Friday, November 17, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Toldot 5778 - Like Father Like Son

This was my very first musing on parashat Toldot, written back in 1998. I thought it was due for a revisit after 19 years. No major changes, just a few edits and edge-smoothing - it still speaks for itself.

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Toldot 5778 - Like Father Like Son

Like father like son.

It wasn't enough that Abraham lied to "protect his wife." Isaac had to do it too. And probably with the same King his father tried to fool. It seems, however, that Isaac is not to be honored and taken care of like his father. For this time, in this version of the thrice-repeated Torah tale) it is not G"d that exposes the lie. It is Isaac's own carelessness, foolish enough to be caught fondling his wife where Abimelech could see them! (Now one could argue that G"d made Isaac deliberately stupid-or excessively horny, but to me that seems unlikely.)

Like father, like son.

Isaac redug the wells at Gerar that had once been his father's. He named them with the same names his father had given them. Surely a symbolic act in many ways. Isaac drinking from his father's wells, carrying on the family traditions. Isaac restoring the good name of his father to these wells, a name taken away when they were stopped up after Abraham's death. Isaac drinking from the same spiritual source as his father.

Do the stopped up wells perhaps represent Isaac's estrangement from his father after what happened in Moriah? And is Isaac's restoring them symbolic of some level of posthumous reconciliation?

Isaac then tried digging some new wells in the same general area, only to have the water rights disputed by local herdsmen. So he moved away to a location nearby and tried again-this time successfully. It is only after all these things that G"d finally speaks and tells Isaac him that G"d is with him.

So Isaac had to both recognize his father, and establish his own identity before G"d would speak to him and remind Isaac that G"d intended to fulfill the promise to Abraham-and that Isaac was an instrument in this.

Much is made of how Isaac seems so insignificant when compared to his father and his younger son. In these simple acts Isaac fulfilled his purpose. To be the son of Abraham. To be the father of Jacob.

Surely there are lessons to be gleaned from this.

We can't all be an Abraham, a Jacob, a Joseph, a Moses. Some of us are meant to be Isaacs. To be that link that maintains continuity in an ever changing universe. It is never an easy role, and not a glorious one. Sometimes this link in the chain bears difficult burdens. But its reward should be clear to each of us today. For were it not for Isaac, we would, none of us, be here today. Though he was not sacrificed to G"d by his father, Isaac gave the ultimate sacrifice-himself-the entirety of his long life-so that the line of Abraham could be carried on and G"d's promises fulfilled.

This Shabbat, dig up a few of your ancestor's wells. Start a few new ones of your own. Perhaps then you too will be ready for G"d to talk to you.
Shabbat Shalom,
Adrian©2017 (portions © 1998) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Friday, November 10, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Chayyei Sarah 5778–Life Still Goes On

In 5762, I pondered on why the Torah includes the speech of Abraham's servant to Bethuel and Laban, explaining all the instructions that Abraham had given him, and relating what had transpired to bring the servant to this point, seeking Rebekkah as a wife for Isaac. After all, the Torah has already told us all of this-why the need to have it repeated, written out, in the Torah?

Something I didn't notice at that time, but which became strikingly apparent to me the following year, in 5763, is this: When Rebekkah and Isaac meet, the Torah states simply that the servant "told Isaac all the things that he [the servant] had done." (Bereshit 24:66.)

[Here I am years later in 5778, and something compelled me to revisit this particular musing this year. While I’m working on this, I also need to figure out why. Why this particular puzzle, and why this particular response to dealing with that puzzle.]

Fascinating, isn't it? We have this elaborate retelling of the servant's story to Laban and Bethuel. A completely redundant passage. It gives us pause, makes us wonder. Our Torah is quite effective at that, isn't it? Seeing this apparently redundant retelling in print, we are given pause. So we stop and look at the text, and ask questions, and wonder why it is the way it is. Exactly as intended. For every time the text gets us to question the text, the text is doing its job well!

So, after wrestling with the question of why the Torah contains the complete text of the servant's retelling, just this short time later the text presents us with another question.

All this elaborate explanation of how Abraham sent his servant, how Gd guided the servant to kin of Abraham there to find a perfect match for Isaac in Rebekkah. 61 verses in all (24:1-61), including the 15 verses of the servant's retelling the tale (vv34-49.)

Yet the entire story of Isaac and Rebekkah’s first meeting, and their becoming man and wife, is told in just 6 verses (24:62-67). Why isn't verse 66 replaced with another 15 verses where the Torah relates in intricate detail what the servant tells to Isaac about his mission? Why is the consummation of the marriage of the second in line of our patriarchs and matriarchs not given more time in print?

סב וְיִצְחָק בָּא מִבּוֹא בְּאֵר לַחַי רֹאִי וְהוּא יוֹשֵׁב בְּאֶרֶץ הַנֶּֽגֶב: סג וַיֵּצֵא יִצְחָק לָשׂוּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶה לִפְנוֹת עָרֶב וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה גְמַלִּים בָּאִֽים: סד וַתִּשָּׂא רִבְקָה אֶת־עֵינֶיהָ וַתֵּרֶא אֶת־יִצְחָק וַתִּפֹּל מֵעַל הַגָּמָֽל: סה וַתֹּאמֶר אֶל־הָעֶבֶד מִֽי־הָאִישׁ הַלָּזֶה הַֽהֹלֵךְ בַּשָּׂדֶה לִקְרָאתֵנוּ וַיֹּאמֶר הָעֶבֶד הוּא אֲדֹנִי וַתִּקַּח הַצָּעִיף וַתִּתְכָּֽס: סו וַיְסַפֵּר הָעֶבֶד לְיִצְחָק אֵת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר עָשָֽׂה: סז וַיְבִאֶהָ יִצְחָק הָאֹהֱלָה שָׂרָה אִמּוֹ וַיִּקַּח אֶת־רִבְקָה וַתְּהִי־לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה וַיֶּֽאֱהָבֶהָ וַיִּנָּחֵם יִצְחָק אַֽחֲרֵי אִמּֽוֹ:

Verse 62-we learn where Isaac is living. Verse 63-Isaac encounters the returning caravan with Rebekkah. Verse 64/65-Rebekkah sees Isaac and asks who he is. The servant tells her it is Isaac, and she veils herself. Verse 66-We learn that the servant tells Isaac all that he had done. Verse 67-Isaac brings Rebekkah into Sarah's tent, consummates the marriage, and finds comfort. All that in six verses? Amazing.

So what is there to be learned from the Torah here giving the Reader's Digest condensed version of the story, yet having just spelled out the events leading up to it in great detail-twice before?

The text, matter-of-factly, proceeds from there to tell us how Abraham took another wife and she bore him 6 more sons.

וַיֹּסֶף אַבְרָהָם וַיִּקַּח אִשָּׁה וּשְׁמָהּ קְטוּרָֽה: ב וַתֵּלֶד לוֹ אֶת־זִמְרָן וְאֶת־יָקְשָׁן וְאֶת־מְדָן וְאֶת־מִדְיָן וְאֶת־יִשְׁבָּק וְאֶת־שֽׁוּחַ:

So what is the lesson here? Perhaps it is "life goes on." Both Isaac and his father Abraham do what they need to do to continue with life after Sarah dies. Isaac mourns the loss of his mother. (How Isaac feels about his father is likely another matter entirely. We've all discussed before the potential mental state of someone whose father tried to offer them up as a sacrifice!)

[I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention how all this might tie in with the thesis of my as yet unfinished biblical fiction book telling the story of how Isaac went to live with Hagar and Ishmael. If my thesis is correct, life for Isaac went on – but away from his parents. With Isaac’s return to the fold after the death of Sarah a new way of making life go on will unfold. I wonder, too, if Isaac would have remained near his father if Rebekkah had not come along while he was back home? The Torah never explicity mentions that Isaac came home to mourn his mother, It only mentions that he had recently arrived from Beer-Lahai-Roi, where he had been settled and living. It doesn’t make clear he has returned to the fold. Is there more to this story than meets the eye. Did Abraham orchestrate all this? Did he time the sending of his servant to find a wife for Isaac with his knowledge that Isaac would be coming to visiting in order to properly mourn his mother? Was this a chance encounter, or an elaborate machination? Was Abraham hoping to bring his son back home through this plan? Had the timing not worked, had Rebekkah not been there for Isaac to see (and vice versa) might Isaac have gone back to Beer-Lahai-Roi and continuing living with Hagar and Ishmael, as I suspect he had been since the akedah?]

Perhaps the Torah omits further detail to illustrate how life must go on. Abraham and Isaac (and Ishmael) must put the death of Sarah behind them. Isaac Must also put behind him the trauma of the akedah, and fulfill his obligation to carry on the lineage by getting married. Not much else needs to be said, so this is perhaps why it isn't said.

Yet, if this is indeed the case, it complicates the question of why the Torah so fully relates the exploits of the servant who retrieves Rebekkah. Why does this aspect of "life goes on" (after all, Isaac had to get married if he was to carry on the story) get so fully explicated when others are not?

It certainly serves to illustrate how and why Rebekkah is really the right person to be Isaac's wife. She and her family demonstrate hospitality much like their kinsman Abraham. However, the Torah could have made this point without all the other details. It could even make the point that G”d clearly had a hand in these events in a lot fewer words. I've taken a stab at a condensation. You might try your own hand at it. It isn't hard to do so and still convey the general story. But what of conveying the message? Could the message the Torah intends to impart truly be conveyed in another way?

It's all a puzzlement. And that's the whole idea. It makes us stop and think. This is not a simple book of history, of stories. The Torah is meant to engage the listener, the reader, to make them wonder why the Torah does one thing in one place and another someplace else. The rabbis worked so hard to try and smooth over the wrinkles in the Torah. And they achieved some amazing results through their midrashim and other interpretations. Yet somehow, I wonder if this misses the point. Need we try to be apologists for these seeming inconsistencies? Do we have to smooth over the rough spots? Are these inconsistencies and rough spots themselves the lessons, the meat of what the Torah is trying to teach us? Life is not perfect. Stories are not perfect. Things happen. Things seem odd. Yet, through it all, life goes on. Sometimes, we learn all the minute details, other times we do not. We simply have to adjust ourselves to this reality and move on.

So, as is often the case, my answer to the question of "what's wrong with the text?" is that nothing is wrong. All is how it is. Let's learn what we can from it and move on with our lives. As did Abraham and Isaac.

[Here I am, in 5778, and I read these words, and can’t believe I was willing to just let things slide like that. On the other hand, maybe the fact that I’m responding with a visceral discomfort to what I had written earlier is really maybe evidence of a current discomfort that I’m failing to recognize. At the same time, there’s a part of me that realizes that “moving on” might be exactly the message I need to hear in my life at the moment, and this why I chose this particular musing to recycle this year.]

Life must go on. Life does go on. Yet we are fortunate in that G”d has given us the vehicle to suspend the inexorable march of life and time-Shabbat. Use it wisely, so that dealing with the reality of life that must go on is made just the little bit easier and sweeter that Shabbat, out of all time and place, can make it.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 (portions ©2002) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Chayyei Sarah 5777 - Contentment
Chayyei Sarah 5776 - Still Not Warm (Revisited and Revised from 5767's "Never Warm")
Khayyei Sarah 5775 - Revisiting L'kha Dodi Likrat Kala
Hayyei Sarah 5774 - The Books of Hagar and Abishag
Hayyei Sarah 5773 - Still Tilting at Windmills
Hayyei Sarah 5772 - Zikhnah
Hayyei Sarah 5771 - The Book That Isn't - Yet
Hayyei Sarah 5770 - Call Me Ishamel II
Hayyei Sarah 5769 - Looking for Clues
Hayyei Sarah 5768 - A High Price
Hayei Sarah  5767-Never Warm?
Chaye Sarah 5766-Semper Vigilans
Chaye Sarah 5763-Life Goes On
Chaye Sarah 5762-Priorities, Redundancies And Puzzles
Chayeh Sarah 5761-L'cha Dodi Likrat Kala
Hayyei Sarah 5760 - Call Me Ishmael
Chaye Sarah 5757-The Shabbat That Almost Wasn't

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayeira 5778–The Unintentional Test

The unintentional test was a better test than the intentional one.

The story of the akeidah, the binding of Yitzchak begins with the statement

וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְבָרִים הָאֵלֶה וְהָאֱלֹהִים נִסָה אֶת־אַבְרָהָם וַיֹאמֶר אֵלָיו אַבְרָהָם וַיֹאמֶר הִנֵֽנִי

Some time after these things, G”d put Avraham to the test, saying to him “Abraham,” and he answered “Here I am.”

So we’re told from the get-go that this whole scenario is devised by G”d to test Avraham. What is not entirely clear from the rest of the story is whether Avraham passed or failed this particular test. It’s easy, perhaps,  to assume he must have gotten a passing grade, because G”d continued to show favor upon Avraham and keep the promises made to him. However, it could just as easily have been that Avraham did not perform as G”d expected, but G”d learned what G”d wanted to learn from the exercise, and decided to go ahead with Avraham despite any disappointment with the result of the test. Since G”d did not make the desired outcome clear, we can only speculate.

One could perhaps bolster the case that Avraham failed, and that G”d stepped in at the last minute to prevent a disaster, in that G”d had set an earlier precedent in choosing Noah, an imperfect and less than ideal choice, but perhaps the best option available at the time. You work with what you’ve got.

It’s a huge leap from there to Avraham assuming that G”d will destroy the people of S’dom and Gomorrah for their evil ways.

I also think it is foolish to divorce the question of passing/failing in the story of the akeidah from the story of Avraham’s argument with G”d over the planned destruction of of S’dom and Gomorrah. The text makes no argument that this was a test by G”d, but it can surely be viewed in that light.

G”d made the conscious (can we apply that verb to G”d?) choice to tell Avraham that he was planning to go check out the wickedness in S’dom and Gomorrah. It should be noted that at no time does G”d say that S’dom and Gomorroah will be destroyed for their sinful ways. Avraham seems to assume that if G”d find S’dom, and Gomorrah to be as sinful as reported, G”d will punish them with death. Ask yourself why Avraham would assume that. So far, the only real punishment that Avraham has seen meted out by G”d are the plagues and affliction G”d affected Pharaoh for messing around with Sarai with when Avraham tried to save his own skin by pretending she was his sister. When Pharaoh figured out the source of the affliction (and we still have no idea how Pharaoh figured it out, which I wrote about last week) and returned Sarai and sent Avram off with gifts and wealth, G”d relented and stop the punishment – no Egyptians were killed as far as we know. So where does Avraham get off assuming G”d is about to destroy the people of S’dom and Gomorrah?

Avraham, of course, has correctly interpreted G”d’s intentions (or has he?) Avraham challenges G”d asking if G”d will sweep away the innocent with the guilty. G”d doesn’t respond to Avraham saying  “Why do you assume I will destroy them all?” G”d seems to confirm Avraham’s assumption, and simply accepts Avraham’s first offer to save for fifty good people.

Is it possible that G”d had never actually intended to destroy S’dom and Gomorrah, but merely use some other form of punishment to send them a message? Did Avraham assuming G”d’s intentions actually precipitate G”d making that choice? Did Avraham force G”d’s hand in this instance? It’s an intriguing possibility.

Consider a potential inner dialogue of G”d. “OK, this schmuck, to whom I have promised things beyond imagination wants to argue with me, when he really has no idea what I’m planning.  I was just going to bring a plague to the towns, and weed out the wicked. OK, Mr. Wise Guy, be careful what you wish for. Just to make a point, I’ll take your assumption and run with it. Now, argue away, you fool!”

I guess we’ll just overlook the issue of omniscient G”d. Is it fair to bet G”d when G”d knows the results of the wager? Yet G”d lets Avraham try. Toying with him, perhaps?

Because S’dom and Gomorrah were destroyed, we readers assume there weren’t ten good people to be found there. What if G”d had decided to ignore the agreement with Avraham? How would we know? There is also a potential issue of sexism or misogyny here.

Some cite as proof that there were not 10 good people in the town from 19:4

טֶרֶם יִשְכָבוּ וְאַנְשֵי הָעִיר אַנְשֵי סְדֹם נָסַבּוּ עַל־הַבַיִת מִנַעַר וְעַד־זָקֵן כָל־הָעָם מִקָצֶֽה

They had not yet lain down, when the townspeople, the men of S’dom., young and old, – all the people to the last man – gathered about the house.  And they shouted to Lot “where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out, so that we may be intimate with them.

However, if you go back and look at Avraham’s negotiations with G”d, neither party specifies that only men count. They reference only the term “tzaddikim” (righteous people) which in that plural form could refer to men and women.

Avraham may have passed this unintentional test by choosing to argue with G”d to spare the city for the sake of a few righteous people. G”d, however, might have failed to hold up the bargain. S’dom and Gomorrah might have been destroyed even though there might have been at least ten tzaddikim present.

When G”d is the house, maybe it’s not wise to make the bet? I am reminded of these lyrics from the song “Gethsemane” fro JC Superstar: “G”d Thy will is hard, but You hold every card…”

When G”d puts us to the test, it’s hard to know the right answer. When we put G”d to the test, it may be equally hard for us to really know our own desired outcome. (And if G”d is truly omniscient, then free will is a chimera, and our efforts to discern are pointless.)  Despite that, it seems to me that the unannounced and unintentional tests may prove a better way of learning about the testee (and the tester.) I know I learn a lot more about G”d and humanity from the story of S’dom and Gomorrah than I do from the akeidah. How about you?

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayeira 5777 - He's a Family Guy (?) (Redux and Revised 5769)
Vayeira 5766 - The Price of Giving (Redux/Revised 5766)
Vayeira 5775 - He's a Family Guy (Revised Redux 5769)
Vayeira 5774–Plainly Spoken (Redux & Revised from 5762)
Vayera 5773 - Do Your Own Unpacking
Vayera 5772 - Well?
Vayera 5771 - Density
Vayera 5770 - Not Even Ten?
Vayeira 5769 - He's a Family Guy (?)
Vayera 5767-Revised 5759-Whoops! (or Non-Linear Thinking)
Vayera 5766-The Price of Giving
Vayera 5765-From the Journal of Lot Pt. II
Vayera 5762-Plainly Spoken
Vayera 5760/5761-More From the "Journal of Lot"
Vayera 5759-Whoops! (or "Non-Linear Thinking?")
Vayera 5757-Technical Difficulties

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Lech Lecha 5778–Take My Wife–Please

I’m sorry, but I just can’t divorce what I am reading in this week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, in light of all the recent revelations of sexual abuse by the powerful in the arts and media (and other industries.)

How are we supposed to deal with a text in which, in order to save his own skin, Avram-soon to be Avraham – pleads with his wife Sarai – soon to be Sarah – to pretend to be his sister.  His logic is so misogynist as to be painful. My wife is so beautiful, the other men will not be able to resist wanting her. They will kill me so they can possess her for themselves. If she pretends to be my sister instead, they won’t bother trying to get me out of the way. Of course, the remaining unspoken part of that logic is that the Egyptian men will still have their way with Sarai, they just won’t have to kill Avram in order to do so. He’s okay with that, apparently.

Does Avram really understand the enormity of what he is asking his wife to do? Of course, we do need to consider the situation in view of the ethics and morals of that time, and not necessarily those of our own times. Or maybe we should? It seems not much has changed in the ensuing millennia. Women are still looked upon by far too many men as simply playthings, conquests to be had.

By simply chalking this up to the differing ethics of Avram’s time, we succeed only in whitewashing the misogyny. We don’t know how Sarai/Sarah felt about being asked to do this. The Torah is silent – in fact – Sarai/Sarah is given little voice, except when it is convenient to portray her as frivolous and a liar when she laughs at the thought of her husband, who probably hasn’t been able to get it up in years, actually impregnating her. It is Sarah that receives G”d’s tokekha. Did Sarai/Sarah acquiesce to Avram/Avraham’s demand because she loved him enough to to place her own virtue below the life of her husband? Did she acquiesce because she felt she had no choice? Was it something else in between those extremes, or something entirely different?  Was she a calculating woman who saw that debasing herself could enrich her husband, and that ultimately her debasement would be trumped by the wealth and lifestyle they would share? How long would she have been willing to play out this farce, had not G”d outed her by punishing the Egyptians?

Somehow, Pharaoh finds out that Sarai really is Avram’s wife. The Torah is also surprisingly silent on how that little tidbit came to be known. What caused Pharaoh to put two and two together and blame recent misfortunes on his having taken Sarai as a wife? A world of possibility exists in between the lines of the Torah. did someone tell him? Did he catch Avram and Sarai meeting secretly? Did one of Pharaoh’s courtiers, or one of his other wives somehow catch wise?

Later on, uncomfortable with her having failed at her wifely duty to bear a son, she offers her husband her handmaiden. When her handmaiden Hagar gets preggers and starts to act a little uppity (at least from Sarah’s perspective) she mistreats her. Avram punts (or considers dealing with emotional women-y stuff beneath him) and leaves things in Sarai’s hands. Hagar runs away, only to be told by G’d “get your tuchis back to your master, and just learn to deal with your mistress’ harshness.” Yay, G”d. Not.

It’s a regular soap opera, isn’t it?

Gotta give some props to Avram. Though he is not specifically quoted as saying anything in Torah, one can reasonably infer from verse 17:20 that Avram wanted to be sure that Ishmael, as his son, would be blessed by G”d, as in that verse G”d promises to heed Avram’s request to make Ishmael the father of a great nation, along with Avraham’s yet to be conceived and born son through Sarai-now Sarah.

Perhaps G”d asked Avraham to circumcise himself as a bit of a mea culpa? Though after Avraham and Ishmael, most everyone else gets circumcised at 8 weeks. (Let’s not get ahead of ourselves with the Dinah story just yet. Yaakov turns out to be an even bigger misogynist.) Missing from Torah are what were likely Avram’s true words: “You want me to cut off what?”

Yes, the Torah is not history. It makes no claim to being a true and accurate portrayal of the values and mores of the civilizations of which is speaks. Just as recent scholarship has shown the early Egyptian dynasties to be far less oppressive and demagogic than they are usually portrayed, the society of biblical times must have been far less as troubled as the one the bible actually portrays (or, for that matter, could be a lot worse.) The Torah is using story to teach. Makes one wonder why it is teaching us such troubling ethics and morals, why it has a G”d that is prone to emotion and tantrums. Or is the Torah exaggerating the bad things in order to cause us to react to them, to say to ourselves “that isn’t right, we shouldn’t be like that?” Wouldn’t be the first work of a religious (or other) nature to purposefully try to piss us off in order to provoke a reaction. Negative psychology, perhaps? Ah, but I fear that this is wishful thinking, and the misogyny and other troubling ethics and mores we find in Torah really is there because that is how those who composed and redacted this story really felt things should be. Who really knows? And that’s the joy of it – we don’t. We were given a Torah with lots of missing things, lots of difficult to understand things. Why, it’s a bit of a mess, thank you, G”d, or whomever is responsible for this.Then the rabbis and gedolim came along and said “hold my beer.”

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Leḥ Leḥa 5777 - Embracing the Spirit of Avram
Lekh Lekha 5776 - The Other Siders (Redux 5766)
Lekh Lekha 5775 - More Nodding Heads, Whistlign Airs, and Snickersnees
Lekh L'kha 5774 - Theistic Singularity: Revisiting the Intellectual Ekhad
Lekh Lekha 5773 - The Journey Continues
Lekh Lekha 5772 - Out of Context
Lekh Lekha 5771 (5765, 5760) Things Are Seldom What They Seem An Excerpt from the "Journal of Lot"
Lekh Lkha 5770 - Revisiting the Ten Percent Solution
Lekh L'kha 5769 - Of Nodding Heads, Whistling Airs, and Snickersnees
Lekh Lekha 5768 - The Covenant That (Almost) Wasn't - Excerpts from the Diary of Terakh
Lekh Lekha 5767-Penile Pilpul
Lekh Lekha 5766-The Other Siders
Lekh Lekha 5765 - Redux 5760
Lekh Lekha 5764-Ma'aseir Mikol-The Ten Percent Solution
Lekh Lekha 5763-No Explanations
Lekh Lekha 5761-The Intellectual Echad
Lekh L'kha 5758-Little White Lies

Friday, October 20, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Noach 5778-Armageddon, Loopholes, and Theisms

Some random, disjunctive thoughts about the parasha this week.

First, I had the strangest dream last night, the first of its kind that I can recall. For some reason I was with my mother Goldie (z”l) and we were listening to an expected broadcast of national import. I’m doing my best to recall details, but like most dreams, it’s not entirely coherent. What I can recall is that the nations of the world  were about to announce their decision regarding some action that the U.S. had taken. The broadcast began and a spokesperson starting speaking about how the world could no longer tolerate the U.S.’s behavior, and, just then, the display and audio changed to an emergency action notification to seek shelter that nuclear attack was imminent. I helped my mother down to a car and we set off for some safe location. Eerily, no one else seem interested in escaping the coming holocaust and there was no traffic or even people on the streets. Though it tugs at my memory that there is much more details to the story, that’s about all I can recall. Perhaps, between contemplating the present state of the world, of our country, and adding to that teaching students about an trying to come to my own understandings of the biblical flood my mind turned to this scenario. The parallels seem clear, even if the story is not. The people (in this case, the country) were sinful and evil, and destruction was to be wrought upon them for their sinfulness. I seemed to believe there was safety  to be found somewhere, which I guess makes me a Noah figure, of sorts. The dream didn’t get far enough and I wonder if I would have been proven to be like Noah, not caring about all the others, or would I have tried to help more people get to this elusive place of safety from nuclear Armageddon.

Random thought number two. I’ve been participating in a new Facebook group devoted to Six-Word Prayers. My first contribution to the group was this:

Not by flood is a loophole

Is that really a prayer? I think so. It is my way of putting G”d on notice that I’m wise to G”d’s imperfections, and I won’t give them an easy pass. The very fact that I’m making it a prayer is testament to my desire to be in relationship with G”d.

In B’reishit 9:15 G”d explains the rainbow as the sign of a covenant that G”d will never cause the waters to become a flood to slaughter all flesh. You bet your bippi that’s a loophole. Not just in the surface understanding, either. Most people understand that to mean that it gives G”d an out to destroy the earth by other means, and it does. However, the clever wording also allows G”d to gather waters into a flood to destroy less than all flesh, or for other purposes.

If you continue reading, it appears that G”d has created the rainbow as a sign of this covenant because apparently G”d’s is going to need a reminder of this covenant? This won’t be the last time we’re reminded that G”d can be forgetful (or perhaps deliberately ignore.)

Another random though is related to a resource I was pointed towards to describe the students the parallels and differences between the various ancient flood narratives – Noah, Atrahasis, Utnapishtim, etc. Though attempting to use a somewhat academic approach to comparing the stories, the site’s descriptions of the parallels and differences turned out to be somewhat biased by a more traditional Jewish perspective. Many of the comparisons depended upon Talmudic or midrashic understandings, and not just the pure biblical text. I am not surprised that a site presenting things from a more orthodox Jewish perspective would simply assume acceptance of orah Torah (and its subsequent iterations in Mishna, Gemara, Talmud, Midrashim, Halakha, and more.) I often use such sites in my teaching – however, I am always careful to represent the various biases of the perspective of the different resources I provide to my students through my teaching.

Though it attempted to present materials in an academic/scientific manner, the site had all sorts of underlying assumptions. There was no hint that all these etiological stories found early (and later) in Genesis were precisely that – etiologies, not history. (Right here in this parasha we have a number of etiologies, including the story Noah as the first drunkard, the origins of the Canaanites, the story of midgal Bavel to explain why we all have different languages. I believe that even among many orthodox there is a general understanding that the creation story, the flood, and perhaps other parts of the Torah are clearly metaphors/similes/analogies – stories meant to explain, to teach, but not meant to be bona fide histories.)  [Here’s an interesting aside. In discussing the Noach story the other day with the 6th and 7 grade students, a number of them were insistent that Noah brought dinosaurs with him on the ark. Is this their attempt to reconcile science and religion? I didn’t have time to explore it with them, but I intend to do so. As a strong opponent of pediatric Jewish education, this is a concerning development.]

Also, in summarizing comparisons, it makes some claims which do not conform to my understanding of the realities of the biblical text. It claims that the pantheon of polytheistic gods of the Babylonians and Sumerians were entirely anthropomorphic whereas the G”d of Torah is not. I don’t even know where to begin with that one. Torah is replete with verses that show G”d in an anthropomorphic light, engaging in human-like behaviors and thoughts. It claims the Mesopotamian gods were capricious whereas the G”d of Torah was just and moral.  Oh right, the G”d of Torah is never capricious.

The site clearly attempts to portray the Torah’s account of G”d and the flood in a positive light, while pooh-poohing the other Mesopotamian stories. I find this sort of promoting Judaism at the expense of other religions (even those long gone) troubling. A religion should stand on its own. Additionally, western religion may believe than monotheism is superior to pantheism, but it’s not at all an open and shut case. A Deity smart and worthy to be a Deity is smart enough to understand that different peoples may need different types of manifestations and understandings of the Deity. A pantheistic concept is simply one of those manifestations. “Heresy!” I hear people shout. Heresy according to the so-called oral Torah, perhaps, though I’m not even sure that’s true. If nothing else, the very word “El”him” should give us pause. It, too, is a loophole.

Think, for a moment, on why we’ve settled on “Ad”nai” as our substitute word for G”d’s name. What’s does it mean? My Lord. Put the emphasis on the word “my” and think about that in a collective sense, and you’ll see it still allows for other and different understandings of the Deity. My understanding of G”d. Might not be your understanding, and that’s OK.

I understand that clinging to an understanding of G”d through a monotheistic lens is necessary for adherents to classic rabbinical Judaism. However, even among the Orthodox there is a growing if begrudging acceptance of the notion that for much of their history the ancient Israelites were not monotheistic at all, but monolatrous – worshipping a primary G”d without denying the existence of other G”ds. It’s a logical way to operate in ancient times, and perhaps even today. It was not entirely unusual for travelers from another place to worship and offer sacrifices to their own god in the temple of the god of the place they were visiting. This sort of live and let live attitude has much to recommend it.  This sort of attitude could go a long way to preventing the scenario about which I dreamed.  My understanding of the principles upon which this country were founded is that this is exactly how we are expected to do things.

Time to put this train called the U.S. back on the right track.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Noah 5777 - Tzur Yisrael and Standing Rock
Noakh 5776 - Two Short Thoughts on Noah
Noakh 5775 - To Make a Name For Ourselves (Revisited)
Noakh 5774 - Let's Rebuild That Tower
Noakh 5773 - Nothing New
Noakh 5772 - The Long Haul
Noakh 5771 - Redux 5765 - A P'shat in the Dark
Noakh 5770 - Don't Ham It Up
Noah 5768 - Redux 5761 - Getting Noticed
Noakh 5766-What A Nimrod! (Revised)
Noakh 5765-A Pshat In The Dark
Noach 5764-Finding My Rainbow
Noach 5763-Striving to be Human
Noach 5762-To Make a Name for Ourselves
Noach 5761-Getting Noticed
Noach 5760-What a Nimrod!

Friday, October 13, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–B’reishit 5778-Last Week’sThoughts

I’ve never done this before. Last Friday, I just got slammed, and didn’t get my musing out. That’s not the thing I’ve never done before to which I am referring. Being unable to get my musing out has happened a few times in the two decades I’ve been writing these musings. It is somewhat unusual that I didn’t at least get a note or apology out that day, or after Shabbat, but it just didn’t happen this time. Here’s what makes it unusual. I had a musing written and ready to go, and it was simply the mechanics of getting it sent out that stopped me. I suppose I could have sent it out after Shabbat, but I didn’t. So here’s what I’ve not done before – I am sending out my thoughts for last Shabbat, for Shabbat Hol HaMoeid Sukkot, today, and not sending out a new (or even recycled) musing for this week’s parahsa “B’reishit..” I do commend to you the musings Ihave written for parashat B’reishit before, listed at the end of this musing. I do hope you’ll read them. Here, however, I present you with the thoughts I had last week for Shabbat Hol Hamoeid Sukkot.

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Shabbat Hol Hamoeid Sukkot 5778 – Unhappy Comparisons

Talk about a nightmare! I had been reading through the Torah reading for Shabbat Hol Hamoeid Sukkot and came to the famous words of Exodus 34:6-7. The passage from which the thirteen attributes of mercy were derived.

Before I could stop it, the thought came unbidden into my head how this all feels a little well, Trumpian. No, it cannot be. I must not allow myself to be drawn into making a comparison between Ad"nai and DJT.

Yet there it is. It's that b'tzelem El"him/b'tzelem anashim duality and balance that often comes up in my musings. If we are in the image of G"d then vice versa - and all the best that is in G"d can be found in us, and the best of us in G"d - but also all the worst that is in G"d can be found in us and all the worst that is in us can be found in G"d.

The well worn words of Exodus 34:6-7, which we also just heard, repeatedly, during the Yamim Noraim are boastful, prideful, even a touch arrogant. They have a very "and only I can fix it" quality.

Now, you might argue that, unlike the mere mortal DJT, G"d actually has a reasonably legitimate claim to be able to fix what ails our planet and our species - though for some, G"d's failure to do so over the last few millennia call into question whether that is truly the case. What is hubris and narcissistic personality disorder for some may be ineffable Divine behavior for others.

יְהוָֹה ׀ יְהֹוָה אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב־חֶסֶד וֶֽאֱמֶֽת: נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָֽאֲלָפִים נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה פֹּקֵד ׀ עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל־בָּנִים וְעַל־בְּנֵי בָנִים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִֽים

G"d, as self-described, extends kindness and forgiveness unto a thousand generations. However, there's a contradiction here - G"d is forgiving, but not all-forgiving. G"d may not be interested in building a wall, but G"d certainly seems interested in punishing those who transgress, even unto the third and fourth generations. G"d, apparently, does not find much value in punishing a family line for transgressions of their forebears beyond a few generations. One might ask why even extend punishment beyond the generation of those who transgressed?Is this simply tactic - is it the stick to the carrot? Are those of us who support DACA and the Dream Act more benevolent and forgiving than G"d? I'd certainly  not like to believe this was the case. Yet I fear that there are those who use the biblical example to justify their opposition to DACA, and who find no fault in visiting the parental sin of illegal immigration upon the children.

The rabbis and commentators would have us exegete only the positive virtues from these verses, conveniently ignoring the consequences part. That is the sort of exegesis that is, for me, whitewashing and cherry-picking. These verses clearly insinuate that there is a place for punishment, and that G"d visits punishment not just on those who sin, but on their descendants, at least for a few generations.  How does this square with the idea that the gates of t'shuvah are always open?  Are children, grandchildren,and great-grandchildren expected to make expiation for the sins of their  parents/grandparents/great-grandparents before they are even eligible to seek expiation for their own transgressions? What kind of system is that? Either the gates of t'shuvah are always open, or they aren't. How we view this biblical dilemma can hold great import for how we might view the prospect of allowing illegal immigrants a path to legal residence. I fear that, based on these verses, G"d might not be so quick to approve of that. That is a G"d that I find troubling.

Perhaps I am making too much of this. I am not a Dawkins, chastising and calling out religion for all the ills of society. However, although I remain a person of faith, there is much in our Jewish faith, as well as other faiths that are questionable, may have been used to justify many things we now find repugnant, and are, perhaps, irredeemable.

The thirteen attributes of mercy aren't irredeemable, but like so many things in our faith, we carefully tiptoe around the difficult things. I fear that, to some extent, we must accept that our sacred texts may have contributed, intentionally or unintentionally, to some less than positive things. We can't simply chalk it up to the humans using the text in this manner, for that's very much a "guns don't kill people, people kill people, and that's a slippery slope indeed. Just like we are exhorted to pray to G"d and row towards shore, we should use our sacred texts and liturgy to promote peace and righteousness, while acknowledging the warts and imperfections within them.

I am still unhappy these sorts of comparisons are where my musings led me this week, but I'll take the bad with good for now, in hopes that the good will prevail. With G"d's help and ours may it be so.

Shabbat Shalom and Moadim L'simcha,

©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings – on Parashat B’reisheet

B'reishit 5777-Something Good (Redeeming Cain?)
B'reisheet 5776 - Temptation
B'reisheet 5775 - One Favorite Things (not a typo!)
B'reisheet 5774 - Toldot Adrian
B'reishit 5773 - Mixing Metaphors
B'reishit 5772 - The Unified Field Theorem of the Twelve Steps
B'reishit 5771 - B'reishit Bara Anashim
B'reishit 5770 - One G"d, But Two Trees?
B'reishit 5769 - Do Fences Really Make Good Neighbors
B'reishit 5767-Many Beginnings
Bereshit 5766-Kol D'mei Akhikha
Bereshit 5765 (5760)-Failing to Understand-A Learning Experience
Bereshit 5764-Gd's Regrets
Bereshit 5762--The Essential Ingredient
Bereshit 5763--Striving to be Human
Bereshit 5761--Chava's Faith
Bereshit 5760-Failing to Understand

Other Musings on Sukkot and Simchat Torah

Hol HaMoeid Sukkot 5775 - Gog Me With a Spoon
Hol HaMoeid Sukkot 5774 - Godot is Waiting for the Bald Soprano at the Zoo
Sukkot III 5772 - Fragility
Sukkot I 5770 - Fire and Rain
Sukkot 5767-Precious Congealed Light - Or Y'kator V'kipa'on
Sukkot 5764--Bayom Hazeh
Sukkot 5763--Sukkot Time Travel

Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah 5770 - Circles Can Bite You in the Tuchis
Sh'mini Atzeret/Simkhat Torah 5767 - Joyful and Glad of Heart
Simchat Torah 5766--Have We Met The Ally And Is They Us?
Simchat Torah 5757-5765-Unbroken Circle (With additions for each year)
Simchat Torah 5764-Circling the Torah--A Story of Chelm
Simchat Torah 5762--Not So Fast

Friday, September 29, 2017

Random Musings Before Shabbat–Yom Kippur 5758–Not Just For Ourselves

I had thought about writing a simple, one-line musing this year:

It’s not supposed to be easy.

and leave it at that. But I decided that was too simple, too lazy, and a cop-out. We have all been surrounded by lots of people posting and writing about their understanding of the Yamim Noraim, and, in particular Yom Kippur. Many write of their discomfort – with the rituals, or the expectations, or the liturgy, or any of a thousand other factors. We are supposed to be afflicted – and not just in body, but mind as well. while Yom Kippur asks us to place the focus on our deeds, I don’t think it’s a big stretch to include our wrestling with the very concepts of sin, repentance, etc.,and the ceremonial ways in which Jews are called upon to deal with this at this time of year. Engaging with these things is part of self-reflection.

Ah, there it is. The magic word. Self. And that, as is often the case, if what puts the bee in my bonnet. The ritual and liturgy with which we afflict ourselves on Yom Kippur is meant to be communal, not individual. The communal rituals we engage in do not absolve us of our individual failings. However, that very viewpoint betrays a selfish understanding. There’s no arguing that our tradition has developed an all-encompassing ritual and personal practice that allows for both communal and personal reflection. I won’t argue that’s a bad thing. what I will argue, however, is that I believe most of us shirk the important lesson that the liturgy’s communal focus is intent on teaching us, one that we well know: all Israel (and by extension, all humankind) are responsible for one another.

Yes, we all sin, We all miss the mark. We all sometimes fail to live up to our own expectations. We all sometimes fail to live up to what Judaism expects of us, of what society expects of us (and even, perhaps, what G”d expects of us.) However, I wonder if the greater failing is that we fail to live up to our obligation to help others not sin, not fail.

One of my many quirks is a sometimes tunnel-vision focus on following rules. I readily admit to inconsistency in how and where I apply this, but I do apply this. I’m one of those people that often tries to follow the rules – things like transferring my drivers license, car registration, and title, when I move to a new state within the time period that state mandates. Like seeking to be as honest and complete as I can in filing my taxes. I sometimes do things, or follow rules that many, if not most other people might not, due to issues of cost, inconvenience, etc. I often do these things at a cost to myself.  If there’s a sign somewhere explaining a policy or procedure, I’m rarely the one who will go ask someone in authority if I really need to do that.  I dot my “i” and cross my “t,” I still put lines through my zeroes, sevens. I follow form instructions to the letter, and when there’s something I can;t figure out how to fill out, where other people might leave it blank, I’ll go to great lengths to figure out what to put there. My friends, even my family, often shake their heads at my insistence on following procedures.

At the same time, I have many failings, many faults. I make lots of mistakes, and I often sin, both unintentionally and intentionally. I am not consistent in exhibiting my compulsion to follow procedures and rules – because I am also a rebel at heart. There are some things I do in which I revel at flaunting convention, and not following the informal, and sometimes even formal rules. More often than not, I find myself be lauded for that, as opposed to the ridicule I often receive when I’m in one of my “follow the proper procedures” activities.

Somehow, this feels exactly backwards. Should I not be receiving more rebuke for the times when I fail to follow the rules, than for the opposite? Which brings us back to Yom Kippur. We have become so focused on self-reflection and self-improvement, and I believe we have done so to the detriment of how the ritual teaches us our obligation to insure that the whole community is doing the best it can. I know this is the part that trips most people up. We are uncomfortable with rebuking others.

My response to this is two-fold. First, rebuke is not a bad word, and not always something to be avoided. Secondly, if we believe our communal obligation is restricted to rebuke, we are missing the mark. It is as much about helping others to be able to do the right thing. It’s about not putting stumbling blocks before the blind (or the sighted.) Is not our goal to build a society, a world in which it is easy for people to do the right thing?

Tokekha, rebuke, doesn’t always come hard to us. Most of us have little problem rebuking politicians, other leaders, celebrities, etc.. many of us are quite publicly rebuking POTUS and his minions for their failures to do justly, love mercy,and walk humby with G”d. Parents and teachers do it every day, though perhaps in some cases with more reluctance than in the past (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.) Good friends, they say, are the ones who will tolerate your faults. Good friends can also be the ones who aren’t afraid to call your own faults to your attention. You can be forgiving and accepting while critiquing and even rebuking.

I’m fond of an old Family Circus strip in which the son keeps asking “can I have a cookie” and Mom corrects with “may I” and when he finally says “may I” she replies it’s too close to dinnertime. In this same way, how many roadblocks do we create in our society, in our world, that make it harder than it ought to be naturally for people to do the right thing, to not sin? Yes, I accept that our inner nature is that we will err, we will make mistakes. Given that shouldn’t we strive to create a society that actually changes the odds making it easier for people to be righteous, to not sin? This, I believe, is part of the communal responsibility that Yom Kippur is teaching us. It’s not just to rebuke others so that the community as a whole is the best it can be. It’s actively seeking to help people do the right thing, help them to not sin. Not just a scolding finger, but a helping hand.

It’s a beautiful vision, I think. I also realize it’s a difficult one to achieve at best. Perfection is not a realistic goal – especially if we believe in the dual nature of human beings  - with good and evil inclinations, and believe that both are necessary and part of us. But we can help ourselves and others try to find that balance, to tip the scales for the best of all humanity. Again, a lofty goal. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Lo alecha, and all that.

I won’t wish you an easy fast, for it should not be easy. I do encourage you to do self-reflection and work to be a better human being. I also encourage you to consider how you can help others to be the best they can be. It is not your obligation to finish the task, but neither are you free to refrain from it. Remember when you are confessing at Yom Kippur, you are confessing for all of us, and we all have the obligation to help not only ourselves, but all others in the community to be better in the new year, and always.

Shabbat Shalom, and may we all be sealed for a good year.

©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Yom Kippur 5775 - Afflict Me
Yom Kippur 5774 - Blanket Apologies II
Yom Kippur 5772 - Al Khet Shekhetanu
Yom Kippur 5765 - Blanket apologies

Friday, September 22, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Shabbat Shuvah 5778-Random Rant

OK, what follows is a rant. It is not connected to Shabbat Shuvah or parashat Ha’azinu. It’s a post Rosh Hashanah rant. I commend to you my previous musings for Shabbat Shuvah/Ha’azinu which you can find listed at the end.

Ok, the rant.

Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham…

Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah…

Enough already, Enough with Abraham and Sarah and the Akeidah and Sarah’s harshness to Hagar. Yes, Abraham’s not perfect. Sarah is not perfect. Yet they were still good people. We get it. We understand the lesson. Everywhere I go, every synagogue I have worked, I have heard rabbis drash on and on about the akeidah. Many of them seek, as I do, to find the redemption of seemingly irredeemable texts like the akeidah,or the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael. I do not fault them for that. However, the attempt to whitewash, or justify Abraham and Sarah, or simply the attempt to redeem the text by turning it on its end and explaining the lesson that even good people are not 100% good, that here at this time of t’shuvah, we can and must accept our imperfections – they don’t prevent us being striving to be the best we can be. All of that’s nice. All of that is with good intent. All of that is worth teaching on Rosh Hashanah. But here’s the thing…



(edited update to include)

HAGAR! (proud I caught this before anyone even mentioned it.)

Their names are the ones that bear incessant repetition. They are the true victims here, yet it is not of them we speak.

In fact, Isaac and Ishmael sort of disappear for a while. (As you know, my life’s goal is to write that book of fictional biblical history describing the period when Isaac went to live with Hagar and Ishmael after the akeidah until the time of Sarah’s funeral. I’ve been gathering notes and snippets, and one of these days I really am going to sit down and write the darn thing already.) And, as is sadly typical of the biblical text when it comes to women, Hagar is not heard of again (though some great commentators suggest that Keturah, whom Abraham marries after Sarah’s death, is actually Hagar.)

If Abraham were to do to Isaac today what he did back then, you can just bet Child Protective Services would be all over that obviously unfit family. (Don’t let Sarah off the hook. She knew. She KNEW. I’m sure of it.) Isaac must have suffered the effects of this child abuse for decades. He surely had some form of PTSD. Ishmael, too, must have felt awful, having been rejected by his father, cast-off with his mother. He might not have been to happy to see Isaac when he first came calling, But I am more than willing to bet that once Isaac told Ishmael what had happened, that Ishmael and Hagar took Isaac in with love and concern (and a bit more disrespect and hatred perhaps for Abraham. But now I’m giving away too much of that book I’m going to write…

I recently finished watching the second season of Tig Notaro’s “One Mississippi” on Amazon. In one particularly powerful episode, almost all the characters are forced to deal with the reality of sexual abuse of one form or another. Ignoring it, minimalizing it, excusing it with a “boys will be boys” mentality, just stuffing it might seem like effective tactics, but ultimately ones doomed to fail. We must find a way to confront the ugly things and find ways to come to terms with the reality of them.

In our rush, in our hurry to redeem Abraham and Sarah’s sometimes bad qualities and actions, we must not overlook their victims. True t’shuvah is not possible if we have not at least attempted, in some fashion, to seek the forgiveness of anyone we have wronged. Where are Abraham and Sarah’s acts of contrition? Where and how did they make up for turning Isaac and Ishmael into psychological wrecks? Not that their later lives were totally without good deeds, but on balance, these two actions – the casting out of Hagar, and the attempt to sacrifice Isaac don;t feel fully balanced on the scales of righteousness.

No siree.  I’m not letting them off the hook. They have sins for which they have not repented or attempted restitution. These next 10 days I will have Isaac, Ishmael, and Hagar in mind more than Abraham and Sarah.

Shanah Tovah and Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings for this parasha:

Rosh Hashanah 5770-The Dualities of Life II
Rosh Hashanah 5764-Inscriptions
Rosh Hashanah 5763-The Dualities of Life

Ha'azinu 5776 - Still Not Trifling
Ha'azinu-Shabbat Shuvah 5775 - Who's Got the Last Laugh Now
Ha'azinu/Shabbat Shuvah 5774 - 5774: A Torah Odyssey
Ha'azinu 5772 - An Insincere Hymn?
Ha'azinu/Shabbat Shuvah 5570-Pur Prayers Aren't Bull
Haazinu 5766-Trifles (Updated from 5762)
Haazinu 5765/5763-How would It Look If...
Haazinu 5764-More Bull From Our Lips
Haazinu 5762--Trifles
Haazinu 5760-Bull from Our Lips

Friday, September 15, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Nitzavim-Vayelekh 5777–Witness For

It is hard to imagine that over a dozen years have passed since the tragedies of Hurricane Katrina and Rita, and 16 years since 9/11. Surely it can be no coincidence that here, a decade later, parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech once again falls on the heels of a pair of devastating hurricanes, Harvey and Irma. Once again, I find my theology evolving, changing, adapting. Ten years ago, I wrote about my evolving theology by sharing two previous musings – one written before 9/11, one written just after 9/11, and a few additional words added  in 2005. Last time, I put them in reverse chronological order. This time, I’ll do the opposite –putting them in chronological order,adding some thoughts from this year at the end.  Along the way, you’ll not only see the changes, evolution, and cycles in my philosophies and theologies, you’ll also notice the progression in how I choose to write the word G”d.

Random Musings Before Shabbat - Vayelech 5759 God's Sabbatical

Now that I'm a student at a theological school, critical analysis of biblical text is almost automatic. God said to Moshe that he would soon "lie with his ancestors" and that the people of Israel would go astray amidst the alien gods of the land they were about to enter. Knowing what comes later in the story, one can easily conclude that these words were written after the fact, which of course is problematic for some who view Torah as mi-Sinai. (I personally have little trouble with reconciling critical analysis of the text with religious faith - in my faith view, divine revelation and human effort coexist peacefully.)

In the narrow and historical view, we know the "land you are about to enter." But in reading this text, I began to think in broader terms, longer timespans.

God is dead. God has forsaken us. How could God let the Shoah happen? Views that get a lot of attention these days.

What if we are still in those times that God was referring to. Times when we fall prey to belief in alien gods (like money, computers, vanity, television, etc.). Times when we forsake God and break God's commandments.

Times when we break our covenant with God.

During such times, God tells us, God will flare up angrily, and hide from us. (So, it seems God, too, uses the "silent treatment" when displeased.

Boy, I hate that from anyone. I'd rather just have a nice, good old confrontation and have it over with than deal with the silent treatment


In God's words one can just as easily see a description of the times we live in, and many other times in our history. Maybe, from the time we crossed over into Canaan, we really have been living amidst alien gods and forsaking the covenant our ancestors made with God.

Was there ever a better reason for t'shuvah, for a return to God's ways, and a renewing of the covenant? It's time to bring God back from sabbatical.

A former father-in-law wrote an essay in which he mused on the apparent absence of God during the Shoah. God's answer to my questioning relative in this story was that God had a lot to do and was simply busy elsewhere at the time. (Does omnipresence and omniscience have limits or is that oxymoronic?)

Perhaps instead God is still flared up in anger against us for our having gone astray, forsaking the covenant, and is still hiding God's presence from us. Now, I am not about to even suggest, as some unfortunately do, that the Shoah is punishment for liberal Judaism, or that the Shoah was any kind of judgment or punishment by God. But there is little doubt in my mind that throughout much of our history, we have shown the truthfulness of God's prediction in Vayelech. We've turned our backs on God so God is turning God's back on us.

Pray, pray really hard and with sincerity this Yom Kippur. Do t'shuvah. Keep Shabbat. Try and live your life in keeping with (your understanding of) God's commandments and covenant with us. A little bit here and a little bit here. Do the best you can. Maybe, just maybe, if we all work really hard, we can get God to take a peek and see that we really need God's help, now more than ever.

Random Musings Before Shabbat - Vayelekh 5761 - The Time Is Now

It is rare that words fail me. Last week, I was in such I stupor, that I did not even have the clarity to write all of you a message stating that I was in a stupor and unable to write anything for my Random Musing for Nitzavim 5761! It was all I could do to stay focused enough to get my first day of religious school at my new congregation started last Sunday.

I have yet to come to terms with what happened on 9/11/01, and even now it is difficult to find words.

Three years ago, I wrote a musing for Vayelekh that doesn't work for me anymore. In Parashat Vayelekh, we are told that Gd knows the people Israel will stray after they enter the land, and that Gd will visit some form of retribution or punishment upon them for their transgressions and failure to follow Gd's commandments.

I posited that perhaps we are still in those times, and that throughout history Gd's anger with us has flared up, with one result being the "silent treatment." It was "Gd's Sabbatical" as I called that musing.

I wrote:

"Perhaps instead Gd is still flared up in anger against us for our having gone astray, forsaking the covenant, and is still hiding Gd's presence from us. Now, I am not about to even suggest, as some unfortunately do, that the Shoah is punishment for liberal Judaism, or that the Shoah was any kind of judgment or punishment by Gd. But there is little doubt in my mind that throughout much of our history, we have shown the truthfulness of Gd's prediction in Vayelech. We've turned our backs on Gd so Gd is turning Gd'sback on us."

However, in the days following 9/11/01, I feel that Gd has been more present than ever. We see it in the countless acts of unselfish charity and giving of assistance. We see it in thre martyrdom of passengers on a hijacked plane now lying in a field in Pennsylvannia. We see it in the coming together of communities, of ecumenical camaraderie. We see it in our almost universal determination as the human race to remove the scourge of terrorisim from our midst. A cause that even Gd seemed to take up, once upon a time, with the great flood. We see it, also, in the cries of those who caution us against an application of the lex talionis, (the eye-for-en-eye concept) urging us not to callously attach innoncent people just because they happen to live in a country that harbors terrorists, or just because they happen to be a Muslim or of Arabic descent.

In my previous musing, I took great pains to distance myself from those who might view the Shoah as punishment from Gd for Jewish transgressions, just as I now equally refute the blasphemous pronouncements of Jerry Falwell and others on this same subject in reference to 9/11/01.

However the fact remains that, as Jews, as the human species, we still leave much to be desired. We still ignore Gd, ignore Gd's commandments, sometimes, even as we make a great show of our religion and faith.

When we were slaves in Egypt, it took a lot of hue and cry to get Gd's attention. (And even after we were freed, many of us complained we were better off in Egypt as slaves!) Is is that we don't cry out enough these days?

Dear Gd, what does it take to get your attention, to get you to return from your apparent sabbatical? The crusades, the inquisition, the pogroms weren't enough? The Shoah wasn't enough? September 11, 2001 wasn't enough? Or was it? I have seen a spirit in this country, among my friends, Jew and non-Jew alike that I have not seen before in such numbers. Might this not be a sign that perhaps that Gd who neither slumbers nor sleeps but watches over Israel always is awake, and no longer (if Gd ever was) on that sabbatical?

Last year, I wrote about what I think is the real denouement of the Torah, 30:19-21, where we are told that the Torah exists to be a witness against us in our sins. L'eyd B'vnei Yisrael.

Has she not been witness against us long enough? We have the potential, here, now, in this time and place, to reclaim this relationship with Gd, to have the Torah be not witness against us, but rather we as witness for the Torah, and for Gd.

As I wrote last year:

"For is it not obvious to us all by now? Light from dark. Day from night.

Land from water. Sacred from profane. Blessing and curse. A witness against our transgressions yet the freedom to interpret that very witness ourselves.

We have come full circle from creation.

May this New Year be a year when we all dedicate ourselves to making ourselves witnesses FOR Torah, rather than allowing Torah to be a witness AGAINST us.

It is all around us-this new found spirit of determination to remove evil from our midst, but also the caution to do it in a just and righteous way.

This righteous spirit to care for those in need, to console the bereaved, to honor the memories of the dead and keep their memories alive. Opportunities abound for us to do righteous deeds, to be charitable.

During these days of awe, what better time to reflect on this opportunity,what better time to really bring ourselves to do t'shuvah-to return to Gd. To walk in Gd's ways and follow Gd's commandments.

Ken y'hi ratsoneinu. May this be our will.

Vayelekh 5765 - The Time Is Still Now


Back in 1998 I wrote a musing for Vayelekh entitled "G"d's Sabbatical." Then in 2001, still rebounding from 9/11 I wrote a new musing entitled "The Time Is Now" in which I spoke of some discomfort with what I had written in 1998.

Oddly enough, once again rebounding from the tragedies that have befallen us with Katrina and Rita (and all other tragedies around the world) I find myself swinging like a pendulum towards more of the viewpoint of the 1998 musing. Somewhere between the two viewpoints is a synthesis of how I am feeling. Thus I share both with you, in the hopes that we can all try and synthesize something useful out of them. (P.S. You can observe the continuing evolution with how I deal with writing G"d. G"d is my most recent choice, as I like the idea of using the quotation marks to represent the yud-yud abbreviation for Ad"nai-it does say to me that when I write G"d I do specifically mean that G"d that is known to the Jewish people as Ad"nai.)

(I placed the entirety of the 5659 and 5761 musings here.)

Nitzavim-Vayelekh 5777 – Witness For (or Time Cycle)

Torah as witness against us, or we as witnesses for Torah. It’s not a clear choice, it’s not an either-or option. As in some many things in life, so many things in Judaism, we need both, and we must seek a balance between them. We will be judged (in whatever fashion it suits you to understand that concept) against the standard that Torah sets for us.

I recognize the slippery slope represented by the idea of Torah as witness against us. It presumes that our failings as human beings, as a society, as a nation become justification for G”d to punish us. That’s only one small step away from the onerous ideas that have been floated around by religious people of all faiths to explain natural disasters. Blame the gays. Blame abortion. Blame people who aren’t like us. Blame the liberal Jews. Blame the Muslims. That way is simply madness. It violates the most basic principle of v’havata l’reiakha kamokha – love your neighbor as yourself.

On the opposite side, it’s easy to blame global warming, and all the negative effects of humankind’s attempt to wrest control of our universe from the universe itself. Or we can blame nature for being unpredictable. Even with all our science, predicting a hurricane’s path still eludes us a bit. Nature and the universe laugh in our faces.

Blame all you will, it is not enough. Only action will make a difference. We decry what is happening to our planet, but few of us willingly make the changes and sacrifices needed to make a difference. “Other people will do it,” we rationalize. One person can’t make a difference, and one person won’t tip the balance. Newsflash, folks. If most people believe that, we’re doomed.

Just as Torah can be a witness against us, our planet, our universe can be a witness against us. If we aren’t careful, if we don’t think about the consequences of what we do, if we don’t work to mitigate and reverse the damages we cause, then our planet, our universe will witness against us – in disasters we can’t even imagine. So is Torah really all that far off with its analogous ideas?

I don’t see Harvey and Irma as retribution or punishment for anything, but I am easily convinced that our rape of our planet is one cause and effect behind increasingly more severe and deadly storms. Our planet is witnessing against us. It is time for us to step up and witness for our planet, for ourselves, for Torah.

May we be written and sealed for a good year.

May we write and seal ourselves for an even better year.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah


©2017 (portions ©1998, 2001 and 2005) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Nitzavim 5776 - Hiatus End - Lo Bashamayim Hi (Redux 5757ff)
Vayeilekh/Shabbat Shuvah 5776 - Cows and Roses
Nitzavim 5775 - Lo Bashamayim Hi (Revised Classic from 5757)
Nitzavim-Vayeilekh 5774 - Even Lola Doesn't Always Get What She Wants
Nitzavim-Vayeilekh 5773 - Opening Our Own Hearts
Nitzavim 5772 - Where or When?
Nitzavim/Vayeilekh 5770 - Flawed, Schmawed
Nitzavim/Vayeilekh 5769 - Disconencting the Reconnecting the Dots
Vayeilekh_Shabbat Shuvah 5769 - Cows and Roses
Nitzavim/Vayeilekh 5766 - Keep Looking
Vayelekh 5765-The Time Is Still Now
Nitzavim 5765-To Lo Or Not To Lo
Nitzavim/Vayelekh 5763-Connect the Dots
Nitzavim 5757/5759/5764-Lo Bashamayim Hi
Nitzavim 5758-Not By Ourselves
Nitzavim/Vayelekh 5760/67-L'eyd B'vnei Yisrael-The Real Denouement
Nitzavim 5761 was the week of Sept. 11, 2001. There was no Musing.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Ki Tavo 5777–We Are But Uncut Stones

Here we are in the middle of Elul. Hurricane Harvey recently wreaked havoc in Texas. Hurricane Irma is wreaking havoc in the Caribbean and is heading for Florida. Mexico just suffered a huge earthquake. North Korea is rattling sabers again. Our country is more divided than it has ever been, even in the midst of these disasters (though the disasters have brought out the best in people, as they often do.) In this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, is a recitation of the most horrendous calamities – a literal catalog of calamities. Cleverly, the rabbis connected a haftarah from Isaiah with an uplifting and positive message to rise and shine. This parasha has inspired in me a reflection upon how we engage in behavior modification. It has caused me to reflect, like Naomi Shemer, on the the bitter and the sweet, on all these things. This year, I wanted to circle back to a musing from a decade ago.

Our parasha, Ki Tavo, is rich with things to exegete. Blessings and curses, sins committed in secret, the "My father was a fugitive Aramean..." recitation of the first fruits ceremony and tithes, the conclusion of the covenanting in Moab. The blessings and curses alone could occupy one for an entire lifetime of consideration. I commend it all to you.

What struck me this week as I was reading the parasha was the instructions for erecting stones on Mt. Ebal on which the text of the Torah were to be inscribed, and then the building of an altar of stone. (I’m trying to imagine two large stones onto which the entire text of the Torah is carved, and I’m failing, though I suppose it’s possible. It would take a lot of time, and rather small letters. Perhaps this is something I’ll explore in a future musing.)  Paralleling the  instructions in Ex. 20:22, the Israelites are told that iron tools are not to be used in constructing the altar-the altar is to be built of natural, whole stones. (It’s not entirely clear if the two large stones onto which the text of Torah is carved had to be of unhewn stones, and if the engraving into the plaster had to be done without the use of an iron tool as well. Again, more fodder for a future musing.)

Why unhewn stones? Consider some connections. Jacob dreamed while his head was on a whole stone “pillow.” The patriarchs set up stones as markers and altars.  People are punished by stoning. Moshe struck a rock to bring forth water (when all he needed to do, according to G”d, was speak to the stone.)The tower of Babel was made of bricks – a sort of artificial stone. The many labors in which the Israelites engaged when enslaved in Egypt may have involved the use of hewn stones (though I hasten to remind us that we were forced to build storehouses, not pyramids. So hewn stone has some negative associations. Hewn stone can also have positive connotations. Hewn stones are civilized, uncut/natural stones are earthy.

The altar in Solomon’s Temple may (or may not) have built with unhewn stones. It’s not entirely clear, though it is likely the basic understructure was built to biblical specifications. It was all covered in brass, so while it may have sat atop uncut stones, it was a more ornate affair (unlike the one which Joshua erected, after the Israelites came into Israel, which was made of unhewn stones.) The altar in the second Temple was square in shape, and also ornate. When the Hasmoneans restored the second Temple after Antiochus IV Epiphanes has desecrated it with idols, it is said that the defiled altar’s stones were replaced with new unhewn stones. (The old, defiled stones were left on the Temple mount because, defiled as they were, they were still sanctified. In I Maccabees chapter 4, it says the stones should remain on holy ground until a prophet would come along and say what should be done with them.) So the altar may have been square, but its core was of unhewn stone.

We Jews have a long history of workarounds for difficult Biblical restrictions (and we compiled them into what we now call Halacha.) To get around the restriction that the altar could not utilize steps lest a person’s nakedness be exposed while they were walking up to it, the first and second Temple used ramps.  The question we must ask ourselves is whether keeping the altar at a lower, reachable height for the average human being might have been a more appropriate solution than raising up the altar and using a ramp to reach it. Similarly, are adorning an altar of unhewn stone with brass, or building a structure of hewn stone around the uncut stone at the center and appropriate interpretation of G”ds instructions on how to build the altar? There is much to consider, and even more so in our own time. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Natural, whole, unhewn stones. At first, it may seem an odd choice. Surely G"d's altar should be a magnificent structure, finely constructed, polished and ornamented. After all, we are taught that our sacrifices must be taken from the best, the finest of our flocks, our harvest, etc. We take our cream of the crop and offer it up to G"d. (That certainly seems to be the spin the Solomon and the rulers of Israel used to justify the ornate altar in the Temple.) Yet G”d says we must offer up our sacrifices upon a crude altar.

Why this odd juxtaposition? Does the crudeness of the altar signify the necessarily crude and cruel act of killing an animal? Does it signify the raw, natural state of the act of sacrifice? Does it, as Martin Buber suggests, teach us that G"d prefers the natural prayers of the heart to the more formal, structured prayer?

Though I do tend to favor Buber's understanding, I cannot be certain it is the true understanding of the meaning of building the altar of uncut stones. Nevertheless, I do find myself wondering what our modern equivalent to honor this commandment might be. Are our altars made roughly? Hardly. Most of our synagogues are ornate, polished, finely detailed and built structures, with bimahs to match. The words of the Torah, instead of being etched or written on plaster atop large stones, and painstakingly and ornately scribed onto parchment. We cover our Torahs with beautiful adornments.

Perhaps it is this very ornate and structured environment that causes us to be less than forthcoming with our very deepest prayers, and prayers that are the equivalent of the sacrifices of our finest animals, fruits, etc. Where, in our Jewish tradition, is the earthy manger of the Christian tradition? Do we purposefully and deliberately distance ourselves from the earthiness of a crude altar upon which blood is spattered, and animals and other items are burnt as sacrifices.Perhaps we need to recreate this very natural and crude state in our own sanctuaries.Perhaps our bimahs should be rustic.

Perhaps we should have less comfortable chairs in our synagogues - maybe we should sit on natural stones, or tree stumps. (I know from experience that worship in such natural settings as are often found in Jewish camps can be very powerful.) Maybe the floors should be of natural stones? Or even dirt. That might get us a little closer to the idea. We might place simple furniture on our bimahs, place plain covers over our Torahs, and generally avoid ostentation in our sanctuaries.

What was it that drove our ancestors to place a simple stone altar inside a huge, ornate structure? They claim it was to honor G”d, but I suspect showing off had a lot more to do with it. How shall we build and house our altars?

I guess it all depends on what we determine is our "altar." If our prayers, our words, are the substitutes for the sacrifices, upon what natural altar shall we offer them up?

Perhaps we, ourselves, are the altar. So perhaps we need to be what is "natural." (Maybe we should pray in the nude?)

A look back at the Hebrew yields what might be a clue. What we translate as natural, uncut, or un-hewn stone are the words

אֲבָנִים שְׁלֵמוֹת

"avanim sh'leimot,"

literally, "whole stones" (or "complete stones," thus the “uncut,” “unhewn,” or “natural” translations.)

Does this teach us that when we are not whole, when we are not complete, that we are unfit altars upon which to offer the sacrifices of our lips? Yet so many of us are not whole, not complete, and it is for this very wholeness or completeness for which we pray. So I come back to the translation "natural." Perhaps it just means that we need to just be who we are, in order to be the proper altar upon which to offer the sacrifices of our lips. We must be an uncut stone. No frippery or finery. No suits or ties. Just the clothes we would normally wear, the attitudes and mannerisms we might normally have.

All the finest trappings won't make our prayers better. Being ourselves is what makes us fit altars.

When you pray, be an uncut, whole, natural stone. Be yourself.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2017 (portions ©2007) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Ki Tavo 5775 - Rise and Shine (Redux 5761)
Ki Tavo 5774 - They Don't Make Them Like They Used To
Ki Tavo 5773 - Catalog of Calamities (Redux and Greatly Revised 5760)
Ki Tavo 5772 - Mi Yitein Erev? Mi Yitein Boker?
Ki Tavo 5771 - Curse This Parasha!
Ki Tavo 5769 - If It Walks and Talks Like a Creed...
Ki Tavo 5767 - Uncut Stones
Ki Tavo 5764-Al Kol Eileh (in memory of Naomi Shemer, z"l)
Ki Tavo 5763--Still Getting Away With It?
Ki Tavo 5760--Catalog of Calamities
Ki Tavo 5761--Rise & Shine
Ki Tavo 5762--Al Kol Eileh