Our Ability to Accept

“And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite (Midianite) woman he had taken to wife (and divorced). And they said, ‘Did the Lord speak only to Moses? Did He not also speak to us?’”

Toward the end of our biblical reading, we find this very strange dialogue between Miriam and Aaron, the elder brother and sister of Moses. Why are his siblings criticizing Moses, and what do they mean by
insisting that God spoke to them as well as to their younger brother?

I believe that this text can become clarified by a proper understanding of the general name for the study of our mystical tradition, the Kabbala. The Hebrew term kabbala means “acceptance”; for our great mystical teachers, everything is dependent upon our ability to properly accept.

Rabbi David Aaron, the founder and director of Israelite, tells of the first time he attended a class given by a well-known mystic in Jerusalem. The teacher summoned Rabbi David and held out an apple — presumably for him to take. Rabbi David put his hand over the apple only to find that the teacher removed his hand with the apple. This procedure was repeated a number of times with Rabbi David attempting to lift the apple from the mystic’s hand and the mystic “teasing” him by removing his hand again and again.

The other students began to laugh; one of them whispered to David not to grab or take the apple, but rather to accept it in his open and cupped hand. That’s what David did and the mystic immediately placed the apple in his cupped hand and smiled. So he learned the first lesson of Jewish mysticism: Everything depends on one’s ability to accept. One’s hand must always be ready to receive, to share one’s bounty with anyone else who may wish to partake of it.

In the portion of Balak, we shall read of Balaam’s talking donkey which teaches him an important
lesson. Rabbenu Tzadok of Lublin explains that the Bible is teaching us that God is constantly sending out “divine rays of splendor” which are waiting for human beings to receive them; we must have the antennae to receive the transmissions which are around us.

Rabbenu Tzadok proves his point by recounting how he was once walking along a desolate road when he saw a peasant walking toward him carrying a large bale of hay; the bale turned over, the hay fell to the ground, and the hapless farmer asked the rabbi to help him lift his produce. “I’m sorry but I can’t,” answered Rabbenu Tzadok, already feeling weak and thirsty from his travels. “You mean you won’t,” responded the peasant farmer. Rabbenu Tzadok immediately began helping the gentile, thanking him for the invaluable message he had taught him. Whenever we say that we can’t, we really mean that we won’t; if there is a strong enough will, virtually anything becomes possible. Apparently, God speaks through donkeys, through farmers; through children. We must develop within ourselves the finely honed antennae to receive the Divine transmissions.

This is the meaning of the verse, “These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly in the mount out
of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness, with a great voice which never ceased” (Deuteronomy 5:19). The Divine Voice heard at Sinai constantly continues to communicate; it is up to us to develop our minds and our souls sufficiently to be able to accept the Divine waves or rays.

Let us now return to Moses’s siblings, who couldn’t understand how this great prophet could have
divorced his Midianite wife Zipporah. Maimonides explains that, in an attempt to raise the spiritual level of the Israelites and prepare them for the Revelation at Sinai, the Almighty instructed them to separate from their spouses for three days prior to the appearance of the Almighty atop the Mount. At the conclusion of the Revelation, God instructs His prophet, “Go now and tell them to return to their tents (and their wives)” (Deuteronomy 5:27). Miriam, therefore, tells Aaron that Moses, too should have returned to his wife Zipporah. After all, was not the commandment to return to the natural familial situation after the Revelation given to everyone, including Moses?

What Miriam did not understand was that Moses was sui generis, unique and different from everyone else, and even from every subsequent prophet. God specifically singled out Moses and separated him from the general return to the family tents when He said to him, “But you stand here with Me and I shall (constantly) speak to you.”

“All other prophets had their ‘prophetic moments of Divine communication,’ either in a dream or in a vision; Moses prophesied when awake and standing,” writes Maimonides. “The holy spirit garbed and enveloped him, whenever he desired it. … He was constantly prepared and ready for Divine communication, just like a heavenly angel. Therefore, the other prophets would return to their homes and to their bodily, physical needs once the spirit of prophecy departed from them, whereas Moses could not return to his wife, but had to separate himself from her forever, because his mind was constantly bound up the ‘mind’ of the Rock of Eternity, whose Divine glory never left him.”

Moses was in a continuous state of prophecy, always attuned to the Divine signals of emission; he was an eternal “receiving” station, a receptor of the Divine rays of splendor. He was the mekubal par excellence.

Communal Commitment



One need only look at the images coming out of southeast Texas last week to realize there’s little Houston, the state’s largest city, could have done to mitigate the death and destruction wrought by day after day of rain producing the largest-ever flooding in the Lone Star State’s history. There’s little the state itself, for that matter, or neighboring Oklahoma — which collectively lost at least 28 lives when the Red, Brazos, Colorado, Blanco and other rivers spilled over their banks — could have done.

That’s the whole point of a century flood: Nothing more than prayer, hope or outright moving away can prepare you for when such disaster strikes.

Baltimore, as you’ll read in this week’s JT, would likely fare better under similar circumstances. Our soil is not the hard-packed clay typical of Texas and so has less of a tendency to become waterlogged. We also, in the words of one city official, live in a “bowl,” with most floodwaters draining quickly to the harbor and out into sea.

Still, floods have happened before, typically when a hurricane struck. At the end of the day, save for buying insurance or heading for the hills, it’s a risk we just live with.

That’s a sobering thought, considering that natural disasters, no matter how much emergency planners devote to preparations, regularly upend communities and neighborhoods. And it’s not just floods — there’s fire, pestilence, earthquakes, a whole host of “acts of God” whose very existences prove that life, no matter how well planned and executed, is inherently a fleeting reality. Prosperity is even less so.

Which brings us, as so often in this column, to the notional concept of community. One of the hardest hit of Texas neighborhoods was the heavily Jewish area known as Meyerland in suburban Houston. In addition to a Jewish couple swept away by the current as they were being rescued — the Alters were buried on Sunday — three synagogues, as well as countless homes, sustained heavy damage. The Jewish Federations of North America admirably stepped in to help, as did other organizations, and the Jewish Community Center in Meyerland became a hub of relief efforts for all residents of the area.

But building community is more than just lending a helping hand when people are cast by happenstance from their houses. It’s about giving them the tools — financial, social and spiritual — to turn those houses into homes both before and after the storms of life threaten to turn everything upside down.

That’s not to say that institutions such as our Jewish federations and JCCs don’t do that already. As a matter of fact, actively aiding people’s lives is a driving force behind so much of what Jewish organizations accomplish on a daily basis. But to the extent that there are people who only “opt in” when disaster strikes, who only donate when there’s an emergency appeal, the work is woefully unfinished.

Fundamentally, people belong to a community when their thoughts and actions are directed outward in the regular course of their days, when they’re devoting a portion of their time and money — on a regular basis — to such communal concerns as family stability, education, poverty and health care.

Such collective activity is the surest defense against the greatest disaster of them all: apathy.


Tony Blair’s Mideast Exit

Tony Blair was the so-called Quartet’s Middle East envoy. (FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA/EPA/Newscom)

Tony Blair was the so-called Quartet’s Middle East envoy.

Tony Blair stepped down last month as the Middle East envoy of the so-called Quartet — the group comprised of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia. To the extent Blair’s assignment was the achievement of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, he clearly didn’t finish the job. But, how did he do?

The most charitable commentators argued that he did a relatively good job during his eight-year tenure, considering that he had been given an impossible task and that his job was unpaid and part time. Others were far more critical.

As the man dispatched in 2007 to foster Palestinian economic development as part of a revitalization effort, the former British prime minister scored some modest successes. The largest of these was the improvement of cellular service in the West Bank and getting the Israelis to remove some checkpoints around Bethlehem, which helped the town’s tourism industry.

But the strongest criticisms centered on how Blair apparently blurred his envoy responsibilities with his profitable consulting business. Thus, while noting that Palestinians gained better cell- phone service thanks to Blair, his detractors pointed to the fact that the improvement also benefited Blair client JPMorgan Chase, whose own clients include investors in the Palestinian mobile phone service.

Let’s also not forget Blair’s business dealings with the strongman regimes of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. While these have nothing to do with his status as Quartet envoy, and while Blair is not the first official of his standing to run a rather successful enterprise with questionable links to suspected human-rights violators, no less than Foreign Policy has commented upon the entrepreneurial side of Blair’s activities, observing that “the full extent of his fortune remains shrouded behind a byzantine corporate structure.” Making peace and making money are two laudable goals, but modern history is replete with examples of the one being sacrificed for the other, and with dire consequences.

The Quartet was formed in a moment of optimism in 2002 as a way for the international community to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace. But that elusive peace will only be reached when both Israel and the Palestinian Authority see that they have more to gain from an agreement than from continued conflict. That point has clearly not been reached yet. And we suspect that it will not be reached without strong international backing and leadership from the United States. With Tony Blair becoming just another diplomat swallowed up in the abyss that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a brighter future will be contingent on the next envoy making peace his No. 1 objective.

The Nazir and Narcissus Parshat Naso

Webster’s dictionary defines paradox as “a statement that is contradictory in fact and, hence, false.” In life, however, there are numerous paradoxes that are, strangely enough, not false at all. In religious life we find many such paradoxes, and one of them is to be found in the Torah portion that we read this week.

This week’s parshah is Naso, the longest of all Torah portions; it treats many subjects that seem to be unrelated to each other. One of the most fascinating subjects treated in this parshah is the practice of the nazir. The details of this practice are quite clear: “If anyone, man or woman, explicitly utters a Nazirite’s vow … he shall abstain from wine. … Throughout his term as Nazirite he may not eat anything that is obtained from the grapevine. … Throughout the term of his vow … the hair of his head must be left to grow untrimmed. … Throughout the term that he has set apart for the Lord, he shall not go in where there is a dead person.”

Generally speaking, the Jewish religion does not require its adherents to abstain from the world and its legitimate pleasures. Ours is not a religion of asceticism. How then are we to assess the practices of the nazir? Did he do the right thing or the wrong thing by voluntarily adopting such stringencies? Is he a saint or a sinner?

A careful reading of the text suggests that we have here a classical example of a paradox. The nazir is both a saint and a sinner. On the one hand, he is called “holy.” On the other hand, he is referred to as a “sinner” — “The priest shall … make expiation on his behalf for the sin that he incurred.”

While some commentaries stress the saintly achievements of the nazir, others emphasize the sinful nature of his abstinence. Obadiah Sforno, for example, states: “He has become illuminated by the very light of life, and has become numbered among the holy ones of his generation.” And yet the Jerusalem Talmud (Nedarim 9:1) chastises him with these words: “Is it not enough for you to abide by
the Torah’s restrictions that you have prohibited upon yourself things which are perfectly permissible?”

The Nazirite’s way is the way of paradox.

The paradox can be clarified by comparing the story of one young nazir to a legend drawn from Greek mythology. The story to which I refer is told in the Babylonian Talmud (Nedarim 9b) by the ancient sage and high priest, Simon the Just: “Once I encountered a young nazir traveling up from the south. I saw that he had beautiful eyes, was markedly attractive, and his hair was arranged in curls. He had come to me to conclude his nezirut, as required, by shaving his hair and beard. So I asked him why he would choose to be a nazir. He told me that he had been a shepherd boy and once went to fetch water from a well. ëI gazed at my reflection in the well,’ he said, ëand was overcome by a passionate urge to admire my own beauty. I harshly rebuked my false pride. At that moment I committed to becoming a nazir, so that I would one day come to shear off my hair for the sake of Heaven.’”

When Simon the Just heard this man’s story he stood up and kissed him upon his head and told him,
“My son, may Nazirites such as you increase among the people of Israel.”

The young man in this story was entranced by his own good looks. He was almost carried away by a passionate urge toward self-worship and self-admiration. He overcame that urge by vowing to become a nazir, with all its restrictions culminating in the requirement to shear his flowing locks and diminish his beauty in the process.

Greek mythology tells us a similar story, but in its version the young man is forever condemned to futile self-worship. I refer to the legend of Narcissus. He was a physically perfect young man beloved by the nymphs. One nymph, Echo, loved him deeply but was rejected rudely by him. The gods punished him by assuring that he too would experience unreciprocated love. One day, Narcissus saw his own image reflected in a clear mountain pond and fell in love with it, thinking that he was looking at a beautiful water spirit. He could not tear himself away from this mirror image, and very slowly pined away and died.

Psychologists have diagnosed a mental disorder which the story of Narcissus epitomizes. They call
this disorder narcissism. Many of the features of narcissism are present in the myth: arrogant pride, self-
centeredness, self-admiration and the inability to show love to another person.

Returning to the young man in the story told by Simon the Just we can now understand that his “passionate urge” was an irresistible temptation to become like the mythical Narcissus. The young man, who, by the way, is nameless in the story, recognizes that he was susceptible to arrogant pride and self-worship. He feared lest he yield to a self-centeredness which leaves no room for the love of others. And so he resorted to a very potent “therapy” — the Nazirite vow.

By telling this story so dramatically, assuring that it would be retold time and again throughout the ages, Simon the Just addressed the paradox of the Nazirite practice. It is not for every man. For most of us it is a sin to forbid that which the Torah permits. But for those of us who are vulnerable to the temptations of narcissism the “strong medicine” of nezirut may be necessary, if only for a while.

Rigorously pious lifestyles do not render a person immune from the curses of narcissism. The ultimate paradox is that the nazir, or anyone else who lives a life of extreme religiosity, can become as guilty as Narcissus of arrogant pride and self-worship. They can come to project a “holier than thou” attitude toward others. The nazir can fail to rid himself of his self-admiration and instead become sanctimonious, cynically convinced that he is spiritually superior to his peers.

Astute observers of contemporary society have detected therein a pervasive narcissism. One such observer was Christopher Lasch. In his popular book, “The Culture of Narcissism,” he writes of a “narcissistic preoccupation with the self” that creates a mockery of traditional values. Our contemporary society, argues Lasch, is full of individuals “who cannot live without an admiring audience … who must attach themselves to those who radiate celebrity, power and charisma. For the narcissist, the world is a mirror.”

Few Nazirites are documented in biblical and Talmudic literature. There are certainly few, if any, today. But there are certainly many narcissists among us. Perhaps we are, as Lasch maintains, a culture of narcissism. If so, we can do well to contemplate the motivation of the Nazirite practices. Nezirut may no longer be the practical way to control our narcissism. But we can surely identify other effective ways to do so.

It may no longer be practical to emulate the nazir, but we are well-advised to at least ponder the purpose of his path.

Nobody Asked, But Here’s My Take

Ambulating through the May 15 issue of the JT:
> Regarding the editorial “Free Speech on Z Street”: Get real! Z Street is a sock puppet of the Zionist Organization of America and its deceitful head Morton Klein. Why does Z Street need tax-exempt status, anyway, i.e., a subsidy courtesy of U.S. taxpayers? After all, the ZOA is largely funded from the bottomless coffers of billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

> Joseph Trost (“Are You Kidding Me?” Your Say) faults Chabad-Lubavitch for meeting with President Obama, whom he asserts “dislikes Israel.” As Rachmiel Gottlieb has documented in the JT (“Upon Further Review,” July 2, 2014), the Rebbe himself was no big fan of the State of Israel, even forbidding his followers from singing the Israeli national anthem; and unlike many observant Jews, he is not buried on its holy soil. It is also telling that among the numerous photographs accompanying the cover story about Baltimore’s Cheder-Chabad (“Continuing a Legacy”), neither a flag nor map nor any other tangible signifier of the existence of the modern State of Israel is anywhere in sight.

> Alan Dershowitz (“Countering the Immorality of BDS”) is to be commended — or not? — for his forthright acknowledgement of the extensive influence and control that Jewish money exerts in campus affairs: to wit, his observation that, out of fear of the withdrawal of alumni support, “every president of every university knows that if they were to boycott Israel they would lose their jobs.”

New Obits Format Is Upsetting

Regarding Jay Caplan’s “Not Happy with New Format” for the JT’s obituaries (Your Say, May 15), I agree 100 percent. I’m sure this is not the first letter you’ve received regarding the new format. I have also written to webmasters but to no avail. Short of calling me an idiot for not liking the new format, perhaps I am too old to be “completely” computer literate. This new format is much too time consuming, and because I now live out of town, I have missed a lot of obits from the families of friends.

JT’s Absence Was Readers’ Loss

On May 11, several hundred Jewish community members came to celebrate Baltimore Zionist District’s 69th Brandeis Gala. They came to hear a living hero, Lt. Gen. Benjamin (Benny) Gantz of the Israel Defense Forces deliver a keynote address as this year’s Justice Louis D. Brandeis awardee. The general joins such illustrious people as Natan Sharansky, Vice President Joe Biden, publisher William Randolph Hearst Jr. and local Jewish community activist and philanthropist Shoshana Cardin, all previous Brandeis honorees. Guests also came to pay honor to Laurie and Kevin Luskin, two very civic-minded, philanthropic Zionist leaders.

How disappointing that the JT chose not to cover this important Baltimore Jewish community event. It was deemed important enough that local elected officials, Associated leadership and hundreds of Jewish community members attended.

Had a story appeared, readers would have gained insights about the IDF general who oversaw the operation that brought thousands of Ethiopian Jews home to Israel; who personally visited the families of all 67 of the IDF’s fatalities from last year’s war with Hamas in Gaza; who, as son of a Holocaust survivor, offered passionate and urgent reasons for a safe and secure Israel; and whose humanity shone through when he explained the moral and ethical challenges he faced during last summer’s war.

After the JT rightly gave such intense coverage to the violence occurring in our city just a week before, we wonder why, when an event so important and with such historic Jewish communal meaning happens, there is no coverage?

We are hopeful that the publication won’t overlook this meaningful event in the future.

Improper Question

The May 15 Your Say question, “Will the Justice Department’s investigation of the Baltimore Police Department result in more effective policing for the city?” seems as if the JT already has convicted the police. My question to the JT is: Where is the evidence, where is the proof, and where are the witnesses? I don’t know if the department is guilty or not, but it looks as if the JT has held its own trial. To me, the question was improper.

Anti-Semitism on Campus: Alive and Well

052915_Foxman,-AvrahamAs someone who has been critical about the sometimes overheated reaction to what is taking place regarding Jews on campus, I also believe it is vital to monitor the situation closely and to be able to re-evaluate as things may change.

I still believe the vast majority of Jewish students have normal lives on campus, where they can be comfortable in their own skins and with their Jewish identities. That is why a recent survey suggesting that more than 50 percent of Jewish students experienced anti-Semitism in one form or another was disturbing. This survey — which in my opinion was flawed — was not a helpful reading of what is going on.

And yet, something is changing. We need to identify what it is and deal with it — without declaring the sky is falling.

Historically, many campuses, particularly when it comes to faculty, have a reputation of being left-wing or at least very liberal. Since the vast majority of the Jewish community has identified itself in a similar fashion for decades, there seemed to be no problem.

Together with this, however, polls of the American people in the last few years indicate an increasing gap in attitudes toward Israel between those who identify themselves as conservatives and those who identify themselves as liberals.

It is this evolving phenomenon that, I believe, is lending force to the anti-Israel forces on campus. Let’s be clear: There has always been a measure of left-wing opposition to Israel on campuses, whether from faculty or some student groups.

They are more organized today. Students for Justice in Palestine, the main organizing force behind the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns, has refined and intensified its tactics. Regardless of the fact that the BDS campaign has not gained much traction on campus in terms of having any impact against Israel — many, if not most, of the boycott votes have been soundly defeated — it is creating a great deal of noise on campus and beyond and contributing to the sense of discomfort of Jewish students.

But the biggest change is the fertile ground in which the anti-Israel community is sowing its seeds.

The trends that are appearing relate to the perception of Jewish students and their relations with other minority communities. There are suggestions that Jews do not qualify for participation in minority community activity on campus, for two reasons: They are deemed people of privilege, not minorities worthy of special attention; and, their assumed support for “colonialist, apartheid” Israel puts them in the camp of would-be oppressors rather than targets and opponents of prejudice.

Jews in America have made too much progress over the last half-century to cause us to overreact. Still, we cannot afford to be complacent. We have to address these campus issues now before they expand further and spin out of control.

Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Superstorms of a Socioeconomic Kind

2013ftv_oshry_aleeza“A rare combination of circumstances that aggravates a situation drastically, resulting in an event of unusual magnitude.”

If you lived on the East Coast in 2012, you most likely remember Hurricane Sandy, frequently referred to as a superstorm by the media. This storm was the biggest of the year, caused the most damage and was used by many as an indicator of our planetary climate system gone haywire due to anthropogenic climate change. People became captivated by the term superstorm, feeding an unquenchable curiosity about natural events turned cataclysmic by people.

Interestingly, this past winter there was an article in The Washington Post about the overuse of the term ‘superstorm,’ which is often used without reference to the science of weather events and virtually impossible to define. Despite not understanding the ambiguous nature of this meteorological event, the public is lured in with the spectacular and dramatic sound bite.

With the recent events in Baltimore, I applied superstorms to a different construct: a combination of circumstances that drastically aggravate a situation, manifesting in events of unusual magnitude, such as civil unrest. A socioeconomic superstorm. But the public response is vastly different.

After the riots last month, I noticed a stark contrast in the Jewish community to these two superstorms. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, there was a mass, united effort by virtually every rabbi, leader, congregation, organization and institution in the collection of food, clothing, supplies and money to help the communities impacted by the storm. Busloads of people on several occasions were driven north to add human capital to the restoration efforts.

After the neighborhoods in Northwest Baltimore were vandalized and looted just miles from our doorsteps, most of Jewish community remained silent, with pockets closed and doors shut. I don’t mean to belittle the effort of those who did help, who worked side by side with our neighbors to the south and east, helping to restore and rebuild what was damaged. But I also don’t want the efforts of a few to be misinterpreted as an adequate response by the entire community.

We all live in social and cultural circles, gravitating to living in clusters based on similarity. In these clusters, we often produce stereotypes about other clusters, creating cultural ghettos. We develop fear of “the other,” fear of our neighbors; we consider ourselves surrounded by enemies. I recently heard a TED talk by novelist Elif Shfak on identity politics. She describes the danger of insular communities, isolating ourselves behind cultural walls. When we don’t connect beyond our clusters, we become encircled by our identity in a stifling way. Our imaginations shrink, and our hearts whither. If the walls are thick enough, we are cut off from cultural and intellectual sustenance. Our clusters will shrivel up and die if the walls are not broken down.

In the case of weather events, superstorm is an ambiguous term. The variables are difficult to pinpoint or identify. However, socioeconomic superstorms are not. By reaching out to make connections, we can eradicate their existence.

Aleeza Oshry is a local professional geologist, educator and sustainability expert.