December 18, 2009
I set my alarm to wake me up at 5:20 this morning, so I could catch a ride with a friend up to join Women of the Wall in prayer for Rosh Hodesh, the first day of the new month of Tevet.
We made our way to the Kotel in the pouring rain, and as we approached the plaza I could hear male voices shouting, but I couldn’t make out the words. I found out later that they were shouting, “Gevalt, gevalt!” at the women huddled under our umbrellas with our siddurim and our tallitot, trying to sing together over the noise of the rain.
While we were trying to pray, the guards around us kept entering the tight circle of space we made for ourselves to make sure that anyone wearing a visible tallit covered it up immediately. Some women who did not approve of our presence came to shout at us from closer range, and were greeted with a calm, “Chodesh Tov” by our organizers. I found myself, as I sang about our eyes being opened to Torah, about the oneness of the Divine, about calling to God from the narrow place, fighting back tears of sorrow and of anger.
We were not allowed to read from the Torah scroll on the Kotel plaza, so we walked the scroll over to Robinson’s Arch. Leaving the women’s section of the Kotel, walking towards this crowd of men screaming epithets at us, I felt physically afraid in a way I hadn’t expected. I am accustomed to feeling anger and sadness to some degree whenever I visit the Kotel, mixed in with the awe and appreciation, but I am not used to feeling threatened. I was grateful for our guards, and horrified that they were necessary.
The rain kept falling, and so we tried to read from the Torah scroll in an inside space at the archaeological park. We were informed that that was forbidden as well, so we went back outside. In the end, the rain was falling too hard to justify opening the Torah scrolls even under umbrellas, so the decision was made to read from the humash. My ride needed to head back to Tel Aviv at this point, so we made our way, still in the rain, back to the car.
I have complicated feelings about the Kotel, and about the centrality of the Temple Mount in Jewish prayer and Jewish thought. Those feelings are for another post. For now, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to pray at the Kotel with twenty times a minyan of women, and I will, sleep and work schedule permitting, get to do it again on Rosh Hodesh Adar.
December 4, 2009
I’m giving a d’var torah (in Hebrew!) tomorrow morning. Here’s an English version of what I plan to say.
This week, we’re reading the third third of Vayishlach, which deals almost entirely with the generations (read: descendants) of Esau. The parsha also begins with Esau, and Jacob’s preparations for meeting him again after so many years apart. In between, we have Jacob’s nighttime encounter with the angel, the story of Dina and Shechem, the birth of Benjamin and the death of Rachel. But the parsha begins and ends with Esau.
Reading the story of Jacob and Esau’s reunion always melts my heart a little. Jacob is so frightened of what might happen that he does a whole series of things in order to protect his family and his property – he splits them up, prays about it, sends gifts ahead of him to appease his brother’s imagined anger – and in the end Esau runs to greet him, embraces him, and kisses him with what I can only imagine is joy. Jacob tells his brother that seeing him again is like ‘seeing the face of God,’ and towards the end of the parsha, Jacob and Esau bury their father together, just as Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury Abraham.
But for most of the rabbis of the Talmud and midrash, this story is not such a heartwarming one. The very last phrase we read reminds us that Esau is the father of Edom – the nation identified in the Talmud with the Roman Empire. Esau is the ancestor of our oppressors and our enemies, and so the rabbis aren’t looking for reconciliation and family togetherness.
A midrash on Jacob’s words, “seeing your face is like seeing the face of God” illustrates this.
“For seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.” (Gen. 33:10) Jacob mentions the name of the Holy One of Blessing to Esau in order to frighten and scare him.
What is this like? Like a man who invited a friend over for a meal and realized that he (the friend) wanted to kill him. He said to his friend, “Y’know, this dish tastes a lot like the dish I ate at the palace the other day.” His friend said to himself, “He knows the king.” He got scared and didn’t kill him after all.
It was the same for Jacob. When he said to Esau “for seeing your face is like seeing the face of God,” Esau the evil one said to himself, “If Jacob has earned the respect of the Holy One of Blessing, there is no way I can take him.”
This midrash turns my imagined happy family reunion completely upside-down. Esau is evil, not loving or joyful, and Jacob mentions God not because he sees in his reunion with Esau a moment of connection with the Divine (or even because he sees in Esau a reflection of the Divine inherent in us all) but because he wants to threaten and frighten him. Esau wants to kill Jacob, and Jacob wants to protect himself, his family, and his stuff from Esau.
For the rabbis, it is important to reinforce the evil-ness of the ancestor of their Roman oppressors, and along the way to highlight the uniqueness and privilege of Jacob’s connection to God. For me, and for many more contemporary commentators, it is important to see the possibility for healing human relationships, even after years of pain and distance. To see a story that tells us forgiveness is possible and that we don’t always have to be afraid.
All of us are reading the same set of stories, and yet we come out of them with such different conclusions. What stories of their own do the rabbis bring to the text, that lead them to raise Jacob up and push Esau down? What stories of our own do we (do I) bring to the text, that we seek reassurance, family connections, hope for healing?
November 12, 2009
סד וַתִּשָּׂ֤א רִבְקָה֙ אֶת־עֵינֶ֔יהָ וַתֵּ֖רֶא אֶת־יִצְחָ֑ק וַתִּפֹּ֖ל מֵעַ֥ל הַגָּמָֽל׃ סה וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אֶל־הָעֶ֗בֶד מִֽי־הָאִ֤ישׁ הַלָּזֶה֙ הַֽהֹלֵ֤ךְ בַּשָּׂדֶה֙ לִקְרָאתֵ֔נוּ וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הָעֶ֖בֶד ה֣וּא אֲדֹנִ֑י וַתִּקַּ֥ח הַצָּעִ֖יף וַתִּתְכָּֽס׃
“Rebecca raised her eyes, saw Isaac (for the first time), and fell off her camel. She said to the servant (Eliezer), ‘who is that guy walking toward us in the field?’ He said, ‘He is my master.’ She took her veil and covered herself with it.” (Gen. 24:64-65)
I’m reading Torah again this Saturday, which means I’ve spend all week immersed in the third third of Hayei Sarah, this week’s parasha. It contains one of the funniest scenes in all of Torah – the two verses I’ve cited above.
Reading it makes me giggle every time – Rebecca sees Isaac for the first time, this guy who Eliezer has been talking up for, presumably, weeks; the guy who she has agreed to leave her home and family for; the guy she is going to marry; and she falls off her camel. Whatever the reason for her reaction (and midrash offers reason after reason after reason), what is this if not classic slapstick?
A comforting thing about preparing to read this on Shabbat is that the trop also thinks that there is something unusual going on here. Trop works on a system of patterns and phrases – the symbols (each representing its own note or group of notes) come in predictable pattern, so once you see one you can be pretty sure what will come after. Changes to these patters often (not always, but often) represent Masoretic recognition of something funny or strange going on in the text.
After Rebecca falls off her camel, she asks Eliezer who this guy is who startles her so badly. As she does this the trop, for lack of a better word, stutters. “Who’s that guy/Mi ha-ish ha-la-zeh?” comes attached to the first two symbols in a standard four-symbol pattern, so it would be reasonable to expect “walking in the field/ha-holech basadeh” to carry the second two symbols in the pattern. They don’t. Instead, they repeat the first two symbols, leaving “towards us/likrateinu” to carry the symbol which finishes the phrase. Read out, this hiccup or stutter (which also rhymes!) gives the impression of a Rebecca who is somehow scattered, very much not her usual, pulled-together self.
The multi-layerd humor here (text + trop) brings me joy, but there might also be a moral to this story.
Rebecca has an unexpected reaction to Isaac, yes. She startles and stutters and doesn’t show a whole lot of grace in her first response to him. But, by the end of the chapter, she has done what she said she will do and married him. More than that – he is comforted after his mother’s death, and she is an integral part of that comfort.
She was able to overcome her reaction – her shock or surprise or discomfort – and fulfill her promise, and in doing so she was able to bring healing to someone who was in need of it.
I wonder how often we who are human see someone who strikes us as weird or strange, worthy of falling off a camel for, and simply stay in that initial place of awkwardness and discomfort. What would it take for us to, like Rebecca, have those first reactions and then move past them? To instead look for our common humanity, the places where we can bring healing, or even the image of God?
November 6, 2009
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been immersing myself in the last third of this parasha. I’m chanting it tomorrow morning at Tiferet Shalom, and it’s been a litle over a year since I’ve had the opportunity to do that anywhere. I’d forgotten how much I love leyning Torah – i love copying the pages out of my tikkun so I can mark them up with pen and highlighter; I love the process of learning each aliyah backwards, so that the chanting gets smoother, easier, and more familiar as I get closer to the end; I love transitioning from the half of the page containing vowels and trop markings and my own highlights and notations to the half of the page that looks like the writing on a Torah scroll, needing to rely on my own memory and sense of musical patterns to read each aliyah fluently and fluidly.
I’ve been doing most of this learning on my bus commutes, and it’s made them go much faster (I even missed my stop once, I was so immersed in the portion).
I found out this week that I might also have to lead discussion and give some commentary in between each aliyah – our rabbi’s wife has just had a baby! – and discussion at Tiferet Shalom is always in Hebrew, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to post an English-language draft of my thoughts here.
(The English Bible text comes from Mechon Mamre.)
1 And the LORD remembered Sarah as He had said, and the LORD did unto Sarah as He had spoken. 2 And Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. 3 And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bore to him, Isaac. 4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him.
The first part of this aliyah is all about Sarah – God remembered Sarah, Sarah conceived and bore a child. It’s really clear that this son of Abraham’s, who Abraham is naming, is Sarah’s child. So why do we need that extra clause, “whom Sarah bore to him”? Because it is a reminder that Abraham already has a son, the child of Hagar, and in just a few verses this is something we will need to remember.
And Abraham was a hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born unto him. 6 And Sarah said: ‘God hath made laughter for me; every one that heareth will laugh on account of me.’ 7 And she said: ‘Who would have said unto Abraham, that Sarah should give children suck? for I have borne him a son in his old age.’ 8 And the child grew, and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9 And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne unto Abraham, making sport. 10 Wherefore she said unto Abraham: ‘Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac.’ 11 And the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight on account of his son. 12 And God said unto Abraham: ‘Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah saith unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall seed be called to thee. 13 And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed.’
I am always surprised, reading this chapter, that Ishmael’s name is never mentioned. It’s as if even God and Abraham’s narrative voices have been swayed to Sarah’s perspective, seeing ‘the bondwoman’s son’ or ‘the lad’ and not granting Ishmael his own identity.
This year, I am really struck by God’s reassurance to Abraham that Ishmael and Hagar will be okay, that they will be ‘a nation’ because of their tie to Abraham. God wants something specific from Isaac, or he is not getting involved in the tangled Sarah-Abraham-Hagar dynamic, but either way he wants Abraham to know that his firstborn son is not going to die in the desert.
14 And Abraham arose up early in the morning, and took bread and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away; and she departed, and strayed in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. 15 And the water in the bottle was spent, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs. 16 And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bow-shot; for she said: ‘Let me not look upon the death of the child.’ And she sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her: ‘What aileth thee, Hagar? fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is. 18 Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him fast by thy hand; for I will make him a great nation.’ 19 And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink. 20 And God was with the lad, and he grew; and he dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer. 21 And he dwelt in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt.
There is so much to talk about here, but what I am most struck by is Hagar. She is in an untenable situation – in a desert with her son and no water – and she gives up. Or, she almost gives up. Truly giving up would, I think, have looked more like silence, more like numb acceptance. Instead, she lifts her voice (to who?) and weeps. She may believe that she has no hope, but she doesn’t go gently. She rages, or at least reacts. Even though the text is clear that it is Ishmael’s voice God has heard, I like to think that Hagar gets some of that credit, too.
22 And it came to pass at that time, that Abimelech and Phicol the captain of his host spoke unto Abraham, saying: ‘God is with thee in all that thou doest. 23 Now therefore swear unto me here by God that thou wilt not deal falsely with me, nor with my son, nor with my son’s son; but according to the kindness that I have done unto thee, thou shalt do unto me, and to the land wherein thou hast sojourned.’ 24 And Abraham said: ‘I will swear.’ 25 And Abraham reproved Abimelech because of the well of water, which Abimelech’s servants had violently taken away. 26 And Abimelech said: ‘I know not who hath done this thing; neither didst thou tell me, neither yet heard I of it, but to-day.’ 27 And Abraham took sheep and oxen, and gave them unto Abimelech; and they two made a covenant. 28 And Abraham set seven ewe-lambs of the flock by themselves. 29 And Abimelech said unto Abraham: ‘What mean these seven ewe-lambs which thou hast set by themselves?’ 30 And he said: ‘Verily, these seven ewe-lambs shalt thou take of my hand, that it may be a witness unto me, that I have digged this well.’ 31 Wherefore that place was called Beer-sheba; because there they swore both of them. 32 So they made a covenant at Beer-sheba; and Abimelech rose up, and Phicol the captain of his host, and they returned into the land of the Philistines. 33 And Abraham planted a tamarisk-tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God. 34 And Abraham sojourned in the land of the Philistines many days.
And here we have a political interlude in our family drama. Also a place-name explanation – How Be’er Sheva Got It’s Name. (The place-name explanations in Tanakh always make me think of Kipling. I read the Just So Stories at an impressionable age.)
The other thing this interlude does is establish Abraham’s right to the land through treaty and trade. To me, this makes his return to Be’er Sheva at the end of the Akedah all the more meaningful – he is going back to a place in which he has established a home.
1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him: ‘Abraham'; and he said: ‘Here am I.’ 2 And He said: ‘Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.’ 3 And Abraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son; and he cleaved the wood for the burnt-offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him. 4 On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. 5 And Abraham said unto his young men: ‘Abide ye here with the ass, and I and the lad will go yonder; and we will worship, and come back to you.’ 6 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. 7 And Isaac spoke unto Abraham his father, and said: ‘My father.’ And he said: ‘Here am I, my son.’ And he said: ‘Behold the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ 8 And Abraham said: ‘God will provide Himself the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So they went both of them together.
Questions this passage inspires in me on this reading:
-What, exactly, is the ‘test’ that God is giving Abraham?
-What did the two servants think as they watched father and son go off together?
-When Abraham said ‘God will provide the lamb,’ did he think in that moment that he was lying or telling the truth?
-Different readings of this passage place Isaac at ages anywhere from child to adult. How does Isaac’s age change our understanding of what’s going on here?
-What does it mean that Abraham makes Isaac carry the wood, while Abraham keeps for himself the fire and the knife?
9 And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built the altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. 10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. 11 And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said: ‘Abraham, Abraham.’ And he said: ‘Here am I.’ 12 And he said: ‘Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him; for now I know that thou art a God-fearing man, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me.’ 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt-offering in the stead of his son. 14 And Abraham called the name of that place Adonai-jireh; as it is said to this day: ‘In the mount where the LORD is seen.’ 15 And the angel of the LORD called unto Abraham a second time out of heaven, 16 and said: ‘By Myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, 17 that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; 18 and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast hearkened to My voice.’ 19 So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beer-sheba.
The moment of the actual binding always horrifies me, and I think it’s supposed to. It is an awful thing to imagine. It is an awful thing think that God could have asked this of anyone, and perhaps even more awful that Abraham was willing to do it. Reading this hurts, every time, and mae it’s good that it does.
Leyning this passage is fascinating. The trop at the beginning is difficult and awkward and almost sad, and then after the intervention by the angel it smooths out, follows easier patterns, and just sounds happier.
20 And it came to pass after these things, that it was told Abraham, saying: ‘Behold, Milcah, she also hath borne children unto thy brother Nahor: 21 Uz his first-born, and Buz his brother, and Kemuel the father of Aram; 22 and Chesed, and Hazo, and Pildash, and Jidlaph, and Bethuel.’ 23 And Bethuel begot Rebekah; these eight did Milcah bear to Nahor, Abraham’s brother. 24 And his concubine, whose name was Reumah, she also bore Tebah, and Gaham, and Tahash, and Maacah.
Continuity. Whatever happened between Abraham and Isaac, here we have confirmation that the family line continues. And because Isaac didn’t die, we get to smile when we see Rebekah’s name here, knowing the drama will continue for another generation.
October 30, 2009
Reading Lekh Lekha in the wake of JStreet‘s first conference, Driving Change, Securing Peace, is an interesting exercise. Even from far away I was energized by the thought of so many people gathering out of shared commitments to peace and to Israel. Living in Israel has convinced me that the status quo is, ultimately, unsustainable, and that the work ahead will be in finding a way out that honors the humanity and the history of everyone sharing this tiny piece of earth. I think a two-state solution comes closest to this vision, and I’m glad that there are people working to make it a reality.
But wow, Lekh Lekha. If I had to point to the one part of the Bible that most explicitly articulated the Jewish people’s spiritual/mythic/emotional/ancestral connection with the Land of Israel, this would be it. God says, over and over and over again, that S/He is giving this land to Abraham and his descendants, forever and ever.
On the one hand, I can read this through my Reconstructionist lens and say that I don’t believe in a God who acts in history, that the stories in Tanakh are holy simply because they are our stories, and not because they document real events or constitute legally binding contracts. My historical-critical brain supports this, and tells me that stories like these were probably written as political propaganda, designed to cement the ascendancy of one group over another.
However. If that’s all I see when I read this, I think I lose something. In college I called myself a ‘spiritual Zionist’, and talked about the way my soul and heart just felt different in Israel (n.b. At this point, my only exposure to Israel was a 10-day tour I’d been on with my mother’s family, which was designed to push every emotional/affective button it possibly could). After I fell in love with an Israeli and was making the decision to move here to be with her, I had friends who jokingly called me a ‘sexual Zionist’. Israeli citizenship notwithstanding, I’m not sure what kind of Zionist I am these days, if I am one at all. And whatever kind of Zionist I am, I believe wholeheartedly in the importance of a vibrant and strong Diaspora. In many, many, ways the Diaspora is much more my home. But so, on some level, is Israel.
I grew up on the West Coast of the United States, 3000 miles from all of my grandparents. Going back another generation, I actually do have roots in the city I was raised in, but as a white girl I know my ‘real’ roots are in Ireland, Germany, Russia, the Netherlands and a couple of other European countries that I’m forgetting. And also, my roots are here. I want to be able to hold on to the magic and miracle of spiritual rootedness in Israel, to revel in the Hebrew revival (we took a dead language and brought it back to life, how cool is that?), to walk over the roads and stones that some of my ancestors did and feel connected to their stories and I want to be able to do all that without stealing. Without the destruction of the soul that comes with being on hegemonic side of hegemony. Without needing my stories to be the only stories told.
October 25, 2009
How embarrassing – I missed posting on only the second parasha of the year! I had things to say about Noah, but life got a little bit overwhelming at the end of last week, and I didn’t manage get to posting them here.
Part of my busy-ness was spending time with a most amazing baby and her parents. I held her and helped feed her and entertain her and just got to enjoy hanging out with her. I also got to watch her parents be parents, which was amazing in its own way – seeing people I’ve known for years in this incredible new role, all of the responsibility and exhaustion, and all of the joy.
At services yesterday the person who removed the Torah from the ark just stood there for a minute, holding the scroll close to her. I glanced around the room and at that exact moment there was a father holding his baby in the exact same way, the same arm position, the same shifts of weight, everything.
The Torah, in Jewish thought, is much more than the physical scroll containing the Five Books of Moses – it is teaching, and learning, and the generations-long conversation about how we humans can and should respond to each other, and the Divine. But Torah is also the physical scroll, and we wrap it in precious fabrics and precious metals, hold it tightly to us whenever we get the chance, walk it around the room so everyone has a chance to kiss it, and just generally treat it like one of the most special and holy things in our world.
Babies are special and holy, too. We wrap them in soft fabrics, hold them close to us, and pass them around so all of their loved ones get a chance to kiss them. Babies are miracles of potential and imagination, our link to a future beyond our own lifespan.
The Torah is our link to the past. It is our inheritance, the stories of our ancestors, the schematic and tool-kit and language we Jews are given with which we can make sense of the world. But the Torah also needs to be a link to the future – we need to look at it and see the potential for new interpretations and new understandings and new imaginings of what it has to tell us. Just like a baby who has her mother’s nose and her grandfather’s eyes, but who will grow into something neither of them could have dreamed of.
October 16, 2009
ויקרא אלהים לאור יום ולחושך קרא לילה
“And God called (the name of) the light: Day, and the darkness S/he named Night.” (Gen. 1:5)
Naming is central to the act of creation. In Genesis chapter 1, God creates order out of chaos, dividing the תוה ובהו/primeval void into the night and day and sea and sky and earth that are so essential to the world we know. God makes them, and gives them names.
At the end of the sixth day of creation, God makes humanity in God’s own image. We, humans, are supposed to somehow reflect God.
In Genesis 2, God creates the first woman from the body and flesh of the first man. The man, however, is the one to name her – “she shall be called woman (אשה) for from man (איש) she was taken.” (Gen. 2:23)
As the story progresses, the anonymous First Man (האדם) transforms into the character of Adam (אדם), and so The First Woman needs a name, too. All on his own, with no divine prodding that we are shown, Adam names his wife Eve (חוה) because she is the mother of all life (אם כל-חי).
Adam and Eve have a son, Cain (קין), and Eve is the one to give him his name, because “I have gained (קניתי) a son from God.” (Gen. 4:1) Thus begin the begats of human history – parents naming children, previous generations describing and defining the world for the ones to come after.
This ability to name things and people is one way in which we are, for good and for ill, reflections of God. Parents of newborns know this – the power of giving a person a name, the name she will bear for the rest of her life, is a heady and frightening thing. It is also true in larger contexts: the names we use for people that are different than we are, the names we use for geographical areas whose ownership is in dispute, the names we call people we disagree with, or merely dislike.
וירא אלהים את האור כי טוב
“And God saw that the light was good…” (Gen. 1:4)
Before God gave the light a name and called it day, God saw that the light was good. It is not enough to slap a label on something and move on, in order to be truly God-like in our naming, we have to take the time, to make the effort, to see the good in the person, in the idea, in the place or thing we are choosing to name.
October 8, 2009
From the first day of the month of Elul through Hoshana Raba (coming this weekend to a Jewish community near you!), we add Psalm 27 to the liturgy. I figured out over the summer that before bed is my best time for prayer, so I’ve been saying that psalm before falling asleep for the last month and a half. After Saturday, i think I’m going to miss it.
The most famous (or, at least, most frequently-sung) snippet of this psalm begins אחת שאלתי- I have asked one thing.
“one thing have I asked of GOD one goal do I pursue: to dwell in the ETERNAL’s house throughout my days,
to know the bliss of THE SUBLIME, to visit in God’s temple.” (translation by Joel Rosenberg)
It’s a lovely snippet, with many beautiful melodies written for it, and in years past I have walked around singing it over and over, pondering what it means to dwell in the house of God.
This year, however, I’ve been struck by the juxtaposition of another set of verses:
“For my father and mother have abandoned me,
But THE LIVING ONE shall take me in.
Teach me your way, WISE ONE, and guide me in a just path as I meet my foes.”
What isn’t immediately obvious in the translation is that the Hebrew word for teach me – הורני – is closely related to the modern Hebrew word for parents – הורים.
One way of reading those verses is “my own parents will leave me, but God will take over their role.” What on Earth does that mean?
It is true that, unless we and they are very, very unlucky, our parents will most likely predecease us. We will have to learn, eventually, how to function in the world without their particular protection and love and, more generally, without the generational buffer, the comfort of knowing that there are people in the world older than we are, with more knowledge and experience and wisdom. Some day, those elders will be us.
And if we are the elders, if we are those with wisdom and experience and knowledge (a terrifying thought, at least some days), who do we turn to for advice? For direction? For comfort?
The psalm tells us that we should turn to God.
In my theology and in my experience, God, most of the time,is not a Person with whom we can talk. Experiences of the Divine are there in moments of connection with other people, in service (in all the multiple layered meanings of that word), in the things we do that bring us outside of ourselves and our egos.
So when (may it be many, many years from now) I am faced with the loss of those I love most in the generation that raised me, I hope I will be able to turn outward rather than in, and find comfort and guidance in community, in connection, in all of the moments and experiences that I call God.
More than occasionally, I have thoughts about the weekly parasha and the Jewish year cycle. Not having anyone to share them with or a compelling reason to write them down makes me sad.
So – a blog.
My commitment to myself this year is to try and say something in this space, every week, about the weekly Torah portion and/or whatever other shiny, Jewy thing catches my attention.
The first post with real content (n.b. – not a parasha post) should be up soon.