Torah from Around the World #173

by Rabbi Shaul (Paul) R Feinberg, PhD, Emeritus Associate Dean, Associate Adjunct Professor of Education,

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

, Jerusalem

It is customary to wish persons going on a journey: “

Tzeit-khem l’shalom, oovo-ackehm l’shalom

– go peacefully, in wholeness, and return peacefully, in wholeness.”

Such a greeting reminds me of the traveler’s prayer generally, and particularly Moshe Rabbenu’s odyssey in the culminating years of his leadership. Here and at any point, one implores God for safe and secure goings-out and comings-in, for peaceful exchanges between and among all who are encountered in the course of a journey.

In this spirit, Moses is reminded that his own life journey will not extend beyond ”

the Heights of Abarim

“(Numbers 27:12). But the narrative leaves no doubt that that – though his geographic passage is of finite duration – his journey through time is not. However flawed, his own leadership is to be linked to that of his successor, Joshua, and beyond; notwithstanding the frustrations encountered along the way, with this experience to guide us, one strives ‘with all one’s heart, soul and might’ to enable each subsequent generation to know the accomplishments of the past, and tasks yet to be accomplished, with the heritage to be passed on. Such is the vision in the mission of communicating an ethical will to one’s children, and by extension to one’s students [values are caught not taught] the wish to do so, motivating accompanying actions is a blessing; both to

the one bestowing it

, and

the recipient

(see Pirke Avot, chapter 1, “Moses received Torah from Sinai, passing it along to Joshua… saying, ‘raise up many disciples’”).

In awareness of his own finitude, he seeks God’s counsel, saying, “Let the Eternal …appoint one over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, who will take them out and will bring them in… and the Eternal answered: Single out Joshua, son of Nun, an inspired person” (W. Gunther Plaut,

The Torah: A Modern Commentary

, Numbers 27: 15-18, Union for Reform Judaism). The language is instructive, even the grammar that definitely connects the leadership command with the personal exemplary behavior that must proceed. Reading between the lines, as the rabbis are wont to do – and we who are their successors – I would imagine that Moses recalls at this point his own missed chances at leadership-by example; one in particular being at the Waters of Meriba (Numbers 20) where he responded to the demand of the people for water, but instead of ‘speaking to the rock’ he shattered his staff against it, in an act of willful anger: “You rebels who would act against us[Moses and Aaron) as if you were our teachers—shim-oo ha-morim…”

This anguished moment is I feel (perhaps more in the realm of personal projection) painfully embedded in his consciousness, preceded perhaps in his recalling the frustrated act of breaking, throwing down, of ‘dropping’ the Tablets of the Ten Words, at the sight of the Golden Calf at the bottom of the mountain (Exodus 32:19-20). In his imploring of the Eternal to provide a successor he might very well had this in mind, accordingly: “Let the Eternal appoint a person; a person and not a superhuman being, a zealot like Pinchas (HaCohen, Al ha-Torah, v.4 p 445, quoted in W. Gunther Plaut,

The Torah: A Modern Commentary

, p. 1093).

Besides being a not so veiled commentary from within the Torah text [inveighing against Pinchas the vigilante] the commentary can find added support in the  injunction to perform Tikun Olam – but with an

alternative nuance

(see Rabbi Dr Jan (Yona) Katzew, “Repairing the World from Within”,

Reform Judaism

, Winter 1999, pp 89-91). Katzew refers to Tikun Middot, the personal moral qualities we exemplify or not, which complement the more usual notions of Tikun, repairing acts for mending the breaches in the fabrics of society.

The sequence in the textual narrative is instructive again as we review the kind of journey Moses is on; here he is compelled to be ‘sensitive’ to the claims of the daughters of Tzelofchad – ones that cause us to pay attention to the social mores that demand re-form. This occurs I believe not by chance described prior to this succession narrative. This narrative of the women’s ‘rights’ regards the inheritance claims of the daughters of Tzelofchad (Numbers 27: 1-11). Moses is implored to address the inequity presented by these women themselves in the stated precedent then in which women are exempted from inheriting their father in the absence of brothers. Their love of the land and loyalty to their tribal home – from which the possessions were to pass – are key elements in rehashing a social, legal and religious agenda. God strengthens Moses’ hands as the advocate of the women, a precedent that is centuries ahead of its time in its progressive development.

The leader’s openness sounds remarkably familiar, in the progressive, moral challenges articulated on behalf of gender equity in this Jewish and democratic state, which we labor ever diligently. The historical study of earlier challenges to social mores that had disabled the mobility and status of women in society have now for decades been brought to the arena of discourse and the courts. Rabbi Sally Priesand in 1972, made her own just claim to ordination and was supported, but not without struggle. Her support by many reinforced her exemplary behavior leading to the moral adjudication of her demands. So the way was paved…

Today, the leadership of the Women of the Wall, the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC)  with Anat Hoffman and her devoted highly skilled staff, and Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ), led by rabbi Gilad Kariv and countless others here and from abroad and Israel have confirmed the justness of the claims in the eyes of the law. Notwithstanding much bitter disappointment leading to this point, the journey draws strength too from those who are still enduring hardships because of such discrimination against women in the public spheres: media, the courts, orthodox establishment, law enforcement, public transportation, academic institutions, and Israel Defense Forces. And with gender bias are examples of those against citizens on account of ethnic, racial, social, physical, religious, and sexual dimensions of identity. Vulnerabilities abound calling forth even more dedicated, skillful responses.

Moses’ legacy, in this case, stands for leadership that both demands exemplification of human rights protection and advocacy in every way of life. The paths of our lives daily call upon us to act in such ways that we shall warrant the blessings we seek, for others and ourselves – empowering us morally to consistently bestow blessings on others, as they go from vulnerability to strength, and strength to strength. May we be worthy in all these endeavors, in our going forth and coming in, now and always.

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