Monthly Archives: June 2016

Jealousy and the Humble Leader. Beha’alotekha 5776

When is jealousy justified? When is humility heroic? Such questions come to mind upon rereading the remarkable story of Eldad and Meidad (Numbers 11:26-29) and the conference held between a worked-up Joshua and his implacable master Moses. Eldad and Meidad were apparently among the group of elders summoned by Moses to share his divine inspiration, but for an unspoken reason, they remained behind in camp. While the other elders prophesied and then stopped, Eldad and Meidad prophesied and never ceased. Their continuous access to the divine spirit was obviously destabilizing—wasn’t it enough that Moses was sharing his access to the divine? What would become of his authority if two the prophets kept speaking in God’s name? Would the camp of Israel remain united? 

Joshua seems to be justified in his concern over the situation, and the grammar hints at his good sense. The verb to be jealous, מקנא appears in other biblical contexts, sometimes followed by the prefix ב, and sometimes by the prefix ל. In II Samuel 21:2 we are told that King Saul sought to attack the Gibeonites, motivated by his jealousy on behalf of Israel and Judah, בְּקַנֹּאתוֹ  לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וִיהוּדָה. In Zechariah 1:14 an angel announces that the Lord of Hosts is extremely jealous on behalf of Jerusalem and Zion, קִנֵּאתִי  לִירוּשָׁלִַם וּלְצִיּוֹן קִנְאָה גְדוֹלָה. Rashi says in the Samuel text that these forms of jealousy, like that of Joshua, were positive jealousy. These are altruistic forms of jealousy. In English we might say that the characters are being described as protective, not truly jealous. Ibn Ezra has a grammatical theory—he claims that when the very קנא is followed by the prefix ב, it implies an evil jealousy—to be jealous of another person. But when the verb is followed by the prefix ל, it is an altruistic and honorable form of jealousy, as in the case of Joshua’s concern for his master Moses, and indeed for the cohesion of Israel. So Joshua was justified, but Moses dismissed the concern, expressing his great line, “would that all of the Lord’s people were prophets!”  Continue reading

Naso 5776/2016: The Troubled Religious Zealot, from Samson to Orlando

He was big and burly, dressed in a black leather motorcycle jacket, and his gray ponytail ran all the way down his back. When I introduced myself I learned that he was the brother of a quiet member of my congregation known for knitting pastel colored blankets for the babies. The two siblings were different in other ways as well. She and her husband attended nearly every religious service that we offered–from Sunday Shaharit to Seudah Shlishit and the end of Shabbat. Not him. He said, “You’re the rabbi? Well I’m a Nazirite.”

Wow–my first live Nazirite. Was he real? No wine? Check. No haircuts? Double-check. No contact with ritual impurity–hard to say. It was clear that this was not an add-on to an observant Jewish life, but rather a replacement. I don’t know much more of his story except that he was in recovery, and the Nazirite vow was playing a role in his new identity. Good for him, I remember thinking, but also wondering, is this really a good thing? Is taking vows and adopting such an identity a healthy approach?

Turns out that I’m not the first one to ask such a question. Although the Torah this week presents the Nazirite in neutral terms, and the Haftarah describes the most famous Nazir of all, Samson, as a divinely ordained and blessed baby, Judaism has had deep ambivalence about the institution of Nazirut all along. Continue reading