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