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: