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.