Friday, December 28, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayekhi 5773 - Redux and Revised 5762–The Wrong Good

It's a popular use of the Yosef story – as a proof text that good can come from evil, that all that befell Yosef was part of a Divine plan. That all that transpired was necessary, so that the Israelites would wind up in Mitzrayim, eventually be enslaved, cry out to G”d and be heard, then to be led out of Egypt by G”d’s mighty hand and enter into a covenant with G”d at Sinai. A nice, perfect little package. When trying to deal with questions of theodicy, of why bad things happen to good people, it is, for some, an inspiring and explanatory tale. (Now, I make no pretense of my utter contempt for the sort of teleological “ends justifies the means” argument that underlies the whole Yosef story. So it’s not so inspiring a tale for me.)

In any case, there's a problem, and they rest with the very words of Yosef himself, explaining his understanding of what had transpired.

Yaakov gets in his last digs by "adopting" Menashe and Ephraim as if they were his own sons, placing the younger Ephraim before Menashe, then offering his little death-bed poem of psychological analysis of his sons. He dies, and, true to the promise Yaakov exacted from him, Yosef takes Yaakov up to Canaan to be buried in the cave of Machpelah. A brief aside here. Yaakov couldn’t be bothered to have his beloved Rachel brought to and buried at Machpelah – he buried her at the side of the road. Yet he asks Yosef to swear an oath to be sure he is buried at Machpelah. he later asks the rest of his sons to insure the same, but does not make them swear an oath to that effect. Clearly, he saw that only Yosef was able to insure this happening due to his status as Vizier of Egypt.  I find this nod to power a bit troubling, and it’s probably fodder for an entire musing sometime in the future.

With Yaakov’s body returned to Canaan and buried at Machpelah done (with much pomp and circumstance, Yosef still being an Egyptian muckety-muck) the brothers again fear what Yosef might do to punish them, especially now that Yaakov was gone. They concoct (yet another) lie and tell Yosef that before he died, he told the brothers to tell Yosef to forgive his brothers for what they had done to them.

Yosef tells them not to fear, and utters those memorable words I and others have written about many times before: "Ki hatakhat Elokim ani?" "Am I to take the place of G”d?" (or, as the JPS says "Am I a substitute for G”d.") Gen 50:19. I'll leave you to muse over those words and I'll move on.

Yosef next says to his brothers that although they intended him evil, G”d intended it for good,

וְאַתֶּ֕ם חֲשַׁבְתֶּ֥ם עָלַ֖י רָעָ֑ה אֱלֹהִים֙ חֲשָׁבָ֣הּ לְטֹבָ֔ה

in order to. . .

לְמַ֗עַן עֲשֹׂ֛ה כַּיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּ֖ה לְהַחֲיֹ֥ת עַם־רָֽב׃

And here comes the nub of my argument. Yosef says: "l'ma'an aseh kiyom hazeh, l'hakhayot am-rav." Literally, "in order to make (bring about?) like (they are) this day, to cause many to live." Or the smoother JPS: "so as to bring about the present result-the survival of many people." (Gen 50:20)

Am-rav. Great Nation. Great people. Many people. A populous nation. A numerous people. All valid meanings. When we read the word in this context, most of us generally tend to view "am" as referring to the people Israel. But is that truly what Yosef meant, that this was all about the survival of the people of Israel? The 70 who came down to Egypt (and eventually became many more.) Yaakov, his sons, their wives, slaves, maids, etc. were not a huge multitude. It is quite likely that thousands upon thousands of Egyptians were saved from starvation through the ultimately fortuitous set of circumstances that arose out of Yosef being sold into slavery by his brothers. (On the other hand, they were also made into serfs, having to give up all their money and land to the state in order to survive.)

I think all the inhabitants of Egypt and the surrounding lands, along with Yaakov, his family clan and retainers, are the entire "am-rav" that Yosef is referring to. I think this is an important reminder to not be myopic in our thinking. This whole Yosef thing might not have been entirely about us, "am-Yisrael." Yes, it’s our story, our Torah that we’re analyzing here. Yet if we are to be or l’goyim (a light to the nations) can we limit our vision this way?

Which the desired result and which the unintended but beneficent consequence? Can we really be sure? Does G”d have it all plotted out, down to the end of  time? Or does G”d perhaps sometimes use more short-term strategies, assess and then move on? It's all a matter of how direct a hand G”d takes in human affairs. Therein lies a whole other discussion, and a whole series of musings.

But I digress. My point is that, while this may be a proof text used by some to rationalize good arising from evil deeds, I'm not sure it's entirely fair to use it only as proof that the people of Israel were the ultimate intended recipient of the good. G”d created us all, and G”d surely cares about us all, even those, like the Egyptians, who pray to false gods.

Good isn't always something that happens to us. Good is something that we want to happen to others, in fact, to as many people as it can happen to. And not just people-but animals, living matter, our planet, our universe.

So let's try to be a little more global in our view of parashat Vayekhi. If we’re going to accept that sometimes good can come from evil (and though I shudder to think so, it is part of the conversation we are having here)  then why not allow as much good to come from evil as is possible? G”d knows, in these times, we need that kind of attitude. Let's not be selfish, and wish that whatever good might come out the Newtown tragedy, (or, as I wrote at the time of the original version of this musing – from the ashes of 9/11) is good for America. That bad events in the middle east might yield good for Israel. In 5762 I wrote: “Let us hope, pray (and work! To insure) that the good that comes is a good for all the world.” Today, I modify these thoughts. Let us first hope and pray that we can eliminate evil, or at least sweep as much evil as we can from our midst, and work always for the good. Despite our efforts, should evil occur, may it be Your will and ours that we turn the outcome of the evil into as much good as is humanly (and Divinely) possible.

Ken y'hi ratson. May this be (Gd's) will. Ken y’hi ratsoneinu. May this be our will.

Shabbat shalom, and happy secular New Year to all.

Hazak, hazak, v’nitkhazeik.


©2012 (portions 2001) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayekhi 5772 - A Different HaMalakh HaGoel
Vayekhi 5771-Trading Places (Redux & Updated from 5759)
Vayekhi 5770 - Musing Block?
Vayekhi 5769 - Enough With the Hereditary Payback Already!
Vayekhi 5767-HaMalakh HaGoel
Vayechi 5766-Thresholds (Redux 5764 with Reflections
Vayechi 5761/5-Unethical Wills
Vayechi 5764-Thresholds
Vayechi 5763 - I Got it Good and That Ain't Bad (Redux 5760)
Vayechi 5759-Trading Places


Friday, December 21, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayigash 5773–Let’s Be Judah

It is time for us to act like Judah-time to redeem ourselves as a nation. Let us put our nation’s leaders in the place of Joseph and Pharaoh. Let us question their holding of our children as hostages to politics. The gun manufacturers, the N.R.A., members of congress, and, to some extent, even the leaders of our executive and judicial branches of government are holding our collective Benjamins as hostages. It is time for us to plead with them, as Judah pleaded with Joseph. Judah offered to take their place, and it was this completely selfless and redeeming act that finally broke Joseph, and he revealed himself to his brothers. Is that what we must do? Must we offer ourselves as hostages in place of our children so that no more will die senselessly from guns? Are we willing to do what must be done to redeem ourselves? It is too late to prevent the senseless deaths of so many, but perhaps we can prevent more deaths. Take us, then, in place of our children.

This is the point when Joseph is supposed to break down. Based on the N.R.A.’s statements today, it seems that we haven’t gotten through to them. They still refuse to recognize us as their brothers (and sisters and children.) We must keep trying, keep pleading. And if that doesn’t work, then maybe it is time for us to take firm and deliberate action, as Joseph did in dealing with the pending and continuing famine. Guns, and especially assault weapons and automatic weapons are in abundance today, so it is hard to think of them as symbolized by a famine. Yet there is an equivalence. Guns challenge our very survival in the same way that the famine challenged the survival of Egypt, Canaan, and neighboring nations.

I might suggest that if the gun advocates don’t accept the reality that they are going to have to compromise, then their worst nightmare may come true – Just as Joseph acquired all the money and land for the state, our government may wind up acquiring all the weapons. Truly the worst nightmare for staunch advocates of the second amendment – and, to be frank, a reality I would also fear. Yet it could happen, if the majority of the citizens finally get tired of pandering to the small minority that insist on no limits on gun ownership.  So before we get to the point that there is no alternative but for the government to be the sole controller and owner of guns, let’s find a reasonable compromise that provides for a ban on ownership of assault weapons, that requires mandatory checks and screening on all purchases of weapons under all circumstances. A compromise that will save lives.

It has to stop. It’s not the 1790s. The guns available then are not the same as the guns available to us now. They were not capable of the same, rapid wholesale killing, and required much more deliberate effort to use and time to kill.

Others have stated this far more eloquently than I can, so I refer you to their thoughts.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President Emeritus of the URJ:

Rabbi Shaul Marshall Praver, Rabbi of Congregation Adath Israel in Newtown, CT. asks us to all join in an effort to solve this problem on his Facebook page.

The time is now. Let us beat our guns into plowshares.

Shabbat Shalom,


Other musings on parashat Vayigash:

Vayigash 5772 - Redux & Revised 5760 Teleology 101: Does G"d Play Dice With the World
Vayiggash 5771-Being Both Israels
Vayigash 5769 - He's A-Cookin'-a-Somethin'-A-Up
Vayigash 5768 - G"d By the Light of Day
Vayigash 5767-Two Sticks As One?
Vayigash 5765-One People
Vayigash 5763-Things Better Left Unsaid
Vayigash 5761/5766-Checking In
Vayigash 5762-Teleology 101: Does Gd Play Dice With the World?
Vayigash 5764-Incidental Outcomes and Alternate Histories

Friday, December 14, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Mikketz 5773–B’li Melitz

וְהֵם֙ לֹ֣א יָֽדְע֔וּ כִּ֥י שֹׁמֵ֖עַ יוֹסֵ֑ף כִּ֥י הַמֵּלִ֖יץ בֵּינֹתָֽם׃

And they did not know what Joseph was saying because there was an interpreter between them.

Up until now, in Bereshit (Genesis,) despite the confounding of language that was imposed upon humanity at migdal bavel (tower of Babel) the characters in the biblical narrative seemed to have no trouble speaking to one another. Clearly there were instances when characters from different cultures, nation- or city-states interacted. Perhaps there was a lingua-franca that was being used (as with the later Aramaic language) or perhaps people learned to speak languages other than their own as a routine matter of course. Of perhaps the authors/redactors of the biblical text didn’t consider it significant to mention when interpreters were being used. Or perhaps, as it may all be supposed or imagined dialogue to begin with, the authors/redactors decided to simply overlook the obvious in favor of making the narrative flow.

Here we have an interesting situation. Clearly Yoseif and his brothers are fully capable of communicating directly. Was it just to disguise his own identity that Yoseif chose to utilize an interpreter? Did he fear his voice would be recognized? (The obvious flaw in this argument is that he could still be heard speaking Egyptian to the interpreter – though perhaps it was less likely his voice would recognized by his brothers if it was speaking a different language.) Was it all just part of the trappings of diplomatic ritual? Could the grand Vizier of mighty Egypt be seen speaking (or understanding) the language of some other insignificant people?

Interesting questions, all, but not the focus of my musings this week. It’s just an interesting jumping-off point for a discussion about interpreters.

First, let us put the word meilitz in perspective. HALOT defines it as go-between, interpreter and also lists a second usage meaning subordinate, heavenly being, or intervening angel. The BDB lexicon also gives the definition of interpreter, but lists it as a second meaning. BDB defines the primary root of the word lamed-yod-tzadee as meaning scorn! (That adds an interesting dimension to Yoseif’s use of a “meilitz” but I’ll leave for you to ponder that.)

I will have to say, up front, that scorn is what I generally have for interpreters and interpretation. Not for the interpreters themselves, for they are all probably worthy people performing a worthy service. Our planet has so many languages that there is a clear need for people to interpret between them.

That being said, there’s a reason we often call them interpreters, and not just translators. While we may use the terms interchangeably, there’s a difference, and one that is not so subtle. A translation assumes a direct correlation between words in differing languages. This may be wishful thinking at best, As I have told many a student over the years, all translation is ultimately interpretation. I’m not sure that anyone can actually be just a translator.

The cycle of good communication usually goes something like this. A person says (or writes) something. Another person hears (or reads) it.  (Some suggest that hearing is not enough, it needs to be listening, and I would tend to agree with that.)  The hearing/listening/reading person attempts to understand the words of the original speaker/writer, utilizing whatever clues they can – context, body language, inflection, etc. Then, experts tell us, comes the crucial last steps, often omitted. The hearer/listener/reader gives feedback to the speaker/writer to demonstrate their understanding of what was communicated.  The process is cyclical. If the speaker/writer is satisfied with the understanding of the listener/reader, they can move on from there. Otherwise, attempts can be made to clarify.

The simple truth is that we all speak/write and hear through our own lenses.That is what often makes communication between human beings so difficult. We tend to assume people understand our lenses and how they shape our perceptions.

In spoken conversation, there are many more clues to meaning that in written communication. Despite things like emoticons, it’s hard to discern things like body language, tone, inflection, etc. in written communication. (In many ways, the system of Torah cantillation/trope that we utilize to chant our sacred texts is a partial attempt to work around this limitation. Unfortunately, it still represents the Masoretes’ particular understandings of the text.)

Now, I will admit at this point that these thought are somewhat in contradiction to opinions I have expressed elsewhere regarding the nature of electronic communications, in which I have stated that they carry more content that we sometimes realize. I still believe this is the case, but in this musing I am striking a more cautionary and less enthusiastic tone.

So how do we know what the Torah and our other sacred texts are really saying to us? If we leave the job of translating these texts to others, then we are simply accepting their interpretations.

That is the rationale that I employ when trying to convince students (and adults) of the value of learning Hebrew – so that they can read the text in its original language and decide for themselves how to translate/interpret it. True, the individual doing this will encounter the same vagaries that an interpreter will, but they get to make the choice, rather than simply accepting the interpreter’s choice. At the very least, I tell students, they should look at several different translations of the original Hebrew so they can decide which interpretation speaks to them.

Yoseif chose to put an interpreter between himself and his brothers. He may have had his reasons, but we do not have to emulate him. We need not abrogate our responsibility to encounter our sacred text directly. We can strive to be our own translators and interpreters.

We will read, much further along in the Torah, its own self-proclamation that it is not to difficult to understand, that it is not up to others to go and fetch it for us. It is ours to read , ours with which to wrestle. If we want to do this well, we should endeavor to not place a single meilitz between ourselves and our sacred texts. Ideally, we should be our own meilitz, however, until we have that capability, we can and certainly should rely on multiple meilitzim to assist us in making sense of them.

If, like Yoseif, we place a meilitz between ourselves and our sacred texts, it is as if we are hiding ourselves from it, just as Yoseif may have been hiding from his brothers. Eventually, as we will read next week, Yoseif reveals himself to his brothers – no need for a meilitz between them. Yoseif delayed until he could stand it no longer? Why should we needlessly distance ourselves from our sacred texts? In this season of light, let us illuminate our Torah and sacred texts for ourselves. Let’s beat Yoseif to the punch, and begin this Shabbat to converse directly, without a meilitz between us, with our sacred texts.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Urim Sameiakh,

©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Miketz 5772 - A Piece of That Kit Kat Bar
Miketz 5771-What's Bothering...Me?
Miketz/Hanukkah 5769 - Redux 5763 - Assimilating Assimilation
Miketz/Hanukah 5768 Learning From Joseph and His Brothers (revised from 5757)
Miketz 5767-Clothes Make the Man?
Miketz 5766-Eizeh Hu Khakham?
Miketz 5757& 5761-Would You Buy A Used Car From This Guy?
Miketz 5763/5764/5765-Assimilating Assimilation

Friday, December 7, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayeishev 5773–K’tonet Passim

      וְיִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אָהַ֤ב אֶת־יוֹסֵף֙ מִכָּל־בָּנָ֔יו כִּֽי־בֶן־זְקֻנִ֥ים ה֖וּא ל֑וֹ וְעָ֥שָׂה ל֖וֹ כְּתֹ֥נֶת פַּסִּֽים׃.

Just two little words, yet so much lore surrounding them.

K’tonet passim.

The meaning of the words is unclear, and scholars have offered a variety of translations. A long sleeved coat. An ornamented tunic. A striped coat. A multi-colored coat. A patchwork coat.

The Hebrew “pas” means palm or sole, and it is from this that scholars conjecture that it was a long-sleeved garment or a long-length garment.In Aramaic, it can mean “piece.” The Latin Vulgate renders k’tonet passim as a tunica polymita, a coat made of pieces of different colors.

Whatever it was, it was special is some way. Yaakov made it for Yoseif. Notice that, by the way. The text doesn’t say that Yaakov gave it to Yoseif. It doesn’t say that Yaakov had the coat made for Yoseif. In plain meaning it says Yaakov made it for Yoseif.

Now, it would be easy to write this off (pun intended) to literary license. How likely is it that Yaakov actually made the coat for Yoseif himself? On the other hand, how unlikely is it that Yaakov actually made the coat for Yoseif? Was making clothing solely women’s work in ancient times? In our desire to see ancient societies as less advanced than we are, we may be coloring the realities.

Clearly the coat was given to Yoseif as a symbol of Yaakov’s deep and abiding love for his favorite son. Let’s skip over the problematic bad-parenting aspects of this for now. I’ve written enough about that before. Perhaps the coat gave Yoseif an overly-elevated sense of self-worth, further inciting the jealousy of his brothers. Was this the intent of this gift from Yaakov? Was the jealousy merely an unintended (if entirely foreseeable) consequence? I’m not trying to give Yaakov a pass on bad parenting here, just trying to take it out of the discussion for now.

As I mentioned, the coat has given rise to all sorts of lore. Perhaps the most widely-known example in our own time is the musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” by Mssrs. Weber and Rice. It’s not an entirely accurate staging of the biblical text, but it’s a fun romp. I’ll admit to a fondness for this musical despite its inaccuracies. However, there’s another piece of music based on the coat story that, despite its somewhat trite and contrived nature, speaks to me.

Dolly Parton wrote a touching song entitled “Coat of Many Colors.” (You can find the lyrics at ) It tells the tale of a loving mother from a poor family who related the biblical story of Yoseif as she crafted a beautiful coat of many colors for her daughter from a box of rags. She sewed the coat with love in every stitch. At school others made fun of the young girl’s coat of rags, while she tried to explain to them how rich the coat made her feel.

One is only poor
Only if they choose to be
Now I know we had no money
But I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me

This coat and Yoseif’s coat are symbols, representations or physical, tangible manifestations of love. Yoseif’s brothers teased him about the coat, only in their case it was likely their jealousy that drove them. Might this also be the case with the teasing students in Dolly’s song? Perhaps, somewhere deep down inside, they understood the love that this rag coat represented, and they too, were jealous of that love?

We are at a season of the year when love is often represented (or perhaps misrepresented) through physical substitutes – gifts. I’ll side-step the whole discussion about gift-giving and Hanukkah and its connection to gift-giving at Xmas. Though sometimes the gifts are given more out of a sense of obligation, they are, hopefully, often given as symbols of love, in its many forms.

While we still see examples of gifts that people actually make for someone they love (both children for parents and relatives, and vice versa) I am sure these have become more the exception than the norm. Yaakov didn’t have access to malls, gift cards, or Amazon. He may or may not have had someone else make the coat he gave to Yoseif-we can’t be sure. For thousands of years gifts given were hand-made with love. Over time, more and more people came to depend upon others to make the gifts they would give. Does this make them lesser expressions of love?

It would be easy for me to wax nostalgic and complain about the “impersonal nature” of modern-day gift-giving, with gift cards and certificates, wish-lists, and more.It would be just as easy for me to rationalize the trends of modern-day gift-giving, and say that, done with proper intent, it is no less meaningful. Not surprisingly, I think I’ll walk the line somewhere in between the two positions.

When we receive gifts, especially extra-special ones like Yoseif’s k’tonet passim, we may feel very enamored with ourselves for inspiring love for us in others. Perhaps this is because we all want so desperately to be loved, and any symbol of that love, especially a tangible one serves as proof of that love, and G”d knows we all want that bit of security. This is a dangerous road. It is, perhaps, our yetzer hara, our evil inclination, that causes us to feel puffed up when we receive these signs of the love of other people. The gifts are symbols. They are not love itself. They can be an expression of it, but love is much more complex than that. It has many facets and aspects.

We all know that a cigar band can be a more loving and meaningful gift than the most expensive diamond ring. At the same time, an expensive piece of jewelry can be a very real expression of love. It is not our place to judge the value systems of others. It is, however, worthwhile for us to try and understand and know the value systems of others. Even people deeply in love can have very different value systems.

As I try to remind myself (and you, dear readers) at times, these are sometimes truly random musings, and today I’ve wandered down many paths, and I’m not sure they all lead to the same place. I’m not sure I can tie this all up in a nice bow. Then again, Torah often doesn’t wrap things up nicely, so I’m in good company. Nevertheless, these parting thoughts.

Whatever the k’tonet passim was, it was an expression of love. What imbues it with that love? It can be the personal nature of it having been created by the giver. It can simply be the thought or intention behind the gift. Rather than focusing on the methodology, or even the intent, how about trying to focus on the process itself – of giving as an expression of live. Imbue every gift you give, to anyone, with love. Even that “secret Hanukkah Harry” exchange gift at the office. Sure, maybe you bought it out of a sense of obligation. Maybe you bought someone a gift simply because you know they got one for you. None of that matters. Even the simplest trinket can be imbued with, and given with love.

I would be remiss in my thoughts if I did not suggest that, in this season of giving and receiving gifts, that we consider sharing and giving not just with those in our circles, but with those in need. Many families and congregations have established traditions of setting aside at least one night of Hanukkah to be one of giving to the needy rather than receiving gifts from one another. (In some families, that is true for every night of Hanukkah.) In fact, one of the best gifts you night get for someone that you love is a tzedakah box. It’s a gift that enables them to give to those in need. What could be more meaningful than that?

Hag Urim Sameakh, and Shabbat Shalom,

©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayeishev 5772 - The Ram's Horn Rag
Vayeishev 5771-Ma T'vakeish?
Vayeishev 5768 - Strangers Walking Together
Vayeishev/Hanukah 5767-I Believe in Miracles
Vayeishev 5766-Who Was That Guy?
Vayeshev 5761 - In Gd's Time
Vayeshev 5765-Mikol HaMishpakhot HaAdamah
Vayeshev 5758-What's Worth Looking After

Friday, November 30, 2012

Random Musings Before Shabbat–Vayishlakh 5773–That Other Devorah’s Tale

וַתָּ֤מָת דְּבֹרָה֙ מֵינֶ֣קֶת רִבְקָ֔ה וַתִּקָּבֵ֛ר מִתַּ֥חַת לְבֵֽית־אֵ֖ל תַּ֣חַת הָֽאַלּ֑וֹן וַיִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ אַלּ֥וֹן בָּכֽוּת׃

And Deborah, Rebecca’s nurse, died, and she was buried beneath Beit El, beneath the plain; so he named it Allon Bakhuth (weeping oak?)

It has been a very long life, thought Devorah. I have seen and experienced many things. I am old and weary. I’ll just stop and rest here a moment.

Oh G”d of Yaakov, and, if You are indeed the same, G”d, the G”d of Yitzkhak and his father Avraham, tell me, “where did I go wrong?” I suckled the young Rivkah, and spent the better part of my middle age teaching her and preparing her to be a good woman, a good wife, a good mother.And how does she reward my efforts? With bad parenting, for one. Despite my warnings, she so clearly showed her favoritism for the younger of her twin sons. She fawned and doted on him, while all the time remaining dependent on the elder son for his prowess and his ability to put food on their table. She rewards me with the most base deceit of her husband, and the corruption of her younger son. She sets her two sons up to be rivals, with one threatening to kill the other.

And stubborn, Oy! was she stubborn! She treated poor Esav with such disdain after her married those two Hittite girls. Yet when he realized how he had displeased her and his father, he took two more wives from within the clan and still she spurned him.

The younger will rule over the older, this G”d told her and Yitzkhak. Yet her faith in this G”d was so pale she just felt compelled to help things along. Her pansy of a husband just played along, too. Of course, he was a troubled man. His own father had tried to sacrifice him to this G”d. And surely he knew about the dangers of parents creating rivalry between brothers. His own mother had sent his half-brother and childhood companion away.  It’s no surprise he ran away to live with his half-brother Ishmael and Ishmael’s mother after his old man tried to sacrifice him.

Yet he was no better than she. Oh, he was a little more even-handed in his attention to his twin sons, yet, in the end, played along with Rivka’s deception, perhaps because his faith too, was weak. Blind? Yeah, his eyesight was pretty weak. But his other senses were working just fine. He acted for all purposes like he was on his deathbed when Yaakov and Rivkah played their little game with him, yet he’s still alive and kicking all these years later! Off, perhaps, but no fool, he.

They never talked about it, least not that I know. But after that they always seemed a bit estranged. We didn’t see much of him, she and I. We whiled away the hours talking, sewing, and weaving. Then, with me as old as I am, she has the nerve to send me off to fetch Yaakov, to tell him it was time to come home, that his brother’s wrath had passed. So here I find myself traveling with Yaakov and his brood.

Yaakov hasn’t improved much either, I have to tell you. Oh, he does seem to have grown in his faith, but his imperfections remain. His poor daughter Dinah was raped by a local prince. In revenge, his sons killed most of them. And what was his complaint? Not that his daughter was raped, but that his sons had disturbed the good relationship he had with the locals!

If Rivka were here I know she would have died of shame. Not sure how much use she would have been to poor Dinah, though. She was bad enough with her sons, and probably doesn’t have a clue about being a good grandmother to a girl. No experience with girls. She might had a harder time trying to pass one daughter off for another!

Oh, listen to me go on like an old hag. Truth be told, I loved her like a daughter. She had good qualities. Her father-in-law’s servant Eliezer chose her to marry Yitzkhak because of her kindness. She could be a very kind, loving person. She could also be a real bitch. Oh, but there I go again. Sigh.

She was such a beautiful bride. And Yitzkhak was smitten with her. I thought it was a little strange that he bedded her on their wedding night in his mother’s tent, but then again, he was always a bit, well, off. She didn’t seem to mind.

Then all those years trying to conceive. I think they took their toll. She became less kind, It must have been terribly frustrating for her. I offered her the best counsel I could, but she often simply sniped at me, and asked me to keep my, as she called them, trite attempts at making her feel better about her situation to myself.

After those two decades, when she finally did become pregnant, she had a difficult time of it. Those twins acted in the womb as if they were at war with one another. The pain drove her mad. I think that is why she clung so strongly to the words of the G”d explaining the difficulty of her carrying. She was determined that her suffering would not be in vain, and that the G”d’s promise and prediction would come true. More than determined. Obsessed.

Once, Yaakov tricked Esav into giving up his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. Did Rivka or Yitzkhak say a word to either of them about that? No, the fools just let it go. They let Yaakov lollygag around the camp while Esav was out learning to hunt.

For all her fears, when Yaakov and Esav met again recently, what could have been a nasty confrontation turned out okay. Oh, there’s still little love lost between them, but each of them had achieved enough success to feel good about it, making any serious conflict unnecessary. They met, they danced their little ritual dance, and went their own ways.

Sigh. I tried to be a good nurse and mentor to Rivka. This G”d knows I tried. All the G”ds know I tried. Now I am old, and weary, and tired, and I can try no more. I think I’ll just lie down her for a bit.

וַתָּ֤מָת דְּבֹרָה֙ מֵינֶ֣קֶת רִבְקָ֔ה וַתִּקָּבֵ֛ר מִתַּ֥חַת לְבֵֽית־אֵ֖ל תַּ֣חַת הָֽאַלּ֑וֹן וַיִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ אַלּ֥וֹן בָּכֽוּת׃

And Deborah, Rebecca’s nurse, died, and she was buried beneath Beit El, beneath the plain; so he named it Allon Bakhuth


We don’t know when Rivka died, and we can’t be sure if she died before or after her nurse Devorah did. we only know, from what Yosef says many years later, that she is buried in the cave at Makhpelah. Isn’t it odd that Torah omits the details about Rivka’s death, yet mentions the death of her nurse Devorah?

Is there a missing story here? Did Devorah play a bigger role than the text as we now have it reveals? Was she somehow associated in folklore with this weeping oak tree? (Some of the sages suggest the tree was weeping because there were two deaths – Devorah’s and Rivka’s – in close proximity.)

Ah, if we only had Devorah’s story, we might have a better understanding of the lives of Rivkah, Yitzkhak, Yaakov and Esav. I’ve speculated a bit about what that story might reveal. Like the story of Yitzkhak’s time with Hagar and Ishmael after the akeidah, it’s another midrash waiting to be more fully written.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayishlakh 5772 - One and Many, Many and One
Vayishlakh 5771/5763 - The Bigger Man
Vayishlakh 5769 - A Fish Called Wonder
Vayishlakh 5768 - No One's in the Kitchen With Dinah
Vayishlakh 5767-Wrestlemania
Vayishlakh 5766-Like Deity, Like Deity's Child
Vayishlakh 5765-B'li Mirmah
Vayishlakh 5762-Don't Get Mad--Get Even!
Vayishlakh 5761-No Doubt? No Wonder!


Friday, November 23, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayeitzei 5773–Mandrakes and More

Some of the musings I have written on this parasha are among my favorites. While there is a new musing here for you to read this year, I did want to take this opportunity to (somewhat self-promotionally) recommend that you take the time to read through some of my previous musings on this parasha, listed and linked at the end. In fact, I’m so excited to have you read them, I’m going you to give you the list right here up front.

Vayeitze 5772 - Stumbling on Smooth Paths
Vayeitzei 5771 - Luz is No Loser
Vayeitzei 5769 - Going Down and Loving It!
Vayeitzei 5768 - Encounters
Vayeitzei 5767-Hapax On All Your Hapaxes
Vayetze 5766-Pakhad HaShem? `
Vayetze 5765-Cows and Cranberries
Vayetze 5764-Terms and Conditions
Vayetze 5763-Now and Then
Vayetze 5762-Change in Perspective
Vayetze 5760-Taking G”d's Place

On now on to this year’s musing.

Mandrakes. Mandragora autumnalis, a plant that is found commonly in the Mediterranean region, including the middle east. Pretty purple blossoms, small round fruits that turn from green to yellow to orange as they ripen. Deep taproots that sometimes (but not always) split and bear a small resemblance to the human torso. There is not a single part of the plant that is not considered poisonous to humans. It is chock full of alkaloids. It can cause hallucinations, hypnotic effects, and even coma.

Those of you familiar with the Harry Potter books and movies know of the many folk legends that have arisen about the plant (though JK Rowling took the legendary plant’s nature a bit to the extreme, the basic legend about the plants screaming when pulled from the soil is authentic folklore.)

Despite the apparent dangers, it has a long history of use as an aphrodisiac, as attested to in this parasha. Though the etymology is uncertain, the plant’s Hebrew name seems to illustrate this connection in the similarity of the word for beloved, דּוֹד dod, and the plant, דּוּדַי  dudai (all the various words from the דוד dalet-vav-dalet root, including David, Dod, Dudai, etc.are related, if somewhat tenuously, in their meanings.)

After Reuven, Shimon, Levi and Yehudah, Leah had stopped bearing children. Her sister Rachel, in her frustrated barren-ness had given Yaakov her handmaiden (or, to be more direct, her servant/slave) through whom Yaakov fathered Dan and Naftali. So following Rachel's example, Leah gave Yaakov her handmaiden (servant/slave) through which he fathered Gad and Asher.

Then things get weird for a bit. Scholars of literary bent suggest that the story of the mandrakes found in verses 14-16 is a simple diversion, meant to break the narrative and create a little tension. Perhaps.

One is nevertheless forced to ask what prompted Reuven to be on the lookout for mandrakes and bring them to his mother Leah? (For purposes of this musing, I’ll step over all the obvious Freudian inferences, but I leave you to mull those over.)  Though the text doesn’t say it outright, the inference is that it is lack of filial duty on the part of Yaakov. Yaakov didn’t seem to have any problem with his sexual prowess, or ability to father children. The elephant in the room here is that everyone knew that Yaakov loved Rachel more than Leah. Perhaps Reuven was trying to make his mother happy by providing her with the opportunity for some, as Dr. Ruth Westheimer would put it “good sex!” It has to be noted, however, that mandrakes were touted not just as an aphrodisiac, but as a cure for being barren-so it was more than sex that interested Leah – it was the chance to give Yaakov more sons. Probably. Or maybe not.

So what happens? Rachel asks Leah if she can have some of the mandrakes (which also begs the question of how Rachel knew that Reuven had brought mandrakes to Leah. Ponder that one for a bit. Lots of plausible answers, nevertheless an unanswered question. Whenever Torah has an unanswered question, I wonder why there is an unanswered question? Immediately after, I wonder if that, perhaps is the point: to make me wonder. ) Leah sharply answers her sister that she has already stolen her husband. So Rachel makes a bargain with her sister: she will insure that Yaakov has sex with Leah that evening if she can have some of the mandrakes. Boy, there’s healthy family and sexual relationships…not.

Leah’s fortunes turn – and she bears two more sons to Yaakov – Yissakhar and Z’vulun. Then, as Torah notes almost in an afterthought, she bears him a daughter, Dinah.  Only after that is Rachel’s womb opened by G”d and she is able to bear Joseph.

The text seems to tell us that the mandrakes did not help Rachel – only G”d could do that. (Yet it is not as clear as to how useful the mandrakes were for Leah. She got her chances to bear two more sons and a daughter – but was it because of the mandrakes that she used on her husband, or simply because of the persuasive powers of her sister?)

As I pondered this, I also began to think about the complicated nature of the relationships presented here. One man. Two wives. Two concubines. (Perhaps more concubines, we can’t be sure.) One wife beloved, the other less (or unloved altogether?) Add to the mix rivalries, real or perceived, and things get even more complicated. What about how Leah and Rachel felt? Did they love Yaakov? Can we impose our modern sensibilities and understandings about romantic and sexual love upon these biblical tales?

I think we do our ancestors a disservice if we try and write it all off by saying that in those times, procreation, and specifically bearing male children, was the only important thing. It can be difficult to be unsure of either the romantic or sexual feelings of your spouse or partner. Imagine Rachel wondering if Yaakov still loves her despite her inability to bear him children? Surely Leah wondered if Yaakov loved her, or even if he desired her. Was procreation all that Yitzchak was thinking about when he met Rivkah? Was that all that Yaakov cared about when he served Laban for his two daughters? I somehow doubt it. Love, in some form, and not just desire, was surely part of the equation. Romance and romantic love are not the sole purview of later generations.

So what can we learn, what can we take away from the tale of the mandrakes, indeed from the entirety of Yaakov’s relationship with his wives? Mandrakes, or their modern equivalences, may not be the answer. Relationships, romantic and sexual, are too complex to be dependent solely on medicines, drugs, aphrodisiacs, et al. What makes relationships work? What made relationships work for our ancestors? What makes them work for us? The answers might not be so different. One answer, and the one that speaks to me loudest, is finding/putting G”d in the relationship.

Yes, I know it’s very Buberian of me, but I do believe that G”d is found in our relationships one to another. I believe this is true for deep romantic relationships and even true for more superficial, even purely sexual ones. Sex, even when not for procreation, is still G”dly. What could be more G”dly than such intimate sharing, even if it is just sharing of bodily and physical pleasures? Both romantic relationships and physical ones are fully capable of being fully I-You (person as Human) rather than I-It (person as Object). Yes, some physical relationships may be purely I-It. By the same token, some romantic relationships may also be purely I-It. Being purely romantic or sexual is not necessarily the determinant factor in whether the participants are treating and seeing each other as human beings or objects.

(We do have the complication of Yaakov'’s relationships with his concubines, and specifically, Zilpah and Bilhah, with whom he fathered children, with them acting in place of his wives. I have a very difficult time finding anything other than an I-It relationship there, both between Yaakov and his concubines, as well and Rachel, Leah and their handmaiden/slaves. I am, and will always be, troubled by the knowledge that some of our tribal ancestors were the result of this sort of non-G”dly relationship-though I understand that some might see these relationships as entirely G”dly because they served G”d’s purposes.)

Mandrakes and other stimulants, drugs and aphrodisiacs might be seen as getting in the way of true I-You relationships. When mandrakes, or any aphrodisiac, are used surreptitiously, it ought to be suspect  Nevertheless, I can imagine situations in which such things are useful enhancements and not impairments.  Please don’t misunderstand me: using an aphrodisiac, or a drug in order to take advantage of another human being is wrong. No ifs, and, or buts. Intent matters.Both partners should be aware when enhancements are being used to improve the physical (or romantic) nature of the relationship. Nevertheless, like the rabbis of the Talmud who liked to explore all the possibilities, there are all sorts of situations we can stipulate. Some of them are even presented to us in the Torah. Lot’s daughters plying him with wine in order to have him father children by them – entirely wrong, or mitigated by their belief that they might be the last people left in the world? Torah is replete with morally and ethically cloudy situations.

The text doesn't tell us if either Rachel or Leah used the mandrakes on Yaakov as an aphrodisiac. It does seem to imply that this sort of human superstition/interference plays no part or has no impact on the outcome. That is up to G”d, we are led to believe. (It is clear that mandrakes do have some chemical and hormonal compounds in them that could affect human responses, sexual and otherwise, so it’s not entirely ineffectual.  Like many magical or superstitious beliefs, it is not without foundation.) I might suggest to the author(s) of Torah that there was a missed opportunity here to state unequivocally that, when it comes to things like barren women, magic and superstition are worthless – it is all up to G”d. However, sometimes subtlety can be more effective. It’s up to us to reach this conclusion from the way the Torah relates the tales. 

Mandrakes are part of a much larger set of things that can be used for enhancing relationships, romantic and physical. In addition to drugs, stimulants, aphrodisiacs, toys, and more, sometimes words alone are enough. The use of them does not preclude a true human-to-human relationship, and does not preclude the finding/locating of G”d in that relationship. For this to be true, it must be a relationship between two human beings, and not one human being and another thought of as purely object – whether object of love, desire, physical pleasure, etc. I strongly believe that what makes any relationship, romantic or sexual, good, or perhaps better, stronger, deeper, is if one can find/place G”d in that relationship.

This gets even more complicated because romantic and physical relationships are often entwined, and the things that satisfy the romantic aspects and the sexual aspects are often different, and even, at times, at odds with one another. A certain amount of selfishness is sometimes needed. It’s that old yetzer tov/yezter ra thing. Good relationships seek balance between them. Where do we find that balance, or at least where do we go to help us seek that balance? The answer is, I think, simple and complex at the same time. The answer is the G”d of our understanding.

Where was G”d in the relationship between Yaakov, Rachel and Leah? Was G”d in Yaakov, Rachel, and Leah’s relationships with Zilpah and Bilhah? Does the interest in using mandrakes on the part of Leah or Rachel diminish G”d’s part or presence in those relationships? Even more difficult to consider – does their use of Zilpah and Bilhah as surrogates diminish G”d’s part or presence in their relationships to each other and to their servants?

I pray that we all find the a way to get the love, sex, balance and more that we need in our lives. More importantly, I pray that we all find the way to find/place G”d in all our relationships, one human being to another – to those special to us, as well as to the stranger.  May this be G”d’s will. May this be our will.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha (same list as at the beginning)

Vayeitze 5772 - Stumbling on Smooth Paths
Vayeitzei 5771 - Luz is No Loser
Vayeitzei 5769 - Going Down and Loving It!
Vayeitzei 5768 - Encounters
Vayeitzei 5767-Hapax On All Your Hapaxes
Vayetze 5766-Pakhad HaShem?
Vayetze 5765-Cows and Cranberries
Vayetze 5764-Terms and Conditions
Vayetze 5763-Now and Then
Vayetze 5762-Change in Perspective
Vayetze 5760-Taking G”d's Place

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Friday, November 16, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Tol’dot 5773–More Teleology

I’ve spent some time writing about and discussing Rivka’s complaint about her difficult pregnancy, as expressed in the words of  25:22,
אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִ
in previous musings like Is This All There Is?

This year, I want to spend some time thinking about G”d’s answer to Rivka.
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה לָ֗הּ שְׁנֵ֤י גיֹיִ֯ם֮ בְּבִטְנֵ֔ךְ וּשְׁנֵ֣י לְאֻמִּ֔ים מִמֵּעַ֖יִךְ יִפָּרֵ֑דוּ וּלְאֹם֙ מִלְאֹ֣ם יֶֽאֱמָ֔ץ וְרַ֖ב יַעֲבֹ֥ד צָעִֽיר׃
G”d said to her: “Two nations are in your womb; and two peoples from it shall diverge; one nation from the other shall be stronger; the older will serve the younger.” (translation is my own)
Now, we already know the story, and that this is what comes to pass. However, we also know that how it comes to pass does involve some trickery, deceit, and dissembling.
So what we have here folks is - are you ready for it? – a bit of teleology. This is setting up a nice whitewash for Yaakov’s two offenses against his brother Esau, first in getting Esau to sell his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew, and then tricking his father into giving him Esau’s blessing. Sort of gets Rivka and Yaakov off the hook. Though not in my book. As far as I am concerned, nothing justifies how Esau was tricked, nor the tactics of Yaakov and Rivka.

Now we can argue that Esau has little regard for his birthright if he would give it away so easily, but his father’s blessing is another matter. Esau was really upset with Yaakov, enough that he wanted to kill him.
Yes, we can also argue that Rivka was upset with Esau’s choice of two Hittite wives, and favored Yaakov, but that still doesn’t justify her egging her son on into tricking Yitzchak into giving Yaakov the blessing due Esau as the eldest.

I have to ask, does G”d really not care how G”d’s desired ends are achieved? Sadly, I have to answer yes. G”d appears not to care at all. It’s just one setup after another.

“Hey, you two, eat of any fruit in the garden except from this tree in the center here.”

“Build an ark. I screwed up and I’m starting over with you.”

“Hey Abie, go take a little trip, who cares where?”

I will not destroy, even for the sake of ten.”

“Don’t look back.”

“I’ll make your descendants numerous.”

“Listen to your wife - you can throw the lady and your son out.”

“Yeah, I know she’s old and barren, but she’s gonna have your baby, buddy-boy. I’ll get the last laugh on her”

“Hey, Abie, grab Yitz and skeddadle on up this here mountain and offer him up to me.”

“The younger will rule over the elder.”

“Yeah, I’m gonna go let them suffer for 400 years while I take a break. Then I’ll take notice of them.”

“Oh this is fun. I’ll let them get this close, and then let them screw it up so they have to wander for 40 years.”

“I am so enjoying this. Moshe’s so tense, I know if I just tell him to talk to the rock, he’s gonna hit it, and then I won’t have to let him into the promised land. Ha.”

“I’m their King, they don’t need one. But what the heck, I’ll mess with thema little and give them a human King!”

And so on and so forth.

Now, putting on the modern liberal hat, we just assume that a later redactor put in verse 25:22 just to allow Rivka and Yaakov a cover for their sins. Yet, even if we remove the modern lens, we’re still stuck with the fact that this verse provides a convenient foreshadowing of the events that will occur. Taken that way, it is G”d saying “pay no attention to the man behind the screen.” This is how G”d wants it to turn out, and if it gets a little sloppy in the execution by G”d’s all-to-flawed creations, well then – so what? We get things to where G”d wants them. (Or, from the redactor’s point of view, we get them to where they actually wound up later.)

I’m just not comfortable with this-whether it is G”d’s approach, or the redactors. War, murder, infidelity, theft, jealousy, and more. All of these are just fine as long as they eventually help bring about the desired end result. Not in my book. I find myself troubled by both a G”d and a redactor that would find almost anything acceptable in pursuit of G”d’s ultimate goals-whatever they might be, if there even are any, and if we even have a remote chance of trying to discern exactly just what those goals are.

The haftarah for this parasha, from Malachi, last of the prophets, is a teleological dream. When asked how G”d shows love to the people of Israel, G”d’s answers that it is in how G”d will continually insure the defeat of the Edomites, even though they are part of the family, so to speak, being the descendants of Esau. It wasn’t enough that G”d allowed (or, if you prefer, stood idly or helplessly by) Yaakov to cheat his brother out of birthright and blessing. Even now, centuries in the future, G”d continues to insure that Yaakov’s descendants will rule over Esau’s. Yet more fulfillment of G”d’s oracular response to Rivka’s complaint. Sheesh, G”d. That’s over the top. Truly.

Thank goodness I don’t believe in a puppeteer G”d who spends time manipulating each and every jot and tittle, causing each moment of joy and each moment of pain, to what end only G”d supposedly know. No, my understanding of G”d, at least at present, involves a G”d who steps back after setting things in motion and just lets things take shape. The question is whether or not G”d simply adjusts the plan based on what choices humans make, or if those random choices simply are the plan and there is no ultimate goal. Or yet a third alternative – that on occasion G”d does act the puppeteer, meddling slightly and delicately to set things back on the right course (much like the Second Foundation does in Asimov’s Foundation series. Asimov’s Second Foundation, which helped to subtly guide humanity through history’s twists and turns turned out to not be located at the far end of the galaxy, as some suspected and believed, but right at it’s heart. Torah is a similar case. We can look in the margins, build a fence around her, develop esoteric schemes to analyze her, but, in the end, the answer is
כִּי-קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר, מְאֹד:  בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ, לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ)
..for this word is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it. (Deut. 30:14)
We could spend countless hours trying to figure out what it is that G”d wants us to do in order for G”d’s plans to work out. There are times when G”d can be obvious about this (as in the bit of text above,) but much of the time G”d is not at all obvious.  So it seems to me that all this analytical effort on our part might be wasted. It’s wasted, in part, because we may be looking for understanding and meaning deep down, or far away, when all we need to know is right there in front of us, plainly. As a friend wrote to me recently (though on an entirely different subject) it is “not some esoteric gematria that needs to be studied and spun.” It is a lesson I sometimes forget. Words can mean what they plainly say. Sometimes that cigar is just a cigar. But the Torah is such a convoluted smoke! And sometimes, in the Torah, the cigar isn’t a cigar at all.
How are we to navigate this ever-shifting landscape? Thinking plainly and clearly.  Putting one foot in front of the other. One day at a time. Doing justly. Loving mercy. And walking in humility with G”d.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:
Tol'dot 5771 - Keeping the Bathwater
Toldot 5769 - There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This
Toldot 5768 - Alternate Histories, Alternate Shmistories
Toldot 5767-They Also Serve...
Toldot 5765-Purposeless Fire
Toledot 5764-What a Bother!
Toledot 5763-Not Sticking in The Knife
Toledot 5762-Winners and Losers
Toledot 5761-Is This All There Is?
Toledot 5758-Like Father, Like Son

Friday, November 9, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Hayyei Sarah 5773–Still Tilting at the Same Windmills

Something about this parasha and its associated haftarah keep tugging at me. There are themes I come back to, time and again.

One theme to which I will always come back, until I eventually write that darn book I keep saying I’m going to write someday, is the Beer-Lahai-Roi connection. Beer-Lahai-Roi being the site of G”d’s annunciation to Hagar and also the place from which Yitzchak returns to bury his father. All part of my theory that after his father tried to kill him, Yitzchak went off to live with Ishmael and Hagar.

These two musings are among my takes on this:

Hayyei Sarah 5771 - The Book That Isn't - Yet
Hayyei Sarah 5770 - Call Me Ishmael II

I also found it interesting how two years in a  row I came back to the haftarah, and in both those musings, I used the same essential reference to Don Quixote (the book and the musical.)

Hayei Sarah  5767-Never Warm?
Chaye Sarah 5766-Semper Vigilans

I’ve not yet tired of tilting at windmills, even ones I’ve engaged with before.

As I continue to get settled in my new location, I hope you’ll forgive the recent rash of repeats. I’ve new ideas and new thoughts to share, once things settle down. In the meantime, enjoy the musings mentioned above, or one of these others:

Hayyei Sarah 5772 - Zikhnah
Hayyei Sarah 5769 - Looking for Clues
Hayyei Sarah 5768 - A High Price
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 (the original)
Chaye Sarah 5757-The Shabbat That Almost Wasn't

Shabbat Shalom,


©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, November 2, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Vayera 5773-Do Your Own Unpacking

I've had a lot of fun with this parasha over the years. It's rich with story, drama, intrigue, and more. I've pummeled Vayera with a Family Guy parody "He's a Family Guy?" 
( )

I've woven creative midrash in diary/journal form in "From the Journal of Lot Part II"
( )

I've punned my way through the parasha while making connections to some classic sci-fi with "Well...?"
( )

I've struggled with anachronistic and out-of-sequence text in "Whoops! Or Non-Linear Thinking"
( )

I've compared human and Divine wickedness and found us all equally guilty in "Not Even Ten"
( ) (By the way, for a beautiful and insightful operatic explanation of the true meaning our ten and minyan, I encourage you to read "Ten to the Power of One" by Stacey Robinson on her blog ( )

I've encouraged you to delve deeply into the densely packed content of this parasha and the entire Torah in "Density" (

I've wondered over the puzzle that is Sarah's lie in "Plainly Spoken" ( and I've mused about possible lessons in giving that we can glean from the story of Elisha and the Shunnamite woman in "The Price of Giving" ( )

As you read last week I'm on the move to a new home, so busy as I am unpacking and all that, I offer any and all of these previous musings for your reading pleasure. Enjoy.

Shabbat Shalom,

© 2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, October 26, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Lekh Lekha 5773-The Journey Continues

I have gone forth many times in my life.

Warning: the next few paragraphs are a history. You can choose to think of them as the equivalent of the various interrupting genealogies in the Torah. So, as many do, you can gloss over them, or read them in their entirety, perhaps finding a few useful pieces of information –just as one can do in the genealogies.

In 1973 I went forth from my childhood home of New York City to college in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. (Interestingly, I got my first driver’s license there. Didn’t have much need to drive while a teen in NYC. Winston-Salem is also the only city I have encountered to date where 1st St and 4th St. actually cross each other.) After graduation In 1977 I briefly returned to NYC for the summer and run a summer day camp. Then I went forth again – first to Doswell, Virginia, and shortly thereafter Mobile, Alabama, as a member of a Dixieland band. How a kid who studied piano at Juilliard from the age of five, and now had an undergraduate degree in theatrical design and production wound up playing with a Dixieland band is a great question, but, like Torah often does, we’ll leave it unanswered!)

The time in Mobile was brief (the club where we were playing went out of business.) I went forth again, this time to New Orleans, Louisiana. That was a great time. We played on Bourbon Street, and did all sorts of crazy, odd jobs. After a while it was off again, to Clearwater, Florida. After a few years there with the band, a marriage, and another club going out of business on us, I went forth again, with my wife, to Elkhart, Indiana. Actually, I worked in Elkhart (in an area called Dunlap) but lived in Bristol, a town of maybe 1200 residents. They had just switched over from 5 digit phone numbers shortly before I moved there. I was using my college degree, managing a performing arts facility, designing shows and working as a musician as well.

I managed to stay there a while (8 years) before going forth yet again to Fargo, North Dakota. There I also managed performing arts facilities, designed shows, and did musical work. I also worked as a synagogue musician and religious school teacher.  This time I managed to stay in one place a few months shy of ten years, but left without my then wife of 18 years after we divorced. We had no children, just lots of dogs, cats, and fish. This was also the time and place where and when I finally decided that it was time to make my living as a Jewish professional, no longer doing that as a sideline to my professions as theatrical production manager and musician.

So on to Nashville, Tennessee, graduate school, and a second, much shorter marriage that also ended in a divorce. This one involved two wonderful children.

Three years later I was off to Alexandria, Virginia.  I spent seven years there in the DC Metro area. I worked for a number of synagogues and was active in the Jewish community as educator and musician. I lived a few months with a partner in Boyds, Maryland, a far north suburb of DC, and then we (me, her, and her wonderful daughter) were off to Amherst, Massachusetts, she to teach at UMass and I to find whatever Jewish work there was in the area-which turned out to be not much. Three more years, and I went forth again, once again on my own. Only this time, I was going home – back to New York City, Brooklyn, to be exact. Single and unattached again, and living with my 87-year-old mother, who needed, and was happy for, the company.

(In looking this over, I’ve seen the number three come up a few times. I wonder what that’s all about. Or am I just being eisegetical?) 

This list of places I’ve lived is even longer if you factor in the various local moves and temporary summer moves. Three boroughs (Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn) and four addresses in New York City. During college years, summer addresses in Charlotte, North Carolina and Henrico County, Virginia (suburban Richmond.) Two addresses in New Orleans. Four addresses in three cities in Florida. Just two – one apartment and my first home, in Indiana, both in the same town. Thankfully, in Fargo, only one address. In Nashville, two addresses. In Alexandria, Virginia, two addresses within the same apartment complex. One each in Maryland and Massachusetts.

Phew. I think we’re pretty much past the recap.

Now, after a year in New York City to prove that you really can’t go home again, I am going forth yet again, this time to Deerfield, Illinois, a town in the northern suburbs of Chicago.

(I could write a whole essay on why the return to NYC didn’t work. Oh wait, I did write a short one. You can find it at:

Now, I can’t say that any one of my moves was anything like that which Avram undertook at G”d’s direction. Each time, I did indeed know where I was going. Yet, in any journey, there are always unknowns. Some of my moves were for education. Some for love. Some for work. Some for life. All of those are rife with possibilities, and fraught with potential perils. While I my have known a journey’s end locale, I can hardly claim to have known the real destination. New people, new communities, new workplaces, new expectations.

A quick diversion, if I might. When I was younger and moving around, locales had distinct personalities, characteristics, store, restaurants, etc. That has changed over the decades and places have become increasingly similar, homogenized, as it were. I sort of knew it was an unstoppable trend when Starbucks came to Fargo. Now don’t get me wrong. Many towns, cities, and neighborhoods have very distinct personalities. They still have unique restaurants, stores, parks, architecture, etc. New York City still has distinct neighborhoods. However there is also a sameness. In Metro NYC (and, for that matter, metro Chicago) there’s a Chase bank in every neighborhood. Each locale might have its local coffee place, but there’s bound to be a nearby Starbucks. For every unique local eatery there are numerous nearby national chains.

So, these days, when moving from one place to another, perhaps some of the anxiety about not finding familiar names and places is lessened. By the same token. sometimes I find that seeing the same store and restaurant names everywhere is anxiety-producing.

Imagine what it was like for Avram. Travelers to Ur and Haran may have brought information about far-flung places, but how much could they really convey? I imagine there were far more differences than similarities. Oh, you could certainly expect to find a temple of some sort just about everywhere. Which gods were worshipped in it was another matter. (My understanding is that it was common practice for a traveler to utilize the local temple wherever they were in order to make offerings to their own gods.)

I don’t want to sell words short. While a picture may paint a thousand words, words can also paint a pretty complete picture. Still, like today, there’s still nothing like experiencing a place for yourself. Avram didn’t even know where he was going. He probably had a general idea of where G”d was leading him. Still, he was far braver than I would consider I am.

Nevertheless, I could only hazard a guess at many of the things that lay before me each time I journeyed forth, for myself, to a new place. Thus, in that way, it is as if I were going to a place I did not know, like Avram. I would also like to think that G”d’s hand was there guiding me with each journey, and that I was truly being shown to a new place. That begs the question of course, as to whether it was G”d’s judgment, or my own, that made some poor choices. Well, that’s not fair. I have made some choices (and perhaps G”d made some choices for me) that were, in hindsight, not wise choices. Yes, I have some regrets. Yet, in the end, I am where I am and I am who I am because of all those experiences. They have made me all the richer for experiencing them. (Whether they have made me wiser, that’s another subject entirely.)

There is one big difference between Avram’s journey and my own. While the promise of future generations was there, I chose, for ever-changing reasons, to not sire children of my own. I have been privileged to be a step-parent and pseudo-parent to a number of wonderful children, yet, unlike Avram, my line ends with me. I leave it to my sister and relatives to continue the family lineage. I have no servant, no Eliezer to inherit. Not that I leave much behind. My material possessions and financial holdings are meager. What is it that I will leave behind?

Avram prayed that G”d give him children, give him an heir. G”d delivered on that promise. I am not driven to make that same request. I have the children who have come into my life through relationships, and through my work as a teacher and educator. They shall be my inheritance.

I will leave my work. It is not finished yet. I leave my life. It, too, is not over yet,  and new chapters are perhaps beginning to be written. What gets written is as much in my hands as it is in G”d’s hands. Perhaps more in my hands.

Avram journeyed forth, taking his household with him to a place he did not know, to a place that G”d would show him. It was not an easy journey-Avram had his trials and tribulations. Why did he make the journey? Why do any of us make the journey? The answer is found, at least for me, in how we have always teased out the meaning of the verb construct “Lekh Lekha.” Go forth, for yourself. Go forth, to yourself. Take your pick of these or other translations/interpretations.

I have again a journey before me. As I write this, my material possessions are on a truck somewhere between New York and Illinois. Once again, I have a new community of people to get to know, a new household to set up. I also have new chances and new opportunities.

What is it that I seek on these journeys? Why do I continue to go forth, for myself?  Avram received one particular bit of largess from G”d. It was a new name, Avraham. This new name represented a new phase in Avram’s life. Gone forth from his birthplace, Avram was free of the restrictions that place placed in his way. Only in a new place and with a new name could Avram become father of a multitude of nations.

No, it is not a new name I seek. I’m happy with my name, and, to some extent, who I am. In addition, my Hebrew name is already Avraham. I am proud to bear his name, though I most often feel unworthy of the honor.

What am I seeking? I think I am seeking the same thing Avram/Avraham was seeking. To have a relationship with G”d. To get to know G”d. To get to know myself. To have a relationship with myself. Both are journeys that have no end. There are stops along the way, and we stay in some longer than others. Some of us stay in only a few, some of us journey to many. I’m not sure what I would do if I ever reached a place I believed was the journey’s end. I suspect I might stay for a while and then get the urge to move on. Well, truth be told, I think, a number of times in my life I thought I had reached a more or less permanent destination, only to have life prove me wrong, and rebuke me for my hubris in thinking I could actually know this. There was a time – it still is a time – when I long for the permanence and security of a more or less permanent destination. Yet permanence is elusive.

I am, have always been, a person of opposites (as most of us are.) I long for permanence, I long for end result. Yet my passion is as much for process, for the journey. It has been (and continues to be) a slow process for me to embrace the latter, even though it permeates all that I do. As a person, as a professional, the process is of greater importance to me than the product. I seek that fine balance between the desire for permanence and the passion for process. I seek to become the blessing that I am living my life as.

And so I travel on…

Shabbat Shalom,

©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on This Parasha:

Lekh Lekha 5772 - Out of Context
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


Friday, October 12, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat-B’reishit 5773-Mixing Metaphors

There is a rather stark contrast between parashat Bereishit and its accompanying haftarah.

The G”d of parashat B’reishit is grand yet not particularly personal (or personable?)

Yes, the G”d of parashat B’reishit is most directly and intimately involved with the creation of human beings, and this G”d has a relationship with those beings. G”d speaks to them. Nevertheless, about the most personal this G”d becomes in this narrative is the treatment of Cain – even though Cain murdered his brother, G”d was moved by Cain’s plea to protect him from certain death. (Whether this was a mercy on G”d’s part or actually intended to be a form of additional punishment is unclear.)

The G”d of Isaiah’s prophecies in the haftarah is grand as well, but keenly personal – a protector, a savior and a redeemer.

In the JPS Haftarah Commentary, Michael Fishbane points out how the parasha uses verbs in the completed tense – G”d did this and G”d blessed that whereas Isaiah uses many participle verb forms – indicative, says Fishbane of a continuous and continuing acts of G”d, of G”d acts of creation.

I’ve written before that for most of our history, the creation stories of parashat B’reishit have been mostly seen as metaphorical, and only the most fundamentalist of Jewish interpretations would consider either of the two creation narratives presented as intended to be an actual physical description of those events,

The prophecies in the haftarah from Isaiah are also metaphorical in nature. Yet very different metaphors are used. Isaiah’s G”d is a loving (yet stern) parent.

It’s obvious, why the difference, isn’t it? In the creation narratives of parashat B’reishit, we have a G”d that is creating an entire universe, an entire planet and people on it. In Isaiah we are reading of the specific relationship of G”d to the people Yisrael. So naturally one is going to feel more personal than the other, especially to we descendants (physically or spiritually) Yisrael. Right?

Doesn’t that trouble you? It troubles me. Is it only once G”d has established a covenant with the Israelites that G”d establishes a more personal relationship? As G”d’s creation from the get go, are not all people equally entitled to a G”d that is a stern yet loving parent? A G”d that will protect and redeem them?

There are obviously flaws in the model-as demonstrated by the Flood and Midgal Bavel (the Tower of Babel.) For that matter we have the whole serpent thing, and Cain’s murder of Abel. I know I’m getting ahead of the story, but did it really take until G”d finally got to Abraham for G”d to realize that a more direct and personal approach was needed if G”d’s creations were to even come close to the expectations G”d had (has?) for them? Slow learner, this G”d. But we already know that.

If the creation stories of B’reishit are metaphoric, why not choose a storyline that has a G”d personally connected to all of humanity with a covenant? (Well, duh, if that were the case we wouldn’t be here discussing this now, would we? Ah, but I hear you say – humanity does get a covenant next week – a rainbow covenant! It’s a pretty one way covenant – G”d promise to never again destroy the earth – but with the escape clause of by flood.

If one brings a child into this world, one certainly has obligations and responsibilities for it. Why is G”d allowed to create a universe without having similar obligations and responsibilities?

Imagine Isaiah’s G”d in the B’reishit narrative. All of a sudden, there is a clearer intention in G”d’s acts of creation. Also, a clear acceptance by G”d of the responsibility to care for those creations.

Ah, but then I think how prideful and selfish this viewpoint is. Now all of creation is focused on humanity. G”d created all of this for us. (That is a likely viewpoint of our ancient ancestors – one of their answers to the question of why this universe is as it is.) At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if our ancestors were smart enough to know that a creation narrative with a personable G”d may have led us to greater hubris than we already come by naturally. That perhaps this is why the G”d of parashat B’reishit and the G”d of Isaiah are not the same.

Yet we still managed to muck it all up in any case. Pretty soon, not only was the universe created for humankind, it was created so that there might be Jews. All of a sudden Torah existed before Sinai.  Even before creation. So did, according to Talmud, repentance, Gan Eden (as paradise,) hell, G”d's throne, the Holy Temple, and Moshiach’s name. WTF?

While there are imperfections (gasp!) in both the G”d of parashat B’resiehit and the G”d of haftarah B’reishit, I think perhaps I’ll settle for leaving them as they are in those respective stories, without mixing their metaphors. For now.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

B'reishit 5772 - The Unified Field Theorem of the Twelve Steps
B'reishit 5771 - B'reishit Bara Anashim
B'reishit 5770 - One G"d, But Two Trees?
B'reishit 5769 - Do Fences Really Make Good Neighbors
B'reishit 5767-Many Beginnings
Bereshit 5766-Kol D'mei Akhikha
Bereshit 5765 (5760)-Failing to Understand-A Learning Experience
Bereshit 5764-Gd's Regrets
Bereshit 5762--The Essential Ingredient
Bereshit 5763--Striving to be Human
Bereshit 5761--Chava's Faith
Bereshit 5760-Failing to Understand

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