Bob Schwartz

Tag: Robert Alter

Tucson: Psalm of Mountains and Shade

I lift up my eyes to the mountains:
from where will my help come?
Psalm 121:1

For the faithful, the occasionally faithful, and the unfaithful and unbelieving in extreme circumstances, Psalm 121 has served as a song for those seeking relief. It includes a dialogue rare among the psalms. Some say it is an internal dialogue, the psalmist asking a question and answering it himself. Others suggest that the famous biblical question is asked of and answered by a priest.

Robert Alter translates:

A song of ascents.
I lift up my eyes to the mountains:
from where will my help come?
My help is from the LORD,
maker of heaven and earth.
He does not let your foot stumble.
Your guard does not slumber.
.
Look, He does not slumber nor does He sleep,
Israel’s guard.
The LORD is your guard,
the LORD is your shade at your right hand.
By day the sun does not strike you,
nor the moon by night.
The LORD guards you from all harm,
He guards your life.
The LORD guards your going and your coming,
now and forevermore.

Everything about the psalm says Tucson. The mountains are all around; you can’t help but lift your eyes. The question—the plea—is almost as old as the mountains: help, but from where?

Shade at your right hand—at any hand—is a constant need. The sun is as relentless as the mountains. And what about the moon by night? Some think it is a reference to the legendary danger of being moonstruck into madness. Others say it is mere poetry.

The desert, the mountains, the sun, the moon, the madness of life. From where will help come?

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

In the Beginning, Again

Genesis Illustrated Cover

This Sabbath, the annual cycle of Torah readings starts all over again. Again. Back to the beginning. Genesis (Breisheit), Chapter 1.

In the beginning….Well, you probably know how it goes. But don’t be jaded by familiarity. And don’t avoid it or be put off by belief that this and all the Genesis stories that follow are neither history nor science. So what? These are big stories and we need big stories. Not to be used as clubs to beat us up (though there is that), but as invitations and portals to bigger things. If not, then why are so many watching Hunger Games or Downtown Abbey?

Instead of learned discourse, here is something much more fun. R. Crumb, one of the great comic artists (beginning with his classic underground comics in the 1960s—Mr. Natural, etc.), published his Book of Genesis Illustrated in 2010.

Genesis Illustrated Back Cover

(If you don’t like pictures or Crumb’s illustrations, you might just try the excellent translation of Genesis that Crumb used, by Robert Alter)

Take a moment, whatever your inclinations, and allow yourself to be awed. Whatever you think is awesome, the sudden appearance of everything is more awesome than that, however you explain it. And for those who are waiting to see the Big Guy with the long beard–you know you’ve just gotta have it–here it is.

Genesis Illustrated Page 1