Author Archives: Evan Wolkenstein

About Evan Wolkenstein

Evan Wolkenstein is the Director of Experiential Education and a Tanach teacher at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco.

Video: Hagar and Ishmael

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The Stubborn & Rebellious Son

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A criminal is surrounded by a ring of townspeople in the town square and under the orders of the court, he is executed: death by stoning. To be sure, any execution is an upsetting scene, but this particular episode in Parashat Ki Tetze stands out for its deeply troubling nature: the criminal charges are gluttony, drunkenness, and obstinacy. And the criminal is a child (Deut. 21:18).

At first glance, these infractions hardly seem to be on par with capital offenses elsewhere in the Bible: false prophesy (Deut. 13:11), murder (Lev. 24:17), adultery (Lev. 20:10), or kidnapping (Deut. 24:7). These crimes are extremely violent and dangerous. By contrast, the child in this case seems in need of radical intervention, not execution. 

The Rebellious Son

The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin sees in this young man, who they call the “stubborn and rebellious son,” something much more insidious. Though he began stealing from his parents to fuel his appetites, it predicts that “in the end, he will squander his father’s prosperity,” and accomplishing this, will “take his stand at the crossroads and rob people (Rashi 20:18, citing Sanhedrin 72a).”

american jewish world serviceWhat began as familial disappointment will turn into disaster for the family and the innocent people in the village around him. In this sense, though the Rabbis go on to limit the hypothetical applicability of this case until it becomes an impossibility–no real child could ever be stoned for these offenses–they affirm its eternal place in the books for us to learn a lesson:

What goes untreated becomes malignant.

Who Were His Parents?

A deeper reading of the “stubborn and rebellious son” traces his malevolent root seven further back, before his behavior spiraled out of hand, before he was even born. The stubborn and rebellious child is the third legal case of the parashah.The Talmud suggests that the two preceding cases, which may at first seem unrelated, can be read with this third case as a single, sequential narrative (Sanhedrin 107a). By reading them together, we can trace the root of the antisocial behavior to the actions of the child’s father.

No & Maybe

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In Parashat Balak, a distinguished entourage knocks at the humble door of Balaam, the soothsayer. Balaam’s eyes fall on the silk-robed emissaries of King Balak. The King, they say, requires Bilaam’s services to curse Israel. Balaam asks them to spend the night while he inquires as to God’s direction. God prohibits the mission and Balaam dutifully sends the emissaries home.

When, once again, a knock comes at the door, Balaam finds himself standing before princes more honorable than the first. Gold-encrusted and bejeweled, they promise great wealth from the king if Bilaam takes up the task. Balaam, again, invites them to stay. In the dark of night, God tells Balaam to go with the princes.

A Forbidden Mission?

When Balaam sets out on the journey, a puzzle unfolds before us. First, we are informed that God is angry about Balaam’s actions. Then, an invisible angel stands in Balaam’s way, sword in hand, and Balaam’s donkey (who by miracle, speaks) comes to save his life. 

Why does God initially forbid the mission, and afterward permit it? And why does God then push Bilaam within inches of his life for following God’s instructions?

As a high-school teacher, I encounter a mindset in many of my teenage students that is reminiscent of Balaam’s. It is the mindset I call, “I know you said no, but perhaps you meant maybe?” It emerges when students ask to work alone when the explicit assignment is to work with a partner, when they suggest using Tanach hevruta time as Algebra II study time, when they insist on being allowed to visit a shop while the rest of the class waits for the tour guide. And when I give the answer, “no,” they hear, “maybe.” Perhaps they cannot imagine that a rational, compassionate adult would say no to their request. Or perhaps they have difficulty seeing the needs of the community beyond their own.

Saying No

We all struggle with this same challenge. I look at my own life and consider the commitments I have made: to attend rallies, to send letters and sign petitions, to consume responsibly. I say ‘no’ to sweatshops. I say ‘no’ to the abuse of economic and gender privilege.

Tools of Justice

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In Parashat Hukkat, the people, angry about living conditions in the desert, gather against Moses and Aaron to demand water. God instructs Moses to order a rock to give forth water. The people’s thirst is thereby quenched, but God punishes Moses, declaring, “You will not bring this community into the land I have given them (Numbers 20:12).”  

Language & Punishment

What has Moses done to deserve such a harsh penalty?

Commentators differ in their answers, some focusing on how Moses struck the rock rather than speaking to it as directed by God. Maimonides, however, focuses on the substance of the words that Moses delivers (Numbers 20:10): “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Maimonides is concerned that Moses’ angry language will cause the Israelites to believe that God, too, is angry.

As I see it, however, the problem is less about the underlying emotion and more about Moses’ use of one particular word: rebels. The word is, in fact, so strong that the location of this water-giving rock incident becomes known as Meribah–a place of rebellion. The Israelites waste no time in living up to their new name. Three chapters later, they again complain about the food and water they have been given. Moses’ choice to define them according to their behavior, it seems, has only reinforced that behavior.

Individual & Communal Labels

As a teacher, I am struck by how often language can peg a student with an unshakable label. A student labeled a “troublemaker” may live up to this expectation until the day he graduates. If my task as an educator is to help young people reach their own potential, then assigning a label, be it pejorative or apparently harmless (“theater-kid”), can crimp their personal freedom to grow, transform, and express themselves.

If this limiting effect is true when labeling individuals, it is multiply true when labeling groups of people, communities, and nations. During the Cold War, non-industrialized nations without market economies were described as the “Third World.” This hierarchical language placed the United States, Europe, and Australia in a privileged position over Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Oppression & Action

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This Hitler has only one objective, justice for his own people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people, and their right to their resources. If that is Hitler, then let me be a Hitler tenfold.

-Robert Mugabe

Rebels of The Past

In Zimbabwe in 1979, Robert Mugabe was a symbol of national pride, a revolutionary who helped usher the country to independence. Today, his oppressive politics, his criminally irresponsible economic schemes, and his expropriation of thousands of white-owned farms have led to severe damage to his nation’s stability and to his international censure as “the worst kind of racist dictator.”

This week’s parashah features a cast of similarly problematic characters: Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Like all good revolutionaries, their uprising has some legitimacy. Korah claims that the whole nation is holy and should therefore have access to power (Numbers 16:3). This is, after all, a time-honored articulation of populism.  

God, however, punishes all the rebels. We infer from this that there is, in fact, something insidious, even dangerous, about this uprising. God seems to know something about the inner workings of these revolutionaries. Korah, Dathan, and Abiram are too obsessed with their own desire for authority to remember that Moses is, in fact, the person who has been institutionalizing the rule of law and civil society. Israel is in danger of a revolution gone awry, in which the men who lead the charge for freedom become the new source of oppression. Their stated interest in distributing power more broadly appears to be a cover for a darker agenda.

Models of Morality

Similar events unfold all too frequently in our world today. Many communities that have suffered violent oppression for generations undergo a kind of moral meltdown when led to the threshold of self-determination. A lifetime of repression can fill a population with deep-seated hostility and desperation. Models of morality are few and far between on their pathway to autonomy. Violent backlash against both real and perceived threats often spiral out of control. 

Pushing the Law Forward

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“Is that the law? Now?” 

These were the words of Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf when he learned, six years ago, that a woman named Zafran Bibi had been sentenced to death by stoning. Under the Hudood ordinances, fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic law, a woman convicted of adultery can be executed with only circumstantial evidence against her–in Bibi’s case, the birth of a baby while her husband was in jail, despite the fact that months earlier she had gone to the police to report that she had been raped.

american jewish world serviceThe charges brought against her were eventually dropped, largely due to international pressure and the intervention of the President. Her brother-in-law, who had raped her, was never brought to justice. Cases of injustice such as this are far from rare today. 

Jewish Ritual & Adultery

Jewish law sought to prevent arbitrary retribution for adultery (or suspected adultery) with a ritual that was perhaps progressive in its time (though it seems barbaric when taken out of its historical context). Consider this scenario from Parashat Naso:

“If a spirit of jealousy comes over [a man] and he is jealous of his wife when she has defiled herself [through adultery], or if a spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife when she has not defiled herself, the man shall then bring his wife to the priest…(Numbers 5:14-15)”

The priest then administers a sacred procedure called mei sotah, in which the woman ingests a liquid solution containing dust from the Temple floor and the ink from a parchment bearing God’s name. According to tradition, if she is guilty, her body ruptures and she dies. If not, her name is cleared and she may bear her husband a child.

Though this ritual may strike us as a humiliating magical rite with no possible positive outcome for the woman, it was a step forward for its time. Mei sotah placed the fate of the accused woman in the hands of the only true judge–God–and withdrew from the husband the power to arbitrarily judge and punish his wife.

The Law of the Farm

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A student approaches me, red in the face. “Please explain this,” he says. I look at his report card. I’ve given him a low grade for class participation. Over the course of the semester, he has repeatedly scoffed at the comments of classmates. This has brought tension and distrust to the class. When I remind him of this, his face falls. “You’re right,” he says. “What if I apologize and never do it again?”

“Sorry,” I say. “This mistake has no undo.”

On Forgiveness

We often think that we can cut corners, avoid the costs of our actions, ignore cause and effect, and come out ahead. But we are mistaken, and Parashat Ahare Mot comes to remind us of the way things really work.

american jewish world serviceThe parashah begins by describing the priestly Yom Kippur atonement service. We learn here that God has incorporated atonement–the mercy that leads to Divine forgiveness–into the fabric of creation. But the parashah then takes a dramatic turn as it delineates a series of laws and specifies the consequences of failing to follow them: the aberrant individual is cut off from his people (Leviticus 18:29) and the guilty nation is spewed out from the land (Leviticus 18:27). 

The parashah makes a distinction between the guilt for humanity’s mistakes, which may be absolved, and the consequences of those mistakes, for which there is no undo. This distinction is crucial.

No Pleading to the Powers That Be

Steven Covey, author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, writes that natural laws determine processes and outcomes in the natural world. For example, farm workers understand that “ripping up the soil, throwing in the seeds, watering and cultivating overnight” will not provide them with “a bountiful harvest overnight.”

With acts of labor in the natural world, we know that the process must be done in the correct order, at the right time. Yet in social systems, we somehow think that fast fixes and clever problem-solving can undo the effects of neglect, disrespect, and betrayal. 

Not Ours To Discard

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Reading the book of Vayikra is, for me, like looking at photos of my great-grandparents: recognizable and yet strange. Certain features distinguish the figures as my family, but the likeness ends there–dressed in brimless caps and caftans, with unsmiling expressions, they are clearly from another place and time. In many ways, I have more in common with a stranger today than I do with them.

american jewish world serviceLikewise, the book of Vayikra is also both familiar and strangely foreign. The book opens with passages such as this (Leviticus 1:15): “The priest shall bring [the turtledove] to the altar, pinch off its head, and turn it into smoke on the altar…”

Naturally, in their earliest phases, these passages served as a written instruction manual (literally, a Torah) for the Levitical and Priestly castes, recording their sacred rites for Jews to follow for all eternity. 

This worked beautifully until the destruction of the Temple. The Jewish community then had to decide what to do with 27 chapters worth of sacred rites that it could no longer perform. Having no Temple and no functioning priesthood, the turtledoves of the world could rest easy.

Holding on to Vayikra

The early generations of post-Temple Jews kept those laws in the sacred canon partially out of hopeful nostalgia–may we merit the reinstatement of the Temple sacrifices, they might have said, and meanwhile, keep studying so as not to forgot how.

Other dedicated students of Vayikra asserted that the merit that Israel earned through pinching off the turtledove’s head could be earned, as it were, virtually: the study of the thing could be tantamount to the performance of the thing itself.

Later phases of Jewish development seized on the creative drash: expounding upon biblical verses to derive powerful and inspiring messages. Eventually, Hasidic philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries derived spiritual, mystical, and practically applicable lessons from the very same texts. 

The Mishkan as Model

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In Parashat Terumah, the Israelites receive the blueprints for a majestic tent–the mishkan–that will eventually house the magnificent Ark of the Covenant. As we read the vivid description, we can picture its grandeur. During the Israelites’ journeys through the desert, the mishkan serves as a portable temple, with the home of God’s indwelling, the Ark, at its center (Exodus 25:8). The Israelite tribes camp around it, placing it at the heart of the Nation.

american jewish world serviceWhile the detailed beauty of the Ark sounds stunning, the medieval commentator Abravanel wonders about its design. The first of the Divine Laws prohibits graven images of any kind, replications of any being, heavenly or earthly (Exodus 20:4). But upon the cover of the ark perch two cherubim, winged human forms (Exodus 25:20). It would seem that by including these forms, God is breaking God’s own Law.

From the Human Encounter

There is a possible resolution to this seeming contradiction in the very details of space and shape that make this parashah and its focus on design so fascinating. “From above the cover,” says God (Exodus 25:22), “from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Covenant,” God will meet with humanity. The voice of God emerges not from the mouth of any graven image, but from the empty space between two faces. 

From the place of human encounter emerges the Divine Voice. Certainly, in every act of true listening, of honest speaking, and thus in every act of compassion, in every heartfelt encounter, in every ethical interaction we can hear God’s voice.

In other words, if idolatry is to hear the voice of God emerging from a block of gold, then the opposite of idolatry is to see God’s face in every human being, to hear God’s voice emerging from the relationship of any two beings, face to face, eye to eye, ish el achiv–from one person to another (Exodus 25:20).

Yet the presence of the sacred in human interactions does not occur automatically in the encounter. There is a crucial foundation upon which this relationship takes place, a vital basis where our relationships must be rooted.

The Stick that Exacerbates the Plagues

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“Bay Area fishermen are rejoicing,” said one friend, sitting back in his chair after our Shabbat meal of salmon and side dishes. “The ban on certain fish is being lifted.”

american jewish world service

“I don’t see how that’s possible. Have you been down to the bay? A month after the spill and it still stinks.”

I had been following the articles in the paper. Early last November, the container ship Cosco Busan had gouged its hull against a tower of the Bay Bridge, dumping 58,000 gallons of toxic bunker fuel into the water. This week’s parashah also describes something awful emerging from the waters–the plague of frogs.

One Big Frog

The Midrash, seizing on a grammatical irregularity, suggests that a single, enormous frog emerged from the Nile and, only when the Egyptians attacked it, did it split and split again, replicating into more and more teeming amphibians (Exodus Rabbah 10:4). By attacking the frog, the Egyptians unwittingly made the situation worse for themselves and were thus active agents in their own misery. What is the Midrash trying to teach us with this fanciful construction?

The Midrash suggests a deadly myopia, an inability to see beyond the symptom to the cause. Like the fabled rescuer of drowning victims too busy to look upstream to see what’s pushing hordes of people into the water, the Egyptians were too occupied with the existence of the enormous frog to ask what it was doing there in the first place.

We readers are lucky, for the text spells out for us no fewer than ten times the cause of the plagues–to teach us that “the earth belongs to God (Exodus 9:29).” Pharaoh and his people persisted in attacking the symptom, the challenge to his ultimate power. His misguided philosophy, mirrored by his people’s actions, is expressed in the imagination of the Midrash: when you find things you don’t like, hit them with a stick and they’ll go away.

But they don’t. The Egyptian people soon found themselves overrun, their mixing bowls, their beds, heaped with frogs. Today, months after the oil spill, the San Francisco bay continues to stink, reminding us of the 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel washed onto shore and out to sea. 

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