November 19, 2019

Torah Portion

Martin Buber was wrong. Buber proposed that “alllife is meeting,” and that all human interactions fit into twocategories: I-Thou and I-It. I-Thou describes those close, mutual,responsive relationships in which we become genuine, unique personsto one another. I-It is for everything else — all the functional,impersonal, perfunctory, objectified relations that fill daily life.But he failed to notice that there’s a third category — and it isone I witness regularly working in the Jewish community. It’s called”I-You-*’@%?’@!!!” This is the relationship wherein a difference ofopinion or a complaint quickly and seamlessly turns into a bitterpersonal attack. I don’t object merely to the position you representor the job you’ve done; I object to you!

My own experience is in Jewish education. There’ssomething about Jewish education that breeds this sort ofrelationship in a big way: It’s not enough to complain, “My child’sneeds aren’t being met,” or “My child is unhappy,” or “My childwasn’t treated fairly.” We feel somehow compelled to add, “Becauseyou — teacher, principal, rabbi (fill in the blank) — don’t care,are insensitive, are incompetent, are unkind.”

I understand the dynamics of parental anxietyabout schooling, particularly among Jews. I’m well aware of all theexpectations and aspirations that are laid on the shoulders of theeducator. I realize that the bottom line of any educationalenterprise is a fragile bond of trust.

But why so vicious? Why so cruel?

Is it any wonder that in education, andparticularly in Jewish education, there is an astonishingly highprofessional mortality rate? Is it any wonder that we have suchdifficulty attracting the best and the brightest to this field? Whoneeds this tzuris? Moses had a magic stick and a daily pep talk fromthe Master of Universe, and even he became discouraged at thecarping, the whining and the personal invective aimed at him. How dowe protect those precious souls who commit their lives to Jewishteaching?

This week, we begin the reading of Bamidbar, theTorah’s fourth book. Bamidbar means “in the wilderness,” for the bookcommences in the wilderness of Sinai. But more than a physicallocation, Bamidbar depicts a social wilderness, a human wasteland.This is a place where everything falls apart. It portrays a peoplewandering — without a shared vision, shared values or shared words.Leaders attempt to lead, but no one listens. The people of thiswilderness, driven by fear and jealousy, moved only by hunger, thirstand lust, have no patience for God’s transcendent vision.

It falls heaviest on Moses. In the course ofBamidbar, everyone in his life will betray him. Miriam and Aaron, hisfamily, betray him, murmuring against him. His tribe rebels againsthim under his cousin Korah. His people betray him, accepting thedispiriting report of the 10 spies over the vision of the two. And,finally, even God betrays him. Told to speak to the rock, he hits itinstead. And for this, he will not see the journey’s end. But, ofcourse, he hit the rock! Nowhere in Bamidbar do words function.Nowhere do words nourish, inspire or heal. This is a book of noise,frustration and pain — the world according to Jerry Springer.

Bamidbar is not a place far away. It is within us– in our community and in our souls. The world was created withwords. It is within our capacity to annihilate it with words. Destroydiscourse, and civilization collapses. Ravage the spirit of ourteachers, and our future shrivels. Bamidbar is not just a book, butis an anguished cry of warning in the increasingly barren wildernessof our culture.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom.