Finding Meaning — Four Decades Later

The number of the people of Israel shall be like that of the sands of the sea,
which cannot be measured or counted;
and instead of being told, “You are Not-My-People,”
they shall be called Children-of-the-Living-God (Hosea 2:1).

I thought it was a bad mistake.

Over forty years later I wondered whether it was meant to be that way. If so, why?

More than four decades ago, I was given a tape and the text of the haftorah that accompanies Parshat B’midbar: Hosea 2: 1-22. I had no idea what I was chanting. I did not know the rabbi, whose raspy voice I listened to every day. I never met with anyone – not the rabbi, not the cantor, not a teacher. Not a single soul spoke to me about my bat mitzvah, its purpose, or the significance of anything I was doing.

I chanted a text I didn’t chose, that had no relationship to the actual time of my birth, and which I could not claim as my own. Hosea was an accident; my bat mitzvah was scheduled for administrative convenience.

In my bat mitzvah dress.
In my bat mitzvah dress.

Still: I loved Hebrew letters and was thoroughly entranced with the melodies of haftorah trope. I studied until I had each word note-perfect. Words I did not understand took root in my body. Decades later, I could still sing my haftorah.

I had sung it with sweetness, with devotion. I was unschooled and untaught. I was also mysteriously and inexplicably attached to Jewish cadences; a fact I would, even now, be unable to explain.

Decades later, I discovered what I’d actually sung. I cringed.

In this text from Hosea, Israel is humiliated and punished for her transgressions. God is obviously male, and violent. Though He promises to take Israel back despite her sinful behavior, His language is that of an abuser. Punishment, then gentle solicitation. Threats, then tender pledges of everlasting love, of certain commitment.

My birth parsha was Acharei Mot. For a long time, I wished someone had given me the choice. I would have liked the  text from Amos, which some Jewish traditions read with Acharei Mot. I would have wanted to sing about the God of many peoples, a God who not only acted to save and redeem Israel, but the Ethiopians, the Philistines and the Arameans, too (Amos 9:7).

I’d go back to Hosea each year and do battle with my own reactions. I’d sing the verses in my head and the sound would transcend the meaning in a way that felt simultaneously beautiful and wholly unacceptable.

I could remove some verses, understand them as a transcendent form of foretelling, as a truth-promise I wanted to believe in. After decades of teaching classes on the Holocaust, the opening verse, in which Hosea promises that the people of Israel will someday be innumerable as the sands of the sea, evoked consciousness of our loss.

It also evoked hope: a primal wish to see a people healed and whole.

But I never could get around the feeling that I should have chanted Amos, not Hosea.

This past summer, I sent in the second piece I am writing for a ten-volume series on Jewish spirituality. The first was on Mourner’s Kaddish. The second was on Havdalah. As I was finishing the Havdalah piece, I noticed that it was quite close to the word count of the Kaddish piece.

The Havdalah piece focused on the practice of magic in Jewish history and tradition. It centered on Queen Esther’s arrival in the siddur for just such a moment as Havdalah is – a liminal, enchanting time.

I believe in magic.

I sent the work off to my editor and told him that I had included a spell to make sure he liked it. Later I explained: There were exactly 4171 words in both pieces.

My editor wrote back, and told me that 4171 was the exact gematria for a particular verse in Tanakh.

Hosea 2:1. If this is your pasuk, your verse, he joked….

I wrote back to say that it might well be “my pasuk.”

Now I must ask why.