Friday, October 26, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Lekh Lekha 5773-The Journey Continues

I have gone forth many times in my life.

Warning: the next few paragraphs are a history. You can choose to think of them as the equivalent of the various interrupting genealogies in the Torah. So, as many do, you can gloss over them, or read them in their entirety, perhaps finding a few useful pieces of information –just as one can do in the genealogies.

In 1973 I went forth from my childhood home of New York City to college in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. (Interestingly, I got my first driver’s license there. Didn’t have much need to drive while a teen in NYC. Winston-Salem is also the only city I have encountered to date where 1st St and 4th St. actually cross each other.) After graduation In 1977 I briefly returned to NYC for the summer and run a summer day camp. Then I went forth again – first to Doswell, Virginia, and shortly thereafter Mobile, Alabama, as a member of a Dixieland band. How a kid who studied piano at Juilliard from the age of five, and now had an undergraduate degree in theatrical design and production wound up playing with a Dixieland band is a great question, but, like Torah often does, we’ll leave it unanswered!)

The time in Mobile was brief (the club where we were playing went out of business.) I went forth again, this time to New Orleans, Louisiana. That was a great time. We played on Bourbon Street, and did all sorts of crazy, odd jobs. After a while it was off again, to Clearwater, Florida. After a few years there with the band, a marriage, and another club going out of business on us, I went forth again, with my wife, to Elkhart, Indiana. Actually, I worked in Elkhart (in an area called Dunlap) but lived in Bristol, a town of maybe 1200 residents. They had just switched over from 5 digit phone numbers shortly before I moved there. I was using my college degree, managing a performing arts facility, designing shows and working as a musician as well.

I managed to stay there a while (8 years) before going forth yet again to Fargo, North Dakota. There I also managed performing arts facilities, designed shows, and did musical work. I also worked as a synagogue musician and religious school teacher.  This time I managed to stay in one place a few months shy of ten years, but left without my then wife of 18 years after we divorced. We had no children, just lots of dogs, cats, and fish. This was also the time and place where and when I finally decided that it was time to make my living as a Jewish professional, no longer doing that as a sideline to my professions as theatrical production manager and musician.

So on to Nashville, Tennessee, graduate school, and a second, much shorter marriage that also ended in a divorce. This one involved two wonderful children.

Three years later I was off to Alexandria, Virginia.  I spent seven years there in the DC Metro area. I worked for a number of synagogues and was active in the Jewish community as educator and musician. I lived a few months with a partner in Boyds, Maryland, a far north suburb of DC, and then we (me, her, and her wonderful daughter) were off to Amherst, Massachusetts, she to teach at UMass and I to find whatever Jewish work there was in the area-which turned out to be not much. Three more years, and I went forth again, once again on my own. Only this time, I was going home – back to New York City, Brooklyn, to be exact. Single and unattached again, and living with my 87-year-old mother, who needed, and was happy for, the company.

(In looking this over, I’ve seen the number three come up a few times. I wonder what that’s all about. Or am I just being eisegetical?) 

This list of places I’ve lived is even longer if you factor in the various local moves and temporary summer moves. Three boroughs (Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn) and four addresses in New York City. During college years, summer addresses in Charlotte, North Carolina and Henrico County, Virginia (suburban Richmond.) Two addresses in New Orleans. Four addresses in three cities in Florida. Just two – one apartment and my first home, in Indiana, both in the same town. Thankfully, in Fargo, only one address. In Nashville, two addresses. In Alexandria, Virginia, two addresses within the same apartment complex. One each in Maryland and Massachusetts.

Phew. I think we’re pretty much past the recap.

Now, after a year in New York City to prove that you really can’t go home again, I am going forth yet again, this time to Deerfield, Illinois, a town in the northern suburbs of Chicago.

(I could write a whole essay on why the return to NYC didn’t work. Oh wait, I did write a short one. You can find it at:

Now, I can’t say that any one of my moves was anything like that which Avram undertook at G”d’s direction. Each time, I did indeed know where I was going. Yet, in any journey, there are always unknowns. Some of my moves were for education. Some for love. Some for work. Some for life. All of those are rife with possibilities, and fraught with potential perils. While I my have known a journey’s end locale, I can hardly claim to have known the real destination. New people, new communities, new workplaces, new expectations.

A quick diversion, if I might. When I was younger and moving around, locales had distinct personalities, characteristics, store, restaurants, etc. That has changed over the decades and places have become increasingly similar, homogenized, as it were. I sort of knew it was an unstoppable trend when Starbucks came to Fargo. Now don’t get me wrong. Many towns, cities, and neighborhoods have very distinct personalities. They still have unique restaurants, stores, parks, architecture, etc. New York City still has distinct neighborhoods. However there is also a sameness. In Metro NYC (and, for that matter, metro Chicago) there’s a Chase bank in every neighborhood. Each locale might have its local coffee place, but there’s bound to be a nearby Starbucks. For every unique local eatery there are numerous nearby national chains.

So, these days, when moving from one place to another, perhaps some of the anxiety about not finding familiar names and places is lessened. By the same token. sometimes I find that seeing the same store and restaurant names everywhere is anxiety-producing.

Imagine what it was like for Avram. Travelers to Ur and Haran may have brought information about far-flung places, but how much could they really convey? I imagine there were far more differences than similarities. Oh, you could certainly expect to find a temple of some sort just about everywhere. Which gods were worshipped in it was another matter. (My understanding is that it was common practice for a traveler to utilize the local temple wherever they were in order to make offerings to their own gods.)

I don’t want to sell words short. While a picture may paint a thousand words, words can also paint a pretty complete picture. Still, like today, there’s still nothing like experiencing a place for yourself. Avram didn’t even know where he was going. He probably had a general idea of where G”d was leading him. Still, he was far braver than I would consider I am.

Nevertheless, I could only hazard a guess at many of the things that lay before me each time I journeyed forth, for myself, to a new place. Thus, in that way, it is as if I were going to a place I did not know, like Avram. I would also like to think that G”d’s hand was there guiding me with each journey, and that I was truly being shown to a new place. That begs the question of course, as to whether it was G”d’s judgment, or my own, that made some poor choices. Well, that’s not fair. I have made some choices (and perhaps G”d made some choices for me) that were, in hindsight, not wise choices. Yes, I have some regrets. Yet, in the end, I am where I am and I am who I am because of all those experiences. They have made me all the richer for experiencing them. (Whether they have made me wiser, that’s another subject entirely.)

There is one big difference between Avram’s journey and my own. While the promise of future generations was there, I chose, for ever-changing reasons, to not sire children of my own. I have been privileged to be a step-parent and pseudo-parent to a number of wonderful children, yet, unlike Avram, my line ends with me. I leave it to my sister and relatives to continue the family lineage. I have no servant, no Eliezer to inherit. Not that I leave much behind. My material possessions and financial holdings are meager. What is it that I will leave behind?

Avram prayed that G”d give him children, give him an heir. G”d delivered on that promise. I am not driven to make that same request. I have the children who have come into my life through relationships, and through my work as a teacher and educator. They shall be my inheritance.

I will leave my work. It is not finished yet. I leave my life. It, too, is not over yet,  and new chapters are perhaps beginning to be written. What gets written is as much in my hands as it is in G”d’s hands. Perhaps more in my hands.

Avram journeyed forth, taking his household with him to a place he did not know, to a place that G”d would show him. It was not an easy journey-Avram had his trials and tribulations. Why did he make the journey? Why do any of us make the journey? The answer is found, at least for me, in how we have always teased out the meaning of the verb construct “Lekh Lekha.” Go forth, for yourself. Go forth, to yourself. Take your pick of these or other translations/interpretations.

I have again a journey before me. As I write this, my material possessions are on a truck somewhere between New York and Illinois. Once again, I have a new community of people to get to know, a new household to set up. I also have new chances and new opportunities.

What is it that I seek on these journeys? Why do I continue to go forth, for myself?  Avram received one particular bit of largess from G”d. It was a new name, Avraham. This new name represented a new phase in Avram’s life. Gone forth from his birthplace, Avram was free of the restrictions that place placed in his way. Only in a new place and with a new name could Avram become father of a multitude of nations.

No, it is not a new name I seek. I’m happy with my name, and, to some extent, who I am. In addition, my Hebrew name is already Avraham. I am proud to bear his name, though I most often feel unworthy of the honor.

What am I seeking? I think I am seeking the same thing Avram/Avraham was seeking. To have a relationship with G”d. To get to know G”d. To get to know myself. To have a relationship with myself. Both are journeys that have no end. There are stops along the way, and we stay in some longer than others. Some of us stay in only a few, some of us journey to many. I’m not sure what I would do if I ever reached a place I believed was the journey’s end. I suspect I might stay for a while and then get the urge to move on. Well, truth be told, I think, a number of times in my life I thought I had reached a more or less permanent destination, only to have life prove me wrong, and rebuke me for my hubris in thinking I could actually know this. There was a time – it still is a time – when I long for the permanence and security of a more or less permanent destination. Yet permanence is elusive.

I am, have always been, a person of opposites (as most of us are.) I long for permanence, I long for end result. Yet my passion is as much for process, for the journey. It has been (and continues to be) a slow process for me to embrace the latter, even though it permeates all that I do. As a person, as a professional, the process is of greater importance to me than the product. I seek that fine balance between the desire for permanence and the passion for process. I seek to become the blessing that I am living my life as.

And so I travel on…

Shabbat Shalom,

©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on This Parasha:

Lekh Lekha 5772 - Out of Context
Lekh Lekha 5771 (5765, 5760) Things Are Seldom What They Seem An Excerpt from the "Journal of Lot"
Lekh Lkha 5770 - Revisiting the Ten Percent Solution
Lekh L'kha 5769 - Of Nodding Heads, Whistling Airs, and Snickersnees
Lekh Lekha 5768 - The Covenant That (Almost) Wasn't - Excerpts from the Diary of Terakh
Lekh Lekha 5767-Penile Pilpul
Lekh Lekha 5766-The Other Siders
Lekh Lekha 5765 - Redux 5760
Lekh Lekha 5764-Ma'aseir Mikol-The Ten Percent Solution
Lekh Lekha 5763-No Explanations
Lekh Lekha 5761-The Intellectual Echad
Lekh L'kha 5758-Little White Lies


Friday, October 12, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat-B’reishit 5773-Mixing Metaphors

There is a rather stark contrast between parashat Bereishit and its accompanying haftarah.

The G”d of parashat B’reishit is grand yet not particularly personal (or personable?)

Yes, the G”d of parashat B’reishit is most directly and intimately involved with the creation of human beings, and this G”d has a relationship with those beings. G”d speaks to them. Nevertheless, about the most personal this G”d becomes in this narrative is the treatment of Cain – even though Cain murdered his brother, G”d was moved by Cain’s plea to protect him from certain death. (Whether this was a mercy on G”d’s part or actually intended to be a form of additional punishment is unclear.)

The G”d of Isaiah’s prophecies in the haftarah is grand as well, but keenly personal – a protector, a savior and a redeemer.

In the JPS Haftarah Commentary, Michael Fishbane points out how the parasha uses verbs in the completed tense – G”d did this and G”d blessed that whereas Isaiah uses many participle verb forms – indicative, says Fishbane of a continuous and continuing acts of G”d, of G”d acts of creation.

I’ve written before that for most of our history, the creation stories of parashat B’reishit have been mostly seen as metaphorical, and only the most fundamentalist of Jewish interpretations would consider either of the two creation narratives presented as intended to be an actual physical description of those events,

The prophecies in the haftarah from Isaiah are also metaphorical in nature. Yet very different metaphors are used. Isaiah’s G”d is a loving (yet stern) parent.

It’s obvious, why the difference, isn’t it? In the creation narratives of parashat B’reishit, we have a G”d that is creating an entire universe, an entire planet and people on it. In Isaiah we are reading of the specific relationship of G”d to the people Yisrael. So naturally one is going to feel more personal than the other, especially to we descendants (physically or spiritually) Yisrael. Right?

Doesn’t that trouble you? It troubles me. Is it only once G”d has established a covenant with the Israelites that G”d establishes a more personal relationship? As G”d’s creation from the get go, are not all people equally entitled to a G”d that is a stern yet loving parent? A G”d that will protect and redeem them?

There are obviously flaws in the model-as demonstrated by the Flood and Midgal Bavel (the Tower of Babel.) For that matter we have the whole serpent thing, and Cain’s murder of Abel. I know I’m getting ahead of the story, but did it really take until G”d finally got to Abraham for G”d to realize that a more direct and personal approach was needed if G”d’s creations were to even come close to the expectations G”d had (has?) for them? Slow learner, this G”d. But we already know that.

If the creation stories of B’reishit are metaphoric, why not choose a storyline that has a G”d personally connected to all of humanity with a covenant? (Well, duh, if that were the case we wouldn’t be here discussing this now, would we? Ah, but I hear you say – humanity does get a covenant next week – a rainbow covenant! It’s a pretty one way covenant – G”d promise to never again destroy the earth – but with the escape clause of by flood.

If one brings a child into this world, one certainly has obligations and responsibilities for it. Why is G”d allowed to create a universe without having similar obligations and responsibilities?

Imagine Isaiah’s G”d in the B’reishit narrative. All of a sudden, there is a clearer intention in G”d’s acts of creation. Also, a clear acceptance by G”d of the responsibility to care for those creations.

Ah, but then I think how prideful and selfish this viewpoint is. Now all of creation is focused on humanity. G”d created all of this for us. (That is a likely viewpoint of our ancient ancestors – one of their answers to the question of why this universe is as it is.) At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if our ancestors were smart enough to know that a creation narrative with a personable G”d may have led us to greater hubris than we already come by naturally. That perhaps this is why the G”d of parashat B’reishit and the G”d of Isaiah are not the same.

Yet we still managed to muck it all up in any case. Pretty soon, not only was the universe created for humankind, it was created so that there might be Jews. All of a sudden Torah existed before Sinai.  Even before creation. So did, according to Talmud, repentance, Gan Eden (as paradise,) hell, G”d's throne, the Holy Temple, and Moshiach’s name. WTF?

While there are imperfections (gasp!) in both the G”d of parashat B’resiehit and the G”d of haftarah B’reishit, I think perhaps I’ll settle for leaving them as they are in those respective stories, without mixing their metaphors. For now.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

B'reishit 5772 - The Unified Field Theorem of the Twelve Steps
B'reishit 5771 - B'reishit Bara Anashim
B'reishit 5770 - One G"d, But Two Trees?
B'reishit 5769 - Do Fences Really Make Good Neighbors
B'reishit 5767-Many Beginnings
Bereshit 5766-Kol D'mei Akhikha
Bereshit 5765 (5760)-Failing to Understand-A Learning Experience
Bereshit 5764-Gd's Regrets
Bereshit 5762--The Essential Ingredient
Bereshit 5763--Striving to be Human
Bereshit 5761--Chava's Faith
Bereshit 5760-Failing to Understand

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Friday, October 5, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Hol HaMo’eid Sukkot 5773-Does G”d Have Small Penis Syndrome?

A colleague and friend of mine was visiting Iceland this past week. In one of her tweets she reported the existence of the Iceland Phallological Museum. Now, it does not at all surprise me that there is, somewhere in this world, a museum dedicated to penises. That it happens to be in Iceland is a mere happenstance. That I would find myself thinking about it in reference to the haftarah for Shabbat Hol HaMo-eid Sukkot this year is somewhat surprising. Or not.

The G”d presented in this haftarah, from Ezekiel (38:18–39:7) is most assuredly a warrior G”d. Though there have been examples of female warriors throughout history (including our own Jewish tradition) the G”d being portrayed here feels particularly masculine to me, and yes, I do mean that in a pejorative sense.

This is a G”d who buys a Mustang or Corvette convertible in response to a mid-life crisis. This is a G”d with an extreme need to prove “him”self-to show that he’s bigger than everyone else. This may be a G”d who is at times boastful of his manhood yet can be timid in the locker room lest his boasting be proven inaccurate. This is a G”d who may be overcompensating just a tad.

I get it, I really do, and I hope you don’t find my frankness disturbing. At 4 foot 10 inches, I’m on the extreme short end of the male height curve (at least for the U.S.) Decades of therapy and positive relationships and experience help, but they never completely erase the tapes developed in childhood. No one ever made me feel bad in the locker room – and I am thankful for that - I did a good enough job of that myself. I wasn’t particularly athletic but no one ever excluded me from their game. Again, for that I am thankful. (I also have to wonder if the same would be true today, in what is definitely to my eyes a much more competitive time for children than it was in the 60s.) However, when you consider that I sometimes played in the same playground as a kid where a somewhat older Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul Jabar also played, well, you get the picture. I didn’t think much of my own athletic prowess, though, when I look back on it, I was a decent athlete, and my height only hampered me in situations where height (or reach) really mattered in a physical sense. I learned to run fast enough that the disadvantage of taking smaller steps could be overcome. (I have to admit that, as I have aged, and having had a significant number of relationships with taller people, I’ve noticed it’s a little harder to walk just that little bit faster to keep up with their normal gait.)

Sexually, I was slow to bloom. Thankfully, no partner has ever suggested any lack of prowess on my part – the doubts and insecurities always remain mine. However, that’s just it – the doubts and insecurities remain. Living in this society, bombarded as we are on a regular basis with images of what masculinity is supposed to be and look like, I can’t help but feel an innate inadequacy simply based on my physical stature. It’s also why I am puzzled by how men so much taller than I (even if they are considered below and especially if they are above average height) manifest the same sorts of doubts and insecurities I do.

While I do see some men who are short, or balding, compensating with muscle cars, or fanatic devotion to weight-training, and similar manifestations, I also see a surprising number of men of average height and above doing the same over-compensating. I accept that I am making a great many assumptions and being very judgmental in saying this. I certainly cannot know what prompts another man to do things that give the appearance of seeming to enhance their masculinity. And, as they say, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Let us turn back to our haftarah. In it, does G”d fear impotence? G”d seems to have a history that might suggest this. The Torah mentions several successful appeals to G”d’s vanity or fear of impotence. The text suggests that G”d responds to hints that G”d’s actions might cause G”d to appear impotent and ineffectual to the goyim. G”d is implored to destroy or not destroy on this basis. G”d hardens the heart of Pharaoh so that G”d’s chastisements against the Egyptians are amplified. Elijah gives G”d the opportunity to demonstrate his manly potency against the priests of Ba’al.

Now Ezekiel comes along and brings us the ultimate war against Gog of Magog. G”d pulls out all the stops. A massive Earthquake that causes all livings things to tremble, that overturns mountains, topples cliff, and causes every wall to crumble. Pestilence. Brother slaying brother.  Some torrential rains, hail, sulfurous fire. All for this end:

וְהִתְגַּדִּלְתִּי֙ וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתִּ֔י וְנ֣וֹדַעְתִּ֔י לְעֵינֵ֖י גּוֹיִ֣ם רַבִּ֑ים וְיָדְע֖וּ כִּֽי־אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֽה׃

Thus will I manifest My greatness and My holiness, and make Myself known in the sight of many nations. And they shall know that I am the LORD.

(It’s a theme later taken up by the Kaddish prayer – yitgadal v’vitkadash – enlarged and sanctified, so may be G”d’s great name.)

The earthquake alone isn’t enough. Over-compensation? Gog’s destruction will be totally over-the-top. So many enemy forces will be killed it will take seven months to bury them. Burning and melting their weapons will provide enough fires for seven years without having to use any wood!

All this to redeem and restore to greatness a people who have been faithless, stiff-necked, arrogant, and easily led astray to follow other gods. Holy testosterone!

Why does G”d need to prove anything to anybody? An analyst could have a field day with G”d and G”d’s insecurities. While we’re at it, just how does circumcision, brit milah, fit into all of this? Have fun with that one.

Judaism, as a religion, at least in its origins, is rather earthy. Sex is not a subject that is shied away from in the Torah. Some religions are more blatant when it comes to deities and sexuality. There is the Greek fertility and vegetable god Priapus. It was customary to propitiate Priapus by stroking the perpetually erect penis on his statue as one passed by. The Hindu religion has Shiva and his lingam. The ancient Egyptians had the fertility god Min.

Judaism and it’s daughter religions don’t have much in the way of blatant sexuality on the part of G”d, though we do have the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, and we are told that we are made in the image of G”d, so therefore doesn’t it hold that G”d…well, you see where that was headed. In general Judaism holds that G”d has no gender, yet there’s some evidence of both masculine and feminine aspects of G”d in Judaism from the ancient Israelite religion right on through Kabbalah and on to today.

All of this has been, of course, a very circuitous attempt at redemption of some very troubling text. Even though G”d is being all machismo in this haftarah for Israel’s sake, it’s still not an image of a G”d that I’d like to worship and in which I can believe. If G”d has a phallus, there’s still little reason for G”d to be worried about size. If G”d doesn’t have a phallus, then what, in G”d’s name, is causing G”d to act like G”d has small penis syndrome, or that G”d is on steroids?

Sadly, in the end, I’m left with this question: “if G”d has a penis, who is it that is getting…?” I’m not sure I want to know the answer.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameah

©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

While I’ve not written specifically about this Haftarah before, here are other musings from Sukkot:

Sukkot III 5772 - Fragility
Sukkot I 5770 - Fire and Rain
Sukkot 5767-Precious Congealed Light - Or Y'kator V'kipa'on
Sukkot 5764--Bayom Hazeh
Sukkot 5763--Sukkot Time Travel