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

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