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

Friday, October 16, 2015

Random Musings Before Shabbat–Noakh 5776–Two Short Thoughts on Noah

Thought One:

I’ll bet that G”d is berating G”d’s self for that whole “never again will I destroy the earth by flood” thing. At least G”d left G”d’s-self an out by adding that “by flood” qualification. But flood is a much cleaner way than volcanic eruption, earthquakes, nuclear annihilation, extinction-level meteor strike. (Or is it – earth has proven itself quite capable of recovery from the direst of catastrophes. Species less so, but the planet, for sure. However, if the specific goal is to wipe out humanity in a way that leaves the planet ripe for a restart, flood seems a logical choice.)

C’mon, be honest. If you have any belief at all in the Deity, you must be wondering at how many times G”d has given humanity a pass since the biblical flood, when another restart might have proven a superior choice.

Thought Two: 

  אֵלֶּה תּֽוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹֽרֹתָיו אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ

There is something extraordinary about the end of verse 6:9. It is a non-conforming piece of syntax. The word order is all wrong. The object precedes the subject and verb. Literally, it says “direct object marker-G”d, walked Noah.” There isn’t even a proper “with,” it has to be inferred. The usual order would be verb, subject, object, and this is how it appears elsewhere. (There are two other occasions of the walking with the direct object marker-G”d, but in those two instances, the syntax is normal. For example, Genesis 5:22, “And walked Enoch (inferred with) direct object marker-G”d.”

(For those of you unfamiliar with Hebrew, the particle אֶת is used as a marker for the direct object of the sentence. So whatever word follows the “et” is the person or thing being verbed, i.e. acted upon by the subject of the sentence. Also, a more normative syntax for saying someone did something with someone else would use the Hebrew particle עִם, meaning “with.” הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ עִם אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִים might be a more typical syntax. That is, unambiguously, “Noah walked with G”d.” (although the verb form complicates things a bit more. The verb is in a “hitpael” form, which indicates intensive reflective action. It’s like saying “he walked himself.” So we have: direct object marker-G”d Noah walked himself (inferred with.)

The rabbis spin the unusual order by saying it is meant to show G”d’s prominence in the relationship, almost as if to say that G”d deemed Noah worthy enough that Noah could walk with G’d” as opposed to the simple Noah was worthy enough to walk with G”d. It’s a small but significant difference. What else could it mean? The verb form being reflexive really complicates things, and from my perspective, could be an indicator of the rabbinic interpretation being incorrect. Rather than trying to put G”d first in the situation, maybe the text is suggesting that, well, it was Noah’s deliberate and meaningful choice to “walk himself with G”d.” That’s a horse of a different color. Noah was righteous because of his choice, not because G”d chose him. Think about that for a second.

Now, admittedly, the first clause of the sentence, that describes Noah as “righteous considering how lousy the people of his time were” takes a bit of the wind out of the sails of Noah’s righteousness – but maybe that second clause is there precisely to counteract that idea. Maybe, just maybe, instead of trying to lessen Noah’s status, the real intent is to heighten it! Not “he wasn’t such a bad guy considering how everyone else was in his time,” but rather “he was a righteous man in his time, he chose to walk himself with (align himself with?) G”d even if that wasn’t the popular thing to do. That’s a whole different way of saying Noah. It puts his drunkenness after the flood in a new light – not that Noah was a weak-willed man who just couldn’t handle himself, but just one of many examples of good people in the Torah who have weaknesses. I like that Noah. What about you?

Wanna see how my views on this have changed over time? Read the musing entitled “Striving to be Human” from 5763, linked below

Shabbat Shalom,


©2015 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings On This Parasha:

Noakh 5775 - To Make a Name For Ourselves (Revisited)
Noakh 5774 - Let's Rebuild That Tower
Noakh 5773 - Nothing New
Noakh 5772 - The Long Haul
Noakh 5771 - Redux 5765 - A P'shat in the Dark
Noakh 5770 - Don't Ham It Up
Noah 5768 - Redux 5761 - Getting Noticed
Noakh 5766-What A Nimrod! (Revised)
Noakh 5765-A Pshat In The Dark
Noach 5764-Finding My Rainbow
Noach 5763-Striving to be Human
Noach 5762-To Make a Name for Ourselves
Noach 5761-Getting Noticed
Noach 5760-What a Nimrod!

Friday, October 9, 2015

Random Musing Before Shabbat–B’resheet 5776–Temptation

We had a lockdown at the school where I teach today. I am very proud of the school for putting the safety of the students as the paramount concern. We all did everything we were were instructed to do – oddly enough, at a staff meeting just yesterday. I must say that, due to the proximity of the incident to yesterday’s review of procedures, I was pretty receptive to a serpent whispering in my ear “it must be a drill.” I can’t be sure of my memory, but I actually recall that the announcement was for a lockdown drill, and not a lockdown. (That may have been the case, in an attempt to not panic anybody, but I’m still unsure.) As the time wore on, I began to wonder. My room is somewhat isolated and at the rear of the building, so unlike others closer to the core, I didn’t see the police cars and the armed police milling about or walking the hallways. Assuming someone had just forgotten to come to my room way at the back of the building, I tried to make contact with others using my phone. No responses. I peeked out into the hallway, No movement, and it appeared lights were out in the rooms whose outside windows I could see. I went back to dutifully following the instructions to not eat from that tree, er, I mean to wait for someone to physically come to the room.Then I heard footsteps on the roof. OK, now I was getting a little freaked out. I had resisted the serpent’s call – I had to eat from that tree. So I used my phone to Google the name of the school and the word lockdown. To my surprise, there were already two local news items noting that the school was on a lockdown. To be honest, I’m not sure if it was better knowing I was naked or not knowing if I was naked, er, I mean, if the lockdown was real or a drill, and I had just been forgotten.

We forget, sometimes, that, at least if we strictly adhere to what the text of the Torah says, G”d informed Adam before creating Eve that he could eat of any tree except from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad. (G”d didn’t say anything about it being in the center of the garden.) It never says in the Torah that Adam told this to Eve, though I suppose it might be reasonably inferred from her initial response to the serpent’s question. So not only must we wonder how Eve knew, we must wonder how the serpent knew the rule, and that Eve knew it? Also, Eve seemed to know that the tree in question was in the center of the garden. If this was so important, why is it not mentioned earlier?

So my eyes were opened, and I knew that our lockdown was real. A precaution, to be sure, but an appropriate one under the circumstances. I know other teachers who did the same as I, trying to determine what was going on. I’m not sure how many knew what the situation truly was. I know many of them were able to see evidence outside their windows or rooms that this was something very real. I wasn’t one of them.

In addition, we all know that the media jump on stories like this and have few compunctions against leaping to conclusions, speculating,  or reporting unsubstantiated facts. This tree of knowledge was potentially flawed! Like that tree in the garden for Adam and Eve, this news media tree could have knowledge both good and bad. So I took what I read online with a grain of salt.

I could have violated the rules of the lockdown and opened my door and gone out in the hallway to take a peek. Had I done so, I might have noticed a police car in the driveway. I was trying so hard to “not eat from that tree” because the safety of all had to come before my discomfort.

I understand now, more than ever, how tempted Eve and Adam must have been, perhaps even without the serpent’s goading. I’ve often stated I feel it was bad parenting or a setup on G”d’s part, this instruction to eat anything you want – except that one thing. We know, as parents, this often backfires.

It was a real lockdown, but it was precautionary. You can read about it online: Police Investigate Source Of Call That Locked Down West Hartford School.

To this very moment, I don’t know if I did the right thing, checking for news on my phone during the lockout. I know I do have greater sympathy for Eve and Adam at this moment.

I think this experience brought our school closer together, made the staff stronger. What we can achieve together is and will continue to be amazing. Of course, that leaves me wondering, if we’re all now speaking the same language, if G”d will look askance at our tower, and confound our ability to work together so well. Sigh.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2015 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

B'reisheet 5775 - One Favorite Things (not a typo!)
B'reisheet 5774 - Toldot Adrian
B'reishit 5773 - Mixing Metaphors
B'reishit 5772 - The Unified Field Theorem of the Twelve Steps
B'reishit 5771 - B'reishit Bara Anashim
B'reishit 5770 - One G"d, But Two Trees?
B'reishit 5769 - Do Fences Really Make Good Neighbors
B'reishit 5767-Many Beginnings
Bereshit 5766-Kol D'mei Akhikha
Bereshit 5765 (5760)-Failing to Understand-A Learning Experience
Bereshit 5764-Gd's Regrets
Bereshit 5762--The Essential Ingredient
Bereshit 5763--Striving to be Human
Bereshit 5761--Chava's Faith
Bereshit 5760-Failing to Understand