Nowadays, on Wednesday evenings, I drive to the local Chabad, when I can manage it, to study the Parshah (section from the Pentateuch being read during that week by Jews worldwide). Their building is still under internal construction and renovation, so one enters stepping around cartons, going through unfurnished rooms to get to class.
The study experience at this new place gives me a delight that I am pausing here to puzzle over.
The Chabad are a sect of Hasidic Judaism with centers for worship, Jewish education, and outreach, at the most far-flung corners of the world. I’ve even seen a cartoon showing space travelers landing on Mars in the belief that they are the first human beings to arrive there – but lo! the Chabad Center has preceded them on Mars. Though they don’t go in for secular modernity, the Chabad are deliberately nonjudgmental about one’s degrees of observance – at least if one is not a member. For example, the Wednesday class is conducted with no Hebrew.
What is it about the Chabad that puzzles me? Well, for openers, some of the most tough-minded and well-credentialed people I know, who live in cosmopolitan Washington or New York, are doing what I am doing: reading the weekly Parshah at their local Chabad. So my first question is, why?
Here’s a second cause for my head-shaking curiosity. The Wednesday adult students sit with the Rabbi at a small round table. So far as I’ve seen, they number about five at most. Now I’ve taught classes and given lectures in various settings and I can tell you that five is not a large number. If, week after week, I had to meet a class so minimally attended, I’d need emergency transfusions of self-esteem just to keep going.
In sharp contrast, the Rabbi does not appear in the least concerned at the smallness of the group. Not even subliminally, as far as I can tell. What does this mean? Could it be that he loves God and doesn’t care about the rest of it?
In the Parshah we studied last week, the following events, from the Israelite wanderings through the Wilderness, were lifted out for discussion: Miriam (sister of Moses) died; Aaron (his brother) also died; Moses struck a rock to get it to gush forth water (which it did) but, all the same, he was to be punished for violating the divine command to speak to the rock, rather than strike it. Also, the Israelites get the divine go-ahead to conquer the Canaanites.
How did the Chabad rabbi interpret these happenings in the Wilderness? He pointed out that the reason the rock needed to be spoken to was that, now for the first time, the Israelites lacked water. Previously, the rock had produced it because of “the merit of Miriam.” By the same line of reasoning, the Canaanites had previously been protected from conquest “by the merit of Job.” Remember Job? As it turns out, he’d been the last meritorious Canaanite. After his funeral, there weren’t any more. His merit removed, Canaan was open for the taking.
What do I make of such interpretations? Not being an urbane city-slicker-smart-aleck, I try to see what lessons they might contain. Can a single individual, or a few of them, save or ruin a whole city, or even a nation? The Greeks had evidently believed that a city could be blighted if one man in that city, say King Oedipus, unknowingly married his mother. In Genesis, Abraham persuaded God to spare the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if at least ten righteous persons could be found there.
Is there any basis, in moral or historical experience, for a single individual, or a small group, saving his or her homeland, or else bringing it to destruction?
It’s worth thinking about, isn’t it?
Another event proposed for our study had to do with the death of the righteous. About Miriam’s end, and Aaron’s, the rabbi told us that such deaths occur in a painless moment, without fear or anguish. They come easily, because effected by “the kiss of God.”
Not inclined to ask for statistical evidence for such a claim, my mind went back to the time when my father was dying. I was standing with my mother in his room in the Maine Coast Memorial Hospital in Ellsworth, Maine.
“He is dying on Friday night,” my mother said to me. “That’s when the righteous in Israel die.”
Okay. The kiss of God. Works for me.
Lastly, we turned to consider the question of why Moses was punished – allowed to see the Promised Land from the mountain top but not to enter it – for so trivial as mistake as striking the rock rather than speaking to it.
Well, that’s easy. The advanced soul is judged – judges itself – by more exacting standards than are required by the average person.
So what is the Jewish essence? I don’t know. Perhaps the business of partnering with God in history floats around, taking one form or another as real-life circumstances and the covenantal calling suggest.
To my way of thinking, the Jewish essence escapes any definitive summing up.
*Abigail Rosenthal writes the Dear Abbie Non-Advice column.
Originally appeared on VoegelinView Read More