RE:VERB FORTY / D'VARIM / BELIEVE
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.
Henry dies around 2am Jerusalem time. I put the book down, sobbing. It wasn’t unexpected but his loss, nevertheless, is shocking. I go online and look on gchat for A. who is in India, god know what time, and I type ‘Henry just died.’ She immediately replies ‘o honey I’m so sorry. I know how you feel.’ And so on. We chat for about 10 consoling minutes, she in the middle of the monsoon and me in the hot Jerusalem night, grieving an imaginary dead man in Chicago.
It’s weird, we both acknowledge that – but still, we grieve, captivated within the ‘make believe’ drama that good fiction writing can provide. We chat a little longer, candid, open about our own longings and loves and losses. The book ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ – A. gave it to me to read – is fiction – but our reactions and feelings are real – and then what’s reality anyway? Here I am in Jerusalem, a city spun from the pages of sacred books, spinning into violent realities that far exceed all fictions.
In Jerusalem, it seems, all the myths and truths and fictions and faiths clash constantly.
The latest: ultra orthodox riots, hurled rocks and dirty diapers, burnt garbage cans, dozens of arrests. The cause is the recent arrest of a woman who belongs to one of the Ultra Orthodox Anti Zionist sects – she is accused of extreme neglect – starvation - of her three year old son and was recently taken into state custody, while the child was rushed to the hospital. As a result, and as security measures - all welfare stations have been closed to that specific Ultra Orthodox sector. ‘If only the yeshiva boys had air-conditioning in their rooms, they wouldn’t get so angry,’ one of the rabbis said to the press last week, half joking. ‘We don’t believe the police, the government or the media,’ responds another spokesperson for the protestors – ‘we believe that we should take care of our own people and only with God’s guidance.’ It’s a media circus of course with fierce opponents choosing to believe this or that version of this civic brawl, sadly at the expense of a family that is clearly in need of help.
Once again, in the middle of the summer heat, the clash of values and the high cost of beliefs is at the root of trouble that’s been rocking this ancient, tired city of faith for so many generations under an enduring blazing sun. What one does or doesn’t believe here spills to the streets – becomes public policy or burnt plastic. Believing, in Jerusalem, is, somehow, part of the territory – inescapable, volatile. Everybody believes something here, fiercely. Even those who don’t believe – in God, or in Zionism, in a Two State Solution, or in basic human hope – have to have an opinion here – have to believe something. It’s not easy to live by your conviction and belief, taking sides, side by side with everybody else’s side…It’s never been easy, and it isn’t getting any easier. These recent clashes are but a reflection of the widening gap between different sectors in Israeli society, a gap that is redefining, slowly, what Israel is – and what values and beliefs will determine its future. One thing is clear – we’ve never been a people known for consensus, especially when it comes to matters of faith.
A quick check on this week’s Torah tale reveals this reminder, tucked into a brilliant bitter speech - Moses reminds his flock, on the eve of entrance to the Promised Land of how little faith they had in him, and in his vision for their future. The speech is in the first chapter of the fifth and final of the Five Books of Moses. The book, like this week’s portion is called ‘D'varim’ – “Words” or also “Things”, and it consists of the last will, summary, last song, and lots of other things Moses says before he dies. In this speech he reminds his people of the time when they heard the frightening report of the spies – how dangerous and overpopulated Canaan was – and refused to enter the Promised Land. Moses, Ultra Early Zionist, is angry – ‘God carried you through the desert as a father carries his son’- and you refuse to enter the land? He blames it on their faith, or lack thereof: “Yet in this thing you do not believe God’ (D’varim 1:32) He hurls at them – the ‘thing’ meaning – their refusal to enter the land, to believe his vision.
Who were they, all those Hebrews who checked out the spy reports and said – no, thank you – we’re not into taking over a populated region. Or – how about Egypt? They may not have had the faith in the complex Promised Land vision of Moses and Joshua – but what did they believe in? how valid their point of view – even though it is clearly portrayed in this book – and in our history –as the ‘bad’ view. Translated into today’s terms – the Children of Israel that Moses blames for not believing in the Promised Land are not that much different than most world Jews today for whom Israel is maybe a visit but are definitely not moving in any time soon. Or maybe they are even like the Ultra Orthodox Anti Zionist Jerusalem Jews who live here but refuse to recognize the State of Israel as the legitimate sovereign of the Holy Land. They, like those ancient Hebrews, simply stick to a different set of beliefs and values that bleed into our messy reality.
This business of belief gets complicated. That’s why we return to good books, not just the Good Book.
A few months ago A. recommended that I read ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’. She is a dear trusted friend and a smart teacher and writer, so I obeyed, except that I somehow got it wrong and walked out of the airport bookstore with ‘the Memory Keeper’s Daughter’ – which I liked - but made A. laugh real hard when I told her about it and asked her why she wanted me to read it. Just before going back to India, she went and bought me the book she wanted me to read in the first place. I’d been reading it for several weeks, slowly savoring the end - ‘in the last two weeks,’ A. writes, 'I gave myself one page a day.' And now it’s done: Another book on the shelf – a souvenir of a stirring journey, an intellectually and emotionally stimulating metaphor – and really, heartbreaking in a very beautiful way. What made it so powerful? A. and I wonder about, one chat line at a time. ‘it reminded me to believe that love is possible – it gave strength and validity to the belief in love and in the terrible beauty of longing.’
A. & I finish chatting and I slog out and sit on the quiet balcony and think: isn’t the Torah also a book that invites the reader to time travel back and forth between then and now? Isn’t it also a book about yearning, and love and about the courage to – or not to – believe?
I guess that’s what makes a good book great. It’s a lot like life.