Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

40th Birthday party
in downtown NYC April 11 09

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.


I’ve been back in Jerusalem for about 24 hours after 2 weeks in NYC, and now it’s the middle of the night and I wake up in bed and for about 30 seconds have absolutely no idea where I am or what time it really is. My alarm clock shows 3AM, as does my cellphone, but my watch is 9PM as is my laptop, and I’m wide awake, in dual zones, and I think it’s Tuesday, and that tomorrow is my birthday. But maybe it’s Wednesday. And I have this mini panic attack that i slept through a whole day and totally missed the party.

A cup of tea later I sit on the little balcony, as Jerusalem sleeps its pre dawn hour, and there’s jasmine in the warm air, and I wonder to myself if I am not obsessing too much about time, and is this just jetlag, or perhaps has something to do with turning 40. Which is, sort of, maybe, a big deal and gives me lots to think about, plus, I’m jetlagged.

Anyway, it IS Tuesday, and the sun rises slowly above the balcony and over Jerusalem, and Israel prepares to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. Sharply at 10AM a two minute siren is heard all over the country and I get to my parents’ home just a few minutes earlier, making sure to be with them at the exact moment and not get stuck in traffic. We stand where it finds us: my mother in the kitchen, leaning on the counter, looking vacantly, outside, through the window. My father and I stand in the living room, he is looking at the floor, clutching the newspaper he was reading, and I am leaning on the wall, looking at him. When the sirens fades out I set my watch to Israel time: 10:02.

It is a curious and uniquely Israeli ritual, this ‘memorial siren’ – heard here on the days of remembrance for the victims and heroes of wars and the holocaust, commanding the public sphere into a compulsory, uncomfortable silence. Mandated by Israeli law since the early 1950’s, the siren (‘tzfira’ in Hebrew) is one of Israel’s most original (though British inspired), powerful – and problematic - civic ceremonies. But it is also the descendent of the classic Jewish Shofar – the ram horn that called the community for reflection – and for combat. Today, it’s a clarion call for making meaning of the (carefully chosen) collective (Jewish) memories, and for marking larger than life moments loom larger yet -through singular, ticking, manipulated minutes.

Can life’s big moments be captured by single minutes?

It is a bold ritual, this ‘memorial siren’, and one wonders what it means to the millions of people who stop in their tracks all over Israel in the middle of life when 10am on this random Tuesday happens. It’s a brave attempt at making meaning of history - as brave and beautiful and fragile and perilous as the Passover Seder, or the mourners Kaddish, or Fourth of July fireworks, or ‘happy birthday to you’ at some random or not so random party. Brave because it is so small in comparison to how bigger than life, life really is. And beautiful because it’s so real, and fragile and perilous because it can so easily fall flat and fail and end up with giggles or shrugs.

Who was it who said that marking moments in time is like hitting a nail with a hammer in the middle of the ocean?

Not the Torah, that’s for sure. Time is the oldest Jewish weapon in the fight against chaos – culture trying very hard to make sense of nature. Jewish life - on whatever level of practice - demands constant counting - the counting of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years is what gets the Jewish engine to tick-tock through eternity. Not only are we in the midst of the fifty day count from Passover to Shavuot, and not only are we two days into the end of this lunar month – we also find time in this week’s double-portion Torah Tale – Tazria-Metzora, where father-time is honored as the great healer of disease.

Way before ‘take two and call me in the morning’ these chapters in Leviticus extended the period of healing to seven full days – regarding a long list of ailments. This coming Seventh Day, in a synagogue near you, some lucky Bar or Bat Mitzvah will courageously chant about all sorts of curable and incurable conditions, infections, pores, sores, sorrows and cures. The one common theme to this list of bodily emissions is the insistence, perhaps radical for its time – that all medical procedures be carefully monitored and checked per specific time grids based on the cycles of seven. Counting each day on the road to recovery constitutes the essential element in the early Hebraic medical system – in an attempt to construct order on chaos – both physically and spiritually.

Take for instance the person who has had a discharge of some sort – (and never mind right now the specific socio-medical-religious meanings of this STD related condition:)

'When one with a discharge becomes clean of his discharge, he shall count off seven days for his cleansing, wash his clothes, and bathe his body in fresh water; then he shall be clean.' (Leviticus 15:13)

Mazel Tov! But what if it takes four days to heal? And what if it takes ten? Can this one-size-fit-all grid really help all people stand up to disease and decay?? Can these attempts at regulating the body’s health be any more effective now than they were in Biblical times? Or are we still just trying to squeeze reality into spreadsheets of convenience and ‘order’? What if it takes more than seven days to grieve one’s dead? Can one sit Shiva longer? And what if you don’t want to mark the turning of the years on the specific day assigned to you by fate (and now, facebook) and what if 100 days of presidency are not really enough to achieve anything and what if two minutes worth of silence are simply not enough, never enough, to contain the enormity of pain?

Are all these, perhaps, just perfectly imperfect attempts at the art of living with awareness? In some ways, I find that Leviticus is offering more of a metaphor than a medical recipe: counting the days means taking account of time itself and making life count – all of it, every messy and grand bit.

As I write this, on the balcony, it’s just past midnight and is already Wednesday, the 22nd of April, the day on which, according to official government records and astrological signs, I came howling into the world. But until a few years ago, because of some confusion, we thought it was the 21st of April, and anyway - according to the Jewish calendar, my birthday is not for another week – and it is that date which I will really celebrate – and it also happens to coincide with the date of Israel’s Day of Independence – yet a whole other time-management system, and a whole other excuse for taking time out to be with people I love. So I guess I’m celebrating in multi time zones and not even trying to contain the notion of turning 40 in a 24 hour period or inside a box of any kind. My ‘Now’ is as real as the NOW that your eyes are NOW reading, even though it already happened or maybe hasn’t yet. Across the oceans of time and space, here I go hammering another nail in the ocean. Bang.

Seven days of hopeful cleansing, two minutes of fragile silence, sixty one years of furious independence and forty years of living out loud – stopping to make sense of it all and make these moments count – priceless. And timeless.


  1. Rabbi Steve FolbergApril 24, 2009

    Very nice! I was wracking my brains working on a d'var Torah and trying to figure out how to connect Tazria-Metzora and Yom Ha'atzma'ut/Yom Hazikkaron/Yom Hashoah. Well done... I will cite this "b'shem om'ro" this weekend.

  2. I love reading ReVerb. Amichai, thank you so much for your insight and beautiful writing.

  3. Very interesting article.