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.