Friday, September 28, 2012

RandomMusing Before Shabbat-Ha’azinu 5773-Haftarah Haazinu: An Insincere Hymn?

Whether you’ve known me for a while, or are new to my musings, I do believe my penchant for redeeming so-called irredeemable texts is evident. Well today, this week, this month, this year, this annual repetition of the parasha, this hafatarah I may have met the limits of my passion for trying to redeem a portion of sacred Jewish Biblical text.

It’s not that this text is particularly heinous, perverse, bloody, or any such thing. It’s just that, in my encounter with the haftarah for parashat Ha’azinu this year, which comes from II Samuel chapter 22, I did not feel that usual tug that often draws me to look for something redeemable in an otherwise troubling text. I read it, repeatedly, waiting for the moment when something would jump out at me, or an idea would form in my mind that could lead me into potential ways to redeem the text. A few times a verse, or a part thereof, grabbed my attention, but alas, in moments the “aha” feeling was gone, my hopes for a path to redemption for the text dashed yet again.

Part of what troubles me with this haftarah is its focus. It is essentially a hymn of praise from David, thanking and praising G”d for helping David to defeat his enemies. In contrast, in parashat Ha’azinu, Moshe is praising G”d for all that G”d has done for the all the children of Israel. From what we know of these two great, yet flawed leaders, I suppose we should not be surprised that Moshe’s hymn is community-themed whereas David’s hymn is more individual.  Moshe certainly managed to stay a lot less self-focused throughout his life than did David.

David paints a very anthropomorphic picture of G”d is his hymn.

8 Then the earth rocked and quaked,
The foundations of heaven shook —
Rocked by His indignation.
9 Smoke went up from His nostrils,
From His mouth came devouring fire;
Live coals blazed forth from Him.
10 He bent the sky and came down,
Thick cloud beneath His feet.
11 He mounted a cherub and flew;
He was seen on the wings of the wind.
12 He made pavilions of darkness about Him,
Dripping clouds, huge thunderheads;
13 In the brilliance before Him
Blazed fiery coals.
14 The Lord thundered forth from heaven,
The Most High sent forth His voice;
15 He let loose bolts, and scattered them;
Lightning, and put them to rout.
16 The bed of the sea was exposed,
The foundations of the world were laid bare
By the mighty roaring of the Lord,
At the blast of the breath of His nostrils.
17 He reached down from on high, He took me,
Drew me out of the mighty waters; (JPS, 1985)

I admit that I don’t take to anthropomorphism well, so that prejudices me from the start. This text also strikes me as one of the least sincere hymns of praise I’ve ever read. I don’t, for one second, believe that David really believes what he is writing. It is all poetic imagery for the masses. It is all metaphor and simile. It is contrived, superficial, and not that well written. To me, it has the feel of David thinking to himself “hmmm…I won. I guess I’d better write a nice hymn of praise to G”d so I can appear humble and not be perceived as believing the victory was because of what I did and not what G”d did. Yeah, that’s what the people and the priests will like.”

Yet David still reveals a bit of his smarmy self:

20 He brought me out to freedom,
He rescued me because He was pleased with me.
21 The Lord rewarded me according to my merit,
He requited the cleanness of my hands.

22 For I have kept the ways of the Lord
And have not been guilty before my God;
23 I am mindful of all His rules
And have not departed from His laws.
24 I have been blameless before Him,
And have guarded myself against sinning —
25 And the Lord has requited my merit,
According to my purity in His sight.

To quote Bill Cosby: “….riiiiiiiiiiiiiiight.”

Oh, to be sure, there are some wonderful, sweet snippets that can be taken from this hafatarah. Yet only out of context do they appear as sweet and wonderful.

29 You, O Lord, are my lamp;
The Lord lights up my darkness.

says David. only to spoil it with:

30 With You, I can rush a barrier,
With my God, I can scale a wall.

We can pretend this may refer to other situations, but we know David is talking about war and battle.

David even seems confused about where the credit belongs. One moment it is all “I” as he is saying:

38 I pursued my enemies and wiped them out,
I did not turn back till I destroyed them.
39 I destroyed them, I struck them down;
They rose no more, they lay at my feet.

Yet in the following verse it is the capital y You

40 You have girt me with strength for battle,
Brought low my foes before me,

In the following verse both sentiments mix:

41 [You] Made my enemies turn tail before me,
My foes — and I wiped them out.
(the insertion is mine for clarity)

So which is it? “Thank G”d for doing it” or “I Did It…with a little help from G”d, of course.” Those are different sentiments indeed.

Even the one bit of text in this haftarah that I like, and which has some seeming possibilities for redemption and use:

26 With the loyal You deal loyally;
With the blameless hero, blamelessly.
27 With the pure You act in purity,
And with the perverse You are wily.
28 To humble folk You give victory,
And You look with scorn on the haughty.

is an inaccurate description of the reality of life,even as it is described on our holy Jewish texts, for sometimes G”d is disloyal to the loyal, faults the blameless, is impure to the pure, is hard on the humble and is nice to the haughty. Would that G”d’s actions were always as balanced as David says.

If only David had stopped after these initial 7 verses:

1 David addressed the words of this song to the Lord, after the Lord had saved him from the hands of all his enemies and from the hands of Saul. 2 He said:

O Lord, my crag, my fastness, my deliverer!
3 O God, the rock wherein I take shelter:
My shield, my mighty champion, my fortress and refuge!
My savior, You who rescue me from violence!

4 All praise! I called on the Lord,
And I was delivered from my enemies.

5 For the breakers of Death encompassed me,
The torrents of Belial terrified me;
6 The snares of Sheol encircled me,
The toils of Death engulfed me.

7 In my anguish I called on the Lord,
Cried out to my God;
In His Abode He heard my voice,
My cry entered His ears.

Not great, but not bad for a short hymn. Now, to be fair to David, Moshe also praises G”d as a warrior G”d – though Moshe also dwells on G”d’s treatment of the Israelites when they disobeyed, before he moves on to G”d’s vengeance upon the enemies of Israel. Moshe offers a reminder that perhaps David could have heeded:

Deut 32:26 I might have reduced them to naught,
Made their memory cease among men,
27 But for fear of the taunts of the foe,
Their enemies who might misjudge
And say, "Our own hand has prevailed;
None of this was wrought by the Lord!"

Moshe’s hymn in parashat Ha’azinu is also a troubling text, for many reasons, but I have and still feel compelled to try and redeem it. The passion to do so with David’s hymn in the haftarah remains absent for me at this time.

So again I ask myself “why is that?” There are far more troubling pieces of texts than this haftarah. Is it simply because the hymn feels disingenuous to me? Is it all just gut feeling? Is it the warrior G”d? (That’s certainly not unique.) Is it my discomfort with G”d as “rock?” Many like that image-I find it troubling. A rock may be strong, and last seemingly (but not at all in reality) forever, but all a rock does is sit there. That’s a bit too passive a G”d for me. I need a G”d that is both rock and Jell-O. Luckily for me, while Judaism doesn’t exactly provide a G”d who is like Jell-O, it certainly allows for a G”d who can be be firm and steadfast as well as soft and pliable.

Is it my disaffection for the monarchy? The haftarah ends with David thanking G”d with :

51 Tower of victory to His king,
Who deals graciously with His anointed,
With David and his offspring evermore.

As I have imagined G”d saying: “You Israelites wanted a monarchy despite My misgivings about that? OK, you got one. Deal with it.” Wasn’t such a successful experiment, was it. If David’s rule was the apex-and we can’t be sure it was-was it really that great? It was certainly pretty much all downhill (with a few, brief shining moments) after Solomon. It ended with the Hasmoneans. Need I say more?

I am still not sure what about this haftarah troubles me so. I still cannot say why I feel no compulsion to try and redeem it.

Others do not see the haftarah as I am experiencing it this year, this month, this day.

In the JPS Haftarah Commentary, Michael Fishbane, in connecting and contrasting the parasha and haftarah, criticizes the people that Moshe is addressing as ones who turn against G”d and suffer for it. He lauds David as being faithful to G”d and constant in that faith even when success could lead him to do otherwise. He redeems the haftarah by having it illustrate clear choice in religious practice, G”d-centered or self-centered. I do agree with Fishbane’s assertion that all religious people confront this choice:

“a God-centered way of remembrance and humility, and a self-centered way of forgetfulness and pride.”

Fishbane, M. A. (2002). Haftarot. The JPS Bible Commentary (324). Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.

I’d like to agree with Fishbane’s assessment of David’s humility and faithfulness, as it would give me a path to redemption for this haftarah. Alas, I do not. David’s own words (if they are indeed so, yet even if they are not) betray him. There is an awful lot of self-congratulatory lauding mixed in with David’s praise for G”d.

Perhaps another week, another month, another year, another annual repetition of the parasha and this hafatarah I may yet find a way to redeem, at least for myself, this portion of sacred Jewish Biblical text. The journey continues.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Ha'azinu/Shabbat Shuvah 5570-Pur Prayers Aren't Bull
Haazinu 5766-Trifles (Updated from 5762)
Haazinu 5765/5763-How would It Look If...
Haazinu 5764-More Bull From Our Lips
Haazinu 5762--Trifles
Haazinu 5760-Bull from Our Lips

Friday, September 21, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Vayeilekh 5773 - L'eyd B'vnei Yisrael-The Real Denouement (Redux 5760)

We read and we study. We grapple with these words, these instructions, teachings, laws, examples, promises, blessings, curses, etc. Then like the master craftsman, G"d puts that final twist, that reversal, that surprise, into the story. After all we have gone through as readers, after all that our ancestors went through to reach this point where they are about to enter the promised land, after thousands of words, each, according to the rabbis, meant to be there-not one jot or tittle out of place or without some meaning...we hit what I think is the real denouement of the Torah: D'varim 31:19-21.

19 Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My witness against the people of Israel. 20 When I bring them into the land flowing with milk and honey that I promised on oath to their fathers, and they eat their fill and grow fat and turn to other gods and serve them, spurning Me and breaking My covenant, 21 and the many evils and troubles befall them — then this poem shall confront them as a witness, since it will never be lost from the mouth of their offspring. For I know what plans they are devising even now, before I bring them into the land that I promised on oath. (JPS, 1985)

Here we are told, matter-of-factly, the reason for the existence of the Torah. It is to serve as a witness against us. G"d tells Moshe rabbeinu quite plainly that the children of Israel will go astray, turn to other gds. The Torah is there so that future generations will know what it is that G"d has asked of the Jews, and to illustrate how far they have strayed!

Could be a pretty depressing scenario. It is, however, realistic and historically accurate, even unto this day. We continue to stray, to turn to other gds. We fail to follow the mitzvot, to keep our end of the covenant. And Torah is always there to remind us of this-to be the witness against us.

So we seek to find ways to bend the Torah, to keep it alive and vibrant, make it jibe with contemporary knowledge and contemporary society. There is always a part of me that wonders if this is truly the wise course-and how far can be bend the Tree of Life before it breaks?

But our grand Jewish tradition reaches to an earlier part , in parashat Nitzavim, to address this issue. I've written about it before, as have countless others. Lo Bashamyim Hi. The Torah is not in heaven. G"d gave it to us, and now it is up to us to interpret it. And the Torah itself tells us we should not find it too baffling, to difficult to understand, to distant to approach, for it is in our very mouths and hearts.

Feel it. The internal tension. Torah is G"d's witness against us, yet it is also no longer G"d's to interpret, but ours. Oh, the irony. It's natural to shy away from the tension-but don't! Embrace it, take it into yourself, make the tension, the very dialectic that is Torah, part of your being.

For is it not obvious to us all by now? Light from dark. Day from night. Land from water. Sacred from profane. Blessing and curse. A witness against our transgressions yet the freedom to interpret that very witness ourselves. We have come full circle from creation.

Life is not just about being all good, or all bad, all rich or all poor, all gentle or all rough, all friendly or all wicked, all generous or all miserly. Life is about being both good and bad, rich and poor, gentle and rough, friendly and wicked, generous and miserly. All in one package. This, our holy Torah makes abundantly clear. We are a treasured people, honored with a special covenant with G"d, yet we are a stiff-necked and obstinate people, always seeking after other gds. This is not a fault to be fixed. It is a reality to be dealt with. The Torah is the ultimate guide to better mental health by teaching us to accept the dualities and dichotomies of life. OK, so today wasn't such a good today. Perhaps tomorrow I'll do better. Only the knowledge that the only consistency in life is inconsistency can get us through life's trails and tribulations. Thank you, Gd, for this great wisdom you have shared with us, through your servant Moshe. May it be Your will and ours that we use it wisely.

Shanah Tovah and Shabbat Shalom,

©  2012 Portions  © 2007, 2000 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Nitzavim/Vayeilekh 5770 - Flawed, Schmawed
Nitzavim/Vayeilekh 5769 - Disconencting the Reconnecting the Dots
Vayeilekh_Shabbat Shuvah 5769 - Cows and Roses
Nitzavim/Vayeilekh 5766 - Keep Looking
Vayelekh 5765-The Time Is Still Now
Nitzavim 5765-To Lo Or Not To Lo
Nitzavim/Vayelekh 5763-Connect the Dots
Nitzavim 5757/5759/5764-Lo Bashamayim Hi
Nitzavim 5758-Not By Ourselves
Nitzavim 5761 was the week of Sept. 11, 2001. There was no Musing.


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Friday, September 14, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Nitzavim 5772-Where or When

Where is G”d? As the Kotzker Rebbe (aka Menachem Mendel of Kotzk) answered: “Wherever we let G”d in.” (Well, that’s not exactly what he said, but more on that later.)

A few years back, Rabbi Neil Gillman put an even more interesting spin on the question and its answer by suggesting that G”d is “wherever we put G”d in.”  That’s a very different (and perhaps more modern) understanding than what we can glean from words in parashat Nitzavim.

וּמָ֨ל יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ אֶת־לְבָבְךָ֖ וְאֶת־לְבַ֣ב זַרְעֶ֑ךָ לְאַהֲבָ֞ה אֶת־יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ לְמַ֥עַן חַיֶּֽיךָ׃

The JPS editorial committee offered this poetic translation:

"Then the Lord your G”d will open up your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love the Lord your G”d with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live."

However, I offer this more direct translation:

Ad”nai your G”d will circumcise your heart and the heart of your seed, to love Ad”nai your G”d with all your heart and all your soul in order that you might live.”

In 1998, I wrote about these words:

To me, there is no clearer indication, anywhere in Torah, that G”d takes an active part in the relationship between humankind, and more specifically, G”d's covenanted people Israel, and G”d than in Deut 30:6.

The Torah is replete with stories of G”d entering the hearts and minds of people. G”d hardening Pharaoh's heart is one of the best known. So we know that our Torah is telling us that G”d takes an active role.

Nowadays, however, the idea of free will, personal choice, and personal autonomy is the norm. "I'll choose to love or not love Gd." Do we really have that choice? Who is really in control?

If G”d truly loves us, who are made in G”d's image, and who are directed to keep G”d's covenant, could G”d allow us to perish as a result of our own lack of faith, our own non-belief?

G”d’s statement in Deut 30:6 is G”d’s proof text that G”d exists and that G”d is the big cheese. We may question and doubt G”d's existence, but even in the midst of our doubt, G”d can and will open our minds and hearts.

I had already chosen to focus again on Deut 30:6 this year, and at the very moment I happened to be reviewing those words from 1998, coincidentally in the background I was listening to Rabbi Joe Black’s “Let G”d In” which just happened to be included in Craig Taubman’s “Jewels of Elul VIII” which I had just downloaded (for free, to boot) from Amazon. That prompted how I began this musing. It was certainly a challenge to how I interpreted Deut 30:6 when I wrote about them in 1998.

Then, as I searched through notes, clippings, links, and other resources I had collected over the years (thank heavens so much of this is now in digital form, using Evernote and other apps,) searching for references to the Kotzker Rebbe’s famous answer, I came across Rabbi Gillman’s thoughts on them in an issue of Conservative Judaism Magazine from a few years back. (It should be noted that both Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk and Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav may have expounded on this basic question, both giving basically the same answer. Aryeh Kaplan quotes the Kotzker in his Innerspace : Introduction to Kabbalah, Meditation and Prophecy‎. I believe Kaplan quotes the Kotzker as saying only where we let G”d in, in response to his father’s assertion that G”d is everywhere. Rabbis an clergy everywhere seems to have taken some liberty with the Kotzker’s words as reported by Kaplan and omitted the “only” and replaced it with “wherever.” I’ve seen others attribute the quote to Nachman, but I’ve yet to come across a direct citation from one of Reb Nachman’s books. Perhaps one of you out there can help clarify? It wouldn’t at all surprise me that both great thinkers came up with similar ideas, but I am somewhat of a stickler for proper attribution.)

The words of the Kotzker Rebbe cause me to question my fervent hope, expressed back in 1998, that, even in the midst of doubt, G”d would open our hearts and souls to love G”d. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk suggests that we need to be, at least to some degree, a willing participant in the process – that we must allow G”d in. It needs to be a dialogue, or at the very least, a covenantal exchange. I’m not sure if this means that G”d would not or could not override our stubborn resistance and turn our hearts and souls to love G”d. It largely depends on how one understands G”d and G”d’s powers and abilities in the universe.  Can G”d override our free will? (If the Kotzker indeed said “only where we let G”d” in then perhaps we know his answer as to whether or not G”d can override free will.)

Rabbi Gillman’s interpretation requires more than a passive acquiescence to G”d, more than a willingness to “let G”d in.”  He writes the we have a history of “putting G”d in” in situations where G”d’s presence is not “objectively verifiable.” He cites the Hanukah narrative as one, and the version of the Al Hanissim (for the miracles) prayer that was created by the Conservative rabbinate for Yom Ha’atzma’ut (Israel Independence Day) as another. We placed G”d into our history, even though we had no clear empirical evidence that G”d was there.

It’s not just that we need to proactively put G”d into our lives. The miracles are already there, and by putting G”d into the story we come to recognize the sacredness of the moment.

I struggle with this daily. The simple faith that G”d is always there eludes me – my logical mind requires, if not evidence, at least an analysis that concludes there is more  mystery to be considered. Sadly, I too often sense G”d’s presence as the outcome of such an analysis, rather than through any gut feeling.  I yearn for a simpler, plainer faith. Yet I cannot be certain that my path to accepting G”d’s presence in the world is any less efficacious or meaningful. Why is it, then, that I so yearn for a faith that comes from feeling rather than analysis?

I rail annually against the continued trumpeting of the “miracle of the oil” as the centerpiece of Hanukah observance as pediatric Judaism. It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that I now conclude that I must be like the people for whom the rabbis of old, with their analytical minds, decided that for Hanukah to be meaningful, G”d had to be put into the story. Also like the rabbis of today, at least those who created that Conservative Al Hanissim for Yom Ha’atzma’ut. (It is interesting to note that this is a peculiarity to the Conservative liturgy. The theological thinking that led the Conservative rabbis to create this liturgy did not lead the orthodox/traditional or Reform community to do the same.)

There was only enough oil for one day yet it lasted for eight. Surely G”d was present in this miracle. Israel again became a nation-state in 1948. Surely G”d was present in that miracle, too.

It is sad to think that I may be like a typical Biblical Israelite. The sea parts, and I am in awe and sense G”d’s presence. For a while. The mountain trembles and I sense G”ds presence. For a while. Water springs from a rock and I sense G”d’s presence. For a while. My faith is inconstant, seemingly fickle. Then again, it is nothing like that, I say to myself. For one thing, I do not automatically lose faith when things go wrong, when my throat is dry, or I have gotten too comfortable. I am not the type who needs the reminder to be thankful after the meal when I am sated. My faith is inconstant only in that it is in a process of constant analysis, and not always (and frequently not) in reaction to circumstances.

So I know that part of me “gets it.” I believe I have a reasonable understanding of what G”d requires of me. I am a person of faith. It doesn’t necessarily have to have a rational underpinning, however I still approach it analytically.

The belief is always there, I just need to “let it in.” No, that’s not enough, I need to “put it in.” Ruminating on Rabbi Gillman’s words has been of benefit to me. The concept of “putting G”d in” is easier for me to understand than “letting G”d in.”

Back to Duet. 6:30. This may be how G”d opens our hearts and minds to love G”d – by being always there in the moment, waiting for us to recognize G”d’s presence and put G”d into the moment.

For some of you, dear readers, “letting G”d in” may be the key. for some of you, like me, the key is “putting G”d in.” A third viewpoint, which Rabbi Gillman credited to JTS colleague Steven Brown, is changing the question to “When is G”d?” That’s a very Heschelian approach – seeking the sacred moments of time in our lives when we sense G”ds presence.

My theology may change. My analysis may change. My approach may change. My understanding of my faith may change. My faith itself may change. What matters is that G”d is there waiting to be let in, put in, found in a moment in time.

When is G”d?
Where is G”d? wherever we let G”d in.
Where is G”d? Only where we let G”d in.
Where is G”d? Wherever we…

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah U’metukah,

©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Nitzavim/Vayeilekh 5770 - Flawed, Schmawed
Nitzavim/Vayeilekh 5769 - Disconencting the Reconnecting the Dots
Vayeilekh_Shabbat Shuvah 5769 - Cows and Roses
Nitzavim/Vayeilekh 5766 - Keep Looking
Vayelekh 5765-The Time Is Still Now
Nitzavim 5765-To Lo Or Not To Lo
Nitzavim/Vayelekh 5763-Connect the Dots
Nitzavim 5757/5759/5764-Lo Bashamayim Hi
Nitzavim 5758-Not By Ourselves
Nitzavim/Vayelekh 5760/67-L'eyd B'vnei Yisrael-The Real Denouement
Nitzavim 5761 was the week of Sept. 11, 2001. There was no Musing.

Rosh Hashanah 5770-The Dualities of Life II
Rosh Hashanah 5764-Inscriptions
Rosh Hashanah 5763-The Dualities of Life


Friday, September 7, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Ki Tavo 5772 - Mi Yitein Erev? Mi Yitein Boker?

How bad can it get? If we are to take Torah at its word, pretty bad.

בַּבֹּ֤קֶר תֹּאמַר֙ מִֽי־יִתֵּ֣ן עֶ֔רֶב וּבָעֶ֥רֶב תֹּאמַ֖ר מִֽי־יִתֵּ֣ן בֹּ֑קֶר מִפַּ֤חַד לְבָֽבְךָ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּפְחָ֔ד וּמִמַּרְאֵ֥ה עֵינֶ֖יךָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר תִּרְאֶֽה׃

In the morning you will say “Who will give (us back last) evening?” and in the evening you will say “Who will give (us back last) morning, from the fear in your hearts that you will fear, and from the sights in your eyes that you will see.

Things, which are already bad, will get progressively worse, and each moment is so bad that one will long for the “less bad” that existed only moments ago. Perhaps the worst part of this is that the verse suggests that it is not only the harsh realities that will afflict us, but our own imaginations – the dread of even worse afflictions that we conjure up in our dreams. The sights we see in our eyes in dreams can be just as real to us as those we see in the cold harsh light of day, and can cause us continuing dread and despondence.

We do not even need the scourge of the myriad curses described in extensive detail over 43 verses (Deut. 28:15-68) to experience the harsh, trapping reality of complete despondence described in verse 67. When we do something that we know is wrong, more often than not (I would like to believe,) our own conscience tortures us by day and by night. With each passing moment that we do not seek to right our wrong, or make amends for it, our soul may continue to afflict and torture itself.

In fact, it’s possible that all the curses elaborated in those 43 verses are just that – not a description of what will surely happen, but what we ourselves (or our ancestors) imagine might happen if we fail to observe the commandments. It’s all one big, long, scary nightmare, an imaginative horror flick, a pastiche assembled by the human psyche in an attempt to fight the internal battle on the side of tov versus ra, good versus bad. It’s horror as a cautionary tale – like the monsters parents have used over the millennia to frighten their children into better behavior.

The idea of a Deity coming up with this long description of horrors that might befall the Israelites troubles me, if there’s even a hint that these could actually happen. The idea that we conjured these up from our own fears ought to be a little more comforting, but somehow it, too, is not. In addition, being the avid reader of Science Fiction that I am, there’s the additional thought that this might be a form of aversion therapy that could be twisted and adapted into something much more sinister. The theme of using someone’s worst fears as a mind weapon against them has seen many iterations in literature – perhaps this is the first (or just an early example. There are parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh that might qualify as earlier uses of this literary device.)

For many humans, perhaps just the fear of having one’s worst nightmares come true is enough to help them continually strive to be better persons. Would that this were not so-that desire for blessings would be a better motivator than fear of curses.)The Torah gives us carrot and stick, heavy on the stick. Surely the blessings enumerated in verses 3-14  ought to be enough to insure our obedience to the commandments. However there being only 11 verses of blessings and 43 of curses suggests that aversion therapy was the strategy of choice here.

For many, the approaching Yamim Noraim/Days of Awe are fraught with a heavy-handed negative approach to behavior modification. The threat of a Day of Judgment is held over our heads. That’s not much different than holding these curses over our heads. There’s a difference, however. In this parasha, our nightmares are made real,making the threat seem quite real. The Day of Judgment is somewhat different. There is no clear outcome in Judaism for one found lacking on the Day of Judgment. There is no “hell” per se. There is the shadowy world of “sheol” but it’s not at all clear that this is a place reserved for only the wicked. Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) and Job both suggest that good and evil people alike wind up in sheol.

Later on, we Jews added the concept of gehinnom. In some interpretations, truly righteous souls, upon death, proceed directly to Olam Haba/Gan Eden, whereas most of us go to gehinnom after death for twelve months, where we are given the chance to purify ourselves, and atone for our sins. (The sages disagree on whether this purification is achieved through punishment or simple self-reflection.) After the twelve months of purification one ascends to Gan Eden, a sort of Jewish heaven where the dead exist in a life as pleasant as that of Adam and Eve before their “fall.” Yes, Virginia, even in Judaism there are those who think of what happened to Adam and Eve as “the fall.” How this heavenly Gan Eden differs from Olam Haba isn’t exactly clear. Two Jews, twelve opinions.

It is not at all clear what happens to those who, at the end of their twelve months in gehinnom, remain truly evil. They may ascend anyway-though I’m not sure any sage or scholar ever said that. The Rambam, one of my favorite targets, foolishy – and I dare say that about the great Maimonides – suggests in his Mishneh Torah that the wicked receive eternal damnation and punishment. (Really? Are we both reading the same Torah?) Other sages suggest the truly wicked are simply destroyed after their twelve months in gehinnom.

There’s another difference, as well. We have some sort of Judgment Day each year. Rosh Hashanah is also yom hadin, a day when we all stand in judgment befoe G”d. The praxis of Elul/Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur gives us a chance to atone for our sins, wipe the slate clean, and start the new year fresh. Why fear a great and final Day of Judgment when we already go through one annually?

The consequence of being less than perfect, perhaps even being evil, is, annually, another chance. That’s not a philosophy that utilizes fear and intimidation, is it?

Jewish “Hell",” according to some, might be the sort of place where the poor but righteous person who aspired all his or her life to be able to spend more time in study of Torah but was not able to do so actually gets to do so, and with the great sages and ancestors, whereas the rich but evil person who always had the resources to study Torah but never did winds up doing just that, all the time, as well. In that sort of scenario, nobody really loses, do they?

Perhaps Torah, in this parasha, spends so much time on aversion therapy just to teach us that it really isn’t the best way. It may have been a stroke of brilliance that Torah contains so many things that trouble us, shock us, frighten us. That gives us the motivation, after having been assured that Torah is ours to understand and interpret, to develop a religion that tries to focus more on the positive. A religion that goes out of its way to reject harsh punishments. A religion that creates a space to allow human beings to engage in self-reflection, and an opportunity to rededicate themselves, annually, to being better, improved, or, if those terms trouble you, simply changed persons. A religion that seeks to reinterpret the words of Deuteronomy 28:67 in a positive manner.

In the morning you will say “Who will give (us back last) evening?” and in the evening you will say “Who will give (us back last) morning,” from the fear in your hearts that you will fear, and from the sights in your eyes that you will see.

The fear that the night before was so wonderful that the morning could never be as wonderful as the previous  night was, and the fear that the evening might not be as wonderful as the morning. That’s a fear I can live with. Almost. If I have to live with fear, that is. It may enough just to be thankful for each evening and morning that I get to live in my life.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Ki Tavo 5771 - Curse This Parasha!
Ki Tavo 5769 - If It Walks and Talks Like a Creed...
Ki Tavo 5767 - Uncut Stones
Ki Tavo 5764-Al Kol Eileh
Ki Tavo 5763--Still Getting Away With It?
Ki Tavo 5760--Catalog of Calamities
Ki Tavo 5761--Rise & Shine
Ki Tavo 5762--Al Kol Eileh