Thursday, June 18, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.


The Sabbath lunch table was set for 40 – heavy linen table cloth and matching napkins, crystal wine glasses – but it was all about the view. Outside the dining room windows – the golden Dome of the Rock – in full glory, only a few hundred feet away: The best view of the Temple Mount I’ve ever had. The home that overlooks the dome belongs to a very orthodox, very wealthy, very generous, quite nice and, it appeared, quite right-wing American Jewish couple, who’ve turned their multi-leveled palace in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter into a Judaism & Zionism Boost Center. They host many Israeli soldiers for educational seminars and support for the welfare of veterans; dozens of plaques and thank you mementos from every possible unit in the IDF fill the house. The crowd for lunch is mostly American, Orthodox. Some, like the host and hostess, have been living here for over a decade. Others are attending various Jewish study programs in the area or just visiting. I somehow ended up here as a guest of a guest, promised what indeed turned out to be the best view of the Temple Mount ever and great food, and interesting people. It got interesting right away.

As soon as we’re done blessing the wine and the large loaves of homemade wholewheat challah, our host stands up, dramatically opens a bible, and hands it to the yeshiva boy seated next to me, commanding him: ‘read’! The guy starts reading out loud the English translation of the weekly Torah portion – the story about the 12 spies sent to check out Canaan– the part about how they came back and reported on the land that is full of milk and honey but also occupied with people, who are armed and dangerous.

‘But?’ our host cries out, ‘notice that BUT in there! This is the call of the coward! These are the people who always see what’s negative, and these are the people that are afraid of settling the land, then and now.’ Heads nod, murmuring consent. Outside, the Golden Dome glows even more golden in the afternoon air. The Muslim call to prayer is heard from the holy mountain, so close.

D. interrupts, protesting the host’s interpretation. ‘It’s not so clear to me that the spies are evil or cowards’, she says. Like me, D. is a guest of a guest, we’re the outsiders here; she’s an Israeli, secular, human rights activist, chain smoker with that kinda voice. ‘Maybe the ten spies who focused on the bad news weren’t cowards at all? What if they were compassionate and smart and didn’t want to take over a land already full of people? Maybe they didn’t want to kill women and children to get to their promised land. Maybe they considered morality.’

There is quiet for a second or two, startled silence, and then voices erupt and a whole conversation starts, with the overtones of a fight. There is a Biblical Studies professor explaining how morality was not a factor in the Bible when it came to annexation of land, and a rabbi who rose to say that the people who lived in the land before the Israelis (he didn’t’ say Israelites – he said Israelis) came in were immoral and evil and had to be wiped out of the holy land. They probably even had AIDS. He really said that. (He also had a gun on his belt, inside a holster). We were simultaneously talking about the biblical story and the current political reality and the room was very tense, finally interrupted with ‘Let’s sing something’, suggested, graciously and wisely, by the hostess – and someone started singing a Chassidic melody and then everybody joined. I caught D’s eyes across the table, smiling in conspiracy, two protesters in a sea of black and white and convictions. Lunch was soon over and polite goodbyes exchanged. It really was a great view - not just of the top of the temple mount – the holy site of oh so many homes of worship, but also of the inside dynamics of one particular, speculator, mildly fundamentalist home. (And maybe not so 'mildly.') On the way back to our own homes, winding through the alleyways of the Old City, a few of us debrief the lunch - talking about dissent, and about how to let the voices of dissonance be heard in the public conversation in a constructive way.

Maybe nobody’s opinion changes around the lunch table, D. said, but at least they heard my protest – loud and clear.

I recall D’s lunchtime protest when I sit later that day to read ahead and check out this coming week’s Torah tale – Korach, which is all about yet another fatal protest, another failed revolution against the leadership of Moses & Aaron. This protest is orchestrated by one of the Levite, Moses’ cousin Korach, and his followers. Theirs is a direct assault on Moses’ leadership – why are you the only leader? they demand to know. Who put you in charge?

Moses takes it personally, and answers them – isn’t it good enough that as Levites you get to be in the top tier? Why do you also want to be priests? ‘Why do you murmur against Aaron?' (Num.16:11)

That word ‘murmur’ is interesting. The Hebrew is ‘talonu’ – translated elsewhere as ‘complain’, ‘blame’, or ‘protest’. I can almost hear it – the bitter murmuring – bubbling up dissent– moving into open protest – blowing up as a cry for change.

But – they lose. Supernatural powers are brought in to help Moses crush this latest coup: Korach and Co., some 250 men, women and children of the offending clan, are swallowed up by the earth: A Mass grave. Moses moves on.

There are many ways of interpreting Korach’s motives and the specifics of his protest, and the details and implications of his dreadful death. In the literary reading of the Biblical text and in most traditional readings he is clearly the bad guy who just wants more power and deserves it. But from a slightly more democracy driven angle – Korach is also a protester for good and the victim of religious oppression. He demands the distribution of power and government reforms, challenging the authorities that then silence him, or try to anyway. Korach’s protests lost but his story remains, and the message heard – loud and clear, chanted annually, a grim retelling of the role of protest in rigid circumstances. But, also – a reminder– there are other voices always present, challenging the party line, rocking the boat, making us think harder, maybe get us to really step up to power – to demand change. According to some Jewish legends, the sons of Korach didn’t really die – they are still alive, singing psalms and praises, in between the world, quietly, eternally, protesting injustice.

This is not unlike what is happening in the streets of Iran right now: the rage, the risk – the protest for justice, government reforms, distribution of power – even the regime’s fierce reaction, in the name of God.

The vote recall that Mousavi is demanding in Iran this week is not exactly what Korach was complaining to Moses about back in chapter 16 of Numbers – but the move of protest - of demand for equity and dignity – is similar in both cases. It’s also similar, on smaller scale, to what happened during that lunch in the Old City, when D. asked an inconvenient question - holding up a sign with the word ‘morality’ smack in the middle of a smug lunch table and changed the conversation. Hers was a protest that challenged a room full of single minded people to re-examine, if briefly, their convictions and beliefs – reminding us all that there are so many ways of looking at one text, one reality – and that no one narrative or possibility is the only possible – or the only right one. We will, most likely, not be invited back there for Sabbath lunch. Oh well.

What will happen in Iran is anybody’s guess. My guess is that, sadly, what worked for Moses will work for Ahmadinejad and the protest of the courageous Iranian people, open faced in the streets, will be suppressed with force. But their protest is heard, like Korach’s – inspiring – there will be change. Here’s one protest, as subtle as D’s, from an Iranian ex-pat in Canada, inspired by The Matrix: The Matrix in Iran.

Here’s to compassion, and morality, and courage, and change.


  1. AnonymousJune 18, 2009

    A fascinating story.

    I don't think the p'shat of the portion allows for D's interpretation but I also agree with her that we should not treat current inhabitants of the land in the way it was assumed we should in Biblical times. Israel is not merely a Jewish state but also one based on more universalistic democratic values. The inherent contradiction between these two views are always going to be a source of tension between those who don't, can't or won't embrace both. It seems to me that the hosts were of the Theocratic view and D of the universalistic view.

    As for Korach, you should read the interpretation of Arthur Waskow who, similar to you, suggests that the argument of Korach was valid for a future time, stripped of the self-interest of the protester and the exigencies of the embryonic historical moment of the tribe which required a stable and unitary leadership. He suggests that the fact that Korach is 'buried' is symbolically a way of showing that his ideas will one day 'bloom' transcending their imperfect origins.

    An interesting book I read recently (with which I don't entirely agree) is the Hebrew Republic by Bernard Avishai in which he tries to reconcile the Democratic and Jewish nature of the state by suggesting the common denominator of the land should be a common language (Hebrew) rather than religion. This would allow for Arabs and Russian olim who are not Jewish an equal stake in Israel with Jews while elevating the language which Jews have given the world into the organizing principle of the republic.

    Again, I don't agree with his premise entirely, but think it's an engaging read.

  2. AnonymousJune 18, 2009

    Before the Beginning, God prepares vessels to contain His divine energy and channel it into the world of creation. But the pesky things keep breaking, unable to encompass the infinite. He finally gets one shaky edifice to hold together, although it takes six painstaking days. Then He populates the world with beings to hold up the opposite end of the connection. They keep falling down on the job, to the extent that He almost gives the whole thing up and starts over. Eventually He finds an individual, then a family, suitable to His purpose. God tosses this tribe into the refiner's fire and hammers them for a few hundred years to ensure that they will be properly receptive and grateful when the time comes. Despite this careful preparation, when God finally liberates them they seem unable to hold the desired shape. So God laboriously constructs a improved container for the divine connection. It is a new nation with laws, a big tent in their midst where God maintains a personal presence, a priesthood and public sacrifices and every imaginable manner of prop and safeguard to hold it together. "This ought to do the job at last, by Me", thinks God.

    Comes Korach, who questions the whole assemblage and threatens to shatter it (again) into a heap of disconnected, random fragments. Annoyed beyond measure for reasons stretching back since before this latest Creation, God drops the self-absorbed kibitzer into a hole in the ground He prepared ages ago against just such a need.

    Honestly now -- wouldn't you?

  3. as always, i so enjoy your writing and feel like i'm also in israel this year.

    while reading your post today i mistakenly read: Lynch was soon over....

    i also think about your describing the man who is carrying a gun in a holster. that stops me in my tracks. my first director once wrote these lines in a scene: "they're holding a gun up to your head. it looks like a job, but it's really a gun."

    i think we are ALL carrying guns, in our own way. just not literally. the holster is also disguised as political leanings, passionate perspectives, etc...

    thank you for your work.

  4. It occurred to me in reading this to compare Korach and Pinchas- two parshas that we read back to back- in each there is a challenge and in each the reward/punishment is very different. In today's world it is so hard to distinguish between who is doing God's work and who is challenging God. Was your host speaking on behalf of God? You and I do not think so, we have a different view of how we should behave in times like this.