Mystery Woman – Parshat Pinchas 5777

mystery-woman

I love learning about my family history. My grandparents all did a fairly decent job of remembering and recalling details about cousins, aunts, and uncles from generations back. They could pick up an old photograph and instantly recall the name of the person and how they were connected to the rest of the family. In some cases there were complicated histories behind the people and relationships in these photographs. And then there were always a few pictures that had a name written on them, but no one knew exactly whom that person was. I imagine many families are like this; there are pictures that tell the story of your family tree, and yet there are still one or two faces or names for which no one can remember the connection.

As Jews, the Torah is our family ancestry project, and throughout its text it shares stories of different generations and the relationships between the generations. This week’s parshah, Pinchas, is no different. We begin with the story of Pinchas (identified as Aaron’s grandson) and the extreme action he took against those who defied the prohibition of idolatry. Then we move to the daughters of Zelophechad (Joseph’s great-great-great-grandson), who want to inherit land after their father’s death because he had no sons. Then Joshua is appointed Moshe’s successor, and we end with the sacrifices we are to make for Rosh Chodesh and the holidays.

For the most part, we know the history of our matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, and who they married and which children they mothered. However, one woman’s name stands out in the Torah without much background given. Certainly there are plenty of people who are only mentioned once, but the name Serach appears twice in the Five Books of Moses and again later in Prophets (Nevi’im). Yet her presence in both places remains a mystery. She is the woman you can’t quite identify in the picture.

In the Torah, Serach’s mention appears to be purely anecdotal, but she is also mentioned in Samuel 2, verse 16:

Then a wise woman called from the city, “Hear, hear! Please tell Joab, ‘Come here that I may speak with you.'”

It may not be obvious at first glance, but according to Rashi, Serach is alluded to as the isha chochma (wise woman) who challenges the general for not knowing the Torah’s rules for besieging a city.

While her exact role in our ancestral “family” and how she lived so long between these sections of biblical text are relatively unknown, Serach is nevertheless a wise woman and a part of our ancestry. There are plenty of well-known Torah stories we hear over and over again, year after year. Children and adults alike can recall Noah, Joseph, and Moshe in great detail. However, reading Parshat Pinchas this week I am reminded that an individual’s “fame” within the context of our history simply means we know their story. The people in the photographs whose names we do not know are just as important, though their stories may remain untold.

Frenemies – Parshat Balak 5777

frenemies

There are some people who bring out the best in you and others who bring out the worst. There are some friends who, though they may drive you crazy at times, are true friends and make your life complete because you know them. Then there are those you stay in touch with only because you follow the rule of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. However you classify the people in your life, it’s the interactions we have that determine our behaviors and even how we view ourselves. For this reason the company we keep is so important.

This week we read Parshat Balak, a narrative filled with opportunities for taking the right or wrong action and saying the right or wrong words. You know this parshah – it’s of course the one with the talking donkey. Parshat Balak is the story of Balak, son of Tzipur and king of Moav, who solicits Balam the “prophet” to curse the children of Israel. God allows Balam to go to the land of Moav, but only if he will speak what God tells him to say. On the way there, Balam finds himself frustrated with his donkey, who refuses to move. As it turns out, the donkey sees an angel of God in the road. Balam cannot see the angel, only the donkey can, so Balam gets angry at his stubborn animal and beats the donkey.

We often get stuck in the cartoon, supernatural aspects of this story. But what made Balak so upset with the Israelites in the first place? He saw them as a people dwelling apart, not “reckoned” among the nations. The Israelite people were “other,” and that was a big issue for Balak since, for him, other meant different, non-conforming, and a threat to his leadership.

The Ba’al Shem Tov, the 18th-century rabbi regarded as the founder of Hasidic Judaism, suggests that the Jewish people have survived not despite the enmity of their neighbors, but precisely because of it. Maintaining a “frenemy” status prevented the Israelites from becoming too close to their neighbors and assimilating into their culture. What Balak saw as the potential downfall of the Israelite nation was actually their saving grace in this time of transition.

We are the company we keep, but that’s not necessarily always in our best interest. As we can learn from this parshah, the people we surround ourselves with are the people we tend to identify with, but it’s by maintaining our true identity and being true to who we are that we are able to survive.

An Equal and Opposite Reaction – Parshat Chukat 5777

equal-opposite-reaction

The way we treat one another often mirrors the treatment we receive. “Do not do unto others” isn’t just a moral directive, it’s an inherent part of how we interact. When Shiri is in a kind, sweet, or silly mood, it is much easier to be kind and sweet and silly back. When she’s upset and emotions get the best of her, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain my own cool with her. Most relationships – parent to child, spouse to spouse, employee to employee – are like this. The more people are willing to be kind and helpful or make you feel safe and secure, the kinder and nicer you are to those people. On the other hand, when someone makes you feel insecure, you’re more likely to respond defensively or close yourself off.

It might be subconscious, but this is how we rationalize emotions, especially the negative ones. If I think you’re being mean or rude to me, I tend to believe I’m completely justified in my rude response. Is it the best approach? Usually it’s not, but nevertheless we somehow create an artificial logic that thrives in the balance of action and reaction.

This week’s parshah, Parshat Chukat, is heavy with major plot points. Moshe’s siblings Miriam and Aaron both die, and we find out that Moshe is prohibited from entering the land of Israel. As the Israelites wander in the desert and relive their experiences with the Egyptians, perhaps they begin to understand some of the “why” they were treated the way they were. Chapter 20, verse 15 states, “That our ancestors went down to Egypt, that we dwelt in Egypt a long time, and that the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our ancestors.” The Hebrew is va-yarei-u lanu, which is usually interpreted as the Egyptians dealing harshly with us, could also mean “they made us seem harsh.” In this interpretation the Egyptians viewed the Israelites as evil and deserving of persecution to justify their terrible treatment of them.

Obviously we can only speculate about whatever context the Israelites might have had regarding their history with the Egyptians and why they were enslaved. But when there is no reasonable explanation for the ways in which we are treated, we’re forced to look elsewhere for explanations to rationalize these actions. This particular translation of the text suggests the only way the harsh treatment of the Israelites could be logically explained is through a complete mischaracterization of who they are.

As anyone who has had the same conversation with multiple rabbis can attest, you can find the answer you’re looking for, but that doesn’t make it the best answer. The best answer is found when we’re able to put aside the false logic that surfaces in an emotionally difficult situation to address the heart of the problem, not just the reactions to it.

Team Building – Parshat Korach 5777

team-building

Imagine an office environment in which there are three employees who do the same type of work. Each of them is dedicated to completing the assigned responsibilities, but to varying degrees. One of them does the bare minimum, simply checking a box in order to move on to the next task. Another goes further, investing fully in a project and spending time and energy pouring over the details. The third goes above and beyond, doing well more than required. The work they put in is reflected in their yearly bonuses, with the most dedicated of the three receiving the largest bonus. However, in each case the job still gets done, so why should the hardest worker get paid more?

According to Korach, this is the dilemma facing the Israelite nation. This week in Parshat Korach, we read the details of the revolt of Korach and of Datan and Aviram. Korach breaks apart the priesthood and prepares a revolt while Datan and Aviram, two other troublemakers, begin a revolt of their own. Chaos breaks out in the camp, and those who don’t see a purpose to the fight pull away, which turns out to be a pretty smart idea as the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers.

Korach’s problem was that he saw the community as unbalanced. He didn’t understand the need for priests and additional leaders and why holiness played a role in leadership. In Korach’s words, “For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst.” Korach sees the entire community as holy and thus deserving of equal status, including their relationship with God and leadership responsibilities. In Korach’s mind, no one is better or holier than any other community member, which, in a sense, is a beautiful vision of equality.

Unfortunately, Korach underestimates the value of leadership. Everyone may possess some holiness, but without the vision and direction of leaders, what good is that holiness to the community? Working together in general, let alone building a society, isn’t always neat and tidy. Group efforts can be messy and difficult because, holiness aside, everyone is different. Some people will work to the status quo, and some will go above and beyond. But the beauty of true community and teamwork is recognizing that each person has something to contribute. We may each be holy, but the holiness of the community is far greater than the sum of our individual holiness.

Modern Torah commentator Yeshayahu Leibowitz offers a similar take. The model that the Torah sets up is one where communal holiness is the goal, not a given. While we may all have a spark of holiness inside us, our community isn’t truly holy until those sparks come together.

Life Goes On – Parshat Shlach Lecha 5777

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Living with a three-year-old leads itself to plenty of melodramatic moments. If the hair is not the right kind of Elsa braid, the world ends. No more purple shirts to wear? How can we possibly leave the house? The carrots touched the mac and cheese? Everything on the plate is unfit for consumption. Moments that make it seem as if the world is going to end don’t go away, they just change as we get older. Of course most of the time, we get over it and move on. The challenge is to find the appropriate reaction to our circumstances.

In the Torah, we’ve now reached the point where the Israelites are ever closer to reaching the promised land and their own new beginning. Parshat Shlach Lechah, our Torah portion this week, teaches us about the nature of change and the emotions that come with it. The text begins with Moshe sending out twelve men, one from each tribe, to look at the land of Cana’an. As the spies venture out, one can imagine Moshe standing and watching them fade into the distance, hoping they’ll come back with a positive report. Like a parent or teacher, he knows they might be nervous or scared, and he hopes that they represent their community with good faith and integrity.

The spies check out the land and all but two come back with a doom and gloom report of what lies ahead. New places can be scary, and the spies admittedly see that. However, new places are also full of possibility; only Joshua and Caleb have eyes to see that. As the spies share their negative experience of the promised land, the Israelites, like the melodramatic teenagers they are, react negatively. “If only we had died in the land of Egypt,” the whole of the community shouted at Moses and Aaron. Yes, rather than take on the new challenge in a new land, the Israelites, tired, overwhelmed, and scared, would have rather died.

In life there are moments where we feel helpless, inadequate, and unable to deal. But, as a part of a community, we can support one another through these moments and press on. Parshat Shlach Lecha reminds us that we always possess the power to do just that.