Saturday, April 26, 2014

Parshat/Torah Portion Emor: At Home with High Priest Aaron and Wife Elisheva: "No One Knows What Goes On Behind Closed Tent-Flaps"

Emor

Scene: A desert tent. The sun is setting. Although Spartan in appearance, it is cozy and welcoming; there is a small pot on a cooking fire in the middle, and the smoke goes up through a center hole in the tent-roof, which can be closed in case of rain. A model altar stands in the eastern corner, with miniature clay animals set on it, as if for practice; in another corner, a small oil-lamp burns, as a Eternal Memorial Flame; above it hangs a needlepoint in Hebrew—“L’Zecher Nishmotayhem—In Loving Memory of Our Dear Boys—Nadav & Avihu.” Next to it hangs another needlepoint, “High Priests are People, Too!” and, “Please Wait Your Turn Patiently: Aaron is Always Glad to Listen to Your Issues.”

As the scene opens, Elisheva enters. She is a woman in her sixties, tall, with long, graceful arms and legs, as if she had been a dancer, which she was, years before. Her hair is dark brown, curly, with streaks of grey that she makes no attempt to hide; she is proud of her age, her strength, her classic Jewish beauty. She goes over to the pot on the cookstove, stirs the stew, tastes a little, adds some spices from the clay dish nearby. Then, she stands tall, stretches, smiles, looks slowly around the interior of her home. Her gaze lingers on the Eternal Flame flickering in the corner. She goes over, and kneels before it, checking to make certain that the wick of the lamp is sufficiently long; one gets the impression that she will instantly replace it if it does not meet with her approval. Satisfied, she moves her hands over it, slowly, gently, as if stroking the head of a child.

Elisheva (softly, at first; then louder): How long, O’ Lord? You took my boys from me, and I will never know why. What mistake did they make, (bitterly) there, at Your all-holy, almighty Altar? That morning, they were so proud, so happy—we all were—all they wanted to do was serve You…. (She looks upward, pleading) Show Your Self, O’ God—please (she moves her hands to her cheeks; tears are streaming down)—forgive me, Lord; I am but a silly woman, not knowing You; I know that You love us; surely You have told us so; my brother-in-law, Moses has told us so, but it is hard, O’ Lord (she sobs) to lose one’s baby boys, one’s flesh and blood—so very, very hard.

(While Elisheva has been speaking, the tent-flap parts, and Aaron enters. He is weary from the day’s sacrifices, and all the business of a High Priest among the People of Israel. He is older than she—early seventies, perhaps, but vigorous; short-haired, long-bearded, as befits an Israelite Elder; his bright-grey eyes fix upon her, and he knows, immediately, what she has been saying, and to Whom. He does not move to touch or hold her. Instead, he stands, still in the ash-filthy, bloody priestly garments of the day’s labors, folds his hands, bows his head, and waits. As Elisheva ends her soliloquy to God, she turns—there is little that she misses, in her home.)

Aaron (crossing to hold her in his arms, gently): My dear—I’m so sorry.

Elisheva (pushing him away, sarcastically): Oh, Aaron—that sort of sympathy may work with the people you counsel, but I can’t, don’t, wish for it here. (She walks to the other side of the tent, still weeping, and looking at the Eternal Flame.) And you said you would be home when the sun touched the edge of our tent-peg, and Son Itamar called the people to Evening-Psalms—but that was at least two hours’ time ago—the stew is just about burnt; you may eat it alone, for I will not. (She goes to curl up, catlike, on a large pillow in the corner, and turns her head away from him.)

(Aaron sighs; his being late is an old flashpoint of theirs. He holds out his arms to her, thinks better of it, instead crosses to the water-bowl, and washes the ashes and blood of the sacrifices off his face, before continuing, trying to change the subject:)

Aaron: I saw young Ramiel and his wife Sapirit today; they seemed happier than before I counseled them yesterday. That is the reason I am late; I was hurrying home, and they chased after me. What am I to do, Elly-melly? I am but one man, one High Priest, and all of Israel seek me out for help and advice. (He dries his face on the towel that hangs by the bowl, looks to her, smiling like a boy who has been reproved by his mother, trying to reconcile.)

Elisheva: I note that your brother Moses took the advice of his Midianite father-in-law, Jethro—who is also a High Priest of his tribe—and appointed both judges and under-judges to help him determine whether a dove or a rooster is kosher, whether Ploni’s bull trampled the manna-share of Almoni, his next-door-neighbor—perhaps you could, at least, ask your own sons Eleazar and Itamar, who are priests as well, to take some of the burden off of you, by taking on some of the less-pressing counseling cases. Don’t I count for anything in your life, Aaron? Am I not as important as that ne’er-do-well, Ramiel, and his half-Egyptian spouse?

Aaron: She’s only a quarter-Egyptian, and (a glare from Elisheva makes him change his tone)—you’re right, as usual. I will speak to our boys. There is no reason why they can’t handle the younger folks, when it comes to giving advice. But what if it’s (uncomfortably) women’s, uh, uh—

Elisheva: --Issues? Like niddah, time of the month, that sort of thing?

Aaron: Um, um—yes, of course, that. That, uh, um, spotting business.

Elisheva: Then, it’s all simple. What about Eleazar and Itamar’s wives, Renana and Nagida? They are both intelligent women; both are mothers, both skilled in midwifery.

Aaron: Those girls? What do they know?

Elisheva (exaggerated sigh, rolling her eyes): Oh, Aaron—you should spend more time with your family, and less with those sheep and goats you are always slaughtering! Just the other day, Renana was telling me about how Miriam, our sister-in-law, was teaching Hilchote Ha-Mishpacha, Family Laws and Customs, to the womenfolk. Miriam has been quietly schooling all of our ladies in proper conduct, when to go to mikvah, the ritual bath, and all the important rules.

Aaron: Uh—does my brother know about this?

Elisheva (sniffs slightly): Your brother—your high, exalted brother. Moses. I do love and honor your brother, Aaron, but, just as you are up to your priestly crown in livestock and advice-giving, he is all full of worries over Korach, Datan, Aviram, and that lot of rebels. I believe he will be trying to negotiate with them next: bunch of nincompoops—I’d negotiate with ‘em with a whip in my hand, I would—let ‘em return to Egypt, and to Osiris with the lot of ‘em! Between that and getting prophecy from the Mysterious One, I doubt your precious brother has any time left to study Torah, let alone teach it. You and he should thank the Holy One for the women in your life—women like myself, and your daughters-in-law, and your very own big sister, Mimi. What exactly do you think we do all day? Scrub your smelly laundry, and yearn for our big, strong husbands to come home and embrace us? Honestly, Aaron! Do you know you’re going to be a grandfather, soon? Nagida’s in her third month, already. Hm?

Aaron: What? Why—why—that’s wonderful! And now—see here, Elly—you know that—that--—everything I do—you know that I do it for—

Elisheva: --Except when you’re not around, and I do the advising for you. And Renana and Nagida cover for your two boys, when folks come ‘round to make offerings, and there’s something amiss with their livestock—broken hoof, cracked horn, or some such. It’s all family; I thank (she hesitates, looking at the Flame) God, for our family. Too bad about Tsiporah and Moses, though—

Aaron (trying to recover his dignity) Now, Elly, don’t blame that on me! I did try to bring about a reconciliation, you know—

Elisheva: Yes, but no one is superhuman—not even your precious Moses. I almost feel sorry for him—you know, Aaron, your brother is spending altogether too much time in heaven, with the Mysterious One, when he ought to be paying more attention to his family on earth—and you know what, Aaron dear? For a prophet, I don’t believe that he’s even aware of his family—unlike you….

Aaron (finally realizing): Because I’m lucky. To have you in my life. Thank you, Elisheva, and God Bless You.

Elisheva (smiling): Yes. That’s a beginning. You’re Welcome.

Aaron (reaching for her, as she rises): My dear—

Elisheva (Putting a finger to his lips): Not yet (pointing to the Eternal Flame)—we must say the Parents’ Mourning Prayer for our poor dear boys, as we do, every evening—

Aaron: You are right. (They hold hands and stand together before the Flame, as the light fades) O’ dear God, how blessed but sad we are….