Friday, December 27, 2013

Random Musings Before Shabbat – Va’era 5774 – Tomorrow, Again


It’s been jumping out at me all week and I finally noticed it. Connections to the word “tomorrow.”

  • I spent some time this week cleaning up my rather large collection of mp3 files from years of digitizing cassettes and LPs and CDs mixed with downloaded content. Between that and the various types of software I’ve used over the years to organize those files – players like iTunes, Zune, Windows Media Player, Rhapsody, plus various re-namers, taggers, and other music library management tools-my library has garnered duplicates, copies of the same track in multiple formats (m4a, mp3, wma, ram, etc.) The seemingly most duplicated and messed up album was the original cast recording of Annie, and, in particular, the song “Tomorrow” had seven different instances (yes, seven, Mystic, isn’t it?)
  • A friend, sharing on Facebook about their time in NYC and seeing the revival of Annie.
  • All week long I’ve had a long-ago memorized bit of Shakespeare stuck in my head – the soliloquy from Macbeth Act 5 Scene 5. You know the one, whose second line begins “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…
  • I actually woke up this morning to the sun streaming into my apartment and found myself humming it in my head…”the sun’ll come out tomorrow…”
  • I spent a lot of time watching Dr. Who this week both before, during, and after the annual Xmas special, it being Matt Smith’s last appearance as The Doctor. Now this last connection here is a bit sketchy and tenuous, so bear with me. Dr. Who is not a comedy (though it can be.) It is, even in its current incarnation with broader international appeal, a thoroughly BBC-esque show, though it often pokes fun at itself for that very thing. Coincidental with all the BBC America watching, I’ve been cleaning up an old Purim Shpiel I wrote based on Spamalot.. Dr. Who. BBC. Spamalot. Monty Python. BBC. It all connects, sort of…

It was all like a giant neon sign, telling me to revisit, revise, and add to a musing I’ve shared thrice before which speaks of tomorrow, and is also Monty-Python-esque. Enjoy. Maybe learn a little, too. Have questions, I hope.


Imagine a Monty Python-esque skit. We are in the

"Office of Plague Revocation." 

[An officious looking clerk sits behind the counter, positively radiating ennui. Three men walk in dressed respectively as Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh.]

Clerk: "Can I help you?"
Moshe: "I'd ‘like to cancel a pl-pl-pl-pl-pl-pl-pl-pl-pl-pl-"
Clerk: "What?"
Aaron: "He'd like to cancel a plague." [indicating Moses]
Clerk: "Well, let him speak for himself then."
Aaron: "Er, can’t you ‘ear he's got a bit of a speech impediment. I'm his spokesperson-and also his brother."
Clerk: "His brother you say? And he lets you do all the talking? Gor Blimey! Wish me own brother would just shut up and let me do all the talking."
Aaron: "Yes, that's all very nice, but we just want to cancel a plague."
Clerk: "Very good, sir. Just what kind of plague is it that you, or rather your brother wishes to cancel?"
Moshe: "Frogs."
Clerk: "Can you be more specific?"
Moshe: "I beg your pardon?"
Clerk: "Well, are they tree frogs, land frogs, river frogs? With pestilence or without pestilence?"
Moshe: "Oh, I s.s.s.s.see. I b.b.b.believe they are j.j.j.just river f.f.f.frogs, no sp.sp.sp.special additions like p.p.p.p.estilence and that sort of rot."
Clerk: "And are you the curser or the cursee for this plague?"
Moshe: "No curse, just a p.p.p.p.lague of f.f.f.frogs."
Clerk: "Yes sir, I understand. But are you the person upon whom the plague has descended, or are the one who called upon the Almighty for this plague?"
Moshe: "We didn't exactly call upon the Almighty."
Clerk: "What do you mean, didn't call upon the Almighty?" No one gets a plague sent against their enemies without asking the Almighty."
Moshe: [pantomimes while Aaron explains}
Aaron: "The Almighty said my brother here to tell me to 'Stretch out your hand over the waters and bring forth frogs.'"
Clerk: "You are joking, of course? The Almighty spoke to you? And told you to call forth a plague of frogs?"
Aaron: "Well, yes, that pretty well sums it up."
Moshe: [nods agreement]
Clerk: "And now you'd like this plague of frogs stopped?"
Aaron: "Yes."
Clerk: “I’m confused. It’s your brother asking me to cancel the plague but it was you [indicating Aaron] who brought it about what with all your waving arms and all that stuff and nonsense?”
Aaron: “Well he’s the one who saw the burning sne and spoke with G”d.”
Clerk: “I’m afraid we don’t handle burning snes, whatever those are, in this office. Just plagues.
Aaron: “I’m just trying to explain that he’s the one that G”d chose. I’m just here to help.
Clerk: “But you did start this plague of frogs by holding up your arms?
Aaron: “Well I suppose so….but it’s me brother ‘ere who’s in charge, and this Pharaoh bloke asked ‘im to stop it, not me.”
Clerk: "Well, this is all somewhat irregular, my good man. I'm going to have to check with the home office."
[Clerk steps into a back room. Moses is behind Pharaoh making funny faces at Aaron trying to get him to laugh.]
Pharaoh: [in a Cockney accent] "I hate all this petty bureaucracy. It is so much easier when you yourself are a g"d, as I am."
Aaron - whispered to Moses: "See, I told you he wasn't getting it..."
[Clerk re-enters]
Pharaoh: [Quickly switching to a Yul Brenner voice] "What is hold-up? I have little patience for you pesky bureaucrats."
Clerk: "Come, come now, good sir. I'm sure those pesky frogs have made you just a wee bit testy, but there's no reason to take it out on me for just doing my job, is there sir?"
Pharaoh: "So much easier, when I am g"d."
Clerk: "Did you say you were a g"d sir? [to Moshe and Aaron] "Did he just say he was a g"d?"
[Moshe and Aaron nod yes.]
Clerk: "Well, can't he make the bloody frogs go away on his own then?"
Aaron: "Well, there's some slight difficulty with that, as you see...."
Clerk: "Oh yes sir. Say no more. Say no more. Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink. Just thinks he's a g"d, eh? I've had a dozen of those today already."
[Phone buzzes and clerk answers]
Clerk: "Yes...........yes...........I'll find out.....yes.......I see........very good, then."
[Clerk puts down phone and grabs a scroll from under the counter.]
Clerk: "Well, do pardon me, gents, I didn't realize you were so close with the boss. Seems the boss has taken a special interest in your case, then."
Aaron: "Well, then, can we get this plague cancelled?"
Clerk: “Of course, sir. Right away. Just have your brother initial [unrolls a rather long scroll] here, here, here, here, here, here, here....and here.....and sign here."
[Aaron hands scroll to Moses who signs it.]
[Clerk then stamps the scroll repeatedly. Very repeatedly. And loudly]
Clear: [to Moses] ‘ere. You missed one.
[Moses initials]
Clerk: "Very good, sir, thank you. Everything seems in order, sir."
Aaron: “So we're done here?"
Clerk: "Well, just one more question."
Aaron (and Pharaoh and Moshe): "Yes?"
Clerk: "When?"
Aaron: "When what?"
Clerk: "When would you like the plague stopped?"
Aaron: "Well, right away I.....[Moshe is gesturing furiously at Aaron]
Aaron: [aside and annoyed, to Moshe] "What? What is it, dear brother?"
Moshe [points at Pharaoh and says:] "Let ‘im…"
Aaron: [finally annoyed with the stutter] "Choose! You want me to ask Pharaoh when the plague should stop?"
[Moshe nods yes.]
Aaron: "but...."
[Moshe gives Aaron a dirty look, holds his staff up.] [Sound effect: thunder]
Aaron: "Show off!"  [To Pharaoh] "OK, Pharaoh, when do you want the plague of frogs to end?"
Pharaoh: [Cockney accent] "You're asking me?"
Aaron: "Yes."
Pharaoh: [Yul Brenner voice] "Well, soon as possib.....[switching to Cockney voice] ‘ey, wait a minute. Is this some kind of trick question?"
Aaron: "You're a g"d, you figure it out!"
Pharaoh: "You're probably all expecting me to say right away. But I won't play your little game. How about....let's see's......[in Yul Brenner voice] tomorrow?"
Clerk: "What time tomorrow, sir?"
Pharaoh: "Don't bother me, a g”d, with piddly little details. Just pick a time. Anytime tomorrow will be fine. Um, except from one to two. I have an appointment to get my beard braided"
Clerk: "Happy to oblige sir. Do come back and visit us again.
Moshe: "Thank you."
Clerk: "My pleasure sir. [whispered, to Moshe and Aaron] "Just wait until he gets a whiff of all those dead frogs tomorrow."

Voiceover-Announcer: "And now for something completely different..."


In agreeing to ask G”d to stop the plague of frogs, Moshe says to Pharaoh:

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה לְפַרְעֹה הִתְפָּאֵר עָלַי לְמָתַי ׀ אַעְתִּיר לְךָ וְלַֽעֲבָדֶיךָ וּֽלְעַמְּךָ לְהַכְרִית הַֽצְפַרְדְּעִים מִמְּךָ וּמִבָּתֶּיךָ רַק בַּיְאֹר תִּשָּׁאַֽרְנָה:

Moshe said to Pharaoh: You may have this triumph over me: for what time shall I plead in behalf of you and your courtiers and your people that the frogs be cut off from you and your houses, to remain only in the Nile? (New JPS)

הִתְפָּאֵר עָלַי  Variously translated as “You may have this triumph over me”or “Have thou this glory over me. What is this triumph, this glory, this little victory that Moshe is giving to Pharaoh? That Pharaoh may choose the exact moment of the end of the plague. (?)

Now, the rabbis give us a perfectly plausible explanation as to why Pharaoh would be asked when the plague should stop.  Having it stop at exactly the time that Pharaoh asked for, as opposed to that which Moses decreed, is a more powerful reminder to Pharaoh of who is really in control here, and who is really a g"d. Moshe toys with Pharaoh in suggesting this is a little victory for him

Still, if that's the case, why such a vague answer from Pharaoh? Why not "an hour from now" or "when the cock crows" or " when the sun, my glory, is high in the sky" ? If he wished to keep up some pretense of caring for his people, surely Pharaoh would have opted for "right now."

What can we learn here? What is this all about? Rashi gets fixated on the fact that although Pharaoh has asked for the frogs to be gone tomorrow, Moshe still goes out and prays right away for that to happen. For me, that's not the issue. It's why Pharaoh said "tomorrow" in the first place. Aren't you just the least bit curious?  Or do we just chalk it up to the unseen hand of G"d once again meddling directly with Pharaoh's thoughts (although the text does nothing to so indicate.)

Some commentators suggest that Pharaoh didn’t really believe that Moses and his G”d were responsible for the plague – it was a natural phenomenon that would soon end. So Pharaoh is playing his little game and Moshe is playing his (or G”d’s.)

To muddy the waters a but more, consider this often overlooked thing: the Torah tells us that Pharaoh’s magicians duplicated the frog trick as well. (see Ex. 8:3) So the frogs that were plaguing Egypt were as much a product of Moshe (and Aharon, and G”d) as they were of the Egyptian magicians. Why then, did Pharaoh summon Moshe and Aharon to have the frogs removed? Some commentators (like Ibn Ezra) suggest that what the Egyptian magicians were able to duplicate was only at a much smaller scale. I’m not buying that one because the text doesn’t say that. In fact, it says they brought frogs upon the land of Egypt (though if we want to be picky, it doesn’t say “all” of Egypt.)

We could just chalk this up to sloppy writing, a sloppy narrative. This is not the only “huh?” to have survived what were clearly long and protracted periods of redaction of the text of the Torah. However, it was a pretty easy one to fix, so the question remains why redactors would choose to leave these little puzzles. (If you’ve been reading me for a while you already know my default answer is that these puzzles are there precisely to puzzle us, to keep us interested and wrestling with the text.)

So I'm going to let these questions linger:

  • Why did Pharaoh summon Aharon and Moses to remove the frogs when some of them were there through the work of Pharaoh’s own magicians?
  • Why did Pharaoh not simply ask his magicians to remove all the frogs?
  • Why, when offered a choice of timing by Moshe,  did Pharaoh ask for the plague of frogs to be gone by tomorrow?
  • Was Moshe toying with Pharaoh? Did Pharaoh think he was toying with Moshe?
  • Would you bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there’ll be sun?
  • What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?

If you come up with a good answers, I'd love to hear them. (Don’t worry if you don’t get that last one, though if you don’t you might get wet. It’s a Monty Python thing.)

So, in closing, let me just leave you with some “sound and fury, signifying nothing:”

“Leapin’ lizards!”

and for you Whovians out there

“I don’t want to go…”

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 (portions ©1997, 2002, 2006) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Va'era 5773 - Let Our People Go/Rendezvousing With Rama
Va'era 5772 - Got It!
Va'era 5771/5765-Brighton Beach-Last Stop!
Va'era 5769 - Substitute
Va'era 5767-Again, Crushed Spirits (Miqotzer Ruakh)
Va'era 5766-Why Tomorrow?
Va'era 5765-Brighton Beach-Last Stop!
Va'era 5764-Imperfect Perfection and Perfect Imperfection
Va'era 5763 - Pray for Me
Va'era 5761-Just Not Getting It
Va'era 5762-Early will I Seek You

Friday, December 20, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Sh’mot 5774-Pas De Deux

[Watch out. This one took a turn somewhere and went somewhere totally different than I thought it would. There, you are forewarned.]

Is it faulty logic? Is it blindness from gender bias?

Think about it. Why would Pharaoh order new born male Hebrew children killed? You want to control a population, you eliminate the women. No women, no babies. Was Pharaoh simply displaying an innate (however mistaken) gender bias?

Some commentators attempted to explain Pharaoh’s instructions as coming from his particular fears, as expressed in the Torah – a fear that the Hebrews would side with an invading power, and as everyone knew back then, only men were soldiers.

Sidebar: we can play a little game, and viewing the Exodus as a historical event, attempt to place it in Egyptian history. The typical placements are around 1450 or 1250 BCE. Yet according to the dynastical histories, Queen Ahotep I rallied her husband’s (and possibly brother) Pharaoh Seqenere Tao’s troops and my have been active in their defense of Thebes. She lived from 1560-1530, which puts it before the Pharaoh(s) of the Exodus. So women warriors might not have been an unknown. (Pharaoh Tao began the effort to drive the Hyksos out of Egypt. Josephus identifies the Hyksos with the Hebrews, though most modern scholarship rejects this notion. There are striking similarities between the Hyksos and the Hebrews. They did not follow Egyptian religion, they did not consider their Pharaohs to be g”ds, and they did not build great monuments. After six Hyksos Pharaohs, the Egyptians eventually drove the Hyksos out. The experience turned Egyptian culture highly xenophobic.) So timing would be everything, if we view the coming of Jacob and his family into a welcoming Egypt.  Timing matters, too, if we want to make some connection between the “montheistic” period of Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (1353-36 BCE?) and the Hebrews. Ah, for a time machine. Or not. There may be things we don’t want to really know.

So Jewish scholars reasoned that Pharaoh ordered the male Hebrew children killed to prevent them from growing up to be soldiers who might threaten Egypt. Nevertheless, not the most logical strategy. Kill the female children of the Hebrews, and the threat of both the Hebrew becoming too numerous and their males growing up to be soldiers to fight against Egypt disappears. Ah, but there’s that slave-owner logic. Kill all the female children, and eventually all your slaves die out and you have none. Kill the males, keep the females, and you can find ways to impregnate the Hebrew women and keep your slaves. So perhaps there is a dastardly, ugly logic to it all after all. Were the Pharaohs that smart and that evil, or were they just products of their testosterone, and didn’t see Hebrew female children as a threat?

Boy, nothing is ever as simple and obviously logical as it seems.  Very little in life presents just “a” and “b” options in a logic/decision-making tree. The law of unintended consequences raises its head whenever we don’t see or take into account all the variables. There I times I wonder if any attempt to find all the variables in a situation and factor them into the logic tree is a fools errand.

We can further muddy the waters. We can view unintended consequences through different lenses. We can view them as a product (or by-product) of humanity’s free will. We could also see unintended consequences as being the result of Divine interference. How do you factor that into a logic tree?

Oh wait a minute. Religion. Faith. These are attempts by humankind to factor the unknown, the not yet understood, the unexplainable, and more, into some sort of logical framework. We’ve abused the concept, unfortunately, by simply using it as an explanation for why things don’t always work as we expect them to work. Things didn’t go your way? G”d. You factored in everything you could think of and things still didn’t happen as expected? G”d. He/she did everything right and still died young? (Ineffable) G”d.

Sidebar: is G”d logical? Does logic matter to G”d? The Torah seems replete with questionable choices by G”d, choices that defy any logic. If we apply the “ineffable” standard we have to accept there may be a Divine logic to which we are not privy. Is logic merely a human construct? Is logic, like religion, part of the human attempt to understand the universe? Yes, it is true that as scientific knowledge increases, we sometimes discover an underlying logic we could not previously see. Proponents of religion and faith might make the exact same argument!

Now, we’re not there yet in the Torah, so I won’t get into the whole “direct intervention by G”d” stuff, or G”d’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. That really messes up the logic. In the end, would it have made much difference to the Torah’s narrative whether Pharaoh had ordered female instead of male (or both male and female) Hebrew children killed at birth? Well, one could argue that choosing to kill female children only would be problematic for the etiology of Moses. No need to hide him, put him in a basket, have him grow up privileged in Pharaoh’s palace, murder an overseer, run away, etc. Yet if G”d intended to choose Moses, G”d would surely have made it happen somehow. [Ooh-was it G”d perhaps that toyed with Pharaoh’s mind and made him choose to order only the male Hebrew children slain at birth? Oh what a tangled web. Causality is a bitch, ain’t it? Causality gets totally screwed when you introduce an omnipotent (or even semi-potent) G”d into the equation. Science doesn’t like that – and it shouldn’t. Theology, whatever you may think of it, is open to the idea of a less than omnipotent G”d, and such philosophies exist and not rejected out of hand by theologians.]

So here we are, yet again, at the intersection of science and religion. Funny how we keep coming back there.  The logical, scientific me continues to insist that, though science and faith can exist side by side, neither one can or should be used to help explain the other. Only with this safe distancing can we be true to both. Why is it, then, that there always seems to be a part of much that says the possibility exists that science (in some form we may not yet understand) and faith (in some form we may not yet understand) may just be different sides or aspects of the reality that is our universe (or perhaps what is beyond or even outside our own universe, is such a reality exists.)

My friends with stronger faith tell me I work too hard to try and explain and understand matters of faith from a logical perspective. My scientific friends tell me I work too hard to try and find connections between science and faith. (Ideas like “G”d as unified field theorem.”) Theology, as I mentioned earlier, is open to consideration of a less than omnipotent G”d and perhaps even the idea that G”d existed and was active at one time, but is no longer so. Science is perhaps less open to considering that not all things in the universe can be explained through science and/or logic. Einstein did criticize Quantum physics’ concept of entanglement by calling it “spukhafte Fernwirkung.”

I do hope and pray that both science and faith continue to be self-critical. (Is praying for science oxymoronic?) Three cheers for the scientists working to disprove (or improve)the “standard model.” Three cheers for the theologians working to disprove (or improve) religion’s equivalent of the “standard model.” Our society benefits from both, despite the claims of the Hitchens and Gladwells of the world. Here’s a possibly radical thought: I actually think science and faith may need each other. They are a balance, a necessary tension. The existence of one keeps the other on its toes. Of course, there is a time for both disciplines to go easy on the other. After all, no one wants to spend all their time on their toes – just ask any ballet dancer.

Ballet, and dance in general are, by the way,  wonderful examples of a mixture of science and faith. It takes physics (and not just biophysics) to make the body do what a dancer has to do. It takes faith for them to do it, and make it an art.

So, science and faith, go put on your pointe (toe) shoes and do a nice pas de deux and individual variations for a while, and then take them off and take it easy for a while in your slippers. May the dance never end.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Sh'mot 5773 - Wicked, Wonderful Moral Ambiguities
Sh'mot 5772 - Is Might Ever Right?
Sh'mot 5771 - Free Association IV
Sh'mot 5767-Logic & Metaphysics
Shemot 5766 - Free Association III
Shemot 5765-Why Us?
Shemot 5764-Uncomsumed-ness
Shemot 5763 - Free Association II
Shemot 5762-Little Ol' Me?
Shemot 5761-The Spice of Life
Shemot 5760-Tzaz Latzav, Tzav Latzav

Friday, December 13, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Yay’khi 5774- The Puppet’s Unwritten Lament

Hypocrisy abounds.  Here is Joseph, the man responsible for taking away all the land of the Egyptian people and making it Pharaoh’s property (for their own good, of course…) then proclaiming on his death bed that G”d will surely take notice of the Israelites an return them to the land G”d promised to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, on oath by G”d. It seems collateral damage is inconsequential. All that matters is G”d’s covenant with the patriarchs. Joseph thrown into a pit and sold into slavery by his brothers. A severe famine that forces Joseph’s brothers to seek food from Egypt. A reunion of Joseph with his brothers (but not before a little gamesmanship.)

As I have mentioned before, why was the whole land acquisition by Pharaoh necessary? Joseph, Pharaoh, indeed, all of Egypt knew there would be 7 years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Proper planning could have easily insured that the people of Egypt could have been fed without having to divest themselves of all their property and giving up their land to Pharaoh. Something just stinks here.

וְעַתָּה אַל־תִּירָאוּ אָֽנֹכִי אֲכַלְכֵּל אֶתְכֶם וְאֶֽת־טַפְּכֶם

“V’atah, al-tira’u, anokhi akhalkeil etkhen v’et tapkhem.”
”And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.” (Gen. 50:21)

What chutzpah, Joseph. You speak not of G”d sustaining your brothers and their families. You speak of yourself as their sustainer! Did you know then, that the situation was destined to deteriorate for your family, that G”d had other plans, ones they might not have been so thrilled to know? Or were even you caught off guard by what eventually happened?

וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל־אֶחָיו אָֽנֹכִי מֵת וֵֽאלֹהִים פָּקֹד יִפְקֹד אֶתְכֶם וְהֶֽעֱלָה אֶתְכֶם מִן־הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּֽלְיַֽעֲקֹֽב:

Vayomer Yoseif el-akhikha, anokhi met v’Elohim pakod yifkod etkhem v’he’e’lah etkhem min-ha’aretz hazot el-ha’aretz asher nishba l’Avraham l’Yitzkhak ul’Ya’akov.
And so Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die. G”d will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that G”d promised on aoth to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” (Gen. 50:24)

No more dreams Josesh? No hint of the future? Just a vague “surely G”d will take notice…” Do you know more than you are telling us? When you spoke  and said that all that had transpired had been intended for good, for the survival of many people, did you neglect to also mention you foresaw it would also mean not only the enslavement of Pharaoh’s people, but your own as well?

Why, Joseph, did you not ask for your bones to be immediately taken back to your homeland for burial upon your death?  You were able to make it happen for you father, why not yourself? Did you know something you weren’t telling? Your choosing to be buried in Egypt in a coffin might be a subtle comment on how assimilated you had become, but if that is so, why all this foreshadowing, and insistence that your bones be brought back home if and when G”d has taken notice of your descendants?

If we can trust the biblical chronology, your death came 54 years after the death of your father Jacob. The biblical text is curiously silent on what happened during that half century. We could infer from your “G”d will take notice of you” that things were not as rosy as they were a half century before, but this is merely inference, and largely influenced by the fact that we know what’s coming up in the next book of the Torah.

G”d’s puppet until the end, eh? Is that the role that G”d had decreed for you, Joseph? Are you certain you fully understood what G”d was asking and expecting of you? Did G”d share G”d’s plans with you and tell you not to share them with anyone? Or maybe you just assumed G”d didn’t want you to tell anyone? You only wanted to be the bearer of good news, eh?

I will cut you one piece of slack, Joseph. You didn’t try to add yourself to the list of the patriarchs. You could have, though we all know that G”d did not make such a promise to you. Who would have doubted you if you had said G”d made the same promise to you? Maybe you were truly G”d-fearing and unwilling to risk such a brash and outright dissembling.  Your invocation of the patriarchal triad is the first occurrence in the Torah, and it became a standard used in the rest of the book, and throughout the liturgy of the religion that continues to this day. With but one slight change, you could have altered thousands of years of prayer (or perhaps you did, and some later redactor, seeing how it would further diminish your already questionable character, left it out?)

You had plenty of time to write your memoirs, Joseph. I think there are many who would love to read them. Perhaps, in your old age, you gained Solomonic wisdom and the guilt-laden artistry of David? You seemed so convinced that your whole life was part of some Divine plan. Was it all you hoped it would be? What lessons did you learn? What would you have done differently, if you could? (Might you have considered, perhaps, not suggesting to Pharaoh that you make all of his people serfs? Or did you already know the plan was for your own people to become slaves themselves, and turning the Egyptians into serfs was merely part of that process?)

Yeah, you rated a Stephen Schwartz musical (though like your own k’tonet passim, it, too, is a hodgepodge, a quilt of musical styles.) You are a major biblical figure, even if you’re not one of the patriarchs. Not bad, all in all. Nevertheless, are you being remembered as you wished to be remembered?

Someday, perhaps, someone (other than Stephen Schwartz) will give voice to your puppet lament. I’m not that enamored of you to take on that task myself, though I admit I do find the idea intriguing. Luckily, I’ve got no strings on me. I think.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayekhi 5773 - The Wrong Good (Redux and Updated 5762)
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
Vayechi 5762-The Wrong Good

Friday, December 6, 2013

Random Musings Before Shabbat–Vayiggash 5774–We Are Shepherds

Why is it that civilization always seems to be accompanied by uncivilized behavior? Homo sapiens gathering into communities is a strategy that enabled us to survive and thrive as a species. However, with communities came rivalry. With communities came the development of societal strata. With communities came improved standards of living that became dependent on some members of the community performing the more quotidian and disdained tasks. With communities came wealth, and with wealth came the inevitable societal inequities.

Is this a price we will always have to pay? Must we accept these incivilities in order to be civilized?

Joseph, it would appear, believed it was necessary to accept the realities of social strata, and the incivilities that accompany them, even given his lofty position.  He urges his brothers to lie about the work they did as shepherds, for “shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.” He suggests they call themselves breeders of livestock so that their esteem shall be higher in the view of the Egyptians. They should not admit to being lowly shepherds.

Joseph’s brothers reject his advice. When asked directly by Pharaoh “what is your occupation?” they answer that they are shepherds, as were their fathers (i.e. their ancestors.) They are proud of their heritage. Pharaoh does not seem at all put off by their answer, and welcomes them to come and settle in Egypt’s choice pasture land.

There are layers of meaning and insight we might explore in this little drama. Here is Joseph, second only to Pharaoh in Egypt, yet still worried that he and his family come from the wrong side of the tracks. (Yes, I love mixed anachronistic metaphors.) This is Joseph in galut, displaying assimilationist tendencies, suggest some commentators.  This is Joseph, uncomfortable in his own skin, ashamed, perhaps, of his heritage.

Other commentators suggest that Joseph was exemplifying the value of respecting the customs of other people for the sake of maintaining peaceful relations. Personally, I think that’s a convenient whitewash, an attempt to put some positive spin on Joseph’s awkward need for his brothers to dissemble.

I would suggest that, given the outcome as presented in the narrative, the “authors” and redactors of the Torah were not pleased with Joseph’s tactics, and pleased with the pride of his brothers. Yes, such a thought process plays directly into the hands of the anti-assimilationists. We should not worry so much about what our neighbors think of us when we are living in diaspora. (Another potential lesson here is to not assume we understand the biases and prejudices of those amongst whom we live. Joseph worried for naught, for Pharaoh didn’t bat an eyelash upon  learning that Joseph’s brothers were shepherds. It is also a reminder to not assume the worst about others. The text of the Torah could have noted that Pharaoh, and/or perhaps some of his courtiers reacted upon learning that Joseph’s brothers were shepherds. It does not. Was Joseph wrong in his assessment of Egyptian culture, or did Pharaoh choose to rise above his prejudices? We will never know for sure. It is a lesson to not always look for or assume the worst in other people. They may surprise you.)

If you’ve been reading my musings over the years, you know that I don’t believe assimilation is a dirty word: Miketz 5763ff: Assimilating Assimilation. Yes, we can have the pride of Joseph’s brothers, yet we can still co-opt and incorporate the things we encounter while living in diaspora.

Things become problematic, however, when we start to adopt the societal biases and prejudices of the cultures in which we find ourselves.  When we find ourselves abhorring shepherds like our Egyptian neighbors, we have a problem. This is the real danger of assimilation – when when assimilate values that conflict with those at the core of our beliefs.  The danger increases when we become comfortable and wealthy-when we no longer have to work as shepherds, and choose to not do such “lowly” work. This is a dehumanizing behavior.

That we choose not not work as a shepherd is one thing. To look down upon those who do is another thing. A wrong thing. It also exhibits a certain blindness to reality. The Jewish community in North America is not universally wealthy and well off. When we look down upon those who do certain types of work, we may be looking down upon fellow Jews.  Don’t misunderstand me. Looking down upon a fellow Jew is no worse than looking down upon a fellow human being. However, the danger in adopting the biases of the communities in which we live in diaspora can cause us to be unaware of those Jews in our own midst who struggle to be treated equally and fairly. This compounds the error.

It’s great that we are called upon to remember that we were slaves in Egypt. I think we need more. We need to recall that we were shepherds. That we were (and still are) ditch diggers, servants, laborers, prostitutes, trash collectors, secretaries, clerks, cashiers, baggers, maids, housecleaners, cook, truckers, and many other things that some among our society see as somehow less desirable.

In every generation, and not just on Passover, I must act as if I am the immigrant, the slave, the domestic worker, the poor.  I am the shepherd. We are shepherds.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayigash 5773 - Let's Be Judah
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 G”d Play Dice With the World?
Vayigash 5764-Incidental Outcomes and Alternate Histories


Thursday, December 5, 2013

It Really Wasn’t That Bad

Yes, I can be a very tough critic. In fact, I usually am. Yes, I shared my share of snide tweets and comments during the airing of “The Sound of Music – Live” on NBC tonight. I was even a bit cruel to the poor girl who played Gretl when she was grotesquely off-key at the end of “So Long, Farewell” (and for that, I apologize, Peyton Ella.)

Yes, Carrie Underwood’s acting was stiff. Yes, there was this constant white noise hiss in the audio. Yes, it was an insane set design choice to combine obviously theatrical sets pieces with a photomural mountain background. Yes, I’ve seen better thunder/lightning effects in school plays. Staging the “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” song on the mountain set was also a head-scratcher. There was some clever use of the studio space, but the set design, was, overall, merely adequate. The audio, at times, seemed amateurish – bad mixes, late cues, and more. I’m still not sure if the music was canned or live. I’m guessing it was canned, but it’s hard to know and the NBC website doesn’t say.

Nevertheless, there was Audra McDonald. She alone was enough to make the production worth watching. There were Christian Borle and Laura Benanti. Even Stephen Moyer played a decent Captain Von Trapp. Say what you will about Carrie Underwood, she does have quite the voice. There was Joe West’s Kurt. Keep an eye on that one. Amazing. The rest of the kids were pretty decent as well.

Imagine, too, acting, singing, and dancing in a live production with no audience to applaud, to react, etc. That, I believe was a major drawback. I do wonder how the performances might have sparked a bit more if there was an audience to which the actors could react (and vice versa.) My sympathy to the actors for having to do this without any audience.

Live stage productions are difficult to do on television. Go back, I mean really go back and look closely at the television productions of Peter Pan, Cinderella, Once Upon A Mattress. They may be the magic moments from our childhood, but if you really look closely, they had their share of problems. It is never easy to adapt a stage production for television. Film adaptations don’t always work, either, but Sound of Music was clearly a film adaptation that worked quite well. It is simply not fair to compare the film version with an adapted for television stage production.

On the other hand, I wonder what might have happened if this had been less of a live stage to tv adaptation and more of one that utilized the newly available technologies used in modern television production? While I applaud NBC’s willingness to take a chance on a live production, that might not have been the best option.

Following the many tweets and comments, it was apparent to me that there were as many supporters as there were detractors. I resolved, from the start, to not automatically be a basher of the production from the get go, and to try and give it a fair viewing. I did, and while it was far from one of the best things I’ve seen, it was far from the worst. Maybe I’m damning it with faint praise. I hope NBC (an other networks) won’t shy away from trying again, with other live adaptations. I am sure there is much to be learned from this production of the Sound of Music. Let’s hope we all learn from it.


©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester 


Friday, November 29, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Miketz 5774–To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

I have mentioned, recently, to a few of my friends, my own recent awareness of my dreams. Unlike many of you, despite having my share of stress and anxiety in my life, I have almost never had a problem sleeping. Those few times (and I can probably count them on one hand) I have experienced a night or two of insomnia are probably attributable to something different in my diet or medication, and not to anxiety. Oh, yes, sometimes I might be up late at night before a major trip or event, yet usually due to excitement and not worry, and, if I chose, I could probably have slept. In addition to having the good fortune to rarely have trouble sleeping, I also seem to be a consistent dreamer.

My dreams are not something of which I have kept track or about which I have kept a journal over the course of my life, so I cannot with any certainty state that I have always dreamed, and that I remember them with any regularity. I can say, with certainty, that this has surely been the case for the last five years or so. I seem to dream almost every night, and do seem to be able to recall the basic substance of most of my dreams for at least a few moments after awakening.

So it is, then, that upon reflection, I began to realize that all my dreams seem to follow a somewhat similar pattern, or involve similar themes. I am quite certain this similarity has been present in all my dreams for the last few years. I am equally certain that I have experienced dreams following those same themes and patterns on occasion over at least the adult period of my life. I cannot and do not recall, with any certainty, other periods of my life when my dreams seemed to be as clearly regular and following some sort of pattern or theme.

Obviously, my dreams are telling me something. I’m not going to get into the specifics of what I dream. Suffice to say that both for myself, and for the friends with whom I have shared my dreams and their patterns and themes, the apparent “meaning” and “message” is obvious. My dreams are, quite frankly, a giant blinking neon sign with an arrow pointing to a particular aspect of my behavior and approach to life. It is a behavior and approach that could benefit from some close examination and perhaps change. My dreams reveal both a clear weakness and the underlying psychological beliefs that continue to propel me into the same sometimes problematic behaviors over and over. From a psychological standpoint, my dreams reveal that I clearly am not convinced that an internal change on my part would be sufficient to change outcomes. They reveal a deep-seated belief that, as far as some things go, I am not in complete control of my destiny. In any case, my dreams would be a field day for any Freudian, Jungian, Hallian, or Domhoffian.

Whatever dreams really are, and however they work, there is zero doubt in my mind that my dreams over the last few years are a reflection of a particular aspect of my behavior and personality that seems to be screaming for attention (or simply needs to be shed nightly.) I don’t know that I would call these dreams prophetic, but they are certainly trying to tell me something, and I ignore their message at my own peril. I need a Joseph. Or do I?

Anyone with even a little intelligence would have been able to interpret the dreams that Joseph interpreted (er, excuse me, which G”d made known and understandable.) The dreams of the baker and the wine steward weren’t that hard to understand. Pharaoh’s dreams were open and shut cases – which begs the question of why no one had been able to interpret them successfully for Pharaoh before Joseph. I mean, c’mon, the imagery is pretty obvious, is it not? 7 fats cows, 7 skinny cows. 7 fertile corn stalks, 7 blighted corn stalks? A child could figure those out. These dreams are a message from G”d revealing what is going to happen. Or is that just hindsight?

Let’s go back to last week’s parasha. When this dream business all started with Joseph, there was no mention of G”d. Joseph told his brothers of his two dreams, and they no trouble interpreting them for themselves, without any help for G”d or Joseph. They were clearly either omens that Joseph would lord over his brothers, or the boastful lies (utilizing dreams as a mechanism to give his ideas a little weight) of a brother with delusions of grandeur. I think it is important to note that Joseph did not attempt to interpret or explain his dreams to his brothers. He just shared them. No doubt he was pretty certain how they would interpret them, but also pretty blind and naïve as to how they might feel about the implications of the dreams.

Now imprisoned with some of Pharaoh’s courtiers, he invokes G”d as the source of dream interpretation (and the very source of the dreams.) Yes, it is revealing that Joseph does not say “tell me your dreams and I will interpret them” but instead says “Surely G”d can interpret. Tell me your dreams.”

Humility or really slick move? Me, I’m inclined to think the latter. Humility and Joseph do not seem to coexist. Rather than portraying himself as just another dime-a-dozen dream interpreter, Joseph portrays himself as the conduit through which G”d will interpret dreams.

So many ifs. Had Joseph merely portrayed himself an another run-of-the-mill dream interpreter, might the forgetful wine steward have continued to be forgetful, never mentioning Joseph to Pharaoh? (Actually, it seems to be Joseph’s being a Hebrew, as well as a successful dream interpreter that were his most noticeable characteristics for the wine steward.)

Is G”d sending me messages in my dreams? Is my subconscious sending me messages in my dreams? Are my dreams simply random events and I am eisegeting more meaning into them than they deserve, and extrapolating from them patterns which don’t really exist? What answers, if any, does this parasha hold for me in helping me understand the role and place of my dreams? Are our dreams worthy of interpretation?

Can one interpret one’s own dreams? Is it a wise or safe practice? Can we trust others to help us interpret our dreams or must we be wary of their own biases (and I apply this equally to amateurs and professionals.)

Judaism has a long history on the subject of dreams and dream interpretation. Early parts of the Talmud are replete with dream interpretation. It also tells us that a dream is one sixtieth of a prophecy. (So if I dream the same dream 60 times, or have similar dreams 60 times or more, then what? Have my dreams of late become more than mere prophecy? Can dreams create reality?)

True to Jewish form, the rabbis of the Talmud tell us that dreams can just be mere reflections of what we think about in our daily lives, or they can be pure flights of fancy. Despite using dreams and references to dreams constantly in their arguments, and imparting meaning to them, the rabbis also say that dreams have nothing to tell us about good or bad. He’s right, he’s right, they’re all right. And all wrong.

I may or may not decide to act upon my awareness of the patterns of my dreams (or such patterns that I believe exist.) I don’t want to become fixated upon my dreams, I don’t want them to become the song stuck inside my head. So perhaps, this Shabbat, having written about my dreams here, I’ll try to forget all about them and instead enjoy and surround myself with the love, peace, and joy of Shabbat.

Sweet dreams and Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Miketz 5773 - B'li Meilitz
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, November 22, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayeishev 5774– Nothing New, Just Eight Candles Plus a Shamash

In the midst of preparation for a major Hanukkah program, I beg your indulgence and, instead of a new musing, offer you this selection of nine earlier musings on parashat Vayeishev.

Vayeishev 5773 - K'tonet Passim
Reflections on that many-colored coat

Vayeishev 5772 - The Ram's Horn Rag
From the haftarah (Amos) a place for the ram’s horn in today’s world

Vayeishev 5771-Ma T'vakeish?
What is it that we’re really seeking?

Vayeishev 5768 - Strangers Walking Together
Can two walk together without having met (also from Haftarah)

Vayeishev/Hanukah 5767-I Believe in Miracles
Sorry I ruined Hanukkah for you with all those true stories. Time to believe again.

Vayeishev 5766-Who Was That Guy?
Minor characters can have a major influence

Vayeshev 5761 - In G”d's Time
Reflections on that forgetful cup-bearer

Vayeshev 5765-Mikol HaMishpakhot HaAdamah
Thanks again to the haftarah from Amos, more on that “being singled out” problem

Vayeshev 5758-What's Worth Looking After
Brothers or Sheep? None? Both? None of the Above?

I wish for you a meaningful and peaceful Shabbat, and a joyous Hanukkah (oh, and enjoy that other holiday, too.)

Shabbat shalom,


Friday, November 15, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayishlakh 5774–Biblical Schadenfreude

In most liberal communities, and most Ashkenazic communities, the haftarah used for parashat Vayishlakh is from Hosea. In the Sephardic tradition, and in some Ashkenazic communities, the haftarh for parashat Vayishlakh is taken from Ovadiyah (Obadiah) 1:1-21.

As I’ve written before about the haftarah from Hosea (always an interesting prophet on which to to riff) I thought I might turn to the reading from Ovadiyah.

Ovadiyah is a mystery. There is no direct evidence in the text that tells us when he lived, or even where he lived. Some (mostly Christian) scholars date him to the early part of the 6th century BCE, around 586 BCE. The rabbis of the Talmud associate him with King Ahab, who ruled in the early to middle 9th century BCE. That would make Ovadiyah a contemporary of Eliyahu (Elijah.) That’s quite a difference of opinion in terms of centuries.

Those who place Ovadiyah in 6th century do so on the basis of his focus on Edom as the enemy of Israel (and G”d.) The Edomites, it is believed, assisted the Babylonians in ravaging Jerusalem and with the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE. They note parallels between Ovadiyah and Jeremiah (who started prophesying in 622, during the reign of Josiah, and continued to do so through the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE) though Jeremiah railed against several enemies of Israel, whereas Ovadiyah spoke only against the Edomites.

The rabbis, on the other hand, link Ovadiyah to an official or servant in the book of Kings, in the court of King Ahab, who, when his queen Jezebel sought to kill many prophets, protected them, at his own expense. A wealthy man, he expended his own fortune feeding these prophets, as many as 100 of them, whom he kept hidden in two separate caves, so all might not perish if one hiding place was discovered. For this, he was given the gift of prophecy. The rabbis also note that he was a convert to Judaism and was born an Edomite, so who better to prophecy against Edom.

(Remember that the Edomites are the descendants of Esau, and thus there is one connection to the parasha.)

Ovadiyah tells Edom that G”d has said that they will surely fall, and fall as low as is possible. Their crime? Because they, Esau, acted against their kin, their brother, Yaakov/Israel. They gloated over the triumph over their kin, they participated in the ransacking, and their took from the wealth of their kin. They prevented their kin from escaping, and in this, they acted as spuriously as Amalek.

My favorite line in this entire tirade is this:

וְאַל־תֵּרֶא בְיֽוֹם־אָחִיךָ בְּיוֹם נָכְרוֹ וְאַל־תִּשְׂמַח לִבְנֵֽי־יְהוּדָה בְּיוֹם אָבְדָם וְאַל־תַּגְדֵּל פִּיךָ בְּיוֹם צָרָֽה

You should not have gloated over your kin on the day of their calamity. You should not have rejoiced over the people of Judah on the day of their ruin. And you should not have opened your big mouth on the day of [their] distress. [New JPS – italics mine]

A phrase that doesn’t feel ancient to us at all. Yet here is evidence that it has been around for a very long time (and probably long predates this usage.) You shouldn’t have opened your big mouth. It sounds like a scolding an admonition, we have all encountered at some point in our lives.

Schadenfreude is just not a nice thing. It says so, right here in the Tanakh, in the words of the shortest prophetical book. In fact, Ovadiyah seems to suggest that happiness at the misfortune of others is about one of the biggest sins you can commit, bringing down upon you the full wrath of G”d.

One has to wonder, at what level of sin might G”d still have forgiven the Edomites for assisting the Babylonians against the Kingdom of Judah. G”d certainly seems to forgive people who have acted against their kin. In biblical terms, acting in a dishonorable way like Amalek seems to be the surefire path to damnation, so it’s not likely G”d would forgive the Edomites for the actions that Ovadiyah claims were similar in nature. That, to me, would be the big non-no, the thing that dooms the Edomites, as it doomed Amalek. Yet hold on a minute here: Amalek was an Edomite! So here we are, centuries after the encounter with and supposed destruction of the Amalekites by Moses and his troops, after Amalek’s heinous acts, and Edom persists! Seems G”d did not insure they were totally blotted out. Why does Ovadiyah then invoke the kinship between Israel and Edom to bolster the charges against Edom? Had they not been enemies for centuries? How did the descendants of Esav grow up to be the Amalekites of the time of the Exodus, to be kin who would so betray their kinfolk? How did the Edomites continue to flourish after the time of the Exodus and their being blotted out under heaven? They are the bad guys that just keep coming back. They troubled Israel during the time when Ehud was a judge. King Saul sought to destroy them, but for failing to do so utterly as commanded by G”d, was stripped of his Kingship. King David sought to destroy them, and supposedly did. Whereas Saul could not commit the complete destruction of men, women, children, animals and property (for which G”d deposes him) David fulfill’s G”d’s (frankly heinous and genocidal) request. Yet centuries after David, here they are again, aiding the Babylonians.

After all this bad blood between Israel and Edom, did the family tie between Yaakov and Esav still matter? According to Ovadiyah it did.

As a sidebar, I am forced to ask: in that case, what about the relationship between Isaac and Ishmael, even to this day? Would “Israel” be chastised by G”d for siding with the enemies of Ishmael’s descendants, for gloating over their death and destruction. (Sadly, I see far too many examples of such gloating among the children of Israel, and the children of Ishmael, these days.

In any case, Ovadiyah offers a few reasons why Edom is to be punished (yet again?) Yet for all the chastisements of Edom offered by Ovadiyah, the biggest one seems to be reserved not for having helped someone attack their kin, but for their sin of schadenfreude, and for “opening their big mouths.”

So, if the Edomites had kept their mouths’ shut, maybe they could have escaped the total wrack and ruin that Ovadiyah said G”d was about to bring upon them? So it would be ok for them to think thoughts of schadenfreude as long as they don’t say them out loud? (Is that like lusting in one’s heart?)

Actually, I think Ovadiyah may have a point here. Schadenfreude is not a nice emotion, but it’s one thing to feel in, and another to express it openly, because that causes additional hurt.  The song from “Avenue Q” uses illustrations like a waiter dropping a tray of glasses, figure skaters falling on their asses. Yes, we all indulge in a little schadenfreude. Yet how does that waiter or skater feel when people break out in applause and laughter? Is the way the character Nelson on The Simpsons always runs around gloating and saying “haha” in a very schadenfreude-like way something to which we should aspire? Hardly.

Gloating is an awful thing. It is sticking in the knife and twisting it. Public sharing of our inner schadenfreude is a great sin. Yet it is becoming so prevalent in our society. Gloating over others’ misfortunes seems to be de rigeur, and acceptable. Republicans gloat, Democrats gloat. We read of public rejoicing over 9/11 in some places. We surely gloated over the capture of Sadam, and the death of Bin Laden. In amusement and theme parks, we can see and hear the gloating of people who can afford the amenities upgrades that put them in the front of the line. (Worse yet, than the gloating, are those privileged who are oblivious to the apparent and obvious inequity, but that’s a musing for another day.) I mention this because I don’t want gloating to be seen as the province of any one class of society. Rich folks gloat, poor folks gloat, we all gloat. Well, I think we need an Azazel gloat! We need some way to get rid of this desire, sparked by our inner feelings of schadenfreude, to go public and embarrass.

I suppose I could go on a tirade against the very idea of schadenfreude. It is an ethically a troubling idea. We would, perhaps, be better people if we could learn to not find or feel any happiness at the misfortune of others. Consider, however, this could cause great damage to our concept of comedy.

As I’m still engaged, as I mentioned last week, in re-reading and preparing to study Martin Buber’s “Ich and Du” (I and Thou) I might be tempted to suggest that one cannot feel schadenfreude with another person we see and treat as a You. Yet I am not sure it is at all possible to maintain a constant I-You (or I-Thou) relationship with anyone, that we only have moments of that I-You connection. In between, we will doubtless feel moments of schadenfreude, for it does appear to be human nature to do so. So my goal, rather than striving to eliminate feeling schadenfreude, is, while striving to try not to feel it as often as I can, at least striving to not share it or make it public in any way. To not “open my big fat mouth.”

Well, I seemed to have opened my big fat mouth enough for today. I wish you a

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayishlakh 5773 - That Other Devorah's Tale
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 8, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayeitzei 5774–Terms and Conditions Revisited

I’m fond of writing little midrashic playlets in my weekly musings. As I was preparing to write a musing for parashat Vayeitzei this year, I was reviewing, as I always do, what I had written for this parasha in years past. (You’d be amazed at how many times I thought I had a new take, twist, or insight on a  parasha, only to discover that I had already written about it! Sometimes, I discover that what I had written was worth re-sharing as it was, though, more often, I find myself revising, editing, updating, and adding to it. Sometimes I discover unconscious connections between musings from different years – threads that I continue to pull at from all directions. Sometimes, I am simply bereft of new ideas and approaches, and rely on my stable of previous ideas.

As I noted at the start of last year’s musing for Vayeitzei, some that I have written for this parasha are among my favorites, and I commend them all to you. Ten years ago, I wrote a musing for Vayeitzei entitled “Terms and Conditions.” I’d like to share it now, with a few minor revisions, tweaks, and additions for 5774.

How like a human being. Yaakov has an incredible dream, and upon awakening, declares that G”d must be in that place. (We'll save for another time the discussion as to why Yaakov's place-specific declaration is really not as universalistic as we often try to make it.) And then, what does he proceed to do? He strikes a conditional bargain with G”d. If G”d will do this, and if G”d will do that, then this G”d shall be Yaakov's G”d. (see Gen. 28:20-21)

One would hope that a revelatory experience, even in a dream, would yield more faith than that. Yaakov is a skeptic. He wants proof. The dream wasn't enough.

Then why utter his declaration at all that G”d is in that place? Turnabout would be fair play, and G”d should get to sing Eliza Doolittle's words "show me!" However, Yaakov beats G”d to the punch, and makes his conditional bargain. And G”d remains silent.

I can imagine G”d's frustration at this point. Luckily, G”d is learning to be more patient by this time (cough, cough.) Still, imagine the missing text.

G"d: Hey, you just said that this place is my abode. You said it was awesome! And then you hedge your bet. What gives?

Yaakov: Well, I...

G"d: Look, buddy. When I said to Noah, build an ark, he built it. When I said to your grandfather Avraham to pick up and move to a new land, he went.

Yaakov: Yeah, and when you asked him to kill my dad...

G"d: (interrupting) I'm not going to talk about that right now. Quit changing the subject.

Yaakov: Well, too bad. Because I want to talk about it. Grandpa Abe was ready to kill Dad just because you said so. I don't think that was very nice of you.

G"d: Since when is nice part of my job description?

Yaakov: (to himself) You can say that again.

G"d: Why you little...... (to G”dself--Relax. Count to ten. Get a hold of yourself. I will not smite. I will not smite. I will not smite.)

Yaakov: You were going to smite me just then, weren't you?

G"d: Well, I didn't, did I?

Yaakov: That's not the point. Now maybe you can see why I might want this to be more of a two-way street.

G"d: Well, you have a point. Still [crosses metaphorically anthropomorphic fingers behind metaphorically anthropomorphic back.], I am the Master of All Things, and you can trust me to keep my promises.  So I will take care of you.

Yaakov: Never hurts to have a little insurance.

G"d: You've got a point there.

Yaakov. Yeah. See how it works? It's mutual. I offer you something, and in return you offer me something. Isn't that better than just a one-sided demanding on your part? You catch more flies with d’vash. We humans down here have figured that out. We make treaties and covenants with each other all the time like that.

G"d: Hmmm. This covenant idea is intriguing. I'll have to mull it over for a few centuries and see if I like it.

Yaakov: Happy to share my smarts with my Creator. They are, after all, Your smarts, aren't they?

G"d: Now you're just trying to sweet talk me.

Yaakov: Caught me. But remember-You made me as I am!

G"d: Don't pull that line on me. There's this little matter of free will I gave all of you (to G"dself-and I may be beginning to regret it.) OK, have it your way. You put that rock up there, and I'll make sure you get back home safely. But if I do that, then you have to obey me and love me and worship me, alright?

Yaakov: You got a deal, big guy. Well, I'm gonna be off now.

G"d: Have a great time. We'll talk again later.

G"d: (to G"d's self) Thinks he put one over on me, does he? Well, wait until he sees all that's going to happen to him over the next few decades. At our next encounter, I'll show him who's boss, and wrestle his hip right out of its socket! Maybe that'll teach him some humility. Maybe not. He's a stubborn one, not quiet like his father. Clever, too, though he sometimes uses that cleverness for the wrong things. Well, after all, only I am perfect, and even I have made a few mistakes. Ooh, I hope I didn't say that out loud.

G"d wanders off, muttering to G"d's self: …now let's see. How would this covenant thing work? They worship me, I make the rains fall in their time....

Modern midrash or complete fiction? You decide.

That’s where I ended in 2003. I was thinking about what Yaakov might have been saying to himself as he wandered off.

Yaakov: Well, I hope that oil wasn’t wasted on that rock. This G”d better come through for me. Seems a little, I dunno, not entirely trustworthy. Manipulative, even. I mean, I was tired and all, but whatever made my decide to use a rock as a pillow? Maybe the G”d put that idea into my head, just like the dream. Eh, whatever, I’ve got places to go and wives to find. They’ll make for much nicer places to rest my head. Maybe I’ll dream about them tonight. That could be a revelation of a different kind altogether.

[Sidebar: Did you know that the stone of Yaakov developed its own mythology? Some scholars believe that the stone’s presence is what made Bet-El the cultic center of the northern Kingdom until it’s fall in 722 BCE. Then there are those in Scotland who believe the Stone of Scone is actually Yaakov’s stone, brought there from the holy land. The believers of British Israelism continue to perpetuate that particular story to bolster their case that the the British and the monarchy are descendants of the lost tribes. I don’t know about you, but swallowing that tale would be like eating some scones that really tasted like a stone!]

Yaakov continues on his journey, gets some wives, a bunch of kids, one of whom he likes better than the others, and that causes no end of trouble. (But when his daughter gets raped, he thinks only of himself.)

Meanwhile, G”d is off contemplating this covenant idea, discussing it with some friends and other deities, when G”d hears this incessant whining and complaining coming from somewhere. G”d ignores it for a while, still intrigued with this covenant idea. Finally G”d cannot stand the noise anymore and goes to investigate. What G”d finds are numerous descendants of Yaakov laboring under harsh burdens as slaves in this country called Egypt, which seems to have a lot of competing gods of its own.

“My goodness,” (literally,) says G”d. “look at the time. Have I really been distracted for that long? What have I missed? How did they wind up in Egypt, of all places? Is that where that Yoseif kid I’d been chatting with was? How long have they been crying out for my attention? Oy. This isn’t gonna look good. I’ve gotta watch my time on this Facebook thingie.” Turning back to the keyboard, G”d types into the chat box “Gotta go free some people of mine, and strike a deal with them. CU gods L8a!”

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 (portions ©2003) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha

Vayeitze 5773 - Mandrakes and More
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 Gd's Place

Friday, November 1, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Tol’dot/Makhar Hodesh 5774–Drops That Sparkle

It’s  not often that I get the chance to muse upon Haftarat Makhar Hodesh, the haftarah read when Shabbat immediately precedes a new moon/new month/Rosh Hodesh. So I’m going to avail myself of the opportunity.

This haftarah comes from stories from the Tanakh which have seen increased interest in the past few decades – the relationship between David and Jonathan. The question has been asked, for countless ages, if the relationship being described is platonic, homosocial, or homosexual.

While this topic, in and of itself, makes for fascinating discussion, it is not my focus today.  That being said, I believe there is ample reason to believe that  Oscar Wilde was correct when he spoke at his trial  when questioned as to the meaning of the “The love that dare not speak its name” (the closing line to Lord Douglas’ 1894 poem, “Two Loves.”) Wilde said, at trial:

" ‘The love that dare not speak its name’ in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan…”

This haftarah and the relationship between Jonathan and David spoke out to me this week mostly because I have been re-reading Buber’s “I and Thou” in preparation for participation in an online study group. In a most unusual circumstance for me, I find myself in almost total agreement with the rabbis, who in the Mishnah (Avot) cite the relationship between Jonathan and David in this way:

What love is that which is inspired by ulterior motives? E.g. the love of Amnon and Tamar. And what love is without such motives? E.g., the love of David and Jonathan.

Or a smoother translation/interpretation:

Any loving relationship which depends upon something, [when] that thing is gone, the love is gone. But any which does not depend upon something will never come to an end.... What is a loving relationship which does not depend upon something? That is the love of David and Jonathan. [Avot 5:18]

The story of the relationship of Amnon and Tamar is told in II Samuel, chapter 13. It is a sad tale. Amnon, one of David’s sons, is besotted with one of his half-brother Absalom’s daughters, Tamar. Through deceit he manages to get Tamar alone, and, despite her protestations, have his way with her (she was a virgin.) Yet once the deed was done, he lost all passion and interest for her, and, again despite her pleas to the contrary, sent her away. Absalom tells Tamar to keep quiet for the moment, planning to serve his revenge cold, which he does some two years later, having Amnon killed.

The relationship between Jonathan and David is the classic example of an “I-You” relationship. What makes this all the more amazing is the potential for the benefits of an “I-It” relationship between Jonathan and David.  Remember who they were. Jonathan was Saul’s son, potential heir to the throne. David was the young upstart that, upon G”d’s insistence (well, at least according to the prophet Samuel) would be replacing Saul as King.  To begin with, there was every reason for jealousy and rivalry between these two – even before David’s role as replacement for Saul became known. However, from the beginning, their relationship is one of admiration, respect, loyalty, and, most importantly, love.

Such was the love between Jonathan and David, that when Saul decided to stand against David, Jonathan backed not his father, but his friend (lover?) with the knowing risk of forfeiting his own opportunity to sit on the throne. Jonathan seemed to believe that David would make a better King than Saul, and perhaps better than Jonathan himself.Consider the many other ways this story could have unfolded. Jonathan and David could have easily engaged in “I-It” relating, each seeking some ulterior purpose.

And what of Amnon and Tamar? Was that even a relationship? There’s no indication at all that Tamar was interested in Amnon. This was a one-way lusting. Love? Was there any love in this relationship? As profound and deeply as Amnon may have felt, there was no love present, at least not ahava love.

So, while I agree with the rabbis that the relationship between Jonathan and David was an example of pure, unselfish love, I (and you knew this was coming) have to take exception to their using the story of Amnon and Tamar as a comparator. Surely they could have found a better example of a love and relationship based on selfish motives? Cain and Abel. Jacob and Esau. Rebecca and Esau. Rebecca and Jacob, for that matter. David and Bathsheva? David and Uriah?

Jonathan winds up dead, and David is certainly no high moral achiever during the remainder of his life. Yet, in a  lifetime of questionable moral choices, David’s relationship with Jonathan is a Noah-like “not bad considering everything else” moral moment. It is worthy of being held up by the rabbis as a paragon of relationships.

I-It relationships can be easy, but eventually empty and meaningless. I-You relationships are difficult to establish and maintain. I imagine that all of us have experienced both types of relationships. In reality, I think many relationships hover between I-You and I-It, sometimes comfortably, sometimes uncomfortably.

(I’m not delving much deeper into Buber and “I and Thou” in this essay. I refer to it in a sort of stereotypical over-simplification. “Ich and Du” is too complex and profound a work  to do much more than that here and now.)

In the haftarah, Jonathan arranges to meet with and/or warn away David. He defends David’s noticeable absence at court to Saul, who remains enraged and both David and Jonathan for siding with David. Seeing that there is no hope, Jonathan uses the pre-arranged signal to entice David from hiding, whereupon they meet, profess their abiding love, and go their separate ways. Knowing, of course, that this might likely be the last time they ever meet. It’s a heart-wrenching scene. Yet the relationship of David and Jonathan, being somewhat like that of Romeo an Juliette, was doomed, perhaps, from the start. David & Jonathan m,ay have sensed this from the beginning, but they could not help themselves, so strong was the attraction, the bond, the love between them, even from the start. (How rare it seems, the affection or crush that turns out to be true, reciprocated, unselfish love.)

The story of David and Jonathan gives me hope. I’m not sure why, because it doesn’t turn out well, at least not for Jonathan. David, at least, was able to console himself with his many futures wives and concubines. But those relationships were likely different, and not as purely I-You as the one he had with Jonathan. Perhaps it gives me hope because it reinforces the notion of better having loved and lost than to never have loved at all. It gives nme something to strive for, to be a better person, even with all my imperfections. Better, that for one, brief, shining moment, there was a Camelot.

How do we work to make our relationships truly loving, to be truly as I-You as possible? How do we handle it when we are less than successful – when the relationship is asymmetrical. Can a true I-You relationship ever fail? If it fails, was it ever truly an I-You relationship? Hard questions to both ask and answer. If nothing else, reading about the relationship between Jonathan and David inspires me to keep trying, to the best of my ability, to have and maintain truly loving, unselfish, I-You relationships. Such relationships can exist in many forms – in a marriage or partnership, in a friendship, even I dare suggest, in a professional relationship. I-You relationships seem to go against the norm for business relationships in a capitalistic society, yet I believe they are possible, and can even be the gateway to a whole new way of doing “business” that is more predicated on an I-You way of thinking as opposed to “I-It.” I don’t want to spoil anything for any of my readers who might later engage in the upcoming book discussions about “I and Thou” but I am also seriously considering how these relationships can and might work in educational situations. (Does, for example, standardized testing utilize an “I-It” perspective, and if so, how can we measure student learning in a more I-You way?)

What re-reading “I and Thou” along with thinking about the relationship of David and Jonathan does for me is cause me to reconsider how I interact with all people – students, friends, lovers, spouses, merchants, strangers. It makes me want to have better relationships with all of them. It makes me want to show myself and others what is possible. It compels me to carry forward the message of what is possible in human relationships (and relationship with the Divine) by retelling the stories of those brief, shining moments.

As Arthur observes to Pellinore at the end of the musical Camelot, when Pellinore asks Arthur who was the young man he was talking to:

One of what we all are, Pelly. Less than a drop in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea. But it seems that some of the drops sparkle, Pelly. Some of them do sparkle!.

Let us all strive to be the drops that sparkle, and carry the message of hope to others now and in the future.

“Run, boy! Run, boy! Runnnnn! Oh, run, my boy.”

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Tol'dot 5773 - More Teleology
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