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Justice, Holiness and Fraudulence

06/15/2022 11:36:10 AM

Jun15

Rabbi Brent Spodek

What exactly is it, that we Jews are trying to do?

Against considerable odds, the Jewish people have survived for thousands of years, and sometimes it seems that’s all we’re trying to do – hold on in order to pass the venerable baton of tradition from one generation to the next. The task of the living seems to be ensuring that the chain of heritage isn’t broken on our watch.

While continuity is certainly part of what Jews are trying to do with our Judaism, it is not the only thing or even the most important thing.

The Torah tells the story of the Jewish people’s halting and uncertain progress towards a goal. The Israelites didn’t leave Egypt and travel through the desert for the sake of traveling or because “the journey was the destination.” They traveled through the desert because they were trying to get somewhere. 

The ragtag collection of former slaves was liberated from generations of deprivation and suffering and set off for the Promised Land, a place flowing with milk and honey so they could taste some of the comfort and luxury their masters had. 

They didn’t leave Egypt to change the way humanity conceived of the Divine or to take part in some grand project of national redemption. The Israelites left Egypt for one very pragmatic reason – after more than 400 years of servitude, they knew it’s better to be free than to be enslaved. 

Their desire for something better than a life of making bricks out of straw comes through in the complaints which characterize Parshat Beha'alo-techa. Even as God sends manna from the sky, they complain that back in the Egyptian good old days, they had free access to fish and other delicacies. They aren’t interested in miracles and wonders from the Divine, because they didn’t sign up for the “religious quest workshop.” The Israelites signed up to have a better life than the one they left behind and they have no qualms about raising their voices if they aren’t getting it.

For some of the Israelite leaders, however, the journey through the desert wasn’t simply a pragmatic search for a more comfortable life in a different land. It was a prophetic journey of aspiration, a journey to create a different kind of people, for just as the Holy Blessed One promised a land of milk and honey, the Divine also promised that Israel had the potential to become a nation of priests and a holy people. The promise of holiness was conditional – if you “obey me faithfully and keep my covenant,” then you will become a nation of priests. 

The desert for them was not a long highway upon which they had to travel in order to get to the Promised Land, but the crucible in which slaves were transformed into priests.

In the desert though, prophetic aspirations risked being forgotten in pursuit of pragmatic concerns.  In the course of Parshat Beha'alo-techa, the God grants temporary powers of prophecy to seventy elders of Israel, in order to keep the nation focused on their aspirations precisely at the moment when the practical concerns of feeding the complaining Israelites seemed so overwhelming. The seventy elders prophesied for a while, and then stopped, except for Eldad and Medad who kept offering prophesy. Joshua, the Israelite political leader, asked Moses to restrain them, but Moses let them continue, saying only that he wished that all of God’s people could be prophets.

Joshua, the pragmatic man at arms, speaks out of concern for the vision of milk and honey. He was the leader who made sure that the people’s physical needs were met, even to the degree that one of the many things the Jewish tradition remembers Joshua for is making sure that Israel could travel easily on the roads

To a degree, Joshua was a political leader in the vein of Ghandi, who said during a meeting about India’s independence, “It is good enough to talk of God whilst we are sitting here after a nice breakfast and looking forward to a nicer luncheon, but how am I to talk of God to the millions who have to go without two meals a day? To them God can only appear as bread and butter.” From the perspective of Joshua, who inherited his post in a formal, institutionalized way, and was concerned with moving into the land safely, prophets like Eldad and Medad who are focused on aspirations of holiness and crazy, unregulated institutions such as prophesy threaten to destabilize society and interfere with meeting the very real material needs of people. 

But where Joshua had sight, Moses had vision. Food and material sustenance for the Israelites is essential, but it is not the goal. Where Joshua envisioned a just society, Moses envisioned that and more – a holy society. Moses envisioned a society in which all members were prophets, all people could see a world in which God’s justice is manifest. Where Joshua was worried about the risk of focusing on the transcendental before addressing the practical, Moses was worried about forgetting about the transcendental in while we focus on the practical. Joshua was afraid of what would happen if the Israelites were distracted by the prophesy of Eldad and Medad, while Moses was concerned about what might happen if the Israelites were not distracted by them. 

As it was for Joshua and Moses, so it is for us. We need to follow Joshua and build a just society in which everyone has a taste of milk and honey, and we are right to be suspicious of religious visions which are disinterested in material needs. But Joshua can only take us so far, because on the one hand, nothing worthy of being called religion can leapfrog the practical to focus on the holy – not in a world where people suffer and starve. On the other hand, nothing focused only on justice is worthy to be called religion, because justice is the necessary precondition for holiness, not its replacement. Justice without holiness is nothing more than politics, and holiness without justice is a sham.

Tue, August 16 2022 19 Av 5782