Friday, July 25, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Masei 5774–Would Jeremiah be Surprised?

Jeremiah boldly pointed it out over two and one-half millennia ago in the haftarah for this week’s parasha:

27 They said to wood, "You are my father,"
To stone, "You gave birth to me,"
While to Me they turned their backs
And not their faces.
But in their hour of calamity they cry,
"Arise and save us!"

We turn our backs on G”d, or we worship other gods – until things go wrong, and then we plead with G”d to save us. It’s a pattern we repeat over and over.

Over the millennia, our sages have sought other ways to teach this lesson. Their efforts continue to fail to this day-sometimes because we fail to heed them, and sometimes because the sages themselves confuse the lesson or the message. For a classic example of that, we need look no further than blessings for before and after eating.  The lesson the Torah teaches is clear. The Torah does not command us to say thanks before we eat – it commands us to say a blessing after we eat. The rabbis of the Great Sanhedrin, in their wisdom, determined that to partake of anything in this world without first thanking G”d is akin to stealing from G”d, thus their entire system of brachot (blessings) to be said before something. That makes sense, of course. However, in insisting on blessings before we eat, they potentially minimize the impact of the lesson in saying a blessing after we eat. The Torah’s wisdom in this is almost self-apparent. When our bellies are empty, it’s easy for us to be motivated to thank G”d for our food. It’s when our bellies are full that we are more likely to forget to acknowledge the Source of All. This is another side of the wave that is our penchant for disobeying G”d yet still believing G”d is obligated to us.

The rabbis had good intentions, and their expectations were, of course, that we would all say blessings before and after eating (though, with typical rabbinical narishkeit, they make more exceptions for when we don’t have to say the blessing after meals than they do for when we wouldn’t have a say a blessing before eating something.)

The end result, at least in our own time (though largely more prevalent in non-Orthodox settings) is that many Jews are familiar with and might be likely to say blessings before eating (though I still feel that, in the liberal community, there are an abysmally low number of adherents to this practice.) At the very least, many liberal Jews will at least experience the wine and bread blessings on Shabbat, if not at home, at least in the synagogue (yes, that’s my eyes rolling.) I would venture to guess, and I have no research to back this up, that, with the exception of synagogue and camp functions, the Birkat Hamazon, the blessing after meals is not commonly said – even though the Torah clearly mandates some kind of after meal blessing.

However, this is not a musing on the subject of food blessings or the Birkat HaMazon. It is a musing about our tendency to ignore G”d (or worship other gods) yet cry out to G”d for assistance when things gang aft agley, as they do. (I love using “gang aft agley.” It sounds so Yiddish, though the phrase comes to us courtesy of a Scottish dialect used by Robert Burns in his poem “To A Mouse.”)

The idea that there are “no Atheists in foxholes” is one of many more modern understanding of this issue. Oddly enough, it can be just as easily argued that the horrors and conditions of war are more likely to challenge a believer and strip away his or her faith in a high power. I think our ancient ancestors were just as familiar with that concept as they were with Jeremiah’s complaint against them. (That’s one explanation for why the book of Job is in the canon.) G”d’s allowing Israel to be punished and destroyed was no less easily spun either way by the spin doctors in the times of our ancestors. Though it does trouble me that few, if any, of our ancestors, saw the potential for a mixed or reverse message being heard by the people. One does wonder how many of our ancestors, shocked by the horrors of war and destruction (man-made, G”d-made, or natural) actually lost their faith or saw it severely challenged? That we so often hear the opposite message – that it is because of our own failures to do what G”d asks of us that we are suffering – may be a testament to just how prevalent the opposite thought was in those days. At the very least it could be argued that surely some lost their faith or belief in G”d as a result of the very tragedies and horrors that they were being told were deliberate on G”d’s part as punishment. What a self-feeding, cyclical situation we have woven with our rhetoric and our behavior. Believe because that which challenges your belief is but punishment for all our failures to believe and do what G”d asks of us. Must have driven some of the Greek philosophers crazy.

Today are we any different than our ancestors? We destroy our own planet, we kill each other with reckless abandon. Some proclaim a faith in G”d but the gods which they actually worship are a poor substitute, idols of wood and stone, of paper and ink, of precious metals and jewels, of bits and bytes. In the midst of our own horrors, we observe them and cry out to G”d to save us (or some of us cry out that what we see is the evidence that there is no G”d.)

Some argue that if G”d created us, then G”d is responsible for what happens to us, free-will be damned. Others argue that it is not unreasonable for the G”d that created us and gave us free will to ask for something from us in exchange for having done so. For those who embrace a concept of G”d, but are unsure that G”d created us or the Universe, it’s more problematic. (These last two situations are both reasonably addressed by the oft repeated expression that the question is not “where was G”d?” but “where was humankind?” ) For those certain that there is no G”d, it’s a pointless discussion. For those who believe, in any form, it’s an inescapable discussion.

We want to have our cake and eat it too. We want to be free of the restrictions of any agreement or covenant we have with G”d yet still expect to be able to turn to G”d for deliverance. Jeremiah told us over 2500 years ago how foolish this notion is. Would Jeremiah be surprised to learn that we still don’t get it?

Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik. We’ve reached the end of the book of Bemidbar, the book of Numbers.

Shabbat Shalom,

© 2014 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Masei 5771 - Cause and Effect
Masei 5768 - Accidents Matter

Matot-Maei 5773 - The Torah Is One Of My FaceBook Groups
Matot-Masei 5772 - And the Punting Goes On
Matot-Masei 5770 - Treasure Trove of Trouble
Matot 5768/5765-Even Moshe Rabbeinu Had to Punt
Matot-Masei 5766 - First Fruit
Matot-Masey 5764-Putting the Kids Before the Kids
Matot--Masey 5763-Over the Top
Matot--Masey 5762--The Rebel's Complaint and Promises, Promises

Friday, July 18, 2014

Random Musings Before Shabbat Matot 5774 – Revised 5763 – Over the Top

[Eleven years ago I wrote the words you are about to read. I’m tweaked them a bit for this year. I find it difficult to read this week’s parasha and haftarah without also thinking about what is taking place in Israel and Gaza. I’m not here to make a political argument. The situation is far too complex to be dealt with in simple terms. I am not here to be a Jeremiah, though it is difficult, at best, to ignore the clarion call of the words of this haftarah. On that subject, I’d like to commend to you this poem by my friend Stacey Z. Robinson based on this week’s haftarah:

I am not making a direct comparison between the present hostilities and the one described in the parasha as to whether or not what is happening in Israel and Gaza is “over the top” – on the part of any and all sides in this conflict. That is something we all need to think about and determine for ourselves, and there are many, many factors to be considered. Evidence of both restraint and a thirst for vengeance seems to exist on all sides.  However, insofar as a plea that humanity seek ways to avoid going “over the top,” I stand by my words.]

Over the Top

We've all done it--gone "over the top." Nadav and Avihu did it when they offered alien fire on the altar. Pinchas did it when he speared Zimri and Cozbi. Moshe rabbeinu did it when he struck the rock and spoke in anger. And now he does it again.It's troubling enough that we read of G”d instructing the Israelites to take their vengeance upon the Midianites. They go and kill all the males, and take the women and children captive. Then Moshe rebukes them harshly for having spared the women and children , and orders them to slay all the male children as well as all well who have had carnal relations. (But spare the virgins, apparently. Hmmm. Is this mercy or something more practical?)

Slaying all the Midianite adult males was surely adequate vengeance, but Moshe must have been feeling particularly crotchety that day. (And no surprise either, since G”d has just told Moshe that he was to do this one last battle and then he would be gathered to his kin.) It surely wasn't necessary for Moshe to further insist on the slaying of the male children and non-virginal women. There's no record of G”d saying to Moshe "hey, that wasn't enough vengeance!" It was "over the top" on Moshe's part.

So perhaps it was time for Moshe to be gathered to his kin. Just as G”d did with Pinchas, co-opting his zeal into a very public priesthood where his zealousness could be kept in check, he would now do the same with Moshe. (Note, by the way, that it is Pinchas who is sent along as Priest with the troops attacking the Midianites. Very interesting.) If it wasn't clear before that the time had come to remove Moshe from his lofty pinnacle of power, this latest "over the top" act was proof enough.

Even G”d, it seems, has a tendency to occasionally go "over the top." We can go back to the flood, or perhaps even to the expulsion from Gan Eden of Adam and Chava. The plagues, the drowning of the Egyptians in the Sea of Reeds. Need I go on?

As we are made b'tzelem Elokim, in the image of G”d, then, as I have suggested before, it's no surprise that G”d and Humans should share some of the same intemperate traits. G”d well knows the dangers of going over the top, and is keenly aware of when it's time to keep Moshe from losing control of this trait in himself any more.

Next week, when we read the second part on this usually double parasha, we will read of the instruction to create cities of refuge for those who cause inadvertent or accidental death to another so that they may be safe from the blood vengeance of the deceased's family. Yet another recognition on G”d's part how G”d's own trait to go "over the top" is part of G”d's creation, humanity, as well? After all, think about it. Does it really make sense for the family member of one who is killed to be obligated to pursue and slay the slayer? Yes, I know-- eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life. But these were punishments to be exacted by the community, under a system of laws and justice. Even back then, they were not justification for taking the law into your own hands, for taking your own vengeance. Yet, because of this tendency to go "over the top" in reaction to the killing of a relative (although is any reaction to the death of a loved one really "over the top", I have to ask) we must provide the safe havens for those who accidentally kill to be safe from the crazed relatives of the deceased. (Not so the deliberate murderer, who is to be dealt with, although, once again, it really is the community's responsibility. However, the cities of refuge system does leave a very large loophole allowing the relatives of one who is murdered to go and exact vengeance through the death of the murderer at their own hands.)

Yet humankind continues to go over the top. The crusades. The Inquisition. Nazism. Mutual assured destruction. The My Lai massacre. Tiananmen Square. Srebenica. Boko Haram. Seems we haven't learned the lesson yet, which is why it is good that each year we repeat these same parts of the Torah. Maybe someday we'll really listen and understand.

Yes, we've all done it. As Torah clearly shows, our ancestors did it, and so did G”d. So it's something we have to live with? I think not. As with so many of the lessons we learn from Torah, it is another lesson for us to learn to help heal the world and make it complete and ready for the olam haba, the world to come. While it's nice to know that so many before us have had this same tendency, one of these days, we have to finally overcome it once and for all.

Next time you feel yourself about to go "over the top," try holding yourself back. Maybe it will become habit.

And bayom hahu, on that day, when we finally get beyond going "over the top", then we'll really be able to go "over the top" in terms of life on earth, to life in the olam haba. If only...

Shabbat Shalom

©2014 (portions ©2003) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Matot 5771 - Don't Become Like...Them
Matot 5768/5765-Even Moshe Rabbeinu Had to Punt

Matot-Masei 5773 - The Torah Is One Of My FaceBook Groups
Matot-Masei 5772 - And the Punting Goes On
Masei 5771 - Cause and Effect
Matot-Masei 5770 - Treasure Trove of Trouble
Masei 5768 - Accidents Matter
Matot-Masei 5766 - First Fruit
Matot-Masey 5764-Putting the Kids Before the Kids
Matot--Masey 5763-Over the Top
Matot--Masey 5762--The Rebel's Complaint and Promises, Promises

Friday, July 11, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Pinkhas 5774–Slaughter the Oxen, Burn the Plow and Hear the Still Small Voice

It won’t happen again for another 21 years in 5795 – the opportunity to read the haftarah for parashat Pinkhas when it falls before 17 Tammuz and the start of the three weeks. It comes and goes in spurts. We recently had the opportunity in 5771, 5768, and 5765. Prior to that it last happened in 5744 and 5741, and then back in 5727. So, this being the last chance for the next 21 years, I thought I would take the opportunity to write and muse once again upon the haftarah for parashat Pinkhas from I Kings 18:46-19:20.

Our haftarah picks up the story of Elijah right after Elijah has seen to the slaughter of the prophets of Ba'al and Asherah after his confrontation with them at Mount Carmel, in which G"d's power is so starkly demonstrated. Elijah flees from King Ahab, whose wife Jezebel has sent Elijah a note that she intends to see Elijah killed for what he has done. (As background, Ahab had taken yet one step further in leading Israel astray as his father and predecessors had done. He married a Phoenician princess, Jezebel, and worshipped her god Ba'al, and even had a temple erected to Ba'al in Samaria. Elijah the prophet harangues and troubles Ahab, and eventually challenges the prophets of Ba'al to a "contest" between their "god" and G"d. Guess who wins.)

Elijah is so frightened, he flees into the wilderness, where he asks G"d to take his life. An angel comes to Elijah and manifests food for the starving and tired Elijah. The word of G"d comes to Elijah when he goes to sleep in a cave. Elijah tells G"d that he alone is left of G"d's prophets to chastise Ahab and Israel for forsaken their covenant. G"d then asks Elijah to "step outside" and stand before G"d. A great wind blows, splitting rocks and mountains. Yet G"d was "lo b'ruakh" -- not in the wind. Then an earthquake. Yet G"d was "lo ha'ra'ash" -- not in the earthquake. Fire follows earthquake, and again, G"d was "lo ba'eish" - not in the fire. Then, after the fire, a "kol d'mamah dakah" --a voice, silent and thin. As some translate, a "soft murmuring sound." Or, more eloquently, "a still, small voice."

When I first wrote about this back in 5765, I stopped here and focused on those words. This time around, I’d like to continue on a bit in the haftarah before I circle back to here.

[It’s interesting to note that the cave where Elijah sought refuge is located at Mt. Horeb. i.e. Sinai. An interesting place for yet another session of Divine manifestations through wind, fire, and earthquake.]

When Elijah heard the sound, he come out of the cave and G”d asked him “Why are you here, Elijah?” Elijah answers that he is zealous for G”d, that Israel has forsaken G”d, killed G”d’s prophets, and are coming for him. G”d instructs Elijah to anoint Hazael as King of Aram, Jehu as King of Israel, and Elisha to be a prophet to replace Elijah. (Yes, G”d is having Elijah anoint a King of a country that is an enemy of Israel, presumably so that this country might punish Israel for its transgression and help them see the truth and bring them back to G”d.) Elijah seeks out Elisha who was out plowing in a field with 12 oxen. Elijah places his mantle of prophecy on Elisha, who then asks to be allowed to say goodbye to his parents. Elisha goes back and slaughters the twelve oxen, uses their yokes for wood to start a fire, and boils the ox meat so that the people might eat. Then he went off with Elijah to be his apprentice.

Not that I’ve dug all that deeply, but I haven’t found much from a Jewish perspective commenting on Elisha’s actions. (There is a parallel in the story of David, found in II Samuel 24:22 in which yokes and other paraphernalia are used as wood to sacrifice oxen for an offering. I think the connection is tenuous at best, since Elisha’s slaughter was not a ritual offering. In addition, these oxen and wood are being offered to David as a gift. David refuses the gift of the oxen and plow in this case, insisting he pay for them, saying he cannot sacrifice that which has cost him nothing. So David buys the oxen etc. and then sacrifices them. G”d responds to David’s sacrifice by stopping a plague that had befallen Israel.) Elisha had a party, not a sacrifice to G”d (though one might argue that Elisha was about to give up his own life to be a prophet of G”d.)

“Slaughter the Oxen and Burn the Plow” has attracted any number of commentaries from the Christian side of things.  They see it as an act of ultimate submission to G”d’s will. Elisha has demonstrated, through an act he was not asked to do, how willing he is to go into the service of G”d, and effectively sever his connection to his life up to that point. Elisha leaves himself nothing of his old life of which to come back to were he to abandon his charge to be a future prophet. Elisha basically throws himself a going-away party for all his family, friends and neighbors, using nothing but his own property (and effectively all of his worth) to do so. For those “born-again” types, or for those called to be missionaries or to be in G”d’s service, it’s a model. The Christian scriptures provide some support for  this viewpoint. Luke seems to have Jesus refer to this incident in Luke 9:61-62.

61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (NRSV)

I wonder if the interpretation in Luke is actually reflective of Jewish thought at the time of Jesus – i.e. would Jesus have really used a parallel to the story of Elisha slaughtering the oxen and burning the plow in describing what was required to be a follower of the Kingdom of G”d? I’ve not come across similar sentiments from a  Jewish perspective, or much discussion at all about Elisha’s slaughtering of the oxen and burning the plow – so if you, dear reader, know of any, I’d love to learn about it.

Elisha’s actions were a statement, of that there can be little doubt. What that statement was is a matter of speculation. Perhaps he was saying “from now own, my food will come from G”d, I’ve no need for the oxen and my plow.”  Perhaps, as some speculate, it was his ultimate break with his old life so that he could start his new life. Perhaps it was a gesture of magnanimity to his family, friends, and neighbors. “I will no longer need this, here, partake of it.” Perhaps it was a giant FU to the hard life of a farmer (not that he expected the life of an apprentice to a prophet to be any easier.) It could also  be a more vindictive “I’m not going to need these anymore, but I’ll be darned if I’m going to leave them all to you.” I imagine many of his family, friends, and neighbors we appalled by his seeming wastefulness of resources. Those oxen and that plow might have done a great deal more for the community after Elisha left it than the satisfaction of food for one nice going-away party. Suffice to say I’m not entirely sure that Elisha’s motives were all pure. I suppose when G”d’s prophet (and pretty much the only one left standing at the time) comes and chooses you to be his apprentice – and at G”d’s direct command to do so – you pretty much don’t argue. You also might feel just a bit haughty as a result. “Hey, I’m gonna be Elijah’s replacement! I can afford to waste some oxen and wood on a party. Even if they only ate some of the meat for the party, and somehow managed to preserve the rest for a while, it’s a safe bet those oxen and that plow would have yielded far more sustenance if they had been given to someone else to use. This is another reason I am suspicious of the reference in Luke. I ask my Christian friends, do you really think Jesus would encourage this somewhat wasteful act as being symbolic of devotion to G”d? I think he’d likely have come down on the side of allowing those oxen and that plow to continue to provide food for the community for years to come. Maybe all this is precisely why the Jewish commentators avoided it?

In all fairness to Elisha, he does a pretty great job as Elijah’s apprentice and successor. It’s not fair to judge him based on this one act at the very beginning of his career as a prophet. Yet the story is there, and it remains fair game for analysis. I know I’m going to be spending more time looking into this part of the story. However, now it’s time to circle back to my thoughts from 5765 – the still, small voice is calling.

I have mused upon this theme many times--the idea that we are all looking for the big miracle, the splitting asunder of the sea, fire and thunder from the mountain, and, as a result, we miss the everyday miracles all around us. Amid the hubbub of modern life we try to listen for G"d's voice. Yet all too rarely do we take the time to isolate ourselves from the din, so that we can truly hear a "kol d'mamah dakah." (Elijah, as a prophet, was pretty much a solitary figure. Elisha, on the other hand, mingled with the people. Yet who is truly the better model for hearing the still small voice?)

A 12th century manuscript attributed to a German Rabbi, Ephraim ben Jacob of Bonn, relates the story of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, a great rabbi who lived about a thousand years ago, just before the crusades began. The bishop of Mainz insisted that Rabbi Amnon renounce his faith and become a Christian. Rabbi Amnon repeatedly refused. Perhaps frustrated by the continuing effort, and aware of the approach High Holy Days, Rabbi Amnon asks the Bishop to grant him three days to think things over, which the Bishop does. Rabbi Amnon immediately regrets having left the Bishop and others with the impression he would even consider renouncing G"d and Judaism. After three days, Rabbi Amnon refuses to go to the Bishop when summoned, and so he is forcibly taken. He asks that his tongue be cut out for even saying he would consider renouncing G"d, but the Bishop said he was more irate for what the Rabbi's legs had done, or rather not done, in not returning when summoned. Whereupon Rabbi Mainz is subjected to having his limbs chopped off, piece by piece, refusing each time to convert. Then the Rabbi was sent home, along with his cut-off limbs. Shortly after, when Rosh Hashanah has come, Rabbi Mainz asks his family to bring him to the synagogue, even broken and bloody as he was. Just before the kedushah, the sanctification, was about to be said by the Hazzan, Rabbi Amnon asks the Hazzan to stop so that Rabbi Amnon might sanctify G"d's name. Rabbi Amnon says "Thus to our sanctification prayer shall ascend, for You, our G"d, are King." He then proceeds to create and recite the "unetaneh tokef" prayer on the spot, after which he dies and disappears. Three days later, Rabbi Amnon appears in a vision to Rabbi Kalonimos ben Meshullam, another great sage of Mainz, and teaches him the words of the unetaneh tokef and instructs that it be added to the liturgy and taught to all Jews everywhere. Or so the story goes.

The Unetaneh Tokef prayer is one that many find discomforting. It is the one that contains that "On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who will live and who will die; who by fire and who by water..." etc. the prayer reminds us at the end "repentance, prayer and tzedakah shall temper the severe decree."

At the beginning of the prayer, the holiness and awesomeness of this day is declared, along with G"d's greatness and sovereignty. G"d is recognized as the One who judges and hold us to account. Then this prayer, already imbued with brilliant poetic language and imagery, tells us "the great shofar is sounded, and a thin voice of stillness is heard."

וּבְשׁוֹפָר גָדוֹל יִתָקַע. וְקוֹל דְמָמָה דַקָה יִשָמַע

Uv'shofar gadol yitaka, v'kol d'mamah dakah yish'ma.

Think about it. A loud noise is made, but that is not what we hear. It is the still, small voice that we hear. It is not in the majesty and pomp that have come to characterize our High Holy Days services that G"d is to be heard. It is in the silences. Now, this could be a rather frustrating for those who, like me, are directing choirs for the High Holy Days. Yet I take comfort in knowing that the Unetaneh Tokef prayer shows us that we must still make the great sound. Can one truly recognize the silence wherein we might find G"d if there is no noise with which to contrast it? Even G"d finds it necessary to precede the "thin voice of stillness" with wind and rain and thunder and earthquake and fire.

And so, while this week's haftarah might teach us about the "kol d'mamah dakah" -- that G"d is to be found in the silence, we should also learn that, like all things in Judaism, there is a balance. This Shabbat, why not use the hubbub and brouhaha of the week as the shofar that calls your attention to the need to listen for G"d in the still, small voices that can often be found on Shabbat--sometimes only during Shabbat. Greet the Shabbat Bride with loud song, like the sound of the great shofar. Then listen for the rustlings of her bridal gown, and strive to hear G"d's voice within.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2014 (portions ©2005) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Pinkhas 5773 - G"d's Justice, G"d's Responsibility
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, July 4, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Balak 5774–Ball’s In Your Court

[A reminder to all my readers that I am a gadfly. I write so that others might be prompted to think. I do not pretend that the struggles about which I write are not my own – they are – but I pray you do not assume you know my current personal beliefs or feelings simply on the basis of these musings.]

I struggle with G”d and sacred text all the time. Why should this week, this day, this hour be any different?

I, for one, am tired of G”d making us the victims of G”d’s own failed attempts at universe building. G”d gave us free will, and then G”d punishes us for acting with that same free will. Humanity is a dog chasing its own tail.

Why, G”d, after Your failure with Adam and Chava, did you wait for Abraham to truly reveal Yourself? Why, G”d, did you permit your creations to create their own gods and worship them. If, indeed, you are the one and only G”d, you could have insisted from the start that humanity worship only You. Frankly, with Your rash action at midgal Bavel, You probably only made things worse. You so feared Your creations’ powers and abilities when working together as one that You split them apart into tribes with differing languages.  That’s almost a perfect set up for allowing each of these tribes to develop its own mythology and its own understandings of the universe and whatever gods created it and shape it every day. A recipe for diverse cultic and religious practices. Could You have not revealed Yourself to each of these separate language entities and spared all of us the ensuing millennia of strife?

Yes, I will readily admit to having stated, many times, my own personal belief that any Deity that does not have the sense to allow for humanity to have multiple understandings and approaches to that Deity is truly not a Deity wise (or worthy) enough to have created humanity and the universe. In many ways, allowing multiple religions to flourish was and is a wise choice. In other ways, not so much. Perhaps this is all just wishful thinking on the basis of accepting what has become reality for humanity. It could have been different, and You could have made it so.

Is strife and adversity inherent in allowing different understandings of the deity, and therefore different religions, to exist? Should it not be Your task then, G”d, to help guide all Your creations to the knowledge of You? If the path to this requires them to sometimes pray or worship false gods, what is that to You? You know that only You are G”d.

Ah, but You are a jealous G”d.

Let’s look at Your own words (at least according to the Torah.) You were incensed that the Israelite men would go a-whoring with the Moabite women and then make sacrifices to the Moabite god. so You said:

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה קַח אֶת־כָּל־רָאשֵׁי הָעָם וְהוֹקַע אוֹתָם לַֽיהוָֹה נֶגֶד הַשָּׁמֶשׁ וְיָשֹׁב חֲרוֹן אַף־יְהוָֹה מִיִּשְׂרָאֵֽל

The Lord said to Moses, "Take all the ringleaders and have them publicly impaled before the Lord, so that the Lord's wrath may turn away from Israel."

I don’t get it. If there is only You, what does it matter that humans waste their prayers and sacrifices to imaginary gods? If people are praying to false gods, are they not, in effect, actually praying to You? But the Israelites are special to You, you made a covenant with them and commanded them to worship only You. Yet if there is only One G”d is not the worship of any god worship of You? These false idols to which people pray and sacrifice – they represent only the imaginings of people trying to comprehend You in all Your vastness. That You might be only One may seem incomprehensible to some. You gave them the free will to choose how to worship you. Is it fair to then take that right away from them? Is it fair to require them to worship only You and only in the manner You command when You have given them the free will do otherwise? (Yes, I know, who said life has to be fair. Well, skip to the end of this musing if you really want to know my response to that right now.)

Could You not see how humanity might use this to hurt each other, and to hurt even You? Could You not imagine Hitler? Could You not imagine then a future Hitchens or Dawkins who might use Your own words against You? “My way or the highway” is bad enough. “My way or death” should never be the conditions set forth – yet You constantly set those very conditions for creations to whom You gave free will. Pardon me for saying this, but are You nuts?

You covenanted with the Israelites. Yet afterward along came the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Krishna, not to mention the pantheons of gods worshipped by the Greeks, Roman, Persians, and others. Before You revealed Yourself to Abraham attempts to understand and apprehend You existed in many forms, some of them, like the practices of the Egyptians, of such long standing that they had actually evolved and changed over time! If the Egyptian Atenists had it right all along, couldn’t You have given them a helping hand and given them victory over the Amunists?

If, in our modern world, we can accept the idea that all these varying religions actually all represent worship of You, the One true G”d, could You have not allowed this understanding in the ancient world? Did the worship practices You imposed upon the Israelites have to displace those of the Ba’alim and others? Could Youhave not just nrought all humanity to the sinple understanding that all forms of worship of gods is merely worship of You? (Isn’t that sort of what the Atenists had in mind? Might you have learned from the reality of the Israelites in their monolatry, and accepted their asherot as simply part of their way to You?)

If we who believe in You are correct in our belief, why do You make it so hard? Why do you give fuel to those who would deny You and Your existence? Every day, people are dying or are killed needlessly yet it is claimed these deaths are either for the sake of Your name, or to glorify You, or to be as sacrifices for You. You continue to permit it. You cannot hide behind ineffability forever. This defense is wearing ever thinner and thinner each day and reduces the number of Your faithful as a result. 

Are You afraid of being revealed as less than perfect? Is that why You had Your prophet Micah say

לֹא אִישׁ אֵל וִֽיכַזֵּב וּבֶן־אָדָם וְיִתְנֶחָם הַהוּא אָמַר וְלֹא יַֽעֲשֶׂה וְדִבֶּר וְלֹא יְקִימֶֽנָּה:

G”d is not man to be capricious, or mortal to change G”d’s mind. Would G”d speak and not act, promise and not fulfill?

Created in Your image, are we? If we are capricious, then are You not capricious as well? If we speak and not act, might You do the same as well?

People hate in Your name. People kill in Your name. Is this truly what You wanted? Yes, we’ve all heard Your modern prophets like Eli Wiesel tell us to reframe the question as not “where was G”d?” but “where was humankind?” Yes, we are to blame for what we do – there is no denying that. However, should not You share some of that blame? When are You going to allow the old Jewish story to come true about the man who comes on Yom Kippur to confess, and then, when he is done, turns to You and says “and now let’s talk about Your sins…”

We need but turn the well-worn words found in this week’s haftarah around:

It has been told You, O G”d, what is good,
And what Your creations require of You:
Only to do justice
And to love goodness,
And to walk modestly with your creations."

Ball’s in your court, O Divine One.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2014 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Balak 5772 – Unbelievable
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