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.