Friday, December 25, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Vayekhi 5776 - Beyond the Threshold

Wow. A lot can happen in just over a decade. In preparing to write my weekly musing, I usually re-read the others I have written over the years. Sometimes I decide to re-use them – sometimes with additional insights, and sometimes just as they were written originally. I have to confess that one motivation for reviewing my previous musings is a self-check. Sometimes, an insight comes to me and it seems new and fresh. I, frankly, need to double-check that I hadn’t previously had the same notion and already written about it! Yes, you’d think I’d remember all my own work, but, honestly, after 19 years of doing this, it all kind of blends together, and I often find myself at a loss to remember what idea I have explored, what insights I have shared. Also, what insights upon which I have failed to follow up.

On this particular parasha, I’ve written 8 non-repeated musings, and five more originals that have in later years been revised, updated, and thus re-used. (That’s 18, if you’re counting, making this the 19th.)  Reaching the end of a book of the Torah is an important point. It is a threshold. Some 11 years ago I made a connection between that threshold and the burgeoning online revolution. In re-reading it, I was amazed and amused at how dated it sounded, and how that was new and different then has already become old. To add to the amusement, I see that in my writing I referred to words I had written years before, when the online world was, at least in Jewish circles, in its infancy.

I was online in the early 80s, before the internet even existed. Even in those early days of dial-up access to BBs (online bulletin boards,) and primitive information services like GEnie, CompuServe, Prodigy, and AOL there was a Jewish presence on the web, and I was part of it. In 1993 I was using NCSA Mosaic (which later became Netscape Navigator, which was a precursor to today’s Firefox.) Microsoft outstretched its mighty arm and lo and behold Internet Explorer pretty made Netscape Navigator an also ran and niche product.  When the Reform movement began exploring an online presence on the web for itself and congregations, I participated in a  group working to make that happen. I started posting my random musings online. Here I am 19 years later still doing it.

The musing I wrote in 2004 was written as an attempt to aide those who were still struggling with the whole digital and online revolution, to give them hope that, despite their fears, and the fears of others that this would only lead to making things worse for Judaism, that we can and should co-opt it to serve Judaism, rather than to have it dominate us. I still believe that. More of that after you’ve read what I had to say 11 years ago.

Random Musings Before Shabbat-Vayechi 5764


It is said that the final words of parashat Vayechi and sefer Bereshit (the book of Genesis), "B'Mitzrayim" ("in Egypt") [Gen. 50:26] remind us that a new chapter in the story of the people of Israel is about to begin. It tells us that we are on the threshold of a whole new adventure.

We have all stood on many thresholds. They are at once exciting and terrifying. We often spend a lot of time stuck in the threshold as the excitement and fear struggle. Yet we must move forward and cross the threshold. Sometimes, our decisions to do so come from a head-driven fortitude, the outcome of logical thought-processes, of self debate, of weighing the pros and cons.

And sometimes our decisions to proceed past a threshold come from the heart.
Not so long ago, we all stood on a threshold--that of a new electronic information age. Some of us have crossed the threshold and moved on. Others are still lingering in the doorway. Some are boldly but with some temerity checking the waters. Others remain locked in self-dialogue, incessantly weighing pros and cons.

I recall an online discussions amongst a group who were, for the most part, at the vanguard of bringing their congregations into the age of online presence, i.e., web sites. There was much sturm und drang about what to do, how to do, whether it should be done. People had (and still have) fears over issues of safety and security, privacy, and more.

It seems that most congregations today have taken the leap and gotten past their fears--although one sees a great variety among congregations as to what information they put on the web. Sadly, I think that what drove most congregations through the threshold was economics. They simply couldn't afford to not have a presence, especially if they wanted their membership numbers to remain steady or increase. So some congregations "bit the bullet" and plunged ahead. But most often their decisions were made with their heads. And it shows. G”d forgive me that bit of open criticism, for even I am guilty of that for which I am now criticizing others. I want to make a point, so I taking this liberty.
Some years ago, when congregations really were just reaching the threshold on web presence, I responded to a message posted on a webmasters e-mail discussion list. In this message, the poster was asking;

"I'm looking for a bigger picture. What can a Net presence do for a congregation, uniquely? What functions should it perform? I am currently prototyping a web site which I will soon present to a committee for discussion and revision. I am also studying the issue academically."

At the time, I considered making a lengthy, academic response to this query. I caught myself before I traveled down that all too familiar road and reminded myself that, like our ancestors at the end of sefer Bereshit, were standing at a threshold of a whole new adventure. Jacob did reveal for his sons a few details about what may come to be, but G”d did not permit Jacob to reveal the whole truth of what was to be. G”d may know what the future of Judaism and the World Wide Web may be. We can only make educated guesses. And I think sometimes G”d likes to twist reality to remind us that we can make all the educated guesses we want and still be dead wrong.

When we are at the start of a new adventure, there isn't all that much that our heads can tell us about what is ahead. So we must look to our hearts. I wrote, in part, these words in response:
"Just as we should with our synagogues themselves, we should be managing our web sites as much with our hearts as with our heads."
"We...argue in our Board Meetings about mundane and trivial things, and create business-like web sites just as we too often treat our congregations as a business. Let's give our brains a rest and put our hearts to work.
"So, let's try these reasons for having a web page: a. Use the web as an extension of Torah and our Judaism to teach, enlighten and inform, and strengthen Judaism. b. Allow people to be taught, enlightened, informed, and strengthened. Isn't that enough?"
It was a noble thought at the time, though perhaps a bit Pollyanna-esque, as I can often be. Reality sets in. Web sites are not only communication tools, but recruiting tools. We can't ignore reality, nor should we disregard wise counsel. So we must learn to use both our hearts and our heads. So doing, I suspect we will have greater success in the long run.
Those many years ago (well, actually, in was 1996) I also added these words:
"There are those who fear that we will become slaves to our computers. We will become keyboard potatoes. Maybe that will happen."
I'll interject here that some studies are showing that this is already beginning to happen. Yet, I also posited these thoughts:
"Maybe [this is all] a preamble to a new redemption, as we are led from the days of slavery to our computers into a new promised land - when we and our creations work hand in hand with the one who created us. The next choice you run up against-try deciding with both your head and your heart."
I commend to yet that thought. The web and computers are becoming may indeed have already become, commonplace and everyday. And some of us are in danger of becoming, if we are not already, slaves to the technology. (All those jokes about men and the TV remote may soon yield to jokes about all of us with our wireless keyboards, our PDAs, our X-Boxes, our Instant Messaging.) We may do well to heed the lessons we learn from Torah, both in sefer Bereshit, and those we are about to learn anew in the remaining four books -- so that we will be ready and empowered to find our way to freedom from the slavery of technology, yet also find a way to integrate technology into our covenant in meaningful ways.

Ironic, isn't it, that I disseminate these very words through the power of this technology? So maybe we are already developing the skills necessary to co-opt it for G”d's purposes rather than our own. Ken y'hi ratzon. Ken y'hi ratzoneinu.
OK, back to 2015. Yes, some of those naysayers and doom predictors and purveyors of cautionary tales were right. Some of us have become slaves to our devices (I suspect more to smartphones these days than desktop computers.) Some of us have become keyboard potatoes. The internet is replete will so many information sources that winnowing the wheat from the chaff is a monumental task. Many aggregators have arisen to help us manage all the information, but even the aggregators aren’t always without bias.
Judaism has a role to play in all of this, if it wants to do so. Some, I believe mistakenly, believe that it is all about religion’s obligation to be counter-cultural. That we must stand against technology’s rapid advancement and our increasing dependence upon us. They play upon ancient cultural taboos, myths, and archetypes seeking to make us fearful. The truth of the matter is, the way the internet works, the more good people who use it, the harder it is for the plutocrats and oligarchs, and those intent on evil, to suborn it for their own nefarious purposes.

One (admittedly fringe) haredi rabbi just decreed that anyone with a smartphone cannot be counted in a minyan!  Thousands have gathered in stadiums to hear rabbis deliver anti--technology and anti-internet diatribes.While most of this plays out in the more frum world, don’t be fooled into thinking that there aren’t those in the liberal Jewish world with a similar agenda.

Technology is no panacea. Due caution needs to be observed. Technology must be our tool, not our enslaver. However, it is not our enemy. The solution is not about being counter-cultural – it’s about being co-optive. It’s about turning the technology to serve our needs, not drive them. Be careful – for often the same folks who are leading the charge against technology are the same ones leading the charge against science. Religion and science are not enemies. Religion can be informed by science, and science can be informed by ethics, and yes, even by religion. In the end, if technology really is the devil – well, better the devil you know…

Some taunt Shabbat, for example, as a time to escape from technology. That may very well be the solution for some. It is not, however,t he solution for all. I’ve written before about why I don’t participate in the National Shabbat of Unplugging because sometimes, and for some people, the technology can be the tool that most enables them to experience their Shabbat in a way that is different from the rest of their week.

We’ve crossed the threshold. Going back is no longer and alternative. This djinn won’t go back into the bottle. So it’s up to us to help control and influence is development.  We do that as its partner, not its opponent.

The future of Judaism lies in finding ways to have technology serve it, to enable it to be better, to be a light to the nations.

Khazak, khazak, v’nitkhazeik.

Shabbat Shalom,
©2105 by Adrian A. Durlester
(Portions © 2004)-

Other Musings on this parasha:
Vayekhi 5775 - Which Last Words?
Vay'khi 5774 - The Puppet's Unritten Lament
Vayekhi 5773 - The Wrong Good (Redux and Updated 5762)
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
Vayechi 5762-The Wrong Good

Friday, December 18, 2015

Random Musings Before Shabbat-Vayigash 5776 - Things Better Left Unsaid (Redux 5763)

45:24 As he sent his brothers off on their way, he told them, "Do not be quarrelsome on the way."

What did Yosef mean by this gentle admonition to his brothers, as he sent them back to Canaan to fetch Yaakov and their families to settle in Egypt? Is he telling them to not fear revealing the whole truth about what they did to Yosef their brother to their father Yaakov, because all that has happened was "Ki l'mich'yah shelachani Elohim lifneihem" - for it was to save life that Gd sent me here before you. (45:5) Was he telling them it was all "water under the bridge" so to speak? (For my thoughts on the teleological aspects of verse 45:5, see my previous musing for Vayigash 5772 - Redux & Revised 5760 Teleology 101: Does G"d Play Dice With the World.) Is he simply telling them it's pointless to argue about who is to blame, about who is going to tell daddy what really happened?

Is he telling them not to try and avoid blame, argue among themselves, each trying to say "it was really all his idea" to avoid Yaakov's anger? Is he telling them that he knows Yaakov well enough to know that his love for Yosef would overcome any anger with his sons for what they had done?

Is he actually giving them a private remonstration--"you got lucky this time brothers, but don't press your luck" ?

Is it a veiled reference to what the brothers did after the rape of their sister Dinah? He may have been the youngest son when that happened-one wonders what he made of it all (and why is so clearly absent from that story. Guess he had a bigger part to play later.)

So the text sets us up to expect--something. And then the text leaves us hanging. The brief description in 45:27 that they "recounted all that Yosef had said to them" has us wondering-what did the brothers tell their father about how all this came to be. Did they confess what they did?
For Yaakov's part-did he care what had happened? All that mattered perhaps is that Yosef was alive. He already knew his sons were trouble from the Dinah incident, from the story of Tamar, so perhaps he didn't need to know what really happened.

So perhaps it all remained unspoken. The brothers knew what they had done. They knew they had been found out. Yaakov clearly knew they had deceived him. Did any of that matter now? As much as I hate teleological explanations, that's what seems to fit best here.

Don't quarrel among yourselves on the way back to Canaan. Meaning-you don't need to say anything. All is known, yet better left unsaid.
What would be gained for Yosef to hear the confession of his sons to their wrongdoing? And Yaakov was not without sin himself. To confront him with the sins of his own sons might only serve to amplify his own guilt. Better left unsaid.
I don't know that I am fully comfortable with this idea. After all, "don't ask, don't tell" wasn't exactly a high ethical position. It's certainly tone of the more stupid ideas ever perpetuated by the armed services and our government. Yet I have always been a believer in situational decision-making. And there clearly are times when things may be best left unsaid. Yosef knew that, and he shared that wisdom with his brothers, and luckily, to us as well, through the text of the Torah which recounts his words. Al tir'gezu. Don't be quarrelsome. Seems good advice both in context and out of context.

Al Tir'gezu badarech. Don't be quarrelsome on the way. Practical advice for any journey--and for all of us, at all times, always on this journey known as life. Will we ever get where we are going if we're constantly quarreling along the way? This, perhaps, is the real key to Yosef's advice. Let's put it all aside and press forward. Don't quarrel with others, don't quarrel with yourself, and don't quarrel with Gd. Let's work together and help guide each other down this road which need not be so lonesome.

Nissea Tovah. Travel well.

 ©2016 and 2002 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha

Friday, December 11, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Miketz 5776 - Coke or Pepsi? (Or...?)

Julie Silver is not only a talented songwriter and performer, she is a thoughtful and caring human being who thinks seriously about how she lives and how she integrates her values into her life. Earlier this week on Facebook, she posted a picture of a blueberry bagel and had this to say:
For my friends who are curious, "why the blueberry bagel?" They ask as if to mock! Ready willing and able to yuck my yum. I eat them because they are the marginalized. The forgotten. The minority opinion. And we must not forget minority opinions. Plus ‪#‎blueberry‬ is life. And these are awesome. And the ladies at @abbotshabitveniceca serve them with such love.
Now, as I posted in the inevitable thread of comments:
To be honest, my first inclination was to make a snarky remark about blueberry bagels, but after reading your explanation, I am chagrined to admit that.
The comment thread was well developed before I added my two sh’kalim, and, to no one’s surprise, it was a mixture of adamant protests against such radical ideas as a blueberry bagel, and radical pro-blueberry supporters.
Now, I like my bagels savory, and I will readily admit to having made snarky and strongly-worded comments and observations about the blashphemy that is a bagel which contains anything sweet or fruit-like in it. Plenty had already made this case in the comments; one of the most forceful anti-blueberry bagel pronouncements coming from no other than Julie’s amazing spouse Mary Connelly. (There is a joy, I will admit, having done it myself before, in goading our spouses and others with whom we are close-so one can never really know what truths lie behind the playful sparring. If, indeed, Julie and Mary have equally strong but opposite opinions on the subject of blueberry bagels, it serves only to raise my esteem for their amazing relationship.)

I digress (so what else is new?) In our interactions, I have often found that Julie has a way of getting people to really think about things. That was certainly true here. Even if the whole posting was akin to my own frequent gadfly-like posts, and meant primarily as an attempt of adding some levity, that doesn’t change the fact that it got me thinking.

I’m not big into professional (or even academic) sports and don’t claim any particular loyalty to team, with one exception. I’m a Met’s fan. (I’m also a fan of NYC’s other two Mets – the opera and the museum of art, but in this case I’m definitely referring to the baseball team.) No, I’m not a serious fan – I can’t tell you the names of current players, I don’t dutifully watch games and follow the team with any regularity. I still consider myself a fan. Even though I lived for my High School years directly across the street from Yankee Stadium, I rooted for the Mets. I was with them from the beginning. The first professional ball game I ever attended was a Mets game, in their first year of existence, playing at the Polo Grounds. When I explain why I’m a Mets fan, I always say it’s because I always root for the underdogs. Now there’s an irony here, in that my freshman year in high school was the first time the Mets ever won the world series. Doesn’t matter – for a NYC kid, the Mets are perennially the underdogs – the “amazins” that have managed, somehow, to win two world championships and five NL pennants (that one I had to Google.) The Mets are NYC’s Cub, albeit the Mets seem to have had a little more success over a rather shorter lifespan than the Cubs. Also, truth be told, my feelings about the Mets generally are less enthusiastic when they’re having a winning season.

This rooting for the underdog, this concern for the opinions and thoughts and lives of anyone in a minority – these are core values instilled in me by two incredible parents. So it’s only natural that I would be caught up short when I thought about Julie’s explanation for her love of blueberry bagels. Her words made me realize, on the one hand, how dogmatic and fixed I can be in  my thinking (i.e. “blueberry bagels are just wrong.” On the other hand, they served to remind me that, though I am far from perfect at it, many aspects of my personality and my choices on how to live and act are based on a similar approach to championing the underdog and the minority. My nature as a gadfly in my writings, on social media, and even in real life is driven by a deep-seated desire to help people always to try and see all sides of a question or situation – to always consider the minority point of view.

So why wouldn’t I consider a blueberry bagel? Well, that’s not the right question. I don’t actually like blueberry bagels – I really do prefer my bagels savory. That’s OK. I don’t have to like everything. However, I do have to be respectful of those whose preferences are different from mine, and even more protective of those preferences  represented by a minority of preference-holders. Those who are marginalized. Wars and terrible acts have been committed in the name of obstinance and failure to consider a minority opinion. Why should I, why should anyone contribute to that unfortunate reality?

No, I’m not going to eat a blueberry bagel anytime soon (or ever, quite possibly. Well, I think I may have, gasp, unintentionally eaten a bagel with a raisin or some other inappropriate foreign substance in it by accident at some point.) I don’t need to eat and appreciate a blueberry bagel to be respectful and considerate of those who favor them (though there is something to be said about walking a mile in someone’s shoes in order to be able to appreciate their viewpoint.)

I certainly belong to my share of minorities. I suspect we all do, to some degree.  I, for example, will actually eat mayonnaise on a pastrami or corned beef sandwich. I don’t drink coffee. I like my pickles full bottom of the barrel sour – not the pansy half-sour or dill stuff. I put ketchup on hot dogs. I actually like matzah. I don’t watch Survivor, American Idol, The Voice, or even Game of Thrones. I love Dr. Who (and while there are many of us, we’re still a minority.)My height puts me in an extremely small (pun intended) minority. I am Jew. Although the world often seems to forget it these days, we are quite the minority, despite our successes.

In recent weeks, I’ve taken to task those who share my very leftist, liberal viewpoints for their sharing of questionable posts about Republican presidential candidates. Even that one about Trump’s ancestors. I detest the man and all he says and stands for, but I will not tolerate outright distortions of the facts about his family. No, two wrongs never make a right. Never.

As I stated, we’re all part of some minority. Why not flaunt it to make an important statement to the rest of the world that minorities and minority opinions matter. I do not say this to minimize the concerns of any one minority. There are, at this time, a number of minorities under threat, or subject to discrimination, or unequal treatment under the law.  And yes, there are some minorities whose rights to say what they say, and act as they act, I cannot, in good conscience, support. Nevertheless, it is good to remind myself that as much as I abhor the idea of a blueberry bagel, the people who, minority or not, love them, are my fellow human beings. Their opinion matters. While I cannot condone any terrorist’s methodology, I can, at the very least, seek to understand what, other than hatred, drives them to commit unspeakable acts as their way of insuring that their minority is heard. I can listen, and try to understand, without endorsing tactics or viewpoint. These days, the world seems to be full of a lot of metaphorical blueberry bagels.

It has been a long time since I’ve written a musing like this one with no attempt whatsoever to connect it to the parasha. I figure that if I spark some thoughts and some discussion, I’ve done my job. So no apologies for the lack of Miketz-ical content.

I was originally going to end this musing with a typical gadfly-ish/humorous twist by just asking:
Coke or Pepsi?
Thus the title of the musing. Then I realized that such a simplistic worldview omits too many other possible minorities.In my youth, for example, I was actually a proud RC Cola and Nehi Orange consumer. There are the people who never drink soda or any carbonated beverage – a growing constituency which could, for all I know, now be a majority.

So instead I close with this challenge to you – to identify both the majorities and minorities to which you belong. For your majorities, take some time to learn more about the minority opinions in that area. For your minorities, embrace them as a reminder of why it is important to champion and support minorities and minority opinions, and to be sure they are given voice. And now to muddy the waters – do members of a minority have an equal (or similar) obligation to try and respect and understand the views of the majority? Does that obligation change if the minority is actively (or even passively) suppressed,  discriminated against, or threatened?

Thinking about all this is going to make for a very interesting Shabbat.

Khag Hanukkah Sameakh and Shabbat Shalom

©2015 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on Parashat Miketz:

Miketz 5775 - Assimilating Assimilation
Miketz 5774 - To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
Miketz 5773 - B'li Meilitz
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 4, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayeishev 5776–Revisiting Mikol Hamishpakhot HaAdamah

Eleven years ago, an interesting confluence of events led to my musing for parashat Vayeishev. The timing this year is similar. 

Hanukah was fast approaching, a time when we are called upon to publicly assert our Judaism with the display of our hanukiyot. Back in 2004, I was still editing Bim Bam, a Jewish teen e-zine published by Torah Aura Productions. That week 11 years ago, I chose some interesting content. One was an opinion piece that suggests that the American Jewish community is wasting all this effort and energy getting all worked up about Xmas, and blaming it for the rising tide of assimilation. The author suggested that we need to stop blaming outside factors for our problems--if Jews aren't being drawn to Jewish things it's because we, as Jews, aren't doing what's needed to draw them in.

The second was a series of articles from a variety of perspectives that asked the reader to consider the standard to which Israel must hold itself to be a "Jewish" state-is Israel being "all it can be?" That same year I was teaching and Intro to Judaism course for the regional office of the URJ, and on a fairly regular basis, the question of "chosen-ness" came up. This was no less true at the synagogues where I worked as a religious school administrator or teacher, and it is no less true today at the various places where I teach, tutor, an work.

There is, in general, a certain discomfort, even distaste among many Jews (though I would have to admit that in my experience it is primarily among liberal Jews) for this whole concept of "chosen-ness." I'm fond of pointing out in response that our "chosen-ness" is, as Teyve puts it "no great honor, either."

Often, I hear people state, and I admit to being guilty of it myself, that Torah doesn't really say that the choice is exclusive-leaving room for G”d to make other choices and other covenants. I've always felt a little like I was "pushing the envelope" by making such a claim, nevertheless I felt that, for the sake of both Jewish identity, interfaith harmony, and accepting the reality of a multiplicity of religious traditions, I needed to be pro-active in taking away our internal discomfort with being chosen people, and at the same time not fueling the fire of those who would use that against us.

"Chosen doesn't mean better," I often said. "Chosen doesn't mean exclusive, either." Yet I sought balance. I, for one, am fully comfortable with the words of the Aleinu, and don't care for some liberal congregations that opt to eliminate

שֶׁלֹּא עָשָֽׂנוּ כְּגוֹיֵי הָאֲרָצוֹת, וְלֹא שָׂמָֽנוּ כְּמִשְׁפְּחוֹת הָאֲדָמָה

"shelo asanu k'goyei ha-aratzot, v'lo samanu k'mishpakhot ha-adamah."

(did not make us like the (other) nations of the lands, and did not place us amongst all the families of the earth.)

So I thought I had found my comfort with "chosen-ness." Then I bumped into these words in the Haftarah reading for Vayeishev, from Amos 3:i2

רַק אֶתְכֶם יָדַעְתִּי מִכֹּל מִשְׁפְּחוֹת הָֽאֲדָמָה עַל־כֵּן אֶפְקֹד עֲלֵיכֶם אֵת כָּל־עֲוֹנֹֽתֵיכֶֽם

"Rak etkhem yadati mikol mishpakhot ha-adamah, al-kein efkod aleichem et kol-avonoteikhem."

Only you have I known from all the families of the earth; therefore I will draw near to (i.e. give attention to) your iniquities. (That's my translation. JPS says "You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth-That is why I will call you to account for your iniquities.")

(Far be it from me to question such august personages as the JPS's translation committee, but I don't see where they derive "singled out" from "yadati," I have known. So I can dispute the "singled out" part. But the "rak etkhem" the "only you [plural]" is harder to dismiss.)

Oh sure, I can play all sorts of twists and turns with the Hebrew and its meaning, as well as the context, and still find both support for chosen-ness while not flaunting it or lording it over others. I could even toy with the plurality of the statement “rak etkhem.” Who is to say that the plural you isn’t intended to refer to groups other than our ancestors? Then again, who is to say that it is not intended to say exactly that? You [plural] meaning the Jewish people. Remember, the covenant was made with those standing there that day, and those not standing there that day (generally interpreted to mean future generations.) Nevertheless, part of me wants desperately to play down the exclusivity. Call it apologetics, if you must. Perhaps, sometimes, apologetics can serve a higher cause, it if helps bring peace and understanding between disparate peoples?

Then there's that second half to the verse. It fully endorses the idea that "chosen-ness" isn't always such a blessing. It is precisely because G”d has chosen us that we will have to account for our actions. To be a Jew means direct accountability to G”d for our actions (or failures to act.) To be a Jewish state, Israel does have to live up to high expectations.

There is a hint of the old bad parenting adage of “this hurts me more than it hurts you,” and given G”d’s track record in making bad parenting mistakes, it’s easy to perceive it that way. It’s because I love you so much that I must call you to account (or, in other words, punish you.) (Yes, the difference is that parents don’t get to choose their children, whereas G”d did get to choose us. Does that fact let parents or G”d off the hook more? I wonder.)

All of this still doesn't seem to help solve the Xmas question--do we stubbornly stand against America's commercial Xmas (and Hanukah) or do we accept it (them) for the largely secular things they have become, hiding only deep within them their true meanings, and expend our energies at getting our own house in order? Which of these actions (or failures to act) will G”d call us to account for? Which is the greater sin - accepting a little bit of the realities of modern life, or failing to figure out why it is that Jews just don't seem to be attracted to Judaism anymore? Or are we failing in both areas, and are to be called account for this double failure?

Of course this leads us to the whole question of what sins or iniquities are. Some things are rather well-defined for us in the Torah. Others are somewhat less defined but have been given some dimension through the oral Torah (or, if you prefer, the work of the rabbis and sages.) Some are only inferred, and some seem to just not be there but made up of whole cloth somewhere along the line of our history.

So look at all these dilemmas we are left with. (Sure seems to knock the "December Dilemma" off the top of the attention ladder. Calling it the "December opportunity" is no different. Either way, we're making it (the proximity of Hanukah and Xmas) a focus--and perhaps we do need to be more focused on what it is we don't seem to be able to do. On the other can we ignore the realities that we face each day about Xmas and Hanukah?

Things have changed somewhat in the ensuing 11 years since I first wrote some of these words. Whether those changes are for the better or worse is a bit unclear in my mind. I daresay that “chosen-ness” is even more of a discomforting issue for Jews today than it was over a decade ago. Our society is increasingly universalistic in its values. Holiday celebrations and recognition these days tend to be far more inclusive, recognizing Xmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, Kwanza, and more. Things have become so inclusive, that now, over an above the “Xmas Dilemma” we have what some Xtians perceive as a “war on Xmas.” The pendulum has swung.

Is chosen-ness something that we might have to continue to “play down?” Is that necessarily a good thing? Might a time come when we can proudly proclaim our chosen-ness without being accused of taking a “holier than Thou” position? Can we, as a society, ever learn to live with the concept of multiple chosen-ness, or is the only solution to be a society where no one group considers themselves chosen? Can chosen-ness ever be perceived as far by the non-chosen? Are we truly better off in a world where no one feels chosen?

Not so sure about that. Chosen-ness isn't such a special thing. What does it mean to be chosen? Well, if we weren't among G”d's chosen people, we might not have to wrestle with so many things all the time. Still, as the song goes "...I wouldn't trade it for a pot of gold." Let's go on with the show!

Shabbat Shalom,


©2015 (portions ©2004) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Vayeishev 5775 - Seriously...Who Was That Guy?
Vayeishev 5773 - K'tonet Passim
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

Friday, November 20, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayetze 5776–Now and Then (Redux 5763)

אָכֵן יֵשׁ יְהֹוָה בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וְאָֽנֹכִי לֹא יָדָֽעְתִּי

Very often, I've heard "achein yeish Ad"nai bamakom hazeh, v'anochi lo yadati" rendered as "G"d was in this place, and I, I did not know it."

That's not what most translations read. I think there's an important lesson to be learned here about why it is often rendered in that form. Most translations render it "surely G"d is in this place and I, I did not know it." The subtle difference in the tenses makes a difference, and perhaps betrays an attitude on our parts. More about that in a moment.

Let's examine what the text says, according to linguistic scholars:

Achein: surely, assertion

Yeish: existence, or the substantive verb form (i.e. is, was, will be)

Ad"nai: no explanation needed, nor is one possible

Bamakom: in (a definite) place

Hazeh: This (modifies bamakom)

V'anochi: and I, or but I

Lo: negative modifier, modifies yadati

Yadati: to know, 1st person singular (masculine) perfect (completed) tense.

Of course, biblical Hebrew makes it difficult to ascertain an exact meaning. Yeish, which can represent the substantive verb "is" can be appropriately rendered in either perfect (complete) or imperfect (incomplete) verb form. Therefore, it can be "is, are, was, were, will be."

So we have a sentence with mixed tense. Yadati is perfect (complete) tense, what we often think of as "past" tense (although it's dangerous to think in concepts of verbs as past, present & future when working in Biblical Hebrew.) Yaakov is remarking to himself that he did not know, a completed act (as now he knows.)

But what did Yaakov mean (what does Yaakov mean?) when he said (says) "yeish" ? Are we to assume that, because the only verb in the sentence is in the perfect (completed) form that "yeish" should be rendered "was" ? Clearly most translators and scholarly committees don't believe so, and render "yeish" as "is." Their consensus is clearly that Yaakov is sensing Gd's presence in that place at that exact time, but that Gd's presence was also there even before Yaakov recognized and sensed it. So even the rendering of "yeish" as "is" seems somewhat inadequate, doesn't it, as it seems to imply both current and previous circumstances.

(There's a whole other tangent we can go off on here-in rendering "yeish" as "existence." "Surely Gd exists in this place...." opens itself up to a whole realm of interpretations. I leave that for you and me to think about.)

So why is it, that many places I go, I hear young students, adults, even educated teachers render the phrase as "G”d WAS in this place..." ? I think it betrays something about ourselves, our society, and our faith. Everywhere we hear people proclaim the supposed absence of obvious signs of G”d's presence among us due to lack of clear evidence. It's no small wonder, given this predilection in our time to wonder if G”d has abandoned us, that there is thus a natural tendency to render Yaakov's words as "G”d WAS in this place..."

In other words, we have failed to learn the very lesson that the Torah hits us smack on the head with here-Yaakov's realization that G”d is everywhere, even if we don't recognize it. Now, admittedly, Yaakov had incentive-he had seen a vision, a dream, that seemed to awaken this new awareness in him. Yes, our ancestors probably placed more stock in dreams than we do (although Freud and others certainly put some stock in the meaning and value of dreams.) Yet this was no great miracle-no sea splitting, no bolt of lightning. Just a dream in which Yaakov sees angels climbing up and down a ladder, and in which G”d speaks to him and promises to fulfill the covenant made with Yaakov's grandfather and father.

What really happened here? Yaakov went to sleep with a rock for a pillow (now there's a great image if one imagines the rock as T!), had a dream, woke up, and suddenly recognized G”d's presence in that place.

If that could happen to Yaakov, then why not us? Why do we doubt.? Why do we tend to put Yaakov's experience and revelation in only a past tense perspective.

Would that each of us could say, right now, and in every moment, "Achein yeish Ad”nai bamakom hazeh..." Ken y'hi ratsoneinu. Instead of looking for big miracles and signs, perhaps all we each need is our own rock to rest our head upon and dream.

This Shabbat, may you know or come to know that Gd is in the place where you are.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2015 (portions ©2002) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Vayeitzei 5775 - Hapax Shabbat
Vayeitzei 5774 - Terms and Conditions Revisted
Vayeitze 5773 - Mandrakes and More
Vayeitze 5772 - Stumbling on Smooth Paths
Vayeitzei 5771 - Luz is No Loser
Vayeitzei 5769 - Going Down and Loving It!
Vayeitzei 5768 - Encounters
Vayeitzei 5767-Hapax On All Your Hapaxes
Vayetze 5766-Pakhad HaShem?
Vayetze 5765-Cows and Cranberries
Vayetze 5764-Terms and Conditions
Vayetze 5762-Change in Perspective
Vayetze 5760-Taking Gd's Place

Friday, November 13, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Tol’dot 5776–Still a Bother (Revised 5764)

We live in a society where personal convenience is ever more a dominating ethic used in our making choices. We weigh our choices against a rather selfish yardstick. If the effort seems more than it is worth to us, or "overly" inconveniences us, we disdain from it.

וַֽאֲמַרְתֶּם הִנֵּה מַתְּלָאָה וְהִפַּחְתֶּם אוֹתוֹ אָמַר יְהֹוָה צְבָאוֹת וַֽהֲבֵאתֶם גָּזוּל וְאֶת־הַפִּסֵּחַ וְאֶת־הַחוֹלֶה וַֽהֲבֵאתֶם אֶת־הַמִּנְחָה הַֽאֶרְצֶה אוֹתָהּ מִיֶּדְכֶם אָמַר יְהֹוָֽה

Paralleling this weeks haftarah, we say

הִנֵּה מַתְּלָאָה

"hinei mat'la'ah" which the JPS committee translated as "Oh, what a bother!" which is probably a reasonable interpretation if not quite exact. (The word mat’la’ah is a hapax legomenon – a word that appears only once in the text. It is clearly related to the word


which means “weariness” or “hardship”  derived from the root


meaning “to be weary” or “to be impatient.” But the prefix doesn’t make much sense, so scholars believe it is either scribal error or a deliberate contraction of


which means “what a hardship” or “what a weariness” or perhaps, as some have suggested, “what a plague.” I think perhaps the best colloquial translation of if would be “a pain in the tukhus.” (A better rendition of the Yiddish is “tokhes” which is really just the Yiddish was of saying the Hebrew word “takhat” meaning “bottom” or “underneath” or in place of.” In other words, it’s a “pain in the a**.”)

We utilize this ethic in many aspects of our decision-making.In the Torah, we are commanded, with little doubt, to care for the poor and the needy. For many of us, committing our bodies to some physical fulfillment of this commandment is too inconvenient, so we write checks to fulfill our obligation. (Or, the ultimate in convenience, we go to a web site and use our credit card online, or simply send a text from our phone to make a contribution. To quote a Saturday Night Live character from many years back, "How convenient!")

Over the years, at various the congregation where I have worked, and even where I am currently working, we have had discussions about the way we approach social action and the causes we support. At the root of these explorations has usually been a desire to more directly involve congregants and religious school students in activities that bring them face-to-face with the problem they are working to solve, or the people they are working to help. The idea is to "put a face on it."  There is also the continuing discussion of the concept of a “mitzvah day.” What, we only do a mitzvah once a year? What message do we send to our children with that? Every day is “mitzvah day.”

To do so is going to take more of an effort. Some are going to have to change the value they put on personal convenience. Can any of us, even the more traditionally observant among us, truly say they never sidestepped a commandment as a matter of personal convenience? Except for those lamed vavniks among us, it's not likely.

It ought not be a " bother" for us to fulfill our part of the covenant, to honor and fulfill G”d's commandments. It is an obligation, and personal inconvenience should not stand in our way.

I'm digressing, somewhat, from the context of our haftarah from Malachi, to stress this particular aspect of human behavior, so allow me to return. In the haftarah, G”d, through Malachi, is telling the people that they defile G”d's name and G”d's altar when they offer us for sacrifice less than their best. It's easy to extrapolate from this the idea that anything we offer to G”d should be our best--that we should not say "hinei mat'la'ah"--and attempt to fulfill the mitzvah with less than our best.

Even more interesting, the text seems to be suggesting that the people are saying “what the heck, the altars has already been defiled, so why not offer our lame, blind animals, and other unacceptable items?” So, is this an implicit admission of guilt both for the initial defilement and continuing defilement? Or is it buck-passing, suggesting that others already screwed things up, so why should it matter to us?

Look, it’s hard to give up your best as a sacrifice to G”d. As a sacrifice to anything. Sacrifices are hard. That’s kind of the whole point, isn’t it? If it’s convenient, is it a sacrifice?

Yet, it is not our place to judge, but G”d's place. It may be that writing a check to charity, or participating in a  once-a-year mitzvah day is the best someone can do, given the realities of their lives. It is all a balancing act. In our effort to balance, we must be cautious as to how much weight we give the concept of "too much trouble or effort."

I cannot help but believe that sweat equity is far more valued and valuable. Whatever you may think of his politics vis a vis Israel, you have to give props to former President Jimmy Carter, still knocking out those houses for Habitat for Humanity at age 91.

For some, sweat equity is often all they can give. We Jews are not all people of great means. Yet even the poorest of us is commanded to give charity. What do we need to keep us reminded of our obligation, to remind us that saying “what a bother” is just not acceptable?

One way to do this is to keep in mind the end of Malachi chapter 1, verse 13--ha-er'tzeh otah miyadchem amar Adnai.

הַֽאֶרְצֶה אוֹתָהּ מִיֶּדְכֶם אָמַר יְהֹוָֽה

Will I accept it from your hands?--said the L”rd.”

Will our acts, when judged by G”d, meet the standard? They are surely more likely to if we find ways to follow the mitzvot with less regard to any personal inconveniences to us. For example, is Shabbat really and truly the only day you could go to the mall and get that shopping done? Might not your actual presence at services be better for the congregation than just your membership dues substituting in your place? Can you carry socks in your car for the homeless? Can you encourage your children to give a gift to the needy each night of Hanukkah instead of their each receiving gifts? Can you volunteer your time at the soup kitchen or the shelter or the food pantry?

Everybody is so busy these days. We all claim we just don’t have the time to do everything. Well, of course. No one has time to do everything. It’s how you pick and choose what to do with your time this is a meaningful yardstick. Sure, go to the gym – because keeping yourself healthy is a mitzvah. Relax, take vacations. Shuttle your kids around. But find the time to sacrifice to do your part for the community, for the poor and the needy. It’s a bother to shuttle your kids to all their activities. Even more of a bother, then, to sacrifice an activity or two in place of shuttling them to help do a mitzvah? How do you decide when something is "a bother" or "too much trouble" ? Think about it.

I know, it’s awfully preachy of me. But once in a while, I give myself license to be that way. Be glad I don’t do it more often!

May all our gifts be acceptable, and may we learn to utter "hinei mat'la'ah" less and less often. Instead, may we learn to say "hinei lo mat'la'ah" which perhaps we can render in more modern vernacular "it's no bother," or better yet "no problem."

Shabbat Shalom.

©2015 (portions ©2003) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings On This Parasha:

Toldot 5775 - Esau's Plan
Tol'dot/Makhar Hodesh 5774 - Drops That Sparkle
Tol'dot 5773 - More Teleology
Tol'dot 5771 - Keeping the Bathwater
Toldot 5769 - There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This
Toldot 5768 - Alternate Histories, Alternate Shmistories
Toldot 5767-They Also Serve...
Toldot 5765-Purposeless Fire
Toledot 5764-What a Bother!
Toledot 5763-Not Sticking in The Knife
Toledot 5762-Winners and Losers
Toledot 5761-Is This All There Is?
Toledot 5758-Like Father, Like Son

Friday, November 6, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Chayyei Sarah 5776–Still Not Warm (Revised and Updated from 5767’s Never Warm)

The haftarah for parashat Chayyei Sarah begins

וְהַמֶּלֶךְ דָּוִד זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים וַיְכַסֻּהוּ בַּבְּגָדִים וְלֹא יִחַם לֽוֹ

"King David was now old, advanced in years; and though they covered him with bedclothes, he never felt warm." (I Kings 1:1, JPS)

It sounds simple and reasonable enough. As people age, they sometimes do loose the ability to regulate body heat, and are more sensitive to the lack of external heat. Yes, we understand the mechanisms that allow our mammalian bodies to regulate heat. Even younger people can sometimes experience that moment when clothes or blankets are just not enough to fend off the chill. (Having lived for a decade in North Dakota, a place where it can get and stay really cold, you’d think I’d be more immune to feeling the chill in more temperate climates. Alas, it seems to be relative, and certainly more so as I age.)

But what about that other kind of heat, that spiritual fire, that aish hakodesh that burns within us. And surely such passion burns within great people like David HaMelekh! I think such passion is not reserved for the great – it can burn in the most humble and non-self-aggrandizing people. I think it burns in more people than we realize. I know that this inner flame, this passion, drives me to do the work that I do. It can be the force that pushes me forward on one of those “I just don’t want to get up and go to work” days. Sometimes, I don’t know how I would fare without that inner passion.

It seems, however, that David had little left of passion - both spiritual and physical. For when Avishag the Shunamite was brought to "warm his bed" he was "not intimate with her."

David had a troubled life, no doubt. David was not a perfect ruler, nor a perfect servant of G"d. Now that he was old and infirm, those around him plotted and schemed to secure their own futures. David was perhaps so "out of it" he didn't even realize all that was happening. However, he has a lucid enough moment to act to insure that his promise to Bathsheva, that her son Solomon would rule after David, would be kept. It took a little goading from Nathan the prophet, but David gathered enough energy and passion to spoil Adonijah's hopes and declare Solomon his successor.

I am reminded of the scene near the end of "Man of LaMancha" when, spurred on by the words of Aldonza and his faithful squire Sancho Panza, the dying Don Quixote shows a sudden burst of strength and passion, and he is once again ready to challenge the wicked--only to die in these throws of passion. Our scene is set--we have Bathsheva to play Aldonza and Nathan to play Sancho (though Nathan is perhaps more like Dr. Carrasco, mirroring Alonso Quixanos erratic behavior right back at him.)

But I digress. David's failure to be warm can perhaps be explained by more than just old age. His internal fire had grown dim - through his own actions, and how he responded to the world around him. In addition, they offered the King an external source for warmth, but that didn’t seem to be what he needed.

What about us? I know that I certainly experience periods of spiritual cold, when it seems no amount of prayer, supplication, fasting, celebrating, etc. seems to be able to keep me warm. It's easy to blame this on external factors. "The rabbi led a lousy service." "The Hazzan sounded awful." Or we blame distractions. "I just can't stand hearing the organ" or "It just doesn't work for me when instruments are played on Shabbat" or "All this new-fangled music just doesn't do it for me" or "all this old fuddy-duddy music doesn't do it for me."

Now, to some extent, I'll accept that it can be hard to get your internal flame stimulated all the time. And some things really might not work for some people. However, ultimately, only two things can regulate our internal flame. We can, and G"d can. (And even G"d, but giving us free will, has limited G"d's ability to do that for us.) When something's not working for us, maybe we need to try harder to kindle our own internal flame, or find something that will help us do so. Or find something in the thing that's "not working" that maybe we couldn't see, or didn't try hard enough to see.

Flames, by their nature, consume. Passion also consumes. How can we sustain our passion indefinitely, and, even when it wanes, how can we be sure there’s a working pilot light to restart it when we have found more fuel to consume?

We must work hard to prevent that inner flame, that pilot light, from guttering and going out. I think I can say, with some surety, that my Judaism is one thing that seems to guard against that more than anything else except perhaps music. (I guess that’s something of an ouroboros, is it not? Judaism and music are the passions that drive and sustain me. They stoke the flame of my passion. They are, also, my passions. Passions burn brightly and strongly, consuming the very fuel that drives them. They do seem to feed upon themselves. A potentially disconcerting thought. What keeps the circle going? I know the ouroboros (can) represent an eternal cycle of creation – but is it not, effectively, a perpetual motion machine, and is that not something impossible in our universe that way it works?

So here’s a question in the “can G”d create a rock that even G”d cannot lift” category: Can G”d create a universe with physical structure and laws that render perpetual motion impossible and then create a perpetual motion machine in that universe?

Better, perhaps, paralleling our own experience as a species with this planet, we ought to consider finding renewable resources to fuel our passions. Some view Torah as a limitless source – I’m not sure I agree. I believe Torah is a renewable resource, an it requires us to interact with it regularly in order for it to be renewed. Yes, it would surely be simpler to see Torah as a never-ending fuel for passions, and to understand G”d in that same way. However, I am of Israel, an I struggle with G”d and Torah. Out of this very struggle is born the ability of Torah to be a renewable resource. Friction, even of the internal type, can produce heat and ultimately yield a flame. Judaism is a religion, a worldview of balancing forces. It’s when those balancing forces rub against one another that the heat, the flame of Torah is generated. If we just let Torah sit there, and revere it, it may lose its ability to be renewed. “G”d does the renewing” cry many voices. Perhaps so, but I believe G”d can only do this in partnership with us.

As mammals, warmth matters to us. It is, amazingly, something that we can self-generate (though not limitlessly.) This ability is a gift from G”d (and evolution.) Given that, if we're never warm, perhaps we have only ourselves to blame? Time to turn up the gas. Time to insure a renewable source of energy, and not a static one.

An ailing King David says to Bathsheva:

וַיִּשָּׁבַע הַמֶּלֶךְ וַיֹּאמַר חַי־יְהֹוָה אֲשֶׁר־פָּדָה אֶת־נַפְשִׁי מִכָּל־צָרָֽה: ל כִּי כַּֽאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לָךְ בַּֽיהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר כִּֽי־שְׁלֹמֹה בְנֵךְ יִמְלֹךְ אַֽחֲרַי וְהוּא יֵשֵׁב עַל־כִּסְאִי תַּחְתָּי כִּי כֵּן אֶעֱשֶׂה הַיּוֹם הַזֶּֽה

"And the King took an oath, saying ‘As the L"rd lives, who has rescued me from every trouble: The oath I swore to you by the L"rd, the G"d of Israel, that you son Solomon should succeed me as King and that he should sit upon my throne in my stead, I will fulfill this very day!’ " (1 Kings 1:29-30, JPS)

As a dying Alonso Quixanos says to those around him: "Not well? What is illness to the body of a knight-errant? What matter wounds? For each time he falls, he shall rise again, and woe to the wicked." (Man of LaMancha-Dale Wasserman, Mitch Leigh, Joe Darion.)

Not warm? Never seem to be able to get warm? Turn your own spiritual flame up high. Find a renewable source to fuel your passions.  Dream your impossible dream.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2015 (portions ©2006) by Adrian A. Durlester

Khayyei Sarah 5775 - Revisiting L'kha Dodi Likrat Kala
Hayyei Sarah 5774 - The Books of Hagar and Abishag
Hayyei Sarah 5773 - Still Tilting at Windmills
Hayyei Sarah 5772 - Zikhnah
Hayyei Sarah 5771 - The Book That Isn't - Yet
Hayyei Sarah 5770 - Call Me Ishamel II
Hayyei Sarah 5769 - Looking for Clues
Hayyei Sarah 5768 - A High Price
Hayei Sarah  5767-Never Warm?
Chaye Sarah 5766-Semper Vigilans
Chaye Sarah 5763-Life Goes On
Chaye Sarah 5762-Priorities, Redundancies And Puzzles
Chayeh Sarah 5761-L'cha Dodi Likrat Kala
Hayyei Sarah 5760 - Call Me Ishmael
Chaye Sarah 5757-The Shabbat That Almost Wasn't

Friday, October 30, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayera 5776 - The Price of Giving (Redux/Revised 5766)

Giving is an important component of living a Jewish life. We give in all sorts of way. Mostly, however, it is giving of ourselves that we are called upon to do. And when we do for others, it is inherent upon us that we make the recipient of our giving the focus of our concern, and not focus on ourselves. When we offer hospitality, it is not for ourselves, not for any reward or return. We offer hospitality, compassion, support, help, et al in order to be in imitatio Dei, imitating G"d. And because this is what G"d commands us to do through the mitzvot.

Many of us have special gifts that we share. When we are endowed by our Creator with these skills, these special gifts, it is incumbent upon us to share them in service to the community, in service to G"d. In many ways, I’ve built my life around this. My skills as a musician and as an educator are the very things that led me to my Jewish career. I can honestly say that I feel compelled to use these services in service to Judaism, and ultimately, to G”d. Yes, I am compensated for this work . Does that invalidate my choice to use these skills as my way of giving?

In this week's haftarah, we read stories of the prophet Elisha, a disciple of Eliyahu Hanavi (Elijah the Prophet.) Being endowed with the ability to be G"d's agent in dispensing miracles, Elisha does so. In return for the constant hospitality of a women in Shunam during his regular visits there, he provides this Shunnamite woman, who is childless and has a husband old in years, with the promise of a child, which promise, of course, is fulfilled. This couple had been so hospitable as to set aside and furnish a special room in their house just for Elisha to use. The text indicates that they believed Elisha to be a holy man, a man of G"d, and then they decided to provide this more or less permanent space. One might infer from this that their motivations weren't entirely selfless, but one could just as easily infer the opposite in the absence of the text making it clear one way or the other. But it is not their motives or actions that are the focus of this musing.

Like Sarah, the Shunnamite woman is incredulous and says to Elisha "do not delude" me. A foreshadowing, perhaps?

Surely a childless woman would want a child. Seems like a nice way of saying thank you, of Elisha using his gift in the service of others. Is it only incredulity, or is she perhaps a bit wary?

But all is not as it seems. Some time later, when this miraculous child is older, he is taken ill and dies. The Shunnamite woman goes to Elisha. He can clearly see that she is in great distress. She says to him "did I ask you for a son? Didn't I say 'don't mislead me'?" Elisha then orders his servant to hurry back to the woman's house and place Elisha's staff upon the dead child.

Elisha himself soon follows, with the Shunnamite woman in tow. He performs what can only best be described as CPR, and the child is restored to life. He calls in the Shunnamite woman, who bows in respect to Elisha, picks up her son and leaves. And the story ends there, with only this silent thank you.

Did Elisha learn anything from what happened here? Did he perhaps consider that by using his gift to give this woman a child, he might not be doing the best thing? All our actions, including our most giving, selfless acts, have consequences.

Or did Elisha, armed with the self-knowledge of his gifts to work miracles, learn to not worry too much about consequences, knowing that he could, as he did in this case, fix the problem with yet another miracle. The temptations we face when we are powerful are often dangerous. Remember that early Star Trek episode with the crewman who gained incredible G"d-like powers, and soon began seeing his crewmates as mere annoyances?

This is not the usual read we get from this story of Elisha (who performs a total of 8 miracles in that are mentioned in the text of the Tanakh.) Yet I think it is a read we should consider. We are, none of us, like Elisha. Every his very bones in his grave were able to restore life. (II Kings 13:21) We might not be able to fix the problems we created with our initial gift. We must consider the appropriateness of our giving, and always put the needs of the recipient uppermost in our thoughts.

These cautions are not meant to prevent us from being people who are giving routinely and as an ingrained way of living. They are meant to focus our thoughts on the giving, the recipient, and not ourselves. Are we always so thoughtful in our giving? A good thing to ponder this Shabbat. I know I will.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2015 (portions ©2005) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on This Parasha

Vayeira 5775 - He's a Family Guy (Revised Redux 5769)
Vayeira 5774–Plainly Spoken (Redux & Revised from 5762)
Vayera 5773 - Do Your Own Unpacking
Vayera 5772 - Well?
Vayera 5771 - Density
Vayera 5770 - Not Even Ten?
Vayeira 5769 - He's a Family Guy (?)
Vayera 5767-Revised 5759-Whoops! (or Non-Linear Thinking)
Vayera 5766-The Price of Giving
Vayera 5765-From the Journal of Lot Pt. II
Vayera 5762-Plainly Spoken
Vayera 5760/5761-More From the "Journal of Lot"
Vayera 5759-Whoops! (or "Non-Linear Thinking?")
Vayera 5757-Technical Difficulties

Friday, October 23, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat Lekh Lekha 5776- The Other Siders (Redux 5766)

On its tenth anniversary, re-sharing a musing celebrating our otherness.


The Other Siders

From creation itself, Judaism has been a faith of liminals - boundaries and separations. Night and day, earth and sky, pure and impure, sacred and profane, and so on. Some things are on one side of a boundary, some thing are on the other side. Twilights, those periods that are not quite one or the other, these, Judaism often teaches, are those times when discernment is hardest (and this is surely borne out in the real world experience of a twilight.) And because Judaism has recognized these liminal areas as places of possible confusion, it has erected boundaries on either side of the boundaries, ostensibly to keep us from wandering into one of those boundary zones where things aren't so clear.

I think, too, that many, if not most people, tend to be uncomfortable in fuzzy regions, grey areas, and the like. Yet, different as we all are, there are those who revel is spending most of their time in the fuzzy areas. And for both the scientists and the religionists, there are plenty of fuzzy areas on which to spend time.

Has human comfort with liminals increased over the ages? Are we becoming more secure in examining the fuzzy places in our lives and in the universe? It would seem so, though I'm not so sure. Let's take a look.

In Chapter 14 of Beresheett (Genesis) we read the tale of Avram's rescue of Lot, through confronting the various Kings who had attacked S'dom and Gomorrah and carried off both goods and people (including Lot) back to their own cities. In verse 13, we learn how Avram is told of this by one who managed to escape the fate of so many others. In this verse, this escapee came and told "Avram Ha-Ivri" what had happened to Lot and the others.

Scholars debate and argue exactly what "ivri" means and about its etymology. Many suggest it comes from the term 'apiru (sometimes Hapiru,) a nomadic people referred to in Egyptian and other writings from the ancient near east. It's certainly a possibility to hold open, and ties in nicely with speculations about how and why the Jewish people wound up enslaved in Egypt. You can do your own research on that if it interests you. I'm taking another tack.)


Other scholars and linguists see "ivri" as deriving from the Hebrew verbal root ayin-bet-resh meaning "to cross over." It also fits nicely-as we are the people who crossed over the Yam Suf (Reed Sea,) and the Yarden (the Jordan.) We will later read of significant crossings over and related occurrences in Yaakov's life.

Yet, although the rabbis might wish for us to truly believe that Avram was indeed the first "Ivri," it's more likely he is so designated here for entirely different reasons.

One possible explanation also helps clear up another conundrum in the Torah. G"d instructs Avram to "go forth for yourself.....from your land, your birthplace." All the great commentators have puzzled over this. After all, Avram had already left his birthplace, Ur, and was in Haran. Rashi suggests that it just means that Avram should go yet further away. Others (like Nachmanides) suggest that Avram was actually from Haran, but this suggestion is complicated by something we read later in 15:7 in which G"d says "I brought you out of Ur." So archaeologists, scholars and others suggest that there may have been more than one Ur. People in ancient times did what we still do today-taking old place names and using them in new locales. Ancient Ur is believed to be a long way off from Haran. Haran is north of Canaan, situated between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Ur is somewhat further west and located south of the Euphrates. Some scholars have suggested that a group of people from Ur may have relocated across the Euphrates and perhaps a little further East and created an Ur of their own. They become the "people who crossed over (to the other side") - that made them Ivri, from that root word meaning "to cross over."

Well, after a time, we always tend to think of those who "crossed over to the other side" as simply "the others." Those who are different from us.

Avram surely fits that description. He may be "ivri" simply by virtue of having journeyed from Ur (whichever Ur that might have been) to Haran. I'll bet they saw Avram as "other." And our Jewish faith was crafted around creating us as a unique community - it cultivated being seen as "the other." Some modern takes on Judaism are breaking down those barriers, crossing those borders.

Being one who has crossed over (and I'm not talking Jonathan Edwards mumbo-jumbo here) sounds like being one who has crossed a boundary, not one living within that fuzzy liminal area. Yet does one ever really "leave home?" We do bring our "baggage" with us wherever we go. Thus crossings over, whether physical, psychological, or metaphysical always include a little bit of things tugging us back into those grey areas.

Avram may have crossed the border from idolatry into the realms of monolatry, yet our Jewish history shows that Avram's descendants always felt a little tug back toward the idolatry side. We still feel it today, although our idols aren't statues by more things like money, power, television, computers, video games, etc.

So to be "ivri" doesn't just mean to be on the other side, to have crossed over. It also means having the constant tension between where we came from and where we are. An accurate depiction of Judaism then and now.

Our very Torah, though some claim to have the knowledge and insight to see it as black and white, is really quite grey. Or is that gray? It's both grey and gray, and both black and white, too!

(By the way, "grey" or "gray" in Hebrew is "afor" from the root meaning "dust." As we are made from dust, being grey and thinking gray are part and parcel of what we are.)

Notice, by the way, how you can spell it either grey or gray? How appropriate that we think of grey areas as gray areas! Even the very word itself has a confusion as to its own correct spelling! Just like the word "ivri" is unclear in its meaning.

We are "Ivri." Let us revel in both living on the other side, and also living in the grey and gray of boundary areas. Armed with this knowledge, we can boldly go forth as did our ancestor Avram. Go forth, cross over, and be other, Ivri!

Shabbat Shalom,


©2015 (portions ©2005) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings On This Parasha:

Lekh Lekha 5775 - More Nodding Heads, Whistling Airs, and Snickersnees
Lekh L'kha 5774 - Theistic Singularity: Revisiting the Intellectual Ekhad
Lekh Lekha 5773 - The Journey Continues
Lekh Lekha 5772 - Out of Context
Lekh Lekha 5771 (5765, 5760) Things Are Seldom What They Seem An Excerpt from the "Journal of Lot"
Lekh Lkha 5770 - Revisiting the Ten Percent Solution
Lekh L'kha 5769 - Of Nodding Heads, Whistling Airs, and Snickersnees
Lekh Lekha 5768 - The Covenant That (Almost) Wasn't - Excerpts from the Diary of Terakh
Lekh Lekha 5767-Penile Pilpul
Lekh Lekha 5766-The Other Siders
Lekh Lekha 5765 - Redux 5760
Lekh Lekha 5764-Ma'aseir Mikol-The Ten Percent Solution
Lekh Lekha 5763-No Explanations
Lekh Lekha 5761-The Intellectual Echad