Friday, January 27, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Va’era 5777–Alternative Facts (Not What You Think It Is–Or Is It?)


Once upon a time, there was this Pharaoh, and Moshe and Aharon. G”d heard the complaints of the Israelites stuck in bondage in Egypt, and sent Moshe and Aharon to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Pharaoh is not disposed to do so, and is unimpressed with a few parlor tricks. So – bring on the plagues.

OK.The Nile turns to blood. The text says there was blood in all of Egypt. Then Pharaoh’s magicians repeat the trick? But how – if ALL throughout Egypt the water had turned to blood, what was left for the Egyptian magicians? Then it says that all the Egyptians had to dig round about the Nile for drinking water because they couldn’t drink the water from the Nile. So which was it? Was all the water in Egypt turned to blood, or just the Nile? Or just portions of the Nile? Also, seeing how turning the Nile (and/or other waters) to blood was not beneficial to his people, why would Pharaoh order his magicians to repeat the feat, this bringing more suffering to his people? Sloppy writing, sloppy editing.

Then Aharon holds his arm with the staff over the rivers and brings forth the frogs which COVERED the land of Egypt. Once again, Pharaoh asks his magicians to duplicate the feat. Same questions. If the frogs were everywhere, where did the Egyptian magicians bring forth frogs? Since the frogs were hurting his land and people, why would Pharaoh ask his magicians to bring forth yet more frogs? Logistically inconsistent.

Pharaoh summons Moshe and Aharon and asks them to plead with G”d to remove the frogs. Then, inexplicably, they ask him “when?” I’ve a whole musing on that subject alone. One of my favorites (which I updated just last year again: If you like Monty Python-esque humor, you’ll appreciate this one.

Yes, scholars argue that it could be that the Egyptian magicians were attempting to reverse the spells. That, however, is not the plain meaning of the Hebrew, and in my book, is eisegesis (imparting meaning into the text, as opposed to exegesis, deriving mean from the text.) Alternative facts?

Then dust turns to lice. Only this time, when Pharaoh asks his magicians to repeat the feat (and again, all the same questions) they cannot. Well, isn’t that special for the Egyptians. Already plagued by lice, they don’t have to contend with more.

Arov - whatever that is. The traditional consensus is that the word means a mixture, therefor a collection of assorted things. The two primary rabbinic understandings are either a mixture of animals (wild beasts) or a mixture of insects and other small pests and vermin. There are yet other explanations. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch thinks it means “animals of the aravah,” that is, the wilderness. Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir) thought it meant wolves. Another theory attempts to link the Hebrew arov with the Egyptian word for Scarab Beetle, an animal sacred to the Egyptians. Hertz makes an oblique reference to that in his commentary. I’m inclined to support the mixture of insects/pests view since the text says the arov came into the houses of the Egyptians. The JPS translation also uses insects. Yet each year at Pesakh most of us still refer to the “wild beasts.” Tradition.

Animal pestilence. No magicians involved here (as far as we know.) But wait – maybe they were. Because now we come to boils, where is says that the magicians couldn’t do anything because they had the boils, too. Hmm. Does this mean they were involved in trying to duplicate the arov and animal pestilence?

G”d tells Moshe to announce to the Egyptians that G”d has specifically not wiped them out in order to  see G”ds power (i.e. making them suffer more.) Sigh. G”d tells Moshe to tell the Egyptians that if they move their animals and property indoors they will be safe from the coming hail. So now I’m really confused. G”d announce that G”d is deliberately increasing the suffering of the Egyptians to make an example of them, yet in the same breath tells them how to save themselves and their animals and property from the coming plague? Is G”d feeling guilty? Having second thoughts? The text tells us that some Egyptians did heed the warning and moved their animals and property inside to protect it from the hail, while others did not. So there were some “righteous Egyptians” or at least some worth saving from G”d’s wrath if they chose to believe the warning?

The hail is devastating, this time Pharaoh says “I stand guilty.” Your G”d is right, and I and my people are wrong; plead for us. Moshe goes to plea for them, but tells Pharaoh they still don’t fear G”d. How does Moshe know this? Because only some people protected themselves, property, and livestock?

The hail ends, and soon Pharaoh goes back to his defiant ways. Pharaoh’s heart is stiff again. The verb form is plain – it (the heart of Pharaoh) was hardened. It’s not reflexive, so it doesn’t imply Pharaoh hardened his own heart.

Then it says “Just as G”d had foretold Moshe.” Only G”d hadn’t foretold this to Moshe in this particular instance. So what gives? Another alternative fact?

Pharaoh’s had one way of dealing with facts they didn’t like. They rewrote the history. Seems we took some of that with us when we left Egypt.

For some, the Torah is fact. Anything that does not agree with Torah is therefore not fact to those people. Oh, the cognitive dissonance that must create.For me, Rabbi Larry Hoffman summed it up nicely in this article:

If we accept Hoffmann’s thesis, we do not need to trouble ourselves with whether or not the Torah presents facts or alternative facts. (If you’ve read Hoffman’s article, you’ll understand why I started this musing as I did.)

Though Torah teaches us how to live, it doesn’t really teach us what fact is. In fact (pun intended) the Torah seems to have a fair share of contradictions, puzzles, mysteries, and even competing and conflicting stories. There is, nevertheless, one clear lesson I derive from this. Alternative facts can only exist in a fictional world.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 by Adrian A,. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Va'era 5776 - Why Tomorrow (Revised 5757/62/66)
Va'era 5775 - Brighton Beach Last Stop! (Revised)
Va'era 5774 - Tomorrow, Again
Va'era 5773 - Let Our People Go/Rendezvousing With Rama
Va'era 5772 - Got It!
Va'era 5771/5765-Brighton Beach-Last Stop!
Va'era 5769 - Substitute
Va'era 5767-again, Crushed Spirits (Miqotzer Ruakh)
Va'era 5766-Why Tomorrow?
Va'era 5765-Brighton Beach-Last Stop!
Va'era 5764-Imperfect Perfection and Perfect Imperfection
Va'era 5763 - Pray for Me
Va'era 5761-Just Not Getting It
Va'era 5762-Early will I Seek You

Friday, January 20, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Sh’mot 5777 - Free Association V


Eighteen years ago, I wrote a Sh’mot musing called "Free Association" (with apologies to Debbie Friedman z”l for stealing the title from a little known early song of hers that I found quite inspirational in my Jewish journey.) That first Free Association musing consisted of three light and short musings to brighten Shabbat. Then a few years later, I added three new thoughts for that year to the previous ones. I did so yet again in another few years. Then another time, three more, plus and extra. Now, this year, four more free associations for you. I hope you find them all equally thought-provoking.

Alef 5759

"Ok, wise guys. Now make your bricks without any straw!" (to paraphrase Sh’mot 5:10-11.)

Pharaoh and his court must not have been very experienced parents (or else things were really different back then.) As any parent knows, when your child is being troublesome and rebellious, piling on the punishment is more likely to draw out the rebellious spirit rather than control it.

Obviously, I'm not that experienced a parent. For I am learning the same lesson as Pharaoh. Tightening the screws often yields greater resentment, and is rarely a win-win solution.

Alef 5763

"I yam what I yam." (to loosely paraphrase Sh’mot 3:14)

Those simple Hebrew words, "eh'yeh asher eh'yeh" are, for me, an overlooked commandment. Perhaps no other words could better make the plain statement "don't try and figure G"d out. G"d is what G"d is." Is that what these words say to us? As a theologian, they are also some of the most frustrating words in all of Hebrew scripture. If we are not supposed to try and figure out who/what G"d is, then what's the point of it all? Maybe this overlooked commandment is not what it appears to be on the surface. Rather than being a command (suggestion?) that we not try to figure out G"d because G"d is beyond our comprehension, it is, instead, a challenge, a mystery, a puzzle that, while we may not be able to solve it, we are nevertheless obligated to explore. Whew! For just a moment there I was about to give up on theology forever!

Alef 5766

Cheap theatrics. A burning bush? With all the miraculous things at G"d's disposal, G"d uses a burning bush? Oh, I suppose I might be intrigued enough by a bush burning, but unconsumed, that I might stop to take a look. Had I been in a hurry, I'm not so sure. Perhaps G"d hadn't figured out just how much G"d was at the mercy of this free will thing G"d had bestowed on humans. Though by this point in the narrative, G"d had ample opportunity to catch on to that. Perhaps G"d was emboldened by the absolute success of that little teleological puppetry with Yosef and his brothers?

We've had that nice little apologetic from our sages that explains that G"d chose the bush to show that G"d is concerned with even the lowliest of G"ds creations. (Not very nice from the bush's perspective, is it?)

Yet there's another little connection, albeit it's a bit of an orthographical stretch. It's this little bit of wordplay with the word used for bush, s'neh. Just this slight aural connection with Sinai (especially if you say Sinai in Hebrew and not its Americanized pronunciation.) Though the geography is a little confused, and it's not clear that Horeb and Sinai are the same place, our tradition would like it to be. So scholars have speculated that horev, meaning dry, desolate, may have referred to a region, in which happened to be located a mountain named Sinai. Perhaps it wasn't just a bush that was burning, but the whole mountain top, or perhaps even the whole mountain range. Awash with aish haKodesh, holy fire. Now that's a sight bound to attract Moshe's attention, no matter how preoccupied he might have been at the time. (And he must have been preoccupied. Why else would he have driven his flock into the wilderness? Now, we can't assume that midbar, or wilderness, designates an arid area-in fact most scholars believe it just refers to unsettled land, which could easily be good pasture land. But horeb, in Hebrew horev, we are reasonably certain designates an arid place. Makes little sense to drive your flock to more arid land where food for them in scarcer. What thoughts were occupying Moshe's mind before he encountered G"d's little attention-getting burning bush?

Alef 5771

Yeah, we have this Yeter/Yitro thing. We also have "melekh mitzrayim" (king of Egypt) and "Paraoh" (Pharaoh.) (Later on in this book of the Torah we find "Horeb" and "Sinai" to refer to the same mountain. So this dual naming thing has me thinking - is there some connection to the dual naming convention found in Bereshit/Genesis with Avram/Avraham and Yaakov/Yisrael (Jacob/Israel.) We also have the Ad"nai/El"him pattern as well. Scholars have looked carefully at these patterns to determine their significance, and claim to have found some. So I find myself asking what the significance of these other dual namings might be. Is the "Yeter" a simple scribal error, or does it harken back to an earlier (or later) name of Yitro, father-in-law to Moses, priest of Midian and of El? Might Yeter have been his original name, and Yitro the one he took upon himself when he became a priest of El? Or perhaps when he took on Moses as a son-in-law?

The King of Egypt/Pharaoh duality may be simpler to explain in terms of highlighting the mortal nature of the King of Egypt and the haughtiness and conceit with which these rulers of Egypt, who called themselves Pharaoh, considered themselves as gods. Note that the Torah doesn't say " a new Pharaoh arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph." It says "a new King." (And, by the way, this is NOT the Pharaoh of the Exodus. Look at Ex. 2:23. This new King who did not know Joseph dies! In fact, Moses' ability to go back to Egypt is predicated on that!)

Maybe it's something akin to "The President" and "The Presidency?" Pharaoh represents the idea, the concept. The word "Paraoh" (Pharaoh) appears many more times than the phrase King of Egypt. Occasionally it appears as the combination "Pharaoh, King of Egypt" (see for example, Gen. 41:46)

Considering all the name dualities in Torah, let's be grateful we don't generally think of Joseph as having dual names. Zaphenath-paneah doesn't exactly trip off the tongue.

Alef 5777

As a follow-up – later research confirmed for me that the word “Pharaoh” actually is the ancient equivalent of referring to the seat of power, as we might use the words “The White House” these days.

Now, to another topic. The deception that Moshe uses to initiate the series of events that is to befall Pharaoh and Egypt, the lie that “we just wanna go out three days journey into the wilderness to worship our G”d” is not the deception of Moshe. It is G”d’s idea! The fix is in from the start. Talk about your situational ethics. G”d effectively tells Moshe to lie to Pharaoh, while also telling him that G”d will dispose Pharaoh against this lie, allowing G”d to resort to the use of strong-arm tactics. Moshe, the ethical man (and more on that later in this musing) unquestioningly accepts G”d’s order to lie to Pharaoh. Talk about your situational ethics. So oppose earthly rulers when they give unethical orders, but follow G”d when G”d gives unethical orders? This is something that will continuing to trouble me.

Bet 5759

"You dumb idiots. You should have kept your mouth shut. Now look at the trouble you have caused. Quit rocking the boat." (to loosely paraphrase Sh’mot 6:20.)

This is what you Moshe and Aharon get for their trouble-for being, like the Blues Brothers, on a "mission from G"d" ? It's always easy in many situations-home, work, elsewhere to just keep your mouth shut, and let oppressive or unfair conditions persist. The attitude is pervasive. Why, even recently, the head of a major Jewish organization suggested we stop making so much noise about Holocaust reparations, lest we draw more ire and negative attention.

It's never easy to be gadfly, the troublemaker, the rabble-rouser, or, for that matter, to be G"d's agent and instrument. But something tells me, if you're not getting a lot of resistance even from the people you are trying to help, you're probably not doing it right. No pain, no gain.

It's my nature to often find myself in situations where I feel like a minority of one, railing for the cause I think is just and right. The day comes when I find that a comfortable place to be is the day I stop doing it. (Does that make me a masochist?)

Was this what Moshe really feared when he tried to wangle his way out of G"d's charge to him? Was Pharaoh or Moshe's own people the greatest obstacle? (After all, how big an obstacle could Pharaoh have really been, if, later on in the story, G"d has to deliberately harden Pharaoh's heart?)

Bet 5763

[nothing] (to paraphrase what comes between Sh’mot 2:10 and 2:11.

How could it not be salient-the record of what happened in Moshe's life between the time Pharaoh's daughter drew him from the water and the time when the (apparently) adult Moshe sees an Egyptian overseer strike an Israelite and then strikes the overseer dead and hid the body. Such notables as Cecil B. DeMille and Steven Spielberg have, along with the midrashic rabbis, have attempted to fill the gap with fanciful tales and best guesses. In today's world, we're fond of looking for root causes of behavior. Pop psychology abounds with concepts like "toxic parents" and "toxic childhood." We try to ascribe blame for adult behaviors to our experiences growing up. While I won't suggest there's no truth to those concepts, I do wonder if the lesson found here in the Torah's omission of those details (which, one must admit, is somewhat odd, considering that the first adult act of Moshe's that we learn about is his murdering a fellow human being) is that, as adults, we are who we are and do what we do, and we needn't dwell on details of adolescence. What made Moshe a murderer? Whatever the root causes that may have stemmed from Moshe's childhood, they don't seem to have any impact on G"d's decision to choose Moshe to be the one to bring Israel out of Egypt, do they? So let's give Pharaoh's daughter, and indeed, all parents, a break.

Bet 5766

You call that humble?

In looking for a reading from the prophets that could remind us of parashat Sh'mot, the Sephardi did not choose Isaiah as did the Ashkenazim, Rather, they chose Jeremiah for their haftarah. The connection is fairly plain when we reach 1:6 in which Jeremiah, demonstrating a humility not unlike that of Moshe rabbeinu, says "I do not know how to speak, for I am still a boy" when G"d calls him to be a spokesperson. Apparently, Jeremiah got over this little bit of humility rather quickly, for the remainder of the opening of Jeremiah's prophetic book is the usual litany serving as proof that G"d did indeed chose this person to be a prophet. G"d replies to Jeremiah (to put it in modern colloquial terms) "just go where I send you and say what I tell you to say."

Moshe, too, it seems, gets past the humble part fairly quickly. Moshe practically begs G"d to tell him what name he should call G"d. G”d gives this lovely "ehyeh-asher-ehyeh" thing, and what does Moshe do with it? Nothing.

Bet 5771

Every vigilant for loopholes, students look for them ardently. I remember an interesting discussion with a student based around the fact that "do not lie" is not a commandment. The discussion was actually happening before we got to the 10 commandments in the Torah-it happened to be when we were reading Sh'mot. The student was quick to point out to me that Shiphrah and Puah lied, and were then favored by G"d. Guess it is OK to lie to the King of Egypt/Pharaoh when you are defying him because of your fear/awe of G"d. (Now here's an interesting connection to the previous thoughts-it is the King of Egypt who asks Shiphrah and Puah why they allowed the male babies to live. Yet the midwives address their answer to Pharaoh. (see Ex. 1:18-19.)

The student says that this text is a proof text for a number of loopholes - that it is permissible to lie for G"d's sake, permissible to lie to an evildoer. He (and I) found that very problematic. Don't you?

How do we work with this? The commentary in Etz Chayim (presumably by Sarna) posits that in v. 19 the midwives were evasive out of a desire both the protect themselves, but also to allow them to continue their good work in saving the lives of more Hebrew boys. That's a brave piece of eisegesis (reading meaning back into the text) that's not wholly supported by the p'shat but it seems sufficient to at least redeem Shiphrah and Puah for their lie. Yet it's very teleological, with the ends justifying the means (apropos, I suppose, to continuing on from the Joseph saga which is teleological at its very core.)

The lie of Shiphrah and Puah isn't even a very good one. Pharaoh doesn't explicitly see through it - if anything, he reacts as if he believes it by ordering a solution that seems logical - to enlist all people in the effort and not rely solely on the midwives. Is there another lie that Shiphrah and Puah could have told that might have led to a less drastic response from Pharaoh? In hindsight of course we need Pharaoh to act this drastically, because it sets up the rest of the story. So teleology prevails. And a lie becomes acceptable.

Shiphrah and Puah are heroes, no doubt. They have become proud symbols of modern Jewish feminism as well, and rightfully so. Let's not forget, however, they were also practiced in the art of dissembling. Is that a good trait or not?

[An aside about a lie. Thank goodness G"d is not beholden to a chronological timeline. Otherwise we might have caught G"d in a bit of a lie when he told Moses that Aharon was on his way to meet him. After all, just a few verses later we read of G"d instructing Aharon to go meet Moses. Of course, we must assume this happened out of literary sequence, right? Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge. And even if G"d hadn’t actually yet told Aharon to go meet Moses, we was planning on it. So it's OK, right? Oh what a tangled web...]

Bet 5777

The midwives, Shiphrah and Puah had to choose between their ethical beliefs and the orders of Pharaoh. They chose civil disobedience. As I write these words, in the background are the sounds of the ceremonies marking the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States. I and many others fear we may soon find ourselves in a position similar to that of Shiphrah and Puah. I know that my choice will be to follow their example.

Confronted with the civil disobedience of the midwives, Pharaoh makes one last, desperate move. He asks all Egyptians to be the instruments of his plan to rid Egypt of the potentially threatening Hebrews. The Torah, however, is silent on whether or not the people of Egypt did as Pharaoh commanded. One wonders why. Perhaps, even despite their hatred and fear of the now numerous Hebrews, even the Egyptians knew when a ruler had asked them to go too far, and were not disposed to follow. Was there an Egyptian equivalent of Der Weisse Rose?

Gimel 5759

[apology from 5777 – when I wrote this, quoting Cosby wasn’t problematic.]

"You want me to go challenge Pharaoh, and I don't even know your name!" (very loosely paraphrasing Sh’mot 3:13

Bill Cosby never did the "Moses" routine. But somehow, I can hear Moshe using that same word the Cosby put in Noah's mouth....."riiiight." How the heck are we supposed to know that it's G”d talking to us and not some dehydration-induced hallucination? A burning bush? Gimme a break. Cheap theatrics. C'mon, G”d, couldn't you do better than that? A voice calls your name from a burning bush and you answer "here I am" ? You gotta be nuts-it could just be some psycho in the wilderness.

And what answer does Moshe get for his trouble in asking "um, er, excuse me, er, sir, but, what's your name?" "Ehyeh asher ehyeh" "Huh, G”d, what was that, your name is Asher Eyeh? What kind of name is that? Chaldean, Ugaritic, what?" "Well, actually, my family came from...hey, Moshe, quit distracting me! Just tell the good folks that my name is I-will-be, that'll just have to be good enough. After all, I'm going to free them from their slavery and take them to a land flowing with milk and honey."

"Milk and Honey, Mr. fancy-pants I-will-be? How about just some nice grazing land for the sheep and some easy access to water, ok, that'll be quite enough, thank you."

And so on. Someday, perhaps, someone will write this routine and perform it. After all, it's just midrash....riiight?

(If you don't know the reference to the Cosby routine, find someone older who does!)

What's the big deal here? Couldn't G"d just have made up some name to keep Moshe happy. He could have said call me El, (or Al?-apologies to Paul Simon) or Mr. Shaddai, or something like that. But G"d knows the power of a name. G"d knew that whatever name c"hosen, it would be the name G"d "was known by for the rest of eternity. Better make it a good one. But names give people power over others. Give people G"d's name and they could summon, distract and generally be a nuisance to G"d around the clock for millennia.

Hey, when you get a call from a stranger on the phone, do you give them your name up front? (Of course, are any of us truly strangers to G"d? Oy, now I'm imaging a Bob Newhart phone call routine...)

"Moshe! It's for you! Some guy named Asher something or other....."

Anyway, I for one an glad the G"d did not tell Moshe G"d's name at this time. Makes me realize that, as great a man as Moshe was, when it comes to G"d, none of us are on a first name basis. Let's keep it that way. That's true equality for humankind, and a nice distinction for the one who creates.

Have a marvelous and joyful Shabbat. Read Sh’mot -and maybe Va'era. And (after Shabbat) go see Prince of Egypt. And then imagine Cosby or Newhart telling the exodus story! Nice entertainment, yes. But for my money, no midrash has it over the original screenplay.

Gimel 5763

"Who, me?" (to loosely paraphrase Sh’mot 3:11)

Moshe sure does his best to talk his way out of the limelight that G"d seems intent on thrusting him into. Five times he seeks to extricate himself from the predicament which he fears is about to befall him. Did Moshe really think he could talk G"d out of it? Or was Moshe just playing gadfly? One wonders.

Gimel 5766

Is it too much to ask, little consistency from a divine document?

Who is this Yeter, father-in-law to Moshe, in verse 4:18? And why, later in that same verse, is he named Yitro?

If we're gonna claim divine authorship, or even just divine inspiration, can't we at least have some darned consistency?

But wait. Why must writings of divine origin be any less flawed than documents of human origin? Who made that a rule? (Well, I guess we did, when we started making perfection an attribute of G"d. What a bad move on our part. Notice that G"d never claims to be perfect. And with good reason, too.)

Many times I have written in these musings (and elsewhere) that these seeming imperfections, inconsistencies, etc. are what make Torah the brilliant thing it is. They get us thinking. They make us stop and pause and consider.

OK. Let's stop and pause and consider.

Now who the heck was this Yeter fellow again?

Gimel 5771

This "new King" who arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph wasn't particularly bright. If he truly meant to deal "shrewdly" with the Israelites because he feared their success and numbers, what made him think that enforced and harsh slavery would be a more effective tactic. Did he not understand that you catch more flies with honey? Why didn't this Pharaoh attempt to co-opt the Israelites, seek a way to make them beholden to Pharaoh for his kindness and benevolence?

Taking the question even further back, why was this new King worried at all? (Yes, we've all heard the scholarly theories about the Hyksos invasion and all that, but can we really be certain that this was at the root of this Pharaoh's fears?) Did this Pharaoh have any reason to believe the Israelites would be disloyal, and side with potential enemies? What's the unwritten underlying subtext here? (Now, if we take the teleological approach, we can just ignore this entire discussion. As you know, I'm not prone to do that.)

The text is strangely silent about the worship practices of the Israelites in Egypt. If most of them had assimilated as much as Joseph, what had Pharaoh to fear? It all gets curiouser and curiouser.

Gimel 5777

The “new King arose” bit has been getting a lot of play lately, considering what’s going in in the United States today. Rabbis, bloggers, and pundits are all drawing upon this image to speak about the 45th President of the United States (and as I write these words, that has just become reality.)

How can one grow up in a place and not know of its history? Yes, Egypt was a society in which the rulers were known to erase the histories of those who came before if they did not like them. Nevertheless, those histories persisted, for how else would we know that they had been erased?

I just overhead a commentator say that the new President’s inaugural speech made no references whatsoever to history, and the history of this nation. A new Pharaoh arose who did not know…

Dalet 5771

Yeah, I know in past years it was only a trio. However, I thought I'd add an extra thought this year. In each successive remaking of this musing, I've gotten more long-winded. When you’re on a roll, might as well stay on a roll.

I alluded to it earlier, but now I want to take it up again. Go back and read from Ex. 1:8 and then 2:23. This new King who did not know Joseph, and who was an adopted Grandfather of Moses, dies. Things only get worse under the next Pharaoh. Now, fancifully, "Prince of Egypt" midrashically fills in the missing story between Moses' adoption by Pharaoh's daughter and Moses's coming of age (in which he kills and Egyptian overseer and hides his body!) The premise that the one who becomes Pharaoh and the nemesis of Moses was like a brother to him while Moses lived in Pharaoh's court doesn't make sense. An adoptive uncle maybe, but a brother? The successor to the Pharaoh who did not know Joseph would be a brother of the daughter who adopted Moses.

I also think it is ironic that it is in the same sentence as the one where we learn that the Pharaoh who did not know Joseph, the one who ordered all the first born Israelite males killed, dies, that we first learn of the groaning of the Israelites in their bondage. And in the next sentence, of G"d hearing their cries. Maybe they were just wailing, in good old Egyptian fashion, for 70 days over the death of their Pharaoh?

I think there is a popular misconception, among many, that the final plague is retribution against the then Pharaoh for the slaying of Israel's first born, But as the text makes clear, it was not that Pharaoh, but his predecessor, who had issued that stern decree. We all seem to gloss over verse 2:23, when that Pharaoh dies. Not surprising that we would conflate the story this way. It becomes even more conflated when we examine it from the point of view of the Haggadah and Pesakh. Hmmm. Guess this all supports my idea that the Torah uses King of Egypt to refer to a specific person, but Pharaoh to refer to a more generic concept, and one that we can conflate to make entirely evil. That's certainly a warning to us to be more careful in making such associations, is it not?

Dalet 5777

Spurred, again, by what is currently happening around me on inauguration day 2017, I turn to the often overlooked story of Moshe in Midian. As is typical, the Torah presents us with a huge chronological ellipsis in the words of 2:15. Pharaoh learns that Moshe killed the overseer and sought to kill Moshe, who fled. Moshe arrives in Midian, and sits beside a well. All this in one verse.

The daughters of the priest of Midian appear at the well to water their father’s flock but are chased off by shepherds. Commentators have hinted that this “chasing off” may have involved misogyny and even sexual overtones. They also note that given their father’s surprise at their early return from the well, this was likely a regular, if not daily, occurrence. The presence of Moshe changed that. In yet another act of social conscience, Moshe drives off the shepherds and helped the daughters water the flock. (I’ve taken Moshe to task for killing the overseer, so I’m glad to see that here he keeps himself in check. Oddly, it was Moshe’s own sense of justice that led him to discover that his killing of the overseer was known. He finds out from the retort of the Israelite that he chastised for fighting with another. So maybe given he got two of three, I should go a little easier on Moshe?  It’s hard to get it right all the time.)


Wishing you all a Shabbat filled with questions and discussions.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2017 (portions ©1997, 2002, 2006, 2010) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Sh'mot 5776 - [SPOILER ALERT]
Sh'mot 5775 - Why Us (Redux 5765)
Sh'mot 5774 - Pas De Deux
Sh'mot 5773 - Wicked, Wonderful Moral Ambiguities
Sh'mot 5772 - Is Might Ever Right?
Sh'mot 5771 - Free Association IV
Sh'mot 5767-Logic & Metaphysics
Shemot 5766 - Free Association III
Shemot 5765-Why Us?
Shemot 5764-Unconsumed-ness
Shemot 5763 - Free Association II
Shemot 5760-Tzaz Latzav, Tzav Latzav
Shemot 5761-The Spice of Life
Shemot 5762-Little Ol' Me?

Friday, January 13, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayekhi 5777– It’s Our Stew Now

Thirteen years ago, back in 2004, I wrote a musing for parashat Vayigash which I entitled Incidental Outcomes and Alternate Histories. It’s a good read, so do so, but this isn’t a revision or updating of that musing, but rather an expansion of an idea I had challenged myself with in that musing. I considered writing this last week, but it didn’t seem to quite fit with where I wanted to go with Vayigash, so I saved it for this week and Yayekhi instead.

In that musing for Vayigash thirteen years back, I spoke of the lost opportunities that come about due to the strong teleological massaging of the Yosef story to make it a setup for the next book. In that musing, I pondered what would happen if the Yosef story had taken a different path. This could have been a truly great opportunity and PR coup for G”d.  Instead, it becomes a lost opportunity, and as I wondered in that musing:

I don't know about you, but I look at this lost opportunity and scratch my head. Once again a stubborn, capricious and ineffable G”d chooses to go from Ur to Jerusalem by way of China. And generations of Israelites must suffer under the oppressive yoke of Egyptian slavery.

I posited an alternate history that (potentially) obviated centuries of Israelite slavery before we received the Torah and our promised land. This whole story of the Torah could have come to an end much quicker.

So let’s imagine that lost opportunity redeemed. I’m not quite ready to write and complete that alternate history here, but lets’ explore things anyway.

Before I go and lay all the blame at Yosef’s feet, lets’ consider Yaakov’s role. Was he, too, a willing pawn in G”d’s plans? I’m not so sure.

After “confusing” Ephraim and Menashe (and if you need yet another blazing neon sign arrow pointing to the text and saying “later interpolation/redaction to fit the agenda of the interpolators/redactors,”  this story, along with almost all of chapter 49 and Yaakov’s prophecies about his sons and their descendants, ought to do the trick) Yaakov says:

וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל־יוֹסֵף הִנֵּה אָֽנֹכִי מֵת וְהָיָה אֱלֹהִים עִמָּכֶם וְהֵשִׁיב אֶתְכֶם אֶל־אֶרֶץ אֲבֹֽתֵיכֶֽם:  וַֽאֲנִי נָתַתִּי לְךָ שְׁכֶם אַחַד עַל־אַחֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר לָקַחְתִּי מִיַּד הָֽאֱמֹרִי בְּחַרְבִּי וּבְקַשְׁתִּֽי

Then Israel said to Joseph: “I am about to die; but G”d will be with you and bring you back to the land of your fathers. And now I assign to you one portion more than to your brothers, which I wrested from the Amorites with my sword and bow.”

Now, the commentators tend to read this as Yaakov’s acquiescence to the Divine plan. Might I humbly suggest a different interpretation? I believe Yaakov is subtly saying to Yosef “OK, enough of the Egyptian shenanigans. Get your ass up to Canaan along with the whole mispocha, and starting holding G”d to those promises made to us. You think G”d intended for us to become prosperous and numerous in a  foreign land? My impending death will give you the perfect opportunity to get the whole clan back home. You’ve done more than well enough here it shouldn’t be a problem. Why should we stay here when we know how the Egyptians really feel about us shepherds?”

Now, you can counter my thesis by arguing that G”d could have made it clear if G”d wanted Yosef to take the Israelites back up to Canaan because it wasn’t what G”d had planned, but G”d didn’t do that. Perforce, this was G”d’s plan. To which I would counter, yet again, who needs a G”d that insists we go through 400 years of suffering before promises made to us by G”d are kept? The flood, and the destruction of S’dom and Gomorrah already give me enough to really wonder about this G”d. I need another?

To me, it seems Yosef didn’t seem to catch Yaakov’s hints – even with the sweetening of the offer with an extra portion of land. (Scholars argue whether or not this means Yaakov was giving Yosef the status of of firstborn, making Yosef de facto leader of the family, or if this is a misreading of the words sh’khem ekhad, and it actually relates to the actual land of Shekhem. (Remember the Dinah story.) Did Yosef learn of what had transpired there? There are huge philological issues with the standard translation of sh’khem ekhad as “extra portion.” Not to mention the apparent inaccuracy. There is no record of Yaakov having engaged in such a battle with Shekhem. This whole verse smacks of sloppy, careless editing and redacting to fit an agenda (and it even fails at that.) If this verse really does refer to the land/town of Shekhem, and if Yosef really did learn what had transpired there with his sister and brothers, was there an even deeper meaning to Yaakov’s use of this reference in sharing these words with Yosef? Was this a veiled threat to his other sons? It’s like an onion, as always.

Skipping ahead to the end of chapter 49. Yaakov insists he be buried in the cave at Machpelah. To me, that’s another neon-sign arrow. Hint! Hint! Yosef – go home to Canaan and stay there.

But something’s not right about what follows. We can overlook the embalming. That was simply practical, and as some commentators have pointed out, the text distances this embalming from the religious practices of Egypt because it wasn’t performed by Egyptian burial specialists, but by Yosef’s own physicians. (Egyptian embalming and mortuary practices were usually practiced by specialists due to the very religious nature of them.)

וַיַּֽעַבְרוּ יְמֵי בְכִיתוֹ וַיְדַבֵּר יוֹסֵף אֶל־בֵּית פַּרְעֹה לֵאמֹר אִם־נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֵיכֶם דַּבְּרוּ־נָא בְּאָזְנֵי פַרְעֹה לֵאמֹֽר: אָבִי הִשְׁבִּיעַנִי לֵאמֹר הִנֵּה אָֽנֹכִי מֵת בְּקִבְרִי אֲשֶׁר כָּרִיתִי לִי בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן שָׁמָּה תִּקְבְּרֵנִי וְעַתָּה אֶֽעֱלֶה־נָּא וְאֶקְבְּרָה אֶת־אָבִי וְאָשֽׁוּבָה: וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה עֲלֵה וּקְבֹר אֶת־אָבִיךָ כַּֽאֲשֶׁר הִשְׁבִּיעֶֽךָ

…and when the wailing period was over, Joseph spoke to Pharaoh’s court saying: “Do me this favor. and lay this appeal before Pharaoh: ‘My father made me swear, saying, “I am about to die. Be sure to bury me in the grave which I made ready for myself in the land of Canaan.” Now, therefore, let me go up and bury my father; then I shall return.” And Pharaoh said, “Go up and bury your father, as he made you promise on oath.”

But why did Yosef make sure to promise to Pharaoh he would return to Egypt after burying his father? To me that suggests that things weren’t entirely great between Pharaoh and Yosef. (Also, just to be clear, notice that Pharaoh doesn’t appear to verbally insist that Yosef return or even respond to that part of the appeal.)

In Exodus, we will read of how Moshe played shrewd with Pharaoh, asking only that he and his people be allowed to go out a few days journey into the wilderness to worship their G”d. We know this was a ruse, that the objective all along was to take all the Israelites out of Egypt. We might consider that Yosef was offering up to Pharaoh his own ruse, but subsequent details disprove this. Yosef dutifully came back. After burying his father, Joseph returned to Egypt, and his brothers, and all who had gone up with him to bury his father.

What a lost opportunity. After thinking it over, I’m not gonna lay any blame at Yaakov’s feet (he has enough baggage already.) No, Yosef just plain blew the chance here. If, indeed, things with Pharaoh were dicey, this was the perfect chance to make their escape. Yosef surely had some delusions of grandeur – well, they weren’t even delusions. He was vizier of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. He had saved Egypt from the famine. Yet he had done so at the expense of the Egyptian people, so they were not likely all that well disposed to the Israelites.

Yes, Yosef and the family had some comforts in Egypt, but it wasn’t home. Why did Yosef and all his family become lulled into a false sense of security when the handwriting was already on the wall? why did Yosef pass up this opportunity to go back home, and become an even greater ruler than Pharaoh. Yosef knew that G”d had shown him favor. Why doubt that G”d would allow Yosef to become an even greater ruler than Pharaoh back in Canaan? What did Yosef fear? Or had G”d revealed the plans to Yosef? (And there is support for this in Yosef’s earlier words to his brothers about it all being for the best in the end.)

Perhaps G”d was frustrated with Yosef that he wasn’t getting the hint that it was time for the Israelites to go back home? As the joke goes “I sent you a boat, I sent you a helicopter…) Perhaps it wasn’t G”d’s plan at all to have the Israelites suffer for 400 years in Egypt. Perhaps, frustrated with Yosef’s failure to step up and be the leader of his people, and instead prefer to remain in Egypt, G”d threw up G”d’s hands and said, “Fine. Let them stew in their own juices for a while.”

Yaakov tricked his brother into selling his birthright for a bowl of stew. Is it karmic that the Israelites wind up in a stew for Yosef’s sellout to Pharaoh and a more comfortable and safe lifestyle? Thanks Yosef. That’s one pot of stew our people could have avoided.

What are the opportunities that G”d is trying to reveal to us that we are missing, ignoring, or defying? Here, in our own time, the handwriting is on the wall. The storm clouds are gathering. We must not ignore the opportunities that G”d and life present to us in order to prevent, fight, or remain safe through the coming storm. Have we, like perhaps Yosef did, become complacent, mesmerized by our own level of personal comforts?

Yosef’s missed opportunity led to 400 years of hardship for the Israelites. What would be the price of our own failure to miss such an opportunity in our own time? Can we summon the courage that Yosef appeared unable to muster? G”d help us if we can’t. We know the values that G”d wants us to live by.  If we fail in that obligation, might G”d look away again and put us though more centuries of hardship? Those of us who have sensed G”d’s message or hints, who have sensed the handwriting on the wall – it is our obligation to bring this message to those around us who cannot or choose not to hear it. Seems we (or perhaps some of us) let one opportunity slip away last November (and let’s not argue the finer points of our electoral system here.) We no longer have the luxury of ignoring the hints. It’s our stew now.

Khazak, Khazak, V’nitkhazeik.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayekhi 5776 - Beyond the Threshold
Vayekhi 5775 - Which Last Words?
Vay'khi 5774 - The Puppet's Unritten Lament
Vayekhi 5773 - The Wrong Good (Redux and Updated 5762)
Vayekhi 5772 - A Different HaMalakh HaGoel
Vayekhi 5771-Trading Places (Redux & Updated from 5759)
Vayekhi 5770 - Musing Block?
Vayekhi 5769 - Enough With the Hereditary Payback Already!
Vayekhi 5767-HaMalakh HaGoel
Vayechi 5766-Thresholds (Redux 5764 with Reflections
Vayechi 5761/5-Unethical Wills
Vayechi 5764-Thresholds
Vayechi 5763 - I Got it Good and That Ain't Bad (Redux 5760)
Vayechi 5759-Trading Places
Vayechi 5762-The Wrong Good

Friday, January 6, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayigash 5777– Orange Default Swaps


You’ll have to forgive me, I’m fresh off of finally watching “The Big Short” last night, and it most definitively is influencing my writing today.

Joseph was wise. of that there is no doubt. It’s the nature of his wisdom that can be troubling. Wisdom can be used for good, for evil, and things in-between. Let’s look at the sequence.

In a wonderful bit of Torah hyperbole, we read:

וְלֶחֶם אֵין בְּכָל־הָאָרֶץ כִּֽי־כָבֵד הָֽרָעָב מְאֹד וַתֵּלַהּ אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וְאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן מִפְּנֵי הָֽרָעָֽב

Now there was no bread in all the world, for the famine was very severe; both the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished because of the famine

Gotta hand it to the JPS committee. “No bread in the all world” takes the already hyperbolic “v’lekhem ein b’khol ha’aretz” – no bread in the land – to a truly cringe-worthy extreme. In our own time hyperbole has become so normative that one needs to go to even more ridiculous lengths to make it effective.

וַיְלַקֵּט יוֹסֵף אֶת־כָּל־הַכֶּסֶף הַנִּמְצָא בְאֶֽרֶץ־מִצְרַיִם וּבְאֶרֶ שֹֽׁבְרִים וַיָּבֵא יוֹסֵף אֶת־הַכֶּסֶף בֵּיתָה פַרְעֹֽה ץ כְּנַעַן בַּשֶּׁבֶר אֲשֶׁר־הֵם

Joseph gathered in all the money that was to be found in in the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan, as payment for that rations that were being procured, and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s palace.

One obvious question to be raised is, if the famine was so extensive, from where were Egypt and Canaan purchasing food? In this, I wonder if the Torah is somewhat like Egyptian stelae and other monuments, upon which histories were altered to fit the narrative of the present regime or a particular agenda. My suspicion is that Egypt’s priests were hoarding the food, and selling it off to the state in order to enrich themselves. Not to be outdone, Pharaoh (through Joseph) comes up with his own plan to give him the financial control currently monopolized by the priests. So this whole part of the story in the Torah is not about Israel at all, but about Egyptian politics. Yes, perhaps some food was being purchased from more distant sources – Nubia, or Mesopotamian countries, though given that region’s geography, those areas were likely to be just as affected by the famine-creating weather patterns. Yes, by the time of the 12th dynasty (a likely time for the setting of the Joseph story, whether the story itself is historical or not) it is likely that Egypt was already trading with Peloponnesian lands. Egypt had been engaged in sea trade even before the 1st dynasty, so trade would have been well-established by Joseph’s time. Whether sea-faring trade beyond the Levant was a significant contributor to staving off localized famines in Egypt is a debatable point. )

וַיִּתֹּם הַכֶּסֶף מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וּמֵאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן וַיָּבֹאוּ כָל־מִצְרַיִם אֶל־יוֹסֵף לֵאמֹר הָֽבָה־לָּנוּ לֶחֶם וְלָמָּה נָמוּת נֶגְדֶּךָ כִּי אָפֵס כָּֽסֶף:  וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף הָבוּ מִקְנֵיכֶם וְאֶתְּנָה לָכֶם בְּמִקְנֵיכֶם אִם־אָפֵס כָּֽסֶף:

And when the money gave out in the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, “Give us bread, lest we die before your very eyes, for the money is gone. And Joseph said, “Bring your livestock, and I will sell to you against your livestock, if the money is gone.”

Joseph didn’t say “I will open the storehouses of Pharaoh, and order the priests to open their storehouses, and food will be distributed to the people.” Instead he said “you want food from the government, you still have to find a way to pay us for it.” Supply and demand economics, with government as the seller. Greed starting to rear its ugly head.  (Not to mention that the priests would likely have defied any such order, or at least insist on being paid.)

We know what happened. The people sold their livestock to Pharaoh in exchange for bread. When they ran out of livestock, they were forced to offer up their land and their own persons. And this they begged Joseph to accept in exchange for food. End result, Pharaoh winds up as a feudal lord with a land of serfs, with Joseph as his vizier.

The next two verses are often overlooked, but are quite significant.

וְאֶת־הָעָם הֶֽעֱבִיר אֹתוֹ לֶֽעָרִים מִקְצֵה גְבוּל־מִצְרַיִם וְעַד־קָצֵֽהוּ: כב רַק אַדְמַת הַכֹּֽהֲנִים לֹא קָנָה כִּי חֹק לַכֹּֽהֲנִים מֵאֵת פַּרְעֹה וְאָֽכְלוּ אֶת־חֻקָּם אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָהֶם פַּרְעֹה עַל־כֵּן לֹא מָֽכְרוּ אֶת־אַדְמָתָֽם

And he removed the population town by town, from one end of Egypt’s border to the other. Only the land of the priests he did not take over, for the priests had an allotment from Pharaoh, and they lived off the allotment which Pharaoh had made to them; therefore they did not sell their land.

So the Egyptian people were dispossessed of their lands, and effectively redistributed throughout Egypt as indebted servants. Joseph gives them seed to plant, and they get to keep four-fifths and one fifth will go, in perpetuity, to Pharaoh.

So yes, in the end, the people get fed. The rich prosper and the poor suffer. (I’ve heard some argue that because this was a nationalized economy, it was more like socialism than capitalism, but this wasn’t wealth redistribution in an equitable fashion. This was oligarchy. The situation that modern day Russia finds itself in, and to which America is rapidly descending (some would argue we’ve been there for decades, and only a thin veneer of constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms and rights obscure the truth of the matter. I’m inclined to agree. )

Note, too, the final verse of the parasha:

וַיֵּשֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בְּאֶרֶץ גּשֶׁן וַיֵּאָֽחֲזוּ בָהּ וַיִּפְרוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ מְאֹֽד

Thus Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased gently.

Read that over a few times. Then ask yourself what lands were available for the Israelites to acquire, if it had all been sold to Pharaoh. And, while I’m reluctant to engage in “blame the victim,” the facts, as borne out in the start of the next book, are that this land acquisition by immigrants likely engendered they very first fires of anti-Semitism. Though the ostensible reasons given for the crackdown, 400 years later, on the Egyptian Israelite community was the fear of their numbers, I suspect their relative wealth and freedom from serfdom played a part.

OK, here comes the politics. Just stop here if you want to avoid that.

Yes, I’m going to get political here. After just under a century of marginally successful bridling, the oligarchs and capitalists are about to be fully unbridled. And unbridled oligarchy and capitalism are likely to lead to a situation as dire as that faced by the poor Egyptians that Joseph swindled.

The later Pharaoh that arose who did not know Joseph, and was wary and envious of the Jewish community in Goshen employed tactics and rhetoric not all that different from that employed by DJT.

DJT is like both this Pharaoh, and the one that elevated Joseph and became landlord for his entire country. He exhibits tendencies of both of these biblical figures. As a businessman, I fear he has ethics similar to those revealed in the film “The Big Short” and similar exposes on Wall Street and the banks. I fear that those in our Jewish community who support this man (and I understand that represents 30% of you) are in effect being the Josephs of our time, enabling Pharaoh and his cronies to acquire yet more wealth. I pray that you will wake up and see this man for who and what he really is before you find yourself in the same boat as both the Egyptians swindled by Pharaoh and Joseph, and the Israelites of 400 years later, oppressed by an anti-Semitic ruler willing to kill a feared immigrant community.

That being said, I will strive to have ethics higher than those who brought about the Wall Street/Banking collapse. I won’t gamble by buying the political equivalent of credit default swaps in the hopes that DJT will fail, because I don’t wish to profit from his failure. Though a part of me really wishes I could discard those ethics, because having financial protection against the rack and ruin that Trump could bring to our country is tempting. I just hope that when future history is written, people don’t try to whitewash Trump as the Torah has whitewashed Joseph. Teleology be damned!

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Vayigash 5776 - Things Better Left Unsaid (Redux 5763)
Vayiggash 5775 - Rule #2
Vayiggash 5774 - We Are Shepherds
Vayigash 5773 - Let's Be Judah
Vayigash 5772 - Redux & Revised 5760 Teleology 101: Does G"d Play Dice With the World
Vayiggash 5771-Being Both Israels
Vayigash 5769 - He's A-Cookin'-a-Somethin'-A-Up
Vayigash 5768 - G"d By the Light of Day
Vayigash 5767-Two Sticks As One?
Vayigash 5765-One People
Vayigash 5763-Things Better Left Unsaid
Vayigash 5761/5766-Checking In
Vayigash 5762-Teleology 101: Does Gd Play Dice With the World?
Vayigash 5764-Incidental Outcomes and Alternate Histories