Esther: Stupid Decisions

March 19, 2019 at 11:01 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Purim, a Jewish holiday on the 14th of Adar (March 20-21 this year), revolves around the book of Esther, an imaginative farce set in Shushan, one of the capitals of the Achaemenid Empire of Persia (553-333 BCE).

The real kings of this empire were smarter than the average dictator.  The founder, Cyrus I, encouraged the fealty of the many ethnic groups in his lands by granting them local autonomy and helping them rebuild their old temples.  Darius I recruited administrators and soldiers from many ethnic groups.  His son Xerxes I (reign 486-465 BCE), called Achashveirosh in the book of Esther, continued these astute policies of cultural and religious tolerance, making it easier to rule the world’s biggest empire to date.

Persian Empire ca. 500 BCE

The real King Achashveirosh/Xerxes also successfully crushed revolts in Egypt and Babylon.  He built gigantic palaces in two of his five capital cities, Persepolis and Susa/Shushan.  He kept a large harem but had only one queen, a Persian noblewoman named Amestris.  Xerxes seems to have been a competent political leader with a taste for the standard royal luxuries.

But in the book of Esther, King Achashveirosh is, above all, stupid.  His stupid decisions drive a plot of near-catastrophes and amazing reversals.

On the evening of Purim we read and perform the book of Esther, enjoying every comic moment.  Late the next afternoon there is a traditional seudah shlishit, a “third meal” which is supposed to be second in importance only to the seder meal on Passover.  Unlike the Passover seder, the Purim seudah has no ritual text.  But maybe this year it could be a time to discuss some of the stupid rulings the fictionalized king makes—and how easy it is to make similar errors today.

Persian gold drinking horn, 5th century BCE

The book of Esther opens with King Achashveirosh spending lavishly on a 180-day drinking feast for his administrators and noblemen, followed by a seven-day drinking feast for the entire male population of Shushan.

And the drinking was according to the dat: There is no constraint!  (Esther 1:8)

dat (דָּת) = (plural datim, דָּתִים) rule, law, regulation, edict, decree.  (From the Persian word data.)

The word dat is used only in biblical passages written after the Persian Empire took over the Neo-Babylonian Empire and its formerly Israelite territory circa 539 BCE.  Dat appears 20 times in the book of Esther.  During the course of the story, King Achashveirosh (who likes to drink) issues six new datim on impulse, without constraints such as getting information or thinking things over.

Dat 1

Persian Queen Atossa, crowned 522 BCE

On the seventh day, as the king was feeling good with wine, he said … to bring Vashti, the queen, before the king in her royal crown, to display her beauty to the peoples and the officials, since she was good-looking.  (Esther 1:11)

Vashti refuses.1  Achashveirosh is furious.

But the king spoke to the wise men … because this was the king’s practice, [to come] before all experts on dat and judgement.  (Esther 1:13)

Consulting legal advisors on what to do about this perceived insult from the queen seems like a wise and sensible move—as long as one has competent advisors.  King Achashveirosh has seven, but only one speaks: Memukhan, who declares that in order to prevent noblewomen throughout the empire from getting uppity, Vashti must be severely punished.  Memukhan proposes a new dat declaring that Vashti is dethroned, divorced, deprived of her land, and banned from the king’s presence.  Achashveirosh agrees with no further thought.

*

Today, when do we (or our rulers) act on impulse, following the lead of the first person to speak, without pausing to solicit other opinions?  Do we fail to express our own viewpoints when we are given the opportunity to speak?

Dat 2

After a while Achashveirosh misses Vashti.  The real Achaemenid kings chose all their queens from seven noble Persian families, but in the book of Esther the king’s servants suggest holding a beauty contest to pick the next queen.  Each of the many finalists would spend a night with the king.  Achashveirosh jumps on this idea without consulting his legal advisors, and issues a new dat declaring the contest and its procedures.   Eventually he chooses Esther, the adopted daughter of her uncle Mordecai, a Jew who “sits in the gate” of Shushan as a judge.

*

Today, when do we pick our romantic partners, business associates, or even presidents based on their looks and charm, without considering any possible consequences?

Dat 3

For no apparent reason, the king picks a self-centered man named Haman as his new viceroy, and orders everyone in the king’s gate to kneel and bow down with their faces touching the ground when Haman passes through.  In the Torah this is the position of humility before God—which might explain why Mordecai refuses to do it.

When the king’s other servants tell Haman that Mordecai is ignoring the dat about bowing because he is a Jew, Haman decides to wipe out all the Jews in the Persian Empire.

Then Haman said to King Achashveirosh: “There is a certain people, scattered and separate from the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom, and their datim are different from all [other] peoples’, and the datim of the king they do not follow.  So it is not suitable for the king to leave them in peace.”  (Esther 3:8)

Achashveirosh does not ask which group Haman is talking about.  He does not ask which of the king’s datim its members are violating, or why.  And as usual, he does not talk to anyone else to get another side of the story.  For someone unaccustomed to thinking, it is enough that these people are different.  Unlike the real kings of the Persian Empire, the Achashveirosh character is easily frightened by diversity.

*

When do we react with fear (or fear disguised as resentment) because certain people look  different, or speak a different first language, or adhere to a different religion?

Dat 4

Given the king’s usual blank state of mind, Haman’s simple scare tactic might be enough.  But the viceroy adds a bribe, promising to pay 10,000 silver disks into the royal treasury if the king commands the extermination of this unnamed people.  Without asking a single question, without thinking about justice or remembering his family’s tradition of religious tolerance, King Achashveirosh hands over his signet ring to Haman.

And scrolls were sent out by the hand of the runners to every single province of the king [with the order] to destroy, to slay, and to exterminate all the Jews … on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder them.  A copy of the writing was to be given as a dat in every single province and shown to all the peoples, to be prepared for this day. (Esther 3:13-14)

*

When do we abandon our identities, giving the equivalent of our signet rings to others, for financial reasons?  For other reasons that would not hold up to scrutiny?  Do we ever wonder if we are violating our own principles?

Dat 5

Mordecai begs Esther to intercede with the king.  Much drama ensues, with two intertwining plot lines.  Haman has just erected a stake for impaling Mordecai when he is forced to publicly honor the Jew for saving the king’s life.  Meanwhile Esther uses courage and cleverness to get Achashveirosh and Haman where she wants them.2

At her second private drinking feast for the king and his viceroy, Esther asks King Achashveirosh for her life and the lives of her people.

Esther Denouncing Haman, by Ernest Normand

“Because we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, to be exterminated!”  (Esther 7:4)

Still oblivious, the king asks her who ordered such a thing.

And Esther said: “The man, the oppressor and enemy, is this evil Haman!”  (Esther 7:6)

Achashveirosh believes her at once and, as usual, asks no follow-up questions.  He has Haman impaled on his own stake.  It is sheer good fortune that Esther is correct and Haman is indeed the malefactor.

When Esther asks the king to revoke the dat about killing Jews on the 13th of Adar, we learn about another standing rule:

… a writing that was written in the name of the king and sealed with the signet ring of the king, there is no way to reverse.  (Esther 8:8)

This dat would be ridiculous in a real government.  But it does express the truth that some actions have irrevocable consequences.  We insult someone, and the person never forgets it.  We make a mistake or pass a law that results in someone’s death, and nothing can bring the person back to life.

King Achashveirosh gives Mordecai his signet ring and invites him and Esther to write any new dat they like to compensate for the dat about exterminating Jews on the 13th of Adar.  A dat goes out giving Jews permission to kill anyone who tries to attack them on that day.

And in every province and in every city where the word and the dat of the king reached, there was gladness and joy for the Jews, a drinking feast and a holiday.  And many of the peoples of the land pretended to be Jews, because terror of the Jews had fallen upon them.  (Esther 8:17)

Jews all over the empire attack and kill their enemies on the 13th of Adar.  There is no due process, no trials to establish guilt or innocence, no follow-up on anyone the Jews accuse who manages to escape.  Mob violence rules the day.  The king’s fifth new dat is an arguably stupid way to prevent a one-day genocide.

*

When do we, like Achashveirosh, make excuses for violence perpetrated by people who have suffered from discrimination and persecution?  When do we, like Esther and Mordecai, use positions of power to improve the welfare of our own people without seeking justice for all people?

Dat 6

Achashveirosh tells Esther that the Jews of Shushan alone have killed 500 men in addition to Haman’s ten sons, and asks her if she has any other requests.

And Esther said: “If it please the king, may it be granted to the Jews in Shushan to do tomorrow as well the same as the dat of today, and may the ten sons of Haman be impaled on the stake.”  And the king said to have it done thus, and the dat was given out in Shushan …  (Esther 9:13-14)

The Jews of Shushan take this opportunity to kill another 300 men.

*

Today, when do we agree to do something merely to please a person who dazzles us, without considering whether it is ethical?

The six new datim King Achashveirosh issues in the book of Esther illustrate that stupid decisions come from:

  • acting on impulse in moments of anger or fear,
  • taking one person’s word for something without checking,
  • not collecting enough information, and
  • failing to consider our own ethical principles.

Someday may we all learn to be smarter than King Achashveirosh.

  1. Midrash Rabbah Esther (commentary from the 6th to 11th centuries CE) said that Vashti’s refusal was justified because the king was ordering her to display herself wearing her crown and nothing else.
  2. Before Esther can speak to Achashveirosh, she must risk her life; there is already a dat that anyone who enters the king’s inner court without being summoned is put to death unless the king extends his golden scepter. Never mind if there is an imperial emergency; Achashveirosh does not want to be bothered by inconvenient news.  When do we disable ourselves by going into denial?  When do we make life more difficult by trusting someone who ignores facts to be in charge?

Haftarat Vayehi—Kings: Last Words

January 12, 2017 at 7:40 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets) in the Jewish tradition. This week’s Torah portion is Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26), and the haftarah is 1 Kings 2:1-12.
Old Man on his Deathbed, by Gustav Klimt

by Gustav Klimt

Sometimes a deathbed scene is silent; the dying person is unable to speak, or cannot even recognize the one waiting and hoping for a goodbye. But sometimes there are last words.These words might express acknowledgement, affection, even appreciation. Or the dying person might complain, give advice, or issue an order. Giving a deathbed blessing is different from extracting a deathbed promise.

The Hebrew Bible offers two complete deathbed scenes: Jacob’s speeches to his twelve sons in this week’s Torah portion, and David’s final words to his son Solomon in this week’s haftarah.

Jacob

The Torah portion Vayechi offers three stories of the death of Jacob (also called “Israel”). In the first, Jacob gives an extremely polite order.

Route of Jacob's funeral cortege

Route of Jacob’s funeral cortege

And the time came close for Israel to die, and he summoned his son Joseph, and he said to him: “If, please, I have found favor in your eyes, please place your hand under my thigh and do with me chesed and fidelity: please do not bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my fathers, then take me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial place.” And he [Joseph] said: “I myself will do as you have spoken”. And he [Jacob] said: “Swear to me!” And he swore to him. And Israel bowed down at the head of the bed. (Genesis 47:29-31)

chesed (חֶסֶד) = expected kindness; kindness out of loyalty to a family member or treaty partner.

In Egypt, Joseph is the pharaoh’s viceroy, and his father Jacob is only a guest. Although Jacob uses subservient language, he still reminds Joseph that he owes his father loyalty. Then he extracts a deathbed promise from Joseph: to bury him in Canaan, in the cave of Machpelah where Jacob’s parents and grandparents are buried.

Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, by Rembrandt

Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, by Rembrandt

And it happened after these things, someone said to Joseph: “Hey! Your father is weakening.” So he took his two sons with him, Menasheh and Efrayim. And Jacob was told: “Hey! Your son Joseph has come to you. And Israel mustered his strength and sat up on the bed. (Genesis 48:1-2)

In this second story, Jacob adopts Joseph’s two sons, giving them each a share of his estate. He kisses them, then blesses Joseph and his sons: the ultimate expression of acknowledgement and appreciation.

But Jacob has eleven other sons, and he addresses all twelve sons in a third deathbed story.

And Jacob summoned his sons, and he said: “Gather and I will tell you what will meet you in the end of days.” (Genesis 49:1)

Jacob delivers a long poem with a prophecy about the tribe that will descend from each of his sons. Only one remark is unmistakably about the son himself: a complaint about Reuben.

For when you climbed up on the lying-down place of your father

That was when you profaned it. My couch he climbed!  (Genesis 49:4)

Jacob on his Deathbed, 1539 woodcut

Jacob on his Deathbed, 1539 woodcut

Jacob still holds a grudge against Reuben for having intercourse with Jacob’s concubine Bilhah some 40 years earlier1. At the conclusion of the poem, a sentence that scholars attribute to a later redactor of the Hebrew Bible credits Jacob with blessing all his sons.

All these are the tribes of Israel, twelve, and this is what their father spoke to them. And he blessed them, each one according to his blessing he blessed them. (Genesis 49:28)

Finally Jacob returns to the subject most on his mind.

Vayetzav them, and he said to them: “I am being gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers, in the cave … And Jacob finished letzavot with his sons, and he gathered his feet into the bed, and he expired, and he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 49:29, 49:33)

Vayetzav (וַיְצַו) = And he commanded, and he ordered. (From the root verb tzivah (צִוָּה) = commanded.)

letzavot  (לְצַוֺּת) = Commanding, giving orders. (Also from the root verb tzivah.)

In his three deathbed speeches, Jacob expresses acknowledgement and appreciation of his twelve sons (and two of his grandsons) by blessing them. He complains about Reuben. He gives prophecies rather than advice. And he repeats his orders about where he must be buried, but he has no other final requests.

David

And David came close to the time of death, vayetzav his son Solomon, saying: I am going according to the way of all the earth. And you must be strong and you must be an adult. (1 Kings 2:1-2)

David’s first command or order to Solomon sounds more like advice. Now that his young son has become the king of Israel, he must behave like a strong adult.

david-on-deathbedNext come two sentences in a different linguistic style, using synonyms in multiple phrases. Modern scholar Robert Alter has argued that these verses were added later by the editor of Deuteronomy, in order to improve David’s reputation.

And you must guard the custody of God, your god, to walk according to Its ways, to guard Its decrees, Its commandments, and Its rules, and Its admonitions, as written in the Teaching of Moses, so that you shall act with insight in everything that you do and everywhere you turn. So that God will establish Its word that It spoke concerning me, saying: if your descendants guard the way they take before Me faithfully, with all their heart and with all their soul—saying: yours will not be cut off from upon the throne of Israel. (1 Kings 2:3-4)

David reminds Solomon that as king, he must be a guardian of the religion of Israel, and base his own royal decisions on its rules. Then he gives the reason for his pious advice: so that his descendants to rule as kings of Israel forever.

The language of David’s deathbed speech reverts to a simpler style as he remembers the worst part of his life, when his beloved older son Absalom staged a coup and took over Jerusalem. Now he broods about unfinished business from those days.

He tells his son Solomon:

And furthermore, you know what Joab son of Tzeruyah did to me, what he did to two commanders of armies of Israel, to Avneir son of Neir and to Amasa son of Yeter: he killed them and he shed the blood of war beshalom…(1 Kings 2:5)

beshalom  (בְּשָׁלֺם) = in peace, in peacetime.

David became the king of all Israel through a treaty with his opponent’s general, Avneir. Then David’s general, Joab, assassinated Avneir.2

Joab kills Amasa

Joab kills Amasa

About 20 years later, Absalom usurped his father’s throne. David fled with his supporters, including Joab. When David’s army defeated Absalom’s, Joab quickly killed Absalom despite David’s order to the contrary.3 After David was reinstalled as king, he pardoned Absalom’s general, Amasa, but this did not stop Joab from murdering him under the cover of a friendly embrace.4 David did not dare punish Joab for either killing.

And so you must act in accordance with your wisdom, and you must not let his gray hair go down beshalom to Sheol. (1 Kings 2:6)

Even as David criticizes Joab for killing two generals in times of peace, he orders Solomon to kill Joab in peacetimeand make sure he does not die peacefully.

But with the sons of Barzillai of the Gilead, you shall do chesed. And they must eat at your table, because they came close to me when I fled from Absalom, your brother. (1 Kings 2:7)

While Absalom controlled Jerusalem, Barzillai had fed David and his men in exile at Machanayim. When David returned to the capital, he promised to reward Barzillai and provide for his son.5 Now David orders his son Solomon to honor that promise.

Shimi throws stones at David

Shimi throws stones at David

Then he issues a third command. When David fled from Jerusalem, Shimi son of Geira hurled stones and insults at him on the road.6 When he returned in triumph, Shimi apologized for his wrongdoing, accompanied by a thousand Benjaminites who offered to serve King David. David had little choice but to accept the apology and swear not to execute him.7 But David still resents Shimi.

So you must not leave him unpunished, because you are a wise man, and you know what you will do to him and send down his gray hair in blood to Sheol. (1 Kings 2:9)

That is the last thing David says before he dies. Once again, he compliments his son for being wise enough to figure out how to carry out his father’s revenge, but does not trust him to make his own decision.

And David slept with his fathers, and he was buried in the City of David. (1 Kings 2:10)

His acknowledgement of Solomon’s wisdom is overshadowed by his demands that Solomon carry out his orders, including finding pretexts to execute two powerful men. Is David so self-centered that his only concern on his deathbed is making his successor promise to avenge him?  Or is David urging Solomon to get rid of Joab and Shimi before they make Solomon suffer, too?

Either way, David’s death is not peaceful. He expresses appreciation for Solomon’s wisdom only in order to assure him he can carry out his father’s commands.  He complains bitterly about Joab and Shimi. He gives Solomon advice about following his religion, but he also issues commands about killing Joab, rewarding Barzillai, and killing Shimi. His last thoughts are about murder and revenge.

Although Jacob is self-centered earlier in his life, on his deathbed he has a broader view than David.  His only command concerns his own burial. He is affectionate with one of his sons, Joseph, and two grandsons. He blesses them, and gives prophecies and blessings to his other sons, despite his complaint about Reuben. Jacob dies with dignity, passing on more blessings than obligations to the next generation.

I pray that my own last words (many years from now, God willing!) will be only blessings. And in case I am not granted a deathbed scene in which I can speak to those I am leaving, I am resolved to express acknowledgement and appreciation every day, and avoid complaining about people and giving excessive advice. May the Holy One grant me the strength!

——

1 Genesis 35:22.

2 After the death of King Saul, David took control of Judah and Saul’s son Ish-Boshet took over the Israelite lands to the north. For two years they fought for the kingship of all Israel, until Ish-Boshet’s general, Avneir, persuaded him to let David be the king. Avneir made a treaty with David, but afterward Joab tracked him down and assassinated him. David cursed Joab, but did not dare demote him. (2 Samuel 3:6-34)

Later, King David got Bathsheba pregnant, and used General Joab to get rid of her husband Uriah. (2 Samuel 11:1-21)  After that, the already powerful Joab was ungovernable.

3 2 Samuel 18:5-17.

4 After Joab kills Absalom, David sends a message to Absalom’s general, Amasa. “And to Amasa you shall say: Aren’t you my own bone and flesh? May God do this and more to me if you do not become my army commander for all time instead of Joab! (2 Samuel 19:14) David succeeds in recruiting Amasa as one of his own commanders, but his attempt to replace Joab fails; when they are chasing down a band of rebels, Joab tricks Amasa by reaching to kiss him with one hand and knifing him with the other (2 Samuel 20:8-13).

5  2 Samuel 19:32-39.

6  2 Samuel 16:5-8.

7  2 Samuel 19:17-24.  When David became bedridden and his older son Adoniyah made a bid for the kingship, Shimi joined Solomon’s faction (1 Kings 1:8).

A Hanging Judge?

March 20, 2016 at 10:51 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
Tags: , , ,

What do you say when someone dies?

Jewish tradition provides three answers. When you first hear of someone’s death, you say “Barukh dayan ha-emet”, usually translated as “Blessed is the true judge”.

When you speak to a mourner (someone close to the person who died), you say “Hamakom yenacham etkhem betokh avalai Tziyon viYrushalayim”, usually translated as “May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”; or “Zikhrono/zikhronah livrakhah”, usually translated as “May his/her memory be for a blessing.” (I rephrase this as “May your memory of him/her be a blessing.”)

My father, William R. Backer, died on Friday, March 11, at age 88. I was fortunate to spend the last four days of his life with him, and I hope that someday, many years from now, I can die with similar grace and acceptance, noticing interesting things in the room and smiling when someone holds my hand.

I am glad to receive condolences like “May you be comforted” and “May his memory be a blessing”. But the initial statement at the news of a death, “Barukh dayan ha-emet”, has always irritated me.  I am still wrestling with it.

Barukh dayan ha-emet” (or sometimes Barukh dayan emet) is an excerpt from a longer blessing recited by mourners at a Jewish funeral, a blessing prescribed by Rabbi Akiva in the Talmud, Berachot 46b. The long version includes other names for God according to the customary formula, but does not explain why we conclude by calling God dayan ha-emet.

Barukh (בָּרוּךְ) = blessed. In Jewish prayer, Barukh is the first word of a blessing recited to thank or praise God. After that first word of appreciation, we give one or more names of God, then state the act of God that we are appreciating. For example, before I eat a handful of blueberries, I say “Blessed are You, God…Creator of fruit of the tree.”

dayan (דַּיָּן) = judge; one who passes sentence. (From the root verb din (דִּין) = judged, made legal rulings.)

ha-emet (הָאֱמֶת) = the truth; honesty; what is confirmed; the quality of dependability, reliability, or consistency. (From the same root as amen (אָמֵן) = Yes indeed!)

The sentence Barukh dayan ha-emet implies an anthropomorphic god who judges individual people, decides when to sentence them to death, and always makes the true (correct, honest, dependable, consistent) decision—in other words, the right decision.

Yet we can all think of individuals who deserved to live longer, from innocent infants to adults who were still improving the lives of others. Why should God judge that these people deserve death, by fatal illness or by other means?

Barukh dayan ha-emet is an example of the classic Problem of Evil: If God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and personal, why is this world flawed?  Why do bad things happen to good people?

(And in case you are wondering if death is “bad”, let me add that Jews traditionally say Barukh dayan ha-emet upon first hearing of any tragedy, including a house burning down or a plague of locusts destroying a crop.)

The easy answer to the Problem of Evil is to say that “God works in mysterious ways” and does everything for a good reason. Every death and every misfortune has a meaning and a purpose, even if we will never understand it.

I reject that easy answer. I do not believe in an unresolvable paradox just because some religious authority tells me to. If an answer neither speaks to my inner heart nor makes sense to my faculty of reason, I look for another explanation.

Here are a few better ways to justify calling God “the true judge”:

* “…the blessing teaches us on some psychological level to acknowledge that the binary opposites of Creation, e.g., light and darkness, good and evil, suffering and prosperity—all serve a higher purpose and contribute toward the overall welfare of the world. Were it not for death, the world could not contain or sustain all of the world’s inhabitants…” (Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel)

Yes, we could not be fully human without the existence of both good and evil, and the world could not function without light and darkness, birth and death. But if everyone must die to make room for new human beings, then why can’t all decent people die painlessly at age 120?

* “…God has given and God has taken; may the name of God be blessed.” (Book of Job, 1:21)

Job’s pious statement is the source for many commentators who urge us to bless God for everything, good and bad. I can see that blessing God for everything is a useful reminder that we are not in control. But what kind of god are we blessing?

*  “Emet is one of the 105 metaphorical names for God in Judaism. …Dayan, ‘Judge,’ is another fitting name, as an anthropomorphic metaphor for how we feel—that a difficult verdict has entered our own lives—loss, death, the departure and ascent of a soul beyond our world of experience…” (Rabbi Goldie Milgram) (Also see her book Living Jewish Life Cycle.)

Rabbi Milgram continues by hinting that there are tasks for a soul after death.  While I cannot follow her there, I can at least relate to the idea that we assign anthropomorphic names to God in order to express our own feelings about something bigger than we are.

Why do we call God dayan? The Hebrew Bible frequently depicts God as judging both individuals and nations. When God’s judgment is favorable, God provides rain for crops, fertility, and protection from enemies. When God’s judgment is unfavorable, God sends a fatal disease or an enemy army. In the next millennium, the Talmud continued to accept an anthropomorphic god as the judge of the world, and many humans accept it today.

Ha-emet is merely a noun form of emet. Calling God ha-emet is declaring that God is  honest, dependable, and/or consistent.  These are all desirable traits in a deity, but they do not mitigate God’s role as one who passes death sentences—especially when so many deaths seem arbitrary.

It’s about time we give up on the paradox called the Problem of Evil, and define the word “God” a different way. If calling God a reliable judge is an anthropomorphism, so is calling God omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and personal.  After all, power, knowledge, benevolence, and personal attention are all human qualities. How tempting it is to project these qualities onto a big screen and attribute them to God!

My father was lucky that he lived to age 88, and that his final illness was relatively brief. I am grateful for that, though I cannot direct my gratitude toward an outsized, humanoid god.

If I am emet (honest), I cannot say that God is either a dayan (judge and executioner) or emet (reliable and consistent rather than arbitrary).

So I have decided I will no longer say Barukh dayan ha-emet. The next time I hear that someone has died, I will stick to “May his/her memory be a blessing” and “May God comfort you”. Because comfort can come from a non-anthropomorphic God.

Stories from Eve’s Tree

March 10, 2013 at 11:02 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A story as old as the Talmud says that when Abraham and Sarah went to Egypt, and Abraham suddenly noticed his wife was beautiful, he hid her in a casket and tried to smuggle her across the border.

What happened next? Five women who were certified last year as maggidot (“tellers” of Jewish stories and Torah) have put our own spin on the ancient tale. We’ll present it this Saturday, March 16, in a show called “Stories from Eve’s Tree”. In between scenes about the dubious border crossing, we’ll tell other tales about how the lives of women are hidden and revealed—-traditional stories, personal stories, and stories about characters in the Torah as we imagine them. For this show, I wrote a story about about Lot and his wife when they imitate Abraham and Sarah, with hilarious results.

If you can be in Portland, Oregon, this Saturday night, come to “Stories from Eve’s Tree” at 7:30 p.m. Here’s the poster: SFET flyer

And here’s the link to our website: www.storiesfromevestree.com

If you can’t be in Portland on March 16, stay tuned! We are forming a troupe and taking this show on the road.

Becoming a Maggid

January 15, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

I am preparing for my certification on January 29 as a maggid (or maggidah, the feminine form in Hebrew).  So I decided to look up what a maggid does in the Torah.  The word first shows up when Pharaoh tells Joseph his two dreams:  one about seven scrawny cows eating up seven fat cows, and one about seven withered ears of grain eating up seven fat ears of grain.

And I spoke to the soothsayers, but none of them was a maggid for me.  (Genesis/Bereishit 41.24)

maggid = telling; an announcer, reporter, explainer, interpreter (from the root verb naggid = to tell)

Joseph’s interpretation of the dreams rings true for Pharoah, so he is a good maggid.

The word maggid does not appear again until the book of Judges, when Samson poses a riddle to 30 guests at his wedding party.  If they guess the answer to the riddle by the end of the seven-day party, he will give them 30 suits of clothing, but if they fail, they will give Samson 30 suits of clothing.  The guests learn the answer by cheating, and Samson, in a rage, kills 30 men in another town and strips off their clothing to give the wedding guests.

… and he took their clothes and he gave the sets of clothing to the tellers (maggidai) of the riddle.  (Judges/Shoftim 14:19)

In this reference, as in the story of Joseph, a maggid is someone who interprets a mystery.  But we get another meaning of the word maggid  in the second book of Samuel, which refers several times to messengers describing events to King David.  A young Amelekite maggid brings David the crown of King Saul, and gives his eye-witness account of how Saul was fatally wounded in battle, and asked someone to finish him off.  The maggid claims he himself did the deed—a mistake, since David responded by having the maggid killed.  Later David explains that the maggid thought he was bringing good news, but David did not see it that way.  This is a good reminder to me that the same story will be received differently by every listener.

Someone bringing news is called a maggid twice during the struggle between David and his son Absalom for the kingship.  One maggid reports to David that the hearts of the Israelite men are turning toward Absalom; David takes this bit of interpretation seriously and flees Jerusalem.  Another maggid reports to David’s general Joab, describing how he encountered Absalom riding a mule, and when Absalom ‘s long hair was caught in some tangled tree branches, his mule kept on going, leaving Absalom hanging by the hair.  Joab takes this comic story seriously, finds Absalom hanging by the hair, and stabs him to death.

The book of Jeremiah also uses the word maggid to mean a messenger who tells the news orally.  But the word  acquires more  gravity in the book of Isaiah, where God calls Itself a maggid.

I told of the first things, and they came to be; now I am a maggid of new things, before they sprout up, I announce.  (Isaiah/Yeshayahu 42:9)

I am God, speaking rightly; a maggid of  uprightness.  (Isaiah 45:19)

I am a maggid from the beginning to the end, and from the origin of things that had not happened.  (Isaiah 46:10)

So in the Hebrew bible, a maggid interprets dreams and riddles; tells eyewitness stories of real events; and (when God is a maggid) foretells the future—or speaks the future into reality.

In the Talmud, a maggid told stories (aggadah, an Aramaic word from the same Hebrew root word as maggid) to communicate subtle truths, while a darshan explained religious laws and technical points in the Torah.  The book that Jews still read at Passover is the haggadah (also from the same root as maggid) and everyone at the table who helps to to tell the story of the Exodus is a maggid.

By the Middle Ages, a maggid was an itinerant preacher who quoted from the Torah and offered his own interpretations, and also told other Jewish stories, in order to inspire uneducated Jews to become more devout.  A darshan gave the equivalent of a sermon at Jewish services, speaking about the weekly Torah portion and finding an inspiring message for the congregation.

The work of the maggid reached its greatest glory in Eastern Europe during the 17th through 19th centuries, when the chassidic movement fostered leaders who combined the jobs of maggid, darshan, and rabbi.

The old Eastern European model of the maggid faded away during the 20th century.  But now a new interest in the maggidic calling is rising, and I know of at least two formal programs to train maggids.  I am one of seven women who are completing the first two-year training program offered by Rabbi David Zaslow and professional storyteller Devorah Zaslow.

In some ways I have already been serving as a maggid.  This blog, now in its third year, is a series of
drashot (or “drashes”,  in colloquial American Jewish parlance):  commentary on Torah portions that explores meanings we can consider today.  I have also been a darshan (one of many!) for my congregation, P’nai Or of Portland, for many years.  And my Torah monologues are a creative form of drashot.  The only part of a maggid’s job that I used to lack was Jewish storytelling.  During the last two years, while I have been studying with David and Devorah Zaslow, my drashot have become deeper, and I have learned how tell traditional Jewish stories.  (I always rewrite the stories to make them more interesting or meaningful to me and my audience—but that, too, is part of the Jewish storytelling tradition!)

This January 27-29, in Portland, Oregon,  the seven of us graduating from the maggid program will lead both Friday evening and Saturday morning Shabbat services, using both traditional liturgy and  some creative approaches to prayers, and giving seven drashot on different pieces of the Torah portion for that week, Bo (Come!).  That Saturday evening we’ll tell Jewish stories in a storytelling concert, and on Sunday we’ll have our graduation ceremony.

Because I need to spend all my spare time the next two weeks preparing for the big graduation weekend, I will not be posting any blogs on the first two Torah portions of the book of Exodus/Shemot.  If you would like to read my previous blogs on the Torah portions Shemot and Va-Eira, go to http://www.mtorah.com and click on the tab “Blogs by Torah Portion”.

And for my next blog?  Part of my preparation will be writing a four-minute drash on one of the inner meanings of the  locust plague in Bo.  Look for it in blog form at the end of the month!

Meanwhile, I have become more aware that human beings not only need to tell stories, but we need to hear and read stories to help us interpret our own inner stories, to help us interpret our dreams and our mysterious yearnings and the personal histories we are continually rewriting for ourselves.  Ultimately, maybe good stories have the same purpose as good religion and good psychology:  the discovery of meaning in our lives.

Rebirth of Torah Sparks and Torah Monologues

April 18, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

This is my new site for my blogs on the Torah portion of the week, “Torah Sparks”, and my website for my Torah Monologues and creative midrash workshops.

I’ve been working on this new site for more than a month now, while outside sprouts slowly push out of their seeds or bulbs and up through the dirt, until finally they reach the open air and the sun turns them green.

And my dear and computer-savvy husband, Will, transferred “www.mtorah.com” to this new site just before Passover (Pesach in Hebrew).  How delightfully appropriate!  Not only is Passover a spring holiday, but it celebrates the liberation of the Israelites from their old life of slavery in Egypt, and how they (and everyone else who decided to join them as they left Egypt) began to learn a new way of life on the other side of the Reed Sea.  In their new life, they were all to become priests and priestesses, a holy nation.  And that takes a lot of learning and a lot of practice.

I’ll address what “holy” means in my next regular blog, on the Torah portion named Kedoshim (Holiness).

I hope this new site will make it easier for you to find sparks of inspiration, and easier for me to continue the “holy” work I’ve taken on.

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