Wednesday, July 30, 2014

My Mother's Words (and Stuff)

It's seven months today since my mother died. Her death, and this passage of time, are always on my mind. I replay her stroke over and over in my head, and the weeks after. Some of the intensity of these memories has dulled in the intervening months, as you might expect, even though I don't want them dulled. Then this month my sister and I began the arduous task of revisiting our mother's home, our childhood home, and beginning to sort through the things that are all that's left now that Mom is gone.

When our father died 14 years ago, the loss was tremendous, but not structural. That is, the house and the family remained intact. There was a chunk missing, but nothing crumbled. But losing a second parent disintegrates the family system. The family I came from is gone. My sister and I are close; we are linked to each other horizontally along the family tree. But there's nothing above us. And where there once was something, there's now only stories and stuff. A house full of stuff.

I've been cautious about writing too much about this. We all have losses; and terrible things are happening in the world right now demanding our attention and compassion. No one needs to listen to my droning on about my mother. But still, this week seemed right to yield a bit to the temptation. Because this week we begin reading the fifth book of Torah: Deuteronomy, in Hebrew called D'varim. It begins, Eyleh had'varim asher diber Moshe el B'nei Yisrael... "These are the d'varim that Moshe spoke to the Children of Israel."

This book is made up of the d'varim, (which we will, for now, translate as "words") that Moshe spoke. It is a great and lengthy speech given to the people on more or less the eve of the prophet's death. In it he recounts the people's journeys and struggles and the laws they were given, as well as offering a generous helping of advice of his own. This book being titled as the "words of Moshe" is in its way ironic, since all the words of Torah are, in our tradition, those of Moshe. Or those of God given through Moshe. And even here, Moshe is, in our imagination, doing the overall transmission, as he does for the rest of Torah. So in D'varim, as if in an iterative loop, he is now telling the story of his telling the story.

So why this second telling? In Greek it's called Deuteronomy, the second law. But it's not a different law or even just a recap of the law given in earlier books. It's a rerun of all the travels and traumas, a final summary, a postcard from the wilderness sent into the future. Is Moshe modeling something about how you make sense of a journey? You retell it, using d'varim?

But d'varim is a squishy and surprising word in Hebrew. It's root, d-b-r, as a verb typically means "to speak." As a noun, davar (plural: d'varim) means variously, and with fairly equal distribution, "word" and "thing." What is the connection between a "word" and a "thing?"

When I was an undergraduate in linguistics, we were taught a theory, unpopular at the time or at least unprovable, called the Whorf Hypothesis. Benjamin Whorf, in his work on what was termed "linguistic relativism," made an argument that language was essential and precedent to thought. That we cannot think about things for which we have no words. Language defines the categories through which we perceive, well, everything. The academic world, protective of its ability to think above all else, frowned on this idea. Sure, language helped you express ideas cleverly, clearly, but ideas were primary, and not dependent on having language to name them.

But there's been a resurgence in this kind of understanding as we grasp more about the brain through neurology and neuro-linguistics. The prevailing science now suggests that language itself builds brain pathways, forges connections between disparate islands of understanding within the brain. When language is lost, so are things. The ability to connect observations into complex thoughts; the ability to see oneself as separate from the whole are wiped away. Things lose their thinginess. Brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor writes about the stroke she suffered 18 years ago, in which a left hemisphere brain bleed left her languageless. And in her language-free state, she was like an infant, without distinction between her world and the world. Without thoughts to trouble her, without thought even as to the passage of time.

So as far as perception and meaning are concerned, words and things turn out to be intimately tied up with each other. Words are the stuff of things.

My mother died without words. Like Bolte Taylor, hers was a left hemisphere bleed, depriving her of useful speech for the last five weeks of her life. She did not seem to lose her receptive language, or not all of it. She revealed an awareness of her surroundings, a recognition of people. She could respond appropriately with facial expressions to stories being told or greetings being relayed. She would roll her eyes at the mention of someone whose mention would normally have brought about the rolling of eyes. She would laugh at jokes, not just as a reflex to tone of voice and other social cues (as some of the more cynical doctors suggested), but even at subtle jokes delivered in impenetrable deadpan. For this reason she didn't seem as far gone as Bolte Taylor initially was; she wasn't in some pre-lingual state of Oneness with the vast universe.

Mom was present. She seemed to understand. But she couldn't create language. She could, in a garbled way, provide a missing lyric to a Gershwin standard; she could sort of speak along with the shema. She could give forth words when the giving forth of words was a rote act. But she couldn't use those utterances to communicate. It was as if understanding was on one island in her brain and language was on another, and there was no bridge between them. So while she might squeeze your hand lovingly, if you asked her to squeeze your hand to signify yes or no, her ability to squeeze your hand instantly left her.

Before her stroke, my mother was rarely at a loss for words. She read, she wrote emails, she mastered Facebook at age 80. She learned to read Hebrew over and over beginning in late middle age, never satisfied with her progress. Nonetheless at 79 she chanted Torah for the first time on Yom Kippur in Cotati, California; a beautiful piece of Parashat Nitzavim that I'd assigned her, saving the closest-to-home thought for her, ki hamitzvah hazot - "this mitzvah is not too wondrous or remote for you." She was frequently on the phone with her friends, or her cousins, or her cousins' children, or her grand nieces. She lived in the telling. Her primary way of relaying information was through the story of how she received the information, reenacting the dialogs involved in that process.

She, like me, was full of words. Kind words, as a rule. But words.

She was also not at a loss for things. And this part sometimes distressed her.

In 1958 my parents masterminded a move out of the city of Chicago. They would become suburbanites, transplanting to the Village of Niles which, though it abutted Chicago's northwest side, was still "the country." Otzinplotz.

The developers offered three home layouts. My parents chose the ranch house with the full basement. They chose the brick color and the window size too. They chose the paint and the flagstone and the trees.

The basement of the house in Niles soon became a "thing." It stopped being invisible architecture and asserted itself. First off, it was a dozen steps below ground and, it seems, situated below the actual water table, or at least the water table on stormy Chicago summer nights, when too many inches of rain in too few minutes would cause the Village sewer pipes to fill and overflow and back up into any structure stupid enough to live at that depth. My childhood, my parents' empty nest life, and my mother's old age were all punctuated by basement floods, wiping out whatever was unlucky or unimportant enough to be caught on a low shelf.

The natural rhythm of floodwater was, in fact, just about the only culling system ever deployed in that basement, whose vast holdings of untouched items continued to grow over time. I think of Bellatrix Lestrange's violently self-replicating vault contents in Harry Potter. Or another generation could think of Fibber McGee.

My parents were very central in both their families. They were beloved and trustworthy, and they were the people with the big unfinished basement. What this meant was that as generations died, whatever of those people's things remained unclaimed would end up in our basement. Silverware. Photo albums. Fur coats. Scrapbooks. Financial records. Sheet music. Never absorbed into use, but held in suspension. An additional burial. A genizah. And not just the personal effects of the dead. Relatives who moved out of state would consign to my parents' basement whatever keepsakes they didn't have room for in the moving truck, only to "forget" them there permanently. Meanwhile, my mother, who hated to entertain, whose anxiety dreams always involved company coming over unannounced or not having enough food to serve on Thanksgiving; my mother would receive gifts over time - wedding, anniversary, business gifts. Trays, punchbowls, coffee service, chip-dip sets. Beautiful items that would mostly stay in their original boxes in the basement, in the hope that there would never be enough guests in the house to actually necessitate their use.

Over time, my sister's and my childhood things took up residence down there as we went on to college and our adult lives. Papers, drawings, scout projects, school assignments from kindergarten through high school. Bicycles, furniture, board games and enough papier-maché to keep you fed for a good post-apocalyptic month. Add to this my parents' business records. And my grandparents'. And my great grandparents'. And then the items of pure sentiment - cards. Birthday cards, anniversary cards, Jewish new year, Christmas, get well and, the hardest to part with, condolence cards and memorial books for a variety of relatives. All these found their way into boxes and onto shelves.

My mother became helpless thrall to this sea of stuff. She was a museum guard, entrusted with keys but no instructions, then abandoned indefinitely by the rest of the staff. My mother saw the burgeoning basement as her failure. If she were a stronger or better or different kind of person, the past would never have accreted in such an aggressively physical form.

But it wasn't her fault. It was too great a responsibility for any one person. She was the vault keeper for over a century of family history. Nothing could be discarded guiltlessly; everything demanded a curator's eye or a historian's. Not for economic value, although certainly there were and are many collectibles sitting there still. But for some other kind of value. For the lives that these things represent; for the stories these things still have to tell.

Mom was not incapable of throwing things away; she just couldn't throw away stories, especially other people's stories, her loved ones' stories. And the basement became the repository, the library of all of those stories. All the words from those now-silent voices. And so, in her helplessness, if once in a while she unconsciously shelved a box or three too low and - surprise! - they were wiped out in the next flood, who could truly blame her?

Over the years my sister and I begged Mom to move to California. But she didn't want to give up her life in Chicago, her friends, her house. Of course if she moved west, she could have flown back and seen her friends with the same frequency with which she now saw her children and grandchildren. But I think the house held her; particularly the basement. She was someone who enjoyed the active retelling of the past, and I think she could not imagine its erasure, which is how I believe she saw the task of clearing the basement out.

Since she's died, there are no more words from her. And she didn't get her final chance to recap her story, like Moshe did. Not yet, at least. But even without words, there are the things, oh the things!

The basement full of memories - her memories, our memories, and the memories of other people long gone - memories about which we can now only speculate. In beginning the ambitious work, my sister and I have morphed from being liquidators to being curators. Every item has its story, every thing is a word. Our job is to release the story from the prison of physical form; to let it return to its existence in the world of word. We call each other over from opposite sides of the basement. "Look at this." "Remember this?" "Was this Aunt Hattie's? Aunt Anne's? Whose?"

Where we don't know the story, we guess. And in some cases we can only shrug.

My sister commented on the childhood papers and the greeting cards. She said, "You put these away thinking that some day you'll revisit them. And now that's what we're doing." On Mom's behalf, on Dad's, on our grandmothers' and grandfathers' and great aunts' behalves, we are revisiting them and trying, through the din of silence and years, to hear their voices one more time. Some of those voices might make it to this page. And others, well, if they just make it once more to my ears and my heart, that will be have to be enough.

Eyleh had'varim. These are the words. These are the things.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Revenge, Anger and the End of Wisdom

Thinking about Parashat Mattot - July 17, 2014   

Revenge and more revenge.

The widening spiral of pain, anger and retribution broke new ground today, as a passenger plane holding 295 travelers was shot down over Ukrainian airspace by a country or faction still to be identified. The downed flight, covered on the TV news as luridly as one would expect, was instantly triggering for me, as I imagine it was for many of us - transporting us back to our 9/11 horror, watching repeating footage of explosion, irresistibly pressing us to imagine a horrible death, in an act of terror, at altitude. All this getting mixed up with actual sorrow for actual people who actually lost their lives today.

The attack against the plane was the latest volley in a long history of Ukrainian-Russian tension that bores straight back through the Soviet Union and out the other end, for hundreds of years preceding.

If this had been the only new, violent escalation, dayenu, it would have been more than enough. But as we watch this out of one eye, the other remains fixed upon Israel, and the dance of revenge playing out in there. Today Israeli forces are launching ground attacks along the borders of Gaza, in response, of course, to the Palestinian missiles flying toward Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, those in retaliation for offensives that were themselves in response to the murder of three Jewish boys. Which, in someone's mind, was revenge for something before that, which was itself revenge, and back and back and back. Ping pong ping pong ping.

The failure of diplomacy to be of any meaning in either of these conflicts launches me, personally, into a state of despair I haven't felt in a while.

Of course I was also primed for it. Just last weekend, the husband and I rented and watched, by poorly timed recommendation, the chilling Cold War drama, Fail-Safe, starring Henry Fonda as the President of the United States, in a bunker, on the hotline with the Soviet premier, trying to keep the world from coming apart as an American military jet inadvertently and irretrievably heads to Moscow to drop its nuclear payload. The hopelessness and powerlessness seared into the celluloid of this film, and the image of a world where not even good intentions can save the day, much less bad ones, have haunted my sleep for days, before any actual plane got shot out of the sky. Not that I need fiction to enhance my experience of these very real events, but learning that the plane crash was revealed to Putin while he was on the phone with Obama felt like a bit of mocking deja vu.

So I did what I do. I turned to this week's Torah, which often serves for me as a kind of Tarot - what is the insight that this week's cards can bring to the silently articulated question of escalation, revenge, and hopelessness?

Alas, it is a really bad week for this exercise. Our Torah portion, Mattot, is itself about revenge. God commands Moshe to exact a full revenge on the Midianites for having participated with the Moabites in luring the Israelites into sexual misconduct and idolatry. This is meant to be Moshe's last task before he can at long last be gathered to his ancestors. The Israelite soldiers - our soldiers - go and deliver the Midianites a complete defeat. They kill the five Midianite kings, who are specifically named, much as the five daughters of Tzelafchad were repeatedly named in last week's portion and again later in the Book of Joshua.

The kings are killed at swordpoint, and so is Bil'am ben Be'or. You might recall him as the donkey guy, the prophet through whom came the beautiful paean to the Children of Israel, Mah tovu ohaleycha Ya'akov, mishk'noteycha Yisrael: how goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel. He delivered that blessing, but apparently only as a puppet for the ventriloquist God of Israel. Because those words do not seem to mitigate what is considered by Torah and by rabbinic literature to be his irredeemable wickedness - the whole seduction/idolatry thing seems to have been Bil'am's idea. Torah makes a point of saying Bil'am was killed by the sword. Rashi explains that Israel and the other nations swapped strategies in this; while other nations lived by the sword, Israel lived by the word - prayer and praise. When Bil'am gave his mah tovu blessing, he had intended words of curse, and was willing to use the Israelite toolbox - words of power - to do so. And so in punishing him, Israel used the toolbox of his nation, exacting vengeance with the sword's sharp edge.

In any event, the Israelite soldiers get back to the camp having killed every last Midianite man under the rule of the five kings, and bringing back as prisoners the women and children. Moshe, accompanied by Elazar the High Priest, goes out to meet the returning warriors. Moshe is incensed that the soldiers left the women alive, particularly since seduction of Israelite men by Midianite women was the mechanism by which Israel was led astray, according to the story, having brought both moral compromise and outbreak of some disease into the Israelite camp. And while I'd prefer to stop the retelling right here, with Moshe's anger, where really it's bad enough, it did not stop here. Moshe cajoles the soldiers into killing the women, as well as their sons and many of their daughters.

Now, you and I were not there. Sinai maybe, but this moment no. I have not lived in a war zone. I have not been the victim of military attacks. I'm not a Holocaust survivor nor the child of survivors. My inability to imagine what such a complete desire for revenge feels like is a blessing, it truly is, and, alas, a rare privilege on this earth. But still, even we lucky ones might have some wisdom to impart to those who are spinning in the gyre of hatred and revenge. But what?

At last, a breath of air is provided by Rabbi Yehudah Löwe in his Torah commentary, Netivot Olam. Löwe is the Maharal of Prague, the 16th Century commentator known folklorically for creating a golem to protect the Jews. He is no stranger to the threat of violence. Here he retells a piece of midrash to explain why, Moshe having scolded the returning soldiers and pressing them to complete the revenge, it is Elazar the priest, not Moshe, who then begins to articulate Torah to the soldiers regarding how to divide spoils of war and how to purify themselves after having engaged in warfare. This is puzzling to the sages, because it is Moshe who is the archetypal lawgiver, the primary conduit for Torah.

The midrash brought by the Maharal is that in his anger, Moshe is able to give commands of destruction, of violence. But he is unable to articulate law, or wisdom, or prophecy. The Maharal quotes the words of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish in Talmud (Pesachim 66b):
Resh Lakish said: As to every man who becomes angry, if he is a Sage, his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet, his prophecy departs from him. If he is a Sage, his wisdom departs from him: [we learn this] from Moses. For it is written, And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host etc. (Numbers 31:14); and it is written, And Eleazar the Priest said unto the men of war that went to the battle: This is the statute of the law which the Lord hath commanded Moses etc. (Numbers 31:21), whence it follows that [the wisdom/laws] had been forgotten by Moses.
There is nothing surprising or new here. But it is nice to have it articulated not just as world wisdom, not just as common sense, but as Torah. In anger, the wise lose their wisdom, prophets lose their vision. We all know this and are grateful to Talmud, and then Rabbi Löwe, for articulating it. This is the price of anger, even if the anger feels justified.

And this is what we are seeing all around us. Anger begetting anger, revenge begetting revenge. So that wisdom and vision are displaced.

I am not a politician. Or a historian. Or a diplomat. I can't stop wars or reduce tensions, nor can anyone that I know. But we can all feel supported by our own tradition, including even the bloodiest moments of Torah, when we say to leaders on all sides, that revenge is revenge. You may choose to engage in it or, we pray you may choose not to. But do not try to pass it off as wisdom. Do not try to pass it off as prophecy. It is neither.