Sunday, January 31, 2016

Mishpatim: Indebted Slaves, Unborn Fetuses, & Other Sinai Laws


            The Torah’s author—whether Moses or another—interrupts the theophany narrative at Mt. Sinai to introduce a set of seemingly unrelated mitzvote/commandments, fifty-three in all. This reminds us that the Torah is not only the story of our ancestors, and, by extension, ourselves, but also a Book of Laws. As a child, I recall the word “Torah” being translated as “Law”—something lofty and ponderous, but also fundamental to our right to call ourselves Jews; that is, a set of responsibilities, several of which made no sense to me then. They read quaintly, even now.

Like most Jews, I reserve the right to question, not reject, Torah: God, in His wisdom, gave me a brain, and I have used it all of my life. When the rabbis of my youth could not answer my questions, I was forced to seek out my own answers. In the course of my searching—which will never end—I found I had become a rabbi. The Torah belongs to me, as it does to all humanity.

Today, the favored translation of “Torah” is “Teaching,” a softer, vaguer word than “Law,” implying a sense of choice. Indeed, we Jews make choices about how, or whether, we practice our faith every moment of our lives, deciding what mitzvote we will practice, or not. Orthodox Judaism, which is hardly monolithic nowadays (if it ever was) has a saying: “There are two kinds of Jews in the world. Those who are religious, and those who are not, yet.”
Where can we find God in this parsha/Torah portion? It contains a plethora of mitzvote and folkways, beginning with the laws of the Hebrew indentured servant. This refers to a poor soul (literally) whom the courts sell into slavery as a means of paying off his debts. (Imagine how the credit card companies would utilize this penalty, were it still in effect!) He is to serve his Hebrew master for no more than seven years; during that period, should he marry a maidservant of his master and have children by her, both his wife and children remain in servitude to the master when the servant departs at the end of his term.

Should he elect to remain with his family, choosing to be a slave in perpetuity (Has the Torah not stacked the deck against him, here?), his master is to take him to a doorpost, and there pierce his earlobe with an awl—that same ear which, symbolically, failed to hear God’s message at Mt. Sinai, “Be servants to Me alone, and not to one another.” That sounds to me like an unwinnable proposition, no matter how you view it, and we may well recall how many American ministers preaching in the antebellum South used it as a gloss to “prove” that God approved of genocidal African slavery.
Perhaps the most striking law in this compilation is that of the two men who, in the midst of fighting, inadvertently hit a pregnant woman, causing her to miscarry (Ex. 21:22). Because of a mistake in translating one of the words when the Hebrew text was translated from Greek (Septuagint, 132 BCE) to Latin (St. Jerome’s Vulgate, 405 CE), the meaning was changed. In Jewish law, abortion is not considered murder, and the mother’s physical and mental health take precedence over that of the fetus.

This gives the lie to the right-to-lifers’ insistence on human life’s beginning at the moment of conception. It does not mean that we Jews do not take the fetus’s right to exist lightly, but that the mother’s health, both mental and physical overrides that of the unborn child. Why should women not have the right to decide about their bodies, and their lives? We see, therefore, that parts of this Torah portion continue to resonate for us Americans, even today. “Turn it, and turn it again,” say the Talmudic Rabbis, “for everything you need to know is in it” (Ethics of the Fathers, 5:22). 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Yitro: While Moses Ascends the Mountain, what of Sons Gershom & Elazar, Disciple Joshua, and Others?

Yitro: Voices Off

Moses prepares to climb Mt. Sinai, leaving Aaron in charge of an exceedingly nervous and demanding 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? Whose sheep was this, whose goat? Or arguing with the Mixed Multitude about why such-and-such was forbidden, or might cause God to become Angry. He was a skillful Go-Between, a Diplomat of years’ experience, always smoothing the negotiations between a backsliding Nation and an ever-more-demanding, mysterious, Thundering Desert Deity.

But he was never really there for us: when we were young, he had no time to play, to carve us little Toys of wood or stone, like other fathers…. When we were teenagers, he was not there to answer our questions, or teach us the Shepherding trade that is the badge of our tribe—that became the job of Grandpa Jethro, who did his best, but was a judge and village priest, no shepherd, surely.

And when we became men, setting out on our own lives’ paths, Papa was already gone, out of our lives, off alone with his God. We had no one to say good-by to. Our Mama Zipporah had died alone, forgotten, of a broken heart.

It is sad when a man is married to a congregation, 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 the Two Forgotten Sons. 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 standing there on the hill overlooking the battlefield, 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 day of war! 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, escaping Egypt after our long 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 Famous Victory which our Lord God had delivered into my hand, Moshe narrowed his eagle-eyes and frowned upon me—a burning glare, down deep into my soul, to freeze my blood—and said, in a whisper like God’s own deep voice,

“Amalek is not those people whom you killed this day, Yehoshua ben Nun: Amalek is the Evil within yourselves; have you cut that evil out of your hearts? Well, have you?”

And he turned around on his heel, and walked off, with nary a thank-you for our having saved our People.

My battle-weary comrades, there around me, bloody, thirsty, exhausted, clothing ragged from their warring, were angry, and murmured against Moses—

“What does that prophet, that Man-of-Dreams, know how it is to hold a sword-and-buckler, to glare one’s enemy in the face, and stab him dead? When has he ever desperately fought a man, hand-to-hand, and struck a blow for freedom?”

--But I knew Moses’s meaning—had he not been the first from among us, who killed the Egyptian, all those years ago? I quickly hushed their balking. Instead, they gathered loot.

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 for any judge, prophet, king, rabbi, or—for we are prophets, too—prime minister to follow, will ever there be peace. How can peace ever reign among such a quarrelsome people? For truly, the future belongs to the likes of us: ourselves being denied the leadership of Israel, we and our descendents will sow the seeds of doubt before the future heads of Israel, forever….

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Beshallach: Just Another Day in the Egyptian Cavalry

Parshat Beshallach: The Egyptian Version

Egyptian Weekly Army Review
Troop Deployment Report
Glorious Egyptian Empire Peacetime: No Battles to Report
Few Military Losses, Thank Ra-in-His-Glory

 8th 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 Arms Supplier 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
Chariot Squadrons F & H, Regiment “Osiris-Escort-of-Underworld,” Lieutenants Userkaf & Huni Commanding

Capt. Kawab, Commander-on-Scene, 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 estimated Size of Mob to be 6,000 (approx.) Men, Women, & Children.

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 via Swift Rider from the Joint Egyptian Chiefs (JTEC) at Ramesses Palace in Memphis, sends messengers (Runners: Lance-Corp. Khafre, Private Smendes) to Chariot Squadrons F & H, ordering them to “shadow the Hapiru,” and report back to him regarding “any suspicious movements.”

4am—Chariot Squadron F Commander, Subaltern Neithi reports back,

“Hapiru are moving towards Nile Delta, following a Flamelike Entity, which may be carried in a brazier. They appear to view and call to it, as to a Deity of some sort. 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, each Chariot mounting one Archer, one Driver.

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. 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; rain falls; strong East Wind blowing. Delta-water appears to be sinking into the earth, not unusual in Marshy Ground.

Lieutenant Userkaf orders Sgt-Major Huni to halt the Squadrons, on Capt. Kawab’s order; single horse-and-rider is ordered out to approach ‘Mses, in attempt to parley and convince Hapiru slaves to return, or more cavalry will be summoned.

Heavy East Wind forces Rider to return. No parley takes place.

‘Mses, alleged Israelite slave leader, is seen holding a shepherd’s crook over the waters.

6am—Water continues flowing down, as in swamplike action, only much accelerated; Lt. Huni, who studied hydroponics in Pharaoh Tutankhamun Memorial 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 possibly 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 calls for a Volunteer Chariot Platoon to Reconnoiter the Hapiru Path of Crossing, and possibly follow.

Three Charioteer-Teams of Platoon 7 Volunteer, Staff Sgt. (SSG) 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 with Ropes and a Work Party, both horses and troops are overcome by Quicksand, and lost.

Recommendation submitted for Army Scarab Medal of Merit (Bronze) to be awarded to SSG Renef, and a lifetime non-commissioned officer’s pension to his widow and two children, along with posthumous promotion to Full Sergeant; this recommendation is currently under review by the Royal Military Pensions Board, which will report back to Lt. Userkaf in two weeks.

It is observed that, while this Tragic Accident is occurring, the Hapiru on the Opposite Shore are dancing and singing, while playing timbrels and drums.

Our brave Egyptian Cavalry Troopers are angry over the loss of their comrades and wish to attack the Hapiru, but the waters have returned to their previous depth, and they are unable to cross.

6:30am—Capt. Kawab orders a peaceful withdrawal through the rain and wind, and files this Report on behalf of LTCOL Shepses.

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

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Oh, To Be an Author! A Burlesque, on What is Current.

Oh, To Be an Author!

By David Hartley Mark

I see America writing, the varied genres I read,
Some favor Memoirs of psychological desperation,
Long days spent abed in depressive surroundings,
Mental-Health Solons writing them off as Hopeless,
Saved only by Love of Another, very often not Human,
A Dog, perhaps, or Plant-Life; a Voyage the World Rotund,
Training for a Marathon, Iditarod, or Vowel-Free Diet;

Others write Fantasy, Dramas unfolding
In Alternate Universes, oddly-named Ur-Worlds:
Kemquot or Meegrr, Stiltskunn or Zzyandottie,
Planets of five genders where Sex is a challenge,
Bleak Empires ruled by short-tempered tyrants,
Knights on three-volume missions who ride sky-blue chargers
With five heads or eight tails, exhaling methane fumes:

Favoring phantasms, Authors flutter through fiction,
Alternative History tests factual knowledge:
Could Sherman best Tojo in fight fair or slanted?
Might Barbary Pirates wage war ‘gainst the Alamo?
What if Grand Archduke Ferdinand survived Sarajevo?
Populating their pages with forgettable figures,
They throw in green aliens, add AK-47s.

Or Poetry: O Muse! Tempt my versicle Being—
My iambs pulsating, Shakespearean Tremors—
My Beloved’s nectarine-like skin-covering’s beguiling,
But I suffer from post-post-post-Modernist angst-fever
And a Trout flips ‘bout madly in the dregs of my Weltschmerz.

I’d sell off my stock of “How to Write Fiction,”
Of “Writers & Poets” and “Marketable Markets,”
To know what is Current, or what will be Coming,
To free my Trapped Muse from its Prison of Jump-Drive
And let her aloft to soar through the Heavens

Just once. O Fates, help me! Lachesis, Atropos,
Dear Clotho—if you will, make my turgid brain able
To crank out one novel, one marketable fable
And I won’t complain, once a few people buy it—
If it finally winds up, either virtual or actual,
On that Limbo of writers, the “Remainders Books” table.

Bo: Never-Before-Revealed Negotiations between Moses and Prince Merneptah: Midnight in the Royal Egyptian Gardens of Luxor, c.1220 BCE


Note: for the purpose of this week’s Drash/Commentary, the Reader must accept the possibility that the Pharaoh of the Exodus was the traditionally-accepted one, Ramesses II. I am positing that his son, Merneptah (who in actuality did not succeed his long-lived father until the son was in his sixties) grew up in the palace as a half-brother to Moses, and was by his embattled father, Ramesses, side during the Period of the Plagues—though there is no evidence of this in the Torah, and certainly none in Egyptian records.

Night in the Royal Egyptian Gardens of Luxor. The coolness of the palm trees and hanging plants does a great deal to refresh this man-made oasis amid the surrounding palace walls, following the heat of the day, where many cunningly-designed clay fountains, embellished with gleaming precious and semi-precious stones to reflect the moonlight, as well as mosaic tiles displaying various ritual and mythological symbols from Egyptian folklore and religion, create an exotic and mysterious atmosphere.
Crown Prince Merneptah is seated on a bench by one of the smaller fountains, watching and the multi-colored streams drip from plate to plate, from sphinx to griffin. Suddenly, he looks up, and his hand instinctively moves to the sharp bronze dagger at his belt: Moses suddenly, stealthily emerges from the space between the hanging bushes and the shorter palm trees on the periphery of the Garden. It is surely death on sight for him to be in the precincts of the Royal Egyptian Palace, since his last meeting with the Pharaoh did not end well. Moses enters cautiously, looking about, and prudently stops, about twenty feet from the man with whom he grew up, years ago, in this very Palace. He smites his right hand against his chest in military salute, as he did when he and Merneptah served together in the Royal Egyptian Military Cadet Corps, years before:

Moses: Hail, Most Royal Prince Merneptah of Egypt!

Merneptah: Well. It’s you. Can’t say I’m surprised. Are you ready to surrender?

Moses: Same old Brother of mine. Seven plagues have thus far occurred—your Mother Nile polluted, dead frogs attracting no end of disease-carrying vermin, swarms of flies and locusts eating the pitiful remains of the hailstorms my God, El-Shaddai, sent to batter you and your much-vaunted Royal Household Guard into submission, and do I hear, “Take your slave rabble and go!” or--?

Merneptah: --or stay. Stay and die with us. You know, Moses, you never were a good loser.

Moses: You mean, winner. My God says, “Winner take all.” Before the game is done, I—that is, We, my God, my People, and I—will have your Country, your whole bloody Empire, Merneptah, beneath our liberated feet. And we will depart with a Mighty Hand and an Upraised Arm.

Merneptah: Depart? Which way? And how? You’ll have no food, no provisions, not even a safe route to escape on. You Slave Rabble are notoriously poor at logistical planning. That’s why my Army has a Quartermasters’ Corps. There’s no living off the land in the Desert Wilderness, my Hebrew Half-Brother—unless you can eat sand and gobble sunlight—those are the only two things you’ll have in plenty.
What will you eat for bread? And where will you find water, if you’re constantly on the move, running away from my razor-scythed chariots, and my battle-hungry cavalry? Hmm? Have you thought that one through now, well, have you? (Pauses, but, when Moses is silent, he continues:) Moses?

Moses (slowly, choosing his words carefully): Our God has told us—me—that He makes us four promises: “And I will take you out—and I will save you from Pharaoh—and I will redeem you from Slavery—and I will take you to be My People.”

Merneptah (folding his arms, leaning back, patiently trying to explain Reality to this country dolt): M-hm. Only where, in that unspeakably dull Hebraic cavern-skull of yours, Moses, there amid the sheep and goats and donkeys and what-all You People find so much pleasure and seeming wealth in herding, did your Desert Deity stop to mention, “And I will feed you”?

(Sighs, mock-patiently)

Don’t you think, Brother Mine, that this—this—what? Invisible God of yours—might be playing a Monstrous Trick on you, to take you out, confuse you, and kill you all in the Fearsome Desert, to take you out of Egypt—this veritable Eden (I believe you call it) of Onions, Leeks, and Garlic!—how much you will hurt your People, and how much they will bellyache and moan, if you dare to remove them from our secure, comfortable Egypt, the only home they’ve known for hundreds of years?

(Merneptah rises, goes to Moses, shakes him by the shoulders)

Think, Moses, think! Oh, why am I wasting my breath on you, you unspeakable dullard?

(Merneptah pushes Moses away in disgust: Moses falls to his knees. Merneptah walks to the far corner of the Royal Gardens. The sky darkens.)

Moses (losing faith, doubting himself, beginning to stutter): But w-we are s-slaves h-here; we m-must leave; G-God has promised us f-f-freed….

(A crack of lightning splits the sky. A roll of thunder follows. Merneptah sighs, looks up.)

Merneptah: Oh, drat. More hail? (Leans back, calls out to the Heavens, in mockery:) Really, El-Shaddai, or Whatever Your Name is, Hebrew Invisible God. This is too much. My Papa, The Lord High Pharaoh-god, won’t be happy about this, I can tell You.

(Again, he reaches for his dagger, half-draws it, looks through slitted eyes at Moses, up at the darkening sky, thinks again, slides the knife back into its sheath. He sighs)

Well. Let’s negotiate then, shall we, Brother—I mean, Half-Brother—Moses? I will speak for my papa-god, you, yours. Suppose we reduce—yes, that’s it: cut back on working hours for you people. Perhaps I can convince you to stay here, after all. Life in Egypt hasn’t been all bad, you know. You remember. You were a prince here, Moses. Once upon a time—weren’t you?

(Moses nods, as if in a trance. Merneptah smiles. He takes a piece of papyrus and a stylus off a low desk, and begins to calculate)

Step One: increase the slaves’—I mean, workers’—food supply. We are about halfway through that big storehouse at Karnak—if your mud-and-straw-brick-roasters can just step up their number of bricks by—(does a quick calculation) about half again, we might be able to finish the entire treasure-city by early fall, just around the time that the barley-harvest is coming in—which means beer for both master and s—um, worker, doing a great deal to ease the pain of construction. (Merneptah thinks, tapping his teeth with the wooden stylus) Tell you what: I can’t promise anything, but on my say-so to Papa, you might possibly be crowned King of the Hebrews, around the same time that Papa is planning on making me Military Governor of Goshen District, where your Hebrews live.
What do you say?

Moses: I, I….

(Another clap of thunder; the sky is now completely dark, and great drops of rain begin to fall)

Merneptah: Here: come see what a sweet deal I’m offering you.

(Shows Moses the papyrus calculations, putting a friendly arm around his shoulders)

I’ve just about figured the rough numbers. If you and I, perhaps your brother Aaron—I’ve always respected Aaron; he’s a calm fellow, not one of those young hotheads, like your Joshua—and perhaps one of my ace planners—that young scribe Nety, say; he’s got a good head on his shoulders—could come up with a decent five-year-plan that was a win-win, something I could bring before the Royal Privy Council, just to hush up all of this plaguey business, get our slaves—I mean, Workforce back, contented and quiet, why, then, once I’m secure as Governor of Goshen and Environs, I could possibly see my way to making you the first Egyptian Hebrew Ethnarch we’ve had since what’s-his-name—Joseph, that Tsafnat-Paanayach fellow you hold in such repute.
Again, Moses: the choice is yours.

(Shadows are darkening across the Garden. Softly but persistently, cries are heard from a distance, across Egypt—the cries of children, and women, as if bereft. Moses hears, and smiles grimly. Merneptah may hear, but he chooses to ignore them)

Moses? Moses? Just come a little closer, read, and sign! By Osiris’s beard, I command you, sign!

(Moses holds back, clutching his shepherd’s crook a little tighter; he cannot speak; his stutter has overpowered him, but he moves back, toward the shadows)

What are you afraid of, Fool? It’s just an informal Memo—nothing binding about it—come here and sign, Moses…where are you going?
Moses! I—I—command you, as your Brother—No! As your Most Royal Prince, Sub-Pharaoh, and Liege Lord, I order you to submit to my Proposal—No, No!—to my Royal Decision!—Say yes, you, you—Traitor! You Hebrew scum, you—

(Suddenly, loud voices; Soldiers and Servants bearing torches enter and  illuminate the scene: Messengers have entered, first among them, Nety, the Scribe, in full military rig)

Nety (saluting, arm-on-chest, which Merneptah returns): My Lord Prince Merneptah! The God-King Pharaoh Ramesses commands that you join us and our Royal Bodyguard, sent to guard you from Evil Spirits which are afoot in this Dark Infernal Night—for a Strange and Mysterious Plague, sent doubtless by that Hebrew God, El-Shaddai, is abroad in our Land—the Worst, and Most Evil Plague of All. The first-born, My Prince—the First-Born, as well as all our Egyptian boys, dead when the shadow of this horrific Hebraic God passed over them—

Merneptah (gripping Nety by the arm): What, my boy, too? My son, Seti?

Nety (bursting into tears): Yes, Milord Prince: the young Princeling Seti is dead, lies dead, dead….

Merneptah (turning to Moses, drawing and throwing his dagger, which thunks into a palm tree): Damn you to the Infernal Pit, Moses! Damn you for the Death of my son, my innocent Seti! Where are you?

(He begins to sob, and falls to his knees)

(Moses is gone, vanished. Soon, from the Dark, come the Triumphant Voices of the Liberated Israelites, beginning their Preparations for the Exodus, baking Matzote, packing their bags to leave Egypt after 400 years. Their singing and rejoicing cannot drown out the tears and crying of their erstwhile neighbors, once their jailers, now their victims, the Egyptians….)

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Vaera: The Conflicting Voices of Moses, Pharaoh, Miriam, Zipporah, Aaron, and Others....


Synopsis: Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh—which one? Ramsses II, Thutmose III, perhaps even Hatshepsut, the Woman Pharaoh—the actual identity is not important to the Torah Narrative, which never gives more details than are considered necessary to tell the Story. The Theme is Clash of the Titans, in this case between Adon-i, God of the Israelites, vs. Pharaoh, god of the Egyptians. Here are some of the Actors, both Major and Minor:

Pharaoh’s Chief Sorcerer: Since we represent Egypt, the foremost Nation in the World, we constantly meet Challengers to our Power, and then, it becomes necessary for us to show our Theurgic Mastery over the Forces both Above and Below. We were not overawed by these two back-country shepherds, Moses and Aaron, but it was necessary for us to show immediately that we could overpower them, lest Rumor reach our Slaves, who might be inspired to Revolt.

When Moses, the Israelite-Rabble Leader, cast down his Shepherd’s Crook and it became a Serpent, this was an easy Trick to copy—but we never counted on his Serpent’s swallowing up ours. Indeed, Sekhmet, our Eldest Sorcerer, remembered the Famous Dream of the Hebrew, Joseph, who had told us often of his Vision of Lean Cows swallowing Fat Ones—and, for no Clear Reason, we all began to tremble.

“This is the Finger of that Desert God, Adon-i!” Sekhmet warned His Majesty, who was too caught up in the Demands of the Shepherd-Brothers to much notice. He will learn, soon enough: these Hebrews are a Force to be Reckoned with. We Magicians know; we rule our lives by Signs and Portents….

Aaron, Brother of Moses: My Baby Brother was never one for putting himself forward—during the time he lived in Pharaoh’s Palace, he never spoke up, but was always in the Shadows, concealing his Hebrewness, passing himself off as an Egyptian; that is, a Quiet, unassuming one.

Everything changed, that day he left the palace and saw an Egyptian Taskmaster beating one of our brethren. He tried to reason with the villain, but to no avail—and he ended up killing the man, in a fair fight. From that point on, he became a proud Hebrew, an Egyptian no more.

He fled, and we did not see him for—how many?—perhaps five years, during which he fled to Midian, that desert village-tribe, and made a life for himself there, marrying Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, the Village High Priest. He might have lived there, forever, but came back, one day, with a Haunted Look on his face.

“What brings you back to these parts, Brother?” I greeted him.

“Our God sent me—and you are to be my Spokesman,” he growled at me, briefly, and I was surprised at how he had changed; he had always been quiet, and smiling, whenever anyone did him a kindness; it was part of his being able to quickly fade into the Background of whatever place he found himself, sort of an Israelite Chameleon, almost.

“Spokesman for what?” I queried, and he took my arm—gripped it tightly, and I wondered at how my soft, joking little brother had suddenly changed, as if overnight, into a thin, sunburnt, hawk-nosed, rawboned shepherd, more accustomed to squinting at the sun to tell if a scarce Sinai desert rain were about to fall, rather than smiling at a young Egyptian Lady-in-Waiting of the Royal Pharaoh’s Court in which we both grew up.

Moses looked at me—stared me down, actually, until I found it hard to stand and take his gaze. Though he was my younger brother, he seemed older, somehow….

“We are prisoners here in Egypt, Royal Prisoners, but enslaved, all the same,” he whispered fiercely, “and I mean to set us free—you, me, Miriam, and our tribal, Israelite God, who is named Ehyeh-Ahshare-Ehyeh—‘He-Who-Is.’ He Who appeared to me in the Desert in the Heat of the Day, and gave me a Mission to carry out. Are you for me or for our Enemies, Brother Mine, Brother Aaron?”

“You know I am with you, Moses,” I stammered, frightened of his intensity and clarity of vision.

“Good!” he smiled suddenly, and clapped me on the shoulder, “Then we shall not fail. Come: the game’s afoot.”

He stormed out, leaving behind him a wave of desert sweat and prophetic inspiration—but now, I admit, I have doubts—I have always been the comforter, the negotiator, the Peacemaker in the family, born as I was between two flamboyant, Burning Spirits—my elder Sister, Miriam, the Poet, a Prophet in her own right, a Leader of our Women, a Musician and Dancer—and a fine Public Orator, for I have heard her speak to our People in secret, of Freedom, of a Mysterious Mountain-God, El-Shaddai, whom she heard of in tales dating back to Nana Sarah, long-ago. And now, I have our Baby Brother, our Newly-Born Spark saved from the Fire, our Moses….

But what of me? Who speaks for Aaron?

I am a man who chooses to pray for Peace—

Can we not choose that Path?

Can we not negotiate with this Pharaoh, rather than setting this god-King against our invisible God? War will erupt, for certain; innocents will die, perhaps on both sides….

Could they not dwell in Egypt, we remain in Goshen?

I will give it thought, and perhaps speak to the others… perhaps Joshua, or Caleb, will incline their thoughts my way….

Miriam, Sister of Moses: You may think of me as merely a tambourine-player, a singer and dancer, chanting the praises of the Invisible God, while the lapping waves of the Sea of Reeds would later wash back-and-forth over the defeated Pharaoh’s broken and tossing chariot-wheels—but I worked harder and more diligently long before that. While my famous brother stalked about Egypt like a man possessed, I went about my Holy Work more quietly and far more diligently than he.

            After all, who rescued Baby Moses from certain death in the Nile? Had I not directed Bitya, the Princess of Egypt, to fetch him from the rushes, he would have been a quick bite for the crocodiles!

I am Miriam, eldest of Amram and Yocheved’s Family, the Fearless Girl-Woman who assured that Moses would have both Adoptive Mother and Natural Mother to raise him, living in the lap of luxury, there in the very Palace of his Greatest Enemy—for the God we worship is a Lover of Irony, as are we Hebrews.

All during the Period of the Plagues, I met and taught the Women and Children to carry on our Sacred Customs, those which had nearly been lost during the Debilitating and Demoralizing four-hundred-years of Slavery. I kept our Holy Traditions alive: the Sabbath, which was later perfected at Sinai; the Laws of Family Purity, almost lost when Men would slave all week, and never have a moment’s rest to be with the Chosen-Ones-of-Their-Hearts, their Wives, let alone their Children; and, finally, the Laws of Kashrut, which have kept our People Separate and Special, all through our Long History.

Israel would not have survived without my tireless Work. I am Miriam, Teacher and Guide of Israelite Families. Mark me well, you so-called “Upright, Righteous, Learned Men” so Quick to chase us women back to kitchen and nursery!

Zipporah, Wife of Moses: And what of me, Wife to Moses? Am I not a Woman, a Leader in my own right? I am the Daughter of a Priest, a Leader of Midian, First Family of a Proud Desert Tribe, which was enemy to Israel, and is now their Friend….
Where are you now, my Moses, my Lover, my erstwhile Egyptian Fugitive-Prince? We embraced beneath a stubborn Sinai moon, and you promised me the World.
“I will build you a House in Midian, Zipporah my Sweet,” you breathed against my neck, “of stones, not mud-brick. And we will have many sons there. I will be Priest in place of your worthy Father, there one day.”
I loved you—and you returned my love—until that day, when you came home, stinking of burnt thorns, with a peculiar flame in your eyes, and would not speak to me. You gulped water from our well, and curled up in a corner of the tent, refused to wash, ate nothing of my dinner, and would not speak to me.
Where did I lose you, in that wilderness, my Moses, my Love?
I, too, have feelings, Moses! You cannot cast me off, for this Mission of yours….
            Perhaps Miriam can help. We are in need of counseling; you will not speak to our boys; they cry for their Daddy.
There is more to life than Work. There is more to life than even your God.
There is your Zipporah, as well.

Pharaoh, Moses’s Antagonist: How can an Invisible God exist? There are no such things; I know, for I am a god myself. I will battle this Israelite God with all the powers I possess, both magical and physical. Where are my Sorcerers?
I am the Pharaoh, Son of Ra, the Sun-god. I head the Greatest Empire the Earth has ever known. I alone stand off the Barbarian Hordes who would invade our land. I have smitten the Hittites and the Syrians; I stood at the breach when the Phoenicians tried to invade, and they fell, full of my arrows…. My Cavalry makes the sea and skies tremble!

Let this Desert-God dare to touch Our Mother Nile; let him fill our houses and granaries with croaking Toads; let crawling Bugs infest our People and Beasts alike, Disease penetrate the Skin of our very Bodies. I will stand on my Royal Balcony and brandish my sword against this God, as long as I have strength in my arms….

The Weather is taking a Turn; a Storm of Hail is coming. O God of the Hebrew Tribes! I call You to Wage Open Battle with me! Boy! Saddle my horse!

Blow, rain! Come, wrack! If I must die, ‘twill be with Harness on my Back….

Why Pray?

Why Pray?

(In Answer to a Question Raised by My FB Friend, Keith E. Gatling, 1/3/16)

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            Yesterday, following Shabbat Services and Kiddush Refreshments—a wonderful Senior Bat-Mitzvah Reunion—my Discussion Group gathered in the Bet Midrash/Chapel of Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach, and I delved into one of my favorite areas of Kabbalah: Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (1534-1572), the Ari HaKadosh, the “Holy Lion” of Tsfat (Safed, pronounced SA-fed), Israel. He himself did not write a book—indeed, he died very young—but his works were recorded by a fellow Kabbalist, Rabbi Moses Cordovero (1522-1570).

            This was a time of great crisis for the Jewish People. Influenced by the Inquisition, their Most Catholic Majesties, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had expelled them from Spain, where they had dwelled unmolested (relatively speaking) under Muslim rule for about 1,000 years. Persecuted, unsafe, made to wander worldwide (indeed, their peregrinations would soon take them to the New World), they struggled to find an inscape in which to hide—intellectual by nature, their thinkers began to develop the Kabbalah, which began to reach its fullest development during this Spanish-Israeli period (There are several Kabbalahs, each according to the background, culture, and country of its scholarly developers).

            This made perfect sense, intellectually: after all, their God had promised that they were the “Apple of His eye,” and were meant to be a “Light Unto the Nations”—so why were they being persecuted? There had to be some hidden meaning. Kabbalah supplied that.

            One of the bases of Lurianic Kabbalah is its philosophy of the Creation of the Universe. Here is my greatly simplified version.

            When God planned to create the Universe, all that Was was full of God. (I can’t say the Universe, because it didn’t exist. Not yet.) So God had to perform a Tsimtsum, a Divine Self-Retraction, to pull back from one corner of the “Was,” to allow a Space in which to create the Universe.

            I always compare this Tsimtsum, this Retraction, to your asking a very fat person sitting on a crowded bus or subway if you can sit down next to them, requiring them to pull themselves back, to allow you some small space in which to sit down.

            Anyway, God had to retract His (God is not a He; I use that only because English is a limited language) God-self away from just one small corner of the Was. Into that Now-Empty-of-God Space, God poured all of His Creative Energy, in the Form of Light—though I usually compare it to a sort of Divine Sperm, all-powerful, all-creative, almighty.

            The Problem is that that poor, little, now-empty space, now-filled with all that Divine Light, could not withstand its awesome Power. And so it broke—and bits and pieces of Divine Light, mixt up with bits of Container, Husk, Shards, or Broken Vessel, went tumbling, lost and bouncing and alone, into the now-vastness of Universe.

            What happened to that Lost Light? How do we gather it together again, and restore it to God, whence it came?

            Everytime we pray, everytime we do a mitzvah, we gather up the “Sparks”—that is, the shards of Lost Light, and help to bring the Universe into a Place of Light and Joy, again. The Shards or Husks are Evil. The Light is Goodness.

            “Every Mitzvah is a Candle, and the Torah, the Entire Divine Teaching, is Full of Light.”

            It is the Ultimate Making Lemonade out of Lemons—or Separating the Light from the Darkness. See? There are so many Evildoers, hard at work in the World today. It is up to us, the Good People, to be the Light-bringers.

            Turning away from this for a bit and into the original meaning of prayer, we find that, when primitive humanity looked at nature and their ability (or lack thereof) to survive, they decided upon a sort of theurgic magic—using the Divine Name of their God, or gods, to evoke changes in Nature.

Among the Jews, this resulted in the sacred calling of the “Baal Shem,” the “Master of the Name,” who could manipulate the Sacred Names of God to perform miracles—healing the sick, causing someone to recover, bringing material prosperity, and so on. Knowing the Name of a spirit, whether a good or evil one, became a powerful talisman. The “Rumplestiltskin” story is a perfect example of this. (I told it to my group. A number of them did not know it.)

            A Baal Shem would write God’s Holy Name (there were literally dozens, even hundreds) on a parchment, and place it on the person of the sick patient, usually in an amulet. This sort of sympathetic magic might cause the ill person to recover—we see this practice being used even today, among holistic practioners, for religious people. (I was able to purchase a card with God’s Name on it at a Jewish bookstore.)

            From there, I moved into a book I have grown to love, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s The Light Beyond: Adventures in Hassidic Thought, NY & Jerusalem: Maznaim Publishing Corp., 1981, “Sparks,” p. 235.

It speaks of the Sparks of Light that inhere to any object we use, eat, or wear—for example, if we eat lunch prior to going out to pray or do a mitzvah (holy deed), we release the Holy Sparks that are contained in that object. Our bodies separate out the nutrients, or the “light” from the food; we pass the “husks” from our bodies, as wastes. Even those wastes can enrich the soil or vegetation.

Another example: if there is an object that we cherish—I am, for example, in the habit of purchasing little “tchochkes,” or knickknacks, when I travel, which sit on my desk or bookshelves, and which serve to remind me of places I have been. Prior to our move from New Hampshire to Florida, I gave these away to friends and students as a remembrance of me—I no longer needed them. I passed the Holy Sparks they contained to someone else.
According to Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov, “When People eat, drink, and utilize things, their main goal is to absorb the Sparks that exist in each thing. You must take care of your possessions because of the Sparks that exist in them. …When you finish rectifying all the Spakrs in something that relates to the Root of your soul, God sometimes takes it away and gives it to someone else. This is because Sparks still remain in this thing, which relate to another Root.” (Each soul contains a root; each root has a particular mission on this earth.)

Of course, every Family has much-loved heirlooms which generations pass down and use on various holidays or at family dinners—cups, plates, and other objects. These are very important, because they are full of Love. And it is important to pass them along while the old and the young are still living. “It is better to give with a Warm Hand than a Cold One,” is a morbid, but valuable, saying I grew up with.

            Finally, passing on to the essential concept of prayer, the essence of Prayer is not only asking God for “stuff.” It is thanking God for giving us the ability, the duty, to serve others. And it is thanking God for being God, and for giving us the moral sense to act as if we are made in God’s image. It is judging one’s personal actions, and vowing to improve—that is a lifelong struggle.

It is also recognizing that everything that exists has some godliness in it. The same plastic that created the keyboard of the computer on which I have typing these words of Torah, of holiness, to teach others, might have been used to create a weapon to hurt others.

            It is only our kavanah, our intention, which, together with God, can rectify all the wrongs in the world. “Do God’s will as if it were your will,” the Tradition tells us, “so that God will do your will as if it were His will.”