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.

 

 

 

 

 

Aharei Mot — ‘Guidance, Not Governance’

April 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

When I went shopping at Price Chopper earlier this week, I ended up taking an extra 45 minutes to complete my errand. And you might ask: just why did my shopping take so long? I will tell you: it wasn’t the extra burden of figuring out how to exist for one week without wheat products – that’s something I do year-round.

It wasn’t even the time spent checking boxes of matzah for the ‘kosher for Passover’ designation, making sure that the regular not-for-Passover matzah boxes didn’t migrate over to the Passover section. Because, of course, they always do.

It was, rather, time spent engaged in the kind of family reunion that happens whenever you’re shopping in the Passover section. There were five of us shopping there – members of the congregation, a couple from Montreal, and I – and it wasn’t long before we were comparing notes on cake mixes and kugel recipes. We were having a fine time, actually, enjoying the shared experience of holiday preparations.

Despite this Passover bustle, this week’s Torah portion has a different holiday in mind, one that does not involve Manischewitz pesadik blueberry muffin mix.

As we read in the portion today:

“Thus only shall Aaron enter the Shrine: with a bull of the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. — He shall be dressed in a sacral linen tunic, with linen breeches next to his flesh, and be girt with a linen sash, and he shall wear a linen turban. They are sacral vestments; he shall bathe his body in water and then put them on.” Have you guessed yet which holiday we’re talking about here?

In Israel, it’s possible to wear linen more or less year-round, so that detail doesn’t give it away. It’s hard to tell with this snippet, but it does contain an important clue: this holiday is the only time Aaron enters the Holy of Holies.

The portion continues: “And from the Israelite community [Aaron] shall take two he-goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. Aaron is to offer his own bull of sin offering, to make expiation for himself and for his household. Aaron shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel.” Have you guessed yet?

It continues: “Aaron shall bring forward the goat designated by lot for the Lord, which he is to offer as a sin offering; while the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before the Lord, to make expiation with it and to send it off to the wilderness for Azazel.” That’s the original scapegoat: the goat that escapes. We are talking about Yom Kippur in this portion. It is describing one of the steps needed for atonement.

Part of the reason why it’s hard to guess the holiday is the fact that it does not match what we do now. So much has changed since then.

There is some continuity, however. As we read: “And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the Lord. It shall be a sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial; it is a law for all time.” We read that section as part of the liturgy of Yom Kippur. And we still do practice self-denial.

But even then there are changes: it used to be that Passover was the start of the year and Yom Kippur was mid-year. That’s why the portion says “in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month.” That makes some sense: Spring is a good time to start a new year.

After the Babylonian exile, however, the calendar shifted, incorporating the Babylonian’s sophistication in calculating the year. Rosh Hashanah became the start of the year, mirroring the Babylonian kingship ceremonies.

Thus we know from the dissonance between ‘what the Torah says about the holiday’ and ‘what we actually do to celebrate that holiday’ that our tradition changes over time.

Like Yom Kippur, the description of Passover in the Torah also does not match what we do now. There, Passover involves slaughter of a lamb, the use of hyssop to paint your doorposts with blood, and eating lamb while girded for travel. Now our Passover observance involves a whole lot of baked goods with an odd texture and egg salad on matzah for breakfast. But how does that kind of change happen?

I’ve spoken before about the process of change that led the Israelites to adopt prayer in place of sacrifice. Some of it is an evolutionary process; much of it is a direct response to a major event, such as the destruction of the Temple.

Tonight, however, I thought I would speak a bit about change in the Reform movement. As many of you know, I have just returned from Chicago, where I attended the convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

At that conference, I attended a session taught by Rabbi Dr. Joan Friedman, regarding a central figure in the history of the Reform movement. Her book about Solomon Freehof was just named a finalist for a major Jewish book award.

At the conference, Freedman opened her talk with a discussion of how the Reform Responsa Committee was first formed. In 1906, Kaufmann Kohler, the President of the Hebrew Union College, made a presentation to the CCAR regarding the first draft of the ‘minister’s handbook.’ He explained that it would conclude with a section titled Halakhot – the Hebrew word for Jewish law. The section would provide a summary and explanation of the decisions of the CCAR on certain issues.

There was a storm of protest in response to his proposal, however, largely on account of the title. The Reform Rabbis were not interested in creating a system of biding rules for the Reform movement. A compromise was worked out: the CCAR would create a Responsa Committee to provide guidance.

Solomon Freehof, the focus of Freedman’s book, was appointed the head of the Responsa Committee in 1956. At that point, he was already a well-known and well-respected expert in interpreting the tradition. As the HUC Press notes, “Even before Freehof was named chairman of the Central Conference of American Rabbis Responsa Committee in 1956, his colleagues began turning to him for guidance, especially in the situations Freehof recognized as inevitably arising from living in an open society where the boundaries between what was Jewish and what was not were ambiguous or blurred. Over nearly five decades, he answered several thousand inquiries regarding Jewish practice, the plurality of which concerned the tensions Jews experienced in navigating this open society—questions concerning mixed marriage, Jewish status, non-Jewish participation in the synagogue, conversion, and so on—and published several hundred of these in eight volumes of Reform responsa.”

According to Friedman, Freehof’s theology was grounded in a sense of ethical monotheism. He also believed that ritual and observance are human creations. His process, therefore, in writing responsa was to study the tradition, looking to it to provide ‘guidance but not governance’ – which is, in fact, the title of her book.

As a matter of fact, Freehof was opposed to creating a code of reform practice. In his view, all responsa are to be considered advisory. Thus, in writing his responsa, he was not claiming any kind of binding authority.

Let’s look at that last point a little more deeply. According to Freehof, Jewish law derived its authority from legally consititued kehillot. What does that mean? In the medieval period, Jews were not citizens of the countries in which they lived. Rather, Jews lived within kehillot, which were separate, self-governing communities.

The community would receive a charter from the local authorities to settle in a specific place; this charter would also give the community the right to manage their own affairs. And the halakhah, the system of Jewish law, would be the basis of that governance. In Europe, that situation changed after the French revolution: Napoleon granted Jews citizenship for the first time. And that emancipation of the Jews spread to the rest of Europe in fits and starts.

Thus, with the end of separate Jewish status, there were (in Freehof’s view) no more binding halakhot. All observance has since become voluntary. What remains in the absence of binding authority is minhag (custom).

In fact, according to Freehof, Jewish practice has always been developed by the people; the role of the rabbis has been to regularize it. In a sense, it has always been true that Jews will live the way they are going to live and the rabbis are playing catch up. Freedman, in describing this process, used the image of river banks directing the flow of the river. The rabbis’ function, she explained, is to find a way to make it okay. That was Freehof’s view.

There were, however, four conditions under which he would say no: He would say no to practices that were contrary to decided CCAR policy. He would say no to practices that would blur religious boundaries with regard to the Christian majority. He would say no to practices that publicly flouted known rules. And he would say no to practices that were (in his view) vulgar and tasteless.

The difficulty, of course, is knowing what is timeless and what is passing fad. Tastes change, of course, so that what’s vulgar for one generation might be perfectly acceptable for the next. And deeper changes happen as well: there might be a greater appreciation of the pain and suffering that is caused to groups displaced by our assumptions and our rules.

All of which brings us back to the Torah portion this week. Freehof could not imagine a world in which two people of the same gender would be able to be legally married in the State of New York. To the contrary, he viewed same-gender attraction through the prism of the prohibitions we find in this week’s Torah portion. But our assumptions about what constitutes normal human sexuality have changed, and that’s a good thing. It’s as it should be.

Parts of our tradition are indeed timeless – God is. Our need for ritual is. The demand to do justly is. And parts of our tradition change with time. Even Passover, one of our oldest holidays, looks wildly different than in the days of Moses. So feel free to make it your own. You, too, are a part of this tradition, a most vital part.

A Zissen Pesach – a sweet Passover to you all.

Shimini — When we are wrong

March 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

For whatever reason, it has been decreed in this country that pita bread must have the taste and consistency of packing foam. In Israel, however, where pita-baking is a cottage industry in its own right, pita has that sweet yeasty flavor of just-baked bread. 

What is different about Israeli pita is the oven that it is baked in: it is a large unglazed ceramic globe, standing as tall as a man, with hot wood fire at the bottom. 

To bake the bread, small flat pancakes of dough are slapped to the inside wall of the oven, like doughy starfish. When the dough peels itself off the side of the oven, the bread is done.

A skillful baker will know this moment instinctually and place his wooden oar under it to catch its fall. If you wait at the bakery in Emek Refaim in Jerusalem, you can buy a dozen of them right from the oven. 

I’m afraid that this week’s Torah portion, however, does not mention the sweet satisfaction of pita bread. Rather, it relates to an unpleasant surprise you might find one morning if you are tasked with the care and use of these ovens: what happens when a small animal crawls inside one of these ovens and dies? Might you still be able to use the oven?

According to the biblical law, the answer would be no.

“The following shall be unclean for you from among the things that swarm on the earth: the mole, the mouse, and great lizards of every variety; the gecko, the land crocodile, the lizard, the sand lizard, and the chameleon. Those are for you the unclean among all the swarming things… And if any of those falls into an earthen vessel, everything inside it shall be unclean and [the vessel] itself you shall break… Everything on which the carcass of any of them falls shall be unclean: an oven or stove shall be smashed. They are unclean and unclean they shall remain for you.”

That’s the rule: an earthenware vessel must be smashed – no exceptions.

Yet, being as these ovens are enormous, they cannot be cheap to make. Finding a dead creepy-crawly in one of these ovens would likely be a crushing loss.

It would preferable, then, to discover an option that does not involve destroying an entire oven. What if, for example, the oven is made in a different fashion – what if it is one of those new-fangled tiled ovens, like what is used for bread-baking in Europe – then what happens if it houses an unwelcome swarming thing?  Maybe you could cut the bad part out and leave the rest of the oven intact? 

The Talmud has a rather fanciful explanation for how the matter was decided. 

“It has been taught” in tractate Bava Metzia, that “on that day” when this issue was decided by the sages, “Rabbi Eliezer brought forth every imaginable argument,” as to why a tiled oven could be made clean again, but the sages “did not accept them” and ruled that it should be destroyed, just like a pita oven. 

Said Rabbi Eliezer to them: “‘If Jewish law agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!’  Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place – and some say, four hundred cubits.  ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,’ they retorted.”

“Again he said to them: ‘If Jewish law agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!  Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards.  ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they rejoined.”

“Again he urged: ‘If Jewish law agrees with me, let the walls of this academy prove it,’ whereupon the walls inclined inward to fall.  But Rabbi Joshua rebuked” the walls, “saying, ‘When scholars are engaged in a legal dispute, what right have you to interfere?’  Hence they did not fall, in honor of Rabbi Joshua, nor did they become upright again, in honor of Rabbi Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined.” 

Again Rabbi Eliezar said to them: “‘If Jewish law agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: ‘Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, seeing that in all matters, Jewish law agrees with him?’ But Rabbi Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven!’”

“What did he mean by this?  — Said Rabbi Jeremiah: That the Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice,” instead it says that we should ‘follow the majority.’ 

Rabbi Nathan met Elijah, who is the prophet who never died but instead wanders the earth and speaks with rabbis. And Rabbi Nathan asked him, “‘What did the Holy One, the one who is blessed, do in that hour?’ Elijah responded: ‘He laughed, saying ‘My children have defeated Me! My children have defeated Me!’”

It’s a fanciful story, rather unexpected, and quite funny. We should assume, of course, that the rabbis knew full well that carob trees do not uproot themselves. I also suspect that it is not a coincidence that this story is structured like a fairy-tale, with three examples. Like ‘three bears’ or ‘three wishes’ or any other group of three in the fairy-tale genre, here we have the three proofs, the carob tree, the stream, and the walls of the academy. 

After this triad comes the climax of the story:

“On that day all objects which Rabbi Eliezer had declared clean were brought and burned in a fire.  Then they took a vote and excommunicated him.”

Though in modern times we don’t normally practice it, Jewish law does allow for excommunication.  It’s actually a form of shunning; it can be done for a specified period of time or done indefinitely, but it ends when the person has repented. So, we learn, the sages excommunicated Rabbi Eliezer even though he was quite right about the oven. But why would they want to do that?  

Let me fill in the background, and tell you the backstory: the rabbis are living in exile, in the centuries following the destruction of the second Temple, and they are worried about survival. Rabbi Eliezer was defying the majority in his obstinacy.

Because he was always right about these kinds of things – that is to say, if a voice where ever to come down from heaven to weigh in on an argument, it would surely back his position – he therefore had the kind of personal prestige that could create a genuine rift in the rabbinic world, one which the sages feared could be fatal to the fledgling community.

So they had their reasons for excommunicating him. They were afraid. And they let their fears get the best of them.

Said the sages, “‘Who shall go and inform him?’ ‘I will go,’ answered Rabbi Akiba,” a highly-respected scholar, “‘Lest an unsuitable person go and inform him, and thus destroy his whole world.’ What did Rabbi Akiba do? He donned black garments and wrapped himself in black, and sat at a distance of four cubits” from Rabbi Eliezer.  “‘Akiba,’ said Rabbi Eliezer to him, ‘what has particularly happened today?’  ‘Master,’ he replied, ‘it appears to me that your companions are shunning you.’”

Thereupon Rabbi Eliezer “tore his garment,” as a sign of mourning, “and put off his shoes and sat on the earth, while tears streamed from his eyes.” It is a heartbreaking reaction – clearly Rabbi Eliezer had only been seeking the truth, not trying to tear the community asunder.

It would seem to me, then, that even if the community had a very good reason for its actions – and ensuring the survival of the community would qualify as a good reason – it does not have the right to wound an individual in this manner.

We see a similar situation in this week’s portion as well. Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu made a grave mistake in the handling of the fire pans for the tabernacle and they are themselves consumed by fire. It is a terrible accident and it leaves Aaron grieving for his sons.

Shortly thereafter, however, Moses discovers another breach of protocol with regard to the sacrificial service and he takes Aaron’s remaining sons to task:

Then Moses inquired about the goat of sin offering, and it had already been burned! He was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, and said, ‘Why did you not eat the sin offering in the sacred area? For it is most holy, and He has given it to you to remove the guilt of the community and to make expiation for them before the Lord. Since its blood was not brought inside the sanctuary, you should certainly have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded.’”

In the immediate aftermath of the deaths of Nadav and Abihu, Aaron had been silent in response to Moses’ rebuke. This time, however, Aaron responds to Moses, arguing with him, suggesting to him that now is not the time to be bringing up such things: ‘See, this day they brought their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and such things have befallen me! Had I eaten sin offering today, would the Lord have approved?’”

If you are paying close attention to the text, you can visualize Aaron rolling his eyes when Moses is speaking: ‘Really, Moses? Really? I just lost two sons, and you’re worried about how, when and where the goat of the sin offering was burned?’

Moses is a mensch, of course, and knows when to let it drop. He admits that he is wrong: ‘Yes, Aaron, you’re exactly right. I have forgotten what’s most important.’ As the text states: “And when Moses heard this, he approved.”

Disputes will arise, of course, and well-meaning people of good faith will disagree. But what we learn from our Torah portion this week is that we have a responsibility to be gentle with each other, even when we are right – and most especially when we are wrong about being right.

Va’era

December 23, 2013 § 1 Comment

In Cincinnati, there is a large shopping mall with exactly one lane of traffic into the parking lot and one lane out. It can get really crazy around the Christmas buying season, in fact, and will have a line of a dozen cars waiting to exit. If that were not bad enough, a popular chain restaurant has its entrance right where the traffic backs up, so drivers often have to wait for overly-full diners with doggie bags to make their way across both lanes.

So it happened that once during the holiday season, I was following a suburban as we were attempting to leave the parking lot. It stopped unexpectedly in the lane, right in front of the restaurant – as if there were no line of cars behind him! – and then two able-bodied passengers climbed into the car. Aghast, I honked at him: move it!

What I could not see, however (for he was just outside of my peripheral vision), was the man in a full leg cast up to his hip making his way cautiously across the icy sidewalk to the car. In other words, the suburban actually had a good reason to stop.

The man’s friends and family, absolutely outraged that I would begrudge him his time to be loaded into the car, got out of the car and started yelling at me. One man – I think that he was the driver – kept saying over and over to me, ‘Are you stupid? Are you stupid?’ I tried to mime the idea ‘I’m sorry; I didn’t know’ but that isn’t an easy concept to convey with a gesture. It just seemed to make them madder. So I rolled down the window. He leaned in and said it one more time, this time with emphasis: ‘Are? You? Stu? Pid?’

Um, no, not stupid, actually. Just sorry for having honked at him before I understood the situation.

In the case of Pharaoh, it is not stupidity that causes him to ignore all the signs around him, but rather a refusal to understand. It’s not that he doesn’t see the man in a hip cast, but rather that he simply doesn’t care.

Even so, in responding to Moses, Pharaoh certainly seems remarkably dense. Exactly how many times does Moses have to correctly predict a calamity before Pharaoh believes that Moses has God on his side?

How could Pharaoh be so stubborn? The text, of course, provides its own answer: God intervenes and hardens Pharaoh’s heart. But why does God do that?

We have here a basic problem of free will: if we are to be held responsible for our actions, if we have some kind of ethical responsibility, then we must assume that the actions we take are made on the basis of free will. For it would be merely cruel to punish someone for something outside of his or her control.

But, if we do indeed have free will, then how can it be possible for God to harden Pharaoh’s heart?

Consider the possible implications:

It could mean that God has the ability to intervene and cause someone to fulfill a predetermined destiny. But then we have an ethical difficulty: how do we know when God has made this predetermination, as opposed to knowing when an individual has chosen this path voluntarily? How could we hold everyone responsible if some are indeed responsible but some really are not?

Another possibility is that God does not intervene directly, but that everything ultimately flows from God. For example, the Italian Jewish scholar Samuel David Luzzatto of the early nineteenth century suggested the following understanding: “Know that all acts are ascribed to God, since He is their ultimate cause, some by absolute decree, and others through the operation of human choice granted by Him…In the sense that He is author of all acts, He hardened Pharaoh’s heart…”[1]

In this explanation, it is Pharaoh’s own doing that he has become so stubborn; God is involved only in the sense that God is involved in everything.

But this explanation does not address a critical question: why is Pharaoh being so stupidly stubborn about the Hebrews? Why does he stubbornly endure (or be hardened to endure) ten plagues?

In this regard, I think that Maimonides’ naturalistic explanation makes the most sense: he argues that Pharaoh’s own wickedness has become such an ingrained habit that it is nearly impossible for him to repent and change his ways. It is as if God had hardened his heart, for he is so accustomed to a certain path of behavior.

Aha. There is an important insight there. Sometimes our worst behavior is the force of habit: a reflexive refusal to recognize the pain and suffering of others whenever it is inconvenient to change our ways.

So, to return to my story: honking at someone is hardly a sin, and few would fault me for it. But the incident itself could be used as a metaphor: the people around us might be lumbering on with a difficulty we cannot see. They might be waiting for someone outside our field of view. On a small scale, these small interactions are not noteworthy. But be careful of the habits you create: Don’t go hardening your own heart. Boundless compassion takes effort and practice. And a bit of patience.


[1] As quoted in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot/Exodus, p. 151.

 

Shemot — Names

December 16, 2013 § 2 Comments

Exodus 4:28   Moses told Aaron about all the things that YHVH had committed to him and all the signs about which He had instructed him. 29 Then Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the Israelites. 

It was a surprisingly large crowd. Aaron looked at Moses to see if he wanted to speak first – and then, realizing the nature of his role, stepped forward to address the elders.

“Sons of Israel” – his voice wavered a bit, so he took a deep breath before continuing – “I am Aaron, this is Moses, my brother; the God of our fathers revealed Himself to Moses in a fiery bush at the Mountain of God, in the Horevah area.” He was speaking quickly now, hoping that his voice would not betray his fear. “God has indeed seen your plight and has sent us to bring you out of Egypt.  We will go to Pharaoh – ”

“—Oh yes,” one of the elders interrupted, “and tell Pharaoh that our God wants us to be freed. And Pharaoh will say, ‘who is this God that I should heed him? What is the name of this redeemer-God that you speak of, the God of your fathers?” The elder continued speaking, using a tone that might have conveyed a sense of genuine concern, but also might have been condescension – it was hard to tell. “By any chance did this god tell you his name?” he asked, waiting for an answer, with eyebrows raised. The crowd tittered in nervous anticipation.

“Yes,” said another, picking up on the nature of his question, “did he tell you his name?” – the elder leaned forward to make his point – “was it the God of our Fathers who spoke to you – or was it a demon who has in fact deceived you?”

Aaron’s heart skipped a beat. Moses had been so sure of himself that Aaron had not stopped to think that it could have been a demon who sent them. The metallic taste of fear rose in his throat. Was it really God who spoke to Moses? Was it really God who noted our suffering? Does God even exist? And how could we possibly know?

Standing next to him, Moses spoke quietly with his eyes closed: “I am and will continue to exist as I have always existed. Thus shall you say to the Israelites, I exist sent me to you.”

And at once Aaron understood. “He said,” Aaron announced, his voice grander now, “‘YHVH, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob has sent me to you; this is my name always and this is my memorial from generation to generation.’”

Exodus 4:30 And Aaron repeated all the words that YHVH had spoken to Moses, and he performed the signs in the sight of the people, 31 and the people were convinced.  When they heard that YHVH had seen their plight, they bowed low in homage.

“Please heal her”

May 28, 2013 § 1 Comment

Aaron and Miriam speak out against Moses, on account of his marriage to a Cushite woman. It is not clear why there is a problem with her, other than the fact that she is a Cushite. In the Bible, ‘Cush’ is name for Ethiopia, so some modern commentators have assumed it was her skin color.

Personally, I think that is a projection backwards. Frankly, I think it had more to do with her foreignness. In the Song of Songs, for example, it says ‘I am black and comely’ – which would indicate that a range of color was fully appreciated for its beauty. The biblical world was not as fixated on skin color as we are; instead, the overriding concern was with the various tribal cultures: what foods, what languages, and what gods? The foreignness of the Cushite woman is likely the source of their objection.

So, we learn, his two older siblings speak out against Moses, and wonder at his life-choices and gossip about his high position. Are we not as good as him? Do we not also speak to God – and is it not true that God hears us?

As an aside, I would note that it does not seem that Moses was a particularly authoritarian leader, for he faces this kind of challenge to his authority on multiple occasions. And, as we read, the text here emphasizes that he was the most modest among all of those on earth. Folks are always assuming that they could easily step into his shoes.

But, for speaking against Moses, Aaron and Miriam are called onto the carpet, so to speak, to appear before God: that is, God quite literally summons them and tells them in no uncertain terms that Moses is special. God speaks to Moses face-to-face. And 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 assumes that it is a punishment for her sin. The timing 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…” 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.

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 construct the same story. He does not concern himself with questions as to why she is ill, but rather focuses on the desired outcome: he simply says, “O God, please heal her.”

So was her illness a punishment? You might want say to me, if it is not a punishment, then why does God say in the very next line, “If her father had spit in her face, would she not have been embarrassed for seven days? Let her remain quarantined for seven days outside the came, and then she can return home.”

At first glance, it would be quite reasonable to assume that the disease is a punishment, based on this statement. That is, in fact, how this text is usually understood by commentators. But that is the story that we have created in response to the text. It should be noted that in the text, God never makes that connection directly.

What, then, does the text say? First, let’s look at the spitting metaphor. 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.

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 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. Resting is important. God seems to be very concerned with our need to rest: are we not commanded to rest every single week, on Shabbat? Taking a nap on Shabbat is in fact my favorite mitzvah.

Another pearl of wisdom is 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 some of our physical distress has emotional roots. Our mind-body connection is profound; some afflictions require that the emotional scars are healed before the physical ones recede.

In other words, the story we tell in the wake of a tragedy will define how well we respond to that tragedy. There are tales that lead to blind alleys and tales that lead to healing. Listen to God’s response, rather than Aaron’s: give yourself time to heal.

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