The Numbers:13 Project
But if her husband does annul them on the day he finds out, then nothing that has crossed her lips shall stand, whether vows or self-imposed obligations. Her husband has annulled them, and the LORD will forgive her. Numbers 30:13
Over the years, I have had conversations with people who have described their marriages in terms unfamiliar to me. Specifically, one spouse or another had the power of veto over decisions made by the other. I just don’t get it.
An acquaintance of mine, many years ago, told me that his wife had decided to get a business degree. They had two children in elementary school, and she took classes around their schedule, studying at night after their bedtime and in any spare moment she could find. One day, as she and her husband were on their way to a social occasion on a local highway, he said to her, “I think you should just throw those books out the window and give up this business thing.” She did. He was very proud of that story.
Yes, it was most often the husband who had this authority over his wife. But there have also been circumstances in which a husband has made a commitment and later called me to say that his wife had reversed his decision. (I simply do not have enough experience with two men or two women to know if that kind of power is ever vested in one person or the other.)
I’m not talking about a deliberated compromise. I hope every couple has discussions about priorities and commitments. I mean exactly the kind of situation described in the verse above: one person made an autonomous decision, and the other person reversed it.
This is the stuff of sitcoms, I have to say. George Jefferson ordering ‘Weezy, Ralph Kramden commanding Alice, Maude instructing Walter. Except at the end of 26 minutes, comeuppance is a guarantee. Even when we laugh, nobody puts up with that malarkey in the end.
This kind of presumed authority is thinly-disguised spousal abuse. The removal of personal autonomy in decision-making by one partner is a denigration of the humanity of the other. Surrendering the ability to make “vows and self-imposed obligations” – especially after the fact – invalidates personal competence and judgment. It creates a hierarchy of basic human dignity which, by all measures, violates the equality of all people.
In my work I encounter any number of faith traditions that affirm that a wife must submit to the authority of her husband. (These traditions have less experience than I with single-sex couples.) While there are any number of places in the Bible that they cite justification, none is more explicit than this one. The usual explanation, perhaps better described as a rationalization, is that men are better suited to decision-making than women.
In communities governed by rules like these, the prophecy is self-fulfilling. Wives (and women in general) second-guess their own judgment, having been taught it is inferior to their husbands’. In turn, they teach their daughters and granddaughters to defer to the men in their lives.
Even in “enlightened” traditions, the vestiges of this hierarchy remain. Women’s teachings may be overruled by men’s. Female devotees serve the male clergy who are the only conduits to the divine. Women do not serve as judges or as members of a quorum. No matter how it is justified or explained away, the female partner is less-than. And when the male partner becomes less-than, he is depicted as female, to add insult to injury.
I know that it is easy to be critical, especially since we live in a time when pushing back on these teachings is considered the moral and righteous thing to do. But the attitudes and practices we are correcting are deeply embedded in our cultures, our traditions and, according to the tenets of faith, our sacred and inviolable literature. What do we do with them?
It is not enough, I am afraid, to assert our presumed authority over such a text. The result of a flat rejection may be satisfying for the person who feels righteously above the text, but it will do little to persuade the woman or man who feels bound by sacred instruction. It is also insufficient to suggest that people being disadvantaged by these teachings – most of them women – to ”give it time.”
Instead, men and women alike need to model and instruct the right kind of behavior and accompanying attitudes. It is especially true for opinion leaders – public figures, clergy, people in charge. Just as we no longer hang a transgressor, stone a stubbornly rebellious son or allow for revenge killings, we must say unequivocally that these windows into past conduct are sacred because of their origin, not because of their relevance.
That’s an attitude that probably dissatisfies everyone a little bit. But its my story, and I am sticking to it.
The Numbers:13 Project
You shall present a burnt offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD: Thirteen bulls of the herd, two rams, fourteen yearling lambs; they shall be without blemish. Numbers 29:13
Human societies have a long and complicated relationship with numbers. We like to count things and then assign significance to the totals and the way we can divvy them up. Perhaps numbers are the last vestige of the human family (as depicted in the Bible) before it fractured into different languages and tribe. Mathematical patterns are a universal means of expression. Though they are essentially without nuance, they can be used to express music, color and physical relativity that can capture profound insights.
Though I am not much of a whiz at math, nonetheless I have a fascination with numbers, too. Like my friend Don, I take delight in gematria (with a hard “g”), the “science” that finds relationships between words in Hebrew with the same numerical value. (Every letter in Hebrew has an assigned value, so if you add up the numbers in, say, chokhmah – 8+20+40+5 = 73 – you will find it to be the same as hachayyim – 5+8+10+10+20. Chokhma means “wisdom,” hachayyim means “the life.” Therefore, there must be a link between wisdom and life.) Gematria can get pretty complicated and has implications for students of the Jewish mystical tradition. I find it a useful excuse to find connections among ideas, such as “wisdom” and “life.”
We assign significance to numbers that are not inherent, rather that recognize our values. To be #1 in any field of endeavor means dominance or, at least, arriving earliest. Seven is both prime and complete. Ten is comprehensive. Name almost any number and it will have significance for someone – a batting streak, a weight goal, an hourly wage, the roster of Biblical commandments.
But sometimes a number is just a number. I had a conversation with a friend of mine about our ages. “You are only as old as you feel,” he said to me (an observation that he was quick to acknowledge was not original). “That’s irrelevant,” I replied. “Some days I feel like a teenager and some days I feel like an old man. But my age is my age, a neutral fact.” The nuance of that number is not carried by the digits; it is meaning imputed (in this case) by an attitude about age.
When I look at the number of offerings and sacrifices designated by the Bible for various occasions, I am frequently mystified. The descending totals for the seven days of Tabernacles (which the verse above begins) has a meaning as self-evident as the last verse of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” And the time necessary to slaughter and roast 29 animals in the Temple precincts would probably take up the whole of the day for the priestly personnel. But the numbers mean something, even if that meaning has been lost to time and speculation.
There is one type of significance to numbers that is assigned by Jewish tradition that strikes me as a recognition of the neutral value of those numbers. There is a strong opposition to counting people – that is, reducing their uniqueness to a number. Even in determining the number of people present for a minyan (quorum), it is not permissible to assign each one a number. Instead, a ten-word phrase is used, or the counting is preceded by “not” (not-one, not-two, etc.). Only when the purpose of counting is for a divinely-mandated purpose – building the Temple, entering the Promised Land – may a census be conducted, but even then within the tribal memberships rather than a general counting.
It is therefore not without irony that the English name of this book is “Numbers.” (In Hebrew it carries the traditional name, taken from the first word of significance, “Bemidbar,” “In the wilderness.”) The numbers in Numbers are abundant and call out for interpretation, perhaps because they seem somehow random.
But the numbers themselves are neutral, digits that represent quantity or order or something that bears meaning assigned rather than inherent. That open-ended fact makes it somehow wonderful that numbers exist without limit.
The Numbers:13 Project
As meal offering for each lamb: a tenth of a measure of fine flour with oil mixed in. Such shall be the burnt offering of pleasing odor, an offering by fire to the LORD. Numbers 28:13
Like most men I know, I believe I can look at a something labeled “some assembly required” and succeed in that “some assembly” with little or no guidance. When I get a new piece of electronic wizardry, I am always glad to find that there are two sets of instructions – the comprehensive user’s manual and the quick-start guide; I don’t need either of them. And when tasked with following a recipe, I need only two measuring devices – a tablespoon and a 1-cup measure – because I have a good eye for how much to fill each if the recipe calls for a teaspoon or a quarter-cup of something.
I am confident in my abilities because, though I have no formal training in these skills, both of my grandfathers were very good with their hands. Plus, I can visualize things in my head.
At the core of the assumptions about all of these various assembling activities is the cavalier attitude of “how hard can it be?” Hammers and nails, Allen wrenches and wood screws, flour and salt, these are ingredients that anyone with a modicum of common sense can figure out how to put together.
Similarly, what prevents me from being a good actor, an admired singer, a talented dancer? Sure, not everyone is DeNiro, Dion or Hough, but how hard can it be to recite your lines, carry a tune or tap your feet?
And if you can ride a bike, you can drive a car. If you can drive a car, you can skipper a boat. If you can skipper a boat (and play a video game), you can pilot a plane. How hard can it be?
I am, of course, wrong about all those things. Be glad I did not become a surgeon.
Some few people in any discipline have natural talent. My late friend Fred could pick up almost any musical instrument and play it well. He took clarinet lessons – his first love – but played the banjo and the piano without any instruction. My cousin Ben can build anything you describe to him like some combination of MIT and MacGyver. My wife can make a technical report read like a Steven King novel.
But mostly, to be good at something, you have to follow directions and learn from a few mistakes (like skipping the instructions). Even the people with exceptional natural talent (in fact, especially those people) will warn you off pretending that you know more than you do. Anyone who has baked a cake without follow the recipe carefully will tell you how unhappy the results are with just a little too much of this or a little too little of that.
It may wind up being a burnt offering, but it is not of pleasing odor.
When the founders of our country wrenched the government from the hands of kings and despots, they wrote out the recipe for the plain old citizens who entered public service to follow. To be sure, government has gotten considerably more complicated since Alexander Hamilton decided not to throw away his shot, but there are no ingredients that can be left out of the Constitution. Lots of people have held office so successfully that they make it look easy. Of course, if we could ask Washington or Lincoln, Shirley Chisholm or Barbara Jordan, Oliver Wendell Homes or Thurgood Marshall if their leadership was as effortless in providing as it appeared in the result, they would laugh. Anyone who came to that conclusion by observing only the result of careful preparation and methodical effort would likely be as superficial as that perception.
And yet, there remain people who look at positions of great responsibility for the nation and its citizens and ask, “How hard can it be?” Willfully ignorant of the Constitution and stubbornly uninformed, they believe the quick-start guide is for incompetents and the user’s manual is for morons.
I don’t want to sit on the chair assembled by the guy who skipped the directions. I don’t want to suffer through a concert by the person whose vocal training is a morning shower. I don’t want to ski behind a boat navigated by someone who learned on a Schwinn. Maybe they have the natural talent of my cousin Ben, but if it turns out they don’t, and they are endangering us all, someone should take away
the hammer, the mic or the keys.
In the process, we just might restore the Constitution.
When you have seen it, you too shall be gathered to your kin, just as your brother Aaron was.
Like every rabbi, I have attended to bereaved family members in almost every circumstance of death. Some deaths approach slowly and inevitably, like a train arriving across a plain with a distant horizon. Some deaths burst onto the scene like a balloon popping at a birthday party. Illness, accident, age, crime, self-infliction – mostly all they have in common is the finality of the result.
One set of experiences involved a woman who lost her mother to a protracted battle with cancer. Weeks of hospitalizations preceded the agonizing last days when life slipped away by inches. Some few years later, her father collapsed suddenly during a vacation and could not be revived. I asked her which was better – the chance to say goodbye, but watching her mother suffer, or the sudden loss of a vital presence in her life without the opportunity for a last moment. Her response: They both suck.
It is so like us as human beings to cast everything in terms of how it affects us. But what about the person facing death? Other than convicted perpetrators of capital crimes, no one among us knows the day of their death. There are plenty of pieces of advice about living as if today were your last day, but they, too, do not really imagine the impending moment.
(The best-known Jewish teaching: Repent one day before your death. And since no one knows the day of their death, repent today.)
I understand the impetus of people who face a proximate death to seek out pleasurable experiences. Whether it is a visit to an exotic place, a special meal, a sensual indulgence, time with loved ones or whatever, the focus on compacting experiences of life into an abbreviated timeline is understandable from people who cling to life.
But imagine being told the day you will die – maybe not the exact date, but the events that will point to the time your time will come. Imagine there will be no option for distraction, no diversion from the inevitable, no swerving off the road to finality. A cue will present itself: a horn will sound, a light will flash, a word will be spoken out of context or – as our case in point – you will arrive at your destination, see it and die. (For those unfamiliar with the reference in the verse, Moses was instructed to accompany his brother to the top of a hill, remove Aaron’s priestly vestments and place them on Aaron’s son. Aaron did not come down the hill.)
It is a cliché that when faced with mortal danger, your life passes before your eyes. Maybe it is true; the entire Book of Deuteronomy is a description by Moses of the events of his life since leaving Egypt in enough detail to last almost all of the 959 verses. But what would you discover?
I suspect (and I take the clue from this very verse) that I will stand before the evidence of what is left undone in my life. Not for lack of trying, not for lack of good intention, and not merely because there comes a time when any one life, including mine, will come to an end. Simply, the day after you die the sun will rise and set just as it did every day since you emerged into this world. Each of us is a part of things much larger than ourselves.
I am not making a case against mourning nor arguing for resignation at our inherently unfinishable lives. Instead, I am making a case for something just short of immortality. Leaving something incomplete makes it necessary for someone else – another life – to pick up where we left off. You likely won’t get to choose who that other life is, and you will have no control over the direction that other life takes. But every relinquishing facilitates a renewal.
For those left behind – the bereaved – loss and broken-heartedness is normal and necessary. With or without a chance to conclude a relationship, the empty space in the next-day’s world is a reminder of what has come to an end.
But I hope that on the day you will die, even if you love life as much as I do (which is a lot), you will discover what Moses did: that others are waiting to pick up what you left off and that, in that way, you are a participant in the fulfillment of the life you are about to surrender.
I usually have something political to say as part of these columns, and this one is no exception, so if you are satisfied with this little life meditation, stop reading now.
I have never been a fan of the bedtime prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” I can’t think of anything worse to suggest to a child who already has concerns about what lurks in the darkness, “if I should die before I wake…” The traditional bedtime ritual for Judaism includes a similar representation, though a little less ominous. But I get the intention. As Don McLean (almost) sang, “This [could be] the day that I die.”
Cultivating an awareness of work left undone ought to make someone a little conscientious about how to spend their day. But here’s the fact: the person whose energy is devoted to serving himself is likely to realize on the day he dies that the only work left undone is deconstructing what he left behind.
The Numbers:13 Project
of Zerah, the clan of the Zerahites; of Saul, the clan of the Saulites. Numbers 26:13
I know I am giving away both my age and my sense of humor when I mention Allan Sherman. The spiritual mentor of Weird Al Yankovic, Sherman elevated the song parody to a national phenomenon. He mostly (in his early work) parodied the songs of the first half of the twentieth century – not surprising, since he grew up then.
I knew most of the originals from the parodies. Songs like “You Went the Wrong Way, Old King Louis” and “Streets of Miami” made such an impression on me that I was surprised to learn there were original lyrics. (I had to ask my parents what was so funny about the line “he was trampling through the warehouse where the drapes of Roth are stored,” a skewer of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”)
But no song tickled me as much as “Shake Hands with Your Uncle Max.” It is a riff on “Dear Old Donegal,” an Irish pop tune about a man who returns to Donegal after trying out America and is reintroduced to his neighbors Branigan, Flannigan, Milligan, Gilligan and all sorts of others. But I never heard the original until much later. Instead, I committed to memory the Allan Sherman version about a salesman who returns to Brooklyn (so that’s where Ocean Parkway is!) after his long and lonesome season on the road. His mother is there to reintroduce Levin, Levinsky, Levine and Levi…Stein with an "e-i" and Styne with a "y."
Aside from being a play on the Irish ditty, the song is a not-so-subtle reference to the proclivity of Jews (and others, I suspect) to try to draw connections with people they meet. Stand near two Jewish strangers at a social gathering and eventually you will hear an exploration that begins either with “do you know” or “are you related to.” My last name is pretty unusual in the Jewish community (but familiar to Swedes), so it’s not so farfetched for someone who knows my siblings or cousins to ask me if I am connected to another Moline. But Stein with an “e-i” and Styne with a “y” (from Brooklyn) can provoke an adventure of six degrees or fewer of separation.
Maybe this behavior is a benign parody of the long section of the second census in the Book of Numbers. The twelve tribes of Israel are called by the name of their patriarchs, and afterward the then-current chieftain and then his sons. The families (clans) of the sons are each noted by the name of the current patriarch. Those descended from Zerah, the Zerahites. Those descended from Saul, the Saulites. Well…duh.
The tribes had their territory and the clans had their homesteads. The merchant who returned with his caravan could shake hands with his Uncle Zerah and meet cousins from other tribes – Naphtali, Issachar, Judah and Gad. Jewish geography may not be quite the modern phenomenon we think it is.
A well-known rabbi, so well-known that I won’t identify him, once said that the only false words in the prayer book are chaveirim kol yisrael, which means (a little too literally) “all Jews are friends.” But taking that notion more literally than it is meant brings me back to Allan Sherman’s song. He may not have been so happy to see cousin Isabel (that’s Irving’s oldest girl) or the Tishman twins, Gerald and Jerome, but they all came out to greet him and to wish him welcome home.
Maybe that’s part of the intrigue of the DNA-mapping technology that various companies market. So far, my sample has identified 1216 relatives, about five of which I knew about. Sooner or later I will find out if I am a Zerahite or a Saulite or any of the other -ites who left Egypt. (I already know I am 99% Ashkenazi Jew.) Until then, are you related to……?
The Numbers:13 Project
It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites. Numbers 25:13
When I think about all the people I knew when I was a kid, it is pretty amazing to me how many of them had parents – fathers, most usually – who were businessmen. In the small neighbor where I grew up, there was a doctor, a cop and an ad exec, but mostly the dads owned businesses. Our middle-class community depended on the market for glass containers, lighting, kosher meat, uniforms, gemstones and, in our family, office supplies and furniture.
Almost all of my friends went to college and almost none of them entered the family business. Some (like my sister) tried for a while, but most (like my brother and me) never had much interest in the “shop.”
I never did a scientific survey (nor even an unscientific one), but my two grandfathers made their way through this world working with their hands, and their children showed no particular interest or aptitude for that aspect of securing a livelihood. I am certain that you live in circumstances that benefit from my grandfathers’ trades, but I am equally certain almost none of you have contemporaries who followed in their footsteps.
The notion that children would follow their parents into the family business used to be pretty usual. You only need to look to the last names conferred on families with working-class origins when surnames began to emerge to know how prevalent it was to be defined by the family business. Smith, Porter, Wagner, Carpenter – these are very transparent English names. Schechter (butcher), Schumacher (cobbler), Weiner (vintner), Dayan (judge) are names common in the Jewish community with origins in European languages.
(Of course, there are other origins of surnames. Slaves often had their enslavers’ names imposed on them. Many cultures, including Jewish culture, used the name of a family elder as the last name. Geography often identified a family. And so many others.)
The process of choosing a profession has changed multiple times over the thousand years or more of identifying family names. But it is a pretty radical notion to consider that my livelihood could be defined by family heritage. My ancestors landed on these shores with the surname “Melamedmen.” It is a Hebrew-Yiddish mash-up that means, literally, “teacher-man.” In the hierarchy of Jewish scholarship, the “teacher-man” was a generalist, usually providing the foundation of basic Jewish literacy to children. While we have plenty of Jewish educators in our extended family, none of us wound up in the (honorable!) profession of teaching Bible to fourth-graders.
Speaking of the Bible, I imagine the “pact of priesthood for all time” mentioned above seemed like a pretty sweet deal back then. For certain, the responsibility of tending to the ritual life of the people by maintaining their right relationship with God was profound. But the priests were sustained by the rest of the people (as part of their home tribe of Levites) and enjoyed the privileges of office. They were limited in their choices for marriage and could not own real property, but the family business was secure and sustained.
But “all time” continues today. The designation of “priest” is preserved among the Jewish population by surnames that are remarkably accurate, diluted though the lineage may be. Any variation of Cohen, Kahn or Katz (an abbreviation of “righteous priest”) indicates a legacy of priesthood. Unless the name was adopted to replace an undesired surname, anyone whose family legacy includes this name is in some way presumed to be in the pact of priesthood for all time – the family business.
We live in an entrepreneurial world. Though work has undeniable dignity, the notion that you are assigned a form of labor by something or someone external to your own efforts is the stuff of tyranny or dystopian novels. My parents and grandparents were proud of the family businesses, but they never expressed the expectation that any of their offspring would follow in their footsteps.
I carry a title that reveals my career choice to the world. I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked if any of my children were going to follow me into the rabbinate, the “family business.” I never responded as many rabbis do with “I hope so” or as some rabbis do with “I hope not.” They followed the values they learned from my wife and me and have found a way to serve and sustain, each in their own idiom, as the generations did before them.
Our American culture sometimes tries to assign expectation to the children on the basis of their parents’ professions. In entertainment, politics, big businesses and sports especially, a marquee name is not only bankable, but definitive. But having a parent who was a senator, a point guard or a real estate magnate is no guarantee of anything other than fame. There are no more pacts of profession for all time.
The Numbers:13 Project
‘Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not of my own accord do anything good or bad contrary to the LORD’s command. What the LORD says, that I must say.’ Numbers 24:13
What constitutes integrity? I try not to get too theological in these columns, but sometimes it is unavoidable, as you will see.
I have always imagined integrity to be connected to integration, which is to say, the opposite of compartmentalization. I think it is impossible to live life without some measure of cordoning off certain experiences from others. I learned it as a rabbi a long time ago on the day I walked from one room in the synagogue where I conducted the naming for the first child and granddaughter of a multi-generational family to another room where I conducted a funeral after the sudden death of a young father of two toddlers. The emotion in each room could not have been different, but I could not afford to be swept away by either joy or grief.
The contrasts in our lives are not always that severe, of course. Yet, some measure of separation between work and home, responsibility and indulgence, birth and death, reaping and sowing, embracing and refraining from embracing -- you know the list -- is the experience of everyone who has been around the block even just once.
Still, the person who segments every experience and lives always and only in the moment seems (at least to me) to live without integrity. Integration involves connecting the various aspects of any system (in our case, a life) into some kind of comprehensive and comprehensible whole.
As a person of faith, I have one more criterion I think cannot be overlooked. Lots of folks find a way to knit together the parts of their internal landscape as they process their sojourn through life. Using the compass of conscience, however defined, or of self-interest (in its extreme expression known as narcissism), they mistake self-satisfaction for integrity. People whose sense of integrity is limited to what happens inside themselves are guilty of compartmentalization writ large.
The person of integrity is connected with something larger and external. For me, that’s God. I am not smug about that faith (nor even the version of it to which I adhere), but I believe deeply that anyone who answers to no standard but an internal standard is, in the end, a scoundrel. The reason: every decision, most especially those we like to call “moral,” is based on serving the self. It is not necessarily the case that the self-serving moral decision is bad or wrong -- not everyone is completely selfish -- but it is not transferable to other people who do not share the same internal landscape. Which, of course, is everyone else.
We are living in times in which integrity is pretty easily compromised. The parade of public figures who seem to have traded their principles for access to power or money (mostly to find themselves exposed and/or under a bus) is constant. You do not need to subscribe to the external values to which an individual has pledged allegiance to feel the pain and disappointment when integrity has disintegrated. Compulsively clinging to that external standard comes with its own set of problems, but letting it go entirely almost always leads to tragedy, whether it is misconduct, opprobrium or plain old loneliness.
The oft-maligned Bilaam (aka Baalam) seems to appreciate this truth when he is offered a fortune to use his oracular talents to condemn the Israelites. He is, at least at this moment, a man of integrity, that is, answering both to his internal and external values. It is a high point in his life (which precedes the low point -- being outsmarted by a talking donkey). He is not an Israelite/Jew, which teaches the lesson that integrity is not tribe-dependent (and allows the Bible to make his fall less personal to Jewish readers).
Maybe some other time I will muse about how to balance the internal compass and the external standards. For the moment, I will stop with the suggestion that adage “no one is an island” should inspire us not only to intertwined relationships, but also to a life of integrity,
The Numbers:13 Project
Then Balak said to him, “Come with me to another place from which you can see them—you will see only a portion of them; you will not see all of them—and damn them for me from there.” Numbers 23:13
There is no question that some individuals arrive at the border of the United States with malice in their hearts. They may have contraband to smuggle – drugs especially. They may be bringing children or young women to the border with the promise of a better life but the reality of being trafficked. They may have exacted exorbitant sums of money from other people hoping to avoid immigration authorities by crossing illegally.
I wouldn’t defend them, and I won’t defend them. They should be prevented, apprehended and/or prosecuted, as they deserve.
There is no question that some African American, Latinx, Hispanic and Asian individuals (and others) belong to gangs. They may be willing to tolerate or engage in criminal or anti-social activities. They may intimidate neighborhood residents or members of other gangs. They may seek to pressure recruits to join or to turn away from family and friends.
If they cross a legal line, they should be held liable for the consequences, as should anyone.
There is no question that some wealthy business people have gotten rich through illegal or immoral activity. They may have laundered money or concealed it from taxes in offshore accounts. They may have engaged in price gouging, price fixing or bait-and-switch pricing. They may have persuaded people to entrust them with their own money and then violated that trust.
No matter how genteel these crimes are, they should be investigated thoroughly and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
The transgressions of any subset of any demographic segment must not be used to typify the population of similar individuals. Politely, we call that stereotyping. Less politely, we call that bigotry. If I suggest that sometimes stereotyping is an understandable reaction, it is not to justify it, but to recognize that when the only thing someone knows about an entire cohort is the actions of a few, extrapolating to the larger population is an understandable (if illegitimate) reaction. And certainly, if culture has not evolved to encourage wiser and more humane response, there is hard work to be done. Native Americans, LGBTQ individuals, immigrant populations from the Irish to the Guatemalan, and, most notably, African Americans have suffered from a proclivity of Americans of privilege to “other-ise” minorities. Education and personal relationships are the most effective correctives to bigotry borne of ignorance.
Sometimes there are people of genuinely bad will who seek to create a frame around others that purposely casts them in the most negative light for the general population. Take Balak, the self-proclaimed enemy of the Israelites who was intent on bringing down a curse on the liberated slaves. He promised a prominent religious figure, Bilaam (often called Balaam in English translations), wealth and access to power if he would attempt to marginalize the Israelites with an imprecation. Bilaam found himself drawn to praise at the wide expanse of the nomadic encampment. Balak suggests the ancient equivalent of cropping a photo, taking Bilaam to a vantage point that obscures most of them and diminishes their presence.
Maybe at that point Balak encouraged Bilaam to see criminals and rapists and drug dealers with calves the size of cantaloupes. Perhaps he called them roving bands of violent criminals roaming our neighborhoods. It could be he suggested that they wanted to bleed his country dry as their financial dealings were the equivalent of getting away with murder. And who knows – maybe from that promontory the visible section of the camp looked sinister and dangerous. Maybe it was a persuasive case to someone otherwise uninformed.
It didn’t work then, and it shouldn’t work now. Embracing those who differ from us does not mean ignoring the shortcomings of those who do not respect the law, just as we ought not overlook those most like us who do the same. And acknowledging the shortcomings of the minority of the minority does not mean generalizing to the majority of the minority.
Any religious figure who is seduced by wealth and power to do what is wrong in the eyes of his or her faith is a fraud. Any public figure who seeks to isolate an entire community by a sweeping judgment on a small subset is a bigot. And anyone who falls for those tactics has chosen ignorance over righteousness.
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.