Wise Traits

Ancient Jewish thought recognized seven traits of a wise person:

A sage

  1. does not speak before one who is wiser* than he;
  2. does not interrupt the words of his fellow;
  3. does not answer impetuously;
  4. asks relevant questions and gives appropriate answers;
  5. deals with first things first, and last things last;
  6. about something he has not heard he says, “I have not heard”;**
  7. acknowledges the truth.

Pirkei Avot [Verses, or Ethics, of the Fathers] 5:9
This translation is borrowed from the Koren Mesorat HaRav Siddur

This means, Rabbi Adam Scheier said in an essay a few years back:

In other words, a wise person is not only defined by acquired knowledge. A wise person is one with whom it is easy to have a productive conversation; a wise person is thoughtful, responds on topic, is sufficiently open-minded to entertain new ideas; a wise person might even consider the possibility that he or she is wrong.

NOTES

*Many translations say “older and wiser” — Hebrew is “מי שגדל ממנו בחכמה” — with some adding that the “superior one” should speak first.
**Another translation: “admit their ignorance.”

NaBloPoMo NOTE: “A Song Every Day” signed up for National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to daily posting for the month of November. Circumstances intervened on some dates. This post is hereby declared, by way of catching up, the official post of November 5.
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message to the Hebrew

Sandwiched in a Torah portion packed with narrative is “the war of the kings” with Lot’s capture and rescue (Gen. 14). It begins, really, with Abraham and his nephew Lot separating to avoid quarrel over land for cattle herding (Gen. 13). YHVH spoke to Abraham “after Lot had parted from him,” promising “descendants like dust of the earth,” and Abraham dwelt by the oaks of Mamre and built an altar to YHVH.

He is still living by the oaks of Mamre when the fugitive arrives to tell him that his nephew is in trouble, and Abraham sets off to rescue Lot:

And they took Lot, Abram’s brother’s son, who dwelt in Sodom, and his goods, and departed.

And there came one that had escaped, and told Abram the Hebrew [ha Ivri]…”

Does Abraham’s being an “ivri” — a “crosser-over” or “one from the outside” —  have anything to do with expectations about him and his response to Lot’s trouble? Why is this the first time Abraham is called by this name? Does being a Hebrew mean retainining sympathy — and a willingness to help — those on the other side?

NOTE

Lech Lecha (Gen. 12:1-17:27) includes the first “say you’re my sister” incident with Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 12:10-20), the weird episode of the Abraham and the covenant of the pieces (Gen. 15:1ff), and the first installments in the tales of Hagar and Ishmael (Gen. 16, 17:17-27).

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“…I can be wrong”

sometimes I’m right, but I can be wrong

…we got to live together

— Sly and the Family Stone

Everyday People

Two messages from Playing for Change “Songs Around the World” seem in order. If you don’t know this organization, learn and support them — or at least give them a listen….

Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow

— Bill Withers

Lean on Me

Whence have you come?

An angel encounters Hagar in the wilderness (Gen. 16:7). At this point, she has been introduced to us as maid to Sarah, who has been married to Abraham for ten years without producing a child (16:1). We are told that she was given by Sarah “as wife” to Abraham, that she became pregnant, and subsequently, scorned her mistress (“saw her as lightweight”). Sarah then afflicted Hagar, and Hagar ran away. Out in the wilderness, at the spring on the road, the angel speaks to Hagar.

No one in the story has addressed Hagar before this point. And only after the angel’s inquiry does Hagar speak. These obvious, but easily overlooked points are highlighted in Susan Niditch’s notes in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary and led me to marvel at the power of a few words.

With the fall holidays a few weeks behind us at this point, it’s not a bad idea to pause and (re-)consider* the angel’s query ourselves:

Whence have you come and
where are you going?

But we might also ask: How often have we needed someone to simply inquire and listen? How often do we stop to address someone encountered along the way?

*NOTE

For those observing two days of Rosh Hashanah, the story of Hagar is part of the first morning’s Torah reading.

Courageous Thoughts

Let’s return briefly to the questions which plagued author Sebastian Junger, in his suburban Boston youth, and set him a path that eventually led him to write Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging:

How do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a world that doesn’t require courage?
Tribe, p.xiv
(See “Covenant and Liturgy” for full citation and more)

Previous posts explored the concept of “sacrifice” and how it translates into Judaism. Here are a few notes on “courage.”

Ometz Lev

Like “sacrifice,” the word “courage” comes into English from Old French (corage) based on Latin (cor = heart). In Hebrew, the expression is “ometz lev [אַמִּיץ לֵב]” —   “to strengthen or reinforce [ometz]” one’s “heart [lev].”

One Jewish high school offers some useful remarks on how this value [middah] in Judaism might operate at different points in our lives:

Ometz Lev is the courage that allows us to accomplish goals in face of opposition. Often enough, that opposition comes from within us. The need for Ometz Lev (courage/ bravery) is not limited to outward challenges, but also to challenges from within. For example, neurological studies seem to suggest that in comparison to adult brains, adolescent brains have a tougher time maintaining long term focus. Conversely, the middle-aged brain is slower than the adolescent brain in starting a new task. It might take a bit of ometz lev to deal with pushing past natural inclinations.
— from “The Middah of Ometz Lev

Moving Traditions,” another teen-focused program, offers four texts for four types of courage people of all age could profitably consider:

Text #1 The Courage to Be Yourself

When the daughters of Yitro mistakenly called Moses an “Egyptian” Moses kept quiet. This is one of the reasons why he was not allowed into the Promised Land.

Moses cried out to the Holy One: Please, if I cannot enter the land in my life at least let my bones be buried there beside the bones of Joseph.

The Holy One said: Even when Joseph was captured, he said that he was a Hebrew.?But you pretended to be something you are not.

—Tanhuma Buber, 134

 

Text #2 The Courage to Control Impulses

Ben Zoma taught: Who is mighty? Those who conquer their evil impulse. As it is written: “Those who are slow to anger are better than the mighty, and those who rule over their spirit better than those who conquer a city.”

—Pirkey Avot 4:1

 

Text #3 The Courage to Question Authority

The finest quality of a student is the ability to ask questions that challenge the teacher.

—Solomon Ibn Gabirol

 

Text #4 The Courage to Rescue Others

Why do you boast yourself of evil, mighty fellow? (Psalms 52:3). David asked Doeg: “Is this really might, for one who sees another at the edge of a pit to push the other into it? Or, seeing someone on top of a roof, to push the person off? Is this might? When can someone truly be called a ‘mighty person’? When there’s an individual who is about to fall into a pit, and that someone seizes the individual’s hand so that he/she does not fall in. Or, when that someone sees another fallen into a pit and lifts the other out of it.”

—Midrash Tehillim 52:6

More Sacrifice

In the list of general obligations that closed the previous post, the concept of “sacrifice” per se does not appear. This raised the question for me: Is “sacrificing” for the community or for a greater goal a Jewish notion?

A few notes from a brief further exploration:

The substantial entry on “sacrifice” in the Jewish Encyclopedia, as a central example, focuses on the ancient system of ritual and interpretations, through the ages, of that system. Only three paragraphs in the 15,000-word article speak of non-ritual understandings of “sacrifice.” These are based on ancient ideas that study, prayer, and good deeds replace the Temple sacrifices.

Sacrifices are alive and well” in My Jewish Learning begins with the origin of the term :

The term “sacrifice” comes from a Latin word meaning “to make something holy.” The most common Hebrew equivalent is korban, “something brought near,” i.e., to the altar. (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by W. Gunther Plaut, UAHC Press, 1981, p. 750)in terms of “making something holy,” saying that the “most common Hebrew equivalent is korban, “something brought near,” i.e., to the altar. (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by W. Gunther Plaut, UAHC Press, 1981, p. 750)

In this piece, originally published by the Union for Reform Judaism, Deborah Gettes concludes:

Whether we have sinned or not, whether we have done so intentionally or unintentionally, we still have the desire to move closer to God, to offer our own korbanot. To do so, we must put forth the effort to show kindness, compassion, generosity, and goodwill even if that is not easy. At the same time, we must put forth the effort to study Torah and attend worship services. As Pirkei Avot states, Mitzvah goreret mitzvah: The more good we do, the more good we do. This is really a model for life. Sacrifices are alive and well: They just have to be slightly redefined.

heart
“Prayer is the heart…of significant living,” Gettes notes, quoting Rabbi Morris Adler.

This brings me back to the “heart map” and prayer as an avenue to making Judaism’s “counter-cultural” message and covenant a part of our being. In particular, it puts me in mind of one comment incorporated into the map:

“Why fixed prayer? To learn what we should value…” (a teaching from Rabbi Chaim Stern included in the 1975 Gates of Prayer and in newer Reform prayerbooks.)

Sacrificial Notes

“Sacrifice” has been an important concept in baseball since the 1880s and a Christian concept for far longer. The term came into English from Latin, via Old French, and is generally defined as giving up one thing to obtain another.

“Sacrifice” in Hebrew

The word “sacrifice” is sometimes used by English translators of the Hebrew bible, as when Noah performs a ritual action right after leaving the ark:

וַיִּבֶן נֹחַ מִזְבֵּחַ, לַיהוָה; וַיִּקַּח מִכֹּל הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהֹרָה, וּמִכֹּל הָעוֹף הַטָּהוֹר, וַיַּעַל עֹלֹת, בַּמִּזְבֵּחַ.
And Noah built an altar [מִזְבֵּחַ] to the LORD and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered [sometimes: “sacrificed”] burnt offerings [וַיַּעַל עֹלֹת] on the altar.
–Genesis 8:20

The Hebrew word for “altar” “mizbeach מִזְבֵּחַ” is linked with “zevach זְבֵּחַ,” one word for biblical sacrifice. But the Torah also uses other words, depending on the purpose and disposition of the offering:

minchah מִנְחָה” — “gift”
olah עֱלָה” — burnt offering, from “going up,”
sh’lamim שלמים” — “complete (or peace)” offering,
chatat חטאת” — “sin” offering, and
asham אשם” — “guilt” offering.

There are also offerings known by their content: “first fruits (bikkurim)” or “wave/sheaf (omer),” for example. Probably the most general term is “korban קָרְבָּן,” from the root for “becoming near.”

“Sacrifice” in Judaism?

A Jew’s obligations to oneself, to other individuals, and to the community are myriad. Here are a few of the most general:

  • We are warned to be for ourselves as well as for others (Avot 1:14)
  • We are told that “All Israel is responsible, one for the other [Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh]” (Shavuot 39a), and
  • We are reminded that caring for the poor and practicing lovingkindness are among the obligations without limit (Peah 1:1).

Is “sacrificing” for the community or for a greater goal a Jewish notion?

Stay tuned and/or share your thoughts.

Are We Ready Yet?

Are we ready yet, as multi-racial Jewish communities, to ask God to “renew our days as of old”? Have we, as U.S. Jews, thoroughly “searched our ways” for the racist systems in which we participate? Have we wept for the results in our own country and around the world?

Milwuakee 2016 “The joy of our heart is ceased;…”

“…our dance is turned into mourning.”  (Lam. 5:15) Baltimore 2015

Ferguson 2014 “How lonely sits the city, once full of people;…

“…she has become a widow!” (Lam. 1:1) Cincinnati 2001

LA 1992  “The crown is fallen from our head;…

“…woe unto us! for we have sinned.” (Lam 5:16) NYC etal 1968

Newark etal 1967 “For this our heart is faint,…

“…for these things our eyes are dim;” (Lam 5:17) Chicago etal 1966

Watts 1965 “She weeps sorely in the night,…”

“…and her tears are on her cheeks;” (Lam 1:2) Philadelphia etal 1964

Birmingham 1963. “For these things I weep;…”(Lam 1:16)

For these things I weep; my eye, my eye runs down with water….

“Let us search and try our ways, and return to the LORD.

“Turn us unto You, O LORD, and we shall be turned…”
— (Lam 1:16, 3:40, 5:20)

How can we complete the recitation of Lamentations for Tisha B’av, asking God to

“…renew our days as of old”

if we have not yet wept and searched our ways?

Matot: Heavy Tongue, or the House of Cards theory of bible study

I want to begin by acknowledging my teacher, Max Ticktin z”l, for whom the period of shloshim is coming to a close and whose connections to Temple Micah are more varied and interesting than I knew before he died. Max taught me — and others in several generations — a lot about who is and is not an enemy, of ourselves personally and of the People Israel.

Dvar torah on parashat Matot, Temple Micah 7/30/16

These remarks focus on the story of vengeance, Numbers 30:1ff. This is an odd and troubling story in many ways. I chose to study it, in part because I worry about the consequences of failing to examine the uglier parts of our tradition, and in part because its very oddness makes it interesting.

A few odd things

One odd thing is that we are told Pinchas was the priest of the campaign, but we are not told who the military leader was.

Another odd thing is how the otherwise terse story stops to tell us that Pinchas brought the “holy utensils” — which many commentators believe means the Ark — and the shofar. This makes the whole thing sound terrifyingly like something out of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (Paramount 1981) or any of our contemporary wars that make use of religious iconography to wreak havoc on perceived enemies.

It seems to me — although I didn’t find commentary saying this, exactly — that the religious details, the priest, the holy utensils, and the shofar, hint at the spiritual aspect of the story. However distasteful and scary most of us find this today, the idea that a war should be fought to kill some people in order to preserve other people’s spiritual health, that was a part of biblical storytelling.

Midianites and Moabites, Balak and Pinchas

The Torah and many commentaries are clear that this whole issue with the Midianites is a war on people who tempted the Israelites into idolatrous behavior. We might think (and many commentaries remark) that the problem would be with the Moabites because it was the Moabites with whom Israel engaged in harlotry and idolatry in what is called here “the matter of Baal Peor.”

Back at the close of parashat Balak, we are told that Israel became “attached to Baal Peor and the wrath of God flared up against them” (citation). Moses and the judges had just ordered the Israelites to turn on one another and kill men attached to Baal Peor when the Israelite male, Zimri, and the Midianite female, Cozbi, perform what is generally understood to be public sex acts at the Tent of Meeting. Then Pinchas runs them through with a spear, stopping a plague we had not been told was happening. Just the one Midianite, Cozbi, is mentioned there. But both nations collaborated in hiring Balaam to curse Israel. So perhaps they were collaborating in the incidents involving Baal Peor, too. However it came to be, God told Moses back in chapter 25, at the start of parashat Pinchas, to harass [tsaror] the Midianites and kill them because they had attached [tsorerim] Israel “through the conspiracy against you [the Israelites] in the matter of Peor.”

Hasidic commentary says this harassing is a sort of eternal command, because the temptation to the Israelites will persist. The idea is that once they have tasted debauchery, it will be impossible to keep desire from arising again. So Israel must now be eternally harassing those who harassed them with temptation.

If the Israelites could have been warned some other way to be eternally vigilant to stop evil urges in themselves, we might have an easier time with the lesson. But that is not what Or HaChaim teaches, and that is not how the Torah text unfolds. Instead….

God tells Moses to harass the Midianites in chapter 25. And then we have a census and some legal material, a list of offerings, and a long treatise on vows. After all that, here in chapter 31, God tells Moses to take vengeance — now the verb is different, nekom –against the Midianites.

This is another odd bit and one of my favorites.

Another odd thing

Back when the whole mess started, we have a break between portions introduced right at the height of the Baal Peor matter. Israel’s idolatry and the incident of Zimri & Cozbi ends parashat Balak. Pinchas is rewarded for his action that stops Cozbi & Zimri in the next portion. And that’s where we see the command to harass Midian, at the start of parshat Pinchas.

The portion break suggests that the story was just too far out of control and the Rabbis wanted to cool things off….This is a very famous break, often discussed in the commentary. For more, see “Pinchas and the scary friend….But that’s a later, conscious choice of how we are to read and learn this text. The Torah itself inserts the five-chapter break between the precipitating events and God’s call for harassment, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, this episode of vengeance.

Moreover, we have so many odd things in both places. Pinchas acts to stop a plague that is not mentioned before it stops. Moses and God speak of a conspiracy against the Israelites involving sexual misconduct. But the only conspiracy we’re told about in the text is the one to hire Balaam to curse the people. Balaam is blamed (in commentary and in the text here) for whatever sexual acts and idolatry are happening, even though the last we heard of him, he went home after blessing Israel with words we still celebrate every morning in the prayers. (See, e.g., “Balak prayer links”.)

Missing Bits

I think the missing bits and the halting way the story is told suggest a struggle — with facts, perhaps, or with feelings and ideologies that lead to death and disaster. If we take nothing else away from this, I believe the Torah wants to ensure that conspiracy and war and people turning on one another is not read smoothly or accepted easily.

Avivah Zornberg, the brilliant and very Freudian teacher of Torah, believes the Torah itself has an unconscious that is suppressing trauma. (See The Murmuring Deep, citation coming). I’m not sure I buy her whole theory, but I do think we should listen to the pauses and the stuttering and the weird missing bits as closely as we listen to the story tht reads more easily… maybe more closely.

Midianites: enemies?

And meanwhile Moses, who argued with God so many times before has nothing to say in the text in support of the Midianites who protected and nurtured him in his youth. Nothing to say about his extended family and the legacy of Jethro, his father-in-law, who contributed so much to his own learning and helped Israel set up a judicial system.

It’s not much of a surprise that we don’t hear from Zipporah, as we rarely hear from women, even ones who face down God to save their husbands from death (see the “night incident” at the inn in early Exodus; citation coming). But Moses has nothing to say on her behalf?

We’re not the first generation to notice the oddness of this incident and Moses’s close connection to Midianites. Early commentary says that is why, although God tells Moses to exact vengeance, Moses sends others and stays back himself. Of course, this says nothing about the fact that he lets it happen, anyway, even appears to orchestrate it; it also discounts the fact that Moses is quite aged here and perhaps unable to command in battle.

But the interesting point to note, I think, is that Numbers Rabbah acknowledged the relationship between Moses and Midian, and tries to address how hard it all was and how thoroughly entangled were all the players here.

The contemporary biblical literary teacher Robert Alter says this about Baal Peor in chapter 25:

The Israelite attitude toward its neighbors appears to have oscillated over time and within different ideological groups between xenophobia, a fear of being drawn off its own spiritual path by its neighbors, and an openness to alliance and interchange with surrounding peoples.

–Alter’s Torah commentary

In reference to this passage in chapter 31, he says:

Either two conflicting traditions are present in these texts, or, if we try to conceive this as a continuous story, Moses, after the Baal Peor episode reacts with particular fury against the Midianiate women (not to speak of all the males) because he himself is married to one of them and feels impelled to demonstrate his unswerving dedication to protecting Israel from alien seduction. But it must be conceded that the earlier picture of the Midianite priest Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, as a virtual monotheist and a benign councilor to Israel does not accord with the image in these chapters of the Midianite women enticing the Israelits to pagan excesses.

One more possibility comes to mind….

House of Cards theory of bible analysis

Maybe there was a conspiracy involving Balaam and the Midianite kings but orchestrated by some other entity for reasons of their own, some kind of House-of-Cards-type plot to discredit the Midianites and turn Israel against them — or to make us believe Midian and Israel were enemies and would always be. Maybe the plot was so successful that Moses turned against his own earlier supporters because of it, so successful that the narrator can make us believe the story really moves from “go kill more people to undo you own spiritual troubles” to instructions for how to become ritually clean after carrying out more vengeance. But whichever Frank Underwood was behind the plot is no longer available — to look  us straight in the eye, breaking the Torah’s fourth wall, so to speak  — and confess what’s really going on and why, or to at least offer another version of the truth.

This is not too different from Zornberg’s unconscious theory. Because they both boil down to the fact that the Torah itself cannot say, maybe no longer knows, what caused the People to lose their spiritual way and then turn on neighbors and allies in an attempt to cope, make some sense of it.  But the Torah is still able to tell us in its stuttering way, full of missing bits and confusion, that the tale is maybe not as straightforward as it might sometimes be portrayed, that vengeance is not a simple matter with a clear beginning and end, that it’s not something that ends well…or even ends:

In the middle of his rant to the leaders for not killing enough, Moses is somehow back to a lecture on ritual purity after touching the dead. And we are not told at this point if his ranting instructions were carried out (and we know from later stories in Tanakh that there are plenty of Midianites still in the land).

A heavy tongue returns

It occurred to me late in preparing these remarks that perhaps the rambling and stuttering of this story is related to what Shelley Grossman described here about Moses a few weeks ago: his aging and use of an old playbook and how he no longer has his siblings at his side. Remember, too, that Moses tried to refuse the Exodus mission, back at the Burning Bush, by telling God he was “heavy-mouthed” and “heavy-tongued” (Alter’s words). At the time, God told Moses not to worry because Aaron could speak. But now, Aaron and Miriam are gone and we have, instead, Pinchas — Aaron’s grandson whom we first meet when he is in the middle of a violent act, committing a killing that we are later told is part of a covenant of peace.

So maybe what we witness here is a story that is moving forward under emerging leadership but related by a man who has reverted to heavy-tongue, reporting to us that his own demise will follow on the heels of vengeance on people he once knew as family and fellow monotheists. Maybe it’s a kind of last gift to Moses — and to us — that the old, heavy-mouthed stuttering voice comes through to warn us that no such tale can be told without stumbling and missing bits.

NOTES

Max David Ticktin (1922 – 2016)

There are many on-line obituaries and memorials to Max. My favorite is this one by Rabbi Arthur Waskow. And in the way of such things, I was carrying the Torah through the Micah congregation just a few days after Max’s funeral and, even though Max did not attend services at Micah would not have been there to touch me with his tzitzit, I found myself equal parts profoundly sad at the knowledge that we would all be missing his touch and deeply grateful for the myriad ways he had already touched so many of us.

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The Torah Portion

The Torah portion Matot is comprised of Numbers 30:2 – 32:42. Temple Micah is following the schedule of readings used in Israel and, therefore, one week ahead of many congregations in the diaspora at this point in the calendar.
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Faith Communities & Gun Violence

How are faith communities responding to the ever-growing plague of gun violence in our midst? As some communities are just beginning to find their voices on this issue.

Spatz_StopViolence2

Prayer rally at Naylor Road, near Alabama Avenue, SE, March 13 (photo copyright: V. Spatz)

East Washington Heights Baptist Church held its first public response to gun violence just recently, for example. The church, in DC’s Hillcrest neighborhood (Ward 7), organized a prayer march and rally against gun violence on March 13. The prayer event came in the wake of a multiple shooting in a nearby bus stop on Sunday afternoon, March 6, which resulted in the death of 39-year-old Ivy Tonett Smith. Charnice Milton, my 27-year-old colleague at Capital Community News, was shot to death at the bus stop across the street on May 27, 2015. Look for more on this in the April edition of East of the River.

Others, like Presbyterian churches in and around Washington DC, have been active in responding to gun violence for many years. Area churches, along with others concerned, continue to protest outside one “bad dealer” store — linked to more than 2500 guns used in crimes over the course of 18 years — every fourth Monday at 4:00 p.m.

Presbyterian churches have also hosted this T-Shirt Memorial to 2015 victims of gun violence in DC.  Here’s a slideshow from the memorial installed at Fifteenth Street Presbyterian.

Finally, for now: The sermon at the heart of the movie Chi-Raq, despite controversies and faults of the film, gives us a glimpse of how St. Sabina, on Chicago’s Southside has been approaching this plague.

How is your community responding? What (else) would you hope to see?