Friday, May 29, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Nasso 5775 - West-Tzorah-Side Story

It has been a decade since I first shared this musing, and I thought it was time to give it another look. It was originally called Northeast-Gaza-Side Story, but that’s geographically inaccurate, as the site of biblical Tzorah is likely that of the former Palestinian-Arab village Sura, 25km east of Jerusalem. At that distance, I think it’s a stretch to say “East-Side-Jerusalem Story” so I went with “West-Tzorah Side Story” this time.

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Nasso 5765

West-Tzorah-Side Story

(With apologies to Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim)

[to the tune of "Maria" from "West Side Story."]

[Intro]The haftarah for Naso from Judges derives
Manoakh, Manoakh, Manoakh, Manoakh
Chapter thirteen verse two unto twenty-five
Manoakh, Manoakh, Manoakh, Manoakh Manoakh, Manoakh..

Manoakh, there once was a man named Manoakh
In Tzorah lived his clan, his lineage was tribe of Dan.
Manoakh, there once lived a man named Manoakh
His wife's name we know not, but barren was her lot in life.
An angel of the Lrd came to her to say
To a son she would give birth one day
Yet till then drink no wine nor eat food that's treif

So, what's this all about? Seems like a familiar story - an angel of the L”rd come to tell that a barren woman shall bear a child. Notice, all you feminists out there, however, that in this case, the angel comes to the woman herself first, and not her husband. She is warned to abstain from intoxicants and impure food. Seems like a reasonable request. Yet we still don’t get to know her name. Don’t you just hate that?
Now, back to our song (for you purists, we go back to the beginning again-without the intro...)
And further, the Angel told Mrs. Manoakh,
Let razor touch him not, for nazirite his lot shall be.
A hero, your son shall be known as a hero
For all of Yisrael he shall save from the Philistines
With this tale, Mrs. M. to Manoakh runs
Who then pleaded to G”d for for instructions
G”d answered and sent back the angel again

So the Mrs.. goes back and relates the tale to her husband. There's no real hint that he disbelieves her, though some may try to eisegete that back into the text. (Eisegesis is the opposite of Exegesis. Look them up if you're still not sure...) Despite the penchant of some to insist that Manoakh wants confirmation of what his wife has told him, all the text says is that he asks G”d to send the angel again so that he and his wife might know how to treat their child once he is born. I guess G”d finds this request reasonable, and complies.
Back to our song (again, for you purists, we go back to the beginning again-without the intro...)
An angel again comes to Mrs. Manoakh
She runs to tell her man, "come quickly if you can, he's
"So tell me," Manoakh then says to this stranger
"Are you the one who came and spoke of future fame to
The stranger answered "yes" and Manoakh gave praise
Then he asked how their young boy they should raise
"Your wife, sir, must not drink any wine or eat treif"

Don't you love those answers that never answer the question asked? When Manoakh asks the stranger (whom, at this point, Manoakh does not appear to view as an angel of G”d) how they should care for and raise the child, the stranger only reiterates his instructions that Mrs. M should not imbibe in intoxicants nor eat impure foods. Perhaps this is G”d's way of saying, "Hey, look.-I created the miracle enabling your barren wife to conceive. Raising the boy is your problem." Sort of like the Torah. "Here is it, people of Israel, now you go figure it out!"

As a side note, I take liberty in using the term "treif," for what Mrs. M is told is to not eat foods that are impure, using our old friend, the word "tuma," meaning (ritually?) impure. And speaking of this, why the instruction to Mrs. Manoakh regarding what she drinks and eats? Her son is indeed to be a nazir from birth-so perhaps this was to insure that even the developing fetus was untainted by wine, intoxicants or impure foods, which, as a nazir, he would not be permitted to consume? Consider the implications this has for the "when does life begin" question that now so troubles our society. I don't think it alone might outweigh all the other sources within Judaism that assist us in defining when life begins, yet it's something to ponder. If nothing else, this is surely a caution to any and all mothers to be careful when they eat and drink (or smoke, or use drugs-legal and illegal) while pregnant, lest they injure their unborn child. Just as believing that anyone you encounter might be moshiakh can lead us to treating each other respectfully, the idea that the child that one carries might be a nazir, or even moshiakh, ought to enable pregnant women to think carefully about how their treat their own bodies and the possible impact upon their unborn child.

And now, back to our song (again, for you purists, we go back to the beginning again-without the intro, although now we go on to the middle and end sections...)
Kind stranger, please let us proffer you a meal now
But "no" the stranger said, pay homage now to Gd instead
"Please tell me," Manoakh then asked of the stranger
"Your name I do not know, please tell it to me now, I pray"
"This question, it is one not to ask" said he,
"For unknowable is what you ask me."
Manoakh, and so goes the tale of Manoakh....

[underscoring] Manoakh, Manoakh, Manoakh, Manoakh
Mano-akh, Mano-akh, Mano-akh, Manoa-akh
Manoakh, made an offering, feared the L”rd
His wife calmed his fears, sure of Gd's reward
Manoakh, and so ends the tale of Manoakh.....

[Outro] The most beautiful son you ever saw—named     Shimson.
As the angel rises to the heavens inside the flames of his offering, Manoakh realizes he has had an encounter with the Divine, and fears for his life. Mrs. M reassures him that all these things must be for good, as G”d accepted our offering, and sent us this prophecy. How often have we looked upon a miracle, and seen it not as something beautiful and wonderful, but as a dire warning or portent? We see a darkening sky and fear the impending storm, yet we know that the rains bring water and renewed life to parched soil.

After the parallel to the Abraham and Sarah story with the pronouncement of an impending birth to a barren woman, we get yet another parallel when Manoakh, like Jacob before him, asks the name of the being he has encountered, and the being answers with the very same words given to Jacob.

I think there's even a connection to our middle ancestor, Isaac. My challenge to you this Shabbat is to see if you can find it.

Shabbat Shalom,

© 2015 and 2005 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings On This Parasha

Naso 5773 - Guilt. Self. It.
Naso 5772 - Keeping Me On My Toes II
Naso 5771 - The Nazarite Conundrum
Nasso 5770 - Cherubic Puzzles
Naso 5768 - G"d's Roadies
Naso 5767 (Redux 5759) - The Fourth Fold
Naso 5763--Lemon Pledge
Naso 5759-The Fourth Fold
Naso 5760-Bitter Waters
Naso 5761-Keeping Me On My Toes
Naso 5762-Wondrous Names (Haftarah Naso from Judges)

Friday, May 22, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat–B’midbar 5775–The Reward At The End Of The Boring?

[Author’s note: this is a revisiting and reworking of an earlier musing for this parasha, first written in 2002, and entitled “They Did As They Were Told? You Gotta Be Kidding!”]

I think it was wishful thinking by the author(s) of Torah. After all, these are the tribes of Israel. These are human beings. How likely is it that these are accurate descriptions of what happened?

וַֽיַּֽעֲשׂוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָֹה אֶת־מֹשֶׁה כֵּן עָשֽׂוּ

וַֽיַּֽעֲשׂוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּה יְהֹוָה אֶת־מֹשֶׁה כֵּן־חָנוּ לְדִגְלֵיהֶם וְכֵן נָסָעוּ אִישׁ לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָיו עַל־בֵּית אֲבֹתָֽיו

The Israelites did accordingly; just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so they did. (Nu 1:54)

The Israelites did accordingly; just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so they camped by their standards, and so they marched, each with his clan according to his ancestral house. (Nu 2:34)

Really? No arguing? No in-fighting? No jealousy? No complaining? No whining? In what universe is it even possible it happened that way? I think of all the times I have tried to organize groups of people (of any age.) There is always someone who doesn’t like the plan, the arrangement, etc. This happens to me on a daily, hourly, sometimes even every 60-second basis in classes and other settings. Now, I’ll be first to admit that, because I am a teacher who encourages my students to question authority, I’m probably exacerbating the situation for myself. Nevertheless I know teachers, masters of classroom management, who still sometimes experience what it’s like to be herding cats, as they say. It’s in our nature.

(Over the years, perhaps some of us have become “domesticated,” become, as they call them, “sheeple.” Social scientists also tell us that there are situations in which people can become less individually assertive. There are “pied pipers” among us, and there have been throughout history. I’ll just bet, however, that some kid in Hamelin stubbornly refused to dance to the piper’s tune. They just wrote him or her out of the story.)

Back in 2002, I related this teaching experience:

It was a few years ago, around this same time of the year.

"OK, yeladim. When we go into the sanctuary today we'll have assigned seats. Each group will have its own section, marked by a banner. Be sure to sit in the section for your group. It's really important that everyone be with their group so we can count everybody before we take off on our journey. Any questions?"

"What if I want to sit with my friends and they're not in my group?"
"What if my group's section is way in back, and I want to be closer?"
"I don't want to have to sit in the front where everybody can see me!"
"Ploni is in my group and I'm not going to sit next to him no matter what!"
"What if I have to go to the bathroom?"
"My mommy said I'm not supposed to be with Plonit, and she's in my group!"

"My, my, such a fuss. Maybe Moshe was right."

"Right about what?"

"The midrash tell us that when G”d told Moshe to put the tribes in a specific order of surrounding the Mishkan, Moshe complained to G”d that now all the tribes were going to fight about who goes in front, who goes in back, and so on. And you are all doing exactly what Moshe thought would happen!"

"But, Mr. D., the tribes didn't fight!"

"No, they didn't. In fact, the Torah says something else. Who knows what it says?"

"It says they did exactly what they were told, just as G”d had told Moshe to tell them."

"I'm impressed, Ploni. You've really been studying your parasha."

"It was simple, Mr. D. This parasha was so full of all these boring numbers that it was easy to remember that there was finally something different at the end of the list."

"How many lists were there, yeladim?"
”Anyone other than Ploni?”
”No? Ok, tell us, Ploni.”

"A whole bunch of them, Mr. D. All these names and numbers. It was really boring reading."

"Yes, yeladim, there are quite a few lists in this parasha. Does anybody know how many of them were lists of numbers?"


"Two is right, Plonit! Now let's see how smart your friend Ploni is. Is there something special about both those lists, Ploni?"

"Well, er, one is just a list of how may people are in each tribe..."

"Yes, and…?"

"The other is a list of where each tribe was, and how many were in it."

"And what does it say at the end of each list?"

"Oh, I see what you're getting at, Mr. D. Each list ends with it saying that the people did just as they were told to do."

"Brilliant, Ploni. That's exactly right. So we have two lists, one just of numbers, and one with places and numbers. And each one ends with the words that the Israelites did just as G”d commanded them to do through Moshe."

"And when something appears in the Torah more than once..."
"It's important!”

"OK, so what are we all going to do when we go into the sanctuary? Are we going to fight and argue about where to sit, or are we all going to be like our ancestors?"

"But you're not Moses...or G”d, either, Mr. D!"

"Well, that is true. But I am in charge of you! So you think that means you don't have to do exactly what you're told? Is this only about what G”d commands? We don't have to do anything if it isn't commanded by G”d? Are the lessons we learn from Torah not useful in our lives all the time?" I may not be your parent, but I am acting in the place of your parents at this moment, and you all know that the Torah says to honor your parents…”

“No, the Torah says to honor your father and your mother, Mr. D.”

“That’s true, Ploni. But even in ancient days, not everyone had a father and a mother.  And in our world today, there are families of all kinds Should an orphan not honor those who care for them as if they were parents? Must we take everything the Torah says literally?  I don’t see your parents throwing stones at you when you misbehave!  So, will you all be good Israelites now, and honor me as your temporary parent, and do as your ancestors did and sit where you are told, without complaining?

Well, I'd like to imagine that from that point the children obediently went and took their places with their groups. It wasn't quite the same scene as it was in the wilderness of Sinai, with the tribes obediently lined up according to the instructions given to them. And we are such a stiff-necked and obstinate people. The connected verses in the haftarah from Hosea make that abundantly clear! Yet in parashat Bamidbar, we did exactly as we were told. It's amazing. And one wonders why, in this case, we were so obedient. What made this situation different? It seems contrary to our nature. That goes right back to Gan Eden, does it not? (Though yes, we can argue that it was a case of entrapment or lousy parenting by G”d. “Eat anything and all you want-except from that there tree…”)

Was it some sort of innate understanding that, about to embark on this journey, we needed to come together as a community, each in their own place? Is it the knowledge that they were about to come in harm's way and it was necessary to allow some sort of military order and discipline to be imposed on them? (After all, that was the whole point of the census-to count all the eligible fighting men.) History is replete with examples of previously disorganized peoples coming together with organized military discipline when threatened.

The midrash teaches us that the tribes cooperated because this was the same order in which Jacob's sons stood to carry Jacob's coffin. A nice midrash, to be sure, but hardly satisfying. And one I doubt  would have won over the students. No, there's some lesson, some meaning inside this little bit of text aside from the p'shat (plain meaning.)

Reviewing my previous musings on this parasha, I came across one from 5759 (1999)  in which I wrote about the haftarah from Hosea. I think the explanation and conclusion I came to in that could work for this musing as well:

It is here we encounter G”d's promise to banish war, and then the well known "V'eirastikh Li" –G”d's betrothal promise to us. Why is this connected to Bamidbar? Because it is a "why", an answer to why the children of Israel do all these things-take a census, march together under the standards of their own tribes, through the Wilderness to an uncertain future. Because G”d will:

וְאֵֽרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי לְעוֹלָם וְאֵֽרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בְּצֶדֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּט וּבְחֶסֶד וּבְרַֽחֲמִֽים: וְאֵֽרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בֶּאֱמוּנָה וְיָדַעַתְּ אֶת־יְהֹוָֽה

...espouse you forever; I will espouse you with righteousness and justice, and with goodness and mercy. And I will espouse you with faithfulness; then you shall be devoted to the L”rd. (Hosea 2:21-22-JPS)

When we do just as we are commanded, then we keep our end of the covenant, and then, only then, can we truly say that we shall "v'yada'at et Adnai" - we shall know G”d (the more literal translation of the end of Hosea 2:22.)

As the Shabbat Bride comes to your home, and the peace of Shabbat descends on you and yours, may you espouse her as G”d has espoused us.

That’s the somewhat cheesy way I wrapped up my thoughts in 2002. It’s the mystic in me coming out. If you have followed my musings over the years, you’ll see the needle shift back and forth between more pragmatic and more spiritual. At the moment, it’s more on the pragmatic side, so the ending from 2002 feels, somehow, not where I’m at.

Where I’m at is, if the people really did do as they were told, down to the last person, with no arguing, fighting, complaining, etc. then either the Torah is simply glossing over the realities for the overall effect, or deliberately misrepresenting the reality to make it seem as if everything went smoothly, according to plan. However, Torah does not seem to shy away from showing lots of reality, warts and all. So why do that here? Could this really be what happened? Could it be that some of the divisions between the Israelites that appear later in the story actually have their origins here (among other places?) Did some people just “suck it up” for the sake of peace and the communal good will? Perhaps it was the lingering effects of Sinai, that “naaseh v’nishma” spirit?

Whatever the case, it would take a miracle for this to happen, and even more so to happen twice in such close proximity. Here, buried at the end of two really boring lists, a miracle. Maybe the lesson is that sometimes it’s worth slogging through the boring stuff, because you might find a miracle at the end?.

Darn, I waxed spiritual again.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2015 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Bemidbar 5774 - Torah as Anecdote-It's a Good Thing
Bemidbar 5773 - Who Really Provides?
Bemdibar 5771 - Moving Treasures
Bemidbar 5770 - Sense Us
Bemidbar 5769 - That V'eirastikh Li Feeling
Bamidbar 5767-What Makes It Holy? (Redux & Revised 5761)
Bemidbar 5766-Redux 5760-Knowing Our Place
Bemidbar 5764-Doorway to Hope
Bemidbar 5763-Redux 5759 (with additions for 5763)
Bemidbar 5762-They Did As They Were Told? You Gotta be Kidding!
Bemidbar 5759-Marrying Gd-Not Just for Nuns
Bemidbar 5760-Knowing Our Place
Bemidbar 5761-What Makes it Holy

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Emor 5775–Missing the Appointment

דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, מוֹעֲדֵי יְהוָה, אֲשֶׁר-תִּקְרְאוּ אֹתָם מִקְרָאֵי קֹדֶשׁ--אֵלֶּה הֵם, מוֹעֲדָי

Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them: the appointed times of Ad*nai, which you will call holy assemblies, these are My appointed times.

If you’re a regular reader of my musings, you may have noticed that there was no musing last week. This is something that has rarely happened over the last 18 years. Usually, if I’m pressed for time, or know I’ll be traveling or away from internet access, I might simply recycle an older musing. Once or twice, I posted a musing right after Shabbat. I can’t think of a case, however, with the exception of the Shabbat following 9/11/2001, when I simply neglected to write and post a musing, or if not musing, at the very least an apology or explanation.

Truth be told, I have always felt an obligation to myself and to my readers to always post something. Now, the fact of the matter is, last week was a very busy one. So is this one. As busy as it was, I am sure I could have found some time earlier in the week, or even the previous one, to prepare a new musing (or even prepare one to recycle.) I’ll readily admit to a tendency to be a procrastinator (there’s some evidence that some people do work better under pressure) so, knowing this, I could have made a better plan.

You know what? I didn’t. I just didn’t write a musing last week, or send out a notice or apology. I didn’t beat myself up about it, I didn’t loose sleep, hell didn’t freeze over, and the world did not end. In a way, I felt free. It was a good feeling.

Having “appointed times” is a good thing. Having routines is a good thing. A cycle of religious festivals, celebrations, and rituals is a good thing. Here in this parasha we are given a somewhat specific set of “fixed times” from G”d through Moshe. These “fixed times” remain, with some slight modifications, adjustments, additions, and creative tinkering, and are with us today. That’s a long history of following the schedule. Yet even we have had to miss an appointed time or two. The classic example is the delayed celebration of Sukkot during the time of the Maccabean revolt. Though it’s not a unanimous opinion, it’s not at all beyond the realm of possibility that Hanukkah as we know it began as a delayed celebration of Sukkot.

That the “fixed times” were, once we were in galut (diaspora,) tied to the schedule of the land of Israel was a unifying factor that helped keep us together as a people. At the same time, we lived/live in so many places where the local seasons of the year didn’t/don’t exactly match well with the seasons in Israel. We made accommodations for locality in many of our traditions, however, except for the addition of second-day chagim, and an occasional “in case you missed it here’s another chance to do this holiday” addition, we haven’t messed with the actual schedules, once the rabbis het finally settled on a standard luni-solar calendar. (Of course, as we know, if we don’t fiddle with the calendar itself, as amazingly accurate as it was, the little discrepancies will add up enough to throw the chagim out of the seasons in Israel in which they were intended – we presume – to fall.)

Does G”d really need “fixed times?” In G”d’s timescale, what does it matter? Of course, we can play the old ineffable G”d card, and believe that although we don’t understand the reasons, G”d really wants and needs to have these fixed ritual schedules. Observably, the universe works on fixed times. Approximately 364 days pass in one revolution of earth around the Sun. 7 is, conveniently, a divisor of 364. This could, however, be seen as the tail wagging the dog. Our systems of measurement are simply based on the extant characteristics of our local planetary system and our attempts to synchronize them – which we have done throughout history with varying degrees of success. Some ancient person noticed that the average lunar cycle divided nicely into 4 segments, and thus the 7 day week was born. The Babylonians used a 7 day week, as did the Greeks. For a time, the Romans actually used an 8 day week. The point is, other divisors could have become the norm. They didn’t. Assuming that everything G”d did, G”d did for a reason, our ancestors assumed G”d wanted a week to be seven days, with the seventh day a day of rest. so it wasn’t a huge leap from that to having G”d ordain other set festivals and observances.

Having these set times of year gave some order to our lives, and G”d knows, we seem to require, as a species, a certain amount of order. G”d, however, really created a universe of balancing forces. Thus, the universe itself tends towards chaos. Order helps balance the chaos. So if we have fixed times, shouldn’t we also have random/floating/unfixed times to balance them out? Or is a simple failure to observe a fixed time every once in a while enough balance things?

That’s sort of what it feels like to me. I just took a week off of writing my musings, normally one of the fixed ritual acts of every week. If, as I might normally have done, I scurried to at least throw a terse “sorry, no musing” message together, or if I had spent this whole week feeling terribly guilty over having not sent out a musing last week, I might not have experienced the sense of freedom I did, and my act of “not observing a fixed time” might not have been enough to balance out my universe. (Balance is a deceptive thing, especially when it’s not being viewed in a scientific sense as equal mass. Sometimes, it might only take one not doing something over a long span of time to balance out having done it every other time it was supposed to have been done. The pen can be mightier than the sword. The dove feather cannot outweigh the cannon ball, but a symbol of peace can balance a symbol of war. Remember, too, that gravity can act equally upon the feather and the cannon ball.)

I cannot say with any certainty that I might not skip a future musing. I think I can say that having skipped this last one, and allowing myself the freedom to have done so, is likely to enable me to continue writing more musings in the future. It may have been a brief vacation, but the positive mental effect it had upon me was significant.

Interestingly, although I missed my fixed time, my appointment for writing my musing last week, I didn’t miss my Shabbat. That part of the ritual I had. Is it a slippery slope to wonder if maybe Shabbat can be more meaningful if I occasionally (but rarely) miss my appointment with Shabbat? (Some might argue that my musing is a fixed time of my own creation,whereas Shabbat is a fixed time commanded by G”d. That’s fine if you believe that G”d shaped the universe, as opposed to humanity shaping G”d to fit the universe as we perceived it.)

This week, I am keeping my appointment with my musing, and with Shabbat. I come to both with a renewed sense of desire and a sense of healing and wholeness. I’ll try not to let this good feeling lure me into becoming a more frequent slacker. The balance is delicate and needs to be maintained, carefully.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2015 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings On This Parasha:

Emor 5774 - Lex Talionis (Redux & Revised from 5759)
Emor 5773 - The Half-Israelite Blasphemer
Emor 5772-Eternal EffortII: We Have Met the Ner Tamid and It Is Us
Emor 5771-B'yom HaShabbat, B'yom HaShabbat
Emor 5770 - G"d's Shabbat II
Emor 5767-Redux and Revised 5761-Eternal Effort
Emor 5766 - Mum's the Word (Redux 5760 with new commentary for 5766)
Emor 5765-Out of Sync
Emor 5764-One Law for All
Emor 5763-Mishpat Ekhad
Emor 5758-Gd's Shabbat
Emor 5759-Lex Talionis
Emor 5760-Mum's the Word
Emor 5761-Eternal Effort