Bob Schwartz

Category: Bible

Be Peace

6 Long has my whole being dwelt
among those who hate peace.
7 I am for peace, but when I speak,
they are for war.
Psalm 120, translated by
Robert Alter

Terror in Manchester is one more shattering note in a cacophony of mindless aggression. News of the nation and the world attests to it, from nasty tweets by so-called leaders to torturers and mass murderers. We dwell among those who hate peace.

In Psalm 120, Robert Alter translates the Hebrew ani shalom in verse 7 as “I am for peace”:

The Hebrew appears to say “I am peace,” but, without emending the text, the most plausible way to understand these two words, ani shalom, is that they function as though there were an elided “for” (in the Hebrew not a word but the particle l’).

I dare not take issue with Alter, the great modern translator of the Hebrew Bible, but merely want to extend a thought. If the Hebrew appears to say “I am peace”, maybe that is precisely what it means to say.

Being for peace is a start and an essential part. Being peace is one step beyond this, where there is no space between us and the peace we seek. One step toward that elusive peaceful world, in spite of those who hate peace.

Barely Audible

Barely Audible

קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה

A still small voice
1 Kings 19:12

Hurricanes earthquakes
Fires in the brain
Awed but unable
To follow a thought
Or lose one.
Hear O hear
Minute stillness
Soft murmuring
Gentle whisper
Still small.

Note: “God will reveal himself not in storm or fire or the shaking of the mountain but in a small, barely audible sound. On Mount Carmel, God spoke through fire; here at Horeb, he speaks [to Elijah] in a more subtle language, for the deity is by no means limited to seismic manifestations.”
Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets, translation with commentary by Robert Alter

© Bob Schwartz 2017

A Day for Job

In the Orthodox Church, today is officially a day for the marvelous and mysterious biblical character Job, who is called by that church Righteous Job the Long-Suffering. While the Book of Job is certainly read, used and debated in other Jewish and Christian traditions, this is the only official recognition he gets.

I’ve written before about Job (Yom Kippur and Job, The Radical Book of Job) because there is nothing like it in the Bible, not even close. Robert Alter writes in his enlightening translation and commentary:

The Book of Job is in several ways the most mysterious book of the Hebrew Bible. Formally, as a sustained debate in poetry, it resembles no other text in the canon. Theologically, as a radical challenge to the doctrine of reward for the righteous and punishment for the wicked, it dissents from a consensus view of biblical writers—a dissent compounded by its equally radical rejection of the anthropocentric conception of creation that is expressed in biblical texts from Genesis onward. Its astounding poetry eclipses all other biblical poetry, working in the same formal system but in a style that is often distinct both lexically and imagistically from its biblical counterparts.

“The patience of Job” is the way the story is frequently summarized, suggesting that even in the face of undeserved suffering, Job is a model of how unwavering faith will carry us through the worst times. Once you have read the Book of Job carefully, along with some of the many excellent interpretations, you find that this is not the case. The Book of Job does not solve any mysteries or answer any questions. All it does is deepen mysteries and ask more questions. This isn’t what we might want, but if you’ve lived a life, you know that is what you get. Which is precisely what makes the Book of Job so irreplaceably essential, even if not particularly comforting.

Ezekiel’s Tesla

Ezekiel’s Tesla

I am through with my chariot
Ezekiel said
With its wheels gleaming like beryl
Rims tall and frightening
Covered with eyes
Moving with four-faced creatures.
I want a Tesla.

Buddha Bemidbar (In the Wilderness)

Buddha Bemidbar (In the Wilderness)

Moses is missing
In his place
Siddhartha sits.

Israelites are numbered
Can he free them?

The way in the wilderness
Is unpassable.
Can they pass it?

Too dark to sea
The waters give way
To dry ground
As if they were not there
From the beginning.

Walk on
The mountain next.

Twenty-three’s Older Siblings

Twenty-three’s Older Siblings

You are younger
And a little sweeter.
No fiery furnaces
No bows aimed at faces
No worms or bulls or dogs
Just sheep in green pastures
And overflowing cups.
But twenty-one
And twenty-two
Are no less profound
Just as beautiful sung
While he plays his harp
And of course
(need we mention)
Just as holy.
Yet it is your fearlessness
Goodness and mercy
That are on everyone’s lips
While our great words
Sit ignored and unrecited.
Thank God for those
Forced by vow to repeat us.
We hearten ourselves
By saying that
Our time will come.
But it has been
All the days of our lives
And still it is

Valentine’s Day: Radical Love

Radical Love

For K

Hannah, Mary
Radical lovers.
Wives, mothers
Asking not asking
For a birth
Offering surrendering
A life for good.

Hannah says
The bows of the mighty are broken
but the faltering are braced with strength.

Mary says
The princes are pulled down from their thrones
and the lowly raised high.

All is as it should be
All is upside down.

Elkanah, Joseph
Husbands, lovers
Stand dumb
Awed and grateful
To be sharing
The better world.

Ben Zoma Still Outside


Ben Zoma Still Outside

Lost and found
Between the waters of creation
Ben Zoma
Is outside
Is still outside

And God said, “Let there be a space within the water, and let it separate between water and water.” And God made the space, and it separated between the water that was under the space and the water that was above the space. And it was so. (Gen 1:6-7)

Ben Zoma sat at the Temple Mount, lost in thought. His rebbe Yehoshua ben Chananya came by, but Ben Zoma did not notice or rise in respect. R. Yehoshua roused him from his reverie and asked what he was doing. Gazing at the space between the upper and lower waters, he replied. R.  Yehoshua explained to his disciples:

Ben Zoma is still outside.

Random Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 34


Studying a random Torah chapter each Shabbat contravenes the traditional, conventional and sacred process of following the Torah through a fixed annual cycle of portions. I only recently learned from reading the revered and brilliant rabbi and scholar Aryeh Kaplan that meditation on random Torah passages is actually a historical Jewish phenomenon. Who knew?

While working on an extended explanation of my taking this iconoclastic Torah study path, today I offer a poem about breaking cycles:


We see better in discontinuity
The way we see better in the dark.
We strain for every glimmer of light
However small
To make out shapes.
Cycles and patterns are comfortable
The more they repeat
The easier it seems.
But nothing is easy.
We are lulled into false confidence
That we know what is there
And what is going on.
The broken line
Is as powerful as the solid.

Deuteronomy 34 is the last chapter of the Torah. It is the death of Moses.

The Torah begins on a cosmic scale with the creation of everything. It ends with a single man, a very old and special man, sitting on a mountaintop, surveying the future. He will never see or experience that future, partly because he is old and dying, partly because he has been forbidden to enter the land he has led his people to.

Scholars will tell you that as a literary matter, this final chapter may not technically be the end of the text, that the five books (Pentateuch) are actually six (Hexateuch), and this compendium work originally continued with the story of Joshua, which now appears in the non-Torah book of Joshua.

That is an important scholarly debate in some ways, and a silly one in another. The Big Story always begins with an ineffable cosmic moment. It always ends with an old person surveying the past, present and future, with promises fulfilled and unfulfilled, barred by the nature of creation from going any further. This final chapter gets it right.

The Meek and the Mean

And very soon the wicked will be no more.
You will look at his place—he’ll be gone.
And the poor shall inherit the earth
and take pleasure from great well-being.
(Psalm 37:11-12, Robert Alter translation)

But until then, the mean and the stupid may still prevail.