Teapots in Babylon

“This is what travelers discover: that when you sever the links of normality and its claims, when you break off from the quotidian, it is the teapots that truly shock. Nothing is so awesomely unfamiliar as the familiar that discloses itself at the end of a journey.” This week, I’ve been hearing Psalm 137 among these lines from Cynthia Osick’s “The Shock of Teapots” (Metaphor & Memory. NY: Knopf, 1989). The result sounds like this:

How is that we have a teapot,
symbol of normalcy, and even comfort,
amidst all this confusion and fear?
Are we to enjoy and share
cups of tea here
in this strange, oppressive land?

The opening lines of Psalm 137 are primarily about the challenge of expressing joy, and making music in particular, distant from Zion, mocked and alienated from oppressors. But I think we also hear something like the “shock of teapots” — normalcy, even comfort, or celebration here!?

By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat down,
yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
There, upon the willows, we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked of us words of song,
and our tormentors asked of us mirth:
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’
How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land?
–Ps. 137:1-4, translation sort of a mishmash based on Old JPS
Complete Old JPS and Hebrew here

MicahNext12Of course, many people, in the US and elsewhere, have long been conscious of living in Babylon. So the puzzlement and shock expressed by so many in this past week is a little surreal to some.**

My personal connection to the language of “Babylon” has been growing for some time as the central liberation story of Judaism — being freed from Egypt — seems unsuited to circumstances where Jews, as individuals often profiting from White privilege, and as a people are too often Pharaoh. See, e.g., “April 22: 1968 and 2016” (Who can say we’ve actually left Egypt?). The “Trouble to See” series from which graphic at right is taken, was published over the summer. And a few years back, “A Mountain Called Zion,” offered thoughts on “Zion” and how close/distant it is, as well as a nice link to Jimmy Cliff’s “Waters of Babylon.”

Most importantly for further exploration, this blog welcomes comments and guest blogs from Jews and non-Jews.

Normalcy on Good Hope Road

Yesterday I posted the following on Facebook:

OK, so I’m walking down Good Hope Road in Southeast DC and there’s this guy standing on the sidewalk with his car doors open blaring that song “FDT” — the one which goes, “…I like white folks, but I don’t like you…” with a chorus of “[expletive deleted] [president elect].” Cheered me right up.
#AnacostiaUnmapped #LoveDC #NotmyPresident

One friend, not a DC resident, asked “why?” and it took me some time to come up with a response other than “maybe you had to be there.” What warmed my heart, I now think, was the normalcy of the scene for Good Hope Road, although the place is undergoing gentrification. Moreover, the song was not something written in a flurry on election night. Folks had been playing the piece, from the rapper/writer YG, for some time:

“You gave us your reason to be President, but we hate yours.”

They were playing it on November 7 and they were playing it on November 10.  The sentiments — which are to the point, if crude (“FDT“) — hadn’t changed with election results. It was a little like discovering a teapot at the end of a journey.

Time to Go!

In one common cycle of Torah readings, this is the week of Lekh Lekha [“Go!” or “Go (to/for yourself),” often transliterated Lech Lecha]. And so, whether this week was a shock to, or a confirmation of, your reality, events are calling us to embark on a new journey, toward better individual and collective selves…maybe even out of Babylon.

**NOTE

Many posts on this blog are “political” in plenty of ways, but direct attention to electoral politics is a rarity. There is no getting around it this week, though. And, here is a powerful and cogent exploration of what was meant by “surreal” above:

 For a lot of people of color, this election was really about trying to find the lesser of two evils. America asked us: “How do you prefer your racism — blatant or systemic?”

— “On ‘Woke’ White People advertising their shock that racism just won a presidency

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Lekh Lekha: A Path to Follow

The Torah does not provide a lot of background for Abraham and Sarah. Before following the couple when they “go forth,” however, it can be instructive to consider what is available in the text and midrash regarding their extended family and their ancestors. Here’s a family tree with links to Wiki entries for many family members. Some are extensive and well-sourced; a few, including the page for Terah, are not.
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Lekh Lekha: Great Source(s)

Text of Terror

In her book, Texts of Terror,* Phyllis Trible compares the story of Hagar in flight from Sarah (Genesis/Breishit chapter 16) and the later incident — in next week’s portion, Va-yera — of her expulsion, with Ishmael, from Abraham’s household (21:9-21). Trible’s close reading of the text contrasts the first episode’s voluntary flight and hospitable wilderness (where there is water, for instance), with the second’s exile and inhospitable wilderness (leaving mother and child with no water). She also describes how Hagar — “belonging to a narrative that rejects her” — recedes from the tale: the recipient of blessing and revelation, in the first episode, Hagar is un-heard while God responds to Ishmael’s tears in the second.
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Lekh Lekha: Something to Notice

This portion is rich in narrative: the famous command to “go forth [lekh lekha]” (Genesis/Breishit 12:1ff), the “say you’re my sister” episode in Egypt (12:10-13:2), Abraham’s parting with his nephew Lot and then rescuing Lot from captivity (13:3-14:24), the story of Hagar (chapter 16), and the announcement of Sarah’s pregnancy (17:15-22).
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Lekh Lekha: Language and Translation

The Stranger’s Strange Words: a theology

Chapter 16 of Breishit/Genesis introduces the character of Hagar — as in stranger [ger] — who serves as Sarah’s maid and bears Ishmael to Abraham. In one of two episodes in which we find Hagar (and Ishmael) out in the wilderness, she meets an angel/messenger of God [malach yud-hey-vav-hey]. Translators note difficulty working out Hagar’s words after she sees God (and/or was seen by God) — ra-iti acharei ro-i — or, perhaps, as one translator has it, after she sees the back of God.
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