Sunday, November 27, 2016

Isaac and Rebecca: Strife Over the Wells


At Home with Isaac and Rebecca: The Middle Years

(Night in the Desert. Isaac sits alone at a campfire. He drinks slowly from a cup of spiced wine, pokes at the embers of the dying fire, and soliloquizes.)

Isaac: Father is dead; his chief steward, Eliezer, is also dead. I am alone. Alone as a stone. Just me and this—this wineskin (drinks; the cattle low, moo, meh, and baa) Oh, silence, you—you—woolly fools! Fine company you are, for a master shepherd like me…. Where was I?

Ah, yes: Poppa is dead—and how am I to continue his destiny? I have also heard the Voice of El-Shaddai, the Stander on the Mountain, telling me that I will be “as numberless as the stars of heaven.” (looks up; tries counting the stars) two, three, ten, thirty-four—oh, what’s the use?  Truth to tell, El-Shaddai, or Whatever You call Yourself, I don’t need stars. No (he drinks). After all (he speaks with the careful grace of the truly inebriated), you can’t herd stars; you can’t shear them; you can’t bring them to market in Rehoboth Square. What I need to know (shaking a finger at the sky) is, who will continue the line after me? My strapping son, Esav, that red-haired rascal, or my Jacob, my deep thinker, so thin that he seems to slip through my fingers when I try to hug him—that Mama’s boy? O’ Nameless One, what a riddle have you posed me! Whom do You prefer? I wish You would choose—(waits, but no answer comes). Both earth and sky are silent. Well, well, my Father’s God, if you will not help me here, I must wait, and decide myself—but deciding is not my strong suit—let me think (he drinks deeply of the wineskin, leans back against his pillow-rock, and sings softly): “O then let the cannikin clink, clink, clink/ O then let the cannikin clink/ A herdsman’s a man/ A life’s but a span/ Why then, let the herdsman drink!” (giggles to himself, and sighs)

(A sound from the shadows. Isaac gropes for his belt-knife, tries to scramble clumsily to his feet, gets as far as his knees) Who’s there, hey? Come and show yourself! (Rebecca crawls from the darkness, pulling her head-covering back from her face) Oh, it’s you, my dear. Come, come, and sit. Have some wine.

Rebecca: If there’s any left in that ‘skin, you mean. It sounds and smells like you’ve been having more than a bit. (He carefully passes her the wineskin; she sniffs it, sticks out her tongue in disgust, takes a ladylike sip, and shudders)

Isaac (sounding hurt and defensive): Now, my dear, first off, I haven’t had more than a tiny drinky-poo; and, second, it’s no more than I deserve, chasing those nasty little sheep and goats around a hot desert all day.

Rebecca: While I relax in that hot, black, airless goatskin tent, you mean. It’s no picnic for me either, keeping track of those two little boys. What nine-year-olds have you given me! Little Jacob is a dear, always sticking close by his mommy, but our Esav—well, your beloved hellion, Esav, is always running off, trying to shoot that toy bow-and-arrow at the vultures and ravens.

Isaac: Nothing wrong with that. He’s inherited my hunter’s eyes, that boy: he’ll make us proud, one day, as chief of our tribe. He’ll be as big as my brother Ishmael, wait and see. Just feed him plenty of deer meat, the same way I love it cooked: charcoal-broiled fresh over the open flames, juices running down your chin, and well-peppered, smoking from the fire. That will make him hot-blooded and warlike, just like I—

Rebecca (finishing his sentence): --always wanted to be. You know, Isaac, it would be nice if you would spend some time with little Jakey, too. He’s a born shepherd, your son. He was asking me today about how many foals we can expect the camels to bear, come spring. Jacob has a wonderful head on his shoulders: he can figure numbers without using his fingers, and I want to put him to work calculating how much provender we should buy for the herd, come this winter. I know he will be able to do it, your son. Do you think you could give Jakella some attention, too, rather than spending all your time with Esav?

Isaac (not really listening): Yes, Jacob is a good boy—but quiet. Not like Esav. As my Papa’s God lives, how he came crashing through the tent door that day, waving that poor, half-dead quail he snared, when you and I had thought that we could have some quiet time! Ah well, my dear, we really should be going to bed. Esav will be up at the first cock-crow. And the flocks won’t wait….

(The sound of twigs cracking, as if someone is approaching)

Rebecca: What’s that sound? Oh, Isaac, you’re such a fool! I told you we shouldn’t go too far from Rehoboth Village. Everything we need is there, not out here in this uncivilized desert. The grandchildren of Papa’s deceased servants live there—true, they’re not our servants, anymore, but they promised to protect us. They—

Isaac (standing unsteadily, holding his shepherd’s crook in a defensive posture): Never fear, Dearest, I will stand between you and whate’er shall transpire! I am your rock and redeemer, your shield upon the high places; I….

Rebecca: Oh, sit down, you middle-aged fool: you’re drunk (Isaac’s legs give out, and he collapses, dangerously close to the fire). I will go into the tent, and fetch out the poker. I can stand guard while you sober up. I will bring you some guarana-beans to chew upon. Oh, what can a woman do with such a man? (muttering imprecations in her native Aramean, she goes into the tent)

Isaac (mimicking her): “Such a man”! If only—if only you paid me respect, Becky! (He looks at the tent-flap she entered, to make certain that she cannot hear) A man could be driven to drink by such a woman. Oh, to be young again…. But I will see my boy, my Esav, stand as master over all heaven and earth. He is a brave, bold, redheaded hellion, my Esaveleh. So what if Schoolmaster Sar-Baal does not think him clever as—as—Jacob? I will see my Esav hunt the deserts and hillsides through, and wear hunter’s animalskins if he wishes. I will buy him the finest sword and buckler, bow and arrow, to be found in Hebron Market. He will be the warrior that I never was—that Mama and Papa—and now, this Rebecca, this bossy female, are preventing me from being….

(Suddenly, King Abimelech of the Philistines and his General, Phicol, come into the light. Phicol is bearing a fiery torch.)

Abimelech: Good Evening, Friend Isaac the Hebrew! What are you mumbling and muttering about? I see you have wine by your side. Any to share?

Isaac (scrambling to his feet, but none too steadily, and bowing): Oh, Abimelech, Your Majesty! What an honor to have you and General Phicol grace my humble tent! The wine? (Phicol has picked up the empty skin, sniffed at it, and tossed it away with a grimace) Oh, forgive me, Your Grace! I was having a little—a little—party.

Phicol (He is a brawny, bluff fellow, who thinks himself clever, but is a thick-headed bully): By yourself? By Ereshkigal, that were a lonely party, indeed! I tell ye, Friend Isaac, had you told me to, I would have fetched along a couple of our finest dancing maidens!

Abimelech: Aye, now that would have been a party worth drinking at!

(They all laugh)

Isaac: What business have you with me, this time of night, Gentlemen?

(The three squat down on their haunches; Abimelech plucks a stem of desert grass and chews on it, while he speaks, hoping to create an air of commonalty. Rebecca, meanwhile, creeps slowly out of the tent, eavesdropping on her husband, and concerned about his safety. She has a worried look on her face.)

Abimelech: Well, Ikey, it’s like this, y’see. I’m hearing rumors—and I’m not saying that they’re true—that your shepherds have been a-filling in our wells (Phicol casually half-withdraws his bronze dagger from its sheathe and turns it, just so it catches the light of the fire). Now, I’m not saying that it’s true, or that it’s false. But you know, here in these hot climes, water for one’s cattle is rare and precious.

Isaac (suddenly sober, before an accusation): Your Majesty, I can promise you—

Phicol (interrupting): Begging your pardon, My King—to cut to the chase. Now listen, Hebrew. We’ve been letting you people live here, and share the grass of our fields—not that there is all that much. And now, to hear that you’ve taken advantage of our generosity—well, I can’t say I’m surprised. You people have a reputation for those sorts of—pardon me, but I am a soldier, and I speak plainly, of your—dirty dealings—filling in other people’s wells, and such. Shall I bring a couple of squadrons of chariots down upon you and your wife and kiddies? Well, Hebrew? Tell me now, and make it quick. (He has his dagger out, by now, and is pointing it at Isaac’s throat)

Isaac (fists clenched around his staff, but suddenly calm and speaking slowly): King Abimelech, may I remind you to muzzle your dog? Once you do, I will decide whether to answer you.

Phicol: Why, you

(Isaac suddenly brings up his staff, knocking the dagger out of Phicol’s hand, and stands at the ready to defend himself, holding his staff across his body in a defensive posture)

Abimelech (trying to make peace): Here now, gentlemen, shall we come to blows over a few blades of grass, a few drops of water? Here, now! Phicol—calm yourself! I say—I order you to retire, Sir!

Phicol: I do no more than I am commanded, Your Majesty (He salutes, smartly, retrieves and sheathes his dagger, and ceremoniously marches behind his liege king).

Isaac: I will answer, now that I am not threatened—but I say to you, General—if you bring any armed forces upon my land—land which my father purchased, decades ago, and for which I still hold the deed—I will face you, together with four hundred armed servants of my house, and we will resist to the best of our ability. Armed infantry with slings and arrows will be more than a match for your silly horse-wagons. (To Abimelech) Milord King! What do you wish of me, about these wells? My father dug them, and I maintain them.

Abimelech: We ask only—ask only—that you share them with us. That is—is all. (Phicol, behind the king, is fuming, but silent)

Isaac: Done and done. We are, and will continue to be, good neighbors. We will dig up and clear out the wells which (looking sharply at Phicol) your soldiers vandalized by filling them in. However, I will direct my warriors—that is, the protective detail that I will appoint to guard these selfsame wells—to take direct action if your forces threaten them. And, with all due respect, Majesty, do not mistake my courtesy for weakness. Good day (he turns on his heel, and, seeing Rebecca, continues). My Dear, I am sorry that our guests are called away, or they would enjoy some of your homemade—raisin wine, is it? (He hands her his empty wineskin)

Rebecca (staring at the wineskin, and at Isaac): Yes, Husband—I mean, no. (To Abimelech and Phicol) I am sorry that you must leave, Gentlemen; but, my husband is very decisive about these matters. He has more important business to attend than—than yourselves. Good day. (They exit, leaving Abimelech and Phicol alone)

Abimelech (exasperated): Well, I never! These—these—Hebrews!

Phicol: What did I tell you, Majesty?

Abimelech: Oh, shut up. Can’t you even threaten a man, properly? What do I pay you for?

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Chayay Sarah: At Home with Newlyweds Isaac & Rebecca

Chayay Sarah

Scene: c. 1400 BCE, give or take a century. The interior of a stucco’d, mud-brick house in Kiryat-Arba, a suburb of the town of Hebron, a Hittite city. It is dusk; Rebecca, a young bride, daughter of Bethuel of Aram-Naharaim, the newlywed bride of Isaac ben Abraham v’Sarah—that is, the late Sarah, who is buried in the field of Ephron the Hittite, called Machpelah—is lighting an oil lamp.
She waves her hands over it, though it is not yet Shabbat, covers her eyes, and prays silently. Then, she returns to the pot she has cooking over the fire in the corner: a red-bean lentil stew for her new husband, Isaac, who will be returning very soon after a day’s shepherding the flocks of his father, Abraham the Hebrew, first to believe in the One True Invisible God.
Still, for now, Rebecca, late an idolater, is alone. She puts down the ladle and walks quietly to a bundle of blankets and bedclothes in the corner, unwraps them carefully, and takes out a small idol-figure: a clay woman with distended belly and breasts, a fertility goddess, named Inanna—a childhood favorite of hers, and a confidante. She kisses the face of the figurine—it has no features, and, even if it did, they would have worn away, by now, from an excess of kissing. Rebecca prays to Inanna, in a chanting sing-song which she learned from her grandmother, Milcah, after Rebecca’s own mother died giving birth to her:

Rebecca: “When the Sky god, An, had flown to the heavens/ And the Air god, Enlil, had settled to earth/ When the Queen of Underworld, Eresh-kigal, received her domain/ And Woman first baked bread to nourish Life,/ A Woman who feared the Sky-god An/ And revered the god of Air, Enlil,/ Saw the Tree which Enki, god of Wisdom, had planted/ By the Euphrates, for Inanna/ Mother of All,/ To rest therein—/ O make me fertile, White Goddess! Make me flower, and bear fruit/ Let not Lilith take my fruit away….

(She continues, silently, rocking back-and-forth, as Isaac enters; he leans his shepherd’s-crook in the corner.)

Isaac: Good Evening to you, Wife! Is dinner ready?

Rebecca: Oh! My husband—I was distracted (She hastily hides the idol beneath the covers, rises, straightens her robe)—sit, Husband, sit. I will bring you dinner, bread, and spiced wine.

Isaac (sits at the rough table in the corner): What a day I had! Papa is no easier to work for, now that his rheumatism is kicking in, and he comes out to fields more rarely. He is just as harsh a taskmaster as ever, nay more, for me and Chief Servant Eliezer and the boys (imitating Abraham’s voice):

“Where are taking the sheep, Isaac? That grass on yonder hillside is tainted, surely; you will poison the flock,” or, “That little spotted-and-speckled ram is growing well, but if you do not keep close watch on his frolicking, he will gambol himself off a cliff, mark my words! Break his legs, spine, his silly head, I tell ye—and then, not even them idolatrous priests of Baal or them horrible cult dancin’-girls of Inanna will buy it for a sacrifice, mark me! Watch out, watch out, you nincompoops—Adonoi’s beard, what would you do ‘thout me to keep a sharp eye on your shenanigans? Ah, the heat, the heat! Eliezer, my faithful man-jack, fetch me a nipperful of cool wine to fend off the vapors….”

Rebecca: Poor Papa Abie! He does mean well, I suppose….

Isaac: Why, whose side are you on? I was just digging up a couple of Dad’s old wells—getting the drop on those Philistines—that rabble of Abimelech and Phicol’s, don’cha know—and a pair of Phicol’s Philistinny cavalry troopers started in, charging at me! I tell you, I took to my heels, quickly—

Rebecca (gently but firmly): Philistines, Dear? Don’t you mean Hittites?

Isaac (his mouth full of bread and stew): No, they were Philistines. I’m sure of it. They wore those—those—horsehair helmet-trims, or something. Yes. I know.

Rebecca: Because there are Philistine encampments on the coast of the Great Sea, but none inland. Eliezer told me so, just the other day. None so deep inland as here. They must have been Hittites.

Isaac (nonplussed): Well—well—whatever they were, they did charge me. I say, you can see it here, yourself! Come look! (He displays a small cut on his forearm) That is where the Sergeant-Major took a piece out of me, with his lance. I was lucky to parry with my shepherd’s staff, while I was running away.

Rebecca (whispering, more to herself): I wish you wouldn’t run….

Isaac (flustered and becoming angry, knowing what she thinks of his lack of courage): What’s that, Woman? Speak up when you talk to me!

Rebecca (not fearing him): I wasn’t exactly talking to you, Isaac; I was talking to our God, our Invisible God, the one you and Papa talk to me about, all the time. I am trying to get into the habit of telling Him my problems.

Isaac (not giving up): Problems? (Sarcastically) Such as what problems, my little Aramean Princess?

Rebecca (losing her temper): Such as being married to a man who feels the need to hide away whenever a—a—conflict takes place. Or run to his father. I don’t know you very well, Isaac son of Abraham, but where I come from—Aram between the Two Rivers, a country of courageous men—men are not so quick to fight. They talk. And they make peace. Or, at least, they don’t run away from a confrontation, and go crying to their papas to fix things for them.

Isaac (sputtering with rage, and shaking his spoon at her): Why, you—you—what do you know about me, you little snip of an Aramean hillbilly? My people come from Ur of the Chaldees, the mightiest city of our day, the—

Rebecca (coolly): …which you yourself have never seen, but which your dear, departed Mama Sarah used to tell you bedtime stories about, when she wasn’t spoiling you to death (he begins to cry)—Oh, Isaac, I’m sorry.

Isaac (sobbing): What do you care? Your mother isn’t dead (Rebecca begins to cry)—oh, wait, she is, too!

(They hug, trying to comfort one another)

Rebecca: Well, there’s no getting around it: we are a pretty pair.

Isaac: Yes, thrown together by Destiny.

Rebecca: Or our fathers. Or your father’s chief servant, Eliezer, my savior with the dozen camels, the boxes of gold jewelry for bribing a little Aramean hillbilly princess (he smiles at her teasing) and the deep voice. ‘Will it please you, Little Girl, to come to accompany me, to marry my Master Isaac, whom you have never met, in a land you have never seen? Harrumph, harrumph.’

(They are both laughing now, at the memory.)

Isaac: But, my little dove, my sweetest Becky, when I first saw you! There, in the sunset—

Rebecca: Yes: you were wearing a golden tunic and cloak, and wearing an ornamental sword—you looked like my tall, dark Desert Prince. So handsome. Whose sword was that, anyway? I have never seen it, since. (Teasingly) Was it a rental, from Shomerbaal in the Hebron Shuk? Or did you borrow it from some mighty sheikh?

Isaac (proudly, yet knowing she is still teasing him, refusing to get angry or take the bait): That sword is my father’s—he wore it when he married my mother.

Rebecca: So, Sheikh Isaac—where was it, at our wedding?

Isaac: Well, you know me, Becky—I had lost it, or misplaced it, or something. Never fear: it will turn up, when I’m—

Rebecca (finishing his sentence for him, as loving couples do): …looking for something else. Yes, My Isaac, I know you, far too well. I—oh, wait—I feel dizzy—(She starts to grow limp in his arms)

Isaac (alarmed): Becky—what’s the matter? (He struggles to hold her up) Rebecca—please don’t—don’t die! I love you! (Calling for help, loudly) I say—alarm! Alarm! Servants, ho! Eliezer, Anat! Come to me, Isaac, your master!

(Enter Eliezer and his wife Anat, half-dressed, but alert to any signs of danger in their young master’s home)

Eliezer: What is it, Master Isaac? What ails young Mistress Rebecca? Anat, my dear wife—let us attend to her….(They carry Rebecca, half-fainting, to a bed in the corner of the room, and Anat begins to gently pat her cheeks. Other servants, young and old, enter; they see Rebecca prostrate, and cluster around, concerned and worried.) Stand back, ho! Give her air—and fetch the strong drink—is there any honey mead about?

Anat (kneeling, after a quick examination of Rebecca’s face and body): My Young Master Isaac, has Mistress Rebecca eaten today?

Isaac (concerned, but somewhat crossly): Why, Anat, how should I know? I rose while still ‘twas dark, and have been out in the fields since ‘way before sunup—

Kigalla (another servant, just a bit younger than Anat, stepping forward): Begging your pardon for interrupting, Sir—my Mistress Rebecca did not summon me to bring her breakfast this morning, Senior Servant Anat. When I queried her why, she said, ‘I cannot seem to keep anything down, Kigalla. I will have only herbal tea and a tiny bit of barley bread, today.’ (She and Anat nod at one another, wisely.) Praise to Inanna—I mean, to Shekhinah! She is—must be—

Anat: Silence, Old Friend and Fellow Midwife Kigalla—(In a loud voice, to the crowd) All men out! Out, you rabble, hairy, smelly, useless men! Out! (Eliezer begins to protest, sees his wife’s face, thinks better of it—but Anat grabs hold of Isaac’s arm, and nods to her husband, Chief Servant Eliezer, to remain; he does so, with a firm grip on Isaac’s slender shoulder) You, Sir, Young Master Isaac, you stay right here—with my husband.

Isaac (puzzled, as the room empties quickly): What? Why? What—what’s happening?

Anat (As the room is now empty, she strokes Rebecca’s cheek, and Rebecca opens her eyes): Young Master—what’s happening, is that you are about to become a father (glances at Rebecca’s slim form, presses her belly)—of twins, I should say. Praise to the Heights! Our tribe increases! Good stars and constellations to our dear, sweet mistress and master! (Speaking and pointing with her thumb to a young maidservant) You, little Avdiella, run and summon Old Master Abraham—he will be so, so happy! Mazel Tov! (All clap and cheer)

Eliezer (hitting Isaac a stunning blow on the back, so that he nearly stumbles): Mazel Tov!

(Laughter; the sound of flutes, drums, and timbrels)


Who is Fit to Lead America?

Who is Fit to Lead America?
The Words of Past Presidents

Compiled & Edited by David Hartley Mark

Associate with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for it is better to be alone than in bad company.
Be courteous to all, but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence.
If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.
--George Washington

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.
But a Constitution of Government once changed from Freedom, can never be restored. Liberty, once lost, is lost forever.
Liberty cannot be preserved without general knowledge among the people.
[The US has a] government of laws, and not of men.
--John Adams

I cannot live without books.
Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.
Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.
When angry, count to ten before you speak. If very angry, count to one hundred.
Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.
--Thomas Jefferson

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.
You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.
A house divided against itself cannot stand.
Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt.
Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.
--Abraham Lincoln

To educate a person in the mind, but not in morals, is to educate a menace to society.
Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.
--Theodore Roosevelt

You do not lead by hitting people over the head - that's assault, not leadership.
Never let yourself be persuaded that any one Great Man, any one leader, is necessary to the salvation of America. When America consists of one leader and 158 million followers, it will no longer be America.
Get it all on record now - get the films - get the witnesses -because somewhere down the road of history some bastard will get up and say that this never happened.
--Dwight Eisenhower

Sources: BrainyQuote, Goodreads, WikiQuotes

Friday, November 18, 2016

Morning, with Ibises, at Prayer: a Poem

Morning, with Ibises, at Prayer

By David Hartley Mark

                                                O Lord God I thank you
                                                On this greyblack sunbreaking throughclouds
                                                Florida November morning:
                                                While putting a new plastic garbage bag
                                                Into the brightgreen plastic can
                                                That stands on St. Augustine’s Grass
                                                By the curbside
                                                If we had a curb

                                                I stopped
                                                From my inthoughts
                                                And worries
                                                Of politics
                                                And America
                                                And Washington
                                                And the World….

                                                For the Lord God had sent me
                                                A minyan—a prayer-quorum
                                                Of ibises
                                                White and grey,
                                                Spotted and speckled,
                                                Brown and Black,
                                                Moving as One—

                                                Silently praying,
                                                In their own Ibis-fashion
                                                To the God Who made Ibises,
                                                Worms for their Provender,
Bugs for Variety,
Also Women and Men:

Bending and Bowing,
Straightening, Stretching,
Paying Obeisance
To the Lord of Us All.

“Mortal!” they admonished me,
In their silent ibisitude,
“We dwell in peace—
“Why on Earth
“Can’t you?”
Thus, having berated me,
Silently, Stilly,
My flock of Ten Zen Masters
Moved quietly away

Spreading their wide wings
Quitting this dull earth
Leaving it to us—

First, pray.
Then, work.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Fighting Nazi Stephen Bannon: My Letter to Sen. Marco Rubio


Dear Sen. Rubio,

As a Jew, a rabbi, and an American, I am very concerned over the appointment of the racist Stephen Bannon to be Donald Trump's chief of staff. (I am not happy with many of his other associates, either, including his vice-president.) Bannon is well-known as a head of, a scurrilous, racist, anti-semitic online rag which regularly prints lies about President Obama, African-Americans, Jews, and other issues.

I have been a rabbi for nearly forty years. I am also a college English professor, with the majority of my students African-American and Hispanic-American. These are wonderful young people (and some not so young) who are hard-working, with jobs, and most of them with families. They are eager to achieve their piece of the American Dream, and I am privileged to be able to help them as much as I can.

Sen. Rubio, I am very busy with my weekend Shabbat temple job (Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach) and my teaching. You, Sir, are busy, as well, with all the tumult in Washington, D.C.

I would be happy to invite you to speak at our congregation, knowing, of course, that your schedule is immensely crammed with duties of all sorts. I am honored that you, Sir, are our senator, and look forward to your strong efforts in leading us against any sort of divisiveness which may be approaching our nation in the future. I note that you are the son of immigrants, as well, and doubtless repudiate racism in any form. I would be happy to assist by writing any sort of letter you would ask me to.

We have come too far to turn back now. My Polish and Austro-Hungarian immigrant grandparents would be horrified at the developments here in America today. We are a nation of immigrants, as I tell my students, even those of us who were born here. I love my students and want to see them all be safe and succeed.

Thank you for your attention.

With Best Wishes,

Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Vayeira: The Donkey's Testimony


By David Hartley Mark

            All have heard, I am sure, of the Sacrifice of Isaac, how the Lord God demanded that Abraham take and sacrifice his son, his only son, whom he loved, that is, Isaac. Abraham was commanded to take his son—the younger, not the elder; Ishmael was, by this time, bending his bow in the wilderness of Paran, and seeking a bride from Egypt—and sacrifice him upon Mount Moriah, which may or may not have been the Temple Mount, in centuries to come.

            Of course, this was only a test. Why God chose to do this is shrouded in mystery. At the last minute, God changed His mind, sent an angel to clear things up with poor, deluded old Abraham—the various Jewish commentaries have given reasons enough for this—and conveniently planted a ram in the thicket, there for Abraham, His good and faithful servant, to snare, slay, and sacrifice. Well and good, except for the ram, whose selfless donation to the drama the Jewish People memorialize each year, by sounding the shofar, or ram’s horn, on their High Holy Days. It does not return my Brother Ram to life, but I am certain that he appreciates being thought of.

The shofar is, of course, the supreme symbol of the High Holies. It has given rise to a belief that, just as Isaac was willing to make the supreme sacrifice—I am personally uncertain of this; after all, his father never formally asked him—so should all Jews be similarly willing. Well, I have my doubts, but I do believe in the power of Tradition.

You may ask, how do I know so much about this and various other traditions? I am no angel, Seraph of flaming fire, or emissary of the Lord God Almighty; no. I am a far humbler messenger. I am none other than the donkey who bore both Master Abraham and Son Isaac to the Place of Sacrifice, Mount Moriah. Today, it serves as the possible foundation of the Temple, which Jews believe will be rebuilt when Messiah arrives.

A donkey, you say? And you, perhaps, laugh up your sleeve. But Gentle Reader, I am no ordinary Jack, or male donkey. No, indeed: I am a creature of legend and Midrash, of story and myth. I was created at twilight on the Eve of the First Sabbath. I am pure white in color. I rode with Noah on the Ark; I carried both King David and King Solomon into the Holy City of Jerusalem, on their respective Coronation Days, and it will be my holy task to bear the blessed weight of none other than Messiah into that noble city, when the End of Days arrives—what we call Eschatology. The Temple will be rebuilt, and Universal Peace will reign.

Do you laugh, Reader? Well, I can counsel you: stranger things have happened. I myself speak only of bearing the ruler or holy leader—that is, Abraham, David, Solomon, and the like. There are instances I could name where people have chosen such as me—a donkey, that is—as a political leader, and borne the consequences.

Well, I will keep silent. Abraham did what he felt best: that is, to follow the Lord’s instructions blindly, and not argue with Him. There are self-styled godly people such as that in the world today, I understand. Still, it baffles me how these same people can pick and choose what verses they prefer to enforce from the Bible, using them as cudgels to beat their neighbors over the head with. Even more strangely, they choose to ignore other verses which one might consider fundamental to the proper ordering of society—when Abraham and Abimelech settled their disagreement over sharing a well, for example. Abimelech saw that Abraham was a stranger, but he struck an agreement which gave both of them access to the well and its benefits (Gen. 21:25-34). They might not have loved one another, but they did respect each other. Though Abimelech was a pagan, he showed a great deal of good judgment in dealing with Abraham, a stranger in his land.

Don’t misunderstand me, Reader—I myself pick and choose—not from the Bible, of course, but when I eat my provender. There are grains I prefer, and I eat them first, such as sweet oats, while bitter sorghum is not my favorite, but I do get around to nibbling at it, sooner or later. Yet I wonder at human leaders who sin and brag about their mistreatment of—of—women, for example, and then play the saint, once they enter office. I have never mistreated a jenny—that is, a female donkey—in my entire life.

Well, enough of this. I am a donkey, and my task is to bear my burdens patiently, and not complain. I bore my masters Abraham and Isaac to the mountain and back again, even when I knew their mission was pointless, though noble in intent.

I have seen leaders, prophets, and kings come and go, and, unlike your human leaders, I exist forever. I will therefore keep silent, munch at my hay, and stand ready to admire the superior wisdom of you humans. We donkeys have small brains and are easily impressed, but never fear: we are always able to smell donkey-like behavior on the part of self-serving, big-headed, sanctimonious humans, especially those whom you have chosen to be leaders.

My dear Abraham made mistakes, but he learned from the Torah of God, and his love of humanity. I can only hope and pray that your leaders will humble themselves sufficiently to do the same. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Lech-Lecha: The Testimony of Sarai bat Haran, Wife of Abram, Co-Founder of the People Israel

The Testimony of Sarai bat Haran, Wife of Abram, Co-Founder of the People Israel

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            In the first place, Abram, my now-famous husband, never even thought to ask me if I was willing to set out on this massive journey from my home town, Ur of the Chaldees, the foremost City of our day—why, it was so big that people never called it Ur-Kasdim, they simply called it “The City,” that’s how well-known it was. Of course, back in our day, men ruled, no question; we women were expected to keep quiet, cook, clean, and have babies—though we did manage to have our own—well, I suppose you would call them spheres of influence; yes, that’s what we had, at least, among ourselves.     

We did have a good marriage, despite his being much older than I. A love-match? No; we did not have such things back in the olden times. My mother, Penibaal, and my father, Haran, met with him for the initial “discussions”—negotiations, really—they had heard good report of him, through the Shepherd’s Guild. He was a wealthy shepherd, a good provider, with many flocks, rams, and ewe lambs. I had seen him, as a young girl, during the springtime Festival of the Sheepshearing; that was all. I had on a new dress, and there was so much food, and dancing, and music! From a distance, it was, that I saw him, laughing with his mates. I thought nothing of it, being so young myself, at the time.

            But then, when I was sixteen, which was old to marry, in those days—well, my mother said, “Come with me,” and she and the neighbor ladies, whom I thought were terrifically old—perhaps in their late twenties, or even their early thirties!—they took me, virtually from playing with my rag dolls, to an upper chamber, and there, after bathing me and checking me out thoroughly—I tell you, it was like being Neighbor Nachum’s prize milch cow—they decked me out in a golden headdress, so heavy I could barely lift my head—

            “This is right, and proper, for a dear, young, fresh Daughter of Inanna,” they all announced, in quiet, but solemn voices—for women were allowed only to whisper, while men were encouraged to shout, and stamp their feet, in order to be obeyed—My gods, how fierce our men were! Though we laughed at them, behind the walls of our tents—I say, they dressed me in a wedding-dress not my own, but that of the Women of the Village; indeed, it smelled like the sweat of all the women—young girls, really—who had ever worn it!

            And before I knew it, I was being marched out, with candles, and pipers, bronze triangles and skin-drums, surrounded by my sister virgins in processional, brought before the Town Council and the Women’s Auxiliary for their formal approval and nods, and, finally, amid candlelight and torchlight, presented to My Lord Abram, who stood there with oiled beard and turban, arms akimbo, scimitar in his belt and ornamental bronze shield on his back, so tall, and muscled—I could tell, when my father laid our hands together, and my little girl’s hand brushed against his broad shepherd’s arm—as he stood there, his broad black beard bristling, starting to go grey at the edges—and I, a mere slip of a girl, all blonde and thin, but first starting to become a Woman—and the Village Wise Man standing there, invoking all the gods—Ishtar, and Marduk, and Tiamat, so that they should bless me, that I might bear a veritable legion of babies, to carry on our little tribe, long might it increase—and so, we were married. He bore me off to his tent in the desert, under the stars. Black goatskin, white cheeses to eat, and sweet spiced wine to drink, that night. Yes. Under the stars….

Only, no babies came. I wept. I ate bitter dudaim, the mandrake root, to make me fertile. I prayed to the Moon, Goddess of Changing Women’s Times. I consulted with shamans and soothsaying women, most of whom were charlatans, who bit down hard on the golden coin I would hand them before they would utter a word, the thieves! …And had my palm read, and cried and wept in the Great Temple in Ur-of-the-Chaldees before Inanna, Consort of Dumuzi, while holding the holy dagger and sword which the High Priestess of the Stork-Messenger gave me….

            But the years passed, and I had servant-girls, who bore babies on my knees by the hands of the midwives, and I had the joy of being, at least, a foster mother…. Such, such were my passing joys. And I helped Abram with the baby calves, and lambs, and a puppy or kitten, here and there…. What was I to do? One cannot mourn forever.

            So, My-Lord-Abram and I grew old together. I did not really feel myself growing old, so active was I in my counting-tent, with my serving-girls, and with the Business, keeping the ledger-scrolls with papyrus and quill. And, every Friday night, after Abram and I praised our household staff—Eliezer, our Chief Steward would tell us who was deserving of special accolades, and we would distribute coins, along with little personal gifts that we had made with our own hands—a tiny blanket for Anat’s new baby, or a wooden toy which Abram had carved for little Urubaal, the smith’s son.

            So: except for my—Problem, it was not a sad life. We were surrounded by babies, both human and animal. How could we not, being shepherd-folk? And when Abram grew old and was elected to be Chief of the Shepherd’s Guild, we deemed it an honor, and a testimonial to his always being honest in his business dealings—which I was largely responsible for, being his Chief Bookkeeper—for, truth to tell, he was a man of the fields, preferring rather to wander abroad more than count his sheep and goats, or do the buying and selling. And why was that?

            Late at night, even early in our marriage, when I was still in awe of this big, rugged, hairy giant who had taken me to wife, we would lie together in our desert tent—for no self-respecting shepherd would ever build a stucco house in town, with a front-gate and a parapet—and giggle together as newlyweds will. And, as the night went on, we would hold hands and wander together, through the desert wilderness he loved so much. He would show me Orion and the Great Bear, as well as Cassiopeia, Queen of Heaven, the noble woman who is enthroned on high. But he would also tell me about the Invisible God, who spoke with him, with Abram, alone.

            “Does He—this god of yours—speak with you more clearly after you have drunk wine?” I asked, naively.

            “I am no drunkard,” said Abram, sternly, “and you, my dear little girl-bride, my Sarai, should not doubt the word of your husband. I will never lie to you.”

            “What if another man, with a mighty sword, and, perhaps an army, perhaps a king or pharaoh, comes to threaten your life, unless you surrender me for his harem?” I teased him, “Will your Invisible God come, and rescue you, and poor little me, then? Or will you sacrifice me instead, and give me to this swordsman?”

            “Why, I—I—“ sputtered Abram, and I would run off, laughing, leaving him deep in thought. He would chase me, grab my wrists, and fling me gently down onto a copse of soft grass. I would laugh, and laugh. He would mutter into his beard, but smile, as well. He loved me so! And we were younger, then….

            And the years passed…..until That Night. Abram had, only recently, announced to both Lote, his nephew, and to Eliezer, our Chief Steward, that he was going to retire, and that he was turning over the day-to-day operations of the Shepherding Business to them. He had been speaking more and more to his Invisible God, whom he persisted in calling “Adonoi,” or “Lord,” and claimed that his God was answering him. He said that God had major instructions in the offing, which would affect all of us.

            The Day came: Abram came into the house, after a three-day ordeal in the wilderness. This was nothing unusual; he had often undertaken these occasions in the past, and I had grown used to them. After all, the business, the Shepherd’s Guild, our many servants and their worries—a Clan-Chieftain suffers pressures, and this retreat idea seemed to work for him, as a means of escape and relaxation. But this time was different: previously, he had always packed some provisions, a change of clothing, some scrolls or soft clay tablets on which to record his thoughts or directives which Adonoi might “tell” him—thoughts no one else was privy to.

            But this time was different. Without stopping to greet any of the servants working in the dooryard or the gardens, without patting any of the household pets or cattle on the head, Abram rushed into the house, staring, his eyes rolling in his head, his beard and long hair all askew, and blowing in the wind—had I not told him to see Yaron, the Village Barber and Bleeder, to get a haircut and beard trim, some two weeks before?

            “Pack, Sarai, pack,” he shouted at me, while I knelt, cooking my famous vegetable soup over the roaring fire, seeming to have difficulty getting the words out, “Adonoi—the Lord my God—the Invisible One—‘Get thee out,’ He told me, ‘Get thee out, of thy native land, and thy father’s house, and go to—go to—“

            He collapsed onto a prayer rug, breathing heavily. I was alarmed: I handed the soup spoon to my chief maid, Tova, and knelt alongside him. His eyes were closed; he was moaning, as if sick.

            “Abram! Abram!” I cried, patting his cheeks, “Tova! Eliezer! Go get the Wise Woman, the Village Healer. I saw her at the Town Well, not a half-turn-of-the-sun-chariot, earlier. And Shoshana, fetch me a damp cloth. He is burning up. Abram! Do you have a fever, My Love? Abram! Tell me what ails you—where does it hurt?”

            “Let us get him to bed, Mistress,” came the low, strong voice of faithful Eliezer behind me.

“And get some of my herbal tea into him, aye, and quickly,” added Tova, “for Master is not so young as he fancies himself, and the poisonous night-air of the desert has caused him a fever, surely.”

Abram opened his eyes: “Am I not the Master in mine own house?” he whispered fiercely, “I bid you all—pack! Pack your—that is, my—goods and chattels! We must leave for—for—the Land, the good and pure and fruitful land, which my God will show—will show us!”

Luckily, Eliezer was able to send the new young boy, Shamash, to fetch the Wise Woman, and she got a sleeping potion into Abram, telling him it was the Command of the One True God, Adonoi. While he snored, she told me that it will keep him quiet for about eight hours. That will give Eliezer and me time to prepare the household. How am I to pack the possessions of thirty years of marriage? O Invisible God, O Adonoi, if that is what You call Yourself, what plans do You have for me, Your humble Sarai, and Your headstrong servant, Abram?

Perhaps I can humor my little Abram—we will travel for but one week, and be able to fool him into returning to Ur-of-the-Chaldees, when he gets over this little fit of madness—I do hope and pray so….


Lucifer at the Polls, South Florida: A Lesson in Democracy from the Prince of Darkness

Lucifer at the Polls, South Florida:
A Lesson in Democracy from the Prince of Darkness

By David Hartley Mark

            I never keep books out overdue, and, with the Library App on my phone, it’s easier than ever to renew. But I lose interest in many of my borrowed books easily, and recently returned the various Horror, Steampunk, and Elmore Leonard novels I had borrowed to my local SoFla library branch. Despite having a Neanderthal governor who enriched himself by robbing poor, sick people, our state does brag a first-class public library system. And I visit, often.

            Usually, I never have a problem parking at the NorthWest Regional Branch on University Boulevard; its parking lot, like most in the Sunshine State, is huge. Over the last few weeks, as our voters strive to beat the Election Day Voting Crush, it’s become harder to find a spot. Today, Sunday, was more crowded than usual: the line wrapped back-and-forth in front of the library building, and I was glad to see both Hillary and the Carrot well-represented.

I am a strong believer in Democracy.

            As I returned to my car with my new books and CDs, I impulsively approached a thirtyish-looking young white man with a goatee who was waving a TRUMP-PENCE MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN banner: the all-too-familiar logo on a black background, permanently mounted on a flagpole. It was about five by four feet wide, and very prominent.

            “Excuse me—how much did that flag cost you?” I asked, in a friendly tone. I was merely curious.

            He seemed happy and proud to discuss it:

“Seven-eight dollars on Amazon,” he said, “See my T-shirt?” he held it, stretched out below his waist, for me to see and admire, which I did. It was black, featuring Trump brandishing a Light Sabre, against a Star Wars background, in full regalia as Luke Skywalker. “And my kids got this shirt, too. Very cheap.”

            “Very nice,” I smiled.

            “And, can you imagine?” he went on, “A Hillary banner cost seventy-eighty dollars.”

            I commiserated over this political highway robbery, and went over to the Hillary group (I had already voted Democratic by mail). I asked if they could spare any stickers, which I noted had been selling on my email for a dollar apiece. They were happy to give me a handful, and a nice middle-aged lady warned me to display them “before Tuesday.”

            I thanked her. On my way to the car, a pleasant-looking young man greeted me, and wished me a good day.

            “How’re you feeling?” I returned to his greeting.

            “Fantastic,” he said, going on fiddling with his phone, “only, I’ll be glad when this whole election mess is over.”

            “You and me both,” I said.

            I proceeded to my car, seeing that another person wanted my spot. It was a very good one, in direct line with the library, albeit a bit far.

Just then, I heard a, “Psst! Rabbi! Over here!”

            I turned, and saw my old friend, Lucifer, leaning against a late-model, 1969 Corvette—all shiny, simonized, midnight-black—was that a vinyl roof? It figured. He wasn’t wearing his customary red-and-black jumpsuit; to better blend in, he was attired in a white polo shirt with a tiny, red-tongued dragon and soft black Bermudas, with grey Italian canvas driving loafers, no socks.

He was wearing his shiny, raven-black hair slicked back, showing a Dracula-like, prominent widow’s peak and a very slight ponytail—the official attire of seventy-somethings in South Florida. Around his neck was a medium-width chain, with an ankh—he could have been Italian, Sephardic Jewish, Hispanic, or African-American—his swarthy skin tone, burnished by the fires of Hell, could have been any of those ethnic groups, which somehow seemed appropriate.
            “I have to move my car, ‘Sipher,” I said, “That nice lady over there is waiting for my spot.”

            “Don’t worry about it,” he smiled, using his best New York City accent, and showing his canines, which gleamed in the late afternoon sun, sharp and pointed, “My attendant demon, Screwtape, will move it to the lot by the Chinese place across the street.”

            “Does he need my keys?” I asked.

            “Please,” he said, giving me a look, “Don’t waste my, and his, time. Just get in.”

            The upholstery was baby’s-butt-soft. The Devil slid in, caressed the steering wheel, and smiled over his new toy.

            “Do you like it? It used to belong to a Texas Full-Gospel Preacher Man. The police confiscated it, when he—well, never mind. Shall I buy you a donut and coffee?” he asked, “I do like a Bismarck, from time to time. Can’t get any decent pastry where I work. What I do get is hot, but—well—“

            “Sure, I know a place,” I said.

            “Let’s go,” he said, and fired up the ‘Vette, which purred like Cerberus asleep.

            As we pulled out of the library lot, I couldn’t resist giving the Old Boy ah shtoch, a sarcastic poke in the metaphorical ribs, as they say in Yiddish.

            “Think your guy is gonna win, Scratch?” I asked the Prince of Darkness.

            At a red light, Satan turned  to me and gave me another one of his slow smiles, before replying: “They’re both my boys—I mean, my boy and my girl, Rabbi. Don’t fool yourself.”

            “Excuse me,” I said, “Are you saying that Hillary—sweet, Methodist-born, Baptist-turned Hillary—has sold her soul to the Devil?”

            “Not exactly,” he said, “Don’t push me, Rabbi; that’s privileged information, after all. No silly, leaked emails where I work; no WikiLeaks in Hell. I’ve been in business for a long, long time. And Daniel Webster, bless his stubborn Massachusetts Yankee soul, is long dead, Thank Badness.

“But can you truly believe that anyone working in that Hellhole they call Washington doesn’t sooner or later come under my—um—purview? I mean, really, Rabbi? Except, maybe, Barack. He’s getting out pretty early. He was lucky. And smart. Not that I didn’t make him an offer. And there are some others, but not many. I mean, they’re politicians, most of whom started out as lawyers, are you kidding me?

“And Hillary? I mean, maybe she’ll get in. I can’t say. That’s for you folks to decide. But now, the way you Americans have this whole shooting match screwed up—well, maybe ‘shooting match’ is a bad choice of words, given the strength of the Gun Lobby—but still, well, all of this muck and mire you American folk have cooked up and foisted on one another leaves me speechless. And, for me, as the Devil, that’s a rough place to be in. I am supposed to be the Master of Lies and Deceit, but this Election has left me cross-eyed, confused, and confounded.”

            “Can’t you tell me who’s going to win?” I pressed, “At least, a hint.”

            “Maybe I can, but maybe I won’t,” he said, “because that would take all the fun—I mean, suspense out of it. When the Big Guy consulted me about running the Universe, the main factor was allowing you people—that is, humans—more than a modicum of free will. That is the main theological, God-granted ingredient in your lives, and in democracy. That’s for you to decide, not me, and, even if the Big Guy knows, He’s not telling.”

            We stopped at the donut place, but I had lost my appetite.

            “Not feeling like a java-and-sinker anymore, Rabbi?” asked my Evil Friend, taking a deep, thoughtful breath and tapping his long, Florida-clear-polished, index fingernail on the momo-style racing wheel. “Well, I understand. It’s been a hell of a season, and I know whereof I speak. I remember Nixon, and I never thought there would come a time when you Baby Boomers would wish for Nixon to come back. I can’t tell you what he’s doing down in my neck of the sulphur, but I can’t let him out—you understand why, hm?”

            “I understand,” I whispered, thinking about Old Tricky Dick, and wondering what “neck of the sulphur” meant.

            “Don’t worry so much,” laughed Lucifer, patting my shoulder, and not minding when I shrank away from his touch—his palm felt unbelievably hot. “Whatever happens, it will pass. I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?”

            “Bad things,” I said, softly, “lots of bad things.”

            “Time for me to leave you, Rabbi,” whispered the Devil, “So now, just you close your eyes, and when you open them, you’ll find yourself in your car, just a half-block from your house. Oh, and don’t tell anyone about our little meeting, OK? It will be just our little secret. No one would believe you. No one sane, anyway.”

            “You’re right,” I said, and closed my eyes, tightly.

Around me, I felt a slight wind start to blow, like my own, private hurricane, and a small, persistent humming sound. I started praying—but what prayer would help, at this perilous time? The Sh’ma, “Hear, O’ Israel”? The Mourner’s Kaddish? Wait—there must be a psalm, or two, I could think of….

            Psalm 122—May there be peace within your walls, serenity within your palaces. …For the sake of my Brothers and Sisters, I shall speak of peace in your midst. …For the sake of the House of God, I shall request good for you….

            Eventually, the mini-cane died down. Slowly, I opened my eyes. I was sitting in my car, alone, just before the turn onto my street. A small breeze ruffled the branches on the palms, and a little cloud brushed past a crescent moon….

            Was it a little cloud, or Someone Else?

            Never mind: it would all be over, soon, and we could all set to, and rebuild what will be left of our Country—all of us, together….