the end of the road

this week’s ve’zot ha’bracha, in which moshe blesses each of the tribes individually and makes his final good-byes, marks the closing parsha of our yearly torah cycle.  he then hikes up to the top of mount nevo where God shows him the entirety of the land that was once promised to abraham, isaac, and jacob.  after seeing what they could only dream of, moshe, our leader and prophet, dies without ever entering the land.  in the way of epitaphs, the Torah remembers moshe as a prophet “כאשר ידעו ה’ פנים אל–פנים, whom the Lord knew face to face” (devarim 34:10).

what does it mean to know God face-to-face?  rashi understands this to mean that moshe spoke with God whenever he wanted.  and presumably, that at each of this moments, God listened to moshe and God responded to him.   the Torah has spent the past five books introducing us to God and bringing us into a commanded, covenantal relationship with Him.  rarely, do characters other than moshe get to speak directly with Him, let alone be spoken to in return.  rather, the dynamic is set early on in shmot, that the rest of us can’t handle being in such direct contact with God.  instead, all communication must instead be funneled through moshe.

in keeping with the theme of blessings that is the namesake to this parsha, i’d like to give each of us a final blessing as we sit with moshe’s death.  i hope that we too can cultivate a relationship with God in which we turn to Him and talk to Him whenever we feel compelled.  whether in moments of joy or sadness, moments of anxiety or fear.  and, that when we do talk to Him, we feel with surety that we are meeting God face-to-face and that He hears our voices.

i talk to myself
alone, in an empty room,
as if in prayer.

but, i feel something.
You surround me in this space.
prayer becomes two-way.

soon, we begin again,
but for now, let’s appreciate this sense of suspension,

avi

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האזינו, ha’azinu

September 27, 2011

howl in the darkness

the language of parshat ha’azinu seems to be in a poetic world of its own, amidst the torah verses that surround it.  a prophetic moshe, nearing the end of both his journey and his life, spews forth a mixture of his own words with God’s in another rage against the people’s disobedience.

according to moshe, “ימצאהו בארץ מדבר ובתוהו ילל ישמון יסבבנהו יבוננהו … He found him in the wilderness land, in the waste of the howling desert.  He encircled him and gave mind to him” (devarim 32:10, trans. robert alter)

this visual is nothing short of striking and disturbing.  i am immediately reminded of allen ginsberg’s howl in which he depicts the “best minds of [his] generation destroyed by madness.”  this jewish people, lost and raving in the desert, are the same great minds of whom allen ginsberg writes.  they are desperate seekers, searching for love, for community, for meaning, for God, for some sort of wisdom they can tap into which will make it all make sense.  “who wandered around and around at midnight in the railroad yard wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts…” (ginsberg).

in the jewish story, God finds this lost people in the desert and hands them the answer: the Torah.  a set of rules and stories compiled to tell us how to live and toward whom to direct our search for meaning.  seemingly, the Torah solves this dilemma of meaning neatly for generations to come.  the question is:  did it ever really work?  and, if so, does it still work for us now?

exposed in the wild,
wind howling at my back,
questions at my ears.

sometimes finds herself lost in the desert,

avi

please, check out this first bit of howl.  or, full version here.

howl by allen ginsberg

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
      madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
      looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
      connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat
      up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats
      floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El
      and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated…
—-

here's hoping.

in this week’s double parsha nitzavim and va’yelech, we edge closer and closer to our separation with moshe and our coming together in the land of israel.  as God runs through His final instructions with moshe, He reveals that no sooner than moshe dies and the people enter the land, they are going to sin, sin, sin.  they’re going to turn away from God, they’re going to worship foreign idols, and God is going to dissolve the very covenant we’ve spent the last long while going over.

on first glance, there is something incredibly damning and disheartening in presenting the downfall of b’nei yisrael as an inevitable reality.  and yet, i wonder given that God knows b’nei yisrael will turn away, and still He invests so much time and energy in the jewish project, maybe that alone should give us hope.

a further puzzlement in this parsha is God’s solution for how to get us back on track after we fall subject to other gods and kings.  God advises moshe to write down “this song” and to place it in our mouths.  many gods and devastations later, we’ll awake from our heartache, with these words still in our mouths and the memory of God still in our hearts.  and my question is this:  if we are able to forget everything, to turn away from it all, how can He be so sure that we’ll remember the song that will bring us back?

moshe:
they won’t remember
if you have no faith in them,
why have faith in words?

God:
it’s that melody
that someone once sang somewhere
drifting in and out

if only we could remember those melodies,

avi

כי תבא

September 16, 2011

the skies will be copper

parshat ki tavo, in which God reveals His master plan of divine reward and punishment, is a doozy to read.  and by doozy, i mean incredibly difficult and theologically challenging.  God unleases a litany of curses that will befall the israelites if they fail to obey the covenant.  and lest you think “hey, this curse isn’t so bad.  i can take it,” there’s at least 20 other horrifying consequences from which to choose.  your carcass might be come birdfood, you may end up eating your young, you may even wake up to a world where the earth is iron and sand rains down from copper skies.

i know there are different models out there on parenting and discipline but this is pretty extreme even for tough love.  and this mode of relating to God is just not doing it for me.  i choose the God whose ways, in which i aspire to walk, are those of generosity and compassion.  a God who extends a hand to those who are less fortunate, who strives to see himself in the stranger, and who is continuously working towards a more perfect existence.  that is the God i have come to know and that is the God i will follow into this new promised land.

this god of violence
who takes delight in terror
you, i do not know

thankfully, there’s something for everyone in the Torah,

avi

כי תצא, ki tetse

September 5, 2011

silent

parshat ki tetse brims with examples where the men make decisions that crucially impact the women, while their opinions are completely absent from the equation.  in fact, their voices have been so successfully silenced, that often unless you were looking for them, you might not even notice they were missing in the first place.

in parshat ki tetse, we meet the attractive woman who catches the eye of her captor, is taken from her family, and find herself mourning for her parents in the home of this new male stranger.  we have the sad case of the woman who due to an ערות דבר, a shamefully exposed thing (translation: robert alter) finds herself unwanted by her new husband.  she is then sent forth from this first man to become the wife of a second man who also comes to hate her.  and then, the Torah specifies that the first man cannot take this woman back as his wife because that would a תועבה, an abhorrence before the Lord.  great, but what about this woman who is being cast about from one husband to another and back again?

its her voice i’m interested in hearing.

i’m in the background.
but look closely and you’ll see,
my lips are moving.

here’s where we come in,

avi

שופטים, shoftim

September 2, 2011

you shall establish

in this week’s parshat shoftim, moshe ensures the people that he will not be the last prophet to walk among them and speak the word of God.  rather, God will raise up another prophet to serve as a guide for the people, placing His words in his mouth and acting through him.

for forty years, the jewish people have completely depended on moshe, trusting that he is the direct link to God’s will.  and now, a huge change is brewing.  moshe is about to die.  a new leader is stepping up.  and the people are on the brink of crossing into new, unseen territories.  the question is:  how will the people recognize this mysterious new prophet?  how will they know if he is really speaking the word of God?  to whom will they look to answer the questions relevant to their times?

thousands of years later, we find ourselves in this same historic moment, facing a similar conundrum.  we are increasing challenged with modern day questions, forced to wonder “just what did God intend by that verse?” and “what would He think about such and such situation?”  and yet, where is the prophet to which we can turn for the direct revelation of God’s words?

we’re out here wondering,
still there? where did we go wrong?
static on the line.

to the prophet within each of us,

avi

ראה, re’eh

August 21, 2011

...still.

this week’s parshat re’eh teaches a bit of the old mixed with some of the new.  the old:  don’t worship other gods.  this is something pretty fundamental to our covenant with God that we’ve covered several times over in other places of the Torah.  however, the bit of the new: don’t worship אלוהים אחרים אשר לא ידעתם, other gods that you did not know (devarim 28:11).  so, the question is:  what is gained by this added phrase “אשר לא ידעתם”?  isn’t enough to have just written “don’t worship any other gods” at all?

this is the part of signing on to the covenant with God that strikes me as quite akin to getting married.  when we get married, we do something sort of crazy.  we not only commit ourselves to this person for the time being, given everything we know and all of the options formerly and currently availed to us, but we say, regardless of whomever and whatever comes my way, i’m going to choose you.

and this is exactly what God is asking of us.  God’s saying, “okay, maybe now you’re willing to accept me as your God.  and now, you’re not so quick to run after those other gods.  but that’s not what i’m worried about.  i’m not worried about the gods you’ve already encountered in the past or the gods that you see other people worshipping now.  i’m worry about thirty years down the line, when times are hard, and some other god turns your way, and well… i’m afraid you’ll return the glance.”

can’t begin to know
what thing(s) may lead me from you
but to you, i swear

optimistic,

avi

 

עקב, ekev

August 16, 2011

on the border

on the border, still

there’s not so much new here in parshat ekev.  moshe continues to reiteritate the people’s indebtedness to God and the importance of upholding “ומצותיו ,משפטיו ,חוקותיו: His commandments, laws, and rules” (devarim 8:11).  but buried within moshe’s retelling of חטא העגל (sin of the golden calf), an interesting discrepancy arises.

here’s the scene: moshe’s just received the ten commandments, a hugely important moment for the jewish people.  he and God are having a moment together when suddenly God sees those stiff-necked people down there making a molten golden calf to worship in the absence of their leader.  God says to moshe, “רד מהר כי שחת עמך אשר הוצאת ממצרים: hurry, go down, because your people that you brought from egypt have acted wickedly” (devarim 9:12).  notice God’s language:  your people.  that you brought out.  the burden of responsibility falls on moshe.

scene change just moments later:  moshe’s trying to convince God not to destroy the entire jewish people in His anger.  moshe says to God, “והם עמך ונחלתך אשר הוצאת בכחך ובזרועך הנטויה: yet they are Your people that You brought out in Your great might and Your outstretched arm” (devarim 9: 29).   moshe refuses to let God off the hook so easily.  these are Your people, You brought them out, and You can’t give up on them so easily.

in this together,
let’s not go pointing fingers.
parenting is rough.

when the going gets tough, stick together,

avi

ואתחנן, va’etchanan

August 11, 2011

you are getting sleepy

in this week’s parshat va’etchanan, moshe attempts to perform the greatest magic trick of all time:  to convince an entire nation, to truly make them believe, that they were all somewhere where they were not.

the ideas of forgetting and remembering dominate this parsha in which once again moshe details all the laws and decrees by which בני ישראל are bound in their service to God.  moshe struggles with a crucial question in this long reiteration of the convenant before בני ישראל:  how do you ensure a lasting continuity of collective memory and halachic practice when with each successive generation the covenant is forgotten and remembered anew?

as it is, the very first generation, the generation that was actually present at sinai and actually entered into the convenant “face-to-face,” went astray in the desert and was banned from entering the land.  how can we possibly believe this next generation, who wasn’t there at all, will carry on the tradition any better?

in response, moshe recounts the experience of revelation, the voice admist the fire, asserting that “it was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today.  face to face the Lord spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire” (devarim 5: 3-4).  i don’t know how successful this attempt to create within us a lasting memory really was.  but, i certainly appreciate moshe’s urgency to give us something to remember, something to own, and something to believe was truly ours all along.

on the count of three,
you’ll wake and believe you saw,
קול מתוך האש (voice admist the fire)

here’s to memories as vivid and real as yesterday,

avi

דברים, devarim

August 4, 2011

tell your story

in this week’s parshat devarim, moshe becomes a master of words.  his new-found verbosity is notable given how lacking he was in the words department forty years back.  but, a lot has changed both with the jewish people and with moshe.  and now, as the people are finally about to enter the promised land, moshe takes this opportunity to recount the narrative of the jewish people and in so doing, recounts his own personal narrative as well.

i once heard on a radiolab podcast entitled “memories” that the most accurate memories are those that have not been recalled.  if somehow it were possible to leave a memory be, to even forget the memory for awhile, only to remember it fifty years later, that that recalled memory would be more “true” than the favorite childhood story told and retold.

needless to say, in moshe’s retelling of both his and the jewish people’s story throughout the “כל המדבר הגדול והנורא, great and terrible wilderness” (devarim 1:19), many details have been omitted, reshaped, or even completely fabricated.  and understandably so.  we all continously rewrite our own histories depending on where we find ourselves in the moment of their retelling.  the past, and its retelling, seems not to be a fixed truth but rather something of a more fluid nature, that shifts as we shift, that integrates itself to flow seemlessly into the details of our present.

we tell and retell,
rewriting our histories
till fiction remains.

in retelling our histories, may we remember their origin,

avi