Wisdom Wherever You Find It
We care for people not because they are Catholics, but because we are. James Cardinal Hickey
My professional life has been in the interfaith world for a number of years, and if this short essay doesn’t prove it, nothing will.
The word “davka” is Hebrew and defies explanation. It was the first word I struggled to understand in seminary, where my teacher translated it in the Talmudic text as “specifically” and the dictionary offered “exactly.” In usage, however, it is best spoken while holding your index and middle fingers together on one hand and making a circle in the air, ending with an emphatic point in front of you.
The most misunderstood faith community in America, in my opinion, is the Sikh community. First of all, we pronounce their religion to rhyme with “peek” because the actual pronunciation – rhymes with “stick” – confuses us. Their ritual devotion includes unshorn hair, turbans, and the presence of a symbolic sword (kirpan) always on their person, which the uninitiated and TSA consider to be threatening. And because of stereotyping, uneducated Americans frequently mistake them for Muslims, with sometimes fatal results, putting all of us in a double-bind explaining they are not Muslims, but so what if they were.
To me, the most admirable aspect of Sikh religion is radical hospitality. Anyone who is hungry will find a meal and welcome at a gurdwara, a Sikh temple. Millions of people are fed regularly by Sikhs around the world. They do not do so because the hungry are Sikhs, but because they are. Davka.
Speaking of Muslims, in a Virginia community not so far from where I live is a guy named Qasim Rashid. He has run for office unsuccessfully couple of times at least as much because he is a member of the minority party in his jurisdiction as anything else. But as a “public Muslim,” he was prepared for the kinds of attacks on his identity that are some voters’ idea of appropriate political discourse. One such correspondent’s condemnation was among the grotesque (Rashid’s word) messages he received. Rashid looked into his antagonist’s public declarations and discovered that among the objectionable messages was a GoFundMe campaign to pay off more than $20,000 in medical debt. Rashid made a contribution and encouraged his followers to do the same. The debt was retired.
Did he win the guy’s vote? The answer is irrelevant. A faithful Muslim’s response to suffering is to offer mercy and support. He provided comfort not because his offender was a Muslim, but because he is. Davka.
Among the groups in our various coalitions are those that represent avowed secularists. For some of them it is a matter of principle and for others the equivalent of faith. That is to say, some of them believe our American statutes and practices should be entirely neutral toward any and all religion, and others are atheists. They are among the staunchest defenders of the First Amendment rights to conscience and separation of government and religion in the interfaith community. And they do so even for religious folks who would disqualify them from certain kinds of discourse and service to the country. They do so not because their critics are accurately reading the Constitution, but because they are. Davka.
All of these examples are admirable to me, and I hope to you as well. They are more admirable to me still because none of the folks whom I describe has anything to gain for themselves by their conduct. In fact, just the opposite is true. Sikhs could retreat into their quiet life of making a living and cultivating a calm sense of place in the universe. Muslims, not only Qasim Rashid, could more than occupy themselves with prayer five times a day and less outward-facing upholding of the five pillars. Secular activists could devote themselves to securing their own rights and take the weekends off. The vast networks of Catholic charities that tend to the impoverished, marginalized, disenfranchised and lonely could use those resources to rehab crumbling churches and hire more teachers in parochial schools.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner described love as the willingness to act for another’s benefit against your own interests. When I look at the adherents of the 75 or more communities of faith and no faith on whose behalf my professional life is devoted, it is what I see wherever I look. They offer their time, talent, and treasure on behalf of others because that’s what their belief system demands of them – their God, their Scripture, their philosophy, their mentor. Not always, of course. Not only, of course. Not to the unmitigated satisfaction of others or even themselves, of course. But also, not because there is something in it for them.
They care for people not because those people are just like them. But because without that caring, they themselves would not be authentically who they are. Davka.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
If we can’t learn from our mistakes, we’re not a living tradition; we’re a bad habit and we ought to disappear. Rev. Terry Kyllo
There is a natural resistance to change among those who uphold a culture of tradition. And since most of us uphold such a culture in one context or another, there is a natural resistance to change for most of us.
Our traditions ground us, and even when we recognize that parts of it run counter to the values we want to uphold, snapping off a piece of that infrastructure can feel like we have betrayed something that has been unshakably loyal to us, or like we are denying to those who follow us that which has sustained us.
For example, generations of traditionally observant Jews have faced a dilemma in observing Shabbat. Especially in colder climates, the strict prohibition of lighting or maintaining fire held the potential to threaten life and well-being on frigid Saturday afternoons. The solution was to engage a non-Jewish neighbor to stop by after lunch to stoke the hearth each week and partake of some of the food kept warming. In that way, the neighbor was not violating the additional prohibition against forcing others to conduct impermissible labor, just meeting their own needs and generously including the Jewish household. In addition to physical warmth, the result was social warmth between the two communities. Frequently, especially in the American urban centers that succeeded the European villages, the non-Jew, often a young person, was given a coin or two during the week in appreciation. Many an unlikely Yiddish-speaker (like Gen. Colin Powell) also got a bilingual education.
The person, called a “shabbes goy,” by right should be a phenomenon of the past. So much of life has become automated – I don’t know a home without a thermostat – that exploiting an outsider to enable sacred conduct is really no longer necessary. Yet, there remain practices among contemporary traditionally observant Jews that facilitate the violation of Shabbat restrictions by counting on the good will (and expectation of compensation) of non-Jews. I understand the logic, but not the result.
This ritual workaround probably feels quaint. And other than a perception, accurate or not, that the non-Jews have the misfortune of not enjoying the blessings of a full day of rest, no one is really harmed.
But it does seem like the flip side of medieval times when money-lending within a community by Christians was similarly prohibited (based on the Bible), and so Jews were imported by feudal lords to handle such transactions. The result was not simply a practical banking system that preserved one community’s claim to piety. It also produced some of the most damaging perceptions of Jewish character values that persist to this day.
I believe that the “less-than” perception of the shabbes goy is a similar phenomenon.
Of course, both things are rationalized by a devotion to a culture of tradition. Can you chip off the noxious piece without undermining the positive and pervasive infrastructure? And, more to the point, if the practices are justified by some perception of divine authority, are modern perceptions determinative if they run counter to that culture of tradition?
A living tradition is one that is not ossified by the practices of the past. Even among those who believe in the literalness of divine instruction, there is a post-revelatory moment (almost always hundreds or thousands of years later) in which the struggle to interpret that instruction is deemed no longer legitimate. But that moment is too late; it affirms we will never progress beyond the past. And we, in our age, who see the evidence of bad habits with religious imprimaturs, ought to have the integrity to do something about it.
Name your issue: slavery, status of women, sexual identity, equality, mental health, equity…the list is extensive. In the name of faith and faithfulness we have developed bad habits, sometimes out of ignorance and sometimes out of cultivated malice. Anything living is dynamic – it changes, difficult though it may seem. And anything that does not change is not living.
The phrase “the custom of our fathers is in our hands” is used in Jewish tradition to rebut the notion that we should do things differently, even where change is indicated. It is only valid when it brings our forbearers honor.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
Home is not where your grandparents are buried. Home is where your grandchildren will be raised. quoted by Namira Islam Anani
Most adults in the United States remember a close relative who was not born here. My family emigrated from the region alternately claimed by Ukraine, Poland, and Russia. Yours may have come from Italy, Morocco, Guatemala, Ghana or, like Anani, Bangladesh. They brought with them more or less of their material wealth (I’m guessing less), but a heart filled with memories.
Mostly, those relatives were grateful to be here. Even if they did not arrive while fleeing persecution, they came expecting opportunity. And not including those whose immigration was involuntary, most did not regret that decision.
But the Old Country is hard to let go of. Everything there is familiar, even the pain. So it is not unusual for new arrivals to America to hold fast to what they left behind even as they find their way into the new normal. For my Ashkenazic Jewish ancestors (according to 23-and-Me that’s 100% of me), that included Yiddish and synagogues that followed European customs and “benevolent associations” (in Yiddish “landsmannshaften”) that existed for mutual support and social opportunities.
But where was home? The answer to that question is not as easy as deciding where you would prefer to live. Lots of speculation peppers culture on the subject. Some would claim home is where the heart is (Pliny the Elder). Some would declare that any place I hang my hat is home (Arlen and Mercer). Some would insist that home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in (Frost). When I am asked about my hometown, I don’t answer “Alexandria,” where I have lived for more than half my life, nor even “Wilmette,” my address through most of my childhood. The answer is “Sweet Home Chicago” (Johnson, then Les Freres Bleus).
I think that people associate home with authenticity. That doesn’t necessarily mean the place of personal origin, but it does mean the ethos in which a person feels most real. Especially here in America, my home sweet home (Berlin), where the government of the people, by the people and for the people (oh, you know that one) does not have deep roots, we have recreated the gardens in which our roots are deep. Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago is almost as Polish as Warsaw. San Francisco is first among cities in which Mandarin is spoken among neighborhood businesses. The Portuguese population of Danbury, Connecticut was eventually supplanted by the Hmong community. And if there is a less likely place to find a fully formed Somali culture than Minneapolis, I’d be hard-pressed to name it.
There comes a time when a home like that is only a memory. The Chicago of my first grade does not exist anymore, even less so the Horochow or Mozir of grandparents and their grandparents long since dead. And even if there is still a town called Berdichev, or a city named Lviv, the stories handed down of when those places were actually, really home can no sooner be replicated than Mr. Simon, the old greengrocer on Devon Avenue, can reach into a tall glass jar and hand me a foot-long pretzel stick.
Expressing a longing for the best of what used to be is natural, but the context has evaporated. The decision to leave behind that used-to-be home – one that many make geographically, and all make temporally – creates a void that needs to be filled. Even if you go back, you have to start again.
Namira Islam Anani is contending with a situation every American has faced, save those who are native to this land. Blessed though we are, eyes look with longing and expectancy to the place we believe is authentic, the place we call home. The immigrant community into which she was born as a United States citizen is grateful to be here, but it is hard for them to let go of the Old Country. The advice she heard her imam offer his Bangladeshi community is just as true for the contemporary descendants of the passengers on the Mayflower.
One more observation, perhaps not so small. The pleasures of home are not outside the trials and tribulations that push us all into our new worlds. Sometimes, when we can’t find familiar pleasure, we look for familiar pain. That’s a memory for a different day.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
If victims were the only ones who understood oppression, who would help them? Leon Wieseltier
Almost everywhere I turn, I bump into something smart that Leon Wieseltier said. That’s not to say that I always agree with him, but I admire his clarity of thought. He belongs in a cohort of public thinkers like Ellen Goodman, Michael Gerson, Michelle Singletary, Ta-Nehisi Coates and George Will (among others) whose ideas demand consideration. This question he posed does not come without context, both spoken and unspoken. But my perspective or yours on those contexts does not change the worth of the question out of any context.
Maybe the earliest illustration of this insight is the Biblical story of liberation from Egypt. When we tell the story, especially in the rituals of Passover, we put a lot of emphasis on the standoff between Moses and Pharaoh, presuming them to be proxies for the Israelites and the Egyptians, respectively. And we acknowledge the suffering of the people of Egypt when we spill drops of wine from our otherwise full cup of joy as we recall the plagues that befell all of Egypt (but none of Goshen, where the Israelites lived).
However, we generally gloss over a moment in the story that enables the liberated slaves to survive in the wilderness. The Israelites are instructed by God through Moses to go to the Egyptian population and ask for valuables (Exodus 11:2-3) just before the final and most horrifying plague. The Egyptians respond beyond generously, heaping jewels, precious metals, cloth and more on their departing work force.
The significance of these gifts is profound in two ways. From a practical point of view, the Egyptian population is facing an economic crisis. The work force is going to disappear overnight, and the economy will have to be reimagined. Giving away the family valuables – the equivalent of emptying their savings accounts – leaves the people on the brink of ruin. For generations, some necessary tasks have been handled by a slave labor force. Now, the people themselves will take over absolutely everything they did, from construction to childcare. Their gold and silver, rubies and sapphires are the reserves that might have made the difference between survival and starvation.
From a social point of view, the Egyptian people were collaborators in the oppression of the Israelite people. Let’s give them the benefit of every doubt and say they were benign masters. But they were masters nonetheless, no less complicit in enslavement than the example closer to home in American history. The gifting of their wealth to the departing Israelites – done with “favor,” reports the Bible – indicated however belatedly an acceptance of their culpability. Reparations would not bring back generations of unrealized freedom, never mind babies tossed into the river. But even a belated awakening to the suffering caused by their willingness to accept the system is welcome.
I would go so far as to suggest that they just may have come to understand themselves as perpetrators, wherever they were located on the scale of immoral behavior. Even if I am being too charitable, it is clear that their help came as they understood oppression.
It is sometimes mystifying that the Bible is kind to the Egyptians after the incident at the Sea. Some tribes – Amalek, Moab, others – are negatively portrayed and perpetually excluded from affection and allyship. But the people responsible for our defining trauma are protected from our wrath and even, at points, embraced. Historians attribute some of that approach to the political circumstances in later years when the text of the Torah was redacted. But the guidance to the morality of the people that emerges is this: perpetrators have the ability to change their lives if they awaken to their transgressions, and that change should be welcome. Otherwise, oppression imprisons victim and victimizer alike.
Listen, this is not a suggestion that those who have been injured should be patsies or Pollyannas. A basket of trinkets, even sincerely offered, is not compensation for lost life and dignity. Instead, it is a suggestion that the calcified shell around the human heart can be softened and removed by the witness of the oppressed and – most important – the willingness of oppressors to accept past mistakes and participate in building a better future for their victims.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
There ain’t much to being a ballplayer, if you’re a ballplayer. Honus Wagner
I have the very good fortune of knowing the United States Senate’s biggest baseball fan, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio. Among the books he keeps close at hand is an edition of Baseball Almanac so that he can be prepared to settle any argument over America’s pastime.
I don’t remember the exact context in which he pulled out this statement from Honus Wagner (one of the original inductees to the Hall of Fame), but it did not have to do with baseball. Rather, it was a comment on someone who was dismissive of complaints from one of the many constituencies that Sen. Brown serves. The indifferent comment was some version of “how hard can it be?”
Wagner’s folksy aphorism probably came in response to someone who was scoffing at his prowess on the field. As a ballplayer, he made the game look effortless. In the process, he likely inspired a gazillion kids to take up the game – especially in Pittsburgh -- and imagine themselves to be the Flying Dutchman.
Wagner was surely a natural athlete, but he put in the time necessary to learn to play the game. Actually, he didn’t just learn to play. He learned the game. (Once, when he was called safe when stealing second base, he stepped between the umpire and the objecting shortstop and said to the ump, “Of course I was out. They had me by a foot. You just booted the play, so come on, let's play ball.”) His status as an all-star was earned, unlike the kids who pretended while they tossed a ball in the air in their sandlot.
And Wagner was something else, too. He was White. Had he not enjoyed the privilege of being of good Dutch stock, his talent would have gone unnoticed outside of his neighborhood. For some, I guess it’s the definition of lucky. But for those people for whom such “luck” was forestalled by their race, religion or origin, no amount of training or study could have put them in the company of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth in the first class of Hall of Famers. That wouldn’t come for a generation.
Sen. Brown was acknowledging both sides of Wagner’s observation in describing the dullness of his Senate colleague. Whether the object of derision was a group of working-class people or payday borrowers or any of the other underdogs that the senator from Ohio champions, the rebuke was pretty effective. Hard work and natural talent go a long way, but they are all for naught if the road to success is closed to traffic from your neighborhood.
If Honus Wagner was anything like his contemporaries, he probably did not consider the matter of privilege when he coined the phrase. Try substituting any occupation and you will see the inside-baseball wisdom of any group of people – plumbers, attorneys, dancers, farmers. It is a put-down to scoffing outsiders and a caution to lazy insiders. But be a little cynical and try it with something less voluntary. It changes things significantly.
At my advancing age, I am learning not to be too smug about what I am already. After all, there ain’t much to being me, if you’re me. But I ain’t no ballplayer.
MY NEW PROJECT – Wisdom Wherever You Find It
For quite a few years, I have carried around a small black notebook and used it to record wise things I have heard (or read). Mostly, they are words that take me by some small surprise – spontaneous observations, the introduction of an apt quotation in a conversation, or some words that may be practiced but resonate in an important way.
Over seven years, I have collected close to 150 such testimonies. That’s either a lot or a little, given the number of conversations I have each day. They range from three words to almost 150, from a sentence to a paragraph, from a tickle to a dagger. But each contains some nugget of truth, most of them unconnected to my usual source of wisdom and inspiration: Jewish text.
So for a while – perhaps as long as three years, given the number I have collected so far – I will share one quotation each week with a reflection on why I wanted to write it down and not trust to memory. Most of the speakers are identified by name, not by title. If you like what someone says, look ‘em up and find out more. More of the speakers are men than women. That part was a revelation to me as I prepared my list, so it’s obvious I need to start listening to a more diverse group of people.
And if you and I speak or correspond regularly, please don’t be insulted if you don’t turn up in these short essays. As Bishop Larry Campbell said, “Some stories are so intimate that if you tell them, they lose their intimacy.” Somewhere down the line I will reflect on that one.
My advice is to get your own little black book and a fine-tipped pen. Then you can preserve wisdom wherever you find it.
Coming soon to an inbox near you.
The Last of the Last of Deuteronomy
Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses – whom the Lord singled out, face to face, for the various signs and portents that the Lord sent him to display in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his courtiers and his whole country, and for all the great and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel. Deuteronomy 34:10-12
Of the many privileges I had as a rabbi, the saddest and most satisfying was the eulogy. It is a sentiment I have heard from many of my colleagues, as well as clergy in other faith traditions. The opportunity to represent a life to those who were impacted by it is a profound responsibility at a powerful and sacred moment of transition.
I know a rabbi who, early on in his career, thought he had it all figured out. He had paragraphs that he would fit together, as he put it, “like Legos.” With a parable here and a section of a psalm there, attached to a recitation of the hard facts of the deceased’s life, he would construct a eulogy that sounded personal and familiar. Eventually, however, people caught on, and “one from column A and two from column B” was no longer effective.
When I heard him gleefully describe his hack, I promised myself I would never do that. Funerals (like all life cycle moments) may have been usual for me, but they were each unique for the family and friends involved. They deserved to know that the person who left a gap in their lives was like no one else. And, to the very best of my ability, those who came to mourn in support and offer comfort needed to be validated in their empathy. When I could no longer share the individuality of the broken heart, I decided long ago, it would be time to make way for someone who could.
The highlights of the life of Moses make up four-fifths of the books of the Bible called by his name. Though he lived 120 years, however, the Bible really narrates only a handful of them. And while later Jewish tradition shares or speculates other events, Moses the hero is eulogized more than Moses the man. He is known for his encounters with God, his challenges to Pharaoh and his leadership of Israel. Like any good eulogy, the personal flaws that might have influenced his public life were underplayed – his temper, his stutter, his disaffection from his family. We don’t even know if his wife, his children or any grandchildren were present to be consoled.
These few lines of tribute, laudatory though they may be, illustrate the dilemma I always faced when it was my task to remember someone I did not know very personally, or perhaps at all. The public aspects of a life can be framed with compassion and emotion. But what really makes each of us like no one else is the influence we leave on those we love. Yes, that influence can fluctuate between uplifting and difficult. But it is not a father’s public office or a mother’s business acumen that makes for a beloved parent. Taking the time to listen carefully (and often below the plain meaning of remembrances) is what reveals the essence of the person.
When a family member or close friend offers a eulogy, it is my experience that the remarks are frequently about the speaker more than the subject. It’s natural. The pain of loss is very personal, and that pain frames the moment. Such a eulogy inspires empathy for the speaker and, by extension, the listener’s sense of their own personal loss.
But I always took it as my responsibility to spend much less time on my own grief than on those who heard me speak. My colleagues who take similar satisfaction as I do in comforting the mourners know, I suspect, that they are conduits for the memories and impressions of others. Any other sermon flows from my own perspective, my own ideas, my own opinion, even my own Lego-like stories. A eulogy (and to a lesser extent remarks at a happy life cycle moment) should flow from the relationships that have the subject at the center. The listener should not be inspired to comfort me. Rather, I should put my comfort at their service. And that means listening with an open heart to family and friends to discover some essence of the person so that it can be reflected back.
Never again did there arise a prophet like Moses. Nor a father like Zelophehad. Nor a sister like Miriam. Nor a son like Nadab. Nor a person like you. At the end of the narrative of every life, however long or brief, there should be an acknowledgment that this person, in the context of friends and lovers, was like no one else.
Tam v’nishlam. Complete and whole. My effort to comment on the Torah using the choice of a single verse from each chapter – from Genesis, verse three of each chapter, Exodus, verse 5, Leviticus, verse 8, Numbers, verse 13 and the last of Deuteronomy – is over. If you followed the whole journey or any part of it, thank you. For the time being at least, each brief essay can be found on jackmoline.com under the “Weekly Column” link. I will take a break for a while, maybe longer.
The Last of Deuteronomy
O happy Israel! Who is like you, a people delivered by the Lord, your protecting shield, your sword triumphant! Your enemies shall come cringing before you, and you shall tread on their backs. Deuteronomy 33:29
Victory is a zero-sum outcome. Where there is the thrill of victory, there is the agony of defeat. Where one side is victorious, the other side is conquered. And, of course, to the victor go the spoils.
So much of history is the narrative of conflict that results in the subjugation of one people and their land by another. Poets and prophets imagine a time when people live in harmony and none make them afraid, but reality – and the metaphors we use to explain it – is about violence and vanquish.
It seems as if every few months there is a contest of some kind in which armies clash and gladiators battle. I don’t mean that literally, of course, though there are indeed such conflicts too frequently around us. Our national amusements are athletic competitions in which people in uniforms climb a pyramid of defeated opponents to claim the title of Champion (of the World or at least the National). Music, film, television, and other popular entertainments strain to reach the top of a measure of sales vying for the limited dollars and sets of eyes and ears in the marketplace. And the increasingly exhausting and expensive political campaigns that winnow out all but precious few candidates and then allow only one to lay claim to a position of power seem to occupy broadcast and social media constantly and overstuff our inboxes.
The focus on triumph in our culture is undeniable. Our generation did not invent it, to be sure. Of the many hymns to the United States that might have represented us as the national anthem, we were not bequeathed with amber waves of grain or freedom ringing from every mountainside. Instead, bombs bursting in air are the proof that we emerged victorious.
Our country did not invent it, to be sure. Abraham established himself in war, Simeon and Levi obliterated their sister’s attackers, Moses officiated over the suffering of the Egyptians and decimated them at the Sea, the Israelites knew they were in God’s favor when battles ended in their triumph and in disfavor when they themselves suffered defeat.
But victory and success are not synonymous. A leader may declare a war on poverty, or on drugs, or on a pandemic, but even lacking the troops to fight back, the poor will never vanish from the land, there will always be another high to chase, and, God help us, another virus will come to get us. No army – not even the United States Army – is always and forever victorious. Victory pretends to permanence, but it does not succeed.
One of my friends who won one of those temporary victories in a political campaign tells me all the time that she tries to avoid sports metaphors in her rhetoric. The notion that to be successful means someone has to lose just seems counterintuitive to her. Victory focuses on the battle. Success focuses on the outcome. Rather than trying to win, she suggests, we should join in a quest to find the best possible outcome. In a victory, a worthy opponent sees all efforts to no avail. In a quest, the unique contributions of all participants are put to good and productive use.
Even as I write these words, they make me uncomfortable. It isn’t that I am wrong (heaven forfend!). It is that I am inculcated as an American patriot and a knowledgeable Jew that so much of our persistence in this world is a result of our enemies cringing before us, because they certain have tried to make us cringe before them.
Precisely because we are in a position of privilege and, in so many ways, dominance, we have the capacity to shift the paradigm. Our goal should be win-win, not zero sum. As Americans, we celebrate “we the people,” we seek “the common defense,” we desire “the general welfare.” Most of our enumerated rights and privileges are collective in nature and outcome – free speech and assembly, a jury of peers, equality of citizenship – or designed to benefit the body politic – freedom of belief, suffrage, probable cause in warrants. We should not seek to tread on the backs of our defeated enemies, especially if the “enemy” is entitled to the rights and privileges we seek to preserve.
Moses was an unparalleled leader in his time and taught more truths than any one of his statements can capture, except maybe for one. When Jews gather for prayer and praise, when they lie down and when they arise, they recite that single uncompromisable truth: God is one. As creations in that image, that is how we should see each other – not as obstacles to victory, but partners in pursuing success.
The Last of Deuteronomy
You may view the land from a distance, but you may not enter it – the land that I am giving to the Israelite people. Deuteronomy 32:52
I try not to be too theological in these columns, which may be a peculiar decision since I am writing about the text of the Bible. When I do write about God, I try to avoid defending, justifying, or apologizing. First of all, God does not need me as an advocate and, more important, I am filled with more questions than answers.
But here we are, closing in on the end of the Five Books of Moses, and I can’t help but feel a sort of desperation on everybody’s part. The Israelites are tired of forty years of wandering, thirty-nine of which were without anything remarkable enough to warrant even a mention. Moses must be exhausted, having spent three different lifetimes as three different people – prince, shepherd, nomadic chieftain. And as for God? The word I most often imagine is “exasperated.” After all, nothing ever works out as God wants. That’s a terrible record for the Master of the Universe. And when you are God, you can’t quit, even if it seems to us like sometimes God is AWOL.
That leaves us, the readers, who have struggled with this collection of stories, laws, and instructions from the first chapter of Joshua (the next episode after Deuteronomy) until today. The pious among us continue to ask, “what does God want of me/us?” The impious among us roll our eyes and eat bacon cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur. And in between you can find most of us.
This denial of appeal at the eleventh hour strikes a lot of folks as enormously cruel. Moses is being denied his moment of achievement for what seems like a trivial reason against the backdrop of devoted service. He struck a rock instead of speaking to it. For goodness sakes, he took his life in his hands and overcame a speech impediment to go head-to-head with Pharaoh and then, on nothing but faith, led his people on an unexpected forty-year sojourn filled with everything from divine revelation to attacking marauders to seditious rebellion. Shouldn’t he have gotten a break?
A songwriter named Julie Gold wrote an inspired piece of music more than 35 years ago that was, before too long, recorded by Bette Midler. It was called “From a Distance,” and it won a Grammy award some five years later. The song is beautiful in its description of the long view of our world, so much so that among its many iterations was being the soundtrack for a joint American-Russian space mission. The chorus includes the repeated phrase, “God is watching us from a distance.”
I think part of the appeal of the song to people of all persuasions (except, maybe, avowed atheists) is the notion that the harmony and peace we all yearn for is visible…as long as you don’t look too closely. The fact is that everything in our lives looks a little better from a distance. Fruit. History. Skin. Childrearing. 2020. Better from a distance.
I suspect that it is natural for believers and those who want to believe to hope that God will be present in the details of their lives. (Never mind if that’s where the devil allegedly resides.) I have a friend who made a wish – actually a very silly one – that he used to “test” God and, when it came true, he turned his spiritual life around, including embracing a different faith tradition than the one in which he was raised. I am confident in affirming that God had nothing to do with the moment, which was entirely incidental and insignificant, almost as foolish as praying that your buttered toast will land dry-side down when you drop it. It meant something to him and gave his unmoored life a sense of purpose. But if God was indeed watching him close-up when this happened, I suspect that there was a metaphoric cosmic face-plant.
Instead, I choose to believe that this last lesson to Moses is actually the fulfillment of his one personal prayer forty years earlier. “Show yourself in all your glory,” younger Moses says at the very beginning of this forty-year trek. God insists that no one may see that glory and live. What God is, who God is, may not be seen up close. The fulfillment of that prayer can only come at a distance.
And what does Moses see? He does not necessarily view the Promised Land. Instead, he views the promise of the land. In that moment of fulfillment, Moses sees through God’s eyes and knows the glory of the potential of creation. Throughout this long saga from Eden to Mount Nebo, every time God has entered the story, something has gone awry. But what keeps the Holy One coming back is viewing the land(scape) from a distance. Moses does not need to visit the land for his prayer to be answered.
Sorry to be so theological, but I felt that sometimes I have been so granular in expressing myself for these many years that this once I could indulge my own belief, that which has sustained me for a long time. From a distance.
The Last of Deuteronomy
Then Moses recited the words of this poem to the very end, in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel. Deuteronomy 31:30
I was thinking about the tableau described in this verse as I watched Amanda Gorman, the extraordinary young poet who recited her work at the inauguration of President Biden. Imagine Moses, standing before the assembled Israelites who were on the very edge of their newest adventure. In pretty short order (spoiler alert), Moses would be dead, but before he stepped aside so that they could proceed, he inspired them with a poem.
Not so for the poet laureate of the inauguration. Like the Israelites listening to Moses, even if mitigated by a screen, we heard and witnessed all the words of her poem to the very end. I know that I wondered who the young woman in the yellow coat and red hairband was as the cameras panned across the attendees. But once she stepped to the microphone, there was no doubt. Her recitation was more than the composition itself – it was her voice, her presence, the moment and, without question, the yellow coat and red hairband.
I am a big fan of poetry, though I am the first to admit I do not understand it well. I can’t explain iambic pentameter or distinguish a sonnet from a ballad. I have written haikus and limericks, but I can’t remember a one of them. And I must acknowledge that if asked to provide an example of a poem, I would likely think that I shall never see or, perhaps, suggest that you listen, my children, and you will hear. Please don’t roll your eyes.
For me, poetry is most effective when it is performed. Listening to it has not made me a literary scholar, but it has made me a lover of the literature. I have books of poems on my shelf, and one of the very few high school textbooks I have saved is the book of poems from ninth grade. (“A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” by John Donne, which is over 500 years old, is the highlight, to my mind.) But as much as I like to read Rilke or Kunitz or Amichai or Pagis, I would much rather have them read to me, except maybe Cummings, whose playful typesetting is part of the experience.
The Hebrew word for poem is the same as the Hebrew word for song, shir. If there is a difference between the two in origin, it is lost to us, because we have only the lyrics and not the melody. Is reading the poem of Moses like reading the libretto of an opera? Is setting it to the music of our time (or some time between its origin and our experience) like imposing “Twinkle, Twinkle” or “Baa Baa Black Sheep” or “ABCD” on Mozart – some kind of inappropriate appropriation?
A poem in print is a record of an incomplete memory, the way singing in the shower is accompanied by a band or orchestra only the singer can hear. But the fact of the matter is, unless we have the good and accidental fortune to witness Amanda Gorman, her printed words are all that are available to us.
Late in my career as a pulpit rabbi, there were messages in my sermons that felt urgent to me. They forced their way down my arms and onto the page and then out of my mouth. One of them was about the role of music in worship. I found it embodied in the 150th Psalm, last in the book, with its timbrels and lute and violin and trumpet. Each one uttered praise to God – captured in the word “hallelujah.” But the psalm and the book do not end with an orchestral crescendo, I noted. It ends with the praise of every living soul, the praise of every breath you take, expressing the sentiment “hallelujah.” Of course, Leonard Cohen’s plaintive anthem of that name played an essential part of that sermon, too.
And that’s what I think about when imagining Moses reciting the words of this poem to the very end in the hearing of the whole congregation. Poem-shir or song-shir or Poem-Song, whichever it is, requires the living soul of the poet to bring it to full fruition. I can imagine John Donne or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but in doing so I imagine myself as them. It takes the presence of Amanda Gorman to remind me of what the poet fully contributes to her poem.
Isn’t the same thing true of life?