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.

Or Olam: the light ahead and within

Seeking pieces of liturgy and other resources for uplift, as we try to move from the depths of Av to the new year, I’ve found myself returning again and again to “Eternal Light” — based on a line from the high holiday prayers — as composed by Norma Brooks and recorded by “Psalm Full of Soul” with guest artists The Blind Boys of Alabama (recording below).

Or Olam — Eternal Light

“Infinite light is preserved in life’s treasure-house; ‘Lights from darkness’ said God — it was so.” — from the piyyut “Or Olam

“And the light of the moon shall become like the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall become sevenfold, like the light of the seven days, when the LORD binds up His people’s wounds and heals the injuries it has suffered.” — Isaiah 30:26

These lines, from an ancient liturgical poem by Yose ben Yose (4th-5th Centuries CE) are added to the Yotzeir Or blessing on the High Holy Days. They refer to a Talmudic legend (Chagigah 12a) that the brilliant primordial light of Creation, too powerful for mortal eyes, was hidden away by God, and is preserved for the righteous in the world-to-come.

— liturgical verse and commentary from Mishkan Hanefesh for Rosh Hashanah (CCAR, 2015)

Each of us is a repository of life. We are where life is stored, and this eternal light rests inside each of us, waiting for us to manifest it with our actions. When we act justly, we bring this light into the world, answering God’s dictum, “Lights from the darkness!” When we help another, we bring the “it was so” into the present, an ongoing creation of light in darkness (R David Kominsky, b. 1971)

— commentary from Mishkan Hanefesh continued

The song, “Eternal Light,” is based on “Or Olam” and its commentary, as well as on Gen 1:3-5 and Isaiah 30:36 and 45:7. The same line appears in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgies (see p.178 in Mishkan Hanefesh for Yom Kippur, e.g.) Video here, with lyrics, is shared with kind permission of Norma Brooks, composer. Full credits below.

For more musical inspiration, including some pieces for the high holidays, check out Norma Brooks’ earlier album, Bountiful Light, created with the help of musicians and choir members from DC and beyond.

Image description: Video is basically one static pair of images overlaid throughout with the song lyrics. Image 1 is a photo of the eight performers at recording session: Blind Boys of Alabama with “Psalm Full of Soul,” that is, Vanessa R. Williams, Vince Evans, and Norma Brooks. Image 2 is the album cover showing Psalm Full of Soul logo and a picture of Vanessa, Vince, an Norma laughing together. Static text: “Psalm Full of Soul ‘Eternal Light.’ Composer: Norma Brooks. Vocal Soloist: Vanessa R. Williams. Featuring guest artists The Blind Boys of Alabama.” On top of the static graphic, lyrics appear in a text box as song progresses. (Lyrics can also be found below.)


“Eternal Light” lyrics (Norma Brooks)

Eternal, eternal light
Source of life, source of life
Light of creation, God’s living treasure
O holy light, God’s holy light

Light from darkness
Light from darkness
God spoke, and it was so
Light from darkness
Light from darkness
Creator of heaven and earth

Eternal, eternal light
Source of life, source of life
Light of creation, God’s living treasure
O holy light, O holy light

O holy light, eternal light
O holy light, eternal light

When the light of the moon
Shall be as the light of the sun
And the light of the sun
Shall be sevenfold
As the light of the seven days,
Seven days of the week
Oh, in the future
There will be a more perfect light
The light resides
Within Each one of us,
Just waiting for us
Just waiting for us
To act justly, to act with purity,
Clarity and joy

The ongoing creation
Of light from darkness
O holy light, O holy light
Eternal light, O holy light

Eternal, eternal light
Source of life, source of life
Light of creation, God’s living treasure
O holy light, God’s holy light

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Credits for “Eternal Light”
Guest Artists: The Blind Boys of Alabama (Jimmy Carter, Ben Moore, Joey Williams, Paul Beasley)
Vocal Soloist: Vanessa R. Williams
Keyboards: Vince Evans
Guitar: Alvin White
Bass: Bryan Fox
Drums: J.C. Jefferson
Choir: Rhonda Burnett Chapman, Byron Nichols, Michael White, Vanessa R. Williams
“Psalm Full of Soul” (c) 2008

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Whence Comes Help: After Tisha B’av

With Tisha B’av behind us, we are meant to be climbing upward, from the calendar’s deepest point, toward the new year. But how can we begin the climb while disasters mount around us and reasons to mourn continue to grow? Psalm 121 speaks to a moment such as this. I’ve found myself turning again and again in recent days to the Nefesh Mountain version of “Esa Einai.” And to this idea that there is stability, despite the constant change…even the mountains are shifting:

“Change is ceaseless, and transformation knows no pause. The dynamism both exhilarates and exhausts the spirit; no wonder that we seek stability amidst this endless process.” Thus writes R’ Everett Gendler in a commentary on Psalm 121. He then suggests that Psalm 121’s expression “mei-ayin” — usually translated as “from where?” — carries “echoes of the Creative Nothingness, the Divine Void, the AYIN” and that God’s four-letter Name [YHVH] hints at “stability amidst ceaseless process.” (Full comment found in Kol Haneshamah: Shabbat Vehagim. Reconstructionist Press, 1996, p.215.)

Thanks to Nefesh Mountain for creating their uplifting music, and for permission to share their “Esa Einai” along with this commentary as part of an effort to begin looking upward.

Learn more about Nefesh Mountain, and check out their newest album, “Songs for the Sparrows,” just released in June.

Psalms for Contemplation

Excited to share news of a new publication, Psalms for Contemplation: Invitation to an Intimate Reading of Selections from 36 Psalms, by Max D. Ticktin (z”l, 1922-2016), edited and introduced by Deborah McCants and Ruth Ticktin. Preface: Rabbi Edward Feld. Poetica Publishing, Dec. 2020.

Video overview of Psalms for Contemplation by Max Ticktin

More about Max Ticktin and the book

Naboth’s Vineyard: Land, Power, and Violence

The story of Naboth the Jezreelite and his vineyard was brand new to me when I encountered it through a recent Hebrew class assignment. The class is designed to focus on land and labor, but a variety of circumstances drew my attention instead — or in addition — to the violence and uses of power in the story. (NOTE: Post slightly edited 11/22/19, 3 p.m. Eastern, shortly after initial publication.)

Ownership and Angst

The story opens with:

And it happened after these things
וַיְהִי, אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה
va’y’hi achar ha-d’varim ha-eleh

Robert Alter notes: “As elsewhere, this vague temporal formula introduces a new narrative.” In Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s commentary on Genesis, however, this phrase carries important psychological tension, linking one story — in the text itself or in midrash — with what follows. Her view suggests an interesting comparison between Abraham’s story and this one.

“After these things,” Zornberg argues, twice signals resolution of an incident with worrying implications for Abraham regarding his covenant with God: the battle with the four Canaanite kings (Gen 15:1) and the Akedah (Gen 22:20); a third use, at the start of the Akedah (Gen 22:1), closes a midrash — a story between the lines — full of more existential/covenantal angst on the part of Abraham. In short, broad strokes: Abraham frets over God’s control of fates, family lines, and futures, but comes to greater faith in God’s promises and providence.

Prior to the vineyard story’s “after these things,” Ahab battles neighboring king Ben-Hadad, allowing the leader to escape, and then hearing from the Prophet Elijah: “Thus says YHVH: …therefore your life shall go for his life, and your people for his people” (1 Kings 20:42). Ahab returns home “סַר וְזָעֵף [sar v’zaaf] — translated as “sullen and morose” or “resentful and angry” — a phrase used only here (1 Kings 20:43) and then four verses later. In the second usage (1 Kings 21:4), Ahab, King of (Northern) Israel, is “sar v’zaaf” over a failed real estate proposition.

Naboth the Jezreelite refuses to sell the vineyard, a family inheritance abutting Ahab’s heichal [הֵיכַל, “palace” or maybe “fortress,” more literally “big house”] (21:3). Is he obsessing on what he lacks? Behaving “like a petulant adolescent” as Alter and others have it? Or is Ahab suffering an existential/covenantal crisis of his own — realizing that nearby land belongs ultimately to God and in perpetuity [לִצְמִתֻת litzmitut] to the assigned tribal owner (Lev. 25:23), limiting his kingship?

Perhaps Ahab is troubled by something akin to recognizing that Naboth will always be “milk in last,” as is the custom of those with fine china, while he, for all his might, cannot buy his way out of being “milk in first.” “Naboth,” for additional background, means “fruits,” and “Jezreel” means “sown of God,” emphasizing his connection to the property which he tells Ahab is family inheritance that he is forbidden to sell (Leviticus again). When Ahab announces his desire to use the vineyard as a vegetable garden, is he furthering a new land-use policy? or is he simply out of step with the Land? In short, broad strokes: Ahab’s relationship to the Land, the People he rules, the neighbors, and God seems so precarious that a random land-grab is of a piece with his whole story.

Varieties of Power

When her husband seems unable to act, Jezebel makes use of several forms of power, based in structural/state violence, to obtain the land:

  • political clout: Jezebel has no qualms about setting in writing a command to misuse the legal system, and scoundrels, elders and nobles alike immediately comply;
  • religious authority: Jezebel calls for a fast, a misuse of public religious ritual to create the impression of blasphemy on Naboth’s part;
  • local corruption and individual perfidy: Jezebel counts on individual scoundrels [“worthless fellows” — בְּנֵי-בְלִיַּעַל, bnei-bilyaal] to perjure themselves on demand and expects the larger process to ask no questions;
  • judicial authority: Jezebel arranges the judicial killing of Naboth (and, some commentators suggest, extrajudicial killing of his offspring);
  • religious and civil intimidation: Naboth is denied burial, his body desecrated, and his blood licked by dogs;
  • legal loophole: With Naboth and descendants gone, Jezebel convinces Ahab that it is his right to confiscate the land.

Ahab himself employs a range of more personal powers:

  • Ignorance: The king employs ignorance — real or feigned — of Jezebel’s schemes to his advantage;
  • Physicality: The king moves to physically occupy the land;
  • Personal ritual: The king performs acts of atonement, garnering a stay of retribution from God for himself but not for his descendants.

God, speaking through Elijah:

  • curses Ahab and descendants, after Ahab does not kill Ben-Hadad, calling for “your life instead of his” (1 Kings 20:42);
  • promises to “cut off every pisser against the wall of Ahab’s” (more politely: “every man-child” or “every last male,” 1 Kings 21:21);
  • consigns Ahab’s descendants and Jezebel to a fate similar to Naboth’s in terms of body desecration (1 Kings 21:22-24).

 

Violence in Jezreel

In the narrative of ancient Israel:

  • Jezreel was the site of Gideon’s victory over the Midianites, the Amalekites and the Kedemites, or “the children of the east” (Judges 6:3);
  • Jezreel was the site of Saul’s defeat by the Philistines and death in battle (1 Sam 29:1-6);
  • Jezreel becomes the site of Jehu’s coup against Joram, Joram’s ally Ahaziah, and against Jezebel (2 Kings 9), and the land sees desecration of the losers’ bodies.

It is worth noting that the bodies of Joram and Jezebel are “cast to the portion of the field of Naboth the Jezreelite.” That is, the property originally identified at Naboth’s vineyard, keeps that identity and does not bear Ahab’s name or that of the state.
 

Conclusion?

Not clear at all on what to make of this except to note that each player in this story has a sort of power to wield and does so. And to ask: Is the Land, or a specific piece of it —

  • an object of various power-plays?
  • a conduit for others’ power?
  • or does it wield its own?

shallow-focus-photography-of-purple-grapes-162672

NOTES

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. “Lekh Lekha: The Travails of Faith” and “Va-yera: Language and Silence.” Genesis: the Beginning of Desire. Philadelphia: JPS, 1995.
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OBSESSION

Abalienatus et indignabundus; off the hooks,* as we say, and in a great discontent; his heart did more afflict and vex itself with greedy longing for that bit of earth, than the vast and spacious compass of a kingdom could counter comfort. So Haman could say, All this availeth me nothing, &c. And Alexander, the monarch of the world, was grievously troubled, because ivy would not grow in his gardens at Babylon. The devil of discontent, whomsoever it possesseth, it maketh his heart a little hell, saith one.
— John Trapp (1601-1669)**

* i.e., unhinged or disturbed, rather than contemporary “off the hooks” meanings

** English Anglican Bible commentator recommended to me for certain books of the Bible by Norman Shore
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CLASS
Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.

See also Dr. Norma Franklin, Zinman Institute of Archaeology, Haifa University:

The Bible names the owner of the vineyard as Naboth the Jezreelite. The use of this gentilic implies that he resided somewhere else as well, otherwise he would not have required a qualifier. A person with a residence in one place and a vineyard in another is a wealthy person, and one might imagine that such a person lived in the capital city, Samaria. Whether or not the “Naboth the Jezreelite” is a historical character, whoever owned that plot of land and its vineyard was certainly well off and not a simple, poor farmer.
The Story of Naboth’s Vineyard and the Ancient Winery in Jezreel

More on the excavation at Biblical Archaeology and Jezreel Expedition.

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Al Naharot Bavel

In the spirit of Av, spent some time exploring music for Psalm 137 and share here some of the links, with related notes scheduled for next week. We plan to discuss some of these pieces and their backgrounds, as well much more about the psalm, at Psalms Study Group at Temple Micah (DC). All are welcome. Come if you’re in the neighborhood, Tuesday, August 20, 1:30 – 3 p.m.

Meanwhile, some music for the season:

From “Bible Songs”

Paul Robeson singing Dvorak‘s setting for Psalm 137:1-5.

To help in following this, here is a Czech translation of Psalm 137 from BibleHub.com:

1) Při řekách Babylonských tam jsme sedávali, a plakávali, rozpomínajíce se na Sion.
2) Na vrbí v té zemi zavěšovali jsme citary své.
3) A když se tam dotazovali nás ti, kteříž nás zajali, na slova písničky, (ješto jsme zavěsili byli veselí), říkajíce: Zpívejte nám některou píseň Sionskou:
4) Kterakž bychom měli zpívati píseň Hospodinovu v zemi cizozemců?
5) Jestliže se zapomenu na tebe, ó Jeruzaléme, zapomeniž i pravice má….

Rivers of Babylon

The Melodians “Rivers of Babylon”
1970, Composer credit: Brent Dowe (1949-2006) and Trevor McNaughton (1940-2018); more next page.

Jimmy Cliff (Melodians’) “Rivers of Babylon” (“Rivers” starts at 2:56)

Sweet Honey in the Rock (Melodians’ version, minus the Rasta-infused lyrics)

Waters of Babylon

Don McLean tune for 137:1, “Waters of Babylon, from 1971 “American Pie”

Closing scene of Mad Men (S1, E6), using McLean’s tune anachronistically and to good effect

Hebrew version of the McLean tune (Anyone have information about “Shooky & Dorit”?)

Choral Babylon

Three choral pieces, versions of which were performed as part of “The Fall and Rise of Jerusalem” concert from Kolot Halev in 2009:

Al Naharot Bavel (By the Rivers of Babylon) — Salamone Rossi (Hebrew)

Super Flumina Babilonis – Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestina (Latin)

Va, pensiero (Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, from Nabucco) – Giuseppi Verdi (Italian)

Three Prophets, Three Crises, Three Cries

Sometimes I look at a Torah commentary, whether ancient or contemporary or somewhere in between and my main thought is: “Whoa! That’s a lot of weight to put on one word.”

…I think of Humpty Dumpty telling Alice — while she is Through the Looking-Glass — that he always pays words extra when he makes them do a lot of work, like when he uses the word “impenetrability” to mean a full paragraph beginning, “we’ve had enough of that subject…”

As it is, though, words in the Torah regularly work pretty hard, anyway. Numbers Rabbah tells us, after all, that there are 70 modes of expounding every word. And it’s not uncommon for extended commentaries to hinge largely on one word.

Still I find myself hoping that the word “devarim” and colleagues have negotiated extra pay for all the overtime expected in the weeks ahead and that eichah has lots of seasonal bonus pay coming.

I was originally planning to discuss the word davar, which plays such an important role in the Book of Deuteronomy beginning with this week’s portion. (Some early notes on Davar and Devarim here in PDF.)

But I decided to give davar and put the word eichah/how to work instead. Here’s more on the word itself, and here’s a midrash linking three eichah verses: an ancient version, from Eichah Rabbah; one from the 15th Century, Akeidat Yitzchak; and my attempt at less gendered imagery.

Three Eichah Verses

The first verse is from today’s Torah reading. It appears in a passage (Deut. 1:9ff) in which Moses describes feeling beleaguered, stuck in an untenable situation. In the midst of this story, he recalls telling the People: “Eichah/How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife?” Using the clunky 1917 JPS here purposely, to highlight the weirdness of the word טֹרַח [torach, cumbrance] which appears only in this verse and in the first chapter of Isaiah. (More on torach here.)

His recollection appears to conflate two previous incidents:

The first is in Exodus 18, when Yitro asks his son-in-law: “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” Yitro then suggests, and Moses implements, a system of 70 judges to share judicial burden.

The second is in Numbers 11, when the People complain about lacking meat and Moses tells God: “I am not able to bear all this people myself alone, because it is too heavy for me.” God commands a system of 70 elders to receive some of the spirit previously upon Moses, saying: “they shall bear the burden of the people with you, that you bear it not yourself alone.”

Here, in Deuteronomy, Moses doesn’t mention either Yitro’s suggestion or God’s command, instead describing a system of captains and officers that appears to be his own invention.

This shift in the cast of characters has many implications, but today I want to hone in on the trouble in the community represented by that one word Moses uses in describing his frustration.

To the ancient Rabbis, the desperate-sounding “eichah” that Moses employs in the desert resonated with later experiences in Isaiah’s time and in Jeremiah’s. The Rabbis arranged three readings, over less than a week in the Jewish calendar, using that same cry.

As the midrash suggests the three eichahs indicate escalating disaster:

  • from the People — and Moses, in his own way — behaving badly enough in the desert that a breaking point threatens,
  • to the People in Jerusalem behaving so badly that God is ready to snap; and finally,
  • to complete loss of the central community institution, with destruction of the Temple and exile of the People, and the related loss of social order.

Although the midrash does not add this, we know that what looks like total destruction is not the end. Destruction of the First Temple resulted in a Judaism built on the experience of Exile, and then, after destruction of the Second Temple, the Rabbinic Judaism that we practice today. The eichah in our three texts suggests a “how” of transformation to be learned from each stage — as well as messages for each stage to be found in reading them together.

Escalating Disaster

In Deut 1:12, Moses moves pretty quickly from perception of a problem to solution. But the eichah points to an element of the situation we might otherwise miss: mutual despair, with Moses and the People together in turmoil. Things sound pretty dire, at one point, but there is a turn-around. How? The People and Moses must refocus on basic principles: justice and organizing for sharing of burdens.

Similarly, in the Haftarah, the eichah hints at despair as the community and its systems are in peril. This time God seems to have reached a breaking point, declaring through Isaiah that the People are a rotten mess, harboring thieves and murderers, while rituals have become so empty that God is hurt to the very quick. The remedy, the People are told again, is a refocusing on basic principles: How to avoid disaster? Learn to do good; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, atone for wrongs, clean up the mess.

The eichah of Lamentations however, is a breaking point without apparent remedy. The closest thing to repair we hear is that final plea: “Bring us back to You, HASHEM, and we shall return as in days of old.” How will this occur? On Tisha B’av, we don’t know yet. The author of Lamentations, and its original listeners, had not yet moved on from disaster and mourning to the period of betweenness and then transformation.

By asking us to read all three eichahs in short order — all on one weekend, as it happens, this year [5779] — we prepare for Tisha B’av’s “don’t know yet” with Shabbat Hazon’s “hows” of previous transformations. But it also, I think, warns us to be willing to sit with that “don’t know yet” in the other stages of disaster, outlined in the three-part midrash.

We have the instructional “how” of Deuteronomy and Isaiah in today’s readings, reminders of what we’re supposed to be doing in terms of individual and communal repair. But we can also make use of the desperate element in the “how” — taking time to process the grief and the worry, communities at the breaking point, rituals that don’t seem to serve their purpose any longer. Eichah?!

Transformations and the Grateful Dead

A few years ago, an essay in the Times of Israel suggested that we can also learn about the transformations of Judaism marked with Tisha B’av from the transformation of the Grateful Dead, following Jerry Garcia’s death. (What the Grateful Dead Can Teach Us About Tisha B’av at Times of Israel, 2017)

Then newly minted rabbi, Simeon Cohen, mentions “the Days Between,” from Jerry Garcia’s birthday, August 1, to his yahrzeit, August 9, in his essay and links this period to the Jewish calendar’s Nine Days of mourning at the start of Av.

“The Days Between” by the way, is celebrated around the world and has no intrinsic relationship to Tisha B’av or Judaism generally. “The Nine Days of Jerry” was launched in an orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem and specifically organized around the season of Av. Cohen’s essay doesn’t mention these details, so here is some background for those interested; meanwhile moving ahead to his punchline…

After the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans, Yohanan ben Zakkai founded a new learning institution at Yavneh, and, eventually, Cohen writes, “an entirely new, revolutionary form of Judaism was born. It has now far outlasted its predecessor.” He likens this to the survival of Dead-related music after Jerry Garcia died in 1995. (As much as I appreciate the existence and publication of this essay, I find that it focuses more on the commercial success of Dead-related enterprises in the post-1995 years — along with the popularity of that worst of all Dead songs, “Touch of Gray” — rather than on survival of any kind of Deadly essence.)

Then, noting current issues, including tension between Israel and the Diaspora, Cohen concludes:

World Jewry is in the midst of an incredibly fraught moment…Yet I take comfort in the adaptive, evolutionary spirit of Yohanan ben Zakkai and the Grateful Dead. No matter how dark things become, we have always found a way to survive.

This is a comforting message. But I fear that it too quickly jumps toward that big change, skipping over crucial mourning and betweenness. The desire to do this is not unique to Cohen: it’s very common, and quite comforting in some ways, to jump toward solutions in order to avoid having to sit with mourning and betweenness. In doing so, however, we miss crucial lessons.

Another article on the Grateful Dead focuses more on the betweenness. And I don’t think it requires ever having heard two bars of Dead music to consider, as the author says: Grateful Dead music “has always been about listening to the transforming collective experience of the moment.” (See “Tuning In Together” by Granville Ganter)

Isn’t this also an aspect of what we do in group prayer? Through music, speech, and/or silence prayer helps us shape individual gratitude into collective praise, grief into commitment, and disasters into a future we cannot yet imagine. But, like listening to the Grateful Dead, prayer requires experiencing the moment — which sometimes means sitting with pain, anxiety, or uncertainty — and noticing the transformations happening inside it.

Combining Messages

Together the three eichah texts — along with Rabbi Cohen’s Grateful Dead analogy — remind us that nothing stays the same for long, that growth comes with new burdens, that living in community and pursuing a vision is hard work. We have to adapt, learn to do good in changing circumstances, seek justice over and over again.

The calendar is built to remind us:
the three weeks of chastising prophetic readings come every year; followed by the lowest day of the year, Tisha B’av; and then the slow climb up through the seven weeks of comfort, including Elul’s wake-up calls, toward the new year.

Today’s reading from Isaiah, built into that cycle, warns us now that it won’t be enough in the coming holiday season to check off the days — skip a few meals, listen to the shofar, give tzedakah donations, recite the proper words — none of that, by itself, will create change, for us or for the wider world.

Today’s Torah reading, also a part of this cycle, cautions us to take a look at our communities now — before we head into the season of repair and return — to notice if the burdens and spirit and power are balanced in healthful ways, or if we are facing more disaster ahead.

Shabbat Hazon asks us to envision something different for the coming year.

Tisha B’av asks us to sit with mourning and betweenness.

And the combination of the two suggests the possibility of true transformation.

NOTES

More on “eichah

The Hebrew word אֵיךְ [eich, how] — an adverb/interrogative with an incredulous, negative connotation (the Evan Shoshan concordance calls it “question of rebuke”), appears six times in Genesis and Exodus. For example: when Abimelech says to Isaac: “…she’s your wife! so how then did you say ‘she is my sister’!” (Gen 26:9), and when Moses says to God: “…the children of Israel haven’t listened to me, so how will Pharaoh hear me, of uncircumcised lips?” (Exod 6:12).

The word does not appear at all in Leviticus or Numbers. This form (including v’eich, וְאֵיךְ) appears 55 times in the Prophets and Writings.

The form eichah אֵיכָה first appears in Deuteronomy, where it is used five times, beginning with 1:12. This is more than in any other book, even the Book of Lamentations (Eichah), where it appears four times. The use in Isaiah, included in the midrash above, is the only appearance in that book. This form of the word shows up an additional seven times in the Tanakh: in Judges, 2 Kings, Song of Songs (twice in one verse), and Psalms, along with twice in Jeremiah.

In total, the Evan Shoshan Concordance only lists 78 occurrences of eich/eichah, plus four instances of “אֵיכָ֖כָה eichachah,” which appears twice in the Book of Esther and twice in Song of Songs. (Strong’s lists 82 occurrences, including all three forms — it’s nice when they match!)

“How?!” is not among the rarest words in the Tanakh, but it’s unusual (and IMO interesting.)

Regarding the less usual “אֵיכָ֖כָה eichachah” form, see also “The World is Like a Poem” by Annabelle Farmelant.”

Three-Part Eichah Midrash in Three Versions

from Eichah Rabbah:
Three prophesied with the language of eichah: Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah.* Moses said, (Deut 1:12), “How (eichah) will I carry alone…” Isaiah said, (Isa 1:21) “How (eichah) she has become a prostitute…” Jeremiah said, (Lam 1:1) “How (eichah) does she dwell…” Said

Rabbi Levi: It is compared to a noble woman who had three friends. One saw her at peace, one saw her in her recklessness, and one saw her in her degradation

  1. So did Moses see Yisrael in their honor, and in their tranquility, [yet] he said, “How will I carry their burden alone?”
  2. Isaiah saw them in their recklessness, and he said “How she has become a prostitute…”
  3. Jeremiah saw them in their degradation, and he said, “How does she dwell…”

Eichah Rabbah 1(Roman Palestine) via sefaria

*NOTE: The assumption here is that Jeremiah wrote Lamentations. There are additional uses of “eichah” in the Tanakh, but they are not “prophecies.”
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Akeidat Yitzchak (15th Century CE Spain) offers the same parable with the noble woman first “at the height of her beauty and wealth,” then “committing excesses,” and finally “in disgrace.” — this is based on the older midrash: Eichah Rabbah 1 (Roman Palestine).
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One more version:
It’s hard to de-gender the biblical images, but perhaps we can rethink the midrash as three stages at which the prophets meet Yisrael:

  1. Moses knew them during a carefree period (God and the People are “honeymooning” in the desert) but was still prompted to cry “How…”;
  2. Isaiah knew them when they were treating greater riches carelessly and warned them about power imbalances;
  3. Jeremiah knew them at a time of complete disaster and cried out at their misery, not recognizing their carefree, even careless, past.


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Torach

In addition to sharing the word “eichah” with the only verse in Isaiah to use “eichah,” as discussed above, Deuteronomy 1:12 shares the word “torach” with the only verse in Isaiah (or anywhere else in the Tanakh) to use that word. (“Torach” only appears in these two verses in Tanakh.)

חָדְשֵׁיכֶם וּמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם שָׂנְאָה נַפְשִׁי
הָיוּ עָלַי לָטֹרַח; נִלְאֵיתִי, נְשֹׂא
Your new moons and your appointed seasons fill Me with loathing;* They are become a burden to Me, I cannot endure them.
— Isaiah 1:14

אֵיכָה אֶשָּׂא, לְבַדִּי,
טָרְחֲכֶם וּמַשַּׂאֲכֶם, וְרִיבְכֶם
How can I bear unaided
the trouble of you, and the burden,
and the bickering!
— Deuteronomy 1:12

*This is the “New JPS” (Jewish Publication Society), 1985. The 1917 “Old JPS” has “My soul hateth,” following KJV (King James Version), for “loathing” here; Alter has “utterly despises,” noting that he incorporated into the verb phrase the intensity of the subject’s added נַפְשִׁי nafshi [my soul].

טָרְחֲכֶם, tarchakhem — the trouble of you. טֹרַח, torach is usually translated in Isaiah 1:14 as “burden,” while the same Hebrew word, as it appears in Deuteronomy here, is translated as “trouble” or “(heavy) load,” or, in the old JPS and the KJV: “cumbrance.”

In the earlier version of Moses’ complaint about the people being too heavy to bear (Numbers 11:11), the Hebrew is מַשָּׂא, massa, regularly translated in that verse — as well as here (following “trouble of you” above) — as “burden.” Massa is a far more common word than torach.

The Nine Days (of Av), The Nine Days of Jerry, and the Days Between

Since 2008 at least, music promoters have been marking what was originally called “Jerry week” (although nine days), between the August 1 birthday and August 9 death date of Jerry Garcia (1942-1995). More recently, fans have been marking what are now called “the Days Between.” Locally, for example, the Hamilton Live venue has been celebrating for three years now. While plenty of Jews celebrate, “the Days Between” don’t have the same Jewish resonance of the “Nine Days of Jerry.”

In 2010, Lorelai Kude, a huge Dead fan with a sense of personal connection to the band and to Jerry, in particular, launched the “Nine Days of Jerry” on her audio streaming program called “Radio Free Nachlaot” (RFN). She had started RFN, named for her Jerusalem neighborhood and using the tagline “Where Shlomo meets Jerry,” the year before.

I met Lorelai at a Jewish Deadhead camp of sorts, “Blues for Challah,” at Camp Isabella Freedman in 2011. It seemed clear that the Nine Days of Jerry were, for her, more than simply a chance to reflect and remember — as Rabbi Cohen describes “the Days Between” in his essay, and as many fans experience the period — but much more of a marking of Jerry’s yahrzeit and an attempt to deal with major loss, both relating to the Jewish calendar and to Jerry’s death and the subsequent changes in the Dead universe.

Many fans, Jewish and not, mark “the Days Between,” wherever they fall in the Jewish calendar. Lorelai and many of her listeners, however, avoid music in observance of the Nine Days (of Av). Depending on how August and Av line up, RFN is frequently shut down entirely, in mourning, while others are celebrating. This year, the Nine Days of Jerry begin August 12.
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World Like a Poem

Annabelle Farmelant, a U.S.-based writer, who published books of Hebrew verse in 1960 and 1961, focused a number of her poems on what words — especially in Hebrew’s gendered language — can and cannot do:

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 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**
— Eichacha — yisheil — eichacha —
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 wanderer
in the world’s splendor***
Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores

*lanetzach. Forever or eternally, rather than perpetually.
**Eichacha — yisheil — eichacha. How — he asks — just how.
***tiferet ba-olam. splendor in the world. Tifereth is a feminine word for an attribute of the divine, one right at the center of the Kabbalist tree of life. tiferet ha-olam. splendor of the world

The translation is by Adriana X. Jacobs, from Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores: Poems by Anne Kleiman and Annabelle Farmelant. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016). The notes are mine, and I’m including a few of the original Hebrew words. Additional information on Farmelant, including an article on her work by Jacobs. [UPDATE 8/30/19: Farmelant died in New York City on June 14, 2019 and was buried in Boston.]

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Resources on Psalms

I’ve been collecting resources on individual psalms for study on a monthly basis. (Local to DC? Check out Temple Micah, third Tuesdays of the month, 1:30 – 3 p.m.) Here are the materials so far (last updated 7/17/19 — here is the stable page where more will be added.)

Psalm 1 Resources (PDF)

Psalm 92 Resources (PDF)

Psalm 8 Resources(PDF)

Psalm 22 Resources (PDF)

Coming soon, a few notes, by request, on Ugaritic and the Psalms, and more resources related to individual psalms as they are gathered.

The wingCatz of Terumah

Instructions for crafting a place for God to dwell include a pair of hammered-work creatures, with upward spreading wings, facing one another above the cover of the Ark. Between the two sculptured figures is where God promises to meet Moses to deliver further Revelation (Exodus 25:10-22, in parashat Terumah: Ex 25:1-27:19). The imagery is intriguing, if disconcerting: too close to forbidden graven images, too similar to idols of neighboring ancient cultures, and, ultimately, too erotic for prime time. But I’ve I recently learned some new perspectives on the hammered-work creatures and, more generally, the way religious imagery can work for us or not.

Continue reading The wingCatz of Terumah