Thursday, July 31, 2008

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Masei 5768 - Accidents Matter

"It was just an accident." "I didn't mean it." "I didn't intend for that to happen."

Somehow, our society has come to believe that things which were unintentional, or accidental, don't really matter as much as the results of intentional actions. We simply say "oh, it was an accident. They didn't mean it"and shrug it off.

I believe this comes from a mistaken broadening and generalization of the concept that we find in the parasha, which outlines a hierarchy of intentional vs. unintentional murder. In my understanding of what the text teaches us here, the more important lesson to learn is that even an accidental murder has consequences.

According to our parasha, those who commit intentional murder are subject to the death penalty, generally to be carried out by the nearest blood avenger of the person killed. In the case of an accidental, unintentional, or un-pre-meditated killing, the "killer" can flee to one of the established city of refuge.  If the killer goes outside the city of refuge, a blood avenger may exact the death penalty, and the blood avenger will bear no guilt. The killer must remain there until the death of the current high priest, after which the killer is free to leave the city of refuge, and a blood avenger is no longer free to exact revenge.

To our modern sensibilities, it seems a little odd that an "accidental killer" must flee to a city of refuge to avoid a blood avenger, and that the blood avenger can exact the "life for life" penalty if the accidental killer is outside the city of refuge.

Now, we can simply reject the whole thing without another thought, reminding ourselves that the rabbis took great pains to make the death penalty something that was very hard to impose. Or we can chalk it up to the cultural norms of the times when the Torah was redacted into the form we know it today. If we focus on the "death penalty" issue, I think we can miss the point.

The Torah reminds us that, even though a death may have been accidental, it is no less painful for the family of the person killed. And the accidental killer, too, will have to endure some emotional pain and discomfort as well. The death of anyone has an impact like a pebble in a pond. We cannot be nonchalant about any death, and especially mot a murder, whether intentional or not.

On NPR a while back, I heard a story told by someone who had accidentally killed a classmate with his car. It was an absolutely heart-wrenching story and I found myself quite sympathetic with the story teller. Even so, the story teller went to great pains to clearly portray the suffering of his dead classmates family and friends, and not just his own difficulties in living with the reality of having been responsible, even accidentally, for the death of a classmate.

His story did help to illustrate that, even in our own time, we need a form of cities of refuge. Even though the police and everyone stated that the death was an accident, and that there was no way the story teller could have avoided it, there was still clear and obvious anger, even hatred, towards the story teller. At his school, during the memorial service for the girl killed, one teacher quietly reminded everyone present that the story teller was also in need of their comfort and support. The story teller told about several interactions he had with the girl's parents, and how difficult they were, on both sides. If I recall the story correctly, he also revealed that it turned out the girl had written a suicide note stating her intention to swerve into traffic, a fact he learned many years later.

There is always more than one side to every story. Is it fair that an "accidental killer" has to flee to a city of refuge, or endure taunts and hatred from others? I don't know if it is fair or not, and I don't think fairness has anything to do with it. Actions, deliberate or accidental, have consequences. Accidents have consequences. These consequences impact the worlds of the killer and the person killed-there's no avoiding that. When a death occurs, people will suffer. The consequences must be dealt with by those that are affected. It might not be such a bad thing that even an accidental killer has to think about the impact of the death they unintentionally caused. If it is simply a matter of convincing yourself "hey, it wasn't my fault" then perhaps we are under-valuing the significance of a person's death. Unintentional or not, someone's death is worth a little soul-searching, Yet we must balance this with consideration for those things a person who has accidentally killed has to deal with, and, of course, great understanding for the family of the one killed.

You can clearly extrapolate this concept beyond the boundaries of murder and death. "Don't cry over spilled milk" may be an adage that makes sense, yet, at least for a time, the spilled milk event has consequences, both for the one who caused the spill, intentionally or not, and for all the others present (or not present) who may be affected by this incident. Clearly, the adage is meant to teach us to weigh and value things proportionately, and consider carefully those things about which it is worth crying.

How do we know what is worth our crying? How do we know what to do, what is right? How should we act if we accidentally harm someone else? How should we react to someone who has harmed another? The rabbis came up with one way that can help us deal with the complexities of such matters, As we are taught in Pirkei Avot 1:6 :...make for yourself a teacher, acquire a friend, and judge each person favorably. We make teachers for ourselves when we seek out someone who is wise in ways that can help us, our friends help us gain perspective, and judging favorably will enable us to see and understand the world in all its great diversity.

Stephen Schwartz nailed it in this lyric from the song "Wonderful" from the musical "Wicked:

WIZARD: (spoken) Elphaba, where I'm from, we believe all sorts of
things that aren't true. We call it - "history."

A man's called a traitor - or liberator
A rich man's a thief - or philanthropist
Is one a crusader - or ruthless invader?
It's all in which label
Is able to persist
There are precious few at ease
With moral ambiguities
So we act as though they don't exist

Well, we're not in Oz, so we don't really have the liberty to act as if they don't exist. So we make for ourselves teachers, acquire friends, and try to judge all favorably. It's a start.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2008 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, July 25, 2008

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Matot 5768 - Redux 5765 - Even Moshe Rabbeinu Had to Punt (or Making Lemonade)

You'd think, haverim, being "between jobs" as I prepare for my move from the DC area to the beautiful upper Pioneer valley of Massachusetts, I'd actually have some time to sit down and muse anew on this parasha. Alas, no rest for the weary, as there is simply so much to do in preparation for the move. So, as the title of this recycled musing suggests, I'm going to punt. If it was good enough for Moshe, it's good enough for me!
Shabbat shalom,

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Matot 5765
Even Moshe Rabbeinu Had to Punt
(or Making Lemonade)

Big man, this Moses. Been leading the Israelites from slavery to freedom for almost 40 years. Starting to get a little cocky and full of himself, too. Doesn't seem like he's always running off to consult with G"d before making important pronouncements.
Yet often life's realities dictate and guide our choices. As the saying goes, when stuck with a lemon, make lemonade. What else could Moshe Rabbeinu do when confronted with the cattle and sheep barons of the Reubenites, the Gadites when they requested to settle in the good pasture land east of the Jordan?

Oh, Moses makes a show of it, insisting that the Reubenites and Gadites agree to provide the warriors necessary so that the rest of the tribes can conquer and settle the lands G"d is going to deliver to them on the west side of the Jordan. Yet Moshe never says "no, this you must not do." It's as if he had already thought through the potential outcomes of challenging this desire on the part of the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and just wanted to be sure the deal he was about to make wouldn't cost him (or perhaps Joshua) the warriors that would be needed to secure their possession of the promised lands.

The risks must have been high. Yet Moshe doesn't stop to ask G"d what to do. Moshe, to put it bluntly, punts. He takes the bull by the horns (sort of an odd phrase to use, when thought of in context of the golden calf.) He assesses the situation. He assesses his own weakening strength. And maybe, just maybe, he figures, "what the heck. I'm not going to get to cross the Jordan, so why shouldn't I let these two tribes stay on this side as well?"

So he makes sure to extract the promises he needs from them, and grants the wishes of the tribes of Reuben and Gad. The other day, at a Torah study session, I asked the person who was reading the text out loud, when he got to verse 33, to repeat the first words. I asked him to re-read them several time. "Vayitein lahem Moshe livnei Gad u'livnei Reuven..." "So Moses assigned them, the sons of Gad and the sons of Reuven..."

So it is through the decision of Moshe that the Reubenites and Gadites are assigned territory on the east side of the Jordan. I guess we can assume G"d's acquiescence/deference to Moshe's decision through G"d's silence on the matter. (Or, if we want to don our scholarly hats, we can just chalk the whole story up to an etiological device meant to explain, at a later time, how certain tribes came to occupy certain lands.)

Now, as I typically do, I'm being a little hard on Moshe. In reality, I respect his ability to punt. It takes the ability to really stay focused on some long-term goal to be able to make compromises for the near-term. Is it more important that all the children of Israel occupy land on the west side of the Jordan, or that there be civility and peace between the tribes of Israel. (And, also taking the long-term view, as the sages have taught, the tribes of Reuben and Gad got their comeuppance when theirs were among the first territories to fall to the invaders from the north. Was Moshe, man of faith, certain that G"d would make sure the tribes of Reuben and Gad were suitably punished for their choice?)

How many times have we failed to make lemonade of lemons, or failed to punt when we should have, from tunnel vision, an inability to see the forest for the trees? I think Judaism has a long history of this, and it is becoming an increasing problem in our own time. Stretch a rubber band from a center point and it will only stretch so far before it breaks. Yet, if you don't insist that the center point remain absolutely fixed, you can keep the rubber band from breaking. Move the center a little, and relieve the stress on the rubber band.Though we now find Judaism mired in either on a stubborn insistence that the center must never move, or a foolish "just move the center whenever it's convenient" attitude, the reality is that the early rabbis established a wise system that allowed for punting when needed. That allowed the center to be adjusted when it was clear the only alternative was to let the rubber band snap. Wise poskim in our own time still follow this venerable method.

Just to go off on a tangent for moment, let's ask ourselves this question. In the rubber band/center point metaphor, is G"d the fixed point and the people those stretching out the rubber band? Or are we, Am Yisrael, the center point, with G"d always tugging at the rubber band trying to drag us along as we stubbornly try to keep the center in one fixed place? Or are Am Yisrael tugging at the rubber band, while Torah is the center point, which G"d cleverly designed to move when necessary? There, that ought to keep us all occupied for a while.

So think about those times in your life when your intransigence prevented you from making trying a game-winning punt. And then think about what you are going to do next time you are confronted with a similar opportunity.

Shabbat Shalom,
©2005, 2008 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, July 18, 2008

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Pinkhas 5768 - Still Zealous After All These Years

Five years ago, my musing for this parasha was entitled "I Still Get Zealous", the title being a pun on the Jules Styne/Sammy Cahn song "I Still Get Jealous" from "High Button Shoes"  (though oddly, it was Louis Armstrong's version that catapulted the song to fame.) I'm spinning this new musing off of that earlier musing, using some of its thoughts, but from a rather different vantage point.

In an odd coincidence of time, while I'm still zealous, today happens to have been my last day as Director of Education and Congregational Life for Bethesda Jewish Congregation (BJC.)  It was  not easy to choose to leave my congregational family of five years so that I might move with the family unit of which I have now become part to Amherst, MA. I'm sure most of you know what it's like to leave somewhere for the last time. Yet nothing tells me more about my own habitual zealousness than the way I approached my last few weeks, days, hours and minutes at BJC. Last Friday, I led my last service for BJC, and I was as inspired and uplifted as always. This past Wednesday, I led Torah study for the last time, and was as engaged and enlightened as always. also on Wednesday, I directed the BJC choir in rehearsing for the Yamim Noraim (High Holy Days) for the last time, and was passionate and driven as always. I think that I can do no less.

Yes, the years have not only aged me but taught me. I have learned to reign in my zealousness and over-dedication. Though I must admit that during these past 7 years of bachelorhood I easily slipped back into my old habits of perhaps giving more of myself, my time, and my talents as I should.  Now, once again part of a family unit with a child of 8 in it, I can't give as much to other things no matter how driven or zealous I am, for my family requires and deserves more zealousness, passion, and patience than anything else. I'm sure that somewhere in there is a balance point, and I'll find my way to it in time, but my family will also come first - something that, I am ashamed to admit, I cannot claim was always true in my previous relationships-though I'd like to think I made a valiant effort, no matter how much I succeeded or failed.

There are consequences of zealousness, but we cannot always be sure of what they will be - reward, punishment, et al. Nadav and Avihu were turned into crispy critters for their zealousness, yet Pinkhas rewarded for his. I wonder sometimes if this is a proof text for the idea that our Torah embraces and teaches about situational ethics.On the other hand, it could just be illustrative of an impetuous and sometimes overly zealous G"d.

I think I understand now why so many have this deep seated need for G"d to be unchanging, ever the same. That's much easier to deal with than a G"d whose reactions and attitudes seem to vary from situation to situation (witness the different reactions to the zealousness of Pinkhas vs the zealousness of Nadav and Avihu.) and to put an even more radical spin on it, consider that all Nadav and Avihu did was offer a little bit of extra, alien fire, that they hadn't been asked to offer - and for their troubles, G"d toasted them. Yet when Pinkhas murders in cold blood the fornicators Zimri and Cozbi, he gets rewarded with a "brit Shalom" a covenant with G"d for him and his descendants. (Yes, yes, we've all heard the apologetic explanations - G"d brought Pinkhas and his descendants into this special relationship so G"d could "keep an eye on these crazy zealots" - and G"d was actually rewarding Nadav and Avihu by bringing them into the ultimate special relationship with G"d. They were made holy by being sacrificed. Never mind the subtle christological subtext here.)
Yet, I reject the apologetics. What we have here is an inconsistent G"d who reacts differently in different situations. Voila-situational ethics. I don't particularly agree with G"d's choices here - that killing two human beings in order to assuage G"d's anger is ultimately more forgivable than offering up a little extra alien fire. Then again, how often do G"d and I agree?
It gets trickier, because we strive to base our systems of ethics upon what we believe about that which G"d approves and disapproves. Yet it appears that sometimes, when we do what we believe is what G"d wants,  G"d approves, and at other times G"d gives a thumbs down. On what basis?  Depending upon which side of the bed G"d woke up on? On the surface, that appears to be a rather troubling vision-a G"d whose mood can affect all G"d's creations. And I'm not buying into that one at all. It requires a bit too much of an anthropomorphizing of G"d. (There's a book inside of me, that I am finally going to start writing now that life is giving me some breathing room to do so, based on the premise that one ought to look at the premise of "b'tzelem Elokim" in a somewhat reverse manner--that perhaps the very traits we find in ourselves that trouble us are traits that G"d possesses as well--and that G"d, too, is seeking a way to rid G"d's self of these potentially negative energies. Or perhaps, since G"d possesses these qualities, they aren't so negative after all? But I digress.)

Need we be troubled by a tempestuous G"d, be so insistent on consistency from our deity? And is it inconsistency, or is our narrow view of G"d preventing us from seeing a bigger picture?(Still, I won't go as far as accepting that old "ineffable G"d canard.)

I do know that sometimes zealousness brings reward and other times retribution. Do we, therefore, avoid being zealous and avoid the risk? That would probably be the rabbinic approach-building a fence around it lest we inadvertently err.

As always, as I ponder these questions, and seek answers to them, I am reminded of happenings in my own world. I wrote in my 2002 version of this musing about a time I participated in a little team building exercise. It was tough going the whole time, as 3 or 4 "soloists" kept thwarting the attempts to build cohesive team action from the entire group. In an ideal world, the actions of these few "zealots" would have resulted in learning by their example the futility of failing to play with the whole team. And on occasion that did happen. Sometimes, though, through brutish and stubborn effort, the individualists succeeded. And I found that extremely frustrating. So much so that I and the other facilitators and participants actually endeavored to make it ever so much tougher for the non-team players--because it didn't seem fair for them to succeed. Yet, as I thought about that, I thought about an activity I had observed earlier in another setting. It was a student experiment in "luck"-a game of chance with an edible reward--chocolate, of course. The exercise was structured in such a fashion that those who received some chocolate and how long they had to try and eat it all was truly random.

Some people were luckier than others-and I and the other adult observers in the room began to consider ways to help even the odds--as it seemed some students seemed particularly unhappy to not be getting any chocolate. Yet, in the end interference wasn't really necessary. Things evened out. For the most part. So the zealous impulses I and other had were not acted upon and the result was fair. Almost. Because there was one kid whose luck didn't hold-so we did have to finagle things a bit at the very end. And this kid was accepting and appreciative. However, there have been other times I have, or have seen others work to help give a student or a camper an advantage, and what we got for it in return was not appreciation but resentment. So was our zeal misdirected? Or just unappreciated? Is that what happened to Nadav and Avihu? Pinkhas' zeal was obviously appreciated by G"d.

So when and where is zeal appropriate, and when is it dangerous? It doesn't appear we get a clear answer from the Torah at all. It would be easy to assume that Nadav and Avihu were acting on behalf of only themselves--but I don't believe the text clearly supports that assumption. They may have been inebriated, but their choice to offer yet one more sacrifice to G"d could have easily been motivated by their zeal for insuring the community's welfare and not just their own. We'll never know. It does seem a bit more apparent that Pinkhas acted with zeal on behalf of the community. His zeal drove him to kill two of G"ds creations - one a member of the tribe, another,the supposedly scheming daughter of a Midianite muckety-muck trying to lure the Israelite men into worship their gods. From the end results, perhaps we could conclude that Pinkhas was rewarded for that, and also conclude that, since Nadav and Avihu were not rewarded, that their zeal was selfish. That's really going out on a limb I'm not sure I want to crawl onto. It's also a very teleological approach to exegeting a lesson from the text.

It's not surprising that so many people I know are somewhat zealous (particularly about their Judaism, and also about how they think other Jews should live.) I am one of those zealots. Like Nadav and Avihu, I have been stung (though perhaps with less drastic consequences) by allowing my unmitigated zeal to get the better of me. Like Pinkhas, I have also had the occasional reward for being zealous.

One would have thought that, after all these years, the level of my zeal would have decreased somewhat. Look-it even happened to Moshe, so why not me? That Moshe would so easily go to his grave, shucking and jiving and not openly complaining (too much) about his not getting to enter the promised land. That he even struck the rock in the first place. All signs of flagging zeal (or perhaps just old age.) Yet even today, on my last day, during my last hours, even my last few minutes, I worked to complete my tasks and prepare the way for my successor with passion and zeal. I did it not for any reward, for, particularly in this case, there would be none to be had-the tributes were long over and now came the silent slow walk out of the stadium after all the fans had left. Yet there is perceptible reward - and that is how I feel about myself, my professionalism, my passion, my dedication. Tonight I don't need the strokes of others to make me feel good. I'm flying high on the reward of my own good feelings.

I'm perhaps a little bit closer now than when I started in trying to figure out when to be zealous and when to not act with zeal, but I haven't figured it all out just yet. Great-that gives me something to ponder this Shabbat. I hope I've engaged you enough to get you pondering that question this Shabbat as well.

As always, a sweet Shabbat to you and yours.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2008 by Adrian A. Durlester (portions ©2002 by Adrian A. Durlester)