Hesed Is The Prayer And The Answer

When Sarah died at the age of 127, Abraham’s family lost its hesed, the caring, steadfast acts that connect people and sustain the world. Sarah’s hesed was unfailing, even in difficult times. Let this be your hesed to me, Abraham had once said to Sarah when he proposed how she might save him from threatening rulers by posing as his sister instead of his wife (Genesis 20:13).

Under the best of circumstances, a life as long as Sarah’s is a reminder of the difference between what is sad and what is tragic. But, some say that Sarah died of a broken heart, for Abraham had lost his own hesed to a blinding revelation that he should sacrifice their son, Isaac. In that moment, he was no longer the exemplar of hesed as he had been to hungry and tired strangers at the door, to kin held captive, and to unknown residents of the violent cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

With Sarah’s death, Abraham resolved to restore the hesed that he had once known and that Sarah had never abandoned. The new days, going forward, required the connectedness of the old days; they required the old family wellspring of hesed, the unending flow ready to be drawn up and shared.

Abraham’s servant found the very place where the metaphor and the water converged—the wellspring marking his arrival in the home district of Abraham’s family in Aram-Nahara’im. Here, where water was drawn and hesed was offered to strangers, the faithful servant became a master of prayer, an exemplar for all who would follow. He asked for hesed in his master’s name, as Abraham himself had once asked Sarah.  He did not pray for a miraculous divine act, but for a human act of hesed:

He made the camels kneel by the well outside the city, at evening time, the time when women come out to draw water. And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and act with hesed towards my master, Abraham: Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar  that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘drink, and I will also water your camels’- let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have acted with hesed towards with my master” (Genesis 24:11-14).

Those were days of hesed, back when Sarah had stood at that spring; days so necessary, and now, so absent. Abraham’s servant drew the yearning for hesed into a prayer. The poet, Yehuda Amichai, drew that same yearning into a poem:

“Those were days of hesed,” I heard them say once
on a winter street during days of loneliness and pain.
Even for days of hesed we need at least two,
one to give hesed and one to receive it.
When they are separated, the hesed does not abide
or it is spilled into the street as if from a broken pipe.

Religions do not do hesed, they only inform
empty time, with a bell, with a muezzin’s call,
with a siren or a shofar, with knocks on the door
during days of penitence. Religions are not able
to inform either God or his hesed.

Since the day that sacrifices ended
each person is left himself
to sacrifice.

The hesed of once-upon-a-time is a nostalgic memory especially vivid on dark winter days. Loneliness and pain are most keenly felt in the absence of hesed. Those were the days, they used to say; by days, meaning at least two. Perhaps those days were the last gasp of the plural—the final two days before hesed would spill out for lack of connectedness.

Hesed flows through connected days. Abraham’s servant, as well as the poet, knew that human connection makes for hesed; the day is only a carrier. Religions are only carriers. Even God is only a carrier of hesed. The fullness of hesed flows through human acts, and Amichai taught that each of us has only the self to bring to the task.

Go forth and do small things. Look to fellow humans for the everyday evidence of hesed. The bucket drawn from the spring is not hesed. Hesed is the one who does the drawing.

Posted in Blessing, Parshat HaShavuah, Poetry, Torah | 1 Comment

Wholly Complete And Holy Incomplete

The Torah’s first creation story concludes:

Va-yechulu…And the heaven and the earth and all of their ranks were finished. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done and rested on the seventh day from all of the work that he had done. And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it for upon it he ceased from all the work that he had created. (Genesis 2:1-3)

Since ancient times, these verses have been a part of the prayers for the Sabbath eve. For Rabbi Hamnunah, a 3rd-4th century Babylonian teacher, Va-yechulu was not mere recitation. It was the deepest of truths, personally experienced by participants in the very act of creation:

Rabbi Hamnunah said: Everyone who prays on the Sabbath eve, reciting Va-yechulu, Scripture accounts that person as a partner with the Blessed Holy One in the acts of creation. As it says: Va-yechulu. Don’t read it as Va-yechulu, the heavens and earth and all of their ranks were finished; rather, as Va-yechalu, they [God and reciter] finished the heavens and the earth and all of their ranks.

The very word, Va-yechulu, offered Rabbi Hamnunah the opportunity to press his point into the (finished) sacred text. Va-yechulu, they were finished, is spelled without a full complement of vowel-letters—ויכלו, instead of ויכולו.  The fixed and finished written evidence allows for another reading: not, they [heaven and earth] were finished, but, they [God and humans] finished.

When we raise a cup of wine to make Kiddush and sanctify the day, we first recite Va-yechulu, remembering our role in the making of the world. We recite Va-yechulu with the authority of a creator who, every Sabbath, experiences the satisfaction of the artist surveying the work and deeming it to be finished.

Rabbi Hamnunah held ‘finished’ and ‘unfinished’ so gently together in the palm of his teaching! As he declared humans to be partners in the world’s finishing, he rendered the blueprint-text incomplete without his reading of it. The letters were finished, but not their meaning.

Rabbi Hamnunah might well have appreciated the insight of the modern Israeli poet Rivka Miriam who made the same Va-yechulu verses into a prayer-like poem celebrating the open-endedness of creation.

Don’t finish like the finishing of your heavens,
like finishing the starry dust of their ranks.
In your mysterious incompleteness I will be sanctified.

The poet declares herself sanctified by— the same word means ‘dedicated to’—endless imagination. Hers is the language of Va-yechulu: The heavens/shamayim and their ranks/tzeva’am were finished/Va-yechulu and sanctified/va-yikadesh. But for Rivka, the finishing of creation must prompt the beginning of creativity. At a certain point, the creator-poet lifts her pen for the final time and deems her poem to be finished, even though its meaning is not complete.

With the help of our teachers, Rabbi Hamnunah and Rivka Miriam, we renew the cycle and roll the scroll through another year, celebrating what is wholly complete and holy incomplete.

Posted in Parshat HaShavuah, Poetry, Prayer, Shabbat, Talmud | Leave a comment

Heroes Who Limp

Jacob’s midnight assailant was surprised at his adversary’s great strength. He wondered if Jacob might be an angel like himself. Angels have no leg joints, the midrash teaches, so he touched Jacob at the hip to determine whether his opponent’s power was earthly or heavenly. The angel’s mere touch dislocated Jacob’s hip, but the attacker gained no advantage. Indeed, the angel’s surprise that Jacob was only human might have helped the patriarch to prolong the struggle until first light when he could wrestle a blessing. The angel departed as daylight grew and the wounded Jacob set out to meet his brother Esau.

The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel and he was limping on account of his hip (Genesis 32:32).

It intrigues me to imagine that Jacob’s earthly joint brought the heavenly blessing of a new name, Yisrael: You have struggled [sarita] with God [el] and you have prevailed (Genesis 32:29). My intrigue is of a personal nature; his story is mine. My Hebrew name is Yisrael. My grandfather was Jacob, and I also have a joint that has been touched by wear and tear. I am always struggling to make my earthly knee—berech—into a source of heavenly blessing—beracha. I, for one, am heartened by a hero who limps.

Many ancient sages applied their interpretive arts to quickly heal Jacob of his limp. More than a few taught: Don’t read, the sun rose upon him. Rather, read the verse literally: The sun rose for him [va-yiz’rach lo]; it rose with the added purpose of healing him. A prophetic verse encourages the claim that the sun of righteousness shall rise upon you [or, for you,] who revere my name, with healing in its wings (Malachi 3:20).

In pursuit of the healing for which they were so eager, these teachers reread, The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel and he was limping, as, The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel while he was still limping on account of his hip. But after he passed Penuel, Jacob was limping no longer. The Torah narrative soon confirmed the healing, the sages taught, noting that after that day’s reunion with Esau, Jacob arrived safely [shalem] in the city of Shechem (Genesis 33:18). Don’t read it that he arrived safely [shalem] in the city of Shechem. Rather, understand the verse to mean that Jacob had become whole, shalem, in body by the time he reached Shechem. His limp was gone and never mentioned again.

I prefer a hero who limps, and I seek out the company of those teachers who allow me my hero. Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac (Rashi) was of two minds as to whether Jacob continued to limp. On the one hand, Rashi taught that the sun rose upon him is a common figure of speech: “By the time we reached such-and-such a place, the sun rose upon us.” In other words, Jacob had broken camp early and was already limping along when the sun rose. On the other hand, Rashi could not resist citing the midrash that the sun rose with a special benefit for Jacob, to heal him of his limp.

Rashi’s grandson, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam), earned my gratitude by unequivocally confirming Jacob’s limp as an ongoing condition. According to him, the plain meaning of verse was that the sun rose upon him [making it clear for all to see that] he was limping! The sun did not serve to heal, but to reveal to all that Jacob bore his blessing in the imperfect carrier that was his body.

When Rabbi Joshua ben Levi (3rd century) returned from a mission to Rome, Rabbi Hanina met him as he limped off the ship: “You resemble [Jacob,] your grandfather,” he said. Did Rabbi Hanina note his friend’s limp with surprise? Was Rabbi Joshua’s halting step perhaps the result of a recent accident, or of cramped quarters aboard ship? Or perhaps Rabbi Joshua had always limped—although that characteristic is ascribed to him only this once.

In any event, Rabbi Hanina saw in Rabbi Joshua’s limp the renewed story of a hero who emerged limping from an epic struggle. Jacob’s struggle had been with the guardian angel of Esau; Rabbi Joshua’s contest had been with Rome—founded by Esau’s descendants. Merely by “touching” Rabbi Joshua’s hip, Rabbi Hanina renewed the ancient blessing that had emerged from that weak place.

Rivka Miriam is a modern Hebrew poet who continues the tradition of Rabbi Hanina by preserving Jacob’s limp as an asset, not as an infirmity:

And in the inner room we keep Moses’ heaviness of mouth
Isaac’s weak eyes, and Jacob’s dragging leg.
And when war stirs us, it is to the inner room we go
To examine them closely.
For each one who goes out to battle wraps himself in just these.

Jacob’s limp is among our treasured images of the courage and persistence that thrive in the company of our frailties. It is nothing less than a struggle-with-an-angel to wrestle forth the blessing that emerges from the weak place. If we remember that we grow—skin and bone—most vigorously around the wounded spot, then the limp itself can be its own blessed reminder and encouragement, sunrise after sunrise.

Posted in Angels, Blessing, Midrash, Poetry, Torah | 4 Comments

Meaning Beyond All Blessings And Poems

“I want my kids to say Kaddish for me after I die, but I can’t explain to them why, or what Kaddish means to me. I’ve looked at the translation—but that’s not what the Kaddish means to me; and if that is what it means, my kids will never say it.”

As a rabbi, I have heard versions of this predicament many times from American Jews who have inherited the western, secular, intellectual culture that is the primary source of meaning in their lives. But the people who speak to me about such matters also feel the pull of their Jewish legacy, The Jewish inheritance of deepest concern to them consists of customs, symbols, and words addressing mortality, love, faith, frailty, and future. Each of these a theme beyond expression gathered into a prayer that words can barely contain.

It’s easy to get lost in the ravine between the prayer book’s facing pages—the mysterious and resonant vocabulary of Jewish religious imagination on one side, and what is often the thin sound of translation on the other. The multiple meanings of the Kaddish are deeply held but not easily explained and are perhaps incapable of being understood by way of translation.

“How do I tell myself what the Kaddish means?” my questioner implicitly asks. Equally implicit and moving: “How do I share that meaning to make it understood by—maybe even compelling to—my children?”

In earlier generations, the authority of traditional practice likely subdued such questions. But now, in an environment where individual articulation and self-understanding are prized, the authority of tradition is less important than the personal inspiration that those traditions might offer. And yet, articulation is trapped between the blessings of communal tradition and the depths of personal meaning.

Modern Jewish poets reflecting on the Kaddish might especially inspire those who struggle to express personal meaning. Poets test the limits of language; whereas, most of us are reluctant to speak an untested word – a word that could press on a sensitive spot in one who relies on the reasonable and the rational. Exacting, literal translations do not satisfy. But the poets might free us from such tired literalism, and from an unsatisfying crossing of the ravine between the prayer book’s pages.

The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai animated the first two words of the Kaddish, commending a lost friend to their vigilant care: “Two giants, yit-gadal and yit-kadash watch over your death.” These first words of the Aramaic Kaddish are unchanged in Amichai’s modern Hebrew. Their mysterious power overwhelms literal meaning. Any translation misses the drama of words come-to-life, as giants taking upon their enormous shoulders the task of protecting the dead. To recite the Kaddish is to call these giants once more to their task and to enter the mysterious dynamic of keeping the images that keep us.

In his poem “Kaddish,” a memorial to his mother, the great Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg recounts being “up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph, the rhythm the rhythm—and your memory in my head three years after—and read Adonai’s last triumphant stanzas aloud.”

Meaning and mourning are alive in the sound, in the sway of the Kaddish; in “the rhythm the rhythm” of sounds remembered and recited: “yit-barach, v’yish-tabach, v’yit-pa’ar, v’yit-romam v-yit-nasei, v’yit-hadar, v’yit-aleh, v’yit-halal…”  Meaning carried by rhythm and blues is, in the very words of the Kaddish, “l’eila min kol birchata v’shirata – beyond all blessings and poems;” meaning that is deeply understood when the “blues shout blind.”

Both for Amichai and Ginsberg, the Kaddish offers a personal meaning for personal mourning against the backdrop of the ancient communal prayer. Amichai summons his powerful image of the Kaddish in an unnamed poem of eleven lines about a lost childhood friend. Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” names the ancient mourning rite as the framework for his individualistic, idiosyncratic, mourning that spans fifty pages.

For the contemporary American poet, Marge Piercy, the Kaddish does more than name her into an ancient tradition of mourning. Rather, her poem makes of the  Kaddish a meaningful contemporary response to loss, in a work that blurs the distinction between poem and prayer. Refusing to let the Kaddish rest in the mysterious peace of its own ancient power and pull, Piercy transposes the Kaddish into a modern English liturgy. She names her poem, “Kaddish,” as did Ginsberg. The name, “Kaddish,” is a testament for Piercy to a communal tradition both revered and renewed. Her project prompts me to produce the poem in full:

Look around us, search above us, below, behind.
We stand in a great web of being joined together.
Let us praise, let us love the life we are lent
passing through us is the body of Israel
and our own bodies, let’s say amen.

Time flows through us like water.
The past and the dead speak through us.
We breathe out our children’s children, blessing.

Blessed is the earth from which we grow,
blessed the life we are lent,
blessed the ones who teach us,
blessed the ones we teach,
blessed is the word that cannot say the glory
that shines through us and remains to shine
flowing past distant suns on the way to forever.
Let’s say amen.

Blessed is light, blessed is darkness,
but blessed above all else is peace
which bears the fruits of knowledge
on strong branches, let’s say amen.

Peace that bears joy into the world,
peace that enables love, peace over Israel
everywhere, blessed and holy is peace, let’s say amen.

Piercy begins by enjoining all to acknowledge the “great web of being.” Thus, does she replace the theology of the ancient Kaddish which begins by enjoining all to “Magnify (yit-gadal) and sanctify (yit-kadash) the Great Name.” Amichai’s giants have no power; praise of the “Great Name” of God is nowhere to be found. Piercy does not call for a life of praise, but a praise of life; not unending life under divine sovereignty, but life that is its own end, and unending; combining and surpassing the span and vitality of an individual’s years.

Piercy’s “Kaddish” elaborates the importance of community. In her first stanza, it is “we” who twice extol life. Five times in that stanza, Piercy reminds “us” that life is to be loved and praised. This set of five is followed by one more “us” contracted into “let’s say amen,” an informal inflection of the final exhortation concluding the short prayers for life and peace that conclude the Kaddish; the two prayers that Allen Ginsberg calls, “Adonai’s last triumphant stanzas.”

Piercy concludes four stanzas of her “Kaddish” in this manner, finally expanding the ancient prayer’s concluding plea for peace; a plea to which, with softened authority, she invites all to say, “amen.”

Against the backdrop of new meaning, Piercy refocuses old language.  Words such as “praise,” “blessing,” “holy,” “amen,” “forever,” and “Kaddish,” resonate with meaning larger than the poet who meant them; demonstrating anew the durable and enduring vocabulary of Jewish religious imagination that transcends translation. As Piercy renews religious language, she also celebrates its limits; standing at the edge of her words to “bless the word that cannot say the glory that shines through us.”

Perhaps these three poets will inspire us to trust our own imaginations as we search for what cannot easily be said—or read—from the translation across the ravine of facing Hebrew and English pages. As with the poets who inspire us, perhaps there is something deeply known—not new—that we will liberate from silence. On the other hand, perhaps the inspired search for meaning will lead us to a deep and meaningful silence that we can finally, unapologetically, liberate from words.

May we—in addition to our words—discover an informed and eloquent silence in which the unsayable is not an awkward failure of speech, but rather an occasion of hushed reverence for what is beyond all blessings and poems. And let’s say amen.

 

 

 

Posted in Kaddish, Poetry, Prayer | 3 Comments

Jerusalem And The Held Back Scream

The Jerusalem Talmud recounts:  When David came to dig the foundations of the Temple he dug fifteen thousand cubits but had not reached the Deep.  Finally, he uncovered a cluster of stones and was about to lift it when one rock spoke to him and said:  Do not touch me… Even so, David did not listen and once the rock was lifted the Deep arose, threatening to submerge the world.

Jerusalem, with the Temple Mount at its center, is the place where the heavens and the depths touch. The very foundation of its foundation is a place of awe-filled and awful power. Says the poet, Yehuda Amichai, it is upon this precarious foundation that Jerusalem exists:

Jerusalem is built on the arched foundations
of a held back scream. If there were no reason
for the scream, the foundations would be shattered, the city would collapse,
if the scream should be screamed, Jerusalem would explode into the heavens.
arches

The living, breathing architecture and anatomy of Jerusalem are one and the same. The arch of the inflated lungs is the foundation of the city. The arch keeps its shape only because of the stopped throat holding back the justifiable scream, a scream that takes no sides.

The city exists because of the tension between reason and responsibility.

So we have been warned by David, Jerusalem’s the ancient poet, and by her modern poet Amichai:  brazenness that ignores Jerusalem’s complexity threatens the core of the world.

Posted in Jerusalem, Poetry, Talmud | 4 Comments

Naming The Unimaginable

At the harrowing end, a ram replaced Yitzhak as the sacrifice; a narrow escape that came only after two divine interventions to divert father Abraham from his unimaginable mission.

Generations of rabbinic storytellers imagined even narrower escapes for Yitzhak, placing him as close to death as they dared; hoping to keep Abraham’s faithfulness (and Yitzhak’s resolve) intact beyond any question, to the point of no return.

In one sequence, Abraham began the sacrifice of his son, shedding a quarter of Yitzhak’s blood. Yitzhak would have died from this mortal wound had angels not taken him away to the Garden of Eden where he was healed over three years.

Another account relates that Yitzhak was—almost literally—frightened to death. Upon realizing that he would survive, Yitzhak created the blessing that would become fixed in his name: Blessed are You… who revives the dead.

In the most extraordinary escape of all, Yitzhak was actually sacrificed, reduced to ash, and then resurrected. In this story, the angels—not Yitzhak—created the blessing that celebrates reviving the dead.

An escape story much closer to the Torah’s narrative relates that Yitzhak was replaced on the altar by the bellwether of Abraham’s flock, a sheep named “Yitzhak.” Thereby, “Yitzhak” was sacrificed—even as Yitzhak lived.

A mortal wound and a miraculous recovery, a near-death trauma, a resurrection, and a pet sheep—not a ram—named Yitzhak: Each story set aside the scriptural account, edging closer to the unimaginable.

Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, added a more astounding tale to the tradition of such stories in which he went so far as to name the unimaginable: A father did, in fact, sacrifice his son; and that son’s name was Yivkeh/Let-Him-Cry, a tragically prophetic name:

Abraham had three sons, not just two.
Abraham had three sons:
Yishmael/ Let-God-Listen, Yitzhak/Let-Him-Laugh, and Yivkeh/Let-Him-Cry.

No one has heard of Yivkeh, for he was the youngest
the beloved one offered as an offering on Mount Moriah.
Yishmael was saved by his mother, Hagar, Yitzhak was saved by an angel,
but Yivkeh was not saved by anyone. When he was little
his father loving called him, Yivkeh, Yiv’k, Yeiv’k my little
darling. But he sacrificed him at the Akedah.
In the Torah is written the ram, but it was Yivkeh.
Yishmael never listened to God again in his life.
Yitzhak never laughed again in his life
and Sarah laughed only once, and never again.
Abraham had three sons,
Yishma/Let-Him-Listen, Yitzhak/Let-Him-Laugh, Yivkeh/Let-Him-Cry,
Yishmael, Yitzhakel, Yivkeh-el.
[Let-God-Listen, Let-God-Laugh, Let-God-Cry.]

The Torah would not say it, but the poet insisted: Abraham sacrificed a son, Yivkeh—not a ram—on Mount Moriah. It is a fact that Yitzhak did not die. But Amichai allowed no escape from the truth into the facts. You don’t remember a child named Yivkeh from the Torah’s story? No matter; you don’t remember a wound, a resurrection, or a sheep named “Yitzhak,” either.

Yivkeh, not Yitzhak, was the beloved one offered as an offering on Mount Moriah (although Genesis 22:2 described Isaac with this language). Yivkeh, alone among the sons, was the beloved one of nicknames so endearing that those names underscored the horror of what would come.

His name foreshadowed his fate. Just so, his brothers’ names ironically described their own lives after the traumas from which they would escape. Yishmael would never listen again. Neither Yitzhak nor his mother would laugh.

The poet named the unimaginable from the very beginning: Abraham had three sons, not just two. But in the end, indirection powerfully carried his point from earthbound life to the very heavens.

Indirectly, Amichai revealed that the name Yivkeh itself is a nickname—a short form of Yivkeh-el/Let-God-Cry. Just so, the name Yitzhak shortened the fuller Yitzhak-el/Let-God-Laugh. Both names follow the full-name form of the oldest brother, Yishmael/Let-God-Listen.

God’s presence, visible or not, makes of a name a hope, or a prayer: Let God listen, Let God laugh. When naming the unimaginable, a name becomes a living protest, an indictment, a demand: Let God cry!

 

Posted in Midrash, Names, Parshat HaShavuah, Poetry, Torah | Leave a comment

Believe it—And Not

Noah was lacking in belief, taught the 3rd century teacher, Rabbi Yohanan. If not for the water reaching his ankles, he would not have entered the ark.

Lacking in belief? Noah, who fulfilled the twin tasks of building the great ark and gathering its passengers? Rabbi Yohanan pressed his extraordinary claim through the verse:  Noah… went into the ark because of the flood water (Genesis 7:7).

The verse itself does not shout Noah’s lack of faith. True, an earlier verse (Genesis 7:1) related that God’s command to enter the ark came before the rain began, helping to make the case that Noah hesitated. But hesitation is not the same as lack of belief. Something more compelling than the Torah text demanded the sage’s conclusion; namely, that these verses pointed to a deep human characteristic. Despite any indications, just like Noah, we sometimes simply refuse to believe that a thing will happen—until it does.

800 years later in northern France, Rashi elaborated Rabbi Yohanan’s teaching. Said Rashi: Noah, also, was among those people who are lacking in faith. He believed, and he did not believe, that the flood would come; so, he would not enter the ark until the water forced him.

For 800 years—from Rabbi Yohanan to Rashi—there is no evidence that any other teacher saw in the Noah story the Torah’s timeless assurance that contemporary souls are not alone in the tangle of belief.

To believe and—at the same time—not believe is unprecedented language unique to Rashi describing a human condition that is not unique at all. The Torah whispers it, but the compassionate teacher shouts it; assuring fellow-travelers that they are not alone in a world where floods threaten and believing is complicated.

Posted in Midrash, Parshat HaShavuah, Torah | 4 Comments

So That You Will Remember

In the first days after the liberation of Dachau, a US soldier and a wounded survivor chanced to meet on the grounds of that infamous concentration camp. The now liberated prisoner thrust upon the soldier a cake of compacted ashes from the camp’s crematorium: Take this, he said to young Walter Corsbie, so that you will remember what happened here. The young soldier placed the ashes in a cigarette tin that he carried.

Corsbie’s moral reflex was to take the ashes, sacrificing precious cigarettes to protect his charge.  He could not have thought through the implications of remembering and its responsibilities: Was this memory for him alone? Who was the you that should remember? Was he obliged to tell the story? To preserve the ashes? Measuring the depth and breadth of remembering would take more than Walter’s lifetime.

Walter Corsbie, from North Carolina, began the war as a bombardier. But he had recently been diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat and reassigned as a courier. The ironies should not be lost: The courier with an undependable heart had the heart to accept and carry a charge almost beyond bearing.

Walter returned home with only a few possessions. He put photos, medals, dog tags, induction and discharge papers—and a cigarette tin full of ashes—into the night table drawer by his bed. Official markers of coming, going, and identity, along with the one relic that transformed coming, going, and identity, would for decades stand as wakeful sentries by his bed.

When his son, Joseph, became angry that his “pencil pusher” father had no war stories to match those told by fathers of his friends, Walter pulled out the contents of his night table drawer. The single item of interest was the one about which his father could not speak. Joseph’s questions rendered him tearful and shaking. “Leave him alone,” Joseph’s mother said. “He can’t stand to talk about it!” The uncharacteristically tearful silence sufficed for young Joseph. His father’s war story was something that could not be told.

Just before Walter’s death, the faithful courier entrusted his son with the story—and the ashes. “It’s like I became the guardian of memory,” Joseph would say later. “I had to make sure they weren’t forgotten. They were innocents.” For Joseph, as for his father, intimations of mortality made him consider what to do with the ashes. What now were the implications and responsibilities of remembering? Joseph had no descendants.  It was time to consider what vehicle of memory would carry forward from the courier, honoring and fulfilling the urgent charge: Take this so that you will remember.

The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, reflected upon the realities of remembering for two generations and then beyond:

Now two generations of forgetting have passed
and the first generation of remembering has arrived. Woe to us that already
we have arrived at remembering, for memories are the hard shell of an empty heart.

For two generations, forgetting is an element of living memory. “I’ve forgotten more than you’ll ever know,” is the rueful and confident assertion of one who remembers with senses and muscle. Such remembering is not compromised by the omission of a detail.

Imagine Joseph at the white-hot moment that he became the guardian of memory: Seeing the prisoner’s gaze reflected in his father’s eyes; feeling in the palm of his own hand the urgent thrust of that desperate survivor, a tremor that trembled still from survivor, to father, to son. Were he to forget his father’s words, the taste and truth of the living moment would endure in the second generation.

But, woe to us that already we have arrived at remembering, for memories are the hard shell of an empty heart.

In the third generation, the luxury of forgetting becomes the responsibility for remembering. Forgetting sculpts memory. The worn rock wholly fits the landscape. But the remembering that is readied for the long journey needs a durable and dependable structure that resists nature’s erosions.

Joseph, a Christian minister, felt that Jewish collective memory would be the most fitting custodian of the ashes and their story, carrying forward the most and leaving behind the least. He entrusted the ashes to a Jewish cousin in North Carolina who would know how to proceed. That cousin contacted a local rabbi, who, in turn, called the director of the North Carolina Holocaust Speakers Bureau. A child of Holocaust survivors, the director oversees a project dedicated to carrying survivors’ stories forward towards the horizon of the critical second generation, and beyond.

How will the third generation remember?  In a little while, the poet says, memory will depend upon evidence re-collected and re-presented “by the book:”

In a little while people will walk through fields and cities
with something like nature lovers’ plant guides in hand
now person guides. And they will call to one another,
here I found it, no mistake, here are the signs, here is the characteristic color
of the eyes and hair, here is the well-known smile, this is its fragrance,
and this is its name, this was a friend, friend of a friend, this a woman
of long ago, this one is the image of my father and this the image of me and of you,
when you will flower and when you will wilt, this is the scientific
name, and this is the common name between lovers and friends,
and this is a name with no person and this is a person with no name.
And this is how it was.

(Click here for entire Amichai poem in Hebrew and English)

A field guide to human beings presents characteristics, but not characters. The book—be it data, story, poem, or prayer—translates and fixes a framework of memory for generations going forward. Each artful structure is a shell that, when held to the ear, offers its own resonance—and no other.

The new carriers of the Dachau ashes explored various shells of Jewish memory by contacting The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as well as contacting the synagogue that is the custodian of a small Jewish cemetery in Durham, NC, 120 miles from where Joseph Corsbie was living.

The journey from forgetting to remembering, from personal to public stewardship was not without its difficult crossing. The poet was right in saying, woe to us that already we have arrived at remembering.

Among other difficulties, the passage into institutionalied memory required a question previously unasked (at least) aloud. A museum will not put human remains on display. The Jewish cemetery must also remain true to its mission and its ancient rules. Both curating and caring require submitting truth to the scrutiny of fact. Were the ashes, indeed, human remains?

The Holocaust Speakers Bureau director, in the new circle of those carrying the ashes, is married to a physician-scientist who had the means to mobilize forensic science to identify the nature of the ashes.

On the border of a new genertion, on the brink of new insights, it was time to reflect anew on the prisoner’s charge to Walter:

Take this so that you will remember what happened here.

What happened—an act of inhumanity beyond speaking. So that you will remember—an act of humanity beyond words. Take this—the AshCake4
ashes presumed to be human remains.

That presumption now made each procedural step of scientific inquiry into its own allegory: Should the cigarette tin to be transported to the lab packed in a suitcase and stowed in baggage? What surviving kin was entitled to give permission to examine the ashes? What would become of a cigarette tin that proved to be an ash can and not a coffin? And what would become of the ashes? What would become of the truth carried by a Jewish prisoner, a soldier-courier, his son, and others? Breath caught in the throat awaiting the test results; everyone—and no one—wanted to know.

Initial x-rays and scans showed that the ash contained no DNA and no bone fragments.

Before the destruction of the World Trade Towers, there existed no technology to pursue the matter further. Before 2001, no human material would have been detected in the ash cake. What then would have happened to the ashes? What would have happened to the truth of two generations in the light of the facts as they would have been known in that day?

But the tragedy of September 11 made for finer tools with which to identify human remains among the ashes. At the next level of testing, with virtually no room for doubt, proteins confirmed human presence.

(Click here for scientific narrative)

…no mistake, here are the signsthis is a person with no name…

These were the remains of persons, certainly many, with no name[s], who were not necessarily Jewish; many others died at Dachau. But now Jewish memory would become the carrier of human tragedy and dignity.

A grave was prepared in the small Jewish cemetery in Durham, North Carolina, a two-hour drive from Joseph Corsbie’s home in the small town of Dobson. A local craftsman fashioned a coffin. Joseph’s cousin carried it to the iron gate of the cemetery. Members of the local burial society carried the remains over the last distance, laying them beneath a sculpture fashioned by a local artist.

On May 25, 2014, Holocaust survivors and their children covered the small coffin, drawing almost 70 years of carrying into the discernable line of a funeral procession. A large crowd, including many of the third generation, watched the burial, taking in for themselves a white-hot moment that even in their forgetting they would remember.

And this is how it was.

Posted in Poetry | 2 Comments

Steps, Blessed Be They

God is steps, declared Yehuda Amichai. Such an outright assertion about God was unusual for the great Israeli poet. He was fond of similes that invited listeners closer to the mystery without violating the distance that mystery needs. Among his similes, Amichai likened God to a magician, to a window, to a door, to bird footprints on the sand, to a tour guide, and to the scent of perfume that lingers after its wearer has passed by.

When the poet declared, God is steps, he stepped outside of his poet-realm of simile and became a theologian making a direct statement about the nature of God in the world. He did not invent the name. Rather, he discovered it among the treasured Jewish images of the ancient past:

Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground, its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were ascending and descending upon it.

(Click here for biblical text in Hebrew and English)

Interpreters have long been drawn to the angels ascending and descending. What was their form? What were their names? Were the angels Jacob’s real-time protectors changing guard as he slept? Or were they symbolic intimations of the future, the guardian angels of empires that would rise and fall? Some imagined that the angels signified either the patriarch’s destination—the safety of Jacob’s ancestral home—or the destiny of his descendants among the empires. However, Amichai was certain that the heart of the dream was not the angels, but the steps:

God is steps that ascend
to a place that no longer exists, or that doesn’t exist yet
the steps are my faith, the steps are my disappointment
Jacob our father knew this in his dream
the angels only decorated the steps of the staircase
like a fir tree decorated for Christmas
and The Song of the Steps is a song of praise
to God who is the steps.

(Click here for Amichai poem in Hebrew and English)

What the poet saw was so true to his “I” that it must have been the truth and comfort of the frightened patriarch fleeing his brother, putting one foot in front of the other; God was each and all steps. The poet and the patriarch knew that the angels were only adornments, like the tinsel and flash of a Christmas tree. Neither destination nor destiny was important. The angels’ movements only served to gild that which was stable and certain—the steps.

From the patriarch’s dream-image and the poet’s wakeful imagining, Steps emerged as a name of God. The name formed slowly, in almost geologic time, beginning when Jacob’s dream surrendered its elemental richness from above, drop by drop. Finally, Steps arose from the earth—a stalagmite staircase,  growing and blooming rock. Its living truth attracted the poet.

A timeless truth, even one recently named, was as true then as it is now. The patriarch did not single out the steps of his dream. But the poet dreamed his way into Jacob’s dream and made his meaning available to all who still dream themselves into it.

Just so, for the Psalmist, the fifteen Psalms beginning Shir Ma’a-lot (Psalms 120-34) were Songs of Ascents—pilgrims’ Psalms for the ascent to the Temple. The Psalmist did not intend them to be Songs in praise of the steps [ma’a-lot].

At its root, ma’a-lot means to ascend; and ma’a-lot could literally mean risers. The word carries and is carried by a sense of upward movement. But steps that are risers and Steps that are God carry all travelers both upward and downward. The poet’s truth adds to, but does not distract from, the Psalmist’s plain meaning. Irrespective of direction or inclination, God who is Steps supports the journey of pilgrims and travelers coming and going. Amichai thought that Steps deserved to be praised in song.

A wise teacher of mine would often respond to an insight such as Amichai’s by saying: It’s a lovely idea, but can you pray it?  Is Steps a functional name of God, or is it merely theoretical and pretty? I have taken the name Steps into the laboratory of my life in order to answer my teacher’s question. Does the name Steps enrich my prayer life?

I have learned to call God Steps when fear—heavy and broad—must be carried and crossed. Steps is the name that I call when my soul insists on movement, but I don’t know whether onward will be upward or downward.

Mindful of Steps, blessed be they, my stride becomes less hurried, less entitled. There are moments in which I am moved to join those pilgrims whose custom it is to proceed for a brief time on their knees—dividing speed while multiplying awareness of each careful and sometimes painful step.

Steps is the God in whose presence I walk, knowing that God who is Steps does not determine my direction or destination. Steps is the God who is ever-present, but not all-knowing. Steps is the God who is with me, whether I am a purposeful pilgrim or a foot-loose wanderer. Steps is the God who is always giving and gaining ground, but making no comment.

Such is the soil—the soul—in which the name, Steps, takes root and flourishes for me. And here is some evidence from my own inner prayer book of how I pray it:

O, Steps! Ground of all journeys!
You are forever beneath my rising and my falling.
You are the level and the slope testing my inclinations
towards faith, towards disappointment.
Another step and I meet you anew.
You are the ground of purpose; mine to determine.
You are my way, whether wandering or pilgrimage.
You are here and horizon; destination long gone or as yet unmade.
Where I meet You is arrival and departure.
I, among the travelers. You, as ancient and present as the journey.

Steps, blessed be they, assures me—comforts me—that onward is the only way. This is a truth as old as the journey.

Posted in Midrash, Poetry, Prayer, Torah | 1 Comment

How Deep? How High?

How much do I love you?
I’ll tell you no lie.
How deep is the ocean?
How high is the sky?

Irving Berlin wrote the song, How Deep Is the Ocean? in 1932. It consists mainly of rhetorical questions that point towards the unmeasurable depths and heights of love. I apply that song in ways both seriously playful and playfully serious to the story of Israel crossing the Sea of Reeds. I am not the first to apply a love song to that crossing. And I follow a long tradition of reading the story of crossing the sea in ways that rely on our precious capacity for imagination; an endowment that flourishes and makes meaning at the intersection of the playful and serious.

Israel, standing at the Sea of Reeds, reminded an ancient sage of the Song of Songs: O, my dove, in the cranny of the rocks, hidden by the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice! For your voice is sweet and your face is lovely (Song of Songs 2:14).  Rabbi Eleazar interpreted this verse as referring to Israel standing by the sea: O, my dove, in the cranny of the rocks—for there was Israel hidden among the coves of the sea. Show me your face—as it is written: Stand and see the salvation of the Lord (Exodus 14:13). Let me hear your voice—that refers to the song sung at the sea. For your voice is sweet—that also is the song. For your face is lovely—this is Israel at the sea looking up in the direction of their pointing fingers as they were saying: This is my God whom I will glorify (Exodus 15:2).  

Rabbinic imagination has long been drawn to, and through, the split parts of the Sea of Reeds. Tales of the depth of the sea and the height of the watery walls attempt to measure the miracle of this unmatched story of redemption and love. How deep? How high? According to one ancient retelling of the story, the walls of water were 13 miles high!

One of the oldest rabbinic Torah commentaries imagined the splitting of the sea as an event that rose above history. It was the redemptive moment “seen ‘round the world.” For it was not merely the Sea of Reeds that was divided when Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. In addition, every natural body of water split; along with the water in every cave, pool, and cistern split in concert with the Sea of Reeds. Not only the waters on earth, but the waters above the heavens and beneath the earth parted, giving cosmic dimensions to the moment of redemption. Then, when the people of Israel had safely crossed, Moses stretched out his hand over the sea and all of the waters returned to their places.

The Passover Hagaddah presents more imaginative and erudite play aimed at estimating the immense power of the sea splitting. If the finger of God (Exodus 8:15) represented the 10 plagues of Egypt, then the (5 fingered!) hand of God manifest at the Red Sea (Exodus 14:31) was 5 times mightier—a 50 “megaton” plague. Other sages imagined that the splitting of the sea was equal to a 200 megaton, or a 250 megaton plague.

With every Passover comes the challenge for each person to see oneself as if he, or she, had come out of Egypt. For some, the miracle of the sea is an impediment to living in the “as if” moment; personal imagination does not flourish in the world of the miracle story. For others, the elements of a fantastic story easily hold the plot and features of an individual’s life. The poet, Yehuda Amichai, gave voice to both dispositions.

Since ancient times, word-images have led the way through the split parts of the sea. Those texts provided the necessary ground for other artistic imaginations. For example, consider the work of Daniyel Reuven Rosen (my grandson!) who saw Moses and the people of Israel walking on a seabed so miraculously dry that grass has already sprouted. They walk between very high watery walls; the blue glass-like edge holds back water that churns and rages above their heads. 

Daniyel saw a deeply cut, straight channel through the sea. The artist of the 14th century Sarajevo Hagaddah imagined a shallower path in which the curves of the road might have demanded more faith from travelers who could not see the far end of the journey. The small bit of a second arcing path through the sea, crowded with people, is visible on the top left of the picture. Here is the hint of another fantastic elaboration of the sea crossing. According to an ancient story, a recalcitrant Israel would not cross until there were twelve crossing paths—one for each tribe! 

Consider another artistic presentation that uses the words of a text not only as written narrative, but as a visual, story telling images—the Torah scroll itself. The song sung at the sea (Exodus 15) is always written in a brickwork fashion, a line consisting of two “bricks” of text alternating with a line of three. The most prominent calligraphic layout of the last line presents the words, the sea, as a “brick” on the right margin and the sea on the left margin; between the two, appear the words, and the people of Israel walked on dry ground in the middle (Exodus 15:19)! Here, scribed into the text, are the people walking on dry ground with a wall of water on each side. 

With a teacher, a student, or a partner-in-imagination, open a Torah scroll to the song sung at the sea and watch the story of the crossing come to life! There they are! There we are, in the middle of the story!  Above the text, the sea-foam white rolls of Torah parchment have parted to the right and to the left, revealing the letters that depict in word and image, the travelers and the parted sea. The black letters glisten as though still wet. Imagination deepens the sea-bed and raises the walls of water towards the sky. Imagination, at the intersection of the playful and the serious, keeps us within the story even as it keeps the story within us. May we never lose the capacity to imagine our story in seriously playful and playful serious ways!

And if ever I lost you, how much would I cry?
How deep is the ocean, how high is the sky?

Posted in Holidays, Midrash, Passover, Poetry, Torah | Leave a comment