Thursday, June 24, 2010

Pinchas (Cozbi and Zimri)

This week I am cheating and using an old poem that I had written which will appear in the upcoming edition of the Mima'amakim journal this fall. It is an off-kilter sonnet voicing my discomfort with the massacre of Cozbi and Zimri by Pinchas. Viewed allegorically, much like the conquering of Eretz Israel in the book of Joshua, I have no problem with this narrative. These heroic though violent figures are extirpating the negative aspects of their own personalities and those within our communities. They are doing a reparation, a tikkun, by destroying the impulses that drive our animal soul.

Well, that works on a figurative, Kabbalistic level, but if we view Torah as a living history, how can one reconcile murder in the name of G-d? On top of that, Pinchas, a Kohen, is rewarded by HaKadosh Baruch Hu. In an age, in this way similar to all others, in which fundamentalists claim the right to exercise violent action based on divine authority (think Taliban, Saudi Arabia, GW's holy war which we continue to wage in the Middle East, Homophobes sanctioning hate crimes, a handful of militant Zionist settlers--NOT the Israeli majority-- who continue to decimate certain Arab populations because they believe it to be the will of G-d) and it becomes an even more frightening contemporary issue.

Please forgive me for getting so political for a moment, but this poem presents my, perhaps all too American, fear of what happens when religion and politics, or religious and political power become too much intertwined. Granted, I understand that there is a political vision presented by the Torah; however, that vision is not only political but spiritual. The just society that we will finally enjoy in the time of Mashiach will create an environment in which every person will have their material needs met, live in temporal and physical ease so that we can spend all our time connecting with the Divine. Perhaps Pinchas, though overly zealous, represents the singleminded person who only lives for that future time of redemption and his real shortcoming is wanting a future reality of justice so much, that he is willing to sacrifice the here and now, i.e. his relationship to those still created in G-d's image who do not share this vision. Who knows. Please enjoy and I welcome and encourage your thoughts and comments on the poem, or the politics...I guess.

Shabbat Shalom!
Cozbi and Zimri (in memoriam)

A sharp removal: triceps return flesh,
Burgundy triangle lance dances slow
Above the broken vessels—seeping thresh.
Pinchas ruffles his priestly brow, eyes low.

How can those holy fingers elevate
After slicing through missteps of the dead—
Cozbi, a woman who germinates bait,
Easily bitten off by the prince, red—

Weak. Night quivers, like a bonfire’s embers.
Broken bottles, casks, grapes in the dirt,
Swallowed by earth, preserved in the amber
Like mosquitoes, ink on parchment—inert.

Pinchas, we dance through raw desert, lovesick—
Our shipwrecked race...yet, a reward for this?


Coming Soon!


Coming Soon!


Beha'alotcha (Wicks in the Wind)

I am indebted to a connection pointed out to us at Yeshivat Hadar by my teacher, the brilliant Dr. Devorah Steinmetz. In her literary approach to the narratives of our tradition, Dr. Steinmetz pointed out that the use of the word matar in most instances in the Torah are a type of punitive dew or rain. That is, something Ha---Shem sends as a punishment for haughtiness or some other infraction committed on either divine kingship or, in modern parlance, the categorical imperative.

Using this as my starting point, I've constructed a poem as a dialogue between Ha--Shem and B'nei Israel with HaShem instructing us to be holy, to keep moving toward Him and evolving, and with us kvetching about our material needs and dwelling in the constricted and limiting idealization of a past reality, rather than embracing this moment. B'nei Israel have a ball recalling all that was so glorious in Egypt, but, as Proust reminds us in his A la recherche du temps perdu memories are hardly ever authentic or truthful. A spiritual teaching that I have always sought to embrace is that this moment is really all that has significance and our halacha, whether obviously or not, imputes this message as much as any other.

Shabbat Shalom!
Beha’alotcha (Wicks in the Wind)

G-d: in your making go up,
into clouded cover,
night fire.
It’s all but a parochet,
a veil,
to tear through.
It’s all but a
To tear through,
To seduce Me.

Rest as wick; I’ll be your oil.
Stand wax still
O ye vessels
For My flame—
Spots for My sun.

B’nei Israel: Great…but who might feed us meat?
zacharnu et-ha eating!
Gah-gah-gah garlic, free-fish,
Cucumbers encumber mind’s eye in
Watermelon leaking leeks,
Hills of coriander seed.
Let’s grind it in a mill
like oil cake
drenched in morning dew.

G-d: Wicks in the wind!
Wicks in the wind!
If not... I’ll damn you in dew.

Shelach Lecha (The Woodgatherer)

I often find myself struck by the starkness of the biblical narrative. In Erich Auerbach's seminal work Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, the German-Jewish literary theorist and critic notes the salient difference between the detail of motives and description of action in Greek epic on the one hand, and the vague hyper laconism of the bible on the other. Auerbach attributes this distinction to the purposes set forth by the two texts; that is to say that the Greek epics were originally oral works open to the poet to embellish, but wholly a work of entertainment. Granted, one can glean moral teachings from Achilles' modus operandi in battle situations, or Ulysses journeying back to Ithaca, but the real meaning lie in those texts presenting a rubric from which the talented poet could improvise for the enjoyment of his spectators.
The Bible, on the other hand, is a legal text interspersed with narratives that expound the laws contained herein.

This idea, astute and yet somewhat obvious as it is, has never helped me to fully connect with biblical narrative. But it was also one of the catalysts for my undertaking the project of poem ha-shavua. What is interesting, at least artistically, about what the Torah is not saying? How are these figures thinking in the time of narrative, existential, and spiritual strife? As far as I am concerned, it is within the silence of biblical personages (our ancestors, paradigms of righteous and errant ways) where we find the Torah's true meaning. It is in the inscrutability or occasional unjust nature of things that happen that truly teach Jews and the Umot Ha-Olam how to live. That is because, quite simply, these moments where something happens and we have no idea of a personage's thoughts in that moment require us to ask ourselves "why," and search for the answers whether we find them or not. Perhaps this is the greatest gift of our sages in the Talmud when they expound upon our tradition with discourse and more than a few "Frank" interrogative terms.

This week's parashah is a wonderful and somewhat disturbing example of this economical narrative that forces us to drash as much as we can. The mekoshesh etzim "woodgatherer" punished for collecting wood on Shabbat. We ask might ask ourselves if he knew it was indeed Shabbat, or if he had been a tzaddik or malach simply
doing G-d's will in order that G-d could teach Moshe and B'nei Israel how to punish someone for transgressing the Shabbat.
All of these questions and many more are addressed in the commentaries. However, in my poem this week, I used the example of the woodgatherer as a meditation of the nature of Shabbos. Is it an ontological reality that we simply acknowledge and observe, or rather is it something that we must build or do (as the Torah reads with la'asot et ha Shabbat) with no intrinsic value beyond our spiritual striving? Could the woodgatherer feel the presence of Shabbat, or was he simply disobeying G-d without any repercussions but for his later punsihment?

I hope you enjoy this poem. I have fallen behind in this endeavor but hope, B''H, to be caught up in the next couple weeks. Please keep checking in. Shabbat Shalom!

Shlach lecha (The Woodgatherer)

Is there indeed a difference in the way
this lumber wilts,
my withered
unlike other days,
each pile
I make slides to a pool… an ocean… submerging
my blackened feet…a wave of wood… the jellyfish smart—
of stones.


Coming Soon!