Often Unseen Are the Greatest Dangers

“No bird is caught in a net set out before his eyes.” Proverbs 1:17.

 

This first “proverb” in Proverbs appears in Lecture I where the father (or teacher) is warning his son (student) to avoid gangs, to avoid association with criminals or other bad people.

What does the proverb mean for the son, and for us?

There are several possibilities.

The principal lesson, I believe, is that the allure of associating with the wrong lot does not often practically carry with it loud warning bells of the dangers of being caught and getting in trouble. In other words, the mind of the tempted one is usually much more on the prospect of self-gain, the fun to be had, and the fruit of the enterprise than it is on an awareness of its negative consequences.

Even a bird knows better than to fly into a net. So, if we properly understand the risk and loss of going wrong, we wouldn’t “fly” there either. The father here is saying the net that awaits wrongdoers isn’t typically seen, so the warning initially must come from him and be internally seen and understood as a deterrent by the son.

Isn’t the same true for us? When we feel the urge to do wrong because we see mostly the benefit for ourselves in it, the Proverbs teach us to create and rely upon an in-built warning of a “net” to avoid it.

Sages throughout time have had other interpretations.

Some say the wisdom may be more about the bad guys. They’re more witless than birds. They don’t see the net that is before them, yet proceed anyway. The youth should be smart enough not to join such fools.

Another: the bad guys set out to catch up the innocent in their schemes, but have unwittingly set up a trap in which they all will be snared. Thus, the teacher warns the student against getting caught with them.

A Message of Thanks to You

I made a serious, yearlong vow a year ago.

God-willing, I committed to exploring each week the nexus between the Torah portion and its companion in the Prophets, the Haftarah, and writing a blog on what I found. My goal was threefold: to be true to the texts and traditions, to be fresh in my own analysis, and to deduce and suggest lessons that might help guide us in our own times to better ways of living.

So, 50 blogs ago, I began on this WordPress website with a commentary on the parasha, Matot-Massei, and its related text in Jeremiah. And, here we are this week, returning to that very place in the cycle.

It has been a labor of love, and a labor of challenge and hard effort. I am very grateful for the journey – for all I have learned, for the inspiration from God to see important truths I had not understood as profoundly before, and for the opportunity to share all this with others.

I am grateful, too, for the time and conversation with my wife, Camille Kress, whose brilliance and extraordinary editing added greatly to my own knowledge and the quality of my writing. Finally, I am grateful to the many friends and followers who have responded to these pieces both with warm encouragement and profound insights of their own.

This matter of what links the Torah and Haftarah texts has long interested me. My curiosity was kindled back in my youth when I heard wise rabbis exploring this territory in sermons. Later, I turned to research to learn more from great sages and rabbis throughout time. Now, after having begun to devote my own time largely to the study and teaching of Jewish sacred texts, I concluded it was my turn to try, and to do so thoroughly.

Each week I spent Thursdays pretty fully immersed in study and writing, and Friday mornings in sharing the essays through emails and social media.

I will always have special memories of my “Thursday work” this past year, perhaps especially when the work was done on trips to California, New York, and elsewhere. There never was an excuse to avoid the commitment, and the reward is memories of those trips that are now richer for my having done this work.

I feel another “study and write” vow coming on. But, though I have a few ideas about possible topics, I want to rest a bit and think more about it. After all, vows should be made carefully!

Praised are You, O Lord our God, who has blessed us with knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, and the work of sharing and growing in Your words and ways.

Each of Us Has a Special Voice

 

For this week’s Torah portion, a special reading from Prophets has been assigned. This is so because we are in a period of the year in which we reflect upon the loss of the First Temple, and there are verses from Jeremiah that are apt. But, there’s also a gem of a life lesson in the text. Let’s look for it.

We read at the outset that Jeremiah lived at a time when the people of Judah had strayed so badly they were in great peril. God commissioned the prophet to warn the people of the painful consequences of their behavior.

Told of his role, Jeremiah protested, “Alas, O Lord God! Behold, I know not to speak for I am a youth.” God responded by assuring him that “whatever I command you, you shall speak…for I am with you to save you.” Further, God reached out to the prophet, saying, “Behold, I have placed My words in your mouth.”

Of what experience in the Bible does this story powerfully resonate? I think of Moses’ reaction when he was first called to prophetic service. Don’t you?

Recall when God spoke from the burning bush, directing Moses to take God’s people out of Egypt.

Moses, too, protested. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh? …They will not believe me, and they will not heed my voice…I am not a man of words, …I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” God assured Moses, “So now, go! I will be with your mouth, and I will instruct you what you shall speak.”

What are we to make of these similar, stunning experiences?

I think they teach us what it means, and how important it is, to use our own voices and lives to serve God and others.

Our instinct, like that of the prophets, is that we are not up to the task. We are too young (or too old). We stutter in our speech, and are, in so many ways, unready and inadequate. “Please don’t ask me to do that. I can’t.”

Yet, the truth is: we can. With all their weaknesses and doubts, both Moses and Jeremiah served God and the people for 40 years, the rest of their adult lives. They were imperfect, but their service was dutiful, sustaining, and memorable. Here we are, centuries later, reading and learning from them.

Moses was the prophet of redemption, the one who led us to God’s Word and ways, and to the land of promise. Jeremiah was the prophet who taught us to turn back from waywardness, warning of exile from that land, if we failed to do so. Even with the imminence of devastation, he foresaw the hope and promise of ultimate return.

What are you called to do? What service can you give to God and community? What remarkable difference can you make in the world, especially if you overcome your own insecurities, and act?

A good part of the Torah portion relates to the taking of a census. It is long and detailed, as if to say all people (then and now) count. We are all needed for service. And we all have a stake in the Promised Land, the bountiful place that God has established for those who serve in covenant.

How poignant it is that the portion ends with a vision of the end of Moses’s service. What mainly does it portray? We see the next person stepping up – a person with his own doubts and uncertainties as well as his own special potential to make a splendid contribution. It is, of course, Joshua.

We are not expected to be Moses, Joshua or Jeremiah. But, in being our true selves, we, like they, are expected to hear the call, overcome our doubts, and serve. God has given each of us a special voice and guidance on how to use it. “So now, go!”

What Makes for Blessing

The great prophet, Micah, had Balaam’s words on his mind.

As we know and will soon discuss, Micah delivered one of the most profound messages of all time to us, and really to the whole world. What I didn’t realize, though, until this week’s study, was that in formulating that message, the prophet placed real importance on Balaam’s blessings of Israel. “My people,” he says, “remember what Balak king of Moab planned, and how Balaam son of Be’or answered him.”

What did Balaam, the diviner, say that mattered so much to Micah? And what does all this mean to us?

Recall in the book of Numbers that Balak wanted Balaam to curse Israel. Instead, pressed by God to do the opposite, Balaam blessed Israel.

In our reading of the text, we have a tendency to focus on the last part of the blessing, which is plenty beautiful: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.” We’ll look at this observation in a moment. But I want to be sure we pay attention to the earlier parts of the blessing that we often miss.

Balaam shows Balak a people who are numberless, upright, and separate. He shows a strong people who eschew divination and sorcery, and refrain from evil and perversity. He sees a people it pleases God to bless because the people bear the spirit of God upon itself.

And, yes, as a result of being this way, Israel (at least its ideal) is a community characterized by fair tents, with admirable order and modesty. It’s fruitful and bountiful, with access to all that nourishes, both physically and spiritually. Its people and its leaders follow in the ways of God, and its community is thus blessed.

Sadly, though, this picture of the ideal is capable of being distorted and muddied in the tugs and pulls of the world. We know from the end of this very portion that the people so glowingly described earlier would soon stray into the idolatrous ways of Moab.

Micah sees the same proclivity in his own day, in the form of the people’s deviating from their blessed ways to the practice of idolatry and terrible social injustice.

“The Eternal,” Micah warns, “has a case against our people, and will contend with Israel.”

Yet, Micah sees beyond the mess we sometimes make of things. He, too, sees what Balaam saw – the ideal – and, if realized, its potential gift to the world. This blessed way of life “shall be among the many nations like dewdrops from the Eternal, like showers on the grass…”

Micah then wonders: How do we get there? What must we do to make the ideal real? How do we stay on the right path and avoid straying down appealing, but destructive paths? How is our blessing sustained and merited?

Is it by sacrifices? Is it by religious zeal, or by ritual acts? No, Micah says.

God has taught us what is good. The Divine has shown us what creates the lovely ways of living that Balaam saw. God has given us the prescription for what nourishes us and brings harmony to our lives. From that teaching, Micah describes eloquently what makes for blessing.

It is “Only this – to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”

We Don’t Always Get a George Washington

Why in the world would the rabbis have chosen the odd story of Jephthah to accompany our super, action-packed portion from the Torah this week? Moses strikes the rock after being told by God to speak to it. Miriam dies. Aaron dies. There’s the mysterious discussion of the red heifer. Surely, there are passages in Prophets that would have been better companions to any of these fantastic strands of our narrative.

But, to the contrary, at least on the surface, the rabbis seem more interested in picking up on the story in which Moses conquers the Amorites and takes the land. A long time later, as we read in Judges, the Ammonites, who had much earlier been dispossessed of this land by the Amorites, made war on Israel to retrieve it.

(I know. I know. The battles in the Hebrew Bible can appear a turnoff. But, stay with me.)

When the Ammonites began to threaten Israel, the people turned to a fellow named Jephthah to lead them.

Get a load of Jephthah. He was the son of a prostitute and Gilead. Gilead’s wife’s sons harassed Jephthah, saying he would never inherit with them as a member of the family. So, he fled to the outskirts of town, joining up with outlaws to engage in a life of raiding.

As Ammon approached, the elders realized that Jephthah was likely the most powerful, effective person to direct them in battle. After making peace over the previous slights, they agreed that he would command the troops, and, if victorious, lead Gilead. As the story goes, Jephthah conducted a “diplomatic” exchange with Ammon, which failed, and then he, with God’s spirit, led the Israelites to victory.

What are we to take away from this?

First, let’s focus on the fact that in this week’s Torah text the people had lost much leadership. The great figures of Aaron and Miriam had died. Further, we begin just now to see the initial signs of weakness in Moses’ leadership, in his wayward decision to strike the rock for water instead of speaking to it.

The Jephthah tale teaches us fundamentally that when, as here, we’re bereft of ideal leaders there can appear imperfect people who lead quite successfully.

We know Jephthah’s flaws – the son of a prostitute, he was banished by his family and took up a life of banditry with boorish men. And, though we won’t discuss it here, he was also a man who made a foolish vow with tragic consequences. (Can you imagine the backlash from all the interested parties who couldn’t believe this bad dude was being elevated to the top?!)

He was, however, also a “mighty man of valor.” “The spirit of the Eternal settled on him.” He was capable of, and, in fact, showed incredibly strong and effective leadership at a crucial time for the people and the nation.

In the Talmud, the great Samuel mentions in the same breath as Moses, Aaron, and himself the names of Gideon, Samson, and Jephthah.

We don’t always get a George Washington. We won’t always get a Moses, a Miriam or an Aaron as leaders. As King Solomon said, “Do not say, ‘How was it that the former days were better than these.’”

I am not saying that we should seek or be satisfied with bad or ineffective leaders. What I am saying is that we should be open to the lesson: Whatever their flaws, leaders who can achieve Torah-true results and success for the community are worthy for doing so. And we ought to be more patient and supportive of them, at least until we know whether or not our often-imperfect leaders are actually helping fulfill the community’s most important goals.

The Korach Tale Speaks to Us, Too

We sometimes read the Bible as if it’s simply a collection of stories from long ago. There were some strange things that happened then and strange people who did them.

We tend to think we live in different times, more sophisticated times. And we sometimes think the problems of yesteryear are not relevant to us today.

I want to propose that God did not give us these eternal words in order that we come to that conclusion. The challenges for characters in the Bible are as much ours as they were theirs.

This week we read the troubling story of Korach in Numbers, along with special verses from Isaiah. Having experienced the many evils of the 20th century and the growing terror and division in our own times, we are hardly exempt from the exercise of tackling and understanding this text. Rather, it ought to be mandatory!

Korach was a quintessential demagogue. He came from an advantaged position and wanted yet a greater position with more power. He affiliated with the unstable and ambitious to overthrow Moses and other God-designated, God-serving leaders. He used crowd-pleasing words of the people’s mission as his own rallying cry, cynically bringing them to his side. And he attacked the leadership of the community when it was at its most vulnerable and his chance of taking it down was the strongest.

Have we not seen this story throughout history? Do we not see elements of it in our own lives today – whether through actual demagogues in the world or contentious and destructive behavior in certain would-be or actual leaders in our own communities and nation?

As the Bible teaches, the actions of Korach and his followers are thoroughly despicable to God. Korach is fundamentally out for personal gain and glory, not what’s in the best interest of heaven or the community. Especially when times are hard for people, we should never tolerate the self-seeking and ambitious pretender who preys upon our weakness to get power.

The Jewish mystical work, the Zohar, teaches that such a person who makes the right left and the left right lays waste the world. With God’s help, it is our duty to separate ourselves from Korach in whatever form we find him, oppose him, and defeat him.

How timely, then, is this week’s Isaiah text that comes our way. The prophet stresses what God cares about greatly in the world. “It is to this that I look: the poor and the broken-spirited person who is zealous regarding My word.” It is their “gladness” that the Divine promotes, principally through protecting them from others, who for the sake of self-glorification, hate them and seek to cast them out. In other words, the God who stands for the innocent and the good against the oppressor is the same God who stands with Moses against Korach.

Having studied this lesson, we might be tempted zealously to implement its lessons quickly and cheaply by labeling our own political opponents as today’s Korach. Of course, that’s just another form of demagoguery, in which we, too, act mainly “for the sake of our own name.” Let’s eschew that temptation.

We should resist the call of emotions that push us to take the easy and selfish path and follow those who would lead us astray. Rather, the text challenges us to probe deeply into the mission God has given us, pursue it, and support those who are truly leading us to its fulfillment.

If we understand this guidance and follow it, we can show that we understand that the Korach tale was written for us, too!

Growing in Strength and Courage

Our portion from Numbers tells the sad tale of spies who go into Canaan to scout the land. We know how it ends. Except for Caleb and Joshua, the spies give a faithless, hopeless report, to which the frightened community succumbs. In response, God decrees that the people will spend forty years in the wilderness and the older generation will die there.

This is a painful account to be sure, and we read it with both a sense of anguish and also a hope somehow that something positive will come of it in future generations.

The extraordinarily beautiful gift in this week’s companion piece from Joshua is that it takes us to the future to see a very positive outcome. It tells a different spy story, one in which the people have clearly grown and become stronger.

Let’s take a look.

Recall that Moses sends the spies, as many sages say, without clear necessity or conviction. He sends one from each tribe, but with no apparent awareness of their strength or capacity to handle the assignment with fidelity and fortitude. Further, he gives them fuzzy directions.

Moses asks them to see if the land is good or bad. To what end? God has promised it is good. What strategic difference could result from this question?

He asks them to take fruit from the land. Why? God has promised it is good. Additionally, it appears that their seeing the rich fruit, which the current inhabitants will surely fight to keep, seems to frighten them as much as it inspires them.

Moses asks the spies to determine whether the inhabitants are strong or weak. This indeed might be crucial to know, but it is so only if it informs the strategy they will use to conquer the land.

The spies explore the land, but only as onlookers, really without plan or purpose. And they achieve little in their exploration, except to become frightened and then come back to frighten the people.

Finally, and crucially, they, except Caleb and Joshua, show no faith in God’s promise to deliver the land.

We know that Moses, our great teacher, leads and grows in amazing ways in his lifetime, and we treasure his leadership. But the denouement to our tale this week comes in how his successor, Joshua, later uses spies in advance of entering the land.

What’s different in the second story?

First, Joshua sends just two spies. And, according to the sages, it’s the tough and resolute Caleb and Pinchas.

The mission of these spies relates strategically and primarily to Jericho, the main target of Joshua’s campaign to win the land. The spies go to the house of the innkeeper, Rahab, with a purposeful plan in that regard.

Whether they knew beforehand that Rahab would help them or successfully rallied her help upon arrival, we don’t know. But, whichever it was, she proved invaluable to their success. She hid them and gave them vital intelligence that the inhabitants of the land were fearful of the Israelites, aware both of God’s miracles on their behalf and their early military victories.

Effective spies also take the step of protecting those who support them. The spies do just that for Rahab and her family.

The spies come back to Joshua with an incredibly valuable report, along with the confidence that they, with God’s help, can win the land. We know when Jericho is taken how important intelligence, strategy, and faith are to the victory.

I can’t help but think of the many ways in which the modern State of Israel has modeled its operations on the spirit of this story. Successful missions – whether by a state or a person – tend to involve living true to its lessons. As with Joshua and his spies, and Israel, all of us can have success by growing in strength and courage.