Sunday, May 24, 2015

Haftorat Naso: The Annunciation of Shamira, Mother of Samson, Wife of Manoah

Call me Shamira, “Guardian of the Israelite God.” It is not my real name—you, Stranger, could not pronounce the name my parents gave me, and it makes no difference, now. You would not realize it to look at this sun-baked old crone, but I am still a young woman, only twenty years old.
Manoah is my husband, an Israelite man of the Danite Tribe who captured me, who came to my father’s Philistine ship on the seacoast in the dead of night and carried me off, his filthy, chapped farmer’s hand covering my young mouth so I could not cry out. I was too young to resist, and too sleepy to complain—I was only twelve years old. Such are the ways of the Israelites, to kidnap young maidens from alien peoples, to marry and raise up sons thereby, bulking out their scanty tribe here in Canaan, and to please their mysterious, thundering Sky-God, He-Who-dwells-amid-the-clouds (whispering), not in wheatfield or sea-scape, like our sensible, bread-providing Philistine god, Dagan.
Why do I whisper to you, Stranger? Because I am Israelite, now, at least in name, as Manoah’s father, Chai-Baal, chief of the Tribe of Dan, pronounced me, when he changed my name to Shamira.
Still, I do believe that Dagan, my true Philistine god, was angry with me for deserting my people, although I was kidnapped while still a child—for now, he shut my womb tight, and I cannot bear children—so says my lord-and-master, Manoah (whispering) that blockhead! Believe me, Stranger, when I tell you that, had my own father (whom I barely remember) chosen a husband for me, he would have been strong and potent, making me Matriarch of a legion of sons, of warriors—but Manoah? He is weak, in both body and mind….
Come, hear me! I have a tale for you: come sit by the fire, and listen, while I pound the barley-grains to flour, and hear a young woman’s talk. It is dull here, in the desert, not like the seashore, where my Philistine sisters smell the salt-air, and dream of sailing on the waves, back to the Aegean islands, our lost homeland (sighs)….
The tale? Oh, yes: I had a Visitation. What is that? It came to me—was it a dream? No: I saw—I saw—a winged creature, clothed in white samite, crystal clear, with silvery hair all flowing, flowing, and a voice of sweetness, that bade me leave the tent, this smelly, goatskin hovel which Manoah calls our home—his, perhaps, but not the clean and airy seaside lodge I lived in, years ago, the Happy Time, when I lived beside the Great Sea, all cerulean and aqua….
What did he say? Manoah? Ah, the Visitor: he said that I would bear a child. A son! But there were rules to follow: I was to drink no wine, no beer, no mead; no grapes, even, and no unclean food—I have foresworn all meat; one never knows how fresh it is; I see the Israelite women, my sisters, they call themselves—they soak-and-salt the goat-meat, before they serve it; I will eat only fish, as do my people…. What else did the Visitor say?
My Son! He will be Samson, “Little Sun,” after the brightest god in the daytime sky, my Helios, who rises in the fiery dawn, and rides the Heavenly Chariot from one end of the sky to the other, the whole day long—
But can you imagine how that fool, Manoah, doubted me? He said there was no Visitor, no angel, no Heavenly Messenger, no Winged Glory, come to me; he had not seen Him, or It, himself, though I reassured him, so many, many times—
“If you had truly seen an Angel,” he said, looking at me with his goggle eyes (he really is not bright, My Lord Manoah, wood-for-brains), “you would be dead; the Celestial Fire would roast you whole!”
I took his hand—how cold it was, and how it shook!—and placed it on my breast, to calm him, hugged and shushed him, the way one would soothe a nervous child—
“Had your—that is, our—Israelite God sent an Angel to destroy us, why would he bring us such good news? How good this news is, how wonderful, Manoah, dear—“ I patted his back, embraced him close, the silly oaf, until his heart stopped pounding. And I believed: the Angel had promised us, He would come back; He’d reappear.
I went on, believing, pounding barley-lumps. Days passed. Long days, and hot ones. Manoah grazed the sheep far closer to the tent than usual, I noticed.
But then, one day, all of a sudden, the Angel came back! All ablaze, on fire, hovering there before my eager eyes, wings moving slowly, smiling brightly, hair adrift, like the waves of Nereids, sea-nymphs, coming close to shore, as in my people’s tales; an Angel, truly….
There went Manoah, fool as always:
“Let me make a roasted offering to You!” he shouted, and made a run for the flock, but tripped over his own feet, and scared the sheep and goats away, to the far reaches of the pen, all meh’ing and baa’ing….The Vision raised its hand.
“Though you delay me, I will not eat your meat,” It whispered, in a voice like waves of gold, “But make a simple Offering of Thanks unto the Lord your God”—and vanished.
O Israelite God, Who dwells amid stormclouds and thunder, let Shamira, Mother-to-be of Samson, “Little Son of Helios,” hear me! I will forsake my dearest god, my Philistine-grain-god, Dagan, if You let my Unborn Son become a Hero to his people! And may Yah grant him the wisdom to make peace between his mother’s people, the Philistines, and his father’s people, Israel! Amen!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Bamidbar: Take a Census--but be careful not to count too closely. It's an Evil Eye, God forbid.


I turn to this week’s Torah portion, the first in the Book of Numbers, Sefer BaMidbar, literally, “In the Wilderness.” It is a relief, after the dry, priestly-purity legislation of Vayikra/Leviticus, to find some narrative leavening the endless Torah laws. God commands Moses to number the people, and here, my hackles rise: census-counting is never a good sign in our Jewish Bible:
Rule One: don’t ever know exactly how much you have of anything; it’s a major kinnehurra (evil eye).

“Dad, how much money do you earn?” I remember asking my father.
“David,” my father would reply, solemnly, “I make enough.”
And leave it at that: Sha! Shtill!
Never question. No answer is also an answer.

My father, who grew into manhood during the Great Depression, was not alone in this attitude of Not Discussing One’s Finances in Public. In traditional congregations even today, when worshipers count to see if they have enough Jews to make a minyan, the prayer quorum, they count, “Nisht ein, nisht tzvei, nisht drei—Not One, Not Two, Not Three….”
The taboo against numbering continues. Some old-country Jews will not clip their nails in order, from thumb to pinky; they must follow an abstruse digital dance to fend off the demons; otherwise, a simple nail-clipping may resemble and symbolize the Chevra Kadisha, the Burial Society, preparing a corpse for its final rest (there is a measure of Counting in the Jewish Last Rites; I have attended, and I know), and may, God forbid, lead to one’s death, God forbid.
 There is a noble irony in belonging to a people who are at once so worldly and over-educated, including doctors, lawyers, and captains of industry, and who yet cherish their superstitions. These pre-Scientific beliefs evolved from an age when Death was always at one’s elbow, and, in the words of Philosopher Mel Brooks, “A splinter could kill ya.”
As for the census, Moses calls upon people-counters from each tribe, and I love the archaic, long-forgotten names of his assistants in this undertaking, names like Shelumiel ben Tsurishadai—“Complete Peace of God, son of the Almighty is my Rock,” and Nachshone ben Aminadav—“Big Snake, son of My People are Generous”—the midrash-legends tell us that this latter worthy was the first to plunge into the Reed Sea at Moses’s command, and that it was for his merit and daring that the waters split, allowing the doubting people to cross, dry-shod, to the other side.
The names sound quaint and curious to us moderns, but the Bible-era listeners must have nudged one another as they heard the Torah-reading centuries ago, smiling, “That was my father’s father’s uncle!” and, “You’re wrong, he married the lady next tent over, I can see her face before me, now,” and other reminiscences.
How sad that no little Jewish boys in temple preschools today bear the names of large snakes or generous people. Instead, we are Jacob’d and Ethan’d to distraction. O for one Tsurishadai Levine, shooting spitballs at the head of Aminadav Negnewitsky, while the Rabbi’s back is turned!
The results of the census are swift and sure, if exaggerated and symbolic: 603,550 males over the age of 21, every man-jack of them capable of wielding sword or spear in defense of the Israelite nation—which is still a Wandering Jewish rabble at this point: Bronze Age herdsmen, albeit monotheistic (if not entirely ethical), and expected to conquer Iron-Age Canaanite farmers living in walled cities surrounded by stone battlements, three-feet-thick—not unlike bringing a popgun to a fortress.
Yes, it was hard then to be a Jew, terribly hard, even when you were being led by the thunderous, cloud-commanding Desert God, El-Shaddai Himself. Assailed by doubts and fears of the future, the dubious congregation marched on, following their mysterious, invisible Deity, working hard to merely survive in a hostile Wilderness, let alone believe in and follow His Torah. Some things don’t change: the Wilderness may have metamorphosed into the space between your cellphone and your laptop, your hard-taxed Brain and your fingertips (with your Heart and Soul somewhere in between) but it’s just as tough to navigate as it was in those long-remembered Desert Days.
What Jewish, what Spiritual, Deeds have you accomplished today, Fellow Jew, Fellow Human? Are you satisfied with the results? Don’t be: the World, the Universe, remains broken, very broken. You mustn’t ever let yourself become complacent, when there remains Holy Work to be done. You must try harder, just a little bit harder. You will always have another chance, for the rest of your life. Amen!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Behar-Bechukotai: A Slave to the Cellphone, or, Overcoming Technology: The Gift of Shabbat

We Jews have every reason to be proud, since we gifted Shabbat, the Holy Sabbath, to the world. Originally, Shabbatum was a gloomy day the Babylonians invented, sort of a Friday-the-Thirteenth, a bad-luck-day coming each week, during which superstitious pagans would stay at home, scared to go outside, lest something evil befall them. We took that miserable concept, cleaned and polished it up, added a soupcon of sanctity, and invented (with God’s help) the Holy Sabbath, the one day of the week on which all of humankind is commanded to rest.
But observing Shabbat doesn’t mean spending the entire day in bed or lying in a hammock, concentrating on moving as little as possible. No: it means refraining from creating, from causing anything to happen—a formidable challenge in our age, where we live surrounded by more machines than ever.
To what extent do those machines serve us, or we them? How often do you reach for that amazing marvel, your cellphone, that either hangs on your belt-loop like an albatross, or reposes noisily in your pocketbook? I am a member of that formerly-fortunate Baby Boomer Generation who can recall telling our mothers, “Ma, I’ll call you when I get there,” and then, conveniently forgetting to do so.
My poor Nana z’l, who passed away over three decades ago, is still waiting for me to call her up when I get home from visiting her. She lived on the seventeenth floor of our Co-op Apartment Building on Grand St., the Lower East Side of NYC; my family, on the seventh, a short elevator ride away. I would visit her in the evening, once a week. Together, we would enjoy one of her only-slightly-burnt homemade baked apples, lovingly lapped in a sauce of No-Cal Ginger Ale mixed with raisins, topped with a generous dollop of Breakstone’s Tangy-Style Cottage Cheese. This was her diet dessert of choice (she was always on a diet, though she did not have a weight problem), and one of the few things she was able to cook. We would watch “Chiller Theatre” together, on WOR-NYC, Channel 9, holding sofa pillows to hide behind during the scary parts of the movie. I never called. Sorry, Nana (I think that she has forgiven me, up there in Heaven. Grandmas will do that.).
How long has humanity been a slave to technology, or a servant to Work? It actually predates the Creation of Man and Woman: the Midrash, the legends which grew up around the Torah, tells us that, following God’s Creation of our Galaxy, the Milky Way, all the planets were racing about madly; the stars twinkled and flared in their courses; the sun and moon rose and set with punctual regularity. On Planet Earth, all of nature grew, flourished, and died with enormous speed, until the Sovereign of the Universe called out, in Yiddish, of course, “Shoin genik—Enough! Let there be menucha, rest, and oneg, enjoyment—let there be Shabbat!”
In this parsha/Torah reading, we find the concept of the Shabbat raised to an even loftier eminence: the shemita, or Sabbatical year, during which the land was to lie fallow. Laying aside the technical difficulties of observing this mitzvah—it continues to be a challenge for Israeli agriculture—we can admire its original intent: that of allowing even the land to rest on a regular basis. Everything on earth is subject to the mitzvot of God, and enjoys that benefit.
God pledges to shower the Israelites with prosperity, as long as they follow Torah Law and practice justice and mercy with one another. Should they become corrupt and fall away, God will send enemies to attack them, and in the end exile them from their land. And yet, God will not forsake them completely: even in exile, God will never end His sacred covenant with the people of Israel. This is the promise which sustained us through the long centuries of wandering and persecution; it is a holy bond which has lasted until the present day. We pray that it will continue until the Messianic Age, may it come speedily, and soon. Amen!