Sunday, July 30, 2017

Vaetchanan: Moses Ascends Sinai, with Signs & Wonders

Vaetchanan: Moses Climbs Mt. Sinai

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

“The day you stood before the LORD your GOD at Mt. Horeb, He said to me, ‘Gather the people to Me, that they may hear My words.’ …The mountain burned with flames to the skies, and was dark with storm clouds. The Lord spoke to you out of the fire; you heard His words, but saw nothing—you heard only a voice.”
                                                          --Deut. 4: 10-11(translation mine)

          We had had a hard going of it, after escaping slavery, leaving Egypt in chaos. And it was the worst time of the year for a journey, and such a long journey: the sands deep and the sun sharp, the very dog days of summer.
          There were times I regretted the coolness of my father Pharaoh’s palace, its slopes and terraces, and the slim-waisted houris bringing us sherbet. Instead, my people grumbled and cursed; several ran away, and died alone in the wilderness; the vultures would pick at them, and we would come upon the whitening bones bleaching in the sunlight, the grinning skulls saying silently,
          “Why do you bother, Moses? These people do not deserve this harsh, judgmental God. There is no great Law to be given. They are trapped in the desert; the wilderness has locked them in.”
          There were hostile tribes we were careful to avoid—the war with Amalek had slain some of our finest young men—until we finally resolved to travel at night, with the jackals baying at us from the cliffsides, as if saying, “This is all folly,” and the coyotes howling, “Fools! Return to Egypt!”
          Still, I knew—for the Lord God had made it clear to me by prophecy—that a Mountain lay some distance off, and there God would make His reckoning with this stubborn, stiff-necked people. And so it was, one day: for we rounded a cliff to find twelve wells of water and seventy palm-trees…
          And that showed me that God was faithful. The people drank their fill, stuffed themselves on the heavenly bread, and lay down to rest. Only later would they rise up to play—but that is another story. I left their carousing and snoring, and crept a little ways off into the desert. Joshua, bless him, insisted that he go, too, and we fetched along Calev ben Yefunneh, his best friend, his right-hand man. Truly, Joshua and Calev were inseparable! Often, they would retreat to a small tent and plan our next journey, our next battle with—whatever tribe had refused us passage. No one ever dared to disturb them.
          And the prophecy said to me, in the clearest of Voices, “The time has come to ascend the Mount.”
          And I hesitated—“My people are contrary and rebellious; I fear to leave them alone,” I said to the Voice.
          “Aaron your brother will supervise them,” He replied, “for you alone must go up to the Mountain.”
          I charged Aaron with the task, along with Chur—poor Chur!—the mob was to murder him at the Abomination of the Calf; he alone had the courage to resist them, when they forced Aaron my brother to mold and cast the idol….
          After bathing myself seven times in each of the seven wells, putting on a pure-white robe, and grasping my staff, I turned to the Mountain. By this time, the people had also bathed, and they obeyed God’s instructions about staying a distance away from Sinai. I waved; they waved back, and, as I set foot onto the rocky path to the crest, I could already see Datan and Avirom, those rebel cowards, as well as Korach, calling forth the heads of the tribes—but I did not yet know what mischief they were planning.
          As I continued to climb—it was not easy, for I am no youngster—I smelled, not the bonfires which my people had lit below, but a mixture of cinnamon, Malabar, and other fragrances—truly, the scent of the Garden of Eden, about which I had heard in stories, and which I had written about in the first Scroll of the Law. The combined smells and scents blew into my face and lungs, and made me dizzy; I had to sit down on a nearby rock to get my bearings, and my consciousness back—I remember lying back, and closing my eyes, “For a moment, just for a moment.”
          When I opened them, the Mountain was transformed, ablaze with heavenly Power—I saw cherubim with flaming swords, sphinxes soaring and roaring fire, Ophanim wheeling and shooting off sparks and explosions of light—and, above the Mountain itself, possibly the faint and uncertain outline of—of a gigantic throne, bigger and grander than Pharaoh’s himself; larger than the bedstead of King Og of Bashan—and I heard a mighty chorus singing, “Blessed be the Glory of the Lord from His place.”
          After they sang it seven times, I saw the top of the Mount split open, as it were, and comings of angels emerging—I felt myself being lifted, and placed on a rock, and saw below that each Israelite received two angels: one to lift their head to gaze at God in His glory, and the other to place its hand on their heart, so it would not stop beating from fright. And I heard—that is, I swear that I heard, nothing! Not a leaf stirred, not a grain of sand blew, not a bird chirped—but the entire World heard the awesome words, “I am the LORD your GOD, Who took you, Israel, out of the land of Egypt, to be your God….”
          And a snow-white stone tablet was placed in my hands, lighter than a feather. And a sphinx flew up to me, with a stylus in its beak, while Sandalphon, a Chief of the Angels, whispered, “Write, Son of Man.”
          And so, I began….

Works Cited

T.S. Eliot, “Journey of the Magi,” in Collected Poems: 1909-1962. London: Faber & Faber, 1963.

Howard Schwartz, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism. NY: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004.


Sunday, July 23, 2017

Devarim: Moses, Grown Old and Alone

Devarim: Moses, Grown Old and Alone

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

“These are the Words that Moses proclaimed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan….’See, I place the land before you, to conquer and inherit, to plow and to plant. Go, take possession of the land that the LORD swore unto your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to pass it on to them and their children after them”
(Deut. 1:1, 8-9).

Joshua, gray-haired and gray-bearded, a man in his sixties—veteran of many a military campaign as his people marched, complaining, through the trackless Wilderness—entered the black goatskin tent. The air was foul—as though it had not been ventilated sufficiently for a long time. While he unbuckled his sword-belt and carefully stood his battered shield against a tent-pole, he squinted around the interior—

         My eyes are getting old, he thought, I cannot see as once I did. I was once able, when I was young, to mark a diving falcon in its flight; now, I can barely see a host of Amorites taking the field. But my shield-bearer, Yadid, has become my eyes and ears. Too bad about Caleb, my old friend and fellow warrior, though—I was too slow to push him aside when I saw that Moabite aiming his arrow! Ah, well—he is a tough old goat; Elazar, the Kohen, will heal him.

         Finally, his eyes adjusted to the dimness of the tent. He saw the source of the sour smell: a cook-pot, left unattended, had boiled away its soup, and its contents—he saw a burnt piece of what might once have been chicken, along with a carrot and some scorched greens.

         He heard a cough, and, like a flash, seized his sword; its ragged bronze edge caught the dim light—then, again pulling the same neck-muscle he had strained in yesterday’s battle with the Amorites, he cried, “Ow—my neck”—and dropped his blade. It clattered against the stones of the fireplace.

         “Who’s there?” came a voice from the darkness, “Is that you, Young Joshua? Well and well again; I sent for you. My young wife, Zipporah, bless her, ran especially fast to find you—“

         How many years is Zipporah dead, now? Joshua thought, And Miriam, Aaron, even Korach, Milord Moses’s old enemy? Alas, they live on, in his mind.

         “…and fetch you to me. I bless the LORD Most High! I must teach Torah to you, and to our misbehaving rabble Israelites—those tousle-headed good-for-nothings, how I love them!—before I die.”

         The voice of Moses cracked like a wooden ox-yoke. Joshua could dimly make out, in the flames of the half-dead cooking fire, the Old Man, leathery hands clutched around his Shepherd’s Staff, slowly rising to his feet.

“I must stand, when I teach,” Moses creaked, “and there is no privilege like that of imparting the Wisdom of Torah. Write this down, Son of Nun—“

         And Joshua was scrambling—the best he could, with a twisted neck—to
find a piece of charcoal from the fire, and a shard of broken pottery to write it down.

         “Because of you Israelites and your sins the LORD was angry with me, Moses, and He said: ‘You shall not enter the Land. Joshua ben Nun, your disciple, will be imbued with strength—“

         I could use some of that strength right now, smiled Joshua to himself, for we take the field against the Rephaim, those near-sighted Giants, tomorrow. Did Arpachshad do as I commanded him, taking two warriors to reconnoiter the Dry Valley of Zered? Otherwise, I fear we will face defeat at their hands—

         “But your children, your little ones who do not know good from bad, they shall conquer it; to them will I give it, and they shall possess the Land. Therefore, guard ye all the Covenant which I made with you this day; for I—I—“

         Joshua strode across the tent-space and held up the thin, aged prophet-teacher, hugging him so that he would not fall.

         “Are you all right, Milord Moses, my rabbi?” he whispered into the Old Man’s ear.

         “Oh, Aaron!” gasped Moses, “once again, you have come to my rescue—first, as spokesman after the Burning Bush, and afterward, all through the time of the Plagues, when you and I stood off Pharaoh Ramesses II, who called himself—
the Light—of the Nile—I….”

         Joshua gently lowered his teacher to the old blanket on which he had been sitting. He reached into his leathern belt-bag, and pulled out a rolled-up pita.

         Handing it to Moses, he asked, “Have you eaten today, My Rabbi?”

         The Old Man shook his head. “I have been very zealous for the LORD. Since early dawn, I have neither eaten nor drunk. I worry, Joshua, that when I am gone, my people will backslide, and worship idols.”

         “This will never happen,” said Joshua, happy to be recognized, at last, “for I and Caleb, and all the Kohanim and Levites, will teach them—in groups of ten, of twenty, of fifty, and so on, as your dear father-in-law Jethro taught us, so long ago. I was but a young man, then. I--”

         “You are a comfort to me, my Joshua,” said Moses, chewing at the dry pita, and sipping at the canteen which Joshua had handed him.

         “Eat, and get some rest,” said Joshua, “I will check on you later. We need you, Master.”

         He quietly crept out of the tent, as Moses lay down on the blanket and closed his eyes.

         “Glory to the Lord, Who made heaven and earth,” he whispered, “the sea and the land, and all that dwell therein….”

         “God save him,” prayed Joshua silently, as he took up his sword and shield, “and stand by us, in our battles to come.”

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Mattot-Massay: Spoils of the Midianite War

Mattot-Massay: Spoils of War 

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark 

"Moses spoke to the people...'Let men be picked out from among you for a military campaign, and let them attack Midian to wreak the LORD's vengeance upon Midian [for seducing the Israelites into worshiping Baal-Peor, and committing carnal sins with the Midianites]...The Israelites took the women and children...captive. ...Moses became angry with the army commanders...and said to them, 'Slay every male child, and...also every woman who has had relations; but spare the virgins.... and divide the booty...between the combatants and the community. ...And from [these shares] you shall give [a tenth] to the Levites [of gold, silver, and precious cloth]…." (Num. 31) 

Scene: A Midianite Battlefield. Shofarote-sounds and drumming are heard. Screaming of women and children. Then, gradually, silence. ENTER two Israelite combatants, anonymous citizen-soldiers, conscripted dogfaces, as one would see in any war. They are weary and bloodstained. Both wear leathern body-armor, and carry both spears and swords.  

One is Tsuribaal ben Sodi; the other is Nebo ben NamerTsuribaal is a tall, rawboned Simeonite, dependable at the plow, with a shepherd's crook, or a sword in wartime. Nebo is young and slightly built; he would be better suited to wield a clay tablet or parchment scroll of Torah, than a long lance. Both are blood-smeared; Nebo is limping. They come to a largish rock and sit down, leaning against it. 

Tsuribaal: What happened to your leg, young Nebo? I see that you do not walk steadily upon it.  

Nebo: It's nothing. Just a scratch.  

Tsuribaal: Tell me, O' Mighty Warrior! (he grins) Was this not your first battle? 

Nebo: Except for maneuvers under Captain Caleb—yes. And I hope it's my last one.  

Tsuribaal: Why, do you shrink from a healthy bloodletting, by the Word of God? By Yah's Beard, I love this! To see our enemies—that is, the Lord's enemies—running before us, and to feel the vibration in my arm-muscles when I skewer a—a—Midianite on my spear, and lift him, dangling, into the air! Why-- 

Nebo: Did you kill children? I did not.  

Tsuribaal: Was it not the Word of God? I did-- what the Lord commanded.  

Nebo: Spare me the details. Murderer. 

Tsuribaal: What did you say?  

Nebo: Nothing. I said nothing.  

Tsuribaal: Look, look there! 

(A line of Midianite women and children, guarded by Israelite fighters, is prodded off toward the Israelite lines. The prisoners are weeping, pleading, and crying.) 

Nebo: Tsuri, what will happen to them? 

Tsuribaal: That rabble? Whatever Moses and the LORD decide. It is not for us lesser types to interfere. Never forget, Bookworm, that those same women beguiled our best men into sinning against Our God Most High. And for that-- 

Nebo: How do you know that they are all guilty? 

Tsuribaal: I? I don't have to know anything. God said it, I believe it; that settles it.  

Nebo: I cannot believe what you are saying.  

Tsuribaal: I never said this, Bookish One: you were there, as well: God commanded us, through Moses, to kill all the male children, and the married women. (He runs his thumbnail down his spearhead, testing it for sharpness.) And my war-lance will settle it, in the end.  

Nebo: But, what if we were to talk to the Midianites? To their leaders? 

Tsuribaal (laughing): You are a caution, young one! Who is there left to talk to? You surely have heard that we already slew those scoundrels, the Five Kings of Midian! And that donkey-headed prophet, Balaam, as well.  

Nebo: Balaam? Why? What did he do? 

Tsuribaal: Rumor had it that he was the instigator of that sinful orgy at Baal-Peor—the one that got us all in trouble in the first place (Spits). Well, good riddance, say I. 

Nebo: I had thought—he was a good man. He blessed us, after all. 

Tsuribaal: I trust no one. The only good Midianite is a dead Midianite.  

Nebo: Did you know that Moses sought shelter among the Midianites, long ago, when he fled Egypt after killing the taskmaster? Jethro, his father-in-law, and Zipporah, his wife, were Midianites. 

TsuribaalHm? No. I did not know that. But what's past is past.  

Nebo: Perhaps we should re-think-- 

(The sound of screaming begins again.) 

Tsuribaal (Shading his eyes, looking off, smiling): Must be our comrades killing the captives, by the command of God, I daresay (spits). Hear me, Nebo-son-of-books: it's a sad, harsh world out here. I didn't create it, nor did you. We must survive in it, somehow. And if you don't like my way—that of killing our enemies, regardless of their gender or identity—I challenge you to find a better way. 

Nebo: Perhaps I will, Tsuribaal. Perhaps I will.