‘Who died and made you king?’

June 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

In this week’s portion, a band of men led by Korach challenge Moses’ leadership of the Israelites.

“Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth — descendants of Reuben — to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?’”[1]

Based on this introduction, we’re not sure what the core problem is. Moses has been the number one guy for some time now, working with his siblings to manage the crowd. He was the one who faced Pharaoh, and he was the one who brought the tablets down from Mount Sinai. He also was the one who prevailed when Aaron was involved in the incident with the Golden Calf. So to ask, at this point, why he raises himself above the Lord’s congregation seems a bit misplaced. Why is Korach raising this objection now? The text does not say.

“When Moses heard this, he fell on his face. Then he spoke to Korah and all his company, saying, ‘Come morning, the Lord will make known who is His and who is holy, and will grant him access to Himself; He will grant access to the one He has chosen. Do this: You, Korah and all your band, take fire pans, and tomorrow put fire in them and lay incense on them before the Lord. Then the man whom the Lord chooses, he shall be the holy one. You have gone too far, sons of Levi!’”

Why did Moses fall on his face? Usually, in the Biblical context, that phrase refers to a posture of worship. So he must have turned to God at that moment for support. But this action does not seem to have brought him a sense of calm. To the contrary, he continues:

“‘Hear me, sons of Levi. Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you access to Him, to perform the duties of the Lord’s Tabernacle and to minister to the community and serve them? Now that He has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood too? Truly, it is against the Lord that you and all your company have banded together. For who is Aaron that you should rail against him?’”

Aha. Now we have a sense of Korach’s motive: he is seeking power. The objection raised here is not that Moses is doing a bad job or that Aaron is incompetent: rather, Korach and his band want to be the ones who do it instead.

“Moses sent for Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab; but they said, ‘We will not come! Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us? Even if you had brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, and given us possession of fields and vineyards, should you gouge out those men’s eyes? We will not come!’“

Their response sounds petulant. What, exactly, is their grievance here? That Moses led them out of slavery? That it is hard to live in the wilderness? It seems that their emotions have carried them away and they are simply enjoying being angry.

The text tells us that in response “Moses was much aggrieved.” His emotion is easy to understand in this context. He has spent year after year leading this group without any breaks, and this rebellion is all the thanks he gets. “And he said to the Lord, ‘Pay no regard to their oblation. I have not taken the ass of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them.’”

I find that last comment fascinating. He tells God the score: ‘I have done no wrong here, so please don’t cooperate with them.’ As if God was not aware, as if he had to be concerned about God’s support.

This detail provides us with an interesting insight into leadership. We all know that it can be very difficult to take on that role – it carries with it the wellbeing and welfare of the whole group. We are aware that Moses has a whole web of considerations to take into account with every decision he makes. And Aaron is acting on behalf of the entire community when he serves as High Priest.

So when a high-ranking group second-guesses his motivations it destabilizes him for a moment. He is wounded by their remarks.

And we’ve all seen disputes like this one: Moses retaliates in anger, brings the issue to a showdown and the bitter ending involves a whole lot of people disappearing from the congregation.

In that regard, I think that this week’s portion serves as a warning rather than a model.

What should have happened here? How could this dispute been better managed? If this particular conflict was chosen as a case study by the Harvard Business Review, what steps would they suggest for closing the gap in perception between Moses’ understanding of his role and Korach’s?

I can tell you what I’ve learned, based on my own experience. Before I went to rabbinical school I was the Senior Manager of Marketing Communications for a division of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of California. And, in a congregational setting, I have seen a Korach-type rebellion unfold. This is what I have learned.

First, let’s start with the obvious: Korach is, of course, acting badly here.

When people act out, they do so because they are hurting. A person in a good place emotionally can bring up a difficult issue in conversation and talk through the various points rationally. Refusing to come to the table is evidence of emotional pain.

In other words: the rebellion is not about Moses or Aaron. They are probably doing a fine job at the heart of it. Their competence is not the issue.

The issue, rather, is a more complicated one relating to feelings of place and need. By that I mean: Korach is feeling invisible. He needs to have a place in the community, a way of answering the question, ‘and what is your role?’ He needs to be needed: to have a clear part in the overall process. Maybe he is aging and his kids don’t need him so much anymore. Or maybe he is young and has not yet found his place in the world. We don’t have enough of a biography to know for certain, but be we do know that Korach is feeling too small in his world.

On the other side of this dispute, we also know that Moses is not always great at delegating. We saw that in the first few months of leadership when he was given a lesson from his father-in-law Yitro. At that point in the narrative, Moses was listening to every single dispute brought before him by the Israelites. And Yitro explained to him patiently that he simply could not continue in this manner and suggested that he create a tiered court-system for hearing cases.

It would also appear, based on this narrative, that Moses is easily wounded: instead of taking the criticism in stride he forces a showdown. But a shoot-out always leaves someone dead – whether literally, as in the case of Korach who gets swallowed by the earth, or figuratively, as when a family or group of families leaves the congregation. It is infinitely better to negotiate and to listen.

What should Moses have done in this case?

He would have done well to create a tiered approach to the sacrificial service, along the lines of the court system his father-in-law suggested. He could have put Korach and his compatriots in charge of a type of sacrificial offering, so that they would also have a place in the hierarchy. Moses might not think that this arrangement is necessary, but he also has a tendency to over-estimate how much he can do himself.

In other words, had Moses displayed the best kind of leadership, he would have realized that it wasn’t all about him. It wasn’t, in fact, about him at all. The issue at hand was Korach’s place in the world. Had Moses taken himself out of the equation this event would have had a much happier ending.

It’s no his greatest moment, to be sure. But Moses is usually a better leader than that – so what is going with him? Why is he reactive rather than proactive in managing this dispute?

It is likely that Moses is feeling worn out at this point, and is suffering burnout. A good leader needs rest – which is precisely why he and Aaron should have been delegating tasks to Korach in the first place. So Korach had a legitimate concern; had Korach been a better leader himself, he would have been able to approach Moses long before the breaking-point. A well-run organization helps train future leaders so that they learn how to raise these concerns in a timely and appropriate fashion.

As this situation demonstrates, we don’t always act in our best interest, and we don’t always respond in the best way. Leaders get tired, followers get resentful, and everyone gets tired of wandering in the wilderness.

What works best, then? What can we do to make sure we stay on our good behavior, even when we’re hot, tired, and thirsty?

Rest. Take a Shabbat nap, go on vacation, get some time away.

And if a long break is not on the agenda, then at least take a small break: count to ten before responding. Count to 100 if you still don’t think you can respond without bitterness. Moses’ response of ‘falling on his face’ to pray for a moment was a good one – but he should have stalled even longer, until he could respond with equanimity.

But above all else: we should learn from this example the vital necessity of being kind. Most of our disputes are not important enough to have the earth swallow up our opponent. Have empathy for the other side, and focus on the issue rather than the person.

[1] JPS Tanakh, the book of Numbers, chapter 16.

Uniquely Jewish

June 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

I bought my tallit, this large one that I wear all the time, during my first year in rabbinical school. A group of us students made a special trip to the old city of Jaffa to visit the Gabrielli family’s storefront along the stone streets.

The tallit showroom is in the basement of their shop, featuring shelves and shelves of tallitot. The six of us students camped out there one afternoon, trying on every conceivable color and size. Red tallitot with black stripes; blue tallitot with grey stripes; white tallitot with rainbow stripes; Cotton, wool, and silk varieties; all kinds of handwoven tallitot were stacked on the shelves around us.

And it was wonderful to have my fellow-students help pick it out: they argued persuasively for the supersized black-and-white tallit that I am wearing today. I diligently tried on a whole stack of tallitot in smaller sizes – they were much less expensive, after all – but my crowd was absolutely convinced that I was best served by the full sweep of the largest size.

Had I been left to my own devices, I would have bought a more demure white-on-white silk tallit in the smallest size. But the consensus was that mine needed to be a graphic black and white, and larger than life, big enough to serve as a chuppah when I remarried. I am grateful to my friends for knowing that about me.

I have worn this tallit at all major life-cycle events since that time. I was ordained in it and got married under it. I wore it at the Western Wall for the Women of the Wall 25th Anniversary. It has become a part of my identity as a rabbi. Not that it is irreplaceable – for no object ever truly is – but it would certainly feel that way.

My kippah, however, is actually much older than my tallit: that’s why they don’t precisely match. I bought it at a URJ biennial convention before I ever applied to school, just after my conversion. I’ve worn the same one for twenty years now. Though it’s very pretty, it doesn’t have the same significance to me. For one thing, the kippah – the head covering that Jews wear – is not something from the Biblical era. It’s a custom rather than a mitzvah – it’s not a commandment – which is why we don’t say a blessing when we put it on our heads.

The tallit, on the other hand, is something entirely our own. The purpose of the tallit is to serve as the vehicle for the tzitzit, the knotted fringes on the four corners. That’s why there is such variety in the tallit design: it’s the placeholder. The fringes are what’s actually commanded.

In fact, the commandment to wear tzitzit comes from our Torah portion today:

“The Lord said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.”[1]

Why are the tzitzit usually white if the passage says they must have blue in them? Apparently, the blue dye came from a sea snail that has since gone extinct. I have seen tzitzit in multiple shades of blue, done in the hope that one of the shades would be the right one. But the general ruling is that without the proper dye they should be left white.

The knot pattern itself is distinctive: the most common pattern found in the US is an Ashkenazi style of a double knot, seven spirals, a double knot, eight spirals, a double knot, eleven spirals, a double knot, thirteen spirals, and finally a double knot. There is a Separdic variation in which the spirals loop in on themselves to create a swirling spine down the length of the tassel. Though there are reasons for why that pattern, they all appear to be explanations after the fact. Why that pattern? It just is.

If you go to the Israel Museum, to the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept, you will see an exhibit downstairs of the other items they found alongside the scrolls. One of those items is a tallit, made of white wool with black stripes, with white knotted fringes. It looks remarkably like the traditional tallitot for sale on Ben Yehuda Street today, but for the 2000 years of wear and tear.

In other words, wearing tzitzit is not simply one of the commandments: it is also a practice uniquely our own, one that stretches all the way back to the Biblical period.

It is likely that the tallit gadol – the grand tallit like what I’m wearing now – was originally worn as an outer cloak; eventually it became a prayer garment, worn in the morning during the shacharit prayer service, at the Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service, and when leading services. We also wear one here when doing an aliyah, which are the blessings before and after the Torah reading.

But the tallit gadol is not the only kind. Traditionally, there is also an undergarment that is worn every day, all day, as the first layer of clothing. It is called a tallit katan (small tallit) and it is usually a kind of tank top or bib that you pull on over your head. You may have seen the tzitzit from one of these: some men tuck the tzitzit in, so that they are not visible; others like to pull them out, so that they dangle from the edges of their shirt. That’s usually how they outfit the character Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Both options are supported by the tradition.

Traditionally, of course, this mitzvah of wearing the tallit katan was reserved for men. The verse has been interpreted to mean that only men are specifically required to wear it. So, if you were shopping for a tallit katan you were necessarily shopping in the men’s section. For traditional women, it is inappropriate to wear men’s clothing – that’s why traditional women always wear skirts or dresses – so it is a genuine barrier to the performance of the commandment if the only ones available are sold in men’s sizes in the men’s section.

When I first saw the notice on the internet regarding a new company Netzitzot [see https://www.netzitzot.com/about-us.html] that sells the tallit kaftan for women I decided to buy one in support of this new company. I wanted to help make it possible for women to fulfill this commandment, but I did not have a clear sense of what I was planning to do with it myself. Bring it to my Introduction to Judaism class, perhaps, for show and tell? Wear it on occasion, perhaps?

The morning after its arrival, I put it on to see how it felt. And I found that there was a certain sense of rightness to it, a sense that a missing piece had been fulfilled. I had wanted to fulfill this commandment but it was not open to me. And now it was.

So I started wearing it as often as possible while also taking steps to keep it freshly laundered. It did not take me long to decide I was going to need a full set.

Thus I have taken on the daily mitzvah of wearing of tzitzit. Why should that be something so satisfying to me? Why should a tank top with fringes make a difference, you ask?

The odd thing about ritual: it is always a bit arbitrary in its structure. Why fringes? There is no clear rational answer as to why this and not that.

But it also has a certain logic to it: you wear something on your body as part of your person to remind you, in those moments of transition and vulnerability, of the grander structure.

And that is indeed what it means to be a Jew: to see godliness in the smallest detail, and to do so in the context of a tradition that extends well into the past, and to do so with the intention of continuing well into the future.




[1] Numbers 15:37-40, from the JPS translation

Does God Punish Us with Illnesses?

June 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

For the sin of gossiping against Moses, Aaron and Miriam are called onto the carpet, and God tells them in no uncertain terms that Moses is special: God speaks to Moses face-to-face. No one else can claim that honor. And then God’s presence departs from them in anger.

As the cloud leaves, Miriam is suddenly covered with white scales.

When Aaron sees her, he immediately assumes that the illness is a punishment for her sin. The timing of the affliction would suggest as such, given that it happened in quick succession. And he says to Moses, “Please my lord, do not hold a grudge against us for acting foolishly and sinning. Let her not be like a stillborn child…” In other words, Aaron’s narrative – the story he tells himself – is that she is now ill because they sinned. In his view, God punishes us through illness and death.

Aaron’s explanation is the one usually adopted by commentators: Miriam was punished for her sin.

The problem with this explanation, however, is that it makes the unreasonable assumption that illness and death occur as a result of God’s anger with us over having done something wrong.

But notice that Moses does not validate this explanation. He does not concern himself with questions as to why she is ill: he simply says, “O God, please heal her.”

And more importantly: God never says that her illness is a punishment.

Look at what God says in response: “If her father had spit in her face, would she not have been embarrassed for seven days?” I believe that the phrase ‘spit in her face’ is intended to call up the image of a father so angry that he is yelling at her, so close to her that he is spitting in her face. Imagine that her earthly father was so angry as to yell at her in this manner, and imagine that she agreed with him. Wouldn’t she be mortified at her behavior? How much more so, then, if it was God who is angry?

In other words, God tells Moses that Miriam is profoundly embarrassed. In this context, in fact, her scaled skin appears to be a physical expression of her emotional state, a stress reaction to having been reproached by God for her bad behavior. In other words: it is not a punishment  for her sin, but a symptom of her distress at having been so wrong.

And so, in response, God explains to Moses that she needs time to heal herself. She needs to sit outside of the camp and watch the world go by for about a week until she has recovered from the shock and anguish.

I think, in fact, that it is important that she is outside of the camp for the span of a week. This process of repair does not involve days of introspective brooding inside her tent. It is better that she be out in the fresh air, where she can watch the clouds scuttle by and listen to the sound of leaves. To heal from her affliction, she needs to pay attention to the movement of ants and become familiar with the play of sunlight on blades of grass. We all need a break sometimes to let it all wash over us, to just be still.

What we see here, in fact, is several different responses to the stress of having been wrong before the Lord.

Aaron does not say anything about his own guilt; he focuses on others. His altruism might also be a dodge of his own responsibility.

Miriam, on the other hand, directs her emotions inward, so that they become physical manifestations of her distress.

Moses, of course, was not one of the guilty parties, but his response is interesting nonetheless. He focuses on the task at hand: to heal her.

And God’s response to his plea is to draw attention to Miriam’s emotional state. God’s response, in effect, is to say, ‘I can’t heal her, as this is a manifestation of her own distress. Only Miriam can heal herself, and they only way to do that is for her to spend some time experiencing the painful emotion directly. And the best way to do that is to spend some time in nature, away from the camp and all its motion and noise.’

Anyone who has ever been to AA or Al-Anon or who has had to watch an addict struggle with that affliction understands the wisdom of God’s response: only Miriam can heal herself.

What we also see here is a certain wisdom as to what kinds of actions are healing for us. God’s suggestion to Moses has several gems for us to use: the first one is the awareness that there is no need to move on just yet, for it is possible to sit still for a while. There are things that need doing, but it is likely that most of the things that need doing can be put off for a few days, particularly if you should need to spend some time to recuperate.

In fact, God seems to be very concerned with our need to rest: are we not commanded to rest every single week, on Shabbat?

Another pearl of wisdom: the observation that spending time in nature is healing. Just knowing that you are a part of a larger chain of being, an endless symphony of movement around you, is comforting. And this observation is one is backed by scientific research: a study of brain waves found that just walking among the trees calms us. It is good for her to go out camping for a while.

And there is another gem: we should note that our physical distress might have emotional roots. Our mind-body connection is profound; some afflictions require that the emotional scars are healed before the physical ones recede.

The story we tell ourselves in the wake of an illness will define how well we respond to that illness. There are tales that lead to blind alleys and tales that lead to healing. Listen to God’s response, rather than Aaron’s: instead of viewing illness as God’s punishment, we should give ourselves time to heal.






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