This week's Torah portion is Parshat Beha'alotcha, chapters 8 to 12 of Sefer Bamidbar, usually called in English the Book of Numbers. In it the direction of the fortunes of the generation of the Children of Israel that left Egypt turn from positive to negative -- a direction that will not again be reversed. I have a suggestion for why that turn went in the wrong direction. More below the fold....
Parshat Beha'alotcha starts with a brief description of the service of the lighting of the menorah in the Temple; it is read at the end of the Torah reading on the last day of Chanukah. It continues with a service of the dedication of the Levites to service in the Temple, the decree of the second chance for people who could not bring the Passover offering through no fault of their own, and then an extended treatment of the way that the community traveled in the Wilderness. (Bamidbar, the Hebrew title for the Book of Numbers, literally means "in a wilderness".) The clear impression is that we are headed for the Land of Israel and should arrive within a few weeks -- the great 11th century commentator Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak ("Rashi") says in just a few days!
We never made it.
And the downfall of the generation of the exodus starts here. It was such a catastrophic downfall that one opinion in the Talmud is that the generation of the exodus were so evil that they do not have a share in the World to Come, a condemnation that is about the worst thing that they rabbis can say about anyone.
The Torah narrative lists complaints about food, the unwillingness of Moses to intercede on behalf of the people in the way that he had after the incident of the Golden Calf, Moses even criticizing the people as being impossible to satisfy, the strange case of people prophesizing and Joshua complaining in response, the plague of quails that provides the Children of Israel with far more food than they ever had asked for, and Miriam speaking evil against Moses himself. At first glance, none of these seem anywhere nearly as bad as building an idol of gold and turning its worship into a kind decadent experience. But there is a common thread here and it offers a profound lesson for us in our times.
The first thing in the narrative that appears not to be in order is the announcement by Chovav, who is either Moses father-in-law (previously called Yitro), or the son of Moses' father-in-law, that he is returning to Midian. Rashi attributes this to him realizing that converts such as himself do not have a share of land in the Land of Israel along with the other tribes. Moses tries to persuade and the basic text ("pshat") of the Torah does not say what happens; Rashi says that he did return to Midian but Nachmanides ("Ramban", 13th century Spain) says that he was appeased and stayed with the children of Israel; the Jerusalem Talmud reports that his descendants did eventually live in the Land of Israel. In fact, that Babylonian Talmud reports that converts lived in the cities of the Levites, a promotion that jumps over the lot of the ordinary tribesman!
Concern about land, upsets about food, all the other bitterness in this Parshah have one source: A lack of acceptance of how things are, and ultimately a complaint about God. Judaism isn't about complaints, it is about keeping God's commandments which include many that are designed to make the world a better place for our fellow humans! The appropriate response to disappointment with how things are is to take action, remembering that it is our Creator who gives us the strength to take such action and is ultimately in charge of the result. (And it is of course appropriate to pray about such things!)
One Republican Congressman made news this week by claiming that his Bible prohibited Food Stamps. His quote was from the New Testament, which as a Jew I do not accept as canonical, but it is important to note that Judaism has a completely different take on the matter. I recently completed a study of the tractate of the Jerusalem Talmud, "Peah", that deals with the religious laws concerning mandatory gifts to the poor. The Torah requires that farmers leave the corners ("peah") of the field unharvested, the gleanings ("leket") left on the ground, and the stalks and leaves left behind as harvesters pass ("shich'chah"). It also deals with the tithe to the poor ("maaser oni") that is given to a poor person 2 years out of the seven (years 3 and 6, to be precise) in the shemittah cycle. Peah, leket, and shich'chah are reserved for the poor and the landowner is actually prohibited from favoring one poor person over another -- in fact doing so is considered robbery by both the Talmud and Maimonides! These laws are so important that the Babylonian Talmud specified that they are singled out as the laws that should be taught to all prospective converts to Judaism, to show the different relationship that Jews have to property than the "mine is mine" attitude in much of the world. (No, Ayn Rand's teachings are not consistent with the Torah.)
As time went on and Jews became less agricultural and more urban, rabbinic institutions filled in for the role previously played by these mandatory taxes on farmers. A "kuppa" or communal charity fund was established to provide for any who could not meet their basic needs. Everyone was assessed for a donation each week by the communal leader, who distributed the funds each week. This is described in the Jerusalem Talmud Tractate Peah and brought down as binding law by Maimonides.
In every city where Jews live, they are obligated to appoint faithful,1 men of renown as trustees of a charitable fund. They should circulate among the people from Friday to Friday and take from each person what is appropriate for him to give and the assessment made upon him. They then allocate the money from Friday to Friday, giving each poor person sufficient food for seven days. This is called the kupah....There is a common belief that religious charity is supposed to be completely voluntary. In Judaism, that is simply a false belief. Here is what Maimonides says two chapters earlier:
We have never seen nor heard of a Jewish community that does not have a kupah for charity.
Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor, Chapter 9. Translation by Eliyahu Touger.
When a person does not want to give charity or desires to give less than what is appropriate for him, the court should compel him and give him stripes for rebellious conduct until he gives the amount it was estimated that he should give. We take possession of his property when he is present and expropriate the amount that is appropriate for him to give. We expropriate property for the sake of charity even on Fridays."Stripes" means he gets flogged! The IRS and the Justice department only puts you in a minimum security prison when you don't pay your taxes!!! Interestingly, in England starting in 1601, and in most if not all of the English colonies in America, similar systems of poor relief were set up, in many colonies by the local authorities of the Established Church assessing mandatory taxes for support of the local poor. These pious Christians never heard the theology of today's Republicans.
Thinking of ones own self only helped to lead to the destruction of the generation of the exodus. The Torah commands Jews to think of the welfare of other Jews and of non-Jews. (Non-Jews can collect Peah, Leket, and Shich'chah and in fact we just read the Book of Ruth on the holiday of Shavuot where Ruth, still described as a Moabite woman, joins the Jewish women collecting those mandatory "gifts" prior to her becoming Jewish and marrying none other than the owner of that field.) It is entirely appropriate for us to stop whining about how bad the Republicans are and to start lobbying to prevent the cuts to the food stamp program.