A Text of Terror, A Torah of Hope

gumball tree leavesPain oozes from the haftorah before us. Pain and violence and horror. God announces that Israel can no longer be his partner, his spouse. She is an adulteress, a harlot.

I was the one who honored and loved her, YHVH says. I gave her everything and she betrayed me. And now? Now, I will take back my grain and my wine. I will lay waste to her vines and her fig leaves. I will snatch away my wool and my linen and she will go naked. I will expose her before her lovers; I will end her rejoicings. Her festivals and new moons and Sabbaths – they will all cease.

Then YHVH suddenly, shockingly, begins to speak like the kindest of lovers. I will speak coaxingly to her, he says. I will lead her through the wilderness and I will speak to her tenderly. I will give her everything – thriving vineyards and valleys of hope and she will be mine again. I will take the word baali, “my Lord” from her mouth for it sounds like baalim, a name for other gods. She will never mention them, her former lovers, again.

I will make a new covenant, God says. Then, YHVH turns to speak directly to Israel.

And I will espouse you forever:
I will espouse you with righteousness and justice,
And with goodness and mercy,
And I will espouse you with faithfulness;
Then you shall be devoted to YHVH
.

What kind of relationship is this? I, YHVH says, lavished silver on you and gold. I gave you all that you had. Now I will rip the clothing from your body. I will destroy all that you possess. Humiliation and terror, subjugation and punishment are followed by wooing: I will take you back. I will be good to you.

The last verse is ominous, given the context. “Then you will know YHVH” (Hos. 2:22). Now, you will know who I am. If only you would behave just as I want you to. If only you would do exactly as I demand. Then I can love you. Only then.

I sang every word of this haftorah forty-three years ago. Our cantor was thrilled. I sang clear and clean and made not one single mistake in the blessings or in the haftorah text.

Now, I wish I had made mistakes. I wish that I had transformed the Hebrew. I wish I had had the capacity and the knowledge to rebel, to insist at my bat mitzvah that I must sing words of hope and love that were free and safe, untainted by words of rage and terror.

But I didn’t know what I was singing. I had been given a cassette and the Hebrew and told to practice. And I did. Faithfully, carefully, with enormous love for the cadences of haftorah trope. No one cared to teach me about the text or its context.

Perhaps the men who were in charge would not have known how to tell me what I was about to sing.

This text describes an abusive relationship. And these come in so many forms. Frequently, we have have no idea that we have succumbed to one. Any one of us can be groomed by a predator who woos us with praise and attention until we are open, vulnerable. Then, wide-eyed, we are shocked to the core when the attack comes. We want to love; we are exposed to aggression and hatred.

It has taken me over five decades to realize that the wish to love is itself dangerous. Abusive people are everywhere, discontented human beings who will project their unhappiness on anyone near enough to care. Abuse comes in so many forms that it is dizzying – from the willingness to aggress to the willingness to stand by and acquiesce as the aggression occurs.

Where is God in all this?

Sometimes, I tell my own b’nai mitzvah students, I just don’t know. I’d be lying if I told them I was certain in every minute of the actual nature of what we call, so inadequately, “God.”

It is nearing Shavuot, when we celebrate receiving Torah. We tell the story of Naomi, who lost everything and Ruth, the Moabitess, who restored her to life. And we, the generation that struggles to give Judaism new life – even after the Shoah, must still contend with texts of terror and rage, texts which offer a deity we will never embrace.

Where is God? What, and who is God?

Today, I looked out my window at the five-fingered leaves of the gumball tree in our backyard. The tree drops spiny balls on the lawn each year that will pierce the skin if you walk on them barefoot. But the leaves are shaped like stars and they hover in the golden light of the sun. They are clean and bright, and where shadows fall, these, too, are not dark but simply safe – a richer shade of green.

I must pray my thanks at the sight, even when I am unsure where my prayer will go or what purpose it will serve.

May we receive a new Torah this year, a Torah of hope.  May it help us understand who our God must be, and who we are called to be ourselves.

May only the safest love be in it.

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Lamentations

Last week, Jews marked our annual commemoration of the day the Temple was destroyed, Jerusalem set afire, and Israel’s leaders exiled.  The text of Lamentations is our assigned reading on Tisha B’Av. 

It is a text of anguish.  Each of its five poems shatter equanimity; they refuse to offer easy answers.  In its opening chapters, Daughter Zion, who represents God’s abused people,   accuses God of murderous abandonment.

Years ago, I wrote a lament in honor of women who have been cruelly and brutally mistreated.  I dedicated it to a woman who had told me her story, who had crawled out from under the weight of eighteen years of domestic violence.

In the day just before Tisha B’Av, a woman told me of a friend who had been sexually abused by her father.  The day of Tisha B’Av, in a small congregational study group, women spoke of suffering they had known.  I knew the backstory in each case.

I have grown into my middle aged life hearing laments from too many women, laments that have their source in the emotional and physical and sexual mistreatment they have known from men. 

There is much to lament in our world.  There is too much to lament in our world.

Yet we must lament, to honor our sorrow and our pain.  We must lament in order to have a prayer at healing.

Yet, I longed last week, as I do again and again and again, for a world in which no child is harmed, in which every woman is safe, in which each man is at peace.  I want humanity to be simply good.  I refuse to lose my childish confusion; I insist that kindness cannot be so very hard. Generosity should be as easy as smiling.

The rabbis say that one good deed so gladdens our souls and spirits that after the doing of a mitzvah, we will want to do another right away.

I pray for the doing of mitzvahs.

Lamentations 1: 1-5

Cheryl’s Lament, by Barbara Thiede

How lonely is she now,

  the once crowded city!

Widowed is she

   who was mistress over nations;

The princess among the provinces

   has been made a toiling slave.

Bitterly she weeps at night,

   tears upon her cheeks,

With not one to console her

   of all her dear ones;

Her friends have all betrayed her

   and become her enemies.

Judah has fled into exile

   from oppression and cruel slavery;

Yet where she lives among the nations

   she finds no place to rest:

All her persecutors come upon her

   where she is narrowly confined

The roads to Zion mourn

   for lack of pilgrims going to her feasts;

All her gateways are deserted,

   her priests groan,

Her virgins sigh;

   she is in bitter grief.

Her foes are uppermost,

   her enemies are at ease;

God has punished her

   for her rebellions.

Her little ones have gone away,

   captive before the foe.

How alone I am!

  Once I believed you my love.

You called me bitch

  the night we married;

Just hours after I fairly danced

  to meet you under the chuppah.

I weep when you sleep;

  you will not have another reason to

  deride me.

Who would believe me

  if I said it aloud?

(I whisper to myself:

  He wants to kill me.)

I was confined behind four walls,

  shut down, shut in.

My mother told me,

  I must lie in the bed I made.

I stayed for eighteen years;

  they were death, not life.

You made it clear:

  No family, friends, or guests allowed.

Our house was filled

  with threats and fear instead.

The children and I crouched in corners;

  we tried to be quiet.

I left when they were grown,

  but you still control me.

Look: my son does not see

  how he lives my life!

And my daughter, too, is caught

  in the terror of your devising.

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