Friday, January 29, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Beshallakh 5770 – War Chants

Here it is, Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song, and I am deeply troubled by the roots of music in the holy texts of our tradition. Both the parasha and the haftarah  contain songs (or poems, or whatever  you wish to call them) that celebrate victory achieved through the deaths of “the other.”

The poetry is stunning – lyrical in its original Hebrew, and full of great poetic imagery. That is, if you can stand imagery of horses and riders being thrown to their drowning deaths.

Moses and the men engage in a long, structured, stylistic celebratory war chant, that which we called the Shirat HaYam, the song of the sea. Many like to point to the shorter, succinct chant of Miriam and the women as being older (and perhaps superior.) That is, if superior to you still involves

Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.

There’s a pretty picture…NOT.

The roots of Jewish song are in celebrations of military victories involving crushing defeats of the enemy? I’m not so thrilled about that.

It doesn’t end there. Think of all the Hanukkah songs, Purim songs, and more that similarly celebrate good endings for us at the price of bad endings for others.

Now admittedly, Jewish music has come a long way since Ashira L’Ad*nai ki ga-o ga-ah, Mi Khamokha, and the rest. Still, we have Zionist hymns, Israeli songs of war (and peace) and others that continue the trend. Sure, there are plenty of songs about peace, pursuing peace, and the general sentiment nowadays seems generally less militaristic. Maybe we’ve realized the futility of writing celebratory war songs in an age when war could very well mean the end of everything. (As Tom Lehrer says in his introduction to “So Long Mom, ” “if we’re going to start writing any WW3 songs, we’d better start writing them now.”

Yet what is it that millions of Jews around the world will hear in synagogue this Shabbat? A war chant. A fight song. A victory celebration. This year, I’m having a hard time getting all psyched up about Shabbat Shirah because I just can’t get past what the “shirah” part actually says. How about you?

It also being Tu B’shevat is a wonderful confluence of events. We can take heart that, in the midst of besieging an enemy, we are not to cut down their trees. Gee, isn’t that sort of like saying we’ll still keep enemy combatants prisoner, we just won’t torture them in ways that violate the Geneva Conventions anymore?

Here I am, faithful redeemer of so-called irredeemable texts, unable, this year, to redeem some core texts.  Is there anything truly redeemable in Shirat Hayam or Devorah and Barak’s song, when taken in context with the whole (and not conveniently out of context0)? Help me out here.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, January 22, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Bo 5770-In the Middle of the Night

[Well, after a much needed vacation in Mexico, I ws finally back teaching Judaism to students this week and discovered that the spark is still there, despite layers of cynicism and despair. So there was inspiration enough for me to take a crack and writing a musing. Many of you, by the way, wrote very encouraging notes when I mentioned the doldrums that finally led me to take a few weeks hiatus from writing these musings. My thanks. Some even suggested that having to switch back to not working full-time doing Jewish things (though clearly I'm still doing them over and above my new full-time non-Jewish job) might give me some fresh perspectives. I can't yet that this is so, but I remember all too well that I started out writing these musings long before I was earning my living doing Jewish things full-time (with just a little music and theater on the side.) Maybe my new work in the independent cinema realm-with some Jewish and music stuff on the side-will prove equally good as a source of ideas for my musings as all those years in the theater. I know there will be exceptions, but my new employers has been pretty good so far insuring I get my Friday evenings and Saturday mornings off.]

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Bo 5770

In the Middle of the Night

Nine of the ten plagues were accomplished starting in the full light of day (even the 9th plague, that of darkness.) Yet, when we come to the 10th and final plague, the slaying of the first-born male children of Mitzraim (Egypt) we read:

29 In the middle of the night the Lord struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle.

Why the choice to perform this "miracle" (yes, miracles can be negative) in the wee hours, under the cover of night? Was it an attempt to cover up the hideousness of the act? Did G"d weigh the potential "p.r." effects and determine that it might look bad to cause all these deaths in the cold light of day. (Yet G"d didn't flinch when causing the death of the remaining Egyptians who pursued the Israelites into the Sea of Reeds, so why would G"d be squeamish here?)

Pharaoh's soldiers did not hesitate to kill Hebrew male children in the cold light of day. Why would G"d hesitate to bring about retribution as out in the open as did Pharaoh?

Could it have been an attempt to be merciful, in an ironic sort of way? To see all their first-born males struck down dead in the cold light of day what certainly have been dramatic, yet perhaps needlessly cruel. Perhaps doing it at night, when many people often pass away peacefully in their sleep, was an attempt to mitigate the shock and awe? Can we really think of things ion such terms? Isn't mass murder mass murder, no matter the time of day?

The night is mysterious, or so people say. Was the setting chosen for such theatrics? Villains, murderers, and other scoundrels often perform their dirty and foul deeds under cover of night. Is it wrong to think of G"d as a villain, a mass murderer, in this context. (G"d instructing humans to kill others in battles, or as punishment for offenses, though somewhat a contradiction to the commandment to not murder, is not unusual, and the blame for such acts can truly be laid if the feet of the humans who obey G"d's commands (a lot of how you see this also depends on your interpretation and understanding of the banding and sacrifice of Isaac.) It's another matter entirely (or is it) when G"d acts directly to cause the death of human beings. (Of course, G"d has a track record here, what with the flood, with S'dom and Gomorrah, etc.)

There was an Egyptian god, Chons (or Khons) who, besides being the god of nigh time light, was also a god of male virility, and a god who oversaw the slaying of Pharaoh's enemies, extracting the innards and creating placenta from it. Plenty of symbolism here to prompt a biblical author (deity or human) to set this final plague in the night. Nevertheless, why would G"d care about showing up a "non-god?"

So we're back to wondering why G"d chose to do this deed at night. I haven't got a clue. what about you? (Time to turn these musings into a dialog again.)

Shabbat Shalom,

©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, January 1, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Vayekhi 5770 – Musing Block?

This is a difficult musing for me to write. If you’re a regular reader, you may have noticed I’ve missed writing the last few weeks-without even offering explanations. My apologies to you for that failure on my part.

My passion is waning. I seek solace in the words of Torah and prophets to little avail.  It is a crisis as much of lack of passion as it is a crisis of faith. Oh, that inner spark still burns – it is there, I can feel it. Yet the pilot light seems unable to light the big burner.

Now, some of this is surely attributable to circumstances. Being out of work for many months. Finally, seeing no prospect of real work in the Jewish world, I accepted a new position that harkens back to my earlier career in technical theater – only this time it will be technical cinema. I am the new Technical Director/Head Projectionist for Amherst Cinema Arts center, which operates two first-run independent small multi-venue film cinemas – one in Amherst and one in Northampton, MA. As with my previous work in the theatre, my new job will make it challenging to be as fully observant of Shabbat and holidays as I might wish (although, truth be told, having not found a congregation since we moved here to Amherst that truly feels like a good match, I have found my own commitment to observance waning.

So between the time and challenges of starting up in a new position, what little passion I yet have for Judaism, Jewish learning, and Jewish education have been unable to stir me enough to actually sit down, study Torah, and write a weekly musing.

I’ve written before about the end of the book of Bereshit being a threshold. Had we not settled in Egypt, we might not be a people today.

I was frightened of the thresholds before me. I wanted so desperately to find full-time Jewish work, I kept avoiding other doorways that opened to me. Only when I felt I needed to make a choice did I finally cross this new threshold. That it is not to say that I am unhappy with my choice, or that I made the choice out of total desperation. The arts have been as much a part of my life as my Judaism, and for a longer time.

It’s quite possible that being away from being a full-time professional Jew will actually serve to increase my passion and desire to be actively Jewish. (At least, that’s a fantasy I’d like to come true.) I fear being drawn further and further away from my Jewish world, because I recognize that, even though I may  not currently be deriving the sustenance (literally and figuratively) that I need from it, it has, and can continue to provide me with sustenance of a figurative kind and a literal kind.

I’m not a truly bold person, and I’m somewhat risk averse. I say to myself that there I things I could do to find a way to live full-time through Jewish work if I wanted to do so. Thus I wind up questioning my own desire to do so. It’s a vicious circle.

I searched and searched the words of this weeks parasha and haftarah looking for inspiration, seeking a connection to what I am now writing. They have eluded me so far, except for that tangential reference to the end of Bereshit being a threshold point.

I’m not going to give up. I am going to keep searching the text for inspiration. It may come, it may not. The question for me is how I respond if it does not. Do I have the will to try yet again? Can I find a way to get the spark to light the burner?

Now here, finally, is a connection. You, dear readers, are often a source of my inspiration. So these words which we traditionally say when we reach the end of a book of the Torah ring out loud and clear to me as a sign:

Khakzak, Khazak, v’nitkhazek.
Be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened. (Thanks, Julie, for that ever-so-useful-translation from your music!)

Next week, we begin a new book. Perhaps I will begin anew as well. We shall see.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester