Friday, December 4, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Vayishlakh 5770-Finding a Way to Embrace Ovadiah’s Vision

The haftarah for parashat Vayishlakh is the entire book of Ovadiah. It’s the shortest book in the Tanakh, only one chapter, and 19 verses long. All but the last verse are in a poetic form.

Obadiah/Ovadiah/Ovadiyah means “oveid Yah” or “servant of Yah (G”d)”. Scholars dispute the dating of the text. Based on its content, it must have been written at a time when the Edomites, descendants of Esau/Esav, might have sold out their brother Israelites, to an enemy. This leaves us with two likely time periods: the middle of the 9th century BCE (around 850) when the Philistines attacked which would have been referring to the nation of Israel, the northern Kingdom; or during the cusp between the 6th and 7th centuries (between-605-587 BCE), when Nebuchadnezzar took Jerusalem and began the Babylonian Exile. Consensus appears to be for the later date, though if we accept this, then it is the Kingdom of Judah that is, ultimately, betrayed.

In parashat Vayishlakh, Yaakov/Jacob and Esav/Esau part relatively amicably-at the very least, their is a tenuous truce or peace between them. In Ovadiah’s prophecy, Esav/Esau, in the form of the nation of Edom, finally take their revenge of Yaakov/Esau, by betraying their distant brothers, the descendants of Yaakov/Jacob, to an enemy nation. Ovadiah then speaks of the punishment that will befall Edom, and his prophecy tells of how the remnant of the house if Yaakov/Jacob will utterly defeat and wipe out the Edomites, and restore the nation of Israel.

Ovadiah’s prophecy is often interpreted as an “end times” prophecy, it might even be considered proto-apocalyptic by some scholars. It’s not clear whether Ovadiah’s vision of a restored nation of the Jewish people was local or global.

The commentaries of the rabbis generally put Ovadiah’s prophecy in the more universal setting – the time of Moshiakh, of G”d’s Kingdom on earth. That’s no surprise. The early rabbis lived through the Syrian-Greek and Roman occupations and destructions, the Roman’s final defeat of the Jews and ending of the Jewish nation. For them, Edom represented not the Philistines or the Babylonians, but Rome itself. Later, after Christianity became dominant, it assumed the role of Edom instead.

The last verse of the book of Ovadiah, which made its way into liturgy (where it precedes the well-worn “bayom hahu” quote from Zechariah 14:9), is clearly cast in these more global ambitions:

For liberators shall march up on Mt. Zion to wreak judgment on Mount Esau; and dominion shall be the L”rd’s.

From a strictly Jewish particularistic perspective, it speaks of a time when the G”d of Israel shall be the G”d of all peoples. There’s no getting around the fact that, from a late rabbinic and medieval perspective, it was a hope for a time when the Jews would ascend Mt. Zion and overthrow the rock of Peter, and the Papal throne of Rome.

Are there not parallels here? In the case of Judaism and Christianity, the younger has far surpassed the elder, and, in effect, stolen its birthright. (It could be argued that the blessing was stolen deceitfully, with the used-car-salesman-like tactics of Paul, who chucked wholesale all the parts of Judaism that was off-putting to the gentiles he determined to convert when he finally saw that trying to convert the Jews was going nowhere. That’s sort of like Yaakov donning a goat skin to deceive his father.)

Though we struggle and strive for understanding between the three great Abrahamic faiths (and indeed, between all people of faith, and all people whose faith is of a kind not based on religious precepts) the tension and enmity between them, like that between Yaakov/Jacob and Esav/Esau seems perpetual.

Of course, we could take this a whole other direction. Let’s skip the non-Torah stuff (i.e. the haftarah) and root ourselves firmly in the parasha. In this case, it seems the Torah is recommending more of a “live and let live” attitude. Yaakov/Jacob and Esav/Esav let bygones be bygones, and co-exist, albeit apart, peacefully. That, surely, is a vision more attuned to our modern sensibilities.

Then there’s yet another alternative. We accept both the Torah’s view, and that of Ovadiah. We globalize and extend the vision of Ovadiah (and others) in a universalistic vision of a time when G”d shall be One and G”d’s name shall be One, and all people’s shall worship G”d. (Sorry, atheists, this does sort of leave you out, though I suspect that in any ultimate kingdom of G”d, any messianic future, the atheists will be as welcome and comfortable as anyone else.

We need not take the vision farther down the apocalyptic path, or any sort of triumphalist path. We need only to look near the end of our parasha, when together, Yaakov/Jacob and Esav/Esau, once (and perhaps always) bitter rivals, come together to bury their father. When we can all come together, and bury the twisted soul that was Yitzchak/Isaac, and what it represents in our past and present, perhaps we will have eliminated from our midst that pakhad Yitzchak, that idea of G”d as the “Fear of Isaac”.  We can purge our faiths and religions of those qualities within it that now embarrass us (like triumphalist, particularistic, militaristic ideas) and move on to a truly new age for humankind.

Ken y’hi ratsoneinu – may this be OUR will.

Shabbat Shalom,


2009 by Adrian A. Durlester

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Thanksgiving Does Need a Haggadah

EstherK posted this ReTweet a few days back

RT @Phil_Brodsky: How is is that there is no "hagadah" for Thanksgiving, yet we all know exactly what the holiday is about? #JEd21

At the time, I read it, sort of nodded my head, and didn’t give it much thought

Today, when I noticed it again, I began to give it some thought, and decided that, while it makes an interesting point, I’m not sure it’s an accurate one.

Judaic scholars tell us that the Haggadah had to have been around in some form since at least 200 C.E., because the Mishna, in Pesakhim, already lays out a rather specific seder (order) for the observance of Pesakh. These scholars attempt to say that the basic form of the Pesakh Seder was already in place during second Temple times. Other scholars argue that this is just an  attempt at wishful thinking in order to insist that the “Last Supper” was indeed a Passover Seder.  These scholars argue that the Haggadah as we know it, was developed in response to the destruction of the second Temple, the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt, and the rising influence of Christianity.

The oldest extant haggadah text dates from the 10th century C.E. (from the Siddur of Saadia Gaon.) The 13th-15th centuries C.E. saw the flourishing of illuminated Haggadot. Today, of course, we have many, many Haggadot, with variations, but all pretty much adhering to the same basic formulas, rituals, and understandings. The Seder may have grown, changed, been adapted over time, but its essence remains the same as it has been for thousands of years.

In contrast, Thanksgiving can only trace its official roots back 146 years to 1863, when President Lincoln first proclaimed a national holiday of Thanksgiving. He did that only after 40 years of persistent efforts by magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale, best known as the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” to have a national Thanksgiving holiday established. While we like to fantasize the history of Thanksgiving and trace it back to that famous banquet at Plymouth Plantation in 1693 (though Virginia claims the first thanksgiving occurred at Berkley Plantation in 1619) there’s no clear and direct linkage, other than that which we mythologize.

In 1789 President Washington issued a proclamation

"to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness. Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”

Subsequent Presidents and State Governors continued to proclaim days of Thanksgiving. In 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving in the midst of the Civil War (largely persuaded, as previously mentioned, by Sara Josepha Hale.) Subsequent presidents continued this annual proclamation. FDR tried changing it to one week earlier (trying to spur Xmas shopping in the depression) but met with such resistance that, after two years of trying the change (which many states did not follow) Congress passed a bill making the fourth Thursday of November an official national holiday of Thanksgiving.

Enough history (though there’s lots more.) Can we truly say that all who celebrate Thanksgiving today fully comprehend and understand its meaning? I’m not so sure every family Thanksgiving feast these days would appropriately grace a Currier and Ives engraving. Thanksgiving is, for many, the official kickoff to the Xmas shopping season. (Clearly,the following day, now called “Black Friday” is a greater focus for many than actually offering thanks to their understanding of the Deity for the bounty of this good earth.  Plenty of Thanksgiving dinners give but brief lip service to the whole idea of giving thanks to G”d, and others are merely PTSD-inducing toxic-family gatherings.

While we can say that not everyone who observes the Passover Seder buys into the ideas and concepts it espouses, it  can be reasonably argued that they at least can learn or come to understand what the point/purpose of the Seder is. The Haggadah is the vehicle that makes that possible. As a modern, liberal Jew, I am willing to take great liberties with the Haggadah. There is much in it that troubles me, and that I choose to omit or replace. (“Pour out your wrath” being but one example.) Nevertheless, I am thankful there is a Haggadah. It has enabled this observance to survive, with most essential meanings intact, for thousands of years. In only a few hundred years, Thanksgiving has already morphed. It is not at all clear that the majority of those observing Thanksgiving truly understand what the holiday is all about. It is not as self-evidently clear as we perhaps wish it might be, or, perhaps more to the point, it often interferes with other values we might hold in esteem (like watching grown men throw a pigskin around and tackle each other, eating like a glutton, enabling dysfunctional families to pretend all is normal, etc.)

Thanksgiving as it exists today is not the holiday imagined by Sara Josepha Hale; not like the harvest feasts held in 1619 or 1693; not like the national coming together envisioned by Lincoln; perhaps a bit more like that imagined by FDR as a tool to stimulate the economy, but still not the same. The Passover Seder of today is certainly not the Seder of 100, 500, 1000, or 1500 years ago, but it is far from being unrecognizable to those who did observe it in those days. We owe that to the Haggadah.

So maybe this country needs the equivalent of a Haggadah for Thanksgiving. We have the beginnings of such a thing in the way we fancifully are taught the stories of those first Thanksgivings in school. There’s no great crime in incorporating myths and legends into such a document-the Passover Haggadah certainly does so.

Of course, just like Judaism exists, even requires, tension – that effect of l’havdil that is inescapable,that balance between yetzer tov and yetzer ra – so, too, does America exist with, perhaps even require by its democratic nature, some tensions. The tension between a democracy whose constitution has a clause preventing the establishment of a state religion, yet which prints “In G”d We Trust” on its legal tender. Creating a Thanksgiving Haggadah that fairly treats all Americans-atheists, religionists, et al- could be a significant challenge. I think there are lessons on how to do this that could be drawn from how the Jewish world, with all its differences, has handled the Haggadah.

So, who wants to take a crack at it?

@2009 by Adrian A. Durlester (aka Migdalor Guy)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Va-yetzei 5770 – Misquoted or Misspoke (or “Sometimes a Cigar…”)

In Yaakov’s dream, after he sees angels going up and down that ladder, G”d appears standing over Yaakov and says:

I am Ad”nai, the G”d of Avraham your father, and G”d of Yitzchak…” (28:13 JPS)

It’s interesting to note that G”d says “Avraham, your father” in speaking to Yaakov. Yitzchak, not Avraham, is the father of Yaakov. Now, we can take the easy way out, and use the Bob Newhart subterfuge that “it was all part of a dream.” Yet, can we so easily dismiss what happens in dreams-especially in the important dreams of our Biblical ancestors? We have built entire theological understandings around this dream and Yaakov’s response to it (which was

“Akheyn yeish Ad”nai bamakon hazeh v’anokhi lo yadati – Surely G”d was in this place and I, I did not know.”)

so I do not believe we can so callously dismiss the obvious misstatement of lineage in this pasuk of holy text. So what’s going on here? We could ask the usual “what’s troubling Rashi?” but this doesn’t seem to trouble Rashi enough to even mention it. So instead, we’ll go with what’s troubling Adrian.

Let’s put on a scholarly hat for a moment. Assuming the text of the Torah as we know it has undergone several (perhaps many) redactions, how did so many editors overlook this obvious inconsistency (or why did it not trouble them?) A simple tweak to the text would have eliminated the problem.

Did these many editors simply gloss over it, or read it as the metaphorical “Avraham avinu,” the father of all of Jews?

Perhaps we can play with the vagaries of Hebrew pronouns? The text, in describing the dream, merely says that G”d was standing over him. Only by inference do we assume that the “him” is Yaakov.  However, perhaps not. Farther along in the text, it refers to “the ground upon which you are lying” thus we can clearly, in context, make the reasonable assumption that it is Yaakov that is being addressed by G”d in this dream.

If you’re a regular reader of my musings, you’ll know where I’m likely to go with this. It must have something to do with Yitzchak. Poor, traumatized, suffering from PTSD Yitzchak. Yitzchak, the man who is apparently (though not assuredly) dim enough to be fooled into giving his blessing to his younger son Yaakov, dressed in goat skins to resemble his hirsute brother.

There is a clue that perhaps this does have something to do with Yitzchak after all. Later on in the parsha, near the end, twice we read of G”d being described as “pakhad Yitzchak” the “fear of Isaac.” Though, like the other root meaning fear, yud-resh-alef, this root, pey-khet-dalet, also can mean “awe,” this root is more commonly associated with “dread” than “awe.” Dread, for me, is a step closer to the dark side than simple fear. Dread, I think, requires obvious thought process that leads to a conclusion that there is something to worry about. Fear can simply come from not knowing. Dread, I believe, is by nature anticipatory, and while it may ultimately be illogical or irrational, it stems from a belief or understanding that appears rational at the time. Fear requires no such understanding.

Yitzchak had every good reason to dread both G”d and his father Avraham. G”d called upon Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchak, and Avraham willingly complied.  Sure, in the end, G”d comes riding in on the white stallion to rescue Yitzchak – nevertheless, were I Yitzchak, I’d probably continue to have issues with G”d, perhaps in a Yonah sort of way, as in “why did you put me through this painful charade if you knew in the end the outcome would be merciful?”

Now, if you look ahead to next week’s parsha, you find a spoiler to my entire thesis. Early in the parsha, Yaakov call’s upon G”d:

“O G”d of my father Abraham and my father Isaac….” (Gen. 32:10 JPS)

So perhaps what we hear in Yaakov’s dream is just idiomatic speech after all. It still leaves us wondering, however, why, in the dream, it doesn’t also say “and my father Isaac.” No matter how you slice it, there’s an oddity here. Was G”d misspoken or misquoted?  Did some text get accidentally left out? Is this the text’s subtle way of reminding us that it was all just a dream, by leaving some sign that all was not as it should be? That’s a pretty standard literary device. Is this why, even after this seminal moment, this epiphany for Yaakov, that he still will only admit a conditional acceptance of G”d (see me home safely, and you will be my G”d) ?

This was Yaakov’s dream. Only Yaakov’s subconscious could tell us why, in this dream, he speaks of Avraham as his father, and not Yitzchak. Then again, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Our understanding of G”d is inevitably bound up in the nature of our relationship with G”d. Of Yitzchak’s relationship with G”d we know little, and can only surmise. Only after Yitzchak had re-dug the wells of his father, lived the repetition with King AviMelekh of what had happened between his father Avraham and a Pharaoh, and acquired great wealth, did Yitzchak speak with G”d and build an altar to G”d (Gen 26:23.) In fact, G”d doesn’t really speak to Yitzchak much until then.

We can only guess what Yitzchak might have related to his sons Yaakov and Esav regarding the little joke that Avraham and G”d played on him. Could some of this be reflected in Yaakov’s subconscious, and play out in this dream, in which G”d does not mention his real father? Might this help explain why, even after such a dream and awakening, that Yaakov continued to only have a conditional relationship with G”d? Had Yitzchak taught him to be a little suspicious, perhaps?

Near the end of the parsha, Laban and Yitzchak settle up. In witness to their agreement, Laban calls upon the G”d of Avraham and Nahor.  In an obvious “dis” of Laban’s choice of G”d to witness this agreement between them, Yaakov

“swore by the fear (pakhad) of his father, Isaac.” (Gen 31:53 JPS)

Yaakov’s relationship with G’d may have been deepening somewhat, but not enough for him to let go of what he knew of his Father Yitzchak’s relationship with G”d. Perhaps, in next week’s parsha, when Yaakov wrestles with the “ish” one of the gremlins he is wrestling with is that “pakhad Yitzchak.” Yitzchak has passed his neuroses down to his offspring. (I think they may have been passed down all the way to us.) If nothing else, our weekly encounter with Torah gives us the chance for more self-analysis. Because sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar…

Shabbat Shalom,

© 2009 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, November 20, 2009

Random Musings Before Shabbat-Toledot 5770 (Redux 5763 – Not Sticking in the Knife)


The tail end of this seemingly endless bout with the flu still only leaves me with occasional moments of true lucidity. Though my musings do often lapse into non-lucidity on their own, I thought it wise not to tempt fate, thus I offer you a retread from 5763, and also commend to you my other musings from the parasha, which can be found at (For some reason, some of the pages of earlier musings are offline at the moment-some hosting balagan, apparently, so I apologize in advance if you can't reach any page. Shabbat Shalom um'vorakh. – Adrian

Random Musings Before Shabbat-Toledot 5763

Not Sticking In The Knife

It's such a hard temptation to resist. It's that defiant, stick-out-your-tongue gesture that we seem to derive a brief moment of pleasure from. Esau certainly seems to be the kind who might do such a thing. Having been denied the birthright and first blessing his brother stole from him, and probably upset with his father for unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly?) falling for the deception, Esau is a likely candidate to stick his tongue out at his father in a defiant gesture. Yet he resists.

The rabbis like to paint Esau as quite the negative. An earthy man, not smart like his brother. And yes, Esau does indeed threaten to kill his brother. One can hardly blame him. Yet Esau does not kill his brother Yaakov. And when Yaakov is advised to stealthily slip away lest Esau catch him and kill him, Esau does not pursue.

So there we have something to admire about Esau. He didn't pursue his brother to revenge himself. He didn't give in to the temptation.

And yet another--he resists the opportunity to thumb his nose at his father Yitzchak. He knew he had already displeased both his parents by marrying Judith and Beeri, both Hittite women. The text tells us that these marriages were a source of morat ruach, bitterness to Yitzchak and Rivka. And now Esau sees his parents sending away his brother to kinsfolk with the clear intention of assuring he marries within the tribe.

And instead of that defiant gesture, what does Esau do? The last few verses of our parasha tell us. (Bereshit 28:6-9.) Esau realizes now how his marrying the Hittite women displeased his parents, and so he took a wife from within the tribe--sort of. He marries Ishmael's daughter Nevayot. Now, one might argue that, in so doing, Esau was still sort of sticking it to his parents, but that would be imposing our modern viewpoint on the realities of Esau's time. Ishmael and his line were part of the clan. At the end of Chaye Sarah we read of Ishmael's line, and how they dwelled alongside their kinsmen. No, Esav honored his parents wishes. Showed his parents the respect they deserved from him.

And he did this even at a time when he could easily feel wronged by his parents. A powerful lesson indeed.

So Esau resisted the temptation. Perhaps he was learning. After all, we discover next week that Esav prospers, and, despite Yaakov worst fears, revenge is not on Esau's mind.

And so, too, can we learn. I know I've done it. Found a way to appear nice yet "stick it" to someone with a clever twist of words or a sharp-tongued phrase. I'm not proud of it. And I pray for the strength and wisdom to learn, as Esau did, to control that urge.

May you, too, be able to resist that urge, and follow Esau's example.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2002 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, November 13, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Chaye Sarah 5770 – Call Me Ishmael II

Nine years ago for this parasha, I wrote a musing entitled "Call Me Ishmael." I thought it was time to share it again with a few updates. Here we go.

Call Me Ishmael II

At the end of this weeks parasha, we read that after the death of Abraham, G"d blessed Isaac, and Isaac lived in Beer-Lahai-Roi.

Though I had read these words many times before, this time, something didn't feel right. Something was tugging away at my mind. Some nagging question. Some connections I couldn't quite make.

I looked at the words again and again, in Hebrew, in various English translations. Made perfect sense. Abraham dies, G"d moves on to the son.

"Wait a minute," I thought, "G"d doesn't bless Isaac UNTIL after Abraham is dead?" Isaac, whom G"d used as a pawn in an ultimate test of faith for Abraham. Isaac, who was likely scarred for life at having seen his own father raise a knife to kill him. Where's the justice in that? If anyone was deserving of Gd's blessing it was this innocent young man who dutifully played his part in the divine drama and was then cast aside whilst his father played out the remainder of the story. It was Abraham who received Gd's blessing at the culmination of the akedah incident. Isaac got diddly-squat except psychological trauma.

(As many of my readers know, I have this pet theory, not of my own origin, though I cannot say where I first heard the thought, that Isaac went off to live with Ishmael and Hagar after the trauma at Moriah. They both had good reasons to have "father issues" and Isaac may have had good reason to trust Hagar more than even his own mother, who may have known what dad was up to but did nothing to stop him. Little pieces of the fictional history I will write someday about this imagined period when Isaac, Ishmael, and Hagar lived together keep flitting into my head. Someday they will all coalesce. Yet again, I digress.)

So why does Isaac not get G"d's blessing until after Abraham is dead? What is the key here? I kept scanning the words. Beer-Lahai-Roi, are the words I kept coming back too. Beer-Lahai-Roi. Where had I heard that place name before? And then it all came flooding back. This is the site of G"d's annunciation to Hagar.

Fearing loss of esteem in Abram's eyes because Hagar was now pregnant, she harsh;ly treats Hagar who runs away. G"d speaks to Hagar at a spring in teh wilderness. (Note-this is the first time that G"d speaks to a woman directly in the Torah. Notice, btw, it wasn't to an Israelite woman!!) G"d promises that Hagar's son will be father of a numerous people. For this vision, it is said, Hagar names the place beer-lahai-roi.Pick your interpretation: The well of life vision, or The well of the life that sees; or the well of the life that sees me. etc.

OK. There's a connection. Quickly I checked through the text. Had G"d blessed Ishmael? Yes. In Gen. 17:20 G"d says to Abraham that Ishmael now has G"d's blessing. So Ishmael was blessed by G"d yet Isaac had not been blessed by G"d, and would not receive this blessing until Abraham died. Yet it was Abraham who insisted, had asked G"d to bestow a blessing upon Ishmael, when he and Hagar were to be cast out. Abraham had asked G"d to bless Ishmael, but had made no such request for Isaac. Strange.

Maybe Isaac's blessing was just assumed, as he was the "true" son of Abraham and Sarah, so there was no need to ask G"d to bless Isaac-his existence, from Sarah's old and withered frame, and Abraham's less than studly self is blessing enough, right?  But Ishmael was Abraham's son through his wife's maid-slave, and he did not have the same status as a true son of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham felt awful, even a little guilty, at having to send Ishmael and Hagar away. There's reason enough to ask G"d to bestow a blessing on the lad.

(Let's not get into Sarah's obvious lack of concern here. Twice she wanted to send Hagar away. Hagar's only crime - doing what her mistress and master ordered her to do! Once again, the Torah teaches us that our matriarchs were no less paragons of virtue than our patriarchs. And just wait until we get to Rebekkah, Rachel and Leah!)

Once he had left Abraham's camp, G"d was already at work in Ishmael keeping the promise to make of him a great nation. Not so with Isaac. Isaac was only a bit player (albeit with a really big moment at one point in the play) until Abraham has died. Then, and only then, was G"d ready to work through Isaac.(Maybe even G"d recognized that Isaac might need a little "time away" to deal with all that had transpired at Mt. Moriah.)

So Abraham dies, Isaac receives G"d's blessing-and then settles down in Beer-Lahai-Roi, where G"d had first told Hagar of the greatness to be bestowed upon Ishmael. Why? Why go back to that particular place? What is the Torah telling us? (Assuming it is telling us anything...)

The interpretation is further confused by reading what follows the statement in Gen 25:11 that G"d blesses Isaac and Isaac settles in Beer-Lahai-Roi. A listing of the lineage of Ishmael! (Gen 25:12ff) Fulfillment of the annunciation made to Hagar at Beer-Lahai-Roi.

Is this the Torah's way of telling us that G"d's promise to Abraham and then to Isaac will also be filled? Look what G"d has done for Ishmael, a concubine's child. Surely G"d will do this and more for Isaac, true lineal descendant of Abraham and Sarah.That's ione way to look at it. Doesn't do so much for me.

Is there another connection or explanation possible? Perhaps. When told she would bear a son in her old age, what did Sarah do? She laughed.

Now perhaps G"d is saying "the joke's on you, Sarah." I have brought your son, the one for whom you insisted that Abraham cast out Hagar and Ishmael, back to the place where I first told Hagar of the greatness I would bestow on her son, Ishmael.

"Ha, Ha, Ha, who's got the last laugh now?" comes to mind.

A few closing thoughts.

Once again, the children of Isaac and Ishmael have been drawn back to the place of their origins. Now is the time for the descendants of Ishmael to remember the kindness of Abraham to their ancestor. Now is the time for the descendants of Isaac to remember that Abraham may have gotten the first blessing, but next was Ishmael, and then Isaac only after Abraham's death.

The Quran tells us that it was Ishmael, and Not Isaac, whom Abraham offered up to G”d. (Quran, Sura 37:99-110.) Sarah may have felt differently, but I imagine Abraham would have found it just as difficult to offer up either one of his sons.

As is often the case, I think I have raised many questions and provided few answers. If this is as true for you as it is for me, then I have done well. Please share your thoughts with me on what the Torah is teaching us with these interconnected incidents, be my partner in study, and together we will raise even more questions.

There is a place in Beer-Lahai-Roi for both Ishmael and Isaac. May it be G”d's will that the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael live in peace.

Wishing you and yours a Shabbat Shalom,


©2009, portions ©2000 by Adrian A. Durlester

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Judaism Based on Exclusion Cannot Survive

Generally, I’m not a fan of religion intruding in government, or a fan or government intruding on religion. However, in this pending case before Britain’s Supreme Court, I’m definitely cheering for the plaintiff, and siding against the forces that wish to keep Judaism an exclusionary religion.

A practicing Jewish man, whose wife underwent a liberal Jewish conversion, sued the Jew’s Free School in London (a government supported high school) when it rejected his practicing Jewish son’s application on the basis that his mother was not Jewish by the standards used by the school.  They sued, lost and appealed. The Court of Appeal overturned the lower court opinion, and wrote:

“The requirement that if a pupil is to qualify for admission his mother must be Jewish, whether by descent or conversion, is a test of ethnicity which contravenes the Race Relations Act,” the court said. It added that while it was fair that Jewish schools should give preference to Jewish children, the admissions criteria must depend not on family ties, but “on faith, however defined.”

The same reasoning would apply to a Christian school that “refused to admit a child on the ground that, albeit practicing Christians, the child’s family were of Jewish origin,” the court said.

I think the Court of Appeal is correct in its reasoning. It is time for Judaism to stop being allowed to hide behind this charade of allowing only the orthodox community to decide “who is a Jew” by it’s traditional, halakhic, yet completely arbitrary standard. It is discriminative, bigoted, and exclusionary. In this day and age, one’s religion is defined by choice and praxis. This is certainly true in the traditional community. Any other standard is patently absurd.

There was a time when I could be swayed by arguments that traditional religious communities ought to be able to operate by their chosen set of values. I am no longer so swayed. Standards that have become exclusionary and unfair need to give way to more enlightened understandings. I’m sorry if this makes a mess of things for the orthodox, but they have been living a fantasy anyway. I suspect we all have a little stray DNA in our makeup. If we really think our bloodlines are clean, and that we can all prove matrilineal descent back to ancient times (when, in point of fact, patrilineal descent was the norm) we’re only kidding ourselves.

Many will say that we shouldn’t disturb the delicate balance that currently exists between the traditional and liberal streams of Judaism. I used to be one of that crowd. I do still believe that reconciliation between the streams of Judaism is possible. However, I have slowly come to the conclusion that allowing the traditional community to continue living in this house of cards it has constructed for itself is not only against the interests of the liberal community, but of the traditional community as well.

Yes, the Jewish community has always seemed to survive through a remnant. Why should we continue to settle for that?  Each time we survive only as a stub, we diminish ourselves. It’s time to grow and thrive, not divide and shrink further. By changing our viewpoints on “who is a Jew” and making things like choice , praxis, and ethics part of that definition, we can grow and thrive. Sad that it might take a secular high court to force us to change. Our tradition teaches us dina d’malkhuta dina – we must respect the law of the land. If Britain tells us we cannot segregate our schools on the basis of  matrilineal descent alone, we’ll have little choice but to heed their decisions. Would that we would make this choice for ourselves as a community, rather than waiting for a secular court to do so for us.

Adrian (aka Migdalor Guy)

Friday, November 6, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat – 5770 - Not Even Ten?

Seems G"d knew what G"d was talking about. G"d allowed Abraham to argue with G"d to see if Abraham could actually persuade G"d to spare S'dom and Gomorrah for the sake of the righteous who did live there. From fifty to forty-five to forty to thirty to twenty to ten , Abraham successfully argued with G"d to spare S'dom and Gomorrah its fate for the sake of the few innocent, so they should not be swept away along with the guilty.

Yet it soon become clear that there are not even ten innocent ones, according to to the text. It says that "all of the townspeople, then men of S'dom, young and old-all the people to the last man"  gathered at Lot's house and asked that the strangers be brought out so that they could be "intimate" with them.

There's a problem here. I'm willing to accept that misogynist redactors of the text of the Torah has a hand in shaping things. Yet, were they so misogynistic as to have G"d exclude all the females from the count of the innocent?  Are we simply to assume that all the females of S'dom and Gomorrah were as wicked as the men?

On the other hand, there doesn't seem to be any protest from the women. The text does not speak of women who tried to stop their men from acting wickedly to the strangers. So we could perhaps take their silence as acquiescence- in which case, perhaps there really were no innocent in the towns.

What about children? Were they all wicked too? Did their young lives deserved to be cut short for the sins of their parents?

I'm just not comfortable with that. Far be it for me to question G"d, but that's exactly what I'm going to do! During the time of Noakh, and during this time at S'dom and Gomorrah, G"d willingly destroys G"d's own creations, assuming all of them deserve it (except for those G"d hand picks to survive.)

Noakh gets picked because he's decent compared to the rest of the folks in his time. (So what did Mrs. Noahk do to deserve the honor of surviving, other than by being Mrs. Noakh ?)  Lot probably deserves a similar description-he did offer up his daughters to the townspeople in order to spare the strangers. So compared to the evil people of S'dom and Gomorrah, perhaps he wasn't so bad.

Why have anyone survive at all? You're G"d-why not just start over again? You  created this mess - what with your "enjoy the garden ids, and eat anything you want-except from that tree..." Then You wiped it all out, save for Noakh and his family - and you seemed to have gotten the same results. Hmmm, G"d, was that a miscalculation on your part? Did you think an almost fresh start would work?

Tell me G"d - were there really no innocents among the guilty - no women, children, even men? Or perhaps you just consider them collateral damage? G"d gives, and G"d takes away. Blessed be G"d? You gotta be kidding.

This whole story stinks (along with many others we find in Torah.) Yes, human kind hasn't exactly been at its best much of the time. Have You?

You destroyed S'dom and Gomorrah.
We destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

We've had a few not quite global wars.
You wiped out the entire population fo the planet except one family.

We've killed many soldiers in the name of a good cause.
You drowned Pharaoh's soldiers in the sea.

We killed many while occupying the lands you promised to us (and sadly, we keep killing for the same reason.)
You told us to do it.

Hail humanity. Hail G"d.

To quote from the final lyrics of the song "Molasses to Rum to Slaves" from "1776" - 

"Who stinketh the most?"

Shabbat Shalom,


©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, October 30, 2009

Random Musings Before Shabbat--Lekh Lekha 5770 Revisiting the Ten Percent Solution

Just 6 years ago I wrote a musing for this parasha entitled "Lekh Lekha 5764--Ma'aseir Mikol--The Ten Percent Solution."  As my thoughts continue to evolve on what Judaism's future might look like, I thought this topic was worth revisiting.
Six years ago, I set up the topic this way:

Hebrew grammar and syntax being what it is, it's easy to overlook, or misunderstand.

Let's find our place. Avram serves as a mercenary to rescue Lot and aid King Malchizedek and the other Kings allied with him, and they defeat the five kings aligned against them. Malchizedek, the King of Salem offers a blessing to Avram. Oh, by the way, the text tells us, Malchizedek was a priest of G"d Most High, El Elyon. Now, if that's not a head-scratcher...

G"d had just communicated with Avram. Already there are others worshiping this same G"d? I am not troubled by this. I always remind myself that Torah never explicitly says that G"d is making exclusive covenants. It's not entirely unthinkable that G"d has been attempting to communicate and be recognized by others. Or that others have, on their own, discovered that the idols they pray to are false G"ds, and made the leap, if not to monotheism, at least to monolatry. So to learn that Avram and King Malchizedek are fellow travelers need not be a surprise. (Critical scholarship, of course, would require considering several somewhat different viewpoint on this, and on the origins of the Jewish people and their religion. There's an interesting article in this month's) BAR magazine on the subject.   But I digress.

After Malchizedek blesses Avram, he blesses G"d, El Elyon. Then, verse 14:20 ends "vayiten-lo ma'aser mikol." And he gave him a tenth of everything.

It might be easy to just assume, when reading this, that it means that Malchizedek gave Avram a tenth of "everything," of the spoils of the battle just fought. Yet Rashi and other commentators suggest that it was Avram who gave King Malchizedek a tenth of everything he had previously acquired, as Malchizedek was a priest of G"d. (The rabbis are quick to point out, however, that Avram gave only from what he already owned, as Avram did not accept any of the spoils of war offered to him in the subsequent verses.

Anyway, all this just to take me where I wanted to go today. That ten percent that Avram gave to Malchizedek simply because he was a priest of G"d. From these short and simple words (and those elsewhere in Torah) an entire
system of funding the religious establishment is derived.
It's something that we Jews, particularly liberal Jews, seem to have lost sight of. Our Christian co-religionists still, in significant numbers, follow the practice of tithing ten, or some other fixed percent, in support of their churches. Yet our synagogues have become businesses. Fee for service establishments. Congregants argue and plea endlessly about what they should pay to support their congregation. And, far, too often, their arguments are based on "what am I getting for my money?" Is this why we affiliate, is this why we practice Judaism?

Synagogues have certainly attempted and struggled to change how they are viewed by their congregants, and I applaud their efforts. However, I'm not so sure all their efforts have or will effect the changes truly necessary. A large segment of the Jewish community is seeking its Judaism in places other than the synagogue. People are speaking with their feet (and their wallets.)
In an ideal world, no synagogue would struggle for the funds it needs, no form of Jewish education would go lacking for the funds it needs, and no person would struggle for the funds they need. It's not an ideal world. Also, are we all truly convinced that, given all the funds they needed, that our synagogues, schools, etc. would use all the funds wisely? When the funds come too easy, it's also easy to be wasteful, or greedy.
Six years ago I wrote:
I'm not here to defend the synagogue. There is lots wrong with the system as it exists, and perhaps someday, we will move into a post-synagogue era. The growing number of havurot, of unaffiliated groups, etc. are testimony to some desire on the part of Jews to find their Judaism without the trappings of the modern synagogue. The synagogue reshaping movements like Synagogue 3000 are as much an attempt on the part of the synagogue establishment to insure its own future as it is an attempt to respond to the changing needs of congregants. One wonders what would happen if, as a result of its deliberations, a synagogue future revisioning group reports back to its synagogue that their vision of the future doesn't include the synagogue? Are these programs really open to that? But I'm digressing again.

Even the havurot, the unaffiliated and informal groups, etc., need some understructure, and some financial underpinning. Still I hear stores from those associated with such groups that even they are having a tough time getting the support they need, both in people power and money.
If it is the synagogue model that I am going to buy into, and associate myself with, then I have made my choice, and there should be little question of "what do I get for my money?" The Torah and our tradition make clear our obligation to support the religious institutions we rely on, and the "priests" and professionals (and non-professionals) who serve as the spiritual guides for the congregations.)

Yet, can you imagine the outcry if your synagogue simply decided that everyone simply tithes ten percent of everything (and that doesn't just mean income, it means 10% of your total worth--probably even gross, and not net.) Those synagogues that use "fair share" systems already struggle with issues of privacy and confidentiality. We still have to rely on the basic honesty of the congregants to report and contribute their fair share fairly. It wouldn't look good for the synagogue to hire CPAs, audit all the congregants, and bill them accordingly, would it?

Today, I am even less inclined to defend the synagogue as an institution. Though many of my colleagues disagree, I am no longer certain that the synagogue will or needs to remain the central core of Jewish community. There is likely to be a role for the synagogue in the future of Judaism, however it may simply be one alongside a number of different forms in which people participate in Judaism and Jewish community. With many different paths to Jewish community, finding ways to fund them,. help them survive, etc. is going to be quite complicated. What do we do if many of us, I as suppose is likely, might benefit from participation in a multiplicity of organizations and activities as part of our Judaism? How can we be sure we're all contributing fairly to support them?
Again, six years ago I wrote:
The basic idea is the one we don't get, and the one we've lost sight of. It's not the synagogue's responsibility to make sure we contribute our fair share, our ten percent. It is ours. And we should do it willingly, gladly, and without resorting to the same kinds of tactics we use when preparing our tax returns.

Abraham, didn't stop and think "what will I get out of this?" He just gave 10% to Malchizedek, the priest of El Elyon. Would that all of us would do the same. Then, perhaps, the future of Judaism might be more secure. Our institutions would have what they needed to operate, our religious schools wouldn't be struggling to do the next to impossible with minimal resources, and our religious professionals, both ordained and unordained, would have the parnassa they require to serve G”d and their congregations without having to worry how the costs of their kids' college educations will get paid. With ten percent from all, our synagogues could be the source for the funds that all the richly-deserving charities need. (This doesn't reduce our personal obligation to give to charities, but think how much more it might enhance the work of the charities, and maybe bring us closer to the messianic age.)

I'm a dreamer, a PollyAnna. No doubt of that. Nothing really is ever that simple. Or is it. Just ten percent. Think about the difference it could make if we all did it, without questioning. Ken y'hi ratson. May this be G”d'’s will. Ken y'hi ratsoneinu. May this be our will.

Whether it is the synagogue alone, no synagogue, or a variety of programs, activities and resources that we come to depend upon to live our Judaism each and every day, it still shouldn't be up to those organizations to be sure they have the funds they need. The obligation is, as it always was, ours. Whatever form our future Jewish community takes, if it continues to struggle to survive because we all fail to support it as we should, we won't be any better off than we are now, and we will have learned and gained nothing.

Remember, too, and this is something I neglected to write six years ago, that our contributions needs not only or always be monetary. We can give of ourselves, our time, our talents. (I do feel compelled here to caution that we not entirely expect those who help professionally guide us to work for inadequate parnassa. As utopian a vision as I might have, even one in which leadership is really not in the hands of an elite few, but in all of us, the reality remains that there will always be those whose dedication, skills, and learning for the sake of being good facilitators of Judaism are necessary. They deserve the support necessary to make possible what they do, just as everyone deserves that support.) Of course, maybe there will come a day when we are all Torah scholars. Some believe that day is already here, others believe such a day will never come. Me, I'm somewhere in the middle on this point. with each passing day, we have more tools at our disposal to be truly great learners. The debate becomes "what is required to be learned?" There is already more information than any one person can master. Even in the days of the talmudic rabbis, there were probably rabbis who had specialties in certain areas. Can one be said to have truly mastered Torah without mastering Mishna & Gemara? what about Midrash Halakha and Midrash Agaddah? What about Kabbalah? Already in the Jewish community we see decisions being made about what information is essential for members of that community to know. Sadly, our communities bicker and fight about this, and even consider those who do not adhere to their own understandings as being outsiders, even as not being "really" Jewish.

However, if we each have our own understanding of Judaism, and each of us is scholar enough to satisfy what we believe is necessary to be a scholar, we could be in one helluva mess. Trying to figure out where we each give our 10% might be truly difficult. (Do we give it to ourselves to enable us to continue to be scholars, do we give it to others so they can be scholars?) Can we truly become a scholar without a teacher? Our tradition would say not. Thus, the teachers needs to come from somewhere, thus our 10% could go to make sure we have those teachers (or we become those teachers.)
What seemed like such a simple idea-that we all willingly pony up our 10%, seems to be turning into quite the quagmire. I’d better stop before I sink deeper and deeper into the quicksand.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester. Portions © 2003

Friday, October 23, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Noakh 5770 Don't Ham It Up

Nu, what would you do if you saw your father, drunk, sitting naked around the house? You could tell someone, or you could do something to preserve your father's dignity. Woe unto Ham, for he did not stop to cover his father's drunken nakedness-he ran to get (tell) his brothers instead. For this he is cursed by his father (after he had slept it off.) Ham is also linked to being the ancestor of all the Canaanites, thus setting the stage for the future fratricide the Hebrew people committed by command of their G"d. However, that's a rant for another time.

Shem and Japeth did not even look upon their father's nakedness-they walked backwards to cover their father with a cloth. Of course, this begs the question "How could they be certain their father really was naked? Either they looked, at some point, or they simply took Ham at his word.

In all this, who is most like their father Noah, who was righteous for this time? (Talk about a qualified endorsement.) Shem and Japeth were people of action, like their father, but, unlike their father, they didn't need to be told what to do. Ham, on the other hand, at least noticed his father's nakedness and went to tell his brothers. Perhaps not as direct a helpful action as possible, but an action, nonetheless. Perhaps Ham's judgment was tempered by his own observation of his father's behavior. Noakh told no one-he just went about building the ark as instructed, and saving the animals and his family as instructed. Perhaps Ham simply wanted to converse with his brothers to choose the appropriate course of action. That's not the implication we get from the Torah, but as the connection to the Canaanites makes plain, there's an agenda here.

Yes, Shem and Japeth took an action that benefitted Noakh in many ways: keeping him warm, preserving his dignity, etc. Yet neither of them (or Ham, for that matter) undertook tokhekhah, attempting to correct their father. Respect your elder, yes, but that's no reason to counsel him against the evils of drinking too much wine. In their defense it could be argued that wine was an unknown at that point, Noakh being the first vintner. Did Noakh figure this out on his own? Did someone show Noakh how to make wine? (If so, he wasn;t the first vintner after all.) Was it merely a happy accident that Noakh discovered fermentation?

Yes, there's a clear cut lesson from this story - that one should not merely inform - rather one should take action. Nevertheless, perhaps Ham gets a bum rap after all. To think about it, why all this fuss about Noakh being naked inside his own tent? Who was going to see him? Is this just carryover from the Gan Eden story, and reinforcement of the message that covering up one's nakedness is good whereas being naked is evil (as Adam and Hava discovered when they ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?)

The rabbis concocted one whopper of a tale to explain why Ham was so excoriated. According to the midrash, it was Canaan, son of Ham and grandson of Noakh, who discovered Noakh naked in the tent. He told his father the news, whereupon Ham came storming into the tent and castrated his own father so that he would not bear yet a fourth son and thus diminish Ham's 1/3rd share of the inheritance. It seems Ham, seeing his father intoxicated, expected intercourse to result? Perhaps the rabbis are also suggesting that the reason Shem and Japeth did not gaze upon Noakh was not just for nakedness, but for the mutilation performed on him by Ham?

I guess the lesson is "don't be like Ham." Of course, one could just as easily say "don't be like Noakh" or "Don't be like Shem or Yapeth" which leads ultimately to the troubling idea "don't be like G"d." Maybe we should just stick with "don't be like Ham."

Can't eat ham, can't be like Ham. Funny, isn't it? (Yes, we all know it's pronounced "khahm." Just go with it.)

Shabbat Shalom,

©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat-B’reishit 5770-One G”d, But Two Trees?

וַיַּצְמַח יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, כָּל-עֵץ נֶחְמָד לְמַרְאֶה, וְטוֹב לְמַאֲכָל--וְעֵץ הַחַיִּים, בְּתוֹךְ הַגָּן, וְעֵץ, הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע.

And from the ground the L”rd G”d caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and bad.

Two trees. Why? Are you sure?

Owing perhaps to the superficiality of people’s beliefs, and/or the superficiality of their religious education, many people don’t even seem to recall that there were indeed two trees in Gan Eden.

On the other hand, I’m beginning to wonder if they’re on to something. were there really two special trees? Far be it for me to disagree with centuries of scholars and their translations. Also,the Masoretes, which punctuated the verses using tropes, made some clear decisions about the meaning of this verse. Of course, they, too, had an agenda.

So, accepting that this is an idea not necessarily supported by Hebrew text scholars, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that it is possible to read the text such that there was only one such special tree. It was the Tree of Life, and also the Tree of the knowledge of good an evil (or the knowledge of all things, if you accept “tov v’ra” as a merism.) After all, having two trees has a sort of gnostic ring to it.  One G”d, one “special” tree, right?

Another place I might disagree with the linguists is in using “the tree” because that “the” is not implicit in the Hebrew. (It’s sort of like the “B’reishet vs. Bareishit argument – in a beginning vs. in the beginning.) The text could have said “va-eitz,” the tree, but it doesn’t. Then again, it not eitz hayim, tree of life, but rather eitz hahayim, tree of the life. These subtle differences open up paths for new understandings of the text.

Early Jewish understandings of the two trees are that the Tree of Life could have given Adam and Chava a chance for a pure connection with the Divine, had they resisted the temptation to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Their “choice” (unless you really do want to pin the blame on the serpent) was a choice that gave them “choice,” i,e, free will. Having free will imposes an entirely different understanding of the world, with the more subtle nuances of good and evil, as opposed to the (theoretically purer) concepts of truth and falsehood (true and false being, at least in some way, more objective. Once again, not sure I agree with that.)

The Christian world took this concept further, embodying (pun intended) the Tree of Life as representing Christ, representing perfect faith, and imbuing the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil with symbolism as the point of original sin (does that thus imply that knowledge is sinful? Is that perhaps part of the reason for the somewhat anti-Scientific bent one often finds in fundamentalist religious expressions?)

What is life without knowledge? More specifically, what is life without the knowledge of good and evil? Bliss is one answer. It’s an answer I don’t buy. It’s connected with my belief that any G”d that created a perfect universe would quickly become bored with it. It’s that random chance, the possibilities, that make it interesting.

If our task here on earth is to bring us all to a state where we will all live in a  perfected state-if that is the true messianic idea-then I’m not so sure I want to row in the same direction. I’d we 'learn to better master and utilize our internal inclinations for good (yetzer tov) and inclinations for evil (yetzer hara.) As our sages have taught us, we need that balance, that tension (there’s that tension thing again, it’s always there iun Judaism) to make the world go ‘round. Our “evil” inclinations the rabbis teach, are related to our physical selves – the need for shelter, food, clothing, things. It is what drives us to be wage earners, business people, entrepreneurs. Our good inclinations are the spiritual and intellectual side, (I’m not sure I entirely agree with this interpretation. For example, I think the desire to provide for one’s family can have its underpinnings from a completely altruistic place.

Lifve does require knowledge, does require choices, does require tensions. A knowledge of good and evil is part of life-in many ways it is life itself. After all, would we be able to “choose life” as the Torah so often exhorts us to do, if we did not have this understanding of what is good and what is evil, and that we must struggle to balance the two?

Further support for my thesis that there was perhaps only one tree comes from chapter three, and the serpent story.

וְהַנָּחָשׁ, הָיָה עָרוּם, מִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים;
וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-הָאִשָּׁה, אַף כִּי-אָמַר אֱלֹהִים, לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִכֹּל עֵץ הַגָּ
וַתֹּאמֶר הָאִשָּׁה, אֶל-הַנָּחָשׁ:  מִפְּרִי עֵץ-הַגָּן, נֹאכֵל

וּמִפְּרִי הָעֵץ, אֲשֶׁר בְּתוֹךְ-הַגָּן--אָמַר אֱלֹהִים לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִמֶּנּוּ, וְלֹא תִגְּעוּ בּוֹ:  פֶּן-תְּמֻתוּן.

1 Now the serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild beasts that the Lord G”d had made. He said to the woman, "Did G”d really say: You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?" 2 The woman replied to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the other trees of the garden. 3 It is only about fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that G”d said: 'You shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you die.'"

No reference there to two trees at all-just the one tree in the midst of the garden, whose fruit was forbidden to Adam and Chava.

וַיֹּאמֶר הַנָּחָשׁ, אֶל-הָאִשָּׁה:  לֹא-מוֹת, תְּמֻתוּן.
כִּי, יֹדֵעַ אֱלֹהִים, כִּי בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְכֶם מִמֶּנּוּ, וְנִפְקְחוּ עֵינֵיכֶם;
וִהְיִיתֶם, כֵּאלֹהִים, יֹדְעֵי, טוֹב וָרָע.
וַתֵּרֶא הָאִשָּׁה כִּי טוֹב הָעֵץ לְמַאֲכָל וְכִי תַאֲוָה-הוּא לָעֵינַיִם, וְנֶחְמָד
הָעֵץ לְהַשְׂכִּיל, וַתִּקַּח מִפִּרְיוֹ, וַתֹּאכַל; וַתִּתֵּן גַּם-לְאִישָׁהּ עִמָּהּ,
וַתִּפָּקַחְנָה, עֵינֵי שְׁנֵיהֶם, וַיֵּדְעוּ, כִּי עֵירֻמִּם הֵם; וַיִּתְפְּרוּ עֲלֵה
תְאֵנָה, וַיַּעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם חֲגֹרֹת.

4 And the serpent said to the woman, "You are not going to die, 5 but God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad." 6 When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they perceived that they were naked; and they sewed together fig leaves and made themselves loincloths.

Aha-so knowledge really is Divine. Is the serpent punished for being deceitful, or is the serpent punished because it was revealing the truth? Was the serpent a whistle-blower who suffered for its actions? Was the serpent being like Toto in the movie version of the Wizard of Oz, revealing the secret of the great and powerful?

Chava saw that the tree was desirable as a “source of wisdom.” Obviously, Chava already had discernment. She instinctively knew that having wisdom, having knowledge were  good things for human beings. Remember how G”d confounded the work on midgal Bavel(Tower of Babel) because G”d was perhaps afraid the people might actually build that tower up into the heavens and confront G”d. Might this be a similar situation? G”d hustled Adam and Chava out of Gan Eden and blamed it all on the serpent. Convenient, to say the least.

If eating from the Tree of Life would have been the best thing for Adam and Chava, why was it never attempted, or even suggested?G”d never told them not to eat of its fruit. This becomes a moot point if we accept that these “two” trees were one and the same. Source of life, source of wisdom, source of free will, source of choice, source of the knowledge of good and evil.

וַיַּצְמַח יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, כָּל-עֵץ נֶחְמָד לְמַרְאֶה, וְטוֹב לְמַאֲכָל--וְעֵץ הַחַיִּים, בְּתוֹךְ הַגָּן, וְעֵץ, הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע

And from the ground the L”rd G”d caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food, and a tree,  of the life, in the middle of the garden, and  a tree, knowledge of good and bad.

One tree, a tree of the life – of living - (i.e. the lives of human beings,) whose living requires knowledge of good and evil, coming from that same tree. One tree-One G”d. Makes sense to me.

Shabbat Shalom

©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester

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Friday, October 9, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah 5770 – Circles Can Bite You In The Tuchis

It’s not often I get (or choose ) to write about the Torah readings for Shemini Atzeret, so while I have the opportunity, I’ll take it (even though these same passages will come around as part of the regular cycle of readings.)

Part of the Torah reading, from Chapter 15 of D’varim, verse 4 starts:

4There shall be no needy among you — since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion--

Yet, just a few verses later, 15:7, we read:

7If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. 8 Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.

A clear and obvious contradiction, and not the only time it occurs in the Torah (and, more specifically, not the only time in reference to the poor.) To be fair, I’ve taken things a bit out of context. By continuing on the the next few verses of text after verse 4, we read, in verse 5:

5--if only you heed the Lord your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day. 6 For the Lord your God will bless you as He has promised you: you will extend loans to many nations, but require none yourself; you will dominate many nations, but they will not dominate you.

Now, we’ll get to verse 6 in a moment. For now, we can consider that the conditional factors stipulated in verse 5 could explain the reason why we have verse 7ff. Of course, that means that we once again have to assume that G”d (or the authors of the Torah text) are working from the assumption that it’s darned near impossible for human beings, and especially the Israelites, to keep on the straight and narrow path and follow the commandments. That, in itself, is a pretty depressing thought. O f course, we can all wait around for Moshaikh, when we’ll be perfected (or is it the other way around-when we become perfect, Moshiakh will come? If that’s the case, it’s gonna be a long wait, according to the worldview on verses 4:7 here.)

Now, let’s be fair. The context here is the sabbatical system. This is made clear in verses 9ff:

9 Beware lest you harbor the base thought, "The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching," so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will incur guilt. 10 Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. 11 For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.

Boy, if there ever was a case arguing against Hillel and his prosbul (a workaround for the remission of debts in the sabbatical year that allowed loans to be exempted from the remission of debts obligation. Hillel claimed it for for the benefit of both rich and poor. The rich knowing they could safely loan when a sabbatical was near would no longer be disinclined to do so, thus the poor person needing such a  loan would be able to get one. I still think the rich come out the winners on this one.) If anything, Hillel’s prosbul could be partly responsible for the contradictory situation in which we find ourselves and which the Torah mentions. Instead of honoring the intent to erase all debt every 7 years (and imagine a world where this were so) we get a system that allows the rich to grow richer and the poor to keep borrowing. Sound familiar to anything that’s been going on lately. Sorry Hillel, I think you blew this one.

I wonder if some rabbi even came up with a workaround for the next few verse 12:15

12 If a fellow Hebrew, man or woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall set him free. 13 When you set him free, do not let him go empty-handed: 14 Furnish him out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat, with which the Lord your God has blessed you. 15 Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today.

Maybe the closing enjoinder makes it just a bit too difficult to disregard? There’s no similar verse after verses 4-7 which says

Bear in mind that you were one poor and oppressed by capitalists in the land of Israel, and the L”rd your G”d redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today.

Hillel might have had a harder time circumventing that assertion!

Now, I promised to get back to verse 6.

6 For the Lord your God will bless you as He has promised you: you will extend loans to many nations, but require none yourself; you will dominate many nations, but they will not dominate you.

This one has caused us no end of trouble (just like the Kol Nidre prayer.) Rather prophetic, too. Also easily abused by anti-Semites and worldwide Jewish conspiracy nuts. Unfortunately, while we did wind up making many loans to nations on than our own, we didn’t quite wind up dominating them, did we? G”d’s mistake, or ours? If we had followed all the commandments as a community, might things be different today? Only G”d knows (or maybe G”d doesn’t know?)

Clearly, sacrifices ere not enough  to get G”d to forgive our failures to fully follow the commandments. We read in the special haftarah for Shemini Atzeret from I Kings, chapter 8:

62 The king and all Israel with him offered sacrifices before the Lord. 63 Solomon offered 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep as sacrifices of well-being to the Lord. Thus the king and all the Israelites dedicated the House of the Lord. 64 That day the king consecrated the center of the court that was in front of the House of the Lord. For it was there that he presented the burnt offerings, the meal offerings, and the fat parts of the offerings of well-being, because the bronze altar that was before the Lord was too small to hold the burnt offerings, the meal offerings, and the fat parts of the offerings of well-being.

Wow. I thought kings weren’t supposed to be ostentatious and overdo things. Well, maybe that doesn’t include offerings to G”d? (I think it should!) Maybe the sacrifices helped for a while, but once Solomon was gone, things went all to pieces again, and fast.

We just can’t seem to get it right. Thousands of years later and we still can’t get it right. Yet, those same thousands of years later, we’re still here, we survive, mir zenen do. So maybe it’s true:

6 For the Lord your God will bless you as He has promised you.

To paraphrase Tevye the milkman, maybe G”d should shower those blessings on someone else for a while?

In closing, allow me to commend to you some of my previous musings speficially for Simchat Torah:

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

Moadim L’Simcha, Hag Sameakh, and Shabbat Shalom,



© 2009 by Adrian A. Durlester

All translation from the revised JPS Tanakh.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Sukkot I 5770-Fire and Rain

I have written many times about the inherent tensions in Judaism. It seems we need them to be a part of our faith, our understandings, our practices. So much so, that when there is no apparent tension, it appears the priests and rabbis sometimes sought to create them.

In the Torah reading for Sukkot, which include the biblical references to this holiday we read:

seven days you shall bring offerings by fire to the Lord
Lev 23:36

And in Num 29:12-39, we have an elongated description of the ritual sacrifices of Sukkot, and it's 70! (count 'em) 70! sacrifices. That's a lot of fire offerings.

Thus, one might view Sukkot as a holiday strongly connected with fire. Yet, if anything, it is with water that Sukkot is inextricably linked, especially through the ritual of the water libation that was performed daily in the Temple during Sukkot.

If one views Sukkot as a harvest-derived holiday, then a connection to water, and the ensuing prayers for a good rainy season, seem to connect. The rabbis, of course, go out of their way to give the practice of the water libation and Sukkot's connection to water a textual basis. The commandment to perform the water libation is derived from the oral Torah mi Sinai, and appears in the Gemara. It even attempts to link the water libation to the text of the Torah by positing three "additional letters" appearing in Numbers 29:12-39 that spell "mayim: (water.) Thus, in rabbinic tradition, it has as much basis as if the commandment appeared in the written Torah.

So here we have this tension between the need for much fire on Sukkot for the sacrifices, and the need for water for the water libation. Fire-water. Great tension.

Rabbis, modern pos'kim, and scholars have a field day with Sukkot and water. There are connections to the four species, references to water being the very source of life, etc.

So what is it that we do on Sukkot to represent either the missing fire sacrifices or the water libation? Nothing. Therein lies yet another tension. In many (but not all cases) when a Temple ritual is obviated by the Temple's destruction, the rabbis manage to find a suitable substitute. At the very least, they construct a ritual that has some small connection to what was lost.

Yet, fond as we are on Sukkot to speak about the water libation (and to a lesser degree, the 70 sacrifices requiring fire) I'll be darned if I can think of one thing we do in our modern observance of the holiday to illustrate these lost practices. Granted, the waving of the lulav can been seen as representative of the wave offerings in the Temple. Perhaps it can be seen as a substitute for the sacrifices, but it hardly seems fitting substitute for the sacrifice of a whole lot of bulls. (Perhaps the Hallel is that substitute?)

I guess, if we're Torah purists and reject the rabbinical addition of the water libation, we can view our prayers, the lulav, the sukkah itself, and the Hallel as substitutes for the sacrifices. So why haven't adherents to the rabbinic tradition sought a substitute for or a ritual connection the water libation? Why aren't we pouring out water in our Sukkot? Or, at the very least, some ritual involving pouring water over a table or something representing where we eat? I can understand why setting our sukkot on fire and then putting it out with water never became a practice, but there must be some way we can bring symbols for the fire sacrifices and the water libation back in our Sukkot practice.

As Jews, we need tension in our beliefs and practices. Sukkot has some-the tension of "partial" shelter is one. I think Sukkot needs a few more poles of tension.

So that's my challenge to all of you, my creative friends, for this hag. Can we find a way to bring fire and water into our Sukkot celebrations? It's gonna be a hot and cold time in the old town tonight.

Before I close, an interesting side note. Of course, the title of this musing had me singing the old Jame's Taylor song, "Fire and Rain." In it, he sings:

I've seen fire and I've seen rain.
I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end...

and in the haftarah for Sukkot I, from Zechariah, we read:

In that day, there shall be neither sunlight or cold moonlight, but there shall be a continuous day--only the L"rd knows when--of neither day nor night, and there shall be light at eventide. (Zech. 14:6)

And, of course, we can always take the next two lines of the song as metaphor for our relationship with the Divine:

I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I'd see you again

Of course, we'll ignore the second verse about that Jewish carpenter guy lookin' down on him. Or that the song is about the death of a friend, Taylor's addictions, and his treatment for that. (And not, as the urban legend goes, about some mythical girlfriend who died in a  plane crash - see

In yet another odd connection, the haftarah speaks of a time when

fresh water shall flow from Jerusalem, part of it to the Eastern Sea and part to the Western Sea, throughout the summer and winter. (Zech. 14:8)

This lovely passage is followed by the well known

bayom hahu y'hiyeh Ad"onai ekhad, ush'mo ekhad - On that day G"d shall be One and G"d's name shall be One. (Zech 14:9)

And I couldn't think of a better place to stop.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameakh,

©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, September 25, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Ha'azinu/Shabbat Shuva 5770-Our Prayers Aren't Bull

Nine years ago, I wrote a musing for Shabbat Shuvah entitled "Bull From Our Lips" I offer it again to you this year, slightly massaged, revised, and re-written.

The prophet Hosea says in one of the special haftarot for Shabbat Shuvah:

"K'chu imachem d'varim          "Take words with you
v'shuvu el-Ad-nai,                   and return to the Lr"d,
imru eylai,                              Say to Him:
kol-tisa avon,                         'Forgive all guilt
v'kach tov,                             and accept what is good;

un'shalma parim s'fateinu"       instead of bulls we will pay [the offering of] our lips.'"

Our words are what we offer to G"d instead of animals. Which words? The words of
prayer? Of praise? Of repentance? Of our hearts? Of our minds? Perhaps it's not the words themselves- it's how we use them, and what we use them for. Our words are taken the place of bulls, but bull should not be coming from our lips.

Intent matters. The words may be difficult to pray. You may not understand them. You may disagree with them. How you deal with that matters.  You can spout the words of the given liturgy, use a newer version of the liturgy, or, some say, even substitute your own words. I'm not sure it matters much to G"d if you're chanting or ortho-mumbling traditional Hebrew liturgy, reading English translations, using some fanciful new liturgy, or simply speaking what is in your heart. In fact, I suspect that G"d might appreciate the latter most. Just as long as when you pray, there's no bull on your lips.

Of course, what do you do in those times when you faith is weak, challenged, or unsure. For some, just saying the familiar words, even without the intent behind them, works. In that case, their intent is simply performing their ritual obligation. Shall we count that as any lesser intent? Is it up to us to judge?

Of late, I've been in discussion with peers and colleagues about the future of Judaism, and things like cyber-shuls and digital sefer Torahs. While the idea may seem strange to some, for others, it is their way of connecting. Again, it should not be for us to judge what works spiritually for another.

Let's take the discussion beyond the synagogue, beyond the uttering of ritual prayer. These days, it seems like bull is sprouting from just about everyone's mouth. It's hard to separate the truth from the garbage. Some say it's our sound-byte society. The fewer words we use, the harder it becomes to express the range of what we really want to say. (Trust me, using Twitter is teaching me, someone who has struggled with an overly verbose style of writing and speaking for decades, how not to waste words. Having only 140 characters to make a point really forces you ti whittle it down to the essentials. Nevertheless, as our own scriptures teach us, sometimes the fewest words express things the best

Some say it's the language itself. It has grown so dense, so complicated, so full of slang, buzzwords, etc. that one can't help but use them.

Words, words, words. It's not the words that are the problem. We need the words to communicate. It's how we use them, and what we use them for. Imagine for a moment a good person, one who embraces his faith, has respect for themselves and respect for others. Who strives to treat others as another "you" or "thou" rather than an "it", as Martin Buber would put it. Are not all their efforts in vain if they do not use the language of communication properly? A mutual language of communication must reflect mutual respect. Once any bull starts emanating from their lips, the process is hopelessly poisoned.

As it is with each other, then so it must be with G"d. As ...what comes from our lips shall be like the offering of bulls to G 'd. Hosea wasn't just telling us that Temple sacrifices can be replaced by words. These words are our sacrifice to G"d. Thus we must treat what we say in our communications with G"d carefully, keep them as unblemished as the bulls we would offer up. No less in true in our communications with each other.

Not that we cannot be earthy. One good look at the Psalms will tell us that our tradition teaches us to truly speak our feelings to G"d-even if those feelings are anger, disappointment, lack of faith. G"d hears those kinds of expressions, and they are just as much a sacrifice to G"d as are words of praise, thanks and submission.

Still, we will know, and G"d will know, if the words we utter, no matter how beautiful, glorious, and seemingly pious, are words in the place of bulls, or the stuff that bulls leave behind.

We are truly fortunate, in our Jewish tradition, that we have been given so many words to use and ways to use them, in our communications with G"d. We have the prose and poetry of the siddur, the psalms, songs and liturgies. These words are so well crafted that they can be truly natural coming from
our own lips and hearts and minds as if they were our own. It is no crime nor shame to use them when we cannot find words of our own (and because the power of using these words communally is so great, there is good reason to try and use them whenever you can.)

Yet sometimes that doesn't work. I know there are times I try to pray the words of the siddur and know that my lips are offering not sacrificial bulls, but the other kind of bull. Those are the times when I must find other words with which to speak with G"d. And speak I must. Pray I must. For each day and each moment reveal to me G"d's creation, and also G"d's frustrating mystery.

Pray. Pray to G"d. If all you can pray is "G"d, I don't want to pray" or "G"d, I don't believe in prayer" that's ok. That kind of truth is like a sacrifice to G"d. That's no bull. Let what you pray be an offering of your lips.

I wish you and yours a Shabbat Shalom and G'mar Khatima Tovah!!


©2009 (portions ©2000) by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, September 18, 2009

Random Musings Before Rosh Hashanah 5770 The Dualities of Life II

This musing is an adaptation of my musing from Rosh Hashanah 5763

May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year. We are told, "On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed." For many Jews, it is a difficult concept to embrace.

What are we to make of this conflict between free will and predestination?

For me, the question becomes--who is doing the writing?

Tradition tells us that it is G"d who makes these determinations, but I think another interpretation is equally acceptable. It is us, ourselves. We are the ones who, by what we do and do not do, by what we believe and do not believe, by what we confess and do not confess, by what we vow to do better and what we write off as simple character flaw, by all this and more, we write our futures into the book of life.

Surely, how we live our lives, or think we live our lives, can and does affect what happens on our lives. Yes, there are powers greater than us that still ultimately can affect our future. However, we can affect our present and our future, and those of others as well.

Our choice, for example, to be or not to be an active member of klal Yisrael, working to fulfill our end of the covenant we have with G"d, affects not only ourselves but the entire community. Our ability to keep our communal covenant is only as good as our weakest link. However, we live in changing times, and the definition of what it means to be an active participant in k'lal Yisrael  are in flux. Individuality and universality are in tension with the communal and particularism.

There are those who say assimilation weakens us, diminishing the numbers of us who are able to act righteously and thus bring about our part in whatever G"d's plans are for us. Then there are those who argue that the loss to our community through assimilation strengthens us, by removing the weakest from the community. Both arguments have merit, and our own scriptures speak of our being both numerous as the grains of sand, and also achieving continuity through a remnant.  There is yet a third argument--that assimilation is actually a positive force that allows us to involve the gerim tosh'vim in what we do, thereby extending our power to affect the world. We truly become an or l'goyim in this way. Again, these differing understandings are in tension.

There's a part of me that believes that surely a faithful Jewish community, numerous as grains of sand, is the better option than a remnant. Yet I cannot be certain.

Perhaps G"d is hedging bets, allowing for the future G"d wants for us, yet allowing us, through our free will, to determine how that path is to be followed, that destination reached. Which brings us back to our role in what gets written in the book of life.

How we all work towards our own today and tomorrow, as well as the collective present and future of the Jewish people is in our hands, our hearts, our minds. As we pray and reflect at Rosh Hashanah and during the days between then and Yom Kippur, let's reflect on how we might exercise influence over what gets written in the book of life. Even, if in G"d's great wisdom, our efforts to live by our covenant do not achieve for us another full year of life in the great book, there is surely no harm, and great righteousness, in so doing. Perhaps that is why we are told that it is indeed G"d, and not ourselves, that write what happens in the book of life. Perhaps if we knew just how much influence we could have on what gets written, we'd be tempted to do good for the wrong reasons (i.e. to gain another year of life), or become bitter and angry when, despite righteousness, the lives of some get cut off. More concepts in tension with one another.

Then again, is desiring another year of life a bad thing? Our own tradition promises us the blessing of long life if we follow G"d's commandments and do what we have promised to do. Yet this promise has led us to all sorts of debates on theodicy, on why bad things happened to good people. Maybe it is easier (and wiser) for us to simply believe that what gets written in the book of life is not under our control or influence. What, and give up free will? 'Tis a puzzlement, and a tension.

So, I've once again successfully talked myself in a circle out of my own argument. What an appropriate thing at this time of year, as we celebrate the cycle of another year.

I still want to believe that we can influence what gets written in the book of life. Yet I also know that the lives of even the most righteous among us could get cut short this coming year.

Are life and death opposites, to be held in tension? Or or they part of a circle or a continuum? Does Judaism teach us to balance, to keep in tension, life and death? It certainly asks us to "choose life." Yet it also attempts to tell us that ultimately we are not in control of our living or dying. We choose life not just so that we may live, but also those who come after us. What we do here and now will affect what happens after we are gone. So even today and tomorrow are in tension (or from tomorrow's perspective, today and yesterday.) If there is a "book of life," it's probably pretty messy, scribbled in, with lots of little marginal notes,changes, etc.

"But it's sealed," I hear you say. If this is so, then why are we taught that the gates of repentance are always open? Yes, repentance is given some urgency, and even a suggested time limit during the Yamim Noraim, yet it seems that even what is sealed in the Book of Life is subject to revision. So is it sealed, pre-ordained, or not? Does free will matter. Yet more tension between ideas.

Call it yin and yang, call it l'havdil, call it mayim and shamayim, call it or v'choshech, man and woman--even in this most sacred time of the year, our tradition illustrates the dualities of existence. The dualities of life. Our system of belief recognizes it, embraces it.

In these times, the challenges seem greater, and the conflicts appear to some to be more black and white. Yet I believe things are just as gray as they ever were. As we live through this time of change for Judaism, we must respect the tensions within it, for they enable us to achieve a reasonable mean. Even if it means that the mean itself changes over time. What is normative now may not be so in the future. Certainly, what is normative now was not so in the past.

We are redefining Judaism, Jewish community, Jewish identity, Jewish worship and praxis. It is not an easy process, and there will be slips and stumbles, contentious debates and more along the way. Just remember to be open to what was, what is, and what could be.

May you be inscribed and sealed for a challenging year.

Long live the conflict between free will and predestination! May it always confound us, and give us the impetus to study, learn, and try and figure it all out.

May this new year be a year of blessing for each and every one of you and your families, and it may it be a year of confounding, searching, learning, and teaching.

Shanah tovah u'metukah,

©2009  by Adrian A. Durlester (portions ©2002)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Nitzavim/Vayeilekh 5769-Disconnecting and Reconnecting the Dots

Six years ago, I wrote a musing for this parsha entitled "Connecting the Dots" In it, I explored the possible meanings of the Masoretic "dots" inserted above the first 11 letters of the words "lanu ul'vaneinu ad" (only the final dalet is absent the dot) in the sentence:

Hanistarot l'-Ad"nai El"heinu v'haniglot lanu ul'vaneinu ad olam la'asot et kol divrei hatorah hazot"

My translation: "The hidden things are for Ad"nai, our G"d, and the revealed things are to us and to our children for all eternity to do all the words of this teaching."

The JPS's translation" Concealed acts concern the L"rd our G"d; but with over acts. it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this teaching."

In so translating this text, the JPS committee decided to side with the traditional understanding of this text referring to responsibility of the community for dealing with sinners. The dots, say most scholars, tell us that the people of Israel could ignore the instruction until they came into the land of Israel. That is, they were not obligated to deal with revealed sin, or work to prevent people from sinning, until they had entered the land, after taking the responsibility upon themselves with the oath ritual at Mount Gerezim and Mount Ebal.

Rashi supports this interpretation, and relies upon Talmud to so so, citing portions from Sanhedrin 43b and Sotah 37b.

Of course, all this is based on the supposition that the Torah, as we now have it, was known and revealed to the Israelites (at Sinai?)before they entered the land after 40 years wandering in the wilderness.

Why, probably two or so millenia later, in the 7th century CE, would the Masoretes feel it necessary to dot the words "lanu ul'vaneinu ad?" What was troubling the rabbis, Rashi, and the Masoretes?

Rashi claims that G"d did not mete out punishment even for revealed sins in great quantity before the people entered the land after accepting the oath. thus becoming responsible for the conduct and behavior of each other. Rashi was a proponent of punishing the many (i,.e. the community) for the sins of the individual, for it is as much their failure. (Given this world view, it's no wonder the rabbis went to such great lengths to create a fence around the Torah

So what troubled Rashi, the rabbis, the Masoretes? Surely plenty of punishment for sins was meted out during the people's time in the wilderness. Pinkhas showed great zeal for such activities. Korakh and his rebel band were dealt with quite directly by G"d. Why, their very wandering in the wilderness was a punishment for the sin of doubting G"d. Yes, things got much worse after we entered the land, largely due to our own inability to control ourselves. We failed, as individuals, and as a community, to live up to our covenant, and for that we were punished and kicked out of the land. Twice-the second time for good. (I'm not sure that our ability to presently be in the land again means all is forgiven and our period of expulsion for our sins is over.)

Why only the eleven letters? Why is the word "ad" only dotted over the first letter, the ayin? How can we ignore one letter of the word? Just a typo that got carried on through tradition, or is it purposeful?

So again I ask, why would the Masoretes mark text to be disregarded by people who preceded them by thousands of years? Was this their nod to previous generations of rabbis and scholars who argued that this little piece of text was inapplicable prior to the people entering the land? Why not be bold and say "this applies to us now and foreverm so what does it matter that for a short time, thousands of years ago,it didn't apply" The Masoretes were fixing something that didn't need fixing. So again I ask why?

Shortly after this perpelexing text, and its perplexing dots, we come to the famous "lo bashamayim hi" which teaches us that Torah is not too baffling to be understood by anyone. It would seem the Masorete's dots in 29:28 directly contravene this concept. For that matter, so do thousands of years of rabbinical and scholarly writings, from Talmud on down to modern Responsa. All of them exist on the basis that Torah isn't clear, and needs explanation, needs gaps filled, etc. I'd be so bold as to stipulate that all of halakha is in direct contravention to the text of Deut. 30:11-14.

We developed this idea, this tradition of the Oral Torah (which eventually  became Mishnah, Gemara, Talmud, Shulkhan Arukh, and more.) It exists to help us understand what we don't understand in the Torah. Yet Torah herself tells us that she is not to difficult for anyone to understand. Oh, what a viscous circle we have woven.

Maybe it's time to forget the dots, and stop trying to connect them. Maybe it is time for each of us to assume our roles as individuals (and communities) fully capable of understanding Torah, without intervening layers.

This has been on my mind of late, largely because of something I read in my efforts to help be a part of the future of Jewish education. The piece, Ten Things I Learned About The Future of the Jewish People From the Future of the Jewish People, makes an important point about today's youth being a creative generation, with easy access to the tools that enable them to be creative. Using Wikipedia as an example, author David Bryfman says that today's youth need to be part of creating anything which they will respect, and that includes working with our sacred texts. He wrote:

A Jewish text and a traditional authority are valuable only once their respect has been earned – something that can only be established when teens are given the opportunity to develop a personal relationship with either the text or the authority figure. Likewise rituals are only as meaningful as the sovereign selves who help construct and develop them. This rejection of tradition has been interpreted by some as disrespectful – but instead needs to be re-framed within the passion and dedication of those many young Jews who strive to be creators and interpreters and not merely recipients of a tradition. (emphasis added)

I have taken this idea to heart and plan to use it at the core of my teaching and other activities in Jewish education.

How might today's youth approach these two pieces of Torah: the dotted "lanu ul'vaneinu ad" and "lo bashamayim hi?" They would certainly embrace the latter concept, as it pretty much guarantees their place as interpreters of Torah. How would they seek to be both creator and receiver of that text?

Why don't we try for ourselves to find out. while I'm not going to create a wiki to discuss this (at least, not for now) I'd like to ask you, my readers, to openly engage in the process of creating and receiving Torah by offering your thoughts on Deut. 29:28 and 30:11-14. Post your comments here, on the blog post of this week's Random Musing. (If you're reading this in an email or on a page of my web site, the blog is at Together we can create and receive.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester