Monday, July 06, 2020

The Rabbi and the Food Critic: Two Minute Wisdom

Friday, July 03, 2020

What Miracle Workers Can't Do: A Donkey's Perspective

They arrive from Israel every week, with bold notices in Jewish newspapers; "evil eyes removed! only 50$. Major credit cards accepted". They are the miracle workers, Rabbis and Rebbetzins who can magically change your life. These ads are seductive, especially when you find yourself needing a change of luck; and they have a veneer of authenticity because Judaism does accept that prayer matters, and the prayers of righteous matter. But these miracle workers don't offer a sincere prayer; instead, they sell spiritual voodoo. Sadly, many chase these blessings, assured by anecdotes and advertising.


This desire to gain control of God's plan is an old one; and a lengthy section of the Torah, Parshat Balak, is devoted to rebutting this primitive theology, the belief that God can be bought off with a few sacrifices or mystically rewritten Ketubah. In Parshat Balak, a powerful seer, Bilaam, is asked to curse Israel, in hope of defeating them. In turn, as much as Bilaam desires to curse Israel, he cannot. Even though "whom he blesses is blessed, and whom he curses is cursed", Bilaam still finds himself unable to do anything but bless Israel. The lesson is simple: man cannot control God. Man cannot dictate to God who to bless and curse.


This lesson is woven into one of the literary themes of the parsha. There is an enormous amount of animal imagery. We names that evoke animal life: Balak the son of Tzippor ("bird") Bilaam the son of beor (sounds like "livestock"). We have imagery of an ox licking up the grass of the field, and the image of covering the face of the earth (like locusts - cf. Exodus 10:4). And above all, we have Bilaam's donkey. This is no ordinary donkey; Bilaam's donkey is a talking donkey.


The donkey refuses to listen to Bilaam. Bilaam whips the donkey, hoping to beat it into submission, but the donkey freezes. Eventually, the donkey speaks, and tells Bilaam that it had always been loyal; but this time, the donkey was answering to a higher authority: God.


The message of the animal theme and the talking donkey is this: we expect animals to accept human authority. Humans are given control over all living beings, able to "have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth." (Genesis 1:28). We expect animals to follow our orders. We don’t expect animals to lead.


“The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his owner’s trough”.(Isaiah 1:3). The animal imagery in our Parsha emphasizes that the animal has a subordinate status, one we expect it to play. But man needs to understand that he has a similar role to play, to be loyal to God, rather than trying to manipulate God to follow his own wishes. Bilaam tries to “lead” God, to decide who gets blessed and who gets cursed. The donkey’s lesson is this: humans are meant to serve their own master, God,  as well the donkey serves his. (Parenthetically, another character in the Bible, who wakes early to saddle his donkey, Avraham, does so in order to loyally follow God’s order, not to defy them).


The miracle working “Rabbis” who advertise cures are hucksters, pure and simple. But even worse than their deception is the upside down theology they offer. They tell their supplicants that God might ignore them, but that a small fee, the Rabbi can get God to “change” His mind. This is exactly what Bilaam said, and it is an inversion of what Judaism is all about. in the end, the donkey teaches us the fundamental lesson of Judaism: We are here to serve God, not to have God serve us.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Between Korach and Eldad and Medad

Readers of Parshat Korach who live in democratic societies might find this Torah reading uncomfortable. Korach seems to be drawing on an egalitarian ethos when he says: “For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the LORD’s congregation?” Isn't Korach's argument what democracy is all about?  Shouldn't one's leaders reflect the will of the people?

It is worth noting in this regard that there is a sharp contrast between Moshe's response to the complaints of Korach and his response to the episode of Eldad and Medad. In our Torah reading, Moshe responds with fury to Korach’s defiance. The Eldad and Medad narrative is also one of defiance, yet Moshe reacts very differently. Moshe had gathered a group of 70 to receive prophecy and work alongside him. And two men who have not been invited to join the group of 70, Eldad and Medad, become independent prophets. This is so shocking that Moshe's disciple Yehoshua wants to imprison them. Rashi adds an additional note: Eldad and Medad were predicting Moshe would die before entering the land of Israel. Eldad and Medad are no less defiant than Korach.

Yet what is Moshe's response? He says: “May it be that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD put His spirit upon them!”

What accounts for the difference between these two reactions? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that the two sections are dealing with two aspects of Moshe's role. In the story of Eldad and Medad, we are discussing prophecy, a form of non-coercive influence. Prophecy is an inspiration that can be, and should be, shared widely. In this narrative, Korach wants to assume power in the place of Moshe. And that is impossible because two kings cannot wear one crown, and power must be united, not divided.

The difficulty with this position is that actually the 70 elders gathered to join Moshe are meant to be political leaders as well, helping Moshe lead the Jewish people; Moshe had just complained that he cannot lead the people on his own.

I would suggest a different approach. One verb that is shared between the two narratives is שא. However in each narrative it is used very differently, in its active and passive forms. In the narrative of Eldad and Medad the verb is used to connote lifting a burden, that leading the people is an act of sacrifice, as if the leaders needs to carry the nation on their back. In the narrative of Korach, he uses this verb as reference to being lifted up, as if the political leader is the one who is lifted, and the leader is the one who benefits from his relationship with the community.

I believe this is the key to Moshe's contrasting reactions. Edad and Medad are not searching for glory; they are simply finding inspiration and coming to offer support. That type of leadership is welcomed even when there are other leaders around. Korach however is in search of glory, and wants to be raised up by others. Ultimately, his thirst for glory would mean that Moshe would have to be deposed.

The ultimate difference between these two sections has to do with the attitude Korach on one hand, and Eldad and Medad on the other, take towards political leadership. When those with inspiration offer to help, then there is room even for the most defiant of voices; in this case, there is a common purpose and goal. When the leader sees themself as a servant, they are always happy to receive help. However, leaders like Korach who are focused on their own glory can be very destructive, because for them political power is a zero-sum game. 

The Greatest Miracle of All: Two Minute Inspiration