Sunday, February 19, 2017

Mishpatim: Sinai's Holy Thunder vs. Mundane Civil Law

Mishpatim

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

“And these are the rules you shall set before them [i.e., the Israelites]” (Ex. 21:1)

            According to Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger (1847-1905), the “and” connects these civil laws (between human beings) in Mishpatim, to the Ten Commandments (between human beings and God), in Yitro, the parsha/Torah portion which preceded, and both categories of mitzvah are equally holy. What is significant is that the laws in this parsha, Mishpatim, deal exclusively with civil matters—property rights, indentured servitude, working animals, road construction, etc. How can we find holiness in these mundane matters?
           
The answer is that there cannot be local or world peace without paying attention, not only to our relationship with God, but also with our fellow human beings. One cannot pray three times a day to God, keep kosher, and keep Shabbat, and then go out and cheat one’s fellows in business. An upright, righteous person cannot shut one’s door to a deserving stranger; consider the example of Avraham Avinu, Abraham our Father, whose favorite mitzvah/commandment was that of Hachnasat Orchim, Welcoming Guests. R’ Yehuda Leib teaches that it is of higher merit to repair and maintain one’s relationships with humanity than with God.
           
Why so? Because God forgives humankind their shotcomings, while people in our nation and world, sadly, often dislike, even hate one another, usually because of jealousy, suspicion, and ignorance. This is why this parsha, Mishpatim, with its down-to-earth civil laws, has to follow Yitro, with its emphasis on otherworldly Sinai.

Sinai was a once-in-a-lifetime experience: it featured thunder and lightning, God and angels on a mountaintop, and a Torah gifted from heaven. It was wondrous and beautiful, but hardly practical on a day-to-day basis. To be a good and proper Jew, we must have a down-to-earth religion, which we can practice in the real, everyday world, where our Torah can offer guidance. Are you tempted to steal in your business, cheat your workers, write down a false number on your balance sheet? Look into your Torah for divine and practical guidance, and you will not sin.
           
These laws of Mishpatim may have grown old, some of them—we no longer practice slavery, thank God, and the oxen of old have been replaced by machines—but the principles behind them still apply. If we deal honestly and justly with our fellow human beings, it does not matter if we are humble citizens or occupy the highest office in the land. Do mitzvote, give Tzedakah, Charity, and strive for Tikkun Olam, Improving the World. Finally, at the End of Days, there will be a Judge and a Judgment, and He will, one day, call us before the Highest Court there is.

Works Cited


Green, Arthur (trans. & ed.). The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger. Phila., PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1998. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Yitro: A Cup of Barley Beer with Korach

Yitro

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            Come in, Stranger! Take a cup of barley beer from me, and sit here by the fire. Who am I, do ye ask? I am Jethro, Chief Judge and High Priest of Midian, and I practice courtesy and hospitality—what, d’ye think I would let you freeze out there, in the desert night? Baal’s my witness, I would never do such a thing! Why, if my boy Moses were here, I would have him slaughter a sheep, tan its hide, and prepare you a fine, warm sheepskin to wrap yourself in, I would! But he’s gone, back to Egypt, to free his people, as he said….

            A fine boy—I mean, son-in-law—he was, too—married him off to my daughter, Zipporah—there she sits, in the corner, with my grandsons, Gershom and Elazar! Gershom is the five-year-old, and Elazar is the baby she is nursing—oh, I’m sorry Zippy; my fault—please pardon me. Ha! What a fool I am! Ne’er ye mind—I’ll just help myself to some more beer—join me, Stranger?

            Listen to the old East Wind, out there—I heard tell that it blew strongly when Old Man Pharaoh Ramesses II got his nose bloodied this morning—lost his cavalry, he did, and haven’t heard from him, either! Something about a flooding at the Sea of Reeds—did the mighty Pharaoh drown? Ha! And my boy, Moses, there in the thick of it!

Zippy, did ye hear? Are ye finished with Baby Prince Elazar, there, yet? Oh, you’ve got to be about putting the boys to sleep, then—Gershom, my precious grandson! Have you a kiss for Gran’ther, then? There, there, that’s a good boy—go to sleep, and Osiris guide your dreams—ha, ha!

            Well, now it’s quiet—let me lie back here, among my pillows, loosen my belt, a bit—ah! What of you, Stranger? Where are you from, of what country, what nation? Sure, that’s a lot of questions, but I am a curious fellow—being a village judge and parson, it’s inevitable. A refugee? From where, if I may ask? Oh, Egypt? What, a slave? Of what name?

            Korach? A Hebrew? Well, why’d you leave the host of the Exodus? Didn’t Moses free the lot of you, and didn’t ye depart in a bunch? Of course he did, of course—but you don’t like him? Well, don’t you think that you would be better off, by staying with the people, and working things out with Moses, your God-given leader? I am a great believer in talking things out—just the way we’re doing now. Why, when my son-in-law Moses—yes, I know you don’t care for him; you said the same, just before—was working on freeing the people from Egypt, he came for a visit to us.

            “How do you spend your days, My Son-in-Law?” I asked him.
           
“I work miracles, but I also judge the people, when they have legal disputes,” he said.
           
“Do you have help?” I asked.
            “No, Father,” he said, “I do it all myself, and if I have a problem I cannot handle, I bring it to the Lord God.”
           
“Well, Moses, my son, why don’t ye appoint sub-judges, and sub-sub-judges, and make it easier on yourself?”

And he took my advice….

            More beer? Of course, Friend Korach….What’s that? Ohoo, you’d like to be a judge, as well? Well, why don’t you go back to the camp of ex-slaves, and present yourself to Moses, and try to work it out, so that you can be helpful to him? That might be a good thing….Yes, I believe it would be helpful. You’re a Levite, too? Capital idea! Capital! He’s a Levite, you’re a Levite, and that way, the Israelite folk would know who to come to for judgment. Well and good.

            Where are the Israelites, now? I heard they had a battle with Amalek, but came out, all right, and are on their way to Mount Sinai. Yes. For some sort of meeting with their God. Never heard of such a thing, before. Truth is, my wife and I, and Zippy and the boys, we’re all thinking of meeting them at this Mount Sinai. Never before met an Invisible God. Might be something to see. An Invisible God, I mean. Care to come with us?


            Oh, you can’t stay; must be leaving. Well, let’s have the women pack you a bite to eat, then. Zippy! Wife Athaliah! Put a pita and some cheese into a bag, won’t you, for Friend Korach, here? He’s off into the desert cold, he is. Can we give him a wool blanket, perhaps? Brr! It is cold, out there….

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Beshalach: Israelite and Egyptian Camel Rustlers, 1338 BCE

Beshalach

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Scene: c. 1338 BCE. A Desert campfire, shortly after the Splitting of the Reed Sea. Three men sit around, sharing a flask of honey-mead liquor: one, a Stranger; Elazar, a Hebrew, and son of Moses; Hotep, an Egyptian. Elazar the Hebrew speaks.

            Could I beg another drink of your mead, Stranger? Ah! That warms both body and soul. I thank you for your hospitality on this cold wilderness night; your fire is excellent for keeping back both jackals and wolves in both animal and human form—not that we cannot protect ourselves. Who are we? My name is Elazar, and I am a Hebrew; my boon companion here is Hotep, an Egyptian; my God Shaddai, and his god, Ra, brought us together to protect each other, here in this vast wilderness, through which we wander.  

How do we get by? Oh, scrounging, we call it: hunting a lost rabbit here, trapping a stray quail there…. Sometimes, if we come upon a desert caravan—Ishmaelites, Girgashites, or the like—we cover our faces with our hoods and “attach” ourselves to them, usually after the sun has set, pretending to be camelskinners, and manage to steal away in the night, with a well-laden camel or donkey or two—ha!

            No, you needn’t fear that we will steal from you: we are bulging with loot from our last camelskinning venture, and will not touch your goods. Besides, I can see the gleam of a bronze dagger on your belt, a rounded, sharpened copper scimitar in a sheath on your back, and a well-worn, rounded shield hanging from your camel’s saddle—I know my limits, and Friend Hotep behind me—yes, he sits behind me; we look out for one another—cannot match all that weaponry. All I carry is a two-finger-long knife and a sling; all he has is the ability to wrestle a man, which he learned back in Egypt, his native land, where he trained as a Shalish, the archer-spearman in a chariot, in the Royal Egyptian Cavalry, “Wings of Horus, Hawk-god Division.”

            I always feel safe with Hotep around. We are each other’s best friends, and business partners, too. Share and share alike, you know. He is Egyptian, and I am Hebrew, as I told you, though with a Midianite mother.

            My background? Why, who wants to know? No fear, Stranger: I will tell you. You were kind enough to give us some honey mead liquor, and such a warming drink in this cold desert night air loosens the tongue, as they say. It is hard to remember, but I recall my mother—she was dark-eyed, dark-skinned, and beautiful; her name was Zipporah. My grandfather was a fat, laughing old duffer named Jethro. He was a priest of his people, in the tribal-village of Midian. There was my brother Gershom and me—he is a wanderer now, as well: I have not seen him in years.

            My father? Who? I cannot say: all I know is his name, Moses. They say he was a shepherd, and is now a miracle-worker in Egypt. What, Friend Hotep? Moses was a destroyer of Egypt? Well, you know, my dear friend, that my people have been slaves to your people for many centuries….

            No: you are correct, dear Hotep: my Israelites were not slaves to your people, but to your king, your Pharaoh. That is not the same, not the same. Your people and mine were friends at one time, long ago, under the Great Vizier, Joseph of Israel. Yes. But then, this evil, enslaving, obsessively-building Pharaoh, Ramesses II, came along. After all, two peoples can and should be friends; it is only the rulers who mess things up. That is what my mother, Zipporah, taught me, when I was little….

            “The stars and planets come in different sizes and colors, but they all give us light from afar,” she said. I never forgot that.

            What’s that question of yours, Stranger? Where are we next going, Hotep and me? Well, we’ve been talking about it, and we’re going to split up. We each have a particular mission, and  we are no longer to be living our lives of thievery. We have heard that there is a group of Egyptians who wish to try and overthrow the Pharaoh. Hotep wants to join them—with his military fighting skills, he may be of help to them.

“Why should my people be ruled by a king who enslaves others? That is not right,” he said to me.

And I thought, Can one man, one Hotep, overthrow such a king? Perhaps not: but several Hoteps, several Egyptians, trained and willing and courageous, can, perhaps.

            And what of poor Elazar, I with no family, and a distant father, Moses, my father in name only? I have heard of miracles, of Nile waters turned to blood, frogs jumping through people’s houses, locusts and lice and hail destroying the mighty Egyptian Empire—and my own father, Moses, whom I cannot recall, have not seen for years, behind it all!

            I am leaving my friend Hotep to his own new, life’s work, and will return to assist my father, my own Moses, to free my people. Perhaps my knowledge of this vast, mysterious wilderness, can be of some help.

            And more: I have heard tell of an invisible God. I should like to meet this God, whom my ancestors worshiped. Yes. That would be a good thing, for me and my children-to-come. Well. It is night, but that is no bar to travel.


            Shalom, Stranger! Shalom, Hotep! Shalom!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Bo: The Plague of Darkness in Our World Today

Bo

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            In this Parsha/Torah Portion, God continues to mete out His wrath against Pharaoh and the Egyptian People for oppressing the Israelites. This includes the last three plagues: locusts, which destroy the remnants of produce left from the plague of hail; darkness, which afflicts the Egyptians, but not the Israelites; and the Slaying of the Firstborn, which remains the most difficult to comprehend, although scholars have advanced theories to explain it.

            I focus on the Plague of Darkness, which we can interpret both metaphorically and physically. When I was studying Shemote/Exodus in Hebrew Day School, the rabbis always emphasized the Commentary of Rashi (early 11th Century), who loved to pile “miracle upon miracle,” making God’s activities as remarkable as possible. To this day, I wonder how many other-logical-minded Jews continue to believe Rashi, and take his commentaries literally. Rashi taught us young children that the Egyptians dwelt in darkness, but that the Israelites had light in their dwellings—a literal reading of the text. Furthermore, he expanded, if an Egyptian held a burning torch before himself, he was unable to behold its flames.

            How shall we interpret Rashi’s Commentary here? Must we take it literally, or may we avail ourselves of the common literary devices of metaphor and hyperbole, poetic exaggeration?

            As a student of literature, both secular and religious, I hold for the latter opinion. Rashi is trying to teach us a lesson: none so blind as those who will not see. While the other plagues all attacked entities which the Egyptians considered essential, or were parts of the agricultural or natural chain they required to live—yes, even the humble frogs, which ate thousands, millions, or harmful insects—the plague of darkness was God’s way of showing them that they had grown truly blind to their fellow-humans’ suffering. How else explain their connivance in throwing the Israelites’ babies into the Nile? How could they provide taskmasters to lash the Israelites, when they were too weary to provide the cruel Pharaoh with his stepped-up labor requirements?

            Of all the plagues, Darkness is the one still operating today, and there is no lack of Pharaohs. Where there is Darkness, let us not fear to shine a light on evil; where there is wrongdoing, let us hasten to correct it. To do otherwise, would be neither Jewish nor human. Remember this.


Friday, January 27, 2017

Moses vs. Pharaoh, with Other Voices. The Cacophony of Liberation.



Vaera

Synopsis: Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh. The Theme is Clash of the Titans, in this case between Adon-i, God of the Israelites, vs. Pharaoh, god of the Egyptians. Here are some of the Actors, both Major and Minor:

Pharaoh’s Chief Sorcerer: Since we represent Egypt, the foremost Nation in the World, we constantly meet Challengers to our Power, and then, it becomes necessary for us to show our Sorcerer’s Mastery over the Forces both Above and Below. We were not overawed by these two back-country shepherds, Moses and Aaron, but it was necessary for us to show immediately that we could overpower them, lest Rumor reach our Slaves, who might be inspired to Revolt.

When Moses, the Israelite-Rabble Leader, cast down his Shepherd’s Crook and it became a Serpent, this was an easy Trick to copy—but we never counted on his Serpent’s swallowing up ours. That made us fearful.

“This is the Finger of that Desert God, Adon-i!” Sekhmet warned His Majesty. The Pharaoh will learn, soon enough: these Hebrews are a Force to be Reckoned with. We Magicians know; we can sense their strength….

Aaron, Brother of Moses: Everything changed, that day my Baby Brother Moses left the palace and saw an Egyptian Taskmaster beating one of our brethren. He tried to reason with the villain, but to no avail—and he ended up killing the man, in a fair fight. From that point on, he became a proud Hebrew, an Egyptian no more.

He fled, and we did not see him for—how many?—perhaps five years, during which he fled to Midian, that desert village-tribe, and made a life for himself there, marrying Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, the Village High Priest. He might have lived there, forever, but came back, one day, with a Haunted Look on his face.

“What brings you back to these parts, Brother?” I greeted him.

“Our God sent me—and you are to be my Spokesman,” he growled at me, briefly, and I was surprised at how he had changed; he had always been quiet, and smiling, whenever anyone did him a kindness; it was part of his being able to quickly fade into the Background of whatever place he found himself, sort of an Israelite Chameleon, almost.

“Spokesman for what?” I queried, and he took my arm—gripped it tightly, and I wondered at how my soft, joking little brother had suddenly changed, as if overnight, into a thin, sunburnt, hawk-nosed, rawboned shepherd, rather than an Egyptian courtier, smiling at a young Egyptian Lady-in-Waiting of the Royal Pharaoh’s Court in which we both grew up.

Moses looked at me—stared me down, actually, until I found it hard to stand and take his gaze. Though he was my younger brother, he seemed older, somehow….

“We are prisoners here in Egypt, Royal Prisoners, but enslaved, all the same,” he whispered fiercely, “and I mean to set us free—you, me, Miriam, and our tribal, Israelite God, who is named Ehyeh-Ahshare-Ehyeh—‘He-Who-Is.’ He Who appeared to me in the Desert in the Heat of the Day, and gave me a Mission to carry out. Are you for me or for our Enemies, My Brother Aaron?”

“You know I am with you, Moses,” I stammered, frightened of his intensity.

“Good!” he smiled suddenly, and clapped me on the shoulder, “Then we shall not fail. Come: the game’s afoot.”

He stormed out, leaving behind him a wave of desert sweat and prophetic inspiration—but now, I admit, I have doubts—I have always been the comforter, the negotiator, the Peacemaker in the family, born as I was between two flamboyant, Burning Spirits—my elder Sister, Miriam, the Poet, a Prophet in her own right, a Leader of our Women, a Musician and Dancer—and a fine Public Orator, for I have heard her speak to our People in secret, of Freedom, of a Mysterious Mountain-God, El-Shaddai, whom she heard of in tales dating back to Nana Sarah, long-ago. And now, I have our Baby Brother, our Newly-Born Spark saved from the Fire, our Moses….

But what of me? Who speaks for Aaron?

I am a man who chooses to pray for Peace—

Can we not choose that Path?

Can we not negotiate with this Pharaoh, rather than setting this god-King against our invisible God? War will erupt, for certain; innocents will die, perhaps on both sides….

Could they not dwell in Egypt, we remain in Goshen?

I will give it thought, and perhaps speak to the others… perhaps Joshua, or Caleb, will incline their thoughts my way….

While Moses, my Firebrand Prophet Brother, stalked about Egypt like a man possessed, I went about my Holy Work, more quietly and carefully than he. He speaks of conquering the Egyptian Empire; I work to conquer the hearts of enslaved women and men.

           
Zipporah, Wife of Moses: And what of me, Wife to Moses? Am I not a Woman, a Leader in my own right? I am the the Proud Ethiopian Daughter of a Priest, First Family of the Desert Tribe of Midian, which was enemy to Israel, and is now their Friend….
           
Where are you now, my Moses, my Lover, my erstwhile Egyptian Fugitive-Prince? We embraced beneath a stubborn Sinai moon, and you promised me the World.
“I will build you a House in Midian, Zipporah my Sweet, my Desert Princess,” you breathed against my neck, “of stones, not mud-brick. And we will have many children there. I will be Priest in place of your worthy Father, there one day.”
           
I loved you—and you returned my love—until that day, when you came home, stinking of burnt thorns, with a peculiar flame in your eyes, and would not speak to me. You gulped water from our well, and curled up in a corner of the tent, refused to wash, ate nothing of my dinner, and would not speak to me.
           
Where did I lose you, in that wilderness, my Moses, my Love?
           
I, too, have feelings, Moses! You cannot cast me off, for this Mission of yours….
            Perhaps Miriam can help. We are in need of counseling; you will not speak to our boys; they cry for their Daddy.
           
There is more to life than Work. There is more to life than even your God.
           
There is your Zipporah, as well. What is left after your holy Work, for me?

Pharaoh, Moses’s Antagonist: How can an Invisible God exist? There are no such things; I know, for I am a god myself. I will battle this Israelite Desert Spirit with all the powers I possess, both magical and physical.

Where are my Sorcerers?
           
I am the Pharaoh, Son of Ra, the Sun-god. I head the Greatest Empire the Earth has ever known. I alone stand off the Barbarian Hordes who would invade our land. I have smitten the Hittites and the Syrians; I stood at the breach when the Moabites tried to invade, and they fell, full of my arrows…. My Cavalry makes the sea and skies tremble!

Let this Desert-God dare to touch Our Mother Nile; let him fill our houses and granaries with croaking Toads; let filthy Lice infest our People and Beasts alike, Disease penetrate the Skin of our very Bodies. I will stand on my Royal Balcony and brandish my sword against this God, as long as I have strength in my arms….

The Weather is taking a Turn; a Storm of Hail is coming. O God of the Hebrew Tribes! I call You to Wage Open Battle with me!

You Boy! Saddle my horse!

Blow, rain! Come, wrack! If I must die, ‘twill be with Harness on my Back….

Aaron, Brother of Moses: Everything changed, that day my Baby Brother Moses left the palace and saw an Egyptian Taskmaster beating one of our brethren. He tried to reason with the villain, but to no avail—and he ended up killing the man, in a fair fight. From that point on, he became a proud Hebrew, an Egyptian no more.

He fled, and we did not see him for—how many?—perhaps five years, during which he fled to Midian, that desert village-tribe, and made a life for himself there, marrying Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, the Village High Priest. He might have lived there, forever, but came back, one day, with a Haunted Look on his face.

“What brings you back to these parts, Brother?” I greeted him.

“Our God sent me—and you are to be my Spokesman,” he growled at me, briefly, and I was surprised at how he had changed; he had always been quiet, and smiling, whenever anyone did him a kindness; it was part of his being able to quickly fade into the Background of whatever place he found himself, sort of an Israelite Chameleon, almost.

“Spokesman for what?” I queried, and he took my arm—gripped it tightly, and I wondered at how my soft, joking little brother had suddenly changed, as if overnight, into a thin, sunburnt, hawk-nosed, rawboned shepherd, rather than an Egyptian courtier, smiling at a young Egyptian Lady-in-Waiting of the Royal Pharaoh’s Court in which we both grew up.

Moses looked at me—stared me down, actually, until I found it hard to stand and take his gaze. Though he was my younger brother, he seemed older, somehow….

“We are prisoners here in Egypt, Royal Prisoners, but enslaved, all the same,” he whispered fiercely, “and I mean to set us free—you, me, Miriam, and our tribal, Israelite God, who is named Ehyeh-Ahshare-Ehyeh—‘He-Who-Is.’ He Who appeared to me in the Desert in the Heat of the Day, and gave me a Mission to carry out. Are you for me or for our Enemies, My Brother Aaron?”

“You know I am with you, Moses,” I stammered, frightened of his intensity.

“Good!” he smiled suddenly, and clapped me on the shoulder, “Then we shall not fail. Come: the game’s afoot.”

He stormed out, leaving behind him a wave of desert sweat and prophetic inspiration—but now, I admit, I have doubts—I have always been the comforter, the negotiator, the Peacemaker in the family, born as I was between two flamboyant, Burning Spirits—my elder Sister, Miriam, the Poet, a Prophet in her own right, a Leader of our Women, a Musician and Dancer—and a fine Public Orator, for I have heard her speak to our People in secret, of Freedom, of a Mysterious Mountain-God, El-Shaddai, whom she heard of in tales dating back to Nana Sarah, long-ago. And now, I have our Baby Brother, our Newly-Born Spark saved from the Fire, our Moses….

But what of me? Who speaks for Aaron?

I am a man who chooses to pray for Peace—

Can we not choose that Path?

Can we not negotiate with this Pharaoh, rather than setting this god-King against our invisible God? War will erupt, for certain; innocents will die, perhaps on both sides….

Could they not dwell in Egypt, we remain in Goshen?

I will give it thought, and perhaps speak to the others… perhaps Joshua, or Caleb, will incline their thoughts my way….

While Moses, my Firebrand Prophet Brother, stalked about Egypt like a man possessed, I went about my Holy Work, more quietly and carefully than he. He speaks of conquering the Egyptian Empire; I work to conquer the hearts of enslaved women and men.

           
Zipporah, Wife of Moses: And what of me, Wife to Moses? Am I not a Woman, a Leader in my own right? I am the the Proud Ethiopian Daughter of a Priest, First Family of the Desert Tribe of Midian, which was enemy to Israel, and is now their Friend….
           
Where are you now, my Moses, my Lover, my erstwhile Egyptian Fugitive-Prince? We embraced beneath a stubborn Sinai moon, and you promised me the World.
“I will build you a House in Midian, Zipporah my Sweet, my Desert Princess,” you breathed against my neck, “of stones, not mud-brick. And we will have many children there. I will be Priest in place of your worthy Father, there one day.”
           
I loved you—and you returned my love—until that day, when you came home, stinking of burnt thorns, with a peculiar flame in your eyes, and would not speak to me. You gulped water from our well, and curled up in a corner of the tent, refused to wash, ate nothing of my dinner, and would not speak to me.
           
Where did I lose you, in that wilderness, my Moses, my Love?
           
I, too, have feelings, Moses! You cannot cast me off, for this Mission of yours….
            Perhaps Miriam can help. We are in need of counseling; you will not speak to our boys; they cry for their Daddy.
           
There is more to life than Work. There is more to life than even your God.
           
There is your Zipporah, as well. What is left after your holy Work, for me?

Pharaoh, Moses’s Antagonist: How can an Invisible God exist? There are no such things; I know, for I am a god myself. I will battle this Israelite Desert Spirit with all the powers I possess, both magical and physical.

Where are my Sorcerers?
           
I am the Pharaoh, Son of Ra, the Sun-god. I head the Greatest Empire the Earth has ever known. I alone stand off the Barbarian Hordes who would invade our land. I have smitten the Hittites and the Syrians; I stood at the breach when the Moabites tried to invade, and they fell, full of my arrows…. My Cavalry makes the sea and skies tremble!

Let this Desert-God dare to touch Our Mother Nile; let him fill our houses and granaries with croaking Toads; let filthy Lice infest our People and Beasts alike, Disease penetrate the Skin of our very Bodies. I will stand on my Royal Balcony and brandish my sword against this God, as long as I have strength in my arms….

The Weather is taking a Turn; a Storm of Hail is coming. O God of the Hebrew Tribes! I call You to Wage Open Battle with me!

You Boy! Saddle my horse!


Blow, rain! Come, wrack! If I must die, ‘twill be with Harness on my Back….

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.