Thursday, July 23, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat–D’varim 5775–Kumu V’ivru (Revised 5760)

Parasha D'varim is a retelling. You might think that Moshe rabbeinu might have started this retelling with the story of the Israelite sojourn into Egypt, descent into slavery, and our miraculous delivery from Pharaoh and Egyptian slavery. (Like our Pesakh haggadah, except containing Moses!) After all, most of the generation that had experienced the miracle of the exodus was gone.

However, Moshe starts his story at Sinai, at a time after the revelation and the giving of the Torah. And he starts his story recounting an instruction from G”d:

רַב־לָכֶם שֶׁבֶת בָּהָר הַזֶּֽה

Rav lachem shevet bahar hazeh - You have dwelled long enough at this mountain (1:6b-JPS)

I thought on these words and what they might mean in a broader context. Phrases echoed in my head:

"Time to move on, to pickup and go. Time to leave the safety and security of complacency. Don't look back at either fortunes or misfortunes, as a whole new future lies open before you if you will but go forward into it."

Parasha D'varim is about forward motion. It retells the sojourn of the Israelites after they left Sinai, and relates stories of the military victories along their eventual drive towards the promised land (albeit, with a "brief" 40 year interval in there somewhere.) Well, yes, there was almost 40 years of wilderness wandering, but then a huge flurry of activity towards the end. Moshe starts his narrative with the first stirrings of this forward motion. What came before that seems not all the important at the moment.

The past is prologue, it is said. Now, all the Israelite history that came before this instruction, this "time to move on," is it really just prologue? Surely not. If we look further along into D'varim, past our parasha, we see Moshe invoking the memory of the exodus-most forcefully and in a central profession of faith. And the revelation at Sinai, the giving of the law - that, according to some, is the high point of Jewish existence. And our holy Torah relates our story back to its origin.

But let's turn this around. Perhaps all that comes before G”d says to the Israelites "time to move on from Sinai" is prologue-prologue for what comes next: action. To receive the law, to be promised a land-these are G”d's actions, G”d's words. Now the time has come for our action - to put into practice these instructions and show our faith in the G”d who gave them to us (and the G”d who freed us from Egypt.)

If "rav lachem shevet bahar hazeh" is a simple nudge, then further along into the journey, as related in our parasha, is a charge, and true push. Twice we read the same instruction:

קֻ֛מוּ וְעִבְר֥וּ

"Kumu v'ivru." Get up and cross over. First, over nahal Zered, and then nahal Arnon.

When the Israelites are hearing this story retold, where are they? At the very threshold of another crossing over. The big kahuna crossing. Entry into the land promised to Abraham and his descendants. The story told in our parasha is an exhortation, an urging to action - with assurance that, as G”d has done until then, G”d will see them through safely and victoriously, and be with them.

Moshe made a wise choice here - to deliver this exhortation, this charge, first. Only later on in Sefer D'varim do we read that Moshe spoke of the miracle of our freedom from slavery, and then we read his reminders to us of G”d's instructions and why we must follow them. Smartly, Moshe ends his speeches with praise for G”d and then his blessing for Israel-but more on all that when we get to those parashiyot. It is the charge: kumu v'ivru, that comes first and foremost.

It's a solid strategy. Imagine for a moment Moshe laying out a long litany regarding G”d's instructions to the people, with more than a fair share of them which might be unpopular with the people, and then having to tell the crowd "OK, G”d says, it's time to kumu v'ivru again." "Not if we gotta do all that crap you told us we had to do, Moshe!" might come the reply. (The religious among us, myself included, might think it would make perfect sense to do it in this order-instructions and then charge-for then G”d is clearly the motivation for crossing over. But I daresay many, if not most people want the good news up front, and the details later.) Moshe knows-people will hear mostly what he says at the beginning and at the end. So he starts with a story of victorious forward progress (and ends, as we said earlier, with praises and blessings.) He puts the charge - kumu v'ivru - first.

We’ve glossed over the obvious here that we are the ivri, the Hebrews, those who have “crossed over.” It is in our very nature to be the ones who cross over, but we so often seem reluctant to do so. We have to be exhorted to rise up and cross over. Over and over. We like to hang out at the foot of the mountain. Or we complain of ennui – that our get up and go has gotten up and left.

In our own lives, how many of us have stayed too long at the mountain? How many of us are at the threshold, and reluctant to cross over. The message of parasha D'varim is should speak to us now as it did to our ancestors and inspire us to action. G”d is with you, G”d is with us let us kumu v'ivru - get up and cross over.

Shabbat Shalom


©2015 (portions ©2000) by Adrian A. Durlester


Other musings on the parasha:

D'varim/Hazon 5774 - Refractory Recalcitrant Recidivists (Redux 5766)
D'varim 5773 - The Pea in Og's Bed
D'varim 5772 - Revised 5762 - L'chu v'niva'ch'chah and the Twelve Steps
D'varim 5769-Torah of Confusion
D'varim-Shabbat Hazon 5771/5766  - Refractory Recalcitrant Recidivists
D'varim 5764--Eleven Days
D'varim 5763--Remembering to Forget or Forgetting to Remember?
D'varim 5762-L'chu v'niva'ch'chah and the Twelve Steps
D'varim 5759-Owning Up

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Matot-Masei 5775–Mei-eit Harav Tarbu Umei-eit Hamat Tamitu

My thoughts this week are simple, and based on one short verse from parashat Matot-Masei, Bamidbar 35:8

וְהֶֽעָרִים אֲשֶׁר תִּתְּנוּ מֵֽאֲחֻזַּת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֵת הָרַב תַּרְבּוּ וּמֵאֵת הַמְעַט תַּמְעִיטוּ אִישׁ כְּפִי נַֽחֲלָתוֹ אֲשֶׁר יִנְחָלוּ יִתֵּן מֵֽעָרָיו לַֽלְוִיִּֽם

In assigning towns from the holdings of the Israelites, take more from the larger groups and less from the smaller, so that each assigns towns to the Levites in proportion to the share it receives.

Yes, I’m broadly interpreting these words to encompass my unabashedly socialist leanings.Yes, I’m cherry-picking. No doubt my capitalist friends, whether of the the Smith, Keynesian, or Randian camps could just as easily cherry-pick text to support their economic points of view.

Nevertheless, I find these verses fairly typical of how Torah approaches economic justice. It’s clear about how we need to treat the widow and the orphan. It’s clear that we should treat rich and poor the same in matters of justice. But the Torah has, overall, at least to my sensitivities, more of a socialist bent when it comes to how we deal with the poor and the needy, and also in its general opinions of people with great wealth and those who value great wealth. That itinerant rabbi who became the basis for a whole new religion certainly seemed to embrace a more socialist and charitable  outlook.

Things are just too out of balance in our society. The daily stats that come across my various social media feeds that highlight the growing economic inequities in our society are revealing and frightening. Too much wealth is concentrated in the hands of too few. Trickle down is not the answer. Progressive taxation is what the Torah recommends here. Those who have more contribute more.

Yes, I’m stretching it. The Torah is simply talking about land for the Levites. It’s talking about taking more land from those who were greater in number and thus assigned more land, and vice versa.  However, the idea is basic and core. Those with more are required to give more to support the community.

There are those among the wealthy who are giving more. It all depends upon where you draw the line for wealthy. I’m not opposed to wealth. I am opposed to its excessive and vulgar accumulation. I am in favor of redistribution. Call me a socialist. I don’t care. The Torah is my manifesto.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2015 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings On This Parasha:

Masei 5774 - Would Jeremiah Be Surprised?
Matot 5774 - Over the Top (Revised 5763)
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 5771 - Don't Become Like...Them
Matot-Masei 5770 - Treasure Trove of Trouble
Masei 5768 - Accidents Matter
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


Thursday, July 9, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Pinkhas 5775–Why is This Rebuke..yadda, yadda, yadda (an expansion on 5769)

Now you’ll have to wait another twenty years, until 5795, before you get to hear the regular haftarah reading for parashat Pinkhas. For the next twenty years, the reading of parshat Pinkhas occurs after the 17th of Tammuz, meaning we get to read the first of three haftarot of affliction (or admonition) leading us up to Tisha b’Av. We get to read it twenty years in a row. Yay, us.

By way of explanation, since this Shabbat falls after the 17th of Tammuz, we begin reading the special haftarot of admonition (or affliction)  - admonishing haftarot (two from Jeremiah, one from Isaiah) preceding the ninth of Av (after which we hear the seven haftarot of consolation.) We take these three weeks to reflect on the things that led to the many horrible things that happened to the Jewish people throughout our history that are traditionally associated with the ninth of Av (Tisha b'Av.) The original Hebrew root for the Aramaic word d'puranata which is usually translated as "admonition" is the root that generally means "to disturb" or “to afflict.” These haftarot, at least the second two, are certainly disturbing. They are among the most irredeemable of texts. Clearly, they are meant to "disturb" us, to give us pause, to cause us to reflect upon our own behaviors and actions and the behaviors and actions of our community.

Another oddity to note is that the two haftarot from Jeremiah are also the usual readings for parashiyot Matot and Masei, which normally follow parashat Pinkhas, ending the book of Numbers. The third reading, from Isaiah, is the normal haftarah for parashat D’vraim So we would normally read these haftarot anyway, we just shift them to fit within the “three weeks” between the fast of the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha b’Av. Commentators talk about these special haftarot of admonition, but they have always been there, timed as much as possible, to be at this time of year. It’s only the vagaries of the Hebrew calendar cycle and the insistence that these haftarot be read during the “three weeks” that causes all this shuffling (and, for the next 20 years, will deprive us of the great regular haftarah for Pinkhas, from I Kings 18/19.)

As I’ve commented before, this first haftarah of affliction or admonition is, all in all, not so horrible. It is still very much in a "get your act together, for trouble is coming, but G"d will protect you" mode.

After some preliminary establishing of Jeremiah as a (reluctant?) prophet, G”d gives Jeremiah a vision of a steaming cauldron. Peoples shall pour out from the north, bringing disaster to the Israelites. The kingdoms of the north will come to Jerusalem. G”d will argue G”d’s case against the Israelites for their wickedness, their forsaking of G”d, and their worship of other gods and idols.

“Get ready,” says G”d to Jeremiah. “Gird your loins.” G”d tells Jeremiah the people are likely to give him a hard time, and he had best not dissemble before them.  G”d tells Jeremiah that G”d will fortify him against the Kings and people of Judah. Jeremiah’s diatribe, from G”d to Israel, is in the next installment, and not this one.

G”d ‘s message here, to me, feels incomplete. There's no "if you return to/do not forsake G"d's ways" clause attached.  It is as though G"d has forgotten all of Israel's stubbornness and recalcitrance. In opposition to Hosea's metaphor of a cuckolded husband and Israel as whore, Jeremiah has G"d reminiscing over Israel's devotion, their love for G"d as if a bride. (2:2) G"d even has Jeremiah say, in G"d's name, that accounted to Israel's favor was how they followed G"d in the wilderness (2:2.) Verse 3 is the topper.

"Kodesh Yisrael La"Ad”nai, reishit t'vuato"
Israel was Holy to Ad"nai, the first fruits of (G"d's) harvest.

So the Israelites are compared to the offering gift of the first fruits. Then, those who would eat/devour Israel are like those who profaned the first fruits by eating from them, and they shall bear the (bad) consequences of their actions. That’s a pretty strong statement of an intent to protect.

The message is mixed. Bad things are coming your way. But I, G”d, remember how you were faithful to me. (Is G”d suffering from some memory lapses here? Selective memory? Early onset dementia? Faithful? Not a word that has ever, aptly, described the people of Israel. “Faithful but…” or “Faithful in their own way.” Or, as Cole Porter once put it

“I’m always be true to you darlin’ in my fashion, Yes, I’m always true to you darlin’ in my way.”
(Kiss Me Kate)

With this strong hint of potential protection, why is this a "haftarah of admonition?" Seems the only ones being admonished here are those who would attack Israel. Don’t worry. The admonition against Israel - it’s coming, you betcha. Next week.

So, if the intent is to be a haftarah of admonition,  why not begin with the haftarah chosen for the second haftarah of admonition, from the 2nd chapter of Jeremiah, which is a truly accusatory and damning diatribe against Israel?

If I learn anything from this haftarah, it is a reminder that viewing just small pieces of our sacred text without surrounding context (i.e. what comes before and what comes after) may not be the best way to look at things. It is also a reminder of the power of rhetorical tools and devices. The biblical authors, editors, and redactors were masters of the rhetorical arts. (That, alone, ought to tell us something about how we should view our sacred texts.)

Here’s the thing. This first haftarah of admonition - it’ s a tactic. Just as Hosea uses a methodology that gets our attention up front-sort a "shock and awe"- Jeremiah uses another tactic-lull us into a false sense of security, and then, wham-o,  let us have it. There’s a warning here, but also a hinted at promise of protection and an eventual good ending. That ought to put us in a wary but generally positive mood. That will make the next haftarah all that more powerful in its lambasting of our unfaithfulness to G”d.  I'll admit that, separated by a week, it might not have the same impact as when chapters 1 and 2 are read contiguously, but impact it will have, nevertheless.

So our first week of admonition will pass without much admonishing. Take advantage of the moment, for next week it won't be so easy.

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian ©2015 (portions ©2009) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Pinkhas 5774 - Slaughter the Oxen, Burn the Plow, and Hear the Still Small Voice
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!

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Balak 5775-Stymied

Everything about this story is wrong. The extensive amount of midrash that exists around the story is testament enough to its bizarre construction.

I don’t even know where to begin with this story. As a rhetorical device, it superficially appears to have a purpose. However, it really adds little to the overall story arc (in the near term.)

When the SCOTUS ruled in King v. Burwell that “The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act Section 36B's tax credits are available to individuals who purchase health insurance on an exchange created by the federal government” the Justices commented on the sloppy way the act was written. Despite this, a majority of the court felt the intention of the act was clear. would that the intent of the inclusion of the story of Balak and Bilaam were as clear.

I’m so stymied by Balak this year I can’t even put my thoughts into coherent form. So I’ll take a simpler, easier path, and offer a selection of previous musings on Balak, to wit:

Balak 5774 - Ball's In Your Court
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 5760-Holy Cow!

Shabbat Shalom,