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.