My stepdaughter Lonica is getting married in 9 days. Tomorrow morning, she and her dear Joey will be called up the Torah for an aliyah in celebration and anticipation of the nuptials. I will be blessing them with some combination of generalized “good luck” & Torah wisdom. In preparation, I’m reading this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh (See!), and have discovered that there is much advice about marriage & relationships in the text if one just turns it sideways and inserts the proper pronouns.
I know this isn’t Mad Libs, but truly I can’t think of the name of the game that applies, so it will just have to stand. In order to play, just read the following lines and see if you can apply them to love in all its many guises. Have fun!
See, this day I set before you blessing and curse (see how easy this is?)…
For you are about to cross the Jordan to enter and possess the land…
These are the laws and rules that you must carefully observe in the land that God is giving you to possess, as long as you live on earth….
You shall not act at all as we now act here, every one as he/she pleases (when) you cross the Jordan and settle…
When the Lord enlarges your territory as promised to you and you say, “I shall eat some meat,” for you have the urge to eat meat, you may eat meat whenever you wish…
If there appears among you a prophet or a dream-diviner and he gives you a sign or a portent, saying, Let us follow and worship another god... Do not heed the words of that prophet or that dream-diviner… (This worshipping other gods goes on for quite a while & includes the ways one should get rid of those who would lead you into trouble.)
God chose you from among all other peoples on earth to be God’s treasured people…
You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk. (For me, this is a warning about how to fight — you can afford to be magnanimous if you’re taking either the kid or the milk. Don’t overdo. Don’t be greedy in your anger.)(Not that I listen to my own advice.)
Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts. (Another good piece of advice about disagreements.)
(Ditto the following) If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your relations in any of your settlements in the land that God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy relation.
Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today.
For (if your servant) loves you and your household and is happy with you — you shall take an awl and put it through his/her ear into the door, and he/she shall become your slave in perpetuity. (Sorry.)
You shall not appear before God empty-handed (on holidays) but each should come with his/her own gift, according to the blessing that God has bestowed upon you.
The Torah is fantasy. No, not that kind of fantasy, i.e., totally made up stuff. Nor do I mean the wizards/dragons/alien marauders/magical ring stuff that entertains and enthralls. More like the oh-if-only-this-relationship-would-work-out-my-life-would-be-perfect kind of fantasy – a communal dream of grandeur and happy times with deep psychological resonance and lots of prescriptive morality thrown for good measure.
Consider this week’s Torah portion, Eikev. In it, Moses recounts the basic story to the assembled children of Israel, i.e., God brought you out of Egypt and will deliver you to a land of milk & honey: a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill, a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat food without end, where you will lack nothing…
A very sweet place that receives its water directly from the rains of heaven. A place God looks after 365 days a year, 24/7. Everything will be okay there – perfect, really – and it is all yours!
All you – and by that, I mean we – have to do is:
- Dispossess nations greater and more populous than you, great cities with sky-high walls, all with God’s help in destruction.
- Keep all the instruction (“torah”) that I command you this day.
See what I mean? This is really the most fabulous of fantasies – and I mean this as no insult. Life can be perfect. Bountiful. All my/our enemies will disappear and stay disappeared. I will be able to beat them up without an ounce of guilt and get precisely what I want from an all-powerful God who loves loves loves me! And the rules don’t sound too hard…
Who among us wouldn’t want our lives to proceed in this fashion – uncomplicated, full of direct cause-and-effect, watered by Heaven? I know what you’re thinking – you wouldn’t want a life that simple, only filled with pleasure, where figs grow easily and you lack nothing. You’d miss a life where there was no complexity or conflict. How would art be made? How would personal growth happen? Where would the good stories come from?
And I’m with you, but I believe that’s my grown-up mind speaking, the mind that has adjusted to the contingencies of life, the mind that equates progress with adversity. But really, what child (as in “children” of Israel)(as in our id) would want anything more than a logical system of reward-and-punishment, nice stuff, lots of time to play, the bad kids to disappear, and to be Mom’s favorite?
That’s why I say fantasy. Deep and abiding is this wish for a kind of Eden.
Of course we’re not capable of holding up our end of the bargain, what with breaking all the rules and such. Think: golden calf. Think: the person who just cut you off, almost ran into your car head-on, and gave you the finger. Think: our rush to bomb the hell out of each other (although that might be a commandment)(see After Yet Another War in the Middle East).
But still. Wouldn’t it be kind of nice?
This week’s Torah portion contains the Sh’ma and V’ahavta (“listen!” and “love!”), what is often described as the central Jewish creed or statement of faith.
Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!
Seems about right — delineating, as it does, that Israel is to shush for a moment and remember that YHWH, the god with an unpronounceable name, is not only our ineffable and unknowable God, but One. Perhaps the One. Perhaps all that is.
Many years ago — perhaps a decade already — I wrote my own version of the first subparagraph of the Sh’ma at a writing retreat led by Pat Schneider, the part concerning our commanded love of God. It continues to capture my theology (when I’m in a believing mood) quite well.
You shall love the Breath of the universe, that which unifies all creation, the Unknowable, Always-Present One, with each beat of your heart, with each rise and fall of your chest, when your belly is full and when your belly is empty, with every muscle that contracts and expands, with your consciousness and your dreams, your rational and your animal, your blood and craving and anger. Hear the sound of these words spoken by the Breath of the Universe. Hear-vision-taste the lightening crackle, the sound of creation, and know that there is no other truth, no other reality. Do not hold these words tight to your heart, but live them. Live them in your speech and in your sighs, in the way you hold your own and the way you hold a stranger. Repeat them to your children in all you do until they are as solid as stone, inescapable as death. Your children will know when you really mean them. Take these pieces of connectivity and keep them with you always: when you are home and no one is there as witness, when you change diapers and talk to teachers, when you go to little league and when you iron clothes. Take them with you out into the world, into each interaction, every time you shake a hand and buy your groceries, rush to a meeting and greet a friend. Let them be with you in your open-eyed morning and in your 3 a.m. nightmares, when there is dawn and dusk, when you are moving and when you are resting, when there is energy and when there is exhaustion. Wrap them in your hands, in the very marrow and tendons so that every object you touch bears their imprint, so that the poetry you create bears their seal. Bind them between your eyes and you will see the world as it is: broken and holy both, awaiting human touch, everything equally perfect, nothing left out. Inscribe them on your doorposts, in the public places, on the boundaries and in the corners. Write them on your gates to comfort yourself with these words: be now a nation of priests, those who delight in God.
For a complete traditional translation, click here.
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: 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.
“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.
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.
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.