Monday, July 6, 2015

Parashat Pinchas 5775 Moshe’s Mantle

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Pinchas 5775
Moshes Mantle

As the Israelites move closer to entering the Land of Israel, issues of inheritance come to the fore. This is true regarding the Land itself, on the one hand, but also in terms of leadership on the other hand. Moshe, who will not enter the Land of Israel, raises the question: Who will be the new leader? Moshe insists that the People of God not be left leaderless: Let God's community not be like sheep that have no shepherd.' (Bmidbar 27:17)

From the manner in which the request is made[1], and from Gods response, it seems that this is not simply a political or military appointment. The person God chooses will have the unenviable task of filling Moshes shoes.

Replacing a legend in any industry is difficult; replacing Moshe seems impossible. In fact, a similar challenge is recorded in the Book of Kings, as the great prophet Eliyahu (Elijah) prepares to leave his student and heir Elisha. The master offers his anxious student one final blessing or wish:

And it came to pass, when they had crossed over (the Jordan), Eliyahu said to Elisha, Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken away from you. And Elisha said, I beg you, let a double portion of your spirit be upon me. (2 Kings 2:9)

In what might at first seem to be a haughty or presumptuous request, Elisha asks not for the power of his master, but for double the power, twice the capabilities of the great Eliyahu. In fact, Elisha was far from haughty or power-hungry. He was fully aware of the greatness of his teacher, of Eliyahus unsurpassed gifts as a prophet and leader. If anything, Elisha felt inadequate to step into the enormous void that Eliyahu would leave behind, which led him to seek out some way to compensate for the shortfall in leadership and vision he foresaw. In Elishas mind, only an endowment of twice the power, twice the insight and vision, would be enough to compensate for his own lack of talent. Only in this way would he, who paled in comparison to his great teacher, be able to meet the challenge and fulfill the needs of the soon-to-be-bereft generation.

In contrast, when God answers Moshes plea for a replacement, God instructs him to take take Yehoshua son of Nun, a man of spirit, and invest him with some of your splendor so that the entire Israelite community will obey him. (Bmidbar 27:18,20)

Why should Elisha, the man chosen to replace Eliyahu, receive twice the power of his predecessor, while Yehoshua, the man chosen to replace Moshe, receive only some of the splendor of Moshe? To be sure, Moshes prophetic ability was unique. No other human being before or since will ever achieve that proximity to God.[2] Therefore, by definition, Yehoshua could not have been given twice the power of his teacher. But this does not explain why his mandate was so curiously limited from the outset.

We may say that this conundrum goes beyond the question of succession, and sheds light on the underlying issue that created the need for a change in leadership in the first place: Moshe could not enter the Land of Israel because, simply put, he was too great. The people could not completely understand or properly estimate Moshes capabilities. Instead, his unique relationship with God became a crutch that they had come to rely upon too heavily. Had Moshe continued to lead them into the Land of Israel, they would have remained passive, simply standing by and waiting for miracles to solve their problems and fulfill their needs. They would have become spectators rather than participants in Jewish history.

When God gives His commentary on Moshes death, He explains that Moshe was guilty of using too much of the power God had bestowed upon him.[3] By striking the rock, Moshe and Aharon gave the impression that they, and not God, were the source of this miracle. At this point in their development, the people had to be weaned from their reliance on miracles, from their expectation that miraculous events were the norm.  The supernatural seemed natural to them. Now, their impending entrance into the Land of Israel would require them to shift into a different mode of existence: The manna would soon be replaced by agriculture, and their sustenance would no longer be insured through the agency of Moshe, Aharon and Miriam. Rather than waiting for their leaders to perform miracles, the people would now become partners with God.

Eliyahu and Elisha lived in a time of religious anarchy. The people were deeply involved in idolatrous worship, and the novice Elisha would have to seamlessly take up the mantle of leadership once worn by Eliyahu. Elisha was well aware of what lay ahead, and he wisely asked to be endowed with even more power than his teacher: The Jewish People needed to see the power of God; anything less would have fallen short of what would be necessary to stem the tide of paganism that had washed over the nation. On the other hand, Moshes generation had witnessed unparalleled miracles each and every day. They had no need for one more miracle. What they needed was to begin a new chapter, in which their own relationship with God would blossom and grow through the continuous acts of faith and adherence that would make up their everyday life in the Land of Israel. Moshes unique, miraculous form of leadership was what they had needed in the wilderness; the next chapter would be written in a different style, under the leadership of a man who was endowed with a small portion of Moshes spiritual capabilities but with the capabilities most suited to the life that lay ahead of them in the Promised Land.

For a more in-depth analysis see:

[1] In this section Moshe addresses God in an unusual manner: Let the Omnipotent God of all living souls appoint a man over the community.

[2] Dvarim 34:10
[3] See Dvarim 32:51 where the word trespass maaltem is used.

Echoes of Eden

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Parashat Balak 5775 The Road Not Taken

Echoes of Eden

Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Balak 5775
The Road Not Taken

The events recounted in Parashat Balak took place millennia ago, but so many of the elements of the story are all too familiar to the modern reader.

Although the actual conquest of the Land of Israel had not yet begun, there had already been a few military skirmishes between the Israelites and the tribes of Canaan and its environs. Generally, the conflicts centered around free passage through secure travel routes and use of water. Apparently things have not changed much in this part of the world.

The locals,     an ad hoc coalition of erstwhile enemies, band together to wage war against the Jewish People, despite their age-old internecine warring. Motivated by fear of their common enemy, they resolve to mend their fractious ways in order to bar the Israelites return to their ancestral homeland again, a scenario that continues to repeat itself to this very day.

As opposed to the earlier conflicts recorded in the Torah, which were limited battles over access to resources or roads, the conflict in Parashat Balak introduces elements of religion and plain, old-fashioned anti-Semitism (even though this term would be coined only thousands of years later, and the perpetrators in this particular episode were themselves Semites). The spokesperson for this coalition of tribes describes the People of Israel as a beast that destroys everything in its way, dehumanizing the Jews while giving voice to the locals fear and dread in a propaganda effort that has been imitated over and over again, from the middle ages through Nazi Germany. Interestingly, this characterization stands in stark contrast to the self-perception voiced by the spies only a few chapters earlier in the text, who reported that when they compared themselves to the inhabitants of the Land, they were like grasshoppers in their own eyes, and assumed that the locals saw them the same way. 

Rather than employing the military tactics that these states surely had at their disposal, they choose to hire a soothsayer to curse the Jews. Apparently they know, or at least sense, that the Jewish people are blessed, and without some sort of major realignment, they will soon return to their homeland. Their strategy is to strip the children of Abraham of their Divine protection.

As the story unfolds, this Divine protection is tested and proven effective: Bilams calling card, the specialty he advertises, is a skill set purloined from the promise God made to Avraham: whomever he blesses will be blessed and whomever he curses will be cursed. In the end, God protects the Jews from the curses of the smooth-tongued, misanthropic seer Bilam, who is humiliated when it becomes clear that not only is he incapable of effectively cursing the Jews but his own donkey sees more then he does, and is apparently more eloquent as well.

When the coalition that hired Bilam finally accepts the failure of their plan, they launch plan b, which proves far more effective: The Jews forfeit their Divine protection, not because of the hate-filled words hissed by some sorcerer, but because of their own debased behavior. The Midianite and Moavite women, who are sent to seduce the Jewish men and entangle them in pagan worship, prove to be a far more formidable enemy than the self-important, self-aggrandizing Bilam.

Unfortunately, these nations never considered the third option, plan c, as it were: Why not try peace? Why not reach out and offer co-existence? Balak and the tribes he represented were well-aware that the Israelites were a blessed nation, that they were protected by a Divine covenant, that they would soon be returning to their ancestral homeland, that God Himself desired this particular course of events. Why not join forces with the Jews? Why not enter an alliance with them, and benefit from the blessings that would surely result from a partnership with Gods chosen people? The power of the Jewish People was clear to them, as was the unique holiness of the Israelite way of life - but they were unwilling to embrace or even respect the holiness or defer to the power this holiness conferred upon the Jews. They chose, instead, to fight it. They were repulsed by the holiness, and the only plan they could conjure up was a plan of attack -- either against the power of the Jewish People or against the holiness that gave them that power -- but not a plan of peace. Once again, history lives.

For a more in-depth analysis see:

Echoes of Eden