Friday, July 30, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Ekev 5760 –For the Good Planet

In this week’s parasha, we read the underpinnings of the prayer we know as birkat hamazon, the blessing for food recited after the meal. The profound logic of the rabbis is unmistakable – they truly understood human nature – that we are more apt to pray when hungry than when sated.  We recite short blessings before we consume food, but it is after we eat that we bless G”d as the Torah instructs in this parasha:

וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ--וּבֵרַכְתָּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, עַל-הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לָךְ.

V’akhalta, v’savata-u’v’rakhta et Ad”nai El”hekha,
You shall eat and be satisfied, and bless Ad”nai, your G”d for the good land which was given to you.

The actual Birkat HaMazon that was constructed based on these verse is an extensive blessing that covers a wide range of things for which should give thanks to G”d. (While most Reform Jews generally recite a condensed version of the full Birkat HaMazon, it’s still a much longer blessing than those recited before eating. As an aside, that’s been one of my pet peeves at camp this summer. I can recall, the last time I worked at camp, that, at least once on Shabbat, the full Birkat HaMazon was recited. Seems even that tradition is gone and we’re left with only the “Birkat HaMazon Reformi” as I have come to call it. Sure, there’s troubling text in the full Birkat, yet, just as “m’khayei hameitim” has been restored as an option in the new Reform Mishkan T’filah siddur, surely our children need to know the full text before they can mindfully choose what to include and what to exclude.)

In recent years, there have been attempts to reduce the Birkat HaMazon to its essence of “v’alkhata, v’savata-u’v’rakhta.” (There already exists an abridged Birkat in an Aramaic rabbinic formulation known as the “b’rirkh Rakhamana” to be used in emergency situations.) There’s only one problem in doing this – we neglect the remainder of the verse of Torah. It is for the “good land” that we offer the blessing.

The Torah is clearly referring to the promised land. However, we do not have to be beholden to such a limited understanding. The “good land” might just as well be the “good planet.” It is truly a miracle that this planet has all that we need to sustain ourselves. Unfortunately, this bounty has a tendency to make us lazy and less caring. We figure there’s always more than we need. We are quickly discovering that this is only true if we take proper care of the natural balance of this good planet.

It is also an unfortunate reality that this planet’s bounty is not equitably distributed. If there is reason to seek true world peace, this is it. After all, this inequitable distribution is responsible for a lot of the wars, conflicts, and problems we experience as a species.

At first I thought that perhaps we needed to add another piece to the original Torah text that calls upon us not to just eat, be sated, and bless, but to also share that blessing. Then I realize that, in a way, this is already in the text of the verse – in the neglected “for the good land that has been given to you.” We need to rethink our understanding of these words, and of the Birkat HaMazon, to be sure to remind us of the necessity of sharing the blessings. As we say at Pesakh, let all who are hungry come and eat. would that we made these words a daily reality for all.

Ken y’hi ratson. Ken y’hi ratsoneinu.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

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Friday, July 23, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Va’etkhanan/Shabbat Nakhamu 5770


New musings are on a short inconsistent hiatus while I'm at camp. Some weeks I can find the time, others not. This is one of those "not" weeks.

It has been a tradition over the years to send out my musing "The Promise" every year for parashat Va'etkhanan. As it is also Shabbat Nakhamu, I'll start first with a musing from a few years back for Shabbat Nakhamu. I wish you are yours a shabbat shalom - Adrian

Random Musings Before Shabbat-Va'etkhanan--Shabbat Nakhamu 5764--Mah Ekra?

Our solemn day of mourning, Tisha B'Av, is over, and the rabbis cleverly present us with this first Shabbat of Consolation, Shabbat Nachamu, taken from the opening words of the haftarah from Isaiah 40:1-26:

Nakhamu, nakhamu ami, yomar El"hekhem.
Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your G"d.

This passage from Isaiah is replete with well worn quotations. But this year (5764) in reading the passage again, a phrase I had often overlooked before caught my attention:

Kol omeir k'ra, v'amar mah ekra

A voice rings our: "Proclaim!"
Another asks, "What shall I proclaim?" (Isaiah 40:6a)

Isaiah goes on to provide an answer to this question. And it is not an unexpected answer. Yet it is one that bears repeating over and over, for I submit that we have, indeed, lost our perspective over time (and lost our perspective in time.)

In today's world, we're more likely to proclaim our great achievements. Civilization, medicine, science, and more.  Each nation proclaims for itself those things it holds dear. Nazi Germany proclaimed Aryan superiority. The Soviet Union proclaimed the virtues of communism. Yet because this country has outlived those two historical developments, we proclaim our triumph over them.

Religions proclaim their superiority. Some within the Christian community still proclaim supercessionism. Some with the Islamic community proclaim its supercessionism. Judaism proclaims its longevity and endurance.Yet, whether we measure in decades, centuries, or millennia, our perspective remains localized in what is a rather insignificant period of time consider the age of the Universe. And even more so considering the perspective of a Divine presence that, at least according to Jewish tradition, was around before the universe came into being, and will be there after it is gone.

The lesson Isaiah teaches us is one we find repeated many centuries later in Shelley's poem "Ozymandias". Here's what the great and powerful Ozymandias proclaimed:

"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

Yet all that is left of this once mighty person are mere ruins, in a vast wasteland.

If we have the same hubris, the same haughtiness, then Ozymandias' legacy might be our own.

Perhaps we should heed the words of Isaiah, who answers the question "What shall I proclaim?" thus:

"All flesh is grass,
All its goodness like the flowers of the field.
Grass withers, flowers fade
When the breath of the L"rd blows upon them.
Indeed, man is but grass.

Grass withers, flowers fade--
But the word of our G"d is always fulfilled!" (Is. 6b-8)

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) for us, G"d fulfills in G"d's time.

Isaiah continues to drive home the point in subsequent verses.

"The nations are but a drop in a bucket..." 40:15

"He brings potentates to naught,
Makes rulers of the earth as nothing..." 40:23

Yet, some ask "Where is G"d today? What has G"d done for us recently? Where is G"d's compassion, G"d's love, G"d's miracles? Why should I proclaim G"d? Perhaps I should proclaim the death of G"d, or the non-existence of G"d"

Sadly, more and more these days espouse that viewpoint. And even more sadly, more and more of us refute these proclamations with the weak and hackneyed fallback on G"d's ineffability. The "Job" answer. Where were we when G"d fashioned the earth?

Others argue that the "our perspective of time is limited" apology is no better than ineffability.

If we are true believers, then we must confront these challenges rather than side-stepping them.

In this post-Shoah, post Hiroshima, post 9-11 world, we need more than ever to proclaim G"d and heed G"d's messages to us. The world needs to heal, to get past the conditions that allowed the Shoah and other atrocities to occur--our response to the religious and ethical failures that underlie these horrible events should not be a rejection
of faith, but an embracing of those very ethics that had to have been rejected or ignored for them to occur. (An argument I gleaned from the words of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg.)

What are you going to proclaim?

Shabbat Shalom,

  ©2010, portions ©2003 by Adrian A. Durlester

And now, as promised, "The Promise."

Random Musings Before Shabbat- Va'etkhanan - Redux 5759ff:

The Promise

What a stunning prediction. If we don't keep G"d's commandments we shall be scattered among the nations, there to serve man-mad gods of wood and stone. (Silica isn't exactly stone, but I wonder if the computer gods we are serving kind of fit that description?) D'varim 4:26-28

And here we are. We didn't keep the commandments. Now we are scattered among the nations. And we serve man made G"ds of wood and stone. Oh yes, we keep the ancient faith alive as best we can, but I sometimes wonder if even the most pious among us are meeting the ethical and moral standards set forth in G"d's commandments?

What a depressing scenario-what a depressing situation for us. But the answer is right there in the following verses (29-31.) Even if we search for G"d in the midst of our scattered lives, we can find G"d. For G"d will keep the promises, G"d is compassionate and will not fail us.

I don't know about you, but when I look about the world today, and consider all the horrible mess we have created, keeping these verses in mind is almost a pre-requisite to being able to cope. Now, some will claim that G"d has abandoned us, that G"d no longer responds to our searching. To them I would remind them of the second half of v. 29, which tells us that G"d can be found even in the midst of our diaspora, but only if we seek with all our heart and soul.

I am reminded of a discussion we had one night on Erev Tisha b'Av. The question was raised, as it often is, why we modern liberal Jews would mourn the loss of the Beit haMikdash when indeed it was that very event that precipitated the formation of portable Judaism, rabbinic Judaism, that has enabled us to survive all these years in galut. Before the Beit haMikdash was destroyed (both times) G"d sent us prophets to warn us that if we didn't get our act together, we'd lose out. Both times we ignored the warning and suffered the consequences. And here we are, almost two millenia later, and we're still not getting it. And so we rail that G"d has abandoned us, when it reality it may be we who have abandoned G"d. Despite all the tragic events, the persecutions, we're still around. If we're not finding G"d amidst all this, we're just not looking hard enough.

We mourn the loss of the Beit haMikdash to remind ourselves of the folly of our still failing to heed the message. And to remind us to look for G"d, even among the ruins of what once was. This anamnetical connection with our history keeps the message ever fresh in our minds.

I am also reminded of mass e-mail that was forwarded to me some years back, entitled "Letter of Intent," a whimsical piece in which the Jews explain why they are not planning to renew the covenant with G"d. It goes into a whole litany of complaints. I wrote the following response to those who forwarded the piece on to me:

"You know what's wrong with this whimsical piece? It completely ignores the fact that, despite our perceptions that G"d has not kept up one end of the bargain, that we have done far worse at keeping ours, and that despite that--we're still here!!! If that's not G"d watching over us, I don't know what is, and renouncing our covenant is sheer folly, and certain to lead to the end of even the remnant that remains of the Jewish people. We didn't listen to the prophets, and we're still not listening. Yet, somehow, mir zenen doh. When, if ever,
we actually try to do the things that G"d wants us to do, at least most of the time, and we're still put upon, tortured, killed, etc., then maybe we have a right to complain. But I don't think we've earned that quite yet.

Torah tells us that G"d is always there for us to find--if we search in the right way-with all our heart and soul.

This Shabbat, seek with all your heart and soul. G"d is there waiting to be found. Even if you have already found G"d in your life, seek deeper.

Shabbat Shalom,


©, 2010 by Adrian A. Durlester Portions ©1999 2001, 2002, 2007 & 2008 by Adrian A. Durlester

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Friday, July 9, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Matot-Masei 5770 – Treasure Trove of Trouble

Here at camp, I was recently asked to lead a series of sichot, conversations, with older campers. I chose as my topic troubling texts, though I gave it the racier and more appealing title of “Torah Say What?! Yeah, It Went There!”

There is no shortage of troubling texts in our tradition to examine and discuss, but the timing with this week’s parasha, Matot-Masei presents me with one of the richest sources of problematic texts one can find, all within a few chapters.

Matot begins with those lovely instructions that require men to keep vows, but largely make women’s vows subject to disavowal by their husbands (or fathers.) That’s Chapter 30.

Chapter 31 begins with G”d saying to Moshe

Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites. (31:2a)

Today, when we learn of people who hear voices telling them to kill, we’re a little more suspect. This is a G”d we can believe in? One who tells us to avenge ourselves?

The chosen Israelites go out and slay the Midianites – but only the men – and bring back lots of spoils and booty. Moshe berates them for sparing the women and children. He tells them to go back and kill the rest, sparing only young women who are virgins. It’s not at all clear what they intended to do with all those young women, but one can hesitate a guess, and it’s not a pretty one.

Next, the Gadites and Reubenites plead to be allowed to posses land on the east side of the Jordan, it being better pasture land for all their cattle. Moshe doesn’t even check with G”d first, but authorizes the decision to give away land not technically among the parcels originally promised. In exchange for this largesse, Moshe makes the Gadites and Reubenites promise that all their available men will go and fight to conquer the people inhabiting the lands on the other side of the Jordan. Sure, we can bend G”d’s promises a little if you agree to help us commit a genocide against the people living in Canaan. If that’s not a troubling text…

(Interestingly, later in the parasha, there is yet another definition of the boundaries of the promised land. It draws the eastern boundary at the Jordan, thus theoretically leaving the Gadites and Reubenites on the other side.)

Yes, there’s the redeeming concept of cities of refuge yet we must consider that allowing for cities of refuge is tantamount to acknowledging and accepting bloodguilt and honor killings. Oy.

Finally, in an attempt to squeeze in one last bit of misogyny, we have the directive to the daughter’s of Zelophakhad that they must marry into their own clan so that the property that they have now inherited by Divine decree will remain within the same ancestral clan. They get to inherit, but their choice of marriage partners is limited – this far and no farther say the men. There’s still a glass ceiling.

In my sichot, we are discussing ways that people can deal with troubling texts. Each person must come to their own understanding of how to do so. All of us are going to need to do that this Shabbat, for Torah has presented us with a real treasure trove of trouble.


Shabbat Shalom,

©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

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Friday, July 2, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Pinkhas 5770 – Thanking Those Who Didn’t Make It

A huge multitude was came out of Egypt by the hand of G”d and led by Moses. Fearful, still unable to cast of the mindset of slaves, they look upon the peoples of the land G”d says they are to occupy and see them as giants. For this lack of faith, they are denied the chance to go into the good land. At least their children were to inherit, and we inherit as well, lo these many generations past.

Yet I cannot remained unmoved when I read in this week’s parasha, Pinkhas, that, after a census was taken of all present:

63 These are the persons enrolled by Moses and Eleazar the priest who registered the Israelites on the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho. 64 Among these there was not one of those enrolled by Moses and Aaron the priest when they recorded the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai. 65 For the Lord had said of them, "They shall die in the wilderness." Not one of them survived, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. (JPS)

None of them, save Caleb and Joshua (and of course, Moses, who would not, however, get to enter the promised land for his own shortcomings.) Such a casual mention, these many thousands of people, who gave their lives in the wilderness so that we might  live. Perhaps not the sort of heroic sacrifice or even a martyr’s death we might find worthy of remembrance, so it’s easy to overlook. Some died in minor conflicts and skirmishes, to be sure, but most probably died a natural death.

Why should we think of them, remember them, even revere them? After all, it’s  not like they had to fight their way out of Egypt. G”d did the work, and even disposed the Egyptians to allow the Israelites to loot and plunder and their way out. When threatened with certain death at the Yam Suf, G”d provided yet another miracle.

Yet something calls out to me to reflect on these countless thousands of Israelites who made it out of Egypt but never made it to Canaan. In a strange sort of way, we wouldn’t be here without them.

I hope you will join me in reflecting on these thousands, a few named, most nameless, and thank them for simply living on, even when the promise of entering the good land was taken from them. They did not turn back, they did not give up. Oh sure, they argued and bickered a bit, but then again, that is our nature.

So, whatever their number, be it 600,000, or more, or even substantially less – to all those who came out of Egypt to the promise of freedom, and tasted only the freedom of the wilderness and years of nomadic wandering, I say thanks.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

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