Friday, February 22, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Tetzaveh/Shabbat Zachor/Purim 5773-Fighting Dirty

Parashat Tetzaveh has always been good to me, always inspiring. I’ve written some of my best musings on this parasha (well, at least many of them are personal favorites of mine.) I’m writing new thoughts this year more focused on shabbat Zachor and Purim, but I love so many of my previous musings for Tetzaveh, I wanted to point them out to you here right at the start. One of my all-time favorites is “Aharon’s Bells.” If you haven’t read it before, I recommend it to you. The “Urim and Tnummim Show” is another classic.Just two years ago I played with the origin of Judaism’s hereditary priesthood in “A Nation of Priests (And a Shtickel of Purim”) You can find links to these at more at the end of this post.

What follows is not a particularly coherent essay. As it often does, my mind wanders from place to place, and you may have trouble following it. Still, that’s why these are random musings. Someday, perhaps, I’ll take the time to edit and redact and follow are better homiletical form. (That’s one reason I sometimes revisit and change earlier musings.) If you ever have trouble following how I got where I went, don’t hesitate to ask! I might not be able to answer, but we’ll have a lively discussion nonetheless.

On Shabbat Zachor, we read, for the maftir, these words from Deuteronomy 25:17-19:

זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵֽאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָֽיִם: אֲשֶׁר קָֽרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל־הַנֶּֽחֱשָׁלִים אַֽחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱלֹהִֽים: וְהָיָה בְּֽהָנִיחַֽ יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ ׀ לְךָ מִכָּל־אֹיְבֶיךָ מִסָּבִיב בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְהוָֹה־אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַֽחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ תִּמְחֶה אֶת־זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם לֹא תִּשְׁכָּֽח:

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt - how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!

Amalek’s failing seems to be two-fold. A failure to fear G”d, and fighting dirty, in that he picked a fight with a weary and tired enemy, attacking the weakest of them. G”d, apparently, does not approve of such tactics. It would also seem that G”d is not a fan of the Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest. (Is it misogynist, gerontophobic, and misopedist to assume, as do many commentators, the most of the stragglers who were cut down mercilessly by Amalekite troops were mostly women, the elderly, and children? I suspect there were probably men, and not just infirm men, who happened to be near the back of the line who got caught up in Amalek’s heinous acts. Nevertheless, G”d, as expressed in Torah, does certainly have particular interest in our seeing that women and children are protected, so perhaps that explains why what Amalek did was so bad as to warrant a call for utter elimination. )  Hmmm.

We connect Amalek and Shabbat Zachor with Purim. Haman is identified as an Amalekite (which of course begs the question of why we hadn’t managed to wipe them all out by then.) King Saul is chastised and loses his Kingship for failing to strictly follow G”d’s order to destroy the Amalekite people and their livestock. Saul’s troops kill the Amalekites, but he spares the Amalekite king, Agag, and he allow his troops to keep some of the best livestock. Then Saul has the gall to claim that he has faithfully done what G”d asked him to do. Trapped, perhaps, in his greed and dishonesty, Saul claims that the spared animals were meant to be offered as a special sacrifice to G”d. Yeah, there’s a bridge in Brooklyn being sold.

We also have this issue of balance – following the principles that G”d has given us in Torah – the Lex Talionis – eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life. It seems the retribution called for against the Amalekites goes far beyond balance. G”d commands Saul to kill all the Amalekite people – men and women, the young and old alike. Yet Amalek and his troops did not kill all of the Israelites. Is G”d’s retributive request fair?  Avraham argued with G”d asking if G”d would kill the blameless along with the sinners in Sodom and Gomorrah. G”d agrees to spare for the sake of only ten (but apparently there weren’t even ten to be found, thus kaboom.) Is this the case with the Amalekites? Was every Amalekite evil? Were there no “righteous Amalekites?”

Where is G”d’s mercy in all this? G”d has given a most distasteful command. How would we have felt if Saul strictly carried out G”ds commands? Would we accept the claim that Saul was just “following orders?” I hardly think that would fly. We should have a problem with genocide, as both victims and perpetrators.

Some argue that Amalek has become an archetype, a paradigm of absolute evil. This may, indeed, be true. I’m not sure, however, that the original Amalek is wholly deserving of this. He became a convenient scapegoat. It has been suggested that Amalek deserves this because he was the first to attack the Israelites after they gained their freedom. Seriously?

The archetypal Amalek is not a person, but a thing, a concept. Like a corporation, you can’t treat it like a person (oh wait…) Thus it is easy for us to name Rome or the Nazis as Amalek. It is easy for us to simply hate and loathe them, to con sider them beneath contempt, to consider their lives valueless. Yet I harken back to what I wrote a few paragraphs earlier. Were there no righteous Romans or Nazis? How selective were the Maccabees or the Zealots? How, exactly, did Persia’s Jews in the Purim story know exactly which Persians to kill?

Which brings us to Purim. Given the catch-22 that the King could not rescind an order once given (and that’s a whole discussion by itself on the order of can G”d create a stone to heavy for G”d to lift) the only apparent solution left to the Jews of Persia was a a proactive defense against those who were going to kill them. We love to gloss over this part of the megillah, don’t we? At least, we’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with it over time. Yet, while people singing the more troubling stanzas of “Once there was a wicked, wicked man…” lauding the hanging of Haman is less common, it still goes on. Not everyone find the Purim story so politically incorrect.

Haman, might I point out, was not executed by King Achashverosh only for plotting to kill the Jews, but also for trying to seduce his wife! In Chapter 8, the King does say that Haman was impaled for plotting against the Jews, but the end of Chapter 7 leaves us with the impression that the swift and quick execution of Haman was brought about by the King’s wrath. (It is interesting to note that while Haman’s wife Zeresh is credited with planting the seed in Haman’s mind of what to do about the Jews, it is one of the King’s eunuchs, Harvonah, who suggests to the King the ready and handy availability of the stake at Haman’s house-upon which Haman planned to impaled Mordecai, who was, as Harvonah pointed out, a man whose words saved the King-as a suitable place to take care of Haman instead. It wasn;t Esther, and it wasn’t Mordecai. Convenient, eh?)

In an attempt to deal with the ugliness of the Purim story, some current commentators like to swing the pendulum a bit too far the other way. Yes, the fury that Persia’s Jews unleashed on those who attacked them was fierce and furious, but it was not, as some have come to call it, a preemptive strike. The King’s directive as created by Mordecai simply permitted the Jews to fight back and attack any who attacked them. Yes, there must have been a lot of Jew haters in Persia. In Shushan alone the Jews killed 800. Throughout the empire they killed 75,000. That’s a significant number, even in an empire with so many provinces stretching from India to Cush.

It’s interesting to note that, though the King’s degree allowing the Jews to assemble and fight their enemies permits them to take spoils, they do not. How prescient to know that one day Jews would become hated for their supposed stereotypical greed, and provide this counter-example. Yeah, we’ll kill 75,800 people (including women and children, a concept that commentators whitewash a normal for the time period) but we won’t take their stuff. How magnanimous of us. We so enjoyed “defending ourselves” that Esther asked the King for permission for the Jews of Shushan to have a second day of killing, er, I mean, self-defense.

Saul, it seems, had a conscience – of sorts. The rabbis of the Talmud comment that Saul reasoned that saving some of the animals would be necessary because they were needed to atone for the deaths of the Amalekites. (It’s interesting that the rabbis say Saul based his reasoning on Deut 21:1-9. In summary, those verses state that when a slain body is found in the open and the killer’s identity is unknown, the town nearest the site is responsible for slaying a heifer to absolve them of bloodguilt.) There are some interesting assumptions here – one, that in battle, killers are unidentified or unknown. I’m also not sure how Saul reckons the proximity issue, though the battle was apparently fought closer to where the Israelites were than the Amalekites!

Then, the rabbis make it really interesting by drawing from Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) 7:16 for G”d’s response to Saul:

So do not overdo goodness and do not act the wise man to excess, or you may be dumbfounded.

In other words, don’t be overly righteous. Wow. This usage by the rabbis in Talmud (Bavli Yoma 22b) and in Ecclesiastes Rabbah  may be the single most troubling and challenging words I have ever encountered in our tradition. I know Judaism is about balance in all things, and we do need our yetzer ra to balance our yetzer tov. But how can one be too righteous? I think the rabbis conveniently ignored all the other verses in Qohelet surrounding this one. Or not. Maybe they wholly subscribed to the ineffable G”d theory. We don’t know why G”d wants us to do these horrible things, but so what? It’s what G”d wants. This, from the religion fathered by questioners like Avraham?

Yet ours is a mixed tradition. G”d and the early Israelites certainly appear to be misotramontanists. Anything that was “other” in terms of praxis, ritual, and belief seems to be anathema. Amalek, or the concept that Amalek has become, is now equated with the “other.” The “goyim.” We continue to embrace our ancestors’ fear and hatred of those who are not us. This provides us with all sorts of rationales. It is up to us to constantly examine these rationales, and question them. I have Christian friends who tell me they believe there is surely one carpenter/rabbi who would have found Amalek worthy of redemption. I’m not sure I agree, but it’s an interesting thought. Is there a way for Judaism to find redemption for Amalek without following the path that the religion of Paul follows (for it is really Paul’s religion, and not that of the carpenter/rabbi.)

So I’ll make some attempt to wrap this all together. It seems that fighting dirty is not endorsed by G”d, except when G”d wants us to fight dirty. I guess G”d can make a rock too big for G”d to lift after all

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Tetzaveh 5772-Perfection Imperfect
Tetzaveh 5770 - A Nation of Priests? (And a Shtickel of Purim)
Tetzaveh 5768-Light and Perfection
Tetzaveh/Purim 5767-The Urim & Thummim Show (Updated)
Tetzaveh 5766-Silent Yet Present
Tetzaveh 5765 and 5761-Aharon's Bells
Tetzaveh 5764-Shut Up and Listen!
Tetzaveh 5763-House Guest
Tetzaveh 5762 (Redux 5760)-The Urim and Thummim Show
Tetzaveh 5758-Something Doesn't Smell Quite Right

Friday, February 15, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–T’rumah 5773 - Virtual Reality, Real Virtuality, or Really Virtual?

I first wrote a musing on this theme back in 5757 (1997) that I called "Following Instructions." I  revisited those thoughts in 5762 (2002) and added some new insights I have gleaned to them. I thought it was time to take another look.

In parashat T'rumah, G”d gives us a very specific set of building instructions to create the tabernacle. The question arises,  "how do we make these instructions appropriate and meaningful in today's world?"

I submit is may not be as difficult as it sounds. Let's work our way through the text and see how we can create with what we have today our own virtual tabernacle.

First, we must have a giving heart, for G”d asks those whose hearts impel them to give to the offering (25:2.) We must be willing to give of our precious possessions. In ancient times, it was precious metals, fine fabrics, animals, foods. For us perhaps it is our money and our time. The things that we value and treasure above all are those we must be willing to contribute to creating our Mishkan (tabernacle.) As a musical friend of mine wrote in song, the most precious possession we can give is our time. What is our mishkan if we do not give it our most precious possession?

Next, we must desire to build a place where G”d can dwell among us. (25:9.) This might mean a physical structure, as the tabernacle was, or it might be something more ethereal. In these times, perhaps working toward building a just and compassionate society, and striving to be Jews who seriously try to make sense of all that G”d has asked us to do will provide G”d with a far better home than merely building fancy synagogues and monuments. We need to build welcoming, caring, supportive communities – communities which exist not just in all sorts of physical places, but also in places that might be virtual, connected by electrons, by shared values, desires, and beliefs.Our technology no longer limits us to one place at a time when we assemble. To those who say ”there’s no substitute for being together face to face in the same physical space” I say try opening your mind and heart to new ways of being in community. I think G”d wants, expects no less of us. After all, we are asked to believe that G”d is this ineffable, non-corporeal Deity – why is a virtual community any less worthy of consideration than an unseen, unknowable G”d? Those taking those first brave forays in virtual Jewish communities are the Abrahams of our time. Do we go forth, for ourselves, or do we remain behind?

Our ancestors were told to build an aron (the Holy ark of the Covenant.) (25:10-16) How are we to do this in contemporary times? We build the "sides" of our aron up through our observance and ritual. We cover it inside and outside with "gold" - our love and our sacrifices. We build "four rings" with our faith - giving us something to hold on to. Through the rings of faith go the "poles" of Jewish knowledge and learning. It is upon these that we can support our contemporary aron.

(25:13.) We know what goes inside-our Torah and all-and I mean ALL our teachings.As well as all of our learnings. After all, all of it is Torah.  Once we have placed our teachings and learnings inside we can cover it again with our love of Torah, study, and learning. We are instructed to make the "cherubs" from the same gold as the cover; when we study and learn, or we teach, we become the cherubs, and as our children learn, they too in time will become these cherubic adornments on our contemporary virtual aron. (25:17-21)

Of what are we to build a "table"? (25:22-30) Of our lives-our actions, the things we do day by day. And of what are the "legs" of the table made? Why, mitzvot, of course. Now, we don't want a table with shaky legs, do we? So if the mitzvot are to be the legs that hold up our table, we must be sure that we understand and honor them. Even if our practice is more in the breach of them than the observance, if we at least know them, they can make a reasonably solid leg. We may discover that we need to fashion legs out of new understandings of mitzvot that seem incongruous with our world as it exists today. We must be thoughtful in this process, and think carefully when we simply take an old, worn out leg, and repair it, and when we throw out the old leg and fashion a new one.

(25:31-40) We already know how to make the menorah, the "lamp" - by becoming or l'goyim, a light to the nations. Moses was puzzled by the menorah instructions, the rabbis tell us, so that G”d had to show an example of it. Well, we have our instructions too, in the very writings that tell us this story. We become or l’goyim though the way we live our lives, the way we act based upon our understanding of Torah and tradition, as well as our contemporary understandings of our universe..

(26:1-14) Of what are we to build our tabernacle, our "tent"? The Torah speaks of woven-together tapestries. So we use the stories of our people, the tales, the songs, the histories, the biographies, the dramas and we weave them together into a strong and fine fabric. Lest anyone ever think there is one story or one song too many to weave into our tapestry, the Torah reminds us that there should be an extra portion of our fabric left over and trailing behind the back of our tent. There will always be room for more. Let us all strive to add our stories to the great tapestries that we weave together to make our virtual mishkan.(26:12.)

And what about a "roof" for our virtual tabernacle? What are to be our modern-day ram skins, dolphin skins and hides? Perhaps our vaunted strength, our perseverance, our endurance. We have survived thousands of years of persecution, intolerance, and hatred, and from these perhaps we have the strength and "skins" to protect our tabernacle. Note that we are instructed to make two roof coverings. (26:14) There is great wisdom in this and we would do well to be sure that our modern virtual tabernacle is well protected from the elements. And perhaps we can remind ourselves that we have two layers for the roof, just as we may have an outer skin ourselves that protects us from the harsh realities of everyday life, and protects that inner skin, our vulnerable inner selves.

(26:15-30) Now we need the supporting structure for our virtual tabernacle. The "beams." What can we make those of? Well, we can, each of us, be a supporting pillar, a beam in the structure that supports our tabernacle. Each and every Jew. And an important lesson: we are told to make crossbeams to help hold the beams together. (26:26) A reminder that we must reach and across the gaps between us so that we may strengthen ourselves as a people. How true this is in our time, when there is so much divisiveness in the Jewish community.

(26:31-35) A special "cloth" is now needed to create a separate holy space in which to store our sacred treasure. We can do this in many ways. By observing Shabbat, we create a separate sacred and holy space set apart from the rest of the week. And in taking the time to recite b'rachot (blessings), t'fillah (prayer) and participating in home, synagogue-centered and other newer forms of worship (including virtual ones,) we create little holy pockets of time. These pockets provide a divider between the sacred and profane moments in our lives.

(27:1-8) What shall we use for our "altar"? Do we need a place upon which we can burn sacrifices? In what ways do we make our offerings to G”d in these times? Not with burnt animals. Rashi teaches us that "t'rumah" means not so much gifts as it does "set apart." Perhaps our gift to G”d can be ourselves, when we take the time to observe G”d's commandments, to strive to be good Jews, good citizens, good stewards of our planet. So our altar shall be our hearts and minds, the places from from which our gifts spring.

(27: 9-19) Finally, G”d instructs that the tabernacle be surrounded with an outer "enclosure." The enclosure has stakes to hold it in place. (27:19) "Stakes" must be firmly planted in hard ground. So our enclosure is the reality in which we live. While much of what we must do as Jews serves to separate us from the rest of the world, here is a reminder that we must be tied to the stakes of the ground on which we walk. We must take our place in society, and work from within it to bring about tikkun olam (repair of the world.) For if we pull up our stakes we will merely blow away in the wind. And our Torah is not about how to live life as a wind, as a spirit. It is about how to live life as a human being. And to do that, we must live on this earth with all of G”d's creations, all of G”d’s people. And respect them all.

In virtual reality, we create realistic looking but non-existent things. However, our mishkan need not be non-existent. Thus with heart, body, mind, thought, action, sacrifice and more we construct our Mishkan. It'll be quite something to “see.” Perhaps it is something that we experience more than we see. Sort of like the Sinai experience. And it will be something quite real, though lacking in physical mass. It's "real virtuality." Through the realities of our deeds and thoughts, we create our virtual Mishkan. I hope G”d will be pleased with our work.

As for the “Really Virtual” added to the title of this musing for this year-anyone who doubts that virtual realms and reality do not intersect need only to look at online communities like Second Life, or, PunkTorah’s OneShul . Both are vibrant, thriving, living Jewish communities existing in the electronic aether. They will be joined in time, I am sure, by many others. In this way will our contemporary mishkan exist in both real and virtual space and time.

In years past, I offered a short and simple thought for this parasha which nicely sums up what I have said yet again this year, and I reiterate the sentiment:

Let us each construct in our lives, homes, communities and universe a sanctuary so that G”d may dwell among us. Not a physical sanctuary, but one of thoughts and deeds. Surely G”d will dwell with us when we create such a sanctuary.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 (portions ©1997, 2002) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

T'rumah 5772-When Wool and Linen Together Are Not Shatnez
T'rumah 5771 - TorahLeaks
T'rumah 5770 - Finessing Idolatry, or Outgrowing It?
T'rumah 5769 - Planning for Always
T'rumah 5767-You Gotta Wanna - The Sequel
T'rumah 5766-No Tools Allowed
T'rumah 5765-Ish Al Akhiv
T'rumah 5764-Redux 5760-Doing It Gd's Way
T'rumah 5763-Semper Paratus
T'rumah 5762-Virtual Reality or Real Virtuality?
T'rumah 5760-Doing It Gd's Way
T'rumah 5761-You Gotta Wanna


Friday, February 8, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Mishpatim 5773 No One Mourns the Wicked

Well, here I am once again, back at Oz. (See last week’s musing and others in my archive to see how it’s a theme that always seems to assert itself.)

What brought me, once again, to the land of Oz and to the title taken from the musical “Wicked?” Well, to be specific,

מְכַשֵּׁפָ֖ה לֹ֥א תְחַיֶּֽה׃

Exodus 22:17.”A sorceress you shall not allow to live.”

The root of the word is Kaf-Shin-Feh which means to work magic, to bewitch. It has an etymology that goes back to Akkadian and Ugaritic, so there’s little dispute as to its meaning.

Where do I even start with this one? First of all, note that it does not say “sorcerer.” Commentators argue that it would apply equally to sorcerers, and offer the apologetic that the feminine form is used here in the Torah because “women are more occupied with magic than men” (Ibn Ezra)

Rashi, commenting on why the word used is sorceress and not sorcerer, simply states it is because there are more sorceresses than sorcerers.

Ah, misogyny. Where would our tradition be without it?

It also doesn’t say “you must kill a sorceress. Instead, it is given as a prohibitive commandment – a sorceress shall not be permitted to live.

For Nachmanides allowing a sorceress to live is a sin and a failure to follow that commandment. For him, failing to observe a prohibition is a more serious breach than failing to do a positive commandment.

Joseph ben Isaac Bekhor Shor, a 12th century commentator from Orleans, France, suggests that this verse tells us that upon discovery of a sorceress she should be put to death at once, without any sort of due process, as she might “bewitch the court.”

Rashi tells us that sorceresses do their magic in hidden places, and that we must actively seek them out and not allow them to live through our laziness.

So what’s the big deal with sorcery and magic? (I can already point to the Urim and Thummim and Moshe’s staff as evidence of the use of sympathetic magic in Judaism.) In the JPS Commentary to Exodus, Nahum Sarna casually tosses this idea away with this statement:

Yet the frequency with which magical practices are mentioned in the Bible is sure testimony to their hold on the popular imagination and to the difficulty encountered in combating them

Sarna, N. M. (1991). Exodus. The JPS Torah Commentary (136). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

In the JPS Commentary, Sarna makes the argument that magic and sorcery are inherent to polytheism and anathema to monotheism. They are inherent in polytheism because in that sort of system the multiplicity of gods perforce limits their individual powers, and gods ands human share the same world.  These gods were simple manifestations of nature, and like all things in nature they lived and died. In such a setting, he concludes, it is inevitable that humans should seek to find a supernatural world in which even the gods themselves can be controlled. Thus was magic born.

Monotheism’s idea of a single, universal creator G”d is simply incompatible with magic’s aims and purposes, suggests Sarna.

Yet, if there is one omnipotent creator G”d, why should that G”d fear magic and sorcery, so it would have zero efficacy in the universe (unless G”d permitted it to work?)

There are several other references to magic in the Torah, all of them citing it as prohibited. The Torah forbids Israelites from practicing sorcery and magic. One of the primary reasons cited (especially in the extended prohibitions in Deuteronomy 18) is that magic is common practice among the abhorrent practices of the peoples which the Israelites will dispossess when they take control of they land G”d has promised them. Like so many other examples in Torah, it’s don’t do it just because they did!

Sorry G”d, that’s not good enough for me. What’s Your problem with magic and sorcery? Could Sarna be wrong? Well, in some theologies, yes. I would generally agree that in a monotheistic theology with an unlimited and all-powerful G”d, the existence of other realms from which the power to do magical things could be used and controlled is illogical. However, our understanding of G”d these days is not as wholly dependent on an entirely omniscient, omni-present G”d. Many theologians and philosophers, Jews among them, have speculated on ideas of a limited G”d, or even a self-limiting G”d. It helps them explain free will. It helps us understand the Shoah.

For you physics types, what if G”d exists only in this reality, this universe, and other gods, or no god, exists in alternate realities and universes? What if G”d is only a three-dimensional construct living in a fifteen-dimensional universe (string theory only works for the most part when there are a larger number of dimensions than three. Some forms of string theory require 15 or so dimensions!)

Is it that G”d fears magic and sorcery because it has the potential to distract, harm, or otherwise affect G”d? Is there a realm, a dimension, from which we, G”d’s creations, can channel powers that could challenge and threaten G”d? Does G”d know that this is an essential and necessary component of creation?

I was tempted to make a reference here to Kabbalah,and other form of Jewish mysticism. We are told that one should not even begin to explore such arcane mysteries until one is older and experienced in life and, one presumes, knowledgeable in all things Torah (with both a capital and lower case t.) However, definitions matter.

Merriam-Webster defines magic as

the use of means (as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces

Aleister Crowley, a British occultist  once famously defined magic (or as he preferred to call it, magick) as

the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will

In other words, it is people having the power to effect change in the universe according to their own desires.

Mysticism, on the other hand, seeks to enable us to change our own thoughts and perceptions to bring them to a place in which we can perceive G”d, or, for the atheist, true reality.

Given these definitions, it’s not fair to lump Kabbalah in with magic. (I’m still not sure about the Urim and Thummim!)

So mystical paths to the Divine or okay, but magical paths are not. Or so it would seem. But I digress. Back to magic and sorcery.

The popularity of the Oz stories, the popularity in our own time of Harry Potter and similar book series, tell us that the idea of magic still holds a pretty powerful sway among humanity. Does it hold that sway because many of us believe there might actually be magic? Or is it something else that drives us?

I might be bold enough to suggest that our unhappiness and displeasure with the way our omnipotent universal G”d deals with our universe is what keeps up hoping that magic might be real. This is because we hope there are good people who can use this magic to right the things that we believe are G”d’s wrongs. Many of our greatest stories use magic in this way. The Arthurian Legends. Star Wars. Harry Potter.

I picked those three purposefully, because all three of them also serve to remind us that magic can be used just as easily for evil as for good. Is this why G”d commands us to kill sorceresses, and to shun magic? G”d knows that we have within us both potential good and potential evil, and if we seek after magic, we might eventually make it work, and potentially cause far more harm than good. This supposes that G”d alone knows what is best for us.

G”d handily wields the same power that we would think of as magic. G”d, too, has used these magical powers for purposes we might not consider the best. (Yes, I am hesitating to say that G”d actually did evil with G”d’s powers, though I will admit to considering it a possibility.)

Here’s the problem with no one mourning for the wicked. No one, and I mean no one – not even Voldemort or Hitler or Darth Vader is 100% evil. If we accept the Jewish understanding of the universe, it’s not possible, for all come equipped with a yetzer hatov and a yezter hara – a good inclination and an evil inclination. Somewhere inside even the vilest of human beings is a yetzer hatov arguing, however quietly and in vain.

G”d is wrong (there, I’ve said it) to ask for the killing of any and all sorceresses.  This is not the act of a G”d who is kind, compassionate, loving. Or even a G”d who is testy and irritable and inconsistent.

Or maybe we’ve got it wrong. Precisely because it does not tell us to kill a sorceress. The Torah tells us that a sorceress shall not be allowed to live. There is another way of understanding this besides meaning to kill her.

In an earlier musing on this parasha, from 10 years ago, I wrote about the lex talionis (eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life, etc.) and pointed out that the Hebrew text does not say  you shall TAKE life for life, etc. It says you shall GIVE life for life, etc. I suggested this could be used to give a whole different understanding of how justice is achieved.

I now make a similar suggestion when it comes to Exodus 22:17. Not allowing a sorceress to live could be achieved by any number of positive methodologies which do not involve killing her!

We must be like Luke Skywalker, like Harry Potter, like King Arthur, believing there is always some good inside everyone, and that, with some effort, that good can be found. It may not always be possible to restore that good to dominance, and sometimes death may be the only way to rid the universe of someone so controlled by their yetzer hara that it is truly in the best interests of the universe that they no longer be in it. That’s certainly a choice I never want to face. I will try, with all my heart, my soul, my being, to change the heart of the sorceress so that the sorceress she was ceases to be, but the human being that she is continues to live. Failing that,  I will mourn the wicked as much as I mourn the good.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Mishpatim 5772-Repairing Our Damaged Temple
Mishpatim 5771 - Getting Past the Apologetics
Mishpatim 5770 - Divine Picnic
Mishpatim 5769 - Redux 5757/5761 Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5768 - Justice for All
Mishpatim 5767-To See, To Behold, To Eat, To Drink
Mishpatim 5766 - Mishpatim with a Capital IM
Mishpatim 5765-Eid Khamas (revised)
Mishpatim 5764-Situational Ethics
Mishpatim 5763-My Object All Sublime
Mishpatim 5762-Enron Beware!
Mishpatim 5761-Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5760-Chukim U'mishpatim
Mishpatim 5759-Eid Khamas-Witness to Violence

Friday, February 1, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Yitro 5773–From Cheap Theatrics to Impossible Possibilities (Revised and Updated from 5761)

A classic exposure of cheap theatrics:

“Pay no attention to the man behind the screen.”

Our world is full of wannabe “Totos,” all eager to pull back the curtain, strip away the mask of mystery, and reveal the wizard as a hoax, a simple sideshow magician with fanciful gadgets to work apparent magic. Lots of flash and boom.

“Humbug!” they cry. “There are no mysteries-all can be explained.” Stripping away the mask has become a favorite pastime, even an obsession for some. But just because some magic and mystery are humbugs, does that mean all are equally fake? Imagine those gullible Egyptians falling for all those plagues. More coincidence. All have plausible scientific explanations, in one form or another. And those that seem more difficult to explain – the real story has just been twisted a bit. A little “corroborative detail to support an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.” (Any Savoyards out there?)

Yes, lots of things are humbug. And deceptions and lies have become stock in trade. So it’s good that some humans have dedicated themselves to seeking out the truth. But sometimes the truth-seekers become so obsessed with the idea that what they are trying to disprove just couldn’t be true no matter what. Or vice versa-that what they were certain was true proves not to be. The Kennedy assassination. Area 51. The Nixon tapes. The moon landing. Natalie Wood. Pearl Harbor. Whitewater. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Shoah.

I throw in that last one to make a point. Is there one reader of this musing that truly doubts the reality of the Shoah? Yet all about us are deniers, rewriters of history.

When people see the tell-tale signs of grand theatrics, they automatically assume-”Aha! Fake.”

Thunder. Lightning. Clouds and fog. The standard tricks of the trade. Plenty of those in parashat Yitro, and its accompanying Haftarah from Isaiah. So why is it that G”d has to resort to them. Why wouldn’t G”d use something that couldn’t be duplicated by spending some money at a good theatrical supply company?

The sages answer by telling us that this was no ordinary thunder and lightning. The people could literally see the thunder and hear the lighting. Even today we speak of being able to taste the fog.

But what if it were, in a sense, simply cheap theatrics by G”d. To get our attention. After all, G”d had parted the sea (well, if you read last week’s musing, you know it was probably just a swamp) for us and still many of us doubted and still doubt. Too awesome to have really happened, they say. Knowing this, G”d figures, “OK, I’ll give them something more within their comprehension. Yeah, I got it. Thunder, Lighting, Smoke. A Shuddering Mountain. What the hey, it might convince them even when the real miracles haven’t!” It’s possible.

Maybe the Wizard of Oz really was a wizard. What better way to disguise the truth than to leave a few obvious theatrical tricks for the people to discover. In the L. Frank Baum books, though he started out as a fraud and merely stepped in to fill a power vacuum in the Land of Oz, the Wizard eventually learned to do real magic (hmm, is that an oxymoron?) from Glinda. It was just a few weeks ago, for parashat Sh’mot, that I also referenced the Wizard of Oz, through his character in the book and musical version of “Wicked.” For some reason, I keep coming back to Oz in connection with Torah. (Do you know, by the way, what OZ stands for? The wizard’s real name is Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs, whose initials spell out OZPINHEAD. Deciding using Pinhead didn’t quite work, he dropped it and simply became OZ. Mere chance simply took OZ to the Land of Oz, where it seemed only natural he become a leader. Or was it mere chance?)

G”d knows there will always be doubters among us. G”d knows that doubters are useful, and play an important role in society. G”d also knows that doubters are part of the price for giving us free will. Convince the doubters, and what’s left to do? Without the doubters the whole system might fall apart! (That’s the sort of logic the Wizard of Oz might employ.)

But I think there are at least three levels to all this. There are the doubters. It’s all smoke and mirrors they say. There is no G”d. Then there are the believers. Those who are convinced by the cheap theatrics and don’t question. And the third group? Let’s call them Yisrael. Those who can rise above the simple level of all or nothing doubt or belief. Some things are explainable. Some situations aren’t explainable. And even if they are, G”d can and still exists. Evolution and G”d can coexist. So can cheap theatrics and true miracles. The reality of G”d is not dependent on whether we can prove it or disprove it. (I’ve written before, however, about “If you are My witnesses, then I am G”d...” but this isn’t inconsistent with my viewpoint. G”d can and will be Our G”d, that we know by the ineffable name that is the tetragammaton if, and only if we are witnesses to G”d. But again, that ineffable name-isn’t that for our benefit? For what need does G”d have with a name except in communication with G”d’s creations? Even with us out of the equation, G”d can exist.

The impossible can be possible. (And sometimes, the possible can be impossible.) Fond as I am of references to Broadway musicals, I can’t help quoting from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella:”

Impossible, for a plain yellow pumpkin to become a golden carriage.
Impossible, for a plain country bumpkin and a prince to join in marriage.
And four white mice will never be four white horses.
Such folderol and fiddle-dee-dee of course is…Impossible.

But the world is full of zanies and fools,
who don’t believe in sensible rules,
and who won’t believe what sensible people say.
And because these daft and dewy-eyed dopes keep building up impossible hopes,
Impossible things are happening every day.

I know I’m one of those zanies. Despite my strong scientific and logistic tendencies, I am a person of faith, a person who believes impossible things are possible. Or at least I am open to the possibilities.

We each have our place. The doubter. The believer. The zanies and fools who don’t believe in sensible rules. And Yisrael-we who struggle with G”d. Whichever you are, spend some time this Shabbat trying to understand the other points of view. It might not change your mind, but it will open it to possibilities. And that, after all, is what G”d really wants us to do. Be open to possibilities. Even impossible possibilities.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Yitro5772 - Why I Won't Be Unplugging on the National Day/Shabbat of Unplugging
Yitro 5771/ Redux Beshalakh 5762 - Manna Mania
Yitro 5770 - Special Effects
Yitro 5769 - Evolution Shabbat
Yitro 5768-B'Kol HaMakom-In Every Place
Yitro 5767-Kinat Ad"nai
Yitro 5766-Top Ten?
Yitro 5765-Outsiders (Updated from 5759)
Yitro 5764-Outsiders II
Yitro 5763-El Kana
Yitro 5762-Manna Mania
Yitro 5761-From Cheap Theatrics to Impossible Possibilities
Yitro 5760-The Rest of the Ten Commandments
Yitro 5759-Outsiders