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Hebrew Alphabet


… as in “good.” — Modern Hebrew for Beginners

If I could bring back those I love who have died, I would.  If I could save those I love who are sick, I would.

But I can’t.

What I can do is express my love to those I love.

Is it foolish to assert that I love humanity?

A voice in my head says, “Yes, you’re a fool.  ‘Humanity’ is an abstraction.  Maybe you love the idea of loving all humanity.  Perhaps you long to see yourself as someone capable of feeling such an all-encompassing love.  But the real you is infinitely more parochial.  You love your family, your friends, sometimes even yourself.  All else is a beautiful coat you are trying to wear, which does not belong to you, does not fit you, and looks ridiculous on you.”

And yet I’m telling you, here, that I love the miraculous temporary rebukes to entropy that people are.  (Is such a love even part of what makes me human?)  I feel that love so strongly that I am compelled to enter a new world of partial strangeness, so that I may try to become, at least in part, a stranger to the complacent me, to the passive me.

I read about Pinchas, in the heat of his righteous contempt, committing horrible murders — and about this character, “God,” rewarding Pinchas for these acts — and I think to myself, “That’s not me; that’s the Other.”  But this new-ish, strange-ish, Jew-ish me suspects that my response cannot end there, in complacency and passivity.  That might make me feel better about myself, for a while, but it will not make life better for those I love.  Whereas to engage with the story — to seek to draw meaning from it — may, just may, point a modest way forward.

If I do not love Pinchas, does that make me Pinchas?  In faith, I don’t yet know.


A dog doesn’t want me to be typing right now.  We’re at the Vermont home of my wife’s oldest brother, Denry, and his wife, Chris, and their daughter, Nadya.  They have two goats, one of whom has miraculously recovered from a complete de-horning, and two very friendly dogs (and, I think, two cats — they’re reclusive).

One of the dogs just licked my elbow.  At least, I’m hoping that was a dog.

Amazingly, our Israel trip happens in less than two weeks!  I have transliterated my parsha by listening repeatedly to an audio recording that Rabbi Creditor made for me on my phone.  Now I must use my rusty ear-training skills to add the music, or “trope,” again from the rabbi’s recording.  He sings much more beautifully than I will, but I’ll do my best.  In his voice, the trope sounds hopeful, joyful, uplifted — quite a contrast with the actions being described.  It sounds neither minor nor major, but in some kind of ancient musical mode.  And yet how the tune ends is on a note that I would call suspended — if it were in a typical Western key, the last note would be the second tone in the scale.  The effect, on me at least, is a feeling that the tale has not yet been fully told.

For much of my life I have felt as though I am living out, in a kind of passive way, someone else’s story.  Things happen to me, and to others, and I have hoped only not to make things worse with my actions.  It is as if my biblical namesake had simply broken the walls of Jericho and made a big mess for everyone else to clean up.  My reading of the Torah, including this bar mitzvah prep, is calling on me to act — to risk involvement in the world.

When we Jews leave the margins, do we break things?  Are we the goat in the china shop?  I want healing, and I want to keep my ironic horns — so what, O God of Pinchas and Moses, of Benjamin Netanyahu and David Grossman, am I to do?

A hunch: God wants me to be typing right now.


In Modern Hebrew for Beginners, a book I just bought at Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley, a footnote says:

aleph and ayin are pronounced with a stoppage of the air flow, much like the initial sound in “oh oh.”

I once interviewed Michael Tilson Thomas, and asked him what he does in the moments before he begins conducting a piece.  By way of answer, he inhaled deeply.

If I am correct in gathering that the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet has no sound at all, then that gives me some confidence that how I feel as I approach my bar mitzvah in Israel — as if suspended, momentarily breathless, between two worlds — is not inappropriate.

We think of the newborn baby’s scream as her first act outside the womb, but mustn’t she have preceded that with a deep intake of breath?

Israel was a place I was raised to hate; I am going there soon with loved ones.  Who will I be once I’m there — the child I was, the man I’ve been, or something new?

My bar mitzvah parsha — the Torah portion that I will recite and respond to — concerns a zealot named Pinchas.  He committed an abhorrent act of violence — and for this was rewarded, by God, with the covenant of peace.  Pinchas’s actions in this story, and God’s, make me weep.  The zealots of our day grind our dreams into ashes.  How will we respond?  How will I respond?

I was raised on ideology; I am trying to go forward, instead, in faith.  This seems hard.  The terrain ahead looks strange.  Because it is.  Because I am not there yet.

I cannot imagine myself all the way there.  I must go there.  I must be there.

In the meantime, I catch my breath, I say “Oh oh” — and I prepare, as best I can, to take a step forward, across the chasm between before and now, between them and us.