Friday, November 28, 2008

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Toldot 5769 - There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This

It's been a while since I've written a truly random, stream of consciousness style musing.  I'm not sure that even I can follow my train of thought, but, nevertheless, whatever tracks I've jumped, I wound up at some station somewhere. Enjoy. - AAD

There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This
Eight years ago, I wrote of Rivkah's (Rebecca's) lament as twins struggled in her womb:
"Im kein, lama zo anokhi" - (Gen. 25:22)

Literally "if thus, why this I?" It gets poetic reshaping in translation. The JPS editors say "If this is so, why do I exist?" Fox gives it a slight alteration - "If this be so, why do I exist?" The NRSV committee settled on "If it is to be this way, why do I live?"

She goes to seek an answer from G"d, who gives her the cryptic response:
"two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger." (25:23)

I guess this answer satisfied Rivkah. For more thoughts on this situation in context, read my 5761 musing "Is This All There Is?

Today, I want to take the liberty of struggling with Rivkah's words out of context, or, more properly, in a more personal context. Personal for me, perhaps, but just as personal for any of us. Have not each of us experienced a time when we asked  "Im kein, lama zo anokhi" ? (If not, I'm sure you will.)
Life has twists and turns. Life has good moments and bad moments.  Like the dance hall girls in "Sweet Charity" we can find ourselves dreaming that "there's gotta be something better than this," whatever "this" is.

There is plenty of wisdom on both sides of this dilemma. Platitudes abound. On the negative side we've got the ever popular "life sucks and then you die" or that one about the sandwich made of poop. Brth, death, taxes. On the positive side we have platitudes like  "Into every life a little rain must fall" or "things always look darkest before the dawn." Or more annoying ones like "behind every cloud there's a silver lining" or "when G"d closes a door G"d opens a window." Then there are other "sides" like the "personal responsibility/effort side" as demonstrated by Tom Lehrer's "Life is like a sewer-what you get out of it depends on what you put into it."

There is the well-worn story of the rabbi who teaches a family to be content with what they have by having them invite all their animals into the house to live with them. There's the whole Joseph saga with it's tireless "good ends can come from bad beginnings" theme.

None of these answers alone is the answer. If we're all always just trying to be happy with what we've got, is that necessarily a good thing? Continual contentment might not be the blessing it appears to be. You might really be getting screwed over. Someone might really have it in for you.  Your skin color, your religion, your funny laugh, your tick-whatever-someone out there could find a reason to dislike you and make your life miserable. Just because you're not paranoid doesn't mean someone isn't following you. Or, your life just might really suck! (Or it really might not be anywhere as bad as you think it is. Or you might really be paranoid. Or this bad moment in your life will lead to something better.)

Cynics on every side are ready with retorts. A little wry irony to combat the Polly-Anna platitudes. A  Tinkerball to confront the doubters. A great turn-around success story, or a great rags-to-riches (or riches-to-rags) story. I myself have spoken about people living in abject poverty who are happier than most of us. Yet is that really the case?

There's nothing like a little reality to take the wind out of the sails of any platitude-positive or negative. And that, my friends, is the point. We can't rely on platitudes to get us through life. We do have to take the bad with the good and the good with the bad-but we don't always have to be happy about it.  Kvetching is permitted. Not to excess, of course, which, for Jews, can be difficult. But everyone needs to complain once in a while. If we shush them with platitudes, we negate their pain or discomfort - and it is not up to us to judge another's pain. We all need to learn to take each others' kvetches at face value.

Forgive the use of a platitude here, but it seems to fit: "feelings are just that-feelings."
OK, so we have permission to kvetch. But what has all this to do with what Rivkah said? What Rivkah asks may be in response to what she is experiencing. Nevertheless, her words are general enough that anyone could use them in almost any difficult situation.

Here's the point of my little diatribe. Rivkah didn't really need a response. Perhaps that's why she was silent in the face of G"d's answer. She just needed the cartharsis of asking this universal question.
Our world is full of fixers. (G"d, perhaps is/was one of them.) We rush to respond to complaints and try and fix them. I'll bet that a good percentage of the time we don't even really know what the underlying problem is. We're never going to find out if we respond to each and every kvetch assuming we know what's wrong and how to fix it. We also won't find out if all we ever answer with is platitudes.
Did G"d telling Rivkah what G"d told her really make her life any better?

So what's the answer? Listening. Just listen. Let people kvetch every now and then. (Agreed that, if they are a perpetual kvetcher, that's a problem.) Don't try to make them feel better. Don't commiserate with them. Don't try and fix them.

That's one of the nice things about G"d, at least in these times. Either G"d isn't responding, or G"d is responding in ways that aren't apparent to us. Yes, there's that third alternative - that there is no G"d to respond. Well, you know what? You don't even have to believe, if that's what works for you. Still, you gotta admit it's nice to have someone to kvetch to who won't respond. Sometimes, just the kvetching itself helps. Thanks, G"d, for not responding to my every kvetch. Maybe You finally learned from your response to Rivkah that sometimes no response is the best response.

Hey-here's an odd twist of thought - the ultimate tzimtzum. Admitting a tendency to be to responsive, to being a fixer, and knowing that we human beings grow easily dependent, maybe You willed Yourself out of existence (or at least out of our plane of understanding what existence is) for our own good.

But there's a fly in my ointment. It would be nice G"d if, every once in a while, You stopped back in for a visit to see how things were going.

What? What's that? Oh. OK. I hear You-after all that kvetching in Egypt and after we got out of Egypt, You'd had enough, huh? And every time You came back for a visit more kvetching? We wanted a king? Crops were failing? We were being persecuted? Your laws were too hard to keep? Nu, so when will moshiakh come already?

OK, Big Kahuna. What if we promise we won't kvetch so much? Yes, I know I just wrote that we should permit ourselves to kvetch. If I tell everybody to hold off on the kvetching during Your visit, will You come?

What was that you said, G"d? I couldn't here You. Was that an "Ov vey" I heard? A sigh? Perhaps a kvetch?

[the earth trembles beneath my feet]

What? What was that? What were You mumbling just now?

And that kol d'mamah dakah--that still, small voice whispers in my ear: "Im kein, lama zo anokhi?"

Shabbat Shalom,

©2008 by Adrian A. Durlester

Pope Says No to Inter-Religious Dialogue - Windows & Doors

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield posted this to Beliefnet the other day.

Pope Says No to Inter-Religious Dialogue - Windows & Doors

I have always disapproved of the "namby-pamby-let's-all-find-our-commonalities-and-ignore-our-differences-and-sing-kumbaya" style of interfaith dialog, as it isn't, as Hirschfield says, real dialog.

To deny that for some, faith requires a belief that one understanding of the Divine is superior to others, is to be disingenuous. If we point that , as the Pope has suggested, in parentheses, then we really have avoided engaing each other on the very heart of the matter. Either we are all expressing different understandings of the same G"d, or we are worshipping different G"ds -- or G"d really does have a preference -- G"d does have a religion -- or G"d is telling everyone little white lies of what they want to hear. If the reality is that we aren't expressing different understandings of the Divine mysteries, then we have a real problem.

Migdalor Guy (aka Adrian)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Google Apps Gmail Users Screwed Over Again

According to this article:

Google's Gmail Gets Dressed Up In Themes -- GMail -- InformationWeek

we users of Gmail via accounts on Google Apps, a service for which we pay, won't be getting the new Gmail Themes option anytime soon. Not all Google Apps users are Enterprise clients. Many of us are just plain folk like me. Since we PAY for the privelege of GAFYD service, we ought to at least have the choice to turn themes on and off, and the rollout shouldn't be delayed.

The other kick in the teeth is that, although Themes may not be being rolled out to Google Apps Gmail, there have obviously been some changes, because the great "Gmail Redesigned" skin that's part of the Better Gmail 2 Firefox add-on no longer works (and the timing is just too coincidental to the themes rollout announcement, which also mentioned other changes to the basic mail interface. So, if these changes were rolled out to GAFYT Gmail accounts, why not themes?) To make matters worse, the servers for Gmail Redesigned's creator, GlobexDesigns, have been down due to a severe electrical storm, so, even if they have created a fix, it's not accessible yet.

This isn't the only issue. Many individual users like me, who already had regular Gmail accounts were lured into creating Google Apps for Your Domain accounts by the promise of guaranteed uptime, and certain features not available to Google's many free users. We all quickly discovered that we couldn't use our Google Apps accounts to access many features normally available to the free users - like iGoogle, Google Reader, Blogger, Picasa. We also couldn't connect or link our free and Google Apps email accounts. This problem still exists today, and hasn't gotten any better.

Not than I'm any great fan of Microsoft, but I haven't noticed any issues using my Hotmail account to access all the new services and features (Windows Live, Office Live, Mesh, etc.) Hard to believe MS is actually doing something ebtter than Google. Maybe what Google needs is something similar to MS's premium accounts - which is something between a free Hotmail account and an Enterprise account. Yahoo offers similar service. So why not Google? Nope, they made us all sign up for Google Apps to get premium services, and but didn;t give us all the free content already available to us. Get with the program, Google. Or many of us just might be switching over to Live, or Yahoo.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Hayyei Sarah 5769 - Looking for Clues

Last year at this time, I wrote about the played-out ritual negotiation between Avraham and the Hittites for the cave of Machpelah as a burial place for Sarah.

This year, I had intended to focus on yet a different aspect on the parasha. Once again, life intervened.

Wednesday afternoon I was teaching a class of seventh grade religious school students at one of the three synagogues where I am currently teaching. Last week, we had discussed at length parashat Vayeira, and the story of the Akeidah. Picking up the story this week with the story of Avraham's acquiring of the cave at Machpelah as a burial place for Sarah, I asked the class to consider why things transpired as they did. I did share with them some of my own thoughts on that question. Last week, I had also shared with them elements of my "Family Guy" retelling of the akeidah. I had also posited for them my theory that after that incident, Yitzchak ran off to live with Hagar and Ishmael for a while (some day I am going to write that story.)

Without my having to note it for them, the students seemed to catch on to the fact that Yitzchak was conspicuously absent from  the narrative after his apparently aborted sacrifice - the text doesn't even have him coming back down the mountain with Avraham and returning home with his father and the two servants.

The class had also been exposed to the alternate theory, based on the use of the word "takhat" that Yitzchak had indeed been sacrificed, along with the ram, not "instead of" or "in place of" but "under."

So I guess I should have not been surprised that when I asked the class why Avraham was entering into this prolonged burial site purchase ritual that one bright student suggested that "Avraham did it out of guilt --- because he killed Sarah, too."

Well, there was a fresh idea. I pushed the student and the class to elaborate. "Well, he was willing to kill his son..." "Maybe Sarah was so upset when she heard what Avraham had done that, even though Yitzchak was spared, her passionate reaction led to a fight in which she was killed..."  "If he really DID sacrifice Yitzchak, maybe he had to kill Sarah to shut her up..."

The class was willing to entertain any number of possible scenarios which led to Avraham killing Sarah. In a way, I was a bit disturbed by how willingly they accepted that possibility. Maybe it is part of their conditioning in this era of violent games, a world being raped literally and figuratively, where Presidents declare war and kill tens of thousands on a whim, etc. The violent explanation seems the more likely one.

Not particularly comfortable with their train of thought, I felt obligated to throw in an alternative explanation that mixes several theories, but time ran out before I got the chance (though I did manage to suggest it to a few students afterwards.) "What if," I suggested, "Sarah was so grief stricken to learn what Avraham was so willing to do to Isaac, that she died of a heart attack, or something else brought on by intense brief."  Too that I would add to consider the additional complication of Yitzchak not returning home with Avraham, and Sarah having only Avraham's word that Yitzchak was still alive.

A friend of mine argued that the entire idea was nonsense, because Yitzchak must have been at home, because he was there when Rebekkah arrived. I reminded my friend that Yitzchak was described as just having returned from Beer-lahai-roi, where he had been "settled" when he observed Rivka's arrival. (See 24:62.)

I've posited in earlier musings the whole "Beer-lahai-roi" connection (see my 5760 musing for Hayyei Sarah, "Call Me Ishmael")

Of course, if Yitzchak was indeed away from home whilst daddy sent his servant Eliezer to obtain a wife for Yitzchak, we have a whole other series of questions to ponder... There's no clear indication Yitzchak was around for Mom's funeral. That's for sure. And we all know about the speculation that Keturah, Avraham's second wife, was actually Hagar. Was there a plot afoot to restore Hagar to Avraham's side. Hmmm. Maybe Ishmael and Yitzchak murdered Sarah, Ishamel to get payback for his mother and possibly get her restored, and Yitzchak to punish his father. Plausible? I don't know.

The Torah is rather vague about time spans around these stories, constantly using "sometime later..." so we don't really know how much time passed between the time of the akeidah and Sarah's death. Even if it was a long time, grief is pretty long-lasting, and can still ultimately kill someone even after years, perhaps decades.

In any case, something, or someone, killed Sarah. Directly or indirectly responsible, Avraham had good reason to insist on paying for the burial site, and not accepting it as a freebie (even if that all was just part of a ritual negotiating dance.) Guilt is a powerful motivator.

Ah, now I understand why all the students in my class were making references to the game of "Clue" throughout our discussion. Maybe there really is a murder mystery here to be unraveled. A rather complicated and convoluted one at that.

Anyone wanna play Jessica Fletcher or Sherlock Holmes?

Shabbat Shalom,


©2008 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, November 14, 2008

Random Musing Before Shabbat Vayeira 5769 He's a Family Guy (?)


There's a short scene from the TV cartoon comedy "Family Guy" in which Peter Griffin says to his daughter Meg that he was going to stop treating her badly "cause I'm a worse father than Abraham." Then there's a cutaway to a scene of Abraham and Isaac walking down a mountain, after almost sacrificing his son, and Isaac says: "You wanna tell me what the f**k THAT was!? (Season 6: Episode: Peter's Daughter)

As irreverent as that is, in a way, it almost sums up my current take on the akedah, the story of the binding of Isaac, which we read near the end of this week's parasha, Vayeira. And it is not only Isaac who asks this question. It is all of us, when we encounter this troubling text. We rationalize it in all sorts of ways. "It was a test, just as the Torah says." If G"d was indeed testing Avraham, did Avraham pass or fail? There's no unanimity on that answer.

G"d rewards Avraham for his faithfulness. "Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, Your favored one, I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore." This would seem to indicate that Avraham passed the test, but can we be sure?

Why was Avraham rewarded? Was it for blindly obeying G"ds request? Was it for ignoring his own inner conscience? Was Avraham troubled by what G"d was asking of him? There's no such indication in the text. Was Avraham so sure in his heart and mind that G"d would not require him to go through with this act?

Perhaps G"d's purpose in this test was to see if Avraham would develop a crisis of conscience. Perhaps G"d was seeing if Avraham could put aside selfish and personal feelings.

Perhaps G"d was just being mean, toying with Avraham.

Perhaps G"d was naive.

So imagine another cutaway scene from Family Guy (or the Simpsons, or whatever your favorite irreverent social commentary cartoon is.) (If you're not familiar with the show, you might miss the inside jokes, but what the hey.)

G"d, talking to self: OK. OK. Let's see. I need to test this Avraham to see if he is the right one of My creations to bring knowledge of me to the world. He's already baffled me. When I asked him to just pick up and move, he went. when I revealed my plans to destroy S'dom and Gomorrah for their wickedness, he argued. which is the real Avraham? The blind obedient one, or the one who cares so much for his fellow human beings that he would argue with Me? I need to find out. What could I ask him to do? Kill his wife? After all, she did scoff at my power to make Avraham's seed potent enough to get her pregnant. Wait-that's it! His seed. I'll ask him to kill his son Isaac for me. Will he do it? Will he argue with me, beg, plead? This could be interesting.

G"d: Hey, Abie baby.

Avraham: Yo, present.

G"d: Take your son...

Avraham: I got two. which one You mean? Pick one.

G"d: Your favorite son

Avraham: Hey, I love both my sons

G"d, to self: Jesus H. Christ! Hey, there's an idea....oh wait, where was I. Oh yes. Explaining the obvious.

G"d (to Avraham:) Yitzchak (under G"ds breath "you twit!")

Avraham: Yeah. OK. Gotcha. Now what?

G"d: Go to the land of Moriah...

Avraham: Y'know, I heard they call the wind Moria...

G"d paces, throws arms up in the fair, pounds self on head.

G"d: I'll do the punning around here, buddy. Now, as I said. Go to the land of Moria (pause, waiting to see if Avraham will interrupt again)...and offer Yitzchak as a burnt offering on a high place I'll show up.

Avraham: Oh, are we back to that "I'll tell you when you get there" sh*t again?

G"d stomps off, frustrated.

Cut to new scene.

Avraham is shown saddling his ass.

Voiceover-Peter Griffin: (laughing.) His ass!

Avraham (to Yitzchak): OK, we're going on a little trip

Yitzchak: Where?

Avraham: Don't you give me that smart-mouth "where?" crap again. Just grab yer stuff and let's head out.....for some fishin'. OK? There, I said it. We're going fishing.

Yitzchak: Sounds fishy to me.

Avraham: Look, just bring me an axe, will you?

Yitzchak looks puzzled, but goes off and returns with an ax which he gives to Avraham. Avraham splits some wood, and gathers it up into a bundle.

Avraham (to servant:) You! Boy! You're coming with us.

Dirty Old Man from Family Guy: And bring your handsome young friend over there, too

Avraham: What? (shrugs) Whatever.

Avraham makes several attempts to get on his ass. Finally, atop his beast, he says: Asses ho!

Avraham, Yitzchak and two young male servants head off. Cutaway to scene of Dirty Old Man following along behind sneakily.

We see another scene of Avraham, Yitzchak and the two servants traveling, followed by the Dirty Old Man.

Narrator: On the third day, Avraham looked up and saw the place from afar.

Scene shows a distant mountain with a huge, flashing finger-pointing sign in the heavens pointing down at it reading "This Is It"

Voice of Stewie Griffin: Wait a minute. How did Abraham know this was the place?

Voice of Brian Griffin: Well, obviously G"d must have told him.

Voice of Stewie Griffin: But the Bible doesn't say that.

Voice of Brian Griffin: What do I look like, a rabbi? Just shuddup and watch.

Avraham dismount from his ass.

Avraham (to the two servants): You stay here and watch my ass!

(servants giggle)

Avraham: I'm just gonna go up there with my son and we're gonna....uh......worship, yeah, that's it worship. (spoken quickly) And then we'll be back.

Avraham to Yitzchak: Yo, Yitz, follow me.

Yitzchak dismounts, Avraham walks over to him with the wood and straps it on to Yitzchak's back.

Yitzchak: Hey! I thought we were going fishing!

Avraham (dissembling): Well, first we ought to say "Thank You" to the Big Kahuna, and pray for a good catch, right?

Yitzchak (hesitantly:) Uh, I dunno Dad.

Avraham: Be a man, my son!

Avraham tries to give Yitzchak a big swat on the back, but his hand hits the wood, hurting him. Overly prolonged scene of Avraham writhing in pain.

Then, just as suddenly, Avraham stops, stands up and says to Yitzchak: OK, let's go.

Avraham and Yitzchak head out up the mountain. Cut to Dirty Old Man viewing from a distance. He moves a little towards the servants, slightly hiding himself behind a tree.

Dirty Old Man: Oh boys! Come here. I've got an ass that needs saddling too!

The two servants exchange glances, shrug, and run towards the Dirty Old Man.

Cut to scene of Avraham and Yitzchak walking up the mountain.

Yitzchak: Yo, Dad! I got the wood, and you got the knife and the firestone, but where's the sheep for the offering?

Quick cutaway to scene of sheep that were grazing suddenly looking up, then back to Avraham and Yitzchak scene.

Avraham: Don't you worry 'bout a thing. (clearly thinking fast) Uh...(then an idea strikes him, and he slyly says: G"d will provide for the sheep my son.

Yitzchak: Whatever!

Cut to scene back at Avraham's home. Sarah walks in to an empty room.

Sarah: Abie? Yitz? Now where have those two gone off to now? Oh, well. While the hubby's away, the wifey will play.

Cutaway to a scene of Sarah playing the Egyptian game Senet with some of the female servants.

Cut to scene on top of mountain. Yitzchak is already there. We hear panting in the distance. Slowly, Avraham comes into view, slowly dragging himself up the mountain.

Yitzchak: C'mon Dad. I think I can, I think I can, I think I can

Avraham (under his breath); Oh, you just wait until I get up there....

Yitzchak continues to goad and Tease Avraham. Finally, Avraham arrives and collapses. Fade to black.

Scene from Abraham's perspective lying on the ground - his eyes flicker open to see Yitzchak standing over him with a knife, as if he is about to strike.

Scene shifts to normal perspective. Yitzchak helps Avraham up and says: Here Dad, you're gonna need this more than I.

Avraham (under his breath:) Shows what little you know.

Avraham and Yitzchak gather stones and build a little altar. They put the wood upon it, and lay the firestone and knife nearby.

Yitzchak: Nu? where's the sheep Dad.

Avraham turns and grins broadly at Yitzchak.

Yitzchak: Dad? (getting nervous) Dad? Dad!

Avraham tackles Yitzchak, gags him, and with (overly-prolonged and) great effort, lifts him onto the altar. He stops, breathes deeply. Lost in thought for a moment, he asks himself "I wonder what Sarah's up to at this moment?"

Cutaway to scene showing Sarah running around an ancient biblical supermarket, buying all sorts of treif products.

Back to Avraham and Yitzchak scene.

Avraham: I can't believe I have to do this frickin' thing. Somebody, give me a sign.

Cutaway to Evil Monkey from Family Guy pointing at knife, then back to Avraham.

Avraham: (with nervous giggle, as he picks up the knife) Uh, are there any other signs out there? Cutaway to scene of sheep again-they were all looking up, and now quickly start grazing again, heads down. Then back to Avraham.

Avraham: Oh crap! Guess I gotta do this thing.

Avraham raises the knife and prepares to strike Yitzchak. Just then, a voices cries (in a stage whisper): Avraham. (pause, then repeated a little louder) Avraham. (pause, then screaming) Avraham!

Avraham (drops the knife:) Oh crap! Yeah, I'm here. Who's that?

Voice: Do not raise a hand against the boy...

Avraham: Can I start the fire now?

Voice (screaming:) Don't do anything to him, you idiot! (regaining his composure) For now I know that your fear the Lord, since you have not withheld your son, your favorite son, from Me.

Angel steps into scene.

Avraham: Hey, didn't I see you back at Lot's place?

Angel (sheepishly): You got me. That was me! (Angel walks over and puts his arm around Avraham.)

Avraham (to Angel): So lemme ask you something? Are an angel, or are you G"d? I'm a little confused about that.

Angel: To tell the truth, I'm as confused as you, brother. But never you mind that. Look up.

Avraham looks up, see nothing unusual.

Avraham: What?

Angel: See that?

Avraham: See what?

Angel turns to look at where sheep should be caught in thicket and says: Oh crap. Excuse me a minute.

The two old-timey Gay-90's guys in their barbershop quartet outfits and their piano pass through the scene playing that silly little melody.

The non piano-playing Old Timey Guy says: Just killin' time folks, just killin' time.

Cutaway to scene showing Angel dragging a very reluctant sheep into the thicket.

Cut back to repeat of the old-timey guys.

Cut back to Angel and Avraham:

Angel: OK. Now look up.

Avraham looks up, and applauds and makes silly childish noises.

Angel: Well? (pause )

Avraham: Yes

Angel: Well? (pause)

Avraham: where? I could sure use a drink.

G"d's voice: I said I'll do the punning

Avraham (nervous chuckle) Sorry.

Angel: (clears throat) (pause) (clears throat louder) (finally, in exasperation) Go get the sheep, stupid!

Avraham: Oh. Oh. Yeah. Right.

Avraham goes to get the sheep. In the background, the Angel unbinds Yitzchak, who runs off. Avraham puts the sheep upon the altar. Cutaway to scene of other sheep putting the hooves over their hearts in salute, then back to Avraham scene.)

Avraham, while the sheep burns, starts to look around.

Avraham: wow. I never realized what a nice view it is from up here. Sheesh! Look at that. Just beautiful. Y'know, I think I'll call this place Adonai-yireh, which, as you know, means "scenic view."

Angel: (off camera) By Myself I swear, the...

Avraham: Whaa? who said that?

Angel's voice: It's me, Abie baby.

Avraham: Ah, I knew it. You are G"d.

Angel's voice: I is what I is, baby.

Avraham: Cool!

Angel, now in G"d's voice: Because you have done this, and not withheld your son (pause) your favorite son (pause) (releases a breath) I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore."

Avraham: Cool! (starts walking off)

Angel: And your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes. All......(notices Avraham is heading away) Hey, wait a minute, there's more.

Avraham: Gotta go.

Angel/G"d: (very fast, in one breath) All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed My command."

(Underneath G"d's dialogue, Avraham is saying "Yeah, that's nice. Gotta run., Very nice. Thank You. See ya. etc.)

Narrator: And so Avraham returned to his servants

Voice of Stewie Griffin: But where's Yitzchak? Didn't he go back with Avraham?

Voice of Brian Griffin: It doesn't say in the bible. Nobody's really sure.

Voice of Stewie Griffin: Hmm. I wonder what happened to him

Cut to a scene in a cave. Yitzchak and Ishmael are sitting around smoking hookahs. They 're obviously high. Very Cheech & Chong-ish in style.

Yitzchak: An then, and then, (laugh) get this, get this...daddy tries to kill me?

Ishmael: Get outta here! No way man!

Yitzchak: Way, man. Way!

Just then, Hagar walks in.

Hagar: Boys, I gotta surprise for you! Oh, just look at the two of you. Smoking those hookahs again. Fat chance either of you two fathering a great nation!

Ishmael: Funny, ma! So what's the surprise?

Hagar: Well, you know how, Avraham (under her breath) May he die the death of a thousands plagues...(resuming) he always talked about welcoming the strangers and travelers? Well..

Dirty Old Man (peeking through curtain at entrance to cave:) Hello, boys....

Blackout. Roll credits and theme music.

(With apologies to Seth McFarland.) ----------------------------------------

Silly? Yes! Irreverent? Yes! Thought-provoking? You be the judge.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2008 by Adrian A. Durlester

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veteran's Day-Families, Culture, and Marat Ayin

As a professional Jewish educator, I recognize the dilemma we all face in that we have too little time to teach too many things to our children. As a member of our modern society, I recognize that many people have to work on national holidays, that many businesses choose to remain open, and many of is take advantage of that fact.

I am not one who subscribes to the idea that religion must, perforce, be counter-cultural, although that is a role it often can and perhaps should fill.

I am one that believes that synagogues, and other religious institutions, should be supportive of families (whatever their makeup) and should encourage opportunities for family togetherness. Legal holidays are often such opportunities,

Lots of synagogues, including some I work for, are fully open today, November 11, 2008 - Veteran's Day. Some are having religious school classes, some are not. Some are conducting regular business, some have their offices closed. Some are having business meetings, some are not.

I'd like to suggest that, for the reasons outlined above, perhaps several others, and one other very important one, Veteran's Day ought to be a day that all American synagogues treat as a holiday.

Closing synagogues on Veteran's Day can be counter-cultural, and supportive of families. So many other businesses choose to remain open, that it could be a symbol and statement to congregants and employees alike that the synagogue values and respects this American holiday. (On the other hand, it could also feed in to the predominant culture and its penchant for simply treating Veteran's Day and so many other holidays as an excuse for shopping orgies.So perhaps, instead of closing, or operating normally, they could hold programs for families and others, and nothing else, on this day-except for regular services as is their custom.) For those families lucky enough to find both parents and children with a day off, it's a wonderful opportunity for family time and family activities - perhaps something centered around remembrance and recognition of veterans.

Now, as a very dovish person, I too, have some disdain for a holiday so closely tied to war. On this day, I pray that there should never again be another war, or the need for any more soldiers to become veterans or casualties. Nevertheless, I cannot, in good conscience, dismiss completely the idea of thanking and recognizing veteran's for their service. After all, my father was one of those who served.

There is yet another reason why synagogues ought to consider either being closed or only having special Veteran's Day programming-and it is one that can be important to the Jewish people. It is the concept of marat ayin, how it looks in the eyes of others. If it's a good enough reason to not eat poultry with dairy, it ought to be a good enough reason to recognize Veteran's Day. How does it look to people, Jews and non-Jews alike, who hold Veteran's Day as a sacred and special day in their hearts, who consider it a patriotic act to recognize and remember those who have served, to observe that the organized Jewish community does not hold this holiday in the same regard?

In our history, the question of the loyalty of Jews to the countries where they live has often been used as a tool to foment hatred against us. Why give those who would do such things another opportunity to libel us?

So do it to be counter-cultural, do it to support families, do it so it appears right in the eyes of others. However you slice it, as American Jews, our institutions ought to find a way to show appropriate respect for Veteran's Day as a normative Federal holiday. It should be a holiday for employees, and an opportunity for programs at the synagogue. (If that seems like an oxymoron, it is. However, as a synagogue professional, I would willingly give up the holiday off to engage in programs at the synagogue that are apropos to the holiday.)

Migdalor Guy

Friday, November 7, 2008

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Lekh L'kha 5769 - Of Nodding Heads, Whistling Airs, and Snickersnees

I have written much about this rich parasha before. I commend to you many of my earlier musings, to be found on my website

This year, I was stopped dead in my tracks by two peculiar pieces of text.

Both are in Chapter 15. G"d again comes to Avram in a vision, telling him to not fear. Avram replies with a lament that as he has no blood heir, and asks who is to reap the promised reward. G"d tells Avram that his own child shall be his heir. Then , in verse 5 we read:

He (G"d) took him (Avram) outside, and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars..."

Let's try that again.

He (G"d) took him (Avram) outside...

G"d did what? Oh wait, it's just a vision. The Torah isn't being anthropomorphic-Avram is, for imagining this in his vision, right? But wait, if G"d implanted the vision, does G"d control the content? Apparently, either G"d or Avram wanted (needed) this conversation to be sort of buddy-buddy. Can you imagine in your mind that you and G"d, in some anthropomorphic form, are standing around inside your house talking, and G"d puts his hand on your shoulder, and escorts you outside and says "Hey, look up and try and count the stars..."

This seems a rather intimate form of vision. Is that a problem? I wonder if it is only from our modern mindset that we find it thus.  Our understanding of G"d is, for lack of a better term, more global. G"d is everywhere. G"d is One. So to us, the idea of strolling through the garden with G"d feels odd. Would this have been odd to Avram? Early religious stories abound with direct contact between anthropomorphic gods and human beings. (In our own tradition, we need only look back on Chapter 9, and the whole nefillim thing.)
This desire to personalize G"d, to anthropomorphize G"d, to imagine person to person contact and intimacy with G"d is all pervasive. Is that a possible explanation for the success of Christianity? For Jews, intimate contact between humans and an anthropomorphic G"d are not the norm, yet such stories still pervade our literature and sacred texts. A pillar of cloud, a pillar of fire, and G"d's heiny are as close as we ever really get in "real life."

Although Christianity maintains the ethereal, incorporeal G"d, it throws in a little piece of corporeal G"d. Do people really find that easier to wrap their heads around than an unknowable, undefinable G"d?

The text proceeds apace on to my next puzzling piece.  G"d tells Avram that his descendants shall be as numerous as the uncountable stars. G"d tells Avram that this is the land he is giving them for an inheritance. Avram, still somewhat unconvinced ask how he shall know that this honor shall be his. G"d somewhat odd response is to ask Avram to offer up a cow, goat, sheep, dove and a baby bird - which Avram does. Then, as the sun begins to set, Avram falls into a deep sleep, and feels a deep dread. Then G"d foretells the bad news that his descendants shall be strangers in a strange land, enslaved and oppressed for 400 years, but that G"d will set them free and give them wealth.

Still, supposedly, in this deep sleep, Avram then sees, when the sun has set, a smoking oven, and a flaming torch which passed between "those pieces."

What pieces? what is all this? What is the symbology?

But wait -this is all a Bob Newhart show ending, isn't it?  It was all a dream. Even the dream was a dream within a dream or vision. That explains it all, right? Nothing to worry about here. People just sometimes envision strange things in their visions, including dreams with even strangers things in them. Right?

Perhaps. Still, I wonder-why is all this here? Why do we need this level of details about Avram's vision, and of the dream within that vision? The text could just say "G"d told Avram "don't be afraid. You shall be rewarded. Though childless now, you will have an heir, and the inheritance of your descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. So trust me. We don't need all this corroborative fiddlestick (thanks you, W.S. Gilbert.) Yet the story is embellished with snickersnees.(For you non Savoyard types, let's just say "embellishments.") The point, as it is made in G&S's "The Mikado," is that things are bad enough, they don't need any embellishing of what is already a big lie. Just tell the lie simply, and perhaps it will be more believable.

Now, I'm not implying that the Torah is telling a lie. Yet I am wondering why, like so many other places in the Torah, we have details that don;t seem critical to the story. Now, for lots of those, we don't have a problem-our sages have figured out the deeper, hidden meanings. Why, our sages explain the whole "count the stars" thing,from their point of view, as not literally meaning that Avram should count the stars, but that the stars represent astrological predictions which Avram (and thus all Jews) should not believe in. That is to say, though the stars may have foretold that Avram was to remain childless, he shouldn't put his trust in the astrology.

OK, I sort of get that. But the sages didn't seem to put much time into explaining either the "He took him outside..." or the smoking oven and flaming torch vision. Guess it baffled them as well.

Oh, I'm not that learned. I'm sure if I dig deep, I'll find some rabbis explanation somewhere for both of those. Not sure I;d buy them, however. And I'm still stuck with the "what does this add to the story?" question. Guess I'm still stuck with those. And now, so are you.

Shabbat Shalom

Migdalor Guy (Adrian)

For the text of "The Criminal Cried" from the Mikado, see and some later dialog to place my comments into perspective

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Worst Jewish Education Keynote I've Ever Heard

Yesterday, I attended a regional workshop conference for Jewish Educators. The conference itself had four decent presenters, and though I could only choose to attend one of them, I gather that the other three sessions were also well appreciated.

The entire conference experience was marred, sadly, by a truly unfortunate choice of opening keynote speaker. While I'm sure the speaker was quite earnest and sincere, even passionate about Jewish education, his comments were not particularly inspiring, and some of them were down-right troubling.

The speaker shared his own personal journey in Jewish education. I'm sure it was quite meaningful for him. For me, it was more like a grand tour through everything that is still wrong with Jewish education, and the institutional Jewish world in the US today.

I jotted notes as he was talking. I couldn't note the actual remarks or context, but I suspect that from my responses, you can get a feel for what I heard.

I scribbled these notes:

  • Kids need convincing about Jewish learning? Convincing? They don't need convincing, they need compelling reasons!!
  • We need to learn from the kids is a radical new idea? Huh? That's Talmud AND Rodgers and Hammerstein.
  • Benchmarks? We need benchmarks? Oy, this sounds too much like NCLB (no child left behind.)
  • Too much education and not enough learning? WTF does that mean? It's edu-care - to lead out. Learning often requires education.
  • Jewish learning should not be just about self-perpetuation of the extant institutional structure!! Stop co-opting stories about out of the box thinking to the service of self-perpetuating your increasingly irrelevant institution. You need to re-invent yourself if you want the continue to exist!
  • Since when is a generation monolithic and homogenous?
  • What DO we believe is very important to teach? Do we (can we) all agree on that?
  • No, these things are not obstacles or challenges, they are OPPORTUNTIES!!

Basically, I think this speaker missed the boat entirely when it comes to what Jewish education, what Jewish continuity, requires. He lectured us on what he thinks we need to do, based on his own limited experiences (and his compelling need to keep the extant structures afloat in an increasingly indifferent Jewish world.)

So as not to embarrass the speaker publicly, I've not mentioned his name or his position, but I will note by way of explanation that he would clearly have a keen interest in the survival of the extant Jewish communal/institutional structure.

I'm happy this speaker found what he needed to have a meaningful Jewish life. I don't think, however, that he is a good source for inspiring us to teach the next generation how to do the same.  Next time, find a real out-of-the-box thinker who can inspire us and carry us through our depression over the current state of things in Jewish Ed.

Migdalor Guy

Concerned about the Republican Jewish Coalition? You Should Be.

Today in my email was an advertisement sent from and paid for by the Republican Jewish Coalition, whoever they are. The subject of the email was "Scared about Barack Obama? You should be."

The message is a scare-mongering, fear-mongering specious attempt to convince Jews to not vote for Obama because it says he is naive in his views, and will endanger both America and Israel.

What will it take for these dunderheads to learn that a tough stance only engenders stronger opposition. Why else would the terrorists want McCain/Palin to win?

A U.S. with an olive branch is not a welcome thing for the world's suppliers of hate and violence. A U.S. with an olive branch is a reassuring sign for those of us who feel we are adrift on dilluvian waters yet again, awaiting a sign of hope.

This Republican Jewish Coalition represents neither the best interest of the state of Israel, nor those of the Jewish people, or those of the U.S. Show them how wrong they are by giving Obama/Biden an overwhelming victory tomorrow.

Migdalor Guy