Singing and Praying about Enemies

“Ooh sha sha, we’ve got to live together,” voices used to tell me, from under my pillow at night. “What the world needs now is love … love between my brothers and my sisters …everybody get together, smile on your brother.” They promised “change is gonna come” and an “answer blowin’ in the wind,” later asking: “What’s going on? …. War, what is it good for? (Good God, y’all) … Why can’t we be friends?”

Daily messages from my transistor and from people around me were very far removed from the language of “enemies” and “wicked” in the Book of Psalms.

I did not grow up among Bible readers or folks who relied on psalms for comfort or instruction. As I became a Bible reader and a Psalms reciter as an adult, I’ve struggled to reconcile all those years of “love everybody right now!” with some of the darker images in sacred text and prayer.

Once, a long while back, R’ Joel Alter launched a Jewish Study Center class I attended by saying that some people find it unhelpful to focus on enemies but that, for the purposes of that class (on the Book of Deuteronomy), we would not debate the topic: “Don’t tell me we don’t have enemies.” I don’t think I’d said anything myself about my problems with the concept of enemies in sacred text, but Joel’s comment definitely spoke right to me, and started to shift my perspective.

Nevertheless, I remain anxious about psalms that say things like, “a host encamps against me” (Ps. 27:4) or “let God’s enemies be scattered” (Ps. 68:2) or that speak of “the wicked,” rather than wickedness. (Beruria, who taught her husband, Rabbi Meir, to pray for an end to “sins” rather than “sinners,” is my hero!) After all: Who gets to declare someone wicked or enemy of God?

I do love some psalms and find them deeply moving. I enjoy studying psalms. I joyfully, or mournfully, as the occasion demands, add my voice when psalms are part of the liturgy. I recite psalms when someone is ill or in dire straits. Still, though, when the world around me seems especially threatening, I often prefer to lean on Bill Withers or let Sly and the Family Stone carry me away.

photo: Joe Haupt (image description, full credit below)

Recently, however, I’ve had my perspective shifted again by the psalm medleys of Adam Gottlieb and OneLove. In one recent example (“Duppy Medley, with Psalm 27, below), his translation and the musical context prepare me for lines like, “when armies come at me, my heart will hold.” I could try to explain why I think this works for me. Instead, I’ll just share the video and ask how this lands for you this Elul.

This link allows Spotify users to pre-save Psalm 1 Medley, which includes a fantastic minor key “Hammer Song.” No cost, just need a Spotify account.

Here is the Patreon page for Adam Gottlieb & OneLove. Becoming a patron gives access to the Psalm 1 Medley before the September 2 release date and lots of other content.


And, here, for some different forms of uplift:

Sly Stone’s “Everyday People,” brought to you by Turnaround Arts (school groups around the country);

Bill Withers offering his own “Lean on Me” with audience participation; and

Playing for Change’s Song Around the World version of “Lean on Me.”


NOTES

“Everyday People,” Sly and the Family Stone 1968. “What the World Needs Now is Love,” Jackie DeShannon 1965. “The Hammer Song,” Martha and the Vandellas 1963 (Seeger and Hayes, 1949). “Get Together,” Youngbloods 1968. “A Change is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke 1964. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Bob Dylan 1962. “What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye 1970. “War,” Edwin Starr, 1970. “Why can’t we be friends,” War 1975.

Rabbi Joel Alter was then a relatively recent graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary and a regular teacher for DC’s cross-community Jewish Study Center after his day job in formal Jewish education. He is now a congregational rabbi in Milwaukee. Tagging him here with thanks and greetings.

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There were once some highwaymen [or: hooligans] the neighbourhood of R. Meir who caused him a great deal of trouble. R. Meir accordingly prayed that they should die. His wife Beruria said to him: How do you make out [that such a prayer should be permitted]? Because it is written (Ps. 104:35): Let hatta’im cease? Is it written hot’im? It is written hatta’im! Further, look at the end of the verse: and let the wicked men be no more. Since the sins will cease, there will be no more wicked men! Rather pray for them that they should repent, and there will be no more wicked. He did pray for them, and they repented. — Soncino translation, Babylonian Berakhot 10a. For more on this story, see also this PDF from a psalms study class a few years back.


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Image description: plastic rectangular transistor radio from the 1950s. Single dial and volume control. Photo: Joe Haupt via Wikimedia. License Attribution-Share Alike Creative Commons 2.0. Official name: “Vintage General Electric 5-Transistor Radio, Model 677 (Red), GE’s First Commercially Produced Transistor Radio, Made in the USA, Circa 1955.”

Video description: Musicians performing live in a small, possibly home-based (decidedly not fancy) studio. Guitarist/vocalist on one side; drummer, guitarist, and additional percussionist on the other side.

Miriam, Amalek, Memory, and Mouths

This dvar torah is about remembering and how Jewish memory is built with the help of our prayerbooks. Some of what I learned in preparing today’s remarks can be found in this handout.

The end of the handout is the result of the earlier parts of my studies, a brief exploration into Mishkan T’filah and earlier drafts of the siddur, mostly focusing on one pair of pages where we find: “Six Torah episodes are to be remembered each day, to refine our direction.”

The “Six Torah episodes” section can be found on pages 43 and 205 in the actual Mishkan T’filah, on page 12 in the handout, shared here.

full text version can be found here

In similar passages (more on this later) in other prayer books, “What God did to Miriam” is included here. I turned to older drafts of Mishkan T’filah, hoping they might clue me into why Miriam is not on this page.

Endnote Deadend

An endnote in the published siddur says the Six Torah episodes were “adapted from a Sephardic siddur.” But it doesn’t specify which or say what was adapted. I could find no example anywhere, Ashkenazi or Sephardic, in another siddur which changes the verses so as to omit Miriam, as Mishkan T’filah does. Every other example over the last 1000 years seems to focus on the same six incidents, all of which include a Torah verse demanding that we “remember” and/or “not forget.” Only Mishkan T’filah uses a different list. Only Mishkan T’filah leaves out specific Torah verses. And only Mishkan T’filah adds in Korach — about whom we have no memory admonition in the Torah.

These seem significant differences, and I thought it a little odd that so much changed over the course of the drafts, while this passage remained static through five years or more of edits. (See the handout for some notes on changes that did occur over the drafts.) No one I asked — including some Temple Micah clergy, current and past, and other people I thought might know — had an explanation. Rabbi Gerry Serotta, who served as interim rabbi some years ago, sent a query on my behalf to the siddur’s chief editor, Rabbi Elyse Frishman, and to Rabbi David Ellenson. If we hear back, I’ll let you know.

Improvement by Removal?

Meanwhile, Rabbi Gerry and I guessed that removing Miriam had been an attempt to respond to feminist criticism about how Miriam is usually remembered: 1) focusing on her case of tzaraat, a skin condition, rather than on anything she actually did or who she was; 2) remembering “What God did to Miriam” in a way that accuses her of lashon hara [evil speech], although that is unclear in the text; and 3) blames Miriam alone, while the text clearly states that both Aaron and Miriam spoke against Moses (Numbers 12:1ff).

If it’s true that the change was made due to feminist sensibilities, it seems ironic — and oddly instructive — that, as a result, Miriam is… just gone.


Acquiring Memory

In my travels through older prayerbook drafts, I was intrigued by the adage, attributed to David Ellenson: “Acquire the memory of what it means to be a Jew.”

This prompted me to wonder:

  • What did the siddur editors want us to remember with this set of episodes?
  • What does it mean that Miriam is not on the page?
  • What would it mean if she were there?
  • What does it mean that Mishkan T’filah made this change without explanation?
  • Would the passage land differently, had an explanation been included?

From there I followed many other branches of wondering, more generally, about how memory, and Jewish identity, are formed by our practice and our prayerbooks. That brings me to older material I found relating to the Six Remembrances.

On page three of the handout is a Talmudic source arguing why the verb “remember” should be understood to mean “repeat it with your mouth.” The link between speech and remembering is an old one in Jewish thought. The passage from Sifra discusses four of the verses in the Six or Ten Remembrances.

full text version can be found here

In addition to these four, the Exodus and the Revelation at Mount Sinai are included. Here, page 6 of handout, is a typical example of how the Six Remembrances appear in contemporary prayerbooks —

full text version can be found here

Intentions and Remembering

In addition to Mishkan T’filah’s “to refine our direction,” other intentions introduce these remembrances: from a simple “some say,” to “for the sake of unification of the divine name…” and “those who recite these are assured a place in the world to come.” (See page 2 of the handout for these various intentions and page 6 for details of how the Six and Remembrances and the “Six Torah episodes” differ.)

The Sifra passage also includes an expression that really caught my attention — the idea of “heart-forgetfulness,” apparently something that can be fixed with thought, while speech is required in other cases…..

This might be a good thing to keep in mind during Elul, thinking about what can be repaired by thought and memory and what requires speaking aloud.

Back to Miriam

Now, back to Miriam, who is not on the Mishkan T’filah pages but IS in this week’s Torah portion (now last week’s, Ki Teitzei, Deut. 21:10 – 25:19 — pages 7 and 8 of the handout). Deuteronomy 24:9 is one of only 12 times her name appears in the Torah.

Rabbinic imagination saw Miriam’s Well in the white space between her death and the lack of water in the next verse. And many other stories and lessons surround Miriam. But she appears in four incidents in the Torah — named three times and “his sister” in another — and is mentioned twice more. That’s it. That’s all she wrote about Miriam.

full text version can be found here

There is a lot of commentary about the two verses in this week’s portion– the one telling the listener to heed the priests in matters of tzaraat (Deut 24:8) and the following one telling us to remember what God did to Miriam.

What God did to Miriam is related in Numbers 12. The demand that we remember what God did to Miriam is usually understood as a warning to guard the tongue, due to links in commentary between tzaraat and sins of the tongue. But it’s crucial to note that there is no direct link — either in this week’s portion or in Numbers 12 or elsewhere in Torah text — between Miriam and evil speech.

What and How We Remember

The story in Numbers 12 is full of obscure imagery, and Miriam’s tzaraat is the same condition Moses experienced at the Burning Bush, where it was part of his recognition as a prophet, and not understood as punishment at all. Early Jewish teachers chose to make Miriam an object lesson rather than following another set of interpretations with a different set of lessons.

None of the other Six or Ten Remembrances involve an individual, so — regardless of initial intention — Jewish thought and law were greatly influenced by the linkage that developed between Miriam, and women in general, and evil speech.

  • But, is that a good reason to remove the text from recitation?
  • Does that facilitate forgetting of a helpful kind?
  • What is gained and what is lost in removing a passage with difficult associations?
  • Might it be better to keep it in and work to understand and re-interpret?

Theologian Judith Plaskow discusses this in a piece on this week’s portion, “Tzaraat and Memory.” I highly recommend reading the whole thing — either in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, in print, or on My Jewish Learning.

Writing in 2008, Plaskow raises the issue of how progress can actually be a challenge to memory and to further progress. I’ll add that her conclusion can also apply to the appearance of progress, as when a problematic text is removed from regular recitation or consideration, or when we make changes that don’t always benefit the most harmed or vulnerable.

She writes, referencing the other important “memory” verses in this week’s portion:

We blot out the memory of Amalek when we create Jewish communities in which the perpetual exclusion of some group of people — or the denial of women’s rights — are so contrary to current values as to be almost incredible. Yet, if we are to safeguard our achievements, we can also never forget to remember the history of inequality and the decisions and struggles that have made more equitable communities possible.


What We Remember, What We Fix

I’ve been watching a series of mysteries focusing on women in the mid-1960s. (For fellow mystery fans: Ms. Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries, set in 1964-65 Melbourne, Australia, a delightful set of sequels to Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, set in the same area in the late 1920s.) And I’ve noticed that I am remembering, quite viscerally, how it FELT, as a girl and young woman, to have limited rights, opportunities, and expectations. And also of how dangerous it could be back then, in physical, legal, and psychic ways, for women and also for queer people and for many others….And I’m on the young side for these experiences; others have longer histories with inequality.

This exploration also reminded me of, on the one hand, how grateful I was to have to explain such things to our children as they were growing up. So many conversations that centered around: Queer people were forbidden from expressing their identity or acting on their sexuality, let alone getting married?! Women weren’t allowed to what?! US law defined whiteness as property and prevented Black people from what?!

On the other hand, I remember the desire to let them go on asking questions like “Do you have to be a mommy to lead services?” without ever realizing how impossible that question would have been in my youth and how painful it was for all of us who didn’t see ourselves reflected in leadership roles…or at all.

There is a strong tension between wanting to build a world with more equity and inclusivity, on the one hand, and the responsibility to never forget that we are sitting in a place built by damage; with many wounds still present, often unhealed, and so much work still to do. Continuing to REMEMBER, and recite, difficult passages can cause harm. But failing to remember carries it’s own risk.

The same applies in many ways to teshuva: When might it be appropriate to forget or not mention old harm, and when must we work to remember and confront? In other words, maybe, when are we dealing with heart-forgetfulness and when with something that requires us to use our mouths?

As I tried to figure out what happened with Miriam and the Six Torah episodes, I kept remembering these lines, from a song about memory and loss —

If you hear that same sweet song again,
will you know why?

— “Bird Song,” by Robert Hunter (1941-2019) & Jerry Garcia, z”l (1942-1995)
first performed Feb 19, 1971. “for Janis [Janis Joplin (1943-1970)]”

How much do we lose, and what do we gain, when we forget to remember why we chose to remember or forget?

This dvar Torah was originally prepared, and offered in a slightly different form, for Temple Micah (DC), 5781.


Handout in PDF and text versions

Full text version of handout for anyone who cannot easily do graphics is posted here.

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Remedy of the Bima?

Updated August 23, 2021

Gittin 55a states that an individual who experienced the theft of a beam, which was then built into a large structure, must receive the value of the beam as reparation. This ruling is מפני תקנת השבים, due to or because of…

תקנת השבים

outside (standard) translation of takanat ha-sh’vim:* a phrase meaning “[Rabbinic] Law of Penitence”

תקנת השבים

inside (word-by-word) translation: a phrase with roots תקנ “repair” [tiken] and שׁוב “return” [shuv] — something like the “repair of the returning” or the “remedy of reparation” (“Inside” translations don’t sound like smooth English.)

תקנת השבים

This is far-fetched grammar-wise, but it captures an important aspect of what’s on my mind regarding this text. Shifting focus, however grammatically fanciful: might we read בים [bim] as related to בימה “stage, platform, bima“?

…The modern Hebrew verb, “to stage” בים, biyem, was created from בימה. The Klein dictionary (c. 1983 CE) says בימה was originally a Greek loan word, but Jastrow (c. 1883) says specifically that this is NOT so, arguing that the Greek word βῆμα would be spelled with an aleph in Hebrew, rather than a hey. Either way, though, the examples Jastrow gives for בימה are all about holding forth, making announcements, hearing from distinguished speakers, etc. So, it doesn’t seem like a big leap to bima-ing as a verb meaning to hold forth from a raised position (metaphorically and physically)….

The result would be something like, “remedy of that which is bima-ed,” suggesting that those who experienced theft are entitled to reparation from a bima, for all that was taught, from positions of power, over the centuries, continuing to build up a bigger and stronger bira [large structure] of systemic racism.

How much bima-ing has continued to raise up many laudable-sounding ideas while failing to note:

  • that we sit on unceded, stolen land;
  • that our country was historically built with stolen labor;
  • that today stolen labor continues in our prisons and other inequitable systems;
  • that some among us experience relative security built at the cost of well-being, freedom, and sometimes the very lives of others, including Black, Indigenous, queer, and other people whose human rights have long been a stolen beam still built into a structure that benefits others; and
  • that Jews have often been complacently “bima-ed” around these topics for a long time?
photo intended as a random example of a bima — image details below

Heading into the Days of Awe this year, I wonder about the need to take more responsibility, from the pew, for what goes on from the bima:

If our Jewish communities are not hearing from those who teach Torah, in its many forms, about our obligations in regard to stolen beams, then do we, from the pews, have a responsibility to “remedy that which is bima‘ed”?

How do we do that?

What if we cannot (immediately) change the bima-ing? Then what?

What, exactly, is our responsibility — individually and collectively — when it comes to learning and what we are taught to act on as a community?

This is a musing prompted by this year’s Elul learning through SVARA: The Traditionally Radical Yeshiva. For a different musing, prompted by last year’s studies, see “About that stolen beam…

beam illustration — details below


takanat ha-sh’vim: This is a transliteration of the phrase as worked out in Beit Midrash [House of Study] of SVARA: The Traditionally Radical Yeshiva. The Talmud gives us no vowels, and the work of the Beit Midrash is to explore possible meanings before settling on one or more. Deciding how to vocalize, or transliterating too soon, prematurely limits the meaning….but I’m including this, and other transliterations, here for convenience.

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Image descriptions and credits:

Beam illustration: Stone Lintel Beam.jpg from Wikimedia Commons (4.0 Attribution-Share Alike), adapted annotations

Image description: simple drawing of a brick wall with an opening and lintel beam. Added notations read: “Stolen? Beam” and “Built into a large structure”

Bima Image: Synagogue of Villa Dominguez (Argentina): The Torah Ark and the Bimah

123- Villa Dominguez – Synagogue.JPG — Wikimedia Commons 4.0 Attribution-Share Alike.

Image description: Inclined smooth wooden reading table, covered in cloth, facing ornate wooden ark in a synagogue empty of people.

Dear Jews Who Say Black Lives Matter

in this final week of Elul 5780 —

Dear Jewish Organizations and Synagogues who Say Black Lives Matter,

In June, hundreds of Jewish organizations and congregations signed a statement of support for Black Lives Matter. That statement focused on addressing deliberate attempts to divide us:

There are politicians and political movements in this country who build power by deliberately manufacturing fear to divide us against each other….

…We’ll show up for each other every time one of us is targeted because of our differences, and reject any effort to use fear to divide us against each other.

The statement also declared sacred the work of pursuing justice, affirming Jewish support for Black-led organizing toward accountability and transparency from officials and police:

We support the Black-led movement in this country that is calling for accountability and transparency from the government and law enforcement. We know that freedom and safety for any of us depends on the freedom and safety of all of us.

…Jewish tradition teaches us that justice is not something that will be bestowed upon us, it is something that we need to pursue, and that the pursuit is itself sacred work. (Emphasis in original.)

Despite this public commitment, Jewish groups have been remarkably silent in the face of DC police shooting a youth, just barely 18, to death on a District street, September 2, 2020. Despite promises to do so, Jewish organizations and congregations have not been actively joining Stop Police Terror DC and Black Lives Matter DC in calling for accountability and transparency from government and from police. (See joint statement; more below.)

Signatories to the June letter should be prepared to stand behind our words with commitment to teshuvah [repentance] for this killing. The killing should be of national concern. At minimum, we need a greater response from signatories who live, work, and worship within DC.

The June letter is signed (on quick review) by at least 12 congregations located inside DC, more outside the city with members living and working in DC, and national organizations with offices in DC. With a few exceptions — Jews United for Justice forwarded the joint statement of Stop Police Terror/BLM DC, for example — Jewish groups have been far too silent in response to this trauma within our city and to the abject failure of our government in terms of that stated goal: “freedom and safety for all of us.

At the very least, those who have declared “we say, unequivocally: Black Lives Matter” must object to the normalizing of young Black death, in our nation’s capital and around the country, and demand re-examination of “gun recovery” policy and practice that regularly leads to Black people being harassed and hunted, even to death. (See DC Justice Lab proposals. See also Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense call for transparency.)

Those of us who are white and/or living in relative safety must stop accepting a system that funds infrastructure to our benefit while we regularly avoid consequences of uneven funding and the uneven presence and impact of police.

Jewish silence has long contributed to the conditions that led to the September 2nd killing, and Jews — whether part of groups which signed in June or not — have much teshuvah to do for this. We add to our sins if we do not mention the name, Deon Kay, and commit to seeking better conditions as 5781 begins.

[Signed]
Virginia Avniel Spatz
long-time resident of DC
active, over the years, in many Jewish congregations/organizations, including BLM support signatories

SHARE HERE: If you would like to add your name to THIS letter and/or report on Jewish response to the killing of Deon Kay, use this contact form. This blog will endeavor to update as quickly as possible, so we can all see how Jews are following through on the Black Lives Matter declaration.

from DC Justice Lab

See also statements of DC Police Reform Commission, an official body of the DC Council, and these from ACLU of DC and DC Action for Children.

News: Washington Informer and Washington City Paper (solid local reporting, with no paywall). Also: Washington City Paper “What Deon Kay’s Mentors Want You to Know…”

Demands

  • Fire MPD Chief Peter Newsham
  • Launch a fully independent investigation into the death of Deon Kay
  • Fire MPD Officer Alexander Alvarez
  • Defund the DC Metropolitan Police Department and fully invest in community-led resources
…amend “Comprehensive Justice and Policing Reform Act” to:
  • Require that all released videos include audit trails that show who accessed the video and how and if it was edited, so that transparency can reduce the risk that the videos are doctored.
  • Require that MPD explicitly clarify why officers’ faces in released footage are redacted, define who are considered “officers involved” before releasing footage, and include those officers’ names and faces in the footage.
  • Require that MPD state explicitly when naming “officers involved” which officer committed the act (rather than officers who were on the scene)


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About that stolen beam…

Trying to learn a few lines of Jewish text, about a “stolen beam,” I find myself completely confused about the basic idea of ownership. The studies are part of Svara’s Elul Extravaganza, “learning as a deep spiritual practice in service of teshuva and transformation leading up to the Days of AWE-some.” The underlying, or overarching, topic is reparations.

The text, from Gitten 55a, speaks about a “stolen beam” and what measures should be taken to compensate the owner, if the beam has been already built into a large structure. It seems pretty clear from what we’ve deciphered so far that the rabbis of the Talmud assume the beam had a legitimate owner and was taken, illegitimately, from them.

But I found myself stymied by the idea, proposed by Beit Shammai, of returning the beam to it’s “baalav” — which seems to mean, on the face of it, the beam’s “(true) owners.” But a “baal habayit” is a landlord, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that some shady landlord was somehow benefiting from a loophole in the law…as too many of our big ones here in DC are wont to do…and had, by vague analogy, no right to that beam in the first place.


Encampments and Luxury Dwellings

I recently interviewed advocates for the “Vacant to Virus Reduction” (V2VR), campaign. One of the arguments of this campaign is that WE, District taxpayers, have already paid dearly for luxury housing — through tax incentives and other perfectly legal means — and so should be able to claim some of that benefit now, in this crisis involving health and housing.

Here in the District of Columbia, we have thousands of housing insecure people and several tent encampments, like these under the train tracks —

from a recent video, shared on Facebook, by Serve Your City DC
from the same video

The tent encampment shown in these two photos lines an underpass not far from the nation’s Capitol Buildings. Just around the corner, meanwhile, we see luxury developments, like this shiny new one pictured below… some of which have vacancies that the V2VR campaign would like filled by those who are currently unhoused in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

rendering is from the website of DC area developer Douglas Jemal

The DC government regularly removes and destroys the belongings and shelters of neighbors in the encampments, insisting that they have no right to live where they do. The same DC government regularly supports the building of luxury dwellings with all kinds of incentives which come from taxpayers’ pockets.


The Root of the Trouble

Svara method in Talmud study emphasizes looking up each word encountered, even if the study partners think they already know it. We learned that the Hebrew word “baal,” which is usually translated as “owner” or “master,” is based on a two-letter root, bet-ayin. And that root can mean to search out, lay bare, or ransack.

And, while I confess to some bias here before I opened the dictionary, finding this root really spoke to one of the many issues bothering me about the idea of returning the beam to its baalav. I cannot argue that either Beit Shammai or Beit Hillel (whose position we will discuss next week) thought property ownership was a form of ransacking. But I will argue that people in DC — and probably in many other locales — need to be thinking about how many of our beams were obtained, what it would mean to extract them or their value, and whether someone who took a beam — or chose to shelter under one that does not technically belong to them — is really the culprit.

None of this even begins to consider the issue of reparations for the Atlantic Slave Trade, for this country’s genocide and massive theft from indigenous people, or for the more recent, ongoing displacement of Black people in DC and elsewhere. But it has caused me to ponder some aspects of the work ahead…into the high holidays and far beyond.



TEXT

The lines we’re learning are from the Talmud, Gitten 55a.

Here are the two lines we have explored so far:

NOTE: Attempting to cut and paste Hebrew/Aramaic text turns it backwards here, so sharing an image; here’s a link to full text at Sefaria. And here is a translation based loosely on what’s at Sefaria and our Svara class:

And about a stolen beam that was built into a large [maybe multi-residential] building [bira], remove the value, due to an ordinance instituted for the penitent….Beit Shammai say: He must destroy the entire building and return the beam to its owners [l’baalav]

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Toward Anti-Racism — Selichot Sources

This year, I was privileged to help Hill Havurah create some readings and prayers to help guide us through reflection around racial justice and teshuvah [repentance/return]: what more can we help transform through identifying, and seeking to make amends, alone and together, for, previously unrecognized errors of thought, word, and deed? (More on this project and to download.)

Selichot Sources: Toward Anti-Racism prepared by Rachel Conway and Virginia Spatz, for Hill Havurah, with advising from Rachel Faulkner, National Jews of Color Organizer, Dimensions Educational Consulting.

Also, in preparation for the high holidays, some sources for the double Torah portion Nitzavim-Vayeilech.

How?! Is the World Like A Poem?

We are about to leave the month of Av — with its mournful cry of “eichah/how?!” — and enter the month of Elul, the final one of the old year. As we make this transition, a few more words about a poem, a poet, and a translator I first encountered during this past year.

The Hebrew poem, “Ka-shir ha-‘olam [The world is like a poem], by the U.S.-based writer, “Annabelle Farmelant, z”l, first appeared in the journal Gilyanot, in 1949, and later in the 1960 Iyyum bodedim (Desert Islands). Here is a 2016 translation by Adriana X. Jacobs:

“The World is Like a Poem”

The world is like a poem
in all its glory,
even in the thick of its aches
terrors and cries
its grandeur is reflected.
Man [ha-adam] enters the world like a wanderer
Like a wanderer man enters the world
and declares that he will roam
always, always.
But how — he asks — just how*
does beauty rule a poem
when a line is erased?
How does splendor** shine
when its form is wiped out?
Man is not in these things
for a poem’s beauty is not in a line
an unnamed [lo-karu] wanderer
in the world’s splendor**
Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores, p.149

*Eichacha — yisheil — eichacha.Eichacha” is an unusual form of “how.” The Evan Shoshan Concordance lists 78 occurrences of eich/eichah, plus four instances of “אֵיכָכָה eichachah: two in the Book of Esther and two in Song of Songs.
**”Tifereth” is a feminine word for an attribute of the divine, one right at the center of the Kabbalist tree of life.
tiferet ba-olam. splendor in the world.
tiferet ha-olam. splendor of the world.

The translation is Jacobs’ (see below), but these footnotes are mine.

Unnamed?

Jacobs often writes about the translator’s role in rendering poetry, generally, and more specifically about the poet-translator’s role in modern Hebrew literature. (See Strange Cocktail: Translation and the Making of Modern Hebrew Poetry. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2018; preview on Google Books; related articles via Academia.edu.)

Farmelant was something of an outlier in Hebrew poetry due to time, gender, and geography. And Jacobs shares some of her process around translating her work in “Hebrew on a Desert Island: The Case of Annabelle Farmelant” (Studies in American Jewish Literature, Volume 34, Number 1, 2015, pp. 154-174 — also available via Academia.edu).

In her introductory remarks in Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores, Jacobs speaks about the poem, “The World is Like a Poem”:

I understood wandering to mean the ways in which a poem circulates through time and place, how it is exchanged between readers, and also how it travels in and through translation….

But in what way is the poem “unnamed”? I thought of how translating a poem simultaneously assumes and undermines the poet’s authority by replacing her textual voice with my own but at the same time acknowledges that whatever origins the original text could claim — the influences and materials that brought it into being — can no longer be claimed….
— Jacobs, p.103

I read the line she is discussing differently, however. Perhaps because I have quite a few years on Jacobs, or maybe because I spent an evening this past week at an event highlighted by GoGo performers known as “Uncalled 4 Band.”

Unnamed? Uninvited? “Uncalled 4”?

As with my reading of Farmelant’s “Skyscraper,” I suspect that our different takes are probably colored by our age (I have decades on Jacobs, although I am quite a bit younger than Farmelant was). For someone who grew up female in the middle of the 20th Century reading “lo-karu” as “not invited” makes a great deal of sense.

The penultimate line of the poem in Hebrew —
והוא הלך לא-קרוא
is translated by Jacobs as “an unnamed wanderer.”
But קרוא can also has the meaning of “called, summoned, invited.” We were so often not unwanted in, even prohibited from, physical and intellectual spaces back then. So, I thought that, like the wandering earthling [ha-adam], the poem is trying to manage in a world which really hasn’t room for it, whose beauty is so easily erased:

??”And he walks uninvited — or uncalled for — in the world’s splendor.”??

Elul and the World Like a Poem

As we enter the month of Elul, our language shifts from “how!?” to more specific seeking as we prepare for the new year and begin reciting Psalm 27 through the season of repentance and return:

One thing I ask YHVH, only that do I seek:
to live in the house of YHVH all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of YHVH to frequent God’s temple.
…In Your behalf my heart says: “Seek My face!”
O LORD, I seek Your face.
— Psalm 27:4, 8

Farmelant’s poem includes that “how?!” — how, he asks, will this work? — but also offers some thoughts about one’s place in the world, a world of splendor, even “in the thick of its aches, terrors and cries.”


With gratitude to Jacobs for making Farmelant accessible…like many readers of Hebrew in translation, I can puzzle out words here and there, recognize biblical and rabbinic allusions, but I would find a whole volume of Hebrew poetry formidable…and for so many ideas about Hebrew literature more generally.

And in memory of Annabelle (Chana) Farmelant, who died shortly after I last wrote about her poetry for Shavuot and whom I find myself missing, though I never had the opportunity to meet her.

NOTES

Translations by Adriana X. Jacobs, Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores: Poems by Anne Kleiman and Annabelle Farmelant. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016). See also: information on Farmelant, including an article on her work by Jacobs.

In 1960, Annabelle Farmelant, z”l, a U.S.-based writer, who was living at the time in Israel, published a book of Hebrew verse called Iyyum bodedim (Desert Islands). A second volume, Pirchei zehut (Flowers of Identity), was released in 1961. Shortly afterward Farmelant returned to the U.S. and abandoned the writing of poetry in any language; she lived in New York City until her passing, on June 14, 2019, at age 93. In 2016, Adriana X. Jacobs published translations of her poems in Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores: Poems by Anne Kleiman and Annabelle Farmelant. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016).
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Ki Teitzei: Productive Erasing

NOTE: In conjunction with this dvar torah, I produced a four-page set of background materials. For the purposes of this post, I added hyperlinks to all sources not directly quoted in the dvar proper. But the source sheet was actually designed to stand as its own, so it might prove useful to download the PDF as well: Ki Teitzei sourcesheet (PDF)

I learned something in preparing for this week’s portion that changed my perspective on several things, and I hope I can convey it in a way that at least makes sense and maybe also gives you a new way to look at some things. I prepared a source sheet with bits of Torah, later parts of the Hebrew bible, notes from Talmud, medieval and later writings. We’re not going to follow the material in order, and I know it’s a lot to ask, but I’m hoping you’ll be willing to follow me on a somewhat meandering path. As it says in one of my favorite Grateful Dead songs:

Once in a while you get shown the light
In the strangest of places if you look at it right.
— Scarlet Begonias, Hunter/Garcia 1974

Ki Teitzei and Commandments

We’ll start with a few words about this week’s portion. It contains a wide range of commandments. Some I think most of us would agree are sensible, kind and just: building houses so as to prevent accidents, returning lost property, and paying promptly for hired work. A few – like not wearing mixtures of linen and wool – are so hard to explain that they’re often put into the category of decrees to follow even if we don’t know why. Several are quite disturbing, like an order to obliterate whole peoples and a commandment to bring a rebellious child to the town elders to be killed.

All these commandments – the worrisome, the crazy-sounding, and the easy to accept – have been the subject of thousands of years of discussion and the source of many ethical directives, as well as mystical teachings, sometimes both woven together. This portion is one that reminds us that

  • A) Jewish tradition rarely, if ever, accepts a text entirely at face value; and
  • B) texts that trouble us today almost certainly troubled our ancestors, too.

It’s a relief to know, for example, how the ancient Rabbis read the verse about the rebellious child: They looked carefully at the language and decided that use of the singular expression, “voice” for two people means that these conditions apply only if a child disobeys two parents who speak identically, at once, and the parents are alike in appearance and stature; this, the Rabbis declared, was so unlikely that such a case never happened and never would. Instead, they said, the verse was put there for study purposes only.

So that is one commandment that no Jewish community observes. But there are others in this portion that many Jews do observe – and that fact can complicate study for Jews who don’t observe in the same way.

After more than a century of distancing itself from all ceremonial and ritual commandments, the Reform movement shifted gears with the 1999 Platform, saying: “We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community.” See below for a few words from the 18CCAR-logo85 and 1999 platforms and a link to the full texts (and/or p.3 of PDF); I think it’s worthwhile to review these things from time to time.

As the 1999 platform suggests, even if we don’t observe particular commandments, studying them can remind us that our tradition is richer and deeper, and sometimes stranger, than a quick reading or online search might suggest. I say “strange” both in the sense of “not known before” and in the sense of “odd” or “out of place,” because Torah teachings from one Jewish culture can seem quite strange to Jews from another community. This is especially evident when we’re talking about commandments that are carefully observed by some Jews but practically unknown by others.

For Jews who don’t observe family purity laws or kashrut, for example, details of these laws might seem irrelevant, old-fashioned, or preachy. But many Jewish teachings, including most from previous centuries, assume knowledge and interest in these areas. So skipping over all such teaching means missing a lot. There’s a great deal to be learned in foreign Torah territory, and different sets of assumptions are not necessarily meant to be inhospitable. The key, I think, is to do some advance planning to make the most of the trip. And that’s what I hope we can do this morning, as we head into possibly unfamiliar landscape in search of new perspectives on Amalek, on repentance and making changes in the world.

leftfield
Left Field: insurancenewsnet.com

The first bit of background might seem out of left field for exploring Amalek,
Consider, however, that throws from deep in the outfield can have a big impact on the game.

Work and Shabbat

In Genesis 2:2, God ceases God’s melachah, creative work, and rests on the Sabbath. (Verses and more details below and/or page 3 of PDF.)

In Exodus 31, God is giving instructions for building the Tabernacle, and the People are told that melachah, creative work, is forbidden on the Sabbath in imitation of God’s rest.

Later Jewish tradition, beginning with the Talmud, lists 39 categories of melachah – like tying knots, bleaching, spinning, and carrying things –
based on the kind of work that was needed to construct the Tabernacle.

One of the prohibited kinds of melachah is “mocheik al m’nat lichtov” – erasing with the intention to write something new in that same place:

…Erasing merely to blot out what is written is a destructive act, and destructive acts are not forbidden on Shabbat by Torah law. Melachah is constructive activity, similar to God’s creative acts when forming the universe.

So what form of erasing is prohibited on the Sabbath? “Mocheik al m’nat lichtov” — erasing with the intention of writing again. One’s intention must be to clean the surface in order to write over the original letters. This type of erasing is a positive, constructive activity, and therefore is incompatible with the special rest of the Sabbath day.
— “True Erasing” from Rav Kook on parashat Ki Teitzei
(See also Language Note below; source #17 on PDF)

infieldThis is where that throw from left field reaches the infield, as Rav (Rabbi Abraham Isaac) Kook explains that this is the kind of erasing required to obliterate Amalek’s name.

Remembering Amalek

So, now let’s take a few moments to remember Amalek, as we’re told to do
at the close of this week’s portion.

There are five biblical texts dealing with Amalek on the source sheet (sources 1-5 and below). Amalek appears a few more times in the Torah and later in the Tanach, but these are the most important ones for our story this morning.

We recall that Amalek is the grandson of Esau and great-great-grandson of Abraham and Sarah. Esau is the one who was tricked out of the first-born’s blessing by his twin brother, Jacob, who becomes Israel. That makes him our family, too, however thoroughly estranged.

In Exodus, Amalek launches an unprovoked attack on the Israelites in the wilderness, and God declares war with Amalek from generation to generation. In this week’s portion, we learn new information about that incident: that Amalek had attacked the weakest stragglers and that Amalek did not fear God.

Later, the Book of Samuel and the Book of Esther each reference more generations of Amalek and Israel as enemies – we are becoming more and more distant cousins, but still family. Rabbis Arthur Waskow and Phyllis Berman suggest that we view the two peoples as “connected to each other like conjoined twins. If I assault my twin, I am wounding myself….”

And that brings us to “My Brother Esau.” This song captures an important idea, shared by many Jewish teachers, about the relationship between Israel and Esau, and by extension, Amalek. The lines “the more my brother looks like me,” and “though he gave me all his cards,” in particular, touch on the thread of Jewish teaching that sees Esau and Amalek as other aspects of ourselves, like Jacob and Yisrael are sometimes understood as two aspects of one individual.

Obliterating Amalek

Returning to this week’s portion, we are told:

  • to remember זָכוֹר
    Remember what Amalek did to the Jewish people;
  • to blot out the remembrance תִּמְחֶה
    Wipe out the descendants of Amalek from under heaven
    תִּמְחֶה אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם; and
  • to not forget לֹא, תִּשְׁכָּח
    Not to forget Amalek’s atrocities/ambush on our journey from Egypt in the desert.

These are usually understood as three separate commandments, following Maimonides.

Over the centuries, Jews of many different belief systems have struggled with whether, and how, those commandments – especially the one to wipe out a whole people – still apply. See, for a really helpful and accessible summary,  “Are Jews Still Commanded to Blot Out the Memory of Amalek?”

Professor Golinkin, like Nechama Leibowitz and others before him, focuses on the two new statements in this week’s portion: that Amalek did not fear God, and that he attacked the vulnerable. (See below for excerpt and link to the full article; p.2, PDF.)

Many teachers see the joining of these in the text as evidence that failing to care for the weak is a failure to fear God, and vice versa.

plateFinally, now, that throw from left field makes it all the way to the plate.

In Exodus 17, there are two odd spellings that caught the attention of commentators: “Throne” is spelled with two letters instead of the usual three – that is, keis, instead of kisei – and God’s name is spelled with only two letters – yud-hey, instead of the four-letter name. (p.1 PDF or below)

Completing God’s Name

In many different readings, Amalek represents attempts to erase God’s name, either by unethical behavior that harms the image of God in others or by trying to remove “Yisrael,” a nation which contains God’s name. The latter is Rav Kook’s view:

We are charged to replace Amalek with the holy letters of God’s complete Name. We must restore God’s complete throne – i.e., God’s Presence in the world – through the special holiness of the Jewish people, who transmit God’s message to the world.

Rav Kook says we can see from these shortened words that all is not right with God’s name in the world after the encounter with Amalek. And this means that simply erasing Amalek’s name won’t put things right.

Returning to the concept of melachah, some erasing is just destructive.
And, even though it might seem contrary to the spirit of Shabbat,
destruction is not actually among the 39 categories of prohibited action.
Only creative acts.

Similarly, Rav Kook explains, the mitzvah is not simply to obliterate Amalek so that there will no longer be any more Amalekites in the world. That would be a purely destructive act.

The destruction of Amalek must have a productive goal. We must obliterate Amalek, with the intention of ‘transforming the world into a kingdom of the Almighty.’

Rav Kook, in The Moral Principles, tells us that Amalek’s name is to be erased only from under heaven. Meaning that somewhere, however twisted, there was a good intention in Amalek that should be recognized and not destroyed. This effort requires a “lofty state of purity,” which Rav Kook doesn’t think too common. But the aspiration is still instructive, especially, for Elul. (See source #9 below; p.1, PDF)

Elul Thoughts

So much of the advice around teshuva focuses on one-way apologies and single-handed attempts to change our behavior. One-way changes are important for our souls and, no doubt, to those whom we’ve wronged. But we live in relationships and community. And Rav Kook’s two teachings on Amalek together suggest that it’s not enough to beat down evil urges or repair individual wrongs. What we need to do is to approach places where we, as individuals or groups, have allowed the non-God-fearer’s name to appear and erase it with the intention of writing something better. Destruction – even of an evil, in ourselves, or in a relationship, with a brother or an enemy – is only half the task. The real God-imitating work is in destroying in order to rebuild something better in ourselves, in our relationships and in the wider world.

Now, let’s return for a moment to the wider concept of melachah and Shabbat. Like most of us here today, I observe Shabbat in a way that does not involve understanding details of the 39 different categories of melachah associated with building the Tabernacle, and avoiding them on Shabbat. So, I don’t usually worry about whether a particular kind of writing or erasing is allowed on Shabbat. And I know I’m not alone in this.

Looking at Rav Kook’s very specific teaching, however, shifted my understanding of Shabbat. For a long time, I’ve endeavored to avoid computer and internet, work-related calls, and money-related talk on Shabbat. This helps me separate the Sabbath from the six days and also to explain what I do and don’t do on Saturdays to other people. But I don’t avoid kindling, travel beyond my neighborhood, or many other forms of melachah, including many kinds of creation.

And I realized just a few days ago that I had really missed the main point here. There’s powerful value in making Shabbat with my husband, in our own way. But I am now paying more attention to the concept of ceasing to create because even God took a day off from essential, productive, maybe enjoyable, activities –rather than because it suits me in some ways to take a break.

…That brings me to this short story by Sharon Strassfeld, and to this note: What-, who-, or however we envision God — or even if we don’t really think of God at all — it’s important to consider, especially as we enter the high holidays season, that we’re not God. (Story also in plain text below for those who don’t do graphics; p.4, PDF in graphic form.)

bow_Strassfeld

Erasing and Learning

Finally, consider this verse from Pirkei Avot, mentioning “machok,” blotting:

לִישָׁע בֶּן אֲבוּיָה אוֹמֵר, הַלּוֹמֵד יֶלֶד לְמַה הוּא דוֹמֶה, לִדְיוֹ כְתוּבָה עַל נְיָר חָדָשׁ.
וְהַלּוֹמֵד זָקֵן לְמַה הוּא דוֹמֶה, לִדְיוֹ כְתוּבָה עַל נְיָר מָחוּק
Elisha ben Abuya said: When you learn as a child, what is it like? Like ink written on clean paper.
When you learn in old age, what is it like? Like ink written on blotted paper [a sheet from which the original writing has been erased]
– Avot 4:25 (or 4:20)

Until a few days ago I thought this was the saddest Mishnah I’d ever seen. This is the only place where Elisha Ben Abuya‘s name appears. Everywhere else in the Talmud, he’s referred to as Acher, “the Other,” for complicated reasons, relating to this week’s portion, that led to his becoming a heretic and a symbol of rabbinic failure.

I kept thinking about Elisha Ben Abuya’s struggles with community and faith. And the idea that he saw adult learning as such a difficult, messy process – like trying to write on parchment that was already used and scraped off – broke my heart.

But then, in studying this portion and Rav Kook’s teachings, I had a new idea:
Maybe all he’s really saying is that anyone who is trying to learn something and is not a small child – whether we’re 12 or 13 or 55 or 85 – is probably erasing some previous, maybe erroneous or partial, understanding of the world. And that is not sad at all. In fact, as I just learned: writing, as well as erasing with the intention to write something new, are both understood as creative work that imitates God. This is what I think we have to keep in mind as we move through Elul and into the Days of Awe.

Our job is not to aim for a clean slate – apologies for mixing metaphors with all that parchment scraping – but to work with what is already written, to make corrections where need be, and to keep trying to write a better story for this new year and beyond.

I hope this made some sense.
Please feel free to contact me if anything was unclear.
With best wishes for a productive Elul and high holiday season.

NOTE: The text above is a dvar torah given at Temple Micah (DC) on August 25. Micah live streams and archives services, so video can be found at Temple Micah (dvar torah about about 50 minutes after the service began). As mentioned above, the four-page source sheet is meant to accompany this drash but also stand on its own. Ki Teitzei source sheet (PDF).

BACKGROUND SOURCES

Amalek in Biblical Text

[1] Amalek is great-great grandson of Abraham and Sarah:

And these are the generations of Esau the father of a the Edomites in the mountain-land of Seir….And Timna was concubine to Eliphaz Esau’s son; and she bore to Eliphaz Amalek….
–Gen 36:9-12

[2] In the wilderness, Amalek attacks Israel, who prevails; God declares war against Amalek, “from generation to generation”:

Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim….And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Write this for a memorial in the book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.’
כִּי-מָחֹה אֶמְחֶה
אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם
And Moses built an altar, and called the name of it Adonai-nissi. And he said: ‘The hand upon the throne of the LORD: the LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.’
וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּי-יָד
עַל-כֵּס יָהּ, [throne of the LORD]
מִלְחָמָה לַיהוָה, בַּעֲמָלֵק–מִדֹּר, דֹּר –Exodus 17:8, 13-16

See also Language Note below.

[3] Two details about the Exodus story appear in this week’s portion:

…how he met you by the way, and smote the hindmost of you, all that were enfeebled in your rear, when you were faint and weary; and he feared not God…–Deut 25:18

[4] Enmity between Amalek and Israel persists:

Thus saith the LORD of hosts: I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he set himself against him in the way, when he came up out of Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not…

And Saul smote the Amalekites…. And he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword. –1 Sam 2-3, 7-8

[5] Agag’s survival, contrary to instruction, led to the Purim story:

After these things did king Ahasuerus promote Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him, and set his seat above all the princes that were with him. –Esther 3:1

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[8] THRONE and NAME
“Why is the word for ‘throne’ shortened, and even God’s Name is abbreviated? God swore that His Name and His Throne are not complete until Amalek’s name will be totally obliterated.” – from Tanchuma, Ki Teitzei 11; Rashi

Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim….And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Write this for a memorial in the book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.’
כִּי-מָחֹה אֶמְחֶה אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם.
And Moses built an altar, and called the name of it Adonai-nissi. And he said: ‘The hand upon the throne of the LORD: the LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.’
וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּי-יָד
עַל-כֵּס יָהּ, [throne of the LORD]
מִלְחָמָה לַיהוָה, בַּעֲמָלֵק–מִדֹּר, דֹּר –Exodus 17:8, 13-16

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[9] from The Moral Principles

The degree of love in the soul of the righteous embraces all creatures, it excludes nothing, and no people or tongue. Even the wicked Amalek’s name is to be erased by biblical injunction only “from under the heavens” (Ex 17:14). But through “cleansing” he may be raised to the source of the good,* which is above the heavens, and is then included in the higher love. But one needs great strength and a lofty state of purity for this exalted kind of unification.
– Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), The Moral Principles.
Ben Zion Bokser, trans. Paulist Press, 1978, p.137

*Kook believed that an evil deed is an impulse that at its highest source of origin was good but became distorted and went astray. The first Ashkenazi chief rabbi in pre-state Israel, he published on ethics and mystical teachings.
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[11]

Amalek and Jews Today

Over the centuries, Jews have argued about whether, and how, those commandments still apply. Many interpreters have identified Amalek with one real life enemy or another, historical or contemporary, from ancient Rome to the Soviets or Nazis; Jews have called other Jews “Amalek,” and some Christians have seen themselves as “Israel” and their enemies, including Jews, as “Amalek.” Others have said that Amalek no longer exists or taken a metaphorical view. – Summarized from Golinkin (citation below).

The 20th Century teacher Nechama Leibowitz explores Deut 25:18 in the context of Torah passages mentioning fear of God, or lack thereof. She notes that each passage focuses on caring for the most vulnerable among us, or failing to do that. Therefore, she writes:

“Amalek” against whom the Almighty declared eternal war is not any more an ethnic or racial concept but is the archetype of the wanton aggressor who smites the weak and defenseless in every generation.

Golinkin quotes Leibowitz and concludes:

In our day, this is perhaps the most important message of the Amalek story — not hatred of Amalek but aversion to their actions. In the State of Israel, there are many strangers and stragglers — new immigrants, foreign workers, as well as innocent Arabs and Palestinians. Some Jews learn from the story of Amalek that we should hate certain groups. We must emphasize the opposite message. We must protect “the stragglers” so that we may say of the State of Israel: “surely there is fear of God in this place”.
“Are Jews Still Commanded to Blot Out the Memory of Amalek?”

Prof. David Golinkin is president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem; highly recommend this thorough, readable article.
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[12]

“My Brother Esau”

Words by John Perry Barlow; music by Bob Weir.
First performed by Grateful Dead in 1983:

Esau holds a blessing;
Brother Esau bears a curse.
I would say that the blame is mine
But I suspect it’s something worse.
The more my brother looks like me,
The less I understand
The silent war that bloodied both our hands.
Sometimes at night, I think I understand.
…It’s brother to brother and it’s man to man
And it’s face to face and it’s hand to hand…
We shadowdance the silent war within.

These words are alternative wording, maybe Bob Weir forgetting lyrics as written or creating new ones, March 1983:

Esau tried to move away
A marvelous disguise
Where every street is easy
and, there’s nothing to deny
Though he gave me all his cards
I could not play his hand
Made a choice
Soon became a stand

Full lyrics and annotations here.
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[13]

Work and Shabbat

Work/Service/Worship = Avodah. (Creative) Work= Melachah:
וַיְכַל אֱלֹהִים בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה; וַיִּשְׁבֹּת בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, מִכָּל-מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה
And on the seventh day God finished His work [melachto] which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made. – Gen 2:2

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת, כִּי קֹדֶשׁ הִוא, לָכֶם; מְחַלְלֶיהָ, מוֹת יוּמָת–כִּי כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בָהּ מְלָאכָה, וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִקֶּרֶב עַמֶּיהָ
You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy unto you; every one that profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whosoever does any work [melachah] therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.

שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, יֵעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן קֹדֶשׁ, לַיהוָה; כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה מְלָאכָה בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת, מוֹת יוּמָת
Six days shall work [melachah] be done; but on the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD; whosoever does any work [melachah] in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.

וְשָׁמְרוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת, לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת לְדֹרֹתָם, בְּרִית עוֹלָם
Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant.

בֵּינִי, וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–אוֹת הִוא, לְעֹלָם:  כִּי-שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, עָשָׂה יְהוָה אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת-הָאָרֶץ,
וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, שָׁבַת וַיִּנָּפַשׁ
It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel for ever; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and rested.’ – Ex 31:14-17

Later Jewish tradition, beginning with the Talmud, lists “forty minus one” categories of melachah – like tying knots, bleaching, spinning, and carrying things – related to building the Tabernacle, as prohibited on Shabbat. (There’s a 40th category, which is Creation with a capital “C,” but people cannot imitate God in that way, so that’s not included among the prohibitions.)

Very nice resource on this can be found at Ask Moses.
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[14]

Reform Movement and Commandments

1885 Pittsburgh Platform
…We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only the moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization….

1999 Platform
…We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of these mitzvot, sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modem, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times….

…We bring Torah into the world when we seek to sanctify the times and places of our lives through regular home and congregational observance. Shabbat calls us to bring the highest moral values to our daily labor and to culminate the workweek with kedushah, holiness, menuchah, rest and oneg, joy….
Full text at Reform Platforms at CCAR
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[16] Strassfeld’s short story:

When I was a teenager, I began reading philosophical works. I concluded that God did not rule the world that in fact we and God were partners. One Yom Kippur in consonance with my new thinking I decided not to “fall korim” (prostrate myself) for the aleinu prayer. My zaydee, who had eagle eyes even for the upstairs women’s balcony, asked me to take a walk with him during the break in services. He wondered, he told me, why I hadn’t fallen korim. I explained that it was a “neue velt” (literally, a “new world”) now and the old-fashioned ideas of God ruling everything and people scurrying around to do God’s command no longer made sense. Zaydee listened and then asked thoughtfully, “Sherreleh, tell me more about this neue velt. I did, telling him all about the things I had been reading and thinking. When I finished, my grandfather said to me, “This new world you speak about I understand. But there is one thing I don’t understand. In this new world, if you don’t bow before God, before whom will you bow?”
– Sharon Strassfeld. Everything I Know: Basic Life Rules from a Jewish Mother. NY: Scribner, 1998

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LANGUAGE NOTES

כִּי-מָחֹה אֶמְחֶה
אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם (Ex 17:8)
[6] נִמְחָה – to be obliterated, forgotten, destroyed, or eliminated
מָחָה – to erase [or wipe, as dishes], to obliterate, to blot out the memory of ; (literary) to wipe away, to dry (tears, sweat)

[7] OED: “Erase” is a newer (17th Century) than “blot” (15th Century). “Erase” may have come from older word “arace,” to uproot. A “blot” in backgammon is a lone, vulnerable piece. BACK to Exodus 17

[17]“Mocheik al m’nat lichtov”
to erase, to delete ; to blot out – מָחַק
eraser, rubber – מַחַק
BACK to Rav Kook on erasingBACK to Elisha Ben Abuya

Citations:
Waskow, Rabbi Arthur O. and Rabbi Phyllis O. Berman. Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus and Wilderness across Millennia. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2011. p.155 BACK

More on Acher [Aher, “The Other”], Elisha Ben Abuya:
“A Path to Follow” Ki Teitzei, note on how a verse this portion led is said to have led to Acher’s heresy.

Different stories about Elisha Ben Abuya from the midrash. Much more in the Fabrangen blog on related topics.

A warning about dualism as the four enter Pardes

See also “Daughter of Acher
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Hatred of Haters and Turbulent Branching of Thoughts

Put an end to the hatred of haters
those who have made me their foe

Search me out with shovel and torchlight, God
know my heart by means of compassion.

Understand the turbulent branching of my thoughts.

See the road that brings me sadness,
and lead me instead on the path of eternal life.
— Ps. 139:22-24
translation is by Pamela Greenberg,
The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation. NY: Bloomsbury, 2010

Psalm 139 is one that Jews use at times of trouble to ask for guidance. Eight years ago, just about this time, Pamela Greenberg gave permission for a DC-based group to use her translation for a program in solidarity with Women of the Wall. Many of the sentiments expressed at that time of trouble are just as applicable to this Elul. And her translation of the psalms has provided much solace and challenge in the intervening eight years. Several verses are illustrated here with a particular prayer intention for my hometown of 30 years at this time of unrest and a prayer for all who are experiencing “turbulent branching of thoughts” and seeking an “end to the hatred of haters.”

The new month begins on August 11-12.

new moon shofar

Description of graphic: a sliver of a bright new moon in a dark sky in the background, with the central image a shofar with a single twist near its mouthpiece at the bottom left and its horn upward near the top right. Below the shofar are the words in English, “Put an end to the hatred of haters,” and the Hebrew from Ps. 139:22 — תַּכְלִית שִׂנְאָה שְׂנֵאתִים

Scrolling across the shofar are the words, also from Greenberg’s translation of Psalm 139: Understand the turbulent branching of my thoughts [lettering here includes “branches” that reach up to entwine]. See the road that brings me sadness and lead me instead on the path of eternal life.

Under the shofar is a simple new month prayer for Elul: Help us Renew our lives at the new moon and for the new year to come.

Spin grief’s straw into gold: Moving on from Tisha B’Av

UPDATE: Please note that the “DC Against Hate” website has been updated with more details about three inter-connected actions. See also this blog’s update.

Jewish tradition teaches that much was lost in our history due to “baseless hatred” and that few things require more of our attention than making our communities welcoming to all, strangers included. We use Tisha B’Av — the day of mourning for destruction and calamities over the ages, the lowest point of the Jewish calendar — to help us consider all that needs changing if we are to move toward a better new year for all. (Tisha B’Av fell on 7/21-22 this year, and the new year begins 9/10-11.)

The month of Elul, an important point in this journey and the last of the old year, starts on August 12 this year — which happens to be the date a group of Klan and Nazi supporters have chosen for their “Unite the Right II” rally in DC, celebrating the anniversary of the violence at Charlottesville, VA last year (because they were refused a permit in Charlottesville).

National and local Jewish groups are planning responses, but none have been announced yet (7/24), to the best of my knowledge. Meanwhile, I hope Jews, in DC and beyond, are thinking of ways to celebrate Rosh Chodesh Elul, by joining with others who oppose baseless hatred and maltreatment of strangers and the most vulnerable among us.

…get back to work
you don’t have forever

…the wounded world
is still in your hands

…get on with it
gather grief like straw
spin it into something like gold
— from Alicia Suskin Ostriker’s “Drone”
The Book of Seventy
Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2009.

Some of us will be joining already planned mobilization efforts standing together for “ICE abolition, open borders, dismantling the prison industrial complex, and ending the settler colonial system. We will confront fascism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, white supremacy, and state violence.”

Others will find alternative ways to move into the new year with (re-)new commitment to opposing hate in its many forms.

I pray that none of us will be silent in the face of Klan- and Nazi-supporters gathering outside the White House.

DC Against Hate.jpg