The Pain That Cuts Deep

Nearly 20 years ago, I wrote a poem called Why I Write Poetry, in which, spoiler alert, I offer a series of reasons why poetry writing appeals to me. And, in one line, I proclaim: I write poetry because I like the look of ink on a yellow pad. When I use a red pen, the words appear to be written in blood.

Recently, I tried to recall what I was thinking about when I wrote those words. To “write in blood,” is a metaphor, of course; one that implies a kind of existential importance to the words being written; a suggestion that, with the turn of a phrase, the poet can create or destroy. I think I must have been feeling very full of myself back then, to have written such a self-aggrandizing line.

This week’s parsha poem, in honor of Shavuoth and the recently commemorated Yom Hazikharon, is entitled, The Pain That Cuts Deep, and it comes from a different place, from a humbler poet; one who knows what it feels like to watch a son become a soldier; a poet who has reached a point in life where he understands, that ink is ink and blood is blood and the power to create and destroy, as if one were a god, is nothing but a self-aggrandizing illusion.

 

The Pain That Cuts Deep

…a youth and a lass slowly march toward the nation…dressed in battle gear, dirty…full of endless fatigue, yet the dew of youth is still seen on their head…then a nation, in tears and amazement will ask: “Who are you?” And they will answer quietly, “we are the silver platter on which the Jewish nation was given.”

–Natan Alterman, The Silver Platter

When my son was 10, he insisted we stay up all
night on Shavuoth studying, according to the ancient
tradition. Balancing the need for a good night’s sleep
against the pleasure of spending time with my boy,
it was an easy choice and when I asked him what he
wanted to learn, he said poems:

But Jewish poems, abba.

That night we read dozens of poems—Jewish poems—
until it was time for the morning prayer. He was the youngest
person in the room. When we walked home, I asked him which
poem he liked best and he said (almost too quickly):

Alterman, The Silver Platter.

When my son was 13, with a sweet jump-shot but 4 inches
too short and 30 pounds too light to make the team, he wailed
on the car ride home like the child he was. But the grief and loss
were real and deep. And though I understood why he’d been cut
(in more ways than one), I had to pull over, halfway home,
unable to see the road through my own sodden eyes. But I knew
what he did not; he would never be cut from a team again.

When my son was 16, he told me he needed to go to Poland
to see the death camps. Money, I told him, was tight and
he said he’d pay the $2,000 himself. I asked him why it was
so important and he answered with a question:

How can I pass up the privilege of being a witness?

And, as if I needed more convincing:

That generation is almost gone. The witnesses must tell their stories.

When my son was 18, he told me he was joining the Israeli army.
When I asked him why, he answered, again, with a question:

How can I pass up the privilege to serve in the first Jewish army since Bar Kokhba?

Afraid, knowing the now well-built point-guard with a killer jump-shot
would not have a desk job, I said, in a voice, too harsh:

This isn’t a novel; you’re not Ari Ben Canaan.

Instead of responding in kind and with a literary reference
better than mine, he disarmed me:

The Jewish nation, he said, wasn’t given on a silver platter.

When he was 24, my son, the lieutenant, came home on furlough.
He does not discuss his life as a soldier and this is probably best
for all concerned. And he has never spoken about the camps,
though I have asked. But that’s okay. When he is called,
the witness will take the stand.

Throughout the too-short visit, just to look at him leads me to tears.
But I make no effort to conceal my sodden eyes. Matt learned, long ago,
to appreciate the pain that cuts deep. And though he is now, forever,
beyond the dew of youth, I do not have to ask him who he is.

He is the boy who stayed up one night to read poems with his abba.

He is the silver platter on which my life was given.

Boys Fool Themselves That They Can Fly

On the day that Jeff died, I drove to his childhood home. He had not lived there for 30 years, but I remembered the address—2907 W. Gregory—and it was almost as if my car took me there guided by some sort of mind-reading cruise control. I half-expected to see Jeff’s rusty ’69 Subaru in front of the house and Jeff shooting hoops in the driveway.

How many hours did we spend together, going one-on-one, practicing our crossover dribbles, shooting jumpers? We’d play without regard to the clock until, drenched in sweat, the dusk making it hard to see, we would sit on the stoop in front of the house and talk, sometimes until the street lights came on. And, then, we’d pick up the ball and play some more.

As I sat there on that awful day, wondering how I was supposed to mourn my best friend of 35 years, my sadness turned to rage. I couldn’t remember what we used to talk about nor could I summon Jeff’s voice. I shook the steering wheel hard enough to rock the car.

And, then, this silly line from Jabberwocky popped into my head and I laughed out loud: “The time has come,” the Walrus said, “to talk of many things: Of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings and why the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings.”

Obsessed with poetry from the age of 12, I had this annoying habit of quoting passages from poems I was reading. Once, I recited that exact line to Jeff who thought it, and poetry for that matter, stupid. And, in that moment, I was transported back 30 years and heard his familiar voice assure me that I would “never…ever…ever” have a girlfriend. It was the second “ever”—ironically poetic—that made me laugh.

Jeff and I became friends during the first semester of our freshman year at the Ida Crown Jewish Academy. He called me one night around 10 o’clock and asked me to help him write a paper. “Sure,” I said, “When’s it due?” “Tomorrow,” he replied, “But not until 3rd period so we have plenty of time.” And he said this without an ounce of guile or sarcasm and with such great charm, that I wrote the paper for him.

Jeff, like anyone, experienced some difficulties in his life. He graduated from college but struggled to make a living. He married, but it was a terrible match and he spent years ensnared in costly and vicious divorce proceedings.

However, his life wasn’t all bad. He had two children, whom he adored, and after his divorce was finalized, he met a nice woman and they fell in love. At age 44, working full-time as a paralegal, he decided to go to law school at night and after five years was waiting for his test results from the California Bar.

And then he died.

Jeff loved to quote famous Jewish stories or aphorisms. He was partial, in particular, to Pirkei Avoth.

He appreciated the relatively simple language of the Mishna and the big ideas on virtually every page. This wasn’t endless, mind-numbing Talmudic sophistry about the consequences of, say, an ox goring another ox. There were, after all, few oxen roaming the streets of Budlong Woods in those days. No, Pirkei Avoth was about how a Jew ought to carry himself in the world. It spoke to Jeff’s innate goodness, to his spirit, to his Jewish soul.

I remember he liked to quote the following sayings:

  • In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.
  • He who acquires a good name has, indeed, acquired something.
  • You’re not expected to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.

But his favorite passage of all was: “Ben Zoma said, And who is the wealthy one? He who is content with his lot.”

As much as Jeff aspired to be such a man, he sometimes wavered. We lived in different cities for 20 years but talked on the phone 4 or 5 times a week and I remember one call, a couple days before he died, in which he challenged me: “Why doesn’t God perform flashy miracles anymore? Has he lost his touch? Let God appear before me in a burning bush that does not consume itself!”

Annoyed by his theatrics but sensing his pain, I felt no need to engage him in debate. Instead, I tried to lighten the mood with a familiar joke each of us had offered to the other, countless times:

“What would Ben Zoma say?”

This time, Jeff’s answer scared me. He quoted the famous Talmudic legend of the 4 men who enter Paradise: Ben Azzai, Elisha Ben Abuya, Rabbi Akiva and our old friend Ben Zoma. Ben Azzai died, Elisha Ben Abuya became a heretic and Rabbi Akiva emerged unscathed. But Ben Zoma, Jeff reminded me, went insane.

Uncomfortable and unsure how to respond, I quickly changed the subject and, soon, we said goodbye.

It was the last time we spoke.

I sat in my car for a long time, but before I drove home, I remembered the night before Jeff left for college. He was going to Yeshiva University and I was staying in Chicago. We had been playing ball in the driveway under the street lights, not keeping score. As long as we kept playing, we didn’t have to talk. As long as we kept playing, we could pretend this wasn’t the last time we’d ever be together like this.

It was close to midnight and Jeff asked if I still had the key to the Academy that I was given when I was elected president of the student council. When I showed him the key, which I had kept as a souvenir, never expecting to use it again, he got this look on his face that told me our evening was not yet over.

It was a 10-minute drive to the school. It’s unthinkable now, but in 1977 there was no alarm system or security detail, so we let ourselves in and raced to the gym. This was the place we were most at ease in the world; a sanctuary from our fears and doubts, from troubles at home or the pain of an unrequited love, the place where we pushed our bodies to grow strong and swift, where we took pride in the uniform, where we learned that, in this world, nothing worthwhile is given and that sacrifice doesn’t necessarily assure success. This was the place where we discovered that victory is never as rewarding as you think it will be, nor is loss as devastating. This was the sacred place where cheerleaders called out our names: “Jeffrey, Jeffrey, he’s our man, if he can’t do it, David can!”

We tried to calculate the number of hours each of us had spent there in practice and games and agreed it was far more than either of us had spent studying. But, this gym was no less a classroom than the others throughout the building, where we plodded through Talmud, Tanach, Hebrew grammar, math and science; subjects we tolerated during the interminable days because, at 5:30, when school let out, we were rewarded with the ball and the hoop.

We couldn’t figure out how to turn on the lights but our eyes soon adjusted to the dark. We found a couple of basketballs in the corner of the gym and began a game of H-O-R-S-E, talking only when describing the shot the other had to take: “Close your eyes. Half-court. Off the backboard.” We were relieved to concentrate on the game; to sublimate our emotions, which we couldn’t bear to discuss.

After a while, we decided to see whether we could find any food in the cafeteria. It was locked but Jeff noticed a large, white, bakery box in a garbage bin outside. He opened it to find a dozen giant sugar cookies, each one heavy with a mound of buttercream frosting. It didn’t matter that they were probably stale. It didn’t matter that our mothers would pass out if they knew their sons were eating pastries from a dumpster.

Jeff carried the box into the gym and I followed him. It was after 2:00am and we were exhausted. He placed the box at center court and laid down on his back next to it, propping his head up with the one of basketballs. I laid down on the other side of the box and did the same. Then, we stared into the darkness and ate until the box was empty; the buttercream frosting melting against the roofs of our mouths.

And, then, Jeff said, “It’s going to get hard now, isn’t it?” As close as we were, I didn’t realize, until that moment, that he was terrified of the future. I didn’t know what to say. Without thinking, I stammered a meaningless platitude, “It’s going to be great; you’re going to be great.”

He didn’t respond right away. The exhaustion, the emotion, the 3,000 calories he had just ingested, must have weighed on him. Or, maybe Jeff knew things wouldn’t be great at all.

I looked at him and could see he was struggling to stay composed. I was struggling myself. That either of us would cry in front of the other, at age 18, was simply not a possibility. And after a long while, without an ounce of guile or sarcasm, and in recognition of the enormity of the moment, he said:

“You know, Dave…this…you should really write a poem about this.”

And more than 30 years later, hardly able to believe he was gone, I did.

In my dream I hear the drum of balls
And am transported back across the years.
So simple then were my life’s protocols
And in the dream a memory reappears.
We sprint, we shoot, we run our drills,
Our sweat drips to the floor,
Hoping that the work instills,
The strength to fly, to soar.
A teammate passes the leather sphere,
I squeeze its pebbled grain to get a grip,
And all distractions round me disappear,
Amidst the humble joy of fellowship.
Boys fool themselves that they can fly.
Men know the truth and all such truth implies.

What else but a sonnet, for this boy that I loved?

When I consider the life and death of my friend, trying to make sense of it all, I always return to Ben Zoma.

Who is the wealthy man? He who is content with his lot.

For a long time, I thought Jeff found these words comforting because he never made much money. But, eventually, I realized I couldn’t be more wrong. He understood exactly what Ben Zoma meant, what so many of us fail to grasp; a person’s net worth has nothing to do with their self-worth.

Jeff understood the oft-quoted modern-day aphorism, whose language, syntax and substance sounds as if taken directly from Pirkei Avoth: “Every day is a bank account. Time is the currency. No one is rich. No one is poor. We each have 24 hours.”

Though the world had bruised him, Jeff was content. He knew his life had value.

And what was his value?

  • He strived to be a man.
  • He did what he could to acquire a good name.
  • And, no matter how hard or endless the work, he never gave up.

And what of miracles, what of that burning bush? A few years ago, I came across a commentary of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin on the miracles of the exodus from Egypt: “Just as there are no answers for the heretic,” he wrote, “there are no miracles for the skeptic.”

And I thought of Jeff. As sad as he was near the end of his life, as abandoned as he may have felt, I hope he understood that the burning bush is no more miraculous than the bush itself. That the fire that burns but does not consume, smolders deep within, even, the skeptic.

No miracle could’ve saved Ben Azzai from an early death, Elisha Ben Abuya from his apostasy, or Ben Zoma from losing his mind. And Rabbi Akiva needed no miracles to substantiate his faith. Each of them were on their own, personal journeys, expressing their respective free wills, in accordance with God’s intention.

God owes us no blindfolded-half-court shots, no fancy parlor tricks. And though the spirits of each of these four seekers of paradise resided deep within the reservoir of his doubts, I think Jeff knew that paradise isn’t a physical place or degree of material comfort; but a state of mind that we can enter at any time.

I want to believe that, even in his darkest moments, Jeff understood that life, life itself, is the miracle; precious and finite, sweet as buttercream frosting.

Haman’s Ears, or Why Change Isn’t Always for the Better

Purim is known as a time of revelry. The anti-Semites wanted to kill us, we thwarted their plans and, then, in retaliation, killed 75,500 of them in a 3-day bloody frenzy, after which, we partied. This historical record explains why, on the 15th of Adar, we drink to excess, hold festive meals, perform in Purim shpiels, and don costumes; dressing our kids as Power Rangers, Optimus Prime and Minions. Except for the girls, since they cannot be part of a minion.

So, I suppose one could say the lesson of Purim is to find laughter and joy in the face of adversity, which is somewhat surprising for a people whose Torah and rabbis are mostly devoid of humor. Oh, there’s the business about Abraham having to entertain guests right after circumcising himself with a sharp stone at age 99 that has sitcom written all over it, and one of the rabbis of the Talmud even took a try at comedy; when asked why the oceans are so salty, he answered, “because of all the salt-herring who live there.” Not exactly Evening at the Improv.

And yet, the Children of Israel have not only produced great thinkers, fighters, and scholars but Jerry Seinfeld, Billy Crystal, Mel Brooks, and Kenny Marks. You may have never heard of Kenny Marks, but in 7th grade he made me laugh so hard at lunch one day, that half a turkey sandwich came out of my nose; including the crust. That’s a funny Jew.

Therefore, in honor of Kenny Marks and the holiday of Purim, I offer you this week’s parsha poem, entitled Haman’s Ears, or Why Change Isn’t Always for the Better.

 

Haman’s Ears, or Why Change Isn’t Always for the Better

On the holiday of Purim, Jews have a strange custom to which everyone adheres:
we eat Haman’s ears.

Though eating an anti-Semite’s body part seems cannibalistic, something of which
the religion surely does not approve, a tradition is a tradition, as sang Tevya in
Act One of Fiddler on the Roof.

This odd practice arose to show contempt for Haman and prove that, with faith,
one can conquer all fears.

Good reasons, both, to eat someone’s ears.

Why not his fingers and toes?

Nobody knows.

What is strange, though, is that of all the enemies who have persecuted us throughout the years, the only bad guy’s appendage we consume, is Haman’s ears.

Certainly he was an evil adversary, but his monopoly of the hatemonger pastry trade,
probably violates the Sherman Act and is, at the very least, exclusionary.

It seems that a resourceful Jewish cook would take the body part concept,
mix some flour, sugar, and eggs, to create a scrumptious cookie called, “Hitler’s Legs.”

Or a tiny treat, sweet as sugar cane, called “Arafat’s Brain.”

How about a confection made with bright red cherries, that would delight the palate of any desert aficionado or aficionada and bring to mind the bloodthirsty First Grand Inquisitor of Spain, Tomas de Torquemada?

Any combination of Jew-hater, and limb, organ, or bodily fluid will suffice, especially if it tastes nice.

Although a pastry called “Osama’s Nose,” no matter how tasty, wouldn’t sell, I suppose.

Who, after all, would be willing, to eat the filling?

Because

There’s an old joke: God is speaking with Moses and teaching him about halakha (Jewish law). And He says to him: “Remember, Moses, in the laws of keeping kosher, never boil a calf in its mother’s milk.” Moses replies: “So you’re saying we should never eat milk and meat together.” God says: “No, what I’m saying is, never boil a calf in its mother’s milk.” And Moses comes back with: “Oh Lord, forgive my ignorance! What you are really saying is we should wait six hours after eating meat to eat milk so the two are not in our stomachs together.” And God replies: “No, Moses, listen to me. I’m saying, don’t boil a calf in its mother’s milk!!!” Moses says: “Oh, Lord! Please don’t strike me down for my stupidity! What you mean is we should have separate silverware for milk and meat and if we make a mistake we have to kasher the utensil with hot water…” And God interrupts Moses and says: “For God’s sake, Moses, do whatever the hell you want.”

One could debate whether jokes based on deeply-held religious beliefs are funny or appropriate in all company—I once told this joke to a Shabbat table full of friends and was met with stone-faced silence—but from the first time I heard this joke, I understood that in its own way, it’s as profound a statement about halakha as I’ve ever heard.

Observant Jews are bound, equally, by “two” Torahs; one written, one oral. Both were transmitted by God to Moses on Mount Sinai and when the Jews, famously, called out in unison, “Naaseh venishma!” (We will do and we will listen!), it was both Torahs that they accepted. However, because the divine words of the two Torahs are so enigmatic, we rely on generations of Talmudic determinations, rabbinic responsa and the resulting development of countless minhagim (customs) to further elucidate and guide us in the practices that govern our day to day lives.

So, for example, when among the 53 mitzvoth (commandments) that appear in Parashat Mishpatim, we read the strange words, “Lo tevashel g’di, bechalev imo,” (Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk)—the first of 3 separate instances this commandment is mentioned in the Torah—the wheels of this mitzvah’s real-life observance are set in motion.

It turns out the rabbis understand the term “mother’s milk,” as any dairy product, irrespective of its source. And, “boiling,” they say, refers, also, to broiling, baking, frying or roasting. They further determine that meat and dairy should not be eaten together under any circumstances, even if they aren’t cooked together. And, upon further consideration, the rabbis extended the ban to include beef and lamb. And, notwithstanding that Rashi understands the prohibition to specifically exclude fowl, and notwithstanding that Rabbi Akiva and Rav Yosi Ha’Glili debate the subject to a Talmudic draw in Tractate Hulin, and notwithstanding that birds produce no milk, rendering moot at least half of the mitzvah, Rav Yosef Karo, in the 15th century, codified in the Shulchan Arukh, that the meat of birds cannot be cooked or eaten with dairy products.

Rabbinic adjustments such as these are known as “siyagei le-Torah,” or fences around the Torah, which the Rabbis are enjoined to create to protect the mitzvoth from inadvertent violations; in this case, fences most likely constructed out of chicken wire. And so, over two millennia, the rabbis established a myriad of rules and guidelines, leading to the evolution of various minhagim meant to dictate the proper way for a Jew to separate meat and dairy.

This is why, from five narrowly focused words in the Torah, we fill our kitchen with separate milchig, fleishig and pareve utensils, plates, glasses and cutlery. It’s why some install separate dishwashers, microwaves and sinks for milk and meat. It’s why many observant Jews only consume Cholov Yisroel (literally the dairy of Israel), that is, dairy products produced under the supervision of a Jew, who can certify that no milk from non-kosher animals is mixed with the milk from kosher animals. Given that the risk of a non-Jewish dairy purveyor substituting camel or horse milk for Bessie the cow’s is not exactly a 21st century concern, it raises the question of whether paying substantially higher prices for a gallon of milk or block of cheese, produced behind a fence, is necessary.

I’m not suggesting we should be allowed to have a glass of milk with our corned beef sandwiches. And not only because the thought of such a combination is nauseating. Or that it would probably lead to mixed dancing (Sorry, cheap shot. Couldn’t resist). Nor am I suggesting that rabbis don’t have the right to build fences around the Torah. What’s concerning isn’t the fence; it’s the fence around the fence and the deep, crocodile-filled moats we dig around our fences, about which, inevitably, someone will argue “we really ought to erect some fences around those moats.” The tendency to take on chumroth (restrictions) rather than tear down fences that have ceased to be protective, does more to confuse and alienate the observant, than safeguard the mitzvoth they are diligently trying to observe. If I mistakenly use a fleishig utensil to eat a dish of Ben & Jerry’s, can God possibly care if I boil the metal spoon to kasher it or simply use my shirt tail to wipe it clean, and return it to the drawer with no one the wiser?

And, so, my heretical doubts now public, I offer you this week’s parsha poem, entitled Because.

Why’s that the title? Well, just, because.

 

Because

Do not boil a kid, in her mother’s milk
                                         –Exodus 23:19

Because God created the world and saw it was good,
because He created Adam and Eve as helpmates,
because God destroyed the world but had Noah build an ark,
because God let the waters retract and a dove plucked an olive branch,
because Avraham went forth from the land of his birth,
because God promised Avraham children as numerous as the stars,
because Sarah laughed, because an angel said, “Avraham, Avraham,”
and Isaac was saved, because Avraham paid for a burial plot so that
no nation, no group of nations, can ever question who owns that land,
because Yaakov knew how to cook a cholent, because he knew how to
wrestle angels, because he worked an extra seven years to marry Rachel,
and because Rachel weeps for her children and will not be comforted,
because Yosef was a show-off and a dreamer and did not succumb to desire,
because he wept when his father died and returned his bones to Canaan,
because a new Pharaoh rose, who did not know Yosef, because two midwives
saved Jewish babies, because Moses survived a cruise down the Nile
in a makeshift yacht, because the burning bush did not consume itself,
because God commanded Moses to lead the Jews to freedom,
because God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, because there were frogs here,
frogs there, frogs hopping everywhere, because God split the sea and
finished off Pharaoh, because He brought the Jews to a mountain,
raised it above their heads like a barrel and said, “If you accept these
commandments, fine; but if not then here your grave shall be.”
And because the people replied in unison, “We will do and we will listen.”

Because of it all, when I use a spoon from the wrong drawer to eat a bowl of
Chunky Monkey, somewhere, a baby goat sucking at her mother’s teats,
stops for a moment and bleats. The sound travels to the Kingdom of Heaven,
where one of God’s angels takes out a red pen and, scowling, enters a mark
in my permanent record.

It’s the Little Things

When I was 19, and a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a group of us went to climb Mount Sinai. Though I find it difficult to remember the simplest details from my everyday life, I recall, with great clarity, everything about that trip.

We arrive at the foot of the mountain, make camp and, after a dinner of stuffed cabbage from a can, we build a bonfire. We warm ourselves against the surprising desert chill, smear chocolate spread on matzah, tiny grains of sand getting caught in the backs of our throats, as we sing earnest, off-key versions of Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, Erev Shel Shoshanim, Hafinjan; and, when we exhaust our supply of Zionist standards, Fire and Rain, American Pie and Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

As the hours pass, our fellowship fortified by warm slugs of arak, we turn serious for a while. Someone tells the famous Talmudic legend: When God gave the Jews the Ten Commandments, He suspended Mount Sinai above them like a barrel and said: If you accept these commandments—fine, but if not, then here your grave shall be.

An intense debate ensues—the kind only college students have—about determinism, free will, the ego and super-ego. My friend David Trombka quotes Freud, someone else John Stuart Mill, a kid from Y.U. drops the name of Reb Moshe Feinstein and, in case we didn’t get the point that he goes to Y.U., he further cites some European rabbi none of us have heard of, whose name and very existence we’re sure he’s concocted solely to support his argument.

The dialogue is loud and utterly pretentious, but also kind of wonderful. Our collective understanding of the world wouldn’t fill a thimble, but what we lack in experience we make up for in exuberance. When each of us speaks, it’s with the conviction of one who knows that anything is possible. Our appetites are insatiable: for knowledge; for enlightenment; for adventure; for friendship; for love. We are glorious in our hard, healthy bodies, glorious in our youth.

Smitten by a shapely blonde with lovely eyes, who has made it clear she wants nothing to do with me, I recite a passage, by memory, from Tchernichovsky’s epic poem, Man is Nothing But; hoping to impress her:

Man is nothing but the soil of a small country,
nothing but the shape of his native landscape,
nothing but what his ears recorded
when they were new and really heard,
what his eyes saw, before they had their fill of seeing—
everything a wondering child comes across
on the dew-softened paths,
stumbling over every lump of earth, every old stone,
while in a hidden place in his soul, unknown to him,
there’s an altar set up
from which the smoke of his sacrifice rises each day
to the kingdom of the sky, to the stars…

I look across the fire’s dying embers, hoping she has seen my tour de force, hoping to stare into those lovely eyes. Such passion! Such emotion! My mother is right: I am special. Any girl would be lucky to have me. But I see Miss New Jersey of 1979 has fallen asleep. Somehow, she is even prettier in repose. I decide I will recite Tchernichovsky to her on our wedding night.

Woozy from the liquor, I soon doze off as well. And, immediately, I am dreaming I’m there; standing among the 600,000. I feel the ground quake, see the mountain soar into the sky. I am filled with dread and wonder, my life will never be the same. I hear the voice of God fill the cosmos; deafening, but somehow, soft as a caress: “WILL YOU OBEY MY COMMANDMENTS?” I do not hesitate, I answer in unison with the others, accepting the Torah sight unseen: “Naaseh venishma. I will do and I will listen. Hear O’ Israel, The Lord Our God, the Lord is One.”

And, at that exact moment of rapture, Trombka kicks me hard in the ribs. It’s 2am, time to start climbing.

With the moon lighting our way, we begin the ascent on wobbly legs and, at daybreak, sweaty, tired and hungover, we stand on the peak of Mount Sinai. To the east we watch the sun rise over the mountains of Midian—modern-day Saudi Arabia—and to the west we gaze in silent awe as the moon disappears over the ancient Land of Egypt.

We are privileged Americans with fancy hiking boots, our young lives just waiting to be lived. This place is a box to be checked off, another experience in a year of self-absorbed living before entering the world of jobs and marriage and kids and mortgages and receding hairlines and colonoscopies. But, at that extraordinary moment, I feel connected to the past in a way I never have before.

I close my eyes and am back in my dream. I see the Jewish nation, gathered together, waiting to become the Chosen People.

It’s a time of silent contemplation. All temporal desires have been set aside in anticipation of the sacred event. For this single moment in history, the Jews are unified in mind, body and spirit and it is unimaginably peaceful. An unassailable pact has been formed, predicated on God’s solemn promise in Parashat Yitro: “If you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples…And you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation.”

Forget Freud, John Stuart Mill, even Reb Moshe; the truth is in the vista before me. And, at that extraordinary moment, I understand that God has brought me to this time and place to bear witness.

I tell you this story because the giving of the Torah at Sinai is, ultimately, about the never ending Jewish obligation to validate the unshakeable, infinite bond between God and the Jewish people.

But how do we get from there, to creating a Jewish historical chain that begins at Sinai and extends, unbroken, until the end of time?

Well, for one thing, the Torah is explicit in the importance of keeping the memory of Sinai alive. In Parashat Nitzavim, God says to Moshe: “Not with you alone do I seal this covenant, but with whoever is here and with whoever is not here today.” A few passages later, speaking of the individual who forgets Sinai, Moshe says: “God will not forgive him, for God’s wrath and jealousy will smoke against that man… and God will erase that man’s name from the heavens.”

But it’s not enough to simply tell the story. The Jews of each generation must relive the moment of deliverance, because the stories of it are too fantastic to be taken at face value. If future generations did not have this obligation, were not forced to suspend disbelief and reason, were not instructed to actually insert themselves into the experience, Sinai would eventually become nothing more than a legend; like a story from Greek mythology; interesting, perhaps, but of no practical significance.

Many centuries later, during the Spanish Inquisition, this became a hotly debated philosophical and theological dilemma among the Jews of Spain. In mortal peril to the Inquisition, they cried out: “Why risk our lives for a promise made by ancient characters, who could not contemplate the danger involved in attempting to live as a Jew in Spain?” The Abarbanel, who lived during this terrible period in Jewish history had little sympathy for such complaints, declaring that the obligation to serve God is permanent, because the Jews permanently enjoy benefits from accepting the Torah.

Nevertheless, there is free will, of course. The Jews of Spain were neither the first nor last Jews in history to struggle with identity in the face of persecution. And every Jew in every generation has the freedom to abandon the Torah’s precepts entirely. But, as much as Sinai is an historical event, it’s also a state of mind, a state of being. A Jew can take communion, genuflect until his knees bleed, wear a crucifix covered in precious stones.

But, even that individual was at Sinai.

I recently read an essay by journalist Jane Eisner with the endearing title “Why Am I Irrationally Worried About Kitnyoth?” in which she tells of a trip she made during Passover of 1982 to meet refuseniks in the Soviet Union. Eisner, a secular Jew, did not observe kashrut but writes about a kind of epiphany she experienced: “the piercing moment for me was when I met refusenik Lev Elbert one evening in Kiev, just as he arrived home from work. A bear of a man, he had forgotten to bring his kosher food with him and had not eaten all day. ‘My God,’ I thought. ‘This brave Jew is sacrificing for rules immeasurably easier for me to follow. What was my excuse?’ From then on, I committed to join him, if only to act in solidarity.”

That each of us was there, that each of us cried out na’aseh venishma might as well be coded in our DNA. And, while the Abarbanel’s position may not have resonated with those Spanish Jews that embraced the Church, the Anusim, clandestine Jews, worshipped in secret and kept alive the memory of Sinai. They found a way of ensuring that the unbroken chain remained intact. Notwithstanding the danger, they bore witness.

But this is nothing new for us. We Jews navigate the bloody rivers of history; covered in the ashes of children, like snowflakes that never melt. And, though there is not a single day in the calendar that we could not choose to recall our misfortune, if any event in Jewish history requires us to bear witness, it is the Shoah.

In 1944, when the first reports of the Final Solution reached America, the poet Muriel Rukeyser published a poem called Letter to the Front. She wrote:

To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit…

The poet understood that choosing to abandon the gift—specifically, that which distinguishes the Jew from every other people—is and always has been the real existential threat. The poem is a rallying cry, exhorting the last remnant of the world’s Jews to honor their history, to honor the martyred millions, to honor Sinai.

Primo Levi, the author and poet, who survived Auschwitz, put it even more directly, in a poem that appeared in his book Survival in Auschwitz:

You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find warm food
And friendly faces when you return home…
Never forget that this has happened.
Remember these words.
Engrave them in your hearts,
When at home or in the street,
When lying down, when getting up.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your houses be destroyed,
May illness strike you down,
May your offspring turn their faces from you.

And beyond such indictments or any obligation we may feel to experience this type of personal connection, affirming the covenant in memory of the Six Million, serves as a declaration of solidarity and commitment to our historical beginnings. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it beautifully in his book, Crisis and Covenant. He writes: “The affirmation of Jewish life after the Holocaust is itself testimony that the covenant survives and that the voice of God continues to be heard…by the contemporary heirs of those who stood at Sinai.”

On Yom Hashoah, Jews throughout the world gather in their respective places of worship to declare such affirmation of Sinai. In not so many years, the survivors will be gone from this world and it will fall upon us to tell their stories. To be visible. To bear witness in their stead.

At our sedarim, we faithfully declare: “Bekhol dor vador, chayav adam leer’oth et atzmo ke’eelu hoo yatza me Mitzrayim” (In every generation, a person is obligated to regard himself as though he actually left Egypt). How many of us are willing to replace the word Mitzrayim with the word Auschwitz? Can any of us put ourselves in that gruesome place, that unholy place: the antithesis of Sinai?

Yet, the Shoah was no less a seminal event in our history; one, I would argue, we are obligated to internalize as we internalize Sinai. We owe that much to the victims and survivors. They have the right to expect of us and of future generations that we testify:

Bekhol dor vador, chayav adam leer’oth et atzmo ke’eelu hoo yatza me Auschwitz.

But, it’s equally important to contextualize such a heavy message; to understand that, even post-Auschwitz, most memories are—and ought to be—focused on far less lofty subjects than apocryphal, hovering mountains or the pain and suffering of the Jewish people. Such enormous events are deeply ingrained, yes, but life is just as much about the little things. These little things—intimate moments, fleeting memories—are much harder to recall, much harder to relive; which is ironic because there are so many more of them.

For me, it’s things like bread and butter. Long, hot showers. Taking a nap. Waking from a nap. Getting a laugh from one of my kids, from my granddaughter. My T-shirt, drenched after a workout. The way a basketball feels as it leaves my fingertips. The first, the fifth, the tenth draft of a poem I may never finish.

I think a lot about the little things; so much so that I wrote a poem called It’s the Little Things, which I’d like to share with you now. The poem may, on its surface, seem lighthearted. But at its core it describes a kind of brit me’at or small covenant between two people, similar in many respects to the kind of loving, eternal connection established between God and the Jewish Nation at Sinai.

I dream of the grand gesture: of showing
you the extent of my love by pulling you out
of a burning building or handing myself over
to a menacing gunman holding you hostage.
Take me instead, I plead and though the
terrorist has barely a shred of humanity,
he lets you go, moved by my act of selflessness.
As you leave, our eyes meet and, with a look,
I tell you, if I do not get out of this alive,
find someone else, remarry, be happy.
This is part of the grand gesture. But your look
in return says, don’t be silly, I could never replace
you, who loved me more than life. I’d rather die
a despondent widow, remembering your sacrifice
every day of my wretched, lonely existence.

I love you. I’ve always loved you. I’m yours forever.

At breakfast, I tell you about my dream.
You laugh out loud—you cannot stop laughing—
and when you finally catch your breath you say:

Will you please take out the garbage, like I asked
last night; my protector, my grand gesturer?

As I leave the table to do as you ask, not at all deflated,
I think to myself, that’s a laugh worth dying for.

Commitment. Love. And, most of all, memory. These are the enduring lessons of Sinai and we experience them not only in connection to the grandeur and cataclysms of Jewish history but every day in our own little lives. We dream, we laugh, we take out the garbage. And, thus, remember who we are and why we are here.

Elie Wiesel writes: “memory is a blessing… it creates bonds between the present and past, between individuals and groups. It is because I remember our common beginnings, that I move closer to my fellow human beings… what would be the future of man, if it were devoid of memory?”

I treasure my memories of Sinai; my friends’ voices around the campfire, the way the arak made my head spin, reciting the words of a great poet beneath the infinite, star-filled sky.

But I do not need to climb a rock to remind myself of God’s presence. I simply look into my wife’s eyes and remember. And, if the light is just so, I can see the moon as it disappears over the ancient Land of Egypt.

Upon Meeting My Granddaughter for the First Time

There’s a line in the Haftorah for Parashat Beshalach that says, “Devorah, Eshet Lappidoth (wife of Lappidoth; also, a fiery woman), was a prophetess.” The sages tell us that the term Eshet Lappidoth derives from the Hebrew word lapid (torch) and refers to Devorah’s vocation, which was preparing the wicks for the Tabernacle. Devorah’s custom was to prepare thick wicks that give off immense light. Some even go so far as to see cause and effect in the language of the text: because Devorah was Eshet Lappidoth, she was a prophetess.

This seemingly simple sentence in the Haftorah caught my attention, as if it were illuminated in neon, as I struggled to understand the hopelessly out of touch statement, this week, by the Orthodox Union that it is halakhically impermissible for women to serve as rabbis or act in any way that connotes authority over the community. And, coming as it does, so shortly after the (ongoing) despicable treatment of the N’shot Hakotel (Women of the Wall) on Rosh Chodesh Sh’vat, in which women wearing talitoth and kippoth and carrying Torah scrolls were not permitted to pray at the Kotel, though they have every legal and moral right to do so, I was especially impressed by the Tanach’s recognition of Devorah as a leader of the Jewish people.

This isn’t the forum for me to take on the arguments made by the OU one by one, nor am I enough of a Torah scholar to refute their specific points. I refer you to others, better qualified than I, who have commented, such as Herzl Hefter (“Why I Ordained Women” http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/why-i-ordained-women/) and statements by Yeshivat Maharat and the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

I do feel it’s fair to point out that of the seven eminent poskim (adjudicators) who issued the OU statement, exactly none of them were women. This would be ironic, perhaps, were it not, of course, emblematic of the fundamental problem.

In any event, as much as I’m infuriated by backward halakhic thinking, based on customs that are increasingly unsustainable in the modern world, I’m convinced that this debate won’t be determined by rabbis. Instead, communities of halakhic Jews will ultimately determine the outcome of this debate (and many others) by demanding creative halakhic solutions to contemporary challenges. Perhaps this will lead to further schisms within Orthodoxy. That would be a shame. But as much as Orthodoxy may suffer losses, I am confident halakha will survive.

And, that brings me to this week’s parsha poem, entitled Upon Meeting My Granddaughter for the First Time. The poem is dedicated to Charlie Ruby Gindea, now 21 months old.

Upon Meeting my Granddaughter for the First Time

–For Charlie Ruby

You lay sleeping on my chest, like your mother used to.
Three days old and growing on me already. Your body
seems heavier than 7-pounds, 6-ounces and, soon, your
warmth and the rhythm of your breath have lulled me to
a dream state. I see you at 6, reciting the four questions.
At 12, chanting from the Torah. Now, you are graduating
from college. Now, you stand under the chuppah. Now,
you are a mother yourself. And, somehow, I know you
are a new kind of Jewish woman. Defined not by the value
of rubies, not by your husband’s praise. No man controls you.
No rabbi dictates what you may study, where you may pray.
In Jerusalem, you sing the Hallel and the black hats cover
their ears. But your voice is a whirlwind, an earthquake.
The pent-up force of a thousand generations of silenced women.
It carries through streets and neighborhoods, study halls and
synagogues. Impossible to ignore. Impossible to stifle.
It breaks chains. It penetrates the heart. It penetrates the soul.
It penetrates, even, the ancient stones. And, then, a familiar
odor wakes me from my reverie. You are no prophet, darling.
No crusader. Just a baby, whose diaper is full. Let’s get that
taken care of little Charlie. Little love. Little girl of my dreams.

Miracles

I recently traveled to Israel and on the in-flight entertainment system, I was distressed to find that the only music channel that appealed to me was the Golden Oldies. And though I thoroughly reject the idea that I’m part of that demographic, the first song to come on, as if to mock me, was a favorite of mine called The Boy in the Bubble, in which the great Paul Simon sings: “These are the days of miracle and wonder, miracle and wonder somewhere…”

And a month later, the song still stuck in my head, driving me a little bit insane, it seems an appropriate musical trope for the entire book of Sh’mot, which is filled with miracles and wonders.

In fact, in last week’s parasha, Va’era and this week’s parasha, Bo, God brings terrible, but nonetheless, miraculous and wondrous plagues onto Egypt; all of which halt at the borders of Goshen, sparing the Jews; miraculously and wondrously. And yet, it almost seems like God’s trying too hard.

Who, exactly, is he trying to impress?

The sages tell us it was necessary during that specific, historical era for God to act in a public and overwhelming fashion; to show the otherwise doubting Egyptians and even (and especially) the doubting Jews that God—and only God—is capable of suspending the laws of nature. And, with these grand and emphatic acts, God’s bona fides as an omnipotent being would be established for all people and for all time.

Perhaps. But given the vast existential problems in the world these days and the equally vast skepticism as to God’s place in the world, one has to wonder: why doesn’t God perform such miracles in our own times? Disease? ISIS? Drought? Hunger? Donald Trump? All could be gone with a single snap of God’s anthropomorphic fingers.

In that context, it’s worth considering whether our understanding of the laws of nature is sufficient to distinguish between an everyday occurrence and a miracle. If we’re so smart, how come so much that we want to know, that we need to know, remains unexplained?

What lies at the heart of romantic attraction? Why does this one get cancer and that one does not? What motivates someone to jump into the ocean to save a drowning stranger, to put on a uniform and charge into battle, to sacrifice one’s own needs for some, perceived, greater good? If we’re such brilliant scientists, where is the absolute proof of the theory of evolution? Or, who among us can refute it, absolutely? And, if the universe began with a big bang, who triggered it and what existed before that miraculous, wondrous moment?

Dating myself, once again, I’m reminded of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks 2,000-Year-Old Man routine in which Reiner asks Brooks, playing the 2,000-Year-Old Man: “did you believe in a superior being?” And Brooks replies “Yeah, a guy named Phil, the leader of our tribe. He was very big. Very strong. Big beard, big chest, big arms. I mean, he could kill you. So, we did everything he commanded.” And then Reiner asks: “how long was his reign?” To which the 2000-Year-Old Man responds: “Oh, not too long. Because one day Phil was hit by lightning. And we looked up, we said ‘There’s something bigger than Phil!'”

As it turns out, we don’t know much at all. Maybe we need to be reminded from time to time, there’s something bigger than Phil.

On the other hand, it could be that biblical miracles are overrated. Let’s not forget what happened at Sinai. The Jewish people, miraculously freed from slavery, miraculously rescued from annihilation by a sea that split for them and closed on their enemies, miraculously nourished by food that fell from the sky, couldn’t contain themselves from building a Golden Calf, even as God stood sentry for them, in a miraculous pillar of fire. One has to wonder if there was any individual miracle or series of them so impressive that might have satisfied such an entitled, apparently ADD-afflicted group.

I wonder: if God appeared to me tonight in a burning bush that did not consume itself, would it assure my faith forever, or would I require even greater miracles in the future to reinforce my loyalty? Is the burning bush really any more miraculous than the bush itself?

Whether God chooses to astonish us with the extreme act or allows the random forces of nature to dictate the circumstances that affect our lives, the world is miraculous place. And, if we’re paying attention, we can find miracles wherever we look; miracles that can fill us with gratitude and imbue us with hope; miracles that inspire poetry, such as this week’s parsha poem, entitled, simply, Miracles.

 

Miracles

Just as it may be said that for the heretic there are no answers, so may it be
said that for the skeptic there are no miracles…

                                             –Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

A friend, a non-believer, asks me why God no longer
performs flashy miracles, as he did in biblical times.

“Has He lost his touch? If God exists, let Him show
Himself to me in a burning bush that does not consume itself!”

What can I say? He is an old friend and I am used
to his derision, when it comes to matters of faith.

And though I believe, with complete faith, that God
appeared to Moses in that burning bush, I do not tell

my friend he is totally missing the point. The burning
bush is no more miraculous than the bush itself.

And the fire that burns but does not consume,
smolders deep within, even, the skeptic.