Friday, June 28, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Pinkhas 5773—G”d’s Justice, G”d’s Responsibility

I oppose the death penalty. With all my heart and soul. With every ounce of passion. With all my intellectual and philosophical skills. So, dear Pinkhas, why’d you have to go and screw things up?

Your zealous action saved the lives of many people (as to which people, we may never know. As a bit of a sidebar here, I must point out that Pinkhas’ zealous act left us without an answer to a potential dispute between G”d and Moses. And it left us with a very important unanswered question. Who is responsible  and must give up their lives for the sins of Israel? is it Israel’s leaders, or, as Moses appears to suggest, is it each individual who sinned whose life is forfeit? Go back and look at the end of the last parasha. Chapter 25 vv1-5. Even more troubling about the idea of G”d asking for it to be Israel’s leaders, individually guilty or not, to forfeit their lives for the Israelites’ sexual depravity, is how that sets us up for, you know who, that carpenter guy from Nazareth. It’s not that big a leap from asking leaders to sacrifice for the sins of their people to the sacrifice that is at the heart of the Christian narrative. But I digress.)

Pinkhas kills one Israelite and one Moabite. This is enough, it seems, to assuage G”d’s anger and G”d decides to not kill any more Israelites for their whoring with the women of Moab.This time, at least. What is this? The “Hunger Games?”

I’ve not yet read any of the “Hunger Games” books and only last week watched the movie (though I was familiar with the basic premise.) I was motivated to actually watch the movie because just a few weeks ago I was privileged to hear a 13-year-old weave the story of the Hunger Games into her d’var Torah for Korakh. As a salute to her genius, I invoke the same connection herein. Thanks, Abigail.

As tribute for G”d’s mercy at not destroying the sinful Israelites and forgiving their sinfulness for whoring with the Midianites, G”d accepts the death of Zimri and Cozbi. (Interesting to note that for their sins, Nadav and Avihu were held personally and directly accountable. Was G”d having second thoughts here? Kill off too many priests and there won’t be any left. (Is that part of G”d’s motivation for rewarding Pinkhas by declaring his lineage will forever be muckety-muck priests? Is that a safety net just in case G”d decides to off more priests for the sins of the Israelites that are bound to keep happening?)

So back to the death penalty. Pinkhas’ reward for his actions would seem to indicate that humankind has a role to play in meting out justice through death to forestall G”d having to do the same to possibly more people. Yuck. How abhorrent.

Fortunately for Pinkhas, his administering of capital punishment fit much of the later established criteria. The deed of Zimri and Cozbi was clearly witnessed. While it’s not explicitly clear that Zimri and Cozbi were warned of the consequences of their actions, it is not unreasonable to assume, given what has taken place in the narrative, that they were keenly aware that Israelites and Midianites getting it on was verboten and had unleashed G”d’s wrath upon the people.

Hail Pinkhas, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs of the Torah. (well, that was perhaps S’dom and Gomorrah?) We’ve all heard the justifications. Dropping the bombs on Japan saved countless American lives that might have died if we had proceeded to invade Japan. That’s a lot of acceptable collateral damage.

Can we truly apply this argument to the state killing a murderer? Yes, the underlying principal is the lex talionis (eye for eye, life for life) but advocates of the death penalty frequently argue that this may be saving lives of future potential victims. (Our government is certainly using that argument in the way it goes after terrorists.)

Moses, it seems, was not opposed to capital punishment, but he did seem a little hesitant to apply the punishment to the leaders of the people rather than to each individual who had sinned.

Surely you do see what madness lies in the path of allowing leaders to be sacrificed for the sins of their people? Think Meir Kahane’s crazy zealots. (I’m sorry, I just will NOT refer him as rabbi.) Think Yigal Amir.

On the other hand (and, being the gadfly I am, you knew that was coming) making leaders responsible for the behavior of their people could have its beneficial side as well. You want absolute power? Then accept absolute responsibility, too.

There is human justice, and there is G”d’s justice. I, for one, would like to keep them wholly separate. Pinkhas, unfortunately, provides a linkage between them. As a result, far too many humans have assumed they were qualified to be zealots, and slay sinners.

As if Pinkhas hadn’t messed things up enough, G”d has to weigh in. (G”d never seems to learn when to refrain from putting in an oar.) G”d tells Moses to tell the people: go and kill the Midianites, for they have tricked you. Wait just a darn minute here. If G”d knew the Israelites had been tricked by the Midianites, why was G”d so angry with the Israelites in the first place? So which is it. G”d? Did the Israelites willingly go a-whoring with the Midianites, or were they tricked into disobeying Your rules by them? Does this not matter in Your system of justice? Where’s Your mercy? Your sympathy?  Was all this an elaborate game to come us with a justification to have the Israelites go after the Midianites? We’ll never know. Pinkhas messed it all up for us. but sure gave You an easy out.

In the Hunger Games, the heroine and her partners had to do a few not so nice things, but, in the end, they were rewarded, albeit reluctantly by the powers that be, for showing the best attributes of human beings, and for daring to challenge a system that took sacrificial death to such a level of depravity. I cannot picture Katniss Everdeen zealously slaying a Zimri and Cozbi under any circumstances.

The Hunger games portrays a society, and in particular, a depraved spectacle, in which the rules are arbitrary and subject to random changes. Reviewers of the book likened this to the culture in which adolescents in junior high and high school must function. I’d like to suggest that it may also be similar to the environment of the Torah, and G”d’s capriciousness. I’ll kill Nadav and Avihu, but let Pinkhas do the dirty work in this other situation. I’ll get angry at the Israelites for whoring with the Midianites, but later tell the Israelites to go and kill the Midianites because they were tricked by them. Is this all that different from how the rules were changed in “Hunger Games?”

Death penalty. That is where I started, right? So how do I get back there? Through another detour. It’s end of the fiscal year pledge time on NPR stations. They always try to play really interesting stuff during these drives. While driving last weekend, I heard a classic NPR story from years ago narrated by a retired Texas prison Warden describing the effect that executing prisoners had upon him. I was in tears by the end.  Then just two days ago, an interview appeared in the wire services with the warden in Texas who has overseen that last 140 of Texas’ 500 executions! To him, it was just a job. No emotional attachment at all. Just watching “a guy go to sleep.” I contrasted this with the other warden’s concern that he was telling prisoners it would be painless when he knew it wasn’t. Which one of these wardens would be Pinkhas?

Do we know what motivated Pinkhas? Was it just zealousness? (Was he perhaps guilty of consorting with the Midianite women and trying to cover his guilt and atone for his deeds? Will we ever know?) Was he a willing executioner? It would appear so. Boy would I like to hear NPR’s interview with him.

Pinkhas did provide a convenient way for G”d to avoid having to wipe out yet more of his chosen people. Maybe G”d was finally understanding the negative implications of that, and not just because of the potential negative PR among the Egyptians and other nations. So perhaps G”d was looking for a way to avoid imposing the death penalty? There’s something onto which I can hang some hope. On the other hand, G”d used a human being as a substitute executioner. I don’t know about you, but I’m willing to stand up to G”d an say no more will we do Your dirty work for you. The rabbis struggled with it so much they practically reversed all Your opinions on the matter of the death penalty. I’m taking it a step further. Your creations will no longer be willing partners in a system of sanctioned murder by the state. You want justice to Your standards that include the murder of Your very own creations, You make it happen. Or You could be smart and take the high road on this one and admit that maybe the rabbis were right. (Wow, I am actually praising the rabbis on this one. Neis gadol.) C’mon G”d. The ball is in Your court.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Pinkhas 5772 - Not Such a Shining Moment
Pinkhas 5771 - Wake Up and Smell the Coffee
Pinkhas 5770 - Thanking Those Who Didn't Make It
Pinkhas 5769-Why is This Rebuke Different From All Other Rebukes?
Pinkhas 5768 - Still Zealous After all These Years
Pinhas 5766-Let's Give Moshe a Hand
Pinkhas 5765-Kol D'mamah Dakah
Pinchas 5762 -- I Still Get Zealous
Pinchas 5764/5760-It Just Is!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Random Musing before Shabbat-Balak 5773-You Really Wanna Go There?/Bad Habits II

So even though this year we don’t have a double-header parasha (combining Chukat and Balak) I am giving you a double-header musing. First, answering a question posed by the haftarah for Balak, and second, a revisit of some lessons learned (learning, to be learned) for parashat Balak. – Adrian

The haftarah for Balak is taken from the writings of the prophet Micah. At the end of the haftarah, we read the well-known and well-worn verse:

הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָה־יְהֹוָ֞ה דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ:

It has been told you, O mortal, what is good, and what G”d requires of you—only this: to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your G”d.

Lovely sentiment, that. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy, doesn’t it? Such a simple formula. Well, the heck with all that. I wanna go back a few verses:

עַמִּי מֶֽה־עָשִׂיתִי לְךָ וּמָה הֶלְאֵתִיךָ עֲנֵה בִֽי

My people! What [wrong] have I done to you> Have I exhausted your patience? Answer Me!

Really, G”d? Really? You want to go there. You are absolutely sure? You must be. You had Micah say it. OK, let’s go there. Be careful what You wish for.

Where do I start? With the setup that was Gan Eden and humankind’s exile from it? The cohabitation of humans with the nefilim? With that flood of Yours? That business with confounding our speech due to Your petty jealousy of our silly little tower at Bavel? The nuking of S’dom and Gomorrah? There’s plenty more early on, but can we jump forward to our being enslaved in Egypt? How about how thickly you laid those plagues on the poor Egyptians? Drowning so many of them in the sea (or swamp, as the case may be?) Forty years of wandering in the wilderness? Your punishment of Miriam while giving Aaron not even a lashing with a wet noodle? Seriously,Your treatment of Moshe--just because he hit the rock instead of asking it nicely? Don’t even get me started on poor Nadav and Avihu. Or even Korach and his gang. A little grousing from the crowd and you wipe them out? (Then again, You did that a number of times, didn’t You?) Jumping ahead: David, you let David, the horny shepherd boy who sent Uriah to his death just for sex-he will be the ancestor of Moshiach? Shlomo, the philanderer, gets to build Your temple? Jerusalem is destroyed and Your people are sent into exile, not once, but twice? You gave the House of Hashmon victory over the Syrian-Greeks? Those despots? Then we get 1500 plus years of persecution, torture, and worse?

You sent us prophets, but they don’t all share a consistent message with us. It’s all so confusing.

Then there’s this Torah You gave us. It is not to difficult for you to understand, You tell us, right in the text of Torah itself. Right. That’s why we have Misha, Gemara, Talmud, and commentaries upon commentaries upon commentaries. Thousands of years and we’re still arguing and quibbling over what You meant by things as simple as “don’t boil a kid in it’s mother’s milk.” What the heck does that mean, anyway?

Pogroms. Massacres. The Inquisition. Being kicked out of Spain and Portugal. Jump ahead to the shoah. ‘Nuff said.

You give us a modern state of Israel, and surround it with people bent on its destruction. You do like irony, don’t you?

So I think, obviously, You know my answer to the question You asked (or had Micah ask for You.) It is an unequivocal YES. You done us wrong., You exhausted our patience.

Yes, we are still here. Yes, it’s pretty easy to blame us for all that has happened. Yet You made us. You gave us free will. Did you not foresee what might result from that? And You call Yourself omniscient? Ha, I say. Ha!

No doubt You have done wonders for us. You continue to do wonders for us. I encounter them every day. As as people, as Your people, we’re not so bad off, at the moment. Though we do seem to be doing a lot of internal bickering, and we just can’t seem to agree on just what exactly You really want and expect us to do.

We do as You ask, at least some of the time. We DO remember what Balak planned for us, and how you use Balaam to answer him. We DO remember our coming out of Egypt. We DO remember Your Torah. We DO seek to follow Your ways (our problem is not just following, but also our desperate need for rationales to do so. We also struggle with whether You really meant for Your rules to be for all time, without adjustment for circumstances, and the technological, scientific and philosophical progress of we, Your creations.

Have You abrogated? Is that what the rabbis were saying at the end of the story of the silly ovens of Akhnai? “My children have defeated me.” Does that nullify the covenant? (I sure hope not.)

So, forgive me G”d, for having the hubris to say it, but: don’t ask us that question, because You know the answer. You have f*cked around with us. But it’s not too late to fix things. Honesty goes a long way in covenantal relationships. Just admit it, and maybe we can go on from here to walk humbly with You. You just have to do the humility thing a bit, too.

(end of Part I)


Part II

These words, first written in 2004, ring as true as ever.

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Balak 5764

Bad Habits – Revised and Updated for 5773 (2013)

I have a bad habit. Really, it's true! (Well, truth be told, I have a plethora of bad habits. But we'll save the rest of them for other musings and just focus one this one really bad habit.)

So what is this dark, troubling secret of a bad habit I'm going to reveal. Here I go. Ready? Ok, here we go. (Have I built up enough suspense yet?) My bad habit is...

I often respond too hastily to e-mail messages, Twitter posts, Facebook posts and comments, blogs, etc.

There. I've admitted it.That's the first step on the road to correcting a bad habit.

Technology is, or can be a really wonderful tool. It has brought many blessings. In fact, technology is a blessing. I am thrilled and passionate to be a part of the latest revolution in the Jewish education community, a group on Facebook known as JedLab. This new network of now over 800 folks is re-igniting my passion, re-stoking my furnace. It is also putting my ability to deliberate and be thoughtful before responding to the test. Majorly.

Technology also is, or can be, a curse. Facebook posts and comments, tweets, blog comments, and E-mails are all cases in point. Sometimes, when you intend to send a blessing, it comes out a curse. And sometimes our digital words intended as curses come out blessings instead.

All this was on my mind as I read the familiar words of parashat Balak this week. And this surely influenced the message I took away from this encounter with Torah, as you will see.

When the elders of Moab and Midian delivered the message/invitation from King Balak to Balaam, asking Balaam to come and curse the Israelites, Balaam does not respond immediately. Balaam asks the messengers to spend the night, allowing him the time to "consult" with G”d and formulate the appropriate reply to Balak's request.

When King Balak sends yet another, more important group of dignitaries as messengers to implore Balaam to come and curse the Israelites, Balaam again takes a night to consult with G”d before responding.

Sometimes, even a night and a quick consultation with G”d isn't enough time to ponder and formulate a response that's appropriate. Though, during their consultation, G”d permits Balaam to accompany the Moabite and Midianite dignitaries, the ensuing and well-known incident with Balaam and his ass demonstrates, perhaps, that Balaam may still have been too hasty in his "reply," that is, his decision to go with the messengers to see King Balak. Apparently, that's not what G”d wanted (expected?)

Another cautionary note can be drawn from the Torah's tale of Balak and Balaam. Balaam did, indeed, take some time and consult with G”d before replying to Balak's requests. Still, even with this effort to carefully craft and phrase replies in just the right words, the message wasn't understood as intended. King Balak didn't "get" the meaning/intent of Balaam's (and, in reality, G”d's) words. King Balak doesn't understand that it's not about money, reward, flattery, respect or anything of that nature. Balaam is saying that, even paid for his services, Balaam can and will only say what G”d has told him to say. King Balak clearly believes that every seer has his price.

Thus, there are valuable lessons for me, and, I hope, for you, dear readers, all throughout parashat Balak to remind us to not be hasty or trigger- (or send-key-) happy. We can take the time we need to allow G”d's voice to influence and inform our replies. Amidst the noise, hubbub, and rush of modern life, it's not always easy to discern that still, small voice. Yet it is so crucial to harmonious, loving human discourse that G”d, Torah, and Judaism inform all that we do and say (or write, "keyboard," "graffiti," “text,” “tweet,” “post,” “comment,” etc.)

I recently participated in a Jewish service in celebration of someone becoming a bat mitzvah that was held, ironically enough, in a Friend’s Meeting House. At Quaker “services,” essentially, people don’t speak or say anything until they feel moved by G”d’s spirit to do so, They take that seriously. Like 12-Step meetings, cross-talk is discouraged. As I watched the ebullient and talkative crowd (with its share of loudmouths Jews of the unfortunate stereotype  that can be shockingly accurate – though there were plenty of equally talkative Christians and people of other faith traditions there) I was amused by the juxtaposition. I cannot imagine what the regular attendees of the Quaker meetings held in that space would make of our crowd! I do know, whatever their reaction, they would be respectful and accepting. They would speak only when appropriate to speak, and their words would be fair, measured, and appropriate. I wish I could believe the same would be true if the reverse were the case.

All these years later, re-reading the first version of this musing, I realize how I have still not learned to control my impulse as well as I can. I have gotten better. I still have a long way to go, and I am thankful for this annual encounter with parashat Balak to remind me to take a long at this behavior of mine

When we fail to heed the cautionary reminders of parashat Balak, we may well end up needlessly flaying our own asses, and having them cry out to us, wondering what they have done or said that we are treating them so ill. We might find our blessings turned into curses. If we allow ourselves a little time to let G”d, Torah, and Judaism inform what we do and say, we may yet see our curses turned into blessings. Ken y'hi ratson. Ken y'hi ratsoneinu.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013, portions ©2004 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Balak 5772 - Unvelievable
Balak 5771-Imperfect Justice is No Excuse
Balak 5770 - Beating Our Donkeys II (Revised and Updated 5758)
Balak 5764 - Bad Habits
Balak 5758/5761-Beating Our Donkeys

Chukat-Balak 5766 - Community Sing
Chukat Balak 5763-Mi ChaMicah
Chukat-Balak 5760-Holy Cow!
Chukat 5759/61-Wanting to See More Than The View From The Mountaintop

Friday, June 14, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat Chukat 5773- Biblical “Jodies”

There’s nothing quite like a boastful victory song. Inspiring. Patriotic. Stirring. Aso, if you ask me, insipid.

We are taught that everything that is in Torah is there for a reason. So the boastful victory hymn of Numbers chapter 21 vv. 27-30 must serve some purpose.

בֹּ֣אוּ חֶשְׁבּ֑וֹן תִּבָּנֶ֥ה וְתִכּוֹנֵ֖ן עִ֥יר סִיחֽוֹן׃
   כִּי־אֵשׁ֙ יָֽצְאָ֣ה מֵֽחֶשְׁבּ֔וֹן לֶהָבָ֖ה מִקִּרְיַ֣ת סִיחֹ֑ן אָֽכְלָה֙ עָ֣ר מוֹאָ֔ב בַּעֲלֵ֖י בָּמ֥וֹת אַרְנֹֽן׃
     אוֹי־לְךָ֣ מוֹאָ֔ב אָבַ֖דְתָּ עַם־כְּמ֑וֹשׁ נָתַ֨ן בָּנָ֤יו פְּלֵיטִם֙ וּבְנֹתָ֣יו בַּשְּׁבִ֔ית לְמֶ֥לֶךְ אֱמֹרִ֖י סִיחֽוֹן׃
    וַנִּירָ֛ם אָבַ֥ד חֶשְׁבּ֖וֹן עַד־דִּיב֑וֹן וַנַּשִּׁ֣ים עַד־נֹ֔פַח אֲשֶׁ֖רׄ עַד־מֵֽידְבָֽא׃

Therefore the bards would recite:

"Come to Heshbon; firmly built
And well founded is Sihon's city.
28 For fire went forth from Heshbon,
Flame from Sihon's city,
Consuming Ar of Moab,
The lords of Bamoth by the Arnon.
29 Woe to you, O Moab!
You are undone, O people of Chemosh!
His sons are rendered fugitive
And his daughters captive
By an Amorite king, Sihon."
30 Yet we have cast them down utterly,
Heshbon along with Dibon;
We have wrought desolation at Nophah,
Which is hard by Medeba.

To summarize the victory song:

King Sihon, leader of the Amorites, from his mighty city of Heshbon, conquered the Moabites and took over their land.Yet for the Israelites, Sihon was a pushover. Nyah, nyah. Slam!

They attacked us, we won. All that’s missing is the ubiquitous “let’s eat!”

Now, to be fair, the Israelites did ask King Sihon, nicely, to let them pass though his territories, promising to keep to the road, and not take from their vineyards, fields, or wells. Sihon said no and attacked them. Sihon was utterly defeated, and the Israelites occupied the land of the Amorites (and the land Sihon had wrested from the Moabites.)

As befitting a mythic tale, Israel, despite the fact that it is supposed to proceed onward to take possession of the land promised to its ancestors, also takes possession of the Amorite lands and occupies them. Then it goes on to spy out Jazer, conquer it, and then conquer the lands of King Og of Bashan and occupy them.

OK, with all this occupying going on, who is left to proceed on to Canaan? We know later that the Reubenites and Gadites ask to remain in lands east of the Jordan and are given permission to do so as long as they aid in conquering Canaan. Is that the explanation for how the Israelites were able to seize and occupy the land of the Amorites and others and still muster the people-power necessary to invade Canaan?

Back to the victory song. We have an Israelite people that continually demonstrates lack of faith in G”d. (So much so, they they even bargain with G”d: deliver the enemies into our hands and we will proscribe their cities for You. Not quite the same as Yaakov’s “see me safely through my journey and You will be my G”d” but there are shadows of connection.) So where does this downtrodden, whiny people find the gumption to sing a boastful, taunting victory song?

It would be one thing if this song were a paean to G”d. It doesn’t even offer thanks to G”d, In fact, G”d is not even mentioned. “We” (the Israelites) defeated the mighty Sihon.

Seems we need a lesson here similar to the one Torah teaches us about eating and that led to the Birkat HaMazon : v’akhalta, v’savata, u’verakhta – we eat, are satiated, and we bless. We know the lesson – when are stomachs are empty, it’s easy to complain to G”d, when they’re full, it’s easiest to forget to thank G”d.

Moshe got it, as did Miriam. Their songs at the sea of reeds, while full of military boasting, are also hymns thanking G”d, and clearly attributing the victory to G”d. Not so here in parashat Chukat. Why is that? What are was supposed to learn from this? That it’s OK to flaunt your victories and not attribute them to G”d (or to even thank G”d for them?) That we can act as whiny and intractable and as defiant as we want and we can still win victories? (Yes, that G”d we’re not even thanking will insure that we win! To keep things in context, just before this section of the parasha, the people, fresh from victories over the Canaanite King of Arad, start whining and complaining again, so G”d sends serpents to plague them, and Moshe, at G”d’s direction, tries a little sympathetic magic to drive them away.) I just don’t get it. Why is this little victory hymn even here?

Some scholars speculate that the Israelites took the song of Amorite bards, praising Sihon, and added the final verses boasting of Israel’s easy victory over so mighty a King. We can’t know this with any certainty, but it would sure be an effective “utz.” I’ve always tried to imagine what it feels like to an Englishman hearing American’s sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” to the strains of “G”d Save the King.” The Israelite minstrels may have had the same intent. still doesn’t explain why it’s preserved in Torah.

Just a few verses earlier we have another brief song;

Spring up, O well—sing to it—
18 The well which the chieftains dug,
Which the nobles of the people started
With maces, with their own staffs.

It, too, seems to ignore G”d. Is there a pattern here? Were the Israelites feeling their oats--er--manna?

Two marching songs in a row. And just before them, an anachronistic mention of a seemingly lost “Book of the Wars of the Lord.” Something just isn’t quite right here. Did the editors/redactors get sloppy? (Of course, for those who believe the author of Torah is G”d, that raises all sorts of questions.)  Were these two songs popular, still, among the people, and so could not be omitted?

I’ve yet to come up with a compelling rationale. How about you, dear reader? Can you help me redeem these few verses? Is there any valuable lesson (positive or negative) that we can talk away from the victory hymn of Numbers 21:27-30?

Here’s a “Jody” to finish up:

I don’t know but I’ve been told
The words of Torah are very old
Sometimes the words stick in our craw
Is it wise to read them just as they are?

Sound off…alef, bet
Sound off…gimel, dalet
Bring it on down
alef, bet, gimel, dalet
alef, bet….gimel, dalet!

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Chukat 5772 - Your G"d, Our G"d, and the Son of a Whore
Chukat 5767-What A Difference A Vowel Makes
Chukkat 5765-Not Seeing What's Inside
Chukat 5764 - Man of Great Character
Chukat 5762-The Spirit of Miriam
Chukat-Balak 5766 - Community Sing
Chukat Balak 5763-Mi ChaMicah
Chukat-Balak 5760-Holy Cow!
Chukat 5759/61-Wanting to See More Than The View From The Mountaintop

Friday, June 7, 2013

RandomMusing Before Shabbat–Korakh 5773–B’tzelem Anashim (Redux 5764)

I’m out of town helping with a friend’s simcha, so with limited free time, I’m recycling a previous musing. I like this one, and it’s subject has been on my mind again of late. I was thinking of perhaps re-titling it, and have toyed with titles like “Who Is That I See in the Mirror,” or “Doppelganger Deity,” “Reflections on God’s Reflections,” or “GoddoG” but in the end, the original title gets to the heart of what I’m exploring here. Enjoy.

Korach 5764 – B’tzelem Anashim

Parashat Korach presents some of G"d's worst (and best) behaviors. Why are we presented with an image of G"d acting in ways that we ourselves struggle to overcome?

There's a theory I and others have advanced before. If we are made in G"d's image or likeness, then those traits and behaviors we exhibit are perforce traits and behaviors that G"d might exhibit as well. "That's overly anthropomorphic!" I hear the hecklers crying from the back of the room. "G"d is not like people," one says. "G"d is above all that, G"d is so much more, even more than we can understand or comprehend."

Still, for me, the logic holds. If there is a little bit of G"d in each of us, then there is a little bit of each of us in G"d. And, at least in my reading of the texts, the Torah supports me in my viewpoint. Why else give us example after example of a G"d who is petulant, pedantic, sophomoric, rash, vengeful, angry, jealous, vain, bored in addition to being a G"d who is loving, caring, nurturing, compassionate, exciting? Perhaps it is simply to make us feel better about our own shortcomings and weaknesses. If G"d sometimes cannot control these urges, how much more so must if be difficult for us to do so, and how much more vigilant we must ever be at guarding ourselves from engaging in negative behaviors.

It could be a way to keep us a little scared and in awe. Knowing that G"d can be vengeful, angry, jealous, etc. is a device for keeping us on our toes as well. It used to be quite an effective technique, and even into our own times this technique is practiced. Sadly, the concept can be perversely utilized, as in calling AIDS a vengeful act of G"d, or even the events of 9/11 as punishment for arrogance and hubris. So I tend to keep this particular concept at a distance, and like to steer us a bit more into the "awe" category rather than the "fear" category. Of course, we have the joy of the Hebrew not being entirely clear on this, allowing for a little fear to appropriately be part of awe.

There is the "this is all for human understanding" school of thought. It's like trying to communicate with an inferior species. So G"d's actions are portrayed using metaphors of human behavior that we can understand. This is all well and good when we're talking about human-alien contact. I question its usefulness in explaining a relationship between a Deity and its creations. If we really are that inferior to G"d, then how can we enter into a covenant with G"d? We would be, as a species, under the legal age to make a contract!

So, for me, given that we do have a covenant with G"d, and a mission to be G"d's partners in the work of repairing and completing the universe, it only makes sense that both G"d and G"d's creations learn together, side by side.

The Israelites are given a tough time (mostly by their own descendants-us) for being so stubborn and obstinate. For just not "getting it." For seeing miracles and wonders and still kvetching, whining and complaining.

Well folks, guess what? At times G"d is a slow learner too. Perhaps, before the story of creation in B'reishit as we know it, G"d made other attempts to forge a universe. (My favorite idea is that G"d made a universe in which everything was perfect, and creations did not have free will. But G"d got bored with it after five minutes because nothing exciting ever happened, so G"d wiped it out and tried again.) Then G"d made this current attempt, and is trying this little free-will experiment. And I suspect it had some unanticipated results for G"d. So G"d has had to adjust, compensate, change, learn, grow and account for the effects of free will.

But let's look at the record. G"d puts Adam and Chava in a perfect garden, but gives them free will. So they go ahead and screw things up right away. Still, G"d decides to give it a little more time. After a while, G"d appears to get impatient and decides to wipe it all out again,. Only this time G"d decides to save a lot of extra work, and only kills of most of the creations. Sort of like a neutron bomb--destroying people but not nature and property. The Noah's descendants get all prideful and decide to build this tower thingie and here we see a little jealous, perhaps even fear on G"d's part. Hmmm--these creations might actually get to me. Time to get out the fly swatter and the speech-confounder.

And on and on the cycles goes. We mess up or do something unexpected. G"d is unhappy and lashes out. Yet G"d does seem to learn over time that wiping everyone out isn't always the best idea. But when G"d gets really angry, well, it takes Moses to talk G"d out of rashly destroying the people (and notice how Moses appeals to G"d's vanity to do this--how would it look to the Egyptians, Moses asks.)

At first G"d is going to wipe us all out for Korach's sins. But Moses talks G"d into just venting on the people who actually rebelled (though G"d still can't resist also zotzing their wives and children as well.) G"d wipes out Korach's followers, and turns the 250 with the firepans into toast. And the very next day, here we go again. G"d's ready to wipe us all out, and Moses talks G"d out of it. The first time, Moses was able to stop G"d in time to prevent total annihilation. This time, G"d starts acting before Moses and Aaron can stop it. G"d has already initiated the plague. So they go and make expiation for the people and G"d heeds their sacrifice.

And then,. As if nothing major had transpired at all, G"d goes on to cheerfully give a re-elaboration of the support system for the priests and Levites.

Sounds awfully human-like to me.

I guess I can sort of round this up by saying that perhaps its better that G"d isn't perfect. If G"d could easily be bored creating a perfect universe, then how much more so might we get bored if we had a truly perfect G"d? Nope, I'll take G"d as portrayed in Torah, warts and all. And thank G"d for that!

Shabbat Shalom,

©2004 and 2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musing on this parasha:

Korakh 5772 - B'nei Miri
Korakh 5771 - Supporting Our Priests and Levites
Korakh 5770 (Redux 5758/62) Camp Rebellion
Korakh 5769 - And who Put G"d In Charge (or 2009: A Space Odyssey)
Korakh 5768-If Korakh Had Guns
Korach 5767-Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad, Tabernacle?
Korach 5766 - Investment
Korah 5765 - Stones and Pitchers and Glass Houses
Korach 5764-B'tzelem Anashim
Korach 5763-Taken
Korach 5761-Loose Ends