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July 17, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Mattot- Massei

In this week’s parsha, the tribes of Reuben and Gad ask Moses for land on the other side of the Jordan River from the rest of Israel, because that land is good for sheep-herding.  Moses gets angry and calls them cowards (in so many words).  They respond that they will be happy to fight to conquer the rest of Israel (Numbers 32).

Miller, citing an 18th-c. rabbi, suggests that these tribes had another comeback to Moses’ point.  They actually thought that fighting was unnecessary, because “since God had defeated so many lands for the Jewish people, the conquest of the land of Israel would also be aided by miraculous assistance from God, and their own help would not be required.”  According to this interpretation, Moses actually agrees that Reuben and Gad aren’t necessary for the conquest of the land.  But nevertheless he wants them to fight, because “the rest of the Jewish people would not understand that this [reliance on miracles] had been their intention.  The people would interrupt their lack of willingness to fight as plain fear.”  In other words, the two tribes didn’t really have an improper intention, but their conduct appeared improper to others.  So the broader moral lesson is: avoid the appearance of impropriety.

This lesson seems highly relevant to the political scandals of the last year or two, on both sides of the partisan aisle.  When the Clinton Foundation accepted donations from all sorts of people with political connections and who had interests in U.S. foreign policy, I don’t think there was any corrupt intent involved.  After all, a well-connected global charity is going to get donations from all kinds of rich people.  Nevertheless, I can see why it might appear suspicious, so it didn’t exactly help the Clinton campaign.

Similarly, it may be that the Trump campaign wasn’t trying to fix the election or trade favors with the Russian government (I emphasize the word “may” since I suspect that the special counsel’s investigation might take months or years).  But nevertheless, when a political campaign meets with Russian spies it doesn’t look good.

July 10, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Pinchas

This week’s portion involves the daughters of  Zelophedad.  The Torah says that normally sons should inherit from fathers, but this man died with only daughters- so who inherits from him?

The daughters argue (ultimately successfully) that they should inherit.  In the course of their argument they say that their father was not part of Korah’s group (Numbers 27:3).

Why is that relevant? Rabbi Miller writes that according to the Talmud, “when a person receives the death penalty for rebellion against the king… his possessions are taken and given to the king.”  Since Korah rebelled against Moses, his children (according to Miller) could not inherit from him.

This logic is quite dangerous; if the king can get the stuff of people who plot against him, he has an incentive to frame people for such plots in order to get their stuff – as a later king in fact did.  Even 3000 years ago, perverse incentives created perverse results.

July 6, 2017 / conservadox

strange dreams

Dreamt I was in another city where I used to teach (which in real life doesn’t have a local rail system), visiting former students.  Wanted to take an 8:34 train to the airport, but was too busy socializing.  Was about to take a 9:34 train, then saw I had left my tefillin a few hundred feet away.  Ran to get them, then the dream ended before I knew whether I had made train or missed it.

July 2, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Balak

One issue I sometimes worry about is kavanah  (intention)- to what intent should I feel guilty if I’m not focused on ultimate values while doing one ritual or another?

Rabbi Miller thinks that part of this week’s portion is relevant.  The Moabite king Balak wants Balaam (a local sorcerer) to curse the Jews, because he is afraid that the Jews will conquer Moab.  In addition, he makes a bunch of sacrifices to God, because Balaam says he should.

R. Miller writes that although “he did not bring these sacrifices for the sake of Heaven [but to encourage Balaam to curse Israel] he merited that Ruth should be his descendant”.  In turn, Ruth’s descendant was Solomon, who built the First Temple and offered sacrifices for much better motives.  Thus, Balak’s ill-motivated sacrifices led to Solomon’s good deeds.

Similarly, you and I should (in Miller’s words) “busy yourself with Torah and its commandments, even if you have ulterior motives, because eventually you will do so for the sake of heaven.”

By an odd coincidence, a neighborhood rabbi in my hometown made a similar point in Seudah Shlishit last night, interpreting an entirely different text.  Somewhere in the Talmud or Mishna it is written that you should study Torah on the day of your death.  (Don’t have time to google this right now…) The rabbi interpreted this to mean that even on days you feel “dead” to Torah and mitzvos, you should still practice them, because such consistency will encourage you do so on days you feel more “alive.”

June 26, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Chukat

This week’s portion begins with the “red cow ritual”- the rule that certain sacrifices should involve a red heifer.  After the cow is sacrificed and burned, its ashes should be used for purification.  However, the people involved in this process become ritually impure for a day or so.

Medieval commentators found this rule to be very intriguing, because the ritually pure person who burns the cow becomes impure-  yet the ashes are used to purify people who become ritually impure.   Over the centuries, people have used this “harmony of opposites” (in Miller’s words) to make all sorts of ethical points.

One example mentioned by Miller: “We should spend money in the same paradoxical manner, being frugal with other people’s money, while at the same time giving charity generously.”

This resonated with me because about a decade ago a relative (who shall remain nameless) was a houseguest and made all sorts of expensive suggestions about how my apartment could look better.  I was quite offended.

June 20, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah – Korah

This week’s portion is primarily about the rebellion of Korah, a Levite who complains that the priesthood (and Moses) are too powerful.  Moses responds by challenging Korah to a “sacrifice-off”: Korah and his followers offer incense at the same time as Aaron.  Instead of accepting the offering of Korah & Co., God wipes them out.

The end of the portion discusses tithes for priests and then tithes for Levites.  Why do they tithes follow the rebellion?  Miller writes that the tithes are a response to Korah’s attack, in that they show how closely the people, priests and Levites are connected: the priests and Levites are the spiritual leaders of the people.

It also seems to me that this shows how connected the priests and Levites are: after discussing some Levites’ complaints, the Torah is telling us that the priests and Levites should be on the same team, since both are part of the religious leadership.  Or to put it more crudely, Moses is getting “buy in” from the Levites by showing how they too benefit from the Hebrew caste system.

June 11, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Shelach-Lecha

This week’s portion is another episode of “Those Whiny Jews.”  Moses sends some spies to examine the Land of Israel, most of the spies worry that they can’t prevail against the local heathens, the people flip out, and then things get really ugly.  God threatens to wipe out the people and start over gain with Moses’ family, Moses pleads for mercy, and God splits the difference by promising that the Jews have to wander for 40 years and at the end of that period, most of the Jews now alive won’t be.

Why was God so angry?  Miller (citing Isaac Arama) writes: “In rejecting the land, they showed that they … preferred to go back to Egypt.” And in Numbers 14:4, they indeed said: “Let’s appoint a leader and return to Egypt!”

Since God told them to go to Israel, this is not only a direct defiance of a Divine command, but also defeats the whole point of everything that has happened since Moses started talking to them about freedom.

So what, you may ask?  Isn’t this all pretty obvious.  Yes, but… often today’s commentators use the “sin of the spies” as somehow analogous to 8 zillion things we do wrong today.  Like the spies, we don’t show enough faith because we do X, or because we don’t do X, etc.

But it seems to me that this situation was a one-off.  We really don’t have Divine revelation, prophecy etc. today.  Assuming arguendo that the Torah is Divinely revealed, it still does not speak to our situation as directly as it spoke to the situations of the founding generation of Jews.   This has advantages and disadvantages: on the one hand, it is harder for us to know what we should do.  But on the other, God doesn’t punish us as severely (or if so, we don’t know for sure that it was happening or why it is happening).   Either way, comparing our lives to this week’s Torah portion is a stretch.

June 6, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Behaalotekha

After the Jews start inexplicably complaining about food (Numbers 11:4) Moses gets disgusted and asks God “did I conceive this entire people? Did i give birth to them?” (11:12).

After the Golden Calf fiasco (a much more serious sin to the extent that it involved idol worship) Moses takes charge, and here he complains to God.  Why is he so ticked off?

The Miller Chumash has an explanation.  Miller says that the Golden Calf was based on a theological mistake about how to worship God, and that “Moses was comfortable with this since his role was that of the teacher and educator.”  In other words, the people misunderstood so Moses could teach them the right way of doing things.

By contrast, the complaints about food were “not an error of ideology but something much more basic and crude.”  Such lusts weren’t really amenable to intellectual instruction.  Instead, Moses “would have to nurture the people through their national understanding.”  In other words, Moses had to go beyond his original skill-set as a miracle-worker and intellectual leader.

Miller cites Rav Soloveitchik for all this, and adds that today’s Jews are tempted not by other religions but by “the pleasure-seeking culture of our day”- so Jews need “the warm embrace as much as the brilliant idea.” (Which may explain why Chabad is so popular, since they tend to specialize in the former).

There is one thing that seems a little too neat about this analysis: the way it describes the Golden Calf incident is a bit incomplete.  Miller makes it sound like Calfgate was a faculty seminar, but in fact Moses resolved it not through an elegant argument but by having 3000 men executed (Exodus 32:28).  And also God kills a few more people with plague (32:35).

June 6, 2017 / conservadox

Perfect unthemed meal

I had a houseguest over and didn’t want to be bothered with figuring out a themed meal.  But since Shavuot was over and I still had dairy leftovers, that was a constraint.  So this is what I had:

red cabbage w/lentils as a cold salad (no need for green stuff that you might have to check for bugs, and cabbage lasts longer)

lentils again with tomato sauce (because I had sauce lying around)

spinach pierogies

cheese blintzes

I bought a few other things (lox, chocolate) but we didn’t eat them because my guest eats like the proverbial bird.

May 28, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Naso

This week’s Torah portion addresses the Sotah ritual in which a suspected adulteress gets to clear herself through a kind of trial by ordeal.   But that’s not what I want to talk about right now.

The Torah mentions that in the middle of the ritual a priest uncovers a woman’s hair (Numbers 5:18).  This phrase is the origin of the idea that a married woman shall cover her hair, and is why Orthodox women often wear wigs and headscarves and hats.*

The Miller Chumash cites the Zohar as follows: “If a woman covers her hair, her children will be superior, her husband will be blessed with spiritual and material blessings, wtih wealth, children and grandchildren.”

This sort of statement is why I find it hard to take mystics’ statements literally (and right-wing Orthodoxy to the extent that it does so).  Realistically, plenty of people wind up without any off these blessings no matter what they do.


*By the way, if you want a sense of how right wing/ideologically diverse an Orthodox shul is, look at hair.  In the most liberal shuls, most women don’t cover their hair at all.  In the most right-wing, everyone has a wig or a Muslim-like headscarf or other coverings.  In-between shuls have a lot of women wearing hats- which kind of implies maybe they aren’t covering outside of shul.