy for their Sons. The overlay of a literal (and often selective) reading of sacred text, including this verse, makes great misuse of the notion that certain officials elected by the voters were also elected by God.
I learned how wrong this notion of a first-born’s privilege was shortly after my bar mitzvah. I had asked my parents for one gift – a small TV – for my bedroom. The little ones were all black-and-white back then, deeper than wide because of the tube. It sat on the dresser in the room I shared with my younger brother who was the baseball outlier in my family – a White Sox fan. He had the good sense to ask me one Sunday afternoon if he could watch the Sox game on my designated Cubs TV. I refused (because, well, it was the White Sox and I may have had a proclivity to torture him.)
He protested loudly to my parents who wanted to know why I refused. When I told them that I did not want the White Sox on my television, I discovered that in certain circumstances it was not just the Lord who both giveth and taketh away. Just because I got there first did not give me a claim of privilege and authority. Even those who arrived later, with different and even demonstrably wrong team loyalties, were entitled to equal consideration and access to privilege.
Being first makes you first. That’s about it. And I would like to think that anyone who believes that such a designation makes them inherently special can take it up with the arbiter of right and wrong.
The Numbers:13 Project
His troop, as enrolled: 59,300. Numbers 2:13
Every ten years, the Constitution of the United States requires the government to take a census of the population. The numbers are extremely important. They determine proportional representation in the House of Representatives, factor into disbursement of tax dollars, divide up the Electoral College and all sorts of other things. An accurate count is necessary, though the definition of “accurate” for the census may not be quite as precise as for, say, balancing your checking account.
Like everything else in today’s world, the census has become politicized. The questions you ask determine the answers you get. And when you combine the suspicion people have developed of aggregation of data, quarrels over the nature of the questions, the exact wording and the specificity of the information recorded about any given respondent have become voluble.
I often say that I believe the Bible is true, but not always accurate. To me, the least threatening “proof” of my statement is the census described in Numbers, including in the verse at the top of the column. Somehow, every total of adult male populations was an exact multiple of a nice, round ten. No 17, no 63, no 32. A zero at the end of every total.
Is there a lesson for the US census in this phenomenon? Is “approximately” or “give-or-take” a reasonable standard to which we should aspire?
If the answer is yes – as it seems to be in the Bible – then the discussions of the nature of the questions are really pretty ridiculous. Given the scale of the counting across the country, can’t we just round up or round down or even estimate? Can’t we just do a representative sampling, apply one of those famous algorithms and be done with it?
Actually, I think the answer is no. I am not among those who believe that such a system would be corrupted by those with malicious intent – though I acknowledge the possibility. I base my objection on a theological standard: every person is an entire world. Eliminate one and destroy a world. Manufacture one and affirm something that is not true.
As a matter of principle, every person counts, and each of those persons who is a citizen has the right to cast a ballot for the people who will determine the directions of the community, state and country in which they reside. Among those considerations is how we treat the residents who are not citizens; should they be rounded up and redistributed as political pawns, as some officials recently suggested, or should they receive a fair share of services and support in recognition of their contributions to society and, more important, their basic humanity? I clearly have a preference, but I, like everyone else, only have one voice in the matter.
Which, of course, brings us to the matter of how that voice is expressed: voting. Just as we can’t round off the census numbers, we also can’t round off the tallies of votes. If the census gives us the big picture necessary to reimagine our country on a cyclical basis, elections give us the pixels that make up that big picture. If there is any indication of just how radical the concept of one person, one vote really is, it is the constant attempt of groups fearful of losing power to restrict the access of voters they consider opponents to the polls.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the first comprehensive legislation since the 19th Amendment (which enfranchised women) to expand the protections of voting to all eligible voters. It was particularly important to – and focused on – southern states where obstacles to African American citizens who wished to register and exercise the franchise were purposeful and steep. Some of those states of late successfully made the case that the original rationale for the provisions of the law had been eliminated. But the creativity of those who would suppress the vote has not abated. Therefore, like the attempts to politicize the census, we must be vigilant in resisting the false claims of fraud that animate opponents of easy access to the polls.
There is a reason the Bible prohibits the deployment of a census except in very specific circumstances. Kings generally counted their able-bodied men when they were preparing for an expeditionary war. The Bible is suspicious of such motivation, and it seems to contextually each census in those very limited contexts. War, of necessity, dehumanizes combatants; victories are too often determined by the number of lives lost (or saved). In those situations, it is not surprising that a rounded number will do. Unlike elections, nobody ever won a war by one life.
But in a society that puts ultimate value on every life, it is important to recognize that no one should feel like a number – unless for each of us that number 1.
(Welcome to the Numbers:13 Project. If you have been following me since Genesis, you know that each week for the next 36 weeks, give or take, I will write a column prompted by the 13th verse of each subsequent chapter of the Book of Numbers. Mostly, I hope to reflect on the climate of our times, but sometimes -- especially in Numbers -- that will be a challenge. For those of you expecting that, as a Beatles fan, I would have elected to go with the Numbers:9 Project, here's another hint for you all: too obvious. If you would like to subscribe to this series, visit the Google group "Aliba D'Rav" or send me an email.)
From Asher, Pagiel son of Ochran. Numbers 1:13
Just like a lot of Jews of my generation, I do not have a Hebrew name. I was named (as my parents were) for beloved ancestors who themselves were named in Yiddish. And not only were they named in Yiddish, but they were named in the dialect of Yiddish spoken in their home shtetls.
Some people carry a sort of double name – one in Hebrew and one in Yiddish. Most famous of these is the name of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. There are others that are familiar enough if you spend time in the world of Jewish names: Dov Baer, Tzvi Hirsch, Shraga Feivush. But most of us with Yiddish names have only those names.
Rabbis who were not raised with Yiddish (like me) often have a hard time deciphering names brought to them by family members preparing for a gravestone or the naming of a child. To the Yiddish-speaker, the nuances of pronunciation are familiar, just like native English-speaker can see the immediate connection among Alexander, Alex and Xander. But what do you do if a granddaughter wants to remember her beloved Bubbe with the Hebrew equivalent of “Hudes,” not knowing its origin or even accuracy?
I was named for my father’s father and my mother’s paternal grandfather. Grandpa Jack was named Zelig. And Great-Grandpa Louis was named Leimah. Those were probably pretty common names back in the day, but they cycled out of mode before I could say them. And my Hebrew school teachers – especially the Israeli ones who had cast off Yiddish in favor of Hebrew – always derided Zelig and insisted there was no such name as Leimah.
Though I never coveted a Hebrew name like my siblings had (double-duty ones though they were), I also prefer to stick with “Jack” when I am asked by a Hebrew speaker what to call me. Frankly, I would rather deal with “Jeck” and “Tzack” from Israelis than the “what-kind-of-name-is-Zelig” that is the inevitable response. And as much of an honor as it is to be called to the Torah by my “name for all holy matters,” even veteran officiants usually need two or three repetitions to get my name and my parents’ names anywhere near correctly.
Many years ago, I was asked by a Chabad rabbi (a follower of the aforementioned Lubavitcher Rebbe) what my name was. “Zelig” he found acceptable. But “Leimah” provoked a long internal dialogue (which he held aloud) until finally reminding himself that sure, yeah, there had been a famous Leimah, only he thought it was Leimeh or maybe Leimel (as distinct from Lemel), but in any event he would certainly remember me as the first Leimah he ever met.
It’s like being named “Seven” or “North.”
There are plenty of Biblical Hebrew names you never hear anymore unless you are reading the Bible. “Pagiel, son of Ochran” is a good example. Near as I can tell, Ochran connotes stubbornness or maybe a taciturn personality, while his son Pagiel carries a name that indicates that either God helped him escape or he escaped God. No further explanation is available.
My name, Zelig, means “happy.” As it happens, that is also the meaning of “Asher.” And “Leimah” may or may not be a corruption of (or nickname for) Shlomo – as in Shleimeh, drop the “sh.” “Shlomo” comes from “shalom,” meaning “peace” or “wholeness.” Anyway, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
So, to borrow from one piece of literature, My Name is Asher Shlomo. Happy and whole is not a bad expectation to carry around with me.
But to borrow from another piece of literature, Call me Zelig. Just as Melville’s narrator began Moby Dick and remained Ishmael to the very end, I am Zelig from my eighth day of life. However much explanation and reimagining my name means, it carries with it a legacy handed to me from a place I never knew and from people I never met in a language I never spoke.
Preserving that makes me happy and whole.