Friday, October 24, 2008

Random Musing Before Shabbat - B'reishit 5769 Do Fences Really Make Good Neighbors?

As a modern, liberal Jew I sometimes look at the fences the rabbis erected around the Torah and shake my head in wonder. Is this a natural tendency of humankind? Given that we now see warnings on coffee cups that the contents is hot, I must consider the possibility. Perhaps it is the natural outgrowth of our intelligence that, rather than always resorting to the fight or flight response, we seek other ways to insure our safety. If this is something that, if done even slightly wrong, might offend the gods and bring us misfortune, then we'd better stay as far away from it as we can.
Close examination of the text of B'reishit reveals that it was the progenitor mother of us all herself, Chava, who, perhaps, decided that if one inch of distance is good, then two are even better. Or maybe the idea was planted by Adam? Or maybe, it came fromt he serpent itself?
When Chava is being accosted by the serpent who asks if G"d really did tell them not to eat of any tree of the garden, we have our first discrepancy. G"d . In 2:16-17, G*d says to Adam that he may eat of any tree in the garden except  for the tree of knowledge of good and bad. Chava replies that yes, G"d did so state-however, she embellishes. She adds to G"d's words to Adam that not only must they not eat of the fruit, they must not even touch it.

Now, at no point does the text say that G*d also told Chava, who was created after G"d and Adam had that little talk. So we must assume that it was Adam that told Chava. Was Adam the source of the embellishment, the extra safety measure, the slightly higher fence?
All this plays into my thought that the whole "forbidden fruit" thing was either a deliberate setup, or the act of an inexperienced creator. Everyone knows that telling a child "don't do this" is likely to produce the opposite result. If G"d knew this, then perhaps it was deliberate.
So why the extra "don't touch" that Chava added? Did Adam or Chava already mistrust G"d at this point, even without the knowledge of good and evil? Did they mistrust themselves? Yet without knowledge of what is good and bad, how or why might they come to distrust G"d or themselves?  Was Chava merely trying to stiffen her resistance to the serprent, as she might have suspected the serpent's motives? Again, I ask how this could be so before they ate of the fruit?

The "Etz Chayim" commentary raises an interesting point in this regard. It's an example of what the commentator labels the "dangerous tendency of religion to multiply prohibitions to safeguard the essence of the law. When the law becomes too onerous, people may disregard them and come to disregard the basic intent of the law itself." The comment ends then with this quote from Genesis Rabbah: "Make a fence too high and it may fall and destroy what it was meant to protect."
Funny things is, I must have read through that same comment in the Etz Chayim numerous times in years past, glossing right over it. What an earth-shaking thought, especially considering the source. The wisest of our sages and poskim through the ages and today recognize the danger in being overly restrictive. I can only assume that, in creating what is now halakha, this principle was always taken into account. Yet, if this is so, then how much more onerous might have been the fences under consideration. Many of the fences that exist today are onerous enough. They were onerous enough in the early days of the Jesus movement that the fisherman from Tarsus decided that they couldn't sell Jesus to the goyim without dropping all the onerous mitzvot. Today, we have Jews who ignore them outright and deliberately, those who struggle with them daily, and those who like the big tall fences.

Why did Chava (or Adam) build that fence just a bit higher?
It's hard to know for sure. There are those who say the fences are what have enabled our survival as a people through all that we have endured, and that they must remain intact. There are those who say the fences grew too big and have toppled over onto us, destroying our unity, our peoplehood.

Do fences really make good neighbors? Does G"d want us hiding behind fences for fear of offending G"d? Or does G"d want us to "tear down the walls" in our continuing effort to be closer to G"d?
To find out, I think I'll climb to the top of a few fences and see what I can see from there. Care to join me?

Shabbat Shalom,


©2008 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, October 3, 2008

Random Musings Before Shabbat - Vayeilekh/Shabbat Shuvah 5768 Cows and Roses (or Cows and Cranberries II) (A Massaged Musing from 5765)

(When I wrote the original musing upon which this was based, for Vayeitze 5765, that Shabbat was in proximity to Thanksgiving, and I mused more about that connection, which is why it was called Cows and Cranberries. Somehow, Cows and Roses seemed more suited for this adaptation.)

One of the two special haftarah readings for Shabbat Shuvah is a subset of the haftarah normally read for parashat Vayeitze, which we'll be reading again this November on the last Shabbat of the month.

It's from that ever troubling prophet, Hosea. Luckily, for Vayeitzei and Shabbat Shuvah we  get to skip over all that lovely "marring a whore" metaphor stuff in the beginning of the book of Hosea.

As I have mentioned before, in previous musings for Vayeitze, there is a curious little problem appearing in 2:2-3 of Hosea, in the form of a syntactical puzzle. It hinges on a word and a word grouping.

At the start of this haftarah, in Chapter 14 verse 2&3, we read-

2. Return, O Israel, to the Eternal your Gd, for you have stumbled in your iniquity.
3. Take words with you, and return to the Eternal and say:

That's the first half of the verse. Verse 3b, has some syntactical problems with the Hebrew, which reads:

Kol tisa avon v'kach tov, unshalmah parim s'fateinu

One translation of this is :
Forgive all guilt and accept what is good; instead of bulls we will pay [the offering of] our lips.

And another:
Forgive all iniquity and accept the good; and we shall offer the fruit of our lips.

And yet another:
May you forgive all iniquity and accept good [intentions] and let our lips substitute for bulls.

In their struggling to translate and understand the text, scholars have disagreed on one word-the word parim. It does mean, in Hebrew, bulls. But scholars could not understand exactly the construction of those last three words. Because it would seem to mean "and completed bulls lips" which doesn't make a whole lot of sense. So many translators have chosen to render
it as if meaning that what passes from our lips (prayers) shall be offered in place of sacrifices (bulls.)

It's a nice read, and I personally like it, because it is one of the earliest indicators in Tanakh that the Jews were evolving past the need for animal sacrifices.

Yet the Septuagint and Syriac version of the Torah both translate the words as "fruit." In Hebrew, "p'ri." (The Septuagint is a translation from Hebrew to Greek purportedly assembled by 70 scholars who all agreed on the translation.)

Remember that the Torah has no vowels. So the first three letters of the word now being rendered (and rendered by the masoretes) as "parim" could have been p'ri at one point, when someone accidentally added a final mem to the word as a scribal error, and this was the version that was passed down to us. Considering the translations from both the Septuagint and Syriac, this seems quite possible--that the word was originally just pey-resh-yod, without the final mem.

So why does all this matter? Well, for one thing, offering the fruit of our lips is quite a different sentiment from giving the offering of our lips in place of bulls (for sacrifice.) The former is about intention, the latter is about methodology.

And it's all so appropriate, on Shabbat Shuvah, for us to consider what it is that G"d wants from us when we engage in the self-evaluative exploration that is "doing t'shuva."  We are taught that repentance at this time of year atones for sins between humans and G"d, but does not atone for sins bein adam l'khavero" between one human being and another.

Consider how often, in our society, people are tempted to atone for sins against another by making up with gifts (like flowers for the spouse when you've something to confess.) To me, these gifts are no better than the bulls. It is what we offer with our lips - our apologies, our repentance. And, in a way, it is also what we offer with our "fruits," that is, the fruits of our labors to try and do better this new year. I find either of these ultimately superior to a sacrificial bull. In fact, a sacrificial bull is just that--sacrificial bull! A meaningless gesture. Yes, in an agrarian society, giving up an unblemished food animal is, indeed, a significant sacrifice. But what does G"d need with meat? Let's be honest-it probably was all a system to keep the kohanim and levi'im fed (or at least it evolved into that once we settled in the land.)

Sure, it's nice to buy flowers for Shabbat. It's nice to offer gifts to others. Yet, when it is an apology or amend that is due, I'd recommend the "sacrifice from your lips" or from the fruits of your efforts to be a better person.

BTW, speaking of cows, as an extra little aside-an exercise I often give to my students for extra credit. In modern Hebrew, the word "ladybug" is "parat-Moshe Rabbeinu" - the "cow of Moses our teacher." There's some very interesting etymology to this modern Hebrew word, and you might enjoy doing a little research of your own to find out the story behind it.

Shabbat Shalom , Tzom Qal, and G'mar Lhatima Tovah


©2008 by Adrian A. Durlester. (Portions ©2004)