Friday, May 10, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Bemdibar 5773- Who Really Provides

In the haftarah for Bemidbar, from Hosea, Israel is compared to a faithless wife, who foolishly believes that her support and sustenance come from her lovers. The lesson is, of course, that it is G”d who really provides. How foolish of the whoring wife (Israel) to believe that her bread, water, linen, wool, oil and drink came from her lovers.

How foolish of us to believe that our lovers provide for us. We have gone whoring. Who are our lovers? The big box merchandisers, the oil companies, the utilities. The technology companies. The internet service providers, the social media giants. The politicians.

Oh, we protest, we show zeal for right causes, but we are weak, lazy, and easily corrupted. Recently, I heard a story on the BBC about the factory collapse in Bangladesh. A reporter asked an importer/exporter if the industry could do more to prevent such tragedies. He answered in the affirmative, if, he said, consumers were willing to pay more. I rejected the argument as a canard (and even posted about it on FaceBook.) It’s not about having to charge higher prices to consumers, it’s about the corporate refusal to accept lower profit margins or provide fewer dividends to shareholders. Nevertheless, I opined at the time, it’s likely that if consumers were asked to pony up higher prices just to be sure that factory workers in third-world countries could have safe working conditions, they might not be as willing as they claim to be.

The proof of our dependence on our lovers is ever before us. We bemoan what the big box store has done to the local merchant, yet we wind up patronizing the big box store because our own finances are limited (or we simply seek the bargain at all times.) The oil companies jerk us around like sheep with ever-modulating gas prices. and still we drive and pay. Sure, a few of us buy hybrids or electric cars. Sure, some of us refuse to patronize WalMart. Sure, not all companies are evil. (Costco, for example, has a relatively decent reputation for how they treat their employees. At the same time, they get much of their merchandise through the labor of third-world workers working in unsafe, underpaid conditions. One might compare companies like them to Noah – relatively decent compared to everyone around them. Righteous in their generation.) We complain about the politicians, but we keep voting for them.

To be frank, I’m in no position to moralize. I get my gas from Exxon/Mobil and I bank at Chase. (I do generally avoid WalMart.) I look for a bargain whenever I can. That, inherently, is not a bad thing. What’s problematic is how, by being thrifty, we wind up supporting the companies that perpetuate the disparities in our world. There’s an irony in there somewhere. A penny saved is a penny earned – though these days it seems more like that infamous penny in the bank scene from Mary Poppins. If the bank gets it, we may never see it again. Shouldn’t we be using our pennies to “feed the birds” instead? seems like we may get a greater return for our investment that way. The systems seems rigged against us. Just like in Vegas, the odds always favor the house.

There is a truth then, in what Hosea says. Aware of the faithless wife pursuing her lovers for her support, G”d promises to block her path, making it hard for her to find her way.

וְרִדְּפָה אֶת-מְאַהֲבֶיהָ וְלֹא-תַשִּׂיג אֹתָם, וּבִקְשָׁתַם וְלֹא תִמְצָא

However hard she pursues her lovers-she shall not catch them; she will look for them, but shall not find them (Hosea 2:9, JPS)

We, too, do not find our lovers. There are not really there when we need them. We think they are giving us what we need, when, in reality, they are ultimately causing more bad in the world than good. They are not really providing what we need.  They are not really the source of our true needs. For every penny saved, it seems, someone else may die tragically in a factory collapse, some family may starve, some child may lack needed medical care. Our seemingly right-headed efforts as being thrifty wind up costing our society as a whole, a cost far beyond value.

In Hosea, G”d intends to teach the whoring wife a lesson. Depriving her of her sustenance which she seeks from her lovers, she will come to know that G”d is the true provider. Is G”d teaching us a lesson as well?

Housing bubble? Stock market crash? I’m not ready to suggest that G”d brought these about. However, we have an opportunity here to learn lessons, and I’m not sure we’re learning them. Every day we hear news of a slow but steady recovery in the economy – based on the indicators that matter to business. However, the indicators that matter most to human beings –like the unemployment rate – those are not recovering as quickly or as well. We’re still seeking our sustenance from our lovers, and not from the true Source.

As I have written about in previous musings, the haftarah ends on a positive note, the words of which have become a staple of the both the tefillin ceremony and the wedding ceremony:

וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי, לְעוֹלָם; וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בְּצֶדֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּט, וּבְחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים.  וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי, בֶּאֱמוּנָה; וְיָדַעַתְּ, אֶת-יְהוָה

I will betroth you to me forever, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and justice, in steadfast love and compassion. I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness, and you shall know the Eternal. (Hosea 2:21-22, JPS)

Not to be a bummer, but let’s not count on that, at least not yet. We need to stop our whoring, stop pursuing our lovers and stop relying upon them, and learn from whence comes our true help, our true sustenance. Not that G”d would take my advice, but I’d suggest to G”d we’re not quite ready yet to be so easily accepted back as a faithful spouse to G”d.

G”d has given us the tools we need to ask the right questions to figure out what it is that we are supposed to do that will make us good people. Better people. Let us turn to those tools and figure out how to get out of this vicious cycle in which we find ourselves. We need to build a better system. One that respects individual freedoms while insuring communal obligations. (This country, among others, is an experiment in that. As an experiment, it has not quite realized its potential. The question arises-do we give it more time, or do we now start to actively seek alternatives? We’ve been exploring societal and civic alternatives since the days of our ancestors and have yet to find just the right system. It may be that we have been given a task that we cannot achieve. In the face of that, it might be easy to just give up and say, well, it’s not perfect, but it works. That’s the attitude that’s already killing us. Mussolini made the trains run on time.)

Our sages gave us an answer-that we are not responsible to see the work completed, but we may not refrain from working at the task.

He we are, Bemidbar, in the wilderness. We did not remain in one place. We kept moving. We counted ourselves, arranged ourselves in proper order, and went forth. The goal, the promised land, may have seemed far away, and we quarreled and groused along the way. However, we kept moving forward.


Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Bemdibar 5771 - Moving Treasures
Bemidbar 5770 - Sense Us
Bemidbar 5769 - That V'eirastikh Li Feeling
Bamidbar 5767-What Makes It Holy? (Redux & Revised 5761)
Bemidbar 5766-Redux 5760-Knowing Our Place
Bemidbar 5764-Doorway to Hope
Bemidbar 5763-Redux 5759 (with additions for 5763)
Bemidbar 5762-They Did As They Were Told? You Gotta be Kidding!
Bemidbar 5759-Marrying Gd-Not Just for Nuns
Bemidbar 5760-Knowing Our Place
Bemidbar 5761-What Makes it Holy

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