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.