Sunday, September 5, 2010

This is the Blessing

Friends, I'm going to cheat a bit this week. The parasha is Ha'azinu, which takes us almost to the end of Deuteronomy. The last bit, V'Zot ha-B'rakha--"This is the Blessing"--is read on Simchat Torah. But I'm going to jump ahead, wish you a very happy new year, and close "My Portion" with this poem. Thank you for reading along with me.

In the same way Moses lived his life in the public sphere as leader of the Israelites, so he concludes it in a public way by blessing the people according to their tribes. [“This is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, bade the Israelites farewell before he died” (Deuteronomy 33:1).] There is no mention in his farewell address of his own two sons, Gershom and Eliezer.

I ask a blessing in the name of Gershom,
about whom we know only: he did not succeed
his father; a prayer for Eliezer, who is no more
than a “begat.” If Asher dips his foot in oil
and Joseph reaps the bounteous harvest
of the moon, let the sons of Moses stand
for all of us whose names are just recorded
in the family Bible with no deed inscribed
beyond birth and dying. Say of us:
The Lord has sent them rain in its due season
and when it pocked the grapes with mildew
and set the corn to germinating in the ear.
The Lord has smote the loins of their foes
and cut their own sons down on the fields
of Degania and Lachish*. They have rested
between His shoulders and fallen beneath His feet.
He has tested them at the waters of Meribah**
and with the blood libel at Kishinev***.
They have invited their kin to the mountain
and the stranger to drink the finest wines.
They have born sons and daughters who know
but do not speak the name of God.

*Degania was a kibbutz, attacked by the Syrians in 1948. Lachish was one of the fortress towns protecting the approaches to Jerusalem, laid siege to and captured by the Assyrians in 701 BCE.
**The “place of testing,” where Moses is told to call water from the rock but instead strikes the rock with his rod.
***Site of a pogrom, or anti-Jewish riot, that took place in 1903 when the Jews were accused of killing a Christian child to use his blood in the preparation of matzos.

Friday, September 3, 2010

My Portion

When people are bar or bat mitzvah, they chant a section from the Torah, which then becomes “their portion.” The chanting is done according to an ancient notation system called Torah trope. The mnemonic power of such chanting is foreseen in this week’s second parasha, "Vayelekh," where G-d tells Moses, “Therefore, write down this song and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this song may be My witness against the people of Israel…since it will never be lost from the mouth of their offspring” (Deuteronomy 31: 19-21).

No occasion, no feast or fast
marks this Sabbath or the passage
I will chant, as did my fathers.
G-d’s word advances on kadma. *
I lavish, as darga requires,
a trill on “write this song”;
as gershayim—drive out—predicts,
I chant the people's “turn to other gods.”
This is a different path to knowing:
a detour to scatter notes—zarka;
a reach, as for a bunch of grapes—
segol. So much attention heaped
on single words—“Be strong"—as if
we must add music to make sense
of the pedestrian commands,
as if the most mundane detail,
warmed by our absorption in it,
might burst out in dazzling song.

*The Hebrew words in this poem are names of tropes, which either refer to the shape of the notation or the way it sounds.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


“I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Sometimes the morning crashes through the blinds,
noisy with light; today, fragmented by fog,
it must be reconstructed as the eye
pieces together the bed, the man beside me,
the dear faces in the silver frames.
This is the life I’ve chosen so easily
that even a stormy dawn like this one fails
to ready me for your call, your small request:
a reason not to end your life at the end
of our conversation, one oval analgesic
after another. You know how to do this
having learned from previous attempts,
but nothing prepares me to explain why
the same pale capsules on my shelf promise
a more benign relief. Through the curtain
of rain, persimmons glow in the leafless tree.
Every year, warblers puncture the skins
and feed. As sad as I have ever been,
such recurrence cheers me. Your brand of grief
is out of my depth. You want the ordinary:
husband, child. How can I, who have both,
swear I’d manage on the thinner broth
of friendships like the one I offer now?
Even the rainbow, flung between our houses,
is just a promise that the world goes on.
I don’t know how you make yourself go on;
the truth: I only know I want you to.

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.