Monday, August 18, 2014

Stranger on the Sofa: What Would You Do, If You Came Home to Find You Had an Unwanted Guest?

            B had gone to New York to visit family, and I was alone for a few nights: just me and Kirby, our Shih Tzu. I have an irregular schedule: teaching and rabbi’ing amount to strange hours. I was looking forward to having a quiet dinner, watching some old movie on TV, and reading a Carl Hiaasen adventure novel in bed.
            When I came in from the garage, it took me a little while to realize that I was not alone: I had time to pat Kirby on the head, he all the time wagging, while holding his favorite chew toy in his mouth—I never understood why; was I supposed to chew it, too?—but then, I noticed the man, sitting quietly in the halflight coming in through the unopened blinds.
            He was sitting on my sofa. Not moving, reading, or twiddling his thumbs. Sitting. On my sofa.
            I didn’t know what to do: should I yell? Cry out? Call the Police? Offer him a diet soda, or coffee?
            The man turned. “Hello,” he said. “Ah-Salaam Aleikum.”
            “Hello,” I managed, finally. I turned on the light, and sat down on the opposite end of the sofa. We looked at each other. A long moment passed.
            “Can I help you?” I finally asked.
            He shook his head, but smiled, pleasantly. He appeared to be about my age, with pepper-and-salt hair, and a heavy mustache.
Arab? Israeli? I wondered. I try not to stereotype people, but old habits are hard to break.
            “How did you get in?” I asked.
            He patted his pocket: he had a key, as I did.
            “Why are you sitting on my sofa?” I asked.
            He frowned, for the first time, scowled, turned out his lip, and folded his arms, curling his hands into fists.
            “Your sofa? I beg your pardon, Sir—“—he spoke slowly and deliberately, and a certain accent crept back into his voice—“It’s my sofa.”
The man reached into the pocket of his jacket—for the first time, I realized that he was wearing that same, peculiar (at least, to me) men’s dress jacket-and-long-robe-combination I had formerly seen only on elderly Arab men in the Old City of Jerusalem.
            My “guest” had taken out a parchment document, which, despite its having been folded into his inside jacket pocket, was not creased at all. It was tightly rolled, with an official-looking red tassel hanging from the lower-right-hand-corner, and an impressive-looking wax cylinder-stamp alongside.
            He inhaled deeply, as one would, before making an Official Proclamation of Great Importance.
            “This is my Kushan Tabo, my Statement of Ownership, attesting to my family’s owning this Sofa, going back to the Reign of the Emperor-Caliph Suleiman the Magnificent, Peace be Upon Him! Who presented this Sofa, a Royal Item of Furniture from the Caliph’s Own Collection, to my Great-great-great-great-Grandfather (there are more ‘greats,’ but I have omitted several, in the interest of Saving Time). It has been in my Family for Generations Untold.”
He smiled at me, and settled back among the cushions. Kirby sneezed, and moved away, clutching his chewy toy.
            It was my turn. Without a word, I rose, and went into my study. From a small Holy Ark in the corner, I took my personal Torah. Touching it tenderly and kissing my hand, I lifted it out of the cabinet’s recesses. It smelled old, from a mixture of human sweat, old parchment and cloth, and Tradition. Holding it in my right arm, though I’m a lefty, I bore it into the living room.
            “What is your name, Sir?” I asked my unbidden guest. I saw, but was somehow not surprised, to see that a woman had suddenly appeared by his side, dressed in the long robes and hijab of a devout Muslim woman.
            “I am Musa Ibn Faraj,” he said, rising to his feet but not extending a hand, “and this is my wife, Laila.”
            I nodded, and placed the Torah-scroll on its special shtender, or reading-desk, which stood in the corner. I immediately turned it to Gen. 17:7-8, chanted from the Hebrew, and translated the text into English:

I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”

I finished my chanting with a cantorial flourish, and looked up, expecting the Farajes to look impressed. Kirby wagged his tail; my guests looked bored.
            When I went to bed, I left my guests seated on the couch. They chatted between themselves, softly; the woman was a bit agitated, but calmed down when her husband spoke. This no longer mattered to me; I had a class early the next morning, and my own schedule to deal with. Kirby and I retired at about 10:30 pm. We left the lights burning, and I mumbled “Good night.” Neither responded.
            The next day, I returned home to find not only Musa and Laila, but two young boys, about nine years old: twins, Mahmud and Wasfi, their names were. Laila beamed when Musa told me their names, and the boys nodded politely. They were bright-looking children, with short black hair, cut Beatles-style; their mother, Musa explained to me, did not wish for them to lose their childhood too soon, and preferred to keep their hair long. I muttered some sort of compliment, and Laila smiled.
            Our evening dragged a bit; when I turned on the TV for the evening news, we all paid close attention. The Middle East was overheating, again: extremist fighters were closing in on a minority religious group, somewhere in Iraq, but a third ethnic group had come to their aid, backed by the US and Britain. The inevitable mischmasch of religion, ethnicity, race, and geography was turning yet another country, or bordering countries, into a bloodbath.
            “Terrible, isn’t it?” I said, spontaneously.
            “Yes,” said Musa, and his wife nodded vigorously. Wasfi peeled an orange, and his brother Mahmud focused on a handheld video game. The TV screen echoed with the sound of supersonic aircraft dropping bombs on an unseen enemy.
            “If only—“ said Laila, speaking aloud for the first time, but she left her sentence unfinished. Nonetheless, I nodded, and we smiled at one another.
            At least, I thought, it’s not happening here. But then, I caught myself, Who are these people anyway, and what gives them any right to share my sofa? It was all so confusing….
            Wednesday evening passed, much like the previous two; I had papers to grade, which I laid in neat piles on the coffee table, and Musa read what appeared to be a professional trade magazine. Laila worked at a needlepoint; it appeared to be a large hamsa. The boys were nowhere to be seen; their mother explained that they had gone to the movies with a friend’s family.
            As the hours crept along, I found myself wondering about the boys: where were they? Who were they with? Almost at the same time I was about to suggest it, Musa pulled out his cellphone and called the friend’s home. All was well: after the movie, which was dull, the family had gone out to a popular fro-yo store. I knew the owner; it happened that he was Israeli. Still, we all breathed a sigh of relief. Who could tell what sort of world we lived in, nowadays?
            …That was—how long? Three months ago. Have I gotten used to it? Not entirely. When B returned from New York, it took some doing, plus Musa’s and my debating over his Kushan Tabo vs. my Torah, to realize that we had reached an impasse. Neither of us wanted to pursue the argument any further, and we were a little too embarrassed to go to outside authorities; what was the point? The boys like walking Kirby, and he loves it when they play with him, too.
            B and Laila seem to get along; they take turns cooking, and we are getting used to the taste of halal meat, which does not differ all that much from kosher. Musa likes to tease that our Jewish cooking is “too bland,” and so B is trying to spice things up a little. We will be alone for a few evenings, because Musa and Laila will be visiting relatives in Jordan and Jericho.
            They promise they’ll call, though, and Musa told me he has a friend who can give us a “good price” on an international cell phone, when we make our special trip to Israel in a couple of years.
            Still, I think we will miss them….


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Reeh: Peacemaking & Laundry-Hanging-- Both Jobs Require Clear Vision!

“See, I give before you this day a blessing and a curse. The blessing, that you will listen to the Commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you this day. And the curse, if you will not listen to the Commandments of the Lord your God, and you turn from the Way which I command you this day, to follow other gods, which you have not known” (Deut. 11:26-28, translation mine).

            The Sefat Emet (Pen name, “The Tongue of Truth,” of the Chasidic Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, 1847-1905), in commenting on these verses, states that “[In] the blessing it says, ‘that you listen,’ but in the curse it says ‘if.’ Goodness exists within the Jewish people by their very nature; sin is only incidental. …Even if there is some sin—and indeed ‘there is no one so righteous as to do good and never sin’ (Eccles. 7:20)—it is only passing” (Green, 1998, pp. 302-3).
            Rabbi Arthur Green, from whose masterful The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (Phila., PA: JPS, 1998), the above is taken, universalizes the above reference by stating that, although only we Israelites can claim the Covenant dating from Mt. Sinai, all of Humanity “must contain that essential goodness.” In other words, all mortal beings who profess to follow a moral code have a share in the above statement, even if their God-belief, or lack thereof, is not Jewish. To progress as a species, we must take pride, not in the Machinery of War and Destruction, but in a slow, steady progress toward the Light of Peace.
            When speaking to my college classes, young people who are mainly Hispanic- or African-American, I strive to point out the irony that we cell-phone-connected, computerized, 21st Century human beings, we who enjoy more efficient communication tools than ever before in history, who ought to be more connected with one another’s thoughts and feelings, are, tragically, like blind people, groping in Darkness, and more divided as a species, than ever before. Whether throughout America or the World, we fail to see one another’s essential Humanity— those traits we share in common: the same drives for survival, happiness, success in life, and safety for ourselves and our loved ones. Instead, we fall back upon our familiar, yet divisive classifications of tribe, language, religion, and politics. As a Jew, perhaps the first one whom these young people have ever met or spoken with, I challenge their stereotypes of my people. Rather than reinforcing what divides us, I seek what unites us, as human beings, with feelings, dreams, and aspirations.
            At the time that Moses gave the above speech, he was mortally concerned that his people, whom he rightly judged to be his Lord’s people, were entering a society in which they would be a minority. As free men and women, nomadic in heritage, able to make their own decisions about where to live and whom to marry, he worried that they would swiftly assimilate among the more settled, agricultural peoples of Canaan, and, within a couple of generations, vanish as a unique people. Ironically, this remains a major concern for us Jews, thousands of years later—still separate, still asking the same questions.
            As Jews, we are proud of our tribal, religious, cultural, and nationalistic differences, but, as human beings, we must always search for what unites us with other human beings. As we aspire to political freedom, so must we work to understand similar political yearnings in others, provided that the debate over and resolution of such questions takes place in a peaceful setting. The Golden Rule which we gave the World must guide the steps of all right-thinking humanity: if we cannot love all of our neighbors, let us, at least, respect them, and ensure that we receive that same respect—neither as victors or victims, but as equals.
            There is an old story about a woman—call her Ms. Richter—who invites her rabbi to visit her home, serving him a cup of tea on her best china, while they sit in the sun room which faces the back yard. Making small talk, the rabbi notices the fence separating the woman’s yard from her neighbor’s, Ms. Jones; he remarks about the freshly-washed sheets and clothing Ms. Jones has hung in the yard, and asks if they are friendly with one another.
            “That woman?” scoffs Ms. Richter, “I wouldn’t give you the time of day with her. Why, look at the laundry she hangs out there, on her line. It’s filthy!”
            The rabbi gets up, walks to the window, runs his finger along it, and replies, gently,
            “Ms. Richter, there is nothing wrong with your neighbor’s laundry. I’m sorry to tell you that the problem is your windows: they’re dirty.”

            When we look at the faults of other people, other nations, are we so quick to judge their shortcomings, or should we take the trouble to look beneath the headlines, beyond the shrill cries of their politicians, and see that, beneath the “dirt” which separates us, they are, perhaps, just people—not far different from ourselves, hoping for a Better Tomorrow for themselves and their children? Or are we satisfied with simply looking at them through a dirty window of stereotyping? It’s not easy: we are, after all, all human beings, not Angels—but God gave the Torah to us. What shall we do with it?

Monday, August 11, 2014

Interfaith Amid T-Shirts, Boutiques & Bars: Praying for Peace in the Middle East, in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, South Florida

            This past Sunday afternoon, I parked my car in a metered lot near the beach in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, South Florida. I have lived here since 2009, having moved down from New Hampshire. It is August; the heat is close to 100 degrees, and I do not bear heat well. Still, one survives, moving from air-conditioned car to air-conditioned office to air-conditioned temple; one adapts. When the heat dips below 84, people scramble for sweaters and hoodies, and shiver on street corners. I call it Planet Florida. I love it here: Diversity reigns: we have all cultures, colors, and tribes of humanity.
            I have come to Lauderdale-by-the-Sea for an Interfaith Prayer Service for Peace. A young minister I have never met invited me. Mine is a fairly event-packed weekend, but, with crises in Israel, Iraq, and Afghanistan, spurred on by the importance and idealistic promise of Interfaith, I graded all of my English papers yesterday, and so was free this Sunday to speak at a church in the morning, and marry a couple in the evening, besides this service.
            Driving slowly down South Commercial Ave., the main artery, I look sharp both ways for possible parking. Meters get snapped up quickly here. One comes open, and I slide behind the small Toyota which is leaving, patiently awaiting my turn. Bathers dripping sea water walk slowly toward their cars; the refreshing ocean breezes and remains of ocean coolness wear off quickly as they enter their vehicles, where the solar-scorched interiors of plastic, metal and leather can exceed 150 degrees. It takes them a while to pull out of the spot, but I am patient.
            I have a small handful of change for the meter, but a quarter is already sideways-jammed in the slot, and my little pocketknife will not coax it to move. A tiny sticker on the meter tells me to either call a number or download a phone app to register my car and charge my parking in the spot to a credit card. I call the number; a mechanical woman’s voice responds. I am able to key in my cell number and VISA card number, and all proceeds swimmingly until the Voice delivers a litany of esoteric codes for uploading my car license number. I try again and again; the torturing, repetitious voice tells me that my “number is invalid; please try again.”
Finally, five minutes after the hour the service is scheduled to begin, I give up. I take my CLERGY sign from its door pocket, toss it onto the dashboard, and lock the doors. Impulsively grabbing my shofar—I had blown it for the church congregation, to demonstrate the Jewish High Holy Days—I march off toward the ocean. On the way, folks lean out of their car windows and call out, “Cool shofar!” It is South Florida, after all; we Jews live here, in force.
            It’s not hard to find the crowd of about fifty people; I stand out in my dark-blue chinos and white shirt, and the blue-and-white Israel-supporting yarmulkeh I have donned for the occasion is a giveaway, as well. My colleagues greet me, and we wait until a few more people arrive.
            One of the ministers has brought a bullhorn. It strikes me as being, perhaps, a bit more “The building is surrounded. Come out with your hands up” than, “Let us pray,” but he seems to believe we need it, and I really don’t mind. We take turns offering prayers and personal observations.
            When my turn comes, I contrast the 1967 War with the current one, and how the Israelis were then the Good Guys, and the Arab nations the villains. Today is more nuanced, I say. We have to come out of our tribes, I say, and try to understand one another. Then, I read a translation of the Sim Shalom Prayer.
            The crowd appreciates our efforts; all, but a somewhat shabby-looking, apparently inebriated fellow, who disagrees.
            “It takes all kinds,” I say, and we move along.
            The minister calls for laypeople who wish to share their thoughts. Some people come up to speak. Suddenly, I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn, to see the green uniform of a County Sheriff’s Deputy. He quietly signals that I should follow him, off to the side. I do, still clutching my shofar, like an anxious Old Testament prophet, fearful of a ticket. Has the deputy been speaking to the Mechanical Parking Meter Lady Voice?
            Off to one side, the Deputy—his nametag identifies him as “W. Smith” (not his real name) says, “Who’s in charge of this meeting?”
            I point out the minister who had contacted me, but add, “I’m happy to be listed as one of the organizers, if there’s any issue about this.”
            The other minister, seeing us speaking together, comes over. The Deputy asks for his name and birthdate, which he supplies, and which the Deputy writes down.
            The Deputy speaks on, in earnest, but a little embarrassed.
            “Are you folks going to be doing this on a—regular basis?” he asks.
            “No,” we both assure him, “This is a one-shot, pray-and-leave thing.”
            “Because,” he says, “You need a permit for this. There’s been a complaint.”
            “Complaint?” we ask, “About what?”
            Again, the Deputy looks embarrassed, but he must Do His Duty, as a Public Servant.
            “The bullhorn,” he says, “the bullhorn.”
            We are standing there, midway between two bars—which are doing an amazing business; folks getting mellow in the heat, sitting and talking at top volume, both indoors and out—and one of them has a Jimmy Buffett tribute singer who is doing his best to imitate the Master, in his loudest voice—and they’re complaining about our bullhorn?
            “OK,” we say, “No more bullhorn.”
            “So I guess,” I say, “Blowing this ram’s horn is out of the question.”
            “I guess,” the Deputy says, looking at it, dubiously. He then stares past us, pointedly. We turn, and see that the Inebriated Gentleman has joined us.
            “Can I help you?” asks the Deputy.
            “I’m here to protect these two fellas,” slurs the Gentleman.
            “We’re OK,” we assure him, and he leaves.
            The minister and I go back to our group. We bid our farewells, promise to get together for more interfaiths, or, at least, a cup of coffee, and the crowd gradually breaks up, all of us happy and smiling. Love and Peace (and, certainly, not a little Alcohol) reign over Lauderdale-by-the-Sea.
            When I get back to my car, I see that I have not received a ticket. The Mechanical Voice-Lady has not turned me in to the Authorities.
It is a fine afternoon.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Eikev: With Joshua, Fighting the Amorites on the Plains of Windy Canaan


“Remember all the long way that God made you walk all these forty years in the Wilderness, in order to test you and try you out, that God might learn what was in your hearts, whether you would observe the Commandments, or not. God made you hunger greatly, but then fed you the manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had ever known of, in order that you might know that not on bread alone does a man or woman live, but on all that God says, does man live. Your clothing did not wear out, nor did your feet swell from the long walking, these forty years. Know in your hearts that God is trying you, disciplining you as a father disciplines his son. And you shall observe the Commandments of God, to go in all the Ways and to fear and hold God in awe” (Deut. 8:1-6, translation mine).

Scene: Night: a Desert Camp. In the distance, goatskin tents full of sleeping Israelites: the Elderly, Women, Children.
You see before you several young Israelite Farmer-Shepherd-Soldiers sitting around various campfires, on Guard, protecting the Children of Israel, just entered into their New Land, called Canaan now, soon to be called Israel. As you approach the biggest fire, a tall, greybearded warrior, armed with small shield, short bronze sword, sharp-tipped javelin close at hand, rises, and holds out his hand in greeting. His name is Joshua ben Nun, Leader of the Israelite Tribes. He speaks to you.

            Call me Joshua; some call me Hoshea, meaning “God will Save.” I am the student, disciple really, of Our Rabbi Moses, of blessed memory, and took over leadership of Israel after my Master died—died by the Hand and Word of God, and was buried by Him, May God rest his soul! I do not fear the burden of leadership: these people—my Boys here—born into freedom, are good fighters: they will follow me to Perdition’s Gates, if need be, to beat back these Canaanites, Jebusites, Hittites, or Whichever Enemy the Lord God throws before us.

Hearing a noise from afar, Joshua suddenly sniffs the air, looks around suspiciously, and spits into the campfire before him. He nods at a nearby warrior, who, without a word, takes up his own sword and small shield, and disappears into the Dark, along with two Others, on a mission whose Purpose only Joshua and they know.

            What’s that? Did you see that Boy I just sent off, with the two other warriors? That is Reuel, a boy I trained myself—heading one of my Special Night Revenge Squads. He is going out to pay a visit on King Sichon’s boys—the Amorites, our enemies-of-the-moment. They were stealing some of the Reubenites’ sheep; they thought we were cowards, and would let them get away with it. We stole some of theirs back. They then kidnapped one of our men—a Menashite, a young boy named Mehalel—sad, really: barely sixteen, he was, but insisted on staying alone out there on the lowlands, guarding the sheep and goats. I won’t tell you what they did to him, but they won’t do that, anymore. For every one of us they hurt, we take out three of theirs. It’s a harsh life, here in our Promised Land.
              Talk peace? Hmm—let me tell you, Stranger, that may be worth trying someday—but, when? It’s true that Old King Sichon is weaker than ever before, what with the weather getting warmer, the grass drying up, and his people moving East to find better and richer farmlands, but now, there’s a new group—call them the Sea-Peoples, do they? Rachmiel, is that right?
A Voice from the Dark calls back, ‘Ay, My Lord Joshua. Philistines, they are; a sea-faring folk, with weapons of that new metal—iron, it’s called.’

Joshua continues:

            Iron? Pah! (spits again) I never yet met any man, any weapon, that my old blade here (pats his scabbard) and my javelin could not take down, man-facing-man, look ‘im in the eye, just as my Uncle Chur showed me, back in the Plains of Moab—how long ago was that?—ten?—years ago. (Stands.)

Here, young’uns, make me some room, draw back from the fire, and let an Old Man show you: keep your weight balanced for’ard, left-arm-behind-shield, right-hand-holding-sword, keep sword low, and (suddenly lunging forward)—Ha! Ha! All done.

Smiles; squats down, and resumes his seat by the fire, reaching for the goatskin of spiced wine, watered-down for the sentries to drink, yet stay alert, the whole night through

 Ohoo, you young’uns may well laugh, but I can still take any two-three of you down, in single combat: three against your Old Uncle Joshy, here—(Laughter of admiration from the Young Men around the fire)

So: what are you asking me? Whether it’s indeed hard to be a Hebrew? (Thinks, tapping his dagger against his teeth) I will say this, Stranger: I am a Man of Action, not of Thinking—I leave Deep Thought to Elazar and Itamar, those Kohen-Priestly-types, who learn and teach our Children the Sacred Scrolls, those bits of Holy-God-lore that they call our Torah, our Way-to-Live—but I have spent the largest part of my Life in Battle, and survived—survived, Ay, and to see men, perhaps better and wiser than myself lying in the sun, dead—rest of their bones, and Souls’ Delivery to God!—and picked upon by kites and vultures, before we could give them proper burial, and a prayer to speed them on their way, to the Lord our God—but I’m a Hebrew, proud to be, among those who ‘scaped from Pharaoh’s slavery-jail, so many, many years ago, and I will fight for my people, my Torah (It’s called Torah, then? I had forgot), and my God.

So, no: to answer your question. It’s not easy to be a Hebrew. Perhaps it will become easier, one day. Yes: when we have our land secure, and will have beaten back our Enemies ‘round about. Yes: then, and only then, will we have Peace. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Tel Aviv Armageddon: A Dystopic Fantasy

            The State of Israel, refuge of Our People, cynosure of Modern Judaism, lies in ruins.
After Hamas managed—we have no idea how—to get the computer coordinates that controlled all of our Iron Dome anti-rocket units, it reduced them to useless piles of steel. Our Israeli Air Force tried mightily to shoot the rockets out of the air, but the new Iranian technology, developed secretly by North Korea from a mole planted in the Weapons Development Directorate of the CIA, had enabled Hamas to manufacture and hide away literally thousands of cheaply-made Qassam and Grad units, and many of them exceeded Mach 4, making them impossible to track or catch, let alone bring down.
            The US attempted to resupply our forces, but Iran, which had purchased new state-of-the-art submarines from France, the world’s third-largest arms merchant, and was able to cloak them from US SONAR, successfully torpedoed three American transport vessels after easily avoiding their nuclear pocket cruiser shield, even those ships armed with the AEGIS system. After that, a Congressional Caucus called for a “New Isolationism Policy” under the slogan of, “Trillions for Defense, but Not One Cent for Policing the World.”
            Things were looking desperate, indeed.
            As Hamas Hummer Ironclads, supplied by Qatar, cruised up Allenby Street, rocketing and machine-gunning all they saw, while diehard troopers of the Golani Brigade—those few who remained, following the massive IED explosion in the center of Gaza City—sniped at them from the remains of the Shalom Tower and the Tel Aviv Hilton, Magen David Adom workers, short of medical supplies, risked their lives in stifling underground shelters, working in the gathering darkness and the smoky, close, fuming air, using whatever remained of their dwindling supplies of plasma and gauze to save the lives of as many civilians, in particular the young children, as possible.
            From his nuclear-proof Command Center beneath the Knesset, Prime Minister Netanyahu sent out a webcast to the World: “We Israelis are the first, but not the last, to succumb to the onslaught of Militant Islam. We beg you—Nations of the West—to hear our plea. Help us! Where are you? We Jews will not go down to defeat again. There will be no Second Masada. Do not let me utter the fateful words, ‘The Third Temple has fallen.’ Repeat: ‘The Third Temple has fallen.’ Where are you, our allies? America? Britain? Germany? Where are you?”
            Eventually, Hamas computer-geek scramblers got the Knesset frequency, and the PM’s words were cut off.
What would happen? asked Jews and sympathizers around the world. And the World wondered….

I must stress that the above has not, will not, will never happen. The combined Might and Will and Desire of the Jewish State, as borne out by its Men and Women under Arms, and its Citizenry, have combined historically, since the Founding of the State, to assure that it will not happen.
Instead, we witness the suffering of Gaza, and a destruction of people and property similar to that occurring in Syria and Iraq, but carried out by the forces of Israel.
Is Israel guilty? Yes: of defending itself, to avoid the above Nightmare Scenario, as it did in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973. It is also likely that, in the very near future, Israel will have to fight some iteration of Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, or ISIS. Hatred and Jealousy know no bounds or borders.
And yet—and yet. I do hear the cries and the suffering of the Palestinian people, those who did not belong to Hamas. I cannot see the pictures and not be moved. My cry is simple: where are the peace talks? Where are the politicians? What is to be done?
Can peace emerge from the barrel of a gun, or the maw of a rocket?
Consider: Hamas did achieve its goals, at least, partly: they stood up to the Israeli Army. Has their pride been slaked, at the cost of the lives of hundreds of their fellow Palestinians? Then the time has come to talk peace. Peace Now: before more lives are lost.
Following Egypt’s near-triumph in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Anwar Sadat gained the courage to challenge Menachem Begin to make peace. The peace holds still, today.
Will other Leaders of Vision emerge?
Or will overweening pride and hubris kill the dove before its flight?

Again, the World wonders….

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Vaetchanan: Bringing God's Word to the People, Then and Now


            In the Musee du Louvre, the world-famous art museum in Paris, France, there stands—or, rather, sits—a statue dating from Egypt, in 2450 BCE (Old Kingdom, Fifth Dynasty). It is not a dramatically tall depiction of a rampant Pharaoh, striding forward boldly with spear and shield in hand; neither is it a scarab-beetle, or dragon-like crocodilian of the River Nile. It depicts a scribe named Kai, a government official of some importance in his time—he was sufficiently well-off to commission both the statue of himself doing his job, and a tomb to house both his earthly and heavenly remains, though we know nothing more of him than the statue tells us.
            The statue is of painted limestone, standing (or sitting) a respectable, but not ostentatious, one foot, nine inches high. Kai sits, cross-legged, on the ground, holding a long-ago-lost reed pen in his right hand, and a papyrus roll in his left, on which he is writing. His kilt, customary dress for Egyptian men, is stretched over his thighs as he sits Indian-style, and it serves him well as a portable writing surface.
Kai’s facial expression is alert and attentive, eyes wide open, ready to take dictation from whichever High Officer or Pharaoh should need his services. Unlike other Egyptian sculptures, which nearly all conform to an identical style, Kai’s likeness is individual and unique: he appears to be a man of intelligence, a mere civil servant, true, but a man confident in his abilities and functions as part of the Egyptian Body Politic. We may assume that his statue was made in the same workshops which turned out royal sculptures, giving it an importance, indeed gravitas, that it does not loudly proclaim (10,000 Years of Art, NY: Phaidon Press, 2009, p. 29).
            Why do I use the image of this workaday scribe to illustrate this parsha/Torah reading? This is where Moses (1393?-1273?BCE) orates about the desert wanderings of our people and describes the theophany at Sinai:
“Face-to-face did God speak with you on the mountain, from the midst of the fire; I stood at that time between you and God, to tell you the Word of God, for you were fearful of the fire, and did not ascend the mountain” (Deut. 5: 4-5; translation mine). And Moses, the Great Teacher and Rabbi, follows this stirring introduction by again reciting the Ten Commandments.
After the smoke, thunder, and lightning vanished into the tribal memory of our ancestors—indeed, after they themselves died, being doomed by God to perish in the wilderness as punishment for sinning with the Golden Calf—what remained?
Only the power of the Divine Word, as transcribed by Moses. One could do worse than be a scribe to Royalty, whether Kai of Egypt or Moses of Israel. Growing up as a young man in Pharaoh’s palace (whether that of Ramses II, Merneptah, or even the woman pharaoh, Hatshepsut—we will never know for certain), possibly being groomed for a role in the Egyptian regime, Moses may well have known and appreciated the worth of men like Kai, and certainly learned to respect the power of the Recorded Word. It served him, and us, well.
            And that is what remains to us today: we are the People of the Book. Although many of us never read beyond the Chumash/Five Books of Moses, and neglect the study of the remainder of the Tanach/Bible (which is a shame), it remains our people’s gift to the world, and we should pledge ourselves to its study and practice. Torah may not be logical; it may be self-contradictory; parts of it may not have aged as well as we might like—but it is still our heritage, our legacy. Moses, Kai, and all other recorders of history would have had it no other way.


Thursday, July 31, 2014

Gnostic Nights, Pt. II: Losing the Soul of the Universe

Gnostic Nights, Part II: Losing the Soul of the Universe, the Spiritus Mundi

I smelled the odor before I went downstairs: not a good smell. Like sour meat, only burning. Kirby, my Shih Tzu, went with me; he’s not brave; he barks when he’s nervous—he’s a rescue—but he’s good company. He went down two steps ahead, then up three, then back down. That’s his style, a mixture of Courage and Carefulness, but he does get there, eventually.
When I turned the corner, the Demiurge was there. I wasn’t surprised. He had built a fire in the middle of the floor—B’s gonna be pissed, I thought—and was toasting something putrid on a—stick?—No; it was a wire hanger, like he’d locked himself out of his car.
            What kind of car would a Demiurge drive? I found myself thinking, foolishly.
            The Beast turned to me, and grinned. Saliva dripped from his upper plate, almost like an Old Man’s; Yes, I thought, he’s old; he’s older than Time, he is
And then, he spoke—aloud, or in my mind? It didn’t matter….
            “Hello Rabbi,” he said, “I’m ba-ack.”
And grinned. Rows and rows of ‘gator-teeth—yellow, misshapen, lopsided, with bits of bloody flesh between—
Somehow, though, his voice echoed through my mind, like an echo-chamber, and would not stop. I groped behind me for the recliner, and sat—almost fell—into it. My head pounded, but I forced myself to stare at him.
Don’t show fear, I said to myself, Maybe this Creature can change the Whole Mess around. He deals in Cosmic Matters, after all. Still, it’s so hazy in here—I feel sick, I—
            He reached for a—beaker?—on the coffee table. It looked like old, battered pewter, with an ebony handle, sort of a dragon’s body-and-tail, and he lifted it to me; I almost said “L’chaim!” out of habit, but quickly stopped myself; can’t be saying that on Whatever Stuff he has in there; no, can’t be right—
            The Beast drank deeply.
            “Ah!” he smacked his lips, and belched. The room filled with a coppery smell—strange, and yet familiar, like the time I had a nosebleed—of course; it was
            “Blood,” he said, “and fresh. Just the way I like it. Now, what vintage?”
            He tapped his forehead—to the left of his monstrous Horn, all red-black-yellowish, like a bone that had been left underwater for too long—and delved into his Beastly Memory, back through the Aeons of Time—
            Of course, I remembered; He does have a long time to think back, all of Creation, and before….
            “No,” he said, “I’m coming up dry—dry, isn’t that droll? It’s either Gaza, 2014, or Hebron Riot, 1929. I’m getting old, Rabbi; can’t tell one baby’s blood from another, and that’s a fact. Hee, hee—can you believe it?”
            Turning, blundering—he really was huge, gigantic—not too big for the Universe, but far too big for our living room—his dragon’s tail bumped into my Seforim-Schrank, my bookcase of Holy Books, and my copy of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah fell to the floor. I leapt forward, picked it up, and reflexively kissed it, as I had been taught in Hebrew School, so many, many innocent and religious years ago, by well-meaning, concerned, and pious, God-fearing teachers and rabbonim.
            The Beast looked on, exasperated but striving to be patient, all at once.
            “You Jews,” he said, “You just don’t give up, do you?”
            I looked at him, puzzled, holding the book before me, like a shield, or a talisman.
            “When will you give up?” he said, “You’ve lost. It’s over. We—the Demogorgon and I—have the advantage, don’t you see?”
            “I—I—we have Torah, we have Talmud, we have History, we are a small people, we are in the Right, we….” I stammered.
            “Oh, Rubbish!” the Dragon snorted. “There is no Right, no Morality. That all went up in flames in Gaza. Don’t you see, Rabbi? Puff-Puff-Puff. It’s all Mine, now, Mine and the Demogorgon’s—not that He cares a baby’s ass about the whole Affair. He is Uninvolved; he floats in Space, clear and free. There is no—well, you know—God. There is only Time, and Space, and Happenstance, and Human Free Will. Yes: Free Will. And you’ve all gone and bollixed that one up good and well, now, haven’t you?”
            His face creased into wrinkles of what were supposed to be Amusement, but which served only to make him look even Uglier. I thought of the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland, but the Duchess never stank like this Dragon-Beast, as he swished his tail, to-and-fro, while Kirby yelped and hid under the kitchen table, clutching his favorite squeaky toy.
            I spoke; I had to; I was a rabbi, after all, and would speak for as long as God and Right gave me the Strength:
“God rules; only God, even when He Hides His Face—a Hester Panim, His Hidden Godly Countenance—we do mitzvote to Cause the Revelation of the Godly Countenance.” I continued to recite, doggedly, almost robot-like. “There is a Judge, and a Judgment,” I went on, realizing as I spoke how tired I felt—
Too many English papers to grade, I thought; too many news stories about the War, the War, the War….
            “You’ve lost,” said the Dragon, with an air of exaggerated patience, “Don’t you see? There is only Strength, and Action, and Military Might. Kill them before they kill you. Last man standing. Hamas rockets IDF; IDF strikes back at Hamas. Rockets fly at Tel Aviv; Tanks fire at Gaza. Israelis cower in shelters; Palestinians die in Gaza. Back-and-forth, back-and-forth, endlessly. Blood, carnage, death. Marches, countermarches, demonstrations, screaming, hatred, no peace. Jews right, Jews wrong; Palestinians angels, Palestinians villains. World in turmoil. That is what we planned, aeons ago—soon, He will come, and rule over All.”
            “Wh-who?” I asked, trying to fight off a strong feeling of dizziness. The room, full of that coppery smell, was growing closer and darker. The table-lamp appeared to be a slight spark, gleaming amid a fog of redness—
The blood in the air, I realized; the same blood the Beast is drinking.
            Hebron or Gaza? I remember asking myself.
            “The Universe will be Ours!” chuckled the Dragon, bubbling into a fresh serving in his pewter winecup—though I knew it contained liquid far more ghastly than any earthly wine. “I will become Yaldabaoth, once again. Every death, every fresh killing releases the Dark Sparks that enliven me. There will be a Second Coming, and it will be Soon, and Deadly, oh yes, believe me….”

            That is all I remember.