In Every Generation: A Poem for the Seder Table

Silhouette-Freedom
In every generation
we go forth from Egypt.

In every generation
a broken guttural shout bursts
from the deepest darkness
shock waves spreading unheard
unseen unknown for
many generations more.

In every generation
the narrows tighten radiating
terrible knowledge through
pulverized bones that
there’s nowhere left but
straight ahead.

In every generation
the waters stretch out
eyes close tight leaping
into the dark blue depths
mouths gulping for air the
broken shout now sounds
like a song.


For Passover: This is the Year that Squatters Evict Landlords

A poem for Pesach: “Imagine the Angels of Bread” by Martin Espada.  Read it at seder this year!

This is the year that squatters evict landlords,
gazing like admirals from the rail
of the roofdeck
or levitating hands in praise
of steam in the shower;
this is the year
that shawled refugees deport judges
who stare at the floor
and their swollen feet
as files are stamped
with their destination;
this is the year that police revolvers,
stove-hot, blister the fingers
of raging cops,
and nightsticks splinter
in their palms;
this is the year that darkskinned men
lynched a century ago
return to sip coffee quietly
with the apologizing descendants
of their executioners.

This is the year that those
who swim the border’s undertow
and shiver in boxcars
are greeted with trumpets and drums
at the first railroad crossing
on the other side;
this is the year that the hands
pulling tomatoes from the vine
uproot the deed to the earth that sprouts
the vine,
the hands canning tomatoes
are named in the will
that owns the bedlam of the cannery;
this is the year that the eyes stinging from the poison that purifies toilets
awaken at last to the sight
of a rooster-loud hillside,
pilgrimage of immigrant birth; this is the year that cockroaches
become extinct, that no doctor
finds a roach embedded
in the ear of an infant;
this is the year that the food stamps
of adolescent mothers
are auctioned like gold doubloons,
and no coin is given to buy machetes
for the next bouquet of severed heads
in coffee plantation country.

If the abolition of slave-manacles
began as a vision of hands without manacles,then this is the year;
if the shutdown of extermination camps
began as imagination of a land
without barbed wire or the crematorum,
then this is the year;
if every rebellion begins with the idea
that conquerors on horseback are not many-legged gods, that they too drown
if plunged in the river,
then this is the year.

So may every humiliated mouth,
teeth like desecrated headstones,
fill with the angels of bread.


Dayenu as Irony? That’s Quite Enough!

Just in time for Passover, here’s British author Howard Jacobson’s fascinating take on Dayenu as the ultimate sarcastic Jewish joke:

Superfluous though we insist each of God’s favors and blessings to us was, the truth is we would have been in serious trouble without any of them. For where would have been the use of His leading us to the Red Sea had He not parted it; or our wandering for 40 years in the wilderness, had He not provided us with Manna? We say the one would have sufficed without the other, but in fact it would not. Thus the song is as much a rehearsal of complaints we might have voiced and might voice yet, as it is a hymn of praise.

Built into this magnificent song of gratitude, therefore, is the fact of our colossal ingratitude. Nothing is enough for us. Not because we are vainglorious or greedy, but because our appetite for intellectual dissatisfaction, like our apprehension of disaster, knows no bounds. Call it the ravenousness of reasoning—the rabbinic “on the one hand this, on the other hand that.” Call it our love of striking bargains. Call it hyperbole. Call it what you like, it is the bedrock of Jewish comedy. As it is the bedrock of our faith.

The Jewish joke is above all a strategy for survival. It looks, of necessity, to the future. It anticipates a woe before that woe is visited upon us. It gets in first with the criticism and the cruelty. If anybody is going to knock us around it won’t be the Cossacks, it will be ourselves. So that while a Jewish joke appears to be the perfecting of self-denigration, it is actually the opposite. It is the fruit of a perpetual vigilance and in the process demonstrates an intelligence that is, because it has to be, unremitting.

If there were such a thing as a perfect Jewish joke—and who is to say that the Dayenu is not it?—it would never finish. Ours is a religion of suspense. We wait and wait, for a God who cannot show Himself and a Messiah we would rather never came. We await an end, as we await a punch line, to a narrative that has no end. And just when we thought it was all over, it begins again. What are the last words of the Dayenu? “It would have sufficed us …” But by now our ear demands another clause, another gift, another setback for God to overcome. There is no final thank-you because there is no final sufficiency.

If this whets your appetite, check out the entire piece in Tablet Magazine.


Passover Observance Then and Now


and when your children ask you what
do you mean by this rite tell them
in the beginning we offered late night sacrifices
and supplications while our god meted out
punishments against the gods of egypt later
we hid behind behind doorjambs swelled with
dread murmuring pour out your wrath on
those who seek our blood and destroy the nations who know
not your name but now we observe by bursting the
gates of fear wide open proclaiming let all who’ve been
broken gather each another’s scattered
shattered pieces let all who seek liberation
come to the table let all who are hungry
come and eat

(Exodus 12:12, 26-27)


My Father, the Wandering Aramean…

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, God instructs the Israelites, upon entering the Promised Land, to offer up the first fruits of their harvest. They are then to recite a short narrative of their history, beginning with their earliest ancestors and ending with their own arrival at the land.

This narrative, made famous by its central place in the Passover Haggadah, begins thus:

My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation…” (Deuteronomy 26:5)

The opening words of this passage have been the subject of considerable controversy for centuries. According to most commentators, the “wandering father” is identified as Jacob. This would certainly fit neatly into the Biblical narrative, as Jacob did indeed go down to Egypt with his sons during a period of famine.

In the traditional Passover Haggadah, however, the Rabbis translate the Hebrew “My father was a wandering Aramean” (“arami oved avi“) very differently.  By changing the vocalization of the Hebrew “oved” (“wandering”) to “ibed” (“destroyed”), they render the text to mean: “An Aramean sought to destroy my father.” (The Haggadah identifies this would-be murderer as Laban who, by threatening Jacob, “sought to uproot us all.”)

So which is it?

In true Jewish fashion, the debate rages on. Among the classical commentators, Rashi supports the Haggadah’s reading, while others, including Ibn Ezra adhere to the conventional interpretation. Rashbam accepts the “wandering Aramean” interpretation as well, but identifies the wanderer as Abraham rather than Jacob.

Beyond the fancy hermeneutics, however, I’m struck by the two spiritual models suggested by these respective translations. One highlights our wanderings, identifying our peoplehood with our collective seeeking – our desire to journey toward a better and more blessed future. The second model suggests we are essentially a hunted and hated people, forever on the run from those who would seek our destruction.

These two readings illuminate a critical question that inform our collective Jewish self-understanding to this very day.  Centuries later, the question remains: with which narrative will we identify?  The narrative in which we are the perpetual victim or the spiritual seeker? Does our story forever pit us against an eternal enemy – or does it ultimately celebrate our sacred purpose and the promise of blessing?


Yizkor and the Rhythms of Remembrance

As we do every year, JRC just observed a Yizkor (“Memorial”) service to mark the end of the Pesach holiday. This particular year, I introduced our memorial prayers by saying that mourning itself is something of an open-ended journey – and one that rarely unfolds in a predictable manner. I also pointed out that more recent research in the psychology of grief tends to reject the linear “Stages of Grief” approach made famous by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross.

From a recent piece in The New Yorker:

Though Kübler-Ross captured the range of emotions that mourners experience, new research suggests that grief and mourning don’t follow a checklist; they’re complicated and untidy processes, less like a progression of stages and more like an ongoing process—sometimes one that never fully ends.

I do believe that the notion of grief as an “ongoing process” is at the heart of the Yizkor memorial observance. It often feels to me that there is a powerful rhythm to the practice of saying memorial prayers during major four festivals of the year (Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot). Since each festival has its own unique spiritual themes, the process of ongoing Yizkor observance drives home the truth that grief is a cyclical – rather than linear – experience

Here is my own take on how this process resonates through the Jewish holiday season:

Yizkor of Yom Kippur – “Dwelling in the In-Between:” the Day of Atonement is, if you will, the spiritually rawest time of the Jewish calendar. It is the time in which we acknoweldge our mortality and look into the coming year with a potent emotional mix of awe and trepidation. The tenor of Yizkor for Yom Kippur thus resonates with the pain and uncertainty that inevitably comes with grief. In the juncture between a year past and a year yet to come, we allow ourselves to dwell in that “in-between place” between the past we know and the future we have yet to experience.

Yizkor of Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret – “Preparing for Winter:” Immediately after the harvest festival of Sukkot comes the observance of Shemini Atzeret, which marks the beginning of the rainy season in Israel. Our Yizkor prayers are recited during our preparation for winter – the season in which we construct the necessary protection and defenses for these cold, dark months. Yizkor for Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret honors these defenses – as well as the spiritual work we know we must do in order to make it through the long nights ahead.

Yizkor of Pesach – “Inevitability of Life Renewed:” On Passover we begin to see the green shoots of new life sprouting up from the previously hard, fallow earth. The natural world around us testifies to the inevitability of liberation – and we come to understand that this rebirth is indeed woven into the very fabric of creation. So too, with our own lives as we walk the path of the mourner: the Yizkor of Pesach comes to remind us that there is life after grief as surely as Spring follows Winter.

Yizkor of Shavuot – “Celebrating the Fruits of our Labor:” On Shavuot, we bring in the harvest. As Spring moves in to full bloom, we now begin to reap what we’ve sown. We now affirm that all of the hard work (and bereavement is nothing if not hard work) does indeed pay off if we do it in a spirit of openness and love. On this Yizkor, we celebrate the fruits of our labors – and rededicate ourselves to the journey ahead.

It’s a shame that the observance of Yizkor tends to be falling off among liberal Jews. I truly believe there is great spiritual resonance in these rituals – which cycle outward over the seasons and throughout the years. Even for those who are not traditionally observant Jews, there is real meaning to be found in these rhythms of remembrance.

The next Yizkor will occur in several weeks, on Shavuot. (May you reap a bountiful harvest…)


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