Sunday, September 5, 2010

This is the Blessing

Friends, I'm going to cheat a bit this week. The parasha is Ha'azinu, which takes us almost to the end of Deuteronomy. The last bit, V'Zot ha-B'rakha--"This is the Blessing"--is read on Simchat Torah. But I'm going to jump ahead, wish you a very happy new year, and close "My Portion" with this poem. Thank you for reading along with me.

In the same way Moses lived his life in the public sphere as leader of the Israelites, so he concludes it in a public way by blessing the people according to their tribes. [“This is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, bade the Israelites farewell before he died” (Deuteronomy 33:1).] There is no mention in his farewell address of his own two sons, Gershom and Eliezer.

I ask a blessing in the name of Gershom,
about whom we know only: he did not succeed
his father; a prayer for Eliezer, who is no more
than a “begat.” If Asher dips his foot in oil
and Joseph reaps the bounteous harvest
of the moon, let the sons of Moses stand
for all of us whose names are just recorded
in the family Bible with no deed inscribed
beyond birth and dying. Say of us:
The Lord has sent them rain in its due season
and when it pocked the grapes with mildew
and set the corn to germinating in the ear.
The Lord has smote the loins of their foes
and cut their own sons down on the fields
of Degania and Lachish*. They have rested
between His shoulders and fallen beneath His feet.
He has tested them at the waters of Meribah**
and with the blood libel at Kishinev***.
They have invited their kin to the mountain
and the stranger to drink the finest wines.
They have born sons and daughters who know
but do not speak the name of God.

*Degania was a kibbutz, attacked by the Syrians in 1948. Lachish was one of the fortress towns protecting the approaches to Jerusalem, laid siege to and captured by the Assyrians in 701 BCE.
**The “place of testing,” where Moses is told to call water from the rock but instead strikes the rock with his rod.
***Site of a pogrom, or anti-Jewish riot, that took place in 1903 when the Jews were accused of killing a Christian child to use his blood in the preparation of matzos.

Friday, September 3, 2010

My Portion

When people are bar or bat mitzvah, they chant a section from the Torah, which then becomes “their portion.” The chanting is done according to an ancient notation system called Torah trope. The mnemonic power of such chanting is foreseen in this week’s second parasha, "Vayelekh," where G-d tells Moses, “Therefore, write down this song and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this song may be My witness against the people of Israel…since it will never be lost from the mouth of their offspring” (Deuteronomy 31: 19-21).

No occasion, no feast or fast
marks this Sabbath or the passage
I will chant, as did my fathers.
G-d’s word advances on kadma. *
I lavish, as darga requires,
a trill on “write this song”;
as gershayim—drive out—predicts,
I chant the people's “turn to other gods.”
This is a different path to knowing:
a detour to scatter notes—zarka;
a reach, as for a bunch of grapes—
segol. So much attention heaped
on single words—“Be strong"—as if
we must add music to make sense
of the pedestrian commands,
as if the most mundane detail,
warmed by our absorption in it,
might burst out in dazzling song.

*The Hebrew words in this poem are names of tropes, which either refer to the shape of the notation or the way it sounds.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


“I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Sometimes the morning crashes through the blinds,
noisy with light; today, fragmented by fog,
it must be reconstructed as the eye
pieces together the bed, the man beside me,
the dear faces in the silver frames.
This is the life I’ve chosen so easily
that even a stormy dawn like this one fails
to ready me for your call, your small request:
a reason not to end your life at the end
of our conversation, one oval analgesic
after another. You know how to do this
having learned from previous attempts,
but nothing prepares me to explain why
the same pale capsules on my shelf promise
a more benign relief. Through the curtain
of rain, persimmons glow in the leafless tree.
Every year, warblers puncture the skins
and feed. As sad as I have ever been,
such recurrence cheers me. Your brand of grief
is out of my depth. You want the ordinary:
husband, child. How can I, who have both,
swear I’d manage on the thinner broth
of friendships like the one I offer now?
Even the rainbow, flung between our houses,
is just a promise that the world goes on.
I don’t know how you make yourself go on;
the truth: I only know I want you to.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

History Lesson

One theory of the Torah’s authorship (if you accept that it was not written by G-d Himself) is that the five books were written by four different authors. Deuteronomy, according to this “documentary hypothesis” was based on material from pre-Exilic times but was actually written down by a single author, the Deuteronomist, in the age of Babylonian exile, the mid-sixth century BCE. So, in this parasha, when the Deuteronomist describes the blessings that will rain down on the children of Israel as they enter the promised land, he also knows that exile is in their future, and he describes this as well with a passage beginning, “Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the country.” (28:16).

Predicting the past is easy. Telling the future
from further ahead, the Deuteronomist,
sees clearly how the wheel will turn towards woe.
The kneading bowl, once brimming with yeasty life,
lies empty; the city with its proud towers
is disassembled stone by holy stone;
and every male body, the mark of the covenant
etched into it, bursts out in scales and boils.
So, the moment of entry into the land—
promised, longed for, glad—is tinged for us
by knowing what comes later: how the people,
heads bared, trudged into captivity
behind the captured vessels from the Temple
they had yet to build. There were good years,
when all the bees made honey, and sheep,
descendents of the flock brought out of Egypt,
gave milk. Blessings, curses; blessings, curses:
what other word for this than history?

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Trick of Memory

This parasha contains one of my favorite lines of Torah: "You shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven—you shall not forget" (Deuteronomy 25:19). During the Exodus, the Amalekites attacked the Israelites,"smiting the hindmost, all that were feeble behind"(1 Samuel 15:2).

Mostly, we’re supposed to remember:
the Sabbath day to keep it holy—
our tiny lights and our libations
rescuing that sundown from resemblance
to every other dusk—and all
613 commandments, we remember
when we see the periwinkle fringes
of our prayer shawls like string
around a finger, like “Every good boy
does fine.” We remember we were slaves
and how G-d freed us with a mighty hand,
with Technicolor signs and wonders:
blood red sea, green frogs, black night.
We even must remember to forget
like the magician transmogrifying
lead to gold by stirring the pot
without once thinking, “hippopotamus.”
So we blot out the memory of Amalek,
the warriors like carion crow, ravening
among the stragglers, their black caftans
flying in the wind, the points of their spears
like beaks. We work so hard forgetting,
remembering becomes the heart of who we are.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

For the Berkeley Tree Sitters

When Moses instructs the Israelites about besieging a city, he warns them not to cut down the city’s fruit trees. He asks, “Are the trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?” (Deuteronomy 20:19) The sense seems to be that the trees can neither defend themselves nor be hostile, and are therefore hors de combat. When I was working on this portion, a group of tree sitters who had been encamped in a grove of oaks on the UC-Berkeley campus, were forced to come down. They had been protesting the university’s plan to clear the trees for an expansion of the football stadium.

The last of the trees’ defenders descend from the crown
like australopithecines testing the feel of the earth
on their delicate soles. Twenty-one months, they nested
in the crotches, draping the limbs with bracelets of rope,
assembling their hideaways over the knees, where the trunks
bent abruptly, searching for light. On their perch,
even the eating of energy bars, the layers
of garb became a dumb show, their every gesture
intended to sing: We are no more important than oaks.
In the end, interposing the body, frail as a bud,
between the keen blade and the heartwood seems silly,
outlandish as much as it’s brave. Still, who will defend
the trees of the field with the sitters besieged and brought down?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

My Idea of Heaven

When the people cross over the Jordan, G-d decrees, “You are not to do—according to all that we are doing here today—each-man whatever is right in his (own) eyes” (Deuteronomy 12:8); in other words, the people will no longer be free to pray wherever and however they like. Instead, the Israelites will be required to make their sacrifices only where G-d “chooses to have his name dwell” (12:11)—at a central sanctuary. From the first moment, the promised land is not at all about license but about the yoke of commandment.

This is what the promised land will be:
the old joke, where hell’s a conga party,
and heaven, five old men twirling their payes
while they read the Mishneh-Torah, nibbling
an occasional bite of tuna on rye.
It’s what we want to want—sacrifices
offered as prescribed, on the altar,
not the high places where strange gods,
toppled in our conquest, may yet reach out
their marble arms and grab us at our feasts.
What we really want is simpler: meat
brought down with spears and roasted on a spit;
the thwack of chests, their meeting greased with sweat,
the abandon of alien fire. What we gain,
choosing among the beasts of the field only
those that ruminate; among the men,
those that bear the scar of covenant;
among the many gods, the One—just that:
In lives bounded on one side by birth
and on the other by a sentence, we choose.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Bless This House

With the people nearing the promised land, God predicts, “When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 8: 12-14). Here, I try not to forget.

O Lord, our dwelling place in every generation, bless, too, this house, its balustrades and finials, the frayed couch and curly maple table. Flood it with Your light, flowing over the gold bowl, the Imari plate. May it be Your will to visit this kitchen where the lemons pickle and the scent of yeast transforms from ferment to bread. Consecrate the beds—the trundle where our daughter tosses away her comforter, sleeping open to Your will; the mattress that our son outgrew, his feet poking beyond the blanket; our bower, where embrace outlives its evolutionary purposes. Let no fear ascend the stone steps, past the carnations in their clay boxes. Bestow abundant holiness upon the roses, upon the patio, upon the gravel paths. Allow peace—which is everything we’ve known here—to be all we ever need to know.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Sin of Moses

One of my most poignant memories is standing on the top of Mt. Nebo, in Jordan, where Moses died. Behind me was the dry, endlessly repeating “wilderness”; ahead, the first glimpse of water and the life that springs up around it--the Promised Land. What, I couldn’t help wondering, could Moses have done to deserve the cruel half-granting of his request to G-d: “Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan” (Deuteronomy 3:25).

The children of Yocheved and Amram*
are wearing out--too many years of lifting
the people’s spirits with a dance or a well,
approaching on their behalf the blinding fire
of Adoshem*, suffering their whining.
Miriam goes first, buried without fanfare,
as though she simply gave out, a spring gone dry,
leaving them without water. Then Aaron—
his vestments stripped like shorn epaulets—
is left by son and brother on Mt. Hor.
And though he lives, Moses learns his sentence:
to gaze across the Jordan, its green banks shocking
after so much sand, and breathe his last,
like in a fable, granted only the half
of his wish he meant as metaphor--to see,
but not cross over. G-d could always cite
a reason, having made them out of dust,
to find them undeserving: striking a rock,
smelting a calf, claiming a prophet’s mantle—
one was as flimsy as another. If death
is punishment, no one is innocent.

*The parents of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam
*A respectful term for G-d, which avoids saying the name used in prayer

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

D'varim: Words

The Book of Deuteronomy is called D’varim, or Words in Hebrew, referring to the “words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan” (1:1). In the book, Moses reiterates the Israelites’ history, as well as reviewing various laws. But there are significant variations between the version presented here and the one in the earlier books.

To my daughter, going off to college

My chronicle diverges in important ways
from received wisdom, just as the words
Moses addressed to Israel don’t match
the previous account. Whatever tradition
is handed to us, we must modify,
as an actor speaks the dialogue that’s written,
but means “to be or not to be” filtered
through her encounter with a father’s death,
a mother’s shortcomings. So I begin
to catalog your journey to this point
where you and I part ways, and only you
may cross over into the promised land.
You believe you started under these palms.
But as you sculpted your own heart-shaped face,
your small frame from fragments of your father
and me, you carry the ways we have adapted
to the long journey from Sinai. Our people
wove woolen blankets for Graf Pototsky’s sleigh,
deciphered secret meaning in the quotient
of the Hebrew letters for G-d’s name,
made sacramental wine on the cold hillsides
of Geneva, Ohio, nearly flamed out
in the ovens of Birkenau. Take up this story,
which will sometimes be a burden to you;
tell it now in your own words.

Friday, July 9, 2010


Double Portion this week

All My Vows

The Torah and subsequent rabbinic commentaries are very uneasy about vows. These are not the promises we make to each other or our intention to follow the law, but rather added obligations a person might take on—in the Bible, typically abstention from wine, sex, foods, bathing, or haircutting. Once such a vow is taken, it becomes a sin not to fulfill it. On the evening of Yom Kippur, Jews recite the prayer Kol Nidre, which means All My Vows. In that prayer, we ask for dispensation from unfulfilled vows of this type. In Numbers, a husband is given power over his wife’s vows: “Every vow and every sworn obligation of self-denial may be upheld by her husband or annulled by her husband” (30:15).

Open my womb, and I will give
its first fruits to the Lord,
as if my child were meat or bread.
Spare the ones I love from death;
I’ll cut my hair, abstain from wine,
from raisins, grapes, and, vinegar.
Bring winter rain in its due season,
and I will sing a song of praise
each morning though the ice be hard
upon the pavement, the wool scarf
wet with breath. Send peace to the land,
and I will sacrifice a sheaf
of paper, a record of my life.
These are my promises to G-d,
and I am free as any bird
to enter into or betray them.
Upheld or overruled, my vows,
which I have vowed, I do repent.
They are meaningless as words.

Promised Land
In the final chapter of Numbers, we get a preview of the mercilessness that the Israelites will be expected to practice toward the tribes that reside in the promised land. “When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the land” (33:51-52).

It’s the unapologetic ruthlessness
that makes us queasy, believing that, for once,
they did as they were told without murmuring,
inserted themselves in the abandoned cities
of their enemies, with no more scruple
than cowbirds laying their eggs in an alien nest.
We must believe that it was right; the text says
G-d required it, and we can glean some reason
in what they are commanded to destroy:
altars and idols, the toys of trifling deities,
excuses to perform a vulgar act,
then lay it, like the sacrifice of entrails,
at the feet of gods. Or did they hear
their G-d decree what they desired? A patch
to claim where they might build sheepfolds
for their flocks, shelter for their children;
a land they might dole out with perfect fairness—
to the many, more; to the small, enough—
in perpetuity. Was it too much to ask?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

What I Had Hoped

A second census in the book of Numbers, taken after yet another rebellion and its punitive aftermath, finds that there is not one person remaining from the original group who left Egypt. In theory, that might have meant that the people who crossed over into the promised land would not make the mistakes of their parents. But, of course, that’s not what happened.

for my son

If I could send you into the promised land,
as you were the instant you revealed
through some complex cascade of signaling
that you were ready to come into this world,
you might be free; you might encounter G-d
uninflected by the long whine
of adult disappointment. But once you started
down the birth canal, the limits of me
began to mold you. Your head, misshapen for days
after that journey, filled with the lullabies
I remember my own mother sang on the banks
of the Nile; you ate what my body could concoct
from manna and briny water. I did what I knew;
it was not enough to enter Canaan.
My love for you is boundless as the sea,
but I am human, standing on the shore;
to G-d, the sea is water in a tub,
and upbringing, a stain spreading through it.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

How Beautiful

Balak, the king of Moab, is none too pleased when the wandering Israelites camp on the steppes of his kingdom. He sends the prophet Balaam to curse them. But on Balaam’s way to deliver these imprecations, his donkey keeps balking because, unlike his human rider, the donkey catches sight of “the angel of the Lord standing in the way” (Numbers 22:23). Finally, God allows the donkey to speak—the only instance of an animal talking in the Hebrew Bible. When Balaam finally listens, he, too, is able to see and hear the divine messenger. When he reaches the Israelite encampment, instead of cursing, he marvels, “How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” (24:5)

We’re old friends, my friend’s dog and I,
from years of walking, or in her case, darting
after squirrels, deciphering a message
in the stink of marked bushes, lapping at a ditch
after the morning sprinklers have done their work.
Sometimes the leash goes slack; bred to herd
and anxious that I lag, she drops back
harrying me till I rejoin the flock.
When I let her lead, the sights and scents
of the world beneath my feet reveal themselves:
Behind the hedge, a tomcat raises his hackles;
the smell of newly planted salvia
competes with the pleasing odor of roast meat.
Perhaps an angel stands in my way, ready
to show me how the world is full of blessings.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Miriam dies in this week's portion, in a single sentence sandwiched between the laws of purity and the incident at Meribah, where G-d instructs Moses to "tell the rock" to yield its water, and he strikes it instead, resulting in G-d's refusal to let him enter into the Promised Land. Not surprisingly, I've always felt a kinship with Miriam and no small resentment that she often seems to get the short end of the stick. Her very name means "bitter."

My mother, placid, lucid, already gray,
considered—between the moment of quickening
and my emergence into the harsh light
of Labor and Delivery—if pressed
to name me for my father’s long-dead aunt,
at least she’d add fillip of romance:
Miriamne, like the heroine
in Winterset. She settled for the Bible,
ignoring the root—marah—so I am bitter,
reading the story of my namesake, a prophet
who wasn't even gathered to her kin;
whose greatest gift was to repeat in dance
whatever her favored younger brother said;
whose punishment was to be rimed with scales
for the utter chutzpah of her claim
to speak with G-d, as still I try to do.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Covenant of Salt

G-d promises Aaron and the tribe of Levi that they and their children will receive all of the tithes for their own sustenance, ending with the declaration, ”It is a covenant of salt for the ages” (Leviticus 18:19). Commentators point to the permanence of salt and to its preservative qualities to explain this phrase, although it's still a homely substance for G-d to swear by.

It is no covenant of gold,
malleable, valuable
only insofar as we ascribe
value to the sparkly.
The Egyptians called all gold divine,
worshipped it as they did Ra,
the sun god, flashing
in the pitiless blue,
but we don’t swear by shiny.

It is no covenant of amethyst,
building its lavender chambers
in the heart of hollow rock.
The Greeks said Bacchus wept
drops of wine to see a maiden
metamorphose into boulder,
and so transformed the stone
to purple crystal. We do not swear
by what is changeable.

Ours is a covenant of salt—
plain, useful, dangerous—
to spice a dish of lentils
or ruin the field that grew them.
We might exchange some grains,
knowing one crystal is like the next,
and we will never cull
our neighbor’s from our own
once they are mixed in the pouch.

So the bond we make
is inextricable. We swear by salt.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


“When you enter the land to which I am taking you and you eat of the bread of the land, you shall set some aside as a gift to the Lord” (15:18—9). The bread Jews traditionally eat on the Sabbath, challah, is named for this portion, which the ancient Israelites were required to separate from their dough and give to the priests as a “heave offering.” Separating challah is one of three commandments specifically enjoined on women; when making bread, it is traditional to remove a small piece of dough and throw it in the oven in memory of this sacrifice.

The loaf is still alive when I pinch off
the offering: a mite of yeast, egg, and flour.
This, I roll and char to a black nub
only to discard, though bones and peels
seem unseemly company for bread
that You require. Or is waste a part
of sacrifice? We say, “I forswear
the first fruits, the unblemished calf,”
commit them to the priests or to their fires.
“Sweet savor,” “satisfying aroma”—
what might these translations of the offering
mean to One who has no nose? Just this:
There is no virtue in letting go of things
we do not love. Once I thought this deed—
“challah,” the memory of immolation—
was better than what Abraham performed,
jollying his son up Mt. Moriah.
They are one gesture. Approaching the divine,
we’re lesser dogs scrunched down before the Alpha.
This must be what You want, acknowledgment
that though we bake and strew with poppy seeds,
the bread is ours only by sufferance.
So, my shiny loaves, my only son—
everything is on the table, and You
may eat them, though I pray that this black token—
the rabbis say the size of a single olive—
appeases the hunger You aren’t supposed to feel.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


When I read, as we do this week, about the unremitting complaints (sometimes translated as “murmuring”) coming from the children of Israel, I’m perplexed. G-d dwelled with them. He was a friendly cloud by day, taking the edge off the scorching sun, and a fire by night to ward off the wild animals. He fed them manna and found them water. What’s to complain? But then, even here, in comfortable California, I can find plenty to murmur about.

Start at the bottom, where the aesthetics are bad enough:
Toenails are talons beneath the pathetic polish;
bunions excresce from the joints like galls on oak.
And G-d forbid a woman should yearn for stilettos—
the toes rebel, screaming all night like babies
frantic to be fed. The knees revolt
(alas, in both senses of the word),
the thighs rise up in anger at the stairs.
Forget the traitor stomach, churning over chocolate;
the shoulders, sweltering; the elbows, shot.
Worst is the head: Dawn starts the eyes to singing,
like morning birds, their exquisite notes
of pain, until by evening, they have hummed
whole arias of parchedness and weeping.
The nose grows; the skin darkens. The brain,
which cannot find a word, a key, the face
of my mother as woman my age,
remembers all its petty grievances
and whines in front of G-d and everyone.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Standing Before the Lord

Sotah, sometimes translated as the Ordeal of Bitter Water, is one of the strangest (and most misogynistic) rituals in the Hebrew Bible. It was invoked when a husband was overcome by a “fit of jealousy” although he had no evidence that his wife had been unfaithful. According to this law, the wife was forced to ”stand before the Lord” (Numbers 5:30); that is to come before the high priest. He would concoct a potion of holy water, dirt from the Tabernacle floor, and written curses containing God’s name, which had been dissolved into the water. The accused would be forced to drink this brew, and if it made her ill, (according to some commentators, if it made her miscarry) she was considered guilty. If not, she was allowed to ”bear seed.”

My mother, may she rest in peace,
always muttered, “You can tell
who wrote the book.” The men accuse;
the women have to stand for it.
You’ve let your distrust grow, a plant
in a dark place, rangy and fruitless.
What time had I for treachery?
I owe my hours to the grindstone,
the child on my back, or throwing the weft
across the loom: blue, white, blue.
It’s you who trek into the hills
for nights on end, herding the sheep,
or so you say. Jealousy
may be a fit for me as well.
I see how Elisheva’s gaze
follows when you leave the camp
warbling on your fine khalil.*
I hear her purr the same refrain
when we gather by the well.
Whatever you make me do this day—
bare my head, touch the offering,
drink the water of bitterness—
if you have pledged to her, I swear,
I’ll grind your oath to bitter meal;
you’ll eat your words, and I will cry
Amen, Amen.

*a flute

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


The book of Numbers begins with another census. All of the men, we are told, number 603,550 (Numbers 1:46). Or at least that’s the translation if elef means one thousand, as it does in modern Hebrew. This is unlikely, given the forbidding terrain through which they traveled. The wilderness would have had to support at least four times that figure to include the Hebrew wives and children—not to mention the hostile tribes they encountered over the 40 years of wandering. More probably, scholars believe, elef was some kinship group of uncertain size.

So much has changed since the people pulled up stakes
and marched away from Sinai—Temples built
and sacked; Kohanim, who touched the Ark
and lived, reduced to neighbors, who for one instant,
cover their heads with prayer shawls and convert
on Yom Kippur to priests, claiming once more
the power to bless us*. Is there not one constant
we can carry forward, the remainder
in a complex sum? No, even numbers
must evolve. Six hundred thousand men?
The land, promised or merely slogged across,
could not support them. So we learn, their thousand
is not like ours, no more than is their G-d.

* The ritual referred to is the Birkat HaKohanim, the priestly blessing. On Yom Kippur, all those who are descendents of the priestly class, or Kohanim, cover their faces with their prayer shawls, ascend the altar, and offer the traditional blessing, “May the Lord bless you and keep you…”

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Lord is My Shepherd

Another double portion this week. This one introduces the idea of the tithe; that is, the duty to give a tenth of what we have to G-d (or to the priests). When a shepherd tithes, he is not to discriminate, either by setting aside the worst or best for his offering: “Of all that passes under the shepherd's staff, every tenth one shall be holy to the Lord. He must not look out for good as against bad, or make substitution for it” (Leviticus 27:32-33).

The shepherd trails the stragglers through the scrub
where they have strayed looking for a shoot,
a nubbin of clover. These sheep have been his charge
since his father culled them from the flock,
and lonely in the nights with only a stone
for pillow, he laid his head on the warm wool
of a lamb and drew his cloak across them both.
Now he must pass the sheep beneath his crook
and, willy-nilly, sequester every tenth
for sacrifice. He must not spare the good,
but like G-d descend upon these creatures
for reasons they would never understand.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

B'Har: At the Mountain

Suddenly, at the beginning of parashat B’Har (At the Mountain), G-d begins speaking to Moses “on Mount Sinai,” not, as He had been doing since the beginning of the book, from the Tent of Meeting. Many scholars believe that this chapter is interpolated from a different version and that locating G-d on Mount Sinai is meant to emphasize the importance of what follows.
for my husband

As the mountain is purely background,
part of the story insofar
as everything important happens
against it, so you are here
in this manual for priests:
Do this. Do that. There is no love
amid the unadorned decrees.
And yet, this week as I have studied
“At the Mountain,” I’ve seen your face
behind the words, not because
they have the slightest thing to do
with you, the man whose beard, whose lips,
whose gray-green eyes are the last things
I’ve looked into for twenty years
before sleep overtakes me
but because you are the ground
against which every story unfolds.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Fixed Times

This week’s parasha includes an enumeration of holidays: “These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions” (Leviticus 23:2). But because Jewish holidays are lunar, they actually move around the Roman calendar. If we adhered strictly to the lunar system, the holidays would eventually become disconnected from what they celebrate. Succoth, a harvest holiday, might end up in the winter; Passover, with its symbols of rebirth, might migrate to September. To correct this problem, once every four years, the Jewish calendar adds a leap month.

Every leap year, we lasso the wandering feasts—
Succoth, which strays too far into the rain,
the palm fronds dripping on the challah, returns
to harvest time. Shavuoth replants its roots
in June. Pesach, wrenched from Easter Sunday
at its birth, returns to nodding acquaintance
with its old twin. The Days of Awe blast us,
once more, with heat, our dresses stained with sweat,
as if to remind us that for a people wandering
in the desert, G-d required fixed times.
We do not come from temperate lands or Lords.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

My Father's Kingdom

At the dead center of Torah, midway between Genesis 1 and Deuteronomy 34, comes a group of disparate laws sometimes called the “Holiness Code.” The second of this week's portions, K’doshim, or Holiness, begins by enjoining the whole Israelite community: “You shall be holy, for I, your G-d, am holy” (Leviticus 19:1). How do we accomplish this? The first rule is to revere our parents.

My father could fix anything. The aunts came in procession,
bearing vacuums, beaters, toasters, fans, and he laid hands
upon appliances until they rose up from the dead.
He tightened sprockets, straightened spokes; the bike wheels hummed
the music of the spheres and all their orbits aligned.
He fashioned blazons out of copper salvage, reliquaries
from balsa boxes, still redolent of his cigars; we filled them
with river stones, cicada shells, white cowries he brought back
from some great service rendered to the nation in a far-off place—
each object sacred because he taught us how to notice it.
His bed was high; most weekdays, he descended in a cloud
of talc before we woke, went off to pace the girders, riveting
the I-beams that delimited the corners of our world.
But Sabbath mornings, we could visit him, plump his throne
of pillows, cluster at his feet. We cherubs, whom he lifted
in ecstatic somersaults and pirouettes, we worshipped him.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Goat in the Wilderness

The origin of the "scapegoat" can be found in this week's parasha. In Levitus 16:21, Aaron confesses all of the peoples' sins "on the head of a goat." The animal is then set free in the wilderness. As I tried to picture this ritual, I realized that the Bible is very stingy with description.

There goat is in the text, but no scrub.
No creosote bush clings to the crust of the dunes.
No pale crag martin nests in the cliffs. No cliffs,
orange, gray, or parched. No darkling beetle
with the scavenged barley from their sacks
scuttles like a thief across their path.
No metaphor of any kind. Their eyes
can’t make connections in this wilderness,
which is not like Egypt. They sigh for leeks,
for fish, while a G-d they hardly know
speaks his sentences: “Do not uncover."
"Do not lie down.” It is an abstract world
they will inherit: a Land they’ll never reach,
a holy word, a G-d who turns the face
He does not have toward them and away.

Monday, April 12, 2010


A two-fer today, as we read a double portion this week (and I fly off to Washington tomorrow). Both portions deal with the duties of the priests, who were responsible not only for the purity of the sacrifices but also for the purity of the camp.

In the Emergency Room
One function of the priests was to check people afflicted with various communicable diseases and sequester those who might pose a danger of infection. The passage reminded me of a trip to the emergency room, where the doctors' insistent questions can have the same incantatory quality as these priestly examinations: "If the priest sees that the eruption has covered the whole body — he shall pronounce the affected person clean; he is clean, for he has turned all white. But as soon as undiscolored flesh appears in it, he shall be unclean; when the priest sees the undiscolored flesh, he shall pronounce him unclean. The undiscolored flesh is unclean; it is leprosy. But if the undiscolored flesh again turns white, he shall come to the priest, and the priest shall examine him: if the affection has turned white, the priest shall pronounce the affected person clean; he is clean" (Leviticus 13:13-17).
Are you having any pain in your arm, in your chest, in your heart?
Is there tingling in your hand, in your shoulder if you twist toward your back?
Can you breathe when you lie down, when you rise up, and when you walk?
On a scale of one to ten, is your pain like the breaking of a rod on a rock?
On the treadmill, do you trudge like a woman climbing stairs
with their tops in the sky? Do you sense the plasma pound in your veins
as the cuff constricts your arm like the fingers of a demon? Is the pattern
on the screen of your breathing and your heart, prophetic as a screed
on the evils of your youth? If the enzymes in your blood betray damage
to your core, can you live outside the camp of the hearty and the well?

Plague House
One of the afflictions the priests checked for, sometimes translated as leprosy, was a kind of lesion that might appear on a person, a fabric, or the wall of a house. It was the duty of the householder to report potential infection with the odd locution, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house” (14:35). But according to the Talmud, "The house affected by the plague never existed and is not destined to exist. It was stated for the purpose of edification" (Sanhedren 71a).
This house, with green and reddish veins
that spread through the grout like sepsis
streaking from a lesion to the heart,
does not exist and never has,
the rabbis say. Why
of all the implausible stories—
talking asses, parting seas—
should this wall blossom
into parable? Deconstructing
the erupting house, stone
by imaginary stone,
carrying the abstract debris
to an unclean place outside the city
that will come to be inside
the Land, we learn that what is hard—
plaster, rock, timber, plague—
is a kind of language, pointing
to something realer than we know.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Eighth Day

Against the background of the rules that dominate Leviticus, the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, makes a harrowing contrast. The seven-day priestly ordination ceremony has just been completed. The two young men now go to make an offering, and they are consumed by the sacrificial fire. Why? The text says it is because they offered “alien” or “strange” fire. We are supposed to accept this as the divine rationale, but I am hardly the first person to find this a thin explanation. In fact, I have come to believe that Moses got this one wrong. He seems especially obtuse when he berates Aaron and his remaining nephews for not eating that day’s sin offering. Perhaps there is no room for accidents in Moses' theology, but could he not just leave these deaths as something we don’t understand?

And Nadav, whose name meant “giving,” and Abihu,
“G-d, my father,” went to offer sprigs
of incense, the first fruits of their new work.
They wore their linen breeches; they washed their feet,
for they were rightly reverent. But fire,
as fire will, broke free from their pans,
lit the sashes—woven with such care
of purple, red, and blue—like wicks, and they,
like candles, burned. There is no why to this.
Say “alien fire,” and we’re already stumbling
in the mortal realm of commentary.

Then Moses inquired about the goat of sin offering, and it had already been burned! He was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron's remaining sons, and said, "Why did you not eat the sin offering in the sacred area? For it is most holy, and He has given it to you to remove the guilt of the community and to make expiation for them before the Lord. Since its blood was not brought inside the sanctuary, you should certainly have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded." And Aaron spoke to Moses, "See, this day they brought their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and such things have befallen me! Had I eaten sin offering today, would the Lord have approved?" And when Moses heard this, he approved. (Leviticus 10:17-19)

So many mitzvoth*—To know that G-d exists.
Not to add to the commandments of Torah.
Surely Aaron understood those now.
But what of the six hundred and eleven?
To set the showbread and the frankincense
before the Lord. To keep the fire burning
on the altar of the sacrifices.
To help the beast of burden if he stumbles
under his load. Not to defile yourself
by contact with the dead. Not to test
the word of G-d. Not to bear a grudge
or slay the innocent or take revenge.
And if the priest, having watched his sons
be dragged, by their singed tunics, outside the camp,
(and he, barred from rending his sacred vestments
or touching their dear, charred forms) should cry out,
should refuse to eat—even the sin
offering—what Lord would not approve?

* There are 613 mitzvoth or commandments in the Torah, dealing with everything from the treatment of the poor to marriage to various ritual practices. A number deal specifically with the duties of the priests.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Tale of Haroseth

For the past two nights, Jews have been celebrating Passover with the seder, a ritual meal that features a number of traditional foods. One is haroseth, which a blend of fruit and nuts whose consistency is supposed to recall the mortar that the Hebrew slaves used in building Pharaoh’s pyramids: And they made their lives bitter with hard labor in mortar and brick” (Exodus 1:14).

Haroseth is not of biblical origin, but it is mentioned in the Talmud in a passage that indicates it was already part of the festival celebration in “the days of the Temple.” The proper method for making haroseth can be a source of strain—or more accurately pitched battle—among women from different traditions making Passover together.

In Temple times, the street peddlers sang,
"Come and get your spices for the mitzvah*
of haroseth,” already a commandment
though about it, Moses speaks not a word.
“Take dates or figs or raisins. Add vinegar,
cardamom and fresh ginger. Mash.”
Here is the mortar of the Sephardim,
recorded by Maimonides* himself.
Beneath the mezzaluna, hard-boiled eggs
merge with oranges, almonds, matzah, prunes,
holding together the Italian Jews
as sand and lime cemented the bricks of Egypt.
On the battlefield of Gettysburg,
no “necessaries” for haroseth. “We found
a brick,” a soldier reported. “Rather hard
to digest, but looking at it made us remember.”

The B’nei Yisroel of Calcutta boil the dates
into a syrup. “This has never changed,”
the matriarch insists, ruling the kitchen
of her daughter in Great Neck, New York.
Apples, walnuts, cinnamon, wine—ganoog.*
This is my mother-in-law’s haroseth, sacred
as the formula for holy incense
given to Moses by his exacting G-d.

*Commandment in Hebrew
*Preeminent medieval Jewish philosopher and author of the Mishneh Torah, a code of Jewish Law
*Enough in Yiddish

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Prayer

This week we learn the rituals associated with sacrifices of all kinds: the burnt offering, the sin offering, the thanksgiving offering, and so forth. When G-d describes the guilt offering, He adds, "It is most holy" (Leviticus 7:1). With the destruction of the Temple, the system of ritual sacrifice was replaced in Jewish practice by prayer.

Every night I volunteer my sins.
The mean, crabbed thoughts crouch
in my heart, and my tiny soul,
sitting on the cage door,
minds the latch. This is the ritual
of the guilt offering. It is most holy.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Leviticus, as its English name implies, is the book of the Bible concerned with the Levites or priests and the many duties they had to perform in order to ensure the purity of the camp. The regulations regarding ritual purity were so exacting that they were sometimes transgressed accidentally. For example, a priest wandering through the desert might come into contact with an unclean animal and not even realize or remember it. This week’s portion provides a complicated sacrificial ritual to expiate this “unwitting” guilt.

The early light slants into the cul-de-sac,
picking out the frond of the neighbor’s palm
so it appears to be a hand, raised
in blessing. The lemons are without blemish.
A white birch cants crazily over the road,
but does not fall down. And yet despite the sky,
limpid as an easy problem in sums,
this morning you’ve brushed up against the dead—
the boy on the TV news, fallen in battle,
whose formal photo in the white uniform cap
is propped up before the flag-draped coffin.
You should know how to expiate this sin:
The formula—the dipped and sprinkled blood—
is in the book. But you are not a priest;
the golden altar has been melted down,
struck as coins that bear a Hebrew girl
mourning beneath a palm: Judea Capta*.
Are these wrongs with which you have to live?

*A series of coins issued by the emperor Vespasian in honor of the capture of Judea and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE by his son Titus.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


This week, we read two portions, Vayakhel and Pekudei, both about the building of the Tabernacle. This is a communal affair, with all the people asked to give what they can, whether gold or talent. As a poet, I love that the names of artists are preserved in the text: “Now Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, had made all that the Lord had commanded Moses; at his side was Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, carver and designer and embroiderer” (Exodus 38: 22-23). Indeed, Moses “calls” every skilled person to take part in the task. I was reading this section around the time my daughter turned 18, and it prompted me to think about her calling.

I watch you listening for this call, wondering
which of the divine skills will fashion your life.
I think to warn you, “Years aren’t adamant;
they don’t stay still while you incise some meaning
into them; a life’s not gold, to pour
into a mould or solder to another’s.
Even the loom, that mythic equivalence
for what we make with the riches we’re given—
weaving a strand of honor, a thread of love—
won’t stand for the accounting we must present
of how we let our gifts be used. “As clay
in the hand of the potter, who thins or thickens it
at will,” so the hymnist proclaims are we
“in the hand of a gracious G-d.” My dearest girl,
gifted with music, what does the Lord require?
That when the task presents itself, you must,
a tuning fork struck, take up your skillful song.

Monday, March 8, 2010

G-d's Children

While the Ten Commandments tell us to honor the Sabbath day, they do not specify what that would look like. As Moses begins to give the Hebrew people instructions about how to build the Tabernacle, he tells them that they may work for six days, but on the Sabbath, they must rest. I was surprised by the vehemence of the proscription against work, which is attributed directly to G-d: “Whoever does any work on it [the Sabbath] shall be put to death” (Exodus 35:3).

This G-d, wrathful, sounds like me
on a bad day, when the children won’t listen:
“Stop doing that, or I will kill you.”
Not that He didn’t have cause; signs
and wonders amused them for a moment,
and then it was on to the next demand—
meat, leeks, water, golden calves.
He wanted it to stop—the clamor,
the bickering—for their sakes,
so they might experience the world
as it had been before they came:
the order, the peace. It was good.
But children change everything.
That’s the cliché; that’s why we bear them.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Counting Jews

Jews do not count people directly. When G-d asks Moses to take a census of the people, He stipulates that each shall pay a “ransom” of a half-shekel upon being enrolled in the army “so that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled” (30:12). The Ramban, an important 13th century scholar, argued that the census was actually taken by counting the money instead of the people. Since then, various other stratagems have been devised to avoid counting people, which is considered to be asking for trouble.

Not one, not two, not three. The Jew counts,
trying to avoid the evil eye,
the same way we might name a sick child Alter,
“old one,” to mislead the angel of death
assigned to yank the infant back to heaven.
So we number the stars or the half-shekels
each must forfeit rather than our lives,
which, being counted, some might judge
too numerous. True, G-d is minding
in the genial way of uncles babysitting
while they kibitz with their cronies on a bench.
In the meantime, what other spirits overhear
our census, to what purpose might they count?
A dozen, a hundred, a thousand, a million, six.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

High Fasion

If, like mine, your religious instruction (or Cecil B. DeMille’s “Ten Commandments”) led you to imagine that the dialogue between G-d and Moses focused entirely on law-giving, then, like me, you might be surprised to realize how much of their interchange in this week’s portion is about the details of the Tabernacle’s construction and the fine points of the vestments for the high priest.

Dear G-d, who specified the pomegranates
alternating on the high priest’s hem
with bells of gold; who listed chrysolite
and jasper for the breastplate of decision;
lapis lazuli incised with names
of all twelve tribes; who ordered that the headdress
be gold, and the ephod* gold, crimson, and blue—
forgive Your daughter, who interrupts her prayer
to notice the red felt hat two pews away.

*An elaborate tunic, part of the priest’s vestments

Friday, February 19, 2010

Tabernacle in the Desert

It’s easy to forget, as we start to read this week about the building of the elaborate Tabernacle, where the children of Israel were building it. Somehow, in the middle of the wilderness, they managed to find gold, silver, copper, lapis lazuli, fine linen, goats' hair, acacia wood, oil, spices, incense, and dolphin skins! There’s actually a fair amount of debate about what those “dolphins” (takhash in Hebrew) might be. Translations have included ermine, badger, antelope, okapi, giraffe, and dugong. According to the Babylonian Talmud and Rashi’s commentary, the takhash was a kosher, multicolored beast with a single horn, which came into being for the sole purpose of building the Tabernacle.

Gold we know they asked of the Egyptians—
and received—and silver for the clasps.
Cassia they gathered from the wadis,
though myrrh and frankincense were likely spoil,
a queen of Egypt having sent to Punt
for thirty-one small tubs of incense trees,
borne to Thebes aboard her royal barge.
Linen, too, they may have learned to heckle
for their one-time masters, enormous spools
for winding the dead, loaded when they left,
on hapless donkeys, or pounded from wild flax
they found along the way. Acacia bloomed
in the desert, brought by camel caravans
who grazed it on the African savanna
and dropped the seeds at Sinai where the plant
discovered how to hoard the brief rain.
Ram was plentiful, leaping the crags,
and served for sacrifice, horn, and hide.
So far, they might have built their Tabernacle
in perfect solitude, a tribe of nomads
in a waste of granite, sand, and sky.
And yet, those dolphins breach the text like fish
out of water. Takhash. The name itself
darts across the scroll just long enough
for G-d, whose every word created something,
to fashion the perfect covering for the Tent.
Then word and being vanish all at once,
a miracle spent in thirty cubits of curtain.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


“You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk” (Exodus 23:19). Over the centuries, this very specific rule about goats is elaborated into the Jewish dietary law that forbids the mixing of all kinds of meat and any dairy product, largely through the Talmudic procedure of building a “fence around the law”—essentially, adding some extra rules for padding so that the treasured command from the Torah will not be inadvertently transgressed. Some commentators have argued that the laws of Kashrut are based on health considerations—for example that pork was taboo because in the days before refrigeration, it was so often the source of food-borne illness. More traditionally, these laws are regarded as chukim; that is, laws that cannot be explained rationally.

This verse comes to teach us
that the kid may be a calf;
and the liquid, mixed by the dairy
contains the milk of many mothers
so cannot be combined
with the kid or the calf;
that boiling is beside the point;
and that the rule is broken
before we ever eat, by the act
of boiling; that the prohibition
is key to staying our hand,
to knowing the creatures as kin;
and that the law is given
without a reason, practice
for living in the unruly world.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Ten Sayings

What is usually translated in English as the Ten Commandments, in the Torah text is Aseret ha-D'varim, the Ten Things, the Ten Statements, the Ten Declarations, the Ten Words, or the Ten Sayings.

As He created the world with only His voice,
so He tried to say us into goodness.
But we are not the waters, whose only duty
is to swarm, or the sparrow hawk
who flies across the dome of heaven, G-d's thought
incorporated. And if the raptor swoops,
snatching a finch in its talons, tearing the flesh
until the bones and wings, plucked clean, fall
to the ground below, no one calls it murder.
We, alone, lie and steal because the terms
create a failing from the standard stuff
of camouflage and plunder. Our G-d calls us
not to survive like those spiderlings,
feeding of the bodies of their mothers,
not, like the jackal, to eye the cheetah's kill,
but to be human, obedient or sinning,
the only creatures who believe in Him.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Time's Arrow

When Pharaoh finally lets the Israelites go, G-d does not lead them in a beeline for the Promised Land. He’s afraid they’ll have a change of heart and want to return to the evil they know—or, more properly, assuming His omniscience, He knows they will. Indeed, they spend the next forty years whining about how good they had it in Egypt. So, instead of taking them to Canaan by way of the land of the Philistines, which was nearer, “G-d led the people round about, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds” (13:18).

Had there been a choice, I might have turned back,
to the path where we found buttercups to hold
beneath our chins, and yellow only meant
that you liked butter; to the creek with the crayfish
hunkered under the rocks, the trolls of our childhood,
tamed by a quick grab behind the pincers;
to the spot beside my father’s workbench
where everything was sorted, and I learned to tell
toggle bolts from nails, pitching them into the proper tins;
to the cold porch where the last apples met us
with the tang of ferment, and we knew
crisp would bubble in my mother’s oven,
she would feed us, and there would be enough.
And so G-d made the journey roundabout
and time a scrollwork we can’t unwind.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

My Exodus

In comparison to the exodus, which is finally realized in this week's portion, my life is tame. But then, my life is tame in comparison to the great journeys of my grandparents, as well. Jews often seem to be at the center of historic upheavals. As Bernard Malamud puts it in The Fixer, “We’re all in history, that’s sure, but some are more than others, Jews more than some.”

I’ve lived my life in the aftermath of flight—
the boats from Hamburg ballasted by Jews
who’d had enough of axes and broom handles,
of smashed glass and press gangs on the prowl
for Jewish boys with peyes* to pull. My zaide**
escaped the Cossack brigades, taking only his beard
and the trick of mounting a mare bareback at a canter.
Later his wife bundled her candlesticks,
her eiderdown and fled the once-kind neighbors
who had beat their ploughshares into swords.
Her belongings I fit into the van
with the cinder blocks, the boards, the scavenged settee,
and like the Sooners before me skedaddled West
toward a happy life of minor incident,
the luxury of burying my parents.
Was this her wish when she braved the parting sea:
that I cross over out of history?

*Sidelocks: Orthodox Jewish boys and men wear the hair at the sides of their heads long in obedience to the biblical commandment “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.”
**Grandfather in Yiddish

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

My Son's Bar Mitzvah

As part of the ceremony celebrating their entry into Jewish adulthood at age thirteen, children study one Torah portion and often read a section from it. For my son, the portion was this week’s Va-eira, which deals with the first plagues visited on the Egyptians and Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to let the Israelites go. Before I had children, I laughed at the idea that a thirteen-year-old was anywhere near adulthood—in fact, I was laughing about that idea until Eli was about twelve and a half. Then something happened, and I began to glimpse the man he would later become. One signpost was his reaction to this portion, where G-d tells Moses, “I will harden Pharaoh's heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 7:3). Like many readers before him, Eli was troubled at the notion that G-d had a role in Pharaoh’s stubbornness and therefore in all the suffering of the Egyptians.

Thirteen and not inclined to heed advice
or threats, Eli is assigned the portion
where Moses warns of blood, boils, lice,
and Pharaoh will not let the people go.
Why, my firstborn asks, would the Almighty
harden Pharaoh’s heart, like a master
razzing some wretched freshman until he flares
in spectacular, if futile, cheek?
With that question, my son becomes a son
of the commandments, shouldering the yoke,
acknowledging the lopsided struggle
to be a man in the world G-d made.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

For Pharoah's Daughter

Exodus picks up the story of the Israelites more than 400 years after they first went down to Egypt for food and finally settled in Goshen. By this time, the reigning pharaoh has become concerned about the numbers of Israelites in his midst and decrees that all newborn sons be thrown into the Nile. That his daughter was aware of this order is evident when she goes down to the Nile to bathe and discovers a basket containing the infant Moses. She says immediately, ”This must be a Hebrew child” (Exodus 2:6).

Of course she knew the boy she rescued
was not her blood. Under the red
from his furious crying, his skin glowed olive,
and his eyes, unaccented by kohl,
were the Hebrews’ hooded circles
brimming with a meniscus of tears.

Save a life, the rabbis say,
and it’s as if you saved the world.
So here I sit, three thousand years
after she drew him from the water,
reading the words G-d spoke to him,
living in the world she saved.