Archive for January, 2013

E PLURIBUS ECHAD

At President Obama’s public inauguration last Monday, Richard Blanco read his poem, “One Today.” Blanco’s theme of unity really resonated. “One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores.” We are a single people joined together. “My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors.”

Each inauguration prompts good feelings roused by America’s tradition of peacefully passing on the presidency every four years. Regrettably, those good feelings often quickly dissolve as partisan disagreements resume. But if we focus on Blanco’s words and some earlier words that perhaps inspired them, we might hold our more negative passions in check and find ways to break through the bipartisan deadlock that so afflicts the nation.

I cite Deuteronomy 6:4: “Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” We are instructed that God is one and indivisible. So too, Genesis 1 reveals that the created world, complex as it is, is a single entity following on from a single Creator. We see Adam and Eve as humanity’s common parents, and Noah and his unnamed wife as our post-Flood ancestors. Diverse we may be, but ultimately we are all one family.

In this regard, the Mishna (Sanhedrin 4:5) provides a quite beautiful teaching. A person can stamp out many coins with one die, and all the coins look alike, whereas God created humans from a single set of parents yet each of us is unique. We know from our own experiences that members of a family remain individuals yet are bound together.

I appreciated as well Blanco’s choice of greeting that Americans use as the morning sun rises—“hello, shalom,/buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días.” By all means, add additional favorites. All are valid, because all reflect the many ethnicities, which form and reform the complex America nationality.

So where might this take us? Let’s play off the Mishna’s coin analogy. Every coin has two sides. Yet each is a single object with a single recognized value. So, too, our public debates have two sides. Often more. Yet those debates consider the wellbeing of a single nation. More than one way exists to legitimately approach a particular problem.

At the end of the day, Blanco writes, we head home “always under one sky, our sky.” We are a diverse lot to be sure. But diversity offers us many experiences and points of view—and more opportunities for meeting our challenges. We do better to listen to each other and seek common ground than exploit differences in the certitude that we, and we alone, have the answers.

Blanco concludes that hope awaits us—“ a new constellation/waiting for us to map it,/waiting for us to name it—together.” My thoughts return to the Sh’ma then drift to the nation’s motto, E Pluribus Unum—out of many, one.

A mash-up of words strikes me. E Pluribus Echad. By meshing basic truths both religious and civic, and adding a reasonable measure of humility, we can give the American Dream more than lip service. We can give it new life.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first three chapters of David’s new novel, SAN CAFÉ at davidperlstein.com. SAN CAFÉ is available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.

TOUR DE EGYPT

Pharaoh never gets it. Even hail, locusts and darkness fail to move him to let the Israelites leave Egypt. It takes a tenth plague, the death of the firstborn males—his own son included—to prompt Pharaoh to recognize his wrongdoing. Which brings me to Lance Armstrong.

How interesting that Armstrong’s long-awaited “confession” to Oprah Winfrey regarding performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) came during the week in which we read the Torah portion Bo (Come). For years, Armstrong denied doping accusations. The stronger the evidence grew, the greater his denials—and attacks against his accusers. According to media reports, he allegedly bribed cycling agencies and threatened teammates and others who spoke out.

For his part, Pharaoh eventually seems to get the point and relents to a greater power. He releases all the Israelites along with their herds and flocks to worship God in the wilderness.

Perhaps Lance Armstrong finally recognized the scope of his wrongdoing—he flat-out cheated then lied. Perhaps he could no longer live with his conscience. I won’t deny him that possibility. Or perhaps he can no longer tolerate his lifetime ban from cycling and triathlon, and believes a confession enough for reinstatement—although officials want him to admit his guilt under oath before considering his case. True, there’s a difference between being king of an empire and king of the cycling world. Regardless, Armstrong may share a great deal with Pharaoh.

As we learn, Pharaoh’s change of heart leaves much to be desired. Even before Moses returns to Egypt, God says, “Yet I know that the king of Egypt will let you go only because of a greater might” (Exod. 3:19). God gets Pharaoh. In Egypt, God informs Moses, “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 7:3). Is Pharaoh fated to do evil? The biblical text reveals that Pharaoh hardened his own heart after each of the first five plagues. Only after the sixth plague did God harden Pharaoh’s heart. According to Maimonides and others, Pharaoh ultimately forfeited his right to repent.

And after that dreadful tenth plague? Next week’s portion (BeShellach—In Sending) shows Pharaoh undergoing yet another change of heart. He harnesses his chariot and leads six hundred wheeled terrors in pursuit of his former slaves. The Egyptian army follows the Israelites right into the Reed Sea—and drowns.

So which stage along the continuum does Lance Armstrong occupy? Has he genuinely repented? Or does he fear a cascade of legal actions—from monetary to potential prison time? Many people in the spotlight get caught violating trust and the law. Mea culpas are easy to mouth but not always believable.

The lure of success and power can warp anyone’s judgment. We can choose to start down the slippery slope and take our chances. Or we can draw a line based on moral and ethical principles.

If we undertake the former—if we harm others of our own volition—and are discovered, the least we can do is not only acknowledge our guilt but also accept the consequences.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first three chapters of David’s new novel, SAN CAFÉ at davidperlstein.com. SAN CAFÉ is available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.

Also, read “What We Wish for Our Children”—Part 1 and Part 2—on the blog pages of iUniverse.com.

THE NAMELESS PROPHET

I should have posted this last week when we began reading the Book of Exodus—Sh’mot (Names) in Hebrew. But I needed time to mull over the first two chapters. Names play a big role. Yet the Torah seemed to display a strange oversight.

Exodus begins by naming the sons of Israel (Jacob), who come down to Egypt under the protection offered by their brother Joseph. We know of Reuben, Simeon, Levi and the rest. We also know what their names mean since Genesis (B’reishit) tells us why their mothers named them as they did (aside from Jacob naming Benjamin). When we meet the first patriarch, Abraham, he already has a name—Abram—but God changes it to indicate that he will be the father of a great nation. Isaac, and before him Ishmael, also receive meaningful names. So does Jacob and his twin, Esau.

In the ancient Near East, knowing the name of a human or a god gave a person a degree of power over that being. Thus names often are guarded. In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles all night with a “man”/angel before reuniting with Esau. As sunrise nears, the angel renames Jacob Israel—one who strives or wrestles with God. But when Israel asks his opponent’s name, God’s messenger responds, “You must not ask my name!” (Gen 32:30).

Moses, too, makes inquiry of the Divine. At the Burning Bush, he asks God’s name because the Israelites in bondage in Egypt will want to know Who is sending Moses to them. God answers, but cryptically: “Eyeh-Asher-Eyheh”—“I am What I Am” or “I Will Be What I Will Be” (Exod. 3:14). Later, God reveals God’s ineffable name—YHVH—not pronounced by Jews, who instead say Adonai (Lord) or, in more observant circles, HaShem (The Name).

There’s the background. Now for the question: Guess who doesn’t have a name? Moses! Pharaoh’s daughter gives him that name (Moshe in Hebrew) when she has the three-month-old boy floating in a small ark drawn out of the Nile. Yet the biblical narrative never tells us “Moses’” birth name. Amram and Jocheved are his parents. Aaron is his brother and Miriam his sister. Moses’ original name remains a mystery.

The Midrash—stories seeking to fill gaps in the biblical narrative—yields many names for Moses. Leviticus Rabbah gives Moses seven names, other sources ten, including Yered (descent), Avigdor (master of the fence) and Chever (companion or connector). But all this is speculative.

Why does the biblical text tell us nothing? Perhaps Torah seeks to emphasize Moses’ deeds as an adult. Or perhaps the name Moses represents an irony too strong to be diluted. As Pharaoh’s daughter has a servant draw him out of the river, so the elder Moses draws the Israelites out from Egypt. Moreover, the Egyptian army drowns in the Reed Sea—payback for the previous Pharaoh’s order: “Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile…” (Exod. 1:22).

Moses’ name, like his burial place, is unknown. We have his words. We have his deeds. Still, Moses forever remains a mystery beyond our reach.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first three chapters of David’s new novel, SAN CAFÉ at davidperlstein.com. SAN CAFÉ is available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.

Also, read “What We Wish for Our Children”—Part 1 and Part 2—on the blog pages of iUniverse.com.

A FUNERAL OF SORTS

I went to a funeral a week ago, although nobody died. Rather, Carolyn and I attended a showing of The Perks of Being a Wallflower at San Francisco’s Bridge Theater. It was the Bridge’s last day. I didn’t cry. But I will mourn.

The Bridge’s death was no surprise. Landmark Theatres decided it could no longer make a go of the Bridge, which opened in 1939. The transition for old single-screen theaters from film to digital projection is expensive. But our farewell viewing—the film is wonderful, by the way—brought back memories.

As a kid, my friends and I spent many Saturday mornings at the Drake Theater on Woodhaven Boulevard in Rego Park (Queens). The kiddy matinee cost maybe a quarter. We’d see cartoons and serials and sometimes a feature-length film. My biggest memory? Casey the matron, with her gray hair in a bun and huge flashlight. The Drake fell on hard times, became a porn house then was incorporated into a popular next-door Italian restaurant, Joe Abbraciamento’s.

Manhattan had loads of single screens. My parents took me to the Criterion on Broadway to see Disney’s Bear Country and, if memory serves, Ben Hur. Maybe The Ten Commandments. And quite possibly The Robe with Victor Mature—a Christian picture for some but a Roman epic to me. I love Roman epics. Not the Romans. Just films about them.

At Alfred University in Western New York, we had movies three nights a week in Alumni Hall, an ancient auditorium. I saw Bond flicks and lots of others. I even saw a movie or two at Fort Benning when I was in OCS. And stationed in San Antonio (Fort Sam Houston), I went with a friend to North Star Mall (a single screen, I think) to see The Graduate and later with Carolyn to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. We spent lots of time at the drive-in, too. They’re a shrinking breed, as well.

San Francisco had lots of neighborhood single-screen theaters after most closed down—except for a few porn houses—on Market Street. The most unusual was the Surf near the beach. It had a coffee bar. Unheard of.

Blockbusters meant the late and still lamented Coronet on Geary. I remember fondly waiting on block-winding lines to see The Godfather and Star Wars. The theater seated over 1,000 and was electric for both. And Darth Vader’s entrance—it doesn’t get any better. The Alexandria, only a few blocks from our house, went from one screen to three but never had that multiplex feel. Alas, it has been closed for some years. The Richmond District’s Four Star and Balboa—now two screens each—hang on.

Then there was the North Point where we saw Apocalypse Now. My favorite memory there is of taking Seth, our oldest, soon after he was born to a re-release of Gone With the Wind. When he needed both a diaper change and nursing, we retreated to the cushioned bench seats in the back (never saw those anywhere else), spread out and enjoyed.

So farewell, Bridge. While my kids think I always long for the good old days, I recognize that time marches on. As do I. But I’m keeping my memories close.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first three chapters of David’s new novel, SAN CAFÉ at davidperlstein.com. SAN CAFÉ is available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.