Chukkat: the fully lived life is not about length, but about limits or serious anger, serious consequences

The shadow of death hovers over parashat Chukkat.  It begins with the instructions for the ritual slaughter of the red heifer, and the cleansing rituals that those who had contact with a dead body must follow, and it records the deaths of both Miriam and of Aaron. It tells of the deaths by plague of those who rebelled against Moses’ leadership and it ends with two mighty battles.

One can read the whole Sidra as being about the coming to terms with mortality, and the limits of human existence.

At the centre of the Sidra is a powerful story which also deals with the limits of a human being. We hear of an incident which seems on the face of it quite minor, yet which has far reaching impact.  After the death of Miriam, the people complain about the lack of water, and God commands Moses to take Aaron’s  rod – the one which sprouted leaves and flowers when left overnight in the Mishkan – and with that miraculous sign in his hand, to order a rock to produce water in front of all the people waiting there.  Moses does indeed take the rod, but instead of using words, he strikes the rock. He seems to be at the end of his patience, angry and fed up with the people he is leading. Water gushes out at his action, but God informs him that because of his behaviour, he will not now enter the land he is leading the people towards.

It has been said about Moses that all of his sins – whether the impulsive murder of the Egyptian task master in his youth, the breaking of the stones containing the commandments, or the striking of the rock – show elements of anger and violence, of his unbridled self will and of his temporarily ignoring the real and present will of God.  A modern commentator (Rabbi Norman Hirsch) wrote that “the sin of Moses at Meribah is characteristic of the man, one of a series of sins, and serious. Why serious? Because civilization depends upon humility.  Without a sense of limits that flows from the awareness of a moral law and an ethical God, every brutality, every corruption, every atrocity becomes possible”

When people allow themselves to act without limitations, to let their anger overtake them, and to forget the reality of other people – their needs, their fears, their humanity – then atrocities not only become possible, they become inevitable. Once humility is overridden, and once people forget that God’s will is rooted in moral and ethical imperatives rather than in pride or land or material  success – then there are no boundaries, and our own characteristics and needs take over for good or for ill.

Moses fails ultimately in the job he has been set to do. His failure is in his unwillingness to control the righteous indignation he feels on behalf of God.  It shows itself in his need to demonstrate to others the rightness of his analysis.  His failure doesn’t lie in the feeling of anger as such, but in the way he uses it and allows it to use him.  In this story the demise we are witnessing isn’t to do with physical death, nor with a metaphysical response to the end of life – this time the fatality is Moses’ leadership and his ability to take the people into their next stage of the journey.  Because Moses shows that he is unable to change himself, his anger is ultimately stronger than him, and because he doesn’t seem to believe any more that he should rein his emotions in to prevent doing damage around himself, his leadership will come to a premature end.

Anger is not in and of itself a negative emotion.  Anger against an injustice can be a powerful propellant for change.  It can be a constructive force leading to a different way of being in the world.  Jewish tradition does not judge anger negatively, nor does it preach a tradition of humility for the sake of it.  If anything the two sentiments are simply different sides of the same coin, and either of them used to the exclusion of the other are likely to produce unfortunate events.  But anger that is allowed to dominate, anger that clouds the vision to such an extent that nothing else can be seen, is a very dangerous quality, and not even Moses could be allowed to indulge himself in it.

The thread that runs through the narrative here in Chukkat is that of the limits to a life.  Einstein wrote that “there is a certain satisfaction in the fact that natural limits are set to the life of an individual so that at its conclusion it may appear as a work of art”, and certainly in retrospect one can often discern a pattern that may not have been obvious during the living of the life – a pattern that suddenly shows a completeness not otherwise seen.  This is certainly the case both with Aaron and with Miriam, who leave nothing of importance undone by the time of their deaths. But for Moses this is sadly not true – he never deals fully with that all consuming rage and so it breaks out repeatedly in his life – one can even see traces of it in his resistance to dying and to passing on his authority to Joshua.  One lesson we learn is that length of life is not necessarily the same as fully lived life – in 120 years Moses is still unable to resolve his issues satisfactorily and even God becomes weary.   Moses limits his own life because he pays attention only to his own feelings and not to those of the people around him. It remains a flaw in his character to the end, and something that niggles us as we read torah to this day.  How come Moses wouldn’t – or couldn’t – overcome it? And if he couldn’t do it – what chance do we have with our own character flaws?

I suppose the answer lies in the continuation of the story. After Moses’ outburst God tells him that because of it he will not be leading the people into the Promised Land. At that point Moses would have been justified in giving it all up, but instead he seems to have picked himself up and found a way to continue leading the people to their destiny – even while knowing that he would not now share in it.

He shows that his vision can still be clear, that he can get over his attacks of despair or of rage and function as a proper leader, leaving his own needs to one side.

The story of Moses’ striking of the rock challenges us to look at our own characters, our own willingness to forgo humility in favour of some more selfish need, our own repeated patterns of behaviour.  It reminds us of the needs for limits – both those which emerge from a sense of an ethical God, and the boundaries around our own existence – both of which should contain any excesses we might otherwise consider.  The story reminds us too of the force that anger has that can mask any self awareness or awareness of the other, the way we can forget the humanity of the people around us – with tragic consequences should we go on to act on that ignorance.  And it reminds us of the power of keeping going, even when the future may seem dark and hopeless, for in that keeping going some redemption may come.

Vayechi: Chesed ve’Emet, Acknowledging truth allows us to offer our compassion fully.

וַיִּקְרְב֣וּ יְמֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֘ לָמוּת֒ וַיִּקְרָ֣א ׀ לִבְנ֣וֹ לְיוֹסֵ֗ף וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לוֹ֙ אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ שִׂים־נָ֥א יָֽדְךָ֖ תַּ֣חַת יְרֵכִ֑י וְעָשִׂ֤יתָ עִמָּדִי֙ חֶ֣סֶד וֶֽאֱמֶ֔ת אַל־נָ֥א תִקְבְּרֵ֖נִי בְּמִצְרָֽיִם:

And the days of Israel came close to death and he called to his son, to Joseph, and he said to him “If pray I found favour in your eyes, pray put your hand under my thigh, and treat with me with Chesed and Emet; do not, I pray, bury me in Egypt” (Exodus 47:29)

Chesed and Emet – two of the thirteen middot, the attributes of God explained by God to Moses, after the incident of the Golden calf, and which continue to be used liturgically in the same way that Moses used them then– to ask for divine mercy when there is no legal basis or reason for it.

Essentially, used as the centre of the selichot prayers of the Days of Awe, these words, taken from Exodus 34 (vv6-7) remind God of our individual and group relationship with the divine, and that sometimes it is only the mercy of God that allows that relationship to continue. They set the scene for teshuvah, for repentance or rather for a return to God after we have strayed.

Of the thirteen middot derived from this text, all but one refer to mercy, kindness, favour or forgiveness –the second of our pair here in Vayechi, when Joseph asks Jacob, Ve’asiti imadi Chesed ve’Emet.

The word Emet means truth or faithfulness. Its presence in the request is a problem for classical commentators on this text, and is beautifully glossed by Rashi who quotes the midrash (Gen. Rabbah 96:5) which uses the context of the proper burial of the dead by understanding Jacob to be saying to his son “The chesed/loving-kindness that is done for the dead is here a true loving-kindness, entirely altruistic, since one cannot expect payment or reward of any kind from the dead for caring for them”. And from this reading grows the mitzvah of Chesed SHEL Emet – truthful kindness or perfect kindness, the entirely altruistic mitzvah of helping those who are powerless and completely vulnerable and who will never be able to recompense or return the favour – the unburied dead.

It is a beautiful platform on which to stand this most selfless and necessary of activities, yet I find myself not entirely satisfied either with the midrashic gloss of Rashi or with the usual interpretation that “chesed ve’emet” in this context is simply an idiomatic phrasing of doing a favour or a good deed. It seems to me that the two words mean very different things, and placing them together (as happens fairly often in the bible) creates a new thing, a tension between loving kindness and truth/faithfulness with which we must engage.

As well as being in the verses which give us the attributes of God, the combination of words comes to describe God and God’s work, for example in psalms such as

“All the ways of God are Chesed and Emet to those who keep his covenant and his testimony” (25:10)  כָּל־אָרְח֣וֹת יְ֭הֹוָה חֶ֣סֶד וֶאֱמֶ֑ת לְנֹצְרֵ֥י בְ֝רִית֗וֹ וְעֵדֹתָֽיו:

Or “Righteousness and truth are the foundation of Your throne, Chesed and Emet go out from before You”        (89:15)    צֶ֣דֶק וּ֭מִשְׁפָּט מְכ֣וֹן כִּסְאֶ֑ךָ חֶ֥סֶד וֶ֝אֱמֶ֗ת יְֽקַדְּמ֥וּ פָנֶֽיךָ

Chesed and Emet come together in God, and are a fundamental part of the Covenant relationship we have with God – this is clear from the texts. So it is a very easy stretch when reading those same texts to understand that we expect Chesed/loving-kindness from God EVEN THOUGH the truth of our being is not always deserving – hence the use of the middot in the selichot prayers of pardon throughout the Days of Awe.

But the real lesson in the deathbed conversation between Jacob and Joseph is not that we expect unconditional love and forgiveness from God, but rather that we have to mediate the one with the other for ourselves, that however we might perceive the truth of our relationship with someone else, when the chips are down, then Chesed also has to be in the equation. Indeed sometimes compassion has to override the truth of someone’s behaviour.

What Jacob is asking of Joseph is not couched in the patriarchal power language – “you are my son and must follow my wishes”. It is phrased very much as a favour – “if I have found favour in your sight….” But then he adds to the request: “deal with me with both Emet and Chesed”.

It may be that Jacob know that he cannot order this son of his who has become so powerful in Egypt, and who may have his own political reasons to decide on the funeral planning for his father. It may be that Jacob knows that he may not even be successful when he appeals to Joseph’s magnanimity with his request formed in such conciliatory words as the formulaic “if I have found favour in your sight”.  He does this but then he goes on to nuance his words with the appeal to both Chesed and Emet. It seems to me that Jacob is asking of his son something quite new in human interaction at this point – he is acknowledging that the Emet, the truth of their relationship is that has been strained for many years, that he has not parented Joseph well, that he has little claim on his son for his request, and yet he is asking for the compassion of Chesed. He is saying to his son –“ I know who I am to you, and you know that I know this, but my request is so important to me that I am asking you to see past this truth we both acknowledge and help me.”

The honesty with which Jacob is speaking here to his son is the Emet he is asking for from his son. He does not want their story to be airbrushed or hidden from their interaction, but to be part of the decision making process that Joseph will go through. He does not want the failures in their relationship to be buried and treated as if they never existed. With the words “ve’emet” he is telling his son that the unfinished business of their relationship was real, that the pain felt by Joseph was real too, and he is asking Joseph to honour his wishes despite this pain, through the power of his compassion for his father. Essentially with the combination of Chesed ve Emet Jacob asks of his son not only great compassion, but great compassion in the light of the knowledge of the painful truth.

The lesson is well taught. Joseph honour his father’s wishes and the sibling rivalry ends here with the death of Jacob. The pain is recorded, and it does not go away or be hidden from view but neither does it sprawl out into the next generation. Once faced with integrity and acknowledged by the person who is perceived to have caused the pain, it can be overcome and compassion allowed to take its place. Psalm 89 tells us that the world is built with Chesed (v3) – it is the tool of creation, a new possibility.

כִּֽי־אָמַ֗רְתִּי ע֭וֹלָם חֶ֣סֶד יִבָּנֶ֑ה

And Jacob is asking for this too – once the truth is acknowledged a new possibility emerges and compassion has its place. The importance of the mitzvah of Chesed shel Emet, of the altruistic treatment of the dead who cannot repay us for what we do for them is great. But the importance of treating others with Chesed ve’emet is equally great, for only then do we truly let go of what is holding us back from our potential and our future.

הִנְנִ֨י נֹתֵ֥ן ל֛וֹ אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י שָׁלֽוֹם: Pinchas. The Zealot and the Covenant of Broken Peace

No biblical figure is so identified with zealotry as is Pinchas.  He steps out in the closing verses of last week’s sidra, so completely outraged by the sight of a prince of Israel and a Midianite woman cavorting together that he acts immediately, not waiting for Moses or for any process of law – he thrusts his spear into the couple as they lie together, and kills them both.

It is a horrible spectacle for us to read, but more horrible still is God’s response.  God says that for his actions Pinchas is to receive a special reward – “Pinchas is the only one who zealously took up My cause among the Israelites and turned my anger away from them so that I did not consume the children of Israel in my jealousy.  Therefore tell him that I have given him My covenant of peace” (Num. 25:11-12)

Pinchas’ action had ended an Israelite orgy of idolatry and promiscuity that was endangering the integrity of the people far more than any of the curses of the prophet Balak could have done.  But while the outcome was important, the method was terrible. And this rage which led him to act without any inhibition or process is not unique  in bible. Remember the young Moses who murdered the Egyptian taskmaster in a moment of rage?  Or Elijah who slaughtered the priests of Baal? 

These are events in our history which we cannot ignore, but neither can we celebrate. We have in our ancestry the reality of jealous rage and zealotry – and we can be ambivalent about this quality and how it is used.

            I have always been interested in the response to these acts of biblical jealousy and zealotry for God. 

Elijah, having killed hundreds of idolatrous priests and having demonstrated to his own satisfaction the falseness of their faith, finds that being zealous for God does not guarantee safety. Queen Jezebel is angered and Elijah had to run for his life to the wilderness.  There he encounters many strange phenomena, but ultimately he hears God not in the storms but in the voice of slender silence. 

Moses’ act of killing was a little different – a young man who had only recently taken on board his connection to an enslaved people he found their treatment unbearable, and when he found an Egyptian beating one of his own kin –( ish ivri may’echav )– he looked around, saw no one and (using the same verb as the Egyptian taskmaster had done) beat him and hid the body in the sands.  Only on the next day when he realised he had been seen, did he flee into the wilderness, there to meet God at the bush which burned but which was not consumed. 

And Pinchas, whose act of violence was completely unpremeditated and grew from his anger against those who were mingling with the Midianite women and taking up the Midianite gods was rewarded by God with a ‘brit shalom’, a covenant of peace and the covenant of the everlasting priesthood. 

Each of these men killed in anger – anger that God was not being given the proper respect, anger that God’s people were being abused.  None of the men seemed to repent of what they had done, although Elijah and Moses were certainly depressed and anxious after the event and in fear for their lives.  And God’s response seems too mild for our modern tastes. 

            Yet look at God’s responses a little more closely.  Elijah is rewarded not by a triumphalist God but by the recognition of God in the voice of slender silence – what the more poetic translation calls the ‘still small voice’. And that voice doesn’t praise him but challenges him – What are you doing here, Elijah?  After the high drama and the great energy expended at the sacrifices of the priests of Ba’al, Elijah has to come down from his high point and his conviction-fuelled orgy of violence and recognise in the cold light of day the reality of what he has done.  Only when he leaves behind the histrionics does God become known to him – in that gentle sound of slender silence, and with a question that must throw him back to examine the more profound realities about himself and his own journey.

Moses too is not rewarded with great honour and dramatic encounter – his fleeing from the inevitable punishment for his killing has something of the self-centred need for survival rather than his being able to defend a glorious act, and there is a tradition that Moses did not enter the promised land, not only because of what had happened at the waters of Meribah when he struck the rock rather than speaking to it, but because that action brought to mind the striking of the Egyptian – Moses hadn’t learned to control his temper and his actions even after forty years of wandering in the wilderness.

Moses’ first encounter with God too was so gentle as to be almost missable.  In the far edges of the wilderness alone with his father in law’s sheep this miserable young man saw a bush which burned but which wasn’t burned out.  It is a dramatic story we are all used to from childhood, but what is implicit in it –though not something we generally recognise, is that to notice such a phenomenon in the wilderness where bushes must have burned regularly, took a great deal of time – Moses must have stood and watched patiently and carefully before realising there was something different about this fire. There is gentleness and an awareness of something on the edges of our senses, the very antithesis of drama and spectacle, of the immediacy and energy of the zealot.

The reward for Pinchas is also not as it first seems.  God says of him “hineni notein lo et breetee, shalom”.  “Behold, I give him my covenant, peace”.  The Hebrew is not in the construct form, this is not a covenant of peace but a requirement for Pinchas to relate to God with peace, and his method for so doing is to be the priesthood.

The words are written in the torah scroll with an interesting addition – the vav in the word ‘shalom’ has a break in it.  The scribe is drawing our attention to the phrase – the violent man has not been given a covenant of peace but a covenant to be used towards peace – that peace is not yet complete or whole- hence the broken vav – it needs to be completed.

Pinchas is given the eternal priesthood. One of the main functions of the priesthood is to recite the blessing of peace over the people, the blessing with which we end every service but which in bible is recited by the priests who form a conduit for the blessing from God. 

Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta tells us “there is no vessel that holds a blessing save peace, as it says ‘the Eternal will bless the people with peace’”  in other words, the eternal priesthood given to Pinchas forces him to speak peace, to be a vessel of peace so as to be able to fulfil his function and recite the blessing.  In effect, by giving Pinchas “breetee, shalom” God is constraining him and limiting his violence, replacing it with the obligation to promote peace. It is for Pinchas and his descendants to complete the peace of God’s covenant, and they cannot do so if they allow their innate violence to speak.

 

Each of the three angry men – Moses, Pinchas, Elijah – are recognised as using their anger for the sake of God and the Jewish people, but at the same time each is gently shepherded into a more peaceful place.  And this methodology is continued into the texts of the rabbinic tradition. 

When one first reads the text it seems on the surface that Pinchas was rewarded for his act, but the weight of Jewish traditional reading – and writing – militates against this.  Clearly by Talmudic times the sages are clear that self-righteous zeal is dangerous and damaging and must never take root in our people or be allowed to influence our thinking.

Times change, but people do not – there are still many who would act like Pinchas if they could: every group and every people has them.  Their behaviours arise out of passionate belief and huge certainty in the rightness of those beliefs.  Rational argument will never prevail against them, but gentle patient and persistent focusing on the goal of peace, our never forgetting the need for peace, must temper our zealots.

Every tradition has its zealots and its texts of zealotry, but every tradition also has those who moderate and mitigate, who look for the longer game and the larger goal. Especially in the light of recent events in Israel, when the zealots of both sides acted unchecked and with terrible violence, it is important that we who look for peaceful resolution rise to the occasion and with patient and persistent focus rein in those who would act otherwise.shalom broken vav