Friday, June 01, 2007

B’haalot'kha: Miles Davis in the Desert

Imagine being alive to see the greats of the jazz era hone their craft. John Coltrane. Charlie Parker. Miles Davis. Three legends of not only jazz music, but of any genre of music in modern history. When these three jazz icons - or any of their peers - got on stage or a street corner to wail on their instruments, people gathered to listen and be taken to a higher place. God forsees these jazz-induced orgasmic experiences in this week’s Parsha, B’ha’alotkha.

In the portion, God commands Moses:
Make two silver trumpets for calling the community... you shall blow the trumpet and you will be remembered before God, and you will be delivered from your enemies. On that day of rejoicing and in your festive season and at the beginning of your months, you shall blow the trumpets. (Num. 10:1-10)

I find it important to point out that these call horns were “silver trumpets” and not the shofarim used later in the Torah, and even today. The shofar, the horn of a ram, did not and does not compare to the trumpet in terms of tune and pitch, but cannot be rivaled in raw power. The shofar, after all, made the walls of Jericho come tumbling down. But power was not what the Israelites had in the desert - they were weak, and complained constantly.

This whole Parsha is about Moses, the greatest leader in our people’s history, doubting his own leadership skills due to his people’s constant complaints. The Israelites needed finesse, entertainment. The shofar would have only been another reason to whine, due to its lack of objective beauty, visually and aurally. The silver trumpet was given to the people to ease their superficial suffering. The generations to follow had the power to take hold of the shofar.

I have experience with both the shofar and the trumpet. When my parents went to Israel for the first time, when I was 8 years old, they returned 10 days later, bearing gifts. The present I revered most was a small, black shofar my father had bought for me in Jerusalem. I immediately began to blow, day and night, in preparation for the New Year. The sound and smell both marked where in the house and I had been and where I was headed.

That year’s High Holiday services marked a change. After years of masterful shofar blowing by one of The Watering Hole’s own fathers, our new Rabbi coordinated a shofar choir of both young and old to really bring the house down. I loved blowing the shofar on the High Holidays. It was the main event, and I was a co-star. I did so until I was 13, when being up on the bima to blow shofar instantly became “uncool.” I did pick it up again in college. My senior year, I even blew the shofar in both the Reform and Conservative service: my first double-header.

All this shofar blowing history is important, but the key to the story is that I was an awful shofar blower, and it didn’t matter. Those in attendance revered me because I had taken on the sheer power of the shofar.

The trumpet is a different story. I always loved jazz music, but didn’t know much about it until I took History of Jazz my first semester at UNC. This class, ultimately my favorite in college, opened my eyes to an incredibly rich history of ground-breaking musicians and performances. The best and most challenging part of this class was recognizing solos from famous jazz pieces both by instrument and musician with no melodic context. I would listen to these provided solos over and over on my headphones in my dorm until I knew every note. These solos would take me to another place, make me forget about all the other stresses of being a first-year college student. I would hide my procrastination by studying jazz.

My love of jazz has not wavered in the five years since I took that class. Living four blocks from the center of the DC jazz district doesn’t hurt. The most tangible tool I learned in that class and use today is the ability to assess skill on the trumpet, among other jazz instruments. Within moments, I can tell if a musician is going to wow or bore me with strong accuracy. God giving the people silver trumpets was a stop-gap used to ease the constant complaining of the people of Israel, but could easily become a punishment, depending on the trumpeter. But try blowing a shofar on a busy urban street - it's guaranteed to be a show-stopper.

This food tastes like “B'haalot'kha”

“Have you ever went over a friends house to eat
And the food just ain't no good?
I mean the macaroni's soggy, the peas are mushed,
And the chicken tastes like wood.”

--Sugarhill Gang, Rapper’s Delight

We’ve all been there. In a situation when we’re trying to do the right thing, but no matter how hard we try, obstacles arise like soggy macaroni or Robert Horry hip-checking your team's best player into the ground.

In the song above, Imp the Dimp was faced with gross food, but he didn’t want to say something rude and hurt his friend’s feelings. So instead, he fakes that he’s sick. But it doesn’t work and Imp gets called out, putting his friendship in jeopardy.

Amare Stoudemire rushes from the bench to help his friend get up from the ground - a completely natural reaction - and he gets a one game suspension, costing the Suns the series.

Apparently, doing the right thing is not always so easy.

How many times have I heard this over the years?

How do you think Moses felt?

Talk to a bush!

Turn water into wine!

Free your people!

Part the sea!

Climb a mountain!

All while having people believe he is not super crazy.

In the previews for Evan Almighty, Steve Carell is asked to build an ark by God himself, or Morgan Freeman. Everyone thinks he’s nuts. So listening to a talking bush? Not the easiest thing to do, as is choosing whether to leave college early to play sports professionally in order to help one's poor family make ends meet, or staying in school to get an education?

Another cliché straight from my father’s mouth reminds us that two wrongs do not make a right.

In this week’s reading from the Torah, B'haalot'kha (gezundheit!), things get even more complicated. Surprised? No, it’s a Jewish document.

Early in the Parsha, Moses is explaining the laws and decrees for the Pesach (today’s Passover holiday) offering. (Num. 9:1-14) One of the conditions of making the sacrifice is that anyone who had been in contact with a corpse could not make the sacrifice. (Lev. 7:20-21)

Seems pretty cut and dry, until a few of the Hebrews approach Moses to let him know this isn’t fair, or right. The fellers in question came in contact with a corpse only through doing a good deed or mitzvah. (Num. 9:6-7)

They were essentially doing the right thing, but later having it only come back to hurt them.

This is a situation that happens all the time. As a former fraternity president I have first-hand experience. For example, after announcing a new attendance policy, it did not take more than a second for my brothers to come up to me and let me know why this should not apply to them. Sometimes there were good arguments, and sometimes having to go to your girlfriend’s to “help her study” during meeting time just didn’t cut it.

The decision on who deserved a reprieve after being wronged by the new rules had to be made. Not an easy thing to do, especially having to balance so many people’s concerns.

Back to Moses.

Moses is hit with this moral dilemma, and what does he do? Well he was a prophet, so just like Commissioner Gordon, Moses whips out his prophet phone, dials 613 and gets God on the line. Going something like this:

“Yo, God!”


“This Moses.”


“Right. So I got these Heebs here. They feel that since they were doing a good deed when they came in contact with the dead, that they should still be able to rock the Pesach offering. Thoughts?”



For Moses, it was that easy. I wish I had a phone with a line straight to the all-knowing to sort things out. But since I don’t, I have the Torah to both confuse me and offer me insight.

In this instance, the wronged are righted by having a separate ceremony. Moses did a good job by looking into the rule book to see if there were any loopholes.

However, sometimes doing the right thing does lead to a future wrong instead of another right, like speeding to get your pregnant wife to the hospital as she is going into labor, but still getting a ticket. The cop doesn’t care why you’re speeding, he's just doing his job.

The nice thing is that we have a kind and just God to figure these things out.

Ultimately, you have to live with your consequences, even if you are doing what you think is right.

In "Rapper’s Delight," Imp the Dimp, trying to do the right thing, chose to fake sick rather than just say that the food was bad.

In a similar fashion, after a fair amount of wandering (remember, the name of the book means “In the Desert”), the Hebrews begin to complain that the “manna tastes like wood” and there is no meat to eat when there was plenty in Egypt. Then, Miriam complains to Aaron that Moses, as the highest prophet around, has been neglecting some of his other duties, specifically his marital ones, in working to remain pure all the time. A seemingly fair complaint - he is the man with the great wooden staff; shouldn’t his wife get to enjoy that?

Well, complaints and slander did not sit well with The Commissioner. The Heebs are flooded with meat and those that eat it are punished, while Miriam gets leprosy and has to leave camp, embarrassed, for seven days. Aaron gets off the hook by immediately apologizing, while Moses tries to make amends all around. Again, not an easy thing to do - have you ever tried mediating an argument between your mom and your sister?

So the end of the weekly reading leaves us with hives, gluttony, wrath, and one very important lesson:

If you ever go over to your friend’s house to eat and the food just ain’t no good, you should probably just eat it. Be thankful for the food that is on your plate. Thank your friend for his hospitality. And stop at Wendy’s on the way home.

KB24 and the Kosher Connection (B'haalot'kha)

During the last few days, Los Angeles Laker and best-player-in-the-L (LeBron disagrees) Kobe Bryant found himself so unhappy with Laker management that he demanded a trade. Then he didn't. Then he did for real. Then again, maybe they can work something out. In short, KB24 was feeling a little Jewish.

Wait, what?

How does Kobe flip-flopping harder than John Kerry McCain make him an honorary Member of the Tribe? Simple: He had a Moses moment. One need only browse this week's Parsha, B'haalot'kha, to see how.

As the Israelities march from Sinai to Kadesh, they begin to complain at Kibroth-Hattaavah. Bemoaning the all-manna, all-the-time diet God provides to insure the Chosen People don't become malnourished ones, the peanut gallery clamors for the meat, fish, cucumbers - anything, all of which they had while living in Egypt, conveniently forgetting the harshness of that whole slavery deal. (Num. 11:4-6)

This, of course, incurs the wrath of the G-O-D, which combines with the burden of leading a people dissatisfied by a situation that while not ideal, frequently offers moments of transcendence and forces Moses to challenge the management:
And Moses said to the Lord, "Why have You dealt ill with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed Your favor, that You have laid the burden of all this people upon me? Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them, that You should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant,' to the land that You have promised on oath to their fathers? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people, when they whine before me and say, 'Give us meat to eat!' I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me. If You would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness!" (11:10-15)
So Moses (Kobe) is starting to crack under the pressures of leading a people (the Lakers) to the Promised Land (an NBA Championship) and feeling like God (Jerry Buss/Mitch Kupchak) isn't giving him the resources (good teammates) to make this all possible. While it remains to be seen how things develop for our basketball-playing friend, B'haalot'kha reveals God first spread Moses' burden upon 70 elders (11:16) before providing a slew of quail outside the borders of the camp, for people to collect and eat as they wish. (11:31) But the meat was tainted, and plague struck anyone to imbibe. (11:33)

The Biblical Recommendation

The Lakers should assuage as many of Kobe's people as they can to ease the pressure he's feeling, and then trade him for spare parts to teach their fans a lesson. One should note, however, it took 40 years for God to get the Jews to the Promised Land ...