Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I 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.

February 25, 2009

Newark International airport was celebrating Black History Month this past Sunday. A stage was set up in one of the food courts and a beautiful African American dancer was performing solo, with a playback of a Gospel choir praising the Lord in full volume, Amen Hallelujah.
People stopped to watch. I was sitting at gate C108, waiting to board a flight to Tel Aviv, sipping tea and loving the music. Nearby, a group of Hasidic men stood facing a wall, praying Mincha, the afternoon prayer. A Jewish orthodox girl, slender, long skirt, long sleeves, about 15, stood up a few seats away from me, clutching a prayerbook and praying – davening is the Yiddish word-- fervently, facing the same direction as the men. I watched her closely, lips moving, furrowed brow, body swaying, but tense. She was very focused, ignoring the crying babies nearby, the folded stroller that she was practically standing on, and the gospel music overhead. And then she was done, stood straight, closed the book, kissed it, sat down. Clapping was heard – the dancer was bowing to the audience and the choir, with ‘Jesus take me hooooooooooooooooooome’ took it home and ended. Amen.

There in that public square, a bland airport terminal, the sacred was experienced in multiple ways-- simultaneous, overlapping, mutually respectful, or at least tolerant of each other. The dancer had her eyes closed, as did the young Jewish girl, and both stood out in time and space by their very public (but also very private) acts of devotion. They performed their duties: they sanctified the moment.

And I watched, inspired by these gestures of faith, and wondered: Religion meeting art meeting commerce in the global marketplace –– meet and compete? It made me think: the place of religion in the public square-- perhaps one of the key challenges of the 21st century. Can there be a respectful co-existence of ‘private’ expressions of the sacred, in relation to each other – and in relation to the shared ‘secular’ arena?

This is a personal challenge: how do I honor the sacred in my every day busy life? How do I – do we --sanctify our here and now, while so often – physically and metaphysically – on the move, on our way to or from ‘home’?

This challenge of building a home–of sanctifying space and time in the ever shifting public square--is also on Moses’ mind this week, as Exodus rolls on and the new game in town is called ‘build a tabernacle’.

"Make me a sanctuary so I will dwell among them" (Ex.25:8). God’s new instruction to Moses and his people demands an elaborate, costly production. For many chapters ahead of us, starting with this week’s tale ‘Terumah’ – ‘the Donation’ – we will follow Moses and his construction crew on a detail by detail description of the building of the first sacred place in Jewish history, gold tassels and all. In due time, this moving tabernacle will, well, move – and eventually graduate to a Jerusalem mountaintop marble temple which will topple, twice, until all we have left today are local substitutions, including a random airport wall, facing east.

We've got plenty of upcoming Torah portions discussing the Tabernacle in which to deal with the timeless philosophical issue of ”who needs a house for God if God is everywhere.” For now, I just want to reflect on the basic human urge to ‘sanctify’ reality – to access the transcendental through tangible action that defines our values, beliefs and sense of self.

Sanctifying is an art. Done alone or with others, the act of sanctifying is this delicate art of making meaning of a moment, and really meaning it.

It’s hard to teach ‘sanctification’ but somehow – we all know how to do it.

Imagine putting just the right number of candles on a birthday cake and turning off the lights, and then getting whoever's there - even in a restaurant full of strangers - to sing ‘happy birthday!’ Even if this is not an ‘officially religious’ act – is this not sanctification of time and place? Or, choosing that one perfect song from the soundtrack of your life, there on your IPOD, in the middle of the subway on a hard day, sitting there with headphones on crying and rewinding and playing again – that’s you in the corner, gaining your religion… Not another strange modern example of sanctifying the moment, of building a sanctuary in the midst of life?

Sanctifying isn’t really about the place – tabernacle or temple or church, not necessarily – it’s mostly about the experience, the gesture, the yearning. The 13th century Book of Zohar puts it beautifully, quoting the same verse from Exodus: "Build me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them"-- The Divine dwells among ‘them’--the people who come together to sanctify life – and does not dwell inside ‘it’ – the sanctuary. It’s not about the building as object – it’s about the act of building. Maybe all temples and sacred places are just there to remind us that the human soul is the seat of the sacred – residing within each and every one of ‘them’ – us – and not only, if ever, within the tabernacles of the world.

Anyway. I got on that plane, feeling more centered and focused, grateful to the dancer, and the davening girl for their inspiration, and hummed holy gospels all the way home.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I 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.

February 19, 2009

"Where they burn books, they will also burn people." Heinrich Heine, the Jewish-German author wrote this famous line in his 1821 play ‘Almansor’ –referring to the burning of the Q’uran during the Spanish Inquisition. A century later – Heine’s books, among many other Jewish books both sacred and secular, were burnt in Berlin’s public squares and his kin, also, exterminated by the Nazis.

I don’t think there are any books by Heine in the Valmadonna Trust Library Exhibit of rare Jewish books that is on display this week at Sotheby’s New York – but this incredible private collection of some 11,000 books and manuscripts, up for sale at a beginners’ bid of 40 million dollars, does bear witness to the sagas of many burnings, and persecutions and exiles–both of books and people. But that is not the real story here – the real story here is that of the triumph of the book – the passion for the transmission of the Word. This is a passion I know something about, and I guess it’s hereditary. In my quick one week work trip in NYC I’ve come to the exhibit as often as possible – inspired intellectually and emotionally, moved by the intense reactions of others around me.

Passion is a word that is often associated with collectors –and the man who is responsible for this fantastic collection – my uncle Jack – is a good example for zealous passion. Jack Lunzer– one of my mother’s siblings (My late Uncle Henry, about whom I wrote here a few weeks ago, was #2 of 8 siblings, Jack is #7, my mother, Joan, is #8) has always been the colorful one, the fabulous and eccentric uncle. He’d come visit us in Israel, or we’d visit him in London, and he always wore Safari suits (he did a lot of business in Africa) and always talked about the books. His collection of rare Jewish books was his favorite topic of conversation and his main thing in life. I remember Passover Seders with him at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem – he’d bring different copies of rare Hagaddahs and would pass them around, carefully. Visiting his home in London was always an adventure – on the way to the kitchen I’d pause in one of the parlors or hallways to take out some random tome and delve in. There were books everywhere. His was a contagious passion. By the time I was fifteen I was so taken by his love of books that I decided to become a librarian. I spent the next few years in Jewish libraries (let’s be honest here – I was totally BORED by Talmud study in my various Yeshivas, cut classes, and started delving into Jewish history and literature via the books – this was my only way out – or, rather - in.) I even went to a few auctions with him and became obsessed with knowing all there is to know about the history of Jewish books. In time, my interest changed – from the object – the book itself– to the subject matter – what the books were about. But my first love was the object – the older, rarer, and more unique – the better. To this day, thanks to Uncle Jack’s inspiration – I find old books irresistible.

It’s curious that the passion for the books –that of the thousands of people who flocked to Sotheby’s this week – isn’t so much for the content –but for the context – what these books represent. These rare ‘things’ tell the history of the transmission of literacy, become portals for the big story of Jewish life and for the bigger picture of human survival. These books became a way to make sense of our stories – as individuals and as families, and tribes, and communities. Getting lost inside a book is one way of finding one’s self. Getting lost inside a Jewish sacred book or a Jewish library is the way to find one’s connection to this baffling and fantastic thing called Jewish identity. Maybe that’s why the 10th floor at Sotheby’s has been packed with so many eager viewers. Uncle Jack – rather tired at 84, surrounded by some of his protective daughters and grandchildren (Hi, Carolyn!) and dressed very elegantly in tweeds (no safari suits anymore) received visitors like the royalty he always wanted to become. (For the record, he IS the Count of Valmadonna – a sleepy town in Italy that is somehow associated with his late wife’s family. As a property owner there he got the title too. Fun! As a kid I loved boasting that my uncle is a count. But he really wanted a British knighthood and almost got it after the famous Talmud deal with Westminster Abbey in 1980. Oh well, he may not get to be Sir Jack after all.) At Sotheby’s this past weekend he was mobbed by people asking him for autographs and though he grumbled, I think he loved it. And I think they wanted it because they too got infected by his passion for the books and for what the books represent – a peek into eternity, a sense of what it really means to be ‘the people of the book’.

Curiously, the passion for reading a book actually begins in this week’s installment of the Torah – the Five Books of Moses that serve as the heart and soul of Jewish literature and can be found in many extraordinary forms in the Valmadonna library.

There are different and contrasting descriptions of what exactly happened at Mount Sinai and what accounted for the Revelation. This week’s version, found at the end of the Torah portion called ‘Mishpatim’ gives the most robust account of literacy in making – Moses is both writing – and reading out loud – the words of the Covenant between the Divine author and the first generation of readers – or rather – listeners. This is the first time in the Torah that the act of reading aloud – ceremonially – from a written text is mentioned. It is, thus, the beginning of the story of how we read our story.

“And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the hearing of the people; and they said: 'All that God has spoken will we do, and obey.' (Exodus, 24:7)

The 40 million dollar question is, of course, what IS that mysterious ‘Book of the Covenant’? It can’t be the Book of the Torah itself because it’s still happening as he reads it– so was there a book that is now lost? A lost scroll? Is this an allusion to the Ten Commandments? Or is this a metaphorical description of the moment in which our ancestors actually became the People of the Book?

The actual object may never be an actual item on display but the story lives on, live and inspiring – the human adventure of reading begun.

This past Saturday, sitting at the back of Congregation B’nai Jeshrun on the Upper West Side with two-year-old Alice on my lap, I held open a copy of the Torah and carefully read chapter 24 in Exodus. Alice pointed a finger at the words, looked at me with furrowed brow and said ‘Read! Book!’

So there you have it, from Moses, to Uncle Jack, to little Alice – the tree of knowledge that sprouted in Genesis keeps growing. The walls of Sotheby’s gallery bear witness to this noble tradition of reading: “Make books your companions” read the words of the 12th-century Spanish Jewish scholar, Judah Ibn Tibbon. “Let your bookshelves be your gardens.”

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Storahteller Aaron Freeman

Aaron Freeman recently added another line to his already lengthy resume: Torah maven, the traditional storyteller who translated the Hebrew Torah into local language. The comedian, radio personality and author says his latest professional incarnation is a natural progression of his love for all things Jewish. He wants to tell great stories, and there isn’t a better story than Torah, he says.

“We who spend a lot of time reading and interpreting the Torah see it as the most interesting, fascinating stories,” Freeman said on the eve of his first cyber performance in the virtual Second Life environment, where he’s known as Joyous Pomegranate. “And they are even more astonishing the third or fourth time you hear them. The story we thought we were telling three years ago could not be more different from the exact same story we’re telling today. Every year I go, ‘I can’t believe I missed that.’”

Freeman’s Second Life performance was part of Worldwide Storah, a weekend dedicated to the art of Torah translation. Storah is a method of bringing Torah stories alive through simultaneous translation from Hebrew into the vernacular – mostly English among the recent crop of Torah mavens. In addition to the Second Life event, Worldwide Storah hosted events in London, Jerusalem, Miami, New York City, L.A. and eight other cities Feb. 6 through 8.

Amichai Lau-Lavie, an Israeli-born teacher of Judaic literature and a performance artist, revived the lost art of Torah translation and re-imagined it in a twenty-first century way as Storahtelling. The roots of Storahtelling lie in the translations that accompanied traditional synagogue Torah services until the early Middle Ages. For almost two millennia, Hebrew was primarily the language of ritual, and congregations needed translators to convey the meaning of the passages.

Freeman, who was one of the first to adopt Storahtelling techniques, recently became a congregational Torah maven, the official Torah meturgaman (translator in Aramaic), at his congregation, Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living in Highland Park.

Storahtellers bring their own skills and preferences to the translation. Freeman, who composes his own translations, treats each portion differently depending on the content. Sometimes he might involve the congregation, asking members to stand in for the pharaoh and Moses, for example. Other times, he takes a more direct storytelling approach, using intonation, facial expressions and gestures to help convey the meaning. Freeman also draws some inspiration from the Torah-based comic strip he created with his wife, artist Sharon Rosenzweig.

For his duties as a Torah maven, Freeman often wears traditional Persian garb in reference to the Persian roots of Torah translation. He couldn’t find a Persian costume in the virtual world, though, so his Second Life avatar – “a fairly athletic black guy” – sported dark blue Moroccan kaftan and trousers.

In his Feb. 8 Second Life ritual, Freeman used a pre-recorded Hebrew version of Parashat Beshalach, which tells about both the parting of the Red Sea and the first gift of manna. He then translated the text of the Torah portion. He guided his avatar using the keyboard and spoke into a microphone mounted on his computer. Although the figurine couldn’t recreate Freeman’s usual highly animated facial expressions, it conveyed some of the story via gestures Freeman assigned to it. Freeman says guiding the avatar is akin to performing a marionette show.

Freeman’s avatar led a Torah service in the cyber environment Second Life Feb. 8, marking the first time a Torah service had been performed in virtual reality

Even when he doesn’t have to guide an avatar, Freeman finds each Storahtelling ritual demanding.

Biblical Hebrew provides a unique challenge: Jewish sages have debated the meaning of certain Hebrew words for centuries, so some interpretation is always necessary.

“Every translation is a commentary,” Freeman says. “There is no such thing as a literal translation of biblical Hebrew.”

Humor and a basic belief in positive outcomes help overcome some of the challenges, Freeman says. An observant Jew who grew up Catholic, Freeman has forged a steadfast connection to Judaism because “Jewish observance ameliorates the worst aspect of American life for me. The consumer culture makes us endlessly aware of what we do not have without counterbalancing it with gratitude for the mind-numbing bounty that we enjoy,” Freeman says. Jewish observance requires the constant expression of gratitude for everything – from a glass of water or a piece of bread to having woken up and being healthy. That makes Freeman “guaranteed to be happy; you can’t be grateful and pissed off at the same time,” he says.

Freeman is also grateful for Fridays. “How can you not love a religion that has a mandatory party every week? For the Jews, eating drinking and partying every Friday is not just a good idea, it’s the law. Got to love that!”

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I 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.

February 11, 2009

Too many choices – Swiss vanilla pecan, raspberry chocolate, or 35 other varieties? A. & I walk out of the ice cream parlor, each with a different flavor of choice and immediately resume our heated debate about the tougher choice ahead – who do we vote for in the Israeli elections, just a day away?

Difficult choices this time around and difficult to keep friendships intact when the divides are so deep and emotional, especially on the big issues. For many, myself included, the big and defining issue of these elections was/is how Israelis relate to the ‘other’ – and in particular- Israeli Arabs. A. and I take a deep breath before we part ways, shake hands, nod curtly and say goodnight – walking away in disagreement about what he calls pragmatism and I call racism – the complex reality of Israel 2009.

Now it’s the morning after. The race is over and the juggling for a coalition government is in full speed between the two large parties. But the defining factor that will determine the next prime minister is the party that has emerged as the third biggest – ‘Israel is our home’ – an Extreme- Right party, led by Avigdor Lieberman, that won 15 seats on a fierce anti Israeli-Arab campaign. Never before in Israel’s political history has such a radical and extreme voice been so central and critical – potentially undermining the democratic and moral core of this nation. This IS a democracy – and choices do reflect different segments of the populations, but many here are pausing to ponder how this happened, and what are the implications –how will this new political reality shape the moral character of this society? For some, Lieberman’s position is the very essence of Jewish survival. For others – this demonizing of the other is anything but authentically Jewish. This conversation is intense – a complex socio-political-religious narrative as ancient as the Bible. And maybe that’s where it all starts – so when we try to analyze this alarming reality, a peek at the way our ancestors dealt with being on either side of the ethnic minority divide is not a bad idea.

The weekly Torah text, coincidently, provides us with the first political process of elections in Jewish history. The portion is called ‘Yitro’ – named for the Pagan priest of the Nation of Midian (Jethro in English) who is the mentor and father in law to Moses. Yitro is no Hebrew, and his daughter, Moses’s wife Zippora (for whom Zippi Livni is named), the first First Hebrew Lady is no Jewess either. And yet, this important Torah portion, which includes the dramatic transmission of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, is named for this non-Jew, and honors his political-civic wisdom: thanks to his advice Moses was able to establish Israel’s first judicial system. Note Yitro’s exact language, as he instructs Moses to choose Israel’s first cabinet: ‘…pick out of all the people - able men, who fear God, are men of truth, and hating unjust gain.” (Ex.18:21) Interestingly, when it’s time for Moses to implement his father in law’s suggestion he only focused on the first category – ‘And Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.’ (Ex. 18:25) Moses goes for leaders who can deliver and de prioritizes the charge for faith, honesty, and scrupulous behavior – maybe Moses knows something realistic about Jewish leaders (then and now) that Yitro doesn’t. But the key action here is ‘CHOSE’ – ‘va’yivchar’ – just before inviting the Hebrew Nation to strike a deal with God and to officially become the ‘chosen people’, Moses initiates a process in which local leaders are chosen and a system for administering justice is installed. This important moment in the birth of the nation is attributed to a Non Jew – who honors the God of Israel and blesses his son in law before departing back to Midian. Yitro will always be remembered by us as the outsider, the other who has taught us how to govern. This is an important precedent, a reminder of how ethnic and racial differences can be respected, not regarded with hate.

So what does all this have to do with modern politics? Midian is just one historical example of ethnic ‘other’ in close contact with Israel’s notions of cultural, political and religious survival. But it’s an example of how things can work right – not just how they can turn out ugly. This, for modern day Israel – is an important reminder.

20% of Israeli citizens are Arabs (mostly Muslim, with a smaller Christian minority and a sizeable Druze community – for whom Yitro is an important prophet) and they also constitute 25% of Israelis under 25. The level of their civic participation and dignified co-existence is key to the survival of both people on this land – and radical approaches such as Lieberman’s are endangering this delicate balance.

It’s important to remember that Lieberman is not operating in a vacuum – there has been a shift in the dynamics between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. Since the mid 1990’s the Israeli Arab vote has shifted from mostly supportive towards Israel’s Zionist agenda (and voting for main stream Israeli political parties) towards greater ambivalence and even hostility. Many reasons are cited - the collapse of the Oslo peace process, the ongoing socio-financial marginalization of this population, the 2nd Lebanon War, and the most recent war in Gaza – these factors and others have left deep scars on a population challenged by dual allegiance to its Arab identity and to the nation within which they have been granted citizenship since 1948. For Israel – this is the real test of democracy: can this be a state for its citizens – ALL its citizens? Or is this a Jewish state with some tolerant nod towards ethnic others? Can there be hope here for noble co-existence or will racist politics dictate the public policy and popular vote? This challenging issue of ‘Ethnic Minorities’ is not unique to Israel – it is currently remapping demographic and geographic reality across Europe and is no stranger to the US narrative either – but here, with so much explosive energy already in the air – the fire is getting hotter.

Yesterday, while activating my right to choose – I found myself crying. I stood behind the cardboard booth, holding the piece of paper with my party of choice and I closed my eyes and prayed – actually prayed – that my voice will help bring peace and that justice will prevail in this part of the world, so passionately and painfully struggling to be humane and honest and happy.

I cried with hope, and with sadness, and with deep pride of being a descendent of a heritage that honors justice and honors diversity and celebrates plurality and values all others as equal partners in the healing of the planet.

I believe that we are no longer merely the chosen people – rather - we are the ‘people of choice’, and I hope that we will rise above the fears and choose to embrace all those values that Yitro endowed us with – truth, and ability and hatred of vice and commitment to justice.

If only this was as easy as choosing an ice cream flavor...

Thursday, February 05, 2009

RituaLab On Campus
RituaLab @ Wesleyan University
by Justin Wedes

The Storahtelling crew hit the campus of Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, last weekend for an intimate and intense evening of prayer, song and introspection. Led by Naomi Less, the team also counted upon the musical musings of accordionist Justin Wedes, deep acoustic bass pickings and sermon-ing of David Schiller, and rhythmical doting of percussionist and puppeteer Anna Sobel. Before about 50ish students and community members at Wesleyan's Jewish programming house, The Bayit, Naomi and crew ushered the eager Shabbat-comers into a meditative enchantment deservedly entitled Her Majesty's Shabbat Service.

Of course a great Yom Tov doesn't end after a round of Shalom Aleichem and a hearty Shabbas meal- and The Bayit's grand nosh was one for the books!- but continues into the night with song, discussion and all-around enjoyment. So we found ourselves conversing in the many small and large overlapping circles of Wesleyan's tight-knit Jewish community. Reflecting on the central theme of our service- the oppressors that act as Pharaohs in our over-scheduled everyday lives- we spoke of the amazing struggles of living in the modern world and still remaining reflective and spiritual, "multi-tasking but meditative". We spoke of the joys of New York and the joys of Middletown, and finally we spoke of music: music of every variety and with every intention behind it. Near the end of the night, with the dessert table emptied and the only remaining audience members singing post-meal nigguns in a circle at the corner of the room, I instinctively reached for my cell phone to check the time before our long journey back to the city. Hesitating, I remembered the oppressors in my life- and quickly turned back towards the ruach-filled circle of singers without a care for all other matters.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I 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.

February 4, 2009


Uncle Henry passed away this past Sunday in London; he was 97 years old and died peacefully – a blessing. My mother, his youngest sister (they were 8, now only 4 are left) is sitting Shiva for him at home here in Jerusalem and the past two days have been a nonstop event – the announcements, the phone calls, the rituals, the logistics, the endless stream of mourners and visitors – and, here and there – the quiet moments for reflection, and for fond memories, and for mourning the loss of a loved family member. Early this morning, over a cup of tea, my mother talked about the privilege of letting go peacefully: ‘When one is born, one’s fist is clutched tight, like grabbing on to life, but most often when one dies – one’s hand is open, extended, having let go of life – nothing else to hold on to.”

Thoughts of mortality, birth, and passages of all sorts resonate in this week’s Torah tale, B’shalach, which takes our ancestors, finally, out of Egypt, across the Sea of Reeds, and onto the highroad of freedom. The birth of this nation is accompanied by many deaths – the Hebrews who were left behind, the slain Egyptian firstborns, the drowned Egyptian soldiers… And the Hebrews, on their way to the promised land – are like newborn babies – their fists are clutching tightly, grabbing on to hope, to fresh matzos – and, surprisingly, also to weapons.


The biblical reference here is vague– “…and the Israelites left Egypt armed” (Ex. 13:18) (the Hebrew word is hamushim) – and this vague term enables different interpretations and symbolic meanings. Most classical interpreters and translations suggest that Israel were armed with weapons (interesting how the word ‘arm’ is extended to describe that which is held by the arm – at times - a weapon). If they did take arms along, it was perhaps a sensible choice – but does it make the fleeing Hebrews into an armed resistance movement? And if so, should it change the way we, and others, view our image, our history, our legacy? (In current Israeli media and official military reports the word hamushim is used to describe armed Palestinians – targets precisely because of their bearing of arms. Interestingly, the relatively neutral term has all but replaced the term mehablim – “terrorists” -- in mainstream Israeli media-lingo. But were we the original Hamushim?)

Curiously, this rather important item on the Exodus packing list didn’t make it to the Passover Hagada. How have we “forgotten” about this episode in our long history of bearing arms? No sword, to the best of my knowledge, has ever been added to any Seder plate and most of us haven’t even been told about it. Is the image of Jews bearing weapons back at our birth as a nation so troubling as to be worthy of collective repression?

Not necessarily. The precise meaning of hamushim here is inconclusive, and equally plausible readings other than “armed” tell a very different story that has nothing to do with weapons. The word can be also read as being derived from the root hamesh – five and describing not what was carried, but who and how many actually left Egypt. The Aramaic Targum Yonatan (known in modern academic circles as the Pseudo Jonathan Translation) renders Exodus 13:18 as: “And every one of the sons of Israel, with five children, went up from the land of Egypt.” No guns, just demographics. The Targum’s choice is unique, but it is similar to an oral tradition that is also cited in the rabbinic Midrash Tanhuma which acknowledges that hamushim means “armed” but points out that it can also be read as meaning that only one out of five Hebrews left Egypt. It adds: “Some say one out of 50 left, and some say one out of 500. Rabbi Nehorai says: only one? out of 5,000 left Egypt.” (Midrash Tanchuma, B’shalach 1)

This radical reading reminds us that not everybody is willing to take the leap of faith into the unknown future. It challenges us to imagine ourselves with five minutes to pack and flee – would we have left the familiarity of suffering in Egypt in favor of an obscure, and possibly already populated promised land? Or would we have been among those who stayed behind? The implications go into the psychological and political aspects of life: How does this challenge relate to our personal and collective attempts to get out of the familiar narrow straits and onto the road toward more freedom, prosperity, peace?

We may never know for sure whether our ancestors left Egypt clutching their fists and bearing arms or whether they left many of their loved ones behind, or both. But we do know that they left oppression behind, and packed bread of affliction, drums for worship, ancestral bones and high hopes for the journey home. They also packed their stories – our memories - and stories carry values, more important than valuables. Those stories are our real legacy, more important than missiles or tanks or arms of any kind - as they keep challenging us to remember who we once were and to strive to become who we really want to become. What is left of my uncles’ life? Of anybody’s life or legacy? What really lingers are the stories – life lessons turned into memories – into that which arms us for a life lived fully.

I sit here in my parents’ living room, late at night, everyone’s gone, and a candle is flickering in memory of the departed. Memories and stories told all day float in the empty room. I too let go and extend my fist open, and rest, briefly, in peace.