Friday, December 31, 2010

Random Musings Before Shabbat - Va'era 5771-Brighton Beach-Last Stop!

As I'm in NYC this week (well, Brooklyn) visiting family, I think this is an appropriate musing redux to share. I struggle a lot with the idea in Torah that G"d would harden Pharaoh's heart, thus causing even greater suffering of the Egyptians, and delaying the exodus of the Israelites. In this musing, first written in 1999, and updated in 2005, I explore a possible explanation for G"d's action. I have to admit, in re-reading it, that I don’t find it an altogether satisfactory explanation, but it is at least something to consider.

Adrian (5771)

Random Musings Before Shabbat - Va'era 5771 (Redux 5759-5765)-Brighton Beach-Last Stop!

"Now can I have cake?" says the 3 year old. "No. You didn't finish what's on your plate. Cake is for dessert after dinner." [He eats one elbow macaroni] "Want cake. I'm finished dinner. Can I have cake now?" "You can have cake after dinner-and after you've eaten some more. Here, eat this." [He takes it in his mouth, pretends to chew, then spits it out.] "Finished. I want cake." "Eat some more dinner." "Want cake." "Not until you eat some more of your food." [He eats another small bite or two, then begins playing with food, throwing it on floor.] "I want cake now. I'm finished." [Sternly spoken:] "We're still eating. You have to wait until after dinner for dessert." "Want cake." "No! Here, eat this. [feeding him a few vegetables and bites of food. Finally, he begins to feed himself, too.] [A few moments of blessed silence.] "Finished. Cake. Now! I want cake. I want cake. I want cake." [One parent starts to give in and unwraps the cake and prepares to serve it to him. The other parent says "don't give in, he's got to learn. Just ignore him. We try again:] "If you eat some more of your food, you can have some cake." [He eats one tiny bite.] "Finished. Cake time." "Not yet." "You said if I ate my dinner I get cake. I ate it up." "No cake yet. Stop fussing!" [continued in next week's parasha.]

The child just does not understand. The children of Israel just did not understand. I think even Moshe and Aharon had a little trouble comprehending. And many who encounter the story of the plagues in Torah don’t understand. But a parent understands. Anything worth getting is worth waiting for. It has to be delivered under the right circumstances. It has to be earned. It has to be meaningful. Few things that are easy to get are all that valuable. (And lest you be tempted to mention things like "goodwill" and other moral and ethical values, feelings, and action, would that all of them would really be that easy to come by.)

Imagine what Judaism might be like today if, after one simple plague, Pharaoh had said "get thee out!" Would we still be thanking G"d quite so much for the effort of freeing us from bondage? G"d hardened Pharaoh's heart, just as we "hardened our hearts" against an eager little child who wanted cake. Could the child truly understand the specialness of the cake unless he was made to wait for it? Unless he could see that great miracles had to be performed first? What would it mean to act as if we ourselves had come forth out of Egypt, out of bondage, if it happened quickly and with minimal apprarent effort by G"d? (OK, OK, we'd already been in Egyptian bondage for some time, and we had suffered, so freedom would still hold plenty of meaning and value for us. Especially since Gd seems to have forgotten about us for a while. Still, the harder it-that is, our freedom, was to achieve, all the more we might value it.)

The 14 year old in that family, observing the situation related above, remarks that the parents mistake was in putting out the cake where the 3 year old could see it. A good point. But if the goal isn't known, how hard will one strive toward it? Whether the goal is freedom from bondage or a piece of cake, you gotta know what the goal is to get there. Moshe knows what his dessert is going to be-G"d has already told him. And those enslaved-no matter how crushed their spirits-would hopefully always be aware of freedom, n'est ce pas? Or is the Torah making the point that we had been enslaved for so long, had gotten to so used to it, that we no longer sensed that goal of freedom-that only when we could sense it did we moan loud enough about it for G"d to hear us?)

When the youngster in the story is older, perhaps he'll read Torah and learn some strategy. Instead of asking for the whole dessert, he could just say "how about letting me go three days away into the wilderness to sacrifice to my G"d?" (He wouldn't be being any less duplicitous than Moshe was-Moshe knew darn well he wanted cake, er, I mean total freedom from bondage for his people. I jest.)

But was it all theatrics? Did "Gd just want to make a big show of it? (Did G"d even need to harden Pharaoh's heart? I think it becomes obvious to Pharaoh in time that Moshe is looking for more than a three day sojourn in the park.)

The parents knows that one can eat the cake anytime-before, during, or after dinner. The parent also knows that sometimes children just don't eat in normal patterns. So what? But the parents make a big show of it. Why? Because, for some reason, children learn from things that seem like a big deal. They learn from exciting, tense, dramatic, entertaining moments. Like Sesame Street. (They also learn from the quiet meaningful moment, as with the late Fred Rogers.) Nothing that comes that easy is that good, is it?

My parents used to name off the subway stations - Atlantic Avenue - Prospect Park - Newkirk - Kings Highway - Avenue U - Sheepshead bay - on the way to "Brighton Beach, last stop!" to get us to finish our food or drink. Always coaxing us to the end of the line-where we can get off the train and start a brand new journey. It was unthinkable to finish before the last stop. (For you New Yorkers, I guess it was what is now the "Q" line.)

And, in some strange, quirky way, that childhood experience, along with ones I have experienced in households with children, help me understand why G"d hardened Pharaoh's heart and made us gain our freedom from Egypt only when it really was time for dessert. (Or is that desert?)

Those last four nasty plagues have yet to be endured. Tune in next week to see if the child gets his cake at last. We're still in Manhattan. Across the East River is Brooklyn and freedom. See if we reach Brighton Beach at last.

Shabbat Shalom,


©, 2010, 2005 (portions ©1999) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Va'era 5769 - Substitute
Va'era 5767-again, Crushed Spirits (Miqotzer Ruakh)
Va'era 5766-Why Tomorrow?
Va'era 5764-Imperfect Perfection and Perfect Imperfection
Va'era 5763 - Pray for Me
Va'era 5761-Just Not Getting It
Va'era 5762-Early will I Seek You
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Friday, December 24, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Sh’mot 5771 – Free Association IV


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

Alef 5759

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

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

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

Alef 5763

"I yam what I yam." (to loosely paraphrase Shemot 3:14)

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

Alef 5766

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

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

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

Bet 5759

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

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

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

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

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

Bet 5763

[nothing] (to paraphrase what comes between Shemot 2:10 and 2:11.

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

Bet 5766

You call that humble?

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

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

Gimel 5759

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gimel 5763

"Who, me?" (to loosely paraphrase Shemot 3:11)

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

Gimel 5766

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

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

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

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

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

OK. Let's stop and pause and consider.

Now who the heck was this Yeter fellow again?

Alef 5771

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

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

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

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

Bet 5771

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gimel 5771

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

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

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

Dalet 5771

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

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

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

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

Wishing you all a Shabbat filled with questions and discussions.

Shabbat Shalom,


© 1997, 2002, 2006, 2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

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Friday, December 17, 2010

Random Musings Before Shabbat – Vayekhi 5771 - Trading Places (Redux & Updated from 5759)

"Ki hatachat Elohim ani?" asks Joseph in Gen 50:19. "Shall I take the place of G"d?"

All about us these days is confusion. Moral uncertainty. Selfish and cruel behaviors. Luckily for us. For in these distractions are the things we need to take the focus away from self-examination and spare us the embarrassment of dealing with our own shortcomings. How easily we declare ourselves judge and proceed to find fault with others, with situations, our employers, our families, etc.

We criticize with abandon the actions, opinions and morals of others. Both those like us and unlike us. (Lately, in fact, it seems that the favorite target of our judgments are our own Jewish brothers and sisters.)

In our delusions that our troubles are caused by others, not only do we find fault...we hold grudges, too.

Joseph knows better.

Now, Joseph really was "worked over" by his brothers. Betrayed. If anyone had a right to stand in judgment of others, Joseph surely had that right over his brothers.

"Ki hatachat Elohim ani?" asks Joseph in Gen 50:19. "Shall I take the place of G"d?"

Joseph, of course, goes on to take the teleological approach. The evil that befell him was all part of G"d's plan, and it all worked out in the end. That sure is convenient. Question is, had things not worked out the way they did, would Joseph have been so forgiving? That, I cannot answer. Were he not standing at the apex of power, would he feel the same about not standing in the place of G"d? I'd like to think so. I'd like to think that all people would always ask themselves whether they can or should take the place of G"d. It' something we might well ask ourselves each time we find ourselves standing in judgment of others.

A few weeks ago (back in 1999) I wrote about Vayishlakh and "Don't Get Mad, Get Even." At the time I focused on the "don't get mad" part. In Vayekhi, Jacob teaches us about the "get even" part. He pronounces his oracles for his sons, and Reuben, Simeon and Levi are called to account. In this same parasha, Joseph has the opportunity to exact some measure of judgment on his brothers. But, instead, Joseph brings down a higher form of judgment than he or any human is capable of. He forgives, forgoes, and moves on, refusing to "take the place of G"d." This magnanimous gesture is probably a more effective form of punishment, retribution and judgment than anything Joseph, even with the power of Pharaoh (and G"d) behind him, could inflict upon his brothers. Think about it.

Additional Thoughts Added for 5771

The haftarah, too, seems to focus on the "getting even" part. Even wise David could not escape this all too human need for revenge. He even seeks to circumvent a promise he made to not kill someone who had wronged him by obliging Solomon to do the dirty work in his stead, after he is dead. Not a great example. Fortunately, the rabbis came along and determined that one can't escape one's sins by delegating them to others to carry out after their deaths. As often as I complain about much of what the rabbis did and said, they had some home runs when it came to dealing with some of the unfortunately bad lessons in our sacred texts. (Unfortunately, they also had some really bad strike outs!)
In terms of our current situation, perhaps there are lessons to be learned from Joseph's magnanimity. This is perhaps no place truer than when it comes to making peace for Israel and the Middle East. As hard as it is to forgive and forget, medinat Israel is in a place somewhat akin to Joseph's position at the time he was so magnanimous to his brothers. They are a successful democracy with a decent economic situation. They have learned how to weather the perpetual famine of desert lands. They share their wealth with others (albeit for a price, as did Joseph/Egypt.) Yes, like Joseph, their position was always precarious - Joseph, never safe from Pharaoh's whim should he displease him; Israel surrounded by often hostile forces that seek to wreak havoc, create terror. Yet the path to peace in the middle east may require Israel to act like Joseph, and look beyond the wrongs of the past to the future that lays ahead.
Here in the U.S.A. we would also do well to learn from Joseph. As political parties wrest power from each other, they too often seek their revenge. It is time to put that all behind, and work for a better future.
This lesson also works right here in our own fragmented and divided Jewish community.
Let us dedicate this Shabbat and henceforth to being forgiving and magnanimous, in the same way as Joseph. Future generations will thank us.

Hazak Hazak v'nitkhazek.

Shabbat Shalom,

©1998, 2010  by Adrian A. Durlester

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Friday, December 10, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Vayiggash 5771-Being Both Israels

At the very end of this week’s parasha, Vayiggash, is a fascinating verse:

47:27 Thus Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly.

A look at the Hebrew of this verse reveals the fact that the first verbal clause, “vayeishev Yisrael” is in the singular – Israel settled. The three remaining verbs in the sentence, “vayei-akhazu” “vayipru” and “vayirbu” are all in the plural-thus the translation “they” for the remaining verbal clauses.

Scholars and sages tell us this is quite deliberate, and their explanation makes sense. The pasuk (sentence) marks the point at which the concept of Israel as a people, a nation, firmly takes hold. Israel has become an eponym.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines an eponym as "one who gives, or is supposed to give, his name to a people, place, or institution."

Well-known eponyms include words like sandwich, Braille, Frisbee, and leotard. It’s funny that when you look up eponyms you rarely find the word Israel included in the list of famous eponyms. That strikes me as a bit odd. In fact, on the Wikipedia list of eponyms, there is the somewhat cryptic entry “Jacob-Israel.”

There is no doubt in my mind that the biblical Israel (Yisrael) is the eponym for the term “Israelites” and “Israel” in all their various meanings-a people, a faith, a nation, etc. Yet I believe the reason Israel is not generally seen as eponymic is because it has undergone a different sort of transformation from the particularistic name of the biblical Jacob. Israel has become a generic brand name.

What does it mean to become a generic brand name? Let’s start with the inherent contradiction in the term-after all, that’s such a Jewish way of looking at things. How can something be both a brand and generic at the same time? We don’t even have a good word in English to classify names like Kleenex, Xerox, Coke, Astro-Turf that have come to represent their entire product class. Household name doesn’t quite fit-that really describes a well-known product or service. There are also plenty of eponyms that fit into this class, but, because they are derived from a specific person’s name, they are, indeed, eponyms, and don’t fall into the un-named class of words. In some ways, Israel has become such a word.

In our modern society, becoming a generic brand name (or, for that matter, an eponym) can be positive or negative. The positive is that it demonstrates the success of a brand. Only an overwhelmingly successful product becomes a generic name for its product class. At the same time, the negative is that becoming a generic term can lead to less brand-name recognition and less sales. While I can’t yet think of a brand that became a generic term for its product class, but the original brand name product is no longer around while the rest of its product class remains, I am sure there are (or will be) examples. The negative impact of becoming a generic brand name isn’t clear cut – Coke, Xerox, Kleenex, and Astro-Turf are still around and still successful.

So what does it mean that “Israel” (and “Israelite”) has become a generic brand name? Well, for one thing, it means that people often have a hard time distinguishing what the word represents. Is it the nation Israel, the State of Israel, the people of the State of Israel, Jewish people in general?

Taking it in its broadest context, as referring to all of the Jewish people, i.e. “Israel” as we often refer to ourselves instead of as “The Jewish people” or “Jews,” we have a significant problem. How can one generic term represents such a diverse group of people?

While it’s great that we can all think of ourselves as “Israel” or “the Jewish people” the reality is different for those who are not Jews.  True, while there aren’t many people who call us “Israel” or “Israelites” any more, we can think of the word “Jew” or “Jewish people” as successors to those names. Those words, as broad generic descriptors, are fraught with peril. They often become stereotypes. People outside the Jewish community often don’t see or know of the broad diversity of belief and praxis with the community. Yet this is not always the case with eponyms and generic names.

Let’s take an eponymic example. A sandwich is basically anything that is between two (or more) pieces of bread. We all pretty much understand that, within the broad category of sandwich, there are many different types and styles (and preferences.) On the other hand, there’s not much difference between one company’s version of Kleenex and another’s. The companies would have us believe there are great differences-in value, quality, etc. Yet, in the end, a Kleenex is a Kleenex, a tissue is a tissue. The same basic product design, same basic uses. Can the same be said about (Am) Israel or the Jews?

My answer to that is no. Even in ancient times, I think we can find evidence of a wide variance of belief and practice. Perhaps less varied than today, but still varied. So Israel really never has been truly generic. It has always come in a variety of flavors.

I say thank goodness for that. It allows us all to be Israel. Like Israel’s sons, we are all different. Differentiate them as you will, they were all still sons of Israel. All part of the same “brand.” (Even companies like Xerox diversify, so why not Israel?)

That is one counter, one secret to the problems of becoming a generic brand name. Continue working to make your own original brand name unique – by branching out, broadening your product line.

Psst. Hey. Wanna buy some Israel? We got something for everyone. (Of late I’ve read some articles and blog postings that decry how far we’ve gone to be diverse. I myself do believe there is some truth to the adage that is you try to be all things to all people, you end up being nothing. Yet I do not believe that Judaism has gone that far, that we have truly tried to be all things to all people. We still have our boundaries, our borders. I do believe that we need to keep exploring those liminal areas, and see how far we can push then edges. At the same time, we must not lose site of what is at the core. That is, I suppose, when we know we have gone too far-when you can’t see the core from where you are. Some claim this has already happened, but I do not believe this to be true. Our Jewish core, with all its faults and problems, is strong enough to withstand even more exploration to see how far we can journey without losing our connection to it.

One thing that distinguished the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob-Israel is their understanding in the “portability” of G”d. G”d could be in many places. To quote a popular Jewish theology: “Where is G”d? Wherever you let G”d in.” With that kind of G”d, with that kind of core, how could we possibly exceed a distance limit? The core comes with us, as we travel along our way. We need only invite it along. We need only take it along with us – just like we do with our Kleenex.

There is one other aspect to all this I want to mention. It is the other end of things-the source where it all started. Jacob, also named Israel. Although Israel has become one with the community, we still know of Jacob-Israel the human being-fraught with imperfections as well as good qualities. So when we think of ourselves as the generic brand name or the eponym Israel, we should also remember that each of us is, in our own way, the original Israel. We shape our lives, we shape our faiths, we intersect with the lives of others, we become part of the community. Yet through it all we remain who we are at our own cores.

So let us celebrate our generic brand-ness. Let us celebrate our uniqueness. Let us celebrate being Israel. Both Israels.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

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Friday, December 3, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Miketz 5771- What’s Bothering…Me

I’m no Rashi, that’s for sure. So it is with some trepidation that I invoke the “what’s bothering Rashi?” metaphor when I pose the question, “What’s bothering Adrian?”

I wanted to gloss over it, simply toss it off to literary stylings. Yet I kept coming back to it each time I read through the parasha. Each time I read the parasha, I would try to just read right through, but it kept haunting me, niggling at me.

I checked to see if it bothered Rashi, but it didn’t. So here’s what is bothering Adrian.

43:15 So the men took that gift, and they took with them double the money, as well as Benjamin. They made their way down to Egypt where they presented themselves to Joseph.

Why does this verse, and seemingly this verse along, refer to Joseph’s brothers as “the men,” in Hebrew “ha-anashim.” The verse could just  have easily been written “So the brothers took that gift…”

Elsewhere in this part of the story they are are referred to as sons, brothers, and assorted pronouns. Only in this one verse are they called “the men.” (While in v. 42:19 Joseph says “If you are honest men..” but the Hebrew does not say this directly, and does not contain the word anashim.

What is the Torah telling us here? Is there something about what has just transpired? When the brothers first returned home and told Jacob that Simeon was being held, and that they were to bring Benjamin with them to secure his release (and more food,) Jacob resisted. Reuben was unable to persuade him even though he offered the lives of his own sons to insure Benjamin’s safety.

No, Jacob decided to be pouty. Only after they had exhausted the rations brought from Egypt did Jacob finally relent. He only relented after once more being pressured by his sons, and in particular, Judah, who offers his own life a surety for Benjamin’s safety.

Ever the “play it safe” type, Jacob insists they return bearing many gifts, plus double the money that was mysteriously returned to them. He resigns himself to the potential loss of Benjamin. (I notice, btw, that no mention is made of poor Simeon, whom Jacob seems to be assuming is lost. Even the brothers make no argument about returning for Simeon’s sake.

It is after this that the Torah refers to Jacob’s sons/Joseph’s brothers as “the men.”

I don’t particularly see that the brothers have done anything particularly positive enough to be now thought of as “men.” They haven’t shown any concern for Simeon. They didn’t keep badgering their father the whole time for them to go back to Egypt.

In fact, I wouldn’t say that anyone here really “manned up.” Yeah, credit is due both Reuben and Judah for attempting to assure Jacob that Benjamin would be safe if he went with them back to Egypt.

So perhaps there’s another reason the brothers are now referred to as “the men.” Perhaps it is because they are now simply doing what any man would do when faced with starvation. There was nothing noble about it. No great heroics to rescue their brother Simeon. They were carrying bribes and their younger brother.-concessions to reality. Perhaps they became just “the men” at this point because these progenitors of the tribes of Israel were nobody special-doing nothing to illustrate their distinct heritage and their families covenant with the Divine. They were just hungry men.

When they return to Egypt, Simeon is returned to them-yet there’s no mention in the text about a teary reunion. Just the simple fact: “and he brought out Simeon to them.” (43:23)

Maybe they were just “the men” because it never even occurred to them that G”d was showing them favor by restoring their money to their bags. It’s at least likely that, in similar circumstances, their brother Joseph might have attributed that circumstance to G”d rather than seeing it as some problematic incident done to make trouble for them. Yes, the brothers see (the unknown to them) Joseph’s treatment of them-his suspicion of them as spies, his insistence they bring Benjamin, that they leave Simeon as a hostage – as payback for what they did do Joseph lo those many years ago. But remember this is before they realize they are dealing with Joseph.

Joseph seems to have kept (to some degree) his faith in G”d. His brothers don’t seem to think of G”d much at all. The best we get is Jacob asking El Shaddai to dispose the Egyptian vizier (i.e. Joseph) to treat his sons favorably. The brothers don’t offer any prayers – of thanks or petition or praise!

All of these are perhaps reasons they are just referred to here as “the men.” Yet I find this all somewhat unsatisfying, incomplete. This is a problem I suspect I am going to be wrestling with for some time. I’d welcome your thoughts on the matter. Together, perhaps we can add up to at least part of a Rashi, and discover “what’s troubling us.”

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Urim Sameakh,

©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

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Friday, November 26, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Vayeishev 5771-Ma T’vakeish?

I don’t always remember what I have written about for a given parasha, so it always behooves me to look over prior years’ musings before I undertake the task of assembling a new one.  I suppose it should not surprise me that I can have an interesting new insight without realizing I may have had that same insight before. It also sometimes happens that I have an insight that contradicts a previous one.

So this week, as I was reading the parasha, I kept coming back to the same place – the mysterious man who encounters Yosef in the field and tells him that his brothers have left the area and gone to Dothan. I found myself all excited at the idea of discussing how this one chance (?) encounter turned the tide of a story. I was excited to discuss the potential nature of the encounter as either random chance, or Divine guidance, or perhaps both or none of the above.

I found myself thinking about all those chance encounters we have in our lives, and how sometimes they really do lead us into different paths and experiences. I know I have experienced such moments-times when people, both strangers and friends, have told me or showed me something which, when I look back at them, did change the course of my life-sometimes in small ways, and sometimes in very big ways. I found myself thinking about how we ought to be open to those moments, and grateful for them as well.

Then I read my musing on parashat Vayeishev for 5766 – Who Was That Guy. In reading it, I realize that the insight I had for that musing was, in many ways, far deeper and more meaningful than the one I was having now. So, while I still commend to you the idea of being aware of the potential for the significant effects of seemingly insignificant situations, I commend to you even more the lesson I drew from these verses 5 years earlier. For when I ask myself the question that this previous musing commends us to ask, I recognize those earlier words as being more of an answer to that question than my thoughts at this time. Ma t’vakeish?

Random Musings Before Shabbat - Vayeishev 5766

Who Was That Guy?

So Yaakov/Israel gives his favorite son Yosef this really cool coat. (We've been over the bad parenting technique thing before, so we'll skip that.) Yosef then proceeds to further alienate his brothers by describing these dreams in which they all bow down to him. Even Yaakov/Israel is a little put off when Yosef's second dream also includes his parents bowing down to him along with the brothers. And, as the text tells us, Yaakov "shamar et hadavar" - he remembered this thing, he kept it in mind.

And the next thing you know, he's sending Yosef out to check on his brothers who are out pasturing the flock. Can't help but wonder if there's a connection with the previous verse.  Was Yaakov hoping to see Yosef get a little comeuppance from his brothers? Was it all a set up? All interesting things to explore, but again, I'm going somewhere else today.

So Yosef reaches the fields near Shechem and before he even has a chance to discover that his brothers aren't around, "Vayimtza'eihu ish, v'hinei to'eh b'sadeh, vayyishaleihu ha-ish leimor mah-t'vakeish." "a man came upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him 'what are you seeking?' "

Yosef respond that he is looking for his brother, and wonders if the man knows where they are. The man answers that they brothers have gone from this place but he heard them talk about going to Dothan. And so Yosef heads to Dothan, where his brothers spy him coming, and proceed to throw him in a pit. And he gets sold. And he winds up in Egypt. And he serves Potiphar. And he won't dally with Mrs.. Potiphar, so she screams "rape" and Yosef is put in prison. G"d favors Yosef even in prison and he manages to thrive. He correctly interprets the dreams of the cupbearer and the baker. Yadda, yadda, yadda. And we wind up in Egypt and we get freed from Egypt and get the Torah and yadda, yadda, yadda.

All on account of this one man.  Possibly. Yosef, having not found his brothers, could have given up and gone home. Then again, knowing as we do that all of this was part of G"d's divine plan, when G"d was yet again thwarted by this free will thing, I doubt G"d would have given up, and still somehow have managed to make the whole darn series of events happen. So, while some rabbis and scholars like to think of this man, this ish, as crucial to the story, suggesting perhaps the man is an angel or other divine messenger/steward, he might no be so essential to the story--it just might have turned out a little different. Would the butterfly effect have ensued? How different would Judaism be today as a result? Hard to predict or even know. And if it really all was part of some grand design, G"d could have tweaked things as necessary.

No, his being essential to the story is not what matters to me, or what intrigues me. What has me thinking are those simple words he said to Yosef- "mah t'vakeish?" What are you looking for? Seeking? Searching for? He could have said "Whom are you seeking?" but no, he said "what." What are you looking for, searching for, seeking?

And is that not the essential question that all spiritual seekers must ultimately confront? If this ish, this man, is truly some sort of angel or divine messenger, then might not this question be of greater import than it might appear in the context of the story?  It is said that we should take the entire Torah as context. This being so, perhaps these is the most significant two words in all of the Torah. Can we even begin to unravel the meanings of all the rest of the Torah until we know what it is that we are looking for?

Of that I am not certain, for sometimes the true learning form Torah comes from the serendipitous, or in those moments when we shed our preconceptions, our desire to know what it is we are seeking and allow ourselves to be led down another path that might eventually alter the answer to that very question.

Talk about the power of words. Two little words. Mah-t'vakeish. I could easily spend the rest of my life thinking about them. I know they will occupy my Shabbat, and perhaps yours as well.


Shabbat Shalom,


©2010, portions ©2005 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, November 19, 2010

Random Musings Before Shabbat-Vayishlakh 5771 (Redux 5763) – The Bigger Man

Who is the bigger man-Ya'akov or Esav? It's an interesting question. I
have argued on occasion, even recently, that Esav deserves credit for not pursuing his brother to kill him, and for attempting to please his parents by taking additional wives from among his own kinsfolk.

And now, here in Vayishlakh, we see Esav being quite reasonable,
courteous, even loving to his brother, Ya'akov-that same brother who had stolen his birthright and his blessing in a dishonorable manner.

Yet, I believe there is a notable distinction between Esav's form of
t'shuva and Ya'akov's form of t'shuva.

Ya'akov has had two recent encounters with G"d, one in his dream of a sulam (ladder) and his late-night wrestling match. Ya'akov now has a rather keen awareness of G"d. Ya'akov is not the same man who once said to G"d "if you protect and see my safely on my journey, then you will be my G"d." He is now the man Israel/Ya'akov, who has had intimate interactions with G"d.

He's still a little afraid and worried about what Esav might do to him,
so Ya'akov's faith in G"d is by no mean's perfect. Yet G"d is surely part of Ya'akov's life now. Even so, Ya'akov does his better to butter up Esav with gifts and a show of force.

In classic fashion, Esav at first politely refuses Ya'akov's gifts.
"Yesh li rav akhi," he says. "I have much, my brother." "Y'hi lekha
asher-lakh." "Let what is yours be yours."

Now let's examine the exchange a few verses earlier. Esav asks Ya'akov who the women and children accompanying him are. Ya'akov answers "hayeladim asher-khanan Elokim et-avdekha." "The children with whom G"d has graced your servant."

After their encounter, Ya'akov goes on to erect an altar to G"d in
Shechem. Yet, strangely absent from any of Esav's comments are any
reference to G"d. Esav seems content that he has gotten wealthy and a good life. Yet Esav does not seem to recognize the source of this.

Esav has come to terms with the realities of his life, has grown fat and prosperous, yet seems to not include G"d in the equation. So, in a secular humanistic sort of way, we can praise Esav for being a big man, for not taking revenge on his brother, and welcoming him back with some warmth. Not really all that much of a transformation then, is it? Esav just seems to have acted reasonably, and not out of any deep convictions or faith. Not much different from how Esav acted in his youth. He was, after all, the eldest son of a man blessed by G"d, part of a lineage that G"d had promised to make successful and long-lived. Yet Esav seems to have done little to even try to play that part.

Now, in his youth, Ya'akov wasn't much better. He was deceitful. He
played "you scratch my back I'll scratch yours" with G"d. Now, however, G"d seems to be a part of Ya'akov's life. And Ya'akov is acknowledging G"d, the G"d he recognized as being in the place where he dreamed of the ladder. The G"d he recognizes as being part of who he is and his successes.

Ya'akov isn't perfect. And his relationship with G"d, his faith in G"d is
not perfect either. We can surely infer this from the way in which his
two names Ya'akov and Yisrael continue to both be used in the text. And from his wrist-slapping of his sons for what they do to the good people of Shechem in defending the "honor" of their sister Dinah-for his concern more with his own public image than with the deed they had done. (Not so surprising from the man who followed his mother's instructions to cheat his brother.)

Yet, for the rest of his life, we clearly see that G"d is part of that
life. Surely then, it must have been richer (and yet, perhaps, more
puzzling and disconcerting) than the life of Esav.

Work hard, live good, let bygones be bygones seems to be Esav's
philosophy. Not a bad way to live, and probably some improvement on his younger days (he did, after all, threaten to kill Ya'akov. He didn't carry out the threat, but just making it wasn't such a great thing to do.)

Make mistakes, try to do better, and always remember G"d is in your life seems to be Ya'akov's philosophy. I'll vote for the latter.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2002, 2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, November 12, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Vayeitzei 5771 Luz is No Loser

The Torah is replete with many geographical references, and place names are often featured prominently. Places are often named in response to events which have taken place there or which have been significant for characters in the Torah. Also, just as people's names are changed at significant life junctures, place names are often changed in similar circumstances. In some cases, the Torah makes a point of noting the former name of a newly or renamed place, and sometimes a named place is also described as another name by which that place is (now) known.

Scholars and academics often point to these as proof texts for human authorship, editing, redaction and other evidences of anachronisms and odd features. They may very well be such.
Many of these place name change situations and updated geographical references are easily explained by these sorts of theories. Yet sometimes Torah gives us a geographical reference that has us scratching our heads.

We have such a reference in this week's parasha.

Yaakov (Jacob) stops at a "certain place" to rest for the night, and has his dream of angels and G"d speaking to him. He makes the famous declaration

"akheyn yeish Ad"nai bamakom hazeh v'anokhi lo yadati" - "surely G"d was in this place and I, I did not know it."

He erects a pillar, anoints it with oil, and then names the place Beit-El (Bethel) or "House/abode of G"d." Curiously, the Torah then goes on to relate that the place had been known as "Luz."

Not to be flippant but who cares that the place used to be called Luz? What's significant is what took place in this place for Yaakov, and the name he chose to give it as a result. It's not like it matters on iota what the place used to be called. Or does it?

Scholars of Torah, always striving to solve the Torah's mysteries have certainly attempted to explain what significance the former place name of Bethel had. Some scholars believe it means "almond tree" and others believe it may be related to an Arabic word meaning "a place of refuge." The latter certainly would seem to have some connection to the story, the former not at all.

It's also interesting to note that the dual naming of Bethel fka Luz occurs in a number of subsequent places in the Torah, most notably when Yaakov returns to Bethel after his time and trials with Laban.

So why does the Torah keep drawing our attention to the fact that the place Yaakov named Beit-El was also known as Luz? What's so important about that?

Perhaps there is nothing at all significant about this, and it is simply an oddity. If we attribute the Torah to Divine origin, we need only toss this oddity off on the ineffability of G"d. If we believe the Torah is of human origin (with or without Divine influence) then we have to ask many questions: is this the way the text originally read, or was the inclusion of the reference to Bethel as formerly being Luz added? If it was added, then why was it added? If the reference to Luz is original to the text, why did subsequent editors or redactors choose to keep what was likely an obsolete reference in their own time? (There is another place named Luz in the Bible, but it is in the north, and the reference is much later than the assumed dating of the stories in Genesis.) If the reference is original to the text, we could explain that it was not changed or removed simply because of the desire to remain faithful to the original. However, this flies in the face of so many other places in the Torah where the redactors clearly chose to make some textual modifications.

There are no simple answers. I do, however, have a theory. It is not a theory about why Bethel is cited as being the former place called Luz. Rather, it is a theory about what we can learn from this. We don't know what Luz means, if it means anything. It is simply a place name. Bethel (or Beit-El) is a place name which has clear meaning for us. Luz was an ordinary place, nothing special about it - or so one might assume. However, Yaakov's experience proves this thinking wrong. Luz was a special place. G"d was in the place and Yaakov (and likely everyone else there) did not know it.

It's somewhat like the several variations of stories in our tradition which teach us that "anyone of us could be the Moshiakh" (Messiah.) Any seemingly ordinary person could prove to be someone extraordinary. The same is true for places. Places that we assume have no intrinsic value or nothing that makes them special may indeed be endowed with all sorts of holiness and specialness.

Through its constant pairing of the names Bethel and Luz, the Torah is reminding us that there is always potential for greatness and holiness in the seemingly most mundane and ordinary of places.  It's like the Torah is telling us "remember Luz-we thought it was Yemensville but it turned out to be a place where G"d lived."
It's like Torah reminding us that G"d can be found anywhere - everywhere. G"d may be right under our noses. Think of the things you discover about a place when you really take the time to take a good look at it. Think about the everyday miracles we miss in our constant search for the big miracles. Think about the potential that surrounds us all, every day, in every place. Sanctuary or school, bimah or bedroom. Urban or rural. Think how different our lives could be with the attitude that every Luz we encounter is also a Bethel.

What better way to reinforce Yaakov's very words:

akheyn yeish Ad"nai bamakom hazek v'anokhi lo yadati.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, November 5, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Tol'dot 5771 - Keeping the Bathwater

Throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It's a well-worn idiom. We see far too many examples of it in practice. We certainly see examples of it in Torah. We may have to stretch a bit to make the idiom fit, but in this week's parasha, we have the example of Esau throwing out the baby - his birthright to assuage his fierce hunger which could be thought of as the bathwater. In the haftarah for Makhar Hodesh which we read this Shabbat, King Saul throws out the baby (literally, his son Jonathan) for the bathwater of trying to protect his own son's future kingship from being usurped by David.

We can extend the idiom. Perhaps Rivka (Rebekkah) throws out the baby (literally her son Esau) in her effort to assure a better future for her favored son, Yaakov (Jacob.) Or we can look at it another way - in seeking to assure her favored son his father's blessing, she exhorts him to deceit. In a way, that is throwing out the baby of ethical behavior with the bathwater, her son Esau, who has displeased her by marrying out of the tribe.

While none of these are clear cut examples of the idiom of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, they're close enough to allow me to go where I really want to go in this musing today. In recent days, I came across use of the throwing out the baby with the bathwater idiom in a  number of places, and in a number of different Jewish contexts. In fact, I think it's an oft-cited idiom when it comes to discussions and debates about Judaism.

For liberal Judaism, and in particular Reform Judaism, there has been a realization that in the effort to liberalize and reconcile Judaism with modern knowledge and practice we may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. This has precipitated a renewed interest in traditions and practices once considered quaint, pointless, meaningless, and not in keeping with modern realities. I make no secret of my belief that this is a good thing.

Nevertheless, every time I encountered this idiom in the past few days, something was niggling at me. My feelings as to what was bothering me were crystallized by the mere random chance of seeing a tweet on Twitter that contained a quote from the Dalai Lama that appeared in Roger Kamenetz's "The Jew in the Lotus."

"Could we make Judaism more beneficial instead of asking Jews to just hold on out of guilt?"

The Dalai Lama's question really resonated with me. I also sensed this vague connection with the  baby/bathwater idiom. On a whim, I decided to look up "throw out the baby with the bathwater" on Wikipedia. Initially, it explained the idiom as most of us understand it:

an avoidable error in which something good is eliminated when trying to get rid of something bad,[1] or in other words, rejecting the essential along with the inessential.[2] (

However, it went on.
A slightly different explanation suggests that this flexible catchphrase has to do with discarding the essential while retaining the superfluous because of excessive zeal.[3] In other words, the idiom is applicable not only when it's a matter of throwing out the baby with the bath water, but also when someone might throw out the baby and keep the bath water.[4] (ibid)

Aha! There's what I was feeling and sensing. I think both traditional and liberal Judaism are equally guilty of this meaning of the idiom (as well as the usual meaning.) As a liberal Jew, I can certainly see how, from my perspective, traditional Judaism, in its narrow focus on jot and tittle rather than essence, has kept the bathwater and thrown out the baby. At the same time, I can also clearly see how liberal Judaism can hold on to its own bathwater (witness congregations where the wearing of a kippah is still banned or frowned upon.) In fact, I see examples of people, groups, religions, etc. holding on to bathwater having thrown out the baby throughout our world. Is that what happened this past election day? Or is that what a majority of voters think the administration has done? It all depends on your perspective, doesn't it?

It's all a matter of perspective of course. Which is the baby? Which is the bathwater? The practice of hakafah is an interesting case in point. Is it essence, or external trapping? Is it due kavod to Torah, or is it, as some suggest, actually idol worship? Is it baby or bathwater? Or both? Or neither?

In musing on this, I come to a somewhat uncomfortable conclusion. It may not be possible to clearly define essential and superfluous when applying this idiom to Judaism. Distinguishing between baby and bathwater seems rather clear cut. When baby and bathwater become metaphors, it's not so simple.

So it is with Torah. It's easy for us to deride Esau for his actions. It's easy for us to be horrified at the ethical lapses of Rivkah and Yaakov (not to mention Yitzkhak's probable tacit complicity.) Saul becomes an easy man to dislike. Each of them may be thought of as having thrown out the baby with the bathwater. From my perspective, traditioanl Judaism seems to have held on to a lot of bathwater and discarded at least some of the baby. Yet we need to be cautious here. What better place to find a way to urge this caution than in another idiom, the one about not judging someone until we've walked in their shoes (or worn their skin, etc.)

Shabbat Shalom,

©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, October 29, 2010

Random Musings Before Shabbat - Hayyei Sarah 5771 - The Book That Isn't - Yet

[Many of my readers know that for years I have wanted to write a book telling the story of what happened after the akedah. It's my theory (though not original to me or others) that Isaac went to live with Ishmael and Hagar. In order to once again spur me into thinking about actually writing this book, I composed this short piece in the spirit of what I hope to write someday. Work in progress. Feedback welcome. - Adrian]

"Yitkhak, sit down. I have some bad news." She gestured fo her son to go sit beside Yitzkhak. "I just heard that your mother, Sarah, is dead."

Yitkhak out his head in his hands and began to weep, slowly, and quietly.

"G"d knows, Yitzkhak, there's no love lost between your mother and me. Still, I guess she did what she felt she had to do when she had me and Ish thrown out of the household to fend for ourselves. May she rest in peace with her ancestors. You should go to your father, Yitzkhak, and comfort him and mourn your mother."

"No!" Yitzkhak quickly stood and started towards the entrance of the tent. "I will not go. You are my family now."

"My brother," said Ishmael, "do not be rash and hasty in making your choices."

"What do you know of my pain, dear brother?"

Wounded and surprised by the harshness of Yitzkhak's words, Ishmael replied "I know you speak in pain, brother, but mother and I have surely known our share of pain at the hands of your father and mother."

"Father didn't try and kill you! And I'm sure if he had tried, your mother would have tried to stop him. What did my mother do? Nothing. And that's what I owe both of them. Nothing."

"You have a destiny, Yitzkhak. Your father is beloved of El. El has promised to make great nations of you and your brother. It is a legacy and an obligation you cannot escape, try as you may."

"I want nothing to do with El. He asked for my blood as a sacrifice. Even if it was just a test - or so they claim. I'm still not so certain of that. If my legacy is to father a great nation, then I do not want them to be devoted to such a bloody god like El. I will find another god to worship."

"It may not be as easy as you think, my brother, to escape your father's covenant with El."

"What has El ever done for me?"

"What about me?" said Hagar. Has not El provided for me and Ishmael? Has he not made me prosperous enough to be able to take you in as part of our household? El spoke to me. I cannot so easily forsake a god that has deigned to speak directly to me, and who has provided for me and my son. Even if your love for your parents has diminished, If you love me, Yitzkhak, then you must love El as well."

"You have been like mother and father to me, dear Hagar. I owe much to you. I do not owe much to my father, my mother, of El."

"You see and feel only what is here, now, Yitzkhak. You must broaden your viewpoint. If you do not mourn your mother now, you may regret it. And your father, whatever anger you feel at him, is still your father - and Ishmael's father as well. You do owe him, as his son, to comfort him, and maybe even to seek his comfort."

"Abraham is as likely to offer me up on the altar to assuage him pain as the loss of my mother as he is to embrace me and mourn with me. No, I will not go. Now leave me to mourn in my own way."

"As you wish, brother."


"Come, mother, let's leave him to work things out for himself."

Shabbat Shalom,
©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, October 22, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Vayera 5771 - Density

The Torah is a rich treasure, with both surfaces and deep depths to be mined. Our tradition asks us to reconsider the entire Torah on a regular cycle. Some of us divide it up so that it takes 3 years to actually encounter every bit of text, others do it annually. Even divided as it is into parshiyot, there's a lot of material to consider (which is one reason why some follow a triennial reading cycle.)

Although Torah tells us that we can and ought to be all equally scholars of the text, it's unlikely that this has ever been the case throughout our history. Oh, I'd like to believe that in older times more Jews were more familiar with the Torah (and perhaps, to some extent, that is true in some periods of time) if I had to hazard a guess, I'd say that even in ancient times, those with truly deep knowledge of the Torah were a small subset of the Jewish people.

Part of the reason for that is our tradition has always striven to be practical and relatively friendly to the quotidian. It recognizes that we all have roles to play, tasks to do, families to feed, etc. We're taught that if we're planting a tree and Mosiakh appears, we should finish planting the tree. This can be read as much as advice to do the things we need to do to live as it a lesson in the importance of caring for our planet.

Thus, for probably all of our history, we've had to rely on the efforts of a few to distill down the essence of what the Torah says for us. It is, in some ways, an unfortunate situation. There are still those among us who value study of Torah above all else, even worldly activities, but they are still only a small subset. In addition, such communities tend to be insular and self-reinforcing. It's that much easier to devote all your time to Torah study if you live in a community where that is normative (and in a community where your wife and family and the rest of the community take care of things so you can devote yourself entirely to the study of Torah.)  In the more liberal and progressive communities, this is far less so. Now don't get me wrong. Despite some claims of those in the more traditional Jewish community, there are great scholars in the progressive community as well-some of them who may very well be on a par with traditional scholars and poskim. And yes, it is true that recent times have seen somewhat of a resurgence in more serious interest in Torah study in the progressive Jewish community.

Nevertheless, we tend to rely on others to distill things down for us. Let me tell you, it is a daunting task. I'm no great scholar, and my small efforts pale before those who are far more learned than I. Yet, heeding what the Torah tells us - "lo bashamayim hi..." I make my own good faith effort to mine the Torah for its nuggets, to question and probe the text, and suggest possible understandings of it.

I bring this up because parashat Vayera is particularly dense. It contain enough material to be covered over several parshiyot. (Now, I will confess that the same could be said of almost all of the Torah, and the weekly parshiyot-they are all crammed with too much. Yet something about Vayera makes it seem significantly dense.
Look at all that is covered. The visitation and annunciation (if you'll forgive the theological terms borrowed from Xtianity) to Abraham that he and Sarah will have a child of their own despite their advanced age. G"d debating whether or not to tell Abraham about G"d's plans to deal with the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham's bargaining with G"d to spare Sodom and Gomorrah is at least 10 righteous can be found there. The travails of the heavenly visitors, Lot and his family. Lot's daughter impregnating themselves by their father. Abraham once again portraying Sarah as his sister, and causing trouble (this time for Avimelekh, rather than Pharaoh.) The birth of Isaac. The pushing out of Hagar and Ishmael, and the annunciation to Hagar. The settlement between Abraham and Avimelekh. The Akedah (Binding of Issac.) The genealogy of Abraham's relatives (that conveniently provides us with Rivkah.)

The Akedah alone is fodder to last a lifetime. Yes, one can pick and choose to focus on one particular story in this parasha, and save other stories for other times. I myself have done so, often.  Yet this year, I was so overwhelemed with the sheer density of all that this parasha contains that I find myself at a loss to pick something on which to focus. Oh sure, some things jumped out at me. Like how the Torah has G"d lying to Abraham about what Sarah said when she laughed upon hearing the news she would become pregnant. She spoke with laughter of having enjoyment from her old husband. G"d, in speaking to Abraham, spares Abraham's feelings by turning the truth around and saying that Sarah laughed saying it was because she was so old. Gosh, I could probably rant for hours on this. We all know that the Torah does not command us to not tell a lie. We know that there is proof text in the Torah for using "white lies" and this text is one of them. Yet this examples involves G"d directly. G"d lies. This means that G"d is capable of lying. Can we really trust a G"d that we know can and has lied to human beings? There's a question that ought to occupy your time and mine for a while.

There's the repetition of the "Sarah is my sister" story, only with a very different bent this time. G"d actually speaks with Avimelekh, explaining the situation, and giving Avimelekh the chance to set things right.

There's the "what happened to Issac after the Akedah" question. (Most of my readers know my theory-he went off to live with Hagar and Ishmael. I still intend to write that book someday.) There's the "did Sarah know what was going on?" question.

There's the mysterious incident of the settling up between Abraham and Avimelekh. Boy, is there subtext galore here to explore especially regarding social and other customs of the time.. (We'll get even more of that next week with the cave purchase.)

Then there's another of my favorite questions. Were there really not 10 righteous people within Sodom and Gomorrah? The text implies that all the citizens of Sodom were prepared to have their way with the visitors, but we have only the implication that there were not because they were actually destroyed by G"d. And this right after a piece of text in which G"d had lied to Abraham (albeit to spare his feelings from his wife's insult.) Hmmm.

Was Lot really as besotted as it seems? Was he totally unaware of what was going on? Or did he, like his daughters, believe they were the only ones left and they had to repopulate the earth?

Where does this fire and brimstone idea come from? From what historical experience did that whole idea of fire raining down from heaven come from? A volcanic eruption? And why do part of  this whole sequence really sound like a nuclear weapon? It lacks only the mushroom cloud. (For that matter, what was the "blinding light" that the angels used on the people of Sodom to protect Lot and his family? Why could that be used to protect them, yet later, Lot's wife is turned into a pillar of salt for looking upon it (or is that what really did it to her?)

And so much more. Dense, dense, dense. Packed. Where to start? Where to end? I say just jump in anywhere you like and have at it. No matter what you do, it's going to be too much. So remind yourself that you haven't finished, and come back to this parasha again and examine things you haven't examined before (and don’t forget to re-examine the things you’ve already looked at. Your perspective or understanding might change.

As the Torah tell us, none of us are so dense (in that other sense of the word) that the sheer density of the Torah makes in inaccessible to us. Dive right in.

Shabbat Shalom,
©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, October 15, 2010

Random Musings Before Shabbat - Lekh Lekha 5771 - Things are Seldom What They Seem (An Excerpt from the Journal of Lot) (Redux 5760)


This is not only a favorite of mine, but a favorite of some of you as well. I actually received some requests to share it once again, so here it is:

Random Musings Before Shabbat - Lech Lecha 5760

Things Are Seldom What They Seem

An Excerpt from the "Journal of Lot"

My uncle and I had traveled far. He was a strange man. Claimed one of the gds had spoken to him, told him to pick up and move everything - lock, stock and barrel - to some unknown land. But that's my uncle. Rebellious son of an idol maker. Always trying to be different. Once tried to convince his dad that one of the big idols has smashed all the other idols in the shop. Truth is, uncle Avi had just accidentally knocked an idol off the workbench while playing around in the shop when he wasn't supposed to. Tried to cover it up, but he didn't get away with it. Got my great zayde Terach pretty mad!

I'll tell you something about my uncle - I'll whisper it to you so he can't hear. Come closer so I can whisper it in your ear. OK. My uncle is a fool.

He had it pretty good in Haran. We all did. Not as nice as Ur, but I guess zayde had his reasons. So uncle Avi has a little too much beer, hears voices, and here we are, trudging southward through some pretty strange lands, and we wind up in Canaan. Interesting place, but not all that much to recommend it. But there is this beautiful river valley...but I'm getting ahead of myself. My uncle swears a g"d told him to make the trip... but I think he's just trying to finish the journey that zayde Terach started out on but never quite finished because he ran out of money in Haran.

When we reach Canaan I figure we'll stop for a while, but the wanderlust seems to have taken hold of my uncle, and we get pressing further south. Things weren't too bad though, until food became scare since the rainy season hadn't some when it should have. Guess someone forgot to sacrifice to their gods properly. Anyway, my uncle drags us all off the Egypt, of all places, among those stuck-up snobby Egyptians.

My uncle, he's not too bright, I tell you, and he goes and does a really stupid thing. He tells my Aunt Sarai to pretend to be his sister, because the lousy coward is afraid they'll try and kill him and steal his beautiful wife. I must admit, my Aunt quite a looker. Anyhoo, even those snobby Egyptians couldn't resist my Aunt's good looks, and they carted her off to the palace of the king. He was pretty smitten with her, and began to shower uncle Avi with presents - I suppose trying to convince him to give permission to add my uncle's supposed "sister" to his harem. I didn't do too badly myself while we were in the land of Egypt, and had increased my own flocks and wealth.

I don't know how, but somehow that Egyptian Pharaoh fella figured out Aunt Sarai wasn't who Uncle Avi said she was, so he sent us a-packin'! So back we go, through that lovely desert and on up to Canaan again.

We get to the same place we stopped on the way down. The house of some local gd called El. Seems my herdsman and Uncle Avi's herdsman got to quarreling. Naturally, my brilliant uncle has a plan. He doesn't want us to wind up at each others' throats, being kinsmen and all, so he says how about you go your way and I'll go mine. I thought, sure, why not. Which way do you wanna go - north or south? Then, my uncle, who I remind you is not too swift on the uptake makes me an offer I just can't refuse. You choose, he says, and whichever way you go, I'll go the opposite.

Well, my uncle was either, blind, dumb, stoned or stupid. Surely he could see what I saw. From atop the hill where we were, to the east, was this gorgeous lush river valley-beautiful green fields. We knew what was to the south-desert, and the north was pretty mountainous looking, and the west wasn't all that appealing either. Can't believing my incredible dumb luck, I quick say I'll go east before my uncle gets a chance to change his mind. Poor uncle Avi-doesn't even blink an eye. Fine, he says. You go east, I'll go west. Keep in touch. Yeah, right. Someday Uncle Avi will come crawling to me asking for help. Guess I'll give it to him because he has been pretty nice to me. But oy, what a sucker!

So my uncle and his people head off west, while my troupe heads towards this beautiful valley, where there appeared to be some cool looking cities. Hotcha. They look like real fun places. I like cities. I'm no country boy. My retainers can care for the flocks while I enjoy the pleasures of the cities.

There's on thing though I can't get out of my mind. As we parted, my uncle Avi walked away with the kind of, well, smirk, on his face, as if he knew something I didn't. Maybe he did? Nah. I shrugged it off - he's just loco.


Nobody ever said cities were a safe place. Seems there was a little bit of a local war going on, and I got caught in the middle of it. Believe it or not, my crazy Uncle comes and rescues me. Guess I should be grateful. I've kind of lost track of my Aunt and Uncle since then. They haven't written much. Me and the Missus settled in at Sodom. It was a pretty nice place at first, and nearby was a sister city, Gomorrah, which had an even nicer shuk than Sodom. On weekends, we sometimes hiked it over to shop there - the sales tax was a little lower.

Then things began to change. Slowly. These new people started moving in, and all of sudden, things start going to pot. First the prostitutes come out of the Temples and start doing business on the street. Next thing you know, people are having wild parties with drinking and all sorts of disgusting perversions. I mean, I like a good time as well as the next guy, but this stuff was too much. Men and women doing it in the street. And men with men and women with women, too. Gambling, too. Loud music. Drugs. Beer. Wine. It's starting to get real scary around here. I am starting to have this real bad feeling.

Whoops, gotta go. There's a couple of strangers that I met at the city gate today-nice looking fellas, and I invited them home for dinner. I wouldn't take no for an answer. My parents and my aunt and uncle did teach me good manners. That's for sure. After we finished dinner I thought I do some journaling, but now there's a bunch of people knocking at the door. Guess I'll go see what the hubbub is about.

To be continued...

Shabbat Shalom,


© 1999, 2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, October 8, 2010

Random Musings Before Shabbat-Noakh 5771 (Redux 5765) – A P’shat in the Dark

A favorite from 6 years ago. I hope you enjoy it a second time around. And don't dig any deeper to understand why I'm repeating it, as that's sort of the whole point of this musing anyway. Sometimes that cigar is just a cigar. - Adrian (5771)

Random Musings Before Shabbat-Noakh 5771 (Redux 5765)

A P'shat in the Dark

I hope you'll all forgive the awful pun in the title of this musing.

(In Hebrew, P'shat means "plain" or "simple." In terms of Torah study, it refers to the plain meaning of the text. In traditional Torah study, we refer to the acronym PARDES, which means garden, and is an acronym standing for P'shat the plain meaning of the text; Remez, meaning hint, refers to the implied, the allegorical or metaphorical meaning of the text; D'rash, meaning inquire, interpret, explain--these are interpretations derived from the text but no explicitly present; Sod- meaning secret-in which we find the mystical meaning of the text.)

Anyway, this week I was very struck by the simple meanings of the text in parashat Noach. In particular, I thought about all of the aggadah, midrash, storytelling which often accompanies the stories of Noah, and of the Migdal Bavli (tower of Babel.) Entire full length books, films cartoons, etc. have been made depicting these stories.

Yet what appears in the text is relatively short and lacks many of the things we usually associate with these stories. For example, it never says that G”d struck down the tower, only that in response to what they were doing, confounded their language and scattered the people. Yet who can imagine a telling of the story devoid of the image of man's prideful tower being knocked down by the Divine?

What about the flooding waters? How often do you see things depicted as the text describes it (in keeping with the ancient worldview of mayim-shamayim - the waters below, and the waters above, i.e. the sky) that the "fountains of the great deep burst apart, and the floodgates of the sky broke open" (Gen 7:11.) We usually see lots of rain and water, but I can't recall once seeing the fountains of the deep bursting forth, nor the firmament that kept the waters above broken open.

Though not unusual in written accounts, time is quite compressed as well, with months reduced to single sentences.

Now the Torah practically screams for elucidation, for "aerie persiflage" to flesh out the plain, simple narratives. It has become part of our tradition, with PaRDeS, to seek the meanings beneath the surface.

However, we ignore the plain meanings at our peril. Seeking to interpret, to find deeper, hidden meanings, to fill in the gaps, explain the apparent contradictions, omissions, etc. is a worthy enterprise. Just dressing the text up to make it more interesting--the value of that I'm not so sure of (although, as an educator, I recognize that we sometimes have to liven up the dull stories.)

Still, I wonder if we are missing something by spending most of our time on Remez, Drash and Sod? If, as Torah herself tells us, she is not too difficult to understand. Yet we live in an era when people seeking to fill empty spiritual voids in their lives bypass the basics and head straight for the Kabbalah Center, or delve into Talmud before really knowing Torah. In our rush to dress up the empty places in our lives, might we be overlooking all that we can derive from the simple, plain meanings of the words of Torah?

True, there is lots in Torah that does not appear easy to understand at first attempt. Yet, before delving deeper into the garden of remez, drash and sod, maybe we ought to spend a little more time trying to figure out things at the surface level.

Sometimes, when we simply say "the plain meaning doesn't make any sense" or "the plain meaning offends me and my modern sensibilities" we may be treading down a dangerous and slippery path. The steps from exegesis (drawing out meaning from the text) and eisegesis (inferring meaning into the text) are not so far.

So, next time you come across some plain Torah that doesn't seem to make sense, don't be so quick to delve deeper for meaning. Try a "p'shat in the dark" and see if you can hit the target. The light is always there in the Torah--and it isn't always hidden. Maybe if you just change your angle of view, the shadow will disappear and the text will be illuminated for you in plain, simple fashion.

So go ahead, take a p'shat at it!

Shabbat Shalom,


©2010, 2004 by Adrian A. Durlester

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Death of Common Courtesy?

For almost 18 months now, I have been either under-employed or unemployed. (I’ve previously blogged and complained about the fact that, while synagogues are not required by law to participate in state unemployment systems, they can voluntarily opt-in to those systems-yet few do. Thus unemployed synagogue workers like me can’t get unemployment compensation. But that’s not the focus of this post-though I still feel this, too, is a matter of moral and ethical failing on the part of Jewish religious institutions.)

This time, my complaint is about the apparent lack of common courtesy and standard business ethics on the part of Jewish institutions. In the past year and more, I have sent out many email and letters, to potential employers, many of them via, the free service offered by the good graces of Hillel and JCSA.

Of the dozens, perhaps hundreds of submissions I have made, only two-yes, that’s right – two – potential employers had the common courtesy to 1) acknowledge receipt of my submission 2) follow-up letting me know the position was filled, or they were pursuing other candidates, or whatever.

I’m incredulous. I simply can’t imagine not having the common courtesy to acknowledge the receipt of an application or letter of interest in a position. It’s a lapse of both common and Jewish ethical standards. What is going on here?

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that a person seeking employment from someone should follow-up on their initial submission. That, at least indicates sincerity and interest on the part of the applicant. Nevertheless, I don’t feel this common sense process removes the obligation on the part of an employer to acknowledge the submissions of job applicants, and to let members of the applicant pool know when they have been dropped from consideration.

I’m not talking about unsolicited applications, but applications for listed or advertised positions, and ones for which I felt I could meet the desired experience/skill level, etc.

“We get too many applicants.” “It’s too much of a bother.” “If someone wants a job with us, it’s up to them to follow-up.” That’s certainly a change from standard business practice as I was taught it. Potential employees should be treated just like clients or customers. They deserve the same common courtesies. I’ve written plenty of letters and emails like that to people who had applied for positions for which I was hiring.

It’s not just Jewish institutions. They are plenty of secular businesses that no longer have the common courtesy to acknowledge. (Some larger business have totally automated systems to deal with this. while it’s a bit impersonal, at least it lets me know my submission has been received and whether or not it is still being considered.) So it’s obviously a trend. Yet it seems to me that, as far as religious institutions, there is a particular onus on them to adhere to standards of courtesy and ethics, even when secular society seems to be abandoning them.

There could be technical or process issues involved. Perhaps submissions made through 3rd-party systems (like or come from the company’s email address, and it’s an extra step for employers to then extract the applicants email (or phone) from the submitted information and send them an acknowledgment. Perhaps they simply and automatically reply to the email which goes back to or and never gets seen by the applicant? (If and when I hear back from about the mechanics of this, I will update this post.)

However, a large number of positions listed ask the applicant to email or otherwise contact the employer directly, and not through or The track record of these directly sent applications is no better than the others. In point of fact, only one of the two companies that actually responded was a direct contact.

Maybe I’m all wet about this. Maybe times and standards really have changed, and I’m wrong to expect a company to acknowledge an application for a listed open position. If that’s the case, it’s a sad state of affairs.

Adrian (aka Migdalor Guy)