Friday, October 13, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–B’reishit 5778-Last Week’sThoughts

I’ve never done this before. Last Friday, I just got slammed, and didn’t get my musing out. That’s not the thing I’ve never done before to which I am referring. Being unable to get my musing out has happened a few times in the two decades I’ve been writing these musings. It is somewhat unusual that I didn’t at least get a note or apology out that day, or after Shabbat, but it just didn’t happen this time. Here’s what makes it unusual. I had a musing written and ready to go, and it was simply the mechanics of getting it sent out that stopped me. I suppose I could have sent it out after Shabbat, but I didn’t. So here’s what I’ve not done before – I am sending out my thoughts for last Shabbat, for Shabbat Hol HaMoeid Sukkot, today, and not sending out a new (or even recycled) musing for this week’s parahsa “B’reishit..” I do commend to you the musings Ihave written for parashat B’reishit before, listed at the end of this musing. I do hope you’ll read them. Here, however, I present you with the thoughts I had last week for Shabbat Hol Hamoeid Sukkot.

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Shabbat Hol Hamoeid Sukkot 5778 – Unhappy Comparisons

Talk about a nightmare! I had been reading through the Torah reading for Shabbat Hol Hamoeid Sukkot and came to the famous words of Exodus 34:6-7. The passage from which the thirteen attributes of mercy were derived.

Before I could stop it, the thought came unbidden into my head how this all feels a little well, Trumpian. No, it cannot be. I must not allow myself to be drawn into making a comparison between Ad"nai and DJT.

Yet there it is. It's that b'tzelem El"him/b'tzelem anashim duality and balance that often comes up in my musings. If we are in the image of G"d then vice versa - and all the best that is in G"d can be found in us, and the best of us in G"d - but also all the worst that is in G"d can be found in us and all the worst that is in us can be found in G"d.

The well worn words of Exodus 34:6-7, which we also just heard, repeatedly, during the Yamim Noraim are boastful, prideful, even a touch arrogant. They have a very "and only I can fix it" quality.

Now, you might argue that, unlike the mere mortal DJT, G"d actually has a reasonably legitimate claim to be able to fix what ails our planet and our species - though for some, G"d's failure to do so over the last few millennia call into question whether that is truly the case. What is hubris and narcissistic personality disorder for some may be ineffable Divine behavior for others.

יְהוָֹה ׀ יְהֹוָה אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב־חֶסֶד וֶֽאֱמֶֽת: נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָֽאֲלָפִים נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה פֹּקֵד ׀ עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל־בָּנִים וְעַל־בְּנֵי בָנִים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִֽים

G"d, as self-described, extends kindness and forgiveness unto a thousand generations. However, there's a contradiction here - G"d is forgiving, but not all-forgiving. G"d may not be interested in building a wall, but G"d certainly seems interested in punishing those who transgress, even unto the third and fourth generations. G"d, apparently, does not find much value in punishing a family line for transgressions of their forebears beyond a few generations. One might ask why even extend punishment beyond the generation of those who transgressed?Is this simply tactic - is it the stick to the carrot? Are those of us who support DACA and the Dream Act more benevolent and forgiving than G"d? I'd certainly  not like to believe this was the case. Yet I fear that there are those who use the biblical example to justify their opposition to DACA, and who find no fault in visiting the parental sin of illegal immigration upon the children.

The rabbis and commentators would have us exegete only the positive virtues from these verses, conveniently ignoring the consequences part. That is the sort of exegesis that is, for me, whitewashing and cherry-picking. These verses clearly insinuate that there is a place for punishment, and that G"d visits punishment not just on those who sin, but on their descendants, at least for a few generations.  How does this square with the idea that the gates of t'shuvah are always open?  Are children, grandchildren,and great-grandchildren expected to make expiation for the sins of their  parents/grandparents/great-grandparents before they are even eligible to seek expiation for their own transgressions? What kind of system is that? Either the gates of t'shuvah are always open, or they aren't. How we view this biblical dilemma can hold great import for how we might view the prospect of allowing illegal immigrants a path to legal residence. I fear that, based on these verses, G"d might not be so quick to approve of that. That is a G"d that I find troubling.

Perhaps I am making too much of this. I am not a Dawkins, chastising and calling out religion for all the ills of society. However, although I remain a person of faith, there is much in our Jewish faith, as well as other faiths that are questionable, may have been used to justify many things we now find repugnant, and are, perhaps, irredeemable.

The thirteen attributes of mercy aren't irredeemable, but like so many things in our faith, we carefully tiptoe around the difficult things. I fear that, to some extent, we must accept that our sacred texts may have contributed, intentionally or unintentionally, to some less than positive things. We can't simply chalk it up to the humans using the text in this manner, for that's very much a "guns don't kill people, people kill people, and that's a slippery slope indeed. Just like we are exhorted to pray to G"d and row towards shore, we should use our sacred texts and liturgy to promote peace and righteousness, while acknowledging the warts and imperfections within them.

I am still unhappy these sorts of comparisons are where my musings led me this week, but I'll take the bad with good for now, in hopes that the good will prevail. With G"d's help and ours may it be so.

Shabbat Shalom and Moadim L'simcha,

©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings – on Parashat B’reisheet

B'reishit 5777-Something Good (Redeeming Cain?)
B'reisheet 5776 - Temptation
B'reisheet 5775 - One Favorite Things (not a typo!)
B'reisheet 5774 - Toldot Adrian
B'reishit 5773 - Mixing Metaphors
B'reishit 5772 - The Unified Field Theorem of the Twelve Steps
B'reishit 5771 - B'reishit Bara Anashim
B'reishit 5770 - One G"d, But Two Trees?
B'reishit 5769 - Do Fences Really Make Good Neighbors
B'reishit 5767-Many Beginnings
Bereshit 5766-Kol D'mei Akhikha
Bereshit 5765 (5760)-Failing to Understand-A Learning Experience
Bereshit 5764-Gd's Regrets
Bereshit 5762--The Essential Ingredient
Bereshit 5763--Striving to be Human
Bereshit 5761--Chava's Faith
Bereshit 5760-Failing to Understand

Other Musings on Sukkot and Simchat Torah

Hol HaMoeid Sukkot 5775 - Gog Me With a Spoon
Hol HaMoeid Sukkot 5774 - Godot is Waiting for the Bald Soprano at the Zoo
Sukkot III 5772 - Fragility
Sukkot I 5770 - Fire and Rain
Sukkot 5767-Precious Congealed Light - Or Y'kator V'kipa'on
Sukkot 5764--Bayom Hazeh
Sukkot 5763--Sukkot Time Travel

Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah 5770 - Circles Can Bite You in the Tuchis
Sh'mini Atzeret/Simkhat Torah 5767 - Joyful and Glad of Heart
Simchat Torah 5766--Have We Met The Ally And Is They Us?
Simchat Torah 5757-5765-Unbroken Circle (With additions for each year)
Simchat Torah 5764-Circling the Torah--A Story of Chelm
Simchat Torah 5762--Not So Fast

Friday, September 29, 2017

Random Musings Before Shabbat–Yom Kippur 5758–Not Just For Ourselves

I had thought about writing a simple, one-line musing this year:

It’s not supposed to be easy.

and leave it at that. But I decided that was too simple, too lazy, and a cop-out. We have all been surrounded by lots of people posting and writing about their understanding of the Yamim Noraim, and, in particular Yom Kippur. Many write of their discomfort – with the rituals, or the expectations, or the liturgy, or any of a thousand other factors. We are supposed to be afflicted – and not just in body, but mind as well. while Yom Kippur asks us to place the focus on our deeds, I don’t think it’s a big stretch to include our wrestling with the very concepts of sin, repentance, etc.,and the ceremonial ways in which Jews are called upon to deal with this at this time of year. Engaging with these things is part of self-reflection.

Ah, there it is. The magic word. Self. And that, as is often the case, if what puts the bee in my bonnet. The ritual and liturgy with which we afflict ourselves on Yom Kippur is meant to be communal, not individual. The communal rituals we engage in do not absolve us of our individual failings. However, that very viewpoint betrays a selfish understanding. There’s no arguing that our tradition has developed an all-encompassing ritual and personal practice that allows for both communal and personal reflection. I won’t argue that’s a bad thing. what I will argue, however, is that I believe most of us shirk the important lesson that the liturgy’s communal focus is intent on teaching us, one that we well know: all Israel (and by extension, all humankind) are responsible for one another.

Yes, we all sin, We all miss the mark. We all sometimes fail to live up to our own expectations. We all sometimes fail to live up to what Judaism expects of us, of what society expects of us (and even, perhaps, what G”d expects of us.) However, I wonder if the greater failing is that we fail to live up to our obligation to help others not sin, not fail.

One of my many quirks is a sometimes tunnel-vision focus on following rules. I readily admit to inconsistency in how and where I apply this, but I do apply this. I’m one of those people that often tries to follow the rules – things like transferring my drivers license, car registration, and title, when I move to a new state within the time period that state mandates. Like seeking to be as honest and complete as I can in filing my taxes. I sometimes do things, or follow rules that many, if not most other people might not, due to issues of cost, inconvenience, etc. I often do these things at a cost to myself.  If there’s a sign somewhere explaining a policy or procedure, I’m rarely the one who will go ask someone in authority if I really need to do that.  I dot my “i” and cross my “t,” I still put lines through my zeroes, sevens. I follow form instructions to the letter, and when there’s something I can;t figure out how to fill out, where other people might leave it blank, I’ll go to great lengths to figure out what to put there. My friends, even my family, often shake their heads at my insistence on following procedures.

At the same time, I have many failings, many faults. I make lots of mistakes, and I often sin, both unintentionally and intentionally. I am not consistent in exhibiting my compulsion to follow procedures and rules – because I am also a rebel at heart. There are some things I do in which I revel at flaunting convention, and not following the informal, and sometimes even formal rules. More often than not, I find myself be lauded for that, as opposed to the ridicule I often receive when I’m in one of my “follow the proper procedures” activities.

Somehow, this feels exactly backwards. Should I not be receiving more rebuke for the times when I fail to follow the rules, than for the opposite? Which brings us back to Yom Kippur. We have become so focused on self-reflection and self-improvement, and I believe we have done so to the detriment of how the ritual teaches us our obligation to insure that the whole community is doing the best it can. I know this is the part that trips most people up. We are uncomfortable with rebuking others.

My response to this is two-fold. First, rebuke is not a bad word, and not always something to be avoided. Secondly, if we believe our communal obligation is restricted to rebuke, we are missing the mark. It is as much about helping others to be able to do the right thing. It’s about not putting stumbling blocks before the blind (or the sighted.) Is not our goal to build a society, a world in which it is easy for people to do the right thing?

Tokekha, rebuke, doesn’t always come hard to us. Most of us have little problem rebuking politicians, other leaders, celebrities, etc.. many of us are quite publicly rebuking POTUS and his minions for their failures to do justly, love mercy,and walk humby with G”d. Parents and teachers do it every day, though perhaps in some cases with more reluctance than in the past (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.) Good friends, they say, are the ones who will tolerate your faults. Good friends can also be the ones who aren’t afraid to call your own faults to your attention. You can be forgiving and accepting while critiquing and even rebuking.

I’m fond of an old Family Circus strip in which the son keeps asking “can I have a cookie” and Mom corrects with “may I” and when he finally says “may I” she replies it’s too close to dinnertime. In this same way, how many roadblocks do we create in our society, in our world, that make it harder than it ought to be naturally for people to do the right thing, to not sin? Yes, I accept that our inner nature is that we will err, we will make mistakes. Given that shouldn’t we strive to create a society that actually changes the odds making it easier for people to be righteous, to not sin? This, I believe, is part of the communal responsibility that Yom Kippur is teaching us. It’s not just to rebuke others so that the community as a whole is the best it can be. It’s actively seeking to help people do the right thing, help them to not sin. Not just a scolding finger, but a helping hand.

It’s a beautiful vision, I think. I also realize it’s a difficult one to achieve at best. Perfection is not a realistic goal – especially if we believe in the dual nature of human beings  - with good and evil inclinations, and believe that both are necessary and part of us. But we can help ourselves and others try to find that balance, to tip the scales for the best of all humanity. Again, a lofty goal. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Lo alecha, and all that.

I won’t wish you an easy fast, for it should not be easy. I do encourage you to do self-reflection and work to be a better human being. I also encourage you to consider how you can help others to be the best they can be. It is not your obligation to finish the task, but neither are you free to refrain from it. Remember when you are confessing at Yom Kippur, you are confessing for all of us, and we all have the obligation to help not only ourselves, but all others in the community to be better in the new year, and always.

Shabbat Shalom, and may we all be sealed for a good year.

©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Yom Kippur 5775 - Afflict Me
Yom Kippur 5774 - Blanket Apologies II
Yom Kippur 5772 - Al Khet Shekhetanu
Yom Kippur 5765 - Blanket apologies

Friday, September 22, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Shabbat Shuvah 5778-Random Rant

OK, what follows is a rant. It is not connected to Shabbat Shuvah or parashat Ha’azinu. It’s a post Rosh Hashanah rant. I commend to you my previous musings for Shabbat Shuvah/Ha’azinu which you can find listed at the end.

Ok, the rant.

Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham, Abraham…

Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah…

Enough already, Enough with Abraham and Sarah and the Akeidah and Sarah’s harshness to Hagar. Yes, Abraham’s not perfect. Sarah is not perfect. Yet they were still good people. We get it. We understand the lesson. Everywhere I go, every synagogue I have worked, I have heard rabbis drash on and on about the akeidah. Many of them seek, as I do, to find the redemption of seemingly irredeemable texts like the akeidah,or the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael. I do not fault them for that. However, the attempt to whitewash, or justify Abraham and Sarah, or simply the attempt to redeem the text by turning it on its end and explaining the lesson that even good people are not 100% good, that here at this time of t’shuvah, we can and must accept our imperfections – they don’t prevent us being striving to be the best we can be. All of that’s nice. All of that is with good intent. All of that is worth teaching on Rosh Hashanah. But here’s the thing…



(edited update to include)

HAGAR! (proud I caught this before anyone even mentioned it.)

Their names are the ones that bear incessant repetition. They are the true victims here, yet it is not of them we speak.

In fact, Isaac and Ishmael sort of disappear for a while. (As you know, my life’s goal is to write that book of fictional biblical history describing the period when Isaac went to live with Hagar and Ishmael after the akeidah until the time of Sarah’s funeral. I’ve been gathering notes and snippets, and one of these days I really am going to sit down and write the darn thing already.) And, as is sadly typical of the biblical text when it comes to women, Hagar is not heard of again (though some great commentators suggest that Keturah, whom Abraham marries after Sarah’s death, is actually Hagar.)

If Abraham were to do to Isaac today what he did back then, you can just bet Child Protective Services would be all over that obviously unfit family. (Don’t let Sarah off the hook. She knew. She KNEW. I’m sure of it.) Isaac must have suffered the effects of this child abuse for decades. He surely had some form of PTSD. Ishmael, too, must have felt awful, having been rejected by his father, cast-off with his mother. He might not have been to happy to see Isaac when he first came calling, But I am more than willing to bet that once Isaac told Ishmael what had happened, that Ishmael and Hagar took Isaac in with love and concern (and a bit more disrespect and hatred perhaps for Abraham. But now I’m giving away too much of that book I’m going to write…

I recently finished watching the second season of Tig Notaro’s “One Mississippi” on Amazon. In one particularly powerful episode, almost all the characters are forced to deal with the reality of sexual abuse of one form or another. Ignoring it, minimalizing it, excusing it with a “boys will be boys” mentality, just stuffing it might seem like effective tactics, but ultimately ones doomed to fail. We must find a way to confront the ugly things and find ways to come to terms with the reality of them.

In our rush, in our hurry to redeem Abraham and Sarah’s sometimes bad qualities and actions, we must not overlook their victims. True t’shuvah is not possible if we have not at least attempted, in some fashion, to seek the forgiveness of anyone we have wronged. Where are Abraham and Sarah’s acts of contrition? Where and how did they make up for turning Isaac and Ishmael into psychological wrecks? Not that their later lives were totally without good deeds, but on balance, these two actions – the casting out of Hagar, and the attempt to sacrifice Isaac don;t feel fully balanced on the scales of righteousness.

No siree.  I’m not letting them off the hook. They have sins for which they have not repented or attempted restitution. These next 10 days I will have Isaac, Ishmael, and Hagar in mind more than Abraham and Sarah.

Shanah Tovah and Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings for this parasha:

Rosh Hashanah 5770-The Dualities of Life II
Rosh Hashanah 5764-Inscriptions
Rosh Hashanah 5763-The Dualities of Life

Ha'azinu 5776 - Still Not Trifling
Ha'azinu-Shabbat Shuvah 5775 - Who's Got the Last Laugh Now
Ha'azinu/Shabbat Shuvah 5774 - 5774: A Torah Odyssey
Ha'azinu 5772 - An Insincere Hymn?
Ha'azinu/Shabbat Shuvah 5570-Pur Prayers Aren't Bull
Haazinu 5766-Trifles (Updated from 5762)
Haazinu 5765/5763-How would It Look If...
Haazinu 5764-More Bull From Our Lips
Haazinu 5762--Trifles
Haazinu 5760-Bull from Our Lips

Friday, September 15, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Nitzavim-Vayelekh 5777–Witness For

It is hard to imagine that over a dozen years have passed since the tragedies of Hurricane Katrina and Rita, and 16 years since 9/11. Surely it can be no coincidence that here, a decade later, parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech once again falls on the heels of a pair of devastating hurricanes, Harvey and Irma. Once again, I find my theology evolving, changing, adapting. Ten years ago, I wrote about my evolving theology by sharing two previous musings – one written before 9/11, one written just after 9/11, and a few additional words added  in 2005. Last time, I put them in reverse chronological order. This time, I’ll do the opposite –putting them in chronological order,adding some thoughts from this year at the end.  Along the way, you’ll not only see the changes, evolution, and cycles in my philosophies and theologies, you’ll also notice the progression in how I choose to write the word G”d.

Random Musings Before Shabbat - Vayelech 5759 God's Sabbatical

Now that I'm a student at a theological school, critical analysis of biblical text is almost automatic. God said to Moshe that he would soon "lie with his ancestors" and that the people of Israel would go astray amidst the alien gods of the land they were about to enter. Knowing what comes later in the story, one can easily conclude that these words were written after the fact, which of course is problematic for some who view Torah as mi-Sinai. (I personally have little trouble with reconciling critical analysis of the text with religious faith - in my faith view, divine revelation and human effort coexist peacefully.)

In the narrow and historical view, we know the "land you are about to enter." But in reading this text, I began to think in broader terms, longer timespans.

God is dead. God has forsaken us. How could God let the Shoah happen? Views that get a lot of attention these days.

What if we are still in those times that God was referring to. Times when we fall prey to belief in alien gods (like money, computers, vanity, television, etc.). Times when we forsake God and break God's commandments.

Times when we break our covenant with God.

During such times, God tells us, God will flare up angrily, and hide from us. (So, it seems God, too, uses the "silent treatment" when displeased.

Boy, I hate that from anyone. I'd rather just have a nice, good old confrontation and have it over with than deal with the silent treatment


In God's words one can just as easily see a description of the times we live in, and many other times in our history. Maybe, from the time we crossed over into Canaan, we really have been living amidst alien gods and forsaking the covenant our ancestors made with God.

Was there ever a better reason for t'shuvah, for a return to God's ways, and a renewing of the covenant? It's time to bring God back from sabbatical.

A former father-in-law wrote an essay in which he mused on the apparent absence of God during the Shoah. God's answer to my questioning relative in this story was that God had a lot to do and was simply busy elsewhere at the time. (Does omnipresence and omniscience have limits or is that oxymoronic?)

Perhaps instead God is still flared up in anger against us for our having gone astray, forsaking the covenant, and is still hiding God's presence from us. Now, I am not about to even suggest, as some unfortunately do, that the Shoah is punishment for liberal Judaism, or that the Shoah was any kind of judgment or punishment by God. But there is little doubt in my mind that throughout much of our history, we have shown the truthfulness of God's prediction in Vayelech. We've turned our backs on God so God is turning God's back on us.

Pray, pray really hard and with sincerity this Yom Kippur. Do t'shuvah. Keep Shabbat. Try and live your life in keeping with (your understanding of) God's commandments and covenant with us. A little bit here and a little bit here. Do the best you can. Maybe, just maybe, if we all work really hard, we can get God to take a peek and see that we really need God's help, now more than ever.

Random Musings Before Shabbat - Vayelekh 5761 - The Time Is Now

It is rare that words fail me. Last week, I was in such I stupor, that I did not even have the clarity to write all of you a message stating that I was in a stupor and unable to write anything for my Random Musing for Nitzavim 5761! It was all I could do to stay focused enough to get my first day of religious school at my new congregation started last Sunday.

I have yet to come to terms with what happened on 9/11/01, and even now it is difficult to find words.

Three years ago, I wrote a musing for Vayelekh that doesn't work for me anymore. In Parashat Vayelekh, we are told that Gd knows the people Israel will stray after they enter the land, and that Gd will visit some form of retribution or punishment upon them for their transgressions and failure to follow Gd's commandments.

I posited that perhaps we are still in those times, and that throughout history Gd's anger with us has flared up, with one result being the "silent treatment." It was "Gd's Sabbatical" as I called that musing.

I wrote:

"Perhaps instead Gd is still flared up in anger against us for our having gone astray, forsaking the covenant, and is still hiding Gd's presence from us. Now, I am not about to even suggest, as some unfortunately do, that the Shoah is punishment for liberal Judaism, or that the Shoah was any kind of judgment or punishment by Gd. But there is little doubt in my mind that throughout much of our history, we have shown the truthfulness of Gd's prediction in Vayelech. We've turned our backs on Gd so Gd is turning Gd'sback on us."

However, in the days following 9/11/01, I feel that Gd has been more present than ever. We see it in the countless acts of unselfish charity and giving of assistance. We see it in thre martyrdom of passengers on a hijacked plane now lying in a field in Pennsylvannia. We see it in the coming together of communities, of ecumenical camaraderie. We see it in our almost universal determination as the human race to remove the scourge of terrorisim from our midst. A cause that even Gd seemed to take up, once upon a time, with the great flood. We see it, also, in the cries of those who caution us against an application of the lex talionis, (the eye-for-en-eye concept) urging us not to callously attach innoncent people just because they happen to live in a country that harbors terrorists, or just because they happen to be a Muslim or of Arabic descent.

In my previous musing, I took great pains to distance myself from those who might view the Shoah as punishment from Gd for Jewish transgressions, just as I now equally refute the blasphemous pronouncements of Jerry Falwell and others on this same subject in reference to 9/11/01.

However the fact remains that, as Jews, as the human species, we still leave much to be desired. We still ignore Gd, ignore Gd's commandments, sometimes, even as we make a great show of our religion and faith.

When we were slaves in Egypt, it took a lot of hue and cry to get Gd's attention. (And even after we were freed, many of us complained we were better off in Egypt as slaves!) Is is that we don't cry out enough these days?

Dear Gd, what does it take to get your attention, to get you to return from your apparent sabbatical? The crusades, the inquisition, the pogroms weren't enough? The Shoah wasn't enough? September 11, 2001 wasn't enough? Or was it? I have seen a spirit in this country, among my friends, Jew and non-Jew alike that I have not seen before in such numbers. Might this not be a sign that perhaps that Gd who neither slumbers nor sleeps but watches over Israel always is awake, and no longer (if Gd ever was) on that sabbatical?

Last year, I wrote about what I think is the real denouement of the Torah, 30:19-21, where we are told that the Torah exists to be a witness against us in our sins. L'eyd B'vnei Yisrael.

Has she not been witness against us long enough? We have the potential, here, now, in this time and place, to reclaim this relationship with Gd, to have the Torah be not witness against us, but rather we as witness for the Torah, and for Gd.

As I wrote last year:

"For is it not obvious to us all by now? Light from dark. Day from night.

Land from water. Sacred from profane. Blessing and curse. A witness against our transgressions yet the freedom to interpret that very witness ourselves.

We have come full circle from creation.

May this New Year be a year when we all dedicate ourselves to making ourselves witnesses FOR Torah, rather than allowing Torah to be a witness AGAINST us.

It is all around us-this new found spirit of determination to remove evil from our midst, but also the caution to do it in a just and righteous way.

This righteous spirit to care for those in need, to console the bereaved, to honor the memories of the dead and keep their memories alive. Opportunities abound for us to do righteous deeds, to be charitable.

During these days of awe, what better time to reflect on this opportunity,what better time to really bring ourselves to do t'shuvah-to return to Gd. To walk in Gd's ways and follow Gd's commandments.

Ken y'hi ratsoneinu. May this be our will.

Vayelekh 5765 - The Time Is Still Now


Back in 1998 I wrote a musing for Vayelekh entitled "G"d's Sabbatical." Then in 2001, still rebounding from 9/11 I wrote a new musing entitled "The Time Is Now" in which I spoke of some discomfort with what I had written in 1998.

Oddly enough, once again rebounding from the tragedies that have befallen us with Katrina and Rita (and all other tragedies around the world) I find myself swinging like a pendulum towards more of the viewpoint of the 1998 musing. Somewhere between the two viewpoints is a synthesis of how I am feeling. Thus I share both with you, in the hopes that we can all try and synthesize something useful out of them. (P.S. You can observe the continuing evolution with how I deal with writing G"d. G"d is my most recent choice, as I like the idea of using the quotation marks to represent the yud-yud abbreviation for Ad"nai-it does say to me that when I write G"d I do specifically mean that G"d that is known to the Jewish people as Ad"nai.)

(I placed the entirety of the 5659 and 5761 musings here.)

Nitzavim-Vayelekh 5777 – Witness For (or Time Cycle)

Torah as witness against us, or we as witnesses for Torah. It’s not a clear choice, it’s not an either-or option. As in some many things in life, so many things in Judaism, we need both, and we must seek a balance between them. We will be judged (in whatever fashion it suits you to understand that concept) against the standard that Torah sets for us.

I recognize the slippery slope represented by the idea of Torah as witness against us. It presumes that our failings as human beings, as a society, as a nation become justification for G”d to punish us. That’s only one small step away from the onerous ideas that have been floated around by religious people of all faiths to explain natural disasters. Blame the gays. Blame abortion. Blame people who aren’t like us. Blame the liberal Jews. Blame the Muslims. That way is simply madness. It violates the most basic principle of v’havata l’reiakha kamokha – love your neighbor as yourself.

On the opposite side, it’s easy to blame global warming, and all the negative effects of humankind’s attempt to wrest control of our universe from the universe itself. Or we can blame nature for being unpredictable. Even with all our science, predicting a hurricane’s path still eludes us a bit. Nature and the universe laugh in our faces.

Blame all you will, it is not enough. Only action will make a difference. We decry what is happening to our planet, but few of us willingly make the changes and sacrifices needed to make a difference. “Other people will do it,” we rationalize. One person can’t make a difference, and one person won’t tip the balance. Newsflash, folks. If most people believe that, we’re doomed.

Just as Torah can be a witness against us, our planet, our universe can be a witness against us. If we aren’t careful, if we don’t think about the consequences of what we do, if we don’t work to mitigate and reverse the damages we cause, then our planet, our universe will witness against us – in disasters we can’t even imagine. So is Torah really all that far off with its analogous ideas?

I don’t see Harvey and Irma as retribution or punishment for anything, but I am easily convinced that our rape of our planet is one cause and effect behind increasingly more severe and deadly storms. Our planet is witnessing against us. It is time for us to step up and witness for our planet, for ourselves, for Torah.

May we be written and sealed for a good year.

May we write and seal ourselves for an even better year.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah


©2017 (portions ©1998, 2001 and 2005) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Nitzavim 5776 - Hiatus End - Lo Bashamayim Hi (Redux 5757ff)
Vayeilekh/Shabbat Shuvah 5776 - Cows and Roses
Nitzavim 5775 - Lo Bashamayim Hi (Revised Classic from 5757)
Nitzavim-Vayeilekh 5774 - Even Lola Doesn't Always Get What She Wants
Nitzavim-Vayeilekh 5773 - Opening Our Own Hearts
Nitzavim 5772 - Where or When?
Nitzavim/Vayeilekh 5770 - Flawed, Schmawed
Nitzavim/Vayeilekh 5769 - Disconencting the Reconnecting the Dots
Vayeilekh_Shabbat Shuvah 5769 - Cows and Roses
Nitzavim/Vayeilekh 5766 - Keep Looking
Vayelekh 5765-The Time Is Still Now
Nitzavim 5765-To Lo Or Not To Lo
Nitzavim/Vayelekh 5763-Connect the Dots
Nitzavim 5757/5759/5764-Lo Bashamayim Hi
Nitzavim 5758-Not By Ourselves
Nitzavim/Vayelekh 5760/67-L'eyd B'vnei Yisrael-The Real Denouement
Nitzavim 5761 was the week of Sept. 11, 2001. There was no Musing.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Ki Tavo 5777–We Are But Uncut Stones

Here we are in the middle of Elul. Hurricane Harvey recently wreaked havoc in Texas. Hurricane Irma is wreaking havoc in the Caribbean and is heading for Florida. Mexico just suffered a huge earthquake. North Korea is rattling sabers again. Our country is more divided than it has ever been, even in the midst of these disasters (though the disasters have brought out the best in people, as they often do.) In this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, is a recitation of the most horrendous calamities – a literal catalog of calamities. Cleverly, the rabbis connected a haftarah from Isaiah with an uplifting and positive message to rise and shine. This parasha has inspired in me a reflection upon how we engage in behavior modification. It has caused me to reflect, like Naomi Shemer, on the the bitter and the sweet, on all these things. This year, I wanted to circle back to a musing from a decade ago.

Our parasha, Ki Tavo, is rich with things to exegete. Blessings and curses, sins committed in secret, the "My father was a fugitive Aramean..." recitation of the first fruits ceremony and tithes, the conclusion of the covenanting in Moab. The blessings and curses alone could occupy one for an entire lifetime of consideration. I commend it all to you.

What struck me this week as I was reading the parasha was the instructions for erecting stones on Mt. Ebal on which the text of the Torah were to be inscribed, and then the building of an altar of stone. (I’m trying to imagine two large stones onto which the entire text of the Torah is carved, and I’m failing, though I suppose it’s possible. It would take a lot of time, and rather small letters. Perhaps this is something I’ll explore in a future musing.)  Paralleling the  instructions in Ex. 20:22, the Israelites are told that iron tools are not to be used in constructing the altar-the altar is to be built of natural, whole stones. (It’s not entirely clear if the two large stones onto which the text of Torah is carved had to be of unhewn stones, and if the engraving into the plaster had to be done without the use of an iron tool as well. Again, more fodder for a future musing.)

Why unhewn stones? Consider some connections. Jacob dreamed while his head was on a whole stone “pillow.” The patriarchs set up stones as markers and altars.  People are punished by stoning. Moshe struck a rock to bring forth water (when all he needed to do, according to G”d, was speak to the stone.)The tower of Babel was made of bricks – a sort of artificial stone. The many labors in which the Israelites engaged when enslaved in Egypt may have involved the use of hewn stones (though I hasten to remind us that we were forced to build storehouses, not pyramids. So hewn stone has some negative associations. Hewn stone can also have positive connotations. Hewn stones are civilized, uncut/natural stones are earthy.

The altar in Solomon’s Temple may (or may not) have built with unhewn stones. It’s not entirely clear, though it is likely the basic understructure was built to biblical specifications. It was all covered in brass, so while it may have sat atop uncut stones, it was a more ornate affair (unlike the one which Joshua erected, after the Israelites came into Israel, which was made of unhewn stones.) The altar in the second Temple was square in shape, and also ornate. When the Hasmoneans restored the second Temple after Antiochus IV Epiphanes has desecrated it with idols, it is said that the defiled altar’s stones were replaced with new unhewn stones. (The old, defiled stones were left on the Temple mount because, defiled as they were, they were still sanctified. In I Maccabees chapter 4, it says the stones should remain on holy ground until a prophet would come along and say what should be done with them.) So the altar may have been square, but its core was of unhewn stone.

We Jews have a long history of workarounds for difficult Biblical restrictions (and we compiled them into what we now call Halacha.) To get around the restriction that the altar could not utilize steps lest a person’s nakedness be exposed while they were walking up to it, the first and second Temple used ramps.  The question we must ask ourselves is whether keeping the altar at a lower, reachable height for the average human being might have been a more appropriate solution than raising up the altar and using a ramp to reach it. Similarly, are adorning an altar of unhewn stone with brass, or building a structure of hewn stone around the uncut stone at the center and appropriate interpretation of G”ds instructions on how to build the altar? There is much to consider, and even more so in our own time. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Natural, whole, unhewn stones. At first, it may seem an odd choice. Surely G"d's altar should be a magnificent structure, finely constructed, polished and ornamented. After all, we are taught that our sacrifices must be taken from the best, the finest of our flocks, our harvest, etc. We take our cream of the crop and offer it up to G"d. (That certainly seems to be the spin the Solomon and the rulers of Israel used to justify the ornate altar in the Temple.) Yet G”d says we must offer up our sacrifices upon a crude altar.

Why this odd juxtaposition? Does the crudeness of the altar signify the necessarily crude and cruel act of killing an animal? Does it signify the raw, natural state of the act of sacrifice? Does it, as Martin Buber suggests, teach us that G"d prefers the natural prayers of the heart to the more formal, structured prayer?

Though I do tend to favor Buber's understanding, I cannot be certain it is the true understanding of the meaning of building the altar of uncut stones. Nevertheless, I do find myself wondering what our modern equivalent to honor this commandment might be. Are our altars made roughly? Hardly. Most of our synagogues are ornate, polished, finely detailed and built structures, with bimahs to match. The words of the Torah, instead of being etched or written on plaster atop large stones, and painstakingly and ornately scribed onto parchment. We cover our Torahs with beautiful adornments.

Perhaps it is this very ornate and structured environment that causes us to be less than forthcoming with our very deepest prayers, and prayers that are the equivalent of the sacrifices of our finest animals, fruits, etc. Where, in our Jewish tradition, is the earthy manger of the Christian tradition? Do we purposefully and deliberately distance ourselves from the earthiness of a crude altar upon which blood is spattered, and animals and other items are burnt as sacrifices.Perhaps we need to recreate this very natural and crude state in our own sanctuaries.Perhaps our bimahs should be rustic.

Perhaps we should have less comfortable chairs in our synagogues - maybe we should sit on natural stones, or tree stumps. (I know from experience that worship in such natural settings as are often found in Jewish camps can be very powerful.) Maybe the floors should be of natural stones? Or even dirt. That might get us a little closer to the idea. We might place simple furniture on our bimahs, place plain covers over our Torahs, and generally avoid ostentation in our sanctuaries.

What was it that drove our ancestors to place a simple stone altar inside a huge, ornate structure? They claim it was to honor G”d, but I suspect showing off had a lot more to do with it. How shall we build and house our altars?

I guess it all depends on what we determine is our "altar." If our prayers, our words, are the substitutes for the sacrifices, upon what natural altar shall we offer them up?

Perhaps we, ourselves, are the altar. So perhaps we need to be what is "natural." (Maybe we should pray in the nude?)

A look back at the Hebrew yields what might be a clue. What we translate as natural, uncut, or un-hewn stone are the words

אֲבָנִים שְׁלֵמוֹת

"avanim sh'leimot,"

literally, "whole stones" (or "complete stones," thus the “uncut,” “unhewn,” or “natural” translations.)

Does this teach us that when we are not whole, when we are not complete, that we are unfit altars upon which to offer the sacrifices of our lips? Yet so many of us are not whole, not complete, and it is for this very wholeness or completeness for which we pray. So I come back to the translation "natural." Perhaps it just means that we need to just be who we are, in order to be the proper altar upon which to offer the sacrifices of our lips. We must be an uncut stone. No frippery or finery. No suits or ties. Just the clothes we would normally wear, the attitudes and mannerisms we might normally have.

All the finest trappings won't make our prayers better. Being ourselves is what makes us fit altars.

When you pray, be an uncut, whole, natural stone. Be yourself.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2017 (portions ©2007) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Ki Tavo 5775 - Rise and Shine (Redux 5761)
Ki Tavo 5774 - They Don't Make Them Like They Used To
Ki Tavo 5773 - Catalog of Calamities (Redux and Greatly Revised 5760)
Ki Tavo 5772 - Mi Yitein Erev? Mi Yitein Boker?
Ki Tavo 5771 - Curse This Parasha!
Ki Tavo 5769 - If It Walks and Talks Like a Creed...
Ki Tavo 5767 - Uncut Stones
Ki Tavo 5764-Al Kol Eileh (in memory of Naomi Shemer, z"l)
Ki Tavo 5763--Still Getting Away With It?
Ki Tavo 5760--Catalog of Calamities
Ki Tavo 5761--Rise & Shine
Ki Tavo 5762--Al Kol Eileh

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Ki Teitze 5777–B’shetzef Ketzef - Expanded and Revised

Revisiting and greatly expanding this musing, originally from 5766 (2006.) Also, since they are among my favorites, I encourage to also read the series of musings for Ki Teitze starting with 5757’s “The Torah, The Gold Watch, and Everything” and subsequent retellings and expansions in 5764 and 5772. (Links at the end of this musing.) It’s a wonderful, truth is stranger than fiction  story.

On this Shabbat, parashat Ki Teitzei, we read the fifth haftarah of consolation after Tisha B'Av, taken from the first ten verses of Isaiah chapter 54.

You've heard the words before:

רָנִּ֥י עֲקָרָ֖ה לֹ֣א יָלָ֑דָה פִּצְחִ֨י רִנָּ֤ה וְצַהֲלִי֙ לֹא־חָ֔לָה כִּֽי־רַבִּ֧ים בְּֽנֵי־שׁוֹמֵמָ֛ה מִבְּנֵ֥י בְעוּלָ֖ה אָמַ֥ר יְהוָֽה׃

Rani, akarah lo yaladah pitzkhi rani v'tzahali lo khalah Ki rabim b'nei-shomeimah mib'nei b'olah, amar Ad"nai

Shout, O barren one, who bore no child! Shout aloud for joy, you who did not travail. For the children of the wife forlorn shall outnumber those of the espoused--said Ad"nai

The prophet Isaiah (or, in this case, some would say either deutero- or even tritero- Isaiah, scholars believing the book to be the work of more than one generation) provides us with an inspiring and positive outlook for the future, with rebuilt dwellings, restoration of lands.

The prophet has G"d saying

בְּרֶ֥גַע קָטֹ֖ן עֲזַבְתִּ֑יךְ וּבְרַחֲמִ֥ים גְּדֹלִ֖ים אֲקַבְּצֵֽךְ׃

"for a little moment I forgot you, but with great mercy I will bring you back." (54:7)

And there is this wonderfully playful  bit of text in 54:8

בְּשֶׁ֣צֶף קֶ֗צֶף הִסְתַּ֨רְתִּי פָנַ֥י רֶ֙גַע֙ מִמֵּ֔ךְ וּבְחֶ֥סֶד עוֹלָ֖ם רִֽחַמְתִּ֑יךְ אָמַ֥ר גֹּאֲלֵ֖ךְ יְהוָֽה׃

B'shetzef ketzef histarti panai rega mimekh uv'khesed olam rikhamtikh, amar go-aleikh Ad"nai

The JPS translation is

"In slight anger, for a moment, I hid My face from you, But with kindness everlasting I will take you back in love --said the L"rd your Redeemer

Just say those first two words in Hebrew:

בְּשֶׁ֣צֶף קֶ֗צֶף

B'shetzef ketzef.

Isn't that fun! Word a great word pair.

There’s some speculation by scholars that the root of the first word


shin, tzadee, final fey

is actually a cognate of the root


shin, tet, final fei. Scholars believe that both these roots mean flowing, streaming, or, perhaps, an overflow. Thus both the nouns Shetzef and shetef are translated as "flood,” “flowing,” “overflowing” and the like.

The second word. That has been the cause of some speculation and division between scholars. We know there is a Hebrew root word


quf, tzadee, final fei.

It's general meaning is to be wrathful or wroth, or wrought up. The noun form ketzef, usually means "wrath" (and in all but a few cases of late biblical text, it refers to G"d's wrath, not that of human beings.)

However, there is also a secondary meaning of the root, which is believed to mean "snap, splinter or break off, thus some conjecture that



can also mean splinter. So perhaps we have a flowing or flooding splinter (sliver?) (This occurrence is a hapax legomenon – a word occurring once in a book – appearing in Hoshea (10:7.)

So some scholars translate "b'shetzef ketzef" as "a flood of anger” which seems to fit in a sense of plain meaning. Others, including the JPS committee, perhaps speculate on some orthographic oddity here, both words ending with


and, playing off the alternate meaning of the second word, translate it as slight anger (or splinter of anger) though I’m not entirely sure where they then get the “anger: from. In this translation, the second word seems to have all the meaning of both splinter and anger/wrath and the first word seems to have none.

Perhaps the basis of this speculation is the belief that

בְּשֶׁ֣צֶף קֶ֗צֶף

is the cognate equivalent of a phrase found in Proverbs (27:4)

שֶׁטֶף אָֽף

translated by JPS as an “overflowing of anger.” I think it’s a stretch, but who I am I to argue with the august editors of the new JPS translation?

Seems to me there's a world of difference between a flood of anger and slight anger, or a splinter of anger. We have either an extremely wrathful G"d who has turned away from us, or a G"d only slightly annoyed. The JPS committee, it seems, prefers the latter. In the context of the verses before and after it, that translation does make some sense, even though the actual Hebrew has to be sliced and diced to make it work. These are verses meant to reassure, to remind up though G”d may have briefly turned away from us, but will bring us back in love.

What's important, as much as I might want it to be, prone as I am to not go easy on G”d, is not G”d’s turning away. After all, we've all done it-turning away in anger. If we don't, we might do or say something we oughtn't do or say. G"d knows this as well. (Moshe, too, kept trying to reinforce this lesson for G”d.)

What matters in these verses  is that G"d will always take us back. And in this month of Elul, as we examine ourselves and our faults, and prepare for the Days of Awe, that is needed comfort. Soul-searching can be a painful and depressing task. Knowing that, however badly we have missed the mark, the gates of t'shuva, or returning to G"d,will always be open to us.

No sacrificial lamb, no rabbi on a crucifix to atone for our sins. Just us, humbly seeking G"d's presence. For whether G"d has turned away from us briefly in slight or flooding anger, G"d will always take us back with  


khesed - loving kindness.

How do we return? One way is to soften our edges. We can take our anger, and turn it into loving kindness. Observe.  First we soften the hard “k” sound of the ק quf to the softer “kh”sound of ח khet. Another is to turn our sharp points into smooth surfaces, just as when we change a sharped-edged צ tzadee to a smooth ס samekh. With our softening and smoothing, we are led more easily to the end – the ף final fei, literally the end of the word end, which in Hebrew is sof, סוף samekh, vav, final fei. And what is the sof but the Ein Sof - the kabalistic name for G"d - "without end." But there is one more transformation to make or ף final fei to a ד dalet. For the ein Sof, the G"d without end, is elusive and hard to find. We must seek another manifestation of G"d that we know. For the ein Sof, the G"d without end, is elusive and hard to find. We must seek another manifestation of G"d that we know. We must go from a ף of soft acceptance to the stronger ד dalet, our determination to soften our edges in order to reach the One. We must seek the Ein Sof with determination. It is not with an attitude of "feh" that we can find the path of t'shuva. No, it is the One we are seeking. The אחד  Ehkhad. And so our determination to do t'shuvah transforms our soft ף final fey into a determined and deliberate ד dalet. The same sound we emphasize at the end of the word אחד to remind us that G”d is One. From Ketzef to khesed. From wrath to loving kindness.

Thus we have gone from


anger or wrath, to


loving kindness one letter at a time, step by step, our reflections upon our inner selves during this month of Elul, trying to turn away from anger and turn to love. To the Source of love.

The hard ק qufs and sharp צ  tzadees make getting to the Ein Sof more difficult. Let us beat our  ק qufs into ח  khets and our צ tzadees into ס samekhs, and seek the path of t'shuva, of return to the One, the אחד Ekhad of חסד.

בְּשֶׁ֣צֶף קֶ֗צֶף. בְּשֶׁ֣צֶף חֶסֶד

B'shetzef ketzef B'shetzef khesed.

From a splinter of anger, or overflowing anger, to overflowing loving kindness.

Shabbat Shalom,


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

Other Musing on This Parasha:

Ki Tetzei 5775 - Re-Honoring Inconsistency
Ki Teitzei 5774 - Microcosm
Ki Teitzei 5773 - Be True To Who You Are
Ki Teitzei 5772 - The Torah, the Gold Watch, and Another Retelling
Ki Teitzei 5771 -  Metaphorical Parapets
Ki Tetzei 5769 - The Choice of Memory
Ki Tetzei 5767 - Honoring Inconsistency
Ki Teitzei 5766 - B'Shetzef Ketzef
Ki Tetze 5764/5-The Torah, The Gold Watch, and The Rest of the Story
Ki Tetze 5757,9,60,63--The Torah, The Gold Watch, & Everything
Ki Tetze 5758--Exclude Me
Ki Tetze 5762--One Standard

Friday, August 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

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,

© 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,

©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,


©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