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!


Image | Posted on by | 2 Comments

Finding Oneself On The Mountain

He gave to Moses—when he finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai—the two tablets of the covenant, stone tablets inscribed by the finger of God (Exodus 31:18).

So ended Moses’ forty-day audience with God on the cloud-covered mountain, shielded from all except those sages and poets who have ascended and continue to ascend to find themselves wondering over the mystery of the “summit” that lasted more than a month. Why so long? Why did it take forty days to give the tablets? Did Moses ask questions? Did God explain and expand the ten chiseled sayings? What finally brought the meeting to an end? Had everything been taught, asked, and answered?

The 3rd century teacher, Rabbi Abbahu, found himself viewing the scene this way:

Rabbi Abbahu said:  The entire forty days that Moses spent on high, he would learn Torah and forget it. At the end, he said to God:  Master of the world! Forty days have come and gone and I don’t know a thing! What did the blessed Holy One do? When forty days came to an end, he gave Moses the Torah as a gift, as it says:  He gave to Moses—when he finished speaking with him (Exodus 31:18).

(Click here for the Midrash in Hebrew and English)

Rabbi Abbahu found himself recognizing that Torah could be gifted from on high, but only learned in the world of experience below. When God discerned that the mountain made Torah too abstract and distant for Moses to learn it, he brought the learning to an end and gave to Moses… the two tablets.

The Israeli poet, Rivka Miriam, found herself singing the mystery of the summit:

The Torah not yet given, but already my father was sitting with Moses on the ground
teaching him Torah. The no-book shedding its light on them
presence and absence skipping between alef and bet.
Here were Moses and the Torah tasting one another, saying sheh-hecheyanu and sheh-hakol nih’yah bid’varo
and already, just like father taught him, Moses was beginning to call the God of his fathers,
Gottenyu, and Elohimaleh.

 However, when God came to separate them
and to put the Torah in his storehouse until he wanted it
each va-yomer, va-y’he, and key tov were all gathered together
and Moses in whom a budding caress was again becoming a clenched fist
ranged back and forth in the splash of the storehouse shadow moving his lips with no sound
trying to repeat the Torah by heart until he could write it.

(Click for Rivka Miriam’s poem in Hebrew and English)

The ancient sage and the modern poet found themselves on Sinai not in the sense of an unintended destination, but in the sense of self-awareness. Rabbi Abbahu found himself setting aside forty difficult days and celebrating the moment when the divine teacher turned the limitation of the student into a promising beginning. This was the giving of Torah.

The opposite of Rabbi Abbahu, Rivka Miriam found that it was in the timeless days on Sinai that Torah was fully present in an uncompleted way. She never described the formal giving that was central to her ancient counterpart. For Rivka Miriam, Torah was literally in the air. Time and senses were fused and confused. Presence and absence flickered in the unfastened letters of the not-yet-book. Moses and Torah tasted one another like new fruits and blessed the tasting with blessings always, but not yet, existing. At the same time, Moses learned from Rivka’s father how to call God by tenderly inflected nicknames.

Rabbi Abbahu and Rivka Miriam found themselves valuing the Torah of different Sinai moments. However, they did cross paths on the heights of anxiety, edging towards the chasm between the no-book and the book. Rabbi Abbahu felt the press of bounded time together with the growing mountain of information hanging over Moses’ head. Rivka Miriam relished the hour-less days. But on the eve of formal giving, unbounded Torah words were sorted, stacked, and stored. Then, the budding, open-handed caress of unexplained knowing tightened into a clenched fist of white-knuckled anxiety in the shadow of the storehouse. Both Rabbi Abbahu and Rivka Miriam prized long days rather than frantic hours. Both valued Torah given by tasting rather than testing. But for Rabbi Abbahu, only the gifted Torah in hand could create such spacious conditions. For Rivka Miriam, the Torah in hand ended a time of boundless learning.

Rabbi Abbahu and Rivka Miriam represent a millennium and a half of pilgrims who find themselves on the mountain. On Shavuot, we pilgrims hope to scale the mountain image with our own imagination, just like the sage and the poet. Each of us traveling in our own direction reaches the mountain to find the self that each has brought.

Posted in Poetry | 2 Comments

Leavening On Our Shelves And In Ourselves

Every year, several weeks before Passover, my personal search for leaven begins in a way that is more symbolic than actual. I approach my bookshelves where there are many books that have served their rising, yeasty purposes and are now fermented and frail beyond use. With each search, I take note of the year’s new decisions. One year I might decide to hold on to a particular book while the next Passover, for reasons too subtle to know, I’m able to part with that book, saying: “Whatever I need of you is now in me.”

I find this a soulful enterprise, a springtime version of Rosh Hashanah reflections about what I carry and what carries me forward.

This year, I honorably buried my 5th grade Hebrew School book that I redeemed from the dusty exile of a “nostalgia” shelf. When I realized that I could bring that volume into a timeless Passover conversation, it became clear that I could hold onto the book even as I let it go.

HaYehudi HaRishon (The First Jew), is a book of biblical and rabbinic stories about Abraham rewritten in easy Hebrew. One story recounted how Abraham, the young monotheist, smashed the idols in his father’s shop in order to prove the error of his father’s ways. The Passover Haggadah carries the biblical foundation of this story. As a preamble to reaffirming Israel’s covenant, Joshua traced the people’s history beginning with Abraham’s idol serving father, Terah:

Originally, our ancestors were idol worshippers. But now, the Ever-Present One has drawn us to his service. As it says:  Then Joshua said to all the people, Thus said the Lord, the God of Israel: In olden times, your forefathers—Terah, father of Abraham and father of Nahor—lived beyond the river and served other gods (Joshua 24:2).  (Passover Haggadah)

Here was the biblical kernel of the rabbinic story found in my  an ancient midrash and in my 5th grade book—a story in which Abraham’s father was not only an idol worshipper, but an idol maker:

Terah was an idol maker. Once, he went away and put Abraham, his son in charge to sell in his place. It happened that a man came hoping to make a purchase and Abraham said to him:  How old are you? He answered: fifty or sixty. To which Abraham responded:  Woe to the one who is sixty years old and wants to worship something that is one day old! He became embarrassed and left. Once a woman came bearing a plate of fine flour. She said to him: Offer it before them. He took a club in his hand and broke the idols and put the club into the hand of the biggest of them. When his father returned he said to him: What have you done to them? Abraham replied: I can’t hide it from you. A woman came bearing a plate of fine flour and she said to me: Offer it to them. I offered it to them and this one said: I will eat first, while that one said:  I will eat first. Then the biggest of them rose, took the club and broke all of the others. His father said to him: Why are you trying to fool me, do they know anything! Abraham responded:  Do your ears hear what your mouth is saying?!

(Click here for the Haggadah passage and the midrash in Hebrew and English)

For Joshua, Abraham’s father was an idol worshipper; he was not his son’s first convert. Abraham’s break with the past was radical and complete. Nevertheless, Joshua observed that despite father Abraham’s idol-breaking new faith, discarding idols was not an easy thing to do for his children and for theirs. Even now, Joshua must insist: Put away the alien gods that you have among you! (Josh 24:23).

Joshua held up Abraham’s father, Terah, not only as a witness to the past but as an urgent reminder that we still tend to hold on to our idols and icons. The poet, Yehuda Amichai, echoed Joshua’s observation and widened its implications:

We are all children of Abraham
but we are also grandchildren of Terah, Abraham’s father.
And now perhaps the time has come for the grandchildren to do
to their father what he did to his father
when he shattered his idols and his icons, his religion and his belief.
But even this will be the beginning of a new religion.

Click here for the Amichai poem in Hebrew and English)

We should be mindful:  The tradition of idol-breaking can become its own idol. Perhaps we have items on our shelves and in ourselves that have been in place long enough.

Posted in Holidays, Midrash, Passover, Poetry | 1 Comment

Blossoms of Seder Night, Fruits of New Year’s Day

Rabbi Eliezer was sure that the world was created in the fall month of Tishrei, the season of the New Year. His rival, Rabbi Joshua, was equally positive that the world was created at Passover time, in the spring month of Nisan:

Rabbi Eliezer asks:  From what biblical source do we learn that the world was created in Tishrei? From the verse: God said, let the earth sprout grasses, seed bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth bearing fruit with the seed in it—and it was so. (Genesis 1:11) In what month is the earth bringing forth grasses while the trees are filled with fruit? You must say that it is the fall month of Tishrei.

Rabbi Joshua asks:  From what biblical source do we learn that the world was created in Nisan? From the verse:  God said, let the earth bring forth grasses that carry seed of their own kind and trees that produce fruit each containing its own kind of seed—and God saw that it was good (Genesis 1:12). In what month is the earth filled with grasses while the trees are just bringing forth fruit? You must say that it is the spring month of Nisan.

(Click here for Talmudic text in Hebrew and English)

Both of these 2nd century sages were certain of their positions, each only seeking a verse to confirm what he already believed. Sometimes, people need visual proof to reinforce belief:  “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua exemplified just the opposite:  “I’ll see it when I believe it.” Each sage pulled his thread of certainty from a complicated weave of the calendar that warms and protects each one’s certainty. Tishrei is the 7th month of the calendar year. Yet, in the world of the sages, Tishrei was time for celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. Nisan, the month of Passover, is the 1st month of the year, according to Exodus 12, because it marks the beginning of Israel’s freedom from slavery in Egypt.

For Rabbi Eliezer, creation’s pattern and plan appeared in the ripe fall evidence of Tishrei. The world was created with fruit trees already bearing fruits that contained their seeds. In the beginning, there was fruit that carried the seed.

The world’s first movement was not from fullness to promise but from promise to fullness, according to Rabbi Joshua. The Passover season of Nisan was the beginning of the beginning; the time of year when Israel’s seed, long nurtured underground in Egypt, burst into blossom. This was the foundational pattern of creation:  In the beginning, there was seed that carried the fruit.

Each teacher saw in his verse a distinct beginning. Of course, each knew that both beginnings are found in consecutive verses in the story of one day of creation.

The Israeli poet, Rivka Miriam, explicitly elaborated the idea that Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua offered two beginnings that are enfolded into one:

Night of the Seder, or New Year’s Day, I ask the questions and I reply.
I am the girl here and the elder as well.
One is the time that at first seems to change and one is the likeness.
My father commanded me not to die.

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

Rivka began with the Seder, and its familiar image of the questions which she called kushiyot, the common name for the traditional Seder questions. But if transposed into the key of Rosh Hashanah, the kushiot of the Seder would have to coax the hard seed of the Seder ritual story into the ripe fruit of the New Year:  What is the story that begins but does not end? How shall we overcome “pharonic” influences? Where do we find the purpose to cross seas of constraint? When do we emerge into a new world unbounded by the past? Why is this day different from all other days such that we resolve to move forward despite our habitual behavior?

Like the Seder and Rosh Hashanah, like the questions and the answers, the girl and the elder are seed and fruit, the blossom of possibility and possibility ripened.

Once begun, the time of the year and the image of the individual are one and endless. But they must begin somewhere. For Rabbi Joshua, time and image begin with the Seder; for Rabbi Eliezer, they begin with the New Year. For Rivka Miriam, they are engendered by a father who commanded the girl to become the elder and the elder to become the girl—in an endless cycle of seed and fruit.


Posted in Holidays, Passover, Poetry, Talmud | 1 Comment

The Deepening And Expanding Torah

After Mount Sinai, the Mishnah says, height was no longer the measure of Torah; depth and breadth became Torah’s new and useful dimensions:

Moses received Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua who transmitted it to the elders; from the elders to the prophets; the prophets to the members of the Great Assembly, and they said three things:  Be deliberate in judgment; raise up many students; and make a fence around the Torah.

According to this story, after its moment on the mountaintop, Torah moved down and in until the members of the Great Assembly revealed that Torah transmitted was Torah transformed into three things. Their Torah was a Torah without verses. Yet, the deepening, expanding Torah imagination of the Great Assembly kept the Torah-on-high image in mind. For every teaching, they declared, must make a fence around the Torah.

A succession of teachers followed the Great Assembly, each teacher drawing a three-part Torah from his own life. The first and last of those teachers—both named Shimon—each claimed that his Torah was the deep, three-pillared foundation of the world:

Shimon the Righteous, was one of the last surviving members of the Great Assembly. He would say: On three things the world stands/omeid:  on the Torah, and on the Temple service, and on deeds of loving kindness.

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says:  On three things the world depends/kayam:  on justice, and on truth, and on peace; as it is written:  With truth, justice, and peace shall you judge in your gates (Zechariah 8:16).

After the mountain, verses disappeared into the many Torahs of everyday language and varied lived experiences. Only the last of the teachers offered a biblical verse to give shape to his Torah. From mountain-high to foundation-deep, Torah is that which makes the world intelligible and renders life coherent while honoring both the Torah-image from on high and the imagination from within.

Carrying on the ancient tradition, the Israeli poet, Leah Goldberg, rhymed three-part Torahs in a poem for children. She presented a fisherman, a farmer, and an artist who, like the two ancient Shimons, saw the entire world as the sum of three parts:

So said the fisherman down at the sea:
on account of three things earth continues to be-
on the sea’s waters,
on its shore, dry and set,
and on the deep’s fish coming up in the net.

So said the farmer who handles the plow:
upon three things the world stands now-
on the earth’s fields,
rains the heavens allow,
and on bread brought forth by the sweat of the brow.

 So said the artist sitting home on his own:
on account of three things does the world stand, alone-
on someone’s heart,
and on nature’s splendor,
on matters expressed in music and color.

So said the one who sees with insights:
how wondrous and many the world’s delights-
every morning,
caught up in heart’s net,
is the world and its fullness,
the dry and the wet,
the lights and the shade,
days special and plain,
word and refrain,
fields full of grain,
and every rainbow color set.

(Click here for Goldberg’s poem and Mishnah text)

The fisherman spoke the language of the second Shimon who declared, on account of three things earth continues to be/kayam. The artist echoed the first Shimon who taught, on account of three things does the world stand/omeid, while the farmer—just in the middle—imitates both Shimons but quotes neither.

To her three teachers of three-part Torahs, Goldberg added a fourth character, a wise observer, to say aloud that which was only implied in the Mishnah’s narrative of Torah transmitted and transformed:  There are multiple truths that hold the world together and they can never be exhaustively spoken. Such is the movement of Torah in the world; no longer on high, it is always deepening, always expanding.


Posted in Mishnah, Poetry, Torah | Leave a comment

Heaven, Holiness, And Harmony

On erev Yom Kippur, 1990, the heavens broke open over kibbutz Bet Hashita. In the moment, after the singing, no one spoke; no one wanted to leave. Later, individual recollections of heaven, holiness, and harmony seemed woven into one story, one shared experience:

When Hanoch began to sing and broke open the gates of heaven…
this was a moment of holiness that we did not understand, but we felt it powerfully…
… as though the harmony had come from a place and was returning to that place;
new—and yet—known…

The community found heaven, holiness, and harmony in a prayer never heard on this secular kibbutz. Yet, a thousand years earlier, that prayer, Unetaneh Tokef,  rose from the same struggle for meaningful life in the presence of mortality that Bet Hashita had faced most fully since the Yom Kippur war in which eleven of its members died.

Unetaneh Tokef—we acknowledge today’s powerful holiness—begins the prayer attributed to the 10th century sage, Rabbi Amnon of Mayence. According to tradition, he composed this prayer as he lay dying in the synagogue at the beginning of the Days of Awe, martyred for the faith he would not abandon.

For the Bet Hashita community, Yom Kippur is not a day—as Rabbi Amnon described it—on which to come humbly before God who inscrutably presides over destiny. But on that erev Yom Kippur seventeen years after the war, when Hanoch began to sing and broke open the gates of heaven, he was singing Rabbi Amnon’s prayer.

It was the popular Israeli composer, Yair Rosenblum, who brought Rabbi Amnon’s Yom Kippur language to Bet HaShita. Rosenblum, who had spent three years on the kibbutz, wanted to give something personal as a parting gift; something that would help the community find a Yom Kippur voice.

At first, he imagined a composition for Kol Nidre—but something made him unsure about that choice. Certainly, Kol Nidre is an icon of Yom Kippur; it also affirms the religious values of the secular community. It is devoid of references to God and focuses strongly on the power of community, on human responsibility and effort. On the other hand, Kol Nidre is a perplexing (Aramaic) contract; distant, raising no questions, prompting no quests.

When opening a holiday prayer-book for more ideas, the book literally fell open to Unetaneh Tokef. Rosenblum took note of the well used page, evidence that someone had returned again and again to these words. A crease in the page, like a crease in the soul, becomes more pliable with use, easier to break open.  Here was a poem that spoke in beautiful Hebrew to the heart of the day.

True, Rabbi Amnon’s poem features many images of an all-powerful God. But more importantly, Unetaneh Tokef is a poem about loss, frailty, mortality, and the yearning for a life that is coherent and not arbitrary. Perhaps new music could prompt a renewed capacity to hear that images of God need not dominate; they might be enlisted in the service of the transcendant themes that belong both to Bet Hashita and to Rabbi Amnon.

After a wakeful night with Rabbi Amnon’s prayer, Rosenblum composed through his tears in the quiet of the early morning. Mid-morning, he played his Unetaneh Tokef for a friend who reported:  When he finished playing his song… he said that in his mind’s eye, he could see Hanoch Albalek, a kibbutz member with a unique voice, bringing his melody to the heavens.

 And so it was on the Yom Kippur of 1990/5751—                          

When Hanoch began to sing and broke open the gates of heaven
this was a moment of holiness that we did not understand, but we felt it powerfully…
… as though the harmony had come from a place and was returning to that place;
new—and yet—known…

(Click for Unetaneh Tokef prayer—as sung to the music of Yair Rosenblum)

(Click to listen to Hanoch Albalek singing Unetaneh Tokef—music by Yair Rosenblum)

Posted in Days of Awe, Holidays | 2 Comments

Days That Are Awful—Or Awe-Filled

Yamim Nora’im usually means Days of Awe. The forgiveness-seeker in Yehuda Amichai’s poem hears the phrase differently; for him, they are awful days.

Forgive me already now, three months
before the awful days of forgiveness.
I fear that I won’t get there.
I scatter the Day of Atonement over the surface of the whole year.

Grapes ripen in their season.
So how will sins and their atonement ripen in one day?

(Click here for Amichai poem in Hebrew and English)

The seeker is eager for the atonement work of The Day—but not when it is condensed into only one day! For him, the Day of Atonement together with the nine preceding Days of Awe are an artificial season—awful, and too far away! Perhaps he staggers under the weighty personal burden of sin too great to bear for three more months. Perhaps he feels fragile and mortal. In either case, his worry is clear: I fear that I won’t get there.

He argues that grapes ripen in their season. Sins and atonement should have growing seasons as well; watered and warmed by personal climates and rhythms, ripening in their own time. Ripe sins and atonement are homegrown, not imported. Atonement out of season is chalky, tasteless, and artificial.

To scatter the Day of Atonement over the surface of the whole year is to seed every day with the work of The Day, and to be ready for its harvests.

Amichai’s forgiveness-seeker might draw the admiration of the 2nd century sage, Rabbi Eliezer, who encouraged his own students to pursue the work of The Day every day and not to wait for the season of forgiveness and atonement. The sage might speak across the centuries to Amichai’s modern seeker:

I wish that my students could conceive of sins ripening into awareness; producing fruits of atonement, each in its own season. But they, like most of us, are not inclined to spread the Day of Atonement over the whole year! Listen to how I tried to draw my students to understand what you already know. The conversation has been preserved in the Talmud: Repent one day before you die, I said. They asked me: But does one know the day before one is to die? This was the response that I had hoped for! It allowed me to say: All the more so, one should repent each day for perhaps he will die tomorrow. That way, one spends each day in repentance! Solomon, in his wisdom, said it: At all times let your garments be white… (Ecclesiastes 9:8).

(Click here for the Talmud passage in Hebrew and English)

I firmly believe what I told my students. While I agree that sins have their own seasons, I am also certain that mortality is the hothouse that quickly ripens awareness; and there is one ripening mortal moment equal to them all. However, uncertainty makes each moment into The Moment.

Unlike you, Rabbi Eliezer might continue, most people are unable to live each day in the ripening environment of mortality. Individuals distance themselves each day from the fear that I won’t get there. In my language, they are unable to engage in the work that is best done on the day before you die… 

I understand your impatience with certain days marked for forgiveness and atonement. But to call them awful days shows impatience—even disrespect—for that which the community needs: a season for frailty and ripening, a time to let your garments be white… Most of us do not scatter the Day of Atonement over the surface of the whole year. Rather, we rely on those days that bring the entire community into a season of ripening-through-mortality.

For individuals who live in the world like Amichai’s seeker, or like Rabbi Eliezer, those days might be out-of-season and, perhaps, awful. But for the community that collectively recognizes the life changing power of mortality, the days are awesome. It is for the sake and honor of the community that the days are called Days of Awe.

Posted in Poetry | 2 Comments

Where The House Once Was

It’s hard to imagine Torah scholars having such a furious argument that they ripped a Torah scroll. But…

It happened, did it not, in the synagogue of Tiberias over the issue of a doorstop that had a knob on the top of it?! Rabbi Eleazar and Rabbi Yose disagreed to the point where they ripped a Torah scroll in their anger. Do you really think that they ripped it? Rather, say that a Torah scroll got ripped in their anger. Rabbi Yose ben Kisma was there and he said: I would be surprised if this synagogue didn’t become a place of idolatry, and so it was. (Yevamot 96b).

(Click here for Talmudic passage in Hebrew and English)

Their issue—fully examined elsewhere in the Talmud—concerned the appropriateness of using an ordinary workday tool for Shabbat use. One insisted that a doorstop—a piece of metal used to wedge or bolt a door in place—must unconditionally be set aside on Shabbat. The other maintained that a doorstop that had been fashioned with a knob on the end might serve as a mortar for preparing Shabbat food—an acceptable use, in his opinion.

It’s hard to imagine that scholars ripped a Torah over this! Bad enough if this awful image is symbolic, but the story teller allows little refuge in metaphor. At best, there was passive, unintended damage; one might say that a Torah was ripped. Either way—more violent or less—there was a witness:  Rabbi Yose ben Kisma was there.

However, the symbolic resonance is never far away. In addition to seeing the act, Rabbi Yose saw the implications of the Torah drawn taut and split, uncompromisingly claimed by two immoveable opinions:  I would be surprised if this synagogue didn’t become a place of idolatry.

The symbolic hovers low over the hard surface of story. Certainly, this story’s argument did not precipitate furious, dangerous rolling of a scroll from one proof text to the next.  For, Shabbat is a mountain hanging by a thread; there is little Scripture, but many laws (Hagigah 10a), other sages had said. The Shabbat status of an object is a matter of oral Torah—a Torah more supple and difficult—but not impossible—to rip.

It’s not difficult to imagine that Rabbi Yose ben Kisma foresaw the idolatry of the intransigent idea, the cult of an inflexible position that rips apart the Torah and ruins the house of worship and learning. To this witness, the story teller adds the testimony of history: … and so it was; in a way that was real, even if not literal, the synagogue became a place of idolatry.

The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai added his own warning about the consequences of foot-stomping insistence:

From the place where we are right
Never will there sprout
Flowers in the spring.

The place where we are right
Is trampled and hard
Like a courtyard.

But doubts and loves
make the world loose
like a mole, like a plow
and a whisper will be heard in the place
where the house once was
now destroyed.

(Click here for Amichai poem in Hebrew and English)

Foot-stomping insistence packs the earth, said the poet. His language reminds us that the Hebrew language draws the words, right, and righteous, from the same source—an association that can strengthen a stance, for better and for worse.

The house now destroyed invites the image, and echoes the language, of the destroyed Temple (and of the story’s spoiled synagogue in Tiberias). The house now destroyed also carries the whisper of a necessary tension:  Doesn’t the house depend upon firmly packed foundations? Flexibility must be well founded; but the foundations themselves must be giving and forgiving.

In order to prepare fertile ground that yields, one must be prepared to yield; to make use of those tools that loosen the soil and the soul, promoting growth. It is, perhaps, the wind whispering through that new growth that enlivens the terrain where the house once was.

Posted in Poetry, Talmud, Torah | Leave a comment

The Middle Of The Story And The Story Of The Middle

On the Torah page, the miracle of Passover’s seventh day comes into view. The Torah page literally pictures Israel crossing the sea—glistening black letters against sea foam parchment.  The words are inscribed according to the script:

middle of the sea2

Look! There are the people of Israel walking between the steep wall of the sea’s last letter—mem—on the right and the parallel wall of the first letter of the seahey—on the left.

Look! There they are! There we are—especially at Passover time—in the middle of the sea in the middle of the story; in need of protection and sustenance; hoping to recognize ourselves in the middle of the sea, in the middle of the story.  An ancient sage taught that such benefits of the middle come only with persistence:

If they walked on dry ground, why does it say that they passed in the middle of the sea? Only for you to learn that the sea did not split for them until they came into the middle of it, up to their nostrils; only then did it become dry ground for them.

Another sage added to the fantastic account of the middle ground, assuring us that it offered not only passage, but provision:

Rabbi Nehorai taught: a Hebrew woman crossing the sea with her crying child could reach out and take an apple or a pomegranate from the middle of the sea and give it to him, as it says: He led them through the depths as though through the wilderness (Psalm 106:9) Just as in the wilderness they lacked nothing, so in the depths they lacked nothing; as Moses would say to them: These forty years the Lord your God was with you and you lacked nothing (Deut. 2:7).

(Click for midrash text in Hebrew and English)

But in the middle of a pressing moment, even a miracle doesn’t neutralize anxiety. The poet, Yehuda Amichai, re-imagined the walls of water through the eyes of an anxious escapee focused only on moving forward, taking …at most, a hurried glance to the side, fish of many colors behind a wall of water, like in an aquarium, behind a wall of glass.

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

Yet, look! The poet teaches that it is possible to carry our moments while keeping in mind the larger story:

What is the continuity of my life? I am like one who left Egypt
with the Red Sea split in two and I passing through on dry ground
and two walls of water on my right and on my left.
Behind me Pharaoh’s force and his chariots and before me the wilderness
and perhaps the promised land. This is the continuity of my life.

(Click here for poem in Hebrew and English)

Look! There is the poet, among the others passing through the middle of the page, in the middle of the sea; water left and right; certain death behind and uncertain future ahead; continuity drawing him into the story and continuity following after him. Look! There is the poet in the middle of the story holding the story in the middle of himself; carried by the story while carrying it.

Perhaps such an idea influenced a teaching about the Passover Hagaddah by the Hasidic master known as the Sefat Emet. He returned to the wonder of the dry ground in the middle of the sea:

If he had split the sea for us but not brought us through it on dry ground—it would have been enough, dayyeinu!:

At the very least the ground should have been muddy! But the Torah says that the people of Israel came into the middle of the sea on dry ground (Exodus 14:22). And this is the essence of the wonder: that Israel walked into the actual sea—but for them, it was dry ground. If it had ceased to actually be the sea, it wouldn’t have been such a wonder; for the blessed Holy One could certainly turn water into dry ground. But out of love for Israel the blessed Holy One made it so that while it was still sea, it was also dry ground for Israel.

(Click for the Hasidic text in Hebrew and English)

Look! Here we are at Passover time walking into the middle of the story—into the story of the middle; wading deep until the sea offers us both passage and provision; until the middle of the sea offers us what we need in the middle of a journey: both water that makes us buoyant with imagination to see ourselves in the story, and dry ground that offers us sure footing to move forward.


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