Parshat Bereshit – The difficult mission: to say “I”, and not out of egoism

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Some people use to say that one of the traits that makes the Human different from animals is the capacity of self awareness. The Human is capable of self thinking, self analyzing. Nonetheless, together with this characteristic, the Human has the possibility of thinking of others, to be aware of the being of the fellow one. We should then change the definition of that “differentiating trait”, saying that the Human differs from the animals by his/her capacity of being aware simultaneously of him/herself and the others.

This does not mean, regretfully, that we actually succeed to fulfill that capacity. It seems simple, but it turns to be pretty difficult to do it at the same time and with the same vehemence. We do think of others, yes… but to take them on account when “I” or “me” are the focus? Conversely, highlighting the “I” when we are so busy being altruistic? These two situations are understood as contradictions: either you are egoist or altruist.

However this may be the principal mission we have as Human Beings: to know how to put the “I” and the “other” under the same intensity of awareness, without making any of them loose strength. It is about finding the balance between egoism and altruism.

Parshat Bereshit shows us to extreme examples of the first problem: the difficulty of taking others on account, the difficulty of getting out the “I” so as to regard the fellow person.  Examples where the “I” in the center causes damage to the other one.

The first one is the case of eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Eve saw that the fruit was good to eat. She though only of what is good for her (even though she knew this “good” was forbidden). From this selfish thought she concluded that it must be good for her man. She didn’t ask him, she didn’t took him on account. If it is good for her, then it is good for the other one. Adam, for his part, he doesn’t take any responsibility for what he did. The Torah says “She gave to her man, with her, and he ate”: he was with her, he saw, she gave, he ate. When God asks “Have you eaten?”, Adam’s answer is: “The woman You have given me, she gave it”. I am not responsible of this, he says: it is You, God, and the woman. Adam thinks only of himself, evades responsibility and blames somebody else.

The second case is the killing of Abel. Cain brought an offer. Abel imitates him and is even rewarded, but he fails to thank Cain, or even to acknowledge Cain as the owner of the original idea. Cain does not hear his brother (we don’t know whether Abel even managed to say something): he speaks, he is angry he kills. There is a very interesting midrash in Bereshit Rabbah (22:7) that explains that Cain and Abel argued about ownership of things in the world. None of them was ready to share with his fellow. “I”, “me”, “mine” were the dominant ideas in the argument, with no place of the “other” one. Here again, when God asks Cain, he evades responsibility and blames, now subtly, somebody else (blames God, like his father): “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Is it me the keeper? Isn’t it rather You, God? He thinks only of himself, of his anger, of the offense on him.

After the story of the creation of the Human Being, in the second chapter of Genesis, God declares: “It is not good the Human should be alone”. The intention of the phrase may be that it is not good for the Human to see him/herself as the only one in the Creation, to think that only he or she is worthwhile. Another interesting midrash says:

“The Holy, Blessed be He, said: I am alone in My world and he is alone in his. I don’t reproduce and he does not reproduce. The creatures may say, “since he does not reproduce, he is our creator”! It is not good the Human should be alone”. (Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer 12).

It is not good for the Human to see him/herself as God, alone and almighty. Because then the Human will not take on account the fellow person and will destroy, instead of building.

The “I” is important to state “He I am”, to state “I exist, but not alone”, “I am here for me and for the others”. This is the human trait that differentiates us from the animals. And we have to activate that characteristic.

Following the dictum of Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I?”

Maybe this is all what the Torah is about: from Brith Milah to Shabbat, from Kashrut to the forbidden intimate relations, from the prohibition of stealing to building a balustrade, from the first tithe to eating Matzah, from “Love God” to “You should love the stranger”, through “Love your neighbor as yourself”.

Parshat Ki Tavo – The two sides of the honey and the milk

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One of the most striking sections of parshat Ki Tavo is the tokhekhah, the rebuke or admonition. Its language is terribly harsh, moreover when we know that many of the horrible chastiments described in the text were atrocious tests actually suffered by our people. Therefore, the widespread custom is to chant this text in a lower voice and hastening the reading.

Nevertheless, I think that in Israel we should read it at the normal tone and speed – it is a warning to take full responsibility for the land, its environment and the people living in it.

There is a deep connection between this calling for responsibility and the first paragraph of the parashah, a text far from the rebuke. There we find the mitzvah of bringing the bikurim, the first fruits, to the Temple. An essential factor of this act was the recitation of a formula that resumes the first steps of our People, finishing with the following sentence:

And the Lord brought us out of Egypt (…); He brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Therefore, as you see, I have now brought the firstfruits of the land which You, O Lord, have given me.” (Deut. 26:8-10).

A land flowing with milk and honey, what a beautiful metaphor of a rich and all providing land!

Is it?

The expression “flowing with milk and honey” appears several times in the Bible, but only once there seems to be an explanation of what kind of land it actually is. Some chapters before our parashah, in Deut. 11 (parshat Ekev) the Torah says:

So that you may prolong your days in the land which the Lord swore to give to your ancestors and their descendants: a land flowing with milk and honey. For the land you are entering in order to inherit is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come, where you sowed your seed and watered it by foot, as a vegetable garden. But the land which you cross over to inherit is one of hills and valleys, which soaks up water when rain falls from the sky; it is that the Lord your God cares for; the eyes of the Lord your God are always on it, from the beginning to the end of the year.” (Deut. 11:9-12)

So a land flowing with milk and honey is actually one that God has to take special care of. It does not get water regularly and abundantly like the land of Goshen, in the Delta of the Nile. It needs the divine concern and constant surveillance to deliver its fruits.

Noga Hareuveni, an Israeli botanist who, following his parents work on the ancient flora and fauna of the land of Israel, founded the Biblical garden and nature preserve “Neot Kedumim”, explains that the expression “flowing with milk and honey” refers actually to an inhabited and even desolate land. He reminds us of the verses in Isaiah, where the prophet describes de desolation to come after the Assyrian invasion:

In that day the Lord will shave with a razor which is hired beyond the River—with the king of Assyria—the head and the hair of the feet, and it will sweep away the beard also.
In that day a man will raise a young cow and two sheep and, because of the abundance of milk which they give, he will eat curds; for every one that is left in the land will eat curds and honey.
For in that day, wherever there were once a thousand grapevines worth a thousand pieces of silver, will become briers and thorns. With bow and arrows men will come there, for all the land will be briers and thorns.” (Isaiah 7:20-24)

 What is the relationship between destruction and devastation, briers and thorns in the language of Isaiah, and abundance of milk and honey? – asks Noga Hareuveni (“Teva v’nof b’moreshet Israel“, Neot Kedumim 1980, pag. 15-27 [in Hebrew]). He explains that the abundance of grass and free vegetation allows wild sheep and cows to eat freely and produce, consequently, more milk. Honey, on the other side, may be found in natural honeycombs that bees build in tree hollows, between rocks and in every hollowed place where there is no external menace (like humans).

A land flowing with milk and honey is, in consequence, a territory where pasture and all the plants may grow freely, when God is concerned with it bringing good rains and climate during the year.

The person who brings the first fruits to the Temple has to acknowledge that it is not him the one who produced these fruits, but it is the intimate partnership between the person and God that allows the ground to express its full potential. To ensure this, there has to be a neat equilibrium between the supremacy of the Human Being on the land and the freedom of the land itself to express its nature. That is why the person has to declare: “Therefore, as you see, I have now brought the firstfruits of the land which You, O Lord, have given me“, meaning “I bring what You, God, and me have made possible the land to produce”.

By expressing that the land is one that flows with milk and honey, we also remind ourselves of the richness made possible by this partnership with God, as well as the behavior we must have so as not to bring again the land to the destruction and desolation that may render it flowing wildly with milk and honey, breaking the partnership and covenant with God.

Parshat Nitzavim – The life and the blessing

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See, I have set before you this day the life and the good and the death and the evil” (Deut. 30:15)

Moses speaks to the People in the name of God, before they enter the Promised Land. He explains to them in clear cut words what free will is about. Not only does he explain, but he sets before them the simple truth: we don’t have any other option, but to choose. It is a kind of contradiction: we must choose and we lack the option of not choosing. This is the contradiction; this is the reality. We have before us the life and the death and the good and the evil. Even if we do not choose, we have decided, chosen, not to choose. Maybe we have chosen the negative option, the evil, the death.

Together with the explanation, there’s an advice: “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you: I have set before you the life and the death, the blessing and the cursing: choose life, that both you and your seed may live” (Deut. 30:19). Blessing and curse have been added here to the list. Even though we cannot choose not to choose, the contents of the choice is not defined – it depends only upon us. We have now many options: life, death, good, evil, blessing, curse. The advice is: “choose life”.

Why not to choose the blessing? Why not the good? When we choose blessing, aren’t we choosing life? And if we choose the good, aren’t we choosing therefore life? Life is afterwards a fact – if we choose, it is because we live! Blessing and good are active choices and not simple facts: if there’s no blessing in our hands, if there’s no good in our deeds, we may choose them! But life, we’re in it already. So, why should we choose life?

Well, good and evil, blessing and curse, they have two characteristics: 1) they are subjective; 2) they deny other possibilities.

They are subjective because the definition of good changes according to the person and to the situation. The same happens with evil, blessing and curse. If somebody is hungry, a piece of bread from the day before yesterday is good; but for somebody satiated this would be a bad choice. For a simpleton, mediocre knowledge is a blessing, while for a wise person it isn’t anything but insufficient and even bad, because it may lead to error. Illness may be bad for the sick person, but a blessing for others. Sometimes it is good even for the sick person him or herself!

We see then, good, evil, blessing, curse are subjective concepts. They depend on the human being, on his or her situation and the context.

They deny other possibilities because they don’t include in them but themselves. If something is blessed, it is not cursed at the very same time (and the contrary is also true). If something is good, it is not bad for the same person at the same moment. If there’s death, there’s not life. There’s the eternal life, the future and distant life. But life is not part of death.

Life, on the other hand, includes everything, even death. Only those who live may die.

Life – it is the only concept in this list of options in Hebrew that is expressed in the plural, “lives=hayim”. There is even no singular form of it in Hebrew. Life (lives) is complex, multiple, diverse, full of opportunities and options, full of challenges and possibilities to change, to make better, to become better. In the blessing the curse, the good or the evil there is something final, fixed, even static. The positive thing about choosing them is the possibility of choosing again time after time. But doing it only once (“I’ve already chosen the blessing”), the choice become fixated, it stops, it does not develop and it disappears as time goes by. Even when you choose the good, or the blessing.

Life (lives), on the other hand, means choosing movement, change, choice after choice, another possibility if we erred, strengthening if we were right.

To choose life includes in itself choosing the good and the blessing, as well as choosing to distance ourselves from evil and curse. This is a choice that requires from us to actively choose all the other options, all the time. If you have chose blessing, you stop there. If you have chose life (lives) you have to deal with your choice and to test it again and again to strengthen it, to make it better, to make yourself better.

May we always choose life with its complexity, multiplicity, its challenges… its life.

Parshat Shoftim – Is it just justice?

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“Justice, justice you must pursue”. This is one of the first mitzvoth in our Parasah. A short and powerful sentence, clear words, things are pretty understood: all what you have to do is justice; never capitulate – you must pursue it.

Is it so clear, indeed?

What justice really is?

And why pursue it and not, let’s say, search for it? (some translations of the Bible render “follow”, but this is not the exact sense of the original Hebrew “tirdof”, which means pursue or chase).

Justice? Let’s say it is doing what is good and right, giving to each one what each one deserves, acting with truth and for the sake of truth. And doing it according to the principles of equality.

All this is true. But what is right for you, is it necessarily right for me? What is good for me, is it so for you? If you deserve something, maybe has it been taken from somebody else? And what about equality? Is it that we both are to have the same thing? What if you worked hard and I did nothing? Maybe I did nothing because I couldn’t? Maybe you haven’t worked as hard as you may have done? And if we both get it, does it mean that a third one, or a forth one will get it, too? And if it si not possible for everybody to get it? Then nobody gets anything of it, following a strict equal way? Does the good prevail here?

The definition of what is good and right, of what each one deserves, of truth and equality is different for each person. If the definition is to be general and not individual, then the individual will feel that this is not justice. He or she may take it as a forced justice, but not as a just justice.

It is then very difficult to get justice.

A clear example of this is the “Judgment of Solomon”, where two women claim a baby to belong to each one of them. The King decides to split the baby in two, each woman receiving half of the child. One of them begs the King not to kill the child and she gives up her rights for the sake of the other one. The other woman says: “It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it!” King Solomon declares finally the merciful woman, who didn’t want the baby to be killed, to be the real mother and gave her the child (see Kings I 3:23-27).

Where is the justice here? One woman considers that dividing equally is justice – everybody loses, but there is equality. The other woman considers justice giving up the rights for the sake of the baby’s life – she does good to the other one, but no good to herself. The King considers justice to give to the one who gave up – it is not equality, but it is the right thing to do.

For us it is completely clear that justice was made in this case. As for the other woman, however, she considers it to be a great injustice, since she was ready to give up the baby on the condition that the other one gives up, too (it may had been given in adoption, instead of being killed, for example).

So, this justice is not perfect. It is good, but it is neither perfect, not complete.

There’s no possibility of arriving to a complete justice. Even if we hypothetically do arrive to it, it will not last. It will solve one problem, but soon another injustice will come up in another area, another place, another situation.

Should we then desist and stop our efforts for arriving to justice?

God gives us as a mitzvah: “You must pursue it”. Pursue justice because it evades you, because it never stays with you. At the very moment you find it, it evades you and you must search for it again. Pursue it! Never capitulate!

Justice must be an ideal in your society. The eternal quest for it, this pursuit, this not being satisfied by having found it once, this not stopping and declaring “I’ve done justice, I’ve already done what I had to do”, this is what allows you to live and to inherit the land: “Justice, justice you must pursue; so that you will live and inherit the land the Lord your God is giving you”. (Deut. 16:20)

There’s no society that is just. There is a society that tends to justice and checks itself permanently so as to regain the justice that has evaded it.

A society that defines itself as being just isn’t anything else but pretentious and it becomes at that very moment a society of injustice. A society that considers itself as the only one which really knows what justice is and that blames other societies of being unjust, isn’t but getting away from what is good, right and correct.

Let’s continue discovering justice at every moment, because even if “it is not your responsibility to finish the work, you are not free to desist from it either” (Pirke Avot 2:16).

I am not embarrassed

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Last week two crimes, product of hatred and fanaticism, were perpetrated in Israel: the arson of a house in Kafr Duma, a village of Palestinians, where a baby was burnt to death, and the stabbing attack during the “Gay Parade” in Jerusalem, which resulted in the death of a 16-year-old girl.

The perpetrator of the crime in the Gay Parade is an ultra-Orthodox fanatic Jew, who had already been sentenced to 10 years in prison for a similar offense.

Those who set fire to that family house in Duma are apparently Jewish religious extremists identified with “tag mehir” (“price tag”, in reference to the price to be charged after Palestinian terrorist activities), a terrorist ideology policy responsible for several attacks since 2008. This last one is the first to claim a life, pointing to an exacerbation of violence in this group.

The motives were different, the murderers are not related to each other, but both crimes are connected by an ideology of extremism that advocates violence justified on Jewish religious principles.

There are those who might argue (in fact, they already do) that this is what Jewish religious sources lead to: narrow-mindedness, exclusion of those who are different, fanaticism, violence.

There are those who might argue (in fact, they already do) that all this makes them embarrassed about Jewish religion and about being Jews.

Now, let’s take a look at the other side: the response of the people.

After having witnessed the unrestrained violence of these individuals, blinded by their religious fury, there are millions (literally millions!) of Jews who condemn the attacks, who are outraged at the violation of the sacredness of life, who actively denounce and teach, so that these phenomena will never happen again. These are millions who write, demonstrate, preach, moved and alarmed by deeds they clearly define as “not Jewish”.

This response appeared all over the world – Jews of all the religious and secular trends, most of the Israeli society and the Israeli political leadership, together with the majority of committed Jews all over the world. There was almost no synagogue in the world where this had not been the topic of discussion and outrage, be it by the rabbi’s address, be it by the attitude and talks of the congregants.

But these are not more than two murders! It sounds no good, I know. But from an objective point of view, these are only two murders motivated by extremism and fanaticism, like hundreds or thousands of the same kind perpetrated every week all over the world!

But for us, Jews, there is not such a thing like “it is only two”. The violation of a single human life, be it a friend’s or an enemy’s, either we agree or we disagree with the victim’s way or view, the violation of a single human life is experienced by the Jew as a deep human failure.

This is what we have learnt from our own Jewish sources: the Torah, the Prophets, the Talmud, the medieval exegetes, the rabbis (philosophers and legislators) of all generations. This is what we have learnt from all that is Jewish religion and tradition. Yes, the very same Torah that establishes death penalty has made us understand that we mustn’t use it. The very same Talmud that specifies the types of executions, calls “killer” a tribunal that condemns to death. The sanctity of life – that is the Jewish religious principle.

The Jewish religious sources lead to: broad-mindedness, the acceptance of those who are different, respect, the perpetual quest for peace.

There is a minority of Jewish extremists who does not understand this and does not understand the Jewish sources. They diminish the glory of God in the Universe.

There is a constant Jewish majority, in all the centuries, in every place, who understands it and puts it into practice. We are those who augment the glory of God in the Universe.

I am never embarrassed about being Jewish. In situations like this one, may God help us not letting them recur, in situations like this one my People reacts sanctifying life and I am not embarrassed at all. Moreover, I thank God for He made me being born into this People.

I’ll publish here soon!

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Parshot Mattot-Massa’e

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These two parashot close the period of the desert. Final preparations to enter the Promised Land, closing unresolved matters from desert times, last Moshe’s government actions – all these are the elements that make up the general atmosphere at the end of the book of Numbers.

Here finishes, in fact, the process of the Exodus from Egypt. Leaving Egypt wasn’t only about quitting the place itself. It included all the period during which the Children of Israel did not enter the land of Canaan, they were in “stand by” in that wilderness prolonged corridor. Physically they weren’t in Egypt any more, but spiritually they had to go on leaving; the desert represented for them Egypt’s long arm. It represented their belonging to that old reality of oppression, exploitation, slavery, dependence, idolatry, social injustice. As long as that space related them to Egypt, they were still in the Exodus process. Only now, after forty years of challenges and drastic changes, they are ready to stop leaving and begin entering the Promise Land to start there a new society.

As part of this closing process, the Torah summarizes in a list the places where the Children of Israel wandered in the desert.

The verse that opens the list has a strange formulation. Maybe because of this oddity, it is full of meaning:

And Moses wrote their departures to the their journeys as commanded by the Lord; these are their journeys to their departures” (Num. 33:2)

Departures to journeys… OK; but journeys to departures?? Why repeating the issue? Why in inverse order? We’d have expected a text to say “their journeys to their destinations” or something telling the objective. But a journey to a departure? The Torah says they traveled to a place from where they will travel to a place from where they will travel to a place from where… and so on and on!

Well, in fact, that is what they actually did. They didn’t journey to those places in order to establish themselves there. It was part of their going out from Egypt. All those places were “exits”, instead of “goals”.

The journey is the essential element; during it we learn, we change, we grow. The goal of the journey, says the Torah, is the point from where we may go on without stopping or becoming stagnant. Regarding the verse I quoted upper, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the Gerer Rebbe during the second half of the 19th Century, wrote: “For the Human Being is called ‘walker’ and he must always go from one stage to another” (Sefat Emet B’midbar, Massae [5645])

He who encourages stopping and becoming fixated is like somebody who is not ready at all to leave Egypt and prefers to stay in the desert, even if he does so under the excuse of being closer to Mount Sinai.

In every generation a person must regard himself as though he himself came out from Egypt”. In this way, his journeys will be to his departure points, and these departure points will allow him continuing his journeys.

“The highest form of wisdom is kindness”… or isn’t?

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Many times we receive through the Internet (in Facebook, or even in e-mail messages) nice sentences attributed to certain people or writing works. We generally don’t bother looking for the source. It is a lot of work. And, besides, who cares?

We should care, indeed. Not only because of the possibility of plagiarism, but mainly because a misattribution leads us to misunderstand ideas, theories, writers, thinkers, religions, etc.

Some time ago I came across with an interesting case such that. A person received the popular quote “The highest form of wisdom is kindness”, attributed to the Talmud. She sought for the original source and quote, but nothing. She couldn’t find anything of the like in the Rabbinical Literature.

Well, the reason is simply because this is not a classical Jewish thought. It is neither in the Talmud, nor in later Jewish thinkers.

The Jewish conception of kindness does not make of it a kind of wisdom; neither the highest, nor the lowest. Kindness is a great gift, but it is never related to wisdom. Wisdom is intellect; kindness is feeling. Both are important, but one is not the consequence of the other.

Feelings may alter knowledge in a negative way. To know, you must stay affectively neutral.

Intellect may alter feelings in a negative way. To feel, you must experience by the means of your non intellectual faculties.

Jewish teachings speak of the value of wisdom together with or without something: silence, kindness, humbleness, piety and the like.

Jewish teachings speak of the need of being wise and kind at the same time, because both characteristics are the sparks of the Divine image in our souls.

Here there are some nice Jewish quotes, from the Bible and Rabbinical literature, about wisdom and kindness and their relationship:

The fear of the Lord is the instruction of wisdom; and before honour goes humility”. (Proverbs 15:33)

She opens her mouth with wisdom; and the law of kindness is on her tongue” (Proverbs 31:26)

Seven qualities serve the Divine Throne: wisdom, justice, right, kindness, mercy, truth and peace” (Avot d’Rabbi Nathan, ch. 37)

Rava said: Just like this threshold helps aiming the door to close or to open, humbleness is a protection of wisdom” (Tractate Kallah Rabbati 3:3)

The ornament for the Torah is wisdom; the ornament for the wisdom is humbleness; the ornament for the humbleness is fear of God; the ornament of the fear of God is fulfillment of commandments; the ornament for the fulfillment of commandments is modesty” (Tractate Derekh Eretz 4:4)

Rav Zutra bar Tuvia said in the name of Rav: “The Universe was created with ten elements: wisdom, understanding, knowledge, strength, admonition, mightiness, justice, right, kindness and mercy” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Haggigah 12a)

Rava used to say: the goal of wisdom is repentance and good deeds” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakhot 17a)

A person must do good deeds and only then ask God for knowledge of Torah; a person must do right and just deeds and only then ask God for wisdom; a person must act with modesty and only then ask God for the ability of understanding” (Eliahu Rabbah 6, loc. “Ma zakha”).

So, “The highest form of wisdom is kindness” is not from the Talmud, is not Jewish. What is the source?

It is of Spanish Christian origin. It is found in “Excelencias de San Pedro, príncipe de los apóstoles” [“Excellences of Saint Peter, the apostles’ prince”], book III, ch. 6 (page 287), written by Don Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, Spanish bishop and viceroy of New Spain in the 17th century.

It comes as part of his exegesis to Mark 10:17: “there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?”.

Don Juan asks why the man called Jesus Master and not Lord? He says that this is to advice the princes to choose ministers fit for the tasks: “if masters, then wise and kind. If they are not masters, then kindness is a very high wisdom” (“Si ha de ser maestro, sabiduría, y con ella la bondad; si no es maestro, la bondad es muy alta sabiduría”).

In the index of the book (page 578), under the word “Sabiduría“, comes the quote in the form that was later translated into English: “La bondad es la más alta sabiduría” [kindness is the highest form of wisdom].

So the next time you receive a nice quote, a charming sentence, attributed to someone (Jesus, Gandhi, Marx, Kant, the Talmud, Confucius, etc.), don’t just say: “Nice! Who cares who really wrote it!” Look for the author. He and she deserve it. The misattributed source deserves it, too!

Parshat Korah

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The issue with Korah and his revolt against Moshe and Aharon is important, in my view, because of the reaction of the People of Israel to his words.

There is no doubt that we can understand Korah’s complaint. His question is apparently simple and thought provoking: “all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Num. 16:3).

He demanded Moshe to stop ruling and to share the power equally with all the people. He demanded democracy, because everyone can and has the right to govern.

It is a just demand, not only in our modern eyes, but it should have been so also for Moshe. He did not accept Joshua’s government zeal and did not stop Eldad and Meidad, who were prophesying in the camp, while Moshe and the seventy elders were outside. He rebuked Joshua, indeed: “Are you zealous for my sake? May all the Lord’s people be prophets!” (id., 11:29).

So, equality and democracy. What’s wrong with that?

The problem is that Korah’s sentence isn’t more than a kind of news headline. The contents of what he really demanded appears when Moshe calls him to order: “Is it a small thing to you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel… And are you seeking the priesthood also?” (id. 16:9-10).

Korah really wanted more power for hiself and his comrades. It was none of his business whether the people has or lacks equal rights to govern. He wanted to be both Levy and Priest.

However, in the public opinion he was regarded as a hero who sacrifices himself for the sake of the People. His speech and his actions were those of a demagogue, who takes advantage of the emotional and unrestrained reaction of the masses to arrive to his personal goals.

The people went astray by what was apparently just. It did not really examine the situation. If it is apparently so, then it is definitely so.

This is the core of the problem presented in our parashah. Because a quick judgment like this one, that seals the fate based on a superficial impression, bodes disaster. And it happened, indeed – death and destruction.

Why the Korah affaire comes right after the paragraph commanding the tzitzit (the fringes in the garments)? There is a midrash explaining that Korah took a tallit, a garment, made completely of t’khelet, the product with which only one thread of the tzitzit had to be colored. He then asked Moshe if it had to have tzitzit also, since it was completely made of t’khelet. When Moshe answered positively, Korah treated him with disdain. (Jer. Tal. Sanhedrin 10:5, B’midbar Rabbah Korah 18:3)

We must nevertheless remember that one of the central points in the commandment of tzitzit is “that you may not go about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go astray” (id. 15:39). The heart, in the Bible represents the thinking. Do not let your thinking go astray after what your eyes see. Examine, inspect, discern. That is what holiness is about. That is what we are commanded to do.

The story in Korah, the reaction of the People to demagogic addresses, is the opposite example of what the Torah expects from us, of what God commanded us to recall in and by the tzitzit. “Do not go about”, but they did. They let themselves be influenced by the headlines their eyes saw, they were captivated by the nice voice of the populist tyrant who sweetens his words with nonsense that sounds good. Nonsense quickly absorbed and that stands in the way of good sense, of logic and of reality testing.

May all the Lord’s people be prophets! Prophets, but not a flock following the Siren’s song.

Parshat Terumah

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In parshat Terumah, the Torah presents us a difficult spiritual and intellectual challenge: the anthropomorphism related to God. This is neither the first nor the last time we find this difficulty in the text. We read of God’s “image and likeness”, He “appears” many times to our forefathers, the seventy elders saw like a pavement made of sapphire under God’s “feet”, and so on.

But at the beginning of parshat Terumah there is the commandment of building a sanctuary and He will dwell [“shokhen“, in Hebrew] among us. “They shall make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell [v’shakhanti] among them” (Exod. 25:8). It is as if He will live, He will be placed among the children of Israel like a human being dwelling with them.

This were not so difficult, we wouldn’t find in the Torah the negation of all anthropomorphism and embodiment of God. “You heard the sound of words but saw no shape… just a sound.” (Deut. 4:12), “you did not see any shape on the day God spoke to you in Horev from the fire” (idem, 15).

This negation of anthropomorphism continues in the words of King Solomon and of Isaiah. In his prayer at the dedication of the Temple he built, Solomon declares: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27). Isaiah asks in a sarcastic or surprised tone: “The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: which is the house that you build me? Which is the place of my rest?” (Isaiah 66:1).

Many Jewish interpreters and thinkers tried to explain the words “I will dwell among them” in ways that move away any thought of embodiment or anthropomorphism. Rabbi Moshe Alshich opens his exegesis to this verse stating: “Preserve my ears from hearing such a strange thing! How will the light of His presence dwell in this earth, in a sanctuary made by humans?” Rabbenu Bahaye and the Baal haTurim prefer to read the word “v’shakhanti” [I will dwell] in a different form. It does not speak of God, but of the Temple: “They shall build a sanctuary that will remain TI (410 in gematriyah), i.e. 410 years [v’shakhan – ti]”

Maimonides explains the verb “to dwell”, when related to God, as a metaphor: “It is known that the sense of this word is to remain in a place (…) and it is used figuratively regarding things that are not living creatures, but that are stable and remaining. (…) in this sense it is used figuratively regarding God, denoting the perseverance of His protection” (Guide for the Perplexed, Sec. I Ch. 25).

Why all this sophistication? If we are to understand from the Torah that God has no from, no image, no body parts, that He does neither dwell nor rest… why are there so many examples of anthropomorphism?

On the other hand, if God is depicted with human attributes (He has a hand, a finger, feet, He gets angry, He loves, He is jealous, He is merciful, He is seen and He speaks), why should we believe He is abstract?

The Torah not only speaks the language of humans, but also speaks in feelings, in doubts and in introspections of humans. God is abstract, but we cannot grasp Him like that. We need the translation into the concrete and the corporeal so as to understand Him in our minds and feelings.

However we must not fall in the temptation of transforming Him in a Human Being, in something physic, in a body. We must not get confused between our need to translate His essence into human categories and His real essence. The latter is beyond any human feeling and intellectual comprehension.

That is why the Torah expresses these two levels together: the abstract God together with the translation into a tangible state.

In this way, the Torah makes us face our spiritual tension produced by our will and our need to grasp God, to apprehend Him in a tangible way and His demand of us not to be tempted to believe that He is indeed physical. It is the tension between “I will dwell among them” and “which is the house that you build me”, because “you did not see a shape of any kind on the day God spoke to you”.