One of the things we might notice about Jonah is that he’s a little hard to follow: one minute, minding his own business, in his own land, and next thing he’s on the way to Joppa, on the ship, in the hold, tossed out into the sea, in the fish’s belly; then in Nineveh; and finally sitting outside the city arguing with God about a gourd. In honor of Jonah and his varied travels, these remarks go a number of different places, and, in an even deeper homage to Jonah, I can’t really promise that we’ll understand the point in the end. But I do hope it will be an interesting ride.
“Maybe” is not always comfortable in a world that values black and white, in or out, yes or no. But the Book of Jonah, recited on Yom Kippur afternoon, suggests that coming to terms with “maybe” is a key lesson of these days between “it is written” and “it is sealed.” And two musical approaches to “Maybe” help illuminate Jonah’s struggles with concept.
“Our hearts beat with certainty
that there is a day and an hour, and a mountain called Zion…”
These messianic words startled me when the congregation was asked to recite this unfamiliar passage the other day:
The good in us will win…
Our hearts beat with certainty
that there is a day and an hour, and a mountain called Zion,
and that all of the sufferings will gather there and become song,
ringing out into every corner of the earth, from end to end,
and the nations will hear it,
and like the caravans in the desert will all to that morning throng.
— p. 241 Mishkan T’filah (“Hugh Nissenson, adapted“)
The Shabbat morning services I regularly attend ordinarily skip this passage. Moreover, our siddur study group has noted numerous Reform liturgy revisions to avoid messianic vision, and we had recently discussed early reformers’ aversion to “Zion” language. (See, e.g., David Ellenson’s commentary on p. 159 in My People’s Prayer Book, v.2, The Amidah.) So this very specific, if metaphorical, reference definitely caught me by surprise:
“…beat with certainty”? How rarely do our prayers insist that we, as a group, are certain of anything! And the thing we’re certain about is a future vision centered on a specific, dangerously contested, location?!
I like change of pace in the worship service, and I do not expect every word we read to be in concert with my own beliefs. I’m even in favor of an occasional jolt: better to be awake and a little disturbed than to sleep-walk through prayers. But this reading did prompt me to further consider the whole idea of “Zion” and what it means in prayer.
Umberto Cassuto takes a far different approach, from that of the kabbalists cited in recent posts, to numbers in the bible. He focuses instead on “the sexagesimal system, which was in general use in the ancient East” (A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, part two: from Noah to Abraham, p.32).
Cassuto’s commentary on the measurements of Noah’s ark are brief, and not terribly illuminating, simply noting that the height of thirty cubits is “half of sixty, the fundamental number of the sexagesimal system” (p.63). His numerical commentary on other verses is so extensive, however, as to prompt apology: “The reader will, I trust, forgive me for devoting to this subject about two pages of dry, analytical calculations” (p.255).
Here is one part of the subsequent remarks on the generations from Noah’s son Shem to Abraham’s father, Terah:
From Arpachshad to Nahor, the age of the patriarchs at the time of the birth of the first son is fixed, as we have stated, round about thirty, that is, half a unit of sixty years, or six units of sixty months. In three cases it is exactly thirty, and in four instances it is slightly more or less, namely, +5, +4, +2, -1, making an algebraic total of +10 years, that is, two units of sixty months. In the generation of Terah, the age rises again and reaches seventy years — fourteen units of sixty months.
— Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, part two: from Noah to Abraham, Jerusalem: Magnes, 1992. p.256
Three 30s appear surround one pun in this verse from the Book of Judges:
וַיָּקָם אַחֲרָיו, יָאִיר הַגִּלְעָדִי; וַיִּשְׁפֹּט, אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל, עֶשְׂרִים וּשְׁתַּיִם, שָׁנָה.
וַיְהִי-לוֹ שְׁלֹשִׁים בָּנִים, רֹכְבִים עַל-שְׁלֹשִׁים עֲיָרִים, וּשְׁלֹשִׁים עֲיָרִים, לָהֶם; לָהֶם יִקְרְאוּ חַוֹּת יָאִיר, עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, אֲשֶׁר, בְּאֶרֶץ הַגִּלְעָד.
And after him arose Jair***, the Gileadite; and he judged Israel twenty and two years.
And he had thirty sons that rode on thirty [עֲיָרִים*], and they had thirty [עֲיָרִים**], which are called Havvoth-jair*** unto this day, which are in the land of Gilead.
— Judges 10:3-4, Old JPS translation at Mechon-Mamre
Old JPS says “ass colts”; New JPS uses “burros,” with a note about the pun
Old JPS has “cities”; New JPS uses the pun-supporting “boroughs”
The name “Jair” is a near homonym to the Hebrew words for burro and borough, due to the similarity of the letters ayin and aleph in Hebrew. New JPS does not extend the pun this far.
The story of Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28:10ff) uses three place names for the same spot: “Gate of Heaven” and “Beth-El [House of God]” as well as Luz, discussed yesterday.
The name “Beth El” is the center of a Talmudic commentary:
R. Eleazar also said, What is meant by the verse, “And many people shall go and say: ‘Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, To the house of the God of Jacob’” [Isaiah 2:3]. ‘The God of Jacob,’ but not the God of Abraham and Isaac?
Not like Abraham, in connection with whom ‘mountain’ is written, as it is said to this day, ‘In the mountain where the Lord is seen’ (Gen. 22:14). Nor like Isaac, in connection with whom ‘field’ is written, as it is said, ‘And Isaac when out to meditate in the field at eventide’ [Gen. 24:63]. But like Jacob, who called Him ‘home’, as it is said, ‘And he called the name of that place Beth-el [God is a home].
— Pesachim 88a, adapted from Soncino public-domain translation
—Soninco adds this note on the final verse: [Gen. 28:19] Visits to the mountain and the held are only made at certain times, but a home is permanent. Thus this teaches that man must live permanently in God.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3), opens with Jacob, en route from his parents’ home to the land of his mother’s people. He stops for the night and dreams of a ladder, its top in heaven and its bottom on earth, with angels traveling up and down. In the dream, God is “standing over him” and speaking to him. Upon awakening, Jacob names the place “Beth-El [House of God].” The Torah adds: “but previously the name of the city had been Luz.”
Rabbinic and later Jewish tradition offer a variety of comments on the two place names and their connection to Jacob’s experience. This post and tomorrow’s briefly explore two of these name-threads:
Psalm 27 includes a powerful “single request,” one that is frequently offered as a song:
One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
to behold the graciousness of the LORD, and to visit early in His temple.
אַחַת, שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵאֵת-יְהוָה– אוֹתָהּ אֲבַקֵּשׁ:
שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית-יְהוָה, כָּל-יְמֵי חַיַּי;
לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם-יְהוָה, וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ
— Psalms 27:4, JPS 1917, borrowed from Mechon-Mamre
full translation at Mechon-Mamre; others linked here
More on Mouse
[addendum to dvar Torah, “Pinchas and the Scary Friend”]
Many hard-boiled detectives have their “scary friend.” But Ezekiel (Easy) Rawlins’ friend Raymond (Mouse), is something else again. Mouse is written by Walter Mosley as a true psychopath.
To illustrate: At one point early in the series, Easy asks why Mouse has just killed a man, and Mouse responds:
You said don’t shoot him, right? Well I didn’t; I choked… look, Easy – if you ain’t want him dead, why you leave him with me?
On the DVD of “Devil in a Blue Dress,” the only Easy Rawlins story made into a movie so far, there’s a special feature showing the actor Don Cheadle (Raymond, aka Mouse) busting out in laughter the first few times he tries to deliver those lines, so absurd to any sane person. When Cheadle finally gets it, the character he’s created is terrifying. Cheadle’s portrayal helps us understand why Easy would like to distance himself from this man, even as we realize that the detective would be dead without his friend’s help.
The extreme nature of Mouse’s personality makes it all the more interesting, I think, that Mosley wrote this man so deeply into Easy’s life. The author could have chosen to rely on any number of fixers, who show up for a minute, do what needs doing, and then disappear. It happens often enough in this kind of fiction.
“You know,” Mosley observes, “you can have the existentialist detective. He’s all alone; he may know somebody, but that person’s only going to appear in one book, and then it’s over. But Easy, he works with people. He trades favors. That’s part of how he lives.”
— from David Ulin’s LA Times interview with Mosley [paywall might be involved, sorry]
What went wrong at Babel, and how might the situation be redeemed? One answer, I think, is to be found in a whisper still reverberating from our shaky sukkot and the rustling of the lulav.