Friday, June 23, 2017

Parashat Korach

            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Korach, and if you join us tomorrow morning, you will have the opportunity to learn from our Bar Mitzvah about some of Korach’s admirable qualities. I have always felt that Korach is misunderstood and overly judged in our tradition, and enjoy a good d’var Torah about his bravery and righteousness such as you can hear tomorrow.
            This year, I realized something new about Korach, though. In this week’s parasha, after Korach challenges Moses’s authority, Moses pray for God to show the people who’s really in charge, and God complies by having the earth open up and swallow all of Korach and his fellow democracy-seeking rebels. The Torah says here, “The ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people.” This would seem to me to clearly indicate that all of Korachs children and family were killed as well. However, it came to my attention that several of the Psalms are explicitly attributed to the sons of Korach. Tradition holds that the Book of Psalms as a whole was written by David, and many of the Psalms included in our prayer books are Davidic. Some Psalms refer to exile, or even specifically Babylon, and so historically could not have been written by David, but I never noticed before this week that in fact, some Psalms are named for the sons of Korach as clearly as some are named for David. They are Psalms 42, 44-49, 84, 85, 87, 88, in case you were wondering.
            The Talmud (Sanhedrin 110a) suggests that there was a “place reserved for [the sons of Korach] in the underworld and they sat there and sang,” which to me sounds evocative of one of the other non-Davidic Psalms to which I just referred. Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion, we hung our lyres on the willows in its midst. For there those who carried us away captive required of us a song, and those who tormented us required of us mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” This Psalm is not specifically attributed to the sons of Korach, but the ones that are, which less well-known and not covered by Bob Marley, communicate a similar feeling. They all speak of feeling close to death, of great destruction to their communities and abilities to worship, of a commitment to God and Judaism anyway. They use imagery of lyres and song and waters. Some have a happier or more hopeful feel and seem to have been written in Jerusalem, though many are more dour, frightened, yet somehow still determined to find hope again and committed to faith in God. Of the more dour ones, some strongly indicate having been written in exile, though none as explicitly as Psalm 137, and others are more ambiguous as to their geography.
            Let’s start with the Talmudic midrash that the earth opened up on the House of Korach and imagine the wrath of God indiscriminately swallowing up rebels and those merely adjacent to them. The sons of Korach, whether they were personally in favor of the project for democratization or for Moses’s Divinely elected leadership, were not names among the rebels, and do not wish to be a part of the disruption of the community either way. They do not feel they should be a part of this sweeping punishment, and they call out to God to spare them. They see their reservations in Sheol, the underworld, like Scrooge with his third ghost, and they are determined to be better. They sing their hearts out, and are spared. Korach is identified as a Levi, so these sons are already dedicated to serve in the Mishkan and their sons will be dedicated to serve in the future Temple, but now that God has heard their plaintive song and recognized their heartfelt prayer, they become the official songleaders and cantors of the Mishkan and Temple as well.
Now adding to the scene set for us from the Talmud and with the Psalms as props, let’s imagine also that from generation to generation, the descendants of Korach pass on this story, their own mythos for their particular family, such that they remain identified with the punished rebellious patriarch throughout the years and generations and family relocations. The generations of the Temple held a special, holy role in beautifying worship, and the generations of Babylonian exile maintained Jewish connection to God and the Holy Land through their songs and poems. Perhaps not the songs of Zion, because it was too painful to sing songs meant for the Temple without a Temple, but new songs, new understandings of their roles as priests and poets for a newly traumatized community. When the generations of the Temple sang their songs over their burnt offerings, they remembered the fire pans of their forefather and his followers, rejected by God. They remembered the fire of the Lord that flew forth and consumed those who denied the Divine election of Moses. They took great pains to ensure their offerings were correct, that their prayers were truly for the good of the whole community, for they knew the dire consequences of any misstep, even a misguided attempt toward something seemingly positive.
Their children saw how those offerings and prayers weren’t enough, witnessed the destruction of the first Temple anyway, were carried off to exile. As they sat by the rivers of Babylon weeping, they remembered their ancestors who sat by the opening to Sheol, which perhaps felt like the same thing to them. To be so far from home, from the Temple, from their intended duties, was already akin to death. But they remembered that song saved the sons of Korach and perhaps it would save them now. They sang new songs of hope and yearning and praise that God will remember the Chosen People and drive away their enemies, just as God had done for the generation that entered the Holy Land alongside Joshua. They summoned the strength and faith of their great-great-great-grandfathers and prayed in beautiful song until they felt free again.
Somewhere along the way, the line was broken. Though some claim to know their tribes or even specific Biblical ancestors, it’s hard to say for certainty where each ancient line has gone, or how far back each of us can reasonably trace our heritage. But just as we can all identify ourselves at least as spiritual descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, anyone who has ever felt the power of song get them through a hard time can claim to be a spiritual descendant of the sons of Korach. Songs can inspire change and progress, can instill calm and peace, can spur creativity. May you all find the song in your heart that helps you carry out the story of your ancestors, and may we learn to sing each other’s songs together. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Parashat Shelach

Shabbat Shalom! As happens many times throughout the wandering in the Wilderness, Israelites once again give in to their fear in this week’s parasha and anger God with their lack of faith. The Israelites are at the foot of the boundary into the Holy Land when Moses sends twelve spies (the name of the parasha is “Shelach,” meaning sends), a representative from each tribe, into the land to investigate how goodly and conquerable the land is. Ten tribes come back and say that the land is full of giants and they do not think they can take it over. Only Joshua, who eventually becomes the leader to lead the people into the land several years on, and his friend Caleb have the courage to say that they have faith in their own ability to take on the giant Canaanites. They report that the land is full of grapes so large they needed five men to carry a custer. But the other ten are more persuasive to the Israelite community at large, and they don’t all charge into the promised land immediately. God declares at this point, “All these who have seen My glory and My signs which I have performed in Egypt and in the wilderness and yet have tested me ten times now, and refused to listen to my voice - I swear that they shall not see the Land which I have sworn to their fathers.”
Perhaps in last week’s parasha and elsewhere in the Torah where commentators point to other behaviors as the real reason the generation from Egypt are not allowed into the Holy Land, it is akin to when a parent or a teacher has to make a threat of discipline several times and gives the child or student ample opportunity to correct themselves before the adult is comfortable following through on the threat. Eventually, though, enough is enough for everyone, and this is where we see the words direct from God, that the faithlessness of the people has gone too far.
I find that with students, they will often disregard early warnings. They continue doing what they’re doing that is disruptive to the classroom, or worse, sometimes even talk back, until enough is enough and I have to ask them to take some time to calm down. Then suddenly they want to behave. They ignore the instruction to take themselves away from the group and try to pretend as though they haven’t been doing anything wrong. At that point, I always feel torn. Because on the one hand, the student is now doing what I wanted all along, which is to refrain from distracting others. On the other hand, they are still not listening to directions, because the last direction was to step away from the situation. Their repentance becomes its own spectacle for the other students, and if they don’t follow the rule to step away and refresh themselves before returning to their seats, then it sends a message to the whole class that all warnings for behavioral consequences are empty.
God, it seems, has no concern for this dilemma. When God declares firmly that the people have gone too far with this latest indiscretion and will not be allowed into the holy land, they respond with an act of seeming teshuva. They admit that they have sinned and ask for God’s forgiveness, and then they begin a march toward the hilly entrance to the Promised Land - the very land they have just been told they may no longer enter. The Amalekites and the Canaanites that were dwelling in the land slaughter them in battle, because they are without God’s protection now. Modern-day commentator, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg explains that this act of teshuvah is not genuine and that by defying the order of God’s punishment, the “teshuvah itself has taken on a transgressive coloring.”
Zornberg compares the situation in this week’s parasha to the book of Job and cites the Talmud tractate Bava Batra where the ancient and medieval rabbis suggest that actually Moses wrote the book of Job in response to this scenario. In Parashat Shelach, Moses tries to intercede when God gets mad at the fearful spies by reminding God that the Israelites have chosen to have this special relationship with God, and if God destroys them, then what kind of Divinity is that? Is cruelty better than the lifeless idols that the other nations of the world worshipped then? The line of questioning that begins in the Torah is elaborated on in the Midrash, where Moses points out all the other populations God has wiped out (the generation of the Flood, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Egyptians, etc.) and that if God continues this trend with even those identified as The Chosen People, then God may as well be the she-demon Lilith, know for eating her own children. Moses’s willingness to very directly challenge Divine cruelty is very Job-like. However, where God’s response to Job was to bellow, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?!” and remind Job who’s boss around here, in response to Moses, God is a little more temperate. He agrees not to have earth open up and swallow thousands of people - for now - and merely decides they cannot enter the Holy Land. If they follow the rules set about for their own safety from here on out, they can live healthy long lives and die natural deaths, only, in the desert. This is where the children of Israel then decide to try to enter the land anyway, and end up dead.
Now, the educator analogy of course only works to some extent, because the Torah story goes to extremes and of course there’s no danger of death in my classroom and I would never allow for actual harm to fall upon a child, no matter how disruptive a student they were. But, taken with a grain of salt, the Moses-Job comparison and the difference in how God responds is worth noting. When Job is the target of God’s cruelty, he gets defensive and lashes out at God. Given the rest of the story and how unfair Job’s treatment is, this is not unreasonable, but it is still remarkably different from Moses’s conversation. Moses is not the target of God’s anger. Where Job is trying to save himself, Moses is trying to save others. If a disruptive student tries to argue their own way out of time-out or the letter home, I feel I must stand firm and remind the student that if they didn’t want the situation to come to this, they should have listened to earlier warnings. However, when other students try to take a share of the responsibility for the class disruptions, I am far more likely to let the situation slide, though I remind the one at the center of the commotion to be grateful for that camaraderie, because I think it’s a useful teaching moment for them all to learn collective responsibility, fair and equal treatment, and solidarity with each other. Moses understands the importance of these moral guidelines, but unfortunately his disruptive classmates don’t, and they continue to get themselves into trouble despite his best efforts to save them.
May we learn from this to seek in earnest the greater good for our whole communities, to share responsibilities and cares, and to work together to build a strong and faithful united community. Amen and Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, June 9, 2017

Parashat Beha'alot'cha

Shabbat Shalom! Do you ever have an experience that’s not inherently terrible, but something about it is unnerving, and you think to yourself, “This is how horror movies start,” and the existential dread starts crawling up from the pit of your stomach to your heart, to your brain? Do you sometimes feel anxious and not even really know why? Do you feel sadness and angst and a total mood drop even after a real fun night out with friends or a successful presentation or other sort of adrenaline rush? Well, if so, congratulations, you’re human! And if you feel like you have those moments more frequently than your peers, then congratulations, you’re probably Jewish!
Though existential dread is obviously not uniquely Jewish, it is pretty core to our peoplehood’s myth making, going all the way back to Biblical times. In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Beha’alot’cha, we see the incessant whining of the Israelites wandering the desert in the light of Jewish neuroses. These are a people who have witnessed great miracles and experienced direct theophany. The rabbis calculate that this is about a year after the Exodus, so for the most part, everyone present was someone who walked out of Egypt through a parted sea and had the synesthetic experiences of the revelation of God at Mount Sinai. And yet, they are not grateful for God’s mercy or excited for their hopeful arrivals to the Holy Land. They. Are. Terrified. And that terror manifests as dissatisfaction of thirst and hunger and rest. They complain that the wandering is too tiring, that they don’t really know where they are going, that they will die in this wilderness, and they would have rather stayed slaves, where at least they knew where their next meal would come from and when they could rest. They ask Moses, “Who will feed us meat?” despite also not ever eating meat, other than fish, in Egypt, despite having livestock with which they could provide themselves with meat, despite the miracle of the manna providing wholesome nutrients for them every morning. When they despair of the manna, saying it’s not satisfying enough and it doesn’t feel secure because they have to pray for it anew each day, they say, “Ein Kol,” which though generally translated as “There is nothing,” literally means “There is not everything!”
Modern day commentator, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, brings in her background as a psychoanalyst to assess this neurotic behavior. She says that this desire for more is not merely a symptom of ingratitude but of a desire to avoid the fear of scarcity. The manna wasn’t gratifying because there was an uncertainty about it. What if it ceased to appear? The opposite of gratification, of being content that Israelites have what they need right now, Zornberg says, is a concept of “bread in the basket” - a confidence that the Israelites will have all they need for the future. The lack of this confidence drives them mad, causing them to express this irrational greed. When God provides the meat they desire, they gorge themselves to death.
When I was in college, I was in a play called “Metamorphoses”. A friend asked me to act in it and I agreed thinking I would get to roll around and be a cockroach. It turns out, “Metamorphoses” is different from “The Metamorphosis” by Kafka, and is actually a series of vignettes based on Ovid’s epic Greek poems. Among other roles, I got to play the part of Hunger in the Erysichthon and Ceres skit. Erysichthon chops down one of the goddess Ceres’s trees, leading her to curse him (or her, as in our production the role was played by a woman) with endless hunger. I crept up behind Erysichthon, hovering as she feasted. I climbed onto her back and she carried me piggy-back style as she sold all her earthly possessions to buy more food. The weight of me, of Hunger, weighed her down until by the end of the scene, she was crawling, dragging me along, until she started to gnaw on her own arm and the stage went dark.
Unchecked hunger, fear of scarcity, and giving in to base coping mechanisms in order to deal with existential dread will lead us astray from our goals and from healthy living. Rashi comments on this parasha, that the people of Israel were only three more days from the entrance to the Holy Land. But then Israelites break out into this complaining, they gorge themselves on quail and die from the plague of greed, so this is when God truly decides that this generation is not ready to enter the promised land. In a desperation to reach an end to the wandering, to the desire for stability, they made their wandering worse and their stability farther off and more desirous.
Existential dread and giving in to unhealthy coping mechanisms are not unnatural or even unreasonable habits for people to fall into. Life is scary, and our instincts want us to compensate from the creeping fear. But it is our job as rational human beings to overcome the visceral reactions and neurotic tendencies that emerge from trauma. To heal ourselves and our communities, to survive, to thrive. In the wilderness, that meant showing gratitude for God’s miracles and contenting oneself with manna, continuing on the journey toward the Holy Land. Today, that might mean seeking mental health care, practicing self-care, being honest with our communities about our needs, and looking for healthier ways to live and be in the world. May we all find comfort in our own lives, security in what we already have, and bring strength and love to each other and this world. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.