Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Peh al-peh: Moses' unique humbleness

Time passes and the next memorial feasts or days will show in June with the commemoration of the destructions of the Temples and the city of Jerusalem that will climax on the 9th of Av (07/23-24).

We just left Shavuot and the Giving of the Written and Oral Laws to Moses. The journey through the wilderness continues with Shabbat Beha'alotekha (Moses, when you will elevate the lamps) and the weekly reading portion in the Book of Bamidbar/Numbers 8:1-12:16. There starts the second year of the Israelites' sojourn in the desert. The Levites are called to mount = ha'alah the lamps in the Tent of the Meeting. They are told to serve from the age of 25 until they reach 50. Then, they would stay on the side of the acting Levi'im, without performing anything.

Moses proposes to celebrate the feast of Passover, thus for the second time in the wilderness. It happens that some men come with specific requests. Can they join the feast as they had been in contact with corpses and are unclean? At each step, Moses answers them that he knows nothing and needs to get God's advice and response. This is the repeated motto of this weekly reading. Moses goes ahead but constantly needs God's personal answer. In the case of the feast of Passover, the reply is that these men should wait one full month and then celebrate Pesach on Iyar 14, i.e. what became "Pesach sheni = Second Passover" for those who were absent at the feast and could not participate for some valid reason.

This provision is mentioned as a sort of leitmotiv that accompanies the Israelites during their journey in the Sinai. It is said that they should take good care of everybody, every soul and to never reject anyone. Today, this sounds as a typical reminder from the wilderness times. The Sinai is per se a kind of no-man’s land, a wild area full of dangers, with plenty of visible, invisible, day or night enemies or fictions that may exert their power even through fictitious visions.

Moses repeated the Lord’s commandment: “when a stranger who resides with you (“ve-khi yagur ger”) will offer a Passover sacrifice to the Lord, he must offer it in accordance with the rules and rites (mishpato) of the Passover sacrifice. There shall be one law for you, whether stranger or citizen (velager ule’ezrach) of the country”(Bamidbar 9:14). This extends the rather permanent issue we face in this country, much after the time spent in the wilderness and discussed as an actual problem in the previous blog. The time in the Sinai corresponds to a pedagogical tour. It is not a labyrinth because this wonderful space and mind route has but only two possible goals. The Cretan labyrinth combined secrecy and hardship to get free and/or memorize. It was also a mythological way to hold the Minotaur and thus to restrict one’s thought on limited solutions. The Egyptian pyramids were built on the same confusing pattern. Human rulers and leaders love these sorts of quizzes. Genetics and specialists of memory diseases or defects would show how such paths can be controlled with much insight.

The journey through Sinai is not of the same nature. It is not built upon myths and mythological attempts to tie up human beings. We are still in the Sinai in many ways, in particular as regards our desires or expectations, beliefs or faith that we came and will continue to come out of serfdom to freedom. In the wilderness, the Hebrew nation was a displaced living body that advanced in some dizzy darkness. This means they missed explanations, maps, central piloting headquarters and strategy.

Today, just look at the mobiles. We get the last breaking news in whatever alphabet, the weather forecast for the week, a living map showing where we are and where you may go. It also means you know where our friends, buddies are located and where the next conflict will nuke out. And, along with the view of the Tent of the Meeting, if any, your favorite pictures or flashing ads, SMS and fax services, access to your credit cards and personal documents, with the exact time. We hold the world in the palm of our hand, or around our neck, provided there is no strike somewhere. Then, you can call your friend who is at the Kotel/Western Wall and cry out all our distress lives from Anchorage! In Israel, beside a weapon on a belt, there are people who have 3, 5 cell phones at hand. It does not mean we know how to use our cells. But we are not lost… well!

Now, in the desert, when there is a grain of sand, everything gets blurred. And there they were the ancestors! They were journeying ahead with camels, donkeys and sheep, rattling around without real understanding of where the route should lead them to. In this respect, as people were also dying in this environment, it should be interesting to analyze with precision that were listening to Moses. It is quite a pity that no TV nor Arutz “something” could not record daily life, counseling with Moses and prayers at the Tent of Meeting.

The Talmud is rather lively, but still… It is evident that, progressively, the marching in the desert appeared to be dangerous. They were not at Jericho. But the Israelites made two hammered silver trumpets (chatzotzrot kesef) to summon the divisions and convoke the congregation with long blasts. The task was given to Aaron and the priests. Because these trumpets were to be blown in case of a war in order to remind the people that God is able to deliver the nation from their enemies (Num. 10:9). Everything still focuses and is naturally centered on God. He is the One and only Counselor at this point. There are “intermediate contacts or laws that allow to make a ‘chatzitzah – partition’ between clean and unclean and shake a situation” (Hagigah 78b). The trumpets and their resounding name in Hebrew have this function. It does not mean that God will save. It does not mean that the human divisions of the Israelites were strong or powerful, mighty. On the contrary, they did know that only Moses could advise them adequately because he was conversing with God in full obedience and consent, mutual trust.

At times, the Israelites could not accept such a situation. This is why it is inquiring to see how Moses tries to persuade Hovav the Madianite to guide the division across the desert and help them avoiding wrong routes (Bemidbar 10:29). Hovav was a sort of “stranger and citizen.” He answered to Moses that he preferred not to guide him and return to his home. Moses tried a second time to convince him to “give his eyes” in order to find the right direction. He got no response. The scene is fascinating because we still go through the same temptations, tests and frightening experiences, here in this country but also everywhere because the mental configuration is rather similar. Nahmanides had stated that: in the wilderness, Hovav would have given a human hand in a situation that basically defies God actions and certainly not Moses’ non-existing power. Thus, two radicals are used that are essential in Judaism: “tov – good – yetiv – to be good”, which Moses said to Hovav to persuade him to guide them; in return, he would be good, generous toward Hovav.

Hovav’s refusal is more than significant. It is precisely when the ger is a full resident and still claims his own freedom. This can upset or rebuke. Moses is a simple man and has the human right to be feeble. In that sense, leaders are terribly weakened by nature. Hovav reminds Moses that his only guidance comes from God’s mouth and nobody else. When Moses insists “lecha itanu – come with us”, he forgets for a very short while that is definitely essential, that the Israelites are to join the spiritual path accomplished by the Avot – the ancestors and three first patriarchs. As concerned leaving idolatry and the house of Terach, Abraham heard “lech lecha – go, leave – go to yourself and who you are- go, go then to your country”. This is a divine call, a bit “weird” and that he could hardly listen and accept immediately. We have the same problem. We have more: we know this by heart! So leave it to the highbrows and we shall pull in/out, backward/forwards, around/away, underneath/in the air. And there go the strikes in the reading portion: the people protest: they want to eat, weep upon all these delicious products of Egypt. They got quail and manna.

But this was in the desert and the real thing concerns Moses. It is written about him: “Moses was a very humble man more than any other man on earth (anav meod mikol adam asher al-haadamah)” (Num. 12:3). This traces back a parallel with the first human being. “With him, says the Lord, I speak mouth to mouth (peh al-peh) (v.8), without riddles and he beholds the likeness of the Lord.”. Moses could not utter words properly. He was “ani – poor” as God expecting His people prayer (Tehillim 104). He could not boast God or the Israelites or Pharaoh or anyone by his experience with God. How can we expect anything of God if we think we are strong and know anything about Him? Everywhere, leaders will declare that they know; they will not step down because they know. And even when the downfall, collapse is definitely clear, still they are strong and know. Leaders can just be any anonymous person who blows up for some odd reason.

Moses’ humility has become a model that remains unsurpassed in the TaNaKH. He is the model of the Jewish “anawim – poor that totally rely on God”. He was obedient to God. “Obedience” does not mean a lot at the present. True, it sounds “too Christian” and servile. The Latin word “ob-audire” means “to hear, listen in a converging way, together.” This is the most difficult point to reach. It does not consist in “hearing” (sh’ma) and then do what pleases us. It does not mean a sort of constantly frustrating reduction of personal freewill or freedom.

On the contrary, as “the poor in spirit – oi ptokhoi to pneumati” (Matthew 5:3), lauded by Jesus, the way is widely open to who believes that God can work unexpected things. Jewishness has deep feeling toward those they would assume to be “anawim” or “tzadikim – righteous”, beyond any titles. The Eastern Orthodox Church commemorates, on this Sunday after Pentecost, the Saints who lived as human beings in the total abandonment to God’s Providence and Commandments. There is something very close to the Jewish “Devekut – attachment” in the Chassidic tradition. The Saints were not supermen/women, just ordinary people whose lives radiated God’s Acting Presence and Providence. The Orthodox and the Catholic Churches have recognized (canonized), in the past thirty years, a immense number of Saints. This can be a real questioning between the Jews and the Christians.

The 20th century has been a monstrous time of apostasy and crimes. Some men and women, children did trust in God and joined those who witnessed for God along the centuries. Curiously, Judaism also started to recognize, under specific circumstances, the merits of the “Righteous among the Nations”. Saints and Righteous are not E.T.’s. They sanctify God’s reign everywhere.

1. Great job Rabbi!!!

This was very well written and thought out. Keep up the good work.

John Tobin, Tennessee, USA, May 31 8:05PM

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