Thursday, July 26, 2007


Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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The swan song of Moses continues this week, as the Book of Words rolls on and the aged leader narrates the history of his people, and his own roller coaster of a journey. Standing on a mountaintop overlooking Canaan, he begins chapter 3 with a heart wrenching plea to enter the Promised Land. Access, however, will be denied, and the depth of Moses’ despair is echoed in the first word of this week’s episode, named for this prayer, ‘Va’etchanan’ – ‘And I pleaded’. But there is more to that word in its original Hebrew than this translation, one of many, conveys. A closer look intensifies this moment, and reveals, perhaps, a glimpse at the inner paths of the human soul as it engages in the mysterious act called ‘prayer’.
The Book of Words, chapter 3, verse 27: ‘And I besought the LORD at that time;’ (JPS translation) The Artscroll Stone Torah translates as ‘And I implored’, the Fox translation is ‘pleaded’, others translate as ‘begged’ ‘entreated’, ‘supplicated’, and ‘beseeched.’ The Aramaic translation elaborates: ‘And I prayed and sought mercy in that hour’.
The Hebrew word Va’etchanan, is singular – only appearing in this rare moment, when Moses is literally on the edge, desperate to fulfill his last wish and complete the journey. The word stems from the root of a Hebrew word that describes, poetically, both verbal and physical meanings of this verb: to bend or stoop in kindness to an inferior; to favor, bestow; causatively to implore , and also -to pitch a tent; generally to encamp (for abode or siege)’

The acts of pitching a tent and begging for kindness may seem like two very different actions, but they meet here, portraying a moment of deep devotion and full commitment.
The expression ‘making a pitch’, familiar from sports, business deals, and philanthropic efforts, may be a modern one, but it also applies powerfully to this ancient moment. Moses is making his last pitch, camping in his tent of protest before the Highest Authority.

But the protests and prayers are to no avail. Sometimes, Promised Lands have to remain a desired distance. The hero’s journey, depicted here by the personal story of Moses, ends at the edge of the possible.

Mystical writings discuss Moses’ denied entry as ‘The mystery of the locked garden’, exploring a deeper layer of this story’s spiritual meanings and applications. There’s something about this moment of deep yearning, of fragile impermanence, regardless of the result, that we all know.
Next time you make a pitch, for whatever is your version of a promised land, learn from the old man, and go at it as about to bend reality, pitching a new tent on the summit of possibilities. And, forget about the result, it doesn’t have to end like it did for Moses. And how DOES this story end? Stay tuned for further installments…

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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The fifth and last book of Moses opens with his proclamation – THESE ARE THE WORDS… But this, of course, is the inadequate English translation of an original Hebrew concept that means more than merely an abstract verbal notion. In Biblical Hebrew, the same word for ‘words’ – DVARIM - can also mean ‘objects’ or ‘things’. Not terribly surprising in a culture where the world is created by word – by Divine speech. Instant weight is built into these final words of the prophet – words that bear gravity and will be henceforth considered as if ‘written in stone’. In this context, and perhaps in others, we are reminded of the power of words to shape reality, for better or worse.

The official English name of this book – Deuteronomy – meaning ‘the Secondary Torah’ originates from the Latin, and refers to this book’s repetition of the previous two books. But a closer read reveals more than a repetition. Moses’ swan song is a mixture of rant and litany, complete with harsh lashings, pithy poetry and words that mean more than meets the eye.

Take for example the question ‘HOW’, asked by an angry Moses as he recounts his early burn-out days, before delegating an elaborate judicial system that will ease his burden of leadership:

How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife? Dvarim 1:12

The Hebrew word for ‘how’ is Eycha, at first glance merely a question, but at closer read, a loaded lament. Eycha is the first word of the Scroll of Lamentations – the English name of the Biblical book that is originally named after that first word - The scroll of Eycha. The ‘how’ in that context is a scream in the face of destruction: How lonely sits the destroyed city of Jerusalem, how could this have happened? This coming week, on the Ninth of Av (July 23) , Jews will sit on the floor of their synagogues and read this lament to candlelight. The ‘how’ has extended to include every known calamity in Jewish history, and also to offer each of us time to ponder very personal reckonings of difficult questions about the world and about our lives - big questions that we don’t normally dare ask.

But Eycha is more than an angry or heartbroken question that is perhaps directed towards God – it is in fact an answer to a question asked by God much earlier in the story. Right after Adam & Eve eat from that fruit and hide in the garden, God’s voice calls to them: Ayecha? Where are you? It is the same word, spelled a little differently - and almost the same terrible question.

In some congregations it is customary to chant Moses’ question – only this one verse in the Torah potion of ‘Dvarim’ - in the same sad trope as that of the Eycha Scroll, thus mentally preparing the community for the upcoming 24 hour fast. This quaint custom, highlighting one word in a ritualistic way, links Moses, and us, through the spoken and chanted word, to a destroyed Jerusalem and an Eden left behind.

In his commentary on the first verse of Dvarim, Rashi, the French Torah interpreter wrote: ‘These are the words - all Israel were gathered to hear the repetition from the mouth of Moses himself and make sure there are no contradictions.’

How can we be sure that the words we’ve received, the teachings, laws, and legends are exactly what we need in order to lead the healthy and helpful lives we all yearn for? Rashi paints the picture of a community demanding to see the words formed out of the mouth of the lawmaker – concrete evidence of authority and integrity. Nowadays, all we have are the inherited words – once spoken, now printed, solid artifacts; words truly turned into things, but at the same time - transcending space and time.

Stay tuned to a book full of words that probe and ponder, heal and reveal, reviewing the ongoing journey of a people towards a future where –here’s hoping - the land is a promise, the temple never topples, and every word counts.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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For the past few weeks, billboards in NY and LA portray the disturbing image of a young woman’s face, fenced in; smeared mascara, a black tear running down her cheek. ‘CAPTIVITY’ is the only word on the poster, promoting some new movie. Whatever this motion-picture is about, the picture alone is a stark and painful reminder of how many women, worldwide, are held captive by greed, abuse, power and cruelty. In Jerusalem, this past week, the fifth annual conference held by Kolech – An Orthodox Women’s Forum, called for the formation of alternative and more liberal ‘batei din’ –courts of Jewish law. Under Israeli law, marriage and divorce are handled by the rabbinate’s religious courts, where Orthodox and nowadays – Ultra Orthodox – is the Law. In the cases of divorces and marital financial settlements, those laws represent an archaic and problematic system that rarely favors the woman. Backed by an impressive array of moderate Israeli rabbis, this feminist organization is part of a growing movement to free women – and men – from the captivity of notions and norms that belong to the past and prevent us from a freer and just future. Whatever the result of this campaign – the call alone is an important reminder of how the problems must be clearly addressed and the dirty laundry aired in order to clean the slate and implement change.

Similarly, in this week’s Torah Episode, Matot-Massey, the last of the Book of Wilderness, a terrible tale of captivity and violence demands attention – a big pile of very bloody, dirty, laundry. We examine this tale, cautiously, through the various translations of one loaded Hebrew term, describing ‘carnal relations with a male.’

The context: 12,000 Hebrew soldiers launch war on the Midianties – another dark chapter in the long saga of desert politics. They kill all the men, returning triumphant to camp, carrying their booty of property and captive women and children. Moses, himself married to a woman of Midyan, is furious, and demands retribution for the seduction by the women of Midyan several chapters ago. Seemingly of his own mind (God doesn’t intervene), he orders the following:

Chapter 31 verses 17- 18: “Slay every male among the children, and also slay every woman who has known a man carnally. But spare every young woman who has not had carnal relationships with a man." (JPS translation) Richard Friedman translates as ‘known a male for male intercourse’. The Artscroll Stone translation is even worse – expanding the list of executed women to include ‘every woman fit to know a man by lying with a male’. Is it virgins or potential virgins who are guilty of ‘intercourse’ and worthy of death?

The Hebrew term here is MISHKAV ZACHAR - usually discussed in a homosexual context but clearly here separating girls from women, making virginity the critical selection marker. The fulfillment of this terrible decree is not described, but when the booty is tallied up several verses later, 32,000 virgins are accounted for (as well as, among others, 675,000 sheep)

In many of the contemporary editions of the Bible, translators and commentators pause here, sharing shock, insight and indignation. Robert Alter writes: ‘It is painfully evident that this is an instance in which biblical outlook sadly failed to transcend its historical contexts.’

But historical interpreters of Torah, such as Rashi and the Pseudo Jonathan translation don’t express any moral dilemma. They expand the story by quoting a Talmudic narrative from tractate Yevamot that explains how Moses knew which of the Midyanite girls was or wasn’t a virgin: ‘but every female child you shall present before the High Priest, who will be wearing his Crown of Holiness, and he and look upon her: she who is not a virgin will be pallid in the face, but she who is a virgin child will blush in the face, like fire; them you shall spare. ‘

Sometimes dirty laundry is more like many, many skeletons in the ark. This lesser known and somewhat repressed and terrible moment in the career of Moses and the annals of the wanderings of Israel through the wilderness of Sinai is perhaps just another reminder of how much of our present is carried over from our past. How much of the Jewish collective consciousness is still formed and informed by these narratives in which a woman is but seduction, danger, property? Where sex is a threat and ethnic cleansing, human traffic and murder of children is condoned? How many billboards and hostile rabbinic courts still hold us captive to this hostile past?

Perhaps by opening these stories up for new and critical interpretations we expose the wounds and begin a process of healing. As the Orthodox Women’s Forum demonstrated this week – airing dirty laundry is a crucial step towards having clean sheets. We leave this fourth book of Moses behind this week, and with it, hopefully, the continued journey towards the utopian vision of promised lands and new beginnings, wrestling with our mixed bag of memories.

But tell us, how, from now on, do we look Moses in the eyes?

Friday, July 06, 2007


Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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Just when you thought things can’t get wilder in the Book of Wilderness, sex, politics, and fanatic violence tip the scales. What else is new. Last week’s Torah episode ends with a cliff hanger – a bloody ‘coitus interruptus’ between a Hebrew leader and a princess of Midyan. It is likely that this public sex act pushed pious buttons not only for its crossing of boundaries between Hebrew and Heathen but also because it represented an idolatrous moment – the ‘Hieros Gamos’ - symbolic union of Male and Female, as celebrated, often, in the pagan world. The two pay with their lives for this moment of passion and/or devotion. Pinchas, a Levite, the man for whom this weekly Torah portion is named, pierces them both with a spear, instantly stopping what seemed to have been an out of control orgiastic party. The next thing we find out is that 24,000 people are dead – victims of a mysterious ‘plague’.

Wait, what plague? There is no clear explanation in this context, and we wonder if this may be not just a case of odd translation but, possibly, an even older version of a ‘intra-translation’ - a political ‘cover up’, where mass murder is disguised as a disease. Was it an epidemic? Is it Divine retribution? Who were killed and who did the killing? We will probably never know, but what strikes us as relevant is the way some events are named and remembered, and the way that those in power get to tell the story and to title inconvenient tragedies, then and now.

Chapter 26, verse 19 comes in after it is all over, with one of the shortest and most chilling verse in Torah: ‘And it came to pass, after the Plague:’

Every single Biblical translation we’ve checked uses the word ‘Plague”, indicating a ‘force-major’ of some sort. But the Hebrew word MAGEFA could also be translated as ‘affliction’ or ‘calamity’ or any form of ‘fatal interruption’. It could also mean ‘the killing’.

As soon as the plague is done, Moses is instructed to count the people, taking stock, perhaps of losses. Rashi, the 11th century French interpreter of Torah remarks:’ This is like a shepard who counts his sheep after the wolf has attached the flock.’

This is a sad image, especially coming from the pen of a man who has witnessed the horrendous repercussions of the first crusade. Rashi seems to imply that the dead Hebrews are victims of a terrible misfortune, but what is one to do with the preceding two verse in which a revenge on Midyan is ordered, a counter attack to balance out the ‘plague’? Could the dead 24,000 have been the victims of a war, or even an intra tribal civil war, severely repressed? The killing by Pinchas, blessed by God, seems to indicate that some sort of bloodshed took place that day.

In his commentary on this verse, Richard Friedman writes ‘ the plague is a direct, unannounced consequence of the violation of the holy place..’ and as such, whether the bloodthirsty act of fanatics like Pinchas or a mysterious Divinely ordained wiping out of the bad guys – many people died, enough to be noted, counted, and remembered. So, who’s to say? In a world where torture is sometimes referred to as ‘interrogation’ and murdered political prisoners are labeled ‘missing’, this possibly twisted truth, is, sadly, no news. It is likely that more happened here, at this biblical moment in time, than anybody wishes to really remember. This makes us think of Albert Camus, and his book ‘the plague’, where he claims that perseverance in the face of tragedy is a noble struggle even if it ultimately fails to make an appreciable difference.

But can we make a difference, and change the course our story is taking? We believe that we may not be able to alter the inherited, abusive text, but we do have the obligation to ask the hard questions, acknowledge the skeletons in our closet, and make room for a future healed of this abuse. We’d like to walk a path where the Pinchas archetype is not honored anymore. And so we continue to wrestle with the Book of Wilderness, slowly making our way to the Promised Land of high hopes. Stay tuned for next week where more difficult questions arise and an ancient journey takes us one step closer to where we’d really like to be.