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)

Friday, October 1, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat-B’reishit 5771-B’reishit Bara Anashim

In a beginning, when human beings first began to try and make sense of their existence – their thoughts on such things being all jumbled and incoherent, with fear of the un-illuminated upon their psyches, and wisps of understanding dangling just beyond comprehension-human beings said “Let their be abstract thought,” and there was abstract thought. Human beings saw that the abstract thought was good, and distanced their abstract thoughts from their fears of the unknown. Human beings called the abstract thought theology, and the un-illuminated they called “things we should try to understand.” And there was practical, and there was theoretical, a first step.

It’s a chicken or egg question for some. Did G”d precede us and create us, or did we create G”d out of our own necessity for understanding? Of course, it need not be so black and white. We have those who adhere to a sort of “2001: A Space Odyssey” big black monolith concept. This begs the question of whether the power behind the monolith is G”d or some alien race out to seed the universe with intelligence.

Is our intelligence what enabled us to create G”d, or did the intelligence that G”d implanted within give us the ability to sense the divinity in the universe?

Does any of it matter?  For biblical fundamentalists, perhaps. For those with the sense to recognize the creation story for the allegory it is, perhaps not.

Is it possible that mere human thought was/is powerful enough to have brought about the creation/existence of G”d? That’s a pretty prideful idea. Yet they are plenty of proponents of variations on the old “Power of Positive Thinking” philosophy, which, in more recent times, has been refashioned as the “Law of attraction.”  By logical extension, if our thoughts are able to influence the universe, then they should be capable of actually creating a G”d.

I’m not sure I can go there (nor am I sure I want to go there.) I need enough mystery in my life to hold open the possibility of some form of Divine force in the universe, but considering what I know of human thought, I certainly wouldn’t want a G”d that was/is fashioned on the basis of those thoughts.

Aha-maybe the Torah is actually a cautionary tale for the foolish notion of humans creating G”d with their thoughts. Look, the Torah says – create a G”d btzelem anashim, and you get a G”d that is petulant, inconsistent, vengeful, militaristic, a lousy parent, and so on. The creation story of G”d creating human beings is perhaps tongue-in-cheek? There’s a radical interpretation.

Stick that in your pipe and smoke it this Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

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