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
BANG, ZOOM -- Numbers 30:13
The Numbers:13 Project
But if her husband does annul them on the day he finds out, then nothing that has crossed her lips shall stand, whether vows or self-imposed obligations. Her husband has annulled them, and the LORD will forgive her. Numbers 30:13
Over the years, I have had conversations with people who have described their marriages in terms unfamiliar to me. Specifically, one spouse or another had the power of veto over decisions made by the other. I just don’t get it.
An acquaintance of mine, many years ago, told me that his wife had decided to get a business degree. They had two children in elementary school, and she took classes around their schedule, studying at night after their bedtime and in any spare moment she could find. One day, as she and her husband were on their way to a social occasion on a local highway, he said to her, “I think you should just throw those books out the window and give up this business thing.” She did. He was very proud of that story.
Yes, it was most often the husband who had this authority over his wife. But there have also been circumstances in which a husband has made a commitment and later called me to say that his wife had reversed his decision. (I simply do not have enough experience with two men or two women to know if that kind of power is ever vested in one person or the other.)
I’m not talking about a deliberated compromise. I hope every couple has discussions about priorities and commitments. I mean exactly the kind of situation described in the verse above: one person made an autonomous decision, and the other person reversed it.
This is the stuff of sitcoms, I have to say. George Jefferson ordering ‘Weezy, Ralph Kramden commanding Alice, Maude instructing Walter. Except at the end of 26 minutes, comeuppance is a guarantee. Even when we laugh, nobody puts up with that malarkey in the end.
This kind of presumed authority is thinly-disguised spousal abuse. The removal of personal autonomy in decision-making by one partner is a denigration of the humanity of the other. Surrendering the ability to make “vows and self-imposed obligations” – especially after the fact – invalidates personal competence and judgment. It creates a hierarchy of basic human dignity which, by all measures, violates the equality of all people.
In my work I encounter any number of faith traditions that affirm that a wife must submit to the authority of her husband. (These traditions have less experience than I with single-sex couples.) While there are any number of places in the Bible that they cite justification, none is more explicit than this one. The usual explanation, perhaps better described as a rationalization, is that men are better suited to decision-making than women.
In communities governed by rules like these, the prophecy is self-fulfilling. Wives (and women in general) second-guess their own judgment, having been taught it is inferior to their husbands’. In turn, they teach their daughters and granddaughters to defer to the men in their lives.
Even in “enlightened” traditions, the vestiges of this hierarchy remain. Women’s teachings may be overruled by men’s. Female devotees serve the male clergy who are the only conduits to the divine. Women do not serve as judges or as members of a quorum. No matter how it is justified or explained away, the female partner is less-than. And when the male partner becomes less-than, he is depicted as female, to add insult to injury.
I know that it is easy to be critical, especially since we live in a time when pushing back on these teachings is considered the moral and righteous thing to do. But the attitudes and practices we are correcting are deeply embedded in our cultures, our traditions and, according to the tenets of faith, our sacred and inviolable literature. What do we do with them?
It is not enough, I am afraid, to assert our presumed authority over such a text. The result of a flat rejection may be satisfying for the person who feels righteously above the text, but it will do little to persuade the woman or man who feels bound by sacred instruction. It is also insufficient to suggest that people being disadvantaged by these teachings – most of them women – to ”give it time.”
Instead, men and women alike need to model and instruct the right kind of behavior and accompanying attitudes. It is especially true for opinion leaders – public figures, clergy, people in charge. Just as we no longer hang a transgressor, stone a stubbornly rebellious son or allow for revenge killings, we must say unequivocally that these windows into past conduct are sacred because of their origin, not because of their relevance.
That’s an attitude that probably dissatisfies everyone a little bit. But its my story, and I am sticking to it.
WHAT’S IN A NUMBER? -- Numbers 29:13
The Numbers:13 Project
You shall present a burnt offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD: Thirteen bulls of the herd, two rams, fourteen yearling lambs; they shall be without blemish. Numbers 29:13
Human societies have a long and complicated relationship with numbers. We like to count things and then assign significance to the totals and the way we can divvy them up. Perhaps numbers are the last vestige of the human family (as depicted in the Bible) before it fractured into different languages and tribe. Mathematical patterns are a universal means of expression. Though they are essentially without nuance, they can be used to express music, color and physical relativity that can capture profound insights.
Though I am not much of a whiz at math, nonetheless I have a fascination with numbers, too. Like my friend Don, I take delight in gematria (with a hard “g”), the “science” that finds relationships between words in Hebrew with the same numerical value. (Every letter in Hebrew has an assigned value, so if you add up the numbers in, say, chokhmah – 8+20+40+5 = 73 – you will find it to be the same as hachayyim – 5+8+10+10+20. Chokhma means “wisdom,” hachayyim means “the life.” Therefore, there must be a link between wisdom and life.) Gematria can get pretty complicated and has implications for students of the Jewish mystical tradition. I find it a useful excuse to find connections among ideas, such as “wisdom” and “life.”
We assign significance to numbers that are not inherent, rather that recognize our values. To be #1 in any field of endeavor means dominance or, at least, arriving earliest. Seven is both prime and complete. Ten is comprehensive. Name almost any number and it will have significance for someone – a batting streak, a weight goal, an hourly wage, the roster of Biblical commandments.
But sometimes a number is just a number. I had a conversation with a friend of mine about our ages. “You are only as old as you feel,” he said to me (an observation that he was quick to acknowledge was not original). “That’s irrelevant,” I replied. “Some days I feel like a teenager and some days I feel like an old man. But my age is my age, a neutral fact.” The nuance of that number is not carried by the digits; it is meaning imputed (in this case) by an attitude about age.
When I look at the number of offerings and sacrifices designated by the Bible for various occasions, I am frequently mystified. The descending totals for the seven days of Tabernacles (which the verse above begins) has a meaning as self-evident as the last verse of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” And the time necessary to slaughter and roast 29 animals in the Temple precincts would probably take up the whole of the day for the priestly personnel. But the numbers mean something, even if that meaning has been lost to time and speculation.
There is one type of significance to numbers that is assigned by Jewish tradition that strikes me as a recognition of the neutral value of those numbers. There is a strong opposition to counting people – that is, reducing their uniqueness to a number. Even in determining the number of people present for a minyan (quorum), it is not permissible to assign each one a number. Instead, a ten-word phrase is used, or the counting is preceded by “not” (not-one, not-two, etc.). Only when the purpose of counting is for a divinely-mandated purpose – building the Temple, entering the Promised Land – may a census be conducted, but even then within the tribal memberships rather than a general counting.
It is therefore not without irony that the English name of this book is “Numbers.” (In Hebrew it carries the traditional name, taken from the first word of significance, “Bemidbar,” “In the wilderness.”) The numbers in Numbers are abundant and call out for interpretation, perhaps because they seem somehow random.
But the numbers themselves are neutral, digits that represent quantity or order or something that bears meaning assigned rather than inherent. That open-ended fact makes it somehow wonderful that numbers exist without limit.
RECIPE FOR SUCCESS -- Numbers 28:13
The Numbers:13 Project
As meal offering for each lamb: a tenth of a measure of fine flour with oil mixed in. Such shall be the burnt offering of pleasing odor, an offering by fire to the LORD. Numbers 28:13
Like most men I know, I believe I can look at a something labeled “some assembly required” and succeed in that “some assembly” with little or no guidance. When I get a new piece of electronic wizardry, I am always glad to find that there are two sets of instructions – the comprehensive user’s manual and the quick-start guide; I don’t need either of them. And when tasked with following a recipe, I need only two measuring devices – a tablespoon and a 1-cup measure – because I have a good eye for how much to fill each if the recipe calls for a teaspoon or a quarter-cup of something.
I am confident in my abilities because, though I have no formal training in these skills, both of my grandfathers were very good with their hands. Plus, I can visualize things in my head.
At the core of the assumptions about all of these various assembling activities is the cavalier attitude of “how hard can it be?” Hammers and nails, Allen wrenches and wood screws, flour and salt, these are ingredients that anyone with a modicum of common sense can figure out how to put together.
Similarly, what prevents me from being a good actor, an admired singer, a talented dancer? Sure, not everyone is DeNiro, Dion or Hough, but how hard can it be to recite your lines, carry a tune or tap your feet?
And if you can ride a bike, you can drive a car. If you can drive a car, you can skipper a boat. If you can skipper a boat (and play a video game), you can pilot a plane. How hard can it be?
I am, of course, wrong about all those things. Be glad I did not become a surgeon.
Some few people in any discipline have natural talent. My late friend Fred could pick up almost any musical instrument and play it well. He took clarinet lessons – his first love – but played the banjo and the piano without any instruction. My cousin Ben can build anything you describe to him like some combination of MIT and MacGyver. My wife can make a technical report read like a Steven King novel.
But mostly, to be good at something, you have to follow directions and learn from a few mistakes (like skipping the instructions). Even the people with exceptional natural talent (in fact, especially those people) will warn you off pretending that you know more than you do. Anyone who has baked a cake without follow the recipe carefully will tell you how unhappy the results are with just a little too much of this or a little too little of that.
It may wind up being a burnt offering, but it is not of pleasing odor.
When the founders of our country wrenched the government from the hands of kings and despots, they wrote out the recipe for the plain old citizens who entered public service to follow. To be sure, government has gotten considerably more complicated since Alexander Hamilton decided not to throw away his shot, but there are no ingredients that can be left out of the Constitution. Lots of people have held office so successfully that they make it look easy. Of course, if we could ask Washington or Lincoln, Shirley Chisholm or Barbara Jordan, Oliver Wendell Homes or Thurgood Marshall if their leadership was as effortless in providing as it appeared in the result, they would laugh. Anyone who came to that conclusion by observing only the result of careful preparation and methodical effort would likely be as superficial as that perception.
And yet, there remain people who look at positions of great responsibility for the nation and its citizens and ask, “How hard can it be?” Willfully ignorant of the Constitution and stubbornly uninformed, they believe the quick-start guide is for incompetents and the user’s manual is for morons.
I don’t want to sit on the chair assembled by the guy who skipped the directions. I don’t want to suffer through a concert by the person whose vocal training is a morning shower. I don’t want to ski behind a boat navigated by someone who learned on a Schwinn. Maybe they have the natural talent of my cousin Ben, but if it turns out they don’t, and they are endangering us all, someone should take away
the hammer, the mic or the keys.
In the process, we just might restore the Constitution.
THE DAY YOU DIE -- Numbers 27:13
When you have seen it, you too shall be gathered to your kin, just as your brother Aaron was.
Like every rabbi, I have attended to bereaved family members in almost every circumstance of death. Some deaths approach slowly and inevitably, like a train arriving across a plain with a distant horizon. Some deaths burst onto the scene like a balloon popping at a birthday party. Illness, accident, age, crime, self-infliction – mostly all they have in common is the finality of the result.
One set of experiences involved a woman who lost her mother to a protracted battle with cancer. Weeks of hospitalizations preceded the agonizing last days when life slipped away by inches. Some few years later, her father collapsed suddenly during a vacation and could not be revived. I asked her which was better – the chance to say goodbye, but watching her mother suffer, or the sudden loss of a vital presence in her life without the opportunity for a last moment. Her response: They both suck.
It is so like us as human beings to cast everything in terms of how it affects us. But what about the person facing death? Other than convicted perpetrators of capital crimes, no one among us knows the day of their death. There are plenty of pieces of advice about living as if today were your last day, but they, too, do not really imagine the impending moment.
(The best-known Jewish teaching: Repent one day before your death. And since no one knows the day of their death, repent today.)
I understand the impetus of people who face a proximate death to seek out pleasurable experiences. Whether it is a visit to an exotic place, a special meal, a sensual indulgence, time with loved ones or whatever, the focus on compacting experiences of life into an abbreviated timeline is understandable from people who cling to life.
But imagine being told the day you will die – maybe not the exact date, but the events that will point to the time your time will come. Imagine there will be no option for distraction, no diversion from the inevitable, no swerving off the road to finality. A cue will present itself: a horn will sound, a light will flash, a word will be spoken out of context or – as our case in point – you will arrive at your destination, see it and die. (For those unfamiliar with the reference in the verse, Moses was instructed to accompany his brother to the top of a hill, remove Aaron’s priestly vestments and place them on Aaron’s son. Aaron did not come down the hill.)
It is a cliché that when faced with mortal danger, your life passes before your eyes. Maybe it is true; the entire Book of Deuteronomy is a description by Moses of the events of his life since leaving Egypt in enough detail to last almost all of the 959 verses. But what would you discover?
I suspect (and I take the clue from this very verse) that I will stand before the evidence of what is left undone in my life. Not for lack of trying, not for lack of good intention, and not merely because there comes a time when any one life, including mine, will come to an end. Simply, the day after you die the sun will rise and set just as it did every day since you emerged into this world. Each of us is a part of things much larger than ourselves.
I am not making a case against mourning nor arguing for resignation at our inherently unfinishable lives. Instead, I am making a case for something just short of immortality. Leaving something incomplete makes it necessary for someone else – another life – to pick up where we left off. You likely won’t get to choose who that other life is, and you will have no control over the direction that other life takes. But every relinquishing facilitates a renewal.
For those left behind – the bereaved – loss and broken-heartedness is normal and necessary. With or without a chance to conclude a relationship, the empty space in the next-day’s world is a reminder of what has come to an end.
But I hope that on the day you will die, even if you love life as much as I do (which is a lot), you will discover what Moses did: that others are waiting to pick up what you left off and that, in that way, you are a participant in the fulfillment of the life you are about to surrender.
I usually have something political to say as part of these columns, and this one is no exception, so if you are satisfied with this little life meditation, stop reading now.
I have never been a fan of the bedtime prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” I can’t think of anything worse to suggest to a child who already has concerns about what lurks in the darkness, “if I should die before I wake…” The traditional bedtime ritual for Judaism includes a similar representation, though a little less ominous. But I get the intention. As Don McLean (almost) sang, “This [could be] the day that I die.”
Cultivating an awareness of work left undone ought to make someone a little conscientious about how to spend their day. But here’s the fact: the person whose energy is devoted to serving himself is likely to realize on the day he dies that the only work left undone is deconstructing what he left behind.