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?

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