Sunday, November 29, 2015

Vayayshev: A Night in Joseph's Office, Chief Adviser Plenipotentiary to Pharaoh Sesostris III


A mildly balmy Egyptian night, c. 1650 BCE. Joseph’s office, adjacent to the Throne Room of Pharaoh Sesostris III, most important king of the 12th Dynasty, Intermediate Period of the Middle Kingdom.
Joseph, Vice-Pharaoh to Sesostris III, Minister of Farms, Provisions, and Agriculture, Chief Adviser Plenipotentiary to His Majesty, has been finishing up some grain orders for Nubia. His desk is awash in papyrus scrolls, which he is somehow able to wade through with ease, searching with knowing hands and eyes until he is able to pick out the one he wants. He pauses only to sip at a cup of herbal tea—plain, no honey.
At his feet, seated in a nearby corner, is his secretary and chief assitant, Retjenu. He is a young man, nearly twenty, his head shaved bald in the fashionably-Egyptian manner, seated cross-legged-style, with his kilt firmly stretched by the position of his legs, so that he is able to use it as a writing-desk for a fresh papyrus-roll, using a reed stylus. He is speaking to his lord and boss, Joseph.

Retjenu (repeating Joseph’s dictation): “And forty thousand minae of wheat grain, along with eight-hundred-sixty barrels of rice, to be delivered by skiff and trireme to the warehouse of Uribaal the Phoenician tradesman.” And what percentage, Milord Joseph, will he deduct for handling costs?

Joseph: The usual tariff; you know how to calculate it; use the tables, as I showed you, clever Retjenu. You know almost how to run the office in my absence, were I to take a holiday off, could you not?

Retjenu (tapping the reed against his top teeth, thinking): I imagine I could; yes, Milord, I believe I would be able to, at that. Thank you for placing your trust in me.

Joseph: A holiday? Really? A vacation—what? (waves his hand around the cluttered room) Away from this—this—universe of tariffs, papyri, bills of lading-and-delivery? (laughs bitterly) Ha! That will never happen. (whispering) His Royal Majesty will never consent to my leaving the palace, let alone his Imperial Capital City Heliopolis. I am but a caged songbird, albeit one full of advice, fluttering around the Pharaoh’s head, truth to tell. I am lucky to get home to see my wife and two boys, Ephraim and Menashe, but once a week. A cage may be gold and ivory, but it is still a cage. And how can I teach my boys my heritage? They know Egypt; they know pyramids, sphinxes, and can write hieroglyphics backward and forward—but what do they know of their Papa’s home and family?

Retjenu (looking about tiredly; stretches, yawns): Have you more orders for me, Milord? The hour grows late; that candle is guttering, I see….

Joseph: Have some more tea; it will give you energy, Young Retjenu. Why are you in such a hurry? Is it that young lady-in-waiting of the Queen’s Chambers—the one I saw you speaking to, this Royal Assembly Day last? And did I hear her name was—Menhet? Or was it Merwen? Clever Retjenu! To snare a pretty she-ibis, one must bait the trap with shining jewels.

Retjenu (stretching, rousing himself): I protest, Milord (yawning, in spite of his best efforts to resist) my every waking moment is of (yawns) work, and (yawns) service to you, Sir. (Stiffly) I live and breathe to serve only Ra and Milord and Our Holy and All-Seeing Pharaoh Sesostris, who steers the Sun-god’s Chariot across the heavens, pursuing the Great Scarab-Beetle in its flight!

Joseph (teasing): O come, Retjenu, old friend: I speak to you of love, and you come back at me with a dung-beetle (laughing). Besides, sun-chariots and scarabs aside, you know there is but my God, the One True God, the Invisible One! (whispering, again) Have I not told you how He rescued me from the Pit of the Prison, and raised me to this high and enviable Eminence, and how I speak to Him softly, in my heart, day after day? Were it not for Him, my brothers—brothers, indeed! (bitterly)—had it not been for weak-kneed Reuven, I would be dead in the ditch of the desert today, rather than wearing fine linen and cloth-of-gold, and bestriding the narrow earth like a Colossus—but for the rest of my brothers? Pah! I spit on them: would that they were here, to admire my greatness….

Retjenu (rising, and picking up a stray papyrus from Joseph’s desk): It seems, Milord Joseph, you might be seeing them, sooner than you think. I see here from the Border Troop Patrol that famine has stricken the Canaanite Wastelands—the place you have told me is your Native Land.

Joseph (taken aback; then, slowly and thoughtfully): Famine, you say? Then my predictions from El-Shaddai, God-of-my-Father-Jacob, were correct.

Retjenu: Yes: unlike us luckier folks here in Egypt, the round-headed, dark-eyed savages of Canaan, Ra curse them!—Oh, I forgot they are your family and native people, Milord Joseph (begins to fall to his knees to genuflect, but Joseph waves the insult away)—suffer famines from time to time. Here in Egypt, Mother Nile rises regularly to moisten our Blessed Earth, year following year, and we enjoy a steady growth of grain. In Canaan, the dark-eyed, savage gods are angry, and they often withhold their bounty of water-from-heaven, so the ugly Canaanites must come south, to our Heaven-Land-Kingdom, and we can sell them grain.

Joseph (tapping his lip, thoughtfully): So I was right to build the great storehouses and silos, and Sesostris, Our Pharaoh and Master, correct in giving me Powers Plenipotentiary. As always, O’ God (he looks heavenward), I, like my father Jacob and great-grandfather Abraham, am in the Right Place at the Right Time. Come, Retjenu!

Retjenu (confused): Come where, Milord? Is it not still the middle of the night?

Joseph (automatically going into Crisis Mode, he becomes the Manager): Yes: but we need time to make ready to sell grain to Outlanders. If I am correct, there will be a virtual parade of petitioners from Canaan come to us to purchase wheat, beginning tomorrow, and we must be prepared—rouse the palace staff, and have them come to me, to arrange a Room of Reception, with ropes to line them up, tables to register their names, and barrels of grain to fill their gunny sacks! I will be seeing my Dear, Lost Brethren soon, and Sweet Revenge will be mine, or my Egyptian name is not Tsafnat-Paanayach….

Retjenu (picking up on Joseph’s energy): I am with you all the way, Milord! And I am not in the least bit sleepy. What was that you said about Revenge being sweet? (under his breath) And O’ my soul—does that water-clock in the corner not read four of the clock in the morning?—There’ll be no sleep for me tonight, with or without the Fair Menhet….

Joseph (as he ties up his Royal Robes, and sweeps grandly out the door of his office chambers): The time is out of joint. O Cursed Spite, that ever I was born to set it right!

Friday, November 27, 2015

Kirby, the Shih Tzu's Advice to Presidential Candidates

Kirby, the Shih Tzu’s Advice to Presidential Candidates

With the Assistance of His Friend,

David Hartley Mark

1. Don’t Make Poopy where you Eat. It gets Messy.

2. When you go Outdoors, always Sniff the Wind before Taking a Stand.

3. Join the Pack when you wish, but don’t be afraid to be a Lone Wolf (or Dog) when Other Dogs are Doing or Saying Foolish, Nasty, or Insulting Things. Lead from the Front.

4. Be ready to Dance for Them what gave you a Treat.

5. Try not to speak in the Name of the Big Doggy God. What do you, a small brown Shih Tzu, know of the Mysteries of the Universe? Let Everyone Bark, Meow, or Chirp according to their own Conscience, and the World will get along Better.

6. Be nice to Other Dogs whose Tushies you sniff going Up; you may meet those same Tushies going Down.

7. He who Barks Last, Barks Best.

8. Try not to Comb your Fur Strangely. Other Dogs will make Fun.

9. Making Puppies is Swell, but Supporting Them takes Money, Love, and Concern. Be Careful. Don’t ignore the Dogs already in the Shelters. Remember: you were a Rescue, once, yourself.

10. The World would be a Better and Kinder Place if Everyone Curled Up and took a Nap in the Afternoon. 

Dave, the Window-Cleaner: A Memory from the Old Neighborhood

Dave, the Window Cleaner

By David Hartley Mark

            There was no lack of characters in my Old Neighborhood—the sad lady in ragged clothes and with long, tangled, filthy hair who wandered along, talking to herself; the five-man harmony singing group in front of The Cozy Corner, our local candy store and hangout, who sang ‘50s and ’60s hits until they disappeared into the bloody maw of Vietnam, never to return; the various rabbis and holy men who walked along, discussing Torah, making our streets sound more like Jerusalem.
And then, there was Dave, the Window Cleaner. He was what we would call “challenged,” today; back then, he was called ah nebbichel, a simpleton, schlepping his brushes and bucket along, on his way from one balebusteh’s apartment to the next, as the Jewish housewives spread the word that “Dave does a good job for a few dollars, and the rabbi says it’s a mitzvah, a good deed, to give him the work.” My mother hired him, too. With all those tall, twenty-story apartment buildings stretching from the East River to Essex Street, Dave had plenty to do.
He was fearless. I can recall watching in awe while he took off his jacket—it was a wool Shabbos jacket that someone had given him, with seams pulled and holes gaping from the pockets where he had stored his cleaning materials, and who knows what else?—and dropped it on the floor near my mother’s golden-brown Kracauer “home grand” piano, which my sister and I took lessons on.

Our piano teacher, Mrs. Ida Wellerson, whose brochure proclaimed her to be “the Creator of a Unique Monkey Doll that had taken first prize at the Dutchess County Fair,” had already resolved that neither Pearl nor I would be any threat to Van Cliburn, who had but lately returned from dazzling the Russians while on his early 1960s Grand Tour. When she came to give me a lesson, I knew how to delay the inevitable by offering to sharpen her pencils—she always had a handful, mostly blunt; I believe that she sharpened them with a small pocketknife, while we boasted a genuine pencil sharpener, mounted on the wall of the “utility closet,” where our industrial chemist father kept a stash of flat metal paint cans with mysterious names like “Benzene,” “Paint Remover,” and “Phenophthalene.” I would take as much time as possible sharpening Mrs. Wellerson’s pencils, until she cleared her throat significantly, and would bring them back after flamboyantly blowing off the shavings.

As for Dave, I marveled at his calm demeanor as he yanked up the stubborn grey-metal storm windows of our apartment (we and our neighbors always called it our “house,” which it was, after all), took soapy bucket in one hand, brush in the other, and squeegee linked to his belt, and climbed out onto the precarious perch to sit on the windowsill, pulling the window down onto his lap, leaving most of himself outside, with nothing but thin air and his upper body, a full seven stories up.

His arms would execute a beautiful pas de deux as he drew elaborate S-bends on the window-glass, scrubbing away the accumulated grit and filth of our legendary New York air. Those were the days of incinerators—who knew, or cared, about air pollution?—when my special chore was to take the garbage out, and I took a special secret pleasure in placing any discarded glass jars into the hopper and yanking back the handle, giving the bottle or jar a “bit of English”—that is, sufficient spin to propel it down to the flames, while it crashed and tinkled against the brick shaftway on its way down. Who said that dumping garbage into a private municipal bonfire couldn’t be fun? All that smoke went into the air, into our citified lungs, and onto the window-glass, as well. We breathed it in when we stood behind a diesel bus; we absorbed the fumes and odors of the subway-trains, a mixture of electric sparks, puddles of unidentifiable dead things, and urine.

As for Dave, he became a special friend to me. Chanukah was the only time of year that my mother allowed me to clutter up the living room run with my Lionel electric trains. My Uncle Irving, the handiest man in the family—that is, the only handy man in the family; my father’s customary reply when my mother asked him to perform any chores or repairs around the house was, “Call Maintenance!”—had screwed my train-tracks to a large wooden board, which made it easier to set them up and break them down every year. I would painstakingly build and place all of my Plasticville buildings: the train station, junction building, signal bridge and telegraph poles, finally placing the plastic people (they were all a pale shade of peach; Plasticville was, like most of our building, sadly, not integrated), attach the tracks to the transformer with wires, and the locomotive and diesel engines would go around and around and around and around….

One day, Dave, on his way to the windows near the piano, remarked, “I see that you like trains. I take pictures of trains, with my camera.”

I was amazed: an adult was speaking to me about my hobby! When I smiled back, Dave took me to the kitchen table and showed me a scrapbook that he somehow managed to carry everywhere, along with his cleaning equipment. It was a vast display of real-life locomotives, coal cars, and all different kinds of rolling stock. The camera was no big deal; it was a simple Brownie, of the type then popular. All the same, Dave was very proud to share his knowledge with me.

After we spoke for a bit, it became clear to me that Dave was unlike any other adult I had ever met. He was like a big kid himself: he didn’t judge; he liked what he liked, and spoke frankly about his dislikes. Still, I had a friend, and that was important. In the weeks that followed, I always looked forward to Dave’s visits.

Having won his confidence, Dave might share his secrets: “There’s someone at the minyan, the morning prayer service, who doesn’t like me,” he said once. “I have to protect myself.”

A child myself, with but a vague idea of the dangers in the world, I had no idea what my friend could do. “What will you do, Dave?” I asked.

He smiled—Dave had a way of smiling that started at his mouth, and ended up with his entire face. He was not a handsome man; he always needed a shave, and growing up with a single mother who had not loved him very much had left its mark. But he did have a lovely smile.

“I’ll just give more tsedakah, charity,” he said. “I’ll put some more coins in the pushka, the charity box. God will take care of it for me.”

That was an important lesson for me, the idea that God would take care of us. I didn’t completely follow the idea that God needed charity in order to take special care of someone—I still don’t—but we do have a Jewish saying: Tsedakah tatseel me-mahvet—Charity saves from death. Does it really? I can’t be sure, but I do give tsedakah, and some of it is in memory of my old friend, Dave the Window Cleaner.

I haven’t been back to the Old Neighborhood recently, but I know that Dave passed away many years ago. I grew up, started going to school uptown, and lost touch with my old friend. I know that he got married, to Marian, a sweet, chubby woman who would “sort of” clean the houses while Dave washed their windows. It was a shidduch, a set-up marriage, which the ladies of the neighborhood brought about, so that two lonely, simple people would have each other. I’m glad that he found happiness; there is a Jewish tradition that everyone is part of a zug, a Blessed Pair, and that we cannot consider ourselves complete until we find the Yin to our Yang.

I’m glad that Dave and Marian found one another; I can still remember the two of them walking together on Grand Street, holding hands. People should hold hands more often; the world can be a big and lonely place, and we need one another.

Dave and Marian are gone now. I do believe in heaven, though. And I would like to think that somewhere, up in the Place where they have Pearly Gates and Golden Doors and Diamond Windows, Dave has plenty to do.

Every day, he takes his bucket and brushes, smiles at his loving and lovely Marian, and goes out to wash the Windows of Heaven. Yes, that would be nice. Keep an eye on us, Dave. And tell God to do it, too.

The Anti-Trump Song: Because He's a Bully, a Blowhard, and a Jackass

The Anti-Trump Song ©

By David Hartley Mark

(To the tune of Country Joe & the Fish)

1. Well, come on, fellow Americans: know
Donald Trump is the way to go
Hates Latinos, “will build a wall,”
Fall in line behind his clarion call
And if you lemmings will stand in line
We’ll plunge off the cliff just fine


‘Cause it’s one-two-three
Who are we voting for?
Donald Trump is the Bankrupt King
Got billions in shirts n’ buildings
And it’s five-six-seven
He’s ready to bloviate!
Flies a solid-gold plane
Yells he’s ready to reign
But that’s not governing

2. If you’re handicapped or special needs
You’ll get mocked by Mr. Greeds
If there’s disturbances on the globe
He’ll send in the troops: he’s a xenophobe
Heck-- he might even drop the Bomb
Most anywhere, to keep the calm


3. If you’re a woman, Mr. Trump
Will smile at you and pat your rump;
But don’t show him you have a brain
‘Cause that will cause him consid’rable pain
Smart gals worry him a deal
They’re just stuff he likes to feel


4. So, why’s this boob ahead of the curve?
We get the leaders that we deserve
Politics is show biz for ugly folks
Providing fodder for late-night jokes
But if any real leader wants to talk issues
I believe they’re gonna lose

Final Chorus:

So, it’s one-two-three
Who’s left to vote for?
The PACs bought everything:
We find it baffling
And it’s five-six-seven
Ready for the Donaldgate?
Once, the voting booth
Gave us all a voice
But now, do we have a choice?

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Vayishlach: Jacob Crosses the River Yabbok. A Soliloquy.

Vayishlach: Jacob’s Soliloquy

            Once I got away from my loving Dad-in-Law (ha!) Lavan, that leech, that bloodsucker, I thought our family was in the clear—I could settle back, let my donkey do the walking, while I rode up and down the caravan, proudly beholding my wives, children, cattle and property, like a desert chieftain ought to do: there they were, my exotic women, all bedecked properly, covered up to their eyes with their chadors, so that no Bedouin riffraff might cast a wayward eye and try to attack me—I had very few men-at-arms, you understand, and just an invisible God to protect me; not that He hadn’t shown His true worth toward me up to that point, just as He had promised, years before, but you can’t be too careful….
And I had sent out scouts; a big luggage train like ours—women, babies, shepherds, slaves, cattle!—that would be a great prize for any pack of desert brigands, and I had worked hard enough for them, all those years away from Mom and Pop in Charan, living with Lavan, that thief….

“Lord God of Grandpa Abraham, Father Isaac, Mysterious God,” I asked the scudding clouds overhead, “When do I get a chance to enjoy my family and the little wealth I have been able to build up?”
Suddenly, there he is, running towards me, my little Asher, one of—who?—Zilpah’s boys—can’t tell them apart, really; there are so many of them, all of my sons, let them be well!—calling out to me, “Ta, I’ve been scouting forward, about three mil, and I saw them! They’re coming!”
I couldn’t tell what he was saying, little fellow like that, mumbling, though it turns out he’s about sixteen years old. Who knew? Short, like his mother, same dark hair and eyes—I could not understand his speech; no, not at all—what was he babbling about? What Other People? Who?
“Who?” I asked him, reaching down for my goatskin waterbag, “Who? Just straighten up, Boy, and get the sand out of your mouth: here—take a drink, spit it out, there! Now speak, loud and slow, speak directly.”
“Coming,” The boy Asher gasped behind the stream of lukewarm, goat-smelly water, “Coming.”
“Who’s coming?” I said again, getting worried now, “Who, you son-of-a-sheep? Tell me—don’t you see, all of our lives depend on it? Tell me now, Shaddai blast you!”
“Esau,” he said, “Big Uncle Esau. Him, you told us about. With four—“
“Four men?”
“Four hundred, I think, Ta—I couldn’t tell—there were so many, so many—“ The scamp was crying now; when I let loose of his collar, he went blubbering off, to his Mama, I reckon. I didn’t really care. I flung the goatskin to the ground, and watched the bone-dry sand soak up the precious water, just as Esau’s sword would sever my head, and the ground would soak up my blood—Think, Jacob, think! Plan, Clever one, plan!

I heard the Old Voices in my head—Hurry, Jakey Boy, you must figure and plan your trickery—it’s only Stumble-Bumble Esau, you can surely take him, trick him, slip his foot out from beneath him….but:

 What was I to do? And my mind, the way it works, it snaps automatically to, Survival Mode—Yes!

Split the wives and livestock into two—no, four camps; easier to spread out and distract Esau. Get my foreman, Secharbaal, to set aside the fatter, healthier cows and goats and sheep. Order him to choose five men to help, with some of my bigger sons, and clean off the road slop from their hooves, polish ‘em up; make them presentable-like. A gift. An offering, for Big Brother.

I cup my hand against my mouth, shout into the wind: “You, there! Secharbaal, my trail boss! Go fetch Secharbaal, now!” Oh, how they run….

Secharbaal was one of Lavan’s Hittite slaves, but I bought his freedom, and he’s my overseer, my trail boss, now. Good detail man, the kind I like. In an hour, the selection and cleaning are all done. Fear has always motivated me; been that way, all of my life. Secharbaal and I stand and look at the pick of the flock. Fine, fat beasts, all of them.

            “We’re sending these off,” I tell Secharbaal. I like him: big, bluff, can-do fellow.
“Who to?” he asks, looking at me, confused, knitting his big, hairy brows, above that black beard of his.
“My brother. To Esau.”
He understands, and nods; he’s been with me from the start, has Old Secharo, and heard about my brother’s strength, temper, and most particularly, his feeble mind.
            I take one last glance at the cattle as the boys move them out.

A small price to pay for one’s life, I think to myself.

It all goes pretty quickly after that: split up the cattle. Divide the women and the kids: four groups. Concubines in front: Bilhah, Zilpah. Leah and her boys behind, with Dinah—my poor little Dinah!

The only filly in the herd.

And Rachel, and Joseph. Poor little Joey. He cries a good deal when he sees me staying behind, and stretches out his baby arms. But now, they’re all gone, and Boss Secharbaal himself is leading the men who bring the gift to Big Bad Brother Esau.

I shudder to remember my brother: Big Red, from years ago. Those bulging muscles, and that sword and shield he bears: they make my shepherd’s crook look like a toothpick.
I watch them all leave me. I turn away, and cross the river—Yabbok, I believe it’s called. It’s not too deep, and it cools off my body, if not my heart and soul. I will wait beneath this old terebinth-tree—didn’t Grampa Abe have his terebinth, when the Angels visited? I will wait here for Esau to arrive.

He will come when he comes.

Take a deep breath, Jacob. Sit back. Be still, and try to calm your beating heart.

Is God here? I cannot feel His Presence.

I bend, and pull a bit of grass to chew. I smooth down the earth beneath me, kneel slowly down, and sit back against my terebinth-tree, all alone.

The sun is dying: all red and gold and copper sky.

It feels too quiet, here.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Kirby, the Shih Tzu, Talks About ISIS (With the Assistance of his Friend, David Hartley Mark)

Kirby the Shih Tzu Talks About ISIS

With the Assistance of His Friend,
David Hartley Mark

Kirby: What is ISIS, Dave?

David: Nobody really knows. They are a tough group of fighters, a good many of them Sunni. There is a good introduction to them in this article, but I know you can’t read:

ISIS, a history: how the world's worst terror group came to be - Vox. (n.d.). Retrieved from

So, for our little discussion, let’s try to put this in Shih Tzu terms. Have you ever met a Shih Tzu who didn’t get along with others, who came from a sort of rough background?

Kirby: Is that “ruff,” like the sound a dog makes?

David: No, I mean “rough,” like he’s had a tough life.

Kirby: Well, there was Webster. I knew him from the Rescue Shelter.

David: Tell me about Webster.

Kirby: He was black and white, kind of heavyset, and he growled at everyone. He had Issues. We could smell him, and we smelled that he was Normal in his Dogsbody, but he had something in his Doggybrain that wasn’t right. A Bad Human had done something Bad to him before he came to Shelter, to hurt him.

David: Yes; there are people like that in ISIS.

Kirby: There was also Sheraton. He was more white than Webster, but with a few black spots. He also had issues.

David: What did Sheraton do?

Kirby: He had the most beautiful blue eyes! No one else had blue eyes. But he wasn’t Right.

David: What do you mean, “not Right”?

Kirby: Well, it’s hard for me to explain to you, your being Human and not Dog, but he would just—would just—stare off into space. He never cared to play, or dance, or sniff anyone else’s butt, just to say Hello. He just looked off to the side when you were whine-talking to him. It was sad. The Nice Lady in the Shelter was talking about Sheraton once, and I heard the Care-People talking. She said that Sheraton had Trauma.

David: That’s too bad.

Kirby: What’s Trauma, Dave?

David: Something happened to Sheraton—and to Webster, too—when they were younger, and it made them both, Not Right. When you’re talking about People, it can mean growing up Poor—that is, without Food, or Proper Shelter, or a place to go to School. You live on the street, mostly.

Kirby: Like that time we were driving in the Car, and I looked out the Window, and saw that little Dog who was lost? I felt really bad.

David: Yes: we opened the door, and tried to get that little dog to come over, but she was very scared and nervous, and wouldn’t come. I hope that her owner came to get her. She was wearing a tag, which is good. I hope she made it home. Too many Humans in this World don’t have a home to live in. They live in the street.

Kirby: What happens to them? I live mostly in my various Beds around the house, with my Squeaky Toys. Also on my Couch and my Recliners. I also live under the Coffee Table. I call it my Clubhouse. And I take Power Naps.

David: As for ISIS, they want to take over a great deal of the world, and that is very sad.

Kirby: There was—there was—another dog, too. He wasn’t a Shih Tzu, or a Maltese, or a Peke. He was bigger. We didn’t like him. His name was Brucie.

David: What sort of dog was he?

Kirby: I don’t know; some sort of mix. A big one. All brindle-colored. But whenever the Care-People would come in and toss out Treats, Brucie was always the first to grab. He would push us Smaller Dogs out of the way.

David: Yes, ISIS does that, too.

Kirby: So, I guess there really isn’t much difference between the way that ISIS behaves, and the way certain dogs behave.

David: You might say that.

Kirby: Except for one thing.

David: What’s that?

Kirby: We dogs want to be friends with each other, and most of us want to be friends with Humans, too, except when we’re tired or lost or frightened. I really don’t know what ISIS wants to do. Is anyone trying to make friends with ISIS, Dave?

David: Uh, no; not really….

Kirby: Well, what’s going to happen, then?

David: I really can’t say….

Kirby: Well, time for my nap.

David: Sweet dreams, Kirby.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Eclipse of God: Where is God, in a Time of Crisis?

The Eclipse of God

By David Hartley Mark

“And I will surely hide my face in that day for all the evils which they shall have wrought, in that they are turned unto other gods.” 
--Deut. 31:18

            The tragic events of the past week—the attacks in France and Lebanon, the threats leveled against New York City—have left me, as a person of faith, angry, upset, and disillusioned about this world. I have never doubted God’s Presence; no, not even during the years when I was lapsing from Orthodox Jewish practice and had not yet found a reasonable substitute, when I was wandering the streets of my city, carrying with me an Anchor Bible—never was a work of Scripture more aptly named. But God seemed far off, unreachable. And that is how He appeared, yesterday.

            Wednesday is Temple Day for this peripatetic rabbi-English-professor-scholar-gypsy; I spend the morning at the computer, downloading and printing articles for my evening Jewish Current Events Discussion Group; the juicier ones I post online, to provoke curiosity and discussion. I got a phone message from a friend, the member of a neighboring church to which my congregation is close; she is a lay minister there.

            This church, Unity Church of Pompano Beach, has a wonderful practice which I commend to all houses of worship: when a newcomer enters prior to the service, they are immediately approached and welcomed, and asked gently if they have something worrisome on their mind, an issue, friend, or relative for whom they wish to pray. The specially-trained church member takes the newcomer into a prayer-room, and prays for, and with, them. They then rejoin the congregation—this takes place before the regular services—and the services begin. It is all very private, discreet, and holy in nature and content.

            My friend is one of these people, ah gitte neshumeh (Yiddish), a “good soul” with a sunny disposition, who brightens the world for her being here. The message she left me was not a good one. She had been involved in a three-car accident—not her fault—and sent to the hospital. Several bones in her back had been broken.

            The next day, nothing daunted, she walked three steps in Physical Therapy.
            The day after, she walked two-hundred-and-six steps.
            The day she called me, she cheerily boasted that she was well on her way to recovery, bad back and all. She cheered up everyone who came to visit her; she smiled at the entire staff and all the other patients; she was the sunshine of her floor.

            I listened to her message in the car. Sadly, it made me angry. I shouted at God, while I banged on the steering wheel (I was driving to temple).

“God!” I shouted at the absent Deity, “God. Did you have to do this thing? Did you have to injure this poor woman, not to mention the hundred or so who died or were injured in Paris?
“What about Lebanon, and the Middle East? What about the refugees, who are being tainted by the same atrocities, and will be rejected by the very nations that should be sheltering them? Did you have to do these things—or permit human free will to act in an evil way, just to make me appreciate my own good fortune? It’s not fair, God—it’s not fair!”

            And I shouted at the heavens, while banging on the steering wheel.

            “Show me a sign of Your love, God,” I pleaded, while driving down Atlantic Boulevard toward the temple and my afternoon classes, “Show me a sign!”

            I came to a red light, and stopped, there amid the other traffic. People were ignoring one another; most were turning to their cellphones. On the divider stood a bedraggled beggar-man, wild-eyed and mostly filthy, holding a cardboard sign.

            Now, as a rule, I do not give cash to homeless people. I used to give to the homeless who sold a newspaper, the Homeless Voice, but they have disappeared, since their shelter was condemned, or the owner of the charity sold out. I have also heard stories of beggars who parked their fancy cars on a side street, unfolded their ratty little cardboard signs, stood on the divider all day, and made nearly $30,000 in the course of a year, playing off the drivers’ sympathies.

            But I had challenged the Sovereign of the Universe. The ball was in His celestial court, so to speak. As I watched—and I never watch them; eye contact is one of their tricks—this tall, raggedy, frail-looking man unfolded his cardboard sign, and shakily held it up.

            One word he had printed thereon, one single word, in big block letters: GOD.

            That was my sign—or was it? Never mind: I beckoned him over, groped out my wallet, and gave him two bucks. He mumbled a prayer in Jesus’s name, and I drove off, mumbling Hebrew Psalm-snatches under my breath.

            I called my friend, in rehab. She was as cheery as ever. She was “truly blessed.” I admire folks who say that—especially when they have broken bones in their back. It is admirable. I am a wretch by comparison.

            I got to the temple on time, and gave my bar mitzvah lesson to the boy—he did very well; we went into the sanctuary to practice, he, his mother, and younger brother. The boys sang, and had a good time working with the microphones. The session went well. I told them about the man with the cardboard sign. They agreed it had to be a sign from God. Twelve- and ten-year-olds are very definite about things like that. I appreciated their enthusiasm.

            We returned to my office, and reviewed the “Shabbat Service Script”; I calmed his fears; he knew most of the prayers that he would be doing alone, or we would be doing together. His brother used colored pencils to draw a setting sun, which they taped to my bookshelves, next to the boat the bar mitzvah boy drew the week before. It looks like a banana, the boat. I do love a nice picture in my office, especially an original banana. I mean, boat.

            Next came my adult bat mitzvah group. These women are nearly all seniors. They face their Torah portion—Bo, whose haftorah Jeremiah allegedly wrote—with verve and courage. Jeremiah is not the cheeriest prophet, but, after Isaiah, he is the longest-winded, albeit depressing. The ladies have learned to chant it in a group, along with great chunks of the Shabbat morning service. When they were younger, bat mitzvah was rarely done or practiced. They are out to prove themselves before God and everyone, and will do admirably well.

            Finally, that evening, came my Jewish Current Events Discussion Group. We thrashed out the latest issue, among others: whether to let in the Syrian Refugees, or not. I reminded them of the Post-World-War-I era and the Palmer Raids, when my Austro-Hungarian immigrant grandfather had feared being deported, because my mother, who loved parades, inadvertently walked a few blocks with an Anarchists’ and Communists’ Workers’ March from Union Square on May Day, in the 1920s. (There were Jews deported back to Russia, back then, including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. Bombings, too.)

While a few participants had doubts, we agreed that, as children and grandchildren of refugees ourselves, we could not possibly bar America’s gates to deserving orphans of the Middle Eastern storm. The topic remains controversial, but Liberty’s torch must continue to burn for everyone in the world.

            I drove home in a light Florida rain, listening to Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major.” I was tired, but elated.

            If you ask me, where is God? Is God hidden in clouds, far-off in heaven, beyond our mortal reach? I will have to say: God is among my people; God sits among the Holy Ones; God listens to my b’nai mitzvah, old and young, as they chant, as they sing and utter the time-honored words of Scripture. God is with us when we speak of Social Justice, even as evildoers plot their schemes from outside the human community.

            God is with the good people. The good people do God’s work.

God is, must be, always near. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

An Early Thanksgiving Prayer-Poem (Because We Need It)

An Early Thanksgiving Prayer
(Because We Need It)

By David Hartley Mark

                                    Glory be to God
                                    For a sugarless lemon drop
                                    To ruminate on,
                                    While my students leave
                                    After a close reading of Hemingway.

                                    Praise Him in the high places
                                    For sentence fragments
                                    And comma splices
                                    That enable this English teacher
                                    To make his living.

                                    Out in the Big World,
                                    Melder of the Universe,
                                    Keep Everyone safe:
                                    Increasing the Love,
                                    Lessening Madness,

                                    Bring us together
                                    All in Your Image,
                                    Lessen the hatreds;
                                    Show us Your Truth:

                                    Teach us that people
                                    Really do matter
                                    Far more than doctrines
                                    Religious, Political….
Buildings of stone,
                                    Places of history—
                                    All are as nothing,
                                    Compared to a baby
                                    Taking its first breath
                                    In a refugee camp;

                                    On this Thanksgiving,
                                    Help us remember
                                    We are all immigrants
                                    Moving through Life;
                                    Grant us Your Peace and Love,
                                    Gift us with Solace,
                                    Silence all weaponry,
                                    Remove all strife.

                                    Amen. Selah.


Sunday, November 15, 2015

Vayaytsay: Roll Away the Stone

Vayaytsay: Roll Away the Stone

By David Hartley Mark

“[Jacob] looked, and there was a well in the field [of Haran], with three flocks of sheep lying down by it, for from that well the flocks were watered. But the stone was large on the mouth of the well. When all the flocks were gathered there, [the shepherds] would roll away the stone from off the mouth of the well….Jacob went up and rolled the stone from off the mouth of the well….Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and wept with emotion.” –Gen. 29:2-3, 10-11 (my translation).

            Based on the Sefat Emet, I offer a Kabbalistic interpretation of the above verse: we spend our lives seeking the point of Godliness that exists within all earthly things, and within all humanity. Every thing that exists requires this Godly spark of light; it cannot sustain itself without it. Even a field choked with weeds, or an undeveloped human mind, contain this light. Our subconscious minds are remarkable creations: they understand this and seek the light intuitively, even if our active minds do not. There are three levels of knowledge: chochma, bina, and daat—wisdom, understanding, and knowledge, which are symbolized by the three flocks of sheep.

            What does the Torah mean by saying, “The stone was large on the mouth of the well”? When we favor our bodies, our physical selves, with pleasure and enjoyment, we are not necessarily using our intellects, but rather satisfying our carnal passions. The stone represents these carnalities and passions, which block our spirits from enjoying God’s Holy Light.

How can we free our spirits, our inherent holiness? We must gather together both our intellectual and physical strength, as did Jacob our Father, to “roll away the stone” and recognize that all Creation originates from, and will ultimately return to, God. This is the God we aim for, via Torah study, the performance of mitzvote/commandments, and good deeds. God dwells within all Creation, and we release that Godliness when we use Creation, not to inflict pain upon one another, but to lift up one another’s lives.

            Further: what does the Torah mean by stating, “they were gathered”? It means that all Israel, indeed all humanity, should align. We must negate our carnality, our greed, hatred and suspicion of one another, our racism and ignorance, and recognize that we are all made in the Image of God. If we can join together as One, we will be able to “roll away the stone” that hides our humanity and prevents our coming together as one Human Community.

            The stone is large, and the task is great. How will God show us the holiness shining forth from the Well of Salvation? The verb “Va-yigal" (vs. 10) means not “he rolled,” but rather, “he revealed”—every human being, if they reveal what is good within themselves, can become a tsadik, a righteous person. The choice is ours.


Arthur Green, Ed. & Trans. The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger. Phila., PA: JPS, 1998.

Rabbi Dr. Green translates Rav Yehudah Leib’s commentaries on the Parshat Ha-Shavua, the Weekly Torah Portion, and is careful not to describe him as a Chasidic mystic. I note, however, that the above does have mystical antecedents. I have extended R’ Yehudah Leib’s metaphor to all of humanity. We are all in need of holiness.