Tuesday, August 1, 2017

PTSD

Every year, as the Hebrew calendar flips from Tammuz to Av, we turn the mourning up to nine--The Nine Days, from the New Moon until after the Fast of 9 Av. "When Av enters, we reduce our joy" (Mishna, Taanit 4:6).
But that same source indicates that the twin tragedies of Tammuz and Av far predate the destruction of the Temple, or even its construction: to the Sin of the Golden Calf during the Israelites' first Tammuz in the desert and the Sin of the Spies thirteen months later, respectively.
This brings us to a famous question: what makes ten of the twelve Spies sent by Moses defame the land? Their bad report when they return on 8 Av spells disaster for their entire generation, but forty days earlier, as they set out, we are told "They were all men who were heads of the Israelites" (13:3) -- terminology denoting conspicuous virtue, according to the Midrash (Tanchuma 4). So what happened? When and why do they go bad?
Halfway through their mission would have been day twenty. Counting back from 8 Av, that would be... 17 Tammuz. The first anniversary of the Sin of the Golden Calf. The yahrtzeit of thousands of Israelites.
This is the part of the Golden Calf tale that we usually ignore, but it's quite brutal (Exodus 32:26-29):
 So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him. Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.”
As the Talmud (Yoma 66b) notes, this death toll only takes into account those who were killed directly, by the sword. Many more die from drinking the water into which the Golden Calf had been ground (ibid. v. 20) and still more the from the ensuing plague (v. 35): "And the Lord struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made."
Marking the first anniversary of that solemn occasion on a scouting mission, far away from family and friends, would have been extremely difficult. What makes it worse is the fact that the tribe wielding the executioner's axe is conspicuously absent. No Levite goes on this mission. Nevertheless, they are supposed to report back to Moses and Aaron, the latter of whom made the Calf and the former of whom ordered their loved ones' deaths for worshiping it. Nor is the situation improved by the two loyalists among the group. Joshua is Moses' aide-de-camp, while Caleb's grandfather Hur was a strong ally. Is it any wonder that the ten Spies who have no reason to be loyal to Moses, who have every reason to defy him, succumb to their post-Tammuz stress disorder?
Trauma begets trauma, on the individual and the national level. It is only natural for Tammuz to give way to Av. To break the cycle of tragedy takes uncommon courage, but that is the only way we can put an end to our mourning.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

How do you say "terror"?

There are some words that modern Hebrew has given up on. The Academy of the Hebrew Language may eventually come up with official translations, but language is ultimately determined by the people (which is why its name in Hebrew is HaAkademiya).
"Terror" is one of those words. We refer to the people who commit acts of terror as mechabelim, but "terror" itself, the political/ military tactic, is untranslatable. Google טרור and you'll get more than two million results.
Yet there is a word for this concept in biblical Hebrew, as we'll read this Shabbat: "Do not be terrorized (taguru) by anyone." In the noun form, it's megora. These are the words used by Moses when he instructs the judges to carry out their holy work (Deuteronomy 1:17): "Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike. Do not be terrorized by anyone, for judgment belongs to God. Bring me any case too hard for you, and I will hear it." The Sifre explains what this refers to:
Lest you say: "I am afraid of such a person--they may kill my children, they may set my haystack on fire, they may chop down my plantings" -- thus the verse says: "Do not be terrorized by anyone."
Thus said King Jehoshaphat (II Chronicles 19:6): "He told the judges, 'Consider carefully what you do, because you are not judging for mere mortals but for the LORD, who is with you whenever you give a verdict.'" "For judgment belongs to God."
Terror is not a new idea. It has always been the enemy of justice. It is only natural for a public official to think about the personal cost of a decision, the danger to their family, homes, fortune. All the more so when a ruling may imperil the lives and property of others.
But what does it mean not to give in to terror? To respond harshly, showing that we're not cowed? That's exactly what the terrorists want, to fan the flames, the proverbial haystack setting the whole field ablaze. To respond compassionately, to show that we will not lose our humanity or fail to see it in others? That seems like callow surrender; don't we sacrifice the humanity of the victims by ignoring their suffering? If we change our routines, the terrorists win; if we got about our daily lives as if nothing happened, we dishonor the victims.
Since we do not have the option of presenting our case to God's prophet, that means we have to inject the divine into our decision-making: That's the first part of the verse: "Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike." It's about impartiality; it's about listening to both sides. Ad hoc policy cannot solve endemic conflict.
This too shall pass, we tell ourselves. The exigent security needs and intolerable insults to the faith will fade and be forgotten. But if we fail to devise judicious and just policies, based on truth and peace, to address the next flashpoint, we will truly be giving in to terror.

Monday, July 24, 2017

King Omar

And so it ends, as it always does: after the bang, we whimper.
The saga of the metal detectors/ magnetometers is over, and we could have done without this retread.
As always, we futz around with the status quo for some noble reason, which leads to unreasonable and unreasoning outrage. So we double down. We're not backing down, they're not backing down. If any among us suggest that maybe we should reconsider--well, let's roll out the list of epithets: kapo, Judenrat, appeaser. And if some of those people are in fact in senior positions in the intelligence services, military AND the police? Well, they're too close to it. You can't talk to Mahmoud Abbas. You can't negotiate with King Abdullah. That would be a sign of weakness.
And then the protests, which will turn violent. They happen every Friday, but we usually ignore them. Three dead, as we heard going into Shabbat. Personally, I was consumed by dread, because I knew it would not end there. It never ends there.
And so we come out of Shabbat to the gory reality of triple slaughter in Halamish. I cannot help but think of the mother, my mother's age, who comes out of the hospital to bury her husband and two of her children, instead of the brit mila they were planning.
And still our government cannot come to a decision. Table it for another day. Take it under advisement.
And then something else happens. A 17-year-old Jordanian with a screwdriver attacks an Israeli embassy guard, who shoots and kills him. And hits his landlord, a doctor, as well. The latter dies in hospital. More death, more blood, more hand-wringing about moral equivalency. And now, since Jordan refuses to let the guard go, we have a hostage too!
My concern is the way people develop a siege mentality. It's very corrosive and counterproductive. I don't get my morality from CNN. If you've seen my posts, I think it's pretty clear that I do not morally equate the murder of the Salomons with the harsh tactics we use against Palestinian protestors. I went into Shabbat with a sense of dread because three Palestinian protestors had been killed, because I knew what would happen next.
Omar al-Abed is a terrorist and a murderer, and I hope he spends the rest of his life in a very small cell. But now our government has made him the Hero of Al-Aqsa, the man who forced Israel to remove the blasphemous metal detectors from Haram al-Sharif. And there's not a shadow of a doubt in my mind that he'll go free in a prisoner exchange before my toddler is old enough to enlist.
So what is the message we're sending? That we'll do the smart thing, not the right thing, but only once enough Jews have been killed or taken hostage? I don't think that's what we want to say, but I don't see how anyone could hear anything else.
After the bang, we whimper.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

We the Sheeple

If Torah portions were countries, Matot would be New Zealand.
No, that has nothing to do with Middle-earth; it's just that Matot has a lot of sheep, more than people. Arguably, it should have a pretty epic Battle of the Five Armies too, but the five kings of Midian are eliminated pretty quickly in Numbers 31. (Down with the Pentarchy!) The Torah then spends 46 verses excruciatingly detailing the fate of the booty, which is tallied ewe first.
And the booty, being the rest of the plunder which the men of war had caught, was six hundred thousand and seventy thousand and five thousand sheep (31:32).
Why is this so important? Counting sheep is a metaphor for an activity so boring it's guaranteed to put you to sleep. Could sheep represent something else? Many of the Prophets liken Israel to God's flock, from Amos to Micah, from Jeremiah to Ezekiel (36:37-38):
I will multiply their people like sheep. Like the sheep for offerings, like the sheep of Jerusalem on her holidays, so will the ruined cities be filled with people like sheep.
Now, if Israel are sheeple (in the good sense), what would be the significance of the number 675,00? Fortunately, if we're looking to get arithmetical, Numbers is the Book for us.
Flip back a few chapters (to 26), and we find a census of the Israelites earlier that year, totaling 601,730. But the 23,000 Levites are counted separately, so let's call it about 625,000.
But immediately before the census, 24,000 fall in a plague (that, by the way, is the reason for war with Midian in the first place). That brings us to 649,000.
Ten chapters before, we are told that fifteen thousand perished in the Korahite rebellion and its aftermath. That makes 664,000.
Now we have to guesstimate. There are two massive plagues that take a bite out of the people: one in ch. 11 when they eat some bad quail ("a very great plague"), and one in ch. 21 when they are beset by snakes ("a great many people died among Israel"). Let's call it a thousand each, which would bring us to 666,000.
(I know, between the lamb metaphors and the 6-6-6, it's getting very New Testament-y in here. But bear with me.)
Now we have to skip back to the Book of Exodus and the first major catastrophe after leaving Egypt: the sin of the Golden Calf in ch. 32. Its worshipers are dispatched by three methods (see Talmud Yoma 66b): by drinking the water with ground-up Calf in it; by Levite swordsmen; by a plague directly from God. The verse only tells us about the death toll from the middle, immediate method, three thousand. But assuming the other two methods had similar casualties, that would bring us to 9,000. Add that to 666,000, and you get 675,000.
This is the heartbreaking part. The war with Midian is Moses' last hurrah. "Wreak the Israelites' vengeance upon the Midianites; afterwards you will be gathered unto your people" (Num. 31:2). It's only natural for him to record it in painstaking detail, especially the parts with echoes of the past: not only the generation whose children would fulfill their dreams, but the tens of thousands who never got that far. All those who never got to see the Promised Land weigh on Moses' soul -- until he too is buried beside them.W

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Wondy's Tzeniut

Said Rabbi Johanan: Had the Torah not been given, we would have learned modesty (tzeniut) from (cf. Talmud Eruvin 100b).
OK, that's a free translation. The Talmud actually refers to hatul, the post-biblical Hebrew word for cat. But in Scripture itself, hatul is the term for a wrap or cloak, and in this summer's Wonder Woman, Diana spends her time off the battlefield in a cloak. No Man's Land in November is chilly, remember.
Meanwhile, the public debate over issues of tzeniut is not cooling down at all. My social-media feed is swamped with disturbing articles about how hot some five-year-olds are, mansplaining pieces on sex separation at graduation ceremonies and Supreme Court cases over slut-shaming mayors. The Wailing Wall wailing is, at its root, about how immodest some men find women at prayer. The debate over dress codes (for women only) has spread from the Knesset to Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, actual sexual abuse at Tel Aviv's Belz Talmud Torah and the denunciation of halachic prenups by American Gedolim (Torah "greats") -- y'know, the stuff which actually sullies Judaism's reputation -- barely registers.
Maybe it's time for a refresher on what tzeniut really is. The favorite verse employed by the modesty police is Psalms 45:13/14:
All honor of the princess is within; her raiment is of golden interlacements.
Sounds a lot like Princess Diana's golden tiara, bracers and lasso -- but I digress. The Talmud invokes this verse three times. The first time, it is to explain why the women of Ammon and Moab are not on the hook for their husbands' inhospitality (Yevamot 77a). But the next two times, the verse provides a hava amina, a supposition, which the text immediately corrects.
You might think that even so she should not go about to earn a living because, as Scripture says, "All honor of the princess is within," but now you know [otherwise].(Gittin 12a)
Rather, this refers to the litigants. Now, do men come to seek justice and women not come to seek justice? You might suppose so... But why would you suppose so? You might say that is not the way of a woman, as it says "All honor of the princess is within," so it tells us [otherwise]. (Shevuot 30a)
In other words, the Talmud goes out of its way to correct the misapprehensions of this verse, lest tzeniut considerations lead us to exclude women from the courtroom or the workforce and saddle them with the responsibility of hosting guests.
And what about the battlefield? There's a verse for that, Joel 2:16: "The groom shall leave his chamber, and the bride her huppa." The Talmud (Sota 44b) says this refers to any war which is a mitzva.
Yes, some people will, in practice, limit tzeniut to a code of dress. They will clutch their pearls over Diana of Themyscira's short skirt and bare shoulders. But there's a reason for Wondy's functional attire. (In fact, the biblical "Gird your loins!" refers to pulling up your hem so your legs are free for battle.) She is the honorable princess, portrayed by an Israeli Jewess, and she will not be forced from the workplace, courthouse or battlefield. Instead, she's fighting for the three pillars of truth, justice and peace (Avot 1:18).
Sometimes you can learn a lot more about tzeniut at the movies than in the beit midrash.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Up Shittim Creek

Manspreading is a problem of biblical proportions.
In the final verse of this week's Torah portion, the Israelites arrive at their final station in the desert (Num. 22:1): "Then the Israelites traveled to the Plains of Moab and camped along the Jordan across from Jericho."

Yet the final chapter of next week's portion begins (ibid. 25:1): "Israel settled in the Shittim, and the men began to whore with Moabitesses." (Yes, men can whore; in fact, in the Bible, the verb is more often employed in the masculine than in the feminine.)
Wait, "in the Shittim"? What are they doing there? Lower-cased, shittim are acacia trees, but here it's a place name -- one we've never seen before. We have to skip ahead to the travelogue in Numbers 33 to understand that:
They traveled from the mountains of Abarim, and they camped at the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho. And they camped on the plains of Moab along the Jordan from the House of the Wastes to the meadow of the Shittim. (vv. 48-49)
After 40 repetitions of the refrain "They traveled from [X], and they camped at [Y]," suddenly we have encampment without departure. The camp of Israel does not move, but the men of Israel do -- to the point of settling in Shittim.
The results of this are catastrophic, as the Israelites begin embracing Shittite culture, in particular the worship of Baal Peor. What makes this Baal so bad? The Talmud (Sanhedrin 64a) explains:
Rav Judah said in Rav's name: A gentile woman once fell sick. She vowed, 'If I recover, I will go and serve every idol in the world.' She recovered, and proceeded to serve all idols. On reaching Peor, she asked its priests, 'How is this worshiped'? They replied, 'People eat beets, drink beer, and then make diarrhea before it.' She replied, 'I would rather fall sick again than serve an idol in such a manner.'
However, the men of Israel lack the self-respect of this paganess, so "Israel adhered to Baal Peor, and the Lord's anger raged against Israel."
What follows is a plague that kills tens of thousands of Israelites, then a war of vengeance waged by Israel with even more casualties.
And that's why, when the time comes to decamp from the Plains of Moab, Joshua (2:1-3:1) sends spies "from the Shittim." They go to the house of a whore in Jericho, but the only thing they seek from her is information. In return, they spare her and her family, and the Israelites are able to cross the Jordan to the Promised Land -- with focus and purpose.
But this is not the last time Shittim shows up in Scripture. Joel 4:18 states: "In that day the mountains will drip new wine, and the hills will flow with milk; all the ravines of Judah will run with water. A fountain will flow out of the Lord's house and will water the stream of Shittim."

Shittim represents the wild excesses of a young nation -- unruly, unbound, unmoored. The Temple, God's house, symbolizes divine inspiration: peace, tranquility, purity, purpose, justice.
Wouldn't it be nice if we could think about it in that way again?

Monday, June 12, 2017

Secret Jewish Origins of!

While Moses may sound like an Egyptian name, did you know that Moses was portrayed in the move History of the World, Part I by noted Jew Mel Brooks? What about Moe of the Three Stooges, birth name Moses Harry Horwitz? Oh, and bartender Moe Szyslak from The Simpsons is voiced by Hank Azaria... a Jew!
OK, I made that quote up. But let's be honest, you've probably seen a lot of these articles over the past few years. Jewish media need to be on top of trends, and you can't let a story go cold... or even a body. Did a beloved musician die tragically? Read The Forward's "The Secret Jewish History of Chris Cornell and Soundgarden." (There is none.) What about a terrorist attack? Look, it's The Forward again with "Can Kabbalah Help 'Broken' Ariana Grande Heal After Concert Bombing?" (Only if Madonna counts the sephirot backwards.) Maybe it's time to get political? Tablet screams: "Ivanka Trump Mistakenly Identifies the Western Wall as Judaism's 'Holiest Site.'" (The pedantic author also gets it "wrong.") And these are only from the last month!
But this star-kaker trend may have reached its nadir with an article from Haaretz, the reputed gold standard of Jewish/ Israeli media.
I refer to Nathan Abrams' "The Secret Jewish Origins of Wonder Woman," which is so much the epitome of anti-journalism I expected to see it in The Qwardian.
It starts off with a tiresome retread of the international hand-wringing over Gal Gadot: Is she white? Is she Zionist? Why does that matter? Actually, Abrams glosses over the third question, because he needs to get to his thesis, which is about Diana of Themyscira, not Gal of Rosh HaAyin--that she is secretly Jewish!
Wait, Wonder Woman had Jewish creators? No, but lots of Golden Age comic-book superheroes did, so...
Wait, the character is Jewish? Sure, she was molded from clay, and that's got to be a Golem of Prague reference, because there's no precedent in Greek mythology, right...
But her publisher, MC Gaines, was Jewish, so that counts via the Sandler Standard ("So many Jews are in showbiz/ Tom Cruise isn't, but I heard his agent is!").
I mean, tikun olam, fighting Nazis, feminism all seem Jewy, so... Case closed!

What really sticks in my Golden Girdle of Gaea is the rank ignorance and laziness of this piece. You see, there is a Jewish comic book legend who wrote Wonder Woman longer than anyone, a stunning run of over twenty years, from #22 in 1947 to #176 in 1968. His name is Robert Kanigher, son of Rebecca and Ephraim from Romania. You don't need to strain to make Bob Kanigher Jewish. Not only did he shape Wondy's story from the late Golden Age to the height of the Silver Age, he created iconic superheroines Black Canary and Rose & Thorn (not to mention Wonder Girl). He also created Ragman, the vigilante from Gotham City who actually turns out to be Jewish (and inspired by the Golem).
Jews have a lot to be proud of, in terms of our culture, art and science. The desperate need to make every hot celebrity or cause "Jewish" belittles that proud heritage. So raise a glass to Bob and Gal, but don't try to dunk a superhero made of clay in the mikveh!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Pederabbi

We never settled on a good name.
National Religious? Religious Zionist? Srugim, the cheeky, called us, after the kippot serugot (knitted/crocheted yarmulkes) our men wear. Modern Orthodox, foreigners called us. Mizrachistim, the ultra-Orthodox called us. Messianists, the secular left called us.
I’ve always preferred Dati, which is what the pollsters call us. Dat is a biblical word, but of foreign (Persian) origin, which exemplifies what we stand for: an unwavering commitment to Jewish law and tradition, on one hand, and engagement with contemporary society, on the other. We sought to build a bridge between the secular, alongside whom we worked and lived and fought, and the Haredi, whose talmudic language we were conversant in and cherished.
But I’m not sure that’s true anymore, especially considering what happened just the day before yesterday. It didn’t make much news, but slowly filtered through social media: convicted sex-offender Mordechai Elon opened his new “Jerusalem Hall of Meeting and Study” to muted fanfare. Here, on Israel National News (Arutz 7), you can watch him installing the mezuzah to dedicate the site.  INN helpfully puts it in the “Kippa Seruga” section, naturally.
I’ve talked about Elon before — wait, he’s a rabbi, one must not forget that! Let’s give him his proper title then: I’ve talked about Pederabbi Elon before in this forum, in “Sorry, Rabbi, it’s not OK” and “Indecent acts.” But I naively thought that he would go away after his conviction for sexually assaulting a minor and his decision not to appeal.
I could not have been more wrong. Pederabbi Elon keeps popping up, again and again, to give public Torah lectures, even though he’s legally barred from contact with youth. And now he’s got a brand spanking new study hall, across from Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue, 59 King George St.
Now, the Elon family is Dati royalty. His father was deputy president of the Supreme Court, where one of his brothers served as well; while another (recently deceased) was Minister of Tourism, his sister-in-law being a famous author. Oh, and one of his sons is chief rabbi of Caesarea, where our prime minister has his palatial residence.
I thought we Dati were supposed to be different. Didn’t we criticize the Haredim for welcoming back convicted sex offenders like Pederabbi Eliezer Berland? Aren’t we the ones who believe in our court system fulfilling the vision of the Prophets to build a society of justice and compassion? Yet, with nary an admission of guilt nor apology, we welcome back Elon, and the most we can hope for is a Facebook debate: Rabbi Lichtenstein opposed him, Rabbi Druckman supports him, ask your Local Orthodox Rabbi.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. We cancelled our subscriptions to any media that challenged us, and our reading list now spans the “spectrum” from BaSheva to Israel Hayom. We clustered in like-minded communities and cut ourselves off, built yeshivot and synagogues that tolerate only one type of Judaism, and founded political parties to funnel money to them. We out-haredied the Haredim. Now what?
At long last, have we left no sense of decency?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Biblical slut-shaming

Once Rashi calls you a slut, it's hard to come back from that.
But that's exactly what happens to the only woman named in Leviticus, in the passage of the Blasphemer.
And the son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name and cursed. So they brought him to Moses. His mother's name was Shelomit, daughter of Divri, of the tribe of Dan. (Lev. 24:11)

This lauds Israel, as the verse publicizes her to say she alone was a zona. (Rashi ad loc.)
Now, you might quibble about my translation of zona, but it's certainly not a term of endearment or approbation. Why would Rashi (c. 1100) say something so horrible about this woman? Well, there's a strong Midrashic tradition connecting the "Egyptian man" who fathered the Blasphemer to the "Egyptian man" slain by Moses way back in the second chapter of Exodus. This Egyptian overseer was beating a Hebrew man, and according to the Midrash, it's because the latter discovered the former with the latter's wife, Shelomit.
However, there are two radically different approaches to this story, though both are in Midrash Rabba. This compendium has many different sources, so Exodus Rabba and Leviticus Rabba are not by the same people (or even from the same millennia).
LR 32 calls Shelomit a strumpet, maintaining that she used her flirtatious laugh to draw the Egyptian "to corruption with her."
ER 1 tells a different story:
She was the only one ever suspected of illicit relations...
For one time an Egyptian overseer came to the home of an Israelite officer, and he set his gaze upon his wife, who was shapely and unblemished. At cockcrow, [the overseer] arose and fetched [the officer] from his house. The Egyptian returned and had sex with his wife--who thought that he was her husband--and impregnated her. Her husband returned to find the Egyptian leaving his house. He asked: "Perhaps he touched you?" She replied: "Yes, but I thought he was you." Once the overseer realized that he had been discovered, he returned [the Israelite] to backbreaking labor, and he started beating him, seeking to kill him. Moses saw this...
We have a term for that now: rape-by-fraud.
This may explain the very different view of Shelomit adopted by the Netziv. In his biblical commentary (Hamek Davar, 1880), he argues:
The verse mentions her by name because she was renowned in Israel; it was her prominence which caused him to be brought to Moses and for everything to be done according to the letter of the law. Otherwise, the bystanders would have stoned him immediately upon hearing something so outrageous, as alluded to in the next verse. But because "His mother's name was Shelomit, daughter of Divri," and she spoke prodigiously, she brought the mob to a halt and had him conveyed to court, "And they placed him under watch."
Indeed, every element of her name alludes to this. Shelomit brings peace (shalom) through the word (davar) of truth, allowing her son to be brought to judgement (din). 
The fact is that Shelomit is the lone named representative of the generation of women whose righteousness brings about the Exodus (Talmud Sota 11b) and who live to enter the Land of Israel (Sifre Num. 133). There must be a reason that her name is carried by so many decent people, men and women, throughout Scripture. There'll be no slut-shaming of Shelomit on our watch!

Saturday, April 29, 2017

69

When is a national dream realized? When does a people's journey reach its destination?
I ask because it's that time of year again, as we confront the string of post-biblical holidays in the spring. The Exodus itself seems to have an ambiguous ending, as for millennia we've debated whether the atzeret (from atzor, stop) of Passover, its finale, is the seventh day (as in the Torah) or the fifty-first day (as in the Talmud). But here's a truly radical suggestion: what if the Exodus actually lasted sixty-nine years?
This is suggested by some of the verses we read yesterday, in the passage discussing house leprosy. Attributed to Rabbi Eleazar b. Shimon (of Lag baOmer fame) is "There never was a leprous house, and never will be. Then why was its law written? That you may study it and receive reward" (Talmud Sanhedrin 71a), so let's expound a bit.
The law of the leprous house is preceded by God's declaration that he will give the Land of Canaan to the Israelites "as a possession" (Lev. 14:33-35). The Talmud (Yoma 12a) says:
As a possession"--until they conquer it. If they have conquered it, but not divided it by tribe; if they have divided by tribe, but not by clan; if they have divided it by clan, but each does not recognize what is theirs, whence do we know [that the law does not yet apply]? "And whosever house it is shall come"--the one to whom it is unique.
Thus, there are four stages of "possession": military, political, communal and personal. Now, how long does each take? The Talmud talks of seven years of conquest and seven of division (Zevahim 118b), which accounts for the first two stages. We can assume that the next two also take seven years each (seven years being the standard agricultural cycle in the Torah), which would jibe with the total given for Joshua's rule: 28 years (Seder Olam Rabbah 12:1).
But when should our count start? Well, we famously talk about four expressions of redemption used by God right before he sends Moses to bring the Ten Plagues on Egypt (Exodus 6), but God also promises "I will bring you to the land" and "I will give it to you as an inheritance." (Hm, "I will give" (ve-natati)--the exact same term used in the verses from Leviticus.) That's about a year before the Jews leave Egypt, so we have 41 years of Moses + 28 of Joshua = 69 years until God's promise is realized. As the latter puts it (23:14): "“Now I am about to go the way of all the earth. You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the Lord your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed."
So here we are, 69 years after Independence. What will Israel be in year 70 and beyond? That's up to each of us, and our unique part of this glorious inheritance. The dreaming is over; time to wake up.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Jewish Thanksgiving

When you go through the Jewish educational system in North America, there are certain stock questions and answers you get used to hearing annually.
Q: Why doesn't our calendar have a day dedicated to this great idea?
A: Because for Jews, every day is Mother's Day/ Father's Day/ Thanksgiving/ St. Patrick's Day!
OK, maybe not the last one. In fact, maybe not the penultimate one either, since there is a Jewish Thanksgiving -- and it's today, 13 Nissan.
In yesterday's Torah portion, we read about the korban toda, the thanksgiving offering, accompanied by leavened loaves, usually a no-no in the Temple. Those who had emerged safely from life-threatening experiences--the classic examples are crossing the desert/ sea, serious illness and incarceration--bring the toda animal along with 40 loaves, ten of which are hametz. Passover is a great time to bring it, as people are making the pilgrimage anyway, but on the holiday itself, you can't offer it. Nor is Passover Eve acceptable, since the prohibition of leaven starts midway through 14 Nisan. "Hence everybody brought it on the thirteenth"  (Talmud Pesahim 13b).
In fact, Jerusalem was so full of stale toda loaves the next morning that they put two on the roof of the Temple portico as a hametz clock: when they were both present, you could keep eating your breakfast bagels; when one was taken away, you had to put down that croissant; and when the second was removed, you'd chuck your muffin into the flames.
It's funny that 13 Nissan in Temple times was a day of thanksgiving, since it's usually the most stressful day in modern Judaism. Frantic cleaning in advance of the search for hametz at dusk, dashing to the store for last-minute purchases before Hurricane Seder makes landfall (I hate to tell you, but they're out of it already, whatever "it" is), arguing with the kids about how they can't have bread anymore but they can't have matza yet... Gratitude is not the emotion that comes to mind.
But maybe it should. Many of our first-world Passover problems are born of privilege. Ugh, we have so much food, so many appliances, so many rooms--what do we do with it all? But this holiday is all about a people that was once so downtrodden we had to save half a slice for later. As one of my congregants in Canada, a Holocaust survivor who was as horrified by the atrocities in Rwanda and Sudan as those she had personally experienced, reprimanded me when I tossed some bread past its expiration date: "Rabbi, bread you don't throw away."
So let's try a little gratitude today. Personally, my family has been going through a very difficult time, and without the help of my parents and of our good friends like Zippy and Daniel -- and Gila & Sarah, who listened to the gory details when we were at our lowest -- I don't know how we would have made it to today.
There is a Jewish Thanksgiving -- what are you grateful for?

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Who knows one trillion?

If I asked you to describe Passover in one sentence, you'd probably say: "God brought plagues on the Egyptians so they would free their Hebrew slaves." That's not really the impression one gets from the verses describing the tenth and ultimate plague, slaying of the firstborn:
And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of the Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; all the firstborn of the cattle as well.  (Exod. 11:5)
Now it came about at midnight that the LORD struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of cattle. (Ibid. 12:29)
As these verses describe it, the distinction is not between master and slave, but between the Hebrews, all of whose firstborn are spared, and the non-Hebrews, all of whose firstborn are slain.
However, the sages drastically minimize this plague, arguing that many non-Hebrews participated in the Exodus, while many Hebrews perished during the plagues -- specifically, more than 20 million of the former and one trillion of the latter.
***WARNING: BORING MATH PART***
603,550 adult, able-bodied Israelite males make it to the end of the Book of Exodus (38:26). Add back in 3,000 golden calf fatalities (32:28) and 8,580 adult Levites counted separately (Num. 4:48). That's 615,130.
But what about all the children (below 20)? The elderly (over 60, Talmud Bava Batra 121b) and infirm? The women? After all, Pharaoh spared the girls.
It is not unreasonable to assume that for every male 20-59, there was, on average, one younger and one older. Double that to account for (probably more than) half of the population which is double-X, and one arrives at 3,690,780. (Indeed Targum Pseudo-Jonathan mentions five dependents for each adult male explicitly, Exod. 13:18).
***END OF BORING MATH PART. FOR NOW.***
So we have a nation of about 3.7 million, all told. Well, according to Rabbi (not-Pseudo) Jonathan in Yalkut Shimoni 209, the non-Hebrew "mixed multitude" accompanying the Israelites outnumbered them six-to-one. Hence, 22 million non-Jewish Exoduers.
What about the Jews who perished during the plagues? Rabbi Simai states (Talmud Sanhedrin 111a)
Just as at their entry into the Land there were but two out of 600,000 [Joshua and Caleb], so at their exodus from Egypt there were but two out of 600,000.
This passage posits a 99.99967% fatality rate for the Jews during the plagues. Which means that they had to start out with 300,000 X 3,690,780. 1.1 trillion who were not righteous enough to leave.
I don't mean to take these numbers literally. If you're unfortunate enough to be seated next to someone who does, at the seder or on a flight, you should probably move. But what they do tell us is that the sages adopted a perspective that made the numbers of the slaying of the firstborn a below-the-fold story. Food for thought, along with your matzo ball soup and brisket.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Another D&C day

I'll be spending today in the hospital.
As it's the last full week before Passover, some Israelis will be enjoying vacation, others will be frantically cleaning and most will be desperately trying to figure out how to balance work, home and child care when school's not in session.
But not my wife and me.
We will be headed to the hospital for a D&C. That stands for dilation and curettage, and you can read the details of this gynecological procedure here, if you're so inclined. Personally, we don't need to, because we've been here many, many times before. By my count, this is pregnancy number 18, and if you know we have three children, well... you can do the math.
Eighteen, of course, is a big number in Jewish tradition. Chai, life (more accurately, "living"), has a numerical value of 18, so it's a good omen. But sometimes pregnancy number chai ends with no fetal heartbeat at week 14. But hey, it's not ectopic, so small miracles, right?
So we're farming out the boys to friends and family, then heading out to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem for this procedure, explained by Wikipedia as "a therapeutic gynecological procedure as well as the most often used method of first trimester miscarriage or abortion."
Abortion is a scary word. It scares people so much that even when it's the same procedure to deal with a pregnancy which has self-terminated, people want to wall it off from all other medical practice, from all other women's healthcare, from the world of fertility. Even when it's a matter of some pills, it still scares them.
No one has a D&C for fun. No one enjoys them. And obviously, as a man, it's not my place to discuss the physical pain. But the emotional agony is something I share, and there is only one thing that could make it worse: government intrusion. That is why I react so viscerally to the idea of adding a cleric to the abortion panels in Israel. That is why it sickens me to my core that the man who "would have basically forced women to seek funerary services for a fetus — whether she’d had an abortion or a miscarriage, and no matter how far along the pregnancy was" is now a heartbeat away from the American presidency. Turns out, you can't count on heartbeats.
I don't intend to debate Jewish / Christian / Muslim theology on terminating pregnancies, or even the different policies we've experienced in Canada, America and Israel. Suffice it to say that I take solace and feel pride in the fact that we are going to a hospital for this medical procedure, and that anyone who needs it has the opportunity to do so in the Jewish state (and have it paid for). Not traveling hundreds of miles to wait days for approval. And to all who would have it otherwise, I wonder: is "life" really your priority?
Think about it. For now, I need to be with my wife.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Hangedover

Sure, Purim is over (Triple Purim fans will have to wait four more years for an excuse to get drunk on Adar 16th), but before you roll up that Scroll of Esther, can we talk about antisemitism?
There are lots of people who dislike the Hebrews / Israelites / Jews in the Bible, but Haman is the first one to get a title that translates to "antisemite," tzorer haYhudim, as he is called four times.
  • And the king removed his ring from his hand and gave it to Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, tzorer haYhudim. (3:10)
  • On that day, King Ahasuerus gave to Esther the Queen the house of Haman, tzorer haYhudim. (8:1)
  • They killed the ten sons of Haman son of Hammedatha, tzorer haYhudim. (9:10)
  • For Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, tzorer kol haYhudim, planned to exterminate the Jews. (9:24)
In that last one, Esther inserts "all" (kol), which underscores what the term tzorer literally means: to bind/ bundle/ collect. Job (26:8), for example, refers to God as "tzorer mayim," but that doesn't mean the Almighty is hydrophobic or detests Amy Farrah Fowler. It means He collects water droplets in the clouds.
And Haman is a Jew-bundler par excellence; when Mordecai offends him, he decides to target his entire people. But note that the verse juxtaposes the title not just to Haman, but to his father Hammedatha and his ancestor Agag.
These represent, in fact, three different variations of antisemitism.
  • Agagite antisemitism is the classic version. In this view, the Jews are too weak, which is why we must be attacked. "When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all the stragglers" (Deut. 25:18). This pertains on the way out of Egypt, at the border of the Promised Land, throughout the period of the Judges, even as Saul and then David struggle to establish a united Kingdom of Israel.
  • Hammedathan antisemitism is the postmodern version. According to this view, the Jews are just too strong, too militaristic, too expansionist. They don't belong in the Middle East, and their national aspirations threaten all the peace-loving residents of the region. Indeed, it is the job of the lone global superpower to rein in those uppity Jews in Zion. "At the beginning of the reign of Ahasuerus, they lodged an accusation against the people of Judah and Jerusalem" (Ezra 4:6).
  • Hamanist antisemitism is the reactionary version. It's not about the Jews of Zion, but the international Jew (3:8). "There is a certain people scattered and divided among the people throughout the provinces of your kingdom. Their laws are different than all the other people, they don't obey the king's laws, and it's not in the king's best interest to leave them alone." The Jews are neither weak nor strong, but other: alien, threatening, disloyal.
Fighting antisemitism is not an either/or proposition. Whatever its flavor, it is vile. Those who throw in all members of any race or faith or ethnic group are following in the footsteps of the prototypical tzorer haYhudim. We dare never be silent in the face of such behavior.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Strict Constructionism

The second entry in a trilogy is often the most divisive.
Most of us don't think of the Torah as a trilogy: it's one scroll, containing the Five Books of Moses. However, both the Talmud (Shabbat 116a) and Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 64) insist that the Book of Numbers should not be seen as singular; leaving Mt. Sinai represents an irrevocable shift in the narrative. Indeed, if we look at the Torah in terms of the 54 weekly readings, the 18 which follow the departure from Sinai have a common theme: asymptotically approaching the Land of Israel.
Numbers is not the only book which has a split personality, though. We are smack in the middle of the Book of Exodus, and one can't help but notice how the Exodus part of it abruptly ends halfway through. The first six portions tell the dramatic journey from slavery to Sinai, a story so good Cecil B. DeMille told it twice. It is, in many ways, the culmination of everything established in Genesis, the fulfillment of many of God's promises.
However, starting with this week's portion, Truma, the main focus is not the tribes of Israel or the territory of Israel, but the Tabernacle. For eighteen portions, the Torah details every aspect of the Tabernacle: how to build it, what to offer, who works there and in what capacity, when and where one is allowed to enter. The setting is unchanging, and the only narrative breaks deal with the great joy of constructing and consecrating the Tabernacle (and the violent deaths of any who defile it).
All Jewish studies teachers know this well. That's why once we hit Truma, the time spent on the weekly portion plummets, while the time spent on talking about the upcoming spring holidays swells. Even the Sages seem to recognize this by adding supplementary readings and doubling up the regular portions. But it's hard to jazz up these portions, even if you repackage them in listicles, such as "15 Items Every Tabernacle Needs!" or "You Won't Believe How Impure These 8 Animals Make You!"
Still, I can't help but wonder if there is an important lesson in these portions. The Torah describes in painstaking (arguably, painsgiving) detail every aspect of a structure which we will never rebuild. Even those who foresee a literal rebuilding of the Temple admit we'll never again need to know that the bronze sockets are for the courtyard pillars while the silver sockets are for the sanctuary planks (obviously), because the Tabernacle is passe. In fact, many maintain that some of the elements used in its creation, such as the tahash, were never seen before or since:
The tahash of Moses' day was a unique species... with one horn in its forehead, and it came to Moses' hand just for the occasion, and he used it for the Tabernacle, and then it was hidden.
(Talmud, Shabbat 28b)
And yet it is part of our history and a good third of our Holy Book. We do not discard or deny or defy it.
I was born and bred in the U.S., so naturally I think of the Constitutional analogy. This is a wholly human document barely two centuries old, but there are numerous clauses crossed or grayed out because they are no longer applicable. And yet they are still there, reminding us that Americans once thought it important to safeguard slavery or to prohibit liquor.
Judaism today is quite different from the Tabernacular version of Moses' day. Three millennia from now, who knows what our descendants will think of our religious priorities? Ultimately, the built-in obsolescence of the Tabernacle teaches us that a faith must grow and develop if it is to live on.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Ten years ago, I got my parents back

There are not many couples who get to celebrate a tenth anniversary after four decades of marriage, but it's becoming something of a family tradition for us.
For Bubby & Zaidy, it was a technical reason. Bubby was--and still is, בע"ה--an educated and professional woman, and she told Zaidy that if they were going to do this marriage thing, she would have to schedule it on the one "extra" day in 1948: February 29th. So, at least for the Yekkes their children would eventually marry into, they technically only had an anniversary once every four years.
For my parents, a decade ago, it was life or death, literally. My mother needed a kidney transplant, and my father immediately asked her doctors if he could donate. They were dubious: after all, spouses aren't related in that way, and they usually aren't a match for each other, for the purposes of organ donation. But they ran the many, many necessary tests anyway, and as each one showed that my father was in fact a good donor, the miracle only grew.
The day for the operation was set, and I flew in from Israel to New York, leaving behind my wife Yael, eight months pregnant with our first child. It was bitterly cold, and it seemed to be dark all the time. The operation was long and had some complications which you would find fascinating, dear reader, if you were a nephrologist or a transplant surgeon. The important thing is that it was a success. Six weeks later, we were able to celebrate the birth of their first grandchild.
And in those many dark, cold hours I spent in the hospital, I thought about many things, while trying not to think of many others. When I could pray no more, etymology was a safe topic. In English, of course, transplant is derived from "plant;" but in Hebrew, there are two verbs: nata, to plant a tree; shatal, to transplant. The Latter Prophets love to use the latter term, especially Ezekiel. I was struck by one verse in particular, 19:10:
Your mother is like a vine in your blood, transplanted by the waters: she was fruitful and full of branches by reason of many waters.
There are many interpretations of this verse, but to me it speaks of the reality that we are all transplants. For all of us, life on this planet is about relocating from our mother's womb. Indeed, the Psalmist refers to all children as transplanted saplings (128:3). Some of us may find ourselves transplanted many times, putting down roots in a new land. For Jews, it is our defining national narrative, the reason we must show compassion to the refugee and the stranger. But it is a universal need, especially in this month of Shevat, a month of rebirth and renewal, when we celebrate our common ancestors, Adam of the earth and Eve mother of all life.
As for me, I'm just happy that I got my parents back ten years ago--and that we are all replanted here, as Ezekiel envisioned (17:23):
On the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it; it will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Make Miṣr Great Again!

There is something profoundly bizarre about going into the Sabbath with a world-changing event on the horizon.
On the last day of 1999, it was Y2K. We welcomed Shabbat Shemot, the Sabbath on which we start reading the Book of Exodus, without knowing what exactly would happen when all the clocks hit midnight. Would planes fall from the sky? Would all our bank accounts be wiped out? Would nuclear missile silos open? But the day passed uneventfully, we made havdala, and when we logged on to dial-up Internet, everything seemed fine. None of what we'd feared actually occurred, and 2000 was off to a great start.
But that's not how 2000 ended in Israel.
A year later, it was time for Shabbat Shemot again -- January 19th-20th, 2001. A new president was being sworn in, after a contentious election in which the popular winner went home and the electoral winner had a cloud of suspicion swirling over him. Would eight years of peace and prosperity come to a screeching halt? Could the president-elect, intellectually incurious and surrounded by ideologues, unite the nation? But the day passed uneventfully, we made havdala, and everything seemed fine. None of what we'd feared actually occurred, and 2001 was off to a great start.
But that's not how 2001 ended in America.
So here we are, 16 years after that, counting the hours until inauguration yet again. It will be mid-morning in DC when Shabbat Shemot starts this year in Israel. We will read, as we do every year, that portentous eighth verse: "A new king arose upon Egypt who knew not Joseph." Egypt -- Miṣr in Arabic, Miṣrayim in Hebrew -- is under new management, as it were, but the sages of the Talmud argue about its nature:
Rab and Samuel -- one said that he was really new, while the other said that his decrees were made new... Who knew not Joseph — it was as if he did not know him at all.
Interestingly, the phrase "to rise upon" can also be rendered "to attack" (cf. Deut. 22:26). This innovative Pharaoh ultimately brings ruin upon Egypt; his measures to neutralize the potential military threat of the Hebrews lead to inglorious defeat. But the first step on that path is to disavow Joseph--not just because he is the most prominent Hebrew in recent Egyptian history, but because of the revolutionary decrees he instituted.
Yes, it's that part of the Joseph story which seems to be the least compelling: Genesis 47. After Jacob and family come down to Egypt, but before he is on his deathbed, the Torah details at length how Viceroy Joseph runs the country during the years of famine. You see, for Joseph it is not enough that he has been freed from bondage or that his family is safely ensconced in nearby Goshen. He fundamentally changes Egyptian society in three ways:
  1. The people sell everything and become "slaves to Pharaoh."
  2. They are moved into cities.
  3. The priests (kohanim) remain independent.
It's rather ingenious. Slavery is not abolished, but redefined. Since everyone is a slave, no one is a slave; but they are not tied to the land. The sole exception is the priestly class. Now, these are not the wise men of Pharaoh's court, the hartumim, but rather the kohanim. They are an independent, protected class who are provided for throughout the famine and maintain their land afterwards. Joseph's own father-in-law is prominent among them.
However, the new Pharaoh of Shemot does not acknowledge Joseph: new in flesh, new in spirit, he appeals to "his people" and turns them against "the Israelite people" (Exod. 1:9). It is the latter who really deserve to be slaves, and once they are "cruelly enslaved" (ibid. v. 13), they stop being Israelites and become Hebrews--the ethnic descriptor for Joseph when he was a slave.
But what about the kohanim, Joseph's insurance policy against tyranny? They have been disappeared. Hartumim are definitely around, in Pharaoh's court, but the kohanim are nowhere to be seen. It is only when Moses flees for his life from the sword of Pharaoh to Midian that he finds a kohen--- and marries his daughter. Then the God of the Hebrews appears, in order to redeem the Israelites.
This is the deeper meaning of "who knew not Joseph." The new Pharaoh definitely is aware of Joseph, antagonistic to his legacy, determined to undo his reforms... and make Egypt great again. For "his people," of course.
I don't know what world we'll find when we emerge from Shabbat Shemot 5777. I doubt it will look much different. But it is upon us to make sure that the new king acknowledges that denying progress is no path to greatness. Unknowing is no way to lead.