Sunday, May 31, 2009

Honeymoon in the Wilderness

In my last post, I showed how the rabbinical commentary turns the date that Moses took the census of the Jews in the wilderness into an expression of God's love for the Jewish people. If you thought that was an amazing piece of interpretation, look at this: just the fact that God was providing for them in the wilderness was another love token.

"In the ordinary course of events," the commentators say, "when a mortal king goes forth into the wilderness":

  • Does he provide the same comfort to his courtiers that they would enjoy back in the palace? No. But God gave the Jews comfortable resting places even in the desert!
  • Does he provide tutors to their children? No. But God gave the Jews three teachers, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. (Yes the text mentions all three!)
  • Does he pay the salaries of these officials? No: usually the people have to provide, through taxes. But in this case, it was the other way around. Moses provided manna for the people; Aaron brought the pillars of cloud that shielded them from the desert sun; and Miriam brought a well of water that traveled with the Jews wherever they went!
In the rabbinic mind, the forty years in the wilderness were the honeymoon trip for the marriage of God and the Jewish people. They picture God fondly recalling to the Jews lechtech acharai ba-midbar beeretz lo zeruah, "you followed Me in the desert, in a land that was not sown." They pass over the hardships, the constant whining and complaining, and what they remember is the great love God showed in helping the Jews survive for a whole generation before they entered the Promised Land.

So, just the fact that the census took place in the wilderness becomes the occasion for this romantic nostalgia. Boring parts of Torah? Hardly!

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Day to Remember

On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: Take a census of the whole Israelite community.... (Numbers 1:2, Etz Hayim translation)

The midrash on the Torah portion Bamidbar takes each clause of this exceedingly formal sentence and turns it into a passionate declaration of the love of God for the people Israel--starting with the date!

Look how carefully the date of the census is spelled out at the beginning of the Torah portion. According to the Soncino edition of the Midrash Rabbah, this shows that the census was a special recognition by God toward the Jews, a kind of divine thumbs-up.

How does it show that? By contrast. When God announced to the prophet Ezekiel that the Temple would be destroyed, God made the date of the disaster obscure. Ezekiel (according to one interpretation) thought the destruction would occur on the 20th of Av or (according to another interpretation) on the 1st, but the rabbis say it actually took place on the 9th of Av. This confusion, they say, was a punishment in itself: a further proof that Israel's sinfulness deserved the catastrophe that was about to befall.

It is not surprising that the midrash-makers would connect these two apparently disconnected events. The destruction of the Temple and the subsequent exile was much more recent than the census. The 9th of Av weighed heavily on the authors of the midrash than the second of Nisan at the time they were interpreting this text about the census.

By contrast, however, in Bamidbar we read in detail,"On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt...." Instead of hiding or confusing the date of the census, the text specifies it and insists upon it. It is as if God were saying, "Pay attention to this date. The day when every one of you counted, when the people were unified and whole and headed toward their homeland--not into exile--the day when I lifted up your heads." (For lift up the head is a Hebrew expression that can mean "take a head count," but also, "make you proud and whole again.")

By remembering the census this way, the midrash-makers reminded themselves of the pride God took in the Jewish people back in the days of the wilderness, centuries ago. By remembering it this way, they gave themselves the hope that those happy days of being God's pride and joy would return.

What a romantic longing, that find signs of the lover's favor in the mere mention of a date! But I know I smile every time Rona mentions that we are about to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary on June 25th--and we see each other every day. How much more the Jews pined for God after years of Babylonian exile. How much more it must have meant to them to have a date that reminded them that they all counted in the eyes of God!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Boring Parts of Torah

My synagogue, Temple B'nai Brith of Somerville, once had a Sunday morning discussion on "The Difficult Parts of Torah." Stories about rape, war and conquest, and God blasting people for violating ritual commandments that (gulp!) we completely ignore most of the time--what do we make of those, and how do we tell the kids?

Not just that once but every year, as summer approaches, our weekly readings during Saturday morning services bring us around to what you might call the boring parts of Torah. Those can be even more challenging. No juicy stories about family feuds, no moments of divine revelation. Instead, over the last month we've been reading regulations for priests--and Jews have not had priests for 2000 years. Yesterday, in Bamidbar (the first portion of what is called in English the book of Numbers), we spent most of the Torah service looking at the census of the Israelites wandering in the desert, broken down by tribe and family. Not exactly summer blockbuster material. What's wonderful is that the Jewish tradition of interpreting the text can make even the census into a love story between God and the Jewish people.

Midrash (as I once wrote in my book Political Discourse in Exile) "means the creative style of textual interpretation developed by the rabbis of Palestine and Babylonia in the third to sixth centuries C.E. At least, that is one of its meanings." It can also mean the body of interpretations about a biblical book. As we have reached the point in the year when we read Bamidbar/ Numbers over the past few years, I have reached for Bamidbar Rabbah, the anthology of midrash about that book--and what I have found is amazing. Just from the first sentence of the Torah portion alone, the performance artists we call "rabbis" have piled on one demonstration after another that the period in the wilderness was the young, heated, passionate period of the Jewish love affair with God.

I'll explain about this in the next few posts.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Bad Week for Liberal Idealists

I feel bad for my liberal friends today, especially for those people (young and old) who thought electing Barack Obama as President would make the U.S. a different country.

Item: "President Obama's decision to overhaul and restart the Bush administration's military tribunals for Guantanamo Bay terrorism detainees won support from congressional Republicans yesterday, but deepened his estrangement from the liberal activists who helped sweep him into office."

Item: "KABUL - Human Rights Watch accused the US military of not doing enough to reduce civilian casualties during battles in Afghanistan and called yesterday for changes to prevent civilian deaths like those earlier this month."

Item: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi either knew about the torture of prisoners by waterboarding and said nothing at the time, or else she let the CIA fob off a bunch of misleading statements and significant omissions on as an official report. Either way, she made the Democrats complicit with the Bush administration in committing war crimes.

It's gotten to the point where political cartoonist Rob Rogers shows Obama reading all-too-familiar phrases from the Bush teleprompter!

Is this all a big surprise? It shouldn't be. As far back as June 2006, Obama revealed himself to be cautious in temperament, conservative in morality, non-confrontational, willing to test the limits of the possible but ready to retreat at the first sign that he'd gone too far. If we sit back and let the right wing exert all the pressure, Obama will do what's expedient and not what's really needed. As for the Democrats in Congress, they have always been more concerned about getting back their majority than about repairing the damage to the country that first the Clinton, then the Bush administrations created.

Liberals, this is your chance to give up wishful thinking. If you want progressive policies, you need to build a progressive movement. Putting new faces into office simply means hearing new voices try to explain why the U.S. has to keep pursuing failed and immoral policies. The officeholders are the ones who have to start hearing from us for a change!

Friday, May 15, 2009

I am shocked, shocked that there was gambling in our pension insurance system

It sounds like a Washington-based thriller, but it's today's news.

The former head of the nation's pension insurance agency, who last year pushed through a high-risk strategy that shifted the insurance fund heavily into stocks just before the market crash, committed a "clear violation" of agency rules by contacting Wall Street firms that were bidding to oversee the new policy, while also seeking the help of one firm in gaining employment, according to a government report.
All it would need is a murder and an investigator trying to salvage his tattered reputation to sell for $16.95 in paperback!

Seriously, folks, although what Charles E.F. Millard (and I am not making that name up) is alleged to have done is disgusting, he is not the problem. We have a system that makes this kind of thing possible, and close to inevitable. We saw the same kind of malfeasance and self-dealing 20+ years ago, in the Savings & Loan scandal. As I wrote on March 31: "We cannot rely on capitalism to save us from the shortfalls of capitalism. It takes serious government policy, made by grown-ups, to do that. "

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Boneyard

Annals of military spending:

Some stylish people--fewer, since the recession stated--trade in their used cars every year or two for the very latest model. The U.S. Air Force engages in even more conspicuous consumption. The third largest air force in the world is sitting on the ground in Tucson, Arizona. More than 4,400 aircraft and 13 aerospace vehicles sit idle at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARG), also known as the "Boneyard."

The Boneyard is not only a resting place for planes. I look at each of these airborne behemoths and I realize that it is an unwitting memorial to lives we could have saved.

This country had the choice to fund the war on poverty--to end cancer, or AIDS--to make sure every adult and child had top-quality health care from before birth to the final rest. Instead, we spent billions of dollars producing the aircraft that have ended up baking in the Arizona sun, just another tourist attraction.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Insuring pain--or poverty

Across Massachusetts, people are facing a stark choice: pain or poverty. The mandatory health insurance law forces people to buy some kind of coverage, but often, what people can afford won't pay for the care they need. In today's Boston Globe, Judi Campbell of Northampton says she's putting off hip surgery because she already owes the hospital $1,000 for arthritis-related surgeries her insurance wouldn't cover.

And yet the Globe and many policy makers proclaim the "success" of the Massachusetts health insurance plan. For shame!

Friday, May 1, 2009

A Tiger Set Loose

There was a young lady of Niger
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside,
And the smile on the face of the tiger.

It's clear that some powerful forces in Pakistan have for thirty years supported Islamic radicals in Afghanistan. Primarily, they've backed the Taliban, but they've at least tolerated and at most cooperated with al-Qaeda as well. Pakistan is not dominated by jihadists, and they didn't get involved in Afghanistan for religious or ideological reasons. They supported the Taliban for political reasons: first to cause trouble for the Soviet Union when it controlled Afghanistan, then to train Islamic guerrillas who would tie down Pakistan's traditional adversary, India, in the territory of Kashmir, which India and Pakistan both claim.

It's not clear to me whether Pakistani policy was made by the government, the military, or the ISI, Pakistan's equivalent of the CIA. Without being sure, it is hard to tell whether Pakistan's current military campaign against Taliban forces inside its borders is for real. If it is real, it makes me wonder if whoever calls the shots in Islamabad has realized that the smile is on the face of the tiger. They thought they were using the Taliban, but the Taliban was using them even more.

The fighting is going on 60 miles from the capital city--as close to Islamabad as Worcester is to Boston. The Taliban is that close to taking control of a country that possesses nuclear weapons. God help us all if they do.

If they don't, if we are spared that, our country should learn from the experience. The U.S. actually encouraged Pakistan to support these people against the Soviets, sending money through Pakistan to the warlords who run Afghanistan now and the jihadists who want to run it, both. Our meddling has come back to haunt us. We should make covert wars a thing of the past. They have always hurt us in the long run.