Friday, July 21, 2017

Matot-Masei: I'll Annul My Own Vows, Thanks.

Oversimplification is a bad idea. And yes, I realize that even that statement was made categorically, so it kind of violates my own maxim. But in MANY situations,
when we try to simplify an issue and define it in terms of good vs. bad, right vs. left, correct vs. incorrect, we get in trouble. "All people in x demographic group feel this way..." "Anyone who says y is wrong." Life just doesn't work that way. There's complexity, grey areas, nuance. I know I've said this before, but it bears repeating. This week, in the Torah, women are the targets of this overgeneralization. As a rule, women simply don't know how to make good decisions for themselves. You see? Look how much trouble we are in already!

The first chapter of our Torah portion, Matot-Masei, begins by telling us that if a man makes a vow to God, he is obligated to fulfill it.
This could be in regards to a business transaction, an interpersonal relationship, a military duty; once he makes that vow, he's on the hook to see it through. If a woman, however, makes a similar vow, her father or husband can annul it on her behalf. Why? Because women (supposedly) make bad, rash, emotional - dare we say hysterical??? - uninformed decisions and "need" a man to decide whether the oath was valid or not. I hope I don't have to spell this out, but this argument is INCREDIBLY offensive. It's offensive to women, first of all, but really to everyone! To me, it's an example of the Torah narrative at its most antiquated, patriarchal, and misogynistic. In short, I don't like it. And the only way that it resonates with me, personally, is to see it as a challenge.

We can do better. We HAVE TO do better. No group - women, minorities, the LGBT community - should be defined with broad strokes and categorical statements. We all need to dig deeper, understand the nuance of individual people, families,
communities, and see the complexity that is so fundamental to all our lives. This isn't an ancient problem; it's going on around us RIGHT NOW! We judge and label "the Other" as suspicious, lazy, fake, corrupt, unreliable. And we then become desensitized to their story and the challenges they face. The Torah is goading us to disagree, and to push back: "No! I will not label ALL women, or ALL gays, or ALL foreigners in any one way!!" We need to cast off that yoke and refuse to accept that narrative. And that has to be a conscious, deliberate decision. Oversimplification and generalization creeps back into our minds, if and when we let it. "Those people always..." and "They never..." In a way, the Torah is actually reminding us that we can't let up, we have to remain vigilant and proactive.

Each of us needs to make a concerted effort to learn more, to embrace the nuance and "messiness" of life. Who is "The Other" really? What are the deeper elements in their story and how can I learn something new that I didn't know before?
The Torah provokes us by saying that women - in general - don't get to make decisions about their own actions. You don't agree? That makes you mad? Well, what are you going to do about it? It's not enough to be outraged and say the Torah is wrong. How are YOU going to change that narrative and help others see things differently? There is probably some area where you too make generalizing statements, even just to yourself, about some group of people. Maybe not women or Jews or gays, but SOME group. It is very humbling, and challenging, to confront those beliefs. But that is the work! That is what we have to do. Getting angry and feeling outraged is just Step One. What comes after that is the real question. And it's a hard one to answer...

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Joowwww oWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of New York Public Library on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of United States Armed Forces on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of LSE Library on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, July 7, 2017

Balak: Uh Oh, Your Core is Showing!

Being a human being is a complex endeavor. It's no simple matter. Each of us is the sum of so many parts; family history, individual experiences, traumas,
triumphs, loves, losses, genetic material, to name just a few. And as varied, intricate, and multi-faceted as we are, there is also a theme that runs through our lives. At our core, each of us stands for something - or some series of things - and even as we evolve and grow, that locus remains. I invite each person reading this to really think about what your own core might look like, and how it makes itself known in various ways throughout your life. Sometimes it's overt, and sometimes it's subtle and hidden. This week's Torah portion, mainly about enemies of Israel trying to plot our destruction, teaches us something interesting about human nature and how core traits make themselves known... no matter how hard we try.

The name of our parashah is Balak, from the name of a Moabite king who tries to curse the Israelites. But he isn't actually the main character; he tries to hire a prophet to do his dirty work, and that is the guy we are primarily examining.
Bilaam, son of Beor, seems to have been a BIG deal in the ancient world. We don't know much about him, but the fact that the Torah doesn't list his accomplishments is itself a clue that his reputation preceded him. In our text, even God seems concerned that Bilaam might curse the Israelites, which is a shocking concept as well! Bilaam appears to us very powerful, and in his own eyes, he certainly is mighty, important, and ferocious. But he is also petty and greedy. At his core, he is small and ignorant, and no matter how many bells and whistles try to hide that fact, or how many dignitaries pay him tribute, his pettiness comes through nevertheless. We especially see this in the way he treats those "beneath" him: For instance, a donkey.

In Numbers, 22:21, we read a fascinating (and humorous) tale of Bilaam setting off to curse the Israelites for King Balak. God doesn't want him to go, and places an angel with a drawn sword along the road, to block Bilaam's access.
Only Bilaam can't see the angel (some powerful seer he is...); only his donkey can see it. The donkey three times attempts to veer out of the way, but Bilaam repeatedly tries to force the donkey back... and with each yank of the harness he also beats his poor, defenseless animal. Incredibly, God gives the donkey the power of speech, and when she asks Bilaam why he is beating her, he yells at her and says he wishes he had a sword so he could kill her! (v. 29) Putting aside all the fantastical elements in this little vignette, Bilaam is a bully. Compassionless, aggressive, pompous, and in his own estimation, always right. He tries to present himself in different ways in our story - to Moabite dignitaries, to Balak, even to God - but he cannot hide who he truly is on the inside. His core speaks for itself, and it isn't pretty.

We humans are indeed complex. But one thing that is particularly true is that we don't get to tell people who we are; we show them with our actions. Sure, we can redeem ourselves and make amends, we can change direction, grow, and
mature. But even then, we need to DEMONSTRATE our desire to change with our behavior, not with groveling apologies and grandiose promises. It is also true that we CAN choose to say one thing and do another. It's not physically impossible; people do it constantly. Each time, however, we undermine our own integrity, and we chip away at our credibility. There's only so long hypocrisy can persist. Again, think about your own core. Do you like it? Do you want that to be how you are known? Who we are is NOT about words or promises - Bilaam talked a VERY good game... and then he threatened to beat an animal to death. In the end, it's about action, behavior, and results. And I firmly believe it is also about compassion, kindness, and empathy - living those traits, not just talking about them. You can present yourself as the mightiest person on the planet... but if you're also kicking a (proverbial) donkey behind the scenes, then you really aren't so powerful at all.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Jopparn oWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Pharos on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Winslow Homer on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Gerrit on Wikimedia Commons