Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Four Readings of a Difficult Story: Pinchas

Ever since it came up in the cycle of Torah readings two weeks ago, I've been thinking about the strange and difficult story of Pinchas (Numbers 25). After Balak the king of Moab calls on Balaam the prophet to curse the people of Israel, and God prevents Balaam from cursing them and ends up blessing them instead, we find this story:

While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women, who invited the people to the sacrifices for their gods. The people partook of them and worshiped that god. Thus Israel attached itself to Baal-peor, and the Lord was incensed with Israel. The Lord said to Moses, "Take all the ringleaders and have them publicly impaled before the Lord, so that the Lord's wrath may turn away from Israel." So Moses said to Israel's officials, "Each of you slay those of his men who attached themselves to Baal-peor."

Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. When Phinehas [or Pinchas], son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, saw this, he left the assembly and, taking a spear in his hand, he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them. the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. Then the plague against the Israelites was checked. Those who died of the plague numbered twenty-four thousand.

The Lord spoke to Moses saying, "Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in my passion. Say, therefore, 'I grant him my pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.'" (Etz Hayim, pp. 907-908 and 918-919)

I don't need to point out what's troubling about this story for modern readers. How should we react to the story of Pinchas?

Over my lifetime, I have seen people respond to difficult stories in the Torah in four different ways.
  1. Acceptance: Some people believe that whatever in the Torah is a model for us to follow. If we have trouble with the model, it is we who need to readjust our thinking.
  2. Rejection: A second reaction is that a story like this cannot possibly have anything to teach us. It reflects the barbaric beliefs of our distant ancestors. We should try to separate the uplifting teachings of the Torah from the culture in which they first appeared.
  3. Interpretation: Both the stance of acceptance and the stance of rejection assume that the Torah offers us models to follow straightforwardly--they only differ on whether or not we should accept the offer. There is a third way. Some people look beyond the obvious reading of the text to find a different meaning for us in our time. This is actually the most traditional approach. The rabbis called it midrash, the searching and probing investigation of the words of the Torah.
  4. Asking a different question: Sometimes we get unacceptable answers from the Torah because we are asking the wrong questions. In the case of Pinchas, we might stop asking "What kind of action is this for a nice Jewish boy?" (not to mention a benevolent God), and we might start asking, "In this story, what is the situation the Jews face? When are we in similar situations? What can we learn from the story that's either a direction to follow or a wrong turn to avoid?"
I believe that ALL FOUR approaches can make the difficult story of Pinchas say something useful to us today. Let me start with #4, in my next post.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Fry Our Troops

At least 12 U.S. service members have died in Iraq, not from battle wounds, or explosions, or even from friendly fire like Pat Tillman. They died of electrocution. Army Times quoted Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA):

“When Staff Sergeant Maseth stepped into the shower and turned on the water, an electrical short in the pump sent an electrical current through the water pipes to the metal shower hose, and then through Staff Sergeant Maseth’s arm to his heart,” Waxman said.

The Boston Globe says that KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary, "subcontracted to Iraqi firms with unskilled workers earning a few dollars a day." Because Vice President Cheney's former firm wanted to make exorbitant profits by supplying war materiel on the cheap, a dozen men and women died horrible deaths.

Before we go sending more troops to war, in Afghanistan, in Iran (God forbid yet another war of choice!), or anywhere else, we must ask ourselves: Are we willing to see our young men and women die in agony like Ryan Maseth? Because that is what it means to send them to war.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Mandatory for Whom?

Enforce the mandate and damn the cost. That was the attitude that businesses, insurers, hospitals, and even the Commonwealth of Massachusetts took about the new mandatory health insurance plan--as long as it was health care consumers who had to pay the rapidly rising bills for the program.

But now, the Patrick administration is asking for $100 million out of the deep pockets of corporations and insurance companies and they're refusing to pay. It just goes to show the reason they supported it in the first place. They didn't care about all the families in Massachusetts who can't afford health care. They wanted to shift the cost of health insurance to you and me.

It also shows that mandatory private purchase of health insurance is a bad idea. The way to cover everyone is to cover everyone! Provide Medicare to all, not just to seniors. That will make us healthier and save us money at the same time. I won't cry if it puts health insurance companies out of business, will you?

Monday, July 7, 2008

A Persuasive Reading

One of the great things about being a Jew is that it's hard to be a fundamentalist. Our tradition enthusiastically endorses the idea that sacred texts can have multiple meanings, and we should study all of them. Here's a case in point.

Two weeks ago, I was in Willimantic, Connecticut attending the bat mitzvah celebration of my niece Fay Stoloff. Her Torah portion, Sh'lach Lecha, tells the story of how Moses sent spies to the land of Canaan for a report about the country and the people they were about to invade.

This is what they told him: "We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites [a legendary race of giants] there. Amalekites dwell in the Negev region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan."

Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, "Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it."

But the men who had gone up with him said, "We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we....All the people that we saw in it are men of great size...and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them." (Numbers 13: 27-33, Etz Hayim translation)
The traditional reading pictures Caleb (and to some extent Joshua) as confident men of faith, and the other ten spies as cowardly. Men who look like grasshoppers in their own eyes cannot be trusted to give accurate intelligence before a fight. On this reading, from the first word of their report, the ten are dissuading their fellow Israelites from going into the Promised Land.

But Fay's rabbi, Rav Jeremy Schwartz, urges us to read the passage a different way. Look again at that first paragraph, he says. It's a balanced report. The land is fruitful, but the people who live there are powerful, and here is how they're deployed: these ones here, those ones there. It's just the kind of military intelligence a commander would want. The ten have not said, "Be afraid. Be greatly afraid." They have said, "This is not going to be easy."

But Caleb, says Rav Jeremy, can't stand to hear a single word of discouragement. He jumps up on his own to give his rah-rah speech. It's only after that, and in response to his words, that the ten say, "The country that we traveled and scouted is one that devours its settlers." Because he paints such a rosy scenario, they stress the dangers and difficulties even more.

Iraq has turned out to be a country that devours U.S. troops, and we could have avoided this disastrous invasion and occupation if we had listened to the whole message that our spies had given us. But we the people never had that chance. The Bush administration played the part that Rav Jeremy thinks that Caleb played in Sh'lach Lecha. It jumped up and told us the invasion would be a piece of cake, that Iraqi oil wealth would repay all our costs, and that the Iraqis would welcome us with open arms. They knew better, because they had intelligence reports told them different. They read those reports only to find evidence that would support their aggressive intentions. They ignored and suppressed the rest.

The traditional reading of Sh'lach teaches us not to retreat from the powerful when our cause is just. Rav Jeremy's reading, in my opinion, teaches us not to listen to people urging us to ignore aspects of reality when people with a cause tell us to look the other way. It may also teach us that military intelligence is a contradiction in terms, and that if you look at a country from the perspective of how to conquer it, you will misread what's most important about its culture and people.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Incensed about "Incent"

I haven't been so mad at Joe Kennedy since he failed to oppose the first Gulf War.

What is it that has my dander up, you ask? Is it the proposal that he and his group, Citizen Energy, are advocating to tax Big Oil's profits so we can offer fuel assistance to the poor and invest in alternative energy? No, I am all in favor of that! Is it the development credits he wants the government to offer "to incent the industry to find new energy sources"? No. I think it's a bad idea to bribe the rich to do what they ought to do anyway--but that's not what irks me right now.

It's that word "incent." Or rather, non-word. I am perfectly willing to admit that language changes over time. Shakespeare invented hundreds of words that didn't exist before he wrote his plays. I am just not willing to admit "incent" to the language without a fight.

Here are ten ways Joe could have proposed his tax credits without polluting the English language:

  1. Motivate the industry
  2. Convince the industry
  3. Provide an incentive to the industry
  4. Offer an incentive to the industry
  5. Grant an incentive to the industry
  6. Nudge the industry
  7. Spur the industry on
  8. Give the industry a reason
  9. Attract the industry
  10. Light a fire under the industry
Joe could have chosen the turn of phrase that most precisely conveyed what he meant. "Providing" incentives, for instance, he would have emphasized what he was doing for those rascals in the oil industry, whereas "granting" an incentive would have placed the stress on how generous we, the public, would be to do so--and "spurring" the industry makes them seem like a lazy horse that won't go anywhere without a sharp kick in the sides.

Instead, it's Joe's language that's lazy, and it won't carry us where he wants us to go. Ask youself: when in my daily routine do I "incent" anyone? If you don't do it in normal life--if it takes you a moment even to understand what the word means--why would you be persuaded to do it in public affairs?

This post is dedicated to the Grammar Vandal, my tenant, Kate McCulley. Next month she moves into Boston to live with her sister. Her blog remains at, and I urge you to check it out.