Random Musing Before Shabbat–Va’era 5779–Yet Again, Crushed Spirits

[2019]

In 2000, I wrote a musing entitled “Crushed Spirits.” I revisited it again in 2007 during the Dubya years. In these Trumpian times it certainly feels like just the right time to visit it again.

[2007]

This musing is dedicated to the memory of Art Buchwald, z”l.
And in that spirit, I commend to you my Monty-Pythonesque musing from last year, “
Why Tomorrow?” [2019 note: I have linked to a more recent version of that musing from 2016]

Seven years ago (in 2000,) I wrote a musing for this parasha called “Miqotzer Ruach – Crushed Spirits.” At the time, it provided solace for my own crushed spirits, in a world gone far astray. I began: “That’s just the way it is; we can’t change it!” I can’t think of a more depressing sentence in the English language. When spirits are crushed, when hopes are dashed, how does one live each day?”

I face the same question still today, and the fuel and sustenance I provided myself through that musing is wearing thin. So I thought I would take another look, see if I can reinforce my sagging spirits and conquer my rising cynicism.

[2019]  How much more so is this true today. While the restoration of Democratic control to the House of Representatives may mark the beginning of a more hopeful time, these past two years have certainly resulted in more crushed spirits for me.

[2000]

“Our Holy Torah tells us that when Moshe told B’nei Yisrael that G”d would redeem them, they “would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” (Ex. 6:9 JTS) (lo sham-u el Moshe miqotzer ruach u-mei’avodah kasha)

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר מֹשֶׁ֛ה כֵּ֖ן אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְלֹ֤א שָֽׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מִקֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָ֖ה קָשָֽׁה׃.

We live in an era of receding boundaries. Our willingness to stand up for what is right has been hammered into submission through decades of political correctness and tolerance and over-saturation from noise and images, and commercially-induced cynicism. Each and every day our tolerance of bad behavior, poor service, unfair practices, violence, oppression, hate, substandard work and products, etc. increases, dulling our ability, willingness and even interest in working to change what we perceive as immutable.

I, too, despair of the world situation. I, too, have a “crushed spirit” and a cynical attitude. For many, this translates into abandonment of religion, as proof that G”d is powerless to stop the madness. For me, at one time, the effect was exactly the opposite. It had drawn me deeper into Judaism, study, and religious practice.”

[2007]

Once again, I am in despair of the world situation. Our president is practicing escalatio on the Iraqis (it’s a Tom Lehrer quote.) I am hoping that by reviewing my own words from 2000, I can help counter the renewed effects of a world gone mad. Then again, that was a pre 9/11 world. A pre war in Afghanistan and Iraq world. A pre Darfur world. A pre nuclear North Korea world. Still, perhaps I can find some hope.

[2019]

As a friend of mine is fond of remarking, every time she hits a new bottom, that she falls through to find yet a lower bottom. That is what it feels like to me here in January 2019. It goes from bad to worse day by day. Down is up. Black is white. Fiction is fact. Lie is truth. Finding hope becomes increasingly harder. Our country has been hijacked, and its basic values and beliefs are challenged, derided, mocked, and ignored on a daily basis. Add in what Judaism teaches us (or even what Christianity teaches Christians) and it only gets worse. How could we let this happen? I know there are those who believe that invoking a comparison to the rise of Nazi power demeans the utter evil that it was, but what is happening now could lead to a similar evil. Already the cracks are showing, the edges are fraying. The muzzling and derision of a free press. The incitement of hatred against “the other.” The lies told with impunity. It not only can happen here, it is happening. We must stay ever vigilant to insure “never again” (and not just for the Jews, but for everyone.)

Like the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, I am feeling a shortness of spirit that prevents me from hearing the positive messages and calls to action of the prophets among us. What will it take to help me remove the metaphorical cotton from my ears so that I can hear again?

[2000] I wrote:

“Hope. Hope is what religion is all about. A place for hope. A space for hope. I recall a final paper I was required to write for a theology class. As I worked with a TA to help me hone my thoughts, we discussed what I perceived to be the ultimate purpose of theology. In the end, we came to see that, for me, theology is ultimately about providing a place for hope.

Reading how the B’nei Yisrael fail to hear to G”d’s promise through Moshe, one sees how hope can easily be strangled. So despairing were the people that they could not even hear Moshe’s words. When we close our ears to the din around us, we also close it to that “still small voice” and to the chance of hearing Elijah’s voice make that long-awaited announcement. When we close our eyes to the evil that perpetuates in our society, we also close them to visions of a repaired world. Worse yet is when we go about with our eyes open, ignoring what we see, believing we cannot change it, or that it will never change. When we fold our arms tight and turn our backs to all the madness, immorality and lack of righteousness in despair and frustration and hopelessness, we exclude ourselves from participating in the process of tikkun olam. “

[2007]

I think I’m right. To just sit here and brood over Dubya’s war, about genocide in Darfur, about Israel electing a government more inclined to make peace and the Palestinians electing Hamas to lead them, about how Israel has become so like the U.S. that it blew the summer conflict with Hezbollah, and so on and so forth does little except make me more sullen and depressed. There must be a way out of all this mess.

[2019]

There may be a way out, but it’s a long and winding road. The difficulties of 2007 seem to pale by comparison to how our current reality has been torn asunder. Things in Israel are even worse. Its government is not only corrupt, it has become its own obstacle to peace. Israel’s ruling leadership has become its own worst enemy. Here in this country we pursue a policy – no, strike that – it’s not a policy. We pursue the random gut reactions of a petulant child with the powers of the presidency of the most powerful nation on the planet. Maybe hope is on the horizon. Maybe the Mueller report will give our representatives in Congress the ammunition they need to put a stop to this ongoing coup d’etat.

There is another aspect here – that of the false prophet. Far too many among us seemed to have fallen prey to the siren of this false prophet. No Moses or Aharon he. An ertswhile Korach, perhaps (although I have written before that Korach gets somewhat of an undeserved bad rap. Challenge to authority is not, per se, a bad thing, even if that authority is G”d. The downside is that G”d doesn’t seem to take well to authority challenges. Why, there are times in the Torah that even G”d’s actions seem somewhat-dare I say-Trumpian.  Playing Pharaoh like a yo-yo by hardening his heart feels an awfully lot like the political yo-yo arts practiced by the flipper-in-chief. Ouch.)

[2000] I wrote:

“For those who have given up on G”d, there is naught that I can offer to them.

But for those who still have a place in their theology for hope, look at the Exodus story. Discouraged by decades of slavery and oppression, the B’nei Yisrael were deaf to Moshe’s words and G”d’s promises. G”d could just as easily have said, “OK, fine. Not interested? I’ll just pick some other people and go save them instead.” But G”d did not do that. G”d had made a promise to us. And even though we were (and still are) quite remiss in holding up our end of the covenant, G”d still redeemed us. G”d did just as G”d said and brought us out of Egypt with an outstretched arm and wonders. That is a message of hope to the discouraged.

Yes, it has been many thousands of years since G”d did anything like this for us, the covenanted people. History, and particularly that of the last half of the 20th century has seen plenty of opportunity for G”d to work wonders and free Israel from its oppression. Maybe we are looking for the wrong miracles?

We’ve been pretty destructive as a species-to ourselves, one another, and our planet, and in the midst of it all the children of Israel have suffered greatly. Still, humankind has not blown itself up. The evil that was Hitler was defeated. A new Israel arose and is finally on the verge of peace.”

[2007]

Ah yes, that’s me, Mr. Pollyanna. Mr. “Always look on the bright side of life.” Mr. “Every cloud has a silver lining.” He’s always there, inside me, and manages to make appearances when I need him most. Yet I begin to weary of the platitudes. I do not know how much longer my inner Pollyanna will be able to sustain.

[2019] My inner Pollyanna is in very short supply these days. She rarely manages to peek out. So much so, that this is all I’m going to write here.

I would be remiss, however, if I did not take myself to task for saying in 2000 that I could not offer hope to those who have given up on G”d. G”d and religious faith can be a source of hope. G”d is not the sole source of hope in the universe.

Tangential to that notion is growing discomfort I have with those of religious faith who urge calm because all is in G”d’s hands. Yes, I understand that accepting such an idea can bring peace and hope for some. It doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t work for many. Thanks goodness for the rest on Tanakh, because the G”d described in Torah is not often the best place to look for hope.

Saying things are all in G”d’s hands is really a way for us to abdicate our own personal responsibility for what takes place in our world. John Pavolovitz says it best in this recent article: Christian, Stop Telling Me God is in Control

[2000] I wrote:

“Maybe the last 3500 years or so have been an extended version of more plagues being visited upon those who would challenge G”d. Each time, it appears, humanity’s heart was hardened, and yet we refused to hear and obey G”d’s command. What final plague will it take for humanity to finally acknowledge G”d and let G”d’s people go to be what they were intended to be and live in the universe that G”d wants to build for us and with us.”

[2007]

It was a nice idea at the time. Yet the plagues continue. And the source that had become the support beneath my hope, this thing we call Judaism, has started to fail me. Each and every day I wake up determined to work hard to insure the continuity of Judaism and the Jewish people, through education. And each and every day, that task becomes harder. I see the interest of students and adults alike waning. I see their commitment faltering, and the balance shifting ever more towards a life in which Judaism, the synagogue, religious school, etc. play little, if any, part. The in-reach that Arthur Herzberg (z”l) always championed may turn out to be the right way to go. Yet I am not yet willing to give up on stemming the tide of exodus, and trying to reverse it.

Yes, I do have hope. I spend lots of time on the internet and the web. I like to observe the latest trends and happenings. I read blogs, and I blog myself. All around the world, young Jews are finding news ways to be Jewish, new structures, new connections. Though many might hate to admit it, the age of the synagogue, and the big national Jewish organizations may be drawing to a close. What will replace it? Can it be replaced? What would a non-synagogue-centered Jewish religious school look like? How would it work?

Or are the anti-cynics right in saying that when today’s generation grows older and has kids, they’ll find it easier to fall back on the existing structures within Judaism like synagogue, JCC, and Federations, rather than to try and maintain this new form of Judaism that is evolving. And then I must ask myself the question whether I would despair more at the the failure of the new Judaism or the death of the old? It’s a tough question. I make my living in the synagogue world-yet I think I am beginning to champion and espouse a post-synagogue/Federation/UJC Judaism, even though I may never be able to earn a living from it. Still, it is a ray of hope for a different, and possibly brighter, future.

[2019] I’ve grown since writing that. I more openly embrace a present that is change in process and a future that may be very different. I was prescient in suggesting that making a living in the synagogue world has become increasingly difficult. What I didn’t anticipate is how equally difficult it might be for someone of my age, even with my forward-looking worldview to earn a living in this developing new Judaism. Yet there is a flourishing of Judaism in new forms, new places. Synagogues are struggling to keep up, to remain relevant, to find a way to integrate this new Judaism – but they are discovering it may not want to be integrated by them. At least for now, the old and the new must exist side by side. Pieces of the new will find their way to the old, and perhaps pieces of the old will find their way into the new. Nevertheless, I cannot help but believe that what it eventually becomes will not be what either camp expects. Me, I’m going to ride the crest of the wave. There is as much danger in that as there is remaining on shore, but I’d rather be in motion. That feels more hopeful than standing on shore, waiting to get swamped by the tsunami.

That said, I think I was on to something back in 2000. So why, I ask again, does G”d continue to harden all of humanity’s hearts such that we are forced to endure one horror after another? Yes, G”d was trying to make a point with Pharaoh, but it was as much a publicity and marketing stunt as anything else. But at what cost? The midrash tells us that G”d chastised the angels for celebrating the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the sea of reeds. We shouldn’t need a midrash to do that. G”d in Torah shouldn’t be a sadist. Time after time G”d seems to think that death and destruction are the best tools at G”d’s disposal. This is the lesson that G”d wants humanity to learn? No wonder we are such a violent, war-prone society. Don;t do us any more favors G”d. Stop hardening our hearts. You might actually discover we’ll learn the lesson faster that way. We’ll never know until You try.

[2000] I wrote:

“Hope. What a sweet word. Just like B’nei Yisrael in Egypt, we Jews have suffered from years of oppression. Yet, like them, we are still here. What we are not is “hear,” just as they were. The hopeful thing is to believe, as I do, that even when we aren’t listening, G”d is there, and G”d will keep the covenant. An even more hopeful (and enterprising) thing to do is to open our eyes, our eyes, our hands, our hearts and, working together with each other as partners with G”d, bring about tikkun olam. If we turn our crushed spirits into hopeful and determined ones, think how much more we might accomplish.”

[2007]

In 2007, the ever more cynical me says “now, G”d, would be a good time to act, do something to reassure my faith. I do not have the patience of my ancestors.” But G”d acts on G”d’s timetable, not mine. (Yes, I accept that, but it still sucks.)

I’m listening G”d. It’s getting harder and harder. I’ll keep trying, I really will. Help me find and renew my hope. Help me overcome my crushed spirit. Help us all to overcome our crushed spirits.

[2019]

By the way, G”d, why DID it take You so long to hear and respond to the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt? You expect us to be listening all the time for your voice, but we cry our for a few centuries and You hear nothing (or chose to ignore what You heard.) OK, I;ve gottent hat off my chest.

I reminded myself this year of something I’ve always known but chose to overlook. “Crushed spirits” is probably not the best or most accurate translation of מִקֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ. The root קֹּ֣צֶר  more accurately means “short” so this phrase is really “shortness of spirit.” That could indicate a despondency, a lack, an impatience. In fact, I think it represents all that and even more. An inability to maintain? A running short of resolve, of patience? The Hebrews could not hear Moshe and Aharon’s words because their spirits were all these things: short, impatient, disillusioned, despondent, despairing, feed up, hopeless. Surely people found themselves asking “where the eff is G”d?” The apologists and whitewashers would offer the typically placating “ G”d’s time scale is not our time scale” Not buying that anymore. G”d’s time scale is how long it takes for us to realize that we have to do the work and not wait for G”d to do it. That’s not a new viewpoint for me.

[2007, with a little 2019 editing]

in 2007 I wrote: Yet if I’m honest with myself, I know that it’s not up to G”d, it’s up to us. We must work to turn our crushed, disillusioned, impatient spirits into hopeful ones, as our ancestors did. So, in the end, what I wrote in 2000 remains true:

The choice is ours.

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian
©2019 (portions ©2000 and 2007) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Va’era 5778 – Careful the Words You Boast
Va’era 5777 – Alternative Facts (Not What You Think – Or Is It?)
Va’era 5776 – Why Tomorrow (Revised 5757/62/66)
Va’era 5775 – Brighton Beach Last Stop! (Revised)
Va’era 5774 – Tomorrow, Again
Va’era 5773 – Let Our People Go/Rendezvousing With Rama
Va’era 5772 – Got It!
Va’era 5771/5765-Brighton Beach-Last Stop!
Va’era 5769 – Substitute
Va’era 5767-again, Crushed Spirits (Miqotzer Ruakh)
Va’era 5766-Why Tomorrow?
Va’era 5765-Brighton Beach-Last Stop!
Va’era 5764-Imperfect Perfection and Perfect Imperfection
Va’era 5763 – Pray for Me
Va’era 5761-Just Not Getting It
Va’era 5762-Early will I Seek You

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Random Musing Before Shabbat–Sh’mot 5779—Unsatisfactory Legal Fictions

How could I have missed it? It’s right there in plain sight. I’ve read it many times, yet it never seemed to give me pause until now. Perhaps it escaped my notice because there is so much else to focus on in this parasha? Maybe it’s not as big a deal as I’m making it, but for some reason, this year I couldn’t just breeze past it.

Commanded by G”d to go to Egypt and direct Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go into the dessert so they might worship their G’”d (yet knowing full well G”d’s true intention to totally humiliate Pharaoh by making Pharaoh stubbornly obstinate to the point that he brings about his own fate, while simultaneously promising to bring the Hebrews into the promised land – even though they are, admittedly, even pointedly noted, currently occupied by other tribes) Moshe complains he isn’t up to the task, being an inarticulate speaker. (How’s that for a run-on sentence, eh?)

G”d, perhaps showing some signs of maturity (especially after the antics in B’reishit) doesn’t have a hissy fit when Moshe politely tries to refuse the command. One might almost expect G”d to really lay in to Moshe, but G”d just says “Is it not I that gives humanity the ability to speak or not speak? Now chill, I will be with you.

Moshe, however, is foolish enough to dig himself in deeper, and begs G”d to choose someone else. The text then says that G”d became angry with Moshe. However, I think G”d was showing even greater maturity and patience than just a moment ago, and didn’t display that anger. It’s as if G”d took a deep breath and then said “OK. Your brother Aharon is a good speaker, he’s on his way even now to meet you [More on that in a bit]  and he’ll be happy to see you.” You speak and put the words in Aharon’s mouth – I will be with you and him as you speak, and tell you both what to do…”

And then we get this:

וְדִבֶּר־ה֥וּא לְךָ֖ אֶל־הָעָ֑ם וְהָ֤יָה הוּא֙ יִֽהְיֶה־לְּךָ֣ לְפֶ֔ה וְאַתָּ֖ה תִּֽהְיֶה־לּ֥וֹ לֵֽאלֹהִֽים׃

and he shall speak for you to the people. Thus he shall serve as your spokesman, with you playing the role of God to him,

This year, as I read those words, I thought to myself – WTAF? This Deity, who over the course of the next few books of the Torah will self-define as a merciful yet jealous G”d, and proclaim there shall be no idols or images of the Divine, no worship of others, and even insures later that Moshe is buried in an unmarked grave so he will not become deified uses this particular simile? Seems on odd choice. Perhaps those who believe that G”d has everything all planned out from beginning to end have got it all wrong, and G”d is, just like us, being extemporaneous  (or to be more blunt, making it up as G”d goes along, or, even more blunt, winging it.) For many the idea of a G”d that has a plan and sticks to it is comforting. For me, the notion of a G”d who is just riffing is actually far more comforting. It makes G”d seem more human. Does that make any sense?  Many cultures have certainly imbued their gods with human characteristics.

Speaking of winging it, let’s go back to where this happened:

וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֨ף יְהוָ֜ה בְּמֹשֶׁ֗ה וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הֲלֹ֨א אַהֲרֹ֤ן אָחִ֙יךָ֙ הַלֵּוִ֔י יָדַ֕עְתִּי כִּֽי־דַבֵּ֥ר יְדַבֵּ֖ר ה֑וּא וְגַ֤ם הִנֵּה־הוּא֙ יֹצֵ֣א לִקְרָאתֶ֔ךָ וְרָאֲךָ֖ וְשָׂמַ֥ח בְּלִבּֽוֹ׃

14. The LORD became angry with Moses, and He said, “There is your brother Aaron the Levite. He, I know, speaks readily. Even now he is setting out to meet you, and he will be happy to see you.

Now let’s skip ahead to this:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֔ן לֵ֛ךְ לִקְרַ֥את מֹשֶׁ֖ה הַמִּדְבָּ֑רָה וַיֵּ֗לֶךְ וַֽיִּפְגְּשֵׁ֛הוּ בְּהַ֥ר הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים וַיִּשַּׁק־לֽוֹ׃

27. The LORD said to Aaron, “Go to meet Moses in the wilderness.” He went and met him at the mountain of God, and he kissed him.

Notice this comes 13 verses later, after the whole bridegroom of blood thing. Now there is plenty of evidence that one should not always think of the Torah as using linear time. Nevertheless, it does raise the question if G”d told a little white lie, telling Moshe that Aharon was already on his way to meet him (verse 14) when in reality at that point, G”d was planning to instruct Aharon to go meet his brother but had not yet done so. Yes, the way this story is told in the text of Torah may be dependent upon the fact the humans experience time in a  linear fashion, and G”d may not be subject to that limitation. G”d had every intention of making sure Aharon was on his way to meet up with Moshe at the moment he told Moshe this is what would happen.

If we want to get picky about the language, then extemporaneity is not exactly the same as being impromptu, off the cuff, or winging it. Extemporaneous, by definition, implies that the individual who is being extemporaneous has, in fact, prepared in advance to be able to do so. Instead of reading from an entire prepared script, they might use a few note cards or an outline. Impromptu implies no advance planning. Winging it. Shooting from the hip. The reality is that all of them require skill. Experts make it look easy, but it’s not easy at all.

In a universe were G”d is omniscient and omnipotent, G”d being able to be impromptu is at once easy yet anathema. The omnipotence enables the unpredictable to actually have been “part of the plan all along” as, when One is the creator of the universe, One can simply instantly change the Universe so that it now conforms to a new reality. Like a time travel story in which you go back, change something (advertently or inadvertently) and when you arrive back in your own time, historical records now reflect the changed reality. The omniscience should render the impromptu unnecessary. If G”d knows all, then everything is as it should be at all times, is that no so?

You see where this is leading, don’t you? We’ve had this conversation before. G”d creates a perfect Universe. G”d is amused and enjoys it for a few minutes and then remains bored for all the rest of eternity. So G”d puts a little chaos and randomness into the system. G”d gives humanity free will. I read incongruent bits of text like the ones we are discussing here as hints left by G”d to clue us in that what we may perceive as completely thought out from beginning to end Divine plan is, in fact, situationally responsive to account for the randomness that has been made part of our reality. G”d adjusts as necessary. As G”d of all creation, G”d can be extemporaneous, impromptu, even just plain winging it. Now with great power comes great responsibility. I’m not entirely sure, based on what I have learned about G”d from the Torah, that G”d is truly not always skilled enough to handle the randomness. G”d has created a stone too big for G”d to lift. So we employ rule number 2. (Rule number one is “G”d.” Rule number two is: If “but…” refer to rule one.)

Referring back to our little possible premature declaration to Moshe about Aharon coming to meet him. We have the non-linear defense, We have the irrelevant defense. We have the G”d changes reality simply by doing things explanation. Oh, wow, I get to quote some Gilbert and Sullivan here, from just before the finale to The Mikado:

Ko-Ko: When Your Majesty says “Let a thing be done,” it’s as good as done—practically it is done—because Your Majesty’s will is law. Your Majesty says, “Kill a gentleman,” and a gentleman is told off to be killed. Consequently, that gentleman is as good as dead—practically, he is dead—and if he is dead, why not say so?”

Mikado: I see! Nothing could possibly be more satisfactory.

The reader of the Torah is merely asked to provide the legal fiction on their own, since the Torah is not explicit about it. G”d said a thing was happening, ergo it must be happening, must have been happening, even though G”d is portrayed as initiating the action at a later time than the pronouncement.

We can invoke more than G&S here, and comnvolute the discussion. Perhaps some Leibniz:

“It is generally agreed that whatever God wills is good and just. But there remains the question whether it is good and just because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good and just; in other words, whether justice and Goodness are arbitrary or whether they belong to the necessary and eternal truths about the nature of things.”

Now my head is spinning.

OK, that G&S quote may or my not get one past the linear time sending Aharon to Moshe issue. Doesn’t quite get me where I need to go on the “Moshe you shall be like a god to Aharon” thing. Why that exact turn of phrase when others could have been equally effective? What does this tell us about the relationship between Moshe and his older brother?

If G”d dictated the Torah, word for word, G”d could certainly have decided to alter reality after the fact and make it as if G”d had never used the “like a god to Aharon” simile. So if Torah mi Sinai is your thing, you’re stuck with this. Enjoy the rabbinical and translator whitewashes on this, because they’re all you’ve got to make sense of it. Or just refer to rule 2. You might find that easier.

If, like me, you’re more inclined to other theories about the origin of Torah, explaining either Divinely-inspired or purely human choice to use that “like a god to Aharon” phrasing remains a puzzlement (or betrays a lack of understanding of the power of using such a powerful simile in such an innocuous manner.)

When G”d says “Moshe, you shall be like a G”d to Aharon” it’s as good as true—practically, it is true—because G”d’s word is law. You say “one human shall be like a G”d to his brother” yet you tell us that we shall have no other G”ds before You.

Nothing could possibly be less satisfactory.

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian

©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Sh’mot 5778 – Logic and Metaphysics (Revisited)
Sh’mot 5777 – Free Association V
Sh’mot 5776 – [SPOILER ALERT]
Sh’mot 5775 – Why Us (Redux 5765)
Sh’mot 5774 – Pas De Deux
Sh’mot 5773 – Wicked, Wonderful Moral Ambiguities
Sh’mot 5772 – Is Might Ever Right?
Sh’mot 5771 – Free Association IV
Sh’mot 5767-Logic & Metaphysics
Shemot 5766 – Free Association III
Shemot 5765-Why Us?
Shemot 5764-Uncomsumed-ness
Shemot 5763 – Free Association II
Shemot 5760-Tzaz Latzav, Tzav Latzav
Shemot 5761-The Spice of Life
Shemot 5762-Little Ol’ Me?




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Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayigash 5779—Reconciling: Are You Into It?

I like to keep things balanced in my accounts. So I expect things in Torah to balance as well. But sometimes, when you try and reconcile things in the Torah, it’s not so easy. The numbers don’t always balance out. We have an example right here in Vayigash.

First, we have this:

45:18

וּקְח֧וּ אֶת־אֲבִיכֶ֛ם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּיכֶ֖ם וּבֹ֣אוּ אֵלָ֑י וְאֶתְּנָ֣ה לָכֶ֗ם אֶת־טוּב֙ אֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם וְאִכְל֖וּ אֶת־חֵ֥לֶב הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Take your father and your households and come to me; I will give you the best of the land of Egypt and you shall live off the fat of the land.’

19

וְאַתָּ֥ה צֻוֵּ֖יתָה זֹ֣את עֲשׂ֑וּ קְחוּ־לָכֶם֩ מֵאֶ֨רֶץ מִצְרַ֜יִם עֲגָל֗וֹת לְטַפְּכֶם֙ וְלִנְשֵׁיכֶ֔ם וּנְשָׂאתֶ֥ם אֶת־אֲבִיכֶ֖ם וּבָאתֶֽם׃

And you are bidden [to add], ‘Do as follows: take from the land of Egypt wagons for your children and your wives, and bring your father here.

20

וְעֵ֣ינְכֶ֔ם אַל־תָּחֹ֖ס עַל־כְּלֵיכֶ֑ם כִּי־ט֛וּב כָּל־אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לָכֶ֥ם הֽוּא׃

And never mind your belongings, for the best of all the land of Egypt shall be yours.’”

21

וַיַּֽעֲשׂוּ־כֵן֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וַיִּתֵּ֨ן לָהֶ֥ם יוֹסֵ֛ף עֲגָל֖וֹת עַל־פִּ֣י פַרְעֹ֑ה וַיִּתֵּ֥ן לָהֶ֛ם צֵדָ֖ה לַדָּֽרֶךְ׃

The sons of Israel did so; Joseph gave them wagons as Pharaoh had commanded, and he supplied them with provisions for the journey.


Then we have this:

46:1

וַיִּסַּ֤ע יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְכָל־אֲשֶׁר־ל֔וֹ וַיָּבֹ֖א בְּאֵ֣רָה שָּׁ֑בַע וַיִּזְבַּ֣ח זְבָחִ֔ים לֵאלֹהֵ֖י אָבִ֥יו יִצְחָֽק׃

So Israel set out with all that was his, and he came to Beer-sheba, where he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac.

2

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ לְיִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּמַרְאֹ֣ת הַלַּ֔יְלָה וַיֹּ֖אמֶר יַעֲקֹ֣ב ׀ יַעֲקֹ֑ב וַיֹּ֖אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי׃

God called to Israel in a vision by night: “Jacob! Jacob!” He answered, “Here.”

3

וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אָנֹכִ֥י הָאֵ֖ל אֱלֹהֵ֣י אָבִ֑יךָ אַל־תִּירָא֙ מֵרְדָ֣ה מִצְרַ֔יְמָה כִּֽי־לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל אֲשִֽׂימְךָ֥ שָֽׁם׃

And He said, “I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation.

4

אָנֹכִ֗י אֵרֵ֤ד עִמְּךָ֙ מִצְרַ֔יְמָה וְאָנֹכִ֖י אַֽעַלְךָ֣ גַם־עָלֹ֑ה וְיוֹסֵ֕ף יָשִׁ֥ית יָד֖וֹ עַל־עֵינֶֽיךָ׃

I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.”

5

וַיָּ֥קָם יַעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיִּשְׂא֨וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־יַעֲקֹ֣ב אֲבִיהֶ֗ם וְאֶת־טַפָּם֙ וְאֶת־נְשֵׁיהֶ֔ם בָּעֲגָל֕וֹת אֲשֶׁר־שָׁלַ֥ח פַּרְעֹ֖ה לָשֵׂ֥את אֹתֽוֹ׃

So Jacob set out from Beer-sheba. The sons of Israel put their father Jacob and their children and their wives in the wagons that Pharaoh had sent to transport him;

6

וַיִּקְח֣וּ אֶת־מִקְנֵיהֶ֗ם וְאֶת־רְכוּשָׁם֙ אֲשֶׁ֤ר רָֽכְשׁוּ֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן וַיָּבֹ֖אוּ מִצְרָ֑יְמָה יַעֲקֹ֖ב וְכָל־זַרְע֥וֹ אִתּֽוֹ׃

and they took along their livestock and the wealth that they had amassed in the land of Canaan. Thus Jacob and all his offspring with him came to Egypt:

7

בָּנָ֞יו וּבְנֵ֤י בָנָיו֙ אִתּ֔וֹ בְּנֹתָ֛יו וּבְנ֥וֹת בָּנָ֖יו וְכָל־זַרְע֑וֹ הֵבִ֥יא אִתּ֖וֹ מִצְרָֽיְמָה׃

he brought with him to Egypt his sons and grandsons, his daughters and granddaughters—all his offspring.

Pharaoh clearly instructs Joseph and his brothers to fetch Jacob, but to not bother bringing any of their “stuff” with them, as Egypt will provide all they need. Jacob and his sons clearly ignore (or forget) this admonition and bring with them all of Jacob’s accumulated wealth.

Now, one could argue that Pharaoh was referring only to household possessions. I think that’s a real stretch. So,Egyptian Pharaohs were certainly known for insisting their orders be followed as given. So why did Joseph, his brothers, and father get a pass in this case? Was Pharaoh just being a polite host? Was Pharaoh just trying not to cause any trouble between him and Joseph? Was Pharaoh truly grateful enough to Joseph that he would ignore this outright contempt for his instructions?

Why did Pharaoh issue the instruction in the first place? Was he so certain that Egypt was so cultural superior, that Joseph’s father and extended family wouldn’t miss their ratty old possessions? Perhaps Pharaoh had a hidden motive, seeking to lure the family away from its nomadic shepherding lifestyle? Maybe Pharaoh could steer them into forms of livelihood more suitable to supporting the Egyptian state?

Well, there’s this:

46:31

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יוֹסֵ֤ף אֶל־אֶחָיו֙ וְאֶל־בֵּ֣ית אָבִ֔יו אֶעֱלֶ֖ה וְאַגִּ֣ידָה לְפַרְעֹ֑ה וְאֹֽמְרָ֣ה אֵלָ֔יו אַחַ֧י וּבֵית־אָבִ֛י אֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּאֶֽרֶץ־כְּנַ֖עַן בָּ֥אוּ אֵלָֽי׃

Then Joseph said to his brothers and to his father’s household, “I will go up and tell the news to Pharaoh, and say to him, ‘My brothers and my father’s household, who were in the land of Canaan, have come to me.

32

וְהָאֲנָשִׁים֙ רֹ֣עֵי צֹ֔אן כִּֽי־אַנְשֵׁ֥י מִקְנֶ֖ה הָי֑וּ וְצֹאנָ֧ם וּבְקָרָ֛ם וְכָל־אֲשֶׁ֥ר לָהֶ֖ם הֵבִֽיאוּ׃

The men are shepherds; they have always been breeders of livestock, and they have brought with them their flocks and herds and all that is theirs.’

33

וְהָיָ֕ה כִּֽי־יִקְרָ֥א לָכֶ֖ם פַּרְעֹ֑ה וְאָמַ֖ר מַה־מַּעֲשֵׂיכֶֽם׃

So when Pharaoh summons you and asks, ‘What is your occupation?’

34

וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֗ם אַנְשֵׁ֨י מִקְנֶ֜ה הָי֤וּ עֲבָדֶ֙יךָ֙ מִנְּעוּרֵ֣ינוּ וְעַד־עַ֔תָּה גַּם־אֲנַ֖חְנוּ גַּם־אֲבֹתֵ֑ינוּ בַּעֲב֗וּר תֵּשְׁבוּ֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ גֹּ֔שֶׁן כִּֽי־תוֹעֲבַ֥ת מִצְרַ֖יִם כָּל־רֹ֥עֵה צֹֽאן׃

you shall answer, ‘Your servants have been breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers’—so that you may stay in the region of Goshen. For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.”

We’ve been told here in the Torah that Egyptians abhor shepherds, but the facts argue against that. It is true the Egyptians did not, in general, have a lot of sheep, and didn’t make use of their wool – but they did have some sheep, and made extensive use of goats and goat hair. They preferred the lighter, less-itchy feel of linen as clothing as compared to sheep’s wool. They had little use for sheep’s milk, having plentiful goat and cow milk available.  In addition, there are sheep gods in the Egyptian pantheon. The deities Khnum and Amen was portrayed with sheep bodies, and ram were symbols of fertility

If the Egyptians loathed shepherds, maybe it was a result of their distaste for the Hyksos that overran and ruled the upper half of Egypt (and for a short period, lower Egypt as well) between 1650 and 1550 BCE. However, this fanciful notion is somewhat disproven by the generally accepted consensus that in ancient Egyptian, hyksos (heqau khaswet) meant “ruler from a foreign land” but found its way into ancient Greek as a loan word where it came to mean “shepherd King.” Josephus later picked up on this word and it’s connection to the Jewish narrative, and thus instigated the widely accepted (but now disproven) etymology of the word meaning “shepherd rulers.”

So much for Pharaoh wanting to secretly get Joseph’s family to stop being shepherds. However, Pharaoh may still have preferred they engaged in a profession more useful to Egypt. Raising cattle, or goats. Goshen was also very fertile land for agriculture – perhaps these nomads would settle down and bring their expertise to growing crops for Egypt.

I don’t know. I can’t help but think there is a reason that no mention is made of how Joseph ignored Pharaoh’s directions to have his family not bring their belongings, but for the life of me, I can’t suss out what it might be.

Does the Torah wish us to learn something from Pharaoh not bringing up this challenge to his orders? Is it telling us that this Pharaoh knew enough to “choose his battles” and setting that as an example for us? Is it a dig at Pharaoh, either showing that he didn’t notice his order had been disobeyed, or was cowed enough by Joseph success that he dare not speak up?

I may just have to chalk this up to yet another example of the Torah teaching us that we can;t figure out everything. Or of the Torah reminding us “this is just a story, don’t get too wrapped up in the details, and look at the enduring understandings, to use a little edu-speak.

But when you turn it, and turn it again, you really do find everything in it. That everything includes things that don’t reconcile. You’d think that after years of this, I’d have learned to  ignore and accept that. But then again, I’m the stubborn type who, in all his years of keeping his accounts, both manually, and for the last 35+ years, in Quicken*, has only once, in all that time, allowed Quicken to enter a reconciliation transaction to make up for a balance difference he just couldn’t reconcile (and it was only for a few cents.) Torah’s reconciliation issues will always call me to try and balance them. I hope I will continue to opt for trying to balance the accounts. Here’s to reconciliation. Or the lack thereof.

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian
©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

*If you’re a user of this same financial software that I’ve been using since the mid-80s, you might get the joke in the musing title.

Other Musings on this Parasha

Vayigash 5778 – Two Sticks As One (Revised 5766)
Vayigash 5777 – Orange Default Swaps
Vayigash 5776 – Things Better Left Unsaid (Redux 5763)
Vayiggash 5775 – Rule #2
Vayiggash 5774 – We Are Shepherds
Vayigash 5773 – Let’s Be Judah
Vayigash 5772 – Redux & Revised 5760 Teleology 101: Does G”d Play Dice With the World
Vayiggash 5771-Being Both Israels
Vayigash 5769 – He’s A-Cookin’-a-Somethin’-A-Up
Vayigash 5768 – G”d By the Light of Day
Vayigash 5767-Two Sticks As One?
Vayigash 5765-One People
Vayigash 5763-Things Better Left Unsaid
Vayigash 5761/5766-Checking In
Vayigash 5762-Teleology 101: Does Gd Play Dice With the World?



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Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayeishev 5779—Updating Amos

Another political one, but how could it not be? I present to you this modern re-writing of the haftarah for parashat Vayeishev, from Amos 2:6-3:8.

6. Thus said the LORD: For three transgressions of America, For four, I will not revoke it: Because they have sold for Bitcoin Those whose cause was just, And the needy for a pair of Air Jordans.

7 [Ah,] you who trample the heads of the poor Into the dust of the ground, And make the humble walk a twisted course! Father and son go to the same girl, and then bribe her to stay silent, And thereby profane My holy name.

8 They recline by every golf course on profits from tax breaks for the wealthy, And drink craft beers bought with wage increases they withheld from their workers.

9 Yet I Destroyed the ungodly Russian Communists before them, Whose stature was like the wall separating Berlin, And allowed their satellite nations to become members of NATO and thus be under America’s safe protection

10 And I Brought you up from many places And led you through hazardous journeys, and told you to not take your eyes off this tukhis until we get to San Francisco, To live in the land of the free and the home of the brave! (Unfortunately, I also let you destroy the natives who were there before you. Oops. Sorry about that.)

11 And I raised up prophets and journalists from among your sons And socially woke activists from among your young people. Is that not so, O people of America? —says the LORD.

12 But you made the teenagers smoke Juuls  And ordered the climate science prophets not to prophesy, and the journalists to not hold truth to power, and you repeated the lies often attempting to make them true.

13 Ah, I will slow your movements As an economy is slowed When protectionist, isolationist tariffs are imposed, and trade agreements are wrought asunder.

14 Flight shall fail the swift because the flights are overbooked by greedy airlines, The strong shall find no strength being wearied from years of resisting POTUS and his ilk, And the warrior shall not save his life because they are busy stringing up razor-wire and shooting tear-gas at innocent refugees at your borders.

15 The gun-loving bigoted NRA member shall not “stand his ground” (even in Florida), And the well-heeled that can afford the best lawyers money can buy shall not escape, Nor the Presidential pardon save him from local prosecutors.

16 Even the most fearless defender of Trumpism Shall run away still woefully uninformed that day —declares the LORD.

Chapter 3

1 Hear this word, O POTUS of America, That the LORD has spoken concerning you, Concerning the whole family that I brought to your shores past Lady Liberty and all the other ports of entry Your family included, by the way, along with your probable illegal immigrant third wife.)

2 You falsely believe that “You alone can fix it” and that you have I singled out Of all the leaders of the earth—That is why I will call you to account For all your iniquities.

3 Can world leaders walk together if one of them is always insulting the others? Can a leader look Presidential when a little rain keeps him from joining other world leaders in a memorial service to honor the fallen?

4 Does an honest man seek to stop an investigation of him when he is innocent? Does a special prosecutor indict when he has no proof? Does a POTUS excuse the murder of a WaPo journalist ordered at the behest of a Saudi royal prince?

5 Is a POTUS impeached unless there are high crimes and misdemeanors? Do Special Prosecutor investigations spring up from the ground unless there is reasonable suspicion?

6 When a neo-Nazi white supremacist runs over and kills a protestor, Do the people not take alarm? Does division and hatred come to a country If hateful rhetoric has not caused it?

7 Indeed, my Lord GOD will do nothing if G”d’s people themselves will not rise up against this orange-faced scourge.

8 A despotic, narcissistic megalomaniac has roared, Who can but fear? The People have spoken, Who can but prophesy?


To be honest, even without changing a single word of this haftarah, it delivers us powerful lessons, cautions, and reminders that are very applicable in our own times. Chapter 3 verse 7 is the one that gives me pause as written:

Indeed, my Lord GOD does nothing Without having revealed His purpose To His servants the prophets.

What, G”d is your purpose in putting the U.S. through these current travails? What was Your purpose in putting your creations through the Shoah, WWI, the Crusades, and countless other wars, famines, plagues, etc.?  I am not Your prophet, so I cannot expect You to reveal Your purposed to me. I am, however, willing to be Your gadfly, and so I will ask You, straight out “Do You even have a plan?”

I can’t be sure of the answer to that, and I won’t accept, at face value, the concept of the ineffable G”d whose plans and purposes I, as a human, can never understand. Puhleeze. Pablum for the masses to keep them docile. If G”d has plans, I suspect that we’re constantly messing them up, rather than following them, or allowing them to follow G”d’s planned course.

So I rewrote the verse following the logic of folks like Elie Wiesel and others that to ask “where was G”d?” is always the wrong question, whereas to ask “where was humankind?” is the right one.

My fellow citizens of the United States: where are we at this time of crisis? We cannot stand idly by. Rise up. Rise up and help us cleanse and heal this great land.

Shabbat Shalom

Adrian
©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Vayeishev 5778 – Spirals
Vayeishev 5777 – Unspoilers
Vayeishev 5776 – Revisiting Mikol Hamishpakhot HaAdamah
Vayeishev 5775 – Seriously…Who Was That Guy?
Vayeishev 5773 – K’tonet Passim
Vayeishev 5772 – The Ram’s Horn Rag
Vayeishev 5771-Ma T’vakeish?
Vayeishev 5768 – Strangers Walking Together
Vayeishev/Hanukah 5767-I Believe in Miracles
Vayeishev 5766-Who Was That Guy?
Vayeshev 5761 – In Gd’s Time
Vayeshev 5765-Mikol HaMishpakhot HaAdamah
Vayeshev 5758-What’s Worth Looking After

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Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayishlakh 5779—The Orange Edomite

If, like me, your political leanings are somewhere to the left of the spectrum, and you live with the daily discomfort of the realities of the current administration, then perhaps, as you read the words of the (Sephardic) haftarah for parashat Vayishlakh, from the first chapter of Ovadiyah, you will notice the connections I am noticing.

The Edomites are the descendants of Esav, and the Israelites are the descendants of Yaakov. All these years after the brothers have their peaceful reunion and go their separate ways, the enmity between their descendants remains. This, despite the fact that the reunion, if not a celebration, was at least pleasant enough, with each brother acknowledging his own success as well as the success of his sibling. This, despite the clear instruction in the Torah (Deuteronomy 23:8, partial)

לֹא תְתַעֵב אֲדֹמִי כִּי אָחִיךָ הוּא

You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your kinsman….

Despite these words, the books written after the Torah clearly portray the Edomites as enemies, as a prideful, arrogant, and hateful people. The enmity remains to this day, if in a somewhat different guise, especially if we consider that ancient Edom largely encompassed the land that is today the Kingdom of Jordan.

As you may have read in my musings over the years, I feel the  prophets, the commentators, and rabbis have given Esav an undeserved bad rap. One of the reasons for that is, ostensibly, the continuing historical enmity for the Edomites that pervades the canonical literature. To be fair the Edomites participated in the plunder of Jerusalem, the slaying of many Judaeans, and the destruction of the first Temple by Nebuchadnezzar II between 597-586 BCE. That alone can explain why they remained so reviled. It certainly explains Ovadiyah’s rants against them.

It is easy to misinterpret Ovadiyah’s message. Christian readings of this text often focus on this as an example of G”d’s vengeance, and cite it over and against Judaism to bolster their supersessionist  contentions of a superior G”d of love rather than of vengeance and retribution, specifically citing verse 15:

כִּֽי־קָר֥וֹב יוֹם־יְהוָ֖ה עַל־כָּל־הַגּוֹיִ֑ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֤ר עָשִׂ֙יתָ֙ יֵעָ֣שֶׂה לָּ֔ךְ גְּמֻלְךָ֖ יָשׁ֥וּב בְּרֹאשֶֽׁךָ׃

The day of the LORD is at hand. Yea, against all nations. As you did, so shall it be done to you; Your conduct shall be requited. [text re-arranged from the JPS to more closely match the order of the Hebrew.]

As you reap, so shall you sow. There, says the supersessionist. Judaism retributive. Christianity love. But is that truly a retributive sentiment, or can we see it differently? Judaism, at heart, is seeking balance between opposing forces/ideas. Another expression of balance is justice. When there is great sin, or great wrong, obtaining justice can require an equally strong redress.

Okay, yeah.  I’ll admit I’m not entirely comfortable with that, or agree with it. It is how W. Gunther Plaut writes about this in his Haftarah Commentary. Nevertheless this sentiment, problematic as it might be, could come in handy.

A brief digression on the title of this musing. This sentiment is blatantly political (not that the rest of this musing isn’t.)  The name Edom comes from this verse:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר עֵשָׂ֜ו אֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֗ב הַלְעִיטֵ֤נִי נָא֙ מִן־הָאָדֹ֤ם הָאָדֹם֙ הַזֶּ֔ה כִּ֥י עָיֵ֖ף אָנֹ֑כִי עַל־כֵּ֥ן קָרָֽא־שְׁמ֖וֹ אֱדֽוֹם

And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished”—which is why he was named Edom.

If you can’t read the Hebrew, this transliteration might help:

Vayomer Esav al-Yaakov haliteini na min-ha-adom ha-adom hazeh, ki ayeif anochi al-kein kara-sh’mo Edom.

though even a non-Hebrew reader can see the connection between

הָאָדֹ֤ם הָאָדֹם֙

and

אֱדֽוֹם

well, you add a little “yellow” (aka bone spurs) to red and you get – orange! (Yes, I know I’m not supposed to abhor an Edomite, but…)​

As I stated at the beginning of this musing, what jumps out at me as I reread this hafatarah  are the obvious parallels between the descriptions of the actions of the Edomites and the actions and behaviors of the present U.S. administration under the Orange Edomite.  Ovadiyah mocks the Edomites for their arrogant pride in much the same way one might mock the current occupant of the White House for his sinful pride. Only he can do it. America first.

What heartens me about this hafatarah is its sentiment that the haughty will be brought low as part of G”d’s justice. For almost every verse in this haftarah there is a parallel in our recent history. If things remain as they are, then this nation will become “least of nations, utterly despised.” The Orange Edomite is leading us down that path quickly.

There is, perhaps, no greater connection than these few words that are part of verse 12:

וְאַל־תַּגְדֵּ֥ל פִּ֖יךָ בְּי֥וֹם צָרָֽה

..and you should not have opened your big mouth on the day of [their] distress!

Mic drop, Ovadiyah.

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian
©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayishlakh 5778 – Who Will Say #MeToo for Dinah?
Vayishlakh 5777 – My Prayer or Me Prayer
Vayishlakh 5775 – No One’s In The Kitchen With Dinah (or Eric or Michael)
Vayishlakh 5774 – Biblical Schadenfreude
Vayishlakh 5773 – That Other Devorah’s Tale
Vayishlakh 5772 – One and Many, Many and One
Vayishlakh 5771/5763 – The Bigger Man
Vayishlakh 5769 – A Fish Called Wonder
Vayishlakh 5768 – No One’s in the Kitchen With Dinah
Vayishlakh 5767-Wrestlemania
Vayishlakh 5766-Like Deity, Like Deity’s Child
Vayishlakh 5765-B’li Mirmah
Vayishlakh 5762-Don’t Get Mad–Get Even!
Vayishlakh 5761-No Doubt? No Wonder!

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Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayeitze 5779—Taking G”d’s Place (Revisited)

Revisiting words written 19 years ago.

וַתֵּ֣רֶא רָחֵ֗ל כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יָֽלְדָה֙ לְיַעֲקֹ֔ב וַתְּקַנֵּ֥א רָחֵ֖ל בַּאֲחֹתָ֑הּ וַתֹּ֤אמֶר אֶֽל־יַעֲקֹב֙ הָֽבָה־לִּ֣י בָנִ֔ים וְאִם־אַ֖יִן מֵתָ֥ה אָנֹֽכִי׃

When Rachel saw that she had borne Jacob no children, she became envious of her sister; and Rachel said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die.”

וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֥ף יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּרָחֵ֑ל וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הֲתַ֤חַת אֱלֹהִים֙ אָנֹ֔כִי אֲשֶׁר־מָנַ֥ע מִמֵּ֖ךְ פְּרִי־בָֽטֶן׃

Jacob was incensed at Rachel, and said, “Can I take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?”

(Gen. 30:1-2)

The answer to the rhetorical question “Can I take the place of G”d” in Yaakov’s time, was a given. It’s truly ironic, however, that in our time, we can answer part of this question differently. I say “part of” for reasons which I hope will become obvious in time.

We can, indeed, give children to women who would not otherwise be able to have children through the procedures (note how I refrain from calling them “miracles”) of modern medical science. In vitro fertilization, surrogate pregnancies, perhaps someday even cloning are among the methods available to couples wishing to have children but find themselves impaired for one reason or another. I am pleased to know personally no small number of people who have benefitted from our ability to help people become parents through medical science.

In our post-modern world, we seem to have put aside for the moment even questioning the use of many of these procedures – giving great importance to the commandment  p’ru uv’ru – be fruitful and multiply. Oh, for sure, we wrangle with the ethical implications, we consider the value of such procedures, and even of reproduction itself. We reconcile our ancient values with modern knowledge. Even great contemporary Orthodox rabbis have endorsed certain forms of genetic testing and conception. (At the time I wrote this back in 1999, the Conservative movement was actively encouraging its members to very carefully study and consider the implications of genetic testing. Now genetic testing and even learning about your DNA fingerprint is normative.)

In 1999, times were different. I wrote thusly:

We look at these childless [edit 2018: individuals and] couples, and show them our sympathy, and somehow wonder at our own humanity and compassion when we begin to question the many problems that surround alternative methods of conception. The high cost clearly makes almost all the procedures exclusionary. There are millions of parentless children awaiting adoption. Precious medical resources are being utilized to help people who want children (and can afford it or are willing to bankrupt themselves in their quest) rather than being available to the many with children who desperately need the medical services. We often feel guilty when we ask questions like these. How can we want to deny anyone children?

Our ancestors dealt with the same question. And they had a solution – surrogate motherhood – allowing maids to conceive and bear children for their mistresses. Inelegant, perhaps, but practical.

But we can go further today. We can allow the barren mother herself, in some cases, to become pregnant and birth a child. In Yaakov’s world view, only G”d could do this. Does this make us G”d? Using fertility drugs, we can make the (apparently) barren woman conceive. Does this make us G”d?

Science has made vast strides in these last two decades. I wonder, however, if society itself has been able to make the vast ethical and moral strides necessary to deal with our ever-changing reality. I could have let my words from 1999, simply mentioning childless couples, stand. But here, in today’s reality, I could not let those words go unremarked – even though I knew I would be commenting on them here. So I chose to note the omission right then and there.

As I wrote 19 years ago, Yaakov’s rhetorical question has two parts. The second addresses the specific situation of Rachel’s barrenness. But the first part can and does stand on its own. That does not automatically remove it from its context. While Yaakov may have been relating it to this specific problem, it was a very definite part of Yaakov’s world view. It is far less so part of ours. In our time, we can help those denied the fruit of the womb. But is this really taking the place of G”d?

Ask yourself “can I take the place of G”d?” We can do “G”d-like things,” but can we take G”d’s place? I imagine the answer to this is the same as it was in the days of our ancestors. At least I’d like to hope it is.

Here in 2018, I’m still hopeful that the answer remains that we cannot. However, that answer is tempered by my ever evolving understanding of and relationship with my understanding of G”d.

For those without faith, it may be possible to answer Yaakov’s question in the affirmative. For those with faith, it may be a question we wrestle and struggle with, or it may be a straightforward negative reply.

I believe there is great value in asking ourselves this question on a regular basis. It can serve as a reminder to truly examine the scope of G”d’s creation. Surely it is magnificent and miraculous enough to make us recognize that we are not G”d’s equal.

Maybe we can be a temp worker, a stand in for G”d at times, in effect taking G”d’s place. But, at least for me, in the long term, G”d’s tenure, G”d’s job security are safe. Science brings about not miracles but realities. Miracles are still G”d’s purview. May they always remain so. For if G”d has truly given us the power and ability to surpass G”d, then woe unto us, unto G”d, and to our universe.

I read a lot of science fiction. In it, humankind achieves feats that would seem impossible for us to achieve now. Even more “G”d-like” acts. I worry, as do others, that as our abilities to manipulate our universe improve, we will be tempted to be less cautious, to think of ourselves as being in the place of G”d, or having no need for G”d. I worry about that time. I may not be certain about the existence of a Deity, but I am certain that a universe in which humankind believes it is equivalent to being G”d is not a universe I would like to see. I really do pray that a time comes when we encounter something that is truly beyond our ability to ever understand it. (In a perverse way, this will save us, as it gives us an ever-unreachable goal that we will foolishly keep trying to reach and surpass. This need to think we can understand everything, to no longer have need for a G”d concept will drive us to, hopefully, to doing ever better things along the way to continual failure to achieve that singular aim.  Yes, the logic is perverse and circular. For now, it will do. I will now take my own advice form 1999:

Go, welcome the Shabbat Bride with candles, wine, bread, prayer and song. Experience the miracle of Shabbat. Then ask yourself: “Can I take the place of G”d?”

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian
©2018 (portions ©1999) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayeitzei 5778 – Redux 5761 – Change, In Perspective
Vayeitzei 5777 – Being FruitBull
Vayetze 5776 – Now and Then (Redux 5763)
Vayeitzei 5775 – Hapax Shabbat
Vayeitzei 5774 – Terms and Conditions Revisted
Vayeitze 5773 – Mandrakes and More
Vayeitze 5772 – Stumbling on Smooth Paths
Vayeitzei 5771 – Luz is No Loser
Vayeitzei 5769 – Going Down and Loving It!
Vayeitzei 5768 – Encounters
Vayeitzei 5767-Hapax On All Your Hapaxes
Vayetze 5766-Pakhad HaShem?
Vayetze 5765-Cows and Cranberries
Vayetze 5764-Terms and Conditions
Vayetze 5763-Now and Then
Vayetze 5761/2-Change in Perspective
Vayetze 5760-Taking Gd’s Place

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Random Musing Before Shabbat – Tol’dot 5779—Redux 5769–Alternate Histories, Alternate Shmishstories

A musing from 2007, just slightly revised.
Alternate histories have become a popular form of fiction these days. As I’ve already taken the liberty of creating modern midrashim to enhance my understanding of the Torah, why not go that one step further? I was sort of on the cusp of doing this with my recent musing based on the “Diary of Terakh.” Imagine, perhaps, a world in which Terakh was the one first called by G”d to go forth, and had completed the journey all the way to the promised land, becoming the progenitor of the Jewish people.
If you can imagine that, why not imagine other scenarios?
Rebekkah, already unhappy with Esav for marrying outside the clan, and clearly favoring Yaakov, overhears her feeble old husband Yitzkhak say to Esav that he wanted to give Esav his blessing, and asked him go out, hunt some game, and prepare his favorite dish, after which time he would give Esav the “blessing of his soul.”
She hurries to Yaakov, and instructs him to essentially deceive his father so that he might receive the blessing instead of Esav.
Yaakov may be studious and a mama’s boy, but upon hearing this suggestion refuses to do as his mother asks, and even chastises her for being so duplicitous.
Rebekkah’s response:
Alternate 1) She tells Yaakov to not be such a hypocrite – after all, he had already tricked his brother out of the birthright! Yaakov is chagrined and decides to go along with his Mother’s plan after all.
Alternate 2) Rebekkah recognizes the enormity of what she has asked Yaakov to do, and asks forgiveness from Yaakov and G”d. Esav returns home, prepares a meal for his father, and receives his father’s blessing.
OK, now we have a weird situation. Yaakov has the birthright, but Esav has the blessing. So what happens? Maybe G”d invents lawyers?
Let’s try another.
Rebekkah holds her tongue and says nothing to Yaakov. Esav returns and receives his father’s blessing. OK, we’re back to that same weird situation. Call in the lawyers.
And another.
Yaakov agrees to go along with Rebekkah’s plan. However, Yitzkhak discovers Yaakov’s deception and angrily denounces him. Yaakov says “it was all my mother’s idea.” Yaakov sends Yitzkhak and Rebekkah away (and they go off to live with Hagar and Yishmael – there’s a whole story in itself. Does Hagar at first refuse to take them in and is later persuaded by Yishmael to do so?) Yitzkhak gives his blessing to Esav, and the Jewish people are stillborn. G”d looks for another lineage to carry on (perhaps Yishmael?)
[Note from 2018 – as you may know, the untold story of the time between the akeidah and Yitzchak’s return to bury his father, a time I speculate he spent in the company of Hagar and Ishmael, has become a project I’ve been playing with for some years. I am pleased to say, it is actually starting to take shape! It’s not, technically an alternate history – more like midrash to fill in the blanks. Yet I am still drawn to writer about it. I’ll note too, in the past few years, we’ve been treated to two of the most amazing speculative (if not truly alternate) biblical fiction works by Israel author Yochi Brandes, ably translated into English. “The Secret Book of Kings” explores the United Monarchy through the perspective of the northern tribes. “The Orchard” explores the rabbis and personas of the 1st and 2nd century CE, largely through the eyes of Rabbi Akiva’s wife, Rachel. I heartily recommend these books to you.]
The possibilities are endless. entire books could be written of alternate biblical histories. (Note to self – see if there’s a market for this.) [Note from 2018 – it seems there is – now for me to grab a piece of it.]
In the end, however, all this is just mental self-gratification (I’ll use that euphemistic substitute for decorum’s sake.) Whatever happened then, whatever happened at Sinai, whatever happened at a thousands other instants in history – none of that changes the fact that we are here, now. The Jewish people survive – mir zenen do, as the Partisaner Leid says. As I’ve said a thousand times to students, teachers, and others – unless your a literalist fundamentalist, it doesn’t really matter if things happened exactly as related in the Torah. If the rabbis could view the Torah’s stories of creation as metaphoric, the rest of the text is no less suspect. Speaking for myself, the historical accuracy of the text makes little difference. Whatever really happened, I am here now. I accept that I, as a Jew, have been charged with certain obligations and responsibilities. Our heritage provides me with ethical guidance, suggestions on how to live in this world, how to interact with others, how to build a better world. It also provides me with plenty of examples of how not to do that. Whatever choices my ancestors made, the choices are now mine to make. And if Coca-Cola can use it in a commercial, why can’t I. As the knight guarding the grail said to Indiana Jones, “choose wisely.”
Hmmm – didn’t I read something like that somewhere in the Torah?
This Shabbat, and every Shabbat, the choice is mine, the choice is yours, and the choice is ours. Let us pray that we all choose wisely.
Shabbat Shalom,
Adrian
©2018 (portions ©2007) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
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