Sunday, May 31, 2009

Bill on ba'Midbar

Subject: Bat Mitzvah Torah Talk
Date: Saturday, May 30, 2009, 9:33 AM

At the Bat Mitzvah’s party on May 23, we had a discussion about the Torah portion, baMidbar. Since this portion includes a census of military-aged men, I asked people to discuss under what circumstances they would be willing to fight, specifically to serve in an army.

While people took the topic seriously, and several moving stories were told, I was unhappy with the level of the discussion. The day after the party, my long-time friend told me a story which illuminates the point that I was trying to make. I wish to share it with you, so we can complete the teaching of this portion.

Before I relate my friend’s story, let me tell you several others. This wouldn’t be a true Torah discussion, if I didn’t include at least one or two apparently unrelated anecdotes.

In one of the Lord of the Rings movies, Frodo contemplates the dangerous burden posed by the magic ring and says that he wished it had never come into his possession. Gandalf replies, "So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."

This is precisely why I was displeased with our discussion. There was too much speculation about matters over which we have no control, and too little thought about decisions that we might actually have to make. The political content of our talk struck me as off-topic. Very few of us will influence the course of our nation or events in the Middle East. We are more likely to be asked to put on a uniform, pick up a gun, pay taxes or in some way support a war.

Waging war is quality associated with nationhood. It is no coincidence when the Hebrews formed a nation out in the desert that one of their first acts was to take a military census.

Nationalism is important in the Torah. Certain mitzvahs can only be performed as a nation, so we must have a nation to do them.

This portion occurs as we are counting the Omer from Passover to Shavuot. We are taught that with the counting we are increasing our holiness, so that on Shavuot, we are holy enough to receive the Torah.

On Passover, we are taught that we should regard the holiday’s events “…as though you yourself came out of Egypt.” Even though we gather as a family, we celebrate Passover as individuals. At the time of the Exodus, we have not yet formed a national identity.

In contrast, Shavuot is very much a national holiday. The Torah was not given to each individual Jew, but rather to the nation as a whole. Also, Shavuot is associated with the mitzvah of the giving of the first fruits, a commandment that was given to the entire nation. After coming into the land of Israel, we didn’t give first fruits for several years, because we had to wait until everyone was able to contribute.

We can see that by juxtaposition of these two spring holidays and the increasing holiness as we count the Omer, that forming a nation is a path to holiness. In this context, nationalism, itself, is holy.

Read that last sentence again, because I think some of you will have trouble accepting it. Much of the conversation that we had last Saturday, was an attempt by participants to distance themselves from the excesses of nationalism.

Now, let’s recount another apparently unrelated story. I have heard this same tale told about two different people: Shlomo Carlebach, and a Jewish tzadik (righteous man), who lived in the Midwest and whose name escapes me.

The tzadik was walking down the street with his hasids (students) when he was approached by an admirer. The admirer, probably not Jewish, offered the tzadik a non-kosher cookie. The tzadik unexpectedly ate the offered food. The tzadik explained to the shocked hasids that refusing the gift would have been a worse sin than eating a non-kosher cookie, because it would have publicly embarrassed the stranger.

Some may accuse the tzadik of compromising his principles. Compromise has a bad reputation, maybe unfairly. I think of the tzadik as having decided that one mitzvah was more important than another.

When I heard the conversation last Saturday about what Israel should do, and what constitutes a just war, I became annoyed. We all have a tendency to embrace an unbending, uncompromising purity that leads to separation and moral arrogance. “I am above such petty concerns. I am not part of this. I am better than this situation”

We can get so up wrapped up in our own individual ethical concerns that we don’t acknowledge our responsibilities toward others. We not only refuse the cookie, but do so with a loud proclamation of our religious convictions, not caring how the stranger feels.

Opposing war is necessary, but waging peace does not free us of our collective responsibilities. This is what I meant last Saturday, when I said we all have to “get our hands dirty.” Sometimes, the highest moral approach is not the purest one.

The balance between personal morality and our responsibility to our nation was illustrated by a story that my friend told me. His father was a Conscientious Objector (CO) during World War II. He could have chosen to be the type of CO that refused all military service. He could have refused to cooperate with the System and in the words of Pink Floyd, “…exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage,” i.e. gone to jail.

What his father decided to do was become a medic. That meant that he “compromised” his moral objection to war. He put on a uniform. He carried a gun. He healed injured warriors who went back to combat. He was part of the war machine.

In this case, as someone said of Obama, “For him, compromise is the high moral ground.” My friend’s father did not hold himself superior to the situation. He did not reject the ties that bound him to his neighbors, community and nation. He got his “hands dirty,” in a very literal way with the blood and guts of the wounded.

When faced with the horror of global war, he did not separate himself and say “I will not be part of this.” He acknowledged that whatever moral stand he took, he WAS part of the horror. Instead of debating the ethics of the situation, he asked, “What is the best action that I can do now?” His answer was to heal the injured. Thus, he fulfilled his responsibilities to his country and still honored his anti-war convictions by not killing anyone.

By the way, this discussion was a revelation for my friend. He said he had never thought of his father as holy before. His atheist father was “the last person that you would discuss religion with.” He intends to investigate his late father’s war experiences by asking his mother about them.

Even though he would not kill, my friend’s father could still be counted on by the nation; he was part of the census. His example demonstrates one way nationalism leads to holiness. A truly moral person approaches life with humility. They do not say, “You do not meet my standards. I am better than you, so I will not participate.” Instead, they say, “This is my problem too. How can I help?”

My Response:
Great drosh, Bill.

You also have opened my eyes to my former father-in-law and helped me to see him in a new light. He may have had his personal peculiarities as a father, but I see now that he was a man of high moral standing in spite of his absolute atheism. He was a man that stood up for his moral beliefs.

I'm told he came back from the war a changed man. I thought that anyone would be changed by war. Now I see that change from a more personal view. He could never truly reconcile within himself that compromise you point out. Although he did his duty for the collective good, he could never forgive himself for the deaths and destruction that he took part in.

In the story of him discovering a man in his bed with his wife while the children slept downstairs, he experienced moral repugnance at the act of cuckolding adultery. Yet he himself never committed adultery.

He had a repeat case of moral repugnance upon discovering that his daughter committed adultery against her husband, the nicest, most regular and honest guy you could meet, as well as an involved father. He couldn't talk to his own daughter for at least 2 years but remained close friends with the X-son-in-law. I'm sure he closely identified with the young man.

He was a card carrying Communist and proud of it until the day he died. He believed in a humble social vision of peaceful equality within community. After the McCarthy era, he laid low to protect his family, and lived happily ever after with his 2nd wife of 40 years as a world class biochemist, the inventor of the "Grow Light," and photo-documentairan of Tompkins County, New York. He was a man who lived life with integrity.

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