The Numbers:13 Project
This is the ritual for the nazirite: On the day that his term as nazirite is completed, he shall be brought to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Numbers 6:13
Every winter my wife and I have a friendly argument about which of Irving Berlin’s two Christmas movies is better – “Holiday Inn” or “White Christmas.” Both are filled with great music and mediocre music, classic production numbers, implausible plot twists and enough misogynistic, racist and classist imagery to fill an encyclopedia (whatever that is).
I am a partisan of “Holiday Inn,” though I admit to loving Danny Kaye (who is in “White Christmas” only). I must acknowledge, however, that the ridiculous surprise near the end of the movie (a secret reunion of WWII veterans to cheer up their retired and depressed general) is very moving in that suspension-of-disbelief context.
General Waverly, played by Dean Jagger, finds himself bumbling around a farm in Vermont ten years after the war. Bing Crosby goes on television to summon the troops, introducing his appeal with a musical question: What can you do with a general when he stops being a general? He sings about how the retired general is hailed for his service, but otherwise without function in society.
(Never mind that Dwight Eisenhower was the president when the movie was made…)
When Christmas Eve arrives, the veterans of General Waverly’s command suddenly appear in uniform and precision formation. Having been tricked into wearing his own uniform, the general reviews the troops and regains his sense of purpose (presumably).
Perhaps it sounds a little ridiculous in today’s world where retired senior military officers wind up on faculties, corporate boards and White House staffs and the rank-and-file veterans are the ones looking for work, but the point is the same regardless of rank at the time of discharge. Those in military service – most especially those who answered duty’s call with a sense of purpose – find themselves casting about for ways to find fulfillment and meaning when their last tour comes to an end. It is not only about a decent job, but dignity and significance in employment is perhaps the simplest place to start.
A combat service person serves in a particular type of way. The nazir, a man who takes on a regimen of physical self-denial for a period of his life devoted to God, serves in a very different way. Limited in time by this section of the Bible, when he finishes his service he is (as the verse says) brought to the entrance of the tent of meeting. There, he is initiated into a ritual that seems designed to remind him of what it is like to be a spiritual civilian rather than a monastic. (Look it up if you are unfamiliar.)
It is not easy to go from a life of intensely regimented service to one of personal independence. I imagine that’s especially true if the higher purpose that guides your service is not so readily accessible outside the structure. It is the responsibility of those who were the beneficiaries of that service to welcome the veterans back into civilian life and to create a community in which that higher purpose finds some expression.
I certainly do not mean to suggest that there is some pathology that afflicts service people or nazirites upon their discharge. In fact, the re-entry they experience is only a preview for everyone else. Sooner or later, everyone retires from their day job (and some do so frequently!). Love it or tolerate it, work provides context and meaning and a certain structure that becomes ingrained. When it is time to walk away, not merely for a little vacation or professional development, that sense of purpose and expectation may be hard to come by. And if the work environment is also a place of community, the transition is even more complicated.
Very precious few of us will have Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye organize a surprise testimonial for us (or, I don’t know, Beyoncé and Ricky Martin). But each of us knows someone who has set aside some years of service and transitioned to a completely different kind of life. They need more than “thank you for your service,” more than an interest in who they were in that role. They need to know that the purpose they pursued has meaning outside the service for which they are being thanked.
If for no other reason, we need to make for a society in which those ideas and ideals find tangible expression. That’s our role in showing appreciation to those who have set aside a time of their life to serve the rest of us.
And may all your Christmases be white. Well, that’s the way both movies end, anyway.
The Numbers: 13 Project
in that a man has had carnal relations with her unbeknown to her husband, and she keeps secret the fact that she has defiled herself without being forced, and there is no witness against her — Numbers 5:13
Adultery is wrong. It is a sin. There is nothing frivolous about it, and it is not a victimless crime.
Throughout my career as a rabbi, I have listened to a variety of people try to explain to me why the affair they were having was not really adultery. One guy tried to suggest that according to the Bible only women could commit adultery. Another guy told me his paramour was in a loveless marriage and only the formality of dissolution was missing from ending the relationship. A woman insisted that she and her lover were meant for each other, but he would maintain his promise to provide an intact family for his children, etc. I wasn’t having any of it, and I told them so, flat out, and it turned out that not a one of them did a better job convincing themselves than convincing me.
Hey, I am not heartless about certain circumstances. I know that there are occasions when incapacity brings an abrupt end to intimacy but not to love and that the healthier partner seeks solace with someone else, even sometimes with the encouragement of the spouse. Certainly, the sexist laws of divorce in our tradition ought to be interpreted out of existence to free the woman anchored to a spiteful husband. I am not as judgmental in those circumstances but being understanding is not the same as offering the approval of Jewish tradition.
I read the statistics and I know that there is a likelihood that many of the people reading this column have violated the exclusivity of their marital commitments. Please don’t gather from my intransigence that I find you irredeemable. You have dealt with your own shame and, if you were discovered, with the painful process of restoring trust (or losing it altogether). I suggest only one thing: don’t do it again.
And here is the reason. A person willing to betray the most intimate of relationships will not hesitate to betray the less intimate of relationships. If you sleep around outside your marriage, you will do all sorts of lesser transgressions to cover it up. You will justify lying to your children, your parents, your friends. You will divert money to your endeavor.
And if you get away with it – especially multiple times – you will develop a smug belief that you can get away with any deception and, what’s more, you are entitled to get away with those deceptions.
A serial adulterer should not be entrusted with moral authority. Such a person has none.
I expect that you would not be surprised to hear those words from the pulpit of any good fundamentalist preacher of any religious tradition. (Well, you might be surprised to be in that kind of house of worship, but if you were there…you know what I mean.)
I am not a fundamentalist, but I have believed these things about serial adulterers for a long, long time. I believe them strongly enough to declare that I have never considered betraying my wife whom I love with deep devotion.
I believed these things before Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. And I believe them now. Anyone who has been surprised at the way the president has tossed integrity, principles and friends under the bus has not been paying attention to the man’s marital life. Anyone who is shocked, shocked at the underhanded business practices, stiffing of contractors and unfulfilled promises before he took office never listened to him on the Howard Stern Show. And anyone who wonders how a person elected to the most honored and powerful position in the world could violate his commitment to protect and defend the Constitution isn’t thinking about hush money, catch-and-kill news stories and grabbing them…oh, you know.
If he betrays his wife, whoever she may be at the moment, then he will betray you. And he has.
I know about all the other presidents, men of big appetites and presumptions of their own aphrodisiacal qualities. With maybe one exception, we haven’t had one of those guys in a couple of generations. And if I am wrong, at least they were not boastful about it.
Adultery is wrong. It is a sin. There is nothing frivolous about it, and it is not a victimless crime. Its victims are named Ivana, Marla, Melania and [your name here].
The Numbers:13 Project
They shall remove the ashes from the [copper] altar and spread a purple cloth over it. Numbers 4:13
I am a big fan of ritual, especially when it has the capacity to convey meaning that might otherwise been left unexpressed. Such ritual exists in abundance in my own tradition and in other faith traditions as well. Ritual in social interactions may vary from society to society, but every one of them has some version of “I see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do; they’re really saying, ‘I love you.’”
In my opinion, there is no more expressive ritual than a military burial in Arlington National Cemetery. I have attended almost every variation of interment and inurnment and, for a few years, even served as the officiant when Jewish chaplains were unavailable. (My own discomfort with placing cremains in a columbarium, often months after death, led me to relinquish the contract.) I am always moved by the ceremony and by the exquisite detail with which it is conducted.
With full honors, a caisson with the casket aboard is pulled by a team of horses behind a mournful marching band. With simple honors, the deceased is delivered to the graveside by hearse. In either circumstance, as the flag that adorns the remains passes, those in uniform salute and those in civilian garb – like me – place their right hand over their heart until it passes.
Next to the bereaved, on the arm of a uniformed escort, stands the wife of an officer past or present. She is an Arlington Lady, a sweet anachronism, who stands in support of the survivors and delivers oral and written condolences. Many times I have seen these volunteers provide the necessary unscripted comfort to families both buoyed and mystified by the formalities.
An honor guard carries the casket to the grave and placed on the lowering device. The flag is stretched above the casket and whatever service is to be conducted takes place. The rifle volleys are fired; “Taps” is played. The graveside is very quiet.
For me, no matter how much respect I have tried to show to the flag, no matter how startled I am by the volleys, no matter how saddened I am by the bugler’s call, the most important moment is yet to come.
The honor guard, still holding the flag taut, folds it in very specific movements until it is shaped into a crisp triangle. In measured steps, with military bearing, the leader of the team approaches the next of kin, drops to one knee, presents the folded flag and says, quietly and gently, “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States (Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force or Coast Guard ), and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service.” There is no more powerful moment in which so many aspects of American life intersect, including the acknowledgment of the importance of every life.
Every veteran leaves something of herself or himself on the altar of national defense. The most fortunate never see combat. The next fortunate see combat but survive it. The least fortunate make the ultimate sacrifice. Those who are interred among the veterans in Arlington (or, for that matter, in any national cemetery) spend their last few moments in the sight of their loved ones under the canopy of the flag, which covers them like the purple cloth covered the altar in the Tabernacle.
In order for ritual to be effective, it must carry meaning for those who perform or witness it. Lost in our era is a visceral connection to the Tabernacle and the Temple. Losing in our day is the visceral connection to waving a palm branch, kissing a fallen prayer book, reciting the descriptions of rituals past.
But essential to the renewal or innovation of the rituals that sustain us is the moment when the pomp and history distill into the human connection that creates some version of an opportunity for a young person, likely unknown, to drop to eye level with a stranger and recite words appropriate to the circumstance that mirror these: On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States (Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force or Coast Guard ), and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service.
The Numbers:13 Project
For every first-born is Mine: at the time that I smote every first-born in the land of Egypt, I consecrated every first-born in Israel, man and beast, to Myself, to be Mine, the LORD’s. Numbers 3:13
I never really understood the value of being first born. And I say that as a first-born son myself, the child of two first-born children. Some things are better (nobody’s reputation precedes you) and some things are worse (your parents work out all their inexperience on you), but the accident of birth order seems to be irrelevant to anything of real consequence.
The concept of privilege is so embedded in so many cultures, however, that I must admit I think about it plenty. In a society in which lineage and succession are central concerns, I suppose it makes sense that the first born enjoys a special status. (And mostly, we are talking about a first-born who is a son, not necessarily the first son born after one or more daughters.) But in a society in which we recognize that all people are created equal and that achievement is the result of personal effort, what possible difference could it make? For example, I am father to a first-born who is not a son, a son who is not a first-born and a child who is neither. Each of them is equally loved and valued, sharing plenty of traits, but following very different paths of accomplishment. None of them elected to succeed me or my wife in our chosen endeavors or, for that matter, in defining their lives according to the contours we decided on (except in both contexts by very broad definition).
I think there is no denying that this first-born designation has mixed reviews. And I think the verse we are considering this week is a great indication as to why. I write these words in the midst of the Passover festival in which the deaths of the first-born males among the Egyptians is the last necessary ingredient in the long process of liberating the Israelite slaves. On the plus side, this final catastrophe (from which slaves who followed God’s instructions were passed over by death) left Pharaoh no choice but to free the oppressed, and it required a society based on lineage to completely redefine itself. So much for the privilege of being first. On the other hand, I have never attended a seder at which someone does not note that the child chosen for involuntary privilege pays the ultimate price to right a moral wrong that was not their sin. The text of the Bible notes the anguish of the parents but notes no regret for the loss of innocent life. Moreover, if part of the lesson is that the moral shortcomings of one generation should not be considered the privilege of the next, then why do the instructions given to the liberated tribes codify the very same privilege?
Yes, it is possible to read the verse above as a caution – the price of freedom is a recognition that what a father thinks he can pass along to his son has been transferred to God to decide. And yes, despite this appropriation by God there is the instruction to “redeem” the first-born from this designation in favor of the tribe of Levi, designated to serve the divine will in place of the first-born. But this whole notion of privilege nonetheless survives, sometimes individually and sometimes collectively.
The saga of the family of Joseph Kennedy is a great example. Kennedy, not himself the most admirable of figures, placed the highest of expectations on his first-born and namesake. When Joe, Jr. was killed in World War II, those expectation shifted to John, and then to Bobby, and then to Teddy. Whether you were a fan of any or all of them, you must acknowledge that their place in the birth order had nothing to do with their similar (but by no means identical) accomplishments.
The religious sense of a permanent legacy of chosenness also plays out in America today. Our country was founded a group of white men who, though they differed widely in their beliefs and devotions, nevertheless were possessed of the conviction that they were in service to the divine will. Perhaps they were, but the subsequent generations of white males who viewed themselves as primary successors of the Founding Fathers relied more on that sense of being inheritors of privilege and authority than on the values of that exceptional generation. They had to be persuaded – sometimes violently – to extend the blessings of liberty to women, people of color, immigrants from around the globe, diverse faith communities and, most notably in our day, people of differing orientations and gender identities.
Matters of policy aside, the basest expression of this sense of entitlement has resulted in the wistful (and often pathetic) desire to “make America great again.” Led by old white guys and enabled by those who want to preserve a crumbling hierarchy of privilege, the look backward in an attempt to move forward has widened a gap that was narrowing by inches. Underlying this aggressive reassertion of dominance is not “birth order” in a biological sense, but an assertion made with umbrage and conviction that the United States was founded by the Fathers who intended the legacy for their Sons. The overlay of a literal (and often selective) reading of sacred text, including this verse, makes great misuse of the notion that certain officials elected by the voters were also elected by God.
I learned how wrong this notion of a first-born’s privilege was shortly after my bar mitzvah. I had asked my parents for one gift – a small TV – for my bedroom. The little ones were all black-and-white back then, deeper than wide because of the tube. It sat on the dresser in the room I shared with my younger brother who was the baseball outlier in my family – a White Sox fan. He had the good sense to ask me one Sunday afternoon if he could watch the Sox game on my designated Cubs TV. I refused (because, well, it was the White Sox and I may have had a proclivity to torture him.)
He protested loudly to my parents who wanted to know why I refused. When I told them that I did not want the White Sox on my television, I discovered that in certain circumstances it was not just the Lord who both giveth and taketh away. Just because I got there first did not give me a claim of privilege and authority. Even those who arrived later, with different and even demonstrably wrong team loyalties, were entitled to equal consideration and access to privilege.
Being first makes you first. That’s about it. And I would like to think that anyone who believes that such a designation makes them inherently special can take it up with the arbiter of right and wrong.
The Numbers:13 Project
His troop, as enrolled: 59,300. Numbers 2:13
Every ten years, the Constitution of the United States requires the government to take a census of the population. The numbers are extremely important. They determine proportional representation in the House of Representatives, factor into disbursement of tax dollars, divide up the Electoral College and all sorts of other things. An accurate count is necessary, though the definition of “accurate” for the census may not be quite as precise as for, say, balancing your checking account.
Like everything else in today’s world, the census has become politicized. The questions you ask determine the answers you get. And when you combine the suspicion people have developed of aggregation of data, quarrels over the nature of the questions, the exact wording and the specificity of the information recorded about any given respondent have become voluble.
I often say that I believe the Bible is true, but not always accurate. To me, the least threatening “proof” of my statement is the census described in Numbers, including in the verse at the top of the column. Somehow, every total of adult male populations was an exact multiple of a nice, round ten. No 17, no 63, no 32. A zero at the end of every total.
Is there a lesson for the US census in this phenomenon? Is “approximately” or “give-or-take” a reasonable standard to which we should aspire?
If the answer is yes – as it seems to be in the Bible – then the discussions of the nature of the questions are really pretty ridiculous. Given the scale of the counting across the country, can’t we just round up or round down or even estimate? Can’t we just do a representative sampling, apply one of those famous algorithms and be done with it?
Actually, I think the answer is no. I am not among those who believe that such a system would be corrupted by those with malicious intent – though I acknowledge the possibility. I base my objection on a theological standard: every person is an entire world. Eliminate one and destroy a world. Manufacture one and affirm something that is not true.
As a matter of principle, every person counts, and each of those persons who is a citizen has the right to cast a ballot for the people who will determine the directions of the community, state and country in which they reside. Among those considerations is how we treat the residents who are not citizens; should they be rounded up and redistributed as political pawns, as some officials recently suggested, or should they receive a fair share of services and support in recognition of their contributions to society and, more important, their basic humanity? I clearly have a preference, but I, like everyone else, only have one voice in the matter.
Which, of course, brings us to the matter of how that voice is expressed: voting. Just as we can’t round off the census numbers, we also can’t round off the tallies of votes. If the census gives us the big picture necessary to reimagine our country on a cyclical basis, elections give us the pixels that make up that big picture. If there is any indication of just how radical the concept of one person, one vote really is, it is the constant attempt of groups fearful of losing power to restrict the access of voters they consider opponents to the polls.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the first comprehensive legislation since the 19th Amendment (which enfranchised women) to expand the protections of voting to all eligible voters. It was particularly important to – and focused on – southern states where obstacles to African American citizens who wished to register and exercise the franchise were purposeful and steep. Some of those states of late successfully made the case that the original rationale for the provisions of the law had been eliminated. But the creativity of those who would suppress the vote has not abated. Therefore, like the attempts to politicize the census, we must be vigilant in resisting the false claims of fraud that animate opponents of easy access to the polls.
There is a reason the Bible prohibits the deployment of a census except in very specific circumstances. Kings generally counted their able-bodied men when they were preparing for an expeditionary war. The Bible is suspicious of such motivation, and it seems to contextually each census in those very limited contexts. War, of necessity, dehumanizes combatants; victories are too often determined by the number of lives lost (or saved). In those situations, it is not surprising that a rounded number will do. Unlike elections, nobody ever won a war by one life.
But in a society that puts ultimate value on every life, it is important to recognize that no one should feel like a number – unless for each of us that number 1.
(Welcome to the Numbers:13 Project. If you have been following me since Genesis, you know that each week for the next 36 weeks, give or take, I will write a column prompted by the 13th verse of each subsequent chapter of the Book of Numbers. Mostly, I hope to reflect on the climate of our times, but sometimes -- especially in Numbers -- that will be a challenge. For those of you expecting that, as a Beatles fan, I would have elected to go with the Numbers:9 Project, here's another hint for you all: too obvious. If you would like to subscribe to this series, visit the Google group "Aliba D'Rav" or send me an email.)
From Asher, Pagiel son of Ochran. Numbers 1:13
Just like a lot of Jews of my generation, I do not have a Hebrew name. I was named (as my parents were) for beloved ancestors who themselves were named in Yiddish. And not only were they named in Yiddish, but they were named in the dialect of Yiddish spoken in their home shtetls.
Some people carry a sort of double name – one in Hebrew and one in Yiddish. Most famous of these is the name of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. There are others that are familiar enough if you spend time in the world of Jewish names: Dov Baer, Tzvi Hirsch, Shraga Feivush. But most of us with Yiddish names have only those names.
Rabbis who were not raised with Yiddish (like me) often have a hard time deciphering names brought to them by family members preparing for a gravestone or the naming of a child. To the Yiddish-speaker, the nuances of pronunciation are familiar, just like native English-speaker can see the immediate connection among Alexander, Alex and Xander. But what do you do if a granddaughter wants to remember her beloved Bubbe with the Hebrew equivalent of “Hudes,” not knowing its origin or even accuracy?
I was named for my father’s father and my mother’s paternal grandfather. Grandpa Jack was named Zelig. And Great-Grandpa Louis was named Leimah. Those were probably pretty common names back in the day, but they cycled out of mode before I could say them. And my Hebrew school teachers – especially the Israeli ones who had cast off Yiddish in favor of Hebrew – always derided Zelig and insisted there was no such name as Leimah.
Though I never coveted a Hebrew name like my siblings had (double-duty ones though they were), I also prefer to stick with “Jack” when I am asked by a Hebrew speaker what to call me. Frankly, I would rather deal with “Jeck” and “Tzack” from Israelis than the “what-kind-of-name-is-Zelig” that is the inevitable response. And as much of an honor as it is to be called to the Torah by my “name for all holy matters,” even veteran officiants usually need two or three repetitions to get my name and my parents’ names anywhere near correctly.
Many years ago, I was asked by a Chabad rabbi (a follower of the aforementioned Lubavitcher Rebbe) what my name was. “Zelig” he found acceptable. But “Leimah” provoked a long internal dialogue (which he held aloud) until finally reminding himself that sure, yeah, there had been a famous Leimah, only he thought it was Leimeh or maybe Leimel (as distinct from Lemel), but in any event he would certainly remember me as the first Leimah he ever met.
It’s like being named “Seven” or “North.”
There are plenty of Biblical Hebrew names you never hear anymore unless you are reading the Bible. “Pagiel, son of Ochran” is a good example. Near as I can tell, Ochran connotes stubbornness or maybe a taciturn personality, while his son Pagiel carries a name that indicates that either God helped him escape or he escaped God. No further explanation is available.
My name, Zelig, means “happy.” As it happens, that is also the meaning of “Asher.” And “Leimah” may or may not be a corruption of (or nickname for) Shlomo – as in Shleimeh, drop the “sh.” “Shlomo” comes from “shalom,” meaning “peace” or “wholeness.” Anyway, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
So, to borrow from one piece of literature, My Name is Asher Shlomo. Happy and whole is not a bad expectation to carry around with me.
But to borrow from another piece of literature, Call me Zelig. Just as Melville’s narrator began Moby Dick and remained Ishmael to the very end, I am Zelig from my eighth day of life. However much explanation and reimagining my name means, it carries with it a legacy handed to me from a place I never knew and from people I never met in a language I never spoke.
Preserving that makes me happy and whole.
The Leviticus:8 Project
But if one cannot afford the equivalent, he shall be presented before the priest, and the priest shall assess him; the priest shall assess him according to what the vower can afford. Leviticus 27:8
As every older generation does, my generation wonders how things can be so different with younger generations. I know some of things I did drove my elders crazy. During my first year of seminary, I was outraged that the pristine building in which my classes were held was suddenly sprouting heavy brass plaques engraved with the names of wealthy donors.
(In fact, I remember a worker entering a class in progress with such a plaque and a huge drill to anchor it into the concrete block walls. Our teacher, a very gentle and modest rabbi, said, “Excuse me, we are conducting a class in here.” The worker responded, “Oh, that’s okay, you won’t bother me.” And with that, he revved up the drill and proceeded to hang the plaque.)
I took matters into my own hands and used Post-It notes to put up my own plaques ahead of the formal dedication. I am not certain what Ed and Trixie Norton had dedicated in honor of Ralph and Alice Kramden, or exactly who dedicated the urinals, but they were all discovered and removed. Well, all but one: The Julius and Ethel Rosenberg Memorial Wall Socket.
My elders were not amused. The new building was a big deal – a milestone in the school’s maturity and a leap forward from the repurposed hotel that had served as classrooms and offices for many years.
Not so many years later, I was interviewing with a congregation anxious to move from its long-time building to a growing community that was miles away from its graying population. I was approached about taking the position, but I declined. I did not want to begin my tenure by taking on a construction project, especially one that left devoted members behind. (They built it without me.) But revenge was in the cosmos. It wasn’t so many years until the congregation I served grew to the point of needing renewed facilities.
Brick-and-mortar was very much the measure of success for the generation of my parents and their parents. The synagogue of my youth had arrived when it stopped meeting in the Oddfellows Hall and Methodist church and moved into its own classroom-and-auditorium building.
For my generation, renewal and renovation of existing facilities seems to have been our physical focus. The synagogue I served boasted an award-winning design which was eliminated when we needed more room in the sanctuary and pews that had not been salvaged from a local movie theater decades before. We saw it as an opportunity to leave our mark as we met our needs.
This past week I had occasion to speak with a younger rabbi who serves in an historic congregation in a very old building. It has been renovated and repurposed as best as possible to accommodate the changing population of the neighborhood – young couples, some with kids, and older individuals who no longer have or never had kids. He described to me the task of building to a new paradigm. “Membership” is a term in certain disfavor, and “dues” sounds too rigid. In particular, younger people, who are often reluctant to be joiners, are encouraged to contribute what they can afford as a way to ease into engaging as community members (rather than a la carte consumers), just like in the verse above.
For a long time, the American Jewish community seemed to practice an adage that later became famous in a movie: If you build it, they will come. And for a while, it worked. Belonging to a synagogue was mostly a value in the Jewish community, and it was not so much whether you joined a synagogue or temple, but which one you chose. As synagogues became centers of comprehensive learning and activities, those large halls were redesigned to be more flexible, and another generation arrived, perhaps not in the same numbers, but more frequently for a wider variety of reasons.
Now, as younger leaders try to create intentional communities, the focus is not on a building. These independent groups, like the growing congregation in the old building, are willing to make do with what is available. They meet in church basements, community rooms, libraries, or even apartments of various participants. The choice to use what is available and affordable has removed the role of architecture and decorating from the worship experience. (And sometimes even more: one very successful group meets in a church sanctuary, surrounded by iconography.)
Some groups will want a place to call their own and others just a place to call home. No matter which, it is a pretty fair bet that a generation will arise with a different perspective and a new way to address it. The leaders at the time will have to assess what they all can afford. It will be considered equivalent.
This column brings to a conclusion the Leviticus:8 Project. All past offerings may be found at www.jackmoline.com. Beginning soon, watch for the new weekly series, The Numbers:13 Project, which will continue through calendar year 2019.
THE GOLIATH OBSESSION
The Leviticus:8 Project
Five of you shall give chase to a hundred, and a hundred of you shall give chase to ten thousand; your enemies shall fall before you by the sword. Leviticus 26:8
It’s the plot of every underdog film. The ragtag band of misfits is charged with the defeat of the highly-trained and heavily-armed army of bad guys. That’s the fantasy, right? Since little David dinged Goliath between the eyes and brought down the entire Philistine shock-force, it’s what we always want to see and always hope will happen.
Look at the world today and you can see it playing out. On the global stage, Kim Jong-un’s obsession with the United States has persuaded him his missiles could defeat us. In Las Vegas, everyone with a system believes they can beat the house. And the current President of the United States has behaved like a beleaguered loner while encouraging those who identify with him to resist the juggernauts of the press, the Democrats and, well, anyone who disagrees with him.
But the fact of the matter is that almost all of the time the lesser combatant loses. There may be some short-term promise, but ultimately, North Korea doesn’t stand a chance, the casino has the odds and Donald Trump’s administration will end and he will return to private life somewhere.
I can’t fault the fantasy. In a lot of ways, it is encouraged by faith traditions, including my own, that promise that brute force is not the ultimate determinant of dominance. In the end, faith suggests, there is a higher power rooted in the object of faith. Access what you worship, and that power will serve you against all foes.
I am by far not the first person to call out this misconception. In the United States, toward the end of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln famously said, of the two cohorts of combatants, “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” The North prevailed because of superior resources and strategy, not because God was on their side.
So, am I suggesting that the Bible presents a falsehood in this assurance that faithfulness is the superpower of the believer? Only if you choose to take this assurance literally.
Anecdotally, there are certainly cases where David beats Goliath. What makes those anecdotes remarkable is that they are unusual and unexpected. To consider them a reward for diligence or observance is to deny the way of the world. Even without our contemporary knowledge of physics and chemistry, the Bible affirms the dependability of the ways of the world – cycles of the sun, of the moon, of the years, of life. To rely on miracles is to deny the creative powers that formed the world.
Instead, we are admonished individually and collectively to do what is right and good, physically and spiritually, so that we will be prepared to face the challenges of the thousands and ten-thousands when they arise. In the physical world, neglecting to anticipate and prepare for aggression from hostile nations or from the inevitable “natural disasters” means that lives and comfort will be lost. Spiritually (or, if you prefer, ethically or philosophically), a failure to reflect on what is right and good and to cultivate individual and societal standards of righteousness that respects all people and celebrates the diversity of our world means that those with malice in their hearts and the power of words will triumph in their attempts to oppress and repress.
I recently returned from a visit to Alabama where I was reminded of the accomplishments of the civil rights leadership – the people who assumed Lincoln’s unfinished business. The marchers in Selma did not dispatch the state troopers at the foot of the Edmund Pettus bridge. Goliath was ready for David in 1965. The battles were won because the hearts of Americans were urged to live up to the values we professed by leaders who deployed the language of righteousness and the songs of freedom.
That’s what is missing in our society at the moment. Our superior firepower – assuming it is yet superior – will protect us against foreign adversaries who are foolhardy enough to believe their own hype. But our country needs to aspire to more than the accumulation of physical power. We are in desperate need of leaders who will appeal to our better angels and arm us with dedication to do more than just to win, to make a beneficial deal, to collect the most money, toys or votes. A wall may or may not prevent people from crossing a border, but it will most certainly not inspire wise and effective and compassionate treatment of people on either side.
The will to do good makes the five hundred powerful enough to disarm the thousand with the will to do wrong by persuading them otherwise.
David took five stones when he went out to meet Goliath. Only needed one because he was prepared and because his aim was true. And not just the aim of his sling.
The Leviticus:8 Project
You shall count off seven weeks of years—seven times seven years—so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years. Leviticus 25:8
Some number of years ago, a movement was underway to forgive the debts that countries with developing economies had amassed. The notion was that lender countries with strong economies were in a better position to assume the loss than countries with significant debt were in to maintain the interest on the loans. It is not surprising that many of the advocates for forgiveness were familiar with the Biblical mandate to reset the economy and land holdings every fifty years – the jubilee.
Before any such program could be finalized, those strong economies plummeted, and the plans were abandoned. But it is worth noting that the conversations about this innovative approach were not all supportive.
There’s no doubt that both the Biblical mandate and the contemporary proposal were well-intended. After all, if wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few, the many suffer disproportionately. That situation seems to be acceptable only to those with wealth or the expectation that they will amass it to the disadvantage of others. Still, the Bible (and, indeed, all of Jewish thought) concedes that there will always be poor people. It also insists that the privileged have the responsibility to provide for the disadvantaged. In every way from creating self-sustaining opportunities (such as leaving the corners of the fields unharvested or teach a person a marketable skill) to simply handing over money (preferably with joy, but even with resentment), those that have must provide for those that don’t.
But this notion of the forced redistribution of wealth is one of the places that capitalism chooses to disregard the instruction of Scripture. Who would lend money, who would build a house, who would plant an orchard if, after seven years or seven times seven years, the investment would be lost?
Close readers of the Bible know that the reluctance of lenders to lose their loan is anticipated. And those who have studied even a little Jewish law know of the invention of the prosbul, a legal fiction that allows lenders to assign their loans to the court, an institution that is not a person (my friend), so that debts can survive the mandatory forgiveness. Despite the moral authority of the Bible and the admirable notion of a society free from permanent want, practical experience made it clear that human nature was sometimes more reliable than divine instruction.
The old joke is both older than old and not such a joke: The students come to the rabbi and say they have found a way to rid the world of poverty – the rich will give the poor what they need. “How is your plan doing?” asked the rabbi. “We’re half-way there,” they replied. “The poor have agreed to accept the gifts.”
And it turned out that there was some pushback against the debt-forgiveness movement as well. Countries, like people, were reluctant to forgive existing debts even when they were prospering and might well have been able to afford the gesture. In almost every case, the debts were being managed to prevent disabling the smaller economy. But the anticipation that strong economies might not always be so strong (which turned out to be devastatingly true) made representatives of lender countries declare their reluctance to extend future credit to these same countries. A once-in-a-generation reset might very well have complicated the ability of any country to move beyond momentary solvency.
I know that there was disappointment in some quarters (especially among some faith-based activists) that the “jubilee plan” did not come to pass. If there had been a willingness, it not only would have alleviated a significant amount of debt, but also it would have validated a particular perspective on the wisdom and authority of the Bible. At least a few of the proponents believed that the latter “witness” was as important as the former problem-solving.
There were other creative minds who went to work on national debts. There has yet to be a solution, but with the exception of those few leaders that will not acknowledge their country’s economic crisis, the combination of public and private efforts has made inroads in alleviating poverty. There is a long way to go, but not as long as before.
But the lesson of the push for debt forgiveness gives me quiet satisfaction – not because I am somehow in favor of crushing debt, but because I continue to reject a literal reading of the Bible. The embedded skepticism of the idealistic vision, tackled by the legal logic so disparaged by outsiders to Jewish tradition, gives me great delight. With a minimum of exceptions, everything is a negotiation, not out of some worship of making a deal, but because of the constant celebration of our capacity to be idealistic and practical at the same time.
In the best sense, that’s my definition of politics, my version of Otto von Bismarck’s “art of the possible.” You work at something for a long time – maybe seven times seven years – and in the end, with people of good will, you get the best possible outcome. That’s a jubilee worth celebrating.
The Leviticus:8 Project
He shall arrange them before the LORD regularly every sabbath day—it is a commitment for all time on the part of the Israelites. Leviticus 24:8
Is it all right to allow someone to live in benign ignorance if the result is somehow beneficial?
There is a story I have heard in many versions that illustrates my question. It likely originates about 250 years ago with a rabbi named Moses Hagiz, who claims to have heard it from a disciple of the sixteenth-century mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria. Scholars consider the claim unlikely…but the story is the story.
A Portuguese converso (a Jew forced to convert to Catholicism but still secretly practicing Judaism) made his way to Safed and sought to find his way back into Jewishness. He attended a synagogue where he heard the rabbi bemoan the loss of the devotional practice of the showbread – loaves left in the inner sanctum of the Temple for each shabbat. The man, believing he could reclaim his place in God’s eyes, instructed his wife to bake two loaves of challah each Friday, which he surreptitiously placed in the Ark of the synagogue where the Torah scrolls were kept. Each Friday afternoon, the synagogue’s gabbai (attendant), a poor man, would come to make certain the Torah scrolls were set for the week’s reading. Each week, he discovered the two loaves and, believing them to be a blessing, took them home. When the converso came to synagogue the next day and saw the loaves missing, he believed God had accepted his gift.
One week, the rabbi happened into the synagogue as the converso was delivering the loaves. After hearing the story, the rabbi berated the man for having such a foolish notion of God. Hearing the commotion, the gabbai entered and realized where the weekly gift originated. The rabbi berated him as well. Both men left humiliated.
As all of this transpired, an emissary from Rabbi Luria arrived and informed the rabbi that he would die the next day – his behavior had deprived God of the enjoyment unknown since the original showbread in the Temple.
I have always had two reactions to the story. Part of me finds it sweet and uplifting – a sort of “the Lord moves in mysterious ways” lesson in how good intentions can produce great results, even if they are not the results intended. Part of me finds it insulting – even if I excuse the converso’s naivete (or, perhaps, his confusion of the showbread with communion), you don’t have to be a genius to know that there is no such thing as magic bread.
But in both of my reactions, the rabbi is the biggest loser. His impatience with both characters deprives them both of what they need most. The converso needs to return to his identity and the gabbai needs to eat! But is it such a heinous sin that the rabbi needs to die for it? (And please note that the story attributes the death decree to God’s disappointment, not the humiliation of the two men.)
This story has been reworked in many different ways over the years. Like Grimms’ fairy tales, modern tellings remove all the nasty results and end in a group hug and extended family meals. I don’t like the happily-ever-after ending, either. I much prefer the tension between the mystical and the rational, and the way to preserve both. (It helps to know that Rabbi Hagiz spent much of his career promoting rabbinic authority in European and Holy Land Jewish communities.)
In some ways, this story reminds me of the tensions that are present in our discussions about immigration in this country. Inspired by the welcome that most of our ancestors received by America (if not by all Americans), some of us wish to repeat in contemporary circumstances what we imagine occurred back in the day. Looking for a better life, people show up at our border hoping against hope that their two loaves will be there to sustain them.
And, of course, there is an angry authority figure humiliating everyone for imagining a way to satisfy each other. The authority figure may be right – just as the rabbi was. But the rabbi, for all his rightness, is the biggest loser.
Maybe for the sake of the story, the rabbi had to die in the end for betraying the God he sought to defend. When a story ends, it ends. But when a real situation presents itself, there is a story beyond the story. If the converso and the gabbai were real, the former would be shattered spiritually and the latter would go hungry. Maybe the consequences would not have been fatal, but joy and sustenance would have given way to sadness and deprivation. And if the rabbi in fact did not die, then that suffering would have been on his hands.
Same thing today.