Friday, June 29, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Chukkat 5772–Your G”d, Our G”d, and the Son of a Whore

That guy from a daughter religion to Judaism may lay claim to being but a humble carpenter’s son, but we can do better. One of the Israelite Judges was the son of a prostitute.

In the haftarah for Chukkat we read the tale of Jepthah. Born of a liaison between his father and a hooker, he is ill-treated by the sons his father had with his wife, denied any inheritance because he is the son of an “other woman.” (The Hebrew here is somewhat open to interpretation. It could simply mean that Jepthah was the son of another women, or it could mean that Jepthah’s mother was not an Israelite, which I think is more likely. (The whole Jepthah story could really be in trouble if the Israelites has started practicing matrilineal descent. Unless, of course, Jepthah’s mother, the prostitute, was also an Israelite. Hmmm.)

What’s even more fun is that Jepthah (in Hebrew, Yiftakh) is Yiftach HaGiladi. Can you think of anyone else important in Judaism also from Gilead, and who is known as so-and-so HaGiladi? But I digress.

Jepthah leaves Gilead and becomes a brigand, surrounded by unsavory characters.(The text calls them anashim reikim, men of “emptiness,” often used metaphorically to mean men without principles or scruples. One could have a great deal of fun playing with possible meaning of “anashim reikim.”)

“Some time later” when the Ammonites attack the Israelites, the elders of Gilead seek out Jepthah, known as a skilled warrior, to lead them. Jepthah of course throws back in their faces how they treated him, and appears (or plays the game of being) incredulous of their request. The elders promise Jepthah that if he comes with them they shall make him their leader. It’s a deal!

Jepthah, despite his reputation as hanging with men of unsavory character, appears to be quite the diplomat warrior. He writes to the King of the Ammonites asking why they are attacking.  The King responds that the Israelites took away land from his people. Here’s the connection to the parasha. In Chukkat we read of Moses’ requests to both the Edomites and the Amorites for permission to pass through their land. Both refuse. The Israelites pass by Edom, but the Amorites attack, and lose big.

In the haftarah, the Ammonites are making a claim on land that, at least in the parasha, was conquered by the Israelites from the Amorites. It’s not really clear that that Amorites have any claim to this land – perhaps the Amorites conquered it and took possession from the Ammonites, but asking for land back from someone who conquered land that had already been conquered by someone else seems dubious, and Jepthah refutes the Ammonite claims. Jepthah also wonders why, in the 300 or so years that the Israelites have occupied this land, why the Ammonites have not previously made a claim upon he. He suspects the Ammonites are just using the issue as a ploy, and excuse to war on the Israelites.

Jepthah pretty much tells the Amorites “this is our land, we conquered it fair and square, and we have no intetion of giving any of it back to you.” Interesting enough, Jepthah also says this:

23 "Now, then, the Lord, the God of Israel, dispossessed the Amorites before His people Israel; and should you possess their land? 24 Do you not hold what Chemosh your god gives you to possess? So we will hold on to everything that the Lord our God has given us to possess

If you want some evidence that the ancient Israelites were monolatrous rather than monotheists, there it is, plain as day. You keep what your G”d has given you and we’ll keep what our G”d has given us. Battle of the Titans?

Jepthah then becomes a man impassioned by G”d, marches into Ammonite country,and utterly destroys them. On his way he makes a vow top G”d that, should he win, he will offer to G”d that which first comes out of his house to greet him upon his successful return. Jepthah is victorious, and returns. Then he pays the price for his vow.

The rabbis decided to leave that part and the rest of the story out of the Haftarah. Jepthah has to sacrifice his own daughter in order to fulfill the vow.

I, however, cannot bring myself to simply overlook that bit of editing. The lesson is somewhat clear: be careful what you promise to G”d.

Stepping back a bit, while there seems to be some confusion about who conquered whom, and the haftarah seems to be referring to different people (the Moabites and Amorites) than those in the parasha. Scholars are a bit perplexed by that, but some point to a reference in the Book of Joshua which speaks of Israel conquering land belonging to the Amorites. (Joshua 13:25.)

It’s a sore and touchy subject, but some ardent supporters of the modern state of Israel call upon some of the same arguments made by Jepthah – that conquered land belongs to the conquerors, even if conquered multiple times. Imagine, after all, the mess that might ensue if a tribe or nation could make claim on land that had been subsequently conquered and rules by more than one other nation. (On the other hand, Judaism has solutions for similar situations – for example, the rule of the Jubilee year when land always returns to the original tribe’s ownership.) Jepthah’s solution is a simple and pragmatic one. What your G”d gives you is yours. As far as the current situation is Israel,  I am not sure it is appropriate to take either the stance that “what G”d gives you is yours” or “it was ours, it has been conquered many times, and now we want it back.” I don’t want to get into this whole issue, frankly.

So the Amorites lose out (in the parasha,) the Ammonites lose out, and Jepthah pays a high price for his success in battle. Not a nice little story all wrapped up in a bow, is it? But then again, what fun would it be if it were?

Questions abound. Why did the Gileadites turn to Jepthah? In times of crisis do morals and such not matter as much? How did the Gileadites even have the temerity to ask Jepthah to help them after his treatment by them? What is it about Jepthah that made him worthy enough, despite his history, to be a champion for G”d, and to have G”d bestow the favor of victory upon him? Did the Ammonites have a legitimate claim, or were they just blowing smoke? Why did Jepthah, head of a band of brigands, choose the diplomatic approach first? Why did Jepthah refer to Moab and the Amorites when he knew he was talking with the Ammonites?

I think there is lots more to plumb in the depths of this haftarah. I intend to spend my Shabbat and other times doing that plumbing.  I commend it to you as well.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha: (I’ve only included musings on Chukkat when it was read separately from Balak.)

Chukat 5767-What A Difference A Vowel Makes
Chukkat 5765-Not Seeing What's Inside
Chukat 5764 - Man of Great Character
Chukat 5762-The Spirit of Miriam

Friday, June 22, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Korakh 5772–B’nei M’ri

The JPS translation committee renders the words as rebels, but the Hebrew is, as is often the case, a bit more complex.

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה הָשֵׁ֞ב אֶת־מַטֵּ֤ה אַהֲרֹן֙ לִפְנֵ֣י הָעֵד֔וּת לְמִשְׁמֶ֥רֶת לְא֖וֹת לִבְנֵי־מֶ֑רִי וּתְכַ֧ל תְּלוּנֹּתָ֛ם מֵעָלַ֖י וְלֹ֥א יָמֻֽתוּ׃

17:25 The Lord said to Moses, "Put Aaron's staff back before the Pact, to be kept as a lesson to rebels, so that their mutterings against Me may cease, lest they die."

The Hebrew being translated as rebels is לִבְנֵי־מֶ֑רִי

Without the prefixed לִ we have just בְנֵי־מֶ֑רִי

Sons of …of what? The venerable BDB lexicon renders it as rebellion, while HALOT translates it as contentiousness. The JPS committee simply chose to translate it as rebels.

Though we can’t be sure of the derivation of the word, there is some speculation that it does indeed come from the root mem-resh-hey, marah, meaning bitterness. That same root also doubles in meaning as rebellious or recalcitrant.

As is often the case in Hebrew, one word or basic shoresh (root) serves many different meanings, sometimes closely connected, and at other times apparently not so related.

Subtleties. Do they really matter here? In reading these words, many assume this is about about Korach, Dathan, and Abiram and their followers. Does it matter if we label them rebels, discontents, embittered followers, recalcitrants? Some would say it matters not. Yet what stands out to me is that these are, according to the text, G”d’s words.(Whether you believe they are actually G”d’s words, or simply those that the authors/redactors attributed to G”d is, for at least my purposes here, irrelevant. We can save that for another time.)

So yes, for me it matters what “b’nei m’ri” means, because this is how G”d is describing those who challenged the authority of Moses and Aaron. (This particular verse, 17:25, follows the account of how only Aaron’s staff blossomed among the staffs of all the chieftains, a clear demonstration by G”d that the authority does indeed rest with Aaron (and of course, Moses.)

If we translate “b’nei m’ri” as discontents, or embittered followers (i.e. sons of bitterness,) then we have the sense that these folks at least perceived an injustice or unfairness and were acting upon those feelings. However, if we see them as recalcitrants, then we are predisposing them to be rebellious by their very nature, making it easier for us to assume their claims are of little merit.

There’s little doubt that G”d sees all the Israelites as predisposed to be doubtful, argumentative, rebellious – in a word, recalcitrant. We’ve given G”d every good reason to see us that way – even unto this day.

Thus it should matter to us very much how G”d perceives us, and how, exactly, G”d perceived Korach, Dathan, Abiram and all their followers. After all, their punishment was pretty severe.

Context, again, steps in. The followers of Korach, Dathan, and Abiram had already been severely dealt with in the previous verses!   It was the day after the 250 followers had been consumed by heavenly fire, that the people were protesting that the punishment of the rebels was unfair, complaining that Moses and Aaron had only brought death and destruction upon them. It was at this point that G”d stepped in to order the blooming staff test to once and for put to rest any question of the authority of Aaron (and Moses.) It was at the conclusion of this test that we read the verse (17:25) in question.

So we now have to ask to whom G”d is referring. Just Korach and his band, or all the Israelites. The context would seem to suggest the answer is all the Israelites, for they all railed against Aaron and Moses. Or, at the least, anyone among the Israelites who harbors even the slightest rebellious tendency against Aaron and Moses (and by inference, G”d.) However, do we not already know that all of us are a stubborn, recalcitrant, stiff-necked people? Is G”d asking us to accept this natural tendency yet contain it and not becoming active rebels? (Sounds to me a lot like those rabbis in the orthodox community who says it’s okay to be gay as long as you don’t act on it! Really?) Really? Really G”d? You know we are, perhaps even made us people who tend to be recalcitrant, and yet You want us to control and subliminate those impulses? Talk about a no-win situation. Talk about a set up.

Perhaps “b’nei m’ri” is a better name for us than “b’nei Yisrael.” Although I could argue that it is things just like this that cause us to be, in one meaning of “b’nei Yisrael,” those who struggle with G”d. It’s an eternal paradox. To be both “b’nei m’ri” and “b’nei Yisrael.” How are we to simultaneously wear both mantles?

That, dear friends, is the question. I know I will puzzle over it this Shabbat and many others. Perhaps you will, too.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Korakh 5771 - Supporting Our Priests and Levites
Korakh 5770 (Redux 5758/62) Camp Rebellion
Korakh 5769 - And who Put G"d In Charge (or 2009: A Space Odyssey)
Korakh 5768-If Korakh Had Guns
Korach 5767-Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad, Tabernacle?
Korach 5766 - Investment
Korah 5765 - Stones and Pitchers and Glass Houses
Korach 5764-B'tzelem Anashim
Korach 5763-Taken
Korach 5761-Loose Ends


Technorati Tags: ,,

Friday, June 15, 2012

Random Musings Before Shabbat-Shelakh-Lekha 5772–Redux/Revised 5761-Cover-up?

 OK, time to write another musing. What's the parasha this week? Oh, yes-Shelakh-Lekha. Spies. What new insight can I find this year? I started to read, but it was late, and my eyelids grew heavy, my mind clouded...

Then the thought came, unbidden, into my mind, and I was taken aback by it. I couldn't believe I was actually thinking what I was thinking. Could the Torah be involved in a cover-up? Does Shelakh-Lekha contain the Watergate of ancient Jewish history?

G”d instructs Moshe to send out the twelve men to check out the territory they were about to occupy as part of G”d's promise. The Torah goes to great length to praise the two spies who saw the glass as half-full, Joshua and Caleb. And it depicts with scorn the ten who saw the glass half-empty, and the rabble (which was pretty much everybody else, I think) who accepted their negative reports and complained to Moshe.

So then what happens? G”d says, “OK, I will give you the land as promised...BUT...ain't none of you adults gonna see it except Joshua and Caleb here, because y'all doubted me and whined and complained. So go head the other way and wander around this here desert fer 40 years! That'll teach you varmints!”

Now isn't that convenient? G”d doesn't have to take on the Jebusites, Canaanites, Amalekites (chronology-what chronology-since when is Torah in chronological order?), Whatever-other funky-name-ites, etc. and clear the way for the Israelites to go take over the land promised to them. Nope. G”d gets an extra 40 years before that miracle has to be accomplished. You don't suspect G”d was a little pooped out from the effort over the last few months, do you? All those plagues, splitting the reed sea, manna, quail and other desert miracles, and carving out those tablets and giving the Torah to Moshe and the Israelites, all accompanied by the biggest sound and light show ever. Why, I'll bet G”d hadn't been so worn out since creation! So maybe, just maybe, helping out with getting the Israelites into the land past all those fierce tribes was a bit too much at the time. And on a G”d scale of time, 40 years seems about right for getting a little refreshed before tackling more miracles. For G”d, a mere catnap. Right?

Which perhaps means it was all a setup, and maybe even a cover-up. Could G”d possibly reveal to the Israelites that even G”d needs a little time to rest between miracles? Wouldn’t that portray G”d as limited, weak, vulnerable? Is that a G”d that the Israelites could accept?

(As it happens, I think the answer should be yes-after all, what did G”d do on the 7th day? So we know from the very beginning that “even G”d had to take a nap, and called that nap Shabbat." With thanks to Karen Daniel for that wonderful image from her lullaby "Shabbat Shalom.")

However, as I've said before, G”d often recognizes that humans aren't always the sharpest knives in the drawer. Perhaps G”d (or Moshe rabbeinu?) figured that it was too risky to try and help the Israelites fight their way into possession of Canaan while so worn out-for there was a chance many Israelites would be lost in the struggle, and they would begin to doubt G”d even more than they were already inclined to doubt G”d. In fact, the unthinkable might happen, and a pooped-out G”d might be unable to insure victory for the Israelites and they would be driven out-leaving G”d with an unkept promise.

Lucky for G”d, the Israelites have always been eager to provide a handy excuse for being the cause of their own problems. Sometimes, the Israelites seem like a machine whose only purpose is to provide rationalizations for unkept promises. As I said before, how “convenient.” (Thank you, Church Chat lady!)

“You people been bad! I'm gonna punish y'all. No milk and honey for you!” “Why?” the people respond. “Are you not G”d, slow to anger, abundant in mercy and loving kindness, to the thousandth generation and all that stuff?” “Yep. That's me! But y'all lost faith in me-only Joshua and Caleb here knew I would protect you and insure victory. I can't bring faithless people into the land I promised your ancestors. Nope. Go wonder for forty years” (And, under G”d’s breath...”yeah, and give me a little break, you ferkakhte Jews!”)

But now we can tell it all. Maybe I can sell the story to The Star, Globe and National Enquirer! Maybe I can even get the Washington Post or NY Times to investigate and expose this cover-up. Joshuagate, we can call it. Ah, I can see the headlines now.





“DNA TESTS ON SHROUD OF TURIN PROVE MARY WAS NO VIRGIN!” (Whoops, how'd that get in there? Well, you know those crazy tabloids.)

Oh, no. A limited G”d. A deceptive G”d. Oh wait, that's nothing knew. But my faith! I need G”d to be my rock, my redeemer. Help! Help!

.... and then I woke up. Cold sweat drenched my body. Oh horror! What a dream. G”d involved in a cover-up! And me responsible for exposing it. Oy! Well, better get back to reading the parasha so I can write that musing. Where was I? Let's see. Spies. Ten bad reports. Two good reports. The Israelites lose faith, whine and complain. G”d says “ok, no promised land for you. Go wander for 40 years in the wilderness.” (Also a Torah portion where G”d complains how the Israelites have forgotten all the great signs, miracles, bestowed upon them, and in the haftarah, the concept of signs are reduced to a cord indicating promises between a harlot and the two spies.) But wait a minute. Isn't this G"d, slow to anger, merciful, abundant in loving kindness? Isn't anything possible for G”d? And that Haftarah – two spies, and a harlot with a heart who apparently, like others we read about, is a non-Israelite who recognizes the Israelite G”d as G”d. What does it all mean? How do I make sense of it.

A thought came, unbidden, into my mind, and I was taken aback by it. I couldn't believe I was actually thinking what I was thinking. Could the Torah be involved in a cover-up? Does Shelakh-Lekha contain the Watergate of ancient Jewish history?...

Shabbat Shalom


©2012 (portions ©2001) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Sh'lakh-L'kha 5771 - Ignorantia Juris Non Excusat
Shelakh L'kha 5769 - One Law
Sh'lakh-L'kha 5767-Cover Up II - G"d's Scarlet Letter?
Sh'lakh L'kha 5766 - Another Missed Opportunity?
Shelakh Lekha 5764-They Might Really Be Giants
Shelakh-Lekha 5762-Minority Report
Shelakh Lekha 5760 and 5765-Anamnesis
Shelakh-Lekha 5759-Do You Spy What I Spy?

Technorati Tags: ,

Friday, June 1, 2012

Random Musings Before Shabbat - Naso 5772 - Keeping Me On My Toes II


Eleven years ago I wrote a musing entitled Keeping Me On My Toes for parashat Naso. This year, while I am at the annual Hava Nashira workshop, I revisit this musing with a few additions and observations.

Torah has a way of challenging us. For someone like myself, who is somewhat of a gadfly, it's a good thing that, once in a while, the Torah itself serves as my own gadfly. As a gadfly I often advocate for looking an an issue or question from multiple viewpoints, including those viewpoints which might not necessarily be popular. Standing, as we gadfly-types often do, as a sort of stand-in for Toto pulling aside the curtain to reveal the real Wizard in Oz, we become so enamored of our own role that we forget to examine ourselves for the very trait of narrow vision that we call out in others. This week's Torah portion provides just such a reminder for me.

I come from a fairly poor, working class background. My political and economic leanings are definitely not favorable to unbridled capitalism. I do admit to some prejudice against those better off than myself, especially those much better off than myself or any of the rest of us 98-percenters. I've railed before against the high-cost of being Jewish, and its underlying assumption that most Jews in this country are economic well-off. (A recent tangent to this topic is related to how the iPad and iPhone are getting preferential treatment for first releases and forays into the world of electronic siddurs and the like, not necessarily because the creators of these things believe iOS is a better platform, but because they assume more Jews, being well-off, own Apple products as opposed to other devices. There's a corollary to this effect in that it runs counter to the old mythos of the Jew as cheap and miserly, and thus they will buy the better and more expensive product. While I won;t argue that Jews as a general rule are better off these days in the U.S. than they were decades ago, there is still a significant, overlooked Jewish population that is working class or even in poverty, and even relatively well-off Jews are struggling in today's economic climate.)

   So, as an admitted member of the "hey you guys, there are plenty of not-so-well-off Jews out here" club, and, admittedly, a bit of a socialist, I easily buy-in to the pretty popular, almost politically correct tendency of folks to decry and denounce the plethoric presence of plaques placed prominently in shuls, synagogues, sanctuaries and other centers of Jewish life, living and worship. After all, we are taught that giving anonymously is a higher virtue. Yet Jewish buildings abound with dedicatory inscriptions. Some building are even named for their major benefactors. Federations and synagogues send out their yearly acknowledgements listing all the contributors, sometimes egalitarian and sometimes defined by "levels" of giving.  There are synagogues and other institutions out there who have "sold" naming rights in honor of big donors in perpetuity, and then later resold them when a bigger donor came along. Oy.

I hate walking into a synagogue only to be confronted by plaques on every little item recognizing a donor. Drives me absolutely bonkers. Some synagogues do a better job at being discrete about this, but even there I am discomforted. I'll admit it. I am one of those who scorns at the practice. Maybe it's because I know I'll never really be able to afford it myself except on a very limited scale, but mostly it seems so ostentatious and vain.

Well, I love it when Torah challenges one of my cherished values. And challenge it parashat Naso certainly does. We have here a complete description of the gifts brought by the heads of the tribes and clans to the dedication of the mishkan.

77 verses of this parasha are dedicated to a description of the gifts and offering brought by the clan chieftains and Nachshon (who alone is not called chieftain, perhaps, as the rabbis tell us, so he would not be overly prideful at being the first to be assigned that honor.) The offerings are effectively identical, so why, one wonders, does the Torah painstakingly recount each chieftain's presentation? Scholars suggest a literary device, while the rabbis and other sages offer a range of more mystical or psychological explanations. That's a discussion I might yet take up at some future time.

My focus is not on the fact that each chieftain's identical gift is carefully described in details, but rather that the description of the gifts are there at all. It just brought me up short and made me rethink my automatic rejection of the idea of public recognition for support so prominent in our society, and in Judaism nowadays.

Perhaps, the Torah is teaching us that some types of recognition may be appropriate. That it is OK to name donors. After all, the Torah itself names donors right here in this parasha!

And that, for me, is the joy of reading Torah. If I read Torah regularly, it won't allow me to become complacent and dogmatic in my views, for each time I open it and turn its pages something new will reveal itself and challenge some belief or perception of mine.

I'm still troubled by the prevalence of plaques and other forms of recognition that adorn our institutions and houses of worship, but I can no longer accept a blanket condemnation, or simply assume they are a bad and ostentatious thing. I must temper my judgment with these insights from Torah. I know I'll be devoting time this Shabbat thinking about it. The place where I am today, the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute Camp in Oconomowoc, WI,  participating in the annual Hava Nashira Workshop certainly isn;t over-abundant in recognition plaques, but it has its share. Each time I see one (or enter a named building) I know I'll be thinking about this.  As this challenges me, I encourage you to be similarly challenged. How can we reconcile our concerns for ostentation and over-abundance of recognition plaques, our understanding of what Judaism teaches about the value of charity, and what we read right here in Naso?

Thanks, G"d, for this gift to keep me mentally on my toes at all times.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2012, portions 2001 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parashah:

Naso 5771 - The Nazarite Conundrum
Nasso 5770 - Cherubic Puzzles
Naso 5768 - G"d's Roadies
Naso 5767 (Redux 5759) - The Fourth Fold
Naso 5765-Northeast Gaza-Side Story
Naso 5763--Lemon Pledge
Naso 5759-The Fourth Fold
Naso 5760-Bitter Waters
Naso 5762-Wondrous Names (Haftarah Naso from Judges)