Blog: July 2006

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

D'varim: punishments for wrongdoing?

The book of D'varim is Moshe's last speech to the people of Israel, in which he retells much of the history of the last 40 years. In the first parsha of the book, Moshe recounts the incident with the spies, the people's refusal to go into the land, and God's pronouncement that that generation will die in the wilderness. The people then have a change of heart -- they are ready to follow God's command to take the land, but God will not relent. Even when the people admit that they have sinned against God, the torah tells us that God did not hear their voices.

This seems in contrast to the idea that the gates of repentance are always open. This week we recognize the destruction of the temple on Tisha b'Av, but even then, while the prophets rebuke Israel, they always end with a nechemta, a comfort. God will take us back, they say. Can we believe that while reading about how God punished the first generation to come out of Egypt?

But did God punish that generation? To many of us, punishment is inherently retaliatory -- you did something bad, so now something bad happens to you in payment. It's the same model whether we're talking about taking away a misbehaving child's TV privileges or sentencing a criminal to jail. A response, ideally in proportion to the offense, is meted out.

That punishment is a negative response does not mean that all negative responses are punishment. It's not punishment when you touch a hot stove and get burned. It's not punishment when you build below sea level and get flooded. It's not punishment when you neglect your health and fall ill. These are consequences, ones that logically follow, but consequences are not always punishment.

The traditional recitation of the Sh'ma includes a paragraph that our movement leaves out, telling us that if we follow God's commandments there will be rain in its proper season and so on, and if not, not. Many are uncomfortable with this apparent divine tit-for-tat; we don't believe that God micromanages, nor that God is petty. But maybe that's not what's going on.

The Rambam tried to be a rationalist. He argued that God set the world in motion and then stepped back from it to let it play out. According to the Rambam all of the miracles recorded in the torah were built into the original programming -- the burning bush, the plagues, the splitting of the sea, and all the rest. There are no miracles of intervention; the world operates according to a set of rules, and God stands back and watches it happen.

Perhaps, then, we can look at these passages in a different light. Maybe mitzvot are just part of the world machinery that also causes the land of Israel to flourish. Maybe not going into the land was a natural consequence of being initially unwilling to take it. Maybe the destruction of the temple was a natural consequence of wrongdoing.

There is a midrash that at the Yam Suf, when the angels rejoiced with Israel, God rebuked the angels, saying "my creations are drowning and you celebrate?". An all-powerful God could have intervened so that no one had to die at the sea, but a God who chose to be limited by the rules he had put in place might not. God can weep with us over the consequences of our poor decisions while declining to suspend the rules of the world and let us off the hook.

When we call something a punishment we ascribe a negative motive and assume a willful act. We might be able to get out of a punishment, maybe without correcting the original problem. May we instead be able to see consequences as just that, consequences, and may we then be able to change the actions that inevitably led to those consequences. In this change, this teshuva, God stands ready to help if we take the first step.

Pinchas: zeal

This week's parsha is named after Pinchas, one of Aharon's grandsons. The Midianites were trying to seduce Israel's men and lead them into idolatry, so relations with them were forbidden. Pinchas saw an Israelite blatantly violating this ban, and he grabbed a spear and ran the couple through, right there in front of everybody. For this act he was rewarded by God.

Pinchas reacted in the heat of the moment, and apparently in anger, and he was rewarded. In parshat Chukat, Moshe, too, reacted angrily in the heat of the moment: the people were complaining again, God told Moshe to speak to a rock to bring forth water, and Moshe instead rebuked the people and struck the rock. For this he was punished, as we are reminded again in this week's parsha. One man, who is otherwise not prominent in our torah, is seemingly rewarded for his anger; another, who has been through many trials, is punished.

The reward Pinchas received is not, apparently, directly for his act.
God does not condone taking the law into our own hands. The torah tells us that Pinchas was "zealous", and this is why God rewarded him.

I don't know about you, but I when I think of the word "zealot", the words "fanatic" and "lunatic" aren't far behind. But our torah tells us, zeal can be a good thing, so maybe we need to look at zeal in a different light. What does it mean to be zealous, and how do we tell the difference between zeal and rashness? When is zeal appropriate?


Zeal can come from anger, but it is not anger. When we are angry, we can lose control and perform acts that we know are wrong. Yaakov's sons Shimon and Levi did this after their sister Dina was molested -- they tricked the men of Shechem into circumcizing themselves and then, during their recovery, Shimon and Levi killed them all. On his deathbed, Yaakov criticized them for this extra-judicial killing. They were angry and perhaps even zealous, but it was not the kind of zeal that the torah considers praise-worthy. On the face of it, Pinchas' zeal seems to be in the same category, punishing the couple for their actions.

Zeal can also come from positive emotions. Perhaps Pinchas was rewarded because his zeal was for something, not against something. Perhaps his goal was to preserve order and prevent others from following the couple's lead, while, perhaps, Shimon's and Levi's goal was revenge. Zeal is dangerously negative when it is destructive, but it can be positive when it is constructive.

Make no mistake: the rabbis are very clear that Pinchas is a special case, and that we should not follow his model and do violence in the name of justice. We are to limit our actions, but we need not limit our zeal.

Talking about zeal makes many of us uncomfortable. We think of people who have adopted a cause and insist on badgering everyone around them about it. That's not just zeal; that's being obnoxious. The one does not justify the other. And zeal needn't be directed primarily toward others; as someone who's more of an introvert than an extravert, I'm not enthusiastic myself about jumping up onto a soapbox and trying to rally the troops. I focus on myself first; that's hard enough on its own. But zeal doesn't require extolling others.

How can we apply the positive aspects of zeal in our lives, without being obnoxious or usurping others' authority? Allow me to suggest some ways.


We can be zealous for God.

For me that phrase brings to mind certain spectacles on Sunday-morning television where five seconds don't pass without a "praise the lord!" or an effort to draw the worshipper closer to the speaker's vision of God. That's not what I mean. We can be just as zealous while being more private. We can focus inward.

When we gather at religious services, we worship and pray to God. There may be other reasons that draw us here too, but, at its core, our service is about God and our relationship to God. We can sometimes lose track of that when we just read the words out of the book together. We have a fixed text, keva, but equally important is the kavanah we bring from our own hearts. Maybe we can work harder at finding that kavanah and bringing it to our prayer. We can take advantage of silent moments in the service, and we are free to stray from the text everyone else is reading to pursue a thought. In fact, our sages tell us that those who only pray the fixed text without also praying from their hearts have not fulfilled their obligations toward God. We Reform Jews might have a different view of obligations toward God, but we can still learn from this teaching.

God does not dwell only in the synagogue. We can think about God, and God's role in our lives, outside of these walls and on days other than Shabbat. I've had some of my strongest "God moments" in my dining room. Zeal for God might lead us to daily prayer or song, or to mindfulness as we go through our week, or to renewed efforts in interpersonal relations, or to a desire to build a relationship with our creator. The beauty of it is that we each get to decide for ourselves, and we don't need anyone else's approval. We can exercise zeal for God without drawing stares from our neighbors.


We can be zealous for torah.

In the Reform movement we disagree with some of our neighbors about the details of torah, but nonetheless we take it seriously. There are lessons for us in torah, and also history, and opportunities to reflect. The rabbis say that there are 70 faces to the torah -- turn it and turn it again and we will find something new.

I see zeal for torah in this congregation every Shabbat morning, when we get together to study before praying. We challenge each other and the text itself with hard questions. Sometimes people return to a discussion weeks later with some new insight. People consult commentaries, both traditional and modern, for further insights. And all of this happens with enthusiasm and joy. We don't have to believe that God wrote the torah word for word in order to pursue it enthusiastically and in detail. We can be zealous for torah without being fundamentalists.

We can also be zealous for torah on an individual basis. We don't have to wait for an organized study session; we can learn on our own. Or we can learn with a partner, which is one of the most exciting ways to study text. I have a regular study partner with whom I learn talmud and, through that, new ways of looking at torah. You don't have to be an expert to study; you just need to be interested and willing to take steps to pursue that interest.

Zeal for torah doesn't stop with the written text. Studying a text for its own sake is a fine thing, but the real benefit comes when we find ways to apply the lessons we learn there in our daily lives. Zeal for torah has caused me to return to questions of shabbat, ethics, and the meaning of prayer over and over again. Next time an idea from torah strikes you as interesting, why not let your zeal take you wherever it leads you?


We can be zealous for Israel.

The talmud tells us "kol yisrael arevim zeh l'zeh" -- all Israel are responsible one for another. In this week's parsha Tzelofchad's daughters ask for an inheritance not for themselves but so that their father's name will endure -- they protect his honor because he no longer can. Kol yisrael arevim zeh l'zeh. We take this lesson to heart when we comfort mourners, visit the sick, share s'machot, and work together to build a caring community. Zeal for our people leads us to action.

All of us, together, are b'nei Yisrael. When our people in Eretz Yisrael are attacked by terrorists, we are all affected. Our torah tells us not to stand idly by the blood of our brothers and sisters. While this does not mean we must take up arms and join the fight, we can stand by the Jews whose only "sin" was living in Haifa or Carmiel. When world opinion is directed against Israel, as it usually is, we can be zealous in pursuit of fairness, justice, and balance, regardless of how we feel about the government. Moshe and Aharon were both punished even though only Moshe hit the rock; Aharon's sin was standing idly by and letting it happen. Zeal should lead us to speak up in the face of wrongdoing.


There is nothing wrong with zeal on its own. There is a lot wrong with violent, destructive zeal. Some zealots fire missiles at innocent bystanders or bomb trains or run people through with spears; we must condemn those actions. But zeal can also guide us in healthy ways. We can be zealous in our relationship with God. We can be zealous in our study of our tradition. And we can be zealous in our dealings with our people Israel. These kinds of zeal can lead us to greater happiness and fulfillment.

Zeal is not an emotion to be feared; it is one to be controlled. By remaining mindful of what we are zealous for and what we are doing about it, we can stay on the positive side of zeal, far away from Pinchas.