Friday, December 31, 2010

Random Musings Before Shabbat - Va'era 5771-Brighton Beach-Last Stop!

As I'm in NYC this week (well, Brooklyn) visiting family, I think this is an appropriate musing redux to share. I struggle a lot with the idea in Torah that G"d would harden Pharaoh's heart, thus causing even greater suffering of the Egyptians, and delaying the exodus of the Israelites. In this musing, first written in 1999, and updated in 2005, I explore a possible explanation for G"d's action. I have to admit, in re-reading it, that I don’t find it an altogether satisfactory explanation, but it is at least something to consider.

Adrian (5771)

Random Musings Before Shabbat - Va'era 5771 (Redux 5759-5765)-Brighton Beach-Last Stop!

"Now can I have cake?" says the 3 year old. "No. You didn't finish what's on your plate. Cake is for dessert after dinner." [He eats one elbow macaroni] "Want cake. I'm finished dinner. Can I have cake now?" "You can have cake after dinner-and after you've eaten some more. Here, eat this." [He takes it in his mouth, pretends to chew, then spits it out.] "Finished. I want cake." "Eat some more dinner." "Want cake." "Not until you eat some more of your food." [He eats another small bite or two, then begins playing with food, throwing it on floor.] "I want cake now. I'm finished." [Sternly spoken:] "We're still eating. You have to wait until after dinner for dessert." "Want cake." "No! Here, eat this. [feeding him a few vegetables and bites of food. Finally, he begins to feed himself, too.] [A few moments of blessed silence.] "Finished. Cake. Now! I want cake. I want cake. I want cake." [One parent starts to give in and unwraps the cake and prepares to serve it to him. The other parent says "don't give in, he's got to learn. Just ignore him. We try again:] "If you eat some more of your food, you can have some cake." [He eats one tiny bite.] "Finished. Cake time." "Not yet." "You said if I ate my dinner I get cake. I ate it up." "No cake yet. Stop fussing!" [continued in next week's parasha.]

The child just does not understand. The children of Israel just did not understand. I think even Moshe and Aharon had a little trouble comprehending. And many who encounter the story of the plagues in Torah don’t understand. But a parent understands. Anything worth getting is worth waiting for. It has to be delivered under the right circumstances. It has to be earned. It has to be meaningful. Few things that are easy to get are all that valuable. (And lest you be tempted to mention things like "goodwill" and other moral and ethical values, feelings, and action, would that all of them would really be that easy to come by.)

Imagine what Judaism might be like today if, after one simple plague, Pharaoh had said "get thee out!" Would we still be thanking G"d quite so much for the effort of freeing us from bondage? G"d hardened Pharaoh's heart, just as we "hardened our hearts" against an eager little child who wanted cake. Could the child truly understand the specialness of the cake unless he was made to wait for it? Unless he could see that great miracles had to be performed first? What would it mean to act as if we ourselves had come forth out of Egypt, out of bondage, if it happened quickly and with minimal apprarent effort by G"d? (OK, OK, we'd already been in Egyptian bondage for some time, and we had suffered, so freedom would still hold plenty of meaning and value for us. Especially since Gd seems to have forgotten about us for a while. Still, the harder it-that is, our freedom, was to achieve, all the more we might value it.)

The 14 year old in that family, observing the situation related above, remarks that the parents mistake was in putting out the cake where the 3 year old could see it. A good point. But if the goal isn't known, how hard will one strive toward it? Whether the goal is freedom from bondage or a piece of cake, you gotta know what the goal is to get there. Moshe knows what his dessert is going to be-G"d has already told him. And those enslaved-no matter how crushed their spirits-would hopefully always be aware of freedom, n'est ce pas? Or is the Torah making the point that we had been enslaved for so long, had gotten to so used to it, that we no longer sensed that goal of freedom-that only when we could sense it did we moan loud enough about it for G"d to hear us?)

When the youngster in the story is older, perhaps he'll read Torah and learn some strategy. Instead of asking for the whole dessert, he could just say "how about letting me go three days away into the wilderness to sacrifice to my G"d?" (He wouldn't be being any less duplicitous than Moshe was-Moshe knew darn well he wanted cake, er, I mean total freedom from bondage for his people. I jest.)

But was it all theatrics? Did "Gd just want to make a big show of it? (Did G"d even need to harden Pharaoh's heart? I think it becomes obvious to Pharaoh in time that Moshe is looking for more than a three day sojourn in the park.)

The parents knows that one can eat the cake anytime-before, during, or after dinner. The parent also knows that sometimes children just don't eat in normal patterns. So what? But the parents make a big show of it. Why? Because, for some reason, children learn from things that seem like a big deal. They learn from exciting, tense, dramatic, entertaining moments. Like Sesame Street. (They also learn from the quiet meaningful moment, as with the late Fred Rogers.) Nothing that comes that easy is that good, is it?

My parents used to name off the subway stations - Atlantic Avenue - Prospect Park - Newkirk - Kings Highway - Avenue U - Sheepshead bay - on the way to "Brighton Beach, last stop!" to get us to finish our food or drink. Always coaxing us to the end of the line-where we can get off the train and start a brand new journey. It was unthinkable to finish before the last stop. (For you New Yorkers, I guess it was what is now the "Q" line.)

And, in some strange, quirky way, that childhood experience, along with ones I have experienced in households with children, help me understand why G"d hardened Pharaoh's heart and made us gain our freedom from Egypt only when it really was time for dessert. (Or is that desert?)

Those last four nasty plagues have yet to be endured. Tune in next week to see if the child gets his cake at last. We're still in Manhattan. Across the East River is Brooklyn and freedom. See if we reach Brighton Beach at last.

Shabbat Shalom,


©, 2010, 2005 (portions ©1999) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Va'era 5769 - Substitute
Va'era 5767-again, Crushed Spirits (Miqotzer Ruakh)
Va'era 5766-Why Tomorrow?
Va'era 5764-Imperfect Perfection and Perfect Imperfection
Va'era 5763 - Pray for Me
Va'era 5761-Just Not Getting It
Va'era 5762-Early will I Seek You
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Friday, December 24, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Sh’mot 5771 – Free Association IV


Well over a decade ago, I wrote a Shemot musing called "Free Association" (with apologies to Debbie Friedman for stealing the title froma  little known early song of hers that I found quite inspirational in my Jewish journey.) That first Free Association musing consisted of three light and short musings to brighten Shabbat. Then a few years later, I added three new thoughts for that year to the previous ones. I did so yet again in another few years. Now, this year, three more free associations for you. I hope you find them all equally thought-provoking.

Alef 5759

"Ok, wise guys. Now make your bricks without any straw!" (to paraphrase Shemot 5:10-11.)

Pharaoh and his court must not have been very experienced parents (or else things were really different back then.) As any parent knows, when your child is being troublesome and rebellious, piling on the punishment is more likely to draw out the rebellious spirit rather than control it.

Obviously, I'm not that experienced a parent. For I am learning the same lesson as Pharaoh. Tightening the screws often yields greater resentment, and is rarely a win-win solution.

Alef 5763

"I yam what I yam." (to loosely paraphrase Shemot 3:14)

Those simple Hebrew words, "eh'yeh asher eh'yeh" are, for me, an overlooked commandment. Perhaps no other words could better make the plain statement "don't try and figure G”d out. G”d is what Gd is." Is that what these words say to us? As a theologian, they are also some of the most frustrating words in all of Hebrew scripture. If we are not supposed to try and figure out who/what Gd is, then what's the point of it all? Maybe this overlooked commandment is not what it appears to be on the surface. Rather than being a command (suggestion?) that we not try to figure out Gd because Gd is beyond our comprehension, it is, instead, a challenge, a mystery, a puzzle that, while we may not be able to solve it, we are nevertheless obligated to explore. Whew! For just a moment there I was about to give up on theology forever!

Alef 5766

Cheap theatrics. A burning bush? With all the miraculous things at G"d's disposal, G"d uses a burning bush? Oh, I suppose I might be intrigued enough by a bush burning, but unconsumed, that I might stop to take a look. Had I been in a hurry, I'm not so sure. Perhaps G"d hadn't figured out just how much G"d was at the mercy of this free will thing G"d had bestowed on humans. Though by this point in the narrative, G"d had ample opportunity to catch on to that. Perhaps G"d was emboldened by the absolute success of that little teleological puppetry with Yosef and his brothers?

We've had that nice little apologetic from our sages that explains that G"d chose the bush to show that G"d is concerned with even the lowliest of G"ds creations. (Not very nice from the bush's perspective, is it?)

Yet there's another little connection, albeit it's a bit of an orthographical stretch. It's this little bit of wordplay with the word used for bush, s'neh. Just this slight aural connection with Sinai (especially if you say Sinai in Hebrew and not its Americanized pronunciation.) Though the geography is a little confused, and it's not clear that Horeb and Sinai are the same place, our tradition would like it to be. So scholars have speculated that horev, meaning dry, desolate, may have referred to a region, in which happened to be located a mountain named sinai. Perhaps it wasn't just a bush that was burning, but the whole mountain top, or perhaps even the whole mountain range. Awash with aish haKodesh, holy fire. Now that's a sight bound to attract Moshe's attention, no matter how preoccupied he might have been at the time. (And he must have been preoccupied. Why else would he have driven his flock into the wilderness? Now, we can't assume that midbar, or wilderness, designates an arid area-in fact most scholars believe it just refers to unsettled land, which could easily be good pasture land. But horeb, in Hebrew horev, we are reasonably certain designates an arid place. Makes little sense to drive your flock to more arid land where food for them in scarcer. What thoughts were occupying Moshe's mind before he encountered G"d's little attention-getting burning bush?

Bet 5759

"You dumb idiots. You should have kept your mouth shut. Now look at the trouble you have caused. Quit rocking the boat." (to loosely paraphrase Shemot 6:20.)

This is what you Moshe and Aharon get for their trouble-for being, like the Blues Brothers, on a "mission from G”d" ? It's always easy in many situations-home, work, elsewhere to just keep your mouth shut, and let oppressive or unfair conditions persist. The attitude is pervasive. Why, even recently, the head of a major Jewish organization suggested we stop making so much noise about Holocaust reparations, lest we draw more ire and negative attention.

It's never easy to be gadfly, the troublemaker, the rabble-rouser, or, for that matter, to be G”d's agent and instrument. But something tells me, if you're not getting a lot of resistance even from the people you are trying to help, you're probably not doing it right. No pain, no gain.

It's my nature to often find myself in situations where I feel like a minority of one, railing for the cause I think is just and right. The day comes when I find that a comfortable place to be is the day I stop doing it. (Does that make me a masochist?)

Was this what Moshe really feared when he tried to wangle his way out of G”d's charge to him? Was Pharaoh or Moshe's own people the greatest obstacle? (After all, how big an obstacle could Pharaoh have really been, if, later on in the story, G”d has to deliberately harden Pharaoh's heart?)

Bet 5763

[nothing] (to paraphrase what comes between Shemot 2:10 and 2:11.

How could it not be salient-the record of what happened in Moshe's life between the time Pharaoh's daughter drew him from the water and the time when the (apparently) adult Moshe sees an Egyptian overseer strike an Israelite and then strikes the overseer dead and hid the body. Such notables as Cecil B. DeMille and Steven Spielberg have, along with the midrashic rabbis, have attempted to fill the gap with fanciful tales and best guesses. In today's world, we're fond of looking for root causes of behavior. Pop psychology abounds with concepts like "toxic parents" and "toxic childhood." We try to ascribe blame for adult behaviors to our experiences growing up. While I won't suggest there's no truth to those concepts, I do wonder if the lesson found here in the Torah's omission of those details (which, one must admit, is somewhat odd, considering that the first adult act of Moshe's that we learn about is his murdering a fellow human being) is that, as adults, we are who we are and do what we do, and we needn't dwell on details of adolescence. What made Moshe a murderer? Whatever the root causes that may have stemmed from Moshe's childhood, they don't seem to have any impact on G”d's decision to choose Moshe to be the one to bring Israel out of Egypt, do they? So let's give Pharaoh's daughter, and indeed, all parents, a break.

Bet 5766

You call that humble?

In looking for a reading from the prophets that could remind us of parashat sh'mot, the sephardi did not choose Isaiah as did the Ashkenazim, Rather, they chose Jeremiah for their haftarah. The connection is fairly plain when we reach 1:6 in which Jeremiah, demonstrating a humility not unlike that of Moshe rabbeinu, says "I do not know how to speak, for I am still a boy" when G"d calls him to be a spokesperson. Apparently, Jeremiah got over this little bit of humility rather quickly, for the remainder of the opening of Jeremiah's prophetic book is the usual litany serving as proof that G"d did indeed chose this person to be a prophet. G"d replies to Jeremiah (to put it in modern colloquial terms) "just go where I send you and say what I tell you to say."

Moshe, too, it seems, gets past the humble part fairly quickly. Moshe practically begs G"d to tell him what name he should call G"d. G'd gives this lovely "ehyeh-asher-ehyeh" thing, and what does Moshe do with it? Nothing.

Gimel 5759

"You want me to go challenge Pharaoh, and I don't even know your name!" (very loosely paraphrasing Shemot 3:13

Bill Cosby never did the "Moses" routine. But somehow, I can hear Moshe using that same word the Cosby put in Noah's mouth....."riiiight." How the heck are we supposed to know that it's Gd talking to us and not some dehydration-induced hallucination? A burning bush? Gimme a break. Cheap theatrics. C'mon, Gd, couldn't you do better than that? A voice calls your name from a burning bush and you answer "here I am" ?You gotta be nuts-it could just be some psycho in the wilderness.

And what answer does Moshe get for his trouble in asking "um, er, excuse me, er, sir, but, what's your name?" "Ehyeh asher ehyeh" "Huh, Gd, what was that, your name is Asher Eyeh? What kind of name is that? Chaldean, Ugaritic, what?" "Well, actually, my family came from...hey, Moshe, quit distracting me! Just tell the good folks that my name is I-will-be, that'll just have to be good enough. After all, I'm going to free them from their slavery and take them to a land flowing with milk and honey."

"Milk and Honey, Mr. fancy-pants I-will-be? How about just some nice grazing land for the sheep and some easy access to water, ok, that'll be quite enough, thank you."

And so on. Someday, perhaps, someone will write this routine and perform it. After all, it's just midrash....riiight?

(If you don't know the reference to the Cosby routine, find someone older who does!)

What's the big deal here? Couldn't G”d just have made up some name to keep Moshe happy. He could have said call me El, (or Al?-apologies to Paul Simon) or Mr. Shaddai, or something like that. But G”d knows the power of a name. G”d knew that whatever name c"hosen, it would be the name G”d “was known by for the rest of eternity. Better make it a good one. But names give people power over others. Give people G”d's name and they could summon, distract and generally be a nuisance to G”d around the clock for millennia.

Hey, when you get a call from a stranger on the phone, do you give them your name up front? (Of course, are any of us truly strangers to G”d? Oy, now I'm imaging a Bob Newhart phone call routine...)

"Moshe! It's for you! Some guy named Asher something or other....."

Anyway, I for one an glad the G”d did not tell Moshe G”d's name at this time. Makes me realize that, as great a man as Moshe was, when it comes to G”d, none of us are on a first name basis. Let's keep it that way. That's true equality for humankind, and a nice distinction for the one who creates.

Have a marvelous and joyful Shabbat. Read Shemot -and maybe Va'era. And (after Shabbat) go see Prince of Egypt. And then imagine Cosby or Newhart telling the exodus story! Nice entertainment, yes. But for my money, no midrash has it over the original screenplay.

Gimel 5763

"Who, me?" (to loosely paraphrase Shemot 3:11)

Moshe sure does his best to talk his way out of the limelight that G”d seems intent on thrusting him into. Five times he seeks to extricate himself from the predicament which he fears is about to befall him. Did Moshe really think he could talk G”d out of it? Or was Moshe just playing gadfly? One wonders.

Gimel 5766

Is it too much to ask, little consistency from a divine document?

Who is this Yeter, father-in-law to Moshe, in verse 4:18? And why, later in that same verse, is he named Yitro?

If we're gonna claim divine authorship, or even just divine inspiration, can’t we at least have some darned consistency?

But wait. Why must writings of divine origin be any less flawed than documents of human origin? Who made that a rule? (Well, I guess we did, when we started making perfection an attribute of G"d. What a bad move on our part. Notice that G"d never claims to be perfect. And with good reason, too.)

Many times I have written in these musings (and elsewhere) that these seeming imperfections, inconsistencies, etc. are what make Torah the brilliant thing it is. They get us thinking. They make us stop and pause and consider.

OK. Let's stop and pause and consider.

Now who the heck was this Yeter fellow again?

Alef 5771

Yeah, we have this Yeter/Yitro thing. We also have “melekh mitzrayim” (king of Egypt) and “Paraoh” (Pharaoh.) (Later on in this book of the Torah we find “Horeb” and “Sinai” to refer to the same mountain. So this dual naming thing has me thinking – is there some ocnnection to the dual naming convention found in Bereshit/Genesis with Avram/Avraham and Yaakov/Yisrael (Jacob/Israel.) We also have the Ad”nai/El”him pattern as well. Scholars have looked carefully at these patterns to determine their significance, and claim to have found some. So I find myself asking what the significance of these other dual namings might be. Is the “Yeter” a simple scribal error, or does it harken back to an earlier (or later) name of Yitro, father-in-law to Moses, priest of Midian and of El? Might Yeter have been his original name, and Yitro the one he took upon himself when he became a priest of El? Or perhaps when he took on Moses as a son-in-law?

The King of Egypt/Pharaoh duality may be simpler to explain in terms of highlighting the mortal nature of the King of Egypt and the haughtiness and conceit with which these rulers of Egypt, who called themselves Pharaoh, considered themselves as gods. Note that the Torah doesn’t say “ a new Pharaoh arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” It says “a new King.” (And, by the way, this is NOT the Pharaoh of the Exodus. Look at Ex. 2:23. This new King who did not know Joseph dies! In fact, Moses’ ability to go back to Egypt is predicated on that!)

Maybe it’s something akin to “The President” and “The Presidency?” Pharaoh represents the idea, the concept. The word “Paraoh” (Pharaoh) appears many more times than the phrase King of Egypt.  Occasionally it appears as the combination “Pharaoh, King of Egypt” (see for example, Gen. 41:46)

Considering all the name dualities in Torah, let’s be grateful we don’t generally think of Joseph as having dual names. Zaphenath-paneah doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue.

Bet 5771

Every vigilant for loopholes, students look for them ardently. I remember an interesting discussion with a student based around the fact that “do not lie” is not a commandment.  The discussion was actually happening before we got to the 10 commandments in the Torah-it happened to be when we were reading Sh’mot. The student was quick to point out to me that Shiphrah and Puah lied, and were then favored by G”d. Guess it is OK to lie to the King of Egypt/Pharaoh when you are defying him because of your fear/awe of G”d. (Now here’s an interesting  connection to the previous thoughts-it is the King of Egypt who asks Shiphrah and Puah why they allowed the male babies to live. Yet the midwives address their answer to Pharaoh. (see Ex. 1:18-19.)

The student says that this text is a proof text  for a number of loopholes – that it is permissible to lie for G”d’s sake, permissible to lie to an evildoer. He (and I) found that very problematic. Don’t you?

How do we work with this? The  commentary in Etz Chayim (presumably by Sarna) posits that in v. 19 the midwives were evasive out of a desire both the protect themselves, but also to allow them to continue their good work in saving the lives of more Hebrew boys. That’s a brave piece of eisegesis (reading meaning back into the text) that’s not wholly supported by the p’shat but it seems sufficient to at least redeem Shiphrah and Puah for their lie. Yet it’s very teleological, with the ends justifying the means (apropos, I suppose, to continuing on from the Joseph saga which is teleological at its very core.)

The lie of Shiphrah and Puah isn’t even a very good one. Pharaoh doesn’t explicity see through it – if anything, he reacts as if he believes it by ordering a solution that seems logical – to enlist all people in the effort and not rely solely on the midwives. Is there another lie that Shiprah and Puah could have told that might have led to a less drastic response from Pharaoh? In hindsight of course we need Pharoah to act this drastically, because it sets up the rest of the story. So teleology prevails. And a lie becomes acceptable.

Shiphrah and Puah are heroes, no doubt. They have become proud symbols of modern Jewish feminism as well, and rightfully so. Let’s not forget, however, they were also practiced in the art of dissembling. Is that a good trait or not?

[An aside about a lie. Thank goodness G”d is not beholden to a chronological timeline. Otherwise we might have caught G”d in a bit of a lie when he told Moses that Aharon was on his way to meet him. After all, just a few verses later we read of G”d instructing Aharon to go meet Moses. Of course, we must assume this happened out of literary sequence, right? Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge. And even if G”dhadn;t actually yet told Aharon to go meet Moses, we was planning on it. So it’s OK, right? Oh what a tangled web…]

Gimel 5771

This “new King” who arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph wasn’t particularly bright. If he truly meant to deal “shrewdly” with the Israelites because he feared their success and numbers, what made him think that enforced and harsh slavery would be a more effective tactic. Did he not understand that you catch more flies with honey? Why didn’t this Pharaoh attempt to co-opt the Israelites, seek a way to make them beholden to Pharaoh for his kindness and benevolence?

Taking the question even further back, why was this new King worried at all? (Yes, we’ve all heard the scholarly theories about the Hyksos invasion and all that, but can we really be certain that this was at the root of this Pharaoh’s fears?) Did this Pharaoh have any reason to believe the Israelites would be disloyal, and side with potential enemies? What’s the unwritten underlying subtext here? (Now, if we take the teleological approach, we can just ignore this entire discussion. As you know, I’m not prone to do that.)

The text is strangely silent about the worship practices of the Israelites in Egypt. If most of them had assimilated as much as Joseph, what had Pharaoh to fear. It all gets curiouser and curiouser.

Dalet 5771

Yeah, I know in past years it was only a  trio. However, I thought I’d add an extra thought this year. In each successive remaking of this musing, I’ve gotten more long-winded. When you;re on a roll, might as well stay on a roll.

I alluded to it earlier, but now I want to take it up again. Go back and read from Ex. 1:8 and then 2:23. This new King who did not know Joseph, and who was an adopted Grandfather of Moses, dies.  Things only get worse under the next Pharaoh. Now, fancifully, “Prince of Egypt” midrashically fills in the missing story between Moses’ adoption by Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses’s coming of age (in which he kills and Egyptian overseer and hides his body!) The premise that the one who becomes Pharaoh and the nemesis of Moses was like a brother to him while Moses lived in Pharaoh’s court doesn’t make sense. An adoptive uncle maybe, but a brother? The successor to the Pharaoh who did not know Joseph would be a brother of the daughter who adopted Moses.

I also think it is ironic that it is in the same sentence as the one where we learn that the Pharaoh who did not know Joseph, the one who ordered all the first born Israelite males killed, dies, that we first learn of the groaning of the Israelites in their bondage. And in the next sentence, of G”d hearing their cries. Maybe they were just wailing, in good old Egyptian fashion, for 70 days over the death of their Pharaoh?

I think there is a popular misconception, among many, that the final plague is retribution against the then Pharaoh for the slaying of Israel’s first born, But as the text makes clear, it was not that Pharaoh, but his predecessor, who had issued that stern decree. We all seem to gloss over verse 2:23, when that Pharaoh dies. Not surprising that we would conflate the story this way. It becomes even more conflated when we examine it from the point of view of the Haggadah and Pesakh. Hmmm. Guess this all supports my idea that the Torah uses King of Egypt to refer to a specific person, but Pharaoh to refer to a more generic concept, and one that we can conflate to make entirely evil. That’s certainly a warning to us to be more careful in making such associations, is it not?

Wishing you all a Shabbat filled with questions and discussions.

Shabbat Shalom,


© 1997, 2002, 2006, 2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

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Friday, December 17, 2010

Random Musings Before Shabbat – Vayekhi 5771 - Trading Places (Redux & Updated from 5759)

"Ki hatachat Elohim ani?" asks Joseph in Gen 50:19. "Shall I take the place of G"d?"

All about us these days is confusion. Moral uncertainty. Selfish and cruel behaviors. Luckily for us. For in these distractions are the things we need to take the focus away from self-examination and spare us the embarrassment of dealing with our own shortcomings. How easily we declare ourselves judge and proceed to find fault with others, with situations, our employers, our families, etc.

We criticize with abandon the actions, opinions and morals of others. Both those like us and unlike us. (Lately, in fact, it seems that the favorite target of our judgments are our own Jewish brothers and sisters.)

In our delusions that our troubles are caused by others, not only do we find fault...we hold grudges, too.

Joseph knows better.

Now, Joseph really was "worked over" by his brothers. Betrayed. If anyone had a right to stand in judgment of others, Joseph surely had that right over his brothers.

"Ki hatachat Elohim ani?" asks Joseph in Gen 50:19. "Shall I take the place of G"d?"

Joseph, of course, goes on to take the teleological approach. The evil that befell him was all part of G"d's plan, and it all worked out in the end. That sure is convenient. Question is, had things not worked out the way they did, would Joseph have been so forgiving? That, I cannot answer. Were he not standing at the apex of power, would he feel the same about not standing in the place of G"d? I'd like to think so. I'd like to think that all people would always ask themselves whether they can or should take the place of G"d. It' something we might well ask ourselves each time we find ourselves standing in judgment of others.

A few weeks ago (back in 1999) I wrote about Vayishlakh and "Don't Get Mad, Get Even." At the time I focused on the "don't get mad" part. In Vayekhi, Jacob teaches us about the "get even" part. He pronounces his oracles for his sons, and Reuben, Simeon and Levi are called to account. In this same parasha, Joseph has the opportunity to exact some measure of judgment on his brothers. But, instead, Joseph brings down a higher form of judgment than he or any human is capable of. He forgives, forgoes, and moves on, refusing to "take the place of G"d." This magnanimous gesture is probably a more effective form of punishment, retribution and judgment than anything Joseph, even with the power of Pharaoh (and G"d) behind him, could inflict upon his brothers. Think about it.

Additional Thoughts Added for 5771

The haftarah, too, seems to focus on the "getting even" part. Even wise David could not escape this all too human need for revenge. He even seeks to circumvent a promise he made to not kill someone who had wronged him by obliging Solomon to do the dirty work in his stead, after he is dead. Not a great example. Fortunately, the rabbis came along and determined that one can't escape one's sins by delegating them to others to carry out after their deaths. As often as I complain about much of what the rabbis did and said, they had some home runs when it came to dealing with some of the unfortunately bad lessons in our sacred texts. (Unfortunately, they also had some really bad strike outs!)
In terms of our current situation, perhaps there are lessons to be learned from Joseph's magnanimity. This is perhaps no place truer than when it comes to making peace for Israel and the Middle East. As hard as it is to forgive and forget, medinat Israel is in a place somewhat akin to Joseph's position at the time he was so magnanimous to his brothers. They are a successful democracy with a decent economic situation. They have learned how to weather the perpetual famine of desert lands. They share their wealth with others (albeit for a price, as did Joseph/Egypt.) Yes, like Joseph, their position was always precarious - Joseph, never safe from Pharaoh's whim should he displease him; Israel surrounded by often hostile forces that seek to wreak havoc, create terror. Yet the path to peace in the middle east may require Israel to act like Joseph, and look beyond the wrongs of the past to the future that lays ahead.
Here in the U.S.A. we would also do well to learn from Joseph. As political parties wrest power from each other, they too often seek their revenge. It is time to put that all behind, and work for a better future.
This lesson also works right here in our own fragmented and divided Jewish community.
Let us dedicate this Shabbat and henceforth to being forgiving and magnanimous, in the same way as Joseph. Future generations will thank us.

Hazak Hazak v'nitkhazek.

Shabbat Shalom,

©1998, 2010  by Adrian A. Durlester

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Friday, December 10, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Vayiggash 5771-Being Both Israels

At the very end of this week’s parasha, Vayiggash, is a fascinating verse:

47:27 Thus Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly.

A look at the Hebrew of this verse reveals the fact that the first verbal clause, “vayeishev Yisrael” is in the singular – Israel settled. The three remaining verbs in the sentence, “vayei-akhazu” “vayipru” and “vayirbu” are all in the plural-thus the translation “they” for the remaining verbal clauses.

Scholars and sages tell us this is quite deliberate, and their explanation makes sense. The pasuk (sentence) marks the point at which the concept of Israel as a people, a nation, firmly takes hold. Israel has become an eponym.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines an eponym as "one who gives, or is supposed to give, his name to a people, place, or institution."

Well-known eponyms include words like sandwich, Braille, Frisbee, and leotard. It’s funny that when you look up eponyms you rarely find the word Israel included in the list of famous eponyms. That strikes me as a bit odd. In fact, on the Wikipedia list of eponyms, there is the somewhat cryptic entry “Jacob-Israel.”

There is no doubt in my mind that the biblical Israel (Yisrael) is the eponym for the term “Israelites” and “Israel” in all their various meanings-a people, a faith, a nation, etc. Yet I believe the reason Israel is not generally seen as eponymic is because it has undergone a different sort of transformation from the particularistic name of the biblical Jacob. Israel has become a generic brand name.

What does it mean to become a generic brand name? Let’s start with the inherent contradiction in the term-after all, that’s such a Jewish way of looking at things. How can something be both a brand and generic at the same time? We don’t even have a good word in English to classify names like Kleenex, Xerox, Coke, Astro-Turf that have come to represent their entire product class. Household name doesn’t quite fit-that really describes a well-known product or service. There are also plenty of eponyms that fit into this class, but, because they are derived from a specific person’s name, they are, indeed, eponyms, and don’t fall into the un-named class of words. In some ways, Israel has become such a word.

In our modern society, becoming a generic brand name (or, for that matter, an eponym) can be positive or negative. The positive is that it demonstrates the success of a brand. Only an overwhelmingly successful product becomes a generic name for its product class. At the same time, the negative is that becoming a generic term can lead to less brand-name recognition and less sales. While I can’t yet think of a brand that became a generic term for its product class, but the original brand name product is no longer around while the rest of its product class remains, I am sure there are (or will be) examples. The negative impact of becoming a generic brand name isn’t clear cut – Coke, Xerox, Kleenex, and Astro-Turf are still around and still successful.

So what does it mean that “Israel” (and “Israelite”) has become a generic brand name? Well, for one thing, it means that people often have a hard time distinguishing what the word represents. Is it the nation Israel, the State of Israel, the people of the State of Israel, Jewish people in general?

Taking it in its broadest context, as referring to all of the Jewish people, i.e. “Israel” as we often refer to ourselves instead of as “The Jewish people” or “Jews,” we have a significant problem. How can one generic term represents such a diverse group of people?

While it’s great that we can all think of ourselves as “Israel” or “the Jewish people” the reality is different for those who are not Jews.  True, while there aren’t many people who call us “Israel” or “Israelites” any more, we can think of the word “Jew” or “Jewish people” as successors to those names. Those words, as broad generic descriptors, are fraught with peril. They often become stereotypes. People outside the Jewish community often don’t see or know of the broad diversity of belief and praxis with the community. Yet this is not always the case with eponyms and generic names.

Let’s take an eponymic example. A sandwich is basically anything that is between two (or more) pieces of bread. We all pretty much understand that, within the broad category of sandwich, there are many different types and styles (and preferences.) On the other hand, there’s not much difference between one company’s version of Kleenex and another’s. The companies would have us believe there are great differences-in value, quality, etc. Yet, in the end, a Kleenex is a Kleenex, a tissue is a tissue. The same basic product design, same basic uses. Can the same be said about (Am) Israel or the Jews?

My answer to that is no. Even in ancient times, I think we can find evidence of a wide variance of belief and practice. Perhaps less varied than today, but still varied. So Israel really never has been truly generic. It has always come in a variety of flavors.

I say thank goodness for that. It allows us all to be Israel. Like Israel’s sons, we are all different. Differentiate them as you will, they were all still sons of Israel. All part of the same “brand.” (Even companies like Xerox diversify, so why not Israel?)

That is one counter, one secret to the problems of becoming a generic brand name. Continue working to make your own original brand name unique – by branching out, broadening your product line.

Psst. Hey. Wanna buy some Israel? We got something for everyone. (Of late I’ve read some articles and blog postings that decry how far we’ve gone to be diverse. I myself do believe there is some truth to the adage that is you try to be all things to all people, you end up being nothing. Yet I do not believe that Judaism has gone that far, that we have truly tried to be all things to all people. We still have our boundaries, our borders. I do believe that we need to keep exploring those liminal areas, and see how far we can push then edges. At the same time, we must not lose site of what is at the core. That is, I suppose, when we know we have gone too far-when you can’t see the core from where you are. Some claim this has already happened, but I do not believe this to be true. Our Jewish core, with all its faults and problems, is strong enough to withstand even more exploration to see how far we can journey without losing our connection to it.

One thing that distinguished the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob-Israel is their understanding in the “portability” of G”d. G”d could be in many places. To quote a popular Jewish theology: “Where is G”d? Wherever you let G”d in.” With that kind of G”d, with that kind of core, how could we possibly exceed a distance limit? The core comes with us, as we travel along our way. We need only invite it along. We need only take it along with us – just like we do with our Kleenex.

There is one other aspect to all this I want to mention. It is the other end of things-the source where it all started. Jacob, also named Israel. Although Israel has become one with the community, we still know of Jacob-Israel the human being-fraught with imperfections as well as good qualities. So when we think of ourselves as the generic brand name or the eponym Israel, we should also remember that each of us is, in our own way, the original Israel. We shape our lives, we shape our faiths, we intersect with the lives of others, we become part of the community. Yet through it all we remain who we are at our own cores.

So let us celebrate our generic brand-ness. Let us celebrate our uniqueness. Let us celebrate being Israel. Both Israels.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

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Friday, December 3, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Miketz 5771- What’s Bothering…Me

I’m no Rashi, that’s for sure. So it is with some trepidation that I invoke the “what’s bothering Rashi?” metaphor when I pose the question, “What’s bothering Adrian?”

I wanted to gloss over it, simply toss it off to literary stylings. Yet I kept coming back to it each time I read through the parasha. Each time I read the parasha, I would try to just read right through, but it kept haunting me, niggling at me.

I checked to see if it bothered Rashi, but it didn’t. So here’s what is bothering Adrian.

43:15 So the men took that gift, and they took with them double the money, as well as Benjamin. They made their way down to Egypt where they presented themselves to Joseph.

Why does this verse, and seemingly this verse along, refer to Joseph’s brothers as “the men,” in Hebrew “ha-anashim.” The verse could just  have easily been written “So the brothers took that gift…”

Elsewhere in this part of the story they are are referred to as sons, brothers, and assorted pronouns. Only in this one verse are they called “the men.” (While in v. 42:19 Joseph says “If you are honest men..” but the Hebrew does not say this directly, and does not contain the word anashim.

What is the Torah telling us here? Is there something about what has just transpired? When the brothers first returned home and told Jacob that Simeon was being held, and that they were to bring Benjamin with them to secure his release (and more food,) Jacob resisted. Reuben was unable to persuade him even though he offered the lives of his own sons to insure Benjamin’s safety.

No, Jacob decided to be pouty. Only after they had exhausted the rations brought from Egypt did Jacob finally relent. He only relented after once more being pressured by his sons, and in particular, Judah, who offers his own life a surety for Benjamin’s safety.

Ever the “play it safe” type, Jacob insists they return bearing many gifts, plus double the money that was mysteriously returned to them. He resigns himself to the potential loss of Benjamin. (I notice, btw, that no mention is made of poor Simeon, whom Jacob seems to be assuming is lost. Even the brothers make no argument about returning for Simeon’s sake.

It is after this that the Torah refers to Jacob’s sons/Joseph’s brothers as “the men.”

I don’t particularly see that the brothers have done anything particularly positive enough to be now thought of as “men.” They haven’t shown any concern for Simeon. They didn’t keep badgering their father the whole time for them to go back to Egypt.

In fact, I wouldn’t say that anyone here really “manned up.” Yeah, credit is due both Reuben and Judah for attempting to assure Jacob that Benjamin would be safe if he went with them back to Egypt.

So perhaps there’s another reason the brothers are now referred to as “the men.” Perhaps it is because they are now simply doing what any man would do when faced with starvation. There was nothing noble about it. No great heroics to rescue their brother Simeon. They were carrying bribes and their younger brother.-concessions to reality. Perhaps they became just “the men” at this point because these progenitors of the tribes of Israel were nobody special-doing nothing to illustrate their distinct heritage and their families covenant with the Divine. They were just hungry men.

When they return to Egypt, Simeon is returned to them-yet there’s no mention in the text about a teary reunion. Just the simple fact: “and he brought out Simeon to them.” (43:23)

Maybe they were just “the men” because it never even occurred to them that G”d was showing them favor by restoring their money to their bags. It’s at least likely that, in similar circumstances, their brother Joseph might have attributed that circumstance to G”d rather than seeing it as some problematic incident done to make trouble for them. Yes, the brothers see (the unknown to them) Joseph’s treatment of them-his suspicion of them as spies, his insistence they bring Benjamin, that they leave Simeon as a hostage – as payback for what they did do Joseph lo those many years ago. But remember this is before they realize they are dealing with Joseph.

Joseph seems to have kept (to some degree) his faith in G”d. His brothers don’t seem to think of G”d much at all. The best we get is Jacob asking El Shaddai to dispose the Egyptian vizier (i.e. Joseph) to treat his sons favorably. The brothers don’t offer any prayers – of thanks or petition or praise!

All of these are perhaps reasons they are just referred to here as “the men.” Yet I find this all somewhat unsatisfying, incomplete. This is a problem I suspect I am going to be wrestling with for some time. I’d welcome your thoughts on the matter. Together, perhaps we can add up to at least part of a Rashi, and discover “what’s troubling us.”

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Urim Sameakh,

©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

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