Parashah Ponderings

Can’t we be more like elephants than riffraff? Beyond individualism to community, covenant and courage.

Parashat Beha’alotcha 5781
פרשת בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ
Torah Portion: Numbers 8:1-12:16 

Why can’t people be more like elephants?
Consider these facts about elephants from the World Wildlife Federation

THEIR TRUNKS HAVE MAD SKILLS
  • Elephants have around 150,000 muscle units in their trunk.
  • Their trunks are perhaps the most sensitive organ found in any mammal – Asian elephants have been seen to pick up a peanut, shell it, blow the shell out and eat the nut.
  • Elephants use their trunks to suck up water to drink – it can contain up to 8 litres of water.
  • They also use their trunks as a snorkel when swimming.
THEY’VE GOT THICK SKIN
  • An elephant’s skin is 2.5cm thick in most places.
  • The folds and wrinkles in their skin can retain up to 10 times more water than flat skin does, which helps to cool them down.
  • They keep their skin clean and protect themselves from sunburn by taking regular dust and mud baths.
CALVES CAN STAND WITHIN 20 MINUTES OF BIRTH
  • Amazingly, elephant calves are able to stand within 20 minutes of being born and can walk within 1 hour. 
  • After two days, they can keep up with the herd. This incredible survival technique means that herds of elephants can keep migrating to find food and water to thrive.
AN ELEPHANT NEVER FORGETS
  • The elephant’s temporal lobe (the area of the brain associated with memory) is larger and denser than that of people – hence the saying ‘elephants never forget’.

Their noses do so much more than ours. They have thick skin. They don’t need to worry about their babies crawling on dirty floors. And they have awesome memories. I think it would be pretty neat to be an elephant.

ELEPHANTS CARE ABOUT THE WELL-BEING OTHER ELEPHANTS

I learned something else about elephants this week. A video of elephants in Israel’s Safari Ramat Gan, a zoo near Tel Aviv, shows how elephants put aside their own self-interest to care for their young in times of danger. The video was brought to my attention by Daniella Yitzchak, our congregation’s office manager, who wrote about it in her weekly email message

Daniella writes: “Filmed during a rocket attack in Israel last week, the video shows the moments when an air raid siren is sounding and an explosion is heard in the distance. During that time, five female elephants move towards little Pele (meaning wonder in Hebrew), a 14-month-old elephant calf, and form a protective circle around him, facing outwards in all directions to ward off any threats.

“Ramat Gan zookeeper Guy Kfir explained that the behavior during the siren is likely due to elephants having much better hearing than people, and their ability to detect seismic vibrations through their feet. He continued to explain that it’s very common for elephants to respond this way when facing danger… When recognizing a high risk situation, elephants gather their young and form a protective shield around them. This also happens when an elephant is giving birth. What a moving demonstration of love and commitment as well as courage!”

Those of us who are parents can certainly relate to the elephants’ instinct to protect their young. When our children are in danger, we take extraordinary measures to keep them safe. Or, at least, we should.

But unlike the elephants who form a protective shield around someone else’s baby, we aren’t always so good at caring for other people’s children. In fact, sometimes we are so focused on our own needs and desires that we turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, regardless of who those “others” might be.

The challenges of ego-centrism, self-interest and rugged individualism that pervade our society today are not unique to our day and age. Wandering through the wilderness toward the land that God was to give to them, the Israelites imperil their very lives when they start focusing on their individual needs at the expense of the greater good.

Miriam and Aaron challenge Moses’s leadership. “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well?” (Num. 12:2). Hungry for a share of Moses’s leadership, Miriam and Aaron initiate a rebellion against him. For her role in demeaning Moses, Miriam is stricken with a skin disease, for which she was shut out of the Israelite camp for seven days. Meanwhile, Moses, the epitome of humility, pleads to God to heal his sister.

Perhaps Miriam and Aaron had gotten caught up in the popular revolt that we read about several verses earlier. There we find the people were complaining bitterly against God. They objected to the structure of the camp, which was designed to ensure the safety of all the people. They separated themselves from God. They, too, challenged Moses’s leadership. 

What’s more, we read: “The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!” (Num. 11:4-6)

They’re objecting to the very sustenance that God had miraculously provided them! They grow nostalgic for their days as slaves when they had more variety in their diet.

For thinking only of themselves, God sends them more quail than they could possibly eat on their own and they stuff their faces. And while they still have quail between their teeth, God causes a fire to break out in their midst and strikes them with a severe plague (Num. 11:33). 

The Israelites had lost sight of the calf, if you will. Perhaps the calf was the Ark that moved with the Israelites in the center of their camp. Perhaps the calf was God, the one who had freed them from Egypt. Perhaps the calf was the Israelites themselves, the collective, the People who had recently united around Mt. Sinai and made a covenant with the Holy One, vowing to be a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation. All of a sudden, the higher cause for which God brought them together was being neglected.

We can sympathize with the people’s desire to want something new and interesting. We can relate to Miriam and Aaron’s envy of Moses’s exalted place among the people. Yet, Torah demands that we curb our appetites and appreciate what we have. We are to practice self-restraint and cultivate an attitude of gratitude every day.

Just imagine what the scene would have been like if the Israelites in our story this week were more like elephants. They would have accepted their responsibility for one another. They would have circled around God, Torah and Israel. They would have protected the proverbial calf.

In today’s world, we, too, need to do a better job of protecting the calf, of setting aside our individual wants, our personal liberties, which we mistake for God-given rights. What a world it would be if we thought about the common good, if we went to extraordinary lengths to protect the most vulnerable in our midst. 

May we strive to be more like elephants. Though we might not be endowed with the qualities that make elephants such magnificent creatures, we can, at least, choose a life of community, covenant and courage. Imagine what the world would like then. We have the power to bring that world about.

Parashah Ponderings

When Connecting to God and Community, One Size Does Not Fit All

Parashat Vayikra / פרשת ויקרא
Torah Portion: Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26

Most things in life are not “one-size-fits-all.” Things like rain ponchos and adjustable baseball caps, which claim to be OSFA, often leave the wearer feeling too small or too large. The lack of fit can sometimes be embarrassing. The truth is that that “all” really means “within a pre-determined range,” but human beings come in so many shapes and sizes that there are bound to be those who fall outside of this range. Clearly, one size does not fit all much of the time.

This reality holds not only for clothing, but education, finances, medicine, and even sacrificial offerings. As we learn in the Book of Leviticus (5:1-11), priests were instructed to accept certain types of sin offerings on a “sliding scale.” These offerings, termed “the ascending and descending offerings” by our sages, reflect our ancestors’ recognition that not all Israelites were of equal means. Some had the wealth to bring a sheep or goat to the Tabernacle, but others could afford to bring only two turtledoves or two pigeons, while still others had the ability to offer just a small measure of flour. The priests understood that a one-size-fits-all sacrificial system would have barred access to the Divine for all but the wealthiest classes.

Because the Torah institutes this progressive system of sin offering, all those who would commit minor sins were given the opportunity to repair their relationships with God. The Hebrew word for “offering” is “korban,” which implies nearness; one would bring an offering near to God by handing it over to the priests, who would, in turn, perform the necessary sacrificial rites. All people were capable of acting in ways that our biblical ancestors believed offended God. Fortunately, all people were also able to come near to God once again, effectively starting over with a clean spiritual bill of health. This would not have been possible had all sinners been required to bring the same, costly offering to the Tabernacle.

Later Jewish tradition also understands that the path to God is not the same for all God’s children. In giving tzedakah, for example, each of us is expected to give according to our ability. We may give more, if possible, but not less. In its commentary on this week’s Torah portion the Stone Edition Chumash teaches:

God took pity on a poor man and assigned a very inexpensive offering to him so that he could afford to obtain atonement. But if a rich man bring this offering, not only does it not atone for him, he is guilty of the sin of bringing an unsanctified object into the Temple Courtyard (Talmud Kereitot 28a). In giving charity, as in bringing offerings, one must give according to his means. A rich man has not fulfilled his obligation if he gives as little as a poor man (Chafetz Chaim).[1]

Interestingly, the Shulhan Arukh, one of the central codes of Jewish law, requires that we support the needy in the life to which they are accustomed. This may seem unfair to the most destitute among us, but it further demonstrates the extent to which Jewish tradition rejects a single standard of piety for all.

Another example: a current reality in American Jewish religious life is that not all who seek to be part of community are able to pay a fixed mandatory fee to become a member of a synagogue. Fortunately, most synagogues nowadays offer tiered or “fair share” dues and are prepared to work with anyone who desires to be close to God and community. We are also seeing synagogues experiment with a voluntary pledge structure, whereby individuals and families freely contribute what they are able to support their congregation of choice, no matter how little that may be.[2] It’s not yet clear if the voluntary pledge model can sustain congregations financially in the long run, but the experiment surely reflects the value of keeping community-based spirituality accessible to everyone.

Like all human beings, each Jew is unique; the abilities and needs of one Jew are the not the same as all other Jews. It is heartening, therefore, to see how Jewish communal life today so willingly accommodates the special circumstances of individuals and families, whether in including people with special needs, providing texts in translation for new immigrants, creating learning opportunities for people with different levels of knowledge or engagement, etc. True, we can scan the communal landscape and discover where more needs to be done in these and other areas in order to ensure access. Homebound elderly certainly deserve more connection with their communities than most currently enjoy, to name but one population whose needs do not fit well within our current communal structures.  Nonetheless, we should be grateful that the priests of the Tabernacle and, later, the Temple oversaw a sacrificial system that was maximally inclusive to the extent possible in its day and which laid the foundation for our own efforts to draw seekers of all shapes and sizes near to God’s presence.

[1] Scherman, Rabbi Nosson, The Chumash. Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, 1997, p. 563.

[2] “The Pay What You Want Experiment at Synagogues”, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/02/us/the-pay-what-you-want-experiment-at-synagogues.html?_r=0, accessed 3/19/2015.