Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Purim: The Day After the Jews Fought Back

            As Mordechai rode his royal steed, caparisoned with the purple-white-and-gold saddle-cloths that had only lately adorned the mount of his late archenemy, Haman, he sniffed the air, and sighed.
            So much blood, so much killing, he thought.
            His eyes smarted from the smoke and fires. Poking from a mass of rubble, he saw the remains of a street sign: “Ham  edata Blvd,” it read, crazily askew amid a pile of what had almost certainly been the home of a wealthy Agagite, head of the Haman-clan that was dedicated to eradicating Persia of its Jews.
            Why did these people hate us so much? He wondered, Never mind: we won; they lost; time to gather our people together, consolidate our forces, and work out a strategy to get this country, this new place where we are now living, into the future.
            Reports were trickling in from all over, via messengers mounted on dromedaries, the new carrier-beast which King Achashvayrosh, a fancier of beautiful women, fast horses, and light-footed camels, had incorporated into the Royal Persian Mail Corps:
            “Anti-Amalek, Pro-Jewish Forces Triumphant, throughout the Realms of Persia. All Prisoners Slain without Mercy. Awaiting Further Instructions from Palace. What is Your Pleasure, Majesty?”
            --Which meant, of course, the Pleasure of himself (or Himself), the New Grand Vizier, he, Mordechai, who now had open and free access to the King—that royal sot!—who spent his days drinking and wenching! Even Esther, who had recently been his Royal Favourite, had been passed over for some new doxy from Persepolis—
            “She has Nice Legs,” His Royal Scatterbrain had declared, in Open Court, just the day after His Royal Decree to utterly Annihilate, Slay, and Destroy All Enemies of the Jews—well, there was no telling what a few barrelfuls of his favorite wine could accomplish—and so Mordechai was raised to the High Eminence of actually running the Kingdom—Kingdom? The Entire Realm! One Hundred-Twenty-Seven Provinces, from India to Ethiopia!—and, though new to the task, Mordechai found himself able to break each administrative job into smaller bits, and farm them out to assistants recorder-secretaries—not for nothing had his great-great-grandfather been Royal Scribal-Secretary to King Saul, first King of Israel, who, though hardly a success as monarch, was still a Benjaminite, as was Mordechai. He had inherited his ancestor’s talent for detail.
            A rank smell from the ruins rising to his nostrils awoke him from his musings, as his horse stepped delicately around the smashed brickwork and broken glass that littered the street. His personal bodyguard, a detachment from the Royal Immortals Cavalry Troop, kept their spears at the ready, believing that a suspected underground terrorist movement of disaffected and desperate Amalekites might be hiding and preparing arms for a counterattack. Rumors were flying in this Kingdom of Destruction.
            As they rounded the corner of what used to be the bazaar, Mordechai heard a thin wailing—had someone’s cat wandered off, fleeing the killing of its owner? He raised a hand, and the Sergeant-Major of his personal guard stopped the cavalrymen who formed his escort. Mordechai moved to dismount, and the Sergeant-Major, his personal aide, leapt to assist him.
            “Thank you, Sergeant-Major,” smiled Mordechai, despite the aching feeling he had inside over the death and bloody remains all around him—the Royal Morticians had not penetrated this far, and it smelled like an abattoir in the early-spring sun—“I will walk a ways on foot.”
             “We are under His Majesty’s personal orders to accompany you everywhere, Milord Grand Vizier,” said the Sergeant-Major, saluting and half-bowing, “You, Corporal, Private! Smartly, now!”
            The four walked past a smashed-in bazaar-fruit-mart front where rotten bananas, oranges, and lemons lay in the noonday sun, covered by a cloud of flies, which rose and assaulted them as they walked past slowly. They entered an alleyway, and the Sergeant-Major placed a cautionary hand on Mordechai’s arm.
            “Begging your pardon, Milord,” he said, “I will go in front, to insure Milord’s safety.”
            The wailing was getting a bit louder, but whatever, whoever was making the sound, was stopping and gasping, as if short of breath.
            “No, Sergeant-Major,” said Mordechai, firmly, “I will go on, before you men. I appreciate your being here, but I trust most in the God who has guarded my steps up to now, and if He has ordained that I meet my end in this filthy alleyway, then all the swords and spears in the Kingdom of His Majesty will not protect me.”
            The grizzled old Sergeant-Major dropped his hand, and nodded. He worshiped Ormuzd, the god of Light, but he understood. Ahriman, the god of Darkness, could not touch this man, this Mordechai, this Jew.
            They were close now. The wailer, whether cat, or—what? was directly beneath.
            “Can you strike a light?” whispered Mordechai.
            The corporal took out a flint and steel from his belt, and the private took from his pack a torch which, uncovered, had been dipt in naphtha. It roared softly into flame.
            Mordechai looked down. A baby, barely five months old, lay in a pile of half-clean blankets, there on the ground of the alley. Though it was surrounded by trash, it was still mostly clean, as if its mother had dropped it there hurriedly. The four men stood there, staring at it in disbelief, as men will. Mordechai could not tell if it was a boy or a girl. He blinked once, and his mind whirled back to another scene:
            A burning building—the Temple—a baby on the ground—Baby Esther—he seized her up, hugged her to his bosom, grabbed the bag of clothes-and-scrolls-and-bread-and-water-jug-and-ran-and-ran-and-ran….
            The Sergeant-Major was first to come to his senses. He pulled out his sword, a curved, wicked-looking thing that gleamed in the torchlight, and lifted his gauntleted hand to strike downward.
            Mordechai shook off his fog of memory. He reached out his right arm, clad in white samite, to block the blow.
            “Hold, Sergeant-Major!” he cried, “How can you kill a baby? What manner of man are you?”
            The Sergeant-Major relaxed his arm, and returned the sword to its belt-sheathe. Then, he leaned against the wall, sighed with fatigue, spat gently to one side, careful to avoid Mordechai’s purple cape, looked the Jew right in the eye, and spoke slowly:
            “Kill a babe, you say, Milord Grand Vizier?” he said, choosing his words carefully, “Begging your pardon, Sir,” he said, “And knowing to whom I am speaking—I, Arigai ben Shoshanta, a former galley-slave, kidnapped from my own homeland of Athens as a young boy, lashed and starved, and given freedom to do my Majesty’s bidding—I ask permission to speak, Milord.”
            “Permission granted,” said Mordechai, coolly. The little bundle on the ground was silent: was it alive or dead?
            “Over the past few days, since the star of Haman—if I may mention the late Grand Vizier’s name, Milord—has fallen, and yours has risen—I myself have slain, with these hands (and he held them out before Mordechai), these hands full of blood, how many? I cannot say. I have slain man, and woman, and child, and beast. All in the name of His Royal Majesty.
            “And if he asks me again, or if you, speaking in his name, should ask me again, I will go and do the same. So, Milord, do not question me, or these men—“
            Here, he pointed at the Private and the Corporal, who stood, stony-faced, but nodded, slowly, there in the alley-gloom—
            “And we will do the killing. We will kill them fast or slow, or even torture them, in whatever way you like—“
            Mordechai felt the tears welling up—It was all too much, too much
            “Just point us: we will bring the spears; we will bring the shields; we will use the swords—and you can sit in your splendid palace, meanwhile, and sip your wine. We are the tip of the spear.”
            He stopped, and stood there, the Sergeant-Major, breathing hard. Mordechai looked at him, bent down, and lifted up the Amalekite babe, in the swaddling-clothes in which her dead mother had wrapt it, just before she was killed. He held it to his chest. It was breathing lightly, and might die, without food. He turned to the Sergeant-Major.
            “Sergeant-Major, have you a field ration in your pack?”
            The Sergeant-Major nodded.
            “Then sheathe your sword—I hope, forever—and give me your flask of goat’s milk.”
            “Milord?” asked the Sergeant-Major, puzzled.

            “You heard me,” said Mordechai, “I have ordered you to give me food for this enemy—this child. I will feed her. The War is over. It will end here. And now. I am ending it, here.”

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Kee Teesa: Aaron as Substitute Teacher

Kee Teesa

            Why did the Israelites build the Golden Calf? Barely three months had passed since God freed Israel from slavery, in the course of which they beheld the most extraordinary miracles and wonders: the Ten Plagues, the Splitting of the Reed Sea, and now the thunderous, magnificent descent of God onto Mt. Sinai, certainly not the most awesome of mountains. The most popular of the dozen or so claimants to the title of Mt. Sinai is Ras Musa, the “Head of Moses” in Arabic, which I consider the “most Jewish” of mountains. It is lowly, not lofty, and, over the centuries, the stalwart monks of the Monastery of Saint Catherine at its foot—driven to distraction by the endless ennui of wilderness life, perhaps—have carved out stone steps by which the pilgrim may ascend in Moses’s traces—no pitons, ropes, spikey shoes, or climbing axes needed here! One may scale Sinai in a few short minutes and be greeted by a wilderness vista ‘twixt heaven and earth, but nothing approaching the thunder-and-light show which Moses enjoyed. That is why, perhaps, we Jews have grown accustomed to finding our God in holy books, and not in nature: after the Giving of the Torah, all else on earth is anticlimactic—a barren stage, empty of its principal Actor.
            And yet, merely a moment after their devoted leader and rabbi, Moses, disappears into the mists of the mountaintop, the backsliding Israelites demand a visible symbol of the god they claim to worship—and they find it in a calf, sort of a junior Baal, the pagan god of the Babylonians, who rode astride a bull. More importantly, why did Aaron, Moses’s trusted elder brother (and the middle child of their family, with Miriam as the oldest) concede so swiftly to their evil, backsliding request?
            The answer is found, not in this week’s parsha/Torah reading, but in a small, obscure verse some three portions ago: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to Me on the mountain…and I will give you the stone tablets with…the commandments’….So Moses…ascended the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, ‘Wait here for us….You have Aaron and Chur with you; let anyone who has a legal matter approach them (italics mine).’” When the Israelites insist on their pagan god, Aaron quickly accedes to their request; what impelled him to do this? And what had happened to Chur, he who had faithfully supported Moses’s hands aloft during the earlier battle with Amalek? (Ex. 17:10)

            The rabbis were disturbed by these questions, and so concocted a midrash/homiletical legend: the stalwart Chur, trusting in the invisible God and in Moses, his then-absentee prophet, resists the Israelites’ sinful demand for a golden god-vehicle they could see. After Chur’s refusal, the maddened mob attacks and lynches him. Left alone to face the bloodthirsty pack, Aaron, fearful not only for his own life, but trying desperately to prevent God’s ignorant children from having more innocent blood on their hands, comes up with a stall tactic. He deliberately asks them to give up their hard-earned gold and silver jewelry, the four hundred years of “back pay” which they had looted from Egypt, assuming they will never do this. To his surprise and dismay, the people readily surrender their pelf to him, and he has no choice but to fashion the Calf. Ironically, Aaron, when questioned later by Moses regarding his own connivance in the building of the idol, replies, “’I hurled [the gold] into the fire, and out came this calf! (Ex. 32:24)’” thereby implying that neither he nor the Israelites were guilty of its construction; a sort of “negative miracle,” it just occurred, perhaps by demonic powers. The rabbis ascribe this mollifying statement to Aaron’s great reputation as a peacemaker, but I remain dubious of his poor performance as a leader of Israel, perhaps the worst “substitute teacher” of all time. The middle child, he was flexible by nature, but comes down to us as the first religious leader doomed to learn that “you can’t please ‘em all,” and it is folly to try.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Tetzaveh: A New, 21st-Century Set of Vestments for the High Priest


The Testament of Elijah the Prophet
On Behalf of the Almighty God of Israel
Maker of Heaven & Earth
Delivered to HaRav Chaim Dovid ben Yisrael Zelig v’Etel
(Rabbi David Hartley Mark)
At Midnight, 2/22/15
Which May or May Not Supersede
Previous Instructions Regarding the Priestly Vestments
As Listed in
Exodus 28:31-42
You Alone, Reader, Must Decide

“And the Word of God came to me, saying, ‘I, the Lord your God, in light of Modern Conditions on the Earth which I, in My infinite wisdom, have created, have changed My mind regarding the Priestly Vestments which I commanded My Servant Moses and the High Priest, Aaron his Brother;
“For those Previous Instructions were Pertinent for Another Time and Place; an Age of Faith in an Invisible G-d, but the Situation has altered somewhat, this being an Age in which Man has turned against Man, and Force Reigns Paramount, to My Great Sorrow;
“And the Following is more appropriate for the Changing Times in which Humanity lives today.
“And so, Son of Man, take this down, whether by Hammer & Chisel, Papyrus & Stylus, Parchment & Quill, Keyboard and Mouse; for I, the Lord, am not a Repetitive God, and I am only going to Say this Once, very Slowly and Clearly, with Long Pauses, so there be no Possibility of Error.
“And so, we begin: the Garments of the Kohanim, the Priests: all wore tunics, breeches, turbans of linen. Linen is a wonderful cloth; it is vegetable in origin, strong, durable, elegant; it absorbs sweat. But it has become too expensive.
My Priests should be no Grander than the People whom they represent. Henceforth, they shall wear Cotton. It is humbler, as should they all be, when they serve Me in the Sanctuary.
“Now, to the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. He also wears, in addition to the above, a Cloak of Blue Wool, with Golden Bells and Pomegranate-shaped decorations on its hem.
“Where did the Wool come from? I wish for the Sheep whence it came to be Free-Range, not Factory-Farmed. Let those Innocent, Gentle Beasts who donate their Skin-coverings to serve Me gambol, play, and live out their short, animal lives in as much freedom as we can afford them. I caution against the usage of synthetic chemicals, including pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, hormones and antibiotics. In animal production, I recommend, where feasible, that the herdspeople provide a natural environment for animals and foster natural behaviors. There, now: I believe that that should cover the Cotton (no more Linen, mind), and the Wool. Must I repeat Myself? No? Good.
“And now, to the Gold. I had commanded that the High Priest wear also a Golden Headplate, the Tzitz, on his forehead, bearing the words, ‘Holy to God.’
“But where is the Gold coming from? In Mali, a Major African Gold-Producing Nation, the children working in the mines, some as young as six years old, help dig shafts with pickaxes, lift and carry heavy bags of ore, and pan the gold with an amalgamation process involving mercuryThis poisons both their young lives, and the environment in which it is used. And Behold, Son of Man: Mali and other nations in Africa and elsewhere also use child soldiers to kill one another; Children should be in School. I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God; I will not have the High Priest lift his hands to Me in prayer, wearing a diadem which drips with the Blood of the Innocent.
“I wish for him to wear a plain, cloth cap when he prays, similar to that which the Common Jewish Folk wear—let its color vary with the Seasons of the Year, and carry the Formula, Act Thou Holy to One Another.
“Get thou hence, All of You, and Make these Changes forthwith. There: I do believe that you’re beginning to Understand Me and My Ways better. It’s a Learning Curve, but I have all Infinity to Wait….”
Here Endeth the Testament, 2 am
No One Said
Being Human
Was Going
To Be Easy

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Terumah: "Customer Help Needed in Aisle 4: Building Materials for the Desert Sanctuary"

Terumah: The Building Contractor’s Tale

And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,  See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, To devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass,  And in cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship. And I, behold, I have given with him Aholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan: and in the hearts of all that are wise hearted I have put wisdom, that they may make all that I have commanded thee; The tabernacle of the congregation, and the ark of the testimony, and the mercy seat that is thereupon, and all the furniture of the tabernacle. (Exodus 31:1-7)

            “Call me Manny. I work at Moe’s Depot Building Supplies. Been there, oh, must be about nine years, by now. It’s not a bad job, considering how hard it is to find steady work, these days: I assist contractors, builders, and handymen who are building small construction projects for home or light industrial use. I meet all kinds of people—it’s amazing how we’ve become a Nation of Builders. Nothing surprises me—the housewife who is putting an addition on the house in her spare time; the retired bookkeeper who decides to take his college son’s bedroom and make it into a man-cave; the young couple who are flipping a house all by themselves, all during the weekend. My own background is fairly modest—my Dad was a frustrated construction engineer who had to go out and support his family when his own Dad died young—so I’m fairly self-taught, and there’s a lot of information online. I’ve picked up a lot over the years, by myself, from the job, and working with all kinds of people.
            “Still, you could have knocked me over with a ball-peen hammer when I opened up my Contractors’ Supplies Department this past week and looked up, to see two fellas who looked as if they had escaped from Central Casting for “Lawrence of Arabia”—they were standing patiently in front of my desk, wearing full desert-sheik garb head to toe, sandals on their feet, beards down to their waists, holding rolled-up parchments under their arms, and squinting in the fluorescent lights—we’re changing over to CFL bulbs in the store, but it’s still fairly primitive. I was a bit surprised at their appearance, but I smiled, took a last sip of breakfast coffee from my cardboard cup and said,
            “’Good morning! Someone helping you gentlemen?’
            “The taller of the two—he was a hawk-nosed fella, with a dark-tanned face full of wrinkles, the kind you get from squinting into a hot Sinai sun—answers me, with one of those—what? Israeli-type? Arab? accents (Was he a terrorist, sent by one of those enemy mobs to inspect our Western building methodologies? You can’t be too careful.) Says to me, ‘We’re here to buy building materials for our Holy Sanctuary in the wild and untamed Wilderness. We want to open a Contractor’s Account.’
            “No problem, there. I’ve opened all sorts of accounts, for all sorts of people. My colleague here in the South Florida store, Florens Auberjonois—he’s Haitian, and he’s always kidding me when I try to speak to him in Quebecois; my people were originally from French Canada—once worked with a trade rep for the Sultan of Brunei, and they were able to jabber away in French, ‘cause the Brunei fella had studied engineering at the Ecole Mechanique in Marseilles—so I started filling out the forms on the computer, and all was going well, until I asked the Tall One—he seemed to be the Spokesman—for Proof of Currency, figuring he would give me a MasterCard, VISA, or American Express; that’s what most of them do, and I was about ready to to explain to him that we’re sorry, but we no longer accept Diner’s Club—
            “To my surprise, he pulls out a small leather bag, and pours out a little mountain of gold coins on my desk—I lift one up, and it has the picture of an Egyptian Pharaoh on it—well, that was surprising, you can bet, but not something we could accept as legal currency, here in the Good Old U.S. of A. I mean, it’s the 21st Century.
            “’I’m sorry,’ I said to Tall Guy, ‘but I can’t take this. Would you like to take home this E-Z Contractor’s Credit Application, and fill it out when you have time? You can bring it in, tomorrow?’
            “He looks all confused, and does a quick conference with Short Fella, and they both smile, and nod, and say to me, though I suspect they’re just thinking out loud, ‘We will consult with Tuvya the Translator-Scribe, and he will make it all Correct and Proper. We will bring it back to you, Mr. Manny, tomorrow.’
            “So they can’t fill out the form, but I do get their names: Tall Guy is Bezalel ben Uri, and Short Fellow is Oholiav ben Achisamach. Which is hard enough for me to remember and pronounce, but they appreciate my making the effort—plus, I meet so many different sorts of people, here in South Florida, that another foreign-sounding name is all in a day’s work for me.
            “And so, we go on. I pull out another standard form, ‘List of Necessary Building Materials.’ ‘What goods will you Gentlemen require?’ I ask.
            “They brighten up—at last, this seems to be something they can comprehend.
            “’We will need the following,’ says Oholiav, and, with much ceremony, he unrolls a large scroll—did I smell papyrus? It had a sort of plantlike smell, like those bamboo shoots in the Chow Mein when Sophie brings home take-out Chinese Food—
            “’Acacia wood—we don’t suppose you carry that?’ asks Bezalel.
            “’Actually, we do—it’s become very popular for flooring,’ I tell them, ‘We get it from Australia, of all places.’
            “‘Is that near Moab?’ asks Oholiav, ‘Rabbi Moshe says we may get there by next month—perhaps we should wait, and cut it down ourselves.’
            “‘I don’t think so,’ answers Bezalel, ‘Moshe told me that the Sanctuary was a rush job, and asked me specifically, “How long will this take?” “Two weeks,” I told him.’
“They both nodded, energetically.
“‘What else are we talking about, Gentlemen?’” I asked. They consulted their parchments, and read from them alternatively.
“’Gold, silver, and copper—‘ said Bezalel.
“’Special order,’ I said, writing it down.
“’Flax, dugong  and ram skins, purple- and red-dyed wool—‘ said Oholiav.
“’Probably three weeks—and I’ll pull out the special forms you’ll need to get approval from the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) folks,’ I said, ‘How would your Rabbi Moses Boss-man feel about Synthetic Alternatives? We can probably find you some made from a petroleum derivative. That way, you’re only harming the Environment, not a species.’
“’And these Cherubim for the Mercy Seat—‘ said Bezalel.
“’What are those?’ I asked.
“So he told me.

“Like I said, you meet all kinds of people in this business….”

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Parshat Mishpatim--One May Teach Torah Laws to Anyone, But There May Be Limits....


            Sitting in my study one night, racking my brain to find something new about the Parsha, the Torah Reading—it wasn’t easy. After the drama of the Theophany, the Appearance of God on Mt. Sinai, complete amid a Coming of Angels, Heavenly Light, smoke-and-thunder, one turns the page, to find—a fairly detailed and abstruse listing of Civil Law, circa 15th Century BCE, ranging from Hebrew Slavery, through murder, kidnapping, assault, theft, property damage (ravaging oxen, brushfires, etc.), mistreatment of foreigners (Egyptians are singled out for gentle treatment), the prohibition against cooking meat with milk—
            A harsh rap at the door interrupted my musings. I rose, stepped over a dozing Kirby, my Shih Tzu, and opened it, to find a tall, thin man, dressed in grave but decent attire; a dark suit, like a country parson’s; pointed shoes, long arms, hands, and fingers. He smiled, revealing a set of snow-white, polished teeth, as broad as a shark’s.
            “If you please, Rabbi,” he said, “I am a Student of Religion. I have been studying the Holy Scriptures for years now, and have several questions. It happens that I have been recently  studying Exodus; specifically, chapters 21-24….”
            “The very ones I have been reading, just now,” I said, surprised.
            “A coincidence,” he smiled, and I thought, no, surely imagined, that he clashed his teeth, “would it be any trouble, any difficulty, if I were to come in, and share a few Questions?”
            I nodded, and fetched him a chair. He settled back, and took a well-worn Scriptures from his bag, and offered it to me. I opened it to the Frontispiece, which read

The Holy Bible
Containing the Old and New Testaments
Translated out of the Original Tongues
And with the Former Translations Diligently
Compared and Revised
Authorized or
King James Version

Opposite this impressive page was a watercolor, 1920s style, showing a calm, but determined-looking David in shepherd garb, standing in ankle-deep water, about to sling a smooth stone against a dangerously-advancing Goliath, who wore a gold-toned, brazen breastplate and matching shin-greaves, along with a soul patch on his chin—sort of an Arrow Collar man decked out for war. Four Philistine warriors stood casually in the background, waiting for their boy to make short work of the upstart Hebrew teen. The painting was signed “W.H. MARGETSON” at the bottom. I gingerly closed the volume, and handed it back to my guest, who snatched at it eagerly, and hugged it to his bosom like an old friend. Then, he plunked it into his lap, and began riffling through its pages.
            “Let’s start!” cried my Visitor. His Bible opened immediately to the intended page; he had many bookmarks, “Exodus 21:23—the laws following the men fighting—‘…Thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.’ Well, Rabbi? How do you explain away this law? Why can’t we punish our wrongdoers as they have hurt others?”
            “That, Mr.--?”
            “Uppance. My name is Colm Uppance.”
            “Mr. Uppance. The Rabbis in the Talmud were horrified by this statement, and so, early on, legislated that it meant, not the actual limb itself, but the value of the lost limb. Otherwise, as Tevye says in ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ ‘The entire world will end up blind and toothless.’ The two parties, the striker and the victim, go to court, which determines the value of the lost limb. A jeweler, for example, would have a higher value placed on his eye, than a ditchdigger. There would also be compensation for time lost from work, pain and suffering, having to wear, say, an eyepatch or glass eye for the remainder of one’s life, medications, and so on.”
            “Hmph,” said Mr. Uppance. He clearly wasn’t buying it, but that was the mitigating influence of the Talmud, which surrounds and softens the harsh-appearing dicta of the Torah She’bich’tav, the Written Law, or the Five Books of Moses. He turned to his Bible, once again.
            “Well, what about this?” he asked.
            “We have time for, perhaps, one more,” I said, as gently as I could.
            “Well then: I’ll make it a good, big one. Exodus 22:17: ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,’” he said, smacking his lips over each word, and grinning at me with that shark’s mouth of teeth when he was done. His eyes were gleaming, and I could not help but remember all my readings in history, all the thousands of innocent women, in America and Europe, who had gone to their deaths on the trumped-up charge of witchcraft. And who was to speak for their unfortunate sisters of today, still suffering in silence, being excluded, punished, tortured, or executed, in societies where men had the major advantage, simply by dint of their being men?
            “The Rabbis in the Talmud—most of whom, I admit, were no champions of what we would, today, call Women’s Rights—nonetheless, were astonished and disgusted by this verse,” I said, hoping to drive that Death’s-Head grin from his bony skull. “They took the literal meaning of the verse, and interpreted it to mean, “’Do not let a woman make her living by means of sorcery or witchcraft’—in other words, teach or train her in another profession, so that she will be able to support herself and her family in a respectable and socially-acceptable way.”
            “No witchcraft?” asked my Visitor. He seemed even more disappointed about this reply than by the one concerning the lex talionis, the “eye for an eye.”
            “Right. No witchcraft.”
            “Well, then, I must go,” he said, huffing and puffing in a most disappointed manner, “Thank you, Rabbi. You have been—very helpful,” he gulped, as if having a difficult time getting the words out. He pulled an enormous, nickle-plated watch, out of a pocket in his rusty-black vest, and squinted at it. “And I must be getting on. It’s late, and I have to—to—relieve my boys at their work. Yes. That is what I must do….” We both rose, and walked downstairs together. I was beginning to feel relieved at his imminent departure. Kirby wagged his tail.
“Can this guy leave now, Dave? I mean, fast. He gives me the willies,” he seemed to be asking me.
            “What sort of work do you do, Mr. Uppance?” I asked, holding the door of my house open, as he took a step out, distracted, into the clear, cool Florida night air.
            “I? I work—in minerals; yes, minerals—Underground,” he said, and vanished, in a cloud of smoke, leaving nothing but the pungent smell of sulfur behind him.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Parshat Yitro: Voices Off. Estranged Sons of Moses, Disciple Joshua, Datan & Aviram--All at Mt. Sinai.

Yitro: Voices Off

Moses prepares to climb Mt. Sinai, leaving Aaron in charge of an exceedingly nervous People. The Prophet ascends, penetrating the Very Thick Darkness, where he will remain for forty days and nights. The Israelites hear the Lightning and see the Thunder; the Mountain shakes, the People fear, and stand afar off. The Torah-Text itself passes from Human Drama to Words of Teaching, through the Ten Statements/Aseret Ha-Dibrote, known popularly as the Ten Commandments.

Gershom & Elazar, the Estranged Sons of Moses: We are the Sons of Moses, but we scarcely appear in the Text of the Torah. It is hard to be the sons of a Great Man. And truth to tell, Papa was rarely home: he was always off, somewhere—speaking with He-Who-Is, teaching Torah to the People, judging their legal matters: is this chicken kosher? Who moved the boundary-line of whose property? Or arguing with the Mixed Multitude about why such-and-such was forbidden, or might cause God to become Angry. He was a fine Go-Between, a Diplomat of years’ experience, always smoothing the negotiations between a backsliding Nation and an ever-more-demanding God.
But he was never really there for us: when we were young, he had no time to play; when we were teenagers, he was not there to answer our questions—that became the job of Grandfather Jethro, who knew very little of this New Faith which Papa was creating, along with his God and his People, though Grandpa did his best. And when we became men, setting out on our own lives’ paths, we did not think to tell Papa Good-by—who was there to say it to? Mama had died, of a broken heart, and Papa had checked out, long ago.
It is sad when a man is married to a community, and not to his family….You say, it happens often? That is cold comfort, indeed.

Joshua, Moses’s hand-picked Disciple & Successor: I cannot say the same as they. I don’t know why, but Rabbi Moshe was always there, for me. From the start, he groomed me for leadership, and I strove to fulfill his expectations. It is true that I was more a Man of Action, and he a Man of Thought, but what of that? We complemented one another. That time, I took the field against Amalek, I knew that Moshe would be seated there, between Uncles Aaron and Chur, lifting up his hands, which were heavier than usual, that day. How we hacked and cut at the hands of Amalek, that fearsome battle! It was just like those Amalekite dogs, to attack us so cowardly-like, in the rear, when we were weary and weak, struggling along in the wilderness, after the Reed Sea’s Splitting, and having aroused the women and babes at Midnight, shocked and scared, for the Exodus from our Egyptian Captivity….
But it surprised me no end, when the Battle was over, and I and my Boys were struggling back to Camp, to report to Rabbi Moshe, and there, before I could open my mouth to report on the dead, the wounded, and the booty, he gave me one of his famous looks—the kind that stares down deep into a man’s soul and freezes the blood—and said, softly but clearly, “Amalek is not those people you have killed this day, Joshua Boy: Amalek is the Evil within yourselves; have you cut that evil out of your heart? Well, have you?” And he spun around on his heel, and walked off.
My comrades were upset, but I caught his meaning…. and never forgot.

Datan & Aviram, the Rebels: Do not expect us to say anything good about Moshe, even to the extent of honoring him with the title, “Rabbi.” He is no rabbi of ours: he’s a Levite; we are from the Tribe of Reuben, which ought to lead—our grandfather was the Eldest Son of Jacob, known as Israel. Why did he, or this Mysterious God who both kills and preserves, not slay us in Egypt? Because we are rebels, and disagree, and we, too, are necessary to this People. This New Nation, conceived out of slavery, called Israel, will never be rested or complacent. They, we, must always question, and argue, and wrangle, with one another. It is our doom, our fate, but our salvation, as well. Only by questioning shall we discover the Truth; only by arguing will we settle Matters of Torah. Woe unto you, O Moses, when all shall agree with you! Neither for you nor any rabbi, judge, prophet, or king to follow you will there ever be peace. How can there ever be peace for such a troublous people? For truly, the future belongs to such as us: we will sow the seeds of doubt before Moses’s leadership, forever….

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Parshat Beshallach: The Exodus: Egyptian Troop Movements, Nile Delta Military Command Area

“Needless to say, none of these events [i.e., Israelite enslavement and the Exodus] are corroborated by ancient Egyptian records, since the Exodus was a minor affair in Egyptian annals.”
--Peter Clayton, Chronicles of the Pharaohs: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Rulers and Dynasties of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson, 1994.

Egyptian Weekly Army Review
Troop Deployment Report

Year of Osiris, Akhet, Time-of-Nile-Rising,
Reign of His Gracious, Sun-in-His-Splendor-Rising,
Pharaoh Ramesses II

Item: Supply-Sergeant Khufu requisitioned six bows-and-quivers for use by Platoon 6, Chariot Squadron C, Regiment Horus-Hawk-of-Vengeance; three of six quivers were found to be of shoddy workmanship, and returned to the Nubian Factory for repair or replacement.

Item: Corporal Menkaure found to be drunk on barley-beer during 3rd Night Watch, sentenced to receive ten lashes and lose three-days’ pay, it being Middle-Level-Alert due to presence of Bedouin in Northern Boundary Area; sentence reduced by Provost Marshal Judge to five lashes, one day’s loss of  pay, Plea of Mercy, in light of Corporal’s recently losing his mother to Nile Fever; sentence under review.

Item: Troop Movements Yesterday, Nile Delta Military Command Area
Chariot Squadrons F & H, Regiment Osiris-Escort-of-Underworld, Lieutenants Userkaf & Huni Commanding; Capt. Kawab, Overall Commander, Reporting—

1 o’clock am—Sentries Privates Sahure and Waset, stationed on Signal-Tower #4, Eastern Boundary, Great Pyramid District, spot a Dust-Cloud in area of Goshen-Slave-Quarters. Fearful of spreading Plague, there being Reports of such in that area, Sentries wave Red Flags and light Watch-Fires to alert other Signal-Towers in Area.
Private Sahure: “They were Slave Rabble—those Hapiru folk; I do not speak their gibberish, my family being High Egyptian for generations—but I did make out Dancing and Singing amid their march.”
Private Waset: “I smelled some sort of bread baking; it smelled burnt, and they were carrying large boxes of gold and silver, which gleamed in the morning sun.”
Sentries estimate Size of Mob to be 6,000 Men, Women, & Children (Approx.).

2:30 am—Upon spotting the Signal-Fires of Tower #4, Adjutant Unas of Cavalry Troop 8 saddles a swift horse and reports to Regimental Headquarters (RHQ) Regiment Horus-Hawk-of-Vengeance, for Instructions, Lieutenant Colonel (LTCOL) Shepses Commanding.

2:35am—LTCOL Shepses, having received no instructions from the Joint Egyptian Chiefs at Ramesses Palace in Memphis, sends messengers by swift horse to Chariot Squadrons F & H, advising them to “shadow the Hapiru,” and report back to him regarding “any suspicious movements.”

4am—Swift Horse Messenger Subaltern Neithi reports back, “Hapiru are moving towards Nile Delta, following a Flamelike Entity, which may be carried in a brazier. Visual Observation is unclear, there being a Heavy Morning Fog.”

4:10am—LTCOL Shepses orders the Reconnaissance to continue; orders Three Chariot Squadrons to close the distance between themselves and the Hapiru, intending Reconnaissance-in-Force.

5am—Hapiru halt on bank of Nile; their leader, one ‘Mses, is speaking to them. Squadrons draw closer.
Capt. Kawab orders Standard Cautious Battle Approach Drill to Begin: bowmen fit arrows to bows; spearmen unsheathe. Horses pulled back to jog-trot from gallop (See Cavalry Instructions Scroll XXXIV, 5th Ed., “Battle Approach, Cautious, Suspicious of Ambush,” Published by Egyptian War College, Reign of Pharaoh Horemheb.)

5:30am—Sky darkens; water appears to be sinking into the earth. Lieutenants Userkaf & Huni halt their Squadrons, on Capt. Kawab’s order; single horse-and-rider is ordered out to approach ‘Mses, in attempt to parley. Heavy Winds force Rider to return.

6am—Water continues flowing down, as in swamplike action, only much accelerated; Lt. Huni, who studied hydroponics in Pitome Agricultural Academy prior to Army Conscription, theorizes that it might be due to Underwater Seismic Action; his Adjutant, one Private Weni, testifies that he sees a River-Demon floating in the air over the area.
No Conclusion is reached by this Military Court of Justice.

6:15am—Hapiru cross over, dry-shod, through middle track of Nile, exposed through Unknown Means (See 6am Entry, above).

6:20am—Officers confer; Capt. Kawab orders a Volunteer Platoon to Recon the Hapiru Means of Crossing. Three Charioteer-Teams of Platoon 7 Volunteer, Staff Sgt. Renef Commanding, drive down the slope and into the marsh, but find their chariot-wheels caught in the quickly-rising-mud. Before Lt. Userkaf, their Commander, can organize a Rescue Squad, both horses and troops are overcome by Quicksand, and lost. Recommendation submitted for Army Scarab of Merit (Bronze) [Posthumous] to be awarded.
It is observed that, while this Tragic Accident is occurring, the Hapiru on the Opposite Shore are dancing and singing and playing timbrels and drums. Our men express a desire to wreak vengeance on them, but the waters have returned to previous depth, and they are unable to cross.

6:30am—Capt. Kawab orders an orderly withdrawal, and files his Report.

Item: Corporal Osorkon, for sneaking into Barracks late after a Romantic Liaison, is to be jailed for one month, and reduced in rank to Private.