Friday, November 18, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Hayyei Sarah 5772 - Zikhnah

This weeks parasha, Hayyei Sarah, and its haftarah (from I Kings chapter 1) are connected in many ways, but most clearly by their use of the same Hebrew phrase, “zakein ba bayamim,” meaning “old, advanced in years,” applied to Avraham and David respectively.

The end days of Avraham and David are not all that similar (or are they? We’ll see about that.) It is said of Avraham that he died having led a full, and generally righteous life. David’s end is marked by the same sorts of moral failings and intrigues that plagued his entire lifetime. David’s failings most definitely came home to roost in his last days.

The text paints a picture of a David who is quite possibly not fully aware. I have written in a previous musing, Never Warm, about the description of David as having lost his internal flame. Even a nubile young concubine, in the person of Abishag the Shunamite, seems unable to warm David up or restore David’s vigor. David’s courtiers think a little Viagra made flesh will cure what ails the King, but David seems unwilling, unable, or otherwise able to rise to the task.

A close reading of the text may cause one to read the words “v’HaMelekh lo y’da-ah” - “the King did not know her” as implying more than the classic knowing in the biblical sense. It is a David perhaps senile, disconnected, unaware. Later, we see that David is apparently unaware of Adonijah’s machinations and proclamation of himself as King. David would really have to be pretty out of it to be unaware of this.

Bathsheva and the prophet Nathan somehow seem to reach through David’s haze, and he regains his composure and intellect long enough to put a stop to Adonijah’s attempts to usurp the throne and insure Solomon’s ascension. Where sexual titillations failed to stir David’s passions, politics and intrigue succeeded. Says a lot about David.

The text paints a picture of an Avraham still in full control. with the sense to prepare for his impending death by insuring that his legacy is secure, certain, and designated. He leaves no doubt that Isaac is to inherit all.  The many sons he fathered with numerous concubines after Sarah’s death are given rewards and gifts and sent away to the east so they will not be there to challenge Isaac or cause trouble for him.

So classically, we are told to see David’s end as portrayed as reaping in old age what he sowed in life, and Avraham’s end as the end of a virtuous and full life lived.

(There is a midrash that attempts to recast David’s old-age as equally deserving of consideration as a righteous end, but I find it falls far short of its goal.)

As usual, I want to consider turning things upside-down or sideways. I’m not entirely sure that Avraham was any more deserving of the status of a righteous elder, of being zikhnah than David in any case. Yes, Avraham had a neater, more orderly end. If we are only to judge in hindsight, and in full knowledge of what the Torah says were G”d’s intentions, then Avraham did the right thing to insure Isaac as his successor.  Avraham followed G”d’s instructions and left his home for an unknown place. He argued with G”d against the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. He properly acquired the cave in which he buried Sarah (and where he was eventually to be buried.) He faithfully prepared to slay Isaac as G”d instructed him to do.

Nevertheless, Avraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away. He fathered many sons after Ishmael and Isaac, and showered nothing in the way of legacy on any of them save Isaac. (G”d promised to further Avraham’s line through Ishmael, but Avraham sent Hagar and Ishmael off with nothing but a little bread and water.) And the kicker – Avraham faithfully prepared to slay Isaac as G”d instructed him to do. Despite the supposed outcome, I am still not prepared to accept this as a success on the part of Avraham.  There is much to be troubled about in Avraham’s supposedly righteous life.

Yet, in the end, I am prepared to accept Avraham as possibly worthy of zikhnah. Why, despite the misgivings I have outlined? For one simple reason, an artifact of the text I have mentioned before over the years. While Avraham’s many other sons were not there to bury him (and I still find this troubling) both Isaac and Ishmael were. Two sons, scarred and traumatized by their father come together to bury him and honor him. I can forgive the absence of all the other sons-perhaps they were not truly worthy, simply being bought off with gifts and rewards rather than a piece of their father’s legacy. Neither Isaac nor Ishmael had any compelling reason to help bury their father. That they did must tell us something not only about Ishmael and Isaac, but about their father as well.

If I can so easily overlook Avraham’s failures to allow him to be zikhnah, why not David’s? After all, David was a great man and king despite his failures. David left a great (if somewhat fractured) legacy. This is going to be my challenge to myself this Shabbat – to see if I can find it in myself to see both Avraham and David as worthy of being venerated as zikhnah. Of course, I will extend this to people I know in my own life, and to my own family. I commend the same activities to you.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Hayyei Sarah 5771 - The Book That Isn't - Yet
Hayyei Sarah 5770 - Call Me Ishamel II
Hayyei Sarah 5769 - Looking for Clues
Hayyei Sarah 5768 - A High Price
Hayei Sarah  5767-Never Warm?
Chaye Sarah 5766-Semper Vigilans
Chaye Sarah 5763-Life Goes On
Chaye Sarah 5762-Priorities, Redundancies And Puzzles
Chayeh Sarah 5761-L'cha Dodi Likrat Kala
Hayyei Sarah 5760 - Call Me Ishmael
Chaye Sarah 5757-The Shabbat That Almost Wasn't

Friday, November 11, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Vayera 5772 – Well?

There is something about deserts. It seems we’ve always known that. Our history, literature, and religious texts are replete with desert experiences that shape people and societies. People and prophets have walked the deserts seeking solace, answers, solitude, and more.

Science fiction author Frank Herbert created an entire universe which revolves around a desert planet:

Arrakis ... Dune ... wasteland of the Empire, and the most valuable planet in the universe. Because it is here — and only here — where spice is found. The spice. Without it there is no commerce in the Empire, there is no civilization. Arrakis ... Dune ... home of the spice, greatest of treasure in the universe. And he who controls it, controls our destiny.

Deserts fascinate us. I can still remember the stunning visual images of desert that graced the giant CinemaScope screen upon which I first saw “Lawrence of Arabia.” The joke at the time had been that the images were so realistic and awe inspiring that they caused long lines at the water fountains in the cinemas.

Which leads me to the subject of the preciousness of water in a desert environment, and eventually to the subject of wells. It’s no wonder that wells figure prominently in many of the stories we read in Torah. In this week’s parasha, in close proximity, we read of two wells. The first is the one that is revealed to Hagar that enables her and Ishmael to survive. The second, the well that Abraham reclaims from Avimelekh – a well that Abraham claims to have dug. As surety to Avimelekh that he is being truthful in his claim to be the owner of that well, he asks Avimelekh to accept seven ewes. Thus the name of the well, Beer-sheva, the well of seven.

Abraham was a wealthy man, and could easily afford to offer seven ewes as a bond of truth, yet it is nonetheless a significant gesture, indicating the importance and values of wells.

A more interesting lesson about wells might be derived from the story of Hagar. She has been thrown out of the camp by Abraham at the insistence of Sarah (sort of lowers their esteem in your eyes, doesn’t it?) with only some bread and a skin of water, which are quickly exhausted. She sets Ishmael down and moves away from him in the hopes that he might die out of her sight, so desperate is her plight.

In a delightful literary twist, we read first that, having left her son to due, Hagar bursts into tears. In the very next verse we read that G”d heard the cry of Ishmael, and then, through an angel, calls out to Hagar. There is no mention previously of Ishmael crying, though it is certainly likely that a thirsty, hot baby, left abandoned by its mother, would be crying.

However, the seemingly logical thing would be for the text to read that G”d heard Hagar’s crying and spoke to her through the angel. Yet the angel reiterates the point that G”d has heard the cry of Ishmael, and that G”d is responding to that.

However, there’s yet another literary twist here which complicates things. Before telling Hagar that G”d has heard Ishmael’s cries. the angel’s opening line is “What troubles you, Hagar?”

Is this G”d’s subtle way of saying to Hagar “you gave up too easily, and should not have abandoned the boy” ? Is this G”d telling Hagar, “look, dummy, there’s a well right over there and you were to busy feeling sorry for yourself and your son that you completely missed it” ? (Sort of like that well worn joke where G”d says to the man complaining about his death in a flood while waiting for G”d to rescue him  “But I sent you a boat, a helicopter…”)

Even more intriguing than this is the very fact that G”d seems to have enough interest in Hagar to ask her what troubles her. G”d actually cares that Hagar is troubled? Is this some newly sensitized G”d, having been taken to task by Abraham over G”d’s intent to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, trying to give more attention to human concerns? (when pondering this, consider that G”d went ahead and destroyed the two cities. By implication G”d could not find even ten good people within them, but the Torah is certainly not explicit about that point, and I wouldn’t put it past G”d to fudge on the agreement with Abraham. (G”d did it after the flood, first promising to never destroy the earth, and then adding later the caveat “by flood.”)

In the Dune universe, the existence of a desert planet allows for a species of sand-dwelling animal to evolve into a worm species that produces a substance that enables inter-stellar travel. Just as we find in Torah, the Dune universe has its contradictions, and it remains unclear whether the desert created the sandworms (and thus the spice melange required for interstellar travel) or the sandworms (in their earlier forms) created the desert.

Consider, for a moment – G”d floods the earth – an overabundance of water is responsible for the death and destruction of all species (including humans except for Noah’s line.)  Then, in subsequent developments, G”d seeks out the inhabitants of a largely desert and wilderness region with whom to communicate and eventually create a covenantal relationship. Coincidence?

We will, in the course of our year-long journey through the Torah, encounter many other wells, and situations which bespeak of the power of the desert to shape, refine, strengthen and provide insight. We will learn to see water with the same reverence as that of the Fremen of the planet Dune/Arrakis. We will learn that wells and water are not solely the province of men.

The Shabbat bride is almost here. While wine is nice, maybe have a glass of water ready to offer her. As she comes into your life to sweeten your Shabbat, here’s a great conversation starter:


Shabbat Shalom,

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayera 5771 - Density
Vayera 5770 - Not Even Ten?
Vayeira 5769 - He's a Family Guy (?)
Vayera 5767-Revised 5759-Whoops! (or Non-Linear Thinking)
Vayera 5766-The Price of Giving
Vayera 5765-From the Journal of Lot Pt. II
Vayera 5762-Plainly Spoken
Vayera 5760/5761-More From the "Journal of Lot"
Vayera 5759-Whoops! (or "Non-Linear Thinking?")
Vayera 5757-Technical Difficulties

Friday, November 4, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Lekh Lekha 5772 – Out of Context

I was perusing the haftarah for Lekh Lekha this week while pre-occupied with other thoughts, not giving my reading the attention it deserved. My eyes chanced upon these words:

Each one helps the other, saying to his fellow, “Take courage!”
The woodworker encourages the smith; he who flattens with the hammer [encourages] him who pounds the anvil.
He says of the riveting, “It is good!”
And he fixes it with nails that it may not topple.” (Is 41.6-7, JPS)

Wow, that sounds like a really positive and encouraging bit of text around which I could build a musing. Instantly I began to think about these words as describing an ideal community of people, helping each other, working together, supporting each other, and securing their efforts to protect them. That’s a nice positive thought.

Then, setting other distractions aside, I began to read more fully the text of the entire haftarah, allowing me to place it in context. It was only after a bit that the light dawned and I realized who the “they” were of which these passages speak, and what the work they were engaged in really was. It isn’t entirely obvious  without some thought (although one generally familiar with working with these texts will already be working from a mindset that sees these words in context.)

The first clue is found in the immediately preceding words:

The coastlands look on in fear, the ends of the earth tremble.

Just a passing familiarity with Isaiah is enough to know that these words are not referring to Israel, but rather those who surround and threaten her.

Following verses 6-7, in two, as the scholars call them, oracles, we hear G”d reassuring Israel that they will be supported against their enemies, and they need not fear them.

Having this information, when you go back to look at the text of verses 6-7, you soon realize that they are speaking of Israel’s enemies, and the work of which they are urging each other on is that of creating their idols, and, most telling of all, fixing them in place with nails so they will not fall! A little prophetic humorous barb or jab. The G”d of Israel does not need to be nailed down (and all levels of double, triple, and even more entendre intended.  Isaiah may have more more prescient in saying this than he realized. How even more delightfully ironic then, that so often Christian theologians turn to Isaiah as a source of positive foreshadowing. This one is a real kick in the teeth to them, seen in the right light. Now before you get all worked up,I intend no offense. Recall, dear reader, I studied at Vanderbilt Divinity School, and count many Christian ministers, scholars and theologians as colleagues.)

There’s something very Jewish about this little misinterpretation or misunderstanding that I had, initially,  about verses 6-7. Surely, encouraging and supporting each other, and working together are good traits. Yet in the Torah’s view there always seems to be two sides to every thing. Consider migdal Bavel (tower of Babel.) The Torah (and G”d’s) view of this working together is not that it is an entirely positive thing.  It is, in fact, so dangerous and threatening to whatever it is that G”d is trying to create that G”d directly interferes to eliminate the danger.

Context matters. On an entirely unrelated note to the parasha, but definitely connected to context, is a blog post I read last week from a rabbi once again railing against Halloween and simply dismissing it as not Jewish because the Torah forbids witchcraft and such things.

Need this rabbi be reminded of the many, many examples of magic, sympathetic magic, and other supposedly forbidden things one finds in Torah and Tanakh, and indeed in Jewish culture to this day (hamsas, pictures of “the Rebbe,” spitting and avoiding the ayin hara, attributing misfortune to scribal errors in mezuzot, etc.) Now, I will not quibble that there is some very direct language in the Torah against witches, witchcraft, sorcery, divination, etc. Yet these terms are not clearly defined, and we have oddities like the serpent on Moshe’s staff, the curative solution of the ashes of the red heifer, and the urim and thummim (if not oracles, what are they?) So like everything else in Judaism, the Torah is a bit conflicted when it comes to magic.

The well-worn “do not allow a witch to live” (Ex. 22:17) is, when examined in context, likely related to the Torah’s misogynistic bent and later layers of attempts to ascribe all the blame to women for men’s sexual weakness. It comes, after all, in the midst of text about deflowered virgins and  bestiality!

Traditional Judaism gets away with distancing itself from magic, witchcraft, divination, etc. with a simple explanation. If it is in the Torah (see the examples above) then it’s not magic. Magic is what the goyim do. The azazel goat, the waters of lustration, the urim and thummim, kapparot, tashlich – these are what Jews do. It’s a pretty thin veneer covering very deep inconsistencies and contradictions.

Look, there are plenty of reasons to dislike Halloween, and discourage your family from engaging in its rituals. It has become both a celebration of the macabre and selfishness/greed. Greed of children for candy, greed of companies for money. Yet it also has aspects of neighborliness, community-building, fun, and even, to some extent, providing a cathartic way for some people to confront their inner demons through the release provided by donning costumes, living out their fantasies, and partying. (It’s slippery slope, I know, sort of like the argument that violent video games provide an outlet for children and teens to release their aggression ) That’s Halloween in its contemporary American context. Yet neither Judaism nor Christianity has a leg to stand on when it comes to critiques against participation in Halloween festivities based on its supposed roots and connections to witchcraft, sorcery, etc.

Clearly two disparate trains of thought in this musing, but nonetheless there exists a tenuous connection on the basis of context. I’ll hope you’ll place this musing in its own context before you attempt to understand it. Good luck with that. Oops, can we say good luck? Is that Jewish? We do say mazal tov all the time, don’t we. Hmm, what is mazal? Look it up, it has astrological origins!!

Shabbat Shalom,

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Lekh Lekha 5771 (5765, 5760) Things Are Seldom What They Seem An Excerpt from the "Journal of Lot"
Lekh Lkha 5770 - Revisiting the Ten Percent Solution
Lekh L'kha 5769 - Of Nodding Heads, Whistling Airs, and Snickersnees
Lekh Lekha 5768 - The Covenant That (Almost) Wasn't - Excerpts from the Diary of Terakh
Lekh Lekha 5767-Penile Pilpul
Lekh Lekha 5766-The Other Siders
Lekh Lekha 5765 - Redux 5760
Lekh Lekha 5764-Ma'aseir Mikol-The Ten Percent Solution
Lekh Lekha 5763-No Explanations
Lekh Lekha 5761-The Intellectual Echad
Lekh L'kha 5758-Little White Lies