Flawed Prophets (Balak)

In commenting on one of the final verses in the Torah—“never has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moshe” (Deuteronomy 34:10)—the midrash raises a surprising challenge from our parashah. While it is true that there has never been another Jewish prophet as great as Moshe, there has in fact been a gentile prophet who rivals him, and that is Balaam, who is summoned by the king of Moab to curse the Israelites during the final years of their desert wanderings (Bemidbar Rabbah 14). What was it that made Balaam so great, and why does the midrash regard him as Moshe’s counterpart? And what can a comparison between these two prophets teach us about what it means to serve as a conduit of the divine voice?

Although celebrated as great prophets, both Moshe and Balaam were imperfect individuals. Each lacked the confidence that they would be successful in their missions: Moshe told God at the burning bush that he was “not a man of words” and had “uncircumcised lips” (4:10) and was therefore reluctant to be a spokesperson for God. And Balaam, who initially resists King Balak’s entreaties to come curse the Israelites, warns the king that he is limited in what he can say: “I can utter only the word that God puts in my mouth” (22:38). As Avivah Zornberg points out in her book Bewilderments, both prophets suffer from speech impediments of sorts – they do not feel they have full command of their powers of speech, and therefore they question their ability to fulfill the mission with which they are charged.

Both prophets, too, suffer from an inability to control their anger. Moshe grows furious at the Israelites for worshipping the golden calf and shatters the first set of tablets; he then grows angry at the people when they complain about the lack of water at Marah, and strikes the rock rather than speaking to it. He also lashes out at the people: “Listen up you rebels, shall we get water from you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10). Balaam, too, resorts to violence when his ass, which he is riding en route to curse the Israelites, suddenly halts and pushes him against the wall; the Torah relates that “Balaam was furious and beat the ass with his stick” (22:27). Balaam, who cannot see the angel intercepting the path, lashes out at his ass verbally as well, telling his animal, “If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you” (22:28). Perhaps it is not unrelated to their speech impediments that both men speak harshly in moments of anger, and resort to violence when words do not seem to suffice.

God recognizes each prophet’s shortcomings, and as a result, neither man merits dying the way he desired. Moshe is not allowed to lead the people into the Promised Land, and is buried “in the valley of the land of Moab, near Bet Peor” (Deuteronomy 34:6) in the same country whose king summoned Balaam, and near the very hill of Peor where Balak brought Balaam to curse the Israelites. And Balaam, who declares in his prophecy, “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my end be like theirs” (Numbers 23:10), does not in fact come to a righteous end; the Talmud in Sanhedrin (90a) lists him among those who have no share in the world to come. Balaam is denied entry into the world to come just as Moshe is denied entry into the Promised Land; each leader is punished by being deprived of the ultimate fate he so fervently desires.

Although neither God, nor the Torah, nor the Talmudic rabbis gloss over their flaws, it is clear that both Moshe and Balaam have unique abilities to connect with God and intuit the divine will. Moshe alone was able to talk to God directly, as God asserts: “When a prophet of the Lord arises among you, I make Myself known to in a vision, I speak to him in a dream. Not so My servant Moshe…With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles” (Numbers 12:6-7). The Talmud (Yevamot 49b) explains that while all other prophets observed their prophecies through an obscured looking glass, Moshe’s prophecy was transmitted with total clarity– he directly perceived the divine will, undistorted by any ulterior motives which might twist the way he transmitted God’s word. Perhaps his insecurities furnished him with the humility to overlook his own personal needs and desires in favor of serving God’s people.

Balaam, on the other hand, was very much affected by his own motives and desires, so much so that he was unable to accept God’s injunction that he should not to go with Balak to curse the Israelites. And yet Balaam had another unique talent that distinguished his prophetic career – he knew how to intuit the exact moment of God’s wrath, and thus manipulate God’s anger. According to the Talmud (Berakhot 7a), God is angry for only a fraction of a second every day, and Balaam—like a lightning rod perfectly positioned to absorb the shock—knew how to calculate that moment and harness God’s wrath against others. Balaam knew how to manage God’s anger, even if he could not manage his own. Indeed, perhaps it was because of Balaam’s own struggles that he knew how to intuit and manipulate the moment of God’s wrath. He was so extraordinarily intimate with God’s anger that he knew what Balak refused to accept, namely that a prophet cannot curse anyone God deems worthy of blessing: “How can I damn whom God has not damned, and how can I doom who God has not doomed?” (Numbers 23:8).

A comparison of Moshe and Balaam suggests that perhaps it is not in spite of their flaws that each man is regarded as a great prophet, but rather on account of their flaws. God chooses to communicate through Moshe and Balaam not because they are perfect, but because each has a unique ability to convey God’s word. Moshe, in spite of uncircumcised lips, furnishes the people with the teachings they will need in order to create a society aligned with God’s will in the land God has promised. And Balaam, in spite of his lack of control of his own speech, delivers a blessing so eloquent that it becomes a part of the daily liturgy: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob” (Numbers 24:5). Their example reminds us that to channel God’s word, we need not rid ourself of our imperfections, but learn how to harness them to our advantage. Our struggles to speak can teach us to hear the words of others more clearly. Our difficulty overcoming our anger can ultimately make us more empathic. No one is perfect, but if we succeed in finding a calling which draws on both our strengths and our weaknesses, we may find that accepting our humanness affords us, like the prophets, the possibility of transformation.

The Song that Wells Up from Inside (Hukat)

Parashat Hukat is about the death of a generation and its leaders. Miriam and Aaron die, and Moshe is informed by God that he, too, will die before entering the promised land. Moreover, the Midrash relates that by the time the Israelites arrive at the wilderness of Zin at the beginning of the parashah, the entire generation that was fated to die in the wilderness has been replaced. And yet the new generation does not seem all that different. As soon as they find themselves without water, they complain to Moshe: “Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place” (20:4), they wail, even though it was in fact their parents’ generation who had been slaves in Egypt. Their complaints sound strikingly similar to those of their forbears, who cried out to Moshe when they found themselves without water following the splitting of the sea, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 16:3). What was the purpose of waiting for the generation of slaves to die out? Has anything changed? Is this new generation any more prepared to enter the promised land?

Towards the end of our parashah we find a hint that perhaps the Israelites have begun to mature at long last. The Torah, in chronicling the people’s wilderness wanderings, relates that they came to a place called Be’er, meaning a well of water. The issue of water has been very fraught for the Israelites, who first cried out in panic to Moshe when the waters of the Red Sea loomed before them and the Egyptians were giving chase; they then proceeded to complain each time they found themselves without sufficient water in the wilderness, as we have seen. And yet this time something has changed. When they arrive at Be’er and God gives them water, the Israelites break out in song: “Then Israel sang this song: Spring up, O well, sing to it, the well which the chieftans dug, which the nobles of the people started, with maces and with their own staffs” (21:17-18). Upon receiving water, they do not just drink it, feed their animals, and move on; rather, they burst out in a song of gratitude.

Moreover, the content of the song at Be’er suggests that the Israelites may have played an active role in procuring this water. They sing about how the well was dug by chieftains and started by nobles, perhaps suggesting that this time, instead of immediately turning to Moshe to complain about the lack of water, the people may have instead taken out their own maces and staffs and begun digging. They then celebrate the well they have dug, indicating that this generation was ready and able to provide for itself—unlike their ancestors, former slaves who expected God and their leaders to cater to their every need. A generation that will dig its own wells is certainly more suited to conquer a new land and begin building a new society.

The Israelites’ song at Be’er, introduced by the words “Az Yashir,” is all the more striking when considered in light of the earlier songs it echoes. These same words were used to introduce the Song of the Sea, which the Israelites sang immediately following the exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the sea. In the Talmud (Sotah 30b), Rabbi Akiva makes it clear that the Song of the Sea was Moshe’s initiative: “How did they sing this song? Like a man who recites Hallel, and the congregation listening merely recites after him the chapter headings. Moshe said ‘I will sing unto the Lord,’ and the people said after him, ‘I will sing unto the Lord.’” Rashi says the man in this analogy is someone who chants for the congregation so that they might repeat and thus fulfill their obligation, since they are unable to sing on their own. Another sage, Rabbi Nehemiah, draws the analogy to a schoolteacher who leads the Shema by reciting each blessing one by one for the congregation to repeat. According to both sages, the Song of the Sea was recited responsively, with the people merely repeating the words sung first by their leader Moshe. In contrast, the song at Be’er was sung by Israel alone, of their own initiative.

The song at Be’er does not echo just the Song of the Sea led by Moshe, but also a subsequent song led by Miriam. Following Moshe’s song, Miriam takes a timbrel and leads the women in song, exhorting them to “Sing to the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously” (Exodus 15:21). Unlike Moshe, who leads the people in responsive chanting, Miriam urges the women to sing on their own. Rabbi Benjamin Lau, in his book Etnachta (Yediot, 2009, untranslated), suggests that perhaps Miriam is training the people to be more independent – they need not merely echo the lines sung by Moshe, but can take their timbrels and sing of their own initiative. If so, then the song at Be’er—which appears towards the end of our parashah, after Miriam’s death—may reflect that the people have finally internalized Miriam’s message. With Aaron and Miriam no longer among them, and with Moshe soon to die, the people realize that they can no longer wait for their leaders to initiate the singing. It has to well up from inside them.

The two words that appear in the Torah immediately following the song at Be’er are “and from Midbar, Matana” (17:18). The Midbar is the Torah’s word for the wilderness, and Matana means gift. Is the Torah merely telling us that the Israelites journeyed from a place called Midbar to a place called Matana? Perhaps. Or perhaps the Israelites, who sing at Be’er of their own initiative, have finally learned to accept that even the wilderness can yield unexpected gifts. The Talmud (Eruvin 54a) teaches that “Matana” is a reference to the Torah, the gift given in the wilderness. As this new generation continues its journey through the wilderness toward the Promised Land, Torah will prove to be a gift that allows the people to find—and to sing—their own song.

The Sotah and the Spies (Shelach Lecha)

Our parashah contains an account of the spies sent by Moshe to scout out the land of Israel before the Israelites enter to conquer it. Instead of simply reporting on the land, the spies issue a referendum on whether the Israelites will succeed in their conquest – a matter that was never really subject to question, since God had already promised repeatedly that He would lead the people to the land of milk and honey and drive out its inhabitants. The Talmudic rabbis read the incident with the spies as a story about trust and doubt, offering us insight into what it means to navigate the world with faith and confidence in spite of our fears.

The Talmud offers an extended exegetical analysis of the episode with the spies in tractate Sotah, which deals with the laws governing a woman whose husband suspects her of adultery. The immediate context of this discussion is the Mishnah’s statement that certain texts may be recited in any language, whereas others—like the oath that the priest requires the Sotah to take—must be recited only in Hebrew. Likewise, the blessings and curses that the Israelites are to proclaim after they enter and conquer the land of Israel must be recited in Hebrew. This mention of the conquest of the land leads the rabbis to a discussion of those who doubted whether the land could be conquered at all, namely the ten spies. However, the placement of this Talmudic discussion of the spies in tractate Sotah may also reflect a deeper thematic connection between the Sotah and the spies, both of whom are beset by problems of doubt.

Like the Sotah, whose husband suspects but cannot be sure that his wife has betrayed him, the people suspect but cannot be sure that God will fail to deliver on the divine promise to bring them into the land. Already in last week’s parashah, they “took to complaining bitterly against the Lord” (11:1), insisting that the food was better in Egypt and that they never should have left. The people are in need of proof that they will be able to settle safely and securely in Canaan, which is why they must send out spies. God’s promise alone is not enough for them. Like the husband who feels he can’t trust in his wife’s fidelity anymore, the people—exhausted and worn down by their desert wanderings—feel they can no longer trust in God. And so the mission of the spies becomes a sort of trial-by-ordeal in which the people put God to the test, ostensibly spying out the land but really wrestling with their own doubt about the divine promise.

The Talmud makes it clear that the negative report of the ten spies was primarily about their lack of trust in God. The rabbis imagine Caleb trying to restore the people’s faith by reminding them of how much God’s chosen leader, Moshe, has done for them: “He took us out of Egypt, and split the sea for us, and fed us the manna. If he says to us, Build us ladders and climb to the heavens, should we not listen to him? We shall go up at once and possess it’” (Sotah 35b). Caleb thinks the people should trust in God and Moshe even if they were told to build ladders up to the heavens, let alone to conquer a land down here on earth. But the people have no use for imaginary ladders or for a God they cannot see, and they resolve to pelt Caleb and Joshua with stones. The Talmud offers a creative reading of the biblical text so that it is not these two spies, but rather God, who is the object of the people’s fury. The verse states, “But the congregation threatened to pelt them with stones, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the Tent of Meeting” (14:10). Rabbi Hiya bar Abba explains that the juxtaposition of the two halves of this verse—one about stoning, and one about God’s glory—serves to teach that “they took stones and hurled them upward.” Fearful and faithless, they futilely hurl stones at God.

Ultimately the people’s lack of faith becomes the source of their undoing. When they hear the negative report of the spies, they stay up all night weeping and wishing for their own deaths: “If only we might die in this wilderness!” (14:2). And indeed, that is what happens to them. The very next day, God tells Moshe that all of that generation—except Caleb and Joshua—shall die in the wilderness, exactly as they wished: “None of the men who have seen My Presence…and have disobeyed Me shall see the land that I promised on oath to their fathers” (14:23). The people who were convinced that they would never be able to conquer the land will indeed never be able to conquer it. The forty years of wandering is thus not a punishment, but a wish fulfillment.

Whether we are traveling through the biblical wilderness or the thickets of our own lives, it is difficult to move forward without faith. None of us can know with certainty what the future will hold. But if we are guided by our fears, we are more likely to be led headlong into those fears. As the Talmud’s treatment of the incident of the spies in tractate Sotah reminds us, spouses cannot keep tabs on each other at all times; a marriage must be built on trust. Likewise, our relationship with God, whom we cannot see and whose presence we can only intuit, must be also built on trust. If we believe that God is leading us to a land of milk and honey, we are more likely to find ourselves there. If we believe we will succeed in conquering our fears, it is far more likely that indeed we will. Optimism need not be born of foolishness, but of faith in the future – and in the God Who leads us there.

Behaalotcha: The Varieties of Religious Experience

In parashat Beha’alotcha Miriam and Aaron speak out against Moshe “on account of the Cushite woman he had married” (Numbers 12:1), a reference to Moshe’s wife Tziporah, who was described as a Cushite on account of her beauty (12:1). Rashi explains that Miriam had discovered that prior to the giving of the Torah, Moshe abstained from sexual relations with Tziporah, and she had relayed this information to Aaron. They objected to Moshe’s abstinence, insisting that God also spoke to them, and yet they did not have to separate from their spouses. Why are Miriam and Aaron so disturbed by Moshe’s behavior? A close look at this episode from our parashah offers insight into the nature of prophecy and the way we relate to those whose gifts and talents are different from our own.

God responds to Miriam and Aaron’s negative words about Moshe by pointing out that it is only with Moshe that God speaks face-to-face; with all other prophets, God speaks in a vision or a dream. This mention of the unique nature of Moshe’s experience of prophecy highlights a stark contrast between Moshe and each of his siblings. For Moshe, prophecy is an experience of solitary communion with God. When Moshe first encounters God, he is alone on a mountain shepherding a flock of sheep. And his ultimate revelatory experience—the one known simply as revelation—takes place when he ascends that same mountain on his own to be alone with God for forty days and forty nights, leaving the rest of the people below. When Moshe is with God, he is withdrawn from the rest of society – which may explain why he separates from his wife Tziporah before speaking face-to-face with God.

Miriam, too, has prophetic abilities, but her prophecy is not about withdrawal from society but about bringing people together. The Talmud (Megillah 14b) relates that before Moshe was born, Miriam prophesied, “My mother is destined to bear a son who will deliver the Jewish people to salvation.” The midrash (Exodus Rabbah 1:17) adds that when Pharaoh decreed that all Israelite baby boys be thrown into the Nile, Miriam’s father Amram “immediately separated from his wife, had no intercourse with her, even divorced her when she was three months pregnant.” Miriam, who foresaw that she was destined to have a sibling who would save the Jewish people, reprimanded her father for his behavior and exhorted him to return to his wife: “Your decree is harsher than that of Pharaoh, for Pharaoh decreed the elimination of male children only, while you decree the elimination of male and female alike.” Amram heeded his daughter and reunited with his wife, and then Moshe was conceived. According to this midrash, Miriam’s very first prophecy was about bringing husband and wife together – which may explain why she was so troubled that Moshe separated from his wife in order to hear God’s word.

The next time we are told that Miriam is filled with divine inspiration is when she takes a timbrel and leads the women in singing and dancing at the Sea of Reeds. The song she leads is very similar to the first verse of the song led by Moshe, with one telling difference not entirely apparent in the English translation. Whereas Moshe’s song begins, “I will sing to the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously” (15:1), Miriam’s version begins, “Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously” (15:21). Moshe speaks in the first person singular, whereas Miriam uses the plural form to invite the women to join with her. For Moshe, calling out to God is an individual experience, whereas Miriam exhorts the people to encounter God collectively.

When Miriam takes up her timbrel at the Sea of Reeds, she is identified as “Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister” (15:20) – perhaps an indication that when it comes to prophecy, she is more like her brother Aaron than like her brother Moshe. Aaron, like Miriam, is a leader whose religious experiences take place among people, rather than removed from them. Although he is Moshe’s partner in liberating the Israelites from Egypt, he comes to this role from a very different place than his brother. Moshe grew up in Pharaoh’s palace and learned about the Israelites’ suffering only when he left home and went out into the world. He first became sympathetic to the plight of the slaves when he witnessed an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew and, appalled by the injustice, struck down the Egyptian. Aaron, in contrast, grew up as a slave at the mercy of Pharaoh’s tyranny, and his people’s suffering was his own suffering as well. He is motivated to help lead the people out of Egypt not by an innate sense of justice or by a divine call from a bush aflame, but rather by the backbreaking labor that he and his kinsmen have had to endure. Aaron is a leader from among the people, unlike Moshe, who was never himself a slave. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise, then, that while Moshe goes up the mountain to commune with God at Sinai, Aaron leads the people in an ecstatic religious experience down below.

The Talmud further hones this contrast between Moshe and Aaron’s leadership in the beginning of tractate Sanhedrin (6b), which considers the question of whether absolute justice is possible in our imperfect world. The rabbis contrast Moshe and Aaron: Moshe strove for absolute justice and lived by the motto, “Let the law cut through the mountain,” insisting that the iron rule of law could break through the dirt and dust of this world; Aaron was devoted to the pursuit of peace and advocated instead for compromise, settlement, and accommodation. Moshe, whose innate sense of justice motivated him to kill an Egyptian taskmaster, believed that God’s justice must triumph at all cost. Aaron, who is described as “loving peace and pursuing peace, loving all of God’s creatures and bringing them close to Torah” (Avot 1:12), was less focused on the triumph of divine law than on drawing people close together. Moshe was often enervated by his contact with the people and had little patience for their desert grumblings, whereas Aaron was a gifted mediator and a genuine “people person.”

Given that Miriam and Aaron’s religious leadership was all about drawing people close, it comes as no surprise that they are so disturbed when Moshe separates from his wife. His prophetic style is foreign to them, which is why God has to teach them about His unique relationship with His trusted servant and about the varieties of religious experience. In our world we need all kinds of divine servants – those who are motivated by a clear and absolute sense of justice, as well as those who can restore people’s faith in the future and bring them close to one another. As Moshe tells Joshua earlier in the parashah, “Would that all of God’s people were prophets” (11:29). If we can learn to appreciate everyone’s unique divine-given gifts, we might discover that indeed they are.

Naso: Grooming, Grieving, Grapes

Parashat Nasso introduces us to the nazir, a person who vows to take upon him or herself additional commitments so as to draw closer to God. A nazir vows not to drink wine or eat grapes, not to shave or get a haircut, and not to come into contact with the dead. An entire tractate of the Talmud is about the laws governing the nazir, which is surprising – why devote all this attention to a person engaged in self-denial within a tradition that is anything but ascetic? What are the rabbis trying to teach us about the nature of holiness, commitment, and our enjoyment of worldly pleasures?

In discussing the laws of the nazir, our parashah teaches that a nazir may not defile him/herself by a dead person, “even if his father or mother, or his brother or sister, should die” (6:7). That is, the vow taken by the nazir is so strict that even if one of the nazir’s closest relatives were to die, he or she is not permitted to come near the body or attend the burial. To do so would violate the terms of the vow, and the nazir would have to bring a sin offering and a burnt offering to the Temple and start out as a nazir all over again. This stringency is surprising because even the priests—who were not ordinarily permitted to come into contact with the dead—were permitted to defile themselves for the sake of their close relatives. The priests serve in the Temple and are devoted to holy matters year-round, whereas a nazir is just someone who decides to undergo a period of more intense religiosity. Why then are the laws governing the nazir even stricter than those governing the priests?

The Talmud considers the relationship between the nazir and the priesthood in the opening mishnah of the seventh chapter of the eponymous tractate (Nazir 47a), which is about the prohibition on coming into contact with the dead. They explain that while the nazir may not defile him or herself by contact with the dead even in the case of the death of a close relative, there is one case in which a nazir may attend to a dead body. This is the case of a met mitzvah, an individual who has passed away leaving no one to take care of his or her burial. That is, if a nazir stumbles upon the dead body of an unknown individual, that nazir is obligated to violate the terms of his or her vow so as to perform the burial. The rabbis rule that if a priest and a nazir both come upon a met mitzvah, it is in fact the nazir—and not the priest—who should care for the corpse. And yet this, too, is puzzling. Why may the nazir defile him or herself for the sake of an anonymous individual but not for his or her own family member? And why is the opposite true of the priest, who may defile himself for his own family member but not for the met mitzvah?

We can begin to answer these questions by considering the specific requirements of the nazir’s vow. For the duration of that vow, the nazir may not get a haircut or shave. The Torah states that the nazir has “the crown of God on his head” (6:7), presumably because his or her hair is grown long and consecrated to God. The midrash (Bemidbar Rabbah 10:11) explains that most people are uncomfortable with long and unruly hair, but the nazir tolerates it as a sign of commitment to God. As such, a head of long, ungroomed hair becomes a sign of the nazir’s willingness to neglect his or her own physical appearance for the sake of a spiritual commitment. Similarly, the nazir’s vow to abstain from wine and grape products reflects a readiness to suppress his or her own appetites and desires for the sake of a higher end. And finally, the nazir does not even attend the funeral of close relatives, a sign that he or she has withdrawn from the world of human emotions. While the rest of the family is mourning at the graveside, the nazir remains off at a distance, fixated on his or her own holiness and relationship with God.

In neglecting his or her physical appearance, suppressing his or her appetites, and shutting down his or her emotions, the nazir becomes a sort of religious automaton, single-mindedly focused on the spiritual and unwilling to allow any intrusions by the messiness of the mundane. Grooming? Grape juice? Grieving? The nazir has no use for any of it. In this sense, the nazir is the opposite of the priest, who is very much preoccupied with human emotion and the messiness of real life. The priests spend their days among people – they tend to lepers, listen to confessions, and help individuals atone for sin. Their work is never anonymous, which is why they are unsuited to bury the met mitzvah. This is the perfect job for the nazir – it is a religious obligation that should be devoid of any emotional involvement because the identity of the met mitzvah is by definition unknown. Like a robot programmed for the task, the nazir is better able to go through the motions of purifying the body and ensuring that the burial proceeds in accordance with halakhah.

In comparing the nazir and the priests, the rabbis of the Mishnah (Nazir 7:1) note that whereas the priest is sanctified to God forever, the nazir assumes this status for a limited time only. If a person vows to be a nazir, then we assume by default that the commitment lasts thirty days, at which point the nazir is obligated to get a haircut and bring sacrifices to the Temple. One of those sacrifices is a sin offering, and in the Talmud (Nazir 19a), Rabbi Elazar HaKappar explains that the nazir sinned by abstaining from wine, since God wants people to enjoy the delights of this world. Perhaps the rabbis recognized that people cannot sustain that kind of single-minded spirituality forever, nor would we want them too. We are expected to experience the pleasure and pain of life, and not to neglect our bodies, suppress our appetites, or repress our emotions.

Self-denial remains, to this day, a tempting prospect for many. Some are drawn to monastic retreats; others are lured by juice fasts and restrictive diets. The nazir serves as a reminder not to take our asceticism too far. We are not meant to live above the world, but in it. At some point we have to come back from the monastery and sit down to break bread or raise a glass of wine with our closest family members, rejoining the very messy world of which we are fortunate to be a part.

Anne of Green Gables Learns to Daven

We are up to the part of Anne of Green Gables in which Marilla teaches Anne to say her prayers at night. She is relieved to discover that even if Anne does not pray regularly, she has some concept of God. “You’re not quite a heathen,” Marilla remarks wryly, and before I could read on, my daughter Liav interrupted me. “What’s a heathen?” she asked.
“A heathen is someone who does not believe in your concept of God,” I told her, trying to give a fair and accurate response.
“Oh,” said Liav, “So Anne is a heathen to Hashem, because she’s a Mitzri.” Mitzri is Hebrew for Egyptian, and my kids are forever confusing it with Notzri, which means Christian – for much of their early education, which was heavily informed by Bible stories, it was the Egyptians who were the “others,” not the Christians. As I was about to correct Liav, Tagel interjected. “I get it, so we are a heathen to Avodah Zarah!” she exclaimed, using the rabbinic term for idolatry. I was tempted to tell her that she, like all my kids, is a heathen to English grammar, but I bit my tongue.

Marilla instructs Anne to kneel down to say a prayer, but Anne finds this puzzling. She tells Marilla that it seems more appropriate to her to go out into nature to pray, not kneel beside a bed. “If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or into the deep, deep woods, and I’d look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.” I asked the kids if this reminded them of anything, but they weren’t sure. “Do you know why we wear tzitzit,” I inquired, referring to the fringed strings that Jews are supposed to wear attached to a four-cornered garment. The Torah teaches that the fringes are supposed to be a blue color known as t’chelet, which according to the rabbis is a rare and expensive dye that comes from a marine creature that surfaces only once in seventy years (Menachot 44a). The rabbis explain that the fringes must be this color specifically because “t’chelet is similar in color to the sea, and the sea is similar to the sky, and the sky is similar to the throne of God’s glory,” which was made of sapphire stone. That is, the ritual fringes are supposed to remind the wearer of the sea, the sky, and the infinite God, directing one’s thoughts to prayer – much like Anne looking up at the infinite expanse of the heavens.

Anne’s protestations notwithstanding, Marilla insists that she kneel beside her bed and compose a prayer. There is something somewhat ironic about the deeply spiritual Anne, who feels such a natural kinship with God’s creation, learning to pray from the stern and stoical Marilla, who has probably never uttered a spontaneous prayer in her life. When Anne earnestly asks Marilla what she ought to say, Marilla tells her that she’s old enough to pray for herself. And so Anne gives it a try, addressing the “gracious and heavenly father” out loud and couching her fervent sentiments in the archaic diction she associates with formal prayer. She thanks God for the lake and the trees she has already fallen in love with in Avonlea, and she petitions God to make her beautiful when she grows up. She concludes as if signing a letter: “Yours respectfully, Anne Shirley.” It is a prayer that comes from her heart, but Marilla can hardly keep herself from collapsing in laughter and exasperation.

“What’s so funny?” I asked the kids, because I wanted to know if they got it. They did. “Ima, Anne didn’t really do what Marilla asked. Marilla wanted her to daven from the Siddur, I mean, to pray from whatever prayer book they use. But instead Anne said a tefilla ishit.” I told Liav that she was exactly right. Marilla expected Anne to recite some sort of formal prayer, but instead Anne offered a tefilla ishit – a personal prayer, like the prayers my kids are supposed to come up with on their own during the two minutes of silence their teachers give them after they’ve closed their prayer books but before they’ve sat down at their desks. I know about tefilla ishit because during the Corona lockdowns, my kids prayed at home together every morning along with their teachers, who had pre-recorded the service on Whatsapp audio; at the very end of the recording, the teacher announced “tefilla ishit” in a singsong voice as a reminder to the kids to offer their own personal prayers. This was a signal for my kids to belt out the words “tefilla ishit,” toss their prayer books summarily on the table, stop the Whatsapp recording, and furtively switch to another app. Their version of tefilla ishit was watching Dora the Explorer on YouTube for as long as it took until one of us came over and confiscated the device.

I explained to the kids that the difference between the way Marilla and Anne prayed is the difference between Keva and Kavanah, to invoke two terms used (if not juxtaposed) by the ancient rabbis. Keva refers to fixed prayer – the liturgy enshrined in the prayer book. Kavanah refers to the spontaneous prayers of the heart. Marilla expects Anne’s prayer to be Keva, and so in the very next chapter, she hands Anne a card with the Lord’s Prayer printed on it and instructs Anne to sit down in the corner of the kitchen and learn it by heart. But Anne instead prays out of Kavanah – her eyes drift to a picture on the wall entitled “Christ Blessing Little Children,” and she imagines that she is the little girl in the blue dress in the corner, fervently praying that the Lord will notice her. At night, when I sing Shema with the kids in bed, our prayer is Keva—it is the fixed text of the central prayer of Jewish worship recited twice daily. But when I’m about to leave the room and Shalvi adds, “And we also daven for the Corona to end so we can go back to the gymboree,” that’s Kavanah.

I don’t need to teach the kids to pray out of Kavanah – at least I don’t think they do. I imagine, like Anne, that they have a natural spiritual instinct, and my job is just to nourish and cultivate it. I don’t really need to teach them to daven out of Keva either, since they do that in school every day. The best we can do as parents is to model both kinds of prayer ourselves, and for this I have Daniel to thank. For the past few months, Matan has begun attending synagogue with Daniel on weekday mornings. He claims he wants to daven early so that when he gets to school, he can read his book during the time allocated for prayer, but I know it’s more than that. By observing and following Daniel, Matan is learning how to pray not like a fourth grader but like an adult. One morning this week, when Daniel had a bad cold and felt too sick to go to shul, the two of them davened on our porch, side by side, bowing and swaying in synchrony. Daniel told Matan to lead the tefillot, reminding him which lines to read aloud and which to mutter silently. I was inside packing the lunch boxes, but I could hear Matan’s every word. This child of mine, at least, is not a heathen.

The Anesthetized Mishkan (Bamidbar)

Parashat Bamidbar describes the various responsibilities incumbent upon each of the three branches of the Levite clan, who transported the Tabernacle every time the Israelites broke camp and traveled. The sons of Gershon carried the curtains, the sons of Merari carried the frame, and the sons of Kehat – who are the subject of the fourth chapter of the book of Numbers – carried the sacred objects inside the Tabernacle, including the bowls, ladles, jars, and libation jugs. The parashah ends on an ominous note – in the very last verse, we are told that if any of the sons of Kehat were to witness the dismantling of the Sanctuary or look upon the sacred objects, they would die (4:20). Why may the sons of Kehat carry these objects but not view them? What is the problem with looking at these objects, and why does the Torah warn so sternly against it? The various metaphors used throughout the Talmud to describe the Mishkan offer insight into a possible reason behind this injunction – one that has much to teach us about the way we bear the weight of the sacred in our lives.

Our parashah teaches that while the sons of Kehat transported the sacred objects, they could only do so once those objects were properly covered by Aaron and his sons, the priests. Each time the Israelites prepared to travel, the priests would enter the Tabernacle and spread a blue cloth over the Menorah, fire pans, oil vessels, altar, and service vessels, before placing them in a covering of dolphin skins. “Only then shall the Kehatites come in and lift them, so that they do not come in contact with the sacred objects and die” (4:15). There was no problem with looking at these vessels while the Israelites were encamped and the Mishkan was operational. But once the vessels were no longer used for their sacred function and became objects to be transported, they had to be covered and concealed.

The talmudic discussion of the transport of the Mishkan appears in tractate Shabbat, since the laws governing the labors prohibited on Shabbat are derived from labors related to the Mishkan. It is in this context that Rabbi Yishmael comments that the Mishkan, which was covered in curtains that overhung its frame, resembled “a woman walking in the marketplace with her skirts trailing after her” (Shabbat 98b). The Mishkan was like a modest woman draped in layers of clothing. To transport the Mishkan or its vessels without their coverings, then, would be a violation akin to exposing a woman’s body in public.

And indeed, as the Talmud in tractate Yoma (54b) relates, this is exactly what the Romans did when they desecrated the Temple. The Talmud teaches that when the gentiles entered the sanctuary to destroy the Temple, they saw the golden cherubs—the Keruvim—which sat atop the Ark of the Covenant and hauled them out to the marketplace. The Talmud describes that “they immediately debased them, as it is stated, ‘All who honored her debased her because they have seen her nakedness’” (Lamentations 1:8). The Romans brought the naked, uncovered cherubs into the marketplace, where they were no longer part of the divinely-ordained architecture of the Mishkan and became objectified commodities. Removed from the sacred enclosure of the Tabernacle, the naked cherubs became objects of mockery and scorn.

And so it seems that the purpose of covering these vessels was to ensure that they, like the cherubs, were not desacralized. We might think of the transported Mishkan like a body on the operating table. When not being operated upon, that body is a living, breathing human being pulsing with life, teeming with ideas and energy and emotion. But when the patient has been anesthetized and the body lies inert, the surgeon is presumably focused not on the whole person, but on where to make an incision, and how deep to cut. By covering the body parts that are not being operated on, it is easier for the surgeon to detach the body part from the person to whom that body belongs, and thereby focus on the surgery. Seeing an abdomen as a small square of flesh is much less distracting than seeing the abdomen in the context of the larger body. By dehumanizing in order to operate, the surgeon ironically maintains the sanctity of the human body in its entirety.

So too, by covering the Mishkan when its parts are dismantled, we preserve the sanctity of the whole. When the Israelites were encamped and the Mishkan was up and running, it was pulsing with the sacred rhythm of the sacrificial rites, and no one would think to treat it with disrespect. But once the Mishkan was transported, it was easy to view it merely as an object to be lifted and lugged. There was a danger that its vessels would be regarded as heavy loads, not holy lamps and lavers. It was therefore essential that those who dismantle the Mishkan know how treat it with proper respect, laying covers on all the sacred vessels so that not everyone could gaze upon them. The Mishkan must never be reduced to a burden, just like a patient ought never be reduced to a body.

T.S. Eliot was surely not describing the Mishkan in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and yet his imagery is all too apt:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table…

When it was time to go—when the Israelites were on the move, guided by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire spread out against the evening sky—the Mishkan vessels became inert objects, like a patient etherized on the table. Anyone who objectified or commodified these vessels was violating the sacred, an act deserving of death. As our parashah reminds us, there is a time for revelation and a time for concealment. May we learn to discern when to reveal and when to conceal as we journey through life and shoulder our burdens.

The Wheel of Fortune (Behar)

Parashat Behar begins by juxtaposing the laws of the sabbatical and Jubilee years with the laws governing the way we treat the poor in our society. First the Torah teaches that every seven years, during the Shemitah year, the land must be allowed to lie fallow as a “Sabbath to the Lord” (25:4). Next we are told that every fifty years, during the Jubilee, all land must be returned to its original owners. The parashah then moves on to teach that if a “kinsman” or “brother” is in dire financial straits, we are obligated to let that individual live by our side without charging interest or taking advantage of that person’s penury. Taken together, these verses have much to teach us about how the cyclical nature of life impacts the way we relate to those less fortunate.

Why do the laws governing the treatment of the poor follow on the heels of the laws governing the cycle of the years? Perhaps an answer can be found in the Torah’s justification for the Jubilee. God tells Moses that the land may not be sold in perpetuity “for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (25:23). That is, all land belongs ultimately to God, and we are merely temporary custodians. But what is true of land is true of all other property as well. Nothing that is ours is guaranteed to be ours in perpetuity. When we find ourselves comfortable and well-off, we need to remember that no one stays in the same place forever. The only constant in life is change, and we who are blessed with success and good fortune may find, in time, that the tables are turned. We are commanded to reach out to help our fellow individuals in need because, as the cycle of the sabbatical and Jubilee years reminds us, what goes around comes around. Perhaps it is for this reason that the Torah uses the term “aḣicha”—your brother—to refer to individuals down on their luck and in need of assistance. They are related to us because we are closer than we might like to think – as the wheel of fortune turns, they could just as easily be in our situation, and we in theirs.

The Talmud captures this notion of the mutability of fortune in a series of stories about charity that appear in the opening chapter of tractate Bava Batra (11a). In one such tale we are introduced to Binyamin the righteous, as he is known, who was responsible for dispensing charity funds to the needy. Once, during a time of drought and privation, a woman came before him and asked him to support her. He told her that there was no money left in the charity fund, but she would not relent. She said to him, “My master, if you do not support me, a woman and her seven sons will die.” Binyamin the righteous—true to his name—arose and supported her from his own private funds. With time, the Talmud goes on to relate, Binyamin the righteous fell gravely ill. Just when he was on the verge of death, the ministering angels pleaded with God to sustain him by the merit of his generosity to the woman and her seven sons, and indeed, he was rewarded with an extra twenty-two years. In this story, he who was in a position to act graciously to others later found himself in dire need. By the merit of his munificence, his own life was sustained.

Shakespeare writes in Sonnet 29 of a man “in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes” who later declares that he would “scorn to change my state with kings.” In a world governed by a God who “lifts the needy from the ash heap” and “seats them with princes” (Psalms 113:7-8), we who have been brought low can just as easily be lifted up, and vice versa. It is a humbling lesson, as it reminds us that we ought not to relate to those less fortunate with pity but with empathy.

We all know people who seem worthy of our pity – a kid who doesn’t fit in with the rest of the class, a single mother struggling to raise a difficult child, a widow pained by loneliness. The challenge is to relate to these people with the cognizance that all of us, at some point in life, may find ourselves in a similar situation. We ought not to feel sorry for those who are struggling and suffering, but rather to remind ourselves of what it felt like when we were in their position. We must be kind to the stranger because, as the Torah reminds us, we were strangers ourselves.

The juxtaposition of the laws of the Shemitah cycle and the laws about the impoverished kinsman remind us that at some point or another, we will all need someone else to reach out a kind hand and help us up – whether financially, emotionally, or socially. For as long as our field is flourishing, may we learn, in this spirit, to share our fruit and our fortune.

Emor: Beyond Blemish

This week’s parasha begins with God’s instructions to Moshe concerning laws that apply to the priests alone. Unlike ordinary Israelites, the priests must hold themselves to higher standards. They may not come into contact with the dead, except for a short list of very close family members. They may not shave their heads smooth, make gashes to deform their flesh, or marry a woman who has engaged in harlotry. To some extent these injunctions make sense: The priest must remain pure to serve God, which demands a high level of propriety and decorum. Somewhat more disturbing to our modern sensibilities is the Torah’s stipulation, just a few verses later, that no one who has any sort of physical blemish may serve in the Tabernacle: “No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long…or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf…” (Leviticus 22:19-20). How did later generations make sense of the Torah’s stipulation that physical imperfections—most of which seem to be congenital, and hence no fault of the individual—render a priest unfit to serve? And what are we to make of this injunction in our modern age, when we strive to regard all people equally regardless of handicaps or disabilities?

The classical rabbinic commentators justify the prohibition on blemished priests serving in the Temple on the grounds that we are supposed to offer our best to God. Just as we would not choose a blemished animal to offer as a sacrifice, so too do we not choose a priest with a physical defect to serve in the Temple. As Chizkuni comments (Leviticus 21:18), “Seeing that they [the priests] represent the whole Jewish community, it would not seem appropriate that the community dispatch blemished people as their representatives at the court of the King of Kings.” The Tabernacle was like a palace for God, and just as a royal palace must be splendid and ornate to befit the king, so too must the Tabernacle befit the King of Kings. Rashi, in commenting on this verse, cites the prophet Malachi, who lived in the land of Israel during the Second Temple period. Malachi critiques the neglectful and corrupt priests of his day, arguing that God does not desire their worship or their sacrifices: “When you offer the blind for sacrifice, is it not evil? And when you offer the lame or the sick, is it not evil? Offer it now unto your ruler – will he be pleased with you? Will he show you favor?” (1:8).

Presumably the implication of Malachi’s exhortations is that God does not desire the blind, the lame, or the sick, and will be displeased to receive them in His Temple. But the contemporary Israeli rabbi and scholar Binyamin Lau (in his book Etnachta, published by Yediot in 2009 and still untranslated) encourages us to read Malachi’s questions not as rhetorical, but as a challenge to rethink the way we relate to those with physical imperfections in our own day. Rabbi Lau cites the Talmud in Megillah (24b), which discusses the law that a priest with blemishes on his hands may not lift his arms to bless the congregation in the priestly benediction. The concern, as Rashi explains, is that priests with deformed hands would attract the attention of the congregation, which would violate the prohibition against looking at the priests at a time when God’s presence rests on them. Anyone who looks different attracts attention, which serves to distract the members of the congregation during a moment of tremendous gravity.

The Talmud goes on to cite various counterexamples of priests who were blemished but who nonetheless participated in the priestly benediction, including a priest who was blind in one eye, and a priest whose eyes and nose were always runny. In each case, the sages explain that these particular priests were “familiar figures in their towns,” and thus people were used to their defects and did not look at them askance. They looked different, but their differences were not distracting, and so it was not a problem for them to stand before the congregation and recite the priestly benediction.

As Lau explains, our challenge is to train ourselves to relate to all people with deformities and disabilities as “familiar figures” in our communities. That is, we need to take the time to get to know those who look different so that we are able to see beyond the differences. At first it can be offputting to see someone who doesn’t look or act like everyone else. But once we get to know those people, we see them beyond their disabilities and recognize their full humanity. They become familiar figures in our community – not “the blind man,” but “Danny,” or whoever he may be. When these individuals then stand before us in leadership roles, we do not look at them askance, because we see them as unique human beings whose disabilities are simply a part of who they are.

According to this understanding, the rabbis in the Talmud were taking an important first step. Even though the Torah stipulates that blemished priests could not serve in the Temple, the rabbis argued that they could serve priestly functions in our communities assuming they were well-known, familiar figures – that is, assuming the people of their communities had taken the time to get to know them beyond their superficial differences. Our challenge today is to take the rabbis one step further. Our functionaries need not be physically perfect. Indeed, the more of our prominent leaders who look different, the more desensitized we will become to those differences, and the more we will realize that all of us are different in one way or another. It is, in fact, our differences that humanize us, rendering us unique and distinct. Once we have internalized this lesson, we will be able to give a very different answer to Malachi’s questions. Will God be pleased with us? Will God show us favor? If we can look beyond our differences, then surely God can as well.

Anne of Green Gables at Top Ten

For several weeks now the twins have been pleading with me to take them to Top Ten, an accessories store in the mall that they’ve heard about from all their friends. Every few days they come home with reports of who is wearing what – Maya has a new headband, Noga has a new bracelet. I listen patiently, and then I remind them, each time, that I care much more about how their friends are acting than what they are wearing. In Hebrew the word “midah” means both size and attribute – it is used to refer to clothing sizes, but also to a person’s moral characteristics. I am far more interested in conduct than in clothing, but I have learned not to protest too much. Girls will be girls; they like pretty things.

The twins are forever trying to encourage me to dress better and to pay more attention to my appearance. Back when they were in Gan and I used to pick them up every afternoon, they often commented on what I was wearing. “Ima, you’re wearing earrings today, you look so beautiful,” Liav would tell me, reaching out to put her small finger through the metal hoops I once bought at the bus station mall when my bus was late. “Why are you so fancy today?” I gave the same answer every time they complimented me: “I was teaching Torah today, so I wanted to look nice. I wanted to bring honor to the Torah.” After a while the girls understood that if I was wearing earrings, it meant I had taught Torah that day; occasionally, instead of remarking on my earrings, Liav asked me what I had taught, and I decided that wearing earrings was a small price to pay if it meant we would speak about Torah.

These days, though nothing I wear is nice enough. A few weeks ago I was in the park with all the kids on Shabbat afternoon when I spotted one of Tagel’s friends and encouraged her to go over and say hi. Tagel looked hesitant. “What’s wrong?” I asked her. “Shira’s whole family is here,” Tagel told me. “I really don’t want her mother to see you. She’s so fancy, Ima, and you’re dressed so plain.” I couldn’t believe it. Was I embarrassing my daughter with my black skirt and blouse? Had it really come to that?

My girls have learned that it’s useless to persuade me to take interest in fashion, but recently they tried another tactic. I’m reading them Anne of Green Gables, a book that requires a bit of patience on their part because Anne—and author L.M. Montgomery—are enamored of all things beautiful. The novel is filled with descriptive passages about big, rambling orchards, brooks coursing with dark secrets of pool and cascade, wild plum trees in filmy bloom. Anne waxes poetic about the Snow Queen, as she calls the cherry tree outside her window at Green Gables, and she delights in the Lake of Shining Waters, her term for the pond outside her best friend’s house, its water a glory of many-shifting hues. But Anne is not just taken by natural beauty; she also longs to look beautiful herself, as the girls keep pointing out to me.

A few days ago I discovered Tagel on the ipad—or perhaps I should say that I caught her there, since she did not have permission to be on a screen. I was about to reproach her when I noticed that she was scrolling through images of Anne from the various screen adaptations. “Ima, do you think she looks more beautiful here or here?” she asked me repeatedly, calling up different pairs of images until I started to feel like I was taking a vision test and trying to decide, each time, between the two options.

And yet as Tagel reminded me, Anne herself might have done the same. “I love pretty things,” Anne tells Marilla, “I hate to look in the glass and see something that isn’t pretty.” She stops on her walk to church to garland her hat with a wreath of wild roses that she picks by the roadside, to the horror of no-nonsense Marilla, who disapproves of her frivolity. She believes that life is not worth living without a dress with puffed sleeves, which were all the rage among the other girls her age, but Marilla will not abide the wasted fabric. And she dreams that one day her red hair—her lifelong sorrow—will darken to a handsome auburn; when she can’t wait any longer, she tries to dye it herself, with catastrophic results.

My girls tell me that it’s not bad to like pretty things. “Anne would have loved to go to Top Ten,” Tagel tells me. She knows that if she can make a literary allusion, then I am far more likely to concede. “Maybe they’ll have an amethyst brooch,” she ventures with a half smile. Shalvi, as usual, wants to tag along. “Ima, do you think they will have things in my age?” She is confused about “size” and “age,” and gives us trouble about wearing any items of clothing that don’t have a 5 on the tag. “But Ima, it says 6, it’s going to be too big. It’s not for my age yet,” she’ll protest when I hand her a skirt to put on in the morning. It seems she, too, could use a lesson in Middot.

So I do the only thing I can do, and I try to make our trip to Top Ten a lesson in Middot. I tell the girls they can each pick one item in the store, subject to my approval, and then we’ll save it to wear on Shabbat. “Why can’t I wear my headband to school tomorrow?” Liav wants to know, and I remind her of Shammai, who would save everything special he found during the week to enjoy on Shabbat. When the three girls have finally settled on their choices and I’m ready to pay, the vendor notifies me that it’s “buy three, get one free,” and I must choose something else. Alas. I tell the girls they should think of a birthday present for one of their friends, because it’s always nice, when buying something for ourselves, to buy something for someone else too. “I know,” says Liav, “Let’s buy something for Ima!” The girls rummage around excitedly, settling on a sparkly purple nail polish. “We’ll save it for Friday, so we can polish your nails in honor of Shabbat,” Liav assures me, and Tagel, who notices my still-furrowed brow, knows just what to say. “It’s purple,” she tells me, “like the amethyst brooch.”