Eating Your Pets: When To Hearken to Category Confusion. (Parshat Vayera)

eat your pet

The following piece sits at the intersection of two loves: Torah and Education. I welcome those unfamiliar with the Jewish world of Bible Exegesis to enjoy an unusual spin on an ancient text.


Kosher duck is delicious.

I’d never eaten duck before. I have owned ducks – I grew up on a farm outside Milwaukee and we had a chicken-coop full of ducks who were, basically, outdoor pets who flew away, each fall, right at the point in time when we were of sick and tired of them. Then, come spring-time, a trip to the farm-store, and we had fluffy, adorable ducklings in the aquarium, ducklings in the kitchen sink, ducks in the chicken coop.

But recently, a friend acquired a free-range, kosher duck from Grow and Behold, so in my head, my childhood pet was about to become food. This didn’t sit well with me. I had some very serious category confusion.

Category confusion is the uncomfortable feeling you get when you encounter something not only out of context, but also in a situation antithetical to the usual association. Two potentially good things, slammed together, become one uncomfortable thing: we’re all familiar with that awkward moment when social boundaries get mixed up. Or even just ideas, jumbled: a big sandwich in the bathroom. A nun with a harpoon.

In this week’s Torah Portion, Abraham and God appear in two scenes, replete with category confusion: the first shows God, who Abraham associates with justice, threatening to destroy the entire city of Sodom. The second shows the same God, asking Abraham for an offering; it just happens to be his son.

peeprs

Mr. Peepers. Pet duck … or dinner?

Abraham’s responses to the two moments of category are as essentially unlike as…well, as the concept of “pet” and the concept of “dinner.”

In response to God’s threats to destroy Sodom, Abraham steps up to confront Him, embarking on an almost absurd journey of bargaining: 50 righteous people in the town will spare it…all the way down to 10 righteous people. In response to God’s request of Abraham’s son, however: nothing. No apparent discomfort. No category confusion. Or at least, none that we can see with the naked eye.

That said, the verse reads:

And Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife; and they went both of them together. (22:6)

Yes, Abraham does ultimately take the equipment to sacrifice his son, but this story is already so terse. Why the unnecessary (underlined) details? If I was to suggest a rewrite, I could make this already concise story even more concise, excising the underlined portion: “Abraham took Isaac his son and the knife; and they went both of them together.”

What is lost, by cutting these seemingly extraneous details, is a sense of Abraham’s inner world. In Abraham’s mind, he wants the knife to be as far away from Isaac and Abraham as possible. The placement of the words mimics his internal world. In his mind, and in his relationship with his son, there is no room for a knife. This is an intolerable category confusion.

This particular reading goes deep into details to extract a particular interpretation, but it speaks to the way that we spend a great deal of energy, in our lives, saddled with all sorts of category confusions.

  • Our society want our children to be safe, to thrive, but teenagers are the most at risk group for depression and suicide.
  • Our society wants the next generation to be empowered and educated – but the economic realities that schools ensure are, in many cases, quite anti-education.
  • Our society wants clean air and water for our children…and also all the comforts of a hyper-industrialized lifestyle.

It’s beyond the scope of this piece to solve the category confusions of living complex lives with competing demands, but the Biblical language suggests that if we read closely, we may discover our true priorities.

Who knows what might have happened if Avraham had spoken his mind to God, the very words he spoke after learning of Gods plans to destroy Sodom:

“Far be it from you to do such a thing–to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Ex 18:25).

 

Perhaps the relationship between Sarah, Avraham and Isaac – effectively terminated by this watershed moment – could have been salvaged? Perhaps childrens’ well being would dwell more sacredly – and with more behaviors and laws to back up that values – at the center of our society.

Sometimes, category confusion is good. It tells us what we value… although in the case of the duck, once I grew accustomed to the idea of eating Mr. Peepers, I had to admit: my pet was delicious.

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How not to bite your student/child’s head off

From G-dcast.com

From G-dcast.com

  • There are days when a certain student might walk by you and he’ll stick out his hand for a high five.
  • Weeks, pass, and that student refuses to look you in the eye.

What happened? Perhaps you refused to accept a shady excuse for late work. Perhaps you busted her for cheating. Perhaps you told his parents about a problematic outburst in class.

Parents, too, know this feeling — the same son or daughter who, last week, snuggled with you on the sofa now won’t sit next to you in the front seat of the car.

Angry words were exchanged. The word hate may have emerged. The parent, it seems, has ruined the child’s life. Oaths were made: the child promises she will never forgive the parent.

The parent may remain silent…or perhaps the feeling is mutual. Either way, there are at least 15 minutes left to the trip to the orthodontist. It will not  be a pleasant 15 minutes.

Well, that was horrible. Now what?

What do we do with our feelings of rage and anger in moments when the most important people in our lives have betrayed us in the most unimaginable ways? The student or child who once was so adorable, you wanted to “eat him up!” has now nearly provoked you to bite his head off off!

Jeremiah Lockwood, singer of the Sway Machinery, (and grandson of the esteemed cantor Jacob Konigsberg) brings a solution to this dilemma, complete with haunting soundtrack and animation, in this week’s Torah portion Bechukotai on G-dcast.com.

Lockwood points out that parshat Bechukotai contains a mixture of blessings and curses. If the people maintain their covenant with God, Moses tells the people, then their crops will grow, and there will be peace across the land. If God is forsaken and the covenant is broken, well, the list of curses, Lockwood says, “is nearly too unseemly for mentioning in polite company.”

  • Boils.
  • Fever.
  • Carnivorous Animals.

Lockwood pauses before uttering the final curse: parents will eat their own children.

Immediately, he says, the topic of the parsha shifts,  and the rest of Bechukotai is occupied with tax codes.

Why the shift?

A better question is how the shift, and Lockwood suggests that throughout  the list of punishments, God’s rage mounts, and then through doing this, the rage is spent, clearing the way for love and mercy and, I’d add, some semblance of normal conversation.

While it can be unwise to indulge in fantasies about the harm that should come to those we love who have hurt us, I’d like to suggest that another message emerges from the juxtaposition of the horrible and the mundane.

After a wrathful conversation, after accusations and bickering and screaming have run their course, not only can there be a return to normalcy, but there needs to be a return to normalcy.

Bitter students need to be complimented on their excellent topic sentences. Furious children need to be invited down for dinner. Even spouses need to employ the commonplace structures of day to day life; they can become redemptive when returned to after the un-utterable is uttered: walks.  Meals. Email check-ins. Washing dishes. Driving. Laundry. It’s the job of the teacher or the parent to wait it out, to keep safe structures in place. Show that even un-utterables are only words, and that when followed by consistent, dependable acts of love, support, and compassion, they can fade into the past.

Next time your child or student speaks to you like he or she would like to chew your head off, perhaps you can remember that in Bechukotai, even God felt that way.

And even God got over it.