The Numbers:13 Project
Balaam arose in the morning and said to Balak’s dignitaries, “Go back to your own country, for the LORD will not let me go with you.” Numbers 22:13
A long time ago, when gentle ethnic humor was still funny, there was a joke which was told about an immigrant – alternately Eastern European Jewish, Arab or Indian – who was sued by an African American for verbal assault. The judge asked the complainant what happened. “Your honor,” he stated, “I was walking down the street looking for a particular restaurant. This gentleman was walking toward me, so I asked if he could direct me to the establishment. In response, he pointed at me and said, ‘You’re a black bastard. You should go back where you came from.’”
The judge said to Mr. Epstein/Ahmadi/Singh, “Sir, I am surprised at you. You have come to this country and been treated as family, without regard for your country of origin. How dare you invoke one of the worst statements of bigotry imaginable!”
The defendant replies, in the accented English he worked so hard to master, “Excuse me, your honor, I believe I was misunderstood. This gentleman was walking in the wrong direction, already beyond his destination. All I did was point the right way and say, ‘You’re a block past it. You should go back where you came from.’”
I haven’t re-piloted this joke in live performance, but I am guessing it wouldn’t get too many laughs today. Instead, I would be met with a furrowed brow, a sigh and perhaps a remark about my own latent prejudices.
Laughter is good for the soul and also for the body. The reason we laugh is not well understood, but not for lack of trying. Theories include the Ontic-Epistemic approach, the Computational-Neural approach and Benign Violation (which is likely considered oxymoronic these days), among many others. I have always subscribed to the notion that laughter comes at the sudden realization of the unexpected, a definition also used for epiphany, which I find delightful.
But this much is true: if you have to explain it, it’s not funny. And if you explain why something ought not to be funny, if laughter isn’t a casualty, a relationship very well might be.
What we are left with, if we want to laugh, is not so much humor as outrageousness. Albert Brooks, long one of my favorite comedians, has an old routine about being unable to generate laughs at a concert until he deployed the s-word. After that, he says, they wanted to put up a statue of him in the town square. Since then, the use or inference of profanity has become an almost necessary ingredient in humor, not including the benign violation caused by Dad Jokes.
Humor always depends on insult or injury, but not really. The depiction of someone slipping on a banana peel should provoke concern or empathy. A word manipulated into a pun deceives the listener who insists on being literal. Even a game of peek-a-boo with a toddler plays on the child’s perception that something has suddenly disappeared and reappeared which is, of course, false and therefore a cruel exploitation of inferior cognition.
Humor can be cruel if deployed with cruelty, and laughter “at” rather than laughter “with” can conceal the intent to bully.
But laughter is also the most potent force in combating oppressive behavior and defusing the fear it produces. The aggressive way in which public provocateurs are lampooned in society today – by late-night comedians, by caricature balloons, by fighting Twitter with Twitter – is the only alternative to bile and brimstone until the next election. In my life and community, it is a familiar tool in the box, used in the past and present against medieval kings, petty tyrants, genocidal maniacs and physical disease. Laughter does not need to be licensed or registered and has a negligible record of fatalities, despite the undocumented claims of those who have “almost died laughing.”
The little phrase from the little verse from this little column is not, in and of itself, funny at all. But when it is lampooned in the little joke, it loses its power and its offense. Lots of people have been injured by the challenge to go back where you came from. Defusing it can reduce the sting. So, among the many things of genuine consequence that deserve condemnation and resistance having spewed out of the mouth of the insulter-in-chief, let me add my trifle.
He recklessly spoiled a useful and perfectly good joke.
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.
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.
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.