Random Musing Before Shabbat–Ki Tisa 5778–Re-souling Ourselves Revisited

When I first wrote this musing in 2005, I had been serving for a year-and-one-half  a congregation whose religious school operates on Shabbat. That the religious school met on Shabbat (and on Wednesdays) was perhaps not as much a matter of choice, as it was a matter of circumstances, as the congregation has shared sacred space in a Presbyterian Church for 40 (and by now well over 50) years, and they use all the classroom space on Sundays for their school.

Working as a Jewish professional has always presented challenges to finding space and time for Shabbat. I recall times on staff at Jewish summer camps where mine was not a Shabbat of rest, but one of even more work, as I was a specialist. Often my Shabbat was spent in last minute finishing of materials the campers had been working on so they could take them home at the end of a session, or so they could be displayed or otherwise utilized on or right after Shabbat. The situation at this congregation just further complicated things.

It’s not that far a stretch to rationalize operating religious school on Shabbat. It is, after all, work that is Lashem Shamayim, for the sake of heaven. And, for a liberal Jew, it shouldn’t be that difficult to accept that rationalization, right?

Yet we get into all sorts of blurry lines here. I did everything I could to avoid handling money – if pizza was coming for the confirmation class, I’d prepay using a credit card including the tip. I’d collect tzedakah boxes but won’t count the money. I tried to put paychecks in boxes before Shabbat. If a school event had an extra charge, I’d try to collect all payments in advance. And so on. The realities sometimes work out differently from the ideal.

So how is the example we adults are setting instilling within our students the importance of Shabbat as expressed in the words of 31:16-17, the words of the “v’shamru.” And especially in light of the preceding verses that condemn Shabbat violators to death, and that order the Shabbat to be a complete rest.


ויאמר יהוה אל־משה לאמר

And the LORD said to Moses:


ואתה דבר אל־בני ישראל לאמר אך את־שבתתי תשמרו כי אות הוא ביני וביניכם לדרתיכם לדעת כי אני יהוה מקדשכם

Speak to the Israelite people and say: Nevertheless, you must keep My sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that I the LORD have consecrated you.


ושמרתם את־השבת כי קדש הוא לכם מחלליה מות יומת כי כל־העשה בה מלאכה ונכרתה הנפש ההוא מקרב עמיה

You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin.


ששת ימים יעשה מלאכה וביום השביעי שבת שבתון קדש ליהוה כל־העשה מלאכה ביום השבת מות יומת

Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does work on the sabbath day shall be put to death.


ושמרו בני־ישראל את־השבת לעשות את־השבת לדרתם ברית עולם

The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time:


ביני ובין בני ישראל אות הוא לעלם כי־ששת ימים עשה יהוה את־השמים ואת־הארץ וביום השביעי שבת וינפש

it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day G”d ceased from work and was refreshed.

The rabbis went a long way to try and solve the practical issues of everyday living that were affected by the commandments (though I’d also suggest that they created some of their own problems and made matters worse in the ways they chose to define the “oral Torah” what provided the basis for what became halacha. There are many who still maintain that the “oral Torah” was given to Moshe along with the written Torah right there at Sinai, and handed down in an unbroken chain. While I find the workings of the rabbis fascinating, and find great value in studying Mishna, Gemara, Talmud, the many commentaries and midrashim, and later works like the Shulkkhan Arukh, there is not a bone in my body that is willing to accept the idea that the oral Torah was given along with the Torah by G”d – or even that it was created by Divinely inspired human hands at the same time as the sefer Torah. I’m enough of a mystic to remain open to the possibility of Torah mi Sinai, though I maintain my general position that the Torah is more likely the work of human beings – perhaps Divinely inspired or guided, perhaps not. In my worldview, what is known as the oral Torah was a product of later generations, and, while potentially as Divinely inspired as Torah, is not deserving of the directly given by G”d to Moshe status that (whether we believe it or not) that we ascribe to the Torah. And yes, we can go further down the rabbit hole here, down academic and scholarly paths that provide significant evidence that even the sefer Torah as we have it now is the result of a process of editing and redaction, so even if given at Sinai or written under Divine inspiration, what we have today has been altered from whatever the urtext was.

I admit to a certain inconsistency here, in allowing for Torah to be either direct from the Divine, or Divinely inspired, though likely of purely human origin, while insisting that the oral Torah is simply not a product of simultaneous origin with the sefer Torah.  But that’s my position,a nd I’m sticking to it!

So, back to this matter of the rabbis approaching the commandments in general, and in the case of our parasha, these Shabbat-related commandments from a practical standpoint. While G”d may have provided a double portion of manna in the wilderness, in later years, we had to fend for ourselves. Animals still had to be milked, meals eaten, crops harvested, etc. So the rabbis used other pieces of text to help clarify what it meant to keep Shabbat.

We “shabbat” (cease?) on Shabbat for many reasons, among them that G”d commanded us to do so. And because doing so we act in imitation of G”d during creation. Yet, we are not G”d. So how can our “shabbating” be exactly like G”d’s – a truly complete “shabbating?” It cannot. Our “shabbating” is perforce less the “shabbating” that G”d did on the 7th day. We can, and should, strive for that complete rest, but we’ll never quite get there. Only G”d could and did (and can?)

In our tradition, learning has not been considered an activity prevented on Shabbat. If it were, we wouldn’t be reading from the Torah on Shabbat, because, in building a fence a round the Torah, the rabbis would want to prevent even the possibility of learning something when the Torah was read! (I know it’s a convoluted argument, but it works, sort of.) Therefore, I would conclude that learning is permitted on Shabbat. While some learning comes through experience, most learning requires some teaching, and someone to do the teaching. Torah, indeed, teaches, in an of itself, yet our own history and tradition have shown us that a little help with interpretation is required. And it is learned teachers-rabbis, educators, elders, parents, etc. that help provide this interpretation. (I may not believe the halacha to be based on some Divinely-given oral Torah, and I may not hold with a lot of the halacha, but it remains a useful way to try and understand the Torah,)

So, if learning Torah on Shabbat is permitted, teaching Torah on Shabbat must also be permitted. If it wasn’t, I know a lot of rabbis that are in big trouble. And I would venture that anything we teach in a Jewish religious school is teaching Torah. There’s a nice rationalization we can use. That I did use back then. Sort of.

The issues go on and on. Should a class go on a field trip on Shabbat? Should it visit a soup kitchen and make and serve food? Should it make sandwiches to be taken to shelters? Should it watch a video or DVD? We have many large assemblies and programs. Often, the sound system can’t be set up in advance before Shabbat. Is it OK to set it up and use it? Should we have our faculty meetings after school on Shabbat as has traditionally been done?

I am certain that for every one of these questions, a suitably acceptable modern liberal interpretative workaround can be formulated. Yet, still, for me, the rationalizations often fall short. My discomfort with “working” on Shabbat remains. (Never mind that my liberal sensibilities already permit me to use my musical talents on instruments on Shabbat in service to enhancing the worship experience of others and myself.) Never mind that I can’t afford to live anywhere near where I work, so I must drive to and from the synagogue on Shabbat.

At least, that’s where my head was at when I wrote that last paragraph back in 2005. Now, my perspective has grown. To begin with, in the almost 6 years I served that congregation with religious school on Shabbat, I came to observe a curious effect. For the families of that congregation, Saturday became the day when they “did Jewish.” Which meant that when we tried to have events on Sunday, or participate in community-wide Jewish events or educational activities on Sundays when most such events were scheduled to coincide with what most congregations were doing, it was difficult to get people from our congregation to come. The “this is when we do Jewish” effect is not unique, and exists in many of the liberal congregations I have been privileged to serve. Also, having been away from that congregation for many years, I am also realizing that having religious school on Shabbat is an idea worth reconsidering for almost any liberal congregation (at least ones that are open to the use of technology, electronics, etc.) There is something incredibly vibrant taking place in a congregation where all the kids are in the building learning at the same time their parents are in the building praying. The silo-ing that one sees in so many congregations between religious school families and regular service attendees often feels like it has created a huge chasm that is difficult to cross.

So, back to 2005. I had been searching for something to help me with this inner dilemma or “working” on Shabbat in service to Jewish education. I thought I might have found something, and it had been staring me in the face for a long time.

At the end of the v’shamru, the last words of v. 31:17 it says “Shabbat vayinafash.” The Hebrew construction of this verb root, which means “to be refreshed” is, in this case, reflexive, that is, it is to cause oneself to be refreshed. As the root, in noun form can also mean “soul” it is as if G”d were “re-souling” G”d’s-self. (Interestingly enough, and to acknowledge you Hebrew grammar wonks out there, this  verb form, the niphal, is usually a simple passive form of a verb, and is only reflexive in some cases. It is a different binyan, hitpael, that is usually used to represent a reflexive usage. I won’t get into the weeds here and explain why the scholars dub this particular verbal form as being reflexive in this particular case, but if you want to understand it yourself, tze ulemad – go and learn!  In any case, I find this fact doubly interesting, because while we might think of Shabbat as a time when we should be passive, it really is more a time for being reflexive! )

So, in our best efforts to imitate G”d and observe Shabbat, we are called upon to “refresh ourselves” or “restore our own soul to ourselves.” There is little doubt in my mind that the overall feeling I got when religious school was in session on those Saturdays, despite the exhaustion it produced, was refreshing and restorative. As tired as I may have come away from several hours of dealing with students, teachers, parents and more, I can say that I did come away refreshed, renewed, with a restored soul ready to go on into the week.

Now there’s an approach that worked for me. For that time in my life. What about you? What will enable you to refresh yourself, to restore your own soul, on Shabbat? Find it, and do it, whatever it is. If it is true rest, then rest. If it is study, study. If it is going to shul, then go to shul. If it’s a Shabbat walk and a nap, then walk and nap. There are other more secular things you can do that I won’t list here, as each of us must make a choice, and, for my part, I’d rather not encourage you to consider them-but, then again, if that is what accomplishes your “shabbating” who am I to judge?

U’vayom hashvi’i, shavat vayinash. And on the seventh day (G”d) “shabbated” and “refreshed G”d’s-self.” That is how we must each “guard” and “do” (“observe,” my foot! The word is la’asot, from the root meaning “to do.” Nu, how does one “do ceasing?” You figure it out.)

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 (portions ©2005)  by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha

Ki Tisa 5776 – It Didn’t Matter
Ki Tisa 5775 – Shabbat Is A Verb II
Ki Tissa 5774 – Faith Amnesia (and Anger Management)
Ki Tissa/Shabbat Parah 5773 – Fortune and Men’s Eyes (Redux and Revised)
Ki Tisa 5772 – Other G”d?
Ki Tisa 5771 – Still Waiting for the Fire
Ki Tisa 5770 – A Fickle Pickle
Ki Tisa 5768-Not So Easy? Not So Hard!
Ki Tisa/Shabbat Parah 5767-New Hearts and New Spirits
Ki Tisa/Shabbat Parah 5766-Fortune and Men’s Eyes
Ki Tisa 5765-Re-Souling Ourselves
Ki Tisa 5764-A Musing on Power Vacuums
Ki Tisa 5763-Shabbat is a Verb
Ki Tisa 5762-Your Turn
Ki Tisa 5760-Anger Management
Ki Tisa 5761-The Lesson Plan

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Random Musing Before Shabbat–Tetzaveh/Zachor 5778–STFU!

(Maybe the third time is the charm? This musing is a reworking of my 2006/5766 musing for Tetzaveh “Silent Yet Present,” which was a re-working of  my 1999/5759 musing for Tetzaveh, “Someone’s Missing.” )

Hmm, let’ see. Aaron. Nadav and Avihu. (Keep an eye on those two-Game of Thrones has nothing on Torah.)  Eleazar. Ithamar. Again Aaron. More Aaron. Lots more Aaron. More Aaron than we know what to do with.

But one name is conspicuously absent in all these verses. Moshe. Where’d he go? Well, if we go back to the beginning of last week’s parasha, T’rumah, and consider that there is pretty much one continuous discourse by G”d to Moses from Exodus 25:1 to 30:10, we see that Moshe is indeed there, but silent and not mentioned. Why?

Well, there’s the explanation of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Shlomo Zalman, that this is prescient of Moshe’s death, which occurred around the time of year Tetzaveh is usually read. Nice idea, if not really provable, but not where I’m headed.

There’s always those historical-critical theories, like Wellhausen’s JEDP concept of multiple strands of authorship. (Wellhausen’s original concept has undergone lots of transformation over the decades, and is not as popular in scholarly circles as it once was.) That’s not where I’m headed either.

We could consider some other possible meanings:

  • G”d reminding us that we wouldn’t always have Moshe around to deal with things.
  • G”d reminding us that these instructions aren’t just for Moshe, but for all of us.
  • G”d reminding us that no matter how important we think we are, we’re not indispensable.
  • G”d reminding us that all of us are important.

All possibilities. But not the one that jumped out at me.

My idea is that G”d is telling us simply to “shut up and listen.” Or, as the text-based shorthand that has entered our everyday vernacular says, STFU!

That’s one darn long oratory by G”d from the start of T’rumah to the end of Tetzaveh. But Moses says not a word. In this way, he sets a great example for us.

If I were to begin to describe my own faults, one that would leap to the front would be that I’m not a great listener. I often interrupt and can’t seem to refrain from “putting in my oar.” (If I had to stand around for that whole time, listening to that long set of instructions from G”d, I doubt I could have remained silent the whole time. “But….” I would have said, or “How can we….” or “hang on a second, you want us to what?” or “two rams? why two? wouldn’t three be better?” or “a BLUE ephod cover? Blue? Do you know how hard it is to make BLUE?” or “hey, you gotta explain this Urim and Thummim thing to me.” I suspect G”d would have grown so annoyed with my constant interruptions, I’d wind up suffering the fate that Nadav and Avihu would soon suffer. (Remember, they get toasted by G”d for a well-meaning but unsolicited sacrifice. Sorry for the spoiler, folks.)

Yet Moshe, he just stood there and listened. Or maybe he was passive-aggressive, and he let his emotions out later? I can just picture it. Moshe takes Aaron and Miriam aside and says to them:

“My G”d, oops, excuse me for that, I thought I was gonna die of boredom from that speech! Could you believe it? Who does he think he is, G”d or something? Whoops, he is…well, NEVERMIND,” and thus Moshe goes off muttering under his breath. (Sorry, I got lazy and jus went with the gendered male word.)

I’m rationalizing. I’m trying to picture Moshe as imperfect as myself. Clearly Moshe had his faults. But being a bad listener was, generally NOT one of them. (I can hear the nit-pickers now, citing the struck rock moment – the one thing that gets him in dutch with G”d later. I would argue that it isn’t a case of not listening-he heard the instructions quite clearly-it’s a case of not following the directions exactly right-doing more/different than told-hmmm-somewhat like Nadav and Avihu. There’s a parallel I never caught before. Remind me when we get to Chukat.)

Our sacred texts are not silent about silence.

“Even a fool, if he keeps silent, is deemed wise; Intelligent, if he seals his lips.” (Proverbs 17:28)

“The vehicle for wisdom is silence.” (Talmud: Avot 3:13)

“When two quarrel, they see which becomes silent first and say: This one is of superior birth.” (Talmud Kiddushin 71b)

To expand upon these, we’ve all heard well-worn maxims that are variations of

“the secret to x is not just where the [component of x] is, but as much where the [component of x] is not.

Substitute music for x, and notes for [component of x.] Substitute good lighting design for x and light for [component of x.] So many more possibilities. In publishing, we talk about the importance of the white space.

It’s a lesson we all need to learn when it comes to silence. Always speaking out seems to be about “Me! Me! Me! I want to be heard! I want things to be my way!” Silence is about us, about relationship – both the I-you and the I-You (G”d) type. Yes, there is a time to speak up and speak out. Yet it is, in most situations, t is not all the time.

We live in a crazy, busy, fast-paced society. Sometimes, in order to feel like our voice is being heard, we feel like we have to speak out at the same time as others. And so we have all this babble. (Hmm, here’s another parallel…) There’s so much going on at once, we can’t comprehend it all, can’t remember it. If we don’t speak out at the exact moment when it is in our mind, we’ll forget it. So everybody is talking and no one is listening. No way to run a society. (How much truer are these words here in 2018 than when first written in 1999!)

And how much more so in this day and age need we keep our silence when listening for G”d? I’ve little doubt that G”d could make G”d’s self heard if that is what G”d wanted. After all, G”d gives this whole long diatribe through T’rumah and Tetzaveh! Yet even G”d knows that using the big. booming “voice of G”d” a lot might not be the best thing. When You’ve got a voice that loud, You really do need to keep silent, not even whisper, if You expect to hear the miniscule utterings of Your creations. So when done talking, G”d shuts up and listens. We’d do well to learn to be b’tzelem El”him, in the image of G”d, in that regard.

As the response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida played out, it was clear that the students had a lot to say, and were saying it quite loudly and persistently. How quickly the adults tried to “help them.” I and a small chorus of like-minded folks led a chorus of “adults-STFU and let the kids do their thing.” We created the mess they’re trying to fix. We allowed our country to be held hostage to the limited interests of a small segment of the population – perhaps even to the very limited set of adults heading the NRA.

As Linda Creed and Michael Masser wrote in 1985:

I believe the children are our are future
Teach them well and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside
Give them a sense of pride to make it easier

As an educator, I live by these maxims:

Much wisdom I learned from my teachers, more from my colleagues, more from my pupils the most of all.

It’s a very ancient saying, but a true and honest thought,
That if you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught. (Richard Rodgers)

Our youth may be able to accomplish what we grown-ups have been unable to do in the last  50 years! Let’s give them that chance.

Now, I feel compelled at this point to add (especially in light of last week’s musing that was about the present moment and not the parasha) that silence is not always the best response in every circumstance. We are living in circumstances that call upon us to stand firm, speak openly, even defiantly when necessary. Yet even in the midst of our being outspoken, being actively resisting, and calling “BS!” we ought to heed the lessons of Torah and think about how we need to find the right times and places for silence, for Shutting TFU. Our outbursts might be more effective if we punctuate them with the necessary “white space.”

It’s Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim, when we read the maftir from Exodus 25:17-19:

זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵֽאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָֽיִם: אֲשֶׁר קָֽרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל־הַנֶּֽחֱשָׁלִים אַֽחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱלֹהִֽים: וְהָיָה בְּֽהָנִיחַֽ יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ ׀ לְךָ מִכָּל־אֹיְבֶיךָ מִסָּבִיב בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְהוָֹה־אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַֽחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ תִּמְחֶה אֶת־זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם לֹא תִּשְׁכָּֽח:

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!

Look at those ever-confusing directions in Torah to utterly blot out the name of Amalek, yet never forget. If we can do that- if we can hold that tension, as we do some many others in Judaism – then surely we can find the balance between knowing when to speak out and knowing when to STFU.

Moshe, and, I presume, the whole of Israel, stood quietly and listened to God’s entire discourse through T’rumah and Tetzaveh. It’s an example we could do well to follow these days. For only through our own silence will we be truly able to hear what others are saying, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll also be able to hear that kol d’mamah dakah, that still small voice. Unlike so many who have abandoned any hope that G”d still interacts with us, I still believe. Maybe if I, if we all, could just STFU, or more politely “shut up and listen” we might have that faith rewarded. Ken y’hi ratson. Ken y’hi ratsoneinu.

To each and every one of you, a quiet Shabbat of listening.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 (portions ©1999 and 2006) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Tetzaveh 5777 – A Nation of Priests (and a Shtickel of Purim) Revised from 5770
Tetzaveh 5776 – House Guest (Redux and Revised 5763)
Tetzaveh 5775 – Aharon’s Bells (Revised)
Tetzaveh 5774 – It’s Not Urim or Thummim
Tetzaveh/Shabbat Zachor/Purim 5773 – Fighting Dirty
Tetzaveh 5772-Perfection Imperfect
Tetzaveh 5770 – A Nation of Priests? (And a Shtickel of Purim)
Tetzaveh 5768-Light and Perfection
Tetzaveh/Purim 5767-The Urim & Thummim Show (Updated)
Tetzaveh 5766-Silent Yet Present
Tetzaveh 5765 and 5761-Aharon’s Bells
Tetzaveh 5764-Shut Up and Listen!
Tetzaveh 5763-House Guest
Tetzaveh 5762 (Redux 5760)-The Urim and Thummim Show
Tetzaveh 5758-Something Doesn’t Smell Quite Right

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Random Musing Before Shabbat–T’rumah 5778–This Musing Is Not About Parashat T’rumah

I tried, but I just can’t. I read and re-read both the parasha and the haftarah, looking for something to use as a basis for what I know I wanted to write about. I couldn’t find it. (Read through to near the end of this and you’ll find a link to a post by someone who was able to find a connection, however tenuous it might be.)

Aside from the link I mentioned above, I’m mostly writing this for the sake of someone who may be reading this years from now (I can only hope.)  I don’t know what’s been written about the history of this period, but here’s how it looks to me from here.

We are almost a month past the end of the first year of the presidential administration of Tonald J. Drump (that’s as close as I’ll come to writing that name, which, to me, is like writing Haman.) I, along with millions of others in the United States, have been living in a state of utter disbelief and utter despair since election day in November 2016. On a daily basis societal, political, and presidential norms are challenged, overturned, ignored, rewritten.

All U.S. intelligence agencies tell us that the Russians actively worked to influence the results of the 2016 election in favor of the Drump campaign, and that we can expect them to continue their efforts to influence election results in 2018 and beyond. The administration continues to downplay this, attempting to cast doubt on the credibility of the intelligence community, and has given no directives to intelligence and law enforcement to actively work to prevent future interference. An Independent Counsel was empowered to investigate whether there was any cooperation between the campaign and administration to assist the Russians in their efforts. Along the way, actions of the administration have led the Independent Counsel to also investigate the administration for possible obstruction of justice. The administration, aided by the entirely Republican-controlled Congress has sought at every step to undermine the credibility of the Independent Counsel investigation. The administration, which has criticized and thus alienated many world leaders, has not once had anything negative to say about Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

The President has given favor and cover to white nationalists, abusive men, and sexual predators. He has hatefully made scapegoats out of huge segments of the population – particularly immigrants and other non-white male Christian types. He and his representatives lie candidly and openly on a daily basis. The churn and turnover at the White House has risen to unprecedented levels. Hundreds of staff are operating without full security clearances, and some are being allowed to continue working even though it has been made clear to the White House by the FBI that these people simply cannot be cleared for the levels of clearance required for their positions.

If you’re reading this years after 2018, I’ll assume that the United States has somehow survived as a free and democratic country (if it hasn’t you wouldn’t be able to read this anyway.)

This is what has become our new norm. There’s so much more to it but none of this is why I am unable to write a musing about the parasha today.

The reason I can’t write is about the parasha is that there was another mass shooting yesterday at a public High School in Florida. 17 people were killed – students and staff. Once again, we hear of “thoughts and prayers” and how it is too soon and wrong to politicize this by calling for gun control.

Torah commands us clearly that we should not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors. I cannot and will not stand by the blood of all those slain in the name of “second amendment rights.”

I’ll not make my case here. There are plenty who have written eloquently on the topic of gun control, school shootings, assault weapons, the second amendment, the NRA, etc.  With each one of this horrid episodes comes the hope that this will be the one when the dam finally breaks and we the people are able to overcome the financial stranglehold of the NRA over our politicians. Will this be the one? I’m not hopeful, and you, potential future reader will know if it was. (I pray for your sake it was, or it came soon enough to spare your time from this scourge.)

If we couldn’t bring about needed change in this area under Obama, the chances of doing it under and all-Republican congress and a Drump administration are slim to none. In fact, the President actually promised the NRA publicly that in return for their support in his campaign, he would make sure they got what they needed.

I couldn’t do it, but on the RJ site, Rabbi David Wirtschafter was able to use the parasha as a stepping-off point to a post about this latest school shooting. I commend it to you, even though the connection is more tangential than I might consider viable.


I hope that next week I’ll be able to find some thread to pull at in the parasha. I hope that we all find the determination we need to make the changes this country needs to protect our children – to protect all of its citizens.

Ken y’hi ratson. Ken y’hi ratzoneinu. May this be G”d’s will. May this be our will.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

T’rumah 5777 – You Still Gotta Wanna
T’rumah 5776 – Gift Cards for G”d
T’rumah 5775 – Dis Legonmenon Driving Me Crazy, Mon!
T’rumah 5774 – Dollhouse
T’rumah 5773 – Virtual Reality, Real Virtuality, or Really Virtual?
T’rumah 5772-When Wool and Linen Together Are Not Shatnez
T’rumah 5771 – TorahLeaks
T’rumah 5770 – Finessing Idolatry, or Outgrowing It?
T’rumah 5769 – Planning for Always
T’rumah 5767-You Gotta Wanna – The Sequel
T’rumah 5766-No Tools Allowed
T’rumah 5765-Ish Al Akhiv
T’rumah 5764-Redux 5760-Doing It Gd’s Way
T’rumah 5763-Semper Paratus
T’rumah 5762-Virtual Reality or Real Virtuality?
T’rumah 5760-Doing It Gd’s Way
T’rumah 5761-You Gotta Wanna

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Random Musing Before Shabbat–Mishpatim 5778–To See, To Behold, To Eat, To Drink (Revisited)

This week’s parasha, Mishpatim (Ex. 21:1-24:18.) is “chock full o’commandments” and there’s plenty upon which one might muse. Near the end of the parasha are two curiosities.

The first begins with 24:3 and continues through 24:7, ending with the well known “na’aseh v’nishma.”

וַיָּבֹ֣א מֹשֶׁ֗ה וַיְסַפֵּ֤ר לָעָם֙ אֵ֚ת כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֣י יְהוָ֔ה וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֑ים וַיַּ֨עַן כָּל־הָעָ֜ם ק֤וֹל אֶחָד֙ וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֛ים אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נַעֲשֶֽׂה׃

Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of the LORD and all the rules; and all the people answered with one voice, saying, “All the things that the LORD has commanded we will do!”

וַיִּכְתֹּ֣ב מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֵ֚ת כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֣י יְהוָ֔ה וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֣ם בַּבֹּ֔קֶר וַיִּ֥בֶן מִזְבֵּ֖חַ תַּ֣חַת הָהָ֑ר וּשְׁתֵּ֤ים עֶשְׂרֵה֙ מַצֵּבָ֔ה לִשְׁנֵ֥ים עָשָׂ֖ר שִׁבְטֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

Moses then wrote down all the commands of the LORD. Early in the morning, he set up an altar at the foot of the mountain, with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel.

וַיִּשְׁלַ֗ח אֶֽת־נַעֲרֵי֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וַיַּֽעֲל֖וּ עֹלֹ֑ת וַֽיִּזְבְּח֞וּ זְבָחִ֧ים שְׁלָמִ֛ים לַיהוָ֖ה פָּרִֽים׃

He designated some young men among the Israelites, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed bulls as offerings of well-being to the LORD.

וַיִּקַּ֤ח מֹשֶׁה֙ חֲצִ֣י הַדָּ֔ם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם בָּאַגָּנֹ֑ת וַחֲצִ֣י הַדָּ֔ם זָרַ֖ק עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּֽחַ׃

Moses took one part of the blood and put it in basins, and the other part of the blood he dashed against the altar.

וַיִּקַּח֙ סֵ֣פֶר הַבְּרִ֔ית וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּאָזְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע׃

Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will faithfully do!”

It’s a fascinating ritual, and, from what we now of ancient near-eastern culture, no altogether that unusual. It is how the people affirm the covenant that is being given them. First (24:3) Moshe recites all the rules to the people. They answer “All these things that the L”rd has commanded we will do!” Then (v.4) Moshe WRITES down all the commandments. After all, a treaty isn’t a treaty unless it is written down and signed (or sealed.)

But hold on there a second. What are today’s liberal Jews to make of this? It clearly says that Moshe wrote down all the commandments. [To the (shall remain nameless) Reform rabbi who once remarked to me that one could not consider oneself a Reform Jew while still accepting the literal concept of Torah mi-Sinai: take that!] It couldn’t be plainer. Moshe wrote the commandments down. (Of course, what does this do to the concept of oral Torah, and of those mitzvot which do not appear until later in the text? If you’re a linear thinker, it’s a problem. I cannot even begin to layout the mountains of apologetics that have been written to justify that these words do not say what they plainly say. The simplistic answer is that what is referred to here is only the written Torah as we know it, replete with lots of things that need further explication, thus justifying the need for the oral Torah. But if such a thing were truly needed, why not specify it in the Torah itself? The circular and self-referential logic used here mystifies me. But I digress.

After he has written them down, Moshe does a little ritual blood dashing. And then he AGAIN takes the “record of the covenant” and reads it aloud to the people. And the people answer: “na’aseh v’nishma.” We’ll dispense with any discussion of putting carts before horses here.

It’s a nice, tidy little ritual (except for the messy blood dashing) that repetitiously affirms the covenant between the people of Israel and G”d. And it was written down! Not these stone tablets of “the ten.” Those don’t appear until chapter 31, and it says quite clearly that G”d inscribed them. The implication is clear. There was some form of written record of the covenant other than the tablets. Would that we could find it. Would that it obviated the need for this mysterious oral Torah that has been shaped and sculpted by the minds of human beings whilst attributing it to Divine origin. Seems to me if G”d intends to give us something, G”d will tell us about it plainly.

And here’s an interesting thought. Later on G”d carves those ten commandments into stone. Here, it is Moshe who has to do the hard work of writing all that G”d has said down, and transmitting it to the people. One could look at this is several ways. G”d was choosing to emphasize those ten. (Not according to the rabbis.) There’s the theory I propagated in some sermons years ago that G”d chose these particular ten because they were among the hardest to keep.

Or perhaps G”d figured “if I just carve these 10, that’s enough to remind them of all the other rules-the ones which I had Moshe write down anyway. And then I can still catch the heavenly league football game this afternoon.” Or maybe G”d thought “if they can’t figure it out from these ten, the rest are meaningless anyway.”

G”d carving the tablets could be a way of saying “Moshe may get some of the stuff wrong when he writes it down, so maybe I should make sure at least these ten are never disputed.” (Jokes on you, G”d. Never disputed? Ha!) Why didn’t G”d write all of it down for us. Is G”d making Moshe the Bart Simpson of his time, doomed forever to write on the blackboard? And doomed forever at confessing the sins of the people.

Traditional Judaism would claim that G”d gave us the oral Torah to solve this. It seems like a real stretch to me. Only G”d knows the answer here.

(I do not intend to demean the works of the many rabbis and scholars who ultimately contributed to what eventually became Talmud, Shulkhan Arukh, etc.  There is much to be learned from their writings, thoughts, and ideas. It’s likely a goodly portion of their speculations about the fuzzy parts of the Torah are reasonably accurate. I am happy to have Talmud and so many other commentaries as a part of our tradition. I just wish we didn’t feel a need to attach a Divine origin to the process that created them. )

On to our next curiosity. Exodus Chapter 24 vv. 9-11

וַיַּ֥עַל מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְאַהֲרֹ֑ן נָדָב֙ וַאֲבִיה֔וּא וְשִׁבְעִ֖ים מִזִּקְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended;

וַיִּרְא֕וּ אֵ֖ת אֱלֹהֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְתַ֣חַת רַגְלָ֗יו כְּמַעֲשֵׂה֙ לִבְנַ֣ת הַסַּפִּ֔יר וּכְעֶ֥צֶם הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם לָטֹֽהַר׃

and they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity.

וְאֶל־אֲצִילֵי֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לֹ֥א שָׁלַ֖ח יָד֑וֹ וַֽיֶּחֱזוּ֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים וַיֹּאכְל֖וּ וַיִּשְׁתּֽוּ׃

Yet He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank.

Moshe, Aharon, Nadav and Avihu (we’ll be hearing more about them in a while) AND seventy elders of Israel ascended the mountain. And they SAW וַיִּרְא֕וּ (vayiru) G”d, and underneath G”d’s feet a pavement of sapphire, as pure as the sky itself. Even though G”d had pretty much said earlier that only Moshe was to ascend the mountain, G”d does not strike down any of the others. So the seventy elders, Aharon, Nadav and Avihu BEHELD וַֽיֶּחֱזוּ֙  (vayekhezu) G”d, and THEY ATE וַיֹּאכְל֖וּ (vayokh’lu) and THEY DRANK וַיִּשְׁתּֽוּ (vayishtu.)

They’re in the presence of the almighty, and they make a picnic? Of course, the rabbis of the Talmud put a little spin on it, seeing it as an intellectual encounter with the Divine-that what they were eating and drinking was G”d’s presence. A possible and acceptable interpretation. In the presence of G”d there is no need for earthly, quotidian things. G”d provides all that is necessary, and perhaps more. The rabbis say that the elders didn’t really “see” (vayiru, from the root resh-aleph-hey, to see) G”d, they “beheld” (vayekhezu, from the root khet, zayin, hey, which also means to see, or perceive, but is cognate with other Hebrew and Arabic words that mean things like “seer” and “vision” and “inner vision”) G”d. That is to say, they finally “got it.” They understood that G”d was real, and truly could not be represented by idols.” The food and drink are perhaps metaphor for “they perceived with all of their senses.”

However, it could just as easily be telling us “even in the presence of G”d, you have to meet your basic human needs. It’s easy, in the face of something awesome (or awful) to forget all about yourself and your needs. And, with all due respects to the mystics, G”d’s presence isn’t likely to provide your body with the necessary amino acids and proteins to enable you to survive.

Or think of the Grand Canyon scene in National Lampoon’s vacation. “Oh, look, it’s G”d. How impressive. OK, gotta go!” It’s nice to encounter G”d, but we’re hungry and thirsty after that climb.

Of course, the Torah doesn’t say who provided the food and drink (though the rabbis were happy to speculate on that.) Was G”d being a good hostess, or did they bring they stuff with them?

Or maybe G”d had a plan after all. Keep the elders happy and sated, while Moshe comes up the mountain to get these tablets that G”d has inscribed. (Curiously, the text says G”d inscribed the tablets with the teaching (haTorah) and commandment (v’haMitzvah), both the teachings, and commandments. Hmmm. OK, we’ll overlook the singular-ness of the nouns and view them as collective, therefore implying the plurality of “teachings and commandments.” Either way, we have a problem. Because either G”d wrote a teaching and a commandment, or G”d wrote all the teachings and the commandments. Not just ten commandments. Hmmm.)

OK, it’s time for me to go now and see, behold, eat and drink. Will they all relate to a common source, or will some needs get fulfilled divinely and some mundanely? Let’s all go find out for ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom

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

Other Musings on this parasha:

Mishpatim 5777 – Whjy I’m Still not Unplugging for the National Shabbat of Unplugging Next Week
Mishpatim 5776 – Might For Right
Mishpatim 5775 – Revisiting Situational Ethics
Mishpatim 5774 – Chukim U’mishpatim Revisited
Mishpatim 5773 – No One Mounrs the Wicked
Mishpatim 5772-Repairing Our Damaged Temple
Mishpatim 5771 – Getting Past the Apologetics
Mishpatim 5770 – Divine Picnic
Mishpatim 5769 – Redux 5757/5761 Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5768 – Justice for All
Mishpatim 5767-To See, To Behold, To Eat, To Drink
Mishpatim 5766 – Mishpatim with a Capital IM
Mishpatim 5765-Eid Khamas (revised)
Mishpatim 5764-Situational Ethics
Mishpatim 5763-My Object All Sublime
Mishpatim 5762-Enron Beware!
Mishpatim 5761-Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5760-Chukim U’mishpatim
Mishpatim 5759-Eid Khamas-Witness to Violence

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Random Musing Before Shabbat–Yitro 5778–B’khol HaMakom Revisited

You know, for such a short parasha, Yitro is sure full of major happenings. Yitro comes to visit his son-in-law, and offers him some friendly advice. His simple advice to Moshe has become the framework for judicial administration for the last few millennia.

Then the people arrive at Sinai. G”d speaks to Moshe, telling him to say to the Israelites:

אַתֶּ֣ם רְאִיתֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִׂ֖יתִי לְמִצְרָ֑יִם וָאֶשָּׂ֤א אֶתְכֶם֙ עַל־כַּנְפֵ֣י נְשָׁרִ֔ים וָאָבִ֥א אֶתְכֶ֖ם אֵלָֽי׃

‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. (Ex. 19:4)

וְעַתָּ֗ה אִם־שָׁמ֤וֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ בְּקֹלִ֔י וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֑י וִהְיִ֨יתֶם לִ֤י סְגֻלָּה֙ מִכָּל־הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים כִּי־לִ֖י כָּל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine,(Ex. 19:5)

וְאַתֶּ֧ם תִּהְיוּ־לִ֛י מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תְּדַבֵּ֖ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.” (Ex. 19:6)

After Moshe relates G”d’s the words mentioned above, the people respond that they will do what G”d has spoken.

וַיָּבֹ֣א מֹשֶׁ֔ה וַיִּקְרָ֖א לְזִקְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וַיָּ֣שֶׂם לִפְנֵיהֶ֗ם אֵ֚ת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֖הוּ יְהוָֽה׃

Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all that the LORD had commanded him. (Ex. 19:7)

וַיַּעֲנ֨וּ כָל־הָעָ֤ם יַחְדָּו֙ וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נַעֲשֶׂ֑ה וַיָּ֧שֶׁב מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֥י הָעָ֖ם אֶל־יְהוָֽה׃

All the people answered as one, saying, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do!” And Moses brought back the people’s words to the LORD. (Ex. 19:8)

These are all well explored words, and, at least for now, do not cry out to me for further elucidation. (Next year, who knows.)

After a little mood setting (three days worth) G”d speaks to the people from Sinai, uttering the famous 10 things, the Decalogue. You know-the 10 commandments. With all the appropriate theatrics.

I’m not at all sure how I might have reacted standing at Sinai for the declaration of the Decalogue. I imagine that by the point we have reached at the end of our parasha, Yitro, I might have been a bit shell-shocked, speechless and experiencing true awe.

Even so, G”d continues without any re-assurances or comforting words, to caution us to not build any metal gods, and instructing us to build instead a simple altar of earth. And then G”d says:

בְּכָל־הַמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אַזְכִּ֣יר אֶת־שְׁמִ֔י אָב֥וֹא אֵלֶ֖יךָ וּבֵרַכְתִּֽיךָ׃

…in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you. (Ex. 20:21b)

That bears repeating. In every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you.

(I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least question why it need only be in places where G”d causes G”s’s name to be mentioned. Why limit it in that way? But, at this point in the narrative, we are talking about the G”d that had hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Hmmm. Discussion for another time.)

For a time in our ancient history, there were many such places. Yaakov awoke from a dream and declared the G”d was present in that place and he hadn’t realized that.

(I’d be remiss at this point if I didn’t mention the apparent absence of G”d for 400 years of slavery in Egypt. Hmmm. Another discussion for another time.)

G”d was demonstrably with us at the Sea of Reeds, at Sinai, and in the wilderness. We built a portable sanctuary so that G”d could dwell in our midst, wherever we were.

When the Israelites first came into the land, the mishkan, at Shiloh was the center of worship. But in the books of Joshua through Chronicles, as many as 20 other sites or high places are mentioned. With the destruction of Shiloh, it is believed that Israelite worship was again relegated to open-air sites. Sites where either the mishkan or the ark of the covenant resided seemed to have a special place, and pilgrimages to those sites may have occurred. (The Aharonic priests seemed to be wherever the ark was, though that’s not entirely clear.) Pilgrimage, however, was a great hardship on many, if not most Israelites, so worship at local shrines, led by a Levite, were acceptable. Then David had the ark brought to Jerusalem (and who knows what machinations of the Aharonic priesthood were involved with that.) Solomon built the Temple, and then there was only one fixed site for worship and pilgrimage. (There is, however, credible evidence that worship at other sites continued, especially in the northern areas.)

Centuries pass. Then, through our own failures to uphold the covenant, that place was destroyed. Somehow, we found new ways to worship while in captivity (and the non-elite Israelites left behind during the exile somehow managed to keep some of the faith alive.) We may have wept and wondered how we could sing the L”rd’s song in a foreign land, but somehow we managed to do so. We developed institutions to replace the Temple. We found Torah study and prayer as suitable replacements for animal sacrifice. We also blamed ourselves and our failures to keep G”d’s covenant for the fact we were in exile, releasing a strong fervor to once again embrace the commandments (and thus creating a need for some way to explain some of the seemingly unexplainable things, and exactly how to follow these commandments.)

Another Temple is built in Jerusalem. (Oddly, and perhaps ironically, it should be noted that Cyrus’ edict allowing the Jews to return specifically did so for the express purpose of worshipping their G”d. Boy, were we good at finding loopholes.) This time, the business, marketing, and tourism aspects were part of the process. The priests became corrupt and the rulers progressively worse. (Post Maccabean revolt we have the House of Hashmon – among the worst rulers Israel ever had.) We traded Syrian-Greek overlords for Roman overlords. Then we got as tired of the Romans as we had gotten of the Greeks, and we foolishly revolted against them. we lost. Bye bye, Temple number 2.

And now we are scattered all around the world.

There are those who would desire to restore that one place. Seems to me that they’re missing the message, and simply desiring to bring back the fabled but failed days of yore. Oh, for one brief shining moment, we had a bit of Camelot in Jerusalem, but it was, alas, short-lived. If we spend our lives merely wishing to bring back that moment, we ignore all that is happening around us.

G”d did not say “in THE place.” G”d clearly said “in EVERY place.”We figured that out in Babylon.

G”d is with us in the synagogue. Not all inheritors of the rabbinic tradition of the diaspora still desire the rebuilding of the Temple, but they sure seem hell-bent on keeping the synagogue at the center of Jewish life and worship. I do not doubt the power of community, and the power of worship in community. Community is an essential component of Judaism. However, we must not allow ourselves to be caught up in the hubris our ancestors also had, believing that only in those places we designate can we commune with G”d properly. Perhaps the synagogue can be re-invented (or re-invent itself.) Perhaps it can co-exist with alternate form of worship. Or perhaps it may fade into the mists of time. Only time will tell.

What are the alternatives to the synagogue? At home. At work. On the street. On vacation. At the nightclub.  In the park. A flash-mob worship. In large gatherings and small gatherings. At Home Depot learning to build a sukkah. (Actually, now that we know where the funder of Home Depot donates so much of his money, we should switch all our programs to Lowes or Menards.) On a farm. On an ocean liner. Someday, on the Moon or Mars.  Everywhere. B’kol HaMakom. In every place we are, we will be blessed, if we will but harken to G”d’s commandments as we understand them.

One of G”d’s appellations is “HaMakom.” The place. Effectively then, all places. In whatever makom/place we are in, G”d is that place. Depending on your understanding of G”d, that could be that G”d is physically omnipresent, or it could mean that, because we are in the image of G”d, everywhere we go, G”d goes. Either way, it’s in every place. Not just one place, or some special places. For those of you who need a little “fear,” you can just look at is as if G”d is there, seeing what you are doing, everywhere, at all times. That’s not my cup of tea, but if it works for you…

Whichever understanding you have, perhaps constant awareness of this might affect how we act and behave – in every place. Not just when we are in any one place. Not little scrolls of parchment in small boxes on our arm and our forehead, nor even in a mezuzah. We become the living embodiment of those words, so the physical artifacts are no longer needed to remind us.  I think G”ds message to us here includes the idea that we need to act holy wherever we are. May we all strive to do so.

Shabbat Shalom,


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

Other musings on this parasha:

Yitro 5777 – Holy Seeds Don’t Produce Identical Plants
Yitro 5776 – Top Ten (Revised and Redux 5766)
Yitro 5774 – The Rest of the Ten Commandments (Revisted and Revised)
Yitro 5773 – From Cheap Theatrics to Impossible Possibilities (Revised and Updated from 5761)
Yitro5772 – Why I Won’t Be Unplugging on the National Day/Shabbat of Unplugging
Yitro 5771/ Redux Beshalakh 5762 – Manna Mania
Yitro 5770 – Special Effects
Yitro 5769 – Evolution Shabbat
Yitro 5768-B’Kol HaMakom-In Every Place
Yitro 5767-Kinat Ad”nai
Yitro 5766-Top Ten?
Yitro 5765-Outsiders (Updated from 5759)
Yitro 5764-Outsiders II
Yitro 5763-El Kana
Yitro 5762-Manna Mania
Yitro 5761-From Cheap Theatrics to Impossible Possibilities
Yitro 5760-The Rest of the Ten Commandments
Yitro 5759-Outsiders

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Random Musing Before Shabbat–B’shalakh 5778–Revisiting G”d’s War

Revisiting words I first wrote in 2005, and adding new thoughts for today here in 2018.

Do you believe in G”d? Have your ever doubted G”d? Have your ever doubted G”d’s existence? Have you ever asked yourself “Why should I believe in G”d?”

I suspect that being plagued with these kinds of thoughts and doubts are common to even the most pious among us. Life and the universe are chock full of things that can and do challenge our faith.

Both for myself, and also in my role as a Jewish educator, I am always seeking out thoughtful and useful responses to the kinds of questions noted above. All too often, even when I answer such questions with reasonable responses, I still have this gut feeling that I am only using clichés, offering pabulum. Sometimes I wonder if it might be better if I did not respond at all-though I am never truly able to convince myself that this is the wisest choice. Leave a student’s “why should I believe in G”d?” question without a response, even if it is just a clever finessing of the situation, or a simple “I don’t know do you?” and perhaps you leave them with the idea that their question is not worth answering.

Sometimes my answer (to myself or others) can be as simple as “because G”d is.” Sometimes it can be a much more complex formula. Sometimes it can be nuanced. Sometimes it can be heretical. Sometimes it can even be “I’m not sure if I do believe, or what I believe about G”d.”  They run the gamut. Then there are all those things that G”d is said to have done in the Torah that make me question G”d, that make me ask “why would G”d do that?” Those of you who know me already know that I don’t find “the ineffable G”d” an acceptable answer. I don’t go for biblical or religious apologetics in any form. Most of the time. Like any potentially hypocritical human being I sometimes engage in my own whitewash or apologetics, or accept those offered by others.  I can be weak. As I have stated often, I believe that if we are b’tzelem El”him, in the image of G”d, then,. perforce. G”d is b’tzelem anashim – we find in ourselves and in G”d all those good and bad traits of which we are both capable.

Back in 2005, when preparing to write about B’shalakh, and my focus was yet again on how to answer students when they asked tough questions like “why should I believe in G”d? Why should anyone believe in G”d?” I found myself pleased and surprised when I came to its end and read these words:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה כְּתֹ֨ב זֹ֤את זִכָּרוֹן֙ בַּסֵּ֔פֶר וְשִׂ֖ים בְּאָזְנֵ֣י יְהוֹשֻׁ֑עַ כִּֽי־מָחֹ֤ה אֶמְחֶה֙ אֶת־זֵ֣כֶר עֲמָלֵ֔ק מִתַּ֖חַת הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Inscribe this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!”

וַיִּ֥בֶן מֹשֶׁ֖ה מִזְבֵּ֑חַ וַיִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ יְהוָ֥ה ׀ נִסִּֽי׃

And Moses built an altar and named it Adonai-nissi.

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר כִּֽי־יָד֙ עַל־כֵּ֣ס יָ֔הּ מִלְחָמָ֥ה לַיהוָ֖ה בַּֽעֲמָלֵ֑ק מִדֹּ֖ר דֹּֽר׃

He said, “It means, ‘Hand upon the throne of the LORD!’ The LORD will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.” (Ex. 17:14-16)

Hmmm. Maybe there’s a reason to believe in G”d, I thought.

Going back and re-reading these thoughts from 2005, I find myself wondering why I thought that might be a good thing. Why would I be happy that G”d would be at perpetual war with Amalek? Doubter that I am, and willing to argue with myself, I read on seeing if the me of 2005 could convince the me of 2018.

Amalek represents the worst of the worst. An enemy that would attack the weak and the lame, the children. By extrapolation, an figure representing evil, immoral leaders for countless generations to come – and in particular, those who would set themselves against the Jewish people.

Some rabbis teach us that Amalek represents evil without cause, as opposed to evil brought on by thoughts of revenge, hatred, anger, etc.

At first I thought “how can there be such evil?” Even the most barbarous of villains seemed to claim a purpose behind their actions. And in our contemporary culture, we seem prone to explaining evil as resulting from some trauma or underlying cause or event in someone’s life. Those who are abused often abuse others. Some chemical imbalance may be at the root of someone’s anti-social behavior. Though I’ve never read any, I am sure there are plenty of analyses of why Hitler turned into Hitler.

I am sure that there truly is unexplainable, unjustifiable evil in this world. I think.  The problem is, I believe we are helpless to do anything about it. Oh, we band together and fight great wars to wipe out this kind of unrepentant, purposeless evil, and we seem to have success. Somehow, though, that kind of evil eventually resurfaces yet again. Our own history as a people is clear evidence of this. I fear it is happening again here and now in 2018 – though I need convincing that we are truly helpless to fight that unjustifiable evil, and need G”d to help us understand why we can succeed at it.

It is our role, our obligation, to be G”d’s partner. That G”d will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages is a clue that we are going to have to partner with G”d for all time in this war against Amalek. We cannot do it alone. We cannot completely wipe out the evil from our midst on our own. We need G”d’s help, and G”d needs our help.

“Yessiree, that’s a great reason to believe,” I wrote in 2005. It’s January 2018 now, and we have endured a year under the present administration, and all that it represents. It is difficult for me to not think of it as evil. I see signs that we are struggling to fight it and defeat it, though as much as I see these encouraging signs, I fear I also see signs of continuing normalization, of acceptance of the evil. I, and many others, I think, are growing weary. Our passion is strong, but the fight is draining, as it requires such continual effort. Yes, I have turned to my faith, my understanding of G”d to seek strength, and to pray for assistance in whatever way it might come through Divine provenance (even with all my doubts about G”d being active in such things. So yes, in that sense, I have some reasons to believe.

Everywhere we see senseless hatred or violence, we find Amalek. When nations war for reasons that are unclear, we see Amalek. when people kill for no reason, we see Amalek. Perhaps even in the childish innocence of a young boy squishing a bug, or frying ants with a magnifying glass, we see Amalek. Perhaps in casual toying with nuclear annihilation we see Amalek. Perhaps in inciting people to racism and hatred, we see Amalek.

Perhaps there is a little Amalek in all of us, waiting for its chance to express itself. Like the song in Avenue Q, maybe everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes. Perhaps it is our faith that enables us to keep the Amalek within in check. And surely it can also help us keep the Amalek without, with G”d’s help, in check, too.

I don’t honestly know if G”d can or will help us in fighting the Amaleks of today and tomorrow, but I do know that recognizing the eternal warning in Torah that G”d will always be at war with Amalek is a warning to us to be vigilant. I know it’s hypocritical of me – I don’t even like the idea of a G”d that is at war with anyone, or a G”d that causes or allows war. I’m not sure I approve of a G”d that, by choosing to give us free will, also allows unspeakable evil to be in our world. Couldn’t there be alternatives?

Is partnering with G”d in this eternal effort against Amalek acquiescing, letting G”d off the hook? Should I be fighting to change the very idea that G”d wants or needs to be at war with Amalek? Should I be striving to help create a world that will no longer give rise to Amaleks? That seems like the best route. However, since I don’t know what will work best, perhaps I should cover all my bases. So I’ll end with the same words I did in 2005.

May we all strive to be G”d’s partner in this unceasing war with Amalek – the Amalek inside and the Amalek outside.

I’ll also add these words in 2018:

May we all strive to create a world, if such a thing is possible, where another Amalek will ever arise.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2018 (portions ©2005) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Beshalakh 5777 – Moshe’s Musings (Revised and Expanded from 5760)
Beshalakh 5776 – Mi Kamonu?
Beshalakh 5775 – I’m Not Doing It Alone
Beshalakh 5774 – A Lot Can Change in 13 Years – Or Not
Beshalakh 5773 – Moshe’s Musings (Revised from 5760)
Beshalakh 5772 – Thankful For the Worst
Beshalakh 5771 – Praying That Moshe Was Wrong
Beshalakh 5768 – Man Hu
Beshalakh 5767-March On
Beshalakh 5766-Manna Mania II
Beshalakh 5765-Gd’s War
Beshalach 5763-Mi Chamonu
Beshalach 5760-Moshe’s Musings
Beshalach 5762-Manna mania
Beshalach 5761-Warrior Gd

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Random Musing Before Shabbat–Bo 5778–Sub-contracting Death

Ah, the difficulties of trying to be unique. I’ve spent the better part of this week laying out the theme for my musing for parashat Bo. Along the way, I have, of course, looked at many other resources. Wouldn’t you know it – today was the day in which the resource I discovered was the musing I had planned to share this week – already written and shared a year ago by another!

So rather than attempt to do a better job than they already have, I’ve abandoned that effort, and direct you to the other one. I’ll go off in another direction.

I had planned to write about the erev rav, the mixed multitude that accompanied the Israelites out of Egypt. Who were they? Why did they come? What are the various theories about these questions that our sages have propounded? The other writer tackled these, and more. The real kicker is when the author of the other article used the same homonymic humor I had planned to use in mine. So I now direct you to this article, “What It Means to be Erev Rav” written by  Rabbi Gail Labovitz  https://blogs.brandeis.edu/freshideasfromhbi/what-it-means-to-be-erev-rav/

Game over. Reset. New topic.

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה כֹּ֖ה אָמַ֣ר יְהוָ֑ה כַּחֲצֹ֣ת הַלַּ֔יְלָה אֲנִ֥י יוֹצֵ֖א בְּת֥וֹךְ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

Moses said, “Thus says the LORD: Toward midnight I will go forth among the Egyptians,

וּמֵ֣ת כָּל־בְּכוֹר֮ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַיִם֒ מִבְּכ֤וֹר פַּרְעֹה֙ הַיֹּשֵׁ֣ב עַל־כִּסְא֔וֹ עַ֚ד בְּכ֣וֹר הַשִּׁפְחָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֖ר אַחַ֣ר הָרֵחָ֑יִם וְכֹ֖ל בְּכ֥וֹר בְּהֵמָֽה׃

and every first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and all the first-born of the cattle. (Ex. 11:4-5)

and later:

וְעָבַרְתִּ֣י בְאֶֽרֶץ־מִצְרַיִם֮ בַּלַּ֣יְלָה הַזֶּה֒ וְהִכֵּיתִ֤י כָל־בְּכוֹר֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם מֵאָדָ֖ם וְעַד־בְּהֵמָ֑ה וּבְכָל־אֱלֹהֵ֥י מִצְרַ֛יִם אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֥ה שְׁפָטִ֖ים אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֽה׃

For that night I will go through the land of Egypt and strike down every first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and I will mete out punishments to all the gods of Egypt, I the LORD. (Ex. 12:12)

So, where’s the “angel of death” to which we refer in the Haggadah, and which has become so associated with the Passover story?

At most, there’s a hint here, in this later verse:

וְעָבַ֣ר יְהוָה֮ לִנְגֹּ֣ף אֶת־מִצְרַיִם֒ וְרָאָ֤ה אֶת־הַדָּם֙ עַל־הַמַּשְׁק֔וֹף וְעַ֖ל שְׁתֵּ֣י הַמְּזוּזֹ֑ת וּפָסַ֤ח יְהוָה֙ עַל־הַפֶּ֔תַח וְלֹ֤א יִתֵּן֙ הַמַּשְׁחִ֔ית לָבֹ֥א אֶל־בָּתֵּיכֶ֖ם לִנְגֹּֽף׃

For when the LORD goes through to smite the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and the LORD will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home. (Ex. 12:23)

The Destroyer, הַמַּשְׁחִ֔ית  HaMashkhit. Is this a separate entity, or just another of G”d’s appellations?

To further confuse things:

וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּחֲצִ֣י הַלַּ֗יְלָה וַֽיהוָה֮ הִכָּ֣ה כָל־בְּכוֹר֮ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַיִם֒ מִבְּכֹ֤ר פַּרְעֹה֙ הַיֹּשֵׁ֣ב עַל־כִּסְא֔וֹ עַ֚ד בְּכ֣וֹר הַשְּׁבִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּבֵ֣ית הַבּ֑וֹר וְכֹ֖ל בְּכ֥וֹר בְּהֵמָֽה׃

In the middle of the night the LORD struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle. (Ex. 12:29)

So which is it? Did G”d do the striking down, or was it through some agency of G”d, some angel, some destroyer?

Is this an attempt to whitewash G”d, to protect G”d’s image, and shift the blame for the dirty work to something else? Is it less public relations and more philosophical, trying to portray G”d as creative and not destructive?  Is it a put-down of the Egyptians – they’re not worth G”d’s direct effort to destroy their first-born sons, so G”d uses a sub-contractor? Is it an admission of a limitation of G”d, perhaps self-imposed, after the guilt of the flood, S’dom and Gomorrah and  other mass killings of human beings by G”d? Was G”d worn out from generating all those other plagues, and G”d needed help with this last one from one of the angels?

Is this original text, or a later insertion by folks attempting to deal with the issues I’ve raised above?

There’s no shortage of G”d being responsible for human death in the Torah. (There’s also no shortage of humans being responsible for human death, but that’s a discussion for another time.) we haven’t even gotten to Nadav and Avihu, to the thousands killed for being rebellious to Moshe, and so on. Yet somewhere along our historical and religious journey, we’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with a G”d that acts directly to kill humans. Obviously, by the time the Haggadah took its basic form, we’d decided to embrace the agency of the “angel of death” in the slaying of the first-born. We don’t need no stinking angels of death.

Hey G”d. If You created us, it’s Your responsibility to destroy us. No intermediaries, angels, sub-contractors.

What? What’s that You say? It was the Egyptians, and not Your chosen people? Gimme a break. If you are the One and only G”d, they are your creations too.

They worship other gods, You say? But those are not real gods, so why do You care?

To get Your love and protection, they can only believe in You? That sounds like a terrible idea. Yet, according to another religious tradition that worships you, that really is the case – they must believe in You and accept You as a personal savior in order to be redeemed. Come to think of it, in a way, that particular faith tradition is sort of using a sub-contractor as an intermediary.

Yes, yes, I get that Your creations are individuals, free-thinking, with free will, and that many different paths to You are possible.

You, G”d, are HaMashschit. Own up to it.  You’d stand a better chance of getting us to own up to our imperfections if You’d own up to Yours.

You want sub-contractors, hire us to do all the work. What’s that? You say that’s exactly what You want us to figure out – that we’re Your sub-contractors. If that’s the case, better we should be the creative sub-contractors than the destructive ones, right?

How that’s for turning what could have been a real downer of a musing into a happy ending (sort of?)

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Bo 5777 – Good Loser (Revised 5763)
Bo 5776 – Four Strikes and You’re…Well…(a fractured midrashic fairy tale)
Bo 5775 – Teach Your Children Well (Redux 5762)
Bo 5774 – Spellcheck On My hand
Bo 5773 – Dear G”d…Love, Pharaoh
Bo 5772 – Lifting the Cover of Darkness
Bo 5771 – Keretz MiTzafon-Again! (not the same as 5769)
Bo 5769-Keretz MiTzafon
Bo 5768 – Good Loser (Redux 5763)
Bo 5767-Teach Your Children Well (Redux 5762)
Bo 5766 – Random Disjunctions and Convergences (Redux 5760)
Bo 5765-Four Strikes and You’re…Well…
Bo 5764-Keretz Ani
Bo 5763 -Good Loser
Bo 5761-Cover of Darkness
Bo 5762-Teach Your Children Well


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