Archive for the ‘TORAH/BIBLE’ Category

ECCLESIASTES AND US

The world seems to be coming apart. Massive fires in the wine country of Napa and Sonoma counties and elsewhere in California represent the latest “disaster of the week.” Fortunately, a biblical text attributed to King Solomon (died 931 BCE) and probably written 600 years later, offers us the strength to endure.

We’re tempted, of course, to declare that things have never been this bad. But we—and every generation preceding us—have experienced trying times. The book of Ecclesiastes (Hebrew: Kohelet—gatherer/teacher/preacher) reminds us, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

One of five “scrolls” in the Hebrew Bible along with Esther, Song of Songs, Ruth and Jonah, Ecclesiastes is traditionally read during the festival of Sukkot, which begins five days after Yom Kippur. Ecclesiastes often is viewed as negative and cynical. Not so, according to scholars. They include Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, a hillside community in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley.

Last Monday night in San Francisco, I attended a dinner talk by Rabbi Feinstein. He broke down the text of Ecclesiastes to offer several heartening concepts. Importantly, Rabbi Feinstein never claimed his views were conclusive; Jews question, answer then question again.

Ecclesiastes advises that life and our various accomplishments and sufferings amount only to hevel—a puff of air, a mist, a transitory matter. Moreover, death awaits us all. Neither pleasure, riches, wisdom nor righteousness alter that. Equally disturbing if not more so, good people often suffer, while bad people often attain wealth and fame. (The book of Job offers another exploration of the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”.)

Does this paint a portrait of humanity too glum to bear? No. Ecclesiastes counsels, in this translation by my friend Dan Weiss and his study partner Israel Amrani: “I praise joy / Nothing is better for man under the sun / than to eat and to drink and to be joyful” (8:15). Let’s put this in perspective: Ecclesiastes does not extol gluttony, drunkenness and sexual indulgence. These, too, are hevel.

Rather, Ecclesiastes states that for everything there is a season. (Now you know the source for the Pete Seeger song covered by the Byrds.) We experience good. We also suffer, as do so many Americans now in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, Las Vegas and California. Basically, life happens. For the most part, we can’t control it. The world—indeed, the universe—is too big and complex. The best we can do is enjoy what we can while we can. As my mother, Blanche taught me: “You have to take the good times with the bad.”

We find additional hope in what this book does not say, according to Rabbi Feinstein. Ecclesiastes sees the world in the guise of a lone figure without family and friends (although not without wives and concubines). Family and community make a difference. While our lives are finite, we achieve a semblance of immortality—of something lasting—when we teach our children and others, display love and cultivate friendships. In Jewish tradition, we “live” so long as we are remembered.

I offer this final summary of Ecclesiastes paraphrasing Rabbi Hillel, the great sage of 2,000 years ago: Life crushes the ego. All the rest is commentary. Now go and study.

Rabbi Jessica Graf and Cantor David Frommer will present Ecclesiastes today (Friday), noon–2 pm for Congregational Sherith Israel’s Prime Time Club for people 65 and older. Complementary lunch is provided. While food has been ordered, we always find room for a few more people, members and nonmembers.

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JONAH AND JONES

Harvard University recently rejected a Ph.D. candidate in history despite impressive credentials. Michelle Jones’ case should move us to examine the biblical book of Jonah.

Jones, 45 and a child victim of abuse, served more than 20 years for murdering her four-year-old son. A horrible crime? Absolutely. Yet in prison, she earned a B.A. from Ball State and led an award-winning research project for the Indiana Historical Society. Harvard’s history program accepted her, but the school’s administration overturned the decision fearing backlash from rejected applicants. At least some Harvard administrators hold the concept of repentance at arm’s length.

With Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, beginning next Friday evening, practicing Jews focus on repentance. During Rosh Hashanah (the New Year; it’s 5778) and the ten days following, we seek forgiveness—individually and communally—for sins committed against God. (For wrongs against people, only those hurt can grant forgiveness.) We pray for God’s mercy. But are we willing to forgive others who repent?

Note that Judaism doesn’t instruct victims to turn the other cheek and offer blanket forgiveness. That lets wrongdoers off the hook. Rather, a wrongdoer must ask for forgiveness. If after being asked three times the injured person refuses to forgive, the offender no longer remains obligated to make further petitions.

Understand, too, that it’s easy to say, “I’m sorry.” The philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) instructs that repentance involves three phases—understanding the wrong committed, vowing not to repeat it then not doing it. Words must lead to action.

Granted, it can be difficult to forgive those who have wronged us. This conundrum marks the biblical book of Jonah, a traditional Yom Kippur reading. I’ll teach the text at Congregation Sherith Israel on Yom Kippur afternoon (1:15).

In brief, God tells Jonah to go to the wicked city of Nineveh and tell the people to repent. There’s an irony here. Nineveh is the capital of Assyria, which destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and scattered its “ten lost tribes.” Despite God’s command, Jonah sails west in the opposite direction to escape performing this task. He doesn’t want God to give the Ninevites the opportunity to repent.

After three days in the stomach of a dag gadol (a big fish, not a whale), Jonah learns a lesson. God commands. You do. Jonah goes to Nineveh and announces that God is giving the city 40 days to repent or be overturned.

The Ninevites, from the king down, repent—and mean it! Jonah is unhappy. He wants Nineveh destroyed and always feared God would forgive. God, however, prefers that humans repent and live righteously. Terrible deeds cannot be undone, but people can refashion themselves.

Jonah and Yom Kippur assert that the human heart possesses considerable elasticity. Not all bad or evil people will turn towards righteousness. Like the Pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites, some have gone too far gone. But for most of us, the opportunity to repent endures.

But we cannot proclaim our worthiness to be forgiven while refusing to give others when they prove their merit. New York University got it. They accepted Jones. In doing so, NYU (my father’s alma mater) affirmed that Jonah, a small book, offers a big a lesson for the ages. Now go and study.

For more on Jonah, see my recap and commentary in God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible (Amazon). May you be written and sealed into the Book of Life, and enjoy a year of peace.

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LANGUAGE AND MEANING

Most people recognize the first verse of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Clear? Not really. Commentators and scholars translate the Hebrew word B’reishit—“In the beginning”—in several ways. This gives rise to multiple insights into God’s actions. Language—in translation or out—often fails to accurately convey meaning. We might apply this principle to the June 8 testimony of former FBI director James Comey before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Re Genesis, the Soncino Press (1993) translation stays with “In the beginning.” The Stone Chumash (printed Torah) offers: “In the beginning of God’s creating…” The Jewish Publication Society (1999) and the scholar Robert Alter prefer “When God began to create…”. Everett Fox chooses “At the beginning…” As Nahum Sarna notes, “The mystery of divine creativity is, of course, ultimately unknowable.”

Congress and the American people face another mystery—the meaning in President Trump’s words regarding an investigation into General Michael Flynn, Trump’s fired national security advisor. Former FBI director James Comey, also fired by Trump, testified that Trump told him: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” Because Comey said he met in private with Trump, liberal commentators and Democrats exclaim, “Obstruction of justice!” Conservative commentators and Republicans respond, “No way!”

During Comey’s testimony, Senator Jim Risch (R–Idaho), skeptical that Trump did anything wrong, focused on the word hope. Risch asked Comey if was aware of any successful prosecution of someone who hoped something illegal was done. Comey said no. But that, despite Risch’s efforts, hardly ends the matter.

Read Comey’s words, and important details of his conversation with the President go missing. Hope, Risch suggested, represents wishful thinking. Trump, in private, simply shared his yearning that Flynn, “a good guy,” not face prosecution. But which word follows hope? You. If Trump uttered these words, he spoke not to himself but directly to Comey. “I hope you can see your way clear…” It’s hardly a stretch to interpret this as Trump telling Comey to drop the investigation without saying the precise words, “You drop the investigation.” Personally, I’ve never said, “I hope you can…” to anyone without expressing a clear intent that they do what I for all intents and purposes asked. In this context, I hope creates an expectation.

I mentioned missing details. Whatever words Mr. Trump uttered, we lack a recording, which Trump hinted at having, although he may not. What tone of voice did he use? We don’t know. Intonation colors any word or set of words. Trump’s tone could indeed have indicated wishful thinking. Or it could have projected a presidential order. We also lack an eye on such critical factors as Trump’s facial expression and body language. All these help make us understood. For that matter, we can’t see Comey’s physical response.

Will Comey’s memo regarding Trump’s hope be accepted by Robert Mueller, the Justice Department’s special investigator, as proof of wrongdoing? We’ll see. Will President Trump testify before the Senate subcommittee? We’ll see about that, too. But I doubt we’ll see a smoking gun.

Still, a pattern seems to be emerging. Each day, it becomes more disturbing. And when I write disturbing, let there be no doubt about what I mean.

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THE CLASH OF CULTURES

I often refer to Samuel Huntington’s 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Huntington posited that the world is divided into religious and national entities that would be at odds with each other given the Soviet Union’s fall. The book has been criticized, but I believe it to be correct. In a parallel vein, it’s certainly apt to say that in 2017, America is riven by a clash of cultures.

The 2016 presidential election pitted blue coastal elites against red heartland Americans. Cultural differences played a major role. Many voters took opposite positions less on the economy and foreign relations than on guns, global warming, abortion, and a multi-gender, multi-ethnic America.

If you’ve traveled or lived in a region not your own color, you understand. Differences in culture and perception are a fact of life. This becomes a problem only when two critical factors go ignored. First, being immersed in a culture not your own is perfectly acceptable—if those “opposites” don’t force their preferences on others. Second, Americans share a common culture in many ways. Red and blue, we (if not everyone) love sports. We go to movies and watch TV in all its broadcast forms. We gobble pizza, barbecue on holidays, go to the seashore or lake, hike and bike, honor our troops and take Mom out for Mother’s Day brunch. Conservatives, like liberals, drink wine. Liberals, like conservatives, drink beer. Christians of all political persuasions decorate Christmas trees.

Sadly, red folks and blue folks come into little contact, since the nation lacks a military draft or mandated national service. So, Americans often see only stereotypes. Many adopt a philosophy undercutting the nation’s core beliefs as a democracy. They define different as bad. They consider illegitimate people with cultural preferences not matching their own. The cultural divide leads to a political divide increasingly wide and bitter. Everyone shouts. No one listens.

Two weeks ago, I mentioned the Book of Leviticus. We’re now in the Book of Numbers, but Leviticus remains on my mind. Leviticus 19:18 commands, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Both red and blue types pay lip service to this verse. It demands more.

  • LOVE: Actions, not just words, prove the real measure of our intentions and integrity.
  • YOUR: The neighbor to whom Leviticus refers is ours, not someone else’s
  • NEIGHBOR: In a world grown more interconnected, we must expand our definition of neighbor from those nearest us to those at some distance. We can’t come to the rescue for everyone, but we can respect all people’s inherent worth.
  • AS YOURSELF: We cannot complain of prejudice and violence inflicted on us if we devalue, hate or persecute anyone else.

 

Democrats often vilify conservatives, as Hillary Clinton did in her sorrowful reference to Donald Trump’s “basket of deplorables.” Republicans eagerly point to liberals as “fake Americans” who control “fake news.” Yet most conservatives and liberals want the same things: good jobs, healthcare and education for their families, safety and peace. Because these issues cross cultural lines, good will and effort can help us find a measure of political common ground.

Yes, red and blue states—or communities—will continue to follow diverse cultural imperatives. But a closer look reveals that we’re all different just the same.

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LEVITICUS AND THE PRESIDENCY

This week, Jews studying Torah are completing the Book of Leviticus. Its copious laws include animal sacrifices, sexual unions, physical impurities and dietary restrictions. While not necessarily the writers’ intentions, Leviticus also informs us about the American presidency.

The last portion of Leviticus offers the Tochechah or Admonition (essentially repeated in Deuteronomy). If the Israelites obey God’s commandments, they will live in peace and prosperity. If not, they will suffer calamities, including starvation (even cannibalism), war and exile among the nations. God, however, doesn’t intend to punish the Israelites on a whim. God wants them to exercise their free will (the Rabbis discuss free will at length) and make proper choices.

Granted, many of Leviticus’ biblical injunctions seem archaic. But the essence of the Tochechah, even for atheists, is simple. A community or nation enjoys the best odds for tranquility and good fortune when it chooses to do right. A society of just laws reinforced by compassion will—eventually—outperform one riddled with anarchy or tyranny and selfishness.

Where does this leave the United States? We pride ourselves on our democracy, imperfect though it may be. We believe that in regularly choosing our leaders, we promote life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But as God warns Israel, we can make good choices or bad ones. The latter can bring dire consequences.

Last November, America chose a new president. The popular vote went to Hillary Clinton, but as provided by the Constitution, the Electoral College determined the winner. That was Donald Trump. Many Trump supporters had no idea what his policies would be; Mr. Trump apparently had no idea either. But many voters liked that “he says what he thinks.” Mr. Trump said a lot, including calling his opponent “Crooked Hillary.”

Since taking office, Mr. Trump referred to his predecessor Barak Obama as a “Bad (or sick) guy!”, called the media—a bulwark of democracy—a “disgrace” for spreading “fake news,” and labeled James Comey, the FBI director looking into Trump campaign connections to Russia, a “showboat” and “grandstander.” That was after he allegedly asked Mr. Comey to go easy on fired national security advisor Mike Flynn—and before Mr. Trump revealed sensitive intelligence concerning ISIS airline bomb plots to two senior Russian officials.

On Wednesday, the Justice Department appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel to determine if the Trump campaign engaged in collusion with Russia. Mr. Mueller will be given wide latitude, including the power to bring criminal charges. Mr. Trump issued a brief statement welcoming the special counsel. Then he backtracked, calling the investigation a “witch hunt.”

Mr. Mueller may find no grounds to impeach Mr. Trump. (Trial in the Senate would follow.) Impeachment doesn’t concern popularity or competence. I suspect, however, that the special investigator’s report will highly damage Mr. Trump’s presidency, very possibly to the point of inducing resignation.

As to Leviticus, it’s not all doom and gloom. God promises that even after being severely punished, Israel can choose to return to the commandments. If it does, God will restore the people to their land. Going forward, Americans and their representatives in Congress will have to make difficult choices regarding chaos in the White House—chaos we chose to inflict on ourselves.

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WHAT I HAVE AND WHAT I DON’T

I have prostate cancer. I also have much to be thankful for. My urologist caught it early. The cancer is confined to my prostate. It’s completely curable.

I have an attentive primary-care physician and an attentive urologist. My primary, at my annual physicals, evaluated a steady rise in my PSA (prostate-specific antigen) scores. A few years ago, he referred me to my urologist. Two biopsies proved negative, but my PSA kept rising. My urologist suggested a new blood screening—the 4K test. It led to an MRI, which revealed several small growths. A guided biopsy proved positive. Radiation and hormone therapy will kill the cancer and prevent new malignancies from developing.

What I don’t have is an attitude of “Why me?” Most men develop prostate cancer if they live long enough. Most die with it, not of it. Many who do die of prostate cancer may not have had regular checkups. Their undetected cancer spread to their bones and/or organs.

What I don’t have, as well, is a loss of spirit. I’d probably feel differently if I’d been diagnosed with brain cancer, pancreatic cancer or leukemia. I’ve had family and friends who died from all the above at an early age. They suffered. I have no symptoms.

What I also don’t have is a sense of lost invincibility. Both my urologist and radiation oncologist mentioned that even with a prognosis of full recovery, many men with prostate cancer are rocked on their heels. They discover their own mortality. I’ve never thought I wouldn’t die. My grandparents died. My parents and all but one of their generation died. A cousin died of leukemia at 12. A friend was killed when the Medevac helicopter he piloted in Vietnam was shot down. A client died at 27 many years ago in a car crash on the Golden Gate Bridge. There were others.

The biblical story of Adam and Eve reminds us that death is inevitable. Denied the fruit of the Tree of Life, no one enjoys immortality. The story of their sons Cain and Abel alerts us that death may come before its time—and at our own hands.

Unfortunately, here’s something else I don’t have: faith in our government as presently constituted to help millions of Americans obtain and/or maintain the healthcare they need—the healthcare I fortunately have. Further, I don’t have faith in a president who only discovered in his first weeks in office that the issue of healthcare is complex.

Added to that, I don’t have faith in many members of Congress, who approach healthcare in purely ideological terms, eschewing compassion and compromise in the name of politics. For that matter, I don’t have faith in pharmaceutical companies who develop life-saving drugs but make it difficult or impossible for many Americans to afford them.

I won’t be updating you on my medical story, such as it is. I’ll be fine. The story that is on my mind is a new novel that will take three or four years to complete. I’ll have the time. I wish I could say the same for potentially millions of Americans whose health and very lives may be forfeit because Washington would prevent them from obtaining the healthcare coverage and medical assistance they need and deserve.

I also have a desire to be read. Check out the first two chapters of my new novel The Odd Plight of Adonis Licht on this website. I’ll host a celebration on Sunday, April 30, selling and autographing softcover books. Can’t be there? Go to Amazon for a copy in softcover or digital format.

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NORMAL VS. USUAL

Recently, I asked a doctor if a small matter was normal. He answered, “You mean, is it usual?” Regrettable remarks by a multi-class boxing champion bring that comment into focus.

I reference Monday’s comment by Manny Pacquiao, also a senator in the Philippines. He spoke against proposed legislation protecting transgender Filipinos: “Even in the Bible, we read that the woman should wear women’s [clothing]; and the man, for men’s wear. That’s what I believe.” One year ago, Nike ended its relationship with Pacquiao after he called gays “worse than animals.” He apologized.

Pacquiao’s quoting the Torah puzzles me. Christian conservatives habitually cite such commandments as, “A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear women’s clothing” (Deuteronomy 22:5). Yet this is not one of the Ten Commandments, which Christians revere. It’s one of 603 other mitzvot given the Israelites at Sinai. Christians believe them obsolete because Jesus established a new covenant with humanity.

Does Pacquiao’s defending one of those 603 other mitzvot give his position credence? Leviticus 11:7-8 forbids eating swine. Other passages forbid eating shellfish. (For the record, I don’t eat pork or shellfish.) These commandments are addressed to Jews. Does Pacquiao follow them? Is he a closet Jew?

I’m not writing to beat up (figuratively) Manny Pacquiao. Rather, I want to emphasize that many mitzvot emphasize separation. This includes keeping the seventh day, Shabbat (I do but not to Orthodox standards) and forbidding the wearing of clothing made of both wool and flax—animal and vegetable fibers (easy to follow). Often, the mitzvot don’t mesh with twenty-first century modernity.

For example, many people believe that gender identity comes in only two types, male and female. And that sexual preference consists of only one type, heterosexual. They see this as normal. But science and observation—I’m the father of a transgender son (born a female), a gay son and a straight son—demonstrate that gender identity and sexual preference flow along a spectrum.

My trans son isn’t acting out or deliberately flaunting society’s norms. He has long identified as male and felt uncomfortable as a female. I wish Carolyn and I picked up the cues earlier in his life, but the issue was unexpected and public knowledge scarce. Over the years, I’ve learned that society inflicts considerable and unjustifiable pain when it dictates how people must identify their gender and sexual preference—demands that nullify the very soul of an individual.

Reality is, straight male and straight female identities aren’t normal. They’re usual. The majority is straight—or seems so. To what degree is an individual matter. Still, the world contains a sizable LGBTQI community. Its members may not be usual, but they’re normal. Moreover, they are all human beings who deserve respect.

If Manny Pacquiao wants to quote Torah, he might study Genesis 1:27. “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” The Sages of the Talmud propose that Adam was a hermaphrodite. Separation provided Eve. The discussion is complicated but fascinating.

Whatever position you take on this Torah verse, it makes clear one critical idea: all human beings are created in the image of God.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And if you feel it’s more appropriate, remember Jesus’ words: “Do unto others…”

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TORN BETWEEN WORLDS

The Hebrew word shalom means “hello,” “goodbye” and “peace.” It comes from shalem, which means wholeness. When we feel whole, we experience shalom—peace. When we don’t, our inner conflicts can have grave consequences for ourselves and those around us. This theme ran through the four movies Carolyn and I recently saw at the Jewish Film Festival in San Francisco.

A Tale of Love and Darkness by the Israeli-born American actress Natalie Portman is based on the autobiographical novel by Amos Oz (nee Klausner; Oz means strength in Hebrew). Oz’s parents came separately to Israel from Eastern Europe in the 1930s and met in Jerusalem. His mother, well educated and from a once-wealthy family, could not cope with the challenging life in Israel before and after independence. She became increasingly depressed and committed suicide. Interestingly, Jerusalem is equated with the biblical city of Shalem along with the Canaanite priest Melchizedek—about whom I write in God’s Others—mentioned in Genesis 14:18. In 1967, Jerusalem was reunited by the Israeli military. Yet it remains culturally divided between West (Jews) and East (Arabs).

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You focuses on the hit TV shows Lear created from the the late 1960s through the ‘80s. The controversial but highly rated “All in the Family” featured Carroll O’Connor as the right-wing, irascible Archie Bunker and Jean Stapleton as his beleaguered but loving wife Edith. Hunkered down in his Queens home, Archie resists the whirlwind of social and cultural changes in America. He feels lost in a time warp, hence the title music “Those Were the Days” with its brilliant line, “Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again.” Which we could not. Yes, Archie is a racist and a misogynist. Still, there’s something lovable about him because he cannot conceal his basic humanity.

The Writer is an Israeli TV series created by Sayed Kashua. Its protagonist Kateb (Yousef Sweid) mirrors Sayed as the creator of the actual Israeli hit show Arab Labor. Kateb reveals Sayed’s feeling of dislocation—an Israeli Arab sympathetic to the Palestinians but a thoroughly modern resident of Jewish West Jerusalem. Ultimately, Kateb takes a teaching position in the United States. Kashua has been at the University of Illinois for two years and is applying for his green card.

For the Love of Spock tracks the development of the character Dr. Spock in the famed “Star Trek” TV series and movies. It also profiles Leonard Nimoy, the actor who brought Spock to life. Spock—whose famed hand salute is the sign of the priestly blessing given by descendants of the kohanim (priests) during Yom Kippur and observed by the young Nimoy in his Boston synagogue—is half-Vulcan, half-human. Spock’s cold logic typifies his Vulcan self, but echoing Archie Bunker, he periodically reveals his human emotions. Nimoy himself suffered a dichotomy. Most Trekkies saw him only as Spock and didn’t know about his other acting work or concede that Nimoy was a person in his own right.

The Jewish Film Festival runs through this weekend in San Rafael and Berkeley. It’s worth attending. It’s also worth looking at any of the films through the lens of human beings torn between worlds. To a great extent, this represents the human condition—as does the search for shalem.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And if you’re looking for someone with dueling personalities, check YouTube for my 2013 stand-up routine at San Francisco’s Purple Onion.

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THE CHALLENGE OF CHOICE

In 1990, I met new friends Yury and Svetlana who’d just come to the U.S. from the Soviet Union. I took them to the Toy Boat on Clement Street for ice cream. The choices of flavors staggered them. Over time, they learned to shop around. Still, retail choices aren’t always simple. Moral choices can be a nightmare.

B’reishit, the first portion of the Book of Genesis, offers two timeless stories concerning choice. In the first, God instructs Adam not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. But the wily serpent convinces Eve to take a bite. She does and passes the fruit on to her husband who also indulges. Bad choices. Goodbye, Eden.

Next comes the story of Cain and Abel, the children of Adam and Eve. When God accepts Abel’s offering but not Cain’s, Cain becomes crestfallen. God offers Cain encouragement: “Sin couches at the door; / Its urge is toward you, / Yet you can be its master.” Evil tempts us constantly, but we are not condemned to making bad choices. Regrettably, God’s advice falls on deaf ears. Apparently consumed by jealousy, Cain kills Abel. In punishment he must wander the earth.

Who among us is not without regrets? It is in our nature as human beings to make bad choices as well as good ones. According to the Sages of the Talmud, Adam and Eve bequeathed to humanity the yetzer tov (the good inclination) and the yetzer hara (the bad inclination). These often place us at war with ourselves. Nearly two thousand years later, Freud wrote about the conflict of the id, ego and superego. Both religious and civil law attempt to keep the yetzer hara in check.

John Steinbeck made the Cain and Abel story the core of his novel East of Eden (1952). The brothers Adam and Charles Trask share a love-hate relationship. Adam’s wife, Cathy Ames, represents pure evil. The serpent perhaps? Cathy’s sons Aron and Caleb—supposedly Adam’s, more likely Charles’—also possess conflicting personalities. Caleb loves Aron, but Aron is the beloved child. Ultimately, Caleb gets Aron to enlist in the Army during World War One. Aron is killed in Europe.

Steinbeck pursues the theme of choice throughout this long novel. At its conclusion, he repeats an earlier reference to the Cain and Abel story that uses the Hebrew word timshel, translated as “thou mayest.” Caleb is told that he can dominate or master his sinful urges. He does not have to wander the world; he can build a life.

The Torah offers structure for making moral choices. The Talmud delves deeper. Still, sound choices never come easy. Modern-day thinkers often present challenging responses to making geopolitical choices in a complex world. Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State under Richard Nixon, wrote in Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957) that some situations force us “to run risks in a situation which permits only a choice among evils.” We must not lose our principles, Kissinger states, but we cannot uphold them if we perish.

Today, Islamist violence in the Middle East and the plight of refugees along with poverty and gun violence at home confront us with difficult choices. I referenced Genesis, which begins the Bible. I’ll close with Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.”

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SO WHAT WAS MOSES THINKING?

Last Saturday, I led Torah Study at Congregation Sherith Israel. We read Vayelech—which means and (Moses) went. This short portion presents the prophet’s last address—one more warning to forswear false gods—before the Israelites cross the Jordan River into Canaan. He is 120. He is about to die. He will be left behind. I wondered how he felt.

Moses childhood no doubt was confusing. Born into a despised Hebrew family—Pharaoh has ordered all Israelite male babies to be put to death at birth—he’s raised in court by Pharaoh’s daughter. But he remains a Hebrew at heart. As a young man, he sees an Egyptian taskmaster beat an Israelite. He hits and kills the Egyptian. Someone sees him. Moses flees east to Midian and becomes a self-professed stranger in a strange land.

God has plans for Moses. Moses isn’t interested. At the burning bush Moses asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11). He has, he says, a speech problem. Still, Moses makes a speech Fidel Castro in length that fills the Book of Deuteronomy forty years after the Exodus. It is Moses who, with help from his brother Aaron, brought Egypt to its knees and has kept the fractious Israelites together in the wilderness. Yet Moses is a watchword for humility. “Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth” (Numbers 12:3).

He’s great. He’s humble. Oh, he’s also irascible. While Moses is atop Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, the Israelites demand that Aaron make a visible “god” for them. Aaron produces a golden calf. When Moses comes down, he’s furious. “He took the calf that they had made and burned it; he ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and so made the Israelites drink it” (Exod. 32:20).

Problems with anger management? Moses is only human. Exodus 11:3 refers to him as “Ha ish Moshe”—the man Moses. When the Israelites thirst for water in the wilderness, Moses blows it. Rather than speaking to a rock to draw water as God commands, Moses strikes the rock with his staff (Numbers 20:11). Yes, water flows. But God punishes Moses severely. He will never be able to enter the Promised Land.

So here we encounter Moses on what appears to be his last day. He finally seems resigned to his fate. He’s just passed leadership on to Joshua. He’s about to give Israel a song of faith and a blessing that will outline the future. Then he’ll see Canaan from Mount Nebo before being gathered to his ancestors. So what is he thinking?

I hope Moses has measured his life carefully and has a sense of perspective. That while he recognizes his failures—it seems he didn’t circumcise his younger son Eliezer (Exodus 4:24–26) as required by Israelite law—he appreciates what he’s accomplished.

We are all frail. I’d like to believe that Moses’ last thoughts tip the scales in his favor. Jews long have revered him as Moshe rabbeinu—Moses our teacher. More than three millennia removed, Moses’ life informs us that people with common weaknesses and failings may do uncommon things. May we see this possibility in ourselves.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

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