Lech Lecha: Hagar (Reposted from 2014)

Sarai… had an Egyptian maid-servant whose name was Hagar. Sarai said to Abram, “Look, the Lord has kept me from bearing. Consort with my maid; perhaps I shall have a son through her.” Abraham heeded Sarai’s request. So Sarai, Abram’s wife, took her maid, Hagar the Egyptian…and gave her to her husband Abram as a concubine. He cohabited with Hagar and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered in her esteem. Sarai said to Abram, “The wrong done me is your fault!…now that she sees she is pregnant, I am lowered in her esteem. The Lord decide between you and me!” Abram said to Sarai, “Your maid is in your hands. Deal with her as you think right!” Then Sarai maltreated her and she fled from her. An angel of the Lord found her by a spring in the wilderness, the spring on the road to Shur…(Bereishit 16: 1-7).
And she called the Lord who spoke to her, “You are El-Ro’i,” by which she meant, “Have I not gone on seeing after He saw me!” (Bereishit 16:13).

Black slave-maid
Hagar shuts her eyes
to hide the jumble of emotions:
she hears she will be freed –
to be Abram’s concubine.

She strokes her pregnant belly,
her face betrays ambivalence, as
restlessly she contemplates
her future and her child’s.

She witnesses the tension,
hears the conflict in the tent:
Sarai’s pain and anger,
Abram’s mute response.

Exploited woman
Her face deformed by bitterness,
Sarai treats Hagar unjustly
saddling her with chores
as their husband holds his peace.

Hagar’s anguish spills
in an avalanche of misery, as
she flees to seek the stillness –
an oasis in the desert.

Single mother
Swollen with her unborn child
alone beneath the scorching sun,
she sets out through the sand
and turns her face to home.

Seen by God
In the silence of the dunes
she hears the voice of God:
and now she knows at last
that she is truly seen.

Phyllis Trible, a contemporary bible scholar, describes Hagar as a symbol of oppression: “As a symbol of the oppressed, Hagar becomes many things to many people. Most especially…rejected women find their stories in her. She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth,… the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with a child…the homeless woman, …the welfare mother…” from Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984).

In the ancient Near East it was customary for a barren wife to provide her husband with a concubine to bear children. This would inevitably lead to a shifting of the dynamics in the complex relationship – the barren wife feeling diminished and her maidservant feeling superior.
The Ramban points out that Abram only conceded at Sarai’s urging. The Midrash comments that Sarai first made Hagar a free woman. Later, though, when Sarai complained to Abram and he let her do as she wished with Hagar, the Midrash adds that he cautioned Sarai that she could no longer reduce Hagar to slave status. Sarai paid no heed to this. The Ramban criticises Sarai for abusing Hagar, and Abram for permitting the abuse.
The angel found Hagar on the road to Shur, which is described in Bereishit 25:18 as being close to Egypt, so we can speculate that she fled in the direction of her native land, hoping maybe to reach home.
The Etz Hayim commentary says that when God appears to this lowly Egyptian maidservant, offering her a message of hope and comfort, the narrator’s sympathies are clearly with Hagar. It further notes that Hagar’s name for God, “El-Ro’i” can mean “God – Who – sees – me.” Her exclamation, “Have I not gone on seeing…” is understood as evidence that Hagar was spiritually stirred by her revelatory experience, and became conscious of God’s concern for the oppressed and marginalized  whom human society ignores.


Yom HaShoah: The Pear Tree

Pushed, panicked
into the closet.
A quick fierce reminder
whispered in darkness
shocks them to silence.

Petrified, motionless,
two small girls wait,
eyes staring widely
into the blackness
as hours inch
endlessly past.

The door at last opens:
stiffly they stumble
blinded by light

and out in the garden
against the blue sky
a pear tree is swaying
brushed by the wind, and
it whispers of freedom.

The idea for this poem arose from a talk I attended last year on Erev Yom HaShoah, at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. The speaker was Mrs. Chana Yair who was born in Hungary. She described her experiences as a nine-year-old girl who was separated suddenly from her family.

Pikudei: God and the gaps

And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks – that they had done it just as the Lord had commanded – then Moses blessed them. (Shemot 39:43).
Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. (Shemot 40:35)

When God’s effulgent glory
overwhelmed the world,
we could not enter.
His essence then condensed
that we might fill the gaps.

If our bloated sense of glory
inundates the world
and holiness is spurned,
our essence thus inflated
the work is overlooked.

If we fashion of ourselves
an empty vessel, an empty space
to hold God’s light within,
His radiance might shine into the darkness
and grant blessing on the labor of our hands.

In his book Itturei Torah on the above verse, Aharon Ya’akov Greenberg quotes from a Chassidic anthology: “In Vienna they built a synagogue, and on the wall of the entrance was carved in gold letters the verse, “And God’s glory filled the Tabernacle”. Once, when Rabbi Tsvi Hirsch Chajes passed by this synagogue, he saw the inscription on the wall and said, “It would have been better had they engraved the beginning of this verse, “and Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting.”
The Kotsker Rebbe was perhaps addressing this idea when he asked, “Where is God to be found?” and himself offered the response, “In the place where He is given entry.”

The commentators noticed early on the very conspicuous similarity between phrases used in the account of the Creation (Bereishit 1-2) and that of the building of the Mishkan(Shemot 25–40). Nahum Sarna, the modern biblical scholar says, “The account of the construction of the Tabernacle is …laced with phrases and expressions that unmistakably echo the Genesis creation story.”
He also notes that the Tabernacle was constructed on the first day of the first month — the New Year —which he suggests emphasizes its connection as some sort of re-enactment of Creation.
Rabbi Isaac Luria (The “Ari”) teaches that when God initially desired to create the finite world, He had first to contract His infinite light (the Or Ein Sof) in a process known as tsimtsum. In an article on tsimtsum, http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/2047206/jewish/Tsimtsum.htm, Rabbi Tzvi Freeman brings the Ari’s kabbalistic depiction in which the pre-Creation state of infinite light excluded the presence of anything else. Before creating any worlds, God withdrew that energy completely, resulting in a total void within the infinite light. Only then, into this darkness, did He shine a measured beam of light from the encompassing infinite light.
So Rabbi Freeman explains, “Tsimtsum, then, is the way God makes space for us to have our own world. He hides His light from us, so that we can make our own choices…”

In a commentary on Pikudei from 2014, http://parshathoughtsmore.blogspot.co.il/2014_02_01_archive.html, Dr Rachel Anisfeld addresses success and what accounts for it – human efforts or divine blessing? She notes that this parasha concludes the work of the building of the Mishkan. She says, “The people have given their all, followed instructions precisely and put in tremendous effort. What happens now? Moshe looks at their work and blesses them. According to Rashi, he says: “May it be His will that the divine Presence dwell in the work of your hands.”
Dr Anisfeld points out that these words are rephrased and immortalised in one of the Psalms attributed to Moses and which is recited on Shabbat mornings: “May the favor of the Lord, our God, be upon us; let the work of our hands prosper, O prosper the work of our hands!” (Psalms 90:17). She notes that the Midrash relates that these words were originally spoken by Moses when the building of the Mishkan was completed. She paraphrases “You have done the work; now let us pray for the blessing of God on your work – O prosper the work of your hands!” She notes that there is a tacit acknowledgement here that we do not have control of outcomes. She says, “We can build the building but the spirit must come from above. And there are times of extreme frustration where the spirit, the blessing, does not come, and our work seems for naught…” Dr Anisfeld cites from the morning Uva Letzion prayer, “…so that we do not toil for nothing and labor in futility.”
Dr Anisfeld ponders how we can live in a world where we risk toiling for nothing, but then, how could we live in a world in which success was entirely in our control? She concludes, “The knowledge that, in addition to human effort, blessing comes from above, is essential . Why was Moshe able to bring down blessing from above? Because of his humility. He had no doubt about his role – he was a keli, a vessel, for divine blessing. That very acknowledgment, the knowledge that blessing comes from above, is actually what draws it down. We can only receive a gift if we are not too full to receive it. A cup full of water cannot receive more water. The knowledge of our limitations opens us to being blessed.”

Asarah beTevet: Two Poems

Sackcloth and Ashes
The manifestation
of Your divine presence –
besieged and set ablaze.

Myriad innocents
garbed in striped sackcloth
trapped in the carnage.

And when the smoke cleared
a vagrant wind dispersed the ashes
and no trace was left.

According to II Kings 25:1-4, on the 10th day of the 10th month (Tevet) in the ninth year of Zedekiah’s reign (588 BCE), the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezer began the siege of Jerusalem. A year and a half later, on the 17th of Tammuz in the eleventh year of Zedekiah’s reign (586 BCE) (Jeremiah 52.6–7), he broke through the city walls. Three weeks later, on the 9th of Av, the siege ended with the destruction of the Temple, the demise of the kingdom and the exile of the Jewish people to Babylon.

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel chose to observe the fast of the 10th of Tevet as the “Yom HaKaddish HaClali – the general Kaddish day” for the victims of the Holocaust, particularly those for whom there were relatives to say the prayer but no known date of death, and those for whom there was no relative to say Kaddish but it would be recited by others.

My Mother’s Uncles
My mother’s uncles had no faces,
nor had their wives and children.
I think I might have seen them
in photos on the walls at Auschwitz:
haggard features filled with pain;
bewildered women
with uncomprehending stares;
solemn children with large dark eyes.
My mother’s uncles never visited,
nor did their wives and children.
I think I might have visited them
at the hill of ashes at Majdanek.

My maternal grandmother Sarah Leah Klinger was born in 1908, the youngest child of Shmuel Yaakov HaCohen, a timber-merchant from Vienna and his wife Haya Hulda. Sarah Leah was preceded by an older sister Leah, who died before my grandmother was born, and four much older brothers: Bernard; Feivel; Adolph and Jehudah.

The family moved to Lvov in Poland when my grandmother was a child. At some time in the early 1920s, my great-grandfather had a vivid dream which foresaw the coming of a terrible regime to the region and it influenced him so greatly that he sent one his sons to Palestine, to “spy out the Land”. And like the biblical spies, his son returned with a negative report: “It’s not for us!” he declared. His father was unconvinced and was adamant that they should leave.

In the meantime, Haya Hulda became sick and died. Shortly after, Shmuel Yaakov remarried, and, taking his new wife and his 14- year old daughter, departed for Palestine. His sons, their wives and children (whose names we do not even know) all remained in Poland. At the age of 18, my grandmother met and married my grandfather, Emanuel Cramer, who was 10 years her senior. He had been born in England and fought in the First World War. He was gassed in the trenches at Ypres and subsequently came to Palestine to recuperate in a warmer climate. My grandmother returned with him to England, where my mother and her two siblings were born.

When the smoke of the Holocaust started to recede over Europe, it became apparent that none of my grandmother’s brothers, sisters-in-law or their children had survived. My grandmother never spoke of them but she did fill in testimony papers at Yad Vashem. We have no idea of when or where they perished. We had other great-uncles, great-aunts and cousins whom we knew. As I grew older, I became aware of this branch of the family tree which was severed so savagely and so completely, leaving no traces – no photos, no family gatherings, no family legends, no Yahrzeits…

This poem is one of several that arose out of a school visit to Poland in 2011, when I travelled as an accompanying parent with one of our sons.

Chanuka: From Despair to Wonder

We enter the temple again:
the glimmer of the endless light
is but a mirage in our minds;
despair fills the darkness.
Scattered shards of smashed vessels
mingle with mud and oil and char,
while scorched and withered leaves
flutter through shattered doors.
The eerie silence numbs our senses
as we clear the debris of defilement
laboring mutely, until
the last trace of pillage is purged.
One small cruse of oil,
one day’s kindling, sealed, unscathed,
is brought to light
glinting under ashen rubble.
With pounding hearts and trembling hands,
holding the promise of renewal,
we relight the everlasting lamp:
it is sustained as though by our prayers.
Days pass – the light burns brightly:
as oil diminishes, wonder grows;
the glow reflects the awe,
the hope in our eyes.

The Talmud (B. Shabbat 21b) reports the disagreement between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai concerning the proper way of lighting the chanukiah: Beit Shammai proposed lighting all eight lights on the first night of Chanuka and reducing the number of lights by one each night. Beit Hillel said the opposite: one light the first night, increasing to eight on the final night.
Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser, in his blog (Reb Jeff, The Audacity of the Miracle 26/12/2011) suggests that lighting the Chanuka lights is not just a representation of the literal burning of the Temple Menorah when the Maccabees rededicated it. It is meant to represent something deeper, something more spiritual. He imagines how the people who kindled that first lamp with the remaining cruse of oil might have felt – as the oil lessened, their sense of awe would have grown stronger. They gradually became aware of the miracle which was happening before their eyes. He says, “And so it is in our lives, if we allow our perception of miracles to burn brightly within us.”