Sunday, July 31, 2016

Mattot-Massay: Report from a City of Refuge (Hebrew, Ir Miklat)


By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

My name is Issachar; I am a Hebrew, from the Tribe of Naphtali. My father died before I was born, and my mother was left a widow, with myself, two older brothers, and a younger sister. As soon as I was old enough to help put bread on the table, I went out to work. I became a woodcutter.

It was not hard work, but neither was it easy. It was one thing to gather twigs, even stout branches, but to cut down an old tree which a farmer found in his way—that required a friend’s help. I asked my old friend, Chaim ben Mavet, to help me. He himself was from a large family, in the olive-oil business, but he had no interest in that; he preferred the outdoors. And so, we began to cut down, saw, and sell our lumber—just wooden branches and scraps, really—together.

Still, I had dreams of becoming a builder, like those I saw in our village, making frames for people’s houses. Chaim and I even helped out on those projects when our own business was slow. It was pleasant, most of the year, working in the out-of-doors, and the years passed easily.

“Soon,” my mother told me, “you may begin to start thinking of taking a wife.”

This made me happy. I even cast my eye about, on one or two maidens. And so, the days went on….

It was a spring day, with birds singing and a soft breeze in the air, the best kind of day for felling a birch or two and drying them out for firewood, to sell in the marketplace. Chaim and I went to a nearby copse where we often found our lumber. Neither of us thought to check whether the ax-head was securely bound to the handle; we both assumed the other had done it. We found a thin poplar tree, dead for being between two mighty oaks, and we drew lots to see who would be “first chopper.” I swung the ax a few times, smiling as the sharp brazen blade cut into the wood, more and more deeply. Chaim moved off a short distance, wearing his leathern sling, and gathered bits and twigs for kindling; we sold that, a perutah-penny a bundle. It was a good day for our business.

The morning sun rose higher. I took a minute to sip water from our goatskin and wipe my brow. Looking around, I could not help but admire the beauty of the day! If the earth and sky and air were so wondrous, how much more beautiful was the Maker of them all? I put down the ‘skin and picked up my ax—I looked around for safety, to spy where Chaim was, but could not see him. As I swung back, I called out his name, for safety: “Chaim!”

“What, Friend Issachar?” I heard him running toward me.

Believing he was safe, but not seeing him, I swung my ax back, aiming to cut the tree down and finally, clean. But then—I felt the ax-blade fly off the handle—the sound of metal hitting flesh, a short cry, and then, silence. O my God! My best friend, Chaim ben Mavet, lay dead, the blade lodged deep in his chest. All alone now, in the woods, I did not know what to do, or where to go. I thought of the “blood revenge law,” older than the Torah of Moses, by which Chaim’s family would hunt me down in a “revenge killing,” a vendetta, and, by that same cruel law, my family would kill a member of his family in retaliation.

The killing would never end, forever and ever.

I dug a shallow grave by hand, and gently placed therein my friend’s  bloodstained body, crying bitter tears—of loss for him, fear for me. I hid that day and fled by night to a nearby Ir Miklat, a walled-and-protected City of Refuge, throwing myself on the mercy of the Kohanim, the Priests, who administered there, and ran the City to protect hundreds of others like me. The Bet Din, or Court of Law, in the City tried me and found me, indeed, guilty of manslaughter, only not premeditated murder. I was sentenced to remain in the City until the death of the High Priest, not as punishment, but in atonement for my inadvertent sin.

“It is clear that you must have done something wrong, for this terrible sin to have happened, even accidentally,” my Defender-Levite explained to me, “and so, you must remain here. There is work for you to do, Torah to study. And time to reflect and think. Here, you are safe.”

“How long must I remain here?” I asked, “I am a young man, and my life is just beginning.”

“Who knows the ways of God?” answered the Levite, “You must stay until Nadivel ben Yoreh, our current High Priest, dies.”

“Then I await his death daily; let him die soon! Now!” I thought, grinding my teeth at my sudden death-in-life imprisonment, and left the court, under escort by Israelite guardsmen. A middle-aged woman with a sad, but beautiful face, wearing cloth-of-gold and precious jewelry like a queen, came up to me.

“Are you Issachar ben Asir?” she asked, “They told me to meet you here, outside the Hall of Justice. My name is Nechama bat Chesed v’Chana.”

“What can I do for you, Madame?” I asked, wondering why such a highborn woman would have dealings with me, a peasant woodcutter. The guardsman took off my manacles as we spoke.

“No: it is what can I do for you,” she said, “for I am the wife of the High Priest, Nadivel. You are to come home with me, for the night. Here is my palanquin….”

I followed her to the environs of the City—still within the Walls, of course; all in the City went on within its walls, like a fortress—how I longed for the forests and open fields, where I had grown up, running barefoot! But we often cannot make the choices in our life; God and Fate are often intermixed….We entered under a huge, shadowed archway, and I heard the echo of children’s voices, laughing: “Who is this, whom have you brought among us, Mama?”

We were in the House of Nadivel and Nechama, a mansion, with servants bowing and children running amid the columns. A lovely fountain plashed in a central courtyard. A footman showed me to my bedroom, and I was able to have a bath, with perfumed oil-soaps. After I toweled off, there was a knock at the door. A teenaged manservant stood there.

“Mistress Nechama and Lord Priest Nadivel’s compliments, Sir Issachar, but dinner will be served when the bell rings.” He turned on his heel and strutted away, the little fop. Then, I heard Nechama’s voice, calling my name. I bent over the huge stairway, and saw her below, helping her maidservants set the table. She was no longer wearing her golden skirts, but rather a simple at-home dress, with an apron over it—she waved and smiled, looking almost like my mother (Lord, how I missed my mother!):

“Don’t forget, Issachar,” Nechama called, with a little boy peeping from beneath her skirts, “when the bell rings, come to dinner in the main dining room. Don’t be late—there are many in our family, and the food may not last!” And she laughed.

There was plenty. I had never eaten so much in my life. The High Priest’s family was huge—children from three to thirteen sat in their seats, laughing and eating, but grew hushed when either their mother or father raised a hand to speak, or to ask them a question.

(I found out later that nearly all were adopted, either orphaned from Israelite tribes, or were refugees of war.)

In the end, I spent a week, as their guest. I ate at their table, lived with their children, and all called me by name, as if I were son, brother, or uncle.  

Why, I wondered, why?

At week’s end, Nadivel called me into his study, a smiling, fiftyish public man, bearded, kindly, but businesslike and efficient. He told me that he had found me a job as a woodcutter, supplying firewood for the sacrificial fires, and lumber for extra homes in the City—sadly, the need was growing daily, but all were happy that the refugees from vendetta had a place to live.

A year passed, and I pray for Nadivel’s and Nechama’s health daily. My life is limited, but I am glad to be alive.

O Reader from the Future! Are we Denizens of the Past so primitive, that we are not worth imitating? Read the news today, of innocents dying, and political bullies, both secular and “religious,” fulminating and making war, both verbal and actual.

Is it then so outlandish to conceive of building a City of Refuge?

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Abraham & the Elderly Wanderer: An Interfaith Midrash-Legend

Abraham and the Elderly Traveler

An Old Midrashic Tale, re-told by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            When the Lord God revealed Himself to Abraham our Father and Sarah our Mother, He commanded them to go out into the world and spread the faith. Abraham’s favorite mitzvah, or commandment/good deed, was that of Hachnasat Orchim—Welcoming Guests. He therefore built a tent which was open on all four compass-points, so that, when he and Sarah camped in the wilderness, he would be sure to spot any traveler. Then, he would rush forth, and offer them both shelter and hospitality.

            So it happened, one day, that Abraham and Sarah were sitting in their cool tent in the heat of the day. And a lone desert traveler appeared, coming over the ridge, looking tired and thirsty. Abraham rushed to greet him:

            “Come to my tent, Sir,” said Abraham, “and there, I will wash your feet from your long journey, and my wife and I will give you food and refreshment.”

            “Thank you,” said the man, “I have been walking for a long distance in this desert, and could use a rest. I might have died, had you not rescued me.”

            And the two returned to the tent, together. Abraham went and slew a tender young lamb, dressed it, and gave it to one of the men-servants to roast. Sarah baked matzos in a clay oven, and, while the man drank goats’-milk, Abraham told him stories of the One True God, Who made Heaven and Earth, and all that are in them.

            And the man listened, and nodded politely. And then, they fell to their feast, eating the meat about one-half hour after drinking the milk, in fulfillment of the Laws of Keeping Kosher, even though these were not yet given to Moses at Mount Sinai. Go figure.

            After the meal, as they sat back with full bellies, the man said, “Thank you for your hospitality, Friend Abraham.”

            And Abraham smiled, and said, “You must not thank me. Instead, we must both give thanks and offer praise to my God, the One True God, Who is invisible, and Who made the lamb you enjoyed, the milk you drank, and all the food that we consumed. Is He not a remarkable God, indeed? Let us now pray to Him—“

            And Abraham prepared to rise, and lifted his face to the Heavens, the abode of the Lord God Almighty.

            But the man did not get up to join in the prayer.

            Instead, he reached into his robe, and said, “By your leave, Friend Abraham, I will pray to my own god, and thank him for the meal, rather than yours.”

            And the man (whose name was Ishbaal) withdrew a small wooden statue, as big as a child’s doll. It was smooth along its body, and had a wooden head with the nose mostly gone, and a wooden base that had once been level, but had been knocked askew, so it would not stand up straight and proper. But the man held it with much reverence, and patted and kissed it with much reverence.

            “O my god, Baal, Lord of the Lightning, the Sun, and the Storms!” Ishbaal began, but Abraham reached out a hand, and stopped his prayer.

            “What are you talking about, Friend Ishbaal?” he asked, and his tone was low and slow, but there was a slight undercurrent of anger and impatience at the doll-idol, “That—that—thing you have there, is no god. That thing is a—a stick of wood.”

            “Excuse me,” said Ishbaal, looking hurt and insulted, “but I was kind enough, and polite, too, when you spoke—at great length, too, with all due respecth—about your God, and went on and on about how He created the heavens and the earth. An invisible God! Humph. No, indeed. I have prayed for all my life to this, little, sensible, fully portable god. He was a gift—my great-great-grandfather, also named Ishbaal, carved him, many years ago. And he passed him down, father-to-son, and now he is mine, since I was very small. And furthermore—“

            “For God’s sake!” cried Abraham, “That is no god. That is a stick of wood! Toss it on the fire, and join me in worshiping the One True God. Now!”

            “I will do no such thing!” said Ishbaal, rising, and facing Abraham, nose-to-nose, “for my god is a real god, made of his own trees that grow on his own earth. He reposes in heaven, and throws down the lightning, and causes the thunder to roll—“

            “For the last time,” interrupted Abraham, “I ask you. You ate my meat. You drank my drink. And now, I ask—no, I command you—will you join me in the worship of the Lord God Almighty, who loves us all?”

            “No,” said Ishbaal, “why should I? Baal commands me to worship him. And that’s what I will do. I have worshiped Baal, and he has protected me, since I was young—“

            “Then, out, out!” screamed Abraham, “Out with you! I cannot abide having you beneath my roof! I rue that I ever gave you shelter or food! Out!”

            “Gladly,” said the old man, and he gathered his small store of things, clutched his Baal-idol to his chest, and raced out into the dark desert night.

            After his abrupt dismissal of his guest, Abraham, who was elderly himself, felt exhausted. He fell to his sleeping-mat and into a deep slumber. And he dreamed.

            In his dream, he heard the Voice of God. And God spoke to him, saying, “Abraham, Abraham.”

            And, also in the dream, Abraham answered, “I am here, my God! I am here. Did I not do well for You and Your honor today, in upholding the belief in You that I profess and follow with all my heart, when that stubborn old fool provoked me? Did I not act justly and correctly in my words and deeds?

            And the Lord God, Who moves Heaven and Earth, said, “Um—well, Abraham—not exactly.”

            And Abraham replied, “’Not exactly,’ O Lord God? Could you be more specific?”

            And God said, “Well, Abraham, it’s like this—“

            And Abraham said, “But God, he had an idol—a stick of wood—and he was praying to it! I was just correcting him—“

            And God said, “Yes, well, that’s the thing….”

            And Abraham said, “But I was upholding Your holiness, and glory, and righteousness, forever!”

            And God said, “Yes, well, that’s all very nice, but that old man—what was his name, Ishbaal?—he is made in My image, too. And the way you treated him—“

            And Abraham said, “But that stubborn old man refused to believe!”

            And God said, “Will you let Me finish? Please, stop interrupting.”

            And Abraham said, “Oh. Sorry. Sure. Go ahead.”

            And God said, “Thank you. Now, just listen. Yes, it’s true that that old man has prayed to that little wooden doll for all of his life. But, in the meantime, he was trying to live as good and honest and decent a life as he could. And praying to that wooden doll wasn’t hurting anyone. Meanwhile, during all of those years, I was doing My part for him—protecting him and his family, making sure that they had food to eat, clothes to wear, looking out for them—all of those years.”

            And Abraham said, “But that’s what I meant—shouldn’t he have been worshiping You?”

            And God said, “Let me get to the point. I put up with that man’s praying to that idol for all of those years, because he was doing the best he could. All of those years—and you, Abraham, my good and faithful servant—you couldn’t tolerate him in your presence for just a few hours, or, at most, just one day?”

            And Abraham said, “Oh. I get it. Um—yeah.”

            And God said, “You blew it, Abraham. Big time. Sorry to have to tell you this, but it’s My job.”

            And Abraham woke from his dream. He ordered torches lit, and he, his man-servants, and Sarah all went out, into the dark, desert night. They searched and searched, and found the old man, sleeping by a sand dune. And they did not rest, until they convinced him that he was right, and Abraham was wrong—that is, he should not have tried to force the old man to worship his God.

            And they brought the old man, Ishbaal, back to their tent, and refreshed him, again. And he and Abraham and Sarah went on to become lifelong friends, and worshiped together, in an interfaith fashion.

            And God was pleased, and He blessed Abraham, Sarah, and Ishbaal.

            If they, why not we?

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Pinchas: The Testimony of Cozbi bat Zur, Midianite Princess, Jew-by-Choice, Murdered by Zealotry

Pinchas: The Testimony of Cozbi bat Zur, Midianite, Jew-by-Choice, Interrupted

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Moses: My time is drawing near…I can no longer control these Israelites. They are not the Exodus Generation who knew me, the slaves I liberated when I was young and strong, and, with a twitch of my mighty shepherd’s staff, could conjure up a forthcoming of frogs, or a ravenous flight of locusts. By God’s awesome breath, the hail roared down, crushing the Egyptian wheat and barley while it stood in ear. No: this bullheaded Wilderness Generation, born into freedom, is demanding beyond control: they wish for milk and honey now, in place of manna, heaven-sent; they are quick to rush into battle, and lose, to claim the land they have not yet earned. O my Lord! O my land, which I will never live to see! When did my control, my domination of my People, slip out of my shaking, palsied hands?

Pinchas: I am your Zealot, Uncle Moses: I will rescue the Nation of Israel. Now is the time for Action, and no more Words. I am a Kohen-Priest, but I do not shy away from Violence when Rank Impurity invades the Sacred Sanctuary Precincts. That is why I took my sharply-pointed Lance, and skewered both Zimri ben Salu of the Tribe of Shimon, and his pagan harlot, Cozbi bat Zur, a she-whelp of the foul Midianites, when they dared to pollute the ground before God’s Holy Place of Sacrifice and Worship. I am not yet done: I will kill any and all who dare defy the Word of God: I will conquer, surely conquer, in God’s Name: I will cross the Jordan, yea, and destroy all those pagans living there, for I come not in peace, but with a sword.

Moses: Do you not know, my blood-and-thunder nephew, that your Aunt Zipporah, my wife—though where she is now, I cannot say; I have not been home in weeks, so long have I been occupied with the matters of my People—is a Midianite? And that our laws of jurisprudence hearken from my father-in-law, Jethro, High Priest of Midian? How can you trample on the rights of our neighbors in this manner?

Pinchas: What’s done is done, in my God’s Name! And I will stab and kill again, and again, until the very Jordan runs red with blood. For God commends my deeds—so have I written it down, in your Book. My God has blessed me with a Covenant of Peace—is that ironic enough, for you, my Uncle Moses?

(And Moses was silent. Yet now, we hear the Testimony of the Dead.)

Cozbi bat Zur: I was a princess of the Midianites, and my childhood friend was Dodya, a granddaughter of Midianite High Priest Jethro who, like her grandfather, became a Hebrew. We Midianites had heard that he had studied all the faiths extant in our time, and, by his own lights, found Judaism most amenable. He converted his family only—Dodya, my friend, as well—and set out to follow his son-in-law’s tribe.
I came along, curious about this new belief: how could one God create both heaven and earth? How could One God control both good and evil? I came, I wished to learn! When the Israelites encamped near our people, I saw how a few Midianites ne’er-do-wells, hearing they had Egyptian gold, went to try and steal it away from them, using dancing girls to distract them—I came, but stayed in hiding.

Zimri ben Salu: I was a wanderer from the Israelite camp, and that is where I found my Cozbi—the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. She told me of her quest, to learn about, perhaps to join in, the ways and manners of our tribe. I did not know what to say, although I knew other “strangers to our faith” had done so: had not our Rabbi Moses himself taken a Midianite wife, our Aunt Zipporah?
I told Cozbi to hide amid the desert bushes, and went to find Old Moses, or, perhaps, an Israelite Elder or two, to put the question of admitting her, my dearest Cozbi. I must admit—I was having feelings for her: she was so pretty, innocent, and sweet—I had no evil thoughts toward her, I swear before God!

Moses: In the midst of the camp, I saw Zimri coming toward me, but I was preoccupied: Joshua had told me of Midianite visitors on the outskirts of the camp.
I thought, Perhaps, my Zipporah had returned, forgiving me?—I went to see, and was astonished at the dancers and the temptations they offered: Was this the Golden Calf all over again? Were the people bound to sin, wherever they went?

Cozbi: As I hid, on my loving Zimri’s orders, I looked around the camp, not so far off, and saw the most wondrous sight: the Tent of Meeting, and the Holy Sanctuary—I imagined seeing an Angel of my Hebrew God, snow-white, garbed in white samite, hovering over the Tent—I heard it call to me: “Cozbi! Cozbi bat Zur! It is I, Raphael, the Archangel; the Israelite God calls to you, bids you ‘Welcome as you join My People; welcome to the People Israel! Come, draw near!’”
What could I do but approach, slowly, hesitantly? I walked a bit closer, looking down shyly in the Presence, and, fearful of being unworthy to stand on this holy ground, fell to my knees, and prostrated myself, slowly, slowly, as a warm feeling spread throughout my body, to my very soul….

Zimri: After approaching Moses, calling his name, only to see him turn and bustle off in the other direction, I became worried and hastened back to my Cozbi, to find that—Horrors! She was lying in the dust there, before the Sanctuary, too close for a Hebrew, let alone a pagan Midianite—and there, there!
--was Pinchas, lance in hand, stalking her, mumbling to himself—curses and imprecations, no doubt—what could I do? I leapt, tried uselessly to block his spear, and covered her body with mine, in a vain attempt to protect her—O my Cozbi! O my beloved girl! O my wife-to-be, my Jew-to-never-become!

Pinchas (wiping his forehead with a cloth stitched of linen and wool): It is done. I have cleansed the Holy Sanctuary of the sinful pagan blood….

So may it continue to be done in Our Land, forever, by Zealots such as I, O Lord!
Use me as you will, and may I prove worthy of this Covenant of Peace, with which I—that is, You—have blessed me.
So be it written; so be it sealed, in this our Book.

In the Reign of King Ronald Drum I, Rex America

In the Reign of King Ronald Drum I, Rex America

By David Hartley Mark

            It is becoming too cold and dark to write. This stub of pencil hurts my hand, but no matter. Just before the Drumbeaters grabbed me, I stuffed some lined paper into my pockets, along with the manuscript of the Kabbalah-Jewish Mysticism Commentary I had been working on for the last three years. My family is gone; I do not know where they are. King Ronald Drum and his Hordes of the Night have swallowed them, me, and most of the America we knew and loved; gulped them down, into his gaping, bottomless maw….

It was nighttime when I awoke; the lump on my forehead where the Minute Man Sergeant-Major cracked his brass knuckles is raw and bleeding—how can one hit a man, without anger? It has become far too easy, these days….

We are riding along, through the black, uncaring, godless night, in an open-top boxcar, and I look around. The railroad needs all rolling stock for our planned military assault on the Free State of Canada, for committing the “crime” of harboring American refugees from King Ronald’s wrath. Some of these unfortunates, all wearing torn clothing and bearing the stigmata of beatings, are sharing the car, which hurtles through the night like a lost angel, or arrant demon: former Catholic priests, rabbis like me, Protestant ministers, Islamic imams, atheists, agnostics; writers and editors, news writers, social critics and commentators, fired “radical” university professors; musicians, artists, performers, even a standup comic or two. Who fears an artist, a musician? Gays, transvestites, transgendered—we are all easily visible to one another by the vari-colored triangles that the Drumbeaters forced us to wear, sewn on the left breast and back part of our jackets. We are a crazy quilt of races and ethnicities; we have been dubbed “Threats to the Divine Drum.”

And the snow will not stop falling. From time to time, one of our number, bloody-headed, broken, will climb up the side of the car, boosted by his dearest friends and comrades, grab the rough planks that hem us in, haul himself up-and-over, and jump out, into—where? Certain escape, more likeliy death; better that than where we are going, surely. But I am a coward, shivering with cold, and I determine to see where we are going, to bear witness, and bend to my scrap of paper, writing, writing….

            Rumors abound: we are going—where? To the Drumhead Colonies of the New Mexican Conquest, which King Ronald I ordered invaded during Year II of his Reign. He first disbanded the Regular US Armed Forces, and turned the weapons and arsenals over to Chief Regent Misera Pound, who in our—former Democracy?—had been his vice-president, but to whom he handed responsibility for all domestic affairs.

Regent Pound wasted no time: he declared DrumFederalOrder VI:  Temporary State of Emergency due to Threat of Domestic Terror and Potential Insurrection, and passed Martial Law on an Indefinite Basis. The rubber stamp National Assembly, made up of former State Campaign Chairs for the Drum Movement, passed it without a murmur, after the Regent disbanded Congress—he surrounded it with members of the National Arms Association, and “strongly suggested that they go home, to strengthen DrumbeatThink in their home districts.”
It was an effective method. It really didn’t take that much effort, or time, to kill Democracy in America….

            King Ronald took over—stole leadership of?—both the US Dept. of Homeland Security and the Internal Revenue Service and placed them under his Regime’s direct supervision, using their databanks to issue Official US National ID Cards, using everyone’s Social Security Number to track every citizen—track them down, actually. Some resident foreign nationals and illegal immigrants—who would have thought this would a good time to be an illegal immigrant?—escaped his nationwide dragnet, and escaped to either the Free State of Canada, which hunkered down behind the DrumWall which King Ronald built to contain the thousands—millions?—of American refugees seeking sanctuary beneath the Maple Leaf Flag, or to South America, where Costa Rica and other states offered refuge to any North American who could render their economy useful service. Ironic, that the same countries against whom he fulminated during his campaign should become places of refuge for those Americans whom he swore to protect….

Ronald is threatening to invade these lands, but he must bide his time, and seek ways to rebuild his strength, following mass resignations by the US professional officers’ corps and soldiery, now scattered and leaderless among the general American population.

There are rumors that former Secretary of State Cowell is hiding somewhere in the Rocky Mountains with a cadre of trusted lieutenants, but no one knows what to believe, nowadays. After King Ronald took over the US CellPhone Industry, and his regime forced every citizen to give up their phones and receive “improved” ones chained to our wrists, we receive only the “official news” that his people put out—BBC and RadioCanada are jammed, mostly….

            For those of us who could not, or refused to, see the threat that King Ronald posed to our Democracy, it quickly became too late to escape. We were caught like rats in a trap. I suppose the first warning came with the opening of offices to enlist what was called the Drumbeat Minute Men (MM’s), initially advertised using the Internet and TV, of course—as an alternative to the Regular Armed Forces, but rapidly overtaking them in numbers, after Speaker Bryan, who became King Ronald’s Official Public Spokesman, led a series of televised “Town Hall Meetings” featuring professional actors dressed as real-looking “ordinary folks,” and assured them that the MM’s would get first pick of the “Amazing Jobs for a Fantastic New American Age” which the Drum Administration—they still called it an Administration, ‘way back then—was preparing.

I still remember the TV Programs—propaganda commercials, really—with King Ronald making his familiar Chef Boy-Preh-Dee thumb-and-forefinger curl and shouting,

“Yes, lots of jobs—good, good jobs! Amazing jobs! Fantastic jobs!”

And that smile—like a shark’s, only without teeth. It haunts me in my sleep: blinking on-and-off, on-and-off, like an electric light. It is everywhere, from the billboards they put up. His voice: bellowing his speeches, night and day. He has become The Beloved Drum, or Dear King Ronald One: that is how we must refer to him, among one another, or face quick and painful consequences….

            I suppose that the same folks—desperate young folks, in particular, but a lot of elderly, desperate people, too—who were taken in by King Ronald’s high-speed huckstering during the Last Presidential Campaign were similarly fooled by the MM ploy. They flocked to the Recruitment Stations, were duly photographed and enlisted, receiving black uniforms “modeled on the same style as that worn by our Dear King Ronald.”

What appeared strange at first, however, was the insistence that every recruit, male and female, be anesthetized for the sake of receiving a “special tattoo” in the right armpit—supposedly, it held their Official MM ID Number, visible only under ultraviolet light.

            When the recruits awoke from the anesthesia the next morning, they were surprised to discover that, in addition to the tattoo—which was plainly visible under blacklight, as promised—a small patch of hair, just above the ear, was also shaved away, on both sides, but the recruiting team assured them that this was just to identify them instantly as Drumbeater Minute Men. They were told to keep those little bald spots clean and dry for a couple of days, until they had a chance to heal—but why should a simple, shaven area need to heal?

            It did seem strange—though the large number of tattoo artists, formerly on the outskirts of society, were happy to be embraced by the King Ronald Club, the new name given to the Publican Party, which had successfully run Candidate Drum for the US Presidency….

            Things were happening quickly; too quickly, it seemed. We slower, duller Liberal Progressives didn’t know what to do. When an anonymous team of assassins firebombed the Arizona home of Progressive Candidate Ernie Flanders, we were all shocked and dismayed. Ernie, his wife Sylvia, and their Schnauzer, Michael Harrington, died in the holocaust. The King Ronald Internet News Outlet, The People’s Drum, said “conclusively” that Ernie's killers were from SISI, a NearEastern Terrorist Group, though this was never proven—both the FBI and CIA had been disbanded, and renamed the Drum Inter-External Security Dept., with its main offices moved from Washington, DC, to Drum Tower in New York City, with younger son Baldric in charge. Bernie, Sylvia, and the dog’s ashes were scattered at sea before their thousands of supporters “could be informed,” making a Memorial Service impossible to be organized.

Worse, at the time of his death, Senator Flanders had yet to concede his loss in his race for the US Commonweal Party Presidential Nomination to former State Department Secretary Jillian Swinton.

            Because, shocked by her colleague’s death, fearful for her own life, unable to further articulate her own message clearly, Swinton groped her way through the remainder of the campaign, with most of Flanders’s diehards deciding to protest by not voting at all. The Commonweal Party, which had hoped to provide a more open-minded alternative to Ronald Drum’s right-wing extremist views, split clean in half along Flanders-Swinton lines.
Election Day dawned cold and raw over much of the nation, finding Drum’s bullyboys surrounding the polls, openly threatening those Commonweal Party members who carried signs on Swinton’s behalf, or desperately coming to vote for Swinton and buck the Drum onslaught. Despite well-known rules against electioneering near the polls, the Drum supporters were overheard whispering to them,

“Watch yourself, Commie. What happened to Old Ernie could happen to you. We know where you live.”

            On the early morning of Election Day, while a series of 911 calls summoned the police to other parts of town, a mysterious series of bombings rocked various ethnic neighborhoods, killing hundreds of people of color. In Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, Birmingham, Little Rock, and other metropolises nationwide, potential voters cowered in their homes, and the police, exhausted by running all over town to cover every possible threat, resorted to declaring martial law. The US National Guard was called out to protect poorer neighborhoods, while the Publican Party provided car services and chartered buses for their supporters to get out the vote. People drove to the polls in style, and Drum became president by a landslide….

            Which leads me back to this freezing railroad train, on its way to—where? I have heard rumors that “troublemakers” like me will be deported to “our countries of original origin”—Poland, of all places, though my parents and grandmother were born here. The Drum International Peaceful Resettlement Organization has set up—Polish factories? Work camps?—where “you people can prove your usefulness,” as an MM Colonel told us, just before a squad of his MM goons with attack dogs and whips herded us into the open boxcars. And then, the snow started falling.

            Before they forced us onto the train, we had to empty our pockets, and I lost my life’s work, my pages on Kabbalah, when an MM forced me to remove my lined leather jacket. When I protested the cold, he grabbed a ragged fleece from a pile, and thrust it at me. I had barely enough time to take it, and here, surrounded by my colleagues—the group to my right is discussing String Theory; across the car, they are comparing Gersonides’ and Maimonides’ definitions of God—is God here, in this open boxcar?

            I put my hands into the jacket pockets—they were freezing. I found there a scrap of paper. Taking it out, I saw it was a bit of page from a lost siddur, a prayerbook. It read, “Shma Yisroel—Hear, O’ Israel”—the most fundamental, loving prayer I know—

            Is God then, in this Place? He must be.

            As the train hurtles on through the night, an Orphan of the Drum-Storm, taking us only God Knows Where, I listen to the murmuring around me: Science. Mathematics. Art History. Theology. I smile.

            Humanity—American Civilization—may have lost for now, but we are not done yet.

            Rumors abound. Who will rescue us? Israel? The United Nations? NATO?

            I wish we had done something earlier to stop Drum…but it’s too late, now. Or is it?

            Dawn is breaking. If I stand up, even briefly amid the rocking and swaying of this ancient train, I can see a mountain range. (If we escaped, how long could we survive, in the mountains?) Perhaps the day will warm up. Still, I feel warmer now, among my brothers and sisters: we are rebels, all of us.

            “I look to the mountains, whence cometh my help.
My help is the Lord, Who made the heavens and the earth….”

            I sigh: a sigh of resignation, mixed with hope….

            Sadly, it really didn’t take all that much to kill Democracy in America….

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

My Breakfast with Lucifer: A Cuppa Joe with the Prince of Darkness.

My Breakfast with Lucifer

By David Hartley Mark

            “How art thou fallen from heaven, O’ Lucifer, son of the morning! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven; I will exalt my throne above the stars of God….”

                                                                                                            --Isaiah, 14: 12-14

Who first seduced them to that foul revolt?
The infernal serpent; he it was, whose guile
Stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived
The mother of mankind, what time his pride
Had cast him out from Heaven, with all his host
Of rebel angels, by whose aid aspiring
To set himself in glory above his peers,
He trusted to have equaled the most high….

                                                            --John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I, ll.33-40

            I had breakfast with Lucifer this morning, following his renunciation by Dr. Ben Carson the second night of the Republican National Convention. We met in Fester’s Diner, a particular favorite of his, when he visits South Florida. I had the cornflakes and milk, with a side of coffee, light, three Equals. He had the fruit plate, with weak tea, no lemon or sweetener.

            “Watching yourself, ‘Cipher?” I asked, querying him about his choice.

            “Yes,” he said, “It’s my stomach. Can’t keep anything down, really. Running around so much, these days. So much trouble in the world, you know?”

            He bent his head and muttered a quick prayer, and then scowled at me.

            “The least you could do is say ‘Amen,’” he said.

            “Oh, okay—Amen,” I said, “When did you become a praying demon?”

            “I always have been,” he said, “What, am I not a creature of God? Do I not do God’s will? I am the Sitra Achra, the Other Side, you know. I cannot work independently of the Most High; that would be Dualism. Like you, I believe God is One. Still, I have been known to manifest certain aspects of human free will….”

In the midst of his theologizing—the Devil can cite Scripture to his purpose, as Shakespeare reminds us—he took up knife and fork, which began to glow red-hot at his touch. The knife-blade melted in his grasp, like Silly Putty, and he quickly dipped it into his drinking glass of ice water, which began to boil.

            “Damn,” said Lucifer, “I hate when that happens. (To himself) Calm yourself, Son of the Morning; calm—be calm…There!” He smiled, and I saw the gleam of his canines; they were razor-sharp in the morning light filtering through the left-over Easter decorations adorning Fester’s front windows, along with a stray cardboard matzo or two, left over from Passover. On the next window, a painted-on Moses wielded a shepherd’s crook, looking barely visible after weeks of being rubbed against by Fester’s mostly elderly clientele. Moses appeared to be guarding a painted-on Easter Bunny.

The conversations of hard-of-hearing Jews, Hispanics, African-Americans, and others ebbed and throbbed around us; we had to shout to hear each other.

            “I love this place,” said Lucifer, raising his voice in the din, slicing a canned peach and forking it into his mouth, “Been coming here for years. I love ethnic food.”

            “Does the Florida heat bother you?” I asked.

            Arching one eyebrow ironically, he gave me a look. “You remember where I work, right?”

            “Oh, yeah, right—do any business here?” I tried to change the subject, while lifting the dripping corn flakes-laden spoon to my mouth.

            “Not much,” he said, “Oh, sure, once in a while, some old fella nudges up alongside me, asks me for luck, because he’s going for a day at the track. I usually get him to promise me a day spent in Hell, against his total complement of Afterlife Aeons. Then, I let it go. I love these old guys. They think they’re putting one over me. They’re not.”

            “No more signing his name in blood on a moldy parchment treaty, your getting his Eternal Soul after death, forever and ever?” I queried, surprised at his generosity.

            The Devil put his cooled-but-permanently-bent flatware down. The knife and fork now lay at a crazy angle, seeming to spell out the initials L. D.—Lucifer Diablo?—or were they D. T.? He took a slow sip of coffee, put the cup down, and looked me in the eye.

            “David,” he said, slowly and deliberately, “these are elderly people. Why should I bother them? They’ve lived their lives, most of them, the best they can. Why should I try and hurt them? I have plenty of people coming to—uh—let’s say, ‘do business’ with me, in other places.”

            He popped a slice of apple into his mouth, careful to spit a seed into his hand and lay it on the plate.

            “Other places?” I said.

            “Sure,” he smiled again, “New York City—Washington, D.C.—Damascus—you know. Lately, the Paris account has been ringing off the hook. And the Middle East is always keeping me busy. I don’t mind; that’s where I got started, millennia ago. Yes, Jehovah and me—those were the Good Old Days—you always knew where you stood with the Almighty. We had an understanding….”

            His eyes, yellow pupils in deepblack irises, grew distant, remembering. I tried to move the conversation back to more recent times.

            “What about Dr. Ben Carson’s—uh—renunciation of you, at the RNC, the other night?”

            The waitress came over with two pots of coffee, CAF and DECAF. She smiled at Lucifer; he was a regular, and was known to be a good tipper. He smiled at her, careful not to show his canines, this time. She was in her late forties, a bottle blonde, with a world-weary smile, but happy to face the day and schmooze up the customers.

            “How’re you gentlemen doing, today?”

            “Hey, Judy,” said Lucifer, gently touching her wrist, the one on the hand holding the CAF coffeepot, which began to bubble and steam, though her hand was completely unaffected, “How’s my sweetheart, today?”

            “OK, Prince of Tippers—I mean, Prince of Darkness,” Judy smiled, “Hey, really sorry about that thing on TV last night.”

            “Hey, it happens,” he said, “I don’t pretend that everyone understands me.”

            “Have a nice day, gents,” said Judy, topping off our coffees, and went over to the cab drivers at the next table.

            “So, what’s this about Saul Alinsky?” I asked, when Judy was out of hearing.

            “It was a joke, that Alinsky thing,” said Lucifer, putting his cup down and steepling his fingers, “and the problem is, some people, they’re not like you and me. They don’t get jokes. See, Alinsky was street; he was an organizer. He was never a Communist, Anarchist, what-have-you. And religious? Please. His religion was helping people, poor people. What, I should mess with poor people? What have they got that I would want? Now, rich people is something else….”

            “So what would a guy like Alinsky have to do with you?” I asked, surprised.

            “Exactly,” said Lucifer, nodding his head vigorously, and waving at a toupee’d man who had sat down at the next table, “could you excuse me a minute? That fella is Manny; he and I had a deal on Wall Street, and he owes me some vigorish—be right back.”

            While the Prince of Darkness talked to Manny, a slightly overweight octogenarian with space shoes on, I checked my cell phone for the news. It wasn’t good, mostly; people hurting each other, killing each other, inflicting pain on each other…. I sipped my coffee, looked around, listened to folks laughing, arguing, sharing their lives—it made me feel better.

            Lucifer slipped back into the booth. “Well, Manny didn’t have the scratch, so I gave him an extension.”

            “That’s it?” I asked, surprised, “No demons to torment him? No Erinnyes, Furies, demons of the St. Anthony type?”

            Lucifer’s eyebrows, two sharply-angled lines like an old transvestite’s, lifted a bit. “Excuse me?” he asked.

            “You don’t torture people any more?” I asked him.

            “Where have you been living, Dave?” he asked, “The Thirteenth Century? The Inquisition? We—I—don’t do that sort of thing anymore. What do you take me for?”

            “Well, Sipher, come ON,” I said, spreading my hands in mock-resignation, “I mean, you ARE the Devil.”

            “What, you think I don’t know?” said Lucifer, looking down at his plate, and disappointed to find it was empty, except for an orange peel and the cherry stone, “Oh, I get it. You think I should be whipping people for their misdeeds. No, that’s all in the past, and I’ll tell you why. Hey, Judy— (Calling to the waitress) Are we allowed to smoke in here? No? Damn. (Turning to me) Can we walk? I really need a cig. Naw (more to himself)—too damn hot, out there. Man needs to cool himself off, once in a while….”

            And he sat there, the most powerful demon in the universe, nervously drumming his fingertips on the aged formica table, which slowly took a beating from his powerful hand, and began to become indented.

            “Can I ask you about the Alinsky thing?” I said.

            “Alinsky? Alinsky? Oh, yeah—“ he said, “That Ben Carson business, again. You know, that guy has no sense of humor. Either that, or he doesn’t get us—you, me, the particular sense of humor, of irony, that we share. He—Alinsky, that is—was using me, not as a Symbol of Evil, but because I rebelled. I mean, think of it: those kids back in the 1960s, they were rebelling. They wanted to change things, make them better. That was Alinsky’s idea, too.”

            “So he wasn’t selling his soul to you, the Devil?” I asked.

            “How can you sell your soul to someone you don’t believe in?” asked Lucifer, “I mean, really. It was a joke, that dedication to me that Alinsky wrote. The whole rebellion thing. It was about the hippies. And you know what’s really sad? He didn’t get it. Dr. Ben Carson just didn’t get it. Instead of thinking about a guy, Dr. Saul Alinsky, Ph.D, for heck’s sake, a Jewish guy, who wanted to organize and help people, he bought into this idea that Alinsky, and, by extension, all Jewish people, are evil—(Looking around, seeing the waitress) Judy! Can we get the check here? (To me) Sorry, Dave-man: gotta scoot: big appointment in China; they’re putting some poor yutz of a poet on trial for the crime of thinking for himself. Amazing that they still need me over there, even though they don’t acknowledge me, officially, but I have all those Politburo guys in my corner, ideologically—it makes me laugh, sometimes—it’s all free will, you know?—Jumping Mephistopheles, I need a cigarette, and quick—hey, Dave, could you pick this one up?—I’m due in Beijing in six minutes—I’ll get it next time, OK?”

            A puff of smoke, and the slightest whiff of sulphur.

            And he was gone.