Thursday, June 28, 2012

Chukat: Sympathy for a Grief-Struck Leader

Moses was never allowed to enter the Promised Land because he struck a rock. Sound familiar? This week, we read the infamous story
of why our great leader, Moses - who brought us out of slavery, parted the Sea of Reeds, gave us manna to eat for 40 years, carried down the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai, and put up with decades of incessant kvetching - was not allowed to join the people crossing into Canaan. And the official reason? God told him to bring forth water from a rock by speaking to it, and he instead struck the rock. A puzzling story, to say the least. But, as always, there's really a lot more going on underneath the surface. Luckily for us, we don't have to strike anything to get to it...

Many commentators focus on analyzing Moses' actions to determine what went wrong. Rashbam says he struck the rock twice; emphasizing his deliberate transgression of God's command and his 
egregious violent behavior. Rashi chastises Moses for yelling at the Israelites and calling them names: "Listen, you rebels!" (Numbers, 20:10). And Ramban talks about how Moses makes it seem like he and Aaron are the ones performing the miracle, not God: "Shall we get water for you from this rock?" But before we bury Moses under all of our judgmental hindsight (as if the Israelites weren't already giving him enough flack...), I want to focus our attention for a moment on what ISN'T stated in the text. Was Moses perhaps struggling with tremendous personal grief at that very moment, and might that have clouded his judgment and his normally patient demeanor?

One verse before the people began moaning about thirst, the Torah informed us that Moses' sister, Miriam, died. How did that affect him? Was he given any time to mourn privately or publicly? Still today, we find it hard to make space for our leaders to process grief (or really any difficult emotion) in the public sphere. I recall stories like Bill Belichick coaching a football game the day after his father died or 
Pete Sampras crying in the middle of an Australian Open quarterfinal tennis match, because he had just learned that his long-time coach had been diagnosed with cancer. For years, people talked about the moment on the campaign trail in 2008 when Hillary Clinton cried. Feelings make us uncomfortable. We want to be supportive, compassionate, and understanding. But we also feel anxiety about our own vulnerability, and we lash out at emotional leaders and call them 'weak.' I think sometimes it's easier to focus on what Moses did wrong than to empathize with him after something terrible just happened in his personal life. Some people (men especially) would rather say: "Just walk it off, buddy." Or worse, we could follow Miller Lite's example and say, "Man Up!"

I'm sure Moses could have reacted better. But we are also guilty of judging someone else's behavior in a very trying moment, and of setting Moses up for failure by demanding he live up to impossible
expectations. It might be too late for Moses, but we still have a chance to learn from the tragic outcome of this story. How do we treat our leaders? How quickly do we shove them up on top of pedestals and refuse to let them down? And perhaps more generally, how can we raise our own comfort level with difficult emotions? These are questions that each person needs to contemplate for him or herself. And hopefully we can begin to make changes and lower our expectations, before we doom another communal leader to some unfortunate rock-striking behavior.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of steveberardi on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Marshall Astor on Flickr.
3. CC image courtesy of efleming on Flickr.

4. CC image courtesy of CeresB on Flickr

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Korach: A Henchman No More!

In the movie series 'Austin Powers,' the comedian Mike Myers spoofs pretty much every James Bond movie, along with all of the 
stereotypical plot points that they feature. One of my favorite parodies is the bad guy's right-hand-man. In Austin Powers, this character is called 'Number Two' (and is played by Robert Wagner!), and even when we see a flashback of Number Two as a teenager, he STILL introduces himself as 'Number Two.' It is as if he both has no other name AND was always destined for precisely this profession - being the second-in-command of an evil genius. Two people fill that very same role in this week's Torah portion.

The primary villain in our parasha is Korach; who is so clearly the main antagonist that the entire Torah portion is named after him. Yet as the reading opens, there are actually three people who collectively conspire against Moses. Well, in truth there were actually four of
them initially, but after the opening verse introduced us to 'On, son of Peleth,' he was never again mentioned. A rabbinic story tells us that his wife talked him out of joining the rebellion, which was always one of my favorite rabbinic parables! But the two dedicated accomplices are Datan and Aviram. Many commentaries depict them as henchmen of Korach, or perhaps partners who share his agenda. Yet a close reading of the text actually reveals that their grievance is NOT the same as Korach's. Somewhere along the way, their interests were subsumed and they became stereotypical cronies, just like Number Two in the Austin Powers' movies.

Korach, you see, is Moses' very jealous cousin. He wants other priestly families to share in the leadership of Moses and Aaron. That is not the issue of Datan and Aviram. We are informed in Numbers 16:1 that they are descendants of Reuben, the first-born son of
Jacob. And if you follow the story of Reuben since his birth, you will see that he was always overlooked, ignored, passed over, and forgotten. The individual, Reuben, as well as the tribe of Reuben, seem to spend most of their time trying to wrest back what they see as rightfully their birthright. Even in later Israelite history, when ten tribes break away and form the Northern Kingdom of Israel, Ephraim becomes the dominant tribe, and Reuben is once again relegated to the back of the class. Datan and Aviram are sick of it! They join Korach's band to champion their cause against Moses and Aaron, to finally bring Reuben to its rightful place as the glorious leader of the Jewish People... and no one reading this Biblical story even remembers that they existed. This week's Torah portion is known only as 'the Rebellion of Korach'; Datan, Aviram, and indeed the entire tribe of Reuben, are once again left as a footnote in the history of our people.

One lesson that we can take from the story of nebbishy Reuben is that we shouldn't always listen to the loudest voices in a group. Whether you're a parent, a teacher, a community leader, or a CEO; you probably have some people who make the most noise, complain the loudest, raise their hand the most often, and hijack your time more than anyone else. 
But that doesn't mean that they're the only ones with something interesting or insightful to say. Every perspective is unique, and the quietest, shyest voices can often contribute the most powerful observations. It's easy to miss them. The Korachs in our lives use up a great deal of our energy and attention. Challenge yourself to listen for Datan and Aviram. Block out other distractions, and focus intently on what they have to say. You may discover that the perpetual Number Two has some Number One ideas, and has been waiting a long time for someone to listen. Perhaps their time has finally come.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of wallygrom on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of barry.pousman on Flickr.
3. CC image courtesy of Ken Roberts Photography on Flickr.

4. CC image courtesy of Fifth World Art on Flickr

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Sh'lach Lecha: What I Stand For

It's tough to stand up for what you believe in. Sure, we talk about it with our kids and we teach it in our schools, but how many of us have ever truly had to stand up for something we knew to be right, even 
when it was unpopular, or contrary to the majority opinion? It's a hard thing to do, which is why it's important to recognize and praise it when it happens, so that we can all draw strength from it and be inspired by it in our own lives. We have such a story in this week's Torah portion, but perhaps more importantly, we also have a second example going on in our community right now.

In our parashah, Moses sends 12 spies into the Land of Canaan to help the Israelites prepare to conquer it. The spies return, and ten of the twelve give a thoroughly negative report. They insist the land cannot be conquered - that the inhabitants are like giants, and we looked like grasshoppers to them - and the Israelites, based on the report of the ten spies, turn on Moses and Aaron like a frenzied lynch
mob. But the last two spies, Joshua and Caleb, refuse to follow suit. They insist the land can be conquered, they plead with the people to have faith in God, and they will not be silenced. Even as the scene gets out of hand, and Moses and Aaron fall on their faces terrified of the descending horde, Joshua and Caleb stand up for what they believe. Luckily for us all, God steps in and quiets the rebel rousers, and the crisis is averted. What's interesting about this story, however, is that the Israelites are punished as a result: They are forced to wander the desert for 40 years, so that everyone who participated in this rebellion will die out before the people enter the Holy Land. The only two people from this story who make it into Israel? Joshua and Caleb. THAT is the power of standing up for what you believe in, even (and especially) in the face of adversity.

Earlier this month, the Law Committee of the Conservative Movement made headlines, when it passed a series of guidelines and templates for how to perform a marriage ceremony for a gay or lesbian couple. For me, it was truly a moment of feeling great pride in being a Conservative Jew. Our movement hasn't always been ready to step out on a limb or take a stand on controversial issues. 
At best, we say both 'yes' and 'no,' hoping no one on either side will get upset; even though usually it leaves EVERYONE upset! This, however, was a Joshua-and-Caleb style decision that opens the door to much greater inclusion, warmth, community, and togetherness. And not just for gay and lesbian couples, but for everyone in our communities! We all have friends, family members, neighbors, and loved ones who are gay; this affects us all. I look forward to some day (soon) performing such a wedding myself, now that the Law Committee has given me the language and the tools to open up our congregational home to more people who want to be Jewish, who love being Jewish, and who will make rich and lasting contributions to the Jewish community. 

Does everyone agree with this position? No, certainly not (or at least not yet...). But that's precisely the point, isn't it? I cannot wait for everyone to agree with me before stating my opinion; that wouldn't
be standing up for my beliefs! There's no time to wait. There's too much hate and segregation and violence and separation in this world, we need to be active agents for change, doing everything we can to create more inclusion and communication. And who knows? Perhaps if Caleb and Joshua hadn't spoken up when they did, we would never have left the desert wasteland, and would never have entered the Promised Land. Their courage led us to a new era for our people, and to a better future. It's time to take another step in that direction.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Sustainable sanitation on Flickr

2. CC image courtesy of vonderauvisuals on Flickr.
3. CC image courtesy of basykes on Flickr.

4. CC image courtesy of bjornmeansbear on Flickr