Archive by category "Torah Thoughts"

PARSHAT BALAK:  Numbers 22:2 – 25:9 Insights into a Talking Donkey

PARSHAT BALAK:  Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

Insights into a Talking Donkey

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Image credit: https://sixdegreesofkosherbacon.files.wordpress.com/2017/07/bilaam.png?w=470

Although most of the residents of this upscale retirement home were Christian, a few Jewish residents had asked the Pastor if a Rabbi could give a sermon there. And that’s how I happened to be addressing about 50 or so Seniors at their Vespers service on a Sunday afternoon. “You can talk about the Pentateuch or the Psalms or the rest of the Old Testament,” the Pastor had advised me, “but please don’t talk about God.” He really meant that I should not talk about theological differences, so I agreed. “Of course. I’ll discuss what we have in common.”

That afternoon, at the elegant Senior Residence, I knew was mainly addressing believing Christians. So I taught them all the simple words of the song, “Hine Ma Tov,” in Hebrew (the words are taken from the first verse of Psalm 133, a short prayer of gratitude, which reads “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”), and then I proceeded to discuss the scriptural portion for the day with a few introductory remarks.

“The scriptural portion of our service (Numbers 22:2 – 25:9) for today,” I said, “comes from the Pentateuch, which is Greek for “Five,” and refers to the Five Books of Moses, which in Hebrew is called “the Torah,” which in English means “Instruction.” You probably know that the entire Old Testament was first written in Hebrew, and then it was translated into Greek, which was called The Septuagint, and then it was translated into Latin, known as The Vulgate. And from the Latin, it was translated into English and, eventually, into many other languages.

“That’s why it is useful to study Hebrew, because, with all those translations, the meaning of the words may not be exactly the same in English.  Added to that, the original Hebrew words did not have any vowels. The letters were all consonants, like text messaging. The reader has to figure out the rest. So the meaning also depends on the vowels you give to the words. There are many Christian scholars studying Hebrew today exactly for that reason: to check out what the words are really saying by reading the Bible in its original language — and to understand that there are various meanings possible for many words.”

“So I’d like you to think of studying the Bible,” I explained, “as if you were playing the piano. If you’ll notice, there are both black and white keys on the piano. We could play some nice music on the white keys alone, but we wouldn’t have the nuances that the black keys, the sharps and flats, would give the music. If we just played on the white keys, it would be like reading the Bible literally, in C Major all the time. So as a soon-to-be rabbi – the word “rabbi” means “my teacher” — my job is to add the interpretation, the sharps and flats.

“A rabbi’s sermon is called a “derash,” an interpretation,” I continued. “What is written down in the Pentateuch is called the ‘Written Torah.’ And the interpretation is called the ‘Oral Torah,’ much of which has been transmitted from generation to generation, although new commentary is continually added.  So ‘[r]abbinic language contains numerous layers of meaning. The Talmud [a compilation of centuries of rabbinic commentary on the Torah] frequently attempts to uncover the hidden meaning of a word… thereby revealing new understandings of the … teaching.’ That is why we need both – the white keys and the black keys too – to fully understand the intent, the background, and the underlying story.

“Our scriptural portion, which this week is from Numbers 22:2-25:9, is the story of Balak (the warlike Moabite king who is fearful that the Jews will become too numerous and overrun his kingdom, and thus he wishes the Jews harm), and it’s also the story of Bilaam (the prophet whom the Moabite king hires to curse Israel), and the third character is Bilaam’s talking donkey, who turns out to have more sense than either Balak or Bilaam.  The prophet, Bilaam, is supposed to be a visionary, but it turns out that his Donkey is the visionary. It’s the Donkey – and the Bible specifies that it’s a she-Donkey, presumably even more sensitive than a male donkey would be — whose acute animal senses enable her to see Angels along the road, warning that Bilam should not curse the Israelites. What’s wrong with human beings? the Donkey complains, in effect. “You ride on me all day, and then you beat me? Angels keep telling you to stop, three times – don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it — and you don’t hear, Bilaam!”  Finally listening to the Donkey, Bilaam promises that the only words he will speak are the ones that the Eternal One puts in his mouth. And when Bilaam glimpses the Israelites camping out in the desert, the words that do emerge from his mouth are those of admiration and blessing. “Ma Tovu.” “ How Good!….

These words flow out of Balaam’s mouth from the top of the mountain that overlooks where the Hebrews are encamped. It is the third time that King Balak has tried to get Balaam to curse the Israelites, and yet, miraculously, out of Balaam’s mouth comes a blessing. What was supposed to be a curse is turned into a blessing.  The Bible story teaches us that, with God’s help, human beings do have the power to transform a curse into a blessing. And that words of peace are better than acts of war.

“And there is more. Remarkably, generations later, the biblical Ruth, a Moabite woman who became a Jew-by-choice, was actually the great-granddaughter of King Balak – and, by her marriage to Boaz, she was also the great-grandmother of King David (from whom it is foretold that the Messiah will come).  And that is how a curse became a blessing, and an enemy became part of the Jewish family.

“Today, Jews still sing the words of Balak’s emissary, Bilaam, as part of the liturgical morning blessings: Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel” (Numbers 24:5).

“This dramatic scene from Numbers 24:5, is traditionally coupled with one of the most quoted passages in the Bible, the few lines from the prophet Micah (6:8) that sum up what we are each commanded to do to be a blessing every day:

“He has told you, O man, what is good,

And what the Lord requires of you:

Only to do justice

And to love goodness,

And to walk modestly with your God;

Then will your name achieve wisdom.”

 

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

 

Shelah- Lekha: Finding Courage in the Face of the Unknown

Shelah- Lekha: Finding Courage in the Face of the Unknown

(Numbers 13:1 -15:41)

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

“Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one man from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a chieftain among them” (Numbers 13:2)

“For Judaism, peoplehood has a

crucial spiritual dimension. If the Jews were just a family whose concern was self-preservation – a family bound only by shared fate – then it’s doubtful we would have survived through thousands of years of wandering. The Jewish collective functions on two levels: as family and as faith. What strengthened the Jewish people was its sense of destiny – that the Jewish people has an urgent spiritual role to play in the evolution of humanity. Destiny gives meaning to fate….Judaism is the love story between God and a people” (Yossi Klein Halevi, Letters To My Palestinian Neighbors, Kindle edition, 2018, p. 53).

Image credit: https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/3700062/jewish/The-12-Spies-Meraglim-in-the-Bible.htm

 

According to the Torah portion Shelah Lekha in the Hebrew Bible, various groups of ancient people were living in the Promised Land when Moses sent 12 Israelite scouts, one chosen from each Hebrew tribe, to check out the land and the people living there. There were indeed existing inhabitants of the land, tribes with diverse histories grouped under the general heading of the Canaanites but dwelling in different locations within the land. The Bible simply lists their names of their tribes and their locations in Canaan. All of them came from somewhere. So who were these people?

Although the selected Israeli scouts were leaders of their own tribes, most of them had not yet shed the fears of a people enslaved for 400 years by the Egyptians nor developed the courage of free men to explore the unknown. So although the 12 men entered the land to observe, only two of them – Joshua and Caleb – came back with positive feedback. The land was so fruitful, in fact, that they brought back with them a single cluster of ripe grapes from Eshcol, each grape so huge, the cluster had to be borne on a carrying-frame.

It was not surprising that Joshua and Caleb felt confident and were brimming with confidence. God had already changed the name of the former from Hosea (which means “salvation” or “grace”) to Joshua. In an encouraging play on words meant to strengthen him, the addition of the Hebrew letter “yud” changed the meaning of his name to “He (God) is my salvation.” With that blessing, Joshua son of Nun, along with Caleb son of Jephunneh, tried to assure the whole community that “the land that we traversed and scouted is exceedingly good land” and that community should “have no fear then of the people of the country”(Numbers 14:5-9). The 10 Hebrew men, however, were too frightened to hear that message, and they knew that he people of the country that they had seen were so gigantic in stature that they, the Israelites, had felt like grasshoppers in comparison. They would not be able to prevail against them. No way. Joshua and Caleb were even pelted with stones.

Feeling rather angry, and, with the realization that the Hebrews as a whole were not yet ready to conduct themselves as free men, God decreed that, for rebelling against the divine instruction, they needed to spend another 38 years in the desert, making forty years in all. It would indeed take another two, perhaps three, generations – people who had outgrown a slave mentality, who had been born into freedom and nurtured to govern themselves wisely – before the Israelites could enter Canaan.

In the meantime, Joshua, along with Caleb, had already been divinely tapped, as a future leader of the Hebrews, a replacement for Moses who was growing very old. They would be the leaders. Presumably, the other ten men would be the minyan — expected to show up!).

Who was in the Promised Land when the Israelite Scouts Checked It Out?

The Canaanites (dwelling by the Sea and along the Jordan) were a group of ancient people – different tribes — who lived in the land of Canaan on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. “The Land of Canaan” is described in the Bible (see Genesis 10 and Numbers 34) as extending from Lebanon toward the Brook of Egypt in the south and the Jordan Valley in the East. [1]

These Canaanite tribes, who derived from diverse places, consisted of:

THE ANKITES (Anakim, the name means long-necked) were located in Hebron, a very old city. They were a formidable race of giant, warlike people who occupied the land of southern Israel before the arrival of the Israelites. They were descendants of the Nephalim (people with pre-human ancestry who coupled with human females) that dominated the pre-flood world. According to the Torah, during the conquest of Canaan, the Jews expelled them from Hebron. The giant, Goliath (as in the story of David and Goliath), is believed to have been a descendant of these same people. (So it is quite likely that the Israelite scouts did see fearsome giants.)

The AMALEKITES (a nomadic people, native to the Negev region and known to be plunderers), Their brutal, cowardly actions towards the Israelites resulted in a long-standing feud, and God’s direction was to wipe the Amalekites off the face of the earth (see Ex. 17: 8-13; Samuel 15:2, and Deut. 25:11).  To this day, Jewish people are enjoined to remember to forget Amalek, the leader of the Amalekites, for attacking the weak and helpless. “Remember what Amalek did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt” (Deut. 25: 17-19). Haman, remembered at Purim as the tormentor of the Jews, was reputed to be a descendant of the Amalekites.

THE HITTITES (located in the Hill country) were an ancient (ca. 1600 BCE) Anatolian people originally from Asia Minor in what is modern day Turkey. Historically (ca. 1900 BCE – 1500s BCE), they were one of the three superpowers in the ancient world, on a level with Egypt and Assyria. Their relations with Egypt were volatile [the famous battle of Kadesh concluded with the world’s oldest peace treaty). According to frequent Biblical references to the Hittites, they comprised many of the inhabitants of Canaan (Ex. 13:5; Numbers 13: 29; Joshua 11:3) and seemed to have friendly relations with the Israelites. For example, Ephron the Hittite sells Abraham and family a burial ground (Genesis 23); Esau married Hittite women, and Rebecca despised them (Genesis 26: 34). King David had Uriah the Hittite killed in order to acquire Uriah’s wives (2 Samuel 11); King Solomon had Hittites among his many wives (1 Kings 10:29b-11:2; 2 Chronicles 1:17); and the prophet Ezekiel chides Israel with the metaphor of a Hittite mother (Ezekiel 16:3, 45). Also, Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah the Hittite and later of King David; she was also the mother of King Solomon. In addition to the biblical texts, much archeological evidence about the Hittites exists, but the two sources are not always compatible.

THE JEBUSITES (also located in the Hill country, that is, the mountains beside Jerusalem) were a Canaanite tribe who inhabited Jerusalem prior to its conquest by either Joshua or King David. According to the Book of Joshua, Adonizek led a confederation of Jebusites and tribes from neighboring cities against Joshua but was roundly defeated and killed. Judges 1:21 portrays the Jebusites as continuing to dwell in Jerusalem within territory otherwise occupied by the Tribe of Benjamin. Current academic consensus is that the city was conquered by King David in 1003 BCE. Unfortunately, politics comes into the mix as some partisan archeologists support Yasser Arafat’s claim that Palestinian Arabs are descended from the Jebusites. However, there is no archeological evidence to support this claim. Most informed authorities now believe that the Palestinians are more closely related to the Arabs of Saudi Arabia. [2]

THE AMORITES (then living in the Hill country) were a Semitic people who emerged from western Mesopotamia (modern day Syria) prior to the 3rd millennium BCE. They first appear in history as nomads who regularly made incursions from the west into established territories and threatened their stability. They played a large role in the history of Babylonia (there was an Amorite King before the fall of Ur). Although the settled Babylonian Amorites seem to have been regarded positively in the region, the roaming Amorites continued to be a source of instability. As pre-Israelite inhabitants of the land of Canaan, they were clearly separate from the Israelites. In the Book of Deuteronomy, they are described as the last remnants of the giants who once lived on earth (3:11), and in the Book of Joshua they are the enemies of the Israelites and are consequently are destroyed by Joshua (10:10, 11:18). The biblical stories certainly created a narrative (Egypt enslavement, etc.) that served to separate the Israelites’ national identity from the Amorites. Eventually the Amorites came to be referred to as ‘Aramaeans’ and the land they came from was called “Aram.” After 600 BCE, they no longer appear in the historical record.

Abraham’s father, Terah, brought his family from Ur (now in modern Iraq but then a thriving trade city) with the intention of continuing on to Canaan, was he a wandering Aramean? Although he tired of the trip and settled in Haran instead, perhaps he brought the ethnic identity and cultural heritage of the Amorites with him. Was Terah, in fact, a wandering Aramaean? Or was it our patriarch, Abraham, who left (see Lekh Lekha) to find “the land that I will show you,” the Promised Land, after destroying his father’s idol shop? Was it our ancestor, Jacob — guilt-ridden through his own trickery, so badly treated by Laban, finding his true self through his mystical struggle with an angel, and finally seeking a new place – a sacred place — to call his home?[3]

* * * *

[1] The following information is culled from multiple Internet sources, which I have tried to simplify and integrate.

[2] The name “Palestine” is derived from the name the 5th century BCE Greek writer, Herodutus, applied to a district of Syria and to the inland region of the Judean mountains and the Jordan Rift Valley. Centuries later, after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple (70 CE) and drove the Jews out of Jerusalem, they called the area “Palaestina” in order to erase the connection of the Jews to their historical and spiritual homeland. Notably, the Arab conquest of Jerusalem did not take place until 637 CE.

[3] There is considerable rabbinic controversy whether “arami oved avi,” a formula originally used when the first fruit offerings were brought to the Temple, refers to “my father was a wandering Aramean” or to “an Aramean destroyed my father”  because the roots of the two different verbs are similar. The latter could refer either to what Laban the Aramean tried to do to Jacob, or to Abraham leaving Ur. (See My Jewish Learning.com, Mishna Pesachim 10, the Haggadah, and the biblical narrative.)

 

KORAH: A BAD GUY OR THE FIRST REFORM JEW? (Numbers 16: 1- 18:32)

KORAH: A BAD GUY OR THE FIRST REFORM JEW?

(Numbers 16: 1- 18:32)

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Close your eyes and imagine for a moment that what you see on a movie screen are two stags, one older, one younger, each with an impressive rack of antlers, and the younger one is challenging the elder with all the vigor of his newfound strength. Invariably, the older stag is defeated, and the young stag replaces him as leader of the herd. This is part of the natural order in the animal kingdom. It is not so different with human beings, as we witness in the media on a global scale every day.

Image credit: https://www.etsy.com/shop/DrashDesigns

And it was not so different in biblical times, with Korah, the young contender, perhaps 19 or 20 years old, challenging Moses, the autonomous leader, for a greater role in the leadership of the Jewish people.  Normally it is healthy for the community, for young adults to have a say in how they are governed. They are full of energy and brimming with new ideas, like — in the case of Korah — having prayer shawls made that were completely blue in color, so that the new law mandating blue fringes on prayer shawls – tallitot — was unnecessary halakhah. Gotcha, Moses. An unnecessary law we don’t have to observe!

In that sense, Korah was the first Reform Jew. He wanted not only religious reform, but reform of the entire leadership system too, he wanted to change it from an hierarchical and autocratic leadership style to a more democratic system that allowed for representative government of the Jewish people. Thousands of years before our United States of America had a War of Independence over the issue of “No taxation without representation,” Korah was arguing something similar. He was ahead of the curve, a Democrat before democracy was invented in the way we know it today. And because he was young, he was impatient. He was not going to wait around for the Messiah to come to take individual responsibility. He wanted a change in leadership style. Now.

And perhaps one could even argue, as Jonathan Schraub does (in his article, “Our Holy Grandfather: A Reassessment of Korah”) that with his attention to “priestly perogatives,” access to the ark, and democratization of rights, Korah was the first precursor of the rabbinic movement many centuries later (78).

So one could argue that the controversy between Moses and Korah was a matter not only of disparate leadership style but of precedent. As Schraub further points out, “Korah was neither the wicked Pharaoh nor the Haman that many commentators make him out to be, nor merely an ego-driven, demagogic rabble rouser. Rather, his rebellion was an “intellectual insurrection” (70). And we should also remember that Korah did have a responsible position in the community. Now he was giving “a legitimate voice to a ‘disenfranchised’ majority, one that had lost confidence in Moses and feared they would all die wandering in the desert, but who still wanted to abide by the laws of the community – and God.  

According to medieval commentators, Ibn Ezra and Rashbam, this incident took place in the wilderness of Sinai “at a time when the Levites replaced the first born. The Israelites were upset…that the Levites had taken their positions, while the Levites themselves were upset that the priesthood was reserved for Moses’ brother Aaron and his sons” (Carasik, The Commentator’s Bible, JPS 115). So there was plenty of upset and jealousy to go around.

At first, Korah did all the right things for a politician. His grass roots, populist appeal was recognized by the sages (71). He went from tent to tent gathering allies, kol ha eidah, 250 chieftains who were men of repute in the assembly. It is true that the chieftains felt that had been overlooked in property division, and personal interests were at play. But their grievances had some justification. They needed to be heard.

Traditional Interpretation

Although Korah and his followers are usually presented as the bad guys, they were not, in my view, a band of malcontents, as Nechama Liebowitz and a host of other noted commentators with traditional orientation suggest. In fact, in her essays on Bamidbar, she devotes three chapters to a negative but precise analysis of Korah’s actions, amazing when you consider that Korah’s story in the Bible is told in a brief two chapters, in which he is given only two lines to say in the entire dramatic action. Traditionally, the rabbis believed that he suffered from the fatal flaw of jealousy. He too had been passed over by Moses in favor of his younger cousin, Elitazaphan, as chief of the Levite division of the Koahites – of which Korah was a senior member (Straub, 74). And that he waited until the morale of the Jewish people was low: there had been the incident of the Golden Calf, the punishment of Miriam for gossiping (lashon hora) against Moses’ wife, the disastrous episode of the spies, the murmuring of the people who remembered the good old days in Egypt through rose-colored glasses. Therefore Korah decided the time was ripe to take calculated action.

Both the Tanhuma and Ramban link Korah’s actions with opportunity and timing. The Tanhuma connects “Korah’s timing to the preceding [Torah] passage dealing with the laws of fringes and portrays Korah as a schemer lying in wait for the opportunity to incite the leaders against Moses’ leadership. But Ramban states it a little differently. He thinks that Korah deliberately chose this time because he thought the people would listen to him seriously now (“Korah and His Gang,” p. 137).

In my opinion, Korah’s message was progressive. What Korah was saying, in essence, is that the Covenant was not only contracted with the collective of the Jewish people, it was made with the individual as well. “Moses, you have gone too far!” Korah chastises Moses for taking too much power. “For all the community are holy, all of them, and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourself above the Adonai’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3).

Later Moses echoes the same warning to Korah when Korah attempts to take the fire pans with incense into the Holy Ark, something only Moses was allowed to do.  “You have gone too far,” Moses says. Viewed this way, Korah’s conduct was not only an attempted coup d’etat, it was also a grave offence against God.

So Korah started out from a reasonable position, but in the end, he went too far. If you challenge leadership by aiming your metaphorical gun, common wisdom dictates that you had better not miss the shot. In taunting Moses like a teenager, and worse, in challenging Moses, he also challenged the Divine Will and thus angered God. So he missed the shot twice. The result is a Divine response of overwhelming force and terror. The earth opened up and swallowed Korah, the 250 chieftains, and another 15,000 Jews to top it off. It was “hardly a proportionate response.” Nachmanides notes that once again Aaron was silent in the face of God’s anger, just as he had been after the punishment of his sons, Nadav and Avihu. In fact, Aaron is silent throughout the whole episode of Korah’s rebellion.

* * * *

Interestingly, Korah’s position is validated in a previous episode in the Torah (Exodus 18), when Moses’ father-in law, Jethro, comes to visit Moses from Midian, with Moses’ semi-abandoned wife and children in tow. But in contrast to the young hothead, Korah, he counsels Moses gently, explaining that Moses would be less harried – and, implicitly, might even have some time for his family – if he shared the leadership duties. It is not far from what Korah is trying to communicate.

And what Korah is saying remains a message for today’s Jews: that we are self-challenged to become a holy people, a kingdom of priests. “Nothing and no one stands between the individual Jew and his or her God,” Straub asserts.

In fact, if we retroject our 21st sensibility onto Bamidbar, perhaps it is not too much to say, as Straub does, that Korach elicited such a strong reaction “from the eidah, from…Moses, from God – precisely because he was the first to tap into the ways in which a rigid and uncompromising demand of law (halakhah) can stifle and eventually suffocate the deeper covenantal love expressed through spirit (kavvanah)” (76).

 

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

 

PARSHAT CHUKKAT: Finding A Sacred Cow (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

PARSHAT CHUKKAT: Finding A Sacred Cow

(Numbers 19:1-22:1)

 

“Spring up, O well –sing to it –

The well which the chieftains dug,

Which the nobles of the people started

With maces, with their own staffs” (Numbers 21:16-18).

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Image credit: https://www.jpost.com/Jewish-World/Judaism/Parshat-Hukat-The-red-heifer-paradox-360685

Our Jewish tradition encourages hope in so many ways. Every single day, when we wake up, we thank God for restoring our soul – Modah Ani, thank God I’m alive – and, every week, we celebrate the coming of the Sabbath, as we have done for thousands of years, with thankfulness for our blessings and with hope that the week to come will bring good things. And sometimes, even in a time of grief when the aging leadership a people have depended on for all these years in the desert finally succumbs to death– as Moses, Aaron, and Miriam (leaving the Israelites bereft of water) do in this Torah portion, something that seems impossible happens, a little miracle. They find a red heifer, one so rare it can almost never be found, one without blemish, one that has never known a yoke. Perfect. Holy. Sacred.

In biblical times, as we learn in the Torah portion for this week, Chukkat (which means “decree”), the ancient Israelites offered sacrifices to God through their priests, the Cohanim. So, at the time of the new moon, along with the red heifer (whose ashes were later embedded in the cleansing waters of lustration), they offered two yearling lambs without blemish, accompanied by the sacred libation of wine.

Many centuries later, in rabbinic times, after the Second Temple was destroyed, the rabbis substituted prayer for sacrifice – in other words, conversations with – and about – God. Conversations that reaffirm our faith in the future.

For thousands of years, our history has encompassed the story of building and rebuilding in the aftermath of destruction, and of an unceasing effort to make the world a better place, even when we are building on sand. When we cling to hope as never before, when our grief or despair forces us to search for a red heifer.

So this week, even as the world around us – even at home — seems to grow more uncertain every day, hope remains a fundamental element of our Jewish faith. All faiths, in fact, are based on hope. Faith is the flame that keeps hope alive. And the reverse is true as well. Hope is the flame that keeps faith alive. The Jewish religion is the story of that faith, that hope. For Am Yisrael, it is the ability to maintain hope in the direst of circumstances that has helped us to survive until this day – lazman hazeh. Even when we have to protect our heritage with the life force of every Jew.

Even though at times we may be consumed with grief and mourning, both of which also flow from the subject matter of Chukkat.  As Rabbi Dr. Cheryl Weiner writes, “While the import of the ritual of the Red Heifer remains somewhat of a mystery, the power of its legacy remains with us in our rites of spiritual passage from one state of being to another through death, and also in our understanding of sex and birth being linked to mortality” (www.ajrca.edu/WeeklyParsha).

A concept most students of Talmud learn is conveyed by the Hebrew word, ye’ush, which oddly means the abandonment of hope. What the rabbis of the Talmud were trying to determine was the specific point at which one abandons or does not abandon hope. At what point does one give up hope and say: “It’s time to move on”? And what motivates someone to cling to hope, no matter what the circumstances?

The leadership of the Talmudic rabbis is long gone. But the same questions, in circumstances remarkably similar remain.

As Yossi Klein Halevi reflects in his new book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,

“Can we draw on our souls, neighbor, to help us overcome our wounds and our fears? What is our responsibility as religious people in a land sanctified by the love and devotion and expectations of myriads of souls through the centuries? What is our responsibility as ‘custodians’ of one of humanity’s most intractable conflicts, in the most dangerous moment in history?”

(Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor, Digital Edition, May 2018).

I believe with all my heart and soul that it is one of our custodial responsibilities to maintain hope. As we read Chukkat each year, which describes in part how the ancient Israelites searched for water as they moved past hostile tribes, we are mindful that in June, 2018 — with a modern State of Israel still preoccupied with implementing innovative, technological methods of conserving water, and still surrounded on all sides by nations that avow its destruction — we are mindful of your protective presence, God, of your many blessings. And we continue to hope for peace.  Although it may seem unreachable at times, the conditions – unblemished, never yoked, a red heifer almost impossible to find — we must never give up. Peace lies just beyond the vision that it exists. That’s why all our Hebrew greetings — whether in the joyous birth of arrival or in the sad moment of departure – begin and end with Shalom.

 

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

 

Parshat B’ Ha’Alotekha: Numbers 8:1-12:16

B’ Ha’Alotekha: Numbers 8:1-12:16

El Na R’fanalah

O God, please heal her, please!

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

 

For several years now, I have been receiving daily email content from a website (chofetzchaimusa.org) that faithfully delivers nuggets of Judaic wisdom about how to cope with Lashon Hora in its many forms. Lashon Hora? Hebrew for the “evil tongue.” Malicious gossip, slander, spreading rumor or falsehood – these were issues even in biblical times, as illustrated by God’s punishment of Moses’ sister, Miriam, in Be-ha’alotekha (Numbers 12), our Torah portion for this week. Here Miriam speaks spitefully about her brother’s’ wife (and her brother as well). This passage seems especially relevant today when evil speech – the coarsening or evil intent of the words that come out of our mouths – is poisoning contemporary American society to the extent that this topic now constitutes “breaking news.” As I watched Brian Williams’ thoughtful “11th Hour” the other evening, brilliant historian Doris Kearns Goodman eloquently condemned the coarsening of our national political dialogue.

What we are experiencing today is the normalization of coarse behavior, and through the advent of social media, the liberty to lash out at people under the cloak of anonymity. Yes, there is the growing menace of the ugly speech in our society. The evil tongue, however, goes back a long time. It is part of the drama that occurs in Be-ha’alotekha: “When they were in Hazeroth [in the desert], Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: ‘He married a Cushite woman!” (Numbers 12:1). God was furious and punished Miriam with a skin ailment that changed the color of her skin: she was “stricken with snow-white scales.”

Image credit: http://images.fineartamerica.com/images-medium-large/ethiopian-woman-j-w-kelly.jpg

There has been much commentary (see editor Michael Carasik’s extensive discussion in The Commentators Bible: The Rubin JPs Miquraot Gedolot on Numbers 12) over the years about the “why” of this punishment. In fact, some of the illustrious medieval commentators Carasik quotes get downright gossipy themselves (pp. 84-85). Did “the Cushite woman” refer to Zipporah, Moses’ wife? Although Zipporah was a Midianite, the priest Jethro’s daughter, the dark-complected Midianites were sometimes confused with Cushites, who were ebony black. Had Moses discarded Zipporah? the rabbis ask. There is speculation that his sexual interest had declined once he had come so close to God’s presence; now he was more concerned with spiritual matters, Some of the rabbis thought not, however; rather the Cushi woman was a new wife.

Rashi, the famed Jewish scholar who lived in France in medieval times, adds even more interest to this discussion with his declaration that the Hebrew letters of the word “Cushite” have the same numerical equivalent as y’fah mar’eh, the word for “beautiful.” Therefore Cushite means both “black” and “beautiful.”

My own observation is that, in contemporary times, people from Ethiopia (home of the biblical Queen Sheba, with whom Solomon fell in love) are generally considered to have beautiful features. Or more simply, in today’s parlance, black is beautiful.

In his Commentary of the Torah, Richard Elliott Friedman’s plain talk explanation of this biblical quandary clarifies all this juicy speculation:

“Cush is generally understood to be Ethiopia. Its people are identified as descendants of Noah’s son Ham (Gen. 10: 6-7). On this understanding, Moses has taken an Ethiopian wife in addition to his first wife, Zipporah. This has been confused somewhat by the fact that the prophet Habbakuk refers to a place called Cushan in parallel with Midian (Hab. 3:7). Some scholars, therefore, have concluded that the Cushite wife is Zipporah herself (so Ibn Ezra). But this latter view does not explain why the text should suddenly refer to her as a Cushite. Also, the words ‘because he had taken a Cushite wife’ certainly appear to be here in the verse in order to inform us of an essential new fact, but we already knew that he was married to Zipporah (so Rashbam). This story, therefore, is about a second, probably Ethiopian wife” [italics mine] (Friedman, Harper Collins, 2003, p. 465).

It has been a popular theory for many years that all human beings derive from a common African ancestor (this idea fits in well with the biblical Adam story), and that about 100,000 years ago, skin color began to vary as people began to migrate to different latitudes. Apparently we basically began with the same skin color, but we developed different amounts of melanin (which gives our skin its pigmentation) in accordance with the angle of the sun (and how much ultra-violet radiation we received) in the places where we lived and how long we lived there. The amount of melanin is further controlled by at least six identified genes and by Darwinian natural sexual selection and reproduction. So each of us has a skin color that is influenced by all these things. That’s what we call our genetic makeup! (See http://sciabc.us/C.WFr and many other websites.) And the genetic makeup of Ethiopians was dark.

What was Miriam’s genetic makeup, we wonder, if her skin could be instantly rendered as leprous as snow? Surely she had to be a woman of some color in order for the Torah to portray such a dramatic contrast? As a woman of what we now call the Middle East (actually located in Western Asia) who had lived her early life in Egypt (located in North Africa), where did Miriam rank on the ascending/descending color chart? Coffee complexion? Olive?

However, when Miriam’s leprous skin appears white as snow, she is actually devoid of pigmentation, Friedman suggests. “If we understand correctly that the Cushite wife is Ethiopian,” he claims, “this is a provocative case of punishment to suit the crime and a powerful biblical statement regarding racism. It is as if God says to Miriam: ‘You don’t like a woman with dark pigmentation? Then you don’t have to have any pigmentation!’ Or: ‘You don’t like a woman who is black? Try being completely white!’ “ (Friedman, Ibid., p. 468).

A little plain talk to combat the evil tongue, one might say. O God, please heal us, please.

Here’s some talk that is a little more complex:  In celebrated Japanese physicist Michio Kaku’s jaw-dropping book, The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond Earth (Kindle edition, 2018), he predicts that by the end of this century or the next one, we may be able to project a human being’s consciousness, already mapped on a super-computer, and project it on laser beams the speed of light in a few seconds to another planet or the Moon. Furthermore, we will be able to connect that consciousness to a robotic body already on that planet —  part of the effort to terraform it so that people in human (not robotic) bodies can eventually live there to develop resources for Planet Earth. Will the color of our bodies change when we live in such a radically different environment? Our current preoccupation with skin color may become laughable, a relic from a simplistic past.

Jon Meacham is more sympathetic to our human condition in his wonderful, recent book, The Soul of America:The Battle for our Better Angels (Kindle edition, 2018). “One point of this book,” he begins, “is to remind us that imperfection is the rule, not the exception” (p.5). And then he concludes his argument with this reminder: “For all the dreams denied and deferred, the experiment begun so long ago, carried out so imperfectly, is worth the fight. There is, in fact, no struggle more important, and none nobler, than the one we wage in the service of those better angels, who, however besieged, are always ready for battle” (p. 272)

 

©️Corinne Copnick. Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.