Thursday, November 27, 2014

Numbers 32: In Writing

Reflected,  refracted
we echo each other
across the ripple-
weeping waves of weeks and years
dividing here and there

Am I you, rocking on the river
 curled in your place?
The moment of seeing
when I look back in your gaze.

How can I know
 what is mine?
The locks of longing
desire’s bindings
the shiny strand
sliding through your fingers
with a hook at its end.

What is the price
of being apart,
rooting myself in the rising sun
while you ride off  to the sunset
carrying me along, 
a part of your heart, 
bound by unbreakable debt

Numbers: Chapter 32

What you see
And what is given 
to be taken

We separate

even as we connect

the bonds that tie

Reflected, refracted 

We reach across waters

[For full chapter, click here
After the bringing of the booty in the previous chapter, this chapter highlight the cost of possession. The key word is "mikne"--commonly used as "cattle", but literally "possession, that which was bought": "Now the children of Reuben and the children of Gad had a very great multitude of cattle (mikne); and they saw the land of Jazer and the land of Gilead, and behold, the place was a place for cattle". As is thematic in Genesis, the increase of possession leads to a break between "brothers" (a'h--another key word of this chapter). The tribes of Reuben and Gad of-the-many-possession desire to split from the rest of the children of Israel: "we will not inherit with them on yonder side of the Jordan or forward, because our inheritance has fallen to us on this side of the Jordan to the east". Not for nothing is the tribe of Menasseh, that eventually joins them, suddenly identified as "Menasseh son of Joseph": the chapter is raising the specter of the primal split between "brothers" : the sale of Joseph for "profit".
 In a book for of echoes and recreations, this is the most dangerous reverberation yet. Much of the Book of Numbers recreates the earlier books of the Torah: The complaints about the Manna; the demand for meat; the lack of water. Often, the tale of the first generation that left Egypt is retold within the second generation. This is especially accentuated here, when Moses literally re-tells the saga of the wilderness (ba-midbar--the Hebrew name for this book), fearing a twice-told tale, in which the children repeat the sins of the fathers: "behold, you have risen up in your fathers’ stead, an increase of sinful men, to add to God's flaming toward Israel.  For if you turn away from Him, He will yet again leave them in the wilderness, and you will destroy all this people.”
Moses seems to be right on mark in identifying a danger here. There are indeed echoes of the sage of the spies: if the spies were sent to "see the land," and end up  rejecting the "place" (makom--another key word) that "God has given"; Reuben and Gad "see the land" that isn't theirs, and ask for it to be "given" to them: an inversion between seeing, and not wanting what is yours, to seeing and wanting what is not yours. 
Disaster is averted, however, by making the eastern tribe's inheritance contingent on that of their "brothers'. If they bind up their fate with the rest of Israel's, then the nation itself will "give" them the land.]

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Numbers 31: In Writing

Take your core
and fling it down outflung ways
Bare your heart to the elements
march it into the fray.

Count and account
the deep crevice and cost
Smooth-sphered despite fissure
nothing is lost.

Sit outside
and count the days fled
wash yourself with scattered
dust of the dead.

Eat away
what you downed, ingested
with fury- fire and flood
loose it to the crested

wave that crashes 
swallowed down, falls
fills the seams of the heart
the veins of recall

 Bring the spent blood,
depleted, excreted
back to the ruby-red heart
to fill and flow
eternally repeated

Numbers: Chapter 31

What goes out

What comes in

Through fire and flood

Inside and out

[For full chapter, click here
"God, the Lord of the spirit of all flesh,set a man over the congregation, who may go out (ts'e't) before them and who may come in (b'o) before them and who may lead them out (ts'e't) and who may bring them in (b'o)" Moses begged, as he asked to appoint a successor. Now, in Moses' final battle--and the first battle to follow the census of those who will follow Joshua to the Promised Land--it becomes clear that "going out" and "coming in" are indeed the key points. This mixed and brutal chapter is united by one theme: the balance and relationship between those who "go outside" and those who "come in."
The soldiers "sent out" to war bring "the booty and the captives and the spoil" back inside: "they brought (b'o)it to Moses, to the encampment." Moses "goes out" (ts'e't) to meet them "outside the encampment", and they must remain "outside" until they can be purified from contact with the dead. The spoil must also be purified before it can be "brought in," in a ritual by fire that echoes the archetypal purification of the Red Heifer--a ritual that also revolves around demarcating "inside" and "outside" after contact with death. The booty itself must be divided equally between those who "went out" to war, and those who remained inside the encampment. From the two halves, each must give a part that goes further in: a tithe to the priests, and a part for the Levites, "the guardians of the Dwelling" that is the core of the encampment. At the closing, the purified booty, "offered to God" is brought all the way, into the heart of intimacy itself: "and Moses and Eleazar the priest took the gold of the captains ...and brought it into the Tent of Meeting, for a memorial for the children of Israel before God."]

Monday, November 24, 2014

Numbers 30: In Writing

Feel density fill
the dental hollows
flitting, flowing
between your lips,

Weave a mesh
around your mind
wrapping, webbing
around your will.

Contours of craving,
caverns of want.
Solidify your soul
to the column of your word,
in bonds the bind
the boundaries of being.

What winds between the twined
the falling flying threads?
Ropes unraveled,
nets unknotted,
rolling on the wind, 
wild in the wilderness 
between bonds 
binding you and me.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Numbers: Chapter 30

What are the ties that bind?

Don't hollow what flees

the hollows of your mouth

Build your bindings
unless bound elsewhere

(For full chapter, click here

"These you shall offer unto God in your appointed Meetings, beside your vows, and your freewill-offerings," closes the last chapter. After detailing all the time-bound, obligatory offerings, we now move to "vows": the voluntary obligations we impose on ourselves. 
In this, we return back to the theme of speech which has dominated this book since the moment Miriam was punished for "speaking" of Moses, which reached its apex in Balaam's curses-turned-blessing. "God is not a man, that He should lie; neither the son of man, that He should repent: when He has said, will He not do it? When He has spoken, will He not make it stand?"
Here, in imitato dei, Israel is to act as God acts, making their words "stand": "When a man vows a vow to God, or...binds his soul with a bond, he shall not hollow his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds from his mouth." 

Yet even as words are given weight, a woman's words are literally undone, creating a strange bookend of women-and-speech: we open with Miriam being punished for speaking, and end with a father or husband being given a right to "unravel" a woman's speech, literally undoing her own relationship to "her soul": she cannot "bind" without her husband/father allowing her word to stand.  This limitation on a woman's autonomy is seen as definitive of the relationship between man and woman (and the use of ish isha lends this passage primordial Edenic undertones): 'These are the statutes, which God commanded Moses, between a man and his wife, between a father and his daughter..."
Yet even as a husband can limit a woman's binding on herself, it does not undo her relationship to God. The vow still exists--it is simply "forgiven." And if giving words definitive weight creates "bonds" , so that your mouth defines your reality, the possibility of "undoing" and making a bond "void" also introduces an element of freedom. A man may make himself like God by making his word immutable; a woman's word is made untrustworthy, but  paradoxically more free.] 

Numbers 29: In Writing

Inevitably turning,
we wax and wane
counter turn to the
ticking quotidian

Trumpet to the dark
and sate the door
enveloped in a roar

With glow slow grow
carve a moon in our core
then celebrate the fleeting
whole, smooth globed orb

to the tick-tock decline
the slice by slice gone
till we return  where we were

the one, the only, 
each day in its day
the remnants we take

into the again-gaping dark

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Numbers: Chapter 29

An arc from many to one

countdown to closing

Back to the promise 
of the every day

(For full chapter, click here
This chapter is a direct continuation of the last, completing the detailed list of the offerings for the "appointed seasons of Meeting." Here, we focus on the clustered  holidays of the "seventh month" (commonly known as the High Holy Days). Once again, there is a repeated refrain of the basic beat of the quotidian. Whatever the offering, it is always in "addition to the 'always' offering". 
The structure is highlighted here, with the opening festival on the new moon. A double beat of the ordinary underlying the start of the holiday season: "beside the offering of the new moon...and the always offering."
The structure then takes a sine-curve of growing intensity echoing the moon's wax and wane. At the full moon, we reach the apex of 13 offerings to  "celebrate the festival" of the first day of Succot. From there begins a slow waning to 12, 11, 10... until we reach the single offering of the "eighth day"--the final, extra festival that eases back into the day-to-day pattern of "your vows and free-will offerings."
The canon-like literary structure, with its repetitive pattern of naming the day, and then detailing its steadily declining offerings, echoes the pattern of the "times of Meeting": the careful confluence of repetition and change, the steady beat of "always" with the shifting melody line of appointed days.]

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Numbers 28: In Writing

This is my offering
to bind each day:

Trace the Sinai of sun
arcing the sky
a surging pulse of sanctity
diurnal reunion
quotidian call

Watch the moon wax
to  gibbous globe
dangling the dark

See it slow wane,
to a sly smile
waving goodbye
in voluminous vanishing

Consecrate new birth
the sprouting seed
curling over the heavy beat

of steady, solid eternity

Numbers: Chapter 28

Each day in its day

Each month in its month 

The sanctity of always 

The circadian Sinai

[For full chapter, click here
From the continuity of inheritance, we move to another kind of "eternity / always" (tamid). This chapter details the time-based offerings at the Tent of Meeting (mo'ed), the Meetings (mo'ed) in time. This chapter to some extent echoes the laws of the festivals in Leviticus 23 but with a beautiful difference: we begin not with the Sabbath or the festivals, but with the everyday: "day by day, for an always/ eternal offering; one lamb at the morning; and one lamb between the boundaries of the evening." From the daily we move to the monthly, sanctifying the new moon, "month by month," The offerings for the new month are brought "in addition" to the "always (tamid)" offering, and this becomes the refrain of the chapter: sanctified time is always an addition to the basic beat of the daily "meeting", the daily recreation of "what was offered out Mount Sinai." Revelation is in the everyday; teh festivals are the high notes that play above it.]

Friday, November 14, 2014

Numbers 27: In Writing

I bore the burden
In buttressed solid
Heavy, heady, down, crash
the mountain of the past            
that craters the crevice
in which you walk.

How can I convey you
through storms that buffet all flesh?
How can I carry you
in weighty hands weary?
How will I bear you
over weeping waters?

Look up, I brace the sky
bowed beneath
your bulking being
Now I scale the hills past
pitted quarries
unfilled, fulfilled, fleeting

in a ghost of glory

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Numbers: Chapter 27

What is past

And named

Coming close

Charging the wind

Linking all flesh

[For full chapter, click hereThis chapter continues directly from the last, expanding its underlying themes while resolving its tensions and open questions.The key words are "name (shem); come close (k'r'v), give (n't'n), and "past / pass" (a'v'r'). We were told that Tzalfhad had no sons, only daughters, a tantalizing opening. Now the daughters of Tzlafhad approach, to demand a place for their father. "Why should his name be forgotten?"Tzlafhad's place is indeed "passed (a'v'r) to his daughters, while answering the other implicit question: What happens to those who have no children at all? How to they fit within this census of families? The interconnected web set up in the previous chapter provides the solution, as inheritance will always pass  to "the one who is close" (sheer ha-kariv), in a complex chain reaching backward. All are linked, no one is lost.  The God of inheritence is the "God of all spirit that moves through flesh".And at last we come to the terrible denouement set into place by the replacement of Aaron with Elazar. "No one was left of that generation, save Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun," leaving the question reverberating: what of Moses, who is here, taking the census?Now we are told that Moses is living on borrowed time: he is already past (a'v'r) , with his generation. "And God said unto Moses, “Climb this Mount Avarim (cognate of "past" a'v'r) and see the Land which I give to the children of Israel. And when you have seen it, you also will be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother was gathered."Yet even as Moses is told he will be "gathered" as Aaron was gathered, he--in contrast to Aaron--is granted no successor. While Aaron's children were mentioned by name in the census, Moses' were passed over, as though they did not exist.When Moses begs for a successor, he instead is commanded to appoint (p'k'd) Joshua--a play on the primal census at the beginning of the book, which also involved "appointing" the Levites. There is a parallel between the opening an dclosing of the chapter, between the demands of the daughters of Tzalfhad, and the appointment of Joshua. Both involve a case in which a man "dies alone"; in both, something is set awry with the continuity of inheritance.   Both happen at the liminal "enterance" (petach); i; both involve a "giving over" (n't'n).   Yet if the daughters of Tzlafchad "come close" to actively demand their father be remembered,  Joshua is passively "brought close." If Moses "brings their justice (mishpat) before God" Joshua is to seek God's mishpat through the medium of Aaron's son. There is a complex pain in Moses "giving over" part of his "glory", a more painful link through "the God of the spirits of all flesh" then the biological web of the previous chapter.]

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Numbers 26: In Writing

"And nothing was left of them"

After the plague 
the soul-sick sunset

count and account
recount, replace

weave the warp
place the displaced

descant and recant
the lacuna of loss

to loose and release

Numbers: Chapter 26

The close from the begining

Where  you come from

Where you go

Placed within the web

[For full chapter, click here
After all the drama and devastation, we return to the beginning, once again--as in the opening of this book--taking a census of the tribes. Yet the opening verse also intimates a transformation : Moses is to count with Elazar, Aaron's son, rather than with Aaron himself. Death has left its impact, an d a new generation has come. What is hinted in the opening becomes explicit at the closing: "These are those who were counted by Moses and Eleazar...among them was not a man of them whom Moses and Aaron had counted when they numbered the children of Israel in the Wilderness of Sinai. For God had said of them, “They shall surely die in the wilderness.” And there was no one left of them..." This is the chapter of transition: the closing of the old, the accounting of the new.
Not only a replacement of a generation, it is also a placement. This is the census that is to define inheritance within Israel, even as it places every tribe within its history, going all the way back to "Reuben, the firstborn of Israel." Every incident is accounted for. Reuben is restored to promigeniture; Judah's two dead sons are remembered by name; even Korah is redeemed: "the sons of Korah did not die." 
The new beginnings are placed within the web of what has come before. And the coming of the new restores and redeems what has passed] 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Numbers 25: In Writing

the slurping moist
of your sides
swallow me
in sticky dark
where I am twined
with you

Shielded from unblinking orb
no weep at the door
is there a whore
when tears are salt and water?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Numbers: Chapter 25

When metaphor

turn tangible

can you beat it

with a stick?

[For full chapter, click here
This chapter is both a continuation of the previous chapter--and the most abrupt of breaks. We move from eschatology to scatology; from grand visions of a star in the future, to an orgy of here and now. The "nation that dwells alone" "joins" Baal Peor, and "sticks to the daughters of Moab."
It is a jarring shift. Yet lexically, the chapters flow smoothly. Balaam stood by "Peor", and now Israel joins Peor, triggering the last of the "flaring anger" (va-yihar aff) of this story: We begin with God being "flaring angry" at Balaam; then Balaam gets "flaring angry" at his ass; Balak gets "flaring angry" at Balaam (and interesting comment on the nature of the Balak-Balaam relation); and now we return  to the beginning, with God "flaring angry" at Israel. It seems that somehow Balaam has achieved Balak's objective, All the ill-wishing gazing from the highs of Peor has somehow brought to the very destruction that the gazing was meant to achieve. 
If this book has allowed an ever-growing complex relationship with speech, reaching its apogee with the hilltop blessing of the previous chapter, we now return to the wordless "weeping" that followed in the wake of the spies "evil report."
What is more, the solution to the flaring anger seems very anti the growing complexity of speech. A crude physical blow such as the type the doomed Moses,
It seems connected to the complete intertwining of harlotry (znut) and idolatry that open this chapter: "and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab. And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods; and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods. And Israel joined himself unto the Baal of Peor." Here is a literalization of the dire  warning in Exodus 34 "lest you commit harlotry (znut) with their gods and do sacrifice unto their gods, and they call you, and you eat...and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters commit harlotry (znut) their gods."
In Exodus, prostitution and idolatry are intertwined; desiring "the daughter" leads directly to "following the gods." Throughout Leviticus and the beginning of Numbers, the literal becomes more metaphorical, and every kind of insistent "straying" is "harlotry." But here the metaphor collapses, tenor and vehicle becoming one. Which is the straying, which is the idolatry?
The answer to that seems another collapsed metaphor. No more does the priest perform elaborate symbolic rituals of purificationInstead, Pinhas takes the phallic spear and thrusts it (with almost ridiculous literalness) into the feminine tent (kuba) which is also a female womb (kubata). 
We being language back to earth. Painfully literalized...]

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Numbers 24: In Writing

Face the wild
flow with the  floods
flung  on earth
eyes wide-shut
watching the rain
tear down

Open your mouth to water
Fill to the brim with words
I see, but not now
Behold, but not close
A star streaks the sky
glistening the dew drops

Will they still be there
when morning comes?

Numbers: Chapter 24

Would you could see
What I see


With eyes wide-shut

[For full chapter, click here
We arrive at the climactic "third time" here in the series of three attempts. As in fairytales, this third time is fundamentally different: "Balaam saw that it was good in the eyes of God to bless Israel, so he went not, as at other times, to seek out enchantments (nehashim, cognate of "serpents")". Balaam is no longer trying to forces his way through, no longer attempting to find the perfect viewpoint to "cures Israel." Instead, "he sets his face to the  wilderness."
By seeing what is good in God's eyes, Balaam is suddenly able to finally use his own eyes. In contrast to his blindness before, he now can "see": "and he raised his eyes and saw Israel..." With the return of sight  comes the return of speech. No longer is he a ventriloquist dummy, with God's "word places in his mouth." Rather, the "spirit of God" rests upon him, and he speaks: "the oration of Balaam the son of Beor, the oration of the man whose eyes are blocked...who saw the vision of the Almighty, falling, but with eyes exposed."
Here, "blessing them this three time" Balaam returns to and ratifies God's original promise to Abraham: "Those who bless you I will bless; and those who curse you will be cursed."
Implicitly, he also returns to Moses' downfall around the "waters of contention"  Imagining Israel's glowing future in images out abundant water: "as gardens by the river’s cedar trees beside the waters.  He shall pour water from his pail, and his seed shall be in many waters."
The chapter closes with the widest viewpoint yet--an eschatological vision of the nations spanning from the primal brothers, "Shet" and "Cain," extending all the way to "forever." It is a panorama that is overwhelming even for the man of teh "open eye": "Alas, who shall live after God has appointed him?"
The direct contact with God's vision breaks the close contact between Balaam and Balak. Rather than Balak "standing" to await Balaam, the two split their separate ways] 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Numbers 23: In Writing

Stand silent behind the smoking altar
Solidify yourself to a tower of stone
As I swoop, spread-winged , over the wild
A widening gyre with gimlet eyes

What awaits, in airy byways?
Whispers through the haunted heights
Come upon my outspread talons

Breaking claws, with triumphant  song

Numbers: Chapter 23

What do you see 

When the earth-eye

 is covered

staring out 
over the waste?. 

The edge

The part 

The whole?

[For full chapter, click here
This chapter continues seamlessly from the last (and indeed, there is no break in the Masoretic text). Structurally, we continue the the fairytale pattern of triples. The three attempts of the she-ass to avoid the angel are here echoed here by Balaam's three attempts to curse the nation.  (the fairtale element is augmented by the addition of series of sevens).
Lexicaly, the sections share the same leitworts: a focus on sight, a focus on speech, the word "to stand" (nitzav) and "get up" (kum), as well as a triple play on k'a'ra (to call) likrat ("coming towards") and kar ("happen upon").
Once again, Balaam plays lip service to obeying God; yet once again, he makes numerous attempts to circumvent God's will by "trying"multiple angles, until he at last he must  admit "God is not a man, that he should lie / nor a human, that He should change his mind".  
If in the previous chapter, Israel is accused of "covering the eye of the land, here the gaze becomes ominous and predatory. Three times, Balak leads Balaam to a different overlook. In each, he hopes that the "height" will offer a view that will allow him to destroy what is looked upon.: "perhaps you may curse them from there." Yet the searching gaze is not successful. Just as Balaam did not "see" the angel blocking his path, he remains the "man of the blocked eye (shetum ha-ayin)." His gaze cannot define what he grasps out, and he must do what is right in "God's eyes." 
Even as the power of the gaze is circumscribed,  humanity's ability to use language is also  undermined. If in the previous chapter, God "opened" the ass' mouth, granting her speech, here He "puts words" into Balaam's mouth, reducing him to a ventriloquist dummy. 
The power of speech, which has been the focus of this book since the spies "evil speech" regarding the Land, here reaches its crescendo--and its boundaries. From report, to complaint, to parley, to song, to curse, we arrive at high poetry, as "Balaam carries his poem" offering blessings that echo Jacob's primal blessings to his children (he even touches on Israel's contact with the primordial power of speech in their encounter with the "serpents" [nahash]]. Yet here also we arrive at the limits of human language: Balaam cannot "curse where God does not curse." Divine language cannot be undone. The primal promise to Abraham remains, maugre Balak's  protests "Do not curse them and do not bless them." 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Numbers 22: In Writing

Turn and turn and try again
taut-listening for wished words
The narrowing road, is barred before you
Do you see the angel, with outstretched sword?

Numbers: Chapter 22

When roads seem open
What stands in the way?

A fence here 

A fence there 
A sword in the middle

What do you do?

[For full chapter, click here
Though there is a distinct change of ambiance, this chapter continues many of the previous chapter's themes. We continue the recreation of the Exodus, with Balak echoing the Egyptian's "disgust" (va-yakutz) with the "multitudes" (rav) of Israel; and a return to seeing the nation as sub-human, animal like. On a deeper level, we continue the focus on narrative. From parley, poetry and dirge, we now come words as warfare. Balak hires Balaam to "curse me this people... that I might smite them." The focus on curse and blessing returns is to the  primal roots of the children of Israel: the promise to  Abraham that "I will bless you...and you will be a blessing. And I will bless them that bless you, and curse him that curses you; and in you shall all families of the earth be blessed" (Genesis 12 2-3). 
Indeed, this  almost fairytale like-story, with its talking animals and pattern of threes, has profound resonances. Balaam seems to recreate, in simple, comic, form, the story of the fall of Moses. Moses was condemned to death after a a puzzling scene, in which he "hit" (va-yach) the rock twice rather than speaking to it. 
Here, Balaam is called by Balak. God tells him not to follow the Moabites: : 'You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people; for they are blessed.'Yet Balaam hopes that God will perhaps be persuaded, telling the messengers to again "stay the night." After the second visit, God indeed seems to give in: "If they have come to call you, go with these men:." Yet at the same time, Balaam s warned: "only the word which I speak to you will  you do."
Balaam jumps at the opening, and follows the men. God sends an angel to block his path. Balaam is oblivious to the angel, yet his ass repeatedly stops, in an attempt to avoid the outstretched sword. In response, Balaam "hits" (va-yach) the ass twice--the second time "with his stick" in a virtual recreation of Moses' "hitting the rock" with his staff.
Balaam, with his repeated "turns" (ve-yet), his repeated attempts to hear something different from God's mouth, his refusal to understand the presence of the angel, exemplifies the desire to force things. His oblivious "hitting" of the ass exemplifies force-in-action.
Balaam, the great magician who is to curse an entire nation, is unable to control his ass with words: "if I had a sword, I would kill you," he says, in profound irony, as an angel with a sword stands right before him. Here, he is exposed as a fool: more blind than his ass, trying to force his way through the world--and God--going "contrary" to the angel, ignoring God's "flaming anger" while getting "flaming angry" at the animal that is trying to save his life.
Moses, in hitting the rock rather than trusting that it would respond to God's command, demonstrated the same failing, if on a more subtle level. He remained in a mode of warfare, trying to force his will on the world. Like the nation he leads, he has not managed to completely free himself from Egypt. Hes till acts as he did when he functioned as the redeemer who "smote" (vayach) the waters, rather than as the "faithful" ones who speaks "mouth  to mouth" with God.]