Friday, October 30, 2009

Random Musings Before Shabbat--Lekh Lekha 5770 Revisiting the Ten Percent Solution

Just 6 years ago I wrote a musing for this parasha entitled "Lekh Lekha 5764--Ma'aseir Mikol--The Ten Percent Solution."  As my thoughts continue to evolve on what Judaism's future might look like, I thought this topic was worth revisiting.
Six years ago, I set up the topic this way:

Hebrew grammar and syntax being what it is, it's easy to overlook, or misunderstand.

Let's find our place. Avram serves as a mercenary to rescue Lot and aid King Malchizedek and the other Kings allied with him, and they defeat the five kings aligned against them. Malchizedek, the King of Salem offers a blessing to Avram. Oh, by the way, the text tells us, Malchizedek was a priest of G"d Most High, El Elyon. Now, if that's not a head-scratcher...

G"d had just communicated with Avram. Already there are others worshiping this same G"d? I am not troubled by this. I always remind myself that Torah never explicitly says that G"d is making exclusive covenants. It's not entirely unthinkable that G"d has been attempting to communicate and be recognized by others. Or that others have, on their own, discovered that the idols they pray to are false G"ds, and made the leap, if not to monotheism, at least to monolatry. So to learn that Avram and King Malchizedek are fellow travelers need not be a surprise. (Critical scholarship, of course, would require considering several somewhat different viewpoint on this, and on the origins of the Jewish people and their religion. There's an interesting article in this month's) BAR magazine on the subject.   But I digress.

After Malchizedek blesses Avram, he blesses G"d, El Elyon. Then, verse 14:20 ends "vayiten-lo ma'aser mikol." And he gave him a tenth of everything.

It might be easy to just assume, when reading this, that it means that Malchizedek gave Avram a tenth of "everything," of the spoils of the battle just fought. Yet Rashi and other commentators suggest that it was Avram who gave King Malchizedek a tenth of everything he had previously acquired, as Malchizedek was a priest of G"d. (The rabbis are quick to point out, however, that Avram gave only from what he already owned, as Avram did not accept any of the spoils of war offered to him in the subsequent verses.

Anyway, all this just to take me where I wanted to go today. That ten percent that Avram gave to Malchizedek simply because he was a priest of G"d. From these short and simple words (and those elsewhere in Torah) an entire
system of funding the religious establishment is derived.
It's something that we Jews, particularly liberal Jews, seem to have lost sight of. Our Christian co-religionists still, in significant numbers, follow the practice of tithing ten, or some other fixed percent, in support of their churches. Yet our synagogues have become businesses. Fee for service establishments. Congregants argue and plea endlessly about what they should pay to support their congregation. And, far, too often, their arguments are based on "what am I getting for my money?" Is this why we affiliate, is this why we practice Judaism?

Synagogues have certainly attempted and struggled to change how they are viewed by their congregants, and I applaud their efforts. However, I'm not so sure all their efforts have or will effect the changes truly necessary. A large segment of the Jewish community is seeking its Judaism in places other than the synagogue. People are speaking with their feet (and their wallets.)
In an ideal world, no synagogue would struggle for the funds it needs, no form of Jewish education would go lacking for the funds it needs, and no person would struggle for the funds they need. It's not an ideal world. Also, are we all truly convinced that, given all the funds they needed, that our synagogues, schools, etc. would use all the funds wisely? When the funds come too easy, it's also easy to be wasteful, or greedy.
Six years ago I wrote:
I'm not here to defend the synagogue. There is lots wrong with the system as it exists, and perhaps someday, we will move into a post-synagogue era. The growing number of havurot, of unaffiliated groups, etc. are testimony to some desire on the part of Jews to find their Judaism without the trappings of the modern synagogue. The synagogue reshaping movements like Synagogue 3000 are as much an attempt on the part of the synagogue establishment to insure its own future as it is an attempt to respond to the changing needs of congregants. One wonders what would happen if, as a result of its deliberations, a synagogue future revisioning group reports back to its synagogue that their vision of the future doesn't include the synagogue? Are these programs really open to that? But I'm digressing again.

Even the havurot, the unaffiliated and informal groups, etc., need some understructure, and some financial underpinning. Still I hear stores from those associated with such groups that even they are having a tough time getting the support they need, both in people power and money.
If it is the synagogue model that I am going to buy into, and associate myself with, then I have made my choice, and there should be little question of "what do I get for my money?" The Torah and our tradition make clear our obligation to support the religious institutions we rely on, and the "priests" and professionals (and non-professionals) who serve as the spiritual guides for the congregations.)

Yet, can you imagine the outcry if your synagogue simply decided that everyone simply tithes ten percent of everything (and that doesn't just mean income, it means 10% of your total worth--probably even gross, and not net.) Those synagogues that use "fair share" systems already struggle with issues of privacy and confidentiality. We still have to rely on the basic honesty of the congregants to report and contribute their fair share fairly. It wouldn't look good for the synagogue to hire CPAs, audit all the congregants, and bill them accordingly, would it?

Today, I am even less inclined to defend the synagogue as an institution. Though many of my colleagues disagree, I am no longer certain that the synagogue will or needs to remain the central core of Jewish community. There is likely to be a role for the synagogue in the future of Judaism, however it may simply be one alongside a number of different forms in which people participate in Judaism and Jewish community. With many different paths to Jewish community, finding ways to fund them,. help them survive, etc. is going to be quite complicated. What do we do if many of us, I as suppose is likely, might benefit from participation in a multiplicity of organizations and activities as part of our Judaism? How can we be sure we're all contributing fairly to support them?
Again, six years ago I wrote:
The basic idea is the one we don't get, and the one we've lost sight of. It's not the synagogue's responsibility to make sure we contribute our fair share, our ten percent. It is ours. And we should do it willingly, gladly, and without resorting to the same kinds of tactics we use when preparing our tax returns.

Abraham, didn't stop and think "what will I get out of this?" He just gave 10% to Malchizedek, the priest of El Elyon. Would that all of us would do the same. Then, perhaps, the future of Judaism might be more secure. Our institutions would have what they needed to operate, our religious schools wouldn't be struggling to do the next to impossible with minimal resources, and our religious professionals, both ordained and unordained, would have the parnassa they require to serve G”d and their congregations without having to worry how the costs of their kids' college educations will get paid. With ten percent from all, our synagogues could be the source for the funds that all the richly-deserving charities need. (This doesn't reduce our personal obligation to give to charities, but think how much more it might enhance the work of the charities, and maybe bring us closer to the messianic age.)

I'm a dreamer, a PollyAnna. No doubt of that. Nothing really is ever that simple. Or is it. Just ten percent. Think about the difference it could make if we all did it, without questioning. Ken y'hi ratson. May this be G”d'’s will. Ken y'hi ratsoneinu. May this be our will.

Whether it is the synagogue alone, no synagogue, or a variety of programs, activities and resources that we come to depend upon to live our Judaism each and every day, it still shouldn't be up to those organizations to be sure they have the funds they need. The obligation is, as it always was, ours. Whatever form our future Jewish community takes, if it continues to struggle to survive because we all fail to support it as we should, we won't be any better off than we are now, and we will have learned and gained nothing.

Remember, too, and this is something I neglected to write six years ago, that our contributions needs not only or always be monetary. We can give of ourselves, our time, our talents. (I do feel compelled here to caution that we not entirely expect those who help professionally guide us to work for inadequate parnassa. As utopian a vision as I might have, even one in which leadership is really not in the hands of an elite few, but in all of us, the reality remains that there will always be those whose dedication, skills, and learning for the sake of being good facilitators of Judaism are necessary. They deserve the support necessary to make possible what they do, just as everyone deserves that support.) Of course, maybe there will come a day when we are all Torah scholars. Some believe that day is already here, others believe such a day will never come. Me, I'm somewhere in the middle on this point. with each passing day, we have more tools at our disposal to be truly great learners. The debate becomes "what is required to be learned?" There is already more information than any one person can master. Even in the days of the talmudic rabbis, there were probably rabbis who had specialties in certain areas. Can one be said to have truly mastered Torah without mastering Mishna & Gemara? what about Midrash Halakha and Midrash Agaddah? What about Kabbalah? Already in the Jewish community we see decisions being made about what information is essential for members of that community to know. Sadly, our communities bicker and fight about this, and even consider those who do not adhere to their own understandings as being outsiders, even as not being "really" Jewish.

However, if we each have our own understanding of Judaism, and each of us is scholar enough to satisfy what we believe is necessary to be a scholar, we could be in one helluva mess. Trying to figure out where we each give our 10% might be truly difficult. (Do we give it to ourselves to enable us to continue to be scholars, do we give it to others so they can be scholars?) Can we truly become a scholar without a teacher? Our tradition would say not. Thus, the teachers needs to come from somewhere, thus our 10% could go to make sure we have those teachers (or we become those teachers.)
What seemed like such a simple idea-that we all willingly pony up our 10%, seems to be turning into quite the quagmire. I’d better stop before I sink deeper and deeper into the quicksand.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester. Portions © 2003

Friday, October 23, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Noakh 5770 Don't Ham It Up

Nu, what would you do if you saw your father, drunk, sitting naked around the house? You could tell someone, or you could do something to preserve your father's dignity. Woe unto Ham, for he did not stop to cover his father's drunken nakedness-he ran to get (tell) his brothers instead. For this he is cursed by his father (after he had slept it off.) Ham is also linked to being the ancestor of all the Canaanites, thus setting the stage for the future fratricide the Hebrew people committed by command of their G"d. However, that's a rant for another time.

Shem and Japeth did not even look upon their father's nakedness-they walked backwards to cover their father with a cloth. Of course, this begs the question "How could they be certain their father really was naked? Either they looked, at some point, or they simply took Ham at his word.

In all this, who is most like their father Noah, who was righteous for this time? (Talk about a qualified endorsement.) Shem and Japeth were people of action, like their father, but, unlike their father, they didn't need to be told what to do. Ham, on the other hand, at least noticed his father's nakedness and went to tell his brothers. Perhaps not as direct a helpful action as possible, but an action, nonetheless. Perhaps Ham's judgment was tempered by his own observation of his father's behavior. Noakh told no one-he just went about building the ark as instructed, and saving the animals and his family as instructed. Perhaps Ham simply wanted to converse with his brothers to choose the appropriate course of action. That's not the implication we get from the Torah, but as the connection to the Canaanites makes plain, there's an agenda here.

Yes, Shem and Japeth took an action that benefitted Noakh in many ways: keeping him warm, preserving his dignity, etc. Yet neither of them (or Ham, for that matter) undertook tokhekhah, attempting to correct their father. Respect your elder, yes, but that's no reason to counsel him against the evils of drinking too much wine. In their defense it could be argued that wine was an unknown at that point, Noakh being the first vintner. Did Noakh figure this out on his own? Did someone show Noakh how to make wine? (If so, he wasn;t the first vintner after all.) Was it merely a happy accident that Noakh discovered fermentation?

Yes, there's a clear cut lesson from this story - that one should not merely inform - rather one should take action. Nevertheless, perhaps Ham gets a bum rap after all. To think about it, why all this fuss about Noakh being naked inside his own tent? Who was going to see him? Is this just carryover from the Gan Eden story, and reinforcement of the message that covering up one's nakedness is good whereas being naked is evil (as Adam and Hava discovered when they ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?)

The rabbis concocted one whopper of a tale to explain why Ham was so excoriated. According to the midrash, it was Canaan, son of Ham and grandson of Noakh, who discovered Noakh naked in the tent. He told his father the news, whereupon Ham came storming into the tent and castrated his own father so that he would not bear yet a fourth son and thus diminish Ham's 1/3rd share of the inheritance. It seems Ham, seeing his father intoxicated, expected intercourse to result? Perhaps the rabbis are also suggesting that the reason Shem and Japeth did not gaze upon Noakh was not just for nakedness, but for the mutilation performed on him by Ham?

I guess the lesson is "don't be like Ham." Of course, one could just as easily say "don't be like Noakh" or "Don't be like Shem or Yapeth" which leads ultimately to the troubling idea "don't be like G"d." Maybe we should just stick with "don't be like Ham."

Can't eat ham, can't be like Ham. Funny, isn't it? (Yes, we all know it's pronounced "khahm." Just go with it.)

Shabbat Shalom,

©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat-B’reishit 5770-One G”d, But Two Trees?

וַיַּצְמַח יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, כָּל-עֵץ נֶחְמָד לְמַרְאֶה, וְטוֹב לְמַאֲכָל--וְעֵץ הַחַיִּים, בְּתוֹךְ הַגָּן, וְעֵץ, הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע.

And from the ground the L”rd G”d caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and bad.

Two trees. Why? Are you sure?

Owing perhaps to the superficiality of people’s beliefs, and/or the superficiality of their religious education, many people don’t even seem to recall that there were indeed two trees in Gan Eden.

On the other hand, I’m beginning to wonder if they’re on to something. were there really two special trees? Far be it for me to disagree with centuries of scholars and their translations. Also,the Masoretes, which punctuated the verses using tropes, made some clear decisions about the meaning of this verse. Of course, they, too, had an agenda.

So, accepting that this is an idea not necessarily supported by Hebrew text scholars, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that it is possible to read the text such that there was only one such special tree. It was the Tree of Life, and also the Tree of the knowledge of good an evil (or the knowledge of all things, if you accept “tov v’ra” as a merism.) After all, having two trees has a sort of gnostic ring to it.  One G”d, one “special” tree, right?

Another place I might disagree with the linguists is in using “the tree” because that “the” is not implicit in the Hebrew. (It’s sort of like the “B’reishet vs. Bareishit argument – in a beginning vs. in the beginning.) The text could have said “va-eitz,” the tree, but it doesn’t. Then again, it not eitz hayim, tree of life, but rather eitz hahayim, tree of the life. These subtle differences open up paths for new understandings of the text.

Early Jewish understandings of the two trees are that the Tree of Life could have given Adam and Chava a chance for a pure connection with the Divine, had they resisted the temptation to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Their “choice” (unless you really do want to pin the blame on the serpent) was a choice that gave them “choice,” i,e, free will. Having free will imposes an entirely different understanding of the world, with the more subtle nuances of good and evil, as opposed to the (theoretically purer) concepts of truth and falsehood (true and false being, at least in some way, more objective. Once again, not sure I agree with that.)

The Christian world took this concept further, embodying (pun intended) the Tree of Life as representing Christ, representing perfect faith, and imbuing the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil with symbolism as the point of original sin (does that thus imply that knowledge is sinful? Is that perhaps part of the reason for the somewhat anti-Scientific bent one often finds in fundamentalist religious expressions?)

What is life without knowledge? More specifically, what is life without the knowledge of good and evil? Bliss is one answer. It’s an answer I don’t buy. It’s connected with my belief that any G”d that created a perfect universe would quickly become bored with it. It’s that random chance, the possibilities, that make it interesting.

If our task here on earth is to bring us all to a state where we will all live in a  perfected state-if that is the true messianic idea-then I’m not so sure I want to row in the same direction. I’d we 'learn to better master and utilize our internal inclinations for good (yetzer tov) and inclinations for evil (yetzer hara.) As our sages have taught us, we need that balance, that tension (there’s that tension thing again, it’s always there iun Judaism) to make the world go ‘round. Our “evil” inclinations the rabbis teach, are related to our physical selves – the need for shelter, food, clothing, things. It is what drives us to be wage earners, business people, entrepreneurs. Our good inclinations are the spiritual and intellectual side, (I’m not sure I entirely agree with this interpretation. For example, I think the desire to provide for one’s family can have its underpinnings from a completely altruistic place.

Lifve does require knowledge, does require choices, does require tensions. A knowledge of good and evil is part of life-in many ways it is life itself. After all, would we be able to “choose life” as the Torah so often exhorts us to do, if we did not have this understanding of what is good and what is evil, and that we must struggle to balance the two?

Further support for my thesis that there was perhaps only one tree comes from chapter three, and the serpent story.

וְהַנָּחָשׁ, הָיָה עָרוּם, מִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים;
וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-הָאִשָּׁה, אַף כִּי-אָמַר אֱלֹהִים, לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִכֹּל עֵץ הַגָּ
וַתֹּאמֶר הָאִשָּׁה, אֶל-הַנָּחָשׁ:  מִפְּרִי עֵץ-הַגָּן, נֹאכֵל

וּמִפְּרִי הָעֵץ, אֲשֶׁר בְּתוֹךְ-הַגָּן--אָמַר אֱלֹהִים לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִמֶּנּוּ, וְלֹא תִגְּעוּ בּוֹ:  פֶּן-תְּמֻתוּן.

1 Now the serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild beasts that the Lord G”d had made. He said to the woman, "Did G”d really say: You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?" 2 The woman replied to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the other trees of the garden. 3 It is only about fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that G”d said: 'You shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you die.'"

No reference there to two trees at all-just the one tree in the midst of the garden, whose fruit was forbidden to Adam and Chava.

וַיֹּאמֶר הַנָּחָשׁ, אֶל-הָאִשָּׁה:  לֹא-מוֹת, תְּמֻתוּן.
כִּי, יֹדֵעַ אֱלֹהִים, כִּי בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְכֶם מִמֶּנּוּ, וְנִפְקְחוּ עֵינֵיכֶם;
וִהְיִיתֶם, כֵּאלֹהִים, יֹדְעֵי, טוֹב וָרָע.
וַתֵּרֶא הָאִשָּׁה כִּי טוֹב הָעֵץ לְמַאֲכָל וְכִי תַאֲוָה-הוּא לָעֵינַיִם, וְנֶחְמָד
הָעֵץ לְהַשְׂכִּיל, וַתִּקַּח מִפִּרְיוֹ, וַתֹּאכַל; וַתִּתֵּן גַּם-לְאִישָׁהּ עִמָּהּ,
וַתִּפָּקַחְנָה, עֵינֵי שְׁנֵיהֶם, וַיֵּדְעוּ, כִּי עֵירֻמִּם הֵם; וַיִּתְפְּרוּ עֲלֵה
תְאֵנָה, וַיַּעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם חֲגֹרֹת.

4 And the serpent said to the woman, "You are not going to die, 5 but God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad." 6 When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they perceived that they were naked; and they sewed together fig leaves and made themselves loincloths.

Aha-so knowledge really is Divine. Is the serpent punished for being deceitful, or is the serpent punished because it was revealing the truth? Was the serpent a whistle-blower who suffered for its actions? Was the serpent being like Toto in the movie version of the Wizard of Oz, revealing the secret of the great and powerful?

Chava saw that the tree was desirable as a “source of wisdom.” Obviously, Chava already had discernment. She instinctively knew that having wisdom, having knowledge were  good things for human beings. Remember how G”d confounded the work on midgal Bavel(Tower of Babel) because G”d was perhaps afraid the people might actually build that tower up into the heavens and confront G”d. Might this be a similar situation? G”d hustled Adam and Chava out of Gan Eden and blamed it all on the serpent. Convenient, to say the least.

If eating from the Tree of Life would have been the best thing for Adam and Chava, why was it never attempted, or even suggested?G”d never told them not to eat of its fruit. This becomes a moot point if we accept that these “two” trees were one and the same. Source of life, source of wisdom, source of free will, source of choice, source of the knowledge of good and evil.

וַיַּצְמַח יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, כָּל-עֵץ נֶחְמָד לְמַרְאֶה, וְטוֹב לְמַאֲכָל--וְעֵץ הַחַיִּים, בְּתוֹךְ הַגָּן, וְעֵץ, הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע

And from the ground the L”rd G”d caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food, and a tree,  of the life, in the middle of the garden, and  a tree, knowledge of good and bad.

One tree, a tree of the life – of living - (i.e. the lives of human beings,) whose living requires knowledge of good and evil, coming from that same tree. One tree-One G”d. Makes sense to me.

Shabbat Shalom

©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester

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Friday, October 9, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah 5770 – Circles Can Bite You In The Tuchis

It’s not often I get (or choose ) to write about the Torah readings for Shemini Atzeret, so while I have the opportunity, I’ll take it (even though these same passages will come around as part of the regular cycle of readings.)

Part of the Torah reading, from Chapter 15 of D’varim, verse 4 starts:

4There shall be no needy among you — since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion--

Yet, just a few verses later, 15:7, we read:

7If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. 8 Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.

A clear and obvious contradiction, and not the only time it occurs in the Torah (and, more specifically, not the only time in reference to the poor.) To be fair, I’ve taken things a bit out of context. By continuing on the the next few verses of text after verse 4, we read, in verse 5:

5--if only you heed the Lord your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day. 6 For the Lord your God will bless you as He has promised you: you will extend loans to many nations, but require none yourself; you will dominate many nations, but they will not dominate you.

Now, we’ll get to verse 6 in a moment. For now, we can consider that the conditional factors stipulated in verse 5 could explain the reason why we have verse 7ff. Of course, that means that we once again have to assume that G”d (or the authors of the Torah text) are working from the assumption that it’s darned near impossible for human beings, and especially the Israelites, to keep on the straight and narrow path and follow the commandments. That, in itself, is a pretty depressing thought. O f course, we can all wait around for Moshaikh, when we’ll be perfected (or is it the other way around-when we become perfect, Moshiakh will come? If that’s the case, it’s gonna be a long wait, according to the worldview on verses 4:7 here.)

Now, let’s be fair. The context here is the sabbatical system. This is made clear in verses 9ff:

9 Beware lest you harbor the base thought, "The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching," so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will incur guilt. 10 Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. 11 For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.

Boy, if there ever was a case arguing against Hillel and his prosbul (a workaround for the remission of debts in the sabbatical year that allowed loans to be exempted from the remission of debts obligation. Hillel claimed it for for the benefit of both rich and poor. The rich knowing they could safely loan when a sabbatical was near would no longer be disinclined to do so, thus the poor person needing such a  loan would be able to get one. I still think the rich come out the winners on this one.) If anything, Hillel’s prosbul could be partly responsible for the contradictory situation in which we find ourselves and which the Torah mentions. Instead of honoring the intent to erase all debt every 7 years (and imagine a world where this were so) we get a system that allows the rich to grow richer and the poor to keep borrowing. Sound familiar to anything that’s been going on lately. Sorry Hillel, I think you blew this one.

I wonder if some rabbi even came up with a workaround for the next few verse 12:15

12 If a fellow Hebrew, man or woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall set him free. 13 When you set him free, do not let him go empty-handed: 14 Furnish him out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat, with which the Lord your God has blessed you. 15 Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today.

Maybe the closing enjoinder makes it just a bit too difficult to disregard? There’s no similar verse after verses 4-7 which says

Bear in mind that you were one poor and oppressed by capitalists in the land of Israel, and the L”rd your G”d redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today.

Hillel might have had a harder time circumventing that assertion!

Now, I promised to get back to verse 6.

6 For the Lord your God will bless you as He has promised you: you will extend loans to many nations, but require none yourself; you will dominate many nations, but they will not dominate you.

This one has caused us no end of trouble (just like the Kol Nidre prayer.) Rather prophetic, too. Also easily abused by anti-Semites and worldwide Jewish conspiracy nuts. Unfortunately, while we did wind up making many loans to nations on than our own, we didn’t quite wind up dominating them, did we? G”d’s mistake, or ours? If we had followed all the commandments as a community, might things be different today? Only G”d knows (or maybe G”d doesn’t know?)

Clearly, sacrifices ere not enough  to get G”d to forgive our failures to fully follow the commandments. We read in the special haftarah for Shemini Atzeret from I Kings, chapter 8:

62 The king and all Israel with him offered sacrifices before the Lord. 63 Solomon offered 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep as sacrifices of well-being to the Lord. Thus the king and all the Israelites dedicated the House of the Lord. 64 That day the king consecrated the center of the court that was in front of the House of the Lord. For it was there that he presented the burnt offerings, the meal offerings, and the fat parts of the offerings of well-being, because the bronze altar that was before the Lord was too small to hold the burnt offerings, the meal offerings, and the fat parts of the offerings of well-being.

Wow. I thought kings weren’t supposed to be ostentatious and overdo things. Well, maybe that doesn’t include offerings to G”d? (I think it should!) Maybe the sacrifices helped for a while, but once Solomon was gone, things went all to pieces again, and fast.

We just can’t seem to get it right. Thousands of years later and we still can’t get it right. Yet, those same thousands of years later, we’re still here, we survive, mir zenen do. So maybe it’s true:

6 For the Lord your God will bless you as He has promised you.

To paraphrase Tevye the milkman, maybe G”d should shower those blessings on someone else for a while?

In closing, allow me to commend to you some of my previous musings speficially for Simchat Torah:

Sh'mini Atzeret/Simkhat Torah 5767 - Joyful and Glad of Heart
Simchat Torah 5766--Have We Met The Ally And Is They Us?
Simchat Torah 5757-5765-Unbroken Circle (With additions for each year)
Simchat Torah 5764-Circling the Torah--A Story of Chelm
Simchat Torah 5762--Not So Fast

Moadim L’Simcha, Hag Sameakh, and Shabbat Shalom,



© 2009 by Adrian A. Durlester

All translation from the revised JPS Tanakh.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Sukkot I 5770-Fire and Rain

I have written many times about the inherent tensions in Judaism. It seems we need them to be a part of our faith, our understandings, our practices. So much so, that when there is no apparent tension, it appears the priests and rabbis sometimes sought to create them.

In the Torah reading for Sukkot, which include the biblical references to this holiday we read:

seven days you shall bring offerings by fire to the Lord
Lev 23:36

And in Num 29:12-39, we have an elongated description of the ritual sacrifices of Sukkot, and it's 70! (count 'em) 70! sacrifices. That's a lot of fire offerings.

Thus, one might view Sukkot as a holiday strongly connected with fire. Yet, if anything, it is with water that Sukkot is inextricably linked, especially through the ritual of the water libation that was performed daily in the Temple during Sukkot.

If one views Sukkot as a harvest-derived holiday, then a connection to water, and the ensuing prayers for a good rainy season, seem to connect. The rabbis, of course, go out of their way to give the practice of the water libation and Sukkot's connection to water a textual basis. The commandment to perform the water libation is derived from the oral Torah mi Sinai, and appears in the Gemara. It even attempts to link the water libation to the text of the Torah by positing three "additional letters" appearing in Numbers 29:12-39 that spell "mayim: (water.) Thus, in rabbinic tradition, it has as much basis as if the commandment appeared in the written Torah.

So here we have this tension between the need for much fire on Sukkot for the sacrifices, and the need for water for the water libation. Fire-water. Great tension.

Rabbis, modern pos'kim, and scholars have a field day with Sukkot and water. There are connections to the four species, references to water being the very source of life, etc.

So what is it that we do on Sukkot to represent either the missing fire sacrifices or the water libation? Nothing. Therein lies yet another tension. In many (but not all cases) when a Temple ritual is obviated by the Temple's destruction, the rabbis manage to find a suitable substitute. At the very least, they construct a ritual that has some small connection to what was lost.

Yet, fond as we are on Sukkot to speak about the water libation (and to a lesser degree, the 70 sacrifices requiring fire) I'll be darned if I can think of one thing we do in our modern observance of the holiday to illustrate these lost practices. Granted, the waving of the lulav can been seen as representative of the wave offerings in the Temple. Perhaps it can be seen as a substitute for the sacrifices, but it hardly seems fitting substitute for the sacrifice of a whole lot of bulls. (Perhaps the Hallel is that substitute?)

I guess, if we're Torah purists and reject the rabbinical addition of the water libation, we can view our prayers, the lulav, the sukkah itself, and the Hallel as substitutes for the sacrifices. So why haven't adherents to the rabbinic tradition sought a substitute for or a ritual connection the water libation? Why aren't we pouring out water in our Sukkot? Or, at the very least, some ritual involving pouring water over a table or something representing where we eat? I can understand why setting our sukkot on fire and then putting it out with water never became a practice, but there must be some way we can bring symbols for the fire sacrifices and the water libation back in our Sukkot practice.

As Jews, we need tension in our beliefs and practices. Sukkot has some-the tension of "partial" shelter is one. I think Sukkot needs a few more poles of tension.

So that's my challenge to all of you, my creative friends, for this hag. Can we find a way to bring fire and water into our Sukkot celebrations? It's gonna be a hot and cold time in the old town tonight.

Before I close, an interesting side note. Of course, the title of this musing had me singing the old Jame's Taylor song, "Fire and Rain." In it, he sings:

I've seen fire and I've seen rain.
I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end...

and in the haftarah for Sukkot I, from Zechariah, we read:

In that day, there shall be neither sunlight or cold moonlight, but there shall be a continuous day--only the L"rd knows when--of neither day nor night, and there shall be light at eventide. (Zech. 14:6)

And, of course, we can always take the next two lines of the song as metaphor for our relationship with the Divine:

I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I'd see you again

Of course, we'll ignore the second verse about that Jewish carpenter guy lookin' down on him. Or that the song is about the death of a friend, Taylor's addictions, and his treatment for that. (And not, as the urban legend goes, about some mythical girlfriend who died in a  plane crash - see

In yet another odd connection, the haftarah speaks of a time when

fresh water shall flow from Jerusalem, part of it to the Eastern Sea and part to the Western Sea, throughout the summer and winter. (Zech. 14:8)

This lovely passage is followed by the well known

bayom hahu y'hiyeh Ad"onai ekhad, ush'mo ekhad - On that day G"d shall be One and G"d's name shall be One. (Zech 14:9)

And I couldn't think of a better place to stop.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameakh,

©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester