…The past is not a piece of
jewelry sealed in a crystal box
nor is it a snake preserved
in a bottle of formaldehyde—
The past trembles within the present
when the present falls
into a pit the past goes
with it —
when the past looks
toward heaven all of life
is upraised, even the distant past.
–Zelda, from “That Strange Night” (full text, notes)
In a famous midrash, Joseph and his brothers return to Canaan to bury their father, and Joseph notices, by the side of the road, the pit where his brothers threw him decades before. Watching Joseph look into the pit, the brothers worry. They do not believe Joseph has forgiven their past deeds and continue to fear recriminations.
While the brothers in the midrash are fretting, however, Joseph recognizes the pit, despite its painful associations, as the source of all that happened to him later: his incarceration in Egypt, eventual rise to power, marriage and children; and, most importantly to the Genesis story, his ability to help his family when famine strikes their homeland.
Avivah Zornberg writes:
[Joseph] has gone to the trouble of returning to that place of his terror in order to bring closure to the old narrative. He makes the blessing for a personal miracle, claiming the site of his trauma as the site of redemption. By this act, he rereads the pit as a space of rebirth, transforming pain into hope. The grave has become a womb.
—The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, p.319; Continue Reading
Two Sources for Basic Commentary
—Rabbi Benjamin Segal offers an analysis of Psalm 27 in its biblical-literary context and discusses the unity of psalm, behind its apparently disparate set of emotions. The very readable series from Schechter Institute in Philadelphia also includes complete text of each psalm in English and Hebrew. This commentary includes a note on the use of Psalm 27 in Elul and the Days of Awe. [UPDATE 2017: Sadly, this on-line resource appears to be gone; Segal’s A New Psalm: The Psalms as Literature is now published by Geffen Books.]
—Machzor Lev Shalem offers explanatory notes as well as a few thoughts on Psalm 27 in the penitential season. Unfortunately, the Rabbinical Assembly’s link to this material, previously offered here, is no longer public. Instead, a few notes are shared in More Exploring Psalm 27 (2 of 4). (Here is the machzor’s own website.) The Kol Nidrei sample pages include Zelda’s poem on “that strange night,” inspiration for this essay during Elul 5772.
“Remember what your God YHVH did to Miriam on the journey after you left Egypt.” — Deuteronomy/Devarim 24:9 — What is this personal remembrance doing in the midst of a portion which consists largely of commandment after commandment? And what might it tell us, in these days leading up to the high holidays, about memory and return ([teshuvah])?
Washington, DC’s cross-community Rosh Hodesh Elul service, held on August 11, was an experiment in creating a prayer service that allows DC-area women and men from different streams of Judaism to pray together. In showing solidarity with Women of the Wall, the service exceeded expectations. Many participants found the service a great opportunity to welcome the new month and begin preparations for the new year. Especially given the short planning period and complete lack of official organizational support — many congregations pitched in, but on an ad hoc basis at the very last minute — I believe the event was a successful first endeavor into inter-denominational prayer.
However, it was only a first endeavor.
The Torah portion Ki Tavo closes with a wonderfully disorienting perspective, as the reading cycle prepares to leave the Israelites on the banks of the Jordan, while we, as readers, prepare for the new year. Who experienced what in the desert years? Who is about to enter the Promised Land, with instructions for bringing the first fruits? And who is in the exact same spot reached each year at this point, wondering about the meaning of the journey and what chance there is for moving forward?