Matot/Masei — 5777 “I’d like to have an argument please”
As I meet more people here, I’ve found that folks at Beth Elohim hold a wide variety of jobs. We have some schoolteachers, a few doctors, some lawyers. But what we seem to have a LOT of is science people. Computer people. Biotech people, chemists, and all that. And engineers.
People that secretly walk around this place with a Ph.D. Or two.
You may know one of those people. You may be one of those people.
Now if I wanted to start off a drash with a fun pop culture reference for such a group, the obvious choice would be a sci-fi reference. Something about dalleks, or dilithium crystals. But I don’t know anything about the first 12 Doctor Whos, let alone the 13th. And the most I know about Star Trek is that Spock has pointy ears and is rational, Kirk seems to get involved with a lot of alien women, and McCoy gets angry a lot.
But then I thought — I know! — Monty Python!
Monty Python is popular with nerdy geniuses? Right?
And this week’s Torah portion — actually a double portion of Matot and Masei — made me think of Monty Python.
Specifically, a classic Python skit in which a bespectacled Michael Palin walks up to a receptionist and says, “I’d like to have an argument please.”
The receptionist sends him down the hall, and he dutifully enters the office she’s identified as the place to have an argument.
But, almost immediately, Graham Chapman screams at him from behind his desk, calling Palin a “snotty-faced heap of parrot droppings.”
It turns out he has, mistakenly, walked into the Abuse office.
Extricating himself from the Abuse office, Palin reaches his intended destination, the Argument office. But upon sitting down, he finds himself stuck in an argument with John Cleese about — what else — the nature of arguments. Cleese, at first, simply contradicts everything Palin says.
Exasperated, Palin says, “I came in here for a good argument!”
“No you didn’t,” replies Cleese. “You came in here for an argument.”
This crucial difference — the difference between an argument and a good argument — lies at the core of what jumps out at me from this week’s parashah.
The star of our show is not Michael Palin, but Moses. Seems about 3300 years ago, Moses was having a really bad day. The Israelites, being Israelites, have repeatedly challenged his authority. Yet again, the Israelites have complained about not having enough water, and yet again, Moses has taken care of it. Only this time, he got a little aggro, calling the Israelites rebels, and hitting a rock instead of talking to it. And because of that, he finds out — just as the Israelites are about to go into the promised land — Moses isn’t gonna get to go. Joshua will be their leader.
And, on top of all that, aftselakhis here come the Reubenites and Gadites, two of the twelve tribes…
"Moses — we have something to tell you."
Turns out not everyone is so excited about going into the Promised Land. Because the Reubenites and the Gadites, you see, are cattlemen. And where they are right now, land that is not in the Promised Land, is really good land for raising cattle —
“and, Moses,” declare the Reubenites and Gadites, “we are very happy not going into the Promised Land, and — if it’s all the same to you — we are very happy staying right here, thank you very much.”
It is most definitely not all the same to Moses. In fact, Moses freaks out for 10 verses.
He gets even angrier than Dr. McCoy.
“You’re just gonna stay here? You’re gonna send your brothers to fight without you? You guys are just like your fathers! You know I’m old enough to remember your fathers, those no-good-niks! They refused to listen to Joshua and Caleb 40 years ago when we said it was time to go into the Promised Land! It’s because of your fathers that we’ve had to wander around in this awful desert for 40 years! And now you! Here you come, big shots, all fancy with your cattle and your cowboy hats! You, you —“
And then he drops the hammer.
Tarbut anashim chata'im! He screams at the Reubenites and the Gadites. “You breed of sinful men!”
Now depending on your point of view, being called “sinful men” might not be as bad as being called a snotty-faced heap of parrot droppings.
But you have to wonder if the Reubenites and the Gadites may have thought that they walked into the wrong office. And instead of getting an argument, they got abuse.
And you have to wonder, at this point in his life, if Moses can tell the difference between argument and abuse.
In fact, according to the Sephardic commentary Me’am Lo’ez, Moses didn’t just offend his brothers by his comment. He offended God.
But it’s at this moment of crisis and pain, both human and divine — it’s at this very moment that the text, and the response of the Reubenites and the Gadites, is really amazing.
After all that yelling, the Reubenites and the Gadites don’t yell back.
Vayigshu, the text says. They come near. They step up.
OK, they say, we'll help you. We’ll leave our flocks and our kids here, and we’ll send some of our nest fighters with you.
And after the war is over, we'll come back.
In a world of rancor and stubbornness, in a world that too often chooses anger and strife over compromise and compassion, in a world where people don’t seem to know how to talk to each other — from six-year-olds to Senators, from the T to the teeter-totter to Twitter — these two tribes offer wisdom. They offer kindness. They speak clearly. They argue respectfully.
And it works. Moses says OK.
How did they do it?
I see three key aspects to the way that they argue with Moses — three things that can guide us in the arguments we have, in our lives, today.
First, they know who they are. Living separately from the other Israelites, living in other peoples’ land with other peoples’ values, means they'll have to stand up for who they are. They have a very clear sense of themselves.
Second, they’re honest about who they are. The Reubenites and Gadites don’t hide from their feelings, or pretend to want something they don’t. They don’t change the subject or dodge the question. We might think they’re crazy to choose cattle over the Canaan. Or not. It doesn’t really matter.
That’s who they are. They’re not embarrassed to say what they want. They’re clear. They don't want to live in the Promised Land. And they say so.
And finally, their responses are calm and thoughtful. They don't offer anger for anger, or abuse for abuse. They don’t back down, but they don’t punch back. Vayigshu. They come close. They step up. They hear Moses, even through his anger. They offer solutions, solutions that show that they heard him.
The word in Hebrew for “argument” elegantly encapsulates a lot of this. In Hebrew, an argument is called a machloket. Machloket comes from the word chelek. Chelek means “portion.” In a machloket, in an argument, I have a chelek and you have a chelek. I have a portion of the truth, and you have a portion of the truth.
We only have the whole truth when we bring our portions together.
I’ve been talking to a lot of people in the community about what they love about Beth Elohim. What I hear a lot is that we are a big tent, that we are inclusive and accepting of difference. I found something that Denis Friedman said to me particularly striking:
“In congregational disagreements,” he said, “even when there’s an opposition, it’s a loyal opposition.”
People try to work things out here. OK, sometimes it takes 25 years. But like the Reubenites and the Gadites, we stand with our sisters and brothers for the big things. And we work it out.
Now, today, maybe more than ever — we need that. The world needs that.
And, from you, I need that.
Because I can promise you – in the months to come, I’m gonna do or say something stupid. Or annoying. Or just something you don’t like. It may have already happened.
And when it happens, I invite you to be a Reubenite and a Gadite. Come talk to me. Tell me your truth. Be honest.
You can even remind me of this drash.
And, more importantly, tell each other your truth. Be honest. Live in that big tent that we’ve built — that you’ve built.
One last story. The Talmud often talks about two famous houses of study: Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. The House of Hillel and the House of Shammai. And in almost every argument, Beit Hillel wins.
Why? Well, we might assume that Beit Hillel was smarter. Nope. Turns out they always won because they were nicer.
The Talmud explains that Beit Hillel always won “because Beit Hillel was kind and modest. It always thought about its own opinions, AND the opinions of Beit Shammai. In fact, they mentioned the actions of Beit Shammai BEFORE their own.”
Imagine an argument where the winner was the one who wasn’t smartest, or loudest, or the snarkiest, or even the one with the most advanced degrees, or even the one who knew the most about the Torah — the winner was the one who was the kindest.
Because, of course, in an argument where the winner is kind, everyone’s the winner.
It’s hard to imagine.
But I think I’d like to have an argument like that.
Kein yehi ratzon. May it be God’s will. And may it be our will.