The predator and carrion-eater have returned to the suburbs. The fox, the coyote, the vulture and the hawk now share our land and skies in numbers both thrilling and disturbing.
Last week I saw them as I walked home from the Sabbath gathering of my tribe where we read the deaths of Jacob and Joseph, the end of the Book of Creation. “Hazzak! Hazzak! V’nit’hazek” we say, “Strength, strength, let us be strengthened!” to mark the completion of each book of the Torah. Usually, we take this as an exclamation of achievement, we’ve assimilated yet another tome of ancient wisdom, the word of God. Only now it occurs to me that we may be fending off anxiety, crying out for the strength to continue as we move further and further from the primal energy of Creation and into a succession of losses. Losses played out in the biblical narrative and on the world stage. The Torah portion, Vayechi, was read exactly twelve weeks after the atrocity committed by Hamas against the people of Southern Israel.
Joseph and Jacob, are the last of the lineage of magi to crisscross the wilderness of our ancestors, coaxing magic out of the dry land. What a deathbed scene have we in Jacob, conjuring the futures of all twelve sons, clairvoyant of their essence, what lies in their bones. How harshly he judges Shimon and Levi, those wild boys who murdered an entire town in revenge for the abduction of their sister Dinah. Shechem, the name of the town, means saddle. It straddles the land between two mountains, all potential. Shimon and Levi wield implements of chamas, lawlessness or violence, as labeled by their father before he closes his eyes to the world for good. In Arabic the same word means strength or zeal. Zealots like Shimon and Levi? Or like the self-named ones who invite Rome to destroy Jerusalem and its Temple, salt the earth and send the Jews into exile? The Romans moved whole peoples like so many chess pieces in a game of world domination. Hamas, same pronunciation, is also an acronym for the militant Islamist group that grips Gaza by its fingernails.
I have no patience with zealots, in my own tribe or that of our neighbors. It is zealots who make peace impossible, and death seem like a rite of passage to be undertaken before our days are properly at an end. There is a global movement now, the international zealot conspiracy, in which the ‘other’ is demonized, and compromise is considered ugly. Hamas, whose mission is the eradication of Jews from the land of Palestine, has recently been revealed to have an actual policy of raping, torturing and mutilating captive women. We must pause to let that sink in. Now turn our attention to the government of Bibi Netanyahu, who has presided over Israel for thirteen of the last fifteen years.
It has been the explicit policy of the Israeli government under Netanyahu to support Qatar in funneling millions of dollars into Gaza, as well as to turn a blind eye to the money laundered for the same purpose by the Bank of China. We must pause to let that sink in. Apparently, Bibi and his cronies believe it is in their interest, whether or not it is in Israel’s, to prop up the people who hate Israel, in spite of evidence of mounting military preparation, evidence of a planned invasion, because it takes the question of the two-state solution off the table. Really? This man, God’s gift (to Israel?), the meaning of his last name, has been fiddling with his finger in the dyke while Hamas was burning with rage to ravage our men, women, children and strangers. His cabinet of zealots, one who would brandish a pistol at any Arab who dared stand in his way, another with a portrait on his wall of the leader of an outlawed violent Israeli terrorist group, strutted their power and focused their energies on dismantling Israel’s judiciary while Hamas planned its atrocity.
At this point I will turn to Beowulf. Yes, you heard me, the Old English saga. Beowulf was one strong dude, a master at arms and commander of men. But what people often forget is that his defining character trait was mastery over his own anger. No, let us not sing of the rage of Achilles, who died slaughtering men for a cause he did not support. It was simple revenge for the death of his best bud and sometime lover, in a war waged to avenge the abduction of another man’s queen, a war that left the fabled city of Troy in ruins. And so the cycle continues. But Beowulf, the soul of temperance, is called to the aid of Hrothgar, whose halls are ravaged by the monster Grendel, as fit a figure for rage as any tale can tell, devouring men without mercy, tearing them limb from limb for sport. The court of Hrothgar is consumed with rage. Not only does Beowulf defeat rage as personified by Grendel, but he subdues and slays the monster’s mother, the frightful hag who engages him in a terrifying battle beneath the surface of an icy lake, a compelling image of terror, the mother of rage.
Israel’s cabinet of rage has brought us to this tragic point, along with the relentless rightward shift of the electorate. In their fear and rage and hubris, they fed the monster that dismembered our people. They are not interested in justice, quite the contrary. The international war on terror is fought with implements of lawlessness, all in the name of peace and security that continue to mysteriously elude us. But maybe it’s Beowulf’s last encounter that most instructs. He’s been in semi-retirement for some years after a long and successful career as a hero, when suddenly a dragon arises to trouble the Geats. Of course, Beowulf rises to the challenge, in some versions assisted by one other brave soul, having been abandoned by his mighty band of warriors. And so, Beowulf dies, yup, perhaps having slain the dragon and perhaps not. What kind of hero is this?
On the surface, what we call p’shat, he’s reached the end of his journey, enough said. We can look for hints of other meaning, what we call remez: abandonment by his fellows, possible hubris in the face of an overwhelming foe. Or beyond the narrative we can look for extensions, or drash: the dragon was created at the beginning of time to humble the otherwise invincible hero. Perhaps there is a hidden meaning, sod, again in the tradition of Hebrew biblical exegesis. If we follow the trail of monsters backward, from Grendel to the hag to the dragon, it begs the question: if terror is the mother of rage, who is the mother of terror? Tohu v’vohu, before Creation, chaos and void, omni-potent. This condition that underpins Creation causes great existential uneasiness. All matter springs from chaos and void, and then returns to it. Nothing stays, no matter how hard we cling, not our stuff, not our loved ones, not our bodies. It’s all borrowed. Pretty scary.
Beowulf’s dragon is the avatar of chaos and void, come to tell us to let go of all our presumptions about what must be, how life should play out, what the rules ought to be. What does this have to do with Jacob and Joseph? Every time the biblical narrative returns to Shechem, it’s another roll of the dice, all things are possible. At Shechem, the saddle point, the curvature is zero and every path rolls out from there. It is the crossroads, that spooky place where humans so often encounter the uncanny. You can hear the machinery of tohu v’vohu rumbling beneath the surface. Abraham begins his journey, erects his first altar, at the saddle point in Canaan. Jacob returns via Shechem from indentured servitude in Padan-Aram, only to have his wild boys risk the whole tribe’s very existence among their neighbors by murdering all the men there. Shechem is that fateful place where Joseph is told to go and search for his brothers. We know how that turned out. Joshua returns there after the long journey from Egypt and enacts Moses’ instruction to set up a psychomachia of blessings and curses on Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, a blueprint of the constellations vibrant in the saddle point. And there he buries Joseph’s bones, fulfilling the ancient wish of the magus of Mizraim, Egypt’s Jewish grand vizier, marking the completion of the journey, the return home.
Devotion, abduction, murder, admonition, final burial. It all happens at Shechem, the saddle point, a small window onto the possibilities that precede creation, all the magics. Be careful how you choose, the rules may not be what you think they are. Your enemies may not be who you think they are, nor your friends. After all the bloodletting, after all the empty promises, after the underlying chaos and void become all too apparent, then, maybe then, it will be possible to see a different path to peace. The great realignment, when the people who open their hearts to new possibilities may take the reins from the people who have hardened their hearts and brought us to this brutal pass. But first we will have to get a handle on our rage and the terror that underpins it, step back from it rather than acting as if it were the eternal struggle of good versus evil. And the shame of having allowed this tragedy to come to pass, the impotence in the face of it.
Then of course we will have to examine our assumptions, all of them, no matter how cherished. Because it is actual humans we are dealing with, not ideas, not beliefs, and certainly not religious conviction, an assumption to which we stubbornly cling. Religious conviction is for home and family, not for the world of international policy. We must drop the pretense that it is religious belief for which we fight, that leads Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus to kill each other for the lack of recognition of each other’s humanity. It has become the twisted implement in the demagogue’s toolkit, deployed on the streets of nearly every country in the world. That is a canard against religion and an abuse. Let us set aside the implements of violence, at least long enough to craft a vision of peace. Violence has had its day. Let us not be hostage to our own fear and rage. Peace, it just might be a possibility.