Monday, June 27, 2011

The People Are Revolting… or are they???

So, as we are in the season of Sefer BeMidbar, we have to ask what is going on here. We are in the midst of reading these stories about the rebellion of the people of Israel regarding the manna that they are eating and their stated desire to go back to Mitzrayim. Then there is the story of Miriam, Aaron and Moshe with its many lessons about Lashon HaRa – that use of language that gets us into big trouble. This lesson is further amplified
by the experience of the Meraglim – the scouts that were sent to Canaan/Eretz Yisrael to find out the “lay of the land,” if you will, and then report back. As we know this did not go so well either. Then of course there is Korach, the rebellion that ended up by being swallowed by the earth, so to speak.

It is not lost on this Jewish Educator that we hit these stories as the school year ends, summer begins and people might be thought to REBEL against the rhythm of their lives. So, what lessons do we extrapolate from these stories. We could say it’s not a good thing to rebel against or fight G-d. That’s an easy enough lesson, to be sure. However, maybe it’s a bit too easy and quick.

There is a wonderful text in Baba Metzia (59b) in which Rabbi Eliezer is in conflict with the majority of the Rabbis and calls on several phenomena to prove that he is right regarding the Kashrut of Achnai’s oven. Many of you may be familiar with the story. First he calls on a carob tree to move to prove he is right. The tree moves but we are taught that one cannot prove that an argument is correct based on this. Then he indicates that if the water changes the direction of its flow, this will prove him correct. This too happens but is deemed insufficient to make his argument. The story continues with the argument between the Rabbis and Rabbi Eliezer, as he asks for the Bat Kol, the voice of G-d to prove his argument. The story ends with the teaching that no such proof or any other is needed to prove any argument as the Torah is here on earth and should be used. The “punch line” as I like to call it goes like this, “G-d says, Ha! My children have outsmarted me! My children have outsmarted me!”

Without going into the content of this sugya (this part of the discussion in the Gemara) suffice it to say that I am not sure that rebellion within the context of our reality is a bad thing (even if it is directed against G-d?!). We generally think of rebellion as upsetting the system. However, as we have seen in our world, rebellions are often needed to retain a sense of balance and set ourselves back on a constructive course.

I love the notion that the Yetzer HaRa, usually referred to as the “bad inclination” is also the creative energy within us. Also in the Gemara, we learn that when there was a desire to destroy the Yetzer HaRa, G-d warned that without this creative energy that responds to our reality when something is missing or awry, there would be no products of creativity to be found, not even an egg, as the Talmudic text teaches.

Our creative energy is what spurs us on to be better and to inspire others to improve as well, hopefully bettering our world as we go along. Maybe this is what is going on in BaMidbar along with the discontent and the pushing of limits and all else that is found here. This is not to say that within this desire, there may be missteps and we have to be accountable for them. Look at the lessons we extrapolate from here –

• In the story of the siblings, Moshe shows compassion, we learn the unintentional negative results from inappropriate use of language – Avak Lashon HaRa, and our leaders are real people with real problems and conflicts.

• In the story of the Manna, we learn that people have a hard time adjusting to
change, even a good change like moving from slavery to freedom. We also learn the value of the adage, “If something is truly worthwhile, it will not be completed in one generation.” These were freed slaves and this is not the same as free people who have to begin an entirely new entity and chapter of history. Besides that, we are not immortal as we learned long ago on the first pages of the Torah.

• The Meraglim/scouts teach us about communal panic and remembering what your
mission is and to stay the course of action. Further, we learn that we have to look past challenges in order to move forward. Ramban makes the point that these scouts were human beings doing what human beings do and should not be the recipients of our full force of anger, or that of G-d either.

• Korach teaches us that there are always many sides to the story and that it is important to realize that our perspective may not be the same as yours.

Were there painful consequences in these situations? Was there in fact wrongdoing? Many of us would agree that of course this was the case. That being said, let us look at these narratives in terms of the human condition – we are all flawed human beings doing the best we can, whether Korach or Moshe, Miriam or the Meraglim, you or me. While there are clearly exceptions to this generalization, I think most of us would agree that it is through rebellion, through creative energy, through challenging the norm or the expected situation that some of our greatest strides have been made.

Rebellion, Revolutions and Creative Energy – these too were and are part of G-d’s plan, I believe. The trick is to use them well -- this is for me an important lesson of the years of desert life we read about in BaMidbar.

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