Friday, December 28, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Sh’mot 5779—Unsatisfactory Legal Fictions

How could I have missed it? It’s right there in plain sight. I’ve read it many times, yet it never seemed to give me pause until now. Perhaps it escaped my notice because there is so much else to focus on in this parasha? Maybe it’s not as big a deal as I’m making it, but for some reason, this year I couldn’t just breeze past it.

Commanded by G”d to go to Egypt and direct Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go into the dessert so they might worship their G'”d (yet knowing full well G”d’s true intention to totally humiliate Pharaoh by making Pharaoh stubbornly obstinate to the point that he brings about his own fate, while simultaneously promising to bring the Hebrews into the promised land – even though they are, admittedly, even pointedly noted, currently occupied by other tribes) Moshe complains he isn’t up to the task, being an inarticulate speaker. (How’s that for a run-on sentence, eh?)

G”d, perhaps showing some signs of maturity (especially after the antics in B’reishit) doesn’t have a hissy fit when Moshe politely tries to refuse the command. One might almost expect G”d to really lay in to Moshe, but G”d just says “Is it not I that gives humanity the ability to speak or not speak? Now chill, I will be with you.

Moshe, however, is foolish enough to dig himself in deeper, and begs G”d to choose someone else. The text then says that G”d became angry with Moshe. However, I think G”d was showing even greater maturity and patience than just a moment ago, and didn’t display that anger. It’s as if G”d took a deep breath and then said “OK. Your brother Aharon is a good speaker, he’s on his way even now to meet you [More on that in a bit]  and he’ll be happy to see you.” You speak and put the words in Aharon’s mouth – I will be with you and him as you speak, and tell you both what to do…”

And then we get this:

וְדִבֶּר־ה֥וּא לְךָ֖ אֶל־הָעָ֑ם וְהָ֤יָה הוּא֙ יִֽהְיֶה־לְּךָ֣ לְפֶ֔ה וְאַתָּ֖ה תִּֽהְיֶה־לּ֥וֹ לֵֽאלֹהִֽים׃

and he shall speak for you to the people. Thus he shall serve as your spokesman, with you playing the role of God to him,

This year, as I read those words, I thought to myself – WTAF? This Deity, who over the course of the next few books of the Torah will self-define as a merciful yet jealous G”d, and proclaim there shall be no idols or images of the Divine, no worship of others, and even insures later that Moshe is buried in an unmarked grave so he will not become deified uses this particular simile? Seems on odd choice. Perhaps those who believe that G”d has everything all planned out from beginning to end have got it all wrong, and G”d is, just like us, being extemporaneous  (or to be more blunt, making it up as G”d goes along, or, even more blunt, winging it.) For many the idea of a G”d that has a plan and sticks to it is comforting. For me, the notion of a G”d who is just riffing is actually far more comforting. It makes G”d seem more human. Does that make any sense?  Many cultures have certainly imbued their gods with human characteristics.

Speaking of winging it, let’s go back to where this happened:

וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֨ף יְהוָ֜ה בְּמֹשֶׁ֗ה וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הֲלֹ֨א אַהֲרֹ֤ן אָחִ֙יךָ֙ הַלֵּוִ֔י יָדַ֕עְתִּי כִּֽי־דַבֵּ֥ר יְדַבֵּ֖ר ה֑וּא וְגַ֤ם הִנֵּה־הוּא֙ יֹצֵ֣א לִקְרָאתֶ֔ךָ וְרָאֲךָ֖ וְשָׂמַ֥ח בְּלִבּֽוֹ׃

14. The LORD became angry with Moses, and He said, “There is your brother Aaron the Levite. He, I know, speaks readily. Even now he is setting out to meet you, and he will be happy to see you.

Now let’s skip ahead to this:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֔ן לֵ֛ךְ לִקְרַ֥את מֹשֶׁ֖ה הַמִּדְבָּ֑רָה וַיֵּ֗לֶךְ וַֽיִּפְגְּשֵׁ֛הוּ בְּהַ֥ר הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים וַיִּשַּׁק־לֽוֹ׃

27. The LORD said to Aaron, “Go to meet Moses in the wilderness.” He went and met him at the mountain of God, and he kissed him.

Notice this comes 13 verses later, after the whole bridegroom of blood thing. Now there is plenty of evidence that one should not always think of the Torah as using linear time. Nevertheless, it does raise the question if G”d told a little white lie, telling Moshe that Aharon was already on his way to meet him (verse 14) when in reality at that point, G”d was planning to instruct Aharon to go meet his brother but had not yet done so. Yes, the way this story is told in the text of Torah may be dependent upon the fact the humans experience time in a  linear fashion, and G”d may not be subject to that limitation. G”d had every intention of making sure Aharon was on his way to meet up with Moshe at the moment he told Moshe this is what would happen.

If we want to get picky about the language, then extemporaneity is not exactly the same as being impromptu, off the cuff, or winging it. Extemporaneous, by definition, implies that the individual who is being extemporaneous has, in fact, prepared in advance to be able to do so. Instead of reading from an entire prepared script, they might use a few note cards or an outline. Impromptu implies no advance planning. Winging it. Shooting from the hip. The reality is that all of them require skill. Experts make it look easy, but it’s not easy at all.

In a universe were G”d is omniscient and omnipotent, G”d being able to be impromptu is at once easy yet anathema. The omnipotence enables the unpredictable to actually have been “part of the plan all along” as, when One is the creator of the universe, One can simply instantly change the Universe so that it now conforms to a new reality. Like a time travel story in which you go back, change something (advertently or inadvertently) and when you arrive back in your own time, historical records now reflect the changed reality. The omniscience should render the impromptu unnecessary. If G”d knows all, then everything is as it should be at all times, is that no so?

You see where this is leading, don’t you? We’ve had this conversation before. G”d creates a perfect Universe. G”d is amused and enjoys it for a few minutes and then remains bored for all the rest of eternity. So G”d puts a little chaos and randomness into the system. G”d gives humanity free will. I read incongruent bits of text like the ones we are discussing here as hints left by G”d to clue us in that what we may perceive as completely thought out from beginning to end Divine plan is, in fact, situationally responsive to account for the randomness that has been made part of our reality. G”d adjusts as necessary. As G”d of all creation, G”d can be extemporaneous, impromptu, even just plain winging it. Now with great power comes great responsibility. I’m not entirely sure, based on what I have learned about G”d from the Torah, that G”d is truly not always skilled enough to handle the randomness. G”d has created a stone too big for G”d to lift. So we employ rule number 2. (Rule number one is “G”d.” Rule number two is: If “but…” refer to rule one.)

Referring back to our little possible premature declaration to Moshe about Aharon coming to meet him. We have the non-linear defense, We have the irrelevant defense. We have the G”d changes reality simply by doing things explanation. Oh, wow, I get to quote some Gilbert and Sullivan here, from just before the finale to The Mikado:

Ko-Ko: When Your Majesty says “Let a thing be done,” it’s as good as done—practically it is done—because Your Majesty’s will is law. Your Majesty says, “Kill a gentleman,” and a gentleman is told off to be killed. Consequently, that gentleman is as good as dead—practically, he is dead—and if he is dead, why not say so?”

Mikado: I see! Nothing could possibly be more satisfactory.

The reader of the Torah is merely asked to provide the legal fiction on their own, since the Torah is not explicit about it. G”d said a thing was happening, ergo it must be happening, must have been happening, even though G”d is portrayed as initiating the action at a later time than the pronouncement.

We can invoke more than G&S here, and comnvolute the discussion. Perhaps some Leibniz:

"It is generally agreed that whatever God wills is good and just. But there remains the question whether it is good and just because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good and just; in other words, whether justice and Goodness are arbitrary or whether they belong to the necessary and eternal truths about the nature of things."

Now my head is spinning.

OK, that G&S quote may or my not get one past the linear time sending Aharon to Moshe issue. Doesn’t quite get me where I need to go on the “Moshe you shall be like a god to Aharon” thing. Why that exact turn of phrase when others could have been equally effective? What does this tell us about the relationship between Moshe and his older brother?

If G”d dictated the Torah, word for word, G”d could certainly have decided to alter reality after the fact and make it as if G”d had never used the “like a god to Aharon” simile. So if Torah mi Sinai is your thing, you’re stuck with this. Enjoy the rabbinical and translator whitewashes on this, because they’re all you’ve got to make sense of it. Or just refer to rule 2. You might find that easier.

If, like me, you’re more inclined to other theories about the origin of Torah, explaining either Divinely-inspired or purely human choice to use that “like a god to Aharon” phrasing remains a puzzlement (or betrays a lack of understanding of the power of using such a powerful simile in such an innocuous manner.)

When G”d says “Moshe, you shall be like a G”d to Aharon” it’s as good as true—practically, it is true—because G”d’s word is law. You say “one human shall be like a G”d to his brother” yet you tell us that we shall have no other G”ds before You.

Nothing could possibly be less satisfactory.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Sh'mot 5778 - Logic and Metaphysics (Revisited)
Sh'mot 5777 - Free Association V
Sh'mot 5776 - [SPOILER ALERT]
Sh'mot 5775 - Why Us (Redux 5765)
Sh'mot 5774 - Pas De Deux
Sh'mot 5773 - Wicked, Wonderful Moral Ambiguities
Sh'mot 5772 - Is Might Ever Right?
Sh'mot 5771 - Free Association IV
Sh'mot 5767-Logic & Metaphysics
Shemot 5766 - Free Association III
Shemot 5765-Why Us?
Shemot 5764-Uncomsumed-ness
Shemot 5763 - Free Association II
Shemot 5760-Tzaz Latzav, Tzav Latzav
Shemot 5761-The Spice of Life
Shemot 5762-Little Ol' Me?

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayigash 5779—Reconciling: Are You Into It?

I like to keep things balanced in my accounts. So I expect things in Torah to balance as well. But sometimes, when you try and reconcile things in the Torah, it’s not so easy. The numbers don’t always balance out. We have an example right here in Vayigash.

First, we have this:


וּקְח֧וּ אֶת־אֲבִיכֶ֛ם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּיכֶ֖ם וּבֹ֣אוּ אֵלָ֑י וְאֶתְּנָ֣ה לָכֶ֗ם אֶת־טוּב֙ אֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם וְאִכְל֖וּ אֶת־חֵ֥לֶב הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Take your father and your households and come to me; I will give you the best of the land of Egypt and you shall live off the fat of the land.’


וְאַתָּ֥ה צֻוֵּ֖יתָה זֹ֣את עֲשׂ֑וּ קְחוּ־לָכֶם֩ מֵאֶ֨רֶץ מִצְרַ֜יִם עֲגָל֗וֹת לְטַפְּכֶם֙ וְלִנְשֵׁיכֶ֔ם וּנְשָׂאתֶ֥ם אֶת־אֲבִיכֶ֖ם וּבָאתֶֽם׃

And you are bidden [to add], ‘Do as follows: take from the land of Egypt wagons for your children and your wives, and bring your father here.


וְעֵ֣ינְכֶ֔ם אַל־תָּחֹ֖ס עַל־כְּלֵיכֶ֑ם כִּי־ט֛וּב כָּל־אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לָכֶ֥ם הֽוּא׃

And never mind your belongings, for the best of all the land of Egypt shall be yours.’”


וַיַּֽעֲשׂוּ־כֵן֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וַיִּתֵּ֨ן לָהֶ֥ם יוֹסֵ֛ף עֲגָל֖וֹת עַל־פִּ֣י פַרְעֹ֑ה וַיִּתֵּ֥ן לָהֶ֛ם צֵדָ֖ה לַדָּֽרֶךְ׃

The sons of Israel did so; Joseph gave them wagons as Pharaoh had commanded, and he supplied them with provisions for the journey.

Then we have this:


וַיִּסַּ֤ע יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְכָל־אֲשֶׁר־ל֔וֹ וַיָּבֹ֖א בְּאֵ֣רָה שָּׁ֑בַע וַיִּזְבַּ֣ח זְבָחִ֔ים לֵאלֹהֵ֖י אָבִ֥יו יִצְחָֽק׃

So Israel set out with all that was his, and he came to Beer-sheba, where he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac.


וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ לְיִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּמַרְאֹ֣ת הַלַּ֔יְלָה וַיֹּ֖אמֶר יַעֲקֹ֣ב ׀ יַעֲקֹ֑ב וַיֹּ֖אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי׃

God called to Israel in a vision by night: “Jacob! Jacob!” He answered, “Here.”


וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אָנֹכִ֥י הָאֵ֖ל אֱלֹהֵ֣י אָבִ֑יךָ אַל־תִּירָא֙ מֵרְדָ֣ה מִצְרַ֔יְמָה כִּֽי־לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל אֲשִֽׂימְךָ֥ שָֽׁם׃

And He said, “I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation.


אָנֹכִ֗י אֵרֵ֤ד עִמְּךָ֙ מִצְרַ֔יְמָה וְאָנֹכִ֖י אַֽעַלְךָ֣ גַם־עָלֹ֑ה וְיוֹסֵ֕ף יָשִׁ֥ית יָד֖וֹ עַל־עֵינֶֽיךָ׃

I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.”


וַיָּ֥קָם יַעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיִּשְׂא֨וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־יַעֲקֹ֣ב אֲבִיהֶ֗ם וְאֶת־טַפָּם֙ וְאֶת־נְשֵׁיהֶ֔ם בָּעֲגָל֕וֹת אֲשֶׁר־שָׁלַ֥ח פַּרְעֹ֖ה לָשֵׂ֥את אֹתֽוֹ׃

So Jacob set out from Beer-sheba. The sons of Israel put their father Jacob and their children and their wives in the wagons that Pharaoh had sent to transport him;


וַיִּקְח֣וּ אֶת־מִקְנֵיהֶ֗ם וְאֶת־רְכוּשָׁם֙ אֲשֶׁ֤ר רָֽכְשׁוּ֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן וַיָּבֹ֖אוּ מִצְרָ֑יְמָה יַעֲקֹ֖ב וְכָל־זַרְע֥וֹ אִתּֽוֹ׃

and they took along their livestock and the wealth that they had amassed in the land of Canaan. Thus Jacob and all his offspring with him came to Egypt:


בָּנָ֞יו וּבְנֵ֤י בָנָיו֙ אִתּ֔וֹ בְּנֹתָ֛יו וּבְנ֥וֹת בָּנָ֖יו וְכָל־זַרְע֑וֹ הֵבִ֥יא אִתּ֖וֹ מִצְרָֽיְמָה׃

he brought with him to Egypt his sons and grandsons, his daughters and granddaughters—all his offspring.

Pharaoh clearly instructs Joseph and his brothers to fetch Jacob, but to not bother bringing any of their “stuff” with them, as Egypt will provide all they need. Jacob and his sons clearly ignore (or forget) this admonition and bring with them all of Jacob’s accumulated wealth.

Now, one could argue that Pharaoh was referring only to household possessions. I think that’s a real stretch. So,Egyptian Pharaohs were certainly known for insisting their orders be followed as given. So why did Joseph, his brothers, and father get a pass in this case? Was Pharaoh just being a polite host? Was Pharaoh just trying not to cause any trouble between him and Joseph? Was Pharaoh truly grateful enough to Joseph that he would ignore this outright contempt for his instructions?

Why did Pharaoh issue the instruction in the first place? Was he so certain that Egypt was so cultural superior, that Joseph’s father and extended family wouldn’t miss their ratty old possessions? Perhaps Pharaoh had a hidden motive, seeking to lure the family away from its nomadic shepherding lifestyle? Maybe Pharaoh could steer them into forms of livelihood more suitable to supporting the Egyptian state?

Well, there’s this:


וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יוֹסֵ֤ף אֶל־אֶחָיו֙ וְאֶל־בֵּ֣ית אָבִ֔יו אֶעֱלֶ֖ה וְאַגִּ֣ידָה לְפַרְעֹ֑ה וְאֹֽמְרָ֣ה אֵלָ֔יו אַחַ֧י וּבֵית־אָבִ֛י אֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּאֶֽרֶץ־כְּנַ֖עַן בָּ֥אוּ אֵלָֽי׃

Then Joseph said to his brothers and to his father’s household, “I will go up and tell the news to Pharaoh, and say to him, ‘My brothers and my father’s household, who were in the land of Canaan, have come to me.


וְהָאֲנָשִׁים֙ רֹ֣עֵי צֹ֔אן כִּֽי־אַנְשֵׁ֥י מִקְנֶ֖ה הָי֑וּ וְצֹאנָ֧ם וּבְקָרָ֛ם וְכָל־אֲשֶׁ֥ר לָהֶ֖ם הֵבִֽיאוּ׃

The men are shepherds; they have always been breeders of livestock, and they have brought with them their flocks and herds and all that is theirs.’


וְהָיָ֕ה כִּֽי־יִקְרָ֥א לָכֶ֖ם פַּרְעֹ֑ה וְאָמַ֖ר מַה־מַּעֲשֵׂיכֶֽם׃

So when Pharaoh summons you and asks, ‘What is your occupation?’


וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֗ם אַנְשֵׁ֨י מִקְנֶ֜ה הָי֤וּ עֲבָדֶ֙יךָ֙ מִנְּעוּרֵ֣ינוּ וְעַד־עַ֔תָּה גַּם־אֲנַ֖חְנוּ גַּם־אֲבֹתֵ֑ינוּ בַּעֲב֗וּר תֵּשְׁבוּ֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ גֹּ֔שֶׁן כִּֽי־תוֹעֲבַ֥ת מִצְרַ֖יִם כָּל־רֹ֥עֵה צֹֽאן׃

you shall answer, ‘Your servants have been breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers’—so that you may stay in the region of Goshen. For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.”

We’ve been told here in the Torah that Egyptians abhor shepherds, but the facts argue against that. It is true the Egyptians did not, in general, have a lot of sheep, and didn’t make use of their wool – but they did have some sheep, and made extensive use of goats and goat hair. They preferred the lighter, less-itchy feel of linen as clothing as compared to sheep’s wool. They had little use for sheep’s milk, having plentiful goat and cow milk available.  In addition, there are sheep gods in the Egyptian pantheon. The deities Khnum and Amen was portrayed with sheep bodies, and ram were symbols of fertility

If the Egyptians loathed shepherds, maybe it was a result of their distaste for the Hyksos that overran and ruled the upper half of Egypt (and for a short period, lower Egypt as well) between 1650 and 1550 BCE. However, this fanciful notion is somewhat disproven by the generally accepted consensus that in ancient Egyptian, hyksos (heqau khaswet) meant “ruler from a foreign land” but found its way into ancient Greek as a loan word where it came to mean “shepherd King.” Josephus later picked up on this word and it’s connection to the Jewish narrative, and thus instigated the widely accepted (but now disproven) etymology of the word meaning “shepherd rulers.”

So much for Pharaoh wanting to secretly get Joseph’s family to stop being shepherds. However, Pharaoh may still have preferred they engaged in a profession more useful to Egypt. Raising cattle, or goats. Goshen was also very fertile land for agriculture – perhaps these nomads would settle down and bring their expertise to growing crops for Egypt.

I don’t know. I can’t help but think there is a reason that no mention is made of how Joseph ignored Pharaoh’s directions to have his family not bring their belongings, but for the life of me, I can’t suss out what it might be.

Does the Torah wish us to learn something from Pharaoh not bringing up this challenge to his orders? Is it telling us that this Pharaoh knew enough to “choose his battles” and setting that as an example for us? Is it a dig at Pharaoh, either showing that he didn’t notice his order had been disobeyed, or was cowed enough by Joseph success that he dare not speak up?

I may just have to chalk this up to yet another example of the Torah teaching us that we can;t figure out everything. Or of the Torah reminding us “this is just a story, don’t get too wrapped up in the details, and look at the enduring understandings, to use a little edu-speak.

But when you turn it, and turn it again, you really do find everything in it. That everything includes things that don’t reconcile. You’d think that after years of this, I’d have learned to  ignore and accept that. But then again, I’m the stubborn type who, in all his years of keeping his accounts, both manually, and for the last 35+ years, in Quicken*, has only once, in all that time, allowed Quicken to enter a reconciliation transaction to make up for a balance difference he just couldn’t reconcile (and it was only for a few cents.) Torah’s reconciliation issues will always call me to try and balance them. I hope I will continue to opt for trying to balance the accounts. Here’s to reconciliation. Or the lack thereof.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

*If you’re a user of this same financial software that I’ve been using since the mid-80s, you might get the joke in the musing title.

Other Musings on this Parasha

Vayigash 5778 - Two Sticks As One (Revised 5766)
Vayigash 5777 - Orange Default Swaps
Vayigash 5776 - Things Better Left Unsaid (Redux 5763)
Vayiggash 5775 - Rule #2
Vayiggash 5774 - We Are Shepherds
Vayigash 5773 - Let's Be Judah
Vayigash 5772 - Redux & Revised 5760 Teleology 101: Does G"d Play Dice With the World
Vayiggash 5771-Being Both Israels
Vayigash 5769 - He's A-Cookin'-a-Somethin'-A-Up
Vayigash 5768 - G"d By the Light of Day
Vayigash 5767-Two Sticks As One?
Vayigash 5765-One People
Vayigash 5763-Things Better Left Unsaid
Vayigash 5761/5766-Checking In
Vayigash 5762-Teleology 101: Does Gd Play Dice With the World?

Friday, December 7, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Miketz 5779—Eizeh Hu Khakham (Revisited again)

I wrote just last year about the special haftarah from Zechariah that is read when this Shabbat falls on Hanukkah, so I'll recommend that to you if you insist on being that machmir about things. This year, I'd like to visit a topic I first wrote about in 2005, and then revisited just two years ago, that relates to the regular haftarah for parashat Miketz from I Kings. Even in two years, things have changed. What makes this of particular interest this year that I just finished directing a staged reading last month of an original play about King Solomon called "Philosopher King" which explores Solomon's struggles with ethics, leadership, morality, logic, and reality. It is in that spirit that I revisit the musing.

Eizeh Hu Khakham?

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

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

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

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

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

Let's take this to another level. In this day and time (though not entirely unique to our time) we Jews seem to question each other as to who the "true Jews" are. The differing sides each question whether the other hasn't rolled over on their own child and stolen theirs, metaphorically speaking.
I have heard it seriously suggested by those from both liberal and traditional camps that we ought to just sever the child that is living Judaism in twain, each becoming a separate (yet ultimately dead) religion.

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

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

Yet perhaps there is a basic misconception here (pun intended.) Each sides feels that the other has rolled over on their own child and is attempting to steal theirs. Yet I know that on both sides are many (if not a vast majority) who would willingly turn the baby over to the other so that it might live.
We need to ask ourselves a few questions before we can even attempt to solve this dilemma with anything akin to Solomonic wisdom.

1. Is only one child alive? 2. Was there ever really two children? 3. If there were two, and one died, how did it die? 4. Can one child be shared between two mothers? 5. Is the Solomonic approach always the best choice? 7. Can a Solomonic approach help us determine truths in our own time? Could a Solomonic trick be used to ferret out truths about things like global warming, discrimination, misogyny, et al?  7. Who among us today is wise enough to apply a Solomonic test to determine facts and truths?

Back to our exemplar. What if neither mother had relented? Would Solomon have split the baby assunder? What other tests might Solomon have devised to determine which mother and child were connected? What if the woman who was not the child's true mother proved to be the better parent? Could shared custody have worked? Do the rights of a birth mother always take precedence? These issues play out in our own time with adoptions, surrogate pregnancies, genetic diseases, and more. The issues are much more of a challenge today. WWSD?

In the play whose stage-reading I recently directed, the playwright refers to the story, and later has Solomon musing that he hated having to wield the sword, and figured the entire event would be soon forgotten (which of course received a hearty laugh from the audience.) Solomon sought wisdom, and sought to employ it throughout his life. However, there's a timeline. We have the young, romantic Solomon of Shir Hashirim/Song of Songs, the practical father instructing his son in Mashlim/Proverbs, and the disappointed old man in Qohelet/Ecclesiastes (that is, if we choose to see all three works as a product of Solomon or his descendants/scribal school.) From the blazons of youthful poetry to the pithy aphorisms of parenthood to the jaded musings of an embittered old man. I suspect that Solomon might have had different thoughts and methodologies to employ in dispensing wisdom at different points throughout his life. That even in a time when societal and technological change crept along at a glacial pace compared to our Moore's Law-like reality. With our knowledge changing at a frenetic pace, our philosophy, ethics, and morality can barely keep up. If you think Solomon had troubles, just imagine trying to be wise today.

Just recently, a Chinese scientist announced that he had performed gene manipulation using Crispr-Cas9 on twin embryos to prevent the genetic father's HIV from being transferred to the embryos, and implanted them in the mother who has given live birth to the twins. In addition to all the ethical conisderations, and the protocols that were broken, some others are now claiming he  didn't even give both embryos the same chance - deciding to change both genes on one twin, and only one of the two genes on the other. On yet another aspect of this controversy, one of the critics used the term "monstrous" in describing the experiment - but, as the NY Times pointed out, in this, the 200th anniversary of the publication of Shelley's Frankenstein, such language could easily be though of as describing the two twin babies, branding them with for something over which they had no control.

In the leadership and politics arena, Solomon would find himself equally challenged. In a time when the very concept of objective truth is under siege, how is wisdom obtained? Is true wisdom the ability to discern and acknowledge that there is objective truth, or is true wisdom recognizing that in the observation of objective truth by individual humans, there is in each human an implicit bias on their experience and understanding of that truth?  As uncomfortable as it makes me to say this, there is something to that notion. Additionally, is this borne out by Schroedinger's thought experiment and the notion that observation is part of the reality of quantum physics and mechanics?

What makes a leader wise? How do wise leaders act? Do wise leaders believe only they know what is best? Not according to Ben Zoma. Is Solomon the ultimate exemplar of a wise leader? Do wise leaders take on hundreds of wives and concubine? Do wise leaders kill to settle scores for their fathers? (I'm referring to Solomon here, but I suppose Dubya might be a candidate.) Do wise leaders let their wives and concubines build shrines to their alien gods in his house when he is ruler of a land given to his people by G"d who insists there be no idols? Do wise leaders spare the lives of opponents who have challenged them and might challenge them yet again?

Even the wisest of leaders have flaws and make mistakes. For all the good he did, George HW Bush also did some pretty awful things, too. Is it too much to hope that even the dumbest of leaders might wind up having some positive impact?

WWSD? What would Solomon have made of our current national and world situation? would Solomon simply be able to say "just test the DNA so we know for certain who the real mother of the child is?" Or does a wise ruler know that others factors besides biological parentage are worth weighing?

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

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 (portions ©2016 and 2005) by Adrian A. Durlester

Others Musings on this Parasha:

Miketz/Hanukkah 5778 - Yodim Atem Likhvod Mah?
Miketz 5777 - Eizeh Hu Adayin Khakham
Miketz 5776 - Coke or Pepsi? (Or...?)
Miketz 5775 - Assimilating Assimilation
Miketz 5774 - To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
Miketz 5773 - B'li Meilitz
Miketz 5772 - A Piece of That Kit Kat Bar
Miketz 5771-What's Bothering...Me?
Miketz/Hanukkah 5769 - Redux 5763 - Assimilating Assimilation
Miketz/Hanukah 5768 Learning From Joseph and His Brothers (revised from 5757)
Miketz 5767-Clothes Make the Man?
Miketz 5766-Eizeh Hu Khakham?
Miketz 5757& 5761-Would You Buy A Used Car From This Guy?
Miketz 5763/5764/5765-Assimilating Assimilation

Friday, November 30, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayeishev 5779—Updating Amos

Another political one, but how could it not be? I present to you this modern re-writing of the haftarah for parashat Vayeishev, from Amos 2:6-3:8.

6. Thus said the LORD: For three transgressions of America, For four, I will not revoke it: Because they have sold for Bitcoin Those whose cause was just, And the needy for a pair of Air Jordans.

7 [Ah,] you who trample the heads of the poor Into the dust of the ground, And make the humble walk a twisted course! Father and son go to the same girl, and then bribe her to stay silent, And thereby profane My holy name.

8 They recline by every golf course on profits from tax breaks for the wealthy, And drink craft beers bought with wage increases they withheld from their workers.

9 Yet I Destroyed the ungodly Russian Communists before them, Whose stature was like the wall separating Berlin, And allowed their satellite nations to become members of NATO and thus be under America’s safe protection

10 And I Brought you up from many places And led you through hazardous journeys, and told you to not take your eyes off this tukhis until we get to San Francisco, To live in the land of the free and the home of the brave! (Unfortunately, I also let you destroy the natives who were there before you. Oops. Sorry about that.)

11 And I raised up prophets and journalists from among your sons And socially woke activists from among your young people. Is that not so, O people of America? —says the LORD.

12 But you made the teenagers smoke Juuls  And ordered the climate science prophets not to prophesy, and the journalists to not hold truth to power, and you repeated the lies often attempting to make them true.

13 Ah, I will slow your movements As an economy is slowed When protectionist, isolationist tariffs are imposed, and trade agreements are wrought asunder.

14 Flight shall fail the swift because the flights are overbooked by greedy airlines, The strong shall find no strength being wearied from years of resisting POTUS and his ilk, And the warrior shall not save his life because they are busy stringing up razor-wire and shooting tear-gas at innocent refugees at your borders.

15 The gun-loving bigoted NRA member shall not “stand his ground” (even in Florida), And the well-heeled that can afford the best lawyers money can buy shall not escape, Nor the Presidential pardon save him from local prosecutors.

16 Even the most fearless defender of Trumpism Shall run away still woefully uninformed that day —declares the LORD.

Chapter 3

1 Hear this word, O POTUS of America, That the LORD has spoken concerning you, Concerning the whole family that I brought to your shores past Lady Liberty and all the other ports of entry Your family included, by the way, along with your probable illegal immigrant third wife.)

2 You falsely believe that “You alone can fix it” and that you have I singled out Of all the leaders of the earth—That is why I will call you to account For all your iniquities.

3 Can world leaders walk together if one of them is always insulting the others? Can a leader look Presidential when a little rain keeps him from joining other world leaders in a memorial service to honor the fallen?

4 Does an honest man seek to stop an investigation of him when he is innocent? Does a special prosecutor indict when he has no proof? Does a POTUS excuse the murder of a WaPo journalist ordered at the behest of a Saudi royal prince?

5 Is a POTUS impeached unless there are high crimes and misdemeanors? Do Special Prosecutor investigations spring up from the ground unless there is reasonable suspicion?

6 When a neo-Nazi white supremacist runs over and kills a protestor, Do the people not take alarm? Does division and hatred come to a country If hateful rhetoric has not caused it?

7 Indeed, my Lord GOD will do nothing if G”d’s people themselves will not rise up against this orange-faced scourge.

8 A despotic, narcissistic megalomaniac has roared, Who can but fear? The People have spoken, Who can but prophesy?

To be honest, even without changing a single word of this haftarah, it delivers us powerful lessons, cautions, and reminders that are very applicable in our own times. Chapter 3 verse 7 is the one that gives me pause as written:

Indeed, my Lord GOD does nothing Without having revealed His purpose To His servants the prophets.

What, G”d is your purpose in putting the U.S. through these current travails? What was Your purpose in putting your creations through the Shoah, WWI, the Crusades, and countless other wars, famines, plagues, etc.?  I am not Your prophet, so I cannot expect You to reveal Your purposed to me. I am, however, willing to be Your gadfly, and so I will ask You, straight out “Do You even have a plan?”

I can’t be sure of the answer to that, and I won’t accept, at face value, the concept of the ineffable G”d whose plans and purposes I, as a human, can never understand. Puhleeze. Pablum for the masses to keep them docile. If G”d has plans, I suspect that we’re constantly messing them up, rather than following them, or allowing them to follow G”d’s planned course.

So I rewrote the verse following the logic of folks like Elie Wiesel and others that to ask “where was G”d?” is always the wrong question, whereas to ask “where was humankind?” is the right one.

My fellow citizens of the United States: where are we at this time of crisis? We cannot stand idly by. Rise up. Rise up and help us cleanse and heal this great land.

Shabbat Shalom

©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Vayeishev 5778 - Spirals
Vayeishev 5777 - Unspoilers
Vayeishev 5776 - Revisiting Mikol Hamishpakhot HaAdamah
Vayeishev 5775 - Seriously...Who Was That Guy?
Vayeishev 5773 - K'tonet Passim
Vayeishev 5772 - The Ram's Horn Rag
Vayeishev 5771-Ma T'vakeish?
Vayeishev 5768 - Strangers Walking Together
Vayeishev/Hanukah 5767-I Believe in Miracles
Vayeishev 5766-Who Was That Guy?
Vayeshev 5761 - In Gd's Time
Vayeshev 5765-Mikol HaMishpakhot HaAdamah
Vayeshev 5758-What's Worth Looking After

Friday, November 23, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayishlakh 5779—The Orange Edomite

If, like me, your political leanings are somewhere to the left of the spectrum, and you live with the daily discomfort of the realities of the current administration, then perhaps, as you read the words of the (Sephardic) haftarah for parashat Vayishlakh, from the first chapter of Ovadiyah, you will notice the connections I am noticing.

The Edomites are the descendants of Esav, and the Israelites are the descendants of Yaakov. All these years after the brothers have their peaceful reunion and go their separate ways, the enmity between their descendants remains. This, despite the fact that the reunion, if not a celebration, was at least pleasant enough, with each brother acknowledging his own success as well as the success of his sibling. This, despite the clear instruction in the Torah (Deuteronomy 23:8, partial)

לֹא תְתַעֵב אֲדֹמִי כִּי אָחִיךָ הוּא

You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your kinsman….

Despite these words, the books written after the Torah clearly portray the Edomites as enemies, as a prideful, arrogant, and hateful people. The enmity remains to this day, if in a somewhat different guise, especially if we consider that ancient Edom largely encompassed the land that is today the Kingdom of Jordan.

As you may have read in my musings over the years, I feel the  prophets, the commentators, and rabbis have given Esav an undeserved bad rap. One of the reasons for that is, ostensibly, the continuing historical enmity for the Edomites that pervades the canonical literature. To be fair the Edomites participated in the plunder of Jerusalem, the slaying of many Judaeans, and the destruction of the first Temple by Nebuchadnezzar II between 597-586 BCE. That alone can explain why they remained so reviled. It certainly explains Ovadiyah’s rants against them.

It is easy to misinterpret Ovadiyah’s message. Christian readings of this text often focus on this as an example of G”d’s vengeance, and cite it over and against Judaism to bolster their supersessionist  contentions of a superior G”d of love rather than of vengeance and retribution, specifically citing verse 15:

כִּֽי־קָר֥וֹב יוֹם־יְהוָ֖ה עַל־כָּל־הַגּוֹיִ֑ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֤ר עָשִׂ֙יתָ֙ יֵעָ֣שֶׂה לָּ֔ךְ גְּמֻלְךָ֖ יָשׁ֥וּב בְּרֹאשֶֽׁךָ׃

The day of the LORD is at hand. Yea, against all nations. As you did, so shall it be done to you; Your conduct shall be requited. [text re-arranged from the JPS to more closely match the order of the Hebrew.]

As you reap, so shall you sow. There, says the supersessionist. Judaism retributive. Christianity love. But is that truly a retributive sentiment, or can we see it differently? Judaism, at heart, is seeking balance between opposing forces/ideas. Another expression of balance is justice. When there is great sin, or great wrong, obtaining justice can require an equally strong redress.

Okay, yeah.  I’ll admit I’m not entirely comfortable with that, or agree with it. It is how W. Gunther Plaut writes about this in his Haftarah Commentary. Nevertheless this sentiment, problematic as it might be, could come in handy.

A brief digression on the title of this musing. This sentiment is blatantly political (not that the rest of this musing isn’t.)  The name Edom comes from this verse:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר עֵשָׂ֜ו אֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֗ב הַלְעִיטֵ֤נִי נָא֙ מִן־הָאָדֹ֤ם הָאָדֹם֙ הַזֶּ֔ה כִּ֥י עָיֵ֖ף אָנֹ֑כִי עַל־כֵּ֥ן קָרָֽא־שְׁמ֖וֹ אֱדֽוֹם

And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished”—which is why he was named Edom.

If you can’t read the Hebrew, this transliteration might help:

Vayomer Esav al-Yaakov haliteini na min-ha-adom ha-adom hazeh, ki ayeif anochi al-kein kara-sh’mo Edom.

though even a non-Hebrew reader can see the connection between

הָאָדֹ֤ם הָאָדֹם֙



well, you add a little “yellow” (aka bone spurs) to red and you get – orange! (Yes, I know I'm not supposed to abhor an Edomite, but...)​

As I stated at the beginning of this musing, what jumps out at me as I reread this hafatarah  are the obvious parallels between the descriptions of the actions of the Edomites and the actions and behaviors of the present U.S. administration under the Orange Edomite.  Ovadiyah mocks the Edomites for their arrogant pride in much the same way one might mock the current occupant of the White House for his sinful pride. Only he can do it. America first.

What heartens me about this hafatarah is its sentiment that the haughty will be brought low as part of G”d’s justice. For almost every verse in this haftarah there is a parallel in our recent history. If things remain as they are, then this nation will become “least of nations, utterly despised.” The Orange Edomite is leading us down that path quickly.

There is, perhaps, no greater connection than these few words that are part of verse 12:

וְאַל־תַּגְדֵּ֥ל פִּ֖יךָ בְּי֥וֹם צָרָֽה

..and you should not have opened your big mouth on the day of [their] distress!

Mic drop, Ovadiyah.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayishlakh 5778 - Who Will Say #MeToo for Dinah?
Vayishlakh 5777 - My Prayer or Me Prayer
Vayishlakh 5775 - No One's In The Kitchen With Dinah (or Eric or Michael)
Vayishlakh 5774 - Biblical Schadenfreude
Vayishlakh 5773 - That Other Devorah's Tale
Vayishlakh 5772 - One and Many, Many and One
Vayishlakh 5771/5763 - The Bigger Man
Vayishlakh 5769 - A Fish Called Wonder
Vayishlakh 5768 - No One's in the Kitchen With Dinah
Vayishlakh 5767-Wrestlemania
Vayishlakh 5766-Like Deity, Like Deity's Child
Vayishlakh 5765-B'li Mirmah
Vayishlakh 5762-Don't Get Mad--Get Even!
Vayishlakh 5761-No Doubt? No Wonder!

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayeitze 5779—Taking G”d's Place (Revisited)

Revisiting words written 19 years ago.

וַתֵּ֣רֶא רָחֵ֗ל כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יָֽלְדָה֙ לְיַעֲקֹ֔ב וַתְּקַנֵּ֥א רָחֵ֖ל בַּאֲחֹתָ֑הּ וַתֹּ֤אמֶר אֶֽל־יַעֲקֹב֙ הָֽבָה־לִּ֣י בָנִ֔ים וְאִם־אַ֖יִן מֵתָ֥ה אָנֹֽכִי׃

When Rachel saw that she had borne Jacob no children, she became envious of her sister; and Rachel said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die.”

וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֥ף יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּרָחֵ֑ל וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הֲתַ֤חַת אֱלֹהִים֙ אָנֹ֔כִי אֲשֶׁר־מָנַ֥ע מִמֵּ֖ךְ פְּרִי־בָֽטֶן׃

Jacob was incensed at Rachel, and said, “Can I take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?”

(Gen. 30:1-2)

The answer to the rhetorical question “Can I take the place of G”d” in Yaakov's time, was a given. It's truly ironic, however, that in our time, we can answer part of this question differently. I say "part of" for reasons which I hope will become obvious in time.

We can, indeed, give children to women who would not otherwise be able to have children through the procedures (note how I refrain from calling them "miracles") of modern medical science. In vitro fertilization, surrogate pregnancies, perhaps someday even cloning are among the methods available to couples wishing to have children but find themselves impaired for one reason or another. I am pleased to know personally no small number of people who have benefitted from our ability to help people become parents through medical science.

In our post-modern world, we seem to have put aside for the moment even questioning the use of many of these procedures - giving great importance to the commandment  p'ru uv'ru - be fruitful and multiply. Oh, for sure, we wrangle with the ethical implications, we consider the value of such procedures, and even of reproduction itself. We reconcile our ancient values with modern knowledge. Even great contemporary Orthodox rabbis have endorsed certain forms of genetic testing and conception. (At the time I wrote this back in 1999, the Conservative movement was actively encouraging its members to very carefully study and consider the implications of genetic testing. Now genetic testing and even learning about your DNA fingerprint is normative.)

In 1999, times were different. I wrote thusly:

We look at these childless [edit 2018: individuals and] couples, and show them our sympathy, and somehow wonder at our own humanity and compassion when we begin to question the many problems that surround alternative methods of conception. The high cost clearly makes almost all the procedures exclusionary. There are millions of parentless children awaiting adoption. Precious medical resources are being utilized to help people who want children (and can afford it or are willing to bankrupt themselves in their quest) rather than being available to the many with children who desperately need the medical services. We often feel guilty when we ask questions like these. How can we want to deny anyone children?

Our ancestors dealt with the same question. And they had a solution - surrogate motherhood - allowing maids to conceive and bear children for their mistresses. Inelegant, perhaps, but practical.

But we can go further today. We can allow the barren mother herself, in some cases, to become pregnant and birth a child. In Yaakov's world view, only G”d could do this. Does this make us G”d? Using fertility drugs, we can make the (apparently) barren woman conceive. Does this make us G”d?

Science has made vast strides in these last two decades. I wonder, however, if society itself has been able to make the vast ethical and moral strides necessary to deal with our ever-changing reality. I could have let my words from 1999, simply mentioning childless couples, stand. But here, in today’s reality, I could not let those words go unremarked – even though I knew I would be commenting on them here. So I chose to note the omission right then and there.

As I wrote 19 years ago, Yaakov's rhetorical question has two parts. The second addresses the specific situation of Rachel's barrenness. But the first part can and does stand on its own. That does not automatically remove it from its context. While Yaakov may have been relating it to this specific problem, it was a very definite part of Yaakov's world view. It is far less so part of ours. In our time, we can help those denied the fruit of the womb. But is this really taking the place of G”d?

Ask yourself "can I take the place of G”d?" We can do "G”d-like things," but can we take G”d's place? I imagine the answer to this is the same as it was in the days of our ancestors. At least I'd like to hope it is.

Here in 2018, I’m still hopeful that the answer remains that we cannot. However, that answer is tempered by my ever evolving understanding of and relationship with my understanding of G”d.

For those without faith, it may be possible to answer Yaakov's question in the affirmative. For those with faith, it may be a question we wrestle and struggle with, or it may be a straightforward negative reply.

I believe there is great value in asking ourselves this question on a regular basis. It can serve as a reminder to truly examine the scope of G”d's creation. Surely it is magnificent and miraculous enough to make us recognize that we are not G”d's equal.

Maybe we can be a temp worker, a stand in for G”d at times, in effect taking G”d's place. But, at least for me, in the long term, G”d's tenure, G”d's job security are safe. Science brings about not miracles but realities. Miracles are still G”d's purview. May they always remain so. For if G”d has truly given us the power and ability to surpass G”d, then woe unto us, unto G”d, and to our universe.

I read a lot of science fiction. In it, humankind achieves feats that would seem impossible for us to achieve now. Even more “G”d-like” acts. I worry, as do others, that as our abilities to manipulate our universe improve, we will be tempted to be less cautious, to think of ourselves as being in the place of G”d, or having no need for G”d. I worry about that time. I may not be certain about the existence of a Deity, but I am certain that a universe in which humankind believes it is equivalent to being G”d is not a universe I would like to see. I really do pray that a time comes when we encounter something that is truly beyond our ability to ever understand it. (In a perverse way, this will save us, as it gives us an ever-unreachable goal that we will foolishly keep trying to reach and surpass. This need to think we can understand everything, to no longer have need for a G”d concept will drive us to, hopefully, to doing ever better things along the way to continual failure to achieve that singular aim.  Yes, the logic is perverse and circular. For now, it will do. I will now take my own advice form 1999:

Go, welcome the Shabbat Bride with candles, wine, bread, prayer and song. Experience the miracle of Shabbat. Then ask yourself: "Can I take the place of G”d?"

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 (portions ©1999) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayeitzei 5778 - Redux 5761 - Change, In Perspective
Vayeitzei 5777 - Being FruitBull
Vayetze 5776 - Now and Then (Redux 5763)
Vayeitzei 5775 - Hapax Shabbat
Vayeitzei 5774 - Terms and Conditions Revisted
Vayeitze 5773 - Mandrakes and More
Vayeitze 5772 - Stumbling on Smooth Paths
Vayeitzei 5771 - Luz is No Loser
Vayeitzei 5769 - Going Down and Loving It!
Vayeitzei 5768 - Encounters
Vayeitzei 5767-Hapax On All Your Hapaxes
Vayetze 5766-Pakhad HaShem?
Vayetze 5765-Cows and Cranberries
Vayetze 5764-Terms and Conditions
Vayetze 5763-Now and Then
Vayetze 5761/2-Change in Perspective
Vayetze 5760-Taking Gd's Place

Friday, November 9, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Tol'dot 5779—Redux 5769–Alternate Histories, Alternate Shmishstories

A musing from 2007, just slightly revised.

Alternate histories have become a popular form of fiction these days. As I've already taken the liberty of creating modern midrashim to enhance my understanding of the Torah, why not go that one step further? I was sort of on the cusp of doing this with my recent musing based on the "Diary of Terakh." Imagine, perhaps, a world in which Terakh was the one first called by G"d to go forth, and had completed the journey all the way to the promised land, becoming the progenitor of the Jewish people.

If you can imagine that, why not imagine other scenarios?

Rebekkah, already unhappy with Esav for marrying outside the clan, and clearly favoring Yaakov, overhears her feeble old husband Yitzkhak say to Esav that he wanted to give Esav his blessing, and asked him go out, hunt some game, and prepare his favorite dish, after which time he would give Esav the "blessing of his soul."

She hurries to Yaakov, and instructs him to essentially deceive his father so that he might receive the blessing instead of Esav.

Yaakov may be studious and a mama's boy, but upon hearing this suggestion refuses to do as his mother asks, and even chastises her for being so duplicitous.

Rebekkah's response:

Alternate 1) She tells Yaakov to not be such a hypocrite - after all, he had already tricked his brother out of the birthright! Yaakov is chagrined and decides to go along with his Mother's plan after all.

Alternate 2) Rebekkah recognizes the enormity of what she has asked Yaakov to do, and asks forgiveness from Yaakov and G"d. Esav returns home, prepares a meal for his father, and receives his father's blessing.

OK, now we have a weird situation. Yaakov has the birthright, but Esav has the blessing. So what happens? Maybe G"d invents lawyers?

Let's try another.

Rebekkah holds her tongue and says nothing to Yaakov. Esav returns and receives his father's blessing. OK, we're back to that same weird situation. Call in the lawyers.

And another.

Yaakov agrees to go along with Rebekkah's plan. However, Yitzkhak discovers Yaakov's deception and angrily denounces him. Yaakov says "it was all my mother's idea." Yaakov sends Yitzkhak and Rebekkah away (and they go off to live with Hagar and Yishmael - there's a whole story in itself. Does Hagar at first refuse to take them in and is later persuaded by Yishmael to do so?) Yitzkhak gives his blessing to Esav, and the Jewish people are stillborn. G"d looks for another lineage to carry on (perhaps Yishmael?)

[Note from 2018 - as you may know, the untold story of the time between the akeidah and Yitzchak's return to bury his father, a time I speculate he spent in the company of Hagar and Ishmael, has become a project I've been playing with for some years. I am pleased to say, it is actually starting to take shape! It's not, technically an alternate history - more like midrash to fill in the blanks. Yet I am still drawn to writer about it. I'll note too, in the past few years, we've been treated to two of the most amazing speculative (if not truly alternate) biblical fiction works by Israel author Yochi Brandes, ably translated into English. "The Secret Book of Kings" explores the United Monarchy through the perspective of the northern tribes. "The Orchard" explores the rabbis and personas of the 1st and 2nd century CE, largely through the eyes of Rabbi Akiva's wife, Rachel. I heartily recommend these books to you.]

The possibilities are endless. entire books could be written of alternate biblical histories. (Note to self - see if there's a market for this.) [Note from 2018 - it seems there is - now for me to grab a piece of it.]

In the end, however, all this is just mental self-gratification (I'll use that euphemistic substitute for decorum's sake.) Whatever happened then, whatever happened at Sinai, whatever happened at a thousands other instants in history - none of that changes the fact that we are here, now. The Jewish people survive - mir zenen do, as the Partisaner Leid says. As I've said a thousand times to students, teachers, and others - unless your a literalist fundamentalist, it doesn't really matter if things happened exactly as related in the Torah. If the rabbis could view the Torah's stories of creation as metaphoric, the rest of the text is no less suspect. Speaking for myself, the historical accuracy of the text makes little difference. Whatever really happened, I am here now. I accept that I, as a Jew, have been charged with certain obligations and responsibilities. Our heritage provides me with ethical guidance, suggestions on how to live in this world, how to interact with others, how to build a better world. It also provides me with plenty of examples of how not to do that. Whatever choices my ancestors made, the choices are now mine to make. And if Coca-Cola can use it in a commercial, why can't I. As the knight guarding the grail said to Indiana Jones, "choose wisely."

Hmmm - didn't I read something like that somewhere in the Torah?

This Shabbat, and every Shabbat, the choice is mine, the choice is yours, and the choice is ours. Let us pray that we all choose wisely.

Shabbat Shalom,
©2018 (portions ©2007) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayeira 5779—(Redux 5760) From the “Journal of Lot” – Part II

A prolonged bout with a cold, now turned into bronchitis, has been draining my energy and alertness, so, with apologies, I offer this recycled musing from 1999.

Random Musings Before Shabbat - Vayera 5760- From the "Journal of Lot" - Part II

It has been many, many days since I have been able to record my thoughts. I'm not even sure I want to continue because about all I would have to say is "life really sucks." But I guess, deep inside, I don't really believe that. I'm not the brash young man I used to be, but I still think I'm a good man. Not perfect, G”d knows, but good.

Anyway, you just wouldn't believe all that has happened since I last wrote in this journal. Remember those visitors I told you about? Seems they were more than ordinary visitors. Turns out they had just come from visiting uncle Avi and aunt Sara. Said they had brought my uncle a message from this one G”d he's been all in a dither about since we left Haran. Get this...they told him aunt Sara would have a baby. Now there's a laugh. In fact, I can just hear my aunt snickering when she heard that. Probably made her angry to, because uncle Av had knocked up auntie's maid Hagar. See, I keep tabs on my relatives. After all, uncle Av rescued me from those heathen kings. What a guy. Now, if I were my old self, I probably say "what a sap." But hindsight has, alas, proven me quite wrong. Guess uncle Av made the right choice after all back in those hills when we parted. The wicked city is just no place to live, raise a family, etc. I mean, these people were wicked. I think I've told you about the total debauchery that went on. If I had been smarter, I would have left that place. But you know how it is...I had a family to support, and working all those years in the city I had lost my shepherding and ranch management edge-I'd grown soft and I guess part of me even liked a little bit of indulgence, Sodom style, now and then. That's me-always taking what looks like the easy path - only to discover anything that looks too good to be true usually is.

Well, no sooner do we finish feeding these visitors when there is this insistent banging on the door. I guess half the town was out there, shouting for us to send out the visitors so they could have their way with them. Well, I hadn't been corrupted that far. Unlike most of the people of Sodom, I still welcomed visitors, shared my food and things, and played it pretty straight. OK, so occasionally I went to a party or two, got a little drunk, and wound up at an orgy. Just don't tell the wife...oops, I forgot. No wife. I'll get to that in a minute.

So I try to persuade my fellow townspeople to give it a rest, but they just won't quit, and they start tugging at me trying to pull me out of the way and grab the strangers. Next thing I know there is this blinding white light, and I'm being dragged back inside by the visitors and the door gets slammed shut and bolted.

Well, nobody says anything for a minute - heck, you'd be speechless too. My wife and daughters are standing there agape. (There's a little biblical joke in there, but, oh well, never mind, that's thousands of years later and if you're descendants of uncle Avi, you won't get it anyway...) Even I am too stupefied to speak. So one of the visitors pipes up and comes clean. Says they're angels sent by this G”d of uncle Avi, here to destroy Sodom and that stinkpot Gomorrah because they are just so utterly wicked. "Gee, thanks uncle Avi," I mouth silently but one of the angels, who I guess can read lips (or minds?) retorts loudly - "Hey look. Your uncle actually had the nerve to argue with G”d and tell him it wasn't right to destroy these cities, because there were righteous people in them too." He turns to his partner and says "Can you believe that? He actually argued and then bargained with the boss-not like that Noah fellow-there was a good chap, just did what he was told." His partner replied "Yeah, pretty unbelievable. But you know what I can't believe even more? The boss actually bargained with him. I guess it's kind of unfair, since the boss knew the outcome already, it was kind of an unfair bargain. Oh, well. What's done is done. Now, look here Lot ben Haran, you need to get you and your family ought of here. By tomorrow."

He said it with such authority I couldn't help myself but to obey. I told the wife to start packing, and ran out of the house to find my daughter's husbands. I was a little worried as I opened the door, but enough time had passed that the crowd had lost interest, and they were busy frolicking away. I found my sons-in-law inflagrante delicto with a couple of cult prostitutes. I told them I was taking my family - including there wives, out of this place tomorrow morning. They couldn't seem to care less so I left them and ran home to pack.

I was up half the night getting ready, and finally fell asleep on the sacks. No sooner had morning light crept in the windows than these angels were up and dressed and waking up me and the family and telling us to hurry and get the heck out. I was so darn tired I just couldn't make myself move very fast, so the next thing I know, one of the angels are dragging us out of the house, through the streets and out the main gate. "Hurry!" they said to me. "Get up into the hills, get out of this valley, or your gonna get caught in the shock wave." I protested. All the way up into those hills with all this stuff? They had to be kidding. "Look," I said, "how about we just go to that little village at the foot of the hills?" The angel takes something from out of his pocket and pokes at it and holds it up to his face and says something unintelligible into it. Then, wonder of wonders, I hear the voice of the other angel coming from this little thing - but I know we left him back in the city - and he was nowhere nearby us. Anyway, the angel shoves the thing back in his pocket, sighs, and says, "OK. Head for that little village. We'll make sure you're safe there. Now go." So me and the missus and daughters start walking. "Oh wait, I almost forgot," says the angel. "Whatever you do, don't stop walking until you reach the village, and, for G”d's sake, (forgive me, boss) whatever you do, don't look back!" "OK, OK. Whatever you say. Thanks for the help" I say with a big phony smile pasted on my lips. I'd have sooner hauled off and smacked that angel with that smarmy look on his face. But no time. We gotta keep moving.

It was a long trek, but just as the sun was rising the next morning we were on the outskirts of the little village. All of a sudden, bada-bing, bada-bang, bada-boom, all heck breaks lose around Sodom and Gomorrah. "Don't look" I said half to myself and half out loud. I shooed my wife and daughters in front of me. The it happened. That wife of mine, who never did listen to anything I said, stopped in her tracks and craned her neck around to see what was happening. I shouted to stop her, but it was too late. Before my eyes she turned into a pillar of salt! Well, I have to be honest and say that at that moment regret for my wife was the last thing on my mind. I was just plain scared. So I grabbed the daughters and we ran inside the village gate.

It was that evening before the enormity of what had happened dawned on me. My wife was gone. My home, my adopted city. Gone. Poof. Wiped out. We could see the smoking ruins from atop the village wall. We cried, all three of us, and hugged and held each other. They had lost their husbands. No goodniks that they were, they were still my daughter's husbands and providers. And their Mother.

We stayed in the village a few days, but we really didn't like it there, and being so close to the valley we could still see the smoking ruins. So I took the girls and headed up further into the hills and found us a nice cave to live in.

It was a pretty miserable existence, and frankly, I was feeling pretty miserable. Luckily, I had thought to stash some wine and beer in the sacks, and I started to drown my sorrows. Sometimes, I would wake up not remembering what I had done the night before. My daughters both had these mysterious looks on their faces. I finally figured out what had happened a few months later. They must have taken advantage of my drunken stupor and each of them must have lain with me and gotten pregnant! As if things weren't bad enough, now I was as bad as those wicked Sodomites. Oh, sure, fathers sometimes slept with their daughters, but in our family it just wasn't right, and we never did it. Until now, I guess. I feel so icky. And Yom Kippur won't be invented for quite some time to come, so how am I supposed to deal with all this guilt? I've still got some wine left...

Tell me mazal tov! I'm a grandfather. Twice. Yeah, so I'm also their father... I'm learning to get over that. Although it's a little hard to forget. Those daughters of mine, never could resist playing a cruel joke on me. Naming the kids Moab and Ben-ammi. Oy!

But the shame of it all keeps me a prisoner here in our little cave. Soon, I'll send my daughters and grandsons on their way. I'm gonna stay here because I just can't face my relatives...especially uncle Avi and aunt Sara. I just don't want to have to explain these two boys. So I guess I'll never get to see my kinfolk again...but I imagine my grandsons and their grandsons will be messing around with the grandsons of my kinfolk and their grandsons' grandsons. Hope they get along with each other. And I hope they learn to trust uncle Avi. Try to put one over on him like I did and you'll wind up paying the price.*

Well, gotta go. There's a cute little redhead back in the village I've had my eye on for a while.


There ends Lot's Journal. For some reason, it never made it into the holy stories. Not sure why. That's why I'm publishing it now. Maybe people will like it. Sure, it's cynical and self-indulgent. But heck, there's plenty of that in the holy stories already, fer cryin' out loud.

Me? I'm a distant descendant of Lot. My ancestors learned the hard way that the descendants of Lot's uncle Abraham were not to be messed with. They practically wiped us out. Those of us who survived decided "if ya can't beat 'em, join 'em" so now we're all worshipping this El Gd. Supposedly, he's THE Gd. But we keep a few statues of Baal and Ashtarte around just in case. Outside, in the nearby square, I can hear this Elisha fella warmin' up the crowd. He's supposed to be pretty good, although I hear he's not too keen on us keeping idols around. Same old, same old, just like his teacher Eliyahu. Anyway, I got nothing better to do, guess I'll go give him a listen.

Shabbat Shalom,


© 1999, 2004 by Adrian A. Durlester

And now, for those who wanted the first part of the story.....see my musing from Lekh-Lekha 5765.

Other Musings on this parasha:

Vayeira 5778 - The Unitentional Test
Vayeira 5777 - He's a Family Guy (?) (Redux and Revised 5769)
Vayeira 5766 - The Price of Giving (Redux/Revised 5766)
Vayeira 5775 - He's a Family Guy (Revised Redux 5769)
Vayeira 5774–Plainly Spoken (Redux & Revised from 5762)
Vayera 5773 - Do Your Own Unpacking
Vayera 5772 - Well?
Vayera 5771 - Density
Vayera 5770 - Not Even Ten?
Vayeira 5769 - He's a Family Guy (?)
Vayera 5767-Revised 5759-Whoops! (or Non-Linear Thinking)
Vayera 5766-The Price of Giving
Vayera 5762-Plainly Spoken
Vayera 5759-Whoops! (or "Non-Linear Thinking?")
Vayera 5757-Technical Difficulties

Friday, October 19, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Lekh Lekha 5779—Here's a How-De-Do

As someone who regularly works to help people understand that the Bible is not a history textbook, I can find myself awfully caught up in trying to figure out historical and similar puzzles presented to us by the text.

One such question is brought to the fore by the words at the very start of this parasha.

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃
The LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
The words translated as "your native land" are actually two separate words meaning "from your (masculine singular) land and from "your (masculine singular) birthplace. The trope (cantillation) in the two words connects one to the other, so "you native land" is not an unreasonable way to translate the phrase. However, it obscures what would otherwise be problematic if the two separate words and their meanings were not conflated into the single phrase. One's birthplace and native land can be, and usually are, distinct things. The United States is my native land, but the place of my birth is in the Bronx borough of the City of New York, which is also Bronx County of the State of New York. I could even get more specific and mention the neighborhood or phone exchange to even further isolate my exact birthplace.

Pride of place is nothing new. It existed as much in ancient times as it does now.  We have national pride, state pride, hometown pride, and place of birth pride. So did they. which makes this situation even more confusing.

Where Avram was born is never mentioned in the Torah. The text tells us only that Terach had three sons, Avram, Nahum, and Haran. It tells us that Haran was born in Ur Kasdim, where he also died, leaving behind a son named Lot. Terach was most likely a nomad, so who knows if Avram and Nahor were also born in Ur Kasdim.

Ur Kasdim, Ur of the Chaldeans. Who were the Chaldeans? They were the people that occupied the southeastern end of Mesopotamia centuries later. Oops. Anachronism. The "kasdim" or Chaldeans were tribes of Arabic origin that migrated up to Mesopotamia in the early 9th century BCE. They were either absorbed by or became the roots of the second (neo) Babyloniona empire. So "Ur Kasdim" is clearly an anachronistic reference.

Ur Kasdim is likely located at the site of Tell el-Muqayyar in southern Iraq. In ancient times, it would have been a coastal city, but now it's about 10 miles inland. At that time, the Gulf extended much further into the land, and the Tigris and Euphrates didn't meet and merge as they do today.

Now look at a map and you'll see another problem. Latitudinally, it's almost a straight line to Canaan from Ur. Yes, through what is now part of the Arabian desert, but back then it was a more reasonable journey to make. So why would someone traveling from Ur Kasdim to the land of Canaan travel northwest along the Euphrates about 750 miles to Harran and then head southwest through Damascus and down into Canaan? It's a journey that takes one almost 550 miles out of the way.

Why would nomads settle down near a large urban center like Ur or Harran in any case? Seems uncharacteristic.

(Why does the Torah love to confuse us with people and places with the same name? Terach's deceased son Haran, and the city of Haran -or Harran. Don't even get me started on the Dinah story.)

Muslim tradition, and some Jewish and Christian scholars believe that Avram came from somewhere near Harran, in what is now southern Turkey, on it's border with Syria. There is a town not 20 miles from Harran named Urfa.

The Torah is clear that Avram receives his direction to lekh lekha, go forth for yourself while in Harran. But Harran was clearly NOT Avram's birthplace, perhaps not even his land. Do nomads even have a sense of home land or birthplace? Not to mention that the area of Harran was of a different social and cultural  community than that of southeastern Mesopotamia, and it's towns and city-states (including Ur.) So why does the Torah use those spefic words referring to Avram's land and birthplace when it was not the place from which he would be going forth?

Was G"d (or the Torah's authors) simply engaging in some rhetorical arts here?

Is it merely coincidental that the place that G"d reveals to Avram as the place to go, Canaan,is the same place the Torah tells us that his father Terach had started out for decades earlier? More rhetorical arts? Is the journey truly a mystery if it's the continuation of the one started by Avram's dad?

[As a side note, I should mention that the Rambam -Maimonides- was convinced that Avram came from a place called Kutha, and was convinced that he was living in a Sabean star-worshiping culture. (The Sabean culture is probably the biblical Sheba, an community that originated on the Arabian peninsula but had practices that took hold among many Mesopotamian communities, including as far north as Harran.) The Rambam goes on at length about this in his "Guide to the Perplexed." Yet another party heard from in this debate.]

If it's not important to the story, why mention it? Do we need to know that Terach came from someplace they labeled Ur, and settled in Harran? Other than the fact that it places Avram in Harran to receive G"d's call, it's not particularly useful information. It distracts from the narrative, and adds needless confusion to it. Noah begot...blah, blah, blah... and Avram was living with his nephew Lot in Harran when G"d spoke to him. Stick is a genealogy and you're done. Enough said. But no. They have to add some corroborative detail.

Just four years ago I updated a musing I wrote about this parasha ten years ago, and called it "More Nodding Heads, Whistling Airs, and Snickersnees." Though in it I focused on different pieces of text from the parasha, how interesting it is that I find myself, in reference to this bit of text from the parasha, inclined to reference  a follow-up scene to the section from "The Mikado" that was the basis for those musings in 5769 and 5775. So I ask:  Is the Torah guilty of what is referenced by this exchange from Gilbert & Sullivan's "Mikado."
Ko-Ko. Well, a nice mess you've got us into, with your nodding head and the deference due to a man of pedigree!
Pooh-Bah. Merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.
Pitti-Sing. Corroborative detail indeed! Corroborative fiddlestick!
Ko-Ko. And you're just as bad as he is with your cock-and-a-bull stories about catching his eye and his whistling an air. But that's so like you! You must put in your oar!
Pooh-Bah. But how about your big right arm?
Pitti-Sing. Yes, and your snickersnee!
In attempting to shore up a thin narrative with some detail, did the Torah merely create more confusion? Corroborative fiddlestick indeed!

Why does it matter? The story really begins here with G"d's call to Avram. All before is preface, genealogy, and etiology. Right? I just can't let it go. I know the Torah isn't history. However it is a story with a narrative. That narrative ought to make some sense, have some logic. It needs only a basic framework in which to do so.

So why confuse the reader with unnecessary corroborative detail that is as apparently inaccurate as that offered by Pooh-Bah, Pitti-Sing, and Ko-Ko?

Here's a How-De-Do!
When I say to you
Go forth for yourself today
To whence I'll state another day
Bring your whole family, too!
Here's a how-de-do!
Here's a how-de-do

Here's a pretty mess!
And I must confess,
Started off in Ur Kasdim!
Wound up in Harran 'twould seem
Witness our distress,
Here's a pretty mess!
Here's a pretty mess

Here's a state of things
In our brains it rings!
Seems Chaldeans lived there later
A mistake wrote by Creator?
Blasphemy that brings!
Here's a state of things!
Here's a state of things!

With a passion that's intense
Torah I worship and adore,
But the laws of common sense
We oughtn't to ignore.
If Torah seems un-true,
Then what are we to do!
Here's a pretty state of things!
Here's a pretty how-de-do!
Here's a pretty state of things!
A pretty state of things!

Here's a how-de-do (Here's a how-de-do) (Here's a how-de-do)

For if what Torah says is not true,
It makes it hard to be a Jew,
Here's a pretty, pretty state of things!

Here's a pretty how-de-do!

(With apologies to Sir William Schwenck Gilbert)

Shabbat Shalom,

(c)2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Lech Lecha 5778 - Take My Wife -Please
Leck Lekha 5777 - Embracing the Spirit of Avram
Lekh Lekha 5776 - The Other Siders (Redux 5766)
Lekh Lekha 5775 - More Nodding Heads, Whistlign Airs, and Snickersnees
Lekh L'kha 5774 - Theistic Singularity: Revisiting the Intellectual Ekhad
Lekh Lekha 5773 - The Journey Continues
Lekh Lekha 5772 - Out of Context
Lekh Lekha 5771 (5765, 5760) Things Are Seldom What They Seem An Excerpt from the "Journal of Lot"
Lekh Lkha 5770 - Revisiting the Ten Percent Solution
Lekh L'kha 5769 - Of Nodding Heads, Whistling Airs, and Snickersnees
Lekh Lekha 5768 - The Covenant That (Almost) Wasn't - Excerpts from the Diary of Terakh
Lekh Lekha 5767-Penile Pilpul
Lekh Lekha 5766-The Other Siders
Lekh Lekha 5765 - Redux 5760
Lekh Lekha 5764-Ma'aseir Mikol-The Ten Percent Solution
Lekh Lekha 5763-No Explanations
Lekh Lekha 5761-The Intellectual Echad
Lekh L'kha 5758-Little White Lies