Student Teaching in the New Millenium

Posts Tagged ‘Justice’

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?

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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?

Passover Nissan 15 5772

In Exodus on April 7, 2012 at 6:50 pm

Handmade shmura matzo used at the Passover Sed...

Hardboiled eggs
Green Salad in balsamic vinaigrette
Matzo Ball Soup
Potato kugel
Honey-glazed carrots
Sauteed asparagus
Brisket three ways!: traditional, sephardic, and smoked
Matzo-encrusted tilapia

Oreo-cookie truffles
Chocolate covered matzo: milk chocolate, dark chocolate, peanut butter swirl, and nutella varieties
Macaroons: dark chocolate, and coconut varities

All homemade!

So, I’m a little behind the 8-ball this week, so to speak, with Passover preparations.  But, the studying hasn’t stopped, this week being a study on the dependability of beloved family and friends.  Without my wife, father-in-law, my brother, and our best friend, our seder couldn’t have been the fun and exciting night it was.

Thanks also to our (34!) wonderful, wonderful guests, and their children who truly made the evening special.

That’s what I’m going to talk about. When the time came to collect the afikomen for the dessert, the children held it for ransom with special enthusiasm. The afikomen, which means dessert, is actually a piece of matzoh reserved for after the festive meal (shulchan oreich). In the Passover Seder, matzoh is the bread of affliction (lachma anya) and the bread of freedom, a reminder of what life as a slave is like, and a commemoration of the exodus (liberation) from Egypt.

It is important to understand that the Passover Seder is written for children. It is traditional for children to read (and sing!) the Four Questions, which describe how the Passover night is different from all other nights. The evening is also replete with symbols (like matzoh) and stories designed to inspire questions, an object lesson in continuation from generation to generation. Finally, it is traditional for the children to steal the afikomen, the dessert of lachma anya, and hold it for ransom for something sweet.

How wonderful is it that we are taught to teach our children to hold oppression ransom? How wonderful is it when children learn to do so with unbounded enthusiasm?

This is what made the evening so special for me.

A Bad Sacrifice

In Exodus on March 21, 2012 at 5:57 pm

A man and his partner ran a business,
and they hired a clerk to prepare papers
for them.
The clerk was happy.

One day,
the partner came to the clerk at the end of the day
and said, “I need you to prepare some papers for a meeting
I have in the morning.”  The clerk obliged
and stayed hours past his usual time to fulfill the request,
and make sure the partner had everything
he needed,
before going home to his family.

The next day,
the partner arrived to his meeting
and found he left the papers at home.
He went to the man and said, “that clerk of yours, he’s lazy!
He’s never here on time, and now
I don’t have what I need
for my meeting this morning!”
The man had the clerk beaten
when the clerk arrived
at the usual time.

Parsha Vayikra

How does this parable compare with the parsha text, found here?

Identify the sacrifices in the passage. Are any of them choice or without blemish?

Precious Stones

In Exodus on February 26, 2012 at 9:59 pm

What is more precious?
Gemstones, giving gemstones, or
men giving gemstones?

Parsha Terumah

You shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. These are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece.

Exodus 25.2-7

These are the gifts that God requests of the people as a free-will offering to build the sanctuary in their midst. All of them would be quite valuable in the barter and trade economy of the time. Why does God request these things?  Why does God request them only from every person whose heart so moves him?

Our haftarah says of the house Solomon built, With regard to this House you are building — if you follow My laws and observe My rules and faithfully keep My commandments, I will fulfill for you the promise that I gave to your father David: I will abide among the children of Israel, and I will never forsake My people Israel. (1 Kings 6.12-13) Solomon’s house was built using forced labor (ibid. 5.27). What does this tell us?

What does it mean that the precious stones are meant for the ephod and breastpiece of the priest? (Exodus 28.4) What does it mean that the stones represent the people of Israel? (ibid. 28.9-12,15-21)

Isaiah says thou art precious in My sight, and honourable, and I have loved thee.  (43.4)  How does this inform our view of the parsha?  Does generosity relate to honor?  How?

Does the punishment fit the crime?

In Exodus on February 14, 2012 at 8:20 am

Walking down the street
looking left and right
one leg leads the other one.

Parsha Mishpatim

He who insults his father or his mother shall be put to death.

Exodus 21.17

Why does our parsha ascribe harsh penalties for offenses such as this?

Democracy from Without

In Exodus, Midrash on February 10, 2012 at 7:39 am

I observe the world

and ponder it silently

as people pass by.


They make oblations

And words of thanksgiving.

I am cold and hungry.


Parsha Yitro

And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood about Moses from the morning unto the evening. And when Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he did to the people, he said: ‘What is this thing that thou doest to the people?’

Exodus 18.13-14

Moses and the Israelites have left Egypt, survived war with Amalek, and begin the business of peoplehood. Yitro is there. Is Yitro of the people, or with them? It is not clear if Yitro is a monotheist. He talks about other gods plotting against God in verse 11. Is it made clear that Yitro has accepted something to do with God. What do you suppose that is?

Yitro was a priest of Midian. He was Moses father-in-law, but an outsider. He worshipped idols, and likely engaged in despicable rites (child sacrifice?) before he made his statement in 18.11. Now we see him lecturing Moses on democracy. How’s that for a complete 360? How can this be?

Look at this from Yitro’s perspective. Where he came from: gods asked, people did. It didn’t matter what the gods asked for. They could ask for compassion, or for your wife or your first-born to be burned alive. People served gods, even when those gods where fellow humans, like Pharoah. So, with this in mind, how do you think Yitro felt when he saw the people, Moses among them, behaving this way?

Is Yitro a prophet? Does it mean anything that he is a ger?

What does this parsha say about our society?

Midianite Fire

In Exodus, Midrash on February 6, 2012 at 12:12 am

I have Christian friends
who celebrate Passover
with me, and I’m glad.

They sit on cushions,
read the wine, drink the stories,
and journey with me.

We both recollect
all the good things, and give thanks.
Who am I to judge?

Parsha Yitro

Yitro, priest of Midian…
Exodus 18.1

And Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, took a burnt-offering and sacrifices for God; and Aaron came, and all the elders of Israel, to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law before God.
Exodus 18.12

Jethro and Moses, as in Exodus 18, watercolor ...

Jethro and Moses, by James Jacques Tissot

What is Yitro, a priest of Midian, doing with a bunch of Israelites? Why does he offer sacrifices to God? Why does God allow Yitro, priest of Midian, to make the offering in the first place, when Nadab and Abihu, pedigreed Israelites themselves, are later killed in the process of making their own?

The text says this about Nadab and Abihu.

And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.
Leviticus 10.1

An obvious interpretation would seem to be, “The laws in Leviticus were given after Exodus, and therefore Yitro couldn’t be faulted for making his own offering. Besides, he converted.” See Rashi on Exodus 18.1. The second supposition is contradicted by our passage in Leviticus. Yitro’s religious and genetic status is irrelevant. If it weren’t, Yitro of Midian would have been destroyed, and Nadab and Abihu of Israel would have survived. Things didn’t happen this way. And did Yitro convert in Rashi’s (or our) sense of the word? because Yitro says, Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods; yea, for that they dealt proudly against them. (Exodus 18.11)

What about the first supposition? “The laws in Leviticus were given after Exodus, and therefore Yitro couldn’t be faulted for making his own offering.” This is the easy way out. How can you assert this, and at the same time assert that Onan, who spilled his seed rather than father children on his levirate wife (Genesis 38.8-10) met with his just desserts when levirate marriage wasn’t mandated as law until Deuteronomy 25.5-6? How can you assert this, and at the same time assert that Cain, who murdered Abel (Genesis 4.8) got his just desserts when the murder wasn’t explicitly prohibited until the Ten Utterances in Exodus 20.1-17?

In the case of Onan, Onan is told by Judah to do his dead brother’s duty by Tamar, and raise children in his brother’s place. This makes it clear that some social standard dictated this behavior before it was ever set in the Torah. Note that Onan did not just spill it [seed] on the ground, but he knew that the seed would not be his; and it came to pass when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest he should give seed to his brother. (Genesis 38.9) In spite of Judah’s initial command, Onan’s behavior is not prohibited by Godly decree at this point. Why then is Onan punished in verse 10?

In the case of Cain, God offers Cain comfort (If thou doest well, shall it not be lifted up?) and counsel (and unto thee is its [sin’s] desire, but thou mayest rule over it.) (ibid. 4.7). What does Cain do? And Cain spoke unto Abel his brother. And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him (ibid. 4.8). Cain is made a wanderer and fugitive (ibid. 4.12). In spite of God’s advice, as big a deal as that may be, God made no prohibition. Cain was given an open choice. Why then is Cain punished for his actions?

In the case of Nadab and Abihu, the text clearly states He had not commanded them. Why then did they do what they did? There is no preamble to this story. Aaron had just completed the rituals described in Leviticus 9. All of Israel was gathered to watch the ceremony. What were Nadab and Abihu doing? What makes fire strange (zara): the fire (aish), or the what’s done with it (vayikrivu lifnei ” aish zara – asher lo tziavooh otam)? Note in our text that the fire wasn’t strange until after they’d put fire therein and laid incense thereon and offered it. Were they honoring God, or themselves? Incense offering was mandated by God in Exodus 30: to Aaron.

So the first supposition is contradicted. None of these events are subject to an explicit prohibition at their time but all of the characters suffer consequences for their actions.

These events also have this in common: strange intent. Onan decided to deny his brother a share in the world to come. Cain planned to lure his brother into a field and kill him. Nadab and Abihu prepared their coup d’état as a fait accompli in advance. And if you’re not satisfied on this point: if Nadab and Abihu weren’t given this ritual to perform, why did they have their censers there in the first place?

What did Yitro do? He praises God, makes thanksgiving for the well-being of his children, and shares a meal with his extended family. Our families should all be so ideal.

What does this teach?  Laws define finitely.   Intentions define infinitely.

Does any one person or thing hold the monopoly on good and bad ideas? Who or what judges a thing to be “good”: You, Me, God, Life? Are all laws of morality determined subjectively, or are some axiomatic? Is it one thing to willfully live life, and another to willfully manipulate religion?

Parents and Children

In Exodus on February 3, 2012 at 8:00 am

You sit there in the
corner, red-rimmed eyes, gasping,
shuddering, afraid.

You know, this hurts me
more than you can ever know.
How do I teach you?

I love you, child.
This estrangement, punishment.
You will know one day.

Parsha Beshalach

The Lord, the Warrior — 
Lord is His name!

Exodus 15.3

Our parsha emphasizes God the Warrior who protects who he chooses and smites everyone else.  A masculine image.  Deborah in our haftarah has this to say.

Through the window peered Sisera’s mother,
Behind the lattice she whined:
“Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why so late the clatter of his wheels?”
The wisest of her ladies give answer;
She, too, replies to herself:
“They must be dividing the spoil they have found:
A damsel or two for each man,
Spoil of dyed cloths for Sisera,
Spoil of embroidered cloths,
A couple of embroidered cloths
Round every neck as spoil.”

Judges 5.28-30

Why doesn’t our Torah text say this of the Egyptians killed in the Red Sea?  Why do the Israelites sing so joyously at the Egyptian’s deaths?  Or, put another way, why do the Israelites celebrate the death of fellow human beings?  Is God supposed to be a lion, a manly destroyer of his opponents, or a lioness, a feminine defender of her cubs?  Is one mutually exclusive of the other?  Are they supposed to be?

For I the LORD change not (Malachi 3.6).  Can they be?

Do mothers cry when they discipline children?

True Apologies

In Exodus, Midrash on January 26, 2012 at 8:00 am

I start my morning
Someone shows up to ask me
Why’d you do this wrong?

You asked for it that
way, the day before yesterday.
Has something changed?

Nothing. Just see that
it doesn’t happen again.
We’re ok, ok?

Parsha Bo

And Moses said [to Pharoah]: ‘Thou must also give into our hand sacrifices and burnt-offerings, that we may sacrifice unto the LORD our God.

Exodus 10.25

Why does Pharoah need to offer sacrifices? Weren’t the Israelites going to worship for themselves? Why is Moses imposing his own religion on Pharoah?

Pharoah has dealth with the Israelites unjustly and deceitfully since the beginning of Exodus, Ramban points out. Whether done out of fear or hate or lack of understanding, inflicting pain and suffering on others is wrong.

Avot 1.6 says we should “judge all men in the scale of merit” (Soncino) or “judge all men with scales weighted in their favor” (Living Talmud, by Judah Goldin). What does this mean? Should we call it like we see it? Or should we always give others the benefit of the doubt?

When we make mistakes, we are instructed to make amends. Torah is replete with examples. See the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis and parsha Mishpatim (Exodus 21.1 – 24.18). Is it necessary to admit when one is wrong to make amends?  Can we make amends without making sacrifice? Is sacrifice proper without kavannah, intent?

Do necessary reparations increase with greater transgressions? Should this be determined by size and scope, large and small? What happens between friends when a silly insult goes un-repaired for years?

When you betray yourself do you hurt others? When you betray others do you hurt yourself?