Parashat Beha’alotecha: Trusting Trust

This week’s Torah portion is Beha’alotecha which can be translated as “when you mount” or “when you step up”. In this part of our narrative the Israelites are still wandering through the desert and are again quite dissatisfied with the experience. In fact, within one chapter of our portion they complain not once, but twice! During their wanderings in the desert the Israelites complain so much that it is easy to dismiss their questions and concerns.

Renowned Torah commentators such as Rashi, writing in twelfth century France, have pointed out that this journeying in the wilderness marks a distinct change in habit for the Israelites who just prior had spent two years stationed at the foot of Mount Sinai. Now, exhausted and disorientated, they are quick to raise their voices in frustration at their new situation.

Ramban, writing in thirteenth century Spain, agrees, arguing that the Israelites complaints were indeed justified and that they simply reacted, “like others under duress and compulsion”. Harvey J Fields, a contemporary American Reform rabbi, points out, however, that Ramban did not offer this explanation to excuse the Israelites’ behaviour. Instead Ramban criticises the Israelites’ disloyalty towards God and Moses as well as their petty gripes and exaggerations over both their situation as free people in the desert as well as their time as slaves in Egypt.

I would like to consider the tension this discussion highlights between leaders and the people under their care. What faith (or loyalty) must we have in our leaders if they are to succeed in promoting our own interests and welfare? When is it appropriate to call them out, and if so, what is the appropriate way of doing so? Conversely, what responsibilities do our leaders have to us when it comes to managing the concerns of those under their care? How would we like them to balance the required day-to-day tasks of leadership with their duty to explain to us the thoughts behind these processes?

In short, was Moses so focused on bringing the Israelites through the wilderness that he fell short in managing the day-to-day concerns of the Israelites? And were the Israelites so distrusting of Moses that he could all but fail time and time again in their eyes?

Describing a basic responsibility of people to their leaders, the sixteenth century Italian scholar Ovadia Sforno compares them to a parent and child. He explains that in such a relationship it is to be expected that there will be, “differences of opinions among them” but the only way a parent (or leader) can be successful is if “all his children know that they love them all and has their best interests at heart”. For Sforno, the Israelites failed to give Moses even a basic level of trust, instead choosing to constantly provoke him to see what he would do.

And what of a leader’s responsibilities towards their people? As Jonathan Sacks has explained, “leadership means believing in the people you lead”. When Moses encounters God for the first time he is told to go to the Children of Israel and to declare himself to them as God’s representative. God assures Moses that “they will listen to you” yet just a few verses later Moses cries out in fear saying, “What if they do not believe me?!”. God goes onto demonstrate three signs for Moses that he can perform for the Israelites should they doubt his genuineness. For the second of these signs Moses is instructed to put his hand into his bosom and upon removing his hand finds it to be “encrusted with snowy scales”. Rashi explains that these snowy scales are “tzaraat” – a skin ailment sometimes translated as leprosy. In afflicting Moses in such a way, Rashi suggests that God was hinting to him that he spoke slanderously [of the Israelites] when he said, “What if they do not believe me”. Tzaraat appears later in our Torah portion, when Miriam is stricken with it for speaking slanderously about her brother Moses.

The Edelman Trust Barometer 2018, “reveal a flatline in trust across the institutions of government, business, media and NGOs in the UK”. Likewise, a recent survey by the American-based Pew Research Centre concluded that, “public trust in Government remains near historic lows”. Amongst British Jews, one need only look at social media feeds, blogs and newspapers to see that on this level that we too have difficulty trusting each other’s intentions.

Trust is a vital component of a healthy society. While it makes sense to encounter new ideas with caution we should try not to approach them, or the people saying them, with distrust. We need to create environments, spaces and institutions where trust can flourish, where ideas are frequently questioned but not the intentions of the people who suggest them. We may feel that distrust offers us a certain level of protection from those who wish to harm us but the cost is high; in part a constant sense of paranoia that can impede our ability as leaders and members of society to progress. For trust to be truly effective it must be two-ways; between leaders and the people they represent. Let us work together to build relationships that are built on believing in the good intentions of the diverse people who are part of our society and communities.

Vayechi: Many blessings to many people

In this week’s Torah portion Jacob is very old – 147 years! – and lying on his death bed. Gathered around him are his children and grandchildren, to each of whom he offers a personal blessing. It is here in Genesis (Bereshit) that the Friday night tradition to bless ones sons in the name of Joseph’s children Ephraim and Manasseh originates.

For the past three months we have introduced a new custom into our Shabbat routine; Each week Robin (my wife) and I place our hands on our daughter’s head and recite a short blessing. This intimate moment allows us to reflect on our hopes and aspirations for her as she grows up and develops into an independent person.

Of course, one does not need to wait until they are dying or have a child to offer blessings and they need not be so formally delivered. In fact, we probably ‘bless’ a lot more than we might think. Each time we offer our approval or good wishes to a friend or offer luck or hope to a family member we are indeed offering a blessing.

The final moments of Jacob’s life were packed with many blessings to many people. He wanted to use his last breath to offer praise, encouragement and guidance to those he cared about most. This is something that we should emulate at all stages of our lives even if our blessings are as simple as adding a few positive words or actions into our daily routine.

 —

This article originally appeared as Alyth Synagogue’s ‘Thought for the Week’.

Noach: What makes a person great?

Take a moment to think about a person who inspires you, someone who embodies the traits of ‘greatness’. You could be thinking of a political leader or perhaps a family member or friend. Whether their reach and impact is global, local or personal you consider this person to be truly great. My questions is, why? What makes a person great?

Was Noach – the man God saves whilst destroying the corrupt and immoral people of earth in a flood – great? This weeks Torah portion opens by telling us, “Noach was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age,” and that, “Noach walked with God”.

On first reading of this verse the Torah seems particularly complimentary of Noach but as we look closer we see that this description is in fact giving us a much deeper insight into Noach’s behaviour and moral standing.

Describing Noach’s righteousness the Torah states that “he was blameless in his age.” This is quite an unusual phrase because it begs the question, would Noach have been righteous had he been born in a different age? As the famous biblical commentator Rashi points out, “In comparison with his generation he was righteous, but if he had been in Abraham’s generation, he would not have been considered of any importance.”

The next thing the verse goes on to tell us is that “Noach walked with God.” Interestingly the Torah states of Abraham, “[The Lord] before Whom I walked.” What is the difference between walking “with” God and walking “before” God? A Midrash – a rabbinic told story that helps make sense of unusual or complicated verses in scripture – explains that Noach walked “with” the support of God, but Abraham was able to walk righteously by himself.

The above two interpretations can lead us to re-evaluate our understanding of greatness and righteousness. On one level greatness can be measured in our ability to refrain from bad behaviour even when it surrounds us; i.e. a person who refrains from criminal activity when all around him are committing crimes may be considered great. But on a higher level, a person who independently seeks to do acts of social justice and kindness, rather than simply sitting out on bad behaviour, achieves a righteousness that is at the heart of Judaism; being active in making the world a better place.

 —

Originally published as part of Alyth’s Thought for the Week.