Sunday, July 20, 2014

Murder, Hollywood, And A Would-Be Novelist

Jezebel in Blue SatinJezebel in Blue Satin by Peter S. Fischer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a good, old fashioned who done it. Throw in Post WWII Hollywood and you've got a can't put it down until the last page mystery.

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Out of the Land

 In this week’s Torah portion Mattot (Num. 30:2-32:42) representatives of the tribes of Reuben and Gad and of the half-tribe of Manassah come to Moses to make a request.  They are raisers of cattle and they like the looks of the land east of the Jordan River which God has helped the people to conquer, and they want, once the land that God has promised them has been won, to come back to settle there, east of the bounds of the Promised Land.  Moses resists, but when they agree that they will take a full part in the conquest of the land with the other Israelites, and only after the land is secured will return across the Jordan to their chosen home, he agrees.  

In modern Israel, there is a term, “chutz la’aretz”, literally, “out of the land”.  When Israelis travel, they are chutz la’aretz.  It doesn’t matter if they are gone for a week or for two years.  It doesn’t matter if they are in America or in India or in Antarctica.  Either you are in the land, or you are out of it.

It is apparent from this Torah portion that from the very beginning, even before they had left the wilderness, some Israelites wanted to be in the land, and some did not.  Today, some Jews feel compelled to live in the land of Israel, the only Jewish state in the modern world.  Some Jews have fled to Israel not because they want to be there, but to escape discrimination and oppression in the places from which they came.  And some of us support Israel and deeply feel its pains and its triumphs, but for our own reasons choose to live chutz la’aretz.  At times like these, when Israel is experiencing danger, fear and the moral complexities of fighting an enemy who does not protect its own citizens, it can feel lonely to be out of the land.  But we can take the example of the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manassah.  You don’t have to live in the land to support it.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

“The God Within Us Is Diminished"

 This week’s Torah portion, Pinchas (Num. 25:10-30:1) is about a man who is self-righteous, impulsive and violent, and the controversy that surrounds him is not unlike what is going on in the state of Israel today.  At the end of last week’s Torah portion, we were told that Israelite men have been consorting with Midianite women and becoming worshipers of Baal.  One of them goes so far as to bring a Midianite woman into his tent where he can clearly be seen from the tabernacle by Moses and by all the people.  Pinchas leaves the assembly, takes a spear, follows the man and woman into the chamber, and impales them both together.  He does not consult with Moses, he does not bring the man before the justice system that existed at the time, he just goes ahead and brutally kills them.

            Who are this man and woman?  We are not even told their names until almost the end of the matter, in this week’s Torah portion.  The portion begins by telling us the result of Pinchas’ act.  God tells Moses that Pinchas has turned back God’s wrath against the people by “displaying his passion”.  God will grant Pinchas God’s gift of peace, and that his descendants will serve as the priests of the Temple.  And, the Torah adds, almost as an aside, the man was Zimri son of Salu, a prince of the tribe of Shimon, and the woman was Cozbi, daughter of a Midianite tribal ruler.

            On the surface, it would seem as if God approves of Pinchas’s deed, but the commentators are divided in their appraisal.  Some praise him for his bravery in dealing handily with a situation that threatened the heart and soul of God’s people, and they can prove their case by God’s words at the beginning of this Torah portion.  But many commentators on the Torah had trouble with Pinchas’ act.  They viewed it as vigilantism and fanaticism, as setting a negative precedent, and were disturbed by God’s apparent approval of a brutal double murder, however justified.

            In the Talmud, Sanhedrin 82a, Rav and Shmuel debate about whether or not Pinchas was right.  Rav imagines a conversation between Pinchas and Moses in which Pinchas asks, “Great-uncle!  Didn’t you say that God told you at Mount Sinai that any one cohabiting with a heathen woman should be punished by zealots?” and Moses answers, “Let the One who gave the order do the punishing”, in other words, yes, what Zimri did was wrong, but leave it to God to punish him.  Shmuel argues that the situation was too extreme and too serious to allow the thing to pass.  Immediate action was called for, not waiting to see how God would punish Zimri.  Those who threaten Israel’s survival must be killed at all costs.

            During these last few weeks, I hear the voices of Rav and Shmuel arguing in my own head and heart as I hear the news of the Israeli boys kidnapped and killed by Hamas militants, of the Palestinian boy burnt alive by Jewish extremists, of the rockets fired on Israeli cities which have forced the Israeli army to respond in defense, of the spiral of violence that seems to only grow worse.  “Yes, we must kill them before they kill us.  Those who threaten Israel’s survival must be killed at all costs.”  “No, the killings accomplish nothing and make things worse.  We need to find a way to make peace”.

            The questions we ask ourselves have to do with “right”.  Who is right?  Who is most oppressed?  At Baal Peor, the fledgling people Israel were enticed by pagan practices.  Then, a prominent member of the community boldly and egregiously commits an act of harlotry and idolatry in plain sight of Moses and the community.  Pinchas, waiting for nothing and consulting with no one, takes a spear and runs them through.  At once, the plague that has afflicted Israel is ended, and Pinchas receives the gift of peace.  The immediate question that comes to mind is, “Is Pinchas justified or not?”  Perhaps the question we should be asking instead is, “What does his action do to him?  What is the aftereffect of this violent act upon him, upon his character, his psyche?”
            Several later commentators did just that, and they understand God’s granting of the priesthood to Pinchas and his descendants not as a reward for his extremism, but as an antidote to it.  The K’tav Sofer says, “This will protect Pinchas from the destructive impulse within him.”  And Naftali Zvi Berlin, a 19th century rabbi, in his Torah commentary Ha Emek Davar includes an extensive passage on the character of Pinchas.  He believed that, while Pinchas acted out of deep conviction and felt that he was justified, that he must have, afterwards, been deeply disturbed by his zealous and impulsive act.  Berlin explains that this is why God grants him a covenant of peace—not as a reward, but as a cure.  Berlin says, “The covenant is meant to calm him, so that he should not be quick-tempered or angry.  Since the nature of his act, killing with his own hands, tended to leave his heart filled with intense emotional unrest, God provides a means to soothe him so that he can cope with his situation and find tranquility of soul.”

Note that none of the commentators who criticize Pinchas’ action say that his act was unprovoked.  There is no excuse given for Zimri’s bold and arrogant act of idolatry.  What Pinchas’ detractors find most problematic is that his action, however necessary it might have been, should not be cause for the glorification and reward that he appears to get from God. 
The essay on this portion in the Etz Hayim Torah commentary points out: “In the text of the Torah scroll, the letter yod in Pinchas’ name in the second verse is written smaller than the other letters.  When we commit violence, even if justifiable, the yod in us (standing for the name of God) is diminished thereby.  In verse 12, the letter vav in shalom is written with a break in the stem.  This is interpreted homiletically to suggest that the sort of peace one achieves by destroying one’s opponent will inevitably be a flawed, incomplete peace.”

Many years ago, in 1973, Golda Meir was quoted as saying, “It is true we have won all our wars, but we have paid for them. We don’t want victories anymore.”  We do pay for winning wars, for killing, for all acts of violence, whether justified or not.  When we commit violence, when we witness violence, when we countenance violence, our yod grows smaller; the God in us is diminished.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Train Conductors and Their Hats

 I like trains.  On a train I am in a different reality -- train reality.  There's no sense hurrying or hoping the train will go faster than the rails allow.  The train is in charge.
On a recent train trip to Washington DC I became fascinated by the conductors' hats.  They all wore them and I wondered why.
It can't be that they are so attractive because they aren't.  So what was it with the hats which, in all honesty, are pretty odd looking.  Off I went, as soon as I got back home, to the computer to find out the story behind those hats.  Come to find out, there isn't much of a story there.  They wear them because that's what they wear.  Here's what I found.  The people wearing those hats are easily recognized as passenger train conductors.  Ok.  Got it.  The hat is a variation on the military cap called a 'kepi'.  Okay.  A 'kepi' in various spellings means 'cap'.  So noted.  More familiar than what they are called is the cap itself.  It's worn by French military and police but more familiarly was worn by soldiers fighting on both side of our Civil War.  Railroad conductors started wearing them in the 1870s.  Back in 'the day' the conductor on all trains both freight and passenger supervised the train and its entire crew.
 Because all crew reported to the conductor (except possibly the engineer) and because all crew often wore the same style hat, each hat had a badge on the front indicating the crew person's job.  Conductor.  Trainman (brakeman).  Sometimes passenger agents, freight agents, freight agents and redcaps wore the same style.  Of course, the redcaps hat was red.  All of the other hats were black.
From the late 19th century until the middle of the 20th century conductors on trolley cars generally wore the same style hat and generally it was black.
I was impressed by the detail and hard work of the conductors on my very short ride to Washington DC.  They do, indeed, keep the trains running. 
Hats off to the conductors!

Friday, July 4, 2014

Torah Thoughts on Balak

In this week’s Torah portion, Balak, (Num. 22:2 – 25:9) Balak, king of Moab, goes to the Midianite prophet Balaam to hire him to curse the people Israel.  Balak, we are told, saw what Israel had done to the Amorites and was alarmed at their growing numbers.  Balaam, after hesitations and refusals, agrees to do Balak’s bidding, but he cautions Balak, “I can utter only the word that God puts into my mouth” (Num. 22:38).  

Three times, Balak leads Balaam to view the Israelites, and three times, Balaam opens his mouth to curse them, and blessing comes from his mouth instead.  Balak is furious.  What is this prophet doing?  But Balaam repeats that he can only say the words that God puts in his mouth.  He then puts forth another prophecy which envisions a bright future for Israel and doom for its enemies.  Enraged and defeated, Balak returns to his home, and Balaam does the same.  At the very end of the parshah, we learn of an Israelite man who brings a Midianite woman home with him, and for a reason not made clear at this time, either idolatry, immorality or both, the high priest Pinchas kills them both.

In his book Torah Today, Rabbi Pinchas Peli raises the question, since Balak knows Balaam’s reputation, saying, ”he whom you bless is blessed indeed and he whom you curse is cursed” (Num. 22:6) why did he not request the blessing of his own people rather than a curse on Israel?  Rabbi Peli’s answer is as follows:  “Then, as always, the enemies of Israel preferred its destruction, even at the expense of the destruction of their own peoples, to concentrating on constructive matters which would benefit both themselves and their neighbors.”

This past week, we learned of the tragic murder of three Jewish youths and the additional tragedy of the killing of a Palestinian youth in Israel, purported to be a revenge killing for the three Israelis.  These deaths have brought the situation in the area, already tense, to the brink of war.  Fury and blame are everywhere, even as facts and solutions are few.  May we remember, as the parshah teaches us, that Israel is blessed only when we act in accordance with God’s Torah.  When we too fall into the cycle of vengeance and retribution, only more sorrow and bloodshed can result.  May cool heads and hearts which respect life prevail in this sad and frightening time.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Oh, my! What a book.

The Secret History of Las Vegas: A NovelThe Secret History of Las Vegas: A Novel by Chris Abani

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh, my!  What a book.  With principal characters which include a South African psychiatrist, an assassin, a law enforcement officer who urinates in public and builds beautiful model ships, a prostitute, and conjoined twins one would reasonably wonder how Chris Abani could possibly tie it all together.  And yet, he does just that with grace and depth.

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Friday, June 27, 2014

Torah Thoughts on Chukkat

If Moses could come back and review his life for us, he might say that this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (Num. 19:1 – 22:1) recounts the hardest times he ever had.  The opening verse of chapter 20 brings news of the death of his sister Miriam and verses 25 through 28 of that same chapter tell about the death of his brother Aaron, high priest of the Israelite people.

It is heart-rending to lose a brother or sister, but Moses has lost more than that.  He has lost the members of his team in the leadership of the Israelites. Miriam has been looking out for Moses from his babyhood, following his progress down the river in the basket of bulrushes to be sure that he lands safely in the arms of Pharaoh’s daughter, and she is with him as he brings the people out of Egypt through the sea of Reeds.  Aaron took care of the spiritual needs of the people as Moses tended to their strategic and political needs.  Now Moses must look to the next generation for his partners.  In the final verses of the chapter, God commands Moses to take Aaron and Aaron’s eldest son Eleazar up Mount Hor, strip Aaron of his priestly vestments and place them on Eleazar.  Aaron dies on the mountain and Moses and Eleazar descend together.  How must it have felt to Moses to see his nephew in the holy garments that he had always seen Aaron wearing?  And how must it have felt to Eleazar to wear them, knowing that the responsibility was now on him?