Author Archives: Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix

About Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.

Synthesizing The Influences Of Our Parents

Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.

One of the most difficult and troubling of all the laws in the Torah appears in this week’s parashah–the law of the ‘ben sorer u’moreh‘–the wayward and rebellious son.

This is what it says in the 21st chapter of Deuteronomy:

"When a man has a son who is wayward and rebellious, who does not listen to the voice of his father and the voice of his mother, and they warn him, but he does not listen to them. His father and mother shall seize him and bring him to the elders of his town, to the gate of his place. Then they are to say to the elders of his town: ‘This son of ours is wayward and rebellious, he does not listen to our voice, he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the town are to stone him, so that dies. So shall you burn out the evil from your midst, and all of Israel shall hear and be in awe."

The punishment of death for a son who has apparently committed no real crime, other than failing to listen to his parents and having eaten and drunk too much, is strange. The rabbis sensed this, of course, and explain that, uniquely, the ben sorer u’moreh is not killed for what he has done, but for what the Torah knows he will do; his current behavior clearly indicates to us that he will end up as a thief and killer. Better he should die now, before he commits capital crimes, than allow him to live and cause others to suffer.

What’s the Rationale?

Although they do supply this rationale for this strange law, the Rabbis are still far from comfortable with it. They therefore adopt a strategy, as they do with a few other difficult to accept laws in the Torah, of reading the Biblical text in such a way as to generate a series of rules pertaining to the wayward and rebellious son which effectively guarantee that, legally, there never will be one. Among the legal details they generate, through a careful reading of the text, is the necessity for the son to steal and drink a specific amount of wine and eat a specific amount of food. Only then may he be stoned to death. They also limit the period during which the law is applicable to the three months after his Bar Mitzvah.

Perhaps the most radical strategy for rendering this case impossible to actually prosecute is this one: Relating to the phrase "he does not listen to our voice," Rabbi Yehuda, in tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud (page 71a), says that the wayward son may not be killed unless and until his parents speak with the same voice, look the same, and are the same height! If they do not meet these criteria, he cannot be killed! The Talmud then tells us that this ridiculous, unachievable demand is in agreement with the position that there never was and never will be a case of a wayward and rebellious son, and that it is written in the Torah only to give us the opportunity to benefit by learning it.

If this is the case, let’s see what we might be able to learn from this inapplicable law.

I would like to take a careful look at Rabbi Yehuda’s "same voice, same look, same height" rule. Obviously, no two parents look and sound exactly alike. In order for parents to be able to accuse their son in court, and for us to consider him guilty, his parents must be, in effect, the same person, and speak with one voice.

The fact that we all have two parents, who are two different people, of two different genders, and who have, throughout all our lives, spoken to us in two different voices, mitigates our responsibility for our failures, and makes it impossible for our parents, and for society, to hold us up to the standards of perfection expressed in this case. If the Torah feels we can kill the rebellious son because we know already how he will turn out as an adult, our more complex make-up makes it impossible to predict accurately whom we will ultimately grow up to be.

A Conflict

We are all in conflict. Every one of us is the product of two different sets of genes and two different approaches to the world. This is one of the sources of our difficulties in life. The lack of clarity about who we are is built in–we are hard-wired to contain within us two different people. The Rabbis knows this, and therefore do not hold us to the ridiculously high standard to which the wayward and rebellious son is held.

Only that impossible creature, the child of two people who are exactly the same, could be expected to behave completely in accordance with his parents’, and his society’s, values and expectations, and should be punished so severely if he fails to do so. A real human being, with two different parents, is not held to such an impossibly high standard.

This approach can help us understand ourselves, our parents, and our children. All of us grow up in a reality that is complex, that is intrinsically not monolithic. We are made up of, and are raised by, two different people. The values of one may be in conflict with those of the other; we experience that conflict within ourselves. The dreams of one may be the nightmares of the other; we feel that conflict within ourselves. The voice of one is competing with the voice of the other; we hear both those voices (and others!) within ourselves. Were we all able to approach some sort of harmony, if not unison, more could be expected of us. The Rabbis realized that that expectation is theoretical only–such unison never was and never will be.

The lesson contained in the law of ben sorer u’moreh tells us, however, that, as parents and as children, we are meant to strive for unison, and the perfection and moral clarity it will bring, while realizing that we will never reach it. As long as we, as parents, know that our children are not the products of some perfectly and precisely matched union, but, rather, that they see and hear and experience a complicated mix of messages, we will not make the deadly demand of perfection from them.

Actually, I think we are also meant to breathe a sigh of relief that such perfection has never been and will never be reached–the demands it makes on us seem unbearable.

Models Of Leadership

Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.

The parashah we read this week, Vayelekh, takes place during the last days of Moses‘s life. The entire book of Deuteronomy has been a kind of summing up for Moses, and with this parsha we approach the end, in which he speaks his last words to the Jewish people and appoints Joshua to take over as leader of the nation. It is in connection with this latter task, that of naming Joshua as his successor, that Moses and God seem to have a little disagreement. Moses, when addressing Joshua, says the following:

"…be strong, and brave, for you will go with this nation into the land which God promised to their fathers to give to them …" (Deuteronomy, 31,7).

A few verses later, God says almost the same thing to him:

"…be strong, and brave, for you will bring the children of Israel to the land which I promised to them, and I will be with you" (ibid, verse 23).

See the difference? Moses places Joshua with the people; he "will go with this nation" into the Promised Land. God, on the other hand, singles Joshua out as the one who "will bring the children of Israel" into the Land of Israel. He is not with the people, as Moses has it, he is leading them. In fact, in God’s formulation, Joshua is with Him–God–and no one else.

Difference in Speeches

The Rabbis in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 8a), notice the difference between these two speeches and explain it this way:

Moses, when charging Joshua with the role of leader, emphasized that he will not be alone, but will be entering the land "with" the people. This refers to the fact that Joshua will not be the only leader of the nation, but, rather, will be able to rely on the advice and counsel of the elders, who represent the entire nation and will help him lead them.

God, on the other hand, explained things very differently to Joshua. He stresses that Joshua will be alone in bringing the people into the Land. If necessary, he will need to force them to do his, and God’s, will–"hit them over their heads"–as the Rabbis put it, as he stands alone as the leader of his sometimes difficult-to-lead generation.

How are we to understand this difference of opinion between God and Moses? Why does Moses present a model of rule by consensus, in which Joshua is part of a large group of wise men who, together, lead the people, whereas God presents Joshua with a much more autocratic model, in which he, alone, with only God at his side, often at odds with the very people he is meant to lead, is responsible to get the Jewish people to do the right thing and take possession of the Land of Israel?

Well, the obvious difference between God and Moses is that one of them is a person and the other is an omniscient, omnipotent creator of the universe. Each one of them, therefore, is speaking to Joshua about leadership from his particular point of view. Moses is presenting Joshua with a model for leadership that is human, and therefore social, communal, and consensual. In this model people do things together, as a society. The nation is represented by a group of elders, of whom Joshua is only one–first among equals perhaps, but an equal. Together, Joshua and the nation, represented by their elders, will work things out. Moses, as a human being, understands that this is the way humans are meant to function–with others, together, as a community.

God, on the other hand, has a very different perspective, one that He shares here with Joshua. This Divine perspective is more exalted, more absolute, and much lonelier. As God Himself must take ultimate responsibility for the people He has created and, in the case of the Jewish people, chosen, while being, by definition, not really very much like them, Joshua, as a leader, must also, ultimately, see himself as alone, responsible only to his duty to get the people to do the right thing, as defined by God. Unfettered by the compromises that a communal style of leadership demands, Joshua will be obedient only to the word of God and the vision that arises from that. As God says "…and I will be with you."

In this model of leadership, Joshua is "with" God, not the people. He is, in fact, called upon to be God-like, in that he must understand that the responsibility of leadership is, ultimately, a personal responsibility, his alone, and is not divisible by consensus or community.

The Divine Style of Leadership

As the Rabbis see it, this divine style of leadership is one that is immediately suggestive of an ultimately adversarial relationship–"hit them over their heads" to get them to do the right thing. It would seem that the ‘otherness’ of the people in the divine leadership model (or the ‘otherness’ of the leader from the people’s perspective) makes this inevitable; conflict is bound to occur in a model which sees the leader as essentially separate from those he leads.

In the Talmud, these two models seem to be presented as being mutually exclusive; Moses understands Joshua’s leadership one way and God disagrees with him. I would suggest that they can, and should, coexist. It is only when both these models–the very human need to work within a consensus, within a community, as well as the divine demand for absolute personal responsibility for and obedience to the goal–are present, that Joshua, or any leader, can really lead.

The point, it seems to me, is to be able to work with the people whom one is leading, while, at the same time, understanding that, ultimately, one bears complete and total personal responsibility to the goals and aims which one hopes to achieve. To adopt only Moses’s model could lead to the very common situation of no one really taking responsibility, simply because it has been ceded to everyone. To adopt only God’s model can, and in fact, historically, often has, lead to the tragedy of alienation, dictatorship and totalitarianism.

Zionism And First Fruits

Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.

Often, people ask me about the biblical and rabbinic roots of Zionism. Questions such as, “Is it a mitzvah (commandment) to live in Israel?” or, “Haven’t Jews always lived in the Diaspora, after all, the Babylonian Talmud, the textual cornerstone of Jewish life and law, was written in Babylon, wasn’t it? Why is it important to live in Israel?” , “Moses never even got to Israel, the Torah was given in the desert, lots of religious Jews live and have lived outside of Israel, right?” are asked all the time.

Well, this week’s parashah, Ki Tavo, opens with a section which, I believe, addresses these questions, and serves, therefore, as the foundation of religious Zionist thinking. The Jewish tradition considers these verses, and the concepts and sentiments contained within them, to be so important that it commands every Jewish farmer in Israel to read them every year during a ritual that took place in the Temple at this time of year–in the summertime, between the Pilgrimage Festivals of Shavuot and Sukkot.  This ritual is Bikkurim, the first fruits, in which every farmer in Israel is commanded to come every year to Jerusalem with the first fruits he has harvested of certain basic crops and present them as a gift to the priests in the Temple.

The central element of the ritual is the speech, contained in these verses, which the farmer is commanded to make every year at this time. In addition to the reading of these verses by the farmer when he brings his bikkurim, and, of course, the annual reading of them as part of the weekly Torah portion, the Rabbis also included them as one of the central elements of the Haggadah, which we read every year at the Passover Seder. That’s how much importance the Jewish tradition attaches to these “Zionist” verses. Let’s take a look at them:

“When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the first fruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name and say to the priest in office at the time, ‘I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the land the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us.’

“The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God. Then you shall declare before the Lord your God [this is where the speech each farmer must make begins, and it is from here that the Haggadah begins quoting and discussing this text]:

“My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, and they gave to us hard labor. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, O Lord, have given me.

“And you shall place the basket before the Lord your God and bow down before him. And you and the Levites and the strangers among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household.”

Whether we read these verses in synagogue as part of the weekly portion, or in Jerusalem as we bring our gift of the first fruits, or at the Passover seder, as a central part of the Haggadah, we cannot help but be struck by the strength, beauty, and clarity of the message expressed. The sense of thankfulness for having come home after years of difficult wandering (“He brought us to this place and gave us this land”), of being rooted not only in a geographical place but also in a society, a faith community, and in a nexus of gratitude, caring and charity (“And now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, O Lord, have given me,” “And you and the Levites and the strangers among you shall rejoice”) is strong, and is emphasized by the recurring use of three words: “bo” (to enter, arrive at, or bring), “aretz” (land), and “natan” (give).

Various forms of the word “bo”–to enter, bring, arrive–are used seven times in our section, referring to God’s bringing the Jewish people out of Egypt and into Israel, and paralleling that with the farmer entering the city of Jerusalem and bringing the first fruits to the Priest in the Temple. Our yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem, during which we bring the firstfruits, and rejoice with “the Levites and the strangers among you” parallels the kindness of God’s bringing us out of Egypt and into the Holy Land.

“Aretz”–land–is mentioned five times in the section (and “makom“–place–is mentioned twice). This focus on place, on the rootedness and sense of belonging that the Israelite is meant to feel, is thus emphasized, and presented as a crucial element in the farmer’s story. When we repeat this story every year at the Passover table, we are stating that it is not only the Jew who stands in the Temple in Jerusalem who is meant to have this strong sense of place. Every Jew, everywhere, every year, is meant to retell his national tale, his own and his people’s’ history, from the same ‘place,’ from a sense of rootedness in the land that God has promised to our forefathers and to us.

“Natan” is used negatively when referring to the Egyptians–“and they gave to us hard labor,” and positively, in terms of God’s generosity–“…the land the Lord your God is giving you,” “He brought us to this place and gave us this land.” It is also striking that the section of the Torah which immediately follows this one deals with certain laws of the tithes which “you shall GIVE to the Levite and the stranger and the orphan and the widow.” The generosity of God in giving us the Land of Israel is contrasted with the cruelty of Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and is meant to be echoed by our own generosity to others.

The major difficulty in these verses is in the farmer’s opening words, which is where the Passover Haggadah begins quoting this section, as mandated in the Mishnah in Tractate Pesachim: “Arami oved avi”–“my father was a wandering Aramean.” Who is this father, why is he called an Aramean, and why was he wandering?

Different commentators are divided as to whether this refers to Yaakov, who is here called an Aramean because his grandfather, Abraham, was originally from Aram, and/or because he spent many years in Aram hiding from his brother Esau and working for his father-in-law Lavan, or to Abraham and his ancestors, who originally came from Aram. The Hagadah, in fact, does not understand these words to mean any of the above options, but reads them, rather, as “the Aramean [identified as Lavan, Yaakov’s tricky father-in-law] tried to destroy my father.” Some time after Lavan’s attempt to destroy him, Yaakov eventually made his way to Egypt, where the story continues with the Egyptian oppression of the Jews.

If this speech is meant to be a synopsis of Jewish history, taking us from the horrors of slavery in Egypt to the joys of freedom in Israel, why begin with such a cryptic reference to our forefathers? Why this lack of clarity as to how our national history begins? How is it that the tradition has not decided how, and in reference to whom, our story begins?

I think that the different interpretations of “Arami oved avi” must be taken together. “My father was a wandering Aramean” stresses the fact that we began as wanderers, not in our own land, not rooted in a country and community, and known by a name which was borrowed from others and whose meaning is now not clear to us. That situation of wandering, of homelessness, is not in opposition to, but, rather, should be closely identified with “The Aramean [Lavan] tried to destroy my father.” The wandering, the lack of rootedness, the lack of context, leads to violence and hatred being aimed against us. We are, in such a situation, subject to the whims of those around us, we are victims.

I think it is also suggestive that in the two interpretations, both we and our oppressors have the same name–Aramean. In exile, our very identity is in fact a threat to us, our existential condition is inherently threatening. The confusion among the commentaries as to what this opening phrase means parallels the confusion of the reality the phrase describes; out of our land, out of our community, out of our historical narrative, it really is unclear who we were, where we were going, and what was happening to us. Our identities in Exile were limited to that which threatened us.

It is only once our situation as wanderers/victims is rectified, and we arrive and thrive in our own land, and see ourselves as actors in a coherent narrative, that we can begin to function as the individuals, and society, we were meant to be. Only once we are rooted in a knowledge of and gratitude for God’s kindness, and understand ourselves in terms of that kindness, and are grateful for it, can we commit ourselves to echoing that kindness with the help we give to others.

For me, all the basics of classical Zionism are expressed in these few verses; the confusion, uncertainty, and dangers of Exile–the way it shrinks our identity to that of rootless victim. The moral, theological, and historical underpinnings of our presence in the Land of Israel, and the possibilities which that presence opens up for us. And, crucially, the commitment to social justice and communal concern which, as a result of our claiming our own place in this Land and within this narrative, devolves upon each and every one of us.


The following article is reprinted with permission from The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel.

The parasha this week begins with God praising and rewarding Pinhas for an act he committed at the end of last week’s parasha; the killing of Zimri ben Salu, one of the heads of the tribe of Shimon, and Kozby bat Zur, a Midianite princess. He killed them because they were having an intimate relationship:

"And behold a man from the children of Israel came and brought before his brothers a Midianite woman, before the eyes of Moshe and before the eyes of the entire congregation of Israel…" The Torah tells us that this was not a personal problem, but rather a communal one; "…and the people began to whore with the women of Midian. They called on the people to offer sacrifices to their Gods, and they ate, and bowed down to their Gods."

The Rabbis have wondered why it was davka (specifically) Pinhas who was the one to act against Zimri and Kozbi. Where were Moshe, and the other leaders of the people? We know they were aware of the situation; why did they not take action? Why was this relatively unknown member of the priestly family the one to act, and why did he act so violently?

The Rabbis offer an interesting answer. Moshe, when faced with the sin of Zimri and Kozbi, did not know what to do. As the Rabbis say, "the halakha (law) escaped him." For some reason, Moshe, the law-giver par excellence, was at a loss as to how to respond legally to this situation. Pinhas, however, remembered the law: "he who has intercourse with a non-Jewish woman, zealots should kill him." Pinhas, the zealot, and not Moshe, the law-giver, remembered this law, and acted on it.

This Rabbinic embellishment to the story only exacerbates our original problem. Why is this sin, the sin of intermarriage (or perhaps a very advanced form of inter-dating), not dealt with in the usual way, as other criminal acts in the Bible are dealt with: through a legal process, with witnesses, a court case, and a judicial decision? Why is it left for "zealots" to kill these particular sinners?

It would seem that the Torah realizes that the crime committed by Zimri is the ultimate crime of passion–a crime rooted in deeply felt emotions, a crime rooted in love. Somehow, a crime of this nature eludes the rigors and strictures of the normal judicial process, which is why Moshe "forgot" the law in this case; after all, how can you legislate about love? How can you adjudicate emotions?

That is why the only possible solution, the only possible response, if there is to be a response, must also be extra-legal; the passion of Zimri and Kozby can only be matched by the passion of Pinhas, the zealot. The response to the emotional crime committed here must itself be emotional.

To translate this into a less bloody and violent framework than the one in the parasha:
Only an intense love relationship with God, the Torah, and the Jewish people can stand up to the act of intermarriage, which is itself an expression of love. The kinds of laws that work in other spheres of human activity will not work here, they do not apply. Only passion can stand up to passion.

Interpretive Independence

Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.

This week’s parashah contains a lot of material concerning the government of the original State of Israel; how the king must behave, how to set up a court system, how to run an army, how to set up a legislative system, and more. One of the verses that has always interested me goes like this:

"If there should arise a matter too hard for you in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, between disease and disease, in matters of quarrels within your gates, you are to arise and go up to the place that the Lord your God chooses, you are to come to the Priests, the Levites, and to the judge that there will be in those days, and you shall inquire and they will tell you the word of judgment."

There is a question as to who is being addressed in this verse. One school of thought, expressed by the Ibn Ezra (12th century Spain) and the Chizkuni (Chizkiya ben Manoach, 13th century), believes that the verse is addressed to local Rabbis and judges, and is telling them that if they fail to come to a decision about a case that has come before them, they should take it to the "Supreme Court"–the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, which will make the final decision.

Another possible reading is that the verse is addressed to the individual Jew, the layperson, rather than to the Rabbis and judges of the lower courts. It is this pshat (reading) that I would like to talk about.

According to this pshat, we are all instructed to turn to the Sanhedrin, the highest legal authority in the nation, ONLY "if there should arise a matter too hard for you in judgment." In other words, the first response that the layperson is meant to have to a Halakhic (Jewish legal) question is to see if he or she can answer it by him or herself. Only when failing to do so is the layperson commanded to take the question to Jerusalem and there seek, and accept, the authority of the high court.

I have always felt that this approach is tremendously empowering, and tremendously demanding. The halakhic system, rather than simply subjecting us all to the will of the legal scholars of the Sanhedrin whenever there is a halakhic question to be resolved, demands of each one of us to become a scholar in his own right. The high court is only there if needed; if we fail to work out, on our own, the Torah’s will in a given situation or conflict. Only then are we commanded to make the trip to Jerusalem and subject ourselves to the will of the experts.

With this verse, the Torah puts before each and every one of us a challenge–the challenge to be our own authority, our own expert, our own leader. The Sanhedrin’s intervention in the Halakhic process is only called for when we as individuals reach our limits, and need their help. Until then, we are called upon to act as independent, autonomous individuals, struggling on our own to wrest God’s will from His holy texts.

Selfish Revolution

The following article is reprinted with permission from The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel.

This week we read the story of Korah, who is traditionally seen as an arch-villain, the archetypal rebel against Moshe and Aharon–the ‘establishment’ of the Jewish people. When we look at it carefully, however, Korah’s complaint against the hegemony of Moshe and his brother, who between them and other members of their family run the entire show in the desert–has a compelling ring to it: “You’ve taken too much! For the entire community, all of them, are holy, and God is in their midst. Why should you exalt yourselves over the congregation of God?”

The complaint, to our ears at least, has a lot going for it. What is wrong with Korah’s desire for a more equitable division of power, which would involve and enfranchise “the entire community?” Would that not be a good thing? Does it not flow naturally from the democratizing tendencies we saw manifested a few weeks ago when Moshe, under attack from the people, delegated power to 70 elders, in an attempt to take some of the pressure off of himself, and involve others in the effort of governing and leading the nation?

Korah’s position is also in synch with the suggestion made back at Mount Sinai to Moshe by his father-in-law Yitro–that he not judge the people by himself, but rather that he should establish a court system, whereby thousands of judges share the load with him.  Is not Korah, who was himself a Levite and therefore part of the power elite, asking for the most basic of democratic principles–a fully participatory democracy, in which everyone is an equal partner? And if he is, why is he punished so horribly, by having the earth swallow up him and his followers?

I think the answer to these questions is apparent both in the Biblical text and in the rabbinic literature that embellishes it. Let’s take a look at Moshe’s response to Korah’s challenge. Although clearly troubled by Korah’s words (the Torah tells us that his first response was to “fall on his face”), Moshe seems willing to accept the possibility that he is not God’s only chosen leader, and that, perhaps, the entire nation IS equally holy.

He therefore suggests a test–let Korah and his followers bring incense offerings to God. If they are accepted, then his claim will be substantiated–it will have been made clear that we are all, in fact, equally holy, equally chosen, and that we therefore should, as Korah suggests, all stand equally before God.

However, in addition to immediately agreeing to put Korah’s claim to the test, Moshe also expresses his uneasiness, and his mistrust of Korah. This is what he says: “Is it but a small thing to you that the God of Israel has separated you from the community of Israel to bring you near to him, to do the work in the Tabernacle of God and to stand before the congregation to serve them? He has brought you and all your brothers the sons of Levi near, and you also ask for priesthood?”

Moshe’s words are interesting. At first glance, he seems to not get it; Korah presented himself as a champion of equality before God–“the entire community, all of them, are holy”–and Moshe is trying to placate him by reminding him that he is in fact a big shot, part of the establishment, a Levite. It would seem that Moshe saw through Korah’s claim that he was representing “the entire community” and understood that he was simply out to gain more power for himself; “you also ask for priesthood?” Moshe knows that this is what is really hiding behind Korah’s egalitarian spiel: the desire for more personal power.

The Rabbis pick up on Moshe’s understanding of Korah’s true motivation, and traditionally discount the seriousness of Korah’s commitment to the “community” and the “congregation,” and see these claims as simply ploys in his attempt to consolidate more power for himself. This is, of course, a dynamic that, tragically, has played itself out over and over again in any number of 20th century “People’s Republics.”

After telling Korah what he really thinks of him, Moshe then sends for Datan and Aviram, the non-Levites, regular Israelite “rank-and-file” supporters of Korah’s rebellion. We will never know what Moshe intended to say to them, for they refuse to meet with him, but they damn themselves with their own words: “We will not go up! Is it not enough that you have brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to cause us to die in the wilderness, that you should rule over and continue to rule over us? You haven’t even taken us to a land flowing with milk and honey to give us an inheritance of field and vineyard?we will not go up!” It seems clear that personal gain–“field and vineyard”–is what they were after.

At this point Moshe loses it: “And Moshe got very angry and he said to God ‘do not turn to their offering, not even one donkey of theirs have I taken, I haven’t done anything bad to any one of them.'”

Pretty strange response, eh? And what’s up with the donkey? I think we should compare Moshe’s response here with the words of Datan and Aviram and with what Moshe says about Korah. They are depicted as wanting, taking, desiring things for themselves–“you also ask for priesthood?” “you haven’t give[n] us an inheritance of field and vineyard?”

Moshe’s words make clear the profound gap between them and him–“not even one donkey of theirs have I taken?”–My relationship with power, leadership, government, has never been about improving my own situation, it has not been about my taking things. (Interestingly, the parsha begins with the words “Vayikah Korah“–“and Korah took,” which would seem to summarize his basic mind set.) Therefore, Moshe says to God, do not turn to them and their offering, do not choose them, because their understanding of leadership is one that is rooted in self-aggrandizement, in material gain, and is therefore unacceptable.

Tellingly, the Hebrew word for donkey is hamor, similar to the Hebrew word for the physical, the material–homer. If we also remember the reluctance that Moshe showed to accept a leadership role, back at the burning bush, while the Jews were still enslaved in Egypt, the differences between what motivates Moshe to lead as opposed to Korah could not be clearer.

I would argue that Moshe’s unmasking of the true motivations of Korah and his followers leaves open the possibility of a real “people’s revolution,” which seeks a truly egalitarian society. We are however left with the suspicion that those who claim that that is what they are after need to be looked at very carefully, as those high ideals and exalted aims have often (invariably?) masked a raw desire for personal power and gain. Moshe’s model of leadership stands in stark distinction to that of Korah and his followers, stemming as it does from a desire to help those who need it, rather than from personal considerations of profit, loss, and position.

When To Talk And When To Act

The following article is reprinted with permission from The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel.

This week I want to do something a bit different. As I’m sure many of you know, in addition to reading in the synagogue the weekly Torah portion, there is a tradition to follow that reading with a short selection from one of the books of the prophets. Typically, this section, called the ‘haftarah‘ or ‘leave-taking’ (the idea being that it is a kind of epilogue or coda to the Torah reading) is connected in some thematic way to the Torah portion. This week I would like to talk about the Torah reading together with the Haftarah.

In the Torah reading, near the end of the parshah, which, according to the rabbinic understanding takes place towards the end of the 40-year trek through the desert, we are told that there was a water shortage: "Now there was no water for the nation, so they gathered against Moshe and against Aharon…saying…why did you bring the congregation of God into this wilderness to die there, us, along with our cattle…?"

God appears to Moshe, and tells him to take his staff, assemble the community, and speak to a rock, which will give forth water. Famously, Moshe somehow gets it wrong, and commits what for him will be an ultimate, tragic sin, for which he will be punished by being denied entry into the Holy Land.

Moshe assembles the people, and says, "Listen here, you rebels, from this stone shall we bring forth for you water?" Moshe then strikes the stone with his staff, twice, and water flows out of it. Subsequently, God informs him that by doing so he has sinned, grievously: "You did not believe in me, to sanctify me before the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this congregation into the land that I am giving them."

For centuries, the rabbis have debated the precise nature of Moshe’s sin. Some feel that it was Moshe’s anger–his branding the people "rebels," and his nasty tone of voice and choice of language. Others focus on the speaking to/hitting the rock question; although Moshe was instructed by God to take his staff, he was clearly told to speak to the rock, and, instead, he hit it, twice. Many commentaries see this as another sign of anger, and/or of disregard for the precise demands made by God.

It may be that Moshe, who has consistently, over the period of the Exodus from Egypt and the 40 years of wandering in the desert, used his staff to hit things, was now being instructed to symbolically take the people of Israel, as they ready themselves to enter the land of Israel, to a higher, more mature level, in which speech, rather than violent action, was to be preferred. If so, his regressive behavior in hitting the rock communicated precisely the wrong message to the Israelites.  Had he spoken to the rock, the Israelites could have the learned the value of obedience to the word of God, rather than a fear of His wrath, as being the desirable mode of interaction with Him, and that speech, rather than violent action, is the preferred mode of human behavior.

After this episode, there are a series of diplomatic and military interactions between the Jews and the first Canaanite peoples they encounter as they approach the Land of Israel.  Moshe and the Israelites wage a successful campaign against the Amorites, who attacked Israel after refusing Moshe’s request to pass peacefully through their territory, in which Israel captures Amorite territory.

It is this last episode, the conquest of the Amorite land, which clearly seems to be the connection to the Haftarah that is read in conjunction with parshat Hukkat–the story of Yiftah the Giladi in the book of Judges. The story begins by telling us that Yiftah, Gilad’s illegitimate son (we are told that his mother was a prostitute) was thrown out of his parental home by his younger half-brothers, who denied him a share in their father’s inheritance because he was "the son of another woman." Yiftah takes up with a group of men described as "worthless fellows." Yiftah seems to be a typical marginal youth; unfairly rejected by his family, he opts for a life on the edge, surrounded by other marginal people.

But then, the people of Israel are attacked by the Ammonites, who seek to conquer the Amorite territory that, 300 years earlier, in our parsha, Moshe had captured in his defensive war against the Amorites. Yiftah’s old tormentors, the men of Gilad, approach him and ask him to lead them in battle. It would seem that the personality-type that Yiftah was–an adventurous roustabout, was exactly what was needed. The respectable burghers of Gilad knew that they were not fighters, and turned to Yiftah to do that job for them.

Yiftah agrees, and becomes their leader. He then does something that is somewhat unexpected. We have been prepared by the narrative for a Yiftah who is a man of action, who will be a captain for the beleaguered and frightened people of Gilad. And what does this man of action do? He sends a diplomatic mission to the king of Ammon asking for peace.

In the discussion that follows, Yiftah argues that the land that Ammon is attacking was conquered legitimately by Israel from another nation, the Amorites, some 300 hundred years earlier, in a defensive war, after Israel was attacked by the Amorites. The Ammonites, whom Israel did not fight at that time, have no legitimate reason to attack Israel over that land now.

All the diplomacy is to no avail; the Ammonites attack, and Yiftah goes into battle. Before he does, he makes a vow to God, saying that, if he is victorious, and returns from the battle, "whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering." He was assuming that it would be a goat, or sheep, or cow, which would first come out to greet him upon his return.

Tragically, after Yiftah returns home, victorious, it is his daughter, his only child, who comes out, singing and dancing, to greet him. The end of the story is horribly tragic:

"When he saw her, he rent his clothes, and said, ‘alas, my daughter, thou hast brought me very low, and thou hast become the cause of trouble to me, for I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I can not go back.’ And she said to him, ‘my father, if thou hast opened thy mouth to the Lord, do to me that which has come out of thy mouth.’ " She is given two months to ‘weep for her virginity’, and is then forced to live out her life, alone, remaining unmarried.

Although Moshe’s fight and Yiftah’s fight over the same piece of land, separated by some 300 years, is the obvious connection between the parsha and the haftarah, I am struck by the connections between the Yiftah story and the story of Moshe and the rock.

Moshe, back in Exodus, began his career as a man of action. Like Yiftah, he was estranged from his family (albeit under very different circumstances), and what we know of him is very like what we think we know of Yiftah–the first act he does in the Torah is to smite and kill the Egyptian oppressor of his Jewish brethren. Later, at the burning bush, when God calls on Moshe to go to Pharaoh and lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, he demurs, claiming that he is not a man of words, not a speaker. God insists, but does seem to agree with Moshe’s self-assessment and supplies him with his brother Aharon to act as a spokesman. The staff, which accompanies Moshe, and through which he accomplishes all the plagues and miracles, seems to underscore Moshe’s personality as a man of action, rather that words.

It would seem that in our parsha, as the 40 years in the desert come to an end and the Israelites ready themselves to enter the land of Israel, God’s telling Moshe to take the staff but TALK to the rock is a kind of final test. Moshe is challenged to transcend his persona as a man of action, of violence, and clearly opt for the role of the speaker, the person who achieves not by hitting, but by talking. Moshe fails, and is denied the right to enter the land, his goal for the last 40 years and more, as a punishment.

It is worth noting that the same word "va’yach"–"and he smote"–is used back at the beginning of his career, when he killed the Egyptian, as well as here, in our parsha, when he hits the rock. It would seem that the act of talking to the rock, and, in effect, rejecting the staff that he held in his hands, was meant to be Moshe’s final apotheosis, from the man of action to the man of words. It is this that he failed to achieve.

Yiftah’s story seems to contain a similar tension between speech and action. Yiftah refuses to be typecast as a simple strong-man, and tries diplomacy before military engagement. When the Ammonites refuse to listen to reason, Yiftah is forced to be what everyone wants him to be; a tough guy, the son of a prostitute, who hangs out with worthless bums, a man of action and violence.

In a fascinating twist, his tragedy comes about not through anything he does, but through something he says–his vow to offer the first thing to come out of his door to God. It almost seems as if the story is telling us that Yiftah was wrong to try to become a man of words, to "open his mouth to God" and express a religious sentiment, and that his real role, the role that he is now called upon to play, that needs to be played, and in which he can succeed, is that of a man of action.

As Israel now faces a brutal, implacable enemy, with whom we have tried to talk, unsuccessfully, for years, I pray that we, and our leaders, will have the wisdom to know when to talk, and when to act.

Leaving Childhood Behind

The following article is reprinted with permission from The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel.

In this week’s parsha we have one of a number of stories in the Torah about the kvetching and complaining that the people of Israel were guilty of during the time they were in the Sinai desert, traveling from Egypt to Israel. The story, in chapter 11 of Numbers, goes like this:
“And the riff-raff among them had a craving, a lusting, and again they wept, along with the people of Israel, and they said ‘who will feed us meat? We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt, free; the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our souls are dry, there is nothing, all we see is this manna.'”

After this strange complaint (leeks? onions? garlic? And what kind of fish did the Egyptians give their slaves for free?), the Torah, in a pointed aside, extols the virtues of the manna that the Israelites so bitterly complained about: “Now the manna is like coriander seed and it looks like bdellium. The people would go out and collect it…its taste was like rich, moist oil…” This glowing description of the manna makes it difficult to understand what the Israelites were complaining about.

The Rabbis add to the problem by telling us that, in fact, the manna had the quality of tasting like whatever the eater imagined; ice cream, southern fried chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, whatever, which leads to the question–if that was the case, why didn’t the Jews just imagine that the manna tasted like watermelons and cucumbers and all that other stuff from Egypt that they said they missed so much? The Rabbis, in a well-known answer, say that these particular foods, when eaten by nursing mothers, produce an unpleasant taste for their nursing babies, and therefore God, as a favor to the nurslings, did not allow the manna to taste like them. Later on, I am going to posit a somewhat different explanation.

We then return to the story, and are told that “Moshe heard the nation crying, by their families, each person at the opening of his tent, and God was very angry, and it looked bad to Moshe.” Moshe then turns and complains to God: “…Did I conceive this entire nation? Did I give birth to it, that you should say to me, ‘carry it in your bosom, as a nursing parent carries a suckling child, to the land that you promised to their forefathers?’ Where am I going to get meat to give to this whole nation, for they are crying to me, saying ‘give us meat, so we can eat!’ …”

It really looks like Moshe has lost it! The imagery he uses–motherhood, nursing, crying children–is fascinating, and is even more so in the original Hebrew, in that Moshe uses some feminine language, which the Rabbis see as making him seem even more of a female, “mother” figure.

The thrust of the story seems to be, I think, that the Jewish people behaved in a way that was extremely child-like, and Moshe’s response is appropriate to that. The crying, the fact that they missed the food they ate in Egypt, not because it was very good but, rather, because it’s what they were used to, Moshe’s infantilizing the people in his speech to God, all seem to indicate that this is not about a real need for real food, but rather is about a tendency on the part of the Jews to regress to a simpler, child-like reality, symbolized by the foods of that childhood.

I’m reminded of an episode of “Friends” that I accidentally watched in which Monica was supposed to cook a Thanksgiving dinner for everyone, and each person, childishly, wanted the mashed potatoes exactly the way their mother cooked it; with lumps, without lumps, creamy, crunchy, etc. One is also reminded of Proust’s madeleine, and how his childhood, and subsequently his entire life, was conjured up for him by the sensory memories he experienced when he dipped it into his cup of tea.

This desire for the physical, sensory, and tactile experiences of our childhood is not uncommon–I feel the same way about Kedem grape juice and Ring Dings, which really are awful. In our story, however, this is apparently part of a much more problematic pathology.

The Rabbis explain this pathology in the following way: When the people complain, the Torah tells us that “Moshe heard the nation crying, by their families, each person at the opening of his tent.” The simple meaning is that they gathered in family groups in order to protest the lack of meat. The Rabbis, however, claim that “by their families” actually means they were crying ABOUT a family matter, namely, the fact that now, after having been given the Torah, the Jews were forbidden to engage in incestuous sexual relations, and this is what they were crying about!

Where did the Rabbis get this weird idea? Why do they insult the Jews of the pre-Torah period by maintaining that they were not only guilty of incest, but were in fact so into it that they all got together and cried when those relationships were forbidden to them?

It would seem that we are being taught a profound lesson about infantilism, growing up, and sexuality. The Torah’s paradigm of mature, adult sexuality is expressed in Genesis, at the creation of Adam and Eve. Adam is lonely without a mate, unsatisfied. God creates woman, Adam likes her, a lot, and the Torah says: “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

Of course, Adam had no father and mother to leave, and yet the Torah insists that an intimate relationship between a man and a woman is predicated upon a leaving behind of the intimate relationships of one’s childhood, and the establishing of a new relationship, the forging of a new reality. Growing up, we are being told, is about leaving behind the sensations and intimacies of childhood, and creating a new set of sensations and intimacies.

“And they become one flesh,” according to the Rabbis, refers not only to this new-found intimacy, but is also a reference to the new life, the child, who is created by this union, which, in fact, makes the transition from childhood to adulthood complete; one leaves behind being a child by becoming a parent.

The People of Israel in the desert were infantile; craving the food of the nation’s ‘childhood’ in Egypt, complaining about the food that they now had to go and get themselves, and whose taste they had to invent through a creative act of the imagination. They preferred, instead, to simply nostalgically remember and re-experience the tastes and sensations of their infancy, the food the Egyptians gave to them “free”–i.e., like babies, fed to them by an all-powerful “parent,” as passive, rather than active recipients.

This mind-set, the Rabbis tell us, is consistent with incest; a clinging to the intimacies of one’s infancy, rather than moving forward to create new, adult intimacies, new relationships, out of which are created new human beings, new families. Incest, in this understanding, is about not being able to grow out of the relationships that we are born into, not being able to grow beyond the sensations and interactions we experienced as children. Incest is a failure of the imagination, a failure to look beyond our childhood, which is our first experience of love, intimacy, and relationship, to the possibility of leaving that behind in order to create a new set of relationships, and, ultimately, new life.

It is appropriate, therefore, that God withheld from the Jewish people the ability to imagine that the manna tastes like foods that are bad for nursing babies. The message behind that is clear–it is time to give up what you ‘ate’ (experienced, felt, loved) as a child, and to ‘eat’ like an adult, i.e., that which is a product of your own active imagination, and which will nourish your own children. Your expectations of physical sensation and pleasure should not hark back to your infantile experiences of them, but, rather, should be part of an active attempt to leave them behind, to stop being a child and become a parent.

The message for the growth and maturation of the nation, as well as for us as individuals, is clear.

Princely Gifts

Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.

This week’s parashah continues to discuss the arrangements for the trek the Jewish nation is about to make through the desert to the Land of Israel. The Levites, who are responsible for transporting the Tabernacle, are counted, and their work-load is apportioned among them. This is followed by a number of laws concerning ritual purity, aimed at keeping the encampment pure, and a number of other laws whose placement here seems odd and which I will not talk about.

Then, towards the end of the parashah, after everything seems to have been arranged, and the nation should be ready to start to make its way to the promised land, with the Tabernacle in place at the center of the camp and all the tribes arranged appropriately around it as they travel through the desert, the nesi’im, the leaders of the twelve tribes, suddenly approach Moses.

They bring him a gift–"six covered wagons and twelve cattle, a wagon for every two leaders and an ox for each one, and they brought them near to the Tabernacle." Moses is unsure what to do with this voluntary gift, until God tells him: "Take these from them, that they may be for the work of the Tent of Meeting, and give them to the Levites, each man according to his work-load." Moses then apportioned the wagons and oxen among the Levites, according to the amount of material from the Tabernacle that they had to transport.

A Voluntary Gift

This voluntary, spontaneous gift to the Levites on the part of the heads of the tribes contains many interesting messages. First of all, we have the theme of the Torah’s ‘leaving space.’ After dozens, no, hundreds, of verses relating to the way the Tabernacle should be designed, constructed and transported, there was still room left for improvement–still room for a new, innovative technological (!) way to make the work of transporting the parts of the Tabernacle easier and more efficient.

This is not the only occasion on which the Torah seems to leave space in this way for suggestions, improvements, challenges, or changes to the orders handed down by God to the people through Moses. In an interesting parallel, Rashi points out that the heads of the twelve tribes, as leaders, also ‘left space’ for the Jewish people, the people they were leading, in which to act. Rashi explains that all through the process of donating materials for the Tabernacle–the silver, gold, fabrics, and other materials needed–the nesi’im are not mentioned. This is because they did not, as nesi’im, bring any specific donations. Instead, Rashi tells us, they held back, leaving room for the people to act first and bring what they could, thinking that they, the leaders, would fill in later whatever was missing.

They were surprised that the people brought as much as they did; at the end of the process there was very little left for them to donate. This, according to Rashi, is the reason why they hurried to bring the gifts of the wagons and oxen; to fill a gap that they perceived, before one of the people did. The nesi’im wanted this opportunity, which, until now, because of their leadership style, they had not had, to bring something of their own for the Tabernacle.

This model of leadership, wherein those in charge leave room for their ‘followers’ to act, and see themselves as being there only to do whatever is left undone, is a fascinating one. I have often thought about parenting in this way–the challenge is to leave space for your kids to do the right thing on their own. The Jewish people, at this early sage of their nationhood, were getting some very good parenting.

A former teacher of mine, Rabbi Jay Miller, once compared the Ari’s (16th century Zfat) Kabbalistic model of the creation of the world to parenting.  God has to do an act of tzimtzum–shrinking, contracting–in order to make room for something other than himself to exist–that something being the created universe.  Parents, too, must do an act of tzimtzum in order to leave space for their children to function and grow. The difficulty that the nesi’im had with this, when they saw that their ‘children’, the people of Israel, had gone ahead and done just about everything for themselves, leaving them to scramble to try and find some area where thy could make a contribution, is interesting and beautiful.

There is also the theme of egalitarianism, and brotherhood. The Levites are assisted in their role in the Tabernacle by the rest of the people; the nesi’im, representing their tribes, act sensitively, and in harmony, to make the Levites’ work easier. In this way, the entire nation has an ongoing stake in the day-to-day functioning of God’s Temple. The S’forno (15th-16th century Italy) also points out that having every two nesi’im give one ox is another sign of cooperation and brotherhood.

After this section, the nesi’im AGAIN approach Moses, with yet ANOTHER voluntary gift. Each one of the twelve nesi’im brings a series of animal and vegetable sacrifices to be offered on the altar, along with vessels that they donate to the Tabernacle. Once again, Moses is nonplussed, until God gives him the go-ahead, and orders each one of the nesi’im to bring his sacrifice separately, one day at a time. What is the purpose of this second round of unbidden gifts? Why did the nesi’im bring them? What need do they serve, what hitherto un-thought role do they play?

Rashi’s Explanation

Rashi has a beautiful explanation: "After they offered the wagons and cattle used to transport the Tabernacle, their hearts moved them to volunteer these sacrifices to dedicate the altar." The language Rashi uses is highly suggestive. If their first batch of giving–the wagons and the oxen–was essentially a response to a real need that the Levites had, this second round is an answer to an inner need on the part of the nesi’im to give. The nesi’im inspired themselves: they were moved by their unselfish, creative, sensitive and brotherly act of giving to give more.

Moses was at first unsure of how to respond to this. God’s response–let them bring the sacrifices, one day at a time–seems to not only accept the spontaneous gift of each nasi, but to spotlight it, individualize it. God’s decision to give each nasi a separate day in which to bring his sacrifice seems to underscore the individuality of each gift. This, in spite of the fact that they all gave the exact same thing.

The Torah, in fact, at the very end of our parashah, goes through the same list, twelve times, of animals and incense and grain offerings and utensils that each one of the leaders brought. This seemingly unnecessary repetition of the same list of offerings creates, I think, a balance. A balance between the individual expression of each nasi’s desire to give of himself to the Tabernacle–underscored by each nasi getting his own day and his own separate mention–and the collective nature of their act–they all originally approached Moses together and they all give the exact same thing.

This balance between the individual and the collective, between the urge to stand out from and the urge to be a part of, is a balance that all of us must struggle to achieve in our personal and communal lives.

Sefirat Ha-Omer–Time As Text

Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.

In this week’s parashah, Emor, we read about the Jewish calendar–the various holidays and their rituals. One of the periods of the year which we are commanded to pay special attention to is the one in which we currently find ourselves–the period of Sefirat Ha’Omer–the counting of the Omer. The Torah tells us that from the second day of Passover we are to begin counting seven weeks–forty-nine days. At the start of this period we bring a grain offering, consisting of a measure of barley, called an "omer." Fifty days later, at the end of the period, on the holiday of Shavuot, we bring another grain offering, called the two loaves, made of wheat.

The bringing of the grain offerings, and the counting of the fifty days between Passover and Shavuot, clearly seem to be some sort of agricultural festival; a way of thanking God, during the period of the spring grain harvest, for the food he has given us.

Anticipation for the Harvest

The counting seems to correspond to a sense of anticipation, to our looking forward, from the beginning of this period, to a good harvest. The Torah seems to want us to not only relate to the grain, and the food we will produce from it, but to the time-frame in which this all happens–to count the days, thereby including the dimension of time itself in the experience of the harvest and the thanksgiving.

The Rabbis, however, overlaid this period with another meaning. If you count the fifty days from Passover–the Exodus from Egypt–you come to the day when the nation of Israel received the Torah at Mount Sinai. So, the Rabbis declared that that day, Shavuot, is not only a grain festival, and the forty-nine day Omer period is not only a period of agricultural anticipation and thanksgiving, but, in addition, this is the period in which the Jewish people, after leaving Egypt, looked forward with anticipation to arriving at Mount Sinai and receiving the Torah.

We, too, in the days between Passover and Shavuot, are meant to look forward to, and ready ourselves for, a receiving of the Torah, which we celebrate on Shavuot. Thus, the experience of these 50 days was altered, from one that was totally agricultural in nature to one that also focused on issues of the spirit–the divine revelation and the receiving of the law on Mount Sinai.

For centuries, this was the double nature of the Omer period–the agricultural aspect, as well as the connection to the receiving of the Torah. Then, in the year 135 C.E., some sixty-five years after the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans, the Romans crushed the rebellion led by Shimon bar Kochba.

During this period, the Talmud tells us, the students of Rabbi Akiba, one of Bar Kochba’s supporters, suffered from a plague, in which thousands died. The traditional reason given for the plague is that it was a divine punishment for the fact that the students did not show proper respect to one another. Some have speculated that the deaths were in fact connected to the Bar Kochba revolt. At any rate, this occurred during the Sefirat Ha’Omer period. As a result, the Jewish people again changed the nature of this period, and it became a time of mourning–no weddings, no parties, no haircuts–in memory of Rabbi Akiba’s students. The thirty-third day of the Omer, known as Lag Ba’Omer–was celebrated as a minor holiday, as on that day the plague abated.

Subsequently, Lag Ba’omer has evolved into a day when, in different Jewish communities around the world, the deaths of a number of zaddikim, righteous men, are commemorated, in a festive fashion. The most well-known of these is Shimon bar Yochai, who, in modern Israel, is honored on Lag Ba’Omer in Meron, outside of Zfat, with a Woodstock-like gathering of a few hundred thousand people every year. All over Israel, on Lag Ba’Omer eve, bonfires are lit–the kids in my neighborhood are already scouring the streets for unwanted (or sometimes "we assume this is probably not-too-wanted") pieces of wood to be used on the night.

The Omer & Zionism

For almost two millennia, from the mid-second century on, this is the way the Omer period was experienced, as a sad season, during which joyful activities were curtailed, punctuated by the minor festival of Lag Ba’Omer. Then, on May 5, 1948, David ben Gurion announced that the Jewish nation in Israel accepted the UN’s partition plan, and declared a state. May 5th falls out during the Sefirat Ha’Omer period, which created a conundrum for religious Jews. Was Yom Ha’atzma’ut, the day of Israel’s birth as a modern state, important enough, RELIGIOUS enough, to counteract the mourning customs of the Omer? In other words–could we celebrate Yom Ha’atzma’ut as a holiday, even though it falls during the mournful Omer period?

The answer to this question depends on what kind of Jew you are. Religious Zionists celebrate the day as a holiday, interrupting, for the day, the mourning customs of the Sefira (counting) period. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews ignore it, as they see the modern secular state of Israel as not worthy of religious recognition, or, even worse, a negative development. For them, the day is just one more mournful day of Sefirat Ha’Omer.

Nineteen years later, during the Six Day War, when Israeli troops attacked the Old City, in order to silence Jordanian guns which were shelling Jewish West Jerusalem, and liberated the Old City after nineteen years of oppressive Jordanian rule, another holiday–Yom Yerushalayim–Jerusalem Day, was created. Again this fell during the Omer period, creating for traditional Jews the same issues, and generating much the same response that Yom Ha’atzma’ut did.

I would like to make an analogy, in order to get at something important that I think is going on here. Jewish texts, like all texts, are subject to corruption. Scribes and copyists make errors, typos and misprints occur, the physical quality of the manuscript or book deteriorates.

Often, when one is studying a text, especially an old one, one comes across what seems to be one of these mistakes. Now, the reader can choose to be conservative, and submit to the force and authority of the received word. He can ignore his own assessment of the text’s meaning, bow to the earlier tradition, and accept it as true, even if, to him, it looks like a mistake. Alternatively, one could be radical, innovative, and simply erase, or cross out, the offending word or phrase, and substitute for it what he or she feels to be the correct one.

The Jewish custom is to embrace neither of these extremes. We do not privilege the canonized text above our own sense and understanding, and allow what seem to be mistakes to remain intact, nor do we erase, obliterate, or expunge the traditional version, privileging our understanding of what does or does not make sense.

What we do is this: we leave the text as it is, and, on the side of the page, or as a footnote on the bottom, make the suggested correction. This way, nothing is lost. Who knows? What looks like a mistake, a misprint, a scribe’s error, to us, may be, in fact, correct, or at least interesting, and should be preserved.

This is one of the reasons why so many Jewish books look so complicated, with addenda and notes all around the central text; we never erase anything. We never censor, and on those few historical occasions when we have tried to, we have either been vetoed by the larger Jewish community, or have ourselves lived to regret it. We respect all of the versions that have come down to us. However, we do not leave them unexamined, untouched by our experience and sensibility. We comment on them, argue with them, make fun of them, but we do not erase them.

The Sefirat Ha’Omer period seems to me to possess a similar dynamic. On the one hand, one could easily imagine a people deciding that, once their tradition had defined this period of time as having a certain character, that would be that. That would remain the immutable nature of the way we experience those 50 days. After all, the Torah is clear about the content of the Omer period–it is agricultural.

And yet, the Jewish people realized that other events, and our responses to them, cannot be legislated out of our lives by this fact. So, when it was realized that this same time period also contains within it another dimension, another reality, that of the receiving of the Torah, the Rabbis did not hesitate to incorporate that into the way this period of time is experienced. Centuries later, when tragedy befell the students of Rabbi Akiba, the Rabbis again did not hesitate to respond to that reality, and change the nature of the way we experience the Sefira period.

Crucially, however, the Jewish people also never erased anything. The more recent events which occurred during the Omer period, and our responses to them, were never allowed to supercede the older ones; they live, like commentaries and addendum on a page of Talmud, side by side, together, vying perhaps for our attention, but all given equal time.

This openness to the realities of our history, this willingness to notice and respond communally to events as they occur in the real world, and not only to see the world through the prism of pre-ordained understandings is, I believe, a particularly Jewish genius. The way we relate to time is multi-layered. Our past, our present, our future, are all here, with us. Nothing old is forgotten; nothing new is ignored. New events, sometimes contradictory ones, are assimilated into our personal and communal consciousness, as we try to balance our mourning of old tragedies with our celebration of new triumphs.

I sometimes think that those elements of the Jewish community who remain, for whatever reasons, locked into old, narrow, unchanging views of Jewish history and Jewish life fail, in some profound way, to understand this message. For those of us who celebrate them, the holidays of Yom Ha’atzma’ut and Yom Yerushalayim spice our memory of the failure of Rabbi Akiba and Bar Kochba to free themselves of Roman rule with the joy of the modern Jewish victory over a would-be oppressor, and the liberation of Jerusalem.

All of these events which occurred during the Sefirat Ha’omer period, along with everything else that we have gone through as a people, are remembered, commemorated, felt. They are, in fact, through our yearly experience of them, happening, again and again, in our memory and our imagination, as we continue to try to make sense of the unfolding text of Jewish history.

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