Random Musing Before Shabbat–Ha’azinu 5779-A Still Insincere Hymn

I’m recycling this musing from six years back because of my recent encounters with this text while working with a student preparing to celebrate becoming a bat mitzvah this Shabbat. As I sought to find ways to help the student engage with this particular haftarah, I really struggled. Cherry-picking out a few good nuggets entirely out of context seemed the only thing that worked. Well, sort of. I don’t really think it worked for her, and I know it didn’t work for me. This haftarah deserves being in the list of potentially irredeemable texts. So I share with you my thoughts from six years ago with a little updating, editing, and a few additions.

Whether you’ve known me for a while, or are new to my musings, I do believe my penchant for redeeming so-called irredeemable texts is evident. Well today, this week, this month, this year, this annual repetition of the parasha, this hafatarah I may have met the limits of my passion for trying to redeem a portion of sacred Jewish Biblical text.

It’s not that this text is particularly heinous, perverse, bloody, or any such thing. It’s just that, in my encounter with the haftarah for parashat Ha’azinu this year, which comes from II Samuel chapter 22, I did not feel that usual tug that often draws me to look for something redeemable in an otherwise troubling text. I read it, repeatedly, waiting for the moment when something would jump out at me, or an idea would form in my mind that could lead me into potential ways to redeem the text. A few times a verse, or a part thereof, grabbed my attention, but alas, in moments the “aha” feeling was gone, my hopes for a path to redemption for the text dashed yet again.

Part of what troubles me with this haftarah is its focus. It is essentially a hymn of praise from David, thanking and praising G”d for helping David to defeat his enemies. In contrast, in parashat Ha’azinu, Moshe is praising G”d for all that G”d has done for the all the children of Israel. From what we know of these two great, yet flawed leaders, I suppose we should not be surprised that Moshe’s hymn is community-themed whereas David’s hymn is more individual.  Moshe certainly managed to stay a lot less self-focused throughout his life than did David.

David (if indeed, he is the author, and even existed)  paints a very anthropomorphic picture of G”d is his hymn.

וַתִּרְעַשׁ֙ הָאָ֔רֶץ מוֹסְד֥וֹת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם יִרְגָּ֑זוּ וַיִּֽתְגָּעֲשׁ֖וּ כִּֽי־חָ֥רָה לֽוֹ׃ עָלָ֤ה עָשָׁן֙ בְּאַפּ֔וֹ וְאֵ֥שׁ מִפִּ֖יו תֹּאכֵ֑ל גֶּחָלִ֖ים בָּעֲר֥וּ מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃ וַיֵּ֥ט שָׁמַ֖יִם וַיֵּרַ֑ד וַעֲרָפֶ֖ל תַּ֥חַת רַגְלָֽיו׃ וַיִּרְכַּ֥ב עַל־כְּר֖וּב וַיָּעֹ֑ף וַיֵּרָ֖א עַל־כַּנְפֵי־רֽוּחַ׃ וַיָּ֥שֶׁת חֹ֛שֶׁךְ סְבִיבֹתָ֖יו סֻכּ֑וֹת חַֽשְׁרַת־מַ֖יִם עָבֵ֥י שְׁחָקִֽים׃מִנֹּ֖גַהּ נֶגְדּ֑וֹ בָּעֲר֖וּ גַּחֲלֵי־אֵֽשׁ׃ יַרְעֵ֥ם מִן־שָׁמַ֖יִם יְהוָ֑ה וְעֶלְי֖וֹן יִתֵּ֥ן קוֹלֽוֹ׃ וַיִּשְׁלַ֥ח חִצִּ֖ים וַיְפִיצֵ֑ם בָּרָ֖ק ויהמם [וַיָּהֹֽם׃] וַיֵּֽרָאוּ֙ אֲפִ֣קֵי יָ֔ם יִגָּל֖וּ מֹסְד֣וֹת תֵּבֵ֑ל בְּגַעֲרַ֣ת יְהוָ֔ה מִנִּשְׁמַ֖ת ר֥וּחַ אַפּֽוֹ׃ יִשְׁלַ֥ח מִמָּר֖וֹם יִקָּחֵ֑נִי יַֽמְשֵׁ֖נִי מִמַּ֥יִם רַבִּֽים׃

8 Then the earth rocked and quaked,
The foundations of heaven shook —
Rocked by His indignation.
9 Smoke went up from His nostrils,
From His mouth came devouring fire;
Live coals blazed forth from Him.
10 He bent the sky and came down,
Thick cloud beneath His feet.
11 He mounted a cherub and flew;
He was seen on the wings of the wind.
12 He made pavilions of darkness about Him,
Dripping clouds, huge thunderheads;
13 In the brilliance before Him
Blazed fiery coals.
14 The Lord thundered forth from heaven,
The Most High sent forth His voice;
15 He let loose bolts, and scattered them;
Lightning, and put them to rout.
16 The bed of the sea was exposed,
The foundations of the world were laid bare
By the mighty roaring of the Lord,
At the blast of the breath of His nostrils.
17 He reached down from on high, He took me,
Drew me out of the mighty waters; (JPS, 1985)

I admit that I don’t take to anthropomorphism well, so that prejudices me from the start. This text also strikes me as one of the least sincere hymns of praise I’ve ever read. I don’t, for one second, believe that David really believes what he is writing. It is all poetic imagery for the masses. It is all metaphor and simile. It is contrived, superficial, and not that well written. To me, it has the feel of David thinking to himself “hmmm…I won. I guess I’d better write a nice hymn of praise to G”d so I can appear humble and not be perceived as believing the victory was because of what I did and not what G”d did. Yeah, that’s what the people and the priests will like.” Very political. Crafted of sound bytes.

David (or the David created by the authors of this text) reveals bits of his smarmy self:

וַיֹּצֵ֥א לַמֶּרְחָ֖ב אֹתִ֑י יְחַלְּצֵ֖נִי כִּי־חָ֥פֵֽץ בִּֽי׃ יִגְמְלֵ֥נִי יְהוָ֖ה כְּצִדְקָתִ֑י כְּבֹ֥ר יָדַ֖י יָשִׁ֥יב לִֽי׃ כִּ֥י שָׁמַ֖רְתִּי דַּרְכֵ֣י יְהוָ֑ה וְלֹ֥א רָשַׁ֖עְתִּי מֵאֱלֹהָֽי׃ כִּ֥י כָל־משפטו  לְנֶגְדִּ֑י וְחֻקֹּתָ֖יו לֹא־אָס֥וּר מִמֶּֽנָּה׃ וָאֶהְיֶ֥ה תָמִ֖ים ל֑וֹ וָאֶשְׁתַּמְּרָ֖ה מֵעֲוֺנִֽי׃ וַיָּ֧שֶׁב יְהוָ֛ה לִ֖י כְּצִדְקָתִ֑י כְּבֹרִ֖י לְנֶ֥גֶד עֵינָֽיו׃

20 He brought me out to freedom,
He rescued me because He was pleased with me.
21 The Lord rewarded me according to my merit,
He requited the cleanness of my hands.

22 For I have kept the ways of the Lord
And have not been guilty before my God;
23 I am mindful of all His rules
And have not departed from His laws.
24 I have been blameless before Him,
And have guarded myself against sinning —
25 And the Lord has requited my merit,
According to my purity in His sight.

To quote Bill Cosby: “….riiiiiiiiiiiiiiight.”  (Can’t use that one anymore.)

Oh, to be sure, there are some wonderful, sweet snippets that can be taken from this hafatarah. Yet only out of context do they appear as sweet and wonderful.

כִּֽי־אַתָּ֥ה נֵירִ֖י יְהוָ֑ה וַיהוָ֖ה יַגִּ֥יהַּ חָשְׁכִּֽי׃

29 You, O Lord, are my lamp;
The Lord lights up my darkness.

says David. only to spoil it with:

בְכָ֖ה אָר֣וּץ גְּד֑וּד בֵּאלֹהַ֖י אֲדַלֶּג־שֽׁוּר׃

30 With You, I can rush a barrier,
With my God, I can scale a wall.

We can pretend this may refer to other situations, but we know David is talking about war and battle. This is no Romeo hoping to scale Juliet’s balcony.

David even seems confused about where the credit belongs. One moment it is all “I” as he is saying:

אֶרְדְּפָ֥ה אֹיְבַ֖י וָאַשְׁמִידֵ֑ם וְלֹ֥א אָשׁ֖וּב עַד־כַּלּוֹתָֽם׃ וָאֲכַלֵּ֥ם וָאֶמְחָצֵ֖ם וְלֹ֣א יְקוּמ֑וּן וַֽיִּפְּל֖וּ תַּ֥חַת רַגְלָֽי׃

38 I pursued my enemies and wiped them out,
I did not turn back till I destroyed them.
39 I destroyed them, I struck them down;
They rose no more, they lay at my feet.

Yet in the following verse it is the capital y You

וַתַּזְרֵ֥נִי חַ֖יִל לַמִּלְחָמָ֑ה תַּכְרִ֥יעַ קָמַ֖י תַּחְתֵּֽנִי׃

40 You have girt me with strength for battle,
Brought low my foes before me,

In the following verse both sentiments mix:

וְאֹ֣יְבַ֔י תַּ֥תָּה לִּ֖י עֹ֑רֶף מְשַׂנְאַ֖י וָאַצְמִיתֵֽם׃

41 [You] Made my enemies turn tail before me,
My foes — and I wiped them out.
(the insertion is mine for clarity)

So which is it? “Thank G”d for doing it” or “I Did It…with a little help from G”d, of course.” Those are different sentiments indeed. Can you think of anyone that seems to be suffering from this same problem these days. Here’s a hint: “I alone can….”

Even the one bit of text in this haftarah that I like, and which has some seeming possibilities for redemption and use—

עִם־חָסִ֖יד תִּתְחַסָּ֑ד עִם־גִּבּ֥וֹר תָּמִ֖ים תִּתַּמָּֽם׃ עִם־נָבָ֖ר תִּתָּבָ֑ר וְעִם־עִקֵּ֖שׁ תִּתַּפָּֽל׃ וְאֶת־עַ֥ם עָנִ֖י תּוֹשִׁ֑יעַ וְעֵינֶ֖יךָ עַל־רָמִ֥ים תַּשְׁפִּֽיל׃

26 With the loyal You deal loyally;
With the blameless hero, blamelessly.
27 With the pure You act in purity,
And with the perverse You are wily.
28 To humble folk You give victory,
And You look with scorn on the haughty.

—is an inaccurate description of the reality of life ,even as it is described on our holy Jewish texts, for sometimes G”d is disloyal to the loyal, faults the blameless, is impure to the pure, is hard on the humble and is nice to the haughty. Would that G”d’s actions were always as balanced as David says. The very existence of Theodicy as a discipline/philosophical concept says otherwise.

If only David had stopped after these initial 7 verses:

וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר דָּוִד֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֖י הַשִּׁירָ֣ה הַזֹּ֑את בְּיוֹם֩ הִצִּ֨יל יְהוָ֥ה אֹת֛וֹ מִכַּ֥ף כָּל־אֹיְבָ֖יו וּמִכַּ֥ף שָׁאֽוּל׃ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר יְהוָ֛ה סַֽלְעִ֥י וּמְצֻדָתִ֖י וּמְפַלְטִי־לִֽי׃ אֱלֹהֵ֥י צוּרִ֖י אֶחֱסֶה־בּ֑וֹ מָגִנִּ֞י וְקֶ֣רֶן יִשְׁעִ֗י מִשְׂגַּבִּי֙ וּמְנוּסִ֔י מֹשִׁעִ֕י מֵחָמָ֖ס תֹּשִׁעֵֽנִי׃ מְהֻלָּ֖ל אֶקְרָ֣א יְהוָ֑ה וּמֵאֹיְבַ֖י אִוָּשֵֽׁעַ׃ כִּ֥י אֲפָפֻ֖נִי מִשְׁבְּרֵי־מָ֑וֶת נַחֲלֵ֥י בְלִיַּ֖עַל יְבַעֲתֻֽנִי׃ חֶבְלֵ֥י שְׁא֖וֹל סַבֻּ֑נִי קִדְּמֻ֖נִי מֹֽקְשֵׁי־מָֽוֶת׃ בַּצַּר־לִי֙ אֶקְרָ֣א יְהוָ֔ה וְאֶל־אֱלֹהַ֖י אֶקְרָ֑א וַיִּשְׁמַ֤ע מֵהֵֽיכָלוֹ֙ קוֹלִ֔י וְשַׁוְעָתִ֖י בְּאָזְנָֽיו׃

1 David addressed the words of this song to the Lord, after the Lord had saved him from the hands of all his enemies and from the hands of Saul. 2 He said:

O Lord, my crag, my fastness, my deliverer!
3 O God, the rock wherein I take shelter:
My shield, my mighty champion, my fortress and refuge!
My savior, You who rescue me from violence!

4 All praise! I called on the Lord,
And I was delivered from my enemies.

5 For the breakers of Death encompassed me,
The torrents of Belial terrified me;
6 The snares of Sheol encircled me,
The toils of Death engulfed me.

7 In my anguish I called on the Lord,
Cried out to my God;
In His Abode He heard my voice,
My cry entered His ears.

Not great, but not bad for a short hymn. Now, to be fair to David, Moshe also praises G”d as a warrior G”d – though Moshe also dwells on G”d’s treatment of the Israelites when they disobeyed, before he moves on to G”d’s vengeance upon the enemies of Israel. Moshe offers a reminder that perhaps David could have heeded:

מגדיל יְשׁוּע֣וֹת מַלְכּ֑וֹ וְעֹֽשֶׂה־חֶ֧סֶד לִמְשִׁיח֛וֹ לְדָוִ֥ד וּלְזַרְע֖וֹ עַד־עוֹלָֽם׃ לוּלֵ֗י כַּ֤עַס אוֹיֵב֙ אָג֔וּר פֶּֽן־יְנַכְּר֖וּ צָרֵ֑ימוֹ פֶּן־יֹֽאמְרוּ֙ יָדֵ֣ינוּ רָ֔מָה וְלֹ֥א יְהוָ֖ה פָּעַ֥ל כָּל־זֹֽאת׃

Deut 32:26 I might have reduced them to naught,
Made their memory cease among men,

27 But for fear of the taunts of the foe,
Their enemies who might misjudge
And say, “Our own hand has prevailed;
None of this was wrought by the Lord!”

Moshe’s hymn in parashat Ha’azinu is also a troubling text, for many reasons, but I have and still feel compelled to try and redeem it. The passion to do so with David’s hymn in the haftarah still remains absent for me at this time.

So again I ask myself “why is that?” There are far more troubling pieces of texts than this haftarah. Is it simply because the hymn feels disingenuous to me? Is it all just gut feeling? Is it the warrior G”d? (That’s certainly not unique.) Is it my discomfort with G”d as “rock?” Many like that image-I find it troubling. A rock may be strong, and last seemingly (but not at all in reality) forever, but all a rock does is sit there. That’s a bit too passive a G”d for me. I need a G”d that is both rock and Jell-O. Luckily for me, while Judaism doesn’t exactly provide a G”d who is like Jell-O, it certainly allows for a G”d who can be be firm and steadfast as well as soft and pliable.

Is it my disaffection for the monarchy? The haftarah ends with David thanking G”d with :

מגדיל יְשׁוּע֣וֹת מַלְכּ֑וֹ וְעֹֽשֶׂה־חֶ֧סֶד לִמְשִׁיח֛וֹ לְדָוִ֥ד וּלְזַרְע֖וֹ עַד־עוֹלָֽם׃

51 Tower of victory to His king,
Who deals graciously with His anointed,
With David and his offspring evermore.

As I have imagined G”d saying: “You Israelites wanted a monarchy despite My misgivings about that? OK, you got one. Deal with it.” Wasn’t such a successful experiment, was it. If David’s rule was the apex-and we can’t be sure it was-was it really that great? It was certainly pretty much all downhill (with a few, brief shining moments) after Solomon. It ended with the Hasmoneans. Need I say more?

I am still not sure what about this haftarah troubles me so. I still cannot say why I feel no compulsion to try and redeem it.

Others do not see the haftarah as I am experiencing it this year, this month, this day. Obviously, those choosing to connect this haftarah to the Torah paratha, with Moshe’s truly amazing speech in Ha’azinu didn’t see this text from II Samuel as that problematic. However, I have to ask: what were they thinking?

The ancient rabbis seem to be victims of the same willful blindness that today is leading our world astray. This haftarah, being held up as a polemic against bad religious practice instead seems to be a justification for narcissistic behavior on the part of rulers. As Mel Brooks put it “it’s good to be the King.”

In the JPS Haftarah Commentary, Michael Fishbane, in connecting and contrasting the parasha and haftarah, criticizes the people that Moshe is addressing as ones who turn against G”d and suffer for it. He lauds David as being faithful to G”d and constant in that faith even when success could lead him to do otherwise. He redeems the haftarah by having it illustrate clear choice in religious practice, G”d-centered or self-centered. I do agree with Fishbane’s assertion that all religious people confront this choice:

“a God-centered way of remembrance and humility, and a self-centered way of forgetfulness and pride.”

Fishbane, M. A. (2002). Haftarot. The JPS Bible Commentary (324). Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.

I’d like to agree with Fishbane’s assessment of David’s humility and faithfulness, as it would give me a path to redemption for this haftarah. Alas, I do not. David’s own words (if they are indeed so, yet even if they are not) betray him. There is an awful lot of self-congratulatory lauding mixed in with David’s praise for G”d. David, in this chapter, in this haftarah,  sounds like a certain orange-toned demagogue that is currently plaguing our country.

Perhaps another week, another month, another year, another annual repetition of the parasha and this hafatarah I may yet find a way to redeem, at least for myself, this portion of sacred Jewish Biblical text. Not today. Not in today’s reality. The journey continues.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 (portions ©2012) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Shabbat Shuvah/Ha’azinu 5778 – Random Rant
Ha’azinu 5776 – Still Not Trifling
Ha’azinu-Shabbat Shuvah 5775 – Who’s Got the Last Laugh Now
Ha’azinu/Shabbat Shuvah 5774 – 5774: A Torah Odyssey
Ha’azinu 5772 – An Insincere Hymn?
Ha’azinu/Shabbat Shuvah 5570-Pur Prayers Aren’t Bull
Haazinu 5766-Trifles (Updated from 5762)
Haazinu 5765/5763-How would It Look If…
Haazinu 5764-More Bull From Our Lips
Haazinu 5762–Trifles
Haazinu 5760-Bull from Our Lips

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Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayelekh-Shabbat Shuvah 5778—Return?


Return. But how can I go back?
Again. Have I been there before?
Land. Which land?
Soul. What is a soul? Do I have one? Is it me?
What. Am I?
Who. Am ?
Where. Am I?
Born. Once.
Reborn. Not yet.

Return. For a visit, an extended stay, forever?
Again. Isn’t once enough?
Land. I’m a renter. I don’t have a land. I grew up in apartments.
Soul. Like the soul music of my teen years, or the soul music of today?
What. No human being is a what.
Who. Every human being is a who.
Where. Every human being is some where.
Born. Every human being was born.
Reborn. Some human beings claim to be reborn. Me, I’m a skeptic.

Return. What if going forward rather than back is the better option?
Again. Is there any way out of this circular path?
Land. If my soul has a land, how do I find it?
Soul. Ditto.
What. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
Who. Is my soul my who, or just part of it? Or is my who my soul, or part of it?
Where. Sometimes, even going back somewhere you don’t really know the destination.
Born. I come from a womb. Did my soul come from their as well?
Reborn. Doesn’t being reborn require death first? That sounds scary.

Return. Again you ask me to return. How can I return if I’m not sure where I’ve been?
Again. Mustn’t I have gone at least once in order to return yet again?
Land. Is real. It is earthy. It can be held in one’s hand. From it we were fashioned.
Soul. Is ethereal. It is heavenly. It is Dulcinea. It was breathed into us (and therefore not ours?)
What. Is what truth? Or can an untruth be a what? If so, what is what? Nothing? Everything?
Who.Who in a physical sense, or who in a conceptual sense?
Where. Quantum physics tells us there is no where. Only possibilities.
Born. Quantum physics tells us that birth results from observation/interaction. (Particle physics might say that birth results from annihilation.
Reborn. What particles collide, that’s exactly what happens. Their constituents parts are reborn as other things. Other whats, perhaps? Other wheres?

Return. Borrowed things are returned. Are we borrowed things, borrowed entities?
Land. Is land a place? A real place? An imaginary place?
Soul. Essence?  Sparks? Spice?
What. Must I become what I was before if I did not like what I was? Is such return mandatory?
Who. Must I become who I was before? Couldn’t I be someone else? Can I return to who I was not?
Where. How much does the where interact with the what and the who? I’m not clear on that.
Born. Is a soul born? Does a soul die? Same for whats and whos and wheres.
Reborn. I’m thinking I like recycle better than reborn. Allows for more options.

Return. A coin return gives us back our change. Is return change?
Land.  Does each soul occupy a different land?
Soul. Does each land host a different soul?
What. I may prefer: what? I like to question things. I was what?
Who. Who was that? Was that who me?
Where. Where? Right here of course. Hineini.
Born. Borne? Bourne? I think they’re all related somehow.
Reborn. Still struggling with this one. And yet I have justified my returning to the use of the words “m’chayyei hameitim” when I pray as I have come to a different understanding that is not physical resurrection, but of continued life through continuation of a persons values, gifts, etc. However, this is still in relation to dead people. How can the living be reborn. That’s still not clicking. It’s one thing to metaphorically put a new heart in someone (although we can do it physically, too!) If my soul is reborn is it still the same soul? Am I still the same person, or has a new life been created? I get lost in these thoughts. I can easily drown in them. So now I say to you: your turn.


Shanah Tovah, Tzom Kashe (it’s not supposed to be easy) and Shabbat Shalom,

(c)2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayeilekh/Shabbat Shuvah 5776 – Cows and Roses
Vayeilekh_Shabbat Shuvah 5769 – Cows and Roses
Vayelekh 5765-The Time Is Still Now

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Random Musing Before Shabbat–Ki Tavo 5778—Fourth Isaiah?

It happens every year. Even though parashat Ki Tavo is chock full of things to write about, I look through the haftarah (which consists of all 22 verses of Isaiah chapter 60) hoping to find something else to write about. Every time I try, I fail. I come up empty. There are a few verses that, individually, provide something to muse about, but taken in the overall context of the chapter, lose their luster.

These later chapters of Isaiah (55-66,) which some scholars suggest represent the writings of yet a third school, a Trito-Isaiah, are oracles probably written after the return from exile.They are generally positive and uplifting, and that’s why the last five of the seven haftarot of consolation that we read after Tisha B’Av and before Rosh Hashanah) come from these last 12 books of Isaiah. (The first two haftarot of consolation are from near the end of what scholars view as the writing of Deutero (second) Isaiah (chapters 40-54.)

It’s short enough that I include the entire haftarah. If you want the TL;DR version, this chapter tells of how G”d’s favor is restored over Israel, and nations shall all now come to follow G”d and Israel, that the land will remain theirs,  and they will flourish.

ק֥וּמִי א֖וֹרִי כִּ֣י בָ֣א אוֹרֵ֑ךְ וּכְב֥וֹד יְהוָ֖ה עָלַ֥יִךְ זָרָֽח׃

1.Arise, shine, for your light has dawned; The Presence of the LORD has shone upon you!

כִּֽי־הִנֵּ֤ה הַחֹ֙שֶׁךְ֙ יְכַסֶּה־אֶ֔רֶץ וַעֲרָפֶ֖ל לְאֻמִּ֑ים וְעָלַ֙יִךְ֙ יִזְרַ֣ח יְהוָ֔ה וּכְבוֹד֖וֹ עָלַ֥יִךְ יֵרָאֶֽה׃

2. Behold! Darkness shall cover the earth, And thick clouds the peoples; But upon you the LORD will shine, And His Presence be seen over you.

וְהָלְכ֥וּ גוֹיִ֖ם לְאוֹרֵ֑ךְ וּמְלָכִ֖ים לְנֹ֥גַהּ זַרְחֵֽךְ׃

3. And nations shall walk by your light, Kings, by your shining radiance.

שְׂאִֽי־סָבִ֤יב עֵינַ֙יִךְ֙ וּרְאִ֔י כֻּלָּ֖ם נִקְבְּצ֣וּ בָֽאוּ־לָ֑ךְ בָּנַ֙יִךְ֙ מֵרָח֣וֹק יָבֹ֔אוּ וּבְנֹתַ֖יִךְ עַל־צַ֥ד תֵּאָמַֽנָה׃

4. Raise your eyes and look about: They have all gathered and come to you. Your sons shall be brought from afar, Your daughters like babes on shoulders.

אָ֤ז תִּרְאִי֙ וְנָהַ֔רְתְּ וּפָחַ֥ד וְרָחַ֖ב לְבָבֵ֑ךְ כִּֽי־יֵהָפֵ֤ךְ עָלַ֙יִךְ֙ הֲמ֣וֹן יָ֔ם חֵ֥יל גּוֹיִ֖ם יָבֹ֥אוּ לָֽךְ׃

5. As you behold, you will glow; Your heart will throb and thrill— For the wealth of the sea shall pass on to you, The riches of nations shall flow to you.

שִֽׁפְעַ֨ת גְּמַלִּ֜ים תְּכַסֵּ֗ךְ בִּכְרֵ֤י מִדְיָן֙ וְעֵיפָ֔ה כֻּלָּ֖ם מִשְּׁבָ֣א יָבֹ֑אוּ זָהָ֤ב וּלְבוֹנָה֙ יִשָּׂ֔אוּ וּתְהִלֹּ֥ת יְהוָ֖ה יְבַשֵּֽׂרוּ׃

6. Dust clouds of camels shall cover you, Dromedaries of Midian and Ephah. They all shall come from Sheba; They shall bear gold and frankincense, And shall herald the glories of the LORD.

כָּל־צֹ֤אן קֵדָר֙ יִקָּ֣בְצוּ לָ֔ךְ אֵילֵ֥י נְבָי֖וֹת יְשָׁרְת֑וּנֶךְ יַעֲל֤וּ עַל־רָצוֹן֙ מִזְבְּחִ֔י וּבֵ֥ית תִּפְאַרְתִּ֖י אֲפָאֵֽר׃

7. All the flocks of Kedar shall be assembled for you, The rams of Nebaioth shall serve your needs; They shall be welcome offerings on My altar, And I will add glory to My glorious House.

מִי־אֵ֖לֶּה כָּעָ֣ב תְּעוּפֶ֑ינָה וְכַיּוֹנִ֖ים אֶל־אֲרֻבֹּתֵיהֶֽם׃

8. Who are these that float like a cloud, Like doves to their cotes?

כִּֽי־לִ֣י ׀ אִיִּ֣ים יְקַוּ֗וּ וָאֳנִיּ֤וֹת תַּרְשִׁישׁ֙ בָּרִ֣אשֹׁנָ֔ה לְהָבִ֤יא בָנַ֙יִךְ֙ מֵֽרָח֔וֹק כַּסְפָּ֥ם וּזְהָבָ֖ם אִתָּ֑ם לְשֵׁם֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהַ֔יִךְ וְלִקְד֥וֹשׁ יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל כִּ֥י פֵאֲרָֽךְ׃

9. Behold, the coastlands await me, With ships of Tarshish in the lead, To bring your sons from afar, And their silver and gold as well— For the name of the LORD your God, For the Holy One of Israel, who has glorified you.

וּבָנ֤וּ בְנֵֽי־נֵכָר֙ חֹמֹתַ֔יִךְ וּמַלְכֵיהֶ֖ם יְשָׁרְת֑וּנֶךְ כִּ֤י בְקִצְפִּי֙ הִכִּיתִ֔יךְ וּבִרְצוֹנִ֖י רִֽחַמְתִּֽיךְ׃

10. Aliens shall rebuild your walls, Their kings shall wait upon you— For in anger I struck you down, But in favor I take you back.

וּפִתְּח֨וּ שְׁעָרַ֧יִךְ תָּמִ֛יד יוֹמָ֥ם וָלַ֖יְלָה לֹ֣א יִסָּגֵ֑רוּ לְהָבִ֤יא אֵלַ֙יִךְ֙ חֵ֣יל גּוֹיִ֔ם וּמַלְכֵיהֶ֖ם נְהוּגִֽים׃

11. Your gates shall always stay open— Day and night they shall never be shut— To let in the wealth of the nations, With their kings in procession.

כִּֽי־הַגּ֧וֹי וְהַמַּמְלָכָ֛ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא־יַעַבְד֖וּךְ יֹאבֵ֑דוּ וְהַגּוֹיִ֖ם חָרֹ֥ב יֶחֱרָֽבוּ׃

12. For the nation or the kingdom That does not serve you shall perish; Such nations shall be destroyed.

כְּב֤וֹד הַלְּבָנוֹן֙ אֵלַ֣יִךְ יָב֔וֹא בְּר֛וֹשׁ תִּדְהָ֥ר וּתְאַשּׁ֖וּר יַחְדָּ֑ו לְפָאֵר֙ מְק֣וֹם מִקְדָּשִׁ֔י וּמְק֥וֹם רַגְלַ֖י אֲכַבֵּֽד׃

13. The majesty of Lebanon shall come to you— Cypress and pine and box— To adorn the site of My Sanctuary, To glorify the place where My feet rest.

וְהָלְכ֨וּ אֵלַ֤יִךְ שְׁח֙וֹחַ֙ בְּנֵ֣י מְעַנַּ֔יִךְ וְהִֽשְׁתַּחֲו֛וּ עַל־כַּפּ֥וֹת רַגְלַ֖יִךְ כָּל־מְנַֽאֲצָ֑יִךְ וְקָ֤רְאוּ לָךְ֙ עִ֣יר יְהוָ֔ה צִיּ֖וֹן קְד֥וֹשׁ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

14. Bowing before you, shall come The children of those who tormented you; Prostrate at the soles of your feet Shall be all those who reviled you; And you shall be called “City of the LORD, Zion of the Holy One of Israel.”

תַּ֧חַת הֱיוֹתֵ֛ךְ עֲזוּבָ֥ה וּשְׂנוּאָ֖ה וְאֵ֣ין עוֹבֵ֑ר וְשַׂמְתִּיךְ֙ לִגְא֣וֹן עוֹלָ֔ם מְשׂ֖וֹשׂ דּ֥וֹר וָדֽוֹר׃

15. Whereas you have been forsaken, Rejected, with none passing through, I will make you a pride everlasting, A joy for age after age.

וְיָנַקְתְּ֙ חֲלֵ֣ב גּוֹיִ֔ם וְשֹׁ֥ד מְלָכִ֖ים תִּינָ֑קִי וְיָדַ֗עַתְּ כִּ֣י אֲנִ֤י יְהוָה֙ מֽוֹשִׁיעֵ֔ךְ וְגֹאֲלֵ֖ךְ אֲבִ֥יר יַעֲקֹֽב׃

16. You shall suck the milk of the nations, Suckle at royal breasts. And you shall know That I the LORD am your Savior, I, The Mighty One of Jacob, am your Redeemer.

תַּ֣חַת הַנְּחֹ֜שֶׁת אָבִ֣יא זָהָ֗ב וְתַ֤חַת הַבַּרְזֶל֙ אָ֣בִיא כֶ֔סֶף וְתַ֤חַת הָֽעֵצִים֙ נְחֹ֔שֶׁת וְתַ֥חַת הָאֲבָנִ֖ים בַּרְזֶ֑ל וְשַׂמְתִּ֤י פְקֻדָּתֵךְ֙ שָׁל֔וֹם וְנֹגְשַׂ֖יִךְ צְדָקָֽה׃

17. Instead of copper I will bring gold, Instead of iron I will bring silver; Instead of wood, copper; And instead of stone, iron. And I will appoint Well-being as your government, Prosperity as your officials.

לֹא־יִשָּׁמַ֨ע ע֤וֹד חָמָס֙ בְּאַרְצֵ֔ךְ שֹׁ֥ד וָשֶׁ֖בֶר בִּגְבוּלָ֑יִךְ וְקָרָ֤את יְשׁוּעָה֙ חוֹמֹתַ֔יִךְ וּשְׁעָרַ֖יִךְ תְּהִלָּֽה׃

18. The cry “Violence!” Shall no more be heard in your land, Nor “Wrack and ruin!” Within your borders. And you shall name your walls “Victory” And your gates “Renown.”

לֹא־יִֽהְיֶה־לָּ֨ךְ ע֤וֹד הַשֶּׁ֙מֶשׁ֙ לְא֣וֹר יוֹמָ֔ם וּלְנֹ֕גַהּ הַיָּרֵ֖חַ לֹא־יָאִ֣יר לָ֑ךְ וְהָיָה־לָ֤ךְ יְהוָה֙ לְא֣וֹר עוֹלָ֔ם וֵאלֹהַ֖יִךְ לְתִפְאַרְתֵּֽךְ׃

19. No longer shall you need the sun For light by day, Nor the shining of the moon For radiance [by night]; For the LORD shall be your light everlasting, Your God shall be your glory.

לֹא־יָב֥וֹא עוֹד֙ שִׁמְשֵׁ֔ךְ וִירֵחֵ֖ךְ לֹ֣א יֵאָסֵ֑ף כִּ֣י יְהוָ֗ה יִֽהְיֶה־לָּךְ֙ לְא֣וֹר עוֹלָ֔ם וְשָׁלְמ֖וּ יְמֵ֥י אֶבְלֵֽךְ׃

20. Your sun shall set no more, Your moon no more withdraw; For the LORD shall be a light to you forever, And your days of mourning shall be ended.

וְעַמֵּךְ֙ כֻּלָּ֣ם צַדִּיקִ֔ים לְעוֹלָ֖ם יִ֣ירְשׁוּ אָ֑רֶץ נֵ֧צֶר מטעו [מַטָּעַ֛י] מַעֲשֵׂ֥ה יָדַ֖י לְהִתְפָּאֵֽר׃

21. And your people, all of them righteous, Shall possess the land for all time; They are the shoot that I planted, My handiwork in which I glory.

הַקָּטֹן֙ יִֽהְיֶ֣ה לָאֶ֔לֶף וְהַצָּעִ֖יר לְג֣וֹי עָצ֑וּם אֲנִ֥י יְהוָ֖ה בְּעִתָּ֥הּ אֲחִישֶֽׁנָּה

22. The smallest shall become a clan; The least, a mighty nation. I the LORD will speed it in due time.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? G”d will forever be our light, we shall have no need of sun or moon. There will be no violence in the land. Like the words of the Vaye’etayu poem that we read at Rosh Hashanah (and which Israel Zangwill turned into a Jewish hymn)  –  All the world will come to praise you. Everyone will worship the G”d of Israel. So why am I so troubled by it?

I’m troubled because of how it embraces chosen-ness. Not only will the world come to serve G”d, they will serve Israel. They will rebuild her, send her their riches. Then the kicker: all Israel’s people, all of them righteous says Isaiah, shall possess the land for all time.

Our own tradition teaches us that that test between true and false prophets is that the prophecies of a true prophet come true.  Israel’s history following the return from exile hardly follows such a path. There was a brief period of success, but there was no true Camelot in second Temple period Israel. Yes, some of the prophecies came true (though can we be sure this part of Isaiah was written before they did?) The Persians did indeed offer some assistance, so “aliens” did indeed help rebuild some of the walls. Governor Zerubbabel himself contributed funds.) But then went, well, gang aft agley, as they say in Scotland.  Alexander the Great conquers the region, and after that Egyptian Ptolemys conquer the land from Alexander’s squabbling generals. The Selucid ruler Antiochus III captures the land. Then the Maccabees revolt against Antiochus IV Epiphanes and set the stage for the period of the most despotic rulers of Israel, eventually leading to the Romans effectively being invited to come in and take over. So much for the golden age predicted by Isaiah in this chapter.

Okay, I’ll admit that the idea of the Israelites living in perpetual peace, the envy of the world, living only by G”d’s light is a pretty nice vision. I just don’t like the idea that Israel is so elevated above all the other nations. Why couldn’t the fantasy be “all the world will come together” rather than “all the world will come to bow before G”d and G”d’s chosen nation/people Israel” ?

Had I lived in the times when these words were written, I might feel totally comfortable with them. However I cannot ignore all that has transpired since. Instead of comforting me, when I hear these words, they do not make me hopeful. Instead, they remind me of how the promise of Isaiah did not become reality, and, in point of fact, though our people have survived, we have suffered countless horrors and indignities since. This is the price of being G”z’s am segulah, treasured people? Can I get a refund?

Why can’t we just tell it like it is. Here’s the real chapter 60 from my perspective.

1. Arise and shine for your light has dawned. Note, however that power outages seem to occur with alarming frequency.

2.Darkness will cover everywhere, but your emergency lighting will work – until the batteries run out.

3. Other nations will walk by your light, but unfortunately this will drain your emergency batteries even faster. Look and see how they have all come to you. Have fun dealing with all this excess population.

4-5. Lots of money – the wealth of nations, will flow your way. Just remember that money corrupts.

6-7. Camels will come to you bearing gold and silver. Just remember someone has to clean up all that camel dung. Same with the sheep and goats that will come your way.

8. You will be like a bug zapper. You’ll attract hordes. Not so certain how they’ll all end up.

9. Ships will come from afar laden with riches. You’ll have to build more seaports. Never mind the poor folks who will be displaced in the process.

10. Foreign labor will come and help you rebuild. They won’t be like you, and some might come to resent them.

11. Your gates, always open, will need constant screening and security. Who knows what riff-raff might come in? Just remember that Eliyahu might be among them.

12. Nations that do not serve you G”d will destroy – but what G”d fails to mention is that G”d may require the agency of your own people to fight and die in these wars.

13. Lebanon shall send you cedars and cypress, probably deforesting their land in the process, leading to an environmental disaster.

14. Your enemies shall come to you hat in hand. You’ll have to accept them, and they, too, will live among you, require support from the state. You may grow to resent these aliens in your midst even though you yourselves were once aliens in Egypt. Learn to make nice with them. Seriously. Otherwise, things are gonna suck.

15. I’m gonna raise you up above everyone else. Just remember what happens to people at the top of the ladder – they’re always targets for everyone below.

16. You shall drink the milk of other nations, suckle at the breasts of their leaders. As a result, they will come to truly resent and hate you.

17. You’ll get the center of the meat, cushions on the seat, houses on the street where it’s sunny, summers by the sea, winters warm and free. Everyone else gets the rest. It’s all for the best.

18. No more shall cries of violence and wrack and ruin be heard in your land, and you will name buildings for your blessings. However, this will require stricter weapon control laws, which the NRA might oppose. Also, some people will find your naming of buildings ostentatious and haughty.

19-20. You won’t need sun or moon – G”d alone will be your light source. You will be billed monthly. Late payment charges are quite steep. On the plus side, maybe the planet won’t be raped and ruined in the search for coal, oil, and natural gas.

21. All of your people will be righteous. Yeah, right. Thus they will earn to right to live in this land in perpetuity. Maybe. Seeing a lot going on in the land these days that’s not so righteous.

22. Your population will burst, and all will be mighty and powerful. Of course, this will stress your infrastructure, and lead to a lot of jealousy and fighting. Eventually, some maniac will try to wipe all of you out.

There. Now I can handle Isaiah chapter 60. Not sure how that works for you, so feel free to find your own truths in these words. May your search be fruitful.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings On This Parasha:

Ki Tavo 5777 – We Are But Uncut Stones
Ki Tavo 5775 – Rise and Shine (Redux 5761)
Ki Tavo 5774 – They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To
Ki Tavo 5773 – Catalog of Calamities (Redux and Greatly Revised 5760)
Ki Tavo 5772 – Mi Yitein Erev? Mi Yitein Boker?
Ki Tavo 5771 – Curse This Parasha!
Ki Tavo 5769 – If It Walks and Talks Like a Creed…
Ki Tavo 5767 – Uncut Stones
Ki Tavo 5764-Al Kol Eileh (in memory of Naomi Shemer, z”l)
Ki Tavo 5763–Still Getting Away With It?
Ki Tavo 5760–Catalog of Calamities
Ki Tavo 5761–Rise & Shine
Ki Tavo 5762–Al Kol Eileh

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Random Musing Before Shabbat–Ki Teitzei 5778–The Torah, The Gold Watch, and Everything Retold Yet Again

It’s been six years since I last shared this favorite and oft-traditionally-re-shared missing for Ki Teitzei, so it’s time once again. Adding, of course, a few new thoughts.

2012 – It’s time to share it again. Perhaps a little cleaning, polishing, and editing this time around. This is, after all, from the book of “second time around” (i.e. Deuteronomy.)

In 1997, I first wrote the musing for parashat Ki Teitzei entitled “The Torah, The Gold Watch, and Everything.” The title is a play on John MacDonald’s 1960 fantasy fiction novel “The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything” which was made into a (really bad) movie in 1980. It’s the story of a schlemiel who inherits a gold watch from his uncle, a mathematician who suddenly developed an uncanny ability to bilk casinos, amassing great wealth. He left nothing to his nephew except a gold watch. Turns out the watch has the ability to stop time for all but the holder of the watch, so Kirby, along with a loving female companion he meets in a most awkward way, uses the watch to defeat a criminal couple who were often thwarted by his uncle, and sought the watch for their own nefarious purposes. None of which is relevant, but interesting nonetheless.

For many years, it was my tradition to annually resend this musing. I’ve edited and rewritten the original story just a little bit this year.

There it sits. Each day, at some point, I open the pencil drawer in my desk at work, and laying among the hundreds of other miscellaneous items, it shines and stares at me. That gold ladies watch. It’s been a month, I think. Six months. A year. Two years. Why not finally just take it home?

I had tried all the usual means to locate the owner, who had apparently lost it at a symphony concert, held in the venue I managed, almost two years ago. The usher who first found it and brought it to me in my office thought this find was important enough to bring to my attention right away.

“It’s a gold watch, after all,” she said

I asked, “Have you ever not brought something you found to my attention right away?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “We find little unimportant things all the time. We just put them in our pockets and then leave them in the lost and found box.”

“So no one knows you put them there, except you?” I asked. Never one to waste a teachable moment, I hastened to tell the well meaning usher that we should treat every lost object as if it were priceless to its owner – whether it’s a cracker-jack box ring, an umbrella, or a gold watch. I later took the opportunity to address the entire staff, both backstage and front-to-house, on the importance of treating all apparent “lost/found” objects as important. I’ve been teaching that to all the staff at that venue and everywhere else I have worked ever since then.

But I digress. I called the symphony office, and tried to find out who was sitting in seats in the area the watch was found, since many attendees were regulars with subscriptions and regular seats. We called all those we could identify and none of them were the owner of the watch. We kept this up for several weeks. No one ever called to report a lost gold watch or to claim it. At other symphony concerts that season and next I asked people if the watch was theirs or if they knew who might own it. We even had the watch opened by a jeweler and checked for serial numbers, engravings, etc. Still no luck.

Now it is two years later. All last week, I kept saying to myself, “Adrian, it’s time. Just take it home, or donate it to a charity that could resell it (or use it.)”

Each day, I had the same conversation. Shabbat Shof’tim came and went. Then it was time to read Ki Teitzei. And there it was, in verses 22:1-3.

לא־תראה את־שור אחיך או את־שיו נדחים והתעלמת מהם השב תשיבם לאחיך

If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow.

ואם־לא קרוב אחיך אליך ולא ידעתו ואספתו אל־תוך ביתך והיה עמך עד דרש אחיך אתו והשבתו לו

If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him.

כן תעשה לחמרו וכן תעשה לשמלתו וכן תעשה לכל־אבדת אחיך אשר־תאבד ממנו ומצאתה לא תוכל להתעלם

You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent.

I was doing the right thing, in diligently trying to return the watch to its owner. Something had always told me that this was a Jewish value that had been instilled in me by my parents. * And that I should keep following this principle.

Torah teaches us that we must seek out the owner of the lost item, but it doesn’t tell us what to do when we can’t find them, so the tradition has always been to hold on to things until the owner is finally found. There is a Talmudic story about Rabbi Chanina who watched over some wandering chickens so fastidiously that what started out as a few chickens wound up as a herd of goats which were ultimately returned to the original owner of the chickens. This story has been further enhanced in many fanciful retellings by Jewish storytellers over the centuries.

It was so fortuitous, the timing of reading these words of Torah. That gold watch staring back at me every day from the drawer was calling to me. My life continues to be a series of little epiphanies like that. It’s a joy.

Well, wouldn’t it be nice if I could say that this story had a perfect ending – and the owner of the watch finally was found and I returned it. No such luck. I think it is finally time to take the watch to some charity that can use it. The watch has already served its purpose sitting in my drawer – that constant reminder to me of the ethic by which I, as a Jew, must live. And a reminder to teach those ethics to those who work with me, to especially to those I teach. It’s as though that little watch was a verse of Torah come to life. Now it’s time to let it bring its magic to others. I only hope that it was to its original owner of as great a value as it has been to me, and will now be to others.

My your drawers contain that little piece of Torah as well…

…And here the original tale ended in 1997.

Every year, people would write and ask me “so what happened to the watch?” In subsequent annual re-postings of the musing, I had hinted that there was a postscript to the story which someday I would tell. In 2005 the time had finally come to tell the rest of the tale. Then, I wrote these words:

“It’s all so apropos that I have always felt people would find it unbelievable, and I feared being accused of boasting about my own righteous behavior. I can only tell you that the story is a true one. You’ll have to judge for yourself, for I am including the story’s postscript this year.”

So what did happen to the watch? I’ll tell you, though I fear you might think I’m making it up. I’m not.

The true story is better than fiction. I have only told a few close friends, and I never wrote it up before, as I thought no one would believe it.

One very cold winter’s day, and remember this took place while I was living in Fargo, North Dakota,where cold days can be really cold, I took the watch with me on a trip to the Goodwill store, where I routinely used to shop for props for shows (and where I had learned to shop for clothes, because somewhat used and shrunken men’s small and medium sizes might fit my small but broad shaped body better than newer clothes. It was a lesson my wife at the time, Linda, taught me.) I was going to donate the watch to them.

On my way from the parking lot into the store, a bag lady, who hung around there periodically, even in the coldest weather, approached me and asked if I had the time. I looked at my watch and told her the time. She thanked me and I started to walk off into the store but she shouted at me to wait. She rummaged through her bags a minute. Eventually, she brought out an old, battered pocket watch–a real old railroad watch or conductor’s watch–I think it had the Burlington-Northern Railway logo on it. She said it doesn’t work anymore, but that it had been her father’s watch-she said he had been a railroad conductor on the BN line. She offered to sell it to me for $5.

The irony of it all was quite thick. I took the gold watch out of my pocket, and gave it to her, saying “how about an exchange?” I knew the gold watch was worth far more than $5. The jeweler we had taken the watch to had confirmed it was quite a valuable object. Worth hundreds. She asked if it worked and I said yes. She quickly and insistently handed me the pocket watch. She said “G”d bless you” and shuffled off as I walked into the store.

I’ve never been entirely sure if she was more excited to have a working watch again, or she knew she had a valuable object she could now sell or pawn. At the time, I had the feeling she was more excited to have a working watch.

In retrospect, I suppose I could have just given her the watch, and let her keep the old timepiece, which seemed to have sentimental value. For that matter, I could have just given her $5, or even more, in cash, and told her to keep the watch. So even I learn ways to improve myself when I retell these stories. Yet as I look back on it, I do think there is honor in honoring the woman’s desire to not take plain charity, and insist on an exchange.

The story doesn’t end here. I figured that this old pocket watch was probably worth something, and I had an idea, so that same day I showed it to a friend in Fargo who dealt in antiques. He offered me $100 on the spot for it! Apparently, they were in demand. Later that day, I cashed the check. I wrote a note explaining what I had done, put it and $100 cash in an envelope and took it back to the Goodwill store. The bag lady wasn’t there, but the nice people in the store said they would give it to her, as she comes around every so often. (Living in Fargo at the time I had grown more used to being trusting of people and was quite sure the folks in the  Goodwill store would sincerely make sure the bag lady got the money. Now that I have spent many years once again living in more urban settings, I wish I could recapture more of that trusting nature.)

I think it was about 6 months later that I happened to return to the Goodwill store, and guess who was working there? It took me a minute to recognize her-but it was, without a doubt, the bag lady. Her name was Eunice, as her name tag proudly displayed. Clean, dressed in decent clothes, with a little weight on her bones, entirely affable. She never showed any hint of knowing me – somewhat surprising given that my short stature seems to often make me more memorable to people – which I guess, in the end, was actually better, making it a “better mitzvah” according to the Rambam’s ladder of tzedakah. (Anonymous donations are considered of a higher order.) Of course, I don’t know that it was that gold watch, and what she may have gotten for selling or exchanging it somewhere else,  or the $100 for which I sold her watch that I tried to get back to her through the folks at the Goodwill store, that might have set her on the path that led her to wind up working there, and apparently in a much better place in life,  but that doesn’t really matter now, does it? I was just happy to see this woman in a better place.

I won’t deny I felt good inside. I was proud of myself. I realized, though, that it was only through her own efforts that she could have risen from her destitute state and recaptured control of her life.

Now can you see why I think no one would ever believe it. It’s almost too good to be true. Perhaps you, dear reader, can see why I think it might appear to be boasting about my myself, and that wouldn’t be right, and why I was always reluctant to tell that part of the story.

We never did find the watch’s original owner. So in some ways, the original mitzvah wasn’t fulfilled. Yet, in attempting to fulfill one mitzvah, other mitzvot were fulfilled. Mitzvah goreret mitzvah. One mitzvah leads to another.

I’ve had other lost items turn up over the years that I’ve held on to while seeking the owner. Yet none of those stories is as amazing as the story of the gold watch left at the symphony concert. To this day, I think of that watch that sat in my desk drawer for two years. And I’m always on the lookout for more little pieces of Torah sitting in my drawers.

In 2005 I wrote:

And now you all know the end of the story. Which means that next year, I’ll have to write an entirely new musing for Ki Tetze. Mitzvah goreret mitzvah.

I kept that promise and wrote on new and different things, but this year, it was as if I opened a drawer and saw that little gold watch staring back at me, and I felt I had to tell the story once more.

* – note in 2018. Thinking upon this reminded me of a story from my childhood. I was in 5th or 6th grade, and me and two school friends were walking around a hilly, wooded neighborhood park after school one day, when we changed upon a briefcase on the ground. Naturally, being curious children, we opened it up. It wasn’t entirely curiosity, as I am pretty sure I and my two friends were also eager to see if we could return it to the owner. Finders keepers is one thing with a Spalding rubber ball, but with something like a professional grown-up adult briefcase, not so much. We opened the case to discover it chock full of papers, most of them copies of official looking forms, clearly indicating they were I.R.S. forms. Some of the forms had a  business named on them along with address and phone number. So we went to my apartment and called some of these business, trying to disguise our voices and sound like adults, and saying we were calling from the I.R.S. and asking if they had misplaced a briefcase. We were not particularly convincing, and, as is typical with kids, often laughed or otherwise made it obvious that this was, to some extent, a prank call (though we were serious about trying to find the owner of the briefcase.) In between, we looked more carefully through the documents, and it soon became apparent to us that this must be a briefcase belonging to an agent of the I.R.S. Looking carefully at some of the forms, it became clear who the agent in question was.  At this point we thought it best to wait for some help from parents. They later were able to identify and contact the agent, and arrange for him to come pick up his briefcase. He was happy to have it back, and even gave us each a small reward. We told him we hoped we didn’t cause any problems by contacting some of the businesses – perhaps alerting them that they might be under investigation. He assured us these were matters well-known to the parties concerned, and didn’t fault us for having looked at “official government documents.” He even mentioned how returning a lost object was the right thing to do. (Looking back, I think he happened to be Jewish.) While I lost track of one of these friends, I had been in contact with the other through Facebook. Much to my surprise and chagrin, another classmate informed me recently that my reconnected through Facebook friend had passed away almost one year ago, a fact he discovered when he wondered why he hadn’t seen any posts from him on Facebook for a while and began to investigate. Wow, did that make me feel like a total heel. But, as usual, I digress, so back to 2012 (or perhaps, 2005,or earlier – it all becomes a muddle after a while.)

I as was musing on all of this, I kept thinking about times in the past years when I have found myself starting to be a bit lazy when it came to doing the right thing, and catching myself, and going ahead and doing the right thing. It could be something as simple as walking by a piece of trash figuring someone else would pick it up, and then stopping myself and picking it up. It could be something as simple as finding a forgotten and unidentified art project from camp on the ground, being tempted to just dump it in the trash, and instead taking it to some counselors or an art specialist and asking of they knew who made it, and asking them to make sure they got it.

It’s easy to say “why bother?” If the child discarded it, it probably wasn’t important to them anyway. They might have just taken it home and thrown it out themselves. However, we just can’t assume that.

    וְכֵ֧ן תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה לַחֲמֹר֗וֹ וְכֵ֣ן תַּעֲשֶׂה֮ לְשִׂמְלָתוֹ֒ וְכֵ֣ן תַּעֲשֶׂ֜ה לְכָל־אֲבֵדַ֥ת אָחִ֛יךָ אֲשֶׁר־תֹּאבַ֥ד מִמֶּ֖נּוּ וּמְצָאתָ֑הּ לֹ֥א תוּכַ֖ל לְהִתְעַלֵּֽם׃ 

3 You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent. [JPS]

Talmudic exegesis makes it clear that this teaches us that the obligation to return lost items to our neighbors (and by extension, perhaps, anyone) cannot be ignored. I’d like to go a step further.

Sometimes, things that are lost are not tangible things. Love, honor, trust, respect, dignity. Those are all things that can be lost. I believe it is as much our obligation to try and return those intangibles to those who have lost them as it is to return a lost gold watch.

Look around. You might find some metaphorical lost gold watches in your life. what can you do to help return them?

Shabbat Shalom,


©2018. Portions ©1997, 2001, 2004, 2005, and 2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Ki Teitzei 5777 – B’shetzef Ketzef (Expanded and revised)
Ki Tetzei 5775 – Re-Honoring Inconsistency
Ki Teitzei 5774 – Microcosm
Ki Teitzei 5773 – Be True To Who You Are
Ki Teitzei 5772 – The Torah, the Gold Watch, and Another Retelling
Ki Teitzei 5771 –  Metaphorical Parapets
Ki Tetzei 5769 – The Choice of Memory
Ki Tetzei 5767 – Honoring Inconsistency
Ki Teitzei 5766-B’Shetzef Ketzef
Ki Tetze 5764/5-The Torah, The Gold Watch, and The Rest of the Story
Ki Tetze 5757,9,60,63–The Torah, The Gold Watch, & Everything
Ki Tetze 5758–Exclude Me
Ki Tetze 5762–One Standard

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Random Musing Before Shabbat–Shof’tim 5778—It’s King to Be the Good.

There are places in the Torah that demonstrate a reasonable understanding of human nature, and the challenge in asking human beings to succumb to their better natures, act righteously, do justly, and resist selfish urges.

Then there are places in the Torah where all that goes out the window in order to serve a particular agenda. One of the most egregious of those occurs here in the parasha. For me, this passage presents some of the clearest evidence of human redaction/addition/insertion to the text. Yes, there are more obvious passages, particularly the ones that blatantly say “as it is to this day” or ones that annotate a place name by referencing a name it was known by in later times. These little anachronisms are amusing simply because they are so obvious.

This one is not so amusing, as it represents Divine support for a significant change in the political structure of the people of the covenant. (Deut 17:14-20)

כִּֽי־תָבֹ֣א אֶל־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ נֹתֵ֣ן לָ֔ךְ וִֽירִשְׁתָּ֖הּ וְיָשַׁ֣בְתָּה בָּ֑הּ וְאָמַרְתָּ֗ אָשִׂ֤ימָה עָלַי֙ מֶ֔לֶךְ כְּכָל־הַגּוֹיִ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר סְבִיבֹתָֽי׃

If, after you have entered the land that the LORD your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,”

שׂ֣וֹם תָּשִׂ֤ים עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ מֶ֔לֶךְ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִבְחַ֛ר יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ בּ֑וֹ מִקֶּ֣רֶב אַחֶ֗יךָ תָּשִׂ֤ים עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ מֶ֔לֶךְ לֹ֣א תוּכַ֗ל לָתֵ֤ת עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ אִ֣ישׁ נָכְרִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־אָחִ֖יךָ הֽוּא׃

you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the LORD your God. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kinsman.

רַק֮ לֹא־יַרְבֶּה־לּ֣וֹ סוּסִים֒ וְלֹֽא־יָשִׁ֤יב אֶת־הָעָם֙ מִצְרַ֔יְמָה לְמַ֖עַן הַרְבּ֣וֹת ס֑וּס וַֽיהוָה֙ אָמַ֣ר לָכֶ֔ם לֹ֣א תֹסִפ֗וּן לָשׁ֛וּב בַּדֶּ֥רֶךְ הַזֶּ֖ה עֽוֹד׃

Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the LORD has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.”

וְלֹ֤א יַרְבֶּה־לּוֹ֙ נָשִׁ֔ים וְלֹ֥א יָס֖וּר לְבָב֑וֹ וְכֶ֣סֶף וְזָהָ֔ב לֹ֥א יַרְבֶּה־לּ֖וֹ מְאֹֽד׃

And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.

וְהָיָ֣ה כְשִׁבְתּ֔וֹ עַ֖ל כִּסֵּ֣א מַמְלַכְתּ֑וֹ וְכָ֨תַב ל֜וֹ אֶת־מִשְׁנֵ֨ה הַתּוֹרָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ עַל־סֵ֔פֶר מִלִּפְנֵ֥י הַכֹּהֲנִ֖ים הַלְוִיִּֽם׃

When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests.

וְהָיְתָ֣ה עִמּ֔וֹ וְקָ֥רָא ב֖וֹ כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיָּ֑יו לְמַ֣עַן יִלְמַ֗ד לְיִרְאָה֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהָ֔יו לִ֠שְׁמֹר אֶֽת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֞י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֛את וְאֶת־הַחֻקִּ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה לַעֲשֹׂתָֽם׃

Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws.

לְבִלְתִּ֤י רוּם־לְבָבוֹ֙ מֵֽאֶחָ֔יו וּלְבִלְתִּ֛י ס֥וּר מִן־הַמִּצְוָ֖ה יָמִ֣ין וּשְׂמֹ֑אול לְמַעַן֩ יַאֲרִ֨יךְ יָמִ֧ים עַל־מַמְלַכְתּ֛וֹ ה֥וּא וּבָנָ֖יו בְּקֶ֥רֶב יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel.

Surely, the authors of the Torah, be they Divine or human, understood the notion that power corrupts. Their instructions here to a potential King demonstrate that concern. There’s just one problem: they have described an impossible scenario in these verses.

More cynically, they have described here actions that former Kings of Israel and Judah have engaged in, and are trying to caution future (and present?) leaders against doing such things.

This fits quite nicely with the scholarly notion of the Book of D’varim/Deuteronmy being a later addition to the books of the Torah. The mention of many wives is not a caution, but a rebuke to David and Solomon and other Kings. So, too, the mention of amassing great wealth. It’s not unreasonable to believe that at some point the Israelites of Judahites were tempted to accept a n on-Israelite as their King, thus that caution. The mention of sending people back to Egypt to obtain horses feels awfully specific to me.

If what the Torah has here is a list of how Kings should act, then most of Israel’s kings, especially some of the more famous ones, failed to live up to these commandments. The rabbis and scholars (and in particular the Rambam/Maimonides) derive six commandments from these verses – one positive and five negative.

    1. To appoint a king (Deut. 17:15) (positive).

    2. Not to appoint as ruler over Israel, one who comes from non-Israelites (Deut. 17:15) (negative).

    3. That the King shall not acquire an excessive number of horses (Deut. 17:16) (negative).

    4. That the King shall not take an excessive number of wives (Deut. 17:17) (negative).

    5. That he shall not accumulate an excessive quantity of gold and silver (Deut. 17:17) (negative).

    6. That the King shall write a scroll of the Torah for himself, in addition to the one that every person should write, so that he writes two scrolls (Deut. 17:18) (affirmative).

I’m going to be bold and argue with the rabbis and scholars. I do not read Deut. 17:15 as a commandment to appoint a King. It simply gives permission to the Israelites to do so, should they choose. Knowing how impossible it might be for a king to live up to the standards demanded here by the Torah, I am somewhat surprised we went ahead and chose to be ruled by a King.

Imagine how different society could be if the Israelites hadn’t succumbed to the desire to be ruled by a king like all the other nations. Imagine them sticking with the “Judges” model with leaders being acclaimed only as the need arise. Imagine the Israelites developing a democratic or representative model of governance. The early Greeks were able to do so, so why not the Israelites? In fact, the Torah stipulates many of the principles that a self-governing nation without a monarchy might utilize. Opportunity lost.

The commandments that the Torah creates for Kings could be equally applied to the responsible parties in any political system. There’s a system right here in our own country in our own time that is woefully failing to abide by these principles enumerated in the Torah.

Therein lies the reality that belies what we read in Deut. 17. Human beings do have a tendency to use any position they obtain to further their own selfish needs and desires. There are rare examples throughout history of rulers and leaders who truly put the needs of their country and citizens above their own. However, the temptation is great, and even the best servant of the people can, and often does, succumb to at least some temptation. One (theoretical) advantage of representative democracy is that no single individual leader is in a position to gain personally from their position in a manner similar to that of a true king/monarch/dictator. Absolute leaders are going to be the most prone to accumulate excessive wealth. How could it be otherwise?

So why would the Torah command us to have a King, knowing that a King is hardly likely to be able to easily follow the other five commandments related to kings? Torah is trying to close the barn door after the horses are out. As Mel Brooks puts it in “History of the World Part I” – “It’s good to be the king.”

Might for right, not might is right, a young Arthur posits in T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King.” Yet even this most selfless and righteous of kings succumbed to temptations that led to his ruination. Will we ever know a ruler who can truly live up to the notion that It’s King to Be the Good”?

We are living a reality in which even a representative democracy is beset with leaders at all levels who seem incapable of finding their better selves, and quickly succumb to the temptations that accompany having any amount of power over others. Which leads to a potentially uncomfortable question. Which is better – having a single King who amasses great wealth and yields great power more for personal gain and selfish purposes than a desire to serve the people of the nation, or a representative democracy in which the representatives and leaders at all level and in all branches often succumb to the same temptations? Is there not a better chance of convincing a single monarch to put the needs of the people and country before his/her own, than to convince most of a large number of elected representatives, leaders, judges, etc. to do the same? Does the Torah make the case that a benevolent dictatorship might be the best form of government (so long as, from the Torah’s perspective, the dictator abides by and follows G”d’s commandments) ?

Here, right here, is an argument for G”d and religion as a check and balance on the power of rulers. I won’t dismiss, and fully acknowledge that the Torah and the texts of other western religions have been used as an excuse for the perpetration of all sorts of horrors. It’s a fact we can’t escape. At the same time, most religions do call upon us to find our better natures and act in the interest of the whole over the one. If kings, presidents, senators, representatives, judges, and other elected and appointed officials of government heeded the cautions offered here in Deut. 17 (and elsewhere in the Torah, New Testament, Quran, et al) then perhaps we could create a better world.

Also, though I won’t endorse the concept, the idea that G”d can represent a check on even the most powerful ruler has a certain appeal. Picturing G”d bringing a selfish ruler to justice brings a smile to my face. If only the Torah didn’t have all that other yucky stuff done by G”d and that G”d asked human beings to do. Sigh.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings not his parasha:

Shof’tim 5775 – Whose Justice (Revisted)
Shoftim 5774 – Signifying Nothing
Shoftim 5773-Hassagat G’vul Revisited Yet Again
Shoftim 5772 – Quis Custodiet Ipso Custodes
Shoftim 5771 –  Hassagat G’vul Revisited
Shoftim 5767 (Redux and Updated 5760/61) From Defective to Greatest
Shof’tim 5766-Hassagut G’vul
Shoftim 5765/5759-Whose Justice?
Shoftim 5763–Pursuit

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Random Musing Before Shabbat–Re’eh 5778—Revisiting Lo Toseif v’lo Tigra and Adding a Little Heresy

To my readers:

You may have noticed there was no musing last week. I had the opportunity to take a much-needed vacation last week, and found myself truly relaxing. I barely posted anything on Facebook or Twitter, or check messages, respond to texts, read news feeds. That wasn’t necessarily a conscious choice on my part. It just happened. No, I’m not going to give a lecture on the joys of disconnecting. I still won’t be participating in the next Shabbat of Unplugging. I use and co-opt the technology into the service of my Jewish practice, just as I use it to support my life. It is a tool, and one that I strive to control rather than letting it control me. I can get through a week of minimal connection without developing serious FOMO. I did some biking and hiking, lots of reading, a lot of crosswords (and I did the reading on a Kindle, and the crosswords both on my phone and in printed books.) Mostly, I relaxed, and I discovered it was precisely what I needed. I managed to not publish a missing without feeling guilty about it, without even feeling the need to let my readers know. I was mellow. I was chill. It was good. There are some ways in which getting older is improving me. So thanks for indulging my chill. Now, on to this revisiting of an older musing.

A traditional understanding of the mitzvot found in the Torah (both written and oral) rest squarely on this all important verse which begins chapter 13 of Sefer D’varim, the Book of Deuteronomy:

אֵ֣ת כָּל־הַדָּבָ֗ר אֲשֶׁ֤ר אָנֹכִי֙ מְצַוֶּ֣ה אֶתְכֶ֔ם אֹת֥וֹ תִשְׁמְר֖וּ לַעֲשׂ֑וֹת לֹא־תֹסֵ֣ף עָלָ֔יו וְלֹ֥א תִגְרַ֖ע מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃

“Et kol hadavar asher anokhi m’tzaveh etkhem oto tishmeru la’asot, lo-toseif alaiv v’lo tigra mimenu”

“Every thing which I have commanded y’all it (him) to take care to do, do not add to him (it), and do not subtract from him/us (it).”

Bear with me on this translation style. For one thing, it’s that gender issue with Hebrew. “Etkhem” is direct-object second person plural masculine. English has no equivalent. You is you, whether singular or plural, masculine or feminine, unlike the Hebrew. I’ve become convinced that “y’all” might just be the best way to translate it.

Also, I’ve gone to great pains to indicate the syntax and structure of the verse in as simple and direct a word-for-word manner as I can, albeit scholars have long agreed upon colloquialisms that help clean up Hebrew’s sometimes odd way of phrasing things. JPS translates it as “Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it.” The ever-poetic Everett Fox translates it as: “Everything that I command you, *that* you are to take care to observe, you are not to add to it, you are not to diminish from it!” (Fox italicizes the “that” for emphasis-I used the asterisks so that the emphasis will show even on systems using plain ASCII text displays.)

We’ll get to some of the other translation oddities in a second. Basically, the “essential understanding” (for you uBD fans) of the verse is do what G”d has commanded exactly as G”d commanded.

Seems a simple enough concept. For a traditional Jew, one who fully accepts the rabbinic and subsequent codification of the written and oral law (as found in Mishna, Talmud, Rabbinic commentaries and further expanded into Halacha as found in the Shulkhan Arukh et al) as being “exactly what G”d commanded” it can (on the one hand) be quite simple. (On the other hand, there’s nothing simple at all about traditional Judaism. It may seem that way to us liberal Jews from the outside. We can sometimes look down upon the traditionally observant as “simple folk who live best when simply told what to do all the time” and compare it to “being in the armed forces.” Truth be told, neither of those is all that simple. Most (but not all) liberal Jews don’t have to struggle with each and every mitzvot – we just pick and choose. I don’t believe that having to think about all the mitzvot all the time makes for a simple life, do you? I’ve heard it argued that being a liberal Jew is actually harder, and I can see how that might be so, if we all truly struggled each and every moment to understand what it is that G”d really wants of us. So, for the moment, let’s just say that neither traditional nor liberal Jews have chosen the simple path. But I digress.)

Notice, by the way, how I translate et-kol-hadavar as “every thing” and not “everything.” There’s a point to that. We tend to think of “everything” as a plural, all lumped together. “Every thing” allows a certain distinctness to each of the components. “Hadavar” is singular. And elsewhere in the Torah we do find the Hebrew expression “et kol ha-d’varim.” Every “things” or “all of the things.” Seems to me there’s a reason why here it says “et kol ha-davar” and not “et kol ha-d’varim.” It is literally saying “all the-thing” and not “all the-things.” That point could be for distinctiveness, as in “each and every little thing” or “every jot and tittle” to remind us that the whole is made of up distinct individual parts, each one different from the other. Maybe so. Maybe not.

The mystery is notched up when we examine the end of the verse. That last word, “mimenu” can be both 3rd person masculine singular (from him/it) but it can also be 1st person plural (from us/those). If one wanted to really play around with the translation, you could say:

“Every (individual) thing that I have commanded y’all to take care to do – do not add to this, and do not subtract from these.”

More interesting:

“Every (individual) thing that I have commanded y’all to take care to do – do not add to this, and do not subtract from those.”

Or even more interesting:

“Every (individual) thing that I have commanded y’all to take care to do – do not add to this, and do not subtract from us.” (Reading mimenu as 1st person plural)

(For those who need a little refresher – these/those are the plural forms of this/that. In general, “this” refers to a specific thing that is close by or that one is experiencing. That generally refers to some thing more distant or less immediate, or a thing previously identified or experienced.)

[That last one could be a way of saying that the act of adding (unnecessarily) to a mitzvah might diminish us. wow. Shades of my two favorite krispy critters, Nadav and Avihu. Never thought I’d be able to work them into this musing. I guess that “eish zara” qualifies as violating this commandment (even though that incident happens before this particular commandment is revealed in the text in this parasha – in a book (D’varim) which many scholars believe was a much later work than the previous four books of the Torah.]

Oy, may head is spinning with the possibilities of interpretation. What is the intended message here? Somehow, I’m now pretty sure it isn’t as simple as “do things exactly as G”d commanded.” Despite the vagaries of biblical Hebrew, the Torah could have found a more explicit and definitive way to say what it says in Deut. 13:1. It could say

“Every individual thing that I have commanded y’all to take care to do, do not add anything to any commandment, or diminish any commandment.”

G”d could have found a more definitive way to make the point. G”d/Torah didn’t. Saying

“all thing I commanded y’all to take care to do, do not add to it, and do not subtract from it” (or possibly “from us”)

– which is a pretty literal translation if we disregard some of what we believe is normal syntax for biblical Hebrew – is not being explicit, no matter how you slice it. And if one (or perhaps The One) wants to be explicit yet is going to use colloquialisms, one (The One?) had better make sure their meaning will be clear to future generations.

When I first wrote this musing 12 years ago, I included a thought which I later deleted. This year, I’m feeling the need to express it. It’s heretical, at least from a traditional viewpoint.

I’m no Karaite – while I do not consider myself bound by rabbinical halakha, I do believe it can and should inform our practice, or, at the very least, our attempt to understand  Judaism and create our understanding of it. That being said, I can no longer restrain myself from stating the obvious.

Is not the very idea of the “oral Torah” a prima facie violation of the commandment to not add to or subtract from the Torah? (A Karaite would certainly agree with that.)

Of course, there do exist in Judaism some apologetics for Deut 13:1. The most common is to explain that this text is more specifically in reference to the rules that immediately precede it relating to not following the practices of others, about sacrifices, and the eating of meat. Eh. A lame and weak argument at best.

Now, I do not come to abolish the law and the prophets. (Hmmm, where have I heard that before? Hey, gimme a break. If it’s an accurate quote, it is quoting a Jew.) The creators of the oral law (and I do believe they were human and not Divine creators) realized early on that they were dealing with a somewhat vague and imperfect document in the Torah.(Dare we go down the rabbit-hole of the origins of the Torah herself? We could, but I do like to keep some level of mystery in my heart, so, at least for the purposes of this musing, I desire to hold open the possibility of a Divine it Divinely-inspired origin for Torah. Let’s give the creators of the Oral Torah a break, and assume they were seeking to help the people of Israel understand a Torah that they believed was of Divine origin.) So the creators of the Oral Torah started, I believe, dealing with the mundane and quotidian things that were perplexing in the Torah, and eventually expanded into a wider philosophical realm. They started out answering simple questions and gradually got into more esoteric things– at what time can we recite the evening Sh’ma? How do we deal with the laws of purity for women and men? How do we follow the Torah’s rules about latrines? What the heck is this stuff about not boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk?

Building on the work of the creators of the Oral Torah, the rabbis reach an orgasmic climax in discussion of the kashrut status of an oven at which point they declare themselves the ultimate arbiters of what the Torah (and the Oral Torah) say and mean. Even a bat kol, a Divine voice command from heaven, could be ignored by the rabbis.

The irony here is that another story involving a bat kol has a very different conclusion.Never ones to be concerned with contradicting even themselves, elsewhere in the Talmud they declare, discussing a dispute between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai

אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים

These and those are the words of the Living G”d (Eruvin 13b)

(Not being ones to waste a lesson, it goes on to state that House Hillel in correct, because they have proven to be the more humble and agreeable party.)

The beauty of Talmud has always been that it preserves multiple opinions on topics, even while if may sometimes put a thumb on the scale. I have always admired this about Judaism. However, when examined through the lens I am using here, it may simply be the inevitable result of merging the varying conflicting stories, mishegas and bubble meises  of the human sources that became the basis of the Oral Torah.

I often wonder if Mishna, Talmud, Shulkhan Arukh, et al are simply the inevitable result of the the tangled web the rabbis wove from their initial deception (even a well-intentioned deception.) Once they started explaining the Torah, they had to keep refining and expanding the explanations. Soon, they were in to deep to back out. I sometimes think this is still he case when it comes to modern poskim (deciders.) Traditional Jews are just too invested in the system to risk admitting that the whole thing is a house of cards.

Again, I respect the Talmud, and millennia of Jewish tradition and practice, and believe one can find value in the wide range of Jewish text and commentary. I don’t have the need to believe it is of Divine origin in order for it to have value. Similarly, I do not have to believe it unerringly correct and immutable (true heretic that I am, I believe this can be true of the Torah herself.)

A thought enters my head, unbidden. Maybe I shouldn’t have so off-handedly rejected the notion that 13:1 really is just referring to some specific commandments mentioned in the previous chapter. After all, the Torah scroll text is laid out with 12:29-13:1 being part of one paragraph. This gives credence to the idea that 13:1 is a final comment on the contents of chapter 12, or, more specifically, those last few verses commanding to not follow the cultic practices of those who dwell in the lands that G”d is about to give to us.

Yes, that’s the easier way to deal with this. However, I’m not one prone to take the easy way. Not to mention that Traditional Judaism has seized upon the words of 13:1 to justify their own maintenance of traditions based on Torah and Oral Torah. Their position is that Oral Torah is included in this Torah commandment. I just can’t give that a pass.

Do I have your head spinning yet? Good. Now allow the Shabbat Bride to bring you to a place out of time where you can relax. Maybe clarity will come. Or maybe you’ll just relax and forget all about it. Either way, the text will be right there in the Torah next time you encounter it, perhaps with fresh, new insight, or perhaps as befuddled as ever. Whether enlightenment or befuddlement, may you find it pleasing.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2018 (portions ©2006) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Re’eh 5777 – Between the Mountains
Re’eh 5775 – Think Marx, Act Rashi. Think Rashi, Act Marx (Redux/Revised 5772)
Re’eh 5774 – Our Own Gifts (Redux 5761)
Re’eh 5773 – Here’s a Tip
Re’eh 5772 – Think Marx, Act Rashi? Think Rashi, Act Marx?
Re’eh 5771 – Revisiting B’lo L’sav’a
Re’eh 5770 Meating Urges
Re’eh 5766-Lo Toseif V’lo Tigra
Re’eh 5765–Revised 5759-Open Your Hand
Re’eh 5761–Our Own Gifts
Re’eh 5760/5763–B’lo l’sav’a
Re’eh 5759–Open Your Hand
Re’eh 5757/5758–How To Tell Prophet From Profit

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Random Musing Before Shabbat–Va’etkhanan 5778—Theological Polymorphism

In discussions and disputations (mostly with other Jews) I have often made the assertion that any G”d truly being the G”d,” the ONE G”d. would have the wisdom to understand that, as complicated a creation as humankind is, those creations would need multiple alternate paths to the understanding of, communication with, and worship of G”d.

I, like many other Jews I know, am somewhat uncomfortable with the notion of “chosen people,”  especially when it is connected with any sense of superiority over other peoples and belief systems. I have worked for liberal congregations that did not recite the words in the Aleinu prayer:

שֶׁלֹּא עָשָֽׂנוּ כְּגוֹיֵי הָאֲרָצוֹת, וְלֹא שָׂמָֽנוּ כְּמִשְׁפְּחוֹת הָאֲדָמָה, שֶׁלֹא שָׂם חֶלְקֵֽנוּ כָּהֶם, וְגֹרָלֵֽנוּ כְּכָל הֲמוֹנָם

“for He (sic) has not made us like the nations of the lands, and has not emplaced us like the families of the earth. He has not assigned our portion like theirs nor our lot like all their multitudes.” (Artscroll)

(I have purposefully chosen the Artscroll translation to eliminate the softening and massaging that appear in the Reform and Conservative siddurs reflecting a certain discomfort with the plain meaning of these words.)

In some Reconstructing Judaism (as their new choice of name is) congregations the Friday night Kiddush has the words

מִכָּל הָעַמִּים

“mi-kol ha-amim” [from all (other) peoples]

replaced by

עִם כָּל הָעַמִּים

“im-kol ha’amim” [with all (other) peoples.]

The theological difference between the two is significant. For the Friday night Kiddush (blessing of sanctification over wine) in one case-the traditional text-mi-kol–we might be saying:

For us You did choose and us You did sanctify from all the nations

In the other case (im-kol)

For us You did choose and us You did sanctify with all nations.

Again I have purposefully chosen the Artscroll translation to eliminate the softening and massaging that appears in the Reform and Conservative siddurs reflecting a certain discomfort with the plain meaning of these words.)

One version is exclusive, and one is inclusive. One treats Judaism as “more equal” and the other treats Judaism as one of many paths to G”d.

I’ve encountered this now in other settings, and it is starting to make inroads into Reform settings. Just this week I had a student that I am tutoring in preparation for her service of becoming a bat mitzvah practice the Kiddush and say “im-kol ha-amim.” My first instinct was to correct her, thinking it was a simple sound reversal from misreading the Hebrew “mi” as “im.” So I asked her about it, and she told me that she heard another person at the synagogue with whom she has been studying her brachot say “im-kol” and, when she asked about it had that purposeful choice explained to her. She then chose to do so herself (at least for the Kiddush L’eil Shabbat. I don’t think that same option has been presented regarding the blessing before the reading of the Torah – and I’m not sure that congregation is ready to go there yet. Read on.)

When this change is made in the blessing before the reading of the Torah, the phrase (again, from the Artscroll siddur)

אֲשֶׁר בָּֽחַר בָּֽנוּ מִכָּל הָעַמִּים וְנָֽתַן לָֽנוּ אֶת תּוֹרָתוֹ

…who selected us from all the peoples and gave us His (sic) Torah.


אֲשֶׁר בָּֽחַר בָּֽנוּ עִם כָּל הָעַמִּים וְנָֽתַן לָֽנוּ אֶת תּוֹרָתוֹ

…who selected us with all the peoples and gave us His Torah.

This goes a bit further, theologically, than the change in the Friday Night Kiddush does. Even Reconstructing Judaism wasn’t comfortable with that, so they changed the text to

אֲשֶׁר קֵרְבָנוּ לַעֲבוֹדָתוֹ וְנָֽתַן לָֽנוּ אֶת תּוֹרָתוֹ

…who has drawn us to Your service by giving us the Torah. (translation from Kol Haneshama, the Reconstructing Judaism siddur)

There are those in the Jewish community who do embrace the concept of chosen-ness, and do embrace the viewpoint that the Jewish people are indeed, to borrow from Orwell,  “more equal than others.” (And yes, I did choose that particular phrase due to its association with the porcine Napoleon.) There is a strain of superiority present in Judaism just as there are strains of supersessionism in Christianity and Islam. I hate to generalize, but I will say that I rarely encounter in liberal Jewish circles the notion that Christians, Muslims and Jews don’t worship the same G”d; whereas I often encounter that notion in orthodox circles. I’ve watched orthodox colleagues do total contortions arguing that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same G”d as the Jews. A logical inconsistency if there is truly One G”d, n’est ce pas? They all go so far as to assert that Christians and Muslims worship a “no god” or an imaginary god that is simply not the Jewish G”d – who is the One and Only G”d.

I do not entirely discount the notion that our Torah says that our people have a particular covenant with G”d, but only outside of the written Torah will we find text to support a claim that G”d had and would only ever make a covenant with the Jewish people. Every time I get into this discussion with Jews who believe otherwise, they are quick to trot out all the verses that speak of that covenant, and of us as a special or treasured people, that G”d alone has singled out. Yet when pressed to back up the assertion that G”d never did and would never ever covenant or establish a relationship with other peoples, or, at the very least, consider other religions and faith systems as valid ways to connect with and worship G”d with actual words from Torah, they begin to do their contortions, and invariably turn to the “oral Torah” and subsequent rabbinical writings. They discount the other Abrahamic faiths, and argue that they do not worship the same G”d as the Jews. The funny thing about it all is that Christianity made it a heresy to suggest that the Christian G”d was not the same G”d worship by the Jews. Judaism, sadly, has never reciprocated.

Think about how Jews feel every time they learn that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (i.e. Mormons) has gone back yet again on their promise to not posthumously baptize Jews who died in the Shoah. However uncomfortable the practice may make you feel, I’ve little doubt that the Mormons who do so  are acting within and because of their sincerely held beliefs. The same is true for those Jehovah’s Witnesses who come to your door, and for other forms of proselytizing by Christians. For many, a main line understanding and interpretation of Christian faith compels them to do so. If this bothers us as Jews, why should our Jewish professions of our chosen-ness and unique and one-of-a-kind covenant with G”d not seem equally troubling and bothersome to Christians?

Yes, Christianity has not, historically, had a particularly positive relationship with Judaism. They have taken our texts and used them against us, most of it libelous and unfair. They had Crusades, the Inquisition, and more. Subtle (and not-so-subtle) anti-Semitism pervades Christian thought and liturgy.

But this is neither the world of our ancestors, nor even the world of our great-grandfathers and grandfathers. Interfaith dialogue has grown in amount and significance. Young people today, if they even think about G”d certainly envision a universal G”d.  They don’t want to know what divides us, but what unites us. Religious particularism just doesn’t fit in with their world view, and for religions to survive, they are going to have to become more universalistic and accepting of other religions, or, alternatively, become completely insular and detach from contemporary society and culture. (Yet just  how possible is that? There are those in the orthodox worlds of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and other religious traditions who work to isolate themselves – but it is a constant struggle. The universe, and our knowledge of it changes. The string that ties people to an earlier or ancient understanding of things will only stretch so far before it breaks. The wiser religious faiths learn to find ways to move the older anchor point forward to prevent this. But, alas, I digress.)

While there are some in the orthodox Jewish world who accept that Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same G”d, Hinduism is a bridge too far for them. (Some lump Christianity in with Hinduism, claiming that the Triune god makes Christianity idolatrous.)  I remember a flap in the orthodox world some time back when it was discovered that some sheitls (wigs) worn by orthodox women had been made from the hair of Hindus who might have partaken in Hindu rituals and thus one posek (learned decider) declared them not kosher and unsuitable for use. Of course,this being Judaism, different pos’kim (deciders) held differently. Sadly, this displays an ignorance of the subtleties of Hindu beliefs. Vedic thought and the Hindusim that developed from it are much more nuanced than that. Hinduism certainly has polytheistic aspects. It is a gross mischaracterization and over-simplification of Hinduism to say, as I have actually seen on some comparison charts, that Hinduism has “one supreme reality, Brahman, manifested in multiple gods and goddesses.” It is a similarly gross mischaracterization of Hinduism to call it polytheistic. The best term I’ve seen is polymorphic bi-monotheism. Bi-monotheistic because many schools of Hinduism see the ultimate reality as both male and female as part of a single dual-entity. There is likely a period in which many of our Israelite ancestors had a similar view of Ad”nai. In later times, this concept re-emerged, especially among the qabbalists. If shekhinah is the feminine aspect of G”d, is that not somewhat similar to the Hindu bi-monotheism? Yes, again, it’s an oversimplification, nevertheless it merits consideration.

Stick a pin in this concept of polymorphism. We’ll come back to it.

So, to our parasha, Va’etkhanan. (For a thorough exploration of just the first word of the parasha, see my musing  “Sometimes a Cigar…”.)

Try this on for size: (Deut. chapter 4)

וְנִשְׁמַרְתֶּ֥ם מְאֹ֖ד לְנַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶ֑ם כִּ֣י לֹ֤א רְאִיתֶם֙ כָּל־תְּמוּנָ֔ה בְּי֗וֹם דִּבֶּ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה אֲלֵיכֶ֛ם בְּחֹרֵ֖ב מִתּ֥וֹךְ הָאֵֽשׁ׃

15 For your own sake, therefore, be most careful—since you saw no shape when the LORD your God spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire—

פֶּ֨ן־תַּשְׁחִת֔וּן וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֥ם לָכֶ֛ם פֶּ֖סֶל תְּמוּנַ֣ת כָּל־סָ֑מֶל תַּבְנִ֥ית זָכָ֖ר א֥וֹ נְקֵבָֽה׃

16 not to act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness whatever: the form of a man or a woman,

תַּבְנִ֕ית כָּל־בְּהֵמָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר בָּאָ֑רֶץ תַּבְנִית֙ כָּל־צִפּ֣וֹר כָּנָ֔ף אֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּע֖וּף בַּשָּׁמָֽיִם׃

17 the form of any beast on earth, the form of any winged bird that flies in the sky,

תַּבְנִ֕ית כָּל־רֹמֵ֖שׂ בָּאֲדָמָ֑ה תַּבְנִ֛ית כָּל־דָּגָ֥ה אֲשֶׁר־בַּמַּ֖יִם מִתַּ֥חַת לָאָֽרֶץ׃

18 the form of anything that creeps on the ground, the form of any fish that is in the waters below the earth.

וּפֶן־תִּשָּׂ֨א עֵינֶ֜יךָ הַשָּׁמַ֗יְמָה וְֽ֠רָאִיתָ אֶת־הַשֶּׁ֨מֶשׁ וְאֶת־הַיָּרֵ֜חַ וְאֶת־הַכּֽוֹכָבִ֗ים כֹּ֚ל צְבָ֣א הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְנִדַּחְתָּ֛ וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִ֥יתָ לָהֶ֖ם וַעֲבַדְתָּ֑ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר חָלַ֜ק יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ אֹתָ֔ם לְכֹל֙ הָֽעַמִּ֔ים תַּ֖חַת כָּל־הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃

19 And when you look up to the sky and behold the sun and the moon and the stars, the whole heavenly host, you must not be lured into bowing down to them or serving them. These the LORD your God allotted to other peoples everywhere under heaven;

וְאֶתְכֶם֙ לָקַ֣ח יְהוָ֔ה וַיּוֹצִ֥א אֶתְכֶ֛ם מִכּ֥וּר הַבַּרְזֶ֖ל מִמִּצְרָ֑יִם לִהְי֥וֹת ל֛וֹ לְעַ֥ם נַחֲלָ֖ה כַּיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃

20 but you the LORD took and brought out of Egypt, that iron blast furnace, to be His very own people, as is now the case.

The first four verses are pretty straightforward, explaining that we are not to make an image of G”d in the form of any earthly creature as we ourselves saw at Sinai that G”d had no shape. Then we come to verse 19. This verse has baffled scholars for millennia. If we rely on the p’shat, the plain, surface meaning, it says that the sun, moon, and stars and the whole heavenly host (of angels) are there to be worshipped by other peoples. Verse 20 explains that, because G”d brought Israel out of Egypt, Israel may only worship G”d.

Rashi tried to apologize his way around this by saying that G”d made the sun, moon, and stars so that other peoples might have illumination. However, this leads Rashi to a problem. The Israelites needed and used this illumination as well., so G”d must have created it for them as well. So Rashi goes on to speculate that G”d gave the sun, moon, stars and heavenly host to the other nations as purposeful false deities, forcing them to err in belief by worshipping them as gods, thus sewing the seeds of their own expulsion from the world. Oh, what a tangled web you weave, Rashi to avoid simply admitting that the Torah speaks of the existence of other gods. Doesn’t paint a particularly flattering portrait of G”d, does it?

We can’t even make up our minds on whether it was named  Mt. Sinai or Mt. Horeb, but we’re absolutely sure that there’s no way the Torah says that G”d allowed for other gods for other peoples to worship? Hmmm.

Rashi is no help here, but the Ramban, Nachmanides, can be. He comments on a much later passage nearer the end of Deuteronomy in parashat Nitzavim.

וְאָֽמְרוּ֙ כָּל־הַגּוֹיִ֔ם עַל־מֶ֨ה עָשָׂ֧ה יְהוָ֛ה כָּ֖כָה לָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֑את מֶ֥ה חֳרִ֛י הָאַ֥ף הַגָּד֖וֹל הַזֶּֽה׃

23 all nations will ask, “Why did the LORD do thus to this land? Wherefore that awful wrath?”

וְאָ֣מְר֔וּ עַ֚ל אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָֽזְב֔וּ אֶת־בְּרִ֥ית יְהוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵ֣י אֲבֹתָ֑ם אֲשֶׁר֙ כָּרַ֣ת עִמָּ֔ם בְּהוֹצִיא֥וֹ אֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

24 They will be told, “Because they forsook the covenant that the LORD, God of their fathers, made with them when He freed them from the land of Egypt;

וַיֵּלְכ֗וּ וַיַּֽעַבְדוּ֙ אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים וַיִּֽשְׁתַּחֲוּ֖וּ לָהֶ֑ם אֱלֹהִים֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹֽא־יְדָע֔וּם וְלֹ֥א חָלַ֖ק לָהֶֽם׃

25 they turned to the service of other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they had not experienced and whom He had not allotted to them.

Ramban says that these other gods exist, and were created by G”d, but they are not the source of their own power – G”d is. These other gods have no power over Israel. In other words, G”d created these other gods for the other nations.

If it’s good enough for Nachmanides, it’s good enough for me. Well, not really. It doesn’t go quite far enough. But it’s a start.

OK, let’s go back to that pin. Polymorphism. In biology and zoology it is the existence of two or more clearly different morphs or forms, also referred to as alternative phenotypes, in the population of a species. In its simplest form, in humans, examples are gender and  blood type. In a simplistic understanding of Hinduism, we can say that the different gods and goddesses are all different forms of the same species.

So why not theological polymorphism?  Not multiple gods, but One G”d, with multiple paths for understanding, communication, and worship. That sure feels better to me than “my G”d” and “not my god.” Yes, even though I studied Christianity as part of my studies in Divinity School, the concept of the Trinity still baffled me and I couldn’t entirely reconcile it to monotheism without resorting, ultimately, to a some sort of Marcion-esque heresy, even though the first statement of trinitarian belief is that there is One G”d. Polymorphism to the rescue. The triune G”d is simply a polymorphic G”d. I’ve seen this explained  with the example of water and it’s three states: ice, liquid, and steam. It is said that St. Patrick used to use a three-leaf clover to explain the trinity – one shamrock, three leaves. This is a a rabbit hole I’m not going to go down right now. If you thinks Jews argue about things, we have nothing on how Christians argue about the minutiae of the theology of the trinity.

Theological Polymorphism – here to save the day – to enable us to all be worshipping the same G”d even though our understandings, beliefs, and practices may be very different. (Side note: theological polymorphism can be a useful framework when exploring Qabbalah.) Here’s a little song to help us remember the idea:

This G”d is my G”d, this G”d is your G”d
It doesn’t matter if our worship’s diff’rent
For we all are praying to the One and Only
This G”d was made for you and me.

Say it again. Theological Polymorphism. I just love the way that sounds, don’t you? (I’m trying to work it into a song, but two five-syllable words with the accent on the third syllable in both words presents a metric and rhythmic challenge, except for the song “Sensitivity” from “Once Upon a Mattress.” I’ll work on it this Shabbat.)

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on This Parasha:

Va’etkhanan 5777 – This Man’s Art and That Man’s Scope (revisited, revised, and expanded)
Va’etkhanan 5774 – Sometimes A Cigar… (Revised from 5764)
Va’etkhanan 5773-The Promise (Redux & Revised 5759ff)
Va’etkhanan 5772 – Redux & Revised 5758 – The Promise
Va’etkhanan/Shabbat Nakhamu 5771 – Comfort
Va’etkhanan 5769-This Man’s Art, That Man’s Scope
Va’etchanan 5764–Sometimes A Cigar…
Va’etchanan 5758-63-66-67-The promise

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