I started by noting that the holiday of Independence Day reminds us of the values of freedom and justice, values that are so very central to Judaism, which is why we have found such a good home here in the United States, and why our founding fathers looked to the tradition of ancient Israel for inspiration when they were creating our republic.
I then read a poem written by the American poet Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) during the dark days of the Second World War, entitled To Be A Jew In The Twentieth Century.
To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.
Accepting, take full life. Full agonies:
Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood
Of those who resist, fail, and resist: and God
Reduced to a hostage among hostages.
The gift is torment. Not alone the still
Torture, isolation; or torture of the flesh.
That may come also. But the accepting wish,
The whole and fertile spirit as guarantee
For every human freedom, suffering to be free,
Daring to live for the impossible.
This sonnet emphasizes the fact that we must choose to be Jewish, we have to choose to live as Jews, in effect to choose to be chosen, choosing to sacrifice safety and security, choosing to live for freedom.
The service then proceeded as usual, until we got to the part where we either have a Torah reading or sermon. I explained that that week's Torah portion was Parsha Chukat-Balak, which is Numbers 19:1-25:9, a double parsha that contains an extraordinary number of elements. Throughout it all, we can see the first great struggle of a people to emerge out of a tribal mentality dominated by myth and ritual, an oral culture, and into a literate and rational mindset and culture.
The parsha begins with the laws of the Red Heifer, a ritual purification for anyone who has touched "the corpse of a human soul" and thereby become unclean. The ritual is prerational, but the laws are an attempt to make it rational, and it reflects a predominant cultural concern with health and hygiene.
Next, there is the death of Miriam, sister of Moses, and source of water for the Israelites wandering in the desert.As we seem to do over and over again , we start complaining. The Torah makes it clear that we are fallible and prone to many failings, and we're always grumbling and stumbling and straying from God. So we bitch and moan, and Moses and his brother Aaron go off and pray to God. God tells Moses: "Take the staff and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and speak to the rock in their presence so that it will give forth its water. You shall bring forth water for them from the rock and give the congregation and their livestock to drink."
Instead, Moses himself is disobedient, and strikes the rock with his staff, and God tells him for that reason he will not enter the Promised Land. No doubt, Moses was hot, and tired, and irritatable; he didn't feel like talking to a rock, and lost his temper. And maybe God comes across at harsh here, if not petty, but the important point is that Moses, while the greatest prophet of all in our tradition, was only human, and capable of screwing up, just like everyone else.
Next, Moses asks the King of Edom to give us safe passage as we travel towards the Promised Land, and but he refuses, so we have to take a detour. Aaron dies at this point, so the priesthood is passed on to his offspring, and Moses is left to carry on alone. Then, we are attacked by the Amalekites, but emerge victorious in the battle because God saves us.
Then we complain some more, this time about the manna. We're sick of the manna, all the time manna, manna, manna. We're tired of it (can't God send us some pizza? or Chinese food?). So God gets angry, and sends serpents into our midst, and many die from their poisonous bite. God then tells Moses to make a copper serpent, put it on a pole, and all who were poisoned and look upon it will be cured. Again, mythical thinking, sure , but eoes this sound familiar? Yes, it's the origin of the symbol of the medical profession, commonly referred to as the Rod of Asclepius, and associated with ancient Greece:
You may have been thinking of the Caduceus, a symbol of Hermes that displays two snakes:
But the Caduceus is not the traditional symbol of medicine, the Rod of Asclepius is. And as for the parsha, once again, we see this strong emphasis on health in our culture.
As our journey continues, we are ambushed by the Emorites attacking from the cliffs above us , but God performs a miracle, moving the mountains to crush them and save us. Again, it's a brutal scenario, but that's typical of the ancient world. As Walter Ong put it, oral cultures are agonistically toned.
Next, we ask the king of the Emorites for safe passage, he refuses and attacks, God grants us victory and we occupy their land. The king of Bashan then attacks us, we win, and occupy their land as well. This is a pattern or formula that echoes the great tale of Egyptian bondage and freedom, and echoes into current events as well.
The next part of the parsha is my favorite, and involves elements of oral legend in a comic mode, as God makes a donkey talk. It begins with Balak, the King of Moab, worrying that he'll be next on the Israelite hit parade. So he sends messengers to the Land of Midian, to speak with Balaam, who is a prophet of God, and a sorcerer as well, and not Jewish.
This is a very important point, in my opinion. You do not have to be Jewish, or an Israelite, or Hebrew, or whatever, to worship God. That goes back to the story of Noah, where a basic religion for all the peoples of the world is presented. There are priests, shaman, and prophets who are not part of our people. Our outlook has always been that each people forges its own relationship with God. It has to be done as a community, the individual is not enough, the group must take responsibility for itself and its conduct. And every community, every people, has to make its own deal with God. The Jews were chosen, and chose to accept a special covenant, special responsibilities, and special hardships. But there are as many relationships with God, pathways to God, as there are communities. This, I would add, is part of the oral aspect of Judaism, as opposed to extreme literacy that brings with it the ideology of individualism.
So, anyway, King Balak's messengers ask Balaam to come and to put a curse on us. But God appears to Balaam and tells him not to go, saying, "You shall not curse the people because they are blessed!" So he refuses, but King Balak sends more prestigious messengers, offering to reward Balaam with great riches, and this time God tells Balaam he can go, but he must only speak the words that God tells him to.
What follows is taken directly from Numbers 22:
21. In the morning Balaam arose, saddled his she-donkey and went with the Moabite dignitaries.
22. God's wrath flared because he was going, and an angel of the Lord stationed himself on the road to thwart him, and he was riding on his she-donkey, and his two servants were with him.
23. The she-donkey saw the angel of the Lord stationed on the road with his sword drawn in his hand; so the she-donkey turned aside from the road and went into a field. Balaam beat the she-donkey to get it back onto the road.
24. The angel of the Lord stood in a path of the vineyards, with a fence on this side and a fence on that side.
25. The she-donkey saw the angel of the Lord, and she was pressed against the wall. She pressed Balaam's leg against the wall, and he beat her again.
26. The angel of the Lord continued going ahead, and he stood in a narrow place, where there was no room to turn right or left.
27. The she-donkey saw the angel of the Lord, and it crouched down under Balaam. Balaam's anger flared, and he beat the she-donkey with a stick.
28. The Lord opened the mouth of the she-donkey, and she said to Balaam, "What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?"
29. Balaam said to the she-donkey, "For you have humiliated me; if I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now."
30. The she-donkey said to Balaam, "Am I not your she-donkey on which you have ridden since you first started until now? Have I been accustomed to do this to you?" He said, "No."
31. The Lord opened Balaam's eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a sword drawn in his hand. He bowed and prostrated himself on his face.
32. The angel of the Lord said to him, "Why have you beaten your she-donkey these three times? Behold, I have came out to thwart you, for the one embarking on the journey has hastened against me.
33. When the she-donkey saw me, it turned aside these three times. Had she not turned aside before me, now also I would also have killed you and spared her [the she-donkey]."
34. Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, "I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing on the road before me. Now, if it displeases you, I will return."
35. The angel of the Lord said to Balaam, "Go with these men, but the word I will speak to you-that you shall speak." So Balaam went with Balak's dignitaries.
So, it's a great miracle and a bit of a farce, maybe not laugh out loud funny, but imagine Eddie Murphy playing the donkey, like he does in the Shrek movies, and maybe you get what I mean:
So anyway, Balaam arrives in Moab, and tells Balak to build seven altars, and offer sacrifices to God, which he does. And then Balaam blesses instead of curses us, saying, "How can I curse whom God has not cursed, and how can I invoke wrath if the Lord has not been angered?" King Balak is angry, takes Balaam to a second location, builds altars and offers sacrifices, and again Balaam has no choice by to bless us. King Balak then tries a third location, with the same result. This illustrates the difference between the concrete, nonliterate conception of the divine as local, immanent, tied to a particular place, in contrast to the new literate and abstract monotheism of the Israelites, where God is omnipresent (a similar theme is found in the book of Jonah, where it is shown that it is impossible to run away and escape from God).
So, Balaam makes with a blessing, the beginning of which is part of our liturgy, but which then goes into a brutal, agonistic mode (this from Numbers 24):
5. How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!And then Balaam concludes with a prophecy about the end days and redemption, when the evil of Assyria, Esau, and the Amalek will be defeated. This is the first apocalyptic vision of armageddon that appears in the Bible.
6. They extend like streams, like gardens by the river, like aloes which the Lord planted, like cedars by the water.
7. Water will flow from his wells, and his seed shall have abundant water; his king shall be raised over Agag, and his kingship exalted.
8. God, Who has brought them out of Egypt with the strength of His loftiness He shall consume the nations which are his adversaries, bare their bones and dip His arrows [into their blood].
9. He crouches and lies like a lion and like a lioness; who will dare rouse him? Those who bless you shall be blessed, and those who curse you shall be cursed.
The parsha concludes with the Israelites being seduced by Moabite and Midianite women, and their idol worship--it's the ancient world's equivalent of the Huxleyan rather than Orwellian dystopia (see my previous post, Huxley and Orwell Redux). So, God tells Moses to execute the guilty ones, and at the same time a plague breaks out, clearly a reference to venereal disease, again a story that resonates with current events. One of the leaders of the Israelites is cavorting in public with a Midianite princess, until Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, kills them both with his spear. Not only is this brutal, but also phallic, as the way, I believe, the story is understood is that the couple are copulating, and he spears them in the act, then holds them up on his spear for all to see (I didn't go into these details at the service, as there were young people present). Again, we can discern the brutal, agonistic world of oral culture, and a very heavy symbol that Freud, no doubt, had a field day with. But this ritual sacrifice ends the plague, and once more we see a special interest in medicine.
The point, I believe, is not to sanitize these stories, but, once again, to understand them, not literally of course, but as a reflection of a struggle to emerge out of the oral, tribal, agonistic mode of life, and evolve into something new, and better, a people governed by law and justice, ethics and rationality. It was a long and difficult struggle, but we were engaged in it long before others were.
The service then proceeded as usual, but before the Mourner's Kaddish, I read a poem by Solomon ben Judah Gabirol, one of the Hebrew Poets of Medieval Spain, translated into English by the 19th century Jewish American poet, Emma Lazarus:
Almighty! what is man?
But flesh and blood.
Like shadows flee his days,
He marks not how they vanish from his gaze,
Suddenly, he must die-
He droppeth. stunned, into nonentity.
Almighty! what is man?
A body frail and weak.
Full of deceit and lies,
Of vile hypocrisies.
Now like a flower blowing,
Now scorched by sunbeams glowing.
And wilt thou of his trespasses inquire?
How may he ever bear
Thine anger just, thy vengeance dire?
Punish him not, but spare,
For he is void of power and strength !
Almighty! what is man?
By filthy lust possessed,
Whirled in a round of lies,
Fond frenzy swells his breast.
The pure man sinks in mire and slime,
The noble shrinketh not from crime,
Wilt thou resent on him the charms of sin?
Like fading grass,
So shall he pass.
Like chaff that blows
Where the wind goes.
Then spare him, be thou merciful, O King,
Upon the dreaded day of reckoning!
Almighty! what is man?
The haughty son of time
Drinks deep of sin,
And feeds on crime
Seething like, waves that roll,
Hot as a glowing coal.
And wilt thou punish him for sins inborn?
Lost and forlorn,
Then like the weakling he must fall,
Who some great hero strives withal.
Oh, spare him, therefore! let him win
Grace for his sin!
Almighty! what is man?
Spotted in guilty wise,
A stranger unto faith,
Whose tongue is stained with lies,
And shalt thou count his sins so is he lost,
Uprooted by thy breath.
Like to a stream by tempest tossed.
His life falls from him like a cloak,
He passes into nothingness, like smoke.
Then spare him, punish not, be kind, I pray,
To him who dwelleth in the dust, an image wrought in clay!
Almighty! what is man?
A withered bough!
When he is awestruck by approaching doom.
Like a dried blade of grass, so weak, so low
The pleasure of his life is changed to gloom.
He crumbles like a garment spoiled with moth;
According to his sins wilt thou be wroth?
He melts like wax before the candle s breath,
Yea, like thin water, so he vanisheth,
Oh, spare him therefore, for thy gracious name,
And be not too severe upon his shame!
Almighty! what is man?
A faded leaf!
If thou dost weigh him in the balance lo!
He disappears a breath that thou dost blow.
His heart is ever filled
With lust of lies unstilled.
Wilt bear in mind his crime
Unto all time?
He fades away like clouds sun-kissed,
Dissolves like mist.
Then spare him! let him love and mercy win,
According to thy grace, and not according to his sin!
The medieval mentality is also different from our own, less comforting and gentle, but it too is part of our long history, a tradition that encompasses the ancient and medieval as well as the modern (and postmodern, if you like), a tradition of orality and literacy in harmony, and a tradtion of freedom, justice, and memory. Well, anyway, that's the way I see it.