Sunday, June 26, 2016

Spy Story: The Reminiscences of Chieftain Palti-El ben Rafu, a Benjaminite

Shlach: The Tale of the Spies

Scene: A tribal harvest-feast, in Canaan, c. 1380 BCE. Israelites of the tribe of Benjamin have celebrated with food, barley beer, wine, dance and song, thanking their Desert God, Adonoi, or He-Who-Is, for a bountiful harvest of both produce and cattle. The cooking-fires have died down, hearts are warm and bellies are full, and all are feeling well-content in the bounty granted them by a beneficent, if demanding, God.

As the cold desert night settles over their farms and fields, they gather around family- and tribal-fires to warm themselves, sing old songs of the Wilderness-Times, and call for stories from those who remember—in particular, one of the Surviving Elders, Palti-El ben Rafu, a Benjaminite Chieftain (Ret.), the only remaining member of the spying-party which Moses, their earliest and greatest leader, rabbi, and teacher, sent out years before to explore their strange and challenging Land of Canaan, some generations ago. These stories have not yet been written down; they are still being passed down orally—orature, rather than literature. It is important that the children and teenagers hear the tales of their past.

Palti-El: Before I speak, give me a drop of that barley beer—you, Even-ezer, you thieving son-of-a-sheep (jokingly), where are you hiding it?—thank you; no, don’t fill it up to the top; I am old, and am better served with the plain, cold water of this Israel, our native land, an inheritance from God, blessed be His Name! And where is Saphirah, my jewel, my youngest great-granddaughter? Ah, there you are, sweet little brown-eyed one; come, come sit by Savta, your great-gran’ther, (A smiling, little six-year-old girl, her hair in braids, wearing a brightly-colored holiday robe, climbs into his lap) and hear this story of how I, Paltiel-the-Mighty, carried the Great Bunch of Grapes over the Jordan River—bless me, how long ago was it?

A Voice from the back calls, “Ten years, Lord Palti!”

Other Voices object:
“Ah, what do you know?You weren’t even born, yet!”
“It was at least twenty rains—“
“I recall when the floods came; I was yet pregnant with my firstborn boy, Sodi-el!”
“Silence, All! We must hear the story,” etc.
           
Palti-El (continuing over the racket, and holding up his hand, silencing his audience somewhat): Oh, quiet down, quiet, my neighbors and children. I begin: hm. So: Rabbi Moses was old, and he assured us that we would conquer, surely conquer the Land, for our Lord God would go before us, as He did at the Reed Sea, and shatter the stone houses of the Mighty Canaanites—
           
Voice: I wish He would, and welcome. My Canaanite neighbor throws trash from his Idol-Offerings over his fence into my yard.

Another Voice: Will you not be quiet? I told you before, to bring that complaint to the Philistine Chieftain in charge of your District! Silence!
           
Palti-El: --But we doubted; we were free in name, but slaves in mind, still, and Adonoi had threatened to smite us, because we doubted Him—this we heard from Moses, by way of Aaron (Elder Aaron was no young man, either; he could no longer go out nor come in, and his grandsons had to lift the heavier bull-carcasses of the offerings), by way of Joshua and Caleb—that we were doomed to wander in the Wilderness of scorpions and serpents, to toughen us up; that was what God said—but Moses agreed that we, princes one and all of our tribes --(I was a prince, truly, younger then, and handsomer too; you needn’t giggle at me, from behind your hands, you young children, for these aged ears can hear your laughter!)
--Where was I? O yes; that we should spy out the land; yes, that was to be our task—and so, we packed matzos for the trip, and dried fruit in leathern bags, and crossed via the mountain-range, the better not to leave a trail; the Egyptians, y’see, had fortresses and sentry-posts and checkpoints and sentries and who-knows-what-all along the boundary-lines ‘twixt them and Canaan—and suspicious folks, they were, too, the Egyptian Border Guards, always checking us innocent farmers, shaking us down, to make sure we weren’t bringing in any contraband—one had to grease a palm, here and there, to make sure that Lance-Corporal Put or Sput or Knut wouldn’t go blabbing to his Sergeant-Major, do you know what I mean? I say—
           
Voice: tell us about the cities walled-up-to-the-sky, Great-Uncle Palti, and the Giants you saw!
           
Palti-El: Hm? What? Cities? Well, there were cities—not walled that high, I must admit; that was a story Shammua ben Zakoor, of the Reuben-tribe, cooked up in his head; those Reubenites—well, you can’t trust ‘em—they always have to make a big deal of everything, they do; they never liked being passed over to lead the People, their ancestor being the Firstborn Son, but what with Judah being the biggest tribe, and God choosing Levi to serve in the Mishkan-Sanctuary—it’s a family-tribal-thing with the Reubenites.
--(Moses said God made the Choice, but, betwixt you and me and tent-flap, I call it Politics, and Who Y’Know, not What Y’Know.)
And it only ended up by getting us all in trouble. Me, I agreed with Joshua ben Nun of Ephraim (a small tribe, that one, but still, my scrappy little Joshua managed to become Our Leader ‘til his death; a good and honest man, God rest his soul!) and Caleb ben Yefuneh of Judah, but somehow, the records weren’t kept, and it wasn’t ever written down in the final Report. It doesn’t figure anyway, because Moses tore it up; God was unhappy with what we said….
           
Voice: Why, Second Cousin Palti?
           
Palti-El: Hm? Why? Well, we were country bumpkins, d’ye see: a bunch of common ruffian
ex-slaves, herding goats and such, going up against a settled, advanced, farmer-folk, living in fortified cities—fifteen cubits or “up to the sky,” I believe our Official Report said; General Joshua—he was but a Major then—wrote it, and Captain Caleb ben Jefunneh signed off on it, so you could believe it; that’s certain.
Well, it didn’t matter; we had no way of storming any city. No ladders; nothing for a siege, not even a shovel to dig a ditch. Besides, the Canaanites, Moabites, Girgashites, all the other ‘Ites—they had iron weapons—wonderful metal, iron is, so strong and sharp, and we were still wielding ours of bronze, silly and soft—I tell you, there was no way we could beat them. We needed to use a—a—Trick! A Subterfuge, I believe it’s called…. And we had Joshua; smart fella, that one, God rest his soul. And Caleb, too. What a pair, they were. I can still see them, standing there, in the glow of the fire-flames, telling us what to do—(sighs)

Any beer left in that jug, Friend Even-Ezer? Ah, brave soldiers, all of us, and commandos, really—as we used to sing, ‘round the campfire, those long, chilly nights in the desert, under a full moon—Ha! (he croaks a song, in a half-rusty voice):

            Why, then, let the cannikin clink, clink, clink;
            Why, then, let the cannikin clink.
            A soldier’s a man,
            A life’s but a span;
            Why then, let a soldier drink.

Yes, yes, good memories, of me and my comrades, may they all rest in peace, in Warriors’ Heaven…. How I remember! There was the night that a party of Canaanite dancing-girls heard our singing, during their donkey-journey from Jericho to Ai—and they detoured to introduce themselves to us, they so loved our strong, young voices!

Joshua forbade our spending any time with them—“It’s certain they are unclean and forbidden to us,” quoth he, most solemnly—but I know for a true fact that one or two of the boys didn’t exactly follow his orders—Ha! Ha! Your health, long life, my friends (drinks).
           
Voice: But what did you do, Neighbor Palti? About the spying out the land, I mean.
           
Palti-El: Do? Well, we spies walked, observed, hid during the day, took notes, counted sheep. But later, when Joshua led us, there was no such rigamarole as marching ‘round Jericho’s walls seven times and blowing shofarote, I can tell you, with “The walls come a’tumbling down.”

Nonsense. It was like the Conquest of the City of Ai, more like: we fooled their warriors and their king; made the bunch of ‘em run out of their nicely fortified city and into an ambush. When the silly fools chased after us, they left the city gates wide open; one squad of our boys ran into Ai and set the city ablaze—for all the stonework, the roofs of the houses were just made of straw, to keep ‘em cool, y’see—and then, when our pursuers left off running after us, and turned round and gasped and gaped to see their beloved city and houses afire, we turned about, surrounded ‘em, and massacred ‘em all.

A bloodbath, ‘twas—I feel bad about it, to this day. They never had a chance….
           
Voice: But Ai is a thriving city today!
           
What? Is it? Well, perhaps it was a different city we sacked and burned—Beth-El, or Nachal-Roi, or some such. My memory fails me, here and there. It’s old, like me.
           
Voice: What about the punishment from God, the forty years of wandering in the wilderness?

Palti-El: Oh, that. Well, we shouldn’t have gone against God’s judgment, bad-mouthing the Land like that. But we never heard about the forty years, y’see: Moses kept it to himself. He believed that another few years in the wilderness would toughen us up, make us more self-reliant, not so dependent on his leadership—poor man was getting too old, after all, and he was never much of a warrior. Yes, I know what you’re going to say: I heard tell he had killed that Egyptian slavemaster, but that had been long ago, when Moses was young and angry, full of fight—
           
Moses wanted to make certain that the younger folks and babes born in the wilderness would be born into freedom, and follow only God and our brave General Joshua. That was the main thing.

Any cool water left for a talked-out, dizzy old man? I’m dry, and tired. Story’s done. Bless you all, my children….
           
Voice: Thank you, bless you, Lord Palti. Nitza, Ish-Baal! Give us a song, while Divri and Achva play the drum and flute. A Harvest Song, All!

Now, everyone sing: Hallelu L’Adonai, Ki Tov—O Give Thanks to the Lord, for He is Good….


Sunday, June 19, 2016

Behaalotecha: Zipporah's Defense of Miriam

Behaalotecha: Miriam and Zipporah

            The hot, angry, unforgiving sun burned over the Israelite camp. Zipporah bat Yitro, wife of Moses, dark-brown of eye and skin, drew her cotton headscarf more closely over her long, black curls, here and there streaked with tinges of grey. Leaving her tent—though it was the home of Rabbi Moses, Leader of Israel, it was in an inconspicuous corner of the Levite neighborhood—she gracefully shouldered a tall, clay jug of water and strode out of the Israelite camp, which lay, baking, in the still desert heat. Her sandals kicked up tiny dust-devils as she steadily labored to the solitary, black goatskin tent that had been pitched one mil out of the camp. The lone Black Tent was close enough to supply with dry bread and water, yet far enough away to signify that the occupant was banished, by order of Moses, and God.
           
The skins of the jet-black tent felt steaming-hot to the touch. As Zipporah lowered the jug and knelt at the tent-flap, she heard a Voice sobbing from within:
           
“O’ God my God—I believe with perfect faith, and beat my erring breast to prove Your Words correct—I, Miriam, believe that You, Who work wonders, are the Just Cause of my punishment, and my suffering—and I accept it (sob) with love—You have acted truthfully, while I, a foolish, weak-minded, silly woman, have caused wicked gossip, Lashon Ha-Ra, Evil Talk—Ai!—forgive me, God, for my sins are many….”
           
Reaching forth a long, graceful, muscular arm, Zipporah used a finger to gently open the tent-flap and called softly, “Miriam, my sister—Miriam—it is I, Zipporah. I have brought you cool water, on this miserably hot day. Reach forth your hands, and I will pour some over them.”
           
The Voice stopped. But then, there was a moment of hesitation, as if Miriam, alone in the heat and darkness, was slowly going mad from thirst, and uncertain what to do. Finally, the tent-flap opened slowly, and a pair of hands, all blistered and reddened from a skin disease, reached out, seeking human contact, shaking with a palsy of fear and loneliness.

Zipporah took them gently, oh so gently, in her own, kissed them, and poured cooling water over them. She then poured more water into a pottery cup, and passed it to Miriam. The cup disappeared within, and she heard the sound of the water being gulped down.
           
“Not so fast, my Sister; not so fast; you will get a pain in your belly,” said Zipporah softly, “May I come in?”
           
“It is forbidden, Zipporah, as you well know,” croaked the Voice, as if rusty from disuse, “I alone have sinned, and the redness and blisters God has wrought on my skin might well spread to you. I must stay here, until my Brother, the Wise Moses, and the Seventy Elders, determine when my Time-of-Shunning is complete.”

Still whispering, Miriam managed to say Moses’s name sardonically, and Zipporah smiled, sensing Miriam’s inborn rebelliousness.

It’s still my Miriam, my Mimi in there, Zipporah thought; You can lock her up, but she’ll never stop pushing, fighting back.
           
“And what was your sin?” asked Zipporah, her voice rising in anger, “Was it to dare question the judgment of my-husband-your-brother, Moses?”
           
“Hush, Zippi,” said the Voice, “Or you—(here the Voice permitted itself a bit of a laugh) may find yourself alongside me, or taking my place, in this goatskin bower my prison.”
           
“Here is olive-oil lotion for your burns, my Sister,” said Tsipporah, handing Miriam a small, covered pottery ointment-cup through the flap, “And I care not whom you tell that I gave it to you: tell even our Israelite-God-Most-High who judges both men and women alike—though I believe He judges us women more harshly.
“Where is Aaron, your brother, he who also transgressed the Sin of Gossip, if gossip it be to wonder why the-humph!- Supreme Leader, our Moses, my husband, is always working at the Godly Tent-of-Meeting, communing with El-Shaddai, and is never to be found in his home tent with Zipporah-Who-is-His-Wife; that is, with me? Where, indeed, is punishment for Aaron the Priest, the hearer of gossip, if gossip it be to protect my marital rights?”
           
The Voice, refreshed now with two more cups of water, came forth from the tent, more patiently: “Tsippi, you know; you, more than anyone else of our Levite tribe, know full well. Aaron’s suffering, and that of his wife, Elisheva—she is, truly his closest and best adviser and counselor—is the loss of his two boys, Nadav and Avihu, who offered the “strange fire” before the Lord. That is enough punishment, apparently, in the eyes of the Most-High-God. And so I, and I alone, bear this punishment.”
           
“And what was your sin, my Sister?” asked Zipporah, with a bitter edge to her voice.
           
“It was Gossip, my Sister. Gossip, Lashon Ha-Ra, my sin, and mine alone. I cannot question His judgment—”
           
“To languish here, in this ghastly-black tent of fire—“ Zipporah did not finish; she saw a shadow lying across her own, and turned quickly, crouching like a lioness, her hand on the dagger she always carried in her belt—stood up, and faced a man standing behind her, “You are--?”
           
A young man, bright of eye and black-bearded, white-toothed, grinning, proud of himself and his mission, stood before Zipporah, arms on his hips, legs spread wide, triumphantly. He carried a newly-rolled parchment in his belt:

“I am a Messenger—from God, if you will—sent by the Council of the Seventy Elders, to tell Mother Miriam that her Sentence of Banishment-from-the-Camp is done. She may return to her family, and her tent in the midst of the People of Israel.”
           
“That is good news,” said Zipporah, and went to open the tent-flap, gently guiding her sister-in-law out, out into the sunlight of freedom. The older woman, weary, dirty-faced, with froth around the corners of her mouth and unsteady of foot, sagged in her arms, blinking in the sun like a mole. Miriam’s bones protruded, like a skeleton’s; she had been given little food during the week of her Banishment-Prison, and, as a sign of personal penance, had eaten only enough to stay alive.

Putting a steadying arm across her sister-in-law’s shoulders, Zipporah turned toward the camp, almost dragging Miriam behind, but determined to get the older woman there quickly, for fear of sunstroke.
           
The young messenger raised his hand, blocking the path of the sisters-in-law:

“Hold, Women! I neglected to say—that there are Conditions,” he said.
           
“And what are they?” snapped Zipporah testily, gently lowering her sister-in-law to the ground. Miriam modestly covered her legs as best she could with her filthy, stained robe, and, blinking, looked up, puzzled, at the Messenger, who drew a scroll out from his belt and unrolled it, briskly, self-importantly.
           
“Is my sentence not yet complete--?” she began, but the Messenger, glaring at the helpless crone on the ground, stamped his foot to get their attention, and cleared his throat loudly.

In the Name of God the All-Judging, the All-Compassionate, I, His Messenger, will read the further sentence of Miriam bat Amram v’Yocheved,” he began, holding the parchment, with his arms straight out before him, like a king’s herald.

Watching his self-important antics, Zipporah expected to hear a blast from the silver trumpets of the Sanctuary, but none came: she saw a largish lizard poke its head out from behind the young man’s heel, wag its tongue at her, and then disappear.

This heat is getting to me, she thought.

“Speak your piece, Young Man,” she said, impatiently, “I must be getting my Miriam back to camp. She needs food, a bath, and rest.” The Messenger knitted his brows at her, and scowled. He read:
           
From the Lord God’s High Council of the Seventy Elders: Hear the Sentence of Miriam!

“She is no more to offer sacrifices for the women, whether for harvest, birth of babies, or other thanksgiving offerings. She is no more to interpret Jewish Law for them; no more to question male authority. She may, however, lead the women in song—not so loudly that it leads the men to lascivious thoughts—and, occasionally dance, but only behind a screen, and only in such a way and place as will not distract the men.”

“And, most expressly, she is not”—he cleared his throat, self-importantly—“to dare come into contact with any and all Sacred Scrolls, of the type which we now call Torah-Teaching; these are strictly to be under the purview of Rabbi Moses, High Priest Aaron, or any other male or males designated by them.”

He finished, rolled up the parchment, stuck it in his belt, and grinned like a Cheshire Cat.

“These are the orders of the Seventy Elders which I bear, signed and sealed by them, and, ultimately, by Rabbi Moses.”
           
Zipporah bristled, “And who is the author of these paltry, confining laws? Where would the Elders be without the strength of us women reinforcing theirs? This will not stand, young Messenger!

“Go now, and tell your Council back: besides Miriam our Prophetess and me, Zipporah bat Yitro, Daughter of a Priest and Wife of a Rabbi, a Counselor in my own right, we represent a mighty army of Israelite women. We are the ones, not you men, who will birth and raise generations of Israelites yet to be, both female and male, who will not submit to your domineering proposals.  

“Our daughters in particular will read Torah; they will study it, and lift it banner-high, so that all Israel may glory in their deeds. They will both dance and sing Torah, as only women can. Take that back to your Elders. Tell them that I dare, in Miriam’s name and my own, to challenge their Male Authority. And what, pray, is your name, young Messenger?”
           
The boy-man smiled, licked his lips slowly, and folded his arms, as if ready for a fight: “I will return your words, Aunty Zipporah. As for my name, I am Korach ben Yitzhar. I pray you, remember it.”

References

Drorah O’Donnell Setel, “Exodus: Liberation Theology & Central Female Characters” in Carol Newsom & Sharon Ringe, Eds. The Women’s Bible Commentary. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992.

Rabbi Aharon Roth, “Prayer for Accepting Suffering with Love,” in Rabbi Yaakov Iskowitz, Trans. Aneni: Special [Women’s] Prayers for Special Occasions: A Book of Tekhinote. Nanuet, NY: Feldheim, 2003.

            

Friday, June 17, 2016

Cain & Abel: A New Telling--"Why Must I Help My Brother? I Hate and Fear Him."

The Story of Cain & Abel: A New Telling
Genesis 4:1-12 (Adapted)

By David Hartley Mark

1. Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “Kaniti—I have acquired a male child with the help of the Lord.”

2. She then bore his brother Abel, (i.e., “Hevel,” meaning “puff of wind,” implying the possible brevity of his life, unless helped by others). Abel became a shepherd, and Cain became a farmer, a worker of the soil. 3. And after the passage of time, Cain brought some lovely fruit and vegetables as a thanksgiving-offering to God for a bountiful harvest, 4. While Abel, on his own behalf, brought the most select, fattest, first-born of his sheep.

And God preferred Abel and his offering, since God, in the Hebrew Bible, had a decided prejudice in favor of shepherds over farmers, since, at the time people were telling this story, the Israelites were mainly nomadic shepherds. Unfortunately, this was unknown to Cain, whose efforts were for naught, so Cain became both angry and jealous, and his face fell.

6. And God said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7. If you present Me with what I favor, which is meat, mainly, I will lift you up. If you don’t do well, Sin will lie at the door. You may choose it or not, but you can master your urge towards it.

… Why don’t you speak with your brother Abel, and learn how to please Me? Perhaps (God continued) you could go into the shepherding business together, and he can learn about farming from you. That would be very commendable and cooperative, for you both. Behold, how good it is, and how pleasant, when brothers live alongside one another in peace.”

But Cain thought in his heart, “Naw, I’d rather not talk to him. I’ll hold a grudge, instead. And he nursed his grudge for a long time,

While Abel wondered, “Why doesn’t my brother Cain come around on Sundays anymore? We used to hoist a couple of brewskies, and watch the Nod Team play the Edens at soccer. Oh, well… time to feed the sheep.”

Instead, Cain walked the fields of Eden, until he passed a shop, with a sign in the window: Evil Inclination Gun Store. For Satan, with God’s permission, had, apparently, done this evil thing, to tempt fledgling humanity.

And Cain entered the shop, to find Beelzebub inside.

And Beelzebub said, “Can I help you, Son of Adam?”

And Cain said, “Do you have anything I could use to hunt? My—uh—sheep have been under threat from Ab—a wolf.”

And Beelzebub answered, “I have a lovely Glock nine-millimeter, and this AR-15 is handy, as well. Can I see your license, please? This concludes our background check. Care to join the NRA? Yes? Fine. Thanks for coming by. Have a 2nd Amendment Day!”

And Cain called his brother Abel, and proposed that they meet in the field, ostensibly to discuss sharing a business.

8. But when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel with both pistol and semi-automatic rifle, and killed him.

9. But the Lord said unto Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

10. Then he (with a small “h,” to denote that every killing reduces God’s Holy Name) said, “What have you done? I hear your brother’s blod crying out to Me from the ground! 11. Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to take in your brother’s blood from your hand. 12. If you work the earth, it will not continue to give its strength to you. You will be an endless wanderer (Hebrew, Na v’Nod) upon the earth.”

13. And Cain said unto the Lord, “I cannot carry this heavy punishment! 14. Since You have driven me from the earth and from Your Presence this day, I must hide from You and wander endlessly upon the earth—and anyone who finds me will kill me!”

15. And God said, “Therefore, if anyone kills Cain, I will take sevenfold vengeance upon him.” And God put a mark upon Cain, to prevent anyone who met him from killing him.


16. Cain left the Presence of God and settled in the Land of Nod (lit., “Wandering”), in the East of Eden, where he, and all we Americans, are still, apparently, wandering….

Monday, June 13, 2016

God, Human Will, or Fate--Who or What Decides? A Sobering Treatise on Tragedy

When Cain Shoots Abel

By David Hartley Mark

            Imagine Three Sisters who live together, but do not get along. One is God’s Will—all-knowing, all-controlling, all-powerful. Theists believe that God alone knows everything; He knows me, down to my every thought, my every fault, from the simplest neuron-burst in my spark-laden brain, to the choice of shirt and tie I make on my way to teach English or Torah in the morning.

            Second sister is my will: I choose the tie, pick out my breakfast, decide the lesson to teach, praise my students. I am difficult to live with, stubborn beyond reason, lazier than I ought to be. I am perpetually late, and a sneak eater who would rather break my diet with stale cake than healthful fresh fruit. I am more concerned with an odd discoloration on my aging forehead than with calling a loved one who simply wishes to know where I am. I am changeable, hard-headed, impulsive, loud, and brash, a true New Yorker, full of opinions. It is my will that I be so, within socially-acceptable reason.

            Finally, there is the third sister, the mysterious one. She is Faceless Fate, the roll of the dice, the causeless causer of causes—because she just IS—and that makes her all the more annoying, baffling, and puzzling. One person gets cancer; another one wins a speedboat. One baby is born a genius, the other mentally deficient. One wins the lottery, the other fishes food out of dumpsters. To some extent, we shape our own fates, but most of us cannot escape a mélange of doom, defeat, or despair. How we face it determines our character and our survival in this world.

            So has it been; so will it ever be.

            Who decided who was to die in that Orlando nightclub? Who determined who would be sitting in the Tel Aviv outdoor mall? Who lives, who dies?

            Do not lay the blame at the feet of God, in this instance. Jewish mystical tradition, or Kabbalah, states that God performs a tsimtsum—a retraction of Divine Self—to allow for a modicum of our will. “Do God’s will as if it were your will,” teach the Rabbis in the Talmud, “so that God will do your will as if it were His will.” In other words, our actions on earth do influence those of God, in the celestial and earthly spheres.

            Still, there are those, as we learn from philosopher-physician-rabbi Maimonides of the 11th Century, who choose evil as did John Milton’s Satan, saying, “Evil, be thou my good.” So was it with the Orlando shooter: he took his neshama, his Godly and God-given soul, and cast over it a film of sinfulness until its heavenly shimmer was no longer visible. God could not influence him further. The shooter took his weapons and went out to hunt people whose only crime was that they were different: they were gay. Full of hatred of himself, he retreated to the Racist’s Creed: “I hate myself. I do not have the courage, at this time, to kill myself to eradicate this hatred. I will, therefore, project my self-hatred onto others; in this case, gay people. I will kill them, now.”

            He negated God’s ability to save them, through sheer, evil force of will. And, sadly, with some few exceptions, Fate was likewise unable to rescue those who died.

            Must you accept this explanation? No. It will be cold comfort for the families who mourn a dead loved one or friend. Still, I hope that it inspires us to work for greater love among people, greater understanding, and more trust. When we fail to see the humanity in others, but fall back on labeling them, we kill something of the human in ourselves. And that way lie madness, isolation, and death.


            Therefore, choose Life. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

A Voice for the Voiceless: Shamira, Philistine Mother of Samson, Judges 13 (Haftorat Naso)

Haftorah of Naso: The Prayer of Shamira, Mother of Samson

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Author’s Note: Biblical scholar James Kugel (How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then & Now, NY: Free Press, 2007) sums up Modern Biblical Criticism by stating that the Samson story is unique in the Book of Judges. Most of the judges/tribal chieftains are charismatic leaders (Gideon, Jephtah, Deborah) whom God appears to select to deal with a momentary crisis, but who disappear just as quickly, once the crisis ends.
The Israelites’ enemy, in the Samson and throughout the David stories, is the Philistines, called the “Sea-Peoples” who fight the Egyptians during the reign of Pharaohs Merneptah and Ramesses III (late 13th and early 12th Century BCE); they are mentioned in other sources, as well. Kugel and other scholars believe that the Samson saga may well be a Philistine legend that the Tanakh/Hebrew Bible borrowed, since there are overlaps between Samson’s testy personality and that of the Greek Heracles/Hercules.         
Here, I attempt to give voice to what I call “cross-pollination” between the Israelites and the Philistines, by creating a backstory/biography for Samson’s mother, who is not named in our Haftorah text:

Call me Shamira, “Guardian of the Israelite God.” It is not my real name—you, Stranger, could not pronounce the name my parents gave me, and it makes no difference, now. You would not realize it to look at this sun-baked old crone, but I am still a young woman, only twenty years old. It is useful to remember that “crone” means “wise woman,” and I am easily the wiser adult in our little family—have you met my man, Manoah? I mean, truly? He is a fool.

Manoah—that dunderhead!—is my husband, a man of the Israelites, those upstarts who fancy themselves superior to us Philistines. He is a Danite, a tiny tribe, and our neighbors to the north, a tribe of no consequence to us mighty Philistines. Still, he could find no bride among his own tribe or people. Instead, he crudely, rudely kidnapped captured me, coming to my father’s seacoast village in the dead of night and carrying me off like a stolen kitten, his filthy, chapped farmer’s hand covering my young mouth, so I could not cry out. I was only twelve years old. Such are the ways of these Israelites, seizing young maidens from other peoples, marrying and raising up sons thereby, bulking out their scanty tribe here in Canaan. No doubt, this must please their mysterious, thundering, invisible Sky-God, He-Who-dwells-amid-the-clouds (whispering), not in wheatfield or sea-scape, like our sensible, bread-providing Philistine god, Dagan.

I ask you, Stranger, how can any sensible god remain invisible? Our Dagan, ho! He is half-man, and half-fish, symbolizing our seafaring ways—that shows our courage, and our love for both land and sea! How I do miss the sea….

Why do I whisper to you, Stranger? Because I am Israelite, now, at least in name, as Manoah’s father, Chai-Baal, chief of this piddling Tribe of Dan, pronounced me, when he changed my name to—Shamira, a “precious stone,” as he called me. Chai-Baal’s a kindly old man; I have no hatred in my heart for him—he means well—but his son, Manoah’s, a clod, no error.
There’s more, and worse, to my story: I do believe that Dagan, my own, true Philistine god, was angry with me for deserting my people, although I was kidnapped against my will—for now, he has shut my womb tight, and I cannot bear children—so says my lord-and-master, Manoah (whispering) that blockhead! Believe me, Stranger, when I tell you that, had my own father (whom I barely remember) chosen a husband for me, he would have been strong and potent, making me Matriarch of a legion of sons, of warriors—but Manoah? He is weak, in both body and mind….
           
Come, hear me! I have a tale for you: come sit by the fire, and listen, while I pound the barley-grains to flour, and hear a young woman’s talk. It is dull here, in the desert, not like the seashore, where my Philistine sisters smell the salt-air, and dream of sailing on the waves, back to the Aegean islands, our lost homeland (sighs)….
           
 My story? Oh, yes: I had a Visitation. It came to me—was it a dream? No: I saw—I saw—a winged creature, an Angel, clothed in white samite, crystal clear, with silvery hair all flowing, flowing, and a voice of sweetness, that bade me leave the tent, this smelly, goatskin hovel which Manoah calls our home—his, perhaps, but not the clean and airy seaside lodge I lived in, years ago, the Happy Time, when I lived beside the Great Sea, all cerulean and aqua….
           
What did he say? The Angel? Ah, he said that I would bear a child. A son! But there were rules to follow: I was to drink no wine, no beer, no mead; no grapes, even, and no unclean food—I have foresworn all meat; one never knows how fresh it is; I see the Israelite women, my sisters, they call themselves—they soak-and-salt the goat-meat, before they serve it; I will eat only fish, as do my people…. What else did the Visitor say?
           
My Son! He will be Shimshon, “Little Sun,” after the brightest god in the daytime sky, my Helios, who rises in the fiery dawn, and rides the Heavenly Chariot from one end of the sky to the other, the whole day long—
           
But can you imagine how that dunce, Manoah, doubted me? He said there was no Visitor, no angel, no Heavenly Messenger, no Winged Glory, come before our tent; he had not seen the Angel, himself, though I reassured him, so many, many times—
           
“If you had truly seen an Angel,” he said, looking at me with his goggle eyes (he really is not bright, My Lord Manoah, wood-for-brains), “you would be dead; the Celestial Fire would have roasted you whole!”
           
I took his hand—how cold it was, and how it shook!—and placed it on my breast, to calm him, hugged and shushed him, the way one would soothe a nervous child—
           
“Had your—that is, our—Israelite God sent an Angel to destroy us, why would he bring us such good news? How good this news is, how wonderful, Manoah, dear—“ I patted his back, embraced him close, the silly oaf, until his heart stopped pounding. And I believed: the Angel had promised us, He would come back; He’d reappear.

I went on, believing, pounding barley-into-flour. Days passed. Long days, and hot ones. Manoah grazed the sheep far closer to the tent than usual, I noticed.
           
But then, one day, all of a sudden, the Angel came back! All ablaze with heavenly fire, hovering there before my eager eyes, wings moving slowly, smiling brightly, hair adrift, like the waves of Nereids, sea-nymphs, coming close to shore, as in my people’s tales; an Angel, truly….
           
There went Manoah, fool as always:
            “Let me make a roasted offering to You!” he shouted, and made a run for the flock, but tripped over his own feet, and scared the sheep and goats away, to the far reaches of the pen, all meh’ing and baa’ing….The Vision raised its hand.
           
“Though you delay me, I will not eat your meat,” It whispered, in a voice like waves of gold, “But make a simple Offering of Thanks unto the Lord your God”—and vanished.

O Israelite God, Who dwells amid storm clouds and thunder, let Shamira, Mother-to-be of Samson, “Little Son of Helios,” hear me! I will forsake my dearest god, my Philistine-grain-god, Dagan, if You let my Unborn Son become a Hero to his people! And may Yah grant him the wisdom to make peace between his mother’s people, the Philistines, and his father’s people, this strange Tribe of Dan—no, with all of Israel! Amen!

            

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Bamidbar: Small Glimpses of a Wilderness Census-Taking

Bamidbar

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Scene: Open Wilderness—nothing but sand, rocks, and thistle-bushes, a harsh expanse unrelieved by any natural features. Vultures circle overhead. We behold a long, undulating line of people—men, women, children—old, young, middle-aged—gathered around a tall rock, from which a bony, aged, bearded elder, obviously the leader, barks orders. He is Moshe ben Amram, Leader and Rabbi of Israel. Because of his age, and the possible strain on his voice, his words are repeated on all four sides by Tribal Chieftains, who use arm-signals and ram’s-horns to try to organize the multitude into a semblance of marching order.

Towards the front rank, we see two teenagers—Nachron ben Gafiel, of the Tribe of Benjamin, and Zamrielah bat Shulamit, of the Tribe of Dan. They are trying to move out of the crowd, to get a better look at Moses, and also to get closer together, without seeming too obvious about it.

Moses (faintly): And I tell you all, that the Lord, God of Hosts, has told me this day, there is to be a Census, a Counting of Countings, of all the families, relations, relatives, and tribes of the entire Children of Israel on this day….

Nachron: Psst! Zami—Zamrielah! (Zamrielah pretends to ignore him; she adjusts her headscarf to cover her ears better; Nachron reaches for her sleeve, yanks it) I say there—Zamrielah! Don’t you hear me?

Zamrielah (pretending to be angry, but secretly pleased): Nachron! Don’t be touching me! What if my father Ezriach saw a strange boy, from a different tribe, daring to touch his youngest daughter? What chutzpah—what nerve!

Nachron (abashed): Sorry. But you heard me very well, and you were ignoring me.

Moses: …I call upon the Tribal Chieftains to appoint Sub-Chieftains, and Sub-Sub-Chieftains, to supervise the counting of countings, as the Lord God has directed me, and His servant, Aaron, and my disciple, your general, Joshua—I say! Can you heralds not quiet those Reubenites, over there? What is stirring them up, so?

Joshua (shading his eyes, and squinting into the morning sun): I believe, Milord Moses, that Dathan ben Eliab has nearly been stung by a scorpion. That’s him, dancing about, the fat fool. Hm—it’s too bad. Where’s a good scorpion when you need one? (Shouting) You there—you rabble! Quiet down now, before the Lord God and His servant, Moses!

(The Crowd murmurs:

When will those ridiculous Census-takers get started?...Mama, I’m thirsty!...We should get well underway, afore that burning-hot desert sun gets up overhead: shouldn’t we be in Baal-Sheetim afore noontime?...They say there’s a big oasis there, big enough to water all of my sheep and goats!...That would be wonderful—when was the last time the wives and young’uns had a proper bath? Etc.)

Moses: Well, let me go on…. So, Heralds (Heralds gesticulate to the crowd)—No, I mean, start your appointing. (Moses reaches out, and Joshua helps him off the Rock) Is there any water left in that goatskin? Just a trickle, a small drop, is all I need (Moses is breathing with difficulty; Joshua sits him down gently, and holds the goatskin carefully to his lips) Ah! That’s good. Blessed are You, Lord our God—who gives us sustenance….(drinks)

Joshua: Amen!

Nachron: Zamrielah, your skin is getting red from the sun—shouldn’t we go sit beneath that carob tree, over there?

Zamrielah: Do we dare, Nachron? Is it allowed?

Nachron: If anyone stops us, we can say that we were feeling faint from the hot sun, and we went there for the shade. Besides—

Zamrielah (eagerly): Besides what?

Nachron: Well, I’m not twenty years old yet—just fifteen—so they’re not really interested in counting me for the census. And you—

Zamrielah (hoping he’ll compliment her): What about me? Do you--?

Nachron: Well, you’re just a girl, so the Sub-Chieftains won’t be counting you, not at all. You’re not really important.

Zamrielah (angry): Not important? Is that what you tell a girl?

Nachron (realizing, too late, what he has just said): Wait, that’s not what I meant—

Zamrielah (turning her back on him): Leave me alone!

Nachron: Wait! Zami, wait! Please! (Running after her, he slams full-bore into Gen. Joshua, who is moving through the crowd, selecting his Sub-Chieftains) Oh, pardon, pardon me, General!

Joshua: Oof! Careful, youngster! (Seeing Zamrielah, he smiles) And you better move faster, to snare that lovely gazelle of yours. She is well-worth the chase, I see.

Zamrielah (embarrassed): Oh! Leave me alone! (Darting between a heavily-laden donkey and a wagonload of clay jugs, she disappears)

Nachron: Zami? Zami, where are you? Oh, Zami….(He shakes his fists in frustration)

Moses (from a distance, fading away): “Of the descendants of… the registration of the clans of their ancestral house, as listed by name, aged twenty years and over, all who were able to bear weapons of war—those enrolled from that tribe, numbering….”



Monday, May 30, 2016

Bechukotai: Yes, We Should Study Torah--But to What Purpose?

Bechukotai

“If you will walk according to My laws….” (Lev. 26:3)

            Torah study is one of the most important mitzvote, commandments, for Jews to pursue in their lives. In explaining the above quotation which begins our Torah portion, Rashi (1040-1105), prince of Torah Commentators, says that it means, “You will study much Torah.” It is customary for B’nai Torah/Torah scholars who learn in yeshivote/Jewish academies to recite the following prayer, called the Hadran, upon completing a masechta/tractate of Talmud:

הדרן עלך מסכת ____ והדרך עלן דעתן עלך מסכת ___ ודעתך עלן לא נתנשי מינך מסכת _____ ולא תתנשי מינן לא בעלמא הדין ולא בעלמא דאתי
Here is the transliteration—perhaps you might wish to read it, noting that it is written in Aramaic (no, not Arabic), a mixture of Hebrew and Greek, and the lingua franca (spoken tongue) in Israel from about the time of Alexander’s conquest through the Talmudic period:

Hadran alakh Masekhet _____ ve-hadrakh alan da'atan alakh Masekhet _____ ve-da'atekh alan lo nitnashi minekh Masekhet _____ ve-lo titnashi minan lo be-alma ha-din ve-lo be-alma deati.

Here is the translation: We will return to you, O’ Holy Tractate [Name] of the Talmud, and you will return to us; our mind is on you, Holy Tractate, and your mind is on us; we will not forget you, Tractate, and you will not forget us—not in the World of Judgment and not in the World-to-Come (that is, the Afterlife).  

Isn’t it remarkable that, once we complete studying a book of Torah, it becomes for us a witness, a mayleetz yoshare, an Intercessor for our Good Deeds with God? And yet, Ethics of the Fathers (Perek) tells us, “If you have studied much Torah, do not brag about it; you were created expressly for this purpose.”
               
The Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, 1838-1933) states that, unlike ordinary laborers, those who study, or labor in, Torah, do not receive any tangible reward. A shoemaker or computer programmer, for example, receives a salary for what they produce, but the reward for Torah study is—more Torah study. Furthermore, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) takes a verse from The Book of Job, “Man was created to labor” (5:7), and interprets it to mean that the main purpose of Man’s creation was for him to labor in Torah. There, a Rabbi Yeruchem argues that God created most flora and fauna in their complete, or near-complete, state, and that they need to grow only in size to become what they were meant to be. Human beings, on the other hand, must continually strive toward perfection, while aware that true perfection is unattainable. It is the striving, not the goal, that counts.
           
Returning to the verse above. “If you walk according to My laws” represents the Journey. We must never cease in our striving toward spirituality, with Torah study as our chief means and reward.
           
Still, I must dare to gently disagree with the giants of Torah—Rashi, the Chofetz Chaim, and Chazal, the Talmudic Rabbis—whom I quoted above. I am not worthy to shine their shoes scholastically. But, writing this with Mother’s Day past and with Father’s Day still to come, I recall the example of my parents z’l, who managed to combine their love of Torah with the need to provide for their families.

My mother was an English teacher on both the elementary and later college level (she got her Master’s degree while in her 70’s), and my father an industrial chemist, who, when I was young, ran a Science Club on Sunday mornings at my Hebrew Day School and our family shul, the East Side Torah Center. Under his guidance, we peered through a microscope at fly blood corpuscles and bee’s wings. He also brought home scientific oddities: a glow-in-the-dark tube, painted with luminous paint, and an early prototype transistor radio with a wire-and-alligator-clip-antenna that we attached to a chickenwire fence to listen to the Drifters on Radio Station WABC with Disc Jockey Cousin Brucie.
           
After the rabbi of the shul passed away in the mid-1990s, my father, for many years president of the shul, did his best to maintain Shabbos and weekday minyanim/services, fundraising, serving as parttime shames-caretaker-sexton, and doing whatever was necessary for the good of the shul he and my mother loved so much, until he passed in 2000 and she in 2005.

As with most synagogues of that time, there was a “Big Shul” (the Main Sanctuary), and a downstairs “Bais Medrosh,” a small chapel/study hall. Someone suggested to Dad that they rent out the Bais Medrosh to a Kollel, a sort of Perpetual Learning Society consisting of young married men who sat every weekday and learned Talmud, going home on weekends to spend Shabbos with their families and make babies. During the week, they sat and learned, while their in-laws supported them, or their wives held down a job and cared for the babies.
           
“We’re getting a Kollel in the Bais Medrosh,” Dad told me when I phoned him from NH, where I was then serving as rabbi at Temple Israel of Portsmouth.
           
“What do you think of a Kollel, Dad?” I asked him. Dad was an Industrial Chemist, as I said before; he had gone out to work as a young man during the Depression, when jobs were hard to find, while attending first City College of NY for his BS in Chemistry, the first member of his family to do so, and, later, Brooklyn College for his MS. He told me once about one chemical factory where the acid on the floor of the lab was so deadly and powerful, it ate through the very soles of his shoes; he had to buy new shoes every couple of weeks. On another occasion, he worked for the American Safety Razor Co. I knew this because I had found his old ID badge, photo attached, while exploring his desk, as young boys will. The Depression meant that you would take any job you could find, and I knew he had given most of his meager salary to his parents to help support them and his younger sister.

            “David,” Dad said to me in slow and solemn tones, “A young man who has the strength and ability to work to support his family, but doesn’t, and instead sits on his tuches all day, reading a book while his wife works and takes care of his children—David, I don’t care how learned or religious he is. David, that young man is no mensch. He is a bum.”
           
“If you will walk according to My laws,” says God. Walking means that you’re going somewhere; you’re not just sitting and studying. Walking can mean, walking to work, and doing your job in an upright and ethical manner. God doesn’t want us to just study His Torah; God wants us to live it. Thanks, Dad. Give Mom a kiss, up there in Heaven. We love you.