Friday, February 27, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat-T'rumah 5769-Planning for Always

The plans that we read in parashat T'rumah for the construction of the mishkan are thorough and detailed. There's some room left from individual artistry and craftsmanship, nevertheless, the basic structure of the mishkan and its individual components is clear.

I've wondered before in these musings about the level of detail, and what can be learned or gleaned from it. Why such specificity? If it for G"d's sake, then that  must be one picky G"d. Or perhaps G"d does not believe that the people of G"d's creation and choosing are capable of getting it right. I  am not sure any of us are in a position to even speculate on this, although sages have tried.

If the specificity is for the sake of humankind, and specifically the Israelites, it's a little easier to comprehend and justify. We are, after all, stubborn, stiff-necked people. We are all also, whether we see it or not, creative and a bit individualistic-even when we work hard to put aside our own selves in favor of the greater community good.

Recently, though certainly not for the first time in my life, I have found myself in a situation where my predecessors did not provide adequate documentation to pass on their mantle of leadership. I also found myself yet again in a place where I had to pass on to another.

I have generally prided myself on the thoroughness of record-keeping I have left behind for my successors. I have also been surprised by the skeleton-like nature of what some have bequeathed to me as their replacement. Of course, what I consider skeleton-like may seem quite thorough to others, and what I consider thorough might be found lacking by yet others. Also, I have not always lived up to my own standards.

What complicates things is that I, by nature, tend to be more in the extemporaneous camp when it comes to planning and doing. It's not always easy to put down in words what I am thinking in my head. In addition, I tend to adjust as a go along, responding to circumstances, the reactions of those around me, etc.

I am learning that, at those times, the best solution may be to find someone who can concretize things for me. They might not be able to quite glean the thought-processes and rationales behind my efforts, but they can surely record the actual physical results.

In a way, this is somewhat like the mishkan. We can try and understand the reasoning behind things, or simply follow instructions. There are those of us who can just follow instructions, and those of us who simply need to know what's behind the decisions that led to these specific instruction. (I suppose one might view the varying ways in which Judaism is practiced as somewhat similar.)

Once again, we are left living in that liminal zone, trying to find the balance between our need to know and understand, and our need to just do it even if we may never get to understand it. Naaseh v'nishma, in a sense.

Now, after encountering this parasha year after year, some light is finally beginning to dawn. If, when I read it each year I have different understandings of it, how much more so that others will also have varying understandings. The instructions are there. It's up to us how we use them. Some of us prefer to at times to thoroughly read the owners manual, while others just forge ahead. Yet, at times, our approach may change due to circumstances, maturation, or any number of factors.

Parashat T'rumah has just enough specificity to satisfy the need for specificity when it is wanted. Still, there is room to view the text as overly detailed (or even lacking enough detail.) Also, there is room to individually interpret the instructions. I pray that I might be able to craft the instructions and records I pass on to others, either to create a reality from them, or in passing the torch of leadership to another, in the amazing and gifted manner in which the words of T'rumah are crafted. If they are of human origin, I at least have a fighting chance to succeed. If they are, indeed, Divine, then the best I can do is aspire to come as close to them as I can.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, February 20, 2009

Mishpatim 5769-Redux 5757/5761-Change From The Inside


Every year I always try to think about examining other parts of the text in this portion, but something always draws me back to Exodus 24:7, with its "na'aseh venishma."

In one of my first musings on Mishpatim, years ago, I wrote these words:

There is much in my life that I am "doing" in order that I will "listen." I don't reject out of hand the viewpoint (best expressed by the Kotzker Rebbe Menachem Mendel) that through the doing of things (i.e. mitzvot) we will be able to "listen" to Gd and hear and understand the meaning of it all. But I do not believe that Gd wants from me only simple obedience. Gd wants the output of Gd's whole creation - body AND mind; heart AND soul. Shall I be only the Avraham avinu who blindly takes his son to be sacrificed? Shall I be only the Avraham avinu that argues with Gd for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, or the Moshe rabbeinu who protests that he is the wrong person for the job? Or shall I try to be a little of all of them?

As I read through Mishpatim, and its lengthy list of "good (but not necessarily easy) ways to live a good life" (I would call them commandments, or, for the more liberal, suggestions, or guidelines, but I think the words I used say it best) I thought of the commitment that it must have taken to accept them without reservation, to agree to do them without further explanation. To be sure, most of them make sense, even in a modern context. But I imagine some of them were difficult to swallow even back then. In the academy, they teach us to look at the text through the eyes of those who wrote it, or redacted it, or were there at the time. And perhaps their subtle influences have left their marks on the text. But at the core are words not of our own creation, but given by Gd. It takes great faith to live by these words. But I might suggest that, given what we know about our own species, for some of us it might be a greater leap of faith to live by these words believing them to have been written by human beings than it might be believing they were given to us by Gd. Despite my academic training, I remain somewhat steadfastly in the second camp - that dwindling minority that still believe in these words as emanating from Gd. For me, attempting a "naaseh v'nishma" attitude while considering the words of Torah as an entirely human endeavor would be a frightening exercise.

I am struck by the relevance of so many p'sukim in parashat Mishpatim. Those on justice and false witnessing, etc. are certainly poignant in view of many of the things going on in our society right now. I would love to see auto rental agencies take Shemot 22:14 to heart:

"If the article was hired, [the loss] is covered by the rental price."

Does this render Collision Damage riders halachically inappropriate? (Of course, the businessman would argue that the CDW is part of the price.)

We would do well to heed the message in Exodus 22:7: "Do not curse a leader of your people." This applies now, in 5761, as it did when I first wrote this musing a few years back during the troubled times of the Clinton impeachment. However he got there "W" is our leader. When that troubles you, just remember how Yaakov got to be leader. (Of course, it would pain me to think that "W" is where he is because he, like Yaakov, had G"d's favor. But I digress.) [Looking back from 5769 it feels odd to see these remarks. Of course, in our present situation, even without the scourge of "W" we would do well do not curse our leader. Obama needs all the help and support we can give.]

And one pasuk that I often overlooked before, but which really speaks to me now:

Exodus 23:2 : "Do not follow the majority to do evil."

To be Jewish in this world is to be different. It is to not follow the crowd. Yet we have become so integrated into this society. Many of us have struggled so hard for assimilation, when perhaps we should have just been struggling for acceptance of ourselves in spite of our differences.

But now that so many of us are assimilated, incorporated into this society, how can we follow the commandment to "not follow the majority to do evil." ?

Well, in a speech in Boston a few years ago, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg made the point that the Jewish people have managed to achieve a position of great success in our society, and that we now have the opportunity to begin to wield that influence to be a force for change - for tikkun olam. He told the following story:

"The president goes on TV and warns that the asteroid is three days away. There is panic, hysteria. The pope goes on TV and says: 'Don't despair. Xtianity believes in eternal life.' The head of the Hindus proclaims that his religion teaches that life is an illusion and that his followers will achieve eternal life. The chief rabbi announces, 'Friends, we have three days to learn how to live under water.'"

Rabbi Greenberg concluded: "You have time to learn how to live under freedom, affluence and power.'' First, he says, we must come together as one.

What Yitz says is so sensible. Some Jews choose to follow the commandments by separating themselves from the rest of society as much as possible (and here I am not referring to followers of a particular movement in Judaism-for these kinds of people exist among liberal and traditional Jews alike.) It works, for many of them, and I am not about to criticize them for doing so. But that is not the way for me and many other Jews. I am in this society, a part of it. I must work from within it, as Rabbi Greenberg suggests, in order to be apart from it. Look at how well Chabad manages to do that. The liberal movements do this too, through social action. Who's to know which is the way that will be the most successful. Gd willing, the traditional and liberal approaches each are a piece of the puzzle of tikkun olam.

I think I have it figured out:

To be Jewish in this world we must do as our ancestors: "na'aseh venishma." What it is that we do, and what it is that we hear may be quite different. But then, with so many Jews all at Har Sinai, it is any wonder they are probably millions of different understandings of what it was Gd said to us there. Small wonder, then, that the great rabbis and sages labored so long and hard to try and create a cohesive system of ways to understand Gd's words. Let's not be too quick to dispose of their wisdom for there is much to be learned from it. Some think the key to changing society from the inside is to become as much like them as possible, and to discard the ancient words and ways-for, they say, we cannot change the world if they view us as so different that they simply ignore us or think us fools. But in the haste to be this way, what tools do we leave behind? It is only human hubris that drives us to believe that we, from our lofty modern perch can do any better a job of interpretation than our great rabbis and sages did. Does it make us any less worthy people if we learn from the past rather than always create anew? Whatever we come up with, it will still bear our own marks and influences. This is unavoidable. Even the orthodoxy that so many see as inflexible and unchanging is far more pliant and undergoing evolution and subtle reinterpretation. Their wisdom of the ages is here for us to benefit from.

And now, if you'll forgive the pretensions, go and study it!

Shabbat Shalom to you and yours,


©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester. Portions ©1997 and 2001.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Yitro 5769-Evolution Shabbat


An economy in ruins. A valiant pilot saves the lives of all aboard his aircraft when he ditches it in the Hudson river. A commuter plane crashes into a house and kills all on board and those in the house. Killed on that plane is the widow of someone who died in the 9/11 tragedy.  A Jewish man scams thousands of people and organizations out of millions of dollars, and as he confesses, his wife is helping herself to $15 million of his ill gotten gains.

200 years ago, two great men were born. One saved this union. Another turned the world of science upside down with his ideas. The actions of both those men are still being debated today. Half-full or half empty-that only 200 years later, the legacy Lincoln leads to the election of our first African-American president? Today, even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, there are those who refuse to accept the "radical ideas" of Charles Darwin. Some Haredi rabbis try to censor other rabbis who dare suggest that human evolution is not a heretical idea, and call them apikoros. Yet they seem to be ignoring the voices of most of their own adherents, who silently protest their inability to admit that the theory of evolution is correct. Great poskim seem to disregard or refute the words of even greater poskim who came before them who clearly see the creation stories in Bereshit as metaphor or allegory.

So, on this "Evolution Shabbat" as some are calling it, I offer this reworking of those 10 statements that G"d made to us at Sinai amidst thunder and lightning.

I am the Big Bang who created those things necessary for this Universe to exist. You shall have no other universes besides this one. (Oh, you can try and find them, and maybe even think you'll get to them someday. Don't hold your breath.)

Do not attempt to encapsulate in a representative image or form the force or forces that brought this universe into being, or the amazing-ness that is your universe. Do not show obeisance for the things, forces, and processes in your universe that you do not yet understand, or even to those you have come to know and understand. For this universe is random, and you never know if potentially bad things  you do today will impact your children or even the third or fourth generations after you; yet know that this universe is self-repairing over long time spans, like a thousand generations.

Do not blame the universe and its randomness for your troubles, or an excuse for your behaviors, for when you do so, it is a vain act. Swearing by use of your universe's name is truly vain.

In whatever cycle you use to measure the passage of time, set aside a period of that time regularly for rest, and to wonder in the glory that is your universe. Work eagerly and do those things necessary for your continued existence (and all of your kind) except during that set aside time, which is a rest for you (and for your universe, which needs it too); during that time you shall not labor for your existence, and your family members, life forms you utilize to serve you, even those not known to you personally - they, too, shall not labor for their existence (or yours.) For it has taken billions and billions of years for the universe to become as it is, so is it so much to ask that you take a break for what is, on the time scale of your universe, but the blink of an eye? The universe wants you to have this rest time-and who are you to question the universe?

Give due respect and honor to those of your species who did whatever it is they needed to do in order to bring you into existence, for they can make your existence more endurable. In the randomness of this universe, it is a miracle that those who enabled your existence found themselves in a position to bring you into existence, especially considering that for millions of years, random changes to the sequences of the DNA of your species and its progenitors have brought about modifications that both aided and hindered its development.

Do not cause the life of another of your kind (or, for that matter, of any kind you encounter) to be ended by your deliberate action, inaction, or indifference. It took millions of years of evolution to enable each one of your species to exist-it is not yours to undo that effort-that's the randomness of the universe's job.

Do not interfere in the intimate relationships of others of your kind. Yes, such activities can be seen as shaking up the gene pool to positive effect, but why don't you just let nature and the universe handle that without any extra help from you. (If you do wind up destroying your planet's ozone layer, maybe the speeded up mutation rate will prove beneficial. Who knows?)

Do not take anything, whether physical or intellectual, that belongs to another without the consent of the other. Such actions often lead to conflict, and your species has (theoretically) evolved past the point where strength, speed, agility and other physical attributes are the deciding factor in determining survival of the fittest mutations. Using your intellectual prowess to deprive another of what is rightfully theirs is equally abhorrent.  If it ain't yours, hands (and mind) off.

Do not offer untruthful testimony against others. Despite the tendency of some of your species to hold on to truths that have been clearly

Don't fixate on what the randomness of this universe (or even the deliberate efforts of others) affords others. Find happiness in what the randomness of this universe affords you. And always remember to grok this: TANSTAAFL*

Let your own thoughts evolve this Shabbat. Who knows what you might discover.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, February 6, 2009

Random Musings Before Shabbat-Beshalakh (Shabbat Shirah) 5769-Mi Khamonu II

Exactly ten years ago, I wrote a musing for parashat Beshalakh/Shabbat Shirah entitled "Mi Khamonu?" I started out this way:

Who is like you, Ad"nai, among the gods? Who is like you, awesome in splendor, working wonders?

For a brief moment, I considered making that my entire musing for today. After all, it sums up for me, quite distinctly, what I think about G-d.

But, like Nachshon, I'll plunge ahead into the waters anyway-even as unsure as I am of what lies ahead.

G"d is quite remarkable, of that there is no doubt. But G"d created a creature and endowed it with some truly remarkable features as well. And out of all the gifts G"d gave to this creature, known as humankind, one stands out as a unique way to thank and praise our creator. It may not be G"d's greatest gift to us, but it sure ranks up there. (We are the recipient of so many gifts from G"d I would be hard pressed to prioritize them: Shabbat, Torah, freedom from slavery, love, senses, etc. If I were to hazard a guess, I might place Shabbat above all-for it came before Torah. But that's a discussion for another time.)

The gift I am speaking of is the gift of music and song. And what a glorious and remarkable gift it is.  Those of you who know me well know that music is at the very core of my Judaism. That's why this Shabbat, Shabbat Shirah is always one of my favorite Shabbats.And since the gift of music is such a special one, what better way to thank and praise G-d but through music. With music we praise, thank, glorify, remember, teach, share, love.

I'm revisiting those thoughts this year, in some ways with a very different set of present circumstances, and in some ways, very similar. Ten years ago, I was still (one of the few) Jewish students in the Master's program at Vanderbilt Divinity School. I was also working at three (+) synagogues in the Nashville area. One conservative, two Reform, with occasional involvement with a Chabad congregation as well. Today, in 5769, I am not a college student, though I am living in a college town (Amherst, MA and the five-college area.) I am again working for three different synagogues-this time one Conservative, One Reconstructionist, and one Reform.

The three synagogues in Nashville were, to no surprise given their locale, very musical, with lots of singing. One Reform congregation had a wonderful cantor, and he could do a wonderful classic reform service. However, he was always open to innovation and new music, and there was always quite a bit of lay participation. I didn't do music there myself, but it was a place I could happily enjoy and participate in worship. At the other Reform synagogue, music was my primary role, working along with a number of truly fine cantorial soloists, some of whom have gone on to great success in the Jewish music scene. They also had a fabulous lay choir. It was a particularly participatory congregation, and one where my concept of my playing of the piano as my personal t'filot really worked. I've often told others that playing my keyboard or piano as part of a worship service is a very spiritual experience for me, and often I feel I am just channeling something greater than me. The conservative shul was also quite musical. They had a respected, venerable Hazzan, of long experience. However, he, too, was open to new music, new ideas. They also had a thriving lay choir. Hearing them during the High Holy Days gave me great respect for what is possible musically even in a place where tradition precludes the use of instruments on Shabbat or khag.

I've been fortunate that, in the years before an after my short few years in Nashville, I've been able to work with congregations where my musical passions could also be part of my passion for Judaism. Even at the large Conservative shul which was one of my workplaces while in the Northern VA/DC/Maryland area, musical fulfillment and integration w was possible. I got to work with some truly great cantors and hazzanim. I had some wonderful partners in fulfilling my passion for Judaism and music, too. I was able to work with a really fabulous group of teens in a choir who did both a cappella and choral music (even participating in the HaZamir Jewish teen Choir festival several times, a truly amazing experience.)  Best of all, I was able to serve a congregation where my musical gifts were well utilized in integrated into all I did, even as their Director of Education.

Ten years ago, I wrote:

In "Sparks Beneath the Surface" Larry Kushner and Kerry Olitzsky relate a teaching of Rabbi A. Chein. The Rabbi teaches that the reason we remember the miracle of what happened at the Reed Sea is because of the song they sung (Shirat Hayam.) Yet we do not recall Joshua leading Israel across the Jordan near Jericho - another miracle of waters split asunder and crossing on dry land.[Joshua 3:16-17] for it lacks the musical attestation.

What a beautiful teaching, that eloquently demonstrates the power of song and music. Much of what I first learned of the history of the Jewish people was through song and poetry, and I daresay this is true for many of us.

Music is one of the most powerful forms of prayer. Every Shabbat I know it carries me to new heights of understanding, and brings me closer to G"d. Whether it's accompanying at services, or just singing Shabbat z'mirot, the feeling is there. I know I've told many of you before that what comes out of my hands when I play the piano is t'fillah. (One thing I have discovered as a Jewish student at an essentially Xtian Divinity School is that most Xtians I talk to simply cannot conceive of what I mean what I say that. I haven't quite figured out why this is such an alien concept to them.)

But this magic need not be the special province of Shabbat only. Simply by bringing our music with us into the rest of the week, we can keep a little bit of Shabbat with us. It works for me. Driving in the car, in my office, when I go walking...listening to my favorite Jewish music selections helps keep me in that Shabbat mood.

Music can get through to everyone. It touches something inside our souls. This point was brought home for me eloquently this morning when, at the last minute, I substituted as songleader at a weekly playschool service at a Nashville congregation. It was such a joy to see all those smiling young faces, and to share with them my joy of Judaism and Shabbat in music and song. It was a revitalizing experience, and something I hadn't done for a while. (As a side note, it's truly amazing how G"d finds ways to fill our needs. I wasn't supposed to songlead for this service-my wife, the singer/songleader extraordinaire, was. Sadly, it was her misfortune to be sick this morning, and while I feel bad about that, I was able to be useful and fulfill a personal need as well. G"d does indeed work in strange ways.)

Maybe I've grown impatient as I age, but, at least for the moment, I feel as if my need for musical passion in my Judaism isn't being filled as it used to be. I can't really fault G"d for that, yet I can't be quite as certain as I was that "it's truly amazing how G"d finds ways to fill our needs." I'm working for three wonderful congregations. It's not that they are unmusical-there's lots of music and people who love to sing. The rabbonim and staff love music as well. (There are no cantors in the area, however.) It's just that, so far, I haven't found a way to interweave my passion for music, which comes through the playing of piano or keyboard with worship. Some of that is simply minhag and how different congregations weave their way around the halakha regarding Shabbat and Khagim. Another part of it is that the contemporary folk/pop/rock/spiritual Jewish music revolution, which is where I feel most comfortable, somehow seems to have bypassed this area. Oh, there is passing recognition for a few songs by Friedman, Klepper, an ocassional Taubman, et al but not much more. Even songs that I know have become popular not just at the URJ camps, but at the Ramah camps as well, don't seem to made their way into common usage here. I'm working, of course, to change that, and it being Shabbat Shirah I can recharge myself for that mission. I'm actually going to get an opportunity tonight to do a service where I can use my piano. So maybe G"d is at least trying to help. Music can do so much to make the worship experience even better. I pray I be given the chance to illustrate just how that can be, for as many people as I can, as often as I can. For now, I'll have to be content to appreciate the opportunities I get, and steel myself for the efforts ahead.

Ten years ago I wrote:

Mi chamocha, baelim Ad-nai? Mi kamocha, nedar bakodesh Nora t'hilot, oseh feleh.

Sometimes it's the words that are important to me, at other times, it's the music. Both can be equally powerful. Try it yourself.  Hum a tune you know for "Mi Khamocha" and see if it doesn't remind you of what happened at the Reed Sea, even without the words.

Mi Khamonu? Who is like us? We are the lucky ones. To have such gifts. And such gifts are to be shared.

I suppose this musing is a bit of catharsis for me, and I thank you, dear reader, for indulging me.

May your Shabbat and all your days be filled with the beauty of Shirim.

Ad"nai yimlokh l'olam va-ed.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester