Shabbat Pinhas 5778: Whose land is it?

Back in 1976, John McPhee wrote a beautiful book about Alaska called Coming into the Country. In it he profiled the peoples—native and immigrant, rural and urban—and the varied environments of American’s largest state (more than double Texas, the next in line). About land ownership he wrote (83), “The federal government, long ago, used to watch over Alaska with one eye, and with so little interest that the lid was generally closed. In all of that territorial land, so wild and remote, emigrants from the United States easily established their frontier code: breathe free, do as you please, control your own destiny. If you had much more in mind than skinning hares, though, it was difficult to control much of a destiny—to plan for example, any kind of development on a major scale, since the federal government owned more than 99% of the land.”

That period ended in 1959 with statehood, and Alaska has long been the theater for great controversies about land ownership and management. We are familiar with the conflict between conservation and development, but it is hardly that simple. There are conflicting claims between the state and federal governments, between different federal agencies, and of native peoples, which were formally recognized under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement. Conservationists may be allied with native peoples in revering the land, but in conflict with their desire to continue subsistence hunting and other ancient forms of land use.

Who owns the land? It is complicated, and always has been. Parashat Pinhas contains within it some of the conflicting agendas that often face people hoping to accommodate different claims. In a five-verse passage (52-56) Chapter 26 explains that the land should be divided according to population—the bigger the tribe, the bigger its claim—and yet also by random lottery, regardless of tribal size. This internal contradiction tied the rabbis in knots, and that was just the beginning. What was the basis for population-claims—the number that departed Egypt, or the number that would eventually reach the land? What about the few who fit both groups, or neither? There is a long discussion in Bavli Bava Batra dedicated to exploring, inventing and resolving such conflicts. Rashi (in his Torah commentary) summarizes the Talmudic discussion with a cut through the Gordian knot, claiming that the lottery was directed by the Holy Spirit, with consideration not only for quantity but also quality of the land, magically meeting the true needs of the people. Ramban doesn’t buy it. In an extremely long comment he argues that was a distinction between tribal claims, which were all treated equally, and the claims of families within the tribes, which were allotted according to their original size. Not magical lottery cards, but good governance, was used to resolve the conflicting claims. Continue reading


Behar-Behukotai 5778: Theology as Meteorology

Imagine if your weather app displayed not images of sun and clouds, but icons of good and evil, like this:  ☹. Each city might have a virtue index—with the weather forecast tracking not the jet stream but morality, indicated by a friendly or fierce face. City X has been charitable, so they can expect light rains followed by sunny skies, but City Y has seen an uptick in violent crime, so it is in for a drought or hurricane. Such a system sounds absurd, and yet it is basically what the Torah presents as a theology of weather.

Our second portion, Behukkotai, opens with the prediction that if we follow God’s laws, then God will “grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit” (Lev. 26:4). If we do not obey God and do not observe God’s commandments, then “I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper, so that your strength shall be spent to no purpose. Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit” (Lev. 26:19–20).

Rabbinic literature has preserved numerous legends that correlate rainfall to virtue, none of them more famous or entertaining than the legends of Honi the circle drawer (Mishnah Ta’anit 3:8; JT Ta’anit 66d; BT Ta’anit 22b-23; Megillat Ta’anit Scholion, etc.). During a severe drought, the people ask him to pray for rain, and he does, initially without results. Then, when he persists, God delivers a measly drizzle; he persists further, and a deluge follows. Finally, Honi stands in a circle and demands that God send rains for a blessing. It works, but he is chastised by a rabbinic colleague for his insolence. Never mind, Honi is a favorite of God, and of Jewish children everywhere.

Continue reading

Karma and Kehunah: Aḥarei Mot-Kedoshim 5778

They’re a strange combination, Aḥarei Mot and Kedoshim. The former parashah focuses on an inaccessible ritual—possible only for a certain person, at a specific time, in a sacred place, from which we have been exiled for millennia. The Torah states, “no person may be in the tent of meeting when he [the priest] enters.” In Midrash Vayikra Rabba, Rabbi Abahu makes a radical claim that the high priest himself ceased being a person at the moment when the holy spirit rested on him, and his face lit up like a torch. The world of Aḥarei Mot is that of the most elite form of religious practice. In contrast, Kedoshim contends that any Israelite, at any time, in any place, may become like a priest in the tabernacle. An ordinary farmer may sanctify life, just like the most elite priest in the Temple. Through a program of ritual and ethics, Parashat Kedoshim establishes holiness as an accessible goal in the family, on the farm and among the people in town.

It is tempting to say that the second portion supersedes the first, making the arcane rituals of the tabernacle/temple obsolete, but it’s more complicated than that. The cultic system of Aḥarei Mot gives purpose and power to the DIY vibe of Kedoshim. The dangerous power of the Temple alerts us that there is also dangerous power in our religious service. Handled properly, our practice may invite blessing and peace. Handled poorly, it can provoke conflict, crisis and destruction.

The consequences of our conduct affect not only our own spiritual development, but also the lives of those around us. What about the lives of those still to come? Can holy or hateful behavior have consequences felt generations or even centuries later, like water seeping slowly down through layers of limestone? Is there a Jewish concept of karma? The term may be Sanskrit, but the idea is attested often within our own tradition. Continue reading

Our Bodies, Our Souls: Tazria-Metzora 5778

Pity poor Rabbi Akiva. He had a difficult youth and a dreadful death, but at least he enjoyed the respect of his colleagues, right? In Bavli Sanhedrin 38b Reish Lakish claims that God gave Adam the First a preview of all the sages to come, and when he reached Akiva, Adam rejoiced in his Torah, and mourned over his death. That is high praise, yet on the same page, Rabbi Akiva is on the receiving end of a stinging put-down, as he is elsewhere in the Talmud, specifically when other sages feel he is being too fanciful in his textual interpretations. Each time they tell him, “Confine yourself to negaim [the identification of blemishes] and ohalot [the rules of corpse contamination]!” The former is the focus of our double portion this week, but first let’s examine an aggadah that gets Rabbi Akiva into trouble.

The presenting issue is a mysterious Aramaic passage in chapter seven of Daniel, in which God is described as the “Ancient of Days,” sitting on a throne made of fire, supervising an apocalyptic battle of beasts which may represent the various empires that oppressed Israel. Especially puzzling is the reference in verse 7:9 to plural “thrones,” and later, in vs.13-14, to a “son of man” who comes before the Ancient of Days and is described as having dominion. This passage was of intense interest in ancient apocalyptic literature—the son of man was associated with Enoch, or with the angel Metatron, with the second throne indicative of a second power in heaven (שתי רשויות). This was obviously a destabilizing concept—indicative of a dualistic theology that either pitted divine forces of good and evil against one another, or exalted a messianic human figure to divine status. Dualistic thought was seen as deeply threatening—this was the explanation given for the heresy of Elisha b. Abuya, but it also almost ensnared the great Rabbi Akiva. Continue reading

Drinking on the Job, Playing with Fire: Shmini 5778

I recently had the privilege to respond to a lecture delivered at JTS by Seth Waxman, the former US Solicitor to the Supreme Court. He presented three current cases, one of which (McCoy vs. Louisiana) he himself argued, in his 80th appearance before the court. Afterwards we continued his discussion of halakhic principles at stake in these cases, and one thing clearly emerged as a common ground between the two systems. Frequently the key to a good decision is not the verdict itself but the reasoning that leads to it. After all, it is the reasoning that will remain active within a legal system long after the parties are gone. It is essential that justices not only reach wise conclusions, but that they do so through reasoning that will set positive precedents for future decisions.

Mr. Waxman and I discussed the much anticipated case of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which hinges on two separate considerations—would compelling a business owner to create a wedding cake for a gay couple violate the cake owner’s free speech or free exercise [of religion] clause of the First Amendment? Whether the court finds for or against Masterpiece, it will make a great deal of difference how they do so—by finding that he is an artist, and artists may (or may not) be compelled to create their art, or by finding that his religious beliefs entitle him (or do not entitle him) to discriminate against others. The implications for free speech and religious liberty for all people will be enormous, and difficult to anticipate. May the justices judge with wisdom and care!

The activity of adjudicating, called הוראה or instruction in Jewish sources, is one of the most consequential responsibilities available to a person. For this reason, we are especially concerned with the education, integrity and also the sobriety of a judge. If there is doubt about the state of mind of the judge, then there is doubt about the validity of the judgment, and if the judgments of a nation’s courts are invalid, then the entire society’s moral standing is imperiled. We learn this important lesson indirectly from our portion, Shmini, which includes one of the most tragic and mystifying stories in the Torah, the sudden deaths of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu on their first day of service in the tabernacle. Continue reading

Guns and Moses: Shabbat HaGadol 5778

Americans have become desensitized to the phenomenon of gun violence and explosives that can suddenly and indiscriminately mar and destroy innocent life. Somehow mass murder has come to seem normal, and our political class is quick to rehearse the same tired lines about thoughts and prayers for the victims, denunciation of the perpetrators, and claims that on a policy level, nothing substantial can be done. But when 17 children were murdered in the gun attack at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL last month, something finally seemed to shift.

It has not been the adults, but rather the students from Parkland and across the nation who have led this stirring of consciousness and activism. It is challenging but also appropriate that the March For Our Lives rallies in DC and 800 other locations will be this Saturday, Shabbat HaGadol.  Many of our synagogues have made Shabbat arrangements to allow teens and families to participate in the rallies, as has USY, connecting the themes of this special Shabbat with the crisis of gun violence that plagues our nation.

There is no single explanation for the naming of this special sabbath as Shabbat HaGadol, but the consensus as expressed in the Shulhan Arukh (OH 430:1) is that it recalls a miracle that occurred on the tenth of Nisan, just before the Exodus. According to the rabbis, the Exodus on 15 Nisan fell on Thursday, so the tenth was Shabbat, and it was on that day that every family began to defy the regime of Pharaoh and prepare publicly to worship God. This combination of defiance and dedication preceded the liberation, and it is the same combination that many teens are demonstrating in demanding that the plague of gun violence be contained. It was the killing of children that characterized the depravity of Pharaoh, and it was only when his cruelty rebounded and struck his own home that he agreed to release the Israelites. We too are stricken by the loss of so many children and are duty-bound to support the teens who are marching for their lives, and for the soul of this nation. Continue reading

Mind this–Intention Before Action on the Field of Sacred Play: Vayikra/HaHodesh 5778

My baseball career ground to a sudden halt 39 years ago during spring training. It was March 1979, and I was signed up to play in the Sandy Koufax division of our town’s Little League. But that month was also my bar mitzvah, which our family marked with my first trip to Israel. I was supposed to read Vayikra at the “Wailing Wall,” and so I missed two weeks of spring training. The coach wasn’t happy: “No practice, no play.” I can’t really blame him. I was a sloppy player in right field, neglecting to cover my mitt to secure the ball (“One Hand Dan” was not meant as a compliment), though I did have a pretty good throw to make up for the dropped fly balls. Still, it is ironic that my choice to put prayer over play cost me my position, davka in the league named for a pitcher who refused to play on Yom Kippur.

What I loved about baseball, and continue to appreciate as a spectator, was what some people find oppressively tedious. It is a ritualized activity with precisely defined players, props and motions. The ball is in play for only a few minutes of the 3 hour game—one study found an average of 18 minutes of ball in play, meaning that it is 90% standing around. And yet the intense attention of participants and spectators alike infuses those moments with great drama and significance. Games that have constant motion such as hockey and basketball are lively but, to my mind, far less dramatic. As a pitcher prepares to throw, each side seeks to align intention with action; what happens next may change the course of the game, but it all begins in the mind.

It is not a far stretch to compare the slow pace and sudden activity of the baseball diamond with the rhythms of religious ritual, especially in the sacred service described by Leviticus. When we read these verses visually, trying to imagine where each party stands, then deeper layers of meaning can begin to emerge. For example, regarding the burnt offering we learn that the priest brings the animal to the entrance of the tent of meeting—this is apparently the spot between the altar and the sanctum—where he pauses, placing his hands upon the animal’s head and leaning on it. This action activates divine favor, and the subsequent slaughter delivers atonement. Continue reading