Uncontrolled Anger and its Remedy – Shelakh Lekha 5778

Anger is powerful.  It is a core emotion, one we all experience.  It is a natural part of being human.

When we feel angry, we should pay attention, because it indicates when something is not right.  Anger is what alerts us to injustice.  It is how we prepare emotionally to respond to a perceived threat.

Uncontrolled anger, however, makes us forget important details, overrides our moral training, and makes us generally unpleasant to be around.  It causes us lose our ability to self-monitor and maintain objectivity.  Uncontrolled anger, with its partner, irrational fear, is responsible for much of the polarizing behavior in America today.

Anger will lead to Moses being banned from the Promised Land in a few weeks’ Torah portions.

To illustrate this point, the Torah depicts even God slipping into uncontrolled anger.  This morning’s reading, Parashat Shelach Lekha, describes the infamous story of the spies, who are sent to scout out the land of Canaan and bring back an advance report.

We enter the story at the moment when God is furious.  The Israelites have panicked after listening to the spies’ depressing assessment of their chances against the inhabitants of Canaan.

God is incredulous about the Israelites’ lack of faith.  He is frustrated beyond imagination.  “Let me strike them down with pestilence and start over with you, Moses!”

This is when Moses shows his true mettle.  In his prophetic role, he steps into the breach.  “But think about what the other nations will say,” Moses warns.  “‘This God of the Israelites did not have the power to finish the job.  Since he could not bring them into the land that He promised, He just killed them off in the wilderness.’  Is that how You want to be known?”

That is argument number one for Moses.  Argument number two is more personal.

Here it is in Hebrew:  וְעַתָּה יִגְדַּל־נָא כֹּחַ אֲדֹנָי כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ לֵאמֹר  “And now, let the strength of my Lord increase, as you have spoken.”  (Numbers 14:17)  What is this koach, or strength, that Moses mentions?  And when did God speak about it?

Moses continues:

ה’ אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב־חֶסֶד נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפָשַׁע וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל־בָּנִים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִים:

“Adonai, patient and full of lovingkindness, bearing iniquity and transgression, yet clearing, not clearing, calling-to-account the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and to the fourth [generation].”  (Numbers 14:18)  

Does this sound familiar?  Partially.  When is the last time that God threatened to wipe out the Israelites and start over with Moses?  At Mount Sinai, during the incident with the Golden Calf.  Moses talks God down at that time as well, using similar arguments.  While he is on a roll, Moses asks to behold God’s glory.  God agrees, and hides Moses in a cleft in a rock and passes the Divine Glory next to him.  While passing, God proclaims the thirteen attributes.

In this deja vu moment, Moses repeats God’s words back to Him.  He quotes some, but not all, of those attributes.  Maybe it will remind God, he thinks, of the last time when really really wanted to kill the Israelites but changed His mind.

Most of the commentators connect the koach, the strength that Moses wants God to increase with the term erekh apayim.  Literally, it means, long-nosed.  In Hebrew, this is a euphemism for patient.  The opposite is charon af, which means the burning nose, or flaring nostrils, a euphemism for anger.

So Moses is appealing for an increase in the relative strength of God’s patience.  Or, as Ibn Ezra puts it, that “the attribute of mercy should be victorious over the attribute of judgment to conquer Your anger.”

Anger has led God to forget about His own nature.  Moses is trying to awaken Divine compassion, which has become blocked.

Citing a midrash, the commentator Rashi takes it a step further. 

When Moses goes up Mount Sinai to get the Torah, he finds God writing down the Divine attributes.  Erekh apayim, Moses sees.  Long-nosed, patient.  Moses asks: “that is just for the righteous, right?

God corrects him, “Nope, it is for the wicked as well.”

“But should not the wicked be punished?” Moses asks.

“By your life,” God responds, “you are going to need these words one day.”

Today is the day.  The entire nation of Israel sins by listening to the ten spies.  God wants to obliterate them.

“But God,” Moses pleads.  “Didn’t you say that you are erekh apayim, patient?”

The Holy One replies, “I thought you wanted that to be just for the righteous.”

“No, no, no” Moses shakes his head.  “You said that it would also be for the wicked.”

Moses concludes his appeal by asking God to forgive the nation’s sin in accordance with the greatness of God’s love.  

God responds: סָלַחְתִּי כִּדְבָרֶךָ – “I forgive just as you have spoken.”

What a wonderful parallel.  Moses uses God’s words to remind God to be His best self.  And God responds by forgiving, according to Moses’ words.

So was God actually angry?  The midrash suggests that the story might have been told this way to teach a lesson about the danger of uncontrolled anger, and to offer a remedy.

The danger is that anger can cause me to forget who I am.  What are the values and principles that govern my life, that lead me to be me best self?  When I allow myself to be consumed by anger, I lose my way.

The remedy is another person.  Moses is the courageous prophet who has the nerve to confront God during God’s moment of rage.  To His credit, God accepts the intervention and snaps back, forgiving the Israelites.

I need to have people in my life who I can trust to step into the breach and tell me when I have lost my way.  And I should have the courage to be that person for someone else.  And most importantly, I should be receptive to hearing the voice of someone who has the courage to tell me, with love, when I am being an idiot.

The Chieftains’ Gifts – Naso 5778

One thing I have learned about lists of names in the Torah: While at first glance they seem repetitive, closer inspection usually reveals an aberration of some sort.  And behind that aberration often lies a story.

The end of parashat Naso is the longest chapter in the Torah, at 89 verses.  It describes the offerings that are brought by chieftains from each of the twelve tribes.

First, they get to collaborate on a gift of 6 carts and 12 oxen to pull them.  These are assigned to two of the Levite clans whose job it is to disassemble and carry the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.

But they are not done yet.  They have more to give.  God instructs that each of them should present his gift individually, one per day for twelve days.

The gifts are identical: one silver bowl and one silver basin, each filled with choice flour mixed with oil; a golden ladle filled with incense; a bull, a ram and a lamb in its first year as a burnt offering; a goat for a sin offering; and two oxen, five rams, five he-goats, and five yearling lambs as a sacrifice of well-being.

Have you ever showed up to a birthday party and found that the gift you brought, that you were so excited about, is exactly the same as someone else’s gift.  Funny?  Embarrassing?

The Torah details the offerings twelve times in a row, for every single chieftain.  Other than substituting the name of the tribe, the presenter and the day number, the text repeats itself twelve times, word for word exactly the same – – – almost.

There are three small aberrations, all appearing with regard to the first two names.   The first is that the title nasi, meaning “chieftain,” is absent from the first name on the list, Nachshon ben Aminadav.  The eleven other donors are given the honorific nasi.

The second aberration is that for the first two donors, Nachshon from the tribe of Yehudah and Netanel ben Tzuar of the tribe of Issachar, their names are mentioned before the tribe, as in “on the second day, Netanel son of Tzuar, chieftain of Issachar.”  For the other ten, the tribe is mentioned first, as in “on the third day, it was the chieftain of the Zebulinites, Eliav son of Chelon.”

The third and final difference also has to do with Netanel ben Tzuar of Issachar.  He is the only chieftain whose offering is accompanied by the verb hikriv, which means “to offer a sacrifice.”  For all the others, the introductory phrase at the beginning of verse 12 – va’yehi ha-makriv… et korbano – the one who offered his sacrifice – serves as an introduction to their offering.  This is explained by several of the commentators (Rashi on 7:24, Rashbam and Ibn Ezra on 7:13).

I know.  That is pretty nitpicky.  You might not have even caught the distinctions.

Operating under the assumption that the Torah is never sloppy, these three small aberrations must mean something.  Let’s see if we can figure out what they mean.

First, why is the word nasi , chieftain, missing from the description of Nachshon?  When he appears elsewhere in the Torah, he is certainly described as a chieftain of the tribe of Judah.  Nachshon, by the way, is credited by the midrash as being the first of the Israelites to walk into the Sea of Reeds.  Only when the water reached above his nose did the sea split.  Nachshon also happens to be the Brother in Law of Aaron the High Priest.

A midrash (Numbers Rabbah 13:17) explains that God is concerned that the rest of the chieftains might feel jealous of Nachshon for getting to present his gifts first.  As a sign of Nachshon’s humility, and to convey to the others that all of the gifts are valued equally by God, Nachshon’s honor is diminished slightly by leaving out his title.

The next irregularity in the list is that for the first two chieftains, their names are mentioned before their tribes.  Rashi cites a midrash (Sifrei Bemidbar 48) which explains that Nachshon collected his donation from his own personal wealth, not from the tribe.  He is especially generous.

As for Netanel from Issachar, the reason is connected to the third aberration.  He is the only chieftain who gets his own verb.  In fact, he gets it twice.

Rashi (on 7: 18), citing a midrash (Sifrei Bemidbar 52), relates the following story:  When the tribe of Reuven, who is the first born of Jacob’s 12 sons, sees that he is being skipped, he gets angry and complains to Moses.  “It was bad enough when you let Yehudah go first.  Now you are letting Issachar go ahead of me?!”

Moses scolds him: “It was God Himself who commanded that the tribes go in this order!”

What is so special about the tribe of Issachar, Rashi asks?  Two things:  First, Issachar is known to be a tribe that truly values talmud Torah, the study of Torah.  Second, it is Netanel of Issachar who encourages his fellow chieftains to bring these donations.  Thus, says Rashi, the verb hikriv appears twice to reflect the two reasons that Issachar is moved up.

So we see that these three tiny departures from the linguistic pattern are explained as indications of meritorious actions and/or characteristics of Nachshon and Netanel, along with their respective tribes.

There is a bigger question, however, regarding the overall order in which the tribes appear.  There are many passages in the Torah and in later books of the bible that list the sons of Jacob or their eponymous tribes.  The order, however, is not always the same.*

Sometimes, it follows their birth order.  Other times, the lists seem to reflect other considerations.  

The Book of Numbers opens with a military census of all adult male Israelites.  They are to be counted by tribe.  In the opening verses of chapter one, we find a list of the twelve tribes, along with their chieftains who are assigned to assist Moses in conducting the census.  They are the exact same chieftains who bring the offerings in today’s parashah.

One chapter later, the tribes are assigned their marching orders.  For reasons unexplained, the order is changed.  The marching order in chapter two is the same as the donating order in chapter seven.  I am going to read the first seven tribes in each list.  See if you can catch the difference

The census order begins as follows: Reuven, Shimon, Yehudah, Issachar, Zevulun, Efraim, Menashe, and so on.

The marching and donating order begins: Yehudah, Issachar, Zevulun, Reuven, Shimon, Gad, Efraim, and so on.

Quite a few changes.  And although the Torah does not give a reason, these changes are not arbitrary.  We have already seen how the midrash captures Reuven’s anger at being demoted from first position to fourth position.

Nachshon from the tribe of Yehudah often gets bumped to first place.  This reflects the future ascendancy of Yehudah as the tribe of King David and the seat of the future Southern Kingdom.

You might not have noticed another switch with regard to positions six and seven.  In the census order, the tribe of Efraim comes sixth.  In the marching and donation order, Efraim comes seventh.

A midrash points out the obvious.  If there are twelve consecutive days of donations, at least one of those days must have been Shabbat.  The first day was a Sunday.  Day seven, therefore, is Shabbat.  It is thus a special honor for the Chieftain of Efraim to be able to bring his gifts on this day.

What is so special about Efraim?  Efraim is the tribe of Yehoshua, who takes over the leadership of Israel after Moses.  Efraim also is destined to become the dominant tribe of the northern Kingdom of Israel.

A Midrash collection called Numbers Rabbah (14:2, 14:3) imagines Joseph observing Shabbat when he is the Prime Minister of Egypt, even though the Torah has not yet been given.  In a different version, the midrash notes Joseph’s incredible fortitude at being able to resist the temptations of Potiphar’s wife, motivated by fear of violating God’s holiness.  God rewards Joseph’s future descendants, the tribe of Efraim, by accepting their chieftain’s gifts on Shabbat, God’s holy day.

Nachmanides summarizes an extensive series of midrashim that also appear in Numbers Rabbah (chapters 13-14).  The chieftains decide, perhaps in response to Netanel from Issachar’s suggestion, to each make a final donation in honor of the dedication of the Mishkan.  Each one of them thinks about what he can offer that will be a meaningful gift, that will bring honor to God.

They each, independently, pick out silver bowls and basins, golden ladles, grain, oil, incense, and unblemished animals, and show up at exactly the same time.  Surprise, surprise!  They all bring the same gift.  How embarrassing!

How could this happen?

Nachshon brought a ke’arat kesef, a silver bowl, because in gematria, ke’arat kesef adds up to 930, the number of years that Adam lived.  Netanel of Issachar decided to bring his ke’arat kesef because it represents Torah, (based on a wordplay that I am not going to try to explain right now).  Eliav from Zevulun picked out his ke’arat kesef because the silver bowl represents the sea, which is how the tribe of Zevulun conducts its trade.  And Zevulun is known for supporting all of those Torah scholars from neighboring Issachar.

And so on with each of the tribes.  Every chieftain, independently, comes up with a meaningful reason to bring a ke’arat kesef weighing exactly 130 shekels.  And similarly with each of the other gifts.

It is, of course, a miracle that all of them came up with the exact same offerings.  But even more miraculous is that each of them has a different kavanah, a different intention, for doing so.

God considers all of the gifts equally precious.  To convey that preciousness, God commands that each chieftain must show up on his own day to present his offering.  Instead of just piling them all up together and sending the givers off, each donor is made to feel special and honored.

What could have been an embarrassing and contentious moment is saved.  And we are left with the longest, and certainly not the most boring, chapter of the Torah.

 

* Order in which the names of Jacob’s sons/tribes appear in various places in the Torah:

Birth Order

(Gen 30)

Jacob’s Blessing

(Gen 49)

Beginning of Numbers

(Num 1)

Order of Gifts, Marching Order

(Num 2, Num 7)

Reuben (L1)

Shimon (L2)

Levi (L3)

Judah (L4)

Dan (B1)

Naphtali (B2)

Gad (Z1)

Asher (Z2)

Issachar (L5)

Zevulun (L6)

Joseph (R1)

Benjamin (R2)

Reuben (L1)

Shimon & Levi (L2,3)

Judah (L4)

Zevulun (L6)

Issachar (L5)

Dan (B1)

Gad (Z1)

Asher (Z2)

Naphtali (B2)

Joseph (R1)

Benjamin (R2)

Reuben (L1)

Shimon (L2)

Judah (L4)

Issachar (L5)

Zevulun (L6)

Ephraim (R1b)

Menashe (R1a)

Benjamin (R2)

Dan (B1)

Asher (Z2)

Gad (Z1)

Naphtali (B2)

Judah (L4)

Issachar (L5)

Zevulun (L6)

Reuben (L1)

Shimon (L2)

Gad (Z1)

Efraim (R1b)

Menashe (R1a)

Benjamin (R2)

Dan (B1)

Asher (Z2)

Naphtali (B2)

Change My View – Balak 5777

This week, I heard an interview of Kal Turnbull, a young man from Scotland.  In 2013, when he was 17 years old, he asked himself what leads a person to change his or her mind.  He wanted to create a forum in which people were able to openly grapple with views about which they were embarrassed.  He also wanted to keep conversations civil and substantive.

So Turnbull created a Subgroup on the website Reddit called “Change My View.”  For those who are not familiar with it, Reddit is a website that serves as a discussion platform.  Users can submit content, post ideas or questions, and comment on postings by others.  The site prohibits harassment.

Turnbull established several rules for both submitting and commenting on a post.  His goal was to create a space in which users could really get into the details.  If someone wants to submit a post, there are some rules, including:

• The submitter cannot just make a claim.  He or she must also include the reasons for the claim.

• The submitter must personally hold the view and be open to it changing.

• The purpose is to encourage lively debate, so a submitter should only post if he or she is willing to have a conversation with those who reply within 3 hours of posting.

There are also rules that apply to anyone who wants to make a comment, including:

• Direct responses to a post must challenge at least one aspect of the stated view or ask a clarifying question.  In other words, I can’t simply agree with the previous person’s post.

• No rude language or hostility.

• No low effort comments.  I can’t just write, “I agree.”

Submissions and comments that do not follow the rules are reported by users and promptly removed by editors.

If a person who submits a post ends up changing his or view, he or she gets to award a Delta to the person whose comment prompted the change.  The Greek letter Delta is the symbol for change.

I was intrigued.  It seems to me that one of the problems we face is that too many of us stubbornly hold on to our views without being open to other ways of thinking.  We do not like to change our minds.  To do so is seen as week, or wishy washy.

The internet encourages this kind of intellectual siloing.  We get our information from sources that already agree with us.  We ridicule and look down on those who do not share our opinions.  Much of the Talk Back and comment sections that follow articles seem to devolve into insults and hate speech.  The irony is, that these kinds of aggressive writing rarely change minds.  Quite the opposite, they tend to encourage further entrenchment.

But there are many of us that want to engage in polite, substantive, and open conversation with people who disagree with us.  We recognize that receptive exposure to different ways of thinking makes us better.  What is so great about “Change My View” is that it forces users to put forward their best arguments, and to respond thoughtfully to others’ best arguments.  It seems to have struck a chord.  There are over 300,000 subscribers.

Through these rules, “Change My View” has reversed the normal reward structure of the internet.  Now instead of winning by insulting or belittling one’s opponent, a person only wins by taking one’s opponent seriously and responding respectfully.

In the great Jewish tradition of arguing, it is supposed to be this way.  Since the days of the Talmud, Jews have been arguing back and forth through the issues, recognizing that Truth emerges through the dialectic.

In this morning’s Torah portion, which is named after him, the Moabite King Balak sees the approaching Israelites and determines to prevent them from passing through his territory.  He sends a delegation to Balaam, intent on commissioning him to place a curse upon the Israelites.  Balaam is known as a Prophet whose blessings and curses are fulfilled.

The delegation makes it pitch, and Balaam has them stay overnight to receive his answer.  That night, God appears to Balaam and instructs him in no uncertain terms that he is not to curse the Israelites, for they are blessed.

The next morning, Balaam informs the Moabite messengers that it is a no-go, and they return home.

Balak will not take no for an answer.  He sends an even more distinguished delegation to Balaam, promising to reward him richly.  Balaam responds, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the Lord my God.”  (Numbers 22:18)  Nevertheless, he invites the messengers to stay overnight.  Perhaps God will change God’s mind.  This time, God permits Balaam to return with the men, but reminds Balaam that he must do whatever God tells him.

Upon waking, Balaam rises and departs with the Moabite dignitaries.  God is furious, and sends an angel to interfere with his journey.

On the surface, Balaam seems to have done everything right.  He repeatedly insists that he can only do what God tells him to do.  Eventually, God tells Balaam that he is allowed to go.  So why is God so angry with Balaam when he actually does it?

Rashi, reading the text closely, says that there is more going on here than meets the eye.  Balaam is sending subtle messages to King Balak to indicate that, indeed, he is more than willing to curse the Israelites.

With the first delegation, when God tells Balaam “Do not go with them,” Balaam responds, “All right, then I will stay right here and curse them,” according to Rashi.  The next morning, Balaam tells the messengers “The Lord will not let me go with you.”  According to Rashi, Balaam is hinting that he wants King Balak to send higher ranking dignitaries because he is so full of himself.

With the second dignitaries, Balaam does not simply say no, he adds the bit about Balak giving him his entire house full of silver and gold.  Somewhat sneakily, Balaam has actually just named his price.

So why does God allow him to go?  According to the midrash, God is not going to prevent a wicked person from continuing on the wicked path to which his heart leads him.  Why does Balaam choose to go?  Rashi says that he thinks he will be able to change God’s mind.

Of course, Balaam cannot change God’s mind.  Three times he tries to curse the Israelites, but God places words of blessing in his mouth.

Balaam is duplicitous.  He presents himself as an easy-going guy.  He does not just send the messengers away.  He suggests that, perhaps, if they spend the night, he can convince God to change God’s mind about cursing the Israelites.  He asks God for permission.  But when God says no, Balaam does not really accept the answer.  He leads Balak’s emissaries on in a ploy to negotiate a higher fee, all the while saying, “Hey!  It’s not me.  I’m just the messenger.”  In reality, he is an arrogant profiteer.  Balak may be wicked, but at least he is honest and up front about his intentions.

Balaam is not interested in changing his mind.  If he was as open-minded as he claims, he would accept God’s declaration that the Israelites are blessed.  Instead, he has to learn the hard way, as God takes over his faculties of speech and forces words of blessing to come out.  Even afterwards, Balaam still plots against the Israelites, advising Balak to lead the Israelites astray by sending in women to seduce the Israelite men.

Balaam has not gone into this episode with a willingness to have his view changed.  Rather, he thinks that he can manipulate everyone around him so as to change their views.  Perhaps this duplicitousness explains how he has gained his reputation as a successful Prophet.

Sadly, this kind of closed-mindedness is all around us.  We ourselves fall victim to it.  We take an attack on our beliefs or views as an attack on our persons.  We belittle those who disagree with us, calling them uneducated, backward, naive, elitist, or out of touch.  And we often are not prepared to acknowledge that people who disagree with us might have really good reasons for doing so.

But maybe it does not have to be this way.  Intrigued by the “Change My View” project, I decided to join the group and post a comment.  I suggested an idea that I have an opinion about, but about which I do not feel confident enough to speak with certainty.  I stated that a National Revenue Neutral Carbon Tax in the United States is the best option available for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  Without going through my entire post, it does not unfairly penalize the poor.  It is simpler to implement than a Cap and Trade system.  And it is politically more likely to win approval from both liberals and conservatives.  Even ExxonMobile has recently come out in favor of it.

Within four hours, there were eleven comments -not a single insult among them.  No words in ALL CAPS.  Most of the comments were quite well-informed, and helped me think about the issue in more depth.

I awarded one delta to a commentor who explained how a Cap and Trade system could do a better job of letting the market determine an appropriate price for carbon, whereas a fixed tax would be somewhat arbitrary and would not be able to adjust to changing circumstances.  I conceded that there might be room for some sort of hybrid system, with taxes on commodities that consumers see directly, such as gasoline, and Cap and Trade for big industry applications.

It was a great experience to be able to have a conversation with educated people with thoughtful opinions

In the interview, Kal Turnbull agreed that the rules for the website are really rules that ought to guide our disagreements out in the real world:  Make your claim.  Back it up.  Respond to others with substance.  Don’t insult.  Be open to change your mind.  Acknowledge when another person has made a great argument.

I am not sure that I have time to become a regular contributor to “Change My View.”  But I do know that I crave more opportunities to have my ideas challenged, and to challenge those of others – but only in ways that bring us together.  I suspect that all of us want that.  For that to happen, we need to start with a willingness to let the other person “Change My View.”

Starting At Home – Naso 5776

This morning’s Torah portion, Naso, introduces the peculiar ordeal of the Sotah, the suspected adulteress.  Before I explain it, I urge all of us to temporarily suspend our standard assumptions about justice, morality, and biochemistry.

In Jewish law, adultery occurs when a married woman has sexual relations with a man who is not her husband.  In a clear-cut case of adultery, both parties are considered guilty, and the punishment is death.

The ritual of Sotah is introduced to deal with a situation in which a husband suspects his wife of cheating, but does not have any witnesses.

The woman is brought to a priest.  The priest takes sacred water in an earthen vessel, and adds some dirt from the floor of the Tabernacle.  The priest writes down a curse on a piece of parchment, and recites the words out loud.  The woman responds by saying “Amen, amen!”

The curse basically says that if she is guilty, her thigh will sag and her belly will distend, which probably means that she will become infertile.  If she is innocent, than nothing will happen.  The priest then places the parchment in the vessel so that the ink, with the words of the curse and God’s name on it, dissolves in the water.  The priest then makes her drink the water.

If she is guilty, her thigh sags and her belly distends, and she becomes a curse amongst the people.  If she is innocent, she is unharmed.

Before getting too upset, keep in mind that this is a three thousand year old ritual.  “Trials by ordeal” like this one have been a part of human justice systems throughout history.  It was practiced in Europe into the Enlightenment.  There are some societies to this day which conduct similar rites.

The medieval Spanish commentator, Nachmanides, notes that this is the only mitzvah in the entire Torah which depends upon a miracle.  For this legal procedure to work, God has to actively intervene.  It is quite remarkable.  We must wonder why, of all cases, does this one rely upon a miracle.  And why are there not others?

Nachmanides refers to the Mishnah in Sotah which reports that “when the adulterers proliferated, the bitter waters ceased…” (M. Sotah 9:9)  In other words, at some point during the Second Temple era, more than two thousand years ago, the priests stopped administering the ritual.  The Rabbis tend to understand this to mean that the Sotah ritual would only work in a case when the husband was himself free of sin.

Nachmanides expands upon this explanation.  It is not just the guilt or innocence of the husband which is responsible for the cancellation of the Sotah ritual.  It is “the deterioration in the moral climate of the people [that] makes the Sotah ordeal meaningless,” as Dr. Aviva Zornberg explains.  Only in a society in which adultery is “an unequivocal taboo” does the ritual have meaning.  But “where the taboo has lost its force, an exquisite attunement to holiness has been lost and the ordeal’s high import likewise becomes underappreciated.”  (Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, Bewilderments, p. 37)

If society does not take the sin of adultery seriously, then God will have no part in this ritual.  Society’s moral indifference drives God away, leaving us human beings on our own to figure out what is just.

In two thousand years, our situation has not changed much.  We still live in an ethically confused world without clear-cut morals.

Over the past few weeks, there has been widespread controversy over the lenient verdict that was issued in the Stanford Rape Case.  If you have been following the story, you know the basic details.  In January 2015, a twenty year old Stanford student sexually assaulted an unconscious woman on campus.  Fortunately, two graduate students were passing by on bicycles.  They stopped the rapist and apprehended him until police could arrive.

I am not going to enter into the debate over whether the verdict was correct or not, or whether the Judge should resign.

This case has resonated with me as a man, as a husband, and especially as a father of a boy and a girl.  I am worried about my daughter, and I am equally worried about my son.

As Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal writes in an article that appeared recently on Kveller, “…as a parent, I want my children to grow up to be the two men on bikes.”

What do I need to do to make that happen?

Throughout human history, societies have placed the moral burden of sexuality on women.  This is an undeniable fact.  It is as true of Judaism as it is of any other culture.  From the story of Eve being tempted by the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and feeding it to her husband; to the ritual of the Sotah, in which only the woman is subjected to the ordeal; to the laws of family purity – women are held to be responsible, while men are innocents – victims even, of female sexuality.

This classic misogyny exists blatantly in many cultures today, including in segments of the Jewish world.  Do not expect it to disappear any time soon.

But it is insidiously prevalent around us as well.  Think about the ideals of masculinity and femininity with which we are bombarded daily.  Men, according to the so-called “bro-code,” are supposed to be physically tough, in charge, unemotional, and sexually aggressive.  Women are expected to be sexy, passive, and emotional.  If you have any doubt about this, just look at the magazine covers the next time you are in line at the grocery store.

For the past several decades, we have tried to teach our girls to take ownership of their own sexuality.  We have encouraged them to have the courage and strength to say “no,” to protect themselves, and to speak up.  “Be cautious about whom you go out with,” we warn.  “Never go to a party alone.”  “Take care of your friends.”  “Be careful around alcohol and drugs.”  We have had all of these conversations in my house in just the last two weeks.

We place the burden to protect themselves on our daughters because, after all, “boys will be boys.”

It does not seem to be working that well, does it?

The emphasis is starting to shift.  Health curricula in some schools have begun to chip away at the ideals of masculinity expressed by the “bro-code.”  We have begun to teach our boys to respect boundaries, take responsibility, and only proceed in a relationship when there is affirmative consent.

But we are only at the beginning of a paradigm shift that releases us from the burden of unhealthy gender roles and places the responsibility for sexual violence on the perpetrator rather than the victim.

We have a lot of work to do.  It must start with the way that we teach our children.  It must start when they are young.  And it must start at home.

Today is the day on which we remember the ancient ritual of the Sotah.  We recall how God withdrew from performing the miraculous part of the ritual because of sexual hypocrisy.  Tomorrow is Father’s Day. a day for celebrating fathers’ roles in raising their children.

It is a good time to make a commitment to do better, especially with our boys.  I encourage us to adopt Rabbi Rosenthal’s words:  “I commit to teaching my children to respect boundaries, to understand that their bodies and the bodies of those around them are created in the image of God.”

Our Conveniently Dark Past – Masei 5774

Rabbi Dov Lior, Chief Rabbi of the Jewish settlement at Kiryat Arba, in Chevron in the West Bank, issued a halakhic ruling this past Sunday, July 20, with regard to the killing of civilians during war.  He was asked the following question.

…what is the halakhic position with regard to attacks against a civilian population that does not have a direct connection to the terrorists in the area?

Rabbi Lior begins his one page reponse with this:

The Torah of Israel guides us in all walks of life, private and public, on how to behave during war and also how to keep moral standards.

As a halakhic precedent, he cites the Maharal of Prague, from the 16th century.

The Maharal from Prague (Rabbi Judah Loew – A.K.), in his book Gur Arye, clearly writes that… in all wars the attacked people are allowed to attack fiercely the people from whom the attackers came from and they do not have to check if he personally belongs to the fighters.

He bases this on the story in Genesis in which Shimon and Levi massacre the entire town of Shechem, killing three hundred men, in retaliation for the rape of their sister Dinah by the chieftain’s son, Chamor.  Rabbi Lior concludes:

Therefore, during war the attacked people are allowed to punish the enemy population in any punishment it finds worthy, such as denying supplies or electricity and also to bomb the whole area according to the discretion of the army minister and not to just simply endanger soldier’s lives but to take crushing deterrence steps to exterminate the enemy.

In the case of Gaza, the Minister of Defense will be allowed to instruct even the destruction of Gaza so that the south will no longer suffer and to avoid harm to our people who have been suffering for so long from the surrounding enemies.”

Any kind of talk about humanism and consideration are moot when speaking of saving our brothers in the south and in the rest of the country and bringing back quiet to our country.

For the last several weeks, we in the American Jewish community have been praying for our brothers and sisters in Israel.  But not just in Israel.  We have seen protests in cities around the world, especially Europe, turn scarily to anti-semitism.

It has been so frustrating for us to observe media outlets that do not seem to understand or care about aspects of this war that have been so important to us.  Specifically, the great care that the Israel Defense Forces have given to minimizing civilian casualties in Gaza.

As Jews, we have been proud of the Israeli government, its soldiers, and its citizens for doing their best, amidst the chaos of war, to protect Palestinian civilians.

I have personally given several Divrei Torah and written an article adressing this over the past few weeks.  So that is not what you are going to hear from me today.

The legal ruling by Rabbi Lior points to minority attitude that exists amongst the Jewish people.  I would imagine that his endorsement for not just ignoring civilians, but even targeting them, might offend many, but he brings up somthing that we ought not ignore.

In this morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Masei, God provides some details for Moses to tell the Israelites regarding how they are to settle the Promised Land.

First, they are told to disposess all of its current inhabitants.  The Israelites must destroy every last trace of idolatry, including idols, figurines, and sacred shrines.  Then, the Israelites are to divide up the land amongst themeslves, apportioning tribal territories by lot.

God warns the Israelites that they had better clear out all of the current inhabitants, because any Canaanites who are left behind will continue to harrass them.

Next, God describes the borders of the country which the Israelites are about to invade.  The Bible has several different accounts of the boundaries of the Promised Land. Parashat Masei‘s version has the land of Israel extending south into the Negev, travelling up the entire Mediterranean coast (including Gaza, by the way) all the way through Lebanon and over to Damascus.  The Eastern border follows Lake Kineret down the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.

Imagine for a moment that you are an Israelite, hearing your aged leader Moses giving you these instructions after he has successfully led you through the wilderness for the past forty years.  What is he telling you to do?

The word used is l’horish, “to dispossess.”  The commentator Rashi explains that it means that the Israelites have to expel them from the land.

Deuteronomy is even more extreme.  It gives explicit instructions to utterly wipe out idolatrous towns, killing all of the inhabitants and burning their possessions.  The Israelites are not allowed to make peace with them or allow them to surrender.

In modern parlance, we would call this ethnic cleansing or genocide.

Does this sound like Judaism?  It certainly does not align well with the maxim of “love your neighbor as yourself” that we like to repeat so often.  But it is in the Torah, our holy book.  What are we to do with it?

When admitting out loud that our sacred scriptures advocate holy war, Jews today, myself included, typically explain why those texts do not reflect Jewish tradition.  Our Sages, even in ancient times, were uncomfortable with what the Torah seems to be saying.  It not only violates common moral sense, but it also seems to go against the spirit of so many other mitzvot mitzvot telling us to give tzedakah, to treat our employees properly, to care for the strangers living among us, to enforce the law fairly for both citizens and strangers.  When we talk about Jewish ethics, those are the kinds of ancient laws that we highlight.

So the Rabbis feel a strong obligation to do away with holy war.  It may have applied back then, when Joshua led the Israelites to conquer the land of Israel, but it is no longer relevant. Here are several justifications that are typically offered.

One.  They never actually did it.  It is apparent from later books in the Bible that the idolatrous nations of the land stayed right where they were, living side by side with the Israelites.  Of course, we did annihilate the Midianites in last week’s Torah portion.

Two.  The Torah is really concerned with the immoral influence of idolatry.  The only way to remove idolatry is to completely eliminate its practice in the land.

Three.  It is a practical warning that as long as the Canaanites remain in the land, they will continue to be a thorn in the side of the Israelites.

Four.  We have to understand the Torah in light of its historical context.  This is how war was conducted in the ancient world.  If it was written today, it would have been written differently.

For the fifth explanation, we turn to Maimonides.  He qualifies the Torah’s instructions by saying that, in fact, a pagan town must first be offered the choice of renouncing its paganism.  Only if it refuses must it then be destroyed.

Maimonides acknowledges that it is indeed obligatory to annihilate the seven Canaanite nations, and one who has an opportunity to kill a Canaanite but fails to do so has violated a commandment from the Torah.  It is a moot point, however, as Maimonides concludes, “but their memory has already been lost.”  (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 5:4)

He bases this on a passage in the Mishnah that declares that the Assyrian King Sennacherib came along at the turn of the seventh century b.c.e. and scattered all of the nations of the land of Canaan.  (Mishnah Yadayim 4:4)  Conveniently for Maimonides, and for us enlightened twenty-first century Jews, it is now impossible to fulfill the Torah’s command to commit genocide because the people we are supposed to kill on the spot do not exist any more.

The problem with all of these explanations is that none of them address the core moral issue.  We sit back, confident of our own uprightness, absolved of any responsibility for our the actions of an earlier generation.

We, in 2014, have an ancient connection to the land of Israel.  It was promised by God to Abraham four thousand years ago.  As a people, we inhabited the land autonomously for hundreds of years during the First Temple era.  In the Babylonian exile, we wept as we longed to return.  Then we built the Second Temple and inhabited the land for another five hundred years.  After it was destroyed by the Romans, we went into exile for nearly two millennia, always keeping Zion in our hearts.

But if we go back to the beginning, the entire notion of a Promised Land is founded upon a violent conquest that took place more than three thousand years ago.

Do we bear any responsibility?

What about the modern State of Israel?  In his new book My Promised Land, Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, a left wing journalist, writes with full honesty about the home that he loves.

He describes a well-known writer, Israel Zangwill, who travels to Palestine in 1897.  While most of the early Zionists see only a barren land devoid of inhabitants, Zangwill sees what is really there, and he speaks about it.  In 1905, Zangwill delivers a speech in New York City in which he reports that Palestine is populated.  Then he points out that no populated country has ever been won without the use of force.  Therefore, he tells his audience, the sons of Israel must be prepared to take action, “to drive out by sword the tribes in possession, as our forefathers did.”

Zangwill is rejected as a heretic by the Zionist establishment at the time, but his ideas persist.  A couple of decades later, he writes that “there is no particular reason for the Arabs to cling to these few kilometers. ‘To fold their tents and silently steal away’ is their proverbial habit: let them exemplify it now… We must gently persuade them to trek.”

According to Shavit, Ben Gurion and the rest of the leadership knew that for Israel to be viable, the majority of the Arab population would have to be relocated.  While there was no explicit policy of forced population transfer, there were numerous examples of Jewish forces encouraging Arab villagers to flee.

It seems that the legacy of the Torah’s commandment to our ancestors to conquer the land by force and eliminate the inhabitants is not as distant from us as we might like to think.

Let us not get embroiled in arguments about who is at fault or who has a more legitimate claim.  We all know it is complicated – and highly emotional.  I bring this up because I believe that it is important for us to be honest about our past.  We ought to at least acknowledge that the blessings we enjoy in our lives today sometimes come at a cost that was paid by innocent suffering extracted by others.

Today, we all benefit from the free, open, and prosperous society in the United States.  But how did we get here?  Our nation’s founders had to wage a brutal war of independence against Great Britain.  Before that, of course, European colonialists had dispossessed, by force, the former inhabitants of the land, killing 95% of them through war and disease, and shutting the rest up in reservations.  We must not forget that the Native Americans had come from somewhere as well, and fought their own wars againt rival nations.

As Israel Zangwill said in 1905, no populated country has ever been won without the use of force.  In a similar vein, Mao wrote in his Little Red Book that without violence, “it is impossible to accomplish any leap in social development.”  I fear that they may be right.  I challenge us to name a nation that was not formed by expelling or subjugating the local population and/or defeating the former rulers by force.

We have been doing this for hundreds of thousands of years, so it would seem to be inevitable.  If this is simply the way of the world, then what is wrong with Rabbi Dov Lior’s call to protect Jews by ending the restraint and demolishing Gaza?  After all, this is how human societies have protected themselves for hundreds of thousands of years.

The Torah challenges us to become holy by overcoming our DNA, and that is an incredibly difficult thing to do.  Our world is a messy, morally ambiguous place.  Good people are often forced into situations in which they have to make difficult decisions.

As justified as a young soldier may be in fighting to protect his family and his country, war leaves a permanent mark on a person’s soul.  I say this presumptuously, as someone who has thankfully never had to go into battle.

We are challenged in every aspect of our lives to be holy: in how we do business, in how we support members of our community, in how we eat, in how we love, and yes, in how we make war.  We honor those who have fought on our behalf in the past and who do so today when we open our eyes and admit that the things in our lives that we count as blessings sometimes have been accompanied by the suffering of innocents and the sometimes difficult moral struggles of people who tried their best to live good lives.

We must say to Rabbi Lior that what he advocates does not represent Judaism.  God asks more of us.  Although it is often not clear, may we discern the path of holiness in this difficult world, and may our striving to be holy one day soon bring us to peace.

A Covenant of Peace – We Must Not Give in to Rage – Pinchas 5774

These have been difficult days for our brothers and sisters in Israel, who as we speak, are experiencing war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.  I have found myself this week checking the various news sources every few hours for updates on the situation.  I have also felt what I think many Jews in the Diaspora feel at times like this, a desire to be in Israel, to be with our people as they experience this terror.

Thank God that Israel has developed such effective ways of protecting its people from the indiscrimate launching of rockets at population centers, now reaching as far as Haifa.  The Iron Dome defense system has managed to successfully intercept ninety percent of the rockets it targets.  Israel’s siren warning system gives advance notice to Israelis so that they have time to reach a nearby bomb shelter.  The result has been an extremely low casualty rate thus far.  For this we must be grateful and pray that it continue.

Nevertheless, the terror and psychological trauma of living under constant threat is awful, especially for children.

The Israeli public is almost universally behind the military’s efforts to defend the population against hundreds of rockets that are being launched with the explicit goal of killing and terrorizing civilians.

The IDF has targeted Hamas’ military and command centers, taking great efforts to limit civilian casualties, including calling cell phones in advance to warn residents to evacuate.  Hamas, which deliberately locates its weapons in civilian areas, has issued calls for civilians to congregate at those sites so that they can be human shields.  That the Israeli military has destroyed more than 1,000 underground rocket launchers, smuggling tunnels, command centers, and other strategic locations with only 100 deaths is extraordinary, and suggests a concerted effort to limit harm to the Palestinian population.

Nevertheless, every life is precious.  Every human is created in the image of God, and we must never delight in the death and suffering of the innocent.  While I am glad for the low casualty rate in Israel, I find myself feeling terrible when think about what it must be like for someone trapped in Gaza.

Sadly, it feels like we have been here before.  In 2008, Israel invaded Gaza in reponse to rocket fire in Operation Cast Lead.  In 2010, Israel launched air strikes in reponse to Hamas rockets in Operation Pillar of Defense.  This track record suggests that violence might not bring about the goal that I think all reasonable people share: in the short term, the halting of rocket fire; amd in the long term, peace.

Indeed, violence so often begets more violence.  This current crisis has come about due to violent acts spiralling out of control.  First was the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teens: Naftali Frankel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar, by three suspected terrorists from Hebron.  Then came the revenge murder of an Arab teenager, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, by three Jewish terrorists.  Since then, the violence has only escalated.

This morning’s Torah portion, Pinchas, shows us that there are threats that must be met with violence, but warns of the slippery slope towards which unchecked passion and vengeance can lead.

The Parashah continues a tale that began at the end of last week’s portion.

The Israelites, specifically the men, consort with Midianite (or in one reference, Moabite) women, who have been luring them to sacrifice to their foreign gods.  Predictably, this provokes God’s anger, and a plague results that indiscriminately strikes the innocent along with the guilty.

What is going on here is nothing less than an existential threat to the entire nation.  The idolatry of the Israelites threatens the moral integrity of the people, while the plague threatens their physical existence.

Something must be done to counter this threat.

Pinchas, the son of Eleazar the High Priest and Moses’ great nephew, takes immediate action.  He grabs a spear, and publicly impales an Israelite named Zimri and a Midianite named Cozbi.  This bold act stops the sinning in its tracks, calms God’s wrath, and ends the plague – but not before 24,000 Israelites have already been killed.

This morning’s Torah portion, named after Pinchas, continues the story with God’s enthusiastic approval and endorsement of the hero.  “Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the Priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me…”  (Numbers 25:11)

God continues with a blessing for Pinchas and his future descendants.  “Behold I give to him b’riti shalom, ‘my covenant of peace.'” (Ibid. 25:13)

This glorification of Pinchas’ zealous actions does not sit well with our Sages.  A midrash in the Palestinian Talmud (Sanhedrin 9:7) describes how the elders of Israel disapprove of Pinchas taking matters into his own hands without first going through a judicial process.  They fear that permitting zealous actions is a recipe for disaster.  Without a trial, how can we distinguish between an impassioned believer carrying out God’s will and a fired-up individual acting out on his own whims and desires.  The purpose of a judicial system is to remove the passion and zeal which so often ends in violence and injustice.

The elders of Israel are so terrified of what Pinchas represents that they want to excommunicate him, but a heavenly spirit comes to overrule them, affirming that Pinchas’ zeal has been only for the sake of God.

Pinchas’ reward is a brit shalom, an everlasting covenant of peace.  On its surface, it is a promise that Pinchas need not fear revenge from the families of those he has just killed.  On a deeper level, God’s granting a covenant of peace is a warning.  Yes, passion for God is a good thing.  Stepping in boldly to avert a crisis or to combat evil is sometimes necessary.  But we have seen too many cases throughout history, up to and including the present time, of impassioned people acting out of their own selfish interests, claiming that it is God whom they serve.

This is the rhetoric of Hamas, and it is also the rhetoric of the three Jewish murderers of the innocent Arab teenager.

Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the nineteenth century principal of the Volozhin Yeshiva, explains that God’s promise to Pinchas of a brit shalom, a covenant of peace, is a blessing “that he should not be quick-tempered or angry.  Since, it was only natural that such a deed as Pinhas’ should leave in his heart an intense emotional unrest afterward, the Divine blessing was designed to cope with this situation and promised peace and tranquility of soul.”  (Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Berlin, Ha’amek Davar, in Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, p. 331)

The brit shalom is a protection against the burning passion buried in each of our hearts that pushes us to violence and revenge, that causes us to gloat over the fall of our enemies, and that leads us to dehumanize the other.

At a time such as we now face, we need the blessing of a brit shalom more than ever.  As the Israel Defense Forces uses violence to legitimately combat Hamas and protect the citizens of Israel, the risk of us succumbing to our inner zeal rises.

I am heartened by the outpouring of anger and deeply-felt embarrassment by Jews across the religious and political spectrum at the evil murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir.  In the last week, thousands of Israelis have paid condolence visits to the Abu Khdeir family.  It reassures me that we have not lost our moral compass.

Let us pray for a brit shalom, a covenenat of peace in our own hearts and the hearts of the Jewish people to always exercise restraint, to always treasure the sanctity of human life, whether a Jewish child hiding in a bomb shelter in Beer Sheva, or a Muslim child living in Gaza.  May we always have the sense to stop those among our own people who would act out on their rage and desire for vengeance.

Let us also pray for the other kind of brit shalom, a covenant of peace with human beings who today are our enemies, but who may one day, God willing may it be soon, become our friends.

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Shelach Lekha 5774 – Making the Minyan

A man living in Jerusalem was saying the mourner’s kaddish for his mother.  That’s the prayer that Jews say for eleven months after the death of a parent.  In order to say it, however, one needs to be praying with a minyan, a quorum of ten Jewish adults over the age of Bar Mitzvah.

Every day, consistently, the man would go to a synagogue so that he could pray with a minyan, and thus be able to say the prayer.  One night, the man returns home really late, at 3 am.  He collapses into bed, exhausted.  As soon as he turns out the light, he bolts upright.  “Oh no!  I did not pray Arvit!” the evening prayer.  “I missed saying kaddish for my mother!”

With tremendous effort, he drags himself out of bed and starts to dress.

Where is he going to find a minyan at this hour?

No problem.  As anyone who lives in Jerusalem can tell you, day or night, you can always find a minyan at the Shteibelach— a building filled with a bunch of small synagogues in the Zichron Moshe neighborhood.  People gather in one of the rooms, and as soon as a minyan shows up, they start praying.  You can show up at pretty much any time of day and find a service about to begin.

But not at 3 am.  When the man gets to the shteibelach, it is empty.

He takes out his cell phone and dials the number for a taxi company.

“Hello! Can you please send six taxis to the Shteibelach in Zichron Moshe?”

Adoni (my dear sir)! It’s three o’clock in the morning! You think I have six taxis? What do you think I am, a magician? …I only have five.”

“Okay. So send five!”

He dials another number. “Hello, please send five taxis to Zichron Moshe…”

Atah meshugah! You’re crazy! I only have four!

“Fine.  I’ll take them.”

Within twenty minutes, there is a line of nine taxicabs parked neatly outside the Shteiblach.

Adoni,” says one of the drivers, “Why do you need nine taxis? There’s no wedding here, no Bar Mitzvah, nothing.”

“I want you all to turn your meters on and come inside with me. We are going to pray together the evening prayer — arvit.  I will pay each of you just as if you’re giving me a lift.”

These taxi drivers are not observant Jews.  Some of them have not been inside a synagogue since their Bar Mitzvah.  Although they are fluent in Hebrew, they have no idea how to pray: what and when to answer; when to speak aloud and when to stay quiet.

It takes them quite a while. But the kaddish man, shows them exactly what do do.  At 3:30 am in Jerusalem that night, he is able to say kaddish for his mother.

Afterwards, they all go outside to the taxis; the meters in the cars are pushing upwards of 90 shekels per car.  The man pulls out his wallet and starts to count out the approximately 800 shekels it is going to cost him.  That is more than two hundred dollars

“How much do I owe you?” he asks the first taxi driver in the line.

Adoni, what do you take me for? Do you honestly believe I would take money from you. who just gave me such an opportunity to help my fellow Jew say kaddish?”

He moves down the line to the second driver, who gives him the same answer.  “Do you know how long it is since I prayed?”

And the third and the fourth, all the way down the line to the ninth…

Not one takes a shekel.

And so they embrace and drive off to a new morning in the holy city of Jerusalem!

 

The name of the prayer the man said, the Kaddish, comes from the word Kadosh, meaning holy.  It is an ancient prayer in which we publicly proclaim the sanctity, or holiness, of God’s name.  A leader recites the words, and the congregation responds in certain places with various interjections: Amen, B’rikh Hu, or Y’hei Sh’mei Rabba m’vorach l’alam ul’almei almayah – May God’s great name be blessed throughout Eternity.  The Rabbis of the Talmud think it is so important that they declare that a person who responds to the Kaddish with enthusiasm is assured of a place in the world to come.

There are other important prayers that are also connected to this word.  The Kedushah is the special set of verses that we recite during the reader’s repetition of the Amidah.  In it, we act as if we are Divine Beings, blessing God like the angels.

In order to be able to recite both the Kaddish and the Kedushah, we are required to have a minyan.  A person praying alone, or in a group of less than ten Jewish adults, must skip over those sections of the service.

Why is that?

Our Rabbis of the Talmud teach that “Any words of holiness may not be recited with less than ten.”  (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 23b)  In order to sanctify God’s name, that is to say, declare God’s holiness in a particularly special way, we must have a minyan.

In addition to reciting the Kaddish and the Kedushah, the Talmud identifies other religious actions which also require ten.   Chanting the Torah in public, invoking God during the introduction to the Grace After Meals, and forming a line away from a funeral to comfort the mourners are several more examples.

In ancient times, only Jewish males over the age of Bar Mitzvah were included to make up a minyan.  In recent years in the Conservative movement, we have expanded our interpretation of Jewish law to include Jewish females over the age of Bat Mitzvah as well.

Our tradition has always placed great value on communal prayer.  In Judaism, our prayers are said to reach higher into the heavenly chambers when we are together in a minyan as compared to when we pray alone.  The Talmud teaches, “Whenever ten pray together, the Shechinah (God’s Presence) is with them.”  (BT, Berachot 6a)  It seems to be taken almost as a given that minyan equals ten.

But there must be a reason.  Why ten?

Whenever I pose the question, I tend to receive several responses.

The first, and perhaps most obvious: ten fingers.

The second is from the Book of Genesis, when Abraham argues with God over the fate of wicked inhabitants of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  He convinces God to save the cities if ten righteous individuals can be found.  Alas, ten cannot be found, and the cities are demolished.

But the reason that is offered by our ancient sources is different.

The Talmud identifies this morning’s Torah portion as the origin of the minyan.  It uses a particular kind of interpretational tool called a gezera shava.  A verbal analogy.  The way a gezera shava works is as follows.  We identify two completely separate biblical passages that have nothing to do with one another.  They do, however, share a word in common.  That word in common allows us to make an analogy between the two verses.  If something is true in one verse, it must also be true in the other verse.

The Tamud asks why is it the case that God’s name cannot be sanctified with less than a minyan of ten Jewish adults.  Now please bear with me for a minute.  This is kind of complicated.

Rabbenai, the brother of Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba, a Babylonian Sage from the third century, brings the answer, using a two step gezera shave.  (BT Berachot 21b)

Here is step one.  In this morning’s Torah portion, after the spies have given their report about the land of Israel and its inhabitants, sowing seeds of panic amongst the people, God becomes enraged.  Ad matai la-edah ha-ra’ah hazot asher hemah malinim alai – “How much longer shall that wicked community keep muttering against Me?”  (Numbers 14:27)  In next week’s portion, Moses and Aaron are facing a challenge from their cousin Korach and his followers.  Again, God becomes angry, and instruct Moses and Aaron to back off from the rebels so that God can cause the ground to swallow them alive.  Hibad’lu mitokh ha-edah ha-zot – “Separate yourselves from among this congregation!”  (Numbers 16:21)

Notice that the word edah, meaning “congregation,” appears in both passages.  In the first one, the story of the spies, we know exactly how many people are present.  There are twelve spies in total.  Joshua and Caleb bring a positive report.  That leaves ten remaining spies.  Therefore, we conclude, the word edah refers to a group of at least ten individuals.

Now for step two.  Back in Leviticus, God declares v’nikdashti b’tokh b’nei Yisrael – “And I will be sanctified among the children of Israel.”  (Leviticus 22:32)  Again we refer to the verse from next week’s Torah portion: hibad’lu mitokh ha-edah ha-zot – “Separate yourselves from among this congregation.”

Now we focus on the common word tokh – “among” – which appears in both passages.  If God is to be sanctified b’tokh – “among” – the children of Israel, exactly how many does that imply?  Well, since tokh and edah – “congregation” – appear together in the other verse, it must mean at least an edah‘s worth.  How many is an edah?  From the story of the spies, we know it is at least ten.

Therefore, to sanctify God’s name requires at least ten Jewish adults to come together.

Admittedly, this explanation seems convoluted, and perhaps a bit of a stretch.  It is quite possibly an after-the-fact justification of a long-accepted and widely-embraced tradition.  But there is a deeper message that goes beyond the linguistic gymnastics.

The whole concept of a minyan is quite positive.  It encourages community.  Jewish worship takes place not in a synagogue, but in any place where ten Jewish adults come together.  It is about the people, not the building.

For thousands of years, the idea of the minyan reinforced Jews’ motivation to live in close proximity to one another.  Jews needed to be able to pray together, support one another in times of loss, and celebrate holidays with community.  Even God is sanctified when Jews form a minyan. It is impossible to lead a complete Jewish existence by oneself.

But the origin of the number ten, we now learn, comes from what is perhaps the greatest sin committed by the Israelites in the entire Torah.  Believing the spies that they have no hope of defeating the Canaanites and conquering the Land of Israel is the sin that earns the Israelites forty years of wandering in the wilderness.  After all they have seen, the miracles in Egypt, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, the Revelation at Mount Sinai, the Israelites lack the imagination and the faith to believe that God can deliver the land into their hands, as promised.

Rooting the minyan in this story of faithlessness is ironic.

Perhaps joining together in the same symbolic number gives us the opportunity to repent of our ancestors lack of faith.  Once upon a time, it was ten people who failed to sanctify God.  Now we come together as ten to sanctify God.

Perhaps another lesson is that things can go either way.  When we come together in community, things can go the way of the ten spies, in which one person’s fears spread to the entire group.  Or, we can inspire one another.  One person’s kavannah, spiritual focus, can help the other worshippers express what is in their hearts too.

In the story of the nine taxi drivers, one mourner’s kavannah to honor his mother by saying kaddish for a year inspired the rest of the minyan to connect to a ritual that they had not encountered for many years.  Surely, God’s Presence was among that edah, that holy congregation, at 3:30 am that morning in Jerusalem.

When we come together as a community, whether to worship here in the sanctuary on Shabbat, or to support someone during shiva, the week of mourning, our kavannah can be contagious.  We give each other strength: strength to connect with what is in our hearts, strength to express ourselves with honesty, strength to connect with each other, with our tradition, and with God.

In that way, God is truly sanctified amongst the People of Israel.