Thursday, June 28, 2012

Bird's Eye View

It's been an exciting news day, given all of the hoopla around the much anticipated Supreme Court decision released this morning.  However, Shabbat is still approaching and I thought it would be worthwhile to publish some thoughts and musings on the weekly parsha (Torah selection).  The following is an essay I submitted to the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF) for their weekly d'var Torah; it was motivated in part by my honest concern about the overall direction of the public view of rabbinic leadership, and in part by some of the following questions: 

1) Why was the punishment of Moshe and Aharon seemingly so severe?
2) Why were both Moshe and Aharon punished when Moshe seems to be the only culpable party?
3) Why was Moshe specifically instructed to take his staff to the rock if he was only intended to speak to the rock but not to hit it?

And now, the text:

One of the central events in the entire Torah, the punishment of Moshe and Aharon, occurs in this week’s reading.  Moshe is commanded to take his staff, and Moshe and Aharon are commanded, “speak to the rock,” (Numbers 20:8) in an effort to bring forth water and provide faith to an increasingly impatient and unsatisfied people.  As we all know, things didn’t go as planned, and Moshe and Aharon are condemned to an early death before reaching the Promised Land.
There are many different explanations of this seemingly harsh punishment provided in the rishonim and later commentaries.  Rashi explains that the Moshe’s sin and the resulting punishment are the result of his striking the rock; God’s command was to speak to the rock, and “striking” was mentioned on this occasion.  Others explain that the primary error was Moshe’s statement, “[h]ear now you rebels, shall we fetch you water out of this rock?”  The use of the word “we” implied that Moshe and Aharon were performing the miracle of their own volition, robbing God of the credit he was owed.  Other alternative explanations abound.
In his excellent series Amittah shel Torah, Rabbi Yitzhak Twersky convincingly argues that there were many related elements to the sin.  A better understanding of the whole picture puts the sin and resulting punishment in the proper perspective.  The people of Israel had consistently made the mistake of denying the divinity of their mission, instead assuming that Moshe and Aharon were at the lead.  During the incident of the golden calf, the people referred to Moshe as “the man” who had brought them out of Egypt.  In fact, it was this initial characterization which necessitated a replacement for Moshe upon his supposed loss on the mountaintop in the first place.  Afterwards, it was Korach and his companions who questioned Moshe’s inability to lead the people to the land of Canaan.  “Is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, and dost thou also make thyself a prince over us?  Moreover, thou hast not brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of the fields and vineyards: wilt thou put out the eyes of these men?  We will not come up” (Numbers 16: 13-14).  Here, Korach is criticizing Moshe for his failures, willfully ignorant of the fact that it is indeed God’s mission, with Moshe merely acting as messenger.
                In this week’s reading, the trend continues.  Explicitly identifying themselves as sympathizers with Korach’s complaint, the people proclaim, “[w]ould that we had died when our brethren died before the Lord!  And why have you brought up the congregation of the Lord into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there?  And why have you made us come up out of Mitzrayim, to bring us into this evil place?  It is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates, nor is there any water to drink” (Numbers 20: 3-5).  The people express their regret at not having joined Korach’s rebellion, and then echo his complaints almost verbatim. 
It is in this context that a teachable moment presented itself.  Miriam had just passed away, and God wanted to reinforce the message that no mortal had taken the people out of Egypt, tasking them with a special historical mission and a land all their own.  The death of one of the members of the family of Moshe and Aharon was the perfect time to reinforce the notion of the mortality of the leadership and the pre-eminence of God in history.  This was especially necessary given the fevered pitch of the community’s complaints.  Therefore, God commanded Moshe to speak to the rock, as the miracle would be more obviously from God, and clearly not the product of Moshe’s own action.  It is in this context that Moshe’s use of the term “we,” combined with the more natural “striking” of the rock completely undermined God’s plan and served to reinforce the people’s erroneous beliefs.  Moshe’s staff was to be used as an agent of instruction, pointing to God as the author of miracles; instead, it suggested the opposite. 
                With this understanding, the “harsh punishment” meted out to Moshe and Aharon no longer seems as arbitrary, but rather a cogent response to the situation that was.  To enter the land of Israel, the people would need to clearly understand that it was God who had sent them on a divine mission, and that the observance of his commandments and fulfillment of his ideals was their raison d’être.  Having Moshe and Aharon die without entering the land was now necessary as the ultimate reinforcement of this point.  This would be the only way to demonstrate to the people that Moshe and Aharon had not decided individually to leave Egypt and enter Canaan, and that they possessed no special supernatural powers.  God was the driving force behind it all. 
                In our current religious climate, there is a fundamentally disturbing trend that is growing by the day.  Reverence for leadership has grown into something dangerous, and what started out as an upright respect for those who chose piety and study has become perverted at the core.  In the modern day, the trend to idolize Rabbis to an excessive degree has grown, and has even contaminated more moderate streams of Orthodox observance that would seem naturally averse to such pressures.  People regularly engage in conversations focused entirely on the merits of individual leaders, and leaders themselves often focus on their own “kavod” in ways that seem self-serving and disingenuous.  As religious leaders in positions of power, it is incumbent upon us to take to heart the central lesson of this week’s reading.  Our job is to point to God and explain why honor is His.  Idolizing a particular individual necessarily detracts from the honor due to God; the time is long past to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction.  To the extent that respect for the teachers of God’s law detracts from our focus on the divine, then respect has gone too far and its purpose entirely uprooted.  May we continue to advance a style of leadership that doesn’t disproportionately focus on the honor due ourselves, and remember that our primary mission is not to promote our own leadership but to promote the leadership of our Father in heaven.     

Monday, June 18, 2012

Lessons of Leadership

When reviewing this past week's Torah reading, I was tortured by a horribly unpleasant thought.  The reading begins with God commissioning a scouting mission, whereby selected leaders from the the twelve tribes of Israel would go to scout out the land.  The Malbim, a precise and exacting later commentary, notes that one person was sent from each tribe because each tribe was being apportioned a separate piece of land; the scouting mission was something of an ancient pilot trip.  Each tribe's representative could report back about the economic and other advantages of the specific parcel of land allotted to that tribe.  It goes without saying that these scouts weren't supposed to question the ultimate mission, but either to plan for the upcoming arrival more properly, or else to assuage any fears that might exist among the public.

Fast forward, and the rest is history.  Despite direct promises from God that He (the same God who had taken these same leaders out of Egypt with just a few miraculous episodes would lead them into the promised land, and that this was their ultimate destiny, they revolted and tried to sabotage the entire mission. "We can't do it," they exclaimed.  "We're not strong enough, and defeat is all but certain," or so the complaint may have sounded.  But who were these "scouts" who ignored the simple and obvious plan of God?  Surely, they weren't the major leaders of the generation; a majority of a generation's righteous leaders would never commit such an error.

The Torah informs us otherwise.  "[T]hey were all men of stature, leaders of the children of Israel" (Numbers 13:3).  Somehow, ten of the twelve leaders of the people, reputed by our tradition to be wise, spiritually unique tribal heads erred by ignoring the simple and obvious charge of the divine call.  The people listened, and disastrous consequences ensued.

I can't help but painfully admit that we're in a shockingly similar situation in the modern day.  Many of our "leaders" remind us of the Jewish law principle that decisions go after majority rule.  This is emphasized by the Torah's command (אחרי רבים להטות), and the famous story of the "Tanur Shel Achnai."  Still, it now seems like a huge number of these same "leaders," I fear encroaching on a majority, have accepted norms directly opposed to God's given command.

Modern day self-proclaimed leaders now promote niche interests focused to an extreme and grossly distorted version of Jewish law.  Nowhere is this more true than in areas of child abuse.  I'll state in unequivocally; we have a major problem with abuse in our community.  Now, normative Jewish law demands that we turn in the abusers to protect the public, and because the laws of the United States are fair and just (for those halachists out there, no prohibition of Mesira applies in these cases).  Further, Jewish law demands that we protect innocent children and shield them from this kind of harm.

 Still, righteous leaders (many many big names included) of Agudath Israel proclaim, most recently in Misphacha magazine, that complaints must first be heard by Rabbis, untrained in these areas, who will determine if the complaints are credible.  This seems like a clear violation of mandatory reporting provisions in civil law.  This seems like a difficult reading of the halacha.  All of this combined with a culture that opposes stronger laws in these areas and a street culture that actively harasses victims and their supporters while holding rallies for and financially supporting criminals.  This is just one of many areas where the leadership, to follow the metaphor, is leading us to spiritual death in the wilderness and far away from the Holy land.  I'll say it as clearly as I can; we have a major problem with leaders totally and absolutely unfit to rule in our communities.  On this issue, leaders should be seen supporting the victims and leading the charge against abuse.  Instead, we are dragged kicking and screaming into the modern era. 

The Jewish people are supposed to be a light unto the nations.  For thousands of years, our religion has served as a shining example of morality, diligence, family values, commitment to community, education, social justice, and support for those who need it most.  We brought humanity monotheism and the Ten Commandments, and have left an indelible impression on the moral makeup of our society.  How sad that we no longer continue to lead, instead ignoring God's commands in favor of our own bizarre partisan protectionism (not just on the abuse issue, I just chose it as the most egregious), and the world repays us by teaching us about the very justice we once introduced.  Let's stand up and reclaim the mantle of Judaism from those who would assert they represent the tradition, when in fact, we must reluctantly but forcefully admit they are leading us far far away from the promised land.