Friday, July 13, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Matot-Masei 5778—Irredeemable (For Now)

At one point, I had simply considered writing:

Numbers Chapter 31

and allowing that to be my entire musing, with the musing’s title (without the parenthetical “for now”) saying all that I felt needed to be said about it. The Torah has no dearth of troubling texts, and I have always been interested in finding ways to redeem them. I have written about this before, trying to find ways to redeem at least parts of it. I’ve done so as recently as last year’s musing. This year I’ve given up on this one. At least for now. Here – read for yourself, and we’ll discuss it on the other side, as they say:

Numbers Chapter 31

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃

1 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying,

נְקֹ֗ם נִקְמַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מֵאֵ֖ת הַמִּדְיָנִ֑ים אַחַ֖ר תֵּאָסֵ֥ף אֶל־עַמֶּֽיךָ׃

2 “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.”

וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־הָעָ֣ם לֵאמֹ֔ר הֵחָלְצ֧וּ מֵאִתְּכֶ֛ם אֲנָשִׁ֖ים לַצָּבָ֑א וְיִהְיוּ֙ עַל־מִדְיָ֔ן לָתֵ֥ת נִקְמַת־יְהוָ֖ה בְּמִדְיָֽן׃

3 Moses spoke to the people, saying, “Let men be picked out from among you for a campaign, and let them fall upon Midian to wreak the LORD’s vengeance on Midian.

אֶ֚לֶף לַמַּטֶּ֔ה אֶ֖לֶף לַמַּטֶּ֑ה לְכֹל֙ מַטּ֣וֹת יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל תִּשְׁלְח֖וּ לַצָּבָֽא׃

4 You shall dispatch on the campaign a thousand from every one of the tribes of Israel.”

וַיִּמָּֽסְרוּ֙ מֵאַלְפֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶ֖לֶף לַמַּטֶּ֑ה שְׁנֵים־עָשָׂ֥ר אֶ֖לֶף חֲלוּצֵ֥י צָבָֽא׃

5 So a thousand from each tribe were furnished from the divisions of Israel, twelve thousand picked for the campaign.

וַיִּשְׁלַ֨ח אֹתָ֥ם מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶ֥לֶף לַמַּטֶּ֖ה לַצָּבָ֑א אֹ֠תָם וְאֶת־פִּ֨ינְחָ֜ס בֶּן־אֶלְעָזָ֤ר הַכֹּהֵן֙ לַצָּבָ֔א וּכְלֵ֥י הַקֹּ֛דֶשׁ וַחֲצֹצְר֥וֹת הַתְּרוּעָ֖ה בְּיָדֽוֹ׃

6 Moses dispatched them on the campaign, a thousand from each tribe, with Phinehas son of Eleazar serving as a priest on the campaign, equipped with the sacred utensils and the trumpets for sounding the blasts.

וַֽיִּצְבְּאוּ֙ עַל־מִדְיָ֔ן כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָ֖ה אֶת־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיַּֽהַרְג֖וּ כָּל־זָכָֽר׃

7 They took the field against Midian, as the LORD had commanded Moses, and slew every male.

וְאֶת־מַלְכֵ֨י מִדְיָ֜ן הָרְג֣וּ עַל־חַלְלֵיהֶ֗ם אֶת־אֱוִ֤י וְאֶת־רֶ֙קֶם֙ וְאֶת־צ֤וּר וְאֶת־חוּר֙ וְאֶת־רֶ֔בַע חֲמֵ֖שֶׁת מַלְכֵ֣י מִדְיָ֑ן וְאֵת֙ בִּלְעָ֣ם בֶּן־בְּע֔וֹר הָרְג֖וּ בֶּחָֽרֶב׃

8 Along with their other victims, they slew the kings of Midian: Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian. They also put Balaam son of Beor to the sword.

וַיִּשְׁבּ֧וּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל אֶת־נְשֵׁ֥י מִדְיָ֖ן וְאֶת־טַפָּ֑ם וְאֵ֨ת כָּל־בְּהֶמְתָּ֧ם וְאֶת־כָּל־מִקְנֵהֶ֛ם וְאֶת־כָּל־חֵילָ֖ם בָּזָֽזוּ׃

9 The Israelites took the women and children of the Midianites captive, and seized as booty all their beasts, all their herds, and all their wealth.

וְאֵ֤ת כָּל־עָרֵיהֶם֙ בְּמ֣וֹשְׁבֹתָ֔ם וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־טִֽירֹתָ֑ם שָׂרְפ֖וּ בָּאֵֽשׁ׃

10 And they destroyed by fire all the towns in which they were settled, and their encampments.

וַיִּקְחוּ֙ אֶת־כָּל־הַשָּׁלָ֔ל וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־הַמַּלְק֑וֹחַ בָּאָדָ֖ם וּבַבְּהֵמָֽה׃

11 They gathered all the spoil and all the booty, man and beast,

וַיָּבִ֡אוּ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה֩ וְאֶל־אֶלְעָזָ֨ר הַכֹּהֵ֜ן וְאֶל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אֶת־הַשְּׁבִ֧י וְאֶת־הַמַּלְק֛וֹחַ וְאֶת־הַשָּׁלָ֖ל אֶל־הַֽמַּחֲנֶ֑ה אֶל־עַֽרְבֹ֣ת מוֹאָ֔ב אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־יַרְדֵּ֥ן יְרֵחֽוֹ׃ (ס)

12 and they brought the captives, the booty, and the spoil to Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the whole Israelite community, at the camp in the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho

I’ll stop here. and provide a link for you to read the remaining 42 verses:
https://www.sefaria.org/Numbers.31?lang=bi&aliyot=0

Trust me, it only gets worse as you go along. After this horror, the returned commanders are berated by Moses for killing only the adult males and leaving the Midianite women and children alive. Those Midianite women who had tempted the Israelite men to follow other gods. So Moses orders the slaying (or the last euphemistic murdering) of all the male children, and all the women who were not virgins.

Once this carnage is complete, the soldiers are to remove themselves from the camp and purify themselves and their weapons over seven days. Then, the booty gets counted up, a portion withheld for the priests (it’s cleverly named a portion for the L”rd, but we all know who was really getting it,) and the rest divided up between the soldiers. 16 verses are dedicated to accounting for all the booty and the various portions withheld for the L”rd and other shares as required – noting the number of sheep, cattle, asses, and yes, human beings (i.e. the female virgins left after everyone else was killed.)

The chapter itself makes a small attempt at internal redemption when the commanders of the troops, upon discovering that not one of them was killed, offer their booty to the priests. (The soldiers kept what booty they took.) Yes, saying thank you to G”d for sparing the lives of all your soldiers (even though they mercilessly killed thousands of men, women, and children) gets brownie points. (Though I deduct from the value of the points for the fact that this booty wasn’t really given to G”d, it was given to the priests and Levites.)

So let me ask you – what – what could possibly be redeemed from that mess?

Yes, there is a ton of apologetic reasoning out there. If we operate from the premise that human beings are innately prone to war with each other the potential for apologetic reasoning is vast. I reject all of it, utterly.

My problem is less with the human beings - the Israelites and Moses. My issue is with G”d. This omnipotent G”d who has done the mightiest of miracles needs to use human beings  to kill other human beings so that G”d might fulfill a promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? You couldn’t have sent legions of angels? You couldn’t just snap your fingers and voila?

Yes, we all understand that human beings will value something more highly if they have to work for it rather than just having it handed to them. I get that. Nevertheless, it feels, as I’ve written in previous musings, over the top to have all this wholesale slaughter as part of just such an exchange. Not to mention that G”d took a different approach with the ten plagues, so we know it is possible – or – wait a minute – is that a glimpse of redemption here? The ten plagues involved lots of lopsided suffering. Did G”d realize that a more abject lesson, with suffering on both sides, would be a better lesson for the Israelites? But oops – not one Israelite was killed in this slaughter – so, never mind, chuck that redemptive idea.

We can place the story in a classic ultimate good versus ultimate evil, but that doesn’t hold up well either.

As I seek redemption for chapter 31 I keep having moments of aha followed by inevitable let down and the balloon busts on each new (or recycled old) thought. So I’m going to accept the lesson in that, at least for today, for this year, for this moment in time, and declare chapter 32 irredeemable. For now. 

https://youtu.be/XJdcROXeaWc 

חֲזַק חֲזַק וְנִתְחַזֵק

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian
©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Matot-Masei 5777 - Thirty-Two-Thousand Virgins?
Matot-Masei 5775 - Mei-eit Harav Tarbu U'mei-eit Hamat Tamitu
Masei 5774 - Would Jeremiah Be Surprised?
Matot 5774 - Over the Top (Revised 5763)
Matot-Masei 5773 - The Torah Is One Of My FaceBook Groups
Matot-Masei 5772 - And the Punting Goes On
Masei 5771 - Cause and Effect
Matot 5771 - Don't Become Like...Them
Matot-Masei 5770 - Treasure Trove of Trouble
Masei 5768 - Accidents Matter
Matot 5768/5765-Even Moshe Rabbeinu Had to Punt
Matot-Masei 5766 - First Fruit
Matot-Masey 5764-Putting the Kids Before the Kids
Matot--Masey 5763-Over the Top
Matot--Masey 5762--The Rebel's Complaint and Promises, Promises


Friday, July 6, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Pinkhas 5778 — Reviewing Zealousness (Redux 5768)

Fifteen years ago I wrote a missing about parashat Pinkhas wondering about what this and other stories teach us about when and when not to act with zeal.  Ten years ago, I spun a  new musing, with new perspectives, from that original. This week, I set out to spin a new musing that reflected where I am in my life today. Upon reflection, I realized that while writing this new spin on the topic proved to be cathartic for me, it might be asking for too much for you, dear readers, to share in the raw emotions  and personal truths. Quite frankly, my writing may be too impolitic for this moment in time for a variety of reasons. So, reluctantly, I’ll be discrete and political for now.  I’ll add a brief addendum to this re-sharing of my musing from a decade ago in 5768 which might provide readers with some insight as to where I am today, at this moment in time, when it comes to being zealous. (If you’d actually like to read the musing which I did write but not share, just drop me a line privately.) Now, back to 5768/2008.

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Pinkhas 5768—Still Zealous After All These Years

Five years ago, my musing for this parasha was entitled "I Still Get Zealous", the title being a pun on the Jules Styne/Sammy Cahn song "I Still Get Jealous" from "High Button Shoes" (though oddly, it was Louis Armstrong's version that catapulted the song to fame.) I'm spinning this new musing off of that earlier musing, using some of its thoughts, but from a rather different vantage point.

In an odd coincidence of time, while I'm still zealous, today happens to have been my last day as Director of Education and Congregational Life for Bethesda Jewish Congregation (BJC.) It was not easy to choose to leave my congregational family of five years so that I might move with the family unit of which I have now become part to Amherst, MA. I'm sure most of you know what it's like to leave somewhere for the last time. Yet nothing tells me more about my own habitual zealousness than the way I approached my last few weeks, days, hours and minutes at BJC. Last Friday, I led my last service for BJC, and I was as inspired and uplifted as always. This past Wednesday, I led Torah study for the last time, and was as engaged and enlightened as always. also on Wednesday, I directed the BJC choir in rehearsing for the Yamim Noraim (High Holy Days) for the last time, and was passionate and driven as always. I think that I can do no less.

Yes, the years have not only aged me but taught me. I have learned to rein in my zealousness and over-dedication. Though I must admit that during these past 7 years of bachelorhood I easily slipped back into my old habits of perhaps giving more of myself, my time, and my talents as I should. Now, once again part of a family unit with a child of 8 in it, I can't give as much to other things no matter how driven or zealous I am, for my family requires and deserves more zealousness, passion, and patience than anything else. I'm sure that somewhere in there is a balance point, and I'll find my way to it in time, but my family will also come first - something that, I am ashamed to admit, I cannot claim was always true in my previous relationships-though I'd like to think I made a valiant effort, no matter how much I succeeded or failed.

There are consequences of zealousness, but we cannot always be sure of what they will be - reward, punishment, et al. Nadav and Avihu were turned into crispy critters for their zealousness, yet Pinkhas rewarded for his. I wonder sometimes if this is a proof text for the idea that our Torah embraces and teaches about situational ethics. On the other hand, it could just be illustrative of an impetuous and sometimes overly zealous G"d. I think I understand now why so many have this deep seated need for G"d to be unchanging, ever the same. That's much easier to deal with than a G"d whose reactions and attitudes seem to vary from situation to situation (witness the different reactions to the zealousness of Pinkhas vs. the zealousness of Nadav and Avihu.) and to put an even more radical spin on it, consider that all Nadav and Avihu did was offer a little bit of extra, alien fire, that they hadn't been asked to offer - and for their troubles, G"d toasted them. Yet when Pinkhas murders in cold blood the fornicators Zimri and Cozbi, he gets rewarded with a "brit Shalom" a covenant with G"d for him and his descendants. (Yes, yes, we've all heard the apologetic explanations - G"d brough Pinkhas and his descendants into this special relationship so G"d could "keep an eye on these crazy zealots" - and G"d was actually rewarding Nadav and Avihu by bringing them into the ultimate special relationship with G"d. They were made holy by being sacrificed. Never mind the subtle Christological subtext here.)

Yet, I reject the apologetics. What we have here is an inconsistent G"d who reacts differently in different situations. Voila-situational ethics. I don't particularly agree with G"d's choices here - that killing two human beings in order to assuage G"d's anger is ultimately more forgivable than offering up a little extra alien fire. Then again, how often do G"d and I agree?

It gets trickier, because we strive to base our systems of ethics upon what we believe about that which G"d approves and disapproves. Yet it appears that sometimes, when we do what we believe is what G"d wants, G"d approves, and at other times G"d gives a thumbs down. On what basis? Depending upon which side of the bed G"d woke up on? On the surface, that appears to be a rather troubling vision-a G"d whose mood can affect all G"d's creations. And I'm not buying into that one at all. It requires a bit too much of an anthropomorphizing of G"d. (There's a book inside of me, that I am finally going to start writing now that life is giving me some breathing room to do so, based on the premise that one ought to look at the premise of "b'tzelem Elokim" in a somewhat reverse manner--that perhaps the very traits we find in ourselves that trouble us are traits that G"d possesses as well--and that G"d, too, is seeking a way to rid G"d's self of these potentially negative energies. Or perhaps, since G"d possesses these qualities, they aren't so negative after all? But I digress.)

Need we be troubled by a tempestuous G"d, be so insistent on consistency from our deity? And is it inconsistency, or is our narrow view of G"d preventing us from seeing a bigger picture? (Still, I won't go as far as accepting that old "ineffable G"d canard.)

I do know that sometimes zealousness brings reward and other times retribution. Do we, therefore, avoid being zealous and avoid the risk? That would probably be the rabbinic approach-building a fence around it lest we inadvertently err.

As always, as I ponder these questions, and seek answers to them, I am reminded of happenings in my own world. I worte in my 2002 version of this musing about a time I participated in a little team building exercise. It was tough going the whole time, as 3 or 4 "soloists" kept thwarting the attempts to build cohesive team action from the entire group. In an ideal world, the actions of these few "zealots" would have resulted in learning by their example the futility of failing to play with the whole team. And on occasion that did happen. Sometimes, though, through brutish and stubborn effort, the individualists succeeded. And I found that extremely frustrating. So much so that I and the other facilitators and participants actually endeavored to make it ever so much tougher for the non-team players--because it didn't seem fair for them to succeed. Yet, as I thought about that, I thought about an activity I had observed earlier in another setting. It was a student experiment in "luck"-a game of chance with an edible reward--chocolate, of course. The exercise was structured in such a fashion that those who received some chocolate and how long they had to try and eat it all was truly random.

Some people were luckier than others-and I and the other adult observers in the room began to consider ways to help even the odds--as it seemed some students seemed particularly unhappy to not be getting any chocolate. Yet, in the end interference wasn't really necessary. Things evened out. For the most part. So the zealous impulses I and other had were not acted upon and the result was fair. Almost. Because there was one kid whose luck didn't hold-so we did have to finagle things a bit at the very end. And this kid was accepting and appreciative. However, there have been other times I have, or have seen others work to help give a student or a camper an advantage, and what we got for it in return was not appreciation but resentment. So was our zeal misdirected? Or just unappreciated? Is that what happened to Nadav and Avihu? Pinchas' zeal was obviously appreciated by G"d.

So when and where is zeal appropriate, and when is it dangerous? It doesn't appear we get a clear answer from the Torah at all. It would be easy to assume that Nadav and Avihu were acting on behalf of only themselves--but I don't believe the text clearly supports that assumption. They may have been inebriated, but their choice to offer yet one more sacrifice to G"d could have easily been motivated by their zeal for insuring the community's welfare and not just their own. We'll never know. It does seem a bit more apparent that Pinkhas acted with zeal on behalf of the community. His zeal drove him to kill two of G"ds creations - one a member of the tribe, another,the supposedly scheming daughter of a Midianite muckety-muck trying to lure the Israelite men into worship their gods. From the end results, perhaps we could conclude that Pinkhas was rewarded for that, and also conclude that, since Nadav and Avihu were not rewarded, that their zeal was selfish. That's really going out on a limb I'm not sure I want to crawl onto. It's also a very teleological approach to exegeting a lesson from the text.

It's not surprising that so many people I know are somewhat zealous (particularly about their Judaism, and also about how they think other Jews should live.) I am one of those zealots. Like Nadav and Avihu, I have been stung (though perhaps with less drastic consequences) by allowing my unmitigated zeal to get the better of me. Like Pinkhas, I have also had the occasional reward for being zealous.

One would have thought that, after all these years, the level of my zeal would have decreased somewhat. Look-it even happened to Moshe, so why not me? That Moshe would so easily go to his grave, shucking and jiving and not openly complaining (too much) about his not getting to enter the promised land. That he even struck the rock in the first place. All signs of flagging zeal (or perhaps just old age.) Yet even today, on my last day, during my last hours, even my last few minutes, I worked to complete my tasks and prepare the way for my successor with passion and zeal. I did it not for any reward, for, particularly in this case, there would be none to be had-the tributes were long over and now came the silent slow walk out of the stadium after all the fans had left. Yet there is perceptible reward - and that is how I feel about myself, my professionalism, my passion, my dedication. Tonight I don't need the strokes of others to make me feel good. I'm flying high on the reward of my own good feelings.

I'm perhaps a little bit closer now than when I started in trying to figure out when to be zealous and when to not act with zeal, but I haven;t figured it all out just yet. Great-that gives me something to ponder this Shabbat. I hope I've engaged you enough to get you pondering that question this Shabbat as well.

As always, a sweet Shabbat to you and yours.

Afternote from 5778:

Perhaps I am even a little closer here in 5778 to understanding the appropriate time and place to be zealous, but the reasons I am closer to taming my zealous impulses seem to be forms of external negative rather than positive reinforcement. Self-refueling requires the means to obtain fuel.

May it be G”d’s will and my own will that a decade from now I’ll be able to put a better, more positive spin on my life since now.

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian
©2018 (portions ©2003 and 2008) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Pinchas 5777 - The Sons of Korach
Pinkhas 5775 - Why Is This Rebuke...yadda, yadda, yadda (an expansion on 5769)
Pinkhas 5774 - Slaughter the Oxen, Burn the Plow, and Hear the Still Small Voice
Pinkhas 5773 - G"d's Justice, G"d's Responsibility
Pinkhas 5772 - Not Such a Shining Moment
Pinkhas 5771 - Wake Up and Smell the Coffee
Pinkhas 5770 - Thanking Those Who Didn't Make It
Pinkhas 5769-Why is This Rebuke Different From All Other Rebukes?
Pinhas 5766-Let's Give Moshe a Hand
Pinkhas 5765-Kol D'mamah Dakah
Pinchas 5762 -- I Still Get Zealous
Pinchas 5764/5760-It Just Is!