Wednesday, November 12, 2008

RE:VERB/weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

Join me for a year long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I will pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.

November 11, 2008

My father and I are walking in the park outside his home. It's a sunny Friday afternoon in Jerusalem, children are playing, and birds fly about. And from nearby East Jerusalem the call of the Muezzin is heard, calling the worshippers to the mosque. Soon it will be sundown and the Sabbath-Siren will pierce the same sky. A flock of ravens lands on the lawn next to us. My father looks at them and his mouth tightens. “I hate ravens,” he says, “afraid of them.” I sort of knew that – its part of the family lore of random facts having to do with my father's Holocaust experience. “But why exactly?” I ask him. We've been talking about specific memories of his on this walk, and I've been taking hasty notes on my left palm as we're circling the park. I'm trying to talk to him about his faith – not to re-probe the painful memories – to get beyond the facts. “They ate bodies. This was in Auschwitz – they would swoop down on us in flocks of 20 or 30 birds and use their beaks to grab the body parts of the corpses that were just lying there. They used their beaks to puncture the eyes. I don't know why, maybe it was more juicy.”

Father and son walking in circles, burdened by a past that keeps binding us both to ancient wounds, and both of us, for different reasons, don't or won't let go. This weekend marked his father's Yahrtzeit – the date on which it is estimated that my grandfather, leading his community as the last rabbi of their town, reached the gas chambers in Treblinka. The Hebrew date this year falls on November 9th – also the commemoration of Kristalnacht. Israeli TV channels are broadcasting special programs in commemoration and in our living room two memorial candles were lit tonight – one for my grandfather and one for his son, my father's younger brother Shmuel, who most likely perished with his father on the same day. “Your father had never lit a candle for his brother before tonight, for all those years,” my mother confides in the kitchen. “I'm not sure why.”

Vayera, this week's Torah installment, contains the birth of Isaac and then his Binding, as well as the exile of his brother Yishamel, not to mention the demolition of Sodom. Genesis packs 'em in: so many verbs, so little time.

The Binding is the big story here...father and son walk together, not far from where I sit right now, active participants in a terrible act of blind faith, bound by destiny. But I choose to focus on another difficult moment in these chapters – one glance and its fatal consequences.

Chapter 19 in Genesis tells of the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. (Nothing in the plain text describes rampant homosexuality, by the way – the crimes of Sodom are greed and selfishness). Lot and his family get the VIP treatment and are rescued, warned not to look back on the loss of their home and loved ones – to just move on. Lot and his two daughters march on and survive, but Lot's wife – known in the oral legends as Edith – famously looks back into the pain, and is frozen on the spot.

"But his wife looked back, behind him, and she became a pillar of salt" (Gen. 19:26).

When does the act of looking at one's history become destructive? When does turning back to look at what used to be become not reflective but obsessive, dangerous, fatal? When is it time to let the past be and only focus on the future? Having spent a month here, so close to my father again and to his Holocaust narratives, am I becoming, like him, like Lot's wife, immersed in this saga of horrific memories? Can I walk away? Can he?? Is it time to persuade my father to stop dwelling, remembering, discussing what was? Do I have the right?

We took another walk today and I asked him about Lot's wife and the wisdom of her choice. “The problem,” he says, “is that most people don't want to know what lies ahead and prefer to dwell on what already happened, even if it's terrible.”

”And maybe,” he adds after a long pause, “it's a blessing for her… not to continue with the memories.”

This 'looking back' reminds me of 'rubbernecking' on the highway, peering at wrecked cars: this human tendency of ours to probe, like ravens, into the dark and the dead. Looking back at our pain, like 'rubbernecking,' may lead to clogged roads within. Inspired by this story and by this reading of Mrs. Lot's choice, I challenge myself today to glance in the rearview mirror - but not turn and look back while driving. Somehow, I need to learn how to honor the past, keep recording the tales – but not stay there – move on to a deeper understanding and a possible healing, reconciliation with the past. Isn't that the real role of stories and storytelling, just like salt: making everything last longer and taste better....

I wonder: When you look in the rearview mirror of your life - what do you see?


  1. Akiva WhartonNovember 13, 2008

    Why is Torah so endlessly dark with death
    When G!d, You're very Name is a Fountain of Endless Breath

    I don't know...I do not know
    But I yearn to learn and grow

    And why did Avraham take in his hand that knife
    And why did you HaShem threaten his young son's life

    I don't know...I do not know
    But I yearn to learn and grow

    Ay yai yai yai yai yai yai

    Why is true love such wet slippery fish to catch
    And why is true faith such a difficult lock to latch

    I don't know...I do not know
    But I yearn to learn and grow

    Why do I flow with tears every night awake
    And why do you HaShem flow in rivers that give...and then take

    I don't know...I do not know
    But I yearn to learn and grow

    Ay yai yai yai yai yai yai

    * * * * Instrumental Break * * * *

    Why do I feel I'm standing at Sinai now
    And why to You, only You, Adonai, does my body bow

    I think I know...I think I know
    Surrendering...frees us to grow
    Surrendering...frees us to grow

    Surrendering...again and again You HaShem

    Surrendering...again and again You HaShem

    Surrendering...frees us to grow
    Surrendering...frees us to grow

    Ay yai yai yai yai yai yai

    © 2008 AkivaTheBeliever

    Dearest far away brother Amichai, and those looking in,

    Wonderful to hear your words, even frozen in cyber speak.

    Did I ever mention that my sister and mother each killed themselves and that my father died on my sister's birthday 4 years later as though he could not bear another daughter day without his daughter?

    For one whole year I "rubbernecked" all of that. Swamped by the enormity of their choices and the void left behind.

    And this on top of all the Shoah deaths in both sides of my family.

    Could have been a great big whirlpool for me to wash down.

    That was the year I learned not all questions have answers. And that the past is past. And that forgiveness is everything. Everything.

    And that sometimes G!d needs our forgiveness as well. Which is what we do when we pray. When we surrender.

    Which is why every answer to every dark problem somehow involves joy.

    Joy means forgiveness. Kindness. Renewal. Rebirth. Hope. Strength. Starting again. In joy.

    love akiva and ShabbatShalom

  2. Brother Akiva:
    You bring immeasurable joy that comes from immeasurable pain. I'm sure learning to forgive G!D wasn't easy, but many of us have been enriched by your learning and teaching. love,

  3. Akiva WhartonNovember 20, 2008

    Many thanks to all of you who responded to my post!

    How wonderful to be alive now and to know each of you.

    May we all have the strength and the insight to teach and to learn from each other. And to see just how awesome every soul really is.

    ShabbatShalom Akiva