Friday, August 18, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Re’eh 5777–Between the Mountains

 וְהָיָה כִּי יְבִֽיאֲךָ יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּה בָא־שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ וְנָֽתַתָּה אֶת־הַבְּרָכָה עַל־הַר גְּרִזִּים וְאֶת־הַקְּלָלָה עַל־הַר עֵיבָֽל

When the L”RD your G”d brings you into the land that you are about to enter and possess, you shall pronounce the blessing at Mount Gerizim and the curse at Mount Ebal

I thought our ancestors were wiser than that. If you believe in Divine authorship of the Torah, then I amend that to: I thought G”d was smarter than that. Or…maybe it’s not as dumb as it seems, Read on.

It’s exactly this sort of black and white thinking that resulted in thousands of years of Judaism shaping itself to accommodate the reality that is reality. It’s messy. It’s liminal. It’s fuzzy.  Few things are easily categorized as only one thing, one type. In fact, I’ve remarked before how Judaism is the faith of balance, of finding the path to navigate through so many seemingly opposite things. Our tradition has sought to preserve a diversity of opinions. Often, the answer to “does Judaism say…” is “yes, no, and maybe.”

Millennia of history have demonstrated to us that things that appear to be blessings can also be curses, and vice versa. The world of blessing and curse has its own yetzer tov and yetzer hara (good and evil inclinations) and finding the balance is key.

Balaak’s desire to curse the Israelites became Bilaam’s blessings of the Israelite people. There’s at least an inkling there of the idea that blessing and curse are but two sides of the same coin – and a coin can’t exist without both sides.

Grumble about there not being enough to eat, and G”d sends you quail to excess.

An excess of caution can lead to stagnation. Stagnation, perhaps, can inspire a bored someone to try something new.

A parched person could cause self-harm by too quickly and in too much quantity drinking when it is finally available. Similarly – you can drown in water or sand!

It wasn’t until 1600 that Shakespeare finally put the idea of excess as a curse into the by now well-worn phrase “too much of a good thing.”

The Besht (Baal Shem Tov) spoke of finding and liberating the small kernel of good hidden inside evil.

It is easy to think of things that are both blessings and curses. Diamond mines. Oil fields. Abundance. Scarcity. Modern medicine. Gene therapy. Smartphones. Computers. The internet. Religion. I suspect that almost everything in this universe has the potential to be blessing or course. For those things which we can utilize and manipulate, we exercise some control over whether they are blessing or curse. For those things that are beyond our control, how we react and respond to them can determine how much of a blessing or curse they are,

Adversity can build strength. Wealth can create moral poverty. Familiarity breeds contempt. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Sometimes, being stubbornly positive in trying to turn every curse into a blessing can wind up with negative consequences.  At other times, being stubbornly pessimistic and finding the worst in every blessing can result in a positive result. It’s a circle. A cycle. Two sides of that same coin.

Mitchell Chefitz tells a story called “The Curse of Blessings” (the title story in a published collection of ten stories.) It’s a wonderful illustration of how curses and blessings are intertwined. If you search for it by googling “The Curse of Blessings” you will find a few sites with versions of the story to read (though perhaps better you should buy the book https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00T57NHAO/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

I won’t retell the story here because I recalled  it just today as I was writing this musing and haven’t had time to ask for permission. (I’m hopeful that places I found on the web where the story is retold had Mitch’s permission to use it.  I urge you to read the story, and believe at least two of the only sources were likely done with permission, but I can’t vouchsafe for any of them, so let your conscience be your guide.)  In the story, a man is cursed with having to say a new blessing every day or he will die. I’ll say no more, as the story has a great O Henry-esque twist

All in all, the Torah making this very kind of assertion – that blessings are of one type, and curses of another, is exactly the kind of challenge that enables us to turn a curse into a blessing (or a blessing into a curse.)

So maybe, what appears to be a curse – the challenge of black and white thinking, the idea that blessings are one mountain and curses are another, is actually a blessing. To extend the metaphor fully, what path did the Israelites follow when entering the promised land? They went through the middle, the valley between Mount Gerizim (the blessing) and Mount Ebal (the curse.) In this one little verse of Torah is a microcosm of life, the universe, and everything.

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian
© 2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Re'eh 5775 - Think Marx, Act Rashi. Think Rashi, Act Marx (Redux/Revised 5772)
Re'eh 5774 - Our Own Gifts (Redux 5761)
Re'eh 5773 - Here's a Tip
Re'eh 5772 - Think Marx, Act Rashi? Think Rashi, Act Marx?
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

Friday, August 11, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Eikev 5777–I. Just. Can’t.

I can’t. I just can’t. At least not today. I know I have a penchant for trying to redeem irredeemable texts. Not just a penchant, a passion. However, today I am weary of that effort, weary of the rationalizations, loop de loops, torturous paths, and cherry-picking that is too often necessary to find positive values from troubling texts.

This week, I found nothing redemptive in parashat Eikev. Oh sure, it starts off seemingly positive enough. All these good things will happen if…it’s that if that turns an otherwise positive passage into a troubling one. You’ll get to successfully enter the promised land – and along the way, you will mercilessly kill, with G”d’s favor, the present occupants.

We are reminded of how G”d dealt with the Egyptians. Hmmm. Let’s see. Many Egyptians died, their economy was left in a shambles, crops devastated, animals dead, and the whole country a stinking, fetid mess.

Yep. Y’all just head on into the promised land, slaying and killing along the way, and I’ll make sure your enemies fall – though you have to do the actual killing. Oh,and by the way, tear down their altars, and destroy all their idols, and don’t even think about imitating any of their ways.

You do this and you will be very fruitful and your population will explode.None of your animals will be infertile, and so your flocks will similarly increase in number. You won’t get sick. All you have to do in exchange is show no pity.

How very “Animal Farm” of G”d. All my creations are equal in My sight, but this people are more equal. It’s no wonder our “chosen-ness” has haunted us and is a concept often rejected by modern liberal Jews.

Oh, and, by the way, this won’t be some quick and easy process. No, only little by little will you defeat your enemies and come into possession of the land. Why? Hmmm. Gimme a second to come up with a good rationalization here. Oh, I got it. If you conquer all these people too quickly, there won’t be enough people to keep the wild beasts from ravaging the land, and harming you.

Now wait just a darn minute here. G”d, creator of the Universe, doer of mighty deeds, maker of great miracles, Deity capable of delivering these people into the promised land and given them future generations of success can’t handle some wild beasts? WTF is with that?

G”d promises to drive Israel’s enemies into panic, making it easier to conquer them.(But G”d can;t handle the wild beasts?)

Acting like a morale officer, Moshe then reminds the people of all the great miracles that G”d has done for them these last 40 years. Why,even our clothes didn’t wear out. Yes, there were some harsh times, but G”d only did this to teach you a lesson – and to remind you that it is G”d who will provide. When you lack faith, expect a hardship in order to bring you back to your senses. Of course, when it gets too hard, G”d will provide relief through a miracle.  (But G”d can;t seem to deal with this “wild beasts ravaging the promised land if the conquest is too fast” thing? SMH)

Okay, enough stick for a bit. Here’s some carrot. You’re gonna really like this promised land. Things will be so good. You will eat until satiety. Oh, and don;t forget after eating and being sated, to thank G”d.

Enough carrot. Back to the stick. You’re gonna get so comfortable you’ll become haughty and believe your success is of your own making. Don’t do that. It is not your own merit that has won you this largesse. (Hmmm – then why, exactly is G”d showering this particular people with all this success? Could it be that G”d is over-compensating for a promise forgotten and ignored through 400 years of slavery in Egypt?)

Whatever you do, don’t follow the ways of the people you vanquish, or G”d will bring wrack and ruin upon you. (Note, no promise here, as one finds elsewhere, and especially in the later prophetic works, that you will suffer rack and ruin but only up to a point because G”d loves you and will ultimately show mercy in the end.

In some ways, this is a very Trump-ian situation. G”d (or perhaps it is really Moshe,) at times, appears to be saying contradictory things. First, that the people must go and fight and kill the current occupants of the land, and then later, it is stated that G”d will go at the front of you, a devouring fire, wiping out your enemies. So which is it?  Are the Canaanites gonna pay for that wall or not?

As if we haven’t had enough stick and too little carrot yet Moshe proceeds to recap all the times the Israelites were disrespectful to or showed lack of faith in, or disobeyed G”d. I’ve commented before about this segment of the text, and about Moshe’s proclivity to play fast and loose with the facts. Is Moshe deflecting responsibility for striking the rock any different than the behavior we see from today’s politicians? It would seem that, sadly, such dissembling and spin have a long history.

The one more recap. Moshe offers a recitation of G”d’s greatest hits and best characteristics.Isn’t that great! More carrot. Followed immediately by more stick. Follow ways other than G”d’s ways, and all this largesse will be taken away from you.

Carrot. Stick. Carrot. Stick. Carrot. Stick. Carrot. Stick. Carrot. Stick. Carrot. Stick.Carrot. Stick. Carrot. Stick. Carrot. Stick.

Enough already. Why this pep talk? If G”d is so all-powerful, why does G”d need us to do the dirty work? Yes, G”d is enabling a smaller force to overwhelm a larger one, but this is possible even without G”d. It’s called strategy and tactics. And this may be the fourth millennia BCE, but human beings already know all about war, and about how a smaller force can overcome a larger one.

It’s all so confusing. Yeah, I’ll grant you the admonition to remember to say thank you after our bellies are full is a useful nugget. However, as far as I can see, that might be the only one. All these platitudes about giving rain in its season and all that – that’s all they are – platitudes. They don’t redeem this text at all.

Another year I might be able to find (and clearly, in previous years I have been able to find) redeeming things in this parasha. Not this year. Not with a country in chaos, a world potentially on the brink of war. So if you’re looking for something uplifting before this Shabbat, I have nothing to offer – except the peace of Shabbat itself. As to this parasha:  I. Just. Can’t.

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian
©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Eikev 5775 - Kindlers of Fire (Revised from 5766)
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

Friday, August 4, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Va’etkhanan 5777–This Man’s Art and That Man’s Scope (revisited, revised, and expanded)

Whoops – last week passed without a musing - an unintentional hiatus. My apologies. Things just simply got away from me. A shame, too, because I had a nice theme planned for parashat D’varim this year. Guess you’ll have to wait another year. I’ve listed my musings for D’varim at the end after those for Va’etkhanan. Do take a look at them – especially the one I have shared many times over – “The Promise.”

This week's parasha, Va'etkhanan, gives me an opportunity to revisit the aseret habdibrot, the ten commandments. There's one commandment, in particular, that, for some unknown reason, popped into my head as something I wanted to muse upon this week. That commandment is the tenth, the one commandment (depending on how one views the first commandment) that is (apparently) focused on thought more than deed or action.

וְלֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ד אֵ֣שֶׁת רֵעֶ֑ךָ וְלֹ֨א תִתְאַוֶּ֜ה בֵּ֣ית רֵעֶ֗ךָ שָׂדֵ֜הוּ וְעַבְדּ֤וֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ֙ שׁוֹר֣וֹ וַחֲמֹר֔וֹ וְכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר לְרֵעֶֽךָ׃

V'lo takhmod eyshet reyekha, v'lo titaveh beyt reyakha sadeihu v'avdo v'amato, shoro, v'khamoro, v'khol asher l'reyakha.

And you shall not covet the wife of your neighbor, and you shall not crave the house of your neighbor, his field, or his male slave or female slave, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's.

The first thing to note is that this construction in D'varim is changed from the construction in Exodus 20:14

לֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ד בֵּ֣ית רֵעֶ֑ךָ לֹֽא־תַחְמֹ֞ד אֵ֣שֶׁת רֵעֶ֗ךָ וְעַבְדּ֤וֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ֙ וְשׁוֹר֣וֹ וַחֲמֹר֔וֹ וְכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר לְרֵעֶֽךָ׃

Lo takhmod beyt reyakha lo takhmod eyshet reyakha v'avdo, v'amato v'shoro v'khamoro v'kol asher l'reyakha

You shall not covet the house of your neighbor, you shall not covet the wife of your neighbor, his male slave, or his female slave, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's.

In Exodus, the order is house, wife, etc. Here in D'varim, the order is wife, house, etc. In addition, the verse begins with a conjunctive vav, making this commandment part of a string beginning with murder and continuing "and not commit adultery...and not steal...and not bear false witness..and not covet. In Exodus, each commandment begins with the simple negative particle "Lo" with no connecting vav. Is this treatment in D’varim the biblical equivalent of a “yadda, yadda, yadda?” A subtle protest or chafing at the restrictions?

Finally, the text in D'varim introduces a second verb into the sentence. In Exodus, the verb "takhmod" תַחְמֹ֖ד based on the root khet-mem-dalet is used twice. Here in D'varim, the verb takhmod is used first (in reference to the wife) and the verb titaveh  תִתְאַוֶּ֜ה based on the root "alef-vav-hey" precedes the remainder of the things one should not "crave" or “desire.”

While scholars disagree on the exact translations of these two verbs, there is some consensus that the alef-vav-hey root form means desire in a "delighting in" sense, whereas the root  khet-mem-dalet  means desire in an unhealthy "inclination" sense. Some scholars equate "alef-vav-hey" with desires and inclinations of the nefesh, that is, they are natural inclinations and desires. "Khet-mem-dalet" is more often associated with selfish, undisciplined, desire - perhaps a more "over the top."

One wonders how this plays into the whole rabbinical construct about how and when men interact with women. The distinct separation (and placing first) of the commandment to not inappropriately desire your neighbor's wife seen oddly juxtaposed with the Exodus construct, in which the house comes first, yet women, slaves, beasts of burden et al are all things in which we must not delight to the point of covetousness. The neighbor's wife is placed in a distinct class.

Coveting, say some of the commentators, invariably leads to action. One must convince oneself that the coveted object is utterly beyond acquisition so that one’s mind will stop considering it. (See Sforno on Exodus 20:14)

In what some may deem a misogynist framework, some commentators argue that no male could not be desirous of a woman, so here the Torah uniquely separates out the commandment to not covet a neighbor’s wife because it assumes all men will find her desirable. It’s the biblical equivalent of “keep it in your pants, buddy.” (See Ibn Ezra on Exodus 20:14)

The general rabbinic spin on this is that desire will ultimately lead to coveting, so that this version of the commandment in Deuteronomy is meant to extend the fence, as it were, so that a lesser level of behavior, i.e. desiring is prohibited lest it lead to coveting. (See the Mekhilta of Rabbi Yishmael on Exodus 20:14)

Desire is wishful thinking. Coveting is “over the top” desire with a hint of envy and an inclination to maliciousness.

While all this is fascinating, what drove me to muse upon this text in 2009, and brings it to mind again here in 2017 is more of a global observation that our society is so strongly structured to encourage not just desire, but actual covetousness, that, for some, the very idea of not coveting may seem anathema, and, at the very least, a difficult, if not impossible commandment to fulfill. We are certainly seeing a full flowering of the ideals of capitalism nigh unto the depths of plutocracy (though I suspect the latter term is more applicable than the first, as I am not entirely sure the present administration represents true ideal capitalism, but rather an unbridled form for little respect for consequences.)

Perhaps these are socialist or Marxist ideas floating to the surface, yet I cannot help but wonder how much the idea of "not coveting" has been used as a tool to keep the oppressed happy. It's all well and good to not covet when one lives the good life. It's another story when one is struggling. Those without look at those who have, and might not be able to help but wonder if all of those who have got there fairly, and are deserving of what they have. (I have often thought that one of the factors that works against truly practical socialism or even communism in the world is the random and inequitable distribution of the world’s natural resources. Our natural selfishness causes us to hoard what we have and be reluctant to share it with others, even as the reality of their having what we don’t is obvious. A global economy and global sharing is the only logical way to do things, but so many fear it. As unnatural (i.e. man-made/acquired) resources like capital and wealth accumulate in an inequitable distribution, even a capitalist, free-market world is imperiled.

In some ways, I think it is good and important that here in Deuteronomy the Torah reminds us of what it failed to say in Exodus – that desire and coveting and not the same thing, but that both are suspect.

The plutocrats have a problem here. For their system to work, people must desire or crave things. However, if their desire or craving tips over into coveting, that becomes a threat to them. However, I think that many plutocrats have failed to see the problem, blinded by their own greed.

We are bombarded constantly with advertising that is designed to get us to crave, to desire, and yes, even to covet. Might this bombardment be an underlying cause in increasing crime? If so, then there is another argument for teaching people to not covet. Still, how many of the rich get richer by insuring that the poor are taught to be content with what they have? Does desire invariably lead to coveting? On the one hand, it seems that many people are able to feel desirous of something without their desire becoming coveting. Some people do seem to be able to control their impulses. On the other hand…

Allow me a little diversion here. I have a pet peeve. I detest laws that have been enacted in many states which make it a violation to be “going slower in the passing lane” thus leading to people abiding by the speed limit being ticketed for getting in the way of those deliberately and purposefully exceeding the speed limit. I’m still trying to figure out in which universe this idea makes sense. Such laws only empower people to break the law with impunity – it canonizes their desire to ignore the rules. Yes, you can argue that this is merely a matter of community norms. However, isn’t the answer to that to change the laws to match the community norms so that obeying them doesn’t get you in trouble? My point is, that while, to some degree, we are able to control our desires, we are living in a time when, at least in some cases, individual desires are being allowed to trump the community’s laws. (See, it’s just normal word when used in that fashion.) But enough digression.

Certainly coveting things has great potential for causing problems. It can certainly lead to envy and jealousness, and those often lead to other bad things. It can cause people to be very unhappy with their own situations. Is the same true for desiring? Does that inevitably lead to coveting?

Desire, perhaps, can be assuaged not just through self-control, but through some little reward. As the Bard put it:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;

Ironically, however, Shakespeare's solution to his downcast state is to think happily on his love.

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
       For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
       That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

I've little doubt that mixed in with Shakespeare's love is a bit of desire to delight in the pleasures of his love. Maybe the rabbis were on to something. Yet here, merely the thought of love is enough to assuage feelings of material desire. Is this a clue for how we can all deal with our desires, and how we can prevent them from becoming coveting?

Some rabbis and commentators have suggested that the real lesson in the commandment to not covet (or even desire) is to recognize that what we see of our neighbor's lives might not be the whole story. It's just another way of saying "be careful of what you wish for" and "always look at the big picture." You might desire your neighbors ass, but it may turn out to be lazy, stubborn, prone to illness or becoming lame. Same with his house. Who knows what problems you might be acquiring when you covet and trick someone out of their home so you might possess it?

is there ever a time and place when coveting is the right thing to do? When covetousness is the right way to feel? I'm hard pressed to find one, although can imagine a scenario in which covetousness can spur an oppressed minority to seek their full rights and share. Desire can, in a "positive value of yetzer hara" sort of way, spur one to try harder, be more ambitious, etc. Is coveting the same, or is it a bridge too far?  Is even simple desire entirely the wrong motivation to succeed? I suspect that it is, however, given the values of modern society, I'm afraid that those who seek success without some element of desire are going to find it rough going. Those who seek success through coveting, I fear, are far too often successful these days. (Isn’t a leverage buy out,or an uninvited corporate take-over an example of this? Surely, using real estate for money-laundering is an example of where coveting leads.)

In the musical based on the movie "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" there is a song in which the ambitious younger con-man sings of his desire for "Great Big Stuff." This desire spurs him into participating in a complicated high-class scam (i.e. he covets,) though in the end, he and his older, more experienced partner turn out to have been scammed by their own mark, who turns out to be an even better con-artist. Still, the older con-artist sings how it was still a blast for them, and doesn't seem to put out by this reversal of (potential) fortune. In the end, all three decide to work together. Proving that crime does pay? One way of looking at the story is that the younger con-artist perhaps comes to learn that it isn't the "stuff" at all, but the thrill of the game? A subtle anti-coveting lesson or not?

I desire. We all desire. I will reluctantly admit to coveting at least at some times in my life. I suspect most of us tip over the line from desire to coveting once in a  while. I do think I can say that, at this point in my life, I don't covet all that often or all that much, and even desire wanes at times (no, get your head out of the gutter, that’s not what I meant.) Is it because I have taken the commandment to heart, or because I have learned from experience that coveting is a waste? I suspect the latter. Would my life be even better now if, from the very start, I had taken the commandment to not covet into my heart? I wish I could say for certain that this is so, but I'm still not certain.

In our world today, I see far too much desire that has tipped over into coveting. It concerns me deeply. How and where can we find the balance to both have desires (which can be a useful thing) and control them, and most especially, to keep them from becoming coveting?

I’d like to add this wonderful quote from A.J. Heschel’s “The Sabbath”

Nothing is as hard to suppress as the will to be a slave to one’s own pettiness. Gallantly, ceaselessly, quietly, man must fight for inner liberty. Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as from domination of people. There are many who have acquired a high degree of political and social liberty, but only very few are not enslaved to things. This is our constant problem—how to live with people and remain free, how to live with things and remain independent.  In a moment of eternity, while the taste of redemption was still fresh to the former slaves, the people of Israel were given the Ten Words, the Ten Commandments. In its beginning and end, the Decalogue deals with the liberty of man. The first Word—I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage— reminds him that his outer liberty was given to him by God, and the tenth Word— Thou shalt not covet!—reminds him that he himself must achieve his inner liberty.

So what are "lo takhmod" and "lo titaveh" really about? Something to ponder this Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian

©2017 (portions ©2009) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha

Va'etkhanan 5774 - Sometimes A Cigar... (Revised from 5764)
Va'etkhanan 5773-The Promise (Redux & Revised 5759ff)
Va'etkhanan 5772 - Redux & Revised 5758 - The Promise
Va'etkhanan/Shabbat Nakhamu 5771 - Comfort
Va'etkhanan 5769-This Man's Art, That Man's Scope
Va'etchanan 5764--Sometimes A Cigar...
Va'etchanan 5758-63-66-67-The promise

Musings on D’varim

D'varim 5775 - Kumu V'Ivru (Revised 5760)
D'varim/Hazon 5774 - Refractory Recalcitrant Recidivists (Redux 5766)
D'varim 5773 - The Pea in Og's Bed
D'varim 5772 - Revised 5762 - L'chu v'niva'ch'chah and the Twelve Steps
D'varim 5769-Torah of Confusion
D'varim-Shabbat Hazon 5771/5766  - Refractory Recalcitrant Recidivists
D'varim 5764--Eleven Days
D'varim 5763--Remembering to Forget or Forgetting to Remember?
D'varim 5762-L'chu v'niva'ch'chah and the Twelve Steps
D'varim 5759-Owning Up
D'varim 5760-1-Kumu v'Ivru

Friday, July 21, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Matot-Masei 5777–Thirty-Two-Thousand Virgins?

SCENE I

[Scene opens with a high orbital view of the earth, gradually zooming in on the middle east, then to a helicopter view of a valley with a large encampment giving way to a high Chapman crane view of the assembled multitudes of the Israelites encamped on the borders of Midian. The view pans around the camp, slowly descending to focus in on Moshe, who is pacing and talking to himself.]

MOSHE
Hmmm. I need someone to lead the men, whip them up in a frenzy, and go and wreak havoc upon the Midianites. I wonder who I should choose. Why, Pinchas, of course! That man put a spear through Zimri and that Midianite whore Cozbi while they were in flagrante delicto in full view of the whole community.
[Moshe walks over to Pinchas]

MOSHE
Hey! Pinchas! How ‘ya doin’? Life treating you well?

PINCHAS
Well, to be honest, Moshe…

MOSHE
Great! Great! Glad to hear it. Now, I have a little favor to ask you.

PINCHAS
[Recovering from Moshe’s cutting him off]
Sure thing, Moshe, what is it?

MOSHE
As you may have heard, Pinchas, I’m assembling an army of 12,000 - 1000 men from each tribe, to go take vengeance on the Midianites and…

PINCHAS
And you want me to lead the Army?

MOSHE
Um, No, not quite. After all, you are a priest of G”d. It’s your passion I want, Pinchas, your passion I need.

PINCHAS
My passion?

MOSHE
I need you to take the same spirit that drove you to put that spear into Zimri and Cozbi and fill the men with it. Stir them up with your passion! Here, take your sacred implements with you.You can perform the sacred rituals before going into battle (and maybe remind G”d to look after the men, too.)  And why not grab some trumpets, too! That’s sure to rile them up.

PINCHAS
Cool. I love the trumpets. Their sound will rally th
e troops, and also drive fear into the hearts of the Midianites.

MOSHE
True-it is fearful. I’ve heard you play the trumpet – if you call that playing

PINCHAS
Always the kidder, eh Moshe?

MOSHE
Gotta keep things light – especially when you’re about to order the merciless slaughter of thousands. [Looking up and muttering under his breath] and you’re really pissed at G”d who just told you this is your swan song, and all because I hit that stupid rock…

PINCHAS
What what that?

MOSHE
Oh, nothing. Go practice your trumpeting (and do it far away from me.)

[Fade to black]

SCENE II

[Sounds of really bad trumpeting]

PINCHAS
Hey Moshe! We’re Back!

MOSHE
I can see. I can hear  Wait. Who are all those women and children with you?

PINCHAS
It was glorious, Moshe. We prayed to G”d. We ran into battle, with me blowing the trumpets. Oh, such a magnificent sound. I must have played really loud, because people were covering their ears, Yes sir. Just call me Pinchas, master of the chatzotzrot.

MOSHE
Pinchas, who are all these people?

PINCHAS
[Ignoring Moshe] The men were great. Killing machines, I tell you. Slew every last enemy soldier.

MOSHE
Pinchas - who are all these people?

PINCHAS
[ignoring Moshe] We killed all five Midianite Kings! We even got the shyster prophet Bilaam.

MOSHE
Pinchas…

PINCHAS
[still ignoring Moshe] And look at all the booty we brought back. Gold, silver, copper, lead, beasts.

MOSHE
Pinchas…

PINCHAS
[still ignoring Moshe] We burned all their cities and towns to the ground.

MOSHE
[shouting] Pinchas!!!

[Pinchas stops talking and turns to Moshe]

MOSHE
[Loud breath] Now, who are all these people?

PINCHAS
Why, the women and children of the Midianites, of course.

MOSHE
I guessed that. Why are they here?

PINCHAS
They are our captives. The spoils of war. Our booty.

MOSHE
[sputtering] You spared the women?

PINCHAS
Yes, we did..

MOSHE
You? You let them spare the women?

PINCHAS
Well, yes, it seemed the gentlemanly and heroic thing to do

MOSHE
YOU? The man who thrust a spear into Zimri and that Midianite whore? While they were humping? You let them spare the women?

PINCHAS
Well, we kinda thought we’d have uses for all the women. Wink! Wink! Nudge! Nudge! Knowhatamean? Say no more. Say no more)

MOSHE
Pinchas! These are the very same Midianite women who led so many of our men astray. You saw for yourself! You actually did something to stop it. An awful, gory something. But something. Yet you didn’t exhort the men to slay all these evil, vile women, as I commanded?

PINCHAS
Moshe, you’ve been around, You’re a man of the world, eh?

MOSHE
Enough Pinchas. Maybe in three thousand years that’ll be funny, Right now, not so much. So tell, me, Pinchas, why didn’t you follow my orders?

PINCHAS
Well, to be honest, Moshe, you weren’t that specific.

MOSHE
What do you mean? I told you to go seek vengeance.

PINCHAS
Well…to get specific, Moshe, you said to fall upon Midian, to seek the L”rd’s vengeance on Midian. Nothing about killing every man, women and child.

MOSHE
[Fuming] Get the generals over here, now!

[Fade to black]

SCENE III

[Same setting as previous scene. MOSHE is facing PINCHAS and 4 GENERALS in a group]

MOSHE
Gentleman. What we have here is a failure to communicate.

[Generals look around, not understanding.]

You didn’t follow my orders! You spared the women – the very same women who enticed all our men to turn away from G”d!

GENERAL 1
Well, c’mon Moshe, what did you expect?

GENERAL 2
Yeah. You’re a man of the world, Moshe.

GENERAL 3
You’ve been around the block.

GENERAL 4
Know what we mean? Wink, wink! Nudge, nudge!

PINCHAS
Say no more. Say no more.

MOSHE
ENOUGH! (Note to self: speak to G”d about that Palin chap.)

Allllllllllright, gentlemen, you blew it. All of you. But we’re gonna make this right.

(To self) Think fast Moshe. You’re good at punting. You can come up with a way out of this and keep the Old Man happy. Think. Think. Ah, got it.)

OK, gentlemen, here’s the drill: All of you, stay outside the camp. Don’t come home quite yet. Take your captives, kill all the male children, and then kill every one of the women,,,,no, wait, hold on just a sec. Lemme think.

[Moshe paces, thinking.]

[Pinchas and the generals try to get Moshe’s attention, and  start making winking and nudge gestures to Moshe. Soon, all the men are joining in. Some of the Midianite women start flaunting their wares. Cut to shot of Moshe looking at the Midianite women – he smiles, briefly – then starts to shake his head as if he were Tevye refusing to accept Chava’s choice of a non-Jewish husband – and then puts on a look of stern resolve and rebuke.We see him mouthing the word “No” in slow motion. Camera then pans to reveal some young pre-pubescent Midianite girls who look at each other, shrug, and start revealing their legs and making other suggestive gestures. They catch Moshe’s eye. He quickly turns away, embarrassed. The camera pans to groups of young Midianite boys. Some of them start vamping, too. Some are even dressed in drag. Moshe watches them for a while, starts to shake his head and then abruptly stops - a thought clearly come into his head. Moshe mutters]

MOSHE
[to himself]
Don’t be judgmental, Moshe, old boy. They’re not all cultic male prostitutes. Some of them really prefer other men. Heck, I probably have lots of friends who do, without my even realizing it. What is so wrong with that? Should I like them any less? Of course not! I’ve gotta have a conversation with G"d. I’m not so sure the wording used in Leviticus is gonna be understood in context in the future. Cultic sex with male prostitutes for fertility and other rites might not be for us, but people can’t help who they love and desire. After all, G”D must have made them that way in the first place!

[Having resolved that inner conflict, Moshe continues to look over the assembled Midianite captives, and the Israelite soldiers. His head once again turns back to the young girls, A smile breaks out on his face. He stops and turns again to the assembled crowd.]

MOSHE
Got it, Got it. I got it.
[to crowd] OK, once more, gentlemen, Here’s the drill.

One. Kill all the male children.

CROWD
Ooh.

[shot of shocked faces and sassy young boys giving Moshe the finger]

MOSHE
Two. Kill all the women who have known a man.

CROWD
Ooh.

[Panning shot of shocked women’s faces. Among several groups of young girls,  clumps of girls begin to put some distance between themselves and a few particular girls. Camera stops on one group, where, among the girls who have separated from one or two others, they all start to look sternly at one girl who among them, staring intently. That girl slinks away to join the other outcasts with the older women. A girl standing next to one of the boys surreptitiously takes his hand and whispers to him]

GIRL
“I won’t tell your friends if you don’t tell mine.”
[They wink at each other. Cut back to Moshe]

MOSHE
[dramatic pause] Three. [dramatic pause.] Spare the virgins.

CROWD
Ahh.

[Camera focuses in and we see Moshe wink at Pinchas, who in turn winks at the generals.]

MOSHE
Simmer down, simmer down. I’m not finished.

After you’ve finished killing all but the virgins,  all of you will stay outside the camp for a week.

[General murmurs]

Any one of you, and I mean any one – soldier or living captive, who has slain another person, or who has com into contact with a dead body shall cleanse yourself, and cleanse all your clothes and any objects you have with you, on the third day and on the seventh day. All cloth. Everything made of animal skin, of wood, animal hair, you shall cleanse.

[Eleazar the High Priest steps up and put his hand on Moshe’s shoulder, pushes him out of the way ala Trump at a photo op. The crowd murmurs. Eleazar totally ignores Moshe,  stops, looks over the crowd, holds up his hand. The crowd silences, expectantly]

ELEAZAR
[He draws a deep breath and lifts his chest proudly. When he finally speaks, it comes out in a voice with a speech impediment like that of Peter Cook as the clergyman in “The Princess Bride.” ]
Objects of gold, silver, copper, iron, tin, and lead, and any other item that can withstand heat shall be cleansed in fire and then cleansed in the waters of lustration.

[Moshe, stunned and annoyed at Eleazar’s interruption stares for a bit, the walks off, muttering to himself.]

ELEAZAR
Everything else – your clothes, or anything made from animal skins, and all that cannot be cleansed in fire you shall cleanse in water.

[The crowd stands in silence. Prolonged silence. They look to Eleazar, but he says nothing more. The crowd starts to disperse. Camera pans to Pinchas and the generals.

GENERAL 1
Well, now what?

GENERAL 2
I guess we do some more killing.

GENERAL 3
Man, this sucks. We’re all gonna get tried for war crimes.

PINCHAS
Well, we can honestly say G”d told us to do it.

GENERAL 4
I still don’t like it, even though we get to keep the virgins and the booty. It just isn’t right.

GENERAL 1
Shh! Moshe or Eleazar might hear you.

GENERAL 2
This is all your fault, Pinchas. If you hadn’t been so vicious and passionate, killing Zimri and Cozbi like that.

GENERAL 3
Yeah, Zimri was a putz, But that Cozbi, she was a looker.

[All nod heads in agreement.]

PINCHAS
Yeah, I’ve had regrets about that, Zimri, not so much, but Cozbi…I guess I acted a little too rashly fellas.

GENERAL 1
Maybe we can just pretend to kill the women and boys.

GENERAL 2
Yeah, maybe make a few really public killings, so it looks like we’re doing it.

GENERAL 3
Booty is booty, fellas. If we still don’t kill all the women and boys, how much you wanna bet they’ll just inventory then with all the other booty, and conveniently overlook who they are.

GENERAL 4
I think you may be on to something there.

GENERAL 3
Alright then. We’re agreed. We make a show of killing, but spare most of the women along with the virgins.

[Cutaway to Herbert, the old pedophile from “Family Guy”]

HERBERT
Don’t forget the boys!

[Cut to Black]

SCENE IV

[A week has passed. By command of G”d, an inventory and census is being taken of all the booty from the Midian campaign. By G”d’s command, half the spoils will be divided among the soldiers, and the other half will be divided by the entire community. From the soldier’s share, 0.2% (1 in 500) was set aside for G”d ((or, to put it another way, for the priests, so what need of G”D of these things?) From the community’s share, 2% (1 in 50) was to be given to the priests in return for their service  (at least this was a more honest accounting.)]

[The scene is Moshe and Eleazar addressing the crowd, with the various forms of booty – animals, property, people assembled and being divided into groups. There are little signs everywhere saying things like “Soldier’s Share of Cattle” and “Community’s Share of Asses.” In one spot, valuables are being divided in piles. On one of the piles is a sign that has the words “For G”d” with a line through them, below that the words“For the priests “ also lined through, and underneath that a fresh line reading “For G”d.” As the camera sweeps over the scene, we hear the Narrator.]

NARRATOR
(a Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Morgan Freeman type)
OK, let’s do some math. viewers. 1000 men from each tribe went to fight the Midianites. That’s 12,000 soldiers. They came back with:

  • 675,000 sheep
  • 72,000 head of cattle
  • 61,000 asses
  • 32,000  people - which the text then specifically enumerates as the remaining virgin females.

If there were 32,000 girls alone, how many boys and women had they captured and brought along? 60,000? 100,000? It boggles the mind.

[Cutaway to Rod Serling giving a typical Twilight Zone introduction]
[Cut back to Narrator]

NARRATOR
[imitating he Twilight Zone theme] Do do do do...

[cutaway to a stock photo of the Brooklyn Bridge]
[cut back to Narrator]

NARRATOR
Yeah, right. 32,000 virgins.

[Cut to a shot of Pinchas and the generals cavorting around with women who are clearly not young virgins. (think Marlena Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor, Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe. Jane Fonda. Sigourney Weaver. Jennifer Garner. Or for my younger readers think Gal Gadot. ]

[Fade to Black]

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

I recognize and own up to the fact that this musing is full of stereotypes, misogynist and homophobic references, and a whole host of other politically incorrect things. I hope you’ll accept my explanation that in using these stereotypes, in addition to their admittedly superficial humorous character, I am simultaneously holding them up for the ridicule they deserve.(Do you really think the Monty Python “wink, wink” sketch wasn’t intentionally and internally lampooning the very behavior it portrayed?)

If you found any of this offensive, I apologize. I am troubled with many things in this parasha. The callousness with which G”d and Moshe are willing to have people killed, including women and children. A G”d who is even willing to command this. The willing acceptance of captives as the spoils of war, even in the context of the times. The sparing of only the virgins. Vengeance. As we are fond of saying here in our own current situation : this is not normal. Torah attempt to normalize an otherwise troubling ethical situation. The Talmud and later commentators seek to mitigate things a bit, but it’s more of a shutting the barn door after the cows are gone.

I portray Pinchas and the Generals, and, in the end, even Moshe, much as I might portray the pussy-grabber now living in the White House. It’s not meant to be flattering. (May it be G”d’s will that this reference becomes very quickly dated. Ptui! Ptui!)

There’s one short section of the script that is even a nod to my discomfort with the stereotyping I’m using as humor for effect. I’m sure you can find it (I think it sticks out like a sore thumb, and I went back and forth many times on whether to include it or not. Eventually, my own discomfort at playing stereotypes for effect won out.)

Humor is both my tool for dealing with the discomfort, and for exposing the issues. I hope, in the process of exposure, I haven’t discomfited you or offended you –  no, strike that. In some way, I hope I have discomfited you. It’s the discomfiting that leads us to action, to examine things closely, to stand up for what is right, just, and fair.

Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian
©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha

Matot-Masei 5775 - Mei-eit Harav Tarbu U'mei-eit Hamat Tamitu
Masei 5774 - Would Jeremiah Be Surprised?
Matot 5774 - Over the Top (Revised 5763)
Matot-Masei 5773 - The Torah Is One Of My FaceBook Groups
Matot-Masei 5772 - And the Punting Goes On
Masei 5771 - Cause and Effect
Matot 5771 - Don't Become Like...Them
Matot-Masei 5770 - Treasure Trove of Trouble
Masei 5768 - Accidents Matter
Matot 5768/5765-Even Moshe Rabbeinu Had to Punt
Matot-Masei 5766 - First Fruit
Matot-Masey 5764-Putting the Kids Before the Kids
Matot--Masey 5763-Over the Top
Matot--Masey 5762--The Rebel's Complaint and Promises, Promises


Friday, July 14, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Pinchas 5777–The Sons of Korach

Here’s a brand new musing. Lately, I’ve been revisiting a lot of older musings – not for lack of time, interest, or motivation, but simply because I feel it’s important for me to look over what I’ve written in the past to see how my views have been shaped and changed over time. and also to discover and add new insights to what I’ve written. Before I get to the new musing, because this is parasha that has inspired some interesting writing, let me tell you what I’ve written about in previous musings on parashat Pinchas.

1. So, if you think the story of Zelophechad’s daughters is illustrative of some feminist sympathies in the Torah, read this:  http://migdalorguysblog.blogspot.com/2012/07/random-musing-before-shabbatpinkhas.html

2. If you’d like to read about the regular Haftarah for Pinchas, which is only read in years when Pinchas is read on a date falling before the 17th of Tammuz (which last happened in 2014 and won’t happen again until the year 2035/5795) read this: http://migdalorguysblog.blogspot.com/2014/07/random-musing-before-shabbatpinkhas.html

Only in those few and far between years when we read the regular Haftarah for Pinchas from Isaiah do we read of the “kol d’mamah daka",” the “still, small voice.” If that’s of interest to you, read this: http://www.durlester.com/musings/pinkhas5765.htm

3. So, in most years, including this one, when Shabbat Pinchas falls after the 17th of Tammuz (the start of the three weeks before Tisha B’Av mourning the destruction of the Temple) we get three weeks of increasingly harsher haftarot of admonition. The first of these isn’t quite so harsh – read this: http://migdalorguysblog.blogspot.com/2015/07/random-musing-before-shabbatpinkhas.html

4. If you’re really into figuring out the whole Pinchas thing, try this: http://migdalorguysblog.blogspot.com/2013/06/random-musing-before-shabbatpinkhas.html or if you’re not a fan of all the apologetics for this story, try this: http://www.durlester.com/musings/pinkhas5768.htm

5. Looking for a liberal twist on the story of Moshe passing on his mantle to Joshua, how about this: http://www.durlester.com/musings/pinhas5766.htm

6. A short but interesting thought about all those who came out of Egypt, wandered the desert, and never made it in to the promised land for their failure to embrace the positive reports of Joshua and Caleb http://www.durlester.com/musings/pinkhas5770.htm

There are a few more, and they’re all listed, as usual, at the end of this musing. And now, for something completely different…

In this parasha, there’s another census, another genealogy. It is taken at G”d’s direct command to Moshe and Eleazar (taking his deceased father Aharon’s place.) The census starts, of course, with the clan of Reuven, the first born of Yaakov/Israel.  Enoch, a descendant of Reuven, has a son named Pallu, who has a son named Eliav, who has sons names Nemuel, Dathan, and Abiram. Sound familiar? So here, in the middle of the genealogy of the Reubenite clan, the Torah stops to remind us that these were the same Dathan and Abiram who sided with Korach, and who died when swallowed up with the other followers of Korach. [Note, however, the cause of Korach’s own death where it is first told in Torah is vague and uncertain.]

Here, in parashat Pinchas, the Torah at least answers the question of whether Korach died – stating the he was swallowed up along with Dathan and Abiram. However, here Torah also clouds the issue by conflating the two incidents that befell Korach’s followers – the fire that consumed 250  with their offerings, and the later swallowing of (what is presumed to be the remainder of) Korach’s followers. Talmudic scholars have debated the question of how Korach died for millennia. Lest Torah waste the opportunity to make a point with stick over carrot, it reminds us that these deaths were meant to set an example for those who would question Moshe’s (or G”d’s) authority.

Then Torah says something really odd. In the midst of the genealogy of the Reubenite clan, it says

וּבְנֵי קֹרַח לֹא מֵתוּ

The sons of Korach, however, did not die.

Let’s remember here that Korach and his family were of the clan of Levi, descendants of Kohath, and  they were of the priestly clan. They were not Reubenites. Kohath was the father of Yitzhar, the father of Korach,  and Amram, the father of Moses. So Moses and Korach were cousins.

Why, when G”d did not spare the lives of all of Korach’s followers (including women and children) did G”d spare the sons of Korach? Now the Kohatite clan (which included Korach’s sons) did become important in later Temple times as musicians/singers and Temple guards. So perhaps the Torah text was redacted to show some favor to them? But without the lines of Korach’s sons there would still have been plenty of Kohatite priests around!

Always eager to put a positive spin on things, some commentators suggest that the sons of Korach were repentant and spared as a result. (That seems about as unlikely as DJT Jr. being repentant after the eventual fall of his father..) Other commentators, of course, suggest the opposite – the Korach sons live on in the people in every generation who are troublemakers, seek divisions, and are challengers of authority.

Some 46 verses later in Torah, the census enumerates the Levitical clan census, including the Kohatites. Wouldn’t that have been a more likely place to note that the sons of Korach survived, since theye were of that lineage? Ah, but here the Levitical genealogy notes instead the deaths of my two favorite crispy critters, Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s sons who died when they offered “alien fire.”

So the survival of Korach’s sons is linked to the report of the death of Korach’s prime co-conspirators, Dathan and Abiram, of the Reubenite clan. A dig at the surviving Kohatites when the text was redacted?

I have another theory, which, given who I am, will not surprise my friends. My take is that Korach’s sons survived not to insure there would be sowers of dissent in every generation. but so that there would always be people willing to challenge the status quo, to speak truth to power.

The critiques of Korach are exegetical supposition. It is NOT eminently clear, despite what some may claim, that Korach’s intent was purely selfish, seeking self-aggrandizement. That’s the whitewash we use to justify G”d’s arbitrary swatting away of this challenger and his followers. Perhaps G”d (or future redactors) even wondered if Korach had a point – that all the people were holy. If Moshe is the author of Torah (and that’s a big if, but if that’s your understanding, I won’t deny the possibility even though it’s not my understanding) then of course Korach is gonna be put down and criticized. The winners write the histories, right?

Of course, there’s a flaw in my theory right there. If, as I believe, the Torah was redacted and edited at different times to reflect particular agendas, then why wouldn’t the Kohatite priests have redacted the text to be a little more favorable to Korach? The reason might simply be that the Aharonite priests simply wielded more power than the Kohatites. Perhaps, all that the Kohatites could manage to slip past the Aharonites in a redaction was this little reference to the sons of Korach having not died with all the other. A little “mir zenen do,” we’re still here zotz from the Kohatites.

Maybe the mention of the sons of Korach not dying serves a totally different agenda. Perhaps it is G”d’s apology for acting in anger and destroying so many (including women and children.) At best, however, that’s a half-assed apology.

So maybe, as I suggested, we are told that the sons of Korach did not die to remind us that there will always be a place in society for those who challenge authority, questions norms, and ask the unpopular questions. Being one of those types of people, it’s an explanation I can certainly accept. However, I acknowledge my prejudice, as a gadfly, for such an interpretation. I’ll need to ask others to see if it makes as much sense to them as it does to me.

I can’t claim to be a descendant of Korach. I can’t be certain that Korach’s rebellion was built upon honest intent, or selfish intent.  For now, I’m going to assume that the question of Korach’s intent remains uncertain, The survival of Korach’s sons clearly illustrates that Korach had some merit. May all those who follow in the footsteps of Korach, challenging authority and speaking truth to power for righteous purpose merit a similar blessing.

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian
©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Pinkhas 5775 - Why Is This Rebuke...yadda, yadda, yadda (an expansion on 5769)
Pinkhas 5774 - Slaughter the Oxen, Burn the Plow, and Hear the Still Small Voice
Pinkhas 5773 - G"d's Justice, G"d's Responsibility
Pinkhas 5772 - Not Such a Shining Moment
Pinkhas 5771 - Wake Up and Smell the Coffee
Pinkhas 5770 - Thanking Those Who Didn't Make It
Pinkhas 5769-Why is This Rebuke Different From All Other Rebukes?
Pinkhas 5768 - Still Zealous After all These Years
Pinhas 5766-Let's Give Moshe a Hand
Pinkhas 5765-Kol D'mamah Dakah
Pinchas 5762 -- I Still Get Zealous
Pinchas 5764/5760-It Just Is!

Friday, July 7, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Balak 5777–Bad Habits, Still

[Thirteen years ago I wrote this musing for parashat Balak called “Bad Habits.” Now here it is thirteen years later and I am still dealing with the same demons. So forgive me for being selfish, and revisiting and revising this musing for my own purposes, and hopefully help me to learn a lesson I seem to still have not yet learned.]

I have a bad habit. Really, it's true! (Well, truth be told, I have a plethora of bad habits. But we'll save the rest of them for other musings and just focus one this one really bad habit.)

So what is this dark, troubling secret of a bad habit I'm going to reveal. Here I go. Ready? Ok, here we go. (Have I built up enough suspense yet?) My bad habit is...

I often respond too hastily to e-mail messages.

There. I've admitted it.That's the first step on the road to correcting a bad habit. [Or so I thought 13 years ago. Seems this road has had an unusually high number of detours..]

Technology is, or can be a really wonderful tool. It has brought many blessings. In fact, technology is a blessing. It also is, or can be, a curse. E-mail is a case in point. Sometimes, when you intend to send a blessing, it comes out a curse. And sometimes our e-mails intended as curses come out blessings instead.

All this was on my mind as I re-read the familiar words of parashat Balak this week. And this surely influenced the message I took away from this encounter with Torah, as you will see. [Here in 2017, I seek to understand why, after that first attempt to improve myself thirteen years ago, I’m still struck by the story of Balak vis a vis my own habits in the same way. You’d think I would have learned].

When the elders of Moab and Midian delivered the message/invitation from King Balak to Bilam, asking Bilam to come and curse the Israelites, Bilam does not respond immediately. Bilam asks the messengers to spend the night, allowing him the time to "consult" with G”d and formulate the appropriate reply to Balak's request. [And boom, there it is, the very first hint that this story has something to teach us about taking a moment before we respond to anything. Rashi argues that G”d only visited Bilam and other non-Jewish prophets at night. Hmmm. The scholars and commentators dispute whether Bilam was seeking G”d’s permission or G”d’s advice on whether to string things along and await an even greater or more important set of emissaries before he agreed to go. I’m not sure that Bilam needed G”ds help or advice in that regard – I suspect Bilam was well-practiced in his craft and knew how to turn things to his best advantage. The Torah, however, has other ideas. The text is rather explicit.When Bilam explains what he was asked to do, G”d says no way, Jose. These people are blessed, you may not go and curse them. ]

King Balak persists – sending emissaries of greater and greater prestige.  The Torah is vague about how many groups. Balak sends yet another, more important group of dignitaries as messengers to implore Bilam to come and curse the Israelites, Bilam again takes a night to consult with G”d before responding.

Sometimes, even a night and a quick consultation with G”d isn't enough time to ponder and formulate a response that's appropriate. Though, during their consultation, G”d permits Balaam to accompany the Moabite and Midianite dignitaries, the ensuing and well-known incident with Bilam and his ass demonstrates, perhaps, that Bilam may still have been too hasty in his "reply," that is, his decision to go with the messengers to see King Balak. Apparently, that's not what G”d wanted (expected?)

Another cautionary note can be drawn from the Torah's tale of Balak and Bilam. Bilam did, indeed, take some time and consult with G”d before replying to Balak's requests. Still, even with this effort to carefully craft and phrase replies in just the right words, the message wasn't understood as intended. King Balak didn't "get" the meaning/intent of Bilam's (and, in reality, G”d's) words. King Balak doesn't understand that it's not about money, reward, flattery, respect or anything of that nature. Bilam is saying that, even paid for his services, Balaam can and will only say what Gd has told him to say. King Balak clearly believes that every seer has his price.

Thus, there are valuable lessons for me, and, I hope, for you, dear readers, all throughout parashat Balak to remind us to not be hasty or trigger- (or send-key-) happy. We can take the time we need to allow G”d's voice to influence and inform our replies. Amidst the noise, hubbub, and rush of modern life, it's not always easy to discern that still, small voice. Yet it is so crucial to harmonious, loving human discourse that G”d, Torah, and Judaism inform all that we do and say (or write, "keyboard," "graffiti.")

[“Graffiti?” OMG that’s a dated reference. How many of you remember that early attempt at drawing characters in the “Graffiti” language on a Palm OS based PDA that would be recognized and turned into actual text? Want some nostalgia – you can get a Graffiti app for Android: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.access_company.graffiti_pro&hl=en ]

When we fail to heed the cautionary reminders of parashat Balak, we may well end up needlessly flaying our own asses, and having them cry out to us, wondering what they have done or said that we are treating them so ill. We might find our blessings turned into curses. If we allow ourselves a little time to let G”d, Torah, and Judaism inform what we do and say, we may yet see our curses turned into blessings. Ken y'hi ratson. Ken y'hi ratsoneinu.

[Or so I ended thirteen years ago. I’m still not heeding my on advice. I’m quick to criticize others for being reactive, yet I remain consistently guilty of being so myself. I wish I had Bilam’s excuse of only speaking (or writing) the words which G”d puts in my mouth. Perhaps I have chosen the wrong story to inspire me. After all, Bilam taking his time to respond is but a small part of a much larger story, which has very different and broader themes. There are many other places in Torah that could serve to remind me to think before I act. Imagine if Moshe had counted to ten and then spoken to the rock instead of hitting it. I also think I can use words of Torah to help me forgive myself for sometimes not thinking before acting G”d is certainly guilty of that on a few occasions! But I digress.

C’mon Adrian, get it together. Be honest, and admit there was a little woo-woo going on here. Parashat Balak comes up, you’re reviewing what you’ve written about it before, you read this musing from thirteen years back and realize you had just recently engaged in that same old bad habit. Don;t be stubborn, Adrian. You;re being hit on the head. You’re getting the “…but I sent you a boats and a helicopter…” treatment. Pay attention!

OK. I’ll try. I’ll think before responding.I won’t be rash, I’ll be thoughtful. Wait a minute, what’s the email you just received say? Are they kidding? Excuse me, I have to go and respond to those idiots and set them straight right this moment…

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian
©2017 (portions ©2004) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Balak 5775 - Stymied
Balak 5774 - Ball's In Your Court
Balak 5772 - Unvelievable
Balak 5771-Imperfect Justice is No Excuse
Balak 5770 - Beating Our Donkeys II (Revised and Updated 5758)
Balak 5764 - Bad Habits
Balak 5758/5761-Beating Our Donkeys

Chukat-Balak 5766 - Community Sing
Chukat Balak 5763-Mi ChaMicah
Chukat-Balak 5760-Holy Cow!
Chukat 5759/61-Wanting to See More Than The View From The Mountaintop

Friday, June 30, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Chukat 5777–Still Not Seeing What’s Inside (Plus Bonus Thoughts)

I always have trouble deciding what to write about for Chukat. Four years ago, I wrote about the boastful victory hymns (jodies) of chapter 22.  Two years ago I revisited an orthographical oddity in Chukat that had important implications for the idea and concepts of taking possessing/conquering/inheriting/dispossessing.

I find this topic still very much on my mind as I struggle with both troubling texts in the Torah and the troubling realities in modern day Israel.

Without commenting on them, I urge you to read these verses (and then perhaps consider them in light of what I had written in earlier musings like those above, and the current troubles in Israel:

Numbers
19:24-25
19:31
19:32
19:33-35

Our history with conquest leaves a lot to be desired, and should give us pause in today’s realities.

Those topics are too heavy for me to wade into at the moment given my own physical, mental, and emotional states, so I’ll beg off and leave it to you, dear readers, to explore this. I’d like to go revisit some thoughts on the haftarah for Chukat, which we only read in years when Chukat is read separately.

Now Jephthah was a man with no yichus. Yichus means one's lineage, their pedigree, their family background as it were. Although he was known as a great warrior, he was also the son of Gilead the Israelite and of some woman who was not legally living with his father. (The exact situation is unclear. The text describes him as the son of a prostitute. But the Hebrew uses a word, zonah, for which there are conflicting understandings. So whether she was an actual prostitute, or a woman who behaved like one, or for whatever reason was simply "shacking up" with Gilead without following the appropriate protocols, we'll never know.) In any case, it made Jephthah persona non-grata, and his "brothers," all sons of Gilead's "legal" wife made sure he wasn't going to inherit any of his father's estate, so they drove him away. Jephthah runs off into the hills and becomes a bandit.

So time passes and then, surprise of surprises, the Ammonites attack the Israelites in Gilead (don't you just love these stories where names and place are all the same?) and the elders decide that Jephthah is best suited to lead them in battle against them. So they ask him to come back and lead the Israelites in battle.

Is it any surprise that Jephthah's response is that after all they have done to him, hated him, driven him out of the community, now that there is some tzuris (and here the Hebrew actually using the root of that word!) that they coming crawling to him now?

The elders respond simply that they have "shavnu," "turned back" to him. Now, we can add all sorts of layers of meaning on top of this, especially in the sense of what we have made of the concept of "t'shuva," of returning to G"d. And many commentators buy into this. I'm not quite so willing to let the elders off the hook so easy-their understanding of "we have returned to you" may simply be a straight answer. "Yeah, maybe we screwed up by driving you out, but we really need you." Of course, even that's a lot to eisegete into the text. I'm not sure they were really apologizing, so much as simply acknowledging the truth - they treated him badly and now they needed him. I see no apology in their words. And they even sweeten the deal by telling Jephthah that if he helps he will be in charge of all of Gilead.

Still, it seems to be enough for Jephthah, for he agrees. Yet, like so many other biblical heroes, he has no misguided sense of who it is that really allows victories, and Jephthah acknowledges that G"d will be the one that delivers the Ammonites in Jephthah's hands.

And, to make a long story short, that's what happens.

There are several themes that I am gleaning here.

One is that quality or virtue of a man who recognizes G"d's role in the universe. This may or may not be a positive character attribute, depending upon your understanding of the Divine. From a  biblical standpoint, it’s  a plus. From a believer in G”d as ineffable, it’s a plus. For a believer in a less than perfect G”d, or a G”d perhaps self-limited through the act of giving human beings free will, it’s not such a plus. For a believer in a capricious G”d, or a G”d with a slow learning curve, it’s also not so much of a plus. Pray to G”d but row toward shore.

Another is the valor of a man who, although ill-treated by his "brethren" still comes to their aid. I think that's something worth pondering this Shabbat, and I commend it to you. How many of us might do the same? How many could put aside thoughts of revenge and come to the aid of someone who treated them wrongfully? (I am reminded here of the lepers in the haftarah for M’tzora from I Kings chapter 27.) This seems to be a reasonable virtue, and one that appears not so easy or common to embrace. Though how many of us silently work our way through situations where we feel we have been mistreated but wish to continue to show a professional or upstanding demeanor? Anyone who has done that knows it’s not always easy to do. I used to believe that such a virtue was always worth the effort. As I age, and experience more and more such situations, I begin to weary of having to find the strength to carry on. Yet old habits die hard.

And thirdly, there is the theme of the danger of using yichus as a value system. Even today, many Jews seeks a marriage for themselves or their children that will bring more yichus to them and their family. I guess it's not unusual for anyone to want to "marry well." But it becomes a meat market in which people are stamped with their grade, their suitability as a partner or even as a friend or business partner. How many potential Jephthahs have been overlooked in the search for greater and greater yichus? How man Jephthahs have been hatefully spurned or treated with indifference or even ill will due to their lack of yichus?

For those who believe the liberal Jewish communities are free of such practices, I’d urge you to take a closer, longer, harder look. The same to those who believe that the orthodox world still continues to rely solely on the principle of yichus. Yes, it still carries great weight, but orthodoxy is recognizing the pitfalls. Our communities have developed different understandings of what conveys yichus other than lineage: fame, wealth, fortune, education (not just what but where, too,) physical attributes, health, character, virtue, righteousness, piety, s'micha (and not only orthodox rabbis play the s’micha yichus card-it’s easily found in the liberal Jewish world as well) and so many more. Many of these have been incorporated into the traditional/orthodox understanding of yichus for a long time – others are newer. I daresay the balance of which of these are more prized than others has changed over the centuries, and even more so in the last few decades.

I’d like to believe that dynastic families are becoming less common and wield less power than in the past. I’m not sure that’s true. In addition, what I do see are classes of people that are taking the place of individual dynasties. It’s no longer just the 1%. It’s the 20% in the top tier. Go read Richard Reeve’s “Dream Hoarders:  How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about It.”

Haven't we learned that it takes more than a good family lineage, financial success, etc. to make a great person? I can think of plenty of people, Jews and non-Jews alike, who had lots of yichus but were hardly paragons of virtue. [When I first wrote this musing, Dubya was in the White House, and I commented: “We need look no further than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue these days to be certain of that. As a bumper sticker I saw the other day said, "Who knew Jeb was the smart one?"] Don’t even get me started on the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The office of POTUS is one that should have lots of yichus, no? Sadly, it is no longer held by a virtuous person.

We ought to take the measure of each human being individually. Not on the basis of who their parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents, or their fourth cousin twice-removed was. [Or their wealth, or success in business. If you stop and think about it, our current POTUS plays the yichus card all the time, though his understanding of what truly conveys yichus is sadly mistaken.] We need to look at who someone is on the inside and not just the outside. How many pearls have gone unnoticed for want of someone willing to look at the ugly shell that produces them? This Shabbat, look for the pearls inside everyone.

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian
© 2017 (portions ©2005) by Adrian A. Durlester

Chukat 5775 - Wanting To See Morfe Than Just The View From The MountainTop (Revised from 5759/61)
Chukat5774 - What a Difference a Vowel Makes (Revised from 5767)
Chukat 5773 - Biblical "Jodies"
Chukat 5772 - Your G"d, Our G"d, and the Son of a Whore
Chukat 5767-What A Difference A Vowel Makes
Chukkat 5765-Not Seeing What's Inside
Chukat 5764 - Man of Great Character
Chukat 5762-The Spirit of Miriam
Chukat-Balak 5766 - Community Sing
Chukat Balak 5763-Mi ChaMicah
Chukat-Balak 5760-Holy Cow!
Chukat 5759/61-Wanting to See More Than The View From The Mountaintop

Friday, June 23, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Korach 5777–Revisiting B’tzelem Anashim

In 2004, I first wrote a musing on a subject which I had been contemplating and had even mentioned in some of my writings before. It’s time to revisit it again.

Parashat Korach presents some of G”d's worst (and best) behaviors.  Why are we presented with an image of G”d acting in ways that we ourselves struggle to overcome?

There's a theory I and others have advanced before. If we are made in G”d's image or likeness, then those traits and behaviors we exhibit are perforce traits and behaviors that G”d might exhibit as well. "That's overly anthropomorphic!" I hear the hecklers crying from the back of the room. "G”d is not like people," one says. "G”d is above all that, G”d is so much more, even more than we can understand or comprehend."

Still, for me, the logic holds. If there is a little bit of G”d in each of us, then there is a little bit of each of us in G”d. And, at least in my reading of the texts, the Torah supports me in my viewpoint. Why else give us example after example of a G”d who is petulant, pedantic, sophomoric, rash, vengeful, angry, jealous, vain, bored in addition to being a G”d who is loving, caring, nurturing, compassionate, exciting? Perhaps it is simply to make us feel better about our own shortcomings and weaknesses. If G”d sometimes cannot control these urges, how much more so must if be difficult for us to do so, and how much more vigilant we must ever be at guarding ourselves from engaging in negative behaviors.

It could be a way to keep us a little scared and in awe. Knowing that G”d can be vengeful, angry, jealous, etc. is a device for keeping us on our toes as well. It used to be quite an effective technique, and even into our own times this technique is practiced. Sadly, the concept can be perversely utilized, as in calling AIDS a vengeful act of G”d, or even the events of 9/11 as punishment for arrogance and hubris. So I tend to keep this particular concept at a distance, and like to steer us a bit more into the "awe" category rather than the "fear" category. Of course, we have the joy of the Hebrew not being entirely clear on this, allowing for a little fear to appropriately be part of awe.

There is the "this is all for human understanding" school of thought. It's like trying to communicate with an inferior species. So G”d's actions are portrayed using metaphors of human behavior that we can understand. This is all well and good when we're talking about human-alien contact. I question its usefulness in explaining a relationship between a Deity and its creations. If we really are that inferior to G”d, then how can we enter into a covenant with G”d? We would be, as a species, under the legal age to make a contract!

Modern scholarship is contributing another approach – G”d as realistic. G”d reflects for us the realities we experience in our daily lives (or, put another way, G”d experiences the realities we experience daily, thus we too experience them – for G”d models the Universe after G”d’s experiences. Is that any less plausible a concept than we modeling G”d from our reality?)

Much of Greek thought and theology sought and modeled a perfect Divinity. Those thoughts and theologies made their way far deeper into what became Christianity than they did in what became Judaism. One view of the Trinity concept is that it creates a place for both G”d’s perfection and imperfection (and a place to be above even those concepts.) Judaism’s G”d is dynamic, living, adapting. Judaism’s G”d has moments of truly transcendent love and compassion, combined with fits of pique, temper tantrums, etc. Just as life is for human beings.

For me, given that we do have a covenant with G”d, and a mission to be G”d's partners in the work of repairing and completing the universe, it only makes sense that both G”d and G”d's creations learn together, side by side.

The Israelites are given a tough time (mostly by their own descendants-us) for being so stubborn and obstinate. For just not "getting it." For seeing miracles and wonders and still kvetching, whining and complaining.

Well folks, guess what? At times G”d is a slow learner too. Perhaps, before the story of creation in B'reishit as we know it, G”d made other attempts to forge a universe. (My favorite idea is that G”d made a universe in which everything was perfect, and creations did not have free will. But G”d got bored with it after five minutes because nothing exciting ever happened, so G”d wiped it out and tried again.) Then G”d made this current attempt, and is trying this little free-will experiment. And I suspect it had some unanticipated results for G”d. So G”d has had to adjust, compensate, change, learn, grow and account for the effects of free will.

But let's look at the record. G”d puts Adam and Chava in a perfect garden, but gives them free will. So they go ahead and screw things up right away. Still, G”d decides to give it a little more time. After a while, G”d appears to get impatient and decides to wipe it all out again,. Only this time G”d decides to save a lot of extra work, and only kills off most of the creations. Sort of like a neutron bomb--destroying people but not nature and property. Then Noah's descendants get all prideful and decide to build this tower thingy and here we see a little jealousy, perhaps even fear on G”d's part. Hmmm--these creations might actually get to me. Time to get out the fly swatter and the speech-confounder.

And on and on the cycles goes. We mess up or do something unexpected. G”d is unhappy and lashes out. Yet G”d does seem to learn over time that wiping everyone out isn't always the best idea. But when G”d gets really angry, well, it takes Moses to talk G”d out of rashly destroying the people (and notice how Moses appeals to G”d's vanity to do this--how would it look to the Egyptians, Moses asks.)

At first G”d is going to wipe us all out for Korach's sins. But Moses talks G”d into just venting on the people who actually rebelled (though G”d still can't resist also zotzing their wives and children as well.) G”d wipes out Korach's followers, and turns the 250 with the firepans into toast. And the very next day, here we go again. G”d's ready to wipe us all out, and Moses talks G”d out of it. The first time, Moses was able to stop G”d in time to prevent total annihilation. This time, G”d starts acting before Moses and Aaron can stop it. G”d has already initiated the plague.  So they go and make expiation for the people and G”d heeds their sacrifice.

And then,. As if nothing major had transpired at all, G”d goes on to cheerfully give a re-elaboration of the support system for the priests and Levites.

Sounds awfully human-like to me.

I guess I can sort of round this up by saying that perhaps it’s better that G”d isn't perfect. If G”d could easily be bored creating a perfect universe, then how much more so might we get bored if we had a truly perfect G”d? Nope, I'll take G”d as portrayed in Torah, warts and all. And thank G”d for that!

Though I’ve edited and added to what you’ve just read, that’s how I ended the original version of this musing in 2004. There is another approach to this that I neglected to include. It’s all about how we define and understand the concept of perfection. What is perfect?  Perfect implies that something has achieved a state which cannot be, either in reality or theory, improved. For millennia people have dreamed of such a place, ascribed such qualities to the olam haba, heaven, the other world, the world to come, etc. C’mon folks – we’ve talked about this before. I already accept that a perfect universe would be the most boring place ever. Had G”d created perfection, G”d’s creations would have gone crazy, and G”d would have quickly moved on to something else. It’s the tension between (unachievable) perfection and imperfection that makes the world an interesting place to live. Our mission in life is to try and leave the world a better place than we found it. What purpose would our lives have in a world in which we could never make real or theoretical improvements?

Perfection need not be the absence or impossibility of improvement. There’s another way to define it. Some readers may recall a twenty-year-old musing whose anniversary I highlighted a few months back, for parashat Sh’mini, about GEFTS, the “good enough for this show” philosophy that I learned from a wise old colleague. By having each element of a show in balance, striving for a coherent whole, with no one area outshining the others, one can create a truly “perfect” experience. This is perfection being about balance. In my view, balance, perforce, requires give and take from the constituent parts of that perfection. You can’t have it all – everything can’t be fully maximized. (Even G”d had to engage in “tzimtzum” to make a space for the universe.)

In his controversial 2012 op-ed piece in the NY Times,  An Imperfect G”d, Yoram Hazony described perfection as balance, and then went on to say:

What would we say if some philosopher told us that a perfect bottle would be one that can contain a perfectly great amount of liquid, while being perfectly easy to pour from at the same time? Or that a perfect horse would bear an infinitely heavy rider, while at the same time being able to run with perfectly great speed? I should think we’d say he’s made a fundamental mistake here: You can’t perfect something by maximizing all its constituent principles simultaneously. All this will get you is contradictions and absurdities. This is not less true of God than it is of anything else.

A few weeks later, responding to Hazony in the Times of Israel, writer/blogger Gil Reich pointed out an almost inherent contradiction in viewing G”d as imperfect in this manner, that, Purim-like, turns things upside-down:

If our definition of perfect involves a trade-off of conflicting principles, then God and the world may be perfect despite the existence of pain and injustice.

If we define perfect as something that cannot be improved, then the world isn’t perfect. It’s better. Precisely because we can improve it.

Hazony is suggesting we allow G”d to be imperfect. Perhaps theodicy is not an issue, but a logical extension of the balancing of realities that our understanding of perfection requires.  Reich is suggesting that our static view of perfection  is what holds us back. Perhaps G”d’s perfection is in G”d’s imperfection.

I’m not sure which camp I’m on this. How does this play into b’tzelem/El”him/b’tzelem anashim? Was G”d perfect before creating the universe and humanity, and did the very act of creation cause G”d to have some imperfections? Is it free will, randomness, entropy, that are the root causes of what imperfection there is?  Is the universe perfect in its imperfection? Is G”d perfect in G”d’s imperfection? Is a universe in which we (and G”d) have to partner to keep improving things perfection, or beyond perfection? Is a universe in which imperfection is perfection itself perfect or illusionary? Did G”d make the universe perfect? Did G”d make the universe imperfect? Did making the universe make G”d perfect or imperfect? (If this were a classic sci-fi trope, this would be the point where the perfect thinking machine starts to fizzle and go haywire.)

So, to paraphrase the old “can G”d create a stone too heavy for G”d to lift,” I ask these questions:

  • Can an imperfect G”d create a perfect universe?
  • Can a perfect G”d create an imperfect universe?
  • Can G”d create a universe so imperfect that it is sheer perfection?

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian
©2017 (portions ©2004) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Korakh 5775 - Purposeful Unpleasant Reminder?
Korach 5774 - Still a Loose End
Korakh 5773 - B'tzelem Anashim (Redux 5764)
Korakh 5772 - B'nei Miri
Korakh 5771 - Supporting Our Priests and Levites
Korakh 5770 (Redux 5758/62) Camp Rebellion
Korakh 5769 - And who Put G"d In Charge (or 2009: A Space Odyssey)
Korakh 5768-If Korakh Had Guns
Korach 5767-Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad, Tabernacle?
Korach 5766 - Investment
Korah 5765 - Stones and Pitchers and Glass Houses
Korach 5764-B'tzelem Anashim
Korach 5763-Taken
Korach 5761-Loose Ends