Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Book of Words

So, I was the lay leader for Friday night services at Congregation Adas Emuno two weeks in a row, on August 8th and 15th. So I thought I'd share with you the creative parts of the services. But maybe I'll just deal with the first week in this post.

As you no doubt know, traditionally each week a section of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, otherwise known as the Five Books of Moses, is read. And by August 8th the fourth book, Numbers had been completed, and this was the first week that we started on Deuteronomy.

So, after we completed the main part of the prayer service, I added some additional material. First, I adapted traditional gospel spiritual lyrics, and made them into a responsive reading. It went like this:

Just like the Israelites, who were Pharaoh's slaves
They suffered in bondage and they prayed for days
The Lord said, "Moses, go set them free"
"I am the Lord, thy God, and I'll go with thee"

Through the water
Through the flood
Through the fire
Through the blood
I am the Lord, thy God
And I'll be with thee

Just like old Joshua at Jericho
The Jericho walls, he wanted to overthrow
The Lord said, "Fight, and I'll give you victory"
"I am the Lord thy God, and I'll go with thee"

Through failure
Through success
I'll understand
When you done your best
I am the Lord, thy God
And I'll be with thee

In the interests of full disclosure, apart from moving things around a little, my adaptation involved deleting the first verse, which was about the prodigal son,, a Christian parable form the New Testament. And I do think there is a decided difference between that story and the rather momentous events depicted in the other two verses. I should also confess that my familiarity with the song comes from the version recorded by the Jerry Garcia Band, with Maria Muldaur and Donna Godchaux sharing lead vocals (and Jerry in the background). It's a bonus track on the version of the Cats Under the Stars album that's included in All Good Things Jerry Garcia box set. More information than you needed, no doubt, but then again, you never know, and it is my blog after all.

In any event, I explained that the events depicted in Deuteronomy fall in between the two main events in the lyrics, Moses freeing the Israelites, and Joshua bringing down the walls of Jericho.

And then I proceeded with a sermon, or Devar Torah, literally, Word of Torah, a little talk about the parsha or weekly Torah portion. I didn't have time to write it out, as my old mentor Neil Postman would insist I do, but I did make notes and will use them to tell you what I talked about.

I began by acknowledging that this week we began reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, and that Deuteronomy, like all books of the bible, was originally a single scroll, a byblos, from which Bible is derived. That's why they're called books, rather than say chapters or sections. And back in the ancient world, books didn't actually have titles, but were referred to by their opening words. The Book of Deuteronomy begins with aleh hadevarim asher diber Moshe el kol yisroel, These are the words which Moses spoke unto all Israel. The actual, original title of Deuteronomy was therefore Aleh HaDevarim, translated as These are the Words, but the title was abbreviated to Devarim, meaning Words. Deuteronomy is the Book of Words, which I think is a wonderful title. The Jewish people are a people of words, which suggests on the one hand that we talk a lot (that was a laugh line). But it also means that we believe in words, not images--no idols, no graven images. God is a God of words. Creation begins with words, as God says, Let there be light, and only after the words comes the act, the actual creation of light. And Creation is completed with us, with human beings, made in God's image, and we are the only form of life that really uses words.

The sages referred to Devarim as Mishneh Torah, which was translated as Second Law, and that is the basis of the Greek name for the book, from which we get Deuteronomy. A more precise translation, however, is a Review of the Law or Torah, as it goes back over some of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers--it is a review, but hardly a duplicate.

Historians believe that this book is of later origin than the first four books of the Torah, and trace it back to the reign of King Josiah in the late 7th century BCE. The book differs from the first four in tone, and traditionally it's said that Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers were composed by God, and transcribed by Moses, but Deuteronomy was authored by Moses on his own, in his own words. In this book, we hear a personal tone, as Moses says, "And God spoke to me," whereas previously there was a third person point of view, for example, "And God spoke to Moses."

The Book of Words consists of the words of Moses, as he addresses the Israelites. He reminds them of how, before they left Mount Sinai, he realized that they were too numerous for him to lead on his own. So, they had agreed to let him appoint a system of judges to preside over them, to mete out justice and teach the people about the Law. They then quickly traveled through the desert and reached the border of the Holy Land. The people demanded that Moses send spies in before they enter, so he sent 12, one from each tribe. And they came back in terror, reporting that the land is unconquerable. Despite Moses telling them that God would be with them and would make sure that they were successful, they were too fearful to enter. So God decided that that entire generation would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land, including Moses himself. Not too long afterward, the Israelites realized their mistake, and some of them tried to enter and take the land, even though Moses told them not to, and they were defeated and killed. And so the Israelites had to wander the dessert for almost 40 years before they could try to enter again. (The Deuteronomy version contrasts with the version in Numbers, where God not the Israelites says to send in the spies; also the reason why Moses cannot enter the land of Canaan is elsewhere explained by the fact that he had committed murder--the Egyptian overseer who was whipping a Hebrew slave--and that he struck the rock out of anger to get water).

The Book of Words begins with a rebuke from Moses. The Israelites have been punished for being cowardly, filled with doubt, lacking in faith, and obstinate. They have suffered for their failing and sins. This may seems harsh and authoritarian to modern ears, but I think there are lessons for us. For example, we should not think we have all the answers, we should understand that there is something more than us, greater than us, that we need to have faith that there is something greater than us, and through faith, to have courage.

But more than anything, I am struck by the poignancy of Devarim, the Book of Words. These are the last words of Moses, his final address to the people of Israel. He knows that he will not be allowed to enter the promised land, he can only view it in the distance. He knows that the amazing journey of his life, from an infant floating precariously on the Nile, to being raised as a prince of Egypt, to exile and the reluctant call to serve God, to his confrontation with Pharaoh and his role as liberator, leader, and law-giver, is coming to an end. In effect he is saying to the Israelites that the story goes on for all of you, but this is where it ends for me.

He speaks to them over the course of 37 days, and the book of words ends with his death. In the end, Moses, the greatest of all the prophets, was still just a man, a fallible human being, and we don't worship him, don't pray to him for help, we don't make statues of him or invoke his name, or venerate him the way many other religions do with their central figures. Moses was the greatest of us, but he was one of us, only human.

At this point in the service, I noted that this was also the Sabbath before Tisha B'Av, traditionally observed as a fast day, mourning the destruction of the first and the second Temples in Jerusalem (and the great loss of life that accompanied these events). Since Eric Fisher was leading a Havdallah Talk the next evening on the subject of whether there is room for observing Tisha B'Av in Reform Judaism, given that our movement does not have the same longing for the restoration of the Temple that has been maintained among the Orthodox. I should add that Eric's talk was excellent, highly informative, and he took the reasonable position that we should observe Tisha B'Av, not because we want to rebuild the Temple, but because it is a day of mourning for the loss of life, and because the events it represents did serve to define our religion as we know it today (the destruction of the first Temple led to the Babylonian captivity and the beginnings of Rabbinic Judaism, the destruction of the second Temple to the ascendancy of Rabbinic Judaism). So, I asked Eric to read the Haftarah (a reading selected from the other books that make up the Holy Scriptures, typically from the Prophets, that complements the Torah portion) in English, because it is meant to connect to Tisha B'Av as well as the first portion from Deuteronomy. And here's the reading, from the beginning of the Book of Isaiah:

1. The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, [and] Hezekiah, kings of Judah. 2. Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, for the Lord has spoken; Children I have raised and exalted, yet they have rebelled against Me. 3. An ox knows his owner and a donkey his master's crib; Israel does not know, my people does not consider. 4. Woe to a sinful nation, a people heavy with iniquity, evildoing seed, corrupt children. They forsook the Lord; they provoked the Holy One of Israel; they drew backwards. 5. Why are you beaten when you still continue to rebel? Every head is [afflicted] with illness and every heart with malaise. 6. From the sole of the foot until the head there is no soundness-wounds and contusions and lacerated sores; they have not sprinkled, neither have they been bandaged, nor was it softened with oil. 7. Your land is desolate; your cities burnt with fire. Your land-in your presence, strangers devour it; and it is desolate as that turned over to strangers. 8. And the daughter of Zion shall be left like a hut in a vineyard, like a lodge in a cucumber field, like a besieged city. 9. "Had not the Lord of Hosts left us a remnant, we would soon be like Sodom; we would resemble Gomorrah." 10. Hear the word of the Lord, O rulers of Sodom; give ear to the law of our God, O people of Gomorrah! 11. Of what use are your many sacrifices to Me? says the Lord. I am sated with the burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle; and the blood of bulls and sheep and hegoats I do not want. 12. When you come to appear before Me, who requested this of you, to trample My courts? 13. You shall no longer bring vain meal-offerings, it is smoke of abomination to Me; New Moons and Sabbaths, calling convocations, I cannot [bear] iniquity with assembly. 14. Your New Moons and your appointed seasons My soul hates, they are a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing [them]. 15. And when you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you, even when you pray at length, I do not hear; your hands are full of blood. 16. Wash, cleanse yourselves, remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes, cease to do evil. 17. Learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the robbed, perform justice for the orphan, plead the case of the widow. 18. Come now, let us debate, says the Lord. If your sins prove to be like crimson, they will become white as snow; if they prove to be as red as crimson dye, they shall become as wool. 19. If you be willing and obey, you shall eat the best of the land. 20. But if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword, for the mouth of the Lord spoke. 21. How has she become a harlot, a faithful city; full of justice, in which righteousness would lodge, but now murderers. 22. Your silver has become dross; your wine is diluted with water. 23. Your princes are rebellious and companions of thieves; everyone loves bribes and runs after payments; the orphan they do not judge, and the quarrel of the widow does not come to them. 24. "Therefore," says the Master, the Lord of Hosts, the Mighty One of Israel, "Oh, I will console Myself from My adversaries, and I will avenge Myself of My foes. 25. And I will return My hand upon you and purge away your dross as with lye, and remove all your tin. 26. And I will restore your judges as at first and your counsellors as in the beginning; afterwards you shall be called City of Righteousness, Faithful City. 27. Zion shall be redeemed through justice and her penitent through righteousness.

We then returned to the regular service, with the traditional Aleinu prayer, but following that, and before starting on the Mourner's Kaddish, I added one more reading, again a responsive reading adapted from song lyrics, this time from Bob Dylan's Forever Young:

May God bless and keep you always,
May your wishes all come true,
May you always do for others
And let others do for you.
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung,
And may you stay forever young,
May you stay forever young.

May you grow up to be righteous,
May you grow up to be true,
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you.
May you always be courageous,
Stand upright and be strong,
And may you stay forever young,
May you stay forever young.

May your hands always be busy,
May your feet always be swift,
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift.
May your heart always be joyful,
May your song always be sung,
And may you stay forever young,
May you stay forever young.
Dylan took the opening line, May God bless and keep you always, from the priestly benediction that was traditionally made by the Cohenim (the House of Aaron, brother of Moses, who were the priests of the Temple in Jerusalem, from whence the Jewish last name of Cohen and variations such as Kahn), and that first appears in The Book of Numbers:

The Eternal spoke to Moses: Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:

The Eternal bless you and keep you!

The Eternal deal kindly and graciously with you!

The Eternal bestow favour upon you and grant you peace!

Thus they shall link my name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them. (Numbers 6:22-27)

This is a contemporary translation, but the older wording that I grew up with was more along these lines:

May God bless you and keep you;
May God shine His countenance upon you and be gracious to you;
May God turn His countenance towards you and place upon you peace.
Anyway, I've been wanting to use the Dylan lyrics in a service for some time now, and my son, who I had introduced the song to a while back, was eager for me to do so as well, so I'm happy I had the chance, and that he was there to see and take part in it.

1 comment:

Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro said...

Thanks for holding down the fort while I was away!