Thursday, March 30, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayikra 5777–As G”d is My Witness (aka Osymandias II)

This is a fresh and expanded take on a musing I wrote 11 years ago in 5766.
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair
-Percy Bysshe Shelley
King of Kings am I, Osymandias.
If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works".
-Generally accepted translation of the inscription on a fallen statue in the Ramesseum, Luxor, which Shelley paraphrased for his poem
אֲנִ֤י רִאשׁוֹן֙ וַאֲנִ֣י אַחֲר֔וֹן וּמִבַּלְעָדַ֖י אֵ֥ין אֱלֹהִֽים׃
Ani rishon, v'Ani akharon, umibaladai ein El”him.
I am the first and I am the last, and there is no G”d but Me.
-Isaiah 44:6b

So what do these all have in common? The plain connection should be apparent. The arrogance and haughtiness of any Egyptian Pharaoh, Shelley's ironic juxtaposition of these words in his poem, and G''d's simple statement that G''d was here first and will be here long after we're gone.

The full text of Shelley's poem makes clear the irony through the description of the setting:

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said:—Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

As to the quote from Isaiah, it is from the haftarah for our parasha, Vayikra. The parasha describes, at great length, ritual sacrifices. In the haftarah, the people are chastised for abandoning those very practices. And in another connection, which the rabbis really seized upon, the parasha speaks of the obligation of one who has witnessed, or in this case, heard, a public blasphemy, that person is obligated to testify. If they do not testify, then they bear guilt for which they must confess and offer sacrifices. And in our haftarah, just a few verses after the quote we have used, is another famous quote:

וְאַתֶּ֣ם עֵדָ֑י הֲיֵ֤שׁ אֱל֙וֹהַּ֙ מִבַּלְעָדַ֔י

You are My witnesses. Is there any G”d then, but Me?"  (Isaiah 44:8)

We are obligated to be G''d's witnesses, and when we fail in that obligation, we incur guilt. In these days and times, we may have disagreements about what Torah teaches and what G''d expects us to do, but the obligation to be G''d's witnesses is as strong as ever. We may even disagree on just exactly what or who G''d is, or if G''d truly exists, or if G''d is just a metaphor. Whatever your understanding, if we are not G''d's witnesses, then G''d is not. (More about this in a bit.)

OK. So what's the other quote, the direct rendering of the text upon which Shelley based his poem? What is its connection? Aha.


Cartouche of Ramesses II

Pesach time is approaching. One of the "major characters" in the maggid of Pesach is Pharaoh. Which Pharaoh, we don't know. Traditional scholarship had once held to the belief that this Pharaoh was Ramesses II (aka Ramses II, aka User-maat-re Setep-en-re, which, poorly transliterated into Greek comes out-in English transliteration-Osymandias.) While most scholars no longer believe that Ramesses II could have been the Pharaoh of the biblical exodus, the traditional understanding remains popular. (User-maat-re Setep-en-re is part of the throne name of Ramesses II, of the 19th dynasty, who ruled Egypt from 1279 to 1212 BCE, or 1290 to 1224 BCE, depending upon which chronology you accept.) Ramesses II is also known as Ramesses the great, as his reign was quite remarkable, producing many monuments, and having great prosperity (not to mention his 8 wives.)

Yet how much like the biblical Pharaoh of the exodus is this Ramesses II, this Osymandias appears, if he is like the one in Shelley's poem, the one self-described in the inscription found at Luxor. His statues and temples and obelisks have mostly cracked and fallen or even disappeared. Ironically, his name does indeed still live on-as his works have lasted long enough for archaeologists to find them. That's a pretty darn long time. About as long as Judaism, in some form, has been around. Seems we've fared a bit better than Osymandias, though we've suffered from far more than sand withering us away to ruins.

Wow. 3000-3500 years. Pretty amazing. (And remember that Egypt's first dynasty dates back to 2920 BCE, another 1600 years or so.) Pretty impressive. Look upon our works and despair.

Hardly. G''d was around long before, and will be around long after we're gone.

Provided, that is, G''d has someone around to be G''d's witnesses, for, as it was written:

כשאתם עדי - אני אל; וכשאין אתם עדי - אין אני אל

"If 'you are My witnesses,' then I am G''d; but if you are not My witnesses, then, so to speak, I am not G''d." (Sifre to Deuteronomy 346.) *

Osymandias' name still lives, because we were around to read his inscriptions. When we're gone, who will remember Osymandias? Yet Osymandias only thought he was G''d. what about "the real thing?"

So which is it? G''d was and will be around even when we aren't here to be G''d's witnesses, or we are necessary for G''d to be G''d?

Now that's something to ponder.

At least, that’s where I left it eleven years ago. Now, in this time, it feels incomplete.

To begin with - who was around to witness for G”d before G”d created us? If G”d’s existence is dependent upon our witness, there is a logical inconsistency here. Perhaps it was only the act of our creation that generated this mutual dependency? Hm. That’s feels awfully anthropocentric. A mutual Deo-anthropocentricism? What if there is life elsewhere in the universe? (A friend of mine suggested, the other day – that perhaps life arose spontaneously elsewhere in the universe, but on earth G”d specifically interfered. Could it get any more anthropocentric than that?)

Is the mutual dependency between G”d and humanity to witness for each other at the center of why G”d really spared Noah and his family?

Oy, my head is exploding, And that’s not even the stuff that got me started down this path for my musing this year.

These are trying times. It is hard to be optimistic, hard to feel positive – even about G”d. Yet it is a time when, perhaps, we need G”d even more, and therefore we must bear witness to G”d.

That is not an easy thing to do. As I was reading through the haftarah this week, I found myself in the most cynical of moods. It’s easy, I think to myself, for G”d, through Isaiah, to pontificate (and I choose that word even knowing all the modern baggage that comes with it) and tell us that are idols are worthless, and cannot help us or do anything for us. So I find myself thinking “oh yeah, Mister invisible, incorporeal G”d, like we can be sure you can do the things that you say our idols can’t or won’t? If my idols don’t help me, I can just throw them out and get new ones to pray to. If I pray to you and don’t get the help I need, just what am I supposed to do? What’s that? It’s all part of Your plan? You’re ineffable, and we puny humans just can’t comprehend your ways? Yes? Yes, we’ve all read the book of Yonah. We’ve also read Qohelet. Are you really just trying to confuse us. (Or maybe there really is something to this “ineffable stuff.)

Yeah, yeah, we know. You freed us from bondage to Pharaoh. But in the process you made all the Egyptians serfs to their own leader, you were off somewhere else diddling while we suffered for 400 years, and then you keep hardening Pharaoh’s heart so his people have to suffer even more?  I’ll just bet there really were at least ten good people in S’dom and You destroyed the place anyway.

But…but…but. Man, I just gotta stop this. I’m making myself more miserable. I need to find a rainbow here. A reason to be G”d’s witness right here, right now, because G”d knows we need that right now.

A great man who left us last year said if we were asking “where was G”d in the Holocaust?” we were asking the wrong question. We should be asking “where was humankind?” Maybe there’s some truth in that, and not just specifically in reference to the Shoah.

Is that how we witness You? It’s not about avowing Your miracles, compassion, mercy, and all those other attributes. It’s about being Your witnesses by being the kind of people You have asked us to be.

This still begs the question of what happens to G”d if there is no one left to witness for G”d. It’s no longer enough to ask if G”d can create a a rock too heavy for even G”d to lift. Now we must ask if G”d can create a universe which will eventually have no need of G”d and G”d will therefore cease to exist but the Universe G”d created will carry on? Might that be the highest achievement of a universe-creating G”d. to obviate the need for itself? Could G”d become Osymandias in G”d’s own universe? But for all the right reasons, instead of the wrong ones? (Not that G”d, as described in Torah, is without vanity.)

I’ve opened yet another theological wormhole for me to fall into. Help. Time to him my LifeCall! I’ve fallen and I can’t get out! Lucky for me I have this alert button. It connects me directly to Torah, to Shabbat. To G”d. Seriously! As G”d is my witness. Oh wait…

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 (portions ©2006) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayikra 5776 - Stuff That's Still Bugging Me
Vayikra 5775 - Meaningful Gifts II
Vayikra 5773 (Redux 5761) - Mambo #613: A Little Bit Of Alef In My Torah
Vayikra 5772 - Confession: Not Just for Catholics
Vayikra 5771 - I'd Like To Bring To Your Attention...
Vayikra 5770 - You Can Fool Most of the People Most of the Time
Vayikra 5768 - Redux 5763 - Kol Kheilev
Vayikra 5767-Stuff That's Bugging Me
Vayikra 5766 - Osymandias
Vayikra-Shabbat Zachor 5765-Chatati
Vayikra 5763 - Kol Cheilev
Vayikra 5759 & 5762-Salvation?
Vayikra 5760-Meaningful Gifts
Vayikra 5764 and 5761-Mambo #613: A Little Bit of Alef in My Torah...

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat Vayakhel/Pekudei 5777–Bell, Pomegranate, Bell, Pomegranate

I’m starting off this musing with a thought that I plan to repeat later. Will I repeat it verbatim or not? Does it matter? Time will tell.

פַּעֲמֹ֤ן וְרִמֹּן֙ פַּעֲמֹ֣ן וְרִמֹּ֔ן עַל־שׁוּלֵ֥י הַמְּעִ֖יל סָבִ֑יב לְשָׁרֵ֕ת

A bell and a pomegranate, a bell and a pomegranate, all around the hem of the robe for officiating in… (Ex. 39:26)

I don’t know why I constantly find myself drawn back to this imagery. We first encounter it in parashat Tetzaveh, which we read just a few weeks back.  The first time, the text is slightly different:

A golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, all around the hem of the garment (Ex. 28:34)

I wrote one of my favorite musings over the years based on that first occurrence of those words in parashat Tetzaveh, Aharon’s Bells. I suppose I could just as easily have drawn upon the text here in Pekudei as inspiration for that musing. I was always aware of the repetition, but for some reason, this is the year I decided to reflect upon it.

Now, we know that anything that appears more than once in Torah is considered to be of significance. There’s no shortage of repetition, but it’s still a relatively small percentage of the entire text. Key ideas, mostly. Boiling a kid in its mother’s milk. Stuff like that.

There’s an example of a broad repetition right here in our parasha – as the saga of the design and building of the Mishkan that begins way back in parashat T’rumah continues through to Pekudei where it reaches it’s conclusion. First we get the instructions, then we read of the instructions being carried out, then the assembly – all one giant repetition. As with any repetition, there are a few small differences. (I mean after all, we couldn’t even keep the ten commandments the same!)

In the original mention of the bells and pomegranate motif, it specifically states “a golden bell” whereas here in Pekudei it only says “bell.” There’s no question that the bells are gold, for it says so in the previous verse. The version in Tetzaveh says in a whole subsequent verse that the robe was by Aharon when officiating

“so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary before the Lord and when he goes out – that he many not die.” (Ex 28:35)

whereas here in Pekudei, it mentions the robe is worn while officiating, but does not elaborate upon the reasons as it did in chapter 28.

If you go back and forth between chapters 28 and 39 you’ll find lots of small differences like these – with no apparent rhyme or reason, no consistent pattern that one could point to and say “aha!”

We can “spin” these differences in opposite ways, much the same as people are doing these days with news and facts.  We can say that the differences suggest the stories aren’t entirely true, because they don’t match. Or we can say that the fact they don’t match exactly makes it even more plausible that they’re true, because that’s just a natural human characteristic. The more paranoid cynics among us might suggest then that the differences were deliberate precisely to cause us to believe one or the other of those viewpoints! If you’re from the “this text is direct from, and the inerrant word of G”d” well then there are no differences and all is as it should be.  More on that in a bit.

Frankly, if the texts were identical, I’d be more suspicious of them. Then again, they didn’t have “copy and paste” back then.

I watch all these news stories come across my various feeds on social mediia, the web, news sites, radio and TV broadcasts, and more. Even time there’s a slightly different take on the story. I guess that’s as it should be, but it sure makes it harder to get at the actual truth, doesn’t it? So is the Torah teaching us that each time we retell a story, little changes creep in? That’s one possibility. Consider, for a moment, that your belief is that G”d wrote the Torah, exactly as it is (never mind the clear evidence of tedaction and scribal errors over the millennia.) Does this mean that even when G”d retells the same story G”d tells it slightly differently? (This fits in, of course, with my “b’tzelem anashim” concept in which if we are in the image, then all that we are and do, good and bad, are reflections of the Divine and therefore part of the Divine.

How far down the rabbit hole do we want to go with this? Already, my head is swimming with possibilities. I’d better stop now and save myself some time to contemplate this on Shabbat and in the future.

This musing is ending with a thought that I planned to repeat. Was it repeated verbatim or not? Does it matter? Will time tell?

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Pekudei 5776 - Metamorphosis
Vayakhel 5776 - An Imaginary Community (Redux & Revised 5768)
Vayakhel-Pekudei-Shabbat Parah 5775 - New Heart, New spirit
Pekudei 5774 - Pronouns Revisited
Vayakhel 5774 - Is Two Too Much?
Vayakhel-Pekudei 5773 - Craftsman. Artisan. Artist. Again.
Vayakhel-Pekude 5772 - Vocational Ed
Pekude/Shabbat Sh'kalim 5771 - Ideas Worth Re-Examining
Vayakhel 5771 - Giving Up the Gold Standard
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5770-Corroborative Detail
Vayakhel-Pekudei 5769 - There Are Some Things You Just Have To Do Yourself
Vayakhel 5768-An Imaginary Community?
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5767-Redux 5760-The Lost Episodes: Too Much of a Good Thing
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5766 - So How Did Joseph Get Away With it?
Pekude 5765-Redux 5760-Pronouns
Vayakhel 5765-The Wisdom of the Heart
Vayakhel/Pekude 5764-Comma or Construct?
Vayakhel 5763-Dayam V'hoteir
Vayakhel/Pekude 5762-Sacred Work
Vayakhel/Pekude 5761 (Revised from 5758)-Craftsman. Artisan. Artist.
Vayakhel/Pekude 5758-Craftsman. Artisan. Artist.
Vayakhel 5760-The Lost Episodes: Too Much of a Good Thing

Friday, March 17, 2017

Friday, March 10, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Tetzaveh 5777 - A Nation of Priests (And a Shtickel of Purim) (Revised from 5770)

Does it bother you? It bothers me. Judaism is a religion with a hereditary priesthood. G"d does play favorites.

People still take this hereditary priesthood seriously, despite our pretenses otherwise. We still give the Kohanim the first aliyah, and a Levite is next in line. Geneticists have identified common genetic markers among the Kohanim. Are we waiting for the priesthood to reclaim its place? Do we really want a rebuilt Temple and a return to the cultic practices? Some clearly do – both Jews and gentiles – for very different reasons. Is our spiritual evolution that incomplete, that we're not past those needs? Does it really matter if someone is a Kohen? Should it matter? Are classist and elitist divisions meant to be eternally part of our religion? Perhaps this is not what G"d had in mind.

How cozy and convenient to have it all in the family. Maybe it's a way for G"d to assuage any hurt feelings Moshe might have that he wasn't getting the deal that Avraham, Yitzkhak and Yaakov got. To insure that Moshe would carry his humility all the way to the grave (and a grave to be located in a place unknown, so that Moshe should not become as one who is worshipped and overly revered) maybe G"d struck a deal. Maybe there are conversations that took place on Sinai that weren't reported in the Torah.

Moshe: Um, excuse me, G"d?

G"d: Yes, Moshe, what is it? Can't you see I'm busy inscribing these tablets?

Moshe: Er, I don't want to appear selfish and prideful, but I was wondering about my descendants?

G"d: [Pause] What about them?

Moshe: well, for one, will they be as numerous as the sands or the stars in the sky?

G"d: Literally?

Moshe: Well, maybe figuratively..but, wait, no, maybe…even literally. Yes, literally!

G"d: Moshe, I've made you a leader of these people, but not their ruler, King, or Sovereign. That's a role only I can fulfill. What, you were hoping maybe I'd allow your children to become a dynasty?

Moshe: I know, I know. You chose me because I am humble, and willing to be a servant leader to the people. Still, one likes to provide for his family, his descendants, and future generations. Will my status help put food in their bellies?

G"d: Moshe, your arrogance begins to trouble me. Is it not enough I have placed you as leader of these people, and enabled you to lead them out of slavery into freedom so that they might worship me alone, and follow my commandments? Don't push me, Moshe. Don't tee me off. You won't like the consequences. You saw what I could do to Pharaoh.

Moshe: So what, you gonna harden my heart too, and make me suffer extra? Hey, I'm on to your little tricks. This is me you’re talking to, former prince of Egypt and now leader of the Israelites, not some ignorant ex-slave.

G"d: Also a murderer,and a guy with a really bad speech impediment.

Moshe: [silence]

G"d: [after a pregnant pause] Well, that seemed to shut you up.

Moshe: Well, when You're right, You're right. Still, it just doesn't seem fair that my miskpokha don't get anything out of this.

G"d: Boy, you don't take a hint, do you? [Pause. Sigh.] Does this really mean that much to you?

Moshe: I guess it does. Say, maybe we can make a deal.

G"d: Who do you think I am, Monty Hall? I don't make deals!

Moshe: Oh yes, You do. Want me to enumerate some examples? We can start with your negotiations with Avraham over S'dom and Gomorrah. Shall I go on?

G"d: OK, I got it. What's your proposal?

Moshe: Well, since you don't seem to want to make my children a dynasty, What about my brother? My only brother. Whom I love

G”d and Moshe: [Simultaneously] Aharon.

God:[pause] Oh wait, I see what you did there. Haha, very funny Mister wise-ass. You just keep that up and see what happens.  [pause] So, you want I should do something for Aharon?

Moshe: Exactly. For an older brother to be in the shadow of the younger-well, that can't exactly be easy for him. He deserves more than to just be my spokesperson. He's a good egg. He works hard, he's patient, a lover of peace, and he absolutely worships You.

G"d: If you knew what your brother was up to right now, you might not be so sure.

Moshe: What's that supposed to mean?

G"d: Never mind, You'll find out soon enough, anyway. [Muttering to G”d’self] And to think I let him get away with gossiping with Miriam about your Cushite wife, while I gave her the freaky scaly white skin routine as punishment. Sigh.

Moshe: What’s that?

G”d: I said never mind! [G”d gets back to inscribing the tablets.]
(*-Author’s note – If you;re going to dispute that on the basis of Exodus 34:28 I suggest you go back and look at 24:12, 31:18 and 32:16)

Moshe: Well?

God: Well what?

Moshe: A deal.

God: Alright, tell you what. I will make a deal with you. I'll make Aharon my high priest, and all his sons and their descendants can be a hereditary priesthood. OK? He doesn't deserve it, especially with what he's up to at the moment, but I'll overlook that for your sake.[To G”dself: since I’ve already set a precedent there.]

Moshe: A priesthood? What the heck will we need priests for? I thought we left all that nonsense behind in Egypt? You, you're the REAL G"d, not these phony idols, or that pantheon of half-human-half-animals the Egyptians worship. Those Egyptian priests are no paragons of virtue, let me tell you. The control the granaries and so much more in Egypt. I suspect if some Pharaoh teed them off, they'd arrange quickly for a new Pharaoh. You really want to concentrate power in the hands of an aristocratic elite? Is that the sort of religion You have in mind? If so, I'm not sure I wanna go along for the ride. I may be an ex-prince of Egypt, but You’re the One who put me in charge of the rabble, and now I feel like one of them, and I care about their equality. Why should they trade one kind of enslavement for another? Is that freedom? Priests? I think we should be a whole nation of priests. Yeah, that's the ticket. A nation of priests. I'd like to see that. Wouldn't You?

G"d: Moshe, have you noticed my nose? It's really, really flaring. You are pushing it to the limit. How dare you? Look, this was your idea-to give Aharon something so that the family line could benefit from your service. I can take that way in an instant. Don't cross me. [Pause] Though I do like that "nation of priests" thing. I just don't think it's time yet. Moshe, deal with it. There are going to be priests!

Moshe: But a hereditary priesthood? Next I suppose you'll want sacrificial altars and regular tributes and all that. I thought You were above all that nonsense-that it was just for show.

G"d: [driven by intense anger, G"d is prepared to strike Moshe dead on the spot. Then G"d pauses, takes a deep breath, counts to infinity, and says:] Moshe, you're a good man. A pain in the tukhis, but a good man. Let me lay it out for you in simple terms, okay?

Moshe: OK.

G"d: Moshe, you're an educated man. Maybe you've read some philosophy. You can probably think of concepts well beyond the comprehension of the average Israelite, or Egyptian, for that matter (although there was that Amenhotep, but never mind that...) I am going to have to do all sorts of things at first to help people come to terms with the idea that I'm incorporeal, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. So yes, we're gonna have altars, and incense, and sacrifices, and all that stuff. I'm gonna arrange it so that there's a Mishkan. that you’re gonna build, a place, a tent of meeting where I can come and be "present" among the Israelites. They're not fully ready for a theology as advanced as you think, Moshe. It could be millennia before they are. Lucky for Me, time doesn't matter much. I can wait until they evolve, spiritually. [trailing off] At the rate they're going now, I might be waiting a long, long time...

Moshe: Well, OK. I get it. Sort of. Just give me the instructions for this Mishkan thing, and all the rituals and sacrifices and stuff, and I'll make sure the people know it and do it right.

G"d: One step at a time, Moshe. One step at a time. Let's just start with the ten things I've written on these tablets, OK?

Moshe: Just ten?

God: There’s that flaring nose again…

Moshe:. OK, ok, I’ll behave. [pause] So, about my brother?

G"d: He's gonna be the high priest, and his sons will also be priests. I'll set it up so that his descendants will be the priestly family.

Moshe: Well, that ought to make him happy!

G"d: Don't be so sure. With privilege comes a price. Keep a close eye on your nephews.

Moshe: There's something You’re not telling me?

G"d: Moshe, my little boychik, there's a lot I'm not telling you. Get used to it. Deal with it. And now say "thank you" to Me for striking this deal with you.

Moshe: Thank You. I think.

G"d: You're welcome. I think. Now here, take these two tablets and head back down the mountain to the people. Your big brother has committed a great sin.

Moshe: But…You'll still make him High Priest?

G"d: That promise I'll keep. Now get out of here before I change my mind!

Well, maybe that's not what happened. Nevertheless, does it matter. Whether we had need for a hereditary priesthood then or not, do we really need it now? Is there any good reason to cling to the remnants of that system? Or is it time for all Israel to be as equals before G"d?

I should end here, but I can't resist, since Purim is also upon us, to reflect a bit on that. Boy, there's a great holiday. They tried to kill us, but we turned the tables on them and killed them first. Let's eat. I don't know about you, but I have a problem with some of the very basic underpinnings of Purim and its attendant celebration.

I’ve railed against teaching “pediatric Judaism” where we gloss over all the troubling stuff and just tell pretty little stories to our children and ourselves. Often this results in adults who, upon discovering what the texts really say, turn away from Judaism proclaiming that all they were taught were lies and half-truths. At least at Pesakh we acknowledge the pain and suffering of the Egyptians. We’re inconsistent about it, even just at Purim. We’ll celebrate the hanging (or at least the demise) of Haman. but we speak of a “beauty contest” when we know Esther, like all the others, was prepared in the Harem by its supervising eunuchs,  and the King got an opportunity to, shall we say, test-drive each applicant to be the new Queen. Do we acknowledge the misogyny of putting Zeresh in the role of planting the evil ideas in Haman’s head?  That the King’s councilors advised him to punish Vashti lest all the kingdom’s wives get sassy with their husbands? The fact that the solution to saving the Jews was for the Jews to kill those who were going to kill them first? Then there’s that mitzvah to get so drunk we can’t distinguish between Bless Mordechai and curse Haman.” Yes, the mitzvah of giving gifts to others and to the poor balance that out.

All these difficulties are not unique to the Book of Esther. Our religious texts are replete with things that are troubling. We can turn a blind eye to them, or we can engage them, and learn from them. Yes, there is much than can be learned from the Book of Esther (and all our sacred texts.) We can exegete lots of lessons, ideas, values and more. However, we ignore the warts to our own peril. It saddens me, for example, that we have clung to remnants of the hereditary priesthood, at least in the orthodox and conservative worlds. Why do we value being the descendant of a Kohen or a Levite when we consider how many of them were likely corrupt?

Although you know that sometimes I have issues with G"d, and the way G"d acts and behaves, I have to give G"d a thumbs up for one thing. G"d isn't in the Purim story. Oh, the rabbis like to pretend that, like "Esther" G"d is "hidden" behind the story. I'd like to believe that maybe it's more because G"d doesn't really approve of this story, and didn't want to be included. (Not that G”d is so innocent.) Yeah, Jewish pride is a good thing. Avoiding extinction is good, too. Sometimes, even turning the tables is desirable. But wholesale slaughter? You ever really look at the last few chapters of Megillat Esther? Sure, G"d as described in Torah and subsequent books is sometimes a warrior, and sometimes tells us to kill others. Yet there is a learning curve. I'd like to think that by the time of the Purim story, G"d had matured. And any mature G"d would certainly opt out of inclusion in that story. N'est ce pas?

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 (portions ©2010) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Tetzaveh 5776 - House Guest (Redux and Revised 5763)
Tetzaveh 5775 - Aharon's Bells (Revised)
Tetzaveh 5774 - It's Not Urim or Thummim
Tetzaveh/Shabbat Zachor/Purim 5773 - Fighting Dirty
Tetzaveh 5772-Perfection Imperfect
Tetzaveh 5770 - A Nation of Priests? (And a Shtickel of Purim)
Tetzaveh 5768-Light and Perfection
Tetzaveh/Purim 5767-The Urim & Thummim Show (Updated)
Tetzaveh 5766-Silent Yet Present
Tetzaveh 5765 and 5761-Aharon's Bells
Tetzaveh 5764-Shut Up and Listen!
Tetzaveh 5763-House Guest
Tetzaveh 5762 (Redux 5760)-The Urim and Thummim Show
Tetzaveh 5758-Something Doesn't Smell Quite Right

Friday, March 3, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–T’rumah 5777-You Still Gotta Wanna

Revisiting this musing from a decade ago (written as a follow-up to one written 16 years ago.)

Sixteen years ago, my musing for parashat T'rumah was entitled "You Gotta Wanna." It was focused on the words of Shemot (Exodus) chapter 25, verse 2:

דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ־לִי תְּרוּמָה מֵאֵת כָּל־אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ תִּקְחוּ אֶת־תְּרֽוּמָתִֽי:

"Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts from any person whose heart so moves him. (Shemot 25:2, JPS)

I argued, at that time, that it while it was somewhat unnecessary for G"d to state that the gifts being collected for the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) were voluntary, we were (and still are) a stubborn and recalcitrant people, often reluctant to part with what we have, even for G"d. As Rashi explained, G"d wanted to insure that the people's giving was born out of love for G"d, and not any selfish desires or goals. (And, I added, not out of an unhealthy fear, or simple peer pressure.)

Then, I reminded us that Rambam (Maimonides) taught us that, ultimately, giving is giving. Whether motivated by altruism or love of G"d, or given selfishly, even begrudgingly, one is fulfilling a mitzvah. Yes, the Rambam believed there were relative levels of virtue in how one gave charity, and that begrudging or selfish giving ranked lower than unselfish, joyful giving.

What about coerced giving? Well, even G"d didn't resort to that (or at least gave an appearance that there was no coercion involved. A good lawyer might argue otherwise simply on the basis of the power dynamics of the relationship between G"d and the people.)

[2017 – OK. Let’s follow the threads. G”d “favorably disposed” the Egyptians, in their already worn-down state after suffering all ten plagues, to give up to the departing Israelites the spoils of Egypt. The text is somewhat specific, noting they gave up gold, silver, and clothing,. Actually, it doesn’t even say that. It says the Israelites “asked” (or, according to the JPS, “borrowed” but I think that’s a leap too far)  of the Egyptians vessels/implements of gold and silver, and clothing. Following the thread back further to Ex. 11:2, it only mentions vessels/implements of gold and silver – no clothing. Then later, out in the wilderness during the time of parashat Mishkan, all of a sudden the list has grown, and Moses asks the people to bring as gifts for the building of the Mishkan – gold, silver, copper/bronze; blue, purple and crimson yarn, fine linens, goat’s hair, ram skins, tachash skins acacia wood; oil, spices; lapis lazuli and other precious stones. The rabbis and commentators generally assume these items to be gifted all came from the spoils of Egypt - surely slaves would not have accumulated these things on their own. And let’s talk about this acacia wood. Were the Israelites hauling around hunks and planks of wood? Maybe a carving or two, at most. Isn’t it more likely they simply cut down nearby Acacia and other trees, bushes, and lianas? If that’s the case, I might suggest that the time and effort to cut down and haul the wood from a nearby acacia tree is a far more meaningful gift than giving up jewelry handed over to you by Egyptians in their hurry to get you out of their country.]

What I didn't reflect upon sixteen years ago, but noted ten years ago, is the fact that G"d created what was, in effect, a "gift registry." Basically, G"d said "each person shall give as they are moved" and then went on to say "this is what they shall give" and "this is what you are building and these are the ingredients you will need to build it."

Is there a difference between G"d telling us what is needed, and an engaged couple doing the same through a registry? Of that, I am not certain. What I can tell you is that, in both cases, it does make our job a little easier-we don't have to think as much or put as much effort into the process as we might have if we weren't given some clues, or simply a blatant "we need this" list.

[2017 – online stores are gathering the data needed to help them suggest other items which might interest us. How much longer before there are services that use other people’s data to help us decide what to gift them? (To some extent, Amazon is already capable of this with its “Wish-Lists” features already.) Will stores give this away, or will they charge us a fee to see what our friends/relatives/neighbors might want as a gift? We know that our charitable giving is already being targeted by the sharing of data between organizations. Where do these realities fit on the Rambam’s ladder? ]

Now, gift-giving is on my mind nowadays not only because of parashat T'rumah, but also the approaching holiday of Purim, with its mitzvot of mishloakh manot (sending of gifts) and matanot l'evyonim (gifts for the poor.) Gift giving is a becoming a funny thing in our society. Values are changing and shifting (much of it due to the pressure of advertising.)

We have taken gift-giving, a value we embrace, and turned it into a process, a procedure, and not an act or action. Yes, we still cherish a crayon-written birthday card from a child, or a hand-knit or custom-created (by the giver) gift. But we see fewer and fewer of those. And even the process of giving a gift with meaning has become a process. "Tell us what this person is like and we'll help you choose the perfect gift." Why is this something we should need help with? (Yes, in the case of a gift for G"d, the situation is a little different. More on that in a second.) And now returning and exchanging gifts is as organized a process as shopping for them. What does that tell us?

Imagine this scene: an angel approaches an Israelite in the camp with a handful of jewelry. The angel says to the Israelite

"I'd like to return this."

The Israelite recognizes them as jewelry he had contributed for the building of the Mishkan and asks "Why does G"d want to return them to me? Are my gifts not good enough?"

The angel says "No, my good man, G"d appreciates your gifts very much. It's just that, well, people were so generous, we wound up with more than we needed."

The Israelite says "Well, that was a pretty big list of things that were needed that G"d told Moshe."

The angel says "Well, given your people's once and future history, we weren't anticipating such generosity. Please take them back and give us a refund."

The Israelite says "I understand. OK, I'll take them back. Just put them in my hand. My wives will be thrilled." The Israelite takes the jewelry and begins to walk away.

The angel says "Um, excuse me, but there's the matter of G"d’s refund."

The Israelite says "What? A refund? But they were a gift. G"d didn't pay me anything for them."

The angel replies "that's what you think. What would you call all those plagues on the Egyptians and all that stuff at the reed sea."

The Israelite says "Those were miracles! You mean I was expected to pay for them?"

The angel replies "Well, in a way, yes. You were expected to pay for them by worshipping only G"d, by loving G"d, and following G"d's commandments."

The Israelite says "I've been pretty good at that. Tell ya what. You tell G"d that I'll be extra loving, extra careful to do all those whatchamacallits, er, commandments, and I won't allow any idols in the house. How's that?"

The angel says "I'm afraid you don't understand. These weren't yours to begin with. G"d wants you to give them back to the Egyptian that you 'borrowed' them from. That's G"d's refund."

But I digress. Let's get back to nowadays, and parashat T'rumah, and Purim, and gift registries, and all that jazz. We now, of course, have the ultimate cop-out, as some suggest, or the ultimate solution to finding the right gift - the gift card. Instead of worrying about finding just the right gift, we just give people plastic money. On the one hand it seems impersonal, on the other hand, it makes sense.

Can you imagine all the Israelites giving gift cards for the building of the Mishkan? After all, G"d really did give them a big list, and instead of having to try and coordinate it amongst themselves, they all figured it was best to just give G"d the money and G"d would spend it. Or Moshe would have taken care of it. And what would have happened? We would have wound up with a Mishkan built of little plastic cards!

It wasn't about the money, or the value of the goods, it was about the goods themselves. They were what was needed to build the Mishkan (though I've little doubt that, even though the Torah does not mention it, some of the collected contributions of the Israelites were used to exchange in trade for some of the building materials needed at the neighborhood Mishkan Depot.)

So what have we learned here? Well, G"d apparently approves of gift registries. Sort of. That giving money isn't always the answer or the best solution.

And that takes us back to the same place I wound up sixteen years ago. G"d doesn't want or need gift cards from us. Nor do any of our friends. (On the other hand, giving gift cards to the poor isn't such a bad idea. The western world’s history of charitable giving is replete with far too many examples of our giving the needy what we thought they needed, and not what they thought they needed. Beggars can’t be choosers, right? We are, ever so slowly, starting to grow past that attitude, but we still have a long way to go.)

G"d is looking for us to find the gifts that we must give. That we are compelled internally and unthinkingly to give. As I wrote back in 5761:

But when was the last time you actually gave something that was of great value to yourself as a gift to G"d, t'rumah, as it were, solely because you heart moved you to do so? Don't count the gift if, at any time, you thought "as a Jew I am obligated..." because that is a motivation of the head, not the heart. The true gift of the heart is given without thought. That is what it means to take G"d's commandments into your heart. To give t'rumah not because you thought about it, but because your internal makeup simply compels you to do so. I suspect that for G"d, that could be the greatest gift of all, for through it G"d knows that G"d's creation of humanity isn't as flawed as it might appear.

Still, the reality is that we often require motivation. We understand that the gift we have to give is love for all of G"d's creation and love of G"d. Yet we are imperfect in our execution of that understanding. And we are left, as I said in 5761:

"The same place Torah always takes us. With impossible goals that we must continually strive toward. And to get there-you gotta wanna."

Shabbat Shalom

©2017 (portions ©2007 and 2001) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

T'rumah 5776 - Gift Cards for G"d
T'rumah 5775 - Dis Legonmenon Driving Me Crazy, Mon!
T'rumah 5774 - Dollhouse
T'rumah 5773 - Virtual Reality, Real Virtuality, or Really Virtual?
T'rumah 5772-When Wool and Linen Together Are Not Shatnez
T'rumah 5771 - TorahLeaks
T'rumah 5770 - Finessing Idolatry, or Outgrowing It?
T'rumah 5769 - Planning for Always
T'rumah 5767-You Gotta Wanna - The Sequel
T'rumah 5766-No Tools Allowed
T'rumah 5765-Ish Al Akhiv
T'rumah 5764-Redux 5760-Doing It Gd's Way
T'rumah 5763-Semper Paratus
T'rumah 5762-Virtual Reality or Real Virtuality?
T'rumah 5760-Doing It Gd's Way
T'rumah 5761-You Gotta Wanna