Sukkot In Israel - October, 2019

To Everything There Is A Season

It’s Sukkot here in Israel. The Feast of Tabernacles (or booths); The Festival of Ingathering; The Festival of Shelters. Commemorating that, after leaving Egypt, the children of Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years in tents, and that God covered them. And pointing to a time and times when God would come to tabernacle with his people permanently.

“Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are Israelites born shall dwell in booths: That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 23:42-43)

In Jerusalem there are sukkas (decorated tents) everywhere. In front of every building and store, on balconies, on side streets, and in small yards. People have potlucks in them and music and feasting.

Part of the custom of being in a tent under the stars is to contemplate life. So with a few friends here we are reading Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) this week to do just that.

These are the lyrics to a song by The Byrds called, “Turn! Turn! Turn!”

Released in 1969, the song is a near direct quotation of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.

To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven

A time to build up, a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together

To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven

A time of love, a time of hate
A time of war, a time of peace
A time you may embrace, a time to refrain from embracing

To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven

A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time for love, a time for hate
A time for peace, I swear it's not too late

California Trip, 1968: Medicine Man Stories

Portrait by Dennis Stock

You know, it occurred to me to ask: How did he get there? How did he end up on the back of a handsome black stallion somewhere in the woods of northern California with a beautiful topless girl clinging to his waist? What was the path that took him to this moment? How did a good ol’ Southern boy from Indiana and Kentucky and Virginia, who was raised on the Episcopal Church, the manners of Emily Post, and haircuts every Sunday; who was not allowed to enter his mother’s living room unless wearing a suit and tie, and only on weekends and with company; How did that boy become a man and get West to California to learn to ride horses, and to prefer short shorts, and to grow his hair long, and to pose for equestrian portraits like a French Emperor or a Roman philosopher king?

Her shorts have flowers on them, and his look like corduroy. Their legs are perfectly relaxed. Her head is perfectly at ease on his shoulder. They look neither happy nor sad. His hands are loose on the reigns. They are riding bareback. The only things standing between them and nature are a few leaves of cloth sewn together, some ancient technology, and the taming of animals.

Would life always be this serene? Would she always hold her arms around him like that? Would she be the only one? Was this the inspiration for that Bob Dylan song he could never sing enough, with the first verse that begins: “I once held mountains...”? Why does any man decide to do what he does? Is it always his own idea? Are they all his own original thoughts that he thinks he’s thinking? Did not an entire generation try to find a purer way of life, to free their minds from the confines of culture and history—or at least that’s what they called those things: confines. But were they really confines? How did he end up on that horse with the beautiful girl? ☗

Photo: California Trip, Dennis Stock, 1967-1968

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Jerusalem - Sometime in September, 2019


Where is the first place you go when you arrive in a new city?

When I was a boy I didn’t live in a city. I lived on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. And I loved going to the beach to surf, and jump to off of sea cliffs.

If you took me to a new town or to another island, the first thing I would look for was a place to get into the water. “Where are the good waves?” I’d ask.

But this changed when I became a teenager and took up skateboarding. Every time I’d visit a new town or city, I would ask where the good skateparks were; where the skaters got together.

I rode skateboards in Oregon until one day, when I was 17, I stopped abruptly. I gave away all my gear. My helmet, my boards, everything. I realized that I was never going to do this professionally, so why risk injuring my hands? You see, I am a musician, and have been since I was five years old.

Music took me to Boston for college. It was there that I started looking for something new whenever visiting a new place: cafes. I could do homework in the cafe, I could write in the cafe. Meet people, new friends and old, in the cafe. And of all this, of course, over hot coffee or tea with a pastry.

So cafes became my beaches and my skateparks. And it went on this way for quite a few years: my first order of business upon reaching a new place was to find out where the good coffee was.

In New York, in Boston, in Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Nashville, New Orleans, Atlanta, Hawaii, Auckland, London, Prague, Berlin, Florence, Tel Aviv. I could tell you where to find good coffee and good cafes in all of these places if you asked me.

But it occurred to me, last year, to ask myself a question: How long will this carry on? Will there be a point where I graduate from cafes to restaurants or boutique hotels or something else? Why do I always search for the watering hole or the inn?

Well, I don't have an answer to that question yet. But I did realize that I have picked up another sort of beach to look for in new places: Bookstores.

My wife will laugh. “No more books!” she’ll say. But we always make time to visit bookstores when we go somewhere new, and we both usually leave with a new acquisition.

Jerusalem is full of bookstores, especially used bookstores. You can't walk more than a block or two without passing a bookstore full of books in many languages. Truly an international and reading city.

I went to a bookstore the other day to see if I could find an English translation of the Russian original of “Master and Margarita”, which a new friend of mine is reading. We met two weeks ago at a cafe near the old city, and agreed to meet up later in the week for chess and jazz at a bar near Ben Yehuda St.

As I think about it, I suppose the locations themselves aren’t what I’m looking for, it’s friends and a place to just be. ☗

Menashe David Israel
From Jerusalem
September, 2019

Songs & Sayings #12 - Hebrew Proverbs Ch. 12


The Songs and Sayings Podcast: Reading through the wisdom literature of the world.

By Menashe David Israel

Chapter 12 of Hebrew Proverbs

Further reading: The Wisdom Books by Robert Alter

Proverbs by the Bible Project


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My comments:

If I were to choose a theme for this chapter, I would choose the theme of truth. Many of the verses that we'll read in this chapter are especially concerned with the tongue and the power of words for good or ill, and even evil; and sometimes even the power—for good—of withholding words completely.

To prepare for this podcast, I read a few different version of Proverbs chapter 12, as I usually do. These version are R.B.Y. Scott's translation, Robert Alter's translation, The NASB, and the King James Version.

If you've been following along with the previous podcasts, you will have recognized that the English translation I've been reading from is quite old-sounding. This is because I've been reading primarily out of the King James Version of the Bible. I use this version because of its poetic construction, and also because most writers of English literature since the 16th century quote from the King James when making their Biblical references. I'm reminded of Earnest Hemingway, who consulted the King James Version to find a title for his first novel, "The Sun Also Rises", an allusion to the book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 1, verse 5, which reads: "The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to his place where he arose." This is of course just one of countless examples that you can find. If you spend enough time with the King James, you'll notice many "hyperlinks" when you read other pieces of English literature.

Today, however, I'll be reading the full chapter from R.B.Y. Scott's translation, which you can find printed in volume 18 of the Anchor Bible series. The reason I'll be reading from Scott's translation is that he brings to light some meanings in the text that I think make this chapter more clear. We'll discuss these in the three verses that I'll pull out for special attention.

So, the first verse from chapter 12 that I found to be particularly instructive was verse 10. The King James reads: "A righteous man regards the life of his beast:

but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel."

R.B.Y Scott translates verse 10 as: A good man cares if his beast is hungry, But the "mercy" of evil men is cruel."

I think that in the West there is an idea about animals, and the Earth, that we have gotten from our Christian history with the Bible—that the Earth is to be subdued by Man, dominated and used without question or nuance. Though this idea does make sense for life—because we have to subdue the earth to grow things, and make a liveable world—the Biblical writings do not put the idea forth without a few caveats. Namely, that the Earth should be allowed to rest from its subduction every once in a while; the land should have a sabbath every seven years, and that animals should not be mercilessly handled: examples include not killing the mother bird in a nest full of chicks; not boiling a kid goat in its mother's milk. These seem to suggest that, though animals can't be said to have duties, humans ought to treat them with a certain modicum of dignity. And there are a few other examples that you can find if you look.

The second verse we'll consider is verse 23, which says "A prudent man conceals knowledge: but the heart of fools proclaims foolishness."

There's much that could be said about this verse. I think again of Earnest Hemingway, who had his "iceberg" theory: that what is left unsaid will act as a large hidden foundation for the little that *is* said, and this hidden knowledge will be felt by nature of its having been left out.

Rabbi Akiva, in the 1st century of the common era, said something similar: "Silence is a fence around wisdom."

And Jesus of Nazareth, in the same century as Akiva, hid his messianic message in parables, telling his followers not to cast their pearls before swine, and not to throw what is holy to the dogs.

Indeed, true knowledge is set apart, and it also sets apart. Wisdom, also, is a sharp and powerful device for dividing the world around us. We have to be careful how we wield wisdom and knowledge. Verse 18 in the King James reads: "There is that speaketh like the piercings of a sword: but the tongue of the wise is health." Perhaps that is why unless the wise man is ready, and the listener is still, it is best to leave wisdom and knowledge sheathed so that no one comes to harm and nothing precious poured out in vain.

The septuagint adds a line to verse 13, which says, "A man whose glance is gentle wins kindness, but the contentious causes hurt." Wisdom is much more than just speech.

The third and last verse I will focus on is verse 28.

It isn't clear how this verse should be translated.

Most translations say something along the lines of: "In the path of righteousness is life, and in its pathway there is no death."

Robert Alter's translation says, "On the path of righteousness is life, BUT the way of mischief is to death."

If you remember the discussion of the three different kinds of Hebrew parallelism in episode 10 of the Songs and Sayings podcast, you'll notice that the first translation of this verse, that the writer of Proverbs 12:28 is employing, is a Synonymous parallelism; synonymous parallelism is where the two lines express the same idea but each is phrased in slightly different ways.

"In the path of righteousness is life, AND in its pathway there is no death."

So this verse, if interpreted as Synonymous paralellism, uses its two lines, or stychs, to both point to the idea of life.

However, in the second translation, by Robert Alter, the first stych points to life, and the second stych gives a contrast: an antithetical parallel second line pointing to death: "On the path of righteousness is life, BUT the way of mischief is to death."

The lack of clarity as to how to translate this verse comes from the Hebrew, "wederekh netivah al-mawet," which literally means "and the way of path [is] un-death," a phrase which Robert Alter says, "does not sound like intelligible Hebrew."

Perhaps it isn't intelligible as prose. But as poetry, which it undoubtedly is, it does seem to lend itself to the program of the Bible: The path of righteousness leads to un-death. That statement sounds like resurrection to me.

R.B.Y. Scott points out that there is a synonymous parallel between “life" and "non-death” in the Ugaritic poem Aqhat A, section vi, lines 26-27. Scott also says that this view of the relationship between righteousness and immortality is found in the later Greek work "The Wisdom of Solomon".

Perhaps the existence of these texts is why the majority of translations take the lines in verse 28 to be a synonymous parallel. ☗

Read Proverbs 12 on the Bible App

Songs & Sayings #11 - Hebrew Proverbs Ch. 11


The Songs and Sayings Podcast: Reading through the wisdom literature of the world.

By Menashe David Israel

Chapter 11 of Hebrew Proverbs

Further reading: The Wisdom Books by Robert Alter

Proverbs by the Bible Project


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My comments:

Proverbs is a breath of fresh air to me. It’s a breath of fresh air because of its straight-forward literary style, its kind of jab-jab-hook presentation of cause and effect. Of course there is room for expansive interpretation, but most interpretations of the Proverbs lead readers to the same general destination.

This is in sharp contrast to other books in the Biblical canon that often land people in very different areas of understanding. For example, one person may read the book of Jonah literally, and think that there once was a man who was swallowed by a whale and then actually spit up by it, alive, three days later; another person reads the same book and says that no such thing could happen, but that the story of Jonah must be taken strictly as metaphor. These two readers may argue and even squabble over the veracity of each interpretation,—interpretations which truly are important to work out, but that don’t usually see any direct effect on the way that they live, one way or the other, in their day-to-day existence.

Indeed, belief in literal or metaphorical interpretations of these texts does eventually have an effect on the way we live, but it seems to me that it is not so clear how far away these effects are; or how quickly the way we live is affected by believing metaphorically or literally about one thing or another. And this does not even take into account the selective nature of our literal and metaphorical interpretation of texts, as these aren’t even our only two options; the number of possible hermeneutic choices that we can make across the panoply of texts we encounter is probably near endless.

Does this mean that no right interpretation is possible? I don’t think so. On the contrary I do think there is always a best or most likely interpretation of the text that we have before us. And there are traditions and methods of thinking that we can take into account to guide our reading of texts. But these things take time, and learning, which are not always available to every person.

But what is at once available to us all is the ability to trust advice that has been tried and found to be true for thousands of generations, advice immediately practical, wise words that will affect my actions today.

These Proverbs, and wisdom literature the world over, teach people that certain kind of at-once knowledge that will lead to more righteous action today, even if we do not fully comprehend the ways in which these actions are right—we take this wisdom on faith.

I like what Robert Alter says toward this when he observes in his commentary on the Wisdom Books that “Much of the wisdom of Proverbs…is oriented pragmatically…” Chapter 11, I think, is a perfect example of this pragmatism. The first verse opens up on how God loathes uneven scales in commerce, but loves true-weighted stones. This seems to me like a way in which telling the truth can permeate everything we do, leading us easily to right action.

I’ll make one more comment before we read our current chapter.

In verse 2 there is a neat little rhyme in the first stych. In the Hebrew it says, “ba zadon, wayyabo qalon,” which translators interpret in a variety of ways. Robert Alter puts the line as, “With a bold face, there comes disgrace.” R.B.Y. Scott puts it, “To show disdain is to show you’re vain.” Leaving the rhyme, the King James Version puts verse two as, “When pride cometh, then cometh shame.” But literally the line “ba zadon, wayyabo qalon,” means, “comes insolence, comes disgrace.”

This line is just one of many examples of the poetic nature of the proverbs not only in meter but also in rhyme. ☗

Read Proverbs 11 on the Bible App

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