Random Musing Before Shabbat–Matot-Masei 5778—Irredeemable (For Now)

At one point, I had simply considered writing:

Numbers Chapter 31

and allowing that to be my entire musing, with the musing’s title (without the parenthetical “for now”) saying all that I felt needed to be said about it. The Torah has no dearth of troubling texts, and I have always been interested in finding ways to redeem them. I have written about this before, trying to find ways to redeem at least parts of it. I’ve done so as recently as last year’s musing. This year I’ve given up on this one. At least for now. Here – read for yourself, and we’ll discuss it on the other side, as they say:

Numbers Chapter 31

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃

1 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying,

נְקֹ֗ם נִקְמַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מֵאֵ֖ת הַמִּדְיָנִ֑ים אַחַ֖ר תֵּאָסֵ֥ף אֶל־עַמֶּֽיךָ׃

2 “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.”

וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־הָעָ֣ם לֵאמֹ֔ר הֵחָלְצ֧וּ מֵאִתְּכֶ֛ם אֲנָשִׁ֖ים לַצָּבָ֑א וְיִהְיוּ֙ עַל־מִדְיָ֔ן לָתֵ֥ת נִקְמַת־יְהוָ֖ה בְּמִדְיָֽן׃

3 Moses spoke to the people, saying, “Let men be picked out from among you for a campaign, and let them fall upon Midian to wreak the LORD’s vengeance on Midian.

אֶ֚לֶף לַמַּטֶּ֔ה אֶ֖לֶף לַמַּטֶּ֑ה לְכֹל֙ מַטּ֣וֹת יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל תִּשְׁלְח֖וּ לַצָּבָֽא׃

4 You shall dispatch on the campaign a thousand from every one of the tribes of Israel.”

וַיִּמָּֽסְרוּ֙ מֵאַלְפֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶ֖לֶף לַמַּטֶּ֑ה שְׁנֵים־עָשָׂ֥ר אֶ֖לֶף חֲלוּצֵ֥י צָבָֽא׃

5 So a thousand from each tribe were furnished from the divisions of Israel, twelve thousand picked for the campaign.

וַיִּשְׁלַ֨ח אֹתָ֥ם מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶ֥לֶף לַמַּטֶּ֖ה לַצָּבָ֑א אֹ֠תָם וְאֶת־פִּ֨ינְחָ֜ס בֶּן־אֶלְעָזָ֤ר הַכֹּהֵן֙ לַצָּבָ֔א וּכְלֵ֥י הַקֹּ֛דֶשׁ וַחֲצֹצְר֥וֹת הַתְּרוּעָ֖ה בְּיָדֽוֹ׃

6 Moses dispatched them on the campaign, a thousand from each tribe, with Phinehas son of Eleazar serving as a priest on the campaign, equipped with the sacred utensils and the trumpets for sounding the blasts.

וַֽיִּצְבְּאוּ֙ עַל־מִדְיָ֔ן כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָ֖ה אֶת־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיַּֽהַרְג֖וּ כָּל־זָכָֽר׃

7 They took the field against Midian, as the LORD had commanded Moses, and slew every male.

וְאֶת־מַלְכֵ֨י מִדְיָ֜ן הָרְג֣וּ עַל־חַלְלֵיהֶ֗ם אֶת־אֱוִ֤י וְאֶת־רֶ֙קֶם֙ וְאֶת־צ֤וּר וְאֶת־חוּר֙ וְאֶת־רֶ֔בַע חֲמֵ֖שֶׁת מַלְכֵ֣י מִדְיָ֑ן וְאֵת֙ בִּלְעָ֣ם בֶּן־בְּע֔וֹר הָרְג֖וּ בֶּחָֽרֶב׃

8 Along with their other victims, they slew the kings of Midian: Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian. They also put Balaam son of Beor to the sword.

וַיִּשְׁבּ֧וּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל אֶת־נְשֵׁ֥י מִדְיָ֖ן וְאֶת־טַפָּ֑ם וְאֵ֨ת כָּל־בְּהֶמְתָּ֧ם וְאֶת־כָּל־מִקְנֵהֶ֛ם וְאֶת־כָּל־חֵילָ֖ם בָּזָֽזוּ׃

9 The Israelites took the women and children of the Midianites captive, and seized as booty all their beasts, all their herds, and all their wealth.

וְאֵ֤ת כָּל־עָרֵיהֶם֙ בְּמ֣וֹשְׁבֹתָ֔ם וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־טִֽירֹתָ֑ם שָׂרְפ֖וּ בָּאֵֽשׁ׃

10 And they destroyed by fire all the towns in which they were settled, and their encampments.

וַיִּקְחוּ֙ אֶת־כָּל־הַשָּׁלָ֔ל וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־הַמַּלְק֑וֹחַ בָּאָדָ֖ם וּבַבְּהֵמָֽה׃

11 They gathered all the spoil and all the booty, man and beast,

וַיָּבִ֡אוּ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה֩ וְאֶל־אֶלְעָזָ֨ר הַכֹּהֵ֜ן וְאֶל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אֶת־הַשְּׁבִ֧י וְאֶת־הַמַּלְק֛וֹחַ וְאֶת־הַשָּׁלָ֖ל אֶל־הַֽמַּחֲנֶ֑ה אֶל־עַֽרְבֹ֣ת מוֹאָ֔ב אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־יַרְדֵּ֥ן יְרֵחֽוֹ׃ (ס)

12 and they brought the captives, the booty, and the spoil to Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the whole Israelite community, at the camp in the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho

I’ll stop here. and provide a link for you to read the remaining 42 verses:

Trust me, it only gets worse as you go along. After this horror, the returned commanders are berated by Moses for killing only the adult males and leaving the Midianite women and children alive. Those Midianite women who had tempted the Israelite men to follow other gods. So Moses orders the slaying (or the last euphemistic murdering) of all the male children, and all the women who were not virgins.

Once this carnage is complete, the soldiers are to remove themselves from the camp and purify themselves and their weapons over seven days. Then, the booty gets counted up, a portion withheld for the priests (it’s cleverly named a portion for the L”rd, but we all know who was really getting it,) and the rest divided up between the soldiers. 16 verses are dedicated to accounting for all the booty and the various portions withheld for the L”rd and other shares as required – noting the number of sheep, cattle, asses, and yes, human beings (i.e. the female virgins left after everyone else was killed.)

The chapter itself makes a small attempt at internal redemption when the commanders of the troops, upon discovering that not one of them was killed, offer their booty to the priests. (The soldiers kept what booty they took.) Yes, saying thank you to G”d for sparing the lives of all your soldiers (even though they mercilessly killed thousands of men, women, and children) gets brownie points. (Though I deduct from the value of the points for the fact that this booty wasn’t really given to G”d, it was given to the priests and Levites.)

So let me ask you – what – what could possibly be redeemed from that mess?

Yes, there is a ton of apologetic reasoning out there. If we operate from the premise that human beings are innately prone to war with each other the potential for apologetic reasoning is vast. I reject all of it, utterly.

My problem is less with the human beings – the Israelites and Moses. My issue is with G”d. This omnipotent G”d who has done the mightiest of miracles needs to use human beings  to kill other human beings so that G”d might fulfill a promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? You couldn’t have sent legions of angels? You couldn’t just snap your fingers and voila?

Yes, we all understand that human beings will value something more highly if they have to work for it rather than just having it handed to them. I get that. Nevertheless, it feels, as I’ve written in previous musings, over the top to have all this wholesale slaughter as part of just such an exchange. Not to mention that G”d took a different approach with the ten plagues, so we know it is possible – or – wait a minute – is that a glimpse of redemption here? The ten plagues involved lots of lopsided suffering. Did G”d realize that a more abject lesson, with suffering on both sides, would be a better lesson for the Israelites? But oops – not one Israelite was killed in this slaughter – so, never mind, chuck that redemptive idea.

We can place the story in a classic ultimate good versus ultimate evil, but that doesn’t hold up well either.

As I seek redemption for chapter 31 I keep having moments of aha followed by inevitable let down and the balloon busts on each new (or recycled old) thought. So I’m going to accept the lesson in that, at least for today, for this year, for this moment in time, and declare chapter 32 irredeemable. For now. 


חֲזַק חֲזַק וְנִתְחַזֵק

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Matot-Masei 5777 – Thirty-Two-Thousand Virgins?
Matot-Masei 5775 – Mei-eit Harav Tarbu U’mei-eit Hamat Tamitu
Masei 5774 – Would Jeremiah Be Surprised?
Matot 5774 – Over the Top (Revised 5763)
Matot-Masei 5773 – The Torah Is One Of My FaceBook Groups
Matot-Masei 5772 – And the Punting Goes On
Masei 5771 – Cause and Effect
Matot 5771 – Don’t Become Like…Them
Matot-Masei 5770 – Treasure Trove of Trouble
Masei 5768 – Accidents Matter
Matot 5768/5765-Even Moshe Rabbeinu Had to Punt
Matot-Masei 5766 – First Fruit
Matot-Masey 5764-Putting the Kids Before the Kids
Matot–Masey 5763-Over the Top
Matot–Masey 5762–The Rebel’s Complaint and Promises, Promises

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Random Musing Before Shabbat – Pinkhas 5778 — Reviewing Zealousness (Redux 5768)

Fifteen years ago I wrote a missing about parashat Pinkhas wondering about what this and other stories teach us about when and when not to act with zeal.  Ten years ago, I spun a  new musing, with new perspectives, from that original. This week, I set out to spin a new musing that reflected where I am in my life today. Upon reflection, I realized that while writing this new spin on the topic proved to be cathartic for me, it might be asking for too much for you, dear readers, to share in the raw emotions  and personal truths. Quite frankly, my writing may be too impolitic for this moment in time for a variety of reasons. So, reluctantly, I’ll be discrete and political for now.  I’ll add a brief addendum to this re-sharing of my musing from a decade ago in 5768 which might provide readers with some insight as to where I am today, at this moment in time, when it comes to being zealous. (If you’d actually like to read the musing which I did write but not share, just drop me a line privately.) Now, back to 5768/2008.

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Pinkhas 5768—Still Zealous After All These Years

Five years ago, my musing for this parasha was entitled “I Still Get Zealous”, the title being a pun on the Jules Styne/Sammy Cahn song “I Still Get Jealous” from “High Button Shoes” (though oddly, it was Louis Armstrong’s version that catapulted the song to fame.) I’m spinning this new musing off of that earlier musing, using some of its thoughts, but from a rather different vantage point.

In an odd coincidence of time, while I’m still zealous, today happens to have been my last day as Director of Education and Congregational Life for Bethesda Jewish Congregation (BJC.) It was not easy to choose to leave my congregational family of five years so that I might move with the family unit of which I have now become part to Amherst, MA. I’m sure most of you know what it’s like to leave somewhere for the last time. Yet nothing tells me more about my own habitual zealousness than the way I approached my last few weeks, days, hours and minutes at BJC. Last Friday, I led my last service for BJC, and I was as inspired and uplifted as always. This past Wednesday, I led Torah study for the last time, and was as engaged and enlightened as always. also on Wednesday, I directed the BJC choir in rehearsing for the Yamim Noraim (High Holy Days) for the last time, and was passionate and driven as always. I think that I can do no less.

Yes, the years have not only aged me but taught me. I have learned to rein in my zealousness and over-dedication. Though I must admit that during these past 7 years of bachelorhood I easily slipped back into my old habits of perhaps giving more of myself, my time, and my talents as I should. Now, once again part of a family unit with a child of 8 in it, I can’t give as much to other things no matter how driven or zealous I am, for my family requires and deserves more zealousness, passion, and patience than anything else. I’m sure that somewhere in there is a balance point, and I’ll find my way to it in time, but my family will also come first – something that, I am ashamed to admit, I cannot claim was always true in my previous relationships-though I’d like to think I made a valiant effort, no matter how much I succeeded or failed.

There are consequences of zealousness, but we cannot always be sure of what they will be – reward, punishment, et al. Nadav and Avihu were turned into crispy critters for their zealousness, yet Pinkhas rewarded for his. I wonder sometimes if this is a proof text for the idea that our Torah embraces and teaches about situational ethics. On the other hand, it could just be illustrative of an impetuous and sometimes overly zealous G”d. I think I understand now why so many have this deep seated need for G”d to be unchanging, ever the same. That’s much easier to deal with than a G”d whose reactions and attitudes seem to vary from situation to situation (witness the different reactions to the zealousness of Pinkhas vs. the zealousness of Nadav and Avihu.) and to put an even more radical spin on it, consider that all Nadav and Avihu did was offer a little bit of extra, alien fire, that they hadn’t been asked to offer – and for their troubles, G”d toasted them. Yet when Pinkhas murders in cold blood the fornicators Zimri and Cozbi, he gets rewarded with a “brit Shalom” a covenant with G”d for him and his descendants. (Yes, yes, we’ve all heard the apologetic explanations – G”d brough Pinkhas and his descendants into this special relationship so G”d could “keep an eye on these crazy zealots” – and G”d was actually rewarding Nadav and Avihu by bringing them into the ultimate special relationship with G”d. They were made holy by being sacrificed. Never mind the subtle Christological subtext here.)

Yet, I reject the apologetics. What we have here is an inconsistent G”d who reacts differently in different situations. Voila-situational ethics. I don’t particularly agree with G”d’s choices here – that killing two human beings in order to assuage G”d’s anger is ultimately more forgivable than offering up a little extra alien fire. Then again, how often do G”d and I agree?

It gets trickier, because we strive to base our systems of ethics upon what we believe about that which G”d approves and disapproves. Yet it appears that sometimes, when we do what we believe is what G”d wants, G”d approves, and at other times G”d gives a thumbs down. On what basis? Depending upon which side of the bed G”d woke up on? On the surface, that appears to be a rather troubling vision-a G”d whose mood can affect all G”d’s creations. And I’m not buying into that one at all. It requires a bit too much of an anthropomorphizing of G”d. (There’s a book inside of me, that I am finally going to start writing now that life is giving me some breathing room to do so, based on the premise that one ought to look at the premise of “b’tzelem Elokim” in a somewhat reverse manner–that perhaps the very traits we find in ourselves that trouble us are traits that G”d possesses as well–and that G”d, too, is seeking a way to rid G”d’s self of these potentially negative energies. Or perhaps, since G”d possesses these qualities, they aren’t so negative after all? But I digress.)

Need we be troubled by a tempestuous G”d, be so insistent on consistency from our deity? And is it inconsistency, or is our narrow view of G”d preventing us from seeing a bigger picture? (Still, I won’t go as far as accepting that old “ineffable G”d canard.)

I do know that sometimes zealousness brings reward and other times retribution. Do we, therefore, avoid being zealous and avoid the risk? That would probably be the rabbinic approach-building a fence around it lest we inadvertently err.

As always, as I ponder these questions, and seek answers to them, I am reminded of happenings in my own world. I worte in my 2002 version of this musing about a time I participated in a little team building exercise. It was tough going the whole time, as 3 or 4 “soloists” kept thwarting the attempts to build cohesive team action from the entire group. In an ideal world, the actions of these few “zealots” would have resulted in learning by their example the futility of failing to play with the whole team. And on occasion that did happen. Sometimes, though, through brutish and stubborn effort, the individualists succeeded. And I found that extremely frustrating. So much so that I and the other facilitators and participants actually endeavored to make it ever so much tougher for the non-team players–because it didn’t seem fair for them to succeed. Yet, as I thought about that, I thought about an activity I had observed earlier in another setting. It was a student experiment in “luck”-a game of chance with an edible reward–chocolate, of course. The exercise was structured in such a fashion that those who received some chocolate and how long they had to try and eat it all was truly random.

Some people were luckier than others-and I and the other adult observers in the room began to consider ways to help even the odds–as it seemed some students seemed particularly unhappy to not be getting any chocolate. Yet, in the end interference wasn’t really necessary. Things evened out. For the most part. So the zealous impulses I and other had were not acted upon and the result was fair. Almost. Because there was one kid whose luck didn’t hold-so we did have to finagle things a bit at the very end. And this kid was accepting and appreciative. However, there have been other times I have, or have seen others work to help give a student or a camper an advantage, and what we got for it in return was not appreciation but resentment. So was our zeal misdirected? Or just unappreciated? Is that what happened to Nadav and Avihu? Pinchas’ zeal was obviously appreciated by G”d.

So when and where is zeal appropriate, and when is it dangerous? It doesn’t appear we get a clear answer from the Torah at all. It would be easy to assume that Nadav and Avihu were acting on behalf of only themselves–but I don’t believe the text clearly supports that assumption. They may have been inebriated, but their choice to offer yet one more sacrifice to G”d could have easily been motivated by their zeal for insuring the community’s welfare and not just their own. We’ll never know. It does seem a bit more apparent that Pinkhas acted with zeal on behalf of the community. His zeal drove him to kill two of G”ds creations – one a member of the tribe, another,the supposedly scheming daughter of a Midianite muckety-muck trying to lure the Israelite men into worship their gods. From the end results, perhaps we could conclude that Pinkhas was rewarded for that, and also conclude that, since Nadav and Avihu were not rewarded, that their zeal was selfish. That’s really going out on a limb I’m not sure I want to crawl onto. It’s also a very teleological approach to exegeting a lesson from the text.

It’s not surprising that so many people I know are somewhat zealous (particularly about their Judaism, and also about how they think other Jews should live.) I am one of those zealots. Like Nadav and Avihu, I have been stung (though perhaps with less drastic consequences) by allowing my unmitigated zeal to get the better of me. Like Pinkhas, I have also had the occasional reward for being zealous.

One would have thought that, after all these years, the level of my zeal would have decreased somewhat. Look-it even happened to Moshe, so why not me? That Moshe would so easily go to his grave, shucking and jiving and not openly complaining (too much) about his not getting to enter the promised land. That he even struck the rock in the first place. All signs of flagging zeal (or perhaps just old age.) Yet even today, on my last day, during my last hours, even my last few minutes, I worked to complete my tasks and prepare the way for my successor with passion and zeal. I did it not for any reward, for, particularly in this case, there would be none to be had-the tributes were long over and now came the silent slow walk out of the stadium after all the fans had left. Yet there is perceptible reward – and that is how I feel about myself, my professionalism, my passion, my dedication. Tonight I don’t need the strokes of others to make me feel good. I’m flying high on the reward of my own good feelings.

I’m perhaps a little bit closer now than when I started in trying to figure out when to be zealous and when to not act with zeal, but I haven;t figured it all out just yet. Great-that gives me something to ponder this Shabbat. I hope I’ve engaged you enough to get you pondering that question this Shabbat as well.

As always, a sweet Shabbat to you and yours.

Afternote from 5778:

Perhaps I am even a little closer here in 5778 to understanding the appropriate time and place to be zealous, but the reasons I am closer to taming my zealous impulses seem to be forms of external negative rather than positive reinforcement. Self-refueling requires the means to obtain fuel.

May it be G”d’s will and my own will that a decade from now I’ll be able to put a better, more positive spin on my life since now.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 (portions ©2003 and 2008) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Pinchas 5777 – The Sons of Korach
Pinkhas 5775 – Why Is This Rebuke…yadda, yadda, yadda (an expansion on 5769)
Pinkhas 5774 – Slaughter the Oxen, Burn the Plow, and Hear the Still Small Voice
Pinkhas 5773 – G”d’s Justice, G”d’s Responsibility
Pinkhas 5772 – Not Such a Shining Moment
Pinkhas 5771 – Wake Up and Smell the Coffee
Pinkhas 5770 – Thanking Those Who Didn’t Make It
Pinkhas 5769-Why is This Rebuke Different From All Other Rebukes?
Pinhas 5766-Let’s Give Moshe a Hand
Pinkhas 5765-Kol D’mamah Dakah
Pinchas 5762 — I Still Get Zealous
Pinchas 5764/5760-It Just Is!

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Random Musing Before Shabbat – Balak 5778 — The Rest of Mah Tovu

It is not a phenomenon unique to Judaism, but we certainly have our fair share of it. We pluck away bits of text from of sacred scriptures – Torah, Talmud, the works of great sages, and elsewhere. We take these little nuggets and embrace them. We make them centerpieces and themes. Often we turn them into songs.

While doing so can have lots of positive effects – I certainly experience them as a Jewish musician – there is a caution to be noted. We are fond of accusing others of picking and choosing text to fit their interpretations. Glass houses.

מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!

In our siddur, we have attached words from Psalm 5:8, 26:8, and 69:14, and changed and adapted one verse from Psalm 95:6 to this one verse from Torah, and for many, if not most people, that is their entire understanding of “Mah Tovu.” We have turned it into a paean to G”d’s love and the places where we worship.

I’m not suggesting this is a bad thing. I’ll admit, the Mah Tovu from the siddur is one of my favorite mash-ups of text (and our siddur is replete with them.) It is a thoroughly beautiful and inspiring prayer, perfect for the start of worship.

However, even when we encounter these words in parashat Balak during our annual reading cycle, we tend to focus on them in our adapted context of their use in worship. Sure, most of us know the story of Balak and Bilaam. Talking asses are rare (well, maybe not these days, but that’s a whole different musing) and this is a particularly well-crafted narrative. We remind ourselves, when we use the one verse from this parasha in our worship services, of the story from where it came, but primarily with the vague notions that curses can be turned to blessings, that Israel is worthy of G”d’s blessing, that an enemy of Israel was thwarted, and some reflections on what it means when one’s beast of burden speaks and reveals one’s own blindness to what is right in front of one’s eyes.

Context is everything. Two previous attempts were made by Bilaam to fulfill Balak’s wish to curse the Israelites. Twice they go up on a mountain, build altars, and sacrifice on them.

The first time, Bilaam states:

וַיִּשָּׂ֥א מְשָׁל֖וֹ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר מִן־אֲ֠רָם יַנְחֵ֨נִי בָלָ֤ק מֶֽלֶךְ־מוֹאָב֙ מֵֽהַרְרֵי־קֶ֔דֶם לְכָה֙ אָֽרָה־לִּ֣י יַעֲקֹ֔ב וּלְכָ֖ה זֹעֲמָ֥ה יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

He took up his theme, and said: From Aram has Balak brought me, Moab’s king from the hills of the East: Come, curse me Jacob, Come, tell Israel’s doom!

מָ֣ה אֶקֹּ֔ב לֹ֥א קַבֹּ֖ה אֵ֑ל וּמָ֣ה אֶזְעֹ֔ם לֹ֥א זָעַ֖ם יְהוָֽה׃

How can I damn whom God has not damned, How doom when the LORD has not doomed?

כִּֽי־מֵרֹ֤אשׁ צֻרִים֙ אֶרְאֶ֔נּוּ וּמִגְּבָע֖וֹת אֲשׁוּרֶ֑נּוּ הֶן־עָם֙ לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן וּבַגּוֹיִ֖ם לֹ֥א יִתְחַשָּֽׁב׃

As I see them from the mountain tops, Gaze on them from the heights, There is a people that dwells apart, Not reckoned among the nations,

מִ֤י מָנָה֙ עֲפַ֣ר יַעֲקֹ֔ב וּמִסְפָּ֖ר אֶת־רֹ֣בַע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל תָּמֹ֤ת נַפְשִׁי֙ מ֣וֹת יְשָׁרִ֔ים וּתְהִ֥י אַחֲרִיתִ֖י כָּמֹֽהוּ׃

Who can count the dust of Jacob, Number the dust-cloud of Israel? May I die the death of the upright, May my fate be like theirs!

Ok, that’s pretty innocuous. Next.

וַיִּשָּׂ֥א מְשָׁל֖וֹ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר ק֤וּם בָּלָק֙ וּֽשֲׁמָ֔ע הַאֲזִ֥ינָה עָדַ֖י בְּנ֥וֹ צִפֹּֽר׃

And he took up his theme, and said: Up, Balak, attend, Give ear unto me, son of Zippor!

לֹ֣א אִ֥ישׁ אֵל֙ וִֽיכַזֵּ֔ב וּבֶן־אָדָ֖ם וְיִתְנֶחָ֑ם הַה֤וּא אָמַר֙ וְלֹ֣א יַעֲשֶׂ֔ה וְדִבֶּ֖ר וְלֹ֥א יְקִימֶֽנָּה׃

God is not man to be capricious, Or mortal to change His mind. Would He speak and not act, Promise and not fulfill?

הִנֵּ֥ה בָרֵ֖ךְ לָקָ֑חְתִּי וּבֵרֵ֖ךְ וְלֹ֥א אֲשִׁיבֶֽנָּה׃

My message was to bless: When He blesses, I cannot reverse it.

לֹֽא־הִבִּ֥יט אָ֙וֶן֙ בְּיַעֲקֹ֔ב וְלֹא־רָאָ֥ה עָמָ֖ל בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהָיו֙ עִמּ֔וֹ וּתְרוּעַ֥ת מֶ֖לֶךְ בּֽוֹ׃

No harm is in sight for Jacob, No woe in view for Israel. The LORD their God is with them, And their King’s acclaim in their midst.

אֵ֖ל מוֹצִיאָ֣ם מִמִּצְרָ֑יִם כְּתוֹעֲפֹ֥ת רְאֵ֖ם לֽוֹ׃

God who freed them from Egypt Is for them like the horns of the wild ox.

כִּ֤י לֹא־נַ֙חַשׁ֙ בְּיַעֲקֹ֔ב וְלֹא־קֶ֖סֶם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כָּעֵ֗ת יֵאָמֵ֤ר לְיַעֲקֹב֙ וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מַה־פָּ֖עַל אֵֽל׃

Lo, there is no augury in Jacob, No divining in Israel: Jacob is told at once, Yea Israel, what God has planned.

הֶן־עָם֙ כְּלָבִ֣יא יָק֔וּם וְכַאֲרִ֖י יִתְנַשָּׂ֑א לֹ֤א יִשְׁכַּב֙ עַד־יֹ֣אכַל טֶ֔רֶף וְדַם־חֲלָלִ֖ים יִשְׁתֶּֽה׃

Lo, a people that rises like a lion, Leaps up like the king of beasts, Rests not till it has feasted on prey And drunk the blood of the slain.

That’s beginning to have some threatening overtones. Finally, after delivering the well worn verse 5 (i.e. the Mah Tovu) Bilaam goes on. It stays nice for a while, but at verse 8 it starts getting sinister.

אֵ֚ל מוֹצִיא֣וֹ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם כְּתוֹעֲפֹ֥ת רְאֵ֖ם ל֑וֹ יֹאכַ֞ל גּוֹיִ֣ם צָרָ֗יו וְעַצְמֹתֵיהֶ֛ם יְגָרֵ֖ם וְחִצָּ֥יו יִמְחָֽץ׃

God who freed them from Egypt Is for them like the horns of the wild ox. They shall devour enemy nations, Crush their bones, And smash their arrows.

כָּרַ֨ע שָׁכַ֧ב כַּאֲרִ֛י וּכְלָבִ֖יא מִ֣י יְקִימֶ֑נּוּ מְבָרֲכֶ֣יךָ בָר֔וּךְ וְאֹרְרֶ֖יךָ אָרֽוּר׃

They crouch, they lie down like a lion, Like the king of beasts; who dare rouse them? Blessed are they who bless you, Accursed they who curse you!

At this point, Balak interrupts with another hissy fit and Bilaam once again explains that as a prophet of G”d he can only say the words G”d puts in his mouth. Then Bilaam continues with one last, long zinger:

וַיִּשָּׂ֥א מְשָׁל֖וֹ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר נְאֻ֤ם בִּלְעָם֙ בְּנ֣וֹ בְעֹ֔ר וּנְאֻ֥ם הַגֶּ֖בֶר שְׁתֻ֥ם הָעָֽיִן׃

He took up his theme, and said: Word of Balaam son of Beor, Word of the man whose eye is true,

נְאֻ֗ם שֹׁמֵ֙עַ֙ אִמְרֵי־אֵ֔ל וְיֹדֵ֖עַ דַּ֣עַת עֶלְי֑וֹן מַחֲזֵ֤ה שַׁדַּי֙ יֶֽחֱזֶ֔ה נֹפֵ֖ל וּגְל֥וּי עֵינָֽיִם׃

Word of him who hears God’s speech, Who obtains knowledge from the Most High, And beholds visions from the Almighty, Prostrate, but with eyes unveiled:

אֶרְאֶ֙נּוּ֙ וְלֹ֣א עַתָּ֔ה אֲשׁוּרֶ֖נּוּ וְלֹ֣א קָר֑וֹב דָּרַ֨ךְ כּוֹכָ֜ב מִֽיַּעֲקֹ֗ב וְקָ֥ם שֵׁ֙בֶט֙ מִיִּשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וּמָחַץ֙ פַּאֲתֵ֣י מוֹאָ֔ב וְקַרְקַ֖ר כָּל־בְּנֵי־שֵֽׁת׃

What I see for them is not yet, What I behold will not be soon: A star rises from Jacob, A scepter comes forth from Israel; It smashes the brow of Moab, The foundation of all children of Seth.

וְהָיָ֨ה אֱד֜וֹם יְרֵשָׁ֗ה וְהָיָ֧ה יְרֵשָׁ֛ה שֵׂעִ֖יר אֹיְבָ֑יו וְיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל עֹ֥שֶׂה חָֽיִל׃

Edom becomes a possession, Yea, Seir a possession of its enemies; But Israel is triumphant.

וְיֵ֖רְדְּ מִֽיַּעֲקֹ֑ב וְהֶֽאֱבִ֥יד שָׂרִ֖יד מֵעִֽיר׃

A victor issues from Jacob To wipe out what is left of Ir.

וַיַּרְא֙ אֶת־עֲמָלֵ֔ק וַיִּשָּׂ֥א מְשָׁל֖וֹ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר רֵאשִׁ֤ית גּוֹיִם֙ עֲמָלֵ֔ק וְאַחֲרִית֖וֹ עֲדֵ֥י אֹבֵֽד׃

He saw Amalek and, taking up his theme, he said: A leading nation is Amalek; But its fate is to perish forever.

וַיַּרְא֙ אֶת־הַקֵּינִ֔י וַיִּשָּׂ֥א מְשָׁל֖וֹ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֵיתָן֙ מֽוֹשָׁבֶ֔ךָ וְשִׂ֥ים בַּסֶּ֖לַע קִנֶּֽךָ׃

He saw the Kenites and, taking up his theme, he said: Though your abode be secure, And your nest be set among cliffs,

כִּ֥י אִם־יִהְיֶ֖ה לְבָ֣עֵֽר קָ֑יִן עַד־מָ֖ה אַשּׁ֥וּר תִּשְׁבֶּֽךָּ׃

Yet shall Kain be consumed, When Asshur takes you captive.

וַיִּשָּׂ֥א מְשָׁל֖וֹ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר א֕וֹי מִ֥י יִחְיֶ֖ה מִשֻּׂמ֥וֹ אֵֽל׃

He took up his theme and said: Alas, who can survive except God has willed it!

וְצִים֙ מִיַּ֣ד כִּתִּ֔ים וְעִנּ֥וּ אַשּׁ֖וּר וְעִנּוּ־עֵ֑בֶר וְגַם־ה֖וּא עֲדֵ֥י אֹבֵֽד׃

Ships come from the quarter of Kittim; They subject Asshur, subject Eber. They, too, shall perish forever.

Can you just imagine singing any those words to a song at the beginning of morning worship? Thank goodness the rabbis, in creating the siddur, chose to create a mash-up, plucking only the one line from Torah (though they could have used the immediately following verses 24:6-7 in keeping with the positive, upbeat tone.)

Nevertheless, I think there is value in always connecting the words mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov mishk’notekha Yisrael to their original setting, recalling that for Israel to become the nation, people, culture, and religion that it did, others had to die, or be dispossessed.  That lesson is no less important today when we consider the modern state, medinat Israel. It is good to be reminded, in the midst of our joy, the suffering that had to occur to bring us to each and every shehehkheyanu moment we have experienced. Let our remembrance of the context of the Mah Tovu in parashat Balak be like the drops of wine we spill at Pesakh.

It’s not my intent to spoil for anyone, especially including myself, those spiritual moments that are often created in the reading or singing of the Mah tovu prayer at morning services. As I stated earlier, it is one of my favorite prayers, one of my my favorite textual mash-ups. Yet, as this prayer, in its many beautiful musical settings can comfort the afflicted, I feel some obligation to afflict the comfortable. My job is done.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

[Note: following the translation from the Septuagint, JPS uses Balaam. I prefer the more accurate transliteration of Bilaam (better yet, probably, is Bil’am.]

Other Musings on this Parasha

Balak 5777 – Bad Habits, Still
Balak 5775 – Stymied
Balak 5774 – Ball’s In Your Court
Balak 5772 – Unvelievable
Balak 5771-Imperfect Justice is No Excuse
Balak 5770 – Beating Our Donkeys II (Revised and Updated 5758)
Balak 5764 – Bad Habits
Balak 5758/5761-Beating Our Donkeys

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Random Musing Before Shabbat–Chukat 5778 — The Spirit of Miriam (Revised)

Now wait just a darn minute here. This doesn’t sound right.

At the start of chapter 20 of Bamidbar, Miriam dies, and the wells dry up. The only moaning, wailing and weeping on the part of the Israelites is for the lack of water. (Bamidbar 20:1-2)

וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ בְנֵֽי־יִ֠שְׂרָאֵל כָּל־הָ֨עֵדָ֤ה מִדְבַּר־צִן֙ בַּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הָֽרִאשׁ֔וֹן וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב הָעָ֖ם בְּקָדֵ֑שׁ וַתָּ֤מָת שָׁם֙ מִרְיָ֔ם וַתִּקָּבֵ֖ר שָֽׁם׃

The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon,and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.

At the end of chapter 20, Aaron dies, and all of Israel mourns for thirty days. (Bamidbar 20:28-29)

וַיַּפְשֵׁט֩ מֹשֶׁ֨ה אֶֽת־אַהֲרֹ֜ן אֶת־בְּגָדָ֗יו וַיַּלְבֵּ֤שׁ אֹתָם֙ אֶת־אֶלְעָזָ֣ר בְּנ֔וֹ וַיָּ֧מָת אַהֲרֹ֛ן שָׁ֖ם בְּרֹ֣אשׁ הָהָ֑ר וַיֵּ֧רֶד מֹשֶׁ֛ה וְאֶלְעָזָ֖ר מִן־הָהָֽר׃

Moses stripped Aaron of his vestments and put them on his son Eleazar, and Aaron died there on the summit of the mountain. When Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain,

וַיִּרְאוּ֙ כָּל־הָ֣עֵדָ֔ה כִּ֥י גָוַ֖ע אַהֲרֹ֑ן וַיִּבְכּ֤וּ אֶֽת־אַהֲרֹן֙ שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים י֔וֹם כֹּ֖ל בֵּ֥ית יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

the whole community knew that Aaron had breathed his last. All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days.

A while back, Aaron and Miriam spoke against Moses, and only Miriam was punished. (Yes, one can read the text such that it was really only Miriam who spoke against Moses, but I’m not convinced by that argument. And one can also argue that, in the end, Aaron was punished, as he didn’t get to enter the promised land either. It still seems unfair to me.)

Just more evidence of a misogynist redaction of the text? There are surely scholars who might argue so, and who am I to disagree. Yet, I wonder if there is more going on here?

Of course, while there is no evidence of mourning and beweeping Miriam’s death, the text is structured to have us believe there was some connection between her death and the lack of water. for following the terse statement of Miriam’s death, we read in the next verse:

וְלֹא־הָ֥יָה מַ֖יִם לָעֵדָ֑ה וַיִּקָּ֣הֲל֔וּ עַל־מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְעַֽל־אַהֲרֹֽן׃

The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron. (Bamdibar 20:2)

No geshrying about the death of Miriam, just a complaint to Aaron and Moses at the lack of water. More on that in a bit.

In connection with Aaron’s death, we have only a small ritual of transfer of power (in the exchange of clothes) and thirty days of mourning. Now I don’t know about you, but for me, a month of weeping and wailing for a departed leader sounds a lot better than being deprived of water in the midst of the desert.

Or was it really the water that the Israelites were being deprived of? Let’s think on that.

The work of Aaron as high priest needed to be carried on by a successor. And all that is provided for by the elevation of Eleazar. (Lucky Eleazar-if brothers Nadav and Avihu hadn’t gotten a little tipsy that one night, it might not be Eleazar who became the high priest.) A little exchange of vestments and voila: “the high priest is dead, long live the high priest!”)

So now the appropriate sacrifices can continue. Now the people can be assured that, despite their usually wayward and oppositional ways, their sins will be atoned for, the community cleansed and redeemed in G”d’s favor.

Miriam, however, is gone forever, and gone with her is her spirit, her healing touch, her prophetic voice. The Israelites seem not to mourn her passing, as though they won’t be missing any of these gifts of Miriam. Or so they think.

It’s clever, this Torah, that it doesn’t have the Israelites connect the absent water with Miriam’s death–yet still leaves the reader or listener to the story wondering, because of the juxtaposition of these two happenings, if the wells went dry because of Miriam’s passing, and the removing of her spiritual spring from the community. How can one read the Torah and not make the connection? One wonders why the Torah chose not to be explicit here? Is it once again related to G”d’s (or redactors’) desire to not elevate Moses and Miriam to a point they might become objects of worship? Was there, at one time, explicit text that the priestly redactors chose to omit that treated Aaron in the same de-emphasizing way?

The community can go on with Aaron, because Eleazar has taken his place. However, the community cannot go on without its water, can it? So G”d provides water. Moses, forgetting perhaps briefly, that it is G”d who will bring a renewed source of water from the rock, makes a bad judgment call , strikes the rock instead of just speaking to it, and invokes G”d’s punishment. Yet is it really only water that came forth from the rock, or is there some metaphorical component here as well – the renewal of the spirit that Miriam brought to the community of Israel? The lesson being that G”d will not allow the people to go physically or spiritually thirsty? Thus, through Miriam’s death, the absence of water and the subsequent renewal of the font, we see yet again G”d’s promise, G”d’s kindness, G”d’s mercy. In Aaron and Eleazar, we see only the simple transition from generation to generation of the leadership of a symbolic, ritualistic caste. Thus, the apparent absence of mourning upon Miriam’s death actually becomes of greater significance than the thirty days of mourning that followed Aaron’s death.

One could say that while, in life, Aaron appeared to assume the greater role, in death it is clear that the greater role was to be Miriam’s. For it is through her death that we learn yet again of G”d’s greatness and G”d’s concern for this people, Israel.

One wonders how much greater Miriam’s role might have been had not the text been redacted over the centuries by those with clear misogynistic biases, and clear pro-Aaronic priesthood bias.

The spirit of Miriam lives on. Each and every time a font spurts forth water, whether real or metaphoric, to nurture the Jewish people, it is the spirit of Miriam, the prophetess, that G”d allows to renew and refresh us. Though we may not mourn Miriam, let us thank G”d for this everlasting gift that is G”d’s present to us upon her death.

אָ֚ז יָשִׁ֣יר יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את עֲלִ֥י בְאֵ֖ר עֱנוּ־לָֽהּ׃

Then Israel sang this song: Spring up, O well—sing to it—


Shabbat Shalom,


©2018 (portions ©2002) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Chukat 5777 – Still Not Seeing What’s Inside (Plus Bonus Thoughts)
Chukat 5775 – Wanting To See More Than Just The View From The MountainTop (Revised from 5759/61)
Chukat5774 – What a Difference a Vowel Makes (Revised from 5767)
Chukat 5773 – Biblical “Jodies”
Chukat 5772 – Your G”d, Our G”d, and the Son of a Whore
Chukat 5767-What A Difference A Vowel Makes
Chukkat 5765-Not Seeing What’s Inside
Chukat 5764 – Man of Great Character
Chukat 5762-The Spirit of Miriam

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

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Random Musing Before Shabbat – Korach 5778 — My Hero Korach

I’m going to keep it relatively short this week, and rehash some old territory. Sometimes I think we’ve got it all wrong. Korach isn’t the bad guy.

I keep playing the story over and over in my head, and no matter how hard I try, I wind up convinced that G”d is in the wrong here, and not Korach.  The rabbis and commentators like to write between the lines here, and ascribe to Korach and his followers all sorts of negative intentions which are just not there in the p’shat.

Korach has every right to question why Moshe is in charge and his brother Aharon gets to be the big kahuna. G”d seems to have a very big feeling of entitlement. I created you. I led you out of harsh slavery. My every whim should be your desire.

Yes. You created us. Then you set us up with this test (any tree but that one) which you knew we would fail, because You Yourself know that a perfect creation would be boring for all parties. Then, as an inevitable result of being forced out of the paradise You created, we challenged You. We built a tower, so You confounded our speech so we couldn’t challenge You as a united front again. We misbehaved, so you destroyed the world with a flood, so now, instead of all being descendants of Adam and Chava, we’re all descendants of a naked drunk.

Yeah, You got us out of slavery in Egypt. But that’s only after allowing us to get into it in the first place, and allowing us to languish there for 4 centuries. You inflicted needless additional suffering upon the Egyptians to prove Your point with added oomph!

We even think the whole “spies” thing was a setup. You knew even before we accepted the negative concerns of the tribal chieftains over the glowing reports of Yehoshua and Kalev that we were gonna have to wander and be winnowed before entering the land You promised us.

So pardon us if we question why Moshe should be the only one in charge, and his brother, coincidentally, gets to be the high priest. Are we not all a holy people, a holy nation?

This is not new territory for me. I’ve mused about this several times in previous years. See:

Korakh 5769 – And who Put G”d In Charge (or 2009: A Space Odyssey)

Korakh 5773 – B’tzelem Anashim (Redux 5764)

Korach 5777 – Revisiting B’tzelem Anashim

I heard someone the other day liken our current @POTUS to Korakh – reckless and selfish. In reality, I’d say the man currently occupying the oval office is acting more like G”d in this scenario, and we, the people questioning his motives and methods, are the Korachs of our time. We must therefore be alert, lest we too are swallowed up by the earth.

These, and other musings I have written about parashat Korach and it’s accompanying haftarah, are among some of my favorites. and I commend them all to you.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Korach 5777 – Revisiting B’tzelem Anashim
Korakh 5775 – Purposeful Unpleasant Reminder?Korakh 5769 – And who Put G”d In Charge (or 2009: A Space Odyssey)
Korach 5774 – Still a Loose End
Korakh 5773 – B’tzelem Anashim (Redux 5764)
Korakh 5772 – B’nei Miri
Korakh 5771 – Supporting Our Priests and Levites
Korakh 5770 (Redux 5758/62) Camp Rebellion
Korakh 5769 – And who Put G”d In Charge (or 2009: A Space Odyssey)
Korakh 5768-If Korakh Had Guns
Korach 5767-Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad, Tabernacle?
Korach 5766 – Investment
Korah 5765 – Stones and Pitchers and Glass Houses
Korach 5764-B’tzelem Anashim
Korach 5763-Taken
Korach 5761-Loose Ends

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Random Musing Before Shabbat–Sh’lakh L’kha 5778 – Okay

[Ed. Note: This musing started out as “Another Missed Opportunity” in 2006. It has morphed into this greatly expanded version with a somewhat different focus at the end. As was its predecessor, it has but a slight connection to the parasha with one brief reference, and is otherwise a truly random musing.]
Scene 1:
G”d: “Hey, Noah! Go build an ark and get your family and all these animals into it because I’m gonna flood the earth to wipe up this mess you people have made of my creation.”
Noah: “Okay.”
[Editor’s note: This “second chance” doesn’t yet seemed to have worked out as well as anticipated by G”d.]

Scene 2:
G”d: “Hey, Abraham! Pack up your stuff and take you and your family to a place I will show you.”
Abraham: “Okay.”

Scene 3:
G”d: “Hey, Abraham! Circumcise the foreskin of your penis as a sign of the covenant between us.”

Abraham: “Okay.”
[Editor’s note: needless to say, that hurt! And in the middle of his recovery, G”d sends these three angels to see Abraham…]

Cutaway Scene A:
Sarah: (laughing hysterically) A baby! Ahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha…

Scene 4:
G”d: “Hey, Abraham! The sins of S’dom and Gomorrah are too great. I am going to destroy those two wicked cities and all the inhabitants.”
Abraham: “Uh, hold on a second there, big guy. You gonna wipe out the innocent with the guilty?”
G”d: “Hmmmm. I hadn’t thought about that. OK. You show me 50 good people there and I will spare the cities for their sake?”
Abraham: “What makes 50 so special? What about 45? 40? 30? 20? 10?

G”d: “Okay. Even for 10 good people I will spare the cities and their people.”
[Editors note: G”d destroys S’dom and Gomorrah anyway. While the Torah intimates through its illustrations of the behavior of the people of S’dom, and Gomorrah to these two visiting angels the obviously high rate of depravity, we’re never definitively shown there weren’t 10 good people there.]

Scene 5:
G”d: Hey, Abraham! Send Hagar and Ishmael away. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of them.
Abraham: “Okay.”

Scene 6:
G”d: “Hey Abraham! Take your son, your beloved son, Isaac, and bring him to this mountain I’ll show you and offer him up as a sacrifice to Me.”
Abraham: “Okay.”
[Editor’s note: Okay. So G”d provided a ram for the sacrifice in place of Isaac. Assuming that’s what “takhat” really meant in that situation…]

Cutaway Scene B:

Scene 7:
Abraham: “Let me buy this cave so I may bury my wife.”
Ephron: (after a little ritual negotiating) “Okay.”

Scene 8:
Assembled elders: “Rivka, will you go with this servant of your great uncle to go and marry your first cousin once removed?”
Rivka: “Okay.”

Scene 9:
Rivkah: “Yaakov – my sweet son. Here! Quick! Put on these hairy skins and go bring this food to your father and pretend to be esav so you will get your father’s blessing.
Yitzchak: “Okay.”

Scene 10:
Yaakov: “Okay guys. Cut off the tips of your penises and you can marry our daughters.“
The Men of Shechem: “Okay.”

Scene 11:
Shimon: “Yo, bro. Let’s go kill all the men of Shechem while they’re recuperating from the tip snipping. Dad will be so proud of us!
Levi: “Okay.”

Scene 12:
Pharoah: “Joseph, I rename you ‘Zaphnath-Paaneah’ and make you Vizier over all my Kingdom, second only to me.” [leans over to whisper to Joseph] “Which really means if you succeed, you live – otherwise, you’re the fall guy. Got it?”
Joseph: “Okay.”

Scene 13:
G”d: “Hey Moses! Go tell Pharaoh to let My people go!”
Moses: “Who? Me?”
G”d: “Just do it, will ya?”
Moses: “Well, if you insist, But I’m not much of a talker. And Who, by the way, are You? They’ re gonna ask me.”
G”d: “OK, your brother can do the talking for you. And you can just call me Que sera, sera.”
Moses: “Okay.”

Scene 14:
G”d: “Listen, Israel! I am giving you these commandments!”
Israel: “We will do and we will see understand.” [ Ed. note: in other words, “Okay.”]

Scene 15:
Moses: “Chill with the hissy fit. G”d. If you strike us down or abandon us now, after all You have done for us, what will the neighbors say? They’ll say you’re a fake, a sham G”d!”
[A light bulb appears above Moses’ head]
Moses: “The LORD! slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression; yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of fathers upon children, upon the third and fourth generations. Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to Your great kindness, as You have forgiven this people ever since Egypt.”
G’d: “Okay.”

Scene 16:
Moses: “Hey, G”d! The folks found this guy gathering wood on Shabbat? What’s the penalty?”
G”d: “Take him outside the camp and stone him to death.”
Moses (and the people:) “Okay.”

Epilogue 1:
G”d: “Rabbi Eliezer is correct.”
Rabbis: “The Torah is not in heaven.”
G”d: “Okay.” [Ed. Note: Well, G”d actually said “My children have defeated me” but that’s close enough.]

Epilogue 2:
About 70 generations of Jews: “How do we know how to be Jewish?”
Rabbis: “Do what we say!”
About 70 generations of Jews: “But sometimes even you disagree!”
Rabbis: “Do what we say!”
About 70 generations of Jews: “Okay.”

Epilogue 3:
Modern, freethinking liberal Jews: “Why should we follow what the rabbis say?”
Traditional Jews: “See Epilogue 1.”
Modern, freethinking liberal Jews: “But the rabbis wrote this story just to justify their usurpation of the right to interpret Torah.”
Traditional Jews: “See Epilogues 1 and 2.”
Modern, freethinking liberal Jews: “But…”
Traditional Jews: “See Epilogues 1 and 2.”
G”d: “Okay.”
Traditional Jews: “Wait a minute. How do you know it’s okay with G”d?”
Modern, freethinking liberal Jews: “G”d told us. You were so busy listening to the rabbis who now claim the sole authority to interpret G”d’s Torah that you didn’t hear”

Epilogue 4:

Young Jews: “How do I know what to do?”
Traditional Jews: “Consult your LOR”
Liberal Jews: “Choose wisely”
Jews of the Future: [Ed. Note: they get to write this one.]
G”d: “Okay.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Shabbat Shalom,
©2018 (portions ©2006 by Adrian A. Durlester)
Other Musings on this Parasha:

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Random Musing Before Shabbat – Naso 5778 – G”d’s Roadies (Revised and Revisited from 5768)

With apologies to all you “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fans out there:

Aaron: Man, we need a roadie. Other religions have roadies.

Moses: Well, other religions know more than one G”d. Your professional religions can worship up to six, sometimes seven completely different gods. 

Aaron: That’s just, like, fruity, jazzy religions.

In this weeks parasha, Naso, we learn of the specific duties assigned to the Gershonite and Merarite clans, two specific sub-groups within the Levites. They are responsible only for the disassembly and re-assembly of the tabernacle. In theatrical lingo, they do the “load-in” and afterwards “strike” or load-out. Just like real “techies” or “roadies” they just put it up and take it down – others among the Levites are responsible for the transportation of the parts of the tabernacle from place to place. Even back then, they had Teamsters! 

While others are transporting the tabernacle’s parts, the Gershonites and Merarites simply serve to watch or guard over things. (In last week’s parasha, Bamdibar, we learn that the other clan of the Levites besides the descendants of Aaron, the Kohathites, were responsible for the stuff inside the tabernacle – the altars, utensils, menorah, etc. We actually first learn of the duties of the Merarites and Gershonites in parashat Bamdibar as well, but in a more abbreviated form.)

It gets even more strictly defined than that. The Gershonites handle only the various fabric components of the tabernacle, along with the altar and its appurtenances. The Merarites are responsible for the various structural components – planks, bars, posts, sockets, pegs.

Having spent a good 25 years of my life in the technical theater trade before starting to work as a full-time Jewish professional, some of it even as a roadie, I recognize and understand the division of labor. I also know how it can lead to strife, and though the Torah reports none, I can imagine, in fact I’m certain  there was.

There is humor one can find that serves to illustrate the divisions that come up between carpenters, deckhands, electricians, sound engineers, riggers, et al and so as well between those among the Levites assigned different tasks regarding the tabernacle . I’ll take some typical jokes and rephrase them, substituting Israelite clans for terms like electricians, stagehands, musicians, production managers, etc.

  • What do you call 20 Gershonites at the bottom of a lake? A good start.
  • How many Priests does it take to change a candle? Change?
  • Why do some Merarites carry 11 foot poles? Because none of the women will touch them with a 10 foot pole!
  • How many Merarites and Gershonites does it take to make a sacrifice to El? “Hey, we just set it up! You wanna sacrifice, get a Priest!”

There’s also a joke well known among stagehands, roadies, and other backstage types:

  • Q: What’s the difference between a rigger and G”d? A: G”d doesn’t think s/he’s a rigger.

Rewritten, it could be: 

  • Q: What’s the difference between a Priest and G”d? A: G”d doesn’t think he’s a Priest!

Another thought: if we are to be a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation” then who is gonna do the hard labor? Why’d the Gershonites and Merarites get stuck being the roadies? When we become an entire nation of priests, will the Gershonites, Merarites and Kohathites become the same? If so, then who do we get to be the roadies? Some goyim?

In any case, one wonders why, once again, G”d is being such a micro-manager, instructing (at least, according to how Moses tells it) Moses to tell the various Levitical clans their specific duties regarding the assembly, disassembly and transportation of the tabernacle. It certainly seems that G”d has been very specific about a lot of things related to the tabernacle, the mishkan, the clothing of Aaron and his sons (i.e. the priests.) I can understand some specificity regarding how things are made, but what’s the difference who does what?

I’m not sure of the answer, but while searching for one, I came upon something else interesting in a piece of Hebrew found in the endcap of these verses, at the end of chapter four. 

כָּֽל־הַפְּקֻדִ֡ים אֲשֶׁר֩ פָּקַ֨ד מֹשֶׁ֧ה וְאַהֲרֹ֛ן וּנְשִׂיאֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל אֶת־הַלְוִיִּ֑ם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם וּלְבֵ֥ית אֲבֹתָֽם׃

(4:46) All the Levites whom Moses, Aaron, and the chieftains of Israel recorded by the clans of their ancestral houses,

מִבֶּ֨ן שְׁלֹשִׁ֤ים שָׁנָה֙ וָמַ֔עְלָה וְעַ֖ד בֶּן־חֲמִשִּׁ֣ים שָׁנָ֑ה כָּל־הַבָּ֗א לַעֲבֹ֨ד עֲבֹדַ֧ת עֲבֹדָ֛ה וַעֲבֹדַ֥ת מַשָּׂ֖א בְּאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד׃

(4:47) from the age of thirty years up to the age of fifty, all who were subject to duties of service and porterage relating to the Tent of Meeting—

וַיִּהְי֖וּ פְּקֻדֵיהֶ֑ם שְׁמֹנַ֣ת אֲלָפִ֔ים וַחֲמֵ֥שׁ מֵא֖וֹת וּשְׁמֹנִֽים׃

(4:48) those recorded came to 8,580.

עַל־פִּ֨י יְהוָ֜ה פָּקַ֤ד אוֹתָם֙ בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אִ֥ישׁ אִ֛ישׁ עַל־עֲבֹדָת֖וֹ וְעַל־מַשָּׂא֑וֹ וּפְקֻדָ֕יו אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָ֖ה אֶת־מֹשֶֽׁה׃ (פ

(4:49) Each one was given responsibility for his service and porterage at the command of the LORD through Moses, and each was recorded as the LORD had commanded Moses.

We learn that the total of all the Levite clans were 8,580 (males between 30 and 50.) We read that they come to do the work of the work of the work, or more idiomatically, the work of the service of the service – l’avod avodat avodah v’avodat Moshe (v 47.) Gotta love biblical Hebrew. לַעֲבֹ֨ד עֲבֹדַ֧ת עֲבֹדָ֛ה וַעֲבֹדַ֥ת מַשָּׂ֖א  Just what is it “to serve the service of the service and the service of Moses,” which is the most literal of the translations (which could also be “for the work of the work of the work, and the work (of?for?to?) Moses? Or some combination of work and service. Crazy biblical Hebrew, using the same root for work, service, and worship.

Following the interpretation of some of the rabbinical sages, the JPS renders the text “duties of service and porterage,” dividing between the labors required to transport the tabernacle and the labors required when the tabernacle was up and functioning. (It’s certainly not clearly rendered that way in the Hebrew.) This is based on Ibn Ezra’s interpretation which refers to an earlier description in the parasha of the Gershonite labors as being “carrying” and “serving.” Notice the English does not include Moses while the Hebrew clearly does. what gives with that?

A problem arises with the idea of “porterage,” however, for the medieval philosophers. The “carrying” part ceases to be necessary once the people have come into the land and the Temple is set up. (We modern liberal Jews might smirk and observe that maybe the whole point was that we were never intended to have a central place of worship anyway. It’s a valid point.)

Rashi to the rescue. Rashi takes us off in a different direction. Rashi believes that the “service of a service” refers to something that later became a responsibility of the Levitical clans during the times of the Temple – the shirah, or music. Sometimes I’m a big fan of Rashi, and sometimes not. This is an interpretation I can get behind. Music truly does “service the service.” It is the accompaniment to the sacrifices. In our own time, it is the accompaniment to the sacrifices of our lips.

I imagine, too, that music could have made the work of the Gershonites, Merarites, and Kohatites just a little more pleasant. Surely they had some kinds of work songs that helped them both keep a steady pace and lighten the mood. There’s evidence that work songs go back as far as recorded history. Egyptian workers are depicted using work songs during agricultural and construction activities. So it is certainly likely that the Israelites had their own little work ditties. Maybe the very reason that the Torah contains such specific descriptions of duties is tied to the fact that the songs tied to those activities preserved the memory. Just as likely there were songs that recorded Israel’s 40 year journey through the wilderness. Probably there were songs that told the stories of the book of Genesis/B’reishit. Music helps preserve knowledge and tradition. Music also helps foster exploration and advancement.

To believe that the “avodat Moshe” porterage/carrying duties of the Gershonites and Merarites morphed into being the musical component of fixed worship at the Temple has a nice feel to it – even if I’m not exactly sure I buy it. Who knows, maybe some of the work songs they used became Temple standards? That I could believe. We Jews are great at re-using, re-working, and re-purposing songs. We sing Sh’ma to what was probably a drinking song, and sing bayom hahu to “Farmer in the Dell” just to name a few.

Today’s roadies are more likely to be listening to loud, blaring rock music as they work, as opposed to singing work ditties, but the concept that it makes the work more pleasant (that is, if you like loud, blaring rock music) is solid. (If you’re lucky, you might get a sound engineer who prefers to play mellower music during a load-in or strike. Me, I’m an outlier. I’d play Broadway musicals, classical, or folk/pop.)

How sad that because of the loss of the Temple, and the laws of Shabbat, traditional practice usually bars the use of accompanied music. I’m am glad that my Jewish practice believes that music and musical instruments are an important part of and enhancement to worship. My l’avod avodat avodah, my service for the service of the service (whatever that is) proceeds from my brain and heart out through my fingers and my mouth. I thank G”d each and every day for the gift of music that I can use in service to the service.

How appropriate that I’ll be heading off to the annual Hava Nashira Songleaders Workshop next week to be reminded once again that the musical work I do truly is Torah, truly, “avodat avodah.”

Now, if I could only have my own roadies. 

Of course, let’s close with another Buffy reference, As we head into another Shabbat, let’s try to do it “Once More, With Feeling.”

Shabbat Shalom,


©2018 (portions ©2008 by Adrian A. Durlester)

Other Musings on this parasha:

Nasso 5775 – West-Tzorah-Side Story
Naso 5773 – Guilt. Self. It.
Naso 5772 – Keeping Me On My Toes II 
Naso 5771 – The Nazarite Conundrum
Nasso 5770 – Cherubic Puzzles
Naso 5768 – G”d’s Roadies
Naso 5767 (Redux 5759) – The Fourth Fold
Naso 5765-Northeast Gaza-Side Story
Naso 5763–Lemon Pledge
Naso 5759-The Fourth Fold
Naso 5760-Bitter Waters
Naso 5761-Keeping Me On My Toes
Naso 5762-Wondrous Names (Haftarah Naso from Judges)

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