Student Teaching in the New Millenium

Archive for the ‘Numbers’ Category

Chukat Ox-Bow

In Numbers on June 29, 2012 at 6:40 am

I’m reading The Ox-Bow Incident, by Walter Van Tilburg Clark.  Its one of the books that cemented Clark’s reputation as a westerner, though he was actually a Mainer who spent a fair amount of his life on the east coast.  Its a study in mob justice at a very granular level, exploring the diverse personalities of the members of a would-be (but arguably not quite) posse on the hunt for rustlers who shot a ranch hand dead.  The book was also made into a superb movie with Henry Fonda.

For me, this experience has been a study in the difference between “reading” and “watching.”  The movie is fantastic.  Have seen it, and will see it again.  Its a discussion piece in its own right.  The book, though, is simply incredible, because Clark does a fantastic job letting you into his mind, and letting you into the mind of his characters.  More importantly, he leaves it up to the reader to come at the text from his or her own point of view, letting the reader’s individual background shape the experience in the mob, asking the questions “who do you identify with?” and “who don’t you understand?”

Here’s a phrase that caught me:

Pete had had a wife once, but not since he’d lived here, and he’d been alone so long he’d got to thinking differently from the rest of us. It’s queer how clearly I remember the way Pete just sat there and let us go. To see him just sit and go on with his own thoughts, made me understand for the first time what we were really going to do, so my breath and blood came quicker by the minute. (p.96)

By now you may be wondering, what the hell am I talking about? Consider the following from our text:

In the open, anyone who touches a person who was killed or who died naturally, or human bone, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days.

-Numbers 19.16

The red calf is considered one of the strangest of commandments in the Torah. It confounds all attempts at understanding. The sages attempted to explain it, but it is ultimately what we call a “chook” (with a soft “ch” on top of the tongue), or a law with no clear reason for being. The only two things we know for sure are, first, it simply is and, second, it has something to do with cleansing the uncleanness of death.

The mandate is to burn the remains of a perfect red calf, mix those remains with water, and sprinkle those unclean by a corpse with this solution to make them clean again.

How does spraying yourself with water mixed with burnt cow remains (poop included!) make you clean? The text very clearly says that the water of lustration (i.e. water + burnt red calf remains) will make the unclean clean, and make the clean unclean. How can something make clean the unclean, and make the unclean clean? Is the water of lustration the biblical mathematical negation? Do two negatives make a positive, and a positive and negative make a negative?

I wonder if the case of The Ox-Bow Incident has anything to do with this, in light of the fact that the first condition for “in the open” is contact with “a person who was killed.” Now, the likelihood of coming into contact with a dead person in the open has existed in varying degrees throughout history based on who and where you are (e.g. does a civilian librarian have any more or less chance than a soldier?). I think “the person who as killed” refers to the fact that the killer as well, whatever the intent, is unclean and responsible for “cleansing” as well.

Would this serve as a way to identify killers? Would this be a sort of “brown letter”? Perhaps, but they would mix with everyone else outside the camp who were unclean. Perhaps the ritual is meant to lend some structure to natural considerations in the matter of life and death?

When a loved one dies, is your first response to “go out with the peeps” or take time to yourself? The status of being “unclean” is extended to anyone who was in the same tent as a corpse, so the cleansing period need not be solitary. Groups are therefore given consideration. That being said, is it a natural inclination to “take some distance” after such an event? Are seeking refuge by oneself or seeking refuge with family two different forms of taking some distance? Perhaps being put outside the camp (not to be confused with not taken care off!) is a way to provide people with this distance.

How would the ritual itself play into this? I think it would help the people involved track their time and, perhaps, to sanctify the time in mourning. The time limit would help people realize, in a concrete way, that they need time, but also that there is an expectation to rejoin society. Those who don’t rejoin society cut themselves off (“But the man that shall be unclean…shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly”).

Still, this fails to explain the bizarre nature of the ritual itself and doesn’t answer the questions put before. How does sprinkling yourself with something that makes you unclean, make you clean? How does touching something that makes you clean, make you unclean? Do two negatives make a positive, and a positive and negative make a negative?

I would like to propose the idea that, in addition to lending structure, the ritual is meant to lend gravity to the matter of life and death. It is meant to prevent cases such as that of Jephthah, who rashly offers to sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house to God, only to see his daughter run out to greet him. I think it is also meant to make would-be avengers think twice about their plans, about their inclination to go against the mores of their communities to satisfy their own bloodlust, and the potential consequences.

The characters of the Ox-Bow Incident find three men who they think are the rustlers and promptly lynch them, only to find shortly afterwards that the men they’d found were complete innocents. If only they’d stopped and thought!

Would the knowledge of certain consequences of their actions, being sprinkled with water mixed with burnt cow remains, have deterred them from their intent and spared innocent life? Would seeing the pile of burnt cow remains outside the camp have helped them realize what they were really going to do? Would it have helped them think a little differently?

In this case, could the negative have kept the positive positive?


Chukkat Selah

In Numbers on June 28, 2012 at 11:48 am

SeAlah Bible #1

“Human beings are meaning seeking creatures.
Language is mysterious.
When a word is spoken, the ethereal is made flesh.
Language has an inherent inadequacy. There is always something left unsaid…”

Karen Armstrong

Can we not say that the entire Torah is a Tower of Babel?

Think about the parallels between the two.  In the beginning, there was darkness.  Then God said, and we had darkness and light.  Then God said again, and we had water above and water beneath.  Then God said again, and we had lands in their midst.

In the story of the Tower of Babel, all people gathered together with the common purpose of building a stairway to Heaven.  The story goes that God came down and confounded their speech, and they broke up and went their separate ways.  This is the birth of nations.

Does seeking meaning begin “in the beginning?” After? Before?

Today, millions of years later, has the internet become a modern Tower of Babel?  Computers help us bridge the language gap, and the world is become a plane, where the distance between me and Timbuktu a pane of glass.

Yet for all this, are we any closer to tikkun?  Or are we farther apart than ever?

Was it language that was confounded? Or the meaning behind language?

Is the red calf less a lesson in ritual purification and more a lesson in being confused?  What do people do when they’re confused?

What can confusion do for us?


A paradox of leadership

In Numbers on June 19, 2012 at 1:18 pm

What do leading leaders do?
Live to lead?  Lead to live?
Is there a difference?

Samuel teaches us that the Israelites committed “wicked thing,” asking for a king to be set over them.  Korah pursued leadership and was consumed.

Samuel recollects the Passover, the liberation from slavery, in contrast with the inauguration of the monarchy.  Is this telling?

So, are we not to pursue being led any more than we should pursue leading?  What does it mean to “pursue” leadership, from either direction?

Desert Flower

In Numbers on May 27, 2012 at 11:31 am

red flower, israel.

Israel is the flower that flowers in the wilderness.
His pennants, his petals. His G-d, his bud.
What lies at the center of His children?
Sexuality? Creativity?

Israel is the flower that blossoms in the nighttime.
His sons sleep soundly. His G-d rests with them.
When does the the real Meeting begin?
A wind over the face of the deep?

Israel is the flower that goes on the breeze.
Where’er God goes, they go. Where’er they go, God goes.
Is it all holy ground?
Is it where we go, or where we are going?

Destroy strange bodies?

5771 Masei IV

In Midrash, Numbers, Torah on July 29, 2011 at 3:56 am

Men named ten for nine
Land given three by three
Love thy neighbor

Jeremiah 2:4 – 28, 3:4, 4:1 – 2
Numbers 34:16 – 34:29

This Aliyah deputizes ten men from the nine and a half tribes to divide the land. Rashi tells us that every prince was the administrator for his tribe, and distributed the inheritance of the tribe to the families and to the men, selecting for every one a proper portion. And what they do shall be (considered) done, as though deputies had done it (On Num. 34:17). This is all well and good for the tribes themselves. What happens when two families of different tribes are next to each other and disagree about their boundary? What defines “proper”, or “more to the more and less to the less”?

One must ask if the leaders discussed this. I think they must have, or else would there have been occasion for Joshua to reprove Ephraim and Manasseh for asking for more land and not driving all of the Canaanites from their holding (Josh. 17:18)? I think this was intended. Did it work?

What happens today when we disagree? Local officials determine property lines and zones. Courts and “chieftains” adjudicate disputes between us. Superiors collaborate to define responsibilities to minimize conflict. Multiple authorities consult when more voices are needed.

Is this free from error and abuse? Is justice in the hands of the princes or the people? What defines justice?

What does this teach us about mutual responsibility? Are we all chosen?

Final question: what does it mean three of the ten men aren’t called “prince”?

5771 Masei III

In Midrash, Numbers, Torah on July 28, 2011 at 4:35 am

Clean up your garden
Build you a fence to check them
Snakes sneak through the cracks

Jeremiah 2:4 – 28, 3:4, 4:1 – 2
Numbers 33:50 – 34:15

Two things occur in the third Aliyah. First, Israel is told to drive out the inhabitants of the land of Canaan, or else their remnant will be as stings in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land in which you live (Numbers 33:54), and destroy all their idols and high places. Second, Israel’s borders are defined. Why place this directive and this definition next to each other?

This is foreign policy on the surface. “We’re here, you’re there”. Other nations are noted by Rashi and the text, but the Israelites’ directive is limited to taming the land they’ve been assigned. Manifest destiny.

How sustainable is this policy? Then, and now? What does it hope to accomplish? And what does it mean in our age of diversity?

Jeremiah is quiet on the former inhabitants of Canaan, but has plenty to say about the current ones and their gods, For your gods have become, O Judah, as many as your towns! (Jer. 2:28). They said to wood, “You are my father,” to stone, “You gave birth to me” (ibid 2:27). This is a counter-point to our text, you shall destroy all their figured objects; you shall destroy all their molten images, and you shall demolish all their cult places (Numbers 33:52). What does this tell us?

There is a concept in the Tao of the ten thousand things, or particular things, symbolic of the myriad distractions that could lead us from the Way. We cannot destroy the ten thousand things, but we can recognize them for what they are and release our thinking from them. What they are is a good question. What does this teach us?

Are the gods of Israel among the ten thousand things? Do we have ten thousand things? If yes, are they the same? If you were to drive out the inhabitants of the land before you (Numbers 33:52), how is your land defined and what inhabitants are there to drive out? Do they leave anything behind? Do they harass us if left unchecked?

Is a wilderness of nations (Ezek. 20:35) comparable to a wilderness of thought?

Final question: are a person and a bad idea the same thing?

5771 Masei II

In Midrash, Numbers, Torah on July 27, 2011 at 12:28 am
D is for...

Map to teshuva
from the parents to the children
circling, circling

Jeremiah 2:4 – 28, 3:4, 4:1 – 2
Numbers 33:11 – 49

So in the second Aliyah we read the listing of the Israelites’ journey. Rashi teaches that the enumeration shows that the Israelites weren’t driven without rest, there being only twenty journeys in the wilderness in the years between Rismoh (and the spies’ transgression) and Hor. R’Tanchuma compares it to a father recounting their journey to his son, here we slept, here we chilled, here our head ached, and so on. Rambam’s position is the journeys are preserved as a history, because the future Israelites would forget, think that the areas weren’t remote and uninhabitable, or scoff at the whole story.

The trouble with these interpretations is in the white spaces. How do we know how strenuous the journey was or wasn’t? Were some parts less or more so? Need it only be strenuous enough to ensure the spies’ sympathizers passing? How do we know this is a message direct from God to his children, as Jeremiah said last week, Israel was holy to the Lord, the first fruits of His harvest (2:2)? How do we know a history is HiStory?

Why mention the history in it’s entirety to demonstrate the Omnipresent’s benevolence (Rashi, Numbers 33:1)? And why mention it here, of all places? Why not keep the record at the point in the text where the events take place, limiting the route to the areas in question? I posit that the history is part of Moses’ final testament before his death.

There’s another curious feature here. The only descriptions offered are at Rephidim, Hor, and Egypt where the story begins. Nothing at the Red Sea. Nothing at Sinai. Nothing about Sihon or Og, Midian or Balaam. The triumphant or high handed leave-taking of Egpyt is the single identified high point, sobered by a reminder of Egypt’s suffering. Is it really a high point? None of Israel’s major “victories” after departing Egypt are mentioned. It’s failures aren’t here either. So we have here a plain and simple retelling of the journeys and isolation Israel endured. What does this mean?

What else is plain, simple, and meant to be endured? A dunce cap. Embarrassing, uncomfortable, isolating, and designed to give children time to think about their actions. Instead of “get in the corner!” we have “get in the wilderness!” Further discussion with the parents seldom occurs during this sentence but afterwards. Jeremiah does this, saying, they never asked themselves, “Where is the Lord”. (2:6)

What does this tell us? If this passage teaches that the journey in the wilderness was a dunce cap, it becomes a life teaching. We are creatures of action. Some things we do are smart. Others are stupid. Our successes empower, our blemishes embarrass. What do we do when we’re embarrassed? Maybe, we’d sneak away for awhile.

This passage also teaches mercy. Do our parents and teachers allow us take off our dunce caps and rejoin society? Does God allow the Israelites to come out of the wilderness and take the land for a possession? With the hope that, as Maimonides says, whatever it is, we don’t do it again (Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Teshuva”, 2:1). We should all treat each other with this dignity.

Final question: Is there a forever dunce cap? Discuss.

5771 Masei I

In Numbers, Torah on July 25, 2011 at 3:36 am

Keeping history
sets fact weeping
except when it doesn’t.

Jeremiah 2:4 – 28, 3:4, 4:1 – 2
Numbers 33:1 – 10

Why does the text say that the Israelites set out defiantly or with a high hand? Why not say God led them out of Egypt? I’ve seen this rendered as written (as Ramban suggests) by the commandment or by the direction. If by the commandment, then, why command the history be written this way? If by the direction then why allow it? Is the barren wilderness supposed to be self-evident as Ramban suggests? If the predisposition is to worship things, couldn’t the Israelites have just turned around and worshipped the wilderness that miraculously supported them, because this might have seemed self-evident? Because they found the manna each day, writes Ramban quoting Rambam, but all these matters are signs of events of a miraculous nature which were seen by the human eye, and we see how well this worked out at Moab. How can we expect more of subsequent generations? Are Jeremiah’s cries, then, too little too late?

Rashi suggests that the journeys are recorded to show God’s beneficence, that the Israelites were not driven harshly without rest. So, by this logic, if by commandment or direction, how do we know the whole history is here? Or, for that matter, how do we know the Israelites went through the wilderness, and purification, at all? For none of those who spurn Me shall see it. This is not the case. Was the Day of Atonement practiced in the wilderness? Did it atone?

Ramban suggests that by the commandment refers to as written, and not to the journeys themselves. Why not both? A super-commentator to Rashi suggests that the enumeration suggests that the journeys were lengthy enough to keep the people occupied for the interval, but that it was easily traveled in a short time.

Why does Ramban suppose a secret purpose for the record? Isn’t dwelling on mysteries forbidden? The secret things belong unto the LORD our God?

How could Moses have written the travels down at this time if the entire Torah is supposed to have been given at Sinai?

5771 Matot V

In Numbers, Torah on July 23, 2011 at 11:30 pm

Listen! Listen!
Hear what I hear?
A vow, an oath,
Promise, Covenant

Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3
Numbers 31:42 – 32:42

Why is the offering of the army a levy, and the offering of the community a withholding?

Why is the Lord’s tribute specified but the community withholding is not?

Why use the Hebrew Adam, or man, if only the women were spared?

Why say and we have brought the LORD’S offering, what every man hath gotten and later say for the men of war had taken booty, every man for himself? Merit of commanders accounted to their commanded? Merit of parents accounted to their children? Merit of the community accounted to those who are missing? Merit of the prophets accounted to the nations?

If the point is to give the promised land to all of the tribes of Israel, why conquer land that would entice some tribes away? Is this to be their own possession or their own kingdom? For it is said, we ourselves will be ready armed to go before the children of Israel…for we will not inherit with them, and, then ye shall be clear before the LORD, and before Israel, and it is also said, if the children of Gad and the children of Reuben will pass with you over the Jordan, every man that is armed to battle, before the LORD, and the land shall be subdued before you, then ye shall give them the land of Gilead for a possession; but if they will not pass over with you armed, they shall have possessions among you in the land of Canaan. Are the Reubenites and Gadites still Israel?

Does this constitute a break of the covenant, for I remember for thee the affection of thy youth…how the wentest after Me? Is this a new covenant with the Reubenites, Gadites, and half tribe of Manasseh, I have made thee this day a fortified city, and an iron pillar, and brazen walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah? Or an amendment? Where the terms of this amendment don’t conflict with the master agreement, the master agreement shall have control?

5771 Matot IV

In Numbers on July 22, 2011 at 12:59 am

Here a little, there a little
Divide the plunder!
Offer from distraction.

Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3
Numbers 31:25 – 41

Why the different levy between the warriors and the rest of the community?

How is the division of booty equal and unequal? The warriors would take their booty back to their families? What about the families without men who fought? What about the heads of household who did not fight? What does this say about merit? And about the foreign women?

Why render prisoners as persons in one place and as human beings in another? Does the Prophet call for persons? Why call Midianite women the name persons, if God’s command was to harass the Midianites? What is the difference between a contribution to the Lord and give them to the Levites?

How come God’s command is for You and Eleazar the priest and the family heads to take the tally, and then Moses and Eleazar the priest did as the Lord commanded Moses?

Why place the levied spoils after the tally?

How is it the amounts of booty are all evenly divisible? How is it that the levy specifies persons for the contribution to the Lord and, here, all the women who had not had carnal relations are called a total of 32,000 human beings, and again the number of human beings [for the combatants] was 16,000?

Can we render carnal relations as carnal relative, a singular? If taken in the commonly held mway, all well and good. If taken this way, how can we be sure that none of these women has a carnal relative in their family?

What is done with these women? For we were slaves in the land of Egypt, why keep them?