Five Cities of Refuge: Weekly Reflections on Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy

Five Cities of Refuge: Weekly Reflections on Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy

by Lawrence Kushner, David Mamet

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In the ancient Jewish practice of the kavannah (a meditation designed to focus one’s heart on its spiritual goal), Lawrence Kushner and David Mamet offer their own reactions to key verses from each week’s Torah portion, opening the biblical text to new layers of understanding.

Here is a fascinating glimpse into two great minds, as each author approaches the text from his unique perspective, each seeking an understanding of the Bible’s personalities and commandments, paradoxes and ambiguities. Kushner offers his words of Torah with a conversational enthusiasm that ranges from family dynamics to the Kabbalah; Mamet challenges the reader, often beginning his comment far afield—with Freud or the American judiciary—before returning to a text now wholly reinterpreted.

In the tradition of Israel as a people who wrestle with God, Kushner and Mamet grapple with the biblical text, succumbing neither to apologetics nor parochialism, asking questions without fear of the answers they may find. Over the course of a year of weekly readings, they comment on all aspects of the Bible: its richness of theme and language, its contradictions, its commandments, and its often unfathomable demands. If you are already familiar with the Bible, this book will draw you back to the text for a deeper look. If you have not yet explored the Bible in depth, Kushner and Mamet are guides of unparalleled wisdom and discernment. Five Cities of Refuge is easily accessible yet powerfully illuminating. Each week’s comments can be read in a few minutes, but they will give you something to think about all week long.

Lawrence Kushner teaches and writes as the Emanu-El Scholar at The Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco. He has taught at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City and served for twenty-eight years as rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Sudbury, Massachusetts. A frequent lecturer, he is also the author of more than a dozen books on Jewish spirituality and mysticism. He lives in San Francisco.

David Mamet is a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright. He is the author of Glengarry Glen Ross, The Cryptogram, and Boston Marriage, among other plays. He has also published three novels and many screenplays, children's books, and essay collections.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307523785
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/09/2009
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 1,165,563
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Lawrence Kushner teaches and writes as the Emanu-El Scholar at The Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco. He has taught at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City and served for twenty-eight years as rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Sudbury, Massachusetts. A frequent lecturer, he is also the author of more than a dozen books on Jewish spirituality and mysticism. He lives in San Francisco.

David Mamet is a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright. He is the author of Glengarry Glen Ross, The Cryptogram, and Boston Marriage, among other plays. He has also published three novels and many screenplays, children's books, and essay collections.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1



And the heavens and the earth and all their hosts were finished. And on the seventh day God finished the work that God had been doing, and God rested on the seventh day from all the work that God had done. And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it because on it God rested from all the work of creation that God had done.


The four-letter Name of God-yod, hey, vav, and hey-is God's most intimate name. Made from the root letters of the Hebrew verb "to be," originally it probably meant something like the "One who brings into being all that is." It is the ultimate name of being's holiness, the one we must never waste (or, "take in vain"). Jewish mystical tradition explains that what is wrong with our present world must therefore be traceable to a corresponding defect in the name itself: The letters are broken apart from one another. Something on high is fractured. And the ultimate task of humanity is, through right action and right intention, to bring them together again. Such meditations are called yihudim, unifications.

The "vaYechulu (And they were finished)," as the above three verses from Genesis are called, is traditionally chanted as a poetic introduction to the kiddush, or Sanctification prayer, prior to the Sabbath meal. The world-work is done; let us now join God by sanctifying the seventh day. We bless God's work-and our own-by quitting. The work and the rest, together make the world. They are inseparable. (Or at least, if they were, the world-work would truly be complete, redemption at last.)

The chapters in our present Bible are not of Jewish origin. They inadvertently separate the six days of creation of Genesis, Chapter 1, from the "vaYechulu (And they were finished)," of the seventh day in Genesis, Chapter 2. But perhaps that's the way it really is: Our work and our rest are severed, split apart. All too often, they bear little or no relationship to one another. Our world is broken. This, in turn, may explain the cryptic old tradition that appends to the beginning of "vaYechulu (And they were finished)" the last few words of the preceding chapter, ". . . and there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day." The Hebrew for "the sixth day" is yom haShishi. The first letter respectively of each word is yod and hey, which, when joined with the first letter respectively of "And they [the heavens and the earth] were finished . . ." is vav and hey, together spelling yod, hey, vav, and hey, the ineffable Name, the Name of the One who brings into being all that is, the Name of God. At last the sweat and the sigh inseparable.


Closure" is a concept foreign to Jewish tradition. It is an overwhelmingly secular, modern, and arrogant idea-that one, by an act of will, manipulation, or aggression can "complete" a disturbing experience.

This mythical mechanical completion means triumph over: fate, chance, anger, grief, or injustice, and is achievable only through oblivion or repression.

The struggle to deal with an unjust, confusing, incomprehensible world does not impede our life; it is our life.

Bereshit, the very beginning of the Torah, counsels that there is and will be no completion, there is no "closure," and that this lack is not to be decried but, in fact, celebrated.

2. GENESIS 6:9-13 / NOAH

This is the family line of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. Noah fathered three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japhet. Now the earth had become defiled before God so that it was filled with violence. And God looked at the earth and, behold, all humanity had defiled its way on the land. So God said to Noah, "I have de-cided to destroy humanity because the earth is filled with violence because of it: Behold, now I will destroy them with the earth."


Rabbinic tradition is conflicted over what to do with Noah. On the one hand, the biblical text describes him as a tzaddik, a righteous man who walked with God. On the other, unlike Abraham and Moses, Noah never protested God's harsh decree-not so much as even one peep. How righteous could a man be who watched the destruction of an entire generation in silence?

Hasidic tradition disdainfully calls Noah a tzaddik im pelz, a righteous man in a fur coat, who, instead of helping others build a fire to warm themselves, just pulls his own coat tighter around himself. When push comes to shove, he only looks out for himself. Indeed, Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tameret has suggested that to stand aboard that ark and witness the end of humanity was Noah's ultimate punishment.

Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev offers a solution based on an insight into the personality of a religious leader. The difference between the two kinds of tzaddikim does not derive from the presence or absence of some special moral fiber. It's not even the result of the instinct for self-preservation. What enables a true tzaddik to rise in the defense of the world-even when that world is uniformly and unrepentantly evil-is an expression of one's own self-worth. Noah, suggests the Berditchever, said to himself, "Who am I to be worthy to challenge God's decree?" And so he did nothing. His failure was his humility. And, even though it is the source of all human wickedness (and would doubtless make Levi Yitzhak cringe), every real tzaddik, sooner or later, needs a little bit of arrogance. A righteous man must believe in the power of his own righteousness.


Tolstoy wrote that there has never been an intelligent man who, looking around him, did not say, "Surely the corruption of the world is such that it must be obliterated soon."

His observation suggests the existence of two human traits: a sense of social order (if present only in outrage at its absence), and a sense of cosmic order-or, say, of the existence of God.

But how can one reconcile these two seemingly opposed human perceptions?

Perhaps they coalesce in the human capacity to ask that very question, which is to say, in the study of Torah.


And the Lord said to Avram: "Leave your land, your birthplace, and your parent's home for the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you and I will make your name great and you will be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you."


The text could have just said, "And Avram set out," or, "God told Avram to go forth." That would have been mythically elegant. But instead, God gets personal. The first thing God says to the first Jew is "leave your parents' home." And as the ancient rabbinic dictum has it: What happens to the parents is already a sign of what will happen to the children.

The great, unending psychospiritual task of every human being is separating from his or her parents. Loved or hated, near or far, living or long dead, it's never done. We spend our days trying to be who we imagine we want to be and not who they wanted us to be. We strive with all our cunning to infuriate them even as we secretly yearn to make them smile and to fulfill their secret dreams. But before we can finish, or even figure out what's going on, we have our own children and the whole thing starts all over again from the other side.

In any case, the text is clear: Doing business with this new, imageless, and as yet unnamed God means to leave home, to commence the struggle, to believe unto your dying breath that you will break free from their orbit. But as you grow older-much older-you would be grateful if you could just (even occasionally) strike a balance between your parents and yourself and between yourself and your children. Maybe that is the land that God will show us and what it means to be a blessing.


There is a communal pathogen called anti-Semitism. It is a delusion, the hallmark of which is, to the deluded, its aura of revealed truth.

In a world overcome by this insanity, "the Jew" is reviled for his most immediately apparent attribute-the poor Jew for his poverty, the rich Jew for his riches; the immigrant for his impertinence, the long-established for his intransigence.

We see the patriot Jew taxed with his efforts to "pass," and the sequestered with his "clannishness." The Jew in the Diaspora is an outsider, and the United Nations brands Zionism a race crime.

What is the cause of the sickness, of the mental plague of anti-Semitism? Perhaps the commandment, in Lekh-lekha, to stand apart.

And, indeed, most Jews feel that, as the Torah states, those societies which bless us will be blessed-for, what does the Jew do while he stands apart? He considers.

4. GENESIS 22:1-4 / VAYERA

And it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham and said to him, "Abraham." And he said, "I am ready." And He said, "Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go forth to the Land of Moriah and sacrifice him there on one of the mountains I will designate." So Abraham got up early in the morning, saddled his ass, and took two of his servants with him and Isaac his son. And he split the wood for the sacrifice. Then he arose and went to the place that God had said. And on the third day, Abraham raised his eyes and, off in the distance, he saw the place.


According to the Midrash, this was the last of ten trials by which God tested Abraham. The first began with the same conspicuous Hebrew phrase, "Lekh-lekha, Go forth [for yourself]," when God told Abraham to leave his own father's house. The story thus ends the way it began: "Lekh-lekha, Go forth [for yourself]." The boy is father to the man. It's so primal, it's the touchstone for all religious learning. Why else would the rabbis have us read, of all things, such an awe-full story on Rosh Hashanah? The parents whisper to their progeny, "You know, I almost killed you once." "Happy New Year, Daddy." "Sit up straight."

On two separate occasions, the text says of Abraham and Isaac, "And they went, both of them together." But after whatever it was that happened up there on that peak, we read only, "And Abraham returned to his servants." Isaac, we must assume, went down the other side, alone.

The name of the mountain, Moriah, means "awe-full." Tradition claims it will become the site of

the Temple, the center of the world. Sinai, where the Torah was given, is ownerless and unknown. The holiest place known to Jews is the scene of a near sacrifice. The Temple is built where the older generation almost kills the younger but forbears at the last possible moment. Only a three-day's journey from home. If you raise your eyes, you can see it off in the distance.


And God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham," and Abraham answered, "Here I am."

Having acknowledged the voice of God, Abraham commits himself to do God's will.

The true act of acceptance, however, the inception of the Jewish religion, is not Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his beloved son, but his willingness to accept the command not to do so.

Judaism repudiates what would, it seems, be the most ancient and prevalent form of propitiation of the gods: infant sacrifice. Donation to the gods of that which, beyond question, was the most precious possession of the donor, must have been the ultimate primordial attempt at eradication of anxiety: "How can the gods not accept this greatest of gifts-they must."

We see the survival memory of child-sacrifice inverted in the Santa Claus myth, where a representative of the sun god sneaks into the house at the winter solstice. Again, inverting cause and effect,

the messenger takes away a child in his sack; it is the gods who are propitiated, not the child. Recall the rhetoric of the Vietnam War, in which sixty thousand young men were sacrificed to defend "our position in the world"-they were the unfortunate infants, sent as an offering to the unfathomable Powers.

We hear the rhetoric in the speech of parents who, doubting the true educational abilities of their school, send the children in any case to be "socialized."

Abraham was acting as part of a known, and accepted, primeval and still extant tradition.

As he stands ready to sacrifice his son, a messenger of God speaks. The messenger calls, "Abraham, Abraham," repeating his name twice, as the command to cease is harder to accept even than the

original command to kill. And Abraham obeys; he accepts the word of God's Messenger and stays his hand, even though such restraint visits upon him, and upon the Jewish race, the various burdens of uncertainty.

5. GENESIS 24:63-67 / HAYE SARAH

And Isaac went out into the field to meditate in the evening. And he raised his eyes and he saw and behold, camels were approaching. And Rebecca raised her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she jumped down from the camel. And she said to the servant, "Who is this man in the field coming to meet us?" And the servant said, "He is my master." She took the veil and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac of everything he had done. And Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother. And he took Rebecca and she became his wife, and he loved her and Isaac was comforted after the death of his mother.


Everyone, it seems, is looking off into the distance, trying to get a leg up on the future, hoping for clairvoyance. It's the most natural thing in the world; we all do it. Successful people seem to have a knack for intuiting the future and then being there a few minutes before everyone else. But even though Abraham "raises his eyes" and sees in the distance the place where he believes he will slaughter his son, he does not yet know it's "only a test." Isaac too "raises his eyes" and sees camels coming, but he does not yet know they are bringing the woman he will marry. Even Rebecca, on the caravan, "raises her eyes" and sees a man coming toward her, but she does not yet know it is Isaac. They all see things in the distance, but there's always more in the distance than we can discern. Something else is coming down. We only realize this in retrospect.

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