Thursday, January 25, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat–B’shalakh 5778–Revisiting G”d’s War

Revisiting words I first wrote in 2005, and adding new thoughts for today here in 2018.

Do you believe in G”d? Have your ever doubted G”d? Have your ever doubted G”d's existence? Have you ever asked yourself "Why should I believe in G”d?"

I suspect that being plagued with these kinds of thoughts and doubts are common to even the most pious among us. Life and the universe are chock full of things that can and do challenge our faith.

Both for myself, and also in my role as a Jewish educator, I am always seeking out thoughtful and useful responses to the kinds of questions noted above. All too often, even when I answer such questions with reasonable responses, I still have this gut feeling that I am only using clichés, offering pabulum. Sometimes I wonder if it might be better if I did not respond at all-though I am never truly able to convince myself that this is the wisest choice. Leave a student's "why should I believe in G”d?" question without a response, even if it is just a clever finessing of the situation, or a simple "I don't know do you?" and perhaps you leave them with the idea that their question is not worth answering.

Sometimes my answer (to myself or others) can be as simple as "because G”d is." Sometimes it can be a much more complex formula. Sometimes it can be nuanced. Sometimes it can be heretical. Sometimes it can even be “I’m not sure if I do believe, or what I believe about G”d.”  They run the gamut. Then there are all those things that G”d is said to have done in the Torah that make me question G”d, that make me ask “why would G”d do that?” Those of you who know me already know that I don’t find “the ineffable G”d” an acceptable answer. I don’t go for biblical or religious apologetics in any form. Most of the time. Like any potentially hypocritical human being I sometimes engage in my own whitewash or apologetics, or accept those offered by others.  I can be weak. As I have stated often, I believe that if we are b’tzelem El”him, in the image of G”d, then,. perforce. G”d is b’tzelem anashim – we find in ourselves and in G”d all those good and bad traits of which we are both capable.

Back in 2005, when preparing to write about B’shalakh, and my focus was yet again on how to answer students when they asked tough questions like “why should I believe in G”d? Why should anyone believe in G”d?” I found myself pleased and surprised when I came to its end and read these words:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה כְּתֹ֨ב זֹ֤את זִכָּרוֹן֙ בַּסֵּ֔פֶר וְשִׂ֖ים בְּאָזְנֵ֣י יְהוֹשֻׁ֑עַ כִּֽי־מָחֹ֤ה אֶמְחֶה֙ אֶת־זֵ֣כֶר עֲמָלֵ֔ק מִתַּ֖חַת הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Inscribe this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!”

וַיִּ֥בֶן מֹשֶׁ֖ה מִזְבֵּ֑חַ וַיִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ יְהוָ֥ה ׀ נִסִּֽי׃

And Moses built an altar and named it Adonai-nissi.

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר כִּֽי־יָד֙ עַל־כֵּ֣ס יָ֔הּ מִלְחָמָ֥ה לַיהוָ֖ה בַּֽעֲמָלֵ֑ק מִדֹּ֖ר דֹּֽר׃

He said, “It means, ‘Hand upon the throne of the LORD!’ The LORD will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.” (Ex. 17:14-16)

Hmmm. Maybe there's a reason to believe in G”d, I thought.

Going back and re-reading these thoughts from 2005, I find myself wondering why I thought that might be a good thing. Why would I be happy that G”d would be at perpetual war with Amalek? Doubter that I am, and willing to argue with myself, I read on seeing if the me of 2005 could convince the me of 2018.

Amalek represents the worst of the worst. An enemy that would attack the weak and the lame, the children. By extrapolation, an figure representing evil, immoral leaders for countless generations to come – and in particular, those who would set themselves against the Jewish people.

Some rabbis teach us that Amalek represents evil without cause, as opposed to evil brought on by thoughts of revenge, hatred, anger, etc.

At first I thought "how can there be such evil?" Even the most barbarous of villains seemed to claim a purpose behind their actions. And in our contemporary culture, we seem prone to explaining evil as resulting from some trauma or underlying cause or event in someone's life. Those who are abused often abuse others. Some chemical imbalance may be at the root of someone's anti-social behavior. Though I've never read any, I am sure there are plenty of analyses of why Hitler turned into Hitler.

I am sure that there truly is unexplainable, unjustifiable evil in this world. I think.  The problem is, I believe we are helpless to do anything about it. Oh, we band together and fight great wars to wipe out this kind of unrepentant, purposeless evil, and we seem to have success. Somehow, though, that kind of evil eventually resurfaces yet again. Our own history as a people is clear evidence of this. I fear it is happening again here and now in 2018 – though I need convincing that we are truly helpless to fight that unjustifiable evil, and need G”d to help us understand why we can succeed at it.

It is our role, our obligation, to be G”d's partner. That G”d will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages is a clue that we are going to have to partner with G”d for all time in this war against Amalek. We cannot do it alone. We cannot completely wipe out the evil from our midst on our own. We need G”d's help, and G”d needs our help.

“Yessiree, that's a great reason to believe,” I wrote in 2005. It’s January 2018 now, and we have endured a year under the present administration, and all that it represents. It is difficult for me to not think of it as evil. I see signs that we are struggling to fight it and defeat it, though as much as I see these encouraging signs, I fear I also see signs of continuing normalization, of acceptance of the evil. I, and many others, I think, are growing weary. Our passion is strong, but the fight is draining, as it requires such continual effort. Yes, I have turned to my faith, my understanding of G”d to seek strength, and to pray for assistance in whatever way it might come through Divine provenance (even with all my doubts about G”d being active in such things. So yes, in that sense, I have some reasons to believe.

Everywhere we see senseless hatred or violence, we find Amalek. When nations war for reasons that are unclear, we see Amalek. when people kill for no reason, we see Amalek. Perhaps even in the childish innocence of a young boy squishing a bug, or frying ants with a magnifying glass, we see Amalek. Perhaps in casual toying with nuclear annihilation we see Amalek. Perhaps in inciting people to racism and hatred, we see Amalek.

Perhaps there is a little Amalek in all of us, waiting for its chance to express itself. Like the song in Avenue Q, maybe everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes. Perhaps it is our faith that enables us to keep the Amalek within in check. And surely it can also help us keep the Amalek without, with G”d's help, in check, too.

I don’t honestly know if G”d can or will help us in fighting the Amaleks of today and tomorrow, but I do know that recognizing the eternal warning in Torah that G”d will always be at war with Amalek is a warning to us to be vigilant. I know it’s hypocritical of me – I don’t even like the idea of a G”d that is at war with anyone, or a G”d that causes or allows war. I’m not sure I approve of a G”d that, by choosing to give us free will, also allows unspeakable evil to be in our world. Couldn’t there be alternatives?

Is partnering with G”d in this eternal effort against Amalek acquiescing, letting G”d off the hook? Should I be fighting to change the very idea that G”d wants or needs to be at war with Amalek? Should I be striving to help create a world that will no longer give rise to Amaleks? That seems like the best route. However, since I don’t know what will work best, perhaps I should cover all my bases. So I’ll end with the same words I did in 2005.

May we all strive to be G”d's partner in this unceasing war with Amalek – the Amalek inside and the Amalek outside.

I’ll also add these words in 2018:

May we all strive to create a world, if such a thing is possible, where another Amalek will ever arise.

Shabbat Shalom,


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

Other Musings on this parasha:

Beshalakh 5777 - Moshe's Musings (Revised and Expanded from 5760)
Beshalakh 5776 - Mi Kamonu?
Beshalakh 5775 - I'm Not Doing It Alone
Beshalakh 5774 - A Lot Can Change in 13 Years - Or Not
Beshalakh 5773 - Moshe's Musings (Revised from 5760)
Beshalakh 5772 - Thankful For the Worst
Beshalakh 5771 - Praying That Moshe Was Wrong
Beshalakh 5768 - Man Hu
Beshalakh 5767-March On
Beshalakh 5766-Manna Mania II
Beshalakh 5765-Gd's War
Beshalach 5763-Mi Chamonu
Beshalach 5760-Moshe's Musings
Beshalach 5762-Manna mania
Beshalach 5761-Warrior Gd

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Bo 5778–Sub-contracting Death

Ah, the difficulties of trying to be unique. I’ve spent the better part of this week laying out the theme for my musing for parashat Bo. Along the way, I have, of course, looked at many other resources. Wouldn’t you know it – today was the day in which the resource I discovered was the musing I had planned to share this week – already written and shared a year ago by another!

So rather than attempt to do a better job than they already have, I’ve abandoned that effort, and direct you to the other one. I’ll go off in another direction.

I had planned to write about the erev rav, the mixed multitude that accompanied the Israelites out of Egypt. Who were they? Why did they come? What are the various theories about these questions that our sages have propounded? The other writer tackled these, and more. The real kicker is when the author of the other article used the same homonymic humor I had planned to use in mine. So I now direct you to this article, “What It Means to be Erev Rav” written by  Rabbi Gail Labovitz

Game over. Reset. New topic.

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה כֹּ֖ה אָמַ֣ר יְהוָ֑ה כַּחֲצֹ֣ת הַלַּ֔יְלָה אֲנִ֥י יוֹצֵ֖א בְּת֥וֹךְ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

Moses said, “Thus says the LORD: Toward midnight I will go forth among the Egyptians,

וּמֵ֣ת כָּל־בְּכוֹר֮ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַיִם֒ מִבְּכ֤וֹר פַּרְעֹה֙ הַיֹּשֵׁ֣ב עַל־כִּסְא֔וֹ עַ֚ד בְּכ֣וֹר הַשִּׁפְחָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֖ר אַחַ֣ר הָרֵחָ֑יִם וְכֹ֖ל בְּכ֥וֹר בְּהֵמָֽה׃

and every first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and all the first-born of the cattle. (Ex. 11:4-5)

and later:

וְעָבַרְתִּ֣י בְאֶֽרֶץ־מִצְרַיִם֮ בַּלַּ֣יְלָה הַזֶּה֒ וְהִכֵּיתִ֤י כָל־בְּכוֹר֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם מֵאָדָ֖ם וְעַד־בְּהֵמָ֑ה וּבְכָל־אֱלֹהֵ֥י מִצְרַ֛יִם אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֥ה שְׁפָטִ֖ים אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֽה׃

For that night I will go through the land of Egypt and strike down every first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and I will mete out punishments to all the gods of Egypt, I the LORD. (Ex. 12:12)

So, where’s the “angel of death” to which we refer in the Haggadah, and which has become so associated with the Passover story?

At most, there’s a hint here, in this later verse:

וְעָבַ֣ר יְהוָה֮ לִנְגֹּ֣ף אֶת־מִצְרַיִם֒ וְרָאָ֤ה אֶת־הַדָּם֙ עַל־הַמַּשְׁק֔וֹף וְעַ֖ל שְׁתֵּ֣י הַמְּזוּזֹ֑ת וּפָסַ֤ח יְהוָה֙ עַל־הַפֶּ֔תַח וְלֹ֤א יִתֵּן֙ הַמַּשְׁחִ֔ית לָבֹ֥א אֶל־בָּתֵּיכֶ֖ם לִנְגֹּֽף׃

For when the LORD goes through to smite the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and the LORD will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home. (Ex. 12:23)

The Destroyer, הַמַּשְׁחִ֔ית  HaMashkhit. Is this a separate entity, or just another of G”d’s appellations?

To further confuse things:

וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּחֲצִ֣י הַלַּ֗יְלָה וַֽיהוָה֮ הִכָּ֣ה כָל־בְּכוֹר֮ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַיִם֒ מִבְּכֹ֤ר פַּרְעֹה֙ הַיֹּשֵׁ֣ב עַל־כִּסְא֔וֹ עַ֚ד בְּכ֣וֹר הַשְּׁבִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּבֵ֣ית הַבּ֑וֹר וְכֹ֖ל בְּכ֥וֹר בְּהֵמָֽה׃

In the middle of the night the LORD struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle. (Ex. 12:29)

So which is it? Did G”d do the striking down, or was it through some agency of G”d, some angel, some destroyer?

Is this an attempt to whitewash G”d, to protect G”d’s image, and shift the blame for the dirty work to something else? Is it less public relations and more philosophical, trying to portray G”d as creative and not destructive?  Is it a put-down of the Egyptians – they’re not worth G”d’s direct effort to destroy their first-born sons, so G”d uses a sub-contractor? Is it an admission of a limitation of G”d, perhaps self-imposed, after the guilt of the flood, S’dom and Gomorrah and  other mass killings of human beings by G”d? Was G”d worn out from generating all those other plagues, and G”d needed help with this last one from one of the angels?

Is this original text, or a later insertion by folks attempting to deal with the issues I’ve raised above?

There’s no shortage of G”d being responsible for human death in the Torah. (There’s also no shortage of humans being responsible for human death, but that’s a discussion for another time.) we haven’t even gotten to Nadav and Avihu, to the thousands killed for being rebellious to Moshe, and so on. Yet somewhere along our historical and religious journey, we’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with a G”d that acts directly to kill humans. Obviously, by the time the Haggadah took its basic form, we’d decided to embrace the agency of the “angel of death” in the slaying of the first-born. We don’t need no stinking angels of death.

Hey G”d. If You created us, it’s Your responsibility to destroy us. No intermediaries, angels, sub-contractors.

What? What’s that You say? It was the Egyptians, and not Your chosen people? Gimme a break. If you are the One and only G”d, they are your creations too.

They worship other gods, You say? But those are not real gods, so why do You care?

To get Your love and protection, they can only believe in You? That sounds like a terrible idea. Yet, according to another religious tradition that worships you, that really is the case – they must believe in You and accept You as a personal savior in order to be redeemed. Come to think of it, in a way, that particular faith tradition is sort of using a sub-contractor as an intermediary.

Yes, yes, I get that Your creations are individuals, free-thinking, with free will, and that many different paths to You are possible.

You, G”d, are HaMashschit. Own up to it.  You’d stand a better chance of getting us to own up to our imperfections if You’d own up to Yours.

You want sub-contractors, hire us to do all the work. What’s that? You say that’s exactly what You want us to figure out – that we’re Your sub-contractors. If that’s the case, better we should be the creative sub-contractors than the destructive ones, right?

How that’s for turning what could have been a real downer of a musing into a happy ending (sort of?)

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Bo 5777 - Good Loser (Revised 5763)
Bo 5776 - Four Strikes and You're...Well...(a fractured midrashic fairy tale)
Bo 5775 - Teach Your Children Well (Redux 5762)
Bo 5774 - Spellcheck On My hand
Bo 5773 - Dear G"d...Love, Pharaoh
Bo 5772 - Lifting the Cover of Darkness
Bo 5771 - Keretz MiTzafon-Again! (not the same as 5769)
Bo 5769-Keretz MiTzafon
Bo 5768 - Good Loser (Redux 5763)
Bo 5767-Teach Your Children Well (Redux 5762)
Bo 5766 - Random Disjunctions and Convergences (Redux 5760)
Bo 5765-Four Strikes and You're...Well...
Bo 5764-Keretz Ani
Bo 5763 -Good Loser
Bo 5761-Cover of Darkness
Bo 5762-Teach Your Children Well


Thursday, January 11, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Va’era 5778–Careful The Words You Boast

My mother Goldie (z”l) passed away this past August at the age of 92. She would have been 93 in another 8 days from today had she lived. Years ago, I wrote a musing for this parasha based around an old technique the Mom used to get me and my sister to eat and finish our food. In her honor, here’s the link to the most recent version of it, from 2015:

and now, on to a new story for this Shabbat Va’era.

The haftarah for parashat Va’era is from Ezekiel 28:25-29:21. It includes these words in verses 29:3-9

דַּבֵּ֨ר וְאָמַרְתָּ֜ כֹּֽה־אָמַ֣ר ׀ אֲדֹנָ֣י יְהוִ֗ה הִנְנִ֤י עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ פַּרְעֹ֣ה מֶֽלֶךְ־מִצְרַ֔יִם הַתַּנִּים֙ הַגָּד֔וֹל הָרֹבֵ֖ץ בְּת֣וֹךְ יְאֹרָ֑יו אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָמַ֛ר לִ֥י יְאֹרִ֖י וַאֲנִ֥י עֲשִׂיתִֽנִי׃

Speak these words: Thus said the Lord GOD: I am going to deal with you, O Pharaoh king of Egypt, Mighty monster, sprawling in your channels, Who said, My Nile is my own; I made it for myself.

וְנָתַתִּ֤י חחיים [חַחִים֙] בִּלְחָיֶ֔יךָ וְהִדְבַּקְתִּ֥י דְגַת־יְאֹרֶ֖יךָ בְּקַשְׂקְשֹׂתֶ֑יךָ וְהַעֲלִיתִ֙יךָ֙ מִתּ֣וֹךְ יְאֹרֶ֔יךָ וְאֵת֙ כָּל־דְּגַ֣ת יְאֹרֶ֔יךָ בְּקַשְׂקְשֹׂתֶ֖יךָ תִּדְבָּֽק׃

I will put hooks in your jaws, And make the fish of your channels Cling to your scales; I will haul you up from your channels, With all the fish of your channels Clinging to your scales.

וּנְטַשְׁתִּ֣יךָ הַמִּדְבָּ֗רָה אוֹתְךָ֙ וְאֵת֙ כָּל־דְּגַ֣ת יְאֹרֶ֔יךָ עַל־פְּנֵ֤י הַשָּׂדֶה֙ תִּפּ֔וֹל לֹ֥א תֵאָסֵ֖ף וְלֹ֣א תִקָּבֵ֑ץ לְחַיַּ֥ת הָאָ֛רֶץ וּלְע֥וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם נְתַתִּ֥יךָ לְאָכְלָֽה׃

And I will fling you into the desert, With all the fish of your channels. You shall be left lying in the open, Ungathered and unburied: I have given you as food To the beasts of the earth And the birds of the sky.

וְיָֽדְעוּ֙ כָּל־יֹשְׁבֵ֣י מִצְרַ֔יִם כִּ֖י אֲנִ֣י יְהוָ֑ה יַ֧עַן הֱיוֹתָ֛ם מִשְׁעֶ֥נֶת קָנֶ֖ה לְבֵ֥ית יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

Then all the inhabitants of Egypt shall know That I am the LORD. Because you were a staff of reed To the House of Israel:

בְּתָפְשָׂ֨ם בְּךָ֤ בכפך [בַכַּף֙] תֵּר֔וֹץ וּבָקַעְתָּ֥ לָהֶ֖ם כָּל־כָּתֵ֑ף וּבְהִֽשָּׁעֲנָ֤ם עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ תִּשָּׁבֵ֔ר וְהַעֲמַדְתָּ֥ לָהֶ֖ם כָּל־מָתְנָֽיִם׃ (ס)

When they grasped you with the hand, you would splinter, And wound all their shoulders, And when they leaned on you, you would break, And make all their loins unsteady.

לָכֵ֗ן כֹּ֤ה אָמַר֙ אֲדֹנָ֣י יְהוִ֔ה הִנְנִ֛י מֵבִ֥יא עָלַ֖יִךְ חָ֑רֶב וְהִכְרַתִּ֥י מִמֵּ֖ךְ אָדָ֥ם וּבְהֵמָֽה׃

Assuredly, thus said the Lord GOD: Lo, I will bring a sword against you, and will cut off man and beast from you,

וְהָיְתָ֤ה אֶֽרֶץ־מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ לִשְׁמָמָ֣ה וְחָרְבָּ֔ה וְיָדְע֖וּ כִּֽי־אֲנִ֣י יְהוָ֑ה יַ֧עַן אָמַ֛ר יְאֹ֥ר לִ֖י וַאֲנִ֥י עָשִֽׂיתִי׃

so that the land of Egypt shall fall into desolation and ruin. And they shall know that I am the LORD—because he boasted, “The Nile is mine, and I made it.”

I’m going to take these words completely out of their context, and not feel the least bit troubled by that. We have, in our country today, a man serving as President who seems as fond of boasting as the Pharaoh of which Ezekiel was speaking. Only he can do it. I made this happen. I made that happen. I alone. I am making America great again.

These words ring as hollow as Pharaoh’s boasts are made to seem by the ancient prophet. We can only hope and pray that G”d will treat today’s President as Ezekiel was proclaiming that G”d would treat that ancient Pharaoh.

Unfortunately, under these prophecies, Pharaoh would drag his nation and his people down with him. I would not wish that on those ancient Egyptians anymore than I would wish it on our country and our citizens. Yet there may be a price to pay for our having allowed this man to be elected as our President, for even allowing him to be considered for that role, given what we knew. It should be far easier to for us to topple a President than it was for the ancient Egyptians to topple their Pharaoh. Yes, we can blame the system that allowed our current President to be elected, but, ultimately, the system is us, and it is up to us, if it isn’t working right, to fix it. Like it or not, we are, all of us, no matter how strongly we protest, responsible for what has happened to our nation. If we do not fix it, and we do not stop our leaders from the inhuman acts in which they are engaging, then G”d’s disfavor could surely fall upon we the people as much as it does our leaders. (No, I’m no fan or believer in a  G”d who actually operates that way, and I’ll readily admit to my hypocrisy in my actually wishing for G”d to actual act in this manner.)

Pharaoh’s people weren’t able to stop him, surely through less fault than our own, and still G”d punished the masses for the faults of their ruler. As I stated, I don’t like a G”d who behaves like that (and neither did Avraham) and I’m not excusing it. I’m engaging in rhetorical technique, I suppose. Our prophets were masters of the genre, so why should we still not use it?  (Ah, but I hear year cry “our own President uses these techniques to his own advantages and two wrongs do not a right make.”) Well content matters. Hitler may have used rhetorical technique, but so did Gandhi, MLK, JFK, and so many other great leaders. We heard Oprah use it to great effect the other day at the Golden Globe awards.

The meaning and intent behind the rhetoric matters. When the rhetoric is meant to hurt, cause harm, it is an improper use. Our ancient prophets weren’t always so much trying to predict the future as use their predictions as a tool to convince people to behave in a  different manner so that the dire predictions would not come true. If the Pharaoh being addressed by Ezekiel changed his boastful ways, perhaps these things would not befall Egypt.

[We do have to consider the context. Based on the start of this haftarah section, the time period is probably 588 BCE, one year before Jerusalem was captured by the Babylonians. Ezekiel, or his school, were probably writing these words years later, while they were in exile in Babylon.  The Pharaoh of that time, would have been Apries, of the 26th Dynasty. In 588, Apries actually sent his army to protect Jerusalem from the Babylonian armies of Nebuchadnezzar. His forces did not fare well, and basically retreated to avoid a confrontation. As a result, some of Apries troops mutinied. Years later, after Jerusalem fell, Apries sent troops to protect Nubia from the Greeks, and they failed miserably. As a result, he was overthrown and fled Egypt. Some years later, Apries led a Babylonian army in an attempt to conquer Egypt and regain his throne. He was killed in the battle. His overthrower/successor Amasi still saw that Apries received a proper Pharaonic burial. He also married a daughter of Apries to help legitimize his forceful and usurping succession.  It is likely that Ezekiel (or his scribal school) was/were well aware of this history when writing the 28th and 29th chapter of this prophetic book. Perhaps it was Apries very abandonment of the fight to protect Jerusalem from the Babylonians which was the progenitor of this part of Ezekiel’s prophecies. Ezekiel perhaps alludes to historical details about Pharaoh Apries (perhaps boasting his troops could easily protect Jerusalem) that are not elsewhere noted.) Or perhaps Ezekiel was exhorting Apries with his pointed prophecies to insure Egyptian troops stayed to protect Jerusalem, in hopes of saving the city (which presumes this was written before 587 BCE, an unlikely scenario.)  We’ll probably never know. Egypt didn’t fare so badly after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, and Babylonian troops failed to restore Apries to his throne. However, Apries sure did.]

Given all this context, perhaps Ezekiel really was just warning the people of Jerusalem not to trust Apries’ troops to save them from the Babylonians. Proof of that understanding is found in 29:16

וְלֹ֣א יִֽהְיֶה־עוֹד֩ לְבֵ֨ית יִשְׂרָאֵ֤ל לְמִבְטָח֙ מַזְכִּ֣יר עָוֺ֔ן בִּפְנוֹתָ֖ם אַחֲרֵיהֶ֑ם וְיָ֣דְע֔וּ כִּ֥י אֲנִ֖י אֲדֹנָ֥י יְהוִֽה׃ (פ)

Never again shall they be the trust of the House of Israel, recalling its guilt in having turned to them. And they shall know that I am the Lord GOD.

Perhaps Ezekiel had heard about machinations in Egypt, perhaps he had heard unkind and unflattering comments about Pharaoh Apries.

All this context, but I’m not sure how much it matters. The point is that Ezekiel, who devoted six sections of his book to prophecies against Egypt, was calling Pharaoh Apries on the carpet for being boastful. I’m calling our current President on the carpet for the same thing.

In his prophecy, Ezekiel further predicted that Egypt would suffer forty years of ruin, and then G”d would restore it, but:

מִן־הַמַּמְלָכוֹת֙ תִּהְיֶ֣ה שְׁפָלָ֔ה וְלֹֽא־תִתְנַשֵּׂ֥א ע֖וֹד עַל־הַגּוֹיִ֑ם וְהִ֨מְעַטְתִּ֔ים לְבִלְתִּ֖י רְד֥וֹת בַּגּוֹיִֽם׃

It shall be the lowliest of all the kingdoms, and shall not lord it over the nations again. I will reduce the Egyptians, so that they shall have no dominion over the nations.

Are we in danger of becoming the lowliest of nations? I certainly fear that is possible. Already respect for our country has declined worldwide.

A friend posted on Facebook today that his young children walked into the room while he was watching a news channel, and on the crawl below it was mentioning POTUS’ remarks, prompting one of the children to ask “What’s a shithole?”  I know our current POTUS is no fan of musical theater, but not only should he head the words of Ezekiel, but also those of Stephen Sondheim:

Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see
And learn
Children may not obey
But children will listen
Children will look to you
For which way to turn
To learn what to be
Careful before you say
"Listen to me"
Children will listen

The children are listening, DJT. They will see, and they will learn. Sadly, due to the things you say and do, our children, our world will all be poorer and the worse off for it.

My country is my own, I made it for myself. If those are your thoughts, POTUS, consider what happened to others as boastful throughout history.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Va'era 5777 - Alternative Facts (Not What You Think - Or Is It?)
Va'era 5776 - Why Tomorrow (Revised 5757/62/66)
Va'era 5775 - Brighton Beach Last Stop! (Revised)
Va'era 5774 - Tomorrow, Again
Va'era 5773 - Let Our People Go/Rendezvousing With Rama
Va'era 5772 - Got It!
Va'era 5771/5765-Brighton Beach-Last Stop!
Va'era 5769 - Substitute
Va'era 5767-again, Crushed Spirits (Miqotzer Ruakh)
Va'era 5766-Why Tomorrow?
Va'era 5765-Brighton Beach-Last Stop!
Va'era 5764-Imperfect Perfection and Perfect Imperfection
Va'era 5763 - Pray for Me
Va'era 5761-Just Not Getting It
Va'era 5762-Early will I Seek You

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Sh’mot 5778–Logic and Metaphysics (revisted)

Sometimes, I look back on things which I have written and wonder how I could have possibly thought that way. Anyone who has followed these musings over their 20 year history can often see the shifting of my positions over time. While I perhaps wish it were more like a nice sine wave, truth is, it is not. It is a complex wave pattern full of jagged ups and downs
I go through periods when my mystic side is more palatable to me, and I let it show. I am open to possibilities that can disregard logic. At other times, I will staunchly affirm that science and religion should not be mixed, that one cannot be used to explain the other. Then there are yet other times when my position is more in the middle, allowing science and religion to inform each other. To paraphrase Mordecai Kaplan, in science, religion gets a vote but not a veto. I can’t, however, bring myself to posit the opposite. In religion, I believe, science sometimes does get the veto. There are limits to my willingness to endorse religious concepts that are in clear violation of scientific principles and knowledge. Some things simply cannot be, no matter how willing I am to suspend my disbelief.
I am schooled in science, math, and logic. I am also schooled in theology and religion. I simply cannot escape finding a way to make room in my life for all of them.
I cannot pretend that there is no point of intersection between science and religion. I also recognize that if science ever answers all the questions in our universe, it will no longer have any purpose. G”d forbid that we ever find ourselves without a need for science!
It is with these thought in my head that I harken back to words written eleven years ago (with new thoughts added for this year.)
Leopold Zunz, in his book "Reformed Judaism" attributes to the Hatam Sofer, Rabbi Moshe Sofer (Schreiber) (1762-1839) the following quote:
"The Jew sings logic and prays metaphysics."
It is odd that Zunz, a early Jewish Reformer and founder of Wissenschaft des Judenthums, should quote the Hatam Sofer, a dedicated opponent of the reformers. The Hatam Sofer, after all, was noted for his statement "hadash asur min-HaTorah" - nothing new is permitted in the Torah. (As an aside, since readers know of my passion for synagogue music, it should be noted that the Hatam Sofer was also adamantly opposed to the incorporation of music in Jewish worship.)
The Reformers sought to infuse Jewish prayer and ritual with the same logic that the Hatam Sofer said that Jews sing, or at the very least, modify it in light of the logic of modern science. They have succeeded, to some degree. Yet, through it all, the views of the Hatam Sofer held. Try as they might, the reformers could not excise for the siddur everything that was in seeming contradiction to modern science. Room had to be left for faith, mystery and metaphysics. So much of the mystery had been stripped away that today's Reform movement is struggling to recapture some of the baby that got thrown out with the bathwater.
To add irony to irony, now much of Jewish song has become focused on "metaphysics." [2018 - That could a whole separate rant. Don’t get me wrong, I like some of this music, but I’m not a great fan of more mystical musical styles. In small doses, it’s okay.More power to those for whom it works, it’s just not my cup of tea to stretch out the words of the Sh’ma over interminable moments of time, or regularly attend a service of entirely of mystical chant. But I digress.]
This dilemma, this luminal area, this boundary between logic and metaphysics, between faith and science, is well illustrated in our weekly parasha, the first in the book of Sh’mot (Exodus.)
Moshe is tending sheep in the wilderness near Mt. Horeb, and
"an angel of the L"rd appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush.He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed." (Ex. 3:2, JPS)
It's interesting how we sort of brush the angel aside, perhaps because it so overtly offends our modern scientific sense. A burning bush that is not consumed in its own flames with the voice of G"d emanating from it we can handle. But a angel physically standing in the midst of all that and our "religion tempered by science" antennae go up. [2018 - Oh, the irony.] So in most popularizations of the story, the angel is conveniently left out. Yet how much greater the miracle is to imagine not just the burning bush, and the voice of G"d, but an angel of G"d standing within the flames, also unconsumed and unaffected. [2018 - Why does the Torah contain so many instances in which the presence of an angel and G”d are conflated or intertwined, or unclear? Is it G”d? Is it and angel? No, it’s two…two…two mints in one. Sheesh!]
Again, in the next verse, we focus on only one part of the text and less on another. For Moshe says
"I must turn aside aide to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn't the bush burn up?" (Ex. 3:3, JPS)
We've already been told, in verse 2, that the bush is not consumed by its own flame. Yet Moshe repeats this in his question. Here is the "logical" song of the Jew. It is not logical, even by scientific understanding in Moshe's time, that a bush could burn and not be consumed by its own flames.
Moshe continues his "logical" song. When charged by G"d to go to Pharaoh, he asks
"Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?"
A perfectly logical question and reaction. And G"d answers
"I will be with you..."
OK. Moshe buys that and moves on.
“They're gonna ask me Your name-what should I tell them?”
And G"d answers with the ever-flippant
"Que sera, sera."
[2018 – it may be flippant of me to translate the Hebrew in this way, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.]
Yet, as though expecting another logical outburst from Moshe, G"d pre-empts any reaction and goes into a long diatribe of instruction and explanation. (vv. 16ff)
It is not until the start of chapter 4 that Moshe again speaks up. I guess he's decided to live with the "ehyeh asher ehyeh" answer. Clearly Moshe is ready to "pray metaphysics." Still, his ever logical self has to ask
"but what if they don't believe me ands don't listen to me?"
And what does G"d do this time? Cheap theatrics (see my earlier musing on this very subject.) He gives Moshe a very practical and "logical" tool of demonstration (and one, perhaps, that G"d knows the Egyptian magicians will be able to reproduce? A setup, maybe?) Staff into snake. One of the oldest tricks in the magician's canon. [2018 – What is it with us and snakes? Here, next time you start thinking negatively about snakes, replace it with that lovely scene from “Bananas.” You’ll smile. And yes, I did just reference a Woody Allen film. Sue me.]
Then, just to be sure Moshe got it, G”d gives him the "Snow White leprosy hand" demo as well. Another cheap parlor trick. If that isn't enough, says G"d, then use this "water into blood" trick.
Even the redactors of the Torah are caught in the logic and metaphysics dilemma. Oh my goodness, they must have thought. Moshe's baby son by his Midian wife was probably not circumcised. And so they insert this convoluted and mysterious incident of the "bridegroom of blood" to take care of the inconsistency. (But, like any good biblical redactor, they knew enough to leave contradiction and mystery in their own explanation of another contradiction and mystery!)
And we're still trying to put the logic back into the prayer. Remember that recent special with the somewhat over the top amateur archaeologist trying to come up with valid scientific explanations for all the plagues? [2018 – this was 11 years ago.]
I don't know the context of Zunz's quote of the Hatam Sofer, so I don't know if he's agreeing or disagreeing with the premise. I'd like to think that he was, to some degree, agreeing that what we pray is often inconsistent with what we believe is scientifically possible. The question becomes, is this good thing or a bad thing, this inconsistency. I think you already know my position before I even state it. Yes, I favor the inconsistency. It doesn't bother me one iota to pray over miracles, unexplainable phenomena, items of faith that my logical side argues cannot be. I love wearing the faith and scholarship hats. I love teaching the "Faith and Science" class. They are not wholly incompatible. They may be "apples and oranges" and I agree that one cannot be used to prove or disprove the other. Theoretically, an apple/orange hybrid is possible, though genetically difficult to engineer.
I have scientist friends who really hate it when I start to mix science and metaphysics. They are the people that can't stand ideas like those expressed in "What the Bleep Do We Know?" or "I Heart Huckabees." They can't picture, like I can, Morgan Freeman standing in the midst of a burning bush, unconsumed, calling out to a shepherding Jim Carrey "Yo, Moses! Check this out." For them, science and faith are separate systems that can never ben reconciled. Perhaps they are correct. Or perhaps, as I have often speculated, that holy grail of physics, the unified field theorem, is the connection that explains our universe in logical and metaphysical ways. [ 2018 – did The Force create midichlorians and genetically engineer them into every species in the universe, or did midichlorians evolve naturally and spontaneously on every planet and lead to the creation of The Force? Belief in some form of G”d and ritual practice seems to have been part of every civilization that arose on this plant. Would that be true elsewhere, or is it something intrinsic to how life evolved on this planet? I have a headache.]
I think I've had this tendency to blend science and metaphysics since childhood. I remember one year my elementary school science fair entry, inspired, I think, by just having read "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds" (which really has nothing to do with any of this). Under relatively controlled conditions, I subjected seedlings to classical music, rock music and no music, my theory being that the relaxing classical music would cause those seedlings to thrive better than the others. (Like any good scientist, I manipulated the data so my premise was demonstrated in the results.) It wasn't a matter of pure science. I wasn't examining the differences in frequencies and amplitude. I just thought that the seedling might, in some metaphysical way, like the classical music better. Much as the water photographs of Dr. Masaru Emoto were used in "What the Bleep..." as a similar example.
[2018 – just to be clear, while I’m open  to all sorts of possibilities, I think both the quantum mysticism theories of What the Bleep… are utter nonsense, as are the theories of Dr. Emoto and his water. I like films like What the Bleep… and its ilk simply because they get us thinking and asking all sorts of questions. One can entertain ideas without endorsing them.]
Who better than G"d to understand the system of our universe, in which the observer has an effect? Is it really such a far-fetched idea? [2018 – wow, I can;t believe I actually wrote that, Adrian, what were you thinking?] G"d waited until Moshe turned aside to see this burning bush with the angel in it before G"d spoke to Moshe. Put in into the context of the Schroedinger's cat thought-experiment: if Moshe had not turned aside, we wouldn't be here. Yet for that brief moment before Moshe decided to respond, all possible futures existed simultaneously. If that's not G"d, I don't know could be. [2018 – seriously?]
Hmmm. Is one allowed to go down the rabbit hole on Shabbat?
[2018 – Torah is rabbit hole enough without needing to mix the pseudo-science of quantum mysticism in. This year, Torah is enough of a rabbit hole for me.]
Shabbat Shalom,
©2018 (portions ©2007) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on this parasha:
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?

After posting this, I came across the following tweet from the Dalai Lama today, which seemed apropos: