Friday, September 27, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–B’reisheet 5774–Toldot Adrian

Just two years ago, I wrote a musing entitled The Unified Field Theorem of the Twelve Steps. Nevertheless, I wanted to return to the same basic topic, which skirts around the intersection of science and religion. I started that musing with these words:

Science has no place explaining religion. Religion has no place explaining science. As someone with a foot in both of these camps, I'm going to completely ignore this conventional wisdom.

I’m going to do exactly that again. In that musing, which might be worth reading before (and even after)you tackle this one I focused on the Hebrew words

תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ

tohu vavohu, formless and void, all jumbled up, or however you want to translate it. Perhaps this was the period scientists call inflation that happened micro-seconds after the big bang. I suggested in passing, that perhaps G”d was the much sought after “unified theory of everything.”

The wind blows, and here it is, Shabbat B’reisheet 5774. This is what I’ve been thinking of late. See if you can follow the thread as it meanders to and fro.

In 1874, Naphtali Lewy (aka HaLevi) wrote and had published a book entitled “Toldot Adam.” Writing in the Hebrew-style made fashionable for a maskilim, the leaders of philosophers of the haskalah, the (Jewish) enlightenment, he makes the case that Darwin’s newly proposed theory of evolution was in fact consistent with the Torah’s account of creation. Lewy noted subtleties and inherent problems in Hebrew translation, as well as later rabbinic writings (like Midrash Rabbah,) to bolster his case. He even sent a copy of the book to Darwin, along with a cover letter in Hebrew, which Darwin had translated. The letter exists to this day in the Darwin Collection of the Cambridge University Library.

I think many of us can understand why Napthali Lewy felt compelled to write Toldot Adam. I know that I certainly understand that desire to reconcile tradition with modern scientific knowledge. I don’t know that Lewy suceeds. The text is not easy reading, and I am not skilled enough to read it in it’s origisnal enlightenment-style Hebrew. Ancient Hebrew is able to express in just a few words thoughts and ideas that take far many more words in English. Lewy’s enlightenment Hebrew is hardly sparse. That style may be some of the most verbose Hebrew around.

It’s not easy to even slog through a translation. I’ve read through it a few times and I’m still struggling to follow his train of thought and reasoning at times. I’m not giving up, but I’m not sure I can quite get into his mindset, and I still struggle to get into the mindset of the rabbis who wrote the midrashim from which he draws. I am so fascinated by this attempt to reconcile Torah and science that I will keep trying. Especially now that I am also reading again from parashat B’reisheet.

You can find this particular translation of Toldot Adam online. This translation was done by Ardeshir Mehta at the request of Edward O. Dodson, a distinguished professor of evolutionary biology. It should be noted that Dodson was affiliated with and often wrote for the American Teilhard Association for the Future of Man. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a Jesuit priest who formed the basis for a modern form of spirituality that embraces evolution and science. Teilhard was a distinguished paleontologist who, like Lewy, sought to reconcile religious thought with scientific reality. Dodson, Teilhard, and Lewy alike should not be lumped in the same category as today’s pseudo-scientists embracing ideas like “intelligent design.”  While there may be some aspects of what looks like “intelligent design” in Toldot Adam and the writings of Teilhard, their purposes and intents were, at least for me, far less suspect. Teilhard’s philosophy placed evolution at the core of how humankind should interact with and relate to the natural world.

Follow the thread.

In many ways, modern liberal Judaisms have attempted a similar type of synthesis between sacred text and modern science. Approaches vary. Some simply reject text that is in direct conflict with scientific knowledge. Some pick and choose, glossing over the more troubling texts.  Reform Judaism encourages making informed choices. Reconstructionist Judaism suggests, in the words of Kaplan, that the past has a vote, not a veto. Conservative Judaism trods  a sometimes more difficult path, allowing wise rabbis and scholars to shape and reshape ancient words in manners they consider faithful, authentic, and reasonable.  Traditional, orthodox Judaisms do the same, though with what might appear to some as greater restrictions and less flexibility than one might find within more liberal circles. I have met people who believe, with perfect faith, that G”d made the world in seven(or six) days yet also believe everything that science says about the age of the earth and how it came into being are also true. They believe what the Torah says about Adam and Eve, yet also fully subscribe to what evolutionary biology says. (Shades of Tevye. They’re both right!)

All these understandings of Judaism have at least this much in common: science and reality are not to be ignored. Two millennia ago wise rabbis were already intellectually honest enough to understand the biblical stories of creation as allegory and not literal history. If you consider what we now know as scientific knowledge, many of our great rabbis, scholars, and philosophers were quite forward-thinking, even prescient. Judaism is not alone in this. Consider how many brilliant scientists also happened to be Jesuits.

I don’t have anywhere near the knowledge of Judaism and Torah, let alone evolutionary theory, to pen a tome like Toldot Adam. I am also wary of conflating and mixing science and religion. I neglected to mention earlier that I find Teilhard’s viewpoint extremely anthropocentric – with little “I am but dust and ashes” to counter the “for my sake the whole world was created.” In addition, Teilhard is sometimes regarded as the founder, if not the precursor, of new age spirituality. If you know me, you know that I look with admitted scorn upon that sort of mysticism and over-blending of science and religion. No pyramids, crystals, copper, yarn strings, channeling, and the like for me, though if that’s your thing, more power to you. I must also admit, however, that my desire to pursue things both scientific and religion can sometimes lead me down a primrose path. When I first encountered the whole “What the Bleep Do We Know?” thing, I found it intellectually appealing at first. I soon came to see that it really was pseudo-science. Yet I also know that scientific ideas like entanglement/spooky action at a distance, superpositioning, the uncertainty principle, wormholes, branes, strings, inflation, super-symmetry, quantum dynamics, loop quantum gravity, QCD, the Higgs boson etc. (and notice how I am carefully walking multiple sides of the physics debates) all have a certain mystical quality to them.

I cannot escape who I am – a person insatiably curious about both science and religion. When I encounter the creation stories in B’reisheet, I cannot help trying to find a way to reconcile them with I know about modern scientific knowledge. There are times when I envy our distant ancestors. It would have been far easier to be a person of faith with their limited knowledge and worldview (though again, I caution against selling their level of knowledge short – they may have been more aware than we think, and just unable to express it because the words and concepts didn’t exist yet. So they did the best they could with what they had.

I might even suggest that the existence of two seemingly different creation narratives here at the beginning of the Torah speaks to the fact that even our ancient ancestors were of more than one mind when it came to questions of human knowledge and human consciousness, and the realities and mysteries of the universe.

Just two years ago, I closed my musing this way:

Here's the thing for me. As fascinated and driven as I am to understand tohu vavohu, to discover that there really is a theory of everything, these are mere distractions from the real tasks before me. (Now I am NOT suggesting that science stop seeking answers, or that religion stop as well. There may very well turn out to be a theory of everything. G"d may or may not be a part of that ultimate theory, though we could get into a real semantic loop here.) So I intend to go about my life trying to change the things in the universe that I can change, not trying to change the things in the universe that I cannot change, and seeking from Judaism and science the wisdom to know the difference. (How's that for the ultimate conglomeration of science, theology-Jewish, Christian and otherwise, and the 12-steps?)

It seems that, like a driven leaf, my thoughts are different this year. Thus I am compelled, now, and always, to find my own “Toldot Adam.” To live in the liminal world between science and faith. As we begin anew the cycle of reading our Torah, what better time to dedicate myself to continued investigation on both fronts?

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 (portions ©2011) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

B'reishit 5773 - Mixing Metaphors
B'reishit 5772 - The Unified Field Theorem of the Twelve Steps
B'reishit 5771 - B'reishit Bara Anashim
B'reishit 5770 - One G"d, But Two Trees?
B'reishit 5769 - Do Fences Really Make Good Neighbors
B'reishit 5767-Many Beginnings
Bereshit 5766-Kol D'mei Akhikha
Bereshit 5765 (5760)-Failing to Understand-A Learning Experience
Bereshit 5764-Gd's Regrets
Bereshit 5762--The Essential Ingredient
Bereshit 5763--Striving to be Human
Bereshit 5761--Chava's Faith
Bereshit 5760-Failing to Understand


Friday, September 20, 2013

Random Musings Before Shabbat–Hol HaMoeid Sukkot Sukkot III 5774–Godot is Waiting for the Bald Soprano at the Zoo

People argue over the message of Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) which we read during Sukkot. Scholars are all over the map when it comes to what the overall message and theme of Qohelet is. Let’s face it, it’s a head-scratcher. One does have to ask the question “why was this book canonized?” Then add the additional question of “why do we read this book during Sukkot?”

The latter question may be easier to answer. However you choose to interpret the themes and meanings of Qohelet, it’s not a happy-happy-joy-joy sort of book, and, as such, it becomes a perfect balance for Sukkot, zma’an simkhateinu, the season of our joy. (Of course, Sukkot already has plenty within it to provide that balance on its own. Our joyous celebration contrasts with the fragility that is represented and exemplified by the sukkah.)

As to the former question, the answer has a lot to do with how you understand and interpret the messages and meanings of Qohelet. After decades of wrestling with Qohelet, I think I finally get it, at least in a way that works for me.  More on that later.

The scholarly cynic in me accepts the notion that an ending was tacked on to the book, and an obviously false connection was made by the rabbis of the Talmud between the book and King Solomon. These two actions made the book acceptable as part of the Hebrew Bible canon. (To this day, people will defend the idea that Qohelet was authored by Solomon tooth and nail. To give up this belief makes it all that much harder for them to understand why this book is in the Tanakh at all.)

Qohelet is troubled that life doesn’t seem to make sense. Sometimes the good die young and the wicked prosper. Sometimes justice isn’t just. Qohelet doesn’t have any big answers or grand theology. He (though he certainly could be a she) offers some small, practical suggestions on how to deal with life’s inanities, and how to navigate through life. There are some behaviors and choices he views as sensible, despite the insanity and seeming meaningless of life a life devoid of coherence.

The Hebrew of Qohelet is difficult. The text at times seems to contradict itself (but since when has that not been a biblical trait?)  Perhaps the author of Qohelet was the Ionesco, the Beckett, the Albee of the time. Life is, indeed, a theater of the absurd. In fact, a better translation of the Hebrew word הֶבֶל hevel, all too often translated in Qohelet  as “vanity” would be “absurd.”

If you have not read Qohelet, do so. It’s a quick read. While I’m not crazy about the translation, Mechon-Mamre offers this version online It’s a place to start, though I definitely recommending finding and reading other translations (or, better yet, gain the tools needed to read and understand/interpret it in the original Hebrew for yourself.) I could easily pick a few choice quotes for you but I do think the book needs to be appreciated and understood as a whole. I think reading Qohelet will raise lots of question for you. Even if you are thoroughly familiar with it, read it again. What do you think the author’s themes and messages are?

I have my own theories (and they change with each re-reading, of course.) However, the insight that came to me in writing this wasn’t about what Qohelet’s message or over-arching theme might be. It was an insight about myself that revealed to me a way to looking at Qohelet. Like me, Qohelet is a gadfly.

First, Qohelet gain our trust. Qohelet’s observations about life often seem on the mark to us, because they often parallel our own experiences, Who of us has not been puzzled by questions of theodicy, of the absurdity and unfairness of life? So Qohelet has us in his corner. We’re inclined to agree with him, find some truth in his aphorisms. Then, he surprises us with a zinger. Or, sometimes, Qohelet will portray an issue from two differing viewpoints, making us believe. at the time we encounter each of the opposing views, that that author is a proponent of that view. (Or, at the very least, that the author is of a mixed mind on the subject.) What happens when we encounter Qohelet saying something that contradicts something said earlier by Qohelet, or stated elsewhere in Torah or Tanakh? We stop and take a look. We may even find ourselves analyzing a question from a viewpoint we had never before considered. This is one reason I think it is important to view the book of Qohelet as a whole (and even within its context as part of Tanakh.)

Qohelet goads us into thinking about things. That’s what gadfly-types do. If this wasn’t intentional on the part of Qohelet’s author, it was surely somewhat intentional on the part of those who finally saw fit to included it in the canon. (I also believe a lot of the Torah is deliberately goading with its inconsistencies.)

I don’t think Qohelet had any real conclusions, just some keen observations, reflections, and the intent to get all of us to reflect as well, on life, and its absurdities. Qohelet and I are kindred spirits. Yes, I write sometimes, perhaps as Qohelet did, to help me clarify my own thoughts and understandings, and try to find some coherence in them. More often than not I write to get you, my reader, to think, to reflect, to consider, to argue, to agree, to disagree, to examine, etc. Though, truth be told, we gadfly-types are often serving as our own gadfly. Complacency is a trap in which we can all to easily become ensnared. By forcing myself to sometimes posit understandings or viewpoints that might not be my own belief or understanding (at that moment) I keep myself from falling into complacency.

Let’s not pretend. Qohelet is, in the rawest terms, an anti-Deity screed (except for the little bit tagged on at the end.) Qohelet is not letting G”d off the hook. Qohelet is openly questioning whether G”d is good, and whether G”d always stands up for goodness. (At least, I believe these are valid possible interpretations of Qohelet.) The little tag at the end notwithstanding, what was the value that the rabbis found in this book that they kept it in the canon?

Look, I’ll be honest. Deep inside of me is a yearning for life to have meaning, and for me to have at least a glimpse of what that meaning might be. A desire for a G”d that is not capricious, and that doesn’t hide behind ineffability. A desire for a Universe that makes sense, in which the righteous are rewarded and evil is not. A universe in which the wise are not pompous and the less wise are not so certain in their ignorance. So, like Qohelet, I am frustrated by reality. Like Qohelet, the best thing I can do about it is to think about it, to write about it. So I do.

Shabbat Shalom and Moadim L’simchah,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Sukkot III 5772 - Fragility
Sukkot I 5770 - Fire and Rain
Sukkot 5767-Precious Congealed Light - Or Y'kator V'kipa'on
Sukkot 5764--Bayom Hazeh
Sukkot 5763--Sukkot Time Travel


Friday, September 13, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Yom Kippur 5774–Blanket Apologies II

Nine years ago I wrote a Yom Kippur musing on the subject of blanket electronic apologies. In technology terms, that’s ancient history already.  If such sentiments were rampant nine years ago, considering all the technological and social media changes we’ve experienced in the last nine years, I imagine they are much more in evidence today.
To some degree that is the case. To some degree, it is not. More about that in a moment. Let’s go back to where I started in 5765:
"If I have in any way hurt or offended any of you, I offer my apologies and seek your forgiveness."
With the advent of e-mail, we see more of these types of pre-Yom Kippur messages than ever…
– and now, not just in email, but on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Vine, and more. Even though I am great advocate of the technology, there's has been a part of me that believes that such efforts seem impersonal, inadequate. Just a blanket just-in-case "I'm sorry."
Yet in our tradition, the ritual for Yom Kippur includes its own share of "blanket just-in-case" invocations, beginning with Kol Nidrei and including our ashamnus and al kheits and more. So are these posts, e-mails, images, videos, etc. all that different?
Consider that every time one of these apologetic messages is offered, the person sending the apology had to have put at least some thought and effort into the process. While I can imagine someone simply selecting every address in their address book, every friend, everyone in the circles, etc.  and sending out such a message to all of those people, it's more likely that people are choosing which people should receive their messages. I would suggest that sending individual messages probably requires a little more thought, but even group messages require the selection of intended recipients.
I've seen plenty of "forgive me" messages, posts, tweets, videos, cards, and more this year. And while some skeptics might pooh-pooh this approach, given the nature of electronic online communities, it's quite likely that some friend, some subscriber to a group or list took offense or was hurt by something that others might have written. I don't find them inappropriate at all. I think the sentiment is right on the mark.
Nine years ago I wrote:
The success of the musical "Avenue Q" has given new life to the German word "schadenfreude" which, loosely, means happiness at the misfortune of others. I bring this concept up for several reasons. First, I think most of us engage in forms of schadenfreude, and in so doing, we have done something for which we ought to consider seeking forgiveness. However, I also bring it up because I wonder how many times each of us, in the busy-ness of our lives and daily activities, has inadvertently caused some misfortune to befall others. So maybe a blanket "I'm sorry, forgive me" ought to be generated by each of us to society, to humankind at large. And to our planet. I'm assuming that we'll all do as much for G”d.
So the next time you see in an e-mail something like this:
I offer to each and every one of you my humble apologies for anything I might have done or said (or written) which may have hurt or offended you, and for any promises I may have made to you and not fulfilled. I seek and ask for your forgiveness.
don't be so quick to assign it to some arbitrary level of false sincerity or inadequate attempt to repent. The spirit in which such sentiments are offered ought not be something we question, lest we ourselves commit some hurt or sin in our process of assumption. For when we judge others, whether they know it or not, we must assume the responsibility of our judgments.
If you must judge, judge wisely. Pursue justice, but not at the expense of compassion. And, at this time of year, perhaps judging others is an activity in which we ought not to engage. This is a time for self-judgment. And remember to pursue justice, but be compassionate with yourself, for you are in the image of G”d.
That’s where I ended in 5765. Nine years later, these “I’m sorry” posts don’t seem so unusual or new anymore (though people are using all sorts of new and creative ways to share their messages.) The good folks at G-dcast even gave us a virtual azazel goat to allow us to offload some of our sins online.
However, and maybe it’s my imagination, but, considering the explosion of users online in the past 9 years, I’m not seeing that many more virtual online blanket apologies. Perhaps some of that is backlash, and indignity for what many see as the impersonal nature of these posts. I think my arguments still hold. While it may be easy to offer a blanket online apology, it still requires effort and intent, and we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss them offhand.
Our attitudes are changing, too. As technology becomes more and more integrated into our lives, we begin to see it as an appropriate and often invaluable tool to enhance the things we choose to do and believe. That enhancement can and should extend into the social, emotional, behavioral, ethical, and theological spheres of our lives. Perhaps I’m seeing fewer blanket apologies (at least in comparison to the actual number of people now online) is because more people are using the technology for more direct and personal apologies.
Over on, there’s an “ask the expert” (link removed for security reasons) article on apologizing which states that making blanket apologies via mass email or Facebook is halakhically acceptable. The article ends by making the always appropriate thought that, while it’s nice to ask forgiveness around Yom Kippur, it would be better if it were something we did every day, like flossing our teeth, but often don’t.
Now, if you know me, you know that I don’t particularly care if the halakha says apologizing through mass emails or a Facebook post is okay, though you’ll also know that I do care about knowing what the halakha says, thinking about it, grappling with it, wrestling with it. I may disagree with the rabbis a lot, but their opinions and thought processes still matter to me.
After all, is an electronic apology all that different from swinging a chicken over your head, casting breadcrumbs into flowing water, or any of the other rituals we might use to seek forgiveness for our wrongs?
Like any apology, blanket or not, the proof of sincerity is difficult to determine, and usually can only be ascertained if and when similar circumstances arise and the person who did wrong acts in a different way. I’ll extend my personal definition a little wider, as sometimes, exact or similar conditions may never again arise, in which case I do believe that effort to change and improve sinful behavior of any kind counts. Sort of like early parole or release for good behavior. (Yes, some offenders game the system, pretending to a sincere religious conversion – yet again let us not be so quick to judge. I think we all “game the system” at times. In a way, a blanket apology is an attempt to game the system. Its away recognized and approved of by our tradition. We can and do ask for forgiveness of sins of which we may not be aware, even as we are required to seek forgiveness for the sins of which we are aware.
No blanket apology can take the place of a person-to-person, I-You in the Buberian sense, apology and seeking of forgiveness. Whether or not an email, text message, private tweet or post, or even phone call is sufficient for a direct, personal apology is not something I can decide for anyone. I do know that I have offered and received, and have had accepted and have accepted from others, very direct, specific, and personal apologies for offenses, made in electronic formats. I’ve shared before my belief that the electronic aether really can carry more than bits and bytes – that it is not always as impersonal as it is often accused of being. (When Skype or a Google+ Hangout or Apple FaceTime is used, that often does eliminate the “lacking body language” critique of electronic communication.)
Consider this – if anything, the ability to make direct apologies via electronic forms may actually be a boon – allowing people to make direct apologies to people who are far away in a direct and timely manner. Now, we have fewer excuses to not apologize. (By the same token, because of email, social media, etc. we probably have more things for which to apologize…)
I am also reminded that seeking forgiveness and getting it are different parts of the ritual. There is a sometimes intricate dance in seeking and receiving forgiveness. That initial, public, blanket apology may yet give rise to further interaction and interchange between two human beings. It may be a tool of discovery, leading to the need for more direct, personal seeking of forgiveness. Making a public., blanket apology may just be a way for us to learn of sins we committed of which we may not have awareness.
Just as we can ask if it is appropriate to seek forgiveness electronically, we can ask if it is appropriate to offer forgiveness the same way. What makes an exchange meaningful, whether real time face to face, or via electronic means, is the agreement of both parties that the exchange is meaningful. Society’s stamp of approval is not required. So if an electronic apology and electronic forgiveness are acceptable between two people, who are we to judge? We should rejoice in the reconciliation.
The ease with which one could apologize or offer forgiveness through technological means of communication is a boon, but also a danger. It could lead us to be more casual in guarding our speech and behavior, knowing that apology and forgiveness can be had almost instantaneously. It may lead to an extension of the “it’s easier to seek forgiveness later than to ask permission now” ethic that, on the one hand, can lead to exciting new things, but can also lead to hurt feelings and potential disasters.
So like anything else, our technology can be both blessing and curse. Choose to make it a blessing, of course. It’s all in how you use it.
Gmar chatimah tovah, tzom qal, & Shabbat Shalom,
Adrian ©2013 (portions ©2004) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this topic:
Yom Kippur 5772 - Al Khet Shekhetanu

Friday, September 6, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Ha’azinu/Shabbat Shuvah 5774-5774: A Torah Odyssey

A sampling from Ha’azinu:

Speaking of the Israelites, Moshe has G”d saying:

I will sweep misfortunes upon them,
Use up My arrows on them:
Wasting famine, ravinging plague,
Deadly pestilence, and fanged beasts
Will I let loose against them.
(Deut 32:23-24, new JPS)

And this is what G”d, after chastising Israel and then taking them back, will do to Israel’s foes

When I whet my flashing blade
And my hand lays hold on judgment,
Vengeance shall I wreak on My foes
Will I deal to those who reject Me.
(Deut. 32:41, new JPS)

Seriously? This was the last speech of Moshe? It’s no “I Have a Dream” speech.  It’s no “My G”d, it’s full of stars!” It’s certainly no “last words of David.”

That’s what I thought to myself. However, I realized I needed to double-check and see exactly what David’s last words really were. My memory of them is cloudy, and tainted by my encounter, at a very young age, with Randall Thompson’s classic choral setting. Seems Randall Thompson did a little picking and choosing. He used the King James Version biblical text:

He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God. And he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds; as the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain.
(2 Samuel 23:3-4, KJV)

The new JPS translation renders it

He who rules men justly,
He who rules in awe of God
Is like the light of the morning at sunrise,
A morning without clouds
Through sunshine and rain
[Bringing] vegetation out of the earth
(2 Samuel 23:3-4, New JPS)

(Which I find a better but still obviously tweaked translation.) But David’s last words actually go on.

Is not my House established before God?
For He has granted me an eternal pact,
Drawn up in full and secured.
Will He not cause all my success
And [my] every desire to blossom?

But the wicked shall all
Be raked aside like thorns;
For no one will take them in his hand.

Whoever touches them
Must arm himself with iron
And the shaft of a spear;
And they must be burned up on the spot.
(2 Samuel 23: 5-7, New JPS)

The KJV renders it thus:

Although my house be not so with God; yet he hath made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things, and sure: for this is all my salvation, and all my desire, although he make it not to grow.

But the sons of Belial shall be all of them as thorns thrust away, because they cannot be taken with hands:

But the man that shall touch them must be fenced with iron and the staff of a spear; and they shall be utterly burned with fire in the same place.
(2 Samuel 23: 5-7, KJV)

(Now, I know it’s not an entirely fair comparison. These aren’t the actual last words of Moshe. The final chapter, the final parasha, V’zot Ha-Berakhah, contains a blessing which he gave to the Israelites before he died. Yet if you look at the last verse of his last words, they too, are not so uplifting, though perhaps inspiring to a people about to go and conquer lands given to them by their G”d:

Your enemies shall come cringing before you,
And you shall tread on their backs
(Deut 33:29)

So those, are truly the last words of Moshe. Yet what we read this week is the end of Moshe’s final speech, so I think acceptable for me to compare them to David’s last words.)

So both Moshe and David start off with some nice, fluffy poetry, and then veer off into fire and brimstone, of a sort.

So just what is it with our ancestors? They had to go and ruin yet another potentially beautiful oration with more negative imagery. Agreed, David’s last oration is nowhere near as descriptive and negative as Moshe’s last words in Ha’azinu. Moshe gets downright ugly in describing what G”d will do:

I will make My arrows drunk with blood —
As My sword devours flesh —
Blood of the slain and the captive
From the long-haired enemy chiefs.
(Deut. 32:42)

And that’s but a small sampling of the horrific and negative imagery that pervades that latter slightly more than half of Ha’azinu. (The haftarah for Ha’azinu – which is not being read this year since it’s Shabbat Shuvah - is even worse. It’s also from 2 Samuel, chapter 22, just before chapter 23, the source of David’s last words. I wrote just two years ago about how even I, the champion of working to redeem irredeemable texts, had met my match with 2 Samuel 22. Thank goodness this year we don’t get to hear the haftarah for Ha’azinu, and do get, instead, the relatively comforting selections from Hosea, Micah, and Joel for Shabbat Shuvah.)

True, Moshe starts out heaping praise upon G”d. He quickly turns, however, to chastising the people. Oddly enough, Moshe’s chastisements seem more in keeping with the prophetic words to come centuries later (not at all surprising given the common scholarly perception that all of Deuteronomy is a much later addition to the canonical Hebrew bible.) It’s not entirely clear if Moshe is chastising the Israelites for all that happened over the last 40 years, or chastising generations yet to come for their failures. The descriptions of what happened could apply to both situations.

So the pattern repeats itself, over and over. G”d grants us blessing. We don’t follow G”d’s commandments, we turn to other gods. G”d takes vengeance, either directly or by allowing our enemies to wreak havoc upon us. Eventually, G”d takes us back in love and recognition of the covenant. (Yet, in this taking back of us, usually our enemies become bloody victims.) We seem to spend an awful lot of time in our biblical texts on the straying and vengeance parts.

Enough of this warrior G”d. Enough of the carrot and stick. Enough G”d-mandated genocide. Enough knowing we will be imperfect, stray from G”d, and reap bitter punishment as a result. Enough being told things will get so bad we’ll eat our children. Knowing that G”d will eventually take us back – surely a theme that connects with this time of year – is something to which we can cling. Yet I’m tired of clinging. I want off the roller-coaster ride.

Something has been out of sync for me for some time now. I am becoming increasingly troubled again by all the negativity one finds in our Jewish biblical texts. I have perhaps grown weary of spending so much time trying to redeem it all. This was not the sort of spiritual mood I wanted to find myself in during Elul, and now, in the Days of Awe.

So I find myself having to be disingenuous, and picking and choosing from the more positive bits of text to lighten my mood.

Ha’azinu has this interesting parallel with David’s last words:

May my discourse come down as the rain,
My speech distill as the dew,
Like showers on young growth,
Like droplets on the grass
(Deut. 32:2, New JPS)

Moshe gets off to a nice, flowery, praising G”d. Then right after that he starts in on us:

The Rock!-His deeds are perfect,
Yea, all His ways are just;
A faithful G”d, never false,
True and upright is He.
Children unworthy of Him-
That crooked, perverse generation-
Their baseness played him false.
(Deut. 32:4-5, New JPS)

From there, finding a pleasant piece of text becomes increasingly difficult. Go look for yourself. So I hunt around, looking for little bits of positive energy. Like these words describing how G”d treated our ancestors:

He found him in a desert region
In an empty howling waste,
He encircled him, watched over him,
Guarded him as the pupil of His eye.
Like an eagle who rouses his nestlings
Gliding down to his young,
So did He spread His wings and take him,
Bear him on his pinions;
(Deut. 32:10-11, New JPS)

Isn’t that a nice sentiment? Let’s just read that and skip the other stuff. Ah, but there I go. They very thing about which I have so often complained. Worse, perhaps, because I’m whitewashing our tradition for selfish reasons, and not with any broader interests or perspective at heart.

I have many things for which I must atone at this time of year. Given an already lengthy list, part of me rebels at having to add yet another item-my selfish whitewashing and picking and choosing to avoid confronting our texts head on. After all, doing that gets me to a better place, spiritually, does it not?  Tiptoe, hurriedly, through the worst, like we do with Ki Tavo. Yet I would not be writing these very words if I did not have some internal discomfort. I have done my share of confronting our texts for my years, and now is not the time to shirk that obligation.

What better time, then, to make a resolution for this new Jewish year, to recommit myself to tackling our ancient texts, warts and all, and finding ways to come to terms with them? I won’t make a promise I can’t keep, so I won’t promise to never do some convenient ignoring and whitewashing when it’s in my own spiritual best interest. I’m only human. However, I’m going to try my best, in this new year, to tackle Torah, Tanakh, Talmud and more with a renewed spirit and dedication to finding ways to redeem the irredeemable. This is my pledge to G”d, to you, and to myself. May it be G”d’s will that I am able to fulfill my pledge. May it be my will as well.

Unlike Bowman, I’m peering into the known, and not the unknown, yet I still hope and pray that when I peer into our Jewish texts, I’ll be filled with wonder and awe and exclaim, “My G”d, it’s full of stars.”*

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

*-see note below regarding this quote.

Other musings on this parasha:

Ha'azinu 5772 - An Insincere Hymn?
Ha'azinu/Shabbat Shuvah 5570-Our 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

Note: The quote, “My G”d, it’s full of stars” is one of those mis-remembered quotes. It does not actually appear in the film 2001:A Space Odyssey! It does appear in the novel which Arthur C.Clarke wrote concurrent with the movie’s creation, and hurried into print to coincide with the movie’s appearance. There are a number of difference between the novel and the film. Some say the novel was Clarke’s way of countering some of the aspects of the film with which he did not agree artistically. The quote is used in the opening sequence of the sequel movie 2010:The Year We Make Contact.