Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Ever since the disaster on Mount Everest in 1996 as documented by Jon Krakauer in his bestselling book Into Thin Air, I have wondered what kind of person would need to climb the tallest mountain in the world (29,029 feet; 8,848 meters).
I once asked my brother who is an avid naturalist and hiker, likes altitudinous places, and who is adventurous but not crazy, if he had ever considered climbing Everest.
Thankfully, he said, “No!”
“Are you certain?” I pursued.
“Yes. No way!” And so I stopped worrying.
May is the time of year when people who like pushing beyond their limitations may try for the summit of Everest. The Guardian reported last month a remarkable event that took place on the mountain: an Israeli climber, Nadav Ben Yehuda, saved a Turkish-American climber, Aydin Irmak, and “carried [Irmak] on his back for eight hours.”
To appreciate the magnitude of this selfless and highly unusual feat, which Ben Yehuda characterized as “automatic” (he is a former IDF soldier and was trained never to leave a fellow soldier injured or dying on the battleground), note this passage from the blog accompanying the article describing the physical and mental effects on a human being at that elevation and the ethical challenges that come with being there:
“The biological reality of climbing 8000m+ high mountains is that when you’re in the death zone you are burning 13,000 calories a day. The lack of oxygen will have you suffering from hypoxia, it will prevent you from eating as all your blood will be diverted to keep your muscles oxygenated, you will most likely be hallucinating. You do not have a few days in the death zone, you have one day and if you have to stay overnight up on the mountain you are most likely dead anyway. You are starving, you are dying on your feet, and most people can barely manage to lift one foot ahead of the other on the ascent. If you stop to help someone and they can’t walk then they are dead and any effort you make to save them could see you dead as well. It is grim, it is horrible, but that’s the way it is. Oxygen bottles help but they’re heavy and need to be carefully rationed. You get a trickle of extra oxygen to help you along but it is nothing like breathing seaside air. The real problem with Everest is that it’s filled with amateur climbers who don’t respect the mountain and the risks involved. The ethical dilemma isn’t whether or not to stop and help someone on Everest. At that point it’s too late. People will do what they can but unless they possess superhuman features then what they can do is very little. No one is getting carried down off the mountain. The dilemma as I see it is whether to attempt the climb in the first place, knowing that it is littered with bodies and that it’s going to be filled with amateur climbers who will put themselves, their Sherpas, and their fellow climbers at risk.”
Nadav Ben Yehuda is an extraordinary individual to have even attempted to climb this mountain. That he saved another human being in the way he did is even more unusual. And given the enmity created between Turkey and Israel by the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is one of the world’s most relentless and unfair critics and haters of Israel, the story is even more noteworthy.
However, it is likely that Nadav had no idea that Aydin is an American-Turk. Nadav was simply a climber and he saw another climber in desperate need. Selflessly, he responded and saved a life at the risk of his own.
From whence came his strength on that mountain to carry another human being for eight hours? Who knows?
From whence came his moral fortitude to dispense with the ethic that says ‘each man for himself?’ Clearly, his training as a soldier in the IDF buttressed by the ethics of his nation that emphasizes that the fate of one is the fate of all.
From the top of the earth, far above the fray of distrust, politics and tribe, Nadav Ben Yehuda acted the life of a tzadik, a wholly righteous man!
To Nadav Ben Yehuda—Kol hakavod! You make me proud!
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June 11, 2012 | 9:13 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
A resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not look promising, though it is still possible. The window for a two-state solution is rapidly closing, and conversation is shifting to consider the meaning of an emerging one-state reality. Though polls show that both Israelis and Palestinians still favor a two-state solution, facts on the ground and politics are allowing the status-quo to take root, and the status-quo supports a one-state reality. This will be good for no one!
The two articles below spell out in detail how time is running out, and describe the dynamics now operating in and around this conflict. They are both worth reading.
The Palestinians are trapped by their own politics in refusing to sit down with Israeli negotiators thus suggesting that their motivation is to wait and let events and demography undermine Israel as a democratic Jewish state.
Israel is trapped by the most extreme right-wing government in its history that gives lip-service to the two-state solution while at the same time developing policies and facts on the ground that undermine the path to a two-state solution.
The United States is distracted by our presidential campaign, and nothing of significance is expected until after the election, if at all. Both political parties and candidates are striving to show that they are the most “pro-Israel” thus playing to the most extremist and fundamentalist forces in American and Israeli politics.
The relative calm out of Gaza and the West Bank, due to the exhaustion of the Palestinian population to violence, the positive effects of the Israeli security fence in stemming terrorist attack against Israeli civilians inside Israel, and the intensified security cooperation between Fatah and Israel in the West Bank, give the illusion to Israelis that the status-quo is not so bad after all.
Israeli and international pre-occupation with the Iranian nuclear threat has distracted America’s and the Quartet’s attention away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As time passes the dozens of small illegal Jewish “outposts” that dot the landscape of the West Bank are solidifying and a significant portion of the settler population is becoming more radicalized thus making the peaceful emergence of a contiguous Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state of Israel difficult to imagine.
Many moderate Palestinian and non-violent two-state advocates have come to the conclusion that a one-state reality with a one-person, one-vote democracy represents the best way for Palestinians to get their Palestinian state on the one hand and to undermine the Jewish state of Israel on the other. For Jews, a one-state eventuality either means the end of the Jewish state or the end of a democratic Israel.
Analyzing the Problem
The articles below describe and analyze the various alternatives:
Sit and Wait;
Transitional arrangement towards a two-state final status solution;
The Jordanian solution;
The conclusion to the article written from an Israeli perspective published in the New York Times (“Israel-Palestine: Policy Alternatives given the Infeasibility of Reaching a Final Status Agreement”) is:
“The Israeli interest dictates operating in two parallel yet at the same time integrated, complementary main policy efforts. The first is to strive energetically to an agreed solution, even partial or gradual, with the Palestinians, based on the two states principle. The second one is to initiate policies and actions that will create a reality of two states for two peoples. We recommend making progress along these two parallel tracks, in agreement and coordination with the Palestinians if and when possible, and unilaterally, based on an Israeli independent decision.”
The conclusion of the second piece by Khalil Shikaki, a moderate Palestinian analyst, published by the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Center (NOREF) (“The future of Israel-Palestine: a one-state reality in the making” – May 2012), states in its Executive Summary:
“With no agreement on a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in sight, one-state dynamics are gaining momentum – a development that will be difficult to reverse or even contain. In the medium and long term, no one will benefit from such a development. Indeed, all might lose: an ugly one-state dynamic has no happy ending, and such a solution is rejected by Palestinians and Israelis alike. Instead, the emerging one-state reality increases the potential for various kinds of conflicts and contradictory impulses. The international community too finds itself unprepared and perhaps unwilling to confront this emerging reality, but in doing so it imperils the prospects for peace in the region – the exact thing it seeks to promote.”
After the American presidential election it will be necessary for the United States to move forward with a muscular diplomatic effort to bring all parties to the table and settle this conflict once and for all before it is too late.
June 8, 2012 | 4:52 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
The Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) is growing dramatically and drawing into Jewish life Israelis from every corner of the country. Once Reform Judaism in Israel was understood as a transplant movement from the United States. Today, it is an Israeli movement inclusive of 40 congregations, a kibbutz movement, an active youth movement, and social justice movement (led by the Israel Religious Action Center) and many of our congregations in Jerusalem, Mevasseret Zion, Modin, Tel Aviv, Ramat Hasharon, and Haifa. Thousands of Israelis are being inspired as Jews in ways that heretofore have not been available to Israelis.
Watch this Youtube of its recent convention (with English sub-titles). Among the speakers are some of Israel’s top progressive political leaders, Rabbis (now 101 Israeli rabbis among whom are 30 women), lay leaders, teens, and young families.
I can attest personally to the dynamism that is Israeli Reform Judaism. It is the movement of the future in Israel. We are winning not only the hearts and minds of secular Israelis, but also important political battles as in the recent case before the supreme court of Rabbi Miri Gold to be treated equally as a regional rabbi.
It’s all good.
June 5, 2012 | 2:54 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
The “annual physical for healthy, asymptomatic adults is an inefficient gauge of health [and] more likely to find false positives than real disease.” (“Let’s (Not) Get Physicals,” by Elisabeth Rosenthal, Week in Review, New York Times, Sunday, June 3, page 1).
The article reports that the United States Preventive Services Task Force no longer recommends prostate specific antigen blood tests, routine EKGs, and frequent Pap smears. An earlier report said that regular mammograms are also unnecessary.
This Task Force says that harm is caused by many unnecessary medical procedures and that these tests and procedures drive up the cost of health care in America that spends twice the amount per person in comparison with other developed countries without making people better. Indeed, it says that based on the science and statistical analysis, side effects from many tests and procedures end up causing greater harm to the patient than the good they address.
Had I personally followed this Task Force recommendation and an earlier one released in May on the PSA test, I’d be dead today, or near death.
My story in brief: Three plus years ago my wife Barbara said to me, “John – you need to call the doctor as you’ve not had a physical for more than a year.” I was 59 years old then, in pretty good shape and almost never got sick.
“I’m fine,” I said.
She insisted, “Get a physical - and while you’re at it, get your PSA checked!”
I relented, called my doctor and scheduled an appointment. The year before my PSA was normal, and so I wasn’t worried. This time, however, there was a dramatic change. My numbers had more than doubled. While digitally examining me, my doctor felt a mass. He ordered a more specific test to determine whether my raised PSA number was a false positive. It came back positive again. He recommended a biopsy, and the results confirmed that a cancerous tumor was growing in my prostate measuring 9 on the Gleason scale. 10 is almost always fatal; 9 is often fatal. I was in trouble.
What had happened? Wasn’t prostate cancer slow-growing? Why suddenly did I have elevated levels and a large tumor?
My brother, an oncologist, surmised that my tumor was probably growing slowly over several years and remained undetectable, but suddenly it became aggressive, grew quickly and had reached a dangerous state.
In the United States nearly 200,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer annually. Of those 25,000 die from the disease.
Was I one of the 25,000? I feared the worst until after the surgery and my surgeon gave me the good news that he successfully removed the tumor in time. Had I waited another three or four months for a check-up, it might have been too late as the rate of the tumor’s growth meant the likelihood of it having spread beyond the prostate.
My surgeon said that my margins seemed clear, but to be certain my radiology oncologist recommended eight weeks of radiation as a prophylactic to kill microscopic cancer cells that might still be lurking. The total hospital bill topped $150,000, most of it paid by insurance.
I can say without a doubt that I am alive today and “cancer free” because my wife was vigilant and urged me to go for an annual physical examination, and that I had asked for a prostate specific antigen blood test even though I was asymptomatic. The physical and this blood test are the very two items this US Preventive Services Task Force said were unnecessary.
I do not, consequently, take seriously the Task Force’s recommendations. Most responsible doctors I know also reject the view that annual physicals are unwarranted, that PSA tests are useless, that Pap smears, mammograms, and other regular tests are unnecessary.
Dr. Mark Litwin, chair of urology at UCLA, following yet another U.S. Preventive Services Task Force report on the usefulness of the PSA test (LA Times May 23, 2012) said that the real problem is not the test but the rush to treatment. He does not believe that the PSA test should be dumped. “Therein lies the crux of the problem,” he said. “The issue is not so much should an individual be screened—it hinges more on should an individual be treated.”
So – here is my point in writing: If you have not had a colonoscopy lately, have avoided PSA tests, digital exams, mammograms, EKGs, stress tests, or any other ongoing ache, pain or seemingly innocuous symptom, pick up the phone, call for an appointment with your physician, and get yourself checked out.
It could save your life. It did mine!
June 3, 2012 | 9:05 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
The Israeli and Palestinian narratives reflect, in part, the national identities and perceived histories and experiences of each people. Our respective narratives are built on historical fact and myth. In the interests of finding a way to peace between our two peoples, I believe it is necessary to clarify what is the objective truth of the history of this conflict, to confront it honestly, to acknowledge the pain of the other, for each side to accept responsibility for what has taken place, and then to somehow transcend all that to find a way to partition the land for the sake of peace and security for our two peoples.
The following is hardly exhaustive, but it is an attempt to clarify what actually happened the 1948 war. (see Part I)
Claim/Myth: Arabs formed a majority of the population in Palestine and the Zionists were colonialists from Europe who had no claim to or right to the land of Israel.
Fact: Jews have continually lived in the Land of Israel since at least the time of David (1000 B.C.E.). Since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by Rome in 70 C.E. Jews who were forcibly removed or who fled to the Jewish Diaspora have prayed towards Jerusalem and yearned for a return. No other religion, people, ethnicity, or nationality can claim as long an historical, religious and emotional tie to a particular land as the Jewish people have had with the Land of Israel and the holy city of Jerusalem.
At the time of the 1947 UN Partition resolution, the Arabs had a majority in western Palestine as a whole. But the Jews were in the majority in the area allotted to them by the UN Partition resolution (a small but contiguous area along the coast and in parts of the Galilee).
A major reason for the Arab majority was that many thousands came from neighboring Arab countries (e.g. Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Transjordan, and Egypt) to find work, opportunity, education, and health care as a result of improved conditions brought about by the rapid development of the land by Zionist pioneers in the first part of the 20th century. Most of these Arab population numbers (i.e. an increase of 630,000 people, or 75.2%) were people from other Arab countries and were NOT Palestinians. A Palestinian Arab was defined as one who resided in Palestine for at least 2 years, even if his/her origin was from elsewhere. However, many Arabs have lived on the land for centuries and they too claim this land (“Palestine”) as their ancestral heritage.
Claim/Myth: Most of the area of Israel was once Arab owned.
Fact: According to British government statistics, prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, 8.6% of the land area now known as Israel was owned by Jews, 3.3% by Arabs who remained there and 16.5% by Arabs who left the country. 71.6% of the land was owned by the British government. Under international law, ownership passed to Israel once it was established and approved as a member nation by the United Nations in 1948. (Survey of Palestine, 1946, British Mandate Government, p. 257).
Claim/Myth: The establishment of Israel violated the right of Palestinian Arabs to self-determination.
Fact: The United Nations had offered self-determination and separate states to both Arabs and Jews in western Palestine in 1947. The Jews accepted the offer and the Arabs unanimously rejected it and went to war to “drive the Jews into the sea” (per President Gamel Abdel Nasser of Egypt). This war had followed decades of Arab terrorist attacks on innocent Jews throughout the area of Jewish settlement.
Claim/Myth: Israel expelled the Palestinians in 1948 and took over Palestinian land.
Fact: There is general agreement among Israeli historians on the left and the right that many Arabs were forced to leave their homes and villages in 1948. Of the 700,000 Palestinians who left about 300,000 were forcibly expelled by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) whereas between 100,000 and 200,000 left on their own. The reasons for the flight of the rest is unclear.
There is disagreement, however, among these same historians about the nature of the expulsions (i.e., whether there were explicit orders from the leadership of the Yishuv to expel Palestinians, or whether the expulsions were spontaneous responses to military conditions on the ground as carried out by local leaders).
The debate is over Tokhnit Dalet (Plan D), the military plan that called for expulsions near or behind enemy lines or in hostile villages. The Israeli historian Benny Morris argues that the evidence doesn’t show an intentional program designed ahead of time, but rather a spontaneous response to military conditions by low-level commanders in the field. Others argue (using Morris’ own evidence) that documents show a plan for mass expulsions from above, that is, that Tokhnit Dalet was the realization of the “transfer impulse” under the cover of military language. Still other scholars take a middle position, arguing that Tokhnit Dalet was originally intended as a purely military and small-scale operation, but that once Palestinians were “encouraged” to leave and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had attained military superiority, it was understood that the long-term interests of Israel were served by having as few Palestinians as possible remain within the Green Line (i.e. the 1949 Armistice Line).
Many Palestinians, however, fled their homes and villages out of fear of what their own leaders were telling them would happen to them when the Jews would enter their villages and cited the massacre by Jewish extremist paramilitary units of more than 100 men, women and children at Deir Yassin near Jerusalem as evidence of what the Jews would do to them. Others fled because their leaders promised that when the Jews would be defeated they could return home and enjoy the booty of the vanquished Jews. After they fled, Israel took over their villages, leveling many and planting fields.
What now? How one regards the historic facts and each people’s narrative will either advance or hinder a negotiated two-state solution and partition of the land. The meaning of Jewish and Palestinian nationalism in the minds and hearts of their peoples, the ability to acknowledge the national legitimacy of the “other,” to acknowledge the pain and suffering of the other, and then to compromise for the sake of peace, justice and security for each people are essential to a negotiated outcome of this conflict.
We Jews are and have always been an ever-hopeful people. We are also a people of memory, and the pain and victimization we have experienced in our history are long and deep. The Palestinians too have been bruised and victimized by history, by their leaders, and by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The key question for us both is whether we can transcend our pain, fear and hatred for the sake of finding a better future for ourselves and the other.
June 1, 2012 | 10:50 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
In March 2011, the Israeli Knesset passed a law called the “Naqba Law” that would punish public institutions for any reference to the Israeli occupation of Palestine in 1948 as “Naqba” (meaning “Catastrophe”). The Knesset law enables Israel to deny state funding to institutions that question the country’s existence as a Jewish state. The debate that led to the vote was heated and angry.
Right-wing Israeli lawmakers who introduced the law insisted that it was meant to defend Israel against delegitimization efforts within Israel and internationally by Israel’s enemies. Israeli liberals argued that the measure is inherently undemocratic because it restricts free speech, even though this particular speech challenges the existence of the Jewish State of Israel itself.
How should we Jews in the Diaspora regard this law? What does it mean for Israel’s democracy and Jewish character?
Though the law has been on the books already for more than a year, the issue came up on Israeli Independence Day when Palestinian Arabs took to the streets to demonstrate what they believe is a basic injustice to their rights and national identity. The law will likely be recalled, as well, on the anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War (this coming Tuesday, June 5) when Israel took the West Bank and Golan Heights (and the Sinai Peninsula which it returned to Egypt in the Camp David Accords) in a war of self-defense imposed upon it by its Arab neighbors.
In the interests of a future peace agreement (should it ever come about) an accurate understanding of the true history of what happened in 1948 is important for Israelis and the Palestinians to understand beyond the myths perpetuated in each of their narratives.
In this blog and the next blog I will offer, as best as I can, a reconstruction of some of that history. Much has been written about it by Israeli historians on both the left and the right, as well as by scholars internationally. I have sought to glean only a few essential truths of that history.
The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was the most important and positive event in 2000 years of Jewish history because it meant the return of the Jewish people to our ancient national homeland and a return to history itself. There the flowering of the Jewish national spirit could occur, and indeed it has over the course of these past 64 years.
However, as extraordinarily inspirational as the establishment of Israel has been for the Jewish people it has been just as extraordinarily negative for the Palestinians, who call that event the “Catastrophe” (Naqba).
Despite the Palestinians within the Green Line (the armistice line established in 1949) living as full citizens in the only democracy in the Middle East, and despite their having greater freedom and more rights and opportunities in education, law, government, politics, medicine, religion, and the arts than in any other Arab or Islamic nation, Israel’s Independence represents for Palestinians what they regard as a great loss to their national identity and heritage, the loss of control over their ancestral homeland, their being prevented from returning to their homes from which they fled and were driven out, and the ability to establish their own state.
The Israeli narrative is, of course, much different. Theodor Herzl promised that the Jews would settle a barren wasteland devoid of people and build a new society and a state of their own. Indeed, the Zionist pioneers came and made the desert bloom. In doing so they confronted many obstacles, the most cruel of which has been ongoing terrorism and multiple wars.
Despite the violence against it Israel’s successive governments reached out to Israel’s Arab neighbors to make peace and asked that all the nations of the Middle East join to create a new prosperous, creative and cooperative region.
Two different worlds and two different perspectives! Each narrative is built upon fact and myth. However, peace will depend on mutual clarity about the objective truths of history, what happened, where injustice really lies, and the measure of accountability each side must take for its role in the perpetuation of the conflict. Confronting the truth of our mutual history, however, is so very difficult because that history carries much pain and loss, resentment, distrust, fear, and hatred.
We and the Palestinians are enmeshed in a very bad “marriage.” As in any bad marriage the only reasonable result is first separation and then divorce. With a successful divorce must come compromise, a division of property, and a sharing of the “children” (i.e. those things that both sides cherish). Divorce is always difficult and far too often there is very bad blood between the former partners, but if each partner wishes to live out a better life for itself and its progeny, it is necessary.
Following Shabbat I will offer a short list of “Claims/Myths” and the facts that abide within those claims and myths.
To be continued…
May 31, 2012 | 9:42 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
The Torah portion this week, Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89) presents us with the strange and pure commitment of the Nazir, a Hebrew word meaning “consecrated” or “separated” from the community.
The most famous Nazirite in history was the Biblical Samson, arguably the most physically powerful figure in the Hebrew Bible. His hair was illumined by a thousand suns, and his strength was drawn from his direct spiritual connection with God.
The Nazir could be a man or a woman who voluntarily undertook the self-disciplined and self-denying life. The Nazir was forbidden to cut his/her hair, drink wine or have contact with the dead.
Each year at this time when the Nazir presents itself in our weekly Torah readings I find myself fascinated by his/her commitment and motivations of heart, mind, body, and soul. Here are my poetic musings on such a life.
That chasm just doesn’t go away,
The yawning gap between You and me,
Between Your infinity and my infirmity.
We seekers yearn to know You and be near,
To breach the darkness
And merge into Your Light.
We’ll consider any way to You.
And some will do any thing,
Follow any one,
Even dip their burning toes into any pool
Or enter any lion’s den,
If they believe Your promise is their reward.
We seekers call You by many names -
Yahweh, Jehovah, Jesus Christ, Vishnu, Buddha, Allah.
We Jews have had our ecstatic prophets
And mystic souls,
Lured by otherworldliness,
The Ain Sof of being-less-ness.
We are infinity-seeking,
Some suffer mightily in their quest,
Their hearts quartered and bleeding,
Flesh crawling and yearning,
‘O Ecstasy,’ they cry,
‘To be any thing but me!
To be any where but here!
To be one with You,
That is my quest,
My life’s yearning,
My soul’s delight!’
Eternal One –
Is this the thing?
Is this what You ask of me?
Of us all?
If so, how do we come near?
Is not performing the mitzvot enough?
Or should we become Holy offerings,
Given-over, burned and denied,
Turned into ash before You?
Must we wait for death
When our souls are released
And they return to You
To know You truly?
For me, here and now –
Your Torah must be enough.
Its letters and words,
They are beautiful in my eyes,
Graceful upon my lips,
Life-giving within my breath
The inspiration of my love.
Yes, this must be enough!
As for other seekers,
Those who wish
Can have the life of the Nazir.
May 24, 2012 | 7:53 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Mi at – “Who are you?” (Ruth 3:9) - So asked Boaz. It is a question that every human being asks from time to time. Especially on this weekend of Shavuot, of the great meeting between Israel and God on the mountain, we ask ourselves individually and as a community - “Who am I/Who are we” in this time and place, at this stage of our lives, as individuals, as a people, and as a nation.
This Shabbat we begin the fourth book of the five books of Moses, Bamidbar (Numbers; lit. “in the wilderness”). If the Book of Genesis is about human and tribal origins and beginnings (mirroring childhood), and Exodus is about human freedom (representing the driving force amongst adolescents), and Leviticus is about the need to adjust to the rules and regulations imposed on society in order to live productively (characteristic of young adulthood), then Bamidbar is about the mid-life journey.
In this fourth book we see that the bloom is off the marriage between God and Israel. Doubt, disillusionment and struggle define our people’s lives. We rebel. Our faith is broken. We want to be somewhere else, anywhere else if it brings relief and renewal. We confront our limitations and mortality. We wonder if this is all there is. We’re caught in the unfettered and cruel desert, a vast wilderness of silence. Our hearts pound. The quiet thunders in our ears. We’re alone and afraid. We yearn for safety and solace.
The wilderness of Sinai is far more than a physical location. Bamidbar is a human wasteland, where everything falls apart. We wander, without a shared vision, without shared values, or shared words. Leaders of every kind attempt to lead, but no one is listening and each is marching to the sound of his/her own drummer. Driven by fear and jealousy, ego and greed, the people are moved by basic things; hunger, thirst and lust. God’s transcendence is elusive. The book is noisy, frustrating and painful.
Rabbi Eddie Feinstein has written (“The Wilderness Speaks”, The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary, pps. 202-203):
“Bamidbar may be the world’s strongest counterrevolutionary tract. It is a rebuke to all those who believe in the one cataclysmic event that will forever free humans from their chains. It is a response to those who foresee that out of the apocalypse of political or economic revolution will emerge the New Man, or the New American, or the New Jew. Here is the very people who stood in the very presence of God at Sinai…who heard Truth from the mouth of God…and still, they are unchanged, unrepentant, chained to their fears. The dream is beyond them. God offers them freedom, and they clamor for meat…”
L’havdil – I am not Moses, nor has my experience been his remotely, yet as a congregational rabbi I understand our greatest leader’s burden of leadership. In the course of Bamidbar “everyone in [Moses’] life will betray him. Miriam and Aaron - his family members – betray him, murmuring against him. His tribe rebels against him… his people betray him in the incident of the ten spies… and finally, even God betrays him [when he hit the rock and lost his dream of ever entering the Promised Land].” (Ibid)
Numbers is a book about burdens, not blessings.
“Everyone has found himself in that excruciating moment when words don’t work – when we try and say the right thing, to heal and to help, but each word brings more hurt. Everyone has tasted the bitterness of betrayal – when no one stands with us, when those who should know better stand against us. Everyone has felt the deep disappointment of the dream turned sour. It could have been so good! I should have turned out so differently! Where did I go wrong? Everyone has tortured himself with the torment Moses feels in Bamidbar. And that’s the ultimate lesson. Listen to the Torah’s wisdom: the agony, the self-doubt, the frustration are part of the journey through the wilderness. Anyone who has ever worn Moses’ shoes or carried his staff – knows the anguish of Bamidbar. But know this, too: You’re not alone. You’re not the first. You’re not singled out. And most of all, you’re not finished. The torturous route through the wilderness does not come to an end. There was hope for Moses. There is hope for us.” (Ibid)
Where does hope come? In the turning of the heart, the turning of a page, the discovery of shared values and shared purpose, of shared life, and shared listening, and shared doing. In Deuteronomy, the fifth and last of the five books of Moses (representing our senior years when we begin to integrate who we are and rediscover our greater purpose), we’ll hear Sh’ma Yisrael – Listen O Israel.
In Devarim (Deuteronomy), “words” return and we’re able to share as a people in listening to God’s voice and to each other. In this, there is hope yet to come.