The NSA knows who you called last Tuesday at 8:00pm—should you care?
From an American civil liberties perspective, we have seen and heard a cacophony of reaction ever since news broke last Thursday, June 6, that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been given access to millions of our phone records, emails, and other personal information. Some see this as the unfortunate but necessary reality of living in a post-9/11 world in which the government needs greater access to information to combat terrorist threats. Others see this as a Constitutional violation of our privacy rights. Others, especially younger Americans who grew up with Facebook and Twitter, seem somewhat indifferent to the idea that the government is monitoring their communications. As the New York Times columnist Gail Collins recently put it, “After all, we live in a world where you can e-mail your husband about buying new kitchen curtains and then magically receive an online ad from a drapery company.”
The key to this issue, I believe, is whether we can trust our government to use Big Data appropriately and judiciously; whether government can exercise self-restraint given the powerful technological tools at its disposal. Given this context, I think Judaism has a lot to say about how we ought to respond to the NSA story. Specifically, I suggest that both Torah and Jewish history urge us to towards a cautionary and skeptical approach to this type of governmental expansion of power. The historical argument requires little explanation here. Jews have been subject to the whims of governments for millenia. As but one example, much of the medieval history of European Jewry—whether in Spain, Portugal, England, France, or Italy—is simply the history of Jewish communities first being welcomed and then expelled. There were often reasons for optimism during the “Golden Years” of expanding opportunity and tolerance, whether in 13th century Spain or 19th century Germany. But government overreach into Orwellian states of horror were not that far away. And we, as a people, continue to have a moral imperative—both out of self-preservation and out of a desire to be a light among nations—to speak out against contemporary instances of government overreach. (Are we also allowed to kvell about the fact that the reporter who broke the story is a Jew named Glen Greenwald?)
What about Torah? It turns out that the Torah portion this week, Parashat Hukkat, has something to say about governmental overreach in times of crisis. In Numbers 20, mid-way through the portion, the Israelites lack water and complain to Moses and Aaron about their conditions. It is the latest in a litany of grievances offered up by the Israelites since they began their journey from Sinai. While Moses has been patient with them up till now, even interceding with God on their behalf when God grew wrathful with their complaints, this time Moses loses his cool. God tells Moses to take his rod, assemble the community, and order a rock to yield water for them to drink. Instead, Moses takes his rod, yells at the Israelites, and strikes the rock with his rod. Water pours forth and the community drinks, but Moses and his brother Aaron get punished by God for failing to follow the correct procedures. God tells Moses and Aaron that “because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:12).
How could Moses, who so punctiliously followed God’s commands, screw up such a simple one? I suggest that, in the heat of the moment, Moses chose expediency over virtue. He had a problem, was angry that the people’s grumblings continued to persist, was given access to a technology that would resolve the problem by creating water, and acted on it.
This preference for expediency over virtue is precisely why we should be worried. If the greatest leader our people ever had, Moshe Rabbenu, was susceptible to using his power in a less than ideal way, then how much the more-so should we expect today’s leaders to overreach? “National security” has become one of the only bipartisan issue there is today, with both Democrats and Republicans sanctioning increased aggregation of power and spending of resources in response to every new threat or crisis. It is at times like these that the wisdom of our tradition, both textual and experiential, should compel us, as Jews, to speak out.
One should not be surprised the Pope is not coming to my seder. Truth is, we do not know each other and I seriously doubt he would come. But what is more striking is that I will not be inviting Moses to join me either and it is not simply because he is dead. After all, each year I invite Elijah to join and even open the door for him to enter.
Why is Moses not present at the seder? How do we account for the fact he is virtually erased from the traditional Haggadah? If we are to be recounting the story of the Exodus from Egypt, how can we ignore a crucial character of the story? Would we tell the story of the founding of the United States and leave out George Washington? Do we really transmit the Exodus properly to our children by hiding Moses?
I would like to suggest that Moses is not present Passover night because despite of his greatness, or perhaps because of his greatness, he cannot have a seat at the table. Moses represents the opposite of what the seder is intended to convey.
In Exodus Chapter 18 we read of the encounter of Moses and his father in law Jethro after the Exodus but (according to most) before Sinai.
1. When Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel his people, and that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt;
2. Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after he had sent her back,
3. And her two sons; and the name of one was Gershom; for he said, I have been an alien in a strange land;
Notice that he brings Moses’s wife Tzipporah with him and her two children. Tzipporah was not in Egypt during the Exodus. Moses had sent her away before that fateful night. According to some he even had divorced her. One passage in the Zohar says that the reason the children are called her’s is that while Moses fathered them, she had brought them up.
In an earlier blog post I discussed a Midrash that says Moses after the Revelation at Sinai never returned to his tent, which is understood to mean he never resumed a conjugal relationship with his wife. He remained celibate, always on call to God.
Moses, the great leader and teacher he was, is the absent father and absent spouse. His family is sacrificed for his leadership. He is our hero, but not our model to be remembered at the seder. Indeed at the very first seder in Egypt, Moses was alone and had no children present who could ask him ma nishtanah, the Four Questions. Moses is the opposite of the very experience we strive to have at the seder. He represents the negation of family. His leadership might require the sacrifice of family, but the seder is still not his place. He has no seat of honor there.
I am aware that many people this Passover may be at a seder where there may be no children or where everyone is single. I am not being critical of this. It should be pointed out that tradition dictates it still be in a style of questions and answers. While people who gather may not be related, a family of sorts is created at the seder.
But then why do we invite Elijah to the seder? You can discuss it then.
It was January 2007, almost exactly six years ago. I was sitting in my office, reviewing a dense corporate document retention proposal, when I realized it was time for a career change. I had questioned whether I wanted to remain a lawyer for several years. On the one hand, the law firms where I practiced treated us like indentured servants. We worked extremely long hours, were yelled at, and spent most of our time toiling away at menial tasks like reviewing boxes of emails or proofreading our bosses’ work. On the other hand, the pay was great and the risk was low. All we had to do was sacrifice our time and our pride and we could do quite well. For years, the financial benefits of the job and the uncertainty about what else I might want to do held me in check. But by 2007, the drudgery of the work and the sense of how meaningless it felt became too much for me. I decided that the risk of switching careers—even to something as dramatic as becoming a rabbi—was worth it.
This dilemma of accepting an unpalatable status quo or taking a risk on an uncertain but potentially transformative new direction is basically what the Israelites confront in Parashat B’shalah. The Israelites have just fled from Egypt and have journeyed as far as the Sea of Reeds when God rouses Pharaoh to chase after them. God is looking for the big finish to the Exodus drama, a climactic battle in which God can once and for all establish supremacy for all to see (Exodus 14:4). The Israelites, however, are not amused. In fact, they are terrified. Whatever faith in God they might have developed from experiencing the ten plagues quickly evaporates in the face of charging chariots and alarming battle cries. They beg Moses to let them return to their former lives of slavery in Egypt. But Moses tells them to have faith, and God, through Moses, parts the waters of the sea so that the Israelites can pass through to the other side. We all know what happens next: the Israelites make it safely across the sea, and once they get to the other side, God causes the waters to crash down upon the Egyptians who are in hot pursuit, drowning them in the sea.
In a fascinating commentary, though, our Sages did not just assume that the Israelites had the courage to march into the parted sea. Even though this event, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, would become a seminal moment in Jewish history which we recount twice a day in our liturgy (in the Mi Chamocha prayer), the Talmud (Tractate Sotah 36b-37a) depicts the Israelites as being hesitant to take the plunge:
Rabbi Yehudah said: When the Israelites stood by the Red Sea, the tribes strove with one another. This tribe said. “I’m not going into the sea first.” And another tribe said, “I’m not going into the sea first.” [Finally,] Nachshon the son of Amminadav jumped and descended into the sea first.
Rabbi Yehuda reflects how we often feel when facing a life-altering challenge. The fear of making change can often be paralyzing. Inertia is a powerful force, as is the psychological comfort of predictability, no matter how unpleasant the predictable may be. We can—and do—come up with a multitude of justifications for staying right where we are. We are conditioned, both culturally and biologically, not to go into the sea first. But Rabbi Yehuda’s account also expresses the truth that it only takes one leap, one chance, one moment of action, and our whole world can change.
We each face these crossroads in life. For some, it might be whether to remain in a relationship that has gone stale or whether to endure the pain and anguish of ending the relationship with the hope of finding a better one. For others, like myself, it might be whether to remain in a job that lacks fulfillment but provides a steady paycheck, or to pursue a dream job that might not work out.
We even experience this crossroads at national levels. As the Israeli election on January 22 showed, Israel is almost perfectly split between center-left and right-ultra Orthodox parties (each bloc received approximately 60 out of the 120 seats in Israel’s parliament). Israeli leaders, in picking a new government, will have to choose between retaining the status quo coalition of the past few years or forming a new coalition that embraces socioeconomic reform, equal treatment of Haredi and Hiloni Israelis, and an engaged peace process. Will a Nachshon ben Amminadav emerge to lead Israel into a new, dynamic, and possibly redemptive future, or will Israel’s leadership remain entrenched on the shore, arguing among themselves and unwilling to take the first pivotal step forward?
Change is always hard. We yearn for stability, structure, and continuity in our lives. Yet the wisdom of our tradition is that God will support us if we are willing to take the plunge into uncertainty. The narrative of the Israelites standing at the Sea of Reeds offers us more than just an historical/mythical account of our people’s origins. It empathizes with the difficulties we face, today, between taking risks on an unknown but potentially meaningful future versus remaining mired in an unpleasant, yet known, present. And it offers us hope if we are only bold enough to claim our own redemptive path.
After the Israelites realize their freedom from the Egyptians, they break out into raucous celebration. The people unite in a triumphant and jubilant song, known as Shirat ha-Yam, the Song of the Sea, which we recount each year during the Torah reading for Parashat Beshallah. May each of us be blessed with the courage to follow our own paths of meaning in life. And may our decisions enable us to sing with joy about the lives we create for ourselves and our people.
When stories are told, we sometimes see them through the lens of the characters, sometimes from the vantage point of the omniscient narrator, and often from a combination of the above. This week’s Torah reading presents a fine example of this. This is shaped in part by a Midrash, the result being of that which looks on the surface as a laudatory moment contains within it much greater moral complexity.
26. Now two men remained in the camp; the name of one was Eldad and the name of the second was Medad, and the spirit rested upon them. They were among those written, but they did not go out to the tent, but prophesied in the camp. 27. The lad ran and told Moses, saying, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!” 28. Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ servant from his youth, answered and said, Moses, my master, imprison them!” 29. Moses said to him, “Are you zealous for my sake? If only all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would bestow His spirit upon them!”
There are many questions here including the identity of the lad and the sudden appearance of Eldad and Medad. This passage and its larger context deserve much study.
There is a powerful contrast between Joshua and Moses. What Joshua sees as a threat to Moses by Eldad and Medad, Moses views as a cause for celebration. The capacity of Eldad and Medad to prophesize is a sign of their greatness and is not to be viewed as an act of rebellion against Moses. Moses is happy for others to share the spirit of God.
But the story does not end here. The Midrash picked up by Rashi describes the following scenario. “R. Nathan says: Miriam was beside Zipporah (Moses’s wife) when Moses was told that Eldad and Medad were prophesying in the camp. When Zipporah heard this, she said, “Woe to their wives if they are required to prophesy, for they will separate from their wives just my husband separated from me.”
For Moses’s wife, the achievement of prophecy is a tragedy. Her fear is for the wives of Eldad and Medad. To be the wife of a prophet as great as Moses is to be abandoned by her husband. Moses has experienced so much of the presence of God that he can never return to his tent and be intimate with his wife. Zipporah understands that Eldad and Medad are indeed a threat, but not to Moses, but rather to their families and wives in particular.
It is this very complexity and mixture of viewpoints that draws me to Torah. However the attraction cannot only be to the pleasure of reading the text. Rather moral questions must emerge from Torah as well. Who suffers for my spiritual success? As I strive for meaning and purpose do I leave anyone behind in the wake? Through whose lens do I properly judge a situation? Torah calls me to face these questions. And rabbis should ask them on a regular basis.
Last Monday evening a light rain fell on the Capitol City where I live on 16th Street, a mile up from the White House. I caught a bus in front of my house to go downtown for a class. After five minutes, the bus stopped unexpectedly.
Police cars blocked the entrance to the tunnel. We all imagined the worst. The bus turned to the right to find an alternate route. Another string of police cars blockaded that street as well. The driver led us through the traffic, the rain — the uncertainties of getting to our destinations on time.
Next to me sat a red-headed, attractive, thirty-something female who, suddenly realizing the situation, offered up the explanation. “Oh!” she said, “They must be blocking off the streets for the president. I’m going to hear him speak at the Hilton Hotel, but I guess I am going to be late.”
Well, the president is coming! That changes everything! I got off the bus and began walking in the rain among the others who were finding this rush hour to be particularly challenging. Police kept us in line and politely guided us to the other side of the street. We waited as the president’s motorcade drove by.
Big, beautiful, shiny black limousines passed in front of me with American flags waving in the wind. Which car holds the president? Will he notice this rush hour public? The locomotion of the city streets became a still life picture. People ceased their chatter and their movements. We froze in a timeless moment.
I closed my eyes and prayed for his safety. Like a flash mob at the end of its performance, people slowly began to walk away from the scene. All with their own thoughts. All a little late to their activities.
If they resonated with the atmosphere that surrounded us, perhaps like me, they were uplifted by the ritual of the moving motorcade of the president of the United States. A miracle on 16th Street.
After hours of excruciating labor, the sweetest sound that can be heard is that of a crying baby. That first cry lets us know that this new child has working lungs and can breathe. But that cry doesn’t only represent physical health – it also symbolizes emotional sensitivity, the ability to connect, the desire to love and to be loved. When we read this week’s Torah portion – Parshat Shemot – if we listen closely, we just might be able to hear this cry. This is the cry that the midwives refused to turn their backs on, refused to silence, refused to discard. This is the cry that demanded a response, propelling the midwives to ignore Pharaoh’s command to kill Jewish boys. This is the cry of humanity, of justice, of a better tomorrow.
This is only the first of a handful of cries in our portion. The second comes from Moses, as he lies helpless in the Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter hears his sobs, and responds – feeling compassion for this small child. It is this cry that wakes up a young woman, removing her from the cruel ways of her father’s home, and softening her heart.
And then there is the cry of Bnai Yisrael (the People Israel), yearning for God to help elevate them from their misery. It is only after God hears these cries that God can respond. And likewise, it is only after God cries out to Moses – saying “Moshe! Moshe!” at the burning bush – that Moses can respond to God, and be God’s partner in freeing the slaves.
I love that this Torah portion falls right before Martin Luther King Day. A man who cried out for freedom and equality for all people, Dr. King articulated the necessity of the cry, and the urgency of the response. Both Dr. King and our Torah portion remind us that we cannot simply sit back and allow injustice to flourish. We must have the courage to cry out, from the top of our lungs, and from the top of a mountain. And we must have the conviction to respond, listening closely, making space for the small cries of those who are downtrodden, refusing to turn our backs on the pain, prejudice, and alienation that still exists in our very communities.
This Shabbat, as we read from the book of Exodus, may we commit to the tremendous task of making Dr. King’s dream a reality.