June 2011

A creeping dynamic has been at play since the outset of the Book of Numbers, one which comes to the fore in the Torah portion of Korach (Num. 16-18): the question of authority, fame, and service. In order to fully appreciate the story, we first need to recount some essential elements of Numbers that we may not have fully apprehended as we read them.

We recall that at the outset of the Book of Numbers, God instructs Moses to appoint heads of the tribes to assist in the counting: “With you [and Aaron] will be one man for each tribe, each man the head of his ancestral house” (Num. 1:4). The Torah goes on to list the names of each of the men: “For the tribe of Reuben, Elitzur ben Shedeiur. For the tribe of Simeon, Shelumiel ben Tzurishaddai.” And so on.

We find these characters again when they each bring gifts for the Tabernacle (ch. 7): “This was the offering of Nachshon ben Amminadav,” “This was the offering of Netanel ben Tzuar,” and so on. And they are listed again when the people grandly move from Mount Sinai on the way to the land of Canaan in ch. 10: “So they moved out for the first time according to the commandment of the LORD through Moses. The standard of the camp of the sons of Judah, according to their armies, set out first, with Nahshon the son of Amminadab, over its army, and Nethanel the son of Zuar, over the tribal army of the sons of Issachar; and Eliab the son of Helon over the tribal army of the sons of Zebulun.” And so on through all the tribes.

“These are they who were called of the congregation, the leaders of their fathers’ tribes; they were the heads of divisions of Israel” (Num. 1:16). The repeated reference to these leaders has thus far been peaceful: they seem to be not only supportive, but even woven into the fabric of Moses and Aaron’s leadership of the people. Notably, these leaders are not the spies of last week. But this week, when Korach mounts his rebellion, we find that the midrash links the tribal princes with the rebels:

“Although the names of the princes who sided with Korah and joined him in his dispute were not explicitly mentioned, they were nevertheless made known by a veiled reference: They were princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, anshei shem, men of renown (Num. 16:2) and this recalls the text, These were the elect of the congregation, the princes of the tribes of their fathers (Num. 1:16). They were the ’men of renown’ whose names were mentioned in connection with the standards; as you read,  These are the names of the men that shall stand with you, etc. (Num. 1:5)” (Bamidbar Rabba 13:5; cf. 18:3).

We recall that Numbers opened with the instruction to Moses to count all the Israelites according to their ancestral homes, using “the number of their names” (Num. 1:2). I have written about this phrase elsewhere, and the significance of the Torah’s use of names rather than simply numbers, which seems to indicate that while the Israelites are to transform into a corporate entity capable of conquering the land of Israel, they are to do so in a way that still honors the individual integrity of each of the members of the nation. The use of the term “anshe shem,” men of renown, or men of names (Num. 16:2), to describe Korach’s rebels, brings the fore another aspect of the tension that underlies Bamidbar (Numbers) as a whole: the human desire to make a name for oneself on the one hand, with the need for selfless duty and service on the other. The leaders of the tribes have been listed at key moments in the story, thus far in keeping with the aspect of Bamidbar that emphasizes the unity of God’s word and the actions of the Israelites. But now we see the reverse side–which perhaps inevitably coexists with the positive aspects–which manifests in self-aggrandizement and the attempted destruction of those with even greater names, in this case Moses and Aaron.

The Midrash signals to us that this dynamic is universal. We recall a mysterious verse from early in the Book of Genesis: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days–and also afterward–when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown” (Gen. 6:4). Here the “men of renown” are anshe ha-shem, very similar to our anshe shem in Korach. “Rabbi Acha said in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: Divisiveness (machloket) is as challenging as the generation of the flood: just as the reference to anshe hashem in Genesis signals divisiveness, so too the reference to anshe shem in Numbers signals divisiveness” (Bereshit Rabba 26:7). Likewise this issue will present itself in the story of the Tower of Babel, where the people are determined to “make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4).

In all these cases, it seems, we are dealing with a basic challenge of building society. We crave the recognition that comes from hearing others call our name. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” as Hillel famously put it. But at the same time, “When I am for myself, what am I?” How can we build communities and societies in which we can each fulfill the uniqueness of our potential, while doing so with humility and a spirit of service? This is no simple task, as the Torah shows us. It was a challenge for the Israelites in the desert, as it is for us today, and as it will likely be as long as people have names.

Shabbat shalom.

It was both heartening and disappointing to read Jeffrey Goldberg’s post on Friday about William Kolbrener’s book Open Minded Torah. Heartening: Kolbrener is clearly my kind of thinker, weaving together Torah and the whole of life, thought, literature, and experience. It’s great to see Goldberg, whose blog I regularly enjoy, inspired by this kind of Torah–a Torah which I like to think of myself as a contributor to.

But it was also disappointing. Why should the idea of a Milton scholar who is literate and erudite in Western culture and in dialogue with Torah be a foreign concept? (It’s not, btw: Jeffrey, allow me to introduce you to people like Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Aviva Zornberg, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, or Marc-Alain Ouaknin.) It is disappointing that the idea of open-minded Torah, and in particular open-minded Orthodoxy, seems like such an oxymoron to Goldberg. Of course I partially hold Orthodoxy itself accountable for this–as did Rav Aharon in a famous 1982 essay in Tradition, where he lamented the lack of Modern Orthodox achievements in culture (as opposed to science, where there had been and continue to be many). Figures like these are still rare, and appear as exotic exceptions rather than expected developments.

But I also hold Goldberg accountable. One needs to ask, as he did of another writer the other day (in a way I approved of): Where is Goldberg’s curiosity? How did he meet Kolbrener without coming across the others I’ve mentioned above? (Sacks and Zornberg in particular would seem to me unavoidable for someone like him.) There were moments in his exchange with Kolbrener where Goldberg sounded rather small-mindedly anti-Orthodox: “Why does it seem as if so many Orthodox Jews break the law, particularly when it comes to financial crimes, when compared to non-Orthodox Jews?” Goldberg regularly does much better than this in his writing about Israel (which is why I like him so much)–so it was disappointing to see him make this unsophisticated remark.

Jeffrey–there are a bunch of us in the Orthodox world learning, writing, and teaching the kind of Open-Minded Torah you’ve discovered. (Many of us find our Ortho cred regularly challenged, by the way.) So welcome. I’m glad we’re offering something that speaks to you and others hungry for a Torah of intellectual honesty, depth, sophistication, and relevance. Learn with us and contribute to this teaching.

I was honored yesterday to give the invocation at the Northwestern baccalaureate service, held in advance of Commencement. In my invocation, I talked about the important image in Jewish thought of God as teacher: melamed Torah l’amo Yisrael, Who teaches Torah to God’s people Israel. I talked about the exquisite divine mystery inherent in a moment of teaching and learning, a moment as profound as that of creation. And I exhorted the graduates to emulate God, not only in God’s attributes of mercy and kindness, but to be like God the teacher–to recognize that we are all teachers.

In the Torah portion of Shelach (Num. 13-15), we witness one of the profound moments when God is not so much the teacher, as the learner. Moses is the one who instructs God, and in so doing he teaches us–and God Himself.

You will recall that after the spies bring back their report of the land of Israel and the people lose faith in their ability to conquer the land, God declares to Moses: “How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs I have performed among them? I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them, but I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they” (Num. 14:11-12). Moses’s response is instructive–to God and to us. He says:

“Then the Egyptians will hear about it! By your power you brought these people up from among them. And they will tell the inhabitants of this land about it. They have already heard that you, LORD, are with these people and that you, LORD, have been seen face to face, that your cloud stays over them, and that you go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. If you put all these people to death, leaving none alive, the nations who have heard this report about you will say, ‘The LORD was not able to bring these people into the land he promised them on oath, so he slaughtered them in the wilderness.’

 “Now may the Lord’s strength be displayed, just as you have declared: ‘The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.’ In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now” (Num. 14:13-19).

It is worth looking closely at this response. Moses does not immediately appeal to God’s mercy, or to the contradiction between God’s espoused attributes of forgiveness and His anger at the Israelites in this moment. No–he first puts the situation within a political context: What will the Egyptians think? What will the Canaanites think? It would be a shonda for the goyim!

What is Moses doing here? Rashi interprets him to mean that the Egyptians would conclude that in fact they had not sinned in their treatment of the Israelites, and thus the message of God’s actions in the Exodus would be lost. Ramban understands Moses to mean something slightly different: the Egyptians would think that the Canaanite gods were stronger than their own, and would thus exchange one idolatry for another. In either case, however, the fundamental message is the same: God’s goal in the Exodus had been to make Egypt, and by extension the world, recognize that God was the unique and absolute power in the universe. If God didn’t make good on delivering the Israelites into the promised land, then all God’s actions would not only be for naught, but God’s goal would be set back.

It is only after he has made this political point that Moses goes for the moral argument: God, in our most intimate moment, when You revealed Your glory to me, You told me that your essence is compassion and forgiveness. You’re contradicting Yourself–in fact, You’re not being Yourself. So be Yourself, don’t give in to the temptation of anger, and forgive these people.

And amazingly–or perhaps not so amazingly after all–God agrees: “The LORD replied, “I have forgiven them, as you asked” (Num. 14:20).

This is a radical moment–Moses teaches God. And Moses does it with the patience and courage of a teacher: he lets the issue ripen. He recognizes that God is angry at Israel, and so he doesn’t immediately seek forgiveness for Israel. Rather, he first helps God to realize the mistake God would be making; and then he reminds God to be Godself, and to turn back to Israel in forgiveness.

The first time I met Parker Palmer, he asked me to think of a moment with a student that had been a particularly effective one in my teaching. And then he asked me a question I had never thought to ask. Where most people would ask, “What did you do as a teacher to make that moment?” Parker instead asked me, “What was it about that student that enabled your teaching to work?”

Parker’s question is a reminder to us that this story is not only about Moses as an exemplary teacher. It is also about God as a learner. Hillel the Elder said, “The embarrassed cannot learn, and the haughty cannot teach” (Avot 2:5). We know that teaching requires courage. But Hillel reminds us, as does God, that learning does as well. To truly learn, especially in profound moments, one must courageously admit that one is incomplete, that one can change and grow. In the interaction between Moses and God in the Torah portion of Shelach, it is none other than God who humbly teaches us the essence of learning.

Shabbat shalom.


Baccalaureate Service Invocation
Northwestern University
June 16, 2011

Rabbi Josh Feigelson

One of the first blessings a Jew says in the morning is a blessing of Hashem, God, Melamed Torah l’amo Yisrael, who teaches Torah to God’s people Israel.

As human beings we imagine many metaphors for Hashem: Creator, monarch, savior, artist, warrior, and even shalom, peace itself.

But the image of God as teacher is one we especially cherish in the Jewish tradition. God is an educator, and thus the work of education is holy. A moment of teaching and learning is a moment of mystery and inspiration, as awe-inspiring as the birth of a child or the blossoming of a flower. God, Who constantly renews the work of Creation, is the same God who taught us at Sinai, and every day teaches us anew.

So on this day of culmination and conclusion, which is in the same breath a day of beginning and becoming, we pray for the ability to recognize that we are all learners and we are all teachers, and that the work of learning and teaching is the work of creation, the work of redemption, the work of life.

We pray for the enlightenment to see that we always have something to learn, and we always have something to teach, if only we will open our ears and unfetter our hearts.

The Torah teaches us to walk in God’s ways: As God is gracious, so too must we be gracious; as God is merciful, so too must we be merciful. To this we can add: As God is a teacher, so too must we be teachers; As God is an educator, so too must we be educators. As God has the patience of a teacher, the openness of a teacher, the integrity of a teacher, so too may we be blessed with patience, openness, and integrity—to learn, to teach, and to act upon our teaching.

Today we give thanks for years of learning, and we pray for guidance and inspiration for a lifetime of teaching and learning ahead. May we be blessed with the curiosity to ask big questions, the discernment to find wise teachers, and the courage to learn and to teach. May God be with us. Amen.

Among other things, late spring is the season for two important kinds of events: graduations and weddings. On the Jewish calendar, the days following Lag b’Omer (the 33rd day of the period between Passover and Shavuot) are a time for weddings, as up until then weddings are prohibited during the Omer period. This coincides nicely with the secular calendar which, due to the lovely weather (at least theoretically) makes the months of May and June ideal times to wed. And these seasons, of course, also mark graduation ceremonies at high schools and universities, a reminder that education is still, however tenuously, linked with the agricultural realities of the living planet (the academic calendar was originally set up to enable students to go home and work on the farm over the summer).

Two graduation speeches were revised and published as op-eds in the New York Times this week. On Sunday, Jonathan Franzen eloquently wrote of the ways in which our cultural fascination with technology may be eroding our capacity for the messiness of love. Our iphones and Blackberries do what we want, when we want it, without talking back–and they powerfully create a world for us. But when the question of real relationship is thrust upon us, “suddenly there’s a real choice to be made, not a fake consumer choice between a BlackBerry and an iPhone, but a question: Do I love this person? And, for the other person, does this person love me?”

On Tuesday David Brooks published part of the commencement speech he gave at Brandeis, which he entitled “It’s Not About You.” “College grads are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities,” Brooks wrote. “But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to. The successful young adult is beginning to make sacred commitments — to a spouse, a community and calling — yet mostly hears about freedom and autonomy.

“Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life,” Brooks summed up. “They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.”

The link between our relationships, commitments, identities and the larger health of society is one of the animating dimensions of Parshat Naso (Numbers 4:21 – 7:89). As the children of Israel focus on communal preparations, the Torah pauses to elaborate the laws of two cases that seem, on the surface, to be about private concerns: the Nazir and the Sotah. The Nazir withdraws from society for a defined period of time by abstaining from wine, letting his hair grow, and avoiding any contact with the dead. The effort is, in its noblest understanding, directed towards holiness–the Nazir makes himself into something like a priest. But, like the priest, the price of that attempt is separation from society.

The Sotah case is born of the distrust of a husband for his wife. If the husband suspects his wife has been unfaithful, he can bring her up for interrogation by means of the mysterious Sotah waters, which will determine whether or not she has cheated. In the Talmud, Rabbi Judah the Prince observes that these two sections are juxtaposed in the Torah to teach that one who sees the Sotah ritual should, or would, want to abstain from wine and become a Nazir: the experience is one of sadness and mourning, which leads us to want to withdraw from society. Our faith in people is challenged.

The Talmud is, I believe, on to something similar to the points of Franzen and Brooks. Our ability to live in relationship, with all the trust and tolerance for ambiguity it requires, is the basic building block of our larger communities and societies. This finds expression in the culmination of Parshat Naso, the parade of princes who bring their gifts to inaugurate the Tabernacle: a moment of communal contribution and celebration (something like a university commencement, perhaps). The health of a society begins and ends in the health of its individual members and the micro-communities that constitute it, and the health of those communities is rooted in and reinforces the health of the individuals within them.

Shabbat shalom.