Friday, February 28, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Pekudei 5774–Pronouns Revisited

Fourteen years ago I mused about the significance of the pronouns found in parashat Pekudei. I thought it was a good time to revisit and expand upon those thoughts. Parashat Pekudei provides an interesting illustration of the impact and use of pronouns in the text.

Do you sit through the credits at the end of a movie or a TV show? At a show, do you read your program to identify the authors, composers,lyricists,actors, designers, and crew? Are you bothered like I am when TV networks squeeze the "crawl" at the end of a movie or show into a small area, and speed it up, so they can run self-promotional advertisements at the same time, always louder, bigger and more distracting? Do you ever find yourself referring to the ubiquitous "they" ? Do you ever find yourself asking that familiar phrase "just who are the they being referenced" ?

Have you ever remarked to someone "gee, [such and such a person] sure uses 'I' a lot in [his/her] speech" ? Society and culture have conditioned us to automatically jump to some conclusions about people who are often self-referential in their speech. We assume they are self-centered, egotistical, or selfish. Sometimes we leap to the conclusion that their self-reverential bravado and boastfulness is actually masking deep-seated insecurities. On the other hand, have you ever heard a self-proclaimed analyst suggest that using "I" statements is the best way to express how one feels? The self-help revolution has spawned generations of people who speak in allegedly assertive terms like “I feel x when you y.” How typically Jewish in viewpoint, that using the self-referential pronouns “I” or “me” is simultaneously viewed as a positive and a negative!

Do you find yourself referring to “us” and”them?”  Do you hate the fact that “you” is both the singular and plural forms of the same pronoun?

Pronouns are not always as simple as they might appear. They can carry baggage. Last weekend I participated in a group exercise at a Shabbaton. I was judging and awarding points to teams of parents and 6th-graders for answers to questions or tasks related to particular elements of Jewish worship. On two occasions, I deducted points for answers that referenced G”d using the male pronoun (and all these groups were mixed gender.) Admittedly, it was a little bit picky, but it also made people stop and think.

Consider Yaakov’s exclamation after his dream, in which a close reading of the Hebrew has him saying that “G”d was in this place and I, I did not know it” rather than simply “and I did not know it.” Pronouns matter.

I did this. You did thus. He did that. She did something else. It did something different. They did another thing. Y'all (the only true 2nd person plural in American English I could think of that was distinguishable from the 2nd person singular you) did that again. (You'll notice I left a pronoun out. You'll see why.)

Pronouns are used regularly, continually, in our speech and writing, often without much awareness of them on our part. Yet they have a significant impact on us, on how we think. Pronouns matter. I have a thesis about all this. There's a pronoun we don't use as often as we should.  It’s absence could help explain some of societies problems. The lack of use of this pronoun is why some people don't watch or read the credits. After all, the people who made this movie are "them." As I mentioned earlier, we’ve been conditioned to say "I feel x when you say or do y." Rarely, I believe do we think of a “them” as really being a bunch of “singular yous.” They might as well be an “it.” (I wonder how we perceive “us?” Do we think of it only collectively, or do we realize that “us” is really a whole bunch of “yous?” I wish I had Buber’s gift for illustrating the nature of these different kinds of relationships.)

What has all this to do with parashat Pekudei? Take a look at the text. It dawned on me as I read it that paying attention to the pronouns (or implied pronouns, which, in the Hebrew are primarily indicated by the verb forms and suffixes.) The first part of the parasha seems to use the pronoun “he” predominantly, though there aren't that many pronouns used. Sometimes it's not entirely clear who the "he" is - Moshe, Betzalel, or even Oholiab. It might be safe to assume the "he" is Moshe, but the parasha says "he made hooks for the posts..." which might lead one to believe it was the artisan Betzalel (or his assistant Oholiab) that is the “he” being referenced for, after all, they were the artisans, and not Moshe.

Then there is a sudden switch in Chapter 39, and the pronouns become "they." They who? Betzalel and Oholiab? The people? All the artisans? 31 verses of "they" did this and "they" did that. Verse 32 may provide a clue: it says "b'nei Yisrael", they did these things for the preparation and erection of the tabernacle. The makeup of “they” can often be uncertain. This makes it even harder for “us” to  view “them” as distinct individuals, worthy of being treated as a “you.” Yet there can be no “they” without many yous.

Another switch in pronouns comes with Chapter 40, as G”d addresses Moshe. The dominant pronoun becomes "you" (singular,) a private conversation that wraps up at verse 16, where we get another pronoun switch. The balance of the parasha speaks of what Moshe did. What "he" did to prepare the tabernacle for use. Through to verse 33.

Finally, the last few verses are a mix of pronouns, rather sparingly, a few "its" referring to the cloud (of course, the "it" concept is a little vague in the Hebrew) and one "they" clearly referring to the people of Israel, and the last verse contains verbal "theys."

What does this juxtaposition of pronouns tell us? Why are there large sections here (and elsewhere in the Torah) where there is little variety on pronouns? Is it simply an affect of normal writing, of narrative? Is it reflective primarily of the point of view of the narrator? That I leave to each of us to exegete for him or herself. But I do wish to call attention to the missing pronoun. The same one that explains why people don't watch the credits, why greed and selfishness persist in our world, in our "me" society.

Where is the WE? It wasn't just Moshe, or G”d, or Betzalel or Oholiab that accomplished these things. WE, the people of Israel, WE accomplished these things. Together. G”d, the people, the leadership, the artisans all working together. WE. There is WE in watching a movie or a TV show or a play or concert. The audience is as much a part of the experience (though some might argue it is more so in a live presentation-I'm not convinced this is so except in how the response dynamic may affect the performance-but audience involvement to a fixed form-painting, film, etc. is still part of the artwork.) So the people listed in the crawl, the credits, are not just "they" but a part of WE. We who experienced this thing.

No matter how one-way prayer might feel at times, surely prayer always involves a “we?” If there is no relationship, why pray at all? The mere act of praying, even if conditional, suggests at the very least openness to the idea that there is someone/thing at the other end of the conversation, that there is a “we involved.”

Now all of this may just be an artifact of the forms and styles of writing used in the Torah. Yet, if I think through other text examples, I can find long narrative stretches of text that do include communal “we” pronouns. If the Torah is intended to be OUR narrative, one might expect to see communal pronouns more often.

The “we” pronoun appears about 32 times in Exodus, and the last time it appears is around chapter 32. It appears but once in Leviticus! “Us” appears a few more times, but, at least in my mind, “us” is a more selfish communal pronoun than “we.” Things are done or happen to us. We do things.

We can end the book of Sh'mot (Exodus) with a "they" thought. Because it’s the end of a book, the missing pronoun gets added when we chant:

חזק חזק ונתחזק

Chazak, Chazak, v’nitchazeik. Be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened. Though because this is a reflexive form of the verb, we could translate it as “let us strengthen ourselves.”

This Shabbat, may WE all be strengthened, and may WE all try to remember the importance of the WE.

Shabbat Shalom,


© 2014 by Adrian A. Durlester
Portions ©2000, 2005  by Adrian A. Durlester)

Other musings on this parasha

Pekude/Shabbat Sh'kalim 5771 - Ideas Worth Re-Examining

Friday, February 21, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayakhel 5774–Is Two Too Much?

I’m off to a Shabbaton with the next group of 6th-graders I’ll be tutoring, so, preparations pressing me for time, I offer some recycled musings. This time, I offer two musings for parashat Vayakhel, both concerning the same subject, but with somewhat different takes and conclusions (or not-I leave it to you, dear reader, to decide how different the two conclusions are.


Random Musings Before Shabbat-Vayakhel 5760

Vayakhel-The Lost Episodes: Too Much of a Good Thing

"Moishe! Hey, Moishe! Look. I gotta have a word with you. You have just got to stop it. You have got to tell all the people to stop bringing materials for the mishkan. We've got more than enough now, and we're practically out of room to store it. I'm up to my elbows in linen, gold, silver, bronze, skins, you name it. It just keeps coming and coming and..."

"OK, Betzie, I get the picture. The good people cough up an excess of goods for the mishkan, and all you can do it kvetch about it? I got bigger problems on my hands than that, Mr. Craftsman."

"Look Moishe, I know it's been a tough time for you lately, what with having to schlep up and down the mountain lugging those tablets..and then that whole golden calf I can understand you're being preoccupied, but that's no reason to get snippy and sarcastic with me."

"Ah, yes, you're right, Betzie, I'm sorry. It has been a hectic couple of weeks. Heck, I've barely had time to catch my breath since we left Mitzrayim. Now, what's the problem again?"

"You just need to tell the people to stop bringing more stuff for the
mishkan. I mean, it's great that everyone is being so generous", and I do mean everyone. But enough is enough."

"Right. OK. You got it. You got enough stuff for the mishkan. I'll pass the word around, and before you know it, the stuff will stop coming."

"You know, Moishe, it really is quite amazing how generous every one has been. It's kind of unusual. Even Korach and his cronies have cheerfully been bringing lots of stuff."

"Hmmmm. You know, Betzie, you've got me to thinking here. What has gotten into this rabble to make then so generous?"

"Maybe, since most of the troublemakers got swallowed up into the ground, just the nice people are left?"

"It a possibi-hey, wait just a darn minute here, Betzie. I think I get it. This has nothing to do with a sudden onset of generosity. G”d knows, these people should be generous, after all G”d has done for them."

"Maybe they're finally catching on?"

"Oh, to be young again, Betzie. I wish I had your youthful confidence and your optimism. But I'm becoming a cynic, dear friend. I wish they were catching on, but something tells me...heck, for all I know, three thousand years from know they could still be bellyaching, ungrateful, and disobedient. Wouldn't surprise me one bit. No, sir. Betzie. What's driving these people isn't generosity, it's CYA!"

"CYA? CYA? Oh...cover your a- err, I mean tuchis?"

"You got it Betzie. Cover your tuchis. That's the mentality here. Think about it. First of all, where did everyone get all this stuff to contribute to the building of the mishkan and the ohel mo'ed?"

"Ohhhh. I see where you're going. Well, from the Egyptians, of course. They didn't earn it. The Egyptians were so thrilled to be getting rid of us they just gave away the store! None of us earned this stuff."

"Whoa up there, pardner. I'd say we all earned it. we, and our ancestors, over centuries of slavery to Pharaoh and all of Mitzrayim. So we did earn it, in a way-with blood, sweat, and tears...but yes-it's pretty easy for the folks to give all this stuff up for the mishkan, since if kind of just fell into their laps. But let's see if you've figured out my thoughts, Betzie. Use that artistic brain of yours."

"I'm not quite following you there yet, Moishe. Let's see. CYA. CYA. Hmmmm...what does CYA have to do with..........OH. I get it! They're sucking up to the big guy, numero uno, the One and only."

"Bingo. You got it, Betzie. Think about it. They just saw a whole bunch of us get swallowed up by the earth after that golden calf thing. I'll bet they're feeling just a little insecure about what G”d might do to them. Especially now that they've got all these chukim and mishpatim to follow. And following some of these rules ain't gonna be easy. Mark my words. Heck, if they only knew how I had to plead and cajole with G”d just to get him to dwell amidst us and be at the front of us as we sojourned-G”d was hopping mad about that golden calf business. One small mistake and G”d might have wiped half of us out just like that!"

"Phew! It's better the people don't know about that. It's not good to have G”d mad at you."

"No, it's not. Trust me on that one, Betzie."

"Whadayya mean, Moishe?"

"Don't go there, Betzie. Don't go there."

"OK. I won't pry. So, let me get this straight. You're saying that everyone is being so generous with the stuff for the mishkan because they're sucking up to G”d?"


"Well, I guess I can see that. Y'know, come to think of it, you're probably right. Guess who have been the two biggest contributors-they just keep bringing more and more stuff...Nadav and Avihu! Probably trying to get your brother back on good graces with the big cheese. 'Cause if Aharon's out of a job, they're out of a job!"

"Oy, those two nephews of mine. Don't know when to quit. It's gonna get them in real trouble some day. Sigh. Now, don't think I'm giving you the bum's rush Betzie, but we both got a lot of work to be doing, and we'd both better get back to it."

"Yeah, you go back and do all that hard work-praying, judging, and writing that book I know you've been working on. Just promise you'll think of me out there sweating and working my tuchis off getting the mishkan ready. Hard work, my a**!"

"Hey, smarty-pants. I'm not the sissy artist with the sissy name! Betzie? Betzie? What kind of man's name is that? Moses. Now there's a manly sounding name."

"Yeah, right. For a prince of Egypt, it's a great name. But years from now people are gonna wonder about your descendants. Moses? Moses? Doesn't sound Jewish."

"Get outta here before I break my staff over your head....

[fade out]


It's great to be generous. This Shabbat, be generous. But not too generous. With G”d, we don't need to CYA. After three millennia, you'd have thought we'd figured that out by now...

Shabbat Shalom,

© 2014 (portions © 2000) by Adrian A. Durlester

Random Musings Before Shabbat-Vayakhel 5763

Dayam V'hoteir

More than enough. It's an interesting concept. One should certainly aspire to do as much as one can. One should be generous to a fault. Or should one?

That's the question posed by what we read in parashat Vayakhel.

וְהַמְּלָאכָה הָֽיְתָה דַיָּם לְכָל־הַמְּלָאכָה לַֽעֲשׂוֹת אֹתָהּ וְהוֹתֵֽר

The outpouring of materials and effort from the people of Israel for the building of the tabernacle was "dayam l'chol ham'lacha la'asot ota" enough for all that needed to be done for it [the building of the tabernacle.] However, not only was it "enough", the text goes on to say "v'hoteir" which one might colloquially translate as "and then some" but the combination of "dayam" and "hoteir" is most often rendered "more than enough." [Ex 36:7]

It's wonderful that Moshe had to tell the people to stop, that more than was needed had been given by those whose hearts moved them to give. And it's certainly appropriate to look at this as an example of generosity of spirit.

I also think there's another way of looking at it. It can also be a lesson in knowing when enough is enough. We've all experienced the sensation of getting really caught up in something, getting carried away in our enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is a good thing. Yet enthusiasm, as with anything carried to extremes, needs its limits. Energies that may be needed elsewhere can be needlessly and wastefully expended on something that no longer needs that energy.

I also believe we have a lesson here in learning to allow someone with an objective outside opinion warn us when our enthusiasm has blinded us to the need to move on to something new. In the Talmud, Rabbi Tarfon teaches us that "it is not your obligation to complete the task, yet you are also not free to desist from it. Would that he had also said "and when the task is done, move on to the next one." Moshe rabbeinu had to get up in front of the whole community and effectively say: "Enough already! Stop with the all the ferkhakhte gifts for building the tabernacle! We're up to our ears in this holy dreck."

I wonder what might have happened had not Moshe done so (or if the people had not listened to him.)

The artisans who were engaged in the work knew something had to be done. They were probably so busy continuing to accept and sort all the gifts being brought they had little time to actually work on the creating of the items for the tabernacle. So they went to Moshe and asked him to tell the people to stop.

The last time the people had gotten in such a fervor they had committed a great sin, and brought forth the abomination of the golden calf. Surely Moshe must have had this in mind when he ordered the people to stop. Another case of poorly channeled energy.

What are the things in our own lives to which we devote more than enough? Are we open to the comments of those who tell us when we have done enough and it's time to stop? It's great to be moved by our hearts to do things. It's also important to use our heads to know when to stop and move on.

As we help with the building of our own tabernacles in our own times, let us all pray for the wisdom to know when enough is enough.

I could say more on the subject, but maybe enough is enough.

Shabbat Shalom,

© 2014 (portions © 2003) by Adrian A. Durlester

Maybe, at the moment, I don’t agree that enough is enough, so I just can’t resist adding a few more words. So what do you think? How similar and different are the apparent conclusions of these two musings, written just a few years apart? Am I just doing an act of CYA just by adding this little tag? And down the rabbit hole we go.

Shabbat Shalom,

© 2014 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayakhel-Pekudei 5773 - Craftsman. Artisan. Artist. Again.
Vayakhel-Pekude 5772 - Vocational Ed
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?
Vayakhel 5765-The Wisdom of the Heart
Vayakhel/Pekude 5764-Comma or Construct?
Vayakhel 5763-Dayam V'hoteir
Vayakhel/Pekude 5762-Sacred Work
Vayakhel/Pekude 5761 (Revised from 5758)-Craftsman. Artisan. Artist.
Vayakhel/Pekude 5758-Craftsman. Artisan. Artist.
Vayakhel 5760-The Lost Episodes: Too Much of a Good Thing

Friday, February 14, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Ki Tissa 5774–Faith Amnesia (and Anger Management)

I just went downstairs to do my laundry. After dragging my accumulated laundry to the basement of the apartment building in which I live, I discover a small, handwritten sign indicating that the dryer was not working, and that maintenance has been called. Since there is only one washer and dryer in each small building section, my only alternative is to take my laundry back up the stairs, go outside and make my way through the snow and ice-covered sidewalk and parking lot, over to the next section of the building, go down to its basement, and hope its lone washer and dryer are are available and in working order. Let me tell you, I had a snit fit of the highest order, ranting, stomping, slamming doors, cursing up a blue streak, and generally being overly histrionic as I dragged my full hamper and my laundry supplies next door. Fortunately, I don’t think many, if any, of my neighbors are around to hear the expletive-laden tirade.

Now, truth be told, I’m not under any particular time pressure at the moment. The way my current schedule is, Friday mornings are generally free. Why was I so upset? Why am I still a little worked up? Truth be told, it’s because I wanted to leisurely have the time to work on this musing. Going from my first floor apartment to the basement to keep my laundry going is a minor inconvenience, but to my petty, obsessed brain, having to put on boots and a coat and walk the few steps to the next building entrance every 40 minutes or so was like the worst possible thing that could happen, and would totally ruin my day.

Oops, excuse me while I put on my coat, go outside to the next building entrance and tend to my laundry. Be right back.

OK, I’m back. As part of my self-work on anger management, and calming myself down (in addition to the catharsis that writing this musing is affording me) I focused on counting my steps. Since in either location I would have to go down stairs, I discounted those. There are only 100 extra steps (round trip,) taking a mere few extra seconds of my time, required to do my laundry in the next section over. Yes, I do have to put on my coat and shoes or boots, but so what?

There are people who say they never get angry. I don't believe them. Everyone gets angry. Setting aside what I know about my own faults and flaws, you know how I can be sure of this? Well, we are made b'tzelem El”him, in the image of G”d. Guess what? G”d gets angry! G”d does things like opening the ground to swallow sinners, flooding the whole planet and destroying almost all human life, zapping Nadav and Avihu into toast, striking Miriam with disease, wiping out Sodom and Gomorrah, and, well, the list goes on. (Sometimes, G”d’s anger appears to be manipulative, and not true anger – witness the plagues upon Egypt. Was that G”d being angry, or G”d making a point?)

Now, you might say, it says right here in this parasha that G”d is slow to anger. I don't want to get into a debate about the validity of the biblical text on that point, but, all I can say is, there certainly seem to be cases where G”d was not so slow to anger. Maybe G”d is slow to anger most of the time, or maybe that's our ideal view of G”d. But if our reflection of G”d, being in G”d's image, reveals anything about G”d, it is that not even G"d” can behave in a  consistent manner all the time.

It’s also wise to remember that this is a self-description by G”d of G”d. We all know how accurate our own self-perceptions often are. Even people who have spent a lifetime getting to “know themselves” are still left with a complicated psyche that can somewhat blind them to their actual behaviors or seemingly mitigate the extent of their faults. Take me, for example. Now, I cannot claim to have spent a lifetime mastering the art of self-knowledge. I’ve actually done pretty poorly in that regard. Nevertheless, I do know that I have learned to be aware of and temper my passive-aggressive nature. I am better at sitting in traffic, dealing with delays and frustrations, and allowing myself to express my emotions more often so they do not build up inside and inevitably explode. I’m better at it, but there’s still a long way to go. People who have known me a long time have noticed the change. Someone getting to know me more recently might suggest I am being as self-deceptive about believing I am mastering my passive-aggressive tendencies as G”d is when G”d self declares to be “slow to anger.” They may be right, but I will say to them, you think it’s bad now, you should have seen it a few decades ago. I think the most telling thing is that these days more people who only interact with me on occasion view me as pretty laid back, calm, easy-going, hard to upset. Fewer and fewer people experience the short, aggressive snit-fits. That’s progress, I guess. Baby steps count. Sadly, those closest to me have generally borne (and still bear) the brunt of the downside of my passive-aggressive nature. It hurts me to know that this highly effective yet brutal form of catharsis, which enables me to be better at the things I do for others, most often hurts those who care for me the most. It is my fatal flaw, and it has cost me. Enough, for now, about the particular of my issues with anger management. Let’s be more generic.

It is good to be slow to anger - most of the time. It is best to not allow ourselves to get upset with every little thing, and lash out. Not everything in life is worth getting angry about. So, when we can, we, like G”d self describes, strive to not get angry, to have high tolerance and loving acceptance, to be patient and loving and kind and merciful.

There is, however, a downside to not getting angry, or being slow to anger. Sometimes this lets the anger build up inside us, when it may be better to let it out in little bits and piece, rather than to save it up until one explodes with fury and rage. We call that being passive-aggressive. It’s not a healthy way to be, and I should know, because that’s me, as you have read.

Even if you’re not passive-aggressive, you probably have an occasional snit fit. We all have them. Even G”d has them. G”d, it appears, isn’t always capable of stuffing all the frustration and anger inside without it eventually leading to an emotional explosion of some kind. How else could you explain what happened to Nadav and Avihu? G”d just had a snit fit. It happens. We must make our apologies and go on afterwards. Better yet, we should strive to understand why we behave this way, and work to mitigate the tendency, if not altogether eliminate it (a worthy goal which some people I know seem to have achieved – I am so jealous of these people.)

There are those times when we are trying so hard to not get really angry. There are also those situations when we know that it would be difficult to restrain ourselves for very long. What is it best to do in those circumstances? Perhaps G”d has role-modeled a solution for us. Knowing how Angry G”d was, G”d knew G”d could not trust the ability to maintain composure while being amongst the troublesome, stiff-necked Israelites. A golden calf, for goodness’ sake! An idol! Aaron helped fashion it. G”d must have been fit to be tied! G”d was keenly self-aware of this. Being a loving parent, G”d knew he must not allow G”d'self to be an abusive parent. And so G”d says that G”d cannot go in the midst of the people, for surely if G”d did so, G”d would destroy them. (Ex. 33:5.)

Now that's anger management. G”d knew not to subject G”d’s-self to a situation in which it was likely G”d would have a fit and do something mean or would later regret in a fit of pique. Well, that's one kind of anger management - yet another installment in G”d's little instruction book we call Torah. But there is another form of anger management - one that can come from outside us. Moshe was a practitioner of this form.

Moshe knew there was a way to convince G”d that the anger could be controlled. If G”d could be reminded of just how much G”d loved these stiff-necked, arrogant people, then this love might defuse the anger and allow it to ebb away.

This is a different reading of the text of Ex. 33:15-16. I know that in other musings on this parasha I have offered other interpretations. Most notably, Moshe's clever trickery in getting G”d to accompany the people by playing to G”d's ego and pride-how is it that we shall be known as G”d's special people if G”d does not go with us, in our midst? It's a clever ploy by Moshe-and it works! Moshe as G”d’s shrink.  Let that thought swirl around your head for a minute, while I go put in another load of laundry.

As I have said, there is another reading. Moshe is not trying to persuade G”d with a little psychology. No, Moshe is trying to remind G”d of the special feelings that G”d has for these people. Moshe knows that, reminded of this, the warmth of love will flow through G”d, G”d's anger will subside, and G”d will be able once again to be among the people without fear of lashing out at them in anger. Self anger management by situation avoidance. Anger management with the assistance of someone else to guide our thoughts and feelings into a better, more loving place.

I think I understand one reason why I had a snit fit today. I’m not presently married or in a relationship with anyone. I didn’t have that safe, secure relationship that would allow me to ask to be “talked down” from my fit of pique. (I have been known to call or text my significant others when I felt a fit of passive-aggressive pique coming on so they could help me calm down. It has always worked. It indicates, at least, some level of self-awareness, so I sometimes salve myself with that thought.)

This is the Homer Simpson moment, the “doh!” Stop and think about what you know, what you have lived, what you experienced, Adrian. You’ve hade counseling, belonged to self-help groups, you’ve experienced Al-Anon and Codependents Anonymous. You’re a Jewish educator and a practicing Jew. Where might I turn for that help in the absence of another human being? The answer was/is staring me in the face, and I didn’t/don’t see it. Hello, earth to Adrian. The word G”d has appeared in some form in this musing so far over fifty times! Yet not once had it occurred to me to turn my anger and frustration over to G”d, and let G”d “talk me down” from my heightened state of misplaced and probably inappropriate anger. That is, until now. Which leaves me in a bit of a causal loop. My own histrionic snit fit, my own passive-aggressiveness, at its worst, led me to a true moment of discovery, a religious epiphany. Sort of. The question also remain, what will I do next time? will I remember that I can turn to G”d, and do so?

Time to shift more laundry around. Hold on for a bit.

[Heavenly Ringtone] Hello, this is G”d. Compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness..

Me: Yeah, yeah, I know all that stuff. Can we skip the formalities? If You’ve got a minute I need Your help.

G”d: [You can almost hear the world weary sigh in the silence]

Me: I’ll take that as a yes. So I go downstairs to do the laundry and the dryer is broken and I start getting all upset and…

G”d: Calm down. Relax. Count to ten. Take a deep breath. Think “Slow to anger, slow to anger.” Now what is it that’s upsetting you?

Me: Oh, that’s clever! Count to “ten.” Ha-ha. Got it. Shouldn’t it be count to 613?

G”d: Stop deflecting. Oh, ha. Now I get it. Very funny, Mr. smarty-pants. A little humor never hurts. Feeling calmer yet?

Me: Why, yes. Yes, I do.

[Sound of mild snow thunder in the distance]

Me: Ah, yeah. How easily we forget our manners. Thanks, G”d!

G”d: Anytime.

I could have done that. I should have done that. (I know, all those 12-Step programs discourage saying “should.”)

Yes, the G”d of my understanding is a very imperfect G”d, but that doesn’t mean I can’t ask G”d for help when I need it. I’m going to have to ask myself why I wrote this whole diatribe about being alone and not in a relationship with anyone and not having anyone to call to calm me down, when all along I knew there was someplace to go for help. Is it lack of faith? Is it a fault of my current understanding of G”d? Or is it simply the human tendency to often not see what is right in front of us?

There’s danger of a spiral here. I could get so worked up about why I didn’t jump right to knowing that G”d could help calm me down that I work myself up into another fervor. So time to take the advice and slow down, breathe, count to ten (or 613,) relax. I selfishly write these musings to have just that impact upon me.

I must remember that. Sometimes, the raging passive-aggressive co-dependent in me insists that I write these musings for you, my dear readers. Truth is, I write them as much for me as for you. They are how I explore my faith, my world, my life, my Judaism. They are sometimes how I trick myself into looking at myself. Our Torah is so rich with text to explore, and text that gives us good tools for self-examination, for behavior modification (and a good dose of things not to do as well.)

I’m on my last load of laundry now. Oh, look what just showed up – the service truck come to fix the dryer in my part of the building. #$!!  Deep breath. Try a prayer, maybe. Ok, the Serenity Prayer might not be a classic Jewish prayer, but it works. That helps. I’m not so alone. There is someone to whom I can turn for help. I’m feeling better now.

I’ve still got to grapple with why the thought of asking G”d for help didn’t rise to the surface so quickly, but there’s plenty of time for that. For now, I’ll simply accept things as they are, and work to make things better. Lo alecha, and all that. This refers to both my passive-aggressive tendencies and what I think I will call not a lapse of faith, but a case of faith amnesia. I like that understanding of what I experienced. A little faith amnesia. Hey, I think that’s a better title for this musing, so I’ll go change it!  

This musing began as a reworking of my 2000 Ki Tissa musing Anger Management, and still contains a bit of what I wrote then, and a bit of a reworking of those thoughts. I closed then with these thoughts, which I will also use to close this year:

The booksellers can all go out and empty their self-help and pop-psychology from the bookshelves and warehouses. They can replace all those books with just one. Our holy Torah. If you turn it and turn it again, it is all in there. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About....Well, Everything!!
Do a little Torah turning of your own this Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2014 by Adrian A. Durlester
(Portions ©2000.)

Other musings on this parasha:

Ki Tissa/Shabbat Parah 5773 - Fortune and Men's Eyes (Redux and Revised)
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

Friday, February 7, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Tetzaveh 5774–It’s Not Urim “or” Thummim

Next to those two crispy critters Nadav and Avihu, I think my next favorite pair of names in Torah is—yep, you guessed it—Urim and Thummim. I’ve written before about my confusion as to the Israelites (and G”d) requiring some sort of oracular device however today my interest in the Urim and Thummim is different.

What are they? How were they used? Those are questions for another time. Today, there is no how, why, what, where, when. There is only “they are.” There is only Urim and Thummim.  The Torah goes into great detail about the construction of the priestly robes—the undergarments, the ephod (the overall tunic or garment,) turban, the tzitz (the frontlet on the turban,) the sash, khoshen (breastplate,) the me’il (the overcoat or robe,) etc. G”d instructs us, in intricate detail,  how to create, how to make each of these magnificent pieces of the priestly wardrobe.

In intricate detail it is explained how these items are ornamented, woven, adorned, connected, fastened, and worn. Then we are told, plain as day, to put the Urim and Thummim inside the breastplate so they rest over Aharon’s heart when he goes before G”d. “Thus,” says the text, “Aharon shall carry the “instrument of decision” (in Hebrew, simply “et-mishpat” or literally, the judgment) for the Israelites over his heart before the L”rd at all times.”

Everything else we are told to make, to create. The Urim and Thummim we are simply told to put or place in the breastplate.

So where did they come from, and what part did they play in the life of the Israelites before then? They were clearly a known and extant thing. They are not included among the six or seven items that some of the rabbis claim existed before creation. So they must have been made or created at some point.

We’ve all found ourselves or others in situations where it was assumed something was known when it actually wasn’t. The Urim and Thummim are mentioned so matter-of-factly that the biblical authors/redactors are assuming their readers knew exactly what they were talking about. Or did they?  “Urim and Thummim? Yeah, we all know what those are right? Right?” Nobody dares to raise a hand and suggest that none of them really know what the Urim and Thummim are. We all just play and game and pretend. Maybe this is Torah (or G”d’s) little joke on us. After all, cleromancy as an essential practice of a religion that abhors augury, divination and diviners? (Notice in the Purim story how the Persians used lots, a form of cleromancy against the Jews. In Jonah, as well, the non-Jews are the ones casting lots.) On the other hand, in just a few weeks we’ll read about Aharon “casting lots” to chose which goat to sacrifice and which to send to Azazel. Joshua casts lots to aid in dividing up the land among the tribes. So it would seem some forms of divination are permitted in Judaism – at least in Biblical Judaism.

Yes, mention of the Urim and Thummim comes before the prohibitions in Leviticus against divination and augury, but we all know the Torah need not be seen as linear or chronological. So I am only a little troubled by the inconsistency that some forms of divination are approved while others are not. I remain troubled, however, by the fact that the Urim and Thummim just are, with no explanation, no etiology. (That they are not mentioned as something that existed before creation is perhaps related to the concerns I expressed previously about Judaism’s somewhat unclear position on divination.)

Life is rife with competing philosophies. Some teach us to rail and protest and work against what is, and others urge us to learn to live with what is. Both philosophies (and they are but two among many) have their positive and negative points. The Serenity Prayer found at the core of many Twelve-Step programs, which, despite its likely origins (the general consensus these days is that it is by Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr,) can feel very Jewish in its essential acceptance of balancing life’s realities, seems to embrace both philosophies. You can easily reorder and subtly alter the wording to fit a whole host of situations.

Life is also rife with things which simply just are. Ah, but science can help us understand everything. Are we so certain of that, in an entropic universe where orderliness tends to flow towards chaos?

However, there is also an inherent danger in acceptance of things as they are. This can be used as a tool to manipulate and dominate. If every time someone tells us “well, that’s just the way things are” we simply accept it, what hope for change and improvement is there?  It is dangerous to overly embrace either extreme view – that all is knowable and nothing is knowable. Urim without Thummim or vice versa? What kind of universe would that be?

Which are the Urim and Thummim? Are they something whose origin I can know, or that I can never hope to know? Whence the wisdom to know which they are? Whence the wisdom to know if it is even worthy to worry about it? Allow me to be bold enough to suggest that the answer to the latter questions might very well be Torah. Or not.

Some things needs to be created. Some things just are. A circle has no beginning and no end, so we know such things are possible. Our universe will eventually expand so much it will fall apart (or so we currently believe) so even the infinite is finite.

Using the Urim and Thummim to answer the very questions their existence raises. There’s an interesting concept. Hey G”d, is all pre-ordained or is all free will?  Only if we assume the use of the Urim and Thummim does not preclude the answer being both or none do we really have any hope of getting an answer. None of the above and all of the above have to be included along with Urim or Thummim as possible answers. That they very words Urim and Thummim are themselves in a plural form already says something about them as instruments of determining probabilities and answering questions with a simple yes/no. The Urim and Thummim are both Schrödinger's cat experiment at the same time. Scholars have tried to interpret the names of the Urim and Thummim and representing polar opposites, but what if they are not. What if they are both just multiple possibilities and options? Is the lesson here that we should never truly believe black/white yes/no answers are the only possible answers? That’s Torah wisdom.

I can hear Tevye now. The Urim are right. The Thummim are right. They’re both right. Down the rabbit hole we go.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2014 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Tetzaveh/Shabbat Zachor/Purim 5773 - Fighting Dirty
Tetzaveh 5772-Perfection Imperfect
Tetzaveh 5770 - A Nation of Priests? (And a Shtickel of Purim)
Tetzaveh 5768-Light and Perfection
Tetzaveh/Purim 5767-The Urim & Thummim Show (Updated)
Tetzaveh 5766-Silent Yet Present
Tetzaveh 5765 and 5761-Aharon's Bells
Tetzaveh 5764-Shut Up and Listen!
Tetzaveh 5763-House Guest
Tetzaveh 5762 (Redux 5760)-The Urim and Thummim Show
Tetzaveh 5758-Something Doesn't Smell Quite Right