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Why I’m not “celebrating” Tisha b’Av this year (again)

08/08/2011

Folks, I’ve been remiss. Vacation, then re-entry, into Deuteronomy and nary a word from your sponsor. I just haven’t felt like it. However, tonight begins Tisha b’Av, and so as not to disappoint myself too much more, I’m re-posting here what I said a year ago. 

Tonight is Tisha b’Av, the 9th of Av, a day that commemorates almost every majorly rotten thing that has happened to Jews in the last 2500+ years:

  • The destruction of the 1st Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.
  • The destruction of the 2nd Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.
  • The crushing of the Bar Kokhba rebellion in 132 CE.
  • Expulsion from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492.
  • The mass deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka in 1942.
  • The bombing of  the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994, killing 86.

Destruction. Exile. Deportation. Understandably, we mourn. We keen. We read the Book of Lamentations, verse after verse describing the fate of Jerusalem and her inhabitants — how the walls burned and mothers ate their children, how our enemies overpowered us. The Book of Job is also read in some congregations for good measure.

Folks, I’ve tried to embrace the 9th of Av, but I just can’t. My spouse Bruce says it’s good to remind yourself at least once a year what it is like to lose everything. Rachel Barenblat, the Velveteen Rabbi, finds meaning in the holiday thus: (W)e go down as a community into that pit of despair — in order to remember devastation and then rise up again. The spiritual work of the coming month of Elul, during which we prepare ourselves for the Days of Awe… has a different valance when we come to it bearing the memories of a day of deep communal sorrow.

Try as I might, though, I just can’t make it work:

1. The theology. The Temples were destroyed (with God’s help) because of our bad deeds. For national sins and forsaking Torah, the 1st Temple came down; for causeless hatred the 2nd.  The reasoning behind causeless self-hatred appeals – we should lose our shirts if we can’t play nice –  but not enough to make up for the rest of the cause & effect theology.

2. Modernity. Yes, what happened to our ancestors was horrific. Yes, the destruction of the Temples (every other calamity was tacked on to the original observance) was heart-wrenching. But without this destruction and subsequent exiles, we would not have rabbinic Judaism, the Talmud, and most of what we have come to think of as “Jewish.”  Much as I love Leviticus, I have no desire to go back there. Not interested in building that 3rd Temple.

3. Victimology. So much of Jewish communal life centers around “they’re out to get us.” And they have been, still are from time to time. But, if you measure Jewish life in 2010 by the email, snail mail fundraising solicitations, and YouTube videos I receive, we are on the verge of falling prey to virulent anti-Semitism, nuclear annihilation, and being pushed into the sea at every moment. It’s miserable being a Jew. There’s a hell of a lot more words written about the (next) Holocaust & Hamas than Shabbat & Torah.

4. The news. I don’t need to read Lamentations to see that life is precious and precarious. I just have to read The New York Times or Ha’aretz or any home town newspaper. Terrible things happen to people every day and for no good reason. Jews or not-Jews, it stinks.

I think about loss every day. Maybe it’s my temperament. Maybe it’s why I’m a poet. (Google “death” and “poetry” and you’ll come up with 9.8 million results.) Maybe I’m not typical, but I go into every High Holy Day season with mortality on my mind. Another year has passed, another 365 days of time now lost to me. If I were to observe Tisha b’Av, it would be to grieve in a more universal fashion a la Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s dirge for the environment. But, truthfully, that feels like just another excuse to acknowledge that a) people are stinky and b) the world is going to hell in a hand basket — thoughts I think almost every day, holiday or not.

I’ve kissed my husband and had a fruit smoothie this morning (neither allowed). I’m writing and walking and making plans for tomorrows which might not come. Call me contrary, but that’s what I’m doing today.

This year I plan to read up on the social justice demonstrations going on in Israel, work on my stepdaughter’s upcoming nuptials, and maybe even do a bit of painting at the synagogue (as in re-building the infrastructure). Still planning for tomorrows that might not come.

The Anders Breivik in all of us

07/24/2011

“With 9/11 in America, people could ask, ‘Who are they?’ and could pour their rage out on someone else, but we can’t disavow this person, he’s one of us.”

Anders Romarheim of the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies on Anders Breivik, the madman & murderer who shot or blew to smithereens 92 people, many (most?) of whom were teenagers, in his bid to defend Europe against the threat of Muslim domination, multiculturalism, and liberal modernity.

And the Torah portion we read yesterday, Matot

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.

With Pinchas serving as priest for the campaign, they slew every male. Every single male. The kings as well as the taxi drivers & civil servants & carpenters. The war booty – women, children, trinkets, and beasts – were brought before Moses.  His reaction? You spared the women? Those whores? Go back and kill them all – every male children and every non-virgin female. Go back and finish the job.

This is not metaphor, gang. This is the text. We are commanded to kill and we kill. With our bare hands & the sword. No long-range missiles, no Star Wars computers. Our freaking bare hands. We can wish it away or explain it in terms other than physical destruction — my friend & sister blogger Rachel Barenblat wrote this past week of the Ishbitzer rebbe and his more poetic interpretation of the verses in question. I suggest you read it — perhaps it will offer comfort.

For myself, I keep coming back to this: We can’t disavow this person – he is one of us. One of us, yes, and in us, each one of us, with terrible consequences. Our crazy sense that we’re better than the next person. Our crazier sense that if we don’t get them first, they will get us. That God speaks to us. I wish I could say that I have never harbored fantasies of doing harm to someone else with words or fists or weapons at hand. I wish I could say it with 100% clarity, but I can’t. I’m no Anders Breivik, but I am his kin.

That is the instruction the Torah shares with us, lest we wonder about our difference & superiority. We’re no Anders Breivik, but we are his kin.

Multiple faces of desire

07/12/2011

I hope you’re noticed my absence, dear friends, from the blogosphere. I’ve been getting ready for — and then going on — vacation. Well, not exactly vacation. Retreat. Three weeks in which I will be finalizing (really and truly) my ever-expanding full-length book of Torah-inspired poetry. Also going to my favorite yoga studio. Also strolling along the Pacific. Don’t hate me.

Standing in the sun, contemplating the anti-free speech law passed yesterday by the Israeli Knesset, I realized this is the week of Pinchas, the Torah portion of multiple desires.

Desire #1: To be good.

We pick up the story in the aftermath of last week’s gory scene wherein Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, spears an Israelite man and Midianite woman through their “bellies” after catching them in the Tent of Meeting with pleasure on their minds. God tells Moses: I grant Pinchas my pact of friendship…. because he took impassioned action.

This is also the desire to be better than anyone else, in turn related to the desire to be right.

It is the sort of desire that does not brook disagreement well and lends itself to violence & vitriol if taken to extremes. It is the cause of many an obsession, over-compensation, marital argument, and prejudice. Note that being good is different than being holy or just or loving your neighbor as yourself. It is not the same as being right (or wrong, for that matter). In this case, it is also deadly. It has a childlike quality, this virtuous-ness.

Desire #2: To be heard.

This week also brings us the story of Zelophechad’s daughters, those feisty & brotherless women, worried that they will not inherit land from their father’s estate because they’re…. women! They bring their concern to Moses who brings the question before God who says the women are right! Let’s fix the dang oversight.

This is also about the desire to be known. And, as I’ve written elsewhere, this is an anniversary of sorts for me: the first Torah service I attended with the man who would become my dear spouse.

Desire #2 may lead to speaking truth to power. It sometimes makes us single-minded and over-sensitive to small hurts. A burning need to be heard often brings us activists, artists, and (dare I say it?) poets. It is risky work. Rejection is likely. It is a desire that talks too much and occasionally interrupts others in the middle of a good story. It leads to a search for something we can’t quite put our fingers on.

It creates pains in the ass. Which brings me back to the Knesset and the wrong-headed notion that you can outlaw speech you don’t agree with (in this case, calling for a boycott of Israel and/or the settlements). If the daughters of Z were around today, would they be allowed to speak? Would they be heard by the powers that be? Would Pinchas again earn a big fat gold star for taking action on behalf of God? Would only one kind of desire be allowed?

If you’re interested in 2 very different poems on the subject (one uplifting, one not so much), check them out here.

Water & death (revisited) and snakes of our making

07/01/2011

Tomorrow we read of death — and lots of it: of Miriam’s last breath in the Tzin wilderness; of Aaron, his priestly vestments stripped from him; of a red cow used as part of a purifying ritual; of the Israelites themselves after another episode of complaint; and of the Amorites & Canaanites, the established people of the land who get in the way of Divine promise. It’s just one blow to immortality after another.

I’ve already written a rather poetic post about the interlocking themes of water & death: how we use the former to cleanse ourselves (if only figuratively) of the latter, a connection we still make today in the ritual preparation of Jewish bodies for burial. There’s a goody of a poem embedded in that post, so I encourage you to visit.

What I’d like to talk about today are snakes. They enter in like so: after the death of Aaron, while preparing for battle, the children of Israel, acting (alas) like whiny children, start up complaining again. There’s no bread and no water and the food (a.k.a. manna) is insubstantial. Cheaply made and boring. God gets mad. Enough so to send snakes down from heaven, deadly biting snakes. Repentant (as would we all be faced with hissing pythons), the people plead to Moses for mercy & he constructs a large copper serpent that, when gazed upon, serves as a cure.

Isn’t this totally curious? First, we’ve got the snake motif — that reminder of our banishment from Gan Eden as well as the go-to trick (staff to snake & back again) demonstrated early on in the negotiations with Pharaoh. But more than that, we’ve got the living embodiment of the expression: if it were a snake, it would have bit me! 

And it was. It did. This is no metaphor, but rather a kind of Divine homeopathy: if small amounts of the dangerous substance or obnoxious disease that’s making you sick are introduced, you will experience a “healing crisis” where you feel worse before you feel better. The body gears for battle and wins. I’ve been through this sort of treatment for liver malfunctioning and allergies (to my hair spray, it turned out), among other ailments of middle age and my particular biochemistry — and every time the practitioner gives me the bottles or pills, I pause. This will not be fun, I tell myself, though it’s rarely as bad as I imagine and almost always makes me feel much better.

Anyway, rather than look full on at the snake that is coming after their ankles, the people can now gaze upon a replica, though one that could turn into a real hissing creature before their eyes at any moment. They have an opportunity for self-reflection (maybe this is Divine psychotherapy), a practice session with something less deadly than the real thing. A kind of look in the mirror. And role play. And chance to look at their own foolishness head-on without being in the direct line of fire.

It was a snake and it did bite and now we have to do something about it. We have to get down on our bellies, writhe a bit, look our mistake right in the face and say ooopsie! Love it. And proud of God for being low-key about the whole anger thing. We’re making progress all the way around.

How my poem went around the world & made some people crazy

06/23/2011

Here is the story in a nutshell: I wrote a poem about this week’s Torah portion (Korach). The poem – which is basically a rhythmic list – ended up in a Passover haggadah & was distributed hither and yon. Some people liked it and some people decidedly DID NOT. Enough so to take action.

Let’s begin with the basic facts: Korach started a rebellion. He laid down this challenge to Moses–

All the people in the community are holy. Why do you set yourselves above the community?

Long story short: God is not happy and opens up the earth, swallowing Korach & all 250 of his co-conspirators and their families. Whoosh! So ends Korach’s rebellion as the mouth of the planet silences this big mouth.

Jealousy, say the traditional rabbis and commentators. An unjust challenge to just & rightful authority. They took Moses’ (and by extension, God’s) side. Austrian philosopher Martin Buber argued that Korach’s “sin” was assuming holiness without tying it to actual behavior: a kind of false egalitarianism. Contemporary midrashist Aviva Zornberg argues the central problem is not Korach’s point-of-view, but that he won’t open his mouth to dialogue with Moses.

I, on the other hand, sided with Korach (yes, yes, knee jerk) and penned Praise the Contrary & Its Defenders celebrating rebellion broadly defined, i.e., all the odd, sideways people who challenge the status quo. Who create art & alternative institutions & new-fangled perspectives. Who shake things up and won’t let things be. In other words: I was being a bit of a rebellious rapscallion myself.

So when my friend Rachel Barenblat, in the wake of the Egyptian revolution, put out a call for liberation poems for this year’s edition of the Velveteen Rabbi Haggadah, I sent her an updated version (the poem keeps changing) — and to my delight, she included it (or a big swath, anyway).

Cool. I have no idea how many people read the poem or used all or part of it in their Pesach celebrations, but I do know that the reception was varied. I have one friend (let’s call her Tamar) whose sister was so taken by my spirited enumeration that she added her own examples and passed it along to a cousin (or friend, I can’t remember which). On the other hand, I have another friend (let’s call him Josh) who included the poem in his seder and proceeded to be rebuked by some of the elders of the congregation for being inappropriate. Too this & that. A meeting was called. A discussion ensued.

Was I insulted? Not in the least. I was a bit surprised at the specific lines of the poem that offended (they seemed random), but was otherwise delighted. To have the capacity to stir things up… as a writer, that’s what I live for. Why I create art. To make small ripples in the world.

I was also tickled by the delicious irony of having a self-described arbiter of good taste dissect a poem that is, in itself, a critique of arbiters of good taste. The whole episode got me to wondering about the ways in which we — and by we, I include myself — set ourselves up above the communities in which we live. The ways in which we can see only one perspective or fail to acknowledge our own over-reactions or closely guarded “correct” ways of doing things. The ways in which we allow ourselves to get swallowed up by things we don’t quite understand. The ways in which we swallow our tongues and speak out. How rare true dialogue is.

Graves of craving

06/09/2011

This morning, a section from this week’s Torah portion hit me between the eyes:

Then God came down in a cloud and spoke to Moses, who drew upon the Spirit that was on him and put it upon the 70 elders. And when the Spirit rested upon them. They spoke in ecstasy, but did not continue. Two men, one named Eldad and the other Medad, remained in the camp. The Spirit rested upon them… and they spoke in ecstasy in the camp. A youth ran out and told Moses, saying, “Eldad and Medad are acting like prophets in the camp!” And Joshua spoke up and said, “Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you wroth on my account? Would that all God’s people were prophets, with God’s spirit on them!”

And the very next verses:

A wind from God started up, brought in quail from the sea and deposited them over the camp… some two cubits deep on the ground. The people set to gathering quail all that day and night and all the next day…  The meat was still between their teeth, not yet chewed, when the anger of God blazed forth against the people and God struck the people with a very severe plague.

Recap:

  1. All the elders were blessed with a piece of God’s spirit, but only 2 were willing to show their ecstasy out loud.
  2. This freaked out Joshua, who ratted them out to Moses.
  3. Moses said: Dude, this is what it is all about! This ecstasy, this Spirit let loose in the world! (How else would we have poetry & mathematics & invention?)
  4. Then: a wild wind and lots of quail.
  5. The people went crazy, gorged themselves beyond what they needed (or even wanted).
  6. God provided this lesson: such behavior — gluttony, greed, unbridled desire — will bring an early grave.

Ecstasy (read: desire for connection, mystery, transcendence) is good. Craving (read: inattentive, self-satisfied desire) is a problem. I don’t claim to reliably be able to tell the difference. The line between one and other is often fuzzy and faint, thus providing fabulous fodder for the arts (think: Tolstoy or Caravaggio). On the other hand, I know it when I see such craving writ large, i.e., when someone is making a total fool pig of him or herself with food, drink, sex, consumerism, etc. When the impulse toward ecstasy is confused with the impulse towards slavish desire, broadly defined.

Here are some someones in Column B:

Understand that I say this with total sympathy for how things can get out of control. This, perhaps, is the risk of being imbued with the Spirit: like power, it is neutral, awaiting our alchemy. It can kill us and it can thrill us and make us dance in joy. Dangerous. Amazing. God-given.

Happy Shavuot!

06/06/2011

Tomorrow (Tuesday) with the setting of the sunset is the festival of Shavuot, 7 weeks from the going out of Egypt to the giving of the law. I’ve been traveling for almost a week, visiting family, and don’t have time for a proper post, so I’m going to do a re-run of a couple lists previously posted.

In the meantime, remember to eat lots of cheesecake, contemplate how lightening could roar & thunder sparkle, and try to stay up a little later than usual studying Torah.

First: The 10 Commandments, Texas Style, from Cowboy Poetry (the music alone is worth a visit).

(1) Just one God.
(2) Honor yer Ma & Pa.
(3) No telling tales or gossipin’.
(4) Git yourself to Sunday meeting.
(5) Put nothin’ before God.
(6) No foolin’ around with another fellow’s gal.
(7) No killin’.
(8) Watch yer mouth.
(9) Don’t take what ain’t yers.
(10) Don’t be hankerin’ for yer buddy’s stuff.

Second: My own off-the-top-of-my-head interpretation of the 10 Big Sayings. 

1. I am YHWH your God. Make no mistake: every people has their God. I am particularly well-suited to a people that spends a heck of a lot of time talking, arguing, complaining, and looking for explanations as to why things aren’t going their way. You are not an easy people and I am not an easy God.

2. You should have no other gods before Me. As sages of all traditions have said: don’t worship what doesn’t matter, e.g., money, sex, power, guns, big cars, cell phones, and being right. It is, however, okay to engage in a little shoe fetish now and again.

3. Don’t take the name of YHWH in vain. Don’t invoke My name to apologize for, or justify, your bad public policy, greed, ineptitude, bigotry, violence, or short-sighted decisions. Also your holier-than-thou attitudes in any direction. Own your shit and try not to put words in My mouth.

4. Keep the Sabbath day. Surely you don’t have to go to the mall 7 days a week. Surely you can take a 10-minute break from checking your email on your iPhone. Same principle.

5. Honor your father & mother. Be nice to them that brought you to the dance. Don’t act like a teenager your entire life. Don’t cut Medicare or Social Security. Let them spoil your own children more than is necessary. Don’t spend your inheritance on frivolities. Call them more than you would like.

6. Don’t murder. Do as I say and not as I do. (Editor’s note: murder of the unrighteous, unrepentant, or inconvenient is still murder.)

7. Don’t adulter. If everyone would just heed this commandment, it would spell the end of at least 75% of all daytime talk shows and much of what passes as entertainment news. This would be a good thing.

8. Don’t steal. This is a gimme. Don’t bring the world economy crashing to its knees because you needed another and another and another buck. Don’t waste other people’s time. Don’t steal years off someone’s life by denying them health insurance coverage. Don’t steal ideas without giving credit (and where appropriate, some cold, hard cash). Don’t steal – and stomp on – the public’s trust. Don’t steal the future by being willfully stupid (think: climate change). Don’t steal people’s dignity by forcing them into situations you yourself would never tolerate.

9. Don’t bear false witnessDon’t call non-governmental organizations who fight for civil rights “terrorists.” Don’t even think about bringing up dredging up death panels. And please don’t compare everyone you don’t like to a Nazi. Name-calling is for cheaters. Purposeful spreading of lies is a cheap trick. (Update: see my recent pithy post on Truthiness.)

10. Don’t covet what your neighbor has. Otherwise known as the don’t even think about it commandment. Thinking leads to urges and urges lead to obsessions and obsessions lead to action. I know what you have might not be good enough, but you’ll make yourself cuckoo thinking about it all the time. Life isn’t fair and bad people get some good stuff. Go volunteer at a homeless shelter. Be thankful you’re not Job.

Lousy Nazirite

06/03/2011

This week’s Torah portion, Naso, has 4 main sections —-

  1. How different clans would have different jobs taking care of the Tent of Meeting.
  2. What to do if your wife/woman goes astray & you’re crazy jealous. You can check out my previous post on this misogynist – but truly intriguing & possibly useful – ritual here.
  3. The vow of the Nazirite (see Wikipedia article for more detail).
  4. Priestly blessing (May God bless you & keep you, etc.) followed by a long list of who brought what sacrifices & other tchotchkes for the start-up of the altar of the sacrificial system and on what day.

—- though I’d like to focus more specifically on #3, the Nazirite.

It doesn’t take much to qualify. You make a vow to God. You let your hair grow (think: dreadlocks). You abstain from wine, grapes, vinegar, and related products. You avoid dead bodies. This can be for a lifetime or a short while. You’re seen in some circles as pure, in others as a sinner who is making amends. Samson was a Nazirite who likely fell off the wagon with a party. The prophet Samuel was another, though most who took up the mantle were ordinary folks trying to make things right for a little while. Getting themselves clean & pure. I could do this, give up grapes & haircuts & dead people.

But give up the stuff that would really challenge me? No siree.

I’m quite good at doing those things – even if difficult – that I believe in down to my very last cell (i.e., those items brought on by devout ideology or unalterable temperament), but not if it involves my core compulsions — almost all of which, I should add, have to do with indulging myself in ways that are just dumb.

My Nazirite/consecrated list might look like this:

  • No processed sugar.
  • No fabulously dark chocolate after 4 p.m. (it gives me insomnia, yet I continue to imbibe).
  • No sitting on my rear end for 2 hours at a time without stretching, even if it is for poetry. Bad for the back. Every time.
  • No rolling my eyes at the spouse (especially when he’s looking).
  • No saying “yes” when I really, truly mean NO.

To live this list would be really good for me. It would improve my physical self, make those I love & care for less crazed, and lead to less existential angst. I’ve tried vowing every way that I know how and still fail. Over and over. Miserably. On every count. Maybe after a few hours or a few days or a week (or two), even with the best of intentions. Why? Because this is about me – and not the greater good. I gave up shrimp (which I really adored) for my beloved, but somehow can’t give up sugar for myself. It’s hard (she says, whining). It feels so good.

Dear readers, I’d love to hear your suggestions. Surely I can do better than this.

Truthiness

05/31/2011

It’s 4:28 a.m. and I’m awake. Have been since 2:40 for no good reason that I can tell, and I’m thinking about the truth.

Drove home after dinner tonight with spouse, daughters #2 & #3, & future son-in-law, looking at all the downed trees in Bloomington. Gawking, actually, awestruck at Mama Nature. One thing (climate change) led to another (the new South Park musical about Mormons) that led to another — and we all had a good laugh about the failed end of the world on May 22. We poked fun at the true believers, but it got me to seriously thinking: what must they have felt last Sunday morning when the world was just as they left it the day before? When they weren’t on their way to heaven? When they had used up their retirement savings or kid’s college education money to get ready for the Rapture?

Did they change their minds when faced with the truth? And what makes people believe stuff, anyway?

For your general reading pleasure, I offer several mildly related bits of evidence. That’s the best I can do. I actually feel a yawn coming on.

1. Stephen Colbert’s take on “truthiness,”  i.e., the human capacity to confuse thinking with feeling, brain with gut, fact with “knowing”. What I love about this 2 minute & 40 second video is that the word he coined 6 years ago is now in the on-line edition of Merriam Webster.

2. Just in case you think Colbert is being flip, check out this article in Mother Jones on the science of self-delusion. Seems that all of us (no surprise) are hesitant about changing our minds. Fight or flight response? Not only does it apply to predators, but to facts that we deem dangerous to our internal ordering of the world. Seems those who base their politics on fear & innuendo will do far better precisely because rational explanation is too threatening. People really don’t like to be forced to deal with what’s real.

3. Courtesy of my friends at Jewdayo, this tidbit: On this date in 1665 (in Gaza, no less), Shabbatai Zvi revealed himself as the messiah. After suffering the slaughter of tens of thousands of Jews in Poland in 1648, his claim brought a measure of comfort to Jew & their leaders in Cairo, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Venice, Livorno and other cities.Unfortunately, the following year, Zvi was given a choice by the Turkish sultan — convert to Islam or die. He chose the former, along with 300 of his followers’ families. This group, btw, became the ancestors of the “donmeh” of modern Turkey, an economically and politically influential subculture & the subject of many conspiracy theories.

4. As Roger Cohen says in today’s column in the NYT (you read it here first!) on said conspiracy theories, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the fact that large numbers of French – including some of the country’s best known intellectuals – believe charges that DSK (a known philanderer and sexual harasser) assaulted a maid are absurd and a result of anti-French bias: Bin Laden is dead. The Jews went to work (on 9/11). Suite 2806 is just a number. Facts count. 

I’m going to sleep.

Counting

05/26/2011

Friends, I am going to try and break a land-sea blog posting record and say what I have to say in under 15 minutes (for me, not you). Why? Because I’m writing at the dining room table of my dear friends Julie & Rich (while they watch So You Think You Can Dance) due to climate change causing day after day of crazy-ass storms and said storms causing significant power outages in Bloomington, including at my humble abode. I want to be done by 10 p.m. (it’s now 9:48) so they can throw me out in a timely fashion.

Anyhow, I’m feeling a bit in the wilderness — though admittedly a fairly comfortable wilderness — running from coffee shop to friend’s house, looking for a place to plug in my laptop and charge my iPhone and get a little work done. And not coincidentally, this week we move into the 4th book of Torah, B’midbar / In The Desert.

You may know this book as “Numbers,” which is a direct result of later translations and a focus on the census that takes up the first part of the text, a census that is about counting up the warriors about to take on the inhabitants of the land of milk & honey promised to our intrepid Israelites.

My friend & teacher Rachel Barenblat has a lovely teaching on her blog concerning the unique “count” of each individual. I urge you to read it.

I offer, instead, this poem written many years ago on a visit to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. Getting ready for war is no small thing; would that we take it as seriously as we do the raw numbers.

NUMBERS

Take up the head-count
     Kenneth Lloyd Cody
of the entire community of Israel
     Corporal HMM-165
by their families
     United States Marine Corps
by their fathers’ houses
     of Griffith, Indiana
by the number of names of every male
     born early August 1953
by their per capita.
     last seen July 11, 1972
From twenty years old and up
     when his CH-53 helicopter
everyone going out to the army…
     was struck by an SA-7 missile
You shall take account of them by their army units
     outside Quang Tri City,
as declared by lineage
     a universe away from State Road 67.
as numbered by name
     He is forever set in stone
and counted for battle in the wilderness.
     polished and still
As declared by their lineage
     Panel 01W Line 055
by their fathers’ names
     near Gene Edmond Davis
by their records
     Philip Ducat
by their families
     and Thomas Clem
everyone going out to the army for Israel.
     young men going out to the wilderness.