RIM OF GOLD:
A Cycle of Sonnets on the Torah
(the entire cycle may be
(Exodus 13:17 - 17:16)
Above the waves that had let
And then rolled back to work the Egyptians’ doom
Servants and children, babes within the womb,
For whom the mother’s side became as glass,
Beheld the shining countenance of the groom
And knew their congregation as the bride
And with united voice exulting cried
Aloud in song resounding like the boom
Of many waters. And dancing to and fro
To Miriam’s drum, they singing saw the more:
Saw all the road that led them from that shore
To the Temple founded above time secure,
And this they saw was necessarily so
In G-d who had made Par’oh let them go.
(Exodus 18 - 20)
When the Voice that spoke the
Ten flashed from Sinai,
A silence from before Creation filled
The world. No wave
could rush, nor bird could cry,
And all who heard were in one instant killed
And brought to life with resurrection’s dew --
So must the poem’s voice be likewise stilled
From speaking what the son of Amram knew.
But this is also told: from Midian
The father of Tsipporah came to view
The people G-d had saved.
He watched, and then
Advised Moshe: "Your justice is too slow.
You cannot judge en masse. Divide them into tens
And tens of tens; give them leaders that they know."
And Moshe hearkened to the voice of Yitro.
This hut, three-sided like
the letter Beit,
roofed with palms and stars,
with what is harvested, this
that floated down to me on
with what frail confidence it
seems to ride
beside the armored
in which as children of this
time we hide,
although the hut may see them
and still bob lightly onward.
Now this thought
comforts my obsolete
so overbulked by ingenuity
it often feels itself a thing
Form is the house of spirit.
Till this shell
ride hollow, here I live and
here I dwell.
BETWEEN THE STRAITS
I heard a voice from deep within the land
say "Tell them so that they will understand.
"Our enemies are many, we are few.
This is the land that we were driven to.
"Among ourselves we are divided, and
those who'd betray us have the upper hand.
"They have denied the teaching we were taught,
have given away the lands that we had bought
with our sons' blood, and have abandoned those
who trusted us to the fury of our foes.
"And though against all this we loudly spoke,
we now must share the guilt, being of one folk:
aye, and the blame for what must now be done
lest we be altogether overrun.
"Yet still we clasp the treasure we were shown,
which was not given to us for
"Could you but see all that we have in store,
you would hold fast to us, and would ignore
the voice of our deluded and our weak
who at your courts for vain advantage seek.
"Hold fast, hold fast to us, and stem the rout
of the good! Let not the Sabbath's light go out
on Earth, and leave it prey to utter strife,
lest rage expunge all trace of human life!
"Yet there is One who will not let us fail
at last. Hold fast to us. We shall prevail.
"We shall come through this strait to mend the earth,
And peace will come, and freedom have new birth."
(first published in Bellowing
YOU ALMOST REMEMBER
has held this pain-
of habitable earth
Paul Celan, 1967
You have half forgotten, you
almost remember the dream
Of a native country whose
language was joy
Despite the numerous crosses,
the wide denial
Of an abundance flowing from
Founding the city upon the
And sustaining the world
through one small land.
It always was about this
piece of land
Where a people held together
by a dream
(Or compressed by surrounding
pressures into a heart)
Found, between towering
walls, the way to joy
Just for a moment that seemed
Before the jaws of empire
closed in denial.
But they could meet denial
They could pay out, while
fleeing from the land,
A long, strong cord of story.
The lost is infinite
In possession of a dream
They did not unlearn how to
sing for joy.
Wandering, they carried with
them their country's heart.
For their singers had built
the temple of the heart.
It stood unshakeably footed
Swaying with eyes closed they
could enter its joy
Though many kin remained
behind in the land
At the mercy of those who had
stolen the dream
And changed its vision of the
Into a conqueror's program of
Empire, feeding the victor's
Merging spirit with the
Of the ravisher who heeds no
But goes trampling over land
To crush the rose of Sharon,
all flowers of joy.
As it nears, humans abandon
all hope of joy
Unless they are rooted in the
Enough to hold on to this
piece of land
With desperate strength, the
last strength of the heart,
Even against kin, the
captives of denial,
Who would turn possession
into our worst dream
There are those in this world
who do not dream of joy.
The capacity for denial is
Abandonments lay waste the
(first published on
IN RESISTANCE TO THE INWARD ACCUSER
Voice of our teaching,
counsellor of old,
Source of the claim by which
we have held this land
Though but in heart, while
scattered far abroad
For our sins, or beneath the
Bearing its memory on many a
Till our return at history’s
The face is hidden, and the
heart is flawed,
And how shall Jacob stand?
You tell us that the world
was made for good
By higher will, and that our
place is planned;
And yet from every quarter
force and fraud
Are launched against us.
Us evil as we flail amid the
Of accusations which within
Echoes that cause our
conscience to explode –
How, then, shall Jacob stand?
If true we have committed
what must cloud
Our faith in self, obscure
the trace we scanned
Of better destiny than Might
Out of creation’s clay: shall
Surrender, while demented
And everywhere the people
They dare no longer doubt
that Force is God –
How then shall the world
No! lest the source of law
should be outlawed,
Beneficence in its own name
Bid us to live; bid us to
mend each road
Of wrong we can, yet, as we
Even as we dig to find Your
well that flowed
With wisdom once, beneath our
That Humankind, to whom our
works are showed,
May yet with Jacob stand.
THE SPIRAL LOAF*
The birthday of the year
again comes round,
The days when we remember the
And the world’s provenance,
on which we found,
As Rashi says, the title of
To the small, much-contested
piece of ground
From which we draw our life.
A slender fable,
Some say; but is life’s
thread a stouter cable?
Who, they ask, was there to plan
When out of nothing burst the
That mushroomed out,
occasioning as it ran
Physical laws, and very time
And the ascending forms that
led to man –
Haphazards that became a tale
When matter sorted into minds
That sorting too, only a
Within the dissipation of the
An accidental being without
An upward flutter in a
Where matter, settling after
Thins into nothingness
through unmarked ages –
Effaced the letters, and
dissolved the pages!
So must the universe indeed
To one who measures meaning
Who seeks for cause in what
And takes the later thing as
Who, bent upon externals,
His own soul’s voice, nor,
schooled by it, perceive
In outer things themselves
the Maker’s weave.
But once to have seen time’s
By premonition, synchronicity
Whatever name you think may
The glint of these small haps
that hold a plea
For something beyond time
that may project
What seems to flow in
sequence down time’s slope –
Is to have glimpsed both
origin and hope.
Scattered and small appears
Against the background of
Small, too, is planet Earth
amid the immense
Desert of space, our span
amid the tract
Of time whose emptiness
astounds the sense –
A point in all; yet if that
point were missed,
To what purpose would all the
Our cause is found not in
that plasmal state
Where even physical laws did
not yet hold;
Nor did the laws of physics
The laws of chemistry which
Nor inorganic chemistry spell
Of organisms, nor biology
Predict their actions in
Nor do the rules of human
Contain the Torah that to us
That shook the conscience of
the world awake
And strengthened those who
like the leaf were driven
To stand in dignity and,
A further level of coherency,
Though this, as yet, not all
can or will see.
There’s that in humankind
which would go back
To sleep again, and silence
Those who prefer a world of
strife and lack
Where they can spread
themselves and work their harm,
Till it could seem as if the
world’s off track
Permanently, committed to
Where entropy, as in cold
space, holds sway.
Last century saw destruction,
clothed in lies,
Swell and advance as if to
efface the mark
Of covenant, put out
And plunge the world in final
And yet the morrow saw fair Zion rise,
Sign of our destination
And of the world’s repentance
for great crime.
So we must pray that still
that sign may stand
And with it, conscience and
the very frame
Of human consciousness, that
what G-d planned
Man may yet build, with
Not crumble back into time’s
In which no secret of
Which brings not forth, but
only wears away.
But the direction of the true
Is to the One who willed and
Which to Moshe shone forth in
flames that burn
And not consume, round which
he formed this nation –
Source of the light by which
each can discern
Their share in what may have
been wrought awry,
And of the strength to
Time’s arrow – let it fly
then! We have seen
Our borders are inscribed
into the world,
Whose course is thereby, like
the loaves we mean
To eat these days, into a
Or no, a spiral!
May the nations glean
This truth, from deeds,
words, thoughts that without sound
Roll out, as once again
Creation’s day comes round.
* (Note: This poem meditates on Rashi's
first comment on Genesis.
Rashi asks why, instead
of just giving the laws, the Torah begins with the creation of
the world, and reasons that this is in order to justify Israel's claim
to the land: "All the earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He
created it and gave it to whom he pleased."
The poem relates this to a Talmudic saying that is quoted by Ilya
Prigogine and Isabelle
Stengers in Order Out of Chaos,
to the effect that G-d created the world a number
of times but each time it crumbled,
until He added the attribute of teshuva
(repentance, return), "and then it
a prayer in
ten voices, for Tu Bishvat
Ein-Sof, the Infinite unknown,
Will that there should be a world,
is the Crown of all creation.
Out of the
Will burgeons the seed of Wisdom,
source of all
teaching to the end of time,
point, holding a vast
still unconscious of itself,
whom we summon with the thought
of the Name
too high and hidden for our breathing.
arcane point unfolds the matrix
Mother of all things,
shape of all
shapes united in one being,
Palace of the
with the name
of the maker, Elohim;
birthplace and the goal of all Returning,
from her the
lower Seven emerge, unfold:
Mercy that is always flowing,
Abundance pouring forth
shadow of the Mother's structure,
begins in self-restraint.
synthesis of love and judgment,
measured, tempered to the world,
freedom and necessity,
rooted in Eternity.
springing from Acknowledgment,
recognition and acclaim.
One, Foundation of the world,
pillar of the universe,
desire that draws the isolate
to be the
lover and the partner of --
light within the depth of matter,
Earth entrusted to our care,
us in Community,
the highest purpose crowned.
Numbers of the universe,
ten Spheres of
energy, ten waves of thought,
blossoms on one holy tree,
ten limbs of
the mystic form of human being.
G-d who are
One in all Your varying shapes,
tree in our midst and in our hearts,
and make us
fruitful in the coming year.
Kabbalists associated the "Tree of the Sefirot" with the "New Year of
the Trees" which is celebrated on in midwinter, on Tu Bishvat.)
WAKING: A BOOK REVIEW AND
SOME TORAH THOUGHTS
The nine candles for the last night of Chanukah were
burning, and it was almost time to light the candles for Shabbat Mikkets.
Hastily I tore the wrapper off one more gift, from my brother and
sister-in law. The gift
turned out to be a book – In
Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden,
by Kathleen Cambor. The
notice on the back cover described it as a historical novel about the
Johnstown Flood of 1889. I
opened the book, and kept reading.
I would like to share my impressions of this book, and also a
Torah thought or two in connection with it.
in a Beautiful Garden is not by any means a perfect work, nor does
it recreate its period with complete authenticity.
The characters, especially the fictional ones, do not talk, think
nor act like the people we meet in documents of late 19th
century. Not only do
several characters appear oblivious of Victorian morals (which would
have cumbered with introspection a few scenes of a type once banned and
now obligatory), but the characters, as well as the author, employ the
simplified syntax of what passes for dialogue at the dawn of the 21st.
This gets in the way of efforts to depict a working-class culture
which was far more literate and aspirational then than now.
According to Cambor’s portrayal (which reminded me in places of
Jonathan Rose’s important book,
The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes), Marcus
Aurelius was much read below the dam in the 1870’s.
Epigraphs from Marcus Aurelius grace each chapter, but the
characters never display the articulateness which is developed by such
reading. “Time is a violent
torrent,” one of the epigraphs reads, and the loss, amid the flood of
technobarbarism, of linguistic sophistication and concomitantly of the
ability to reason and to sublimate, is one effect of time which the
author may not have intended us to think about.
Nonetheless, I found myself affected by the story.
Beneath the dissolution of our time, it seemed to me to tap into
a bedrock sense of our mortality and fallibility and some basic
deficiency in foresight, or in the ability to apply it.
The Johnstown Flood was an eminently foreseeable and preventable
disaster. (Like the
Holocaust. Like 9/11, the
war, and the other results of our dependence on oil from Saudi Arabia.
Like…) The dam which
burst in a rainstorm on Memorial Day, 1889, had been built some forty
years earlier with adequate safeguards – discharge pipes, a watchtower.
But the watchtower had burned down, the discharge pipes had been
removed by a seller of the property “trying to salvage something from
his bad investment.” When a
group of industrialists, including Henry Frick, Andrew Mellon and Andrew
Carnegie, bought the property and developed it as a summer resort for
wealthy families, neither the tower nor the discharge pipes were
replaced, and only superficial repairs were made.
Daniel J. Morrell, general manager of the Cambria Iron Company in
below the dam, remonstrated, pleaded, offered to help pay for repairs,
in vain. The members of the
South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club found the topic unworthy of their
attention. Nor did they
ever acknowledge their responsibility for the deaths – over two thousand
-- that resulted.
The inaction of Frick, Mellon and Carnegie is not
easy to understand rationally.
Even if they did not care about the human lives below the dam,
and counted (accurately) on the immunity of wealth and power, wouldn’t
these endowers of libraries and museums have wanted to spare themselves
the embarrassment and bother of covering up, the eventual blot on their
reputations? But there is
also a question about the people of
A court might assign them one to five percent of the negligence.
They had reason to know that the dam would burst.
Why – this question is asked just before the catastrophe – did
they stay? The answer given
is a shrug: “Why do people
stay anywhere? There are
ties that bind. And the
Kathleen Cambor does not attempt to answer these
questions directly. Her
story concerns the lives of people above the dam and below the dam, who
for the most part, through most of the book, live their lives with at
most a faint apprehension of coming disaster in an obscure corner of
their minds. They all have
very pressing personal concerns.
(“Ties that bind.”)
Henry Frick is taken up with the passions for moneymaking and for
collecting art. Andrew
Carnegie struggles with divided loyalties between his mother and his
patient fiancée. Andrew
Mellon’s fiancée dies of tuberculosis, plunging him into mourning for
years. Below the dam, the
fictional Fallon family (I looked up the Johnstown Flood on the
Internet, and no such name appears on the list of victims) get on as
best they can. They are
well acquainted with grief.
The father, Frank, is a scarred Civil War veteran and a foreman in the
steel mill. On the Memorial
Day which will be his last, he is imagined as remembering
Antietam, “where he shot men at point-blank range, pierced
his bayonet into the throats of teenaged boys, of children.
They killed each other as if they were killing animals.
They walked across fields so thickly strewn with corpses that the
ground could not be seen, as if the dead men were stepping-stones.”
His wife, Julia, has painful recollections of her father’s being
hounded out of Chicago for botching a surgical operation.
She is still struggling to recover from the deaths, years ago, of
two of her four children in a diphtheria epidemic.
The lost children, Claire and Louis, are briefly but poignantly
evoked; their presence in the thoughts of Julia and their brother Daniel
is one of the most haunting things in the novel.
Frank and Julia’s marriage has suffered from her depression,
though recently she has been helped by her friendship with Grace
MacIntyre, who has run away from a bad marriage to become the
librarian, and who encourages Julia to become a dressmaker.
(The author seems to become so interested in the soap opera of
ordinary life that for long stretches we almost forget the impending
disaster with which the soap opera’s plot has nothing to do; and that,
of course, is part of the point.)
Meanwhile Frank, burnt out with trying to reach her, has become
attracted to Grace and the two have decided to run away.
The couple’s son Daniel has been encouraged by Grace to go to
college, but has returned after a year to work in the steel mill, hoping
eventually to become a labor organizer.
He collects figures on worker casualties at the Cambria Iron
Company, where conditions are better than at the mills owned by Carnegie
and Frick; even so, he counts thirteen deaths and numerous serious
injuries in the first eight months of 1888:
“Six from a hot metal explosion, two from rolling accidents, four
from falls into pits, one asphyxiation.”
Even if the Fallons often seem to come from Oprah rather than
Middlemarch, their personal
vicissitudes (as well as those of the magnates, described with the same
loving particularity) succeed in making the reader feel how brief and
threatened is human life, and how precious to all who live it.
Daniel will survive the disaster because on the fatal
Memorial Day he will be making his way up the valley for an assignation
with Nora Talbot, daughter of the conflicted lawyer James Talbot.
(The Talbots are apparently also fictional, and the meeting and
romance of Daniel and Nora seems the most contrived part of the book.)
Talbot, a survivor of the Civil War which claimed both his
brothers (another personal story, told, again, in idiosyncratic detail),
did the paperwork for the club’s acquisition of the dam.
He has been aware of the danger from the first, has tried to warn
the owners but could not bring himself to take the step of dissociating
himself from the project because of his ambitious wife.
The Talbots spend their summers at the resort, and dam is shown
to us through the child Nora’s eyes:
It was like a pyramid, or the wall of a lost city,
something an archaeologist might find. Dirt and rock, tree stumps and
rubble. Crevices so deep,
so shaded, that even in the summer chunks of winter ice still glinted
from within. Manure had
been used to reinforce the dam as well, and the rich, organic smell of
it mingled with the scent of pine needles, columbine, and mountain
laurel, and the grasses that silted the dam’s steep, earthen side.
The dark faces of spiderwort pocked the surface.
Life sprouted from the dam.
Nora had closed her eyes and imagined she could hear it breathe.
Nora’s vision of the dam, before the fact, may
exemplify the way people tend to interpret and portray things in their
minds in such a way that warning signs are not perceived as such.
The dam spells death, but is interpreted as a symbol of life.
So people tend to give the cast to things that makes it possible
for them to pursue their courses undisturbed.
Optimism. Perhaps we
need optimism in order to get through any day in a universe brimming
with potential threats to human life; and so we have little right to
complain if optimism plays us a trick now and then.
The assignation saves Daniel’s life, but puts an end
to the liaison, as he turns his anger on Nora and disappears.
There is an epilogue, set in 1917.
Nora still thinks of Daniel, though she has in the interim
married and lost someone else.
On the last page the only child of her brief marriage leaves for
the battlefields of Europe.
In Sunlight, in a
Beautiful Garden portrays a universe to which the Stoic philosophy
of Marcus Aurelius seems like the only dignified response.
I read the final pages and close the book.
And feel, for some moments, as though I am still inside it.
I wonder what prompted my brother and sister-in-law to pick out
this book for me; did they think it might speak to me as one whose life
was knocked off course by the distant shock of the Holocaust, who now
lives in dread for Israel?
I think of the oil crisis of the 70’s, and my father’s vain
efforts to persuade the people in Washington to adopt a national energy
policy that would reduce our dependence on foreign oil; of September 11,
2001 and the tower imagery that kept popping up in my poems during the
1990’s; of the position of Israel, linked to this, deteriorating since
that moment when the Temple Mount was given back to the enemy in 1967;
of my own scheme of social reorganization (based on Yitro’s proposal in
Shemot 18), which failed, both here and there, to enlist commitment; of
a couplet I wrote down two or three years ago:
It is a common doctrine, though unsound,
That falling objects will not hit the ground.
I really ought to davven, read at least a bit of the Torah
portion. The portion is
Mikketz, which begins: “And
it happened at the end (ketz) of two years that Pharaoh dreamed he was
standing by the river…” I
turn to the haftarah, which begins:
“And Solomon awakened (vayyikatz) and behold it was a dream.”
The dream of being granted wisdom.
The pun on the words for “waken” and “end” seems to have helped
the dream motif to link the Torah and haftarah readings.
And Pharaoh’s dream was indeed an awakening from the sense of
security into which his kingdom had been lulled by the regular flooding
of the Nile.
(Didn’t I write a poem based on this parsha for my father in the
winter of 1973-4? Not a
terribly good one, I thought at the time; I didn’t keep it.)
I reflect that this portion has a plot which we do
not often see acted out in life; a plot in which foresight occurs, and
is recognized and applied.
Where the signs are seen, and correctly interpreted.
Where there is both willingness and power to take and enforce the
steps that can avert disaster, despite the inconveniences they entail.
The Egyptians pay a price: they end up enslaved to Pharaoh.
And this in turn may have sown the seeds for the Israelites’
enslavement a few generations later.
But what was the alternative?
Just death, annihilation.
If Egypt had been a
democracy, Joseph’s scheme of storing the excess produce of the seven
good years and doling it out through the seven bad ones probably would
not have been sufficiently popular.
And would Joseph, who resisted the advances of Potiphar’s wife,
have been a likely politician?
To the average person immersed in the contests and comforts of
everyday life in Egypt, the prospect of seven lean
years would just seem unreal.
Only the person who looks at life from a distance sees the future
as though it had already happened.
And such people tend to be outsiders, without the charisma or
clout to enlist the energies of their fellow-citizens, even when they
can propose a remedy. As in
the Greek myth of Cassandra.
And here I think back to Kathleen Cambor’s novel
again, to the (historical) character who foresaw the catastrophe and
made the greatest efforts to prevent it – Daniel J. Morrell.
He is known to have expostulated with the owners of the club, but
when his arguments and offers of help were rebuffed he did nothing
further. He did not go
public with his warnings.
He died several years before the flood, and it is suggested that his
rapid decline was due to distress over his failure to protect the town.
But then why didn’t he
go public, call a town meeting, tell the townspeople what he had told
the club owners?
Class loyalty? Or just,
again, inertia, the reluctance to take the decisive step that will upset
the social applecart, the step into the sea?
But at the core of the Jewish tradition is an hope
that wagers on the overcoming of inertia – and of the shallow optimism
of inertia. There is a
belief in a Creator Who is outside time, Who can revive the dead.
Who can send us the dreams that are an awakening from a false
sense of security, and interpretations that are instructions, and the
energy to follow them. All
of us should now be earnestly praying for these things, and paying close
attention to anything that looks like even a remotely possible answer to
We are through Genesis, into Exodus now.
The description of enslavement in Egypt,
the early history of the leader who gets us out.
And that brings to mind a letter written some time ago to someone
who had been grumbling in print about Israel’s then
Following is a slightly revised version of that letter:
It is tempting, but futile, to focus criticism on the
current Israeli leadership, and to hope that a change of leadership will
produce a change of policy.
We have already seen too many would-be defenders of Israel turn into
concessionists after becoming Prime Minister.
It is necessary to understand the dynamics of this process.
Whoever gets into a position of leadership in
becomes subject to enormous pressures from abroad. These pressures, in
turn, result from the internal situation of the Western powers, whose
long-term survival is as much at stake as ours, but who seem to be
succumbing to the temptation of appeasement, buying themselves time by
sacrificing an ally. In
thus succumbing they are encouraged by large segments of the press,
abroad as in Israel.
One readily suspects (a suspicion which I gather is extensively
documented in a recent book, Robert Baer’s
Sleeping with the Devil) that
the press campaign against Israel
is fueled by Arab oil money, funds which the advocates of Israel could
never dream of overbidding.
This means that if we are to survive, we must learn to "fight smarter."
We must make a more efficient use of our own resources.
Since the Torah is our raison d’être in all times, it
is surely appropriate to look to the Torah for some instruction in how
to do this. We might start
by reviewing the characteristics of the leader who got us out of Egypt -- Moshe
As a leader, Moshe Rabbenu manifested the following
was connected to a source of inspiration outside his ego and outside the
political currents of his time.
remained open to suggestions from others -- even outsiders (Yitro) and
persons of low status (the daughters of Zelophechad).
He encouraged good-faith initiatives among his followers (Eldad
and Medad), while standing up firmly to challenges motivated by egoism
4) He was aware of the need to understand and make
use of each person's individual characteristics (see Rashi’s comment on
Such a leader is likely to arise in the
media-dominated political world -- when pomegranates grow on oleander
bushes. Not only is there
the specific influence of oil wealth.
There is also a
structural, systemic problem.
[Please, folks, listen up:]
All mass media, regardless of their ostensible
purposes, divide people into three classes: consumers, middlemen, and
stars. The latter are free
to express their opinions provided they can find a middleman who will
convey them to the public; but they have no contact with the consumers
and thus cannot exercise true leadership.
The consumers are isolated from the stars [note:
I did not get a reply to this letter from the political
commentator it was addressed to] and from one another.
Thus we cannot hope to see a
leadership of integrity, able to mount
a defense of Israel and
Western civilization, unless those who desire these things can devise a
means of organization that will circumvent the mass media.
Time passes again.
We are now in Parshat Yitro.
Time to remind people once again that there is a Torah precedent
for the type of organization that is required.
In Exodus 18:17-24, after Moses’ father-in-law Yitro has observed
him judging the people by himself:
“Moshe’s father-in-law said to him, 'What you are
doing is not good. You are going to wear yourself out, along with this
nation that is with you. Your responsibility is too great. You cannot do
it all alone. […] You must seek out from among all the people capable,
God-fearing men - men of truth, who hate injustice. You must then
appoint them over [the people] as
leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties, and
leaders of tens.
[Italics added] Let them administer justice for the people on a regular
basis. Of course, they will have to bring every major case to you, but
they can judge the minor cases by themselves. They will then share the
burden, making things easier for you. If you agree to this, and God
concurs, you will be able to survive. This entire nation will then also
be able to attain its goal of peace.'
Yitro’s system creates a chain of communication
between Moshe and the rank and file follower, not through communications
addressed to everyone and no one without possibility of reply, but
through person-to-person communications.
The leaders of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens are
intermediaries, but they are responsible intermediaries.
The text goes on to say that “Moshe took his
father-in-law's advice, and did all that he said.”
We do not learn from the Torah about how this system worked out
in practice, and we might think it had been forgotten, except that at
the beginning of Deuteronomy (1:15 ff) Moshe repeats the outline of the
scheme and states that he applied it, without mentioning Yitro’s name.
There is even one indication that the plan was applied in
Temple times, when Isaiah
mentions the “leader of fifty” among the types of leaders whom G-d in
His displeasure will take away, leaving us to be ruled by adolescents.
Could this scheme
possibly be applied today?
It would not be easy.
It amounts to a quasi-military organization of civilian life, and
the tendency of inertia is to refuse to be “regimented” even while
taking the line of least resistance, which means quietly giving way to
all kinds of pressures. Adopting
this scheme would mean first of all an admission that we are, every one
of us, at war, and the battle lines are everywhere. Or to give it a
slightly more “civilian” formulation, it would mean acknowledging that
democracy, if it is to remain more than a fiction, requires a steady
effort from its citizens.
Or course, it is easier to sit back while the children of our poor are
sent to kill and die in ill-chosen battles…
Aside from inertia – which faith bids us believe can
be overcome -- there is one obvious problem:
today there is no Moshe Rabbenu, no recognized leader of either
the Jewish or the American people.
Who could choose the intermediate leaders?
The answer that appears to me is that in our present
situation the structure would
have to constitute itself not from above, but from below.
It would have to be “self-organizing.” The plan could begin with
ten people who would form a cell and encourage others to form further
cells of ten. Each cell
would choose a leader, or let’s say a summarizer – the person best able
to summarize, reconcile and synthesize the concerns of the others.
The summarizers of the cells would meet, likewise in cells of
ten, and further tiers would be constituted as the organization
expanded. The top level
would always be a council of ten.
This circle would identify the leader who could make decisions
for the entire organization, having received “input” from all its
The implementation of this plan would need to be
accompanied by spiritual exercises and reflections.
There is a poem, “Invitation” (appended) which describes the
spirit in which the deliberations of these cells would need to be
conducted. It would be
important to do this in a “formalistic” manner, to keep the formal
outline of the structure as clear as possible.
As every formal poet knows, rigidity of form is an aid to
inspiration. If the form is
not observed the members are likely to try to impose uniformity in other
ways, through some brand of “political correctness” or “groupthink”
which must be avoided at all costs.
Numbers have psychological and spiritual associations whose
strength would be needed to hold the structure together.
These ideas are not complicated.
They are not idiosyncratic.
They are, it seems to me, obvious and conclusive, like a proof in
plane geometry. This may
seem like a plan for the long term, when we are looking for something
that will work in the short term.
But too many "shorter" ways have turned out to lead nowhere. To
have faith is to set foot on the right road in the belief that with
G-d's help the road will be shortened for us.
But only the right road leads in the right direction.
December 2006-January 2007
We gather here to see
faces from which we need not hide our face,
to hear the sound of honest speech, to share
what dreams have etched upon the sleeping brain,
what the still voice has said, when heavy hours
plunged us to regions of the mind and life
not mentioned in the marketplace: to find
and match the threads of common destinies,
designs grimed over by our thoughtless life --
A sanctuary for the common mind
Not to compete, but to compare
what we have seen and learned, and to look back
from here upon that world where tangled minds
create the problems they attempt to solve
by doubting one another, doubting love,
the wise imagination, and the word.
For, looking back from here upon that world,
perhaps ways will appear to us, which when
we only struggled in it, did not take
counsel of kindred minds, lay undiscovered;
perhaps, reflecting on the Babeled speech
of various disciplines that make careers,
we shall find out some speech by which to address
each sector of the world's fragmented truth
and bring news of the whole to every part.
We say the mind, once whole, can mend the world.
To mend the mind, that is the task we set.
How many years?
How many lives? We
do not know;
but each shall bring a thread.