Hard Story

Trying To Make Sense
By Rabbi James Stone Goodman

Part 1: Aftermath

It was before I could make sense so I didn’t write about it. I wasn’t ready. Write to make sense, I knew. Still, I didn’t write about it.
Since the tragedy in Tucson there is much talk about heroes, shifting from the tragedies to stories of heroism at the site of the killing. I am wondering if this is a media-inspired lightening for the audience, because we want to depart from these stories with a residue that doesn’t over-burden. I so distrust the public place of ideas these days.

There was also a shadow story of the tragedy in Tucson, the family members of some of the victims meeting or not meeting with the family members of the alleged perpetrator, it brought up so much for me.

I know a heroic story that emerged out of tragedy. I wasn’t ready to tell it as it was happening. It is a well known story in my town, was in the newspapers and on TV, and I can tell some of the story but not all of the story in respect to the participants themselves. It was too difficult a story to tell until it became The Story. So maybe it’s time to tell it now.

A friend of mine was killed in my town trying to break up a petty robbery at a coffee shop. He was run over by a car driven by the thief.

The deceased’s brother is an even closer friend of mine. I was asked to do the funeral though no one in this story is Jewish. It was a horrible story. The kid who was responsible for the death was twenty years old and a lost boy, it was a stupid senseless tragedy.
We sat at the hospital for the few days my friend’s brother held on, then he passed. We buried him, large funeral, big Church. He had many, many friends.

My friend, his brother, decided to memorialize his brother best at the site of the killing, a coffee shop. We planned an informal gathering at the coffee shop. My friend planted a tree in memory of his brother at the very site where his brother was killed.
The day of the planting ceremony, my friend attended the sentencing for the boy who was convicted of the crime of involuntary manslaughter and several other crimes. The boy’s family also attended and my friend and the boy’s father entered into conversation. My friend invited the father to the ceremony. He came with his small family from a large city southeast of us.

There we were together, relatives and friends of victim and relatives of victimizer. It was hard, there were so many complex feelings flying about, but my friend, the brother of the deceased, felt this was the right thing to do. I don’t think it was a particularly measured response by him. They walked out of Court together and my friend invited the father of the victimizer to the memorial that day. It just felt right.

It’s been several years now and the story has deepened. When the boy who drove the car was released from jail, my friend, brother of the deceased, asked me if I would accompany him in a meeting with the boy and his father before they returned to their town. Again, my friend felt it was the right thing to do, not only to give this kid another chance at life through an acknowledgment of mistakes done with devastating irreversible consequences, but the necessity for my friend himself to move beyond recrimination and vengeance as if to say: in this story, let there be no more hurt.

We met in a lobby of a hotel. Again, my feelings were complex but I felt as if this wasn’t my story, it was my friend’s story — and his family, and the perpetrator and his family — and the deceased. The meeting was hard, but we all talked honestly, not avoiding anything, never minimizing, there was talk and tears and a good deal of silence. It wasn’t simple and it wasn’t comfortable, it was just true.

I saw my friend, in the ruins of his mourning over his brother, lift himself out of his sadness and claim life not only for himself but for the victimizer/kid and his family sitting across from him. He gave this kid another chance at life. He also moved through the shreds of his own grief and proclaimed (to himself mostly) I am going to live honorably and beyond my former borders, in memory of my brother. I am going to rise up and out of this mess, and make not-mess.

I had become part of the story, too, I suppose, because being present at these events of forgiveness and heroism pushed me beyond my own uncertainty. I arrived at a new place, brought there somewhat reluctantly by the heroic forgiving nature of my friend who insists on living his life from a higher place than events had placed him.

Every time I tell this story, I thank him for including me.

He saw what he saw

The last line —
He came into the cloud
and went up the mountain
and he was up on the mountain
forty days and forty nights. [Ex.24:18]

We want to know
what happened up the mountain?
What did he see?
He ascends
wearing the garment of colors
draped over his shoulders by the rainbow,

he saw what he saw
he enjoyed it
All of it
up to that place.

What place.

What place is it where language meets its
beyond which
the most that can be said
about something
is nothing.

It’s like this
and like this
like this

— an old man like me
doesn’t offer a single version
a word rattling around in an empty bottle –

first: the obvious
then the less obvious
the secret even
to arrive where we began [B.N.]
the plain sense
the surfaces having released their opacity —


We know this
every now and again
don’t we?

jsg, usa


They saw the God of Israel
they had a vision of God
in their chests
then they ate and drank.

If we feel God everywhere
in our chests
on the mountain top
God in the Torah
God in the kitchen
God waiting for the bus —

God everywhere
why not


Maqam Saba
D E half-flat F G flat

The Arabic word Sabi means baby boy,
Maqam Saba is used for the Brit Milah (circumcision).
Saba — parashiot that contain either births, covenants (brit),
a variety of laws, the mention or reference to an army (Saba),
or the actual word Saba.

A maqam is a musical figure.
Each Shabbat is associated with a particular maqam in Arabic,
cognate to the Hebrew Maqom, signifying place.

The Philosopher Avicenna (d. 1037)
Identified 12 principal modes
Or maqamat
Singular maqam
From “place” (Arabic) Hebrew cognate Maqom.

Ethical and cosmological implications
Signs of zodiac
Times of day and night
Poetic meter
Healings and treatments,

Each week a musical figure —
a mood


From the Wedding Book

The Aristocratic Universal Bride

I will sing a poem for
The Universal bride
she arrives on Friday night
as if for a wedding

— do we imagine her?
dressed all in white
the jewels the train of the bride
the costuming
where’d you get that dress?

We do. We do imagine her,

We sing her a wedding song
the wedding party
we anticipate her as the sun
makes its way home in the west.

We dress nicely for her
it’s a wedding!
We dress in white
wool, cool in the summer
warm in the winter
the way wool holds the body heat
made from sheep ordinarily
could be made from rabbits I suppose
or Cashmere
made from goats,

I suppose you could make wool from any furry creature
but not that greasy cat that lives in my basement
wool from sheep’s wool from sheep
sheep’s wool has scales that overlap
like shingles on a roof,

Wool taken from sheep produced for meat
typically it’s more coarse
merino wool, nice, very fine.

Don’t think me irreverant to describe the mystical bride
this way.
— it’s just

I am seeing her as I write this
and the wool is

The bride herself may be wearing wool
only the finest
I don’t suppose she will be wearing
wool marrying in — oh Memphis, Tennessee
or Detroit,
Baltimore —
the desert bride no longer comes looking for her beloved
dressed that way anyway,

The wool is clean white long fine
and free of defects from the environment
that alone would be worthy of a proper welcome
especially from someone like James Joyce
or Dylan Thomas who –

Wore wool, scratchy, smelling like tobacco.
Neither of them would think that the whole Mystical bride
imagery was a lot of hooey
I guarantee it
they would go deep into it
for its beauty in language and form
and for its wool that they wore every day,
greeting her or not.

Wool has greater crimp, crimp —
the number of bends per unit length along the wool fiber
a fine wool like merino may have up to a hundred
crimps an inch
wool fabrics have great bulk and retain air
which causes WOOL to retain heat.
It works both ways
how do we understand that?

Bedouins of the great deserts and Tuaregs wear
wool to keep the heat out.
I saw this myself in the great desert
my Bedouin driver wore wool sweaters buttoned up in 120 degree heat.
He didn’t sweat into the wool either.

The sun is skating down her dress the last of its rays
the Universal bride is looking for us
it’s time to welcome her —

Come my beloved
Let us greet her

the wedding song the wedding poem
forget about what she’s wearing
sing the wedding poem:

This is it
come my beloved
welcome the bride

Here she comes the Bride
check out the wool
yes, yes it is fine white
well crimped
can’t make out the details
only this:

She has come looking for God.

Wedding Poem

Jewish Prayer for St. Francis

From his big bulky pockets,
he gave away everything he owned.
They laughed at him
before he found his purpose.
He prayed for that — a sense of purpose.

Go and repair My house, he heard, it is falling into ruins.
He sat with the lepers, changing their bandages one by one.
He gave everything away.
He had nothing
and it was the very thing everyone needed.

The Kingdom of Heaven is upon us, he heard,
he began to preach repentance.
There were eleven of them within a year.
Clare heard him in Asissi.
The little brothers walked the mountains around Umbria,

that’s where I saw them,
just outside Spello.
I was sitting with Francesca
by her grove of olive trees.
She pointed up at the mountains behind Asissi.
I had just told her about the Mystical Bride,
a Queen we welcome every Friday night
who brings the quiet presence of Godliness.

She comes looking for us every Friday evening
when the sun goes down
for the sacred wedding.

Yes, Francesca said, it’s like San Francesco,
I see him walking there in the evening.

Francesca pointed toward the mountains behind Assisi,
Look — his goats.
It was just the time when he appears,
between the suns.

We were gazing up towards the mountains
as the sun began to find its way home in the west.
I then told her about the Jewish legend —

I then told her about the Jewish legend –
every week we wait for her
The Bride, the Queen
authenticating the week
we wait –
without her we cannot endure.

Where is she when we need her, sighed Francesca.

She is coming — I said.

Like San Francesco,
she cocked her head toward the mountains
while the sun went down
we sat, waiting.

I sang a wedding poem
Come my beloved,
let us greet the Bride.


jsg, usa

I Know Why He Came

We listened to Yitro
Yitro listened to us.

Moses stuttered
Yitro [Jethro] spoke another language entirely
Yitro began by listening
he had heard all that happened
— God and Israel and Egypt
Jethro listened to the whole story
and it moved him.

He brought Tzipporah
the wife of Moses and their two sons
to Israel’s camp.

When did he come? [Talmud, Zevachim 116a]
Did he come after he heard about the attack of Amalek?
did he come when he heard about the splitting of the Sea?
did he come when he heard about the Ten Commandments?

Did he come because of the opposition
did he come because of miracles
did he come because of wisdom —

he knew why he came.

Thus is the giving of the Torah in this parashah
yet the portion is entitled Jethro,

as if we could not receive the holy Torah
until Yitro had joined us. [Zohar]

Us and Them Problem

How we received Yitro is an us-and-them problem
he gave us something additional
something unexpected
his name was Yeter [additional]
he brought additional wisdom
something from the outside.

Once we integrated his wisdom
he became YitrO
he earned a vuv
a direct connection with the Holy One
straight up and down
the Or Yashar
the direct light.

His wisdom was from the outside
what is additional is what he taught Moses
how to bring down the wisdom from the outside
in its applications
the implications and inferences
what we will draw for ourselves.

Outside becoming inside.

From the outsider Amalek we received only nastiness —
from the outsider Yitro
wisdom beyond measure.

jsg, usa

*Maqam Hoseini, Phrygian mode on the note A

A B flat C D
D E flat F G

A *maqam is a musical figure. Each Shabbat is associated with a particular maqam in Arabic, cognate to the Hebrew Maqom, signifying place.
The Philosopher Avicenna (d. 1037)
Identified 12 principal modes
Or maqamat
Singular maqam
From “place” (Arabic) Hebrew cognate Maqom.

Ethical and cosmological implications
Signs of zodiac
Times of day and night
Poetic meter
Healings and treatments,

Each week a musical figure
Each human being an individual melody —


When Sent part 4

Last problem: Amalek.
Ah, an enemy.
Our problems are both inner and outer.
The first, the Egyptians and the last, Amalek.
We will come to wish all our problems were so outer.

In the interior — ourselves, the water, the food, the attitude,
we have met the inner enemy, it is us.
Our problems are lucky to have us.
Our devotion to them is endless.

jsg, usa

Here’s the poem the Memorial in Tucson ended with


With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

W. S. Merwin