The Numbers:13 Project
he stood between the dead and the living until the plague was checked. Numbers 17:13
It took a long time for me to demystify visiting a cemetery. I never considered it “creepy” to be present among the graves and their markers. In fact, even before I studied to be a rabbi (when I began visiting cemeteries for professional reasons), I was fascinated by the personal histories represented by the tombstones. The information on them was enlightening about the life of the individual and the family left behind. The material from which they were carved reflected not only aesthetic choices but implied a socio-economic status. The shape and size could convey details too painful to memorialize in words; a marker carved like a lopped tree trunk was a sure sign of a healthy young person lost in the prime of life.
The part that was difficult for me was walking among the graves. Perhaps due to idioms like “dancing on his grave” or “desecrating her grave” I found myself walking in unnatural ninety-degree patterns while muttering small apologies for a misstep as if stepping over the unidentifiable end of the actual grave was a sort of injury to the deceased. And attempts to read the fading letters or view the embedded photos on some gravestones resulted in twisting my posture in ways I can no longer confidently attempt.
Of course, a burial ceremony almost always requires that people stand and walk on the graves of others. And it slowly dawned on me that it was not merely “sacred purpose” that excused a step on a grave. The earth that blankets the dead is the barrier between the dead and the living.
This phrase from the Bible has always intrigued me. It is as blatant in Hebrew as it is in English – as if Aaron (the “he” in the verse) were positioned between two similar cohorts of people, one the living and the other zombies, walking dead, attacking hordes. It’s the word “until” that brings it out, because it implies the process of death from the plague did not end with Aaron assuming his sentry position.
As it happens, I was thinking about what I would write about this verse during the weeks on either side of a family gathering organized by my sister. This winter, it will be my father’s thirtieth yartzheit, the thirtieth anniversary of his death. Chicago is very cold in the winter; indeed, my father’s burial took place on a day of record-setting temperatures. So, at my sister’s suggestion, we scheduled an observance at his grave on a warm day. She arranged for the military honors we did not have at his burial, and each of his children took the opportunity to speak.
My dad is buried with his parents and in close proximity to many of his aunts, uncles and cousins. Before us as we spoke was family – my mom, his children and most of their spouses, most of his grandchildren, many of his nieces and nephews and half of his six great-grandchildren. We called on his presence in remembrances and in his own words, written as a soldier during his service in the Second World War.
We stood between the dead and the living, until.
There was no plague to arrest. But there was good reason for the living to stand before the dead until it was time to take our leave and return to the house in which the three of us were raised. We went there to do the things we do only when we are alive: to eat, to tell stories, to laugh, to remember and to plant the seeds of memory for the youngest who were there.
I remain mystified by the tableau that the Bible describes. Despite numerous attempts by commentators to explain it, the plain meaning is hard to understand.
But I now have a clearer understanding of what I have done for many, many people during my years as a rabbi, at funerals and memorial services and ceremonies to dedicate the tombstones. I stood between the dead and the living until the immediacy of the grief had been checked. By my willingness to stand in that breach, I assured them that a loved one’s death was not contagious, and that just as they assembled “until” for this person, others would assemble “until” for them.
The Numbers:13 Project
Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us? Numbers 16:13
At some point or another, every hero fails. For those who admire the hero, and more so for those who follow the hero, the mark of a free mind is the ability to accept the failure without rejecting the person.
If the expectation has been infallibility, the fall can come hard. History is filled with personalities who promised the moon and could not deliver the next meal – the expectations they raised were dashed and with them their reputations. Bernie Madoff, Sammy Sosa, Tammy Fay Bakker, Elizabeth Holmes…in every field of endeavor “too good to be true” turned out to be too true to be good. The hearts of followers too invested to consider the necessary human flaws in their heroes can be shattered beyond repair.
On the other hand, a willingness to acknowledge those flaws and still embrace the person and their admirable qualities is the basis of surviving disappointment. Anyone who has ever been married can tell you how important it is cultivate love that does not rely on perfection. Anyone who has been divorced can tell you what happens when expectation is more important than acceptance. (Both statements offered without judgment.)
But there is another possibility when a hero fails. It is to deny the failure in order to maintain the heroic stature. If you’d like my definition of a cult (well, even if you wouldn’t here it comes), it is the elevation of a leader above their failures. In faith communities, whether established religions or groups clustered around a charismatic leader, when devotees are asked to put common sense second to trust, the hero supplants the heroic idea. A person becomes the repository of hope, which means hope is supplanted by the repository.
Tragically, it is most often (though not always) sexual abuse that is the mark of failure, and the continuing participation of victims in the abuse that perpetuates it. Before you read that last sentence as blaming the victim, let me acknowledge the power of the leader to intimidate the victim and, in many cases, even to persuade the victim that the fault lies in their own shortcomings. Without the power to frustrate the good judgment of victims, the cult leader cannot function. Indeed, once a victim speaks out, the end of the cult is at hand.
But it is not always sexual abuse that places the hero above the idea. Sometimes it is the would-be hero’s ability to make the follower feel special just for knowing something no one else knows.
The verse that prompts this short essay comes in the midst of a rebellion against Moses’ leadership. The words are not spoken by the challenger, but by followers of the challenger. Even if you are a casual reader of the Bible, you know that the phrase “land [of] milk and honey” does not describe Egypt, rather the Promised Land. The rebels, who are themselves former slaves and less than a year into their liberation, have inverted the rhetoric of promise and turned the desire of their leader to “lord over us” onto Moses. A return to Egypt would result at best in re-enslavement; it would never get near milk and honey, and the leader of the rebellion would not last a day after the return. But the rebels’ minds were not free; they put common sense second to trust.
It’s not just a Biblical phenomenon. To my astonishment (and I hope the astonishment of a clear majority), some number of Americans are repeating these ancient (and perpetual) mistakes.
The America from which we emerged into the twenty-first century was not a land flowing with milk and honey. To be sure, some people – most of them white and Christian – saw a consistently upward trajectory of income and opportunity that took off with the Reconstruction and the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps it even peaked as the twentieth century closed. The leader who wants to go back there by suggesting it would make America great again has specialized in distracting from the promises unfulfilled to those privileged folks who are white and Christian.
So when he encourages them to look at leaders who are claiming their several rights of citizenship and “send them back” – whether it is to the place of their family’s origin or to that former America where they “knew their place” – he is asking yet another time for his followers to put common sense second to trust. Regrettably, some of them gleefully do so, condemning them for representing progress and then lording it over us.
In the Bible, the ground swallowed the rebels. These days, I am just hoping for a landslide.
The Numbers:13 Project
Every citizen, when presenting an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD, shall do so with them. Numbers 15:13
For most of my life, I have lived in places with the motto “if you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes and it will change.” It was certainly the case growing up in Chicago, where summers fluctuated between 50 degrees and unbearable and winters were inconsistently bone-chilling and (as my son once said) “I-can’t-feel-my-face.” Spring and fall were always delightful, the one occurring on May 15 and the other on October 12.
Washington, DC is similar with one exception: whatever the weather, the DC area is unprepared. The city in which I live floods when it rains – and not just the part near the river – and has for so long that there is a flood-measure marker at a prominent corner. Snowfall, which amounts to more than a foot on average, is such a surprise that the forecast alone is enough to close some school districts and cause a run on toilet paper, snow being the laxative that it is. And the quality of the heat in summertime strains the local forecasters’ vocabularies, because “hazy, hot and humid” is only one variation.
But there are a few summer days in DC on which the weather seems to carry memories from far away places. When the temperature is high and the dew point is low, there is a breeze that blows down every street between the office buildings. The pleasing odors travel on them. Unquestionably, they are of local origin. But deep inside my old olfactory factory, I am transported back to Jerusalem.
I have had the privilege to spend time in Jerusalem during many of the years of my life. Other members of my family are there more regularly; my nephew and his family live there permanently. But in this one somewhat unusual way, Jerusalem is always with me.
I know how peculiar that seems, but there are three smells – I can’t call them fragrances – that transport me to the streets of the Holy City immediately. The sensation is entirely pleasant, even if the smells are not always.
Perhaps the most appropriate one is smoke from a grill or a fryer. The scent of meat on an open fire, falafel and fries in ubiquitous corner shops and shawarma roasting on a vertical spit is unmistakable along the streets of the Holy City. You find nothing exactly like it in downtown DC, but there are molecules that insinuate the aroma of very familiar places. I can be crossing 19th and M NW and find myself momentarily among the restaurants that line Agrippas Street near the market.
Those aromas and others might be found in all sorts of cities around the Mediterranean. But when you walk through the place where the Temple stood, the pleasing odor is redolent of Biblical instruction. Sacrifices roasted on the fire of the altar every day the Priests and Levites performed their duties. When the dry desert wind blew the smoke through the city, a sacred memory was implanted in every nostril. When the pilgrims returned to their villages from a Temple visit or the exiles wept by the waters of Babylon, a moment of homecoming was stirred by the unexpected whiff of an everyday fire. What I smelled in Jerusalem let me travel back in history before it followed me halfway around the world.
But what are the other two smells? They are very different from the pleasing odors.
One is the scent of diesel fumes from certain bus emissions. The other is the very pungent odor of certain refuse.
Pollution and garbage! What an awful way to prevent my right hand from losing its cunning! But I assure you it is entirely involuntary, the way most memories associated with smells can be, including smoke on the breeze.
Jerusalem is traversed by a network of buses that still carry the majority of vehicular passengers through the city. They are joined – especially during the summer – by tourist buses of various degrees of luxury. The smell of the exhaust is almost inescapable, especially on the major thoroughfares. Depending on how hot it is, how windy it is and how close you are to the back of an accelerating bus, the smell of diesel exhaust is to your nose as the on-hold music for your call to the airline or utility company is to your ear: unavoidable, intrusive and forgotten immediately – until the next time.
As in any city with a hot summer, the garbage in Jerusalem piles up and cooks. In neighborhoods populated by considerate merchants, the trash finds its way to large dumpsters off the beaten path. Some of the less considerate restaurant operators hose down their kitchen and dinning room floors and sweep the dirty water onto the sidewalk and gutter to evaporate. The stench from either is unmistakable. It sneaks up on you without warning and assaults your sense of smell. My reflex, probably not unusual, is to hold my breath for a few steps or more. But the fact is that when I exhale, I can feel the stink trying to hold on for a free ride. Sweet, sickly and pungent – I could not recreate it if I wanted to.
Washington has buses and garbage, too, as does most any city. The buses are less numerous, and the trash is mostly behind the buildings. And the wobbly pattern of weather does not often recreate the dry desert wind that blows through Jerusalem.
The fact is that food, transportation and waste are the essence of any city, anywhere in the world. And, as I have written before, the sense of smell so often is the most reliable carrier of memory among the ways we perceive the world. It’s that breeze which is so usual in Jerusalem that distinguishes a sudden whiff of Washington as a souvenir of Israel when the weather is not heavy or wet or still.
I am reminded that people live their everyday lives in a place I am instructed to remember for its holiness, and that therefore there is something holy in the everyday lives of people who catch a hint of those sometimes-pleasing and sometimes-not odors meant to remind me of sacred ordinariness.
The Numbers:13 Project
But Moses said to the LORD, “When the Egyptians, from whose midst You brought up this people in Your might, hear the news, Numbers 14:13
Mostly, I try to stay away from theological musings in these columns. I am not systematic in my thoughts about God and even if I were, I am guessing that most of the people who read these words do not really care what I believe.
This column is a little different, and I excuse it because it really addresses what I believe about the Bible more than about the presumed source of Scripture. See, very early in the Bible (like, Genesis 1), the conceit of the entire Five Books of Moses (and maybe more) is declared without hesitation. It is this: human beings were created in the image of God. We have a tendency to understand that assertion as evidence of the dignity of every person, regardless of age, ability, accomplishment or any other hierarchy we can apply. Many is the time I have reassured those in distress that they are created in God’s image and therefore cannot despair of their ultimate worth. Many is the time I have reflected on my own shortcomings, never doubting the love I believe washes over each of us but wondering if I have the capability to live up to that image.
So important is this notion that it is invoked in all sorts of Jewish teachings. Rabbis, philosophers, advocates and even non-believers (ironically) insist that the notion of tzelem Elohim (the image of God), sometimes reverentially pronounced tzelem Elokim, so as to not accidentally misuse one of the names ascribed to God, rests at the center of our insistence on justice, compassion, generosity, righteousness and dozens of other admirable attributes.
Forgive a little bit of chutzpah (hubris) here. So convinced are we of the perfection of the Almighty, and so convinced are we that we can identify the nature of that perfection that we do not consider a provocative question. What if at least one purpose of the Biblical narrative is to teach us enough about the image in which we are created to navigate this world?
This verse is not the first clue to a complicated God, but it is a doozy. Moses is about to suggest to God that if the Egyptians hear that God destroyed the Israelites and started a new nation from Moses (as God has just threatened to do), that they will believe God is powerless to complete the promised arrival in the Promised Land. And God gives in. (Forgive me truncating the story – it is worth the read.)
Listen, my friends. If you think about what we “officially” believe about God, why would God care one whit about the opinions of the Egyptians? To the Sovereign of the Universe, Creator of All, the One Who Spoke and the World Became, the snark of a pagan nation, recently suffering from the drowning of their entire army after the deaths of their first-born, ought to be of little concern. What kind of argument is Moses making? Let him plead for the children of beloved Abraham, Isaac and Jacob! Let him remind God – as he eventually does – of the attributes of compassion, grace and forgiveness! But instead he leads with “what will the neighbors think?”
If you have a stake in an avuncular God, part Santa, part Atticus Finch, part Oprah, then maybe you will explain away this encounter as a shortcoming of Moses in his estimation of the divine ethos. Or perhaps you will ascribe to God the wisdom to set up this entire scenario as part of a long-term plan.
Please consider another possibility. Whether or not you are a believer (and I am indeed a believer), the image of God in which we are created is the source of our humanity, warts and all. The Bible instructs us in the dynamics of a complex and often perplexing Creator. There is no feeling we feel, no action we enact, no thought we think that does not find its seed in the soil that enabled it to blossom.
I am not suggesting to you that anything you consider is acceptable because, after all, God did it first. Heaven forfend! (One of my favorite phrases, by the way.) To use this example, we absolutely should care what the Egyptians would think (or the people next door or your frenemy) because God did. It is part of our DNA (divine natural attributes) to behave in all the ways God behaves in the record of our relationship. But it is also worth remembering that this is one anecdote among hundreds or more in the long and compelling saga of our attempt to understand the nature of the image in which we were created.
We were not created to fall short. We were not set up for failure. We were not tasked with an existence impossible to live – to aspire to perfection that we presume as our ideal.
But I do believe we were created to experience our existence in all its complexity, just like the image in which we were created. The specimens of humanity among us who pursue the perfection of some subset of attributes – those who only seek power and fame, or who only perform the commandments, or who only cling to the land – are not understand the book they are reading.
I won’t do much more of this. But as I write this, it is almost the Fourth of July, the day on which the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed. You may remember that it is justified by a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” Holy words, those.