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Learn about this week’s Torah portion with our Rabbis
The RNC, the DNC, and Parashat Pinchas
The Democratic National Convention, following on the heels of the Republican National Convention, dovetails perfectly with this week’s Torah portion. All three are concerned with picking a worth successor to leadership. In Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1), God reminds Moses that although he has been preparing the people Israel to enter the Promised Land, he will not be joining them. Instead of complaining, instead of asking for a reprieve, Moses’ thoughts turn not to himself but to the people. As Rabbi Reuven Hammer writes in his 2009 book Entering Torah, “indeed the true measure of a leader is his concern for his people.”
In his words, “Moses may not have been a perfect leader. Had he been perfect, perhaps he would have entered the land. No human being is perfect; we leave perfection to God. But he was a leader who placed the needs of his people and the good of his people above his own personal concerns. He thought of them before he thought of himself and even at the moment of his greatest personal tragedy, he looked for the way in which Israel could be led to the Promised Land, though he himself would never get there. Moses set an example and a standard for leadership that should inspire all of us and direct all our leaders to follow in his ways.” May those seeking the highest office in our land find the same selflessness demonstrated by Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Teacher.
Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer
What does it mean “to dwell apart?”
At first blush, the phrase conjures any number of benign images: a divorced couple, sharing custody of children, living in separate homes. A college dormitory with men and women living on separate floors. A group of sojourners finding themselves on separate paths. The key word here, of course, is “separate.” Distinct, distant, disconnected. Perhaps the most powerful image, though, is the one on which this Torah portion focuses: a people – our people – set apart from the nations of the earth. One people – unique in temperament, belief, identity – separate from all the rest.
In this parsha, Balaam, the prophet for hire, remarks on the People of Israel, singing: “there is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations.” Highlighting our millennia-long identification as the “Chosen People,” Balaam’s words are intended not only to make us pause, but also to highlight just how fabulous we really are. This parsha is typically recognized for its comedic retelling of Balaam, this prophet gone rogue, blessing the Israelites instead of cursing them at Balak’s command. How funny – and how powerful – it would be if all our curses emerged as blessings.
Yet Rashi, our medieval French rabbi and Torah commentator par excellence notes that there is a certain ambivalence there – is this really an example of blessing? He writes, “when [the Israelites] are joyful, there is no nation joyful with them.” How lonely we might feel in that often problematic state of “chosenness.” How isolated we could be continuing to live in our own “otherness,” dwelling apart from all the other peoples of the land.
We know that today we live in a world seemingly overflowing with curses; with darkness, and pain, and – at the root of so much of it – an overabundance of fear. How we see ourselves in relation to all of it can result, as Rashi warns, in a pretty lonely life. And while there is significance to our Jewish value of chosenness, to be sure, we also must recognize that dwelling apart from the rest of the earth, separating ourselves, and pulling away from the common, collective plight of humanity only perpetuates the cycle. By working together, sharing common ground, recognizing our ability to help, empower, and inspire – by changing the narrative of “dwelling apart” – we build bridges instead of walls. We promote tolerance, peace, and understanding. And maybe – through that – we turn curses into enduring blessings.
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen
Parashat Hukkat – Deafening Silence
I’ve often heard that bad things come in threes. For Moses this week, they certainly do – first, Miriam, his sister, passes away. Then God curses both he and his brother Aaron with not finding their way to the Promised Land with the rest of the Israelites. And then Aaron passes away as well. On the face of it, Moses has little to no reaction to any of this. The Torah’s narrator makes no comments clarifying Moses’ response to his entire world falling down around him, but what the narrator and Moses do not say is much louder than words.
Silence in the Torah is often a pregnant one. Much like in jazz, it’s the notes that the Torah doesn’t play that matters. After Moses speaks the words that end up being the reason for his being cursed to not enter the Land with the rest of the Israelites, he does not speak for the rest of the parashah. In fact, the next and last time he speaks in the book of Numbers is only to find a replacement for himself as leader. Otherwise, the one person who has spoken to and for both God and the Israelites is silent.
Earlier on in the Torah when Aaron was confronted with God’s killing of his sons Nadav and Abihu, Moses rebuked him. In response to Moses’ rebuke, the Torah tells us, “Aaron was silent.” The language that Moses used then, in Leviticus 10:3, was strikingly similar to that with which God rebukes Moses in this week’s portion. And, like his brother Aaron, after being rebuked, Moses is silent.
Silence in the face of tragedy, that feeling of turning inside ourselves and no longer engaging with the world outside, is something everyone is familiar with. Moses and Aaron reflect a clear and universal human reaction to personal tragedy. Our tradition, though, bids us to not keep our inner pain to ourselves. Through the tradition of shiva, the seven days after the death of a close relative in which the community comes together to commemorate the lives of the departed and to offer support to the bereft, those plunged mourning are able to share their experience of loss.
We can see these two contradictory approaches to grief as showing us that, in some cases, people may need time alone in their own silence, and in others people may need to air their emotions. An individual in the throes of loss, like Aaron with the loss of his son, and Moses with the loss of Miriam, Aaron and his own future, is one who may not need to be told how to process their grief, but instead, be allowed to share their anguish in their own way.
When our world overwhelms us with tragedy, as it seems to be doing so often these days, we all respond in our own ways. Sometimes silence, sometimes anger, sometimes sadness. Our tradition gives us leeway to react in manifold ways. This freedom not only allows for the diversity of human response, but also demands something of us – to hear the silence of others, to pay attention to this multiplicity in human reactions, to give ear to those who may respond in ways alien to us, and to work to find the elements of human connection between our many experiences of tragedy. Moses and Aaron’s silence bid us to hear the pain of our friends, loved ones, and neighbors in the way that they express it, even if the mode of expression is silence itself.
High Noon and Holiness
Inspired by my father’s penchant for citing parallels between narrative themes in Judaism and film, this week’s parasha, Korach, brings to mind the climatic conclusion to the iconic Western High Noon. But instead of a dusty Western’s Main Street in which good triumphs over evil, the Torah story occurs before all of Israel. Korach, a leader amongst the Levites, challenges Moses’ authority with a familiar plea to modern ears. Korach asserts that if all Israel is, indeed, holy, why should only Moses lead? The Orthodox sage Rav Soloveitchik sees in this argument echoes of the contemporary emphasis on egalitarianism and democracy, both of which were foreign to most of humanity until the last few centuries. The Rav continues by delineating types of holiness. There is a common holiness which all of Israel possesses. But there is also a singular holiness that only Moses maintains emerging from his special skills, virtues and commitments. Even for contemporary, Reform Jews and Americans ardent in their autonomy, this is a critical insight. We want leaders to whom we can relate, but who transcend our capacities, discipline and self-sacrifice in bearing the burden of leadership. I may want a president with whom I can have a beer—for 20 minutes! Afterward, I want him or her to ramp up their expertise to deal with issues and challenges that far surpass my abilities to respond. Korach’s error is an object lesson in the hollowness of ambition as basis for leadership, and Judaism’s distinct insistence on a counter-intuitive, but nonetheless morally and intellectually superior leadership.