Friday, April 17, 2015

Deuteronomy: Chapter 14

What's torn in two
Take in

Spit out
Bear responsibility
[For full chapter, click here
“Tear your heart so you will not have to tear your clothes” (Joel 2:13) the prophet enjoins the people, highlighting the deep-seated correlation between the ritualized forms of morning, and the experience of devastation.
What does it mean, then, to limit the expressions of mourning? “You are children to God, your Lord. You shall not gauge your skin, or make a baldness between your eyes for the dead.”  Does the connection to God make the devastation less acute? Is there a level of despair that should not be touched?
I studied these words after returning from a funeral that made these questions terribly real. A young girl died. But the Jewish custom in Jerusalem is to downplay mourning during the month Nissan, in which Passover takes place, as it is the time of redemption. Each person who got up to speak acknowledged this. They all opened by saying “we do not eulogize during Nissan.” And each of them held back. There were no histrionics. No details of the loss, suffering and devastation that was palpable in the room. Barely any discussion of the months of illness. Yet nonetheless it was one of the most harrowing and heartbreaking funerals I’ve seen. The prohibition on eulogizing made people focus on appreciating the person herself: what she had taught them, what they gained from being around her. Rather than focusing on her loss, they said thanks for her presence. And that brought home the loss in the most devastating way possible.   Perhaps this is what is meant by “you are children to God”: don’t focus on eh personal devastation, but rather on the unique “child of God” who is gone. Let your mourning be focused outward, to the dead, rather than on externally expressing one’s inner pain.

The chapter goes on to deal with boundaries. If the previous chapter spoke about the seduction of the exotic “gods you do not know” and the intimate evil that must be exorcized “from within you”, this chapter deals with preserving the proper boundaries of the body: no gauging holes or uprooting hair, a limitation of what can be ingested… There is a constant dialectic and tension between what is prohibited and what is permitted, what may be eaten and what may not. A doubling and duality, like the cloven hoof that must be split in two—mafris parsa; shosaat shesa. In preserving the inviolability of the self, one comes to responsibility for others. The chapter ends with the command to take out the tithes and donate them  to the poor and vulnerable members of society: “At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites… and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows …may come and eat and be satisfied…”]

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