Sunday, January 26, 2014

In the Midst of Grading Papers, A Thought About God

I am spending a typical Sunday afternoon at home, grading papers. 77 degrees outside, and sunny; the study is full-to-bursting with scattered papers, books, and me.
Two schools down, thusfar: I have finished grading the papers from my Everglades English Comp class, and the hard copy from my Southeastern. The Broward College papers loom: classes began last Thurs., and twenty-five students hand-wrote on the topic, “All About Me.” I will momentarily become acquainted with their ideas about themselves.
During a ten-minute break, I munch an apple and steal a few pages of Yossi Klein Halevi’s Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation (NY: Harper, 2013), a gift from a congregant. It has been slow going for me: my usual technique for reading books is to leave strategic piles around the house—at my bedside, in the bathroom, the study, other places I can steal a few minutes to read. I am fond of saying, “I have no time to read books; I’m too busy reading Books”—that is, Books I must read: Torah, Chumash/Pentateuch, college texts….
 I have just about finished David Levering Lewis’s When Harlem Was in Vogue (NY: Penguin, 1997), a history of the Harlem Renaissance. It is crucial for me, as a teacher, scholar, and New Yorker, to become acquainted with that bittersweet, magical, faraway time, and how it progressed, until crashing onto the rocks of the Great Depression. As a Jew, I am particularly concerned with the African-American-Jewish connection—Arthur Springarn, who served as pro bono counsel for the NAACP, his brother Joel, who was Board Chairman, and the owner of Sears, Roebuck, Inc., Julius Rosenwald, who had himself known persecution, and became the principal backer of the Negro Urban League. And, of course, there was literary and musical cross-pollination, from songwriters and singers, to writers.
In Dreamers, I am just at the point where the 55th Paratroopers Brigade is penetrating Old Jerusalem and about to liberate the Kotel/Western Wall, which was not even their prime objective. The overall commander of Central Sector, Gen. Uzi Narkiss, had fought with the Palmach during the 1948 Independence War, and witnessed the shameful defeat of Israel’s few, but underequipped and dedicated fighters by the professionally-led and British-equipped Jordanian Arab Legion under General John Glubb. Although the paratroopers’ primary mission was to reach and protect the Israeli garrison on Mt. Scopus, Narkiss told Motta Gur, the 55th’s commander, “Be prepared to take the Old City. I hope you will erase the shame of 1948.”
            As I read of the brave Israeli paratroops using Bangalore torpedoes to blast a hole through the Jordanian barbed wire and minefields, falling before their machine guns, and of ultra-Orthodox Jews in their shelters assisting the wounded—“modest women who never exposed their knees and elbows in public [tearing] their dresses for bandages (p. 76)”—and of one of the soldiers calling to his comrades as the wire and minefields were breached, using the Hebrew words for “breach”—Pirtzah pirtzah pirtzah—I recalled that same word being used in the Friday Night Lecha Dodi song, welcoming the Shabbat Queen:

Rightward and leftward you shall spread out
And the might of your God you shall praise
By the hand of Messiah, son of Peretz, (The one who broke through)
And we shall rejoice and bring gladness (translation mine)

It brought me to tears—that same word, that same verse, being a reference to the Coming of Moshiach, Messiah, and a paraphrase of Isaiah’s Messianic Promise. What sort of God is this? What does God intend for His people? What does God intend for me, and what ought I to be doing?
And all this, in just one afternoon. But now, I must go back to grade more papers….