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