Nachshon Moments, on Land as on Sea

The Israelites are on the move in this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotcha, as they pick up their journey through the Wilderness to the Promised Land. It is quite a logistical ordeal, moving that many people along with all of their belongings, not to mention all of the communal property, primarily the Tabernacle, their central sanctuary which can be broken down and carried like Ikea furniture. The Torah goes into some detail as to how the tribes are to organize as they travel, and who is meant to carry what.

A long quote, but stick with me:

In the second year, on the twentieth day of the second month, the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle of the Pact and the Israelites set out on their journeys from the wilderness of Sinai. The cloud came to rest in the wilderness of Paran. When the march was to begin, at the Lord’s command through Moses, the first standard to set out, troop by troop, was the division of Judah. In command of its troops was Nahshon son of Amminadab; in command of the tribal troop of Issachar, Nethanel son of Zuar; and in command of the tribal troop of Zebulun, Eliab son of Helon. Then the Tabernacle would be taken apart; and the Gershonites and the Merarites, who carried the Tabernacle, would set out.The next standard to set out, troop by troop, was the division of Reuben. In command of its troop was Elizur son of Shedeur; in command of the tribal troop of Simeon, Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai; and in command of the tribal troop of Gad, Eliasaph son of Deuel. Then the Kohathites, who carried the sacred objects, would set out; and by the time they arrived, the Tabernacle would be set up again. The next standard to set out, troop by troop, was the division of Ephraim. In command of its troop was Elishama son of Ammihud; in command of the tribal troop of Manasseh, Gamaliel son of Pedahzur; and in command of the tribal troop of Benjamin, Abidan son of Gideoni. Then, as the rear guard of all the divisions, the standard of the division of Dan would set out, troop by troop. In command of its troop was Ahiezer son of Ammishaddai; in command of the tribal troop of Asher, Pagiel son of Ochran; and in command of the tribal troop of Naphtali, Ahira son of Enan. Such was the order of march of the Israelites, as they marched troop by troop. (Numbers 10:11-28)

Quite a lot of detail; the Torah is into logistics.

In reading this description, one name might jump out: Nachshon son of Amminadab. Nachshon we are told is the leader of the tribe of Judah, and it is the tribe of Judah that is the lead tribe, the head of the processional as the Israelites march out.

The name Nachshon may be familiar because of a story found in the midrash (commentary) about the crossing of the Red Sea. Ancient midrash often time “fills in” gaps in the Torah narrative, or adds additional detail. In the Torah text, when we read of the Israelites leaving Egypt, the story tells how with the Egyptian army in pursuit, the Israelites come to the shores of the Red Sea. With destruction seemingly in front of and behind them, the Israelites cry out to Moses, and Moses in turn cries out to God. Nobody seems to know what to do in the moment.

In the Torah text, God instructs Moses to raise up his staff and part the seas for the Israelites to march through. But the midrash adds in a detail. Before Moses raises his staff, in the moments when no body seems to know what to do, the midrash describes how Nachshon jumps into the water. He is going to move forward towards freedom and away from oppression no matter what it takes, and it was his action, his decisiveness in a moment of indecision, that inspires Moses to act and the seas to part.

Nachshon, the one whose actions inspired the nation to move forward to complete the final act of liberation, is now the standardbearer at the front of the nation on its path toward normalcy.

Now granted the Torah predates the midrash by centuries, and it is possible (probable?) that the midrash tells the story of Nachshon at the Red Sea simply in order to explain why the tribe of Judah rose to prominence later on. But let’s read the stories in order and suggest the Nachshon’s high position is a reward or recognition for the risk he took earlier. His actions helped create a nation, and now he is honored for them. And Nachshon was able to transform his revolutionary act to established leadership.

In telling the story of Nachshon, we tend to focus on the shores of the Red Sea, on his first act. And we ask ourselves, what is our Nachshon moment? When are the times that we take a leap forward into the unknown, take a risk, move the bar, and do so without knowing what the outcome will be?

But what if, instead of thinking about the Red Sea, we focus on his second act in the Wilderness. And in regards to this we can also ask ourselves, what is our Nachshon moment? In other words, when are the times we were able to translate inspiration into actuality? When were the times we were able to lead not by leaps of faith, but by thoughtful planning and small steps? When were the times we were able to advance not because of an individual action, but by coordinated efforts, collaboration and deliberation?

Indeed, it is often by these Nachshon moments–the ones on land rather than those on sea–that we are able to affect real and lasting change.


Why We Get Sick

Recently on one of my rabbinic listservs, a colleague asked about this week’s Torah portion of Metzorah. The portion speaks of tzara’at, the biblical affliction commonly translated as leprosy (but not really connected to what we consider leprosy). This portion and last week’s, named Tazria, both deal with this issue. In fact the two portions are usually read together, but because of some calendar issues, they are read separately this year. Here is a longish excerpt from Tazria (bear with me):

God spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. The priest shall examine the affection on the skin of his body: if hair in the affected patch has turned white and the affection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous affection; when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him unclean. But if it is a white discoloration on the skin of his body which does not appear to be deeper than the skin and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest shall isolate the affected person for seven days. On the seventh day the priest shall examine him, and if the affection has remained unchanged in color and the disease has not spread on the skin, the priest shall isolate him for another seven days. On the seventh day the priest shall examine him again: if the affection has faded and has not spread on the skin, the priest shall pronounce him clean. It is a rash; he shall wash his clothes, and he shall be clean. But if the rash should spread on the skin after he has presented himself to the priest and been pronounced clean, he shall present himself again to the priest. And if the priest sees that the rash has spread on the skin, the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is leprosy. (Leviticus 13:1-8)

And another one from the portion Metzora (hang in there):

God spoke to Moses, saying: This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time that he is to be cleansed. When it has been reported to the priest, the priest shall go outside the camp. If the priest sees that the leper has been healed of his scaly affection, the priest shall order two live clean birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for him who is to be cleansed. The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel;  and he shall take the live bird, along with the cedar wood, the crimson stuff, and the hyssop, and dip them together with the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the fresh water. He shall then sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the eruption and cleanse him; and he shall set the live bird free in the open country.  The one to be cleansed shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and bathe in water; then he shall be clean. After that he may enter the camp, but he must remain outside his tent seven days. On the seventh day he shall shave off all his hair — of head, beard, and eyebrows. When he has shaved off all his hair, he shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water; then he shall be clean. On the eighth day he shall take two male lambs without blemish, one ewe lamb in its first year without blemish, three-tenths of a measure of choice flour with oil mixed in for a meal offering, and one log of oil. These shall be presented before God, with the man to be cleansed, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, by the priest who performs the cleansing. (Leviticus 14:1-11)

Quite strange. In short, if one develops this disease—this “scaly affection”—they go to the priest who examines it and makes a determination. Such a disease can render a person ritually impure, so the priest does an examination, makes a diagnosis and prescribes a remedy of isolation and ritual cleansing. Not the way we approach illness and healing in our day and age.

The text is not only strange to us. It bothered the ancient rabbis as well, but for different reasons perhaps. While we may find this notion of ritual purity a foreign concept, the rabbis are worried about the origins of the disease.  The Torah does not give a reason as to why one person or another would get leprosy, but the rabbis in the Talmud make a suggestion:

Resh Lakish said: What is the meaning of: “This shall be the ritual for the leper?” [Leviticus 14:2] It means, “This shall be the ritual for him who brings up an evil name.” (Babylonian Talmud, Arakhin 15b)

Using word play, they say the one who brings up an evil name (Heb., motzi shem ra)—i.e., one who speaks ill of another—will become a leper. (Heb., the metzora.) The similar sounds in the Hebrew create the connection. In other words, one who uses hurtful speech will be afflicted with this skin disease as punishment.

On the one hand this is a nice midrash. If we understand the leprosy as metaphoric, then the rabbis are saying that hurtful speech has consequences. This is something we can understand. Unlike the children’s rhyme about “sticks and stones,” we know that the emotional damage brought about by hateful speech can be just as painful as broken bones.

But sometimes it is hard to read past the literal. Here then was my colleague’s question. This past year she was diagnosed with cancer. In light of this very real illness, how can she teach the traditional midrash of the portion which posits that illness is the result of the patient’s bad behavior? How can she teach a text that appears to “blame the victim?”

I appreciated her question as it is one I continue to wrestle with. Up until 10 years ago I was healthy, never broken a bone, never had a major illness, never been in the hospital. Then I began to lose my peripheral vision and a series of diagnostic steps led to my diagnosis of a cerebral cyst, followed by surgery. The cyst recurred two years later, followed by another surgery. (And so far, no recurrence. I recently went in for my routine 3-year MRI which was, in medical parlance, “unremarkable.” My next one has been pushed back for 5 years.) And then three years ago I contracted bacterial meningitis, which I amazingly not only survived but survived without any major complications, which put me in a small statistical set. Its been quite a decade for me, health-wise.

Brain. Not mine.

One of the first questions people ask me when I tell them my story of meningitis is, “How did you get it?” The answer: I don’t know. In fact, the medical community does not know how anyone gets meningitis—I remember the infectious diseases doctor telling me this explicitly. And the cyst I had has no specific cause, it was congenital, and was slowly growing in my head since birth, not an issue until it was.

Through all these medical experiences I have learned that despite how much we have advanced in medicine and treatment and health care technology, there is still so much we do not know when it comes to how and why illness occurs. This is both humbling and scares the shit out of me.

I therefore don’t see the rabbis connecting tzara’at to negative speech as blaming the victim, but rather exercising a fundamental human impulse—to make order of chaos, the understandable out of the random, to create a clear cause and effect. It is an impulse we still have today when we talk about illness, we try to find causality in eating habits, or behavior, or family history. But the real answer oftentimes to how or why illness happens is, “I don’t know.”

That is what the Torah is saying. In the pshat (plain meaning) of the Torah text, there is no reason given as to why a person will get this “scaly affection.” And while I don’t like the midrash of the rabbis connecting it to harmful speech, I am sympathetic to their motivation. Because even though we may find it troubling to say that a specific act brought about a physical affliction, the pshat is even scarier: that tzara’at—or illness in general—is random. This is a truth that the rabbis were trying to come to terms with, and it is a truth that we must try to come to terms with as well.

It’s difficult and unsatisfying, but it is our reality. And yet we also understand the truth and reality of healing as well. For while the pshat of the Torah is scary, it is also hopeful. On the one hand it teaches that random illness exists. So too it teaches of the possibility of recovery.

If a Tree Talks in the Forest, Does it Make a Sound? (On Tu Bishvat)

Today is Tu Bishvat, the new year of the trees.

Originally an ancient holiday used to determine the age of trees and the fitness of fruit for Temple offerings, the day in contemporary times has become an opportunity to reflect on Jewish views of nature. Adopting a mystical tradition, we hold a Seder (as on Passover) and eat fruits and nuts and share stories and songs about trees and other aspects of nature.

In preparing for Tu Bishvat this year, I came across this midrash (Torah commentary):

In Genesis 2:5 we read, “No shrub of the field was yet on the earth and no herb of the filed had yet sprung up because God had not caused it to rain and there was no person to till the earth.” The word for shrub is siach, which means that the trees conversed (m’sichin) with one another. (Genesis Rabbah 13:1)

The rabbis of the midrash are engaging in a bit of word play. In the verse from Genesis (from the story of Creation), the word used for “shrub” in Hebrew is siach. The word siach can also have the meaning of “conversation.” Because of the two meanings embedded in the one word, the rabbis imagine that the trees therefore are conversing with each other.

This idea of a conversation among trees is fascinating, and I thought it was a beautiful metaphor. And then I came across this video:

The idea of trees talking to one another is not just metaphor, but science. Trees communicate; the trees of a forest are not solitary, but rather deeply intertwined and connected.

This is a good reminder this Tu Bishvat. Oftentimes on Tu Bishvat we focus on our relationship with trees and nature: How trees meet our needs for resources, oxygen, food, etc. and how therefore we must meet their needs as well. But we would do well to focus on how the trees have a relationship with each other, how life on this planet is deeply interconnected and complex. And the most humbling aspect of that notion is that the extent of that complexity is probably unknowable.

Happy Tu Bishvat!

Rosh Hashanah Day 5776: “Heeding the Call–Both Papal and Jewish–For Environmental Justice”

This summer, I had the opportunity to head off to Camp Kalsman, a Jewish camp in Arlington, to spend a week as a member of the faculty. A rotating group of educators and rabbis and cantors spends a week to 10 days teaching, leading services, tutoring b’nai mitzvah and providing support alongside the full-time staff.

Faculty were also asked to visit some of the activities, chugim, electives. The first day I was there I joined the “environmental heroes” chug.

The session was led by Tal, an Israeli counselor, who led the kids through a series of games. In the first game, each of the campers was secretly assigned to be a plant, an herbivore or a carnivore. They were then told to wander the field, and at the signal, to find a partner. They then—in rock, paper, scissors fashion—were to battle by revealing their assigned roles. Herbivores ate the plants, and carnivores ate the herbivores. This then repeated for several rounds. If you met one like yourself you were safe, but three times and you died of starvation. Those who were “eaten” sat back down until the winners—three carnivores—were revealed.

We then moved into a game of tag in which a lone camper stood on one side of the field opposite everyone else. The solo camper was the hunter, the rest the wolves, and at the signal each ran towards each other. The hunter’s task was to tag as many of the wolves as he could as they ran across to the other side. Each person tagged would then become another hunter. This went on for several rounds until ultimately, all were tagged and became hunters. There were no more wolves left.

We then returned to the first game, and each camper got his or her secret assignment. This time, the herbivores won, and it was revealed after the round that only a few campers were designated carnivores. All the meateaters were “killed” in the earlier game. And then we played again, and this time everyone lost—everyone, as it turned out, was designated a herbivore, and after three rounds of not finding a plant to eat, we died.

We then got back in a large circle and talked about how the second game, the hunting, in which all the carnivores were “killed” didn’t just affect one species, but reverberated throughout the ecosystem. The lesson was reinforced for these kids—and for me—our choices have vast consequences so we must be responsible for our actions in regards to our environment.

Today is Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the new year, a time for atonement and self reflection. But we also call this the new year of the world, the day that Creation is renewed for another cycle. We are renewed and the world is renewed. It becomes imperative to link these two themes of the day and spend some time in self-reflection not only with regards to ourselves and our relationship with others, but in regards to our relationship with the earth.

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But this is timely not only because of our Jewish calendar, but, if we pay attention more broadly across the spectrum of faith communities, because Pope Francis has recently released an encyclical, a major work on the environment. And while of course directed to the world’s Catholics, there is much in this document from which we can learn. It is a call not just to Catholics, but to the world. In the spirit of interfaith learning and cooperation, we as Jews would do well to heed this call as well.

So let’s learn from Francis:

The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.

Climate change is real. To tell us this a man of faith puts his faith in science. And throughout the encyclical he adds a second act of faith by imbuing the reality of our environmental situation with the hope, potential and possibility that it can be overcome.  That in order to combat climate change, we need to change.

And not just change what we do. We need to change who we are. Bill McKibbon points out in his analysis of the encyclical in the New York Review of Books, we generally have a notion that technological advancement and progress are the same thing. And while there is much to laud with the advent of new technologies, the Pope challenges us to realize that these must be coupled with a moral advancement as well. He writes, “A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress.” Technological advancement does not automatically equal progress. It is not progress to simply use the power that we have to do what we want without concern for consequences. It is progress to recognize and act on our responsibility to others and the world. Our contribution to global climate change is a moral problem—it is an unchecked abuse of power in which we see ourselves on top and therefore as having the right to do what we please. If we maintain that attitude then we will not only destroy our environment, we will destroy ourselves.

We need a fundamental change. And the change is not just a new embrace of environmentalism, but an embrace of environmental justice. It is recognizing that we are responsible not just for ourselves, but for others, and that we have a fundamental obligation to care for our environment for the sake of others. That individual abuses lead to societal catastrophes. A midrash, an ancient Jewish commentary, tells of the story of two people in the boat, and one takes out a drill and begins to bore a hole under his seat. The other jumps up, “what are you doing? You are letting water get in the boat, we will sink.” Don’t worry, says the other, I am only boring a hole under my side of the boat.”

And an embrace of environmental justice is to recognize especially that while climate change affects us all, it disproportionately hurts minority populations and those who are economically disadvantaged.

So change we must, and change we can. Isn’t that what we are celebrating today? Our ability and opportunity to change? Our desire to do things differently? Our humility to recognize that there are things we need to change?

Faced with the enormity of the issues, it is hard to think about our ability to make an impact on climate change. But we must do something, even if we can’t do everything. And while there is much to say about what we could do, what we should do, themes I hope we will examine more closely in the coming months, I want to suggest that we as a synagogue community make a renewed effort around the environment.

There is a lot we already do—our use of reusable goods in the kitchen, for example, as opposed to disposables. Aided by the city of Olympia, we participate in composting. Our landscaping is made up of mostly native plants. And this year, during Mitzvah Morning, when we go out into our community to do service work, there will be one opportunity specifically around the environment.

But there is more we can do. Perhaps it is time to take an environmental audit of the congregation, either our own or using the tools provided by faith based environmental groups like Washington Interfaith Power and Light and Earth Ministry to examine our practices and where we can do more. (And we will join together locally with other faith communities through Interfaith Works to read and discuss the encyclical.)

And as one step towards a deeper congregational environmental awareness, I want to propose an idea: that we try as much as we can to move to zero waste in our congregation. Beginning with the Erev Shabbat onegs: ZerOneg. Zero waste is the idea that we can consciously minimize the amount of garbage we create by a more mindful use of resources. That we try to make it so that all food is consumed, and whatever isn’t will either be composted or reused. And that food packaging either be reused or recycled.

As I mentioned, we already do much of this. And I don’t mean to suggest that there are any problems or concerns that we need to fix. The oneg is a special time when we are able to be in community, to share with one another, to offer hospitality after prayer. Thinking zero waste simply adds another intention, an environmental intention, to this already special time, the time when we come together most frequently.

An environmental mindset forces us to be conscious of what we use before we use it—to bring as much as we like but not too much, to eat what we have brought, to pack out what we don’t to either eat at another time or donate. And this will hopefully impact our purchasing decisions in advance, and increase our attentiveness to food and how much we consume. It is mindful eating, it is just eating. And it could be a fundamental change in how we engage with our resources and waste.

This is but one of potentially many examples of what is required of us. One example in which we change not just our practice but our mindset.

Rosh Hashanah is a day of gratitude and humility. We are grateful for all that we have and the past we have followed to this point. And we are humble to know that we didn’t do it all our selves. So too we have a responsibly to be grateful for the world we inherited, and to have the humility to know it is not ours to do with as we please. We have the responsibility, as told to us in our Torah, that the earth is ours “to till and to tend”—in other words, to care it the best we can.

Our job is not to “save the earth.” The earth doesn’t need us to survive. The earth will survive. Even life on earth will survive. But it may look different, and it may not look like us, if we fail in our responsibility to look after what we have been given.

And while the earth doesn’t need us to survive, our fellow human beings do. The earth doesn’t need us, but our future generations do.

On this day we celebrated our renewed lives and the renewal of life of our planet. We also celebrate the renewal of life itself and we welcome and celebrate the generations who will follow us. We will read the haftarah from the book of Samuel, which speaks of the prophet’s birth. It will be read to us by those who have welcomed new life into their families this past year. Then we will bless all our children. So I close with the words of Pope Francis, “Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who follow us.”

We owe environmental stewardship to ourselves. We owe it to our neighbors. We owe it to our ancestors. And we owe it to our children.

It’s not just a game played at camp.

This is slightly different than delivered on Rosh Hashanah, I added a few sentences to clarify my intentions regarding the oneg and zero waste.

Suffering is Precious

When I was preparing for a text study on the closing chapters of 2 Kings, I came across the following midrash (found in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 101a-b):

Our masters taught: When R. Eliezer fell sick, four elders–R. Tarfon, R. Joshua, R. Eleazar ben Azariah, and R. Akiva–came to visit him.

R. Akiva spoke up and said, “Suffering is precious.”

At that, R. Eliezer said to his disciples, “Prop me up, that I may hear [better] the words of Akiva, my disciple, who has said, ‘Suffering is precious.’ What proof have you, Akiva, my son, for saying it?” R. Akiva replied, “Master, I draw such inference from the verse ‘Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign, and he reigned fifty and five years in Jerusalem . . . and he did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord’ [2 Kings 21:1-2]. I consider this verse in the light of another: ‘These are also the proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out [for widespread instruction]’ [Prov. 25:1]. Now, is it conceivable that Hezekiah king of Judah taught Torah to the whole world, to all of it, but not to Manasseh, his own son? Of course not! Yet all the pains that Hezekiah took with him and all the labor that he lavished upon him did not bring him onto the right path. Only Manasseh’s suffering did so, as is written, ‘And the Lord spoke to Manasseh, and to his people; but they gave no heed. Wherefore the Lord brought upon them the captains and the host of the king of Assyria, who took Manasseh captive in manacles. . . . And when [Manasseh] was in distress, he besought the Lord his God, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers, and He answered his entreaty’ [2 Chron. 33:10-13)]. You may thus infer how precious is suffering.”

Rabbi Akiva explains that King Manasseh of Judah did not follow the correct path, not even when his father Hezekiah taught him Torah. The only thing that brought Manasseh close to God is when he was captured by the Assyrians and held captive. In his suffering, he called out to God. Thus, Akiva says, suffering is precious because it brings a person closer to God.

Sometimes we look for texts, and sometimes texts find us. This jumped out at me because not long ago like Rabbi Eliezer I was suffering on my sickbed, struck down with meningitis. I am doing well now, but I still have the mindset of recovering.

I was struck by Rabbi Akiva’s comment. At first glance I am repulsed by his suggestion. He suggests that there is value in suffering, that suffering elevates one, that suffering brings one closer to God. For those who have suffered, in whatever form, there appears to be no redeeming value to it.

Yet when I read this over again, I had a different reaction. Suffering is “precious,” perhaps, because it gives one the opportunity to have a new spiritual perspective one didn’t have before. This doesn’t mean that we should wish suffering for ourselves or another. This doesn’t mean we can grow spiritually in other ways, in the absence of suffering. But when it does happen, if it does happen, it gives us an opportunity.

I don’t wish meningitis on anyone. But I will take the fact that it happened to ask myself, is there any lesson here? Is there anything I can take away from this experience that will then make my post-meningitis life different, or better? To have the opportunity to think deeply about that question is in and of itself precious.