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


No comments: