Friday, January 30, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Bo 5769 - Keretz MiTzafon

A fews years back, for 5764, I wrote a musing based on words found in the haftarah for parashat Bo (Jeremiah 46:13-28.) Today, I muse randomly some more on that subject.

In the second half of verse 20 we read: "...a gadfly from the north is coming."

As I stated then, and will reiterate now, I often find myself playing the role of "gadfly." I'm once again living in the north, so I could be a "gadfly from the north."

Of course, the great commentators usually consider that Jeremiah is referring to the Babylonians as being the enemy from the north. Babylon, I am not. I have no interest in conquest, land acquisition, tributes, and foisting a particular belief system and set of g"ds upon anyone.

Yet I still remain interested in being a gadfly. As I wrote then, there are plenty of dictionary definitions which give "gadfly" a very negative spin. Still, I like to view gadflies as a "provocative stimulus." Even on a matter in which I find myself supporting things, if no one will speak up to question, I will often do it myself. Every issue is worthy of having all aspects discussed and considered. Consensus is a great thing, but I believe consensus is often achieved at the price of some people subsuming their own feelings. That isn't necessarily bad, and is, in fact, something that is practiced by Quakers and others. The needs of the community as a whole should, in most cases, be the primary consideration.

Think of people who aren't in a position to control things - like all of Pharaoh's courtiers who kept telling him "can't you see Egypt is lost?" Pharaoh could have heeded their advice (or could he, since G"d was playing puppet-master here) and backed down. Yet Pharaoh couldn't conceive (especially with G*d's interference) of subsuming his own desires to those of his people. That makes him a very flawed leader (of course, we can never be sure what Pharaoh might have done had G*d not been in control the whole time.)

Pharaoh's courtiers, however, weren't afraid to confront Pharaoh with their opinion (though perhaps they should have been.) There have been many other times in history when consensus was achieved at a high price. The Jewish people have, at various times, been silent when they could have been gadflies. The Jewish people have also been victim of those who choose to be silent instead of outspoken. Thank goodness for groups like the White Rose Society, or Pastor Martin Niemoller and his famous "They came for the... and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a..."

I am involved in any number of discussions and causes at the moment in which there is great debate amidst cries for consensus for the common good. Do I subsume my beliefs for the common good? Do I act brazenly like Pharaoh, with wanton disregard for the consequences? How do I know when being a gadfly or being a consensus builder is the better choice? I'm sure there are answers (and yet more questions) about this in Torah, and I intend to spend Shabbat searching for them. (Aside: Have your ever noticed a common typo for search is serach. As in Serach bat Asher. I wonder if there's something to that?)

Shabbat Shalom

Adrian ©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, January 23, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Va'era 5769 - Substitute

(When you read this week's title, I encourage you to hear the word as said by Koko in Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Mikado" as he is arguing with Nanki-Poo to stop him from killing himself, and realizes that herein lies the solution to his own situation as Lord High Executioner who has yet to execute anyone and may soon be forced to execute himself to satisy the bloodthirsty Emperor.)

This week, I was struck by a strong incongruity. I happened to be reviewing with one of the classes I teach the end of the Joseph saga as a setup for the ensuing investigations into Sh'mot and Va'era. We talked about how Yosef's brothers reacted when Ya'akov died - fearful of the potential for a vengeful Yosef, they fabricate a deathbed wish of their father that they be forgiven. They go so far as to offer to become slaves to Yosef. However Yosef isn't buying it, and responds  "al tira'u, ki hatakhat El"him ani" - "Have no fear - Am I a substitute for G"d?" (JPS)

Powerful words indeed.  We then had an interesting talk about the possible subtext in Yosef's words. The illustration we came up for that seemed to fit best was a moment from "Family Guy" in which Brian and Stewie, ballooning their way across Europe, drop in on the Vatican and embarrass the Pope, who gives chase, coners them, and calls upon G"d to "smite them." when nothing happens, the Pope says "He' s a-cookin' something a-up." Underneath his p'shat claming of his brothers' fears lies a warning that G"d will insure justice is done.

Yet the class and I seemed more focused on Yosef's teleological comments that followed in the next few verses, about all that bad that happened being for ultimate good. I've written enough about my personal discomfort with teleological explanations, so I won't belabor that any further.

Later that same day, I was re-reading parashat Va'era in preparation for writing this musing. It has many well worn paths, and I was feeling dis-spirited at not having yet found a new thread to follow.

Then I came to chapter 7.
"Vayomer Ad"nai el-Moshe 'r'ei n'tattikha el*him l'far'oh....." "Ad"nai spoke to Moses, 'See, I place you in the role of G"d to Pharaoh...."
I must have read those words many times before, but this time I was struck dumb by it. Yosef won't allow himself to be thought of as taking G"d's place or role. Yet here, G"d G"d's-self plainly tells Moshe that Moshe will be as a G"d to Pharaoh. There's something there. I can't quite put my finger on it up...but "I'm-a cooking a-something a-up."

We can spin it all sport of different ways. Yosef was a bit prideful and so needed to remind himself of his place, perhaps. Moshe, on the other hand, was so humble, that he needed a plain direction from G"d before he could see himself in the role that G"d had chosen for him in this little drama. We can argue context and syntax. The sort of "substitution" (i.e. hatakhat) in Yosef's situation is wholly different from Moshe being made G'd to Pharoah. (Note, by the way, the text does not say "like a G"d to Pharaoh." It's a simple "I place you El*him  to/before Pharaoh.") The JPS committee seemed to have enough theological difficulty with the Hebrew as to interpolate the "in the role of G*d." Yet the text seems clearer than that.  "See, I give you/place you G*d to/for Pharaoh. Yes, there's lots of ambiguity, but the absence of the preposition "ki" (like) seems crucial.

Of course, if we want to play Hebrew word games, we can argue about the Yosef statement and the meaning of the word "hatakhat" as to whether it means in place of, instead of, or just plain underneath. (Remember, too, we have this exact same issue with the akeidah. Was the ram used takhat - in place of, or, more literally, underneath Yitzkhak?

They say everything in Torah is the way it is purposefully. (Wearing the historical-critical hat one can easily dispute that, but we'll put that aside for now.) I have argued many times that the Torah's very ambiguities are purposeful - they get us to think - to not gloss over things.So I am thankful for this week's gift of confusion as to why Yosef would not be a substitute for G*d, yet G*d makes Moshes a G*d to Pharaoh. It will give me more to think about, and I hope it will do the same for you.

I like many of the musings I've written for this parasha, which you can find on my website, but as a little lagniappe I offer, below, one of my favorites, the Monty-Pythonesque "Why Tomorrow" from a  few years back.
Shabbat Shalom,
©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester

Random Musings before Shabbat-Va'era 5766-Why Tomorrow?

Imagine a Monty Python-esque skit. We are in the "Office of Plague Revocation."  An officious looking clerk sits behind the counter, radiating ennui. Three men walk in dressed respectively as Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh.

Clerk: "Can I help you?"

Moshe: "I'd l-l-l-l-l-l-like to c-c-c-c-c-cancel a pl-pl-pl-pl-pl-pl-pl-pl-pl-pl-"

Clerk: "What?"

Aaron: "He'd like to cancel a plague." [indicating Moses]

Clerk: "Well, let him speak for himself then."

Aaron: "He's got a bit of a speech impediment. I'm his spokesperson-and also his brother."

Clerk: "His brother you say? And he lets you do all the talking? Gor Blimey! Would that my own brother would shut up and let me do all the talking."


Aaron:"Yes, that's all very nice, but we just want to cancel a plague."

Clerk: "Very good, sir. Just what kind of plague is it that you, or rather your brother wishes to cancel?"

Moshe: "Frogs."

Clerk: "Can you be more specific?"

Moshe: "I beg your pardon?"

Clerk: "Well, are they tree frogs, land frogs, river frogs? With pestilence or without pestilence?"

Moshe: "Oh, I see. I believe they are just river frogs, no special additions like pestilence and that sort of rot."

Clerk: "And are you the curser or the cursee for this plague?"

Moshe: "No curse, just a plague of frogs."

Clerk: "Yes sir, I understand. But are you the person upon whom the plague has descended, or are the one who called upon the Almighty for this plague?"

Moshe: "We didn't exactly call upon the Almighty."

Clerk: "What do you mean, didn't call upon the Almighty?" No one gets a plague sent against their enemies without asking the Almighty."

Moshe: [pantomimes while Aaron explains}

Aaron: "The Almighty said to us 'Stretch out your hand over the waters and bring forth frogs.'"

Clerk: "You are joking, of course? The Almighty spoke to you? And told you to call forth a plague of frogs?"

Aaron: "Well, yes, that pretty well sums it up."

Moshe: [nods agreement]

Clerk: "And now you'd like this plague of frogs stopped?"

Aaron: "Yes."

Clerk: "well, this is all somewhat irregular, my good man. I'm going to have to check with the home office."

[Clerk steps into a back room. Moses is behind Pharaoh making funny faces at Aaron trying to get him to laugh.]

Pharaoh: "I hate all this petty bureaucracy. It is so much easier when you yourself are a g"d, as I am."

Aaron - whispered to Moses: "See, I told you he wasn't getting it..."

Clerk re-enters

Pharaoh: "What is hold-up? I have little patience for you pesky bureaucrats."

Clerk: "Come, come now, good sir. I'm sure those pesky frogs have made you just a wee bit testy, but there's no reason to take it out on me for just doing my job, is there sir?"

Pharaoh: "So much easier, when I am g"d."

Clerk: "Did you say you were a g"d sir? [to Moshe and Aaron] "Did he just say he was a g"d.?"

[Moshe and Aaron nod yes.]

Clerk: "Well, can't he make the bloody frogs go away on his own then?"

Aaron: "Well, there's some slight difficulty with that, as you see...."

Clerk: "Oh yes sir., Say no more. Say no more. Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink. Just thinks he's a g"d, eh? I've had a dozen of those today already."

[Phone buzzes and clerk answers]

Clerk: "Yes...........yes...........I'll found out.....yes.......I see........very good, then."

[Clerk puts down phone and grabs a scroll from under the counter.]

Clerk: "Well, do pardon me, gents, I didn't realize you were so close with the boss. Seems the boss has taken a special interest in your case, then."

Aaron: "Well, then, can we get this plague cancelled?"

Clerk: Of course, sir. Just have your brother initial [unrolls a rather long scroll] here, here, here, here, here, here, here....and here.....and sign here."

Aaron hands scroll to Moses who signs it.

Clerk then stamps the scroll repeatedly.

Clerk: "Very good, sir, thank you."

Aaron: So we're done here?"

Clerk: "Well, just one more question."

Aaron (and Pharaoh and Moshe): "Yes?"

Clerk: "When?"

Aaron: "When what?"

Clerk: "When would you like the plague stopped?"

Aaron: "Well, right away I.....[Moshe is gesturing furiously at Aaron]

Aaron, aside and annoyed, to Moshe: "What? What is it, dear brother?"

Moshe points at Pharaoh and says "Let him choose."

Aaron: "You want me to ask Pharaoh when the plague should stop?"

Moshe nods yes.

Aaron: "but...."

Moshe gives Aaron a dirty look, holds his staff up. [Sound effect: thunder[

Aaron: "Show off!"  To Pharaoh: "OK, Pharaoh, when do you want the plague of frogs to end?"

Pharaoh: "You're asking me?"

Aaron: "Yes."

Pharaoh: "Well, as soon as possib.....hey, wait a minute. Is this some kind of trick question?"

Aaron: "You're a g"d, you figure it out!"

Pharaoh: "You're probably all expecting me to say right away. But I won't play your little game. How about....let's see's......tomorrow?"

Clerk: "What time tomorrow, sir?"

Pharaoh: "Don't bother me with piddly little details. Just pick a time. Anytime tomorrow will be fine."

Clerk: "Happy to oblige sir. Do come back and visit us again.

Moshe: "Thank you."

Clerk: "My pleasure sir. [whispered, to Moshe and Aaron] "Just wait until he gets a whiff of all those dead frogs tomorrow."

Voice-Announce: "And now for something completely different..."

Now, the rabbis give us a perfectly plausible explanation as to why Pharaoh would be asked when the plague should stop.  Having it stop at exactly the time that Pharaoh asked for, as opposed to that which Moses decreed, is a more powerful reminder to Pharaoh of who is really in control here, and who is really a g"d.

Still, if that's the case, why such a vague answer from Pharaoh? Why not "an hour from now" or "when the cock crows" or " when the sun, my glory, is high in the sky" ? If he wished to keep up some pretense of caring for his people, surely Pharaoh would have opted for "right now."

What can we learn here? What is this all about? Rashi gets fixated on the fact that although Pharaoh has asked for the frogs to be gone tomorrow, Moshe still goes out and prays right away for that to happen. For me, that's not the issue. It's why Pharaoh said "tomorrow" in the first place. Aren't you just the least bit curious?  Or do we just chalk it up to the unseen hand of G"d once again meddling directly with Pharaoh's thoughts (although the text does nothing to so indicate.)

I'm going to let the question linger-why did Pharaoh ask for the plague of frogs to be gone by tomorrow? If you come up with a good answer, I'd love to hear it.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2006 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, January 16, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Sh'mot 5769-Tzav Latzav II

Nine years ago I wrote a random musing for this parasha based on a bit of text from the hafatarah. I told an interesting tale about an incident that happened to me at the time, and reflected upon the experience.

Nine years later, the tale seems less important to repeat than simply the words of the haftarah. Today I simply ask: is it any different in our world today than at the time these words were written? Ponder that for your shabbat, as I will.

"To whom would he give instruction?
To whom expound a message?
To those newly weaned from milk,
just taken away from the breast?

That same mutter upon mutter,
murmur upon murmur,
now here, now there.

Truly, as one who speaks to that people
in a stammering jargon and an alien tongue
is he who declares to them:
'This is the resting place,
let the weary rest;
this is the place of repose.'
They refuse to listen.

To them the word of the Lrd is:
'Mutter upon mutter, murmur upon murmur,
now here, now there."
(JPS, Isaiah 28:9-11.)

Tzav latzav.

Shabbat Shalom,

-Adrian ©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, January 9, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Vayekhi 5769 - Enough with The Hereditary Payback Already

This morning as I was driving, I happened to catch a small portion of an interview that Rabbi Brad Hirschfield gave to host of NPR's "Tell Me More." Rabbi Hirschfield has a unique perspective on the situation in Israel and the present Gaza incursion - he is a former West Bank settler and activist. Now a prominent Rabbi, radio personality, and frequent guest on television and radio news and talk programs, he has become an outspoken proponent of pluralism, true interfaith dialog, and religion owning up to its "dark side."

(As an aside, one of my favorite quotes from Rabbi Hirschfield, and one I frequently cite in dialog with those who currently find themselves in the Hitchens/Dawkins "religion/G"d is just plain bad for us" crowd. Speaking of 9/11/2001, he said

"Religion drove those planes into the buildings, but it can also provide the catalyst for building a better world.")

Like many I speak to, I am very conflicted about the present Israeli government's incursion into Gaza. I do recognize the constant threat under which the state of Israel exists. I recognize the plight of the people in Gaza, and of the Palestinian people. Why can't a peaceful solution to this festering problem be realized?

This week's parasha, and also, in particular, the Haftarah reading, provide some insight into how we have allowed of psyches to become shaped.

In the Haftarah, fro I Kings 2:1-12, a dying King David instructs Solomon on how to be a good king and leader. He tells Solomon to walk in G"d's ways, and to keep G"d's teachings and commandments close at hand and close to heart. All this he does in four verses.  In the fifth verse, David exhorts Solomon to remember

"what Joab son of Zeruiah did to me.....and see that his white hair does not go down to sheol in peace." (21:5-6)

On the other hand, because Barzillai of Gilead befriended David when he fled from Absalom, Solomon should honor him.

Even more troubling is how David asks Solomon to deal with Shimei, son of Gera. At one time Shimei insulted David, yet at another he came to meet him by the river Jordan, at which time David swore to Shimei that he would not kill him. Not wishing to break that vow, he tells Solomon:

"do not let him [Shimei] go unpunished; for you are a wise man and you will know how to deal with him and send his gray hair down to Sheol in blood."

You can almost sense the "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" on David's part. I vowed to kill him, but that needn't stop you from doing it in my stead.

After Jacob's death, Joseph's brothers worry that now Joseph will seek revenge against them for what they did to him, and they concoct a story of Jacob expressing a dying wish that Joseph forgive his brothers. Of course, Joseph goes into the whole "it was all meant for good" thing - a troubling premise I have written about many times in these Shabbat musings. I won't comment further in this musing about it.

Today, In the place that was once ancient Israel, we see the fruits of centuries of allowing ourselves to follow this path of hereditary payback. At times, like the Hatfields and McCoys, I'm not even sure we all remember what we're fighting each other about - the fighting has just become habit.

It's enough to make you accept what Hitchens and Dawkins suggest - that religion and belief in G"d are largely responsible for the ills of humanity. Yet still, I won't. Like Rabbi Hirschfield, I have learned the importance of airing the "dark side" of my religious heritage, and trying to come to terms with it.

I love Judaism. I love Israel. Yet both are severely flawed, and I will not stand idly by and allow these flaws to continue to cause needless hardship, suffering, and death. I hope that co-religionists from Muslim, Christian, and other faith traditions will take the same stance. Then maybe we can reach a place where dialog can result in lasting peace.

Rabbi Hirschfield put it in exactly the right perspective this morning on NPR.  Neither to the Israeli living in fear as rockets explode near her child's kindergarten, nor the Palestinian weeping over a child killed in the current fracas, does it matter who shot first, who started it, whether a response is "proportional" or not.

We need to be able to recognize and control that instinct in all of us to hate from habit, to carry on hereditary vendettas, to seek justice through retribution, and to justify our actions on the basis of these understandings.

Rabbi Hirschfield and others are correct. Within our faith traditions, warts and all, is the wisdom and the knowledge to find our way to a better world in this world.

Ken y'hi ratsoneinu. May this be our will. I won't be so bold as to pray ken y'hi ratson - may this be G"d's will - because I remain unconvinced that G"d alone could make it happen. It's a partnership - human to human, and humans with G"d. Let's join hands.

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian (aka Migdalor guy)

©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester

We'll Have Hava Nashira, But What Will Replace CAJE this summer for Jewish Music?

As some of you may have already heard, our harsh economic conditions have forced the cancellation of the 2009 CAJE Conference this August. Aside from Hava Nashira, CAJE has been one of the primary places where creators and performers of Jewish Music (and Drama, Comedy, Dance, et al)  have had a chance to demonstrate and share their talents with the greater Jewish community, and enjoy camaraderie with each other.

I'm hopeful that, in the absence of CAJE this August, our community can collectively create opportunities to replace what will be missed. Over the decades, there have been many positive aspects to entertainment/edutainment at CAJE, as well as many issues and concerns. This may be our opportunity to shape an event that can include the best of what happens at CAJE while addressing some of the issues and concerns.

If you are interested in exploring these possibilities, please e-mail me at

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Friday, January 2, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Vayigash 5759 - "He's a Cookin'a Somethin' A-up"

It seemed like a good idea at the time. The money had run out. (I wonder if it even occurred to them to just mint more of it-nah, too modern an idea.) OK, we'll buy your animals in exchange for food from the granaries. Then, a year later, when there were no more animals to be sold, the people asked to sell their land in exchange for food from the granaries. So the Egyptians willingly became farmers in serfdom to Pharaoh. Better to live as a serf than to die a free man, eh? Offends our modern sensibilities, doesn't it?  Yet what would we have done in their situation?

Oh wait, we may all about to be in that situation. Not a famine, per se, but surely its modern equivalent - an economic depression. What will we have to sell to the government, or to the robber barons, to keep ourselves alive? Will the price be worth it?

Well, what one sows, one reaps. It's doubtful the Egyptian people, as grateful as the were, forgot the price Joseph forced them to pay to stay alive. Surely the resentment that gradually built up against the Hebrews resulted in their eventual slavery to Pharaoh. Turnabout is fair play, no?

We're not likely to forget either. Those scheming a way out of our present economic woes had better think  carefully about what they will ask us to sacrifice, for it will surely come back to haunt them as well. Sure, at the time, the people of Egypt were grateful. In 47:25 they say:

"You have saved our lives. We are grateful to my lord, and we shall be serfs to Pharaoh."

Looked good at the time. Probably not so once the famine had passed.

And here's the kicker. Look at the end of our parasha.

47:27  Thus Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen, they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased gently.

Whoa up there. Hold on just a darn minute. If the famine was so severe that all the Egyptians had to forfeit their animals, their land, and their freedom, how is it that Israel and his descendants fared so well? Did they have golden parachutes? Hidden Swiss accounts? Something doesn't smell quite right here. The Hebrews profited while the Egyptians became serfs to stay alive?

Is this the plan the G"d devised? To let mister brown-nosing shyster Joseph be Pharaoh's agent to enable Pharaoh become a feudal king - thus, in the end, angering the Egyptian people against the Israelites? G"d couldn't have come up with something better?

Of course, look on the bright side. Maybe Bernie Madoff is HaSatan sent to stir up a little trouble once again for the Jews. We'll get enslaved again, and wait another 400 years until G"d hears our cries and decides to free us - after another set of fun and games with whoever is the Pharaoh figure this time up.

Could Bernie Madoff be the Joseph of our time? Boy, there's a scary thought.

OK G"d, what's the plan this time. How You gonna extract good outcomes from evil beginnings this time. I can't wait to see what you've cooked up for your people this time.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester