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Inheritance

03/21/2010

We’ve got more sacrificial offerings this week — burnt, meal, sin, guilt, well-being (itself divided into thanksgiving and free will) — each with a precise method of slaughter, blood-splattering, burning, consumption, and aftermath. Thousands upon thousands of words of commentary have been written about this system and I’m not going to add to that.

What I want to focus on this week – as you’ll see in my poem Inheritance – is not the offerings (though I’m fond of the whole scene), but rather the verses concerning the public installation of Aaron and his sons as priests. Here are some excerpts to whet your appetite:

Moses took the anointing oil and anointed the Tabernacle and all that was in it… He sprinkled some of it on the altar seven times, anointing the altar, all its utensils, and the laver with its stand, to consecrate them. He poured some of the anointing oil upon Aaron’s head… then brought Aaron’s sons forward, clothed them in tunics, girded them with sashes, and wound turbans upon them… Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the ram’s head, and it was slaughtered. Moses took some of its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot. Moses then brought forward the sons of Aaron, and put some of the blood on the ridges of their right ears, and on the thumbs of their right hands…

Don’t you just love the gravity of the situation? The pomp and ceremony? This is a very big deal — the entire ritual correctness of a people is at stake. With blood and holy oil and special clothing, Aaron and his boys enter the big league. Imagine what kind of family business they might talk about at the dinner table or what stories they might pass on to the grandkids while watching re-runs of CSI.

So…. as luck would have it, my step-daughter Leah’s Bat Mitzvah came on Shabbat Parah (Cow Sabbath). This special Shabbat includes a reading from the book of Numbers about the Red Heifer, the perfect cow slaughtered for the express purpose of purifying those who come into contact with a dead body. What a crazy thing for a 13-year-old girl to read about! This, I thought, is a hell of an inheritance.

That thought stayed with me as I worked on draft after draft of a poem connecting the blood & guts of ritual and what we pass down from parent to child about being Jews. Because most of the stories I heard as a child were of pogroms, poverty, and the immigrant experience (not to mention the Holocaust, Inquisition, etc etc.) and because I didn’t experience any of these things directly, I was stuck. What kind of history would I pass down? What kind of memories? It didn’t seem right to ignore these realities completely, nor did I want to dump 2000 years of persecution in her lap without a counterweight.

The problem (and poem) got solved a couple years ago when Leah (then 20) and I made a trip to an underground storage facility in Los Angeles and bought a mattress from a very nice woman for a few bucks. The place was a genizah of sorts, a cool and dry place where precious belongings were anonymously stored. I grabbed onto the metaphor of individuals as storage locker and the poem fell into place, knives, blood, and all. Leah likes that she’s in a poem (and so does my mother, who also makes an appearance), though she’d just as soon not have to read it. Oh well.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. judith rose permalink
    03/23/2010 2:32 pm

    SO I’m realizing that if I come to this blog for breezy humor; I also have to deal with the downright darkness. On the subject of what we pass down as inheritance (and also what we chose to save and what we chose to discard) – I’ve saved this quote from Jonathan Safran Foer speaking in a conversation with his grandmother:
    From Jonathan Safran Foer – nyt magazine October 11, 2009
    “Against meat”
    Concluding paragraph writing about his grandmother during WWII:
    “The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end, and I didn’t know if I could make it another day. A farmer, a Russian, God bless him, he saw my condition, and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.”
    “He saved your life.”
    “I didn’t eat it.”
    “You didn’t eat it?”
    “It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork”
    “Why?”
    “What do you mean why?”
    “What, because it wasn’t kosher?”
    “Of course.”
    “But not even to save your life?”
    “If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

  2. sue swartz permalink*
    03/23/2010 2:44 pm

    This story is one side of the coin that we receive as Jews and then pass down to the next generation: the centrality of our rituals and beliefs. The other is this saying (which I think comes loosely from Talmud or some famous rabbi, but don’t quote me): If you’re going to eat pork, you might as well let it drip down your chin. I try to maintain a little of both in my worldview.

    • Sarah Rubin permalink
      03/23/2010 8:38 pm

      Horse meat. That is – there is supposedly a Responsum on the question of horse meat in the wild west: to whit – one could eat a horse, equally unkosher to pig, if one were starving and that was all that was available. Pikuach nefesh, the saving of a life, is at stake here.

      This thread of “life at any cost” has always stood side by side in Judaism with what JSF’s grandmother chose – “tradition at any cost.”

      I wish I could find the Responsum, which is in my memory from someone else’s research more than twenty years ago. If I made it up (and I don’t think I did) then there are certainly similar statements throughout Jewish history.

  3. judith rose permalink
    03/24/2010 11:34 am

    there is a tension in me between standing for something and adapting to change. which rules can you break?

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