Mas’ei 5777: Journeying through the Wilderness, journeying through text

(This text, somewhat modified, was a devar Torah delivered in 2013 at Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, MD.)

This week (2017), we conclude the Torah reading from the book of Numbers with the double portion, Mattot-Mas’ei. I will discuss Chapter 33: 1–49, the listing of the journeying of the Israelites, at the beginning of Parashat Mas’ei. My focus will be on the literary devices in the text.

The text enumerates 42 stops, more place names than are enumerated elsewhere in the Torah, and many scholars consider this the definitive list. Some verses merely list the stops on the journey, by breaking of camp and destination. Here is an example, using Robert Alter’s translation, starting from verse 15:

“And they set out from Rephidim and encamped in the Wilderness of Sinai.  And they  set out from the Wilderness of Sinai and encamped at Kibroth-Hattaavah.  And they set out from Kibroth-Hattaavah and encamped at Hazeroth…”

The majesty of these verses is conveyed in the special trop (Torah chanting melody) used here and in Shirat Hayam, the Song at the Sea in the Exodus story.

Let us consider two literary structures present in this text: chiasmus and repetition.

In rhetoric, chiasmus is the structure of speech where two or more clauses are related to each other through a reversal of wording. At its simplest, it’s an ABBA structure.  Perhaps the most familiar chiasm is JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Chiasmus is thought to add extra emphasis and a bit of suspense to the meaning of the words.

In Genesis (9:6), there is a straightforward example: “Whoever sheds the blood of a man, by a man shall his blood be shed.”  This ABCCBA structure is more apparent in the Hebrew:   “Shofeikh dam ha’adam, ba’adam damo yeshafeikh.” Perhaps the most important example of chiasmus in the Torah is found in the development of the Akadeh story in Genesis 22. There, the narrative builds up with specific vocabulary and motifs, then unfolds with the words and verses in reverse order.

We have a chiasmus in Numbers 33:2 of our parasha (Alter translation):  “And Moses wrote down their departure points for their journeyings  by the word of the Lord, and these are their journeyings by their departure points.” In the Hebrew, the words reverse: Motza’eihem  to mas’eihem, then mas’eihem to motza’eihem.

A spirited interpretation of this chiasmic reversal is offered by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. He argues that from God’s point of view, the journeys were motza’eihem lemas’aichem, departures in order to make their journeys.  When God made the Israelites break camp, motzei, the purpose was specifically to reach the most suitable new stop or goal, mas’a. But to the people, Rabbi Hirsch says, it was the reverse.  Wherever they stayed, they were dissatisfied, even rebellious. Breaking up the camp was its own purpose. At the moment of departure, it did not matter where they were headed, as long as they left their current encampment.  So for the Israelites, the journeys were mas’eihem lemotza’eihem.

Sforno also noted the chiasm and suggested this: Moses wrote the two words in both orders because sometimes the destination was terrible and the place of encampment was good, and sometimes the reverse. But under all circumstances, the Israelites were obedient to God’s instruction.

I would rather be sympathetic like Sforno than scolding like Hirsch. But minimally, it’s notable that both strokes of emphasis – the comings and the goings, can be supported in the text by the chiasmic structure.

A second literary device here is the repeating of the name of the departure point when listing each journey. Here again is Alter’s translation of verses beginning with 33:15: “And they set out from Rephidim and encamped in the Wilderness of Sinai.  And they set out from the Wilderness of Sinai and encamped at Kibroth-Hattaavah.  And they set out from Kibroth-Hattaavah and encamped at Hazeroth…”  The Midrash Tanchuma reads God’s love into this repetition. Each aspect of the journeying – the departure as well as the arrival – likens our story to that of a king (ie, God) and the king’s son intimately reliving a shared path, retracing their steps and actions.

Some modern commentators focus on the idea of honoring the journey, in that leaving a place is a momentous part of a life course, and must be acknowledged with repetition.

From a literary/historical perspective, the repetition places this text firmly in the style of itinerary genres of the ancient Near East. Notably, Assyrian military narratives repeat the names of campsites as departure points when journeys are described.  I confess that when I read about our text’s amazing similarity to 9th C BCE Assyrian itinerary genre, my reaction was essentially “oh, that’s interesting, but so what?” Maybe you are having that reaction right now, yourself.

But!  It turns out that recently, I read a 2005 book titled Avodah: Ancient Poems for Yom Kippur by Professors Michael D. Swartz and Joseph Yahalom. I started reading this book in anticipation of the High Holidays, because it is a scholarly study of a genre of piyyut – Hebrew poetry – that describes the Avodah service in the Temple. The most notable Avodah piyyutim are in the Yom Kippur mahzor, but Swatz and Yahalom’s book provides many more, with translation and commentary.

There I discovered a piyyut (p. 261) that pertains to the repetitive style of Mas’ei.  It originates in the 5th century tome, Pesikta of Rav Kahana.  Rav Kahana’s composition describes how the Divine Presence, the Shekhina, departed in ten stages when the Temple was destroyed.

“In ten stages the Shekhina journeyed up and away [from the Temple in Jerusalem].    (1)  From the one cherub over the Ark to the other cherub over the Ark; (2) from the  cherub to the Temple’s threshold; (3) from the Temple’s threshold back to the two        cherubim; (4) from the two cherubim to the east gate; (5) from the east gate to the    Temple’s court; (6) from the Temple’s court to the altar; (7) from the altar to the roof;  (8) from the roof to the wall [surrounding the Temple]; (9) from the wall to the city  [of Jerusalem]; (10) from the city to the Mount of Olives.”

The repetition of the Shekhina’s wandering around the Temple can only describe reluctance – to hold on to one last scrap of her Presence, to even convey a sense of clinging.  The verses Rav Kahana later gives as prooftexts for this journey portray a Shekhina that lingers, crying, taking time to bid farewell to the physical structure and to await till the very last minute Israel’s repentance, before leaving the Temple in despair.

I wonder whether the text of Mas’ei, and the original chiasmus that focuses the Israelites’ interest on motza’eihem, their setting-forths, tries to convey this mood for the Israelites’ wandering.  Each journey brought the nation closer to the final destination of Eretz Yisrael, but at the same time brought the older, slave generation closer to their deaths.  Each journey hastened the military actions required to secure God’s promise, and indeed, military instructions immediately follow our list.  Each journey reminded them that soon, the Israelites’ intimacy with the Divine in the Wilderness, would be lost to land-sharing regulations and tribal inheritances, which again show up right through the end of the parasha.  With each journey, there is promise and progress, but like many journeys, there is also loss and fear.  The repetition serves to remind us of the Israelites’ grit in embarking on their journeys, of the hardship of their wanderings, and perhaps of their rueful awareness of rebellious choices at their places of encampment.

This simple, seemingly boring text of journeying suggests the range of emotions of a people both embattled and uplifted.

 

 

 

Embroidering a Jewish Life

“Embroidery has been part of my life for over two decades; it is a core Jewish practice for me and an enLampstand-smalltry point into sacred texts…

                 …the process of designing and creating the embroidery is not about seeking permanence. For me, it has become a potent practice of living Torah and enacting Jewish life, rather than documenting myself for future generations.”

 

I am honored that Lilith Magazine has selected my essay for The Lilith Blog. Please continue reading here.

 

Lampstand, 2016, Rachel Braun, scanned by Philip Brookman.

Winter descends…

An embroidery for this winter day: God covers the Sky with Clouds   © 2015weather-sm

The text I chose from Psalm 147 includes portions of verses 8, 16 and 17:  “God covers the sky with clouds, and prepares rain for the Earth, bestows snow as a blanket of wool, and throws hail like breadcrumbs.”  It was stitched for my daughter Aviva, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, and her husband, Justin.

I love snow: the damp smell in the air just before it flurries down, the crunch of boots across a snowy yard, the peaceful quiet when a city settles down to watch the snow accumulate.  But snow (and hail and rain) can be destructive, and indeed, the full sense of the Psalm’s verses reflects that.  “Who can withstand God’s cold?” asks the Psalmist at the end of verse 17.

I did not stitch the text of this question; rather, I selected phrases from within the verses that conveyed a gentler sense of nature, the magic and beauty of precipitation.  When is the cold precipitation a peaceful, sensory treat, and when is it a threat?  We can control some of our response: when we pause to enjoy God’s nature, when we provide warm clothes to those in need, when we ensure that clean rain falls on healthy farms, when we treat the earth and its climate with care.

“Who can withstand God’s cold?”  The Psalmist leaves that question unanswered, but reassures us in the next verses that God will dispatch a word to melt any threatening ice, and indeed, will share more words – God’s stories, statutes and laws.  “Hallelujah!” concludes the Psalm.

(Text from my book, Embroidery and Sacred Text, © 2017, available at https://store.bookbaby.com/book/Embroidery-and-Sacred-Text .)

 

I’m with Lot’s Wife.

The story of Lot’s wife is told in Genesis 19:15-26.    She looked back.

I would have looked back, too.  In fact, a lot of times I look back when the past is behind me.  Or I refuse to hustle onward, ambling along and denying reality, like Lot.  Or I’m overcome with nostalgia and longing.  So I’m with Lot’s wife.

But Lot’s wife became a pillar of salt.

Some of this is clearly Lot’s fault.  He could barely get his family out of the city in time, and in fact leaves behind two married daughters. The angels urge him on, but the word describing his reaction is vayitmamah  – he still delayed (19:16) – with a shalshelet trop (cantillation) mark to boot, a rare, wavering sound, representing all the noise in Lot’s head. The angels then give him specific instructions to flee and to not look back, lest he be swept away. Their warning is spoken to Lot, and phrased in male singular conjugations.  And the bumbling, deer-in-the-headlights Lot never relays this information to his wife and family.

Lot’s wife never had a chance.

Commentators accuse her of voyeurism, perhaps even empathy for the depraved citizenry of Sodom.  But Lot’s wife was a mother, someone who raised a family in that town, who saw her daughters married there, daughters now dying in the town’s catastrophic destruction.

Wouldn’t you have looked back?

And now – a word for looking back:

hiraeth (n): a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return; a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past (from the Welsh).

The Avodah Service of Yom Kippur

I’m preparing a teaching session for the Ohr Kodesh Tikkun Leil Shavuot about the Avodah service, and looked back on some thoughts I shared at the Fabrangen Yom Kippur service in 2013. Here they are:

 Remarks before the Avodah service

Fabrangen Havurah, Washington DC 2013   Rachel Braun

A general introduction:  Hello, my name is Rachel, and now is the time for the Avodah service. It begins on page 606. In studying the Avodah service this year, I realized how deeply moved I am by it. So I want to share some ideas about it and then, some of the music.

The Avodah text is a piyyut, a classic Hebrew poem of late Antiquity that might have been borne of a competitiveness among payyetanim to produce a piyyut yet more obscure, more ornate, and more Midrashically esoteric. Our piyyut, here, is one of many Avodah piyyutim that have been composed over centuries. I did not realize there were so many, but given the poetic imperative, it makes sense. This summer, I read this book, Avodah: Ancient Poems for Yom Kippur, by Swartz and Yahalom, published by Penn State Press. It is a scholarly tome that introduces Avodah literature and then translates and annotates 8 Avodah poems from the 4th through 7th centuries. This effort is not ancient, however: now I’m holding up a book called Avodah, by Rabbi Menachem Creditor, which is a poem , presented over 24 illustrated pages, published in 2012. So the genre of Avodah poetry prevails.

The service begins with a summary of our history, from Creation to the Temple period. Follow along on pages 606 through 610 (Aigen Mahzor), and you see it covers these events: Creation, Eden, Cain’s murder of Abel, Noah, Tower of Babel, Abraham, Egypt, Sinai, Golden Calf, establishment of the priesthood among the Levites, and finally the service of the High Priest in the Temple at Yom Kippur, which we call Avodah.

Next, the text re-enacts the service of the High Priest and his three confessions. The first one is his personal confession, for himself and his household, on pages 611 to 612. He confesses over the head of a bull, and using first person, uses the formula we have borrowed throughout the High Holiday liturgy: Hatati, Aviti, Pashati: I have sinned, I have done wrong, I have transgressed. The people are in attendance, and they respond “barukh shem k’vod malchuto le’olam va’ed (“Blessed be the Name of God’s sovereign Presence forever and ever”), while the Priest utters the name of God.

On page 614, the second confession begins. It is in this part of the ritual that two goats are presented, and one goat is selected, by lot, for Azazel and another for sacrifice. The goat for Azazel will be taken to the wilderness by an ‘ish iti’ – a designated person, or perhaps, to cheat using a Hebrew homonym, ‘a man for his time’. The service around the goat was the choice for the YK morning Torah reading. This second confession uses the same musical motifs and vocab “ve’hah, hayah omer – ana hashem hatati aviti, pashati” (and thus did he say : O God, I have sinned, I have done wrong, I have transgressed). This time he extends his confession to include “bnai aharon”, all of the priestly entourage. The Israelites are still in attendance, and repeat the “barukh shem” passage as before.

Next comes the third confessional, beginning on page 617. The material is similar, and this time, the High Priest makes his confession on behalf of all the Israelites. The three verbs for sinning switch to plural conjugation – the people have sinned, the people have done wrong, the people have transgressed. – hat’u, avu, pash’u. The High Priest utters the Ineffable Name as the people again sing “Barukh Shem Kavod….” The goat that had been designated “for the Eternal” is slaughtered after he makes his confession.
That’s a general introduction to the Avodah service: contents and style.

Connections to our lives today:  Here’s some of what I learned, and thought and wondered about when I considered the liturgy:

The poem begins with the history of Creation and ends with the High Priest performing the Avodah ritual. How extraordinary for the Priest to imagine that his work was so important, that all of the history of Creation led to that very moment. Do we ever have that feeling about the discharge of our own responsibilities — that what we are doing, right now, matters so much that history was primed to produce it? Take a moment now to identify what aspect of your life is something that the history of humanity has been preparing for.
…..

The three confessions are sung in increasingly louder volume, just like Kol Nidre. So the confession on behalf of the people is the one that is sung in the loudest, most urgent tone. That’s a good thought for us – it would be human tendency for us to sing the loudest for our own wellbeing, as in the High Priest’s first confessional, and perhaps run out of steam by the time we paid attention to the community’s needs, his THIRD confession. Take a moment now to think about how you can be louder about your community’s needs and quieter about your own.

…..

The High Priest has this important role, but nobody voted for him. In fact, he could be quite the ignoramus. The Mishna in Yoma discusses just what the sages of his time did to support the High Priest. If the high priest was wise, the elders trained him all night in the laws of his Avodah service, but if he was an ignoramus, they told him parables about kings and prophets. In either case, the elders still respected his role. Take a moment to think about whether YOU are able to recognize the spiritual gifts of many varieties of minds.

…..

A statistician considers Avodah:  My final observation about the Avodah service is the part that grabs me the most. I am always intrigued by the use of lots to determine the outcomes for the two goats. I think that’s because I’ve been trained as a statistician, and now I teach AP Statistics. One goat will be slaughtered and one will be sent into the wilderness (and in later rabbinic imagination, pushed off the cliff), and those outcomes are determined randomly, by chance.

Earlier this summer, I pulled out my folder of service notes from two decades of leading Fabrangen Hi Ho services. I was looking for something I had done once in a Musaf service, long ago. The page of my service notes was printed on the back of some notes from a statistics class I was teaching at the time. On it was written the following definition:

Random Process: We call a phenomenon ‘random’ if individual outcomes are uncertain, but there is nonetheless, a regular distribution of outcomes within the population.

That kind of describes the experience of the goats. You draw lots for two goats. You know that one will be sacrificed for the sins of the people, and one will be sent into the wilderness. But in advance, you couldn’t predict the outcome for any one particular goat. That fits my definition of random process.

Here’s another example about the distribution of outcomes in a population and the uncertainty of individual outcomes: You live in a community of Jews, with some assembled somewhere together for Yom Kippur, and some not. We know, from our reading of Unetanah Tokef, that we will have different outcomes this year, among us. Some will live, some will die. Some will be healthy, some ill. Some will be enriched, some will bear a burden. We figure that in the population of Jews, those will be the outcomes. But in advance, you couldn’t predict the outcome for any one of us.

Whether God knows the outcome for any one Jew is a big controversy in our engagement with High Holiday liturgy. That’s one reason why unetana tokef, for example, is so difficult to engage with. Suffice to say that for me, randomness seems to explain a lot both in my professional life and in my theology.

So now I want to think about the random outcomes of the Avodah ritual from the goats’ perspective.

One goat is going to pay a heavy price – it will be sacrificed, and its blood flung on the altar. Sometimes we feel that way and we see it in human outcomes around the world. Through no fault of our own, we ‘pick up the tab’ for other people’s mistakes, for their negligence, laziness, ill-intent, and warmongering. A soldier might have this experience.

The second goat is also burdened with the legacy of the people’s sins, laid on its shoulders by the High Priest. When we are like that that goat, we need to make our way in a sometimes unfamiliar, hostile wilderness, and we’re stuck with the consequences of other people’s mistakes, along with our own. Sometimes those mistakes represent legacy from history that we did not animate, but we nevertheless inherited. Some of those mistakes came from others close to us, and they need us now to be strong and share the burden. Some of those mistakes came to us because of our own mishaps and deeds, and even though Aaron or we confess them, those mistakes are learned from, but not erased.

Think, now, about an outcome you’ve experienced that came to you through no fault of your own, and has seemingly been randomly dropped on your shoulder. Perhaps it is a personal struggle with disease; perhaps it is the murky mess of some family matter; perhaps it is national political decision-making that has unhappily filtered down to your life. Take a moment to ponder: how will you wander through the wilderness with this random burden, fair or not, placed on you?

Now let’s sing selections of the Avodah service.

A BIT OF PURIM TORAH!! Asymptotic Methods of Approximating π (pi) as an Indicator of the Superiority of the Latke over the Hamantash: Lessons from (le’havdil) Greek Mathematics

Remarks by Rachel Braun at the Jewish Study Center Latke-Hamantash Debate 2016, Washington, DC

Please click:  Latke Hamantashen debate remarks

2016_03 Latke hamantashen debate Robin Helzner, Rachel, Susan Barocas, Chuck Feinberg

Participants:  Robyn Helzner, Rachel Braun, Susan Barocas, Rabbi Chuck Feinberg

Happy Purim!

 

Shemot: Sharing values, sharing risks

In parashat Shemot, a remarkable mother-daughter duo emerges, demonstrating a level of collaboration that, with all its attention on parent-child interactions, the book of Genesis had not presented.  What differs in the story of Moses’ mother and sister, Yocheved and Miriam, is the backdrop of political oppression and indeed, attempted genocide.

Their story unfolds in a few terse verses.  “The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months.  When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch.  She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile.  And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him (Exodus 2:2-4).”

The commentators, of course, fill in the gaps.  Some midrashim say that Miriam initiated her decision to stay by the little basket, putting her in the position to approach Pharoah’s daughter and save her brother’s life.  Such an action would be consistent with other traditional insights into Miriam’s resolve.  The Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 12a teaches that Amram and Yocheved separated after Pharoah’s decrees that the boys be thrown in the river, despairing of having any children.  But the young Miriam urged her parents to remarry and to resume childbearing, citing the value of female babies.  Rabbi Chuck Feinberg suggested to me that perhaps Miriam felt compelled to follow the small ark’s journey down the Nile, given her role in promoting her parents’ reunion.

More ominously, though, other commentators speak to Yocheved’s instructions that in my mind, specifically put Miriam at risk in her role of watching the baby.  Sha’arei Aharon identifies Yocheved as entrusting Miriam to watch over the basket, to make sure that the rushing water does not overturn it and drown the baby.  The Bechor Schor argues that Yocheved insisted that her daughter Miriam stand by the shore and keep watch.  Rabbeinu Bachya and the Netziv also support this role for Yocheved.

Is the latter version correct?  If so, Yocheved’s directive astonishes me.  Miriam was seven years old, and one might think that her parent’s primary role was to protect her.  Yet Yocheved assigns Miriam to this dangerous duty, placing one child at risk to protect another.  I began to wonder: how do normal family behaviors change in times of, or in response to, political oppression, even genocide?   This is surely a challenge for Jews throughout our history.

Some of the questions I have about family choices and political risk feel very personal.  Would I have been willing to have my house be a stop on the Underground Railroad, for example?   Would the age of children in my household have mattered in that choice?  If I was a German, would I have put my family at risk to shelter a Jewish family during World War II?  Would I have put my children in a different kind of risk – a risk for an adulthood that I might not respect — had I not?

Can parents consent to, or, like Yocheved vis-à-vis Miram, directly entangle their children in risky behaviors for a political cause, especially ones that parents endorse?  I think back on my own experiences, traveling to Soviet Union to visit refuseniks when I was 21.  My mother had to give her consent for my participation to the Philadelphia Hillel, which facilitated the trip, yet as the day of departure approached, worried aloud about what would happen to me.  I remember how foolish I thought she was – what could happen to me, after all, a US citizen?  It wasn’t hard, years later, to recognize the exasperated tone of voice I had used in that conversation, as one of my children countered my concerns over a planned expedition.  In contrast, Yocheved is not just consenting to Miriam’s watchful presence, but demanding it!

Millennia after Miriam, another Jewish mother and child, in agreement on the son’s actions to counter political oppression, have a story that did not end as well.  Carolyn Goodman was the mother of slain civil rights activist Andrew Goodman, who was killed along with James Chaney and Michael Schwerner trying to register black voters in Mississippi.  She wrote a memoir of her life, My Mantlepiece, with co-author Brad Herzog.  In a 2014 essay in Cornell Alumni Magazine, Herzog later reflected, “I found myself captivated by the notion of a mother’s internal battle – role model vs. protector – when considering whether or not to permit her son to volunteer in Mississippi.  “My son wanted to be a beacon of light in the heart of darkness,” Carolyn later told me.  “How could I deny him?” …. Carolyn’s legacy will forever be tied to her son’s death in Mississippi, but it is also evident in the activist passion and courage she instilled in her son, the qualities that spurred him to volunteer in the first place.  As she explained:  “I allowed him to go there, and I was both guilt-ridden and proud, and I devoted the rest of my life to making sure he did not die in vain.  I permitted him to go to Mississippi because that is who he was.  And it is who I was, too.”

Carolyn Goodman’s last comment – ‘And that is who I was, too’ – suggests a fluidity of identity and purpose between mother and son, and one I found mirrored in the story of Yocheved and Miriam.

In contrast, consider the experience of Moses and his sons, Gershon and Eliezer.  Trying to protect his sons, Moses left them in Midian, and they missed the experiences of slavery, the Exodus, and the giving of Torah.  Professor Adrian Ziderman of Bar-Ilan University, in a drash on parashat Yitro, acknowledges Moses’ natural inclination to protect his sons from hardship and danger.  Yet he wonders whether this caution accounts for the sons’ near-absence of mention in Torah and for their lack of future leadership in the Israelite community.

Our parasha describes a relationship of unusual collaboration and near-interchangeability of roles between mother and daughter.  Tellingly, we do not get the same sense of the relationship of  Yocheved and Moses.  Richard Elliott Friedman, in a close reading of the text, reminds us that Pharoah’s daughter did indeed name the baby Moses, but not until he was returned to her after three years of Yocheved’s care.  Prior to that, the story only refers to ‘hayeled’ – the boy.  Did Amram and Yocheved hesitate to name their child, perhaps in anticipatory grief that he would one day be torn away from them?  That, tragically, can also be a model of family relationships in times of oppression.

 

Adonai was in this place…

This week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei, includes the verse: Yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh, v’anochi lo yadati (28:16).  The Lord was in this place, and I did not know it.

My question is:  Why was Jacob initially unaware of God’s presence in that place?

Makom means place.  It appears 6 times in this brief story.  With the exception of holy sites in Israel, Jews don’t often focus on connecting God to physical space or place.  We orient holiness to time, not only in the rhythm of our lives but even as a metaphor for perceiving God.

For example, Adon Olam, the greatest or, at least, most successful liturgical piyyut, presents a time portrait of God.  In one of his lectures, Rabbi Reuven Kimelman has made a convincing case for interpreting the word olam as time and not as space.   The piyyut incorporates time-linked words like b’terem and l’et, and switches tenses between past, present and future, as with (malakh, nikra) or (hayah/hoveh/yihye).

Even ‘Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh’ – the way God introduces Godself to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14), suggests that God is about time.  JPS does not translate this Name, and Alter gives it as “I will be Who I will be,” a name that moves toward the future.  This time-oriented Name contrasts with the space-oriented Name, HaMakom (literally, “The Place”), that we sometimes give God.  And I would argue that Moses’ experience of God at the burning bush, with its emphasis on time, is greater than Jacob’s at his rock, where we focus on place.

In fact, Judaism consistently values time over place.  Thinking back to the Creation story: when God reviews God’s Creation, we are told “vayar ki tov” – and God saw that it was tov, good.  In contrast, when God creates the Sabbath, we understand that “vayivarekh A’ et yom hashvi’i vayikadesh oto”  — God blessed the 7th day and hallowed it.  That’s a step up from ‘tov’.

But Jacob’s experience surprises me.  Why does he say of God’s presence at the rock, “v’anochi lo yadati” (I did not know it)?  I am surprised by his question because Jacob strikes me as a person more natural at interpreting space than time.

In fact, he’s a person who has trouble with timing.

–There’s the timing of his birth; despite efforts at grabbing Esau’s heel, he can’t pull off being born first.

–When he marries, he’s stymied because of the timing of Leah and Rachel’s births.

–When he comes to his old age, his time is filled with bitterness despite his many gifts in life.

–He endures long years without Joseph, describing himself as someone living on earth but whose spirit has gone down to She’ol.

Indeed, time is hard on Jacob.

In contrast, in the physical and material world, Jacob enjoys great success.

–Jacob uses porridge to buy Esau’s birthright.

–Jacob wears animal skins to fake Esau’s appearance to receive his father’s blessing.

–Unlike his father, he’s the one who can roll stones off the mouths of wells to impress his intended.

–In dividing the flocks with Laban, he breeds the goats to his advantage.

–Unlike his forebears, he is prolific father of many.

But at the rock, in this special place,  Jacob cries, “v’anochi lo yadati‘”, initially unaware of an experience linked to the physical world.

Traditional commentators are not as surprised as I am.  They explain that Jacob is self-critical, aware of his short-comings.  Seforno suggests that Jacob lamented not having prepared himself to receive the revelation he experienced. Rashi suggests that Jacob regretted having fallen asleep in such a holy place.  Samuel David Luzzato wonders whether Jacob was ashamed for having regretted having to sleep in the open field instead of recognizing the holiness of the place.

These comments seem to me just to excuse Jacob.  He has a real problem:  how can you experience God’s presence connected to a place?  How is God “ba”makom – in a space?

I love the images of God that connect to timelessness.  But even an image of God as space is revealing, though difficult.  The Midrash Bereishit Rabba 68:12 says, for example, “The Holy One, Blessed is God, is the place of the world, but God’s world is not God’s place.”  Perhaps this means that God envelopes the world, but the world does not exhaust him.  God is infinite in space, too, as well as in time. Maybe Jacob’s experience is this: We experience the flow of time, so we have a sense that time is limitless in the universe.  But that is not our experience of space, so it’s harder to imagine how God can be in physical space and yet not bound by it.

And so this pasuk, ‘yesh adonai bamakom hazeh v’anokhi lo yadati – is potent with images that ask us to extend our ability to perceive God.

(Please visit an adjacent post to see the accompanying embroidery for this drash, Jacob’s Ladder.)

 

“Do I HAVE to be happy?” Thoughts for Sukkot

This essay first appeared in the 2004 issue of Kerem: Creative Explorations in Judaism (www.kerem.org).

 

Sukkot is zeman simchateinu, the season of our joy, the holiday when we are commanded to be happy. I never thought too much about the oddity of being commanded to be happy until Sukkot 1993/5754. I had just two months earlier gone into clinical remission from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and in three odd ways during that experience, Sukkot had crept into my subconscious.

The first time was immediately after I was diagnosed, in March 1993. I returned home from the initial doctor’s appointment, and spent the next two days organizing my affairs. I filed bills, laid out life insurance forms in obvious places, balanced checkbooks and organized credit card receipts. I brought the photo album up to date, a practice I maintained over the next five years on the eve of every semi-annual CAT-scan.   (Rabbi Eliezer says, “Repent a day before your death” but I maintain, “Update your photo album a day before your death.”) Then, I went to Victoria’s Secret and bought a pair of satin pajamas. I walked away from the cash register thinking “Well, I started off doing Yom Kippur, and now I’ve just done Sukkot.” I couldn’t verbalize what satin pajamas had to do with Sukkot, though at the time the parallels seemed obvious to me.

That spring, a woman I knew who was being treated for Hodgkins disease finished her course of chemotherapy, a few months before I did. I took her out for lunch, and was puzzled to see her mood so agitated rather than celebratory. I asked her why she wasn’t happy about her remission. For me at the time, getting past chemo would surely be a joyous triumph. “Look,” she badgered me. “Why should I be happy just because I don’t have cancer anymore? I’m thirty-four years old. I wasn’t SUPPOSED to get cancer in the first place!” Her hostility surprised me, and I responded with a wry, “Well, I’m 35, that must explain it!” She glared at me and I thought I should say something quick. At the time, I was benefiting greatly from a support group sponsored by the Lymphoma Foundation of America, so I suggested to her that she might attend as well, or find another suitable group. Among the ones I listed for her was the organization “Make Today Count.” Her reaction was instant and angry. “I don’t want to ‘make today count,’”, she growled. “I want to waste today, just like everyone else gets to do.” Instantly I got a flash of thinking about Sukkot.

Next, when I went into clinical remission that summer, I started calling the Jewish bookstores in July, asking what prices they were offering on pre-made s’khakh (organic roofing for the sukkah). The owner said, “Lady! It’s July! Why are you worried about s’khakh? Call me in September.” I didn’t have a good answer for him. I imagined explaining to him that perhaps I would be dead in September, so I needed to order the s’khakh now. I imagined him responding “Lady!” Nu, so why would you need the s’khakh then, anyway?” So I sheepishly agreed to call back in September, and quietly hung up. That Sukkot seemed to resonate so much that season puzzled me.

Satin pajamas are luxurious. Is Sukkot? Well, certain aspects are. It’s a week of relaxing into the evening with good foods and friends, after a tough ten or forty day season of teshuvah. Finally, it seems that we get to waste a little time after all that work of self-examination. From a kid’s point of view, it’s downright fun. We build a funny booth, sleep and eat outdoors, decorate it, and parade around in shul during hoshanot. Secure in the sukkah with a wafting steamy stew and bundled in tightly with friends, we sense the same cloud of protection with which God guided us through the wilderness.

But like any good Jewish symbol, the sukkah has two-sided imagery. Matzah, for example, is both the bread of affliction, lechem ‘oni, yet also a symbol of our freedom. What about Sukkot? Sitting in a sukkah, we symbolically experience God’s protection, yet we sit vulnerably outdoors under an open roof. The stew is thick and steamy, but dried leaves from the s’khakh are falling in. We recall celebrating the harvest together as pilgrims in Jerusalem, yet we are also reminded of the Exodus, of taking the risk of fleeing to the wilderness.

So being happy is not so apparent. It’s psychologically demanding to be happy precisely when your physical protection is the most fragile. With a certain resignation you learn to be content with the harvest you have, when the work is behind you, finished, and past second-guessing.

It’s a bit like being congratulated on having just survived cancer, while meanwhile you’re wondering how soon you’ll have the nerve to waste a day, just like everyone else gets to do.

*   *   *   *   *

Is Sukkot a logical choice of festivals to follow Yom Kippur? Here you’ve been holed up in shul, contemplating how you’ve lived your life, and now you have to go out into the world and make life happen again, informed by the paradigm of the day. But part of you resists. You seemed to be getting along just fine before Yom Kippur, why did living have to become so urgent? It’s like going into remission, and trying to figure out how to resume life again. You weren’t supposed to get cancer, after all, as my friend said, so why should life have to be different now?

Yes, Sukkot is a guide for life after Yom Kippur, precisely because it presents so many different images. The food is warm and plentiful; the booth is flimsy and open to the elements. You waste a little time in the evening; in the morning Hallel you declare zeh ha-yom asah Adonai—this is the day God made. You are secure under the protection of the Cloud of Glory that covered the sukkot of the wandering Israelites; yet you are wandering through enemy territory over harsh terrain. The work of the harvest has been accomplished, but now it must last you through the oncoming, unknown winter. In the megillah reading for the festival, Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) promises that you’ll have a time to laugh; he warns darkly that there is a time to weep. It would be delusory giddiness to rejoice only in that which is fun and secure; it is happiness to recognize that the festival is both the warm stew and the dried leaves that fall in it.

It is not natural or easy to submit to that distinction. It helps to be commanded.