Friday, September 29, 2017

Random Musings Before Shabbat–Yom Kippur 5758–Not Just For Ourselves

I had thought about writing a simple, one-line musing this year:

It’s not supposed to be easy.

and leave it at that. But I decided that was too simple, too lazy, and a cop-out. We have all been surrounded by lots of people posting and writing about their understanding of the Yamim Noraim, and, in particular Yom Kippur. Many write of their discomfort – with the rituals, or the expectations, or the liturgy, or any of a thousand other factors. We are supposed to be afflicted – and not just in body, but mind as well. while Yom Kippur asks us to place the focus on our deeds, I don’t think it’s a big stretch to include our wrestling with the very concepts of sin, repentance, etc.,and the ceremonial ways in which Jews are called upon to deal with this at this time of year. Engaging with these things is part of self-reflection.

Ah, there it is. The magic word. Self. And that, as is often the case, if what puts the bee in my bonnet. The ritual and liturgy with which we afflict ourselves on Yom Kippur is meant to be communal, not individual. The communal rituals we engage in do not absolve us of our individual failings. However, that very viewpoint betrays a selfish understanding. There’s no arguing that our tradition has developed an all-encompassing ritual and personal practice that allows for both communal and personal reflection. I won’t argue that’s a bad thing. what I will argue, however, is that I believe most of us shirk the important lesson that the liturgy’s communal focus is intent on teaching us, one that we well know: all Israel (and by extension, all humankind) are responsible for one another.

Yes, we all sin, We all miss the mark. We all sometimes fail to live up to our own expectations. We all sometimes fail to live up to what Judaism expects of us, of what society expects of us (and even, perhaps, what G”d expects of us.) However, I wonder if the greater failing is that we fail to live up to our obligation to help others not sin, not fail.

One of my many quirks is a sometimes tunnel-vision focus on following rules. I readily admit to inconsistency in how and where I apply this, but I do apply this. I’m one of those people that often tries to follow the rules – things like transferring my drivers license, car registration, and title, when I move to a new state within the time period that state mandates. Like seeking to be as honest and complete as I can in filing my taxes. I sometimes do things, or follow rules that many, if not most other people might not, due to issues of cost, inconvenience, etc. I often do these things at a cost to myself.  If there’s a sign somewhere explaining a policy or procedure, I’m rarely the one who will go ask someone in authority if I really need to do that.  I dot my “i” and cross my “t,” I still put lines through my zeroes, sevens. I follow form instructions to the letter, and when there’s something I can;t figure out how to fill out, where other people might leave it blank, I’ll go to great lengths to figure out what to put there. My friends, even my family, often shake their heads at my insistence on following procedures.

At the same time, I have many failings, many faults. I make lots of mistakes, and I often sin, both unintentionally and intentionally. I am not consistent in exhibiting my compulsion to follow procedures and rules – because I am also a rebel at heart. There are some things I do in which I revel at flaunting convention, and not following the informal, and sometimes even formal rules. More often than not, I find myself be lauded for that, as opposed to the ridicule I often receive when I’m in one of my “follow the proper procedures” activities.

Somehow, this feels exactly backwards. Should I not be receiving more rebuke for the times when I fail to follow the rules, than for the opposite? Which brings us back to Yom Kippur. We have become so focused on self-reflection and self-improvement, and I believe we have done so to the detriment of how the ritual teaches us our obligation to insure that the whole community is doing the best it can. I know this is the part that trips most people up. We are uncomfortable with rebuking others.

My response to this is two-fold. First, rebuke is not a bad word, and not always something to be avoided. Secondly, if we believe our communal obligation is restricted to rebuke, we are missing the mark. It is as much about helping others to be able to do the right thing. It’s about not putting stumbling blocks before the blind (or the sighted.) Is not our goal to build a society, a world in which it is easy for people to do the right thing?

Tokekha, rebuke, doesn’t always come hard to us. Most of us have little problem rebuking politicians, other leaders, celebrities, etc.. many of us are quite publicly rebuking POTUS and his minions for their failures to do justly, love mercy,and walk humby with G”d. Parents and teachers do it every day, though perhaps in some cases with more reluctance than in the past (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.) Good friends, they say, are the ones who will tolerate your faults. Good friends can also be the ones who aren’t afraid to call your own faults to your attention. You can be forgiving and accepting while critiquing and even rebuking.

I’m fond of an old Family Circus strip in which the son keeps asking “can I have a cookie” and Mom corrects with “may I” and when he finally says “may I” she replies it’s too close to dinnertime. In this same way, how many roadblocks do we create in our society, in our world, that make it harder than it ought to be naturally for people to do the right thing, to not sin? Yes, I accept that our inner nature is that we will err, we will make mistakes. Given that shouldn’t we strive to create a society that actually changes the odds making it easier for people to be righteous, to not sin? This, I believe, is part of the communal responsibility that Yom Kippur is teaching us. It’s not just to rebuke others so that the community as a whole is the best it can be. It’s actively seeking to help people do the right thing, help them to not sin. Not just a scolding finger, but a helping hand.

It’s a beautiful vision, I think. I also realize it’s a difficult one to achieve at best. Perfection is not a realistic goal – especially if we believe in the dual nature of human beings  - with good and evil inclinations, and believe that both are necessary and part of us. But we can help ourselves and others try to find that balance, to tip the scales for the best of all humanity. Again, a lofty goal. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Lo alecha, and all that.

I won’t wish you an easy fast, for it should not be easy. I do encourage you to do self-reflection and work to be a better human being. I also encourage you to consider how you can help others to be the best they can be. It is not your obligation to finish the task, but neither are you free to refrain from it. Remember when you are confessing at Yom Kippur, you are confessing for all of us, and we all have the obligation to help not only ourselves, but all others in the community to be better in the new year, and always.

Shabbat Shalom, and may we all be sealed for a good year.

©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Yom Kippur 5775 - Afflict Me
Yom Kippur 5774 - Blanket Apologies II
Yom Kippur 5772 - Al Khet Shekhetanu
Yom Kippur 5765 - Blanket apologies

Friday, September 22, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Shabbat Shuvah 5778-Random Rant

OK, what follows is a rant. It is not connected to Shabbat Shuvah or parashat Ha’azinu. It’s a post Rosh Hashanah rant. I commend to you my previous musings for Shabbat Shuvah/Ha’azinu which you can find listed at the end.

Ok, the rant.

Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham…

Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah…

Enough already, Enough with Abraham and Sarah and the Akeidah and Sarah’s harshness to Hagar. Yes, Abraham’s not perfect. Sarah is not perfect. Yet they were still good people. We get it. We understand the lesson. Everywhere I go, every synagogue I have worked, I have heard rabbis drash on and on about the akeidah. Many of them seek, as I do, to find the redemption of seemingly irredeemable texts like the akeidah,or the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael. I do not fault them for that. However, the attempt to whitewash, or justify Abraham and Sarah, or simply the attempt to redeem the text by turning it on its end and explaining the lesson that even good people are not 100% good, that here at this time of t’shuvah, we can and must accept our imperfections – they don’t prevent us being striving to be the best we can be. All of that’s nice. All of that is with good intent. All of that is worth teaching on Rosh Hashanah. But here’s the thing…



(edited update to include)

HAGAR! (proud I caught this before anyone even mentioned it.)

Their names are the ones that bear incessant repetition. They are the true victims here, yet it is not of them we speak.

In fact, Isaac and Ishmael sort of disappear for a while. (As you know, my life’s goal is to write that book of fictional biblical history describing the period when Isaac went to live with Hagar and Ishmael after the akeidah until the time of Sarah’s funeral. I’ve been gathering notes and snippets, and one of these days I really am going to sit down and write the darn thing already.) And, as is sadly typical of the biblical text when it comes to women, Hagar is not heard of again (though some great commentators suggest that Keturah, whom Abraham marries after Sarah’s death, is actually Hagar.)

If Abraham were to do to Isaac today what he did back then, you can just bet Child Protective Services would be all over that obviously unfit family. (Don’t let Sarah off the hook. She knew. She KNEW. I’m sure of it.) Isaac must have suffered the effects of this child abuse for decades. He surely had some form of PTSD. Ishmael, too, must have felt awful, having been rejected by his father, cast-off with his mother. He might not have been to happy to see Isaac when he first came calling, But I am more than willing to bet that once Isaac told Ishmael what had happened, that Ishmael and Hagar took Isaac in with love and concern (and a bit more disrespect and hatred perhaps for Abraham. But now I’m giving away too much of that book I’m going to write…

I recently finished watching the second season of Tig Notaro’s “One Mississippi” on Amazon. In one particularly powerful episode, almost all the characters are forced to deal with the reality of sexual abuse of one form or another. Ignoring it, minimalizing it, excusing it with a “boys will be boys” mentality, just stuffing it might seem like effective tactics, but ultimately ones doomed to fail. We must find a way to confront the ugly things and find ways to come to terms with the reality of them.

In our rush, in our hurry to redeem Abraham and Sarah’s sometimes bad qualities and actions, we must not overlook their victims. True t’shuvah is not possible if we have not at least attempted, in some fashion, to seek the forgiveness of anyone we have wronged. Where are Abraham and Sarah’s acts of contrition? Where and how did they make up for turning Isaac and Ishmael into psychological wrecks? Not that their later lives were totally without good deeds, but on balance, these two actions – the casting out of Hagar, and the attempt to sacrifice Isaac don;t feel fully balanced on the scales of righteousness.

No siree.  I’m not letting them off the hook. They have sins for which they have not repented or attempted restitution. These next 10 days I will have Isaac, Ishmael, and Hagar in mind more than Abraham and Sarah.

Shanah Tovah and Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings for this parasha:

Rosh Hashanah 5770-The Dualities of Life II
Rosh Hashanah 5764-Inscriptions
Rosh Hashanah 5763-The Dualities of Life

Ha'azinu 5776 - Still Not Trifling
Ha'azinu-Shabbat Shuvah 5775 - Who's Got the Last Laugh Now
Ha'azinu/Shabbat Shuvah 5774 - 5774: A Torah Odyssey
Ha'azinu 5772 - An Insincere Hymn?
Ha'azinu/Shabbat Shuvah 5570-Pur Prayers Aren't Bull
Haazinu 5766-Trifles (Updated from 5762)
Haazinu 5765/5763-How would It Look If...
Haazinu 5764-More Bull From Our Lips
Haazinu 5762--Trifles
Haazinu 5760-Bull from Our Lips

Friday, September 15, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Nitzavim-Vayelekh 5777–Witness For

It is hard to imagine that over a dozen years have passed since the tragedies of Hurricane Katrina and Rita, and 16 years since 9/11. Surely it can be no coincidence that here, a decade later, parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech once again falls on the heels of a pair of devastating hurricanes, Harvey and Irma. Once again, I find my theology evolving, changing, adapting. Ten years ago, I wrote about my evolving theology by sharing two previous musings – one written before 9/11, one written just after 9/11, and a few additional words added  in 2005. Last time, I put them in reverse chronological order. This time, I’ll do the opposite –putting them in chronological order,adding some thoughts from this year at the end.  Along the way, you’ll not only see the changes, evolution, and cycles in my philosophies and theologies, you’ll also notice the progression in how I choose to write the word G”d.

Random Musings Before Shabbat - Vayelech 5759 God's Sabbatical

Now that I'm a student at a theological school, critical analysis of biblical text is almost automatic. God said to Moshe that he would soon "lie with his ancestors" and that the people of Israel would go astray amidst the alien gods of the land they were about to enter. Knowing what comes later in the story, one can easily conclude that these words were written after the fact, which of course is problematic for some who view Torah as mi-Sinai. (I personally have little trouble with reconciling critical analysis of the text with religious faith - in my faith view, divine revelation and human effort coexist peacefully.)

In the narrow and historical view, we know the "land you are about to enter." But in reading this text, I began to think in broader terms, longer timespans.

God is dead. God has forsaken us. How could God let the Shoah happen? Views that get a lot of attention these days.

What if we are still in those times that God was referring to. Times when we fall prey to belief in alien gods (like money, computers, vanity, television, etc.). Times when we forsake God and break God's commandments.

Times when we break our covenant with God.

During such times, God tells us, God will flare up angrily, and hide from us. (So, it seems God, too, uses the "silent treatment" when displeased.

Boy, I hate that from anyone. I'd rather just have a nice, good old confrontation and have it over with than deal with the silent treatment


In God's words one can just as easily see a description of the times we live in, and many other times in our history. Maybe, from the time we crossed over into Canaan, we really have been living amidst alien gods and forsaking the covenant our ancestors made with God.

Was there ever a better reason for t'shuvah, for a return to God's ways, and a renewing of the covenant? It's time to bring God back from sabbatical.

A former father-in-law wrote an essay in which he mused on the apparent absence of God during the Shoah. God's answer to my questioning relative in this story was that God had a lot to do and was simply busy elsewhere at the time. (Does omnipresence and omniscience have limits or is that oxymoronic?)

Perhaps instead God is still flared up in anger against us for our having gone astray, forsaking the covenant, and is still hiding God's presence from us. Now, I am not about to even suggest, as some unfortunately do, that the Shoah is punishment for liberal Judaism, or that the Shoah was any kind of judgment or punishment by God. But there is little doubt in my mind that throughout much of our history, we have shown the truthfulness of God's prediction in Vayelech. We've turned our backs on God so God is turning God's back on us.

Pray, pray really hard and with sincerity this Yom Kippur. Do t'shuvah. Keep Shabbat. Try and live your life in keeping with (your understanding of) God's commandments and covenant with us. A little bit here and a little bit here. Do the best you can. Maybe, just maybe, if we all work really hard, we can get God to take a peek and see that we really need God's help, now more than ever.

Random Musings Before Shabbat - Vayelekh 5761 - The Time Is Now

It is rare that words fail me. Last week, I was in such I stupor, that I did not even have the clarity to write all of you a message stating that I was in a stupor and unable to write anything for my Random Musing for Nitzavim 5761! It was all I could do to stay focused enough to get my first day of religious school at my new congregation started last Sunday.

I have yet to come to terms with what happened on 9/11/01, and even now it is difficult to find words.

Three years ago, I wrote a musing for Vayelekh that doesn't work for me anymore. In Parashat Vayelekh, we are told that Gd knows the people Israel will stray after they enter the land, and that Gd will visit some form of retribution or punishment upon them for their transgressions and failure to follow Gd's commandments.

I posited that perhaps we are still in those times, and that throughout history Gd's anger with us has flared up, with one result being the "silent treatment." It was "Gd's Sabbatical" as I called that musing.

I wrote:

"Perhaps instead Gd is still flared up in anger against us for our having gone astray, forsaking the covenant, and is still hiding Gd's presence from us. Now, I am not about to even suggest, as some unfortunately do, that the Shoah is punishment for liberal Judaism, or that the Shoah was any kind of judgment or punishment by Gd. But there is little doubt in my mind that throughout much of our history, we have shown the truthfulness of Gd's prediction in Vayelech. We've turned our backs on Gd so Gd is turning Gd'sback on us."

However, in the days following 9/11/01, I feel that Gd has been more present than ever. We see it in the countless acts of unselfish charity and giving of assistance. We see it in thre martyrdom of passengers on a hijacked plane now lying in a field in Pennsylvannia. We see it in the coming together of communities, of ecumenical camaraderie. We see it in our almost universal determination as the human race to remove the scourge of terrorisim from our midst. A cause that even Gd seemed to take up, once upon a time, with the great flood. We see it, also, in the cries of those who caution us against an application of the lex talionis, (the eye-for-en-eye concept) urging us not to callously attach innoncent people just because they happen to live in a country that harbors terrorists, or just because they happen to be a Muslim or of Arabic descent.

In my previous musing, I took great pains to distance myself from those who might view the Shoah as punishment from Gd for Jewish transgressions, just as I now equally refute the blasphemous pronouncements of Jerry Falwell and others on this same subject in reference to 9/11/01.

However the fact remains that, as Jews, as the human species, we still leave much to be desired. We still ignore Gd, ignore Gd's commandments, sometimes, even as we make a great show of our religion and faith.

When we were slaves in Egypt, it took a lot of hue and cry to get Gd's attention. (And even after we were freed, many of us complained we were better off in Egypt as slaves!) Is is that we don't cry out enough these days?

Dear Gd, what does it take to get your attention, to get you to return from your apparent sabbatical? The crusades, the inquisition, the pogroms weren't enough? The Shoah wasn't enough? September 11, 2001 wasn't enough? Or was it? I have seen a spirit in this country, among my friends, Jew and non-Jew alike that I have not seen before in such numbers. Might this not be a sign that perhaps that Gd who neither slumbers nor sleeps but watches over Israel always is awake, and no longer (if Gd ever was) on that sabbatical?

Last year, I wrote about what I think is the real denouement of the Torah, 30:19-21, where we are told that the Torah exists to be a witness against us in our sins. L'eyd B'vnei Yisrael.

Has she not been witness against us long enough? We have the potential, here, now, in this time and place, to reclaim this relationship with Gd, to have the Torah be not witness against us, but rather we as witness for the Torah, and for Gd.

As I wrote last year:

"For is it not obvious to us all by now? Light from dark. Day from night.

Land from water. Sacred from profane. Blessing and curse. A witness against our transgressions yet the freedom to interpret that very witness ourselves.

We have come full circle from creation.

May this New Year be a year when we all dedicate ourselves to making ourselves witnesses FOR Torah, rather than allowing Torah to be a witness AGAINST us.

It is all around us-this new found spirit of determination to remove evil from our midst, but also the caution to do it in a just and righteous way.

This righteous spirit to care for those in need, to console the bereaved, to honor the memories of the dead and keep their memories alive. Opportunities abound for us to do righteous deeds, to be charitable.

During these days of awe, what better time to reflect on this opportunity,what better time to really bring ourselves to do t'shuvah-to return to Gd. To walk in Gd's ways and follow Gd's commandments.

Ken y'hi ratsoneinu. May this be our will.

Vayelekh 5765 - The Time Is Still Now


Back in 1998 I wrote a musing for Vayelekh entitled "G"d's Sabbatical." Then in 2001, still rebounding from 9/11 I wrote a new musing entitled "The Time Is Now" in which I spoke of some discomfort with what I had written in 1998.

Oddly enough, once again rebounding from the tragedies that have befallen us with Katrina and Rita (and all other tragedies around the world) I find myself swinging like a pendulum towards more of the viewpoint of the 1998 musing. Somewhere between the two viewpoints is a synthesis of how I am feeling. Thus I share both with you, in the hopes that we can all try and synthesize something useful out of them. (P.S. You can observe the continuing evolution with how I deal with writing G"d. G"d is my most recent choice, as I like the idea of using the quotation marks to represent the yud-yud abbreviation for Ad"nai-it does say to me that when I write G"d I do specifically mean that G"d that is known to the Jewish people as Ad"nai.)

(I placed the entirety of the 5659 and 5761 musings here.)

Nitzavim-Vayelekh 5777 – Witness For (or Time Cycle)

Torah as witness against us, or we as witnesses for Torah. It’s not a clear choice, it’s not an either-or option. As in some many things in life, so many things in Judaism, we need both, and we must seek a balance between them. We will be judged (in whatever fashion it suits you to understand that concept) against the standard that Torah sets for us.

I recognize the slippery slope represented by the idea of Torah as witness against us. It presumes that our failings as human beings, as a society, as a nation become justification for G”d to punish us. That’s only one small step away from the onerous ideas that have been floated around by religious people of all faiths to explain natural disasters. Blame the gays. Blame abortion. Blame people who aren’t like us. Blame the liberal Jews. Blame the Muslims. That way is simply madness. It violates the most basic principle of v’havata l’reiakha kamokha – love your neighbor as yourself.

On the opposite side, it’s easy to blame global warming, and all the negative effects of humankind’s attempt to wrest control of our universe from the universe itself. Or we can blame nature for being unpredictable. Even with all our science, predicting a hurricane’s path still eludes us a bit. Nature and the universe laugh in our faces.

Blame all you will, it is not enough. Only action will make a difference. We decry what is happening to our planet, but few of us willingly make the changes and sacrifices needed to make a difference. “Other people will do it,” we rationalize. One person can’t make a difference, and one person won’t tip the balance. Newsflash, folks. If most people believe that, we’re doomed.

Just as Torah can be a witness against us, our planet, our universe can be a witness against us. If we aren’t careful, if we don’t think about the consequences of what we do, if we don’t work to mitigate and reverse the damages we cause, then our planet, our universe will witness against us – in disasters we can’t even imagine. So is Torah really all that far off with its analogous ideas?

I don’t see Harvey and Irma as retribution or punishment for anything, but I am easily convinced that our rape of our planet is one cause and effect behind increasingly more severe and deadly storms. Our planet is witnessing against us. It is time for us to step up and witness for our planet, for ourselves, for Torah.

May we be written and sealed for a good year.

May we write and seal ourselves for an even better year.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah


©2017 (portions ©1998, 2001 and 2005) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Nitzavim 5776 - Hiatus End - Lo Bashamayim Hi (Redux 5757ff)
Vayeilekh/Shabbat Shuvah 5776 - Cows and Roses
Nitzavim 5775 - Lo Bashamayim Hi (Revised Classic from 5757)
Nitzavim-Vayeilekh 5774 - Even Lola Doesn't Always Get What She Wants
Nitzavim-Vayeilekh 5773 - Opening Our Own Hearts
Nitzavim 5772 - Where or When?
Nitzavim/Vayeilekh 5770 - Flawed, Schmawed
Nitzavim/Vayeilekh 5769 - Disconencting the Reconnecting the Dots
Vayeilekh_Shabbat Shuvah 5769 - Cows and Roses
Nitzavim/Vayeilekh 5766 - Keep Looking
Vayelekh 5765-The Time Is Still Now
Nitzavim 5765-To Lo Or Not To Lo
Nitzavim/Vayelekh 5763-Connect the Dots
Nitzavim 5757/5759/5764-Lo Bashamayim Hi
Nitzavim 5758-Not By Ourselves
Nitzavim/Vayelekh 5760/67-L'eyd B'vnei Yisrael-The Real Denouement
Nitzavim 5761 was the week of Sept. 11, 2001. There was no Musing.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Ki Tavo 5777–We Are But Uncut Stones

Here we are in the middle of Elul. Hurricane Harvey recently wreaked havoc in Texas. Hurricane Irma is wreaking havoc in the Caribbean and is heading for Florida. Mexico just suffered a huge earthquake. North Korea is rattling sabers again. Our country is more divided than it has ever been, even in the midst of these disasters (though the disasters have brought out the best in people, as they often do.) In this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, is a recitation of the most horrendous calamities – a literal catalog of calamities. Cleverly, the rabbis connected a haftarah from Isaiah with an uplifting and positive message to rise and shine. This parasha has inspired in me a reflection upon how we engage in behavior modification. It has caused me to reflect, like Naomi Shemer, on the the bitter and the sweet, on all these things. This year, I wanted to circle back to a musing from a decade ago.

Our parasha, Ki Tavo, is rich with things to exegete. Blessings and curses, sins committed in secret, the "My father was a fugitive Aramean..." recitation of the first fruits ceremony and tithes, the conclusion of the covenanting in Moab. The blessings and curses alone could occupy one for an entire lifetime of consideration. I commend it all to you.

What struck me this week as I was reading the parasha was the instructions for erecting stones on Mt. Ebal on which the text of the Torah were to be inscribed, and then the building of an altar of stone. (I’m trying to imagine two large stones onto which the entire text of the Torah is carved, and I’m failing, though I suppose it’s possible. It would take a lot of time, and rather small letters. Perhaps this is something I’ll explore in a future musing.)  Paralleling the  instructions in Ex. 20:22, the Israelites are told that iron tools are not to be used in constructing the altar-the altar is to be built of natural, whole stones. (It’s not entirely clear if the two large stones onto which the text of Torah is carved had to be of unhewn stones, and if the engraving into the plaster had to be done without the use of an iron tool as well. Again, more fodder for a future musing.)

Why unhewn stones? Consider some connections. Jacob dreamed while his head was on a whole stone “pillow.” The patriarchs set up stones as markers and altars.  People are punished by stoning. Moshe struck a rock to bring forth water (when all he needed to do, according to G”d, was speak to the stone.)The tower of Babel was made of bricks – a sort of artificial stone. The many labors in which the Israelites engaged when enslaved in Egypt may have involved the use of hewn stones (though I hasten to remind us that we were forced to build storehouses, not pyramids. So hewn stone has some negative associations. Hewn stone can also have positive connotations. Hewn stones are civilized, uncut/natural stones are earthy.

The altar in Solomon’s Temple may (or may not) have built with unhewn stones. It’s not entirely clear, though it is likely the basic understructure was built to biblical specifications. It was all covered in brass, so while it may have sat atop uncut stones, it was a more ornate affair (unlike the one which Joshua erected, after the Israelites came into Israel, which was made of unhewn stones.) The altar in the second Temple was square in shape, and also ornate. When the Hasmoneans restored the second Temple after Antiochus IV Epiphanes has desecrated it with idols, it is said that the defiled altar’s stones were replaced with new unhewn stones. (The old, defiled stones were left on the Temple mount because, defiled as they were, they were still sanctified. In I Maccabees chapter 4, it says the stones should remain on holy ground until a prophet would come along and say what should be done with them.) So the altar may have been square, but its core was of unhewn stone.

We Jews have a long history of workarounds for difficult Biblical restrictions (and we compiled them into what we now call Halacha.) To get around the restriction that the altar could not utilize steps lest a person’s nakedness be exposed while they were walking up to it, the first and second Temple used ramps.  The question we must ask ourselves is whether keeping the altar at a lower, reachable height for the average human being might have been a more appropriate solution than raising up the altar and using a ramp to reach it. Similarly, are adorning an altar of unhewn stone with brass, or building a structure of hewn stone around the uncut stone at the center and appropriate interpretation of G”ds instructions on how to build the altar? There is much to consider, and even more so in our own time. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Natural, whole, unhewn stones. At first, it may seem an odd choice. Surely G"d's altar should be a magnificent structure, finely constructed, polished and ornamented. After all, we are taught that our sacrifices must be taken from the best, the finest of our flocks, our harvest, etc. We take our cream of the crop and offer it up to G"d. (That certainly seems to be the spin the Solomon and the rulers of Israel used to justify the ornate altar in the Temple.) Yet G”d says we must offer up our sacrifices upon a crude altar.

Why this odd juxtaposition? Does the crudeness of the altar signify the necessarily crude and cruel act of killing an animal? Does it signify the raw, natural state of the act of sacrifice? Does it, as Martin Buber suggests, teach us that G"d prefers the natural prayers of the heart to the more formal, structured prayer?

Though I do tend to favor Buber's understanding, I cannot be certain it is the true understanding of the meaning of building the altar of uncut stones. Nevertheless, I do find myself wondering what our modern equivalent to honor this commandment might be. Are our altars made roughly? Hardly. Most of our synagogues are ornate, polished, finely detailed and built structures, with bimahs to match. The words of the Torah, instead of being etched or written on plaster atop large stones, and painstakingly and ornately scribed onto parchment. We cover our Torahs with beautiful adornments.

Perhaps it is this very ornate and structured environment that causes us to be less than forthcoming with our very deepest prayers, and prayers that are the equivalent of the sacrifices of our finest animals, fruits, etc. Where, in our Jewish tradition, is the earthy manger of the Christian tradition? Do we purposefully and deliberately distance ourselves from the earthiness of a crude altar upon which blood is spattered, and animals and other items are burnt as sacrifices.Perhaps we need to recreate this very natural and crude state in our own sanctuaries.Perhaps our bimahs should be rustic.

Perhaps we should have less comfortable chairs in our synagogues - maybe we should sit on natural stones, or tree stumps. (I know from experience that worship in such natural settings as are often found in Jewish camps can be very powerful.) Maybe the floors should be of natural stones? Or even dirt. That might get us a little closer to the idea. We might place simple furniture on our bimahs, place plain covers over our Torahs, and generally avoid ostentation in our sanctuaries.

What was it that drove our ancestors to place a simple stone altar inside a huge, ornate structure? They claim it was to honor G”d, but I suspect showing off had a lot more to do with it. How shall we build and house our altars?

I guess it all depends on what we determine is our "altar." If our prayers, our words, are the substitutes for the sacrifices, upon what natural altar shall we offer them up?

Perhaps we, ourselves, are the altar. So perhaps we need to be what is "natural." (Maybe we should pray in the nude?)

A look back at the Hebrew yields what might be a clue. What we translate as natural, uncut, or un-hewn stone are the words

אֲבָנִים שְׁלֵמוֹת

"avanim sh'leimot,"

literally, "whole stones" (or "complete stones," thus the “uncut,” “unhewn,” or “natural” translations.)

Does this teach us that when we are not whole, when we are not complete, that we are unfit altars upon which to offer the sacrifices of our lips? Yet so many of us are not whole, not complete, and it is for this very wholeness or completeness for which we pray. So I come back to the translation "natural." Perhaps it just means that we need to just be who we are, in order to be the proper altar upon which to offer the sacrifices of our lips. We must be an uncut stone. No frippery or finery. No suits or ties. Just the clothes we would normally wear, the attitudes and mannerisms we might normally have.

All the finest trappings won't make our prayers better. Being ourselves is what makes us fit altars.

When you pray, be an uncut, whole, natural stone. Be yourself.

Shabbat Shalom,


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

Other musings on this parasha:

Ki Tavo 5775 - Rise and Shine (Redux 5761)
Ki Tavo 5774 - They Don't Make Them Like They Used To
Ki Tavo 5773 - Catalog of Calamities (Redux and Greatly Revised 5760)
Ki Tavo 5772 - Mi Yitein Erev? Mi Yitein Boker?
Ki Tavo 5771 - Curse This Parasha!
Ki Tavo 5769 - If It Walks and Talks Like a Creed...
Ki Tavo 5767 - Uncut Stones
Ki Tavo 5764-Al Kol Eileh (in memory of Naomi Shemer, z"l)
Ki Tavo 5763--Still Getting Away With It?
Ki Tavo 5760--Catalog of Calamities
Ki Tavo 5761--Rise & Shine
Ki Tavo 5762--Al Kol Eileh