Ashé Journal, Vol 5, Issue 4, 409-415, Winter 2007.
From the valley below, the ebullient notes of celebrants,
the beat of tambourines liberated after four hundred years of abuse.
Sing unto the One,
Who smites the tyrant,
Who hears the cries of the oppressed,
Who parts the Sea and plants the seeds for generations yet unborn.
Ana, pool your gold. Adonai, give it to God.
Hoshi’a, smelt it down. Na, cast the throne.
Ashira, link your arms. Ladonai, circle the fire.
Ki, spin into oblivion.
Ga’oh, let go, let go, let go.
Ga’ah, God is One, we are one.
With broken bodies of former slaves, we undulate,
following the Source enthroned into the wilderness of promise.
And up over the ridge, the Levites wait, in formation,
swords on thighs, servants of the Lord, privileged
to follow orders, to do as they are told.
A martial clan descended from the heroes of the Battle of Shechem,
they wear their forebears’ medals proudly.
They have been instructed in the proper use of herbs and oils,
in the dire consequences of disobedience, of initiative, of openheartedness.
In formation, they await the signal from Moses, down from the mountain,
to charge, to slay three thousand defenseless, spent from a night of celebration.
Moses claims that You love only him,
that we were spared because he intervened,
that You do not like our offering.
Moses, who has never seen Your face—
not in the silent, steamy eyes of Tzipporah,
from whom he stays cloistered,
not in the bloody foreskins of his sons,
whom he ignores in the name of his holy work.
Moses, who doesn’t touch.
Moses, who doesn’t dance.
Moses, the bridegroom of blood.
Guide him please, Holy One of Compassion.
We don’t need another Pharaoh to lead us into freedom.
Love him doubly, forgive him his wrath.
He was taken as an infant from his mother.
Only You know what befell the lad in the palace,
but below, all we see is his sweltering rage.
Otherwise, as You surely can foresee,
generations will mistake
fervent worship for idolatry.
Larry Herbst whispered it in my ear in 1962.
We were filing out of the Friday morning Musar lesson,
spooked by tales of souls burning longer in Gehinnom
because their sons neglected to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish.
At least I was spooked.
Actually, we exited the room like Romans storming Masada,
jostling, shoving, punching, cursing,
barreling down to the basement cafeteria,
where bare, fluorescent bulbs droned and flickered over scowling women—
somebody’s mothers—who stretched their number-tattooed wrists
burnt spaghetti and soggy canned string beans onto our plates.
Only mice were noteworthy; you tried not to notice the roaches.
I alone filed out of the classroom,
hanging back until the sweaty crush abated.
I dreamed perpetually about the tangle of limbs,
about random collisions knocking the breath out of me,
about bodies surreptitiously embracing
as we competed for dominance,
but Rabbi Segal, sitting at his desk,
forehead wrinkled as he turned the page of some sefer,
had just told us to file out orderly.
Just because he wasn’t saying anything,
did they think he wasn’t watching?
They were like the goyim, the sinners,
who behaved like the Kadosh Barukh Hu wasn’t watching.
They would burn forever later.
Larry grabbed me from behind,
left arm around my neck,
right arm pinning my torso back against his,
much like the start of a thousand wrestling matches
on Shabbos afternoons, in my bedroom or his,
the move before he’d throw me down on the mattress
and jump on me, bony knees on my shoulders,
the weight of his soft butt sinking into my chest.
But this was different, tender.
I felt his left cheek brush my right ear as he purred:
“You don’t believe any of that bullshit, do you?”
I squirmed, blushing. “Leggo,” I barked in anger.
The heat in my groin, Rabbi Segal behind us:
What the hell did he think he was doing?
Maybe that’s why I didn’t catch what he’d said.
Winter Light Promises
Western Snowy Plover the sign reads
as I arrive at the ocean from 44th Avenue.
White feather balls, huddling, fluffed,
sitting motionless like targeted ducks.
Do not feed them, it says.
Do not let your dog chase them.
They are endangered,
presumably because they do not move as I approach,
remaining still as the other gulls squawk and swoop around them.
The mid-morning sun hazes through the mist
as I maneuver through sand-encrusted seaweed,
looking for a shell or stone, a memento of my thanksgiving,
bewildered at blessings unexpected.
Grace startles, by definition.
I unzip my windbreaker and wipe the sweat from my eyes
as I squint at occasional joggers on the promenade above,
but I can’t see clearly through the mist.
I get sand in my shoes.
You too did not flinch at my approach last night—
a stranger, knocking on your door.
I wonder if this is how the visitors felt
at the entrance to Abraham’s tent.
Did he know they were angels?
You seemed to, greeting me like the messenger I might be.
Did he offer them herbal tea as he seated them on pillows?
Did he lean forward, face radiant, drinking in their every word?
Were they soothed by his presence?
They announced the birth of his son,
but did they notice their own yearning to linger
in the cushion of his presence,
wondering why they had waited so long to respond to his invitation?
Did he gently coax them to show their wings
by undressing his own soul?
Did he light candles with them?
Was it Hanukah in Beersheva?
Did the rays of the desert sun soften the December morning chill?
You too did not flinch when I placed my right hand on your right hip,
brushing the ridges of your spine on the way.
Decades ago, I would play with the pigeons in Riverside Park.
They did not flee at my approach, step by step, slowly, mindfully,
keeping my torso still above my inching feet.
They backed up the Hudson, pigeon step by pigeon step,
for blocks at a time.
God knows, they did not scare easily.
Raccoon wannabes, they would have backed me off of their turf
if they could have.
Unlike western snowy plovers, they are not endangered.
you rested your left hand on my left shoulder
as the sun set yesterday,
as we stared at the candles.
These candles are sacred, I chanted in the nusakh of my
the Jacob for whom I am named.
These candles are sacred, and we are not permitted to use their light
for any purpose—except to behold them,
to be reminded of miracles past and in our own day.
The wonder of being touched
lightly, tenderly, unconditionally.
The promise that two might dare not to back away
and yet not be endangered.
Rabbi Jacob J. Staub is Professor of Jewish Philosophy and
Spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, where
he served as Academic Vice President for 17 years and where he was ordained. He
served as editor of the Reconstructionist magazine. He is the founder
and director of the first program in Jewish Spiritual Direction at a rabbinical
seminary. He teaches medieval Jewish studies, Jewish meditation, and Jewish
spirituality. He is the author of The Creation of the World According
to Gersonides and the co-author of Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist
Rebel Satori Press