Friday, March 29, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesakh 5773-The Whole House of Israel

After years of thoughtful internal debate, I began using “m’chayyei hameitim” (who gives live to the dead) in reciting the G’vurot prayer of the Amidah. I had come to an understanding of these words that could accept them on a metaphorical level without the need for accepting them as a physical reality. I came to believe that this metaphorical revival of the dead was something for which I could and would pray.There was no need to substitute “who gives life to all.” My understanding of all this also included an obligation on my part to insure that the memories of those who have died be kept alive through emulating their best actions and deeds and philosophies.This is a covenantal understanding – it takes effort, practice and belief on my part, along with G”d, to make it happen. The dead do indeed live – because of me. Because of us. I thought it interesting when, after many different approaches found in pre-final versions, the new Reform Mishkan T’filkah siddur decided to offer the words “m’chayyei hameitim” as an alternative when reading the G’vurot. (These words from the traditional siddur were expunged from earlier Reform siddurs and replaced with “who gives life to all.”) This hopefully inspires more people to ask the same questions I did, and begin to look at the concept of “reviving the dead” as an acceptable concept to include in prayer. Instead of the wholesale rejection of the idea as out of sync with modern scientific knowledge, it’s a nod to recognizing that people can come to understand and embrace such words and concepts with new - or even old - understandings. The 1885 “Pittsburgh Platform stated:

We reject as ideas not rooted in Judaism, the beliefs both in bodily resurrection and in Gehenna and Eden (Hell and Paradise) as abodes for everlasting punishment and reward.)

One can split hairs in discussing whether bodily resurrection is an idea rooted in Judaism. I personally believe the evidence weighs on the side of belief in bodily resurrection in Judaism quite heavily – whether one considers it metaphorical or physical. True, it is not attested to in Torah. Thus the Saducees rejected it, while the Pharisees accepted it. It was a good enough Jewish concept to merit inclusion as one of the Rambam’s 13 principles of faith. In fairness, I must point out, Maimonides was at best lukewarm to the idea of resurrection, and was pretty much silent on the subject of what happens to the body in the world to come. The rabbis struggled (and continue to struggle) with the the apparent conflict between bodily resurrection and the idea that only the soul is immortal. Can immortality of soul and body co-exist? Then throw into the mix the concept of the judgment of the soul which occurs upon the death of the body, and things get quite muddy indeed. That’s Judaism for you. No mixing of meat and milk, or wool and linen, but lots of mixing up of all sorts of other things and ideas. The mish-mash that is Judaism today is a result of all our attempts to find a place for practically every idea and concept. We have only ourselves to blame for that!) But I digress.

While the text of the G’vurot prayer speaks of G”d as reviver of the dead. it also describes G”d as “keeping faith with those who sleep in the dust.” At first I saw this as a conundrum. Does G”d revive the dead, or keep faith with them? Then I came to understand that these are not mutually exclusive ideas. It is through allowing them to relive (whether you understand that physically or metaphorically) that G”d keeps faith with those who sleep in the dust. Thus we can reconcile physical death and resurrection. It is also incumbent upon us to do as G”d does, and keep that same faith with those who sleep in the dust, and seek to enable them to live again.

Even given historical context, I cannot be completely certain that those who assembled the G’vurot prayer were speaking of actual physical revival of the dead. Their understanding may have been as metaphorical as my own. Perhaps far more nuanced, as well. even with all the thought I’ve given this, I’ve barely scratched the surface.

We all, individually, as as a people, a community, suffer from times of flagging spirits, times when we are effectively dead on the inside. Sometimes this is  the result of things that happened to us, like exile or war or genocide. At other times, our internal deadness stems from internal causes. Hopefully, we have all experienced a resurrection from this period of being dead. It is then that we must ask from whence our redemption came? We are prone to believe that it usually comes from pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. It has become less fashionable to attribute our recovery from our darker times to some unseen, unknowable G”d. Nevertheless, every day I encounter people, myself included, who choose to acknowledge that powers and forces beyond themselves may have contributed to their revival.

Ezekiel’s vision of the revival of the dead in our haftarah, the valley of the dry bones story, became  a cornerstone of Jewish belief in the centuries that followed. It changed Jewish burial practices, and certainly influenced those who created the G’vurot prayer. Yet it is just as likely that Ezekiel was speaking metaphorically (in fact it might be more likely. Metaphor was stock-in-trade for prophets.)

I cannot be writing this today without awareness that this Sunday is Easter. The founders of Christianity took the idea of bodily resurrection and ran with it. To extremes. (Does it really count as resurrection if the one resurrected was actually G”d in human form? Within Christianity are differing understandings of the divinity of Jesus, and those understandings do make a difference when considering the foundational importance of his resurrection.)  It is an oddity that, in all the things that Judaism did to distance itself from Christianity as it rose to prominence, Judaism did not reject the concept of “m’chayyei hameitim.”

Is not the entire story that we tell at Pesakh a story of the resurrection of a people with “crushed spirits?” When the Jewish people are revived after all those years in slavery, is this not also as if the generations that preceded them are revived? Israel’s resurrection reaffirms the covenant made between G”d and those of our ancestral progenitors, thus affirming their beliefs, hopes, and prayers. In this way, they live.

I have, for some time now, given far less importance to an idea I once firmly embraced, that it is significant enough that we, as a Jewish people, are still here. Mir zenen doh. Yet when I think of the many times in our history, including recently, that we have been revived and resurrected, I am humbled, and awed that we have somehow once again come back from the dead. However, if we are revived, brought back from death, and do not continue to contribute positively to tikkun olam (repair of the world) but simply live on our laurels, believing that our mere resurrection is enough to make us worthy, then, for me, it is as if we were never revived, or that our revival was pointless. It is not enough that Judaism survives. Judaism must continue to be a proactive light to the nations.

I believe we are at a threshold again. Death once more threatens us. It is not the death of war or genocide. It is a death born of disunity, of flagging faith, of crumbling infrastructure, of universalistic challenges to particularism (and I do not use particularism as a pejorative – particularism is not, in my understanding, without value to society.)

Our next resurrection depends not only upon G”d but upon us. We must believe that new life can be given to our old and weary bones – and we must be an active participant in the process of making that happen, and not stand around waiting for G”d or some promised world to come.

In Ezekiel’s prophecy, it is so that we will know that G”d is G”d that G”d will lift us from our graves and bring us home. That’s a fitting sentiment at Pesakh, when we have the example of the plagues and crossing of the sea of reeds as demonstrations of G”d being G”d. I can understand the need to re-instill a spirit of belief in G”d among those people who feel as if they are dead, and yes, mighty acts are useful demonstrations to support this cause. Nevertheless, I cannot help but believe that there is more purpose to this than simply demonstrating G”d’s existence and power. Does a parent always fully explain to a young child the exact nature of the lesson? Sometimes we simplify, or divert or distract from actual intent. There’s more to what G”d is doing than meets the eye.

When G”d asks Ezekiel “can these bones live?” Ezekiel responds “Oh G”d, only You know.” Then G”d tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, and behold, they live. It was in response to Ezekiel that the bones arose. G”d may have been the unseen actor behind the scenes, but without Ezekiel, this would not have happened. How much more clearer can it be made that such resurrections require the full participation of humanity, and cannot depend solely upon G”d? Ezekiel is our stand-in in this story. Without Israel’s participation, no revival of the dead is likely to occur. (We can debate whether or not G”d can and would revive the dead without our participation, yet this seems a distraction, a tangent.)

So I ask you, dear readers, can the bones of Israel live? Do we have the mettle to do what needs to be done so that we can live again? To be fair, I must ask you to consider if you believe that we are once again at a point where we need revival as a people. In some ways, we are thriving. I am concerned that if we do not reverse certain trends, that we will not survive. I remind us, those of us who care enough to study and think about Judaism, that we are still but a small segment of the Jewish population.  We’re involved, we’re active, we try and put our beliefs into action. It’s easy for us to forget we may be a minority. What of all the Jews who feel cut off, or have cut themselves off from the community? What of those Jews who might not even consider some of us “real Jews?” This disunity, this disconnection, it threatens us, and it is part of us, and it is slowly killing us.

וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי בֶּן־אָדָם הָֽעֲצָמוֹת הָאֵלֶּה כָּל־בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל הֵמָּה הִנֵּה אֹֽמְרִים יָֽבְשׁוּ עַצְמוֹתֵינוּ וְאָבְדָה תִקְוָתֵנוּ נִגְזַרְנוּ לָֽנוּ:

Then G”d said to me: Mortal, these are the whole House of Israel.They say: Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost; we are cut off!

The whole House of Israel. When any part of us atrophies, when any part of us is dried up, has lost hope, feels cut off from life, then all of us are affected. All of us must do our part so that all our bones may live, now and evermore.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Pesach 5772 - Don't Believe This
Pesach 8th Day 5772 - The Bread of Freedom
Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesakh 5771-Admat Yisrael
Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesakh 5769 - Valley of the Dry Economy
Pesach VII 5768 - Department of Redundant Anamnesis Department
Hol HaMoed Pesach 5767-Not Empty
Intermediate Shabbat of Passover 5766-A Lily Among Thorns
Pesach VII 5761 (Revised 5765)
Hol HaMoed Pesach 5764-Dem Bones & Have We Left Gd behind? (5578-60)
Hol Hamoed Pesach 5763-No Empty Gestures (Redux 5762)
5761-Pesach VII-Redundant Anamnesis


Friday, March 22, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5773-The Doorway to Return

It’s Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat before Pesach. We read a special haftarah, from Malachi, the last of the prophets.

What’s amazing to me about this haftarah is that its words ring true today. All that Malachi says of the 5th century BCE society to which he was writing feels equally on target here in the 21st century CE. The societal trends were probably similar as well – assimilation, intermarriage, lack of faith, a rejection of G”d, worship as ritual devoid of real meaning or intent.

Harsh criticisms, indeed. Surely a generalization and oversimplification in both our own time and that of Malachi. Perhaps so, but nonetheless the problems were significant and prominent enough to require redress.

G’d’s message, through Malachi, is simple enough, and appears in part of the 4th verse of the haftarah

שׁוּבוּ אֵלַי וְאָשׁוּבָה אֲלֵיכֶם

Return to Me, and I will return to you.

Now think about the words that Malachi puts in the mouths of the people of his time:

וַֽאֲמַרְתֶּם בַּמֶּה נָשֽׁוּב

In what way do we need to return?

We are surely as inclined today to ask the same question of G”d. The exchange continues. G”d asks if it is possible to cheat G”d, and then proceeds to tell the people that they have, indeed, cheated G”d. When we ask how we have cheated, G”d replies that our tithes and sacred contributions have been wanting, and that we are cursed for our cheating of G”d.

G”d offers a demonstration, of sorts. G”d says if we will but bring the full tithe into the storehouses, will G”d not provide us with limitless blessing. G”d will protect our crops from their devourers.

G”d accuses of us saying harsh things about G”d. Again, we ask “in what way?” G”d answers that we have said:

שָׁוְא עֲבֹד אֱלֹהִים

It is useless to serve G”d.

We continue, “what profit exists in observing G”d’s service or in walking with mourner’s attire before the G”d of heaven’s hosts? We account the arrogant happy, the evildoers are the ones who live on, they even try G”d and get away with it”

Does his sound familiar? It’s a litany we have been using since time immemorial, the question of theodicy. The world is full of injustice, and G”d is the ultimate judge, therefore, if evil persists, why bother with G”d?

G”d’s answer to this, through Malachi, is the well-worn “a day is coming…” Well, it’s 2500 years later and that day hasn’t come yet, has it? Malachi reiterates G”d’s promise to send the prophet Elijah to announce the day of judgment.

For some, faith is strong, for others faith is weak. For many, doubt plagues our every thought. Because of this doubt, we fail to follow G”d’s teachings, we fail to give our fair share to support our institutions and our needy. Because of (in spite of?) this doubt we continue to be adulterers, liars, cheaters of our workers, oppressors of widows and orphans, thrusters aside of strangers. The prevailing theory would suggest it’s a viscous cycle. As long as we doubt, we will sin, and as long as we sin, we will not see Elijah, a day of judgment, or olam haba (the world to come.) We need a way to short-circuit the system so we can get out of this loop we’re stuck in. I have a possible solution – read on.

We will open the door for Eliyahu on Pesach. Once again, Eliyahu will not be there. So we will continue in our cycle of theodicy, failure to have faith in G”d, and stubborn refusal to do the things that G”d asks us to do (which at least for Malachi, are more concerned with sorcerers, adulterers, those who swear falsely, those who cheat workers, those who oppress widows and orphans. and those who mistreat strangers – in addition, of course, to all who fail to offer up their fair share of tithes and sacrifices.

Sure, I could offer up platitudes and suggest that we keep our faith, and perhaps someday when we open the door Elijah will be there. But for me, a day of judgment and olam haba (the world to come) are not as important as the here and now. The door opening that matters at Pesach is when we open the door and recite:

הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִּי אֲכָֽלוּ אַבְהָתָֽנָא בְּאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָֽיִם. כָּל דִּכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵכוֹל, כָּל דִּצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח.

Ha lakhma anya di achalu avhatana b'ara d'mitzrayim. Kol dichfin yeitei v'yeichol, kol ditzrich yeitei v'yifsach.

This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat, let all who are in need come and partake of our Paschal offering.

By living and breathing the intent of these ritual words in each and every moment of our lives-this, this is how we return to G”d.

Shabbat Shalom, and Khag Kasher v’Sameiakh,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Tzav/Shabbat Hagadol 5772 - Not Passive
Tzav (Purim) 5771 - A Purim Ditty
Tzav 5769 - Payback: An Excerpt From the Diary of Moses
Tzav 5768 - Jeremiah's solution (Updated from 5761)
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5767-Redux 5762-Irrelevant Relavancies
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5766 - Dysfunction Junction
Tzav 5765 (updated 5760)-Of IHOPs, Ordination and Shabbat
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5764-Two Way Street
Tzav 5763 - Zot Torahteinu?
Tzav 5761/5759-Jeremiah's Solution


Friday, March 15, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayikra 5773–Mambo #613–A Little Bit of Alef in my Torah (Redux 5761)

Unapologetically, now on day 16 of the worst cold I have suffered through in all my recollection, I offer not a new musing, but a retread. Some of you may not know the musical reference, so here is a link to a YouTube video of Lou Bega’s “Mambo Number 5.”

Yes, I admit it. That silly song was running through my head as I was thinking about what to write this week. Lou Bega's "Mambo #5" the one that goes ""A little bit of Monica in my life, a little bit of Erica by my side, a little bit of Rita is all I need, a little bit of..." Not a song I particularly like, care for, or approve of, but it is definitely catchy-it has a good "hook" as we say in the music business.

I couldn't help myself. I looked at the text, saw that little alef, and my mind was off and running. It started out as "a little bitty alef in Vayikra" and gradually evolved into "a little bit of alef in my Torah, a little bit of bet in Bereshit, a little bit of gimel in my Gemara, a little bit of Dalet in my Daf Yomi..." and so on.

[If you're asking yourself "what little alef?" at the moment, take a look at a Hebrew text of sefer Vayikra in a Torah scroll. You'll notice that the first word "Vayikra" is written with the last letter, an alef, smaller than the other letters.]

The sages have had an absolute field day with this little oddity in the text. Why is it there? Many suggest it is about humility. Some suggest a connection to the story of Balaam in Bamidbar 23:16 where G”d encountered (vayikar, a little word play) Balaam - and Moshe, in his humility, felt he deserved no more of a summons than Balaam received (never mind the obvious temporal problems with this suggestion.)

A few years back, I also suggested this interpretation: G”d "called" or "summoned" (Vayikra) us to the commandments. G”d's call was for our striving to follow them (the full size vav-yud-qof-resh) with the recognition that we might not always be perfect in attaining them (the smaller alef.) And if parashat Vayikra makes anything clear, it's that G”d expects us to have both advertent and inadvertent violations of G”d's law, and provides appropriate atonement options for them.

And I also mentioned a more radical liberal interpretation:

"There could even be a more radical interpretation-one suited to the more liberal Judaic theologies of this day and age. It is not an interpretation I personally accept, but I would be guilty of the sin of omission if I did not mention it, because it is one of the interpretations that occurred to me. Perhaps the small aleph represents G”d's recognition that maybe G”d's own 'call' to us could be incomplete - and might need adaptation over time. Thus, we have the interpretation that the commandments are living laws, that can grow, change, and be adapted to fit the changing realities of the universe we live in. And that when the task of tikkun olam is done, and we have reshaped the commandments as needed, the alef will reach its full size, and the "call" will be complete. And how fitting it is that the 'first letter' is the last to be completed"

(This line of thinking is also a slippery slope for where it can lead to in terms of Christian re-interpretation of the text, and indeed, some Christian theologians have seized upon it as another of their proof texts that Christianity “completes” Judaism.  No thanks. We’re still cooking up lots of good stuff here over in the Jewish world – we’ve not been superseded.)

Alef. A little bit of alef. Little. Why? Maybe G”d remembered how awesome and mighty and shattering to humans G”d's voice might be. G”d began simply calling out to Moshe, uttering "VA - YIK-R..." and then realized "whoops, better tone it down before I blow them all away with my words" and finished with a quiet little "...a..." Hmm, I like that interpretation. "A lot of Va-Yik-R... in my life, I need a little '..a..' in my life..."

And that quieting down of that little alef. It reminds us that we need to sometimes quiet the noise all around us so we can heart G”d's "still small voice."

Well, it seems I still have a "little bit of alef in my life..." And that brings me back to another insight this innocuous and offensively macho Mambo opened up for me.

G”d called to Moshe - and out tumbled words and letters. First out, of course, was a alef. It's that little alef, hanging on like a drop of dew, then dripping down from G”d's lips to water our souls. Makes sense, of course-alef, the first letter. It name similar to a verb root (alef-lamed-fay) that means "to learn." And is not learning the beginning of everything? And were not G”d's utterances at creation the beginning of everything? See-the connections just keep coming. But I digress.

The little alef found its way in so many different places in our sacred texts. Literally thousands of alefs. (My apologies to the Hebrew literate among you for that pun.) Everywhere, those little pieces of G”d's words. "A little bit of G”d in all my words..." (I wonder if some enterprising and scholarly reader is willing to determine if there is at least one alef in each of the 613 mitzvot?) (No one has done this since this was originally published in 2001!)

That little alef. It does so many things. Here's one more-it reminds us to not overlook the little things - in our sacred texts, in our lives, in anything we do, say, read, here.

I'm glad that little alef is there. I and others have gotten so much from it already. And what about you? What can that little alef tell you? What doors can it open with you, hidden meanings unmask for, lessons teach to you?

So this Shabbat, I wish you all "a little bit of alef in your Shabbat..."

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian ©2013 portions ©2001 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayikra 5772 - Confession: Not Just for Catholics
Vayikra 5771 - I'd Like To Bring To Your Attention...
Vayikra 5770 - You Can Fool Most of the People Most of the Time
Vayikra 5768 - Redux 5763 - Kol Kheilev
Vayikra 5767-Stuff That's Bugging Me
Vayikra 5766 - Osymandias
Vayikra-Shabbat Zachor 5765-Chatati
Vayikra 5763 - Kol Cheilev
Vayikra 5759 & 5762-Salvation?
Vayikra 5760-Meaningful Gifts


Friday, March 8, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayakhel-Pekudei 5773–Craftsman. Artisan. Artist. Again.

Fifteen years ago, I wrote about what I considered the sad state of affairs that. in our modern American society that we seek to very carefully define lines between what we perceive as "true creativity" and simply "skills." This troubles me no less today, and perhaps even more so considering the changes and shifts in society in the last two decades.

We have become a nation of specialists (and I, and my fellow generalists have become the "odd man out" as a result.) Artists create, artisans and craftsman do. Teachers teach. Designers imagine, engineers make real. And work is just work.

Since I first wrote this musing in 1998 I have had a variety of opportunities to work as a full-time teacher in Jewish settings. Every day and in every way at school I realized that teaching, no matter how people to try classify it and specialize it, is a truly generalistic profession in many ways. Still, even in education, specialists are generally preferred over generalists. (At some schools I taught a variety of subjects – music, Judaica, Hebrew. In other situations, I may have had only on primary teaching responsibility at the school, but also engaged in many other disciplines in the additional work that far too many of us in the Jewish world need to take onto survive. So the “generalism" continues to be pervasive in my life.)

Is it not the intent with which we do the work we do that truly defines the artistry of our work? As it says in Ex 36:2 "everyone whose heart was stirred to do the work." The worker at the Saturn plant who can point with pride to a new car and say "I helped make that" has created what was, for him, a work of art. Can not the manager proudly point to the fruit of his efforts to increase productivity while still keeping employee satisfaction high and think of it as a work of art? For art is the work of the soul. Is that work any less an expression of the human soul than a sculpture, painting, musical composition? And what of the teacher? Their works of art are no less than human beings themselves! Is teaching technique or artistry? I know that in my own classrooms, it has always been a little of both.

We are human, and our values, our emotions, our desires, hopes and dreams manifest themselves in all that we do. Even the most seemingly mundane things. Because when they are done or created, ultimately, for the greater glory of G”d, they are indeed true works of art.

And so it is that I wonder what the Torah means when it repeatedly uses verb forms that say "he did this" "he did that" (Ex. 36:10-39:26.) Over 40 times. (And interspersed only a few times, a "they" and only once, Betzalel." Then, oddly, the last five p'sukim describing the labors (ex 39:27-31) all use "they.")

While the implication seems to be that "he" refers to Betzalel, I wonder if another interpretation is possible. That the "he" being referred to is G”d (we'll just avoid the whole gender issue here, ok?) That all those who labored, who did so because there hearts were stirred, were just channeling creative energy from a higher source.

I have said many time in these musings, that when I play music at services, what comes through my fingers and from the keyboard is t'filah, and it often seems as though the inspiration comes from outside me. Need it be any different if I am teaching a class, typing a memo, repairing a car engine, cleaning floors, picking beans, etc.?

The highbrows of this world want to create a separation between art and craft, between art and simple labor. If, indeed, only "high art" were sacred and everyday work profane would their argument might have merit. But so many of the little things we do, every day, are holy, because we are G”d's creations. The way Subway calls their employees "sandwich artists" might be a gimmick, but there's more truth to that than may be obvious.

I know so many whose work and life are influenced by their passion, who are perhaps channeling G”d through what they do. Yes, some of it is through artistic works – singing, writing, playing an instrument, telling stories. Just as much of it is in how they live their lives every day. How they speak, how they think, how they act.

Every year around the High Holy Days we hear of the conflict between those who find only the “high art” style of music stirs them, and those who are equally moved by all kinds of music. While I am equally a fan of all styles of synagogue music, including the “high Classical,” I do think, the rest of the year at least, most congregants have demonstrated more of a preference for the more popular/campy/folk/rock style. At High Holy Days, many of these regulars worshippers have to set aside their preferences for those “once-a-year” congregants. (I won’t take sides in this debate. I think everybody should be open to expanding their musical horizons at all times!)

Which brings me to a point where I must observe that there are those in the Jewish music world who look down with scorn and disdain upon those who create music that is not classical in style. They view on the classical style as art, and perhaps see the popular musical styles as mere craftsmanship. They could be more wrong. I know, personally, many of those who create this popular style of synagogue music, and while some are good craftspeople too, all of them are artists.

Therein is one of the secrets. Creating good art does require good craftsmanship. Some artists even employ others to be their craftspeople, because they cannot do it alone. Artistry and craftsmanship are inseparable. One is not mightier or more worthy than the other, for neither would exist without the other. It takes G”d, and Moshe, and Betzalel, and Oholiab, and each and every one of us to bring G”d’s artistic vision to life. This is as true today as it was then. G”d is an artist, and we are made b’tzelem El”him, in the image of G”d. Therefore, there is artists in each of us. G’d is surely an artisan as well. And so, therefore, are we.

As G”d is joyous in all works. let us to be joyous in all our own works. And joyous in our appreciation of the creative work of others. Let each thing we labor to do be to us as a work of art, and may we see the same in all the works of others. Let us take the meaning of the word "art" away from the snobs, highbrows and effete of this world.

And let us not forget that, Torah tell us, there is a time when the work, when our daily creation of art, must cease, as we heed the word of Ex. 35:2

"Six days of the week you may work, but on the seventh day you must keep a holy Shabbat of Shabbats to G”d."

Some might argue that this means I should not be playing the keyboard at services on Shabbat. It's not m'lacha to me. It's prayer and praise. There are also those who argue that Shabbat might just be the perfect time for unleashing their creativity. While it’s hard to argue with the idea that G”d did, according to Torah, indeed cease from creative activity on Shabbat, it’s not so clear that our own praxis for Shabbat must perforce require complete cessation of creative activity. We would have to turn off our brains and our bodies for that to happen.G”d may have ceased from  creating the universe on Shabbat, but G”d the artist was totally present, and remains so on Shabbat. How can we offer our thanks and praise to G”d on Shabbat if we cannot be artistic and creative about it? How droll would our worship be if we truly eliminated all creativity and artistry from it on Shabbat?

May your Shabbat be filled with light and joy. And your week with your works of art, and enjoyment for the works of art of all others.

Shabbat Shalom,


© 2013 (parts 1998, 2001) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayakhel-Pekude 5772 - Vocational Ed
Pekude/Shabbat Sh'kalim 5771 - Ideas Worth Re-Examining
Vayakhel 5771 - Giving Up the Gold Standard
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5770-Corroborative Detail
Vayakhel-Pekudei 5769 - There Are Some Things You Just Have To Do Yourself
Vayakhel 5768-An Imaginary Community?
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5767-Redux 5760-The Lost Episodes: Too Much of a Good Thing
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5766 - So How Did Joseph Get Away With it?
Pekude 5765-Redux 5760-Pronouns
Vayakhel 5765-The Wisdom of the Heart
Vayakhel/Pekude 5764-Comma or Construct?
Vayakhel 5763-Dayam V'hoteir
Vayakhel/Pekude 5762-Sacred Work
Vayakhel 5760-The Lost Episodes: Too Much of a Good Thing


Friday, March 1, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Ki Tissa/Shabbat Parah 5773–Fortune and Men’s Eyes (Redux & Revised)

(March 1-2 is the National Shabbat of Unplugging. Read why I am not unplugging, from a musing I wrote last year )

It's not only Shabbat Ki Tisa, it's also Shabbat Parah, one of the four special Shabbatot preceding Pesach. (Shabbat Shekalim, Shabbat Zachor, Shabbat Parah and Shabbat HaChodesh.)

On Shabbat Parah we add a short Torah reading from Bamidbar (Numbers) 19:1-22, which speaks of how the ashes of an unblemished red heifer are used to create a special water of lustration for purification. We'll save that whole discussion for when the parashah, Chukkat, next comes around!

This special Torah reading teaches about purification of those who have become impure. The linked reading from the prophets for Shabbat Parah is from Ezekiel 36:16-38. This haftarah speaks of a purification (of sorts) of the entire people of Israel.

For failures of faith and action (and for doing things which G"d had commanded us not to do) the Israelites found themselves in exile. Here, Ezekiel offers some consolation and some hope for the future, for a return to the land. First, G"d explains through Ezekiel that their evils ways and disregard for the mitzvot made the people impure in G"d's sight. Therefore, G"d scattered and dispersed them among other nations.

Once again, G"d's vanity shows, as G"d complains that the very presence of of the Israelites in exile is an embarrassment to G"d, an issue as it were, of "marat ayin," of how it looks to others. I guess without Moshe around, there was no one to temper G"d's vain streak by playing to it, as Moshe did, on numerous occasions. For here G"d wishes to have G"d's cake and to eat it it, too! (Although perhaps G"d can truly do that? Can G”d make a cake that G”d can’t eat, too? Not as profound a question as, perhaps whether G”d can make a rock to heavy for G”d to lift, but interesting to ponder nonetheless.)

G"d sends the Israelites into exile for their wicked ways, then complains because their presence in the lands to where they were exiled is an embarrassment to G"d. Can't have it both ways, big kahuna.

לֹ֧א לְמַעַנְכֶ֛ם אֲנִ֥י עֹשֶׂ֖ה בֵּ֣ית יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּ֤י אִם־לְשֵׁם־קָדְשִׁי֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר חִלַּלְתֶּ֔ם בַּגּוֹיִ֖ם אֲשֶׁר־בָּ֥אתֶם שָֽׁם׃

"Not for your sake will I act" says G"d to the Israelites, "but for My Holy Name, which you have caused to be profaned among the nations to which you have come."

And how can G"d fix this and eliminate embarrassment? Why, simply by returning the people to the land. However, we have a catch-22 here. G"d can't really return them to the land until the people have been made pure again, and recognize the error of their transgressions.

And when will this happen? When will the people be returned to the land? We aren't told. Of course we know that conquest (Persia over Babylon) and political shrewdness (Persia's more enlightened approach to empire-building) allowed the people to return. And I’m not so sure how far along in G"d's purification process we were, because we wound up getting exiled again, a few centuries later, and this time for a very long time. (And, to be frank, while we have medinat Yisrael the state of Israel- reborn in our time, we haven't exactly had a full ingathering of the exiles, have we? We can't even be sure that this Israel is the one of messianic promise. No disrespect to medinat Yisrael, but it has some shortcomings when it comes to living up to fulfillment of messianic promises. There are certainly barriers put up by the religious establishment in Israel that either preclude or make difficult any sort of full ingathering, as the liberal streams of Judaism are largely excluded.)

It's tough being on the down side for so long. We can understand what The Bard of Stratford-on-Avon meant when he wrote:

When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf Heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur'd like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least:

And that last line gives me pause. In many ways, life for the Jewish people has improved in the last two centuries. In America, Canada, Australia and elsewhere we flourish. Even in Europe, the shattered remains that survived the Nazis is once again rebuilding (though sadly, also rebuilding at the same time is anti-Semitism, bigotry, hatred and dehumanization that were the tools of the Nazis.)

And we strove, and strove, with our new found emancipation,. We wanted what everyone else had and we went for it, big time. Yet, like the lovelorn William, we somehow remain not content with what we have acquired. Something is missing. I might be so bold as to suggest that what is missing is the thing to which the Bard refers in this sonnet and so many others. A great love. Ahava Rabbah.

Let's see. Where was I before I digressed? Ah yes...beating up on G"d and the Jewish people and modern Israel. Enough of that (for now.) What really attracted me to this special haftarah is the wonderful imagery found in verses 26-28.

      וְנָתַתִּ֤י לָכֶם֙ לֵ֣ב חָדָ֔שׁ וְר֥וּחַ חֲדָשָׁ֖ה אֶתֵּ֣ן בְּקִרְבְּכֶ֑ם וַהֲסִ֨רֹתִ֜י אֶת־לֵ֤ב הָאֶ֙בֶן֙ מִבְּשַׂרְכֶ֔ם וְנָתַתִּ֥י לָכֶ֖ם לֵ֥ב בָּשָֽׂר׃
    וְאֶת־רוּחִ֖י אֶתֵּ֣ן בְּקִרְבְּכֶ֑ם וְעָשִׂ֗יתִי אֵ֤ת אֲשֶׁר־בְּחֻקַּי֙ תֵּלֵ֔כוּ וּמִשְׁפָּטַ֥י תִּשְׁמְר֖וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶֽם׃
    וִישַׁבְתֶּ֣ם בָּאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָתַ֖תִּי לַאֲבֹֽתֵיכֶ֑ם וִהְיִ֤יתֶם לִי֙ לְעָ֔ם וְאָ֣נֹכִ֔י אֶהְיֶ֥ה לָכֶ֖ם לֵאלֹהִֽים׃

36: 26 And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you; I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh; 27 and I will put My spirit into you. Thus I will cause you to follow My laws and faithfully to observe My rules. 28 Then you shall dwell in the land which I gave to your ancestors, and you shall be My people and I shall be your G"d.

It's beautiful and poetic imagery. These words uplift me every time I hear them. Our hearts are often, despite our improved circumstances, weak and weary. Perhaps we, too, need G”d to give us new hearts. I know that this is something I pray for when my heart is broken or weary and I struggle to find my faith, struggle to even live my life with meaning and purpose. G”d, give me a new heart. Give us new hearts.

Sometimes, I am rewarded, and feel as if G”d has given me a new heart. Then life wends its weary way, and once again my heart has turned to stone. The same happens to our people as a whole. Moments of triumph, followed by moments of despair. Brief episodes in the light, until the creeping dark re-appears.

Then it seems as if the heart transplant did not go well. Our new hearts of flesh have again become hearts of stone.

Shakespeare understood this when he wrote:

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state.

For a moment, at least, we are uplifted by a new heart, by love. Then we are once again reminded of our reality, one in which that love eludes us (or which we exclude when we allow our hearts to turn to stone.) In the world, our people may have moments of light and love, yet there are still moments of fear and despair. Our enemies still taunt us. We live with the sad knowledge that we are but one knock on the door away…

And yet, there is a light at the end of the tunnel (or, to continue using Shakespeare's imagery:)

(Like to the lark at break of day arising
from sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven's gate

While we may not all have been returned to Zion, and from there the word of the L"rd may not yet fully blaze forth to the whole world, we are still here. There is something about us, about this covenanted people that continues to fail to live up to its end of the agreement, that enables us to survive to continue to try and demonstrate, through living example, what it is that G"d wishes us to do in order that all humanity may thrive.

Perhaps this is it-the missing element that we need to help us get back on track - G"d's love.

Unfortunately, the Christian community seems to believe it owns the copyright on "G"d's eternal love" and so it always feels a little odd, as a Jew, to speak of G"d's love for us, for the Jewish people. And yet here it is. We have not been abandoned quite yet. Agreed the Shoah (Holocaust) raises many questions. Yet we survived even that. G"d make be taking a less active role in this partnership, but who can blame G"d when we continually fail to live up to our end of the bargain?

Still, as grounded and pragmatic as I am, there's always inside me that little spark that believes that we Jews are still here because G"d loves us and cares for us (though not for a second would I ever believe that applies to only the Jews) despite our continual failures. There must be some spark of something good left in us. We must find the way to open ourselves to G”d, to allow G”d to renew our hearts, to replace the stone with flesh. We cannot do this when we are a fractured, divided community. We cannot be open to G”d’s love, and be prepared for new hearts, when women of piety are prevented from praying at the Kotel, when the religious establishment in Israel denies those who disagree with their interpretations and understandings of tradition the rights to practice as they believe. The longer this goes on, the more the hearts on all sides are turned to stone.

I move now from the collective to the individual. For me, G"d's love is one place from which I derive the passion that drives me to be actively Jewish, to be a Jewish educator, to use Jewish music to lift spirits. I am partnering with G"d to help put hearts of flesh back into the Jewish people. What greater task could there be?

It is hard to do the work of putting new hearts of flesh into Jewish people when my own heart feels like stone. I must find ways to allow G”d to continually renew my own heart. To do this, I must let G”d in. This is not easy for me. Though I am neither atheist nor agnostic, I struggle every moment with my understanding of G”d. Can G”d, if G”d exists, truly turn my heart of stone back into a heart of flesh? Am I willing to live with a heart of flesh when I know the pain that goes along with that? Having a heart of stone can be a lot easier on the ego.

So I sink to the depths of despair, and think upon my state. As my despair overwhelms me, I surrender. Then, and only then, do I open enough to let G”d in. Only then do I truly feel G”d’s love.

And when I think of G"d's love...well, let me allow Shakespeare to finish the thought:

For Thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013, parts ©2006 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Ki Tisa 5772 - Other G"d?
Ki Tisa 5771 - Still Waiting for the Fire
Ki Tisa 5770 - A Fickle Pickle
Ki Tisa 5768-Not So Easy? Not So Hard!
Ki Tisa/Shabbat Parah 5767-New Hearts and New Spirits
Ki Tisa/Shabbat Parah 5766-Fortune and Men's Eyes
Ki Tisa 5765-Re-Souling Ourselves
Ki Tisa 5764-A Musing on Power Vacuums
Ki Tisa 5763-Shabbat is a Verb
Ki Tisa 5762-Your Turn
Ki Tisa 5760-Anger Management
Ki Tisa 5761-The Lesson Plan