Korach and Dysfunctional Systems

Earlier this week, my town experienced a police-involved killing, and an elected representative of the community was on the scene shortly afterward. He told reporters he did not want to repeat he-said/she-said but was awaiting video and other evidence: “My job is to get the facts – what happened.”

I’m sure many readers know or can guess the specifics, but I’m leaving them out because I think this situation, like the tale of Korach and his followers — a narrative, which Jews read this week in the annual Torah cycle (Numbers 16:1-18:32), about community and power — has something more universal to teach.

The Official Job

My first thought on hearing this official say his job was to “get the facts” was: No, that’s the job of police detectives and journalists; your job is legislative, budgetary, and related responses to the town’s many challenges. I realized immediately, however, that my first thought came from a fantasy world.

Leaving the facts to journalists and police only works in a world where community members can rely on those individuals and their institutions to pursue the full story, where some level of trust exists.

Officials from some other parts of town have the luxury of sticking to the duties for which they were elected, the privilege of living and working where basic systems appear to be functioning — at least for the people they represent. In the hugely unlikely event that a police-involved killing (God forbid any more anywhere) were to arise on the streets of some other districts in town, elected representatives and constituents could continue their own work, while expecting investigative professionals to do theirs.

This particular official, however, operates amid systems which have long since ceased to function for too many of the people he represents.

So, what exactly is his job? Can it possibly be similar to those of his official colleagues?

The Rebellion

In the bible story, Korach and his followers accuse Moses and Aaron of exalting themselves over the congregation of God. Although teachers over the centuries have made efforts to find some merit in Korach’s argument, he remains the poster child for the evils of greed, self-aggrandizement, and self-interested politics.

We also read that Dathan and Abiram call Moses unfit to lead the People, given that his leadership has already resulted in them being condemned to die in the wilderness (Num 16:13). Just a few chapters earlier, God announced a punishment, following the incident of the spies, for all the adults: “your carcasses shall drop in this Wilderness. Your children will roam for forty years and bear your guilt…” (Num 14:32-33).

The argument from Dathan and Abiram fares no better, in the bible narrative, than Korach’s initial challenge, and the result is catastrophic:

So Moses stood up and went to Dathan and Abiram, and the elders of Israel followed him. He spoke to the assembly, saying, “Turn away from near the tents of these wicked men, and do not touch anything of theirs, lest you perish because of all their sins.” So they got themselves up from near the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, from all around….

When he finished speaking all these words, the ground that was under them split open. The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all the people who were with Korach, and the entire wealth.
— Num 16:26-27, 31-32

Things go from bad to worse in the bible story, and the Children of Israel eventually tell Moses: “Behold! we perish, we are lost, we are all lost….Will we ever stop perishing?” (Num 17:27-28)

Our Job

Every year when we come to this Torah portion, I find myself worrying about the failures of communication involved in the rebellions and wondering how differently things might have evolved, given better listening.

Why are Moses and Aaron, and God, so surprised and unhinged by the People’s lapse of faith (in the spies incident, previous portion)? What if God had just heard their worries instead of responding so negatively to their hesitation?

Why are Moses and Aaron, and God, unable to hear the people’s desperation and anger, in the face of completely failed expectations?

And what is our job, as community members — and, if appropriate, as Jews — whether we live in an area suffering from severe system break-down or not? How might better listening, and closer attention to circumstances behind complaints and rebellion, change things?

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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Balak, Dead50, and Frederick Douglass

The U.S. was in a “lingering period of childhood,” said Frederick Douglass on the occasion of Independence Day in 1852. “Were the nation older, the patriot’s heart might be sadder, and the reformer’s brow heavier. Its future might be shrouded in gloom, and the hope of its prophets go out in sorrow. There is consolation in the thought that America is young.”

At this point, we’ve got another 163 years on us, and many a patriot’s heart is indeed sadder, reformers’ brows heavier: Too many of Douglass’ words still ring true today, however much has changed since 1852; for too many U.S. citizens, a day celebrating U.S. ideals is one “that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

Meanwhile, we are about the enter Shabbat Balak, with a fantastical Torah reading that centers around strange visions, an outside prophet’s view of an inchoate nation, and a people’s struggle with diversity.

In addition, tonight begins the final series of Fare Thee Well concerts, prompting many a meditation on youth, age, and the length of the strange trips we’re on as individuals and communities.

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Tzipporah’s Eye View at the DC Sermon Slam

I have always lived among priests and prophets. I know that some divine encounters prove more terrifying than illuminating. And I believe there is much to be learned about Revelation by turning away from Sinai’s thunder and lightening.

Consider for a moment that time Miriam and Aaron complained about Moses and his black wife and God responded by covering Miriam with white scales. [Numbers 12:1ff. Tzipporah also appears in Exodus chapters 3, 4, and 18]…


…So, what does this incident tell you about Revelation?

Follow me for a moment on a “tzipporah-eye view,” looking two directions at once to see ahead. [“Tzipporah” = “bird”]

One bird’s eye focuses in on the siblings, without regard to gender. Here are three powerful individuals, all within spitting distance, shall we say, of divine Revelation. Genuine caring and concern between the siblings is evident, and each is deeply committed to community and the evolving Torah.

And yet, this story shows, understanding anyone else’s piece of Revelation – even the teaching of a prophet sibling, whom you love and respect – has always been hard. How much more so must non-siblings in your time work to understand each other’s perspectives!…

Recording from DC’s recent Sermon Slam, a project of Open Quorum. Background notes and sources.
Full text.


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Purposefully Blue

The peculiar blue [תכלת, tekhelet] thread used in tzitzit [ritual fringes] (Numbers 15:37-41) also appears prominently in the construction of Tabernacle (Exodus 25ff). It is used in the inner curtains and the loops that connect them; it also appears throughout the priestly vestments.

Why this blue?

It has been taught: R. Meir used to say: Why is blue [תכלת] specified from all the varieties of colours? Because blue resembles [the colour of] the sea, and the sea resembles [the colour of] heaven, and heaven resembles [the colour of] the Throne of Glory, as it is said: And they saw the God of Israel and there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone [לבנת הספיר], and as it were the very heaven for clearness (Exod. 24:10) and it is written: The likeness of a throne as the appearance of a sapphire stone [אֶבֶן-סַפִּיר] (Ezek 1:26).
— Sotah 17a (also: Menachot 43b and Chullin 89a)

Kedushat Levi links the above passage about blue, תכלת, to the stages of a creative act, beginning and ending with its purpose [תכלית]:

[A project from thought to completion] has undergone four distinct stages. 1) original mental image of the project; 2) clarification of the details, etc. 3) translating thought into deed. 4) carrying out the intention which originally prompted the project. [Punctuation follows translation.] When the original mental image of the project is seen reflected after its successful completion, the person inhabiting this building will experience a sense of satisfaction and joy.
— Kedushat Levi, p. 475 (see Source Materials for full citation)

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“You set the patterns of the moon”

El Adon and Another Pinchas Addendum


(5) Glory and honor they give to You
glowing praises to Your rule
You call to the sun and it gives forth light
You set the patterns of the moon

(6) You are honored throughout the heavens with songs of glory and praise
[the Seraphim, Ophanim and holy beings ascribe glory and greatness]

Shevach notnim lo kol tz’va marom
[tiferet ugdulah serafim ve’ofanim vechayot hakodesh]

— from “El Adon,” a hymn of Creation
in the Shabbat and Festival morning services
translation from Mishkan T’filah,
[MT inexplicably omits the final (“tiferet“) line]

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More on Mouse: Pinchas, part 2

More on Mouse

[addendum to dvar Torah, “Pinchas and the Scary Friend”]

Many hard-boiled detectives have their “scary friend.” But Ezekiel (Easy) Rawlins’ friend Raymond (Mouse), is something else again. Mouse is written by Walter Mosley as a true psychopath.

To illustrate: At one point early in the series, Easy asks why Mouse has just killed a man, and Mouse responds:

You said don’t shoot him, right? Well I didn’t; I choked… look, Easy – if you ain’t want him dead, why you leave him with me?

On the DVD of “Devil in a Blue Dress,” the only Easy Rawlins story made into a movie so far, there’s a special feature showing the actor Don Cheadle (Raymond, aka Mouse) busting out in laughter the first few times he tries to deliver those lines, so absurd to any sane person. When Cheadle finally gets it, the character he’s created is terrifying. Cheadle’s portrayal helps us understand why Easy would like to distance himself from this man, even as we realize that the detective would be dead without his friend’s help.

The extreme nature of Mouse’s personality makes it all the more interesting, I think, that Mosley wrote this man so deeply into Easy’s life. The author could have chosen to rely on any number of fixers, who show up for a minute, do what needs doing, and then disappear. It happens often enough in this kind of fiction.

“You know,” Mosley observes, “you can have the existentialist detective. He’s all alone; he may know somebody, but that person’s only going to appear in one book, and then it’s over. But Easy, he works with people. He trades favors. That’s part of how he lives.”
— from David Ulin’s LA Times interview with Mosley

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