Once upon a time everything was one, vast body of water, flowing and surging with the wild energy of creation and destruction. Because there was nothing to hold anything apart from the mass, everything that came to be would cease to be as soon as it emerged. Or, because there was nothing separating one thing from another, nothing could be perceived for what it was. This state of matter without form, of being without existence, is called תהו ובהו (tohu va-vohu).

Then something happened –we could call that something “God”– and light became separated from darkness. In the light of this primal separation the waters became separated, one above and one below. Because separation implies difference, the two waters took on different characteristics, hitherto joined together, but now held apart. The great water above retained the character of light and nourishment, while the great water below retained the character of darkness and creation, and in between them the expanse of heaven.

Floating on the waters below is the land. It came into being when the waters below drew back, forming a place where they were *not*, and the land retains this character of negativity — it is watered by the moisture welling up from below, but it can continue to exist only so long as the waters below continue *not* to be where it *is*. At the same time, we and everything else that lives cannot exist without the flow of nourishing rain from the waters above, but if the expanse of heaven were to open up without restraint we would all be flooded into oblivion. Thus, we are all doubly dependent — and doubly threatened — on the waters that bracket our lives, forming and sustaning the space within which we are able to live.

Viewed in a certain way, God is the principle of the harmonious relationship that makes this precarious existence possible. Viewed in another way, God is the One who desires and mandates that this harmony should come into being. Either way, our task in this world is to build a house for God, a site wherein this harmony can be actualized. This site is the Temple. The Temple is built on a mountain — the meeting point between the earth and the heavens — and its foundations sink all the way down into the deepest waters below. Thus, while existing within the space we know and inhabit, it transcends this space, connecting us with what is above and below and knitting all three together into a whole that can only be described as Divine.

So long as the Temple is kept whole and free of defilement, the waters of heaven nourish us and the waters below the earth sustain us without overrunning their respective boundaries. If this divine channel is allowed to fall into disrepair, however, the balance is upset and we find ourselves at the mercy of a world whose forces we can neither predict or control.

This is one version of how the biblical authors imagined the world, but it can also be a way to think about ourselves and our relationship to the mysterious forces that shape our souls and give us the energy we need to be happy, healthy, spiritually awake human beings. Just like my ancient ancestors, I find myself standing on a ground that is really just a thin boundary separating everything I call “me” from what lies beyond. This “beyond” goes both ways. Internally, it is the complex muddle of emotions, dreams, spiritual insights and unconcious mental states that underly and inform my conscious self without being fully “of” it. Externally, it is the world in which I am bound up in a network of relationships that define my identity in ways I can influence but not necessarily control. Somewhere in between these two beyonds is where I have to build my Temple, working to establish a point of balance where I can be nourished and sustained without being utterly overwhelmed. This is the fundamental task of spiritual life.

The first parsha of Shemot ends on a down note. Moses has done exactly what God asked of him, and yet everything seems to have turned out wrong. Rather than listening to Moses and letting Israel go free, the Pharaoh has only been irritated enough to inflict further hardships on them. Meanwhile, the people Moses was sent to save now look on him as the source of their problems rather than the solution. Moses’ feelings about his mission at this stage can best be summed up by the anguished cry he calls out to God – “Oh Lord, why did you bring harm on this people? Why did you send me?”

The despair felt by both Moses and the Israelites at this point is not difficult to understand, inexperienced as they all are with the task they have been called to undertake, which is nothing less than working to bring an end to their own oppression and subjugation. Caught up in the idealism of his mission and still not used to thinking of himself as a leader (or even an Israelite for that matter), there are still a few lessons Moses has to learn before he can lead his people out of slavery and into freedom. It is precisely in this parsha (Parashat Vaera) in which God begins to see to it that he learns them.

Lesson 1: Everything is a process. Everything.

Moses and the Israelites are discouraged at the beginning of the parsha because they all at some level expected the experience of liberation to be simple, easily attained and above all quick. When carrying out God’s first set of instructions did not immediately lead to an improvement of their situation but, to the contrary, seemed to worsen them, Moses and crew reacted with justified surprise. After all, with God on their side, how can they possibly fail? What they fail to understand is that even for God (maybe especially for God) everything is a process. It took seven days for God to create the world, and it’s going to take some time to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. We might ask, if God knew beforehand that in the end it would take the death of the firstborn to get Pharaoh to finally capitulate, why then not try that first and have done with it? It may be, however, that without all the other plagues, the threats and back-and-forth between Moses and Pharaoh, this final plague would not have had the same impact and might not have succeeded at all. All the previous efforts Moses, Aaron go through, apparently futile on the surface, actually prepare the ground for the final victory.

Lesson 2: To make change happen, you first have to believe change is possible.

At this low point, when Moses is feeling so lost and dejected, God prefaces the next set of instructions by recounting all the signs and promises made to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – that the Israelites would be redeemed from exile and would come at last to inherit the land promised to their ancestors. Not only this, however: In this speech God emphasizes that even Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who merited to receive such promises, knew God only as El Shaddai, not by the four-letter name that most closely and intimately connects God with the people Israel. In this way, God seems to be saying: As close as I was to your ancestors, I never revealed My own special name to them, and yet I sheltered and cared for them in times of trouble. How then can I fail to take care of you, who have been permitted to be so much closer to Me?

Lesson 3: When things are looking bad, it’s important to remember who you are and where you came from.

Even after being reminded of God’s promises, Moses still doesn’t feel confident in the eventual success of his mission. The source of this lack of confidence seems to come primarily from a breakdown of trust between the people and its leader. The Torah clearly tells us that the Israelites’ reason for not listening to Moses at this point is because of their circumstances – the harshness of their labor and the constriction of their spirit – nevertheless Moses himself can’t help but attribute his failure to the inadequacy of his leadership skills, regretting once more his deficiency of speech.

It is no coincidence that the Torah chooses this moment to recount in part the genealogy that led up to the birth of Aaron and Moses. This is to establish beyond a shadow of a doubt the close connection between the two brothers, and between Moses and the Israelites. In this way God seems to be saying: Though you were raised in different households and under very different circumstances, still you are brothers and nothing can break that bond. Just the same, though the Israelites may have lost their confidence in you for the moment, you are bound together by ties that cannot be broken. Now get up and get to work!

These are only a few of the lessons Moses needs to learn as we watch him develop! over the course of the next several parshiyot from an insecure outsider suffering from lack of confidence and a very really difficulty connecting with the people he’s supposed to save, into a strong and capable leader able to face down Pharaoh, discontented Israelites and even God in order to protect the people from harm and bring them through the wilderness. May we all learn from them as well as we work to find solutions to the difficulties facing our own communities and in our own days.

A sketch by the author

I’ve been thinking a lot about space recently: About the ways it shapes our lives, about the ways access to space is granted or denied. Space is one of those things — like any form of privilege really — that you don’t really tend to notice unless you’ve experienced for yourself what it’s like to have the right to the space you need to live challenged or taken away. The country where I live has a lot to say on the subject of space, of who belongs where, and why. I suspect that no matter where you live, you could say the same.

What really got me thinking about the subject of space was all the work we’ve been doing at JCUA this summer around immigration reform. During the course of my time working for Or Tzedek, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a number of brilliant, passionate activists working for immigrants’ rights and to hear their stories and the stories of many others who have been impacted by the utterly shameful mess that is the United States’ immigration system. Listening to all these stories, it has sometimes been surprising how familiar they seem. The experience of living your life in limbo, of occupying a space that doesn’t officially “belong” to you for reasons too complex and personal to be understood by those who are deeply uncomfortable with your presence — this is something that speaks to the core of my own experience and motivates me to be an ally for undocumented immigrants in their struggle for recognition.

There’s a blessing I say regularly, twice each day, when I am taking the hormones that are slowly working to make my body feel more like home. I believe it was originally composed by Elliot Kukla, and it goes like this:

ברוך אתה יי אלקינו מלך העולם המעביר לעוברים

Blessed are you our God, ruler of the universe, who brings across those who cross over.

There is a lot packed into this one, deceptively simple, little sentence. For starters, there is the terminology it uses to refer to transitioning and to those who transition. עבר in Hebrew is a verbal root meaning “to cross.” Its associations in Judaism are complex: On the one hand, it can carry the sense of “crossing over a moral boundary line,” as for example in עבירה — “transgression.” On the other hand, the idea of “crossing over” is fundamental to the Jewish concept of redemption. The two great redemptive moments in the Hebrew Bible — being taken out of slavery in Egypt and being brought into the land of Cana’an — both involve the symbolically powerful act of crossing over a boundary represented by a body of water.

In using עבר to refer to a transgender person’s move to transition toward living the gender they identify as, Kukla seems to be making a rather radical statement about the place of trans experience in Judaism — removing it from עבירה, the rejected periphery of transgressive behavior, and placing it right smack dab in the redemptive center of the Jewish tradition. Margaret Moers Wenig, in her article “Spiritual Lessons I Have Learned From Transsexuals” (in Balancing on the Mechitza), goes even further perhaps when she attempts to determine a proper Jewish term for “transsexual” and eventually settles on the word עברי — which also happens to be the Hebrew word for Hebrew!

Both Kukla and Wenig make the point that the experience of crossing over into a new and more authentic life is central to both Jewish and transgender experience, and hence that these two identities are not as unrelated or even contradictory as some might assume. In the seemingly radical act of creating a blessing for gender transition, Kukla is merely asserting what those of us who are trans already know in our hearts — that, legal or not, accepted or not, sanctioned or not, the need to cross over is inscribed in the book of our lives, written in letters too deep to be effaced, by a hand greater than our own.

It is that same need — the need to cross over, to be recognized and counted, to come out of the shadows and into the light — that I feel like I recognize in the stories of the millions of undocumented immigrants who live among us, who share the same space and contribute to our society in a thousand unacknowledged ways, and who nevertheless are frequently denied even the most basic elements of human dignity. It is in the courage of undocumented youth who, at incredible personal risk, come out of the shadows to protest the injustice of deportations and the denial of legal protection from discrimination and exploitation. It is a need that, like all human needs, is grounded in the lived experience of real people who deserve to be seen and to be heard, not hidden behind a smokescreen of anxiety and misinformation erected by those who would use our fear of a largely imaginary “other” to cement their own power and influence.

Access to space is important — space to live and to grow, to share and to prosper. To be denied that necessary space is to be denied an important part of one’s humanity. This is something I believe all of us know, deep down, although the stories we tell ourselves of danger and scarcity sometimes make us forget that truer, deeper knowledge. As the debate in Congress over comprehensive immigration reform continues, and as we perhaps consider whether and how to add our voices to that debate, may we not lose sight of that fundamental need — and of the ways in which each of us, in our own manner, has been impelled by the circumstances of our lives, or our own nature, or by the mysterious hand of the Divine, to be crossers-over.

One of the fundamental ways in which the Torah conveys meaning is through juxtaposition – the deliberate placement of two pieces of text close to one another so that it becomes natural to read the one in the context of the other. This notion of meaning drawn from proximity was known to the rabbis, and they made it one of the basic principles of midrash, the uniquely rabbinic mode of scriptural interpretation. In our own time, as we become more aware of the historical process of the Hebrew Bible’s composition through the editing together of many pre-existing texts, we are once again struck by the ways in which juxtaposition plays an important role in the literary technique of the Bible’s editors as they stitched together the various legal and literary traditions of to form a greater whole.

In parashat ‘Ekev, two passages in particular strike me as interesting for the way in which they are placed side by side in such a way as to speak together:

The first passage is an injunction to the people of Israel not to forget, once they have been firmly established in their land, not to forget that it was not by their own might and virtue that they came to conquer and settle the land, but by the power of God who delivered them from Egypt, who led them through the wilderness, and who delivered the land’s former inhabitants into their hands.

The second passage is Moses’s retelling of the story of the golden calf. In this story Moses is gone for forty days and nights up on the mountain, fasting and praying in preparation for God to deliver the tablets of the covenant into his hands. In his absence, the people grow impatient and make themselves a golden calf to serve as an object of worship in Moses’s absence. God makes the people’s transgression known to Moses and he storms down the mountain to reprimand them, destroying the tablets in the process.

After both Moses and God have calmed down a bit, God once again gives Moses the tablets of the law – but this time, in a different way. Rather than simply giving Moses the tablets ready-made, God instructs him to carve the tablets himself which God will inscribe, and furthermore to build an ark to contain them.

The message I draw from these two passages is this: that though it is certainly important to remember that it is not by our own power alone that the healing of the world can be accomplished, nevertheless true transformation cannot take place without the involvement and participation of those who are to be the beneficiaries of the change.

In the story of the golden calf, both of the objects of veneration, the original tablets and the golden idol, were doomed to destruction from the start – the calf because it was the work of the people without the participation of God, and the tablets because they were the work of God without the participation of the people. It is only by the coming together of the two, working together toward a common goal of sanctification, that a lasting and truly sacred home for the laws can be built.

In the same way, as we work for social change in the world, we must remember that justice is never simply handed down from on high, nor can it ever be the sole possession of a single individual or group within society. Rather, real change is built by many different hands working together, each contributing what they can to the common goal. And if, as the Torah tells us, it is not by “my own power and the might of my own hand” that justice is forged, neither can it happen without the contribution that we ourselves bring.

My problem with Shabbat sometimes (and this isn’t going to make a lot of sense at first, so bear with me) is that I like to have rules — clear, unambiguous rules. I don’t like to have to fall back on feelings, on “I’ll know it when I see it.” On the contrary, I like to have a concrete understanding of what I am doing or not doing in a given situation.

On the other hand, I am starting (slowly) to come to terms with the fact that some aspects of the traditional set of rules for Shabbat really don’t work that well for me, at least not if we accept the notion that the overarching purpose of Shabbat is to give us a chance to recharge, reconnect and deepen our spiritual lives.

To take just one example, I personally have a lot of trouble with the traditional injunction against writing on Shabbat. I am by nature a writer. I always have been, ever since I learned to read and write. Writing comes easily to me — much more easily than speaking, actually — and it’s one of the primary ways in which I relax, process the world around me, and connect with myself and others. It therefore comes as a natural impulse to me that on a day in which I’m supposed to be resting and recharging my batteries, I would want to spend some part of that day scribbling in one of the notebooks that serve me more or less as a second brain. This is something that I do throughout the week in the little snippets of time between other things I have to do, but I never feel like I get “enough” time to write, and several hours of uninterrupted writing time without any pressing concerns is about the closest thing I can imagine to heaven.

All the same, I can definitely sympathize with the tradition that includes writing in the category of “work” prohibited on Shabbat. Writing is a creative endeavor, and it can certainly be a labor-intensive activity. Whether there is a difference between writing that would be “work” and writing that would be “not work,” and how we would distinguish between the two, is an open question. The same thing goes, I suppose, for any kind of creative activity that falls within the 39 kinds of forbidden labor but which might be either relaxing or tiring, depending on when one is doing it and how it is being approached. 

Because of this, the rabbinic approach — to avoid the issue altogether by focusing on the type of labor and prohibiting them categorically — makes a certain kind of sense. What I worry about sometimes is that the way in which they identified the list of activities to be prohibited was deeply embedded in the social, economic and technological conditions of their own times and makes less sense in our own.

As for myself, I must admit that during this summer I have developed the habit (I won’t dignify it with the term practice) of writing in my notebook on Shabbat. This probably has as much to do with where I am at the moment than anything deeper — spending the summer by myself in Chicago has made it rather difficult to fill up the long summer Shabbats in ways that feel enriching and spiritually rewarding. All the same, I am somewhat bothered sometimes by how disconnected my Shabbat practice sometimes seems. A large part of this feeling must be because any Jewish practice cannot be completely personal. Ours is a tradition that thrives off of community, and what seems to be missing much of the time in my Shabbat practice , whatever it may be, is the sense that it is developing in relation to others besides myself.

The idea that has been floating around in my head lately in response to these feelings is the development of small, discrete “circles of practice” –groups of three or four individuals, or a few families — that would come together to work toward the development of shared approaches to Jewish practice. This need not be oriented toward any traditionalist understanding of halachah (though it certainly could be, and halachah would probably form one of the sources of inspiration for any such group in some way), and the goal of the group need not be a uniform set of practices. The idea, rather, would be to have a small community in which people could work out their approach toward various aspects of living Jewishly together, get feedback, share ideas. Such a group might exist within a synagogue community, or consist of members of different synagogues, or outside the developed communal structure of institutional Judaism altogether. The important part would be the indiviudal members’ commitment to work together to help expand their collective understanding of practical Judaism, in whatever form that might take.

There once was a person – let’s call hir Someone – who lived all by hirself in a big, old house a long way from anywhere. Someone didn’t get out a lot, and nobody ever came to visit hir, but Someone didn’t mind much, and on the whole zie was reasonably content with hir solitary existence.

Then one day out of the blue a letter arrived in the mail. This was something of a surprise in itself because Someone never got any mail. Zie had kind of assumed, because zie lived way out in the middle of nowhere, with no towns or even neighbors close by, that the postal service simply didn’t deliver all the way out here. Certainly Someone couldn’t think of anyone who might want to write to hir.

The letter was unsigned and had no return address, and when Someone opened and read it zie discovered that it consisted of only three words –

I am coming.

Receiving this letter left Someone understandably confused and a little nervous. In all the time zie had been living in the house zie had never had a single visitor, and zie couldn’t imagine who might want to visit hir now. What is more, the letter’s terse language left Someone without any idea as to the purpose of the visit or what the visitor’s attitude toward hir might be. Did they know Someone? It seemed unlikely, as Someone didn’t know many people. Were they coming to visit Someone, or just the house where zie lived? Were they coming for a short visit, or did they intend to stay longer? On what basis did they presume the liberty to come and visit without consulting Someone’s opinion on the matter?

All of these questions and more occupied Someone’s mind over the next several days, but the more Someone pondered them, the more mystifying they became. As zie considered this strange turn of events, however, it began to occur to hir that that house in which zie lived, adequate enough for hir own solitary needs, was woefully unprepared for receiving guests of any kind.

And so, partly out of nervousness at what the mysterious visitor might do or say should they arrive to find that adequate preparations had not been made for their stay, and partly out of embarrassment at the rather shabby condition of hir home, Someone began to tidy up and make the house ready for the visitor’s arrival. Zie opened up a spare room that hadn’t been used for ages and cleaned off the layer of dust that had been allowed to settle over everything. Zie got out the extra linens and made sure they were freshly washed. Zie picked up all the half-read books lying strewn all over the living room and put them back on their shelves.

And in the midst of all these preparations, as Someone was hanging the freshly laundered sheets out to dry in the lawn, zie happened to glance in the direction of the road and found to hir surprise that the flag on the mailbox was up – another letter had arrived!

This second letter was as mysteriously devoid of identifying features as the first and when Someone removed it from the envelope zie found that it contained a message more or less similar to the first. This one read –

I love you.

I am coming.

This letter threw Someone into even greater depths of confusion than the first one had. If it was improbable that zie might have forgotten some prior acquaintance who might wish to visit hir, that zie should be unable to recall someone who loved hir seemed beyond belief. At the same time, Someone was relieved to discover that the visitor’s feelings toward hir were evidently positive and they did not appear to mean hir any harm.

Nevertheless, when Someone looked around at the work zie had done to prepare for the visitor, zie was suddenly dissatisfied. Certainly there was a room now prepared for the visitor, and the living area was tidy, but it now occurred to Someone how shabby the exterior of the house had grown over the time zie’d lived there. It had never really occurred to hir to think what a visitor might think, because no visitor ever came. But now there was a visitor coming, one who apparently had deep feelings for Someone, even if zie could not remember them. It seemed a shame somehow to think of them arriving and finding the place in such a shambles.

And so Someone began to fix up the exterior of the house. They rehung the shutters that had been blown down in a storm, replaced the missing shingles on the roof, weeded the garden and even gave the door a fresh coat of paint.

In the midst of all this fixing and weeding and painting, Someone happened to glance again in the direction of the road and lo and behold, once again the flag was up on the mailbox – another letter!

This one was as indistinct as the first two had been, but this one read –

I miss you.

I love you.

I am coming.

Someone read this new letter with a sense of anxious trepidation in hir heart. Evidently the visitor who was soon to arrive felt a great connection to Someone, but as much as zie wracked hir brains zie could not think of a single person who might feel this way about hir. Only now did this fact strike hir as rather sad. Zie had never really realized how lonely it was living by hirself, with no one to talk to or share hir day with. Now though, Someone felt that there was nothing zie wanted more, and so zie resolved that when the visitor arrived, even if they didn’t recognize each other, even if it was all a mistake, zie would as the visitor – beg them, if need be – to stay a little while and keep hir company.

But where was the visitor? Three letters had now arrived to announce their coming, and yet there had been no sign of them. Someone began to get nervous. Perhaps it really had all been a mistake and no one was coming. Maybe the letters had been delivered to the wrong house entirely. Or maybe the visitor had suddenly realized they had been writing to the wrong person. Perhaps they had been expecting Someone to write back, to acknowledge their coming, and when no reply had been forthcoming they had decided they were unwelcome and not to come after all.

This last though – that some response had been expected and that by failing to give it Someone had caused the visitor to rethink their plans – distressed Someone greatly. Zie took to wandering through the house, thinking hard about what zie might do to signal to hir mysterious correspondent that that they were welcome and indeed eagerly awaited in Someone’s home.

It was a big, rambling house, most of which Someone didn’t even use on a regular basis, and lost in thought Someone wandered into a passage that zie hardly ever visited. Suddenly, zie was startled to to notice that at the end of the hallway was a door zie’d never noticed before. Ordinarily, that end of the passageway was shrouded in darkness, even in the daytime, and so it was not surprising that in hir infrequent trips to this part zie’d missed the door. And yet now there was a thin line of yellow light visible through the crack beneath the door. What is more, Someone could hear the sound of footsteps coming from the other side – there was a person in the room beyond!

Feeling as if zie was dreaming, Someone walked slowly to the door and turned the handle. The footsteps on the other side paused in their pacing, as if listening expectantly. Steadying hir nerve, Someone opened the door.

Inside was a cozy little room with a small bed, next to which was a night table with a lamp, from which was coming the warm, yellow light that Someone had seen under the door. There was an old armchair and a shelf containing some books and various odds and ends. In one corner was a writing desk on which were strewn several sheets of paper identical to that on which the letters had been written, and standing in the middle room was a person Someone knew instantly must be the mysterious visitor zie had been so anxiously awaiting.

“When did you get here?” Someone asked, beside hirself in astonishment.

“I’ve been here all along,” the visitor replied. “I built this house as a matter of fact. For a long time I lived here all by myself, and the loneliness was almost too much to bear. When you arrived it seemed like the the answer to my prayers, but I found suddenly that I was to nervous to face tou. And so I hid in here, and I’ve been hiding ever since, watching you from afar, taking pleasure from your company, even if you didn’t realize I was there. After a while though it didn’t seem right that I should be able to take comfort from you when you weren’t even aware of my existence. So I had the idea of writing you a letter and presenting myself as a visitor. At the same time, I was still a little afraid you wouldn’t want to see me, so I’ve been trying to work up the courage to show my face.

Someone couldn’t believe it – all that time they had been sharing the house with the visitor without even knowing it! Filled with sudden joy, Someone held out hir hand to the visitor.

“I’ve been working so hard to make everything ready for your visit,” zie said. “I was worried you were never going to come. Come with me and I’ll show you.” And the visitor, smiling, took Someone’s hand and together they left the room.

This is a Dvar Torah I did a couple weeks ago at Dorshei Derech for parashat Bamidbar. As such, it’s probably a little late to be posting this, but since we’re still in the middle of Bamidbar, and because the themes it addresses are feeling pretty relevant right now, I thought I’d put it up anyway.

It has always seemed a little ironic to me that the parsha entitled Bamidbar should be so obsessively concerned with the organization of people and space. For the Biblical authors the midbar (usually translated as “wilderness”) is a complicated place. Most basically, the midbar is the wasteland, the uncharted wilderness outside the boundaries of the community, and even outside of normal space and time. In some ways, one might look at it as the dry-land version of the wild and unpredictable sea that in ancient Near-Eastern mythology represents the primal chaos that must be tamed and held back in order for the relatively sane world we live in to exist.

As a place, or better yet as a state of mind, the midbar has an important role to play in the world of the Bible. On the one hand, it is a dangerous and frightening place. It is a place where the ordinary rules of time and distance don’t seem to apply, a place where somehow it becomes possible for the relatively modest journey from Egypt to Canaan can take forty years. It is a place where the Israelites can wander for ages without encountering another settled people, and yet wicked tribes bent on slaughter or corrupting the values of the community seem to lurk behind every rock.

On the other hand, the open and unbounded nature of the midbar can be a source of profound insight and creativity. It is the place where prophets go to have their most profound encounters with God–where Moses encountered the burning bush, where Elijah heard the “still, small voice” of revelation. It is the place where Sinai stands, where the descendants of Jacob made their pact with the Eternal. It is the place where we had to go in order to become who we are.

It becomes necessary, therefore, to strike a balance between the midbar and the camp, to find a way to live amidst the unbounded highlands of the spirit without becoming disoriented and drifting off, never to be seen again. This perhaps is why the first parsha of Numbers is called Bamidbar–because in its detailed enumeration of people by family, clan and tribe, and in its careful arrangement of space, arraying the twelve tribal camping grounds in a precisely delineated ring around the holy sanctuary like the numbers on a clock, we can catch a glimpse of the ways in which a wandering people made their peace with the wilderness, staking their claim at each new campsite to which God led them and carving out, however temporarily, a patch of order and stability amid the creative chaos of life. These are the terms on which the children of Israel were able to cope with their forty year sojourn in the wilderness, and they are not so different from the terms by which we are able to live today.

In recent weeks, my partner Emily and I have felt like our lives were being turned upside-down as we’ve scrambled to prepare for a series of journeys culminating in our upcoming year in Israel. Recently, Emily was feeling pretty overwhelmed by some packing she was doing. It’s something I’ve been feeling myself–the difficulty of knowing what to bring and what to leave behind, of how to fit your life into the smallest possible space so you can take it with you. In the end, the only way to overcome this anxiety and put the logistical and emotional problem into some kind of perspective was, funnily enough, to make a list.

Like the Israelites in parashat Bamidbar, we get by and face the challenges life throws at us by trying to impose a little order on what can sometimes be a terribly confusing world. In doing so, we can make a little ground for us to stand on, a place from which to reach out and engage with life in all its wild, creative glory.

The questions I put to the kahal when I gave this talk are the same ones I’ll put to you, my readers:

  1. The Israelites ordered their world by family and tribe, and by the organization of space, and by designating roles for the different groups to fulfill in attending to the needs of the community. What are some of the fundamental ways in which you order your life?
  2. In encountering the wilderness of the midbar, sometimes we feel opened up and exhilarated, freed to shake up old patterns and explore new things. Sometimes we feel anxious and unsettled, reaching out desperately for something stable and familiar. What are some ways you’ve reacted to change and the breakdown of old patterns in your life?

This is just an announcement that I’ve set up another blog on as a home for my fiction and other creative writing, primarily what I hope to make an ongoing series called Magical Princess Harriet. I’ve been writing fiction and poetry for a long time, but I’ve never really published any of it or put it out on the internet for public comment, so this is pretty new to me. It’s all part of my ongoing project of radical openness.

Magical Princess Harriet is an idea that came to me recently while I was frankly a little feverish, as in actually a little sick. By the time I got better I found that I’d written most of what ended up being the first chapter of the story. It’s more or less a magical girl anime like Sailor Moon or Futari wa Pretty Cure, but, you know, she’s Jewish and transgender. I’m not sure if it’s fanfic or what, but it’s a lot of fun to write. I’ll probably also use this blog to post whatever other bits of fiction and poetry I feel like putting out there from time to time. Hope you enjoy reading. Please let me know what you think!

 

Linky: http://magicalprincessharriet.wordpress.com/

 

(Emily has been teaching the kids in her student teaching class about the space program. Meanwhile, we’ve been studying the story of the four who entered the Pardes (the orchard) in Talmud class. Somewhere between the two, this poem came out.)

Heichal

When first we breached the blanket of air
Wherein we lay snugly wrapped for all the years of our species’ gestation
Like the pupa of a moth in its coccoon
Slowly liquifying to rebuild itself into a thing that flies
Our eyes beheld a novel thing–
What it is to be dazzled, not by light,
But sheer immensity of space

How well our ancestors knew
The sky we look upon by day,
Opaque and cloudy blue,
Is but a bowl in which we float,
A nest you built to hold us close
Until our wings grow strong,
A window to our other, truer home

Four there were who went there once
Or so they say, and of them three
Did not have the courage but to peek
And so were stricken–
Dead or mad, or shaken so
As to leave behind him all he thinks he knows
Like a child’s broken toys

But we–
May we take our heart from the last
Who went with arms outstretched,
Eyes open wide to see you there
Your hands held out to welcome us
Like a mother beckons her dearest child
Into the water
May we, like that one, say to you–
We come in peace
We go
In peace

 

It’s a bit late, but here’s something I noticed in last week’s parsha (Emor) and in light of the monster of a post I did a couple of weeks ago about Jewish identity, I couldn’t resist writing about it.

At the very end of the parsha (Leviticus 24:10-23), there’s a narrative episode in which “one whose father was an Egyptian and whose mother was an Israelite” gets into a fight with “an Israelite.” The “son of an Israelite woman,” who isn’t actually identified except by the name of his mother, a woman named Shlomit of the tribe of Dan, utters God’s name “in blasphemy” and he’s taken into custody and brought before Moses.

The judgment that God hands down to Moses when he asks what to do about this situation is fascinating to say the least:

“Take the blasphemer outside the camp and let all those who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him. And to the Israelite people speak thus: Anyone who blasphemes his God shall bear his guilt. If he also pronounces the name HaSHEM, he shall be put to death. The whole community will stone him–stranger or citizen, if he has thus pronounced the name, he shall be put to death.” (Lev. 24:14-16)

I mean seriously, where to start with this? How about the way in which the story elides the question of whether the blasphemer is to be regarded as one of the community or as an outsider? To be sure, the story never actually says that the man isn’t considered an Israelite. And yet, he is never explicitly identified as an Israelite but only at one step removed from the people: the son of an Israelite mother, contrasted with the Israelite with whom he is fighting. Even God’s pronouncement maintains this ambiguity. On the one hand, the law of punishment that is passed down in response to this incident is for one “who blasphemes his God,” not simply God, nor the God of the Israelites, but his God, the God with whom he is in relationship. It seems this presumption of connection with the God of Israel would carry with it the assumption of membership in the kahal. But on the other hand,  the law finishes with the note that it applies to anyone, “stranger or citizen,” who has carelessly uttered the divine Name in blasphemy.

It’s hard to read this ambiguity as unintentional. Indeed, it is so carefully maintained throughout the episode that it seems to lie at the core of what this story meant to the one recording it. Why is it that the “half-Israelite” (as this passage is somewhat inaccurately translated in the JPS) is singled out? Is it, as a commentator in Etz Chayim suggests, that a child raised in a “dual heritage” household is less likely to have been brought up with a strong religious identity–and with the respect for the divine that would entail–and is thus more likely to blaspheme the name of God? It might be comforting to believe that, especially as it tends to confirm the prevailing narrative about the role of interfaith marriage as a corrosive influence on Jewish families and on the Jewish community as a whole.

But it’s important to remember that in the context of the narrative none of the Israelites were exactly coming from a place of strong religious upbringing. This was the generation, we must remember, who had themselves been suffering for their entire lives under the burden of Egyptian slavery, who had only recently been brought forth out of Egypt and who were still fully in the midst of the complicated, messy task of working out a collective national and spiritual identity. It’s hard to imagine a way in which belonging to a dual-parent household would make one any more likely to fail to respect God’s sanctity than anyone else in that crazy mixed up generation–which is also, just to be totally clear, our own generation.

Or is it, as I rather more think, that a “full Israelite”–that is, someone who is perceived by their fellows as a full member of the community, someone whose Jewish credentials are impeccable and whose Jewish identity goes unchallenged–is it that someone like this who might in an unguarded moment, caught up in the tension of perpetual wandering and the ungrounded existence of the midbar, lose control and utter words of blasphemy, but nevertheless somehow this fact might be overlooked by those around him, those who see their lives and their concerns mirrored in his, those who are not inclined to regard him as an “outsider,” perpetually under suspicion?

It could be that the blasphemer in the incident in question had to be an individual of dual parentage, because only a perceived “outsider” would be likely to be seized and brought before the authorities for what after all we might imagine to have been a relatively common shortcoming in that generation. If this is so, then God’s declaration that there be one law alike for a member of the tribe and for the outsider may be just, but is it fair? The ruling itself may be perfectly neutral in its formulation and yet it may be utterly impossible to find balance and fairness in its application.

I would like to believe that this is what is hidden in the stipulation that those who were witness to the blasphemy “lay there hands on his head” before he can be put to death. In calling forth those responsible for making the accusation, in forcing them to come to terms with what they were involved in, God was implicitly making room for those involved to back out, to reconsider their motives for singling out the outsider. It is significant, I think that this crucial moment is not included in the coda to the episode:

And they took the blasphemer outside the camp and pelted him with stones. The Israelites did as the Lord commanded Moses. (Lev. 24:23)

The crucial moment of responsibility, of reconsideration, is not included, and in this way a deep ambiguity is introduced into the chapter’s closing coda–”The Israelites did as the Lord commanded Moses.” This hint of irony carries with it an implicit commentary on the ethical failure of those who allowed the man known only as the “son of an Israelite woman” to be stoned, and a warning to us to be more careful about whom within our communities we choose to designate as “the outsider.”

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