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

Forgetting Reminds Me…

The national election created in me a deep sense that I wanted to meet and speak with more of my neighbors. In my busy-ness, it’s easy to walk past the community of the every-day. That seems wrong to me now.

Recently I went into a liquor store (vodka is also part of the post-election world). When I walked in, the woman who was keeping the store looked at my kippah and greeted me with, shalom! I responded, shalom, shalom!

When I brought my purchase to her register, I noticed her name emblazoned on her orange uniform shirt: Lethia. What an unusual name! I said. How do you pronounce it? Lay-theey-ah, she replied. Said I, Your name makes my entire mouth work: tongue to teeth for the l, open for the ay, tongue to teeth—with breath behind it—for th, jaw tightened for eey, then, loosening and opening to roll out the ah! She laughed and said her name, feeling its shape and sounds.

Where did your name come from? I asked. From my great-grandma, she said. Great-grandma named me after one of her sisters. She lived her whole life in Roanoke Rapids, NC. That’s where I grew up.

What does your name mean? I asked. I don’t know, she said. I’ve been meaning to look it up, but I haven’t. My name comes from great-grandma, and I think about that every day.

When I returned to my car, I searched the internet for the name, Lethia. I found it, got out of my car, and went back inside the store. Lethia looked concerned when she saw me. Is everything alright? Yes. I just learned something about your name. Lethia is a Greek name, and it means Forgetful. Oh, no! she said, frowning.

But there is a bigger story of your name that fits you, I said. Do you remember the Bible story of Joseph in Egypt? She smiled: Great-grandma used to tell me Bible stories a lot when she was raising me.

Here’s a Bible story that will soon be read in the Synagogue: Joseph had a son whom he named Menassah, from the Hebrew word that means forget. When Joseph named his son, he said: God has made me forget—nashani—my troubles and my father’s house (Genesis 41:51). Of course, every time Joseph spoke his son’s name, he couldn’t help but remember his father and the place where he was raised up.

When you say your name, I continued, it sounds to the ear and feels to the tongue and teeth like your great-grandma naming you and calling you in Roanoke Rapids. The name that means forgetful is its own reminder. As long as you know your name, you’ll never forget.

Thank you, she said, while touching her fingers to her name, emblazoned over her heart.

With Joseph’s story in mind, I went home and consulted the ancient Greek Torah translation, the Septuagint. Translation into Greek stripped away the Hebrew pun that joins the Hebrew name Menasheh and the verb nashani, he caused me to forget. But, I found Lethia’s name in the verb at the heart of the story in parashat Mikketz. God has made me forget? Just the opposite!

Posted in Names, Parshat HaShavuah, Torah | 5 Comments

The Walk Is Painful

The poet, Muriel Rukeyser, learned from her mother the family tradition that she was a direct descendant of Rabbi Akiba. Muriel carried that legacy into a life of vision and activism, beginning in the 1930’s when she wrote and spoke out on behalf of wrongly accused black men in Scottsboro, Alabama. She fought for West Virginia miners afflicted with silicosis. Rukeyser supported the People’s Olympiad, conceived as a protest against the Berlin Olympics of 1936. Her battles against McCarthyism, her support of feminism as well as her efforts against the Vietnam war demonstrated that her energies had not flagged over the years.

Tangles of injustice, opposition, and uncertainty made the walk of her life hobbling and humbling. Her social and political activism required the slow, painful, constant realignment of passionate vision with rational insight. If only the past could lead directly to the redeemed future and circumvent the present! But the activist knew that such was never the case; and she nurtured the vision that halting steps would come to be a graceful dance leading to God.

Muriel offered this vision of her activism in the tradition of her ancestor in a poem called Akiba:

This is not the past walking into the future,
The walk is painful, into the present, the dance
Not visible as dance until much later.
These dancers are discoverers of God.

(Click here for the poet’s words and voice)

An ancient story carries Akiba’s own celebration of human effort enlisted in the service of improving the world. A Roman governor asked Rabbi Akiba:  Whose works are better, the works of God or the works of human beings?

Akiba brought out sheaves of wheat along with delicate cakes and said to him: These sheaves are the works of the blessed Holy One; and these cakes are the works of humans. Are not the cakes more pleasing than the sheaves?

(Click for midrash in Hebrew and English)

Bread begins with the raw ingredients that are the works of God. But only through the works of humans does the loaf come to be. Regardless of whether we sustain or distain one another’s causes and convictions, human industry conspires to make possible the bread on our tables. Because the bread rises to a whole greater than the sum of its parts, Rabbi Akiba, and his descendants, recite a blessing over bread that celebrates not the work of humans, but rather, nurtures a vision of the One who brings forth bread from the earth.

May it make for a better world if we come to know those who sow and grow, who harvest, grind, bake, transport, and sell. They enable the blessing. Let bread symbolize the best aspects of our variety and our common needs. Let the bread that we eat fuel action and feed hope. We are the descendants of Muriel Rukeyser and of Rabbi Akiba. We share the same bread, the same painful walk and work; and we move slowly towards the dance.

Posted in Midrash, Poetry | 2 Comments

Created On The Second Day

When was love created? asked a modern Israeli poet. When were the angels made? an ancient sage inquired. Each question contains an essential quest: to read a detail of personal interest both into, and out of, the few verses of the Torah’s creation story.

The question of the Israeli poet, Rivka Miriam, was implicit in the answer that she discerned when she brought her own quest to bear on a close reading of Genesis chapter 1:

Love was created on the second day. When the two expanses were torn apart
the day that was one became two.
Love was created on the second day. ‘Ere called by name
and with no “let there be!”
Yet the sea began to rise. Embrace was fashioned, and lament was formed.

(Click here for Rivka Miriam poem in Hebrew and English)

The day before love was created, light came to be with a let there be; and with an act of naming, light became day. Through separation, day and night were made to follow one another, independent sovereigns presiding over bordering realms.

In contrast, water was not formed by let there be. The separation of water above from water below did not resolve into different and independently named elements that could exist easily side by side, like day and night. In fact, love was created by the distance between the water’s two parts that would forever strive to become one, again. Love is the tide’s rise and the rain’s reach, as old as the world.

Eighteen hundred years before Rivka, in the land of Israel, Rabbi Yohanan discerned another story in the waters of the second day:

When were angels created? Rabbi Yohanan said: On the second day angels were created, as it is written: He sets the rafters of his lofts in the waters (Psalm 104:3); and next, it is written: He makes the winds his messengers/angels (Psalm 104:4).

(Click here for Midrash in Hebrew and English)

At the heart of Rabbi Yohanan’s question was a quest to find the story that would found his belief: God, alone, was eternal. Angels were creations, despite their heavenly presence and powers.

Rivka Miriam relied solely on her reading of the Genesis narrative. Rabbi Yohanan, in the manner of the sages, adduced a Bible verse in which the winds (also spirits in Hebrew) that are God’s messengers (also angels in Hebrew) are to be found among the roof beams of heaven’s expanse that are miraculously set in waters above.

The poet, the sage, and the rest of us bring living concerns in search of a sacred past. Ask a question about the beginning of things. Look past the narratives of let there be. Rather, ask about the hidden narratives of there must be. Like Rivka and like Rabbi Yohanan, you will see that your question urges you to give to the story of beginning a plot that your life already holds.


Posted in Angels, Midrash, Parshat HaShavuah, Poetry | 1 Comment

The Binding Of God

To my mind’s eye, Rabbi Berechiah appeared stoop-shouldered and mournful on Rosh Hashanah as he listened to the Torah reader recite Genesis 22, The Binding of Isaac. Berechiah, a 4th century sage of the land of Israel, was pained by the story of a father who would agree to sacrifice his son. More painful—if he dared to think it—was his distrust of the God who commanded the sacrifice. Where was the Abraham who risked all to save Sodom and Gomorrah, cities of mainly strangers whom he defended with his life? And where was the God who had offered Abraham the opportunity to defend those cities?

(Click here for Genesis 22 in Hebrew and English)

In his heart, he chastised his predecessors for having added the troubling chapter to the holiday Torah reading. Now that we celebrate for two days, they had decided, on the second day we read: After these things God tested Abraham. In simpler times, the only Torah reading assigned to the holiday had been: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month… you shall observe a sacred occasion, complete with loud blasts (Leviticus 23:23). The only provocation of this section was mild: Why advance the counting of the years in the seventh month?

Another year was at hand and Berechiah realized that he would, once again, join the community worship. He would—like Abraham?!—sacrifice his own values on the altar of a tradition that demanded the binding of Isaac. Despite the parallel’s clear limits, Berechiah’s thoughts revealed a certain truth: He preferred to focus on some tendency found in others, but not in himself. How much easier is anger and certainty when strengthened by the objectivity of distance? But now, the merit of Abraham became the merit of Abraham-who-is-me. Perhaps there was merit in every character and lessons to be learned by entering the story as each one, in turn.

Time and again, Rabbi Berechiah lived the story, anticipating a wise poet who would one day encourage everyone to become the knife, the ram, and even to become God:

Everyone who gets up in the morning is alone,
bringing himself to the binding, he is Abraham,
he is Isaac, he is the donkey, he is the fire
he is the knife, he is the angel,
he is the ram, he is God.

(Click for Amichai poem in Hebrew and English)

When he became the God of the story, Berechiah felt in his own throat an unanticipated softening between the commanding, Take your son! and the appeasing, By my own self, I swear. O! the wisdom of (God’s) vocal chords! Berechiah’s anger turned to wonder: One takes an oath to re-balance a relationship, to assure repayment, or to right a wrong. Excitement rose. The Abraham of Sodom and Gomorrah had returned! He rose from his surrender and forced the commanding God to swear an oath of allegiance to the future generations of Isaac’s children!

Berechiah felt less alone in his radical thoughts when he discovered that a generation earlier, Rabbi Yohanan and one of his students had also sensed the deep story behind God’s vow. But Rabbi Berechiah directed himself beyond the insights of these few fellow travelers. He would not be content with a scholar’s joy of learning for the sake of the endless journey. Berechiah was determined to be a focused pilgrim; his eyes fixed on the holy destination of Rosh Hashanah; his offering, an Abraham whose moment of surrender was bound to a moment of strength, binding God to swear an oath.

That year, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Berechiah himself read the final Torah verse—that verse with its minor irritation that he had thought quite distant from any story of moral action. But now, he understood that this most ancient holiday reading strengthened the most recent, just as the most recent gave meaning to the most ancient.

In the seventh [shevi’i]month, on the first day of the month,  Rabbi Berechiah taught, should be read, In the month of the oath [shevu’a], the month of the binding of God; the month in which Abraham moved beyond his surrender to become the defender of his children’s children. It is the month in which the apologetic God said, I swear [nish’bati].

(Click here for the ancient text of Rabbi Berechiah’s story)

It was the oath [shevu’a], that named the season—the month of the oath—a yearly reminder to Isaac’s children and to God that this would be a time during which our  to be mindful of the human capacities for both surrender and empowerment, forever.

Posted in Days of Awe, Holidays, Midrash, Poetry, Torah | 1 Comment

Each Person’s Stamp and Seal

The end of the matter, all things being heard:  Revere God and observe his commandments, for this is the sum of human life.

With this verse, the liturgical reading of Ecclesiastes comes to an end; the penultimate verse is repeated so as to underscore the fullest expression of human possibility and dignity. In a midrash, God uses the second half of the verse to underscore the mortal constraints on the human spirit. In the matter of living on beyond the Jordan, God says to Moses, You cannot prevail for this is the sum of human life.

The poet, Yehuda Amichai, dips his pen into the sober colors of the Ecclesiastes’ verse. Fragility is in the air when his daughter is drafted into the Israeli army:

The end of the matter, all things being heard. Now even my daughter
is drafted into the army. Now it’s even her face in the window
of the bus slowly pulling away. Now it’s even her face
in the corner of the window, like stamps on letters, like her brother.
Oh, those stamps, those letters
to be sent and to send. Oh, the names and the addresses
and the numbers and the colorful stamps and the faces.
And the hand-cancel seals that resound with the hollow ring of fate.

(Click here for the poem, Talmud, and Midrash in Hebrew and English)

For the poet, the bus window becomes the envelope posted to its destination. His daughter’s face is the stamp joining other stamp-faces, like that of her brother. Each brightly colored stamp-face is a small, colorful, part-for-whole of memory, history, and pride artfully made. Addresses and numbers can be written clearly; but it is the stamp, the brief, finely wrought glimpse of home that enables the send-off. Between the stamp and the address there is the journey.

The Hebrew word for stamp, bul, has made its own journey. In the language of ancient rabbinic sages, a bul was a block or a lump—sometimes of sand or salt when either is exposed to fire:

One sage asked:  In what way shall Israel be like the sand of the sea (Hosea 2:1)? It is a property of sand that if one puts it into the fire, one brings out lumps from which glass vessels are made. Just so, when those of Israel enter the fire, they come out alive.

Such was the case with Daniel’s three companions, tried in the fiery furnace by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. They emerged honored and elevated, each one a bul transformed by the fire.

A bul of salt changes the fire. The sages taught:  We can put a lump of salt in a lamp to help it burn brightly. Each living bul is unique in its own fires—reflective, colorful, sometimes transparent; serviceable and fragile, brightening the world around it in a unique way.

Regardless of its strength and beauty, the human bul does not survive forever, although Moses might have thought so. Certainly, those who live to wondrously old age make us think that mortality might occasionally overlook us. But as God said to Moses and as Amichai said while reflecting on his daughter’s face in the window:  This is the sum of human life.

We each hope to recognize and to honor the stamp from which we came. We also aspire to write (with our own hands) the address to which we travel. And what comes after the hand-cancel seal that marks safe delivery of those whom we love? The end of the matter, all things being heard, we now have the obligation and honor to read the letter.

(In memory of Rabbi Tobias Rothenberg, a passionate advocate for Israeli stamps and for the educational opportunities that they present. He died at age 95 on 16 Menachem Av, the month whose name means consoling father, 5776.)


Posted in Midrash, Poetry, Talmud | 3 Comments

The Eleventh And Twelfth Commandments: Don’t Change! Change!

My father was God and didn’t know it.  He gave me
the ten commandments neither in thunder nor in fury, neither in fire nor in cloud
but in gentleness and in love. He added caresses and added kind words
adding, “I beg you,” and “please.”  He sang keep and remember
in a single melody and he pleaded and cried quietly between one commandment and the next:
Don’t take your God’s name in vain; don’t take it, not in vain.
I beg you, don’t bear false witness against your neighbor.  He hugged me tightly and whispered in my ear:
Don’t steal.  Don’t commit adultery.  Don’t murder.  And he put the palms of his open hands
on my head in the Yom Kippur blessing.  Honor, love, in order that your days might be long
on the earth.  And my father’s voice was white like the hair on his head.
Later, he turned his face to me one last time
like on the day he died in my arms and said, I want to add
two to the ten commandments:
The eleventh commandment: “Don’t change.”
And the twelfth commandment: “You must surely change.”
So said my father and then he turned from me and went off
disappearing into his strange distances.

(Click here for Amichai poem in Hebrew and English)

(Click below to hear the Amichai poem as interpreted and sung by Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann)

The poet, Yehuda Amichai, wove a personal story of receiving Torah on the loom of Scripture’s own account in which God gave ten commandments in thunder, fire, and cloud. The poet’s text-weaving shows an intimate texture. His father gave him ten commandments in a voice that inflected stone-hard, chiseled words with loving and gentle urgency, with tears, and with embrace.

The joining of the timeless, epic warp and the timely, personal weave present a Torah that is ever-more fully revealed.

Torah is more fully given when the Sinai moment becomes larger than the mountain.

The Torah of the Sabbath commandments is more fully given when divergent commands—keep in Deuteronomy, and remember in Exodus—are sung in a single melody; a venerable story captured in an ancient legend and in a Sabbath hymn. To sing them together is to bring them together.

The Torah of a parent is more fully given when the inner tensions of nostalgia and of hope are equally expressed:  Don’t change! Change!


Posted in Holidays, Poetry | 2 Comments