Reputation

This Saturday, in addition to leading the Szim Salom service along with our rabbi, I will chant Torah, as I do at all our Saturday morning services. Over time, preparation has become much quicker and easier than it used to be. I remember, back in New York, spending hours an evening over the verses, learning the sounds and meanings, bringing them into myself, and pondering them. That was, for me, the most important aspect of Jewish life: immersing myself in the ancient language, texts, and melodies, learning the system of cantillation, learning liturgy. The more recent ease means less time spent on the verses each evening, which means more time for other things (and I’m glad of that), but less time hearing the texts from the inside. And time makes a difference.

So this week, when I found myself pondering Saturday’s reading (from Numbers 14), it reminded me a bit of the old days. Moses has sent spies out to the land of Canaan, to see what the land was like. They have come back with a grim report; the people there are giants, and they (the spies) were like grasshoppers in their own sight and that of the Caananites. Then the children of Israel begin to wail: would that we had died in Egypt! Or here, in the desert! Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, speak out and say that the land is in fact good; in response, the people call for their stoning.

God then loses all patience and asks Moses: “How long will these people despise me?” He declares that he will smite and kill them all, and make of Moses a greater nation.

Moses’s response is (at one level) one of the most peculiar passages I have read in the Torah. He essentially reminds God: If the Egyptians knew that you killed the very people that you brought up from Egypt, they would tell other people that You, who have been in the midst of Your people, going before them “in a pillar of cloud by day, and in a pillar of fire by night,” have killed them because you could not able to fulfill your promise to them. The Hebrew syntax of these verses is complex, as are the various referents, but the gist seems to be, “What will happen, God, to your reputation?”

There is so much to say and think about Moses’s argument (which ultimately persuades God not to kill all the people, just the older generation)—thousands of commentaries have been written about it—but the question that bothered me was, why would God care what the Egyptians and others say?

The most direct answer is that God would not be able to replace the children of Israel easily, if he damaged his own reputation in this way. Everyone would have heard about his failure and would be reluctant to accept him. So this is Moses’s way of reminding God, “Do not take us for granted, even with all our faults.”

But at a deeper level this suggests that the relationship between humans and God has to be reciprocal. Reputation here is not just gossip and babbling; it can lead to—or stand in the way of—encounter. A God who fulfills his promises and stays faithful to his people will already mean something to the outside world. Even if they believe in other gods, they will keep, in the back of their mind, this image of presence, glory, and mercy. (Verse 18 repeats most of the “thirteen attributes” associated with God.)

In our own lives, reputation has a form analogous to what is suggested here. It isn’t good to get caught up in worrying about what others think of you, but if you keep your promises, fulfill your projects, and treat others kindly, your reputation (in the best sense of the word) will open up the world for you. This kind of reputation is an early rumbling of relationship. So in other words, sometimes it does matter what other people say, when this is a reflection of what you actually have done.

This makes sense in our immediate world. It’s somewhat baffling that this would also be the case with God, but it’s an important bafflement. We get to wrestle with the idea that God is somewhat vulnerable and has something to lose, and that the words of humans matter not only in our sphere, but beyond. Maybe liturgy itself is a way of carrying reputation. The verb שמע (to hear, listen), along with the related שֵׁמַע (hearing, report), which in turn is suggestive of שֵׁם (name), has an essential role in these verses, and in liturgy too: hearing, and hearing the name, and listening closely, all have to do with building a relationship with God.

I say all of this, by the way, as someone who does not always believe in God. Sometimes I clearly do; sometimes I am not so sure. It is great to be able to stay with these texts and to chant them in Hebrew, no matter how my own thoughts and feelings fluctuate. That is what I have been learning, as I serve as Szim Salom’s primary cantor (now for three and a half years, going strong). I don’t always feel religious, or observant, or sure of what I am doing. But I love the role and Szim Salom itself, and have found so much good in staying with the responsibilities and finally owning them. For a long time I was shy about calling myself a cantor, since the word has such grand associations for me. But cantors come in great variety, and this is good. I give what I can, and I learn as I go along. I am always seeking to do better.

Here is a picture of the rabbi and me outside the Methodist church in Buda where we used to hold services back in 2017 and early 2018. (Before we moved to Bálint Ház, we had no place, so the very kind minister, Gábor Iványi, and his congregation offered us the space on Shabbatot.) It is no wonder that he has a reputation as a holy man.

The image of the Hebrew text and translation, from Numbers 14, is courtesy of Mechon Mamre.

Painting: Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam.

As usual, I made a few edits and additions to this piece after posting it.

Three Sentences

IMG_4513I will get to the three sentences in a minute. Today, around noon, I went biking along the Tisza; all the photos and the video in this piece are from the ride. There’s a long promenade that runs along the river all across town and beyond; I started exploring the path beyond but turned around when I saw an animal that looked from a short distance like a wolf. He stopped and stared; at one point he seemed ready to charge in my direction, but then, when I started to turn around, he slunk away. I figured I wouldn’t push the matter.

People were out biking, running, and thoughtfully walking; it was like Riverside Park, but with about one-hundredth of the crowd. There were solitary walkers, couples, and families; people with dogs, people fishing, and ducks paddling along with the current, which seemed to sweep them along.

Exactly at noon, when the church bells were ringing, I happened to be biking over the Tisza, on the Tiszavirág híd (the Mayfly Bridge). I decided to make a short video. You can see the old synagogue (now a gallery) ahead; you can hear the bells and the clattering of bike on planks. The biking seems a little wobbly because I was holding the phone up at the same time. Because of the angle, it also seems that I’m about to run into the people walking my way, but this was not so.

When I came to the Zagyva, I saw someone fishing right there, at the corner where the two rivers meet. If you look closely (and zoom in), you can see him too.

IMG_4518

But that’s not what this piece is about. I brought in this long preface so that I could include and explain the photos. Here are a few more, all taken on this ride.

So, on Friday, right after school, I went to Budapest for Shabbat; I stayed until Saturday late afternoon. I had prepared to leyn (chant) Torah on Saturday morning; in addition, the rabbi had asked me to give a little D’var Torah (teaching) on the relationship between the trope and the meaning of this Shabbat’s text. For the sake of simplicity and time, I limited myself to just a few remarks, which I did not write down. In addition, I decided at the last minute to say the first sentences of my D’var in Hungarian, so I prepared and memorized them.

I do not want to describe the service—that is not for the blog—but I’ll give those three sentences, since they mark an important moment in my life here. This was not only my first D’var Torah ever (except for a few short remarks at Morning Minyan in NYC), but my first time trying to say something in Hungarian beyond greetings and basic questions.

A Biblia legtöbb versje két részre osztható. (Most of the verses in the Bible can be divided into two parts.)

I saw people nodding; my Hungarian was intelligible! This is nothing to take for granted; if I had gotten one of the vowels or consonants wrong, the whole meaning might have been lost. I continued:

A trop “etnachta” osztja őket. Ez a két rész gyakran tükrözi egymást. (The etnachta trope divides them. These two parts often reflect each other.)*

From there I went on to discuss, in English and Hebrew, the word “anochi” (“I”) in Genesis 25:22 and 25:30: its  prominence in the etnachta position, and the contrast between the two occurrences (one is spoken by Rebecca, the other by Esau, with different tone and implications, and different conclusions of the verses). People jumped in; it turned into a stimulating discussion in three languages, with translations going every which way.

Now, I am not sure that my Hungarian was completely correct; in particular, I suspect that my use of the word tükrözi (“mirror,” “reflect”) was somewhat off. But the meanings came through as we talked.

I am nowhere near being able to form such sentences spontaneously—but this was a true beginning. Things will build from here.

*P.S. In retrospect, I see that I should have said, “The trope etnachta signals their division” (possibly A tropus “etnachta” jelzi megosztottságukat), not “The trope etnachta divides them”; such precision comes with language and time. (Also, it seems that the word for “trope” is tropus—but trop may be clearer in this context.)

 

Noah and the End of Endings

Noah's Sacrifice

The following post is not only for those of Jewish faith, or even the religious in general; the Biblical verses on Noah and the flood transcend particular belief.

As I prepare to read three aliyot of Noah* this coming Shabbat, I am moved by the divine shift in these verses. Genesis 6:13 reads,

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים לְנֹחַ, קֵץ כָּל-בָּשָׂר בָּא לְפָנַי–כִּי-מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ חָמָס, מִפְּנֵיהֶם; וְהִנְנִי מַשְׁחִיתָם, אֶת-הָאָרֶץ.

And God said unto Noah: ‘The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.

God doesn’t destroy them all, though; He saves Noah, his wife, his sons, and his sons’ wives. They must survive and bear the kind of loss that makes a whole life reel. The survival must be its own good.

I think of “Still, Citizen Sparrow” by Richard Wilbur, who died on Saturday at the age of 96. I quote just the last two stanzas (starting with the first full sentence):

…. Forget that he could bear
To see the towns like coral under the keel,
And the fields so dismal deep. Try rather to feel
How high and weary it was, on the waters where
He rocked his only world, and everyone’s.
Forgive the hero, you who would have died
Gladly with all you knew; he rode that tide
To Ararat; all men are Noah’s sons.

“Forgive the hero”: The one who goes through all this cannot possibly be pleasant. People do not want to see what he saw. Because his whole manner reflects what he saw, they find him “unnatural.” But Wilbur hints at something beyond the suffering. Through seeing “the towns like coral under the keel,” through riding that tide where it was so “high and weary,” Noah changes the world.

I have many thoughts on the poem, but I’ll return to Genesis now. Here there’s no hint of Noah’s thoughts, no mention of his suffering. We only get to picture the destruction along with him: the waters rising fifteen cubits high, all flesh dying, all life being blotted out, except the life in the ark.

But when the earth dries, Noah, after stepping out of the ark at God’s command, builds an altar (without being so commanded) and makes burnt offerings. God smells the sweet savor and says (Genesis 8:21-22),

וַיָּרַח יְהוָה, אֶת-רֵיחַ הַנִּיחֹחַ, וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-לִבּוֹ לֹא-אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת-הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם, כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו; וְלֹא-אֹסִף עוֹד לְהַכּוֹת אֶת-כָּל-חַי, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי.

עֹד, כָּל-יְמֵי הָאָרֶץ: זֶרַע וְקָצִיר וְקֹר וָחֹם וְקַיִץ וָחֹרֶף, וְיוֹם וָלַיְלָה–לֹא יִשְׁבֹּתוּ.

And the LORD smelled the sweet savour; and the LORD said in His heart: ‘I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.

While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.’

There is extensive commentary on each word of this; I will focus here on the reversal of “the end of all flesh.” It was really “the end of all flesh with a few worthy exceptions”–but even such an end, according to these verses, will never happen again. The end has ended.

These verses show a permanent shift in the divine. What happened with Noah could happen only once; maybe that is God’s atonement for the toll it took, but in any case, a changed God emerges, one who will never again smite every living being.

But the reason is strange: “for the imagination [purpose, plan] of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” One would think that human goodness, not evil, would dissuade God from acting in this way again. Rashi comments,

from his youth: This is written מִנְּעֻרָיו [i.e., without a “vav,” implying that] from the time that he [the embryo] shakes himself [נִנְעָר] to emerge from his mother’s womb, the evil inclination is placed in him. — [from Gen. Rabbah 34:10]

So one can understand these verses as follows: I, who created humans, must bear responsibility for who they are. Their evil is not just their own doing; it has been with them since their birth. Although I may punish them (and allow them to harm each other), I will never destroy them altogether, because their condition comes not only from them, but from me.

But there’s more happening here. God says  this after smelling the “sweet savour” of Noah’s sacrifice–and it was unprecedented among sacrifices, sweeter, maybe, than any that came before, because Noah performed it after horrific survival–survival at the cost of peace of mind. Noah’s sacrifice, his suffering, has already been enough by any standard, but he adds the formal sacrifice, which moves God to speak “in His heart [or mind, or seat of intention]” (אֶל-לִבּוֹ). So there could be a meaning like this:

Just as I answered evil, so I now answer good; evil will always abound, but good can change even the heart of God. I am changed by Noah’s obedience and piety, and not only by his character and actions, but by his life, this cherished life, this life that was everything all along. Accepting this sacrifice, smelling its sweetness, I cannot be the same God as before; I cannot put an end to all life, even with a few exceptions, ever again.

Whatever one’s religious, agnostic, atheistic or other views of life, one can imagine these verses, and within them, a God profoundly shaken by the goodness of a man.

What does this mean here and now? It doesn’t mean that we should stop worrying about destruction; the threat of destruction is real. Nor does it mean that the good people are rescued and the bad ones destroyed. It means, maybe, that any of us can sit with goodness, take it in, and, as a result, change forever how we deal with others.

So difficult it is to take in goodness; goodness itself is difficult. It isn’t always recognized; sometimes it’s mistaken for something else. Even when recognized, it isn’t easy to accept or fathom. Receiving another person’s goodness, one also receives the loneliness, the singularity. I don’t know exactly what it does, this “sweet savour,” but I think it leaves a person slightly gentler than before.

*In synagogue services, when Torah is read, the portion is divided into aliyot (honors with blessings). A member of the congregation, or sometimes a guest, is called up for an aliya; this person recites the blessings before and after the reading. In the past, the person receiving the honor would also read the Torah verses; today there is usually a separate reader. The reader chants the text according to cantillation principles. I will be reading at both the children’s service and the main service; hence the span of verses.  (This is my last Shabbat at B’nai Jeshurun before I leave for the ALSCW Conference and then for Hungary.)

The English translations of the Biblical verses are from the JPS 1917 edition (courtesy of the Mechon Mamre website). In two places I added alternate translations in brackets.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

Image: James Jacques Joseph Tissot, Noah’s Sacrifice, Gouache on board, c. 1896-. The Jewish Museum (New York City).

The Beauty of Leviticus 13

In my last post I criticized the careless application of the word “toxic” to human beings. The day I wrote it, I was invited to read (i.e., chant, leyn, cantillate)  a substantial part of the Torah portion Tazria (Leviticus 12-13) on April 29. Tazria first describes the purification process for women who have just given birth and then provides instructions that Aaron, his sons, and any priest must follow when examining and treating skin disorders. The latter part–contained in Chapter 13 of Leviticus–fascinates and moves me because of its intricacy, which (in my interpretation)  represents the intricacy of the human condition. The diagnoses are anything but careless.

The cantillation here poses challenges because of the verses’ grammatical complexity and the repetition of words and phrases. Normally, when preparing to read a portion, you can associate a particular phrase with its trope (melody); here you cannot, because each time the phrase comes up, the trope will be different. You must be entirely focused on the particularities and meaning of each verse. (I had more trouble with this portion than with any I have read before–but in its difficulty lies its beauty.)

Then there are the pronouns “hu” (masculine) and “hi” (feminine), which are so tricky that they elicited commentary from the medieval French rabbi and scholar Rashi (Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105). These pronouns refer not to the nouns just before them, the predicates, but rather to the subject of the verse or even the subject of the set of verses. The subject may not even be named explicitly in the verse; you have to understand what it is. So you hear both “nega tzaraat hu” (he/it is the plague of leprosy, where the pronoun refers to an earlier “nega”) and “nega tzaraat hi” (it is the plague of leprosy (or whatever the disease actually was), where “it” refers to “michvat-esh,” a feminine compound noun meaning “a burning by fire”). To make things trickier still, the two pronouns are almost always spelled identically in Torah; editions with vowel markings will have the “u” or “i” marks, but a scroll will not. (Elsewhere “hu” and “hi” have distinct spellings.)

This grammatical complexity reflects the complexity of the skin diagnoses. Some conditions are contagious (impure); some are not. Some have to be watched over time. Some conditions that look threatening begin to fade a few days later; others that seem to have faded may erupt again. Each case needs to be recognized for what it is. Here are verses 13:1-5 (courtesy of the Mechon Mamre website):

א  וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר. 1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying:
ב  אָדָם, כִּי-יִהְיֶה בְעוֹר-בְּשָׂרוֹ שְׂאֵת אוֹ-סַפַּחַת אוֹ בַהֶרֶת, וְהָיָה בְעוֹר-בְּשָׂרוֹ, לְנֶגַע צָרָעַת–וְהוּבָא אֶל-אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, אוֹ אֶל-אַחַד מִבָּנָיו הַכֹּהֲנִים 2 When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of leprosy, then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests.
ג  וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן אֶת-הַנֶּגַע בְּעוֹר-הַבָּשָׂר וְשֵׂעָר בַּנֶּגַע הָפַךְ לָבָן, וּמַרְאֵה הַנֶּגַע עָמֹק מֵעוֹר בְּשָׂרוֹ–נֶגַע צָרַעַת, הוּא; וְרָאָהוּ הַכֹּהֵן, וְטִמֵּא אֹתוֹ 3 And the priest shall look upon the plague in the skin of the flesh; and if the hair in the plague be turned white, and the appearance of the plague be deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is the plague of leprosy; and the priest shall look on him, and pronounce him unclean.
ד  וְאִם-בַּהֶרֶת לְבָנָה הִוא בְּעוֹר בְּשָׂרוֹ, וְעָמֹק אֵין-מַרְאֶהָ מִן-הָעוֹר, וּשְׂעָרָה, לֹא-הָפַךְ לָבָן–וְהִסְגִּיר הַכֹּהֵן אֶת-הַנֶּגַע, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים 4 And if the bright spot be white in the skin of his flesh, and the appearance thereof be not deeper than the skin, and the hair thereof be not turned white, then the priest shall shut up him that hath the plague seven days.
ה  וְרָאָהוּ הַכֹּהֵן, בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, וְהִנֵּה הַנֶּגַע עָמַד בְּעֵינָיו, לֹא-פָשָׂה הַנֶּגַע בָּעוֹר–וְהִסְגִּירוֹ הַכֹּהֵן שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, שֵׁנִית 5 And the priest shall look on him the seventh day; and, behold, if the plague stay in its appearance, and the plague be not spread in the skin, then the priest shall shut him up seven days more.

This is just the beginning of a long and intricate set of instructions. First, the person with the skin disorder (a rising, scab, or bright spot) goes before the priest. Certain symptoms definitely indicate a plague; others require inspection over time. But look at all those independent and subordinate clauses! Take verse 3: “And the priest shall look upon the plague in the skin of the flesh; and if the hair in the plague be turned white, and the appearance of the plague be deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is the plague of leprosy; and the priest shall look on him, and pronounce him unclean.” The trope (which reflects the grammatical structure) is of course as intricate as the structure itself. You can hear Hazzan (Cantor) Rob Menes of Congregation Beth Shalom read these verses.

The beauty here is that only under extreme conditions is someone pronounced “impure”–and that person will then go through purification. While some of this may seem harsh and unpleasant, the whole point is to attend to each individual and to the community: to avoid isolating anyone unnecessarily or longer than necessary, to isolate those who really have the plague, and to purify them so that they can then come out of isolation.

Although this priestly ritual is long obsolete, it is not entirely different from a skin exam at the dermatologist’s office. It has other levels of meaning, though. To me this is a parable of human complexity and compassion; people have all sorts of problems and characteristics and should not be categorized crudely. If skin diagnosis is intricate and nuanced, how much more intricate and nuanced our judgments of each other can be! As with cantillation itself, the challenge is to hold the complexity.

Update: Yet there is simplicity here too! See my followup post.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

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    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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