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Friday, June 28, 2013

Parshat Pinchas: Rejoice in our Victory, But Continue the Struggle - perspectives on this week's SCOTUS decisions

This week's parashah/portion is Pinchas (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:10 – 30:1). It begins by recounting an incident from the end of last week’s parashah where Pinchas, son of Eleazar the priest, slays an Israelite man and Midianite woman after they enter a tent to have sexual relations. This takes place after the text tells us that the Midianites have led the Israelites into whoring, both in terms of women and also after other gods (especially the Midianite god Baal Peor). And so this act involving two people, represents what is happening on a greater communal level. At the start of this week’s parashah we are told that after Pinchas slew the “offending” couple the plague that was ravaging the camp ceased. Furthermore, God gives Pinchas a brit shalom/covenant of peace as a reward for his zealousness.

After Pinchas receives this covenant, God instructs Moses to take a census of all the male members of the tribes. This is followed by it the plea of the five daughters of Zelophehad that they should be allowed to inherit their father’s holdings, even though inheritance at that time only went to sons, of which he had none. After the daughters make their claim, Moses confers with God, who declares the daughters' claim is valid and that they should indeed receive their father’s portion, as should other daughters in the future, but only if they have no brothers. Finally towards the end of the parashah, Moses is told to ascend Mount Evarim in order to see the land that the people will enter following Moses's death. Moses then asks God to appoint a successor, and God tells Moses to appoint Joshua, son of Nun to lead after his death.

The main themes found in the story arc of this parashah are transition and change. Deep down, we all know that life is fleeting and temporary. Uncertainty is the only thing of which we can be certain.

This past week was one of monumental change in our country. When the Supreme Court declared that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional, and when they sent Proposition 8 back to the California, ostensibly legalizing same sex unions once again in that state, there was a proverbial shot heard round the world, or at least round our country. For just as that first shot of the Revolutionary War signalled the beginning of the end of tyranny under the British Crown, so too these decisions signalled the beginning of the end of institutionalized prejudice against and oppression of gays, lesbians and bisexuals in our country. I have intentionally not added transgender to this list, as is usually done, because the decision really did not address issues of transgender prejudice. This is another battle which still needs to be fought.

I usually avoid politics when speaking on Shabbat. However, civil rights and human rights are inextricably linked to religion as well as politics. For human rights are based on the belief that we are all created in the image of God. In rabbinic language, they are based on the teaching that none of us has the right to say that on person's heritage is better than another, or that anyone's blood is redder or purer than that of another (to paraphrase two classic rabbinic teachings).

When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched alongside Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., it was because he realized this. This belief was at the core of his humanity and his Judaism. He never once felt that this was “not his battle” because it affected Blacks and not Jews, who were primarily White. For as Rev. King wrote from the Birmingham jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It is therefore imperative that all those people who are or have been oppressed, and even those who may have never known oppression, join together to fight injustice wherever it can be found.

We cannot separate out the various oppressions that exist. The same clubs and schools that barred Blacks from membership also barred Jews, The same quotas that limited Jewish immigration at the height of the Holocaust also kept out immigrants of other backgrounds. And for Hitler, both Jews and homosexuals were victims of the death camps. None of us can stand idly by the blood of our brothers and sisters, as we are taught in Genesis, and as the rabbis continually reminded us. Yes. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The changes that are occurring in terms of same sex civil rights is not that different from the changes that occurred in terms of African Americans civil rights in the 1960s. True, there were no separate water fountains or rest rooms for Gays and Lesbians. And state sponsored violence, such as attack dogs and fire hoses, was not used. But more subtle and covert oppression certainly did exist, and still does. In that way, this is more similar to the manifestation anti-Semitism in the earlier part of the 20th century, such as the “gentleman's agreements” that barred Jews from various places.

And yet, in recent years, there has been more visible evidence of homophobia and its effects. The images and stories of brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, the suicide of Tyler Clementi and countless others, the thousands of LGBT teens living on the streets because their parents threw them out, and the event that started it all, the riots at Stonewall, are evidence to the oppression and injustice of homophobia. Yet conversely, this week's Supreme Court decisions represent the winds of change and the same sex relationships and same sex marriage, are now accepted by the majority of Americans according to all polls. Yes, prejudice and oppression still exists, but this change is real and unstoppable!

However, this is not the end of the journey; it is only the first step. For, as Charles Blow reminds us in his op-ed in the NY Times this week, civil rights that are won can also be reversed, albeit in more subtle and covert ways. Blow reminds us that the Supreme Court that reversed DOMA, also reversed a key section of the voting rights act This serves as is a reminder that even hard won victories may be just temporary.

Justice Stephens wrote in the majority opinion that the particular portion of the Voting Rights act was struck down because “things had changed dramatically” [in terms of racism] since the law was enacted. But, as an African American, Blow points out that things haven't changed that dramatically. Safeguards are still needed. For many of the states covered by the law are the same sates that have declared same sex marriage to be illegal, have the most restrictive abortion laws and have at least proposed some of the most restrictive immigration laws. And it is not surprising that in these states there is already talk of redistricting in a way that may negatively impact African Americans, now that this portion of the law has been struck down.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel once said, “in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” And so we are all responsible to fight for the civil rights of all who are oppressed here and in our world. If we do not, then we are in deed responsible, even if not guilty, for the continuation of that oppression. As a Jew and as a gay man, it takes little effort for me to see the link between various types oppressions and prejudices. But for some of us, we have to look a little harder and go beyond our comfort zones.

But what has this to do with this week's parashah?. As I wrote above, the parashah is all about change. But it looks at the notion of change in very different ways. In the story of Pinchas, he sees what the law says is an injustice and takes matter into his own hands, thrusting his spear through the Israelite man and Midianite woman. This kind of zealotry, or vigilantism in modern terms, is rewarded by God with a Brit Shalom, a covenant of peace. This may seem absurd to us, but in the 12th century Rashi wrote that the covenant was given to Pinchas because he reestablished shalom/peace between God and Israel. 

This image of Pinchas receiving the brit shalom frightens me, for it reminds me of those who take oppressive, and sometimes violent, actions based on what they believe to be “the will of God.” Just yesterday, the only openly gay member of the Pennsylvania Assembly was not permitted to discuss the issue of same sex marriage on the floor because another member proclaimed that what he wanted to say went against the teaching of God and therefore should not be allowed. It is this type of religious fundamentalism and extremism which has insinuated itself into so much political dialogue that frightens and angers me. And I see these religious zealots as continuing the legacy of Pinchas. 

However, we can look at this Covenant of Peace in another way. Rather than being a reward for Pinchas's violent actions, it was a way for God to insure future peace. It signals a change that the actions of Pinchas were no longer acceptable as a way to bring about what people believe to be God's will. But unfortunately, this behavior still exists and is still done in the name of God. And so we must continue to fight to reestablish God's Covenant of Peace for all.

The incident with Pinchas is followed by the census. This reminds the reader that all who were alive when the first census was taken in the book of Exodus have now died, with the exception of Joshua, Caleb and Moses. For God had commanded that the generation that left Egypt needed to die off following their decision to follow the negative report of 10  spies who went into the land of Canaan, rather than the positive reports of the other two spies, Joshua and Caleb. A new generation which never knew slavery has now arisen and they shall enter the land. This communal transition needed to take place; a new generation indeed needed to arise before they were ready to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land.

But there was still injustice and inequality (at least by today's standards), as only the men were counted and not the women. But the invisibility of the women was dealt with, at least in part, in the story of Zelophehad's daughters. At the end of this tale, these five women (who are each named, which is not always true of the women in the Hebrew scriptures) are granted the right to inherit. Women are finally to be counted. But, alas, they are only counted when there no male heirs to a father's property. This is a step in the right direction as well, but it still leaves more injustices to face and to fight. And the struggle still continues today, even with all the strides that have been made.

Finally, we read of Moses seeing the Promised Land and asking God to appoint a successor. This poignant moment in the narrative shows us that Moses is, at least on some level, prepared to relinquish his leadership and to die. He is ready to make the ultimate transition. Later on in Deuteronomy, the rabbis imagine that Moses fights God at the last minute, trying to convince God that he should live. But in this parashah he is prepared.

One can only imagine what Moses thought about how Joshua would be as a leader. After all, he wouldn't do things the same way as Moses. He couldn't do that, because he was not Moses. He would need to fight his own battles, forge his own way, and lead the people through new unknowns, new challenges and new changes. But Moses seems to accept that this is the way of the world, so much so that it is he who askes God to appoint a successor. 

At this moment I believe we are standing on the banks of the Jordan as well. This is an image used so often in the African American civil rights movement. But today it is gay and lesbian couples who are crossing the river to a land of Promise. And yet, as I wrote above, promises aren't always what we expect. And sometimes they can change. So once the initial rejoicing is over. Once the huppahs are taken down or the last note of the wedding march is heard, depending on one's tradition, we must continue fighting for the rights of all human beings. For in the end, we are all connected to everyone and everything else through the flow of the Divine that infuses our world.

And so here we are, standing at the water's edge. Some have already crossed, some are still waiting and others are in the midst of wading through the waters. As Jews, we have already crossed, and yet we know there are times even today when we feel like we're still on the other side, or somewhere struggling through the currents of the river.

Personally, as a gay Jewish man, I see myself on both sides of the river as well as wading through the waters. It is a tricky place to be; it can be confusing at times. But that is the nature of a world where most of us have multiple identities. And for others, especially those affected by the change in the Voting Rights Act and the rules for affirmative action, I can imagine it is difficult to know exactly where they stand right now.

And so in this particular moment of change and transition, I pray that we, as a society, do not follow follow the path of Pinchas.  For zealotry and fundamentalism rarely brings with it a Covenant of Peace. 

I pray that our nation and our world do their  best to see that all people are counted, regardless of sex, gender, sexual orientation, religions, nationality, race, political beliefs …...and all other identities. 

Finally, I pray that we, and our leaders, find the Moses and Joshua within us. Standing on the banks of the river, may we both let go of the past and stop clinging to our egos, in order to allow change to occur. And though we may be unsure of what lies ahead, may we still be ready to carry  ourselves and our communities forward through the waters to follow the path of God; a path which ultimately leads to the betterment of our world and all humanity. Amen.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Parshat Hukkat: Mourning and Grief

The early 20th century Jewish existentialist philosopher Franz Rosenzweig believed that the knowledge of our mortality is the ultimate negative force in our lives.  The fact that we know we shall eventually die hangs over us like a cloud, if we let it.  However, it is love that is the ultimate positive force in our lives.  It is the existence of love that allows, and even compels, us to live life in spite of the knowledge of our mortality.

Hopefully, most of us don't spend our lives constantly thinking about our ultimate end.  Rather, Rosenzweig believed that the ultimate goal is to live a life dedicated to the love of God.  This goal is achieved, in good part, by loving our fellow human beings.  In loving,  we are able to find goodness and hope. 

I agree with Rosenzweig in the power of love to create meaning in our lives in spite of the knowledge that we will die.  However, it is also true that we all eventually begin to face our own mortality as we age.  In part, this process begins as we start facing the death of those whom we love.  For if we love, we shall indeed be destined to mourn and grieve the loss of our loved ones. And this reminds us our our own eventual demise.

In many ways, I see this as being at the heart of this  week's parashah, Hukkat  (Bemidbar/Numbers 19:122:1).  The parashah begins with the description of the ritual slaughter of the red heifer by Eleazar the priest. The ashes of the heifer are then to be mixed together with water, hyssop, crimson thread and other ingredients in order to make a solution that will be used to purify those who have become tamei/ritually impure (for lack of a better translation) through contact with a corpse.  And so, our ancestors were prepared for the process of purification that would take place after literally handling death in the community and in their families.

Immediately following this we read of the death of Miriam the prophet, sister of Moses and Aaron. After her death the people cry out to Moses that they have no water to drink. This passage may well be one of the origins of the ancient rabbinic legend of Miriam’s Well.  This was a well of fresh water which would spring up by Miriam's tent wherever the people camped.  It was water from this well, a reward for Miriam's role in the redemption from Egypt, which sustained the people through their years in the desert.  However, it would seem, that the water ceased to flow following Miriam’s death.

As the people cry out for water to the bereaved Moses and Aaron, God instructs them to speak to a rock in order to bring forth water. Instead of following God's instructions, Moses and Aaron gather the people together and then Moses strikes the rock with his rod to bring forth water. It is because of this that God punishes Moses by forbidding him to enter the Promised Land.
Following this episode, we then read of Aaron’s death, for which the people mourn for thirty days.  After the period of mourning the people begin to complain again that they should have remained in Egypt rather than living such a harsh life in the wilderness. 
This parashah is one of great loss for Moses. Not only does he lose his only siblings, but he also loses the right to enter the Promised Land at the end of the journey. Suddenly, Moses comes to realize how alone he is in the world.
It is true that he has a wife and two sons, but the two people who were by his side during the journey, even when they may have disagreed, were now gone. Beyond this, the people continue to complain, and do not allow him time to grieve.

In the poetic commentary below, I imagine how Moses might have felt at the moment when he was finally left alone by his complaining people and allowed to face his loss and his grief.  I have published this poem twice before on this blog.  Yet, each time it is a little different, just as our own mourning over loss changes over time and even from moment to moment.
I first published this poem on my blog and dedicated it to the memory of my beloved father, Alvin Nathan z”l (may his memory be a blessing), whose  yahrtzeit (anniversary of his death) will be observed later this month.  Since then, other family members, friends and acquaintances, as well as so many others, have left this world. Perhaps that is why each year when we reach this parashah I am drawn back to the poem.
And so, I dedicate this poem not only to the loved ones I have lost, but to the communal losses we have felt this past year.  I dedicate to the victims of the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary school, to those killed by hurricane, flood and tornado and to those killed in war and by terror.  For these are losses for all of us as human beings.  May their memories always be a blessing.

The poem may have changed slightly from it's earlier postings, but it's essence remains the same.

Shabbat Shalom,

grieving waters
I am alone  they are gone
my families
those I knew in the palaces of  egypt
            and those I came to know as an adult are no more
  in what seems like a single unending moment
both brother and sister    are gone
   I had no time to mourn her
       before he then left this world
leaving me     utterly    infinitely   alone

closing my eyes   I can see water
      life-giving waters
  death-cleansing waters
water bringing death to egypt
      water gushing from the rock
          water in the tears streaming down my face
two holes pierce my heart and soul
   two wholes are no more   they are gone
       leaving me broken    in pieces        in solitude

the people      do not understand
they only want     need     desire    demand
water   food    meat
            the false comforts of egypt
I simply  want them  to leave me   alone
I want to mourn
                   I  want to wail  
          to tear at my hair  flesh  clothes
  to scream
     or simply to weep
in this moment
  I want simply to be
man brother son  human
not  leader teacher emissary prophet
but nothing in life is ever simple

I wish to drown myself
         in waters of sorrow
emerging cleansed
              perhaps someday
miriam understood
     her name meant bitter waters
    she knew the bitter and the sweet
prophet leader singer visionary
            jealous judgmental unyielding
      always passionate and caring
she received her punishment
        skin white as snow
cleansed only by isolation
    and bitter salt water tearsshe received her reward      as did the people
      as the waters of her well sustained us all

when she died    the well dried up    the water ceased to rise
       instead tears screams complaints
            flowed in torrents
     from the people
 replacing its gentle flow
    they want
        they need  more
            nothing ever enough
God said to me   to aaron
      speak to the rock
         it will give you
what     they think     they need
still in mourning
I   we cannot talk
      to people or rock
I   we can only
          scream in silence
      strike the rock
   bringing forth living water
sealing  our fate   our death
now he too is gone
    the one who was my voice before pharaoh
          with whom I could always speak from the heart
              even after he had turned away from me
          angry jealous frustrated
only to turn return 
to forgive  each other
no water can cleanse my grief
through eyes filled with anger  pain   isolation
     I see red
         heifer hyssop thread
              blood life death
      mixed with miriam’s water
 divine magic
        purifying those who
touch  feel  witness     death
I cannot be purified
death has touched
not merely   my body
        but   my soul
    I thirst  for life    for water   for them
but nothing     can comfort me
I want to die
to be with them
    instead I must  be with the people
my people     no     God’s people
until we reach the jordan’s waters
  only then will I finally rest
      only then can I be me
        brother son father husband
     no longer alone
dwelling with God
      with them
 souls immersed   in holy waters
of the divine spirit         God’s shekhinah
birthing me
         into new life
   with them
  with all
at One
for eternity

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