Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Pinchas/Three Weeks: Hasbara?

The real beginning of the sequence of events that results in Pinchas’ eleventh hour action can be traced to a Rashi in Balak [Num. 22:4]: the bitter enemies of Midian and Moav made peace between themselves due to their Jew hatred. This may actually the first time we see Rashi specifically delineate Jew-hatred [we have an example of “Hebrew” hatred in Miketz [Ber. 43:32], but even if one glosses over the semantics, there were a lot less of us]; even in the Rashis expounding the milchemes Amalek in Beshalach [Shemos 17:8-16], not a word is mentioned about “hate” or “sinah”, even though Amalek is assumed—pace his grandfather—to be the hater par excellence, the paradigmatic anti-Semite.

There are many eerie parallels between this notion and the current political situation in the Middle East, particularly as regards the Gaza flotilla and the worlds reaction to it.

The first is simply how applicable Rashi’s description of the situation is today: “asu shalom beneihem”. Everyone knows about the deadly internecine strife between Sunni and Shiite, the political rivalry between Persian and Arab for Middle East hegemony , and now Turkey’s seeming willingness to actually reestablish te Ottoman caliphate.

Re the nature of the hate--both nations in this case had fears of being ‘swallowed up’, but for no good reason: wars were about passage [like 1967, with the Suez], and Bnei Yisrale couldn’t touch Moav by divine decree…so did the hate come before the fear, or the other way around? It seems as if the fear caused the hate [witeness the diff bet Balak’s and Bilaam’s hate].

More poignantly, re the nature of the responses: Zimri tried to make his response a religious response. As I've discussed before, Zimri was almost trying to tell his fellow Jews: you fools. You want to “score”—just do it, and forget the idols. Bad enough; but he turned it into a vehicle for a personal power crusade—as the gemara notes, he told Cozbi he was more of a higher-up than Moshe [her intended target], and he did his deed in the ohel moed in full view, as if he was now the top cat. This was what Pinchas put a stop to.

[Interestingly, when Pinchas ostensibly makes an appearance later on in Sefer Shoftim in the Yiftach incident and pilegesh begivah, he’s not speaking truth to power [albeit in Zimri’s case, illegitimate power]: he IS the power, and he is notably les usccesful in both cases. Pilegesh beGivah, in fact, is almost a case of Zimir in reverse: its noted that much of the carnage that results was because Bnei YisrY were makpid on the kavod of the pilegesh but not the Kavod Hashem in the immediately preceding story of Pesel Micha. In this case not only did Pinchas stand up for the honor of Hashem---Hashem, as it were, waited for him to do it [by not smiting Zimri immediately].

Now, does this mean we want to “read out” jews who are less than stellar in their support of Israel, seeing as how their ostensible “dual loyalties” [Jewish vs Progressive, or what people call “liberal” nowadays] might lead to more Jews getting killed? While it might be a stretch to call them Erev Rav [Netanyahu may be right about Axelrod and Emanuel], one can be justified in casting opprobrium towards those who are formulating “responses” to the crisis as the authentic “Jewish” response. Some deserve to be called out by name, like J Street and its claim to be pro-Israel while accepting funds from known bastions of anti-Israel machinations [e.g. Islamic think tanks and the like.] Or Neturei Karta. Or Naomi Klein [who I’m sure is a member in good standing at her shul in Montreal]. I might not place Peter Beinart’s recent essay in the New York Review Of Books [possibly THE current flagship of anti-semitic Judaism]; he was describing a phenomemon rather accurately. The fact that he was saying that these students’ impressions were correct was another matter; but there was going to be a point where Jews with little or no religious affiliation were going to become uncomfortable identifying with a state whose foundations are so clearly religious.

Still, while one should not say that they elicit the response of kana’in pogin bo, said kana’in should find a Pinchas-like method [within legal and non-lethal limits, of course] of putting a stop to, or at least rendering much less effective, the “illiberal” impressionism that seems to be the biggest “PR” obstacle to support for Israel among our own. And, should we still be—with some justification—to start reading people out as erev rav, we might be pointed to the Gemara in Sanhedrin 37a, which, as a play on the posuk in Toldos 27:27 “re’ach begadav”—the pleasant odor of the clothing—transforms it to “re’ach bogdav”, that G-d finds even the aroma of our TRAITORS pleasant.

We need to be careful.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Chukas/Balak: Divine Affirmative Action

Don’t say, “Why were the former days better than these?” For you do not ask wisely about this. (Koheles 7:10)

For the 38 years of their sojourn in the midbar [and more], Bnei Yisrael had all their needs taken care of to a rather miraculous extent, were immersed in Torah learning like no other generation…and were “nezufin lifnei hamakom” for that entire period.

It is actually that very state of affairs that is the proximate cause of the new generation’s first brush with divine retribution: the complaint about the “lechem haklokel”, the fact that the manna, being a completely “spiritual” food, never resulted in any waste byproduct—in other words, no going to the bathroom for 40 years.

Rashi notes the foreshadowing: the last time there was an “express trip” to make a dash for the border—in parshas Beha’alosecha—it elicited a similar complaint [the “misonenim”], and the resulting 38 year delay. And, here, as Rashi notes, the analog between the lashon hara of the meraglim and the lashon hara here [the reason for the snakebites].

The Divine response is interesting precisely because G-d Himself seems to go out of His way, as it were, to prevent a re-occurrence of the meraglim: as Rav Dessler points out, He sanctions an approach with the Nachash Necshoshes which is virtually the same method as what the egel was supposed to have been [albeit, this time as a Divine command as opposed to done on a questionable human initiative].

Similarly, one might find loose parallels between Bilaam and Amalek: Amalek attacked the stragglers, the “lo yirei Elo-kim”; Bilaam looked specifically for what would be Bnei Yisrael’s weakest point of resistance, and eventually all the “work” of eradicating the Jews would be done by the Divine wrath incurred by the resulting transgressions.

[Interestingly, one might notice that a historical tendency among the worst anti-Semites to have others do their work for them. Aside from the fact that Hitler ym”sh was known to be a late riser, he also was loath to actually go anywhere he would have to see the killing of Jews being performed. Similarly, Bilaam himself started the entire chain of events by telling Balak how to “seduce” the Jews to their own destruction, avoiding any real direct involvement himself.]

Again, we see that Bnei Yisrael were afflicted with a plague [as they were at the time of Korach, possibly the nadir of the entire sequence of events that started with the misonenim and ended with Korach’s rebellion], and to avoid what seemed to be a repeat, an extraordinary sequence of events occurred culminating in Pinchas’ single-handed staying of the plague—except, when one looks at the Gemara in Sanhedrin [83a or thereabouts], which describe how the hand of G-d paved the way for his action to be successful, we see again that G-d himself was actually willing to get involved to change the outcome from what might have otherwise been as tragic as it had been nearly forty years previously.

I would venture to say, in a way, the G-d, kevayachol, was implementing a “curve” of sorts for this generation so that they wouldn’t suffer as their forebears had, even if it meant implementing a form af “affirmative action” that was unavailable for the dor yetziah; this despite the fact that, in this case, if one would try to make an analog between aveiros, one might think the “klokel” complaint was worse than the quail complaint, as it attacked the obvious [and long-ongoing] manifestation of divine providence; and, if one could “compare” avoda zaras, if one considers that there were very few actual “worshippers” vis-à-vis the egel [erev rav notwithstanding], the sin of Peor was worse, with or without the ick factor.

So it’s plausible that, even thought this generation had known nothing but Torah and the “Eibishter provided” in the most literal sense possible, something was still missing. To the point that, as the Gemara in Brachos 7a details, G-d withheld Himself from his daily allowance of anger so Bilaam couldn’t pull off an efficacious curse.

The conclusion that might be drawn from all this is that, for all the talk of “yeridas hadoros” and our generation’s ostensible lack of worthiness compared to our ancestors, sometimes there are reasons that Divine Providence deems the “lesser” doros worthy of the kind of help that wasn’t necessarily meted out to those previous doros. The aforementioned parallels between Chukas/Balak and Behaalosecha/Shelach—and other pratfalls—serve as one example. The contrast between the European generations and our current ones serve as another one. Regardless of the historical truth of whether or not “nobody was frei”, again, there are reasons that things happen now that didn’t happen then—l’tova and l’ra’a, but I would say more l’tova.

While history may repeat itself, it always leaves enough of a window, and at some point, G-d will be looking through that window.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Shlach: Insecurities

The headline of the Yahoo article read “Being Bad at Relationships Is Good for Survival”.

Obviously my first thought was that I had just found another ra’aya as to why the “shidduch crisis” was anything but. [Of course, if I was to be intellectually consistent, it might lead me to have to admit that the marry-then-meet system of shidduchim [ostensibly] prevalent in the Chareidi world was the best of all possible systems [or, the worst except for all the others], because what kind of relationship is worse than no relationship; but I’d never want to publicly give any of their approaches to anything more than a grudging credence.]

Further perusal, however, revealed the real essence of the research being discussed: namely, that harboring insecurities are important mechanisms in the adaptation of evolutionarily advantageous behaviors, as the insecure have more incentive toward due diligence in the fight to survive. Or, in English, the insecure are better off, even if [if not especially when] it comes to relationships.

That led me to thinking about Alan Dershowitz’ “tzures theory of Jewish survival”:

We know that Judaism is adapted to crisis, we know how well it does when it faces external threats; the real test of Judaism is how it deals with its own internal crisis and how it deals with problems that cannot be blamed on others outside of the Jewish community…[it] puts Jews in a very uncomfortable position, we don't want tzures, we don't want to be attacked and nonetheless we want to survive and thrive.

That led me back to an older post of mine, Vayigash-States of Emergency, where I basically theorized that if you scream “sha’as hadechak” enough, you get one.

Meantime, its in these last two parshiyos—culminating with the chet hameraglim and the gezera of 40 years in the desert when the possibility of the relationship between Hashem and Benei Yisrael becomes officially insecure, as detailed in the Rashi in Devarim [2:17] that explains that during the dor hamidbar the communication between Hashem and Moshe was itself strained, “amirah” as opposed to “dibbur”.

Yet at the same time, the 40 years—according to some midrashim [I can’t find exactly where just now—I think it may have been in Beshalach, on “derech eretz Plishtim ki karov hu”]—were necessary for the development of Bnei Yisrael’s character: they needed the 40 years of Torah they got while being fed with the manna and having perpetually fitting clothing and shoes, and never even having to go the bathroom.

Were, then the 40 years were paradigmatic of security, because everything was taken care of, and “ein nitnah Torah ela le’ochlei ha-man”—so there was unparalleled Torah learning, the ultimate expression of the “relationship with G-d”? Or, were they eminently insecure, because as the aforementioned Rashi notes, the 38 years were “nezufin lifnei ha-Makom”? Can there be a tradeoff?

I would venture another link to my thesis in States of Emergency, that while some degree of insecurity is necessary to actually make a relationship work, the pursuit of ultimate “security” inherent in the “Torah-only” philosophies of some schools [you know who you are] are not only far from ideal, but actually may end up being counterproductive.

The first example is as noted above: during all the openly miraculous sojourn in the midbar, bnei yisrael were “nezufin lifnei ha-Makom”, even to the point that it affected the Divine communication with Moshe. That state of affairs hardly beckons as the ideal state of a relationship, secure or otherwise.

A later example from the annals of Jewish education comes from Chizkiyahu’s education policy as delineated in Sanhedrin 94b: he stuck a sword at the entrance of the beis medrash, which probably was the most effective deterrent to batalah—and it worked: there was no halachic ignorance in all of Israel. A perfect ra’ayah to educational coercion, no?


A few contextual clues may offer explanation as to why the policy was hardly ideal and probably not sustainable. One was the fact that it was likely done during the siege of Sancheriv, and Chizkiyahu needed to make sure learning did not stop entirely during wartime; imposing a form of martial law on the beis medrash was perfectly in line with imposing it elsewhere. What might be more indicative of the insustainability of the policy may be what occurred right after Chizkiyahu’s petira: his son Menashe take sthe throne and ushers in 22 years [at least] of the worst behavior to occur in the kingdom of Yehuda until that point, so much so that the gezera of Churban Bayis Rishon was sealed during this period. The coerced knowledge not only did not hold up, it more than fell by the wayside.

One of theories regarding the impetus behind the chet ha-meraglim was insecurity: whether they were worried about their actual worthiness to enter the land, the rest of the people’s worthiness to enter the land, whether they could actually succeed militarily—in any case, there are several psukim that point to the fact that a large part of the population was subject to insecurity. [And, as the Gemara in Ta’anis reveals, the mida k’neged mida was the perpetual insecurity—the bechiya ledoros of Tisha B’av.] It might be the Jew’s [and the Jews’] lot to e perpetually insecure. However—despite, or perhaps even because of, the evidence buttressing the possible “payoffs” from that status—from the nisim in the midbar, the amount of Torah learning resulting, or even the principle of “l’fum tza’ara agra”—it should hardly be considered an ideal.

It is something to be overcome, not something to be idealized.