Friday, December 30, 2016

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Miketz 5777–Eizeh Hu Adayin ḤaḤam (5766 Revisited)

[I first wrote this musing 11 years ago. It saddens me that the questions it asks are still as (if not more) relevant today. Thus, I changed the title to update Ben Zoma’s question to ask “who is still wise?”]]

Eizeh Hu ḤaḤam?

Ben Zoma asks and answers this question in the Talmud (Pirke Avot 3:1) Who is wise? One who learns from every person, as it is said in Torah," from all my teachers I acquired understanding." (Ben Zoma goes on to similarly define might, wealth, and honor in a similar vein.) This same question is asked, in different ways, throughout the Talmud and all of our sacred texts. What, exactly, is wisdom, and how does one acquire it? And how should one use it?

The Haftarah for parashat Miketz is the classic example of wisdom, or specifically, Solomonic wisdom, relating the well known exemplar of Solomonic wisdom. Two unmarried women living together (most likely prostitutes) give birth within a few days of each other. One claims that the other rolled over on her baby and killed it, and then switched it with the other. Each claim the living child is theirs. Shlomo HaMeleḥ (King Solomon) orders that a sword be brought forth so that the living child might be divided in half. One mother says "it should be neither yours nor mine, so cut it in two." Of course, the true mother is the one who says to give the child to the other so it might live.

Shlomo relies on his understanding of a mother's connection with her own child. And when the people of Israel learned of his great wisdom, they accept him as their King. Just being a son of David was not enough to insure Solomon's acceptance as King by all the people.

[Consider that I wrote what follows 10 years ago. How apropos they now seem.]

It's a wonderful illustration of using wisdom to bring about justice. And it resonates well with the human experience. Would this Solomonic wisdom work in all situations? It seems logical that it would, yet we know that situations are not always as they appear. There are many in the world who employ great deceits, and weave tangled webs. Perhaps I've been watching too many episodes of Law and Order.

It does seem to be a little harder these days to be sure that one party to a dispute is telling the truth and one is lying. Multiple truths, partial truths, conspiratorial deceptions abound. Where does one get the wisdom to discern wisely? As Ben Zoma said, we get it by learning from everyone. Yet, even armed with such awareness, are we truly prepared to render justice wisely?

[We are now living in what some as beginning to suspect is a “post-truth” age, where facts have little meaning, and truths are as people choose to define them. What would Solomon make of that, I wonder?]

Let's take this to another level. In this day and time (though not entirely unique to our time) we Jews seem to question each other as to who the "true Jews" are. The differing sides each question whether the other hasn't rolled over on their own child and stolen theirs, metaphorically speaking.

I have heard it seriously suggested by those from both liberal and traditional camps that we ought to just sever the child that is living Judaism in twain, each becoming a separate (yet ultimately dead) religion.

And many liberal Jews, uncertain of the legitimacy of their own claims, seem perfectly willing to turn the baby over to the traditionalists so that it might live. (Or perhaps so that they might live as they choose, and alleviate their guilt by assuring that somewhere out there are people who are being "real Jews." Or perhaps acknowledging for themselves that they do not need the approval of the other side.

[Similarly, the future of the modern Jewish state of Israel is being debated.  This is true in the diaspora, here in the US, and, of course, in Israel itself. Which mother is Israel in this scenario? It’s not all that clear to me. Both sides could make the case.  It seems easy to argue that the two-state solution is splitting the child in half. However, it’s just as easy to argue that a single-state solution is more likely to lead to the death of the experiment that is modern Israel. I will openly admit to being in the latter camp, and fear Israel’s leaders, and its followers here in the US, are not being very Solomonic in their thinking. Yes, giving up land for peace hasn’t necessarily given the desired result, but it has allowed the baby to continue living.]

Yet perhaps there is a basic misconception here (pun intended.) Each side feels that the other has rolled over on their own child and is attempting to steal theirs. Yet I know that on both sides are many (if not a vast majority) who would willingly turn the baby over to the other so that it might live.

We need to ask ourselves a few questions before we can even attempt to solve this dilemma with anything akin to Solomonic wisdom.

1. Is only one child alive? 2. Was there ever really two children? 3. If there were two, and one died, how did it die? 4. Can one child be shared between two mothers?

[5. Is the Solomonic approach always the best choice? 7. Can a Solomonic approach help us determine truths in our own time? Could a Solomonic trick be used to ferret out truths about things like global warming, discrimination, misogyny, et al?  7. Who among us today is wise enough to apply a Solomonic test to determine facts and truths?]

Have at it, my Solomonic friends. And remember that a good place to start is with Ben Zoma's wise words. Go and learn from everyone.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2016 (portions ©2005) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Miketz 5776 - Coke or Pepsi? (Or...?)
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 23, 2016

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayeishev 5777- Unspoilers

I'm sorry. I apologize. I didn't mean to spoil it for you.

Before I launch into this week’s musing, a major expansion upon one I wrote a decade ago,  I wanted to acknowledge a comment made by a friend on one of my Facebook posts. I wrote on Facebook chastising AGVA (American Guild of Variety Artists,) the union  hat represents The Rockettes:

So, AGVA, the cast of Hamilton is lauded for speaking out when VP-Elect Pence comes to their show, but the individual dancers in the Rockettes get no choice about performing at Trump's inauguration? In what universe is this you, as a union, representing the best interests of your members? And shame on you, MSG Entertainment for lending the prestigious air of The Rockettes to this travesty.

My wonderful, thoughtful friend Dawn Bernstein, who writes a well-worth-reading blog at Dawn Ponders, wrote this in response:

I posted this early this morning. Dawn's Ponderance of the Day. Apparently, the Rockettes have been booked for the Inauguration. Many of the women have quietly let it be known that they don't want to perform but that their union is giving them an ultimatum, dance or be fired. I wonder if any of these lovely and strong women have ever read the story of Purim and how Vashti refused to dance for the king?"

Boom. Mic drop.

The sad thing however is that, like Vashti, those who refuse to dance for the King at his celebration might also wind up banned and outcast. There’s a great article about it. Read all about it here on Broadway World (and be sure to follow the update links to see what AGVA had to say. The follow the links to give AGVA a piece of your mind.

If this were the Purim story, then AGVA would be playing the part of all the King’s misogynist advisors who urged him to banish Vashti, lest all the kingdom’s wives see her example and challenge their husbands. (It’s so sad that the sages and rabbis saw fit to uphold the misogynistic tradition,and paint Vashti as wicked and disobedient, rather than someone to admire. Thankfully, we are reclaiming Vashti these days.)

I'm sorry. I apologize. I didn't mean to spoil it for you.

It is not, unfortunately, Purim time. No, Hanukkah is upon us this weekend. So I think it may be more appropriate to put the outspoken Rockettes who don’t want to be forced to perform at the inauguration in the role of the Maccabees. You know who, of course, in Antiochus IV Epiphanes. More about him below.

I’m sitting here realizing just how double-edged the Maccabee story is. Consider, for a moment, that one could, theoretically, liken DJT to Mattathias, crying “Follow me, all who are for G”d’s law and stand by the covenant!” just as easily as they could liken someone on the opposing side to Mattathias-perhaps the Rockette that has spoken out on Twitter or those organizing the Women’s march on January 21st, or those now organizing the protest concert on Inauguration Day. I begin to wonder, though, if the comparison to DJT is more apt, when one considers the political realities that followed the Maccabean revolt and the despotic rulers from the House of Hashmon. The Hanukkah story has a very dark side. It’s easy to revile Antiochus IV Epiphanes for his oppressive rule and trampling of religious freedoms. It’s not so easy to love Mattathias, Judah, and the rest of the Maccabees who were, after all, guerilla warriors, who and who may have killed as many Jews as Syrian-Greeks.

But…but…latkes, soufganiyot,one little cruse of oil, dreidls.

I'm sorry. I apologize. I didn't mean to spoil it for you.

Oh, dreidls. Right. The Irish gambling game of Teetotum, that made its way across Europe. (Even if the top used in Teetotum does, as some scholars believe, have its origins in Greek and Roman times, it would have had 6 or more sides. So Hellenized Jews might play with a top, but one with more than four sides. I sort of doubt non-Hellenized Jews and zealots would have been playing a Greek gambling game to hid their Torah studies.) Those letters on the dreidl? They don’t stand for Neis Gadol Hayah Sham. The stand for the Yiddish translation of the Latin words originally represented on the Teetotum by their first letters – the words for take, put in, nothing, and take all. The “great miracle happened there” was conveniently retrofitted to the dreidl’s letters. The Teetotum game rose to greatest popularity more than a thousand years after the Maccabean revolt.

Even latkes have become a source of historical controversy, with scholars now asserting they started out as pancakes of fried ricotta cheese (since potatoes are from the Americas, and unknown in Europe until the voyages of the 15th and early 16th century.

I'm sorry. I apologize. I didn't mean to spoil it for you.

That's to you, my dear readers, and to the hundreds of students and adults for whom I have talked about the "real story" of Hanukah. How there was all this infighting between the various Jewish factions before the actual Maccabean revolt. (It's possible more Jews were hurt in internecine strife than in the actual Maccabean revolt.) How the end result of the victory of the Maccabees was rule by the house of Hashmon, some of the worst rulers that the Jewish people ever had, and those ultimately responsible for allowing the Romans in. That dreidls don’t come from the time of the Maccabees and the letters didn’t originally stand for “neis gadol hayah sham.” That potato latkes started out as cheese pancakes. That Hanukkah is really a minor Jewish holiday, not even seen fit to include in the Tanakh, and its story appears in books excluded from the Jewish canon but included in the Christian version of the Bible. That some of what we know of it comes from sources like Josephus and Philo who had their own agendas.

And most of all, for saying that the story of the miracle of the oil wasn't true. We've all heard the various arguments. The oil isn't even mentioned for the first time until hundreds of years later. Some scholars suspect it was to help us keep a low profile during the period of Roman rule and in the subsequent diaspora, not flaunting this victory of a small band of guerilla fighters over the mighty Persian-Greek forces. And there's that whole Hanukah-Sukkot connection, with the original Hanukah being a belated celebration of Sukkot, one of the pilgrimage holidays, in a (somewhat) restored and cleansed Holy Temple. There's correspondence between the Jews of Alexandria and Jerusalem that appears to attest to this viewpoint. And, of course, as Sukkot was the holiday of the water libation, the cleansing of the holy altar in the Temple, there's an obvious connection between this festival of rededication, of Hanukah.

I'm sorry. I apologize. I didn't mean to spoil it for you.

I don't take it all back. You need to know the truth (at least, as best as we can construct it.) However, we all need to learn to wear our truth hats and our faith hats. Neither one by itself is sufficient.

I also don’t apologize for portraying the villain in the Hanukkah story as the vain person he was. Why even just yesterday I was regaling an audience with the story of how being Antiochus IV wasn’t enough, he had to add Epiphanes, meaning “G”d manifest” to his name.But I do want to give you back something.

(Interestingly enough, since I started this musing with a Purim reference, I feel compelled to note that the Purim story, though it clothes itself in some potentially historical trappings, is as fanciful as the trappings with which we have bound up Hanukkah. Hanukkah, at least, has some basis in historical fact. More, probably, than Purim. Like Hanukkah, Purim has its dark side. Remember that in the story, this one actually included in our bible, the Jews proactively go out and kill those who were going to destroy them. For a people that claims to be so focused on peace, we have a pretty bloody history. Or perhaps our modern focus on peace is our way of atoning for the stories we have cherished that were anything but peaceful?

Enough. Even I grow weary of my own insistence on telling the truth, on rejecting so-called pediatric Judaism. Let me give you back some of what I may have taken from you, and even from myself.

I'm sorry. I apologize. I didn't mean to spoil it for you.

What I want to give back to you is that sense of innocence, that faith. The "tooth fairy" faith, dare I even say the "Santa Claus" faith. That childlike sense of awe and wonder and belief in things miraculous. So forget, for a moment, all the truths I told you. Think of the story of the miracle of that cruse of oil that should have only lasted for one day but lasted for eight. The miracle of a small band who dared to stand up to a larger, more powerful force when their right to practice their religion was denied, and who were victorious. It is our story, just as all the tales in the Torah and Nakh are our stories. Maybe not our history, in the truest sense of the word, but our saga, Few of us believe the creation story as revealed in the Torah, and we question the historicity of many things in the Torah, though perhaps many of them have a kernel of truth. (The flood story appears in many other ANE cultures,so perhaps there was a significant event that found its way into the stories of all these cultures.) That does not make the words of the Torah any less true, in the most philosophical and theological sense of the word. Perhaps, in what is turning into a “post-truth” age I should be worried about asserting such a broad meaning for the word truth. However, doubting truth is not a new idea. According to one story, did not a certain Roman Prefect ask a certain itinerant rabbi “What is truth?” (Biblical scholar that I am, I can’t avoid mentioning that the word used in the gospel of John (18:38) is ἀλήθεια, aletheia. most often translated as “truth” really means “unconcealed.” Yet another example of biblical text being massaged eisegetically to give us a particular reading. This is why I keep encouraging people to learn to read Torah, and indeed all religious texts, in their original language, so one can translate for oneself.)

I'm sorry. I apologize. I didn't mean to spoil it for you.

We are at the darkest time of the year. Dark times may loom for us. So we must not let the light go out. As you light the candles Saturday night, and the following 7 nights, focus on the miracles. For we live in a time when we need to believe in miracles - even if we ourselves must have a strong hand in helping those miracles come to pass. After all, we can't always just wait around for G"d to fix things. When we believe in the miracles, we can help make them come true.


Shabbat Shalom and Hanukkah Urim Sameakh,


©2016 (portions © 2006) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha

Vayeishev 5776 - Revisiting Mikol Hamishpakhot HaAdamah
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

Friday, December 16, 2016

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayishlakh 5777–My Prayer or Me Prayer

Jacob has an interesting relationship with prayer. His prayer in last week’s parasha, Vayeitzei, is, according to some scholars, actually the first recorded  prayer in the Torah. (This is clearly debatable, as there are at least two earlier examples cited by scholars. The first, Abraham’s argument with G”d about the destruction of S’dom and Gomorrah is more of a conversation. The second is the prayer of the nameless servant of Isaac (Eliezer of Damascus) in Genesis 24:10-12. I’d say this is a fairly standard prayer in format, and probably qualifies as the first true prayer text in the Torah. Some scholars exclude because it comes from a minor character, and this minor character is uttering a prayer as much for his master’s sake as his own.)

Jacob’s prayer in Vayeitzei, Genesis 28:20-22 is one I have written about before. It’s a conditional prayer: Or is it really a prayer at all?

וַיִּדַּר יַֽעֲקֹב נֶדֶר לֵאמֹר אִם־יִֽהְיֶה אֱלֹהִים עִמָּדִי וּשְׁמָרַנִי בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָֽנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ וְנָֽתַן־לִי לֶחֶם לֶֽאֱכֹל וּבֶגֶד לִלְבֹּֽשׁ: כא וְשַׁבְתִּי בְשָׁלוֹם אֶל־בֵּית אָבִי וְהָיָה יְהוָֹה לִי לֵֽאלֹהִֽים

If G”d remains with me,if He (sic) protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house-the L”rd hall be my G”d.”

That’s not a prayer, it’s a vow. So I remain uncertain why some scholars choose to cite it. I would choose to cite the nameless servant of Isaac’s prayer as the first true prayer in the Torah. For me, Jacob’s first prayer comes at the beginning of this parasha, Vayishlach.

Jacob learns from the messengers he sent out that his brother Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men. Concerned, Jacob divides his people into two camps, and prays to G”d:

וַיֹּאמֶר יַֽעֲקֹב אֱלֹהֵי אָבִי אַבְרָהָם וֵֽאלֹהֵי אָבִי יִצְחָק יְהֹוָה הָֽאֹמֵר אֵלַי שׁוּב לְאַרְצְךָ וּלְמֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ וְאֵיטִיבָה עִמָּֽךְ: קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַֽחֲסָדִים וּמִכָּל־הָאֱמֶת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת־עַבְדֶּךָ כִּי בְמַקְלִי עָבַרְתִּי אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה וְעַתָּה הָיִיתִי לִשְׁנֵי מַֽחֲנֽוֹת: הַצִּילֵנִי נָא מִיַּד אָחִי מִיַּד עֵשָׂו כִּֽי־יָרֵא אָֽנֹכִי אֹתוֹ פֶּן־יָבוֹא וְהִכַּנִי אֵם עַל־בָּנִֽים:  וְאַתָּה אָמַרְתָּ הֵיטֵב אֵיטִיב עִמָּךְ וְשַׂמְתִּי אֶת־זַֽרְעֲךָ כְּחוֹל הַיָּם אֲשֶׁר לֹֽא־יִסָּפֵר מֵרֹֽב

The Jacob said, “O G”d of my Father Abraham and G”d of my father Isaac, O L”rd, who said to me, ‘Return to your native land and I will deal bountifully with you”! I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant; with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike. Yet You have said ‘I will deal bountifully with you and make your offspring as the sands of the sea, which are too numerous to count.”

This one, at least, isn’t conditional. Interestingly enough, it was after G”d G”d spoke to him in a dream,and Jacob recognized that “G”d was in this place and I, I did not know it” that Jacob then still offered his conditional promise. What has transpired between then and the time before his confrontation with Esau that gives Jacob the confidence to pray to G”d without condition? Well, let’s think about that: two wives, plenty of children, and prosperity. Though he had his share of hardships, Jacob is perhaps now convinced that G”d will keep the promises made, and is now comfortable actually asking G”d for protection and assistance. This, of course, also raises the question of why Jacob would then feel the need to pray for G”d’s protection. If Jacob were convinced that G”d would keep the promises made to him, why would he feel the need to ask? Well, the answer is somewhat obvious. Who has perfect faith? Jacob was surely very frightened. When we’re hungry, afraid, insecure, lost, under stress m- these are the times when we are most likely to turn to G”d for assistance. (Perhaps it is from this and other experiences that G”d realizes that human beings will need to be reminded to thank G”d when things are going fine – as exemplified in the fact that we are called upon in the Torah not to say a blessing before we eat, but after.) One wonders if, through all the years living with Laban, and prospering, if Jacob once offered a prayer of thanks to G”d.  (The prophets and later writings are replete with lots of prayers of thanks in addition to those of petition and praise, the Torah less so. Assuming for the sake of argument, that the Torah has been edited and redacted, why would the redactors and editors not find ways to emphasize the need for prayers of thanks and gratitude? Oh wait, there’s that sacrificial system. Worship in those days was less about prayer and more about slaughtering animals, roasting grain, offering fruits. Deeds of physical sacrifice, and not words, became the preferred mode of recognizing G”d. Yet, except for the sheep offered in place of Isaac, we see more stones set up by our forefathers to recognize G”d than we see animals sacrificed.

I also want to give a brief nod, once again, to the formulation at the beginning : G”d of my father Abraham, G”d of my father Isaac.” Much has been written over the years as to why we so often see this type of formulation, instead of a simple “G”d of my fathers Abraham and Isaac.” I won’t discourse on it now, but you’ll find it in some of my other musings, and in the writings of many sages and commentators, and I commend it to you as something to study.

This prayer is a bit cheeky, when you think about it. Jacob is reminding G”d of the promises made. So Jacob hasn’t matured as fully as we might think since his conditional vow back in chapter 28. At least he has learned to suck up a little bit, but he hasn’t yet figured out the typical sandwich method of prayer. (Note to self: that would be an interesting bit of study. Where is the first example of a sandwich prayer in our sacred texts? Feel free, dear reader to take that upon yourself, and let me know what you find!) Well, his prayer is a sandwich, but he’s got the reminding G”d of the promises as the two slices of bread, with the thanks (well, more an ”I am not worthy” than a true thanks) inside.Eventually we humans figure out that putting the praise and thanks on the outside of the sandwich appears to be the better formulation for prayer.

Adding to the “cheek” of the prayer is how Jacob throws in the bit about “dealing bountifully.” G”d made no such promise to Jacob when G”d instructed him to leave Laban and return home. G”d only promised to “be with” Jacob. G”d’s promises to Abraham and Isaac weren’t so much about prosperity either, they were about population enhancement (though I suppose “great nation” could reasonably assumed to also mean prosperous.)

Note that Jacob makes no offering with this prayer. Just his words. So the question I am left with here is whether there was really any spiritual growth of Jacob’s part between his conditional vow in Vayeitzei, and this prayer in a time of fear in Vayishlach. The formulations are different, and one is clearly more vow than prayer, but do they truly evidence a change in Jacob?  True, this second “prayer” is not conditional – at least not on the surface. However, the very fact that Jacob makes sure to remind G”d of the promises made (and in fact inflates the promise) still reveals an element of doubt. It is, in a way, a foreshadowing of how the Israelites act as they wander the wilderness. They’ve seen the miracle of freedom, the journey through the sea of reeds, the giving of the Torah, and still they doubt.Forty years were spent winnowing out those doubters.

Are we any different today? We have still failed to learn to look for G”d not in the great miracles, but in the quotidian things, in the “kol d’mamah daka,” the “still small voice.”

Another question pops into my mind. Why didn’t G”d answer Jacob’s prayer, and reassure him? Or is that what the subsequent wrestling match is all about? Was that the answer to Jacob’s prayer? If so, what was that answer – that G”d would protect Jacob, that Jacob himself was fully capable of protecting himself, that Jacob had nothing to fear from his brother Esau, that whatever happens in the meeting with Esau, it is G”d’s will? Even the hindsight of knowing how things turned out doesn’t clear up that mysterious story in verses 32:25-30. Maybe that incident is unrelated? Seems rather unlikely, but with Torah, who knows?

Jacob and Esau were reunited, then parted again. They came together one last time to bury their father Isaac.Nice button on the story, worthy of the best story writing. Lots unspoken about what happened in the intervening years for Esau. Jacobs goes on to show the person he really is (and, upon further analysis, always was) in how he reacts to the rape of his daughter, and how his sons take extreme and vengeful justice into their own hands. He cares, it seems, only for his reputation. Self-centered as always. Eliezer, at least, offered a prayer that he, Eliezer would be successful in his mission to find a wife for his master Isaac.Jacob’s prayers always seem so self-centered by comparison.

So, as in the title of this musing, something to consider. When “my prayer” is mostly about myself, when it is “me prayer” we may be emulating our ancestor Jacob, but have we truly learned the lessons Torah wants to teach us from its portrayal of our ancestors?

Shabbat Shalom

©2016 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Vayishlakh 5775 - No One's In The Kitchen With Dinah (or Eric or Michael)
Vayishlakh 5774 - Biblical Schadenfreude
Vayishlakh 5773 - That Other Devorah's Tale
Vayishlakh 5772 - One and Many, Many and One
Vayishlakh 5771/5763 - The Bigger Man
Vayishlakh 5769 - A Fish Called Wonder
Vayishlakh 5768 - No One's in the Kitchen With Dinah
Vayishlakh 5767-Wrestlemania
Vayishlakh 5766-Like Deity, Like Deity's Child
Vayishlakh 5765-B'li Mirmah
Vayishlakh 5762-Don't Get Mad--Get Even!
Vayishlakh 5761-No Doubt? No Wonder!

Friday, December 9, 2016

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Vayeitzei 5777-Being Fruitbull

As I have stated before, some of the musings I have written for parashat Vayeitzei number among my favorites – it’s such a rich parasha – and I hope you’ll peruse the links at the end of this musing and enjoy some of the others.

The haftarah for parashat Vayeitze comes from Hosea, chapter 12, verse 13, to chapter 14 verse 10 (in Ashkenzic tradition. Sephardim read from chapter 11 and 12.) This particular haftarah offers up some interesting things. It is not a particularly coherent piece of text, with some uncertain meanings. Only in its first verse, 12:13, do we find the connection to the parasha:

וַיִּבְרַח יַֽעֲקֹב שְׂדֵה אֲרָם וַיַּֽעֲבֹד יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאִשָּׁה וּבְאִשָּׁה שָׁמָֽר

Jacob fled to the land of Aram
Israel served for a wife;
and for a wife he kept watch

That’s it – that’s all the clue we get. I suppose for our ancestors this was adequate to identify the parasha for which it was being substituted. The JPS translators even felt that further emendation was needed, so they added “[for sheep]”

Early on, we find a hapax legomenon, a word occurring only once in the Tanakh. Chapter 13, verse 1 starts with these three words:

כְּדַבֵּר אֶפְרַיִם רְתֵת

The last word is the hapax. The general scholarly consensus in the lexicons is that it means “trembling,” thus rendering the translation

When Ephraim spoke with trembling…

The remainder of that verse is a direct castigation of the Northern Kingdom for their sins. The next verse continues listing those sins – creating and worshipping idols. It contains two words whose translation can be debated:

וְעַתָּה ׀ יוֹסִפוּ לַֽחֲטֹא וַיַּֽעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם מַסֵּכָה מִכַּסְפָּם כִּתְבוּנָם עֲצַבִּים מַֽעֲשֵׂה חָֽרָשִׁים כֻּלֹּה לָהֶם הֵם אֹמְרִים זֹֽבְחֵי אָדָם עֲגָלִים יִשָּׁקֽוּן

They add sin to sin
making for themselves molten images,
skillfully making idols,
the work of artisans throughout.
They speak to them:
to [images] of calves, which people sacrifice, they offer kisses!

Note, first, how the JPS committee felt it necessary to add [images of] lest one be tempted to read the plain “to calves.” However, it’s the underlined words, zovchei adam, that are problematic. It’s perfectly legitimate to translate those words as “sacrificers of men.”

They speak to them:
to [images] of calves,[to] sacrificers of men, they offer kisses!

In the big picture, does it matter? The Northern tribes worshipped idols, spoke to them and offered kisses to them. Suggesting that they also spoke with, or consorted with those who sacrificed humans isn’t that big a leap – and, coming from Hosea, not all that unlikely.

In verses 4-6 of chapter 13, we are reminded that G”d has been our G”d since Egypt, that we were well cared for, and as a result forgot G”d. Those verses contain yet another hapax legomenon, in verse 5,


translated by consensus as “blazing heat” or “parched.”

Verse 9 presents another difficult bit of Hebrew for a clean translation.

שִֽׁחֶתְךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּֽי־בִי בְעֶזְרֶֽךָ

Confident they’ve gotten the essence, translators say:

You are done for Israel,
for those who can help you!

I’m not even sure what that means in English!

In verse 15, we get the opening words:

כִּי הוּא בֵּן אַחִים יַפְרִיא

which would seem to say “for he, son of brothers, will be fruitful” however, it is translated by the JPS as

for he [only] among the reeds shall be fruitful

citing what is known as an enclitic particle,adding a final mem to the word alef-khet-vav, meaning reeds. An enclitic particle is an ending that is sometimes added to a word for purposes of keeping a metrical form or for other purposes. (Others suggest the final mem is a scribal error.)

Ah yes, fruitful. A word of import, starting, as it were, in the commandment to Adam and Chava, p’ru uv’ru – be fruitful and multiply. which brings me to the verse in the haftarah that captured my attention this time, and prompted the title of this musing. Chapter 14 verse 3:

קְחוּ עִמָּכֶם דְּבָרִים וְשׁוּבוּ אֶל־יְהֹוָה אִמְרוּ אֵלָיו כָּל־תִּשָּׂא עָוֹן וְקַח־טוֹב וּנְשַׁלְּמָה פָרִים שְׂפָתֵֽינוּ

Take words with you
and return to the Eternal
and say:
Forgive all iniquity and accept the good:
and we shall offer the fruit of our lips.

And surprise – the scholars once again depend upon an enclitic particle (or for some a scribal error,) to render their translation. What the text actually says is:

and we shall fulfill bulls [of] our lips.

Some translate as pay instead of fulfill, a reasonable translation of the Hebrew. So which is it: fruit or bulls?

Well, at times I’ve preferred the “bulls” translation, as evidenced by the fact that I’ve written about this same verse as it also appears in the special hafatarah read on Shabbat Shuvah. It opens itself up for all sorts of wordplay, especially if you use the singular “bull” instead of “bulls.” There’s plenty of “bull” being spoken from plenty of lips, some of it even spoken in prayer or worship! (You can read more about this here

Let’s play with the scholarly consensus translation of offering the “fruit of our lips.” Offering the “bulls” of our lips makes a direct connection between actual animal sacrifice and the later substitute of prayer for that ritual. Just wait one second, however – Hosea is an 8th century BCE prophet. The northern Kingdom still had its own active sacrificial sites (Dan and Bethel) competing with the Jerusalem temple. There’s no need to substitute prayer for sacrifice. Both were being offered.

Prophets like Hosea, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and, of course, most of the prophets who come after them, had no great love of ritual sacrifice and the sacrificial cult. The path to the eventual final replacement of the sacrificial system with a system of prayers after the destruction of the second Temple was a long one, begun at least eight centuries earlier (and possibly before then.)

So, we know what the “bulls” of our lips are – words in place of cult sacrifices. What are “fruit” of our lips? Is Hosea using fruit as a singular or collective noun? Some fruits are sweet, some fruits are tart, and some fruits are bitter. So assuming fruit of our lips means something sweet is probably a leap too far.

A bull is a bull. A fruit can be many things.The word p’ri. fruit, in Hebrew is fascinating. As in English, it can be a singular noun or a collective noun. It can be the fruit of a tree, the fruit of a vine, the fruit of the ground, the fruit of the womb, offspring, or even the fruit of effort/labor/activity. Not so fast, however. The idea that there is some connection between the word p’ri, fruit, the verb root peh-resh-alef, to be fruitful, and the word par is not so far-fetched. In places it can mean a calf or young animal (and it parallels words in cognate languages that mean young animal) though it usually refers to an adult sacrificially-ready bull or steer. A calf is certainly the “fruit” of its mother’s womb.

Words are the fruits of our lips, or to be more exact, the fruit of the thought processes in our brains. A fruit implies an effort. Birthing requires effort. Even a tree growing fruit requires effort of a kind. Is this a way of perhaps telling us that what comes from our lips should require an effort to birth them, rather than their being perfunctory? Need this idea be restricted to prayer? Most commentators are more than happy to imply that Hosea is speaking of prayer here, but maybe that’s not it at all. After being told that we have stumbled in our iniquities, Hosea suggest we return to G”d taking words with us, and say:

Forgive all iniquity and accept the good
and we shall offer the fruit (bulls?) of our lips
Assyria cannot save us;
we shall ride on horses no more
never again shall we say “Our G”d”
to the works of our hands.
For in You [alone] the orphan finds compassion.

Might Hosea be speaking not just of prayer, but of all words that we utter? There must be effort to produce the fruit of our lips at all times. Our words must be considered. We shall not, for example, use our words to make gods of our idols. We should not use our words to hurt others, defame others, gossip about others. We must use our words for what is right and just, for what is good, and in the service of G”d.

While it might be easier and simple to infer that the words we are to take with us are, in this context, the words we need to confess our sins-a view shared by many commentators-I think I am starting to prefer the much broader reading I’ve outlined here. Doing so helps me lift the words of this haftarah from their context to mine. While I strongly believe that understanding biblical text in its context is essential, and is particularly useful when encountering texts that our troubling from our own worldview, I also believe that it is essential to find meaning in these ancient words for our own times. I will strive to always offer the fruit of my lips, and strive to have less bull spew forth from them.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2016 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Vayetze 5776 - Now and Then (Redux 5763)
Vayeitzei 5775 - Hapax Shabbat
Vayeitzei 5774 - Terms and Conditions Revisted
Vayeitze 5773 - Mandrakes and More
Vayeitze 5772 - Stumbling on Smooth Paths
Vayeitzei 5771 - Luz is No Loser
Vayeitzei 5769 - Going Down and Loving It!
Vayeitzei 5768 - Encounters
Vayeitzei 5767-Hapax On All Your Hapaxes
Vayetze 5766-Pakhad HaShem?
Vayetze 5765-Cows and Cranberries
Vayetze 5764-Terms and Conditions
Vayetze 5763-Now and Then
Vayetze 5762-Change in Perspective
Vayetze 5760-Taking Gd's Place

Friday, December 2, 2016

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Toldot 5777–Well, I’ll Tell Ya

There’s an old joke I learned when I was living in the Midwest. It’s partly a visual, so I’ll do my best to describe it.

“Wanna know why farmers have such smelly thumbs?”
[without waiting for a response, hooking my thumbs under my armpits in imitation of running them under a pair of suspenders/braces/overall straps]“ Well, I’ll tell ya.”

It’s not really that funny, and in todays world could even be seen as bullying or a micro-aggression. But I learned it from a farmer, so I figure maybe it’s a form of self-deprecating humor. Doesn’t make it right for me, a non-farmer, to tell it, I suppose, but I use it here merely to set the stage for the ensuing commentary.

The opening chapter of this last book of a (last?) prophet, Malachi, from which the haftarah for parashat Toldot is taken, repeatedly uses a rhetorical device this is similar in nature to this joke. It’s called a hypophora.  A hypophora is slightly different from a  rhetorical question. A rhetorical question is not answered as one is not expected (or the answer is assumed to be obvious by the asker.) In a hypophora, a question is asked and then immediately answered by the asker. The author(s) of Malachi use the hypophora as a sort of didactic teaching device.

אָהַבְתִּי אֶתְכֶם אָמַר יְהֹוָה וַֽאֲמַרְתֶּם בַּמָּה אֲהַבְתָּנוּ הֲלוֹא־אָח עֵשָׂו לְיַֽעֲקֹב נְאֻם־יְהֹוָה וָֽאֹהַב אֶֽת־יַֽעֲקֹֽב: ג וְאֶת־עֵשָׂו שָׂנֵאתִי וָאָשִׂים אֶת־הָרָיו שְׁמָמָה וְאֶת־נַֽחֲלָתוֹ לְתַנּוֹת מִדְבָּֽר

I have loved you, says the Eternal One.
But you say: How have You shown Your love for us?
Is not Esau Jacob’s brother? says the Eternal One
But I have loved Jacob
and hated Esau, making his hills a desolation
giving his heritage to jackals

The rhetorical technique is interesting, but even more so, the content. G”d has us asking how G”d has shown love for us! The nerve!

We could also go off an another long tangent here, noting how Esau how now become “hated.”  I’m not sure of the term for this, or if there even is one, but it’s almost as if an etiology is eisegeted into the Torah’s telling of the story of Jacob and Esau by Malachi. (Exegisis is the process of drawing interpretation from the text. Eisegisis is when we allow our own bias and preconceptions to influence how we interpret the text – outing the interpretation into the text.) There’s no evidence, at least for me, in the text of the Torah, that G”d hated Esau. But from the perspective of the people of Malachi’s time (5th century BCE?) Esau descendants, as the nation of Edom,  became hated and despised for their participation in the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. Anyway, I’ve wandered far enough down this side path.

Only a few verses later we see another example:

בֵּן יְכַבֵּד אָב וְעֶבֶד אֲדֹנָיו וְאִם־אָב אָנִי אַיֵּה כְבוֹדִי וְאִם־אֲדוֹנִים אָנִי אַיֵּה מֽוֹרָאִי אָמַר ׀ יְהֹוָה צְבָאוֹת לָכֶם הַכֹּֽהֲנִים בּוֹזֵי שְׁמִי וַֽאֲמַרְתֶּם בַּמֶּה בָזִינוּ אֶת־שְׁמֶֽךָ: מַגִּישִׁים עַל־מִזְבְּחִי לֶחֶם מְגֹאָל וַֽאֲמַרְתֶּם בַּמֶּה גֵֽאַלְנוּךָ בֶּאֱמָרְכֶם שֻׁלְחַן יְהֹוָה נִבְזֶה הֽוּא

A son should honor his father, and a slave his master. Now if I am a father, where is the honor due Me? And if I am a master, where is the reverence due Me?—said the LORD of Hosts to you, O priests who scorn My name. But you ask, “How have we scorned Your name?” You offer defiled food on My altar. But you ask, “How have we defiled You?”By saying, “The table of the LORD can be treated with scorn.”

Malachi is on a roll here, hypophora after hypophora! While we could politely just say Malachi (well, actually G”d) is being didactic, I see hints of a haughty Deity here.  It’s sort of the same reaction I have to the end of Job. It’s a very “pay no attention to the man behind the screen” moment for me. Here (and elsewhere in the prophets) we see the genesis of the “G”d is perfect” fallacy. A perfect G”d is not at all what the Torah displays. The very imperfections of the Deity as portrayed in Torah is what calls so many of us to turn it and turn it.

G”d, through Malachi, goes on to complain about the quality of the sacrifices being offered, suggesting that the people are offering him less than the choicest and purest sacrifices, and suggests there’s a tit for tat. G”d sarcastically says:

 וְכִֽי־תַגִּשׁוּן עִוֵּר לִזְבֹּחַ אֵין רָע וְכִי תַגִּישׁוּ פִּסֵּחַ וְחֹלֶה אֵין רָע הַקְרִיבֵהוּ נָא לְפֶחָתֶךָ הֲיִרְצְךָ אוֹ הֲיִשָּׂא פָנֶיךָ אָמַר יְהֹוָה צְבָאֽוֹת

When you present a blind animal for sacrifice—it doesn’t matter! When you present a lame or sick one—it doesn’t matter! Just offer it to your governor: Will he accept you? Will he show you favor?—said the LORD of Hosts.

You want G”d to be gracious and good to you, you ‘d better offer only the highest quality sacrifices! Boy, when G”d says covenant, G”d really does mean covenant (or more realistically, contract.)

Now, this next bit of text is no hypophora (though it is used as justification for the tirade that follows.:)

כִּי מִמִּזְרַח־שֶׁמֶשׁ וְעַד־מְבוֹאוֹ גָּדוֹל שְׁמִי בַּגּוֹיִם וּבְכָל־מָקוֹם מֻקְטָר מֻגָּשׁ לִשְׁמִי וּמִנְחָה טְהוֹרָה כִּֽי־גָדוֹל שְׂמִי בַּגּוֹיִם אָמַר יְהֹוָה צְבָאֽוֹת

For from where the sun rises to where it sets, My name is honored among the nations, and everywhere incense and pure oblation are offered to My name; for My name is honored among the nations—said the LORD of Hosts.

Scholars have been all over this one. Here, G”d acknowledges that intentional ritual, even to pagan gods, is actually worship of the One G”d, of Ad”nai. (Though it doesn’t say so, the implication is that such worship is not OK for Jews, but that Judaism is not the only viable way to worship G”d. Jewish worship ritual is simply the way commanded for the Jewish people. That’s a pretty big statement. A statement not entirely surprising from a prophet likely observing how Judaism existed in the midst of Persian culture, and how it was being shaped (by some) upon their return from exile

I’ll skip over some verses here, referring you to last year’s musing on this haftarah, reviewing an earlier musing, discussing verse 13.

The haftarah ends with an excoriation and exhortation to the Levitical priests.Then it calls upon the priests to be truly faithful. There’s probably a whole lot of politics in here, if it was indeed written in the post-exilic period of Ezra and Nehemiah’s efforts. Another side path I won’t trod today.

Here’s the thing about hypophora and even rhetorical questions. A person has to be awfully smug and certain of themselves to use them.  You ask why, I’ll tell you why. You ask what you’ve done to displease the Deity, I’ll tell you what you’ve done to displease the Deity. You ask what G”d has done for you, I’ll tell you what G”d has done for you. As well intentioned as the user of such rhetoric may be, it still sticks in my craw, it still makes something inside me automatically want to ask why you think you have all the answers and I don’t.

It’s easier, admittedly, to react negatively when the user of the rhetoric is merely a human being, even if that person is a (self-declared) messenger of G”d. When it comes  directly from G”d, it’s not so easy (though perhaps it should be.) In such a quandary, I need only go back to the Torah and read the story of the truly imperfect G”d that is contained within, and I am less wary of impugning G”d’s reputation. I can ask G”d “what favor have you shown me?” I can say to G”d “You haven’t always given us Your best, either!”

Now, before I get too haughty myself, I have a to backtrack a little (get used to that folks, there’s going to be a lot of that in the news for the next four years.) It is a bit immature to counter a criticism with “but you fail to meet that standard, too!” I can and should feel free to take G”d to task, but perhaps before I devote a lot of energy to that crusade, I should put some serious effort into examining my own behavior. Are my offerings to G’'”d, to my family, to those I love, to my friends, to the work that I do and the people I work for or with, to other human beings the best I can give? If the answer is no, I can still forgive myself (and yes, that is made easier if I acknowledge that G”d too sometimes falls short) but I must nevertheless continue to strive to do better. Even if “best” is unachievable, I must continue to strive for it.

Who do I write these musings? I’ll tell you why I write these musings. They are my process for working through my own encounters with the biblical text. Why are you reading this musing? I’ll tell you why you;re reading this musing? I have no idea. Nevertheless, I hope it has raised some questions and thoughts for you.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2016 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Tol'dot 5776 - Still a Bother
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

Friday, November 25, 2016

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Ḥayyei Sarah 5777–Contentment


וְאֵ֗לֶּה יְמֵ֛י שְׁנֵֽי־חַיֵּ֥י אַבְרָהָ֖ם אֲשֶׁר־חָ֑י מְאַ֥ת שָׁנָ֛ה וְשִׁבְעִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְחָמֵ֥שׁ שָׁנִֽים: ח וַיִּגְוַ֨ע וַיָּ֧מָת אַבְרָהָ֛ם בְּשֵׂיבָ֥ה טוֹבָ֖ה זָקֵ֣ן וְשָׂבֵ֑עַ וַיֵּאָ֖סֶף אֶל־עַמָּֽיו: ט וַיִּקְבְּר֨וּ אֹת֜וֹ יִצְחָ֤ק וְיִשְׁמָעֵאל֙ בָּנָ֔יו אֶל־מְעָרַ֖ת הַמַּכְפֵּלָ֑ה אֶל־שְׂדֵ֞ה עֶפְרֹ֤ן בֶּן־צֹ֨חַר֙ הַֽחִתִּ֔י אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־פְּנֵ֥י מַמְרֵֽא: י הַשָּׂדֶ֛ה אֲשֶׁר־קָנָ֥ה אַבְרָהָ֖ם מֵאֵ֣ת בְּנֵי־חֵ֑ת שָׁ֛מָּה קֻבַּ֥ר אַבְרָהָ֖ם וְשָׂרָ֥ה אִשְׁתּֽוֹ:

This was the total span of Avraham’s life: one hundred and seventy five years. And Avraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin. His sons, Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Maḥpelah, in the field of Ephron the Hittite, facing Mamre. the field that Avraham had bought from the Hittites; there Avraham was buried, and Sarah his wife.

The English translation is smooth and poetic, though not quite literal. There are some interesting things to parse out here. I’ll point out but otherwise gloss over how the biblical text here, and elsewhere, indicates years of life in a more convoluted syntax. (Here, 100 years, and seventy years, and 5 years.) Let the interpreters make of those what they wish (and many have both for Sarah and Avraham and others.)

The next verse is interesting in how it uses two different words to describe Avraham’s death. וַיִּגְוַ֨ע  וַיָּ֧מָת . Vayigva – built upon the root that means to expire, to pass away, or to perish. It’s the idea of expiring that gives the JPS translation committee the leave to say “breathed his last.” The second word, Vayamot, is reasonably translated literally as “died” but it doesn't stand alone, it connects to the following words describing the state in which Avraham died – b’seiva tovah, zakein v’savei-a – literally with good gray-haired-ness, old and contented (or fulfilled.)

All of which was a bit of a round-about way of getting to where I wanted to be.  Contentment.  Being contented is generally defined (according to Merriam-Webster) as showing or feeling satisfaction with possessions, status or situation. This same verb root is used in the verse that became the basis for the grace after meals, though there it is generally translated as satiated or satisfied. Aye, but here’s the rub. One reason, our tradition teaches us, that the commandment to give thanks after a meal, is that when one is hungry, it is easier to think about asking G”d for food, but that when one is sated, it is too easy to forget to offer thanks to G”d for food.

How does this approach fit into death and dying, and being thankful for our lives? What does it mean to live a life for which, at the end, we can feel content, sated? At the end of our lives, is it easier for us to feel contentment, and thus be more willing to offer thanks to G”d for the life we have lived? Is it harder, when we’re actually living our life, to remember to say thanks? Is it the very act of remembering to say thanks on a  regular basis as we lives our lives the secret to being content, both during and at the end of our lives?

We, each of us, experience moments in our lives when we are not content, when we do not feel sated in some or all aspects of life. Life will be a series of ups and downs. This we know. There are those in our tradition (and others) that teach us that it is when our lives are at the very darkest, discontented points that we need faith the most. I know from my own experience that this isn’t always as easy as it sounds. However, even when I can’t find the wherewithal to have faith, perhaps I can find the wherewithal to offer thanks. Contrarian that I often am, I do find myself compelled to ask if it is sometimes okay to be discontented, to feel unfulfilled, even empty? Sometimes I wonder if positivity is all it’s cracked up to be.

I do believe my goal should be to die as Avraham did, old and contented. However, like Avraham, my life is not going to be one long exercise in sheer joy and contentment. What will enable me, at the end of my life, to feel content as Avraham did?

G”d willing, I have time enough left in my life to seek the answers to the question. Even if I never get there, I will have at least tried. My prayer for myself and each of us is that we are able to meet death as did our ancestor Avraham, b’-seivah tovah, zakein v’savei-a.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2006 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Chayyei Sarah 5776 - Still Not Warm (Revisited and Revised from 5767's "Never Warm")
Khayyei Sarah 5775 - Revisiting L'kha Dodi Likrat Kala
Hayyei Sarah 5774 - The Books of Hagar and Abishag
Hayyei Sarah 5773 - Still Tilting at Windmills
Hayyei Sarah 5772 - Zikhnah
Hayyei Sarah 5771 - The Book That Isn't - Yet
Hayyei Sarah 5770 - Call Me Ishamel II
Hayyei Sarah 5769 - Looking for Clues
Hayyei Sarah 5768 - A High Price
Hayei Sarah  5767-Never Warm?
Chaye Sarah 5766-Semper Vigilans
Chaye Sarah 5763-Life Goes On
Chaye Sarah 5762-Priorities, Redundancies And Puzzles
Chayeh Sarah 5761-L'cha Dodi Likrat Kala
Hayyei Sarah 5760 - Call Me Ishmael
Chaye Sarah 5757-The Shabbat That Almost Wasn't

Friday, November 18, 2016

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayeira 5777–He’s a Family Guy(?) (Redux and Revised 5769)

I promised myself when I resumed writing these musings after a short hiatus, that I would be creating all new content. Here I am, only a few weeks in, and already I’m going back on that promise. First, I’ve been fighting a stomach virus all week. Secondly. I’m still very depressed from the election results. I need something light and funny to help lift me up, and this musing is just the ticket.

He’s a Family Guy (?)

There's a short scene from the TV cartoon comedy "Family Guy" in which Peter Griffin says to his daughter Meg that he was going to stop treating her badly "cause I'm a worse father than Abraham." Then there's a cutaway to a scene of Abraham and Isaac walking down a mountain, after almost sacrificing his son, and Isaac says: "You wanna tell me what the f**k THAT was!? (Season 6: Episode: Peter's Daughter)

As irreverent as that is, in a way, it almost sums up my current take on the akedah, the story of the binding of Isaac, which we read near the end of this week's parasha, Vayeira. And it is not only Isaac who asks this question. It is all of us, when we encounter this troubling text. We rationalize it in all sorts of ways. "It was a test, just as the Torah says." If G"d was indeed testing Avraham, did Avraham pass or fail? There's no unanimity on that answer.

G"d rewards Avraham for his faithfulness. "Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, Your favored one, I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore." This would seem to indicate that Avraham passed the test, but can we be sure?

Why was Avraham rewarded? Was it for blindly obeying G"ds request? Was it for ignoring his own inner conscience? Was Avraham troubled by what G"d was asking of him? There's no such indication in the text. Was Avraham so sure in his heart and mind that G"d would not require him to go through with this act?

Perhaps G"d's purpose in this test was to see if Avraham would develop a crisis of conscience. Perhaps G"d was seeing if Avraham could put aside selfish and personal feelings.

Perhaps G"d was just being mean, toying with Avraham.

Perhaps G"d was naive.

So imagine another cutaway scene from Family Guy (or the Simpsons, or whatever your favorite irreverent social commentary cartoon is.) (If you're not familiar with the show, you might miss the inside jokes, but what the hey.)

G"d (voice of Seth McFarlane) talking to self: OK. OK. Let's see. I need to test this Avraham to see if he is the right one of My creations to bring knowledge of me to the world. He's already baffled me. When I asked him to just pick up and move, he went. when I revealed my plans to destroy S'dom and Gomorrah for their wickedness, he argued. which is the real Avraham? The blind obedient one, or the one who cares so much for his fellow human beings that he would argue with Me? I need to find out. What could I ask him to do? Kill his wife? After all, she did scoff at my power to make Avraham's seed potent enough to get her pregnant. Wait-that's it! His seed. I'll ask him to kill his son Isaac for me. Will he do it? Will he argue with me, beg, plead? This could be interesting.

G"d: Hey, Avraham.

Avraham (played by Peter Griffin): Yo, present.

G"d: Take your son...

Avraham: I got two. which one You mean? Pick one.

G"d: Your favorite son

Avraham: Hey, I love both my sons. My daughter Meg, on the other hand, not so much.

G"d, to self: Jesus H. Christ! Hey, there's an idea....oh wait, where was I? Oh yes. Explaining the obvious.

G"d (to Avraham:) Yitzchak (under G"ds breath "you twit!")

Avraham: Yeah. Yitz. OK. Gotcha. Now what?

G"d: Go to the land of Moriah...

Avraham: Y'know, I heard they call the wind Moria...

G"d paces, throws arms up in the fair, pounds self on head.

G"d: I'll do the punning around here, buddy. Now, as I said. Go to the land of Moria (pause, waiting to see if Avraham will interrupt again)...and offer Yitzchak as a burnt offering on a high place I'll show up.

Avraham: Oh, are we back to that "I'll tell you when you get there" crap again?

G"d stomps off, frustrated.

Cut to new scene.

Avraham is shown saddling his ass.

Narrator (Quagmire): So Avraham saddled his ass…

Voiceover-Peter Griffin: (laughing.) His ass!

Narrator: Giggity.

Avraham (to Yitzchak): OK, we're going on a little trip

Yitzchak (played by Chris Griffin): Where?

Avraham: Don't you give me that smart-mouth "where?" crap again. Just grab your stuff and let's head out.....for some…fishin'. OK? There, I said it. We're going fishing.

Yitzchak [jumping for joy;] Oh, goodie, goodie [Stops, Looks puzzled] Wait. What? That sounds pretty fishy to me, Dad.

Cutaway to a cartoon fish. Cartoon Fish rolls its eyes and swims away. Cut back to original scene. 

Avraham: Look, just bring me an axe, will you?

[Yitzchak looks puzzled, but goes off and returns with an ax which he gives to Avraham. Avraham splits some wood, and gathers it up into a bundle.]

Avraham [to servant, played by Cleveland Brown, Jr:] You! Boy! You're coming with us.

Cleveland Brown, Jr: Did he just call me boy?
(Voice of Cleveland Brown Sr, his father): Just go with it, son.

Herbert (Dirty Old Man from Family Guy:) [pointing to the other servant lad, played by Jake Tucker, the boy with the upside down face]  And bring your handsome young friend over there, too

Avraham: What? (shrugs) Whatever.

[Avraham makes several attempts to get on his ass. Finally, atop his beast, he says]: Asses ho!

Avraham, Yitzchak and two young male servants head off. Cutaway to scene of Herbert following along behind sneakily.

We see another scene of Avraham, Yitzchak and the two servants traveling, followed by Herbert.

Narrator: On the third day, Avraham looked up and saw the place from afar.

Scene shows a distant mountain with a huge, flashing finger-pointing sign in the heavens pointing down at it reading "This Is It"

Voice of Stewie Griffin: Wait a minute. How did Abraham know this was the place?

Voice of Brian Griffin: Well, obviously G"d must have told him.

Voice of Stewie Griffin: But the Bible doesn't say that.

Voice of Brian Griffin: What do I look like, a rabbi? Just shuddup and watch.

[Avraham dismount from his ass.]

Avraham (to the two servants): You stay here and watch my ass!

(servants giggle)

Avraham: I'm just gonna go up there with my son and we're gonna....uh......worship, yeah, that's it worship. (spoken quickly) And then we'll be back.

Avraham to Yitzchak: Yo, Yitz, follow me.

[Yitzchak dismounts, Avraham walks over to him with the wood and straps it on to Yitzchak's back.]

Yitzchak: Hey! I thought we were going fishing!

Avraham (dissembling): Well, first we ought to say "Thank You" to the Big Kahuna, and pray for a good catch, right?

Yitzchak (hesitantly:) Uh, I dunno Dad.

Avraham: Be a man, my son!

[Avraham tries to give Yitzchak a big swat on the back, but his hand hits the wood, hurting him. Overly prolonged scene of Avraham writhing in pain.]

Then, just as suddenly, Avraham stops, stands up and says to Yitzchak: OK, let's go.

Avraham sees the axe, picks it up and tosses it. We see it fly through the air. It strikes the house of Cleveland Brown and we see the inevitable scene of Cleveland in the bathtub as the house collapses,

Cleveland Brown (Sr.): No, no, no, no, no.

Cut back to scene. Avraham and Yitzchak head out up the mountain. Cut to Herbert viewing from a distance. He moves a little towards the servants, slightly hiding himself behind a tree.

Herbert: Oh boys! Come here. I've got an ass that needs saddling too!

[The two servants exchange glances, shrug, and run towards Herbert.]

Cut to scene of Avraham and Yitzchak walking up the mountain.

Yitzchak: Yo, Dad! I got the wood, and you got the knife and the firestone, but where's the sheep for the offering?

Quick cutaway to scene of sheep that were grazing suddenly looking up, then back to Avraham and Yitzchak scene.

Avraham: Don't you worry 'bout a thing. (clearly thinking fast) Uh...(then an idea strikes him, and he slyly says: G"d will provide for the sheep my son.

Yitzchak: Whatever!

Cut to scene back at Avraham's home. Sarah walks in to an empty room.

Sarah (voice of Lois Griffin): Abie? Yitz? Now where have those two gone off to now? Oh, well. While the hubby's away, the wifey will play.

Cutaway to a scene of Sarah playing the Egyptian game Senet with some of the female servants and a few Egyptian gods.

Cut to scene on top of mountain. Yitzchak is already there. We hear panting in the distance. Slowly, Avraham comes into view, slowly dragging himself up the mountain.

Yitzchak: C'mon Dad. I think I can, I think I can, I think I can

Avraham (under his breath); Oh, you just wait until I get up there....

Yitzchak continues to goad and Tease Avraham. Finally, Avraham arrives and collapses. Fade to black.

Scene from Abraham's perspective lying on the ground - his eyes flicker open to see Yitzchak standing over him with a knife, as if he is about to strike.

Scene shifts to normal perspective. Yitzchak helps Avraham up and says: Here Dad, you're gonna need this more than I.

Avraham (under his breath:) Shows what little you know.

Avraham and Yitzchak gather stones and build a little altar. They put the wood upon it, and lay the firestone and knife nearby.

Yitzchak: Nu? where's the sheep Dad.

Avraham sees a vision of Yitzchak with a sheep’s head.Avraham turns and grins broadly and madly at Yitzchak.

Yitzchak: Dad? (getting nervous) Dad? Dad!

Avraham tackles Yitzchak, gags him, and with (overly-prolonged and) great effort, lifts him onto the altar. He stops, breathes deeply. Lost in thought for a moment, he asks himself "I wonder what Sarah's up to at this moment?"

Cutaway to scene showing Sarah running around an ancient biblical supermarket, buying all sorts of treif products like shrimp, ham, bacon, cheeseburgers, et al, voraciously eating some,  and putting the rest in her cart. She is spied by Mayor Adam West, who tsk-tsks her.

Back to Avraham and Yitzchak scene.

Reporter Trisha Takanawa: Meanwhile, back on Mt. Moriah…

Avraham: I can't believe I have to do this frickin' thing. Somebody, give me a sign to stop me.

Cutaway to Evil Monkey from Family Guy pointing at knife, then back to Avraham.

Avraham: (with nervous giggle, as he picks up the knife) Uh, are there any other signs out there?

Cutaway to scene of sheep again-they were all looking up, and now quickly start grazing again, heads down. Then back to Avraham.

Cutaway to a scene at the Drunken Clam tavern in Quahog, with all the usual characters, each giving a thumbs down

Cutaway to the cast of SouthPark all giving a thumbs down

Cutaway to the cast of The Simpsons all giving a thumbs down

Cutaway to Joe Swansom, Quagmore, Cleveland screaming “Do It!”

Cutaway to Mort Goldman mumbling “Well, I don’t know.”

Avraham: Oh crap! Guess I gotta do this thing.

Avraham raises the knife and prepares to strike Yitzchak. Just then, a voice cries (in a stage whisper)

G”d/Angel: Avraham. (pause, then repeated a little louder) Avraham. (pause, then screaming) Avraham!

Avraham (drops the knife and gets that oops, I almost crapped my pants look:) Oh crap! Yeah, I'm here. Who's that?

Voice: Do not raise a hand against the boy...

Avraham: Can I start the fire now?

Voice (screaming:) Don't do anything to him, you idiot! (regaining his composure) For now I know that your fear the Lord, since you have not withheld your son, your favorite son, from Me.

Angel wheels into scene. Angel is played by Joe Swanson, in his wheelchair.)

Avraham: Hey, didn't I see you back at Lot's place?

Angel (sheepishly): You got me. That was me! (Angel walks over and puts his arm around Avraham.)

Avraham (to Angel): So lemme ask you something? Are an angel, or are you G"d? I'm a little confused about that.

Angel: To tell the truth, I'm as confused as you, brother. But never you mind that. Look up.

Avraham looks up, see nothing unusual.

Avraham: What?

Angel: See that?

Avraham: See what?

Angel (turns to look at where sheep should be caught in thicket, but isn;t there, and says:) Oh crap. Excuse me a minute. (Rolls out of scene)

The two old-timey Gay-90's guys in their barbershop quartet outfits and their piano pass through the scene playing that silly little melody.

The non piano-playing Old Timey Guy says: Just killin' time folks, just killin' time.

Cutaway to scene showing Angel dragging a very reluctant sheep into the thicket.

Cut back to repeat of the old-timey guys.

Cut back to Angel and Avraham:

Angel: OK. Now look up.

Avraham looks up, and applauds and makes silly childish noises.

Angel: Well? (pause )

Avraham: Yes

Angel: Well? (pause)

Avraham: Where? I could sure use a drink.

G"d's voice: I said I'll do the punning

Avraham (nervous chuckle) Sorry.

Angel: (clears throat) (pause) (clears throat louder) (finally, in exasperation) Go get the sheep, stupid!

Avraham: Oh. Oh. Yeah. Right.

Avraham goes to get the sheep. In the background, the Angel unbinds Yitzchak, who runs off. Avraham puts the sheep upon the altar. Cutaway to scene of other sheep putting the hooves over their hearts in salute, then back to Avraham scene.)

Avraham, while the sheep burns, starts to look around.

Avraham: wow. I never realized what a nice view it is from up here. Sheesh! Look at that. Just beautiful. Y'know, I think I'll call this place Adonai-yireh, which, as you know, means "scenic view."

Angel: (off camera) By Myself I swear, the...

Avraham: Whaa? who said that?

Angel's voice (now the voice of Cleveland Brown, Sr.): It's me, Abie baby.

Avraham: Ah, I knew it. You are G"d.

Angel's voice: I is what I is, baby.

Avraham: Cool!

Angel, now in G"d's voice (Seth McFarlane): Because you have done this, and not withheld your son (pause) your favorite son (pause) (releases a breath) I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore."

As G”d continues to speak, the voice keep shifting between different character voices.

Avraham: Cool! (starts walking off)

Angel/G”d: And your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes. All......(notices Avraham is heading away) Hey, wait a minute, there's more.

Avraham: Gotta go.

Angel/G"d: (very fast, in one breath) All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed My command."

(Underneath G"d's dialogue, Avraham is saying "Yeah, that's nice. Gotta run., Very nice. Thank You. See ya. etc. and edges out of scene.)

G”d continues to ramble on. morphing from character to character.

Narrator (Quagmire:) And so Avraham returned to his servants. Giggity.

Voice of Stewie Griffin: But where's Yitzchak? Didn't he go back with Avraham?

Voice of Brian Griffin: It doesn't say in the bible. Nobody's really sure.

Voice of Stewie Griffin: Hmm. I wonder what happened to him

Cut to a scene in a cave. Yitzchak and Ishmael are sitting around smoking hookahs. They 're obviously high. Very Cheech & Chong-ish in style.

Yitzchak: And then, and then, (laugh) get this, get this...daddy tries to kill me!

Ishmael (voice of Norm Macdonald) : Get outta here! No way man!

Yitzchak: Way, man. Way!

Just then, Hagar walks in.

Hagar (voice of Bonnie Swanson): Boys, I gotta surprise for you! Oh, just look at the two of you. Smoking those hookahs again. Fat chance either of you two fathering a great nation!

Ishmael: Funny, ma! So what's the surprise?

Hagar: Well, you know how, Avraham (under her breath) May he die the death of a thousands plagues...(resuming) he always talked about welcoming the strangers and travelers? Well..

Herbert (peeking through curtain at entrance to cave:) Hello, boys....

Blackout. Roll credits and theme music.

(With apologies to Seth McFarland.) ----------------------------------------

Silly? Yes! Irreverent? Yes! Thought-provoking? You be the judge. For me, I know I needed this little bit of levity. Hope it lightens your Shabbat, too.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2016 (portions ©2008) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Vayeira 5766 - The Price of Giving (Redux/Revised 5766)
Vayeira 5775 - He's a Family Guy (Revised Redux 5769)
Vayeira 5774–Plainly Spoken (Redux & Revised from 5762)
Vayera 5773 - Do Your Own Unpacking
Vayera 5772 - Well?
Vayera 5771 - Density
Vayera 5770 - Not Even Ten?
Vayeira 5769 - He's a Family Guy (?)
Vayera 5767-Revised 5759-Whoops! (or Non-Linear Thinking)
Vayera 5766-The Price of Giving
Vayera 5765-From the Journal of Lot Pt. II
Vayera 5762-Plainly Spoken
Vayera 5760/5761-More From the "Journal of Lot"
Vayera 5759-Whoops! (or "Non-Linear Thinking?")
Vayera 5757-Technical Difficulties

Friday, November 11, 2016

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Leḥ Leḥa 5777–Embracing the Spirit of Avram

[Introductory note – my regular readers know that I go through periods of using different ways to spell “G”d, ” and different preferences in transliteration. I’ve decided to forego using “ch” or “kh” for now and go back to the academic practice of using ḥ to represent the sound of the Hebrew letters ח and כ/ ך. I may not stay with it long, as it’s a pain to do, and only certain fonts contain the necessary characters. Oh, and I settled on the G”d spelling a while back because I felt the double-quotation mark was close in feeling to the double ײ we used to abbreviate G”d’s name, so it made it clear that I was not referring to any generic god, but to Ad”nai. Better than a dash or a zero. Philosophically, I’m not all that troubled with writing the Divine name out even when it can be erased or disappear, but call it one of my inconsistent quirks that has personal meaning and value for me.]

Anyone who has ever taught about parashat Leḥ Leḥa to a group of young students (or even adults) has probably asked people to imagine what it would have been like to pick and and move somewhere without having any idea of where you were going and what would happen when you got there. We ask our students how many would be willing to that risk, and hold up Avram/Avraham as an example of a bold and brave person willing to do so. We play role games, imagining the conversation between Avram and his wife Sarai. (In often sadly misogynistic fashion, we imagine Sarai as shrewish wife, sounding like Golde, Yenta the Matchmaker (or even Fruma Sarah,) saying to Avram “You want to do what? Are you out of your mind?” Then Avram reveals that G”d told him to do this. We imagine Sarai saying “What are you, a luftmensch? (airhead.) A lokshen kopf?” (noodle head)  Maybe Avram stomps his foot and Sarai obediently falls in line. Or maybe you see Sarai as simply doing what her husband says to do, because what else is there to do? If your group is creative, you might imagine Sarai as the bored middle-class housewife and spoiled princess thinking “anyplace is better than this dump. Let’s go!” If your group is even more creative, and able to step out of the misogynist paradigm, you might imagine Sarai’s reaction more positively. “Tell me about this G”d,” she might ask. “Did he really promise to make us into a great and wealthy nation?” (If you’re even more progressive, you might have her asking “Did She really promise…”)

The distance from Haran to Sheḥem is about 400 miles, so it obviously took some time. Yet all we read in the text is the end of 12:5 and the beginning of 12:6:

…and they set out for the land of Canaan, When they arrived in the land of Canaan…

Torah is good about leaving out the details when it feels like it (and at other times, is ridiculously detailed.) We’ve toyed with our little biblio-dramas about the discussion that ensued between Avram and Sarai before they set out. Now imagine the conversations that took place during the journey.  Even assuming a theoretically high travel rate of 20 miles per day, it would take 20 days. On foot, with such a large caravan, probably a lot longer.

They arrive at Sheḥem and G”d makes another pronouncement that all this land would be assigned to Avram and his descendants. Then, in just another few brief verses, the caravan makes it way to Bethel, wends it way south into the Negev, and then off into Egypt to escape the famine in Canaan. The text gives us no idea how long Avram and company took to trek the additional 225 miles or so from Bethel and into Egypt (and it never says where in Egypt he went.)

How long they were in Egypt is also unclear. We only know that Avram was sure the Egyptians would take a fancy to Sarai, and pleaded with her to say she was his sister, so they wouldn’t kill him so they could take the beautiful Sarai for themselves. She agrees, and of course see is taken to Pharaoh. There are a lot of unspoken possibilities here. Whatever Sarai was doing it Pharaoh’s house was good enough to make Avram wealthy and prosperous. The cynical among us – oh wait, that’s me – might suggest that Avram prostituted his wife. Kind of hard to conclude otherwise. It says quite clearly in the text that Pharaoh had taken Sarai as a wife (see 12:19.) Then, of course, the inevitable Divine intervention afflicts Pharaoh and his household – so of course, Pharaoh’s first assumption is to blame the Jew (well, in this case, the visitor, since there weren’t really any Jews yet.) Avram admits his deception and is thrown out of Egypt (and for some reason, gets to take his wife and all his wealth with him. Hardly sounds like an angry Pharaoh. As SNL’s church lady used to say “How convenient.”)

You remember this story, right? It’s the one that must have been really popular with the people, but occurred in all sorts of variants, so that the Torah’s creators/redactors wound up using the same tale three times in the text! Who did it really happen to? They couldn’t be sure, so they just threw in all three versions!

As usual, I digress. I want to get back to the leḥ leḥa bit. What really got me thinking about how we play biblio-drama around this story is our assumption that picking up and moving simply because G”d said so must be such a brave thing to do. Is it an accurate assumption?

I look at the path of my own life.

1. Born in the Bronx and lived there for two years.
2. Family moved to the Inwood section of Manhattan (north of “the Heights.”) and stayed there for 16 years.
3. Family moved to the Bronx next to Yankee Stadium for the last 2 years of High School.
4. Moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina for college.
5. Lived and worked back home in the Bronx the first summer of college.
6. Winston-Salem, NC for the sophomore college year.
7. Charlotte, NC for a summer job.
8. Winston-Salem for the start of the junior college year
9. Back to home in the Bronx during an apprenticeship in NYC
10. Back to Winston-Salem and school after the apprenticeship

11. Henrico County, VA for a summer job
12. Winston-Salem for the senior college year
13. Back home to Brooklyn, NY (my family had moved)
14. Moved to Doswell, Virgina for a few weeks
15. Moved to Mobile, Alabama for a few months
16. Moved to New Orleans, LA for a year
17. Moved to Clearwater Florida
18. Moved to Largo, FL
19. Moved back to Clearwater, FL
20. Moved somewhere else in Clearwater, FL (total 3 years in FL)
21. Moved to Bristol, Indiana
22. Moved somewhere else in Bristol, IN (total 8 years in Indiana.)
23. Moved to Fargo, North Dakota (for ten years)

24. Move to Nashville, Tennessee
25. Moved somewhere else in Nashville, TN (three years in TN)
26. Moved to Alexandria, VA
27. Moved within the same complex in Alexandria, VA (total of 8 years in VA)
28. Moved to Boyds, Maryland (suburb of DC) for a few months
29. Moved to Amherst, MA (for 3 years)
30. Moved back home to Brooklyn, NY (for 1.5 years)
31. Moved to Skokie, IL (not a full household move)
32. Moved to Deerfield, IL (for 2 years)
33. Moved to Southington, CT (been here for 2 years.)

Now, according to Census data, the average US citizen moves 11.7 times in their lives. Obviously, I’m way above average. Even if we take out the summer college moves, and any others where there wasn’t an actual full move of my household goods requiring a professional mover (or me and a rented truck) it’s 22 times. If we only include my moves as an adult, it’s 20. I have had legal addresses in 13 states, some states multiple times. Where’s home? I’ve lived outside of NYC more than I’ve lived in it (but still think of myself as a New Yorker.)

I can tell you, after all those moves, that I am truly tired of moving, and hope to never have to do it again, but the chances of my not moving again are between slim and none. I can also tell you that, while it has been a big drag to move so much, I am grateful to have experienced life in so many different places in the United States. I may still be a die-hard east coast liberal progressive, but you can’t say I haven’t lived in and exposed myself to life in the mid-west and the south, to life in big cities and small communities. I have not lived in a bubble.

Now, I can’t compare my situation to Avram’s. I didn’t have a Divine voice tell me to just pick up and move, and that I’d be told when I’ve gotten where I’m supposed to go. I moved, as a child, because my family moved, and as an adult because my life took me down that path. We could argue about how many of these moves were truly voluntary as opposed to being a result of circumstances, but that’s not really important. (At least one of Avram’s moves was necessitated by famine. How voluntary is such a move?)

Nevertheless, having done it so many times, I can tell you that it often does feel like one is going somewhere that is a place you do not know. Not just feels like it, but actually is like it. Think of this Jewish New York City kid discovering the realities of places on the other side of that famous New Yorker Magazine cover, Saul Steinberg’s “View of the World from 9th Avenue.” More people lived in the city housing project where I spent most of my childhood that lived in some of the places I have lived. (Bristol, IN had 1200 people when I lived there in the 80s, and had just changed over from 5-digit phone numbers. The housing project I grew up in had a population in just its 7 buildings of 2500.)  The greater neighborhood of my youth had an equivalent or higher population than a number of places I have lived.

When you move some place new, it can be disorienting, scary, stressful. It can also be invigorating, refreshing, and positively challenging. It takes a while to get to “know” someplace new. Some of the places I have lived remained a “place I did not know” for quite some time. Others became home and familiar quite quickly.

So I’m thinking to myself that, despite how we lift up Avram’s example, is it really that bold and brave a thing to do? Seems to me a lot of us do it – perhaps not as a result of a clear Divine call (though who I am my to say that some of us might not have moved on an impulse, some unknown force whispering in our ear?)  Some of the times I have moved I didn’t really have much choice. Other times, I have had more options, more freedom to choose where I would go. Something caused me to make the choice I did, and I can’t always say it was simply a matter of cogitation and logic. I think of the choices I didn’t make, and wonder what life might have been like in those other places that I considered moving for whatever reason. 

On the other hand, maybe it is special, and I am lucky to have, perhaps, something of Abram’s spirit in me, giving me the ability to pick up and move to a new place that I do not know so many times. It is a frightening thing and it does take courage.

Of course, here would come the typical joke about being the wandering Jew. Danger, Will Robinson!  Sadly, in our collective Jewish ignorance, few of us know that this is one of the earliest of anti-Semitic tropes. The wandering Jew is a Christian legend of the Jew doomed to wander the earth until the second coming of Jesus for the offense of having taunted and struck Jesus on the road to Calvary. To be a wandering Jew is not a good thing. At least on the basis of that trope.

The story of Avram’s willingness to pick up and go serves as metaphor in so many different ways, for so many people. One can choose to place emphasis on it being a Divine call, or one can choose to place emphasis on Avram’s willingness to try something new.

Every single time I have moved someplace new (at least since I have had a driver’s license) I have made it a point to drive aimlessly around the area of my new home, trying to feel my way around, almost trying to get lost.  (What is most interesting to me is how, even though I do this so purposefully, after years of living someplace I can still take a different turn and discover some area I’d never seen before. I love when that happens.) I’m fairly sure that not everyone has the innate ability (and willingness) to get deliberately lost, so I’m thankful for the gift. (No fair, btw, if you use GPS to find your way at any point.)

Once in a while, I still find myself deciding to just go out for a drive, with no destination in mind, and just see where I wind up. I’ve discovered some very interesting places doing just that.  Try it, it’s fun. Try it close to home. Try it someplace on vacation or a business trip. Sure, it’s fun to look at Atlas Obscura, or turn on Google Field Trip on your phone, and seek out interesting places to go. Imagine how much more interesting it could be to simply just discover someplace interesting randomly. Embrace the spirit of Abraham.

Now, it would be impossible for me to not make some connection between what is happening in this country right now, and this parasha. Many of us are worried and fearful about the future of this country. Many of us are not only scared, but unwilling to go where our newly elected leader may want to take us. Whether we choose to go forth in a spirit of hope, a spirit of concern, a spirit of anger and defiance, a spirit of cooperation, a spirit of love, a spirit of active resistance, a spirit of wait and see, a spirit of give it a chance, a spirit of fear, and so many other options, we must go forth. Some commentators like to raise up the peculiarity of the Hebrew Leḥ Leḥa and its apparent meaning “go forth, for yourself.”  We must each make the choice, for ourselves, how we will go forth from this point. Whatever your choice, may you have the spirit of Avram to go to a place you do not (yet) know. To go boldly where no person has gone before (that’s for you Trekker grammar wonks.) Live long and prosper.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2016 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Lekh Lekha 5776 - The Other Siders (Redux 5766)
Lekh Lekha 5775 - More Nodding Heads, Whistlign Airs, and Snickersnees
Lekh L'kha 5774 - Theistic Singularity: Revisiting the Intellectual Ekhad
Lekh Lekha 5773 - The Journey Continues
Lekh Lekha 5772 - Out of Context
Lekh Lekha 5771 (5765, 5760) Things Are Seldom What They Seem An Excerpt from the "Journal of Lot"
Lekh Lkha 5770 - Revisiting the Ten Percent Solution
Lekh L'kha 5769 - Of Nodding Heads, Whistling Airs, and Snickersnees
Lekh Lekha 5768 - The Covenant That (Almost) Wasn't - Excerpts from the Diary of Terakh
Lekh Lekha 5767-Penile Pilpul
Lekh Lekha 5766-The Other Siders
Lekh Lekha 5765 - Redux 5760
Lekh Lekha 5764-Ma'aseir Mikol-The Ten Percent Solution
Lekh Lekha 5763-No Explanations
Lekh Lekha 5761-The Intellectual Echad
Lekh L'kha 5758-Little White Lies