Friday, November 26, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Vayeishev 5771-Ma T’vakeish?

I don’t always remember what I have written about for a given parasha, so it always behooves me to look over prior years’ musings before I undertake the task of assembling a new one.  I suppose it should not surprise me that I can have an interesting new insight without realizing I may have had that same insight before. It also sometimes happens that I have an insight that contradicts a previous one.

So this week, as I was reading the parasha, I kept coming back to the same place – the mysterious man who encounters Yosef in the field and tells him that his brothers have left the area and gone to Dothan. I found myself all excited at the idea of discussing how this one chance (?) encounter turned the tide of a story. I was excited to discuss the potential nature of the encounter as either random chance, or Divine guidance, or perhaps both or none of the above.

I found myself thinking about all those chance encounters we have in our lives, and how sometimes they really do lead us into different paths and experiences. I know I have experienced such moments-times when people, both strangers and friends, have told me or showed me something which, when I look back at them, did change the course of my life-sometimes in small ways, and sometimes in very big ways. I found myself thinking about how we ought to be open to those moments, and grateful for them as well.

Then I read my musing on parashat Vayeishev for 5766 – Who Was That Guy. In reading it, I realize that the insight I had for that musing was, in many ways, far deeper and more meaningful than the one I was having now. So, while I still commend to you the idea of being aware of the potential for the significant effects of seemingly insignificant situations, I commend to you even more the lesson I drew from these verses 5 years earlier. For when I ask myself the question that this previous musing commends us to ask, I recognize those earlier words as being more of an answer to that question than my thoughts at this time. Ma t’vakeish?

Random Musings Before Shabbat - Vayeishev 5766

Who Was That Guy?

So Yaakov/Israel gives his favorite son Yosef this really cool coat. (We've been over the bad parenting technique thing before, so we'll skip that.) Yosef then proceeds to further alienate his brothers by describing these dreams in which they all bow down to him. Even Yaakov/Israel is a little put off when Yosef's second dream also includes his parents bowing down to him along with the brothers. And, as the text tells us, Yaakov "shamar et hadavar" - he remembered this thing, he kept it in mind.

And the next thing you know, he's sending Yosef out to check on his brothers who are out pasturing the flock. Can't help but wonder if there's a connection with the previous verse.  Was Yaakov hoping to see Yosef get a little comeuppance from his brothers? Was it all a set up? All interesting things to explore, but again, I'm going somewhere else today.

So Yosef reaches the fields near Shechem and before he even has a chance to discover that his brothers aren't around, "Vayimtza'eihu ish, v'hinei to'eh b'sadeh, vayyishaleihu ha-ish leimor mah-t'vakeish." "a man came upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him 'what are you seeking?' "

Yosef respond that he is looking for his brother, and wonders if the man knows where they are. The man answers that they brothers have gone from this place but he heard them talk about going to Dothan. And so Yosef heads to Dothan, where his brothers spy him coming, and proceed to throw him in a pit. And he gets sold. And he winds up in Egypt. And he serves Potiphar. And he won't dally with Mrs.. Potiphar, so she screams "rape" and Yosef is put in prison. G"d favors Yosef even in prison and he manages to thrive. He correctly interprets the dreams of the cupbearer and the baker. Yadda, yadda, yadda. And we wind up in Egypt and we get freed from Egypt and get the Torah and yadda, yadda, yadda.

All on account of this one man.  Possibly. Yosef, having not found his brothers, could have given up and gone home. Then again, knowing as we do that all of this was part of G"d's divine plan, when G"d was yet again thwarted by this free will thing, I doubt G"d would have given up, and still somehow have managed to make the whole darn series of events happen. So, while some rabbis and scholars like to think of this man, this ish, as crucial to the story, suggesting perhaps the man is an angel or other divine messenger/steward, he might no be so essential to the story--it just might have turned out a little different. Would the butterfly effect have ensued? How different would Judaism be today as a result? Hard to predict or even know. And if it really all was part of some grand design, G"d could have tweaked things as necessary.

No, his being essential to the story is not what matters to me, or what intrigues me. What has me thinking are those simple words he said to Yosef- "mah t'vakeish?" What are you looking for? Seeking? Searching for? He could have said "Whom are you seeking?" but no, he said "what." What are you looking for, searching for, seeking?

And is that not the essential question that all spiritual seekers must ultimately confront? If this ish, this man, is truly some sort of angel or divine messenger, then might not this question be of greater import than it might appear in the context of the story?  It is said that we should take the entire Torah as context. This being so, perhaps these is the most significant two words in all of the Torah. Can we even begin to unravel the meanings of all the rest of the Torah until we know what it is that we are looking for?

Of that I am not certain, for sometimes the true learning form Torah comes from the serendipitous, or in those moments when we shed our preconceptions, our desire to know what it is we are seeking and allow ourselves to be led down another path that might eventually alter the answer to that very question.

Talk about the power of words. Two little words. Mah-t'vakeish. I could easily spend the rest of my life thinking about them. I know they will occupy my Shabbat, and perhaps yours as well.


Shabbat Shalom,


©2010, portions ©2005 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, November 19, 2010

Random Musings Before Shabbat-Vayishlakh 5771 (Redux 5763) – The Bigger Man

Who is the bigger man-Ya'akov or Esav? It's an interesting question. I
have argued on occasion, even recently, that Esav deserves credit for not pursuing his brother to kill him, and for attempting to please his parents by taking additional wives from among his own kinsfolk.

And now, here in Vayishlakh, we see Esav being quite reasonable,
courteous, even loving to his brother, Ya'akov-that same brother who had stolen his birthright and his blessing in a dishonorable manner.

Yet, I believe there is a notable distinction between Esav's form of
t'shuva and Ya'akov's form of t'shuva.

Ya'akov has had two recent encounters with G"d, one in his dream of a sulam (ladder) and his late-night wrestling match. Ya'akov now has a rather keen awareness of G"d. Ya'akov is not the same man who once said to G"d "if you protect and see my safely on my journey, then you will be my G"d." He is now the man Israel/Ya'akov, who has had intimate interactions with G"d.

He's still a little afraid and worried about what Esav might do to him,
so Ya'akov's faith in G"d is by no mean's perfect. Yet G"d is surely part of Ya'akov's life now. Even so, Ya'akov does his better to butter up Esav with gifts and a show of force.

In classic fashion, Esav at first politely refuses Ya'akov's gifts.
"Yesh li rav akhi," he says. "I have much, my brother." "Y'hi lekha
asher-lakh." "Let what is yours be yours."

Now let's examine the exchange a few verses earlier. Esav asks Ya'akov who the women and children accompanying him are. Ya'akov answers "hayeladim asher-khanan Elokim et-avdekha." "The children with whom G"d has graced your servant."

After their encounter, Ya'akov goes on to erect an altar to G"d in
Shechem. Yet, strangely absent from any of Esav's comments are any
reference to G"d. Esav seems content that he has gotten wealthy and a good life. Yet Esav does not seem to recognize the source of this.

Esav has come to terms with the realities of his life, has grown fat and prosperous, yet seems to not include G"d in the equation. So, in a secular humanistic sort of way, we can praise Esav for being a big man, for not taking revenge on his brother, and welcoming him back with some warmth. Not really all that much of a transformation then, is it? Esav just seems to have acted reasonably, and not out of any deep convictions or faith. Not much different from how Esav acted in his youth. He was, after all, the eldest son of a man blessed by G"d, part of a lineage that G"d had promised to make successful and long-lived. Yet Esav seems to have done little to even try to play that part.

Now, in his youth, Ya'akov wasn't much better. He was deceitful. He
played "you scratch my back I'll scratch yours" with G"d. Now, however, G"d seems to be a part of Ya'akov's life. And Ya'akov is acknowledging G"d, the G"d he recognized as being in the place where he dreamed of the ladder. The G"d he recognizes as being part of who he is and his successes.

Ya'akov isn't perfect. And his relationship with G"d, his faith in G"d is
not perfect either. We can surely infer this from the way in which his
two names Ya'akov and Yisrael continue to both be used in the text. And from his wrist-slapping of his sons for what they do to the good people of Shechem in defending the "honor" of their sister Dinah-for his concern more with his own public image than with the deed they had done. (Not so surprising from the man who followed his mother's instructions to cheat his brother.)

Yet, for the rest of his life, we clearly see that G"d is part of that
life. Surely then, it must have been richer (and yet, perhaps, more
puzzling and disconcerting) than the life of Esav.

Work hard, live good, let bygones be bygones seems to be Esav's
philosophy. Not a bad way to live, and probably some improvement on his younger days (he did, after all, threaten to kill Ya'akov. He didn't carry out the threat, but just making it wasn't such a great thing to do.)

Make mistakes, try to do better, and always remember G"d is in your life seems to be Ya'akov's philosophy. I'll vote for the latter.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2002, 2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, November 12, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Vayeitzei 5771 Luz is No Loser

The Torah is replete with many geographical references, and place names are often featured prominently. Places are often named in response to events which have taken place there or which have been significant for characters in the Torah. Also, just as people's names are changed at significant life junctures, place names are often changed in similar circumstances. In some cases, the Torah makes a point of noting the former name of a newly or renamed place, and sometimes a named place is also described as another name by which that place is (now) known.

Scholars and academics often point to these as proof texts for human authorship, editing, redaction and other evidences of anachronisms and odd features. They may very well be such.
Many of these place name change situations and updated geographical references are easily explained by these sorts of theories. Yet sometimes Torah gives us a geographical reference that has us scratching our heads.

We have such a reference in this week's parasha.

Yaakov (Jacob) stops at a "certain place" to rest for the night, and has his dream of angels and G"d speaking to him. He makes the famous declaration

"akheyn yeish Ad"nai bamakom hazeh v'anokhi lo yadati" - "surely G"d was in this place and I, I did not know it."

He erects a pillar, anoints it with oil, and then names the place Beit-El (Bethel) or "House/abode of G"d." Curiously, the Torah then goes on to relate that the place had been known as "Luz."

Not to be flippant but who cares that the place used to be called Luz? What's significant is what took place in this place for Yaakov, and the name he chose to give it as a result. It's not like it matters on iota what the place used to be called. Or does it?

Scholars of Torah, always striving to solve the Torah's mysteries have certainly attempted to explain what significance the former place name of Bethel had. Some scholars believe it means "almond tree" and others believe it may be related to an Arabic word meaning "a place of refuge." The latter certainly would seem to have some connection to the story, the former not at all.

It's also interesting to note that the dual naming of Bethel fka Luz occurs in a number of subsequent places in the Torah, most notably when Yaakov returns to Bethel after his time and trials with Laban.

So why does the Torah keep drawing our attention to the fact that the place Yaakov named Beit-El was also known as Luz? What's so important about that?

Perhaps there is nothing at all significant about this, and it is simply an oddity. If we attribute the Torah to Divine origin, we need only toss this oddity off on the ineffability of G"d. If we believe the Torah is of human origin (with or without Divine influence) then we have to ask many questions: is this the way the text originally read, or was the inclusion of the reference to Bethel as formerly being Luz added? If it was added, then why was it added? If the reference to Luz is original to the text, why did subsequent editors or redactors choose to keep what was likely an obsolete reference in their own time? (There is another place named Luz in the Bible, but it is in the north, and the reference is much later than the assumed dating of the stories in Genesis.) If the reference is original to the text, we could explain that it was not changed or removed simply because of the desire to remain faithful to the original. However, this flies in the face of so many other places in the Torah where the redactors clearly chose to make some textual modifications.

There are no simple answers. I do, however, have a theory. It is not a theory about why Bethel is cited as being the former place called Luz. Rather, it is a theory about what we can learn from this. We don't know what Luz means, if it means anything. It is simply a place name. Bethel (or Beit-El) is a place name which has clear meaning for us. Luz was an ordinary place, nothing special about it - or so one might assume. However, Yaakov's experience proves this thinking wrong. Luz was a special place. G"d was in the place and Yaakov (and likely everyone else there) did not know it.

It's somewhat like the several variations of stories in our tradition which teach us that "anyone of us could be the Moshiakh" (Messiah.) Any seemingly ordinary person could prove to be someone extraordinary. The same is true for places. Places that we assume have no intrinsic value or nothing that makes them special may indeed be endowed with all sorts of holiness and specialness.

Through its constant pairing of the names Bethel and Luz, the Torah is reminding us that there is always potential for greatness and holiness in the seemingly most mundane and ordinary of places.  It's like the Torah is telling us "remember Luz-we thought it was Yemensville but it turned out to be a place where G"d lived."
It's like Torah reminding us that G"d can be found anywhere - everywhere. G"d may be right under our noses. Think of the things you discover about a place when you really take the time to take a good look at it. Think about the everyday miracles we miss in our constant search for the big miracles. Think about the potential that surrounds us all, every day, in every place. Sanctuary or school, bimah or bedroom. Urban or rural. Think how different our lives could be with the attitude that every Luz we encounter is also a Bethel.

What better way to reinforce Yaakov's very words:

akheyn yeish Ad"nai bamakom hazek v'anokhi lo yadati.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, November 5, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Tol'dot 5771 - Keeping the Bathwater

Throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It's a well-worn idiom. We see far too many examples of it in practice. We certainly see examples of it in Torah. We may have to stretch a bit to make the idiom fit, but in this week's parasha, we have the example of Esau throwing out the baby - his birthright to assuage his fierce hunger which could be thought of as the bathwater. In the haftarah for Makhar Hodesh which we read this Shabbat, King Saul throws out the baby (literally, his son Jonathan) for the bathwater of trying to protect his own son's future kingship from being usurped by David.

We can extend the idiom. Perhaps Rivka (Rebekkah) throws out the baby (literally her son Esau) in her effort to assure a better future for her favored son, Yaakov (Jacob.) Or we can look at it another way - in seeking to assure her favored son his father's blessing, she exhorts him to deceit. In a way, that is throwing out the baby of ethical behavior with the bathwater, her son Esau, who has displeased her by marrying out of the tribe.

While none of these are clear cut examples of the idiom of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, they're close enough to allow me to go where I really want to go in this musing today. In recent days, I came across use of the throwing out the baby with the bathwater idiom in a  number of places, and in a number of different Jewish contexts. In fact, I think it's an oft-cited idiom when it comes to discussions and debates about Judaism.

For liberal Judaism, and in particular Reform Judaism, there has been a realization that in the effort to liberalize and reconcile Judaism with modern knowledge and practice we may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. This has precipitated a renewed interest in traditions and practices once considered quaint, pointless, meaningless, and not in keeping with modern realities. I make no secret of my belief that this is a good thing.

Nevertheless, every time I encountered this idiom in the past few days, something was niggling at me. My feelings as to what was bothering me were crystallized by the mere random chance of seeing a tweet on Twitter that contained a quote from the Dalai Lama that appeared in Roger Kamenetz's "The Jew in the Lotus."

"Could we make Judaism more beneficial instead of asking Jews to just hold on out of guilt?"

The Dalai Lama's question really resonated with me. I also sensed this vague connection with the  baby/bathwater idiom. On a whim, I decided to look up "throw out the baby with the bathwater" on Wikipedia. Initially, it explained the idiom as most of us understand it:

an avoidable error in which something good is eliminated when trying to get rid of something bad,[1] or in other words, rejecting the essential along with the inessential.[2] (

However, it went on.
A slightly different explanation suggests that this flexible catchphrase has to do with discarding the essential while retaining the superfluous because of excessive zeal.[3] In other words, the idiom is applicable not only when it's a matter of throwing out the baby with the bath water, but also when someone might throw out the baby and keep the bath water.[4] (ibid)

Aha! There's what I was feeling and sensing. I think both traditional and liberal Judaism are equally guilty of this meaning of the idiom (as well as the usual meaning.) As a liberal Jew, I can certainly see how, from my perspective, traditional Judaism, in its narrow focus on jot and tittle rather than essence, has kept the bathwater and thrown out the baby. At the same time, I can also clearly see how liberal Judaism can hold on to its own bathwater (witness congregations where the wearing of a kippah is still banned or frowned upon.) In fact, I see examples of people, groups, religions, etc. holding on to bathwater having thrown out the baby throughout our world. Is that what happened this past election day? Or is that what a majority of voters think the administration has done? It all depends on your perspective, doesn't it?

It's all a matter of perspective of course. Which is the baby? Which is the bathwater? The practice of hakafah is an interesting case in point. Is it essence, or external trapping? Is it due kavod to Torah, or is it, as some suggest, actually idol worship? Is it baby or bathwater? Or both? Or neither?

In musing on this, I come to a somewhat uncomfortable conclusion. It may not be possible to clearly define essential and superfluous when applying this idiom to Judaism. Distinguishing between baby and bathwater seems rather clear cut. When baby and bathwater become metaphors, it's not so simple.

So it is with Torah. It's easy for us to deride Esau for his actions. It's easy for us to be horrified at the ethical lapses of Rivkah and Yaakov (not to mention Yitzkhak's probable tacit complicity.) Saul becomes an easy man to dislike. Each of them may be thought of as having thrown out the baby with the bathwater. From my perspective, traditioanl Judaism seems to have held on to a lot of bathwater and discarded at least some of the baby. Yet we need to be cautious here. What better place to find a way to urge this caution than in another idiom, the one about not judging someone until we've walked in their shoes (or worn their skin, etc.)

Shabbat Shalom,

©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester