Tuesday, December 09, 2008

760. Water

As I mentioned before, I've been taking an excellent writing class these last few months (which just ended this week, alas). We spent the first hour in Torah study--the theme this semester was "the face of God," a big topic if ever there was one. The second hour consisted of critiquing one another's essays, and some in-class writing. That last part, as I've posted before, freaked me out, but was really good (if painful) for my soul. Here's my response to last week's 10-minute prompt, "write about a song of praise." I recalled the very end of Yom Kippur:


The late summer has passed into October, but leaves are still thick and green. But I am out of sweat: only parched exhaustion reminds me that I am still awake, and have hours left before the sun sets. Morning services end and I race back home and lie in a dark room, willing the cool air to sink into my skin like caffeine. I re-button my shirt, limp with the day's motionless air, and run back to the synagogue, where I imagine clouds crying along with us and raining into my hands and mouth. And finally the havdalah candle is extinguished, and I race to the back of the sanctuary and hold a paper cup in my dry, trembling fingers, and drink You in along with all my prayers.

Monday, December 08, 2008

759. Dinah

This Shabbat I'll be chanting about the rape of Dinah. These days I'm better able to practice while keeping the story in my head, which has paradoxically made the process more difficult. I feel an almost physical ache when sing these words:

Vayar otah Shchem ben-Chamor haChivi nesi ha'arets vayikach otah vayishkav otah vaye'aneha.

She was seen by Shechem, son of the chief of the region, Chamor the Hivite. He seduced her, slept with her, and [then] raped her.
--Gen. 34:2

But the rabbi, this past Shabbat, offered an explanation rooted in Parashat Veyetze that has helped me hate this story a little less. In Vayetze, the birth of the sons of Jacob are all listed in a particular way: first their birth order, then the reasoning behind the name, and finally the name, for example:

God heeded Leah, and she conceived and bore him a fifth son. And Leah said, "God has given me my reward for having given my maid to my husband." So she named him Issachar.
--Gen. 30:17-18

The account of Dinah's birth, however, breaks this pattern:

Last, she bore him a daughter, and named her Dinah.
--Gen. 30:17

Why is she described differently than all the sons? Commentators offer a number of reasons: she's merely a girl, so there you have it. Or perhaps she and Zevulon, the son named right before her, were twins--and only he merited the descriptive words, since she was essentially attached to him. Another interpretation, however, notes that the Dinah's name is the feminine form of the word meaning "judgment" or "vindication" ("Yom ha Din", the Day of Judgment, is another name for Yom Kippur). (I'm sorry to say that I don't remember who this commentator was--I wish I could take notes at Shabbat services. I'm also not sure I'm recounting the following explanation with complete accuracy, but hopefully it still makes sense.) Between Rachel, Leah, and their concubines, 12 sons--who would grow into the 12 Tribes of Israel--and one daughter were produced. Half the sons belonged to Rachel and half, Leah.* Leah's daughter could be seen as the tie-breaker--the extra who made Leah's number of offspring, and therefore standing, greater than Rachel's. In a rare example of sibling compassion, suggests the commentary, Leah names her daughter Dinah--judgment, justice--to show that she and her sister were not in competition. This child would represent equity, a moment of peace between the two. For this reason the description of the meaning of her name was omitted, so as not to link her to either woman.

The wisdom carried in Dinah's name would, by the next parasha, be tragically forgotten by the characters in this story. But for a brief time, at least, Dinah represents the kind of fairness toward which we should all strive. I will think about this, rather than the literal meaning of the words, when I chant (less loudly than everything else) vayikach otah vayishkav otah vaye'aneha.


* NOTE, 12/9: I was wrong... the rabbi was talking about a fair share of sons rather than an exact number. Please see the comments below for George's astute correction.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

758. "Let the short-lived hours speed, running smoothely, quickly by."

My 21st birthday, many years ago, was a strange day. I was a junior at Yale, and the entire East Coast had just suffered a freak early-April blizzard. I remember trudging through piles of snow in the morning to get to my my painting studio, and then clumsily tipping over a jar of turpentine on the bench where I sat in front of my canvas. I was wearing layers and layers of clothing (the studio, maybe to make us feel more like real starving artists, wasn't heated), so barely noticed at first. But turpentine is evil. It seeped through all the fabric and suddenly, an hour later, the skin on my left leg was in agonizing pain. I left the studio and made it back across town in blinding snow to my dorm, where I stood under a shower for many minutes in hopes that cool water would ease my distress. It didn't. I then hiked over to the undergrad health services building, where I joined a long line of sniffling students with hacking coughs. I gave up after an hour and instead headed to a local pharmacy, where I bought every kind of aloe and salve I could find, slathered it on my thigh, and went back to my room for a fitful nap.

That evening, leg wrapped in a bandage, I limped over to the Yale Glee Club office where 80 people sang "Happy Birthday" and then voted me in as their next manager. I heard their voices and forgot all the pain. (And my leg ended up being just fine.) Thus began a year, culminating in a tour of Europe with the group, my first time overseas, that would teach me how to start being an adult--and that music was as necessary as breathing to live life fully.

I remembered this moment in the wake of great sadness: Fenno F. Heath, Jr., conductor of the Glee Club during my tenure, and anyone else's who was lucky to be a member between the years of 1953 and 1992, passed away peacefully last Friday at 6:12 pm at the age of 81. I never before realized how much his philosophy was similar to that of the rabbis at my synagogue: give music freely, and it will repair the world. So much of my spiritual life--chanting Torah, helping lead services--as well as my work life, has its origin in what I learned from Fenno: work hard and be good at what you do. And do it with your whole heart. I'm pretty sure the voice I often hear in my head when chanting ("Don't go flat!") is his.

Forty years' worth of Glee Club members have been sharing our memories, and I added a few of my own:

I loved how Fenno would begin "'Neath the Elms." Just a little flick of the wrist in our direction--"Go!" As if to say: I gave you all the tools, and now it's your job. Don't worry, I'll help. But you lucky people get to do most of it.

Singing, since Yale, has remained my biggest hobby--in 25 years I've never been without an opportunity to raise my voice in the company of others, and owe much of this addiction to my Glee Club experience. I've had some terrific conductors, but can honestly say that none came close to Fenno for the passion and drive to excellence he managed to instill in us all, always with good humor and the reminder that this was, above all, fun. From Fenno I learned that a well-lived life must have two often-overlapping parts: singing, and everything else.

I spent an hour last Friday afternoon reading the beautiful words everyone has shared and then, as usual, went to Friday evening services at my synagogue. I belong to a congregation where prayer is always in the form of music--they subscribe completely to Fenno's exhortation that there's too much talking going on. But as I walked in, a little after 6:00 pm, my heart was heavy with the loss I knew this world would soon bear, and I wondered how I could sing of the joy that the Sabbath brings. Then I heard everyone's voices in harmony around me, and realized that if I learned one thing from Fenno it was that when given the chance to sing, take it. The outcome would always be good and healing. I bet Fenno was standing in front of the heavenly choir at that very moment and telling them the same thing.