Thursday, July 28, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Masei 5771 - Cause and Effect

Every decision, every choice, has an outcome. Sometimes the consequences are as intended, other times they are not. Sometimes we get unexpected results. Sometimes the effects are only local, other times the effects can be quite distant (and surprising.)

None of us are surprised by this. It's how life works. For some, however, this challenges their understanding of G"d. If G"d is truly omniscient, then no consequence is unforeseen or unknown to G"d. This is one the reasons that many modern theologians embrace the concept of  a limited G"d (whether self-limited or externally by the nature of the universe.) I certainly find it easier to embrace the idea of a deity that is limited. It matters little to me if that limitation is self-imposed by the deity in question, if the deity is actually limited by forces beyond it's control (and no, I don't see that as oxymoronic,) or if, in the act of creating a universe with a specific set of physical laws the deity in effect became self-limited.(You can also extend this to the concept of free-will. By giving creations free-will, is not the deity effectively self-limiting?)

Having thought and written about all this, I was surprised to find myself wrestling with why we have sequel to the Zelophehad's daughters story here in our parasha, dealing with a (perhaps unforeseen) consequence of G"d's original instructions to allow Zelophehad's daughter to inherit. Whoops! Somebody missed the boat at the time on this one. What happens when the daughters then marry into other clans? Theoretically, their inheritances could wind up the property of the clan into which they marry, thus putting a kink into the system, one that even the year of Jubilee would not resolve. So in this parasha the unexpected consequence gets fixed.

The solution, not surprisingly, is somewhat misogynist. Zelophehad's daughters can marry anyone they wish - as long as that person is from a clan of their father's tribe! The girls were obedient and married their cousins (on their father's side.) (I think it is editorial of the JPS to use the words "the sons of their uncles" as the translation from the Hebrew, for, although it is accurate, is doesn't have the impact of saying they married their own cousins. A little whitewashing, perhaps?

In any case, all week long I have been bothered by this. Why wasn't this issue settled from the beginning, at the time G"d (through Moses) decided that the daughters of Zelophehad could inherit from their father? I find it hard to believe that this possible consequence simply escaped the minds of everyone involved, including G"d, Moshe, and just about everyone else! I mean, this is practically a "duh!"

We can play the inscrutable G"d card to explain why G"d decided to deal with this when it came up rather than right away, even though an omniscient G"d would surely have seen that far ahead. We can play the busy or limited G"d card to explain it away. We can rationalize and say that people (even G"d) often play the "we'll cross that bridge when we come to it" game.

I'm just not finding any of those answers satisfactory for now. Being in this mood causes me to question more. What about the request of some tribes to allow to settle on the west side of the Jordan? Surely that was predictable. (In addition, as long as we're going down this rabbit hole, isn't a lot of it predictable - the continual stubbornness and recalcitrance of the Israelites, Korakh's rebellion, the reactions to the reports of the spies, and so on?

Ah, we humans with our need to know, to understand. A blessing and a curse. (How very Jewish.)

As I have said many times before, I see this as Torah's gift. I am glad for a Torah that does not leave me complacent, but instead leaves me perplexed, questioning, sometimes even angry. Thanks, Torah. May your Shabbat be equally relaxing and troubled as mine will be.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Matot-Masei 5770 - Treasure Trove of Trouble
Masei 5768 - Accidents Matter
Matot 5768/5765-Even Moshe Rabbeinu Had to Punt
Matot-Masei 5766 - First Fruit
Matot-Masey 5764-Putting the Kids Before the Kids
Matot--Masey 5763-Over the Top
Matot--Masey 5762--The Rebel's Complaint and Promises, Promises

Friday, July 22, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Matot 5771 – Don’t Become Like…Them

Some years back, I wrote in praise of Moshe’s ability to “punt” in a difficult situation, as he did in dealing with the Gadites, Reubenites and others who asked to settle in the land east of the Jordan which they believed was good land for raising their  flocks. (Their assumption being it was better land than G”d was bringing them to across the Jordan remains a puzzling piece of lack of faith, and no less strange is Moshe’s willingness to give-in to their request with certain conditions.)

As I read and re-read this parasha, I am struck by how unfamiliar I am with this Moses. He is a warrior-leader, calling for his soldiers to be brutal. Not that he had much choice, as it was G”d’s instruction to “avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites” (JPS Numbers 31:1a.) I think a clue as to why this is a somewhat different Moses can be found in the second half of the verse, “then you shall be gathered to your kin.” (JPS, Numbers 31:1b)

What happened to the Moses who responded to G”d “who, me?” Has Moshe been so worn down over the years that he no longer cares to argue with G”d (though later on as he approaches his imminent death Moses does put up a bit of a fuss.)

Has Moses seen so much carnage that he has been numbed by it? He’s certainly seen enough rebelliousness by the Israelites to be numbed by it-and this perhaps helps to explain his conciliatory attitude in dealing with the Gadites and Reubenites.

Let’s face it. You deal with enough crap, you quickly tire of dealing with it. Moshe is definitely wearing thin around the edges.

Frustration and over-exposure to things is dangerous and can lead to all sorts of trouble. Eventually, the way we deal with frustration, impatience, and over-exposure can come back to bite us in the ass.

I may be stretching things a bit to make my point, but I saw something this morning that I think ties in to all this. On my way from the subway station to the public school where we meet the day camp bus each morning, I see lots of parents (or nannies-after all, this is Greenwich Village) escorting children to and fro. Very often, I see them crossing against the light, or in the middle of the block. Now this, in and of itself, is not unusual. New Yorkers do it all the time. However, I think this illustrates how our frustration and impatience lead us into bad habits. As an adult, I certainly engage in the practice of jaywalking. As a latch-key kid (though the term didn’t exist when I was a kid-we were just normal NYC kids who two working parents who walked to and from school on their own each day, and remained at home until the folks returned) I’m sure I could have quickly learned the habit. Yet even today, I am tinged with guilt whenever I jaywalk. The reason: I know my parents would have never let us jaywalk when we were together as a family. They taught us to obey the traffic signals, the walk/don’t walk signs, the crossing guards, etc. To this day friends and others make fun of me for being such a law abiding citizen. I don’t look to cheat on my taxes, I generally don’t find ways to skirt around laws, and when I do, or help others do it, I feel remorse. This is, I believe, as it should be. Does my honesty cost me more, in time, effort, and financially? Sure? Do I resent those who flaunt rules and get away with it? Yes. (I am reminded at this time of seeing many, many church-owned vans driving around New York City-almost all of them with out of state plates despite clearly having names of churches within NYC painted on them. Dina d’malkhuta dina is as applicable for churches as it is synagogues.)

When I moved back to NYC a while back, I dutifully got a NY State driver’s license and registered and titled my car within the 30 day limit. Shortly after, my car was ticketed for failing to have an inspection sticker (by an either ignorant or lazy public servant who either didn’t know that NYS recognizes unexpired out-of-state inspections on vehicles moved into the state for either a year or the expiration of the out-of-state inspection, and also probably didn’t know that Massachusetts inspection stickers are on the passenger side of the windshield, unlike NYS.) I am fighting the ticket of course, but friends and others have ragged me noting the “thanks” I got for being such a dutiful citizen. They suspect if I had flaunted the 30-day rule I would likely get away with it for quite a while.

Let them rag on me. I feel good about being a good citizen.  (To make a tenuous, at best, connection to the parasha, a citizen’s duty to be lawful is not unlike taking an oath, and this weeks parsha reminds us that we should keep our oaths (while offering us ways to deal with the reality that we sometimes promise what we can’t deliver.)

In some ways, I see Moshe’s acquiescence to the Gadites and Reubenites like the parent or nanny who teaches the child to jaywalk. He gave in to the frustration, the impatience.

While life continually proves me wrong, I continue to hold to the idea that slow and steady wins the race, honesty is the best policy, laws are meant to be followed and not generally observed only when convenient (yes, I know, you are welcome to take me to task for how miserably I fail in that regard when it comes to halakha.) I’m like that prophet I’ve mentioned before that Elie Wiesel spoke of – I no longer act as I do because I think I can change others, but rather so I don’t become like them. Don’t teach your kids that jaywalking is OK. Don’t become like them. If I were brave, I might say “don’t become like Moses” but I think that’s carrying things a bit too far. On balance, Moses is someone to emulate. So let’s stick with “don’t become like…them.”

Shabbat Shalom

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Some other musings on this parasha:

Matot-Masei 5770 - Treasure Trove of Trouble
Masei 5768 - Accidents Matter
Matot 5768/5765-Even Moshe Rabbeinu Had to Punt
Matot-Masei 5766 - First Fruit
Matot-Masey 5764-Putting the Kids Before the Kids
Matot--Masey 5763-Over the Top
Matot--Masey 5762--The Rebel's Complaint and Promises, Promises

Friday, July 15, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Pinkhas 5771 – Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

I have been trying for some time now to find a hook in either this week’s parasha or haftarah on which to hang what I planned to write about in this musing. I haven’t yet found it. It’s probably there, and now that I’m about to give up trying, it will probably reveal itself. So, with apologies for straying from the usual topic of the parasha or haftarah, I offer these thoughts.

If you’re not living in a cave (or underneath a rock, as the Geico commercial says) then you have probably learned of the shocking news of the killing of Leiby Kletzky. Eight year old Leiby was walking home alone for the first time from day camp at a local Yeshiva in Boro Park. He was to meet his mother about halfway home, for this first attempt at going it alone. Leiby never made it. He apparently failed to turn a corner, kept walking, and got lost. He was befriended by 35-year-old Levi Aron, who apparently brought him to his house. What happened after that remains murky. There’s some evidence he actually took the boy to a wedding upstate that evening.

The whole hasidic community (along with neighbors, including Pakistanis, Christians, and others) took to the streets in a valiant effort to locate the missing child.

A self-proclaimed amateur dectective, whose son was one of Leiby’s teachers at school, pressed local businesses to see the videotapes from their surveillance cameras. His work, passed on to the NYPD via their liaison to the hasidic community, led the police to Levi Aron, and they stormed his apartment.

The accused killer, Levi Aron, has claimed that after he saw so many posters and people looking for the child, he panicked, fed the child a tuna sandwich, smothered him, and then dismembered him. Some of the body parts were found in a  dumpster some blocks away. Leiby’s feet were found in Aron’s freezer. Levi has confessed, but so much about this crime remains a mystery, as does the accused and self-confessed killer himself. There is no evidence so far of any sexual crime.

The whole community, and I don’t mean just the hasidic community, is in shock at this brutal and incomprehensible act. Much remains to be explained and discovered in the case. The local news has really hyped the story, which makes sorting out facts from theories and assumptions difficult. I think we will all need to be patient to discover the whole story, if indeed we ever do.

What makes this story interesting for me is the interaction with orthodox and hasidic Judaism. The local papers are replete with quotes from members of the community who state that rather than going to the police, they always go first to their own community-based groups: the Shomrim , a civilian patrol organization, and, for medical emergencies, the Hatzolah ambulance service.

Each of the major hasidic communities in New York City has its own Shomrim. You’ll also find them in other hasidic enclaves (like Monsey, NY, Miami-Dade County FL, Baltimore, MD, London, England, Sydney & Melbourne in Australia.)

Local police do work hand-in-hand with these Shomrim, though they continue to insist the people should contact both their local Shomrim and Police at the same time. The NYPD learned of Leiby being a missing child a full three hours after it was reported to the local Shomrim. (NYPD’s Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, while stating that the police always wanted to be notified concurrently, did say that in this case it did not make a difference. ) It is also true, as I noted earlier, that it was a community-member’s efforts that led the police to the kidnapper/killer/whatever he is.

I find myself frowning and disgusted when I read comments from members of the Hasidic community like “you always go to family first,” or “it’s against halacha to go to the police before speaking to the rabbis except in the most extreme situations” or “the folks at 911 aren’t personally involved, but the people at Shomrim are like family.”

We shouldn’t forget that the various neighborhood Shomrim in NYC have on occasion, been accused of unfair treatment of those who are not members of the community (i.e. people of color, Arabs, Palestinians, Muslims, basically anyone who isn’t a hasid, orthodox Jew, or who looks like a nice safe white person. They are quick to pursue those who are different, and, I would suggest, sometimes not as quick to pursue some within the community.

(It’s interesting to note that, as word spread about the missing child, that most in the hasidic community assumed an outsider was responsible. Many who contacted the office of the local state assemblyman were asking if the killer was from the neighboring Arab community! People in the community were actually hoping this child’s murder was somehow anti-Semitic in nature. Hoping. Unbelievable.)

Which brings me to something else that has me troubled about this whole situation. It’s all the geshrying that the accused killer is Jewish, orthodox, Yeshiva-taught. “He’s one of us!” One local woman was quote din the paper as saying “To me he is not an Orthodox [Jew] because an Orthodox Jew wouldn’t do that.”

What self-righteous poppycock! As history, much of it recent, has shown, the hasidic community is rife with thieves, scoundrels, racketeers, perverts and more. These insular communities think they are somehow better, made purer by their separation. Wake up and smell the coffee, folks. Jews DO kill other Jews. Jews do steal from other Jews (and not just, as the expression goes, from the schwartzes, the blacks. Even today I still see discrimination in hasidic-owned business-mostly in electronics-where people of color just don’t get the same deals, the same respect, etc. as others.)

Now don’t get me wrong. This is not an anti-hasidic screed. New York’s hasidic communities are full of good, honest, caring people (though for my taste they care a little too much more for people on the inside than on the outside.) Hasidic and orthodox Judaism are not for me, but I respect those who choose to live such lives. I may believe that they are misguided in their belief that clinging to ancient (and not-so-ancient) traditions is the only thing that will keep Judaism alive, however I will accept their choice. Doesn’t mean I won’t try to “convert them” into liberal Jews. In fact, I often wish liberal Judaism had it’s own version of Chabad!

Members of the hasidic community have started their rationalizing. Levi Aron isn’t a good Jew, or a real Jew, they will say. Or they will say “this is all G”d’s will.” Leiby’s own parents (who still have not been told the gruesome details of their son’s death) have said, in effect, that this must be what G”d wanted and we have to accept it.

Wake up and smell the coffee. If this is what G”d wants, maybe it’s time to call G”d to account, or find a new G”d. And stop believing that piety keeps a community honest and pure. All that piety seems to be creating is rose-colored glasses.

Torah is pretty up front about the fact that G”d expects human beings to err, to be imperfect, to break G”d’s commandments. Is not the whole idea of trying to live a pure life an oxymoron given what the Torah says?

Wake up and smell the coffee.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

PS-if you find a connection in the parasha or haftarah, let me know!

Other musings on this parasha:

Pinkhas 5770 - Thanking Those Who Didn't Make It
Pinkhas 5769-Why is This Rebuke Different From All Other Rebukes?
Pinkhas 5768 - Still Zealous After all These Years
Pinhas 5766-Let's Give Moshe a Hand
Pinkhas 5765-Kol D'mamah Dakah
Pinchas 5762 -- I Still Get Zealous
Pinchas 5764/5760-It Just Is!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Balak 5771-Imperfect Justice Is No Excuse

It’s a well-worn path, but one worth re-treading. These ever so famous words of the prophet Micah which appear in this week’s haftarah:

He (sic) has told you, O man, what is good,
And what the L”rd requires of you:
Only to do justice
And to love goodness
And to walk modestly with your G”d
       (JPS, Micah 6:8)

Modern liberal Jews, and in particular, reform Jews, like to claim the prophets as one of the main underpinnings of their theologies (if you can call them that.) In the prophets you can find all sorts of repudiations and denouncements of the Temple cult and sacrificial rites. Placed in their context, these words of the Prophet Micah are at the tail end of such a repudiation.  Micah states it bluntly:

Would the L”rd be pleased with thousands of rams,
With myriads of streams of oil?
Shall I give my first-born form my transgression,
The fruit of my body for my sins?
     (JPS, Micah 6:7)

Micah’s answer clearly is “no.” G”d does not want our sacrifices, but for us to “do the right things.”

It’s a very freeing idea. Animal sacrifices and cultic rituals have long since lost their appeal, except to a select few. Yet the freedom and reinterpretation that Micah’s word give us is a double-edged sword.

It is far to easy to believe that passive application of these principles is adequate. Forgive me for for using an illustration from the last musing I wrote on this topic but I do not believe we are following Micah’s advice when we walk past beggars on the street smug in the knowledge that we give plenty of money to charity already. Sure, writing a check or clicking on a website takes some effort, however it is still a fairly passive activity.

Writing a check isn’t good enough. We need to practice “righting a check.”

Micah does not say “be just, be loving of goodness, and be humble walking with G”d. Micah so “DO” justice, “LOVE” goodness, and “WALK HUMBLY.” These are simply things one cannot do passively.

Of the three, some say the “walking humbly” part is the hardest. I disagree, and actually believe it is the easiest. While humility is not a dominant human characteristic, with practice it can become normative. If you have some concept of a deity, higher power, force that is in the universe, or some such theological construct, it becomes even easier, because without a doubt, that deity/power/force is bigger than you alone. Nothing is more capable of producing humility than the awareness of something greater than yourself. Walking humbly with the G”d of your understanding requires something on your part. Guess what it is? Sacrifice! You have to sacrifice your pride, your ego, your insistence that the universe always work the way you want it to work.

How does one “love” goodness? Again, remembering that this is meant to be an active, and not passive kind of love, there are many ways to do so. What makes a love not passive? Ah, herein lies the catch. What really makes “love” active is… sacrifice! You can demonstrate your love of things good, and of the good things that others do through the act of personal sacrifice. It could be as simple as writing a check or making a donation. It could be an act that recognizes the goodness of another’s efforts. It could be stopping what you are doing in order to aid someone else in doing goodness. All of these things require some form of sacrifice on your part.

And so we come to “doing justice.” I do think it is the hardest. This one can never be even the least bit passive. Not doing can be passive, but doing? I think not. So how do we do justice? Well, you can guess where I’m going again. It’s going to take…sacrifice. It means giving up preconceptions, pre-judgments, prejudice, bigotry. This is truly not easy in our modern society. Witness all the stories where the public and the media rush to quick judgments, and bounce back and force between viewpoints. The Frenchman and the maid. The mother and the dead child. The congressperson and Twitter. Amidst the media hype and sensationalizing, the constant chatter on Twitter and Facebook, where is the “doing justice.” Justice does not mean you get your opinion of what the situation was validated. It means giving up, as much as is possible, your biases, and seeking only justice. It also means taking action: walking picket lines, being a freedom rider, writing  letter to a politician, boycotting a product you really like, manning a phone bank, doing your jury duty instead of always finding some way to angle out of it. You want justice, you have to help it happen.

In western religious texts, including our own, we read a lot about G”d as meting out justice. In reality, the task is ours. Micah, among others, figured out early on the logical extension of the idea that “G”d helps those who help themselves.” If G”d does indeed mete out justice, it is on G”d’s own term and times, and more likely to occur in olam haba or the messianic age. If we want justice here on earth, in our own time, we must make it happen. We must do justice.

There is yet another catch. Justice may not be perfect, ever. Even G”d’s justice may not be perfect (or, if you prefer the Jobist viewpoint, not perfect within out ability to understand and apprehend it.) Some innocents will go free, some guilty will be imprisoned, or even killed. (Let us hope that we recognize how this imperfection is a clarion call to avoid capital punishment, at least IMHO.) Some good will die young and some bad will live and prosper. Some works will be praised and other works will go unrecognized.

We cannot, however, use this imperfection in justice as an excuse to be inactive, or passive. This is the greatest sacrifice of all. Despite the fact that our efforts may not always yield just results, we must, day in and day out, do our best to do justice, love goodness, and walk humbly with the G”d of our understanding.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Some other musings on this parasha:

Friday, July 1, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Chukat 5771

OK, I'm exhausted. It's not an easy job for someone my age (56) to be working at the high energy level required to be a day camp songleader. I'm working as Jewish Music Specialist for the 92nd St. Y's Yomi day camp for children entering grades K-4. I schlep from the extreme east end of Brooklyn each morning to PS 41 in the Village, where I  board the bus with the campers from that location and head up to the Pearl River campgrounds. We get back and I schlep home to Brooklyn, and arrive home exhausted, after a full day of singing, cheering, and high energy. In between, by the way, I am having the time of my life at camp!

I know it's a lame excuse, but camp just started this week, and I just haven't had the energy to produce a musing this week. So forgive me if I commend to you my previous musings on the parasha, Chukat:

I'll get my grove going and be back next week with a new musing for Balak. I won't let any hidden from sight donkeys impede my way.
Shabbat Shalom,