Sunday, August 27, 2017

Kee Taytsay: May an Israelite and an Ammonite Fall in Love, O God?

Kee Taytsay: A Forbidden Romance

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

“No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the congregation of the LORD; none of their descendants, even to the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the Lord, because they did not approach you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt…you shall never concern yourself with their good or wellbeing for all of your days, forever.”
                                                                                   --Deut. 23:4-7

          Why do you greet us with “Shalom,” Stranger? There is no peace in my heart. My name is Tsa’eer ben Ammi, and I am married, but my bride and I have known no peace since the day my favorite lamb ran away—

“Little Fool!” I cried, “Where are you going?” as I ran after. That little rascal was sure-footed, indeed. I chased it through the Valley of Shinar, next to our Israelite camp, and up two hills, before I began to catch up. But then, running down the hill—she was getting tired, I could see—I entered a small village.

“Ammonites,” I thought, and put my hand on my bronze dagger. My heedless lamb barely made it to the watering-trough, but, being small, it had no trouble pushing between the rams and ewes to get at the fresh, cool water—but then, whether it was God or some evil spirit, I saw her—

The most beautiful girl I had ever seen.

          Her name was Naarat-Baal, she told me, after I spoke softly to her to overcome her shyness—it is not the custom, with either us Israelites or her Ammonite people, for a single boy and girl to speak without a parent or chaperone present—but I loved her eyes: green as the distant Great Sea, and hair piled in shining ringlets on her head, black as night. It was then I felt what my Grandfather Benyamin had told me about: the lightning-bolt, which smote my heart and entrapped me in her arms forever—even without touching her, or seeing any part of her but her eyes and a bit of her hair, I knew that she was my Destined One.

          I caught up my tired little lamb, and asked if I could walk a ways with her—she smiled, looking down at the ground, and nodded. I kept a respectful distance, but while I was walking down the main path of her village, I could not help but feel the burning stares of the townsfolk on my back.

          “Dirty Israelite!” I heard someone call out, behind me. I held Lamb on my back, but my left hand—I am left-handed, something the Kohen-Priest has tried to change, without success—reached instantly for the sharp knife at my belt. I turned to see who was speaking, and saw another boy like me, who spat carefully between my feet.

          “Why are you here, Baal-Unbeliever?” he challenged me, “We Ammonites do not want you in our village. Get gone!”

          “If you please, Neighbor Ammonite,” I began, slowly and politely, “my lamb ran off, and I chased it. Any Ammonite shepherd—perhaps that is your trade, as well (he scowled; I was right) It was only through accident or the will of my God, Adonai, that I am in your village at all. My name is Tsa’eer ben Ammi, and I mean no harm to you Ammonites.”

          “’We Ammonites’?” he sneered, pulling back his tunic to show me his blade—about the same size knife as mine, and I do not fear man or beast when I draw mine out in anger—

“Don’t try to fool me, Israel-Boy,” said the shepherd, “We know what your Law says about us—‘Don’t associate with the Children of Ammon,’ says your God-Who-Lives-in-Smoke.”

          I tell you, Stranger, we almost clashed our blades together—we came that close. Luckily, he shook his fist at me, and he and his mates backed off. And my girl—Naarat-Baal, that is—led me to her father’s house, where I offered him the lamb as a bride-gift. He was a smiling old cove, named Shinar ben Lachish, and readily agreed to my suit—after all, besides my girl, Lord Shinar’s eldest, he had three other daughters to marry off.

“Get you along, my dear,” said her father to Naarat-Baal, and, in no time at all, she packed up her bundle—poor little thing, she had nearly nothing—and we began the trek to my Israelite camp, holding hands: man and wife, before God and the world.

          It was nearly dusk, so we decided to camp in the desert, that night. I made a snare and caught some quail: it was our bridal-feast. And then, with the stars as our marriage canopy, we went to sleep on my cloak. It was then that I discovered my lover, my bride, with the Moon-Goddess of my ancestors shining above.

          The next day, we continued our return to my—our—Israelite camp. I was so happy and proud to see the tents of Jacob arrayed in the morning sun, gleaming with dew, a gift from God. As we neared the tents of Israel, I expected my neighbors, or, at least, my family—my mother is a widow, and I have two brothers—to come out and greet us. The little children, out playing in the early morning, cried out, “Tsa’eer is back—and there is a strange woman with him!”

          People began to come out of their tents, but instantly turned when they saw the color of Naarat’s garb. There was no welcoming committee: the linen cloths of the Sanctuary parted, and one of the priests, a son of Pinchas named Kaas, came toward us, holding a shepherd’s crook in a threatening attitude. He had two Levite Guards with him—big, burly fellows with scowling faces.

          “Get thee hence, you rabble!” he shouted, as a crowd began to gather.
          “Why, what have I done?” I cried, surprised as this lack of welcome.

          “Do you not know?” Kohen Kaas shouted, the better to incite my neighbors against us, “You cannot bring your Ammonite strumpet into this holy camp. Be off! Back to the desert, and may both of you perish by the will and hand of God!”

          As my neighbors began to throw stones, we had no choice; we ran away, as fast as we could, with men and women chasing us. Alas, we have lived in the wilderness between my Israelite camp and her Ammonite village, ever since. Food is no problem; Gran’ther taught me to hunt, and we will not starve. But the desert is lonely and barren, and my bride cries herself to sleep every night, wishing to see her sisters again.

          What are we to do, Stranger? Does my God object so much to love? My dear Naarat wishes to join our people, and will do whatever is necessary to enter the Covenant of Israel, and worship the One True God.

          What are we to do?

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Insane King, the Rabbi, and the Monkey: An Old Jewish Tale

The Insane King, the Rabbi, and the Monkey: An Old Jewish Tale 

Adapted by Rabbi David Hartley Mark 

There was a king in a far-off land whose subjects agreed—that is, most of them—that he was insane. (Several of his courtiers insisted that he was perfectly fine, and took enormous pains to explain away most of his peculiar antics and speeches.) The king would make long, rambling speeches denouncing imaginary enemies; he would also befriend a particular courtier one day, and the next, insult and denigrate that same courtier. 

It drove the people mad.  

There also lived in the kingdom a sizeable Jewish community, which did its best to live their lives, pay their taxes, and make as little trouble as possible. This was the age-old Jewish response to dealing with leaders whose demeanor, intelligence, and behavior were unpredictably mercurial. 

Despite the king's erratic behavior, and his habit of betraying even his closest friends, there remained to him one true companion: his pet monkey, a Capuchin whose amusing capers and overall intelligence pleased the king and gave him a reliable source of comfort and laughter. Even after the king's unpredictable antics had alienated the queen, the prince, both his daughter and son-in-law—his dim-witted sons remained faithful, with the kingdom deeming their own level of intelligence to be on par with their father's—he treasured his monkey companion. He was heard often to ask it questions of state and foreign affairs, and esteemed his monkey as being more astute than his human advisers. 

Hearing one day from the Royal Zoologist that the monkey had been purchased from an Israelite merchant, the king convinced himself that the monkey was, indeed, Jewish. This occupied his thoughts for many days, to the neglect of anything else: his promised jobs program, possible military threats from the Kingdoms of Aissur and Aerok, an impending investigation by the Royal Special Prosecutor, and his disdain for his royal palace, which had been built centuries before, and was showing its age. 

The king decided that his monkey ought to display its cleverness and imagined erudition, as well as its possible Israelite connection, before the people of his entire kingdom. He therefore sent for the rabbi of his kingdom's Jewish community.  

The rabbi was puzzled, but could not refuse a royal summons. He brushed his beard carefully, put on his rabbinical robes, and arrived promptly at the palace. A factotum ushered him into the Royal Throne Room, where the king, not surprisingly, was playing with and discussing affairs of state with the monkey. 

"Ah, Rabbi!" said the king, "Thank you for coming to see me. I have a request to make of you." 

"How can I serve you, Majesty?" asked the rabbi, bowing. 

"I have thought long and hard about this request," said the king, smoothing his corn-gold wig, "as well as consulting with Herbert, here" (Herbert was the monkey), "and, after much thinking—much, much thinking—I have decided to ask you to bar-mitzvah my monkey. Yes, bar-mitzvah my monkey. He will do an excellent job. Excellent, excellent." 

"Come again, Your Majesty?" asked the rabbi, not believing what he had heard. 

"You heard me, Rabbi," said the king, thrusting out his lower lip in a manner not unlike that of Mussolini, "I want you to bar-mitzvah my monkey. Yes, bar-mitzvah him. Yes, yes." 

"Bar-mitzvah a monkey?" Replied the rabbi, still unbelieving, "Impossible! It can't be done. Why, it says in the Code of Jewish Law—" 

The king rose, in high dudgeon. He took up his sceptre and pointed it at the rabbi. The monkey, meanwhile, climbed to the top of the king's crown, and mimicked his actions. 

"Let me make it simple for you, Rabbi," the king shouted, "If you don't bar-mitzvah my monkey, I will have you executed. You will be executed by me, and be dead. Dead, dead, dead." 

"Oh," said the rabbi, "well, in that case, I will bar-mitzvah your monkey." 

"Done and done," said the king, smiling and sitting back down on his throne, "Herbert! Do you want a banana? You, there—(Pointing at a footman), get a banana. No, two bananas: one for Herbert, one for royal me."  

"But I do have one condition," said the rabbi. 

"What's that?" asked the king, frowning, and putting his banana down. 

"I will need three years to prepare the monkey for bar mitzvah," said the rabbi. 

"That will be fine," said the king, waving his hand, "Three years. Yes, three. Where's that banana?" 

The rabbi bowed, and two footmen opened the doors of the Royal Reception Chamber. He departed, calmly but quickly. 

After he left the palace, he found a small crowd of congregants, who had already heard about the meeting and the result. They were in a state of great consternation. 

"Rabbi, how can you bar-mitzvah a monkey?" Asked his temple president. 

"How can a monkey learn Hebrew?" asked another. 

"And the entire Shabbat service?" asked another. 

The rabbi waved his hand, to calm his people. 

"Don't forget," he said, "I got the king to agree to three years. A lot could happen in three years. The monkey could die. Or I could die. Or the king could die. Or the king could forget." 

His people began to understand. But the rabbi was not yet finished: 

"And, who knows?" He said, "If I can teach your children bar mitzvah, maybe perhaps I can also teach a monkey!"