The Ownerless Place

The great Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai wrote:

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
And on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy.
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
Both in their temporary failure.
Our two voices met above
The Sultan’s Pool in the valley between us.
Neither of us wants the boy or the goat
To get caught in the wheels
Of the “Had Gadya” machine.
Afterward we found them among the bushes,
And our voices came back inside us
Laughing and crying.
Searching for a goat or for a child has always been
The beginning of a new religion in these mountains.

Yehudah Amichai’s poem describes a search conducted in the “no-man’s land” that ran between Jewish West Jerusalem and Arab East Jerusalem from 1948 until 1967.  The poem came to mind when I learned a word in the Nahuatl language spoken by the indigenous peoples of Mexico prior to Spanish conquest.  The word, nepantla, refers to the ambiguous “middle space” that exists between well-defined entities.  It was originally a geographic term, but works nicely as a metaphor as well.  One author has described it as “a psychical space where one experiences displacement as a way of being.” Amichai’s poem, of course, uses a geographic setting – the Sultan’s pool in the Hinnom valley just east of the Old City – as the point of departure for a set of observations that have little to do with physical geography and everything to do the with the psychical space of another sort of no-man’s land – the border spaces within our minds.

By now, I imagine a few of you are wondering, “What is the rabbi doing learning Nahuatl?  Maybe he should learn Spanish first, before moving on to the indigenous languages spoken by remote tribes in the Mexican interior?”  I learned the term from Javier Alanis, a Lutheran seminary professor in San Antonio, whose article “The imago Dei as Embodied in Nepantla, a Latino Perspective,” was a reading assignment for the clergy taking part in the Border Institute.  Each month, about a dozen of us gather at the El Paso Community Foundation to study la frontera and think together about how being on the border presents unique challenges and blessings.   Alanis spoke to us in March, and I was captivated by his adoption of nepantla as a category for thinking about theology along the border.

Reading Alanis, I connected nepantla to a word from the Jewish tradition:  hefker.  Hefker means “ownerless,” and can refer to a lost item, to the tiny crumbs left behind after we do our very best to clean at Pesach, or, indeed, to an entire geographic area:  the wilderness.  Which brings us to our Torah portion.

This week, we leave Leviticus behind and move into the Book of Numbers. In Hebrew, we call it b’midbar, in the wilderness. It is always begun on the Shabbat before we celebrate Shavuot, the “season of the giving of our Torah.”  That we read “in the wilderness” on the Shabbat before the anniversary of the giving of the Ten Commandments serves as an annual reminder that Torah was given to us in that very wilderness — and that the location is no mere accident.  A text from the Mekhilta, a rabbinic commentary from about 1700 years ago teaches:

Torah was given dimus parrhesia — freely and openly — in the hefker — the ownerless place.  For had it been given in the Land of Israel, they would have had cause to say to the nations, “you have no share in it.”  Thus was it given freely and openly, in the ownerless place:  “Let all who wish receive it, come and receive it!” (Midrash Mekhilta, Parashat Bachodesh 1:4 (ca. 300 CE))

Torah was given in the hefker – or, if you prefer, the nepantla – on purpose.   Hefker/Nepantla is a dangerous place (as anyone who has spent time under the desert sun — Sinai or Sonora — can attest), but it is also rich with possibility.  There is an openness in “wilderness places” that is absent in more settled places.  A multicultural, polyglot society has a creative potential all its own.

Before moving to El Paso nine years ago, I hadn’t really lived in the hefker/nepantla.  Upstate New York, the midwest, and North Carolina offered little in the way of “psychical space where one experiences displacement as a way of being.”  At most, my Jewishness bestowed upon me a certain outsider status — though I cannot say that I often felt it very acutely.  As a Caucasian – outside of the Southwest, you don’t here the term “anglo” very much – I was just “normal.”

Here, I am a minority within a minority, “Anglo” by race and Jewish by religion.  Linguistic displacement is a common occurrence, since my Spanish is only modestly better than my Nahuatl.  Theological displacement is common as well, since so many of the people have little knowledge of Judaism or Jews.  I have learned over the past nine years to be grateful for the opportunity to feel that displacement.

Why gratitude?  Why not annoyance?  I’ll admit, there are times when it can be frustrating to be so far from the familiar, squeezed between a mountain and river and surrounded by strangeness.  But the midrash reminds me that it is here, in the hefker, in the nepantla, that Torah was given all those years ago, and it is here that echoes of it can be heard even today.  When a relative from back east marvels at the fact that “there are Jews in El Paso!”  I smile.  When a fellow fronterizo from the Mission Valley marvels at the fact that “there are Jews in El Paso” I smile some more.  As one whose professes to be a descendant of Avraham ha’Ivri — “Abraham the Transient” — I believe that being a fronterizo yid  — a Jew on the border — is a blessing.

And now, I’m getting ready to live for ten weeks in the Jewish homeland, Eretz Yisrael.  The Jewish homeland.  The opposite of nepantla, right?  Indeed, Israel is juxtaposed to the wilderness in our text from the Mekhilta.  But remember, hefker and nepantla are not only about geography. They are about a state of mind.  Consider this teaching, another comment on the wilderness locale in which Torah was revealed:

“God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai” (Num 1:1).  This teaches us that only one who can make himself into a wilderness — hefker — can acquire Wisdom and Torah” (Midrash Bamidbar Rabba 1:7).

It is possible to be entirely closed off to Torah even in the heart of the wilderness, and it is possible to open one’s self to Torah even in one’s own living room.  My own prayer for this Shavuot and beyond is that I am able to make myself hefker so that Torah and Wisdom will find their way into my heart and soul during my sabbatical leave.  Indeed, it is my prayer for all of us.  Na’aseh atzmeinu k’midbar, hefker – May we be like the wilderness, and may our homes and our hearts be places of Torah.

Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Sameach.

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