Monotheism in a nutshell, all laid out. Make the change you want to see!
Monotheism in a nutshell, all laid out. Make the change you want to see!
Religion, for many Jews, is a meritocracy. Where you went to college/yeshiva, what branch of Judaism ordained you, what rabbis you studied under, what level of kashrut, negiah, shabbat you keep. This is a litmus test for how-Jewishly-you-can-be-trusted. The more hardcore you are, the better, even if people think that your understanding of Judaism is bogus. At least you have the spiritual resume to back it up.
But really, is this where holiness comes from? Does a person who goes to a black hat yeshiva really cleave to G-d and the Torah more than someone who went to a community college?
Moses seems to think that our destiny is not in the shul or the centers of learning. In fact, it seems like we’re going to seek G-d from the outside.
“And the Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and you will remain few in number among the nations to where the Lord will lead you. And there you will worship gods, man’s handiwork, wood and stone, which neither see, hear, eat, nor smell. And from there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find Him, if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deut. 4:27-31)
This doesn’t seem like a really good ad for Jewish higher learning or Israel immersion. In fact, it seems like us Diaspora people have been part of the plan all along.
I’m really turned on by the phrase, “And from there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find Him, if you seek Him.” It doesn’t say, “from the Chabad house, you will find G-d” or “in the corporate offices of the Jewish Federations you will find G-d” or “in the house of some learned scholar of the Torah, you will find G-d.” No! It says that from a place of idol worship, of disconnection from the greater Jewish community, from a place of sin…that is where we will find G-d.
Suddenly, the Diaspora looks a little nicer.
It’s hard enough imagining a time without the internet, let alone books. But that’s what it’s like to be an ancient Hebrew. Moses keeps repeating these same stories about the People over and over again, not because he’s lecturing or thinks that the Hebrews are too stupid to remember, but because there isn’t exactly a library of Jewish history sitting around the traveling camp.
It’s like in the book Fahrenheit 451 where an underground society of people called “book-keepers” each memorize a book in order to preserve knowledge. In the same way, Moses is turning each of his people into a living book…a living Torah, in fact. Instead of writing all the laws and stories on parchment, he demands that each person become a Torah in themselves, and collectively, the People of the Book.
One thing that particularly struck me about the portion this week was Moses recalling the time he appointed judges and magistrates to help him “mete out justice” and teach “the word of G_d”. Moses is basically saying:
“Hey, remember that time I tried to do everything myself and I couldn’t? Yeah, well you can’t either. Ask for help from each other and together anything can be accomplished.”
If even Moses himself, the pinnacle prophet of Judaism needed to get help from those around him, how much more do we? This is one of the key teachings that he leaves with the Israelites as they head into the Promised Land: you will need help, and you have to look to each other for it. No one, not even the prophet of G_d Almighty can do it alone.
This week’s Torah portion is about accepting change. And I’m not talking about loose change.
A guy named Zelophehad dies…and unlucky for him, Zelophehad had no sons, no one to pass his inheritance to. But he did have daughters. And these daughters were angry that their father’s lot would not be given to them. So they protest to Moses and Moses talks to G-d. The result: G-d agrees that sexism is unfair, and the law of inheritance is passed so that women would be included.
Another change happens: Moses knows that his time is running out on this Earth. The Hebrews are about to enter the Promised Land and Moses does not get to go with them. So G-d tells Moses that Joshua will be the new leader. Moses is commanded to lay his hands upon Joshua in front of the Hebrews showing his status as the future Jewish Commander In Chief.
Change is tough: it forces people to confront their boundaries and limits. It’s easier to keep life as static and simple as possible, so you’ll never experience growing paints. But change is a part of life. Get over it. Move on.
So Moses hands the keys to the kingdom over to Joshua. Here’s this guy, hand picked by G-d out of all of the Israelites, to be the new leader. Even with how Moses must have felt about turning things over to “the new guy”, there had to be some sense of trust there. I mean, G-d chose Joshua!
G-d told Moses who would be the next leader. I know that if I were retiring from a company that I started if G-d told me who would be my successor I would trust His judgment. So in this there is some comfort to Moses, that the guy taking his place was at least good enough to be selected by the Divine. And that is important.
G-d knew Joshua wasn’t Moses, and he never would be. G-d knew the time for Moses was over, it was time for a fresh perspective, some new leadership. Was Joshua going to screw up? Of course! Obviously even Moses messed up. But that’s okay.
What that says to me is that Hashem knows that things change (He made them that way!) so sometimes new leadership is necessary. And even Moses had to learn that, to trust in the way that things were going and that G-d wouldn’t let things get out of hand.
In this week’s Torah portion, a sorcerer named Balaam is sent by Balak to curse the Israelites. But G-d appears to him and turns his heart saying, “you shall not curse them but bless them” (Numbers 22:12). After protesting to Balak’s people that he can’t do it, Balaam reluctantly agrees to carry out his mission.
But something crazy happens. Balaam is riding a donkey toward the settlement where the Hebrews are, when his donkey sees an angel of the Lord, blocking him from going toward the camp. Balaam doesn’t see it: only the donkey sees it. So Balaam tries, unsuccessfully, to go in different directions toward the camp, hitting the poor donkey over and over again. Finally, G-d gives the donkey the power to speak! The conversation went a little like this:
Donkey: Hey Balaam, why you keep hitting me? What did I ever do to you?
Balaam: Donkey, you’re embarrassing me! If you were a person, I’d freakin’ cut you!
Donkey: Why you playin’ like that? You’ve been riding me this whole time and I haven’t given you trouble at all.
And then, the angel appeared to Balaam and called him out on his awful mistreatment of the donkey:
Angel: Yo, Balaam. Why are you beating down your donkey? Obviously I’m in the way and the donkey can’t go anywhere you want it to!
So Balaam has something of a roadside conversion and the angel lets him know that, instead of curses, Balaam will open his mouth and bless the Hebrews.
Balaam goes back to Balak and lets him know this weird news. And Balak basically says, “heck with this. Let’s go to the Hebrew settlement and try this cursing thing out either way.” Long story short, it didn’t work. Apparently when G-d does something, it happens.
I’d like to ask an honest question: what’s in your way? What is keeping you from getting something done? For Balaam, it was an angel, standing in his way. What is it for you?
And an even bigger question is, “is what you are wanting to do, really that important, anyway?”
Balaam was trying to curse the Hebrews, so G-d steps in his way. And there are angels on Earth who get in our way all the time: the father who locks up his drug addict kid who he won’t shoot up, the nurse who gives out condoms to prostitutes so they won’t get AIDS.
So what’s in your way? Maybe it’s not as self destructive and the examples I gave earlier, but maybe it will take you down a path that you really don’t want. I used to think that every time my old band couldn’t get a show or every time I got fired from a job, that it was just another thing getting in my way. And to be honest, if I had a sword, I’d prolly cut some people up, too.
But then an angel stepped into my life and made me realize, “OK Patrick, maybe you need to evaluate whether this is a good use of your time.” And sure enough, those things weren’t. And now, things are going great. I have a new band, and it doesn’t stress me out at all! And my job…well…PunkTorah is my job!
There’s always an obstacle to every goal. Maybe that obstacle is an angel of the Lord saying, “don’t pass Go, don’t collect $200. You’re going to do G-d’s work instead.”