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