Friday, August 28, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Ki Tetzei 5775--Re-Honoring Inconsistency

It’s one of the more flippant musings I’ve written over the years, and I’m in a flippant mood, what with school starting Monday, religious school starting soon thereafter, and HHD choir rehearsals and other preparations in full swing. I revel in inconsistencies. So I thought I’d give this musing from 8 years ago a fresh coat of paint. Enjoy.

Honoring Inconsistency

Boy, when we are taught that the Torah is not in heaven, and that we (either independently, or through the lens of the rabbis, who so boldly usurped interpretive authority for themselves) are capable of understanding it, are we given a serious challenge. Despite the Torah’s claim that it is not too baffling for us, there are large portions of the Torah that are truly baffling and difficult to understand (so much so, that the rabbis went to great lengths to insure that no one might inadvertently transgress.) Our parasha this week, Ki Tetzei, is no exception. It's a wonderful parasha, full of laws and concepts, many of which are models used in our own times as the basis for ethical and fair systems. It's also full of a lot of misogynist ideas, along with not a few head-scratchers.

Let's take a look, shall we? A flippant look, perhaps, but a look nonetheless.

You can have your pick of beautiful female captives, and have your way with her, but you must allow her time to grieve, and you cannot enslave her. (21:10-14)

So we accept that captives are an end product of battles, and that includes women who have lost their husbands. It's alright to take them to your bed. Still, there’s a hint of social consciousness and compassion here. Guess it sort of mitigates the realities an already undesirable situation. Sort of.

You can love your second-born son more than your first-born, but you must not deny the first-born his birthright. (21:15-17)

And the Torah holds up such great examples of this, in the stories of our forefathers and fore-mothers, doesn't it? (ha ha.)

You can take your defiant child to the elders of your town and they will stone him to death (21:18-21)

Oh, you can dance around it by saying "well, no one ever really did that, or would do that." Can we be really sure of that?

You can publicly impale someone who has been put to death, but you can't leave the body up overnight, as that would be degrading. (21:22-23)

So we have approval of the death penalty, and even public display of the criminal...we just can't overdo the exposure.

You gotta care for and return lost property (22:1-4)

Ah, one of which we can be proud. See my oft recycled musing for this parasha on this theme.

No cross-dressing! (22:5)

Taken in context or out of context, it's still the same. So to whom and just when does this apply, exactly, in our time?

Don't take the mother bird with her young. Just take the young from the nest and leave the mother. (22:6)

I won't rehash the endless debates on this one. Every time I think I've figured it out, someone else points out another understanding or interpretation.I still don’t get it.

If you have a roof,  terrace, or balcony, put up a safety railing! (22:8)

Duh! Yet how often we ignore this simple requirement, and all the righteous ideas that can be extrapolated from it. I’ve devoted an entire musing to this one: Metaphorical Parapets.

Do not plant a second kind of crop in your vineyard. Don't plow using an ox and an ass together. Don't mix wool and linen. (22:9-11)

OK, whatever you say G"d. Part 1 makes a little sense. Shall I even mention that Gan Eden was full of a variety of trees? Part 2 also makes a little sense. It’s not fair to either the ox or the ass, and it won’t do wonders for your own productivity. I just don't get part 3. Do you? Shatnez, for me, just falls under the WTF? category. What, that the components of mixed fabrics shrink at different rates was a concern back then?  I’ll overlook the priestly vestments and the coverings of the mishkan entirely. (One of the least convincing arguments about shatnez for me is that it was prohibited to the people precisely because it was what the priests wore. Feh.)

Put tassels on the four corners of your garments. (22:12)

Tassels? Sure, why not? And maybe I'll go do a striptease later... (When I think of tassels, I’m thinking of corn. Ever gone corn detasseling?  You wanna talk about a hard, minimum-wage job? Ask any teen from the rural midwest.)  And, of course, the tzitzit were shatnez. That’s OK, because that was how the Jewish people could show they believed they were a kingdom of priests. Right. See the previous thought.

If you're going to accuse your wife of not having been a virgin when you married, you'd better be right, or you'll be flogged, have to pay a fine, and be stuck with your wife forever. If, however, it turns out the wife really wasn't a virgin, she gets stoned to death. (22:13-21)

Once again, the man gets off lighter. Sheesh!

Get caught sleeping with someone else's wife, and both of you die. (22:22)

Now that's pretty straightforward. However, if it were truly enforced, I suspect our population might be quite a bit lower.

Engaged virgins beware when you're in town: make sure you shout and resist when someone tries to rape you, or you will be stoned to death along with your attacker. If you get raped in the countryside or the boondocks, you get the benefit of the doubt, and only your attacker will be put to death. (22:23-27)

Blame the victim? This one just doesn't fly for me. Still, one can hold it up as a brief example of trying to give women some rights and protection. I also wonder--more of that anti-urban bias here?

Men: get caught raping a virgin and you have to marry her for life (and pay the bride-price to her father.) (22:28)

My object all sublime, I shall achieve in time, to let the punishment fit the crime. That is, of course, if you think a rape victim would want to be married to her rapist for the rest of her life. Maybe Donald Trump thinks this way.

Don't marry your father's ex-wife. (23:1)

That's just yucky. I agree with this one. But we know it’s happened.

Soldiers: No wet dreams inside the camp! Stay away from camp for a day and cleanse yourself. Put the latrines outside the camp, and be sure to cover up your own sh*t.(23:10-15)

Once again,war is a given. So is taking a sh*t. So why couldn't nocturnal emissions also be thought of as normal rather than unclean?

Do not return a slave seeking refuge to his master, and don't mistreat them. (23:16-17)

Take a look at some of the slavery supporting rhetoric spouted by American rabbis just before and during the Civil War. Guess they didn't get this simple and straightforward rule.

Don't be a cultic prostitute. And don't bring ill-gotten gains as donations/sacrifices (23:18-19)

And how many Jewish institutions receive money from those who accumulated it in part through illicit activities?

Don't charge interest on loans to your own people........but it's ok to charge interest to foreigners (23:20-21)

Whatever happened to the idea of one law for you and the strangers who dwell in your midst? This law has always troubled me. And I've seen far too many Jewish businessmen "stick it to the schwartzes." We ought to petition G"d for a change in this one.

If you make a vow to G"d, keep it! (23:22-24)

Another Duh! Especially since the Torah also takes great pains to show us how to make expiation when we fail to fulfill them.

You can eat an occasional grape or fig or whatever when you are passing through someone's fields, but you can't harvest for yourself from his crops. (23:25-26)

I've always wanted to use these two p'sukim when discussing issues of copyright and fair use. A musician's music, a writer's words, a designer's artwork, all are like the farmer's crop, are they not? So what, exactly, is fair use when you’re just "passing through?"

You can't remarry your ex-wife (24:1-4)

Another one that looks good in theory...but since t’shuva is a core concept in Judaism…why not approve of reconciliation between divorced spouses?

Newlyweds are exempt from military service for a year (24:5)

Well, it actually only applies to men, apparently. Otherwise, it makes sense.

Don't take as pledge or in pawn that which someone depends upon for their livelihood (24:6)

Another good one. Wonder how we could rework this to apply to "pay-day loans." Maybe we can even connect to student loans?

A Jew who kidnaps another Jew is put to death. (24:7)

So it's OK to kidnap a non-Jew? I suppose the Shin Bet (and the CIA) exploit that loophole to the fullest. Why is kidnapping a death-penalty offense? Seriously?

Do what the priest says about your skin infections (24:8-9)

Nowadays, I'm not sure always following a doctor's orders (or a priest's) is good advice. Did priests, like some doctors, have a G”d complex? I’ll bet priests got it wrong a lot of the time.

You can't enter someone's house to retrieve an item given in pledge, and if it is something they need to survive the night, you must return it to them by nightfall (24:10-13)

That's nice and fair and compassionate. Tell that to all the big mortgage companies and banks. Repo folks. Loan sharks.

Don't abuse or take advantage of a needy laborer, and pay him his wages when due - whether fellow Jew or stranger. (24:14-15)

Finally, one that applies to everyone! Wal-Mart, are you listening? BTW, tips are a normative part of a waiter’s income, so when you don’t tip fairly, you are depriving a needy laborer of his wages.

Parents are not executed for the sins of their children (and vice versa) but they are only executed for their own crimes. (24:16)

OK, that's nice, except people still get executed.

Do not deny a stranger, orphans, or widows their rights, and treat them fairly. (24:17-18)

'Nuff said! Now just do it!

Don't glean every last bit of crop from your fields, but leave some for the needy. (24:19-22)

Would that more of us followed this precept.

There's a limit to how much punishment you can mete out. Don't degrade those getting punished further. (25:1)

I guess this refers to "cruel and unusual punishment." Wouldn't torture fit under this as well? For that matter, 49 lashes doesn’t sound very compassionate and non-degrading. One lash in public is degrading.

Don't muzzle your ox while he's working in the field helping you thresh. (25:4)

Animals count, too! Don't be cruel. Go Humane Society! Go ASPCA! (Go PETA? What would the Torah say about some of their tactic?)

Levirate marriage.(25:5-10)

Just do the right thing, guys! (Of course, does the woman get to say no?)  Then again, levirate marriage may be a seemingly good idea in theory that sucks in practice. Plus, someone ends up with a missing shoe.

Don't fight dirty; no hitting below the belt (i.e. if you grab someone's cojones during a fight, your hand will get cut off!) (25:11-12)

Gee, we seem to revel in watching unfair fights these days.

Use honest weights (i.e., be honest in your business dealings.) (25:13-16)

Can’t argue with this one, however it seems to be practiced more in the breech than as the rule. One Standard

You shall remember what Amalek did to you..................blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Don't forget! (25: 17-19)

OK, remember to forget - don't forget that! A puzzle worthy of Will Shortz and the late Merl Reagle. And another topic for another musing The Choice of Memory.

It's G"d's word. It must be consistent. Yeah right. Since when has G"d been consistent? So it's no surprise that G"d's Torah is as well. It's my "b'tzelem anashim" theory again. If we reflect what is in G"d, then G"d reflects all the best and worst that is in us as well.

Yes, there are lots of explanations, work-arounds, smoothing-overs, apologetics, etc. for this mish-mash. Yet must it be coherent and consistent? Or can we learn something from the inconsistency (situational decision-making, perhaps? Oh, there’s a slippery ethical slope? Or is it?))

I'm going to spend my Shabbat being inconsistent, to honor G"d's inconsistency. Care to join me?

Shabbat Shalom,


©2015 (portions ©2007) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Ki Teitzei 5774 - Microcosm
Ki Teitzei 5773 - Be True To Who You Are
Ki Teitzei 5772 - The Torah, the Gold Watch, and Another Retelling
Ki Teitzei 5771 -  Metaphorical Parapets
Ki Tetzei 5769 - The Choice of Memory
Ki Tetzei 5767 - Honoring Inconsistency
Ki Teitzei 5766-B'Shetzef Ketzef
Ki Tetze 5764/5-The Torah, The Gold Watch, and The Rest of the Story
Ki Tetze 5757,9,60,63--The Torah, The Gold Watch, & Everything
Ki Tetze 5758--Exclude Me
Ki Tetze 5762--One Standard

Friday, August 21, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Shof’tim 5775–Whose Justice (Revisited)


עַל־פִּי ׀ שְׁנַיִם עֵדִים אוֹ שְׁלשָׁה עֵדִים יוּמַת הַמֵּת לֹא יוּמַת עַל־פִּי עֵד אֶחָֽד

Shnayim o sh’losha says our holy Torah in D'varim 17:6. Two or three witnesses. We've developed a tendency in the Jewish world to simplify this concept to be the requiring of two witnesses to a crime for a conviction.

But the actual text is not so simplistic. 17:6 in context immediately follows the commandment in 17:5 to stone to death a man or woman who has transgressed by worshipping other gds. Then the Torah tells us that a person shall be put to death only upon the testimony or TWO or THREE witnesses. The text goes on, in 17:7 to require the witnesses to be the first to begin the process of killing the offender.

So what have we got here? First, an acceptance of the death penalty for a specific crime (and one of several that the Torah specifies the death penalty for.) A provision to insure that adequate witnesses to the crime have testified regarding it. Then a requirement for those testifying against the accused to participate and initiate the penalty. What does this add up to?

First off, I have to ask why G”d would create creatures that could so sin against G”d that the only punishment would be death? And what happens to the souls of these people when they are executed? And why create humankind so imperfectly that one might abuse the ability to testify against another?

Those questions I cannot answer. But at least I know that our Torah recognizes our weaknesses and limitations as a species-and thus provides for safeties, checks and balances to help insure justice.

But what kind of justice is this we pursue? One in which we can kill someone for worshipping other gds? If we pursue this kind of justice, how will we thrive in the land that G”d is giving us (D'varim 16:20, the famous 'tzedek, tzedek tirdof" passage) because we may wind up killing off a good percentage of the populace, based on what the prophets later tells us about the behavior of the children of Israel?

There is a lot to be admired in the system of justice our holy Torah gives us. But there is also a great deal to be questioned. Once, at a CAJE conference, I heard a powerful story about a man searching for justice. He searched the world over looking for justice, getting some spurious examples of it along the way from various perspectives. In the end, he discovers the choice was in his own hands and not something one finds by looking for it in others. While Torah may tell us what justice is, I think if we read deeper, we discover the message is that the pursuit of justice really is in our hands. Torah might only be a guide, and we must be careful to not always assume plain meaning in its words.

Ten years ago, when I last wrote about this, our country was conflicted as it struggled to deal with the crisis wrought by hurricane Katrina. Charges were flying fast and furious between some, while others tried to refocus the discussion on what we were doing to help the victims. (Sadly, some were perhaps using that as a tactic to draw attention away from the problems for which they may have been responsible.) If mistakes happened that could have been prevented, justice demands that we investigate, that we "pursue." Yet there is some truth to the concept that at the moment of the disaster is not the time to divert resources into those investigations. At least that made sense in the context of Katrina.

Now we find ourselves in a time of seemingly ongoing problems. We cannot apply the same logic of “now is not the time to investigate” when it comes to Ferguson, Baltimore, Sandy Hook Elementary, and so many other incidents. The blood of the victims cries out to us from the ground. If we listen to it, hopefully, it is not crying “vengeance” but “find a way to stop this.” Justice, from my perspective, is never served by vengeance.

These now all too frequent incidents, especially those perpetrated by police officers against person of color, are sometimes scene by multiple witnesses. The ability for constant citizen sousveillance is making it easier to detect these injustices. I wonder, however, how many incidents go un-witnessed except by the people involved. Is a video camera a witness? It certainly has the appearance of being impartial, however, subtle things like angles, clarity of the video and audio portions, and even sometimes deliberate manipulation can make the camera less reliable. Of course, how is this any different from a human being?

Why "two or three" witnesses? Why not say "two" or "three" or some other number? (I think it's fairly clear why it doesn't say "one." The only time one witness will suffice is when that witness is the One, and all of us may ultimately be judged by that witness.) Two or three people could just as easily conspire to convict an innocent person so I'm not sure this particular check is sufficient enough. I even think one might groups of people willing to conspire against an innocent person, even if they were then required to be the firing squad! So that check too may be insufficient. I'm not sure G”d should have given us the power and authority to kill our own kind so easily.

The implication seems to be that consensus is often part of the process of justice. When those who are judging determine that enough witnesses agree in the basic facts of what happened, justice can be pursued fairly.

We must recall that the Torah is talking about death-penalty cases. Even further, it is likely (though not definitely) talking only about a specific offense of worshipping other gds.  It is only through extrapolation that we determine that at least 2 or 3 witnesses are required for conviction in other situations. If we extrapolate further, we must include the following verse which tells us that the witnesses must be willing to carry out the sentence. Imagine if every witness or juror had to become jailer as well. That starts to get messy, and is a caution about extrapolating too much from the Torah (though that has not stopped generations of sages and scholars from doing so, It is, in large part, the bulk of rabbinic law.)

I make no bones about it. I am opposed to the death penalty. In all cases. I want to fix our system of justice and law enforcement, which clearly has gotten out of kilter somewhere along the line. However, despite the certainty of my beliefs, I know that one should never be content with one’s understanding of Torah.

So, this Shabbat, I'm going to think about what the Torah means when it says "two or three witnesses" and when it requires the witnesses to be the first to carry out the death sentence. I don't think the answers are as simple as the literal meanings of the words. Time to turn it and turn it again. And seek to define what the justice I will be pursuing really is.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2015 (portions ©1999 and 2005) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Shoftim 5774 - Signifying Nothing
Shoftim 5773-Hassagat G'vul Revisited Yet Again
Shoftim 5772 - Quis Custodiet Ipso Custodes
Shoftim 5771 -  Hassagat G'vul Revisited
Shoftim 5767 (Redux and Updated 5760/61) From Defective to Greatest
Shof'tim 5766-Hassagut G'vul
Shoftim 5765/5759-Whose Justice?
Shoftim 5763--Pursuit

Friday, August 14, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Re’eh 5775–Think Marx, Act Rashi. Think Rashi, Act Marx (Redux & Revised 5772)

I wrote this musing just three years ago, and I had so wanted to expand it in light of the ever-increasing awareness (and growing dissatisfaction) with wealth disparity in this country. I’m unabashedly with Bernie Sanders (and many others) on this. I’d like to say that the Torah and Jewish teaching unequivocally support my very left positions on wealth inequality in the U.S. (and the world.) Alas, I cannot. Although one can clearly find support for criticism of having most of the wealth in the hands of just a few in Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and other scriptures, Torah, Judaism (and indeed, these other faith traditions) have more nuanced and balanced ideas about all this. Leading me right back to these words I wrote just a few years ago.

(By the way, for a look at how Judaism can be spun to support a view on income inequality very different from my own using core texts, take a look at this lovely whitewashing  rationalization (ooh, did I say that out loud?)

Think Marx, Act Rashi. Think Rashi, Act Marx.

When we reach this parasha, not a year goes by  when I do not recall the words and music of a song written by someone who has been part of my life journey, Karen Daniel. I have quoted it before in musings on Re’eh, only both times I placed it at the end. This year, I’m going to start with it. Based on the text of Deut. 15:11, it reads:

Open your hand to your brother
The poor and the needy in the land
Open your hand to your sister
I command: Open your hand.

We all have enough
More than we will ever need
And all around is jealousy and greed
Just remember it could be us
The wolf is knocking at the door
We give thanks for G”d's abundance
By giving to the poor, so

Open your hand to your brother
The poor and the needy in the land
Open your hand to your sister
I command: Open your hand.

You can read my thoughts from 1999 (and updated in 2005) in the musing entitled “Open Your Hand” In 2005, we had just experienced hurricane Katrina and her after-effects, and my added thoughts that year were strongly affected by that. I had considered, as I often do, simply including the text of that previous musing in this one, and I do hope you’ll go and read it because many of the same thoughts and ideas there are part of what I also wish to say this year. You can think of many, if not all the comments I make in this musing, to be additions and supplements to those earlier ones.

כִּי־יִֽהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵֽאַחַד אַחֶיךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ בְּאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת־לְבָֽבְךָ וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת־יָדְךָ מֵֽאָחִיךָ הָֽאֶבְיֽוֹן: ח כִּֽי־פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת־יָֽדְךָ לוֹ וְהַֽעֲבֵט תַּֽעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לֽוֹ: ט הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ פֶּן־יִֽהְיֶה דָבָר עִם־לְבָבְךָ בְלִיַּעַל לֵאמֹר קָֽרְבָה שְׁנַת־הַשֶּׁבַע שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּה וְרָעָה עֵֽינְךָ בְּאָחִיךָ הָֽאֶבְיוֹן וְלֹא תִתֵּן לוֹ וְקָרָא עָלֶיךָ אֶל־יְהֹוָה וְהָיָה בְךָ חֵֽטְא: י נָתוֹן תִּתֵּן לוֹ וְלֹֽא־יֵרַע לְבָֽבְךָ בְּתִתְּךָ לוֹ כִּי בִּגְלַל ׀ הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה יְבָֽרֶכְךָ יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָֽל־מַֽעֲשֶׂךָ וּבְכֹל מִשְׁלַח יָדֶֽךָ: יא כִּי לֹֽא־יֶחְדַּל אֶבְיוֹן מִקֶּרֶב הָאָרֶץ עַל־כֵּן אָֽנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ לֵאמֹר פָּתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת־יָֽדְךָ לְאָחִיךָ לַּֽעֲנִיֶּךָ וּֽלְאֶבְיֹֽנְךָ בְּאַרְצֶֽךָ

7 If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. 8 Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs. 9 Beware lest you harbor the base thought, "The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching," so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will incur guilt. 10 Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. 11 For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.

Rashi has a bit to say on these verses. He, along with other sages, tell us that verse 7 serves to spell out an order of priority for charity – first to the truly destitute, then to your family/kin, then to your community, and then to the whole of the land.

I’ll admit that, at first, there was a part of me that wanted to turn that upside-down and reject that interpretation – to say that we have as much, if not more obligation to the needy in the rest of the world, and should not confine most of our giving to local cases. Then the wheels started turning in my head and I began to have my doubts. After all, isn’t the way we handle charity these days pretty much and reversal of Rashi’s order? With a click of a mouse, the press of a send key on a phone, or even the old fashioned writing of a check, we send off our donations to organizations. Yes, some of them are local, but in many cases, we actually seek out organizations that have regional, national, even global impact in order to make our donations go further and have wider impact. I believe that this is certainly well-motivated, but we may be missing something in the process. While I completely agree that we can and should give globally, we do have to remember to act locally.

I see the struggle in the Jewish community all the time. It goes beyond just charity, but encompasses the whole debate about Jews and Judaism being particularistic or universalistic. Having served as an Education Director, I know I have at times tried to steer my congregations, teachers, students, parents to give to Jewish charities. At other times, feeling guilty about this inward focus, I have tried to encourage broader giving and thinking.

However, more than anything else, I have always tried to encourage acting locally. Rather than drop money into blue boxes, or send checks or electronic donations to large organized charities, I’ve tried to set an example for others by instead taking that money and using it to buy socks and food which I keep in my car or on my person to give to those in need.

More and more people are carrying less and less cash. That’s unfortunate for the needy. Maybe we should all remember to carry around some cash simply to have on hand to give out to those in need when we encounter them.

Aye, and there’s the rub. We often go out of our way to avoid encountering the needy, the homeless, the panhandlers, the bag ladies. It won’t do any good to carry around extra cash (or socks, or food) to give to the needy unless we actually make an effort to go places where we know we will encounter them. There are times when I adjust my driving route specifically because I know I’ll pass by some needy folks. I should do it more often, I’m sure.

A friend of mine, who became another part of my life journey for a while, and who recently published this, which you should read, often talked about the need to not just stand at a threshold, but the need to go through and take action. Judaism is not a passive religion. The verses from our parasha certainly make that clear.

They don’t say “open your heart.” They say “open your hand.” It’s not just philosophical, it’s practical. Action is demanded. Of course, the phrase is metaphorical is some sense, yet at the same time it may be quite plain in its meaning.

Another piece of this text that caught my eye this year was verse 8, and Rashi’s thoughts on that. Rashi teaches us that this verse teaches us that a formerly wealthy person, now poor, may not be able to survive on the same amount as someone who has always been poor.

Again, at first, I wanted to reject what Rashi had to say outright. In our current political and socio-economic situation, these words just don’t feel right. I’m not sure they’d ever feel right, but particularly amidst all the debate between the Obama/Biden and Romney/Ryan camps (and my sympathies clearly lying with the former) I just don’t want to accept the idea that the formerly rich beggar may be entitled to a bigger handout than a lifelong beggar. Then, again, from each according to his ability to each according to his need, said Marx. Certainly not the ideology of Romney/Ryan (though I’m not entirely sure how much Obama/Biden buy into it either.) [And here it is, 2015, and another presidential election cycle is underway, and once again, economic disparity has come to the forefront – as well it should. Try reading these two selections from Robert Reich: and,

Perhaps what Rashi is teaching us is that determining need has to include factors other than just raw need. My understanding of what may be motivating Rashi here is the desire to give every person dignity. The Torah teaches us that we must treat rich and poor alike. Somehow, it seems to me that Rashi is pushing some borders here. So I’m still struggling with what Rashi says. After all, we all enjoy a good comeuppance story, like the movie “Trading Places.” (In part that’s what’s so frustrating about the fact that other than Bernie Madoff, who stole from the rich, none of the other bankers and CEOs and CFOs responsible for the Wall St. meltdown have truly been punished for what they caused.)

This idea that Rashi gave us, that wealthy people gone broke may need more support than lifelong poor people as a matter of practicality and dignity seems to pervade our society – country-club minimum-security prisons, for example. RFID-equipped ankle bracelets for wealthy or well-known offenders. While some replaced monarchs or leaders are killed when deposed, many are simply put under house arrest in their own mansions.

Yet the ferocity of the French in their war against the aristocracy need not be our standard, either. Somewhere there has to be a middle ground.

And while I make not like Rashi’s interpretation, I may have to begrudgingly admit he is somewhat correct. The text does say “lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.” It doesn’t tell us that we are the ones to judge what is sufficient for another’s needs. It tells us to give gladly and willingly.

Here’s an interesting dilemma: you encounter a homeless person or beggar on the street. You offer to take them to get some food.  They respectfully request you take them to a bookstore instead and let them buy something to read. Do you do as they ask? Do you just give them money and let them make the choice (and is doing that eschewing some of your obligation?) Do you decide you know what is best for them and take them to get a meal anyway?

וְהַֽעֲבֵט תַּֽעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לֽוֹ

The JPS translation may not do it full justice, so I offer this translation instead:

Lend to him what he needs to borrow, enough of that which is needed, which is needed by him

That’s the second half of what Marx wrote – sort of. Clearly, from what I’ve written here, even that simple statement is not so simple and easy to understand and put into practice. Like so many things in Judaism, we need to take the time to figure out what it means. Thoughtfully, intentionally.(Similarly, for things like “You should not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”) Now we need to examine for ourselves how we define the first part – according to our ability. That seems to be where we fall down the most. At least when it comes to translating it into action – direct action.

Think locally, act globally. Think globally, act locally. Somehow, I believe, Judaism teaches us that both are the way to go.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2015, portion ©2012) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Re'eh 5774 - Our Own Gifts (Redux 5761)
Re'eh 5773 - Here's a Tip
Re'eh 5771 - Revisiting B'lo L'sav'a
Re'eh 5770 Meating Urges
Re'eh 5766-Lo Toseif V'lo Tigra
Re'eh 5765--Revised 5759-Open Your Hand
Re'eh 5761--Our Own Gifts
Re'eh 5760/5763--B'lo l'sav'a
Re'eh 5759--Open Your Hand
Re'eh 5757/5758--How To Tell Prophet From Profit

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Eikev 5775–Kindlers of Fire (Revised from 5766)

If you’ve read my musings before, you know that I have a passion for trying to redeem texts, especially so-called irredeemable texts. Texts that are so troublesome they often cause one to question whether all the rest of the good stuff found in our sacred texts is really enough to compensate for the existence of the troubling text. It’s even worse when some of the best and worst text are in close proximity (as in, for example, last week’s parasha, Va’etkhanan, in which we find the restatement of the Decalogue (the ten commandments) and parts of the Sh’ma prayer right next to exhortations for the Israelites to utterly wipe out the inhabitants of the lands they are about to possess. We get even more of that at the start of this week’s parasha, Eikev.

The writings of the prophets are no less full of troubling things. Now, this week’s haftarah is part of a collection of seven hopeful, consoling haftarot that we read after Tisha B’Av  It contains many uplifting thoughts. Yet the prophet cannot resist mixing in the rebukes and cautions. Somewhat like the parasha, as well.

Eikev, and it's accompanying Haftarah (from Isaiah 49:14-51:3) can provide great comfort for those who worry about the fate of the State of Israel. They (and we) have endured difficult times before. Both the reading from the Torah and from the prophets for this parasha offer hope, and I commend them to you as a source of strength.

Yet this evening, I want to focus on one short section of our haftarah, Isaiah 50:11:

הֵן כֻּלְּכֶם קֹדְחֵי אֵשׁ מְאַזְּרֵי זִיקוֹת לְכוּ ׀ בְּאוּר אֶשְׁכֶם וּבְזִיקוֹת בִּֽעַרְתֶּם מִיָּדִי הָֽיְתָה־זֹּאת לָכֶם לְמַֽעֲצֵבָה תִּשְׁכָּבֽוּן:

Hein kul'khem kod'khei eish You are kindlers of fire
M'az'rei zikot "Helping along" the firebrands
L'khu b'ur eshkhem Walk by the light of your fire
uv'zikot bi'ar'tam And the firebrands you have lit

Miyad hay'tah-zot lakhem From My hand has this come to you: L'ma'atzeivah tish'kavun You shall lie down in pain.

Now, let's, for the moment, ignore the final couplet. Taken by itself, without any other context, the first part of this verse is open for interpretation in some rather positive ways. As as species, we are certainly prone to viewing our mastery of fire as a great achievement-one of which we can be proud. We should walk in the light of our proud achievements. Or should we?

If we begin to add a little context, let's see what happens. The previous verse states (in summation) that those who revere G-d and follow G-d's ways, even though they may walk in darkness, they can trust and rely on G-d.

מִי בָכֶם יְרֵא יְהֹוָה שֹׁמֵעַ בְּקוֹל עַבְדּוֹ אֲשֶׁר ׀ הָלַךְ חֲשֵׁכִים וְאֵין נֹגַהּ לוֹ יִבְטַח בְּשֵׁם יְהֹוָה וְיִשָּׁעֵן בֵּֽאלֹהָֽיו

Mi bakhem y’rei Ad”nai Who among you is in awe of Ad”nai
shomeia bakol avdo and harkens to the voice of His servant?
Asher halakh hashikhim though he walks in darkness
V’ein noga lo and has no light
Yivtakh basheim Ad”nai  may he trust in G”d’s name
V’yisha-ein b’Elohav  and depend upon his G”d.

Well, that certainly seems to  color our interpretation of verse 11 a different way. However, we may choose to continue to view it as supportive, positive and complimentary. If the fire, the lights that we kindle are but an expression of our faith and reverence for G”d, then walking in their light should be a proper, righteous and safe path.

On the other hand, it could be setting up verse 11 as a wry or satirical comment. It is in G”d that we should trust, and not the hubris that comes from our own mastery of fire.

That understanding is given further support when we mix in that last couplet from verse 11. In effect, it is punishment from G”d that we shall lie down in pain. Is this punishment for our hubris? Chastisement for our kindling our own lights when we should trust in G”d instead, and not worry about the darkness?

This is a fairly common interpretation in both Jewish and Christian commentaries. Yet, though I humbly ask myself once again "who I am to take issue with the sages?" I do believe there is another possible interpretation.

After all, Torah is fire. Indeed, she is holy fire-eish hakodesh. If the fire that we kindle is the fire of Torah, then it is by the light of Torah that we would be walking. This is a righteous kindling, a righteous walking. Yet, what of the laying down in pain?

Well, to begin with, scholars continue to debate the exact meaning of "l'ma'atzeivah." It could be pain, it could be sorrow. Or grief. Or displeasure. Or torment.

The question is whether or not this final couplet is illustrating a negative consequence of the previous two couplets. I suggest it may not. Perhaps the "this" which has come to us from G-d's hand is G-d's Torah. And the reference to "lying down in sorrow/pain/whatever" is telling us that when we no longer are able to walk by the light of the fire of Torah that we have kindled, that is to say, when we die, it shall be in sorrow, for we shall no longer be walking in Torah's light.

A plausible interpretation? Perhaps. I am sure it can be disputed on many levels. The committee that assembled the current JPS translation chose to put a full colon after the first line of the couplet that ends verse 50:11 thusly:

This has come to you from My hand: You shall lie down in pain

though they take great pains to note that the meaning of the final line is uncertain. So assuming a colon is already going out on a limb. If such august personages can go out on a limb, well then, so can I.

How is it even possible for us to walk, as this text suggests, without light? Do we not always walk in the light of Torah, the light of G”d? Why does the prophet admonish us? Why should we not use the gift of knowledge that has been bestowed upon us by G”d? (I find it interesting that in our Jewish creation story, there’s no mention of the gifting of the knowledge to make fire that is so prominent in other mythologies.)

So I am going to walk upstream, against the tide, and be proud of the fact that we are kod'khei eish, kindlers of fire. I will continue to kindle that fire, the fire of Torah that burns from within me, and walk by its light, until the time when I will finally lie down in sorrow. Be a kindler of fire with me . It might not be the negative thing centuries of interpretation have made it out to be. Blaze forth and walk in that light, chaverim!

Shabbat Shalom,


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

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Eikev 5774 The Hills Are Alive (Redux 5773)
Eikev 5773 - The Hills Are Alive
Eikev 5772 - Is El Al Really Doing the Right Thing?
Eikev 5771-Lining Up Alphabetically By Height
Ekev 5770 - For the Good Planet
Ekev 5769-Not Like Egypt
Ekev 5766 - Kod'khei Eish-Kindlers of Fire
Eikev 5765-Are We Forgotten?
Ekev 5764-KaYom HaZeh
Ekev 5760 (from 5759)-Not Holier Than Thou