How I Met Abraham our Ancestor

beth el yamasaki

How I Met Avraham Avinu [Abraham our father]
On Parashat Lekh Lekha

I remember standing with Avraham Avinu on the corner of Davison and Courtland, I must have been four years old. It was summer, hot that day in Detroit. There was a Texaco station on that corner, and he was standing in the doorway of the gas station. I was walking with my aunt towards our house. Abraham motioned us to come into the station, “red pop?” he offered.

I recognized him from playing in the alley next to the gas station. When I met him that day, he took my face in his hands, called me a mazik (a very well behaved young gentleman, always polite and does what he is told).

Later, as we were walking home, I asked my aunt, “Who was that man?” “Avraham Avinu,” she said, “standing in the opening of his tent.” I was four years old and I took her literally. I had just met Abraham our father at the Texaco station, doing what he was known for: welcoming strangers, practicing kindness.

In this week’s reading, we encounter Abraham as Avram; note the difference in name, signifying the father of one nation, in Genesis 16:15 the nation that will issue from Ishmael. His name also means exalted father; he is exalted because his soul was rooted in the highest Godliness. God will invest Avram with the fatherhood of Ishmael and Isaac, and the children of Ishmael and Isaac, and when Avram becomes Avraham, the extra syllable signifies he would become father to many nations (Genesis 17:5). We are descended from Isaac, and the Arab peoples we imagine, are descended from Ishmael. We will spend much of our future trying to find our way back to each other. It begins with respecting our daddy.

I have met Avraham Avinu many times. Once he welcomed us into his tent in the Sinai by lamplight, rubbing sandalwood oil on my daughter’s tired legs. I met him again in the old market where he served me sweetened tea, green and minty. He gave me eagle feathers to pluck my instrument. Once he peeled oranges for us by the sea. Another time he called me on his cell phone to offer a ride to the airport. “Anything I can do,” said Avraham Avinu, as if it was his motto, his purpose, which it was.

Our future depends on remembering him. We will have to be him. We will have to work this quality of kindness, the quality of compassion as he once did effortlessly and naturally. We will have to work it consciously and intentionally, because we have come a long way from our Sources and the return will have to be self-reflective and intentional, a return in spite of ourselves in spite of our detractors. But we have a good model in Avraham Avinu, and he is everywhere among us, around us, within us.

james stone goodman

Betzalel Story #33

Mishkan

Clayton Jail-house
Summer, 2013

The next time I saw Betzalel I had given Mr. B a Hebrew Bible in English translation soft cover and asked him to give it to Betzalel. I put a note on the inside with the page number where Betzalel is mentioned in Exodus 31 and I highlighted the verses.

I went up to the cubicle. We talked some more. He would be at the Clayton jail longer than he thought and he knew he was looking at serious time. I told him that Mr. B had a soft cover Hebrew Bible in English translation for him.

How do you say it [his Hebrew name, recently bestowed], and he tried to say Betzalel but it didn’t come out right.

In the Bible coming to you they call him Bezalel, with a z, you can use that if you like and I felt myself beginning to speak easy English to him thinking he’s not going to get this Betzalel easily and in mid-sentence as I was explaining how he could say Bez-a-lel nice and slowly, he said:

It’s a tzaddi — (the Hebrew letter that is more correctly transliterated as tz or ts though there is no exact English equivalent).

Yes, I said, it’s a tzaddi, realizing he had been studying Hebrew and once again I betrayed my bias and how wrong I was to assume he had not entered deep into his name into this search he is on for meaning and how irrelevant it is that he is a foot away separated by thick glass — we were talking by phones through the jail-house window — he is a black man and when the keepers of the purse asked me who are the people you see in the prison house are they white are they black are they Jewish how completely irrelevant that is on so many levels and how many of my questioners know what a tzaddi is anyway?

Forgive me, I thought, I smiled a big smile shamed by my bias, yes I said it’s a tzaddi just say it slow and in syllables until it becomes comfortable: B’tzal-El. It means in the shadow of G*d.

jsg, usa

————

What to do, where to start.

I felt some urgency in bringing these stories out, we have been too secret with our stories of ascendance and recovery, and our stories of descent and tragedy, we have been too secret all around. I searched out ways to reach more people, to lift the shame curtain on our addictions and our depressions and our imprisonments and our secret illnesses when the inner world goes dark.

I felt that our spiritual and our social institutions were like gated communities behind which stories are kept for ourselves. I think we could work better together to serve our communities with more intelligent strategies. The first step: tell the stories.

Some of the stories are triumphant, some difficult. All are true. Though the stories are stripped of details, names, identifying qualities, almost all the individuals mentioned are heroic meaning they value the necessity to serve. They want to turn their experience into benefit for someone else. Confidentiality does not mean secrecy. Secrecy is part of the problem.

Thus this series: These Are The Stories.

Vigil: In Spain With the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

West Eastern Divan Orchestra

In Spain With the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
August, 2006

It’s past midnight and we are trying to decide on a plan
some of us ready for tonight’s rehearsal
some withholding —
Beethoven’s Ninth.
Most of us haven’t the strength for it just now.

We have brought our politics with us into the practice tent
the original dream of our collaboration corrupted for now
we don‘t have to agree — on that we all agree —
still we are stuck, unsure how long.

Our project is called Divan in Arabic Diwan
a compilation of music or poetry.
Our ensemble takes its name from Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan*
his last great cycle of poetry —
Goethe himself inspired by the divan of the Persian poet Hafiz.

*The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said in 1999. We are not generals or politicians, we are musicians. We are not solving even our own problems, much less the world’s problems.

We are hosted in Spain, Andalusia,
the president of Andalusia* remembers the Jews, Muslims, and Christians
who lived in his part of Spain
one thousand years ago
a kind of Golden Age.

*The president of Andalusia and maestro remind us of our history and our vision. We are musicians from different sides of the wall, we might not have gotten to Beethoven’s Ninth this year, nor the Leonore Overture No. 3, nor Mozart’s sinfonia concertante for winds, Bottesini’s Fantasia on Themes by Rossini, nor Brahm’s First Symphony.

There are 92 of us in the orchestra
we have written a statement* that we break out
every concert: there is no military solution
our destinies are inextricably linked
our project stands in sharp contrast to the cruelty and savagery of the present war.

*Still – seven of us voted against it but it stands, our little declaration of principle.
It stands for the peace we seek through music – one of our violinists said,
you don’t have to agree on everything to be friends. We live on different planets –
this has opened my eyes.

Said maestro,
if there were no conflict
there would be no need for our project.

I hear the strings warming up —
here in Andalusia the night is stale.
Past midnight
are we going to play?

james stone goodman
Vigil

Story #10

Kafka Monday

I talked to her on the phone several weeks before. I wonder if you remember me, she asked, of course I remember you. She hadn’t been around in a while. I wondered where you’d gone off to, I said. She was smart, older than most of the others in the group, and well informed.

She described to me on the phone what she took away from the teachings, the music, the approach we took and it was as sensitive a profile of what we were doing as I have heard. She had been paying attention. She had more background than most of my students and knew the language to describe what she took away.

When I called back, her daughter told me she had been bouncing in and out of a series of institutions. They say she’s depressed now, her daughter said with weariness in her voice, she asked me to call you.

I went up to see her. They buzzed me up to the second floor. I was familiar with the building.

I hadn’t seen her in about ten years. She was sitting near the door by herself. I stood in front of her and called softly her name.

Oh sir, you came she said, she repeated that several times ascending in enthusiasm until she reached a pitch that was a little more than polite. Oh sir, she repeated, you came, you really came. She moved over several seats away from the other person who was sitting near. Come with me here, she said again: you came to see me.

She put her hand on my sleeve, I moved to hold her hand. I don’t want to hold your hand, she said, I just want to lay mine on your sleeve. It was a modesty thing I think.

We talked and she filled me in that she felt alone and abandoned, that they told her she was depressed and she supposed she was, but there was so much in her life that was overwhelming. She moved quickly through time, now the indignity she felt in being carried around to so many institutions in such a short time, her inability to look after herself properly. She felt as if she had no one left.

I gave her a booklet I made for her of teachings I had written about the approaching holidays. Oh sir, she said, thank you thank you. I’m not reading right now, she said she couldn’t focus her eyes, will you read some to me?

So I read to her some of the poems I had written based on the seven messages of consolation from Isaiah.

As I read she stopped me and asked to repeat a line, which I did. Each time she commented on the line in the intelligent, informed, sensitive way I remembered from her. What she didn’t understand she said right out: I don’t understand that. What does that mean? And the lines she thought especially beautiful she stopped to comment: I love that phrase. Oh that word, so good.

Every valley a high place, that’s so beautiful she said, so optimistic. Lift up your voice from low places, yes she said, that is so hard to do. Give yourself a name, give everything a name. I don’t know what value that is, she said with weariness, I know Adam gave out names but what does it mean? What does it mean if you can name it? Does that really change anything?

__________

What to do, where to start.

I felt some urgency in bringing these stories out, we have been too secret with our stories of ascendance and recovery, and our stories of descent and tragedy, we have been too secret all around. I searched out ways to reach more people, to lift the shame curtain on our addictions and our depressions and our imprisonments and our secret illnesses when the inner world goes dark.

I felt that our spiritual and our social institutions were like gated communities behind which stories are kept for ourselves. I think we could work better together to serve our communities with more intelligent strategies. The first step: tell the stories.

Some of the stories are triumphant, some difficult. All are true. Though the stories are stripped of details, names, identifying qualities, almost all the individuals mentioned are heroic meaning they value the necessity to serve. They want to turn their experience into benefit for someone else. Confidentiality does not mean secrecy. Secrecy is part of the problem.

Thus this series: These Are The Stories.

james stone goodman

Noah, part 2: Come Into The Word

Noah manuscript

Come Into The Word

On Noach

Part 2

Then there’s the story of your decline. You turned to the sauce (Gen.9:21). It’s no excuse to say you humiliated yourself the way you did (with your children present yet) because you were spiced up, as Grandfather used to say. You got attached to substances. When you get attached that way Noah anything can happen and often does. You begin to violate all the codes of behavior you thought you would never violate. The first step Noah: take responsibility. It was not the drink acting, it was Noah drunk.

Here is the secret sense of that problem: the emptiness within. That sense of entitlement Noah you began with (6:9), if you don’t move through that you could be lost that way your entire life. And you will leave behind a world of mess: your children – a legacy of mess (9:25).

There is no filling a hunger that isn’t physical; that emptiness within Noah, we know that’s the root problem. You can’t drink enough you can’t drug enough you can’t eat enough you can’t spend enough you can’t fill enough a hunger that isn’t physical. The only antidote is spiritual, the perennial remedy, the real deal, a spiritual remedy.

The clues are all in the Book, Noah. Come into the teivah (7:1), the Book invited you. It means Word in addition to Ark. And if you didn’t know that or if you forgot, someone should have reminded you: Come into the Word.

Noah, you could have walked into the Word, become a tzaddik in language, talked through all your complicated stuff because that is the enduring remedy. Talk it work it get honest about it confront it ultimately eclipse it. Grow beyond your limitations. Talk with your healers, let them mix medicines when you need that kind of help – science and spirit — and deal with it. Go to any lengths. Enter the Word. That’s the healing power, the power in language.

You could have become a tzaddik in loshen, Noah, a righteous person in language, and saved everyone.

jsg.usa

Come Into The Word

byzantine-art-noah-drinking-wine-mosaic-baptistery-of-st-mark-s-basilica-venice-italy

Come Into The Word

On Noach

Come on back in Noah. You had such a good start, a guy with promise. The way the Book refers to you, ish tzaddik (Gen.6:9), such a lofty description. A righteous man. Maybe that’s what held you back, too much opportunity. Maybe you had too much and you know how that happens, you felt entitled. Everyone telling you you’re an ish tzaddik, a righteous person, maybe as you grew you didn’t develop and came to expect what you had not earned. Hey, who’s the righteous person in the room?

That may be part of the problem for you: the room. The Book reads a righteous person then a couple of qualifiers: just right for your generation (6:9). Uh oh. What if your generation was not so elevated, what if you were born into a generation that was not so lofty? To be an ish tzaddik in that generation might not be such great shakes.

Grandfather of blessed memory used to refer to you as a tzaddik in peltz. What kind of tzaddik might you be? He would ask. A tzaddik in a fur coat, and then he would laugh that laugh that was heard from one end of the room to the other, the kind of laughter that suggested we’re all a little ruined here. When you’re cold, you can light a fire at the hearth and everyone warms up. Or you can put on your fur coat. That’s the Noah kind of tzaddik, he would say, a righteous person in a fur coat.

That’s a hard problem Noah and we all have some sympathy for you. Later in life, if you had learned to read better, you might have seen the signs in the Book. The clue to your redemption is there too. Come into the teivah, Noah, the book reads (7:1). That could have been your salvation. Come into the Ark, teivah, same word used for our beloved teacher Moses (Ex.2:3,5) who came out of the teivah in the bulrushes. You might have entered the wrong kind of teivah, Noah. In that ark you saved yourself, your kids, the wives, and two of every kind of those sweet Dr. Dolittle animals.

Then there’s the terrible acting out of your decline. You turned to the sauce (Gen.9:21). It’s no excuse to say you humiliated yourself the way you did (with your children present yet) because you were spiced up, as Grandfather used to say. You got attached to substances. When you get attached that way Noah anything can happen and often does. You begin to violate all the codes of behavior you thought you would never violate. The first step Noah: take responsibility. It was not the drink acting, it was Noah drunk.

Here is the secret sense of that problem: the emptiness within. That sense of entitlement Noah you began with, if you don’t work it you could be lost that way your entire life. And you will leave behind a legacy of mess. Your children — they will inherit a legacy of mess (9:25).

There is no filling a hunger that isn’t physical; that emptiness within Noah, we know that’s the root problem. You can’t drink enough you can’t drug enough you can’t eat enough you can’t spend enough you can’t fill enough a hunger that isn’t physical. The only antidote is spiritual, the perennial remedy, the real deal, a spiritual remedy.

The clues are all in the Book, Noah. Come into the teivah, the Book invited you. It means Word in addition to Ark. And if you didn’t know that or if you forgot, someone should have reminded you. Come into the Word.

Noah, you could have walked into the Word, become a tzaddik in language, talked through all your complicated stuff because that is the enduring remedy. Talk it work it get honest about it confront it ultimately eclipse it. Grow beyond your limitations. Talk with your healers, let them mix medicines when you need that kind of help and deal with it. Enter the Word. That’s the healing power, the power in language.

You could have become a tzaddik in loshen, Noah, a righteous person in language, and saved everyone.

jsg.usa

Great Librarians I Have Known

Ancient library alex

A Founding Father’s Books Turn Up
– NY Times, Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dear Dr. L.,

I feel so many opportunities in the course of life these days to think of my teachers from the old school. You have weathered the years well. Not only do you live in my memory, and in my imagination, but what you taught me by virtue of standards and models alone has enriched my life and I am sure account for the measure by which I parse the world in my own little way, sometimes to my frustration for what you planted for me has grown slowly or not at all in other places, ways, people (heaven forbid that I am judging but – I am).

Recently there was a conversation on one of our list-servs (a place where people express opinions without thinking) in which one of the older colleagues implied that the newer colleagues have not the tools as we were encouraged to develop in the former days when we consulted the books in your province – the library. The proof is of course in the product – do we write better, do we think better, are the standards advancing – of course they are not.

Often I feel how I would like to inform you of this or that – something I have read or something discovered that you would appreciate – in the world to come you are no doubt preoccupied with greater pursuits, sitting with texts, taking sunshine with the great Rabbis, pouring over the manuscripts you couldn’t identify in life but suspected were of the hand of this scribe, that scribe, sitting with the Holy One in the great yeshivahs on high learning the mystery texts that disappeared in life and are now in the great libraries of the next world, the genizah on high — yours is a blessed existence I am sure.

I read something in the newspaper that delighted me and I am sure would have delighted you, and if it’s not available there, I want to share with the one person who I know would chuckle and I can see that smile curling the corners of your mouth hesitating toward the peak where you were thinking this is funny but never daring to expose your feelings in so blatant a way (no doubt emotional residue from your pause in England on your escape route from the Nazis to the rare books collection at the College where you tutored me, old school).

Dr. – in the town where I live they recently identified 74 books that belonged to the library of one of our early Presidents who of all the Presidents of our youthful country was the most bibliophilic. I just had to tell you. They have had these texts in their collection since 1880 [!?].

One of the founders of the university in my town — a grandfather of the celebrated poet, less than friendly to our people, Thomas Stearns (who became English and snooty) and whose grandfather seems to have been a colleague at Harvard of the donor of President Jefferson’s books (our third President, Thomas Jefferson) — that grandfather and founder of the university in my town received a certain part of President Jefferson’s retirement collection of books. Thomas Stearns’ grandfather donated them to the university in our town around 1880.

To identify those books must seem to you a rather simple pursuit when I consider that you were the curator of ancient books identifying for our modest College manuscripts from several millennia by location and date and sometimes even by scribe.

These books of President Jefferson have been in the collection in the library of my town since 1880 and – this is the part I know you would appreciate – the President labeled his books with his initials “TJ.” Isn’t that wonderful? In 2011 the scholarly resources of the university library identified the books as belonging to President Thomas Jefferson and everywhere in my town they were celebrating this remarkable find [lost-and-find].

My beloved teacher, I just had to share this with you. I find myself in awe at the world as it has formed and the one whose image you placed in my mind, in the distance between the two I fill with memories of your demonstrated excellence and the others of your time and depth. We are so diminished. You planted us deep with a lofty reach.

I knew you would enjoy this story and if I could peek into the other world for just a moment, I would witness again the corners of your mouth beginning that managed rise north-wards, not quite a smile but you and I know how funny life is.

I often wear red socks and my trousers too short in your honor. Your student always,

James Stone Goodman
C’81