Random Musing Before Shabbat–Korach 5777–Revisiting B’tzelem Anashim

In 2004, I first wrote a musing on a subject which I had been contemplating and had even mentioned in some of my writings before. It’s time to revisit it again.

Parashat Korach presents some of G”d’s worst (and best) behaviors.  Why are we presented with an image of G”d acting in ways that we ourselves struggle to overcome?

There’s a theory I and others have advanced before. If we are made in G”d’s image or likeness, then those traits and behaviors we exhibit are perforce traits and behaviors that G”d might exhibit as well. “That’s overly anthropomorphic!” I hear the hecklers crying from the back of the room. “G”d is not like people,” one says. “G”d is above all that, G”d is so much more, even more than we can understand or comprehend.”

Still, for me, the logic holds. If there is a little bit of G”d in each of us, then there is a little bit of each of us in G”d. And, at least in my reading of the texts, the Torah supports me in my viewpoint. Why else give us example after example of a G”d who is petulant, pedantic, sophomoric, rash, vengeful, angry, jealous, vain, bored in addition to being a G”d who is loving, caring, nurturing, compassionate, exciting? Perhaps it is simply to make us feel better about our own shortcomings and weaknesses. If G”d sometimes cannot control these urges, how much more so must if be difficult for us to do so, and how much more vigilant we must ever be at guarding ourselves from engaging in negative behaviors.

It could be a way to keep us a little scared and in awe. Knowing that G”d can be vengeful, angry, jealous, etc. is a device for keeping us on our toes as well. It used to be quite an effective technique, and even into our own times this technique is practiced. Sadly, the concept can be perversely utilized, as in calling AIDS a vengeful act of G”d, or even the events of 9/11 as punishment for arrogance and hubris. So I tend to keep this particular concept at a distance, and like to steer us a bit more into the “awe” category rather than the “fear” category. Of course, we have the joy of the Hebrew not being entirely clear on this, allowing for a little fear to appropriately be part of awe.

There is the “this is all for human understanding” school of thought. It’s like trying to communicate with an inferior species. So G”d’s actions are portrayed using metaphors of human behavior that we can understand. This is all well and good when we’re talking about human-alien contact. I question its usefulness in explaining a relationship between a Deity and its creations. If we really are that inferior to G”d, then how can we enter into a covenant with G”d? We would be, as a species, under the legal age to make a contract!

Modern scholarship is contributing another approach – G”d as realistic. G”d reflects for us the realities we experience in our daily lives (or, put another way, G”d experiences the realities we experience daily, thus we too experience them – for G”d models the Universe after G”d’s experiences. Is that any less plausible a concept than we modeling G”d from our reality?)

Much of Greek thought and theology sought and modeled a perfect Divinity. Those thoughts and theologies made their way far deeper into what became Christianity than they did in what became Judaism. One view of the Trinity concept is that it creates a place for both G”d’s perfection and imperfection (and a place to be above even those concepts.) Judaism’s G”d is dynamic, living, adapting. Judaism’s G”d has moments of truly transcendent love and compassion, combined with fits of pique, temper tantrums, etc. Just as life is for human beings.

For me, given that we do have a covenant with G”d, and a mission to be G”d’s partners in the work of repairing and completing the universe, it only makes sense that both G”d and G”d’s creations learn together, side by side.

The Israelites are given a tough time (mostly by their own descendants-us) for being so stubborn and obstinate. For just not “getting it.” For seeing miracles and wonders and still kvetching, whining and complaining.

Well folks, guess what? At times G”d is a slow learner too. Perhaps, before the story of creation in B’reishit as we know it, G”d made other attempts to forge a universe. (My favorite idea is that G”d made a universe in which everything was perfect, and creations did not have free will. But G”d got bored with it after five minutes because nothing exciting ever happened, so G”d wiped it out and tried again.) Then G”d made this current attempt, and is trying this little free-will experiment. And I suspect it had some unanticipated results for G”d. So G”d has had to adjust, compensate, change, learn, grow and account for the effects of free will.

But let’s look at the record. G”d puts Adam and Chava in a perfect garden, but gives them free will. So they go ahead and screw things up right away. Still, G”d decides to give it a little more time. After a while, G”d appears to get impatient and decides to wipe it all out again,. Only this time G”d decides to save a lot of extra work, and only kills off most of the creations. Sort of like a neutron bomb–destroying people but not nature and property. Then Noah’s descendants get all prideful and decide to build this tower thingy and here we see a little jealousy, perhaps even fear on G”d’s part. Hmmm–these creations might actually get to me. Time to get out the fly swatter and the speech-confounder.

And on and on the cycles goes. We mess up or do something unexpected. G”d is unhappy and lashes out. Yet G”d does seem to learn over time that wiping everyone out isn’t always the best idea. But when G”d gets really angry, well, it takes Moses to talk G”d out of rashly destroying the people (and notice how Moses appeals to G”d’s vanity to do this–how would it look to the Egyptians, Moses asks.)

At first G”d is going to wipe us all out for Korach’s sins. But Moses talks G”d into just venting on the people who actually rebelled (though G”d still can’t resist also zotzing their wives and children as well.) G”d wipes out Korach’s followers, and turns the 250 with the firepans into toast. And the very next day, here we go again. G”d’s ready to wipe us all out, and Moses talks G”d out of it. The first time, Moses was able to stop G”d in time to prevent total annihilation. This time, G”d starts acting before Moses and Aaron can stop it. G”d has already initiated the plague.  So they go and make expiation for the people and G”d heeds their sacrifice.

And then,. As if nothing major had transpired at all, G”d goes on to cheerfully give a re-elaboration of the support system for the priests and Levites.

Sounds awfully human-like to me.

I guess I can sort of round this up by saying that perhaps it’s better that G”d isn’t perfect. If G”d could easily be bored creating a perfect universe, then how much more so might we get bored if we had a truly perfect G”d? Nope, I’ll take G”d as portrayed in Torah, warts and all. And thank G”d for that!

Though I’ve edited and added to what you’ve just read, that’s how I ended the original version of this musing in 2004. There is another approach to this that I neglected to include. It’s all about how we define and understand the concept of perfection. What is perfect?  Perfect implies that something has achieved a state which cannot be, either in reality or theory, improved. For millennia people have dreamed of such a place, ascribed such qualities to the olam haba, heaven, the other world, the world to come, etc. C’mon folks – we’ve talked about this before. I already accept that a perfect universe would be the most boring place ever. Had G”d created perfection, G”d’s creations would have gone crazy, and G”d would have quickly moved on to something else. It’s the tension between (unachievable) perfection and imperfection that makes the world an interesting place to live. Our mission in life is to try and leave the world a better place than we found it. What purpose would our lives have in a world in which we could never make real or theoretical improvements?

Perfection need not be the absence or impossibility of improvement. There’s another way to define it. Some readers may recall a twenty-year-old musing whose anniversary I highlighted a few months back, for parashat Sh’mini, about GEFTS, the “good enough for this show” philosophy that I learned from a wise old colleague. By having each element of a show in balance, striving for a coherent whole, with no one area outshining the others, one can create a truly “perfect” experience. This is perfection being about balance. In my view, balance, perforce, requires give and take from the constituent parts of that perfection. You can’t have it all – everything can’t be fully maximized. (Even G”d had to engage in “tzimtzum” to make a space for the universe.)

In his controversial 2012 op-ed piece in the NY Times,  An Imperfect G”d, Yoram Hazony described perfection as balance, and then went on to say:

What would we say if some philosopher told us that a perfect bottle would be one that can contain a perfectly great amount of liquid, while being perfectly easy to pour from at the same time? Or that a perfect horse would bear an infinitely heavy rider, while at the same time being able to run with perfectly great speed? I should think we’d say he’s made a fundamental mistake here: You can’t perfect something by maximizing all its constituent principles simultaneously. All this will get you is contradictions and absurdities. This is not less true of God than it is of anything else.

A few weeks later, responding to Hazony in the Times of Israel, writer/blogger Gil Reich pointed out an almost inherent contradiction in viewing G”d as imperfect in this manner, that, Purim-like, turns things upside-down:

If our definition of perfect involves a trade-off of conflicting principles, then God and the world may be perfect despite the existence of pain and injustice.

If we define perfect as something that cannot be improved, then the world isn’t perfect. It’s better. Precisely because we can improve it.

Hazony is suggesting we allow G”d to be imperfect. Perhaps theodicy is not an issue, but a logical extension of the balancing of realities that our understanding of perfection requires.  Reich is suggesting that our static view of perfection  is what holds us back. Perhaps G”d’s perfection is in G”d’s imperfection.

I’m not sure which camp I’m on this. How does this play into b’tzelem/El”him/b’tzelem anashim? Was G”d perfect before creating the universe and humanity, and did the very act of creation cause G”d to have some imperfections? Is it free will, randomness, entropy, that are the root causes of what imperfection there is?  Is the universe perfect in its imperfection? Is G”d perfect in G”d’s imperfection? Is a universe in which we (and G”d) have to partner to keep improving things perfection, or beyond perfection? Is a universe in which imperfection is perfection itself perfect or illusionary? Did G”d make the universe perfect? Did G”d make the universe imperfect? Did making the universe make G”d perfect or imperfect? (If this were a classic sci-fi trope, this would be the point where the perfect thinking machine starts to fizzle and go haywire.)

So, to paraphrase the old “can G”d create a stone too heavy for G”d to lift,” I ask these questions:

  • Can an imperfect G”d create a perfect universe?
  • Can a perfect G”d create an imperfect universe?
  • Can G”d create a universe so imperfect that it is sheer perfection?

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 (portions ©2004) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

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

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Random Musing Before Shabbat–Sh’lakh L’kha 5777- Of Brains, Anamnesis, and Torah

I just love it when fate comes in and happenstance is fortuitous. I had been planning to revisit an older musing for the parasha, Sh’lakh L’kha on the topic of remembering – or more specifically Anamnesis.

Then, just before sitting down to revisit the topic, and after having done some research intended to clarify and even change my earlier thoughts on the topic, I happened to be glancing at my Facebook feed and come upon an article link that intrigued me. So naturally I clicked on it. The article was just published over a year ago, in May 2016. I was surprised, given my interest in the topic, that I hadn’t seen it come across any of my feeds sooner.

This article, “The empty brain” published online in the digital magazine Aeon, was written by Robert Epstein, a “senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in California. He is the author of 15 books, and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today.”

In the article, Epstein challenges the currently predominant approach to understanding how the human brain works, which he calls the IP (information processing) model. This model presumes that the human brain functions, at least metaphorically, like computers – they are essentially information processors. Epstein takes a different view, which he sums up this way “Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer.” It should be noted that the IP understanding of the human brain is endorsed and supported by many in the brain research and neuroscience fields, along with many other respected scientists and thinkers in other field (like Stephen Hawking, Ray Kurzweil, et al.)

I recommend the article to you. I’ll come back to it in a bit. First,on to the topic at hand – anamnesis. It’s a word I threw at you, dear readers, back in 2000 and again in 2005, and one I’ve sprinkled here and there into other musings. It means, in a most basic sense, recollecting or remembering. In a religious sense, it can mean bringing the past into the present.

It’s not a word one hears being bartered about in Jewish circles a lot, and I first encountered as a student in Divinity School, where I was one of a handful of Jews amidst dozens studying for Christian ministry, or to become Christian theologians, or become Christian scholars. So it’s time I come clean with my readers, and explain that the term has a very specific meaning in a Christian context. Christian rite and liturgy is replete with examples of what they term anamnesis, and act of ritual remembrance allowing one to become part of the original event. The most common usage involves the Eucharist, or host, which is consumed in ritual worship connected to Jesus’ saying at the last supper “Do this in remembrance of me.” Catholic and Christian theology have extended the symbolism of this anamnesis beyond the mere repetition of the act to understanding the participating in the ritual invites one into the the actual mystery of the Eucharist, the passion, the resurrection, and the ascension, known collectively as a paschal mystery. (Don’t get worried if none of this makes any sense. Here’s a very simplistic, non-nuanced explanation: in some understandings of Qabbalah, Jewish mysticism, the doing of righteous acts opens a connection or channel that enables Divine attributes or emanations to flow down to the worldly/earthly/human level. In some Catholic and Christian understandings, participation in certain rites like the Eucharist enable a similar connection to understanding the Divine mystery that is, for them, G”d/Jesus/Trinity. I apologize to my readers of a more scholarly and knowledgeable level for this gross over-simplification.

Anamnesis also has specific meaning in philosophical circles. Plato’s understanding of anamnesis is that human souls are immortal, and repeatedly re-incarnated. With each re-incarnation, the soul “forgets” all that it has learned, and the process of acquiring knowledge is actually recovering the knowledge that the soul had previously.Plato viewed those who assist others in the acquisition of knowledge not as teachers, but as midwives, rebirthing knowledge the soul previously held. (Again, I apologize for the extremely simplistic explanation.

Though we don’t usually call it that, anamnesis, at least in some aspect, is part of what we do in Judaism. So many of our rites and rituals are designed to enable the “b’khol dor vador” experience as exemplified in the Pesach Seder ritual.  In the telling of the story, in the engagement in the rituals, we are bringing our memories forward, and making ourselves part of that experience. So many other rituals involve some sense of connection to the mysteries and miracles of the past, enabling us to connect with the Divine in our own here and now.

Now, it’s the time for blatant honesty. When I go back and reread that original musing for Sh’lakh L’kha from 2000,  I struggle to understand how I got to the topic of anamnesis, and how in my mind, I was making/rationalizing that connection. In those musings, I talked about the information gap in the story of the 12 scouts. We get a list of place names, but no serious narrative about what they encountered, as they encountered it. We get only their summaries – most of them all gloom and doom, with only two of them hopeful , even assured.

In that musing, I wondered why there was no narrative of the actual journey of the scouts, and only their reports. My surmise, at the time, was that it was a way of teaching us to reach the same faith as Moshe, Joshua, and Caleb. It didn’t matter what the scouts actually saw. G”d that had brought these people of of Egypt, had given them Torah at Sinai – that G”d will surely see them settled in this good,promised land. No other conclusion need be made.

Joshua and Caleb remembered all that G”d had done for the people, and it wasn’t even a question if G”d could enable us to live in the promised land. (Yes, I know. I’m tiptoeing around the uncomfortableness of labeling this as a conquest of and eviction of the land and the existing tenants of the land – but that is, ultimately what is was. Sigh. History sadly, repeats itself. Especially for those who choose to forget the past, as Santayana said.) I think my anamnesis connection was that, we too, in our own time, can find our faith by remembrance of the things of the past. The lesson is to do as Joshua and Caleb did. Remember all the mighty deeds already done for Israel to have surety that they will be protected in present and future as well. That, I am sure, is how Joshua and Caleb were able to return with such a positive attitude about the potential (okay, I’ll say it) conquest of the land.

The Israelites blew it. They weren’t ready to enter the land, because they lacked faith it could be theirs. How many lost opportunities in our own lives can be chalked up to lack of faith?

Judaism, generally, tends to downplay the whole resurrection thing, for obvious reasons, but any truly knowledgeable Jew knows that Judaism is no stranger to the idea of bodily (or metaphorical) resurrection. Even the Reform movement has put “m’chayyei hameitim” (who gives life to the dead) back as an option it is prayerbook. We’ve heard the stories of how even the dead bodies will tunnel their way under the ground back to Jerusalem when the time comes. (In other musings, I’ve talked about how I have re-embraced “m’chayyei hameitim” in my prayers because of how I now understand those words in a very different way, unrelated to actual physical resurrection. It is, perhaps, more of an anamnesis understanding. It is about remembrance. It is about relearning that which an ancestral soul once knew. It is about entering into the Divine mysteries through an actual of worship.

And now back to the brain science article. What’s notable is how the author rejects the idea of memory as being some kind of stored, static data. We actually don’t store full physical images of what we’ve encountered.

This is the paragraph that most caught my attention for being related to Torah, Judaism, remembrance/anamnesis:

This is why, as Sir Frederic Bartlett demonstrated in his book Remembering (1932), no two people will repeat a story they have heard the same way and why, over time, their recitations of the story will diverge more and more. No ‘copy’ of the story is ever made; rather, each individual, upon hearing the story, changes to some extent – enough so that when asked about the story later (in some cases, days, months or even years after Bartlett first read them the story) – they can re-experience hearing the story to some extent, although not very well (see the first drawing of the dollar bill, above).

I love that. We re-experience hearing the story. Or we re-experience reading the book, Or re-experience hearing the song. Our brains may work in a manner that is similar to anamnesis! It uses recollection to rebuild the experience anew (and slightly changing it in the process.) Oh, how I love what that says about biblical interpretation, don’t you? Also, what is possibly says about oral transmission of texts. Yes, there is some evidence to indicate that our ancestors were better at remembering longer texts than we are, but we may be deceiving ourselves as to just how accurate the passing down was. What eventually made it into the written Torah, all of Tanakh, even recollections that made it into Talmud, Aggadah, and Midrash are all somewhat suspect – if our brain truly does know something by literally re-creating it based on some scattered remembrances.

Is the Pesach Seder designed with this understanding in mind? Are more recent versions of the haggadot buying into the IP understanding of brain science, and focusing on ways to cram in and retain data? I suspect the original haggadot were used anamnesis and were very experiential in their approach. Luckily, I think there are plenty of contemporary haggadot that haven’t abandoned anamnesis as the key to entering the Divine mysteries of the Exodus story.

Not very much about Torah today, except indirectly. But I see all that I have written as Torah in a broader sense, and I hope you, dear reader, have found the exploration a worthy experience.

Shabbat Shalom,

© 2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Shelakh-L’kha 5775 – Cover Up? (Redux 5761)
Sh’lakh L’kha 5774 – Do You Spy What I Spy (Redux 5759)
Shelakh L’kha 5773 – They Really Might be Giants (Redux 5764)
Sh’lakh-L’kha 5772- Cover Up (Redux and Revised 5761)
Sh’lakh-L’kha 5771 – Ignorantia Juris Non Excusat
Shelakh L’kha 5769 – One Law
Sh’lakh-L’kha 5767-Cover Up II – G”d’s Scarlet Letter?
Sh’lakh L’kha 5766 – Another Missed Opportunity?
Shelakh Lekha 5764-They Might Really Be Giants
Shelakh-Lekha 5762-Minority Report
Shelakh-Lekha 5761-Cover Up?
Shelakh Lekha 5760 and 5765-Anamnesis
Shelakh-Lekha 5759-Do You Spy What I Spy?

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Random Musing Before Shabbat – B’ha’alot’kha 5777 – Of Singing, G”d, and Bathrooms

There was an interesting question posed this week in a Jewish Facebook group to which I belong. This group is most often looking at things from an orthodox perspective, but is open to participation from across the spectrum and frowns upon bashing of any kind. I find it valuable to observe and learn how Jews of a more traditional bent see things.

This week, an anonymous poster spoke of a situation they encountered and asked for opinions on an appropriate response – or if indeed to respond at all. The situation involved overhearing a Conservative cantorial student singing a song in the restroom that included that person singing “shem hashem.” (That’s a way of indicating that the person sang “Ad”nai” or “El”him” rather than “HaShem.”) The poster wanted to know if they should say something to this student about it – I guess you might call it a form of tokhekha (rebuke.)  There was a fascinating array of responses. Most (but not all) of the responses from people with an orthodox perspective revolved around the issue of how and when one one might actually go about responding to this. Matters of not embarrassing someone needed to be considered along with the other factors involved. Understanding and respecting diverse religious practice is another. In any case,  a majority seemed to favor a discretely made comment.

Others, perhaps more liberal in perspective wondered why it even mattered. I was one of those. I responded by citing a verse from this week’s parasha, B’ha’alot’kha, Numbers 11:29. That verse is part of a brief story told in this parasha.

11: 26 Two men, one named Eldad and the other Medad, had remained in camp; yet the spirit rested upon them–they were among those recorded, but they had not gone out to the Tent–and they spoke in ecstasy in the camp. 27 A youth ran out and told Moses, saying, “Eldad and Medad are acting the prophet in the camp!” 28 And Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ attendant from his youth, spoke up and said, “My lord Moses, restrain them!” 29 But Moses said to him, “Are you wrought up on my account? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them!”

It’s a sentiment I’ve written about before, most often in terms of ecstatic worship or fervor.  (See previous musings on this Parasha  at the end of this post.) I don’t know if that applies in this particular situation, but it certainly feels like there’s a connection.

Our Torah is pretty earthy at times. It speaks of building latrines, menses, nocturnal emissions, masturbation, and more. At the same time, it is pretty clear about the need to separate what is clean from unclean, pure form impure. There’s some inherent conflict here. If G”d created us b’tzelem El”him, in the image of G”d, then some aspect of G”d has to “use the toilet” in some way. Even if you won’t go that far, surely you’ll accept the premise that sweating, peeing, and pooping are part of G”d’s design. So why are they any less important than breathing, or beating hearts, or opposable thumbs? Why do we insist on holding these perfectly normal bodily functions at a distance, fom ourselves, from each other, and, according to some, from G”d?

Centuries of rabbinic teachings have created some traditions, some bathroom halakha, as it were. The “asher yatzar” prayer is, traditionally recited after urinating or defecating. It is, preferably, recited after washing one’s hands in a space separate from the toilet. (There’s a whole debate about ancient toilets and modern ones, where the waste remains until flushed,  and this affects the way some poskim intepret the halakha.) Washing outside the room with the toilet is preferred. If the sink is in the room with the toilet, one is to go outside that space to dry one’s hands and recite the “asher yatzar.” It is customary to remove one’s tallit before entering a restroom.  Talking in a bathroom is actually prohibited, as is eating. You can bring siddurim and other books into the bathroom, but they must be covered (rabbis disagree on whether one or two layers of cover are needed.) There are many other prohibitions as well. Among them, one is not permitted to entertain thoughts related to the study of Torah (and that”s Torah in its “Big T” sense of encompassing all religious texts.)

In the case of the incident in question, there are any number of reasons, from a halakhic standpoint, why one should no be singing a religious song in a bathroom, and not be saying G”d’s name as part of that song. If I were living a traditionally observant lifestyle, I might find myself troubled by this. This is why the focus of the response was about the response and not the act. The act, even if one accounted for the less observant status of the person involved would still be a prohibited act, and warrant a comment. The focus was on how to deliver the rebuke appropriately.

Many liberal Jews do not consider themselves bound by the halakha, so the question is of little importance to them.  However, maybe it could be (or even should be?) I know many liberal Jews, myself among them at times,  who, more for the sake of their more observant colleagues and friends, might choose to keep a kosher home. Though I struggle with the concept, I recognize the need, in a setting with Jews of differing practices, to be conscious of and respectful regarding things like shomer negiah, kol isha, et al. If there’s a chance you might encounter someone whose religious practice is more observant than yours, perhaps it is the wisest course to aovid those things which you know might be offensive or troubling. (It’s like the long history within Reform Judaism about keeping synagogues kosher. To be honest, I still remain troubled when a Reform synagogue chooses to either ignore kashrut entirely, or embraces “kosher style” in place of actual kashrut observance. Our synagogues should be accommodating in this regard. I will agree that I have heard some valid arguments for just the opposite, but I’m not there yet. To me, flaunting non-observance is not a proper Jewish value. On the other end of the spectrum, I find myself amused at how traditional synagogues are often so far more open to the presence of active young children in the sanctuary during worship, yet in liberal synagogues, we relegate the boisterous children to cry rooms or babysitting rooms.  This is changing, and I am proud to currently be working for a congregation that is now embracing the presence of toddlers and young children in the sanctuary during services. G”d is not just for adults. But, as usual, I digress.)

On the other hand, profanity, obscenity, impurity – these are all rather subjective descriptors. Consider for a moment, how often one might say “oh sh*t.” In doing so, we have taken the act of defecation and created a pejorative obscenity from one word used to describe it. If it’s okay for us to bring “sh*t” out of the bathroom, why is it wrong to bring “G”d” into the bathroom?  Then there’s the whole asher yatzar prayer itself. While it’s not explicit by modern standards, it is pretty graphic, speaking as it does about vessels and openings that need to close or open at specific times for our bodies to function.We surely need to thank G”d for urination and excretion for we would die without them. Judaism and Hebrew utilize the word for breath to illustrate a wide variety of ideas beyond simple breathing. Except for the odd sense of propiety we have developed on the topic, is it that strange to imagine a prayer that explicitly thanks G”d for sweat, pee, and poop? (Halakha, a la the rabbis and poskim, does get rather explicit. One who has diarrhea, for example, is expected to make the appropriate blessing after each occasion of excreting. One with constipation, however, and using a laxative, should wait until their bowels are cleared before saying the asher yatzar. There’s lots more, too, but you can do your own research.)

If there’s a commandment that most Jews violate with regularity, it’s number three. Oh, we have lots of euphemisms to replace phrases like G”d dammit, but I sure hear G”d’s name taken in vain with great regularity by Jews of all stripes (liberal Jews have no monopoly on this practice.) Given this state of affairs, along with the generally sorry state of affairs of human behavior in the world, I would definitely subscribe to the idea that the more G”d is praised and spoken of in a positive way everywhere, at all times, the better. I can state with absolute certainty that I, at some point, been in a bathroom singing a Jewish song out loud which includes G”d’s name.

Now, Eldad and Medad weren’t singing. They were prophesying. So the correlation isn’t exact. Nevertheless I’d like to believe that Moshe rabbeinu would react to my (or anyone’s) singing G”d’s name in praise in a bathroom no differently than he did to Eldad and Medad’s prophesying.

Would that all G”d’s people sang G”d’s praises in the bethroom, that G”d would put G”d’s spirit upon them.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

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Random Musings Before Shabbat-Naso 5777 – The Fourth Fold (Revised and Revisited 5759)

Since 1993 I’ve been attending the annual Hava Nashira songleaders workshop held at the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute Camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. For most of those years, I was usually unable to post a new Random Musing during that week. Cell Phone coverage was spotty, at best, and wifi was non-existent. I, myself, was responsible for helping to install the first semi-cam-wide Wifi back in 2010, the last summer I also worked all summer in camp in addition to coming to Hava Nashira. Things have gradually improved over time, and this is the first year I feel confident enough that I can actually get my musing done and posted. That being said, there’s no a lot of free time (and not much sleep) during the 5 days of the conference (and this year, a 6th day added for those who chose to come early and celebrate Shavuot with this amazing community. So I’m once again recycling an old musing for this parsha, but unlike the last time this parasha fell during the time of Hava Nashira, this time I’m able to add to fresh ideas and content, so let’s call it a revised and revisited musing, originally from 5759 (1999.)

Random Musings Before Shabbat-Naso 5777 – The Fourth Fold (Revised and Revisited 5759)

יְבָרֶכְךָ יְיָ וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ. יָאֵר יְיָ פָּנָיו אֵלֶֽיךָ וִיחֻנֶּֽךָּ. יִשָּׂא יְיָ פָּנָיו אֵלֶֽיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם.  וְשָׂמוּ אֶת ֹשְמִי עַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַאֲנִי אֲבָרְכֵם..

Y’varech’cha Ad”nai v’yishmarecha Yaeir Ad”nai panav eilecha v’chunecha Yisa Ad”nai panav eilecha, vayaseim l’cha shalom.

May G”d bless you and keep you. May G”d’s light shine upon you, and may G”d be gracious to you. May you feel G”d’s presence within you always, and may you find peace.

Ah, but wait. There’s more text there than is transliterated above. In the Ashkenazi rite, there is a fourth line that gets left off the Priestly benediction. (It is included in the Sephardi rite.)

וְשָׂמוּ אֶת ֹשְמִי עַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַאֲנִי אֲבָרְכֵם

V’samu et-sh’mi al-b’nei Yisrael v’ani avarchem.

Yes, omitting it helps preserve the beautiful poetic structure of the three-fold benediction. And even modern leadership and management pundits sing the virtues of the triad in writing and speaking.

But in dropping this line from this blessing in the Ashkenazi rite, I think perhaps we are losing something.

“They shall put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” (The JPS version says “link My name” which, in context, also seems to fit.)

Some might say the fourth line merely restates the obvious. In each of the previous three lines, we are told that G”d is in charge, and it is by G”d’s grace that good things are bestowed upon us. So why remind us that we need to link G”d’s name with our people?

But that’s exactly the point. We DO need to be reminded. Sometimes we don’t make the connection-we take G”d for granted. And we forget the special nature of our connection with G”d – our holy covenant. Just as we are taught to give thanks after eating, when our bellies are full and it’s too easy to feel sated and not remember to say thanks (as opposed to when we are feeling hungry, it’s easier to think about asking G”d to relieve that feeling.)

The threefold benediction has been bandied about a lot, especially in recent times, and especially by liberal Jews. (The Orthodox reserve this benediction for special times.) And why not? It’s a great bit of text, suitable for use in a variety of settings.

In liberal Jewish settings, the rabbis and other ordainees seem to have become the inheritors of the power the Torah grants to the priests of Aaron to recite this blessing on behalf of the people. It’s been used at all sorts of occasions, and in all sorts of contexts. It is also widely in use in Christian worship. It’s my personal belief, too, that sometimes it’s a bit overused-simply because it is such a powerful piece of poetry and prayer. Really, really good blessings like this one-do they lose their power and majesty when overused? Can one really overuse a prayer or blessing? Some would say not. I think we can, and I believe we are the worse for it, despite good intentions (remember Nadav and Avihu?) I find it a very powerful and moving blessing, elegant in its simultaneous simplicity and complexity, in the manner of Mozart. (Better, surely, than Mozart, for it’s author outshines Mozart in every way!) But I digress.

I think the priestly benediction has lost the connection to its original purpose, because of the omission of the fourth line. It has become a prayer where we, as a community, or as individuals, ask and pray for G”d’s blessing. In it’s original form, I think perhaps it was a telling or an instruction, and covenantal. G”d will bless you and keep you. G”d will make G”d’s face to shine on you. G”d will bestow favor upon you and grant you peace.

Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and -I will bless them.

It’s not popular these days to say anything that might seem exclusivist. (That may be another reason the fourth line has been dropped from the blessing.) But this is the true and full meaning of the blessing, in my view. G”d will keep us, because G”d has a special covenant with us, and will bless the people Israel. (That doesn’t mean G”d won’t bless or keep anybody else. Our covenant doesn’t necessarily make us better than others. If anything, it is an obligation and a burden.) This fourth line is our reminder of who we are, and that in all our prayers, we must remember G”d’s covenant with us. It’s hard, in the aftermath of the Shoah, in the aftermath of almost two millennia of persecution and misfortune, and in light of modernity, to sometimes remember that we, Israel, are a covenanted people. It thus being so hard, we all the more need to now include this fourth line with our use of the threefold benediction (I think all my past English teachers would shudder at that sentence…but I digress again.) When so much around  us makes us doubt G”d, makes us doubt the reality and continuance of Israel’s covenant with G”d, we need to be reminded.

Next time you say or hear this powerful blessing, trying adding that extra line:

V’samu et-sh’mi al-b’nei Yisrael v’ani avarchem. Thus, they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.

That small addition might go a long way to address the effects of possible overuse of the priestly benediction, saving it from losing its tremendous power through familiarity and routine.(Yes, an argument can be made in the reverse – that constant use and repetition are an important component of Jewish prayer – and there’s no such thing as overuse. If that is truly the case, why do we tire so easily of certain musical settings of prayers and have to change up the melodies every so often? Yes, the keva remains fixed. But without the kavannah, what’s the point? Here’s an opportunity to actually change the keva, in a way. We’re not really changing it – we’re restoring a piece of it that has been omitted.

My prayer for you and yours this Shabbat: link G”d’s name with the people of Israel, your people, so that you remember G”d’s covenant with them-with you.

Shabbat Shalom,


© 2017 (portions ©1999, 2004, 2007) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

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

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Random Musing Before Shabbat–B’midbar 5773–What Makes It Holy (Revisited and Revised from 5767)

I have spent some time in my life “on the road” touring theatrical productions and touring with a band. So every time I encounter this miraculous portable mishkan, I am overwhelmed and impressed. And I respect the care and effort that went into taking down, storing and preparing the mishkan for transport. Though described in relatively few words in this part of the Torah, I imagine the task itself was rather extensive and time consuming. And done with the most exacting and painstaking attention to detail and care.

It is a model still followed. The first thing a good road manager does is to take a head count and make sure everybody in the cast and crew is accounted for. Then each “department” takes care of carefully storing their equipment – as Aaron and the priests did with the sacred objects from the mishkan. The ‘very special” (and in these days, expensive and fragile) items are wrapped, protected, placed in roadworthy cases, ready for transport. Finally the Teamsters, er, that is the Kohathites come along and carry the equipment and load it up for transport.

And just as Aaron and the priests carefully wrapped the sacred object so they wouldn’t be damaged by the Kohathites, I’ve seen plenty of musicians, costumers, property masters, et al carefully wrap, protect and store away their treasured props, costumes, instruments, etc. to protect them from being damaged or “defiled” by the handlers. Not that the “handlers” were careless or neglectful. The best “roadies” might be able to move, stack, and store heavy items quickly and efficiently, but they also do it lovingly, respectfully, and carefully. When you spend time together on the road, you learn that showing respect for the property of others is important – especially because everyone has to get along, and everyone is needed to make sure the show happens.

It’s all about caring for the things we hold sacred, holy. The concept which comes from the Hebrew meaning “to set apart.”

Are things “holy” by intrinsic nature, or does it require that we hold them in reverence to imbue them with holiness? It’s not entirely clear to me. Something touched by or created by G”d-surely that is holy. In the first category, at least in our story, we have no such items. Moshe destroyed the first set of tablets which had been written upon by G”d, and instructed Moshe to write on the second set. Curious, isn’t it? We often observe G”d’s power and miracles on a macro scale, but what do we have that’s a tangible holy object from all that.

Our Catholic co-religionists are really into holy, sacred objects. Sacred relics are built into altars. And who knows what treasures are stored in the catacombs beneath the Vatican (or, for that matter, in anonymous government warehouses here in Washington, DC.) Hundreds, perhaps thousands, have given their lives in pursuit of the Holy Grail.

Each year, millions of Muslims make a hajj, and encounter the Kaaba and other sacred places and things. Clearly, these are objects that people believe are intrinsically holy. However, in the end, we have only the faith of human beings that these objects are truly sacred and holy. There’s no real “proof.” The Shroud of Turin. That mysterious Ossuary possible bearing the inscription of James, brother of Jesus. [Remember, this was written a decade ago.]

Touched by G”d or not, we human beings have the power to make things holy (and, after all, our tradition tells us that we are a holy people, a nation of priests.) The way in which we treat things goes a long way in imbuing objects with sacredness.

Back when I lived in American Yennensvelts* my mother used to annually send me a Pesach care package full of the kind of goodies it’s hard to get in the “hinterlands west of the Hudson.” Every year when the package arrived I looked forward to the ceremony of unwrapping each little item in the box, revealing it for the treasure it was. My mother takes such great care to wrap and protect these treasures. Item,s large and small, fragile and less so, are every so carefully wrapped in layer after layer of tissue paper, newspaper, and even a few old towels or dishrags. It was done so lovingly, I didn’t dare rip things open in a hurry like a child with a present.

[*-a Yiddishism, a corruption of the term “yenne velt” which means “the other world.” It came to mean a far away place, or a place in the middle of nowhere. In my childhood, that was anyplace west of the Hudson river, as depicted in the famous New York cover by Saul Steinberg, “View of the World from 9th Avenue”)

I know that when I see a sales clerk take the time to carefully wrap and protect even the most inexpensive but fragile item, I am wont to recall parashat B’midbar. The clerk knows it may just be a trinket, but to me, or the person I intend to give it to, it must be so much more. I’ve seen florists put such care into the wrapping of a single rose, as if they were wrapping up dozens of these precious flowers. It mattered not to the florist that I could only afford the one flower instead of the bouquet. They knew it was special to me, and to the eventual recipient.

And that is how we make things sacred and holy. Not by their being. Not by their having been invested with holiness by Divine action or even human ritual.

It is through the care we show for them, and the way we treat them, that things become holy.

Some years back, I had the pleasure of seeing the 1st graders I had taught all year demonstrate the davening skills they have acquired, and receive their first real siddur. Each siddur was lovingly wrapped and adorned by a cover created by each student’s parents. While I knew that each of the students understood the holy and sacred nature of these siddurim, even without the fancy covers, the covers were a demonstration of the value being placed in these books that are more than books. Yet, even without these fancy covers, I know the students will treat their siddurim with respect, not just shoving them in their desks or casually tossing them about, because they have been taught respect for the content. I know that they understand that it is through their reverence for the physical book, and for the words it contains, that they imbue it with holiness. Some might argue that the words themselves are holy. It’s hard to argue that they aren’t. But if we don’t see them as such, does it matter if they are?

[5777 Now I’m going to sound like an old curmudgeon. Sixteen years have passed since that experience. While I still find students holding their siddurim and chumashim with reverence, I am saddened I see less and less of it. This applies not only to books, but to places. I can’t blame the students. Somehow we adults have failed to convey the message. One might attribute the problem to a certain lack of decorum, or a failure of discipline, but I ask – if we have to discipline our students into showing reverence for our holy books and holy spaces, is that success? Holiness comes from within. We need to enable our students to develop a genuine respect and love for the things we hope they will endow with holiness. Yes, maybe we can force students to treat things with respect, but I do not believe we can force them to view anything as holy that they, themselves, do not internalize as holy.]

A midrash teaches that G”d “shopped the Torah around” and we Jews were the only ones who agreed to accept it (though perhaps under duress or threat!)

Without that acceptance, even written by G”d, they are just words on a scroll. We make it holy-in what we do, what we say, how we do it, how we say it, how we treat it.

Yes, a scribe, taking great care, inscribed the holy words of the Torah upon these sheepskin rolls. That effort alone ought to be enough to make each sefer Torah a holy object. Yet these objects are routinely bought and sold. The Nazis thought nothing of destroying them, or using them for wallpaper or decoupage. A shanda, to be sure, but to them, they weren’t holy. We make them holy. Our commitment to those words, to the values they teach, the obligations they command us to perform. And the care and reverence with which we treat the actual physical object itself. Though it sometimes appears to border on a form of idol worship (and that’s a discussion for another time) we show great respect for a sefer Torah through the way we handle it, carefully wrapping and unwrapping it, marching it around, kissing it, standing in its presence, reading its sacred words, placing it lovingly in the aron, etc. We make it holy. Without any of this, it’s just a rolled-up scroll. Something the congregation purchased, and something that a scribe labored on to create. Are we bowing and respecting the scribe? The person or company who sold it to us? Hardly. We make it holy. Without us, it is just ink on sheepskin.

[5777 – As I was reading through my many musings on this parasha, I was struck by a connection I had never thought about before. One of my other musings, Doorway to Hope about the haftarah for B’midbar, which comes from Hoshea, attempts, as I so often to, to redeem a seemingly irredeemable bit of text. It occurred to me that the nature of holiness, and our ability to imbue texts and things with it may be another pathway to dealing with difficult pieces of our sacred texts. I’ve little doubt that Hoshea had a holy purpose in mind even when writing some such rhetoric. While this doesn’t completely redeem some of the rhetoric for me, it allows me to afford even these texts a place of reverence.]

This Shabbat, find something you want to make sacred, holy. Wrap it carefully, whether metaphorically or not, as you choose. Know that you have the power to make something holy and sacred. You can even make the place where you are holy just by your presence in it. Always remember this. But remember, too, the cautions of our Torah about what to imbue and not imbue with this special holiness. It might be a place, a thing, a thought, a space, an idea, an action. whatever it is, you can make it holy. Make it so.

Shabbat Shalom, and have a cheesy Shavuot!


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

Other Musings on this Parasha:

B’midbar 5775 – The Reward At The End Of The Boring?
B’midbar 5774 – Torah as Anecdote-It’s a Good Thing
B’midbar 5773 – Who Really Provides?
B’mdibar 5771 – Moving Treasures
B’midbar 5770 – Sense Us
B’midbar 5769 – That V’eirastikh Li Feeling
B’midbar 5766-Redux 5760-Knowing Our Place
B’midbar 5764-Doorway to Hope
B’midbar 5763-Redux 5759 (with additions for 5763)
B’midbar 5762-They Did As They Were Told? You Gotta be Kidding!
B’midbar 5759-Marrying Gd-Not Just for Nuns
B’midbar 5760-Knowing Our Place

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Random Musing Before Shabbat–B’har-B’khukotai 5777–Keri Is So Very… (Revisted 5763)

[Author’s Note – 5775 – only folks above a certain age will get the title of this musing. In the mid 1980s, Westwood Phamaceuticals introduced a new dry skin lotion, with the name “Keri” and marketed it with the slogan “Keri is so very…” You can see one of their commercials at https://youtu.be/uFlOh1MiuPM]

In parashat Bechukotai, G”d tells us what will happen if we follow the commandments, and what will happen if we don’t. In the end, there is a built in forgiveness for our sins – Gd telling us that the covenant will not be abrogated, at least on G”d’s part. But the forgiveness only comes after all the suffering we have endured because of our failure to keep the holy commandments.

There is another model of faith that grew from ours that posits a forgiveness for all things through the act of the sacrifice of a certain itinerant rabbi from the Galil. It’s sometimes popular, in Jewish circles, to pose the difference thusly: Forgive me before I sin, and what is there to restrain me from sinning? Forgive me after I have suffered the consequences of my choices, and I have to think a little harder about sinning in the first place. It’s an unfair comparison, and somewhat disingenuous. Yes, our religions differ in how forgiveness is approached. Yet they are not so different. Parashat Bechukotai makes it clear that, in the end, G”d will forgive, and not destroy us completely. (26:44) Yes, there are consequences to our sinning, to not following the mitzvot. That’s made abundantly clear (26:14-43.) Our daughter religion is no less devoid of consequences.

Yet there is still something that rings true for me about the Torah’s approach.

Leviticus 26:39 “The few of you who survive in your enemies’ lands will [realize that] your survival is threatened as a result of your non-observance. [These few] will also [realize] that their survival has been threatened because of the non-observance of their fathers.”

I think of it as a gift. Not the easiest way to learn, perhaps, but effective. The gift to be able to learn from the consequences of our choices and actions. Or from inactions.

Which brings me to an interesting aspect of parashat Bechukotai. What is it that brings on this long list of consequences? Is it flouting G”d’s commandments? Ignoring them? Accidentally violating them?

Within chapter 26 are contained the only seven occurrences of one word, “keri.” קרי  Scholars and commentators are divided on the exact meaning of the term. (Even Rashi provides more than one acceptable understanding.)

Most commonly, it is translated as “hostile.” Perhaps meaning to refuse, or to withhold. It implies a conscious and deliberate position in opposition to the other. (And it is important to note that of the seven times “keri’ is found, four times it refers to how the people were treating G”d and G”d’s mitzvot–Lev 26:21,23,27,40, and three times it refers to how G”d is treating the people–Lev 26:24,28,41.)

That last makes it difficult for me to accept “hostile” as a translation. It’s difficult for me to imagine G”d being hostile to G”d’s own creations, to G”d’s covenanted people. Upset, yes. Angry, yes. Using “tough love” yes. But hostile? (Well, there is Nadav and Avihu–that seems pretty hostile. S’dom and Gomorrah, too. The flood. None of these are conclusive, however. Though I’m often not prone to do so I’ll give G”d a break.)

To the rescue comes another acceptable understanding of what the word “keri” means. In this context it can mean “an event,” “something that happens,” “an occurrence,” a “happenstance.” It implies action that may not be deliberate. I might even take the liberty of stretching the definition a bit to mean “indifference.” Or maybe even “casually.”

This can be either thought of as liberating or restraining. It liberates because it acknowledges that not all our transgressions are deliberate, and that G”d recognizes this. So it provides a little lubrication between us and G”d. It restrains, because we realize that, whether by intent or happenstance, violating the mitzvot will bring the same consequences. And that is precisely the kind of tension that one finds throughout the Torah, and the kind of tension that will always exist between G”d and the people Israel.

If we treat G”d and G”d’s mitzvot casually, then G”d will treat us casually as well, allowing the misfortunes of happenstance to happen to us, rather than protecting us from them ( I recognize that those who adhere to particular theological viewpoints might have trouble c wrapping their heads around that concept.) I somehow think this is more likely to occur than simply treating G”d with hostility (and vice versa.)

Whatever “keri” truly is, it exists only as part of a relationship. It is a thing that both G”d and those that G”d made b’tzelmo–in G”d’s own image, are capable of showing towards each other in relationship. While I don’t particularly care for the idea of G”d acting with hostility, I can certainly imagine humans treating G”d with hostility. (Some might suggest this lends credence to the idea that rather than our being b’tzelem Elokim, that G”d is b’tzelem anashim–G”d made in the image of people. My personal answer to that question is my understanding that for us to be b’tzelem Elokim means that all those things we are capable of–the good and the bad–G”d is also capable–not because we fashioned and formed G”d (which may or may not be the case) from our own ideas, but rather the opposite. But I digress.) That acting b’keri is not clearly one thing or another allows a relationship between G”d and Israel that has some flexibility. And G”d knows we certainly need that.

Adding to these thoughts from years ago, as I sit here in 5775 (2017) I can’t help but think about all the hostility floating around. These times are challenging to our abilities to avoid treating each other with hostility. 

I hope that we neither treat each other nor G”d with “keri.” That way, we can each keep the covenant we have between us.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2017 (portions  ©2000 and 2003 by Adrian A. Durlester)

Other musings on this Parasha:
B’har B’khukotai 5773 – In Smite Of It All
B’har-B’khukotai 5772 – Scared of Leaves (Redux & Revised 5769)
B’har-B’khukotai 5770 – Bad Parenting 301
Behar-Bekhukotai 5769- Scared of Leaves?
Behar-Bekhukotai 5767-A Partridge in a Tree of Life
Behar-Bekhukotai 5766-Only An Instant
Behar-Bekhukotai 5764 – The Price of Walls
Behar-Bekhukotai 5762 – Tough Love
Behar-Bekhukotai 5761-The Big Book (Bottoming Out Gd’s Way)

B’har 5774 – Avadim hayinu v’ata Avadim Heim
Behar 5765-Ki Gerim v’Toshavim Atem Imadi
Behar 5763-Ownership
Behar 5760-Slaves to Gd

B’khukotai 5774 – Taking the Hard Way Yet Again
Bekhukotai 5771 – The Long Road Ahead
Bekhukotai 5765-I’ll Take the Hard Way
Bechukotai 5763-Keri Is So Very…
Bekhukotai 5760-Repugnant Realities

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Random Musing Before Shabbat – Emor 5777 – Mum’s the Word (Revised and Revisited from 5760 and 5766(

יְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃ דַּבֵּ֥ר אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן לֵאמֹ֑ר אִ֣ישׁ מִֽזַּרְעֲךָ֞ לְדֹרֹתָ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִהְיֶ֥ה בוֹ֙ מ֔וּם לֹ֣א יִקְרַ֔ב לְהַקְרִ֖יב לֶ֥חֶם אֱלֹהָֽיו׃ כִּ֥י כָל־אִ֛ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־בּ֥וֹ מ֖וּם לֹ֣א יִקְרָ֑ב אִ֤ישׁ עִוֵּר֙ א֣וֹ פִסֵּ֔חַ א֥וֹ חָרֻ֖ם א֥וֹ שָׂרֽוּעַ׃ א֣וֹ אִ֔ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־יִהְיֶ֥ה ב֖וֹ שֶׁ֣בֶר רָ֑גֶל א֖וֹ שֶׁ֥בֶר יָֽד׃ אֽוֹ־גִבֵּ֣ן אוֹ־דַ֔ק א֖וֹ תְּבַלֻּ֣ל בְּעֵינ֑וֹ א֤וֹ גָרָב֙ א֣וֹ יַלֶּ֔פֶת א֖וֹ מְר֥וֹחַ אָֽשֶׁךְ׃ כָּל־אִ֞ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־בּ֣וֹ מ֗וּם מִזֶּ֙רַע֙ אַהֲרֹ֣ן הַכֹּהֵ֔ן לֹ֣א יִגַּ֔שׁ לְהַקְרִ֖יב אֶת־אִשֵּׁ֣י יְהוָ֑ה מ֣וּם בּ֔וֹ אֵ֚ת לֶ֣חֶם אֱלֹהָ֔יו לֹ֥א יִגַּ֖שׁ לְהַקְרִֽיב׃ לֶ֣חֶם אֱלֹהָ֔יו מִקָּדְשֵׁ֖י הַקֳּדָשִׁ֑ים וּמִן־הַקֳּדָשִׁ֖ים יֹאכֵֽל׃ אַ֣ךְ אֶל־הַפָּרֹ֜כֶת לֹ֣א יָבֹ֗א וְאֶל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֛חַ לֹ֥א יִגַּ֖שׁ כִּֽי־מ֣וּם בּ֑וֹ וְלֹ֤א יְחַלֵּל֙ אֶת־מִקְדָּשַׁ֔י כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְהוָ֖ה מְקַדְּשָֽׁם׃

The LORD spoke further to Moses: Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of hisG”d.

No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes. No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the LORD’s offering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his G”d. He may eat of the food of his G”d, of the most holy as well as of the holy; but he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the LORD have sanctified them. (Lev. 21:16-23)

מ֔וּם Mum. That’s the word. That’s Mem, Shuruk, Mem Sofit – M- “oo” – m.
It means blemish or defect. It is used in this parasha and some later ones to refer to blemished animals which were unfit to be sacrificed. But here in this parasha, it is also used in a closely connected series of verses (17, 18, 21, 23) to refer to a physical blemish or defect of a human being, i.e. blindness, lameness, broken or odd length arms or legs, hunchbacks, people with growths in their eyes, people with boil scars, or scurvy, or crushed testicles. Any kohanim, any priest who has such a defect may not make the food offering, or go behind the curtain that separates the altar from the rest of the sanctuary.
If you’ve followed the text, you’ll notice I left one defect out. In Hebrew, the word is “dak.” The meaning of this word is uncertain, though it seems to mean thin, shrunk or withered-in reference to a human being. While the Sifra to Leviticus believes it is connected to a defect of the eye as referred to in the following words of the pasuk, the JPS translation is “dwarf.”

(5760, Edited 5777) Those of you who have met me know that I am only 4′-9″ tall. Although technically I am what is called idiopathic short stature or “normal short” I am on the extreme end of that range. I don’t have the determining characteristics to be considered a dwarf or midget. As a child, I was routinely examined, my bone-age tracked. The possibility of participating in a early trial of growth hormone treatment was raised, but not pursued. (Turns out that the efficacy of such treatments is questionable and they had other side effects.)

(5777) I was never particularly interested in being “treated” for my height, or wanting science to make me taller. I know some who went through treatments and have suffered as a result, and not gained much height either. The efficacy of a such treatments was always doubtful. Not to mention the ethics. Why should short stature with no underlying medical cause be considered a condition for which there are treatments like growth hormone therapy or leg-lengthening surgeries? Doesn’t the existence of such things suggest that our society does discriminate based on height? why should it even matter

Nevertheless, my small size does have its problems, believe me. Physical limitations. 

(5777 – Why, just today, subbing as a teacher in a social studies class at a middle school, I had to ask a taller student to help me change the date on the board, and ask another student to help me clip up a homework assignment for a student who was absent to a designated spot above my reach. I have never, in my entire life, experienced a single trip to the grocery store when I did not have to step up onto something to reach an item (or ask a passerby for help.) Bathrooms mirrors are often too high, and, pardon me for being earthy, but men’s restrooms without child-height facilities are no fun. Those can grippers designed for elderly folks see everyday usage in my home – as much for retrieving items from the bottom of the washer as for cans in the cupboard. Don’t even get me started on cars, airbags, and all that. There isn’t a car made (unless it’s a van, pickup, or a truck) in which I can see fully over the hood, even with seat cushions. Pulling in and out of a parking space so I can be straightly aligned is constant. (Having a rear camera on my car helps me do it quicker, but I still have to consult the camera to see how skewed I might be to the lines and adjust. The camera just means I can do it faster, and without having to fully back out of the space. Sure, this is routine for me, and maybe I don’t think about it all that much, but there are still moments when I with I didn’t have to deal with it.)

(5760) Even subtle discrimination-intentional and unintentional. Imagine, for a moment, what it feels like to always having to be looking upwards to talk to people, how it feels to always be surrounded by people taller than you. It’s a problem that can be dealt with-but it IS a problem.

(5777 – Though I am certain that there have been occasions in my life when I was treated differently or even discriminated against due to my height, overall, I have had a positive experience in how people react to my height. Working as I have been doing these past months as a substitute teacher working all the way from Kindergarten to 12th grade, plus all my previous years experiences in classrooms, I’ve encountered very few students who gave my height more than a moment’s initial notice. Sure, I’m certain that students, even colleagues and other adults, when describing me to others, mention my height. Being memorable isn’t always a bad thing.)

(5760) Comfortable as I am with my stature, it troubles me to think that, were I a kohen, and, G”d willing, the Beit HaMikdash were rebuilt, I would probably be considered “mum” because I am “dak.” In fact, it troubles me greatly that that our Torah labels human beings as defective at all. Why, if we are all b’tzelem Elokim, would G”d refuse the offering of any human, and especially any kohen?
In recent parashiyot, those hotly debated passages regarding homosexuality have still raised the usual stirred and emotional discussions. I’m not going to discuss those issues, but it does seem to me than an awful lot of discussion takes place about those passages, yet others who are discriminated against, or labeled “defective” by the Torah seem to get overlooked. (Ha-ha, I made a funny. The little short guy made a joke about getting “overlooked.”)

Well, it’s not funny. One who is gay or lesbian often cannot be identified without their own open self-identification of their sexual preference. But one with a “defect,” whether it is a disease or condition or accident that put them in a wheel chair, or caused them to lose a limb, or a genetic factor that caused their body to be dwarfish or disfigured, or have a harelip, or develop rosacea or psoriasis, or even one like myself, who is simply extremely short–our “defects” are out in the open. No avoiding them. There is no “don’t ask, don’t tell” for us. We are discriminated against. And we even discriminate against each other.

(5766-It’s sort of sad to sometimes see various special interest groups seek to gain for their own at the expense of others. There is, sadly, only so much to go around, and when one group gets more, someone else usually winds up getting less.)

(5766-I even wonder if we view people who look different from us as having defects? Surely the Nazis saw it that way. And how does this play into our concerns and attitudes about Latino immigrants, refugees in Darfur, etc.)
Now, please don’t misunderstand. It’s not a matter of “my defect’s worse than yours…” I am not suggesting that gays and lesbians have it easy – for they certainly do not in our society, which discriminates against them, openly and secretly.

(5777 – I guess I’m writing this for future readers next time I revise this musing, but all I can say is: Donald Trump is currently President of the United States. That kinda says it all. We’re headed in full-speed reverse on many of the positive changes in our society over the last 50 years.)

(5760) But in our rush to be inclusive, who are we leaving out? When I was in second grade, everyone in the class got a chance to put the American flag into it’s holder. When my turn came, the teacher passed me by. So I marched right up to her, took the flag from her hands, pulled her chair out from behind her desk, moved it over to the blackboard, climbed up on it, and put the flag in its holder. I don’t recall what, if any, repercussions there were from this incident, but I do vividly remember what I did, and how angry I was at being skipped over because of my “defect.”

While I don’t like to think of my height as a defect, it does present real problems. I can be the victim of discrimination, openly or secretly. As I have alluded to earlier, there are some things I can’t do, some tasks that require special effort, or tools or aids. The same is true, and more so, for those who have far more challenging and difficult issues to deal with than I do. (I will not say that I count my blessings every day that I don’t have some other “defect” to deal with. That’s an attitude that prima facie causes us to discriminate against others who are “less fortunate.” What a negative way to think of the other. Not very Buberian at all. Other people, whatever their challenges, their distinguishing or limiting characteristics, are human beings, deserved to be treated as other “Thous.”)

(5766-I’ll be honest. There are times I have the most shameful thoughts-wishing that I had a “defined handicap” so that I was entitled to the protections and assistance afforded to others through legislation like the American with Disabilities Act. Those are shameful thoughts, and I always feel guilty for even thinking them, knowing that my challenges are minor inconveniences by comparison. Yet I wouldn’t be human if there weren’t times when, after having to climb up on shelves at the grocery, or waiting forever at a counter because I wasn’t noticed, and so on, that I was frustrated enough to wish there were laws to help me out. I’ve little doubt that waiting around in the elevator as an elementary-school-age child for someone tall enough to push the button for the tenth floor where my family lived impacted the formation of my psyche! Still, I am glad I have my Judaism to remind me to not kvetch, and be grateful for all that I have, but not grateful enough to the point where I demean the worth of those with challenges greater than my own.)

(5777 – I just re-read those words and I’m thinking to myself in what universe are Jews not kvetching? A part of me wanted to say that Judaism has done little to remind us not to kvetch, but I’d be being dishonest if I said that. We may have a history of kvetching, but like all things in our tradition, our texts balance our kvetching with lessons that teach us to not be so whiny. (Sometimes, the lessons are obvious (for example, Korach) sometimes less so (for example. Joseph. Oh sure, he had many faults, but he sure knew how to turn something bad into something good – and he didn’t do that by whining and kvetching.) It’s our own fault that we’re too stiff-necked even after all these millennia to know that other than offering some catharsis, regular kvetching doesn’t really help us.)

(5760) I think that all of us want but these simple things: to be treated fairly, not be discriminated against, and to have a place in society where our challenges are not challenges at all.

You know, it troubles me a bit perhaps, that there are synagogues that actively work to be a place where gays and lesbians are not discriminated against, yet, at the same time, there are many more synagogues with only the most minimal handicap accessibility (usually, the bare minimum the code requires, our congregational boards often being good stewards of money, but poor stewards of G”d’s mitzvot.) It’s not a matter of doing one or the other. It’s a matter of doing it all. Inclusivity cannot be selectively inclusive.

(5766-I never mentioned this before, but, back in the days when I was working for North Dakota State University, although it took a few years to actually make it happen, they were quite accommodating when I asked if I could replace the furniture in my office with furniture that was better adapted for my height. And it made a difference when it was finally installed. I will always be proud to have worked for an employer that cared enough about that to address the ergonomics for me.)

(5777 – Things are getting better. Synagogues and Jewish institutions are becoming more aware of the need to be inclusive of those with physical and other challenges. Nevertheless, there’s still a long way to go. (Dare I suggest that synagogues stop treating intermarriage like a handicap they can’t accommodate?))

(5760) I am saddened that it appears G”d instructed us to exclude the defective from certain priestly services. I hope that there is a better or alternate understanding of the plain meaning of the text here, and I pray that it can be found.

(5766-I’m still looking. Haven’t found it yet. Given my penchant for the task of “redeeming seemingly irredeemable” pieces of our sacred texts, I’m surprised I haven’t devoted more effort to that! Oh, one can easily create an apologetic. Judaism is good at that. “Women aren’t second class. They’re already closer to G”d so they don’t need to do all those mitzvot!” Even my two favorite crispy critters, Nadav and Avihu-there’s an apologetic way of looking at their getting zotzed by G”d that basically says that through their deaths they were brought closer to G”d-perhaps G”d was rewarding and not punishing them. That’s one I just don’t buy, no matter how many times sages, scholars and others try to sell it to me. So let’s see-an apologetic for why the “mum” among us couldn’t perform certain priestly functions. Perhaps, as in the apologetic for women, the defect made the person more perfect, and thus the other priests needed to perform these special functions. Nah. Doesn’t work. At least not for me. Of course, it could be read as a lesson for all of us, and especially those of us who have a “defect.” The lesson? That our “defects” really do impose limitations, and we might not be able to do everything that we really would like to do in spite of (or perhaps in spite for) our defects. Nah, that one fails for me as well, even though I sense a grain of truth in it. There is a great apocryphal story in the theater world of a blind college student who insisted that he be allowed to take a course in theatrical lighting design, and that accommodations be made so that he could design lighting for a show. Sounds crazy, on the one hand. A bit over the top. On the other hand, it’s not impossible. And I’ve known a few people who were blind with the most incredible ability to “vision” who could probably come up with a far more artistic lighting design for a show than any sighted lighting designer could.)

(5766-The same apocryphal story is also told in a “deaf student wanting to become an audio designer” version. If you really think about it, it might not seem such a far-fetched idea. After all, with lots of stepstools, gripping tools, ladders, I can pretty much overcome my height deficit. Then again, I can’t ever overcome what I physically look like to other people. Sometimes, that’s the worst part. In my early days of managing theaters, I had a regular patron in a wheelchair who came to shows. They once gave me a lecture that really changed my attitude. “You can’t really know how I feel” she told me. “And I can also tell you that I have mixed feelings. I hate it when it’s obvious I’m in a wheelchair and people rush up to be helpful.” “On the other hand,” she said, “sometimes I really do need and want the help.” 
I took her words to heart. I began requiring my ushers and other staff to spend some time in a wheelchair as part of their training, to see what it was like trying to get around, to see how they reacted when people noticed them and were helpful. I had them see what it was like to be blind and come to our venue. I made them try and understand and listen to a show through a hearing-assist device. We worked in every way to make everyone feel equally welcome and comfortable. We tried to assist those who needed assistance without making them feel helpless. It was all worth it.

(5777) Now that I’ve built this all up, I need to tear some of it apart. The scholars and various ancient translations disagree on some of the terminology and their meanings.  It seems that “dak” the word translated as “dwarf” could possibly mean “no hair on the eyebrows” (i.e. eyebrowless.) In fact, various scholars and sources offer differing understanding of the various “defects” that would preclude someone from participating in the food rituals of the sacrificial services to G”d. (It appears such people can perform other priestly functions, but not participate in the rituals that involve G”d’s bread – extended by understanding to mean G”d’s food. such a priest can eat the food, but is not permitted near the altar to offer or sacrifice the food.)

(5777 We also need to think about the other “defects” besides dwarfism that disqualify a priest from these rituals: blindness, being lame, having one limb larger than normal or smaller than normal, a broken leg, a broken arm, a growth in their eye (cataract?), has a hunchback, scurvy, or crushed testicles. Why these particular “defects?” What is it about them that renders a priest unfit to deal with G”d’s food?

(5777 and here we are all these years later and I still am unable to redeem these few troubling verses. I refuse to simply chalk it off to our ancestors having more primitive views about such things. That’s just lazy, and a bit of a whitewash. That ANY human being who made the march from Egypt and accepted the commandments at Sinai should be discriminated against in this was is atrocious. All the more so for those upon whom G”d has bestowed a hereditary priesthood. G”d’s got some ‘splaining to do as far as I’m concerned because this just isn’t right, fair, or just. (Yes, we can invoke the ineffable G”d, but dear readers, you know how I feel about that. which reminds me, I’ve wanted to find a place to write this in a musing and finally found one. We know the old question can G”d create a rock too heavy for G”d to lift?” well, try this on for size: Can an ineffable G”d think something so ineffable that even G”d doesn’t understand the reasoning? But I digress.)

(5760, edited in 5777) So, for all the mumim and mumot everywhere, the iveyr (blind), the piseyach (lame,) gibeyn (possibly hunchback,) and dak (possibly dwarf, or possibly “no hair on the eyebrows”) my prayer that their troubles and afflictions will be heard, and that our synagogues and homes and schools and institutions will strive as much to include them as it has striven to include others.

(5766-and may we also strive to assist where and as much as assistance is needed, and no more, so that we don’t demean anyone’s sense of self-pride or self-worth.)

(5766-and may someone reading this come up with a way to redeem this irredeemable text that discriminates against priests with bodily defects.)

(5777 Ken y’hi ratson.)

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 (portions 
©2000 and ©2006) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Emor 5775 – Missing the appointment
Emor 5774 – Lex Talionis (Redux & Revised from 5759)
Emor 5773 – The Half-Israelite Blasphemer
Emor 5772-Eternal EffortII: We Have Met the Ner Tamid and It Is Us
Emor 5771-B’yom HaShabbat, B’yom HaShabbat
Emor 5770 – G”d’s Shabbat II
Emor 5767-Redux and Revised 5761-Eternal Effort
Emor 5766 – Mum’s the Word (Redux 5760 with new commentary for 5766)
Emor 5765-Out of Sync
Emor 5764-One Law for All
Emor 5763-Mishpat Ekhad
Emor 5758-Gd’s Shabbat
Emor 5759-Lex Talionis
Emor 5760-Mum’s the Word
Emor 5761-Eternal Effort

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