Poetry and Taxis


“So much of a writer’s life consists of assumed suffering, rhetorical suffering, that I felt something like relief, even elation, when the doctor told me that I had cancer of the prostate. Suddenly there was in the air a rich sense of crisis, real crisis, yet one that also contained echoes of ideas like the crisis of language, the crisis of literature, or of personality. It seemed to me that my existence, whatever I thought, felt or did, had taken on a kind of meter, as in poetry or in taxis.”

So begins Anatole Broyard’s book, “Intoxicated by My Illness and Other Writings on Life and Death,” a book published posthumously after Broyard died in 1990 from advanced prostate cancer.

I cannot imagine feeling elation when facing cancer, but Broyard’s point haunts me: When we lose sight of death, we let life slip away. When we think we have forever, days fade into weeks and months. Didn’t we just finish Pesach? How is Rosh Hashanah already here again? Another year has slipped away.

Ask yourself, “Was my year lived with poetry?” Or must we wait (hope?) for illness and death to awaken us from a living sleep?

Parshat Vayeilech begins, “Moshe went and spoke these words to all of Israel. He said to them, ‘I am a hundred and twenty years old today; I can no longer go out and come in, for Adonai has said to me, ‘You shall not cross this Jordan'” (Deuteronomy 31:1-2).

Rashi says Moshe knew he only had hours to live: “Today my days and years are complete; on this day I was born, and on this day, I will die.”

Based on the Zohar, Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar teaches that holy people can sense their impending death; they can tell when their souls are leaving their bodies and “visiting” their eventual resting place in the world above.

Knowing that he will die today, what does Moshe do with the last moments of his life? Does he buy a fast camel and feel the wind in his hair? Does he have a fling? No. Moshe goes and speaks to Israel. He tells them God will be with them as they enter the land. He tells them, “Be strong and courageous” (Deuteronomy 31:6), and he summons Joshua in front of all of Israel and tells him the same (Deuteronomy 31:7). Moshe works to place Joshua firmly as his successor knowing his death approaches, knowing they also will need another leader.

The parsha begins, “Moshe went,” and because the Torah does not specify, commentators ask: “Where did Moshe go?”

Nachmanidies answers by picturing Moshe going to the tent of each Israelite to honor them, “like someone who wishes to take leave of his friend and comes to ask permission of him.”

Seforno says he went to comfort Israel about his impending death, so that the joy of the covenant, which they had just entered into with God, would not be diminished. Ever his people’s shepherd, Moshe tends to his flock, comforts them and seeks to lift their spirits, even as the final hours and minutes of his life slip away.

What I find most instructive about all of these stories is that faced with the end of his life, Moshe does what he has always done; he continues to lead the people. Death does not change him because his life has been well lived.

Rosh Hashanah is here again. Was your year lived well? What would you do if, God forbid, you knew you only had a year, or a month, or a week, or a day to live? Would it change you?

After Rabbi Eliezer said, “Repent one day before your death,” his disciples asked him, “Does one know the day he will die?”

Rabbi Eliezer replied, “All the more reason to repent today, lest one die tomorrow” (Shabbat 153a).

Repent today. Change today.

Broyard concluded the opening essay of his book by describing how “[t]he British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott began an autobiography that he never finished. The first paragraph simply says, ‘I died.’ In the fifth paragraph he writes, ‘Let me see. What was happening when I died? My prayer had been answered. I was alive when I died. That was all I had asked for and I had got it.’ Though he never finished his book, he gave the best reason in the world for writing one, and that’s why I want to write mine — to make sure I’ll be alive when I die.”

Broyard was a writer. Moshe was a leader. Both died living.

Do not wait for illness or death to come. Live with meter, as in poetry or in taxis.

Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Zimmer Conference Center of the American Jewish University.

Challenge Your Child


This was my bar mitzvah portion 51 years ago, and I still remember what the rabbi said to me about it on the pulpit. So for all you parents and rabbis who speak to young adults becoming bar or bat mitzvah, take note: your words just may be remembered.

My rabbi, Rabbi Louis J. Swichkow, spoke about the 12 spies. Only two of them had the faith in God and the courage to say that the Israelites could conquer the land of Canaan, but they were right. Indeed, the entire Jewish people had to spend the next 40 years in the wilderness because of the faithlessness of the majority’s report.

Because I had spent the previous summer at Camp Ramah, and because at the time you had to be taking at least six hours per week of Jewish studies during the year to go back to Ramah, I was going to continue with my Jewish studies after my bar mitzvah. Rabbi Swichkow therefore used me to say to the congregation that real leaders are often in the minority, but they, like the spies, are often right.

I was more than a little embarrassed about that talk. It was bad enough that I was being singled out in public; no 13-year-old wants to be seen as different from the crowd, even for purposes of praise. Moreover, in my case I knew that the praise was less than completely warranted.

After all, I was not continuing with my Jewish studies out of a pure desire for more Jewish learning; I just wanted to go back to Ramah! That made me feel guilty as well: I was being held up as a leader for reasons that were not worthy of real leaders who sacrifice something for the good of others. In my case, my motives were instead completely, and embarrassingly, utilitarian.

I have often thought about that talk. In part, I suppose, that is because even though I knew that the rabbi was not accurately describing me at the moment, I somehow felt challenged to measure up to the kind of leader he said I was. I do not know whether I have accomplished that particular feat, but it is not a bad thing to give teenagers — and adults, for that matter — goals to reach for.

As Rabbi Jack Bloom, a psychologist, taught me as a part of a group of rabbis many years later, the very act of presenting a person with a view of himself or herself that is positive — perhaps even somewhat more positive than the person actually is — sometimes gets the person to think of him/herself that way and to strive to manifest that positive characteristic.

“You are a leader,” “You are a compassionate person,” “You like to learn about your heritage,” “You make sure that others feel good about themselves,” etc. are all important things to say to people, not only when they are deserved, but when you want to reinforce their own desire to aspire to a good goal. That is an important lesson for parents to learn in raising their children, for supervisors to use in encouraging their workers and for any person to know in interpersonal relations generally.

Another lesson that I learned from Rabbi Swichkow’s talk as I thought about it over the years is that human actions often are motivated by a variety of desires. In fact, we rarely do things for one reason alone — we may have one primary motive in our consciousness, but when we think about it, there are also other reasons why we do what we do.

A potential convert to Judaism, for example, may begin a process for conversion primarily in order to marry a Jew, but that person should only ultimately convert if over the course of the conversion process he or she also becomes motivated to become Jewish for the sake of Judaism itself.

When I was a bar mitzvah, I was not continuing my Jewish studies because I had made a conscious decision that I wanted to learn more about Judaism, and I certainly did not do that to be a model and a leader among my peers. But there was, in truth, a part of me, that part motivated by a previous summer at Ramah, that wanted to return there to be further exposed to living a Jewish life as it had been presented there. That desire to probe my tradition further became a greater part of my conscious motivations as life went on, but it was there in nascent form already on my bar mitzvah day.

And so I return to the spies. Caleb and Joshua saw the same land that the other 10 spies had seen, but they announced that the Israelites could conquer it despite its challenges. Sometimes that kind of positive self-perception and that kind of faith in oneself and in God is all that is needed to accomplish more than we ever thought we could.

So even if my rabbi’s bar mitzvah talk engendered embarrassment and guilt in me, I now want to thank him for challenging me in the way he did that day.

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, rector and distinguished professor of philosophy at the American Jewish University, is the author of “Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics” (Jewish Publication Society, 1998).

When the Dust Settled


Last week’s portion ends with a ferocious battle; this week’s begins with the after action report and the distributing of medals. We learn the names of those killed
and those rewarded and then all the troops are mustered and counted, to see who remains alive from the fighting.

The counting tells us something else, as well. We are told that aside from Caleb and Joshua, no man remains alive of the generation of the desert, the generation that had rebelled against God and Moses some 40 years earlier.

The generation that knew Egyptian slavery, that had experienced redemption, that stood and witnessed at Mount Sinai, but who cavorted with Molten Calf anyway, was now dead. The generation that had been brought to the very borders of Canaan but refused to enter died in the wilderness.

Only one more of that generation was set to die: Moshe himself, and Moshe knew it. In Numbers 27:12, God tells Moshe that he is to ascend to the top of Mount Abarim and see the land that he will not enter, and that when he sees the land from that place, he will be gathered to his ancestors. We don’t know for sure what Moshe thought as he contemplated gazing at the land and then dying.

We don’t know what he thought about those ancestors to whom he would be gathered.

It is almost certain that as he prepared for his death, he gazed at the array of Israelites camped around him. Shaping their spirits around the call of Torah so that they would begin the transmission of that shaping of lives and spirits to subsequent generations — eventually down to us and the generations that follow us — had been his life’s work.

If his life’s work was to have any meaning, it had to be passed down to another. The Torah does not tell us what Moshe thought, but we are told what he said. As he thought about his death, Moshe asks God to appoint his successor.

God tells Moshe to take Joshua, “a man in whom there is spirit,” to ordain him with his own hand in the presence of the entire assembly. And then God utters a strange phrase: “And you shall take from your hod and place it upon him, so that the witnessing community of Israel shall hear and hearken” (Numbers 27:20).

This is the only occurrence of the word hod, normally translated as “majesty” or “splendor” in the entire Torah. Commentators on the Torah give us a range of thoughts on this word. One very terse but telling comment is given by the Ba’al Ha-Turim (Jacob ben Asher, 1270-1343, author of the Arba’a Turim – one of greatest legal minds after the Talmud).

The Ba’al HaTurim writes, “Me-hod’kha – b’gematria — ha-sod. Lomar lakh she-masar lo sod ha-merkavah u-ma’aseh breisheet.”

Free, explanatory translation: From your “Hod” (the term “your hod” in the gematria where each Hebrew letter has a numerical value — M.F.) adds up to 75, as does the Hebrew term “ha-sod.” Ha-sod means “the secret” — this means that Moshe taught to Joshua the secrets of Jewish mysticism — the mysteries of the realm of the Divine Throne and the mysteries of the Creation of the World.”

n this short space, we won’t go into the mysteries of the Divine Throne or Creation, but we say this: Those who do study that material feel that they have entered into the realm of ultimate reality. They find there the ultimate root and reason, ground and cause of all that happens — the truths that are the foundations of the world of righteousness.

Those wno descend into this world come to know how these truths are manifested in this world, and they even come understand the wars that have to be fought in this world for the realm of truth to hold firm.

Perhaps the Ba’al Ha-Turim was saying that as Moshe contemplated his own death, he asked himself: What can I say to my successor? Every true leader who leads not for the sake of power but rather for the sake of a vision knows of the world of truth in which that vision is rooted. Moshe had to pass on to Joshua not just the Torah itself, and not just the mantle of leadership, but some deep knowledge of what truly was at stake — the sense of Divine urgency for lives shaped around the truth of Torah.

And Moshe’s deepest prayer is that we should all blessed with a measure of Divine spirit — knowledge of the holy, and the will to bring that holiness into all parts of our lives. Torah is passed down through the generations not for sake of heritage – that would be a shallow tautology “we pass it down so that it may be passed down.” We pass it down because Torah links us to the Divine mysteries — of the self, the soul and the truths by which we ought to shape our lives.

Goggles of Faith


I first saw night-vision goggles when I watched Harrison Ford in Tom Clancy’s “Patriot Games.”

The bad guys were prowling in a dark bedroom. Suddenly, a good guy switched on the room lights, practically blinding them.

The technology was featured again in “The Silence of the Lambs,” and then came the War in Iraq, showing us green-tinted footage unfolding amid the dark of night. All thanks to those night-vision goggles.

In this week’s Torah Portion, Shelach Lecha, Moshe Rabbeinu designates an advance party of 12 scouts to survey the Promised Land. The Jews are approaching their destination and the fulfillment of their destiny, and Moshe opts to have a team of prominent Jewish leaders, comprised of one delegate from each of the 12 tribes, investigate and report back.

Moshe asks the team to develop answers to several basic military questions. Is the enemy fortified, or is he so brazen in his self-assuredness that he lives in open camps? Is the enemy strong or weak? Few or numerous? He also asks them to report on the quality of the land, its fertility, its vegetation.

After 40 days of spying, the scouts return with their report, a frightful account of mighty giants in the land. Yes, the land is beautiful, flowing with milk and honey, resplendent with grapes so huge that they may become a registered national trademark one day. But the bad news is that we are not going to conquer it. The opposition is overwhelming — there are Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Emorites and Canaanites all over the place. Some are teeming along the Mediterranean coast on the west; others line the eastern border at the Jordan. Just impossible. The land eats its inhabitants. And then there are those giants: “In our own self-estimation, [as compared to their size and awesomeness,] we were like mere grasshoppers. And we were equally tiny and minuscule in their estimation, too.”

The nation hears the report. Many weep with hopelessness and despair, wishing only to return to the security of Egyptian slavery. Chaos ensues. Two spies emerge — Caleb of the tribe of Judah, and Joshua of Ephraim — and desperately try to overcome the mood.

“It is a beautiful land, flowing with milk and honey,” they assure. So what if there are five nations encamped all over the place? God has promised us the land, and He certainly will give it to us. If these other nations try to stop us, we will have no problem defeating them — “They are our bread.”

In the starkly diverging views of the majority report and the minority, we see the role played by insight, understanding and faith in the God of our ancestors. One can infer why 10 prominent Jewish leaders were so despondent. They looked at objective facts on the ground. They counted. They measured. They were responsible. They were practical. And they figured it’s impossible. The whole world is against us. No way.

Caleb and Joshua reported differently because they donned the night-vision goggles of faith. Embedded among the scouts, Caleb and Joshua somehow peered through the muddled night of faithlessness, and they saw clear as day: the Lord is our God. Those who defy His plan for us are our bread.

Caleb and Joshua saw so clearly through the horizon’s murkiness. They did not see themselves as grasshoppers, and they, therefore, did not imagine that others saw them as puny either. Rather, they saw bread that, like any bread, easily could be made into crumbs. They saw that the God who had smitten Egypt with 10 plagues; who had targeted and pinpoint-excised first-born males among families and houses replete with females and later-born kids; who had split the Sea of Reeds and revealed Himself before the eyes and ears of the nation of several million at Sinai — could deliver. They saw it so clearly. There is no doubt in their voices. “If Hashem, our God, wants to do so, He will bring us into this land and give to us this land flowing with milk and honey. So don’t rebel against God, and don’t fear the local denizens, because they are our bread, and their protective cloaks already have departed. God is with us. Don’t fear them.”

There is such strong, overpowering fear from one quarter; such equal certainty of success from another.

Their story is ours. Some look at the Torah and see nice children’s Bible stories. But they are not nice stories, and are not primarily for children. The Torah recounts passionate dramas that recur throughout our nation’s march to ultimate redemption. The practical, objective Jewish leaders see Amalekites and Hittites on the border, barbarians at the gates, and freeze with fear. They back away from our destiny.

And those who don the night-vision goggles view the challenges with perspicacity and understand that Jewish leadership is about vision and destiny.

Crumbs of bread. Kernels of rice. We are protected by the Guardian of Abraham.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, rabbi of Young Israel of Calabasas since its inception, will become rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine in August. He also is an adjunct professor of law and a member of the Rabbinical Council of California.

 

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