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D’var Torah Parashat B’ha-alot’cha
June 24, 2015 | 18/19 Sivan 5776
The great Athenian, Thucydides, wrote of the obligations that he imposed upon himself in his quest for historical truth: “With reference to the narrative of events, far from permitting myself to derive it from the first source that came to hand, I did not trust even my own impressions, but it rests partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me, the accuracy of the report being always tried by the most severe and detailed tests possible. My conclusions have cost me some labor from the want of coincidence between the accounts of the same occurrences by different eyewitnesses, arising sometimes from imperfect memory, sometimes from undue partiality for one side or the other….(Peloponnesian War Book I, Section 2)
Our Torah portion, B’ha’alot’cha, speaks of the cloud that covered the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The purpose of the cloud, which appeared as fire by night, was to provide a sign to the Israelites that God intended them to make camp or to move forward. “Whenever the cloud lifted from the Tent, the Israelites would set out accordingly; and at the spot where the cloud settled, the Israelites would make camp….Day or night, whenever the cloud lifted, they would break camp.” Thus the cloud was visible evidence of what God intended for the people. Nevertheless, God commands Moses to have two silver trumpets made. Before the Israelites are bidden to move forward, even after the cloud has lifted as a visible sign, God tells Moses that the trumpets should sound a series of short blasts, not once, but twice. Gunther Plaut comments: “The cloud was a visual, the trumpets an auditive reminder of God’s presence.”
I would suggest that the relationship between subjective perception and objective truth is mediated here by the recognition that convergence between the two is predicated upon a complex interplay of sensory perceptions. No less important than the correctives and complementary testimony offered by the different senses are the psychological attitudes and prejudices, affective emotions and cognitive processes, all of which must be considered, balanced and rebalanced, in our individual and collective quest as rodfei emet, seekers of truth.
The fear, anxiety and insecurity that mark our age have, once again, opened the door to demagoguery and innuendo, as well as to assault, both verbal and physical, upon those with whom we disagree. This is true here, and, sadly, seems to be increasingly true throughout an increasing number of so-called “First World” countries.
Twenty-five years ago, the political economist, Edward S. Herman wrote: “What is really important in the world of doublespeak is the ability to lie, whether knowingly or unconsciously, and to get away with it; and the ability to use lies and choose and shape facts selectively, blocking out those that don’t fit an agenda or program. (Edward S. Herman, Beyond Hypocrisy, 1992, p.3)
His words echo and were undoubtedly influenced by these words of George Orwell, written forty-five years before Herman’s in his monumental essay, Politics and the English Language:
“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible… Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness… the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. Where there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms,…”
This is, as many of you know, my last d’var torah/sermon as Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel. Throughout these last few months of continuous farewells, I’ve had to reflect upon the correlation between the temptation to try to go out in a homiletic blaze of glory and the obligation to make my exit less about me and more about the transition and the future.
More than once, I’ve looked at and considered a number of different resources, from Samuel’s farewell address to the people, as he prepared to anoint Saul as first king of Israel, to Eisenhower’s farewell address in which he warned against the “the acquisition of unwarranted influence…of the military-industrial complex.” Both reflect a certain personal humility together with an abiding concern about the inherent danger of increased temporal political power.
There is a desperate need to strengthen and restore the critical missions of so many of our institutions. In this moment, two of our Founding Estates, the Congress and the Supreme Court, are divided and less than fully functional; the third, the Presidency, is stalemated by the other two. The most critical institutional watchdog, the Fourth Estate, a vigorous free press, suffers from both the freefall of its financial support in city after city and an increasing cultural illiteracy and a civic malaise which blunts its influence. Our religious institutions are also, according to virtually every reliable national survey, in consistent numerical decline, thereby reducing their influence in community-building and character-shaping.
The divisions that exist within our country are mirrored within our own Jewish community, at the precise time that holding the center seems more crucial than ever.
I do not want to end on a Cassandra-like note. I believe in the promise of America. I believe in the strength of the Jewish people. I believe in the ingenuity of Americans and Jews to solve whatever problems emerge, but I do not believe that repair and innovation will emerge from unmitigated and uncontrolled kulturkampf.
So what more do I have to say? I’ve pondered this for months now, and finally, fortuitously, the Torah provided me with the best answer to date, the Silver Trumpets.
God commands Moses :
עֲשֵֹה לְךָ שְׁתֵּי חֲצוֹצְרֹת כֶּסֶף
Make yourself two silver trumpets…(Numbers 10:1)
The Midrash on Genesis offers this commentary upon those silver trumpets:
R. Joshua of Siknin said in R. Levi’s name: When Moses was about to die, the Holy One of Blessing, hid the trumpets which Moses had made in the wilderness, so that he might not sound a blast upon them which would cause them [the Israelites] come to him, in fulfilment of the verse, ‘Neither is there dominion in the day of death.’ (Kohelet 8:8)
The midrash buttresses this by saying that Pinchas, the son of Eleazar (Aaron’s grandson), assumed a role that had belonged to Moses as he executed an Israelite and a Midianite woman because of their illicit relationship. The Midrash asks why this action was endorsed by God and answers that this is proof of the text, ‘Neither is there dominion in the day of death,’ in other words that Moses humbly ceded his power and authority on the way out. (Genesis Rabbah 96:3, quoting Kohelet 8:8)
I read that midrash and thought, “I finally found my exit line in the unheard melody of those silver trumpets!”