Archive for October, 2010

B’SHALLAH (ELIAS’ BAR MITZVAH)

Friday, October 15th, 2010

I count eight miracles in Elias’ Parsha, the chapter of the Torah read today: the cloud by day, the pillar of fire by night, the splitting for the sea, the spell cast on the Egyptian army, the sweetening of the water, Mannah, water from the rock, and the rod raised to victory for the armies of Israel. Surely this is an amazing number of splendid events. Most of us define a miracle as a suspension of the laws of nature, the laws set up by God as the basis of the universe. So here we have God, disobeying God’s own eternal, dependable laws.

This paradox explains why so many Jews try to find natural explanations for the “miracles,” miracles in quotes. Yam Suph, we say, was once mistranslated as Red Sea, but really read Reed Sea, so that we’re looking at a marsh where chariots might sink easily while people walk in safety. Pillar an cloud? Well, volcanic activity. Mannah? Yes, the exudate of certain cacti. Water from a rock? Yes, some limestones store water.

Why are we so uncomfortable with abrogations of earth’s laws? I think it’s because we see these laws as beautiful in themselves. The arrow that kills may be the arrow that launches the first lead-line that will be the cable of a bridge. The miracle of trajectory is the same in both cases. Cain, our ancestor, was a murderer and the builder of cities. The human, a tantrum-genius, kills and saves, s the inventor of the exploding bullet and the heart-lung machine. The wind that took my roof somehow saved the lilac bush outside my door.

The creation here is freedom from bondage, yet in this Parsha and Haftarah, its commentary, are two war poems, the kind of poems that ancient armies made set pieces in their oral traditions. The songs are meant to be shouted to the gallop of warhorses, the rhythm that lovely 4/3-6/8 beat. They are thrilling, even in English, where the beat isn’t heard. Every time I recited them, I want to enlist. The completing song in the Haftara is a victory song. The Greeks called it paean, with a sarcastic finish utterly lacking in modern compunction and a political correctness. For me, it’s a guilty pleasure: I win, you lose, ha-ha.

What’s present in other traditions is a glee that glorifies long after everyone sobers up. For us, the reckoning is more difficult after the battle or the crossing, or the water from the rock.

The Talmud, our sages’ commentary on these portions, says that God yelled at the dancers at the Reed Sea: “How can you sing when my people are drowning?” And of the sweet water from the rock, the Torah itself reminds us that we were so busy arguing and complaining that we could barely hear Moses, who was himself only the agent of our salvation and not its designer.

There are many miracles in the Torah, and eight here, but to me, a genuine miracle is the Torah’s warts-and-all presentation of our people. Even Moses, the best of us, flips out occasionally, gives up, worries, wavers, gets it wrong, an it all goes into the history to be read and commented on.

So, Elias takes part in our miracle today. Three thousand, four hundred three years ago, give or take, a mixed bunch of Semites, Sumerians, probably, invented ethical monotheism, Shabbat, kashrut, forced marches, and talking back to God. Later, they perfected their talking book, celebrated their defeats as though they were victorious, gave us kosher pickles and bar mitzvahs. Next to that, water from the rock seems like no miracle in particular.