I’m an admitted Savoyard (in simple terms, a fan of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas.) I have made any number of references to them in my musings over the decades (just as I’ve referenced other favorites like “Man of La Mancha,” and “The Princess Bride,” parodists like Tom Lehrer and Allan Sherman, and many more.)
The title of this musing is a reference to the text of “The Criminal Cried” from the Mikado, in which three characters relate a most affecting tale about a non-existent execution. (You can also read some following dialog to place my comments into perspective.)
Some years back when I first mused upon this topic, I noted that I had been stopped dead in my tracks by two peculiar pieces of text. Both are in Chapter 15 of Genesis, in our parasha, Lekh Lekha. G”d again comes to Avram in a vision, telling him to not fear. Avram replies with a lament that as he has no blood heir, and asks who is to reap the promised reward. G”d tells Avram that his own child shall be his heir. Then , in verse 5 we read:
וַיּוֹצֵא אֹתוֹ הַחוּצָה, וַיֹּאמֶר הַבֶּט-נָא הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וּסְפֹר הַכּוֹכָבִים–אִם-תּוּכַל, לִסְפֹּר אֹתָם; וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, כֹּה יִהְיֶה זַרְעֶךָ
He (G”d) took him (Avram) outside, and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars. All you can count, He (G”d) said to him (Avram”) thus shall be your seed.”
Let’s try those first few words again:
He (G”d) took him (Avram) outside…
G”d did what? Oh wait, it’s just a vision. The Torah isn’t being anthropomorphic-Avram is, for imagining this in his vision, right? But wait, if G”d implanted the vision, does G”d control the content? Apparently, either G”d or Avram wanted (needed) this conversation to be sort of buddy-buddy. Can you imagine in your mind that you and G”d, in some anthropomorphic form, are standing around inside your house talking, and G”d puts his hand on your shoulder, and escorts you outside and says “Hey, look up and try and count the stars…”
This seems a rather intimate form of vision. Is that a problem? I wonder if it is only from our modern mindset that we find it thus. Our understanding of G”d is, for lack of a better term, more global. G”d is everywhere. G”d is One. So to us, the idea of strolling through the garden with G”d feels odd. Would this have been odd to Avram? Early religious stories abound with direct contact between anthropomorphic gods and human beings. (In our own tradition, we need only look back on Chapter 9, and the whole nefillim thing.)
This desire to personalize G”d, to anthropomorphize G”d, to imagine person to person contact and intimacy with G”d is all pervasive. Is that a possible explanation for the success of Christianity? For Jews, intimate contact between humans and an anthropomorphic G”d are not the norm, yet such stories still pervade our literature and sacred texts. A pillar of cloud, a pillar of fire, and G”d’s heiny are as close as we ever really get in “real life.”
Although Christianity maintains the ethereal, incorporeal G”d, it throws in a little piece of corporeal G”d. Do people really find that easier to wrap their heads around than an unknowable, undefinable G”d? As a society, we seem to like the idea of George Burns, Morgan Freeman, or Alanis Morrisette as G”d incarnate. I’ve heard and read Jews complain that these films all cater to the Christian majority and thus present a view of G”d inconsistent with Jewish thought. Reading in this parasha that G”d took Abe outside for a chat makes me question that. (G”d apparently walked with Noah, too. Later we get to Abraham’s visitors. Angels or G”d? It’s not entirely clear. With whom did Yaakov wrestle? But Moses, our great Moses, only gets to see G”d’s ass? Something’s off here.)
The text proceeds apace on to my next puzzling piece. G”d tells Avram that his descendants shall be as numerous as the uncountable stars. G”d tells Avram that this is the land he is giving them for an inheritance. Avram, still somewhat unconvinced, asks how he shall know that this honor shall be his. G”d’s somewhat odd response is to ask Avram to offer up a cow, goat, sheep, dove and a baby bird – which Avram does. Then, as the sun begins to set, Avram falls into a deep sleep, and feels a deep dread. (So is this real dread, or dream dread?) Then G”d foretells the bad news that his descendants shall be strangers in a strange land, enslaved and oppressed for 400 years, but that G”d will set them free and give them wealth.
Supposedly (though not obviously based on the text) still in this deep sleep, Avram then sees, when the sun has set, a smoking oven, and a flaming torch which passed between “those pieces.”
What pieces? What is all this? What is the symbology?
But wait -this is all a Bob Newhart show ending, isn’t it? It was all a dream. Even the dream was a dream within a dream or vision. That explains it all, right? Nothing to worry about here. People just sometimes envision strange things in their visions, including dreams with even strangers things in them. Right?
However, one can just as easily read this text as if it is describing actual events as they occurred, and not as part of some dream. which it is we cannot be sure. Does it make a difference? Weirdness in dreams is one thing, but weirdness in reality is another entirely. Weirdness in dreams can be attributed to the subtle influences of the Deity, but they do not require the Deity to break the laws of physics. Weirdness in reality requires the Deity to break the physical laws of the Universe. Just as we ask “can G”d create a rock too heavy for even G”d to lift?” we can also ask: can G”d create a universe with physical laws that even G”d has to obey? (Or can G”d create a universe with physical laws that only G”d does not have to obey?” However, if G”d created a loophole for G”d, it is possible for G”d’s creations – i.e. us – to find and exploit that loophole? Is that the explanation for the Babel story and the confounding of languages? Were we close to finding a loophole?)
Dreams figure so prominently in religious literature because they help avoid that thorny problem of omnipotence versus self-limiting acts of creation.
Getting back to our text, I still wonder-why is all this here? Why do we need this level of detail about Avram’s vision, and of the dream within that vision? The text could just say “G”d told Avram ‘don’t be afraid. You shall be rewarded. Though childless now, you will have an heir, and the inheritance of your descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. So trust me.’ “
We don’t need all this corroborative fiddlestick (thanks you, W.S. Gilbert.) Yet the story is embellished with snickersnees.(a large, sword-styled knife-for you non Savoyard types, let’s just say “embellishments.”) The point, as it is made in G&S’s “The Mikado,” is that things are bad enough, they don’t need any embellishing of what is already a big lie. Just tell the lie simply, and perhaps it will be more believable. (Oh what a tangled web we weave, and all that.)
Now, I’m not implying that the Torah is telling a lie. Yet I am wondering why, like so many other places in the Torah, we have details that don’t seem critical to the story. Now, for lots of those, we don’t have a problem-our sages have figured out the deeper, hidden meanings. Why, our sages explain the whole “count the stars” thing, from their point of view, as not literally meaning that Avram should count the stars, but that the stars represent astrological predictions which Avram (and thus all Jews) should not believe in. That is to say, though the stars may have foretold that Avram was to remain childless, he shouldn’t put his trust in the astrology.
OK, I sort of get that. But the sages didn’t seem to put much time into explaining either the “He took him outside…” or the smoking oven and flaming torch vision. Guess it baffled them as well. Asking “what’s bothering Rashi” is only a valuable exercise insofar as Rashi was willing to offer explanations for what was bothering him. How many oddities in the text did Rashi and so many other sages and commentators ignore, simply because they didn’t really have a good explanation? I know I’ve run into a fairly sizable number of puzzling pieces of Torah text that, at least as far as I have been able to discover, no rabbi has tackled. Maybe it’s just rabbinic tzimtzum leaving behind puzzles for future generations to solve. That would be the charitable explanation. I’m generally not inclined to be so charitable to the rabbis of the Talmud and other Jewish texts. My bet is still on “I’m not touching that one with a ten foot pole, because I have no clue how to explain it, even making esoteric connections.”
I’m still not anywhere near as learned as I’d like to be. I’ve done some digging on this since I first wrote this musing years ago, and still no luck. Nevertheless, I’m sure if I dig deeper, I’ll find some rabbi’s explanation somewhere for both of those. Not sure I’d buy them, however. Just as I was years ago, I’m still stuck with the “what does this add to the story?” question. Then, as now, so are you.
©2014 (portions ©2008) by Adrian A. Durlester
Some other musings on this parasha: