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
From there they set out and encamped beyond the Arnon, that is, in the wilderness that extends from the territory of the Amorites. For the Arnon is the boundary of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites. Numbers 21:13
What is the difference between a boundary and a border? I have an intuitive sense of the distinction, but in the end, I decided to Ask Doctor Google.
They are, for all intents and purposes, synonyms. But in common usage, a boundary limits, while a border merely marks a distinction.
As is often the case, sports are a common way to illustrate the difference. The outline of a soccer or football field is a boundary. Whatever is within the outline is in-play. Whatever crosses the line is out of play. That’s why the player who crosses the line is said to be “out of bounds.” A boundary is a terminal marker, beyond which it is not permitted to go.
But a border simply demarks where one area ends and the next begins. The border between Kansas and Nebraska is an artificial and imaginary line (except, maybe, for Jayhawks and Cornhuskers – back to the sports). Were you to stand in the field traversed by the border between the states, you would not notice a difference on either side. Certainly, nations go to a lot of trouble to delineate and control traffic at their borders, but absent a natural topographical feature, the Kansas-Nebraska thing applies.
I have the privilege of being a graduate of the rabbinic training program called Rabbis Without Borders. The notion of the program is that rabbis tend to stay within the borders of their own denominational affiliations. We become very adept at determining what is and is not within the artificial and imaginary lines of Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Renewal, Reconstructing and None-of-the-above Judaism, to the detriment of the Jews who move, more often than not, freely across the borders.
From the very first day that my cohort met, the leaders emphasized that we were not Rabbis Without Boundaries. Collectively, we all recognized certain boundaries – things that were in bounds and things that were out of bounds – for all of the Jewish people. Individually, each of us set personal boundaries of what was acceptable and tolerable. For some, it was food restrictions, behaviors on shabbat or what constituted a prayer quorum. For some, it was a social ethic, the kinds of marriages to validate or the fluidity of liturgy. For one extremely dear member of my cohort, it was purity of language and eschewing of the casual coarseness which has infected even the clergy among us.
But we were encouraged to distinguish between those matters that were really boundaries, and therefore to be respected, and those that were borders, and therefore to be understood as artificial and imaginary. What might we learn if we were to consider a perspective from across a border we had merely chosen not to cross? And, more importantly to our common mission, who might we find searching for some benefit from Jewish life in “Kansas” if we were willing to step out of “Nebraska?”
Unlike in basketball and the United Nations, one rabbi’s border is another’s boundary, and vice versa. It can be most difficult when a colleague will welcome you across your border which is considered a boundary in the other direction. Likewise, there is an uneasiness when one rabbi’s boundary is considered artificial and imaginary by friends and colleagues.
All I know about the Amorites and the Moabites is what I read in the Bible. (Okay, maybe a little more than that, but not much). They shared a border and a boundary. The Arnon, likely what today’s Kingdom of Jordan calls Wadi al-Mujib, is the rift in the mountain through which the run-off waters descend to the Dead Sea. Perhaps some DNA-testing service could determine if there are any actual descendants of Emor or Moab running around who could be expected to respect the boundary between the two ancient tribal lands.
Not far from where that wadi reaches the sea is a border that separates Jordan and Israel. It is an artificial and imaginary line that crosses the middle of the sea. It is a near-impossible task to cross that border. The sea is not hospitable to travelers and, if you really want to visit the other country, there are much easy ways to go. But commercial, industrial and environmental projects with similar goals are continuing on opposite shores. The Dead Sea does not know that border.
The Numbers:13 Project
Those are the Waters of Meribah—meaning that the Israelites quarrelled with the LORD—through which He affirmed His sanctity. Numbers 20:13
There is a product for treating hemorrhoids that runs television advertisements about places named “Kiester” and “Tookus.” Those are truly awful names for cities, even if, as I suspect, some very lovely people make their homes there. Arizona indeed has a city named Tombstone. Pennsylvania boasts a turnpike exit for Intercourse. And in North Carolina, you can vacation in Kill Devil Hills.
There is a story behind each name, likely less sensational than modern associations. But they are certainly associated with an event, a person or a characteristic that had lasting resonance for the original residents.
Mostly, we inherit the names of places. There are suburbs and neighborhoods that are newly designated as populations shift, but whether a place is named for an idea (Philadelphia), a person (Washington), a topographical feature (Cedar Rapids) or we-ran-out-of-creativity (Centerville), eventually the resonance of the name is replaced by the experiences of the inhabitants.
A colleague of mine (forgive me for forgetting who) offered me a ritual for a family preparing to leave a longtime home. She suggested standing in each room with them and asking them to share a memory of being in that room. I have employed it to great effect many times. Simply naming the moment allows it to enjoy renewed life. The living room is alive once more. The kitchen offers one last nourishing meal. The bedroom releases the dreams that filled it.
And then it is time for someone else to create a legacy.
There are lots of such places in my life. I have called eleven different cities home and not one of them was named by me or for me. (Believe it or not, I have never been to Moline, Illinois. Or Jack, Virginia, for that matter.) But each one resonates in an important way. In one I learned to ride a bike. In another I went to college. In a third I became a father. In yet another I grew old.
Collectively, we have been reassociating the names of our cities in dark and distressing ways. Columbine, Charlottesville, El Paso, Dayton. These are places with rich histories and cultures, where kids learned to ride bikes, students went to university, couples became parents. They are places people expected to grow old. Now, involuntarily, they have become shorthand for a national quarrel. Without anyone vacating, a new legacy has been created.
There is an interpretive version of the Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer recited by the bereaved, that has become a part of some versions of the Martyrology, a painful retrospective included in the long afternoon of the Yom Kippur liturgy. Interspersed among the Aramaic phrases are the names of places that have become associated with Jewish catastrophic loss. It is hard to acknowledge that kids learned to ride bikes in Auschwitz, students went to learn in Vilna and Warsaw, young couples became parents in Babi Yar and Birkenau. People still grow old in Maidanek.
Lots of people, places and things get named in the Bible. And often they are associated with stories meant to explain their origins. “Mei Merivah,” the Waters of Meribah, the Contentious Waters may very well have been an oasis before the quarrels among the people and their leaders and their God gave them that name. Perhaps they were always called “Meribah,” because people would come there to resolve their disputes, or because they came from a cleft (“riv”) in the rock, or because they were named after the guy who discovered them, Murray Meribah.
We need to be very careful about the associations we create with the places we live. Real people live in Kiester and Tookus, in Philadelphia and Centerville, In Columbine and El Paso. They want to mark the milestones of their lives on their own terms and live into the happy legacies that they deserve.
Let’s make sure nobody shoots them up.
The Numbers:13 Project
Whoever touches a corpse, the body of a person who has died, and does not cleanse himself, defiles the LORD’s Tabernacle; that person shall be cut off from Israel. Since the water of lustration was not dashed on him, he remains unclean; his uncleanness is still upon him. Numbers 19:13
If you have ever eaten those orange fluorescent cheese-flavored puff snacks, you know how this goes. You always begin the same way – carefully picking up one or two and popping them into your mouth. You may lick the detritus off your finger-tips or wipe it off with a paper napkin. Then you go back in for more. Somewhere, your discipline fails and by the time you are finished – even with those little bags that come with a sandwich – a first-year law intern could get you convicted of conspicuous consumption.
Washing your hands and face will not resolve the problem immediately. Unless you are very lucky, even after multiple washings the evidence is visible around your fingernails and somewhere on the front of your shirt or blouse. Often, it is a day or two before part of you is not artificially orange. You just can’t get rid of the stain. The uncleanliness is still upon you.
Obviously, the Bible is concerned with the ritual pollution that comes from contact with a corpse. There is a designated procedure for returning a person to a state of ritual cleanliness. Death’s impurity clings to a person as if it were Cheeto dust – only invisible.
We may scoff at this set of ancient superstitions and imaginary diseases if we like but I think we are motivated to do so only because we have changed the referents from the original. We are not spooked by death any more. Most of us outside of the medical field rarely have reason to be in contact with a corpse, but we have all swatted a mosquito, stepped on a roach or disposed of a trapped rodent. As far as Jewish law is concerned, the cooties of death do not rely on a human body. As far as we are concerned, there is a lot less to be concerned about then there was during a time that (we believe, at least) people didn’t have an enlightened understanding of death.
I don’t want to argue that particular point. I do want to point out instead that invisible stains can cling to us and pollute us as if we were covered in orange dust.
Aziz Ansari is a very funny comedian who almost lost his career after being publicly accused of sexual assault on a date. He speaks of it very frankly in his “comeback” concert, and not at all dismissively or mockingly. In the end, he admits to being overwhelmingly embarrassed and reexamining all sorts of things in his past. Skillfully (in my opinion) he eases his way into a very funny and sometimes uncomfortable examination of what aspects of personal conduct should or should not make a difference in our perceptions and opinions of public figures.
Does it matter to the enjoyment of R Kelly’s music that he seems to have a history of sexually abusing girls? Should we excise the place of Michael Jackson in our playlists because he was arguably a pedophile? And of course, there are others – Bill Cosby, Catherine Pugh, Jose Canseco, John Edwards – who amassed admirable bodies of work in their fields before crossing a line that called their public accomplishments into question because of their private behavior.
This question is not new. The Bible calls the character of Moses into question at the very beginning of the story of his adult life. Having defended a slave by killing the taskmaster (and hiding the body), his attempt to intervene between two quarreling slaves buys him the very snarky question about whether he plans to kill them as well. Rachel, Reuben, Miriam, Jephthah, Saul, David and so many others are equivocal figures, dusted with the residue of misdeeds and paying a price because it was the only way to wash away the stain.
Fewer and fewer behaviors leave an indelible pigment on the character of public (and private) figures. Gone are the days when public judgment about divorce, drug use, mental illness and physical disability are considered blemishes in most fields. Evaporating are the disapprovals of sexual orientation, eschewing faith in God and even some criminal convictions for people in public life. Rightly, we are evolving to understand the difference between malicious conduct and unavoidable circumstances, and between arrogance and repentance.
What is not disappearing is that stain that comes from repeated behavior that leaves behind some measure of injury. Once it is all over you, that Cheeto dust is almost impossible to scrub away.
The Numbers:13 Project
The first fruits of everything in their land, that they bring to the LORD, shall be yours; everyone of your household who is clean may eat them. Numbers 18:13
I am in favor of taxes. That’s not to say that I enjoy paying taxes, but life is not always about enjoyment. There are all sorts of things that are intrusions, annoyances or momentarily unpleasant, but that does not make them objectionable. Vaccinations, tooth x-rays, ironing, buying car insurance, cleaning out the junk drawer in the kitchen – I could go on and on. Some things just have to be done even if the Cubs are on TV or it’s a beautiful day for a bike ride or, to the point, I would rather use that money for what I choose.
Here is why I am in favor of taxes: I believe in the goodness of government. I mean that sentence in both of its interpretations. I believe that government is a good thing. And I believe that government should be good. It is impossible to promote goodness of and by government if it does not have the resources.
To be sure, there are times that government squanders the money it receives and therefore damages the trust it needs from citizens. Swindles and boondoggles make a lot of headlines. Every now and then, when some official builds a soundproof phone booth in his office or buys a thousand-dollar stapler, people are rightly outraged. We can argue back and forth about whether it makes more sense to prioritize better roads and bridges over safer foods and drugs, but the people on the opposite side will inevitably complain about misdirected funds. And as matters of principle, there are those who will object to what they earn being confiscated for activities they do not support.
Yet I will argue that, with very few exceptions, those are superficial objections, no matter the amount of money involved. Overwhelmingly, tax dollars go to support the goodness of government.
Public safety, education, sanitation, common space and, not incidentally, the judicial system rely on a collective pool of money to underwrite their functions. When they fail, it is at least as much the result of inadequate resources as it is of any shortcomings of the system. The list of essential functions of government – as well as less-essential but desirable – is much longer, if government is to be good in function as well as in functioning.
Perhaps more important, though, is that government of the people, by the people and for the people consists of, well, people. Civil servants, appointed officials, elected legislators and functionaries are all citizens who themselves rely on the sustenance that comes from their service to support those of us who expect to be taken care of by the public sector. Some few of them fall short (and I do not minimize that citizens victimized by corrupt or incompetent public servants suffer assaults not only on their person but on their trust). But most do so well that the rest of us can pretend they are unnecessary.
That’s where tax dollars really go: to people. They go to enable good people to do good jobs for good government.
In a movie from 35 years ago (eek), “The Big Chill,” Kevin Kline and William Hurt encounter a police officer. Hurt, a visitor to the town, challenges his old college buddy Kline on being friendly with the cop. Kline responds by calling him stupid and continues, “First off, that cop has twice kept this house from being ripped off. Happens to be a hell of a guy.”
I have no patience for arguments that all taxes are bad, or that I should be exempted from any tax that doesn’t provide me a direct benefit. (I am talking to my generation when they complain about paying for the schools they no longer attend or send their kids to attend.) Firefighters have mortgages, government secretaries have medical bills, food inspectors pay tuition, toll collectors like theater, researchers take vacations and teachers need to eat. Just like the rest of us.
In a society like ours, where each citizen is enfranchised in electing the people who make the laws and apportion the funds, it ought to be considered a privilege to pay taxes. You don’t have to enjoy it, but it ought to be more than just a crime to avoid it. It ought to be considered morally reprehensible, and most certainly a disqualification for presuming to spend anybody else’s taxes.
The first fruits and other offerings brought to the Temple were not used to feed God. They were used to sustain the public functionaries who cared for the citizens who delivered them. The Temple was there to serve the people, just as the people were there to serve their Creator.
Out of that ethos, I am in favor of taxes, because I believe in the goodness of government.