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This week's portion: first step



It's not going to be easy.
All of your roadmaps are wrong.

That was another country:
those lakes have dried up

and new groundwater is welling
in places you won't expect.

You'll begin the journey in fog
destination unknown, impossible.

Don't be surprised by tears.
This right here is holy ground.

Take a deep breath and turn away
from cynicism and despair

listen to the voice from on high
and deep within, the one that says

I'm calling you to a place
which I will show you

and take the first small step
into the surprising sun.


November 4, 2008

In this week's portion, Lech Lecha, God tells Abram to go forth from his native land and his father's house to the land which God will show him. It's a story about setting out on an unimaginable journey. Abram's road won't be easy; he doesn't know where he's going; he's doing something almost unthinkable, leaving everything that's familiar to him on levels both physical and metaphysical. But he has faith that God is leading him to a good destination, and he trusts that the journey will bring blessings.

I wrote this poem yesterday, in a kind of anticipatory fugue state that already feels like a dream. As I wrote it, I wondered how posting it today would feel. I couldn't have imagined what it would really feel like to watch Barack Obama win the presidency of the United States. Today I am so filled with hope, so overflowing with joy -- and the message in this week's parsha rings even more true for me.

Some commentors translate the first phrase of this week's portion, lech-lecha, not as "go forth (from your native land)" but "go forth from yourself." Extend yourself, reach beyond yourself. Strive for something greater than yourself. Take the risk of opening yourself to change. Reading these lines this week, I feel like my entire nation is recapitulating this first step on Abraham's journey. We're going forth from our origins to a land which the Holy Blessed One will help us find...or shape, right here at home.

Because lech-lecha doesn't have to refer to a physical journey. It can mean the journey we're all taking, singly and together, toward a place of plenty; a place of prosperity; a place of hope. The historic change we witnessed (we co-created) yesterday is the first step on a journey toward an America which says Yes we can to justice and equality. Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity. Yes we can heal this nation. Yes we can repair this world. Yes we can.

May we be blessed in this journey, and may the journey itself be a blessing.


Edited to add: this poem is now available in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published by Phoenicia Publishing, 2011.


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Casting my vote

The cat woke me just before dawn, leaping into bed and settling in to knead my chest like bread dough. Slant-eyed and contented, purring like a tiny lawnmower. I try to make my first thought of the day modah ani lefanecha -- "I am grateful before You" -- but today the first thing that raced through my waking mind was "it's election day!" A buzz of excitement. Like a long-awaited birthday.

Ethan and I drove down to Lanesboro town hall in tandem. We arrived at 7:03 and already the small parking lot was full of cars; I had to wait for someone to back out so I could pull in. The internet has been full of suggestions about how to manage long lines at one's polling place, which we knew wasn't going to be an issue here. We live in a small town, we've never had to stand in line to vote before. But there were four people waiting to check in before we could give our names to the poll workers; an honest-to-God line in Lanesboro, will wonders never cease?

The flow in Lanesboro goes like this: walk into the basement room at Town Hall. Walk to the far end of the room. Tell your name to the polling worker there, and have her check you off the roster of voters. Take a ballot and go into the little curtained booth, like a wee sukkah built just for one. Vote. Exit the booth and walk to the other end of the room. Tell your name to the polling worker there, and have him check you off the roster of voters again. And then actually turn in the ballot.

I stepped into the little booth and took up the special black marker and the scan-tron form. When I filled in the first oval -- the one for President -- tears welled up in my eyes and my throat felt suspiciously tight. Who knew hope could be so fierce, so almost-painful?

Voting itself took about two minutes. We'd already researched the various candidates, and the three propositions on the ballot here in Massachusetts. (I don't know how y'all in California handle it.) After helping the second polling worker find my name on the list, I walked over to the big blocky Diebold machine. Inserted my ballot into the slot. A whir and a clunk and the little screen read "33" -- I was the thirty-third person to vote in my town this morning. Ethan was number 35.

As we exited into the foggy parking lot, people were beginning to park on the grass. We hugged quickly and then hit the road, wanting to free up our parking spots for the cars which were already hovering in the margins, waiting to pull in.

Today feels like it should be chag -- like I should go daven with my community now, and then maybe sit home reciting tehillim all day with fervent intention. Instead I'll go to Qur'an class, and then Codes class, and then do some research toward my Biblical History presentation on Friday. And during all of those, all over this nation, people will be doing the same incredibly holy thing that I just did. God: please, please, please may the outcome of this election be a blessing.

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Speaking from our soft places (Radical Torah repost)

It's come to my attention that Radical Torah [link no longer functions] has been down for some weeks. I haven't been able to figure out what happened, or whether the wonderful archive of material hosted there will ever return... but for now, I thought I'd repost here the parsha commentaries I wrote for RT, so they're archived online in persistent, findable form. This week I'll repost my commentaries on the first few portions in the Torah, and from here on out I'll try to repost my RT commentary each week as we come to the portion in question. I'll update the links on my divrei Torah index, too. With no further ado: here's what I wrote about the first portion of the Torah in 2006.

At the end of Genesis chapter 4, after the story of Cain and Hevel has played itself out to its painful conclusion, we read about the generations that followed. Meanwhile, the text tells us, Adam knew his wife again, and she bore Seth, who begot Enosh. "It was then," the text tells us, "that men began to invoke the Lord by name." Most commentators interpret this as a reference to the beginnings of prayer.

The sons of Adam made offerings to God -- and we know well the consequences of those different offerings and their different receptions -- but not until the days of Adam and Chava's grandson Enosh did humanity began to pray. Everett Fox translates the name "Enosh" as "Mortal;" it's also possible to relate the name to words meaning "soft," "weak," "delicate." Perhaps the text means to subtly remind us that our first impulse toward prayer arises out of our weakness, our mortality, the places where we are soft.

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Day in the life: reading Rambam on a Sunday morning

Sunday morning: homemade biscuits, a pot of tea, the Sunday Times. And then, while Ethan mows the lawn for the last time this winter (our first snow having fortunately melted away) I sit down at the kitchen table to work on my homework for Codes.

We're beginning with a classic: Rambam's Mishneh Torah (משנה תורה [Heb]; here's its Wikipedia entry in English.) Mishneh Torah was a medieval attempt to compile and clarify the vast thicket of secondary texts and commentaries which had already sprouted around the Torah itself into one single, readable work.

The traditional understanding holds that the secondary texts are Oral Torah, part and parcel of the Written Torah which was revealed to Moshe atop Mount Sinai. It's actually a deliciously radical notion: that the unflowering of our interpretations isn't ancillary to the divine text, but is actually part of the Torah. Rambam makes clear from the start that interpretation necessarily evolves over time, and that in each age sages arise who are able to use the tools of the tradition to respond to the timely matters of the day.

Our big assignment for this week is to translate the dozen last paragraphs in the introduction to Mishneh Torah, plus a couple of small commentaries printed in the margins of our edition. For days I've been glancing at the page, getting overwhelmed by the dense weave of letters, and setting it aside. Today I removed myself from my office with its usual distractions and strapped myself to the mast, determined to ride the waves of Rambam until I had reached the far shore.

I had to look up a couple dozen words, but I made it through the assignment.  A lot of what he's saying is material I've heard before, read elsewhere, or absorbed through basic Jewish osmosis...but it's fun to read it in the original, and to recognize that this is where a lot of these familiar ideas actually originated. (Like seeing Casablanca for the first time, my senior year of college, and realizing in a flash how many familiar scenes, lines, and references from pop culture and cinema were quoting this very original.)

In the section we're reading this week, Rambam talks about the unfolding of the Oral Torah over time. He decries the shameful state of Jewish literacy these days (which is to say, the twelfth century of the Common Era. Plus ça change, I guess.) And then he explains the project he's personally undertaken: to summarize everything that's in the Oral Torah, to organize it in a clear and comprehensive way and to make it plain to anyone who wants to learn. His intent is that anyone who wants to become knowledgeable can read the Torah, and then read Rambam's compilation of Oral Torah, and that person wouldn't need to read anything else at all, ever.

The chutzpah of it is mind-boggling. And yet there's a reason his text is still studied today. Witness me at my kitchen table poring over his mercifully clear Hebrew as a first step toward diving in to the world of Jewish legal interpretation.

There's a lot that's remarkable about the Mishneh Torah. Rambam reorganizes a vast body of material, which is not an easy undertaking. This text covers the full range of Jewish law, including material that was only applicable when the Temple stood. And as Eli Siegel notes, "[i]t opens with a section on systematic philosophical theology, derived largely from Aristotelian science and metaphysics, which it regards as the most important component of Jewish law." (Rambam was a philosopher as well as a legal scholar, and it shows.)

On the downside, there's a way in which this is a very top-down text. Rambam doesn't cite his sources, and one could argue that his approach ("let me read and assimilate this library of material, and I'll tell you the bits you need to know") is paternalistic. Then again, one could also argue that this is the ultimate in democratization, because it makes the vast body of tradition accessible to those who don't have the time or inclination to immerse in this material the way Rambam did. One way or another, I'm psyched to be diving in.

And now it's time to focus on some football.

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