"It's not my fault!"
We've all said it. It's rarely easy to accept responsibility for the mistakes we make or damage we cause. Sometimes we know instantly we've done something wrong; sometimes it takes time for us to realize the extent of our mistake. But even after that realization, it's always painful to say, "I'm sorry."
Here's one of the few facts I remember from my high school physics class: Because the surface of the earth is curved, the farthest distance a person can see is about four or five miles. Everything beyond that, even with the best telescope, is obscured from view.
Four to five miles! For some people (not me) that's a short, early morning run. Our vision is so limited! Our perspective is so circumscribed. So much lies beyond our horizons at any given moment.
The same is true in our daily lives. So often we become accustomed repeated patterns and habits of mind that help us tread water, but move us no further. We tacitly accept the idea of inexorable fate — it's our lot to struggle, we can't change it. The weight of the present prevents us from imagining alternative futures. We lose sight of alternatives — of a different world beyond our present circumstances — a world just around the corner, beyond the horizon.
Moses appears to fall victim to the same trap in this week's Torah reading, Parashat B'haalot'cha.
On July 2, 2014, the prestigious science journal Nature retracted two heralded papers in the field of stem cell research, papers it had published only a few months earlier. The articles described a revolutionary process called STAP, where biologists subjected mature adult cells to physical stresses and transformed them into stem cells. Yet, in the editorial announcing the papers' retraction, Nature's editors reported that the "data that were an essential part of the authors' claims had been misrepresented" and that the authors' work was marred by "sloppiness" and "selection bias" ("Editorial: STAP retracted," Nature, vol. 511, no. 7507, July 2, 2014). All told, as the journalist Dana Goodyear has written, "a far-reaching and sensational conjecture" was "defeated by flaws that were at best irreparable and at worst unconscionable" ("The Stress Test," The New Yorker, February 29, 2016, pp. 46-57).
In the words of the historian and public intellectual Julian E. Zelizer, "We no longer seek debate, nor do many shuls even allow it to happen. We are having trouble being tolerant of the other side" ("The Closing of the American Jewish Mind," Tablet, December 9, 2015). The same could be said in the hermetically sealed ideological chambers of American popular culture too.
We see the consequences of this kind of intellectual narrowness and the absence of civil conversation in this week's parashah, Korach.
Korah is one of the great villains of the Torah; the leader of a rebellion against Moses.
The author Anita Diamant boldly pronounced, "This is a generation who have no use for the closeted Jew; the polite, blandly American and only privately Jewish Jews. No more Seinfeld; this bunch is Jewish inside and out" ("Minhag America," HUC-JIR graduation ceremony, April 30, 2008). Her words have not lost any of their resonance in the intervening years.
Alongside her words, we might place those of Rashi, as our Torah commentator of record, on this week's Torah reading, Parashat Chukat. Chukat begins with an explanation of the parah adumah, "red heifer," ritual. In short, the Israelites are commanded to produce a "red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid" (Numbers 19:2), slaughter it, burn it, and transform the ashes into a special "water of lustration" (19:9), used to render what has become impure, pure again.
In Parashat Eikev, we read: “A human being does not live on bread alone…” (Deut. 8:3). Found on inspirational posters, T-shirts, and in the titles of a great many cookbooks, this short statement constitutes one of the most well-known phrases from Eikev and from the Book of Deuteronomy as a whole. The phrase has come to mean that mere physical sustenance is not sufficient for a life of fulfillment; rather, people need and desire spiritual and cultural nourishment as well. Many Jewish commentaries have noted that, in context, this phrase actually insinuates close to the opposite of our conventional understanding; rather, that human beings can survive on things other than bread.
As we approach Parashat Shof’tim, we find ourselves in the middle. Of the 10 Shabbat Torah portions in Deuteronomy, Shof’tim is number five. According to the quinate structure of Deuteronomy outlined in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, revised edition (p. 1,411), Parashat Shof’tim is included in the third section — the middle section.
A litany of laws. A multitude of mitzvot. According to Maimonides, Ki Teitzei contains 72 of the 613 commandments in the Torah — the most commandments in any one Torah portion. As the time for the Israelites’ transition into the Land draws ever nearer, God and Moses continue to prepare the people for sovereignty and self-government. In addition to laws that cover rules and regulations within the Israelite community, this portion also includes two passages that dictate the relationship between the people of Israel and neighboring entities.
Does being a person of faith mean you believe in blessings and curses? Why should we always "do the right thing?" Are we rewarded or punished for what we do in the world?