Friday, June 28, 2013

The Daughers of Zelophehad, DOMA and Equality

21 Tammuz 5773 / June 28-29, 2013

In this week’s portion, Pinchas, we find one of the earliest vestiges of what today we might call “equal rights.”  Zelophehad was a man who left behind 5 daughters, but no sons.  Traditionally, at the time, it was sons who inherited their father’s property (with the eldest getting special consideration).  The Daughters approached Moses and requested to inherit despite being women.  Moses consults with God who advises that their cause is just.  Thus, from that point forward, if a man died with no sons, his daughters would inherit.

While nowhere close to approaching what we’d consider equality (that would be both sons and daughters inheriting – not just sons), contextually in the time period it made sense given that theoretically women were marrying men who would inherit from their respective fathers, ensuring that family wealth stayed in the family.

This may not be a popular line of questioning, but:

Why do inheritance rights continue to exist today?  Should they?  Is it fair/reasonable that if your parent(s) made a lot of money, that somehow you are entitled to it once they pass away?  In an era where most people do not continue to work in their parents’ business / live on their parents’ property or in their home, does it make sense for inheritance rights to even exist at all?  Should we all have to be self-made in some ways?  How much should be taken in taxes, if any? (Many states have “death taxes,” in addition to the IRS usually collecting as well)

How fitting that this portion falls during the week when provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) were determined to be unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court.  Often missed in the hullabaloo of passionate responses to the Court’s decision is the fact that the lawsuit against DOMA was initiated as a result of inheritance rights.  The plaintiff, whose wife had passed away and left her estate to her wife (recognized as such in the state they lived in), was required to pay a higher tax rather to the IRS than a heterosexual spouse would have been required to, by virtue of their marriage not existing in the eyes of the Federal government courtesy of DOMA.  The Court ultimately decided that to impose a higher spousal inheritance tax rate on gay and lesbian couples by virtue of the Federal government not recognizing their marriages was discriminatory -- a victory for those of us who support equal recognition and equal rights for homosexual couples.

We learn in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, that while we are not obligated to complete the work, neither are we free to desist from it. 

While this week we celebrate a victory, there is much work still to be done in the fight for equality.  Let’s get to it.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Shrek, Game of Thrones, and The Hebrew Bible?

14 Tammuz 5773 / June 21-23, 2013

In this week’s portion, Balak, we find a king, a sorcerer, a talking donkey (not the one from Shrek as far as I can tell), and some very strong words of praise.  Balak, the king of Moab, contracts with Balaam, a sorcerer who has a close relationship with God, to curse the Israelite nation in advance of their upcoming battle.  Balaam says he can only speak the words that God permits him to.  And go figure, God makes him bless the Israelites rather than curse them.  Balak, ever the patient king, tries three times to have Balaam curse the Israelites.  Each of the three times, Balaam brings forth blessings rather than curses.  And at the end of the day, they go their separate ways, with the Israelites having no idea that the event transpired.

There are a couple of things about this narrative that are particularly fascinating.

First, there is no mention of Moses or Aaron, or any active part played by persons we already have a relationship with (short of God).  How did this text come to be in the Torah?

Second, there were sorcerers out there who had connections to God?  The text tells us that God appeared to Balaam!  Does that make him a prophet?

Third, maybe it’s just because I’ve been watching too much Game of Thrones, but how is it that after Balaam’s failure to curse the Israelite nation, Balak allows him to live?  Everything I know about enemy kings suggests that they are vicious, vengeful, spiteful and anything but patient.  I expected Balak to shout, “off with his head!”  But instead, we read: “Then Balaam set out on his journey back home; and Balak also went his way.”  Perhaps the belief in Balaam’s power as a sorcerer scared Balak from exacting vengeance and enacting his rage?  Obviously there must have been some sort of belief in his power, given that Balak was prepared to pay for his services in the first place.

In terms of a takeaway lesson from this week’s portion, if we look closely at the words Balaam uses to bless the Israelite nation (the third time), we find the following gem: “Blessed are they who bless you, and cursed are those who curse you.”

While intended specifically to refer to the Israelite nation, the phrase is beautiful when more broadly applied as well.

What is the relationship between offering blessings and being blessed?  Of cursing and being cursed?

On a simple level, there is real power in positive psychology.  If we make ourselves be positive by offering positive words of praise and blessing, inevitably our outlook on life will be comparatively positive and thus we’ll feel blessed.  So too on the flip side.

A bit deeper, we come to find an appreciation that words have incredible power, and should be considered cautiously.

This Shabbat, reflect on the power of the words and feelings you put out into the world, and the resulting impact on your general mood and state of being.  Strive to bless rather than curse.  Recognize that we all have the power, like Balaam, to choose words of blessing, or to spew words of hate.  Choose praise.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

What About Aaron?

7 Tammuz 5773 / June 14-15, 2013

In this week’s portion, Chukat, we find Moses and Aaron instructed to order a rock to produce water for their thirsty nation, and instead, the rock is struck, and both Moses and Aaron are punished by not being permitted to enter into the Promised Land (Aaron actually dies in this week’s portion – as does their sister Miriam).

The language is quite ambiguous in this section.  The text says that God commanded them (together) to order the rock to produce water.  But, it then says that “he struck the rock” – it doesn’t tell us whether the “he” is Aaron or Moses!  If you recall, Aaron had historically been Moses’s mouthpiece (due to Moses having a speech impediment).  Aaron also cast his own rod down before Pharaoh and it turned into a serpent (so we’ve seen Aaron’s staff in action before).  So who did the ordering and the striking?  Should both of them have been punished for the same single (seemingly minor) transgression? 

We often only think about and bemoan the fact that Moses didn’t get to enter the Promised Land.  But what about Aaron?  He was with Moses at the start, voicing for Moses the first time they approached Pharaoh.  He was the first High Priest of the Israelite nation.  Granted, he helped them make a golden calf, but that incident is not given as the reason for his punishment.  While it seems criminal that Moses eventually doesn’t get to enter the Promised Land, Aaron also had communicated with God and was a major leader of the nation.  I have to ask: what about Aaron?

In the beginning of the Torah, in the story of Cain and Abel, we find one of the most fundamental questions of our tradition: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  While no answer is given at the time, if there was any doubt that our tradition’s answer is a resounding “yes,” we can look to this week’s collective punishment assigned to Moses and Aaron as the ultimate affirmation.  These two brothers, leaders of the nation, ultimately would suffer the same fate of not being permitted to enter to Promised Land due to one of them (we don’t know which) not following instructions, and the other failing to prevent him from erring. 

We have a collective responsibility to one another and the world.

Unfortunately for Aaron and Moses, their misfortune must be our recognition and gain.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Rising Up

30 Sivan 5773 / June 7-8, 2013

In this week’s portion, Korach, we find an uprising against Moses and Aaron.  It was bound to happen that after 40 years of wandering in the desert, the Israelites were going to get frustrated and tired and question their leadership.  The refusal to ask for directions must have been maddening! (But seriously – we learned last week that it was because of the poor reports brought back by the scouts that the Israelites were sentenced to roam in the wilderness for 40 years as punishment, and to wait for all those above age 20 to pass away).

In typical fashion, Moses and Aaron “win” due to a miraculous intervention by God, whereby the leaders (and their families) of the uprising were literally swallowed by the land, disappearing from sight, with their 250 male followers consumed by Divine fire and dying as well.

This concept of an “uprising” has been quite prevalent in the world as of late, with demonstrations this week in Turkey and Iran, ongoing civil war in Syria, and lasting impacts of the so-called Arab Spring. 

How are we meant to determine who is right and who is wrong in these sorts of struggles?  Is an uprising always a positive thing?  Are we predisposed to root for the underdog?  The favorite?

What if there is no clear side to choose based on shared values and desired outcomes?

In America, there has been a lot of talk about “red lines,” both as it relates to intervention in Syria and with Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.  We quickly jumped into action in Libya, while almost 100,000 have died in Syria since their conflict began.  How do we decide when to act in support of or against such uprisings?  How have the relative successes or failures of our past interventions swayed our decision-making?

The reality is that it’s most often the victors who write history.  What we know to be true of the past is largely courtesy of those who won the battles they fought.

Moses and Aaron won.  Thus, Korach and his followers = bad/evil in our inherited narrative. 

But, I can’t help but wonder what the situation was really like on the ground (if these events ever actually took place at all), and what actually transpired as it relates to the uprising we find in this week’s portion.

This Shabbat, reflect on your own sense of history, and critically question the narratives you inherently assume are true. 
Strive to do further research and to uncover a different perspective to a particular historical event.

Contemplate and solidify the values that in your mind would lead you to “rise up,” and or, to support to uprisings of others.

Report back.