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.