Friday, July 31, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Va'etkhanan 5769-This Man's Art, That Man's Scope

This week's parasha, Va'etkhanan, gives me an opportunity to revisit the aseret habdibrot, the ten commandments. There's one commandment, in particular, that, for some unknown reason, popped into my head as something I wanted to muse upon this week. That commandment is the tenth, the one commandment (depending on how one views the first commandment) that is (apparently) focused on thought  more than deed or action.

V'lo takhmod eyshet reyekha, v'lo titaveh beyt reyakha sadeihu v'avdo v'amato, shoro, v'khamoro, v'khol asher l'reyakha.

And you shall not covet the wife of your neighbor, and you shall not crave the house of your neighbor, his field, or his male slave or female slave, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's.

The first thing to note is that this construction in D'varim is changed from the construction in Exodus 20:14

Lo takhmod beyt reyakha lo takhmod eyshet reyakha v'avdo, v'amato v'shoro v'khamoro v'kol asher l'reyakha

You shall not covet the house of your neighbor, you shall not covet the wife of your neighbor, his male slave, or his female slave, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's.

In Exodus, the order is house, wife, etc. Here in D'varim, the order is wife, house, etc. In addition, the verse begins with a conjunctive vav, making this commandment part of a string beginning with murder and continuing "and not commit adultery...and not steal...and not bear false witness..and not covet. In Exodus, each commandment begins with the simple negative particle "Lo" with no connecting vav.

Finally, the text in D'varim introduces a second verb into the sentence. In Exodus, the verb "takhmod" based on the root khet-mem-dalet is used twice. Here in D'varim, the verb takhmod is used first (in reference to the wife) and the verb titaveh based on the root "alef-vav-hey" precedes the remainder of the things one should not "crave."

While scholars disagree on the exact translations of these two verbs, there is some consensus that the khet-mem-dalet root form means desire in a "delighting in" sense, whereas the alef-vav-hey root forms means desire in an "inclination" sense. Some scholars equate "alef-vav-hey" with desires and inclinations of the nefesh, that is, they are natural inclinations and desires. "Khet-mem-dalet" is more often associated with selfish, undisciplined, desire - perhaps a more "over the top."

One wonders how this plays into the whole rabbinical construct about  how and when men interact with women. The distinct separation (and placing first) of the commandment to not inappropriately desire your neighbor's wife seen oddly juxtaposed with the Exodus construct, in which the house comes first, yet women, slaves, beats of burden et al are all things in which we must not delight to the point of covetousness. The neighbor's wife is placed in a distinct class.

While all this is fascinating, what drove me to muse upon this text this week is more of a global observation that our society is so strongly structured to encourage covetousness, that, for some, the very idea of not coveting may seem anathema, and, at the very least, a difficult, if not impossible commandment to fulfill.

Perhaps these are socialist or Marxist ideas floating to the surface, yet I cannot help but wonder how much the idea of "not coveting" has been used as a tool to keep the oppressed happy. It's all well and good to not covet when one lives the good life. It's another story when one is struggling. Those without look at those who have, and might not be able to help but wonder if all of those who have got there fairly, and are deserving of what they have.

We are bombarded constantly with advertising that is designed to get us to crave, to desire, to covet. Might this bombardment be an underlying cause in increasing crime? If so, then there is another argument for teaching people to not covet. Still, how many of the rich get richer by insuring that the poor are taught to be content with what they have?

Certainly coveting things has great potential for causing problems. It can certainly lead to envy and jealousness, and those often lead to other bad things. It can cause people to be very unhappy with their own situations. As the Bard put it:

Desiring this man's art and that man's scope
With what I most enjoy, contented least. (Sonnet 29)

Ironically, however, Shakespeare's solution to his downcast state is to think happily on his love. I've little doubt that mixed in with Shakespeare's love is a bit of desire to delight in the pleasures of his love.

Some rabbis and commentators have suggested that the real lesson in the commandment to not covet is to recognize that what we see of our neighbor's lives might not be the whole story. It's just another way of saying "be careful of that for which you wish" and "always look at the big picture."

is there ever a time and place when coveting is the right thing to do? When covetousness is the right way to feel? I'm hard pressed to find one, although  can imagine a scenario in which covetousness can spur an oppressed minority to seek their full rights and share. Coveting can, in a "positive value of yetzer hara" sort of way, spur one to try harder, be more ambitious, etc. Or is this entirely the wrong motivation to succeed? I suspect that it is, however, given the values of modern society, I'm afraid that those who seek success without some element of covetousness are going to find it rough going.

In the musical based on the movie "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" there is a song in which the ambitious younger con-man sings of his desire for "Great Big Stuff." This desire spurs him into participating in a complicated high-class scam, though in the end, he and his older, more experienced partner turn out to have been scammed by their own mark, who turns out to be an even better con-artist. Still, the older con-artist sings how it was still a blast for them, and doesn't seem to put out by this reversal of (potential) fortune. In the end, all three decide to work together. Proving that crime does pay? One way of looking at the story is that the younger con-artist perhaps comes to learn that it isn't the "stuff" at all, but the thrill of the game? A subtle anti-coveting lesson or not?

I covet. I suspect you covet as well. I do think I can say that, at this point in my life, I don't covet all that often or all that much. Is it because I have taken the commandment to heart, or because I have learned from experience that coveting is a waste? I suspect the latter. Would my life be even better now if, from the very start, I had taken the commandment to not covet into my heart? I wish I could say for certain that this is so, but I'm still not certain.

So what are "lo takhmod" and "lo titaveh" really about? Something to ponder this Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester

Monday, July 27, 2009

Time for Another Jewish Ed Heresy-The English Bar/Bat Mitzvah?

Over on his blog The Fifth Child, my friend and fellow Jewish Educator Peter Eckstein wrote a great post asking, yet again. what the goals of teaching Hebrew are in supplementary Jewish education.  (Peter also makes a wonderful case for abandoning the inappropriate name of "supplementary" - recognizing that  what we really have is-using my words, not his-"surrogate" schools. If there's nothing much at home Jewishly, what, exactly, would we be supplementing? I think there's another blog post in that to post soon after this one.)

Peter wrote

I’ve been obsessing on Hebrew lately. What’s the purpose of teaching decoding to kids? Remember, reading implies comprehension. My guess is that most kids, despite our best efforts, really don’t understand (or don’t care about) the meaning of the Hebrew they’re reciting. They just mouth the sounds: ergo decoding. At the risk of sounding really cynical, I’m going to guess that a large chunk of the parents who send their kids to a congregational school do it for one main reason – to prevent performance anxiety. They want their kids to shine at their 13-year-old-coming-out-party. Is this the really the point of what we Jewish educators are doing?

And later in his post:

Do we teach Hebrew so that the kids can decode their Torah portions without error, or because the Hebrew language is that which defines the Jewish people? Remember – back in the 3rd century BCE (!) the Torah was translated into Greek by 70 rabbis for the Greek speaking Jews of the Diaspora. I wonder if back then they were having the same conversation we’re having now about Hebrew education. What does this tell us about the goals of teaching Hebrew? Where do we put our energy? What should be the focus of whatever Hebrew instruction we implement? Given the realities of the amount of time we have the kids, what should we be aiming to accomplish?

There's a logical option that is hinted at here, but never expressed openly. That option is to not teach Hebrew at all. Please note-I'm not advocating that-but I am holding it up as one possibility.

I, for one, value my knowledge of Hebrew. I made it a point to acquire Hebrew skills, and, in particular, biblical Hebrew skills, so that I would not be held hostage by translation, as I believe all translations are ultimately interpretations. Any of you who have read my Torah musing here or elsewhere know that I often challenge even the most scholarly translations (like the JPS committees.)

Nevertheless, even my own desires are ultimately futile because we don't not have an ur-text Torah. We have some fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Cairo Geniza, but the Torah that we read from today, and we hold as authoritative is the product of the Masoretic school, and it's vowelization and cantillation. Trust me, the Masoretes had an agenda which influenced their work, as is true for most, if not all, such work. We have the Septuagint, the Aramaic targums, and many other translated sources to use for comparison-and many of them disagree in places.

This being the case, why do we struggle so to "teach Hebrew" to our students in our (for lack of better terms for now) supplementary/complementary schools, and generally achieve, at best, good "decoding" skills.

I found this interesting article on the web on a site devoted to linguistics:

The article's author, in explaining a citation from another, wrote:

By "a good bar mitzvah language", Mark means a language whose written form is easy to learn how to recite, whether or not you understand any of it or even recognize the words. This is a reference to the fact that some Jewish children learn only enough Hebrew to be able to read a Torah or Haftarah passage out loud at their bar mitzvah (or bat mitzvah) ceremony. If the diacritical signs representing vowels are present,  written Hebrew is phonologically transparent enough that it's fairly easy to learn to read it in this way, without knowing much (or even any) of the language. (And the cantillation signs provide a stylized form of phrasing and intonation…)

Some languages, like Hebrew, are easier to learn to recite. English, by the way, it not one of them. If fact, the article is entitled "Why isn't English a Bar Mitzvah language? So, the fact of the matter is, we can keep doing what we are doing, and decide to be honest about it--that we include Hebrew in supplementary/complementary Jewish Education in order to enable students to participate in the traditional ritual of chanting the text of Torah associated with becoming a bar or bat mitzvah.

We can be honest like that--or, we could try something radically different. Why not an "English" bar/bat mitzvah ritual? Instead of a tutor working with a student to enable them to decode and chant their parasha, the tutor could work with them to explore it, comparing different translations and sources. They could then choose to read their parasha, in English, from their own created translation (in fact, creating a "mash-up" translation could be the goal) or an extant one. If they have the skills and time, perhaps they could, as many have started to do, apply the trope to the English. At the very least, their reading in English could be histrionic and dramatic. (One thing I love to do for students is to read Torah in Hebrew, without trope, but as spoken sentences with the normal inflections they might hear when speaking English.)

The idea that we could, in the limited time available to us, enable students to truly understand, comprehend, and translate for themselves the Hebrew of their bar/bat mitzvah service Torah/haftarah readings is a chimera at best. So, rather than focus on the rather limited goal of enabling them to chant a few p'sukim, why not focus on enabling them to study and learn what the text says, and share that with the congregation, both in their reading of the parasha, and in their d'var Torah?

Some argue that since those in the congregation usually have access to a translation, why not have the bar/bat mitzvah student reading/chant Torah and haftarah in Hebrew. I would counter that, in most cases, they have access to only one translation.

Of late, their has been growing interest in restoring the role of the meturgeman, the scholar who would translate in real-time from Hebrew to Aramaic the readings from the Torah in post-exilic Israel. Why not enable each young student in our Jewish supplemental/complementary schools to become, if only for a brief shining moment, a sort of meturgeman for their congregation? While they wouldn't be doing a real-time translation, they would be relying on their studies to present to the congregation a reading of Torah in the vernacular so that all present might hear, learn, and potentially understand.

I'm not sure if this is a good idea or not. A connection with Hebrew still feels to me, at a visceral level, a core component of giving students to tools to create a Jewish identity. Yet why not give our students a choice? Must things continue to be the way they are simply because that's how they have always been? My friend Peter Eckstein wondered if the 70 rabbis of the Septuagint were having similar discussions about Jewish education and Hebrew. After all, they took the radical step of translating the Torah into Greek so Jews whose native language was Greek could understand and learn from Torah.

Perhaps, instead of vainly attempting to teach Hebrew to our students, we should teach them enough to get them interested, should they choose, to pursue its study, and give them the tools and the opportunity to do so. We should teach them that there is value in the study of Hebrew, suggest to them that there is an intrinsic connection between Judaism and the Hebrew language. Yet we should see that those who choose not to pursue further study in Hebrew are not made to feel like second-class Jews as a result of their choice, and make sure they have all have the resources and tools necessary available in their language to work to develop their own Jewish selves.

I haven't touched upon the subject of the liturgy. Even there one can find a case for an all-vernacular service, though I must admit that even I find that somewhat jarring to even consider. Nevertheless, that ought to be considered as well. We have plenty of great English translations/adaptations of  of the traditional liturgy. If we do an all-English service not, as may have happened in the past, to throw out the baby with the bath water and to be more like our protestant neighbors, but so that all who participate may truly understand what they are praying, that might not be so bad after all.

Planning an "English" bar/bat mitzvah? I'd like to know (and attend!!)

Kol Tuv,

Adrian Durlester (aka Migdalor Guy)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat - D'varim 5769 - Torah of Confusion

I discovered this week, in reviewing the parasha, a word that just stuck with me. In describing the  near ending of the 40 years of wandering, Moses makes reference to how G"d did indeed wean out all the people (save Joshua and Caleb) of their generation as foretold, so that none of them would enter the promised land. In 2:15, Moses says:
"Indeed the hand of the L"rd struck them, to root them out from the camp to the last man."
Once again, with all due respect to the venerable scholars of the JPS editing committee, I must quibble with their translation.
The Hebrew reads:

v'gam yad-Ad"nai hay'tah bam l'hummam mikerev hamakhaneh ad tummam.
וְגַ֤ם יַד־יְהוָֹה֙ הָ֣יְתָה בָּ֔ם לְהֻמָּ֖ם מִקֶּ֣רֶב הַֽמַּֽחֲנֶ֑ה עַ֖ד תֻּמָּֽם:

The word root in this sentence is Hey-Mem-Mem, appearing in the 5th word (l'hummam ) It has two basic meanings in Hebrew, none of which is "root out." The first meaning is to "move noisily" (as in a driving a wagon in threshing.) The second meaning, and the more likely one in this context, is "to confuse, to discomfit, to vex.
Everrett Fox comes closer in his translation
"Yes, the hand of YHWH was against them, to panic them from amid the camp until they had ended."

Other translations use the verb "confound" which, I think, comes closer to a reasonable understanding of what happened.
There's also a little wordplay with the final word of the pasuk, "tummam," which, although it sounds a lot like l'hummam, comes from a  completely different root, tet-mem-mem, which means "to be complete or finished."
I might, therefore, prefer a translation such as:
"So much so, that even the hand of G"d was upon them, to confuse them until they (were) finished."

If we wanted to parallel the word play, perhaps:
"So much so, that even the hand of G"d was upon them, to mortify them until they were mortified."

Or something like that.
Well, I don't know about you, but I find large parts of the Torah baffling and confounding.  Still, I can't imagine perishing as a result of my perplexity. I'm not a thinking machine like HAL 9000 (or other famous examples from science fiction) in which confusing or conflicting instructions (of which there are many in Torah) led to a breakdown. I can't imagine finding myself in such a state, though I do know it happens to people. There are those who get totally wrapped up in an enigma, to the point that they lose themselves in it, and wind up in some sort of fugue state.
So what is the confounding and baffling that resulted in the "finish" of all these wayward Israelites? Were they physically lost, or was it something more in a spiritual mode?
As Rudyard Kipling put it (not that I'm fond of quoting anti-Semites)
"If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;..."

The point perhaps being made in 2:5 is that these bafflements were of a Divine nature, involving knowledge and situations not understandable by humans. I don't buy it, personally, but I can see where the Biblical schools of authorship and redaction found it a reasonable explanation.
Since I'm not prone to accept a "Divine confounding" scenario, perhaps an alternative I can accept is this: the verse doesn't say these people all died. It says they "finished" or "were completed." (Perhaps they became Xtians? I know some Xtian supercessionists are fond of calling Xtians "completed Jews.") Perhaps their confoundment or confusion was on whether to continue following with the Israelites, and following their G"d. Perhaps that is what with which they were "finished." They "gave up" on being an MOT, and went their own way. Who can blame them. Brings to mind an old hit from 1970, penned by Norman Whitfield & Barrett Strong, and sung by the Temptations:
People moving out, people moving in
Why, because of the color of their skin
Run, run, run but you just can't hide
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth
Vote for me and I'll set you free
Rap on, brother, rap on
Well, the only person talking about love and affection is the preacher
And it seems nobody's interested in learning but the teacher
Segregation, determination, demonstration, integration
Aggravation, humiliation, devastation of our nation
Ball of confusion
Yeah, that's what the world is today
Hey, hey
Ball of confusion
Yeah, that's what the world is today
Hey, hey
The sale of pills are at an all time high
Who was walkin' down with there heads in the sky?
The cities aflame in the summer time!
go on and we go home
Economics, Reaganomics, Birth Control, The Status Quo
Shooting rockets to the moon, kids growing up too soon
Politicians say
And the band played on
So, round and around and around we go
Where the world's headed, nobody knows
Ball of confusion
That's what the world is today
Hey hey
Ball of confusion
That's what the world is today
Hey hey
Hey hey
Fear in the air, tension everywhere
Unemployment rising fast, the Beatles new record's a gas
And the band played on
Eve of destruction, tax deduction, city inspectors, bill collectors
Solid Gold in demand, population out of hand, suicide
Too many bills, hippies movin' to the hills
People all over the world are dying in the war
And the band played on
Ball of confusion
That's what the world is today, hey, hey
Ball of confusion
That's what the world is today, hey, hey
Ball of confusion
That's what the world is today, hey, hey
Ball of confusion
That's what the world is today
Hey Hey

[Side note: Norm Whitfield also wrote the Edwin Starr hit "War" which I have also quoted in my musings before.]
I don't plan on allowing myself to be confused to death, or, for that matter, confused to the point of giving up. Yes, much of Torah confounds and baffles me. I won't be driven to madness, I won't be driven away. I can find ways to accept the confusion. Maybe even write a song about it. OK, look for my hit "Torah of Confusion" on the Billboard charts someday.
So, did you follow any of that, or are you a l'hummam as I am?
Shabbat Shalom,
©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Carroll, Taylor, & United Profit When United Breaks Guitars ?

While I’m sympathetic to Dave Carroll, of the Sons of Maxwell, I'm not particularly swayed to righteous indignation against United Airlines by his supposedly viral "United Breaks Guitars" video.  He really SHOULD have opened the case when he arrived in Omaha, and, at the very least, taken pictures. I’ve known since I was a child that shippers always say that one should inspect packages upon receipt even if there is no outward sign of damage. Mr. Carroll does bear some responsibility for the outcome of his situation. I don’t know about you, but when I travel with one of my pianos on a plane, I damn sure open the case at the destination airport to check it. Frankly, I do the same even when I transport it myself in my car!

(One also has to wonder why no one snapped a photo with their cell phone on the tarmac at Chicago, showing the offending instrument throwing/throwers.)

FWIW, this article contradicts Mr. Carroll’s statement on his web site. He never actually saw *his* guitar being mishandled. By the time his bass player looked, Carroll surmises with no basis of proof,  that his guitar had already been thrown.

Also, the “we were on the road away from Omaha” is a lame excuse for having not contacted the airline immediately when the damage was discovered the day after they arrived in Omaha, at the sound check. Sounds like they did a week of touring gigs with his broken guitar in tow. Hard to be sympathetic for that. Especially in this day of cell phones, email, etc.

Sounds to me like Mr. Carroll and his gang were too lazy to bother to check things, too follow-up on things, and too focused on their career path itself and less on the material items like their guitars. (Personally, I have heard stories from roadies-who take meticulous care of player’s instruments-about how the performers then mistreat those same instruments.) Obviously, Mr. Carroll had other guitars to play which he then used. Did his audiences feel cheated because he didn’t play his $3500 Taylor? Would they even know? A consummate musician can make good music on even the worst of instruments, and somehow I doubt Mr. Carroll’s alternate guitars were cheapies from Sears. In fact, turns out that Taylor supplied him with replacement guitars, hoping to get some good publicity out of this whole story (which they have.)

Mr. Carroll clearly had the $1200 needed to repair the guitar. He was fond enough of it to keep it and use it in its less than perfect repaired state when he could have purchased a new guitar (and Taylor was giving him all these nice freebies in return for the publicity.) Also, he could have left the guitar damaged to offer as evidence to the airline. He doesn't say when he had the guitar repaired. I somehow doubt it was during this week-long tour.

I’m glad Mr. Carroll is past angry, because he’d have to save some of that anger for his own mistakes and tunnel vision. Somehow, though, he seems to have turned his misfortune to his advantage. United wants to make things right to Carroll financially, has apologized to him, and wants to use the video as training to change its corporate culture. Millions of people have seen the video, and now know of Mr. Carroll and his band. My heart bleeds.Not.

If he’d checked his guitar at airport in Omaha and filed a claim, I’ll bet he would have wound up with a substantially smaller settlement than he will now probably get from United (plus he won’t have all this great publicity for an up and coming singer and his band! Aw, shucks.

Gee, what a clever publicity ploy. So, did any of this really happen? Can we be sure? I’ve seen no evidence that this story is anything but invented or apocryphal. Perhaps United and Taylor are in on it? Taylor is making hay of the story. In a way, so is United. And clearly, so are Mr. Carroll and the Sons of Maxwell band.

Has anyone interviewed other passengers that were supposedly on this flight, or tried to locate the person who supposedly claimed “they’re throwing guitars?” All the news stories seem to have been about the “viral” nature of the video, and not the actual facts of the story. Anybody interview baggage handlers at O'Hare?

Also, there are always sides to a story. Were all the United agents and employees truly surly or dismissive? Was Mr. Carroll always polite and respectful to them? We're the baggage handlers really "throwing" guitars in an irresponsible manner, or was that simply one person's perception? I'm not even sure throwing luggage between handlers is wholly inappropriate if they are taking care to catch it and make sure nothing hits the ground or gets hurt. Probably not the best idea, but there are possibly extenuating circumstances. These low-paid baggage handlers are under a lot of pressure to get luggage moved quickly and efficiently. I know I've seen for myself, and also heard stories of UPS, FeDex, DHL and other carrier's employees moving packages via "airmail" - i.e. toss them to one another. Tell me you've never tried a potentially risky shortcut or two at work or home in a situation in which you felt confident and secure, and wanted to get something done faster. Sometimes you won, sometimes you lost. That's what taking a risk is all about. Sometimes, fate just steps in and intervenes in an unexpected way. I'd say Dave Carroll is trying to turn lemons of fate into lemonade, and doing it quite successfully. (United is following suit, as is Taylor.)

I pay a shipper (or an airline) to get my items safely from one place to another, unharmed. I also know that there is always some risk. No employer can be sure 100% of its employees do everything 100% correctly 100% of the time. I'll certainly opt for the company with the best record, but I can't expect perfection. (Stores build in losses from expected shoplifting, accidental stock breakage, and cashier errors when they budget, and factor that into the pricing.) Planes crash, trucks get into accidents, delivery people trip or stumble and packages get damaged.

Now, fact of the matter is, smart businesses compensate customers even when damages happen due to circumstances that are random or beyond their control. United is not entirely off the hook here, in my view. A smart company would have acknowledged and come to a quick settlement with Mr. Carroll right from the start-even if there was no clear proof the damage was their fault. This action on their part would have been the smart play.

Taylor played nice by providing replacement guitars for Carroll. Didn't hurt their bottom line, either. Win-win for them--they get to play nice company, and get huge coattails publicity from the "viral" video.

Also, it does seem a shame that Mr. Carroll had to endure such a runaround from United, Air Canada, et al. They should apologize for that, and should address the corporate culture that is responsible for it.

Yet, in the end, do I want the cost of my airline ticket going up because United has decided to settle every claim submitted, even a week later, and when there is no evidence or proof to back up the claim? That's a selfish question, and the wrong one. If we are to ask that question at all (and I'm not entirely sure we should) shouldn't it be if all of us, United's current and future potential customers, are willing, for the good of the entire community as a whole, pay slightly higher ticket prices so that United can compensate all claimants for damaged luggage regardless of circumstance? That answer might be, and dare I say, perhaps ought to be, yes. Much as I believe in personal responsibility, I also believe companies do better when they satisfy their customers by making sure they're always right (even when they're possibly not.) On the other hand, might a better solution be that we all agree that it is prudent to check our luggage for damage (especially when we have good reason to suspect a problem) and report it immediately or as soon as we can so that companies can properly process claims, and not have to pass on to customer the costs of paying unfounded claims?

Seems, based on the "virulence" of this "United Breaks Guitars" video, most people are siding with the upset customer (who failed his requirement fro due diligence.) Is this the choice we really want to make?

Was this truly a “viral” video as claimed, where “the public” forced an outcome on the despicable airline company, or is it a shameless sham? Food for thought.

Also, for the record, I once flew United on a vacation to Hawaii. On the return trip, they mis-routed a grass mat we had purchased for a few bucks as a souvenir. We reported it at our home airport, and the personnel were not dismissive of our claim in the least. United located the mis-routed mat, sent it back to our local airport, and had it delivered to our house by taxi, and sent a letter of apology. Admittedly, this was some years ago. Nevertheless, it represents most of my own personal experience with United Airlines, which have generally been positive. The missing grass mat was the only luggage problem I have ever had flying United. (I won't say I haven't had other problems with them, still overall, United has fared better in my esteem than many other airlines I fly.)


Adrian A. Durlester (aka Migdalor Guy)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

An article worth reading.

Reinvigorating Hebrew Schools: A New Approach

While I find myself a little uncomfortable with the "market" terminology, I think Woocher has the right idea for the approach that we need to take for the future of Jewish Education.

See my own blog post here "My Jewish Education Heresy"

His key statement is this:

"Nonetheless, the vast majority of the efforts we have seen thus far suffer from one serious limitation: they start with the producers of supplementary education, not its consumers, as their primary focus."

I say we continue to ride our high horses and saying we know what's best for Jewish Education at our own peril. You can't give the people what you want them to get until you get the people to want what you're offering, and for that, you need to know what it is for that they're looking.

Shared via AddThis

Friday, July 10, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat- Pinkhas 5769- Why Is This Rebuke Different From All Other Rebukes?

Since this Shabbat falls after the 17th of Tammuz, we begin reading the special haftarot of admonition - 3 admonishing haftarot (two from Jeremiah, one from Isaiah) preceding the ninth of Av, after which we hear the seven haftarot of consolation. We take these three weeks to reflect on the things that led to the many horrible things that happened to the Jewish people throughout our history that are traditionally associated with the ninth of Av (Tisha b'Av.)
The original Hebrew root for the Aramaic word d'puranata which is usually translated as "admonition" is the root that generally means "to disturb." These haftarot are certainly disturbing. They are among the most irredeemable of texts. Clearly, they are meant to "disturb" us, to give us pause, to cause us to reflect upon our own behaviors and actions and the behaviors and actions of our community.

This first haftarah of admonition is, all in all, not so horrible. It is still very much in a "get your act together, for trouble is coming, but G"d will protect you." There's not even a "if you return to/do not forsake G"d's ways" clause attached. It is as though G"d has forgotten all of Israel's stubbornness and recalcitrance. In opposition to Hosea's metaphor of a cuckolded husband and Israel as whore, Jeremiah has G"d reminiscing over Israel's devotion, their love for G"d as if a bride. (2:2) G"d even has Jeremiah say, in G"d's name that accounted to Israel's favor was how they followed G"d in the wilderness (2:2.)  Verse 3 is the topper.

"Kodesh Yisrael La"Ad*nai, reishit t'vuato"
Israel was Holy to Ad"nai,
the first fruits of (G"d's) harvest.

So the Israelites are compared to the offering gift of the first fruits. Then, those who would eat/devour Israel are like those who profaned the first fruits by eating from them, and they shall bear the (bad) consequences of their actions.

So why is this a "haftarah of admonition?" Seems the only ones being admonished here are those who would attack Israel. Why not begin with the haftarah chosen for the second haftarah of admonition, from the 2nd chapter of Jeremiah, which is a truly accusatory and damning diatribe against Israel.

If I learn anything from this haftarah, it is a reminder that viewing just small pieces of our sacred text without surrounding context (i.e. what comes before and what comes after) may not be the best way to look at things.  It is also a reminder of the power of rhetorical tools and devices. Just as Hosea uses a methodology that gets our attention up front-sort a "shock and awe"- Jeremiah uses another tactic-lull us into a sense of security, and then let us have it. I'll admit that, separated by a week, it might not have the same impact as when chapters 1 and 2 are read contiguously, but impact it will have, nevertheless.

So our first week of admonition will pass without much admonishing. Take advantage of the moment, for next week it won't be so easy.

Shabbat Shalom,
©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester

Monday, July 6, 2009

Is the Word "Midget" Offensive?

At its 2009 Nat'l Conference being held in Brooklyn, NY, the Little People of America has filed a complaint with the FCC regarding the derogatory use of the word "midget." The specific complaint results from an episode of Celebrity Apprentice. This article from The Huffington Post spells out the particulars.

Little People of America is a non-profit support organization for short-statured people (primarily from one of the 200 forms of dwarfism, a medical condition) with over 6000 members nationwide. They have long advocated for the use of the term "Little people" as their preferred term of identification, and do not like people to use the word midget, dwarf, and other terms they see as deprecating, offensive, and insulting.

I belong to another organization, NOSSA, the National Organization of Short-Statured Adults, that advocates for people like me who are on the short side of the normal human adult growth curve, but do not have a medical diagnosis or condition, and therefore do not qualify for protection or special accommodation under the ADA (American's with Disabilities Act.) NOSSA's broad definition of short-statured (from my extreme end of the curve at 4'-10.5") is, for men 5 foot 7 inches or 170.18cm and below and for women 5 foot 2 inches or 157.48cm and below in height. (What I wouldn't give to be "short" at 5'-7"!) NOSSA's primary mission is to fight "heightism."

NOSSA has, of course, come out in support of the LPA's complaint to the FCC over use of the term "midget." Most online dictionaries qualify their definition of the word "midget" with terms like "possibly offensive" or "derogatory" (for example see Merriam-Webster Online.) I know from personal experience that I find the word hurtful when I know it is referring to me.

According to Wikipedia's article "Dwarfism:"


Historically ambiguous, the appropriate term for describing a person of particularly short stature (or specifically with the genetic condition achondroplasia) developed euphemistically over the past few centuries.

"Midget," whose etymology indicates a "small sandfly,"[22] came into prominence in the mid-1800s after Harriet Beecher Stowe used it in her novels Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands and Old Town Folks where she described children and an extremely short man, respectively.[23] Later, the word was deemed offensive because it was the descriptive term applied to P.T. Barnum's dwarfs used for public amusement during the freak show era.[2] It is also not considered accurate as it is not a medical diagnosis, though it is sometimes used to describe those who are particularly short but still proportional.[24]

The first notable use of the term "dwarf" was by the Brothers Grimm in their fairy tale Little Snow White;[25] Jonathan Swift also used it in Gulliver's Travels to describe a giant who was only 20 ft tall compared to his 40 ft peers.[26] The plural form of "dwarf" for a person with dwarfism is "dwarfs", while "dwarves" describes the mythical creature. Dwarf too has been condemned by some as inaccurate and insensitive because of its mythical and fairy tale origins.[2]

The terms "dwarf", "little person", "LP", and "person of short stature" are considered acceptable by most at this point in time.[3]

The word "midget" bothers me because of its history as a pejorative, and because of how it was used by P.T. Barnum. (And think about the extreme irony of the term having been introduced by none other than Harriet Beecher Stowe!

Being called a dwarf bothers me primarily because:

  • It's a factual misstatement and misunderstanding.I do not meet the medical criteria for dwarfism
  • I know that some Little People are offended by it (while some are not.)
  • of the mythological and fairy-tale origins of the word

Just today, I was waiting in a hallway to pick up Abigail from camp, a young boy started staring at me and said at full voice "Mom, that's the smallest man I've ever seen." Mom, of course, instead of apologizing or taking advantage of the teachable moment simply told the boy to "move away from there." I certainly hope she had a private conversation with him later, not just about politeness in public, but also about accepting people who are different. One can only hope.

This sort of thing happens a lot. When a child makes a statement in the form of a question, for example "Are you a grown-up?" or "Are you a real man?" or "Are you a midget?" or "Are you a dwarf?" I will usually answer them. My answer is often in the form of "people come in all sizes, and I'm just very, very short." If I think there's a chance they'll understand, I might add something like "some people are very short because they have a medical condition that makes them that way. Some people call those people dwarfs, but most of them prefer to be called Little People. I'm short just because that's how I am. Some people call people like me, who are short, but otherwise normally proportioned in our bodies, midgets, but that word is kind of disrespectful and hurtful. I'd like it if you'd just call me a short person, but I'd like it even more if you just called me Adrian."

I can't say I've experienced much overt heightism in my adult life, though, looking back, I think there may have been some cases of covert or unintentional heightism that worked against me. My general experience has been that people accept me as who I am, and perhaps after some initial surprise or discomfort (which most people manage to disguise gracefully) tend to forget over time how short I am.

I do take some pains to inform people that my short stature is not the result of any medical condition. I'm not sure why that is, and I am sometimes troubled by it. Even just writing that makes me skin crawl. It's not so much that I don't want people to think I have a "disease" as it is, I just feel I want to educate people that sometimes people are just short (or tall) because they are. I don't want anyone to look at others as white or black or rich or poor, short or tall, but to simply see others as fellow human beings

I have little to complain about, compared with the challenges faced by so many Little People. And I have managed to work for some caring employers who understood my need to have workspaces ergonomically suited to one of my height. While I would not deny any Little Person the accommodations made to them under ADA, there are those times when I'm a bit jealous and wished that I could legally seek accommodations, or remedy for discrimination.

Now, I have found some solutions to my short stature. Two of the important female partners in my life were/are 5'-9". (Oddly enough, one female partner, who was also of short stature, was the one who seemed to have the hardest time dealing with my height, often expressing that is was awkward to be seen with me in public. Hmmmm.) I have step stools everywhere in the house and keep them around places I work. Yes, I have some of those extension grippers, too. None of that really helps in the supermarket, where I am often forced to climb up the shelving or wait for a friendly passerby if I need an item up on the top shelf. Don't even get me started about men's restrooms in places where they seem to have forgotten that men (and boys) come in all heights.

In second grade, we used go to around the room, up and down the rows for a student each day to put up the American flag at the front of the room. The first time it was my turn, the teacher simply passed me over and went to the next student. I immediately stood up, walked up to her desk, grabbed the flag, dragged her chair to the blackboard, and stood on it to put the flag in its holder. (I was, of course, sent to the Principal's office for that.)

In Elementary School, when I was old enough and it was time to pick new squad members for the AAA Safety Patrol, something to which I had always aspired , I was bluntly told I was too short to be part of the squad. Not sure why I or my parents didn't fight that at the time. I know if that ever happened to a child of mine, I'd have lawyers on the case before you could say "wrongful discrimination."

So, should the word "midget" be banned from television? I'm not so sure about that. As an artist, I am a strong believer in first amendment rights. What I do wish, however, is that scriptwriters, producers, network editors (and censors) consider issues other than just race, creed, color, sexual orientation, et al in deciding what's appropriate. Heightism is as real as racial discrimination. And it sucks. The people involved in that "Celebrity Apprentice" episode do owe the people of LPA and NOSSA (and all Little People and short-statured people everywhere) an apology.

Of course, all this is rather funny and ironic coming from someone who still likes to listen to Firesign Theater's "Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers." This is UBlogging, for You, the reader. (You'll only get that if you know the album.)

Friday, July 3, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Hukat-Balak 5769-Not Accepting Not Understanding

I am very puzzled by these two incidents in our parasha, and their very different outcomes.

1. Encounter with the Edomites

"Hey, Mr. Edomite. You know all the tsuris we've had. enslaved in Egypt by Pharaoh and cruelly treated. Our G"d freed us, and now, here we are, on your doorstep. Can I and my family cross through your property on the way to our new home? We promise, we'll just cut right through-we won't, wander off course, or take anything along the way. We'll stay out of your fields and vineyards, we won;t even take water from your wells. We promise."

"Not by the hairs of our chiny-chin-chins. Just try it and we'll be all over you like that!"

"We promise we won't stray off course. If, perchance, any of us or our animals drink your water, we'll pay you for it."

"We're sending heavily armed soldiers out to make sure you keep off our territory."

"OK. Never mind. we'll just go another way."

2. Encounter with the Amorites

"Hey, King Sichon of the Amorites. Can I and my family cross through your property on the way to our new home? We promise, we'll just cut right through-we won't, wander off course, or take anything along the way. We promise."

"No way, Jose. We're sending out our troops to stop you"

Sichon sent out troops and engaged the Israelites in battle.  The Israelites defeated him, and took possession of his lands.

Two incidents, two very different outcomes. In the first case, rather than take on the Edomites, the Israelites skirted around their territory. In the second case, Israel defied King Sichon of the Amorites, then defeated them him in battle and acquired his territory. After that, they went on to tackle King Og of Bashan, also an Amorite king. According to the text, they defeated him utterly, there was no remnant of him or his people left.

One simple explanation is the matter of tribal affinity, the Edomites being descendants of Esau. Perhaps the thought was--best not to get into a fight with relatives, even distant ones.

Another explanation involves the fact that, while the Edomites threatened to protect their territory and keep the Israelites out, they did not stage a pre-emptive attack or actively engage the Israelites. Sichon, on the other hand,  engaged the Israelites in battle. (King Og, didn't even wait to be asked for permission to pass from the Israelites. Probably having seen what happened to his fellow Amorite king Sichon, King Og decided a pre-emptive strike was best. Of course, he was defeated worse than Sichon!))

Was it the mood of the Israelites? Before the encounter with the Edomites

  • the Israelites got really thirsty and rattled Moses so much he struck the rock to get water instead of just speaking to it.

After the encounter with Edom:

  • Aaron dies
  • The King of Arad attacks the Israelites without provocation. The Israelites offer to proscribe any captured towns, and G"d gives them victory.
  • The people get sick of manna, and G"d sends fiery serpents to attack them. In what appears to be a violation of earlier proscriptions, Moses mounts a serpent figure on a staff to ward off the snakes (and it works!)

Maybe the people were restless enough that engaging in battle was a necessary diversion? (There's a horrid thought, but one well demonstrated throughout history. Need a diversion, start a war.)

If none of these or other explanations work, what to do?  Apropos to the parasha that starts with the ritual of the red heifer, I suppose we can just chalk it up to another of those Divine mysteries we're not meant to understand. (The ritual of the red heifer is so puzzling that, according to midrash, even Solomon himself  threw up his hands in despair at ever understanding it.)

I don't know about you, but for me, nothing gets under my skin more, making want want to delve deeper, than being told that it's just a Divine mystery, not meant for us to understand.

(I've been tutoring a student for bat mitzvah whose parasha is Nitzavim, with it's "the hidden things are for G"d and the revealed things are for us and our descendants to do..." The catch with what we find in parashat Chukat is that we have something that is both revealed and also had apparently hidden meaning. So we perform the ritual of the red heifer (at least when there is a Temple) exactly as described, and don;t even think about the reasons behind it. That is the definition that some, both ancient and contemporary, give for faith.)

Like Solomon, must I just throw up my hands and say "I'll never know why the Israelites bypassed Edom but engaged the Amorites?" I suppose I could say, with all humility, that if Solomon couldn't figure it out, why should I worry about it.

Is that the lesson? Is that why these stories are here, as they are--to teach us to learn to let go, to accept that there are things we may/will never know or understand?

Part of me wants to say yes, and just let things rest. The other part of me will stay up nights trying to figure it out. Is that yetzer tov and yetzer hara balancing themselves? Is my desire to know and understand prideful, selfish, vain? Or does my mere existence as a human being, and the miracle that endows me with creative thought, justify my curious nature?

If I want to sleep, if I want my blood pressure and anxiety to remain at a safe level, I might have to accept not knowing or understanding certain things. Yet my own inner nature seems destined to pursue my query. Where is that middle path?

You have a choice. You can stop here, read no further, and accept there are some things you will not understand, and have a happy and peaceful Independence day Shabbat. If that's your choice:


If, like me, you can't resist the urge to inquire, the need to know and understand, here are some things to think about:

1. Why do the Israelites bypass Edom, yet attack and overwhelm the Amorites
2. What is the ritual of the red heifer all about?
3. Why were Moses and Aaron so strongly punished for the incident of striking the rock to get water?
4. Why, despite clear earlier prohibitions against the use of magic and talismans, does Moses put a serpent talisman on a staff to ward off the serpents sent by G"d? Why does it work?
5. So, is Bilaam a true worshipper of Ad"nai, the G"d of the Israelites? Or can a prophet be from outside the covenant? What's the story here?

Shabbat Shalom,


©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester