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.

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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.

Shining the Light Forward

The portion from Numbers this week shares with its companion in Zechariah an intense interest in the importance of the Menorah, the lamp stand in sacred space.

Why is the Bible concerned with the people’s appreciation of light and lamps in the Tabernacle? Why does the prophet focus so intensely on the candelabrum of the Second Temple, one that doesn’t yet exist? And why does any of all this matter to us?

Let’s take a look.

First, note the Hebrew word that initiates the discussion when God instructs Moses on how Aaron must approach and treat the lamps. The word, behaalotecha, has so many possible interpretations. It could mean Aaron is supposed to mount the lamps. Or it could mean he is to light them, or ascend them, or come to them, or even bring or offer. Or, it could carry all such meanings.

We talked last week about the significance of “rising up” to serve God and others. The Zohar, a Jewish mystical text, says that making ascent and making good are one and the same here. There appears to be something very important to God about the priests in sacred space (perhaps including the priest in us) coming forward, ascending, and mounting to light the lamps.

Why?

Let’s begin with the light itself and the lamps from which it shines. This light, as we have been taught so often, is a manifestation of the light of God, representative of God’s ways and expectations of us, particularly as to living true to loving-kindness and righteousness, mercy and justice.

As we learn in Genisis, God created light, even before the sun. This light, for people of faith is much more than physical light. We associate it with hope, truth, salvation, and the Divine Self of God. Indeed, it goes even further than that. In God’s image, we are called to be “a light to the nations,” first, by being guided by this light, and, then, through service and mission, by spreading goodness throughout the world.

Yet, the light doesn’t shine without our effort. We are to make the lamps, bring the oil, and light the Menorah – all, because the crucial enterprise of light requires a partnership between God and us, in mutual effort.

In a way, one could say we rise up, seeking, in all these acts, to become the light ourselves.

What does the prophet add to this understanding?

Zechariah recounts a tale of an angel asking him what he saw in a vision. He tells a beautiful account of the Menorah – one made of gold, with seven lamps, and tubes on top of it, near to two olive trees. Uncertain what to make of this, he asks the angel what it means. The angel, foreseeing the day when the Temple would be built, says God is teaching that it will happen, “not by might, not by power, but by My spirit.”

Doesn’t the light of the envisioned Menorah carry this message, too? The power in the light, as we have discussed, comes from the Spirit of God that is inherent to it.

I believe Zechariah would affirm that it is this light that causes us to “sing joyfully and be glad.” It is this light that manifests God’s intention to “dwell in our midst.” And it is this light that will lead us all to that day when “many nations shall join the Lord,” and they “shall be My people.”

With both Aaron and the prophet, we hold to this bold vision and commit ourselves to kindle the lamps in our own sacred space so that they “shine the light forward.”

Going Above and Beyond

This week’s portion from Numbers and its companion text in Judges share an interest in the unusual, ancient practice of Naziriteship. Since becoming a Nazarite is something we no longer do, we are inclined to see these strange words as off-putting and irrelevant.

That would be a mistake.

Let’s take a look at Naziriteship and then explore whether this arcane Biblical model has something new and important to teach us.

Essentially, in those days, one who wanted to make a Nazirite’s vow of living for the sake of God would set oneself apart and abstain from certain activities of normal life while undertaking the vow. He or she would refrain from consuming wine, cutting hair, and touching death. Once the vow was complete, the Nazarite would make an offering and experience a ritual of return to ordinary life.

The story in Judges concerns the announcement by an angel to the wife of Manoach that the son she would bear would be a Nazarite, whose God-blessed purpose in life would be to save Israel from domination by the Philistines. That son, as the tale reveals, would be Samson.

So, what are we to make of these notions and tales? Here are my thoughts.

I believe that we find certain opportunities in our lifetimes to remove ourselves from the normal realities that are ordinary, mundane, and self-oriented. In such periods, we can make and fulfill special vows by which we serve God and others.

In order to be focused and wholehearted in the work of these vows, we may find it necessary to refrain from many ordinary pleasures, such as those represented by the symbols here of intoxication and fixation on fashion (or, today, Facebook?). Such devotion would require we be fully oriented to life, and never diverted to death, especially in all the spiritual and psychological forms death can take.

Today, what such vows could we make? We might, for example, choose to engage in deep study and learning for a designated period of time, forswearing and abstaining from the ease and distraction of normal forms of gratification. We might devote ourselves to re-forming and re-orientating ourselves in fundamentally healthier physical and spiritual directions. We might develop and go on missions of service to our fellows, for the sake of God.

While it may not be our way to become monks, aloof and separate generally, we may very well seek greater holiness by a temporary separation and the dedication of ourselves during such time to the fulfillment of extraordinary commitments to God. These periods could become the “above and beyond” chapters of our lives.

It is not by accident that I use words of uplift to characterize the lessons we draw from Nazariteship. Take a look at the Hebrew.

Our Torah portion this week is called Naso. While its first words direct Moses to take a sum of the people, the word, naso, more deeply means to lift or to raise up. And “raising up” is the common theme of the whole portion. We encounter raising the heads of those that are counted, lifting up of the tabernacle, raising the status of the priests, and elevating the status of the tribal leaders to make special offerings.

The word nazir, itself, may derive from nezer, which means crown. As we read in one of these verses describing the Nazirite, “the crown of God is on his head.”

So, by all means, let’s look for those times in our lives when we can separate ourselves and be lifted up, in duty and loyalty, to serve in special ways. Even in modern times, perhaps we, like the Nazirites of old, will find ourselves crowned for the making and fulfilling of vows that help work God’s will in the world.