Friday, September 19, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Nitzavim-Vayeilekh 5774—Even Lola Doesn’t Get Everything She Wants

There’s a touching scene in the musical, “Damn Yankees” by Richard Adler & Jerry Ross that I wish to describe.

Baseball fan Joe Boyd, having made a deal with “Mr. Applegate”  (who we all know is the Devil himself) has been given the persona of young Joe Hardy, aka “Shoeless Joe,” and the chance to help the Washington Senators beat the Yankees and win the pennant. Missing the life he has forsaken, Joe becomes a boarder with his own wife, Meg (who does not know Joe really is.) Meg bonds with her new boarder, sharing her pain at the loss of her husband. At one point, Joe tries to assure and calm Meg (and deal with his own inner turmoil) with these words:

He's near to you
Near to you
Though you think he's far away
He's near to you, so near to you
As near as April is to May!

Can't you feel him there is his favorite chair
Staring at the fireplace
Oh so near to you, always near to you
Why you might as well be face to face
For it's just as though he were standing as close as I
I know it's hard to imagine, but try,

If he's really near to you, near to you
You may be far apart and yet
If he's in your heart
Really in your heart
How near to you can he get?

(If you have Spotify you can get to a link to the song at this page: On Youtube you can only find the 1995 version plus a bunch of amateur and semi-professional versions. I’m much more partial to the original Broad way version or even the movie version.)

This song and these words come to me almost every time I think about “lo bashamayim hi. They tell very much the same story. I know for me, and I suspect for many others, there are plenty of times when the Torah is right there with us and we don’t even know it. It seems far too easy for us to feel as if Torah has gone away from us (or us from Torah.) Yet, as the song says, if Torah is really in our hearts, how far away can it really be from us?

We know these words from our parasha all too well.

כִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָֽנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם לֹֽא־נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ וְלֹֽא־רְחֹקָה הִֽוא: יב לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא לֵאמֹר מִי יַֽעֲלֶה־לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ וְנַֽעֲשֶֽׂנָּה: יג וְלֹֽא־מֵעֵבֶר לַיָּם הִוא לֵאמֹר מִי יַֽעֲבָר־לָנוּ אֶל־עֵבֶר הַיָּם וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ וְנַֽעֲשֶֽׂנָּה: יד כִּֽי־קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָֽבְךָ לַֽעֲשׂתֽוֹ

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.  It is not in the heavens, that you should say, "Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?" Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?" No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. (Deut. 30:11-14, NJPS)

We know them yes. Do we understand them? Do we embrace them? Do we accept them? Are they as near and dear to us as Meg is to Joe?

The whole story of “Damn Yankees” has many connections to the story of the people Israel. The Torah isn’t much different from Joe Boyd. He’s far from a perfect husband, and, for at least “six months out of every year” his devotion to baseball and the Washington Senators makes him an absentee one as well. Setting aside the typical sexism of the period of the 50s, it’s clear that Meg loves her Joe despite his faults. It’s no wonder she is heartbroken at his disappearance.

This parasha tells us that the Torah is there to serve as witness against us, yet it also tells us that it is always near to us, in our hearts. It is, perhaps, our goal to continually reunite ourselves with Torah each time we stray.

Joe is so like the Israelites. He is all too easily tempted to forsake his wife to become a baseball hero (though this is not so simple a story – it’s not entirely clear that it is for his own glory that Joe makes his deal with the devil, as it is for his fanatical devotion to the Senators. Sure, he gets the benefit of a young, virile body, but this is part of Applegate’s seduction package. Even that young, virile body and what that could get him isn’t enough to shake Joe’s inner love and devotion to his wife, as we learn with the failure of “Lola,” the devil’s top seductress, to seduce him.

While there may have been some attrition along the way, the people Israel have, despite their many transgressions, at least tried to stay faithful, and have come back to their Torah, to their G”d after making their own misbegotten deals with the devil.

“Damn Yankees” is like Judaism in another way. It’s original 1955 Broadway staging, the 1958 film version, and the 1994 Broadway revival have plots with some differences and changes in them. Similar to how the message, the interpretation, the understanding of Torah has been shaped and reshaped over time by rabbis, poskim, scholars, and commentators to give in meaning in their contexts. (Having recently read Dr. Joel Hoffman’s excellent “The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor: The Holy Scriptures Missing From Your Bible” reminded me how important it is that those of us who know of these non-canonical resources make every effort to acquaint every reader of the bible with them so they can realize just how diverse a range of understandings there has been about matters of faith, religion, praxis, belief and more. Even Judaism, with its penchant, at least in Talmud, for preserving a diversity of opinions, has been a victim of ignorance when it comes to so many texts that wound up on the bible’s cutting room floor as it were. Similarly, if you only know the film version, or one of the two Broadway versions of Damn Yankees, and you have never read Douglass Wallop’s “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant” you don’t know all the possible variations in the story line. In the novel, Joe’s wife is Bess, not Meg. In the novel, the intrigues needed for Joe to wrangle out of his deal with the devil are involved and sometimes defy logic and stretch credulity--but then again, this is a fable to begin with. The thing about Joe Hardy is that he is always, inside, Joe Boyd, a man with a sense of ethics, of honor. He lived by a code, and always felt bound to it. He is so bound by his code, and, at least in the musical version, by his love for his wife, that even the devil and his best seductress cannot succeed against him in the end. Living by a code. Hmmm. Sound familiar?)

I’ve written before how I wasn’t raised in an observant family, yet I have discovered in my discovery (rediscovery? Am I entitled to call it that?) of my Judaism that the code, the ethics taught to me by my parents and older relatives is totally Jewish at its core. As minimalist as my exposure to Judaism was as a child, when I heard its call as a young adult, it was not foreign to me. That code may be as much a product of nature as it is nurture-though I do not wish to downplay the truly significant role of the nurture in this case or any other. If ethics are bred into us, it is only through biologic and evolutionary advantage and necessity, and not the choice of creatures with free will. It’s all so complicated.

In some ways I am not as good a person as the fictional Joe Boyd. I am not so sure I am as good about following my own inner ethic, my code, as he is. On the other hand, I have not been as tempted by the devil’s offers of fame and fortune, nor as fanatical about something like baseball that, in the scheme of things, doesn’t quite rank up there with Torah and covenant and G”d. I guess we could call that Joe’s idolatry – holding up baseball and the Washington Senators as his god, with the Yankees as Amalek.

(Guess I know now what musical show I’ll be using as a basis for the next Purim Shpiel  parody I write. Is “Damn Amalekites” a good working title?)

Joe learned that what was dear to him wasn’t “up in heaven” or “across the sea.” What he went looking for and discovered, just like Dorothy Gale, is that there is no place like home.Oz was filled with wonders for Dorothy. Baseball was full of wonders for Joe. These aren’t the only stories that drive home that message. It’s a tale as old as time. We read it and hear it and see it over and over – and still we fail to heed its message. We keep looking for the greener grass, the tree,the garden, the tower, the wall. (Ironically, the final line in The Fantasticks has now been changed from the original “You must leave the wall” to “It was never about the wall.” That one little chaamge makes a world of difference in how people understand the the story. One wonders how decisions by Torah’s earliest compilers, editors, and redactors, along with the Masoretes significantly changed the meanings of the text of the Torah. As I have written elsewhere, one of the truer and deeper meanings of “lo bashamayin hi” is that we do not have to depend solely upon what the translators and commentators tell us. If Torah is truly in our mouths and hearts, we have the ability to discern Torah’s meaning and intent for ourselves.

Since I’ve brought up The Fantasticks, I’d be remiss if I didnlt mention that we do find some of the same sentiment as “Near to Me” in The Fantasticks’ haunting “They Were You.”

When the moon was young,
When the month was May,
When the stage was hung for my holiday,
I saw shining lights
But I never knew:
They were you.
They were you.
They were you.
When the dance was done,
When I went my way,
When I tried to find rainbows far away,
All the lovely lights
Seemed to fade from view:
They were you.
They were you.
They were you.
Without you near me,
I can't see.
When you're near me,
Wonderful things come to be.
Every secret prayer,
Every fancy free,
Everything I dared for both you and me.
All my wildest dreams
Multiplied by two
They were you.
They were you.
They were you.

(Harvey Schmidt, Tom Jones, The Fantasticks)

You can find the revival recording on YouTube, but nothing beats the original recording with Kenneth Nelson and Rita Gardner, which you can purchase on iTunes, Google Play Music, Amazon, and elsewhere.

I can easily imagine “Near to Me” and “They Were You” as paeans to Torah. As replete as Judaism is with metaphor, why not add more?

I can’t say that I strayed from Judaism and Torah. because I didn’t have much of a connection anyway. Yet Torah waited patiently for me to find her. I am Matt to Torah’s Luisa, Joe to Torah’s Meg. Torah is faithful to us, in its own way. our challenge is to be faithful to Torah, in our own way. Our challenge is to even recognize and realize that Torah is right there with us if we only but look for her.

There is so much in Torah that troubles me, confuses me, angers me. Those things make it harder to recognize that she is near to me. There is also so much that calls to me, draws me, helps me, guides me, empowers me. Those should make it easier to know that the Torah is not in heaven, but that she is close to me, in my mouth and my heart. Too often, I fear, this isn’t the case. The Torah’s own yetzer hara, (evil inclination,) the Torah’s own “Mr. Applegate,” steer me off course, and prevent me from seeing and knowing what is right there beside me, inside me.

What’s the secret? How do we learn to believe that the Torah is there, near to us, even when we can’t see or feel her? How can we have the faith to always return to her even after we stray or transgress? All I can say is,”you gotta have heart…”

Shabbat Shalom,

©2014 by Adrian A. Durlester

PS-a hat tip to Dawn Bernstein, who, once again this year, on her blog Dawn Ponders, has been participating in BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer (Ima On and Off the Bima) with a new selection from a  musical each day, and may have, inadvertently, inspired the style of this week’s musing.

Other musings on this parasha:

Nitzavim-Vayeilekh 5773 - Opening Our Own Hearts
Nitzavim 5772 - Where or When?
Nitzavim/Vayeilekh 5770 - Flawed, Schmawed
Nitzavim/Vayeilekh 5769 - Disconnecting and Reconnecting the Dots
Vayeilekh_Shabbat Shuvah 5769 - Cows and Roses
Nitzavim/Vayeilekh 5766 - Keep Looking
Vayelekh 5765-The Time Is Still Now
Nitzavim 5765-To Lo Or Not To Lo
Nitzavim/Vayelekh 5763-Connect the Dots
Nitzavim 5757/5759/5764-Lo Bashamayim Hi
Nitzavim 5758-Not By Ourselves
Nitzavim/Vayelekh 5760/67-L'eyd B'vnei Yisrael-The Real Denouement
Nitzavim 5761 was the week of Sept. 11, 2001. There was no Musing.

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