Friday, July 21, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Matot-Masei 5777–Thirty-Two-Thousand Virgins?


[Scene opens with a high orbital view of the earth, gradually zooming in on the middle east, then to a helicopter view of a valley with a large encampment giving way to a high Chapman crane view of the assembled multitudes of the Israelites encamped on the borders of Midian. The view pans around the camp, slowly descending to focus in on Moshe, who is pacing and talking to himself.]

Hmmm. I need someone to lead the men, whip them up in a frenzy, and go and wreak havoc upon the Midianites. I wonder who I should choose. Why, Pinchas, of course! That man put a spear through Zimri and that Midianite whore Cozbi while they were in flagrante delicto in full view of the whole community.
[Moshe walks over to Pinchas]

Hey! Pinchas! How ‘ya doin’? Life treating you well?

Well, to be honest, Moshe…

Great! Great! Glad to hear it. Now, I have a little favor to ask you.

[Recovering from Moshe’s cutting him off]
Sure thing, Moshe, what is it?

As you may have heard, Pinchas, I’m assembling an army of 12,000 - 1000 men from each tribe, to go take vengeance on the Midianites and…

And you want me to lead the Army?

Um, No, not quite. After all, you are a priest of G”d. It’s your passion I want, Pinchas, your passion I need.

My passion?

I need you to take the same spirit that drove you to put that spear into Zimri and Cozbi and fill the men with it. Stir them up with your passion! Here, take your sacred implements with you.You can perform the sacred rituals before going into battle (and maybe remind G”d to look after the men, too.)  And why not grab some trumpets, too! That’s sure to rile them up.

Cool. I love the trumpets. Their sound will rally th
e troops, and also drive fear into the hearts of the Midianites.

True-it is fearful. I’ve heard you play the trumpet – if you call that playing

Always the kidder, eh Moshe?

Gotta keep things light – especially when you’re about to order the merciless slaughter of thousands. [Looking up and muttering under his breath] and you’re really pissed at G”d who just told you this is your swan song, and all because I hit that stupid rock…

What what that?

Oh, nothing. Go practice your trumpeting (and do it far away from me.)

[Fade to black]


[Sounds of really bad trumpeting]

Hey Moshe! We’re Back!

I can see. I can hear  Wait. Who are all those women and children with you?

It was glorious, Moshe. We prayed to G”d. We ran into battle, with me blowing the trumpets. Oh, such a magnificent sound. I must have played really loud, because people were covering their ears, Yes sir. Just call me Pinchas, master of the chatzotzrot.

Pinchas, who are all these people?

[Ignoring Moshe] The men were great. Killing machines, I tell you. Slew every last enemy soldier.

Pinchas - who are all these people?

[ignoring Moshe] We killed all five Midianite Kings! We even got the shyster prophet Bilaam.


[still ignoring Moshe] And look at all the booty we brought back. Gold, silver, copper, lead, beasts.


[still ignoring Moshe] We burned all their cities and towns to the ground.

[shouting] Pinchas!!!

[Pinchas stops talking and turns to Moshe]

[Loud breath] Now, who are all these people?

Why, the women and children of the Midianites, of course.

I guessed that. Why are they here?

They are our captives. The spoils of war. Our booty.

[sputtering] You spared the women?

Yes, we did..

You? You let them spare the women?

Well, yes, it seemed the gentlemanly and heroic thing to do

YOU? The man who thrust a spear into Zimri and that Midianite whore? While they were humping? You let them spare the women?

Well, we kinda thought we’d have uses for all the women. Wink! Wink! Nudge! Nudge! Knowhatamean? Say no more. Say no more)

Pinchas! These are the very same Midianite women who led so many of our men astray. You saw for yourself! You actually did something to stop it. An awful, gory something. But something. Yet you didn’t exhort the men to slay all these evil, vile women, as I commanded?

Moshe, you’ve been around, You’re a man of the world, eh?

Enough Pinchas. Maybe in three thousand years that’ll be funny, Right now, not so much. So tell, me, Pinchas, why didn’t you follow my orders?

Well, to be honest, Moshe, you weren’t that specific.

What do you mean? I told you to go seek vengeance.

Well…to get specific, Moshe, you said to fall upon Midian, to seek the L”rd’s vengeance on Midian. Nothing about killing every man, women and child.

[Fuming] Get the generals over here, now!

[Fade to black]


[Same setting as previous scene. MOSHE is facing PINCHAS and 4 GENERALS in a group]

Gentleman. What we have here is a failure to communicate.

[Generals look around, not understanding.]

You didn’t follow my orders! You spared the women – the very same women who enticed all our men to turn away from G”d!

Well, c’mon Moshe, what did you expect?

Yeah. You’re a man of the world, Moshe.

You’ve been around the block.

Know what we mean? Wink, wink! Nudge, nudge!

Say no more. Say no more.

ENOUGH! (Note to self: speak to G”d about that Palin chap.)

Allllllllllright, gentlemen, you blew it. All of you. But we’re gonna make this right.

(To self) Think fast Moshe. You’re good at punting. You can come up with a way out of this and keep the Old Man happy. Think. Think. Ah, got it.)

OK, gentlemen, here’s the drill: All of you, stay outside the camp. Don’t come home quite yet. Take your captives, kill all the male children, and then kill every one of the women,,,,no, wait, hold on just a sec. Lemme think.

[Moshe paces, thinking.]

[Pinchas and the generals try to get Moshe’s attention, and  start making winking and nudge gestures to Moshe. Soon, all the men are joining in. Some of the Midianite women start flaunting their wares. Cut to shot of Moshe looking at the Midianite women – he smiles, briefly – then starts to shake his head as if he were Tevye refusing to accept Chava’s choice of a non-Jewish husband – and then puts on a look of stern resolve and rebuke.We see him mouthing the word “No” in slow motion. Camera then pans to reveal some young pre-pubescent Midianite girls who look at each other, shrug, and start revealing their legs and making other suggestive gestures. They catch Moshe’s eye. He quickly turns away, embarrassed. The camera pans to groups of young Midianite boys. Some of them start vamping, too. Some are even dressed in drag. Moshe watches them for a while, starts to shake his head and then abruptly stops - a thought clearly come into his head. Moshe mutters]

[to himself]
Don’t be judgmental, Moshe, old boy. They’re not all cultic male prostitutes. Some of them really prefer other men. Heck, I probably have lots of friends who do, without my even realizing it. What is so wrong with that? Should I like them any less? Of course not! I’ve gotta have a conversation with G"d. I’m not so sure the wording used in Leviticus is gonna be understood in context in the future. Cultic sex with male prostitutes for fertility and other rites might not be for us, but people can’t help who they love and desire. After all, G”D must have made them that way in the first place!

[Having resolved that inner conflict, Moshe continues to look over the assembled Midianite captives, and the Israelite soldiers. His head once again turns back to the young girls, A smile breaks out on his face. He stops and turns again to the assembled crowd.]

Got it, Got it. I got it.
[to crowd] OK, once more, gentlemen, Here’s the drill.

One. Kill all the male children.


[shot of shocked faces and sassy young boys giving Moshe the finger]

Two. Kill all the women who have known a man.


[Panning shot of shocked women’s faces. Among several groups of young girls,  clumps of girls begin to put some distance between themselves and a few particular girls. Camera stops on one group, where, among the girls who have separated from one or two others, they all start to look sternly at one girl who among them, staring intently. That girl slinks away to join the other outcasts with the older women. A girl standing next to one of the boys surreptitiously takes his hand and whispers to him]

“I won’t tell your friends if you don’t tell mine.”
[They wink at each other. Cut back to Moshe]

[dramatic pause] Three. [dramatic pause.] Spare the virgins.


[Camera focuses in and we see Moshe wink at Pinchas, who in turn winks at the generals.]

Simmer down, simmer down. I’m not finished.

After you’ve finished killing all but the virgins,  all of you will stay outside the camp for a week.

[General murmurs]

Any one of you, and I mean any one – soldier or living captive, who has slain another person, or who has com into contact with a dead body shall cleanse yourself, and cleanse all your clothes and any objects you have with you, on the third day and on the seventh day. All cloth. Everything made of animal skin, of wood, animal hair, you shall cleanse.

[Eleazar the High Priest steps up and put his hand on Moshe’s shoulder, pushes him out of the way ala Trump at a photo op. The crowd murmurs. Eleazar totally ignores Moshe,  stops, looks over the crowd, holds up his hand. The crowd silences, expectantly]

[He draws a deep breath and lifts his chest proudly. When he finally speaks, it comes out in a voice with a speech impediment like that of Peter Cook as the clergyman in “The Princess Bride.” ]
Objects of gold, silver, copper, iron, tin, and lead, and any other item that can withstand heat shall be cleansed in fire and then cleansed in the waters of lustration.

[Moshe, stunned and annoyed at Eleazar’s interruption stares for a bit, the walks off, muttering to himself.]

Everything else – your clothes, or anything made from animal skins, and all that cannot be cleansed in fire you shall cleanse in water.

[The crowd stands in silence. Prolonged silence. They look to Eleazar, but he says nothing more. The crowd starts to disperse. Camera pans to Pinchas and the generals.

Well, now what?

I guess we do some more killing.

Man, this sucks. We’re all gonna get tried for war crimes.

Well, we can honestly say G”d told us to do it.

I still don’t like it, even though we get to keep the virgins and the booty. It just isn’t right.

Shh! Moshe or Eleazar might hear you.

This is all your fault, Pinchas. If you hadn’t been so vicious and passionate, killing Zimri and Cozbi like that.

Yeah, Zimri was a putz, But that Cozbi, she was a looker.

[All nod heads in agreement.]

Yeah, I’ve had regrets about that, Zimri, not so much, but Cozbi…I guess I acted a little too rashly fellas.

Maybe we can just pretend to kill the women and boys.

Yeah, maybe make a few really public killings, so it looks like we’re doing it.

Booty is booty, fellas. If we still don’t kill all the women and boys, how much you wanna bet they’ll just inventory then with all the other booty, and conveniently overlook who they are.

I think you may be on to something there.

Alright then. We’re agreed. We make a show of killing, but spare most of the women along with the virgins.

[Cutaway to Herbert, the old pedophile from “Family Guy”]

Don’t forget the boys!

[Cut to Black]


[A week has passed. By command of G”d, an inventory and census is being taken of all the booty from the Midian campaign. By G”d’s command, half the spoils will be divided among the soldiers, and the other half will be divided by the entire community. From the soldier’s share, 0.2% (1 in 500) was set aside for G”d ((or, to put it another way, for the priests, so what need of G”D of these things?) From the community’s share, 2% (1 in 50) was to be given to the priests in return for their service  (at least this was a more honest accounting.)]

[The scene is Moshe and Eleazar addressing the crowd, with the various forms of booty – animals, property, people assembled and being divided into groups. There are little signs everywhere saying things like “Soldier’s Share of Cattle” and “Community’s Share of Asses.” In one spot, valuables are being divided in piles. On one of the piles is a sign that has the words “For G”d” with a line through them, below that the words“For the priests “ also lined through, and underneath that a fresh line reading “For G”d.” As the camera sweeps over the scene, we hear the Narrator.]

(a Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Morgan Freeman type)
OK, let’s do some math. viewers. 1000 men from each tribe went to fight the Midianites. That’s 12,000 soldiers. They came back with:

  • 675,000 sheep
  • 72,000 head of cattle
  • 61,000 asses
  • 32,000  people - which the text then specifically enumerates as the remaining virgin females.

If there were 32,000 girls alone, how many boys and women had they captured and brought along? 60,000? 100,000? It boggles the mind.

[Cutaway to Rod Serling giving a typical Twilight Zone introduction]
[Cut back to Narrator]

[imitating he Twilight Zone theme] Do do do do...

[cutaway to a stock photo of the Brooklyn Bridge]
[cut back to Narrator]

Yeah, right. 32,000 virgins.

[Cut to a shot of Pinchas and the generals cavorting around with women who are clearly not young virgins. (think Marlena Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor, Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe. Jane Fonda. Sigourney Weaver. Jennifer Garner. Or for my younger readers think Gal Gadot. ]

[Fade to Black]


I recognize and own up to the fact that this musing is full of stereotypes, misogynist and homophobic references, and a whole host of other politically incorrect things. I hope you’ll accept my explanation that in using these stereotypes, in addition to their admittedly superficial humorous character, I am simultaneously holding them up for the ridicule they deserve.(Do you really think the Monty Python “wink, wink” sketch wasn’t intentionally and internally lampooning the very behavior it portrayed?)

If you found any of this offensive, I apologize. I am troubled with many things in this parasha. The callousness with which G”d and Moshe are willing to have people killed, including women and children. A G”d who is even willing to command this. The willing acceptance of captives as the spoils of war, even in the context of the times. The sparing of only the virgins. Vengeance. As we are fond of saying here in our own current situation : this is not normal. Torah attempt to normalize an otherwise troubling ethical situation. The Talmud and later commentators seek to mitigate things a bit, but it’s more of a shutting the barn door after the cows are gone.

I portray Pinchas and the Generals, and, in the end, even Moshe, much as I might portray the pussy-grabber now living in the White House. It’s not meant to be flattering. (May it be G”d’s will that this reference becomes very quickly dated. Ptui! Ptui!)

There’s one short section of the script that is even a nod to my discomfort with the stereotyping I’m using as humor for effect. I’m sure you can find it (I think it sticks out like a sore thumb, and I went back and forth many times on whether to include it or not. Eventually, my own discomfort at playing stereotypes for effect won out.)

Humor is both my tool for dealing with the discomfort, and for exposing the issues. I hope, in the process of exposure, I haven’t discomfited you or offended you –  no, strike that. In some way, I hope I have discomfited you. It’s the discomfiting that leads us to action, to examine things closely, to stand up for what is right, just, and fair.

Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha

Matot-Masei 5775 - Mei-eit Harav Tarbu U'mei-eit Hamat Tamitu
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

Friday, July 14, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Pinchas 5777–The Sons of Korach

Here’s a brand new musing. Lately, I’ve been revisiting a lot of older musings – not for lack of time, interest, or motivation, but simply because I feel it’s important for me to look over what I’ve written in the past to see how my views have been shaped and changed over time. and also to discover and add new insights to what I’ve written. Before I get to the new musing, because this is parasha that has inspired some interesting writing, let me tell you what I’ve written about in previous musings on parashat Pinchas.

1. So, if you think the story of Zelophechad’s daughters is illustrative of some feminist sympathies in the Torah, read this:

2. If you’d like to read about the regular Haftarah for Pinchas, which is only read in years when Pinchas is read on a date falling before the 17th of Tammuz (which last happened in 2014 and won’t happen again until the year 2035/5795) read this:

Only in those few and far between years when we read the regular Haftarah for Pinchas from Isaiah do we read of the “kol d’mamah daka",” the “still, small voice.” If that’s of interest to you, read this:

3. So, in most years, including this one, when Shabbat Pinchas falls after the 17th of Tammuz (the start of the three weeks before Tisha B’Av mourning the destruction of the Temple) we get three weeks of increasingly harsher haftarot of admonition. The first of these isn’t quite so harsh – read this:

4. If you’re really into figuring out the whole Pinchas thing, try this: or if you’re not a fan of all the apologetics for this story, try this:

5. Looking for a liberal twist on the story of Moshe passing on his mantle to Joshua, how about this:

6. A short but interesting thought about all those who came out of Egypt, wandered the desert, and never made it in to the promised land for their failure to embrace the positive reports of Joshua and Caleb

There are a few more, and they’re all listed, as usual, at the end of this musing. And now, for something completely different…

In this parasha, there’s another census, another genealogy. It is taken at G”d’s direct command to Moshe and Eleazar (taking his deceased father Aharon’s place.) The census starts, of course, with the clan of Reuven, the first born of Yaakov/Israel.  Enoch, a descendant of Reuven, has a son named Pallu, who has a son named Eliav, who has sons names Nemuel, Dathan, and Abiram. Sound familiar? So here, in the middle of the genealogy of the Reubenite clan, the Torah stops to remind us that these were the same Dathan and Abiram who sided with Korach, and who died when swallowed up with the other followers of Korach. [Note, however, the cause of Korach’s own death where it is first told in Torah is vague and uncertain.]

Here, in parashat Pinchas, the Torah at least answers the question of whether Korach died – stating the he was swallowed up along with Dathan and Abiram. However, here Torah also clouds the issue by conflating the two incidents that befell Korach’s followers – the fire that consumed 250  with their offerings, and the later swallowing of (what is presumed to be the remainder of) Korach’s followers. Talmudic scholars have debated the question of how Korach died for millennia. Lest Torah waste the opportunity to make a point with stick over carrot, it reminds us that these deaths were meant to set an example for those who would question Moshe’s (or G”d’s) authority.

Then Torah says something really odd. In the midst of the genealogy of the Reubenite clan, it says

וּבְנֵי קֹרַח לֹא מֵתוּ

The sons of Korach, however, did not die.

Let’s remember here that Korach and his family were of the clan of Levi, descendants of Kohath, and  they were of the priestly clan. They were not Reubenites. Kohath was the father of Yitzhar, the father of Korach,  and Amram, the father of Moses. So Moses and Korach were cousins.

Why, when G”d did not spare the lives of all of Korach’s followers (including women and children) did G”d spare the sons of Korach? Now the Kohatite clan (which included Korach’s sons) did become important in later Temple times as musicians/singers and Temple guards. So perhaps the Torah text was redacted to show some favor to them? But without the lines of Korach’s sons there would still have been plenty of Kohatite priests around!

Always eager to put a positive spin on things, some commentators suggest that the sons of Korach were repentant and spared as a result. (That seems about as unlikely as DJT Jr. being repentant after the eventual fall of his father..) Other commentators, of course, suggest the opposite – the Korach sons live on in the people in every generation who are troublemakers, seek divisions, and are challengers of authority.

Some 46 verses later in Torah, the census enumerates the Levitical clan census, including the Kohatites. Wouldn’t that have been a more likely place to note that the sons of Korach survived, since theye were of that lineage? Ah, but here the Levitical genealogy notes instead the deaths of my two favorite crispy critters, Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s sons who died when they offered “alien fire.”

So the survival of Korach’s sons is linked to the report of the death of Korach’s prime co-conspirators, Dathan and Abiram, of the Reubenite clan. A dig at the surviving Kohatites when the text was redacted?

I have another theory, which, given who I am, will not surprise my friends. My take is that Korach’s sons survived not to insure there would be sowers of dissent in every generation. but so that there would always be people willing to challenge the status quo, to speak truth to power.

The critiques of Korach are exegetical supposition. It is NOT eminently clear, despite what some may claim, that Korach’s intent was purely selfish, seeking self-aggrandizement. That’s the whitewash we use to justify G”d’s arbitrary swatting away of this challenger and his followers. Perhaps G”d (or future redactors) even wondered if Korach had a point – that all the people were holy. If Moshe is the author of Torah (and that’s a big if, but if that’s your understanding, I won’t deny the possibility even though it’s not my understanding) then of course Korach is gonna be put down and criticized. The winners write the histories, right?

Of course, there’s a flaw in my theory right there. If, as I believe, the Torah was redacted and edited at different times to reflect particular agendas, then why wouldn’t the Kohatite priests have redacted the text to be a little more favorable to Korach? The reason might simply be that the Aharonite priests simply wielded more power than the Kohatites. Perhaps, all that the Kohatites could manage to slip past the Aharonites in a redaction was this little reference to the sons of Korach having not died with all the other. A little “mir zenen do,” we’re still here zotz from the Kohatites.

Maybe the mention of the sons of Korach not dying serves a totally different agenda. Perhaps it is G”d’s apology for acting in anger and destroying so many (including women and children.) At best, however, that’s a half-assed apology.

So maybe, as I suggested, we are told that the sons of Korach did not die to remind us that there will always be a place in society for those who challenge authority, questions norms, and ask the unpopular questions. Being one of those types of people, it’s an explanation I can certainly accept. However, I acknowledge my prejudice, as a gadfly, for such an interpretation. I’ll need to ask others to see if it makes as much sense to them as it does to me.

I can’t claim to be a descendant of Korach. I can’t be certain that Korach’s rebellion was built upon honest intent, or selfish intent.  For now, I’m going to assume that the question of Korach’s intent remains uncertain, The survival of Korach’s sons clearly illustrates that Korach had some merit. May all those who follow in the footsteps of Korach, challenging authority and speaking truth to power for righteous purpose merit a similar blessing.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Pinkhas 5775 - Why Is This Rebuke...yadda, yadda, yadda (an expansion on 5769)
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!

Friday, July 7, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Balak 5777–Bad Habits, Still

[Thirteen years ago I wrote this musing for parashat Balak called “Bad Habits.” Now here it is thirteen years later and I am still dealing with the same demons. So forgive me for being selfish, and revisiting and revising this musing for my own purposes, and hopefully help me to learn a lesson I seem to still have not yet learned.]

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

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

I often respond too hastily to e-mail messages.

There. I've admitted it.That's the first step on the road to correcting a bad habit. [Or so I thought 13 years ago. Seems this road has had an unusually high number of detours..]

Technology is, or can be a really wonderful tool. It has brought many blessings. In fact, technology is a blessing. It also is, or can be, a curse. E-mail is a case in point. Sometimes, when you intend to send a blessing, it comes out a curse. And sometimes our e-mails intended as curses come out blessings instead.

All this was on my mind as I re-read the familiar words of parashat Balak this week. And this surely influenced the message I took away from this encounter with Torah, as you will see. [Here in 2017, I seek to understand why, after that first attempt to improve myself thirteen years ago, I’m still struck by the story of Balak vis a vis my own habits in the same way. You’d think I would have learned].

When the elders of Moab and Midian delivered the message/invitation from King Balak to Bilam, asking Bilam to come and curse the Israelites, Bilam does not respond immediately. Bilam asks the messengers to spend the night, allowing him the time to "consult" with G”d and formulate the appropriate reply to Balak's request. [And boom, there it is, the very first hint that this story has something to teach us about taking a moment before we respond to anything. Rashi argues that G”d only visited Bilam and other non-Jewish prophets at night. Hmmm. The scholars and commentators dispute whether Bilam was seeking G”d’s permission or G”d’s advice on whether to string things along and await an even greater or more important set of emissaries before he agreed to go. I’m not sure that Bilam needed G”ds help or advice in that regard – I suspect Bilam was well-practiced in his craft and knew how to turn things to his best advantage. The Torah, however, has other ideas. The text is rather explicit.When Bilam explains what he was asked to do, G”d says no way, Jose. These people are blessed, you may not go and curse them. ]

King Balak persists – sending emissaries of greater and greater prestige.  The Torah is vague about how many groups. Balak sends yet another, more important group of dignitaries as messengers to implore Bilam to come and curse the Israelites, Bilam again takes a night to consult with G”d before responding.

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

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

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

[“Graffiti?” OMG that’s a dated reference. How many of you remember that early attempt at drawing characters in the “Graffiti” language on a Palm OS based PDA that would be recognized and turned into actual text? Want some nostalgia – you can get a Graffiti app for Android: ]

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

[Or so I ended thirteen years ago. I’m still not heeding my on advice. I’m quick to criticize others for being reactive, yet I remain consistently guilty of being so myself. I wish I had Bilam’s excuse of only speaking (or writing) the words which G”d puts in my mouth. Perhaps I have chosen the wrong story to inspire me. After all, Bilam taking his time to respond is but a small part of a much larger story, which has very different and broader themes. There are many other places in Torah that could serve to remind me to think before I act. Imagine if Moshe had counted to ten and then spoken to the rock instead of hitting it. I also think I can use words of Torah to help me forgive myself for sometimes not thinking before acting G”d is certainly guilty of that on a few occasions! But I digress.

C’mon Adrian, get it together. Be honest, and admit there was a little woo-woo going on here. Parashat Balak comes up, you’re reviewing what you’ve written about it before, you read this musing from thirteen years back and realize you had just recently engaged in that same old bad habit. Don;t be stubborn, Adrian. You;re being hit on the head. You’re getting the “…but I sent you a boats and a helicopter…” treatment. Pay attention!

OK. I’ll try. I’ll think before responding.I won’t be rash, I’ll be thoughtful. Wait a minute, what’s the email you just received say? Are they kidding? Excuse me, I have to go and respond to those idiots and set them straight right this moment…

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 (portions ©2004) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Balak 5775 - Stymied
Balak 5774 - Ball's In Your Court
Balak 5772 - Unvelievable
Balak 5771-Imperfect Justice is No Excuse
Balak 5770 - Beating Our Donkeys II (Revised and Updated 5758)
Balak 5764 - Bad Habits
Balak 5758/5761-Beating Our Donkeys

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

Friday, June 30, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Chukat 5777–Still Not Seeing What’s Inside (Plus Bonus Thoughts)

I always have trouble deciding what to write about for Chukat. Four years ago, I wrote about the boastful victory hymns (jodies) of chapter 22.  Two years ago I revisited an orthographical oddity in Chukat that had important implications for the idea and concepts of taking possessing/conquering/inheriting/dispossessing.

I find this topic still very much on my mind as I struggle with both troubling texts in the Torah and the troubling realities in modern day Israel.

Without commenting on them, I urge you to read these verses (and then perhaps consider them in light of what I had written in earlier musings like those above, and the current troubles in Israel:


Our history with conquest leaves a lot to be desired, and should give us pause in today’s realities.

Those topics are too heavy for me to wade into at the moment given my own physical, mental, and emotional states, so I’ll beg off and leave it to you, dear readers, to explore this. I’d like to go revisit some thoughts on the haftarah for Chukat, which we only read in years when Chukat is read separately.

Now Jephthah was a man with no yichus. Yichus means one's lineage, their pedigree, their family background as it were. Although he was known as a great warrior, he was also the son of Gilead the Israelite and of some woman who was not legally living with his father. (The exact situation is unclear. The text describes him as the son of a prostitute. But the Hebrew uses a word, zonah, for which there are conflicting understandings. So whether she was an actual prostitute, or a woman who behaved like one, or for whatever reason was simply "shacking up" with Gilead without following the appropriate protocols, we'll never know.) In any case, it made Jephthah persona non-grata, and his "brothers," all sons of Gilead's "legal" wife made sure he wasn't going to inherit any of his father's estate, so they drove him away. Jephthah runs off into the hills and becomes a bandit.

So time passes and then, surprise of surprises, the Ammonites attack the Israelites in Gilead (don't you just love these stories where names and place are all the same?) and the elders decide that Jephthah is best suited to lead them in battle against them. So they ask him to come back and lead the Israelites in battle.

Is it any surprise that Jephthah's response is that after all they have done to him, hated him, driven him out of the community, now that there is some tzuris (and here the Hebrew actually using the root of that word!) that they coming crawling to him now?

The elders respond simply that they have "shavnu," "turned back" to him. Now, we can add all sorts of layers of meaning on top of this, especially in the sense of what we have made of the concept of "t'shuva," of returning to G"d. And many commentators buy into this. I'm not quite so willing to let the elders off the hook so easy-their understanding of "we have returned to you" may simply be a straight answer. "Yeah, maybe we screwed up by driving you out, but we really need you." Of course, even that's a lot to eisegete into the text. I'm not sure they were really apologizing, so much as simply acknowledging the truth - they treated him badly and now they needed him. I see no apology in their words. And they even sweeten the deal by telling Jephthah that if he helps he will be in charge of all of Gilead.

Still, it seems to be enough for Jephthah, for he agrees. Yet, like so many other biblical heroes, he has no misguided sense of who it is that really allows victories, and Jephthah acknowledges that G"d will be the one that delivers the Ammonites in Jephthah's hands.

And, to make a long story short, that's what happens.

There are several themes that I am gleaning here.

One is that quality or virtue of a man who recognizes G"d's role in the universe. This may or may not be a positive character attribute, depending upon your understanding of the Divine. From a  biblical standpoint, it’s  a plus. From a believer in G”d as ineffable, it’s a plus. For a believer in a less than perfect G”d, or a G”d perhaps self-limited through the act of giving human beings free will, it’s not such a plus. For a believer in a capricious G”d, or a G”d with a slow learning curve, it’s also not so much of a plus. Pray to G”d but row toward shore.

Another is the valor of a man who, although ill-treated by his "brethren" still comes to their aid. I think that's something worth pondering this Shabbat, and I commend it to you. How many of us might do the same? How many could put aside thoughts of revenge and come to the aid of someone who treated them wrongfully? (I am reminded here of the lepers in the haftarah for M’tzora from I Kings chapter 27.) This seems to be a reasonable virtue, and one that appears not so easy or common to embrace. Though how many of us silently work our way through situations where we feel we have been mistreated but wish to continue to show a professional or upstanding demeanor? Anyone who has done that knows it’s not always easy to do. I used to believe that such a virtue was always worth the effort. As I age, and experience more and more such situations, I begin to weary of having to find the strength to carry on. Yet old habits die hard.

And thirdly, there is the theme of the danger of using yichus as a value system. Even today, many Jews seeks a marriage for themselves or their children that will bring more yichus to them and their family. I guess it's not unusual for anyone to want to "marry well." But it becomes a meat market in which people are stamped with their grade, their suitability as a partner or even as a friend or business partner. How many potential Jephthahs have been overlooked in the search for greater and greater yichus? How man Jephthahs have been hatefully spurned or treated with indifference or even ill will due to their lack of yichus?

For those who believe the liberal Jewish communities are free of such practices, I’d urge you to take a closer, longer, harder look. The same to those who believe that the orthodox world still continues to rely solely on the principle of yichus. Yes, it still carries great weight, but orthodoxy is recognizing the pitfalls. Our communities have developed different understandings of what conveys yichus other than lineage: fame, wealth, fortune, education (not just what but where, too,) physical attributes, health, character, virtue, righteousness, piety, s'micha (and not only orthodox rabbis play the s’micha yichus card-it’s easily found in the liberal Jewish world as well) and so many more. Many of these have been incorporated into the traditional/orthodox understanding of yichus for a long time – others are newer. I daresay the balance of which of these are more prized than others has changed over the centuries, and even more so in the last few decades.

I’d like to believe that dynastic families are becoming less common and wield less power than in the past. I’m not sure that’s true. In addition, what I do see are classes of people that are taking the place of individual dynasties. It’s no longer just the 1%. It’s the 20% in the top tier. Go read Richard Reeve’s “Dream Hoarders:  How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about It.”

Haven't we learned that it takes more than a good family lineage, financial success, etc. to make a great person? I can think of plenty of people, Jews and non-Jews alike, who had lots of yichus but were hardly paragons of virtue. [When I first wrote this musing, Dubya was in the White House, and I commented: “We need look no further than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue these days to be certain of that. As a bumper sticker I saw the other day said, "Who knew Jeb was the smart one?"] Don’t even get me started on the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The office of POTUS is one that should have lots of yichus, no? Sadly, it is no longer held by a virtuous person.

We ought to take the measure of each human being individually. Not on the basis of who their parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents, or their fourth cousin twice-removed was. [Or their wealth, or success in business. If you stop and think about it, our current POTUS plays the yichus card all the time, though his understanding of what truly conveys yichus is sadly mistaken.] We need to look at who someone is on the inside and not just the outside. How many pearls have gone unnoticed for want of someone willing to look at the ugly shell that produces them? This Shabbat, look for the pearls inside everyone.

Shabbat Shalom,

© 2017 (portions ©2005) by Adrian A. Durlester

Chukat 5775 - Wanting To See Morfe Than Just The View From The MountainTop (Revised from 5759/61)
Chukat5774 - What a Difference a Vowel Makes (Revised from 5767)
Chukat 5773 - Biblical "Jodies"
Chukat 5772 - Your G"d, Our G"d, and the Son of a Whore
Chukat 5767-What A Difference A Vowel Makes
Chukkat 5765-Not Seeing What's Inside
Chukat 5764 - Man of Great Character
Chukat 5762-The Spirit of Miriam
Chukat-Balak 5766 - Community Sing
Chukat Balak 5763-Mi ChaMicah
Chukat-Balak 5760-Holy Cow!
Chukat 5759/61-Wanting to See More Than The View From The Mountaintop

Friday, June 23, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Korach 5777–Revisiting B’tzelem Anashim

In 2004, I first wrote a musing on a subject which I had been contemplating and had even mentioned in some of my writings before. It’s time to revisit it again.

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

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

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

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

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

Modern scholarship is contributing another approach – G”d as realistic. G”d reflects for us the realities we experience in our daily lives (or, put another way, G”d experiences the realities we experience daily, thus we too experience them – for G”d models the Universe after G”d’s experiences. Is that any less plausible a concept than we modeling G”d from our reality?)

Much of Greek thought and theology sought and modeled a perfect Divinity. Those thoughts and theologies made their way far deeper into what became Christianity than they did in what became Judaism. One view of the Trinity concept is that it creates a place for both G”d’s perfection and imperfection (and a place to be above even those concepts.) Judaism’s G”d is dynamic, living, adapting. Judaism’s G”d has moments of truly transcendent love and compassion, combined with fits of pique, temper tantrums, etc. Just as life is for human beings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds awfully human-like to me.

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

Though I’ve edited and added to what you’ve just read, that’s how I ended the original version of this musing in 2004. There is another approach to this that I neglected to include. It’s all about how we define and understand the concept of perfection. What is perfect?  Perfect implies that something has achieved a state which cannot be, either in reality or theory, improved. For millennia people have dreamed of such a place, ascribed such qualities to the olam haba, heaven, the other world, the world to come, etc. C’mon folks – we’ve talked about this before. I already accept that a perfect universe would be the most boring place ever. Had G”d created perfection, G”d’s creations would have gone crazy, and G”d would have quickly moved on to something else. It’s the tension between (unachievable) perfection and imperfection that makes the world an interesting place to live. Our mission in life is to try and leave the world a better place than we found it. What purpose would our lives have in a world in which we could never make real or theoretical improvements?

Perfection need not be the absence or impossibility of improvement. There’s another way to define it. Some readers may recall a twenty-year-old musing whose anniversary I highlighted a few months back, for parashat Sh’mini, about GEFTS, the “good enough for this show” philosophy that I learned from a wise old colleague. By having each element of a show in balance, striving for a coherent whole, with no one area outshining the others, one can create a truly “perfect” experience. This is perfection being about balance. In my view, balance, perforce, requires give and take from the constituent parts of that perfection. You can’t have it all – everything can’t be fully maximized. (Even G”d had to engage in “tzimtzum” to make a space for the universe.)

In his controversial 2012 op-ed piece in the NY Times,  An Imperfect G”d, Yoram Hazony described perfection as balance, and then went on to say:

What would we say if some philosopher told us that a perfect bottle would be one that can contain a perfectly great amount of liquid, while being perfectly easy to pour from at the same time? Or that a perfect horse would bear an infinitely heavy rider, while at the same time being able to run with perfectly great speed? I should think we’d say he’s made a fundamental mistake here: You can’t perfect something by maximizing all its constituent principles simultaneously. All this will get you is contradictions and absurdities. This is not less true of God than it is of anything else.

A few weeks later, responding to Hazony in the Times of Israel, writer/blogger Gil Reich pointed out an almost inherent contradiction in viewing G”d as imperfect in this manner, that, Purim-like, turns things upside-down:

If our definition of perfect involves a trade-off of conflicting principles, then God and the world may be perfect despite the existence of pain and injustice.

If we define perfect as something that cannot be improved, then the world isn’t perfect. It’s better. Precisely because we can improve it.

Hazony is suggesting we allow G”d to be imperfect. Perhaps theodicy is not an issue, but a logical extension of the balancing of realities that our understanding of perfection requires.  Reich is suggesting that our static view of perfection  is what holds us back. Perhaps G”d’s perfection is in G”d’s imperfection.

I’m not sure which camp I’m on this. How does this play into b’tzelem/El”him/b’tzelem anashim? Was G”d perfect before creating the universe and humanity, and did the very act of creation cause G”d to have some imperfections? Is it free will, randomness, entropy, that are the root causes of what imperfection there is?  Is the universe perfect in its imperfection? Is G”d perfect in G”d’s imperfection? Is a universe in which we (and G”d) have to partner to keep improving things perfection, or beyond perfection? Is a universe in which imperfection is perfection itself perfect or illusionary? Did G”d make the universe perfect? Did G”d make the universe imperfect? Did making the universe make G”d perfect or imperfect? (If this were a classic sci-fi trope, this would be the point where the perfect thinking machine starts to fizzle and go haywire.)

So, to paraphrase the old “can G”d create a stone too heavy for G”d to lift,” I ask these questions:

  • Can an imperfect G”d create a perfect universe?
  • Can a perfect G”d create an imperfect universe?
  • Can G”d create a universe so imperfect that it is sheer perfection?

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 (portions ©2004) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Korakh 5775 - Purposeful Unpleasant Reminder?
Korach 5774 - Still a Loose End
Korakh 5773 - B'tzelem Anashim (Redux 5764)
Korakh 5772 - B'nei Miri
Korakh 5771 - Supporting Our Priests and Levites
Korakh 5770 (Redux 5758/62) Camp Rebellion
Korakh 5769 - And who Put G"d In Charge (or 2009: A Space Odyssey)
Korakh 5768-If Korakh Had Guns
Korach 5767-Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad, Tabernacle?
Korach 5766 - Investment
Korah 5765 - Stones and Pitchers and Glass Houses
Korach 5764-B'tzelem Anashim
Korach 5763-Taken
Korach 5761-Loose Ends

Friday, June 16, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Sh’lakh L’kha 5777- Of Brains, Anamnesis, and Torah

I just love it when fate comes in and happenstance is fortuitous. I had been planning to revisit an older musing for the parasha, Sh’lakh L’kha on the topic of remembering – or more specifically Anamnesis.

Then, just before sitting down to revisit the topic, and after having done some research intended to clarify and even change my earlier thoughts on the topic, I happened to be glancing at my Facebook feed and come upon an article link that intrigued me. So naturally I clicked on it. The article was just published over a year ago, in May 2016. I was surprised, given my interest in the topic, that I hadn’t seen it come across any of my feeds sooner.

This article, “The empty brain” published online in the digital magazine Aeon, was written by Robert Epstein, a “senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in California. He is the author of 15 books, and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today.”

In the article, Epstein challenges the currently predominant approach to understanding how the human brain works, which he calls the IP (information processing) model. This model presumes that the human brain functions, at least metaphorically, like computers – they are essentially information processors. Epstein takes a different view, which he sums up this way “Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer.” It should be noted that the IP understanding of the human brain is endorsed and supported by many in the brain research and neuroscience fields, along with many other respected scientists and thinkers in other field (like Stephen Hawking, Ray Kurzweil, et al.)

I recommend the article to you. I’ll come back to it in a bit. First,on to the topic at hand – anamnesis. It’s a word I threw at you, dear readers, back in 2000 and again in 2005, and one I’ve sprinkled here and there into other musings. It means, in a most basic sense, recollecting or remembering. In a religious sense, it can mean bringing the past into the present.

It’s not a word one hears being bartered about in Jewish circles a lot, and I first encountered as a student in Divinity School, where I was one of a handful of Jews amidst dozens studying for Christian ministry, or to become Christian theologians, or become Christian scholars. So it’s time I come clean with my readers, and explain that the term has a very specific meaning in a Christian context. Christian rite and liturgy is replete with examples of what they term anamnesis, and act of ritual remembrance allowing one to become part of the original event. The most common usage involves the Eucharist, or host, which is consumed in ritual worship connected to Jesus’ saying at the last supper “Do this in remembrance of me.” Catholic and Christian theology have extended the symbolism of this anamnesis beyond the mere repetition of the act to understanding the participating in the ritual invites one into the the actual mystery of the Eucharist, the passion, the resurrection, and the ascension, known collectively as a paschal mystery. (Don’t get worried if none of this makes any sense. Here’s a very simplistic, non-nuanced explanation: in some understandings of Qabbalah, Jewish mysticism, the doing of righteous acts opens a connection or channel that enables Divine attributes or emanations to flow down to the worldly/earthly/human level. In some Catholic and Christian understandings, participation in certain rites like the Eucharist enable a similar connection to understanding the Divine mystery that is, for them, G”d/Jesus/Trinity. I apologize to my readers of a more scholarly and knowledgeable level for this gross over-simplification.

Anamnesis also has specific meaning in philosophical circles. Plato’s understanding of anamnesis is that human souls are immortal, and repeatedly re-incarnated. With each re-incarnation, the soul “forgets” all that it has learned, and the process of acquiring knowledge is actually recovering the knowledge that the soul had previously.Plato viewed those who assist others in the acquisition of knowledge not as teachers, but as midwives, rebirthing knowledge the soul previously held. (Again, I apologize for the extremely simplistic explanation.

Though we don’t usually call it that, anamnesis, at least in some aspect, is part of what we do in Judaism. So many of our rites and rituals are designed to enable the “b’khol dor vador” experience as exemplified in the Pesach Seder ritual.  In the telling of the story, in the engagement in the rituals, we are bringing our memories forward, and making ourselves part of that experience. So many other rituals involve some sense of connection to the mysteries and miracles of the past, enabling us to connect with the Divine in our own here and now.

Now, it’s the time for blatant honesty. When I go back and reread that original musing for Sh’lakh L’kha from 2000,  I struggle to understand how I got to the topic of anamnesis, and how in my mind, I was making/rationalizing that connection. In those musings, I talked about the information gap in the story of the 12 scouts. We get a list of place names, but no serious narrative about what they encountered, as they encountered it. We get only their summaries – most of them all gloom and doom, with only two of them hopeful , even assured.

In that musing, I wondered why there was no narrative of the actual journey of the scouts, and only their reports. My surmise, at the time, was that it was a way of teaching us to reach the same faith as Moshe, Joshua, and Caleb. It didn’t matter what the scouts actually saw. G”d that had brought these people of of Egypt, had given them Torah at Sinai – that G”d will surely see them settled in this good,promised land. No other conclusion need be made.

Joshua and Caleb remembered all that G”d had done for the people, and it wasn’t even a question if G”d could enable us to live in the promised land. (Yes, I know. I’m tiptoeing around the uncomfortableness of labeling this as a conquest of and eviction of the land and the existing tenants of the land – but that is, ultimately what is was. Sigh. History sadly, repeats itself. Especially for those who choose to forget the past, as Santayana said.) I think my anamnesis connection was that, we too, in our own time, can find our faith by remembrance of the things of the past. The lesson is to do as Joshua and Caleb did. Remember all the mighty deeds already done for Israel to have surety that they will be protected in present and future as well. That, I am sure, is how Joshua and Caleb were able to return with such a positive attitude about the potential (okay, I’ll say it) conquest of the land.

The Israelites blew it. They weren’t ready to enter the land, because they lacked faith it could be theirs. How many lost opportunities in our own lives can be chalked up to lack of faith?

Judaism, generally, tends to downplay the whole resurrection thing, for obvious reasons, but any truly knowledgeable Jew knows that Judaism is no stranger to the idea of bodily (or metaphorical) resurrection. Even the Reform movement has put “m’chayyei hameitim” (who gives life to the dead) back as an option it is prayerbook. We’ve heard the stories of how even the dead bodies will tunnel their way under the ground back to Jerusalem when the time comes. (In other musings, I’ve talked about how I have re-embraced “m’chayyei hameitim” in my prayers because of how I now understand those words in a very different way, unrelated to actual physical resurrection. It is, perhaps, more of an anamnesis understanding. It is about remembrance. It is about relearning that which an ancestral soul once knew. It is about entering into the Divine mysteries through an actual of worship.

And now back to the brain science article. What’s notable is how the author rejects the idea of memory as being some kind of stored, static data. We actually don’t store full physical images of what we’ve encountered.

This is the paragraph that most caught my attention for being related to Torah, Judaism, remembrance/anamnesis:

This is why, as Sir Frederic Bartlett demonstrated in his book Remembering (1932), no two people will repeat a story they have heard the same way and why, over time, their recitations of the story will diverge more and more. No ‘copy’ of the story is ever made; rather, each individual, upon hearing the story, changes to some extent – enough so that when asked about the story later (in some cases, days, months or even years after Bartlett first read them the story) – they can re-experience hearing the story to some extent, although not very well (see the first drawing of the dollar bill, above).

I love that. We re-experience hearing the story. Or we re-experience reading the book, Or re-experience hearing the song. Our brains may work in a manner that is similar to anamnesis! It uses recollection to rebuild the experience anew (and slightly changing it in the process.) Oh, how I love what that says about biblical interpretation, don’t you? Also, what is possibly says about oral transmission of texts. Yes, there is some evidence to indicate that our ancestors were better at remembering longer texts than we are, but we may be deceiving ourselves as to just how accurate the passing down was. What eventually made it into the written Torah, all of Tanakh, even recollections that made it into Talmud, Aggadah, and Midrash are all somewhat suspect – if our brain truly does know something by literally re-creating it based on some scattered remembrances.

Is the Pesach Seder designed with this understanding in mind? Are more recent versions of the haggadot buying into the IP understanding of brain science, and focusing on ways to cram in and retain data? I suspect the original haggadot were used anamnesis and were very experiential in their approach. Luckily, I think there are plenty of contemporary haggadot that haven’t abandoned anamnesis as the key to entering the Divine mysteries of the Exodus story.

Not very much about Torah today, except indirectly. But I see all that I have written as Torah in a broader sense, and I hope you, dear reader, have found the exploration a worthy experience.

Shabbat Shalom,

© 2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Shelakh-L'kha 5775 - Cover Up? (Redux 5761)
Sh'lakh L'kha 5774 - Do You Spy What I Spy (Redux 5759)
Shelakh L'kha 5773 - They Really Might be Giants (Redux 5764)
Sh'lakh-L'kha 5772- Cover Up (Redux and Revised 5761)
Sh'lakh-L'kha 5771 - Ignorantia Juris Non Excusat
Shelakh L'kha 5769 - One Law
Sh'lakh-L'kha 5767-Cover Up II - G"d's Scarlet Letter?
Sh'lakh L'kha 5766 - Another Missed Opportunity?
Shelakh Lekha 5764-They Might Really Be Giants
Shelakh-Lekha 5762-Minority Report
Shelakh-Lekha 5761-Cover Up?
Shelakh Lekha 5760 and 5765-Anamnesis
Shelakh-Lekha 5759-Do You Spy What I Spy?

Friday, June 9, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat - B'ha'alot'kha 5777 - Of Singing, G"d, and Bathrooms

There was an interesting question posed this week in a Jewish Facebook group to which I belong. This group is most often looking at things from an orthodox perspective, but is open to participation from across the spectrum and frowns upon bashing of any kind. I find it valuable to observe and learn how Jews of a more traditional bent see things.

This week, an anonymous poster spoke of a situation they encountered and asked for opinions on an appropriate response - or if indeed to respond at all. The situation involved overhearing a Conservative cantorial student singing a song in the restroom that included that person singing "shem hashem." (That's a way of indicating that the person sang "Ad"nai" or "El"him" rather than "HaShem.") The poster wanted to know if they should say something to this student about it - I guess you might call it a form of tokhekha (rebuke.)  There was a fascinating array of responses. Most (but not all) of the responses from people with an orthodox perspective revolved around the issue of how and when one one might actually go about responding to this. Matters of not embarrassing someone needed to be considered along with the other factors involved. Understanding and respecting diverse religious practice is another. In any case,  a majority seemed to favor a discretely made comment. 

Others, perhaps more liberal in perspective wondered why it even mattered. I was one of those. I responded by citing a verse from this week's parasha, B'ha'alot'kha, Numbers 11:29. That verse is part of a brief story told in this parasha.
11: 26 Two men, one named Eldad and the other Medad, had remained in camp; yet the spirit rested upon them--they were among those recorded, but they had not gone out to the Tent--and they spoke in ecstasy in the camp. 27 A youth ran out and told Moses, saying, "Eldad and Medad are acting the prophet in the camp!" 28 And Joshua son of Nun, Moses' attendant from his youth, spoke up and said, "My lord Moses, restrain them!" 29 But Moses said to him, "Are you wrought up on my account? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them!"
It's a sentiment I've written about before, most often in terms of ecstatic worship or fervor.  (See previous musings on this Parasha  at the end of this post.) I don't know if that applies in this particular situation, but it certainly feels like there's a connection.

Our Torah is pretty earthy at times. It speaks of building latrines, menses, nocturnal emissions, masturbation, and more. At the same time, it is pretty clear about the need to separate what is clean from unclean, pure form impure. There's some inherent conflict here. If G"d created us b'tzelem El"him, in the image of G"d, then some aspect of G"d has to "use the toilet" in some way. Even if you won't go that far, surely you'll accept the premise that sweating, peeing, and pooping are part of G"d's design. So why are they any less important than breathing, or beating hearts, or opposable thumbs? Why do we insist on holding these perfectly normal bodily functions at a distance, fom ourselves, from each other, and, according to some, from G"d?

Centuries of rabbinic teachings have created some traditions, some bathroom halakha, as it were. The "asher yatzar" prayer is, traditionally recited after urinating or defecating. It is, preferably, recited after washing one's hands in a space separate from the toilet. (There's a whole debate about ancient toilets and modern ones, where the waste remains until flushed,  and this affects the way some poskim intepret the halakha.) Washing outside the room with the toilet is preferred. If the sink is in the room with the toilet, one is to go outside that space to dry one's hands and recite the "asher yatzar." It is customary to remove one's tallit before entering a restroom.  Talking in a bathroom is actually prohibited, as is eating. You can bring siddurim and other books into the bathroom, but they must be covered (rabbis disagree on whether one or two layers of cover are needed.) There are many other prohibitions as well. Among them, one is not permitted to entertain thoughts related to the study of Torah (and that''s Torah in its "Big T" sense of encompassing all religious texts.)

In the case of the incident in question, there are any number of reasons, from a halakhic standpoint, why one should no be singing a religious song in a bathroom, and not be saying G"d's name as part of that song. If I were living a traditionally observant lifestyle, I might find myself troubled by this. This is why the focus of the response was about the response and not the act. The act, even if one accounted for the less observant status of the person involved would still be a prohibited act, and warrant a comment. The focus was on how to deliver the rebuke appropriately.

Many liberal Jews do not consider themselves bound by the halakha, so the question is of little importance to them.  However, maybe it could be (or even should be?) I know many liberal Jews, myself among them at times,  who, more for the sake of their more observant colleagues and friends, might choose to keep a kosher home. Though I struggle with the concept, I recognize the need, in a setting with Jews of differing practices, to be conscious of and respectful regarding things like shomer negiah, kol isha, et al. If there's a chance you might encounter someone whose religious practice is more observant than yours, perhaps it is the wisest course to aovid those things which you know might be offensive or troubling. (It's like the long history within Reform Judaism about keeping synagogues kosher. To be honest, I still remain troubled when a Reform synagogue chooses to either ignore kashrut entirely, or embraces "kosher style" in place of actual kashrut observance. Our synagogues should be accommodating in this regard. I will agree that I have heard some valid arguments for just the opposite, but I'm not there yet. To me, flaunting non-observance is not a proper Jewish value. On the other end of the spectrum, I find myself amused at how traditional synagogues are often so far more open to the presence of active young children in the sanctuary during worship, yet in liberal synagogues, we relegate the boisterous children to cry rooms or babysitting rooms.  This is changing, and I am proud to currently be working for a congregation that is now embracing the presence of toddlers and young children in the sanctuary during services. G"d is not just for adults. But, as usual, I digress.)

On the other hand, profanity, obscenity, impurity - these are all rather subjective descriptors. Consider for a moment, how often one might say "oh sh*t." In doing so, we have taken the act of defecation and created a pejorative obscenity from one word used to describe it. If it's okay for us to bring "sh*t" out of the bathroom, why is it wrong to bring "G"d" into the bathroom?  Then there's the whole asher yatzar prayer itself. While it's not explicit by modern standards, it is pretty graphic, speaking as it does about vessels and openings that need to close or open at specific times for our bodies to function.We surely need to thank G"d for urination and excretion for we would die without them. Judaism and Hebrew utilize the word for breath to illustrate a wide variety of ideas beyond simple breathing. Except for the odd sense of propiety we have developed on the topic, is it that strange to imagine a prayer that explicitly thanks G"d for sweat, pee, and poop? (Halakha, a la the rabbis and poskim, does get rather explicit. One who has diarrhea, for example, is expected to make the appropriate blessing after each occasion of excreting. One with constipation, however, and using a laxative, should wait until their bowels are cleared before saying the asher yatzar. There's lots more, too, but you can do your own research.)

If there's a commandment that most Jews violate with regularity, it's number three. Oh, we have lots of euphemisms to replace phrases like G"d dammit, but I sure hear G"d's name taken in vain with great regularity by Jews of all stripes (liberal Jews have no monopoly on this practice.) Given this state of affairs, along with the generally sorry state of affairs of human behavior in the world, I would definitely subscribe to the idea that the more G"d is praised and spoken of in a positive way everywhere, at all times, the better. I can state with absolute certainty that I, at some point, been in a bathroom singing a Jewish song out loud which includes G"d's name.

Now, Eldad and Medad weren't singing. They were prophesying. So the correlation isn't exact. Nevertheless I'd like to believe that Moshe rabbeinu would react to my (or anyone's) singing G"d's name in praise in a bathroom no differently than he did to Eldad and Medad's prophesying.

Would that all G"d's people sang G"d's praises in the bethroom, that G"d would put G"d's spirit upon them. 

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester