Sunday, November 13, 2011

Vayera, and musings on stardust

    I am, you might say, a staunch non-supporter of poetic license in liturgical translation. Yet this week, I came across an aesthetically influenced translation choice that resonated, that taught me something new.

    Please open your Sim Shalom prayer-books* to the middle of Kabbalat Shabbat, the service marking the reception of the Sabbath:

 תהלים צ’’ו

 .... שירו לײ שיר חדש, שירו ליי כל–הארץ

.יעלז שדי וכל–אשר בו, אז ירננו כל–עצי יער...
,לפני יי כי בא, כי בא לשפט הארץ
.ישפט תבל בצדק, ועמים באמונתו

Psalm 96

Sing a new song to Adonai!
Acclaim Adonai, all people on earth....

...Let field and forest sing for joy;
Adonai comes to rule the earth:
To rule the world justly,
the nations with faithfulness.

Then flip a couple of pages:

תהלים צ’’ח

....שירו ליי שיר חדש, כי נפלאות עשה

.נהרות ימחאו כף, יחד הרים ירננו...
,לפני יי כי בא לשפט הארץ
 .ישפט תבל בצדק ועמים באמונתו

Psalm 98

Sing to Adonai a new song, for God has worked wonders....

...Let the rivers applaud in exultation,
let the mountains all echo earth's joyous song.

Adonai is coming to rule the earth:
To sustain the world with kindness,
to judge its people with fairness.

    "To rule," "To sustain," "to judge" - all of these are used to translate the verb לשפט. I would generally say that this was a choice made in order to diversify the Hebrew, to make it seem that the two psalms end more differently than they do. But Friday night, I realized that the translator, consciously or not, had a point. In an ideal world, to rule is to judge, to judge is to sustain.

    When the people of Sodom desire to be intimate with Lot's guest angels, Lot entreats them not to act wickedly and offers his two virgin daughters in the angels' stead (Genesis 19:8). The gathered citizens do not accept Lot's proposition; indeed, they are further infuriated by the suggestion, and Lot instead of the angels becomes the focus of the citizens' anger and violence: "Now we will deal worse with you than with them," the citizens say as they move to attack Lot and his household (ibid).
    A modern-day reader of this scene might question Lot's decision to offer his daughters to the mob in place of his guests or extol Lot's strong awareness of and dedication to being a host ("they have come under the shelter of my roof") and draw conclusions about his merit in accordance with such musings. The people of Sodom, however, seem not to care much about the rationale of Lot's decision and response. Instead, infuriated and insulted by what they see as Lot's audacity, they attack his right to challenge and condemn their practices in the first place. While Lot "came to dwell" as a stranger in their midst, they say, he is now "passing judgment," seeming to lord over them (וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָאֶחָד בָּא-לָגוּר וַיִּשְׁפֹּט שָׁפוֹט; Genesis 19:9).
    Sodom consists primarily of sinful people, according to God God's-self in Genesis 18:20, and Lot attests with, it seems, the Torah's backing that these people are wrong in desiring to force themselves upon the visiting men. But can all of the mob's beliefs and actions be so quickly condemned? The citizens' criticism of Lot has nothing to do with the definition of sinful behavior, and everything to do with the dialectic between community insiders and outsiders.** In citing Lot's outsider status, the natives of Sodom say that he has no power to interfere in the their practices. Strangers, they would argue, cannot impose their sentiments on those who have so graciously welcomed them.
    Lot, however, does not see himself as a stranger, a גר, in their midst. "אַל-נָא אַחַי, תָּרֵעוּ" he says; "Please, my brothers/neighbors, do not do evil" (Genesis 19:8). My brothers. My neighbors. By positioning himself at least linguistically within the people of Sodom, he appeals to what he puts forward as a common, not a particular, code of morality. It is the citizens who explicitly reject the in-group status that he claims, attesting that he has not yet merited the ability to act as one of them, to hold influence regarding matters of justice. The mob's retaliation against Lot's words seems callous and selective; even when Lot considers himself one of them, and they might feel the same under other circumstances, they do not return the acceptance in this moment due to the critical nature of Lot's remarks.
    Perhaps it was their verbal expulsion of Lot from Sodom that saved Lot and his family from not only living but also dying as members of the community, for it is only after this exchange of dialogue that the angels tell Lot and his household to flee. Perhaps, after this argument, Lot and his household were not even to be counted among the ten righteous necessary for the preservation of the city against God's wrath. Perhaps it was precisely Lot's judgment that, had it been accepted, had it been allowed to rule, would have sustained Sodom.

    Think about the communities in which you position yourself as a neighbor, as a brother, as a sister. Think about the communities in which you decide to remain a stranger, a guest, to distance yourself from communal identification, from communal fate.

    Think about your place in this world. Are you a guest? Are you a stranger? Or are you bound up in the web of existence, as inextricable from the fate of the universe as an ocean, as a horseshoe crab? (To paraphrase both Joni Mitchell in "Woodstock" and Abraham's address to God in Genesis 18:27: I am stardust and ashes.)

    Is your soul any more or less of a guest, a stranger, a neighbor, a partner, to this planet, to God, than your body? (Is your soul a guest to your body?)

    There are many ways in which we are guests in this life, in which we treat ourselves and our surroundings with the utmost care, as precious gifts.

But today, I encourage you to connect the parts of yourself, to connect yourself with the world, to live, to feel hurt, to feel joy, to have a stake in this community of yours that includes the stars from which you came. To be in partnership with God.

You have the right to judge. You have the obligation to sustain.

* As I write this post, I only have access to the Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, which has slightly different translations from the more general Siddur Sim Shalom, in which I first made these observations. The salient words in translation are mixed around a little bit yet still present.

** One could say that the relationship between insiders and outsiders, as well as the delineation of those boundaries, is a theme of this week's Torah portion - from when the angels visit Abraham and Sarah  to when Abraham pretends Sarah is his sister to avoid being killed in a foreign city to when Abraham, due to Sarah's insistence, makes Hagar and Ishmael leave his household.

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