Friday, March 18, 2016

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayikra 5776–Stuff That’s Still Bugging Me

Nine years ago I wrote about a bunch of things in this parasha that bugged me. Many of them still do, so I thought I’d revisit it.

Harkening back to my earlier days and my truly "random" musings, this musing is just that. Random. I call it "stuff that's bugging me about our parasha," which is Vayikra - the start of the priestly instruction manual that somehow found its way into the Torah. And so here we go. Stuff that's bugging me:

Why must an animal die for the sins of a human being? Yes, if we place these rituals within their own context, we can understand why humans thought G"d would want animal sacrifices, and we can understand how the sacrifice of an animal was a meaningful act for our ancestors.

I'm such a hypocrite. I eat meat and poultry and fish. The vegetarian or vegan lifestyle is not for me. If I truly think about it, I give but a fleeting thought to the animal deaths that are required to satisfy my desire for meat, poultry, and fish meals. Yet I have cared for pets as if they were family members. I have ordered some "eco-suede" kippot made from recycled cardboard to replace some of the suede kippot that I had worn. If I had to kill me own food before eating it, I’m not sure I could. (However, that’s still not enough to make me stop eating meat.)

Clearly, Torah teaches us to have proper respect for all life, including animals. We are asked to treat them respectfully, and when we slaughter them, to do so a manner that was believed to be quick and minimize the animal's pain. We are not to abuse or mistreat our animals, and even our work animals get off for Shabbat. Still, we eat them, as did our ancestors. And they also sacrificed them to G"d. We (currently) do not.

In our parasha, we read of the mincha sacrifice, the meal offerings - bread, griddle cakes, pancakes, matzah. Couldn't those have been enough? Yet in this odd and ironic twist, while most of the animal sacrifices (at least the sin offerings and offerings for inadvertent transgressions) were wholly consigned to the altar, often only a portion of the mincha offerings were sacrificed and the rest eaten. (Yes, this is also true of animal sacrifices, but to a somewhat lesser degree in this particular parasha and the particular types of sacrifices it mentions.)

Well, it makes some sense. G"d provided us with the animals to eat, yet the curse of Cain is upon us and we must work hard to produce crops from the soil. Yet wouldn't G"d prefer the toil of our own efforts be sacrificed rather than G"d's animal creations? I guess our ancestors didn't think that was the case. Our work is tainted from the get go. Not so the animals. And those we sacrifice must be from the choicest of our flocks and herds.

And something else that's bugging me. The children of Israel are a stubborn lot. It seems transgression (both advertant and inadvertent) is more norm than exception. That means that either a whole lot of animals got sacrificed-did they really have that many to spare?-or most people just weren't honest in admitting when they had committed a sin which required an atonement in the form of an animal or pancake sacrifice. Neither of those is a particularly heartening reality.

Perhaps, early on, G"d, in G"d's innocence, didn't realize just how troublesome this free will thing was, and how prone it made us to transgress. Yet, by the time of Sinai, it had surely become apparent to G"d that we were gonna screw up a lot. So why insist on animal sacrifices?

In fact, why this whole system of atonement at all? G"d could have kept it simple. You sin, you die. You sin inadvertently, maybe you get a second chance, but then you die if you do it again. But noooooooo. We're stuck with this system of ritual sacrifice to atone. The Christians solved the problem by envisioning the ultimate sacrifice, permanently absolving us of our wrongs. We Jews have attacked the problem somewhat with Yom Kippur. Yet the problem remains-we screw up a lot when it comes to G"d's laws. Sometimes without realizing it, but most of the time, quite brazenly open about it.

And you know what? This substitution of the offerings of our hearts and our lips-I don't think it really cuts the mustard. Animal and bread sacrifice is so much more visceral (and smelly-thank goodness for frankincense and other aromatics.) I'm certainly not in favor of returning to animal sacrifice, but I'm not so sure that what we've substituted is truly as meaningful and efficacious, with all due respect to the prophets.

I'm not sure what a meaningful sacrifice would be anymore. Words are cheap. Actions speak louder than words, and I suppose I can accept the idea that not doing something sinful the next time the situation arises is a meaningful act. But is it a sacrifice? Are words of prayer, heartfelt or not, a sacrifice? (Well, the way some people feel toward prayer these days, and in particular toward learning the Hebrew to pray without the influence of the subtle interpretations that result from translation, some might consider it a sacrifice. No comment.)

Since this is Shabbat Zakhor this year, here’s another thing that’s bugging me. why is G”d so upset with Saul for not killing all the animals of the Amalekites. (It’s bad enough he killed all of the Amelikate people, but it’s for not killing All the Amalekite’s animals, and keeping the best of them as spoils of war, that Saul is taken to taks by Samuel (and G”d.) Putting aside the fact that G”d just commanded the death of innocent civilians along with warriors (and believe me, it’s not that easy to put it aside) why would G”d want to see all these animals wasted? Yes, Saul and his troops did not follow G”ds instructions to the letter. Since when is it a crime to argue with G”d? Is that not something that Abraham (and others after him) did? Ah, but there are more levels here, are there not? The heart of the issue might be that Saul states that they did proscribe all the Amelikte animals except for the best of them, which they brought back to sacrifice to G”d. So I guess we have a sort of Nadav and Avihu situation here. G”d said kill all the animals, G”d didn’t ask for an extra sacrifice. So Saul screwed up.

Samuel says to Saul:

"Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to the Lord's command? Surely, obedience is better than sacrifice, compliance than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, Defiance, like the iniquity of teraphim. Because you rejected the Lord's command, He (sic) has rejected you as king." (Samuel 15:22, JPS)

Really, G”d? That’s a pretty odd standard. Borderline hypocritical. Especially when your command is to commit genocide. Now, Saul did not fail to carry out G”d’s command for any altruistic cause, or because he thought it wrong to slaughter innocents – I’d feel a lot better if Saul had objected on humaitarian grounds. Is it entirely objectionable that Saul’s concern was (theoretically) to offer thanks to G”d? (The reality of what was in Saul’s mind may have been different – it may ultimately have been truly selfish.) The Saul wavers, and blames it on the troops, saying he did it for them, because he feared his own troops. Oh, please.

G’d was not always equally insistent for blind obedience from every King who reigned after Saul. A lot of them got away with quite a bit. I suppose on G”d’s time scale they paid for their disobedience, but from a human perspective, it’s a shaky proposition.

Another, thing that bigs me is, of course, that little additional reading from Deuteronomy 25:17-19 that we read on Shabbat Zakhor right before Purim. It’s that insane remember to not forget to forget commandment.

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deut. 25:17-19, JPS)

[Shock alert for those who revere sacred text] If there was ever a candidate in the Torah for a “wtf?” this one is right up there. Actually, there’s no shortage of “wtf?” moments in Torah. This is just a particularly egregious example.

Loose ends. I've left a lot. Some of these meanderings start nowhere and end up nowhere, or are off in Yennensvelt. Why should what I write be any different than what we often encounter in our sacred texts? You don't like loose ends, fell free to fritter away your Shabbat trying to make sense of it all. Me-I think I'll try and spend Shabbat not thinking about things, and giving not just my body, but my brain, a rest. Yeah, right. As if that's gonna happen...

Shabbat Shalom,


©2016 (portions ©2007) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayikra 5775 - Meaningful Gifts II
Vayikra 5773 (Redux 5761) - Mambo #613: A Little Bit Of Alef In My Torah
Vayikra 5772 - Confession: Not Just for Catholics
Vayikra 5771 - I'd Like To Bring To Your Attention...
Vayikra 5770 - You Can Fool Most of the People Most of the Time
Vayikra 5768 - Redux 5763 - Kol Kheilev
Vayikra 5766 - Osymandias
Vayikra-Shabbat Zachor 5765-Chatati
Vayikra 5763 - Kol Cheilev
Vayikra 5759 & 5762-Salvation?
Vayikra 5760-Meaningful Gifts
Vayikra 5764 and 5761-Mambo #613: A Little Bit of Alef in My Torah...

Friday, March 11, 2016

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Pekudei 5776–Metamorphosis

If you’re a fan of Star Trek TOS (the original series) then you are likely familiar with the episode which is the title of this musing. The episode introduced an important character in the Star Trek canon, that of Zephram Cochrane, inventor of the “warp drive.”

For this week’s parasha, Pekudei, the second half of what is more often read as a double parasha along with the preceeding parasha Vayakhel) there is a clear connection between the parasha and the haftarah which accompanies it. Haftarot were generally chosen in this way.

(I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the popular explanation for the existence of the haftarot, that they were created during a time when public reading of the Torah was prohibited is probably more of a midrash than a reality. Scholars, these days, are more convinced that the readings from the prophetic books of the nascent Hebrew canon were added to exclude Samaritans and others who accepted only the Torah as the basis for Judaism. It’s an analysis with which I tend to concur. Yet another bit of pediatric Judaism debunked. The haftarot were not some brave attempt to stick it to our oppresors, and get around their restrictions. They were a product of internecine struggles between streams of Jewish practice and belief in ancient times. Not at all unlike the differences we see today between the various streams of Judaism. And yes, even in our own time, there are those who use this same tactic – finding ways to exclude those who fit a particular stream’s norm. Sigh.)

Pekudei is about the completion and assembling of the Mishkan. The haftarah, from I Kings, speaks of the completion of the Beit Hamikdash in Jerusalem by King Shlomo (Solomon.)

So, if I wanted to find a way to exclude non-lovers of Star Trek from Jewish worship, a perfect way might be to use the story of the Star Trek episode “Metamorphosis” as the haftarah for Pekudei. (And, if you wanted to buy in to the pediatric midrashic explanation for the origins of the haftarot: if we were living in times when public reading of the Torah ahd been prohibited, and we wanted to choose an appropriate substitute, for this parasha, I’d nominate “Metamorphosis.”

Here’s a bit from the Torah reading:

וַיְכַל מֹשֶׁה אֶת־הַמְּלָאכָֽה:  וַיְכַס הֶֽעָנָן אֶת־אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וּכְבוֹד יְהֹוָה מָלֵא אֶת־הַמִּשְׁכָּֽן:  וְלֹֽא־יָכֹל מֹשֶׁה לָבוֹא אֶל־אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד כִּֽי־שָׁכַן עָלָיו הֶֽעָנָן וּכְבוֹד יְהֹוָה מָלֵא אֶת־הַמִּשְׁכָּֽן: וּבְהֵֽעָלוֹת הֶֽעָנָן מֵעַל הַמִּשְׁכָּן יִסְעוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּכֹל מַסְעֵיהֶֽם: וְאִם־לֹא יֵֽעָלֶה הֶֽעָנָן וְלֹא יִסְעוּ עַד־יוֹם הֵעָֽלֹתֽוֹ: כִּי עֲנַן יְהֹוָה עַל־הַמִּשְׁכָּן יוֹמָם וְאֵשׁ תִּהְיֶה לַיְלָה בּוֹ לְעֵינֵי כָל־בֵּית־יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּכָל־מַסְעֵיהֶֽם

When Moshe had completed the work, the cloud covered the entrance to the tent of meeting, and the glory (presence) of G”d filled the Mishkan. Moshe could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud was dwelling upon it. and the weightiness (presence) of G”d filled the Mishkan. when the cloud went up from upon the Mishkan, the children of Israel went out on their journeys. If the cloud did not go up they would not go forth until a day when it went up. Because the cloud of G”d was upon the Mishkan during the day, and fire came at night, in the eyes of all of the children of Israel on all their journeys. (Exodus 40: 33b-38)

And here’s a bit from the Haftarah:

 וַיְהִי בְּצֵאת הַכֹּֽהֲנִים מִן־הַקֹּדֶשׁ וְהֶֽעָנָן מָלֵא אֶת־בֵּית יְהֹוָֽה: וְלֹֽא־יָֽכְלוּ הַכֹּֽהֲנִים לַֽעֲמֹד לְשָׁרֵת מִפְּנֵי הֶֽעָנָן כִּֽי־מָלֵא כְבֽוֹד־יְהֹוָה אֶת־בֵּית יְהֹוָֽה: אָז אָמַר שְׁלֹמֹה יְהֹוָה אָמַר לִשְׁכֹּן בָּֽעֲרָפֶֽל: בָּנֹה בָנִיתִי בֵּית זְבֻל לָךְ מָכוֹן לְשִׁבְתְּךָ עוֹלָמִֽים

When the priests came out from the Holy (sanctuary) and a cloud filled the house of Ad”nai, the priests were unable to perform their service in front of (because of) the cloud, because the glory (presence) of Ad”nai filled the House of Ad”nai. Then Solomon declared: “G”d said/expressed (a desire) to dwell in the thick darkness. I (i.e.Solomon) have surely built this lofty abode for you, a place to dwell forever.”

The cloud imagery is vivid (and we’ve encountered this cloud imagery before.) Cloud are ethereal things. Yet they can also be dark and foreboding things. Notice the change in nouns in the haftarah, which first speaks of a cloud עָנָן, and then a dark thick mass/cloud, עֲרָפֶֽל. I think we need to have both of these ideas of cloud in order to truly consider the idea of a cloud that fills up a room such that humans cannot also occupy it. Surely, the priests (and others) could stand amidst fluffy white clouds. Those have little substance – we can pass right through them. (It is even an almost quotidian experience, when you consider low-lying fog.) Surely that is not the cloud that is the in-dwelling presence of Ad”nai?

Our Torah portion makes no distinction, and the same word is used for cloud throughout this section. Yet this cloud, too, was of enough physical presence to keep Moshe from entering the Mishkan. (Perhaps the very reason the vocabulary in I Kings is different is precisely because people asked that question, and the authors wanted to clarify the point?)

Now, as to our Star Trek episode – the parallels are not all so clear. It’s not really a cloud. It’s more of an energy lifeform. It is, however, a presence, and it can and does interact with the physical world. “The Companion,” as this lifeforce is known, has rescued an aged, dying Zephram Cochrane, who had wanted to end his amazing life with one last journey out among the stars. The Companion discovered Cochrane’s  repaired Zephram’s body, and restored Zephram’s youth and vigor. She (and The Companion is revealed to be a she, as much as a non-corporeal lifeform can be said to have gender) has grown attached to Zephram, and the sudden appearance of a standed Captain Kirk, Mr, Spock, Dr. McCoy, and a dying female United Federation of Planets comissioner Nancy Hedford threaten the situation. The Companion wants the newcomers to remain to help keep Cochrane happy and have company of his own kind. The Companion prevents Spock from attacking it. Spock cobbles together a way to communicate with The Companion, learns that it is a she, that she can (and will) keep Zephram, and all of them young and alive forever. When the female UFP commissioner is near death, Cochrane pleads with The Companion for help. The Companion changes from her energy lifelorm and occupies the body of Comissioner Hedford to save her. Cochrane is now excited to dream of a life roaming the galaxy with his Companion, but alas, her lifeforce is bound to the planetoid they are on. Cochrane agrees to remain with The Companion where they will both live out a normal human lifespan.

Maybe it’s just me, but every time I think about G”d appearing as a cloud, this episode comes to mind. There are connections, and there are differences. G”d cares for human beings, The Companion cares for Cochrane. The Companion did not, however, create Cochrane, and is just his rescuer, in a way. Hmmm. Rescuer – savior. Kind of the same. Savior is defnitely part of G”d’s job description. The idea and terminology may feel uncomfortable for some Jews, but when it comes down to it, G”d as savior is not alien to Jewish thought.

The Companion appears as a sort of cloud, as does G”d. The Companion incarnates, a theologically problematic idea for Jews for the last 2000 years. On the other hand, The Companion’s act of incarnation dooms it to no longer be a being with an infinite lifespan, which might be a very Jewish attitude. The Companion seeks to create an Eden for Cochrane just as  G”d created an Eden for Adam and Chava. Are the passengers of the shuttle Galileo (Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Hedford) the serpent that tempts Cochrane to give up his Eden? Or is this more of an anti-Eden tale in which the pseudo-deity gives up being a deity for the sake of the limited-life being with which it has fallen in what can only be thought of as love?

Imagine, for a moment, the Christian story in an alternate history: For G”d so loved the world, that G”d gave up being G”d to live out life as a human being. That would be the ultimate, permanent form of tzimtzum, would it not? (Tzimtzum is the kabbalistic notion that in order to allow space for creation of the physical universe, G”d constricted G”d’s-self. And, though I am certain the Lurianic Kabbaliksts did not mean it this way, tzimtzum could just as easily be translated as “withdrawal.” G”d withdrawing from the universe. The Companion withdrawing from her eternal existence to a finite one. (A concept also later explored in Star Trek:The Next Generation, through the character of Q from the Q continuum.. There’s an awful lot to be mined from those episodes featuring Q for future musings.)

All of these thoughts are, at their best, just barely tangential to our parasha and haftarah. But it’s fun to think about such different things together. (And there are those for whom ST:TOS scripts are as holy as we hold the Torah. Sounds blasphemous, perhaps, but who am I to judge.) We can insist on studying Torah and our sacred texts only within their own contexts, and only within their canon. Or we can expand our horizons and allow our explorations to touch upon other things which might inform our understanding of our own sacred texts. These things could be texts sacred to others, or they could simply be secular sources.

And I haven’t even mentioned how (I Kings 8:13) Solomon declares that he has built a house for – addressing G”d as “you” - second person singular, feminine (Go back and look, if you must.)

I’ve offered no scholarly treatises or exegesis. Just a few random musings on my encoutner with this parasha and haftarah this year. If these musings provide a starting point for any one of my readers, I will comsider my effort worth it. Go forth and muse.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2016 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Pekudei 5774 - Pronouns Revisited
Pekude/Shabbat Sh'kalim 5771 - Ideas Worth Re-Examining
Pekude 5765-Redux 5760-Pronouns

Vayakhel-Pekudei-Shabbat Parah 5775 - New Heart, New spirit
Vayakhel-Pekudei 5773 - Craftsman. Artisan. Artist. Again.
Vayakhel-Pekude 5772 - Vocational Ed
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5770-Corroborative Detail
Vayakhel-Pekudei 5769 - There Are Some Things You Just Have To Do Yourself
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5767-Redux 5760-The Lost Episodes: Too Much of a Good Thing
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5766 - So How Did Joseph Get Away With it?
Vayakhel/Pekude 5764-Comma or Construct?
Vayakhel/Pekude 5762-Sacred Work
Vayakhel/Pekude 5761 (Revised from 5758)-Craftsman. Artisan. Artist.
Vayakhel/Pekude 5758-Craftsman. Artisan. Artist.


Friday, March 4, 2016

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayakhel 5776–An Imaginary Community? (Redux and Revised 5768)

Everyone contributed to the building of the tabernacle. Each brought his/her own gift/skill/talent to the process. Each gave freely of his/her personal possessions. And they weren't even building something fixed and permanent-it was portable.

You don't see it much anymore. Whole communities working together, each contributing of their talents, to build something. Oh, there are still Amish barn-raisings, and Yachad and Habitat for Humanity projects. There are even some communes, co-housing, and similar ventures still around. For a time, in Israel, chalutzim built kibbutzim, villages, factories, and more. The spirit endures. Yet it is diminished.

Our country’s infrastructure is crumbling We geshry about the taxes required to fix all of it. Yet we need look not that far back in our own U.S. history to find another approach. Remember the WPA?

It's no so easy today to get people to contribute to projects directly. And for those who contribute financially, imagine trying to get one of them to underwrite a structure that wasn't fixed or permanent, and upon which they could not have a plaque or name affixed. (Actually, I am sure there are philanthropists out there who might do so, but my point is more about having the whole community contribute.) (Another aside – have you how some cities are confiscating and removing those 6x10 tiny houses for the homeless. They are a great example of someone with a dream being willing to build something temporary and not fixed in order to help those most in need. Naturally, the NIMBY syndrome is rearing it’s ugly head.)

Most of us don't slaughter our own animals. Lots of us don't even prepare our own meals anymore. Our homes, towns, villages, synagogues are built and maintained for us by others. (I wrote, in another musing years ago for a different parasha, of what it might be like if each member family of a synagogue shared the responsibility to actual come in and kindle the ner tamid a few days each year?)

How odd we have become. Think of the irony. We're all too lazy, or too haughty, or think ourselves too important to take on menial tasks. So we relegate these tasks to others. They build our homes, clean our homes, sweep our streets, cook and serve our meals. Then we complain that they are stealing our jobs, and build big fences to keep them out.

Sure, some take pride in keeping up our own homes - mowing, raking, repairing. It's a drop in the bucket, and it is ultimately a selfish act, not a communal one. What can we do together, as a community? Build a playground? Pave our streets? Build a schoolhouse?  (Remember, communities used to have to build one in order to have one.) Consider that a Jewish cemetery was often one of the first communal things Jews help create when they moved into a new community. We take so much for granted these days.)

Imagine, for a moment, a world in which all the inhabitants contributed some talent to the building of the United Nations. Imagine, for a moment, a synagogue built from scratch by the members of its congregation, and maintained by them as well. Imagine a synagogue with no need for maintenance and janitorial staff. (Actually, there sre some congregations out there already employing such a model.)

What about thinking even more globally?  Most of us rely upon others to solve the threats to our planet from global warming, sea rise, species extinction, habitat destruction. Oh, we may contribute in some small way – like recycling, conserving water, etc. And yes, little contributions count. However, the day may ciome when it will really take all of us, actively engaged, to stem the tide of reckless plundering of our planet.

Science fiction authors have long suggested scenarios in which humankind all worked together as onme for the common good. Sometimes, it was in the face of an external threat, like an alien race, or an ELE meteor strike. Other times, it was simply for the sake of getting humanity out into the universe.

I have always preferred to believe in humankind as essentially caring, communal, and contributing. It gets harder every year. The disparity between haves and have-nots, even in so-called first world countries is staggering. There are ocassional moments of uplift. We need more of them. Ther only way they are going to happen is if we make them happen.

If we are going to eliminate (or at least deal with) homelessness, malnutrition, the rape of our planet, etc. we are all going to have to pitch in, just like our Israelite ancestors did for the building of the Mishkan.

So, imagine a world where someone actually had to say "Stop! You're all being too generous."

Ken Y'Hi Ratzon. Ken Y'hi Ratzoneinu.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2016 (portions ©2008) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musing on this Parasha:

Vayakhel-Pekudei-Shabbat Parah 5775 - New Heart, New spirit
Vayakhel 5774 - Is Two Too Much?
Vayakhel-Pekudei 5773 - Craftsman. Artisan. Artist. Again.
Vayakhel-Pekude 5772 - Vocational Ed
Vayakhel 5771 - Giving Up the Gold Standard
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5770-Corroborative Detail
Vayakhel-Pekudei 5769 - There Are Some Things You Just Have To Do Yourself
Vayakhel 5768-An Imaginary Community?
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5767-Redux 5760-The Lost Episodes: Too Much of a Good Thing
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5766 - So How Did Joseph Get Away With it?
Vayakhel 5765-The Wisdom of the Heart
Vayakhel/Pekude 5764-Comma or Construct?
Vayakhel 5763-Dayam V'hoteir
Vayakhel/Pekude 5762-Sacred Work
Vayakhel/Pekude 5761 (Revised from 5758)-Craftsman. Artisan. Artist.
Vayakhel/Pekude 5758-Craftsman. Artisan. Artist.
Vayakhel 5760-The Lost Episodes: Too Much of a Good Thing