Sunday, September 6, 2009

Words of Torah and Closure

Last Saturday I observed my mother’s yahrzeit. Among other things, I gave the drash (kind of like a sermon) at Kehilat Hadar in my mother’s memory. I’ve pasted the text of that drash below.

Additionally, during the course of the last six months or so I’ve been studying the book of Samuel I with my chavruta, Rachel Petroff. We had a very unconventional study plan--most weeks we met in a local bar and studied for an hour and a half before the weekly trivia game. We planned to finish our studies on Sunday August 30th, the day after my mom’s yahrzeit. When finishing studying a book of Jewish law or the Bible, it is customary to have a siyum, a celebration for the completed effort. Where does this custom come from? According to Mechon Hadar:

The origin is found in the Talmud. Abaye was proud of the fact that whenever a pupil finished a significant portion of Torah he made it the occasion of a holiday for his students (Shab. 118b). R. Eleazar said, "One should make a feast on completing the Torah (Shir haShirim Raba 1:9).

The siyum itself is impressive, evocative and joyous. At a siyum, the community gathers with learners to eat a celebratory meal. Everyone learns and expounds upon the final eight lines of text, and then reads an Aramaic passage, known as the Hadran, which begins:

Many returns ["hadran"] from us to you and from you to us, Sefer Shmuel. Our thoughts be with you, and your thoughts be with us, Sefer Shmuel. May we not be forgotten by you, nor you be forgotten by us, Sefer Shmuel, neither in this world nor in the world to come.

The siyum was really lovely. Many of my friends were able to join me, as well as one of my mother’s friends from her leadership training institute, and a family friend from Chicago, along with his son. At the siyum I also spoke briefly about what we had learned, and about my mother. I spoke extemporaneously, but I sketched out my thoughts for my family, and I’ve included those below, as well.

It looks like it’s going to take me a little while to get my blog off the ground, but in the meantime, here are some thoughts on the end of my year or mourning.

Drash for Ki Tetze

Shabbat Shalom. This week’s parsha opens with the commandment of the yefat toar, the beautiful captive. We read, “When you take the field against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and would take her to be a wife you shall bring her into your house, and she shall trim her hair, pare her nails and discard her captive's garb. She shall spend a month’s time in your house lamenting her father and mother; after that you may come to her and posses her and she shall be your wife.

There are two basic approaches to this text taken by the foremost commentators. One is that the commandments having to do with hair, nails and clothing are there in order to make the woman so unattractive to the Israelite that took her that after she does them he no longer wants to marry her and won't go through with it. The other approach notes that this mitzvah comes right before the commandments about having a hateful wife and a disobedient child to imply that if you marry one of these women she will end up being a hateful wife, and the children you have will be disobedient. Both approaches are united in understanding the marrying of a beautiful captive as an incredibly bad idea that should be greatly discouraged.

Regardless of the approach you find most convincing, there are a number of confusing issues within the commandments having to do with this beautiful captive.

The text says v’asta et tzipornea, literally, you should do her nails. There is some controversy among the commentators about whether doing ones nails means cutting them or growing them. Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Ramban all believe that the captive is to grow her nails for a month, because doing so would apparently make her look unkempt and unattractive. However, there is another case of someone doing his nails in Tanakh (Mefiboshet, in Shmuel II 19:25) and in that case, it clearly means cutting one’s nails, not growing them. Cutting the nails would also complement the adjoining commandment to cut the captive's hair. Most translations now have settled on cutting (or in the case of JPS, "paring") rather than growing, but the text is unclear.

The cutting of her hair is also somewhat enigmatic. Some commentators have associated the cutting of hair with mourning practices, but this is quite strange—one of the practices of mourning is not cutting one’s hair for a month, so to begin mourning by cutting her hair seems odd.

Then we have the captive’s garb that one is to take off of the beautiful woman. What is a captive's garb? Is it something like a prison uniform? Or is it the clothing she was wearing when she was captured? Rashi explains that the captive’s garb is any kind of fancy and alluring clothing that the woman might have, because the women of other nations were accustomed to always standing around looking fancy hoping to attract impressionable young soldiers and convert them to the faith of the land.

Whatever the specific physical changes were, after they were completed, the Israelite man had to give the captive a month to cry for her mother and father (u'vacheta et aviah v'et emah yerach yamim) before she could be married.

As far as I can tell, this is the only explicit mention of a daughter mourning for her mother in all of the Torah, and possibly in all of Tanach.

The mourning for her parents is the most straight-forward part of this text--we know what it means, and we understand why she would do it--but I find it to be the most evocative. Most of what's happening to this woman is being done to her, without her control. She is taken captive, her appearance is changed, and she's about to be married to someone new, whether she wants to or not. Until this point there's no sense of caring about the woman's well-being at all. But the allowance of the month to mourn her parents is a recognition that though her past is about to be erased, she is entitled to some time to grieve for that past.

I don't want to give the text too much credit here--this seems like an all around horrific situation, with no real silver lining. But I think it's amazing that even in the midst of this cold-blooded approach to women's lives there's an acknowledgement of the universal need for time to grieve.

On my first day of my senior year of high school we learned this passage in my Chumash class. My teacher, Mrs. Wainkrantz, had found a commentator who explained that this parsha was read during the month of Elul because in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah we are all like beautiful captives. We all have to be stripped of physcalities. We all need a month to spiritually prepare ourselves for a reunion with God during the High Holidays.

I don't remember wondering this at the time, but in hindsight, what's remarkable to me about that interpretation is that it equates mourning with preparing ourselves for God.

Is mourning a way of preparing ourselves for God? Undoubtedly, it is for some, and is not for others. Some people, in the wake of great tragedy, will go closer to God, seeking comfort in religious life and spiritual practice. Others will feel alienated by a God they see to have abandoned them, and will distance themselves from religious life.

I want to close with a wish. I wish that we can all be beautiful captives, if that means preparing for a reunion with God. And I wish that when we go through great trauma in our lives, of any kind, but especially when it involves loss, I wish that we are allowed by others, and we allow ourselves, time to grieve.

Here’s the gist of what I said at the siyum:

Most of the book of Shmuel is focused on King Saul, who is really a tragic figure. In the first part of the book he's anointed by God to become the King, and he goes on to be a very successful warrior. But in one key situation, with the Amalekites, he disobeys God, and as a result, he falls out of favor with God. At this point, unbeknownst to him, God chooses David to be king, and Samuel (the prophet of the time) anoints David. From that point on Saul is haunted by what is referred to as ruach ra'ah, evil spirits. He becomes very unhappy, unsuccessful in battle, and enters into a protracted game of cat and mouse with David. Saul is constantly trying to kill David, and David keeps evading him. Finally Saul is faced with the Philistines in battle. He knows that he's up against a sizable enemy, and he tries to consult with God to see what he should do. But when he asks God, he doesn't get an answer. Samuel the prophet has died, and Saul seems to panic--he has no idea how to handle the impending battle. As we were studying this, I felt sympathy for Saul for the first time. He had been such a bully for so long, so unhappy and tortured, but here he is faced with devastation, and it's so sad to see how alone he is.

Earlier in his reign Saul had outlawed all witchcraft, but in his desperate search for a military strategy he asks his men to find a witch for him to consult, and we read the following:

And Saul disguised himself, and donned other garments. And he went, he and two men with him. And they came to the woman by night, and he said, "Divine now for me with necromancy, and conjure up for me whom I shall tell you." ח. 9. And the woman said to him, "Behold, you know what Saul has done, that he has abolished the necromancers and those who divine by the Jidoa bone, from the land; and why do you lay a snare for my life to cause me to die?" ט. 10. And Saul swore to her by the Lord, saying, "As the Lord lives, no punishment will happen to you for this thing." י. 11. And the woman said, "Whom shall I conjure up for you?" And he said, "Conjure up Samuel for me." יא. 12. And the woman saw Samuel, and she cried aloud. And the woman said to Saul, saying, "Why have you deceived me? for you are Saul!" יב. 13. And the king said to her, "Fear not, for what have you seen?" And the woman said to Saul, "I have seen angels ascending from the earth." יג. 14. And he said to her, "What is his form?" And she said, "An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a cloak." And Saul knew that he was Samuel; and he bowed down with his face to the ground, and prostrated himself. יד. 15. And Samuel said to Saul, "Why have you roused me, to bring me up?" And Saul said, "I am greatly distressed, and the Philistines are battling against me, and God has turned away from me, and has not answered me anymore, neither through the prophets, nor through dreams. And I have called you to let me know what I shall do." טו. 16. And Samuel said, "And why do you ask me, when the Lord has turned away from you, and has become (the supporter of) your adversary? טז. 17. And the Lord has done to him as He spoke by me; and the Lord has torn the kingdom from your hand, and has given it to your fellow-to David. יז. 18. Because you did not listen to the Lord's voice, and you did not execute the fierceness of His wrath against Amalek; therefore, the Lord has done this thing to you this day. יח. 19. And the Lord will also deliver Israel with you into the hand of the Philistines; and tomorrow, you and your sons will be with me. Also, the Lord will deliver the camp of Israel into the hand of the Philistines."

I find this to be a really moving passage. It's so interesting and strange and sad. In particular I think the way that the witch and Saul interact with the ghost of Samuel is interesting. It seems like the witch can see Samuel, but Saul can't, even though he is able to speak with the ghost. Rashi's commentary on this section mentions that when someone's ghost is summoned the person who is summoning the ghost can see it, but not hear it. The person who requested that the ghost be summoned can hear it, but not see if. And any passersby who are not involved wouldn't be able to see or hear the ghost.

This really spoke to me in relation to grief. After Eema died someone told me that the real challenge of grief is taking someone who was an external physical presence in your life, who you could go to and touch and see and hear, and making that person an internal psychological presence in your life, that you go to in a different way. Grieving is basically the process of setting up that person internally so you can access them as best as possible.

It occurs to me that Saul's problem is that he was never really able to grieve for the loss of God's favor. When it was gone he didn't ever think to himself that he should try to internalize the things that God told him to do, that he should try to make God's work his own work. Instead, when he came to a challenge he went looking for another external cue, and when he couldn't access one through his normal methods, and when his prophet died, he went against his own rules to bring back a physical manifestation in order to get directions. That was really Saul's greatest flaw.

No comments: