Silence, and the Wor(l)ds That Emerge

View of JordanIn just weeks, the scroll will be rolled to the last column. We will turn the last page in the Chumash. The cycle will end and this year, too, will die.

Moses ascends Pisgah and looks into the future. I have let you see the land, YHVH tells his prophet. But, YHVH adds: v’shama lo ta’avor – you shall not cross over there. Consider: These are God’s last words to Moses.

Should we be silent? Moses is.

The text offers us nothing; not a word attends to the state of Moses’ soul. We read only this, in the very next verse: “So Moses, the servant of YHVH, died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of YHVH” (Deut. 34:5).

From a broken heart?

Torah tells us no more. But we search the white spaces in between the spare, fiery letters. From the silence, come the words — a plethora, in fact. In our legends, in our midrashim, in our imaginations: Moses argues, insists, even begs. He is eloquent.

He quotes Torah against her Creator. Look, Moses says, I suffered through all of Israel’s woes until the Israelites finally came to believe in you, until they finally understood all your precepts and teachings. I worked and took care of them. I taught them Your law. And then, Moses adds, wasn’t it You who said: “You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets” (Deut.24:15).

Do as You tell us to do, Moses says. Pay me for my labor. Else You have become a fraud. God does not relent.

More words, more eloquence. Master of the Universe, Moses says in legend, at least let me enter the promised land as a mere beast of the field, a bird of the sky. I’ll eat grass, drink water as any creature of yours, but, please: A living one.

Our legends find words in silent places, silent spaces.

Moses beseeches the world to entreat the Holy One for mercy. We, too, would like to beseech God on Moses’ behalf. We, too, do not want this end. But neither heaven nor earth, nor mountains, nor sea can alter the decree.

Archangels Gabriel and Michael are sent to take Moses’ soul, but they cannot bear the idea. They resist. Only Samael goes; he had been waiting for the opportunity all along. Moses fights off Samael, but the battle is exhausting. After that final struggle, Moses understands. He must cede the future to others.

Now, Moses can only beg that he will not die at the hands of the angel of death.
These are the right words. The Holy One promises: Moses will be attended by God, Godself.

Then the Holy One said to Moses, “Moses, close your eyes,” and he closed his eyes. “Put your arms over your breast,” and he put his arms over his breast. “Bring your legs together” and he brought his legs together. Then the Holy One summoned Moses’ soul, saying, “My daughter, I had fixed the time of your sojourn in the body of Moses at a hundred and twenty years. Now your time has to come to depart. Depart. Delay not.”
She replied, “Master of the universe, I know that You are God of all spirits and Lord of all souls. You created me and placed me in the body of Moses one hundred and twenty years ago. Is there a body in the world more pure than the body of Moses? I love him, and I do not wish to depart from him.” The Holy One exclaimed, “Depart, and I will take you up to the highest heaven of heavens, and will set you under the throne of glory, next to the cherubim and seraphim.”
In that instant, the Holy One kissed Moses, and took his soul with that kiss.

There is peace, a transformation, a different world awaiting the soul of the prophet. This year is dying. It, too, will be silent at the end. We long for a new beginning.

May we will be silent, so that we may find wor(l)ds.

Let us cross over. Let us live. Transformed.

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Shrewdaic Studies

Serpent and Eve 1Stained whiteboards. Walls pained yellow or sickly green. Scraped up floors and gray windowpanes. The smell of sweat and the after-odor of Chik-fil-A.

It’s my classroom, the classroom I’ve inhabited for decades, in various states and a number of universities. The most amazing things happen in that worn space, that aging, decaying structure. It’s divine.

Last week, in my class “God and Sex in Hebrew Bible,” I told my students that there is a pun going on in Genesis 3.

“The serpent is arum,” I said, “usually translated as ‘shrewd.’ But arum can also mean ‘nude.’ Adam and Eve are described as arumim after eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Are they nude or shrewd?”

Discussion ensued. A student raised a hand:

“If the serpent was the shrewdest of all the animals, if he had so much knowledge he even knew what God would or would not do if they ate, why wasn’t he punished for that?” the student asks. “Why is he only punished after he passed knowledge on to Adam and Eve?”

“Snap!” another student said. “Snap, snap, snap,” the student continued, with finger-fomented percussion.

A contribution from another quarter: “Is that whole scene between the serpent and Eve sexual? Is eating the fruit meant to symbolize a sexual act?”

I took the opportunity to tell the class that there is a midrash that claims the serpent saw Adam and Eve having sex and immediately craved a little nookie for himself (Bereishit Rabbah 18:10). The student, in turn, speculated that the sharing of the fruit with Adam might be another sexually charged act.

“I always knew the world began with a threesome,” the student said.

We all laughed.

In my classroom, my students are asked (not just permitted) to treat the text as a site for multiple possibilities, multiple interpretations. They do have to argue from the text, from what they have learned about its authors and the culture it comes from, but they are free to be creative, to speculate. We try to avoid retrojecting our assumptions; modern ideas do not generate ancient agendas. Ancient Israelites had no acquaintance with the Devil, with the capital D.

YHVH is a character in a narrative in our classroom setting. The texts we study are not the word of God but a human product. Whatever they once thought was “the original” is a product. Luck may have played a role in its transmission; certainly human choice did. The Book of Yashar once was on the best-seller list for ancient Judeans; it fell out of favor, disappeared, or was, at some point, dropped from the list of “must-reads” for later generations.

We know of a short version of Jeremiah and a long one. One is found in the Septuagint, the other in the Masoretic Text. How will my students decide which is “better” or “more important”? Why didn’t the Book of Jubilees make the cut for our canons? How about the Book of Enoch?

Once they get over all the shock value, they begin to realize: what we have of biblical literature extends far beyond any bible. It is a rich, vast corpus.

Take away the blackboards and whiteboards and smelly leftovers from fast food joints. Imagine a small sanctuary with windows looking out towards the naked, gray branches of wintering trees.

I am in conversation with congregants. YHVH is not just a character for most of us, but our questions and our freedom to ask them is equally untrammeled. Jewish tradition has enshrined the right to treat our texts as earthly products. The humanness of the authors and their characters is not just appreciated but valorized. Torah, we believe, is accessible, human, altogether ours. It is not too baffling for us to understand; it is not unreachable or incomprehensible (Deut. 30:11-13).

In any setting, I am nourished by this fact: These texts ask us to think. About ourselves, about our world, about all that is human and (perhaps) divine, too.

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