Friday, March 19, 2010

Random Musing before Shabbat – Vayikra 5770-You Can Fool Most of the people Most of the Time

With so many rules to follow, it’s no wonder that G“d expects people to make mistakes. What mere human can keep track of all those rules? And where there’s opportunity, other people will swoop in to take advantage. Perhaps that wasn’t G’d’s intention. Perhaps that wasn’t the Torah’s intention (though I find that a harder idea to accept, considering that we can be reasonably certain the text has been redacted by folks with an agenda, or at least a proprietary interest.

So here we have this whole system of making expiation for the inadvertent or unknowing commission of a transgression of the rules. It’s puzzling enough why we have this whole book of the Torah that’s basically a priest’s manual. (One of the nicer whitewash explanations of this is one suggested by Baruch Levine in the Etz Hayim commentary. It’s the idea that inclusion of this book of priestly secrets puts the power in the hands of all the people, thereby limiting priestly power, and fulfilling the idea that Israel was to be a nation of priests. It’s a nice thought, and, as apologetics go, not a bad attempt. Nevertheless, I find it an unsatisfactory explanation, as this book of priestly secretes was difficult enough to make sense of for the priests, let alone the common people.)

Some weeks back, I wrote about Moshe having a conversation with G”d about doing something for Aharon. In this fictional account, Moses, unhappy that he himself will reap much reward from his servant leadership, at least wants to see his mispacha and their descendants get something. G”d then offers to create a hereditary priesthood with Aharon at the top. Moshe isn’t too keen on the idea, but when G”d offers a gift, you don’t refuse it.

Now, let’s take pick up the story line. Having created this hereditary priesthood, G”d needs to insure its stability and status. So we get a whole bunch of laws, and a whole bunch of rituals to go along with them. First and foremost among these rituals are the ones for what to o when you inadvertently break one of those rules. Seems like a workable plan, G”d.

G”d does like a little balance, though, so has to think out the inherent dangers in the system being created. Don’t want to give the priests too much power. So G”d arranges for the priests to have all the knowledge of the laws and rituals, but later on arranges for them to have no land of their own, making them completely dependent on the good will of the people to provide for them. To be sure, the sacrificial system is designed to insure that the priests get the sustenance. Given the natural tendency of people to not so willingly share what belongs to them, it’s no wonder that over time the priests had to clamp down on things. In fact, this trend could have started pretty early.

Nadav: Hey, Avihu, are you as hungry as I am?
Avihu: Sure thing, my brother. That last round of sacrifices just didn’t do it for me.
Nadav: Or for me. Hey, I have an idea.
Avihu: What?
Nadav: Let’s go tell Nachshon’s dad Aminadav over there that he transgressed a law and needs to make another sacrifice.
Avihu: What law did he break?
Nadav: I don’t know.  Does it matter? There are so many, nobody knows them all, not even us. I’ll just make something up.
Avihu: You think you can get away with that? Won’t "you-know-who” know what you’re doing?
Nadav: You really believe all the stuff uncle Moshe says, don’t you?
Avihu: Hey-you were there and heard the thunder and the booming voice just like we all did.
Nadav: I saw some fancy show, but I’m not so sure who the producer was. Even those crappy Egyptian magicians do some pretty fancy special effects.
Avihu: I don’t know, brother. Someday you’re going to get us both into a lot of trouble.
Nadav: Stick with me, bro. It’ll be fine. We’ll tell Aminadav that he, uh, forgot to, uh, adjust his holy framistat properly, and he has to sacrifice a cow.
Avihu: I prefer lamb. Can we make it a sheep?
Nadav: OK, a sheep then. And  afterwards, we’ll have some nice wine, and maybe offer up an extra sacrifice to the invisible G”d up there.
Avihu: I guess a little extra sacrifice never hurt anyone.

Well, we all know how that turned out.

So maybe the book of Vayikra is in the canon for the reasons Levine suggested – as a leveling agent. Or maybe it’s there to solidify the power of and back up the hereditary priesthood. Better yet, it’s a sly trick. It’s meant to give the impression of equalization – giving all the people access to the priestly rules. Yet it’s so complicated no one can really understand it, so the priests (who at least can pretend to understand it) still have the upper hand. Sometimes the p’shat explanation really is the best.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Two Cents Plain (or Tell Health Insurance Companies to Go Fly a Kite)

Today in the mail I received an invoice from a health insurance carrier. I had discontinued that coverage a while back, and I guess their paperwork was finally catching up. I had already received two invoices from them for regular monthly payments even after the policy had been cancelled. Guess they finally got that straightened out, after wasting paper and postage and human power to send out two meaningless invoices.

The invoice I received today, identified as a “washout” under “billing method” was for – get this ---  $0.02! Yes, you got that-it was an invoice for two cents.

I’m sure the cost of paper, printing, and human power to send me an invoice for two cents is far more than two cents.  And the Republicans and others say we’re supposed to trust the health insurance industry to police itself and fix things?

With idiocy like this, it’s no wonder that health care insurance costs are skyrocketing.

Now, I’ve heard all the apologetics. “The systems are so automated now, that it’s actually simpler and cheaper to just let me create meaningless paperwork.” We just don’t have enough staff to keep up with the volume.” “If we write off everybody’s two cents, it soon adds up.” Sorry, I’m not buying any of the excuses.

If the software that creates and prepares these invoices isn’t up to the task – fix it or replace it. If it’s too complicated to deal with small changes like this – fix it or replace it! If you don’t have enough personnel to deal with the volume, hire more. And I am certain you’ve spent more billing people for two cents than you’ll take in, so forget that explanation.

I’m a tech type and a geek. I love to use technology. However, the technology must always be our tool, and not our masters. These sorts of issues sound like we’re letting the software tell us how to do things. Down that path lies the sort of future envisioned in Battlestar Galactica. Let’s not go there.

I hope the folks at the health insurance company have fun with the two pennies I’ve taped to the return slip and sent back to them. Maybe they’ll follow the advice of old man Dawes from Mary Poppins, and invest their “tuppence” in the bank. If they’re smarter, they’ll learn, as even old man Dawes did in Mary Poppins, that instead of worrying about two cents, they’re better of flying a kite. Go fly a kite, health insurance companies!

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Friday, March 12, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Vayakhel-Pekudei 5770 – Corroborative Detail

This being Shabbat HaHodesh, we read a special haftarah, from near the end of the book of Ezekiel. Though part of the Hebrew canon, one can hardly consider Ezekiel’s writings, especially those in the last 9 chapters or so, as normative or mainstream. In it, we receive Ezekiel’s vision of a restored Temple. They are difficult to understand at best, and clearly conflicting with Torah at worst.

The book is dated, primarily, to the time of the Babylonian exile, so perhaps Ezekiel was sharing a vision of what the restored “second” Temple would be. Yet Ezekiel’s vision is so at odds with what other sources (notably the Torah, inasmuch as one can consider it as referring to any fixed Temple in Jerusalem at all-an viewpoint which is not entirely clear at all, except perhaps in redactive hints added to the text once the first Temple and priestly cult were a reality) that  scholars have always struggled with it.

Some prefer to  interpret Ezekiel’s vision of that of the yet-to-come “Third Temple.” As we know, there are those today who labor tirelessly to prepare for that eventuality. Having written papers on this topic for my graduate work, I can tell you that I find most of these “Third Temple” movements quite scary. In addition, so many of them have ties with right-wing fundamentalist Xtian groups that are trying to help bring about the “Third Temple” so that it might pave the way for the final battle and the second coming and the rapture and all that (yes, I know I’m conflating some very different Xtian theologies.) Fundamentalist farmers in Montana working with pious Jews in Jerusalem to breed a perfect red heifer, for example.

If you can say anything definite about Ezekiel’s vision of a Temple, be it second or third, it is that his descriptions are detailed to a fault. Things are so well thought out that there are even traffic patterns for worshippers (those who go in the south gate come out the north, and vice versa.)

Such detail is often a literary device. It creates a certain amount of verisimilitude by providing detail. This makes the text all the more palatable and believable for the people, at least in those times. In our own times, this level of detail only seems to make things worse. How ironic that in our times, we seem to want more left to the imagination – yet our airwaves are full of reality shows, films that depict things in graphic detail, etc.

Providing detail is great, but detail can also trip you up. My favorite example of this has always been from the NBC sitcom “Family Ties” with Michael J. Fox as the erstwhile Republican-leaning teen in a family headed by a liberal public television employee. Set decorators on TV programs often strive for reality-and they have gotten a lot better at it over the years. Sometimes, they just get things wrong (or perhaps their directors, producers, or actors insist on a change over which they have no control.) Whatever the reason – perhaps larger sizes were too awkward to handle – the fridge on Family Ties was always stocked with one-quart containers of milk. I just can’t imagine any household with that size family (was it five, I forget) in those days that actually bought milk in quarts. Half-gallons or gallons maybe, but quarts? Liberal, environmentally-conscious parents buying quarts of milk?

Ezekiel’s level of detail trips him up as well. His detail includes things that contravene Torah and other sources. Corroborative detail is something that can come back to bite you in the tukhis. That is probably why, in Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Mikado” Lord High Executioner Koko bristles at the corroborative detail his compatriots supply to the Emperor in describing the fictitious beheading of Prince Nanki-Poo in the song “The Criminal Cried…” There can be too much of a good thing.

I know. I’m ridiculously verbose. I’m prone, like Ezekiel, to provide ridiculous levels of detail, to consider every nugget of possibility in arguments and situations, etc. Invariably, they trip me up. There’s a lot to be said for “Keep it simple, stupid!”

Yet one wonders, if Ezekiel had “kept it simple” if his vision would have made it into the canon, and if we would still be discussing it today?

Simplicity or verisimilitude? Something to ponder this Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, March 5, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Ki Tisa 5770 - A Fickle Pickle

To paraphrase the song from Finnian's Rainbow, "When I'm Not Near The G"d I Love...I Love The G"d I'm Near"

We are so fickle. When things are going our way, we embrace the things we believe in. When things aren't going our way, we eschew the things we believe in and seek new things to embrace. It's a condition that I fear humanity will never outgrow. In fact, the condition grows worse over time. So many in this world live so much better lives than others, yet, rather than count themselves lucky, jump on the merest of inconveniences as an excuse to be fickle in their beliefs.

If I learn anything from parashat Ki Tisa, it is not to worry so much about being fickle. G"d certainly doesn't like us to be fickle, and almost destroyed us as a result. Yet Moshe was able to appeals to G"d's vanity (what a human thing to do) and not only convince G”d to stay G"d's wrath, but shortly after, to go forth in the midst of the very Israelites G"d had recently threatened to destroy utterly. Not a bad trick. Speaks well of Moshe's cunning, and not so well of G"d, I'm afraid.

I also learn not to worry about my own fickleness when I consider Aharon. Aharon, that G"d makes high priest, and creates a priestly dynasty of his lineage, is swayed by the people to build the golden calf.  Then he tries to lie his way out of it (see Ex. 32:24.) To paraphrase, Aharon says "Hey, they asked me to make a G"d, so I collected their earrings and melted them down and voila, out popped an idol." Right. Tells us another one, Aharon.

After all this, Aharon still gets to be high priest, and father of a hereditary priesthood. If G"d can overlook Aharon's being fickle, then why not mine or yours? The Torah and the rest of Tanakh are replete with stories of how fickle a people we are.  We kept asherot (the Levantine equivalent of a totem pole, for lack of a better analogy)in our yards. As the haftarah for parashat Ki Tisa tells, we were easily swayed by the Ba'alim. (And just as easily swayed back to the G"d of Israel by Elijah's parlor tricks.)

Remember how Yaakov said that "if You see me safely on my journey, then You will be my G"d"? Fickle.

Must belief be constant to be valid? Surely not. We doubt all the time. We're that "struggle with G"d" people. It's only natural for us to be fickle.

Yet, just as this parasha perhaps gives us some leeway to be fickle, it also warns us against this very nature of ours. We are not follow or become ensnared by the beliefs of those with whom we come into contact (in this particular case, when we set out to take their lands away from them. Just thought I'd mention that.)

Ki Tisa does try and teach us that there is a right way to worship and a wrong way. The wrong way is to follow the beliefs and customs of others. The right way is to follow the commandments and observe the festivals and rituals as laid out in Ex. 34:18-26.

G"d acknowledges that we are fickle, that this is a flaw in our makeup (and, if G"d created us, whose fault is that?) G"d figures that perhaps previous admonitions weren't specific enough, since the people went and asked for the golden calf to be made, and then proceeded to worship it. So here (Ex. 34:10-26) G"d gets more specific. Perhaps it's an attempt to warn us to guard against our fickle natures.

Now let's consider the irony. So much of Jewish history, particularly in the rabbinic period, is all about finding loopholes. First, the rabbis develop this system for clarifying the halakha. Then they find the workarounds (remember Hillel's "prosbul?") By creating such a strict and rigid system of halakha, we set ourselves up for trouble, because we know of our own fickle natures. So we find ways to bend the rules and live with our fickle selves. what a fine pickle we've gotten ourselves into with all of this. Yes, by reinventing Judaism, the rabbis saved it. At the same time, they created a monster. I'll admit it was a pretty good system -- after all, it's only in recent history, after two millennia had past, that the most serious cracks and chinks began to develop in fence that the rabbis had drawn around the Torah. A system that works for 2000 years is not something to simply chuck away with complete disregard. Yet this system is ill-equipped to deal with the exploding size of our fickle natures. The easier and better our lives get, the more fickle we become. We become emboldened. We outgrow our need for G"d, or so we believe. Until things go wrong. The old adage about there not being atheists in foxholes has a strong element of truth to it.

G"d seems willing, in the end, to forgive and put up with our fickle natures (perhaps in part, because G"d feels some responsibility for that.) So let's not beat ourselves up, and worry about being in a fickle pickle all the time. Cherish your inconsistencies. They make you human. After all, G"d, as described in our tradition, is also fickle and full of inconsistencies.  Once again, we are b'tzelem Elokim (in the image of G"d) and G"d is b'tzelem anashim (in the image of humanity.)

My suggestion for this Shabbat - worry more about your favorite kind of pickle, than about being fickle. Isn't that a dilly. (Sorry.) Don't be sour with me. (Sorry again.) Just barrel on through. (Sorry yet again.)  Time to go now and welcome the bride of Shabbat. (Ooh, that one was really bad. I'll stop now.)

Shabbat Shalom,

©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester