Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Steppin' Up

When the people of Israel need a new leader, G-d turns to Moses and says: 'Take Joshua bin Nun.' The word take or קח - kach - does not mean, as we might understand, a physical action. But, as Rashi explains 'a taking' with and through words. There is no forceful recruitment; Moses is to convince Joshua. This is a lesson for spouses, parents and teachers - when we want to effect change we do so not with force, but whatever 'taking' there is to be done is with language. Discourse, not force, but also a discourse - not 'you'd better!' - of rationality.

Sometimes a single world, like 'kach,' in the Torah clues us in on a dramatic situation. With Moses and Joshua, there must have been a conversation. It's easy to imagine that Joshua did not want the leadership thrust upon him - 'I'm sitting and learning well; leave me alone!' So Moses - all of this in the word קח - has to convince his reluctant charge to take on the mantle of leadership.

In the Haftorah from the book of Jeremiah, there is a similar conversation recorded - this time between G-d and the author of the work that bears his name: 'Before you were born, I sanctified you, and chose you to be a prophet to the nations.' To which the prophet-to-be responds: 'Nothing doing G-d; I'm "young," a child. Go find someone else.' And G-d responds in turn, 'don't tell me about your "youth"; it's time to step up.'

Pinchos provides the counter image to Joshua and Jeremiah: he is also youthful. But the generation of the desert has reached a crossroads. Though Bilam was not able to curse Israel, Balak, the leader of the Midianites, has one more strategy: entice them with the women of Midian (including his own daughter!). The way the chassidic Ishbitzer's Mei Ha'Shloach reads the story, Zimri, a prince, is a tzaddik, a righteous person. But he is overwhelmed by desire for the Midianite princess Cuzbi - and loses himself. Notwithstanding his righteousness and his scrupulous attempts to guard himself from temptation, he is overwhelmed and succumbs. Through a magnetic attraction which he mistakes for love, Zimri gives into a desire that overcomes his ability to see and choose. He has a legal status of someone in onus; he is under duress. Or in more contemporary terms - I wonder whether the Ishbitzer would agree - he is subject to psychic energies he cannot master. He thought she was his beschert, writes the Ishbitzer, but in actuality she is activating a lustful desire which he cannot withstand. He hears the soundtrack from Love Story - but there's a different kind of music playing.

In this scenario, as the sages recount it, even Moses is unable to act, as Zimri taunts him: 'you also were involved with a foreign woman; your Tzipporah is also a Midianite, a convert.' And the further barb: 'So spare me your hypocrisy!' When the people of Israel look to their leader for guidance, he is forgetful - he does not know the law! Whatever small pangs of guilt made Moses silent and forgetful with guilt (there must have been something to Zimri's attribution), the people of Israel are left abandoned to tears. Overwhelmed by emotions - a mixture of desire, guilt and fear - the people of Israel are vulnerable to the relentless temptations of the Midianite King.

At that moment, the whole generation is dysfunctional - yet Pinchos sees, and acts. Pinchos steps up.

Though we are not called by G-d, sometimes we have a sense of a mission that calls us - of the need to step up. But like the prophets, we find our reasons to avoid it. And they are always good reasons - or seem so. 'I'm not ready.' 'I'm too young!' Or there are other kinds of avoidance (of these there are is never a shortage): The poet John Milton felt washed up at twenty-three, verging on despair, and giving up. But feeling belated, as Milton did, or too young, are equivalent ways of cheering ourselves up - subconsciously justifying inactivity.

'There must be someone else!' - the youthful prophets protest. To Joshua and Jeremiah, G-d says: 'there are certainly ambitious men who will step into your shoes; but I want you!' We are not prophets, but sometimes the clarity of a vision - for change, for tikkun - may call us. We will likely not be called upon our nation, but maybe by our families, our schools, our workplaces. For we will be privy to a vision which no one else sees, or is dissuaded from seeing, or is simply afraid to see.

So when, those around us are under duress - because of fear or guilt or whatever - we should not give up to the weaker part of ourselves, or ambitious men. We have to step up.

1 comment:

Wyman said...

I know the feeling about wanting to leave things to other. It is not easy operating under pressure. Here I have been working 5 years to create the Vilnius Jewish Library in Lithuania. There have been obstacles, barriers, and roadblocks. However, it is necessary to help promote tolerance and acceptance in the Jerusalem of Lithuania. So either I do the work or it doesn't get done. Now if only I can get the worldwide Jewish community more involved.

Wyman Brent
Vilnius Jewish Library