Friday, February 24, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Mishpatim 5777-Why I’m Still Not Unplugging on the National Shabbat of Unplugging Next Week

This year’s National Shabbat of Unplugging is not this Shabbat, but next Shabbat, Shabbat T’rumah. The reminders of this year’s Shabbat of Unplugging” keep popping up on Facebook and elsewhere, and every so often, I comment with a link to this musing I wrote for last week’s parashat, Yitro, five years ago. I recognize that I may be in a small minority, especially among my Jewish educator friends, choosing not just to eschew the National Shabbat of Unplugging, but to actively make an argument why I choose not to participate, and hopefully encouraging others to consider their own reasons and motivations for doing so. By all means, if you feel it’s the right thing to do, do so. I have received, over the past few years, some positive and encouraging feedback about my thought on the “Shabbat of Unplugging,” and a fair share of rational and passionate arguments taking issue with my position – which I value just as much. This year, my thoughts were discovered by some outside the Jewish community who share my strong belief that religion need not be, perforce, counter-cultural, and that technology can actually be a means of enhancing our religious practices and lives. So I am offering up a revised and expanded edition for this year.

Parashat Mishpatim is a rich parasha, and I have written much about it, and if your goal or interest is to think about this week’s parasha, I commend to you the previous years’ musings for Mishpatim listed at the end of this one.

Because I wrote this musing 5 years ago for parashat Yitro, it references that parasha. Mishpatim has a different focus, but I’ll do my best to make that connection as well in this revised edition

Why I Won't Be Unplugging on the National Day/Shabbat of Unplugging.

This week I had intended to write about something completely different from what you will read following this introduction. I am, as I often do, wrestling with the many uses of Ani Ad"nai that we find in the Torah as rationalizations as to why we should observe some particular commandments. In Yitro, with the first iteration of the ten commandments, we find the grandfather of this concept in the first commandment. Although the formulaic Ani Ad"nai is not used even once in the ten commandments, it is somewhat implicit, and at the very core of the first commandment. You should heed all that is being said here simply because

"I am Ad"nai your G"d who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage..."

In the midst of struggling yet again with this "do it because daddy says do it, or daddy will punish you" theology, I read a most enlightening blog post on this very subject, for this very parasha, from Rabbi Menachem Creditor. You can read it on his blog. His words have given me a handle, after all these years, to redeem this most troubling of theologies, by standing it on its head (or side.) I won't give it away. Go read it and see what you think.

[2017 – Parashat Mishpatim is oddly devoid of the “Ani Ad”nai” rationalization. There is no apparent justification for its many, many laws, with the exception of 23:9 admonishing us to not oppress the stranger because we were strangers in Egypt. Given the first words of parashat Mishpatim, however, it would seem that the revelation at Sinai which immediately preceded it provides all the rationale and justification required for all that parashat Mishpatim entails. “These are the rules you shall set before them:” Note well, too, that the very first rule is about the fair treatment of slaves!]

So I decided to take this week's musing in another direction, also based on something I'd read. A colleague posted to Facebook the first of many links I expect to see this year to the good folks at Sabbath Manifesto promoting this year's National Day of Unplugging. I commented on her post, shooting from the hip, explaining why I had some reservations about endorsing this idea. Then it struck me that here in the parasha we read for the first time the fourth commandment, a rather explicit commandment regarding Shabbat. Here was an opportunity to expand on my thoughts about that. Herewith, those thoughts.

It seems like such a great idea. A national day of unplugging. I'm not convinced that this is such a great idea, and I'm not certain I would want to participate in it (I haven't participated in either of the previous two years, and it wasn't for lack of knowledge of the event. However, I can't say that, until now, I didn't participate by deliberate choice.)

[2017 – I have continued a purposeful non-participation since 2012. Oddly, this year’s national Shabbat of Unplugging also coincides with the annual “Shabbat Across America.” More on that later.]

For some of you, dear readers, this isn't even an issue on your radar screen. Your Shabbat observance may or may not routinely exclude the use of technology. Perhaps you make your Shabbat choices based on the standard embraced by the Reform movement and other forms of liberal Judaism - that of informed choice. You don't need the folks at Sabbath Manifesto telling you what to do to make Shabbat more meaningful, even though you might agree with some of what they say. Your choice is not determined by rabbinical fiat. If your leanings are Reconstructionist, perhaps you apply the Kaplan standard of giving the past a vote but not a veto. If you're in the Conservative fold, you may be struggling to see how halakha might evolve to deal with our ever increasing dependence upon and relationship with technology. There was a time when I might say that an orthodox Jew has no issue with this either-they just observe the halakha and don't use technology on Shabbat - so they are already unplugging. (But not literally-witness the KosherLamp, Shabbat elevators, and more.) However, times are changing. Witness the increasingly present idea of "Half-Shabbos" adopted by young orthodox youth eager to use their smartphones on Shabbat afternoons.

[2017 – “Half-Shabbos” as a thing has been around since about 2010. It is still a thing. That it is rarely talked about or commented on these days is, in my view, a somewhat tacit acceptance of its reality. As this artilce suggests, it might also be an affirmation that the trend to the right in Modern Orthodoxy that began in the 1990s stalled and is even reversing itself. See this 2014 article from Tablet]

I've always considered myself somewhat cross/multi/post-denominational Aspects of all the various modern Jewish philosophies are part of how I determine how I live. On this issue, I don't know that my understanding of Shabbat and its purpose must, perforce, involve disconnecting from the world through avoiding/unplugging technology. Yes, there is value in focusing on the immediate world, but I also believe there could be value on Shabbat in staying connected. They ask "can you survive a day without technology?" as if we were a society of addicts. Yes, aspects of technology are addictive. Nevertheless, I ask why survive a day without technology? Will this automatically make someone a better person? Of that I remain uncertain. The other nine points of the Shabbat Manifesto make sense. It's just that first one that has me concerned. Consider that maybe what we need is a Shabbat Plugged-In.

What's the motivation behind those proposing the day of unplugging? I don't doubt for a second that it is, in part, a sincere effort to help people discover the everyday wonders around them, to give people a chance to slow their lives down for a moment, to assist them in connecting with their understanding of G"d. The folks behind the Sabbath Manifesto, the folks from Reboot, are not dogmatic. They make it very clear that it is up to every individual to interpret and utilize their ten principles. They offer different examples of what it might mean to refrain from using technology, to be mindful of one's health, etc.

So I want to make it clear that I have no argument with the folks from Reboot, and I genuinely encourage you to engage in your own dialog with their principles/proposals and see how they might work for you. I have, and in so doing, have come to the conclusion, at least currently, that the first principle, "avoid technology" on Shabbat, doesn't ring as true for me as the other 9 principles. I accept that this just might be my own gut reaction, an assumption, that, however unintentional, the principle harkens back to an obeisance to a tradition simply because it is one. A rabbinical interpretation of an uncertain commandment. A rigid adherence to a worldview that may no longer apply. Technology is no longer ancillary to our daily life. For better or worse, technology has become integral to our way of life.

Avoiding technology on Shabbat sounds to me as if it could be just another bone thrown to tradition as a result of the collective Jewish guilt of liberals Jews who continue to believe that there is something not genuine about their Judaism because they do not do everything that traditional Jews do and/or not do on Shabbat, because they are not shomer Shabbat.

Religion is not automatically pro-simple. There's very little that is simple about Judaism. Asceticism exists in many religions but it is only one of many ways to be religious. Now, that's a drastic comparison. Living the life of an ascetic, an Essene, so to speak, is not at all akin to taking a day off from the use of technology once a week, or even once a year. The idea of a national day of unplugging is not entirely anathema to me. I can certainly see value in stepping away from technology once in a while. I even try to do that whenever I am using my computer - planned breaks. Where things fall flat for me is the linkage to Shabbat. Especially so because I believe that my use of technology on Shabbat can actually enhance my Shabbat experience.

(The day is coming, my friends. We've had electronic/digital siddurs for over a decade. A bit clumsy to use on phones-I remember how tricky it was on my PDAs from Palm and HP, and later my first true smartphone, a Motorola Q, to try and use the electronic siddur and Tanakh I had on them. Now we have siddur and Jewish text apps for phones and tablets. There have been traditional siddurim and texts available electronically for years. Now the Reform movement, somehow always behind Chabad and the orthodox world when it comes to utilizing the latest technology (and I say this as someone who was active in the early days of the Reform movement's first forays onto the web, even serving on an Internet committee) has finally made their new siddur, Mishkan Tefillah, available on iOS.

[2017: In that 2012 musing, I neglected to also mention the increasing use of projection and “visual T’filah.” I’ve also not seen any rapid adoption of the use of electronic siddurim, but the concept is still new, and still challenging even for very liberal Jews. One main reason it is challenging, I believe, is precisely for the reasons I’ve noted in 2012 – a still influential idea among liberal Jews that somehow their Judaism is less authentic.]

(Sidebar: As an Android user, and a working class Jew who can't afford Apple's always higher pricing, I sometimes wonder why there is this stereotypical idea that Jews and iOS go together. It's an almost deliberate denial of the "Jews as cheapskates" stereotype - because there's little doubt, at least in my mind, that Android gives more bang for the buck than iOS. "We're not cheap. We only buy from Apple!" Has anyone ever done an actual survey to see if more Jews own iPhones than Android, Blackberry, or other devices?) I have digressed from my digression, so back to my original digression before we get back to the main topic!)

[2017 – this issue is still with us, though I have seen a gradual erosion of the domination of iOS devices in the Jewish community.]

[2017 – I must say, at this point, that I see projected liturgical text, enhanced by “visual t’filah” as a more viable alternative than eReaders at services. It is related to the reason that decades ago I abandoned, whenever I could, printed and handed-out songsheets – first replaced by overhead transparencies, and, for the last 15 years or so by Powerpoint or Keynote slides. Then the people involved are not looking down at their songsheet – they are looking up to see the projection, and thus you can see them and connect with them. (And we’re saving trees.) I don’t think printed siddurim are going away anytime soon. Personally, I hope projected text becomes the preferred replacement as opposed to eSiddurs. Only time will tell. Maybe it will be something totally different. Maybe text projected right in front of us through head-worn devices, or VR glasses? Maybe we’ll all be worshipping “together” in real time, but each in our own location through VR technology. The possibilities are staggering.]

So yes, the day is coming. People will be worshipping using eReaders, tablets, phones. [2017 - Or some of the even newer and more radical ideas I suggested above.] When this is all people are using - when the printed book has become a rare sight - what will we Jews do on Shabbat? Will Reform congregations allow their use on Shabbat, while Orthodox shuls not? Will the Conservative movement's committees endlessly debate the topic while the movement’s members and synagogues simply choose for themselves, but only hire clergy who follow the halakha as it stands? Will Reconstructionist congregations see the already prevalent divide between traditionalists and modernists often inherent in their congregations become wider and perhaps lead to a fractious schism? (The Renewal types will either be busy meditating or chanting in drum circles, and trying to stay out of the fray. There, have I been an equal opportunity offender?) Will the Institute for Science and Halacha, that venerable bastion of modernist traditional Judaism, that gave us Shabbat elevators, work with scientists and engineers to help create the eSiddur equivalent of the KosherLamp that can be used on Shabbat? Will we find a way to create a fully digital "sefer Torah" (and yes, there could be an inherent oxymoron in combining the words digital and sefer-unless we expand the definition of what sefer means in an all digital age.) The day will come, like it or not, when we Jews will certainly be using some forms of technology on Shabbat, because there will be no alternative, and our religion will have evolved to adapt to that. What will the Sabbath Manifesto of that future time ask us to consider in order to enhance our Shabbat experience? I'm not sure "avoiding technology" will be in the mix.

That's enough digression for now. Now back to the main topic.

[2017 – In Parashat Mishpatim, we read:

שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּֽעֲשֶׂה מַֽעֲשֶׂיךָ וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי תִּשְׁבֹּת לְמַעַן יָנוּחַ שֽׁוֹרְךָ וַֽחֲמֹרֶךָ וְיִנָּפֵשׁ בֶּן־אֲמָֽתְךָ וְהַגֵּֽר

Six days shall you do your work, but on the seventh you shall cease (from labor,) in order that your ox and ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed.

The Hebrew doesn’t really say “cease from labor,” – a more direct translation would be “Six days you shall make your making (or do your doings,) and on the seventh day you shall Shabbat/cease in order that…” One can reasonably infer that the “ceasing” applies to the “making” or “doing” but that’s still a pretty broad and non-specific definition. No wonder the rabbis felt they needed something concrete to determine it. Note, too, that this verse in Mishpatim doesn’t speak of ceasing for one’s own sake, but for the sake of their animals, slaves, and resident aliens. In fact, even if you go back to the commandment for Shabbat found in parashat Yitro chapter 20, it doesn’t mention any reason for ceasing from one’s own labors on Shabbat except to note “because G”d did it.” So there’s a bit of inconsistency here. The commandment for Shabbat says that one, their family, their slaves, and their animals, the resident alien should rest because “G”d did it” and “made Shabbat holy.” Here in Mishpatim it says do it “for the sake of” your slaves, animals, and the resident alien, so they may be refreshed. Nothing about for the sake of refreshing yourself. Perhaps that can be inferred, but why not be explicit? Perhaps, in reality, we are being commanded to actively do things that enable our family, slaves, neighbors, animals, and the strangers who live among us can rest from their labors. If my Shabbat obligation is to enable others to rest on Shabbat, might that not require me to actually be doing things myself? Might not technology enable and enhance that? I recognize this is a radical interpretation of what Shabbat asks us to do, but Torah left the opening – I just explored it.]

To know how to deal with the use of technology on Shabbat, we must first ask ourselves what, exactly, we are supposed to do/not do on Shabbat? It says in the ten commandments (and in the creation narrative) that G"d rested, but it doesn't say that we must or should rest. It only says what we shouldn't do: M'lakhah. Therein lies the rub. What, exactly, is m'lakhah?

Now to be fair, a bit later, we come upon Exodus 31:12-17

And Ad"nai said to Moses: Speak to the Israelite people and say: nevertheless, you must keep My Sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that I, Ad"nai have consecrated you. You shall keep the Sabbath, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from his kin. Six days m'lakhah may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a [Sabbath of complete rest] holy to Ad"nai...

From there it goes on to the "v'shamru." Now you tell me where that says we must rest? Maybe that [Sabbath of complete rest] thing? It's in brackets because we don't really know what the text means. It merely says it is a Shabbat Shabbaton, a Sabbath of Sabbaths. A ceasing of cessation, or a cessation of cessations. Could the text be any more obtuse? Let's face it: though we're used to using it that way, the Hebrew word Shabbat doesn't really translate directly to mean rest. Stopping or ceasing may be better translations.

So as far as I am concerned, it is not at all clear that we are commanded to actually rest, in the modern meaning of the word, on Shabbat. What we are commanded is to not do any m'lakhah.

The word m'lakhah is defined in scholarly biblical lexicons in many ways. Among those definitions are:

  • a trade mission or business journey
  • business or work
  • handiwork or craftsmanship.

The word is generally used to describe work in the sense of things that one needs to do to live or earn a livelihood. As usual, the rabbis took a different tack to define it. Working from the creation story, they noted that it says that G"d "rested" (really just another form of Shabbat, vayishbot) from G"d's m'lakhah. Assuming this meant G"d rested from all the work required for creation, they linked m'lakhah with creative acts, thus creating a different category (for there can be business work that isn't necessarily creative.) Since m'lakhah appeared both in creation and the ten commandments, the linkage was obvious, they thought. Nice, but then they gummed up the works by linking it all to the creative acts involved in building the beit hamikdash, the Temple, in addition to the basic acts required by human beings just to survive (like baking bread, making clothing, writing, building shelter or a house.) Thus was born what we now see defined as m'lakhah according to halakhic principles.

Thirty-nine specific areas of creative effort are noted. I won't get into a specific discussion about each of them here, though I will note I find some of them strange. The prohibition of "putting the finishing touch on something" (makeh bapatish, literally, striking with a hammer) seems particularly odd, considering that Shabbat is the recognition of G"d doing exactly that-putting those last finishing touches on creation. In fact, I might be so bold as to suggest that this is why the Torah says (in Gen. 2:2) that on the seventh day G"d finished the work that G"d was doing - words which have vexed readers of the Torah from the start. So it seems to me that putting the finishing touch on something on Shabbat is to honor and recreate what G"d did! How and why have we turned this upside down?

Heschel suggests that the concept of kadosh, holy, is central to Shabbat. The concept of holy is first introduced in reference to Shabbat:

And G"d blessed the seventh day and called it holy.

Now many might cite Heschel as support for the idea of an unplugged Shabbat. I suspect Rabbi Heschel himself would be a supporter of Sabbath Manifesto and a day of unplugging. After all, Heschel's take is, simply put, that Shabbat is about being in time, rather than being in space, which we do the rest of the week. The festivals, Heschel argues, though they celebrate events in time, are fixed to timings in the natural world - moon phases, seasons, and thus, he says, tings in space. Shabbat is independent of anything in nature and space - it is a celebration of time. He says:

The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world. (A.J. Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning For Modern man)

Is there something inherent in technology - computers, cell phones, smartphones, tablets, etc. that make them about space, rather than time? Perhaps. However I would also argue that these technologies might actually allow us to transcend and hallow time. Technology, for example, allows us to be places we are not, and to be in more than one place at the same time (albeit virtually.) Technology allows us to be in our own time and the past simultaneously. Technology just might be exactly what is needed to be celebrating time rather than place.

[2017 – I’m not alone in believing this. Later in 2017, Rabbi Elizabeth Wood wrote about why she doesn’t unplug on Shabbat for the RJ Blog: . Then, from a very different perspective, there was this New Yorker article by Casey N. Cep in 2014: Predating even my own musing in 2012, is this thought, though uncredited, I believe written by Rabbi Laura Baum, then with, the original online streaming synagogue:]

I've written many times about the anamnesis prevalent in Jewish ritual - ways of making the past present. Technology is a wonderful tool for making that happen. With technology, we could be at our Seder table and at Sinai or the Reed Sea at the same time! [2017 - We could experience the plagues, the Exodus, the revelation at Sinai. We could visit Abraham in his tent. Imagine, the entire Torah, indeed, the entire Tanakh, as an immersive virtual reality experience. If it were possible, would we truly deny ourselves that experience on Shabbat?]

[2017-The Seder idea has been rumbling around my brain since 2012, and I am still trying to figure out how to create a truly interactive virtual reality Seder. If this idea intrigues you as well, please be in touch, and maybe working together we can make it a reality.]

As I stated near the beginning of this musing, it's a matter of what you do online or with the technology, not that you are just using or not using it. I might use the technology to study, to engage in social action activities, to be part of an extended virtual community. Instead of the false dichotomy of "during the week we use technology and on Shabbat we don't" why not "during the week we use technology for all sorts of things, but on Shabbat we use technology only for a higher purpose, in service to G"d and the spirit of G"d's Shabbat." I do not believe it has to be either/or. Item two on the Sabbath Manifesto is "connect with loved ones." is that connection any less worthwhile if it is done using technology, as that might be the only way to do it?

[2017 – Since 2012, I have grown even more convinced of the value of connecting with loved ones on Shabbat using technology. Instead of a perfunctory “Shabbat Shalom” phone call before Shabbat starts, why not an active and prolonged conversation on Skype?]

During the week I utilize computers to deal with the tyranny of work. On Shabbat, might I not use a computer in a way that is totally free of how I use it for work? Maybe I'll use it to create a song, or a poem. (Oh wait, that's creative isn't it? Well, as I said before, I'm not sure the rabbis got that right anyway.) Maybe I'll use it for something that, for me, enables me to totally experience the idea of "Shabbat Vayinafash" which I like to think of, as I've written in musings before, of G"d's refreshing or re-souling G"d's self. Who am I to judge how another experiences Shabbat? If playing Angry Birds, or Candy Crush helps you be in the spirit of Shabbat, then why not play? If reading is something you usually do on Shabbat, does it really matter if you use a Kindle or a Tablet instead of a book?

I've often heard even shomer Shabbat Jews refer to a Shabbat recharge. Now there's irony in this simile/metaphor. (For you purists, I might argue that it is not at all clear if this is a simile or a metaphor. It can be the simile "Shabbat is like a battery being recharged" but it could also be the metaphor "Shabbat is a recharging.") Can there be recharging without violating prohibited m'lakhah? Certainly not in a physical, scientific sense. What about in a spiritual sense? If using technology helps provide my spiritual recharge for Shabbat, is that truly wrong?

[2017 - Looking back over this musing from 2017, I wonder how I could have failed to mention the very similar experience that music and Shabbat have for me. When I am playing my piano at services, or conducting a choir, or leading a service from a keyboard – that is my spiritual connection, my spiritual recharge. As I have said to so many over the years, what comes from my fingers and hands when I play my piano at a service is my t’filot, my prayers. Additionally, many have been the Shabbats when I have relaxed and refreshed myself at home by sitting at my piano and playing.]

What about mitzvot and Jewish values? The rules for Shabbat permit some violations for the sake of saving a life. If I turn my cell phone off, I might never know of that opportunity. My cell phone might enable me to perform an act of kindness or support for another on Shabbat. Maybe someone I know has an emergency, or a car accident, or a death in the family. Maybe a friend is feeling down and needs cheering up. Maybe a family member needs my assistance. Maybe a friend is studying Torah alone and needs a partner. If someone is alone and needs community, they could attend one of the virtual synagogues on the web. Is this truly wrong? We arrange for shut-ins to see services through live streaming (some synagogues have done this for decades just by phone, by the way.)

[2017 – the growing trend of streaming Shabbat services to me demonstrates the potential hypocrisy of an “unplugged Shabbat.” So the hundreds, maybe thousands of people that are now deriving spiritual nourishment and sustenance from lived-streamed Shabbat services should be denied the experience so that some liberal Jews could feel good about their authenticity by observing a day away from technology? How does that serve the entire community?]

[2017 – And speaking of community, as I noted earlier, this year’s National Shabbat of Unplugging also coincides with “Shabbat Across America and Canada”, an event that exists to promote “a synagogue-based program that encourages synagogue/Jewish center members to invite their friends, neighbors and co-workers to participate in a joyous Shabbat meal and experience.” (From the NJOP – National Jewish Outreach Program website description of the program.) It’s wonderful that this event brings people together IRL (in real life.) Consider the potential if this program were extended through technology, real-time interactive video, virtual reality, etc. so that thousands across the U.S. and Canada were all participating together!]

Here’s another way technology could enhance my Shabbat experience. If I go to services and get inspired, by traditional standards, I'd just have to keep the ideas in my head until Shabbat is over. I couldn't write a note, record a voice memo, make notes on my smartphone or tablet. Chances are by the time Havdalah came around I'd have forgotten. If I used technology to help me remember, I could perhaps make my life, or that of someone else, or even the whole world, better.

[2017 – does this indicate an over-dependence upon devices for remembering things? Perhaps. Our ancestors certainly appear to have been better at remembering things without aids. Our sacred texts were passed down orally at first. At the same time, the amount of things to know and remember in this world have increased exponentially over the millennia – and technology – starting with writing, then printed matter, then recording technology and now digital technology has provided the tools to enable us to keep track of it all.]

Now, all this being said, I will state that my own Shabbat practices have varied widely over the years. For many periods in my life, I did refrain from using technology on Shabbat, from answering the phone, checking email, writing articles, etc. I did refrain from doing commerce or business on Shabbat (though there's that catch involving anyone who is a Jewish professional and what it is that they actually do on Shabbat to meet the needs of the congregation or community.) I found ways to unplug during Shabbat.

Now I have reached a point in my life where I find that technology allows me to experience my Shabbat in ways that actually enhance it. So I'm not sure I'll unplug on for the National Day of Unplugging. I may unplug on other occasions or other Shabbats. I may even unplug that Shabbat - but not because it is the National Day of Unplugging, but rather because I choose, that Shabbat, to do so.

So consider this my little plug for not unplugging on the National Day of Unplugging for the wrong reasons. Technology is not inherently evil, not inherently contradictory to the goals of Shabbat. Technology is a tool, and it can be used for good or evil. Maybe, if we focus on only using it for good on Shabbat, we can help bring about a world in which technology is always used only for good all week long as well.

[2017 – As time moves on, technology increasingly demonstrates its ability to be used for good or evil. This particular year, with all the political sturm und drang, many are continually advocating unplugging from Facebook, the news, etc. There might be something to that – or there might not. Some people might need that break more than others. We are living in a Dr. Who-like “Weeping Angels” reality in which we fear averting our eyes lest we be overtaken. We worry what the powers that be might do if we turn away but for a moment.  I read one person who suggested that we need not let FOMO-fear of missing out- drive us;  it’s OK to take a little technology/Facebook/Online/News break because there are enough of us that we can cover for each other. Perhaps. I am not entirely convinced of that. Some also argue that Shabbat is a time for respite from all the political turmoil, the craziness that is happening in our world. Consider however, for a moment, that Shabbat may be precisely the time, when we need to actively renew our commitment and engagement to the values that our tradition teaches us to practice.The internet has been replete with articles explaining why Jewish people went to the marches on Saturday, January 21, 2017. Orthodox women and men did participate, and orthodox (and even Chabad) congregations provided meals and other types of support.]

[2017 – So if unplugging is your thing, do it. I encourage you to think about why you’re doing it, and do it with intention. For me, I’ll intentionally be finding ways to utilize technology in service to G”d and Judaism that day, as I do on many other Shabbats. Yes, I do take an occasional unplugged Shabbat, and even an unplugged weekday. I do step away from my computer, I do shut off the cell phone. I do step away from technology. Once in a while, I do still observe Shabbat in the manner observed by those the orthodox community would consider shomer Shabbat. I do those intentionally as well. I do enjoy, and understand why G”d might ask us to do this. Nevertheless, my understanding of what G”d is truly asking us to do on Shabbat is informed, but not restricted by the rabbinical interpretations – and that understanding can lead me to embrace technology on Shabbat in order for me to fulfill my understanding of what G”d is asking us to do on Shabbat. My prayer is that this Shabbat, and especially next Shabbat, the “Shabbat of Unplugging,” you do the same, whatever your understanding is.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 (portions ©2012) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on Parashat Mishpatim:

Mishpatim 5776 - Might For Right
Mishpatim 5775 - Revisiting Situational Ethics
Mishpatim 5774 - Chukim U'mishpatim Revisited
Mishpatim 5773 - No One Mounrs the Wicked
Mishpatim 5772-Repairing Our Damaged Temple
Mishpatim 5771 - Getting Past the Apologetics
Mishpatim 5770 - Divine Picnic
Mishpatim 5769 - Redux 5757/5761 Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5768 - Justice for All
Mishpatim 5767-To See, To Behold, To Eat, To Drink
Mishpatim 5766 - Mishpatim with a Capital IM
Mishpatim 5765-Eid Khamas (revised)
Mishpatim 5764-Situational Ethics
Mishpatim 5763-My Object All Sublime
Mishpatim 5762-Enron Beware!
Mishpatim 5761-Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5760-Chukim U'mishpatim
Mishpatim 5759-Eid Khamas-Witness to Violence

Friday, February 17, 2017

Random Musings Before Shabbat–Yitro 5777–Holy Seeds Don’t Produce Identical Plants

Authenticity in Judaism is a hotly debated subject. Sadly, I have often found the debate to be rather one-sided. Though I have heard liberal critique of orthodox and traditional practice, I can’t recall any such critique labeling orthodox Jewish practice as inauthentic. Sadly, I have far too often heard voices from the orthodox/traditional side label liberal Jewish practice as inauthentic. (I would be remiss if I did not point out that there are also many voices, some of them from revered and respected leaders in the orthodox/traditional communities who decry such labeling. Nevertheless, the preponderance of my personal experience, particularly in the last decade or so, has been just the opposite.)

For me, this question of authenticity is important. For me, the questioning of the authenticity of Jewish practice and praxis is troubling. (I must add that it is particularly troubling to me how many in the liberal Jewish community feed the myth of liberal Judaism’s inauthenticity, They see the orthodox as the “real Jews” and contribute generously to support Chabad Lubavitch. It’s a new Jewish form of the old Catholic practice of indulgences. Just in case it turns out that being a liberal Jew isn’t authentic, I’ll buy my way into heaven by supporting more authentic Judaism than I practice. (Now, I am not saying that all liberal Jews who support orthodox organizations have this as their rationale. I, myself, willingly support Jewish causes across the spectrum for reasons that have nothing to do with authenticity.)

I have had several situations recently in which online comments of a political nature were eventually used and twisted to make disparaging claims about the authenticity of my Jewish practice. Judaism does indeed teach us to measure our words.However, Judaism does not require us to all reach the same conclusion as to that measure. There are times when the appropriate measure is strong. I draw my inspiration for strongly worded comments from biblical sources. Our Tanakh is replete with examples.

Moses struck the rock instead of speaking to it. Yes, he was punished for his lack of faith. We can debate whether G”d was right to do so some other time. (I suspect that to some of my accusers of late, that very notion is blasphemy.) Hosea engaged in outrageous rhetoric to get the attention of the people. G”d rarely refrains from harsh pronouncements, and G”d is often at odds with the self-description offered to Moshe.

Oddly enough, in one circumstance, by choosing to explain my choices on biblical examples like those, I was accused of megalomania for daring to compare myself to biblical characters. In the Judaism of my understanding, we have no saints, no characters beyond reproach. To compare my actions to those of a biblical character (even if the comparison is to a negative) seems to me to be exactly what Judaism wishes us to do. If I only compare myself to the ideal behaviors, what will I have learned? It is in knowing that even biblical characters are portrayed as human that lies our scripture’s greatest strength. If we had to live up to an impossible ideal, few of us would make the futile effort. Even G”d self-describes as being caring, compassionate and loving, but punishing future generations for the faults of their ancestors. People speak in strong words. G”d speaks in strong words. I won’t argue that civil and polite discourse should be preferred, but I will argue that there is a time and place for strong words. I draw upon my Judaism for the wisdom to know when the different types of responses which are available to us are appropriate.

Reasonable people can and do disagree about how to put the teachings of Judaism (as we understand them) into practice. I am glad to see that so many Jews, inspired by their understandings of Judaism, are speaking out, taking action, and not standing idly by. I am dismayed when we use our different understandings of religion to bash one another for our political views.

My practice of Judaism is as authentic as yours, and yours is as authentic as mine.  If we are all the holy seeds, the remnant stump as described in Isaiah 6:13 in the haftarah for parashat Yitro, then each of us blooms as a unique flower. We each grow and bloom in different soil conditions, in different ground, in different climates. Yet we are all seeds from the same tree, descendants of that stump. Disagree with me. I will disagree with you. We may even question the other’s understanding of what Judaism teaches. But we must agree on the authenticity of our differing expressions and understandings. If we do not, then we truly are lost, we will be holy seeds no more..

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Yitro 5776 - Top Ten (Revised and Redux 5766)
Yitro 5774 - The Rest of the Ten Commandments (Revisted and Revised)
Yitro 5773 - From Cheap Theatrics to Impossible Possibilities (Revised and Updated from 5761)
Yitro5772 - Why I Won't Be Unplugging on the National Day/Shabbat of Unplugging
Yitro 5771/ Redux Beshalakh 5762 - Manna Mania
Yitro 5770 - Special Effects
Yitro 5769 - Evolution Shabbat
Yitro 5768-B'Kol HaMakom-In Every Place
Yitro 5767-Kinat Ad"nai
Yitro 5766-Top Ten?
Yitro 5765-Outsiders (Updated from 5759)
Yitro 5764-Outsiders II
Yitro 5763-El Kana
Yitro 5762-Manna Mania
Yitro 5761-From Cheap Theatrics to Impossible Possibilities
Yitro 5760-The Rest of the Ten Commandments
Yitro 5759-Outsiders

Friday, February 10, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Beshalakh 5777–Moshe’s Musings (Revised and Expanded from 5760)

Dear Diary:

It's been a few days since I've had a chance to find the time to write. So much has happened. As I wrote last time, He did this terrible thing as he had told me he would, and struck down in the night all the first born sons of the Egyptians.

I’m guessing that Pharaoh wasn’t a first-born son, but what do I know? The Egyptians seem to ne really good at altering their history to fit the present circumstances. In any case, soldiers arrived in the middle of the night and dragged me and Ari to the palace. Pharaoh could not even look me in the face. "Go!" he said. "Get out! And take everything you have with you." Pharaoh looked so beaten, so worn, so weary. Not angry – it was as it his internal fire had dimmed. In a way, I almost feel sorry for him and the Egyptians. Pharaoh knows darn well that we’re not just going a few days walk into the wilderness to worship G”d. We’re leaving forever. The pretenses are gone. The utter defeat is apparent.

Did it really need to come to this? Our ancestor Yosef could have marched us all back to the promised land 400 years ago and saved us all this strife. (Diary, I hope no one ever finds you, because if that truth gets out, it’s not going to look so good.) Pharaoh seemed ready to relent after most of the plagues. We both know that every time Pharaoh changed his mind after getting relief from one of the plagues, it wasn’t always Pharaoh’s himself that was responsible. He messed with Pharaoh’s heart, and hardened it.

Look, I have no great love for the Egyptians – I know who my people are. But I cannot forget that Princess Bithia raised me, that I lived my formative years in the heart of the ruling class of Egypt. Playing Senet. learning to ride horses and chariots, eating the finest foods. Yes, Pharaoh was ruthless, even cruel in persecuting us. I can never forgive him for that. But did G”d have to inflict so much hardship, terror, and death of the Egyptians? Not all of them were so bad. There were plenty of righteous Egyptians. And, truth be told, Yosef did turn a once proud group of land-owning Egyptian people into serfs to Pharaoh, while we Hebrews lived in comparative luxury in Goshen, tending our flocks and breeding like rabbits.

I thought life in Midian had smoothed out my rough edges, and I would have been happy to spend the rest of my life there tending sheep. Then He went and messed that all up, what with that burning sneh. Thanks for nada.

Ah, I see I’ve gotten off topic. So where was I? Ah, yes. Pharaoh summons us to the palace in the middle of the night and tells us to get out of Egypt. And then he made the strangest request that we also bring a blessing upon him. Pharaoh was asking his slaves for a blessing. Oh, how mighty our G:d is! (If you couldn’t tell, that was a bit sarcastic. It’s how I’m supposed to react in this situation, but I’m not one bit happy about it. I think He went a bit too far.)

Well, not trusting Pharaoh (or, for that matter, G”d) to again renege on letting us go, I figured we’d better hie ourselves out of there pronto. Oy, was that a balagan.

Let me tell you, getting this group organized and on the road was no picnic. Details, details, details. We were literally on our way out the city gates when a group of elders stopped me shouting "The Bones! The Bones! We have to take the bones!" Oh, great, I thought, another delay. "What bones?" I asked. "Why, Joseph's bones, of course. He was promised his bones would be taken home, as he did for his father Jacob." I resisted the urge to say out loud my thought that Joseph was the one who had connived his way into this whole mess in the first place, but I figured I'd better not upset the elders. Besides, I guess I must be a distant relative myself.

But it wasn't just the bones. You'd think after 400 years in slavery they'd be in a hurry to leave. But no. They were so brow-beaten that mustering energy and pride was difficult. As usual, He must have been listening to my thoughts, for He told me that we shouldn't head north, lest the people fear they'll run into the Philistines. So he told me to take them towards the Sea of Reeds. I have to be honest, diary, I thought for a minute He must be crazy. How are we ever gonna get through there? But I had seen enough of G”d's wrath, so I figured I'd better just be a good boy and follow instructions.

It was pretty easy because He led us as a cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night. Pretty hard to miss. Pretty easy for the Egyptians to follow to, I thought silently.

As if on cue, like He's always doing, reading my mind, He tells me to turn the whole kit and caboodle back towards Pi-hahiroth, next to the sea, and make camp there. Then He said it yet again, those dreaded words I have really come to dislike. "I'm going to stiffen Pharaoh's heart." As if we hadn't heard that enough times already. What are we-playing pieces in some divine game between a bunch of deities? And it wasn't enough to stiffen Pharaoh's heart and make him come after us. He had to make us camp in an obvious place from which escape was unlikely. "Are we all about to be slaughtered?" I wondered. But I had my role to play. I put on the happy face, and played leader. People will remember the events of the past few days, and know G”d’s power. I can rally them. I shouted  "You and what army, Mr. Pharaoh? You’re going to take on my G”d? Ha!" I know I shouldn't have boasted like that, and I'll probably pay for it later, because I know He's always listening. Oh, well. Gotta stop writing now and get some sleep. I have a feeling tomorrow is going to be a rough day.




Dear Diary:

You are just not going to believe this. I can hardly believe it myself. Right now there's a big party still going on in the camp. Sis has all the women out dancing and singing-they'll probably be at it all night. I’m happy, I guess, but not in such a party mood.

So, here's the story. Just like clockwork, the moment some people spotted the Egyptians, a whole bunch of people, including some of those troublemakers like Korach and his gang come running to me in a panic and accused me of bringing them out here to die. I had to put aside my own personal misgivings and I gave them standard speech number two, and told them He would take care of them. It worked, sort of. But I knew in my own heart I was unsure. He knew, too.

After I had finished placating the crowd I wandered off to my tent, and He said to me "why are you crying out to me?" G”d forbid anyone ever find this diary and turns it into a book. How is it going to look, after just giving this rousing speech to the people, if G”d says to me "why are you crying out to me?" Heck, if any of the personal stuff in you, dear diary, ever gets out, I don't think I’m going to be remembered as such a perfect leader. Well, maybe it is better that way. Better people should know that even their leaders aren't perfect. None of the rewriting history like the Egyptians. Let’s tell our stories, warts and all.

Boy, can G”d be boring and predictable. Same old same old. That rod again. I was supposed to hold it up and create a path through the waters so we could all walk through. I have to tell you, I had my doubts. Even after all I had seen, this seemed like to much even for Him. But I held my rod up and a strong wind began to blow, and it blew all night, driving the waters apart and leaving a path for us to cross this reedy swamp. Combine that with it being low tide, and you can imagine what happened. I have a feeling that the realities of our crossing will get somewhat exaggerated over time, but it was still pretty miraculous.  I'm not sure where He was during all this, though I had reports that the pillar of fire had move to our rear and was holding up the Egyptians so we could cross the water. Good thing, too, because it took some real cajoling to convince the folks to walk through the waters! Thank goodness for that Nachshon, Aminadav's kid. Everyone was just standing around, afraid to go forward. The crazy kid starts wading into the water. He's about up to his eyeballs when suddenly the winds start driving the water back and the path opens up. A couple of other young men followed Nachshon, and soon everybody was heading across that sea of reeds.

It was freaky. I was so out of it I'm not even sure how I got to the other side, but I did. It took almost the whole night to get everybody across. Those Egyptians were so hopping mad they didn't even stop to think twice and started heading right into the reeds behind us. "Oy, just great" I though to myself. Well, as you know, I'm never thinking to myself, cause He obviously heard me and out of nowhere the Egyptian’s chariots and horses were unable to move forward, their wheels stuck in the muck and mire. Pharaoh must have been really out of it. What did he expect, trying to follow us into that sea of reeds like that? I mean, it’s a frickin’ swamp!

Finally, after all of us were safely across, He told me to do the rod thing again. I have to tell you, dairy, I was not prepared for what happened then. The waters came rushing back on top of the Egyptians. Some of them tried to escape, but it looked almost as if an unseen hand was driving them back into the waters. In a few minutes it was all over. Dead. Drowned. All of them. It was hideous. I mean, I know they enslaved us for over 4 centuries, but still-to kill them all like that. He could have just let them go home. I doubt they would have ever bothered us again. I could even hear some of the Egyptians soldiers saying they had better flee home, because our G”d was obviously stronger than their gods. But I guess any G”d who is willing to wipe out a whole bunch of first born sons is liable to do anything. And, now that I stop and think about it, not only did He wipe out their first born sons-but probably most of their other sons, too. Because who else could all those soldiers have been with Pharaoh? Oh, it's just too painful to think about. I heard from someone that it looked like Pharaoh himself escaped. Not that I still have any love left for him, but I kind of hope he did.

I guess not many people think like I do. That's the trouble with being so philosophic. I don't think anybody but me was even thinking about those poor Egyptians. The people were just dumbstruck. But He sure did accomplish one thing...this time the people were really convinced He was on our side and would always protect us. It might be too much to hope for, but maybe now they'll follow the instructions He gives me for them without questioning them all the time. We'll see.

Ari broke me out of my reverie, and brought me back to my sense. "Look, brother, I don't know what's troubling you, but just look at the people! You have got to go out their and lead them in a song of praise to Him. They are just blown away by what He just did, and now's the time to get them all fired up so they'll be less trouble." Well, that made sense, so I quickly tried to think of the right words to say and the right melody to sing them to. We hadn't done much singing in Egypt, so I thought that it would be real appropriate to get everyone to join me in a song of praise. I was having a little trouble when Sis wandered in and asked what I was doing. I told her I planned to lead the people in song. "You, sing?" she laughed. "With that stutter and that voice?" "Stop making fun of me and help me write something, Sis” I said. She was always better at this than I was anyway. Try this, she said, and sang a pretty tune with these words: "Sing to G”d for He has been victorious. Horse and driver he has hurled into the sea." "It's a good start," I said "but pretty short." "So finish the song yourself, smart-aleck," she said, and stomped out. So I did. I thought of this really great line "Who is like You, G”d, among all those other gods?" I think it was even better than what Miriam wrote, if I must say so myself. It was a pretty good song. Easy to learn, and I taught it to everyone, and then everybody sang it with me. I wrote it down and I'll stick in between your pages here diary, so I can look at it again when I'm older.

Sis must have been awfully jealous at the way everyone loved my song, cause after we were done, she and a bunch of the women started singing and dancing and playing tambourines, just chanting that one original line of hers over and over. What the heck, I figured. Let her have her moment in the sun. Good night, diary.

Laila tov,


Dear Diary:

I haven't had a chance to write again for a few days. I've been busy shepherding this ungrateful bunch. That's right, you heard me, ungrateful. After the other day, I figured they'd be happy and easy to please. But noooooooooooooo! Just three days later we're out in the wilderness of Shur and we couldn't find any water. Oh, there was water at this place called Marah, but it was putrid. "Now we're going to die of thirst" a bunch of people whined. So I asked Him for a little help and he gave me this stick which he told me to throw in the water and it would purify it. As usual, it worked. Gee, thanks, G”d.

A little while later we made it to Elim, where there was lots of water and shade and fruit, and everyone was happy. It was so nice I was even tempted to stay there a while, but I knew we had to press on, so we headed out into the Sin wilderness. Well, after two weeks of walking, our stores had run low, and people starting whining again. So I asked Him for help and he said he would make meat and bread appear. After that sea thing, I figured He'd come through. "But," He said, there's a catch." He said He would make bread fall down from the sky for six days, and everyone was to gather it up, only as much as they needed-except on the sixth day, when they were to gather a double portion, because on the seventh day there would be no bread. Said He had created the world in six days, and rested on the seventh, and we should do likewise out of respect for the effort. Sorta made sense to me.

As usual, He delivered, and quail appeared for us to eat that evening. Then during the night He made this dew form on these strange little plants, and by the morning it had condensed into this kind of flaky food. Tasted good, too. Ari and I told everyone to gather just what they needed. Naturally, a few were greedy and saved extra, but overnight it rotted. Serves them right!

So for five days we gathered this great food and ate it. On the sixth day we reminded everyone to gather a double portion, but those who had done it the first day were afraid it would rot like it did then. I have them standard speech number five. "Oh, would you just stop doubting G”d already," I told them. Sure enough, the stuff lasted overnight and there was food for all. Even so, a couple of people went out looking for more of this stuff. Naturally, they didn't find any and I scolded them for their lack of faith.

It’s funny, everybody kept saying “what is it?” I don't know who finally started calling it “the what is it stuff” but it doesn't matter now, because that's what everyone is calling it. Not a bad name for it. Tastes like cookies dipped in honey to me. Yummy. I could get used to this stuff. But tomorrow, we have to press on.



Dear Diary:

Sorry again I haven't written, but things got busy for a while. First, when we got to Rephidim, the wells were dry and people starting griping. Again! Can you believe them? Such whiners. He must have infinite patience, because I asked Him yet again to help. He told me to touch this rock and make some water come out, and it worked. Yay G”d. Yay me!

Yeah, that’s the party line Diary. Now let’s talk about how  I really feel. Why in the heck does He keep sending us places where there’s no food or water. Why does there never seem to be enough food or water to last on our treks from one place to another? Can’t He just make sure our needs are provided for without all this sturm und drang? If G”d is so powerful why can’t He just whisk us away to this legendary land of our ancestors? If nothing is too difficult for G”d…

Then a scout brought word that Amalek was leading his people to attack us. Oy, that's all we needed. You’d think a descendant of Yosef’s uncle Esau wouldn’t attack his own people. Then again, when Yosef brought the tribe down to Egypt to survive that famine, he didn’t exactly reach out to the kin of his uncle. So I guess they have a right to be jealous,

They fought dirty. They attacked the rear of our convoy, picking off stragglers – mostly old people, sick people, and kids. They have no honor. The stories they tell of Esau make him sound like a reasonable man, even forgiving his brother Yaakov for stealing his birthright and blessing. How did his descendants fall so low?

I needed a good commander to fight them off. I'd been noticing one of Nun's sons, a kid named Joshua. Figured I'd. give him a chance to prove himself. I told him to organize an army and go fight Amalek. He was a little skeptical at first. I thought quickly, and came up with an idea to persuade him. "You go fight," I said, and I'll stand up there on the hill with my rod, like I did back at the Yam Suf, and G”d will protect you." Guess that convinced him, and off he went. Thankfully, He was listening too, and He came thru. Joshua had no trouble at all defeating Amalek, even though they fought pretty dirty, So dirty, in fact, that G”d told me to tell Joshua He would blot out the memory of Amalek.

I'm gonna keep my eye on that Joshua kid, he could come in real handy. And I’m not getting any younger

Oh, one last thing, diary. I am still pretty worried about the future. He may have promised to wipe out the memory of Amalek, but somehow I think we're going to run into lots of people like him, over and over again. Probably long after I'm dead, too. So before I go to sleep tonight, I'm going out to build a little altar here to G”d. I'm going to call it "G”d is my sign." It'll help remind me and future generations to be on the alert for future Amaleks. I hope we never meet his ilk again. Good night, diary.

As ever,



Shabbat Shalom to you and yours.


©2017 (portions © 2000) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha

Beshalakh 5776 - Mi Kamonu?
Beshalakh 5775 - I'm Not Doing It Alone
Beshalakh 5774 - A Lot Can Change in 13 Years - Or Not
Beshalakh 5773 - Moshe's Musings (Revised from 5760)
Beshalakh 5772 - Thankful For the Worst
Beshalakh 5771 - Praying That Moshe Was Wrong
Beshalakh 5768 - Man Hu
Beshalakh 5767-March On
Beshalakh 5766-Manna Mania II
Beshalakh 5765-Gd's War
Beshalach 5763-Mi Chamonu
Beshalach 5760-Moshe's Musings
Beshalach 5762-Manna mania
Beshalach 5761-Warrior Gd

Friday, February 3, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Bo 5777–Good Loser (Revised from 5763)


Last week, I gave Pharaoh a hard time about some things. (I also gave G”d a hard time.) This week, a chance to find something redeemable about Pharaoh.

Oh, that nasty, evil Pharaoh. Yeah, you know, the one that G”d used as a pawn, hardening his heart so he would not let the people go, so that G”d could demonstrate G”d's utter sovereignty. (Do you think I might be a tad too sympathetic to Pharaoh?)

 וַיָּקָם פַּרְעֹה לַיְלָה הוּא וְכָל־עֲבָדָיו וְכָל־מִצְרַיִם וַתְּהִי צְעָקָה גְדֹלָה בְּמִצְרָיִם כִּי־אֵין בַּיִת אֲשֶׁר אֵין־שָׁם מֵֽת: לא וַיִּקְרָא לְמֹשֶׁה וּֽלְאַֽהֲרֹן לַיְלָה וַיֹּאמֶר קוּמוּ צְּאוּ מִתּוֹךְ עַמִּי גַּם־אַתֶּם גַּם־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּלְכוּ עִבְדוּ אֶת־יְהוָֹה כְּדַבֶּרְכֶֽם: לב גַּם־צֹֽאנְכֶם גַּם־בְּקַרְכֶם קְחוּ כַּֽאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתֶּם וָלֵכוּ וּבֵֽרַכְתֶּם גַּם־אֹתִֽי

And Pharaoh arose in the night, with all his courtiers and all the Egyptians—because there was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead. He summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said, “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! Go, worship the LORD as you said! Take also your flocks and your herds, as you said, and begone! And may you bring a blessing upon me also!”

At the moment when Pharaoh finally relents, it's easy to picture an utterly defeated man, exhausted, frustrated, bitter. You might think his last words to Moshe and Aharon, whom he summoned late in the night, might end with a stinger, a kicker, a last bit of anger or vitriol.

But no. What is the last thing that Pharaoh asks for? A blessing. Take your stuff and go, and may your blessings be mine.

[A side question – why did Pharaoh continue to play along with the ruse that G”d told Moshe and Aharon to use, about only needing to go a few days into the wilderness to pray and sacrifice to G”d? By that point, everybody knew that was a pretense, a sham, an alternative fact.]

The rabbis and commentators would, for the most part, have us believe that Pharaoh’s request for a blessing simply signifies Pharaoh's ultimate realization that only Ad”nai, the G”d of the Israelites, is G”d. Yet Egypt did not suddenly become a nation that worshipped Ad”nai following the Exodus of the Hebrews. Ad”nai was not added to the pantheon of Egyptians gods (at least as far as we can tell. Who knows what actual crossover there might have been, if, indeed, the people that eventually become the Jewish people did indeed live in Egypt for a time before establishing their own nation? There is certainly evidence of Hebrew proto-script from ancient Israel. Look up the Sania 115 slab from the Harvard Semitic collection.)

I do not believe Pharaoh was admitting that the G”d of the Israelites was the One G”d. He might have been thinking that the G”d of the Hebrews was more powerful than all the gods of Egypt, indeed, more powerful than Pharaoh. After all, he was going to let the Hebrews go several times, and each time, for some reason, his heart was hardened. So Pharaoh had every reason to be a little upset with this G”d of the Hebrews. Yet Egypt and Egyptian religion persevered for thousands of years after the legendary biblical departure of the Israelites.

[Another side question – was Pharaoh aware that he had been manipulated? Did he have some disquieting sense that his will had been tampered with? Pharaoh’s level of awareness that he had been controlled and played by the Israelite G”d would surely figure into how he reacted in the end.]

I'm not even sure that Pharaoh was really seeking a blessing from the G”d of the Hebrews. Pharaoh simply asks that he receive "your (plural) blessings."

I believe that, in actuality, Pharaoh was being a gracious loser, a good sport. Rather than sending Moshe and Aharon off with a curse, in language dripping vitriol, he plays the good sport. We are not shy to paint our own Jewish heroes as having failings and faults –  so why not also portray our enemies as also being people of balance, and some good characteristics. (Except Amalek. Amalek is beyond the pale. Or is he?)

Something to admire in Pharaoh's behavior? Not at all the way we usually find the text, or Pharaoh, portrayed. Yet I believe there is a lesson here for all of us.

I'm sure many of us have been at a point of utter defeat-forces allayed against us that we cannot overcome. In those moments, the temptation to lash out, to strike back, is strong, and hard to resist. For the moment, at least, Pharaoh resists. And that is a behavior worth emulating.

(Yes, later, Pharaoh does give chase. However, the text tells us that G”d once again hardened Pharaoh's heart. It also tells us that Egyptian motivation to pursue the Hebrews was not revenge, but simple political and financial reality! G”d had wrought the ultimate humiliation upon Pharaoh and it still wasn’t enough. G”d manipulated Pharaoh into the pursuit that led to the death of so many Egyptian soldiers beneath the water of the Yam Suf. When we remove those drops from our wine glass at the Seder, we might do well to remember that we do it not only for the suffering of the Egyptians, but that this suffering was purposefully inflicted upon the Egyptians by G”d even after Pharaoh had relented and let the people go! Hard-hearted Pharaoh, or hard-hearted deity? Sometimes I wonder who had the harder heart.)

Graciousness in the face of overwhelming odds or defeat seems good not only for the sake of civility, but I also think it allows the loser to retain dignity. There is no dignity in revenge. Only in graciousness.

It's probably mentally healthier too. It's like responding "thank you" or "have a nice day" when someone yells an obscenity at you or flips you the bird. It sets the stage for getting past the agony of the defeat.

(Now. I’ll be the first to admit to my own hypocrisy in this regard during this period of political turmoil here in the U.S. Unlike many of my friends who have called for tempered responses, I have been one who has insisted upon holding on to my anger the better to fuel my desire to actively resist.

[Side thought - What do you do when you find yourself in a struggle with someone who would not be equally as gracious in defeat – but would be vengeful? In addition, what about being magnanimous in victory? The spilled drops of wine at Pesakh are tiny hints in that direction, but we could do, should do much more.]

So, as odd as it seems, in this regard, and even though I’m ignoring my own advice for the present,  I think it is wise for people to  try to follow Pharaoh's example, and be gracious in defeat.

Be gracious in defeat when it comes your way. Be magnanimous in victory when it comes your way. Be grateful when your life gives you the opportunity for both. Learn from it all.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 (portions ©2003) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Bo 5776 - Four Strikes and You're...Well...(a fractured midrashic fairy tale)
Bo 5775 - Teach Your Children Well (Redux 5762)
Bo 5774 - Spellcheck On My hand
Bo 5773 - Dear G"d...Love, Pharaoh
Bo 5772 - Lifting the Cover of Darkness
Bo 5771 - Keretz MiTzafon-Again! (not the same as 5769)
Bo 5769-Keretz MiTzafon
Bo 5768 - Good Loser (Redux 5763)
Bo 5767-Teach Your Children Well (Redux 5762)
Bo 5766 - Random Disjunctions and Convergences (Redux 5760)
Bo 5765-Four Strikes and You're...Well...
Bo 5764-Keretz Ani
Bo 5763 -Good Loser
Bo 5761-Cover of Darkness
Bo 5762-Teach Your Children Well