Friday, May 26, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–B’midbar 5773–What Makes It Holy (Revisited and Revised from 5767)

I have spent some time in my life "on the road" touring theatrical productions and touring with a band. So every time I encounter this miraculous portable mishkan, I am overwhelmed and impressed. And I respect the care and effort that went into taking down, storing and preparing the mishkan for transport. Though described in relatively few words in this part of the Torah, I imagine the task itself was rather extensive and time consuming. And done with the most exacting and painstaking attention to detail and care.

It is a model still followed. The first thing a good road manager does is to take a head count and make sure everybody in the cast and crew is accounted for. Then each "department" takes care of carefully storing their equipment - as Aaron and the priests did with the sacred objects from the mishkan. The 'very special" (and in these days, expensive and fragile) items are wrapped, protected, placed in roadworthy cases, ready for transport. Finally the Teamsters, er, that is the Kohathites come along and carry the equipment and load it up for transport.

And just as Aaron and the priests carefully wrapped the sacred object so they wouldn't be damaged by the Kohathites, I've seen plenty of musicians, costumers, property masters, et al carefully wrap, protect and store away their treasured props, costumes, instruments, etc. to protect them from being damaged or "defiled" by the handlers. Not that the "handlers" were careless or neglectful. The best "roadies" might be able to move, stack, and store heavy items quickly and efficiently, but they also do it lovingly, respectfully, and carefully. When you spend time together on the road, you learn that showing respect for the property of others is important - especially because everyone has to get along, and everyone is needed to make sure the show happens.

It's all about caring for the things we hold sacred, holy. The concept which comes from the Hebrew meaning "to set apart."

Are things "holy" by intrinsic nature, or does it require that we hold them in reverence to imbue them with holiness? It's not entirely clear to me. Something touched by or created by G"d-surely that is holy. In the first category, at least in our story, we have no such items. Moshe destroyed the first set of tablets which had been written upon by G"d, and instructed Moshe to write on the second set. Curious, isn't it? We often observe G"d's power and miracles on a macro scale, but what do we have that's a tangible holy object from all that.

Our Catholic co-religionists are really into holy, sacred objects. Sacred relics are built into altars. And who knows what treasures are stored in the catacombs beneath the Vatican (or, for that matter, in anonymous government warehouses here in Washington, DC.) Hundreds, perhaps thousands, have given their lives in pursuit of the Holy Grail.

Each year, millions of Muslims make a hajj, and encounter the Kaaba and other sacred places and things. Clearly, these are objects that people believe are intrinsically holy. However, in the end, we have only the faith of human beings that these objects are truly sacred and holy. There's no real "proof." The Shroud of Turin. That mysterious Ossuary possible bearing the inscription of James, brother of Jesus. [Remember, this was written a decade ago.]

Touched by G"d or not, we human beings have the power to make things holy (and, after all, our tradition tells us that we are a holy people, a nation of priests.) The way in which we treat things goes a long way in imbuing objects with sacredness.

Back when I lived in American Yennensvelts* my mother used to annually send me a Pesach care package full of the kind of goodies it's hard to get in the "hinterlands west of the Hudson." Every year when the package arrived I looked forward to the ceremony of unwrapping each little item in the box, revealing it for the treasure it was. My mother takes such great care to wrap and protect these treasures. Item,s large and small, fragile and less so, are every so carefully wrapped in layer after layer of tissue paper, newspaper, and even a few old towels or dishrags. It was done so lovingly, I didn't dare rip things open in a hurry like a child with a present.

[*-a Yiddishism, a corruption of the term “yenne velt” which means “the other world.” It came to mean a far away place, or a place in the middle of nowhere. In my childhood, that was anyplace west of the Hudson river, as depicted in the famous New York cover by Saul Steinberg, “View of the World from 9th Avenue”)

I know that when I see a sales clerk take the time to carefully wrap and protect even the most inexpensive but fragile item, I am wont to recall parashat B’midbar. The clerk knows it may just be a trinket, but to me, or the person I intend to give it to, it must be so much more. I've seen florists put such care into the wrapping of a single rose, as if they were wrapping up dozens of these precious flowers. It mattered not to the florist that I could only afford the one flower instead of the bouquet. They knew it was special to me, and to the eventual recipient.

And that is how we make things sacred and holy. Not by their being. Not by their having been invested with holiness by Divine action or even human ritual.

It is through the care we show for them, and the way we treat them, that things become holy.

Some years back, I had the pleasure of seeing the 1st graders I had taught all year demonstrate the davening skills they have acquired, and receive their first real siddur. Each siddur was lovingly wrapped and adorned by a cover created by each student's parents. While I knew that each of the students understood the holy and sacred nature of these siddurim, even without the fancy covers, the covers were a demonstration of the value being placed in these books that are more than books. Yet, even without these fancy covers, I know the students will treat their siddurim with respect, not just shoving them in their desks or casually tossing them about, because they have been taught respect for the content. I know that they understand that it is through their reverence for the physical book, and for the words it contains, that they imbue it with holiness. Some might argue that the words themselves are holy. It's hard to argue that they aren't. But if we don't see them as such, does it matter if they are?

[5777 Now I’m going to sound like an old curmudgeon. Sixteen years have passed since that experience. While I still find students holding their siddurim and chumashim with reverence, I am saddened I see less and less of it. This applies not only to books, but to places. I can’t blame the students. Somehow we adults have failed to convey the message. One might attribute the problem to a certain lack of decorum, or a failure of discipline, but I ask – if we have to discipline our students into showing reverence for our holy books and holy spaces, is that success? Holiness comes from within. We need to enable our students to develop a genuine respect and love for the things we hope they will endow with holiness. Yes, maybe we can force students to treat things with respect, but I do not believe we can force them to view anything as holy that they, themselves, do not internalize as holy.]

A midrash teaches that G"d "shopped the Torah around" and we Jews were the only ones who agreed to accept it (though perhaps under duress or threat!)

Without that acceptance, even written by G"d, they are just words on a scroll. We make it holy-in what we do, what we say, how we do it, how we say it, how we treat it.

Yes, a scribe, taking great care, inscribed the holy words of the Torah upon these sheepskin rolls. That effort alone ought to be enough to make each sefer Torah a holy object. Yet these objects are routinely bought and sold. The Nazis thought nothing of destroying them, or using them for wallpaper or decoupage. A shanda, to be sure, but to them, they weren't holy. We make them holy. Our commitment to those words, to the values they teach, the obligations they command us to perform. And the care and reverence with which we treat the actual physical object itself. Though it sometimes appears to border on a form of idol worship (and that's a discussion for another time) we show great respect for a sefer Torah through the way we handle it, carefully wrapping and unwrapping it, marching it around, kissing it, standing in its presence, reading its sacred words, placing it lovingly in the aron, etc. We make it holy. Without any of this, it's just a rolled-up scroll. Something the congregation purchased, and something that a scribe labored on to create. Are we bowing and respecting the scribe? The person or company who sold it to us? Hardly. We make it holy. Without us, it is just ink on sheepskin.

[5777 – As I was reading through my many musings on this parasha, I was struck by a connection I had never thought about before. One of my other musings, Doorway to Hope about the haftarah for B’midbar, which comes from Hoshea, attempts, as I so often to, to redeem a seemingly irredeemable bit of text. It occurred to me that the nature of holiness, and our ability to imbue texts and things with it may be another pathway to dealing with difficult pieces of our sacred texts. I’ve little doubt that Hoshea had a holy purpose in mind even when writing some such rhetoric. While this doesn’t completely redeem some of the rhetoric for me, it allows me to afford even these texts a place of reverence.]

This Shabbat, find something you want to make sacred, holy. Wrap it carefully, whether metaphorically or not, as you choose. Know that you have the power to make something holy and sacred. You can even make the place where you are holy just by your presence in it. Always remember this. But remember, too, the cautions of our Torah about what to imbue and not imbue with this special holiness. It might be a place, a thing, a thought, a space, an idea, an action. whatever it is, you can make it holy. Make it so.

Shabbat Shalom, and have a cheesy Shavuot!


©2017 (portions ©2001 and ©2007) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

B'midbar 5775 - The Reward At The End Of The Boring?
B’midbar 5774 - Torah as Anecdote-It's a Good Thing
B’midbar 5773 - Who Really Provides?
B’mdibar 5771 - Moving Treasures
B’midbar 5770 - Sense Us
B’midbar 5769 - That V'eirastikh Li Feeling
B’midbar 5766-Redux 5760-Knowing Our Place
B’midbar 5764-Doorway to Hope
B’midbar 5763-Redux 5759 (with additions for 5763)
B’midbar 5762-They Did As They Were Told? You Gotta be Kidding!
B’midbar 5759-Marrying Gd-Not Just for Nuns
B’midbar 5760-Knowing Our Place

Friday, May 19, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat - B'har-Bekhukotai 5777 - Keri Is so Very... (Revisted from 5763)

[Author's Note - 5777 - only folks above a certain age will get the title of this musing. In the mid 1980s, Westwood Phamaceuticals introduced a new dry skin lotion, with the name "Keri" and marketed it with the slogan "Keri is so very..." You can see one of their commercials at]

In parashat Bechukotai, G"d tells us what will happen if we follow the commandments, and what will happen if we don't. In the end, there is a built in forgiveness for our sins - Gd telling us that the covenant will not be abrogated, at least on G"d's part. But the forgiveness only comes after all the suffering we have endured because of our failure to keep the holy commandments.

There is another model of faith that grew from ours that posits a forgiveness for all things through the act of the sacrifice of a certain itinerant rabbi from the Galil. It's sometimes popular, in Jewish circles, to pose the difference thusly: Forgive me before I sin, and what is there to restrain me from sinning? Forgive me after I have suffered the consequences of my choices, and I have to think a little harder about sinning in the first place. It's an unfair comparison, and somewhat disingenuous. Yes, our religions differ in how forgiveness is approached. Yet they are not so different. Parashat Bechukotai makes it clear that, in the end, G"d will forgive, and not destroy us completely. (26:44) Yes, there are consequences to our sinning, to not following the mitzvot. That's made abundantly clear (26:14-43.) Our daughter religion is no less devoid of consequences.

Yet there is still something that rings true for me about the Torah's approach.
Leviticus 26:39 "The few of you who survive in your enemies' lands will [realize that] your survival is threatened as a result of your non-observance. [These few] will also [realize] that their survival has been threatened because of the non-observance of their fathers."

I think of it as a gift. Not the easiest way to learn, perhaps, but effective. The gift to be able to learn from the consequences of our choices and actions. Or from inactions.

Which brings me to an interesting aspect of parashat Bechukotai. What is it that brings on this long list of consequences? Is it flouting G"d's commandments? Ignoring them? Accidentally violating them?

Within chapter 26 are contained the only seven occurrences of one word, "keri." קרי  Scholars and commentators are divided on the exact meaning of the term. (Even Rashi provides more than one acceptable understanding.)

Most commonly, it is translated as "hostile." Perhaps meaning to refuse, or to withhold. It implies a conscious and deliberate position in opposition to the other. (And it is important to note that of the seven times "keri' is found, four times it refers to how the people were treating G"d and G"d's mitzvot--Lev 26:21,23,27,40, and three times it refers to how G"d is treating the people--Lev 26:24,28,41.)

That last makes it difficult for me to accept "hostile" as a translation. It's difficult for me to imagine G"d being hostile to G"d's own creations, to G"d's covenanted people. Upset, yes. Angry, yes. Using "tough love" yes. But hostile? (Well, there is Nadav and Avihu--that seems pretty hostile. S'dom and Gomorrah, too. The flood. None of these are conclusive, however. Though I'm often not prone to do so I'll give G"d a break.)

To the rescue comes another acceptable understanding of what the word "keri" means. In this context it can mean "an event," "something that happens," "an occurrence," a "happenstance." It implies action that may not be deliberate. I might even take the liberty of stretching the definition a bit to mean "indifference." Or maybe even "casually."

This can be either thought of as liberating or restraining. It liberates because it acknowledges that not all our transgressions are deliberate, and that G"d recognizes this. So it provides a little lubrication between us and G"d. It restrains, because we realize that, whether by intent or happenstance, violating the mitzvot will bring the same consequences. And that is precisely the kind of tension that one finds throughout the Torah, and the kind of tension that will always exist between G"d and the people Israel.

If we treat G"d and G"d's mitzvot casually, then G"d will treat us casually as well, allowing the misfortunes of happenstance to happen to us, rather than protecting us from them ( I recognize that those who adhere to particular theological viewpoints might have trouble c wrapping their heads around that concept.) I somehow think this is more likely to occur than simply treating G"d with hostility (and vice versa.)

Whatever "keri" truly is, it exists only as part of a relationship. It is a thing that both G"d and those that G"d made b'tzelmo--in G"d's own image, are capable of showing towards each other in relationship. While I don't particularly care for the idea of G"d acting with hostility, I can certainly imagine humans treating G"d with hostility. (Some might suggest this lends credence to the idea that rather than our being b'tzelem Elokim, that G"d is b'tzelem anashim--G"d made in the image of people. My personal answer to that question is my understanding that for us to be b'tzelem Elokim means that all those things we are capable of--the good and the bad--G"d is also capable--not because we fashioned and formed G"d (which may or may not be the case) from our own ideas, but rather the opposite. But I digress.) That acting b'keri is not clearly one thing or another allows a relationship between G"d and Israel that has some flexibility. And G"d knows we certainly need that.

Adding to these thoughts from years ago, as I sit here in 5775 (2017) I can't help but think about all the hostility floating around. These times are challenging to our abilities to avoid treating each other with hostility. 

I hope that we neither treat each other nor G"d with "keri." That way, we can each keep the covenant we have between us.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2017 (portions  ©2000 and 2003 by Adrian A. Durlester)

Other musings on this Parasha:

Friday, May 12, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Emor 5777 - Mum's The Word (Revised and Revisited from 5760 and 5766)

יְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃ דַּבֵּ֥ר אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן לֵאמֹ֑ר אִ֣ישׁ מִֽזַּרְעֲךָ֞ לְדֹרֹתָ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִהְיֶ֥ה בוֹ֙ מ֔וּם לֹ֣א יִקְרַ֔ב לְהַקְרִ֖יב לֶ֥חֶם אֱלֹהָֽיו׃ כִּ֥י כָל־אִ֛ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־בּ֥וֹ מ֖וּם לֹ֣א יִקְרָ֑ב אִ֤ישׁ עִוֵּר֙ א֣וֹ פִסֵּ֔חַ א֥וֹ חָרֻ֖ם א֥וֹ שָׂרֽוּעַ׃ א֣וֹ אִ֔ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־יִהְיֶ֥ה ב֖וֹ שֶׁ֣בֶר רָ֑גֶל א֖וֹ שֶׁ֥בֶר יָֽד׃ אֽוֹ־גִבֵּ֣ן אוֹ־דַ֔ק א֖וֹ תְּבַלֻּ֣ל בְּעֵינ֑וֹ א֤וֹ גָרָב֙ א֣וֹ יַלֶּ֔פֶת א֖וֹ מְר֥וֹחַ אָֽשֶׁךְ׃ כָּל־אִ֞ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־בּ֣וֹ מ֗וּם מִזֶּ֙רַע֙ אַהֲרֹ֣ן הַכֹּהֵ֔ן לֹ֣א יִגַּ֔שׁ לְהַקְרִ֖יב אֶת־אִשֵּׁ֣י יְהוָ֑ה מ֣וּם בּ֔וֹ אֵ֚ת לֶ֣חֶם אֱלֹהָ֔יו לֹ֥א יִגַּ֖שׁ לְהַקְרִֽיב׃ לֶ֣חֶם אֱלֹהָ֔יו מִקָּדְשֵׁ֖י הַקֳּדָשִׁ֑ים וּמִן־הַקֳּדָשִׁ֖ים יֹאכֵֽל׃ אַ֣ךְ אֶל־הַפָּרֹ֜כֶת לֹ֣א יָבֹ֗א וְאֶל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֛חַ לֹ֥א יִגַּ֖שׁ כִּֽי־מ֣וּם בּ֑וֹ וְלֹ֤א יְחַלֵּל֙ אֶת־מִקְדָּשַׁ֔י כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְהוָ֖ה מְקַדְּשָֽׁם׃

The LORD spoke further to Moses: Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of hisG"d.
No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes. No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the LORD’s offering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his G"d. He may eat of the food of his G"d, of the most holy as well as of the holy; but he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the LORD have sanctified them. (Lev. 21:16-23)
מ֔וּם Mum. That's the word. That's Mem, Shuruk, Mem Sofit - M- "oo" - m.
It means blemish or defect. It is used in this parasha and some later ones to refer to blemished animals which were unfit to be sacrificed. But here in this parasha, it is also used in a closely connected series of verses (17, 18, 21, 23) to refer to a physical blemish or defect of a human being, i.e. blindness, lameness, broken or odd length arms or legs, hunchbacks, people with growths in their eyes, people with boil scars, or scurvy, or crushed testicles. Any kohanim, any priest who has such a defect may not make the food offering, or go behind the curtain that separates the altar from the rest of the sanctuary.
If you've followed the text, you'll notice I left one defect out. In Hebrew, the word is "dak." The meaning of this word is uncertain, though it seems to mean thin, shrunk or withered-in reference to a human being. While the Sifra to Leviticus believes it is connected to a defect of the eye as referred to in the following words of the pasuk, the JPS translation is "dwarf."

(5760, Edited 5777) Those of you who have met me know that I am only 4'-9" tall. Although technically I am what is called idiopathic short stature or "normal short" I am on the extreme end of that range. I don't have the determining characteristics to be considered a dwarf or midget. As a child, I was routinely examined, my bone-age tracked. The possibility of participating in a early trial of growth hormone treatment was raised, but not pursued. (Turns out that the efficacy of such treatments is questionable and they had other side effects.)

(5777) I was never particularly interested in being "treated" for my height, or wanting science to make me taller. I know some who went through treatments and have suffered as a result, and not gained much height either. The efficacy of a such treatments was always doubtful. Not to mention the ethics. Why should short stature with no underlying medical cause be considered a condition for which there are treatments like growth hormone therapy or leg-lengthening surgeries? Doesn't the existence of such things suggest that our society does discriminate based on height? why should it even matter

Nevertheless, my small size does have its problems, believe me. Physical limitations. 

(5777 - Why, just today, subbing as a teacher in a social studies class at a middle school, I had to ask a taller student to help me change the date on the board, and ask another student to help me clip up a homework assignment for a student who was absent to a designated spot above my reach. I have never, in my entire life, experienced a single trip to the grocery store when I did not have to step up onto something to reach an item (or ask a passerby for help.) Bathrooms mirrors are often too high, and, pardon me for being earthy, but men's restrooms without child-height facilities are no fun. Those can grippers designed for elderly folks see everyday usage in my home - as much for retrieving items from the bottom of the washer as for cans in the cupboard. Don't even get me started on cars, airbags, and all that. There isn't a car made (unless it's a van, pickup, or a truck) in which I can see fully over the hood, even with seat cushions. Pulling in and out of a parking space so I can be straightly aligned is constant. (Having a rear camera on my car helps me do it quicker, but I still have to consult the camera to see how skewed I might be to the lines and adjust. The camera just means I can do it faster, and without having to fully back out of the space. Sure, this is routine for me, and maybe I don't think about it all that much, but there are still moments when I with I didn't have to deal with it.)

(5760) Even subtle discrimination-intentional and unintentional. Imagine, for a moment, what it feels like to always having to be looking upwards to talk to people, how it feels to always be surrounded by people taller than you. It's a problem that can be dealt with-but it IS a problem.

(5777 - Though I am certain that there have been occasions in my life when I was treated differently or even discriminated against due to my height, overall, I have had a positive experience in how people react to my height. Working as I have been doing these past months as a substitute teacher working all the way from Kindergarten to 12th grade, plus all my previous years experiences in classrooms, I've encountered very few students who gave my height more than a moment's initial notice. Sure, I'm certain that students, even colleagues and other adults, when describing me to others, mention my height. Being memorable isn't always a bad thing.)

(5760) Comfortable as I am with my stature, it troubles me to think that, were I a kohen, and, G''d willing, the Beit HaMikdash were rebuilt, I would probably be considered "mum" because I am "dak." In fact, it troubles me greatly that that our Torah labels human beings as defective at all. Why, if we are all b'tzelem Elokim, would G''d refuse the offering of any human, and especially any kohen?
In recent parashiyot, those hotly debated passages regarding homosexuality have still raised the usual stirred and emotional discussions. I'm not going to discuss those issues, but it does seem to me than an awful lot of discussion takes place about those passages, yet others who are discriminated against, or labeled "defective" by the Torah seem to get overlooked. (Ha-ha, I made a funny. The little short guy made a joke about getting "overlooked.")

Well, it's not funny. One who is gay or lesbian often cannot be identified without their own open self-identification of their sexual preference. But one with a "defect," whether it is a disease or condition or accident that put them in a wheel chair, or caused them to lose a limb, or a genetic factor that caused their body to be dwarfish or disfigured, or have a harelip, or develop rosacea or psoriasis, or even one like myself, who is simply extremely short--our "defects" are out in the open. No avoiding them. There is no "don't ask, don't tell" for us. We are discriminated against. And we even discriminate against each other.

(5766-It's sort of sad to sometimes see various special interest groups seek to gain for their own at the expense of others. There is, sadly, only so much to go around, and when one group gets more, someone else usually winds up getting less.)

(5766-I even wonder if we view people who look different from us as having defects? Surely the Nazis saw it that way. And how does this play into our concerns and attitudes about Latino immigrants, refugees in Darfur, etc.)
Now, please don't misunderstand. It's not a matter of "my defect's worse than yours..." I am not suggesting that gays and lesbians have it easy - for they certainly do not in our society, which discriminates against them, openly and secretly.

(5777 - I guess I'm writing this for future readers next time I revise this musing, but all I can say is: Donald Trump is currently President of the United States. That kinda says it all. We're headed in full-speed reverse on many of the positive changes in our society over the last 50 years.)

(5760) But in our rush to be inclusive, who are we leaving out? When I was in second grade, everyone in the class got a chance to put the American flag into it's holder. When my turn came, the teacher passed me by. So I marched right up to her, took the flag from her hands, pulled her chair out from behind her desk, moved it over to the blackboard, climbed up on it, and put the flag in its holder. I don't recall what, if any, repercussions there were from this incident, but I do vividly remember what I did, and how angry I was at being skipped over because of my "defect."

While I don't like to think of my height as a defect, it does present real problems. I can be the victim of discrimination, openly or secretly. As I have alluded to earlier, there are some things I can't do, some tasks that require special effort, or tools or aids. The same is true, and more so, for those who have far more challenging and difficult issues to deal with than I do. (I will not say that I count my blessings every day that I don't have some other "defect" to deal with. That's an attitude that prima facie causes us to discriminate against others who are "less fortunate." What a negative way to think of the other. Not very Buberian at all. Other people, whatever their challenges, their distinguishing or limiting characteristics, are human beings, deserved to be treated as other "Thous.")

(5766-I'll be honest. There are times I have the most shameful thoughts-wishing that I had a "defined handicap" so that I was entitled to the protections and assistance afforded to others through legislation like the American with Disabilities Act. Those are shameful thoughts, and I always feel guilty for even thinking them, knowing that my challenges are minor inconveniences by comparison. Yet I wouldn't be human if there weren't times when, after having to climb up on shelves at the grocery, or waiting forever at a counter because I wasn't noticed, and so on, that I was frustrated enough to wish there were laws to help me out. I've little doubt that waiting around in the elevator as an elementary-school-age child for someone tall enough to push the button for the tenth floor where my family lived impacted the formation of my psyche! Still, I am glad I have my Judaism to remind me to not kvetch, and be grateful for all that I have, but not grateful enough to the point where I demean the worth of those with challenges greater than my own.)

(5777 - I just re-read those words and I'm thinking to myself in what universe are Jews not kvetching? A part of me wanted to say that Judaism has done little to remind us not to kvetch, but I'd be being dishonest if I said that. We may have a history of kvetching, but like all things in our tradition, our texts balance our kvetching with lessons that teach us to not be so whiny. (Sometimes, the lessons are obvious (for example, Korach) sometimes less so (for example. Joseph. Oh sure, he had many faults, but he sure knew how to turn something bad into something good - and he didn't do that by whining and kvetching.) It's our own fault that we're too stiff-necked even after all these millennia to know that other than offering some catharsis, regular kvetching doesn't really help us.)

(5760) I think that all of us want but these simple things: to be treated fairly, not be discriminated against, and to have a place in society where our challenges are not challenges at all.

You know, it troubles me a bit perhaps, that there are synagogues that actively work to be a place where gays and lesbians are not discriminated against, yet, at the same time, there are many more synagogues with only the most minimal handicap accessibility (usually, the bare minimum the code requires, our congregational boards often being good stewards of money, but poor stewards of G''d's mitzvot.) It's not a matter of doing one or the other. It's a matter of doing it all. Inclusivity cannot be selectively inclusive.

(5766-I never mentioned this before, but, back in the days when I was working for North Dakota State University, although it took a few years to actually make it happen, they were quite accommodating when I asked if I could replace the furniture in my office with furniture that was better adapted for my height. And it made a difference when it was finally installed. I will always be proud to have worked for an employer that cared enough about that to address the ergonomics for me.)

(5777 - Things are getting better. Synagogues and Jewish institutions are becoming more aware of the need to be inclusive of those with physical and other challenges. Nevertheless, there's still a long way to go. (Dare I suggest that synagogues stop treating intermarriage like a handicap they can't accommodate?))

(5760) I am saddened that it appears G''d instructed us to exclude the defective from certain priestly services. I hope that there is a better or alternate understanding of the plain meaning of the text here, and I pray that it can be found.

(5766-I'm still looking. Haven't found it yet. Given my penchant for the task of "redeeming seemingly irredeemable" pieces of our sacred texts, I'm surprised I haven't devoted more effort to that! Oh, one can easily create an apologetic. Judaism is good at that. "Women aren't second class. They're already closer to G''d so they don't need to do all those mitzvot!" Even my two favorite crispy critters, Nadav and Avihu-there's an apologetic way of looking at their getting zotzed by G''d that basically says that through their deaths they were brought closer to G''d-perhaps G''d was rewarding and not punishing them. That's one I just don't buy, no matter how many times sages, scholars and others try to sell it to me. So let's see-an apologetic for why the "mum" among us couldn't perform certain priestly functions. Perhaps, as in the apologetic for women, the defect made the person more perfect, and thus the other priests needed to perform these special functions. Nah. Doesn't work. At least not for me. Of course, it could be read as a lesson for all of us, and especially those of us who have a "defect." The lesson? That our "defects" really do impose limitations, and we might not be able to do everything that we really would like to do in spite of (or perhaps in spite for) our defects. Nah, that one fails for me as well, even though I sense a grain of truth in it. There is a great apocryphal story in the theater world of a blind college student who insisted that he be allowed to take a course in theatrical lighting design, and that accommodations be made so that he could design lighting for a show. Sounds crazy, on the one hand. A bit over the top. On the other hand, it's not impossible. And I've known a few people who were blind with the most incredible ability to "vision" who could probably come up with a far more artistic lighting design for a show than any sighted lighting designer could.)

(5766-The same apocryphal story is also told in a "deaf student wanting to become an audio designer" version. If you really think about it, it might not seem such a far-fetched idea. After all, with lots of stepstools, gripping tools, ladders, I can pretty much overcome my height deficit. Then again, I can't ever overcome what I physically look like to other people. Sometimes, that's the worst part. In my early days of managing theaters, I had a regular patron in a wheelchair who came to shows. They once gave me a lecture that really changed my attitude. "You can't really know how I feel" she told me. "And I can also tell you that I have mixed feelings. I hate it when it's obvious I'm in a wheelchair and people rush up to be helpful." "On the other hand," she said, "sometimes I really do need and want the help." 
I took her words to heart. I began requiring my ushers and other staff to spend some time in a wheelchair as part of their training, to see what it was like trying to get around, to see how they reacted when people noticed them and were helpful. I had them see what it was like to be blind and come to our venue. I made them try and understand and listen to a show through a hearing-assist device. We worked in every way to make everyone feel equally welcome and comfortable. We tried to assist those who needed assistance without making them feel helpless. It was all worth it.

(5777) Now that I've built this all up, I need to tear some of it apart. The scholars and various ancient translations disagree on some of the terminology and their meanings.  It seems that "dak" the word translated as "dwarf" could possibly mean "no hair on the eyebrows" (i.e. eyebrowless.) In fact, various scholars and sources offer differing understanding of the various "defects" that would preclude someone from participating in the food rituals of the sacrificial services to G"d. (It appears such people can perform other priestly functions, but not participate in the rituals that involve G"d's bread - extended by understanding to mean G"d's food. such a priest can eat the food, but is not permitted near the altar to offer or sacrifice the food.)

(5777 We also need to think about the other "defects" besides dwarfism that disqualify a priest from these rituals: blindness, being lame, having one limb larger than normal or smaller than normal, a broken leg, a broken arm, a growth in their eye (cataract?), has a hunchback, scurvy, or crushed testicles. Why these particular "defects?" What is it about them that renders a priest unfit to deal with G"d's food?

(5777 and here we are all these years later and I still am unable to redeem these few troubling verses. I refuse to simply chalk it off to our ancestors having more primitive views about such things. That's just lazy, and a bit of a whitewash. That ANY human being who made the march from Egypt and accepted the commandments at Sinai should be discriminated against in this was is atrocious. All the more so for those upon whom G"d has bestowed a hereditary priesthood. G"d's got some 'splaining to do as far as I'm concerned because this just isn't right, fair, or just. (Yes, we can invoke the ineffable G"d, but dear readers, you know how I feel about that. which reminds me, I've wanted to find a place to write this in a musing and finally found one. We know the old question can G"d create a rock too heavy for G"d to lift?" well, try this on for size: Can an ineffable G"d think something so ineffable that even G"d doesn't understand the reasoning? But I digress.)

(5760, edited in 5777) So, for all the mumim and mumot everywhere, the iveyr (blind), the piseyach (lame,) gibeyn (possibly hunchback,) and dak (possibly dwarf, or possibly "no hair on the eyebrows") my prayer that their troubles and afflictions will be heard, and that our synagogues and homes and schools and institutions will strive as much to include them as it has striven to include others.

(5766-and may we also strive to assist where and as much as assistance is needed, and no more, so that we don't demean anyone's sense of self-pride or self-worth.)

(5766-and may someone reading this come up with a way to redeem this irredeemable text that discriminates against priests with bodily defects.)

(5777 Ken y'hi ratson.)

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 (portions 
©2000 and ©2006) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Emor 5775 - Missing the appointment
Emor 5774 - Lex Talionis (Redux & Revised from 5759)
Emor 5773 - The Half-Israelite Blasphemer
Emor 5772-Eternal EffortII: We Have Met the Ner Tamid and It Is Us
Emor 5771-B'yom HaShabbat, B'yom HaShabbat
Emor 5770 - G"d's Shabbat II
Emor 5767-Redux and Revised 5761-Eternal Effort
Emor 5766 - Mum's the Word (Redux 5760 with new commentary for 5766)
Emor 5765-Out of Sync
Emor 5764-One Law for All
Emor 5763-Mishpat Ekhad
Emor 5758-Gd's Shabbat
Emor 5759-Lex Talionis
Emor 5760-Mum's the Word
Emor 5761-Eternal Effort

Friday, May 5, 2017

Random Musings Before Shabbat - Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5777 - Insults Don't Weigh Anything (Revisited from 5767) (or A Hymn to Homonyms)

Twice in parashat Aharei Mot-Kedoshim (well, actually, just Kedoshim) we are told that we must not insult.

First, we must not "insult the deaf" (Lev. 19:14) and later anyone who "insults his mother or father" shall be put to death (Lev. 20:9)

The Hebrew word that is translated in both cases as "insult" is from the Hebrew root Qof-Lamed-Lamed, קלל , which means (among other things) to be light, trifling, slight. In certain verbal forms it might be thought of as "to treat with contempt." Another use of the root means a curse, or to curse.

In the case of insulting the deaf (which, in context appears right before "or put a stumbling block before the blind") the sages argue on exactly what it means to treat a deaf person "lightly." The Rambam suggests that we may be tempted to succumb to being physically violent with a deaf person when we realize our insults are falling on deaf ears, and that is why we should not curse the deaf. I've never been quite sure where Maimonides was going here, because there's an implicit assumption that there may be times when an insult is acceptable, and I don't accept that, nor do I believe it is what Judaism teaches us. To help redeem what the Rambam says, you can spin it this way: we shouldn't put ourselves in a position where we know our words will be ignored, because that will just make us upset, and thus we're more prone to doing something physically violent. There's some rather practical sense in that. However, I think it takes a great deal of skill in discernment to know exactly when our words might be ignored by another to such an extent.

Better, for me, are what the Talmudic sages say: that, of course, we should never insult anyone, and they further suggest that we should not assume it is acceptable to curse or insult someone just because they cannot hear what we are saying. It's another "tree falls in the forest" question, and the sages of the Talmud suggest that whether or not your insults are heard, you have done wrong by uttering them. Maimonides focused on consequences of actions, and the Talmud focuses on the actions themselves, which we should not take. In the end, both viewpoints are about potential hurt - to both the one being insulted and the one doing the insulting. Of course, this hardly makes an insult something that is "light" and trifling. This kind of "light" has heavy implications.

When it comes to insulting our parents, one has to wonder if this is a serious enough offense to warrant a death penalty. Of course, one can spin the translation a bit here as well. With only modest license in Hebrew syntax, you can read the text as saying that one who insults his parents will surely die. In other words, by taking the teaching and instructions of one's parents lightly, or with disdain or scorn, one is likely to wind up dead. When your parents tell you to not cross against the light and remember to look both ways, and you insult them, by taking their wise advice lightly, you certainly do increase your risk of being run over by a car and killed.

It's funny that something (insults) which can inflict such hurt on both those who utter them and those who they are uttered about/to comes from a root that means "light." It's sort of the opposite of the root kaf-bet-dalet - weight, heaviness - the root of words like kavod - honor, glory. Gravitas, if you will. When we do not show "kavod" to someone, it can be as if we are uttering klalim, curses.

In another orthographic oddity of Hebrew, for qof-lamed-lamed קלל there is another homophonic homonym - kaf-lamed-lamed - כלל. Whereas qof-lamed-lamed means light, kaf-lamed-lamed is a root that means complete, perfect, absolutely, everything, all things. Klal Yisrael, the community of Israel, literally, the whole of Israel or everybody of Israel. Klal, meaning rule or principle. Kol, meaning all or everything. (Interestingly enough, Kol, qof-holem vav-lamed, also from the Qof-Lamed-Lamed root, means voice. So our voice is light or slight - yet this "light" thing is enough to create hurt in others by treating them "lightly" or "insultingly." All from the same root. Ya gotta love Hebrew.)

(And speaking of loving Hebrew - a brief side diversion here. Reb Nachman's oft quoted "Life is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is to not fear" ends with the word klal, from the kaf-lamed-lamed root. The last part of the sentence, "v'ha'ikkar lo l'fakheid klal" parses out to "and the principle do not dread is all." Or "and the principle do not dread is rule." Or "and the principle do not dread is everything" Or it could be "and the principle is do not dread everything" - though admittedly Nachman would probably have used a different word at the end if he had truly meant to say "everything." That pesky lack of present tense forms of "to be" just makes it so much fun to guess.

Of course, we could get into the oddities of English. Consider the word "light." Do we mean "not heavy" or do we mean "that mysterious wave-particle duality our brain perceives when it impacts our eyes" or do we mean a fixture or source that produces light" ? It's a pretty safe bet, by the way, that light exists, even when it is not perceived, just as sound does when there's no one around to hear it. And just as insults can hurt, even when hurled at a deaf person. But I digress.)

Insults, when uttered, demean the person who utters them as much as they attempt to demean the person about whom they are uttered. Yet the category of action that the JPS editors and other scholarly bodies translate as "insult" seem to actually represent an entire class of actions - and failures of action. Simply to treat the words and suggestions of another "lightly" is a form of insult. We would all do well to remember this. Far too many conversations these days are "across" each other, rather than true communication-which requires listening and consideration. Yes, a lot of that we can blame on our quest for efficiency, and our over-programmed lives which we believe don't leave us the time required for each and every interaction and conversation we have with another human being to be fully mutual. In a very Buberian sense, in many of our conversations, the other party with whom we are conversing really is an object to us, an it. Our goal often seems to be to get whatever it is we want from this person in the least amount of time and with the least amount of effort possible. Well, when you put in least effort, you get least result.
Now, I'll happily admit that I think I might be far less productive in my work if every little encounter and conversation were truly at a level where both parties were listening intently and considering what the other has to say. Yet I ask myself if that is truly the case. Sometimes we look for efficiency in the wrong place - most often assuming it is to be found in the dimension of time. Might it not be just as efficient if we spent our precious time in the precious act of treating every other human being as a human being, and not as an object? Is this not how true community is created? And is not true cooperation among members of a community sort of the ultimate in efficiency? We can be "efficient" and loving/caring at the same time.

Then again, maybe efficiency isn't all it's cracked up to be. In all things perhaps we need to seek out that "stop and smell the roses" attitude. Imagine if Moshe has been "too busy" to listen to the sage advice offered to him by his father-in-law Yitro, or he only listened with half and ear?

If we accept the idea that taking the thoughts/words/ideas of another lightly, or viewing them as having no import or value is an insult, then I suspect we all spend a lot of time insulting others. Not a good way to live, nor to operate a society. We may think it a matter of small import to not pay full attention to another-but that is, ultimately, a very selfish and self-centered attitude. (Looking at these words ten years later, in our present political circumstances they seem oddly prescient.)

We must remember that while the root of insults may lead us to believe they are matters of treating others lightly, we can't say that insults do not weigh anything. In deed, they are quite a weighty matter, and they can do a lot of damage. So, giving or receiving, don't treat insults (and I use the word in its broadest definition here) lightly. Those insults might (hopefully, will) come back to trouble you.

I read my words and thoughts from 2007 again now in 2017 and my head is spinning. I fear that insults have become so commonplace we have started to accept them as normative discourse. We ought not allow this to be the case. Not that I would wish harm to anyone, but there is a certain poetic justice if Insults do come back to trouble and plague those who so callously and willingly dispense them. Additionally, now is a time when we especially might want to not insult others by treating them and their views lightly. If there was ever a time when understanding each other mattered, this is it. We must not stand idly by as insults and invective are hurled about. We should not tolerate hateful speech, bigotry, prejudice, hate against anyone. While the liberal side that I align myself with has been guilty of misuse of speech and abuse through words, including insults, from my perspective the present administration, both in the executive and legislative branches, have lost all restraint and use insult deliberately and purposefully and we must not allow this to ever become normative.

But let's end on a lighter note. If an insult-er you be, may it be G"d's will that you won't have to wait long for the weight of your insults to come back along the way and weigh you down while you're eating your whey. That was pretty cheesy and I think I've milked that enough. (Now go and think about what variant sentences involving "cursing/insulting the whole/everything/all" might sound like in (Biblical) Hebrew. If you're into altogether amazing alliteration it's quite fun.)

Shabbat Shalom
©2017 (portions ©2007) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha: