Thursday, June 28, 2007

A King, A Wizard and an Uncooperative G-d

Last week, the Jews defeated the powerful armies of Sichon and Og. Unprovoked, the enemy had marched out with full confidence of victory, only to be annihilated on the battlefield. The Jews then occupied the entire territory of the Amorites; cities, women, bank accounts and all. These events did not go by unnoticed.

Continuing their march to the Holy Land, the Jews must now pass through Moab and Midian. These countries know what happened to Sichon and they are terrified that they will share the same fate. Balak, the king of Moab, is well aware that standing armies and conventional weaponry are useless against the Chosen Nation. Desperate to defend his country, he comes up with a new plan.

What we need, declares King Balak, is a more “spiritual” approach. A wizard! An evil spell cast by a powerful wizard is just the thing to stop the Jews.

A quick search on Google brings up a fellow named “Billam,” reputedly the most respected wizard in the business. Royal emissaries are dispatched to his home, but it’s a bad hire. Unlike Merlin, Gandalf or Voldemort, Billam answers to a higher authority.

“Spend the night here,” he replied [to the king’s emissaries], “and when G-d speaks to me, I will be able to give you an answer.”

Bamidbar 22:8

Predictably, G-d says no and the emissaries go home. But King Balak won’t take no for an answer. He sends a more distinguished delegation who promise Billam great honor and wealth if he would only curse the Jews. Again Billam tells them that he can’t do it without G-d’s permission. He invites them to spend the night and he goes to sleep. For the second time, G-d comes to him in a dream.

“If the men have come to summon you, set out and go with them. But only do exactly as I have instructed you.”
Billam got up in the morning, saddled his female donkey and set out with the Moabite dignitaries.

Ibid 22:20-21

Seems like the reasonable thing to do; after all, G-d did tell him he could go. But G-d is not happy. Here’s the very next verse:
G-d was angry that Billam went…
At night G-d tells him he can go and then in the morning G-d is angry that he went? What is going on here?! Has G-d changed His mind?

Of course, anyone with Jewish parents knows that permission is never to be equated with nachas. But, as the Ramban points out, there is another piece here. When Billam got up that second morning and went with Balak’s emissaries, they assumed that G-d had granted him permission to curse the Jews – and Billam does nothing to dispel this assumption. He does not tell them that G-d’s ban against cursing the Jews is still in place. By going with them in silence, Billam gives the impression that G-d has changed His mind, when in fact G-d was never against his going. G-d was only against his going and cursing.

There is such a thing as “changing G-d’s mind.” In certain situations, repentance and prayer can be quite effective. But neither of those is applicable here. Yesterday G-d said no cursing and now, it seems, G-d has given permission to curse. Billam has committed a Chillul HaShem, damaging G-d’s reputation as an infinite, eternal and unchanging being. This is why G-d is angry.

Billam the Wizard arrives in Moab and meets with the king. He admits that he can’t do anything without G-d’s permission, but he promises to try his best to get G-d to allow him to curse the Jews. It’s a classic pagan approach and Billam is trying it out on the One G-d. He brings dozens of sacrifices on dozens of altars, all to no avail. Once again, Billam has committed the ultimate Chillul HaShem, intimating that G-d is malleable and if you just press the right buttons, G-d will change His mind.

Now it’s time for G-d to have some fun. Instead of curses, after each of Billam’s attempts G-d instructs him to bless and praise G-d and Israel. This drives Balak absolutely mad.

These blessings were not composed by Billam; they were dictated by G-d. We are thus presented with verses of great beauty and majesty, and some have taken their rightful place in Jewish liturgy. (Having been first uttered by an enemy makes them even more delightful!) For example, our daily prayers begin with this verse: “How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your tabernacles, Israel” (Bamidbar 24:5). And this one is recited on Rosh Hashanah: “[G-d] does not look at wrongdoing in Jacob and he sees no vice in Israel; G-d their Lord is with them and they have the King’s friendship” (23:21). But there are other verses here that seem intended not only for us Jews, but for Billam and Balak themselves.

“What curse can I pronounce if G-d will not grant a curse? What divine wrath can I conjure if G-d will not be angry?”

Ibid 23:8

The prophecy is clear, but Balak doesn’t get it.

Balak said to him, “Come with me to another place… From there you may be able to curse them for me.”

Ibid 23:13

Balak thinks man can manipulate G-d. Presumably, he picked up his theology from Billam’s own behavior at the beginning of the story. So after Billam’s next attempt, G-d gets straight to the point:

“G-d is not human that He should be false, nor mortal that He should change His mind. Shall He say something and not do it, or speak and not fulfill?”

Ibid 23:19

Here G-d forces Billam to rectify his Chillul HaShem. Billam himself must declare the ultimate truth. G-d, the unmovable mover, does not change His mind. The Jews are blessed. And that decision is final.

Or is it? Something unexpected happens on the way to the end of the parsha.

Israel was staying in Shittim when the people began to behave immorally with the Moabite girls… Israel thus became involved with the Baal Peor [idol] and G-d displayed anger against Israel…
Those who died in the plagued numbered 24,000.

Ibid 25:1,3,9

G-d does not change His mind. The Jewish people are blessed and no wizard can ever curse them. But if the Jews sin, all bets are off.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Invisible Sin

There is no Jewish Pope. Or, as King Solomon put it, “There is no Tzaddik in the world who does good and does not sin” (Kohelet 7:20). No human is infallible and even the greatest of the great, our beloved and revered teacher Moshe, wasn’t perfect. He sins this week, and the Torah has no qualms telling us all about it.

The story begins when the Jews find themselves in the middle of a desert with nothing to drink. It’s a most unfunny predicament, but that’s no excuse for the shrill chutzpa that ensues:

The people attacked Moshe. “We wish we had died together with our brothers before G-d!” they declared. “Why did you bring G-d’s congregation to this desert? So that we and our livestock should die? Why did you take us out of Egypt and bring us to this terrible place?

Bamidbar 20:3-5

There’s more, but you get the idea. It’s all Moshe’s fault. At this point G-d appears and gives Moshe instructions:

“Take the staff and gather together the community, you and Aaron your brother. Speak to the rock in their presence and it will give its water. You will bring out water from the rock and provide the community and their animals with something to drink.”

Ibid 20:8

Here comes the climax:

Moshe took the staff from before G-d as he was commanded. Moshe and Aaron assembled the congregation before the rock. Moshe said, “Listen up, you rebels! Should we get water out of this rock for you?”
Moshe raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff. A huge amount of water came out and the community and their animals drank.

Ibid 20:9-11

G-d performed a miracle and the Jews got their water. Sounds great, but something went wrong. Very wrong.

G-d said to Moshe and Aaron, “Since you did not have enough faith in Me to sanctify Me in front of the Children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this congregation to the land that I have given you.

Ibid 20:12

For their crime, they are doomed to die in the desert. Moshe and Aaron, the men who led the nation from the slave camps of Egypt to the shores of the Jordan River, will not live to see the Jews enter the Promised Land.

But what exactly was their crime? They got the water out of the rock. What did they do wrong?

All the commentators weigh in on this question. The Ohr HaChaim (R. Chaim ibn Atar, 1696-1743) counts no less than ten different opinions, and that’s just counting the classical, medieval commentators! Alternative explanations are offered not simply because someone came up with a new possibility, but because there are real issues with the earlier interpretations. These rabbinic debates can get a little heated.

Rashi believes the sin was hitting the rock. Moshe was ordered to talk to the rock, not hit it. The Ramban counters that G-d told Moshe to take his staff – what’s the staff for, if not for hitting? (Of course, Rashi would probably respond with Theodore Roosevelt’s credo: “Speak softly and carry a big stick!”). The Rambam writes that Moshe’s sin was losing patience with the Jews. The Ramban counters that this is utter nonsense (sic!). The Torah does not say that Moshe got angry here, and elsewhere where Moshe does if fact get angry with the Jews (cf. Bamidbar 31:14), he is not punished. Moreover, this explanation would not explain what Aaron did wrong. Other suggestions include the failure to lead the congregation in a song of thanksgiving, calling the Jews “traitors,” hitting the rock twice, and not stressing that it was G-d who was making this miracle happen (cf. 20:10). Even after all this and more, the Ohr HaChaim is unimpressed. “None of these ten interpretations satisfy the need for truth!” He points out flaws in each one and then presents his own idea.

It’s fun to read all these creative suggestions, but it’s also mildly disturbing. No one can seem to nail this sin down. Of course, biblical commentators disagree all the time, but to find a multitude of opinions and contentious debate on such a basic question is most unusual. It raises an altogether different question, and a more important one. Why didn’t the Torah just state the sin clearly? If the Torah is being so vague no one can agree what it means, it is doing so deliberately. Why?

The answer to this question takes us back to our opening statements. There may be no Pope in Judaism, but genuinely holy Jews do exist. While all men are created equal, living a Jewish life, exercising free will and performing mitzvot transforms a person. As you climb the ladder of Torah, you build spiritual muscle. You graduate to advanced levels where old challenges and demons fade away and new challenges are presented. Eventually, the Jew finds himself standing in the throne room of the King.

When dealing with spiritual supermen like Moshe and Aaron we need to be careful not to make the mistake of projecting. They are different than you and I, and they are judged differently. Standing in the presence of G-d, Moshe and Aaron are held to a different standard. Behavior that would not be considered sinful for regular people may be a major failing for people like them.

The point is this: We should have no expectation of understanding the sin of Moshe and Aaron. The Jews who stood there and watched probably didn’t notice anything wrong either. Note that G-d did not say that they actively did something wrong, it was just that they missed an opportunity to “sanctify” G-d (cf. 12:20).

The Torah reported the event faithfully. The sin of Moshe and Aaron was so subtle it was invisible and the Torah kept it that way. That’s why, to this day, no one really knows what they did wrong.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Korach is Forever

Of all the complicated characters of the twenty-four books of scripture, Korach tops the list. Here we have a man of great lineage, scholarship and standing who stages a coup to overthrow his cousins, Moshe and Aaron. G-d quashes Korach and his rebellion, but we are left wondering. What was Korach thinking?!

There are many theories about what drove the man. Korach may have desired Elitzaphon’s position as leader of the Kehot branch of the Levite tribe (Rashi). He may have wanted Aaron’s position, the High Priesthood (cf. Bamidbar 16:11) He may have even dreamed of taking Moshe’s position as leader of the nation. Or maybe he just wanted to be a Kohen (cf. 16:10). Whatever he was after, our question remains. All of these appointments were made by G-d and were communicated to the nation via the prophecy of Moshe. Did Korach really think he could win a fight against G-d?

Rashi was troubled by this question and he quotes the Midrash:

Korach was an intelligent man. What caused him to act so foolishly? He was misled by a [prophetic] vision. He saw a great family tree descending from him. [He saw] Samuel, a man on par with Moshe and Aaron… [Korach] said, “Could all this greatness come from me and I should be silent?”

Midrash Tanchuma 2; Rashi Bamidbar 16:7

As it stands, the Midrash does not satisfy. Since when are holy children a license to fight with G-d? What the Midrash is really saying is this: Korach thought G-d was on his side.

Korach was so confident that he was the one most qualified for leadership, he concluded that Moshe was lying. There was no prophecy. Moshe put his brother and friends into positions of power and claimed that he was directed to do so by G-d, but in fact, these appointments were pure nepotism. It was this arrogant belief that made rebellion possible and ultimately cost Korach his life.

Man’s ability to misconstrue G-d’s messages knows no bounds. Here G-d grants Korach a prophetic vision, showing him that in centuries to come he will be blessed with a descendant named Samuel. Samuel was the prophet who anointed Saul and David as kings of Israel. David was a most unexpected appointment (cf. II Samuel 16:6-13), but Samuel had a prophecy. G-d was trying to tell Korach that political and religious appointments are made through prophecy, but the vision backfired. Korach used this very vision as evidence that he was justified in his rebellion against Moshe.

This kind of mistake is reminiscent of an episode in last week’s parsha. When the spies were making their assessment of the land of Israel, they noticed that wherever they went they saw funerals. G-d arranged these funerals to distract the locals and protect the spies from detection (Rashi, Bamidbar 13:32). But the spies had a different take. They returned to the people and gave their report: “It is a land that consumes its inhabitants” (13:32). How frustrating it must be for G-d when His providence is misconstrued!

Korach’s attack on Moshe may have begun by questioning the validity of his appointments, but it did not end there. If Moshe was a liar who claimed prophecy where there was none, why should he be trusted when it came to the mitzvot?

What did [Korach] do? He rose up, gathered 250 heads of court… and dressed them in woolen garments dyed completely techelet-blue. They came and stood before Moshe and asked him, “Is a garment that is wholly techelet obligated to have Tzitzit?” [Moshe] responded that it is obligated. They started to laugh at him. “For any other type of garment, one techelet string of Tzitzit would be sufficient (cf. Bamidbar 15:38), but this garment, made entirely of techelet wool, is not good enough?!”

Midrash Tanchuma 2; Rashi Bamidbar 16:1

Fantastic! Here we have Korach mocking the commandments of G-d, all the while believing that G-d agrees with him! The slope down into theological absurdity and spiritual suicide is a slippery one.

Yes, Korach is a complex character, but he is no anomaly. The Torah dedicates a parsha to his story not because the Torah is interested in teaching history, but because Korach sets a paradigm that is forever. There is always a Korach out there somewhere.

We would be na├»ve to ignore reality. In every generation there are Jews who work to undermine belief in the prophecy of Moshe and the validity of the 613 mitzvot. But here’s the kicker: Some of these Jews claim the mantle of Judaism and sincerely believe that G-d is on their side. Korach lives on!

Friday, June 8, 2007

A God Who Hates You

Sometimes a crime is so bad, so ugly and so evil it shatters the World Order. Eating the Fruit of Knowledge is one example. The Golden Calf is another.

These sins changed the world – man was expelled from Eden and the Two Tablets were smashed – but G-d had contingency plans. History moved forward for a while, albeit with two strikes. Then came strike three.

In parshat Shelach, G-d pitches a fastball right over the plate and we foul it badly. This time it’s game over. The flow of history is frozen for forty years, the Temple is doomed to destruction and the Jews are fated to millennia of exile. Few people know when Adam and Eve ate the Fruit of Knowledge or when we worshipped the Golden Calf, but everyone knows what happened on the Ninth of Av. That was the day of the Sin of the Spies.

Preparing to invade the Promised Land, the Jews send a team of spies to scout out the land and report back on the strength of the enemy. Forty days later, the spies return disheartened. The enemy is too strong, they say. We can never defeat them.

The Jews are devastated by the spies’ report and they – how shall we put it – overreact.

That night, the nation wept…

“We wish we had died in Egypt! We should have died in the desert! Why is G-d bringing us to this land to die by the sword? Our wives and children will be captives. It would be best to go back to Egypt.

The people started saying to one another, “Let’s appoint a [new] leader and go back to Egypt.”

Bamidbar 14:1,3-4

This unspeakable heresy and betrayal was the great strike three. To this very day we suffer the consequences.

G-d said to the Jews, “You cried for no reason, I’ll establish it for you [as a day of] crying for generations.”

Talmud, Sanhedrin 104b

The nation’s reaction to the spies’ report altered the course of Jewish history. Forevermore, the Ninth of Av would be a day reserved for retribution. From the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples to the expulsion from Spain to the outbreak of the First World War, many great disasters of our history occurred on the Ninth of Av. Let’s take another look at the bitter words that are at the root of so much pain.

Why is G-d bringing us to this land to die by the sword? Our wives and children will be captives. It would be best to go back to Egypt.

Several questions come to mind. First of all, what is this nonsense about a return to Egypt? Did the Jews have such fond memories of slavery and infanticide? Why would they want to go back there?!

It might sound crazy at first, but if you think about it for a moment it actually makes a lot of sense. The Jews have two options. They can trek across the Sinai desert, confronting the hostile nations of Amalek, Esav, Sichon, Ammon, Moav and Midian along the way, only to arrive at their destination to do battle with the dug-in armies of Canaan. If and when the Jews manage to conquer the country, they will have to live with savage Philistine hordes and regular bouts of famine and drought. Alternatively, the Jews can turn around and return to Egypt – a country whose entire army lies dead on the floor of the Red Sea. They can waltz right back into Egypt and take over, maybe even enslaving their former masters. Think of the sweet revenge and poetic justice! And Egypt has the Nile – no fear of drought. Which option would you choose?

When the Jews learn how formidable their enemy is, it is no wonder that they prefer to return to Egypt. Is this really such a terrible crime?

It would seem that the problem here is not so much the desire to go to Egypt, but what the Jews think of G-d at this juncture. When they hear of the challenge ahead, the Jews don’t lose faith in G-d’s existence or fault Moshe’s leadership, they just conclude that G-d is out to get them. “Why is G-d bringing us to this land to die by the sword?” Just in case you didn’t catch their meaning, the Torah clarifies it later. When Moshe retells this story, he quotes the Jews as saying something even more revealing and disturbing:

“G-d brought us out of Egypt because He hated us! He wanted to turn us over to the Amorites to destroy us!”

Devarim 1:27

When the going gets tough, the Jews think G-d hates them. It’s a strange thing to think. What could G-d possibly have against these poor ex-slaves wandering in the desert? Is there a rational explanation for this kind of pessimistic theology?

This too is not all that crazy. R. Ovadya Seforno (Italy, 1470-1550) reminds us that the Jews were quite pagan when they lived in Egypt. They had not forgotten their sins in Egypt, nor did they forget the sin of the Golden Calf. Brought to the impenetrable borders of Israel, they assumed that Judgment Day had arrived. G-d was going to kill them all.

It is not an unreasonable assumption – if you have a selective memory. The Jews see the enemy, remember their sins, feel unworthy and assume that G-d hates them. But the Jews forgot a few things. They forgot the Ten Plagues. They forgot the Exodus. They forgot the Splitting of the Sea. They forgot Mt. Sinai, Torah, the Mishkan, the Manna, etc., etc. After all the divine love showered upon them these past two years, could the Jews really think that G-d took them out of Egypt in order to destroy them? G-d was troubled by this same question, but He had a funny way of asking it:

“How long will they not believe in Me, despite all the miracles that I have performed in their midst?”

Bamidbar 14:11

Not believe? The Jews clearly believed in G-d, they just thought that He was out to get them. It seems, at least as far as G-d is concerned, that belief in an unforgiving, hateful G-d is not belief at all.

How did this happen? How did the Jews make such a terrible mistake? They focused on the negative and they forgot the positive. A pessimistic outlook caused them to misread their predicament and think that G-d hated them when, in fact, He loved them very much. This was the sin that destroyed the world.