Posts Tagged ‘gossip’

Confidence, or boasting?

Sunday, July 4th, 2010

Pinchas - Confidence, or boasting?
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Pinchas: Numbers 25:10-30:1

"And Moses brought their cause…" (Numbers 27:5)

There are standards and strategies for the traditional interpretation of Scripture. For example, if two verses seem to contradict each other, than a way must be found to make both opinions correct. Such a paradigm leads to significant theological development: what is it about G!d’s creation that opposites can both be true?

Another standard is that the heroes of our stories should be seen in a positive light whenever possible. One of my favorite examples of this is the Talmudic epithet, "If that were so, then Moses was a prophet!" What the text really means is the opposite: If that were true, then the world would be so upside down that he wasn’t a prophet. But so great is the unwritten sanction that the Talmud won’t even say that explicitly, in fear that it could be taken out of context.

All of which is background for this week’s midrash, which says some unusual things about Moses, and in so doing teaches a powerful message – or two!

The context is the daughters of Zelophehad, who have brought a question about property rights following the death of their father who had no sons as offspring. Instead of answering them himself, Moses brings the question to G!d. Listen:

Some hold that the law was hidden from Moses. There are cases where righteous men have boasted of some matter connected with a precept and the Holy One, blessed be He, weakened their power. You find that David boasts: Thy statutes have been my songs (Ps. 119:54), as much as to say that they are easy and familiar like songs. Said the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘By your life! You will in the end err in a matter that children read in the Scripture!’ When he brought up the ark he erred and put it on a cart; as it says, And they set the ark of God upon a new cart (II Sam. 6:3). The ark suspended itself in the air and the cows beneath it slipped. Uzzah drew near to support it, And God smote him there for his error. And David was displeased, because the Lord had broken forth upon Uzzah (ib. 7,8). The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: ‘Did you not say, "Thy statutes have been my songs"?’

It was the same with Moses. Because he had boasted: The cause that is too hard for you ye shall bring unto me, and I will hear it (Deut. 1:17), G!d diminished his mental powers. Moses had said: ‘The cause that is too hard for you ye shall bring unto me.’ When the daughters of Zelophehad, however, came, He concealed the law from him, and Moses brought their cause before the Lord. The daughters of Zelophehad speak right (27:7). This, He meant, is the law! The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: ‘Did you not say, "The cause that is too hard for you ye shall bring unto me"? The law with which you are unacquainted is decided by the women!’

Midrash Rabbah – Numbers XXI:12

The plain message is clear: the reason that Moses brought the case before G!d was that he was being punished for boasting about his powers of judgment. And, in a twist that must be read in the context its time for its true wry humor, even women have better powers of judgment than he!

So at one level, we must be wary of becoming boastful, even if we’re not particularly concerned about cows flying as a result of our self-promotion. But why is this lesson taught with such power and emphasis, using Moses as the target for punishment and ridicule, he who is normally exempt from such midrashic vehicles?

The lesson goes to the heart of the laws regarding lashon hara, or evil speech: gossip. The "what" of these laws is easy to understand, but can be difficult to practice: don’t speak in a way that might cause another to be harmed or embarassed, even if what you are saying is true. The rationale for this law, however, is both deep and sweet.

When we bring shame to another, it is not merely that we have harmed another of G!d’s creatures. When we tell the story of the foolish person who did "x, y, z" – even if that person is completely anonymous! – we are disparaging the work of the Holy One’s creative efforts. Why? Because by saying a creation is flawed, we disparage the Creator.

And if we are to follow the theological imperative that we must find a way for opposites to be held as both correct, then surely we must find a way to find the beauty in the creative act that is every human being. Now, I can hear the arguers ready to raise the extreme cases of truly evil people, but to that I say, let it rest.

Think about the bulk of humanity, and how we speak of them and treat them. Let us find a way to honor the Creator in our daily lives by finding the beauty in all those creative acts, no matter how confusing or befuddling they might appear to be!

Then, Moses will be known to be as wise as women, who are as wise as he – and you and me.

Sticks and stones…

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

Naso - Sticks and stones...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Contact her at – originals from this series are available.

Emor: Leviticus 21:1-24:3

"Speak (emor) unto the priests, the sons of Aaron:" (Leviticus 21:1)

By way of an introduction: To update the old adage, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can really hurt me!"

The world was created, we learn, through speech: "And G!d said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light." It wasn’t the Eternal One thinking about it, or wishing for it, or anything else: it was the act of speech that brought this world and all its diverse splendor into being.

It truly is no coincidence that in Hebrew, d’var has two meanings: "word" and "thing." In short, words are real. And how do we bring words into being? By speaking: amar.

In order to understand this midrash, it helps to know a few things. First of all, the information that is about to be communicated to the priests concerns the way in which the priests are supposed to conduct themselves in regards to death: they are not to remove themselves from a holy state and place themselves in a grieving state unless the deceased are their closest of kin. The word for this state of being removed from holiness is tamay – a fairly negative term in Hebrew.

It also should be remembered that, in the "rules" by which we interpret Torah – the hermeneutic principles – no word is extraneous: two words will never be used when one will do. Therefore, if something does seem extraneous, there must be a reason for it.

With that in mind, let’s see what the midrash wrestles with, and what an important lesson emerges from what might appear to be dry hermeneutics! Listen:

R. Tanhum son of R. Hannilai opened his discourse with the text, "The words of (imroth) the Lord are pure words (amaroth)."  (Ps. 12:7). Does this mean that only ‘The words of the Lord are pure words’ and the words of mortals are not pure words? …

‘Pure words.’ R. Judan in the name of R. Johanan, R. Berekiah in the name of R. Eleazar, and R. Jacob of Kefar Hanin, all of whom cited R. Joshua b. Levi, said: We find that the Holy One, blessed be He, used a circumlocution of eight letters so as not to let an unseemly word come out of His mouth; as it says, Of every clean beast… and of the beasts that are not clean (Gen. 7:2). In another passage He made a circumlocution of two or three words in the Torah so as not to allow an unclean word to issue from His mouth. Thus it is written, ‘And of the beasts that are not clean.’  It does not say, ‘the unclean,’ but ‘That are not clean.’ R. Judan b. Manasseh said: Even when He comes to introduce to them the marks of the unclean beast, He only begins with cleanness. Thus, it is not written, ‘The camel, because he parteth not the hoof,’ but Because he cheweth the cud  (Lev. 11:4). It does not say, ‘The rock-badger, because he parteth not the hoof,’ but Because he cheweth the cud  (ib.), and it is the same with the hare and the same with the swine.

Midrash Rabbah – Leviticus XXVI:1

Let’s begin with the basics, the p’shat:  the main paragraph is telling us that in Genesis 7:2, rather than uttering the negative term "tamay,"  or unclean, G!d says "not clean," which requires eight more letters than unclean. Likewise, rather than highlight a deficit of an animal (the hoof not being parted), the Torah draws attention to an attribute – the fact that they chew a cud. This would seem to violate our principle of parsimony: why use these extraneous letters and words?

At first blush, there is an elegant hypothesis: G!d only speaks in "pure" words – i.e., those which are good, or clean, or sweet. And so, it would seem, G!d "spends" the extra letters in order to frame things positively.

The problem is that the same verse in Torah has G!d telling Moses to say the word "tamay!"  If the hypothesis were correct, then a similar "word dodge" would have been used there!

The first part of the midrash takes the next step in attempting to resolve the dilemma: perhaps G!d only speaks "pure" words directly, and it is only between people that "impure" words are used. Well, that may be so, but with what lesson are we left?

Words create reality. We know this in its crassest sense from the celebrity gossip magazines and big-media politics. Any claim made loudly and/or often enough acquires its own reality, no matter what the truth may be. As do words spoken softly, whispered between friends: "Did you hear…?" These are obvious problems, cases of lashon haRa – evil speech.

There are, however, far more subtle forms of evil speech that trap us completely unawares. Consider these two statements: "She has a strange accent – I can barely understand her!" and "She has a strange accent – it’s so exotic!" Which person do you want to meet first?

We are tuned, biologically, to notice differences. How we appreciate those differences – as opportunities for discovery or dangers from which to retreat – plays a critical role in determining the shape and flavor of the world we live in. The amount of light in our world is directly proportional to the amount of light we allow ourselves to see – and speak about.

Judaism takes us one step further. You see, Judaism conceives the world as having states – pure and impure, kosher and treif, Shabbat and weekday – between which we move back and forth. Judaism also gives us the rituals – the keys for the transitions – so that what is impure one moment can become pure the next.

Most significantly, it teaches us that the most fundamental of those states – that of being either stranger or member – is something we know from both sides, and we must always be working to welcome the stranger, for we "were once strangers in the land of Egypt." We must recognize, and then welcome, the stranger, whether it be someone we don’t know, or someone we think we know, but have cast downward in our gaze because of words we heard – or used ourselves.

May we all be blessed with recognizing the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah  of welcoming the stranger into our hearts, our minds, and our lives.