Friday, November 13, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Tol’dot 5776–Still a Bother (Revised 5764)

We live in a society where personal convenience is ever more a dominating ethic used in our making choices. We weigh our choices against a rather selfish yardstick. If the effort seems more than it is worth to us, or "overly" inconveniences us, we disdain from it.

וַֽאֲמַרְתֶּם הִנֵּה מַתְּלָאָה וְהִפַּחְתֶּם אוֹתוֹ אָמַר יְהֹוָה צְבָאוֹת וַֽהֲבֵאתֶם גָּזוּל וְאֶת־הַפִּסֵּחַ וְאֶת־הַחוֹלֶה וַֽהֲבֵאתֶם אֶת־הַמִּנְחָה הַֽאֶרְצֶה אוֹתָהּ מִיֶּדְכֶם אָמַר יְהֹוָֽה

Paralleling this weeks haftarah, we say

הִנֵּה מַתְּלָאָה

"hinei mat'la'ah" which the JPS committee translated as "Oh, what a bother!" which is probably a reasonable interpretation if not quite exact. (The word mat’la’ah is a hapax legomenon – a word that appears only once in the text. It is clearly related to the word


which means “weariness” or “hardship”  derived from the root


meaning “to be weary” or “to be impatient.” But the prefix doesn’t make much sense, so scholars believe it is either scribal error or a deliberate contraction of


which means “what a hardship” or “what a weariness” or perhaps, as some have suggested, “what a plague.” I think perhaps the best colloquial translation of if would be “a pain in the tukhus.” (A better rendition of the Yiddish is “tokhes” which is really just the Yiddish was of saying the Hebrew word “takhat” meaning “bottom” or “underneath” or in place of.” In other words, it’s a “pain in the a**.”)

We utilize this ethic in many aspects of our decision-making.In the Torah, we are commanded, with little doubt, to care for the poor and the needy. For many of us, committing our bodies to some physical fulfillment of this commandment is too inconvenient, so we write checks to fulfill our obligation. (Or, the ultimate in convenience, we go to a web site and use our credit card online, or simply send a text from our phone to make a contribution. To quote a Saturday Night Live character from many years back, "How convenient!")

Over the years, at various the congregation where I have worked, and even where I am currently working, we have had discussions about the way we approach social action and the causes we support. At the root of these explorations has usually been a desire to more directly involve congregants and religious school students in activities that bring them face-to-face with the problem they are working to solve, or the people they are working to help. The idea is to "put a face on it."  There is also the continuing discussion of the concept of a “mitzvah day.” What, we only do a mitzvah once a year? What message do we send to our children with that? Every day is “mitzvah day.”

To do so is going to take more of an effort. Some are going to have to change the value they put on personal convenience. Can any of us, even the more traditionally observant among us, truly say they never sidestepped a commandment as a matter of personal convenience? Except for those lamed vavniks among us, it's not likely.

It ought not be a " bother" for us to fulfill our part of the covenant, to honor and fulfill G”d's commandments. It is an obligation, and personal inconvenience should not stand in our way.

I'm digressing, somewhat, from the context of our haftarah from Malachi, to stress this particular aspect of human behavior, so allow me to return. In the haftarah, G”d, through Malachi, is telling the people that they defile G”d's name and G”d's altar when they offer us for sacrifice less than their best. It's easy to extrapolate from this the idea that anything we offer to G”d should be our best--that we should not say "hinei mat'la'ah"--and attempt to fulfill the mitzvah with less than our best.

Even more interesting, the text seems to be suggesting that the people are saying “what the heck, the altars has already been defiled, so why not offer our lame, blind animals, and other unacceptable items?” So, is this an implicit admission of guilt both for the initial defilement and continuing defilement? Or is it buck-passing, suggesting that others already screwed things up, so why should it matter to us?

Look, it’s hard to give up your best as a sacrifice to G”d. As a sacrifice to anything. Sacrifices are hard. That’s kind of the whole point, isn’t it? If it’s convenient, is it a sacrifice?

Yet, it is not our place to judge, but G”d's place. It may be that writing a check to charity, or participating in a  once-a-year mitzvah day is the best someone can do, given the realities of their lives. It is all a balancing act. In our effort to balance, we must be cautious as to how much weight we give the concept of "too much trouble or effort."

I cannot help but believe that sweat equity is far more valued and valuable. Whatever you may think of his politics vis a vis Israel, you have to give props to former President Jimmy Carter, still knocking out those houses for Habitat for Humanity at age 91.

For some, sweat equity is often all they can give. We Jews are not all people of great means. Yet even the poorest of us is commanded to give charity. What do we need to keep us reminded of our obligation, to remind us that saying “what a bother” is just not acceptable?

One way to do this is to keep in mind the end of Malachi chapter 1, verse 13--ha-er'tzeh otah miyadchem amar Adnai.

הַֽאֶרְצֶה אוֹתָהּ מִיֶּדְכֶם אָמַר יְהֹוָֽה

Will I accept it from your hands?--said the L”rd.”

Will our acts, when judged by G”d, meet the standard? They are surely more likely to if we find ways to follow the mitzvot with less regard to any personal inconveniences to us. For example, is Shabbat really and truly the only day you could go to the mall and get that shopping done? Might not your actual presence at services be better for the congregation than just your membership dues substituting in your place? Can you carry socks in your car for the homeless? Can you encourage your children to give a gift to the needy each night of Hanukkah instead of their each receiving gifts? Can you volunteer your time at the soup kitchen or the shelter or the food pantry?

Everybody is so busy these days. We all claim we just don’t have the time to do everything. Well, of course. No one has time to do everything. It’s how you pick and choose what to do with your time this is a meaningful yardstick. Sure, go to the gym – because keeping yourself healthy is a mitzvah. Relax, take vacations. Shuttle your kids around. But find the time to sacrifice to do your part for the community, for the poor and the needy. It’s a bother to shuttle your kids to all their activities. Even more of a bother, then, to sacrifice an activity or two in place of shuttling them to help do a mitzvah? How do you decide when something is "a bother" or "too much trouble" ? Think about it.

I know, it’s awfully preachy of me. But once in a while, I give myself license to be that way. Be glad I don’t do it more often!

May all our gifts be acceptable, and may we learn to utter "hinei mat'la'ah" less and less often. Instead, may we learn to say "hinei lo mat'la'ah" which perhaps we can render in more modern vernacular "it's no bother," or better yet "no problem."

Shabbat Shalom.

©2015 (portions ©2003) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings On This Parasha:

Toldot 5775 - Esau's Plan
Tol'dot/Makhar Hodesh 5774 - Drops That Sparkle
Tol'dot 5773 - More Teleology
Tol'dot 5771 - Keeping the Bathwater
Toldot 5769 - There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This
Toldot 5768 - Alternate Histories, Alternate Shmistories
Toldot 5767-They Also Serve...
Toldot 5765-Purposeless Fire
Toledot 5764-What a Bother!
Toledot 5763-Not Sticking in The Knife
Toledot 5762-Winners and Losers
Toledot 5761-Is This All There Is?
Toledot 5758-Like Father, Like Son

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