For Shelter Protecting ALL of Us

Meditation I wrote today contemplating the sukkah and the state of our shelters: the temporary ones Jews put up this week and the longer term ones that the state pretends to offer to all.

For Shelter Protecting All_Sukkot5780 (PDF) contains meditation for sitting in the sukkah while conscious of the lack of shelter available to Black people when police are around as well as a meditation for waving the lulav on a related theme. Some of the latter is based on an earlier meditation created for Occupy Judaism in 2011.

 

 

How Does the Faithful City Harbor Murderers?!

Eichah?! How is it that our city is now the home of murderers? That’s one question (Isaiah 1:21) we are asked in the prophetic reading (Isaiah 1:1-27) for the Shabbat before Tisha B’av, the day of mega-mourning in the Jewish calendar. It’s one that many in the District of Columbia, and other cities in the U.S., are asking ourselves this year, as in years past.

In DC, we recently lost an 11-year-old child, Karon Brown, who spent his summer days selling water and Gatorade on the street; Jamal Bandy, a 27-year-old assistant coach at the rec center where Karon played; and a 17-year-old student and poet, Ahkii Washington-Scruggs, who wrote shortly before his death:

In D.C., it’s nothing but people trying to take your life away
I’m from a city where it’s a blessing to see the age 20

These are just three of the 96 lost to violence since January inside our city limits. This doesn’t count the many more injured in gun violence, the communities traumatized, the educations disrupted, and the constant grief and fear in which some parts of the city live…while other neighborhoods are free to enjoy the city, tuning in or out, at will, to the dreadful conditions a short distance away.

In Isaiah’s frightful prophecy, we are told that two true things are:

1) we are a rotten mess, harboring thieves and murderers while hiding behind empty rituals, and

2) we can stop adding more blood to our hands and turn things around:

And when you spread forth your hands, I will hide My eyes from you;
Though you pray at length, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood.
Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes, cease to do evil;
Learn to do well;
seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.
— Isa 1:14-17 (JPS 1917 translation adapted)

Multiple Mournings

The state of my city is what I hear when first Moses, in the Torah reading for Shabbat Hazon (right before Tisha B’av; Deuteronomy 1:12), and then Isaiah (above), and finally Lamentations (read on Tisha B’av, which begins with nightfall on August 10), cry Eichah?!

So it is hard for me to enter into prayers on Tisha B’av, as Truah is calling us to do, to mourn in solidarity with immigrants and demand closing the camps, without also acknowledging the many other ways families have been torn apart, caged, and otherwise brutalized since the last Tisha B’av.

I strongly support Jews standing against the camps and witnessing that Never Again is Now. When non-Jews called for Lights for Liberty protests a few weeks ago, I advocated for bringing a strong Jewish presence to those events. But I don’t understand how it is — again, however unintentionally, that Eichah?! — that we can mourn for the one set of griefs, and atone for the one way in which our hands are bloody, without acknowledging the other… and the many other ways in which our country has been complicit in murder, here and abroad.

Last year, I joined the Truah Tisha B’av observance at Lafayette Park ONLY because I saw that DC’s listing included this statement: “…not just on the southern border, but every time a parent is put in prison for months on end, is brutally murdered by police—we lament” (excerpts from the 2018 announcement below). In actual practice, however, it turned out that the focus was entirely on refugees except for some words around the mourners’ kaddish about local gun violence deaths.

Eichah?!: How is it that this second year of solidarity with refugees for Tisha B’av, there is still not one resource that Truah provides — as far as I can see; if I missed something someone please let me know — that allows Jews to mourn separations and cages and death in more ways than one?

Whether you or your community join a Truah event or pray and mourn in another way on Tisha B’av, please consider acknowledging the many ways our country has ripped families apart, caged, and otherwise brutalized refugees AND OTHERS. There is still time. I know we can do better.

Some resources that might be adapted to the purpose — or we can write new ones!





Eichah! How My city
אֵיכָה הָיְתָה לְזוֹנָה קִרְיָה נֶאֱמָנָה
מְלֵאֲתִי מִשְׁפָּט צֶ֛דֶק יָלִין בָּהּ וְעַתָּה מְרַצְּחִים׃
How is the faithful city become a harlot! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers. — Isaiah 1:21

לִמְדוּ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפָּט, אַשְּׁרוּ חָמוֹץ; שִׁפְטוּ יָתוֹם, רִיבוּ אַלְמָנָה
Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. — Isa 1:17
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Excerpts from DC’s 2018 Truah co-sponsored Tisha B’av

Our grief is compounded by holding many overwhelming tragedies together in one day.

It is written that baseless hatred and paralyzing humility were the reasons the Holy Temple was destroyed. We read from the Book of Lamentations and bare witness, through our lament, to the horror of children separated from parents—not just on the southern border, but every time a parent is put in prison for months on end, is brutally murdered by police—we lament. In the face of the fear and uncertainty plaguing our immigrant communities, plaguing Black mothers who fear for their children’s safety, of Muslim children, witnessing daily state violence, of indigenous families, ripped from their land, we lament.
— full 2018 announcement; scroll down for Washington DC

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PS — Some Starting Points

Just a few resources that could be adapted

Materials with some beautiful and pertinent adaptable bits:

From this blog:

Found through Alter’s Translation

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Last week, URJ president Rabbi Rick Jacobs offered a podcast focusing on Robert Alter’s newly published bible translation. In response, I argued that Jacobs praised what isn’t new in Robert Alter’s bible translation while missing what is. My previous post focused on verses — highlighted by Jacobs in the podcast — wherein Alter’s translation was nearly identical to much older versions. Here, I share just a few of the verses in the same chapter of Exodus which do strike me as different and noteworthy.

I Myself Toyed

Exodus 10:1
…כִּי-אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת-לִבּוֹ…
…for I have hardened his heart,… — “Old JPS” (1917) and “New JPS” (1985)
…for I Myself have hardened his heart,… — Alter 2004

Exodus 10:2
…אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם…
…what I have wrought upon Egypt… — Old JPS
…how I made a mockery of the Egyptians… — New JPS
…how I toyed with them… — Alter 2004

Alter’s “I Myself” reflects the Hebrew’s use of “ani” along with the first-person singular verb. And his choice of “toyed with” for “hit’alalti [הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי]” captures much earlier commentary on this expression in God’s speech:

I made a mockery. The Torah is speaking in human idiom, as if Hashem were a human being toying with another for revenge. — Ibn Ezra (via Sefaria.org)

Alter’s translation and commentary work together to form a powerful opening to this crucial chapter in the Exodus story:

And the LORD said to Moses, “Come unto Pharaoh, for I Myself have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, so that I may set these signs of Mine in his midst, and so that you may tell in the hearing of your son and your son’s son how I toyed with Egypt, and My signs that I set upon them, and you shall know that I am the LORD.”

for I Myself have hardened…This is the first time that God informs Moses before his audience with Pharaoh that He has hardened (one again, the literal sense is “made heavy”) the heart of the Egyptian monarch. This is a signal that the elaborate “toying” (verse 2) with Egypt is approaching endgame. Pharaoh is showing himself ever more fiercely recalcitrant, and the plagues are becoming more fearful as we draw near the last plague that will break Pharaoh’s will.
— Exodus 10:1-2 and commentary
Alter, The Five Books of Moses (Norton, 2004), p.365

 

The Men

Exodus 10:11
…לֹא כֵן, לְכוּ-נָא הַגְּבָרִים וְעִבְדוּ אֶת-יְהוָה…
…Not so; go now ye that are men, and serve the LORD… — Old JPS
…No! You menfolk go and worship the LORD… — New JPS
…Not so. Go, pray, the men, and worship the LORD…. — Alter 2004

Alter’s commentary explains his choice and why it matters in the context:

the men. The word used here, gevarim, is a different one from ‘anashim, the one used by the courtiers in verse 7. It has a stronger connotation of maleness (‘anashim can also mean “people”), but “males” will not do as an English equivalent because the Hebrew term means adult males, definitely excluding the “little ones.”

I personally favor “menfolk,” as an expression that had, in my youth, the exact understanding of “gevarim” that Alter is trying to convey, while “ye that are men” has its own sort of “maleness” ring if read with the right intonation (with echoes, for better or worse, of the 1978 “Are we not men? We are Devo.”) And, for the record, Rashi tells us that “gevarim” means “adult males.” But it’s Alter’s translation that prompted me to notice this particular stage of the pseudo-negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh.

Hard, Stiff, and Tough

Exodus 10:20
…וַיְחַזֵּק יְהוָה, אֶת-לֵב פַּרְעֹה…
…But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart… — Old JPS
…But the LORD stiffened Pharaoh’s heart… — New JPS
…And the LORD toughened Pharaoh’s heart…. — Alter 2004

The Old JPS uses the same English word for both “hikhbadeti [הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי]” in 10:1 and “vayechazek [וַיְחַזֵּק]” here, while the New JPS has “hardened” and “stiffened,” respectively.

When the verb “vayechazek [וַיְחַזֵּק]” was used in Exodus 9:12, Alter added this comment:

And the LORD toughened Pharaoh’s heart. For the first time, it is not Pharaoh, or his heart, that is the subject of the verb of obduracy but God. However, in the biblical perspective this may amount to the same thing because God is presumed to be the ultimate cause of human actions, and Pharaoh’s stubborn arrogance can still be understood as the efficient cause. It is striking that Pharaoh persists in his resistance even as his afflicted soothsayers, the experts up whom he has been depending, flee the scene.

This comment is just one example of how Alter’s careful attention to the text’s entwined literary and theological characteristics makes his translation both extremely useful and a delight to read.

Verb of Obduracy

The phrase “verb of obduracy” above is just one of the many reasons that I whole-heartedly agree with Rabbi Rick Jacobs when he says, “You hear in the comment that this is a literary genius at work….” (Here’s the podcast link again.)

I’ll return to my own obduracy, however, and repeat a few of points I wish Jacobs and others would acknowledge for the sake of clarity and sensible comparison:

  • The three-book set of Alter’s bible translation, just issued by W.W. Norton, includes his 2004 The Five Books of Moses without change. Many of us have been using this volume for 15 years. If someone is just seeing his work for the first time, that’s wonderful; but it doesn’t make it fresh in late 2018.
  • That means, through simple arithmetic, BTW, that Robert Alter (b. 1935) was not yet 70 when he published The Five Books of Moses. Yes, he is vigorously translating in his 80s, and the complete bible translation — the first by a single individual — is a truly remarkable accomplishment. That doesn’t alter (no pun) the fact that his Torah translation came out in 2004 — and the Book of Genesis before that.
  • Alter’s work is full of amazing insights and extraordinarily powerful and beautiful language. But his work is not the first new translation since the 1611 King James Version. Compare the two if you think that’s useful, but don’t neglect to mention that there were many other translations in the 400 years between KJV and Alter.
  • Please, please — especially if you’re the head of the Union for Reform Judaism — be sure to compare Alter’s work with more recent Jewish translations, including those published by the URJ! There is so much that is new and insightful in Alter’s work; don’t dilute that by ignoring spots where his translation is identical to other, older ones.

Exodus Chapter 10 concludes with Moses and Pharaoh declaring that they will never see one another again (10:28-29). Alter calls this the “final squaring-off between the adversaries.” Together with his opening comment on “the elaborate ‘toying’…with Egypt,” these are fitting and powerful bookends for the chapter. Alter’s commentary on this chapter is a work of art, on its own, even as it serves to illuminate the work of literature that is Exodus. His commentary and translation of the Exodus hasn’t changed in 15 years, but perhaps the re-release in the new set will recapture the attention of some readers and bring it to a new audience.

Dedication of THIS House

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mezuzah
Spending extra time with Psalm 30 over these last few weeks, inspires me to suggest that I want my house to reflect many of its sentiments.

Regardless of which house was originally meant by the psalmist or how the words were used and understood over the centuries, this, is my prayer, today:

Thank you, God, for lifting me out of depths of my own making,
for helping me over self-criticism and abdication of dreams,
for keeping me from adopting an enemy’s eye view of my life.

This house has seen some tranquility
and it’s seen days that seemed too much like the pit.
We’re grateful to have reached this point,
and ask Your help through the future ups and downs.

With Your help, let this house be
a place that hears crying,
welcoming expressions of truth from those who suffer,
a place of healing, working through the struggle,
and a place of joy.

This house, built and maintained by humans,
can seem pretty shaky,
but if it’s a place where the Name is recognized,
in all the varied ways God comes through the door,
maybe that mountain of strength won’t seem so far off.
— V. Spatz, 2018, based on Psalm 30
copy left (copy left: share with attribution)

I stress that this is my prayer, today, because, while this isn’t exactly a first draft, it doesn’t yet entirely capturing what I meant to say.

9 of 30 on Psalm 30
As a National Novel Writing Month Rebel, I write each day of November while not aiming to produce a novel. This year I focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) in the hope that its powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community. Whole series (so far)

…For anyone wondering: I am writing each day in November but not necessarily posting every day. Sorry if this is confusing anyone and hope days with multiple posts, as the blog catches up with my notes, are not too annoying.