Questioning faith in the parsha
Monthly Archives: December 2010
From the book Moses in the Sinai, By Simone Zelitch
The Pharaoh Merneptah had aged well. Morning walks along the wadi banks kept his flesh firm and clear, and his round head was smooth, save for a crease between his eyebrows. Most days he sat with his maps, a scribe on either hand. Most nights before he went to bed, he shot quail in the dark, and even at an age when the eyes of men grow weak, Merneptah never missed his mark. His cooks were hard-put to roast all the game, and so grew tales of pots which never emptied and feather coverlets piled to the sky.
For Merneptah was also a wizard, a sage, and a holy man. Never had a more pious Pharaoh sat in Goshen. His tomb made his father’s look like a footstool. He laid such bounty at the temple doors that they seemed made more of gold than stone. Around his throne were ten wise men from Thebes, Memphis and Persia, and there had not been such men since the beginning of the world. Each stood seven feet tall, and it was said that a single blink of their eyes could shut the sky like a window. Yet none of those men could cure the queen’s madness, or open her closed womb.
- Despite God’s message that they will be redeemed from slavery, the Israelites’ spirits remain crushed. God instructs Moses and Aaron to deliver the Israelites from the land of Egypt. (6:2-13)
- The genealogy of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and their descendants is recorded. (6:14-25)
- Moses and Aaron perform a miracle with a snake and relate to Pharaoh God’s message to let the Israelites leave Egypt. (7:8-13)
- The first seven plagues occur. God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and Pharaoh rescinds each offer to let the Israelites go. (7:14-9:35)
Never Shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.
Another, I think later, text by Yehuda Amichai opens one more window on this morning’s discussion:
My father’s memorial day
On my father’s memorial day
I went out to see his mates –
All those buried with him in one row,
His life’s graduation class.
I already remember most of their names,
Like a parent collecting his little son
From school, all of his friends.
My father still loves me, and I
love him always, so I don’t weep.
But in order to do justice to this place
I have lit a weeping in my eyes
With the help of a nearby grave –
A child’s. “Our little Yossy, who was
Four when he died.”
“My father still loves me, and I/ love him always, so I don’t weep”. So it was that Jacob was gathered to his people and Israel continued to live. But we weep for the little boy, we weep for what did not flower.
Parsha va y’chi
My father’s father died during Passover in 1919, when my father was six, and so, as the oldest male in the household, it fell to him to become the man of the family, signing checks and saying kaddish.
One of my earliest and most enduring memories of my father is his voice — sonorous, deep, clear and resolute — saying the words of the kaddish. Each time we were in Temple I would stand next to my father, his arm around my shoulder more embracing and comforting that the fringe of any tallit, and I would hear his voice—pure, sure and strong.
“Yis gad-dal v’yis kaddash sh’meh rabo” he would say in the Ashkenazi pronunciation of his youth.
“Y’heh sh’lo-mo rabb-bo min sh’ma you v’cha-im, olenu v’alkol yis-ro-el…”
Passover, as you might imagine, was not a particularly joyful time in the Slavin household for my father and by extension the rest of our family.
In 1999 my parents were living in a nursing home. One February Shabbat I took my father to the home’s shul to say kaddish for his mother. He had begun a fairly rapid descent by then, and was having trouble following the prayerbook or hearing what was being said. And when it came time to say kaddish, his voice was weak and wavering.
When we got back to his room, he was in tears. “It’s my father’s 80th yahzeit this year….how will I say Kaddish for him?” he asked me.
“Don’t worry,” I told him. “I will take it over.”
My father died later that year and, true to my word, I continue to say Kaddish for everyone on his list.
I never knew my grandfather Isaac. I have only two pictures of him, and only the stories my father told me about him, stories recollected by a young child forced to grow up too quickly.
But I feel as though I know him. And, as I say kaddish each Passover, I wrap my arms around myself and feel my father’s embrace, and as I say the prayer my words are supported by my father’s, our words blending into a single voice.
This Passover will the 92nd anniversary of his death, and I will say kaddish for him. But I am left with a nagging and troubling thought:
Who will take over when I can no longer honor my promise to my father?
- Jacob blesses his grandchildren Ephraim and Manasseh. (48:1-20)
- Jacob’s twelve sons gather around his deathbed, and each receives an evaluation and a prediction of his future. (49:1-33)
- Joseph mourns his father’s death and has Jacob embalmed. Jacob is buried in Hebron in the cave of the field of the Machpelah in the land of Canaan. (50:1-14)
- Joseph assures his concerned brothers that he has forgiven them and promises to care for them and their families. (50:15-21)
- Just before he dies, Joseph tells his brothers that God will return them to the Land that God promised to the patriarchs. The Children of Israel promise Joseph that they will take his bones with them when they leave Egypt. (50:22-26)
One Yom Kippur my father stood in front of me in synagogue. I climbed up onto the seat to get a better view of him from the back. His neck is much easier to remember than his face. His neck is always fixed and unchanging; but his face is constantly in motion as he speaks, his mouth gaping like the doorway of a dark house or like a fluttering flag. Butterfly eyes, or eyes like postage stamps affixed to the letter of his face, which is always mailed to faraway places. Or his ears, which are like sails on the sea of his God. Or his face, which was either all red, or white like his hair. And the waves on his forehead, which was a little, private beach beside the sea of the world…..