09 June 2013

Why is Korach so sure of Victory?

We know the rule from dueling: When one man challenges the other, the recipient gets to pick the weapon of choice.

This is, we know, how gentleman duel. But Korach was no gentleman.

So when Moshe responds to Korach’s challenge with:

And Moses said to Korah, Be you and all your company before the Lord, you, and they, and Aaron, tomorrow;   And take every man his censer, and put incense in them, and bring before the Lord every man his censer, two hundred and fifty censers; you also, and Aaron, each of you his censer. (Bamedbar 16:16-17)

Why does Korach, without hesitation, negotiation, or any complaint, promptly agree to the terms?

 And they took every man his censer, and put fire in them, and laid incense on it, and stood in the door of the Tent of Meeting with Moses and Aaron. (Bamidbar 16:18)

Korach has done an extraordinary act, one which reveals his thinking! Korach clearly feels he is going to win in the challenge. It is Moshe who is flustered and angry; Korach seems entirely in command. There is no doubt in his mind that he will win. Why?

The answer is that Korach remained a product of his upbringing, while Moshe had grown beyond it! Korach was raised in a world of pagan deities. Pagan deities, like the gods on Olympus, or the volcano god, are not actually much concerned with the affairs of man. But they are concerned with maximizing their own gain. In other words, the invented gods of mankind are greedy and selfish.

And so Korach knows that his challenge is going to work, for a very simple reason: 250 pans of incense is a bigger (and thus better) sacrifice to Hashem than the single censer of Aaron. It is 250 to 1. It is obvious.

And if Hashem were like other deities, then Korach would have been right. But in all the instructions about sacrifices that Moshe handed down, Korach had never understood that the beneficiary of a sacrifice is not, really, G-d at all. The purpose of a sacrifice, just like the purpose of a moral mitzvah, is to improve the person, not give presents to G-d! Egyptian and Babylonian and Greek gods all could be bribed – indeed, they needed to be bribed or, in the minds of ancient people, the gods would punish mankind. For example, if one did not offer the rain god a sacrifice, then rain would not fall.

Korach failed to understand that Hashem is different. He did not grasp that the relationship between man and G-d is at once both intimate and interconnected. G-d does not care about numbers: he cares about the individual relationship. Or as Hashem, speaking through Ezekiel puts it: I don’t want your sacrifices. I want you to practice loving-kindness with one another. The sacrifice is there to help us, not Hashem!

This also explains why, in the parallel and political rebellion, Dathan and Aviram did not talk about Hashem, or offer an offering. To one who sees the world through pagan eyes, the gods do not care who actually holds the reins of human power, as long as the deity receives his tribute. So Dathan and Aviram challenge Moshe for political leadership, clearly thinking that Hashem would not notice or care who was in charge of the Jews.  After all, G-d would be placated with the incense from the 250.

The opposite, of course, is true. The more we involve Hashem in our lives, the more intimate our relationship becomes. And this is because our religious existence is not tied to bribing Hashem, but to growing ever-closer to Him.  And we do this, in part, through loving-kindness – through showing our consideration for all those who are made in G-d’s image.

There is no pagan religion that can fathom loving-kindness. The gods of the pagan world are petty and small: they are as wise and restrained as two year-old children would be if they had superhuman powers. Those deities needed to be bribed.

But Hashem does not want our bribery. And he does not want our mere servitude. He wants the involvement and mutual growth that can only come through a long and mutually challenging marriage. Korach died because, until the end, he did not understand that the god of the Jews is different from every other deity in the ancient world.

The 250: Are they Holy?

The leaders of the spiritual rebellion, those who offered 250 fire-pans of incense, are consumed by fire.  Their fire-pans, on the other hand, are then used as a covering for the altar.

What is the connection?

When the men are consumed, the Torah shows us that G-d connects to the men, and that He graces them with his divine fire. In a sense, they have achieved some kind of holiness, kedusha. But it is not complete.

The problem, of course, is that the men themselves are also consumed. Beyond the obvious (the challenge on Aaron’s spiritual leadership of the people), we should ask why. Why do they need to die?

An answer may be that when Aaron performs a divine service, he clearly was doing it on behalf of someone else – Aaron was an intermediary. As a servant of the people and of Hashem, every offering to Hashem had a donor and a sacrifice. The cohen acted on behalf of others: he was a servant.

But the offering from the 250 men lacked a key ingredient: a donor. The 250 represented themselves, not the nation of Israel. And so, even while they reached upward to connect with Hashem, they were not anchored first to a donor. It was not about someone else: it was just about them.

So when Hashem takes their lives by fire, He accepts that a spiritual connection was craved – and he satisfies it.  But because the sacrifice was incomplete, the 250 men themselves are taken as the donors.

And this explains why the fire-pans are then used to cover the altar, the mizbeiach. The altar is specifically made from earth and rock, with no human tools applied. It represents the connection to the earth. The altar is the place of holiness, where heaven and earth  connect through the burning sacrifice, linked with smoke and fire.

The use of the fire-pans for the altar completes the offering of the 250, because it adds the element missing from their fire-pan offering to Hashem: the connection to, and thus the elevation of, the earth. Thus this part of the Korach rebellion becomes completely holy, as components in G-d’s own home, the Beis Hamikdash.


G-d Recycles!

If the purpose of mankind is to connect with the physical world, and then elevate it into the spiritual plane, then it becomes very clear why Dathan and Aviram’s political rebellion ended with the rebels being swallowed into the earth. During their rebellion, they showed no interest in connecting spiritually – they did not invoke Hashen, and they even refused to come to Moshe to discuss their complaints.

So what happens to them is not necessarily even a punishment! After all, there was no investment in the relationship from Dathan and Aviram’s side, and Hashem only relates to those who seek a personal connection. The result is that death, which is inevitable for us all, came sooner to this particular group of people.

Hashem ends up dealing with them as one might with a bad batch of scrap metal: put it back into the recycling bin. The next batch with those same raw materials might well turn out better.  

23 April 2013

Improper Relations

The Torah has a long and detailed list of forbidden relations – incest, homosexuality, and the like. Once upon a time, it was easy to explain these – after all, we have a strong sense of the taboo, of what “feels” appropriate.

But in recent years, of course, society has worked very hard to break down these barriers, these old-fashioned notions of limiting the love lives of consenting adults or even children. What used to be “icky” is now mainstream. Traditional mores are in full retreat.

And too soon, society will turn its attention to the rest of the relations that are forbidden in the Torah. “After all,” one might ask, “if there is no possibility of having children, then why cannot siblings or other close relations be ‘married’ to each other?”

There is no “logical” way to reject this argument, since, after all, if there are no genetic damages to a child, there is no victim if two people choose to be intimate with one another!

We must accept the logic, as much as it curdles our stomachs: there is, indeed, no victim of childless love between close relatives or homosexuals.

Why, then, does the Torah forbid these relations for Jews? And even more than this: why does it put these laws right in the middle of the Torah, as a centerpiece of the entire Jewish legal code?

The word “Torah” as used in the text itself, means a “recipe.” The Torah is the roadmap, the recipe, for holiness, for a relationship between G-d and man.  

The problem with a relationship between G-d and man is that it is hard. It is difficult to be close to Hashem because we are so different than He is. Being married to G-d requires constant off-balance change, neverending nudges, encouragement and disappointment.  

And this explains the reason for the forbidden relations in the Torah. Those relationships are not inappropriate because of taboo. They are inappropriate because they are too easy. It is not properly challenging to be married to a woman who is closely related, or to a member of the same sex. Not enough divides people who come from the same household, or who, because of their physiology, see the world largely the same way.

Marriage is meant to be the model for a relationship with G-d. Marriage makes it possible for us to understand Hashem. If we can change ourselves enough to have a successful marriage with our spouse, then we have a chance to change ourselves enough to be married to G-d!

But if we marry someone who is too similar, with whom we have too much in common, then we are not challenged enough. We do not grow. And so it means that we never have the opportunity to reach higher, to grow to a full relationship with our creator.

14 April 2013

Who is in Charge of Your Life?

We live in a world where politicians and therapists and doctors and social workers tell us that “it isn’t your fault:” the blame actually lies with our upbringing, or parentage, or environment, or discrimination, or genetic makeup. It can be anything – as long as we do not blame ourselves.

We tend to think of this mindset as somehow being unique to modern life, part-and-parcel of the welfare state, with Freudian explanations of childhood trauma, or of children raised in a spoiled environment where parents find “no” the hardest word of all.

But the mindset is not modern at all. It is in fact as old as man’s self-consciousness. From the earliest pagan religions, man has found a way to resign himself to a certain level of accomplishment. All he has had to do is decide that his fate is the will of the gods.

And in a pagan world this makes a great deal of sense. Deities after all live on a high mountain, or are forces of nature that no man could hope to stand against: the sun or the wind or the sea. Worship of pagan deities involves both acknowledging the forces of nature, and accepting whatever is doled out by those forces.

An end result is that men who worship nature wind up being enslaved to it; life as a pagan means an existence wherein one excels by being in harmony with the natural world.  And being “in tune” with nature means not fighting it. It is not even resignation, so much as finding “balance”, of being happy with what one has received.  This kind of worldview is conventionally considered wise and experienced.

So the history of mankind is one in which accomplishment is actually the exception, not the rule. Most societies, in most places, have advanced very little. Even today, the vast majority of people in the world are born, grow, live, and die without making a lasting impression on the world around them. Mediocrity is the dominant cultural desire, and therefore the dominant result.

Modern America, which has slipped back into a culture that celebrates only our most earthy desires and dependencies  is in fact reverting to that dominant human meme throughout history. We may use labels like “discrimination” or “the rich”, but the excuse remains as old as time: Ours is the fate doled out by the gods. Any other outcome “is not meant to be.” All around us, humans are not change agents, but victims, buffeted by impersonal deities, who must be appeased through acts of sacrifice. In principle, there is no distinction between the island barbarian who sacrifices virgins to the volcano god and the modern American who self-sterilizes to “save the planet.” Both are expressions of the human desire to suffer in order to appease a larger, all-important “force.” And both are ways in which otherwise intelligent people adopt pagan worldviews in order to come to peace with their place in the world.

Enter, in the ancient world, and even today, the Torah. The Torah stands directly at odds with the pagan worldview. When Adam and Chava choose to eat the fruit, G-d teaches them that they are free to make choices, and that those choices have consequences. When Cain kills Abel, G-d teaches us that we are responsible for each other, that we are capable of mastering our own anger.  And then, from beginning to end, the Torah perspective stands in direct opposition, root and branch, to the pagan worldview.

When G-d breathes his spirit into Adam, mankind becomes, not a victim of nature, but G-d’s partner, imbued with the divine capability to make and shape and improve the world around us.  And the Torah tells us that this is indeed what we are meant to do in the world: love G-d as He loves us. We are to engage and love each other. Our relationship with each other and with G-d is not meant to be the impersonal pagan relationship wherein we go through the motions, and get to be bad people. On the contrary! The lessons of the Torah are that G-d profoundly wants, above all, for us to seek to better ourselves!

A loving wife does not really want her husband to bring her flowers every week. It is not about the flowers. What she wants is a husband who loves her, who remembers to think of her, who brings tokens of appreciation to show that he continues to have her in his heart.

Consider that the words of the prophets have a strong recurring theme: G-d does not, actually, want our sacrifices for their own sake. When we go through the motions without changing ourselves, we are trying to treat G-d like a pagan treats their deity, like a Gaia-worshipper dedicates themselves to “sustainability” without actually becoming a better person. What does G-d actually want? For us to treat one another with lovingkindness. For us to guard our speech and our acts and our thoughts, to improve ourselves.  He wants us to love Him, to be mindful of our relationships at all times.

Ours is not a religion of submission or appeasement. G-d is not some remote force on a high mountain, or an impersonal and unknowable force like the sun. Ever since Adam was filled with the divine spirit, G-d has been found in our very souls! The Torah wants us engaged with G-d, with each other, and with ourselves – because they are one and the same!

But do we really need to go through all that work? To a simple or a lazy person, it would seem to make sense to shortcut the process. If the goal is ultimately to better ourselves, then all we have to do is to be mindful of being a good person. How hard could that be? By comparison, the rituals can seem silly, or a waste of time or energy.

But anyone in a good marriage knows otherwise. A man who marries a woman has not succeeded in marriage once she takes the ring. He succeeds after many years, after he has built a beautiful long-term relationship, one that weathers the impersonal forces of time and nature. Relationships require a never-ending stream of consideration and kindness and service, or they wither away. A husband and wife who are not engaged with each other, continuing to improve each other, will fall apart as a marriage, as a relationship. Love that is not nurtured will die.

And so G-d requires us to go through the motions – not (in the case of sacrifices) for the sake of the motions themselves, but because things like prayer and following commandments are both tokens of commitment, and required to keep the relationship fully engaging. And of course, following commandments of visiting the sick, or providing hospitality or feeding the poor are, in themselves, ways of serving G-d directly. When we change ourselves, we are serving our personal, anti-pagan, G-d.

And it is profoundly personal.  The Torah tells us that G-d put his soul in us. And so our prayers, our services, our blessings, have an internal audience: G-d does not need your sacrifices, or even your blessings for their own sakes. What He really wants is for sacrifices and blessings to lead us to a closer and more intimate relationship with our own spiritual souls, and G-d on the elevated spiritual plane.  Prayer is directed both outside and inside, which is why it is closely linked to meditation.  The Torah has entire chapters dedicated to the spiritual illness of “tzaraat” (translated as leprosy), which occurs to people who treat others poorly, as Cain treated Abel. Seen in this light, every single law of the Torah, from sacrifices to divine services to the laws of kosher food and caring for the orphan is there for the purpose of correcting and improving ourselves.

Coming full circle, it becomes clear why those who are serious about serving “the planet” consistently give less charity than those who are serious about a Judeo-Christian religion. In a pagan world, gods merely need to be appeased, and they, through fate, will determine whether someone is healthy or sick, lives or dies. One can look at India to see the result of that kind of worldview: it is believed that everyone has a destiny, and some destinies are more fun than others. If one fails to go through the motions to appease a deity, then one can expect retribution for failing to have proper respect, but the retribution is not because a person failed to better themselves or love others. Compassion is meaningless in such a world, and so is self-improvement. A person like Mother Teresa in India had an unlimited market.

The Torah gives us a world where we can strongly influence and change our own destinies. Humans are so very powerful that only our mortality keeps us from being on G-d’s own level: “And the Lord God said, Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, what if he puts forth his hand, and takes also from the tree of life, and eats, and lives forever?” (Gen: 3:22)

Our power is huge – but it is not only limited by our mortality! Most important of all, our power is limited by whether or not we are aware of it in the first place!  As and when we believe that we are masters of our own destiny, then we can change ourselves and our world. But when we feel that we are subject to the winds of fate, to a master plan of an impersonal deity, then we easily regress to an lower human condition, a condition where we no longer are aware of our own power, where we are not even aware of the difference between good and evil because we live in Gaia’s garden, in a world where nothing is our fault because nothing is our responsibility. Before they made that first choice, Adam and Chava lived in harmony with nature, with every need provided for, with no opportunity for growth or change in themselves or the world around them.   If we refuse to see ourselves as both responsible for ourselves and our world, and ”like G-d” in having the power to change these things, then we indeed are nothing more than victims, nothing more than primitive barbarians in a state of nature, lifelong beneficiaries of a welfare state.

09 April 2013

What is the Opposite of Holiness?

It seems like a simple enough question, with an obvious-enough answer: the opposite of holiness is surely the profane. After all, we know that Moshe was buried “opposite” Pe’or, a cult that worshipped human effluence. And if Moshe stood for holiness (since, after all, G-d tells him that the place where he stands is holy!), then surely the Torah would also tell us that the opposite of holiness, elevation, would be debasement.

Except that it does not.

The Torah tells us repeatedly that we, G-d’s people, are to be holy, because G-d is holy. But only one time does it contrast the word for “holy” with an opposite:

And that ye may put difference between the holy and the common (“chol”), and between the unclean and the clean; (Lev. 10:10)

G-d is telling us that we are to separate between the holy and the common. But what is the meaning of the word, chol? Though it is often translated as “common” or “mundane”, the principle is that the best source of translation is the Torah itself.

The root of the word, chol, is found in the beginning of the Torah, in several instances.

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth (Gen: 6:1)

And Cush begot Nimrod; he began to be a mighty one in the earth. (Gen: 10:8)

Chol does not mean common or mundane at all! It actually means what came first.
The way the Torah defines chol in the verses above is a raw state, a state of nature, of pre-civilization.  It is a world before mankind started to improve on it. It is the beginning state.

Indeed, chol is the world the way G-d made it. So in the Torah, G-d is telling us that the world, as He made it in the first six days, was chol, that it was the very opposite of holiness.  Why? Because nature is unfeeling, unthinking. It has its own rules, and absent input from G-d or man, it merely exists. Nature, the way the world was created, is essentially a very large and complex automaton. And that automaton, a universe in which neither G-d nor man is involved, does not fulfill any useful – holy – function, because it is incapable of improvement by itself.

In order for the chol to be improved, it needs the addition of creativity, of the application of G-d’s creative powers, expressed directly from Hashem – or, even better, through a combination of G-d and man such as through sacrifices in the Beis Hamkidash or through mankind’s direct act, as in the dedication of the firstborn. In these ways, we can create the most holy things identified in the entire Torah.

The Torah is telling us that the chol state must never be confused for holiness. The untrammeled natural state is not holy – they are to be kept separate, contrasted with each other! After all, worshipping something in nature is pure paganism: we are not supposed to confuse nature with its creator!

Our purpose, that of Judaism following the Torah, is to complete the G-d’s creation of the world, by creating, nurturing, and reinforcing the connections between the physical world and the spiritual world.

So while Moshe did indeed stand opposed to the religions that wallowed in filth and did not know the difference between human waste and divine service, even those religions are at a higher level than a pure, animalistic state of nature. The opposite of the holy is not the profane: it is the natural.