Letter to the Lord

Lord quite innocent of what it is to live
bound in paper, bound in steel,
bound in the incredible ignorance supplied
by irony and suffering — how are You?
I regret that I am unable to see You, wrapped as I am in time,
soiled and sickened by personal situations,
unable to find You, the real You, in the creases
of Your misprints.  A few spots of light
wade toward me from the roots of life,
a few spots of fear, fingers of decomposition.
Otherwise, I’m fine, unable to see you
but ready to shut my eyes
and feel my way through the cemetery of Your longing —
or is it mine? — for someone else
to take responsibility for life.
You live too much and I live too,
one of innumerable lines You true,
purged and poisoned by Your silence,
rubbed and mounted by the dark
I tell myself is You.

Joy Ladin is Gottesman Professor of English at Yeshiva University and the author of six books of poetry. Her memoir, “Through the Door of Life:  A Jewish Journey Between Genders,” was a finalist for a 2012 National Jewish Book Award and a Forward Fives winner.

Local Team Solves Ancient Mystery

In 1979 two tiny pieces of cracked and deteriorated silver found in a tomb outside of the Old City of Jerusalem proved to be one of the most important archeological discoveries of the century.

The silver strips had Hebrew writing on them — albeit a very different-looking Hebrew to the one we know today — and the words spelled out the priestly blessing: “May the Lord bless you and guard you. May the Lord make his countenance shine on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn his countenance to you and grant you peace.”

The strips, which were initially dated from the seventh or sixth century B.C.E., contained the earliest known citation of a text that is also found in the Bible (in this case, Numbers 6: 24-26).

But for years, researchers doubted whether the “Ketef Hinnom amulets” — named for the place where they were discovered — were actually from that period, which would make them 400 years older than the Dead Sea Scrolls. They believed that the silver strips could have been written not in an archaic script, but an archaistic script — in other words, written in a way that made them look older than they actually were. The rest of the writing on the strips had corroded away with the silver, so scholars couldn’t read it clearly. And they weren’t even sure if the strips were amulets, which were usually worn as a sort of spiritual protection, or something else. Those scholars dated the silver as coming from the third or fourth century B.C.E. If that were the case, the strips would have been a less-important discovery in establishing the ancientness of the Bible’s language.

Recently, a team of Southern California researchers from the USC School of Religion-affiliated West Semitic Research Project (WSRP), an organization that photographs ancient artifacts so that scholars all over the world can study them, rephotographed the amulets using innovative lighting techniques that revealed more of the writing on them. Then, using computer imagery to analyze the writing on the strips and compare it with other writings of the period, proved that they are archaic, not archaistic, and the oldest-known citation of a biblical text. The scholars dated the strips as coming from the period just before the destruction of the first temple in 586 B.C.E., reestablishing the strips as, in words of one scholar, the “heavyweight champions of the [archeological] world.”

“We initially tried to photograph the objects conventionally, but it was clear that it was not going to work,” said Dr. Bruce Zuckerman, a professor of Semitic languages at USC, who is the project leader at WSRP.

Zuckerman explained that markings on the amulets were too small too be decipherable to the naked eye, which is why many photographs taken from different angles were needed to properly study them.

“We took picture in contrasting lights, then we would match them and superimpose them one on top of the other,” he said, referring to the way that some of the letters were visible from one angle, but not from another.

Zuckerman and his colleagues, Dr. Marilyn Lundberg of the WSRP and Dr. Andrew Vaughn, a biblical historian at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, also used a computer imaging technique they called “patching,” which took a piece of the writing that had been misaligned by the cracked silver and “patched” it into the place it was meant to be. They also studied similar writings from the period, which enabled them to recognize letters that were no longer whole, due to the age of the silver.

The team was able to decipher the preamble to the priestly blessing on the amulets, which read: “May he [or she] be blessed by God, the rescuer and the rebuker of evil.”

“It tells you without question that you are dealing with an amulet,” Zuckerman said. “And we were able to do a close comparison with equivalent inscriptions from that period and from the later periods. Basically, we believe that we decisively proved that what had originally been proposed was correct, these are the earliest citation of a biblical text. It reestablishes them as the heavyweight champions of the world.”

The scholars also worked with Dr. Gabriel Barkay, the archeologist at Bar Ilan University in Israel who discovered the amulets. Together they published their research in a CD form, in The Bulletin of American Schools of Oriental Research. Academic articles are traditionally published in paper journals, but the CD, which was published with the assistance of the Annenberg School of Journalism at USC, enabled the scholars to publish the photographs they took, as well as the digital imaging techniques, so that other scholars could assess them.

“It is really important to me that our common Jewish heritage is more fully explored — and when I say our common Jewish heritage, I don’t mean just for Jews,” Zuckerman said. “The Jewish heritage lies at the base of the great religions, and when one makes a small discovery like this, we’re doing something to further clarify the origins of the great religions.”

For more information on the project, visit www.usc.edu/dept/LAS/wsrp.

The Fruit of Peace

What did Moshe want? When it all came down to it, after Moshe accepted that he wouldn’t be leading Israel into the land, what did he request of God? Not surprisingly, he asked nothing for himself, focusing instead on the people who would need to go on without him. As we read this week, "Lord of the spirit of all flesh, appoint, I pray thee, a man to lead the congregation who will go out before them and who will come in before them, who will lead them out and who will bring them in."

While Moshe’s concern for his people is not surprising, it is interesting to note that in his request he is also expressing concern for his successor. The sages of the Midrash recognized that there is something very deliberate in Moshe’s description of the successor he envisions. Moshe wanted his successor to be granted the ability both to "lead them out" and to "bring them in." Contrary to his own frustrating experience, in which he brought the people out of Egypt, but was not permitted by God to see them settle in the Promised Land, he desperately wanted his successor to be able to see the fruits of all his labors. Moshe was hoping to obtain a guarantee from God that the next leader of Israel would not suffer the pain of unfulfilled dreams, or the frustration of devoting a lifetime to the fulfillment of a vision, only to have to leave this earth with the goal still unrealized.

Moshe’s concern for his successor’s fate is well placed and noble. But in the grand scheme of life, it is one that is often unrealistic. The well-known rabbinic story that serves as the counterpoint to Moshe’s story, is that of Honi the Circlemaker. During one of his travels, Honi encounters an old man who is planting a carob tree. Amazed at what he saw, Honi called out to the man and inquired whether he was aware of the fact that carob trees don’t bear any fruit for 70 years. The planter replied with the familiar words, "when I arrived in this world, I found carob trees here. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I will plant for those who will come after me."

It is this realization that allows the world to move forward with hope. It is the willingness of people to invest themselves in projects whose fruit they will never see, that provides the only basis for the faith that tomorrow can be better than today. If we were to simply give up on the dreams whose fulfillment we wouldn’t ourselves see, we would condemn future generations to deprivation and suffering.

We struggle today against an enemy whose ultimate target is hope in the future. With every devastating homicide bombing in Israel, the vision of peaceful coexistence which we hoped our generation would bequeath to our children’s, seems increasingly remote, naïve and foolish. We will not see peace in our lifetimes; today’s children will not inherit an Israel at peace. This hope has been murdered. For our children’s sake though, we must distinguish between the hope for peace, and the hope for peace in our day. We must do all in our power to see to it that the hope for peace burns as an inextinguishable fire in their hearts. This is the reason that our sages insisted that every Jewish prayer — from the silent "Amidah" to the "Kaddish," to the blessing following the meal — conclude with the assertion that God will bless us with peace. It is our way of planting the carob tree. It is our way of ensuring that hope lives. We know that somewhere down the line, the sweet fruit of peace will materialize. But we also know that this depends on our planting and guarding over the tree of hope.

Of course it would be gratifying to see the fruition of every project that we began. But carob trees don’t grow that way. And neither does peace in Israel.