Bob Schwartz

Tag: Moses

Passover 2020: With stay-at-home seders, Elijah will be making many more wine stops

The tradition of Elijah at the seder is common in many Jewish communities. The practice of pouring a fifth cup of wine and opening the door for Elijah has a complex history. The theme is the prophet as a harbinger of redemption. The scholarship on this is voluminous, and it is generally concluded that the practice is not ancient, only coming into use after the Crusades.

Setting aside the fascinating history of the cup of Elijah, this much is clear: at Passover 2020, Elijah will be visiting a lot more seders. Instead of big groups, single family seders—many of them virtually connected—will be pouring that extra cup for Elijah to drink. Not to mention all the other extra cups that will be poured and drunk on this Passover, different than all other Passovers.

According to the Bible story, Elijah, like Moses before him, fled to the wilderness. Pursued by Ahab and Jezebel, Elijah wanted to give up. Instead, he found water and food to sustain him, ending up at the very same mountain where Moses stood:

And He said, “Go and stand on the mountain before the LORD, and, look, the LORD is about to pass over, with a great and strong wind tearing apart mountains and smashing rocks before the LORD. Not in the wind is the LORD. And after the wind an earthquake. Not in the earthquake is the LORD. And after the earthquake—fire. Not in the fire is the LORD. And after the fire, a sound of minute stillness.” (1 Kings 19:10-12, Robert Alter translation)

Wilderness, food, wine, a sound of minute stillness. Happy Passover.

Moses, Elijah and Jesus (Plus Four) Meet on a Mountain: The Feast of the Transfiguration

The Feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated today in many Christian communities. It marks one of the most fascinating stories reported in the Gospels. From the Gospel of Matthew:

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. (Matthew 17:1-8, NRSV)

Among those Christian communities, the transfiguration has been subject to different interpretations:

The Transfiguration refers to the appearance of Jesus to his disciples in glorified form. The three synoptic Gospels record the episode: Matthew 17:1–9; Mark 9:2–10; Luke 9:28–36. Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him onto a mountain. (Tradition locates it on Mount Tabor, but many scholars prefer Mount Hermon.) He appeared there before them in a luminous form with Moses and Elijah at his side. Peter proposed that they build three tabernacles, or tents. A heavenly voice declared Jesus to be the “beloved son” and enjoined the disciples to heed him. Jesus then appeared in his usual form and commanded his disciples to keep silence.

There are various interpretations of the episode. Some view it as a misplaced account of a resurrection appearance. Others view it as a mystical experience that Jesus’ disciples had in his presence. Others as a symbolic account devised by Matthew or the tradition on which his Gospel relied. Whatever its origin, the episode of the Transfiguration serves at the very least as a literary device to place Jesus on the same level as the Law (represented by Moses) and the Prophets (represented by Elijah) and as a foreshadowing of his future glory. He is the authentic source of divine truth for those who would listen to him.

The feast of the Transfiguration originated in the East and became widely celebrated there before the end of the first Christian millennium. The feast was not celebrated in the West until a much later date. Pope Callistus III ordered its celebration in 1457 in thanksgiving for the victory over the Turks at Belgrade on July 22, 1456, news of which reached Rome on August 6. The feast is on the General Roman Calendar and is also celebrated by the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches, the Church of England, and the Episcopal Church in the USA. (Lives of The Saints: From Mary and St. Francis of Assisi to John XXIII and Mother Teresa by Richard P. McBrien)

However you view this story as a matter of fact, faith or theology, it is a big meeting of some heavy hitters. It begins with Jesus plus three apostles, which is not by itself particularly unusual. Then Moses and Elijah arrive. This meeting now qualifies as a big deal, one of the highest-level conclaves in the Bible. But of course there’s more. God shows up—and speaks. (Note that Moses and Elijah both had experience with this: we aren’t sure what kind of voice Moses heard, but Elijah reportedly heard something still and small.)

Maybe the most fascinating detail of the story is the offer by the apostles to build three separate tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Some think this is a reference to the Feast of Tabernacles, the Jewish pilgrimage festival at which tents/booths are built. But it seems more a gesture of welcome: You guys have traveled a long way to get here for this meeting; the least we can do is give you someplace to rest and refresh. Would they have gone ahead and built those tents for Moses and Elijah if God had not interrupted? It’s a thought.

Trump v. Moses: Grievances Win Over Vision

People can be complainers. Grievances can be powerful. Just ask Trump. Or Moses.

Prior freedom and miracles were not enough for the Jews at Mount Sinai. While Moses goes up the mountain, for what turns out to be a monumental visionary moment, the people head in an entirely different direction. They are still chronically unhappy and complaining about their lives and the way things have been going, and so engage in all sorts of crazy behavior. In that story, the vision does end up prevailing, but only after lots more tzuris (troubles) and mishegas (craziness).

The only chance for vision to prevail over grievance is for there to be an actual coherent and enlightened vision, and for there to be widespread confidence among people in that actual vision. Otherwise people, who are just human, will complain—sometimes selfishly and shortsightedly, sometimes justifiably. And they will channel those complaints into strange behaviors and choices.

In America, there are a lot of people with grievances. And there is a vision vacuum, at least among those whose supposed structural mission is to be practical visionaries (for example, Democrats and religious institutions). Even with miracles behind him, Moses had a tough time. Without miracles or vision, in elections and at other times, we may be seeing a lot more golden calves.

 

The Mountain and the Cross

The Mountain and the Cross

How is the view
From up there?

Can you see
How you got there?
Others look
At every act you took
Word you spoke
Song you sang
Pull them apart
Put them together
A journey
That never seems to end.

For you it ends here
For a time
On the mountain and the cross.

A privileged child
A prince
A prodigy
A champion of the people
An enemy
A wise man
A miracle worker embarrassing mere magicians
A leader
A rebel
How did that rebellion go
How is it now?

One mistake after another
Has cost you everything
Won you something
But what in the end
Did it all mean?

(Jesus wonders
If he might have lived longer
Not one hundred twenty
But more than thirty three.
Moses has no complaint
About the number
And would not trade places
Sitting on a mountain
Not hanging from a cross
But regrets having to survey
An unreachable destination.)

You were just infants
Too young to remember
How it began.
Leave it to others
To imagine that past
And future.
You have no choice
But to let them see and speak for you
As you saw and spoke for others.
Now your eyes and mouth are closed
In dark silence from a height.

© Bob Schwartz 2017

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.

Random Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 34

the_death_of_moses

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:

Discontinuous

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.

Passover and Freud

Moses and the Ten Commandments

What does Freud want? He might not want people attending a Passover seder, offering prayers to a God who isn’t there. But things are not that simple.

Sigmund Freud was a Jew by birth, an atheist by belief. He abstracted and analyzed religion as a powerful manifestation of powerful forces at work. But near the end of his career, he considered whether there was something in God that was more than a mere reflection of psychic need and dynamics.

In his final book, Moses and Monotheism, he suggests that while there is no God, the positing of one had forced the Jews—and all who followed on that spiritual path—to think and act differently. The gift of the idea of God was the imperative to transcend instinct and old ways, to make new and positive sense of the insensible, and to act accordingly.

Those in the Jewish communities will retell some version of the Moses story this Passover. But only some of those will have completely read the biblical account in the Book of Exodus. Even fewer will have looked beyond the popular stories to see what generations of historians and commentators have to offer.

One of those who does have something to offer is Freud. In Moses and Monotheism, he made a jump, if not a giant leap. Here is part of what Freud wrote (emphasis added):

How we who have little belief envy those who are convinced of the existence of a Supreme Power, for whom the world holds no problems because He Himself has created all its institutions!…We can only regret it if certain experiences of life and observations of nature have made it impossible to accept the hypothesis of such a Supreme Being. As if the world had not enough problems, we are confronted with the task of finding out how those who have faith in a Divine Being could have acquired it, and whence this belief derives the enormous power that enables it to overwhelm Reason and Science.

. . .

Let us return to the more modest problem that has occupied us so far. We set out to explain whence comes the peculiar character of the Jewish people which in all probability is what has enabled that people to survive until today. We found that the man Moses created their character by giving to them a religion which heightened their self-confidence to such a degree that they believed themselves to be superior to all other peoples. They survived by keeping aloof from the others. Admixture of blood made little difference, since what kept them together was something ideal the possession they had in common of certain intellectual and emotional values. The Mosaic religion had this effect because (1) it allowed the people to share in the grandeur of its new conception of God, (2) because it maintained that the people had been “chosen” by this great God and was destined to enjoy the proofs of his special favor, and (3) because it forced upon the people a progress in spirituality which, significant enough in itself, further opened the way to respect for intellectual work and to further instinctual renunciations.

. . .

In a new transport of moral asceticism the Jews imposed on themselves constantly increasing instinctual renunciation, and thereby reached at least in doctrine and precepts ethical heights that had remained inaccessible to the other peoples of antiquity. Many Jews regard these aspirations as the second main characteristic, and the second great achievement, of their religion….

It was this “respect for intellectual work” that Freud so appreciated. Freud may have seen himself as a sort of Moses, leading civilization from benighted antiquity to a new light and new heights. Just as religious innovation led Jews from the old ways to a new land, so he and psychoanalysis would lead to even further self-awareness and progress—without God, of course.

Whether or not you believe in God, Moses, or Freud, whether or not you will be sitting at a seder table this Passover, it can be a good time to consider old ways in a new light. According to Freud, the gifts of Moses are the tools to renounce instincts and move beyond mere legacy. If we are trapped as man or mankind, psychoanalysis and, yes, even a certain religious perspective might be able to liberate us.

Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is one of the most popular movies in America right now. Even with the film’s creative liberties, many of the faithful take the movie as cinematic validation of a biblical tale, just as The Ten Commandments was for an earlier generation. But some others of the faithful are bothered, as they should be, by a sense that there is something subversive going on.

Of course there is. Any retelling of our received stories can be subversive, if we are willing to investigate and recreate. In the passage above, Freud could not be clearer that for him the conventional belief in God stands in the way of reason and science. But he then begrudgingly admits that in the right circumstances, some good may and has come from it.

Random Notes on Editing

Random Notes on Editing
1. Whether working on a business report, legal brief, story or even a non-written creation, you have either had the privilege to edit others or have suffered the tough medicine of being edited.

2. All works are improvable. Ask God.

3. There is a difference between edits that are improvements and changes based on subjective sensibilities, though there is a gray area in between.

4. It is easiest to identify improvement editing when the creation is discretely functional and results are measurable, as with some sorts of advertising copy. Some would say readability and clarity fall into this functional category—that is, unless tortured readability is a creative choice and can be handled deftly. Ask Faulkner or Joyce.

5. Voice may be the hardest part of editing. It may also be the hardest part of writing. Even the most technical sorts of work can convey a distinctive voice—you will find this in textbooks, in legal articles, even in judicial rulings. Some writers don’t know abstractly what a distinctive voice is because they just naturally have one. Others work to develop it. That is the dual quandary for editors. If a writer has a voice, or the beginnings of one, you want to cultivate it without editing it away. If a writer doesn’t have much of a voice, there is a risk of the editor—who is often a pretty good writer too—to substitute a different voice entirely.

6. The Bible is the most importantly edited work in Western history, maybe in human history. Speaking of voice, imagine being the one responsible for editing the voice of God, Moses or Jesus. Yet somebody did. These editors took no credit, though it is fun to consider what those acknowledgements might look like. “And finally I’d like to thank my editor, without whom these transcripts of my speeches would not have the power that they do. JC.”

Moses on Krypton, Superman in Egypt

Mose & Superman
The story of the Exodus and Passover is a story of freedom, faith and return from exile. It is also a story about the universal question of identity: who am I?

According to the story told in the Book of Exodus, Moses is born a lowly Hebrew, a child of slaves. Set afloat by his mother to avoid Pharaoh’s slaying of the first born, he is found and given the Egyptian name Moses. He is raised as Egyptian royalty, though as a baby he is fed at the breast of his Hebrew mother.

It is never clear in the text when or how he first finds out about his heritage. We only know that he does discover that he is a Jew. He flees to Midian and marries Zipporah, who bears him a son. The name chosen for their son tells a story, the story of Moses and of the Jewish people. The name is Gershom, meaning “I have been a stranger in a foreign land.” (Exodus 2:22)

This famous phrase leads to a question: exactly which land is Moses a stranger in? Is he a Hebrew who has been a stranger in Egypt, despite living his entire adult life as a great Egyptian? Or is he an Egyptian suddenly identified with a people he never knew as his own?

A clue is found in the stories about Moses as a speaker. Twice Moses tries to tell God that he is speech challenged. When directed to address the Jews, Moses claims to be “slow of tongue” and “heavy of mouth.” When told to speak to Pharaoh, Moses describes himself cryptically as having “uncircumcised lips.” Some interpreters attribute this to an actual speech impediment, perhaps stuttering. But a different view is that Moses is trying to tell God something sensible: Moses does not speak Hebrew very well. And why should he speak Hebrew, when he has spent his life as an Egyptian?

At this point, we leave Egypt for a trip to Cleveland in the 1930s. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster are a couple of nerdy Jewish teenagers with a love of science fiction and a talent for comic book art. They had grown up with the stories of the Bible, including the tales of Moses. Consciously or not, they mixed these together into a comic book creation that would become a modern cultural icon: Superman.

In the Siegel and Shuster version, there is no infant floated off in a basket to avoid his death, and no Egyptian princess to find and adopt him. Instead, the Kryptonian infant Kal-el (a version of the Hebrew phrase Kol El, “the voice of God” or “all of God”) is rocketed off in a space capsule to avoid the planet’s destruction. The capsule crashes on Earth, and he is found and adopted by the Midwestern couple, Ma and Pa Kent.

The biblical infant is raised as an Egyptian and given the Egyptian name Moses; Kal-el is raised as an earthling and given the Midwestern name Clark Kent. The time will come for both of them, Moses and Clark Kent, to reclaim their true identities in order to tap into great power, to become super-men.

But this reclaiming of identity is not without difficulties. The man born Kal-el struggles with his disguises: Is he Superman pretending to be Clark Kent, or is he Clark Kent who has a second identity as Superman?

These particular stories of exile and identity are only two of many such stories in history and in popular culture. It is a story that repeats itself again and again, not only among the Jewish people in ancient and modern times, but among all people in all times and circumstances.

Think of the Jews in the midst of their Exodus, chronically uncertain about who they were and where they belonged. As much as they wanted to follow their faith and their leader to a promised place, their adopted home for generations—even if not by choice, even under the oppressor’s thumb—had been Egypt.

Think of Moses, caught between two worlds. Yet the struggle for identity turns out to be a source of strength for him. All that he accomplished could never have happened if he had been only an Egyptian or only a Hebrew. It was through his being both, and through his trying to resolve that seeming contradiction, that the events of the Exodus transpired.

Think of ourselves. We may believe that by staying in one place and simply holding tight to an unchanging way, we can maintain an identity free of questions, and we can avoid being strangers in a foreign land. But that is impossible. Those around us are constantly changing and the world around us is constantly changing. The land we think of as familiar becomes foreign to us, and we find ourselves strangers in it.

Being a stranger is unavoidable, and it can be a good thing. Like Moses, we discover who we are only when we question who we are in the particular place and time we inhabit. Along with the divine direction that he heard, it is this burning question of identity that drove Moses to do great things. It is a valuable lesson for all of us as we retell the story of the Exodus this Passover.

Actor Is Typecast As Satan

Satan
The media is all atwitter over the observation that the actor who plays Satan in a new Bible series looks a lot or something like President Obama.

The Associated Press got a response from the producers:

Mark Burnett and Roma Burnett said Monday the Moroccan actor who played Satan in the History channel series has played Satanic characters in other Biblical programs long before Obama was elected president.

First, separate from any questions about motives or about whether Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni does look like Obama, let’s quickly get past a gap in this reply. If an actor looks like the President, and you have some creative notion that this helps make it a good casting choice (for artistic, political or publicity reasons), his having played Satan before just might be a bonus. Or if his experience as Satan is the driving reason, then the look-alike feature might be a bonus. The earlier Satan experience doesn’t fully dismiss any possibilities.

Beneath all this is a commentary on the craft and business of acting. From the producers’ comments, it appears that Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni is, or is on his way to, being typecast as Satan. He played the part before, he is playing it now (and getting lots of attention for it), and may then be asked to play it again. If Charlton Heston had done a few more Moses movies after The Ten Commandments, what would his later career have looked like? Would he have been waiting around for the next Moses movie, instead of giving us Ben Hur, Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, etc.? No major actor has ever reprised the role of Jesus, either, because besides the fact that there is no sequel to the story, it is the kind of part that is hard to shake.

There is a silver lining, though. Whether or not there are other Satan parts in this actor’s future, there is no doubt that in years to come, we will be seeing all kinds of films about Barack Obama. Some will even cast Obama as a metaphorical devil—a part he already plays in lots of political punditry. When those films are finally made, there will be a call for actors, and maybe having played Satan will be a real qualification.