Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Anthony Hecht, "More Light! More Light!" (1961) -- A brilliant poem, and apt for these days.

More Light! More Light!

Composed in the Tower before his execution
These moving verses, and being brought at that time
Painfully to the stake, submitted, declaring thus:
"I implore my God to witness that I have made no crime."

Nor was he forsaken of courage, but the death was horrible,
The sack of gunpowder failing to ignite.
His legs were blistered sticks on which the black sap
Bubbled and burst as he howled for the Kindly Light.

And that was but one, and by no means one of he worst;
Permitted at least his pitiful dignity;
And such as were by made prayers in the name of Christ,
That shall judge all men, for his soul's tranquility.

We move now to outside a German wood.
Three men are there commanded to dig a hole
In which the two Jews are ordered to lie down
And be buried alive by the third, who is a Pole.

Not light from the shrine at Weimar beyond the hill
Nor light from heaven appeared. But he did refuse.
A Luger settled back deeply in its glove.
He was ordered to change places with the Jews.

Much casual death had drained away their souls.
The thick dirt mounted toward the quivering chin.
When only the head was exposed the order came
To dig him out again and to get back in.

No light, no light in the blue Polish eye.
When he finished a riding boot packed down the earth.
The Luger hovered lightly in its glove.
He was shot in the belly and in three hours bled to death.

No prayers or incense rose up in those hours
Which grew to be years, and every day came mute
Ghosts from the ovens, sifting through crisp air,
And settled upon his eyes in a black soot.

--Anthony Hecht (1961)

Hope in the Rainbow: A Plea for Humanity

Hope in the Rainbow

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            Summer is the rainy season here in Florida. It is common to be caught in a downpour while out running errands, or ferrying the kids from place to place. Our “lawn guy”—the man who cuts our greenery—was delayed getting to us for the regular cut, and the grass grew so high that Kirby the Shih Tzu almost refused to leave the concrete patio to do his business. His people have short legs, and they don’t like to feel Mother Nature brushing too closely at their personals.

            What virtue is there in continual downpours? We have rain, but, when it’s over, we usually have a rainbow, a sign from God. The rainbow was so prized in ancient times that ChaZal, our Rabbis of Blessed Memory, assigned it a special blessing for us spectators to recite: Zocher ha-Brit, or, Blessed are You, Lord our God, who remembers the Covenant with Noah. It is significant that the prayer refers to Noah, that flawed progenitor of all humanity, rather than Abraham and Sarah.

Why so? Because Noah was not perfect. His story has been misinterpreted to sow rancor among different ethnic and racial groups. And yet, God chose him to build the Ark, and gifted him with the rainbow. Its graceful shape and brilliant colors symbolize God’s Promise to never again destroy humanity, no matter how degenerate and beastly people may become.

Similarly, we often lose faith in humanity. People embrace the idol of race hatred, and use physical violence to harm their fellow human beings. Why would God suffer our world to survive, with such evildoers in it?

That is why we have the rainbow. It is composed of all the colors, to remind us that people of all hues should dwell together in harmony. And, as God has promised to honor the Covenant which He made with all of humanity, so should we strive, even when the present appears irredeemingly corrupt, to maintain our faith in humanity as a whole.  

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Reeh: Two Young Sentries, at War

Reeh: Two Young Sentries at War

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

“When you cross the Jordan River and settle in the Land into which the LORD your God is bequeathing to you, and He gives you rest from all your enemies round about, you [will] settle there in security.” –Deut. 12:10 (adapted)

Scene: Night on the Golan Heights, known in Biblical times as Bashan, the former kingdom of both King Og and King Sichon. They were killed in battle, but it is still largely Amorite territory. Enter Chananel ben Kedar, an Israelite citizen-soldier. He is just nineteen years old, armed with a sharpened stick and a makeshift shield.

Chananel (to himself): I’m glad that it’s quiet tonight. When I stood sentry duty two nights ago, the howling of the jackals was scary. And Sergeant Ruchi told me that this standing guard is very important. (He sits on a large rock, puts down his weapons, stretches.) But I’m so tired!

Enter Arioch ben Hevron, an Amorite sentry. Like Chananel, he is nearly twenty, with long brown hair and the beginnings of a beard. He squats down on the other side of a large rock, out of Chananel’s line of vision. He speaks:

Arioch: It’s not fair that Corporal Tsuribaal should make me do sentry-go by myself. If my friend Mephi-Ishtar had not eaten that spoiled meat and gotten an ache in his guts, he would surely have accompanied me. This is too lonely.

Bored, Chananel has been idly tossing small pebbles against the large Golani rocks. They make a pinging noise when they strike the boulders. Hearing the noise, Arioch brandishes his spear and shield fearfully:

Arioch: Who’s that, ha? Um—uh—give the password! And then—what’s next? I can never remember—advance and be recognized!

Chananel (calls from behind the boulder): The password is shibboleth—it’s me! Who is that? Is it you, Achlav?  

Arioch (still fearful): I know no shib—shib—whatever password you gave me. The correct password is Eli-Baal, “Baal is my god.”
Chananel (seeing Arioch for the first time): It’s dark here, and I can’t see well. But I can tell, even in the half-light, that you are not Achlav. Oh-my-Elohim—are you an—an—Amorite?

Arioch (clutching his spear, holding it before him): And you—you’re one of those Israelite vermin that my captain warned us about! Stand right there, Israelite, or taste the bronze tip on my spear.

Chananel: I’m not afraid of you, Idolater! (The two circle one another, warily, holding their spears against one another). Just come closer, and I’ll skewer you on my mighty spear.

Arioch: What, that toothpick? You Israelites better arm yourselves in a more modern fashion, or our mighty Amorite troops will drive you back—back—to Egypt! Ha! Oh-my-oops! (He trips over a tree-root, and falls) Ow! Ow, my ankle!

Chananel (drops his spear, runs to help Arioch): Oh my, Amorite—are you all right? (He drops to his knees and tries to examine the ankle) It’s so dark here—never mind, let me look.

Arioch (in exaggerated pain): It hurts! Oh, Baal, how will I get back to barracks at dawn?

Chananel (taking the sweatband off his head): Here, I can make this into an ankle-bandage. Hold still.

Arioch: All very well for you, Israelite. Say—what’s your name, anyway? I need to know, for when I take you prisoner.

Chananel: Why, what’s to stop me from taking you prisoner?

Arioch: That’s true. Anyway, my name is Arioch ben Edrei. Who are you?

Chananel: They call me Chananel ben Kedar.

Arioch: Pleased to meet you. I think my ankle feels better. Just a sprain.

Chananel: Let me help you up (He does so.). How’s it feel?

Arioch: Well, I can’t walk on it, but I can hop. Thank you, Israelite—I mean, Chananel.

Chananel: The sun is coming up. Don’t you have to get back to your town, and sacrifice a child, or something?

Arioch: Sacrifice a child? Who told you that nonsense? We sacrifice cattle, same as you. I saw you people from afar the other night, with all that great hoopla that your holy folk perform at the altar. Our sacrifices are much simpler.

Chananel: Don’t you have priests?

Arioch: Of course we do. But we all take turns at it.

Chananel: What an amazing idea! I must mention it to my captain—not that he will believe me. Just before I went on duty, he said, “And Boy, be careful of those Amorites—they might make you eat mice. And avoid their women.”

Arioch: Why, what’s wrong with our women? My little sister, Tikvah, is just sixteen, and she has to beat the boys off with a stick.

Chananel: Really? My tribe—that is, Zebulon—has no marriageable women. I may have to look to another tribe. My mother isn’t sure if that’s a good idea.

Arioch: Do you have matchmaking, or do you marry for love?

Chananel: Matchmaking, of course. Young people cannot choose a mate for themselves—Pinchas the Priest told us that.

Arioch: Say, when we both mount sentry duty tomorrow night, do you want to meet and talk some more?

Chananel: Sure—I guess. I can bring some grapes, if you want.

Arioch: I can bring oranges. The sun is higher now. I have to go. Give me a boost, will you, Chananel?

Chananel: Sure, Arioch (lifting him). Here you go. Shalom, my friend.

Arioch: Shalom (They clasp hands; both exit.).

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Edward Kitty is No More: A Tribute to His Memory

Edward Kitty is No More

By David Hartley Mark

Poem: For a Dead Kitten

Put the rubber mouse away,
Pick the spools up from the floor,
What was velvet shod, and gay,
Will not want them anymore. 

What was warm, is strangely cold, 

Whence dissolved the little breath?
How could this small body hold,
So immense a thing as Death?

– Sara Henderson Hay

         Edward Kitty, known as Eddy, departed this life last week—I’m not certain which day. He belonged to close relatives of mine. All I have left of him is some photographs. They prove that in his prime, Eddy was a handsome fellow: a true Halloween cat, black as midnight, with inquisitive green eyes. He cost only $5 when he was rescued, poor fellow. I would have thought him worth much more.

Eddy was not big on personality—shy by nature, he hid a great deal of the time—but he indulged his feral self, his prowler-in-the-woods persona, by going out every night. Strangely, he never got into trouble, either with larger, wilder, stronger animals, or with gigantic pieces of four-wheeled machinery infamous for crushing hapless small animals beneath their wheels. Eddy was blessed in that way: he always came back; he knew where the food and his family were, though he was not a big eater.

We are totally in the dark as to Eddy’s birth. We know that he first saw the light of day in a crack house, poor fellow, though he never spoke about it. I believe that the fumes scrambled his poor little feline brain, and that he lost his mother at a tender age, while whatever brothers and sisters he might have had were cast into an often-uncaring world, as he was.

As a result, Eddy never learned to wash himself properly—a strange situation for a cat, who is normally the cleanest of creatures. Nor could he groom himself: his fur would grow long and matted, until his owners had to take him to the pet-groomer, who would shave him into a shape more catlike, complete with jaunty pompom on the end of his tail. I do not know if he ever came to love his pompom; he was always serious of mien, as though in deep thought, trying to figure out some immensely deep cat conundrum. Still, a haircut would transform our disorderly furball into a sleek, streamlined feline.

Because of his background, Eddy was immensely patient. When the time came for him and his housemate, Booty, to be fed, Eddy never became rambunctious. Booty was really the spokescat: larger than Eddy, all black with a handsome white chest, he lorded it over both Eddy and the three dogs with whom they shared their household. I have a memory of the two of them, back-to-front, carefully and thoughtfully eating their dinner. Through a decision by their People, Eddy was no longer permitted to roam the night. The traffic had become overpowering.

I am primarily a dog person, but have had cats, and respect their independence, their refusal to kowtow to their humans, and their general aloofness. Still, Eddy was unique in these aspects. When I attempted to cuddle him, he would arch his back and extend all four of his feet and razor claws—he was not a cuddler. Whether this stemmed from a lack of being held in his babyhood, or he was touch-resistant, we will never know.

Still, Eddy made very little trouble—I recall his nestling between two upright mattresses which were waiting to be laid on a bed—and, to his credit, tried his best to do “cat things.”

Principal among these was his desire to wash himself, which he valiantly attempted, but always failed at doing. Booty might sometimes do him the favor of washing him, but his instinct did not extend to completely dousing a fellow feline who was full grown.

“You’re on your own on this one, Ed,” Booty would tell him in Cat.
“I will do my best,” Eddy would reply.
He would not succeed, but not for lack of trying.
“It is better far to try and fail,” Eddy would tell me, consoling himself, and I would solemnly nod in agreement.
And he would slink off proudly, with one of the smaller dogs pursuing him—he always had an earthy smell, which they found curious and attractive.

What always resulted from Eddy’s self-washing attempts was his licking one paw preparatory to washing himself, but then inadvertently switching paws, and trying to clean himself with the dry one. I give him credit for trying to teach himself this skill, and despair that he was unable to do so. We can only guess at the effect the drug fumes had had on his developing brain, but to attempt and fail at something is no shame.

I will remember Eddy Kitty, a friend to all patient people who love and respecte cats. He did not have an easy life, but was surrounded by people who loved him and tried to understand and deal with his various struggles. Life is never a smooth ride for anyone, but Eddy gave it his best shot.

Eddy is survived by Booty the Cat, Riley the Great Dane-Boxer, Rowdy the Yoodle (Yorkie-Poodle), and Reese the Pomeranian. We may assume and consider that he romps forever under and around the Rainbow Bridge, at last knowing how to care for himself, basking in elemental sunlight, indulging in celestial catnip, and enjoying an endless supply of properly nutritious food, punctuated bya superb treats.

His midnight-black fur is shining, and his green eyes gleam in the dark when the sun sets. His cat-soul will glow amid the brightness of the firmament, and he will know no more sorrow.


Sunday, August 6, 2017

Ekev: Datan and Aviram, Rebels Against God and Moses, Make Their Case from Hell

Ekev: Datan and Aviram, Rebels Against God and Moses, Make Their Case from Hell

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

“And you shall know this day…what He did to Datan and Aviram, sons of Eliav ben Reuven, when the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them, along with their families, their tents, and everything on which their feet trod, in the midst of all Israel.” –Deut. 11:2-6

Scene: Sheol, the Torah version of Hell. No demons or pitchforks; no lakes of fire or forgetfulness. Rather, the Spirits of the Dead flit about silently—unless they are asked to speak. Datan and Aviram, the enemies of Moses, come forward to give their testimony.

Datan: My brother Aviram and I deeply appreciate the opportunity to tell our side of the story—that is, our so-called “rebellion” against Moses and God. Since the earth opened and swallowed us up, it has been—how long, Brother Aviram?

Aviram: Millennia. Ever since our misnamed “rebellion” took place—and, echoing my brother, I likewise appreciate the chance to set the record straight, in memory of our children, wives, and households.

Datan: Yes. Well. Let me see if I can recall: it’s not easy, being a bodiless, mindless spirit flitting about down here in Sheol, keeping our distance from that noisy Levite, Korach. As for our “rebellion,” as Moses’s Torah calls it—I protest that it was a simple misunderstanding. Nothing more.

A: I will begin, Brother, if you please.

D: Do, please, Brother. And note that we are polite and soft-spoken, down here in Sheol. We are hardly the scuffling, noisy rebels that you read in that Scroll of Moses. Why did he cadge all the fame, and we not?

A: Ahem. That day of our—misunderstanding—was very hot, and—

D: Don’t you feel, Brother, that you ought to begin earlier, in Egypt, at our first meeting with Moses, back when he was still nothing more than an Egyptian princeling?

A: If you choose, I will begin there. Egypt was—not a bad place for us Israelites, actually. True, the work was hard, and brick-making with mud and straw hardly a pleasant task, but we got along. Indeed, Datan and I were both about to attain a taskmaster’s job. After I informed on some of my Hebrew workmates who were slacking off, the Egyptian Captain of Taskmasters was grateful for another pair of eyes and ears to keep watch on those lazy Hebrews, I can tell you!

D: I used to lord it over my Hebrew inferiors, taking care to show my ability to bossing them around, hurrying them up, shouting, “Faster! Faster!”—

A: And did you not whip a slave or two—I mean, fellow Hebrews—on occasion?

D: Certainly. That was an accepted part of our duties. The Egyptian masters even allowed us to sip sugared water from the taskmasters’ jug, standing just outside the shady spot under the palms, where the taskmasters would gather for a break. Of course, we could not place our lips on that same spout as they. Still, that was, indeed, a privilege. I can still taste that sugar on my tongue, in the middle of a hot workday—

A: So we were slowly moving up the pecking order—again, not a bad situation for two Reuven-tribesmen to be in, considering our Grandfather Reuven’s failure to attain his firstborn birthright from Jacob. He ought to have been the leading tribe!

D: Instead, those upstart Levites, Moses and his oh-so-religious brother Aaron, were hogging the lion’s share of the glory!

A: But you know, we Reuvenites are hot-tempered, and even brothers can disagree. One day, Datan and I were arguing over who should get to carry some fresh, juicy gossip to the Captain. Some Levite slaves were planning a rebellion, it seems—that Korach had appointed himself ringleader of a labor strike, and the lot of them were planning to refuse to make any more bricks, until their bosses gave them bread-crusts, rather than matzo.   

D (smiling): And we were raising our voices a bit—and, perhaps, shoving one another back and forth. It was a quarrel, nothing more, aye Brother mine?

A: And a friendly one, indeed! Yet suddenly, we were interrupted by that fop of a princeling, Moses—it was the first time we laid eyes on the fellow.

D: “What is with you two?” this perfumed, kohl-eyed scoundrel proclaimed, “Why do you fight one another? We Hebrews are not the enemy; Egypt is!”

A: I tell you, it was a shock. Who asked him to butt into our affairs? Well, we shut him down in short order. After all, we were Hebrew taskmasters, part of the power structure, and far from being slaves—who asked him to interfere in our lives?

D: Well, we shut him down in short order, and rushed to tell the Taskmaster-Captain of this treasonous talk. As for the Exodus, we would rather have stayed in Egypt—Sweet Egypt, how we miss you!—but, being Hebrew, we had no choice but to leave. Pharaoh drove out all of us “foreigners”; he doubted our loyalty. It all happened so quickly; we had no choice.

A: But we never forgot Moses’s inciting the rebellion. He ought to have left us alone, and happy in our native land.

D: And that is why we constantly criticized his leadership, pecking at his head all through the wilderness. The fellow clearly did not know how to lead, and who is to say that God spoke to him? Why, God spoke to us, on several occasions; I would swear to it. Did He not speak to you too, Brother Aviram?

A: It was God told us to rebel. Yes! It was God.