Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Word from Pharaoh Ramesses II; or, The Passover Exodus, Revisited



Scene: 1256 BCE. Abu Simbel, the majestic display of colossal statues in the Egyptian Valley of the Kings. The elderly Pharaoh Ramesses II, aged 91, sits in a wheelchair in the Ramesseum, gazing at a brand-new portrait of himself in his royal chariot, single-handedly turning back a Hittite invasion.

            It is warm here, as the setting sun warms the sandstone, and good for an old man’s chilled bones. I have asked them to leave me here a while. They think me a god, and, truly, I wish I were one, but my closest servants, those who have waited on me for all these years, know the fits and starts this aged flesh is heir to. I’m almost 92 suns old, and have reigned longer than any other Pharaoh—one wonders what the gods have in store for me, as yet….
            (Aloud:) Leave me here a bit, Royal Artist Nefer-ke. I will gaze upon your battle portrait of me. You have done good work. Seti? See he is richly rewarded. Good, good. (Claps his hands, weakly) Now, go, all of you. I will call you when I am done looking upon it. (Sighs)
            There, there I stand, alone, in my chariot—I understand the painter’s style, why he made me so enormous, off to the left of the painting, my enemies tiny before me—imagine! (chuckling to himself) In my youth, I was, apparently, able to both drive two spirited horses, reins tucked into my belt, and fire arrow upon arrow at the Hittites, all alone? And see, there! There! The puny, clambering Hittites fall from the battlements, like ants boiling from an anthill in the desert wastes, when one pours a pot of boiling water over it—what a fantastic imagination that Nefer-ke must have—hee! Hee! He makes an old man laugh….
            Let me remember—it was a hot day; astonishingly hot, even beneath the flapping sheets of my royal pavilion—I wore kohl on my godly brows, I recall, and was so nervous that the sweat was making the infernal stuff melt and run into my eyes, and sting: who in Osiris’s name wears kohl into battle? That was my dear Nefertari’s idea, dear Nefertari—she had wanted to come to the battle with me, as if it were a picnic—dear, silly girl; ah, how we made those pavilion walls flap and dance, all the night long….
            But the Hittite King Muwatallis, that fox, had laid his troops in ambush, and was waiting for me—luckily, I had my four divisions, all named after gods, just so: Amon, Re, Ptah, and Set. Never hurts to have the gods on one’s side. And my lieutenant—what was his name? Takelot? No: Nimlot? Never trust an old man’s memory—had captured those two Hittite spies, and was busy torturing them—they told us some information, but not much; they were plants, and we were fools; we believed we were invincible, so we were—we had no idea that the Hittite Army was so much larger than ours—perhaps that was a good thing, in the end.
For, when they struck—nearly 40,000 men and 2,500 chariots, horse and foot, more than double our force, we blew apart like feathers before a hamseen—I myself might have been killed or captured, but for the valor of my Pharaoh’s Own Guard, bless ‘em all, poor dead boys, and Menna, my shield-bearer. And Re was with me that day, too: my Pharaoh’s Guard came up a different route, and flanked the Hittites, striking them to the core. Ha! Old Muwatallis retreated, and we kept the field that night.
(Yawns) What’s that, Captain? Slow down. Speak up. Who? Oh, Moses—that Hebrew, again? Something about—the cattle dying, over in Goshen? Well, what is it the Hebrews want, blast their lazy hides? (Listens) Well, if they leave, do we have ample workers to take their place? What of the Amorite prisoners of war? Hm. Did I not say to let the Hebrews go? You say I did, but Merneptah my son—
(Thinks) Now, here’s a how-de-do: I say I’m Pharaoh, but Merneptah, that scamp—how old is he, now? Sixty-something? Old enough, you’d think, to take command, and leave me be to do some—some—art-gazing, here, but no—
What’s that? Someone’s sick? My grandson, Seti, Merneptah’s boy? Oh, that is too bad. (But then, I’ve got so many grandkids; eight wives, I think, and other haremites will do that sort of thing.) His boy is dead? Merneptah wants to let them go? So let them go.

Come, Seti; wheel me out. The light’s too dark to see the walls, and I am tired. Did I ever tell you about the time how we hung the fleeing Prince of Aleppo upside down? He was running away from us, and had fallen into the Orontes River, y’see, and we fished him out, near drowned; it’s quite a story….

Peter Clayton, "Chronicle of the Pharaohs: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Rulers & Dynasties of Ancient Egypt," London: Thames & Hudson, 1994.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Teaching Othello in South Florida: Imagine Gen. Colin Powell Marries Mila Kunis; or, Shakespeare in a Multicultural Environment



            I had a choice between teaching Shakespeare’s Hamlet (which I am familiar with from my undergraduate days) or Othello, and chose the latter, despite never having had taught it before. This particular English Lit Survey college class is made up completely of Hispanic- and African-Americans, both native and Haitian-American, and, once having established my own racial and tribal identity—semi-elderly white Jewish man, from New York City—we set to work.
            The tragic story line of Othello is fairly simple, since there is very little physical action or comedy to relieve the stifling, verbal tension of rumor and gossip which gradually encircles and chokes off the leading characters: a Moorish general, Othello, working to defend Venice from  Turkish attackers, meets, falls in love with, and marries, a young white girl, Desdemona, unbeknowest to her family. His “ancient,” (standard-bearer, major-domo, trusted right-hand-man), Iago, secretly hates him, and so plots with various other characters to accuse Desdemona of cuckolding him. Othello, highly skilled at war but little in the Machiavellian machinations of romance or court politicking, falls into his trap of plots and counter-plots; the play ends tragically and bloodily, in the finest Elizabethan style. Here is Othello’s closing speech:

                                    When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
                                    Speak of me as I am. …Then must you speak
                                    Of one that loved not wisely, but too well.
                                                                                    (V:2, ll. 357-360)

            I stress to the class that, while interracial dating and marriage are normal here in South Florida—and, I hope in other parts of America as well—it was not so in early 17th-Century England. Shakespeare, reacting to the Age of Exploration, when Englishmen returned to the home island with all manner of new and unheard-of plants, animals, and humans, chose a Moor as his leading character, not only to explore the issue of racism, but also to introduce an air of exoticity into his play. I briefly mention his other play dealing with the presence of the Mysterious Other, The Merchant of Venice, as well as Christopher Marlowe’s “Barabbas, the Jewe” in The Jewe of Malta (1589-90), which, if anything, is far more racist and bloody than Shakespeare’s play, which gave, at least, some dimensionality and compassion to Shylock.
            It is significant that modern critics suggest that, perhaps, Othello was not an African; he may have been an Arab, which would lay upon our comprehension an even more significant layer of cultural differentness, given the particular position of Muslims (or Arab Christians) in both American and world culture and society.
            What do we learn from Othello, as an older man (even older, given the life expectancy in Shakespeare’s day—if one lived to be fifty, that was considered “old”) married to a young woman, laying aside the racial differences? Consider, I tell them, the possibility of Gen. Colin Powell married to Mila Kunis—a fantasy, to be sure, but a necessary cultural touchstone for them. We learn from the play that this is no mere spring-autumn romance; indeed, Desdemona herself states that she pursued Othello:

That I did love the Moor to live with him, 
My downright violence and storm of fortunes
May trumpet to the world: my heart's subdued
Even to the very quality of my lord: 
I saw Othello's visage in his mind, 
And to his honour and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate. 
                                                            (I, iii, ll. 248-254)

            As for Iago’s treachery, the text gives no hint as to why Othello gave him the lesser promotion of ancient, favoring rather an untried, bookish soldier, Cassio, with the position of lieutenant. I tell the class to compare Iago with any back-stabbing ex-friend they may have ever known, who will ignore anyone’s feelings or fortunes, so long as they get what they want. Sadly, this hidden enemy will play the friend, burrowing into one’s personal life and learning both one’s secrets and hidden weaknesses, and waiting to strike when one’s defenses are down.

            The greatness of Shakespeare, added to the challenge of communicating his 16th-Century diction, is that his concerns are universal. He lived during the age of a queen who was surrounded by enemies known and unknown, when men willingly went to war over their faith, even over so petty a matter as to whether the church communion table stood in the front or to the side of the sanctuary. We Americans have no state church, but we are still, for good or ill, the inheritors of English style, custom, and literature. It is both an honor and challenge for me to convey the eternal truths of Western Civilization to these eager and searching minds. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Acharay Mote (After the Death {of Aaron's Two Sons}, Meeting The Holy, and Ending with a Pesach Blessing, for an Age of No-Peace

Acharay Mote

            A large part of the Book of Leviticus deals with holiness—an enigmatic spiritual topic which fascinated our ancestors, and continues to be difficult to define. This parsha/Torah portion begins by recounting the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the two oldest sons of Aaron, the Kohen Gadol/High Priest, who met untimely deaths while performing a religious service before God, for reasons still uncertain. Later in Scripture, we find also the case of Uzzah, who, during King David’s triumphant procession to Jerusalem, reaches out to the Holy Ark to steady it on its wagon when the pulling ox-team stumble. For his impertinence in physically touching the Ark, God strikes him dead (II Samuel 6:6-7). Coming too close to the Holy with improper intent or physicality may, we learn, lead to catastrophe, and, often, death.
            For our ancestors, therefore, holiness meant an energy-center whose misuse or misapprehension could be dangerous. It is noteworthy that the Ark was a wooden box, coated inside and out with gold, making it a powerful conductor of electricity—Uzzah might have been electrocuted. What meaning can we moderns find in this labyrinthine religious concept of holiness?
            Over the course of our lives, we come into contact with the Holy many, many times—it can be a physical connection, as when we touch and kiss the Torah scroll when an honoree carries it around the sanctuary. (I have heard from congregants what a wonderful thrill they get, to be the literal “bearers” of this supreme mitzvah/commandment, allowing their fellow Jews to touch, caress, and kiss our eternal treasure.)
The Torah is such an awesome source of holiness that it can never become unholy or tameh, the word meaning “impure” in the spiritual sense. Back in the 1980’s, when Conservative temples nationwide were debating whether to allow women onto the bema/podium for an aliyah/Torah honor, I often pointed out that the Torah is so holy, in and of itself, that it cannot possibly become tameh/impure. This was the chief reason of the anti-feminist camp, who conveniently ignored that men, as well as women, ought to visit the mikvah/ritual bath prior to Shabbat and major holidays, or following a nocturnal emission. Seen in this light, the Torah is an enormous spiritual storage battery, containing enough “religious energy” to radiate outward onto us, its adherents, and change our lives in meaningful ways, through studying it.
            We encounter the Holy at lifecycle events, as well, whether at baby-naming ceremonies, b’nai mitzvah, weddings, and even funerals. We marvel at the swift passage of time, and use these holy gatherings to slow down our lives and acknowledge God’s myriad visits to His earthly realm. One must have a heart of holiness to detect God’s Presence in one’s life. When we decide what our life’s purpose will be, when we decide where we will live and with whom, God tips the decision for the good, and this is holiness. In the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Earth’s crammed with heaven/ And every common bush afire with God;/ But only he who sees, takes off his shoes./ The rest sit ‘round and pick at blackberries.”
            And now, once again, Pesach has come. With your permission, Readers, I will offer this blessing:
Dear God: as we enter Your Holy Season of Pesach, recounting the passage of Your People from slavery to freedom, help us not to become entrapt in the details of kitniyote/beans, the criminally high price of Paysadik/Kosher-for-Passover provender, or the myriad minutiae of transforming one’s house, nay one’s soul, into a fitting Mishkan/dwelling-place, for You—
            Rather, we pray that, on this blue-white planet, this erring orb on which so many of Your children fail to see that we are all, all of us, made in Your image, refusing to consider making even a shred of peace with one another—
            That You will turn to us in comfort and love. Help us to reach out, beyond the bonds of matzah and bitter herb, charoset and parsley, dew-prayers (the visible sign of Your Grace) and Omer-reckonings,
            To a new Spring of the Spirit—and may We Jews, as well as our Neighbors of all Faiths and of no-faith, join together to raise a new temple to You, and to beckon—just beckon, mind You—a bit of Your Spirit, down, upon us, and our families and friends. Amen v’Amen. Selah.


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Haftorat Metzora: The Tale of the Four Lepers--God's Fortune-Wheel

Haftorat Metzora: The Tale of the Four Lepers

Let Hercules himself do what he may, The cat will mew, and dog will have his day.
[1600-1 Shakespeare, Hamlet v. i. 286]


What’s harder to sermonize or write about than one Parsha/Torah Portion about Leprosy? Two Torah portions. And so, because this is a Leap Year in the Hebrew Calendar, the two portions which are normally linked together as Tazria-Metzora are separated, causing mental and sermonic anguish for rabbis the world over. Having said all we could about skin diseases in the past week, ChaZaL (a Talmudic acronym for Chachameinu Zichroneinu L’Vracha, or “Our Sages, May Their Memories Be for a Blessing, meaning the collective wisdom of all historical rabbis up to this point in Jewish history) took the word Metzora and used a Drash, or Homiletical Word-Play, to transform it to Motsee Shem Ra, or “To Bring Forth an Evil Name (on Someone),” that is, to Gossip. I may choose to speak on that topic, this Shabbat: please come and listen.
For now, I have chosen in this Writing, rather, to examine the Haftorah. The Soferim, or Scribes, who flourished around 168 BCE (the fortuitous time of the Chanukah Story—strange how these historical events tend to conflate with one another), were hard-pressed to preserve Jewish Education when the villain of those days (there’s always another villain), the Hellenistic King Antiochus Epiphanes, forbade Torah Study, on pain of death. This made it nearly impossible to chant the weekly Torah Portion in public. Accordingly, therefore, the Scribes ordained (there were no rabbis as yet in those days, which is either a Good Thing or Bad, depending on how one feels about rabbis) that a reading from Prophets would replace the Torah Reading. When Antiochus was sent off packing by the Maccabees (he was to die later in battle against the Parthians), the Torah reading was renewed, but the Prophetic portions remained, to the eternal bliss or bane of thousands of b’nai mitzvah, to this day. The very word Haftorah does not mean “half-Torah”—it means “departure”—we are leaving the Torah, which is the Supreme Holy Object we possess—both holy relic and book, in one—and moving into the Prophets, which are holy, as well, but on a lower madreigah ruchanit, or level of holiness, than the Torah.
            All of which has little or nothing to do with the subject area of this week’s Haftorah, taken from II Kings 7:3-20, and involves an Aramean invasion of Samaria (today’s West Bank, or Judea and Samaria, depending, on your politics), under the Aramean king, Ben-Hadad. There is also a (nameless) king of Israel, who is deeply distressed over this military action. Elisha predicts that God will defeat the forces of Aram, but the king is dubious. He alternates between calling upon the Prophet Elisha for help, and seeking to behead him, which is puzzling.
            What is the connection between this Haftorah story and the subject of leprosy? The Haftorah begins by relating the tale of four lepers sitting just outside the gate of Samaria—they are not allowed in the city, due to fear of contagion, but neither are they driven away. The city is under siege, and several citizens have resorted to cannibalism, which is described in horrific detail. Bored and desperate for food, the lepers decide to visit the camp of Aram, figuring that if the enemy kills them, they were apt to die anyway from the disease, and if he feeds them, it’s a bonus.
            They come upon the enemy camp, and are amazed and delighted to find it totally deserted—it was not unusual for ancient Middle Eastern armies, at least, until the advent of Alexander the Macedonian Greek, with his military discipline—to panic and run off abruptly due to miscommunication, sudden alarm, foul weather, or defeat. Since they were often composed of mercenaries and assorted warriors who spoke a motley of different languages, cohesion was rare.
            Here is a curious display of Fortune’s Wheel: the lepers, having been at the bottom of the social order, suddenly find themselves rich and famous. Bringing their wonderful tidings, they come in triumph before the Israelite king, who initially suspects an ambush, and sends out two riders to carefully scour the camp. Upon their successful return, the relieved king allows his people to loot the Aramean booty and food. After the siege the city had suffered, there is rejoicing, with the only loser the king’s former personal officer, who had doubted Elisha’s prophecy that Israel would triumph; he is sentenced to lie down athwart the city gate, and dies from the joyful people’s stamping upon him in their haste to run and loot the Aramean camp.

            This story is certainly not the deepest one in the entire Tanakh/Hebrew Bible, but its little bit of drama, verisimilitude, and character buildup within the space of little over a chapter gives welcome relief in a sea of formulae relating to impurity, leprosy, animals and fowl specified for various offerings, as well as priestly duties. It reminds us that, when all is said and done, the Tanakh is a varied document, inspired by God certainly, but, in the end, containing as well, tales of ordinary people going about their ordinary lives, with God behind the scenes. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Tailor's Story: The Reward of an Egg--A Holocaust Memory

I met a man tonight at my temple; he is a member I had not spoken with before. He was there with his wife to say Kaddish for his brother, who passed about two weeks ago. He told me about his hometown, Hrubieszow, Poland. In 1941, the Nazis had killed all the tailors, along with their other Jewish victims, and the local Gestapo discovered that they needed tailors to help loot the dead Jews’ possessions and send them back to their families in Germany. This man—then, a young boy of thirteen (he never became bar mitzvah) had some tailoring experience, and he told the Gestapo that he could find them some tailors, which he did. They were in hiding.
The Nazis needed the tailors to carefully fold and sew the looted bedsheets around the valises they stole, so that they fitted the valises, exactly. I didn’t understand why, but it was important enough that, if a tailor did not do a good job, they would murder him and his family.
The boy himself was “befriended” by a Gestapo chief who showed him a suit-jacket that was very finely made—batwing lapels, lined both inside and out with wool, and in need of a pressing. The Nazi specified that the pressing job had to be done “just so,” or the boy would die. The boy did a good job—he had to—and the Nazi rewarded him by giving him a fresh egg, which was “like gold, in those days.”
It was difficult for me to listen. The man promised he had many more stories; he has already related them to the US Holocaust Museum, and to the Spielberg Project. There is a particular photo in the Museum showing him with the many people he rescued.
The stories are not yet done. I cannot listen without almost crying. Imagine: an egg, “like gold, in those days.”
I hugged him when he was leaving.
“Good Shabbos, Good Shabbos,” we said to one another.
“It is an honor to know you,” I said.
“There are more stories.”

I know. And I must listen; I must bear witness, and tell them to others. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Ezekiel Invents the Synagogue: A Play--Following His Mystical Vision, Our Prophet Determines that Judaism Must Continue



Scene: a small clay-and-wattles house alongside the Chebar River, in Babylonia, about 585 BCE, a year following the Babylonian Destruction of the First Temple and the Exile of the Princes, Priests, and Prophets of Israel to Babylonia (Modern-day Iraq), so as to deter any attempts at rebellion and return to the Holy Land. Babylonian Foreign Policy is based on hoping that the Israelites will rapidly assimilate and disappear into the mass of other captive nations whom the Empire has conquered. The house is large, but Spartan in design, with a central feature: a huge window in the Eastern Wall, closest to Israel, the country for which the owner longs. There are little bits of rough-hewn furniture: one chair, an unfinished table, on which a scroll lies, next to a small clay pot of vegetable-based ink, and a feather quill. Other scrolls lie about, on shelves or the floor, along with bits of clothing: a robe, a shirt, here and there. A bit of parchment hangs on the Eastern wall, a Shiviti-plaque: “I have set the LORD before me, always.” The time is mid-morning. It is a bright, sunny spring day in the month of Adar, in the Jewish neighborhood of Chebar-Town, there amid other dozens of displaced nations conquered by their Babylonian overlords. Enter two Jewish women, Anat and Rebekah, in conversation.

Anat: I tell you, Rebekah, he has not been the same since his wife Shoshana, Yah rest her soul, died. First, he sat all alone, for the full shiva, the week of mourning—my husband Avishai and I came over with a nice, hot, pot of soup, the first night—you know, that duck stew I make, that the Lord Priest used to love to eat, when he and she, Yah rest—

Rebekah: --her soul. Yes, Anat. I, too, came here the second night of shiva, only to find—Goodness, what a mess he has left! (As they talk, the two women putter about, straightening the scrolls and clothing which litter the floor, attempting to fold and neaten all)—and tried to get him to eat—we made a nice pudding, a kugel, I believe my next-door Babylonian neighbor-lady, Yaaribaal, called it, and Old Moshe the Scribe showed me how to make it kosher, by leaving out the pig’s fat—

Anat: --but he wouldn’t eat it; no, not one drop. You know—

Rebekah: You know—

The Two, Together: he just sat there.

Rebekah: --and stared—

Anat: at the wall. The wall!

Both, simultaneously:

Rebekah: Who would have thought it? He was pale as a shade, a ghost, and

Anat: He kept on and on, about a Vision, a Vision, by the

Rebekah: River, Chebar River, where the heavens opened up and the heavens all aflame

Both (overlapping one another): Lion-head, Human-head, Ox-head, Eagle-head, all joined together….

(During this exchange, Ezekiel the Prophet has quietly entered, bearing his shepherd’s staff. He is a vigorous-looking man in his sixties, but looks weary. He stands quietly, listening to the women prattle, and gives no sign of his presence. Finally, as their voices reach a crescendo, he beats his staff on the clay wall three times. They turn to him, hands over their mouths in horror and embarrassment. He smiles, nods, and says:)

--But ladies, you see, I did, indeed, see the Vision. And even though the gossip runs from one end of Chebar Town to the other, there is no gainsaying what I saw. Prophecy: a prophetic vision, and—do you know what it means?

(Anat and Rebekah nudge one another, and exchange knowing looks.)

No, not that. I am perfectly sound of mind; I remain a Kohen, a priest of El Elyon, Konay Shamayim va’Aretz—the Most High God, Maker of Heaven and Earth. I am not mad. D’you ladies—dare I say, Gossips—hear me? I. Am. Not. Mad. (He sinks, exhausted, into his chair. Realizing their error, they fall to their knees before him.) But I am tired, very tired, from my night’s vigil and study and prayer. And my work is not done. No (to himself, more than to them)—it is merely beginning….(he stretches his arms heavenward, and half-pleads, half-yawns:) Lord God of Hosts, what do you want of me? Oh, God….(His head sinks down onto his folded arms, on the table; the women approach slowly; Anat touches him gently on the arm)

Anat: Lord High Priest Ezekiel, we are most heartily sorry, and beg your forgiveness.

Rebekah: Lord, we ask: what can we do to help? We are faithful daughters of Israel, and love our Lord God as much as you. We miss the services and the joy of the Holy Temple, when it stood. Can you not, a priest so wise as you, bring it back, even a little?

Ezekiel: (raising his head, slowly) Do? Do? You shall do nothing. Of course, of course—a strange vision it was, unlike any other vision I have ever read of, in our Torah—I still shiver when I think of it: “a huge cloud and flashing fire; and in the center of it, a gleam as of electrum.” Well, I know now what I must do. (Rising, abruptly; he has found new strength) Chairs! I must have chairs. Have you any?

The Women, together: Chairs, My Lord?

Ezekiel: Yes, chairs. For a—a—prayer-meeting. Here. Tonight. We will invent—invent—a place to—to—offer thanks, and ask help, and praise, the Holy One, Yah Elyone, Adonai. He who sent me this vision. We must, we must offer prayers, or (drops his voice) we will disappear amid this Babylonian hodgepodge of idolatry, love of money, and chasing after heathen sin.

Rebekah: Prayers? What are prayers? Will there be singing? Lord Priest Ezekiel, we do so love to sing, and Tizmora, my eldest daughter, would love to play her harp--

Ezekiel: Prayers? Songs? Just so: I will prepare them, and then, we will see. I know your Tizmora—is she all grown up, then? As God lives, how the time flies—can you bring them, soon?

Anat: Bring what?

Ezekiel: The chairs. Oh, and can you bring some of that wondrous—delicious—what do you call it, the sweet foodstuffs that you ladies serve after the main meal? It’s been so long since I’ve eaten, since Shoshana died, El rest her—

Rebekah: Dessert?

Ezekiel: Yes: dessert. Cakes! Cakes for after. Oh, and some hot herbal tea. In small cups—I cannot deal with that; I leave that to you. I will do the prayers, the songs; please, Ladies, see you to the—the—sweet foodstuffs, for the enjoyments—Oneg, I believe, is the Hebrew word I have been seeking. (To himself, more than to the Women) Perhaps we can have a—a—discussion of some holy subject, for after—I will think on it. When the belly is full, the heart smiles; the brain seeks…. Understand, please: I am thinking, thinking—we must continue, go on, as a people, in our seeking the Holy One! Tizmora will play—but she is just a baby! No; no—she is grown….Yes: that is the meaning of my Vision….(To the Women) Well? Why do you stand at gaze? Go!

(The Women rush out, as Ezekiel, chuckling to himself, sits down, dips his feather into the ink-pot, and starts to write the first siddur/prayerbook in Jewish pre-history.)



The Lesson of the Ibis: How to Live Life



            Leaving the house for work this morning, I noticed a trio of American White Ibises—I did not know that was what they were, but a later online search revealed them as such (Eudocimus albus). They are a pure, beautiful white color, with bright-orange beaks and long legs. They spend their lives poking their curved beaks into the grass, hunting for bugs, in the course of which foraging they also aerate the soil, benefiting all of us.
            I was mind-filled with my typical day’s events: rush to the Pike, enter stream of traffic, put on NPR, perhaps the Classical station; speak to the Dean—will she be available? Will that student get in his paper on time? But the little group took away my attention. They were going about their business in a methodical way, walking in line, like three lean, determined-but-leisurely, English Country Gentlemen out for a walk; what we call in Yiddish, ah shpatzir—a stroll. It was, nonetheless, a serious business, and they had no time to look about, neither at sky nor trees.
Having completed their in-depth examination of this quadrant of earth, they, without turning, nodding or acknowledging the presence of their fellows, spread their glorious wings and sailed off into the warmish air in a leisurely fashion, one after the other, like a flight of gulls. But they appeared far more sophisticated and cultured than gulls: they remained silent, and never begged a crumb of me; indeed, I was not part of their world. They are particular to our Florida, and I have grown to love their concentration, their single-mindedness, and their quietly efficient manner of going about their work and their lives.
Ibises have a long and illustrious past in their relationship with humanity. The Egyptian ibis-god, Thoth, was a moon-god—the curved beak put the Egyptians in mind of the crescent moon. His worshipers considered him to have been the very heart and mind of the Creator-god, Ra, the Sun-god, and, as that Divine Voice, uttered the words which created every being and object in the universe, as well as the laws which govern that existence, including the courses of the sun, moon, and stars.
He was also the inventor of writing, and the solemn and irreplaceable recorder of judgments about the dead, as author of that seminal Egyptian text, Per-t Em Hru, The Book of the Dead (Budge). Besides writing and the alphabet, Thoth invented mathematics, drawing, design, and the arts, in his role as “scribe of the Great Company of the Gods” (quoted in Budge); indeed, he functioned as a sort of Recording Angel, perhaps parallel to our Rosh Hashana Book of Life—was there some Mosaic borrowing here? In the world of the Dead, Thoth became more powerful than even Osiris, who acknowledged him as an adviser; he was also to function as Defense Attorney for the Egyptian Dead on their Day of Judgment.
As the little, white-winged trio flew off, dipping beneath the palm trees to continue their patient search for grubs and bugs, I considered also their patron-god Thoth’s role as Hermes, Greek messenger of the gods, even as Hermes Trismegistus, who conveyed knowledge of ethics and life’s mysteries to a searching humanity. Did my Jewish God, in His role as Hashgacha P’rateet—Divine Providence—plan for me to encounter these little messengers this morning—perhaps to remind me that my own troubles do not amount to so much, and that, with the help of my God, Adonai Eloheem be His Name, both I and my fellow Jews will overcome; indeed, all of humanity, speaking in the various Names of their own deities (or no deities at all; that, too, is their right as thinking and reasoning human beings), will likewise triumph?
No: God was telling me that I can overcome, not alone, but only by working together with others. We are not hermits; we are born to enter into communities of all sorts—whether through business, faith, or good government—and, together, conquer the ignorance, stereotyping, and hatred that threaten to divide us all. Only by reaching out to other people can we, like my little ibis trio, achieve a singleminded peace which will beat back the darkness of closemindedness, terror, and ignorance, and, ultimately, benefit the world. We have no other choice: we, like the ibises, have taken flight.