Tread lightly, walk heavily
We met at the trailhead to Caballero Canyon in Tarzana, on this Shabbat Shuva, midway between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The sign gave instructions about trail etiquette, which led to an immediate dilemna. “Tread lightly” it said, as we share the trail with all types of animals, birds, and plant beings. “Walk heavily” it said, so as not to surprise any snakes who may be lurking under a bush or around the corner of the trail. So off we went down the trail, like all good Hebrew travelers who know in their bones how to live in multiple worlds of paradox, walking heavily lightly.
Tapping Wood to Stone
Stopping on the trail, halfway up the mountain, a teaching from second century, C.E., Rav Shim’on Bar Yochai, in the Zohar (translation by R. Gershon Winkler, in his book "Daily Kabbalah"):
Three sounds are inaudible to the human ear and never leave the earth: the sound of the snake shedding its skin, the sound of a soul leaving the body at death, and the sound of birthing. Where do these sounds go? They travel to the canyons where they encrypt themselves in the earth. The sound of your voice in the canyon awakens them from dormancy and evokes their powers. However, to awaken the sound of the snake shedding its skin, you must tap wood to stone. You hear these sounds as “echoes” but know that they are three sounds coming right back to you in the garb of your own voice or drumming, to empower you with shedding your old patterns, to aid you in surrendering to the uncertainty of your next step, and to guide you in birthing yourself anew.
Nehushtan: The Copper Serpent
Nahash slithers onto our path for the third time (and for one hiker, a fourth time somewhat later when she actually did see a baby snake during the hike). We spoke about the tale of the “brazen serpent” that Moses had the people build out of copper, and placed on the top of a staff. The Children of Israel were afflicted by a plague of poisonous snakes during their travels through the Sinai, an affliction the commentators tell us that they brought onto themselves by slandering Moshe. By staring up at Nehushtan, they had to lift their eyes to the heavens, allowing them to remember for Whose purpose they were travelling through the desert. This may be the first historical record of the use of guided imagery in healing: looking at the symbol of their affliction, an illness brought on the people due to their use of forked tongue, reminded them of their role in causing their own disease – the first step toward healing. Thus returning to their proper mindset, they were able to be healed by HaShem of the plague of poison snakes.
"Turn me on, Sister Sarah" (lyric by Rebbe Soul)
Reading from Ginzburg’s “Legends of the Jews” we find evidence supporting our suspicion from our last meeting that Sarai was not a passive player in the drama in the House of Pharoah, when she and Avram went down during the famine. According to this version of the tale, it is Sarai who tells Pharoah that Avram is her brother (no suggestion that he told her to do so – in fact he tried to sneak her into Egypt without anyone seeing her!); and it is Sarai who directs a malach to strike Pharoah with a staff any time he tries to approach her, as well as brings on the plague of leprosy. Perhaps this is what the Torah means when it describes what happened according to the D’var Sarai – the word of Sarai. But Ginzburg says that Pharoah deserved the leprosy affliction? But why did he deserve it if he did not know of Sarai and Avram’s true relationship? Perhaps it was because of the way he took Sarai into his palace – by force with an army of soldiers – compared to the way Avram took Sarai away from their homeland to go to Canaan – only with her explicit consent.
We read every Rosh HaShanah the story of the exile of Hagar and Ishmael from the encampment of Avram, of their abandonment in the wilderness, of their miraculous survival. A few discussion points stand out:
· Erasing Hagar. It seems there are elements within Judaism that wish to erase the memory of Hagar, as if she never existed as part of our people’s history. There are reform congregations that celebrate only 1 day of Rosh Hashanah that do not even read the story of the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael. We know of at least one Machzor that even says “Abraham had one son”. A cartoon drawing can be found on-line showing a nice pastoral family scene: Abraham and his 2 sons. But only one woman. Was Hagar holding the camera? More likely she was excised as the "other" - guilty of mothering while Egyptian. http://www.g-dcast.com/roshhashanah?utm_source=G-dcast+mailing+list&utm_campaign=612fcaf157-RH2010&utm_medium=email
· Hearing the son’s cry. Hagar abandons Ishmael under a bush and moves away because she can’t bear to watch him die. She is undoubtedly bereft and distraught, or is she? An angel comes down to save Ishmael, but it is because He has heard the boy’s cry, not Hagar’s. The angel asks what she has done, what she is doing. Is there an oblique reference to her not fulfilling her maternal duties to her and Avram’s son, Ishmael? Should she have held him in his dying moments, rather than moving away and leaving him to die alone? Should she have known where to find the well of water from her prior desert wanderings the first time Sarai banished her from camp? The malach shows her the well, and Ishamel is saved, grows into a strong bowman, marries an Egyptian woman (like his mother), and becomes the Father of the Arab nation.
· A deep teaching tells us that the calls of the shofar do in fact represent the distraught wailing of 3 women in Jewish history: Tekiah represents Sarah’s wailing when she thinks Isaac has been killed by Abraham; Shevarim is the wail of Hannah, barren and pleading for the child that would later be born to her as the prophet Samuel; the stuttering notes of Teruah are the sobs of Im Cisera, the mother of the Canaanite general whose head was impaled by Yael, another of our strong Hebrew women, during Devorah’s conquest of the Canaanites during her reign as judge and prophetess. As the shofar blows on Rosh HaShanah, if we could imagine the wails of Hagar at the impending death of her only son in the wilderness, would that change our approach to the Other?
Resting under the blessing shade of the 2 oaks at the top of our hike, a round of personal sharing: where do we see ourselves as we dwell in these days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when our souls’ journey has the potential to be reshaped and redirected closer to its intended path. Some of the themes mentioned:
· Uncertainty abounds
· Who will be poor, who will be rich
· Death – present in many ways, all around
· Hebrew letters – the magical and creative force in them
· The stag of certainty: He was waiting near the trees for us when we arrived at the top of the hill, asymmetric antlers, moving slowly, purposefully away from us through the brush, no fear, just Being.
In memory of those who died on 9/11, and all those who have died since because of decisions made as a result of 9/11, and all those perhaps still destined to die in the future because of decisions continuing to be made at least in part as a response to 9/11. May our leaders, and our fellow citizens, be blessed with wisdom, civility, and depth.
Next meeting: Saturday October 2 (24 Tishri), 10 AM – noon, location to be named.