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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings not his parasha:

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

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

To my readers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More interesting:

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

Or even more interesting:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,


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

Other musings on this parasha:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

מִכָּל הָעַמִּים

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

replaced by

עִם כָּל הָעַמִּים

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

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

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

In the other case (im-kol)

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

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

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

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

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

אֲשֶׁר בָּֽחַר בָּֽנוּ מִכָּל הָעַמִּים וְנָֽתַן לָֽנוּ אֶת תּוֹרָתוֹ

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


אֲשֶׁר בָּֽחַר בָּֽנוּ עִם כָּל הָעַמִּים וְנָֽתַן לָֽנוּ אֶת תּוֹרָתוֹ

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

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

אֲשֶׁר קֵרְבָנוּ לַעֲבוֹדָתוֹ וְנָֽתַן לָֽנוּ אֶת תּוֹרָתוֹ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on This Parasha:

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

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Random Musing Before Shabbat–D’varim 5778—Torah of Confusion Revisited

I discovered nine years ago, in reviewing this parasha, a word that just stuck with me. In describing the near ending of the 40 years of wandering, Moses makes reference to how G”d did indeed wean out all the people (save Joshua and Caleb) of their generation as foretold, so that none of them would enter the promised land. In 2:15, Moses says:

וְגַ֤ם יַד־יְהוָֹה֙ הָ֣יְתָה בָּ֔ם לְהֻמָּ֖ם מִקֶּ֣רֶב הַֽמַּֽחֲנֶ֑ה עַ֖ד תֻּמָּֽם

“Indeed the hand of the L”rd struck them, to root them out from the camp to the last man.” (D’varim 2:15 – JPS)

The word root of the bolded word in this sentence is Hey-Mem-Mem, appearing in the 5th word (l’hummam ) It has two basic meanings in Hebrew, none of which is “root out.” The first meaning is to “move noisily” (as in a driving a wagon when threshing.) The second meaning, and the more likely one in this context, is “to confuse, to discomfit, to vex.” I think
Everrett Fox comes closer in his translation:

“Yes, the hand of YHWH was against them, to panic them from amid the camp until they had ended.”

Other translations use the verb “confound” which, I think, comes closer to a reasonable understanding of what happened.
There’s also a little wordplay with the final word of the pasuk, “tummam,” which, although it sounds a bit like l’hummam, comes from a  completely different root, tet-mem-mem, which means “to be complete or finished.”

I might, therefore, prefer a translation such as:

“So much so, that even the hand of G”d was upon them, to confuse them until they (were) finished.”

If we wanted to parallel the word play, perhaps:

“So much so, that even the hand of G”d was upon them, to mortify them until they were mortified.”

Or something like that.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I find large parts of the Torah baffling and confounding.  Still, I can’t imagine perishing as a result of my perplexity. I’m not a thinking machine like HAL 9000 (or other famous examples from science fiction) in which confusing or conflicting instructions (of which there are many in Torah) led to a breakdown. I can’t imagine finding myself in such a state, though I do know it happens to people. There are those who get totally wrapped up in an enigma, to the point that they lose themselves in it, and wind up in some sort of fugue state.

So what is the confounding and baffling that resulted in the “finish” of all these wayward Israelites? Were they physically lost, or was it something more in a spiritual mode?

As Rudyard Kipling put it (not that I’m fond of quoting anti-Semites)

“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…”

The point perhaps being made in 2:5 is that these bafflements were of a Divine nature, involving knowledge and situations not understandable by humans. I don’t buy it, personally, but I can see where the Biblical schools of authorship and redaction found it a reasonable explanation.

Since I’m not prone to accept a “Divine confounding” scenario, perhaps an alternative I can accept is this: the verse doesn’t say these people all died. It says they “finished” or “were completed.” (Perhaps they became Xtians? I know some Xtian supercessionists are fond of calling Xtians “completed Jews.” But enough foolish digression.)

Perhaps their confoundment or confusion was on deciding whether to continue following along with the Israelites, and following G”d. Perhaps that is what they were “finished” with.  They “gave up” on being a MOT, and went their own way. Who can blame them?

To put it simply, they had had enough. Now, winnowing out the entire generations that had been born in Egyptian activity surely involved a lot of different tactics – natural death, accidental death, death by Deity (or action thereof.) However simple attrition might account for a significant number as well.

Moshe is, I think, providing some “spin” here, giving G”d some cover. It’s possible that not every single person who had come out of Egypt has been weeded out. Some may have managed to stick it out. So here, it speaks particularly of Anshei-HaMilchama – warriors. (If we go back to Numbers 14:21ff and parse carefully, we can see the G”d who creates loopholes like “never again-by flood’” in action yet again. It never says that everyone from the generation that had come out of Egypt would not get into the promised land. It hedges, saying that those whom G”d has found trying, or those who have spurned G”d will never get to see the promised land. This is consistent as the threat is repeated. Each time, there is a caveat. Every time is says “all” it adds something like “who have disobeyed Me” or some other condition. Of all of those who came out of Egypt, were all of them guilty of disobeying, spurning or otherwise invoking G”d’s wrath? Hundreds of thousands of Israelites, hundreds of thousands of opinions, right?

Nine years ago, I linked my thoughts to an old hit from 1970, penned by Norman Whitfield & Barrett Strong, and sung by the Temptations – Ball of Confusion. How much more apropos is this song nine years on from the original version of this musing, in our own truly confusing times? Considering how what’s happening these days represents a rolling back of many positive societal achievements in the last 4 decades, I’m surprised things are remaining as non-violent as they are. I know that I find myself increasingly pushed to more proactive responses to what’s happening here in the U.S. In a discussion I had online with someone the other day I was reminded that the violent anti-war protests actually helped Nixon get elected. There is some truth to that. Violent protest may not be the answer, but strong protest certainly is warranted. Like the righteous man in the story Elie Wiesel often told who at first railed against the people because he thought he could change them, and now still rails against them so he won’t be changed by them, I too, must continue to speak and act out, lest I become “one of them.”

Nine years ago I wrote:

I don’t plan on allowing myself to be confused to death, or, for that matter, confused to the point of giving up. Yes, much of Torah confounds and baffles me. I won’t be driven to madness, I won’t be driven away. I can find ways to accept the confusion. Maybe even write a song about it. OK, look for my hit “Torah of Confusion” on the Billboard charts someday.

Now re-reading this earlier musing and the words of 2:15 has strengthened my resolve. I will not be one of the ones driven from the camp by confusion. We must remember what it was like in our own country’s past as much as we must remember what it was like as slaves in Egypt. A Pharaoh has arisen in this land who would bring us back to the days of slavery. Even if I don’t get into that promised land, I will remain with my people – I will not be weeded out, driven out, confused out, ignored out. I will at least get a chance to go to the mountain top to see the promised land that those who come after me will inherit. Come be stubborn with me and maybe we will outlast the confusion.


People movin’ out
People movin’ in
Why, because of the color of their skin
Run, run, run, but you sho’ can’t hide
An eye for an eye
A tooth for a tooth
Vote for me, and I’ll set you free
Rap on brother, rap on
Well, the only person talkin’
‘Bout love thy brother is the preacher
And it seems,
Nobody is interested in learnin’
But the teacher

Segregation, determination, demonstration,
Integration, aggravation,
Humiliation, obligation to our nation
Ball of Confusion
That’s what the world is today, hey-hey

The sale of pills are at an all time high
Young folks walkin’ around with
Their heads in the sky
Cities aflame in the summer time
And, the beat goes on

Air pollution, revolution, gun control,
Sound of soul
Shootin’ rockets to the moon
Kids growin’ up too soon
Politicians say more taxes will
Solve everything
And the band played on

So round ‘n’ round ‘n’ round we go
Where the world’s headed, sayin’ nobody knows

Great googa-mooga can’t you hear me talkin’ to you?
It’s just a Ball of Confusion
Oh yea, that’s what the world is today, hey-hey

Fear in the air, tension everywhere
Unemployment rising fast,
The Beatles’ new record’s a gas
And the only safe place to live is
On an Indian reservation
And the band played on

Eve of destruction, tax deduction
City inspectors, bill collectors
Mod clothes in demand,
Population out of hand
Suicide, too many bills, hippies movin’
To the hills
People all over the world, are shoutin’
End the war
And the band played on.

Great googa-mooga can’t you hear me talkin’ to you?
It’s just a Ball of Confusion
Oh yea, that’s what the world is today, hey-hey
Lemme hear ya, lemme hear ya, lemme hear ya say
Ball Of Confusion – that’s what the world is today, hey-hey

                             ©1970 Jobete Music Company, Inc.

[Side note: Norm Whitfield also wrote the Edwin Starr hit “War” which I have also quoted in my musings before.]

So, did you follow any of that, or are you as l’hummam as I am?

Shabbat Shalom,


©2018 (portions ©2009) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

D’varim 5775 – Kumu V’Ivru (Revised 5760)
D’varim/Hazon 5774 – Refractory Recalcitrant Recidivists (Redux 5766)
D’varim 5773 – The Pea in Og’s Bed
D’varim 5772 – Revised 5762 – L’chu v’niva’ch’chah and the Twelve Steps
D’varim 5769-Torah of Confusion
D’varim-Shabbat Hazon 5771/5766  – Refractory Recalcitrant Recidivists
D’varim 5764–Eleven Days
D’varim 5763–Remembering to Forget or Forgetting to Remember?
D’varim 5762-L’chu v’niva’ch’chah and the Twelve Steps
D’varim 5759-Owning Up
D’varim 5760-1-Kumu v’Ivru

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Random Musing Before Shabbat–Matot-Masei 5778—Irredeemable (For Now)

At one point, I had simply considered writing:

Numbers Chapter 31

and allowing that to be my entire musing, with the musing’s title (without the parenthetical “for now”) saying all that I felt needed to be said about it. The Torah has no dearth of troubling texts, and I have always been interested in finding ways to redeem them. I have written about this before, trying to find ways to redeem at least parts of it. I’ve done so as recently as last year’s musing. This year I’ve given up on this one. At least for now. Here – read for yourself, and we’ll discuss it on the other side, as they say:

Numbers Chapter 31

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃

1 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying,

נְקֹ֗ם נִקְמַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מֵאֵ֖ת הַמִּדְיָנִ֑ים אַחַ֖ר תֵּאָסֵ֥ף אֶל־עַמֶּֽיךָ׃

2 “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.”

וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־הָעָ֣ם לֵאמֹ֔ר הֵחָלְצ֧וּ מֵאִתְּכֶ֛ם אֲנָשִׁ֖ים לַצָּבָ֑א וְיִהְיוּ֙ עַל־מִדְיָ֔ן לָתֵ֥ת נִקְמַת־יְהוָ֖ה בְּמִדְיָֽן׃

3 Moses spoke to the people, saying, “Let men be picked out from among you for a campaign, and let them fall upon Midian to wreak the LORD’s vengeance on Midian.

אֶ֚לֶף לַמַּטֶּ֔ה אֶ֖לֶף לַמַּטֶּ֑ה לְכֹל֙ מַטּ֣וֹת יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל תִּשְׁלְח֖וּ לַצָּבָֽא׃

4 You shall dispatch on the campaign a thousand from every one of the tribes of Israel.”

וַיִּמָּֽסְרוּ֙ מֵאַלְפֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶ֖לֶף לַמַּטֶּ֑ה שְׁנֵים־עָשָׂ֥ר אֶ֖לֶף חֲלוּצֵ֥י צָבָֽא׃

5 So a thousand from each tribe were furnished from the divisions of Israel, twelve thousand picked for the campaign.

וַיִּשְׁלַ֨ח אֹתָ֥ם מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶ֥לֶף לַמַּטֶּ֖ה לַצָּבָ֑א אֹ֠תָם וְאֶת־פִּ֨ינְחָ֜ס בֶּן־אֶלְעָזָ֤ר הַכֹּהֵן֙ לַצָּבָ֔א וּכְלֵ֥י הַקֹּ֛דֶשׁ וַחֲצֹצְר֥וֹת הַתְּרוּעָ֖ה בְּיָדֽוֹ׃

6 Moses dispatched them on the campaign, a thousand from each tribe, with Phinehas son of Eleazar serving as a priest on the campaign, equipped with the sacred utensils and the trumpets for sounding the blasts.

וַֽיִּצְבְּאוּ֙ עַל־מִדְיָ֔ן כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָ֖ה אֶת־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיַּֽהַרְג֖וּ כָּל־זָכָֽר׃

7 They took the field against Midian, as the LORD had commanded Moses, and slew every male.

וְאֶת־מַלְכֵ֨י מִדְיָ֜ן הָרְג֣וּ עַל־חַלְלֵיהֶ֗ם אֶת־אֱוִ֤י וְאֶת־רֶ֙קֶם֙ וְאֶת־צ֤וּר וְאֶת־חוּר֙ וְאֶת־רֶ֔בַע חֲמֵ֖שֶׁת מַלְכֵ֣י מִדְיָ֑ן וְאֵת֙ בִּלְעָ֣ם בֶּן־בְּע֔וֹר הָרְג֖וּ בֶּחָֽרֶב׃

8 Along with their other victims, they slew the kings of Midian: Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian. They also put Balaam son of Beor to the sword.

וַיִּשְׁבּ֧וּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל אֶת־נְשֵׁ֥י מִדְיָ֖ן וְאֶת־טַפָּ֑ם וְאֵ֨ת כָּל־בְּהֶמְתָּ֧ם וְאֶת־כָּל־מִקְנֵהֶ֛ם וְאֶת־כָּל־חֵילָ֖ם בָּזָֽזוּ׃

9 The Israelites took the women and children of the Midianites captive, and seized as booty all their beasts, all their herds, and all their wealth.

וְאֵ֤ת כָּל־עָרֵיהֶם֙ בְּמ֣וֹשְׁבֹתָ֔ם וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־טִֽירֹתָ֑ם שָׂרְפ֖וּ בָּאֵֽשׁ׃

10 And they destroyed by fire all the towns in which they were settled, and their encampments.

וַיִּקְחוּ֙ אֶת־כָּל־הַשָּׁלָ֔ל וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־הַמַּלְק֑וֹחַ בָּאָדָ֖ם וּבַבְּהֵמָֽה׃

11 They gathered all the spoil and all the booty, man and beast,

וַיָּבִ֡אוּ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה֩ וְאֶל־אֶלְעָזָ֨ר הַכֹּהֵ֜ן וְאֶל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אֶת־הַשְּׁבִ֧י וְאֶת־הַמַּלְק֛וֹחַ וְאֶת־הַשָּׁלָ֖ל אֶל־הַֽמַּחֲנֶ֑ה אֶל־עַֽרְבֹ֣ת מוֹאָ֔ב אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־יַרְדֵּ֥ן יְרֵחֽוֹ׃ (ס)

12 and they brought the captives, the booty, and the spoil to Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the whole Israelite community, at the camp in the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho

I’ll stop here. and provide a link for you to read the remaining 42 verses:

Trust me, it only gets worse as you go along. After this horror, the returned commanders are berated by Moses for killing only the adult males and leaving the Midianite women and children alive. Those Midianite women who had tempted the Israelite men to follow other gods. So Moses orders the slaying (or the last euphemistic murdering) of all the male children, and all the women who were not virgins.

Once this carnage is complete, the soldiers are to remove themselves from the camp and purify themselves and their weapons over seven days. Then, the booty gets counted up, a portion withheld for the priests (it’s cleverly named a portion for the L”rd, but we all know who was really getting it,) and the rest divided up between the soldiers. 16 verses are dedicated to accounting for all the booty and the various portions withheld for the L”rd and other shares as required – noting the number of sheep, cattle, asses, and yes, human beings (i.e. the female virgins left after everyone else was killed.)

The chapter itself makes a small attempt at internal redemption when the commanders of the troops, upon discovering that not one of them was killed, offer their booty to the priests. (The soldiers kept what booty they took.) Yes, saying thank you to G”d for sparing the lives of all your soldiers (even though they mercilessly killed thousands of men, women, and children) gets brownie points. (Though I deduct from the value of the points for the fact that this booty wasn’t really given to G”d, it was given to the priests and Levites.)

So let me ask you – what – what could possibly be redeemed from that mess?

Yes, there is a ton of apologetic reasoning out there. If we operate from the premise that human beings are innately prone to war with each other the potential for apologetic reasoning is vast. I reject all of it, utterly.

My problem is less with the human beings – the Israelites and Moses. My issue is with G”d. This omnipotent G”d who has done the mightiest of miracles needs to use human beings  to kill other human beings so that G”d might fulfill a promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? You couldn’t have sent legions of angels? You couldn’t just snap your fingers and voila?

Yes, we all understand that human beings will value something more highly if they have to work for it rather than just having it handed to them. I get that. Nevertheless, it feels, as I’ve written in previous musings, over the top to have all this wholesale slaughter as part of just such an exchange. Not to mention that G”d took a different approach with the ten plagues, so we know it is possible – or – wait a minute – is that a glimpse of redemption here? The ten plagues involved lots of lopsided suffering. Did G”d realize that a more abject lesson, with suffering on both sides, would be a better lesson for the Israelites? But oops – not one Israelite was killed in this slaughter – so, never mind, chuck that redemptive idea.

We can place the story in a classic ultimate good versus ultimate evil, but that doesn’t hold up well either.

As I seek redemption for chapter 31 I keep having moments of aha followed by inevitable let down and the balloon busts on each new (or recycled old) thought. So I’m going to accept the lesson in that, at least for today, for this year, for this moment in time, and declare chapter 32 irredeemable. For now. 


חֲזַק חֲזַק וְנִתְחַזֵק

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Matot-Masei 5777 – Thirty-Two-Thousand Virgins?
Matot-Masei 5775 – Mei-eit Harav Tarbu U’mei-eit Hamat Tamitu
Masei 5774 – Would Jeremiah Be Surprised?
Matot 5774 – Over the Top (Revised 5763)
Matot-Masei 5773 – The Torah Is One Of My FaceBook Groups
Matot-Masei 5772 – And the Punting Goes On
Masei 5771 – Cause and Effect
Matot 5771 – Don’t Become Like…Them
Matot-Masei 5770 – Treasure Trove of Trouble
Masei 5768 – Accidents Matter
Matot 5768/5765-Even Moshe Rabbeinu Had to Punt
Matot-Masei 5766 – First Fruit
Matot-Masey 5764-Putting the Kids Before the Kids
Matot–Masey 5763-Over the Top
Matot–Masey 5762–The Rebel’s Complaint and Promises, Promises

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Random Musing Before Shabbat – Pinkhas 5778 — Reviewing Zealousness (Redux 5768)

Fifteen years ago I wrote a missing about parashat Pinkhas wondering about what this and other stories teach us about when and when not to act with zeal.  Ten years ago, I spun a  new musing, with new perspectives, from that original. This week, I set out to spin a new musing that reflected where I am in my life today. Upon reflection, I realized that while writing this new spin on the topic proved to be cathartic for me, it might be asking for too much for you, dear readers, to share in the raw emotions  and personal truths. Quite frankly, my writing may be too impolitic for this moment in time for a variety of reasons. So, reluctantly, I’ll be discrete and political for now.  I’ll add a brief addendum to this re-sharing of my musing from a decade ago in 5768 which might provide readers with some insight as to where I am today, at this moment in time, when it comes to being zealous. (If you’d actually like to read the musing which I did write but not share, just drop me a line privately.) Now, back to 5768/2008.

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Pinkhas 5768—Still Zealous After All These Years

Five years ago, my musing for this parasha was entitled “I Still Get Zealous”, the title being a pun on the Jules Styne/Sammy Cahn song “I Still Get Jealous” from “High Button Shoes” (though oddly, it was Louis Armstrong’s version that catapulted the song to fame.) I’m spinning this new musing off of that earlier musing, using some of its thoughts, but from a rather different vantage point.

In an odd coincidence of time, while I’m still zealous, today happens to have been my last day as Director of Education and Congregational Life for Bethesda Jewish Congregation (BJC.) It was not easy to choose to leave my congregational family of five years so that I might move with the family unit of which I have now become part to Amherst, MA. I’m sure most of you know what it’s like to leave somewhere for the last time. Yet nothing tells me more about my own habitual zealousness than the way I approached my last few weeks, days, hours and minutes at BJC. Last Friday, I led my last service for BJC, and I was as inspired and uplifted as always. This past Wednesday, I led Torah study for the last time, and was as engaged and enlightened as always. also on Wednesday, I directed the BJC choir in rehearsing for the Yamim Noraim (High Holy Days) for the last time, and was passionate and driven as always. I think that I can do no less.

Yes, the years have not only aged me but taught me. I have learned to rein in my zealousness and over-dedication. Though I must admit that during these past 7 years of bachelorhood I easily slipped back into my old habits of perhaps giving more of myself, my time, and my talents as I should. Now, once again part of a family unit with a child of 8 in it, I can’t give as much to other things no matter how driven or zealous I am, for my family requires and deserves more zealousness, passion, and patience than anything else. I’m sure that somewhere in there is a balance point, and I’ll find my way to it in time, but my family will also come first – something that, I am ashamed to admit, I cannot claim was always true in my previous relationships-though I’d like to think I made a valiant effort, no matter how much I succeeded or failed.

There are consequences of zealousness, but we cannot always be sure of what they will be – reward, punishment, et al. Nadav and Avihu were turned into crispy critters for their zealousness, yet Pinkhas rewarded for his. I wonder sometimes if this is a proof text for the idea that our Torah embraces and teaches about situational ethics. On the other hand, it could just be illustrative of an impetuous and sometimes overly zealous G”d. I think I understand now why so many have this deep seated need for G”d to be unchanging, ever the same. That’s much easier to deal with than a G”d whose reactions and attitudes seem to vary from situation to situation (witness the different reactions to the zealousness of Pinkhas vs. the zealousness of Nadav and Avihu.) and to put an even more radical spin on it, consider that all Nadav and Avihu did was offer a little bit of extra, alien fire, that they hadn’t been asked to offer – and for their troubles, G”d toasted them. Yet when Pinkhas murders in cold blood the fornicators Zimri and Cozbi, he gets rewarded with a “brit Shalom” a covenant with G”d for him and his descendants. (Yes, yes, we’ve all heard the apologetic explanations – G”d brough Pinkhas and his descendants into this special relationship so G”d could “keep an eye on these crazy zealots” – and G”d was actually rewarding Nadav and Avihu by bringing them into the ultimate special relationship with G”d. They were made holy by being sacrificed. Never mind the subtle Christological subtext here.)

Yet, I reject the apologetics. What we have here is an inconsistent G”d who reacts differently in different situations. Voila-situational ethics. I don’t particularly agree with G”d’s choices here – that killing two human beings in order to assuage G”d’s anger is ultimately more forgivable than offering up a little extra alien fire. Then again, how often do G”d and I agree?

It gets trickier, because we strive to base our systems of ethics upon what we believe about that which G”d approves and disapproves. Yet it appears that sometimes, when we do what we believe is what G”d wants, G”d approves, and at other times G”d gives a thumbs down. On what basis? Depending upon which side of the bed G”d woke up on? On the surface, that appears to be a rather troubling vision-a G”d whose mood can affect all G”d’s creations. And I’m not buying into that one at all. It requires a bit too much of an anthropomorphizing of G”d. (There’s a book inside of me, that I am finally going to start writing now that life is giving me some breathing room to do so, based on the premise that one ought to look at the premise of “b’tzelem Elokim” in a somewhat reverse manner–that perhaps the very traits we find in ourselves that trouble us are traits that G”d possesses as well–and that G”d, too, is seeking a way to rid G”d’s self of these potentially negative energies. Or perhaps, since G”d possesses these qualities, they aren’t so negative after all? But I digress.)

Need we be troubled by a tempestuous G”d, be so insistent on consistency from our deity? And is it inconsistency, or is our narrow view of G”d preventing us from seeing a bigger picture? (Still, I won’t go as far as accepting that old “ineffable G”d canard.)

I do know that sometimes zealousness brings reward and other times retribution. Do we, therefore, avoid being zealous and avoid the risk? That would probably be the rabbinic approach-building a fence around it lest we inadvertently err.

As always, as I ponder these questions, and seek answers to them, I am reminded of happenings in my own world. I worte in my 2002 version of this musing about a time I participated in a little team building exercise. It was tough going the whole time, as 3 or 4 “soloists” kept thwarting the attempts to build cohesive team action from the entire group. In an ideal world, the actions of these few “zealots” would have resulted in learning by their example the futility of failing to play with the whole team. And on occasion that did happen. Sometimes, though, through brutish and stubborn effort, the individualists succeeded. And I found that extremely frustrating. So much so that I and the other facilitators and participants actually endeavored to make it ever so much tougher for the non-team players–because it didn’t seem fair for them to succeed. Yet, as I thought about that, I thought about an activity I had observed earlier in another setting. It was a student experiment in “luck”-a game of chance with an edible reward–chocolate, of course. The exercise was structured in such a fashion that those who received some chocolate and how long they had to try and eat it all was truly random.

Some people were luckier than others-and I and the other adult observers in the room began to consider ways to help even the odds–as it seemed some students seemed particularly unhappy to not be getting any chocolate. Yet, in the end interference wasn’t really necessary. Things evened out. For the most part. So the zealous impulses I and other had were not acted upon and the result was fair. Almost. Because there was one kid whose luck didn’t hold-so we did have to finagle things a bit at the very end. And this kid was accepting and appreciative. However, there have been other times I have, or have seen others work to help give a student or a camper an advantage, and what we got for it in return was not appreciation but resentment. So was our zeal misdirected? Or just unappreciated? Is that what happened to Nadav and Avihu? Pinchas’ zeal was obviously appreciated by G”d.

So when and where is zeal appropriate, and when is it dangerous? It doesn’t appear we get a clear answer from the Torah at all. It would be easy to assume that Nadav and Avihu were acting on behalf of only themselves–but I don’t believe the text clearly supports that assumption. They may have been inebriated, but their choice to offer yet one more sacrifice to G”d could have easily been motivated by their zeal for insuring the community’s welfare and not just their own. We’ll never know. It does seem a bit more apparent that Pinkhas acted with zeal on behalf of the community. His zeal drove him to kill two of G”ds creations – one a member of the tribe, another,the supposedly scheming daughter of a Midianite muckety-muck trying to lure the Israelite men into worship their gods. From the end results, perhaps we could conclude that Pinkhas was rewarded for that, and also conclude that, since Nadav and Avihu were not rewarded, that their zeal was selfish. That’s really going out on a limb I’m not sure I want to crawl onto. It’s also a very teleological approach to exegeting a lesson from the text.

It’s not surprising that so many people I know are somewhat zealous (particularly about their Judaism, and also about how they think other Jews should live.) I am one of those zealots. Like Nadav and Avihu, I have been stung (though perhaps with less drastic consequences) by allowing my unmitigated zeal to get the better of me. Like Pinkhas, I have also had the occasional reward for being zealous.

One would have thought that, after all these years, the level of my zeal would have decreased somewhat. Look-it even happened to Moshe, so why not me? That Moshe would so easily go to his grave, shucking and jiving and not openly complaining (too much) about his not getting to enter the promised land. That he even struck the rock in the first place. All signs of flagging zeal (or perhaps just old age.) Yet even today, on my last day, during my last hours, even my last few minutes, I worked to complete my tasks and prepare the way for my successor with passion and zeal. I did it not for any reward, for, particularly in this case, there would be none to be had-the tributes were long over and now came the silent slow walk out of the stadium after all the fans had left. Yet there is perceptible reward – and that is how I feel about myself, my professionalism, my passion, my dedication. Tonight I don’t need the strokes of others to make me feel good. I’m flying high on the reward of my own good feelings.

I’m perhaps a little bit closer now than when I started in trying to figure out when to be zealous and when to not act with zeal, but I haven;t figured it all out just yet. Great-that gives me something to ponder this Shabbat. I hope I’ve engaged you enough to get you pondering that question this Shabbat as well.

As always, a sweet Shabbat to you and yours.

Afternote from 5778:

Perhaps I am even a little closer here in 5778 to understanding the appropriate time and place to be zealous, but the reasons I am closer to taming my zealous impulses seem to be forms of external negative rather than positive reinforcement. Self-refueling requires the means to obtain fuel.

May it be G”d’s will and my own will that a decade from now I’ll be able to put a better, more positive spin on my life since now.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 (portions ©2003 and 2008) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Pinchas 5777 – The Sons of Korach
Pinkhas 5775 – Why Is This Rebuke…yadda, yadda, yadda (an expansion on 5769)
Pinkhas 5774 – Slaughter the Oxen, Burn the Plow, and Hear the Still Small Voice
Pinkhas 5773 – G”d’s Justice, G”d’s Responsibility
Pinkhas 5772 – Not Such a Shining Moment
Pinkhas 5771 – Wake Up and Smell the Coffee
Pinkhas 5770 – Thanking Those Who Didn’t Make It
Pinkhas 5769-Why is This Rebuke Different From All Other Rebukes?
Pinhas 5766-Let’s Give Moshe a Hand
Pinkhas 5765-Kol D’mamah Dakah
Pinchas 5762 — I Still Get Zealous
Pinchas 5764/5760-It Just Is!

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Random Musing Before Shabbat – Balak 5778 — The Rest of Mah Tovu

It is not a phenomenon unique to Judaism, but we certainly have our fair share of it. We pluck away bits of text from of sacred scriptures – Torah, Talmud, the works of great sages, and elsewhere. We take these little nuggets and embrace them. We make them centerpieces and themes. Often we turn them into songs.

While doing so can have lots of positive effects – I certainly experience them as a Jewish musician – there is a caution to be noted. We are fond of accusing others of picking and choosing text to fit their interpretations. Glass houses.

מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!

In our siddur, we have attached words from Psalm 5:8, 26:8, and 69:14, and changed and adapted one verse from Psalm 95:6 to this one verse from Torah, and for many, if not most people, that is their entire understanding of “Mah Tovu.” We have turned it into a paean to G”d’s love and the places where we worship.

I’m not suggesting this is a bad thing. I’ll admit, the Mah Tovu from the siddur is one of my favorite mash-ups of text (and our siddur is replete with them.) It is a thoroughly beautiful and inspiring prayer, perfect for the start of worship.

However, even when we encounter these words in parashat Balak during our annual reading cycle, we tend to focus on them in our adapted context of their use in worship. Sure, most of us know the story of Balak and Bilaam. Talking asses are rare (well, maybe not these days, but that’s a whole different musing) and this is a particularly well-crafted narrative. We remind ourselves, when we use the one verse from this parasha in our worship services, of the story from where it came, but primarily with the vague notions that curses can be turned to blessings, that Israel is worthy of G”d’s blessing, that an enemy of Israel was thwarted, and some reflections on what it means when one’s beast of burden speaks and reveals one’s own blindness to what is right in front of one’s eyes.

Context is everything. Two previous attempts were made by Bilaam to fulfill Balak’s wish to curse the Israelites. Twice they go up on a mountain, build altars, and sacrifice on them.

The first time, Bilaam states:

וַיִּשָּׂ֥א מְשָׁל֖וֹ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר מִן־אֲ֠רָם יַנְחֵ֨נִי בָלָ֤ק מֶֽלֶךְ־מוֹאָב֙ מֵֽהַרְרֵי־קֶ֔דֶם לְכָה֙ אָֽרָה־לִּ֣י יַעֲקֹ֔ב וּלְכָ֖ה זֹעֲמָ֥ה יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

He took up his theme, and said: From Aram has Balak brought me, Moab’s king from the hills of the East: Come, curse me Jacob, Come, tell Israel’s doom!

מָ֣ה אֶקֹּ֔ב לֹ֥א קַבֹּ֖ה אֵ֑ל וּמָ֣ה אֶזְעֹ֔ם לֹ֥א זָעַ֖ם יְהוָֽה׃

How can I damn whom God has not damned, How doom when the LORD has not doomed?

כִּֽי־מֵרֹ֤אשׁ צֻרִים֙ אֶרְאֶ֔נּוּ וּמִגְּבָע֖וֹת אֲשׁוּרֶ֑נּוּ הֶן־עָם֙ לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן וּבַגּוֹיִ֖ם לֹ֥א יִתְחַשָּֽׁב׃

As I see them from the mountain tops, Gaze on them from the heights, There is a people that dwells apart, Not reckoned among the nations,

מִ֤י מָנָה֙ עֲפַ֣ר יַעֲקֹ֔ב וּמִסְפָּ֖ר אֶת־רֹ֣בַע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל תָּמֹ֤ת נַפְשִׁי֙ מ֣וֹת יְשָׁרִ֔ים וּתְהִ֥י אַחֲרִיתִ֖י כָּמֹֽהוּ׃

Who can count the dust of Jacob, Number the dust-cloud of Israel? May I die the death of the upright, May my fate be like theirs!

Ok, that’s pretty innocuous. Next.

וַיִּשָּׂ֥א מְשָׁל֖וֹ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר ק֤וּם בָּלָק֙ וּֽשֲׁמָ֔ע הַאֲזִ֥ינָה עָדַ֖י בְּנ֥וֹ צִפֹּֽר׃

And he took up his theme, and said: Up, Balak, attend, Give ear unto me, son of Zippor!

לֹ֣א אִ֥ישׁ אֵל֙ וִֽיכַזֵּ֔ב וּבֶן־אָדָ֖ם וְיִתְנֶחָ֑ם הַה֤וּא אָמַר֙ וְלֹ֣א יַעֲשֶׂ֔ה וְדִבֶּ֖ר וְלֹ֥א יְקִימֶֽנָּה׃

God is not man to be capricious, Or mortal to change His mind. Would He speak and not act, Promise and not fulfill?

הִנֵּ֥ה בָרֵ֖ךְ לָקָ֑חְתִּי וּבֵרֵ֖ךְ וְלֹ֥א אֲשִׁיבֶֽנָּה׃

My message was to bless: When He blesses, I cannot reverse it.

לֹֽא־הִבִּ֥יט אָ֙וֶן֙ בְּיַעֲקֹ֔ב וְלֹא־רָאָ֥ה עָמָ֖ל בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהָיו֙ עִמּ֔וֹ וּתְרוּעַ֥ת מֶ֖לֶךְ בּֽוֹ׃

No harm is in sight for Jacob, No woe in view for Israel. The LORD their God is with them, And their King’s acclaim in their midst.

אֵ֖ל מוֹצִיאָ֣ם מִמִּצְרָ֑יִם כְּתוֹעֲפֹ֥ת רְאֵ֖ם לֽוֹ׃

God who freed them from Egypt Is for them like the horns of the wild ox.

כִּ֤י לֹא־נַ֙חַשׁ֙ בְּיַעֲקֹ֔ב וְלֹא־קֶ֖סֶם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כָּעֵ֗ת יֵאָמֵ֤ר לְיַעֲקֹב֙ וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מַה־פָּ֖עַל אֵֽל׃

Lo, there is no augury in Jacob, No divining in Israel: Jacob is told at once, Yea Israel, what God has planned.

הֶן־עָם֙ כְּלָבִ֣יא יָק֔וּם וְכַאֲרִ֖י יִתְנַשָּׂ֑א לֹ֤א יִשְׁכַּב֙ עַד־יֹ֣אכַל טֶ֔רֶף וְדַם־חֲלָלִ֖ים יִשְׁתֶּֽה׃

Lo, a people that rises like a lion, Leaps up like the king of beasts, Rests not till it has feasted on prey And drunk the blood of the slain.

That’s beginning to have some threatening overtones. Finally, after delivering the well worn verse 5 (i.e. the Mah Tovu) Bilaam goes on. It stays nice for a while, but at verse 8 it starts getting sinister.

אֵ֚ל מוֹצִיא֣וֹ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם כְּתוֹעֲפֹ֥ת רְאֵ֖ם ל֑וֹ יֹאכַ֞ל גּוֹיִ֣ם צָרָ֗יו וְעַצְמֹתֵיהֶ֛ם יְגָרֵ֖ם וְחִצָּ֥יו יִמְחָֽץ׃

God who freed them from Egypt Is for them like the horns of the wild ox. They shall devour enemy nations, Crush their bones, And smash their arrows.

כָּרַ֨ע שָׁכַ֧ב כַּאֲרִ֛י וּכְלָבִ֖יא מִ֣י יְקִימֶ֑נּוּ מְבָרֲכֶ֣יךָ בָר֔וּךְ וְאֹרְרֶ֖יךָ אָרֽוּר׃

They crouch, they lie down like a lion, Like the king of beasts; who dare rouse them? Blessed are they who bless you, Accursed they who curse you!

At this point, Balak interrupts with another hissy fit and Bilaam once again explains that as a prophet of G”d he can only say the words G”d puts in his mouth. Then Bilaam continues with one last, long zinger:

וַיִּשָּׂ֥א מְשָׁל֖וֹ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר נְאֻ֤ם בִּלְעָם֙ בְּנ֣וֹ בְעֹ֔ר וּנְאֻ֥ם הַגֶּ֖בֶר שְׁתֻ֥ם הָעָֽיִן׃

He took up his theme, and said: Word of Balaam son of Beor, Word of the man whose eye is true,

נְאֻ֗ם שֹׁמֵ֙עַ֙ אִמְרֵי־אֵ֔ל וְיֹדֵ֖עַ דַּ֣עַת עֶלְי֑וֹן מַחֲזֵ֤ה שַׁדַּי֙ יֶֽחֱזֶ֔ה נֹפֵ֖ל וּגְל֥וּי עֵינָֽיִם׃

Word of him who hears God’s speech, Who obtains knowledge from the Most High, And beholds visions from the Almighty, Prostrate, but with eyes unveiled:

אֶרְאֶ֙נּוּ֙ וְלֹ֣א עַתָּ֔ה אֲשׁוּרֶ֖נּוּ וְלֹ֣א קָר֑וֹב דָּרַ֨ךְ כּוֹכָ֜ב מִֽיַּעֲקֹ֗ב וְקָ֥ם שֵׁ֙בֶט֙ מִיִּשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וּמָחַץ֙ פַּאֲתֵ֣י מוֹאָ֔ב וְקַרְקַ֖ר כָּל־בְּנֵי־שֵֽׁת׃

What I see for them is not yet, What I behold will not be soon: A star rises from Jacob, A scepter comes forth from Israel; It smashes the brow of Moab, The foundation of all children of Seth.

וְהָיָ֨ה אֱד֜וֹם יְרֵשָׁ֗ה וְהָיָ֧ה יְרֵשָׁ֛ה שֵׂעִ֖יר אֹיְבָ֑יו וְיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל עֹ֥שֶׂה חָֽיִל׃

Edom becomes a possession, Yea, Seir a possession of its enemies; But Israel is triumphant.

וְיֵ֖רְדְּ מִֽיַּעֲקֹ֑ב וְהֶֽאֱבִ֥יד שָׂרִ֖יד מֵעִֽיר׃

A victor issues from Jacob To wipe out what is left of Ir.

וַיַּרְא֙ אֶת־עֲמָלֵ֔ק וַיִּשָּׂ֥א מְשָׁל֖וֹ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר רֵאשִׁ֤ית גּוֹיִם֙ עֲמָלֵ֔ק וְאַחֲרִית֖וֹ עֲדֵ֥י אֹבֵֽד׃

He saw Amalek and, taking up his theme, he said: A leading nation is Amalek; But its fate is to perish forever.

וַיַּרְא֙ אֶת־הַקֵּינִ֔י וַיִּשָּׂ֥א מְשָׁל֖וֹ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֵיתָן֙ מֽוֹשָׁבֶ֔ךָ וְשִׂ֥ים בַּסֶּ֖לַע קִנֶּֽךָ׃

He saw the Kenites and, taking up his theme, he said: Though your abode be secure, And your nest be set among cliffs,

כִּ֥י אִם־יִהְיֶ֖ה לְבָ֣עֵֽר קָ֑יִן עַד־מָ֖ה אַשּׁ֥וּר תִּשְׁבֶּֽךָּ׃

Yet shall Kain be consumed, When Asshur takes you captive.

וַיִּשָּׂ֥א מְשָׁל֖וֹ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר א֕וֹי מִ֥י יִחְיֶ֖ה מִשֻּׂמ֥וֹ אֵֽל׃

He took up his theme and said: Alas, who can survive except God has willed it!

וְצִים֙ מִיַּ֣ד כִּתִּ֔ים וְעִנּ֥וּ אַשּׁ֖וּר וְעִנּוּ־עֵ֑בֶר וְגַם־ה֖וּא עֲדֵ֥י אֹבֵֽד׃

Ships come from the quarter of Kittim; They subject Asshur, subject Eber. They, too, shall perish forever.

Can you just imagine singing any those words to a song at the beginning of morning worship? Thank goodness the rabbis, in creating the siddur, chose to create a mash-up, plucking only the one line from Torah (though they could have used the immediately following verses 24:6-7 in keeping with the positive, upbeat tone.)

Nevertheless, I think there is value in always connecting the words mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov mishk’notekha Yisrael to their original setting, recalling that for Israel to become the nation, people, culture, and religion that it did, others had to die, or be dispossessed.  That lesson is no less important today when we consider the modern state, medinat Israel. It is good to be reminded, in the midst of our joy, the suffering that had to occur to bring us to each and every shehehkheyanu moment we have experienced. Let our remembrance of the context of the Mah Tovu in parashat Balak be like the drops of wine we spill at Pesakh.

It’s not my intent to spoil for anyone, especially including myself, those spiritual moments that are often created in the reading or singing of the Mah tovu prayer at morning services. As I stated earlier, it is one of my favorite prayers, one of my my favorite textual mash-ups. Yet, as this prayer, in its many beautiful musical settings can comfort the afflicted, I feel some obligation to afflict the comfortable. My job is done.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

[Note: following the translation from the Septuagint, JPS uses Balaam. I prefer the more accurate transliteration of Bilaam (better yet, probably, is Bil’am.]

Other Musings on this Parasha

Balak 5777 – Bad Habits, Still
Balak 5775 – Stymied
Balak 5774 – Ball’s In Your Court
Balak 5772 – Unvelievable
Balak 5771-Imperfect Justice is No Excuse
Balak 5770 – Beating Our Donkeys II (Revised and Updated 5758)
Balak 5764 – Bad Habits
Balak 5758/5761-Beating Our Donkeys

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