Friday, January 31, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–T’rumah 5774–Dollhouse

I have often used the simile “the Torah is like an owner’s manual” or the analogy “just as instruction booklets or owner manuals teach us how to use and care for things, The Torah teaches us how be and care for ourselves as human beings.” Our tradition is also replete with metaphors, similes, and analogies attempting to explain what the Torah is and how it is/can be relevant to our lives.

Here in parashat T’rumah, there’ s no need for metaphors, similes, or analogies. Here the Torah is, plain and simply, a set of instructions, a verbal blueprint. If we walked into IKEA and came out with a tabernacle, T’rumah would contain the parts list, and the next parasha, Tetzaveh, the assembly instructions. (Actually, parashat T’rumah might prove more useful at the factory where the tabernacle parts were made, because it contains what are really manufacturing instructions.) Though most of these directions are quite specific and particular, there are enough places where a lack of clarity might yield the sort of confusing assembly instructions we have all encountered in our lives.

Of what relevance, ask many, are these manufacturing and assembly instruction for the tabernacle in our own time? This from the culture that gave us Erector Sets, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, K’nex, and, of course, Lego sets. Our fascination with these things has even given rise to the upcoming Lego movie!

You can buy “build your own Tabernacle kits.”  Online you can also find pictures of Lego tabernacles

One source of these, The Tabernacle Place (not a Jewish site, by any means) does ask this interesting question on their web site:

The Bible has two chapters on creation and 50 chapters on the tabernacle. Why don't we teach it more?

Their answers to the question “why study the Tabernacle?” are, of course, Christological. Judaism has ascribed its own meanings and understandings of the tabernacle, the mishkan.  Most of these come from a time well after the time of the Tabernacle, indeed, well after the time of the two Temples. For some of the rabbis, the mishkan was symbolic of the need for us to leave a place for G”d to dwell among us – in our hearts, as opposed to a physical repository like the Mishkan or the Temples.

I’ve devoted some effort to finding meaning in the instructions of parashat T’rumah, even as recently as last year. My focus today in not on the utilization of metaphor, simile, and analogy to create topical relevance for the words of parashat T’rumah. It’s an attempt, instead, to find meaning in these words through our fascination with how things are built.

We’ve all heard the rants – I’ve ranted myself on the subject – about how the once imaginative toys that were the Lego system have simply become a form of model-building kits. Behavioral, developmental, and educational theorists all proclaim the greater virtue in the free-form expression of the original Lego system, and bemoan the restrictions on imagination imposed by the newer themed Lego sets.

I agree that there is great value in open-ended construction and assembly toys, and I would encourage all of us to try and steer our children (and even adults) into allowing their imaginations to roam free, and not fall prey to the situation so aptly described in Harry Chapin’s “Flowers Are Red” song. We all need the joy and mystery of toys like Tom Paxton’s The Marvelous Toy (here performed by Peter, Paul, & Paxton!). However, is it so wrong to be enamored of kits that teach us how to build specific structures? While I had my plain old wooden block sets, Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets, and Tinkertoys, (Legos hadn’t quite gained the popularity and universality in the 60s that they have today) I also had many model kits – cars, boats, planes, starships. One of my favorite childhood toys/souvenirs was a cardboard cutout fold-it-yourself replica of an Egyptian temple or tomb from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It had secret passages and lots of fascinating detail.

These toys were fun – I liked building models, but there was one basic problem with most of them. when completed, they might give some insight into the workings of the thing being modeled, but rarely, if ever, were they built in a way such that they were assembled just like their real-life counterparts, matching model part for every part that went into it. (There were and still are kits that detailed, but they are generally toys for the very rich, and not a kid from the projects like me.) Oh yes, many of the model kits held lots of construction challenges for young minds, and not just in working with small parts. Nevertheless I wonder how much I might have enjoyed a toy in my youth that allowed me to build, brick by brick, piece by piece, a model of a pyramid or temple or tomb.

Imagine the time and effort it takes for those Lego devotees who work to create reasonably authentic replicas or models of things. True, they have to go well beyond the confines of any one kit or system, drawing parts and pieces made from a whole range of specialized Lego parts made for specific kits in order to create their masterpieces. While some model/replica creators may be entirely focused on building the most exact replica, I imagine that some must also find themselves asking questions like “why is this particular part of this structure designed the way it is?”

This type of curiosity seems no less likely to happen when building something from a specialized Lego set – and I certainly hope it does. It would certainly be a curious process to take the text of parashat T’rumah and from it construct a model of the tabernacle. What might we learn from it? It’s one thing to read about the menorah, or the cherubim on the cover of the ark, or the showbread pans – it’s another thing entirely to see them take shape and form (or to try and shape and form them based on just the words of the biblical text, in the absence of drawings and blueprints.) Just as we are all supposed to write our own Torah, maybe we should each construct the parts for and build our own mishkan. We can do this with Legos, or custom parts, or even virtually, with digitized drawings and animations. What might we learn in the process? Imagination takes many forms. We can imagine any shape or form we want, or we can imagine why particular shapes or forms were created the way they were. Is free-form imagination inherently superior? (I’ll agree that it may be, at certain points in the development of a child, or even an adult, developmentally superior.)

Now something even more interesting to think about after we have constructed our model/replica mishkan, is imagining the everyday happenings in it, imagining what it was like to disassemble, transport, and reassemble. What fun is building Lego Hogwarts if you then don’t pretend to be a student there? You might choose to be a major character, or a minor character, or even a imagined one. So when you build you virtual tabernacle, why not take a turn imaging yourself to be Moshe, Aharon, one of Aharon’s sons, a Levite, an ordinary Israelite, one of the mixed multitude, etc.?

We spend lots of time imagining what it might have been like to be a slave in Egypt, to witness the plagues, the miracles at the Sea of Reeds, the revelation at Sinai. What about imagining everyday life with the Israelites wandering the wilderness with their portable tabernacle? We can enhance that experience when we recreate replicas of things like the Mishkan. Consider making the Mishkan your dollhouse this Shabbat as a way to explore parashat T’rumah. Have fun!

Shabbat Shalom,

©2014 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

T'rumah 5773 - Virtual Reality, Real Virtuality, or Really Virtual?
T'rumah 5772-When Wool and Linen Together Are Not Shatnez
T'rumah 5771 - TorahLeaks
T'rumah 5770 - Finessing Idolatry, or Outgrowing It?
T'rumah 5769 - Planning for Always
T'rumah 5767-You Gotta Wanna - The Sequel
T'rumah 5766-No Tools Allowed
T'rumah 5765-Ish Al Akhiv
T'rumah 5764-Redux 5760-Doing It Gd's Way
T'rumah 5763-Semper Paratus
T'rumah 5762-Virtual Reality or Real Virtuality?
T'rumah 5760-Doing It Gd's Way
T'rumah 5761-You Gotta Wanna

Friday, January 24, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Mishpatim 5774-Chukim U’mishpatim Revisited

Fourteen years ago I wrote of my experiences discussing parashat Mishpatim with some 5th graders at a Reform synagogue. I have certainly discussed the parasha with other students in the intervening years.  Interestingly enough, this year I’ve been tutoring some students (at different congregations) in preparation for their celebration recognizing their becoming a bar/bat mitzvah occurring on parashat Mishpatim. (How’s that for a circumlocution to avoid using “bar/bat mitzvah” as a verb?) The parallels between the discussions I’ve been having with these students brought to mind those I had with that class back in 2000. Then, it was a class of fifth-graders. Now, my tutoring charges are in 7th grade. So there are subtle (and not so subtle) differences in the level and type of discussion and the topics covered. Nevertheless, the essence of what we discussed is essentially unchanged from the conversations in 2000. Back then, I wrote:

I had the honor last Sunday of leading a group of fifth graders in Torah study of parashat Mishpatim. Students in fifth grade, in my experience, are still somewhat unfettered enough by societal conditioning that they can and do engage in free inquiry and thinking "outside the box."

Today’s seventh graders that I am working with, simply by virtue of age, but also because of our changing society, are not as unfettered, yet they are still good free-thinkers.

Both then and now, I began by using illustrations from contemporary life to illustrate the essential difference between chukim and mishpatim. They seemed to catch on fairly quickly to the (admittedly simplified) concept that mishpatim generally had some basis in rational thought and natural patterns whereas chukim were rules that, at least superficially, appeared to have no natural or rational purpose behind them. (Back in 2000, with my fifth graders, I didn’t put to fine a point on these things. Today’s seventh-graders forced me to dig a little deeper.)

Before examining some of the commandments in Mishpatim, we tackled the aseret hadibrot (ten commandments/things/words) from last week, working our way through crude distinctions between mishpatim and chukim. (Then and now) they proved fairly adept at the process, although they were already beginning to suspect the existence of gray areas, as their responses grew less certain. As we wove our way into Mishpatim, I took some opportunities to devise logical or natural explanations for some of the commandments that were labeled chukim, further eroding their confidence. (Here, in 2013-14, one student managed to get me into a prolonged discussion of kashrut and the modern attempt to rationalize many of the related mishpatim and chukim. You know, the whole pork/trichinosis thing as ancient medical knowledge, basar b’chalav (meat and milk) as concern for animal cruelty, and other attempts to make the seemingly irrational rational. We came to the conclusion that modern rationalizations only muddied the distinctions further, and weren’t all that useful.)  Nevertheless they persevered in attempting to make the distinction. I have to give them credit for being willing to take a stand!

It didn’t come up in 2000, but in 2013-14, at least one of my tutoring students (who went to day school, of course) brought up the subject of the third class of commandments, eidut – commandments that only make sense in light of G”d’s action, and serve as a witness to G”d and how G”d acts in the world. This came up, of course, when the parasha was Bo and we read the Passover commandments before the actual exodus occurs. Are they really a separate class? Is the existence of this class of law an admittance of the potential for any chok to become mishpat at some point? It certainly opens the doors of possibility,

In 2000, I didn't raise it myself-I waited for the question to come up, and, eventually, it did: "so why should we follow the chukim, if they have no rational basis?" (well, I think the student's question in 2000 used different vocabulary, but you get the drift...) Here in 2013-14, the question came up almost at the beginning. Then, as now, lots of interesting answers:

  • Because people are generally evil and selfish.
  • Because people are dumb and don't know any better.
  • Because people can't always see the "big picture."
  • Because we might not understand them now, but we might understand them later.
  • Because if we know the reason for everything, we might become too prideful (I really thought that was an interesting observation from a 7th grade student)
  • Because sometimes “parents” really do know what’s best even if you don’t understand it. (My seventh graders would not agree with this fifth grade observation.)
  • and of course, the answer that will always come out: Because G”d said so.

Back in 2000, I was somewhat pleasantly surprised by the support for that last answer from a large group of Reform fifth graders. A few offered the challenge "but what if you don't believe in G”d, should you still follow them?" Without missing a beat, another student answered: "It doesn't matter who wrote them, what matters is that, as Jews, we have a covenant that requires us to keep them."

A few students parroted the idea that "well, we're Reform, we don't have to do any of that." They were definitely a minority, and taken to task by quite a few critical thinkers in the group. One young person said "if you're going to say some commandment doesn't make sense so we don't have to follow it anymore, you have to first see if you can figure out why it might have made sense then." "But what if it didn't make sense back then," said one. "Yeah, they were already making mishpatim and chukim different from the beginning," said another. A third commented "back then, they knew they were supposed to do what G”d told them to do, and not to talk back!"

Without any prompting from me, another student said: "But what about the mishpatim that don't make sense any more? They might have been natural to the Israelites, but now we know better."

Sadly, back in 2000, we ran out of time to take the discussion much further, but I suspect (and pray) that many of those students kept asking these questions and thinking these critical thoughts, and even, when critical thought failed them, considered resorting to faith. They had good questions and good comments.

Here in 2013-14, things got a little deeper. “What do you do,” asked one tutoring student, “when modern science contradicts what has traditionally been thought of as a mishpat? Does that then make it a chok? Can they change? Could a chok become a mishpat? Isn’t that sort of what the getting sick from pork bacteria thing does?” Wow. When does a rationalization become reality? When does reality become fantasy (i.e. in the realm of chukim) or even rationalization?

Another student also studying parashat Mishpatim wondered “what if G”d put some of those chukim in there just to test us, to see if we would blindly follow irrational commandments? Does G”d really want us to follow them, or does G”d expect us to rise above that and not just be obedient sheep?” (Yes, a seventh grade student really said that!)  We continued the discussion, exploring the idea that G”d had maybe expected us to weed out the silliest of the chukim from the beginning, and, as our knowledge of the universe increased, simply dump the ones that became meaningless in the face of what we came to know. The student made a comparison to the “test” of the akedah, the binding of Isaac. She even suggested that perhaps G”d was just toying with us, “putting us on” as it were – and just waiting to spring a “gotcha” on us for the practical joke. “Ha! Got you silly humans to follow all of those crazy commandments! What a hoot! April fool!” Ah, young minds. I have to admit, this last one really got me to thinking. G”d as trickster, as Loki, the fox. There’s a musing just waiting to be written. I’ll put on my list.

If I learned one really great thing from these all these young students, it is that even among students from truly liberal backgrounds, the idea of "na'aseh v'nishma" is alive and well. They are willing to entertain the idea of a world in which chukim are observed, even though they apparently have no rational basis. On the one hand, the scientist in me worries about that tendency to be willing to accept the observance of potentially irrational commandments, on the other hand, the spiritual me is glad that people remain open to possibilities, and do not automatically assume that our mastery of science makes us masters of the universe. Instead of “humans plan and G”d laughs” maybe we should say “humans investigate scientifically and G”d and the universe laugh.”  

We, ourselves, would do well to think about all these questions about chukim, mishpatim (and eidutim,) and see if we can do so with the freedom and creativity of the mind of a fifth, or even a seventh grade student. How does one differentiate between chukim and mishpatim? Are the lines clear or fuzzy? What do we do with a mishpat that followed known nature at the time but has since been outdated? Why keep those any of the commandments? In particular, why keep any of the chukim? Do the chukim all have some obvious natural basis that we just not enlightened enough to understand? Do we keep them because we are covenanted with G”d and for no other reason? Do we keep them so that we may come to understand them, in the spirit of na'aseh v'nishma? That is our task this Shabbat-to ask these questions, and not be afraid to answer them. We must not be afraid to take a stand.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2014 (portions ©2000) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Mishpatim 5773 - No One Mourns the Wicked
Mishpatim 5772-Repairing Our Damaged Temple
Mishpatim 5771 - Getting Past the Apologetics
Mishpatim 5770 - Divine Picnic
Mishpatim 5769 - Redux 5757/5761 Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5768 - Justice for All
Mishpatim 5767-To See, To Behold, To Eat, To Drink
Mishpatim 5766 - Mishpatim with a Capital IM
Mishpatim 5765-Eid Khamas (revised)
Mishpatim 5764-Situational Ethics
Mishpatim 5763-My Object All Sublime
Mishpatim 5762-Enron Beware!
Mishpatim 5761-Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5760-Chukim U'mishpatim
Mishpatim 5759-Eid Khamas-Witness to Violence

Friday, January 17, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Yitro 5774–The Rest of the Ten Commandments (Revised)

This seems to be the year that I want to revisit a lot of  musings written thirteen or fourteen years ago. This was around the time I was attending or had just graduated from Vanderbilt Divinity School. As I look back at them, some of them show the subtle influences of that particular educational environment, and some do not. Needless to say, my thoughts and understandings about lots of things have changed, some many times, since them. Others have remain doggedly the same. So I offer this revised edition of my musing for parashat Yitro from 5760 (2000.) (You can read the original  at Yitro 5760-The Rest of the Ten Commandments if you’d like to compare.)

Even before this age of sound bytes, it has been common practice to wheedle down the full text of Sh'mot 20:1-14 (and its repetition in Deiteronomy) into an abbreviated form. A common Judaic symbol is a representation of the tablets, with short forms of the aseret hadibrot  (the ten things, ten words, ten commandments – call it what you will) that express what some believe is their essence. some version use a short phrase, others just a single word to represent each. (An even more basic form simply uses the letters alef through yud, representing the numbers 1 through 10.)

Admittedly, some of the ten commandments can be stated quite plainly and succinctly, and are, in fact, so written in Torah. Lo tirtzakh (Do not murder.) Lo tinaf. (Do not be adulterous.) Lo tignov (Do not steal.) These seem obvious enough. We shall return later to consider if this is truly the case, but for now, we'll accept this premise.

But let's start at the beginning. What is this first commandment? Is it even a commandment?

אָֽנֹכִ֖י֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֧ר הוֹצֵאתִ֛יךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֣֥ית עֲבָדִֽ֑ים׃

Anochi Ad-nai Elohekha asher hotzeitikha mei-aretz mitzrayim mibeit avadim. I am the L”rd your G”d who brought you out of the land of Egypt from the house of bondage.

What, exactly, is the commandment here?

Some scholars suggest that the very essence of this commandment is described by its unusual abbreviated form, Anochi Ad-nai. I am G”d. The point is that all the other commandments are dependent on this one thing-that we must know G”d before all else makes any sense. That G”d must be a given, the foundation.

Then why all the rest of the text? Is it simply because, in that time and place, the existence of multiple gods was a given, and even G”d, fearful of being mistaken for some other god by the people, added a further description to be sure the people knew exactly which G”d was speaking to them. That's certainly a possibility.

Or perhaps, seeing how the Israelites continued to whine and complain and lose faith, G"d felt it necessary to remind them of what G"d had done for them, in the most recent past. That's a pretty sad commentary on our ancestors. But these words can do for us today what they might have done for our ancestors. Provide anamnesis. That's a fancy way of saying "making the past present" which is a pretty prominent idea in Judaism and Jewish ritual. When we read this commandment, we, too, are reminded of G"d's great deeds.

"You shall have no other gods besides me." Again, a pretty straight shooting statement. (When I think about these words, I am reminded of how often we refer to the early Israelites as monolatrous, that true monotheism came about much later in terms of actual Israelite belief and practice. For centuries of our early existence, we lived in complete and utter violation of this most basic commandment from G”d. Why? Why was it so difficult for us to be truly monotheistic? Good question to ponder. )

So, no other G”ds. Yet G"d felt the need for further clarification. First, we must not make graven images. I've often wondered if this is so because G"d learned a lesson from some of the other gods. Perhaps they are like the djinnis of legend. Build an idol for a god and the god is compelled to dwell within it, and be forever limited to that shape, and that function, and perhaps even that place (or places, as if a god could allow parts of itself to reside in many idols.) And then it must obey the wishes of the possessor(s) of the idol(s) (or, at the very least, be condemned to listen to their incessantly droll prayers and petitions.) Perhaps G"d was trying to avoid that fate. (G"d does later ask the Israelites to build a place, and later a Temple, where G"d might dwell with the people, but a tent or Temple is not an idol nor a representative shape to capture an image. I will, however, be bold. enough to suggest that the mishkan is more likely to be a place where G”d can be, if G”d chooses, whereas the Temple seems a bit more intended to keep G”d in one place, like a djinn’s lamp, or an idol. The building of the Temple seems almost regressive, and perhaps even an acquiescence on the part of G”d for humanity to have a little control over G”d. “OK, my flawed creations. Have a King if you must. Build your silly little Temple, if you must. Believe that you can exercise some small modicum of control over me if you must. I’ll have the last laugh.” Even though the Temple was destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again, I am not entirely sure G”d had the last laugh.)

But G"d goes on. A simple reading of the following text would make it appear that the creation of any kind of images of organic and inorganic things that exist in the heavens, on the earth, or in the waters below is prohibited. If so, a lot of artists would be in big trouble. So we assume that the context of G"d's instructions refer to making images of anything that we would pray to or worship (and that anything could be organic or inorganic.) Even if we assume this interpretation we, as a species, have not done well in obeying it. For we do make images of things organic and inorganic and worship them as we should not do. We do bow down before them and serve them. Some of them are religious iconography, yet others of them are things, like money, or technology. And woe unto us, for our passionate G"d shall inflict the iniquities of parents upon children, even unto future generations.

This passage has always been troubling. Some of the prophets even went so far as to present opposing viewpoints, claiming this was not true of G"d, that it was symbolic and not an actual thing G"d would do. (We Jews seem to be very fond of this workaround for the troubling parts of the Torah. Perhaps it's time to challenge that practice? Is there another way to appropriate these troubling passages without reducing them to being simple metaphor or hyperbole? Does G"d-or whoever authored the Torah-engage in pilpul?)

Now, if one tries, one can find a tiny bit of redemption for G”d inflicting punishment for the sins of one generation upon future generations. It’s a form of negative reinforcement. However, it relies upon humans actually caring what happens to their children and grandchildren. One would think this could be a very effective tool (and, in some ways, it has kept Jews in line over the centuries) yet time and again we seem too self-centered to care what happens to our descendants. How many parents have lamented over the failure for their threats of punishment to evoke behavioral changes in their children. What must G”d be thinking about that? You have my sympathies, G”d. 

Blessings and curses. The choice has always been ours. This is how our free will manifests itself. We can make our graven images, and worship them, and be reproached for this sin through many generations. Or we can love G"d and obey G"d's commandments and receive G"d's kindness even through a thousand generations.

We should not swear falsely using G"d's name. That's a little harder to put into two or three words. "Don't swear" doesn't capture it correctly. Even "don't swear falsely" is inadequate. It's the use of G"d in the oath that is the crux of the commandment. This would seem, perhaps, license to swear falsely in an oath that doesn't invoke G"d's name. I think that kind of interpretation kind of ignores the intent of the commandment, but a strict reading might permit it. If we violate this commandment, G"d tells us the consequence-G"d will not acquit of us this deed. That is the curse. There would appear to be no hope of forgiveness for the act of swearing falsely by G"d's name. For my Xtian friends, I know this could be a very troubling idea. As a Jew, it troubles me, though perhaps for different reasons. I am not sure I must have G"d's forgiveness for all my misdeeds. I must only act to do what I can to compensate somehow for them. Mostly by trying, next time, to do something according to G"d's commandments. Judaism teaches that the gates of t’shuvah, repentance (though that seems inadequate to describe t’shuvah,) are always open. Yes, we can always seek ways to atone for our sins and make amends. That does not mean G”d has acquitted us for our wrongful acts. We Jews sometimes embrace this “gates of t’shuvah are always open” in the very same way we criticize our Christian brethren for their embrace of accept Jesus as a “get out of jail free” card. We forget there’s a difference between pardon, acceptance, and forgiveness. 

Four entire verses are dedicated to buttress what would appear to be a simple commandment: remember the day of Shabbat. But the command is not just zokheir, remember, but also l'kadsho, to keep it holy. Holy in Judaic terms usually means separate, apart, clean.

What I find interesting here in "the rest of the commandment" is that here G"d elaborates on the commandment before providing yet another rationale. (As a side note, what does it say about G"d's understanding of humanity that G"d feels it is not enough to just give us commandments, but that we must also be given reasons to obey them, and also told what will happen when we do and do not follow them. And not just reasons right here in the text-but in all the rest of the Torah, written and oral.) We are told here, straight out, one thing we must NOT do in order to make Shabbat holy. We may not work. Not us, our slaves, our animals, even the non-Jews who live with us in our "settlements." (Boy have we forgotten parts of this, big time.) When we reduce the fourth commandment to the simple "zakhor et yom HaShabbat"-remember the Sabbath day" it's far to easy to forget or overlook the "lo ta'aseh" - do not do (work). And lest we forget why the seventh day is special, G"d reminds us. This is one commandment that really needs the whole text to be understood and obeyed.

Kibed et avikha v'et imekha. Honor your father and mother. Pretty simple. This time no word of what failure to do so will bring, but only a telling of what good will come when we do so-that we may live long on the land G"d is giving to us. Perhaps there is no warning of the penalty because G"d figures even humanity is decent enough at the core that honoring one's parents is the norm. Sadly, if this is the case, G"d's faith in humanity has proven inadequate.

Notice it does not say “love” your parents. Parents can be, and usually are, imperfect. It is still possible to show honor and respect to someone, despite their faults. Judaism, in general, asks us to do so, and in the case of our parents, specifically requires it. 

If I were to ask G"d for a favor, it might be for G"d to elaborate on commandments five through nine. Do not murder. Is murder, by G"d's definition, only something done by a human to another human? Or is murdering animals, or murdering our planet also wrong? The inadequacy of this commandment is dealt with later to some degree with the ideas of cities of refuge for those who kill without deliberate intent. But even this is inadequate. Does a soldier kill by intent? Is this murder or is it killing? What is the difference, G"d? I don't want to hear what the rabbis says is the difference, I want to know what G"d says the difference between killing and murder is.

No adultery. Ok, does this apply equally to men and women? To gay men and women? And what exactly, G"d, is your definition of adultery. After all, our ancestors often had wives, concubines, and often consorted with prostitutes. Is it adultery to lie with a prostitute? Is it only adultery if the prostitute is married? There are just too many loopholes and too much uncertainty here.

We shouldn't steal. I guess this means we shouldn't steal unless it is part of G"d's plan. After all, Jacob stole Esau's birthright! Israel stole land from the Canaanites! David stole Bathsheba (and had murder committed in the process.) And is it stealing to take back something that is rightfully ours? Why, oh why, G"d, did you leave it up to us to figure this all out. We've not done so well at it.

We mustn't speak falsely of our friends. Does this mean we can speak falsely of our enemies or our family members or of strangers? This one, too, needs some serious elaboration.

Finally, lo takhmod, you shall not covet. That wasn't specific enough for G"d, so we get further clarification. This applies to things that belong to our neighbor. What if my neighbor has happiness and I don't? Shall I not covet happiness? Can I covet something that a stranger, or an enemy, or a family member has?

Can desire be legislated or even commanded by a Deity? Doesn’t this violate the concept of free will? Is the Torah, is G”d, asking us for a kind of mental discipline? Is coveting sinful when it is merely thought, or is action required? If we eliminate covetous thoughts, what happens to capitalism? (it should be noted that coveting is equally prevalent in, and one reason for failures of alternative economic and social systems.) Seems to me that the whole advertising industry would have to completely rethink how it works if we really took the prohibition against coveting seriously. Consider, too, all the people in the biblical narrative prior to this point who were guilty of coveting.

Yes, going beyond the "sound byte" format of the ten commandments is necessary. But sometimes that is not enough.

What is it that G"d is teaching us here? Why are some commandments more elaborated than others? What are some so obscure, or fuzzy? What is to be inferred from this. After all, this is supposed to be the "big ten." Or is it? Have we elevated these few commandments far beyond the original intent? 

Given the difficulties an d lack of clarity with these ten, perhaps ten commandments are not enough. And ten commandments are not all we have (nor, do I believe, are the seven noahide commandments all that is requisite of non-Jews.)

That is why we go on to Mishpatim next week. That is why we have the whole Torah-written (and oral?) We cannot simply live our lives by these ten. If we are, we are missing the boat. We are failing to see the forest for the trees.

Maybe we should tear down all those images of stone tablets from our sanctuaries, and replace them with something else. Some might say the number 613 might be a nice replacement. But I would say that even those 613 commandments are not all. What symbol could possibly represent all it is that we need to know in order to love G"d, obey G"d, help G"d finish/repair the world, and lead meaningful lives? Can it be reduced to a simple representation? Is a tablet or a star enough? A cross? A crescent and star? A taijitu? (The Yin/Yang symbol) An Om? A swastika? An ankh? An ahimsa? A chanda? A dharma wheel? A nine-pointed star? All of these fall short of being truly and fully representational of the faith and belief systems they represent. They are but shorthand, triggers, reminders. Perhaps that’s what the ten commandments are – a bit of shorthand, an executive summary, a sound byte. Sound bytes aren’t inherently bad. One would hope the intention of a sound byte is to get the listener to want to investigate further and learn more about the subject referenced. If this is so, then the ten commandments are reasonably successful sound bytes, as long as we see they as triggers to deeper learning and study. 

So perhaps simple sound byte representation might do. I'm not sure which one would be best, and that's a discussion for another time. But a good way to spend this Shabbat might be in study (or at least the start of study) of all the things written and told to us by our ancestors (and even our contemporaries) in an attempt to know what, if any, sound byte, might sum it all up. Or to consider if we can (or should) try to summarize the commandments at all. How close do the ten commandments come to that? Today, I’m feeling it’s not a good idea to place so much emphasis on these ten. Tomorrow, who knows. Good luck in your search and your contemplations.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2014 (portions ©2000) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Yitro 5773 - From Cheap Theatrics to Impossible Possibilities (Revised and Updated from 5761)
Yitro5772 - Why I Won't Be Unplugging on the National Day/Shabbat of Unplugging
Yitro 5771/ Redux Beshalakh 5762 - Manna Mania
Yitro 5770 - Special Effects
Yitro 5769 - Evolution Shabbat
Yitro 5768-B'Kol HaMakom-In Every Place
Yitro 5767-Kinat Ad"nai
Yitro 5766-Top Ten?
Yitro 5765-Outsiders (Updated from 5759)
Yitro 5764-Outsiders II
Yitro 5763-El Kana
Yitro 5762-Manna Mania
Yitro 5761-From Cheap Theatrics to Impossible Possibilities
Yitro 5760-The Rest of the Ten Commandments
Yitro 5759-Outsiders

Friday, January 10, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Beshalakh 5774–A Lot Can Change in 13 Years–Or Not

I like to redeem the irredeemable. It is a passion of mine, and I devote a lot of energy to doing so. Sometimes, however, I look back at what I wrote in an effort to redeem something seemingly irredeemable, and wonder “what was I thinking?”

Thirteen years ago, I was musing upon the turn of phrase “ish milkhama” referring to G”d as a warrior. I return to that musing today, weaving in new thoughts (indicated by being enclosed in [brackets])


Warrior G”d

"Ad”nai ish milchama, Ad”nai sh'mo"

"Ad”nai is a warrior, Ad”nai is his name." (Shemot 15:3)

G"d is a man of war? Not exactly the way we like to think of G"d. The image of a G"d of peace seems so much more pleasant. But that is not the reality. Reality is an ugly business, and G"d is not above getting tarnished by the horrors.

Being able to attribute great military victories to G"d is convenient. Jael had to sleep every night with visions of that tent peg she drove into Sisera's skull. How much better for her to attribute it all to G"d. Then she is blameless.

You think "How awful. That G"d is so violent and cruel, using us as agents to kill." But try it another way. Conflict seems to be part of human nature. Given that, we might all be living with constant guilt trips. That's not all too farfetched, either. In our modern liberal-thinking society, we are willing, sometimes even eager, to take on the angst of the misdeeds of our people, of our ancestors. But we don't have to. G"d, once again proving infinitely wise, allows us to purge ourselves of our guilt when our violent nature gets the better of us.

Now, in the case of the incident at Yam Suf, the action and the killing were all clearly done by G"d. However, when Joshua battled Amalek, it was humans spilling human blood. No doubt of that. In with the war between Barak and Sisera, Jabin's general, again it was humans spilling human blood.

There is always a price for victory-a price paid hardest by the vanquished. The Egyptians paid the price quite dearly, and so did Jabin's soldiers, and especially his general Sisera. A tent peg through the head? Oy! This is something to celebrate in song? G"d parting the sea, perhaps, is worthy of a song. But do we have to dirty up the song by also mentioning that "horse and rider were hurled into the sea?"

Yes-these reminders of the cruelty of life, of war, or serving G"d's agenda, are necessary. We cannot purge ourselves of our discomfort lest we speak of it. And purge it we can, because G"d accepts all the blame for what happened. [Wow, I really said that 13 years ago. What was I thinking?] 

"Thank G"d we have G"d to blame for all those dead Egyptians. Thank G"d we have G"d to blame for all those dead Canaanite soldiers. Thank G"d." Thank G"d, not for the victory, but for the ability to deal with the feelings that come from seeing all that death and destruction-by passing the blame back to G"d. I think without this, we would have died out as a species from the weight of our own sorrows.

So the next time you feel compelled to reject the "it was all part of G"d's plan" theory, just remember the great healing power that exists in it. Dish it out, dump it on G"d. G"d can take it. We can't. [I actually embraced this teleological notion? Hard to believe.] 

One could argue that we'll never improve as a species as long as we can blame our violent tendencies on G"d. I disagree. [Well, I did, 13 years ago.] There is great hope for improvement. [Sigh. Maybe not so much.] But without the safety valve of pinning the blame on G"d, we might never have the ability to keep trying. We would have long ago drowned in our own despair. [Well, there’s something to that.] 

The Christians didn't get it. G"d did not need to appear in human form and be sacrificed to absolve us of all our defects. We can dump it all on G"d without the intermediary. But with the guilt permanently dumped on this dead Jewish rabbi, what motivation is there for us to ever improve? [Of course, with the guilt dumped directly onto G”d, could not the same be said? What was different between what I was suggesting 13 years ago and what I said the Christians did? It was just a matter of substitution, wasn’t it? Or was it?] 

The ability to offload our guilt with the horrors of life onto G"d is essential. [Really, I wrote that. I did. Simply amazing.] Just as essential, however, is our desire to have less of it to offload, by striving to follow the rules that G"d gave us. [Ah, finally, I begin to redeem my own words.]


[Oh wait, that’s where I left it 13 years ago? What was I thinking? That one little pithy line, to offset everything else I had been saying? It seems to be crying out for amplification. So here I sit, trying to figure out how to amplify that thought. Yet every time I try, all I get is a restatement of the original thought couched in different words. Verbosity for no reason.

There is, when I look back on what I wrote 13 years ago, something very Christological in the idea that G”d exists for, among other reasons, to be that upon which we can dump our horrors, anxieties, and guilt with our own failings. It is, as I often say, an oversimplification, and an injustice to Christian theology and belief to broadly suggest that the death of Jesus has simply become and excuse to do anything and get away with it as long as you accept Jesus as your saviour. At the same time, there is a certain element of truth to this critique. Yet, here I am, suggesting the same for all of us – that G”d’s being a warrior absolves us of our guilt for being warriors.

G”d is the warrior, the commanding general, we are but foot soldiers in G”d’s wars. We’re just following G”ds order’s. Hmmm…where have we heard that before?

B’tzelem El”him, b’tzelem anashim. If we reflect all that is G”d, G”d reflects all that is us. We are all equally guilty of being warriors, of sin (can G”d sin?,) of not doing the right thing. Yet we are all equally capable of love and being righteous and working to make the world a better place. (Yes, you too, G”d, could choose to take a more active role in the latter. Of course, I’m assuming, from lack of evidence, that you’re not, a dubious assumption at best.)

So we are no better than G”d, and G”d is no better than us. Except…just as G”d can choose to make us instruments of G”dly war, we can choose to make G”d the repository for our guilt.

There is a subtle difference. We may be like G”d, but we are individuals. G”d is like all of us. That, by simple definition, implies that G”d is bigger than any one of us, and is, at the very least, at least as big as all of us put together. According to some (perhaps most) theologies, G”d is much bigger than the sum of all humankind. Yet there are viable theologies in which G”d may not be that much bigger than the collective us. This more limited (or even self-limited) G”d  helps some to explain why G”d simply does make fix everything in the universe and make it all right (which is, for some, a much better approach than the ineffable G”d excuse, which simply account for theodicy and other uglinesses of the universe with a shrug that says “G”d is just beyond our understanding.”

I make no pretense. I have a lot of issues with G”d. The G”d described in our Torah is flawed in very many ways. However, that G”d is also, at times, a G”d truly worthy of praise and love. My issues with G”d may be what lies at the heart of my discomfort in reading the words I wrote 13 years ago, suggesting that we can dump all our guilt off onto G”d.

Even then, the thought troubled me, which is why I closed with the words I did, suggesting that we were obligated to try and have fewer things to dump off onto G”d’s shoulders (or for which to blame G”d. I’m not yet entirely certain there’s a difference.)

As I am writing this, I think I am beginning to see how to resolve this, at least for myself. I may have had it right after all, 13 years ago. It is helpful to have G”d around as a place where we can set aside our worries, our guilt, our desires, or evil inclinations (and actions.) As I have heard people say in 12-step and similar programs, I just put these things in my “G”d box” so I can get on with my life. That is one reason, perhaps, for the Catholic rite of confession, and for the existence of many Jewish rituals as well.

However, it is not enough to say I can forgive myself for killing as a warrior, because G”d, too, is a warrior who kills. It is not enough to say I will offer up to G”d my guilt, for G”d is big enough to take it, and loving enough to accept it from me. G”d is not a geniza or a grave in which we can bury things never to be seen again. Though it may sound flippant and even blasphemous, G”d is sort of a crutch. That’s not a bad thing, or a bad idea. G”d is there to help us through difficulties. In return, we owe G”d the obligation to work to make ourselves better people, to repent, do t’shuva. Some say we can just upload a sin or some guilt to G”d and never have to deal with again. I’m not at all sure of that. At some point, we may need to take back those sins we dumped on to G”d for a while, and take the steps we need to take to deal with them ourselves, in order to become better people.  So now let me come back to how I closed (slightly modified) 13 years ago-

The ability to offload our guilt with the horrors of life (and the horrors of our own making) onto G"d is essential. Just as essential, however, is our desire to have less of it to offload, by striving to follow the rules that G"d gave us.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2014 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Beshalakh 5773 - Moshe's Musings (Revised from 5760)
Beshalakh 5772 - Thankful For the Worst
Beshalakh 5771 - Praying That Moshe Was Wrong
Beshalakh 5768 - Man Hu
Beshalakh 5767 - March On
Beshalakh 5766 - Manna Mania II
Beshalakh 5765 - Gd's War
Beshalach 5763 - Mi Chamonu
Beshalach 5760 - Moshe's Musings
Beshalach 5762 - Manna Mania
Beshalach 5761 - Warrior Gd


Friday, January 3, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Bo 5774-Spellcheck On My Hand

Sh’mot (Exodus) 13:9

וְהָיָה לְךָ לְאוֹת עַל־יָֽדְךָ וּלְזִכָּרוֹן בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ לְמַעַן תִּֽהְיֶה תּוֹרַת יְהוָֹה בְּפִיךָ כִּי בְּיָד חֲזָקָה הוֹצִֽאֲךָ יְהוָֹה מִמִּצְרָֽיִם

“And this shall be for you as a sign on your hand and a reminder between your eyes-in order that the Teaching of Ad”nai may be in your mouth-with a mighty hand Ad”nai brought you out from Egypt.”

Sh’mot (Exodus) 13:16

וְהָיָה לְאוֹת עַל־יָדְכָה וּלְטֽוֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ כִּי בְּחֹזֶק יָד הֽוֹצִיאָנוּ יְהוָֹה מִמִּצְרָֽיִם

“And it shall be as a sign upon (your hand) and as a (symbol) between your eyes that with a mighty hand Ad”nai brought us out from Egypt.”

D’varim (Deuteronomy 6:8)

וּקְשַׁרְתָּם לְאוֹת עַל־יָדֶךָ וְהָיוּ לְטֹֽטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֶֽיךָ

And bind them for a sign upon your hand, they shall be for (symbols) between your eyes…

No, I’m not interested in tefillin.  The sages pretty much follow the party line in interpreting these verses as referring to tefillin, which they claim go back to the time of Moshe. Well, I say “balderdash!” to this obvious tautology, and that is enough about that.

For one thing, I’m interested in the differences between these three verses. Most conclude they are speaking about the same thing. I’m not completely sure about that, but this, too, is not my main point.

That the Deuteronomic verse has distilled the essence of the previous two references into a more specific instruction or commandment is not surprising, although the contexts are different. The two verses I’ve noted from our parasha, Bo, are all about remembering the exodus from Egypt, and G”d’s active part in it. The Deuteronomic verse is not at all in the specific context of the exodus from Egypt, but more the wider context of, possibly, the whole Torah, but, at the very least, the specific words, teaching, and commandments being spoken/reiterated by Moshe at that point the narrative - “these words which I command you this day.” So all this is the slow boat to China way of saying that the third cited verse is interesting in its connection to the other two from our parasha, but we can effectively set it aside for the purposes of this discussion. (Horror of horrors for not viewing one piece of Torah in the light of all the rest – but then, the rabbis did this all the time when it was convenient,and so shall we.)

I will, however, note one thing – there is a progression in these three verses of simplification and condensing. Sort of like the rabbis liked to do, first getting the Torah down to three (though different threes for each sage!) and eventually down to one (though again, the sages disagree on whicn “one.” Is it “love your neighbor as yourself” or “do not do to others that which you would not want done to yourself” or “Listen Israel, Ad*nai is our G”d, Ad”nai is One”  or some other variation?

So let’s drop the Deuteronomic verse and just deal with these two, just six verses apart. Some obvious differences. The first speaks of a sign and then a reminder. The second of a sign and “totafots” whatever the heck those are. The accepted understanding has become symbol, or, in direct reference to the tefillin, frontlets. Then again, there is only one tefllin worn on the head (and not truly between the eyes, which would be difficult at best.) I’ve never quite gotten “frontlets,” – again, because there is only one of them. However, this may be a nod to the other oddity, that this mysterious word, “totafot” appears to be a plural noun.

So why did a reminder become a symbol? Why did a singluar noun (zikaron) become a plural (totafot?)

Then we get to the real oddity between 13:9 and 13:16. The words יָֽדְךָ and יָדְכָה. Huh? What’s that all about? Scribal error, or deliberate discrepancy? Can we trust the Masoretic choice as to how they are vowelized? Are they effectively the same word, with the same meaning? Is it just a simple spelling error which some Ben Asher clan scribe failed to catch?”

By the “rules” of biblical Hebrew, they would be pronounced the same way. They are certainly not the only example in all of Torah in which the same word has differing spellings yet is accepted as the same word. It could be that this is just a variant, with the 4 letter version being the older which was eventually condensed down to the three letter version. I’ve not researched this thoroughly as of yet, so I won’t pretend to be able to give a scholarly opinion. It is quite possible that as written Hebrew developed, word suffixes that were originally two letters were condensed. Yet this raises the question of why the Masoretes didn’t then just use the same spelling in both places. Is it possible they were working from flawed text themselves? The variations we find in ancient pieces of manuscripts surely attest to any or all of these possibilities.

Ah, but now were back to the tautology. Great sages and rabbis attribute the variant spelling יָדְכָה as being connected to the fact that the tefillin contain a total of 5 chambers, the numeric value of the letter ה

Did the Masoretes agree and accept this earlier understanding, or did they create it? If so, why not use the variant spelling in both verses 9 and 16? Except that verse 9 is different, referring not to “totafot” but “zikaron,” to a reminder/remembrance, and not a “symbol” (if that is indeed what these very odd word means.)

I could just accept all the traditional understandings, and dispense with this entire line of inquiry. However, I have chosen to be someone who questions things anew – with due respect to the sages and scholars. I don’t have any good answers to why these two different versions of the word and suffix meaning “your hand” appear inverses 13:9 and 13:16. However, I remain puzzled by it, and find the rabbinic arguments unpersuasive (especially as they involve a tautology!) So I’m going to spend my time this Shabbat (and likely well beyond) exploring yet another interesting puzzle presented to me by the Torah. Not to the exclusion of more meaningful efforts. I may wonder how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but I understand that loving my neighbor, doing justly, walking humbly, loving G”d and so much more is of far greater importance for me to be doing. The time spent working on this puzzle and others is my self-reward for making the effort to do the more important things (though I will readily admit that sometimes I’ll indulge my puzzle-solving whims when I know I haven’t done all I can to be the best person I could be. I’m human, after all.

So I’ll alter my words. I’m going to spend some time this Shabbat thinking about this puzzle (and others) however more importantly, I’ll be remembering how G”d took us out of Egypt and how G”d has given us this gift of Shabbat. I will treasure that gift and not squander it.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2014 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Bo 5773 - Dear G"d...Love, Pharaoh
Bo 5772 - Lifting the Cover of Darkness
Bo 5771 - Keretz MiTzafon-Again! (not the same as 5769)
Bo 5769-Keretz MiTzafon
Bo 5768 - Good Loser (Redux 5763)
Bo 5767-Teach Your Children Well (Redux 5762)
Bo 5766 - Random Disjunctions and Convergences (Redux 5760)
Bo 5765-Four Strikes and You're...Well...
Bo 5764-Keretz Ani
Bo 5763 -Good Loser
Bo 5761-Cover of Darkness
Bo 5762-Teach Your Children Well