Saturday, January 21, 2017

Shemote--Moses, The Reluctant Prophet, at the Burning Bush

I will say this last bit, before Shemote, the beginning of Exodus (and it was hard, very hard, to say goodby to Genesis, with its dysfunctional family, its clashing personalities, its rivalries, all going on in the Shadow of God), disappears, until next year.
First of all, Moses is my favorite. He is not perfect, and he is the baby of the family, with Aaron as middle child, and Miriam as the long-suffering oldest sister-- a prophet in her own right, a musician, a singer, a dancer, a composer of songs. Poor thing. I can't say too much about her, now, but she does save her baby brother's life. The Torah Portion/Parsha is very rich, and I only have a bit here, before I go back to grading papers. I will focus, instead. on Moses's first theophany, where he has done a very Jewish thing: he has gone into his father-in-law's business, the shepherding business, and is trying to forget his cushy life as an Egyptian prince, and settle down with his beautiful black Zipporah, their boys Gershom and Elazar, and get into Jethro's business. Jethro is a wonderful man, and a great father-in-law. (Moses may well have been Black, too.)
But God will not let Moses alone; he is the Chosen One, the Prophet-to-be. He will be Chief of the Prophets, who speaks to God the way that you speak to your friend. He will be on the highest level of prophecy. And he meets God at the Burning Bush, a common-enough bit of desert vegetation, to show either that God is in mourning for His people, or that God can be anywhere in the Universe-- this is common enough boilerplate commentary, and traditional.
But what is significant is that, when God says, "Go to Egypt and free My people," Moses resists-- how audacious! How Jonah-like! How can one be so chutzpahdik, nervy, to say "No!" to the Sovereign of Heaven and Earth? And Moses is very specific about listing his objections to the mission:
--I'm a refugee; I killed a man. If Pharaoh's secret police find me, they will jail and execute me for murder.
--I can't speak; I stutter and lisp.
--The people won't believe me; you must give me a sign to show them that I'm legit!
--Who ARE You, anyway? I don't know any God like You. I don't know any invisible God. All the Egyptian gods were statues, and very clear to sight and touch.
--What's Your Name? You've got to have a Name.
--All the gods I know are tribal--and You say that You are the God of Heaven and Earth? That can't be!
--etc.
And God, finally, loses His patience. He explains that He will be with Moses every step of the way-- He alone, not an angel, not a Seraph (a flaming archangel), and that Aaron will be spokesman for Moses-- this actually does not happen, but it's reassuring to our reluctant savior.
What all of this back-and-forth bargaining tells me is that we Israelites--and all the inheritors of our prophetic tradition-- are so lucky, to have a God Who allows for human interaction, not just blind faith. We must question; we must have a God Who, having created us with Free Will and Conscience, must always try the reins, push the boundaries, and ask, "What is it You ask of me, and what is Your part in this Covenant You ask me to fulfill?"
And we can be assured that God will never desert us, that, even in that Dark Night of the Soul, God is there-- that little spark of faith that we must sustain, even when we believe that we are alone. We are never alone. We are never lost.
God loves us-- far beyond the love of any mortal; far beyond the love of any human being.
Our God is love.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The New Order: A Poem for the Inauguration, with the Sound Turned Off

The New Order

By David Hartley Mark

I am sitting here watching President Trump’s Inaugural Speech
Only with the sound turned off
Which doesn’t really detract from it very much
As he scowls, waves his arms, and makes that odd
Circular sign with his thumb-and-forefinger
As I remember from the old-time beer commercials
Schlitz or Budweiser or
Something

I am sitting on my couch
Riley the Doberman-Boxer is at my feet
Looking worried
As he always does
While Kirby the Shih Tzu
Lies in his little bed
By the subwoofer
And rests his head on the edge
Also looking worried
Because that’s how his face goes

“You have good cause to worry, Boys,”
I tell them

Only Rowdy, the Tiny Yoodle
(That’s Yorkie-Poodle)
Isn’t worried;
He bounces
And jumps
From armchair
To sofa
To floor
Bringing me his Squeezy Ball
And rolling it
Into my thigh
To prod and torture me
Into throwing it,
Again
And Again
And AGAIN—

ENDLESSLY

“Because this is a game
We all can enjoy,
Dave,” he says

“What about
Trump?” I ask him.

“Trump who?” he says,
“Throw the ball!”

The door opens
And in come
Columbus,
Phillis Wheatley,
And Tecumseh—
I invite them to sit
Next to me
On the couch.

Trump continues fulminating;
I can see spittle flying from his mouth
In the brisk January DC air

“This is not my fault,”
Says the Admiral of the Ocean Sea.

“You’re a liar!”
I tell him.
“You’re right,”
He answers, sheepishly,
“I never should have come;
I should have stayed in Spain,
Or, perhaps, in Portugal.
Had I remained in Genoa,
I might have stayed a weaver….”

Phillis shivers beneath the air conditioning,
And I go to fetch her a sweater.

“Will General Sir Washington be speaking, Mr. David?”
She asks, giving me a shy smile,
“And will my beloved Scipio Moorhead
Be painting this illustrious scene?”

I hug her: her shoulders are so thin,
I wonder at her massive mind,
So capable of producing prodigious poetry,
As she closes her eyes, as if in a spell,
And chants:

“Adored for ever be the God unseen,
“Which round the sun revolves this vast machine,
“Though to His eye its mass a point appears:
“Adored the God that whirls surrounding spheres….”

Finally, Tecumseh spoke, great Chieftain of the Shawnee,
While frowning and gazing at the image of Trump on the screen:

“I see none of my People there present: who is this man?
Does he fear to see our people in his Council?
Hear me! Brothers: we all belong to one family:
We are all children of the Great Spirit; we walk in the same path….My people wish for peace; the red men all wish for peace:
But where this White Man is, there is no peace for them….”

I could see that President Trump was done, and was departing the
Podium, surrounded by Security;
From afar, I could see the smoke of protesters,
And I watched as he climbed into a black armored limousine.

There was nothing left for me; my visitors, seeing nothing for them, had vanished.
God save these United States of America, I thought.

I was done.
All was done.


Sunday, January 15, 2017

Shemote: A Hero Takes Stumbling Steps Toward Freedom--Moses Begins

Shemote

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

I can’t believe it gets so hot, out here in the desert. I remember how cool it was, and how the breezes blew, when I was living in Pharaoh-My-Father’s palace—the long drapes of Nile Cotton which swayed gently in the wind—and, even on hot, sultry days, when the hamseen-winds blew in from the desert, and the sand blew in through the open windows, there were plenty of servants to wave peacock-feather fans in every corner, and keep a steady breeze blowing. Meanwhile, we would lie on our chaise longues, while other servants would bring us tall glasses of sherbet made from ice brought hundreds of miles from the distant mountains of Africa, and our every drink of water was frosted from that same ice….

         How I wish I had a sip, just a cool sip, of ice, now!

         But I lost it all—for one, foolish act. Yes: I had to go and play the hero. I saved a man’s life, and I didn’t even know his name. And I killed another man—not that he didn’t deserve to die! God-of-my-fathers, strike me dead, if I had let that scoundrel, that thick-necked, yellow-head-dressed, loudmouthed oaf of a taskmaster beat my brother Israelite for one-more-minute!

         Let me tell You the whole story, God of my fathers—though I am certain that You know it all, for You have read my mind about this, and You see all that happens on this earth, from Your abode in the skies, and You laugh at us: You hold us in derision, as my father, Amram, used to tell me, before the Pharaoh’s police came, to arrest him for working for our freedom, and he had to run away, and was never seen again….

         I am Moses—my name means—what? Our wise men say it means, “drawn out of the water,” for my sister Miriam, May You bless her, saved my life, when I was but a babe, and my mother Yocheved put me in a wicker basket, and sailed me down the Nile River, for the Pharaoh Ramesses II, afraid of the growing population of our people, had decreed that all babies were to be slain by being drowned in the Nile….

         And so, I was raised by both the Princess of Egypt, who was childless and adopted me, and by my birthmother, Yocheved, whom Miriam fetched at the Princess’s command, to be my wetnurse. What a perfect match! (Though they quarreled, doubtless, about whether I was to be Egyptian or Hebrew, which made me forever suspicious of women, and their power over me.)

         But I grew up in the Palace, a happy little princeling of Egypt, and was even dandled in the Pharaoh’s lap a time or two by my hardly-doting Royal Grandfather Ramesses, along with my dozens of equally-royal half-brothers and sisters….

         Until that fateful day when I emerged from the Palace, blinking in the Heliopolis sunlight like some Royal Mole, to see what my Outside World looked like—and it was a shock.

         I saw an entire people—MY people, as Mama Yocheved whispered to me that evening—enslaved as human animals might be, used to build monuments for the Greater Glory of Egypt, and exploited by a tall, uncaring, unfeeling, bull-necked, long-nosed tyrant—who was my father.

         That second day, I went out, but not the na├»ve fool I had been the day before. I was dressed like the Egyptian nobleman my Princess adoptive mother intended me to be, but, in my heart and brain, I was pure Hebrew. And I was angry; my hands and muscles trembled, that’s how angry I was. I was like a tiger or lion that my Pharaoh-father, the evilest wretch on the top of the power-pyramid, had once led us to hunt, cornering that noble beast as he now had my majestic people cornered. And I was determined to free them all myself—foolish young man that I was.

         It didn’t take long before I rounded the corner of a half-built pyramid, would-be monument to the megalomanic building-disease of Ramesses, that I saw the two: an Egyptian taskmaster, all brawny muscle piled on a frame of ridiculously tiny bandy legs, with a miniscule marble-sized head on top, adorned with a bright-yellow headdress, all agleam in the sun. He was shouting—screaming, really, at the top of his lungs—at a small, huddled form on the ground, vainly trying to protect his head, his vitals, his—everything.

         “Get up,” whispered the Taskmaster, shifting his cat-o’-nine-tails to his other hand, “you scrawny little Hebey-boy, and pick up that pallet o’ mud-bricks, or, I swear by the rays of Ra, I’ll make you eat them, muddy brick by muddy brick. Get UP!”

         And the dreadful whip, already full of bits of the Hebrew’s flesh, swished through the air, and I could hear the Hebrew slave’s weak “Ow!” as it connected with his shoulder. Then, there was nothing but incoherent sobbing. And the Taskmaster began to laugh. He raised the whip again—

         “What the—?” the over-muscled ape cried out, for I had caught his whip-hand in my own, and was bending it backward. “Ow! Let go, you—“

         I did not—I kept bending it, thanking silently Djerby, the Royal Wrestling-Master, who had taught me how to flank-attack an enemy. I continued to bend; the Taskmaster was forced to bend, as well. And soon, I was happy to hear a satisfying snap! as the brute’s forearm broke in half.

         “That will send you to the House of Aescalepius, certainly,” I said, letting go of his arm. He said nothing, but only dropped to his knees, muttering imprecations, but mostly whimpering.

         That was my blow for the freedom of my people—but what was the result? Nothing; less than nothing. I had thought it would lead to a mass movement by my people, to resist Pharaoh and take up arms—picks and shovels, or, at least, refuse any further forced labor, but I was wrong. The Israelites’ spirit was broken by years of bitterness and disappointment; all they had left were a few cloudy memories of brighter times in the days of their forefathers and the Joseph Viziership. That era was not to return, though I had had some foggy notion of bringing it back. What did I know? I was a child in experience, though a man in size.

         Instead, Datan and Aviram, those traitorous backstabbers, turned me in, and the Egyptian Secret Police came after me, almost the next day. I was forced to flee for my life.

         Luckily, I survived a death-dealing trek through the desert—again, my sister Miriam risked her life to get me some maps from the Egyptian Topographical Office—and Brother Aaron escorted me through the Israelite Work Camps.

         It was so bittersweet to bid them both goodby—

         “Who knows when we shall meet again?” I asked them, as Aaron and I hugged, and I kissed my brilliant, beautiful older sister’s hand. Though nearly twenty-five, she was not yet married, and only laughed when Aaron and I teased her about it:

         “Who would marry an old maid like me?” she laughed, “Besides, I believe that He-Who-Is is planning a job or two for a woman prophet, and I don’t want to be burdened down with babies, when He calls me.”

         “Let me stay, and help with the rebellion!” I pleaded with them, “I should be the leader. That fat-necked Ramesses—who knows him the way that I do?”

         Aaron shook his head: though barely into his twenties, his beard already had some gray in it, and he used to enjoy going off by himself, and meditating. When I asked him about it, he said, “I’m just thinking about God, and wondering if there is something I might be doing for Him, in the future.”

         “No, Brother Moses, you run away, now,” said Miriam, and Aaron nodded. “You will do us no good rotting away in Pharaoh’s prisons—that’s what happened to Great-Great-Grandfather Joseph, and God may not cause a miracle, this time. Go off into the desert, as did Father Abraham; God will find you, there.”

         And so, I came to Midian, but no miracle has taken place. I am son-in-law to Jethro, High Priest of Midian. He’s a kindly old duffer, and my bride Zipporah is a beauty and smart, too, but no miracle has taken place. Instead, I spend my days chasing goats and sheep from oasis to oasis….

         But what’s that smell? Oh, nothing but a bush on fire; happens all the time…. Still, that little lamb is getting too close! I best go rescue it; can’t afford to bring it back to Poppa Jethro as roasted lamb chops….

         The bush is certainly burning hard and fast, though….


Sunday, January 8, 2017

Vayechi: The Meeting in Egypt between Pharaoh Seti I and Jacob

Vayechi

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Gen. 47:1-16:

“Then Joseph came and reported to Pharaoh, saying, “My father and my brothers, with their flocks and all that is theirs, have come from the land of Canaan and are now in the region of Goshen. And, choosing a few of his brothers, he presented them to Pharaoh.

Pharaoh said to the brothers, “What is your occupation?”
           
They answered Pharaoh, “We are shepherds, as our fathers were, and we have come to Egypt,  for there is no pasture for our flocks, because of the severe famine in the land of Canaan. Please let us stay in the region of Goshen.’

            Then Pharaoh said, “The land of Egypt is open before you: stay in the region of Goshen. And if you have any capable men among you, put them in charge of my livestock, as well.”

            Joseph then brought his father Jacob and presented him to Pharaoh, and Jacob greeted Pharaoh….”

Scene: A Receiving Room in Pharaoh Seti I’s Palace, 19th Dynasty, 1291-1278 BCE. The Meeting between the Pharaoh and Jacob. Note that Seti uses the Royal “We” when speaking, since He represents all of Egypt, is Himself a Demigod, and that Native Egyptians did not think highly of Canaanites.

Pharaoh Seti I: Well, Jacob—is it? We believe you are the first Canaanite We have ever spoken to, though We have—um—killed many. Syrians, Hittites, other riffraff—We Egyptians are the glory and splendor of the Lands of the Sun, from the Great Western Sea to the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the North. You are fortunate that We are making time from Our busy schedule to spend with you, only because We hold your son in high esteem, though he is but a Canaanite like yourself.

Jacob (bowing): I thank Your Majesty for this time.

Seti: Do not interrupt Us, Canaanite. There is something important We must add. In the Egyptian language, the word for “stranger” also means “barbarian.” You are our guest, but do not believe that you are Our equal. That can never happen. Your son is useful to us, but only because he is clever with numbers, wheat production, and grain distribution. Because of that, and that alone, you are welcome. He has saved Us from famine. We are grateful, and you are welcome.

Jacob: I understand. And I bless you, in the Name of the God of my ancestors, Isaac and Abraham.

Seti: Good. How many are the years of your life?

Jacob: The years of my journey upon this earth are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have they been (quoted from Gen. 47: 9-10).

Seti: That is strange to hear, Canaanite. You are the chief of your clan; you appear to be wealthy, and you are rich in wives, children, and cattle. Although We Egyptians dislike shepherds, We understand your Canaanite ways. Among you people, these possessions denote wealth. How, therefore, can you claim that your life has been hard?

Jacob: I was the second-born, with my firstborn brother, Esau, being a mighty hunter. All I had was a weaker body and a strong mind. My mother helped me outsmart him, and I gained the birthright and my blind father’s blessing. But I had to run away from home at an early age, and escape to the home of Lavan, an evil uncle who hated and cheated me, until I learned to cheat him back. I had to do evil things, just to live.

Seti: That is bad: the gods punish evildoers. What did your God do to you, Canaanite?

Jacob: I sought for happiness for all of my life. I thought that true love would make my life perfect. I loved my dear Rachel, but God closed her womb, and opened Leah’s. Desperate, Rachel made me marry Bilhah, and Leah made me take Zilpah to wife. And so, I was caught up in a web of wives, concubines, and family jealousy, which affected all of my children.

Seti: We, too, married, but spent most of Our life as a soldier, under arms. We are no lover; we chose the sword and the bow, the chariot, the war-trumpet, and the glory and blood of conquest. Did you waste your time pursuing love, O Canaanite? Then, you’re a fool. Now, We, Seti I, We are practical, all the way. Now that We have peace, We have chosen to build: the Great Temple of Amun, and We have begun what is to be the most decorated temple of all time: the Temple of Osiris in Abydos. Yes, We will be known as a great Builder!

Jacob: I, too, wished for a great legacy: to be the greatest shepherd in all of Canaan. I struggled daily to wrest more and more sheep from my stingy father-in-law, Lavan, and, with God’s help, succeeded. He hated me, and I fled in the dead of night—only to have to deal with my vengeful brother Esau—but I wrestled with—an angel, I believe—and God stood by me, though I did not deserve it—I—I—(he begins to weep)

Seti (embarrassed): Well, well, Canaanite—Jacob—it’s good to speak with you. Now, I must go. Jacob? Jacob? Your Royal Audience with me is over. (claps hands; Jacob cries harder) Joseph! I say there—Milord Chamberlain! Cup-bearer! Go fetch Joseph—Ah, there you are! (Joseph enters)

Joseph (bowing): My liege.

Seti: See to your father, won’t you? (Seti leaves, mumbling, “The nerve! Breaking down in tears over nothing—can you imagine? Etc.)

Joseph (to Jacob, touching him on the arm): Hey, Pop? (Jacob looks up, smiles through his tears)

Jacob: Oh, Joey—my boy, my long-lost boy—how I’ve missed you—

Joseph: C’mon, Pop—let’s go have a cup of mead, waddaya say? Oh, and welcome to Egypt.

Jacob (as Joseph leads him out): Joseph? That king you work for—he’s a pretty tough customer, huh?

Joseph: Oh, yeah, Pop. You bet! But I can handle him. We’re gonna be OK, here, Pop—you’ll see.

Jacob: I hope so (Looks up to Heaven). Oh, God, I hope so.



            

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The High Cost of Dry Cereal: An Exercise in Casual, Everyday Bigotry

The High Cost of Dry Cereal

By David Hartley Mark

For A. & His Family

                                                I have a dear friend
                                                But I only know him online from a photo
                                                Still, I wish I could buy him a cup of coffee.

                                                I believe that he is Middle Eastern or Southwest Asian in origin,
                                                Judging (and this may well be stereotyping,
                                                But I hope he will forgive me)
                                                From his photo, and his name;
                                                Not that any of this should matter,
                                                For I strive to judge people as individuals,
                                                But it is crucial to the following story—

He speaks and writes in beautiful English
                                                And is undoubtedly benefiting our Country in innumerable ways
                                                By his professional work,
                                                Whatever the subject happens to be

                                                Which is really none of your business
                                                Because he’s my friend, not yours
                                                And Americans have the right to privacy

                                                I believe he has small children
                                                Which is a wonderful thing
                                                And they also speak perfect English
                                                And are growing up American
                                                With American privileges and values
                                                And rights and benefits
                                                That we all enjoy

                                                And for which thousands
                                                If not millions
                                                Have given their lives in battle
                                                Throughout various wars and conflicts
Our Country has engaged in
Over the course of centuries….

                                                My friend was in his local supermarket,
                                                Ironically located in Our Nation's Capital City,
                                                Shopping with his small children,
                                                “His kiddos,”
                                                A sweet name for little ones,
                                                Which many of Us Americans
                                                Share when referring to
                                                Our Beloved Children,
                                                Regardless of their
                                                Race, Creed, Color, or National Origin;

                                                When they entered the
                                                “Breakfast Foods” aisle—

                                                Little Children love
                                                Breakfast Food,
                                                Especially Dry Cereal,
                                                And a great many
                                                TV Commercials
                                                Focus on selling it to them,
                                                And children learn
                                                By asking their parents
                                                Questions,
                                                Which is how they learn,
                                                And these children are Very Bright

                                                (Though certainly, no more, no less,
                                                Than your children and grandchildren,
                                                Dear Reader)

                                                “Dad,” said his little girl, “There’s a box that says
                                                ‘Lucky Charms.’ What’s that?”

                                                My friend, the little girl’s father, was about to answer,
                                                But he turned around,

                                                “Only to be greeted
                                                By the glaring stares of
                                                Other patrons.”

                                                (My Friend’s Exact Words)

                                                I ask you, Reader:

                                                Where’s the harm
                                                In a Little Girl
                                                Asking her father
                                                About a Cereal?

                                                Have we fallen so far
                                                So fast
                                                Into the Pit of Hell and Suspicion?

                                                Is our Distrust of “Foreigners”
                                                And “Non-Americans”
                                                So deep and unfathomable
                                                That we cannot Bridge the Gap?

                                                I wonder.
                                                I worry.
                                                I wish for better
                                                For the torn, bleeding Soul
                                                Of this America,

                                                And I hope that those little children
                                                (Children of Aleppo
                                                (Children of Somalia
                                                (Children of Pakistan
                                                (Children of Kurdistan
                                                (Children of Iraq
                                                (Children of Afghanistan
                                                (Children of Turkey
                                               
                                                (Children of

                                                (Your Children
                                                (My Children
                                                (Our Children….

                                                Will be Safe,
                                                In the Coming Year

                                                Of 2017

                                                In This America
                                                Our Beloved Country


                                                …And I still don’t know
                                                If his kids ever got
                                                To taste the Splendor
                                                Of our All-Native-American Breakfast Cereal,

                                                Lucky Charms

                                                As is their Right
                                                And Privilege
                                                In this Nation
                                                With Liberty
                                                And Justice
                                                For All