Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Deuteronomy: Chapter 34

Everything and nothing:
what you see and what you cannot have
eye to eye
face to face

At the moment of ending 
who will know me
who will I know?

[For full chapter, click here

We come to the final chapter of Deuteronomy, a chapter of ending, and transitions. There is a harsh finality to this closing: some things are irreplaceable, irreparable. Moses' tears and pleading cannot undo his one mistake at Meriba. "You shall see the Land, and there you shall not pass." And with the death of Moses "in the land of Moab" is the end of an era. An intimacy has passed that will not return: "there arose no more in Israel like Moses, who knew God face to face." We touch absolute limits and absolute loss.

Moses climbs Nebo for a bird's-eye view of the Promised Land. Yet of Michel de Certeau sees the synoptic high view as presenting the position of power, here is serves to demonstrate absolute limits: "and God showed him the land of Gilead as far of Dan, and all of Naphtali, and the land of Ephraim and Menasseh, and all the land of Judah, unto the last sea... And God said to him: 'this is the land that I swore unto Abraham, Isaac and Jacob... you have seen it with your eyes, and there you shall not pass." The Torah closes with a harsh lessons that not all you see is there for the taking. Is this perhaps a return to humanities first, failed, lesson in boundaries, with a Tree whose "fruit was a delight for the eyes," yet was not to be eaten?

Yet it is the harshness of absolute limits that itself that reveals the deepest intimacy. In Moses' lonely journey up the mountain, it is God who is with him. He dies "by the mouth of God," and it is God who buries him "in a valley in the land of Moab, and no man knows his burial site, to this very day." No man knows Moses' final resting place, but Moses "knows God face to face." It is this mutual knowledge that defines Moses and provides his space, as the people move onwards. 

For this is also a chapter of transition. There will be no replacement for Moses, but there will be a next step. Joshua is filled with the "spirit of God, for Moses laid his hands on him." The days of mourning "end," and we await the next step.]

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Deuteronomy 33: In Writing

These are the words...
After all has been said
factored and seen
loosen the strands
and watch them rectangle

speak watching and wondering
watering a seed
and whispering Grow

language of letting go
ceasing to mold
the world with word
speaking the words
between now and later

Listen to my speech
turn to blessing
turn to prayer.

May we live and not die
May we be
May we come
into our people
May we draw on the deeps
May we reach for the dew 
sunk in the sand
plyng the sea.
May we reach what lurks below
what drips above.
May we find the everlasting hills
the eternal mountains
that embrace.

Hold us in your arms
gathered at your feet
carrying your voice
in the nucleus of our cells.

I know
no one
but the weave that holds us together,
the everlasting arms of earth
a lone glinting spring.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Deuteronomy: Chapter 33

from word
to blessing

draw it together

Waters above
waters below

pain of not-love
of knowledge

let us live and not die
let us be one in You

[For full chapter, click here
We come to Moses' final address to the Children of Israel. After a whole book of "the words that Moses spoke"--a book of exhortation, rebuke, warning, promise--Moses "made an end of speaking all the words" (32: 45), and begins is another kind of address: blessing. "And this is the blessing that Moses the man of God blessed the Children of Israel before his death."
In closing with a blessing, the final book of the Torah takes us back to the closing of the first book. Genesis also closes with a blessing before death--Jacob's final blessings to his sons.

These two closings are indeed linked by multiple intertextual allusions. At the opening of the blessing, Moses declares that we are dealing with the "inheritance of Jacob," and closes by declaring Israel "the spring of Jacob." As in Genesis, these blessing combine a focus on the future with a look back on the past. As in Genesis, the blessings are performative, and interweave a whole from the disparate parts. As in Genesis, the leitword is asaf, to gather, to bring together: "And there was in Yeshurun a king, when the heads of the nation were gathered, all together, the tribes of Israel,"

Like Jacob, Moses brings "together, all the tribes of Israel"  by interweaving the children of the various mothers, erasing the painful divisiveness of Jacob's family by creating new connections. Jacob created his new whole by cross-hatching the liminal surrogate children of the maidservants not quite Rachel's, not quite Leah's, making them the binder for the two sides of the family, interlinking Rachel and Leah's children through their proxies. Moses follows in Jacob's path, interlinking Bilhal's Dan with Zilpa's Gad through the imagery of the lion; and Zilpah's Asher with Bilha's Naphtali, through the key-word "ratzon" (desire, will). Yet Moses is more ambitious, and actually creates a matrix that unites Rachel and Leah's children directly: Levi, who has renounced all particular loyalties serves as the glue, allowing Benjamin and Joseph to be couched between Judah and Zebulun. 

Once again, Joseph seems to act as a primal binding force, as he merges the waters above and the  "deeps lurking below," reconnecting the split "waters above, and the waters below" that have not merged since the Deluge. Gad also returns to the primal "beginning" (Reishit) that opened the Bible. Throughout, the blessings bind through returning to "the eternal hills," "the ancient earth." Bringing "together, all the tribes of Israel" is tied to going all the way back to the primal divisions of creation, bringing together air, water, seas, sand and hills--all the natural phenomena that define these blessings. 

The centrality of Joseph in the blessing serves as a reminder that the question of redemption in Genesis is linked to bringing Joseph back, to undoing his sale and exile. 

Return to central. In the end, it is the Land itself that will  will act as a binder. In living within the "everlasting hills" Israel will actually, metaphysically, be living living within God: "The eternal God is a dwelling place, and beneath are the everlasting arms... and Israel dwelleth in safety, the spring of Jacob alone, in a land of grain and wine, and his heavens drop down dew."]

Friday, January 15, 2016

Deuteronomy 32: In Writing

Between listening sky
and attentive earth

between my call
and silence

between seeing and hearing

between what is
and what is not

 between drops of rain
between blades of grass

between the eagle and its nest
between inhale and exhale

between my God
and the cliff walls

stone without crevice
leaking honey

of the ending

between emptiness and hollows
between being lost and gathered

on this mountain of passage
that blocks the path

does something cross between?

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Deuteronomy: Chapter 32

       Two           sides
and the hollow          between
  What is           not
                     seen,          not touched
can longing        hold
it all together
solidify to inescapable?

[For full chapter, click here

This chapter consists of the "song" of witness that Moses introduced in the previous chapter. Dense, enigmatic and imagistic, it brings together in condensed form many of the themes of the previous chapters of exhortation: the motifs of seeing and of listening; of hiding and being "found"; and most importantly, of remembering and forgetting: "Remember the days of the world / understand the years of every generation / ask your father and he will tell you."

The binary structure that underlay the previous chapters here becomes explicit, embodied in the very topographical structure of the Torah scroll: the text is set up in two facing columns, with a space in between. The poem becomes a visual manifestation of the tension that animates the covenant--the mixture of fury and love; of opposition and commitment. The visual hollows becomes thematic, as the poem revolves around negatives, the shadow of non-being. If Israel angers God with a "not-god," he will punish them with a "not nation." They will be swallowed by the space between the columns. 

Despite the duality of the poem, there is also a drive to unity, an undermining of the binary split. The vegetable becomes animal, dripping blood, full of fat; stones seep honey and water, as the world is poetically tied into a single entity. God, in the poem, represents the "straight" unchanging line that runs through history, while Israel is   "a twisted generation," changing and turning as the years pass. Yet this torturous "vine" circles around the solidity of God's rock.

The poem ends by declaring that God holds within Himself both opposing forces "I kill and I make alive, I wounded and I heal." There are no two sides, only a single reality: "I am He...there is none that can deliver from My hands."

The chapter closes by emphasizing the impossibility of "deliverance" from "God's hands," as God commands Moses to climb Mount Nebo, "and die on the mount... you shall see the land before you, but you shall not come unto it." There is no arguing with the implacable will of God, that has all the finality of death.] 

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Deuteronomy 31: In Writing

Stand and see 
the fire flame between
us, a pillar we can-
not cross.

What remains witness
when I am hollowed 
flattened to a shadow
on the sands?

Barred at the river
of no traverse
I cannot leave
cannot come
can only dissipate
as I walk towards you
again and again.

The sea, the sky, the ground beneath
bear the marks of my passing.
The disturbed air
my weight born on the waves
leave a hollow no
one will find.

Don’t loosen me
don't leave me.
Make my word stone
let it sprout water
and drink it deep
feel its cold slide down
your empty belly

its residue on you tongue and lips. 

Deuteronomy: Chapter 31

What continues  when you can no longer come or go?
Who crosses to the other side ?

Write the words 
and make them live 
on the ears 
on the tongue...

[For full chapter, click here

"Behold, the day approaches that you must die." With this chapter, we arrive at the final section of the book: the death of Moses. Again and again, the word tum'am, "closing, ending, completion" is repeated. We have come to the final day of  Moses' life: "I am one hundred and twenty years old today. I am no longer able to come and go."

With Moses unable to "cross" ('a'v'r--another key word of the chapter), he now "goes" to attempt to provide for continuity. First, he passes the mantle on to Joshua, who can "cross before you."  Joshua will be the emissary who will "come with you" into the land, a physical continuation of Moses leadership. The next tack of preservation is writing. If the Book of Numbers focused on learning how to speak, this Book of Words (the literal meaning of the Hebrew name, Devarim) ends with a focus on how to write: "And Moses wrote this teaching (torah) and delivered it to the priests and the sons of Levi...and the elders of Israel" (31:9). This is a writing that is meant for reading, a code being lain down for public transmission: "you will read this teaching before all of Israel, in their ears. Gather the people together: men women, and children and the stranger within your gates, that they may hear and may learn... so that their children, who do not know, may hear and learn" (10-13). Through this writing, Moses' teaching will live on, to be heard by later generations who do not "know" Sinai.

God responds to Moses' "going" by calling him to come "stand" by the Tent of Meeting with Joshua.  God too sets out to provide for a transition from Moses, and His vision both reflects and departs from Moses'. The message at the Meeting is harsh: "Behold you will sleep with your fathers, and this people will rise up and go astray." For naught, Moses, desperate entreaties and plans to teach "the fear of God." Regardless of all teaching, the people will inevitably stray, like a fact of nature, like the sea will rush and the sky will rain. Nature itself, the earth and the heavens, will stand witness to this.

Continuity does not imply avoiding disaster. It is finding a way back after disaster. God, like Moses, appoints Joshua to lead the people. Yet Moses sees Joshua as a mirror of the people,  who like them must be told to "be strength and take courage,"   who like them, is dominated by "fears": he will "come" with the people, not lead them. By contrast, God empowers Joshua, seeing him as the new leader, "standing" in place of Moses, the two of them side by side: "you will bring the people." 

In a similar fashion, God also echoes Moses' need for writing, yet this is writing of a different kind. Moses focuses on recording "teaching / law" (torah), which would be entrusted to the national leadership of priests, Levites and elders. The teaching would be sounded out to the people, laid on their "ears" as they imbibe and listen. The act of reading and of listening is collective, God, by contrast, commands to "write for yourself this song, and teach it to the children of Israel, put it in their mouth." Not a "teaching/law" but a "poem"; not for the leadership, but for the people; not for passive listening, but for speaking; not for the collective, but for each individual. Just as He empowers Joshua, God empowers the people. Yet the purpose of this writing is different. It will not control the future, and make distant generations "fear God." Rather it will be a "witness," placing this history-that-will-inevitably-unfold within the specific context context of God's words. "Not [to] be forgotten from the mouth of your seed," it will shape the meaning of their experiences.

The chapter closes with the intertwining of both the human and divine vision of continuity. Joshua is appointed as leader to "bring" not to "come"--yet Moses strengthens him. Moses "writes the whole teaching / law to its completion" and gives it over to the leadership. Yet he also "writes the words of this song and teaches it to the children of Israel." Finally, Moses, as per his original vision, speaks into the "ears" of the assembled people. Yet this time, he calls heaven and earth as "witnesses." It is not simply a teaching, but an act of testimony.]