Were they people? Not to the Principal. Not even employees? They were more like digits, widgets, sprockets, more cogs on the command chain. (Joshua Cohen, The Book of Numbers, Oxford, 2014, p. 1.87)
Incredulous. That's how I felt, after requesting and then learning my Uber passenger rating. You see, drivers get to rate and rank you too.
"4.8! That's it?" I thought. "I've never been impolite or unfriendly. I never cancel a request after submitting one. What reason could there be for denying me a full five stars?"
Once again, here was one small example of the many ways each of us is reduced to numbers as we go about our post-modern lives.
"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.
The Book of Exodus opens by creating a picture of the Israelites’ life in Egypt: who was there, where they came from, and what their connections were to the stories of Genesis. Then, we read the famed words, “A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). In this single statement, the Torah signals the end of a period of peace and the beginning of an era oppression and slavery.
Parashat Va-eira is all action: the first six plagues descend on Egypt, and Pharaoh responds in kind, creating the dramatic and suspenseful story that will culminate in God redeeming the Israelite slaves from Egypt. The plagues are high drama, a fast-moving blockbuster film.
Blood. Frogs. Lice. Insects. Pestilence. Boils. My skin crawls and my scalp itches just writing about this batch of creepy, crawly, infectious plagues. The six plagues in Va-eira come in two sets of three plagues each (blood, frogs and lice; insects, pestilence and boils). In each set, Pharaoh is forewarned about the first two plagues and surprised by the third.1 And after each set, he refuses to free the Israelites.
The research abounds: birth order has an impact on development. The Internet teems with articles on expected personality traits for firstborn and later-born children and, in a rare moment of consensus, experts agree that birth order matters.1 It influences a child’s need for attention, interest in interacting with adults versus peers, reactions to challenge and pressure, and relationship with parents. As the mother of two young sons (and a firstborn myself), I see evidence of this research daily and often wonder how birth order will affect my children’s lives.
Birth order matters in Parashat Bo, too. Bo begins with the final four plagues, culminating in that infamous, horrifying last plague: makat b’chorot, the killing of the firstborn. God takes this concept to its extreme, condemning every single firstborn — whether human or animal — to perish. The Israelite firstborns were saved by placing lambs’ blood on their doors.
Redemption! Parashat B’shalach is a Torah portion of glory — glory in the Song at the Sea, the poetic celebration of liberation from Egyptian bondage, and glory in the details of the Israelites’ first steps out of Egypt.
The parashah begins with the verse that sets the scene for the entire next thematic section of the Book of Exodus, the Israelites’ early adventures wandering in the desert. Exodus 13:17 reads, “Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ ”