And So?

Reading the three texts of Shabbat Chazon [Vision] and Tisha B’av together can easily feed a sense of despair:

On this Shabbat of Vision, we stand at the river’s edge, imagining the world on the other side, the one our ancestors were, decades before, led to believe was just around the corner. And yet, as Deuteronomy opens, we are listening to Moses describe all the ways we’ve already disappointed and erred since taking those first tentative steps toward what we hoped would be better days. “How?! How can I bear the trouble/burden [torach] of you?” Moses moans (Deut 1:12; see PDF in previous post).

On this same Shabbat, we are treated to the prophet Isaiah’s speech from across the river, inside that imagined world. He, too, is explaining just how thoroughly we’ve failed, turning vision into a burden even God cannot bear: “[Your rituals] are become a burden [torach] to me…Your hands are full of blood.” (Isaiah 1:14-15). “How?! How did a dream of justice and righteousness become a city of murderers?” (1:21, paraphrased)

With Eikha, that imagined world has collapsed, and we are on the road out of the ruins. “How?! How did what once appeared so vibrant turn into this painful mess?!”

It seems that we’ve been crying, “How?! How did things get this bad?!” for so long that we might as well simply declare that nothing ever changes, that people are just as rotten to one another today as they were in Isaiah’s time or King Josiah’s or at the time of Exile, and our problems have been basically the same for 2700 years.

But we can also understand these three readings — offered to us at the lowest point in the Jewish calendar — as an age-old acknowledgement that there will always be failures, that the better days envisioned will always be ahead, that we are always facing an ending…with, we must hope, a new beginning beyond it.


“Where is the ‘so’?”

In the kinot for Tisha B’av, Chapter 13 offers a series of verses beginning “אֵי כֹּה” [ei ko], translated as “Where is the [ko-based] promise…?” (Sefaria offers the Hebrew for Chapter 13 but no translation.) Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s commentary, found in Koren Mesorat HaRav Kinot (Koren, 2010), explains:

In this kina, Rabbi Elazar HaKalir treats the word eikha as though it were a composite word consisting of two separate words, ei and ko, and therefore, the meaning of the word is not “how?!” but rather “where is the ko, the ‘so'”? Where are the promises that God made to the Jewish people using the word ko?
–p.318

The author of the kina is asking, R’ Soloveitchik says, why the promises were not fulfilled, and ultimately God responds: “Do not worry, the ko will be realized; sooner or later there will be no need to ask Eikha” (p. 327).

Maybe, however, we should read “where is the ‘so’?” from another angle: For nearly 3000 years, we’ve been warned that there is blood on our hands and work to be done. And so?

And so: 1) “Cease to do evil.” 2) “Learn to do good.” 3) “Devote yourself [to repair]” and, only then, 4) Atone/seek restoration of relationship.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught: “If you believe that you can destroy, believe that you can repair.” (Meshivat Nefesh #38). We will always mess up, and always be called to keep going.

Vision, Blood, and Learning

UPDATED 8/7/22 evening with note on transliteration and link to epilogue

Three challenging Bible passages come together in the Jewish calendar in the next two days:

  • Devarim (Deut 1:1-3:12), the first portion in the Book of Deuteronomy (Deut 1:1-3:12);
  • Isaiah 1:1-27, the prophetic reading which gives this Shabbat it’s special name, “Shabbat of Vision,” or Shabbat Chazon; and
  • Eikha, the Book of Lamentations, read on Tisha B’av.

In some years, there are several days between Shabbat Chazon and Tisha B’av — offering a chance for us to take the admonitions to heart before entering into the deepest day of mourning the Jewish calendar and then beginning the slow climb toward the new year. Some years, like this one, leave no space between that last Shabbat of Affliction (or Admonition) and Tisha B’av. So we’re about to enter a complicated couple of days.


Historical and Literary Context

A bit of history is useful for viewing the confluence of readings for Shabbat Chazon and Tisha B’av:

  • Eikha/Lamentations is probably, current scholarship says, from the middle of the 6th Century BCE, although some parts may be older; the book as a whole is traditionally ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah (c. 650-570 BCE).
  • Jeremiah was active at the time of King Josiah (c.640-609 BCE), from the 13th year of the young king’s reign through Exile and the destruction of the First Temple. Substantial portions of the Book of Deuteronomy are also linked with King Josiah’s era.
  • The prophet Isaiah lived a century earlier, with the year 733 BCE a prominent date for his vision… which led him to criticize focus on ritual when what is required is tending to those in need:

Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hates…
Your hands are full of blood (stained with crime).
…Seek justice, relieve the oppressed….
How [Eikha] is the faithful city…once full of justice,
righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers!
–Isa 1:14-17, 1:21


How?!

That mournful cry, beginning with the word “Eikha” in Isaiah 1:21, is echoed in both Deuteronomy and the book of that name.

For the record, “eikha” appears only the once in Isaiah, four times in Eikha, and five times in Deuteronomy, plus twice in Jeremiah and once each in four other books of Tanakh. (See handout, “Eikha and Chazon,” below).

Isaiah’s vision prompts us to consider any number of collective crimes. The compressed time period of Shabbat followed immediately by the day of mourning makes it difficult to process or respond. But Isaiah doesn’t just leave us with blood on our hands; he suggests a way forward:

Learn to do good.
Devote yourselves to justice;
Aid the wronged.
Uphold the rights of the orphan;
Defend the cause of the widow.

Isaiah 1:17 (see “Isaiah page one” handout, also below)

We can read this message as a simple “do better.” And, of course, that is what we are being told to do. But we must also heed that first commandment: Learn.

For nearly 3000 years, Isaiah has railing at us that we have blood on our hands. And for just as long, the prophet has been telling us that the first step — before trying to undertake the work of justice, provide aid, uphold anyone’s rights, or defend the most vulnerable — is to learn.

We can inform ourselves about the problems and issues. We can listen to the voices of those most affected by crimes in which we have participated, however inadvertently. We can get to know what solutions others are already working to implement. We can learn more about Jewish history, practice, and philosophy to shore up our ability to respond Jewishly — and/or steep ourselves in other traditions that inspire us.

For nearly 3000 years, Jewish tradition has been calling us to do better by learning better.


TRANSLITERATION NOTE: The Hebrew word ” איכה ” is pretty commonly transliterated “eicha” (and this blog often used that spelling in the past); eikha is used here, though, in an effort to make clear the distinction between the chet of “[חזון] chazon” and the khaf of “eikha.”


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PDF Handouts

Handout for Hill Havurah, six-page-PDF includes both “Eicha and Chazon” (5 pages) and “Isaiah page one” (1 page) in one document. Also below: separate pieces.

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Eicha and Chazon (five-page-PDF, originally prepared for Temple Micah in 2019 and re-shared with Hill Havurah and Tzedek Chicago in 2022) —

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Isaiah page one — (one-page-PDF) three translations for Isa 1:15-18 and some definitions.

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Setting Out

This week’s Torah reading includes a series of stages reported like this:

va-yisu bnei-Yisrael
[The people set out from] _Place X_
va’yachanu
[and encamped in] _Place Y_.
E.g., (Num 33:5): וַיִּסְעוּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵרַעְמְסֵס וַֽיַּחֲנוּ בְּסֻכֹּֽת
[Bnei-Yisrael set out from Ramses and encamped at Succoth.]

This series of journeying stages, or “marches,” begins at the start of the second portion in this week’s double-Torah-reading: Matot (Numbers 30:2-32:42) and Masei (Numbers 33:1- 36:13). The idea of leaving one stage to reach another was reverberating for me while Joni Mitchell sang at the recent Newport Folk Festival:

Late last night, I heard the screen door slam
and a big yellow taxi took away my old man
don’t it always seem to go
you don’t know what you’ve lost til it’s gone

Watching video from Mitchell’s surprise appearance on 7/24/22, I was reminded of something I learned many years ago, from Amy Brookman at Fabrangen Havurah, in reference to the portion Masei: We have to “set out” to get to anywhere new.

From One Stage…

It is now possible to see Mitchell’s “Last Waltz” performances — The Band’s farewell, 11/25/1976, at Winterland — via the Music Vault on YouTube. Robbie Robertson and the crowd enthusiastically welcome Mitchell, and she performs two songs from her Hejira album/tour: “Coyote” and “Furry Sings the Blues.”

B/W raw footage from Music Vault: Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote” with the Band at the Last Waltz
B/W raw footage from Music Vault: Joni Mitchell’s “Fury Sings the Blues” with the Band at the Last Waltz

The Last Waltz also included Laura Nyro and the sisters of the Staple Singers, but Mitchell is the only woman on the stage for the closing numbers. And I’ve come to think of that image, one woman among a stage full of men, as a kind of encapsulation of how the industry functioned then. (A cropped section of that final stage grouping is the feature image for this blog; description below.) See also footnote from a musician present at the time

Moreover, when Mitchell appears in the 1978 Scorcese documentary, only “Coyote” is included — the film includes only one number from most of the guest performers; and I believe the director made the choices — and she is introduced on the heels of an interview segment called “Women on the Road” (see below). That is, Scorcese chose to place Mitchell’s welcome onto the stage immediately after leering remarks from The Band about “women” as objects. To be extra clear about the causality: the director of a concert documentary chose to introduce an influential musician and composer with ugly, sexist and unrelated blither, rather than, say, thoughts about musical composition or influences — which the documentary does also include — or just with Robbie Robertson announcing, as in the above raw footage, “Joni Mitchell. Right!” (The audience is yelling her name, as if guessing who was next up.)

The film’s presentation of Joni Mitchell has been stuck in my consciousness since I first saw it at a theater in 1977. On the one hand, this was a boorish artistic move by one man; on the other, it was emblematic of a time. In both ways, experience of the film shaped my brain and body, in ways that I can sometimes recognize today and in ways that I probably do not even know.

….And, for the record: I do love and recommend the movie, for all the anger I harbor toward its director over many of its specifics. It’s available through Kanopy streaming and local libraries. (And I believe there is some kind of remastering with additional numbers originally omitted, including Mitchell’s “Furry Sings the Blues.”)

…to Another

On July 24 at Newport, Mitchell was surrounded by musicians of different musical backgrounds, gender identities, skin colors, and ages — many of them born long after Mitchell’s last appearance at Newport, in 1969, or her participation in The Band’s “Last Waltz” at Winterland in 1976.

Comparing the two images — Mitchell surrounded by collaborative, supportive (really, adoring) fellow performers in 2022 and Mitchell a powerful, lone woman actively denigrated by the filmmaker (if not her fellow performers) — brought me to that idea, from this week’s Torah portion, of needing to leave one stage in order to get to another. Of course, Mitchell’s reception and introduction in 2022 owes much to the strength of her long career and her personal hard road to physical recovery.

But this is not just a personal progression: We, as a society, had to leave the 1970s to get to later stages in the musical world and beyond. Watching the varied musicians collaborate with Mitchell through “Big Yellow Taxi” and the other numbers shared by Newport Folk Festival, I couldn’t help but think:

yes, often we don’t know what is lost til it’s gone; but sometimes, it’s a blessing to watch that taxi pull away.



Some background footage, FYI:

Here is some material from the film (inexpertly shared, complete with clutter from my den and an annoying lamp reflection):

Beginning: from early in the film — one of the few times we see the director — Martin Scorcese and Robertson talk about “The Last Waltz” concept

1:19 Robertson explains, backstage, that Ronnie Hawkins first hired him saying, “well, son, it doesn’t pay much, but you’ll get more pussy than Frank Sinatra.” This is spliced into the launch of Ronnie Hawkins’ performance on stage.

1:43 “Women on the Road,” as the scene is called on the DVD: backstage interview with band members. at 2:55 Levon Helm (1940-2012) offers “I thought you weren’t supposed to talk about it too much” — earning him my personal, undying gratitude from my teenage years onward. Rick Danko (1943-1999) says something about how “as we’ve grown, so have the women,” and Richard Manuel (1943-1986) just leers.

WARNING: Both Canadian and U.S. Confederate flags appear on the walls in this interview scene. (I don’t know enough about The Band to add any context beyond that they were Canadian born and did write songs about the U.S. South.)

clips from “The Last Waltz” shown, complete with the clutter in my den and annoying lamp reflection

This haphazard presentation of clips from “The Last Waltz” is fair use for purposes of review and discussion; it does not include the actual performance of “Coyote” from the 1978 documentary. The latter is widely available on YouTube, etc. in form that will be easier to enjoy — without violating copyright

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Image description:

L-R in still from 1978 Doc — so all in clothes popular at the time: Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson on stage at The Last Waltz concert. Dr. John is wearing a baret and sunglasses, looking at distance. Joni is wearing a long-sleeve leotard-type top and lots of necklaces, looking a little annoyed and (accidentally?) facing the camera. Neil is wearing a t-shirt with an open workshirt over it, smiling in a buzzed kind of way, looking outside the frame. Rick and Robbie are looking down at their guitars, but only Rick’s guitar is visible; both are wearing long-sleeve button-down shirts.

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Aaron and Moses, Thurgood and Sam

The Book of Exodus — in fact a passage from last week’s Torah portion — makes an odd appearance in the movie, Marshall (2017 — Netflix subscribers, NOTE: The movie leaves that platform on Jan 1, 2022.) At first, oddities in the way the verses show up broke my willing suspension of disbelief. Eventually, however, I came to appreciate the scene and light it sheds back on the Exodus story.

Marshall and Friedman

The movie is based on a 1941 court case with Civil Rights implications. Here’s a summary of the real-life court case, published years before the movie was released. Here’s information about the movie, from IMDB, starring Chadwick Boseman (1976-2020) and Josh Gad (b. 1981).

Early on in the story — in real life as in the movie — Thurgood Marshall, then NAACP’s itinerant attorney, must convince Sam Friedman, a Connecticut attorney specializing in insurance, to take up Joseph Spell’s defense. Friedman, 38, had no experience in criminal cases; Marshall, 32, had the experience but was refused standing as co-counsel by the judge.

Once the lawyers learn that Marshall is forbidden to speak at all at the trial, they have a short, tense conversation — while another lawyer who might take the case waits on the telephone. Without preamble, Marshal intones: “And the Lord commanded Moses to enlist his brother’s help.” Friedman recognizes the reference and joins in, saying along with Marshall: “He shall be your mouth, and you shall be as God to him.”

Friedman agrees to take the case. Throughout the trial, Marshall directs his colleague’s every move, until eventually — as in the historical case — they win a not-guilty verdict.

Exodus 4:14-16

Moses and Aaron together pleading with Pharaoh to let the People go is among the most well-known Bible stories. Prior to that, at the close of the Burning Bush scene (Exodus 3:1ff), is a less famous passage: God becomes angry with Moses, promises to be “with the mouth” of both brothers, and tells Moses to be “as God” to Aaron (Ex 4:14-16).

These are not the most mellifluous verses, the most often quoted, or the most likely to land on inspirational household decorations. Still, both lawyers know this passage well enough to quote. And, although translations are quite varied, due in part to awkward phrasing in Hebrew, men from different backgrounds have somehow learned the same English words by heart.

Moreover, Marshall begins with Moses being commanded to enlist Aaron’s help, something not found in the Hebrew or in any translation I could find. Possibly this paraphrase is from a popular culture source of the 1920-30s, although there is no suggestion of that in the scene, or a commonly accepted Sunday-school rendition. Perhaps Marshall KNOWS the quote is not quite right and altered it for a point.

Or, my best guest: movie-makers were content using not-quite-Bible, even in a scene where the words seem so pivotal; in other words, they were far less obsessed than I with issues of translation and transmission**….

I only found one discussion of the movie mentioning this scene, and its author is entirely unconcerned by what I found anomalous. In fact, Rabbi Elliot Gertel’s piece adds more layers of mismatch: he says that Marshall “quotes” and Friedman “is able to complete the verse,” but then offers a quotation himself that differs substantially from what is actually said in the movie:

God’s words to Moses in the Book of Exodus (4:16), regarding Aaron: “And he shall be God’s spokesman to the people, that he shall be to you a mouth, and shall be to him in God’s stead.” Impressively, Sam is able to complete the verse.

“Marshall” — Civil Rights and Old-Fashioned Shul Jews (November 2017)

TEXT NOTES: R’ Gertel appears to be using a modified version of Old JPS: “And he shall be thy spokesman unto the people; and it shall come to pass, that he shall be to thee a mouth, and thou shalt be to him in God’s stead.” More translations (some would have been similar in 1941; some are newer) at Bible Hub. Bilingual Hebrew/English for Exodus Chapter 4; interactive text with commentary.

Thurgood and Sam

I didn’t see this movie when it was new and don’t know if there was discussion at the time around use of the Bible story. As noted above, the quotation itself snapped me out of believing in the story as it was presented; a side effect of this shift of perspective, for better or worse, was a new look at the Exodus story.

When Thurgood says “God commanded Moses to enlist his brother’s help,” I hear three things:

  1. asking for Sam’s help in a way that the Bible text itself does not support: God tells Moses to meet Aaron and vice versa (4:27) but never tells Moses to ask for help;
  2. suggesting divine imperative behind the request: if God told Moses/Thurgood to ask, Aaron/Sam has no choice of response; and
  3. calling Sam his brother.

When Sam joins in reciting a version of Exodus 4:16, I also hear three sentiments:

  1. acknowledging brotherhood with Thurgood;
  2. recognizing that the request is bigger than the individuals involved; and
  3. agreeing to a role that, like Aaron, only he can play at that point.

If Aaron and Moses ever had a conversation weighing their responsibilities or wondering if/how they could operate as a brother-team, that’s hidden deep inside the white space between the Bible’s letters. But the text suggests that Moses and Aaron were relative strangers, if not entirely unknown to one another, prior to God’s call to each of them. So maybe the two tales — of Sam and Thurgood, Aaron and Moses — can shed mutual light on how individuals with no history or reason for trust can recognize sibling-partners in one another.

Another resonance between the tales is a pattern of objection, frustration, and acquiescence. Moses objects repeatedly to God’s call at the Burning Bush; God gets angry, and then announces the Aaron-mouth Moses-“God” team. Sam raises objection after objection to Joseph Spell as a client: he was dishonorably discharged from the Service, he left behind a wife and two children, he was charged with theft at another job… Thurgood snaps that criminal defendants are not ideal citizens and tells Sam he has no time for “selling” the task, he just needs him to do it, at which point the not-quite-Bible text seals the Sam-mouth Thurgood-“God” team.

R’ Gertel wonders, parenthetically, if Thurgood is being immodest by equating himself with Moses, and through Exodus 4:16, “as God.” The Thurgood of this Marshall film is nothing if not chutzpadik. But that is beside the point for the link between the lawyers’ story and Exodus. The real chutzpah, I think, is on the part of writers Michael and Jacob Koskoff.

Marshall as Midrash

Given that the Koskoffs paraphrased Exodus 4:14 and left out the part about God promising to be with both brothers in 4:15, sticking with the obscure and awkward pronouncement of 4:16, “…you shall be as God to him [וְאַתָּה תִּהְיֶה-לּוֹ לֵאלֹהִים, ve’atah tihyeh-lo le’Elohim],” must have been deliberate. In addition, the clunky language choice is part of a pivotal moment, creating the brother-team. And one effect of bringing this “as God” in at this point is to equate Civil Rights legal maneuvers to the Exodus Story.

Michael Koskoff (1942-2019) was a lawyer who saw parallels between Friedman’s work and his own, in defense of Black Panthers, e.g. But is this lionizing of legal efforts “immodesty” on anyone’s part? Or is it hinting at a kind of Legal Liberation Theology?

R’ Gertel’s piece about “Old Fashioned Shul Jews” closes with a question about whether/how: “…ties to synagogue and Jewish life have brought a precious and irreplaceable quality to social action by Jews.” This is a crucial question to ponder without romanticizing Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movement.

And a fictionalized view of real life lawyers battling an inequitable system, in- and outside the courtroom, can illuminate the relationship of Aaron and Moses, two siblings who barely knew one another, taking up a dangerous and uncertain path toward undoing oppression.


**R’ Gertel’s “Old Fashioned Shul Jews” spends a fair amount of ink on the meaning of carrying and exchanging of money on the sabbath in one Marshall scene. As with my obsession with the use of a pseudo-quotation from the bible, I think the best explanation is that no one associated with the movie thought to worry about this being considered a violation of Shabbat by many Jews.

For more: AP story (2017) about Sam Friedman, interviewing daughter and a piece by Friedman’s grand-nephew Paul Friedman. Writer Michael Koskoff talks about his own legal and Jewish backgrounds; obit in NYT.

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Teraphim and Elohim, Calvin & Hobbes

In the Book of Genesis, Rachel steals the teraphim that were her father’s (31:19). Meanwhile, Laban accuses Jacob of stealing “my gods [elohai]”; Jacob responds, speaking of “elohekha” [your gods], using Laban’s term; and a tent-by-tent search is conducted (Gen 31:30-33). Rachel and the teraphim then re-appear in Gen 31:34-35. Why “elohim” when it’s Jacob and Laban, and teraphim only when Rachel is around?

…The word “teraphim” is used three times in Rachel’s presence, and then never again in the Torah. In the prophetic books, there are a dozen more mentions of teraphim (Judges, Samuel, Kings, Ezekiel, Hosea, and Zechariah). “Elohim” is grammatically plural and means both (plural) gods or judges and (singular) name of God of Israel….

Many would attribute the shift in language to different source texts. Perhaps, though, vocabulary change indicates fundamental differences in experience. Genesis itself doesn’t tell us what the elohim/teraphim meant to any of the individuals or the households involved. But, we do find a few clues in the text.

Two relationships

After the search fails, Jacob and Laban do not again mention the elohai, which remain abstract, another element in a larger argument over possessions and twenty years of grievances. There is intensity between Jacob and Laban, but other family members recede into the men’s power struggle: Women and children become inanimate or invisible, while households gods seem to disappear. One moment, Jacob is declaring theft of elohim worthy of death-penalty; the next, they’re well and truly forgotten.

Meanwhile, whatever the teraphim were to anyone else, they do seem important to Rachel. She had no idea, when they were leaving home, that Jacob would later make a death-pronouncement about the theft. But she does seem willing to take substantial risk in stealing them. And her method of keeping them hidden is tied to her own body and “the ways of women.” Rachel’s life seems intimately attached to these teraphim.

Maybe, the switch of vocabulary indicates that Rachel relates to the teraphim differently than her (male) kin folk.

Two word-scenes

For Jacob and Laban the household gods seem abstract, maybe a little like this set of featureless, static images —

“Why have you stolen my gods?”
Image: a monochrome set of featureless human-shape models — the pose-able kind artists use to aid in sculpture or sketching — with the words “why have you stolen my gods [לָמָּה גָנַבְתָּ, אֶת-אֱלֹהָי]” in Hebrew across them. Artist dummy images are public domain, via Pixabay.

When Rachel’s around, though, the household gods seem more animated and personal, maybe a little like this set of images with real, lifelike features and sense of movement —

“And he didn’t find the teraphim.”
Image: two more monochrome artist’s models, this time in animated poses, around an ancient Canaanite figure, with the words “and he didn’t find the teraphim [וְלֹא מָצָא אֶת-הַתְּרָפִים]” superimposed. Canaanite image from LookandLearn.com. Dummy images are public domain, no attribution from Pixabay.

The vocabulary switch strikes me as something like the shifts from panel to panel in Bill Watterston’s “Calvin & Hobbes.” When Calvin was with Hobbes, Hobbes was an animated companion; but when another human entered the picture, Hobbes was an ordinary, inanimate stuffed toy. I am not suggesting teraphim are anything like stuffed animals to Rachel or anyone else in the story. Just fascinated by a sort of parallel shift in scene from one of animated connection to one of subject-object.

Sources, Paths, Prayers and More Notes in the Weekly Portion

Once upon a time, this blog offered a series of posts on portion of the week, sharing notes about interesting sources and paths to follow. At a later stage, I included some posts about links to prayers found in the weekly portion. Here is a new landing page with most of these links in order.

“One of Me” and Genesis 2

There is no “man” or “woman” in the early part of Genesis, even after “the human” is created (twice). The first Torah portion, Breishit (Gen 1:1-6:8), read this week as the cycle begins again for the new year, gives two versions of humanity’s genesis. Neither one includes the word “ish” at the outset:

  • We are introduced to the earthling or the human in 1:26-27, and told ha-adam is in God’s image and male [zachar] and female [nekevah]. (Here are a few additional notes and translations for comparison.)
  • God crafts ha-adam from ha-adamah [“the earth” or maybe “arable land”] in Gen 2:7 (and ha-adam gets singular masculine grammar treatment).

We do not see the word “ish [man]” until after isha [woman] is created and recognized by ha-adam as “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23). Subsequently, we read of ha-adam and ha-isha or ishto, usually translated as “the man” and “the woman” or “his wife [literally: his woman].”

Just prior to this, God introduces the human to all the other creates that have been created, but —

…no fitting helper was found.

Gen 2:20

There was no helper appropriate, or corresponding or opposite, [k’negdo] to the human — what the King James Version called a “help-meet.”

Not sure the Genesis text actually supports this reading, but this week I am seeing Elton John as “ezer k’negdo” for Lil Nas X.

…There has been a great deal written, ancient and current and in between, about what these verses might imply about gender and about relationships of various kinds. And there are so many layers of gender and sexuality to be explored in discussing Lil Nas X or Elton John or Dolly Parton. But it’s almost Shabbat, and that’s not my area of expertise/primary experience, and this is meant to be just a short thought…

One of Me

Recently Lil Nas X released “One of Me.” It’s an important work on its own (full lyrics), and it’s important that Elton John is featured on the song. In addition, the two of them appear together in a video advertisement. (Usually my inclination is to suspect advertisers of capitalizing on pain, but in this case I applaud Uber Eats for providing this urgently needed creative space, whatever their motives. Video “One of Me” for Uber Eats.)

Watching the elder (b. 1947) stand so publicly with the younger (b. 1999) has an enormous power. (Especially for someone raised in a home where “shush” was the only permitted, and the most polite, thing to say about Elton John’s sexuality, and anyone who remembers when the public was not kind to him.)

Without making any claims as to how the actual individuals involved — Montero Lamar Hill and Reginald Dwight or their public alter egos — feel about this, I see Elton John as ezer k’negdo, that corresponding-helper, for Lil Nas X, an elder appearing “opposite” in a way that allows the younger to appear more clearly as himself…to the world at large, if not to himself. Seems especially poignant in relation to a song about how so many want him to be something else.

Could something like that be meant when ha-adam says —

At last! This time! Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”

Gen 2:23

after first seeing ha-isha?

Not sure the text supports this, but also not sure in this instance how much I care about being exact: Is is possible that we all have the power to serve as ezer k’negdo to others? to use our own selves in positive ways to help others see themselves more fully?


Elton John in a Lil Nas X cowboy get up and Lil Nas X in Elton’s feathers. More than that would be very hard to describe. But if requested, I’ll search out a video description.

Full official video from Lil Nas X below

not going to try to provide a video description, but if requested will try to find one

Full album — https://lilnasx.lnk.to/MonteroAlbum

Charity associated with this album — Central Alabama Alliance Resource & Advocacy Center — if you click through from the YouTube link there is a matching grant.

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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Doubled Sacred Space

Sacredness is a tricky concept, made more complicated when a single place or story, concept or ritual is prominent in more than one belief system. Throughout history, conflict around sacred visions has led to much violence. An example is unfolding today in the U.S. capital.

For months now, the District has been home to an informal memorial to individuals killed by police, as well as related artwork and signage in support of Black Lives Matter. Names and pictures of those lost had been posted with loving care over the last five months, and many thousands made pilgrimages, some regularly, over the months.

The weekend of Nov. 13-16, protesters with the #MillionMAGAMarch and related demonstrations destroyed the memorial, while actively disparaging those it honors. This was accomplished with the acquiescence, and sometimes assistance, of DC’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). And this destruction, and MPD’s participation, has been met with silence on the part of DC leaders….and, so far, most of our faith communities as well.

The memorial is under reconstruction….meanwhile, here is (STILL DRAFT) background of the fence, pictures of what happened over Nov. 13-16, and a call to attention and action.

Multiple Folds on BLM Plaza

Conflict over sacred space appears in the story of Abraham, in the Hebrew Bible, seeking a tomb for his deceased wife, Sarah (Gen 23:1ff). The spot he chooses is “Me’arat Ha-machpelah.” Me’arah is a cave (or den). The root — כפל [kaphal] — in Hebrew means “fold” or “double.” Traditional etymology suggests that the cave’s name reflects the burying of couples (Biblically, Sarah and Abraham; Isaac and Rebecca; Jacob and Leah, with Rachel buried elsewhere; Talmud and later text includes Adam and Eve) or that it was composed of two chambers, either side-by-side or an upper and a lower. The doubling, or folding, also appears in other aspects of this story and sheds some light on the BLM memorial conflict.

In the process of negotiating, Abraham declares himself “גר־וְתוֹשב [ger-v’toshav] — “stranger” and “resident” — which is a kind of folding in this one individual’s status. Likewise, DC folks might be residents, on the one hand, and simultaneously strangers in public spaces where we are excluded from full representation; some visitors here for the MAGA events, on the other hand, might be strangers in DC neighborhoods, while simultaneously appearing to feel at home, even proprietary, in public spaces.

Abraham negotiates to purchase the cave and the surrounding land and trees. Eventually, the field and cave are confirmed as Abraham’s, “from the children of Heth.” This transfer results in a kind of double identity: It’s Abraham’s and it’s former Hittite property. A similar pattern shows up in many layers at BLM Plaza: On one level, it’s part of the L’Enfant plan for the U.S. government seat and it’s Anacostan/Piscataway land. On another, it’s District property and a response to the White House. It’s both a mayoral action and the people’s response to that action. The horizontal stripes are part of a DC flag and remnants of an equal sign, simultaneously a city-sanctioned design and a reminder of the guerilla “DEFUND THE POLICE” briefly equated with “BLACK LIVES MATTER.” (“BLACK LIVES MATTER = DEFUND THE POLICE,” lasted a single day before the city repainted.)

Another “doubling” can be seen in the dual nature of the historical Machpelah site (in the city of Hebron): known simultaneously as “Tomb of the Patriarchs” and as “Ibrahimi Mosque,” the site is recognized as sacred to both Jews and Muslims. In a somewhat similar vein, we see several “doublings” of meaning for BLM Plaza and Memorial Fence.

The yellow paint has one meaning for the movement for Black lives and another for DC’s mayor; trying to honor both at once results in serious conflict and insult to one vision or the other: On the one hand, consider again how the predominantly white Nov. 7 celebration was experienced as erasure by BLM supporters; on the other hand, protesters have faced months of police violence, suggesting that the mayor’s vision for BLM Plaza must be something quite different from BLM-led action.

Mayor Bowser has been sued for allowing a “cult for secular humanism” by plaintiffs who argue that the BLM Plaza “equates to endorsing a religion.” Brought by a small group, the suit represents a larger movement, in- and outside of DC, believing the yellow paint a provocation for those who “Back the Blue.” Other “Back the Blue” supporters declare no value in the lives memorialized on the fence, seek to actively erase anything associated with them, and join the current president in treating Black Lives Matter as “terrorists.” They are actively trying to reclaim the space for their vision of the United States.

Abraham negotiates in front of a gathering at the city’s gate. Do we have a “city gate” for considering the BLM Plaza conflict?

Abraham never has to argue for Sarah’s humanity. What does it say about DC and the nation, if we are silent while memorials are dismantled amid calls of “time to take out the trash”?


PS — this was written (and I thought, posted) a few days back; must have failed to hit “publish.” Sorry for delay.

For those so inclined “Protect the Fence” gofundme.

The Scouting Challenge: Facing Race

When the Yisrael-ites send out a scouting party from the wilderness (Numbers 13:1), disaster results. After escaping Mitzrayim, the narrow place and over two years in the wilderness, the People are moving ahead and now send out a scouting party — AKA “spies” — to explore their destination. The scouting attempt leads to (Num 14:29):

  • fear of what’s ahead,
  • a desire to go back,
  • an attempt to advance without divine guidance, and
  • finally, realization that an entire generation will die in the wilderness.

One obvious lesson here is that there is a lot to learn about

  • how we look ahead;
  • how we look at what’s behind us;
  • how our individual perspectives shape what we see; and
  • how we organize that information into expectations.

Viewing Peril

Ten of twelve scouts in this week’s Torah reading bring back a set of terrified reports about the destination where they’re supposed to be headed:

The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers…we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.
— Num 13:32-33

Commentary, beginning with the Talmud, notes the subjective nature of the report and the role of assumption:

The spies said: “And we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so were we in their eyes” (Numbers 13:33). Rav Mesharshiyya says: The spies were liars. Granted, to say: “We were like grasshoppers in our own eyes,” is well, but to say: “And so were we in their eyes,” from where could they have known this?
— Babylonian Talmud Sotah 35a

Caleb and Joshua present dissenting views, describing favorable prospects ahead, and then mourn with Moses and Aaron when the People panic at the negative reports (Num 13:30, 14:6-9). Jay Stanton, now assistant clergy at Tzedek Chicago, noted the universal nature of this particular textual “snapshot”:

These words offer a snapshot into human nature. When hearing that a task is difficult, how often do we respond to a challenge by convincing ourselves we are inadequate to the task ahead? This portion plays on universal tendencies to underestimate ourselves and let our worries overtake our reason. It is all too easy to see the courage of Caleb, and yet to identify with the concerns of the ten scouts.

He adds–

The ten scouts are nervous, letting others define them; they have not yet trusted their own definitions for themselves. Caleb, in contrast, is strong and independent, letting no one else define him.
Fear Perception and Imagination: Grasshoppers in Whose Eyes?

Stanton’s 2008 essay focuses on challenges to Queer Jews. His words also describe this moment, as the U.S. tries to envision some sort of racial justice ahead. They also resonate with words on Jews and race from many years ago and from today.

Warnings: Old and New

In 1967, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:

Why is equality so assiduously avoided? Why does white America delude itself, and how does it rationalize the evil it retains?

As the nation passes from opposing extremist behavior to the deeper and more pervasive elements of equality, white America reaffirms its bonds to the status quo.
— “Where Are We?” in Where do We Go from Here?

MLK’s friend, Rabbi Abraham Joshus Heschel, wrote a few years before:

People are increasingly fearful of social tension and disturbance. However, so long as our society is more concerned to prevent racial strife than to prevent humiliation, the cause of strife, its moral status will be depressing, indeed.

There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous. A silent justification, it makes possible an evil erupting as an exception becoming the rule and being in turn accepted.
“Race and Religion” speech, 1963

Earlier this week, a small group of DC Jews, including me, wrote:

Right now is a critical time when the public and decision makers are finally beginning to hear the transformative demands of Black organizers. White people have the opportunity to learn from the vision and work of Black organizers and make sure our actions center their visions, words, demands, and dreams. At the same time, many across our Jewish community are struggling right now to understand what it means to defund or abolish police. Our system of policing is specifically rooted in a history of anti-Black racism. Black people, both within and outside of our Jewish communities, are the experts on what it will take to stop police brutality and end white supremacy. White people in particular need to listen, especially when political messages or proposed policy changes seem new or unfamiliar.

But we must not get stuck in our need for more learning – lest we fail to actually confront police violence and other anti-Black systems and dismantle them. Jewish tradition teaches that we must use ongoing learning and reflection as a catalyst for commitment and action.
Call to Action

An important final note most, given the disaster that resulted from panicking and arguing in the wilderness:

We refuse to be pitted against each other and lose the chance for liberation that this moment offers.

We invite white members of DC Jewish communities (and any member of our community who feels this speaks to them) to commit to this call for action, co-signing the call, and taking at least one action above. Share this call at 615DefundMPD

Wherever You Live…

Some of the specifics, in the letter above, regarding testifying to particular budget hearings are no longer pertinent. The FY21 DC Budget is still under consideration, however, and there is plenty of time to lift more voices to support demands of Black organizers in DC, in- and outside Jewish communities, around new visions of “public safety.”

And, wherever you live, the time is now to take action locally and nationally.

Also, wherever you live, the story of the scouts is a good reminder that we must learn to look more carefully at our past, present, and future. In particular, white people — in- and outside the Jewish community — must learn to face race. To that end, here are some resources on Jews and Racial Justice (soon to be updated).

In closing, a few words from one of my favorite Torah commentaries of all time:

We wander the wilderness. Can we ever remember a time when
it was not so? Always a remnant recounts the story,

The promised land really exists, it really doesn’t, are we
there yet. Borders unspecified, we will know when we’ve
arrived. Profusely fertile, agriculturally a heartland;

An impossible place, let freedom ring in it. We’ve been to
the mountain. We’ve seen the land: A terrain of the
imagination, its hills skipping for joy. How long, we say,
we know our failure in advance, nobody alive will set foot in it
— Alicia Suskin Ostriker. The Nakedness of the Fathers. Rutgers University Press, 1994.




NOTES:
This week’s Torah reading is Shelach Lekha [send out for yourself], Numbers 13:1 – 15:41. Much has been written about this famous story, but I don’t have a particular recommendation. I just discovered, in a possibly related fact, that one of the few times I’ve written about the spies for this log was in a commentary on the next portion, Korach.

The Ostriker poem, quoted above, is part of an essay called “The Nursing Father,” focusing on an image that comes up in the previous portion.
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