Sunday, July 27, 2014

Journeys (A Sermon)

Continuing once again on July 25th as lay leader for Friday evening Sabbath services at my Reform Jewish temple, Congregation Adas Emuno of Leonia, New Jersey, my sermon or D'var Torah was based on the weekly Torah portion or parsha, Massei (Numbers 33:1-36:13), which means Journeys. It followed up, in part, on my D'var from last week, posted here under the title, My Sermon on Torah, Tribes, and Tribalism. And once again, I posted this week's sermon on the Adas Emuno congregational blog, under the title of Journeys, but also want to share it here on my own blog:

Parsha Massei

This weeks Torah portion is called Massei, which means Journeys. It's the final parsha in the Book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Torah, whose Hebrew name is Bamidbar, meaning, In the Dessert. And the parsha begins by saying, "These are the journeys of the children of Israel who left the land of Egypt in their legions, under the charge of Moses and Aaron" (Numbers 33:1). And much of the portion is devoted to a summary of their journey, from the liberation from slavery and exodus from Egypt, through the long years of traveling through the Sinai dessert, to the east bank of the Jordan River, on the border of the Promised Land. This is where the journey ends for Moses, and this is where the journey ends in the Torah. The next and last book, the Book of Deuteronomy, relates the final words of Moses to the Israelites, and end with the passing of the greatest of our prophets, which occurs before the Israelites cross over into the Promised Land. It is not until the sixth book of our Holy Scriptures, the Book of Joshua, that the Israelites actually enter and take possession of the land, which is where we find the famous story of how the blowing of the shofars brought down the walls of the city of Jericho.

But this week's parsha looks ahead to the return of the Israelites to Canaan, and speaks of how the Promised Land should be divided up, detailing the different areas that will be given to each of the twelve tribes, and what their boundaries will be. And it lists the names of the chieftains of each of the twelve tribes, along with Joshua as the successor to Moses, and Eleazar the priest as the successor to Aaron. In last week's D'var Torah, I talked about the tribal roots of the Jewish people, and how the Torah and Tanach tell the story of the difficult transition from tribalism to civilization. And I talked about how the Semitic aleph-bet and literacy was central to this transition, in establishing the Torah as a sacred text, in providing the first written history to take the place of myth and legend, and in providing the first true system of codified law, ethics, and human rights.

Parsha Massei concludes with two examples of this transition, in both cases providing progressive responses to tribal realities. One of them follows up on an earlier passage in the Book of Numbers (27: 1-11) that tells the story of how Zelophehad, of the tribe of Manasseh, died leaving behind five daughters, but no sons. His daughters argued that, in the absence of a male heir, they should have the right to inherit their father's property. They made their case before Moses, the high priest Eleazar, the twelve chieftains, and the entire assembly gathered in the Tent of Meeting. And God tells Moses that their plea is just, and establishes a new ruling that daughters can inherit property when there are no sons. It was a small step for women's rights, but it was progress, without a doubt. And it also demonstrated a willingness to break from established tribal traditions, to replace adherence to longstanding customs with a legal system where cases can be decided on rational grounds, and traditions can be reviewed objectively, criticized, and modified, or even abandoned.

In this week's Torah portion, the decision in favor of the daughters of Zelophehad is appealed by the chieftain of the tribe of Manasseh, who argues that if the daughters marry men who are members of other Israelite tribes, then their lands would go the other tribes, and no longer be a part of the region allotted to the Manasseh tribe. Here we see the continued force of tribalism, and the lack of complete unity among the Israelite tribes. Again, Moses consults with God, and what is especially significant here is that the verdict that was made was not to reverse the ruling regarding inheritance, not to revert to the old ways, but to find a new compromise within the realities of tribal life. And that compromise was that the daughters of Zelophehad could marry whomever they please, itself a progressive notion, but they can only marry members of their father's tribe. And Moses goes on to say,

Thus, the inheritance of the children of Israel will not be transferred from tribe to tribe, for each person from the children of Israel will remain attached to the inheritance of his father's tribe. Every daughter from the tribes of the children of Israel who inherits property, shall marry a member of her father's tribe, so each one of the children of Israel shall inherit the property of his forefathers. And no inheritance will be transferred from one tribe to another tribe, for each person of the tribes of the children of Israel shall remain attached to his own inheritance. (Numbers 36: 7-9)

In this way, Moses establishes a new, general rule, based on this one specific case, moving from the concrete to the abstract. As for the daughters of Zelophehad, they found this to be a perfectly acceptable resolution. In all likelihood, they would have married members of their own tribe anyway.

The other example of the transition from tribalism to civilization in Parsha Massei is God's directive that the children of Israel establish six cities of refuge in the Promised Land. And it is important to recall that at this time, there are no police officers, no criminal justice system, no courts as we understand them. It was accepted as common sense that, if one person kills another, then relatives of the victim are justified in seeking vengeance. Therefore, the killer may be pursued by what the Torah refers to as a blood avenger. This is what the Italians refer to as a vendetta, a word that was adopted in the English language in the 19th century. A vendetta can refer to the single act of vengeance, but also to the blood feud that ensues when one act of vengeance is followed by another act of retaliation in a series of exchanges that can go on indefinitely, and may escalate in intensity. In the United States, the most famous example of this is the 19th century feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys in West Virginia and Kentucky, following the Civil War.

In an attempt to avoid this kind of destructive behavior, the Torah establishes a clear distinction between killing someone intentionally and killing someone by accident, the distinction that today we refer to as the difference between murder and manslaughter. If the victim was killed intentionally, or otherwise out of malice, the Torah says that the blood avenger is permitted to kill the murderer. If the avenger is not a firsthand witness to the murder, he can still exact his vengeance based on the testimony of witnesses, and the use of the plural here is significant, because the Torah also insists that, "a single witness may not testify against a person so that he should die" (Numbers 35:30). This does not meet contemporary standards, of course, but for its time, it is progressive in establishing that there is a burden of proof that must be met before someone is condemned as a murderer. But the same portion also insists that a murderer's life cannot be ransomed, that the murderer cannot buy his way out of the death penalty, a harsh rule, but one that insures equality before the law, for rich and poor alike.

A blood avenger does not necessarily distinguish between murder and manslaughter, and it is understood that acts of vengeance are driven by emotion. And following the old traditions of tribal life, a blood avenger may still pursue someone who has killed someone unintentionally, perhaps not believing it was an accident, or maybe not caring about the killer's motivation. We recognize today that manslaughter is in fact a crime, that someone who is guilty of manslaughter may be innocent of murder, but is not entirely innocent altogether. Likewise, in our tribal tradition, the blood avenger is still permitted to seek vengeance. But the killer can flee to one of the six cities of refuge, and ask for asylum. It is then up to the community to judge between the blood avenger and the killer, and if they decide that the death was accidental, then the culprit can be granted sanctuary within the city of refuge. If he steps outside of the city limits, the blood avenger is permitted to exact his vengeance, but as long as he stays inside of the city, he is safe. This amounts to a form of exile and imprisonment, although it is not necessarily a life sentence, as the Torah stipulates that after the High Priest dies,
killers guilty of manslaughter are free to leave and return home, and acts of revenge are against them are no longer permitted.

We therefore have a new set of laws that break with tradition, and are therefore progressive. They are a new set of laws that establish a clear concept of justice, tempered by mercy. And they are laws that are conveyed as general rules, based on abstract principles, the product of a new kind of mindset based on literacy, as opposed to nonliterate traditions where judgment is based on aphorisms, parables and other types of storytelling. By way of contrast, rather than using abstract codes of law, traditional, tribal cultures would refer to a story like the account in Genesis of Cain and Abel, and ask, whether or not the killer in question is guilty of the same kind of act as Cain was. This is akin to arguing a case based on precedent, a type of legal argument that is used here in the United States, and in other nations that use a common law legal system. Legal systems based on civil law are more prevalent worldwide however,
and in such systems only the written law, the abstract rule, is considered, and not the concrete examples of previous cases and judgements. Civil law is also known as Continental European Law, while our system of common law is based on the British system. And while it allows for the use of precedent, the legal cases are still tried based on an established written code consisting of general rules, that is, codified law.

I think we can find in Parsha Massei an echo of the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis, when God says, to Cain, "What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood cries to me from the ground!" (4:10). And we can see how this is stated in a highly abstract form within the Ten Commandments, the Sixth Commandment stating, "You shall not murder" (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17). The more common translation, "Thou shalt not kill," not only omits the distinction between murder and manslaughter that this week's Torah portion clarifies, but also would be impossible to obey unless we starved to death. Moreover, in the Book of Leviticus, in what is known as the Holiness Code, we have the commandment, "you shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor" (19:16), and it also say, "you shall not hate your brother in your heart" (19:17) and "you shall not take vengeance, not bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (19:18). And so it is in this week's parsha that God says:

And you shall not corrupt the land in which you live, for the blood corrupts the land, and the blood which is shed in the land cannot be atoned for except through the blood of the one who shed it. And you shall not defile the land where you reside, in which I dwell, for I am the Lord Who dwells among the children of Israel. (Numbers 35: 33-34)

What is striking about this is the way that the Torah breaks away from tribalism, in refusing to glorify violence. Tribal societies often view violence as a routine part of life, as natural and necessary, if not cause for celebration. It is not uncommon to find tribal societies glorifying warfare, physical combat, and hunting. Puberty rites for young males typically involved some form of physical violence, and taking part in fighting and killing had a strong association with masculinity. But the written law delivered to the Israelite tribes commanded them that the spilling of blood was abhorrent, especially in the ritual of human sacrifice practiced by many other tribes in the region. The practice of child sacrifice in particular, and human sacrifice in general, is condemned in the strongest possible terms in our Torah and Holy Scriptures.

There is a difference, of course, between not glorifying violence, and practicing nonviolence. The Torah does not tell us to be pacifists, and recognizes that there are times when violence is necessary, to stand up for our rights, and to protect each other. In the say way, the Torah tells us that vengeance is wrong, but this does not mean that the heinous crimes can be or ought to be forgiven. Rather, the call is for justice, tempered with mercy, but justice as a rational evaluation based on rule by law, rather than emotional acts of vendetta. And the justice of the ancient world may seem quite harsh to our contemporary sensibilities, but it was a concept of justice that could be modified over time, changing to meet changing circumstances.

Over time, we would adopt a new kind of rite of passage for young males coming age, one that replaced violent activity with a literacy test. I'm referring of course to the b'nai mitzvah. With the story of the binding of Isaac, the practice of human sacrifice was replaced by animal sacrifice, and with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, we replaced animal sacrifice with prayer. And in possession of the sacred text of the Torah, we embraced study as a way of life. And especially in exile, living as strangers in strange lands, nonviolence was often the only option. This is not to say that we never fought back in the face of the many forms of tribalism we encountered, but it certainly was not easy being an oppressed and persecuted minority.

I recently read a book by the historian Elizabeth Eisenstein about how the invention of printing was viewed in Europe and America, and I found what she had to say about the Nazis in Germany rather striking:

Antisemitic stereotypes attributed a soft, flabby, and sedentary lifestyle to the bookish Jew in contrast to the masculine, muscular Aryan. Observers in 1933 witnessed the book-burnings of works by Jews and other "decadent" authors, along with the elimination of the same works from libraries and bookshops. The elimination of Jewish books served as a prelude to measures in the next decade aimed at eliminating the Jews themselves.

The bookish stereotype has been dispelled, to large degree, through the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, and the fact that the Jewish state was able to defend itself, to resist the combined armed forces of several Arab nations, and to organize the Israeli Defense Forces as one of the most effective military units in the world. But in taking on the task of building our own modern nation-state, and defending it, we find ourselves once again wrestling with tribalism, both externally and internally. How are we to seek justice, and not give in to the desire for vengeance? How are we to temper the desire for justice with a sense of mercy? How are we to stand up for ourselves without glorifying violence? And how are we to defend ourselves without causing harm to others who are innocent of any wrongdoing? The answers do not come easy, but they will never come at all if we do not begin by posing the questions.

In Parsha Massei, after the summary of the journey through the wilderness, there comes a passage that resonates uncomfortably with current events:

The Lord spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, saying: Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their temples, destroy their molten idols, and demolish their high places. You shall clear out the Land and settle in it, for I have given you the Land to occupy it. (Numbers 33: 50-53).
And we have to remember that this was common practice throughout the ancient world, and the middle ages, and continued into modern times. This is the way that the European settlers handled Native Americans, and this is the way that conquest and border changes were handled in Europe and Asia throughout the 20th century. The State of Israel was unique in not driving out the Arabs out of the land for the most part, not during the War of Independence, and not after occupying Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip and Jordan's West Bank and East Jerusalem following the Six Day War in 1967. If they had done what just about every other nation has done, and what the Torah says the Israelite tribes did in the ancient world, things would be entirely different today. With that in mind, the passage that comes next in this week's parsha is even more disturbing, as it has God continuing to say to Moses the following:

But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the Land from before you, then those whom you leave over will be as spikes in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they will harass you in the land in which you settle. And it will be that what I had intended to do to them, I will do to you. (Numbers 33: 55-56).

Jews all over the world are taking note of these verses in light of the violence and bloodshed in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank today. And I think we have to understand that in the long journey we have taken from tribalism to civilization, we could no longer follow such a course of action. Over the course of that journey, we have come to be guided by the great sage Hillel, whose most memorable saying can be translated as, do not do to others what you would not have them do to you, or as that which is hateful to you, do not do to others. And no one is claiming that the Jewish people or the State of Israel is perfect, but civilization is not about achieving some form of utopia, it's about establishing a way of life that is not built on violence or vengeance, but on justice and mercy.

Tribes cling to a way of life, and refuse to change. Anthropologists tell the story of the People of the Deer, a small Inuit tribe in the Arctic region of Canada. As their name implies, the People of the Deer survived by hunting caribou. Every year, the herds would migrate through
the tribe's territory, and the tribe would hunt them, and obtain enough meat to survive through the winter. This was their way of life from time immemorial. But one year the unthinkable happened. The herds were small, and the tribe did not get enough meat to last through the winter. This story is often told to introductory anthropology classes, and the question is then put to students: What do you think the tribe did at this point? The typical answers that were given included moving to another location, trying to follow the herd after they left the territory, rationing out the supplies, sending the old people off to die or killing or exiling some members of the tribe through some other means of selection, and even trying to signal or search for some form of outside help. The one thing that almost no one ever thinks of is the one thing that the tribe did do. Which is nothing. They did nothing, because they could not conceive of doing things in any way differently from the way that they have always done things. And so, they died.

The lesson can be taken in different ways. For anthropology students, it brings home the fact of our cultural bias
as westerners, that whenever a problem appears, we believe that some sort of action has to be taken. Indeed, we demand that someone do something about it. But sometimes there are no solutions, and all we can do is wait. And in regard to the situation in the Middle East, demands that Israel act unilaterally to resolve the situation may indeed be unrealistic.

But we also know, as people who have made the journey from tribalism to civilization, that things can change, that progress is possible. Just as we have made progress from slavery in Egypt to revelation at Sinai to the return to the Promised Land, just as we have made progress from agriculture to industry to electricity and digital technologies, just as we have made progress from archaic custom to rule by law, freedom, equality, and increasing understanding of human rights, so can we make progress from violence to thoughtfulness, from war to peace, from hostility to friendship. The story of the Jewish people, and the story of the Arab people, begins in the Book of Genesis, when God says to Abraham, "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you" (Genesis 12:1). And so, our history begins with a journey, a journey made out of faith, without knowing the final destination, and without knowing the way. Jews and Arabs, both the children of Abraham will have to follow the example of our patriarch, if we are ever going to make progress, if we are ever going to leave behind the tribalism of our father's house, if we are ever going to arrive at the Promised Land of a permanent and pervasive civilization where, in the words of the prophet Micah, "each one will sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid" (4:4). May it be so, in our time, and soon.

No comments: