Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Blessing the Children

After he is reunited with his long-lost son Joseph, Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. Though you might think Jacob would have learned from experience that favoritism can be poisonous, he insists upon reversing the traditional order of the boys, favoring the younger, Ephraim, by putting his right hand on the boy’s head and naming him first. As part of the blessing, he foretells, “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh” (Genesis 48:20). True to that prediction, Jews do bless their sons on Friday evenings with exactly those words. Although I have a son and a daughter, I like this blessing and the rabbinic understanding of why being like Ephraim and Manasseh is a good thing: They are the only sibling pair in Genesis about whom there is no record of discord.

To what you fought over—the front seat,
pushing the elevator button, the blue block—
you brought the same intensity
as brothers vying for the last hunk of bread.
Even in the world of enough you grew up in,
the impulse to do battle hangs on,
like a troublesome appendix, unnecessary
but easy to inflame. G-d made you,
as He did each of his creations, with the will
to live, to push like impossibly fragile cotyledons
through asphalt or loam. So we bless you
with the wish to be like Joseph’s children,
predisposed, like any boys, to tussle,
but born into a land where the granaries
are full. Although the father of their father,
who never saw the pitfalls of preferring,
crossed his hands to steal, one more time,
the blessing of the eldest, the sons of Joseph
trusted in the plenty of their world,
confining their rivalries to the small change
of toys and caresses, leaving behind no stories.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


“Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that G-d sent me ahead of you (Genesis 45:5).” This is part of Joseph’s speech when he reveals himself to his brothers and forgives them. I am moved by his openheartedness but wary of the theodicy implicit in it, the way it integrates evil into G-d’s overarching plan. It’s like the phrase that has become so popular: “Everything happens for a reason.” Maybe.

Everything does not happen for a reason
if by that you mean “Let there be light”
is an algorithm and everything—
Haman, Hitler, the death of little children—
flows from that sentence like decisions
down an if-then tree. The reason is what you—
stranded somewhere like Egypt or middle age—
discover, a pattern that seems to be about you
as vineyard rows appear to radiate
from the hub of your car as you go speeding by.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


While Genesis is largely a story about a single family, their nomadic lives put them in contact with many other peoples, who play a role in what unfolds. Having sought his brothers where they were pasturing in Shechem and then Dothan, Joseph finds them none to happy to see him or hear about his dreams in which they all bow down to him. Instead of welcoming Joseph, they sell him to a caravan of Midianite traders who take him to Egypt as a slave. In this week's portion, Joseph has risen to a position of great power in Egypt and has helped the Egyptians to prepare for the famine that grips the entire region for seven years. Joseph’s brothers, also suffering from hunger in Canaan, must go down into Egypt to secure food. Their father sends them with “an offering—a bit of balm, a bit of honey, some labdanum, mastic, pistachios, and almonds” (Genesis 43:11). The brothers do not recognize Joseph.

In the distance, there is always a caravan
cutting like a periodic sentence
through the declarations of our tale.
The traders who bought Joseph—another item
to load across their long-suffering donkeys—
were on to Egypt and the return prizes:
Pelusian linen, papyrus, and barley beer.
Now to entice the man they do not know
is still their father’s favorite, finely robed
in the embroidered coat of the vizier,
the brothers, who sold him into slavery,
sojourn into Egypt bearing balm.
For the barley, they barter labdanum,
bled from the fragile stems of rock roses,
and precious mastic, the resin of embalming.
So the story we’d imagined—its reasons
belonging only to us—comes embedded
in the desires of other peoples’ hearts.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Hanukkah at the Crater of Ramon

This Friday night, we light the first Hanukkah candle. Last year at this time, I was in Israel, and I celebrated Hanukkah primarily in the forbidding landscape of the Negev. One of the highlights was a visit to the immense Crater of Ramon, which gave rise to this poem. A few--hopefully helpful--notes: Hanukkah celebrates the victory of the Macabees over the Greek Syrians in the 2nd century BCE, including the retaking of the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been defiled. The holiday's rituals of light (the menorah) and oil (potato pancakes) commemorate the miracle that a small vial of pure oil, only enough for a day, burned for eight days until new oil could be prepared to kindle Temple menorah. At Hanukkah, Jewish children play a game with a top called a dreidel, whose four sides are inscribed with Hebrew letters. In the Diaspora, these letters stand for “A great miracle happened there.” In Israel, the last letter is different, and the phrase becomes “A great miracle happened here.”

I try to believe a great miracle
happened here. This is the landscape
of awe, the open wound
from some cataclysmic walloping
by messenger? rowdy river?
who can say? The land is full
of outcroppings that cry out
for explanation—plops of sand
dribbled from the cosmic fist.
This one looks like a woman torqued
to gaze back at the mounds of salt;
that one might have been an altar.
The earth opens. The sun won’t set.
Algal blooms bloody the sea.
Maybe the miracle was not
the cities of the plain reduced
to this gray ash, the burning bush,
the oil lasting eight days,
but any mind sensing wonder
in this G-d forsaken place.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Jacob Wrestles with the Image of G-d

After more than fourteen years, two wives, two concubines, and eleven children, Jacob is ready to return home, but he is afraid that Esau, understandably, will not meet him with open arms. To protect his family, Jacob sends them to the far side of the river Jabbok. Left alone, he is attacked by an ish, While ish is commonly translated as man, most commentators understand this ish as a divine being, partly because the ish is so anxious to leave before the sun comes up, and partly because the ish gives Jacob a new name, Israel, which can be translated as “he struggles with G-d.” Some scholars, however, identify the ish as either Esau himself or his guardian spirit. When Jacob finally does encounter his brother the next morning, he greets him with the words, “To see your face, is like seeing the face of God” (Genesis 33:10).

When the being fell upon him
in the dark, each hold froze his body
in the attitude of prayer:
bent, kneeling, prostrate, prone.
Toward morning, they were locked like lovers,
front to back, and Jacob felt
G-d’s arms squeezing out the life
He'd once breathed into him. Wrenched
around at last, Jacob presumed
he’d won by his own human might
the chance to see G-d and to live.
Only when he made obeisance
seven times, approaching Esau
across the wilderness of wrong
did Jacob understand that glimpse
of the divine was granted to him
so that he might recognize
G-d’s image in his brother’s face.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

For Joseph

Names are always significant in Torah. In the case of Jacob’s wives, the sisters Leah and Rachel, names become a weapon in their rivalry. Although Jacob clearly prefers Rachel, it is Leah who becomes pregnant—multiple times—while Rachel is barren. To rub it in, Leah names her children Reuben (look, a son), Simeon (heard—as in, “G-d heard that I am despised and has given me this one too” Genesis 29:33), Levi (joined or attached, expressing her hope that the three boys will make her husband attached to her), Judah (thanks), Issachar (reward), Zebulun (exalt), and Dinah (justified). I can just imagine what it must have been like for Rachel to hear these children called home for dinner! Finally, G-d heeds Rachel’s prayers and sends her the first of her two sons, Joseph, whose name means “G-d will add.” I have been fiddling with this poem, for my nephew Joseph, since he was born, right around Thanksgiving day nineteen years ago.

When your uncle held me to his chest,
I thought I’d felt the final permutation
of love, that this same encompassing gesture
would extend to those we bore. Instead,
like the different postures they preferred
at the breast, each of my children made the mother
he or she required. Now, lifting you
from the crib, I think the name you bear—
“the Lord will add”—must be a prophecy.
Ask something of me, Joseph; make me new.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Jacob's Ladder

Having helped Jacob steal his brother’s birthright, Rivka worries that Esau will take revenge, and she schemes to have Jacob sent away from home to look for a wife. On this journey, Jacob lays down to sleep on a stone and has the famous vision of a ladder with its top reaching to heaven. When he wakens from this dream, he cries, “Truly, G-d is in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16).

Any stone where you have rested your head
might be the boulder rolled across the gate
to heaven. Any morning you might feel
G-d’s healing finger in a ray of sun
reaching beneath your shirt to touch your heart.
Today might be the day you hear a summons
in the whistle of the thrush. Look,
this plant becomes Jacob’s Ladder;
its even rows of variegated leaves,
the stairs; and the blue, bell-shaped flowers,
the skirts of angels ascending and descending.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


The Bible is famous for its “begats,” and this parasha begins with the “begettings” of Isaac (Genesis 25:19). While these long lists are always phrased in terms of a father begetting sons, mothers sometimes intervene in these orderly genealogies, helping to upend the tradition of primogeniture by favoring the younger son. Here, Isaac’s wife, Rebecca (Rivka in Hebrew), has determined that Abraham’s line, traditionally intended to go through the eldest son, Esau, will go through Jacob. She and Jacob connive together to steal Esau’s blessing, not one of the more morally edifying chapters in the Bible.

This is the line of Rivka, gotten
by entreaty, when her womb
was empty as a beggar’s bowl
and the crowded firmament
she prayed to mocked her husband’s promise:

their offspring would outnumber the stars.
Inside her, the boys were the punch line
of the proverb: Be careful what you ask for.
The taut skin of her belly buckled
as they strove, like cats in a bag.

From the moment she saw the younger
clinging to his brother’s heel,
she knew her heir, the yiddishe kop*—
smaller, milder, smart enough
to hitch a ride into the world.

That shrewdness, she cultivated:
He was ready with a mess
of pottage when the burly brother
returned home from the hunt, hungrier
for lentils than for rights of birth;

ready to wear his brother’s skin,
a costume to deceive a father
beyond seeing which son he loved.
This is the line of Jacob,
the twin always too clever by half.

*Literally, a “Jewish head,” but idiomatically, someone quick-witted.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

And He Loved Her

The first mention in Torah of love between a man and woman occurs in this week’s portion. After Sarah dies, Abraham sends his servant Eliezar to find a wife for his son, and Eliezar returns to Canaan with Rebecca. She and Isaac see each other across “a field at eventide” and seem to make an immediate connection. The text says, “And Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother and took Rebecca as wife. And he loved her, and Isaac was consoled after his mother’s death” (Genesis 24:67).
Mostly in these stories they “know”
each other, and we read the knowing
in quotations, like winking lashes,
for we ourselves are knowing since Adam
knew himself as naked. No matter
how we come together, chest
to slick chest, knowing conjures
something wholly of the head
like antennae tapping, desire
firing the dendritic tree.
But Isaac looked and loved Rebecca,
and she, so overcome she tumbled
from her camel, covered her head
and let her heart go out to him.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sarah Laughed

One of the joys of reading Torah every year is discovering how the story changes for me as I enter new phases of my life. Before I had children, I never noticed how much of Genesis was about sibling rivalry. Now that I have gray hair and wrinkles, I have a new understanding of Sarah, who, the Bible tells us, laughed when she was told that she would bear a child despite the fact that “the way of women had ceased for her” (Genesis 18:11). Sarah, at least, laughed inwardly. The text says that Abraham fell on his face laughing at the idea. While Abraham is clearly incredulous that Sarah will become pregnant, Sarah’s laughter seems more complex. She asks, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?” (18:13) Reading the passage this year, I thought about what it might be like for a woman my age to have to compete with younger wives or concubines for a husband’s attention.

What surprised her most was not the son
the angels promised but that Abraham
might still be hungry for her shrunken charms
after that disastrous dalliance
with the Egyptian girl,* and now Keturah
insinuating herself like the incense
she was named for under the flap of his tent.
Not that Sarah envied her the work;
these days his tastes ran more to breeding sheep,
telling tales of Ur—an old man’s pleasures.
And what had Sarah left to rouse him with?
Her face was furrowed like a dune; her hair
silver as the cuffs she’d borne each day
since her father gave them as her bride price.
Would her husband suck at her slack breast
let alone a child? Eons ago
their marriage had devolved into a laugh
like one they’d share tonight remembering
this prediction while the desert cooled
like cakes on a brick, and he squinted at her
across the darkness and the cooking fire,
trying to make out the lineaments
of someone he had once desired. Still,
she’d go and wash her hair with henna now,
splash her bosom with Egyptian musk.

*Hagar, Sarah’s handmaiden, whom she “gives” to Abraham in order that he may have a son, Ishmael
*Abraham’s second wife, whom he married after Sarah’s death

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Covenant of the Pieces

There are two covenants in this week’s portion. The first is the mysterious b’rit bein habetarim, the covenant between the parts, or the covenant of the pieces.  In Genesis 15:9-10, G-d instructs Avram, "'Bring Me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old she-goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young bird.'  He brought Him all these and cut them in two, placing each half opposite the other…" Then, in a dream, Avram sees a fiery furnace with a torch pass between the pieces and thus seal the promise of the land. In the second covenant, the b’rit milah, circumcision seals G-d’s promise that Avram—now to be called Abraham—will be “the father of a multitude of nations” (17:4). 

G-d is the great separator—stars
birthed from murky columns of gas,
continents from seas, man
and woman from the same bone,
cells dividing and dividing
yet intact like Zeno’s paradox
of pieces infinitely fractioning,
ever whole.  We are the stars
He promised in the powerful dark,
and we are the pieces, our bodies
spared from fire and flood
only to be cut or cast,
as prophesied, into the Nile.
This is the nature of the covenant:
Only the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Rain Hike

About a week ago, we had one of those storms that summon the verse from this week’s parasha, “Noah,”  “All the fountains of the great deep burst apart, and the floodgates of the sky broke open” (Genesis 7:11). This poem recalls a week of such rain, and a hike I took with my then-young children. 
Drops had gone from backdrop to the front
of our minds.  So many rainy sallies
from porch to car ended with us drenched,
the water blown in defiance of physics
under our umbrellas, through the seams
of our galoshes where all the sunless days
had left the children’s tender shins white.

Beyond bored, I was stupid with cooped desire
to sing in our outside voices, to whack at balls
and watch them hurtle toward the gurgling drains, 
to whirl like kamikaze maple pods.
Cabin—or condo—fever, it seemed inspired,
zipping the children in their slickers, to just yield,
lift our faces in the rain and drink.

And so it was at first: the world, soppy
but retaining its contours; the puddle rivers
navigable, with brown leaves careening
toward the stopped up sewers. If the park
seemed as far away as another planet—
one with no sun—the children gripped
my hands and headed there without complaint.

Was the air washed?  I think it smelled of rot,
like deep woods.  Whatever ions floated
in the stormy air, I felt their charge.
When the dirt heaved in front of us, I believed
something biblical was happening,
as though the Lord G-d chucked a lightning bolt,
and the Earth opened a yawning maw to swallow us.
Only as the tree listed our way
did I see the root—huge as it was—
no longer held its sodden ground.
And then the oak fell, like someone gone,
suddenly, unconscious.  The canopy landed
not ten feet from where we stood.  No one cried,
but Eli said he thought we should go home.

Two days later, when the downpour eased,
I saw a rainbow through the kitchen panes.
It wasn’t like the children’s crayonings
with each hue in its track, but rather blurred,
ambiguously soothing as a promise
never to destroy the world again.
I did not call the children to witness it.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Casting Stones

Usually, I have one or maybe two poems to offer on any given portion, but, of course, B’reishit covers a lot of ground, including the first act of creation and the first murder—Cain’s slaying of his brother Abel. I find myself drawn to the rejected sons in the Bible (of which there are many). Like Cain, the exemplar of this type, they often seem more dim than evil, boys whose natural complement makes them easy prey for sin; as G-d tells Cain, sin “is a demon at the door; you are the one it craves” (Genesis 4:7). In this poem for my brother, I think about the jealousy that is part of every sibling relationship, and how, sometimes, the demon wins.

The way our mother tells it, I absolved you
for the pebble that caught me in the thin skin
of the forehead. Even as I sobbed, I told:
We both were throwing stones, and I had bent down
for ammo, standing the moment you let loose
with a wicked slider. I must have been four—
we were farmers on the hill where the peas and roses
climbed the terraces below the house. So spring,
and we two, cooped up with measles that long March,
had at last been set free to retake the yard
from squirrel and crow. It’s not that I remember
but imagine the harsh scarf that Bubbe* knit
chafing at my neck, and the raw wound
of being, always, second. How true to me
your aim appeared, while my poor missiles thudded
near my feet. I think I would have struck you down
could I have trained my stone as I know you did.

*Grandmother in Yiddish

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Expulsion of the Ants

I had no idea of the depth of my own protective instincts until I moved to California and confronted an invading force of ants bent on carrying off a newly baked apple crisp. Somehow it reminded me of these verses, Genesis 3:22-24, that come after Adam and Eve have eaten of the tree of knowledge: “And the Lord God said, ‘Now that the man has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!’ So the Lord God banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the soil from which he was taken. He drove the man out, and stationed east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life.”

I am not proud of the pleasure I take, blocking
the chink in the grout where the scouts, those master sappers,
tunneled through; perusing the workers’ confusion,
I even pity the dull plodders following
the formic trail, diddling each others’ feelers.
I don’t defend my wrath as I wait for them
to scent the trap, prefer it to the food
left cut and tempting on the kitchen sink.
I do not judge but only begrudge them the fruit.
It’s not hate moving me to bar
their path with boric acid. No, but neither
is it something I want G-d to see.
Maybe this is how the angel felt,
wielding the fiery, ever-turning sword
across the path to Eden, finally glad
to stop those creatures swarming over His apples
so perilously near that other tree
whose fruit would make the mortals one of Us.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The First Word

When God began to create heaven and earth — the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water — God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. Genesis 1:1-3

As English speakers, most of us know the King James version of the first word in the Bible, or really the first two words, B’reishit barah: “In the beginning, G-d created.” But there are various translations, like the one above from the Jewish Publication Society.  I’m interested in how these different translations affect the meaning, especially comparing the King James version to “When G-d was about the create heaven and earth,” as the phrase is given in The Torah, A Woman’s Commentary.

The first translation means this world contains
everything: the sun hoisted up
each morning like a koi out of a dark pool;
the palm tree holding its bolus of new fronds;
the squirrel scuttering across a branch
and the coyote skulking after him;
the pack of men, who merge into the landscape
as your plane ascends a thousand feet.

In the other, much is lost—what G-d had done
before He turned His mind to this green orb
and all the other planets rolling like the bearings
in a pinball game.  Had He been drinking tea
with angels? Coiling some other helix to form
an earlier set of disappointing creatures?
Fashioning the immovable object
with irresistible force?  We cannot say,

having just one world to plunder for words.