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.