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.

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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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