Friday, May 31, 2013

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

As the spies embark upon their mission Moshe gives them some advice about what to look for. He says to check and see if the inhabitants are strong or weak. Rashi quotes the Midrash that Moshe gave them a trick: if the people lived in open cities this means that they are strong and can rely on their strength alone to protect themselves. If the city is heavily fortified, then you can be sure that the inhabitants are weak and they need outside help to protect themselves.

It’s an interesting theory. I’m not sure that by merely looking at the situation one would come to those conclusions. I can imagine that spies would ordinarily make the reverse conclusion based on the evidence: ie open cities are easy prey whereas fortified cities are more difficult to conquer.
I believe that there are two lessons for us from this Midrashic understanding of Moshe’s advice. First lesson is that your eyes can deceive you and you need to interpret what you see carefully and logically, taking all factors into consideration. Perhaps Moshe was already nervous about the report that the spies would ultimately bring back, so he gave an example of how facts cannot be merely reported but need to be correctly interpreted.

The second lesson involves how we understand the relationship between something’s appearance and its essence. Moshe teaches here that very often appearances belie the essence. In this case that which looked strong is actually weak and vice-versa. That holds true for many other characteristics appearances. Those that appear happy can in fact be very sad. Those that appear rich can be very poor. Those that appear kind can in fact be very cruel. 

Moshe warns the spies that appearances can be deceiving- for better and for worse. In so doing we are challenged to improve our essence and ensure that our appearance is always a reflection of our essential good qualities.

Friday, May 24, 2013

No Sacred Cows in This Parsha

Towards the end of Parshat Behaalotecha we read about the appearance of other prophets on the scene besides Moshe. Two of those prophets are identified as Eldad and Meidad, and their prophecy concerns Yehoshua enough that he reports them to Moshe and says, “Moshe, incarcerate them!”(11:27-28).  Though the Torah does not specify what was the contents of their prophecy,we would have assumed that it must have been pretty bad: perhaps Eldad and Meidad were violating the Torah by acting like a “Navi Sheker” (false prophet) or “Zaken Mamrei” (rebellious elder). Which makes the Medrash, as quoted by Rashi that much more intriguing. 

The prophecy of Eldad and Meidad according to one opinion in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 17) was “Moshe will die and Yehoshua will bring Israel into the Land.” That must have been a rather upsetting prophecy at the time (even though we know it to be true.) According to the text, Moshe takes the news in stride and even expresses his wish that the entire Jewish people would also be prophets. How do we understand the difference in response between Moshe and Yehoshua to Eladad and Meidad? 

To me, this story is about our willingness to imagine change. From Yehoshua’s perspective, a prophecy that entertains the possibility of the Jews entering the land without Moshe is simply unfathomable and a threat to the stability of the nation. Moshe understood otherwise. He knew that change is inevitable and that no person is irreplaceable. 

In order to ensure the continuity of the Jewish People, we must be willing to entertain the possibility of changes- in leadership, in emphasis, in marketing- even as our values and Mitzvot remain eternally relevant and binding. Because Moshe was so humble and because he loved Am Yisrael so much, he not only embraced the message of Eldad and Meidad but he expresses his wish that the rest of the nation understand this as well. Though there are no longer prophets among us, we must remember the lesson of Eldad and Meidad, as confirmed by Moshe:  we must always be willing to entertain the possibility of change and prepare accordingly. 

Besides for maybe the Red Heifer, there are no sacred cows in Judaism.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Planning for the Day After

On Shavuot in my sermon I suggested that the most important element of the Sinai revelation was when Hashem told the people to “return to your tents”, indicating the Sinai was not a one-time event, but rather a source of inspiration and direction for how to live our lives in all places and for all times. 

A similar idea is quoted in the name of Rabbi Avraham Borenstein (more popularly referred to as the “Avnei Nezer”) on this week’s Parsha. Parshat Nasso contains the rules governing a Nazir: a man or woman who accepts additional restrictions for a set period of time. Those restrictions include drinking wine, cutting hair and becoming ritually impure. After the nazir period has elapsed, the nazir brings a sacrifice and then the Torah says (6:20) “And afterwards the Nazir may drink wine.” 

The Avnei Nezer asks: why does the Torah refer to this person as a Nazir? If s/he is drinking wine, then they are not acting like a Nazir. Their period of nezirut is over, so why refer to them as a Nazir? The Avnei Nezer answers that the lessons and inspiration that a Nazir gleans from his period of nezirut is supposed to impact him far beyond his formal period of nezirut. 

We need to take advantage of formative and inspirational events that occur in our lives, but then apply their lessons far into the future. We must not allow an event's impact end when the evnt is over, but make the necessary preparations to allow that event to continue to impact us far into the future.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Holy and Normal

The very end of Parshat Bamidbar warns the Leviim not to look at the vessels of the Mishkan as they are being prepared for transport. The Kohanim must first cover the vessels and only then are the Leviim permitted to carry out their assigned tasks related to transporting the vessels. In analyzing what the problem was for Leviim to gaze at the vessels, Prof. Nechama Leibowitz quotes two commentaries with opposing views on the issue. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that the reason that the Leviim are not allowed to gaze at the vessels is that there is a danger that looking at them so much will make them ordinary in the eyes of the Leviim. A degree of mystique and reverence can be maintained more easily if the Leviim are not allowed to gaze at the vessels whenever they want. Too much staring may cause the Leviim to treat them as ordinary utensils, and forget about the deep spiritual symbolism that contains the real purpose of these vessels.

On the other hand, Abravanel suggests that the problem with staring is that it may lead the Leviim to “think too much” into the deeper significance of the vessels. Some understanding has been made available to us humans. But there are certain things – about the vessels of the Mishkan and about the mysteries of life- that remain hidden and beyond our capacity to grasp. Staring at the vessels may lead the Leviim down a path of contemplation that will never be satisfied and may in fact be dangerous to one’s mental and spiritual health.

These two perspectives represent two dangers that exist when we interact with that which is holy, which for us Jews is basically everything. Too much exposure to the concept of holy can make us cynical and treat everything in a cavalier and mundane fashion. Too much exclusive focus on holiness without putting that into the context of real life can also be hazardous to our health and make interaction with other people difficult, if not impossible.

The goal of life is to be holy and normal at the same time. As we see from the commentators at the end of Parshat Bamidbar, “holy and normal” is easier said than done.