Monday, January 29, 2007

Labor of Love

verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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This weekly Storah is dedicated to Lisa Goldberg, of blessed memory, who left the earth this past week. She was an inspiration to all those of us striving to acheive labors of love.

This week’s torah episode is called ‘BO’, also known as ‘Showdown in Egypt’. ‘Bo’ means ‘Enter’ – alluding to the divine command for Moses to enter the presence and the mindset of his oppressor – in order to release the enslaved Hebrews and let them go free. In three chapters we get a blow by blow of the final stages of the Exodus - the last three of the ten attacks on Egypt, climaxing with the slaughter of the firstborn and the king’s final defeat. Somewhere between midnight and dawn, lit by the full moon of spring, over a million Hebrew slaves flee Egypt, matzos in hand, ending 430 years of residence.

And then, when it’s all over, the Passover for the future is instructed – the memory of that fateful night, different from all others, engraved on the collective mind. One word stands out – a Hebrew word that is translated in various ways that put together tell the whole story, mysteriously symbolizing both the agony and the redemption – the bitter and the sweet.

Exodus 12:16 - And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, What mean ye by this service? (King James Bible)

The Hebrew word for ‘service’ is ‘avodah’ – appearing continuously in the Exodus saga, translated as ‘labor’, ‘practice’, ‘employment’, ‘worship’, ‘bondage’, ‘rite’ or ‘ceremony’.
Depending on the context this word either refers to the historical forced labor in the Egyptian brick factories OR to the future ritual commemoration of the Passover Freedom Festival: the Seder. Either way – it’s the same word, and for those of us who have sat through one of those unbelievably long and boring Seders – the slavery motif is not a big surprise. The word ‘Avodah’ became the code word for the worship rites at the Jerusalem Temple, and later for the sequence of prayers conducted in synagogues. The word ‘service’ is still in fairly current usage, describing what has also become, for many of us, a bit more of a laborious oppression than excited celebration.

Avodah is a key concept in Jewish vocabulary. Perhaps, because if focuses on the very basic set of human acts that requires discipline and perseverance, order and obedience. We think of this in terms of worship – but also in terms of industry. The word ‘work’ – signifying what for many is a vocation of obligation and for many others a labor of love, is very loaded with different meanings – and in modern Hebrew – Avoda still means ‘job’.

The many faces of this word remind us of one more bizarre twist on this convoluted concept. ‘Arbeit Macht Frei ‘or ‘Labor Liberates’ is a familiar, sinister quote, used by the Nazis to promote slave labor as ‘effective’ or ‘humane’ procedure. The expression first appears in 1872, when German author Lorenz Diefenbac, a nationalist, used it as the title of his book. In 1928 the Weimar Government used it as a slogan promoting large scale public works campaign to end unemployment. By 1933 it has become a Nazi favorite, famously decorating the thresholds of many death camps.

This story is about thresholds.

As we repeat the Exodus tale this week, ancient and recent history echo our personal yearnings for a life free of all forms of oppression.
So, when the time comes and your child asks you – WHY are we doing this Passover thing? What will you answer?
And, in our daily journeys from the narrow places, when tasks and duties become oppressions, no matter what their goal and purpose – will we remember the labor of love?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Moses, Uncut

verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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This past Monday marked Martin Luther King Jr. Day – honoring a courageous leader whose passionate sacrifice and prophetic speeches shaped an Exodus from the bondage of racism, offering dignity and freedom to an entire nation. Imagine a leader of such proportions and scope – with a heavy speech impediment? What if he or she has a stutter or an inability to make a coherent sentence? Oh well, yes, there is that man in the White House, but we mean real leaders, prophetic change agents whose deeds and words motivate revolutions. How much of their power is derived form oratory ability?
Moses, the hero of THAT ancient Exodus, is famously known for just such a challenge. In this week’s Torah Episode, Va’Era, he continues to struggle against the mission that has been given to him at the burning bush – to free his people. In the second round of negotiations with the surprising deity with the ancient Hebrew resonance and new, unfamiliar name, Moses resists the role by claming that his lips are, literally, sealed – preventing him from delivering the Divine word to the King of Egypt. The saga of Moses’ reluctance to accept this historic mantle is interesting enough, but what really grabs the translators’ attention is the idiom he uses for his inadequacy – somehow linking lips to penis, and body to national identity:
Moses, the hero of the original Exodus, is famously known for just such a challenge. In this week's Torah Episode, Va'Era, he continues to struggle against the mission that has been given to him at the burning bush – to free his people. In the second round of negotiations with the invisible Deity, Moses resists the role by claiming that his lips are, literally, sealed - covered by a foreskin. He is speaking figuratively, of course, but what can this mean? That his lips that have not been denatured through a covenantal act, have not been dedicated to Divine service? That they have not been stripped of the covering of Egyptian, the language of his upbringing? Translators have wrestled with this disclaimer in numerous ways:
Exodus 6:12, according to the King James Bible:
And Moses spake before the LORD, saying, Behold, the children of Israel have not hearkened unto me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips? (KJV)
Other translations replace ‘uncircumcised lips’ with Impeded speech (Etz Chayim), difficult of speech( Pseudo Jonathan) or Sealed lips (Artscroll), creatively addressing the words AREL S’FTAIM as metaphor for what is otherwise a really peculiar physical condition. The word AREL is usually read as ‘uncircumcised, derived from the primitive root: ‘to strip’ or ‘to expose’.
So what's going on, Moses? Are you uncut and unsuitable or just not cut for the job? Does your reluctance to be recruited for this campaign express itself in a stammering stage fright? Did you press a burning coal to your lips as an infant, as legends tell, so that you are forever marked and scarred? Did your infancy as a hidden child traumatize you, the maternal finger ever pressed over your lips to keep you quiet? Perhaps all of the above. And the best we can do as translators is to offer our own: tongue tied, speechless, Moses refuses the nomination and prefers to stay where it’s familiar, back with the sheep.
Perhaps his progress shows us how personal limitations -- real or perceived--- can be made into advantages, transforming self and society in surprising and inspiring ways. Perhaps, too, his story reminds us of how important it is to have leaders who know their own weakness and find partners who can help them lead. After all, Moses' protests convince the Almighty to add a speechwriter and official spokesman to the Exodus Campaign: Aaron, the original translator or Divine Word. What next? join the reluctant hero and his sidekick for the fight to freedom... frogs and all.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

LIVE in Egypt

verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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This week, Lauviticus welcomes you to the Second of the Five Books,
known to us as Exodus, but in Hebrew known as The Book of Names. Exodus/Shemot takes us beyond the primal myths of Genesis into the socio-political reality of oppression, racism, poverty, human suffering and human hope, and ultimately towards the creation of a community bound by faith, ritual, and order.
The seed of this transformation is located in the prophetic myth of Moses, and in this week's telling of his heroic and humble begining. His birth and that of countless other babies are described as a "swarming" with its implication of a superabundant force. In the face of this prolific fertility, Pharaoh enslaves the Hebrews and issues an edict sentencing infant boys to death. Initially he employs the midwives as his instrument of enforcement, but they do not comply and when confronted, reply with the verse we focus on this week:
The midwives said to Pharaoh, "Because the Hebrew women are not like
the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous. Before the midwife can
come to them, they have given birth." Exodus 1:19. Etz Chayim Translation
The Hebrew word in question here is CHAYOT – translated as either
VIGORUOUS or LIVELY (King James Bible), EXPERTS (Artscroll) or AMINALS
( Richard Friedman's translation)
All these translations are valid, though seeing the women as animals who do not need midwives for birthing is perhaps the most challenging. Translating chayot as "animals" may be the best way the mid-wives know to explain to Pharaoh that their hands are tied. You know these Hebrew women, they are like animals. Cover story? Or racial slur?
But another way to read this verse is that the Hebrew women are
ALIVE – full of life, zest, fight and determination. They are not degraded by
their circumstances but powerful in their sacred duty of birthing the
future. (Anyone seen the recent film 'Children of Men'? see it for a
powerful reminder of the awe-some and awe-full experience of birth.)
The classic Aramaic translator, knows as the Pseudo-Jonathan, took
this approach as well. In his rendition of Exodus 1:19 he translates
CHAYOT in a way that makes the mothers seems as heroines, not victims:
"The Jewish women are not as the Egyptian , for they are sturdy and
wise-minded: before the midwife comes to them they lift up their eyes
in prayer, supplicating mercy before their Father who is in heaven,
who hears the voice of their prayer, and at once they are heard, and
bring forth, and are delivered in peace."
And so Lauviticus would like to suggest: ‘The Hebrew Women are not like their governing Egyptian sisters – for they are full of LIFE; The Divine is their midwife.’
What, in your life, is so full of life and vitality, that against all
odds, will just burst out and change the world?

Shabbat shalom!

Thursday, January 04, 2007


verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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The book of Beginnings ends this week with a dramatic deathbed scene.
The name of this week's torah episode is an ironic wink – VaYechi, 'And he Lived' – actually describing death - not only the death of Jacob but also that of his son and spiritual heir, Joseph. Both will be embalmed and buried with great ceremony, leaving the children of Israel to face 400 years of Egyptian Diaspora, slavery, and eventually, an exodus. But not yet: Right now, we are gathered around the bed of Jacob, last of the patriarchs, as he delivers poetic prophecy, and brutally honest last will and testament. The scene reminds us of 'The Godfather', as there is more here than words – great fortunes are at stake, and ancient sibling rivalry tensions marked on the brothers faces.
The scene starts with the blessings bestowed on Joseph and his seed, clearly favored beyond the others. But something in Jacob's words seems weird, and over the generations many translators and commentaries have debated the fine print and its implications. In today's political climate – this ancient verse bears chilling

Genesis 48:22 - 'I'm giving you one more mountain ridge than your brothers. I took it from the Amorites with my own sword and bow." This is one popular translation – but not the definitive one. The JPS translation suggests "Moreover I have given to thee one portion above thy brethren, which I took out of the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow."
Two items are fascinating here, and translated differently. The first is the Hebrew word SHECHEM – translated as either 'mountain', 'shoulder' or as the name of an actual city – Shechem – modern day Palestinian Nablus. Ouch. This is also the city savaged by Jacob's sons over the Dina affair. And though neither Jacob or Joseph actually fought that fight – it is Joseph's tribe that does indeed inherit this property when the Israelites take over Canaan , and in fact Josephs'
presumed burial site is right outside Nablus, a hotly contested geo-political marker.
But the more interesting item here, also politically challenging, is the end of the verse – the bow and sword that Jacob describes as the weapons with which he conquered the city. While most translations stick to these as weapons –Onkelos, the famous translator who was a Roman Jew by Choice, lived 2,000 years ago, and endorsed by the Talmud as the authoritative Aramaic translator, takes a surprising spin on this combat history, translating 'bow and sword' as 'prayer and supplication'. Whoa: prayer and supplication?? That is NOT a translation, but more like a historical clean up job. Is it possible that Onkelos is giving Jacob credit for his sons' conquest of the city due to his good deeds and pious prayer – though not thanks to his actually being involved in battle? Or is he telling history to his contemporary audience – Jews living under Roman rule, afraid of flaunting military strength?

One way or another, Joseph gets the real estate, and the other brothers, not to mention the Amorites, are left seething and compromised. For the modern Torah reader, gathered around Jacob's bed this is just another fascinating example of biblical word, political reality, history and myth converging and inviting a critical reading of a text worthy of closer attention. Perhaps, as Onkelos suggests, words and prayers can sometimes be sharper than swords and more lethal than bows and arrows. And perhaps, as we bid Farwell to Genesis and enter the world of Exodus, we can take greater responsibility for the finer reading of what our ancient tales whisper and how our translations can help reshape a world poised for more love and less weapons.