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.
The Numbers:13 Project
From the tribe of Asher, Sethur son of Michael. Numbers 13:13
I have many discussions with people of different faith traditions, but the ones that intrigue me the most are those that include other Jews. I am certain that my listening skills have changed during the years that I have immersed myself in interfaith work, but I hear the representations about Jewish concerns very differently these days than when I spent most of my days in a synagogue.
To be succinct, I am much more aware of tribalism.
I could offer all sorts of examples. I am always bemused to hear about Jewish territorial claims in the Middle East (which I support, by the way) being qualitatively different than non-Jewish territorial claims. Usually the Bible, Jewish law and/or historical presence are invoked to distinguish our affirmations from those who appeal to different scriptures, codes or narratives.
Then there are those who insist that Jewish identity is qualitatively different from other faith-based identities because “we are a way of life, not a religion” or “we are a people, not a faith.”
And then there are some who sneak their pride of accomplishment into conversations by mentioning the number of Jewish Nobel prize laureates, philanthropists or humanitarians, generally understood to be disproportionate to the rest of the sub-groups of the human family.
Of course, few of the speakers draw on personal experience as they do not live in the aforementioned territory, practice the way of life or have been awarded the Nobel Prize. I do not dismiss their pride or even their perspective, but I have noticed increasingly that the implicit message is “this is what makes us distinct from the rest of you.” Even when it doesn’t and, therefore, we aren’t.
But of all the matters of tribal chauvinism that have become increasingly conspicuous to me is a pride in victimization. Lest I be misunderstood, the scourge of Jew-hatred (mostly known as anti-semitism) is real and demanding of attention from people of good will, Jews or not. But from old to young, I hear a desperation to preserve the distinctiveness of Jewish suffering as if we lose a critical aspect of our identity if an outsider can form empathy with us or expect empathy from us. Sometimes it sounds like it is the only unifying aspect of our tribal identity.
That’s really harsh, isn’t it? But I share two examples that cause me to think about it as I see the word “tribe” in the verse above, which appears twelve times in the surrounding twelve verses.
The first involves the choice of words by a very public figure to describe a very public tragedy. A Member of Congress, controversially outspoken, used the term “concentration camps” to describe the facilities in which children who crossed the southern border of the United States illegally are being held, separated from their families. I could have predicted that the conversation would focus on her choice of descriptor rather than the disturbing, even criminal situation she condemned. (And let’s make clear: the term was not used in any complimentary sense, nor was it used to imply that Jews were somehow responsible for the policy.)
The umbrage that erupted from mostly Jews was extraordinary. I can’t say if it had anything to do with the speaker’s politics or ethnic identity or confrontational style. But some version of “how dare she” seemed to be on so many people’s lips you would think that she was a Holocaust denier. I had to laugh when I read an acquaintance of mine declare that if she had never visited a concentration camp, she had no business invoking the image. (That person has been an acquaintance of mine for more than fifty years and invoked the image multiple times before setting foot in Europe.)
The second was even more disturbing. In a private meeting with members of another faith group, the term “anti-semitism” was bandied about to describe any perceived prejudice toward Jews. I observed that we needed to be more careful with the term. Aside from the fact that it has historical meaning (it was a political term invented in the late 19th century), “anti-semitism” carries with it thousands of years of anti-Jewish bigotry and oppression and the murders of six million Jews. There is no such thing as acceptable bigotry, but there is such a thing as overstating intent or impact of a choice of language or action.
A member of my tribe – and a much younger one at that – pushed back on my point. She claimed that she wanted to preserve the distinctiveness of prejudice toward Jews to remind anyone who practiced any form of it that they were part of a long history of oppression. It is important to call it “anti-semitism,” she suggested, precisely because of that history.
I did not pursue the matter at the time by asking about terms like racism, sexism, homophobia or other words that describe a range of behaviors that exist on a continuum from insensitive to criminal. But I did say to myself, “Wow, do I feel sorry for her.” Her tribal identity may include a sense of geography, religious practice or personal heroes, but it seems to be defined by the perpetuity of hatred.
I have performed no studies on this subject. Like most everyone, I am an observer of anecdotal evidence. It allows me to hope that I am wrong. But I worry that I am right. I have no desire to define my tribe by its disregard for those who are not members.
The Numbers:13 Project
So Moses cried out to the LORD, saying, “O God, pray heal her!” Numbers 12:13
There are times when the simplest words are the most eloquent. Expressing an idea, a concept or a feeling in uncomplicated language allows something profound to rise above the craft of constructing a meaningful phrase.
I had the experience of contrasting two parallel phrases when I saw the stage adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” written by Aaron Sorkin. At one point, Scout, the young daughter, is being lectured by her father Atticus about the mentality of a mob. He spends a number of sentences on the process of mostly reasonable folks joining a mob, and then concludes with “A mob is a place where people take a break from their conscience.”
I was impressed with this Sorkin-esque discourse, but I could not capture enough of it to jot it down in the dark theater. (I found the short version online.) However, just before launching into this description, Atticus rebuffs Scout’s expectations of others with the pithy, “A person is smart; people are dumb.” Those seven words capture everything about crowd-sourcing anger.
(By the way, intentionally or not, Sorkin lifted that line from “Men in Black,” a decidedly lower-brow production. Tommy Lee Jones says it to Will Smith. Look it up.)
It is harder to write short, but it is infinitely more satisfying (certainly for the listener!). I learned early in my career as a rabbi not to use up too many words in a sermon. The fewer I used for one talk, the more I had left for the next. Simple words deployed in short declarative sentences do not necessarily put a speaker’s erudition on display, but they hone a message to its essence. When Moses sees his dear sister Miriam afflicted with debilitating disease (a punishment for sinning against him), he proclaims the prayer contained in the verse above. Five words contain everything you need to know about the relationship between brother and sister and the character of the speaker.
Brevity is not a guarantee of clarity, however. We have spent a lot of time over these past two years and some reacting to simple words inexpertly jumbled. Used in place of profundity – or when profundity escapes the speaker – simple words can also reveal a simple mind. The decline of meaningful public expression is a loss I have felt increasingly, mostly after I hear someone capable of speaking well.
It is true that a smooth-talking person can distract from the implications of his or her message, but the contrast between fashioning an inspiring thought and blurting out hackneyed adjectives like “great” or “unfair” is striking. It was apparent when I heard a candidate for public office recently who referred to “fecklessness” as characterizing a policy. My first thought was that his monosyllabic opponent likely thought the word meant going without sex. My second thought was how refreshing it was to hear the kind of expression that William Safire used to champion.
I think that the more urgent the thought, the more admirable the brevity. The plaintive plea for Miriam’s healing required no elaboration. The instruction offered by Atticus (or by “K”) was about respecting the person, suspecting the crowd. But when nuance is essential, maybe it is not such a good idea to offer simple (read: simplistic) estimations of complicated notions.
We shouldn’t forget that, in contrast to this powerful and brief prayer, is the Book of Deuteronomy, almost entirely Moses’ monologue that goes on for most of 34 chapters containing 959 verses. I dare you to sum it up with more conciseness or power than these five words.
The Numbers:13 Project
Where am I to get meat to give to all this people, when they whine before me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat! ’Numbers 11:13
I was in a classroom not so long ago in which a renown scholar was trying to persuade students who were preparing to embark on a leadership career to embrace a teaching of Max Weber: politics is striving to share power (or distribute resources). One student pooh-poohed the notion. “You can get additional resources,” he said.
I wasn’t sure whether to admire his optimism or pity his naivete. Sure, sometimes there are more resources. But generally, whether it is an organizational budget, seats in a theater or taxes, sooner or later you reach capacity.
Judaism and Christianity both have central stories that try to disprove the notion. For Jews, Moses persuades God that the people need meat after eating nothing but manna in the wilderness. God causes an avalanche of quails to inundate the people and they eat beyond their capacity.
For Christians, Jesus feeds the masses with a minimum of loaves and fish. Even those who do not take the story literally see it as a powerful metaphor for unlimited spiritual resources.
Both of the stories remind me of the famous representation of a Hindu scholar, Mohandas Gandhi. He said, “There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”
The Jewish and Christian stories, tellingly, are about miracles. They acknowledge that in ordinary circumstances, there may not be additional resources. The Hindu story speaks a truth: when resources are necessary for survival, people will worship the provider. That truth may underlie the other two stories.
In our time, Weber’s suggestion about the nature of politics and the student’s assertion about resources are in constant play. Whether people cry, “Give us jobs” or “Give us tax relief” or “Give us (back) privilege,” they focus on that hunger so acutely that their savior cannot appear to them except in the form of jobs, tax relief or privilege – or the promise thereof. People so wrapped around the stick about their desires or needs that they can imagine nothing else will worship the person who says he or she will assuage that hunger, even if they know it would take a miracle to do so.
When the deliverables arrive, they are often beyond the capacity of the receivers to absorb. Or, on some occasions, like the ironic twist to a short story, they are an abundance of the wrong resource – jobs with low wages, tax relief for the wealthy, privilege that is meaningless or, worse, empowering of those who exploit it for oppressive purposes. Or both.
Finding (or even promising) more resources is not always the right response to the clamoring of the people.
Weber’s definition of politics, proclaimed 100 years ago, is expressed in a more contemporary idiom by Marty Linsky, who has studied and taught about leadership in contemporary America. One of his definitions of leadership is delivering disappointment to people at a rate they can absorb. It is appropriate to all of these stories.
Manna sustained the Israelites for forty years; the abundance of quail makes gluttony fatal for many. The loaves and fishes that fed five thousand at Tabgha placed an expectation on Jesus that went unfulfilled; to this day, Jesus’ followers yearn for a miraculous return though suffering is abundant. Gandhi’s remarkable insight, taken literally, set the bar too high, whether for meat, for fish or for bread.
And in our times, we are about to enter the season of overpromising and exceeding capacity. When we clamor for abundance of what we perceive as lacking, it would do us well to remember that the short-term alleviation of desire or need is not the same as preventing that desire or need in the future. It may be a disappointing message, but a true leader will practice politics by sharing limited resources wisely and delivering disappointment at a rate we can absorb.
The Numbers:13 Project
When the march was to begin, at the LORD’s command through Moses, Numbers 10:13
There’s a small irony (very small) that as I sat down to write these words I was distracted by two contrasting issues relating to Israel – which was not the subject I thought I might address.
The first, which relates directly to the verse at hand, is the Dyke March in Washington, DC. Held during Pride Month, this gathering of lesbian women and allies take to the streets in a given city to promote their concerns about affirming diversity and expressing their solidarity with oppressed people around the world. A couple of years ago, when this march was held in Chicago, some Jewish participants found themselves shut out of the march and its surrounding events. The presenting reason was Zionism, which has been identified by some on the far left as being an oppressive political ideology. Participants carrying a rainbow-striped flag with a Star of David in the middle were excluded from the march itself, and an ancillary event they organized was interrupted by protesters. Organizers of the march and protest claimed the flag, and therefore those carrying it, was resonant with Israel’s blue-and-white version of the same flag, which represented Zionism.
Today (as it happens) is the Dyke March, and once again the flag in question has been prohibited as a symbol of “nationalism” (though the Palestinian flag is permitted). A series of outraged statements has been issued, including by Jews, many of whom are not Dykes (who want the flag included) and Dykes, many of whom are Jews (who want the flag excluded). By the time you read this, angry Zionist Dykes and their allies will have marched to the official march to take their place with their flag. It is anybody’s guess what will happen.
I’ve read the hyperbole on both sides and will say that it reminds me of the old joke about the rabbi who tells each of the two litigants that he is right. Only this time, the rabbi thinks both sides are wrong. And if you tell me that both sides can’t be wrong, my punchline will be, you know what – you are also wrong.
Likely, you are sympathetic to the Zionists (or, perhaps to be completely accurate, the folks who are accused by the anti-Zionists of being Zionists, though they may or may not be Zionists.)
That brings me to the other distraction that popped up on my Facebook feed early today. It was a news story that Israeli doctors had successfully treated the wife of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas for a serious ailment. The person who posted it introduce the story with a rant – there is no other word for it – about all of the enemies of Israel who will never hear about it and the mainstream media that will never report it and the members of Congress who will ignore it. I felt like a little ranting myself. In the Talmudic volume “Pirkei Avot,” a sage named Antigonus (who must have had some Greek relatives…) warned against doing the right thing for the wrong reason. We do them because they are right, not because we expect some benefit. If the reason to treat Mrs. Abbas is not because she is ill, but because we want to weaponize our compassion against our detractors, well, you finish.
My objection was met with a counter-objection: we Jews (it was Jews, not Zionists, BTW) are so oppressed, that this kind of behavior is justified. Though the irony of my distraction is small, the irony of this bogus argument is large: it is the same one being made by the anti-Zionist Dykes, to wit, my bad behavior is justified by your bad behavior.
I am in none of the above camps (well, I will proudly cop to Zionism, but a slightly different version than the one at play in these incidents). But I do believe, and deeply so, that when the righteous causes we support become excuses for bad behavior we demonstrate, it is incumbent on allies to call out their own. Jews should remind Jews of Jewish values. Progressives should remind progressives of progressive values. Human rights activists should remind human rights activists of human rights. And so on.
Nothing is gained by proclaiming how much more admirable the best of what I am is than the worst of what you are. As the eminent human rights activist Bryan Stevenson has said, in a very different context, each of us is better than the worst thing we have ever done.
Congratulations to the marchers who march for equality and affirmation. Congratulations to the doctors who ignored politics to save a human life. As for those of you who would weaponize those values, you need a time-out.
The Numbers:13 Project
But if a man who is clean and not on a journey refrains from offering the passover sacrifice, that person shall be cut off from his kin, for he did not present the LORD’s offering at its set time; that man shall bear his guilt. Numbers 9:13
A long time ago, I misread a calendar and inadvertently caused a conflict at a major university between a campus-wide party (now defunct) and Passover. Just to highlight the magnitude of my mistake, the first night of Passover that year was Friday, making Jewish students choose between four cups of wine and virtually unlimited beer.
I own the mistake, as I did back then. Every student made her or his own decision about which to forego – the seder or the concert. Except one.
This particular student called home and asked the parental units to make an adjustment. They postponed Passover to the following weekend. Initially, I thought I would be the only one rolling my eyes at the way this student was indulged. It turns out, a lot of others found the chutzpah astonishing.
In my old age, I have been taught to celebrate the persistence of Jewish identity that would make the person in question look for a way to affirm a connection to tradition. In fact, recently I took special delight when I discovered that a friend conducted a seder at 30,000 feet during an unavoidable flight (over Southeast Asia!) on the first night of Passover. But I think there is a difference between a situation beyond control and controlling the situation.
More and more I have encountered the appropriation of ritual, custom and language to serve individuals who consider their Jewish identity an enhancing element rather than a defining one. I do not deny them the right to do so, but I still believe it devalues the coin, so to speak. The function of ritual is as a vehicle for shared meaning. And while it is true that established ritual sometimes means more in the performative sense than the symbolic sense (for example, some Jews prefer to pray in Hebrew even when they do not understand the meaning of the words), I believe there to be a line between accommodation and exploitation.
The verse at the top of this brief essay illustrates what I mean. The observance of the anniversary of the Exodus – that which we now perform at seder – held great power for the escaped slaves. But some of the celebrants were prevented from participating because other ritual or geographical challenges presented themselves. The Bible makes accommodation: there is a second chance for them a month later. But the person who knows of this accommodation and decides, for whatever reason, to postpone observance for convenience’s sake, even though he would do exactly what the others would do, is sanctioned.
And it is quite a sanction, to tell the truth. The person is “cut off from his kin.” The penalty resonates with me not only in its original context, but as a sort of existential observation as well: the person who exploits community rituals or customs or language for utilitarian purposes creates a disconnection from that very community.
There were many times that I was approached as the rabbi of a congregation by people who felt guilty about their abandonment of specific traditions or their lack of knowledge that led to neglect of something they now found important. For example, distraught adult children would come to me worried because they did not know the Hebrew date of the anniversary of a parent’s death, and they had subsequently discovered the date had passed. They had missed the opportunity to recite a memorial prayer or light a 24-hour candle in memory. The solution is obvious to you as you read this: I would reassure them that it was not too late, and they could designate a near-term date to do both.
But I will acknowledge a different kind of response to my students at a Protestant seminary who sought my endorsement of a “personal shabbat,” a day of the week chosen by them to refrain from their pastoral duties. Instead, they would play golf, shop, get a massage, try a new restaurant. I was very happy for them that they understood the importance of self-care and that they were willing to set aside 24 hours for a day off. But I explained that “shabbat” was not only about self-refreshment, but about community and affirmation of the rhythm of creation – two aspects in which they were among the participants, but not the focus.
In all sorts of ways, people intent on gaming the system for their personal satisfaction will succeed. But in one significant way they will not. By stripping ritual, custom and language of their consensual meaning, they pick at the threads that weave us together as community. To my way of thinking, that’s a fatal flaw.
Please let me call your attention to a column in a different section of my website, www.jackmoline.com. I am linking it here, as well as an installment of the podcast State of Belief. Through a remarkable confluence of opportunities, my personal concerns about the fractious debate about abortion wound up being discussed by two dear friends of mine, both of them on the podcast and one of them in the New York Times. I commend them all to you.
The Numbers:13 Project
Have the Levites stand in front of Aaron and his sons and then present them as a wave offering to the Lord. Numbers 8:13
I invented a ritual and didn’t tell anyone that I made it up.
During the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles), the tradition in synagogue is to form a procession of those carrying the four species noted in the Bible for the holiday – myrtle, willow, citron and, important to my ritual, palm branch. The spectacle is as old as it is humorous. Though the chant as we circle the sanctuary is a very serious “save us, save us,” the solemn recitation of God’s attributes as most of the assembled shuffle to the prescribed melody is part Gregorian, part pagan and more than slightly carnal. The ancient soul within me feels a part of a practice thousands of years old. The modern funny bone within me cannot help but giggle.
That’s not the ritual I made up. Mine comes at the end, when the procession dissolves into a crowd of people in the front of the sanctuary looking like a forest of date-palm sprouts. The liturgy at that point includes a reference to the “wave offering” in the Temple, and it was our custom to sing a rousing melody to the words, “Save Your people and bless Your inheritance…” At that point, I would take my place before the assemblage, face them as I might were I the conductor of an All-Palm Orchestra, and begin to wave my four species back and forth. Of course, everyone followed suit. It looked like a breeze in a small grove or, perhaps, a very tiny ballpark where the fans have lost interest in the game.
I say it is a ritual because, after very few years, the congregation needed no prompting. In fact, though I have retired from my congregational duties (and not shared my private amusement with my successor), the congregation continues to do the wave without me. It makes me gleeful. I have little remorse that anyone who spent years in my synagogue and then joined elsewhere would wonder why that ritual is not performed in their new congregation. Jocularity, jocularity.
It could be that the pious among my readers will take great umbrage at my appropriation of sacred practice. To you I say, “Sorry about that, Chief.” But though I won’t pretend to piety in introducing my little ceremonial addendum, I take a certain satisfaction that I engaged a whole cohort of people who had little in common other than being Jewish in a moment that gave them a sense of being an integral part of a greater whole. Old and young, religiously fluent and unfamiliar, denominationally diverse, theologically serious and culturally flippant, everyone was able to catch the wave. For a minute, they understood themselves to be a part of something both unifying and mysterious (“Why are we waving?” someone would always ask me. I always deflected the question.).
Moments like my little private joke have a very serious public function. The larger the crowd, the more diverse it will certainly be. In a crowd of almost 330 million, the current population of the United States, there are almost as many opinions. (Thank goodness it isn’t 330 million Jews – there would be 440 million opinions.) We need common rituals, open to all, to give us a sense of belonging to a large community. They must connect us to the old and persuade us that it is renewed in our time. They save us, and they bless our people.
I am tempted to say that the ritual of buying a mattress on federal holiday weekends is what seems to unify Americans, but I am afraid you will take that seriously and it will cost you hundreds of dollars. We do have rituals – Thanksgiving dinner, Memorial Day remembrances – and cookouts, Labor Day picnics and campaign kick-offs. Not everyone participates in them the same way, and many of them have precious little to do with the reason for the holiday they mark, but they give us a sense of belonging together.
Of course, the most prominent of all is the Fourth of July. It is a day to celebrate our founding, our common heritage, our mission and values. Communities large and small have processions (or, if you prefer, parades) made up of all kinds of citizens and residents, doing the kinds of things the founding generation never did. They wave from the backs of convertibles, ride tiny cars in formation, play patriotic music badly on under-practiced brass instruments, dress small children in blue shirts festooned with patches and pack numbers and march them in the hot sun. Those are rituals that sound as ridiculous as waving palm branches when I describe them that way, but they have unifying meaning to the folks along the parade route, even if they can’t tell you what it is. At the end of the day, we light up the sky with fireworks displays, a Chinese custom that we nonetheless imagine recalls the rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air.
There is a lot to argue about in the United States these days, but we all ought to rise up in outrage at any attempt to appropriate Independence Day for partisan (well, in fact, personal) purposes. It seems to many, including me, that some of the seams that hold us together are starting to give way. What tightens them are turkey dinners, hot dogs, tee-ball games and Sousa marches. When some narcissist wants to transform a national palm-waving into a manufactured testimonial to himself, it is time to take back the night.
Save our people and bless our inheritance.
The Numbers:13 Project
His offering: one silver bowl weighing 130 shekels and one silver basin of 70 shekels by the sanctuary weight, both filled with choice flour with oil mixed in, for a meal offering; Numbers 7:13
Over the course of our forty-plus years of welcoming guests into our home, my wife and I have been the recipients of many tokens of appreciation. I was taught to call them “hostess gifts,” though I am certain that nomenclature is outdated. The custom, however, has continued, and one of the ways you can tell if someone was raised to be familiar with social graces is if there is a small gift in hand upon arrival as a guest.
Frequently, a bottle of wine or a small arrangement of flowers suffices. But just as often, the creativity of the gift is most impressive. It needn’t be expensive; we have received unusual spices, a salt cellar, candles, a decorated cork for a bottle, coasters and small packages of dried fruit. Some people have put great thought into finding something they think will appeal to our Jewish values. Some have contributed to what they know are our interests and hobbies. A few have honored us with something home-made. Occasionally there is an exotic liqueur.
Likewise, we have tried to imagine what our hosts would appreciate. An interesting spoon, a small picture frame, a refrigerator magnet that is either not tacky (hard to find) or uber-tacky (harder to find), assorted teas – these are items that tell our hosts how much we appreciate the thought that went into the invitation, and that it was reciprocated.
I do not know where this custom originated, but I like to imagine it goes deep into history. I once visited an exhibit at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem that seemed to me to be a collection of rows and rows of idols, lined up as if they were warehoused for future sale. The first thing that came to my mind was the story of Abraham’s father, Terach, who was an idol merchant. But the guide told me my assumptions were all wrong. The tableau was indeed a pagan temple, but the figures were not the idols. They were the worshipers. This particular sect believed that the more hours spent in praising and appeasing the local gods, the more likely that blessings would rain down on them. But people have to tend to the fields, raise families, address the necessities of life. To make it possible to meet a level of piety and live a day-to-day life, people commissioned statues of themselves and placed them in the temple as “permanent residents.” They were therefore always present in “body” and spirit.
There were many jokes made at the expense of that custom and modern-day habits of attending worship. But kidding aside, there was something profound about the custom. Members of this community could live perpetually in the presence of the divine by gifting themselves to the temple.
When we have overnight guests, they almost always say, upon leaving, “I hope I didn’t leave anything behind.” And I usually respond, “If you did, it just means you want to come back again.” Leaving something of yourself with a host or hostess makes you a “permanent resident” of their home. Without overstaying your welcome or interfering with your need to get back to your life, you can leave a piece of yourself as a token of your bond of friendship or love.
In my imagination at least, the origin of the hostess gift – and especially choosing a gift that is a reminder of the one who gives it – is not only an expression of appreciation, but also of connection. Without being intrusive, the guest will always find something of herself or himself in a home that has been welcoming.
Those gifts that were brought to the tabernacle performed the same function. Graven images of self were no more acceptable than those of God. But a lovely silver bowl, some fine oil, other objects and foods that would sustain the tabernacle and its attendants were gifts of appreciation that also gave the donor and his tribe a sense of being “permanent residents,” a part of them always present in the holy precincts of God’s dwelling place among the people. Anyone entering would recognize a part of themselves and feel at home.
Can the same effect be accomplished with a bottle of wine or a small picture frame? Maybe, maybe not. But the heartfelt offering of a guest will long be remembered by the host, and the gracious acceptance by the host will lone be remembered by the guest. And that’s close enough for me.