Chumash Chaikus™

 

After the garden,
Adam was no fan of snakes.
Or apple cobbler.

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Cain killed his brother
Why did he do it? Because
Cain was not able.

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Methuselah lived.
He lived. Lived. Lived. Lived. Lived. Lived.
Then, sadly, he died.

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Noah hated cats.
Their dander made his skin crawl.
And their attitude.

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It was the termites.
Chewing wood. Insatiable.
That worried Noah.

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That’s impossible!
Cubs win the World Series?
Sarah laughed. And laughed.

****************

That’s not a knife, this
is a knife, said Abraham
To Croc’dile Dundee.

****************

Isaac. Recalling.
Feels so guilty, eating
lamb chops. Nicely grilled.

****************

The Real Housewives
of Canaan. Sarah. Rivka.
Rachel. And Leah.

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Joseph. With the dreams.
And with that farkakteh coat.
Enough, already.

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“Take off your sandals.
For this ground is holy ground.”
Moses burned his feet.

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Manna from heaven.
Delicious. Nutritious. But,
I’ll have the fruit plate.

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Red Sea splits. Good thing.
In such haste, who thinks to pack
Bathing suit? Beach towel?

****************

It must be so sad
to be a minor fast day.
Poor Tzom Gedaliah.

****************

Man’s depravity.
On display for all to see.
Yom Kippur break fast.

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Clouds blot out the sun.
Rain falls. Wind blows from the north.
Sukkot’s here again.

****************

Long sixth hakafa.
Arms like jelly. Won’t someone
take this Torah scroll?

****************

Eating Rocky Road.
Too late, husband asks his wife.
Is this spoon fleishig?

****************

Honey cake. Herring.
Dietetic kichel. Schnapps.
Kiddush for Dummies.

****************

I don’t want much, but
wish I could grow a beard like
Theodore Herzl.

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Names on temple wall.
The high and mighty donors.
My name in small print.

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Hillel and Shamai.
Tomato. Tomahto. Let’s
call the whole thing off.

****************

Mezuzah affixed.
To doorpost of my Prius.
Chumrah of the week.

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Mohel rules of thumb.
Bring correct tools for the job.
Measure twice, cut once.

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The Gates of Heaven

At our family seder, my wife directs a creative production of the 10 plagues, including props, that would’ve impressed Cecil B. DeMille. For example, she provides us all with red masks to represent the plague of blood and tiny plastic bugs, reminiscent of lice, which my children insert into my kiddush cup when I’m not looking. It’s amazing that I fall for this every year, but enough about me.

We implemented this family tradition when the kids were little, to keep them engaged until it was time to eat. Yet, while it’s clever and fun and it remains a part of our Seder routine even though the kids are grown now, I’ve always felt that the revelry of the moment undermines, to a great degree, the gravitas of the story. When we’re throwing small rubber frogs across the table at each other or donning dime-store sunglasses to commemorate the plague of darkness, I’m not really thinking about the plagues in terms of their human cost.

What must it feel like to want a sip of water and draw nothing but pail after pail of coppery-red blood from the family well? To barely be able to move for the slimy frogs covering every inch of the land? To not be able to sleep for the agony of the lice; to run in fear from stampeding beasts; to gag at the putrid smell of rotting animals; to gasp at the pain of oozing wounds; to be driven mad by the unremitting thump, thump, thump of hail against the roof; to weep at the pangs of hunger that seize the belly as you watch an endless cloud of locusts devour your crops; or to stumble through the horror of real darkness, in which every pinprick of light has been extinguished from the world? Nor do I stop to consider what it must have felt like to endure all this misery, only to arrive at the most awful of days; the unimaginable morning on which all of the first born of Egypt lay lifeless in their beds.

And as I studied Parashat Va’era, where the story of the first seven plagues is related, it occurred to me that as much as the Torah goes into great detail about what the plagues consisted of, how they were meted out and their after-effects, not a word is devoted to how the Jews felt about the suffering of the Egyptians during the onslaught.

I suppose it’s easy to say that the Egyptians had it coming and deserved no pity or quarter from their downtrodden Jewish slaves. The Egyptians were the people, after all, that invented antisemitism and institutionalized it into forms of physical persecution and religious oppression; the starting point of a razor-sharp line that extends through history, uninterrupted, to this day.

Still, I picture myself in an imaginary scene from long ago: an Egyptian boy, who looks like one of my sons, stretches his hand in my direction and chokes out the words, “help me.” Could I ignore the plea of a child, irrespective of how cruel his father may be? Would I be justified in treating all Egyptians, even children, as deserving only my contempt?

Some commentators offer justifications for the collective punishment of all Egyptians, given that the civilization was rotten at its core. Yet, is this really the Jewish way? Since when do Jews hold innocent individuals accountable for the crimes that others commit? And, even if one is persuaded that an irredeemably evil society must be cleansed, the irony is not lost on me that stigmatizing an entire race is exactly how the Egyptians got themselves into trouble in the first place.

Elie Wiesel, in a book entitled One Generation After, published on the 25th anniversary of his liberation from Auschwitz, writes a letter to the “new left” in Germany. In it, he excoriates German leftists for their anti-Israel and anti-Semitic words and deeds. He admonishes them that if they revive and embrace the murderous legacy of their fathers, they’ll become “heartless creatures without memory.” Yet, Wiesel, is unwilling to respond in kind to their hatred. He writes: “Do I believe in collective guilt? Of course not… you are not responsible for the crimes of your fathers… even if you perpetuate the evil spread by your fathers, I shall not hate you. I shall denounce, unmask, and fight you with all my power. But your hate will not contaminate me. No I shall never hate you. Not for yesterday and not even for today. It is something else: for yesterday, you have my pity; for today, my contempt.”

And Wiesel tells a story. A just man comes to Sodom, determined to save the population from sin and punishment. He walks the streets and markets, preaching against greed and theft, falsehood and indifference. In the beginning, people listen because his outbursts entertain them. Eventually, they ignore him. Seemingly, he is a failure but every day he comes to the town square and repeats his jeremiad. One day, a child approaches him and says: “Stranger, you expend yourself body and soul but no one listens. Can’t you see it’s hopeless? You must be crazy!” The just man replies, “In the beginning I thought I could change man. Today, I know I cannot. If I shout today, it is to prevent man from changing me.”

And, circling back to Parashat Va’era with the image of Wiesel’s lonely naysayer in mind, I wonder: why didn’t Moshe question God as to the necessity of collective punishment, if for no other reason than to stay in touch with his humanity? Are we to take from the narrative that obedience to God, even in the face of what we believe to be injustice, is the greatest virtue of all?

Certainly it’s hard to imagine challenging a direct order from God, inasmuch as it implies we know better than Him, that we are entitled to judge Him. And, we’ve seen this before; in the case of Avraham who, unquestioningly, places a knife to his son’s throat on God’s command, and is stayed from the kill only at the final moment by the words of an angel. And, yet, how I wish Moshe had shouted against the injustice of the sentence he was being told to execute. How I wish that God’s angel had, once again, been a deliverer rather than the gruesome harbinger of death.

And it’s this unsettling conflict of emotions that informs my parsha poem for Parashat Va’era; that is, to hate the evil that men do, but hate no man. The poem is entitled The Gates of Heaven.

 

The Gates of Heaven

There’s a woman who stands in front of the building
where I work. She begs for money in a torn coat
and shoes that do not match. I think she is crazy.
Once, I dropped a dollar into her cup and she wished me
“Merry Christmas,” though it was the middle of July.
Another time, she went on and on about Jesus,
preaching with such fervor, that I stopped to listen.
Aware of an audience, she looked at me and said,
“For the Jews there shall be no salvation, you cannot
buy your way into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
I did not put anything into her cup that day.

After an earthquake in Iran, I sent money to a relief agency,
because I saw a picture of a 9-year-old boy crying, his family
buried beneath the rubble. Iran, whose leaders point rockets
at Tel Aviv, who believe in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy,
the old canard. I know they are dangerously crazy.
But the little boy is alone and he looks like one of my sons.

Israeli intelligence has found videos that teach suicide bombers
the best way to kill Jews. And, because so many lose their nerve,
the prospective terrorists are told that, at the instant of death,
the gates of heaven open wide in their honor. In one attack,
a Jewish girl was killed. And, yet, her parents—perhaps they are
crazy—donated the child’s organs to whomever was next on the list.
So, now, Jameel sees the world through Jewish eyes and, in Hana’s
chest, a strong Jewish heart will beat for the next 70 or 80 years.

Sometimes, I almost believe in the gates of heaven. Sometimes,
I can almost believe anything.

Letting Go

Parashat Sh’mot begins with the foreboding news that there’s a new Pharaoh in town. And this Pharaoh, the world’s first anti-Semite, feels threatened by Jews, as anti-Semites tend to be. So, he orders two Jewish midwives, named Shifrah and Pu’ah, to murder Jewish babies as they are born. But the midwives, heroically, circumvent the evil decree by telling Pharaoh that Jewish women are like animals, giving birth so quickly it’s impossible to kill their babies before they are born. Pharaoh falls for the clever ruse—the women knew to appeal to his perverted view of Jews as less than human— but, being a resourceful genocidist, Pharaoh simply orders that all Jewish baby boys be drowned in the Nile.

At this time, a Jewish woman named Yocheved (some say she also went by the name Shifrah), gives birth to her own baby boy. Desperate to protect her newborn son, she hides him from the death squads. Imagine her fear every time an Egyptian soldier walks by, listening for the telltale cooing of an infant. Imagine how little sleep she is getting, staying awake to nurse her son the instant he makes a sound in the dark. Imagine her doing the daily chores, collecting straw, trudging through mud to fulfill the daily quota of bricks, cooking and cleaning for her husband and other children, with a baby strapped tightly to her chest. Her entire body aches and with each twinge in the knees, the hips, the lower back she is consumed with despair; for the pain reminds her that her son is growing strong and healthy and that she cannot conceal him much longer.

At three months, she is left with no choice but to give him up and devises a crazy, dangerous plan. She will place the boy in a basket and set him adrift on the river—the very river that Pharaoh intended as a grave for children such as hers—in the hope that kind strangers will find her son and raise him as their own. She does not know how she knows, but she knows, that the mighty river is her son’s path to salvation and the destiny that awaits him.

And, if we close our eyes we can see her, on the morning she realizes it is time to let her son go. She sits by the river’s edge, a pile of reeds beside her that she weaves expertly into a basket. She dips her right hand into a bucket of pitch and rubs the sticky substance over the surface, making sure to cover every crevice where water might enter. She lines the basket with a fine blanket and places a lock of her hair in one corner of the basket so that a piece of her accompanies him on the treacherous voyage.

While waiting for the pitch to dry, she picks up her son to nurse and when he finds her breast, some intuition tells her this will not be the last time (Indeed, we learn that when Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby in the bulrushes, the wet-nurse she hires to minister to him is none other than Yocheved). When he finishes suckling, he looks up and smiles at his mother. And, though she is about to send her baby boy into harm’s way, she is utterly calm. In fact, for the first time since he was born, she is filled with hope.

As a parent, with four grown children, this section of Parashat Sh’mot resonates deeply with me. And though the exodus of the Silverman sons and daughters from our comfortable home in Skokie to campuses in New York and College Park and, then, lives in the real world, is hardly as dramatic a tale as that of Yocheved and Moshe, the feelings of loss and loneliness I experienced were unsettling. I think it’s interesting that we characterize such natural leave-taking by the term “letting our children go.” This term, almost identical to the one Moshe will repeatedly use with Pharaoh, leads me to wonder: if parents resist letting their children go, are they no better than an evil overlord? Is providing a warm bed, home-cooked meals and free laundry service or asking, only, that someone send a text if they are planning to stay out all night simply a form of slavery? (Seriously, is that asking so much?)

Amy Hirshberg Lederman, author of an essay entitled, The Ultimate Balancing Act: Letting Go of Our Children, offers an interesting take on how parents can let their grown children go, by applying the Kabbalistic concept of tsimtsum or “contraction of the Divine.” Jewish mystics believe that, at the time of creation, the world was filled up by God such that there was no space for anything else to exist. Therefore, in order for the world to come into being, God had to withdraw some of His presence. But though God pulled back, He stayed close and provided continuing guidance and oversight to his children.

Hirshberg Lederman suggests that Jewish parents can similarly employ the principle of tsimtsum. By gradually contracting from their lives, we give our kids the space they need to create their own realities, pursue their own dreams, make their own mistakes and find their own happiness. But we need not pull back entirely. “The trick as a parent,” she writes, “is finding that balance.

Perhaps this week’s parsha poem, entitled, Letting Go will reveal the degree to which I’ve found the balance of which she speaks. The poem is inspired by the third of my four kids, Rebecca, who lives in Los Angeles and is about to turn 25 (!). Rebecca is a talented photographer who seven years ago, before she left home to spend a year in Israel, gave me a gift: a framed picture she took of her bright green bicycle, juxtaposed against the brilliant, blue palette of Lake Michigan on a sunny, summer day.

 

Letting Go

Before you left, you gave me a gift, a framed
picture you took of your bike, a heavy Schwinn
without gears or handbrakes, its bright green frame

juxtaposed against the brilliant, blue palette of Lake
Michigan on a sunny summer day. With your steady
hands and artist’s eyes, you positioned the Schwinn

in such a way it looks like you could hop on and with
a few thrusts of your cross-country-hardened legs,
catapult onto the surface of the great lake.

I imagine you taking off, picking up speed as you pass
incredulous swimmers, spraying them with your wake,
ignoring the angry lifeguard’s bullhorned cry:

Come back to shore IMMEDIATELY! His thin voice
recedes as, unafraid, you head past the breaker into
open water. You spin the pedals easily, skimming waves

and vaulting swells, as if you and the Schwinn are
weightless. Suddenly, inspired, you pull back on the
handlebars and are airborne. You are breaking laws

of nature, but never have you felt more connected to
the natural world. From up high, you see for miles in
every direction, as a bird might (or an angel) and you

are no longer pedaling. The jet stream propels you
and you are drawn higher and higher towards the
beautiful, beckoning sun. You’ve flown in an airplane

many times, enclosed and harnessed, prisoner to the
technology of how to get from Point A to B, but this
is different. This dazzling, magical flight isn’t about

reaching a destination, but how to get there. It’s about
freedom and creativity, enlightenment and wonder.
And if God’s presence is sometimes difficult for you

to feel with your feet on the ground, up here you appreciate
the vast order that exists within chaos. For the first time,
you understand that beyond the horizon is more horizon

and beyond the galaxy are more galaxies. Yet, somehow,
this understanding doesn’t scare you, it only makes you
wonder how far you can travel.

Once, when you were little, a house came up for sale down
the block and you asked us to buy it, so that when you grew
up you could stay close to me and mom forever.

Now, someone else lives in that house we did not buy for you
and your bright green Schwinn is parked in the garage, where
you left it, waiting for its’ rider and a sunny summer day.

When you come back to earth, I know you will find your way home.

Reading Jacob’s Dying Words to His Children, I Consider What My Dying Words to My Children Might Be

With Parashat Vayechi, we come to the end of the Book of B’raishit; in some ways, the most exasperating and incomprehensible of the five books of the Bible. Filled with miracles and dysfunctional behavior by larger-than-life characters, it can be a struggle to find ways to relate to the stories therein.

I remember one trenchant moment when my daughter Rebecca was 7 or 8 years old. She had just learned about Joseph’s brothers presenting Jacob with Joseph’s blood-soaked coat and she said of the deception: “Their father must have been very sad.” And I thought about that, for a long time. What kind of people were these, who could condemn their brother to a life of slavery and, likely, an early death; who could deceive their father for 22 years and thrust upon him the burden of being a parent who has outlived his child? How am I to reconcile that the Jewish people emanated from this twisted crew of bad actors and enablers, with the belief that God chose us to be a light unto the nations?

But the answers to those questions exceed the scope of this week’s parsha poem, which is entitled Reading Jacob’s Dying Words to His Children, I Consider What My Dying Words to My Children Might Be. As background, near the end of Parashat Vayechi, we find the patriarch Jacob on his death-bed and he calls his sons together in order to impart his blessings to them. I use the term blessing in the broadest sense because in the case of almost every son, Jacob’s words sound like admonishments. And, incredibly, after each son receives his blessing and Jacob dies, only Joseph seems affected. How can it be that none of the rest of them have tears to shed for their father; who also happens to be (ostensibly) one of the greatest men in history?

But when I read Jacob’s words carefully, the source of the emotional distance between father and sons becomes obvious to me. Jacob never tells his sons that he loves them. He never says he’s proud of them. He exhibits no discernible affection for them. And, it appears they mean nothing to him, except inasmuch as they are genetic links in what is to become the Jewish historical chain.

As a Jew, I guess I can appreciate the importance of Jacob’s final task in the world; that is, to exhort his heirs to fulfill their historical responsibilities. And, his dying request to be taken out of Egypt and buried in the Land of Israel, a grand, disruptive and expensive enterprise, involving much work and planning, is significant in that it shows the connection of the Jewish people to the land that God has promised to us. Jacob and his sons are important actors on the world’s stage. To appreciate them, to the fullest extent, perhaps, we need to see them through a gauzy lens.

Nonetheless, I can’t suppress my distaste for the story and all involved. And, while such harsh judgment suggests that I think I’m a better father than Jacob. I’ll only go so far as saying, I’m a different type of father. As for my four children, they exhibit none of the fratricidal tendencies of Joseph’s brothers. Occasionally, there have been moments of genuine tension in our house among the sibs, over perceived and real slights, but I’ve never felt the need to hide sharp instruments from them. Does that make Jessie, Matt, Rebecca and Joshua superior to the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel? Well, that’s really for others to say.

 

Reading Jacob’s Dying Words to His Children, I Consider What My Dying Words to My Children Might Be

First, practical matters: Bury me anywhere.
Spend as little as possible. Schedule the
service early or late so that no one misses
a full day’s work. And, somehow, if pieces of
this beat-up body can help another living soul,
sign the forms and let the surgeons sharpen
their scalpels. No rabbi need speak at my
gravesite, especially if it is raining or he is boring.
No monument is necessary but, if there must
be a stone, let it lay flat to the ground and read:
Here lies a son, a husband, a father, a poet.

Next, some advice. Sit shiva. Or don’t sit shiva.
Say kaddish. Or don’t say kaddish. If it helps you heal,
go to a midnight movie or see a Broadway show.
Turn up the volume and join The Proclaimers, singing:
“I would walk 500 miles and I would walk 500 more,
Just to be the man who walked a thousand miles to
fall down at your door,” the liveliest lyrics I know.
And if you’re still sad, steal yourself from the
well-meaning mourners and uncover a bathroom
mirror. With a glance, you’ll see: I’m still with you.

And, finally, a blessing, stolen from a writer far better
than I: “Be strong and courageous.” Because, you draw
strength from each other. You draw courage from each
other. You are mortise and tenon to each other. You are
bound to each other. Remember to talk to each other,
share secrets and jokes and dreams with each other.
Rejoice with each other. Eat with each other. Break the
middle matzah with each other. Teach each other. Be kind
to each other. Reminisce with each other. Fix the world with
each other. Thank God, every day, that you have each other.

Especially today, my loves, when you mourn with each other.

How Fabulous, the Half-Full Glass

 

On this coming Motzei Shabbat, my friend Bruce Scher, the Academic Dean of Rochelle Zell Jewish High School is receiving a well-deserved honor for his many years of work at the school. All four of my children attended and graduated from the school between 2001-2014 (which, at the time, was called Chicagoland Jewish High School) and benefitted from Bruce’s close involvement in their academic and personal growth. I’m so grateful to him for everything he did for Jessie, Matt, Rebecca and Joshua and for his friendship. We are all better people for knowing Bruce.

As anyone who knows him will tell you, Bruce is the most relentlessly positive person you’ll ever meet. Every time I see him, when I ask how he is, he replies “Fabulous!” And, irrespective of whatever he might be dealing with, professionally or personally (that might be anything but “Fabulous!”), he means it every time. He is the quintessential “glass-half-full” person and, as a “half-empty” person myself, I envy his positive outlook and uninhibited joy for life.

So, I’ve written a poem in Bruce’s honor, entitled How Fabulous, the Half-Full Glass. It’s not a parsha poem, per se, but when I think of Bruce, I’m reminded of the famous Talmudic rabbi, Nahum Ish Gamzu, whose mantra, no matter what transpired, was “Gam zu letovah!” This phrase, translated as “this too is for good!” might as well be the modern-day equivalent of “Fabulous!”

 

How Fabulous, the Half-Full Glass

–After Bruce Scher

To the glass-half-full person, the contents of the glass
taste better than the exact same contents taste to a

glass-half-empty person. Which is to say, the difference
between the taste of orange juice, fresh-squeezed by

someone who had an excellent night’s sleep (a young man
who, on the way to work at a diner, notices that the sunrise

is especially fabulous that day. And, who decides that this
is the day he will, finally, ask out that cute girl, the one

who comes into the diner every morning and orders nothing
more than dry toast and a cup of tea. Is she a poor student?

Is she watching her weight? That would be crazy, she is perfect.
And he has a plan: he’ll bring her a muffin, the biggest one he

can find, and a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. Then, he’ll say
the words he’s practiced a hundred times: On the house, enjoy.

The orange juice is fabulous. I squeezed it myself. Though, what he’ll
really be thinking is, What, my love, shall we name our children?).

Yes, the difference between how that tastes and oily, bilge-water from
a ship that makes port in a place where the rule of law is not respected.

You’d think one sip of such nasty brew would turn the glass-half-empty
person into the opposite, but the market for bilge-water is inexhaustible.

You probably want to know what happened in the diner that morning,
but that’s a private matter between husband and wife. Although, to this day,

whenever the sunrise is especially fabulous, he will bring her the biggest
muffin he can find and, to wash it down, well, you can figure out the rest.

What Does the Trader Dream?

Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms, greed for life, for money, for love, for knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind….

  –Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Hollywood’s take on the financial scandals of the 1980s. When it was released, the Dow was at 2,000, the first cat video had yet to be posted on the internet, Amazon was a river in South America, Donald Trump was still married to his first wife and Bill Gates was the 29th wealthiest American.

The movie is actually a hoot. From its then state-of-the-art trading room filled with clunky monitors, to the primitive cell phones as big as a human head, to the slicked back hair, oily enough to run a Range Rover, to the power ties and suspenders, to the so serious it’s comical portrayal of masters of the universe, manipulating the markets from their country clubs or walking on the beach as the sun comes up on another day in the Hamptons, it is an hysterical snapshot in time; of a world that seems more than three decades removed. It’s a world that exists on the periphery of reality; that doesn’t begin to examine the consequences of irrational exuberance or bursting bubbles, that cannot contemplate how a seemingly ordinary September morning could erupt into a clash of civilizations or the ominous portents of further inevitable cataclysms just around the bend of history.

And the gestalt of the movie derives at least as much from its campy lines like, Lunch is for wimps, Blue Horseshoe loves Anacott Steel and Bud Fox’s scathing indictment of his mentor Gekko’s insatiable greed, When is it enough? How many yachts can you water ski behind, Gordon? Such cringe-inducing dialogue is great but, for my money, the highlight of the film is the very first scene. The movie opens with a shot of the trading floor and we are told the year is 1985. As the camera focuses on a group of traders, John C. McGinley (Fun fact: years later, Dr. Cox on the TV show Scrubs), jokes that Gekko shorted NASA stock 30 seconds after the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. Leaving aside the obvious faux pas that NASA is a government agency, not a publicly traded company, Challenger went down in 1986, making Gekko not merely an inside trader, but precognitive. Oh well, Oliver Stone never lets the truth get in the way of a good story. It’s stuff like this that makes Wall Street a classic, in the genre of movies that are so bad, they’re actually good.

Still, as ridiculous as the movie is, the subject of greed is worth considering. Is it possible that Gekko is right; that greed is a virtue? As he says, greed captures the evolutionary spirit and marks the upward surge of mankind. Is it greed, then, that stimulates us to achieve? To create art, invent, cure diseases, search for the meaning of life, aspire to greatness?

It may seem like I’ve strayed far from the story line of Yosef, in which we witness his rise to, what we call in my business, the position of chief dealer. You see, I’m a futures trader and have spent my entire professional life trying to buy low and sell high (unfortunately, my dreams never yielded the kind of useful inside information that Yosef used, to corner the grain market on the cusp of a seven-year-famine).

But, in Parashat Miketz, last week’s Torah reading, we are told that Yosef, gathered grain like the sand of the sea, in great abundance, until [one] stopped counting, because there was no number.

Whatever one wants to say about Yosef’s personal journey and spiritual growth, this sounds to me, suspiciously, like greed. And, in the context of the entire book of B’reishit, which is filled with one lurid story after another of greedy behavior, as well as Yosef’s meteoric ascension from slave to prisoner to the second most powerful person in the kingdom, it’s reasonable to wonder whether Yosef was consumed with the desire for more, more, more.

And though the Torah tells us the story of Yosef’s reconciliation with his family, and though we are told by the commentators that Yosef experienced great personal growth, over the years (culminating in tears and hugs at the family reunion), the trader in me knows this isn’t the whole story. And, as all too often is the case, the Torah is silent about the questions I would most like answered.

Did it bother Yosef that his material success was built upon the misery of others? If it did, in what ways did his behavior reflect the sadness such self-awareness imposes? When his family came to him and begged for food, he made sure they were taken care of. But what about the hungry stranger? When he lay down each night on a soft bed, his belly full and no worries about whether there’d be food on the table in the morning, did Yosef sleep contentedly? We are told that dreams play a central role in Yosef’s life story. But, once his wealth and power were assured, what, then, did Yosef dream?

And, as I considered these unanswerable questions, I had a flashback to the first big winning trade of my career. It was on April 26, 1986, when the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl went kaboom. My first thought, my only thought, upon hearing the news was to buy wheat futures. I got my trade off just in time, ahead of other panicked traders, and in the ensuing market chaos I made a small fortune in a matter of minutes.

Though thirty years have passed, I remember the exhilaration I felt, seeing the market move in my direction. And, when the trading session ended, I waited impatiently for the morning to come; not only because I wanted to see the amount of my profit in print on the bottom line of my trading statement (formal proof of my market-beating genius), but because morning would bring the market’s opening bell and with that glorious clang, more panic, more chaos, more opportunities to make money.

It pains me to admit, but I felt no misgivings over the circumstances that had enabled me to profit. To the extent I considered the matter at all, I’m sure I felt sorry for the poor people of Chernobyl, but what did that have to do with me trading wheat futures in Chicago? In the euphoria of my first big accomplishment as a trader, it was almost as if I’d inhaled the fumes of some powerful drug that I was going to want again and again.

There’s a great short story by Tolstoy called How Much Land Does a Man Need? (The 19th century Russian equivalent, I suppose, of Bud Fox’s yacht question), in which the devil tempts Pahom, the protagonist of the story, with as much land as Pahom can walk around between sunrise and sunset. The single caveat is that Pahom must make it back to the starting line by sunset, or forfeit his life. As the sun rose, Pahom set off on his great journey, but though he had planned a manageable route, as he walked, his desire to acquire took over. Though he knew how far he could walk in a day, he tried to include in his prospective estate more land than he could possibly walk around in the allotted time. Racing against the setting sun, he put on a burst of speed and thrust his body towards the finish line, but fell dead just inches from his destination. And all that he needed, Tolstoy writes, was six feet by two feet.

Ultimately, this is all any of us need, I suppose. And it’s pretty clear that Tolstoy would be unimpressed with Gordon Gekko and his world view. But, if we say, for the sake of argument, that Yosef was a greedy guy, maybe it was his greed that propelled him to the greatness that he achieved. Maybe, his greed was a necessary component, even a necessary evil, in the ever-evolving story of the Jewish people. And, if we say, for the sake of argument, that in thinking first of wheat futures and only later of the radiated citizens of Chernobyl and their ruined lives, I’m a greedy guy, maybe it’s my greed that allows me to feed my own family. Maybe, my greed is a necessary component, even a necessary evil, in the ever-evolving story of my life.

Which leads me to this week’s parsha poem, entitled What Does the Trader Dream? The poem is in the form of a villanelle, which I used a few weeks ago for my poem about the rape of Dinah. I like the villanelle form–19 lines with a strict rhyme scheme–because it forces me to focus my thoughts and avoid the inevitable distractions that are associated with any complex subject. And, as much as it’s tempting to simply declare greed bad, in all its forms, it seems to me that it’s not that simple.

What Does the Trader Dream?

How much he makes defines his self-esteem,
And every day his wealth appreciates,
But when he sleeps, what does the trader dream?

A war, a drought, unseemly as they seem,
Are nothing more than unfortunate fates,
How much he makes defines his self-esteem.

Does he hear the frightened child’s scream,
See the thirsty fields desiccate?
When he sleeps, what does the trader dream?

It’s not as if his goal is to blaspheme,
He hopes this is enough to exculpate,
How much he makes defines his self-esteem.

What good is guilt? Guilt cannot redeem.
Although he fears a reckoning awaits,
When he sleeps, what does the trader dream?

His sadness is an ever-present theme,
A grief he cannot quite articulate,
How much he makes defines his self-esteem.
But when he sleeps, what does the trader dream?

Write, Pray, Love

Recently, in a Facebook group of Jewish writers, to which I belong, called Hevriabook, one of the members posted the following plaintive statement and question:

Confession: I don’t believe in the power of prayer. And it’s getting in the way of my love for Judaism. I don’t enjoy praying, I don’t believe that praying does anything. And as a result, I’m drifting. I don’t want to drift. Have any of you ever dealt with this?

And since reading her post, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because I understand how she feels. When it comes to the power of traditional prayer, I’ve experienced the feeling of drifting she describes.

Let me be clear. I believe there is value in communal prayer, that is, in the act of people gathering, at fixed times, to raise their voices together; in thanks, in celebration and in sorrow, as well as to request God’s intervention, whether in the mundane details of our daily lives or to deal with a crisis.

But what about the language and substance of the prayers themselves? Are the words—some of which are two thousand years old (!)—relevant in the contemporary world? For me, far too many of the prayers found in the traditional prayer book seem distant and out of touch with my own outlook. Sometimes, even, I find the words offensive.

One glaring example, is the daily prayer Baruch atah Hashem, Elokeinu melech ha’olam, she’lo asa’nee isha (Blessed are you God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a woman). The commentators go to great lengths to explain that this verbiage is no knock against women. It simply allows a man to thank God for giving men the ability to do more commandments than women (who are exempt from positive commandments governed by time; for example the commandment to pray). This reasoning appears in the Tosefta, a compilation of oral law from the 2nd century; which is exactly my point. And, it’s worth mentioning that when those words were written and inserted into the liturgy, there were no women on the committee.

This isn’t to say I reject the prayer book because it is ancient. And, in fact, I find some traditional prayers moving and relevant. But, in most cases, the words weren’t written by God. As such, they are subjective; like all writing and thinking, a product of time, place, circumstance and the idiosyncrasies of mortal man. It seems to me that finding meaning in prayer is far more important for the individual than adhering to a protocol that is an obstacle to one’s love for Judaism.

Therefore, in answer to my Hevriabook friend, I look to poetry for the meaning I find absent in the traditional prayer book. God has created all of the wonderful poets whose work I enjoy. Some of them are Jewish, many are not. But whomever they are, it is God who’s enabled them to write poems that make me smile, laugh out loud, inflame my desire, enrage me, ennoble me, confuse me, enlighten me. And by reading poetry every day, irrespective of how busy or tired I may be, I show God my gratitude for the incredible gift he has bestowed.

And by writing my own poetry, I offer additional thanks; each word informed by the knowledge that God has planted certain needs in me: the need to clarify and codify, reveal and release. When I’m confused, writing poetry allows me to strip down my thoughts, buff and polish them until they are so shiny I can see my reflection in them. Though I’m not nearly the poet I wish I could be, every now and then I write something that pleases me. And what a blessing it is to create something from nothing; to create as we were created.

That said, there are parts of the traditional prayer book that move and inspire me as much as any poem by my favorite poets. I remember a time when my wife and I were a young couple. We attended a small synagogue every Sabbath with a makeshift mechitza (the barrier separating the male and female worshipers in Orthodox synagogues) and I recall how our two-year-old daughter, Jessica, used to toddle back and forth through the cotton sheet separating the men and women, spending a few minutes with my wife, a few minutes with me; back and forth, back and forth, as if she owned the joint.

I remember what it felt like to pick her up, the sweet smells of baby shampoo and Honey Nut Cheerios wafting off of her. Her arms wrapped tight around my neck, I’d press my stubbled cheek against her soft face and sing, in Hebrew: Aitz hayyim hee, la’machazikim bah (The Torah is a tree of life for those who grasp onto it). I think these lovely, poetic words from Proverbs, incorporated into the Sabbath liturgy, may have been the first song Jessie knew by heart.

One time, as the Torah was being returned to the Ark, Jessie started singing the prayer loud enough for everyone in the room to notice. Well, nothing is cuter than a little kid doing something unexpected and everyone laughed, but it didn’t deter Jessie who just kept on singing.

I was filled with pride and love for the little creature in my arms, but I felt something else too. Though I had been mindlessly reciting this prayer throughout the years, I understood that day, for the first time, how deeply rooted is this Tree of Life. And as I held my daughter, I thought, I’ve finally discovered it, the meaning of life: hold on to Torah and hold on to the people you love.

How grateful I am for the lessons that poetry has taught me. How grateful I am to God for giving the world poetry.

With that, I offer this week’s parsha poem, entitled Write, Pray, Love.

Write, Pray, Love

In certain ways, writing is a form of prayer.

                                              –Denise Levertov

The sages teach that a Jew should recite 100 blessings every day.
Assuming 8 hours sleep, this requires a blessing every 9.6 minutes

on average. And though I only sleep 5 hours a night, giving me 1.8
minutes more, on average, over the well-rested Jew, this is too much

for me. But I do pray, in my own way, eschewing the traditional words
written by men who thought so little of women that they thanked God

for not making them one. Instead, I think of the poets I admire, Jews
and gentiles, men and women, believers and atheists, sinners all.

While those around me sway and chant “The 18 Blessings,” I close my
eyes and think of sad Anne Sexton, who killed herself, but left us this:

“There is joy in all; in the hair I brush each morning, in the Cannon towel,
newly washed…in the chapel of eggs I cook each morning…All this is God.”

And Mary Oliver, Unitarian and gay, who wrote: “There is life without love.
It is not worth a bent penny…”

And I think of Amichai, who just before he died gifted us with these blessed
words: “Open closed open. Before we are born, everything is open without us.

For as long as we live, everything is closed within us. And when we die,
everything is open again. Open closed open. That’s all we are.”

I open my eyes, close them and open them again, happy to be alive. I decide on
eggs for breakfast, a chapel of them. And I will share them with you, if you like.

Rubbing an imaginary bent penny between my thumb and forefinger, for luck,
I realize: how blessed I am, to be in love.