Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Parashat Chukat

Birmingham Liberal Community
Esther Hugenholtz

Parashat Chukkat


Do you remember that game in school where you had to close your eyes and allow yourself fall backwards in the arms of your classmates? This exercise was geared to build trust, one of the most elusive and difficult human emotions.

Why is it so hard to trust? We can be prideful and angry, lazy and greedy. But somehow, these are aspects of ourselves that we can chisel away at to improve. Slowly but surely we can resolve to become better individuals by turning inwards and finding the strength to implement our highest ideals about ourselves. But trusting is hard.
In the ocean of trust, no man is an island. We always trust in relation to another. We need each other to trust.

This week’s parashah is all about trust. On the surface, this week’s reading appears to deal with disparate themes: the odd purification rituals involving the ashes of the red heifer, Moses striking the rock, the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, the refusal of the Edomites and Amorites to let the Children of Israel pass peacefully through their territory and the strange episode of the attack of the snakes. But the issue of trust is an undercurrent that flows through the text like a secret river.

The very name of the parashah wrestles with trust. ‘Zot chukkat hatorah tzivah Adonai’ – ‘this is the ritual law that the Eternal has commanded.’ (Num. 19:2) A ‘chok’ is a ritual law that has no known rational basis. In other words, we are commanded to obey a law we don’t understand such as the purification from death through the ashes of the red heifer. Blind obedience seems counterintuitive by today’s standards and it is true that these chukim tend to be Judaism’s weirder requirements: to abstain from forbidden foods, to not mix linen and wool in one garment and to circumcise 8 day old boys.

The chukim stand in contrast to the mishpatim – the laws that are rational and just, such as the commandments against murder, theft and oppressing the stranger – and the eidut – the laws that commemorate the historical experience and common identity of our people, such as Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot.

Over the centuries, there has been a fierce debate between Jewish thinkers over the meaning and significance of the chukim. One camp, championed by Maimonides engaged in a philosophical mission called ‘ta’amei mitzvot’ – the reasons for the commandmentss. According to Maimonides, every commandment needed to have a rational explanation, even the ones we did not comprehend. This position was in turn challenged by Nachmanides who countered that we were given chukim as an act of faith. The sole purpose of the chukim was to teach us unquestioning obedience to God’s Torah.

Perhaps both positions are flawed. If we see our Torah as strictly rationalist, we can explain everything away and everything loses its value. Then why should we continue to uphold many of our beloved traditions? We would be left with a Judaism that is rational and philosophically-coherent Judaism but also devoid of its vibrant warmth and edifying rituals.
On the other hand, if we accept those aspects of our traditions without question or investigation, God becomes nothing more than a Dictator in the Sky. Is this how we want to view our faith? I would argue that such an authoritarian theology is hopelessly self-defeating. If that is how faith works, then perhaps Richard Dawkins is right and we are better off without it.

But there might be a third way. This week’s parashah trembles with the question of trust. Maybe the chukim are not given to us to callously discard or to zealously keep but maybe it is all about entering into a relationship. A relationship with God, with our community and ultimately with ourselves. And parashat Chukkat stands as an eternal warning to what happens when this delicate trust is violated.

We read the story of Moses striking the rock. The Israelites have run out of water and are grumbling (as usual). God commands Moses to speak to it but Moses loses his patience and according to Rashi, he strikes the rock instead. The price Moses pays for his outburst is grave: he is denied entry to the Promised Land. This story seems senseless and cruel if we read it as a callous God punishing Moses for an understandable outburst of frustration. But interestingly, God Himself says: ‘ya’an lo he’emantem bi...’ – ‘because you did not trust Me’ (Num. 20:12) God did not say, ‘because you disobeyed Me’. There had been a crucial rupture in the relationship between Moses and God. Moses could no longer trust God and with that, the relationship stopped being genuine. Is it surprising that the waters which sprang forth from the rock were called ‘mei meribah’, the waters of strife? A lack of trust in any relationship will sooner or later lead to conflict.

The theme of trust resurfaces also in the episode with the king of Edom. The Israelites want to take a shortcut during their desert sojourning and petition the king of Edom permission to pass through his territory. The Israelites appeal to him respectfully, remembering the sibling bond between their patriarch Jacob and his twin Esau, saying, ‘koh amar achicha Yisrael ata yadata et kol hatela’ah asher me’tzat’nu’- ‘thus said your brother Israel, you know the hardships that have befallen us.’ But their request is denied as the Edomites do not trust their estranged kinsmen. The consequences are open war.

Trust may be a difficult emotion but it appeals to our higher selves. Trust cultivates love and from trust, hope springs eternal. The dark side of trust is the fear that this trust may be violated but the alternative is far worse. Do we really want to go through life not trusting others? Every relationship will bleed to death and every spiritual endeavour will be fruitless. Live courageously and dare trust—and the love and hope and mystery of a truthful and enduring relationship will follow.

Shabbat shalom.

Parashat Korach

Parashat Korach Esther Hugenholtz
Herefortshire Liberal Community

Empowerment, Not Entitlement

When I was about to set off for university, my mother made me some golden promises. ‘It will be the best time of your life’.

A ‘flower child’ of the late 1960’s, university had engendered that promise for her. For her it was a time of empowerment, self-discovery, of a mapping out of her democratic ideals which formed the ethics of my upbringing.

University did fulfil that promise for me also. I became a student activist, read political literature, went on marches, and sought answers to the big questions in life. I was invited to nurture my intellect, encouraged to stand up for my beliefs and, most importantly, to be grateful for the privilege of exercising my basic human rights.

Freedom of speech, assembly and the ballot. All these things are infinitely precious and should be cherished by any civilised society. As it is infinitely precious, our freedom is also quite delicate.

Given this perspective, parashat Korach is shocking to our sensibilities.

The Torah presents us with a scenario. Korach, descendant of the House of Levi, rose up with Dathan, Abiram and On to challenge the Mosaic leadership together with 250 tribal leaders, ‘chosen in the assembly, men of repute’.
What Korach proceeds to say is striking:

“You have gone too far!”, “ki kol ha’edah kulam kedoshim uv’tocham Adonai, u’madua titnas’u al kehal Adonai?” – “For all the community are holy, all of them and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourself above the Eternal’s congregation?” (Num. 16:31)

Korach seems to make a valid point. Over the last few weeks, we have seen Moses and Aaron consolidate their leadership. I’ve always felt a certain kinship with Korach. Wasn’t he the ultimate democratic activist who invoked the right to self-determination?

The Torah’s narrative seems unfair, cruel even. Rather than rewarding Korach’s initiative by democratising Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership, Moses challenges him. He lures Korach and his followers to offer incense in fire pans, a ritual intended only for the Priesthood. As we know from parashat Shemini and Acharei Mot a number of weeks ago, that this is setting the rebellion up for failure. Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, offered a ‘strange fire’ out of what seemed genuine devotion and paid for it with their lives. Bringing non-appointed offers to the Tabernacle is deadly.
We need not be surprised, then, that the offering is unsuccessful. Moses seems to taunt them by saying, “Come morning and the Eternal will make sure who is His and who is holy and will grant access to Himself.” This is a challenge that Korach and his supporters cannot refuse.

The next day dawns and tension is mounting in the camp. The Israelites have had to overcome disappointment after disappointment, culminating in the ultimate disillusionment: they are not allowed to enter the Land because of the fearful reports of the spies. In last week’s reading, parashat Sh’lach Lecha, their unfortunate fate was sealed. This is a thoroughly embittered people who have just learned that they will not only be forced to live in the desert but to die in it too. They will never reach the Promised Land. They have scant little to lose and plenty of anger simmering just below the surface. The slightest provocation will turn this assembly into a mob.

Both the revolutionaries and the powers that be prepare for the face-off. Korach and his supporters offer the incense and almost immediately, in a terrifying sequence of events, the earth opens and swallows them whole. The 250 tribal leaders undergo a similar fate as Nadav and Avihu did: they perish in the fire that God strikes them down with.

The Torah then pushes on with her narrative but we are left dumbfounded. Is this how Moses – and in a manner of speaking, God – deal with dissent? Is this the reality that Torah holds up as an ideal—an unrelenting theocracy? Is this how noble dissidents are done away with? Surely, this is the kind of conduct that Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International would report about!

But this is only the first layer of the story. In the world of politics, there is always a subtext. Was Korach really a democrat? Was he really interested in empowering the people? And was Moses’ crack-down all that unjustified? The Torah herself gives us hints for a more nuanced reading.

The first hint lies in Korach’s lineage. He is the descendant of Levites. He was to grab power for himself as he aspires to become the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest. He is not really interested in emancipating the Israelites. Rather, he is always looking to challenge the rule of law. The Midrash recounts how Korach challenged Moses with a variety of Halachic problems: ‘if a house holds several Torah scrolls, does it still need mezuzot?’ Moses answered in the affirmative. This questioning is done to undermine the rule of law itself.

Another hint lies in his claim: ‘kol ha’edah kulam kedoshim’ – ‘all of the community is holy’. Note the use of the present tense. But is that true? Are we ‘holy’ by default or is that mere demagogy? The populist knows how to pander to his audience. Rather, the Torah commands us to become holy, using the future tense. Holiness is not a given but a process that refines our characters and shapes our values. The quest for holiness is about empowerment through the lens of mitzvot, not about smug entitlement.

Furthermore, Moses is more democratic than Korach paints him to be. In parashat Beha’alotcha, Moses muses ‘if only all my people were prophets’ in response to Medad’s and Eldad’s spontaneous prophesying. The Torah does seek to include and democratise but through transparent structures and rule of law, not through the insincere demagogy of one ambitious and entitled leader.

What I learned during my University days, I continue to learn with Torah. Freedom and accountability cannot exist without responsibility. To be empowered is not just to make demands but to contribute to a world where each voice can be heard and where holiness is a quest for the highest ethical imperative. Surely, that is a more compelling message than the quick fix answers of demagogues. Our critical discernment is the golden promise of democracy in the making.

Shabbat shalom!

Parashat Beha'alot'cha

A Taste of Limmud
Parashat Beha’alot’cha


The vacation season has arrived and many will hit the road. In days past, it would have been tempting to bicker over a wrong turn or missing a crucial exit. Today we are lucky to have the foolproof technology of a GPS to guide us.

Parashat Beha’alot’cha provides the Children of Israel with their GPS and presents us with a microcosm of the spiritual roadmap that is Torah. We read a seemingly chaotic text which brims with a large number of events. Our weekly reading starts out with instructions for the Menorah, then describes the duties of the Levites, only to follow with offering the second chance of ‘Pesach Sheni’. Then the narrative informs us of the guidance of the ‘Anan’, the Cloud of Glory which rests over the Tabernacle, the spiritual compass of the Israelite community. Further on, it mentions the construction of silver trumpets to organise the community, and Moses’ management crash course instructing him to delegate seventy elders to help him.

The common thread through all these disparate themes is that of order, preparedness and vision. The Exodus is a momentous task of shattering logistical proportions in need of firm guidance. We are told how to instate the Levitical class that they may bless Israel, how the chieftains move their tribes efficiently under the blast of silver trumpets and how Moses learns to delegate.

However, this is not a mere list of management tips. The real power of the narrative lies in its fragments of real life events. The ability to lead depends also on the vision to put a contingency plan in place. Real life happens with real people, real problems and real grievances. This is also the parashah where the Children of Israel, craving meat, whine bitterly, foolishly waxing nostalgic for Egyptian slavery. We read how Aaron and Miriam challenge Moses’ authority. There are plagues, despair and death. Yet effective leadership depends on the ability to acknowledge when to step up or to step down. Moses allows two young men, Eldad and Medad, to prophesy among the community, inspiring the weathered and worn Israelites. Moses notes, in defiance of Aaron’s qualms, that ‘if only all God’s people were prophets’. Likewise, it is the people themselves who ordain the Levites by laying their hands upon the members of the priestly tribe. These are the seedlings of democracy and solidarity sprouting in the fertile soil of vision. A contingency plan allows the community to face the challenges ahead: the impending fearful reports of the scouts and the disappointment of being forced to wander in the wilderness for forty more years. Yet we know that the Promised Land awaits.

These future successes are made possible through the roadmap that this parashah provides. Order, preparedness and vision. But also the ability to step down, acknowledge grievances, to forgive and give second chances and a communal spirit of solidarity. It is this combination of steadfastness and flexibility that provides the Jewish people the survival skills for all their journeys to come. The Torah is a foolproof GPS system indeed.