November 29, 2008

Somebody shouted in the middle of the night: ‘DIE!’

It woke me up – a woman’s voice, in my building or very nearby: shrill, young, and angry. And then – silence, the Jerusalem night resumes, I am deep inside the covers, 3am, cold outside. I haven’t lived here long enough to know the particulars of who and what lives here and what constitutes ‘unusual.’ Back in NYC, downtown in the East Village, I know my neighborhood noises intimately: the screamers in the middle of the night, the loud love-makers, the door slammer two floors up – the urban secrets nobody talks about. But this is new territory and I can’t even figure out if she shouted in English for someone or something to stop living, or in Hebrew in which ‘Die’ means ‘Enough already’ (as in, Dayenu)…

Shouts in the middle of the night are the stuff of nightmares and, like bad dreams and heartaches, we mostly tuck them away when it’s daytime. I imagine that this repression, this act of forgetting the inconvenient, is a very healthy survival trait that the human race picked up on the evolution trail. Gotta focus, and move on with one’s day. But what happens when the shouts or the memories of the shouting persist into the daytime, into the midst of our wide-awake lives, refusing to be ignored, refusing to be forgotten? What then is our responsibility?

I sit up in bed: The echo of the shouting lingers, but what is there for me to do? I turn on the bedside lamp and pick up a book – Meir Shalev’s novel ‘Esau’ (In Hebrew, an Israeli ‘classic’ from the 80’s), and there too I find the nighttime shouting and the sleepless rage. Shalev’s modern-Zionist fiction references the original conflict between the Biblical brothers Jacob and Esau – and soon I flip through the pages of Genesis and find them in the chapters that are part of this coming week’s Torah portion, Toldot. And that’s when I hear it again: Esau’s shout, the terrible shout of the one who had been terribly wronged, finding out he had been tricked by his brother and deprived of his father’s final blessing:

“When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried out with a great cry and very bitter outcry and he said to his father, “Bless me, too, Father!” (Genesis 27:34, Robert Alter’s translation)

What leads up to this moment is an elaborate and successful hoax. Jacob enters his dying father’s bedroom, dressed up in Esau’s furry hunter gear, fools his blind father, and steals the firstborn blessing: he, and he alone, will be heir to all the riches, the real-estate of Canaan, the Divine blessing. By the time Esau returns – it is too late. His shout is followed by a terrible question to his father – ‘Is there but one blessing?’ Does it have to be either/or? Can’t both brothers be blessed to share the abundance of Isaac’s legacy? Isaac is also terrified but can only offer a consolation prize –not the privileges conferred upon Jacob. So Esau hates, and Jacob runs away, and Esau has since been shouting: we’ve been busy running and trying not to hear the shouts.

Esau, more than anyone else in Jewish Mythology is our eternal brother turned ‘Other.’ He is the hairy enemy, identified as the nation of Edom, Amalek, the Roman Empire, and later – the Vatican. Some contemporary voices regard the Palestinians as Esau’s descendents. But in chapter 34 of Genesis, Esau is not yet a mortal enemy – just a wronged brother, hurt and angry, and shouting: why does it have to be like this? Why can’t we both be blessed? Both live here? Co-exist, together, on our inherited lands, in prosperity and peace?

The Zohar teaches that the fate of Jewish history and exile is a result of Esau’s shout – and that not until it is heard by us, and amended, and healed – will our internal exile from our true selves end, and we will all be back ‘home’ – in the place of true peace and reconciliation with the ‘other’ in our lives.

But do we hear the shouts? Do we listen? Here in Jerusalem, thousands of years and dozens of wars and countless, daily shouts of refugees and victims are marked on the doorposts. Israel, busy surviving, is trying hard to avoid the shout of Esau – Headphones in our ears, cell phones ringing, it is mostly successful. But, sometimes, in the middle of the night, you can hear someone screaming – Enough Already! Dayenu!

Listen: Esau’s shout raises a fist at the very notion of hierarchy, political divides, the realities of this human system that is built on rich and poor, winner and loser, either/or. Can’t there be another way? It’s a call one hears more and more today as the world is trying to make sense of the global economic mess and offer solutions to spread the wealth and provide all of us with the human birthright of dignity. Maybe it’s the shout of so many of us who are afraid of what lies ahead – afraid of the real or imagined hunger ahead – that needs to be heard around Thanksgiving tables this year. What would it be like to bring Esau’s question to the celebratory tables of harvest and gratitude? Is that the first step in our responsibility towards hearing – and healing?

And, maybe, sometimes, one has to get up in the middle of the night and shout, and howl, and do what I was taught to do by ‘Tears for Fears’ – my favorite band back in High School: ‘Shout, Shout– let it all out: these are the things I can do without…C’mon – I’m talking to you… Come on…’

FIVE Fall (in Love)
Maven Torah Reading Ritual - Yom Kippur 2008