Friday, December 28, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayekhi 5773 - Redux and Revised 5762–The Wrong Good

It's a popular use of the Yosef story – as a proof text that good can come from evil, that all that befell Yosef was part of a Divine plan. That all that transpired was necessary, so that the Israelites would wind up in Mitzrayim, eventually be enslaved, cry out to G”d and be heard, then to be led out of Egypt by G”d’s mighty hand and enter into a covenant with G”d at Sinai. A nice, perfect little package. When trying to deal with questions of theodicy, of why bad things happen to good people, it is, for some, an inspiring and explanatory tale. (Now, I make no pretense of my utter contempt for the sort of teleological “ends justifies the means” argument that underlies the whole Yosef story. So it’s not so inspiring a tale for me.)

In any case, there's a problem, and they rest with the very words of Yosef himself, explaining his understanding of what had transpired.

Yaakov gets in his last digs by "adopting" Menashe and Ephraim as if they were his own sons, placing the younger Ephraim before Menashe, then offering his little death-bed poem of psychological analysis of his sons. He dies, and, true to the promise Yaakov exacted from him, Yosef takes Yaakov up to Canaan to be buried in the cave of Machpelah. A brief aside here. Yaakov couldn’t be bothered to have his beloved Rachel brought to and buried at Machpelah – he buried her at the side of the road. Yet he asks Yosef to swear an oath to be sure he is buried at Machpelah. he later asks the rest of his sons to insure the same, but does not make them swear an oath to that effect. Clearly, he saw that only Yosef was able to insure this happening due to his status as Vizier of Egypt.  I find this nod to power a bit troubling, and it’s probably fodder for an entire musing sometime in the future.

With Yaakov’s body returned to Canaan and buried at Machpelah done (with much pomp and circumstance, Yosef still being an Egyptian muckety-muck) the brothers again fear what Yosef might do to punish them, especially now that Yaakov was gone. They concoct (yet another) lie and tell Yosef that before he died, he told the brothers to tell Yosef to forgive his brothers for what they had done to them.

Yosef tells them not to fear, and utters those memorable words I and others have written about many times before: "Ki hatakhat Elokim ani?" "Am I to take the place of G”d?" (or, as the JPS says "Am I a substitute for G”d.") Gen 50:19. I'll leave you to muse over those words and I'll move on.

Yosef next says to his brothers that although they intended him evil, G”d intended it for good,

וְאַתֶּ֕ם חֲשַׁבְתֶּ֥ם עָלַ֖י רָעָ֑ה אֱלֹהִים֙ חֲשָׁבָ֣הּ לְטֹבָ֔ה

in order to. . .

לְמַ֗עַן עֲשֹׂ֛ה כַּיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּ֖ה לְהַחֲיֹ֥ת עַם־רָֽב׃

And here comes the nub of my argument. Yosef says: "l'ma'an aseh kiyom hazeh, l'hakhayot am-rav." Literally, "in order to make (bring about?) like (they are) this day, to cause many to live." Or the smoother JPS: "so as to bring about the present result-the survival of many people." (Gen 50:20)

Am-rav. Great Nation. Great people. Many people. A populous nation. A numerous people. All valid meanings. When we read the word in this context, most of us generally tend to view "am" as referring to the people Israel. But is that truly what Yosef meant, that this was all about the survival of the people of Israel? The 70 who came down to Egypt (and eventually became many more.) Yaakov, his sons, their wives, slaves, maids, etc. were not a huge multitude. It is quite likely that thousands upon thousands of Egyptians were saved from starvation through the ultimately fortuitous set of circumstances that arose out of Yosef being sold into slavery by his brothers. (On the other hand, they were also made into serfs, having to give up all their money and land to the state in order to survive.)

I think all the inhabitants of Egypt and the surrounding lands, along with Yaakov, his family clan and retainers, are the entire "am-rav" that Yosef is referring to. I think this is an important reminder to not be myopic in our thinking. This whole Yosef thing might not have been entirely about us, "am-Yisrael." Yes, it’s our story, our Torah that we’re analyzing here. Yet if we are to be or l’goyim (a light to the nations) can we limit our vision this way?

Which the desired result and which the unintended but beneficent consequence? Can we really be sure? Does G”d have it all plotted out, down to the end of  time? Or does G”d perhaps sometimes use more short-term strategies, assess and then move on? It's all a matter of how direct a hand G”d takes in human affairs. Therein lies a whole other discussion, and a whole series of musings.

But I digress. My point is that, while this may be a proof text used by some to rationalize good arising from evil deeds, I'm not sure it's entirely fair to use it only as proof that the people of Israel were the ultimate intended recipient of the good. G”d created us all, and G”d surely cares about us all, even those, like the Egyptians, who pray to false gods.

Good isn't always something that happens to us. Good is something that we want to happen to others, in fact, to as many people as it can happen to. And not just people-but animals, living matter, our planet, our universe.

So let's try to be a little more global in our view of parashat Vayekhi. If we’re going to accept that sometimes good can come from evil (and though I shudder to think so, it is part of the conversation we are having here)  then why not allow as much good to come from evil as is possible? G”d knows, in these times, we need that kind of attitude. Let's not be selfish, and wish that whatever good might come out the Newtown tragedy, (or, as I wrote at the time of the original version of this musing – from the ashes of 9/11) is good for America. That bad events in the middle east might yield good for Israel. In 5762 I wrote: “Let us hope, pray (and work! To insure) that the good that comes is a good for all the world.” Today, I modify these thoughts. Let us first hope and pray that we can eliminate evil, or at least sweep as much evil as we can from our midst, and work always for the good. Despite our efforts, should evil occur, may it be Your will and ours that we turn the outcome of the evil into as much good as is humanly (and Divinely) possible.

Ken y'hi ratson. May this be (Gd's) will. Ken y’hi ratsoneinu. May this be our will.

Shabbat shalom, and happy secular New Year to all.

Hazak, hazak, v’nitkhazeik.


©2012 (portions 2001) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayekhi 5772 - A Different HaMalakh HaGoel
Vayekhi 5771-Trading Places (Redux & Updated from 5759)
Vayekhi 5770 - Musing Block?
Vayekhi 5769 - Enough With the Hereditary Payback Already!
Vayekhi 5767-HaMalakh HaGoel
Vayechi 5766-Thresholds (Redux 5764 with Reflections
Vayechi 5761/5-Unethical Wills
Vayechi 5764-Thresholds
Vayechi 5763 - I Got it Good and That Ain't Bad (Redux 5760)
Vayechi 5759-Trading Places


Friday, December 21, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayigash 5773–Let’s Be Judah

It is time for us to act like Judah-time to redeem ourselves as a nation. Let us put our nation’s leaders in the place of Joseph and Pharaoh. Let us question their holding of our children as hostages to politics. The gun manufacturers, the N.R.A., members of congress, and, to some extent, even the leaders of our executive and judicial branches of government are holding our collective Benjamins as hostages. It is time for us to plead with them, as Judah pleaded with Joseph. Judah offered to take their place, and it was this completely selfless and redeeming act that finally broke Joseph, and he revealed himself to his brothers. Is that what we must do? Must we offer ourselves as hostages in place of our children so that no more will die senselessly from guns? Are we willing to do what must be done to redeem ourselves? It is too late to prevent the senseless deaths of so many, but perhaps we can prevent more deaths. Take us, then, in place of our children.

This is the point when Joseph is supposed to break down. Based on the N.R.A.’s statements today, it seems that we haven’t gotten through to them. They still refuse to recognize us as their brothers (and sisters and children.) We must keep trying, keep pleading. And if that doesn’t work, then maybe it is time for us to take firm and deliberate action, as Joseph did in dealing with the pending and continuing famine. Guns, and especially assault weapons and automatic weapons are in abundance today, so it is hard to think of them as symbolized by a famine. Yet there is an equivalence. Guns challenge our very survival in the same way that the famine challenged the survival of Egypt, Canaan, and neighboring nations.

I might suggest that if the gun advocates don’t accept the reality that they are going to have to compromise, then their worst nightmare may come true – Just as Joseph acquired all the money and land for the state, our government may wind up acquiring all the weapons. Truly the worst nightmare for staunch advocates of the second amendment – and, to be frank, a reality I would also fear. Yet it could happen, if the majority of the citizens finally get tired of pandering to the small minority that insist on no limits on gun ownership.  So before we get to the point that there is no alternative but for the government to be the sole controller and owner of guns, let’s find a reasonable compromise that provides for a ban on ownership of assault weapons, that requires mandatory checks and screening on all purchases of weapons under all circumstances. A compromise that will save lives.

It has to stop. It’s not the 1790s. The guns available then are not the same as the guns available to us now. They were not capable of the same, rapid wholesale killing, and required much more deliberate effort to use and time to kill.

Others have stated this far more eloquently than I can, so I refer you to their thoughts.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President Emeritus of the URJ:

Rabbi Shaul Marshall Praver, Rabbi of Congregation Adath Israel in Newtown, CT. asks us to all join in an effort to solve this problem on his Facebook page.

The time is now. Let us beat our guns into plowshares.

Shabbat Shalom,


Other musings on parashat Vayigash:

Vayigash 5772 - Redux & Revised 5760 Teleology 101: Does G"d Play Dice With the World
Vayiggash 5771-Being Both Israels
Vayigash 5769 - He's A-Cookin'-a-Somethin'-A-Up
Vayigash 5768 - G"d By the Light of Day
Vayigash 5767-Two Sticks As One?
Vayigash 5765-One People
Vayigash 5763-Things Better Left Unsaid
Vayigash 5761/5766-Checking In
Vayigash 5762-Teleology 101: Does Gd Play Dice With the World?
Vayigash 5764-Incidental Outcomes and Alternate Histories

Friday, December 14, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Mikketz 5773–B’li Melitz

וְהֵם֙ לֹ֣א יָֽדְע֔וּ כִּ֥י שֹׁמֵ֖עַ יוֹסֵ֑ף כִּ֥י הַמֵּלִ֖יץ בֵּינֹתָֽם׃

And they did not know what Joseph was saying because there was an interpreter between them.

Up until now, in Bereshit (Genesis,) despite the confounding of language that was imposed upon humanity at migdal bavel (tower of Babel) the characters in the biblical narrative seemed to have no trouble speaking to one another. Clearly there were instances when characters from different cultures, nation- or city-states interacted. Perhaps there was a lingua-franca that was being used (as with the later Aramaic language) or perhaps people learned to speak languages other than their own as a routine matter of course. Of perhaps the authors/redactors of the biblical text didn’t consider it significant to mention when interpreters were being used. Or perhaps, as it may all be supposed or imagined dialogue to begin with, the authors/redactors decided to simply overlook the obvious in favor of making the narrative flow.

Here we have an interesting situation. Clearly Yoseif and his brothers are fully capable of communicating directly. Was it just to disguise his own identity that Yoseif chose to utilize an interpreter? Did he fear his voice would be recognized? (The obvious flaw in this argument is that he could still be heard speaking Egyptian to the interpreter – though perhaps it was less likely his voice would recognized by his brothers if it was speaking a different language.) Was it all just part of the trappings of diplomatic ritual? Could the grand Vizier of mighty Egypt be seen speaking (or understanding) the language of some other insignificant people?

Interesting questions, all, but not the focus of my musings this week. It’s just an interesting jumping-off point for a discussion about interpreters.

First, let us put the word meilitz in perspective. HALOT defines it as go-between, interpreter and also lists a second usage meaning subordinate, heavenly being, or intervening angel. The BDB lexicon also gives the definition of interpreter, but lists it as a second meaning. BDB defines the primary root of the word lamed-yod-tzadee as meaning scorn! (That adds an interesting dimension to Yoseif’s use of a “meilitz” but I’ll leave for you to ponder that.)

I will have to say, up front, that scorn is what I generally have for interpreters and interpretation. Not for the interpreters themselves, for they are all probably worthy people performing a worthy service. Our planet has so many languages that there is a clear need for people to interpret between them.

That being said, there’s a reason we often call them interpreters, and not just translators. While we may use the terms interchangeably, there’s a difference, and one that is not so subtle. A translation assumes a direct correlation between words in differing languages. This may be wishful thinking at best, As I have told many a student over the years, all translation is ultimately interpretation. I’m not sure that anyone can actually be just a translator.

The cycle of good communication usually goes something like this. A person says (or writes) something. Another person hears (or reads) it.  (Some suggest that hearing is not enough, it needs to be listening, and I would tend to agree with that.)  The hearing/listening/reading person attempts to understand the words of the original speaker/writer, utilizing whatever clues they can – context, body language, inflection, etc. Then, experts tell us, comes the crucial last steps, often omitted. The hearer/listener/reader gives feedback to the speaker/writer to demonstrate their understanding of what was communicated.  The process is cyclical. If the speaker/writer is satisfied with the understanding of the listener/reader, they can move on from there. Otherwise, attempts can be made to clarify.

The simple truth is that we all speak/write and hear through our own lenses.That is what often makes communication between human beings so difficult. We tend to assume people understand our lenses and how they shape our perceptions.

In spoken conversation, there are many more clues to meaning that in written communication. Despite things like emoticons, it’s hard to discern things like body language, tone, inflection, etc. in written communication. (In many ways, the system of Torah cantillation/trope that we utilize to chant our sacred texts is a partial attempt to work around this limitation. Unfortunately, it still represents the Masoretes’ particular understandings of the text.)

Now, I will admit at this point that these thought are somewhat in contradiction to opinions I have expressed elsewhere regarding the nature of electronic communications, in which I have stated that they carry more content that we sometimes realize. I still believe this is the case, but in this musing I am striking a more cautionary and less enthusiastic tone.

So how do we know what the Torah and our other sacred texts are really saying to us? If we leave the job of translating these texts to others, then we are simply accepting their interpretations.

That is the rationale that I employ when trying to convince students (and adults) of the value of learning Hebrew – so that they can read the text in its original language and decide for themselves how to translate/interpret it. True, the individual doing this will encounter the same vagaries that an interpreter will, but they get to make the choice, rather than simply accepting the interpreter’s choice. At the very least, I tell students, they should look at several different translations of the original Hebrew so they can decide which interpretation speaks to them.

Yoseif chose to put an interpreter between himself and his brothers. He may have had his reasons, but we do not have to emulate him. We need not abrogate our responsibility to encounter our sacred text directly. We can strive to be our own translators and interpreters.

We will read, much further along in the Torah, its own self-proclamation that it is not to difficult to understand, that it is not up to others to go and fetch it for us. It is ours to read , ours with which to wrestle. If we want to do this well, we should endeavor to not place a single meilitz between ourselves and our sacred texts. Ideally, we should be our own meilitz, however, until we have that capability, we can and certainly should rely on multiple meilitzim to assist us in making sense of them.

If, like Yoseif, we place a meilitz between ourselves and our sacred texts, it is as if we are hiding ourselves from it, just as Yoseif may have been hiding from his brothers. Eventually, as we will read next week, Yoseif reveals himself to his brothers – no need for a meilitz between them. Yoseif delayed until he could stand it no longer? Why should we needlessly distance ourselves from our sacred texts? In this season of light, let us illuminate our Torah and sacred texts for ourselves. Let’s beat Yoseif to the punch, and begin this Shabbat to converse directly, without a meilitz between us, with our sacred texts.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Urim Sameiakh,

©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Miketz 5772 - A Piece of That Kit Kat Bar
Miketz 5771-What's Bothering...Me?
Miketz/Hanukkah 5769 - Redux 5763 - Assimilating Assimilation
Miketz/Hanukah 5768 Learning From Joseph and His Brothers (revised from 5757)
Miketz 5767-Clothes Make the Man?
Miketz 5766-Eizeh Hu Khakham?
Miketz 5757& 5761-Would You Buy A Used Car From This Guy?
Miketz 5763/5764/5765-Assimilating Assimilation

Friday, December 7, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayeishev 5773–K’tonet Passim

      וְיִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אָהַ֤ב אֶת־יוֹסֵף֙ מִכָּל־בָּנָ֔יו כִּֽי־בֶן־זְקֻנִ֥ים ה֖וּא ל֑וֹ וְעָ֥שָׂה ל֖וֹ כְּתֹ֥נֶת פַּסִּֽים׃.

Just two little words, yet so much lore surrounding them.

K’tonet passim.

The meaning of the words is unclear, and scholars have offered a variety of translations. A long sleeved coat. An ornamented tunic. A striped coat. A multi-colored coat. A patchwork coat.

The Hebrew “pas” means palm or sole, and it is from this that scholars conjecture that it was a long-sleeved garment or a long-length garment.In Aramaic, it can mean “piece.” The Latin Vulgate renders k’tonet passim as a tunica polymita, a coat made of pieces of different colors.

Whatever it was, it was special is some way. Yaakov made it for Yoseif. Notice that, by the way. The text doesn’t say that Yaakov gave it to Yoseif. It doesn’t say that Yaakov had the coat made for Yoseif. In plain meaning it says Yaakov made it for Yoseif.

Now, it would be easy to write this off (pun intended) to literary license. How likely is it that Yaakov actually made the coat for Yoseif himself? On the other hand, how unlikely is it that Yaakov actually made the coat for Yoseif? Was making clothing solely women’s work in ancient times? In our desire to see ancient societies as less advanced than we are, we may be coloring the realities.

Clearly the coat was given to Yoseif as a symbol of Yaakov’s deep and abiding love for his favorite son. Let’s skip over the problematic bad-parenting aspects of this for now. I’ve written enough about that before. Perhaps the coat gave Yoseif an overly-elevated sense of self-worth, further inciting the jealousy of his brothers. Was this the intent of this gift from Yaakov? Was the jealousy merely an unintended (if entirely foreseeable) consequence? I’m not trying to give Yaakov a pass on bad parenting here, just trying to take it out of the discussion for now.

As I mentioned, the coat has given rise to all sorts of lore. Perhaps the most widely-known example in our own time is the musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” by Mssrs. Weber and Rice. It’s not an entirely accurate staging of the biblical text, but it’s a fun romp. I’ll admit to a fondness for this musical despite its inaccuracies. However, there’s another piece of music based on the coat story that, despite its somewhat trite and contrived nature, speaks to me.

Dolly Parton wrote a touching song entitled “Coat of Many Colors.” (You can find the lyrics at ) It tells the tale of a loving mother from a poor family who related the biblical story of Yoseif as she crafted a beautiful coat of many colors for her daughter from a box of rags. She sewed the coat with love in every stitch. At school others made fun of the young girl’s coat of rags, while she tried to explain to them how rich the coat made her feel.

One is only poor
Only if they choose to be
Now I know we had no money
But I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me

This coat and Yoseif’s coat are symbols, representations or physical, tangible manifestations of love. Yoseif’s brothers teased him about the coat, only in their case it was likely their jealousy that drove them. Might this also be the case with the teasing students in Dolly’s song? Perhaps, somewhere deep down inside, they understood the love that this rag coat represented, and they too, were jealous of that love?

We are at a season of the year when love is often represented (or perhaps misrepresented) through physical substitutes – gifts. I’ll side-step the whole discussion about gift-giving and Hanukkah and its connection to gift-giving at Xmas. Though sometimes the gifts are given more out of a sense of obligation, they are, hopefully, often given as symbols of love, in its many forms.

While we still see examples of gifts that people actually make for someone they love (both children for parents and relatives, and vice versa) I am sure these have become more the exception than the norm. Yaakov didn’t have access to malls, gift cards, or Amazon. He may or may not have had someone else make the coat he gave to Yoseif-we can’t be sure. For thousands of years gifts given were hand-made with love. Over time, more and more people came to depend upon others to make the gifts they would give. Does this make them lesser expressions of love?

It would be easy for me to wax nostalgic and complain about the “impersonal nature” of modern-day gift-giving, with gift cards and certificates, wish-lists, and more.It would be just as easy for me to rationalize the trends of modern-day gift-giving, and say that, done with proper intent, it is no less meaningful. Not surprisingly, I think I’ll walk the line somewhere in between the two positions.

When we receive gifts, especially extra-special ones like Yoseif’s k’tonet passim, we may feel very enamored with ourselves for inspiring love for us in others. Perhaps this is because we all want so desperately to be loved, and any symbol of that love, especially a tangible one serves as proof of that love, and G”d knows we all want that bit of security. This is a dangerous road. It is, perhaps, our yetzer hara, our evil inclination, that causes us to feel puffed up when we receive these signs of the love of other people. The gifts are symbols. They are not love itself. They can be an expression of it, but love is much more complex than that. It has many facets and aspects.

We all know that a cigar band can be a more loving and meaningful gift than the most expensive diamond ring. At the same time, an expensive piece of jewelry can be a very real expression of love. It is not our place to judge the value systems of others. It is, however, worthwhile for us to try and understand and know the value systems of others. Even people deeply in love can have very different value systems.

As I try to remind myself (and you, dear readers) at times, these are sometimes truly random musings, and today I’ve wandered down many paths, and I’m not sure they all lead to the same place. I’m not sure I can tie this all up in a nice bow. Then again, Torah often doesn’t wrap things up nicely, so I’m in good company. Nevertheless, these parting thoughts.

Whatever the k’tonet passim was, it was an expression of love. What imbues it with that love? It can be the personal nature of it having been created by the giver. It can simply be the thought or intention behind the gift. Rather than focusing on the methodology, or even the intent, how about trying to focus on the process itself – of giving as an expression of live. Imbue every gift you give, to anyone, with love. Even that “secret Hanukkah Harry” exchange gift at the office. Sure, maybe you bought it out of a sense of obligation. Maybe you bought someone a gift simply because you know they got one for you. None of that matters. Even the simplest trinket can be imbued with, and given with love.

I would be remiss in my thoughts if I did not suggest that, in this season of giving and receiving gifts, that we consider sharing and giving not just with those in our circles, but with those in need. Many families and congregations have established traditions of setting aside at least one night of Hanukkah to be one of giving to the needy rather than receiving gifts from one another. (In some families, that is true for every night of Hanukkah.) In fact, one of the best gifts you night get for someone that you love is a tzedakah box. It’s a gift that enables them to give to those in need. What could be more meaningful than that?

Hag Urim Sameakh, and Shabbat Shalom,

©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayeishev 5772 - The Ram's Horn Rag
Vayeishev 5771-Ma T'vakeish?
Vayeishev 5768 - Strangers Walking Together
Vayeishev/Hanukah 5767-I Believe in Miracles
Vayeishev 5766-Who Was That Guy?
Vayeshev 5761 - In Gd's Time
Vayeshev 5765-Mikol HaMishpakhot HaAdamah
Vayeshev 5758-What's Worth Looking After