Friday, December 25, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Vayekhi 5776 - Beyond the Threshold

Wow. A lot can happen in just over a decade. In preparing to write my weekly musing, I usually re-read the others I have written over the years. Sometimes I decide to re-use them – sometimes with additional insights, and sometimes just as they were written originally. I have to confess that one motivation for reviewing my previous musings is a self-check. Sometimes, an insight comes to me and it seems new and fresh. I, frankly, need to double-check that I hadn’t previously had the same notion and already written about it! Yes, you’d think I’d remember all my own work, but, honestly, after 19 years of doing this, it all kind of blends together, and I often find myself at a loss to remember what idea I have explored, what insights I have shared. Also, what insights upon which I have failed to follow up.

On this particular parasha, I’ve written 8 non-repeated musings, and five more originals that have in later years been revised, updated, and thus re-used. (That’s 18, if you’re counting, making this the 19th.)  Reaching the end of a book of the Torah is an important point. It is a threshold. Some 11 years ago I made a connection between that threshold and the burgeoning online revolution. In re-reading it, I was amazed and amused at how dated it sounded, and how that was new and different then has already become old. To add to the amusement, I see that in my writing I referred to words I had written years before, when the online world was, at least in Jewish circles, in its infancy.

I was online in the early 80s, before the internet even existed. Even in those early days of dial-up access to BBs (online bulletin boards,) and primitive information services like GEnie, CompuServe, Prodigy, and AOL there was a Jewish presence on the web, and I was part of it. In 1993 I was using NCSA Mosaic (which later became Netscape Navigator, which was a precursor to today’s Firefox.) Microsoft outstretched its mighty arm and lo and behold Internet Explorer pretty made Netscape Navigator an also ran and niche product.  When the Reform movement began exploring an online presence on the web for itself and congregations, I participated in a  group working to make that happen. I started posting my random musings online. Here I am 19 years later still doing it.

The musing I wrote in 2004 was written as an attempt to aide those who were still struggling with the whole digital and online revolution, to give them hope that, despite their fears, and the fears of others that this would only lead to making things worse for Judaism, that we can and should co-opt it to serve Judaism, rather than to have it dominate us. I still believe that. More of that after you’ve read what I had to say 11 years ago.

Random Musings Before Shabbat-Vayechi 5764


It is said that the final words of parashat Vayechi and sefer Bereshit (the book of Genesis), "B'Mitzrayim" ("in Egypt") [Gen. 50:26] remind us that a new chapter in the story of the people of Israel is about to begin. It tells us that we are on the threshold of a whole new adventure.

We have all stood on many thresholds. They are at once exciting and terrifying. We often spend a lot of time stuck in the threshold as the excitement and fear struggle. Yet we must move forward and cross the threshold. Sometimes, our decisions to do so come from a head-driven fortitude, the outcome of logical thought-processes, of self debate, of weighing the pros and cons.

And sometimes our decisions to proceed past a threshold come from the heart.
Not so long ago, we all stood on a threshold--that of a new electronic information age. Some of us have crossed the threshold and moved on. Others are still lingering in the doorway. Some are boldly but with some temerity checking the waters. Others remain locked in self-dialogue, incessantly weighing pros and cons.

I recall an online discussions amongst a group who were, for the most part, at the vanguard of bringing their congregations into the age of online presence, i.e., web sites. There was much sturm und drang about what to do, how to do, whether it should be done. People had (and still have) fears over issues of safety and security, privacy, and more.

It seems that most congregations today have taken the leap and gotten past their fears--although one sees a great variety among congregations as to what information they put on the web. Sadly, I think that what drove most congregations through the threshold was economics. They simply couldn't afford to not have a presence, especially if they wanted their membership numbers to remain steady or increase. So some congregations "bit the bullet" and plunged ahead. But most often their decisions were made with their heads. And it shows. G”d forgive me that bit of open criticism, for even I am guilty of that for which I am now criticizing others. I want to make a point, so I taking this liberty.
Some years ago, when congregations really were just reaching the threshold on web presence, I responded to a message posted on a webmasters e-mail discussion list. In this message, the poster was asking;

"I'm looking for a bigger picture. What can a Net presence do for a congregation, uniquely? What functions should it perform? I am currently prototyping a web site which I will soon present to a committee for discussion and revision. I am also studying the issue academically."

At the time, I considered making a lengthy, academic response to this query. I caught myself before I traveled down that all too familiar road and reminded myself that, like our ancestors at the end of sefer Bereshit, were standing at a threshold of a whole new adventure. Jacob did reveal for his sons a few details about what may come to be, but G”d did not permit Jacob to reveal the whole truth of what was to be. G”d may know what the future of Judaism and the World Wide Web may be. We can only make educated guesses. And I think sometimes G”d likes to twist reality to remind us that we can make all the educated guesses we want and still be dead wrong.

When we are at the start of a new adventure, there isn't all that much that our heads can tell us about what is ahead. So we must look to our hearts. I wrote, in part, these words in response:
"Just as we should with our synagogues themselves, we should be managing our web sites as much with our hearts as with our heads."
"We...argue in our Board Meetings about mundane and trivial things, and create business-like web sites just as we too often treat our congregations as a business. Let's give our brains a rest and put our hearts to work.
"So, let's try these reasons for having a web page: a. Use the web as an extension of Torah and our Judaism to teach, enlighten and inform, and strengthen Judaism. b. Allow people to be taught, enlightened, informed, and strengthened. Isn't that enough?"
It was a noble thought at the time, though perhaps a bit Pollyanna-esque, as I can often be. Reality sets in. Web sites are not only communication tools, but recruiting tools. We can't ignore reality, nor should we disregard wise counsel. So we must learn to use both our hearts and our heads. So doing, I suspect we will have greater success in the long run.
Those many years ago (well, actually, in was 1996) I also added these words:
"There are those who fear that we will become slaves to our computers. We will become keyboard potatoes. Maybe that will happen."
I'll interject here that some studies are showing that this is already beginning to happen. Yet, I also posited these thoughts:
"Maybe [this is all] a preamble to a new redemption, as we are led from the days of slavery to our computers into a new promised land - when we and our creations work hand in hand with the one who created us. The next choice you run up against-try deciding with both your head and your heart."
I commend to yet that thought. The web and computers are becoming may indeed have already become, commonplace and everyday. And some of us are in danger of becoming, if we are not already, slaves to the technology. (All those jokes about men and the TV remote may soon yield to jokes about all of us with our wireless keyboards, our PDAs, our X-Boxes, our Instant Messaging.) We may do well to heed the lessons we learn from Torah, both in sefer Bereshit, and those we are about to learn anew in the remaining four books -- so that we will be ready and empowered to find our way to freedom from the slavery of technology, yet also find a way to integrate technology into our covenant in meaningful ways.

Ironic, isn't it, that I disseminate these very words through the power of this technology? So maybe we are already developing the skills necessary to co-opt it for G”d's purposes rather than our own. Ken y'hi ratzon. Ken y'hi ratzoneinu.
OK, back to 2015. Yes, some of those naysayers and doom predictors and purveyors of cautionary tales were right. Some of us have become slaves to our devices (I suspect more to smartphones these days than desktop computers.) Some of us have become keyboard potatoes. The internet is replete will so many information sources that winnowing the wheat from the chaff is a monumental task. Many aggregators have arisen to help us manage all the information, but even the aggregators aren’t always without bias.
Judaism has a role to play in all of this, if it wants to do so. Some, I believe mistakenly, believe that it is all about religion’s obligation to be counter-cultural. That we must stand against technology’s rapid advancement and our increasing dependence upon us. They play upon ancient cultural taboos, myths, and archetypes seeking to make us fearful. The truth of the matter is, the way the internet works, the more good people who use it, the harder it is for the plutocrats and oligarchs, and those intent on evil, to suborn it for their own nefarious purposes.

One (admittedly fringe) haredi rabbi just decreed that anyone with a smartphone cannot be counted in a minyan!  Thousands have gathered in stadiums to hear rabbis deliver anti--technology and anti-internet diatribes.While most of this plays out in the more frum world, don’t be fooled into thinking that there aren’t those in the liberal Jewish world with a similar agenda.

Technology is no panacea. Due caution needs to be observed. Technology must be our tool, not our enslaver. However, it is not our enemy. The solution is not about being counter-cultural – it’s about being co-optive. It’s about turning the technology to serve our needs, not drive them. Be careful – for often the same folks who are leading the charge against technology are the same ones leading the charge against science. Religion and science are not enemies. Religion can be informed by science, and science can be informed by ethics, and yes, even by religion. In the end, if technology really is the devil – well, better the devil you know…

Some taunt Shabbat, for example, as a time to escape from technology. That may very well be the solution for some. It is not, however,t he solution for all. I’ve written before about why I don’t participate in the National Shabbat of Unplugging because sometimes, and for some people, the technology can be the tool that most enables them to experience their Shabbat in a way that is different from the rest of their week.

We’ve crossed the threshold. Going back is no longer and alternative. This djinn won’t go back into the bottle. So it’s up to us to help control and influence is development.  We do that as its partner, not its opponent.

The future of Judaism lies in finding ways to have technology serve it, to enable it to be better, to be a light to the nations.

Khazak, khazak, v’nitkhazeik.

Shabbat Shalom,
©2105 by Adrian A. Durlester
(Portions © 2004)-

Other Musings on this parasha:
Vayekhi 5775 - Which Last Words?
Vay'khi 5774 - The Puppet's Unritten Lament
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 18, 2015

Random Musings Before Shabbat-Vayigash 5776 - Things Better Left Unsaid (Redux 5763)

45:24 As he sent his brothers off on their way, he told them, "Do not be quarrelsome on the way."

What did Yosef mean by this gentle admonition to his brothers, as he sent them back to Canaan to fetch Yaakov and their families to settle in Egypt? Is he telling them to not fear revealing the whole truth about what they did to Yosef their brother to their father Yaakov, because all that has happened was "Ki l'mich'yah shelachani Elohim lifneihem" - for it was to save life that Gd sent me here before you. (45:5) Was he telling them it was all "water under the bridge" so to speak? (For my thoughts on the teleological aspects of verse 45:5, see my previous musing for Vayigash 5772 - Redux & Revised 5760 Teleology 101: Does G"d Play Dice With the World.) Is he simply telling them it's pointless to argue about who is to blame, about who is going to tell daddy what really happened?

Is he telling them not to try and avoid blame, argue among themselves, each trying to say "it was really all his idea" to avoid Yaakov's anger? Is he telling them that he knows Yaakov well enough to know that his love for Yosef would overcome any anger with his sons for what they had done?

Is he actually giving them a private remonstration--"you got lucky this time brothers, but don't press your luck" ?

Is it a veiled reference to what the brothers did after the rape of their sister Dinah? He may have been the youngest son when that happened-one wonders what he made of it all (and why is so clearly absent from that story. Guess he had a bigger part to play later.)

So the text sets us up to expect--something. And then the text leaves us hanging. The brief description in 45:27 that they "recounted all that Yosef had said to them" has us wondering-what did the brothers tell their father about how all this came to be. Did they confess what they did?
For Yaakov's part-did he care what had happened? All that mattered perhaps is that Yosef was alive. He already knew his sons were trouble from the Dinah incident, from the story of Tamar, so perhaps he didn't need to know what really happened.

So perhaps it all remained unspoken. The brothers knew what they had done. They knew they had been found out. Yaakov clearly knew they had deceived him. Did any of that matter now? As much as I hate teleological explanations, that's what seems to fit best here.

Don't quarrel among yourselves on the way back to Canaan. Meaning-you don't need to say anything. All is known, yet better left unsaid.
What would be gained for Yosef to hear the confession of his sons to their wrongdoing? And Yaakov was not without sin himself. To confront him with the sins of his own sons might only serve to amplify his own guilt. Better left unsaid.
I don't know that I am fully comfortable with this idea. After all, "don't ask, don't tell" wasn't exactly a high ethical position. It's certainly tone of the more stupid ideas ever perpetuated by the armed services and our government. Yet I have always been a believer in situational decision-making. And there clearly are times when things may be best left unsaid. Yosef knew that, and he shared that wisdom with his brothers, and luckily, to us as well, through the text of the Torah which recounts his words. Al tir'gezu. Don't be quarrelsome. Seems good advice both in context and out of context.

Al Tir'gezu badarech. Don't be quarrelsome on the way. Practical advice for any journey--and for all of us, at all times, always on this journey known as life. Will we ever get where we are going if we're constantly quarreling along the way? This, perhaps, is the real key to Yosef's advice. Let's put it all aside and press forward. Don't quarrel with others, don't quarrel with yourself, and don't quarrel with Gd. Let's work together and help guide each other down this road which need not be so lonesome.

Nissea Tovah. Travel well.

 ©2016 and 2002 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha

Friday, December 11, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Miketz 5776 - Coke or Pepsi? (Or...?)

Julie Silver is not only a talented songwriter and performer, she is a thoughtful and caring human being who thinks seriously about how she lives and how she integrates her values into her life. Earlier this week on Facebook, she posted a picture of a blueberry bagel and had this to say:
For my friends who are curious, "why the blueberry bagel?" They ask as if to mock! Ready willing and able to yuck my yum. I eat them because they are the marginalized. The forgotten. The minority opinion. And we must not forget minority opinions. Plus ‪#‎blueberry‬ is life. And these are awesome. And the ladies at @abbotshabitveniceca serve them with such love.
Now, as I posted in the inevitable thread of comments:
To be honest, my first inclination was to make a snarky remark about blueberry bagels, but after reading your explanation, I am chagrined to admit that.
The comment thread was well developed before I added my two sh’kalim, and, to no one’s surprise, it was a mixture of adamant protests against such radical ideas as a blueberry bagel, and radical pro-blueberry supporters.
Now, I like my bagels savory, and I will readily admit to having made snarky and strongly-worded comments and observations about the blashphemy that is a bagel which contains anything sweet or fruit-like in it. Plenty had already made this case in the comments; one of the most forceful anti-blueberry bagel pronouncements coming from no other than Julie’s amazing spouse Mary Connelly. (There is a joy, I will admit, having done it myself before, in goading our spouses and others with whom we are close-so one can never really know what truths lie behind the playful sparring. If, indeed, Julie and Mary have equally strong but opposite opinions on the subject of blueberry bagels, it serves only to raise my esteem for their amazing relationship.)

I digress (so what else is new?) In our interactions, I have often found that Julie has a way of getting people to really think about things. That was certainly true here. Even if the whole posting was akin to my own frequent gadfly-like posts, and meant primarily as an attempt of adding some levity, that doesn’t change the fact that it got me thinking.

I’m not big into professional (or even academic) sports and don’t claim any particular loyalty to team, with one exception. I’m a Met’s fan. (I’m also a fan of NYC’s other two Mets – the opera and the museum of art, but in this case I’m definitely referring to the baseball team.) No, I’m not a serious fan – I can’t tell you the names of current players, I don’t dutifully watch games and follow the team with any regularity. I still consider myself a fan. Even though I lived for my High School years directly across the street from Yankee Stadium, I rooted for the Mets. I was with them from the beginning. The first professional ball game I ever attended was a Mets game, in their first year of existence, playing at the Polo Grounds. When I explain why I’m a Mets fan, I always say it’s because I always root for the underdogs. Now there’s an irony here, in that my freshman year in high school was the first time the Mets ever won the world series. Doesn’t matter – for a NYC kid, the Mets are perennially the underdogs – the “amazins” that have managed, somehow, to win two world championships and five NL pennants (that one I had to Google.) The Mets are NYC’s Cub, albeit the Mets seem to have had a little more success over a rather shorter lifespan than the Cubs. Also, truth be told, my feelings about the Mets generally are less enthusiastic when they’re having a winning season.

This rooting for the underdog, this concern for the opinions and thoughts and lives of anyone in a minority – these are core values instilled in me by two incredible parents. So it’s only natural that I would be caught up short when I thought about Julie’s explanation for her love of blueberry bagels. Her words made me realize, on the one hand, how dogmatic and fixed I can be in  my thinking (i.e. “blueberry bagels are just wrong.” On the other hand, they served to remind me that, though I am far from perfect at it, many aspects of my personality and my choices on how to live and act are based on a similar approach to championing the underdog and the minority. My nature as a gadfly in my writings, on social media, and even in real life is driven by a deep-seated desire to help people always to try and see all sides of a question or situation – to always consider the minority point of view.

So why wouldn’t I consider a blueberry bagel? Well, that’s not the right question. I don’t actually like blueberry bagels – I really do prefer my bagels savory. That’s OK. I don’t have to like everything. However, I do have to be respectful of those whose preferences are different from mine, and even more protective of those preferences  represented by a minority of preference-holders. Those who are marginalized. Wars and terrible acts have been committed in the name of obstinance and failure to consider a minority opinion. Why should I, why should anyone contribute to that unfortunate reality?

No, I’m not going to eat a blueberry bagel anytime soon (or ever, quite possibly. Well, I think I may have, gasp, unintentionally eaten a bagel with a raisin or some other inappropriate foreign substance in it by accident at some point.) I don’t need to eat and appreciate a blueberry bagel to be respectful and considerate of those who favor them (though there is something to be said about walking a mile in someone’s shoes in order to be able to appreciate their viewpoint.)

I certainly belong to my share of minorities. I suspect we all do, to some degree.  I, for example, will actually eat mayonnaise on a pastrami or corned beef sandwich. I don’t drink coffee. I like my pickles full bottom of the barrel sour – not the pansy half-sour or dill stuff. I put ketchup on hot dogs. I actually like matzah. I don’t watch Survivor, American Idol, The Voice, or even Game of Thrones. I love Dr. Who (and while there are many of us, we’re still a minority.)My height puts me in an extremely small (pun intended) minority. I am Jew. Although the world often seems to forget it these days, we are quite the minority, despite our successes.

In recent weeks, I’ve taken to task those who share my very leftist, liberal viewpoints for their sharing of questionable posts about Republican presidential candidates. Even that one about Trump’s ancestors. I detest the man and all he says and stands for, but I will not tolerate outright distortions of the facts about his family. No, two wrongs never make a right. Never.

As I stated, we’re all part of some minority. Why not flaunt it to make an important statement to the rest of the world that minorities and minority opinions matter. I do not say this to minimize the concerns of any one minority. There are, at this time, a number of minorities under threat, or subject to discrimination, or unequal treatment under the law.  And yes, there are some minorities whose rights to say what they say, and act as they act, I cannot, in good conscience, support. Nevertheless, it is good to remind myself that as much as I abhor the idea of a blueberry bagel, the people who, minority or not, love them, are my fellow human beings. Their opinion matters. While I cannot condone any terrorist’s methodology, I can, at the very least, seek to understand what, other than hatred, drives them to commit unspeakable acts as their way of insuring that their minority is heard. I can listen, and try to understand, without endorsing tactics or viewpoint. These days, the world seems to be full of a lot of metaphorical blueberry bagels.

It has been a long time since I’ve written a musing like this one with no attempt whatsoever to connect it to the parasha. I figure that if I spark some thoughts and some discussion, I’ve done my job. So no apologies for the lack of Miketz-ical content.

I was originally going to end this musing with a typical gadfly-ish/humorous twist by just asking:
Coke or Pepsi?
Thus the title of the musing. Then I realized that such a simplistic worldview omits too many other possible minorities.In my youth, for example, I was actually a proud RC Cola and Nehi Orange consumer. There are the people who never drink soda or any carbonated beverage – a growing constituency which could, for all I know, now be a majority.

So instead I close with this challenge to you – to identify both the majorities and minorities to which you belong. For your majorities, take some time to learn more about the minority opinions in that area. For your minorities, embrace them as a reminder of why it is important to champion and support minorities and minority opinions, and to be sure they are given voice. And now to muddy the waters – do members of a minority have an equal (or similar) obligation to try and respect and understand the views of the majority? Does that obligation change if the minority is actively (or even passively) suppressed,  discriminated against, or threatened?

Thinking about all this is going to make for a very interesting Shabbat.

Khag Hanukkah Sameakh and Shabbat Shalom

©2015 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on Parashat Miketz:

Miketz 5775 - Assimilating Assimilation
Miketz 5774 - To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
Miketz 5773 - B'li Meilitz
Miketz 5772 - A Piece of That Kit Kat Bar
Miketz 5771-What's Bothering...Me?
Miketz/Hanukkah 5769 - Redux 5763 - Assimilating Assimilation
Miketz/Hanukah 5768 Learning From Joseph and His Brothers (revised from 5757)
Miketz 5767-Clothes Make the Man?
Miketz 5766-Eizeh Hu Khakham?
Miketz 5757& 5761-Would You Buy A Used Car From This Guy?
Miketz 5763/5764/5765-Assimilating Assimilation

Friday, December 4, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayeishev 5776–Revisiting Mikol Hamishpakhot HaAdamah

Eleven years ago, an interesting confluence of events led to my musing for parashat Vayeishev. The timing this year is similar. 

Hanukah was fast approaching, a time when we are called upon to publicly assert our Judaism with the display of our hanukiyot. Back in 2004, I was still editing Bim Bam, a Jewish teen e-zine published by Torah Aura Productions. That week 11 years ago, I chose some interesting content. One was an opinion piece that suggests that the American Jewish community is wasting all this effort and energy getting all worked up about Xmas, and blaming it for the rising tide of assimilation. The author suggested that we need to stop blaming outside factors for our problems--if Jews aren't being drawn to Jewish things it's because we, as Jews, aren't doing what's needed to draw them in.

The second was a series of articles from a variety of perspectives that asked the reader to consider the standard to which Israel must hold itself to be a "Jewish" state-is Israel being "all it can be?" That same year I was teaching and Intro to Judaism course for the regional office of the URJ, and on a fairly regular basis, the question of "chosen-ness" came up. This was no less true at the synagogues where I worked as a religious school administrator or teacher, and it is no less true today at the various places where I teach, tutor, an work.

There is, in general, a certain discomfort, even distaste among many Jews (though I would have to admit that in my experience it is primarily among liberal Jews) for this whole concept of "chosen-ness." I'm fond of pointing out in response that our "chosen-ness" is, as Teyve puts it "no great honor, either."

Often, I hear people state, and I admit to being guilty of it myself, that Torah doesn't really say that the choice is exclusive-leaving room for G”d to make other choices and other covenants. I've always felt a little like I was "pushing the envelope" by making such a claim, nevertheless I felt that, for the sake of both Jewish identity, interfaith harmony, and accepting the reality of a multiplicity of religious traditions, I needed to be pro-active in taking away our internal discomfort with being chosen people, and at the same time not fueling the fire of those who would use that against us.

"Chosen doesn't mean better," I often said. "Chosen doesn't mean exclusive, either." Yet I sought balance. I, for one, am fully comfortable with the words of the Aleinu, and don't care for some liberal congregations that opt to eliminate

שֶׁלֹּא עָשָֽׂנוּ כְּגוֹיֵי הָאֲרָצוֹת, וְלֹא שָׂמָֽנוּ כְּמִשְׁפְּחוֹת הָאֲדָמָה

"shelo asanu k'goyei ha-aratzot, v'lo samanu k'mishpakhot ha-adamah."

(did not make us like the (other) nations of the lands, and did not place us amongst all the families of the earth.)

So I thought I had found my comfort with "chosen-ness." Then I bumped into these words in the Haftarah reading for Vayeishev, from Amos 3:i2

רַק אֶתְכֶם יָדַעְתִּי מִכֹּל מִשְׁפְּחוֹת הָֽאֲדָמָה עַל־כֵּן אֶפְקֹד עֲלֵיכֶם אֵת כָּל־עֲוֹנֹֽתֵיכֶֽם

"Rak etkhem yadati mikol mishpakhot ha-adamah, al-kein efkod aleichem et kol-avonoteikhem."

Only you have I known from all the families of the earth; therefore I will draw near to (i.e. give attention to) your iniquities. (That's my translation. JPS says "You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth-That is why I will call you to account for your iniquities.")

(Far be it from me to question such august personages as the JPS's translation committee, but I don't see where they derive "singled out" from "yadati," I have known. So I can dispute the "singled out" part. But the "rak etkhem" the "only you [plural]" is harder to dismiss.)

Oh sure, I can play all sorts of twists and turns with the Hebrew and its meaning, as well as the context, and still find both support for chosen-ness while not flaunting it or lording it over others. I could even toy with the plurality of the statement “rak etkhem.” Who is to say that the plural you isn’t intended to refer to groups other than our ancestors? Then again, who is to say that it is not intended to say exactly that? You [plural] meaning the Jewish people. Remember, the covenant was made with those standing there that day, and those not standing there that day (generally interpreted to mean future generations.) Nevertheless, part of me wants desperately to play down the exclusivity. Call it apologetics, if you must. Perhaps, sometimes, apologetics can serve a higher cause, it if helps bring peace and understanding between disparate peoples?

Then there's that second half to the verse. It fully endorses the idea that "chosen-ness" isn't always such a blessing. It is precisely because G”d has chosen us that we will have to account for our actions. To be a Jew means direct accountability to G”d for our actions (or failures to act.) To be a Jewish state, Israel does have to live up to high expectations.

There is a hint of the old bad parenting adage of “this hurts me more than it hurts you,” and given G”d’s track record in making bad parenting mistakes, it’s easy to perceive it that way. It’s because I love you so much that I must call you to account (or, in other words, punish you.) (Yes, the difference is that parents don’t get to choose their children, whereas G”d did get to choose us. Does that fact let parents or G”d off the hook more? I wonder.)

All of this still doesn't seem to help solve the Xmas question--do we stubbornly stand against America's commercial Xmas (and Hanukah) or do we accept it (them) for the largely secular things they have become, hiding only deep within them their true meanings, and expend our energies at getting our own house in order? Which of these actions (or failures to act) will G”d call us to account for? Which is the greater sin - accepting a little bit of the realities of modern life, or failing to figure out why it is that Jews just don't seem to be attracted to Judaism anymore? Or are we failing in both areas, and are to be called account for this double failure?

Of course this leads us to the whole question of what sins or iniquities are. Some things are rather well-defined for us in the Torah. Others are somewhat less defined but have been given some dimension through the oral Torah (or, if you prefer, the work of the rabbis and sages.) Some are only inferred, and some seem to just not be there but made up of whole cloth somewhere along the line of our history.

So look at all these dilemmas we are left with. (Sure seems to knock the "December Dilemma" off the top of the attention ladder. Calling it the "December opportunity" is no different. Either way, we're making it (the proximity of Hanukah and Xmas) a focus--and perhaps we do need to be more focused on what it is we don't seem to be able to do. On the other can we ignore the realities that we face each day about Xmas and Hanukah?

Things have changed somewhat in the ensuing 11 years since I first wrote some of these words. Whether those changes are for the better or worse is a bit unclear in my mind. I daresay that “chosen-ness” is even more of a discomforting issue for Jews today than it was over a decade ago. Our society is increasingly universalistic in its values. Holiday celebrations and recognition these days tend to be far more inclusive, recognizing Xmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, Kwanza, and more. Things have become so inclusive, that now, over an above the “Xmas Dilemma” we have what some Xtians perceive as a “war on Xmas.” The pendulum has swung.

Is chosen-ness something that we might have to continue to “play down?” Is that necessarily a good thing? Might a time come when we can proudly proclaim our chosen-ness without being accused of taking a “holier than Thou” position? Can we, as a society, ever learn to live with the concept of multiple chosen-ness, or is the only solution to be a society where no one group considers themselves chosen? Can chosen-ness ever be perceived as far by the non-chosen? Are we truly better off in a world where no one feels chosen?

Not so sure about that. Chosen-ness isn't such a special thing. What does it mean to be chosen? Well, if we weren't among G”d's chosen people, we might not have to wrestle with so many things all the time. Still, as the song goes "...I wouldn't trade it for a pot of gold." Let's go on with the show!

Shabbat Shalom,


©2015 (portions ©2004) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Vayeishev 5775 - Seriously...Who Was That Guy?
Vayeishev 5773 - K'tonet Passim
Vayeishev 5772 - The Ram's Horn Rag
Vayeishev 5771-Ma T'vakeish?
Vayeishev 5768 - Strangers Walking Together
Vayeishev/Hanukah 5767-I Believe in Miracles
Vayeishev 5766-Who Was That Guy?
Vayeshev 5761 - In Gd's Time
Vayeshev 5765-Mikol HaMishpakhot HaAdamah
Vayeshev 5758-What's Worth Looking After