Judy Davis’s D’var Torah for Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot

Judy Davis
D’var 2016
(Ki Tissa, Sh’mot Exodus 33:12-34:26 (D’vorim/Deuteronomy 16:13-17)

Hope in the Desert

Good Shabbos, everyone.
This is the third time I’m speaking on this special parashat for Succoth. The first time I did it, for my 60th birthday. The second time, for my 70th, and this time for my 72nd. (I no longer take 10 years for granted.) For me, the first marked the first sukkah we’d built (which I’d promised myself I would do if/when we had grandchildren to enjoy it). The second marked the first tallis I’d made, which I was somehow old enough to be ready for. ( Remember that book “When I Am An Old Woman, I Shall Wear Purple.”?) This d’var is for my gratitude for having lived through this past year of cancer. My gratitude for my family at home, and my gratitude for my family in this community, the community who walked with us through the desert.

This year, I want to do three things. I want to talk about hope–Moses’s and mine. I want to share a very personal story, and at the end, I want to get back to Sukkot.
Today, we read from two scrolls. In the second, we read in Deuteronomy where we are told to live in booths for seven days and to celebrate the occasion. In the first, we read from the book of Exodus, parsha Ki Tissa.
Here, we enter the story just after the episode of the golden calf and we end with the second set of tablets. These are the tablets which include the commandment regarding the three pilgrimage festivals– of which Succoth is the last.

What has just happened is extraordinarily intense. Moses had just come down from the mountain, saw what the people had done, and in a fury, smashed the tablets he’d just gotten from God. Then he confronts Aaron, burns the golden idol, dissolves its powder in water and forces the people to drink it. Then finally, he has 3,000 people murdered for their transgression. What a moment.

Torah scholar Everett Fox describes the fierce emotions enacted in this scene as “the real world of human frailty—doubt, anger, panic, pleading, courage.”
I can relate.
Where we begin, Moses is working to convince God to continue leading the Israelites himself, no matter how “hard necked” these people are—rather than (as God had threatened) send an angel or messenger in his stead. God agrees to Moses’ request. And then Moses has the chutzpah to voice another request, a most incredible request. He asks God to show him His face. (Har’reni na et K’vodecha). This amazingly intimate request has been called the parsha’s “center of gravity.”

The last time I did this, I focused on God’s answer—of course, it was “No”.
No one gets to see God’s face and live.

Instead, God told Moses to stand next to Him on the rock and that when He (God) was about to pass by (and put Moses in danger), he would place him in the “cleft of the rock” and screen him with His hand until He had passed. God’s hand! “You shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen”.
Torah scholar Aviva Zornberg, called what Moses would see
“the aftermath” of God’s presence.”
There is so much to say about this response, and its extraordinarily physical vocabulary, but not this time.
This time I want to marvel at the fact that Moses not only had the chutzpah to ask for such a blessing, but how he had the hope that God would possibly bless him in this way. After all that Moses had been through with these impossible people, how did he keep having hope?

So here’s where my story about hope begins. All my life, I cried easily. “There she goes again, pishing and gishing.” But as soon as the ovarian cancer was diagnosed, I stopped crying. Not deliberately, but, no tears. No cleansing sobs.
I’d get farklempt when a doctor or nurse would say something surprisingly kind to me, but no real crying.
After months of this, friends were beginning to ask what was wrong with me? Why wasn’t I letting my emotions out? Why wasn’t I crying?
“You need a therapist, Judy”.

Finally, it was a few days before a day when I was scheduled for five appointments at Mass General, the last of which would be chemotherapy if the first four determined I was healthy enough to get the poison.

I was now scared enough to call a therapist, the only one I felt would be able to put me back together again if I started crying and couldn’t stop. She was a nationally known trauma expert from whom I had taken supervision many years ago. I knew her to be brilliant, effective and very kind.
I wasn’t sure she would remember me, or if she would agree to see me as a client rather than as a supervisee. But I took the chance and told her my story. Not only did she agree, she volunteered to come to my house the next day because I was too sick to get to her.

Immediately, I felt safe as she sat on the stool in front of me. “So what do you want to cry about?” she asked, softly. I had no answer, and I had no tears. I couldn’t make them happen. “I’m so sorry, Kay, I brought you here for nothing. I can’t cry. There’s nothing there.”

“Oh not for nothing, “ she said, peering at me very carefully. “What I see is how smart your body is.” A smart body? She had my attention.

Then she explained: “When we are living with intense trauma, the cognitive part of our brains tamp down and the parasympathetic part (the part that controls our breathing our heart beat, our pulse, etc) that part takes over. Your crying or not crying is not in your control. What I see is that your body is not letting you cry. It’s not letting you dissipate your energy with tears. It’s saving your energy to fight the cancer”. I was already sitting up straighter.
So I wasn’t crazy. I was smart.

“So tell me what you’re afraid of in Boston,” she went on.

I’m afraid I’ll get there in the morning and they’ll discover another exotic disease (like the babesiosis that came from the contaminated blood).
I’m afraid they won’t find a new disease, but my blood counts won’t be strong enough for the chemo.
I’m afraid I’ll be able to have the chemo, but it will hurt terribly (like the time I had it and was allergic to something in the prep),
or that the chemo would go well, but they won’t let me go home that day ( they never seemed to let me out the same day I came in)
or they’ll let me out, but I won’t have the energy to celebrate the last night of Hanukah with my grandchildren.

“Ok,” she said. “Now tell me all those fears in the form of hope.”

In the form of hope?? I had no idea what she was talking about.
Yes, like, I hope that I will get there and they won’t find a new exotic disease, I hope that, etc.

Slowly, with great effort, I recited my catalogue of fears in this foreign form of hope. By the time I got to the part about Hanukah, I felt completely different. What an intervention!

It was more than a simple reframe.
Something about the words were making something in my physiological nervous system different.
I understand this theoretically and clinically,
but it still sounds so simple minded: by the time she’d left my house,
I was actually looking forward to the next day.

By the end of that next day, all of my hopes had come true.
I told this story at the Hanukah dinner table, and my 10 year old grandson, Izzy, in the car going home, told his parents,
“Bubbie makes magic. She said what she wanted and she made it happen.” Magic. Some kind of magic.

As a child of Eastern European immigrants, hope was not a word I heard often in my house. Fear was the word we knew best. God forbid, keyn eynhore, the outdoors are dangerous, poo, poo, poo. Endless things to be afraid of.
I’ve been resisting this cocktail of shtetl reality, superstition, and Bubba meises, all my life.

Now when I hear a thought in my head, or the beginning of a spoken sentence that begins with “I’m afraid that…” I try to catch myself and change it to, “I hope that… “ And even if the fear is still there underneath, the different words, the reminder of this session with Kay, makes a difference.
And every time I would tell the story to the person who was visiting me (and many of you were on that stool in front of my sofa) I could see them taking in my story and making it their own. They were thinking about their own fears and internally changing the word to hope.
It was so great. I could see it on their faces. I was doing therapy.

Two weeks later, I was in the infusion room at Mass General. From behind the curtain to my left, I heard a young woman crying as she spoke to her mother. “Oh Mom, I can’t remember a thing. I have chemo brain”. “Chemo brain!” I shouted out. “I know all about that!” The curtain was pulled aside immediately. They wanted to talk as much as I did. The young woman was a beautiful 47 year old lawyer who had a lump in her breast. The doctors were trying to shrink it with chemo so that they could operate. Her mother said she’d been crying day and night since the diagnosis.

I looked at them directly. And in my most therapeutic, trance-inducing voice, I asked, “Would you mind if I told you a story?” “Yes, please do!” (in unison).
And so I told them my story. And as with all those I’d told before, I could see them taking it in and making meaning for themselves.
By then we had each finished our respective bags of chemo, got off our beds and all four of us, the lawyer, her mother, Allen and me, all stood together between the beds and hugged. When we were ready to leave and say goodbye, the mother forgot my name, and instead of Judy, she called me “Hope.”
I didn’t correct her.

The next day when I told a friend about this experience, she asked if I had a middle name. I didn’t. “Why don’t you take Hope as your middle name?
I thought about it for one minute and said, yes, but I’ll take it in Hebrew: Tikvah. Yehudit Tikvah bat Yoseph v’ Chiekah.

And that’s how I knew myself at my grandson’s bar mitzvah this past June.
OK, now back at the desert, and the holiday of Sukkoth.
I’ve talked about this before, but I’m repeating it because it always brings me up so short. With all of the holidays we celebrate, and all of the milestones we mark, there is no holiday or ceremony commemorating our entering the land of milk and honey. Although it would make such a great story: First we escaped Egypt (that’s Pesach), then we were given the laws by which to live (that’s Shavuoth), and then we arrived safely (that would be Succoth). But no—then we kept on wandering. That’s Succoth!
Succoth is about the journey, not the arrival.
And not only is it about wandering and not arriving, but it is the only one of the holidays the Torah commands us to celebrate with simcha, with joy.

In fact, one of the names for this holiday is “Z’man simchateynu,” the Season of our rejoicing.” What is this? We don’t get to where we’re going and we’re commanded to be happy about it?

Michael Strassfeld, a popular Jewish commentator, calls Succoth the “to be continued story.” Should we conclude, he asks, “that Succcoth marks the fact that dreams don’t come true?” He answers with a qualified yes. If it were the “happily ever after story,” he says, we would be faced with the impossible question of why we’re still living in such an imperfect world, why there is still so much pain and suffering if in fact, we’d arrived in the Promised Land.

Succoth is about the fact that the story goes on—the story of the Jewish people and the story of each one of us. As trite as it sounds, we’re all wandering. The only question, of course, is how we make the journey. Where do we fall on the continuum between being constantly terrified on the one end, and totally oblivious on the other?
Strassfeld says that it’s not the future goal that sustains us in face of hardships, but the act and challenge of living in the moment.
As the commandment reminds us take pleasure in the moment.
Travel with joy. with HOPE.
Sukkot, he says, is the explanation of how to live after the exodus and after Sinai, how to live when we are no longer experiencing miracles, or hearing God’s voice directly.

At the risk of sounding grandious, I feel that I did experience “a miracle”.
The miracle of modern medicine, and the miracle of ancient community.

Between the doctors, my family, and so many of you in this community, I was with Moses in the cleft of that rock. And I am filled with gratitude.

This was going to be the end of my talk. As they say, “I’ve stood between you and lunch long enough”. But please, one more minute.

In his second day Rosh Hashanah d’var, Rabbi Weiner talked about the two cardinal modes of relating to God: love and fear. And he talked about two different types of fear: fear of the heavens, i.e., fear of the grandeur of God, contrasted with the second type of fear—fear of sin, fear of punishment for having done wrong. This fear, he said, is denigrated by many (including Maimonides). They call it an immature religious outlook.
He went on to muse about what he thought was our contemporary antipathy to the very notion of fear. My ears perked up. He was talking to me.

Rabbi Weiner’s talk was very erudite and very dense. I hope he’ll forgive me for mangling it, but what it made me think about was the dichotomy I had set up between my mother’s fears and my struggle with hope. It is clearly a false dichotomy.
Rabbi Weiner, quoting Milton Steinberg (the author of both “Basic Judaism,” and the novel “As a Driven Leaf,” ) told us that “No one who sees reality as it is…bitter as well as sweet, violent as well as gentle, frightening as well as comforting, will question for a moment that God is as fittingly an object of dread as of love.
Steinberg seems to be suggesting, Rabbi Weiner went on, that fear has a place in religious practice. He was talking about what might be called, “sacred fear.

So whether I think (like my mother) of taking on a new name in order to “fool the angel of death,” (I’d actually forgotten all about that one)
or I think of taking on a new name like Jacob who came through battle wounded but hopeful (and with a new name),

I am grateful for my new, more nuanced thinking about my mother–her fears AND her love. Yes, she was afraid of sinning against God, AND she loved Judaism. And somehow, that combination contributed to not only my having a community like this one, but to her grandchildren and great grandchildren having communities like this as well.
Thank you, and Shabbat Shalom

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YK Day 5777/2016: On Responsibility

4. On Responsibility

I wasn’t always a rabbi. I used to be a child, and when I was a kid, the High Holiday services I went to were very long. We did the whole book, and took pride in that fact. It was like having a yearly holiday in which the ritual was to read the entirety of Ulysses. A lot of it just washed over me in a big mass of liturgy, though we had a wonderful hazzan who brought the passion of the service to life in a way that has stuck with me to this day. But there were moments that I noticed, even then, more than others, particularly the part that sounded to my young ears like an inscrutable recitation of numbers: achat, achat v’achat, achat ushtayim, achat v’shalosh, and so on. I would guess that I perked up at this time because one of the earlier things I would have learned in Day School was to count in Hebrew, so I could recognize that something was being counted, albeit in an unusual way: one, one and one, one and two, one and three. And so forth, all the way though one and seven. Imagine my surprise when I learned, eventually, that what was being counted here were the drops of blood being splattered by the High Priest from the goat he had just slaughtered as he sprinkled them from his fingertips on to the appurtenances of the sacred precinct.

These lines come from a section of the musaf service for Yom Kippur, which we have the opportunity to encounter later today, called “Seder HaAvodah”, or, in English, “The Service of the High Priest.” There is a primitive virtual reality quality to this part of the liturgy. It hearkens back to the earliest days of Jewish mysticism, when, in the wake of the destruction of the second Temple, spiritual journeys would be taken by entering into a trance state while a guide narrated the experience of passing through a heavenly Temple that was even more grand and holy than the one that had been lost to Roman destruction. I can’t promise any mystical journeys in the musaf today, though I’m sure our hazzan will do beautifully, but the principle is the same. We will narrate the experience of the High Priest as he prepares for and then performs the ancient, cultic sacrificial rituals of Yom Kippur–the way it used to be done when the Temple was standing in Jerusalem. It is a more ornate version of the original desert ceremony in the mishkan, which God instructed Aaron and his sons to perform, as we read in today’s Torah reading from Leviticus.

There are a few details of this service that I want to call our attention to today, and invite us to consider. I think they might provide us with some insight, as we try to get our minds around the subject of atonement, and wrestle with the time-honored question that the caterpillar first addressed to Alice: who are you? which, really, is not a very easy question to answer.

As we learned from the Torah reading, Yom Kippur originally played a crucial role in the yearly ritual cycle of the sacrificial cult. It was the day on which the High Priest entered the most sacred part of the the mishkan, or, later, the Temple, an area known as the Kodesh Kodashim, the Holy of Holies. To do so, he underwent a very painstaking series of preparatory activities, understanding that what he was about to do was a matter of life and death. As part of this preparation, he made three distinct sacrificial offerings of atonement, the first for himself and his family, the second for himself and his fellow priests, and the third for himself and all of the Israelite nation, to which he belonged. Then he went inside, on behalf of this nation that he represented, to purify this sacred place that was held in common by the entire society, and, in fact, represented what they valued most highly as a people.

It was understood that over the course of the year this sacred place became overlaid with a kind of spiritual plaque, called tumah, which accreted there because of the sins and misdeed of the people, against God, against the land, and against each other. If this plaque went unchecked, it could lead to disastrous consequences for all of these relationships, resulting ultimately in the dissolution of the community through destruction and exile. What the High Priest did every year at Yom Kippur was enter into the Holy of Holies and, essentially, scape away all of the plaque that he could, like a sacerdotal dental hygienist. Only in this way could the people be assured of another year of life and thriving–which is why we are told, in the later stories related about this day from the Temple period–that they were very happy to see him come out alive, and Yom Kippur would culminate in celebrations of ecstatic joy.

Although, since the destruction of the second Temple and the transitioning of Jewish spirituality from animal sacrifice to verbal prayer, there is no longer an actual service of the High Priest, tradition teaches that none of this has simply vanished into thin air. Instead, not only do we read about it in our prayer book, but we are meant to see it as the template of our own individual experiences of atonement. In this sense, on this day, each of is the High Priest, entering into the Holy of Holies to effect a purification that enables life to flourish. So stop thinking about the High Priest as someone else–he is you. He is the avatar of your subjectivity. What the Torah says about what he is responsible for has something very important to suggest to us about what it is we are responsible for, and, in fact, who “we” really are. And the most important point to draw from this is the recognition that nothing that he did was simply for himself as an individual. Every ritual of atonement–the preparatory offerings as well as the scraping of the sacred plaque–was done in the context of a relationship of responsibility, whether to family, or caste, or people. This should make us think.

I’ll try to clarify the point by telling you how it occurred to me. Actually, it came in two different guises.

The first has to do with being Jewish. Though, in keeping with the tenor of our times, we may tend to think of religion as a personal matter of individual spirituality, Judaism has always meant more than a private confession or practice. Instead, it has represented a global and historical experience of community and peoplehood. It has meant partaking in an identity that transcends the individual lifespan in time and space, and claiming ownership of, and responsibility for, that broader sense of self. You may think I’m going to harangue you about paying membership dues to the synagogue, but actually I thought I’d say a few words about a less fraught topic: the State of Israel.

It has been said, and even demonstrated, that the relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel has entered a new era of tenuousness, especially when we consider the progressive or unaffiliated segment of American Judaism. The existence of Israel reaches back into a Jewish past of collective existence and experience–a sense of shared destiny–that has drastically diminished since it was founded just after the Holocaust, leaving the endeavor high and dry, or at least reliant on some very virulent and religiously-infused forms of nationalism for its most salient motivating force. There have been years of bad action by successive governments in prolonging a brutal occupation, but there has also been an unending campaign of vicious and traumatic attacks perpetrated against Israeli civilians, beyond what we can understand from our position of relative comfort, and a global culture prone to double-standards and, at the very least, tinged with anti-Jewish sentiment. The result is a reality that leaves many of us, by turns, feeling queasy, disgusted, fearful, alienated, ashamed, angry, and despairing, and has conditioned what I think is the most prevalent response among those with the luxury to do so–a shrug of the shoulders and a walking away.

Talk about a once sacred project– like the holy of holies in the mishkan–that has become overlaid with a virulent plaque! I wish I knew a simple method to scrape it off. I don’t, but all I can say is that nothing is served by forsaking our collective priestly duty to seek atonement, to purify, as best we can, the terms of our shared identity. I hope you will pay attention to, and participate in, the programming we have upcoming later in the fall–a visit from Rabbi Donniel Hartman and a follow-up community conversation–as we search together for a way forward.

I mentioned there was another way in which I was thinking about this point–that our responsibility for atonement, like that of the High Priest, lies less in the individual realm than in our relationships and the identities and sacred trusts we hold in common. I could certainly mention climate change and ecological catastrophe, once again, but I assume you know about these problems and know, to some extent, what needs to be done, so I thought I’d spend my time today on something not unrelated, but a little more cheerful: American politics.

To say “I am Jewish” is not merely a statement of individual predilection, but an affirmation of connection to others. The same is true with the phrase, “I am an American.” Think about that for a second–think about the phrase itself: “I am an American”. What do you think and feel when mouthing those words? Do you say it comfortably, or with reservation? I don’t think I am the only one, over the past year, who has felt that to be an American in these times is to perceive an almost unbearable sense of vulgarity, corruption, division and pollution emanating from our American Holy of Holiness–the civic public sphere that, because it is so determinant of our well-being, we should hold as sacred as anything we know.

I’m not going to point fingers here, though I will encourage you, as the saying goes, to vote, and vote your conscience, and, maybe, if you know some millennials, have a real heart-to-heart with them. But this problem won’t go away in November. Whoever wins next month, we are going to find ourselves in a situation where approximately half the nation consider the president to be a liar and a miscreant unworthy of their loyalty, and the other half to be fools, dupes, and traitors. And so, right or wrong, we are faced with a tremendous crisis of collective identity, another coating of pestilence on our national altar.

I think our tendency may be, and I know my tendency is, to assume that the impurity arises because of the actions and opinions of people, parties and movements, that I find abhorrent, and my major point of concern is in fact the implementation of partisan policies that I consider to be a matter of life and death. By all means, we should fight for what we know to be right. But at the same time, we must reserve some headspace for another approach, based in a teaching from Pirkei Avot, the tractate of the Mishna often called in English “Ethics of the Fathers”, which says that when there is a dispute you are to consider both parties guilty, and when it is resolved you are to consider both parties innocent. This is a tall order, and the only practical step I can think of to try and realize it is to take some time this year to step outside your enclave, and consider America from another perspective, at least for a few minutes, because, as strange as it may seem, we share this American identity even with people that we hate, and there is no way forward that does not involve at least a minimal effort to take that paradox into account.

I’ve worn myself out talking about currents events, which is not my strong suit, so I want to go back to the interpretation of texts and symbols, where I feel more at home. There are a few traditional terms in Judaism to describe the individual’s obligation to the collective, one of the more prominent being the phrase ahavat Yisrael. Literally, it means “the love of Israel”, and in its narrowest sense it refers to a religious, ethnic or national love that we are meant to feel for our fellow Jews, though there are some sources who suggest that ahavat yisrael is merely a training ground for ahavat habriyut, the love of all creatures. But I want to read the phrase another way this morning. Remember that Yisrael, Israel, wasn’t always an abstract collective identity, whether a confederation of tribes or a modern nation state, but was originally the name of an individual. It was what Jacob was called, as we learn in the book of Genesis, after he spent the night wrestling with a mysterious “other”, a being who was never clearly defined but instead came to represent some entity beyond himself–whether God or his brother–with whom he had a crucial relationship. He wrestled with this being all night, never certain where he ended and it began, and feeling the pain and challenge of being called out of his narrow sense of self, and into the bond of obligation toward some greater identity. It was not for winning this struggle, but rather for engaging it, that he was given a name that came to bridge the gap between the one and the many, the solitary person and the people. So let’s say that the term ahavat yisrael, this form of love demonstrated by the man who was called Israel, refers to the yearning inherent in the tumultuous struggle to break out of the saferoom of the circumscribed spirit, and into meaningful and holy identification with others.

In this sense, Yom Kippur is not merely a day of self-analysis but self-expansion. Just as the High Priest was meant to perform rituals that emphasized his relationships–himself and his family, himself and his peers, himself and his nation–so we might use this time not to just to contemplate ourselves, but ourselves in the aspect of our larger names: I. I and my family. I and my community I and my people. I and my country. I and my world. Achat. Achat v’achat…One. One and one. One and two. One and three. One and four. One and five. One and six. One and seven. Because what we really learn from the service of the High Priest is that there is no such thing as individual atonement on Yom Kippur. The origin of the holiday lies in the purification of something that is meant to be shared and toward which we all have an existential relationship of responsibility; something that we all must hold together if we all don’t want to fall apart.

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Kol Nidre 5777/2016: On Purity

3. On Purity

This is a tale of the Kotsker Rebbe, may his memory be a blessing.

In a little Jewish town, in a ramshackle hut by the river, there lived a poor watercarrier. Every day but Shabbes he would trudge between the well and the houses, wearing a cap and his soiled caftan, with two balanced buckets tied by rope to the wooden pole across his shoulders. His hands were bruised and swollen, and he waddled from side-to-side, even when he wasn’t carrying water.

This hard labor was his lot in life. He had never been to heder, and he couldn’t read or write. But he was very pious. He had a great love for the Holy One, Blessed be He, and a burning desire to speak the passion of his soul through prayer. He knew that Hebrew was the language of prayer, but didn’t know any Hebrew, except a single word that he had heard spoken one day when passing the house of study, which had lodged in his memory. That word was tamei. He didn’t know what it meant, but only that it was a Hebrew word, and it was a great treasure to him.

Early in the morning, every day before starting to work, he would davven by the river, repeating his precious word over and over again–tamei, tamei, tamei–until his spirit began to rise. Then he would sing it, and shout it, consumed by the fire of his prayer, all on this one word–tamei! tamei! tamei! tamei!–while the blood rushing to the surface of his skin made his face red and hot.

This behavior did nothing to improve his status in the town. The children would run after him in the street, shouting: tamei! And the scholars, watching him pass, would nod to each other and chuckle: tamei, indeed.

Once, on one of his journeys, the rebbe of Kotsk, peace be upon him, happened to stay overnight in this village, at the home of one of his disciples. In the morning, seeking a minute of peace, he went down to the river, on the outskirts of town, where he found the watercarrier in the midst of his prayers. He looked on as the watercarrier shouted, and leapt into the air, crying: tamei! tamei! tamei! The Kotsker observed this strange sight for a while, a poor, disheveled man in the throes of his spiritual passion, bellowing in joyful song at the top of his lungs: tamei! tamei! tamei!

The rebbe was deeply moved. This was a holy being. He admired the prayer of the watercarrier. But he was troubled by it, all the same, because, you see, the rebbe knew what tamei meant.

When the watercarrier paused, the rebbe approached him.

“What are you doing, my friend?” he asked.

It took a moment for the watercarrier to come out of his transport, but when he took note of the distinguished rebbe, in his fine shtreimel and kapote, he became very attentive.

“I’m davvening,” said the watercarrier. “I’m praying. I’m praying, and then I will carry water to the town.”

“That’s very good,” said the rebbe. “God hears all prayers that are offered with a pure heart. But there’s just one thing. The word you are chanting, tamei, do you know what it means?”

“No,” said the watercarrier.

“It means ‘impure’,” said the rebbe. “Dirty. Unclean. It is an impure word. It is better for a pure heart to pray with a pure word. Let me teach you one. Tahor. It means pure. Pray with the word tahor, a pure word befitting your pure heart.”

The watercarrier was very grateful.

“Tahor,” he said. “Yes, rabbi. I will pray tahor. Thank you, rabbi. Thank you. Tahor. Tahor. Tahor.”


Here’s another story. If it seems unrelated at first, just hear me out.

I was digging through the dumpster at Boyden and Perron, one morning this past spring, and the phone in my pocket was vibrating. I use cardboard as mulch on my farm, and there was a good haul that day from a recent shipment of Toro lawnmowers. In fact, there was so much that I was late for work, which I thought explained the buzzing of my phone. The alarm had first gone off forty minutes earlier, to alert me it was time to leave the house. Ever since, it had been snoozing for five minutes and then picking up again. I intended that this pattern would goad me through the morning, and in this it had been only moderately successful.

But during a lull in the vibration, it occurred to me that the interval had shortened, from five minutes to one. Setting down the lid of the dumpster, I pulled the phone from my pocket and scanned the display. Elise, my wife, had been trying to reach me, calling and then hanging up without leaving a message, only to call right back again. I remember gazing into a puddle of rainwater as I called her back, thinking: my plans are about to change. Nobody calls like that unless there’s news. I was right.

Efraim burst into tears when he saw me. He had been holding them in for a while. The teacher said he had been very brave. He was lying on a little cot by the door, in a shaft of sunlight coming through the window. The rest of the playroom was dark–hushed for naptime–though a few of his little friends amused themselves in a corner. His lip had swollen into a sneer. A bubble of blood trickled down from the deep cut he had torn with his own tooth. The gap where the skin was severed held the strangeness of the body gone wrong, like the dangling of a broken limb. The teachers were still jittery. He had bled a lot, all over the bathroom floor. He melted into my shoulder when I lifted him up. There was blood on his clothing, and when he hugged me a few drops landed on my collar. He saw this, and said, “you have blood on you,” and this made him cry again.

At Urgent Care, while Efraim sipped water through a straw, the doctor inflated a blue latex glove and, by tying it off and adding a few lines and dots with a sharpie, transformed it into an elephant. But he said the stitches were beyond his ability, and suggested we go to a specialist. The cut, at the corner of my son’s mouth, extended just above the flesh of the lip, crossing, by a fraction, what I learned that day is quite poetically called “the vermillion border.” If the suturing didn’t line up just right there would be an evident scar, marking a pure young face for the rest of its life with the legacy of a one second slip on the tile floor of a preschool bathroom.

Day turned to night, and my car, with the load of cardboard still stacked in the trunk, was now parked in one of the lots at Baystate. On a surgical bed in our little nook of the pediatric ER, beside the monitors and the television screen where he had watched an adventure of Winnie the Pooh, Elise cradled Efraim in her arms like a junior version of a pieta–the wounded son draped across his mother’s lap. He was waking from a ketamine trance–a facet of the treatment that had disturbed us far more than the accident itself. He was listless, and his open eyes glistened with pooling tears. A few efficient stitches had sewn him up. They would dissolve within a week, leaving him virtually unblemished. It was a very good job–if you look at him, you won’t notice a thing. It’s only when I pull back his lip, to help with toothbrushing, that I see the little tag of displaced skin.


I wasn’t done with the other story. There’s more to it.

After the rebbe of Kotsk had given the watercarrier a new word–tahor, pure, instead of tamei, impure–he went back up the hill to the house of his disciple, where the hasidim gathered in a minyan to daven shacharit, the dawn prayer. Later that day, the rebbe left town.

But something happened. The next morning, as usual, the watercarrier woke up early and left his shack to pray by the river. But when he opened his mouth, no words came out. He simply could not remember the word that the rebbe had taught him, and when he cast his mind back for the old word it wasn’t there either. He tried as hard as he could, but all he could stammer out was a mash of syllables–tamor, tahei–and he knew these weren’t right, because his soul would not rise on them. He was very upset.

“The rabbi has made me unhappy,” he said. “The rabbi has taken away my word.”

And he set off to find the rebbe.


It’s a great story, and it came to me in an unusual way. When I lived in Dublin, a friend gave me a box of Yiddish books he found in his father’s attic. They were nothing to write home about, except for this one little gem–a slender volume on dry and yellowing pages with a cracked binding. These were Kotsker mayses–tales of the Kotsker Rebbe, which I read till the book fell apart. This one was the second of the collection, and it enthralled me, because I had not expected such subversion from a seemingly pious text. The ending is the best part, but we need to talk about a few more things before we get there.

According to Torah, tumah (impurity) and tahara (purity) are fluctuating states, which regulate our access to God. God is holy and the source of all that is holy in the world, but the world is subject to corruption. We bear decay in the fabric of our being. It is what differentiates us from God. God is perfect and unchanging, but we are born, give birth, and die. Our bodies are predisposed to infirmity and accident, illness and infection, and given to the natural flux of menstruation and emission. When we are touched by these things, we are deemed alienated from God. In such a state, we are barred from entrance to the holy places, even ostracized, like the watercarrier, from community and banished to the extremities of the camp. In one striking passage, which the Kotsker, being a great scholar of Torah, must have known intimately, the impure are instructed to cry out–tamei! tamei! tamei!–so that nobody will draw near and be infected by what is really as much a spiritual as a physical contagion.

But the impure may be purified by undergoing rituals of cleansing under the supervision of religious authorities, the most common being immersion in the waters of the mikveh. Yom Kippur is also a rite of purification. It blends the language of tumah and taharah with the categories of sin and repentance, following the lead of a passage from the prophet Isaiah. “‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.’” Sin creates impurity–like the blood of a wound that seeps through gauze. But this day comes to turn the red to white again. Those who cried tamei are taught to say tahor, and we are reconciled with the holiness of a perfect God.

At least, this is a traditional understanding of how it works. I have my doubts, and so, I think, did the Kotsker rebbe.

I cherish the innocence of my son’s beautiful face. I was anxious to have his wound healed in a way that would leave him unblemished, and so we travelled from one hospital to another that day, and gave his body its first taste of anesthetic. I have no regrets about this, and am grateful for the skill and compassion of his doctors, and the wonders of modern medicine. Still, I recognize that there is really no perfection, no purity, even in the subtlest of healing. It’s not just the little tag of skin that makes this clear to me. Efraim was sitting beside me as I wrote this. He asked me what I was doing, and when I told him, he furrowed his brow in thought, and then, remembering his own fear and pain, asked me, “why was I so sad?” Though his face is unscarred, the wound is now part of the texture of his being, because, like all of us, except for God, he is made of blood and change.

So when we atone and strive for holiness it should not be against the false measure of an illusory perfection; not to fulfill the nostalgic yearning for return to a pristine world that existed before wound and pollution, illness, alienation, and death; and not with prayers that are chastened and smothered in white, but with the reality of ourselves, pulsating to incandescence in jagged vermillion.


The rebbe stayed overnight at an inn, and continued his journey the next day on foot. The road brought him through a dense forest, and then, coming out the other side, he found himself on the shore of a lake. As he was a rebbe, and a miracle worker, it was simple enough for him to take the clean handkerchief out of his pocket, lay it down upon the water, and ride it like a raft. It was just as he had reached the middle of the lake that the watercarrier came bursting out of the woods. He saw the rebbe, riding on the windblown waves, and without giving it another thought flung down his own tattered kerchief and set off upon it, paddling furiously with his strong arms to overtake the rebbe, and crying out to him.

The rebbe heard a noise and turned around to see the watercarrier coming after him, as miraculous in his conveyance as he was. And he heard what the man was shouting.

“Rabbi!” yelled the watercarrier. “You have taken my word from me. Give me back my word!”

It was then that the rebbe realized his mistake.

“My friend,” he cried, and his voice carried over the water, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I was wrong. Your word is tamei! Tamei! Pray tamei! Tamei! Tamei!”

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RH Day Two 5777/2016: On Fear

2. On Fear

I begin with my standard Akedah disclaimer. I know that the story we read this morning, on the face of it, is disturbing, and even obscene. When we take stock of our world today, and consider who they are who identify themselves by a willingness to perform inhuman acts, often at the expense of the innocent, in the name of their religion–actions with clear kinship to a father who will consent to kill his son when asked to do so by his god–I hope we will conclude that such people are not worthy of our respect or emulation. Yet, unlike some other passages of Torah–the genocidal ones, for example–which, I confess, I wish I had the power to cut out of our sacred book, I have no hesitation in continuing to read and comment upon this one, especially at a time of year when we are meant to penetrate to the deeper levels of our psyche, and address whatever imbalances of character we may find there.

A study of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, has much to contribute to this process, but we first need to step away from the literal layer of the story, and read it abstractly. Once we set aside the notion that it is only a tale of ritual child abuse (though, again, sometimes we must read it without setting this notion aside, or risk ignoring the horrible reality of such abuse) it has something to offer us as a spiritual parable. The text itself gives us the wiggle room we need. VahaElohim nisa et Avraham, it begins. “And God tested Abraham.” This little word, “nisa” accomplishes quite a lot. For one thing, it invites us to inhabit the story from God’s perspective, rather than Abraham’s–knowing more, from the start, about the parameters of the ordeal than has been shared with Abraham. We are, in fact, liberated from the terror of Abraham’s point of view. He must journey forward without knowing, as we and God do, that it is a test. Though we may not know the full extent of God’s intention for this test–will the slaughter actually have to take place for Abraham to pass?–we are aware that the burden of the event is not so much the act of sacrifice as the reaction of elements within Abraham’s psyche as he responds to the circumstance. The Akedah is, first and foremost, a nisayon–an arena of spiritual challenge.

We can gain insight into the nature of a nisayon by comparing this one to another. Abraham, after all, is not the only patriarch to sustain an ambiguous encounter with God. Jacob, too, goes through an ordeal of violence, his night of wrestling with the mysterious ish–a being who may have been God, or an angel, or his brother, or himself–from which he emerges wounded, undefeated, and with a new name, one that is emblematic of the meaning of the event and his success in meeting its challenge. He will no longer be known as Jacob, the heal grabbing sneak, but Yisrael, the divine wrestler–his essential trickster nature having attained to the status of spiritual virtue.

What we can learn from this example is that the successful endurance of a nisayon results in a victory that is encoded in a new name. The same holds true for the Akedah, though Abraham’s renaming is not quite as obvious. When he succeeds, when he accomplishes whatever it is that God had hoped he would accomplish, he is given a title, rather than a personal name. It is a kind of honorific of spiritual nobility that is meant to be worn as a badge of honor, signifying the capacity he has proven through his deed. “Now I know,” God announces, when all is said and done, “that you are a yirei elohim.”

The operative word here is yirah. Yirei elohim, means someone who has yirah for God, but yirah is too complicated a term to translate quickly. It is often given in English as “fear”, and is related to the word norah, meaning awesome (in the old fashioned sense), the same word we find in the term yamim nora’im, the High Holidays, or the Days of Awe. Tradition teaches it is one of the two cardinal modes of relating to God, the other being ahava, or love. Ahava and yirah. Love and fear. If God is the creator and master of all things, we might serve God out of a great sense of love, out of desire to do God’s bidding because of how good it makes us feel, and, on a mystical level, be subsumed by this love till it is magnified within our emotions into a state of great spiritual bliss. Or we might recognize God’s awesomeness as most salient–manifesting in scopes of space and time so vast relative to our own frames and spans that even a dim awareness of this magnitude fills us with an intense terror of the incomprehensible contours, or countourlessness, of what is real.

Tradition actually differentiates between two types of yirah: yirat elohim, Abraham’s honorific, also known as yirat shamayim, and yirat khet; the first term “fear of God” or “fear of heaven”, contrasted with the second, “fear of sin”. “Fear of heaven” is the type of yirah that I have already alluded to–a reverence for the grandeur of God, something along the lines of what we might feel at the ocean, or the Grand Canyon, or when viewing images from a deep space telescope, a kind of last-chapters-of-Job amazed surrender to the unfathomable. It is described as an overarching religious sensibility that transcends the performance of any one specific mitzvah, but informs the entirety of a pious person’s orientation toward the divine. Yirat khet, the fear of sin, by contrast, is a relatively limited sensibility, and is, in fact, denigrated by some traditional commentators, including Maimonides, as an immature religious outlook. Simply put, “fear of sin” is an attitude of service based in a fear of what will happen if we disobey the master–a fear of punishment.

Though these earlier commentators cast suspicion on yirat khet, they recognized its utility. It was a rule for children that could be outgrown when the spirit attained to higher understanding, and became an informed and loving servant. But these commentators had no similar qualms about yirat shamayim which they considered praiseworthy, to say the least. By contrast, I think there is particular antipathy in our time to the notion of fear, in any form, as a mode of spiritual service, especially within the world of liberal religiosity. Militant atheists, for their part, are incensed by the phantom of a tyrant God who demands our fearful, and easily manipulated, obedience (when they are not busy portraying God as an infantile narcissist demanding our servile love.) But even for many people who participate in religion, there is something unseemly in the concept of yirah, or at least unpalatable, or maybe just inscrutable. Indicative of this aversion is the tendency to translate yirah, softly, as “awareness”, or even “mindfulness.” I have been guilty of this, myself.

Maybe this distaste arises because we don’t take any religious doctrine seriously enough to inspire fear, or because in our selective approach to tradition we only see value in those parts of it that are warm and fuzzy. If you tend to doubt that religion is a matter of fulfilling the demands of an actual God, but suspect instead it is a hit-or-miss creation of human imagination and culture, then you might find yourself combing through the remnants of that culture for the “good bits.” These tend to be the parts that make us feel an emotional or physical positivity (Yoga and meditation, for example, or musical Friday night services), which we separate from those other aspects that we perceive as negative, whether because we consider them untrue or objectionable, or because they place obligations upon us we would just as soon not fulfill, or because they enshroud us in a worldview that feels dark and depressing.

Rabbi Milton Steinberg, an early 20th century Conservative luminary, erstwhile devotee of Mordechai Kaplan, and author of the renowned philosophical novel “As a Driven Leaf”, had some choice words to say about this modern, selective tendency, in his excellent primer “Basic Judaism.” “There are in all communions some individuals who are made unhappy by any reference to the fear of God,” he wrote. “They are sentimentalists, wishful thinkers, or cowards–persons either ignorant of the nature of things, or too timid to face them.” “No one who sees reality as it is,” he went on, “bitter as well as sweet, violent as well as gentle, frightening as well as comforting, will question for a moment that God is as fittingly an object of dread as of love.” (P65)

Steinberg, who was a modernist with an evident sympathy for traditionalism, argues here that anyone who takes account of the world as it is cannot help but acknowledge that fear, or “dread” as he puts it, is a natural response to a great deal of it. The sentimentalist is someone who uses religion as just another mechanism of denying the reality of the fearful. This is a form of cowardice, a kind of make believe that wears a smiley face and saves terror for the wee hours of the night, smothering it in a sphere of private consciousness, judging it to be an unacceptable emotion, something that must be concealed for the sake of social and personal hygiene. The sentimentalist, in fact, responds to the reality of life by creating an effigy of a God who is only loving, and is only related to through loving, sufficing with a candy god and foreswearing any religious language that might enable us to speak productively of the darkness. Steinberg seems to be suggesting that fear has a place in religious practice–that we should see it as something to be affirmed, rather than escaped or elided. It is a spiritual power in it’s own right, and so we might then translate yirah as sacred fear.

But what is the use of “sacred fear”? How do we take the step from feeling fear to enshrining fear as a spiritual value? Let’s look back to the Akedah, and see what Abraham, the prince of yirat shamayim, has to offer by way of answer to this question. Remember, we are reading the Akedah on an abstract level today, setting aside the notion that it is a horrible thing a father and a god inflict on a child, and seeing it as a nisayon, a spiritual testing or refining, by God, of a particularly ennobled human psyche. We do this, actually, by not counting Isaac as a character in the story–if he is as real as Abraham, then the story is indeed horrendous, because great harm is being done by one subjective human being to another. But, in the scheme of a nisayon, Isaac is not real, but rather a symbol in Abraham’s mind, just as we all, I think, turn the reality of the people in our lives into totems in our imagination–seeing them by what they mean to us rather than who they are. Let’s imagine that the Akedah is not realism, but a surrealistic trance state, such as Abraham actually did experience earlier in Genesis, when he fell into a tardemah–a kind of dark sleep–and God gave him a vision of his descendants as slaves in Egypt. Let’s imagine that Abraham has taken some peyote, or ayahuasca, or Manischewitz, and has descended into a tardemah, where the symbol of his son has appeared to him, and a voice has told him to sacrifice it. What does he come to learn in his vision? How does he emerge from it imbued with yirah–the power of sacred fear?

The voice speaks to Abraham, saying, “take the son that you love and sacrifice him”, reminding us that, perhaps more than anything else, what Isaac symbolizes to Abraham is ahava, the service of love, both on the natural level–as a father loves his son–and the supernatural, on which this son represents the reward of his loving and faithful service to God. In this vision, then, Abraham is asked to confront a terrible question, a question at the root of a great mass of fear: what will you do when you lose what you love? a question that filters down into his feverish dreamtime as a command to offer this symbol as a sacrifice. Abraham encounters a moment in which the fundamental bedrock of his life, the relationship with his child, is thrown into confusion by a new and frightening awareness of just how unfathomable and incomprehensible life really is, and how unoriented it is toward the fulfillment of his wishes. And, as he puts one foot in front of the other on the way toward his mystic mountain, he must wrestle with another question: can you bless a fate that you can neither change nor love? In the end, thank god, unlike many of us, he gets to keep the thing he loves, and, in fact, God never really wanted him to lose it in the first place. It was just a test, a proving of metal. But in the meantime, he has been forced by his nisayon to envision a spirituality in which love is not all that there is; to see that there are vast stretches of experience that are incommensurate with our hopes, and to respond, if he is to endure, with this capacity to bless with something other than ahava, to bless, in Steinberg’s terms, the incontrovertibly “bitter, violent, and frightening”; to bless his fear–to make of it a sacred fear–to become a yirei elohim.

I’m not the first, by a long shot, to read this story in abstraction. The tradition is at least as old as the Kabbalah, in which Abraham and Isaac each represent distinct sefirot, spiritual potentialities or divine qualities. Abraham is hesed, lovingkindness, a fitting association with the man who had a tent that was open on all four sides to receive visitors. Isaac is gevurah, restriction and judgment, the counterpart of hesed and a divine emanation intrinsically linked to yirah. The Akedah is understood to be the moment at which hesed met its match in gevurah, or , to shift to the terms we have been working with, the outflowing of sacred love encountered the wall of sacred fear. This reading is ultimately optimistic. Just as, in the end, Abraham and Isaac walked away from the mountain together, so we are to understand that ahava should always claim the upper hand in this match, if ever so slightly. If Isaac had not lived, fear would be the governing force. But, in the end, they are not in competition. Each of them has a place in helping us to craft a spiritual personality that will enable us to offer our blessings as we walk through this world. It is understood to be a matter of balance. If we feel too much fear, we are in need of love. But we should not strain our love by pretending it can redeem all things, and, especially on the Yamim Nora’im, , the days of yirah, we should entertain the possibility that even the darkness must be blessed.

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RH Day One 5777/2016: On Laughter

On Laughter

This year, in the droughty Pioneer Valley, it has been a little easier than usual to imagine what Israel looks like at Rosh Hashanah. In the Middle East, climate change notwithstanding, the seasons are divided simply between wet and dry, and the onset of rain is expected just after the High Holidays. In ancient times, the late grains would be standing ready for harvest, and the water stocks in wells and cisterns running low, making for a moment of great hope and trepidation.

This is a sensible time to mark the new year, the advent of a dramatic change in the weather, bringing one cycle of labor to a close and initiating another. This placement also explains why our Jewish new year has a somber quality, far removed from the champagne and ball-dropping of the secular one. Even in ancient times, the rainy season could be inconsistent, and out of this natural fluctuation our ancestors derived a theology linking the success of the rains to their own moral righteousness. We find it clearly expressed in the passage of Deuteronomy that follows the Shema in our prayerbook. “If you earnestly heed the commandments that I give you,” says God, “then I will favor your land with rain at the proper season.” Here is the root of the existential ferment we still associate with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It began in the anxiety with which the ancient Israelites greeted the rain, believing it would bring them blessing only if their hearts were right with God.

The connection between Rosh Hashanah and its Torah readings is a little less obvious. Next week we will review God’s instructions to Aaron, the High Priest, regarding the performance of the first Yom Kippur. But Rosh Hashanah is, more or less, a post-Biblical holiday. The scant material that exists in Torah regarding the first of Tishrei, though it does suggest we blow the shofar, makes no reference to the birthday of the world, or a day of judgment. We chant this passage as our maftir, today and tomorrow, but the main readings for both days are drawn from farther afield. They are stories from Genesis, about the first family of Judaism, a “complicated family system” if there ever was one–Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac. In particular, we recount a series of events that attended the birth of Isaac, and his adolescence.

One plausible commentary suggests it is fitting to read a birth story at the start of a new year, particular one that represents cultural renewal. Abraham initiated a covenant with God. With the birth of his son he passed this legacy on to the next generation–just as one year follows the next–in the very first instance of Jewish continuity.

But I want to share another interpretation with you today, by proposing a connection between these stories and the angst-ridden opening of the rainy season. It’s really more of an analogy than a direct connection. Like the time of year, these tales also hinge on the descent of a revitalizing power onto a parched landscape, and invite us to consider what kind of purification we must undergo in order to experience its bounty. Only, here, it isn’t rain. It’s laughter.


Though we’ve produced many celebrated comedians, and have a rich trove of indigenous humor, Jewish lore is actually ambivalent on the subject of laughter. For example, Rabbi Yochanan, an early Talmudic sage, gave this teaching in the name of his colleague, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. “It is forbidden,” he said, “that a person’s mouth be filled with laughter in this world.” For a prooftext, he cited a phrase from Psalm 126, otherwise known as the first paragraph of birkat hamazon, the grace after meals: az yimalei skhok pinu. “Then will our mouths be full of laughter.” The words are in the future tense: then, and not now. They are followed by a verse that envisions the messianic restoration of the exiled Jews: “Then will they say among the nations: the Lord has done great things with these.” Only after this deliverance, says the rabbi, may we fill our mouths with laughter. In the meantime, in an unredeemed world, laughter should be greeted with suspicion. The point is reinforced by a selection of anecdotes, which describe the efforts of sages to disrupt wedding feasts when they grew too merry. One smashes his goblet against the ground, in a prefiguration of the custom of breaking the glass. Another is asked to sing to the company. He gets up on his chair and begins to wail, “Woe are we who are all doomed to die!”

The teaching is of its time, coming in the aftermath of the Roman destruction of Judea, when anyone not already miserable was encouraged to be so out of solidarity. But it invites us to look more broadly, and question the very place of frivolity in this imperfect world. Life, it reminds us, is serious. Too much laughter may dull us to the noble contemplation of our fate, or our responsibility to alleviate suffering. It may even diminish our capacity to bear hardship. We should also recognize that laughter itself partakes of the world’s imperfection. We are taught in halakha, Jewish law, to avoid telling stories about others, even if they are true, because we cannot control the repercussions of the truth. Similarly, it is possible for even an innocent laugh to create suffering.

But the Talmud is big enough to contain other perspectives. God Himself is portrayed in these pages as persisting in a state of prolonged melancholy after destroying the Temple and exiling the Jews. But in one charming passage He is said to reserve an hour of every day to be mitsakhek, to laugh and play, with Leviathan, the beloved divine pet. Elsewhere, praise, along with a special place in Olam HaBa, the world to come, is given to jesters, whose mirth raises the spirits of the downtrodden. They are holy fools who provide, not trivial distraction, but the sweetness that makes life palatable. To put it another way: if an unredeemed world in no place for laughter, then laughter itself offers the taste of redemption.


Abraham, in Torah, is the father of laughter, or, at least, there is no mention of it before him, as if it were a latent potentiality, a kind of tickling, flavored breath, lying undiscovered until his time. His primal laugh arrives like the cloudburst that alleviates a drought. God’s promise of a child to Abraham and Sarah had gone unrealized. At Sarah’s encouragement, he had fathered Ishmael by Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant, and then both he and Sarah had grown old. Then, one day, God tells Abraham that this promise has been remembered, and Abraham finds the news very amusing. “Will a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old,” he giggles, “and his wife ninety?” Then he falls to the ground, convulsed by laughter.

In the texture of Torah, overlapping variations of the same story, perhaps originating in competing oral traditions, often appear side-by-side, and there is another version of this one, in which it is Sarah, not Abraham, who laughs at the annunciation. Three mysterious strangers come shimmering out of the desert. As they dine with Abraham, on a meal she has helped to prepare, Sarah eavesdrops on their conversation from a hiding place at the doorway of the tent. She hears them speak of the fulfillment of God’s promise, and she also finds it funny. Only, she doesn’t laugh out loud. Vatitskahk Sarra bikirbah, we read. And Sarah laughed inwardly. She laughed within herself. The stern lines of her face betrayed no sign of amusement, at least nothing more than the faintest Mona Lisa smile. Her rendition of the joke, too, is more intimate, with a risque focus on the mechanics of conception. “Am I to have pleasure now,” she wonders, “with my husband being so old?” But God, who is the only character in the story capable of perceiving this subterranean response, overhears her, and asks, “Why did she laugh?” Sarah is mortified to be caught in such a private thought. “I didn’t laugh,” she says, “Oh, but you did,” says God.

Traditional commentators try to parse out the difference between one laugh and another. Abraham, they tell us, though royally amused, laughs in good faith, delighted by the realization of a promise he always assumed would be fulfilled. But Sarah’s secret laughter is tinged with incredulity. Tentative excitement, maybe even the stirring of erotic pleasure, is overlaid with suspicion and acerbic wit, leading God to chastise her for lack of faith. This is a callous reading, betraying patriarchal bias. It fails to take into account how a reaction might be conditioned by gender and status, or how truly embarrassing it might have been for her to be a superannuated new mother, or how resentful she felt at being played as a pawn in her husband’s destiny. But there is some truth in it. Sarah is unable to respond to this fall of rain after a dry season with the full-throated guffaw of her husband. She seems warped by circumstances–long years of disappointment and envy at the happiness of others–into a predisposition to perceive bursts of gaiety as jokes told at her expense. She is unable to tell God why she laughs, but instead blasphemes against the arousal of her own joy, and the vague fluttering in her lungs transforms to splinters that lodge in her breast. She names the child Yitskhak, “he will laugh” explaining the choice with reference to fear of mockery, rather than gladness. “God has made a laughingstock of me,” she says. “Everyone who hears of this will laugh at me.”

This wound of spirit leads to further tragedy. Isaac has been weaned and is already a child, wandering the encampment on his own two feet, when, one day, we are told, Sarah observes Ishmael, the son of Hagar, mitsakhek–laughing or playing–the same form of the verb, actually, that is used to describe God sporting with Leviathan. The commentary makes a typical effort to denigrate characters outside the Jewish nuclear family, telling us that Ishmael was doing something wrong, engaged in some form of play that was cruel or untoward, though there is no evidence of this in Torah, only the verb itself. But Sarah is enraged, and demands that Abraham banish Ishmael and Hagar. We would say now that something has “triggered” her. In the language of her complaint, she protests that she doesn’t want Ishmael to inherit ahead of her own son. But this concern might easily have occurred to her before, and only seems billowed up now by its emotional content. No, there is something about Ishmael’s laughter itself that makes Sarah mad, and ungenerous, maybe that it is brazen, open-mouthed, and unrepentant, or because God does not call him on it, or because, in her brokenness, she assumes that he is laughing at her, that he is, himself, a joke at her expense. Whatever the reason, Ishmael and his mother are sent into the wilderness, where they would have died but for divine intervention. It is in this way, in an unredeemed world, that innocent laughter brings suffering.


We should wonder where Isaac was when this happened. I imagine that he was there, a timid little boy overawed by his older brother, by the intoxicating danger of the games Ishmael liked to play, and by the world of fun revealed in his raucous laughter. But then, suddenly, his mother is very angry, and then his brother is gone. Isaac grows up alone, the only child of elderly parents. His father loves him, but doesn’t laugh any more, a serious man, devoted to his mission, and bearing the weight of the grave decisions he has made. His mother’s love is fierce, tangible, and silent. When he returns from the harrowing trip with his father, the midrash tells us, it is to discover that she is dead. He becomes a wanderer, known for his solitary, twilight walks in the open field. A careful study of the Torah’s geography reveals that he has a penchant to tend, by some unconscious impulse, toward destinations where he might catch sight of his brother. When a wife is brought for him, we are told that he loves her, but it is described as a love that alleviates sadness, rather than bringing joy. And, all the while, the name is hanging over him like a prophecy. Yitskhak. He will laugh. But when will he laugh? And how?

This story begins in an actual drought. The rains fail, the pasture withers, and a famine ensues, driving Isaac west toward the sea, to live among the Philistines. Borrowing a page from his father’s playbook, he passes off his beautiful wife as his sister, presuming his hosts will respect the sanctity of kinship more than marriage. They live like this for some time, unmolested, in a rainless land, bearing the considerable strain of secrecy for the sake of their survival. But one day, Avimelekh, the king, looking out of his window, beholds a vision that changes his perspective. Vihinei yitskhak mitsakhek et Rivka ishto. Isaac was mitsakhek–laughing, playing–with his wife Rebecca, revealing himself, not just to the Philistine king but to us, to be something other than we thought: a creature of desire and delight, a holy fool in a vale of tears, knowing there is no reason for laughter, and that nothing is redeemed without it.


Pablo Neruda called laughter “the language of the soul.” (I learned this from an episode of “The Simpsons.”) Perhaps he was referring to its spontaneity, its capacity to impose itself upon us despite our pretensions, to be reflexive and visceral in response to a tickle or a joke, or the promptings of thought and memory. If it could speak, it might say, “I didn’t expect that,” and only the greatest actors, in art and life, can force it convincingly. It is a pleasure, whether secret or shared, but it can be cruel, too, and bitter, though I like to think, in wishful naivety, that these are perversions of its nature. Sometimes, late at night, I hear my little son break out laughing in his sleep, and in the morning we try to piece together the silly details of his dream, while I worry about his future.

But it is not quite the same thing as rain, even though a soul that cannot laugh is like a desert. It will not make the crops grow, and you can go a lifetime without cracking a smile, so long as you have water. But it is only magical thinking that allows us to believe that prayers will bring rain, whereas laughter is a true barometer of the spirit. How we laugh, like Abraham or Sarah, Isaac or Ishmael, or God and His Leviathan, will tell us who we are, what we long for, how we have been wounded, even what sins we are guilty of; and how we fail to laugh will tell us just as much.

Rosh Hashanah, our new years day, is somber. It asks us to reserve our bacchanalia for December–to step away from an overly amused society and remind ourselves that life is real, and deadly serious. But its aim is laughter. We stand against the backdrop of a land at the acme of its drought, and atone for the contortions that have made us incapable, if not unworthy, of joy. Then we hope to merit the downpour of a holy foolishness, without which life is irredeemable.

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Richard Cohen’s d’var Torah from 1/2/16: “Hatan Damim”

Shabbat shalom and happy New Year. What I’ll be talking about is the enigmatic episode in parshat Shemot of Hatan Damim, the “Bridegroom of Blood,” which appears at Exodus 4:24-26. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to warn you, there’s a lot of blood, not to mention, a couple of serpents, in this davar! The roadmap is as follows: I’ll first put Hatan Damim in the context of the Exodus story, then talk a little bit about some of the traditional interpretations of the episode before weighing in with my own thoughts.

We’re just beginning parshat Shemot where the focus shifts to the Israelite enslavement in Egypt and to Moses, who’s appointed by God to lead the Israelites. Moses is living life in the slow lane as a shepherd in Midian where he fled after killing an Egyptian taskmaster. At the “burning bush”, God appears to Moses for the first time, and commands him to return to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to free the Israelites. The Hatan Damim episode takes place on Moses’s journey with his wife, Zipporah, and his sons, Gershom and Eliezer, from Midian to Egypt, where he is to meet up with his brother Aaron.

The episode is short:

“At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him. So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, ‘You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me.’ And when He let him alone, she added, ‘a bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.”

What could be clearer?

Hatan Damim has been described by one commentator as “arguably the single most bizarre and baffling passage in all the Hebrew Bible.” I would argue that that’s not a negative. This kind of difficult passage challenges us to actively engage with the Torah – laasok b’divrei Torah. How interesting would Torah be, and would it even be read after thousands of years, if everything were simple and obvious? There are no right or wrong interpretations of Hatan Damim. The mitzvah is in the act of engaging with the text.

Hatan Damim falls into the genre of biblical stories told in a shorthand manner because the stories were once well known, and it was therefore unnecessary for the narrator to fill in the details. But for us readers in the 21st century, when the passage says that “God encountered him and sought to kill him”, we might well ask who is “him”? Is it Moses, Gershom or Eliezer? What is the sin that invokes this harsh punishment? How do we understand God “seeking” to kill him? When it says that Zipporah cut off her son’s foreskin, which son is it? How does she know that she should perform a circumcision in response to God’s threat to kill someone? When she touches someone’s legs (probably a euphemism for genitals) with the foreskin, whose genitals are they? When she says “you are a bridegroom of blood to me”, who is she addressing, Moses, Gershom or Eliezer?

Furthermore, what does “hatan damim”, “bridegroom of blood,” even mean? And when it says “He let him alone,” who is God leaving alone? Is Hatan Damim just a weird digression, or does it thematically fit in with the Exodus story? Questions, questions.
Needless to say, over the ages many commentators and scholars have tackled Hatan Damim: Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Nachmonides, Rashbam and many more. Most of the classic commentators believe that Moses was the one God sought to kill because he delayed in the circumcision of Eliezer, his younger son. When you’re on a mission from God, you can’t procrastinate. According to Rav Jose, Moses was right to leave Midian immediately and not to endanger Eliezer by circumcising him before setting out on the journey. But once Moses arrived at the encampment, he was close enough to Egypt that further travel would not pose a risk. So Moses should have circumcised Eliezer immediately after arriving at the encampment. His sin was to unnecessarily delay the circumcision while he busied himself with making arrangements for the lodging. To incur a death penalty for such a trivial delay seems excessive, to say the least, especially since Torah does not prescribe any death penalty for delay in circumcision.

And how did Zipporah know that delay in circumcision was the problem? According to Talmud, there were 2 angels at the encampment that turned into serpents. They swallowed Moses from the head down to the privates, disgorged him, and then swallowed him from his legs up to his privates and again disgorged him. This was a subtle message to Zipporah that circumcision was the issue. This was confirmed when God withdrew following the circumcision.

Rashi explains that after Zipporah cuts off Eliezer’s foreskin, she threw it at Moses’s feet, and said to Eliezer, “You are a bridegroom of blood to me.” By that she meant that Eliezer almost caused her bridegroom, Moses, to be killed.

Other commentators disagree that it was Eliezer, the younger son, that Zipporah circumcised and that it was Moses that God sought to kill. Immediately preceding Hatan Damim, God instructs Moses to tell Pharaoh: “Israel is my first born son. I have said to you, ‘Let my son go, that he may worship me.’ yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son.” Just as Pharaoh’s first born son deserves death because of Pharaoh’s refusal to allow God’s first born son, Israel, to worship God, so Moses’s first-born son, Gershom, deserves to die because of Moses failure to circumcise him, since circumcision would allow Gershom to serve God and enter into the b’rit, the covenant with God. Symmetry requires that Gershom, as first born, be the one circumcised and the one that God seeks to kill. And if Moses has failed to allow his own son to serve God, how qualified is he to deliver the message to Pharaoh that Pharaoh must permit the Israelites to serve God?

For traditional scholars, a major lesson of Hatan Damim is the importance of circumcision. In Genesis, circumcision is the sign of the covenant that God makes with Abraham and his descendants. Any male not circumcised is cut off from his people. And Hatan Damim reinforces this message: however great Moses’s merit and righteousness may have been, they did not protect him when he delayed circumcising his son. Several scholars see the purpose of Hatan Damim to be an object lesson to Moses. “Moses, you’ve personally experienced the mortal danger of delaying the circumcising (that is, redeeming) of your son. Because now, you’re entrusted with the redemption of the Israelites. Heaven forbid you should delay or fail in this infinitely more important venture.

But circumcision, according to other commentators, plays a deeper role in Hatan Damim.

A principle in Torah is that all creation, especially the firstborn of people or livestock belongs to God, and that human use is forbidden until redemption takes place. The redemption can take the form of a sacrifice, a ritual that acknowledges God’s ownership. So, circumcision is like a miniature sacrifice, and the shedding of blood in a circumcision acts to redeem the child. On a national scale this takes the form of the redemption of the Jewish people in the Exodus. Parshat Bo makes clear that a male cannot participate in the Passover sacrifice unless he is circumcised. When God kills the first born of the Egyptians in the 10th and final plague, God instructs the Israelites to protect themselves by daubing the blood of the Paschal sacrifice on the lintels and doorposts of their homes. God says: “When I see the blood, I will pass over you…and not smite you.” The same word for daubing (vataga) is used in Hatan Damim when Zipporah touches someone’s legs with the bloody foreskin of her son. In both cases, the protective quality of the ritual comes from the blood being visible. So Hatan Damim links the themes of redemption on an individual level, specifically, redemption of the male child through circumcision, and the redemption of God’s firstborn, the Israelite nation, from slavery.

There are many more interesting takes on Hatan Damim, but I’d like to now offer my own and answer a few of the many questions I raised earlier.

First, what is the meaning of the words “hatan damim”? As Nahum Sarna has noted: “Hatan damim may be a linguistic fossil…the meaning of which has been lost.” No other references to “hatan damim” have been found in ancient writings. But we can make an informed guess. Zipporah, as a Midianite, would have spoken Akkadian, and in that language “hatan” meant “circumcise” or “protect.” In several ancient Semitic societies, including Egypt and Midian, circumcision usually took place at puberty or shortly before marriage. This explains the connection between the word “hatan” and marriage. Now of course, in Hebrew, hatan refers to bridegroom or son-in-law. Given the connection I discussed before between circumcision and redemption and circumcision and the covenant with God, there is a deep overlay of meaning to the word hatan. The usual translation of Zipporah’s lines in the Hatan Damim episode, is: “You are a bridegroom of blood to me…..a bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.” A better translation might be “you are my protection of blood” and by virtue of shedding blood in this circumcision, I have protected you (meaning whichever son was circumcised and Moses).

I’d like to offer an alternative translation of the beginning of Hatan Damim. Instead of: “the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him”, I believe the subject should be Moses. In other words, “he [being Moses] encountered the Lord and sought to kill himself [being Moses].” It makes no sense that God, having appointed Moses to the most important mission in Torah, now wants to kill him, whether for a slight delay in circumcising his son or otherwise. Just a few verses before, God assures Moses that he can safely “go back to Egypt, for the men who sought to kill you are dead.” And now God seeks to whack his emissary? It makes less sense to say that God sought to kill an innocent child because he had not been timely circumcised. Moreover, based on the standard translation, this would be the only time in Torah that God sought to kill anyone. When God wants to do something, it’s done. In the words of that great philosopher, Yoda, “There is no try.”

I see this episode as comparable to that of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel at night before crossing the Jabbok River to meet his brother Esau. I believe that Jacob was not literally wrestling with anything other than his own guilt, his own sense of identity and spiritual connection with God. Similarly, before meeting with his brother, Aaron, Moses has a night encounter with God, with the divine within himself. Like Jacob, he must overcome his fear of what lies ahead. To say that Moses has a lot to process would be an understatement. For one thing, he’s likely experiencing an overwhelming identity crisis. He knows he’s a Hebrew, but he was raised and educated as an Egyptian noble, immersed in the culture of Egypt. He then flees to Midian. As the son-in-law of Jethro he’s again in a prestigious position where he’s immersed in Midianite society. He’s got the most tenuous of connections with the Hebrews. Now God is appointing him the agent of the Israelites’ redemption. He’s being asked to abandon his Egyptian and Midianite identities and return to his very shallow Hebrew roots. He’s being asked to make the leap from shepherd to leader. Any personal transformation, any transition is stressful. But what Moses is facing is off the charts.

But allow me to supplement that stress level. Because for many years Moses has been harboring a secret that he must now reveal. Moses first appears to Jethro and his family as an Egyptian noble. I believe there is no chance that Moses told either Zipporah or Jethro about his real identity—an escaped felon of Hebrew slave lineage. Jethro, as priest of Midian, would never have agreed to such a down and out son-in-law. Having married into the family based on a lie, over time it would have become harder and harder, to the point of impossibility, for Moses to come clean about his identity. In fact, when he asks leave of Jethro to return to Egypt, he says “Let me go back to my kinsmen in Egypt and see how they are faring.” Moses is very cagey; he doesn’t outright lie, nor does he reveal the identity of his kinsmen.

But now, they’re on the way to meet Aaron, and Moses has no choice but to disclose who he is. Can you imagine Moses having to tell Zipporah: “Uh, dear, I’ve been meaning to tell you something for the last 15 years, I’m not exactly who you think I am. I’m not actually a prince of Egypt. I’m a Hebrew accused of murder, and my family are all Hebrew slaves in Egypt.” Having to break this to Zipporah is like a 10,000 lb weight on Moses’s shoulders. This overwhelming dread, combined with Moses’s identity crisis and role crisis creates an unbearable burden. The Torah scholar, Pamela Tamarkin Reis, believes that Moses was pushed to a suicidal state—that Moses “sought to kill himself.” At the least, Moses is psychologically and physically paralyzed. It is Zipporah who must take the decisive action to circumcise her son. Moses is clearly in no condition at this moment to assume a leadership or any other role. To use a technical term, Moses is “toast.”

Hatan Damim is Moses’s “dark night of the soul”. It is like a classic “rite of passage” so common in literature. The hero must undergo a dangerous and challenging experience before undertaking the mission. Like Jacob at the Jabbok River, Moses must encounter God. If he is to undertake the redemption of the Israelites, he must first confront who he really is. The issue of identity is a crucial one in parshat Shemot. At the burning bush, Moses asks God to reveal his identity, and now Moses has to ask himself that same question. He must seek integration, to simultaneously hold the disparate and conflicting elements of his past.

Not only must Moses encounter the divine within himself, but he must seek to kill part of himself. He must abandon the Egyptian and the Midianite within himself in favor of the Hebrew. He must kill certain paralyzing mindsets, his feelings of fear and inadequacy that were so evident at the burning bush, before he can confront Pharaoh. He must kill the indecisive, untrusting side of himself if he hopes to be reborn as a leader, capable of pulling off the exodus miracle.

As my friend, Daniel Berlin, notes, psycho-spiritually, what is happening externally to Moses mirrors what is happening internally. The circumcision performed by Zipporah represents the cutting away of barriers between the divine and human, and establishing the most intimate possible connection with God. Perhaps it also represents Moses’s newfound connection with his people, the Israelites, their history and their destiny. And not only a connection with his people, but a connection with himself, with his own newfound identity as a Hebrew, as a leader, as an agent of God. When Zipporah circumcises her son, it represents a symbolic or vicarious circumcising of Moses.

Therefore, I believe that it was Moses’s genitals that she touched with the bloody foreskin to represent that circumcision. So Moses is now both connected with God by virtue of entering into this covenant, and a hatan in the sense of being protected by this ritual of blood. The external circumcision mirrors the inner connection and integration that Moses achieves through his night encounter with the divine at the encampment. What is clear is that Moses emerges from this encounter a changed man. Moses has come to grips with his identity and embraced his appointed role. When he meets Aaron in Egypt, Moses is focused and ready to roll.

So, may we, like Moses not be afraid to encounter the divine; to gain from that encounter a wholeness, an integration, a connection with God; and to make whatever transformation or transition, however painful, we need to make that will enable us to pursue and hopefully accomplish our life’s mission. And may we do so with the same focus and commitment as Moses.

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Kol Nidre Sermon: “The Whiskey Story”

The early mornings have become our time, though we approach them differently, each according to his station.  I usually wake just before dawn, to the sound of the roosters.  My mind is preoccupied with the need to arrange itself delicately around the barbs of painful thoughts, and a fitful yearning for more sleep.  But soon I hear him, in the next room.  He wakes, and instantly begins to speak, daybreak just an opportunity to resume the conversation he has begun with himself, and with the world.

I give him a few minutes, and then pull off the covers and go in to him.  I wish him a good morning, tie open the curtains and turn out the nightlight.  Then I lift him out of the crib and we pay a quick visit to the potty.  After that, it’s back to my bedroom, where I try to coax him to cuddle with me, though this is a hard sell.  He’d rather that I read him a book, or, even better, tell a story.

His favorites are mash-ups involving stuffed animal friends and characters from books and television, all brought together under his careful emotional editorializing.  Like the time when Sherman and Mr. Peabody (who are often ciphers for the two of us), Humpty-Dumpty and Chaim the Clown, took the Wayback machine to Treasure Island and met Long John Silver, who, it turned out, was a very nice pirate and liked to bake his friends special cakes on their birthdays.

But often the legend that he calls for is something rich and strange—a story he wants to hear again about me, before I was his father.  It might have come to mind because of the way we are lying so close together, intimately enough for my face to be an arena for the casual play of his fingers.

“Abba,” he says to me, “tell me the whiskey story.”

Though I have plenty of tales about what we call “yucky juice” at our place, having lived in Ireland, he means something else—a story I’ve told him many times before about the two scars on my lower lip.

I tell it to him again.

“This happened when abba was a boy,” I say, “but older than you are now.  I was with Boomba and Grandpa Steve.”  As I say this, I wonder if it puzzles him to hear the names of my parents linked, because he’s used to connecting them with other partners.  “It was Rosh Hashanah, and we were at our friends’ house for lunch.”  Now I think about how long it’s been since I’ve seen these friends, and that one of them, the one I loved most, is dead.  “They had a little dog.  He was a little light-brown Terrier, a cranky little dog. Do you remember what his name was?”

“Whiskey,” he says.

“That’s right,” I say.  “It was a dog named Whiskey.  Not the friendliest of dogs in any circumstance, and this time he was even crankier than usual, because he’d just had some kind of operation, and he was wearing a special white collar so he wouldn’t bite himself.  It was like this.”  I demonstrate the collar by holding out my open palms at angles beside my ears.

“Well,” I continue, “to tell you the truth, bud, abba wasn’t exactly being nice to Whiskey.  I wasn’t doing anything really mean, but just kind of playing around with him, and I don’t think he liked it.  I would pretend I had something in my hand and then make a fake throw and Whiskey would go running and try to look for it.  But it wasn’t really anything at all, just a fake thing I was pretending to hold in my hand.

“Between this and the collar he must have gotten into an even worse mood than usual, a really bad mood.  Well, anyhow.  It got time for us to leave, and we all got up from the table and starting walking toward the door, and I thought I would just bend down to pet Whiskey, to say goodbye.  And you know what Whiskey did?”

“What did he did?” he asks me.

I know that he knows, because I’ve told him before.  The first time I hesitated just a little bit, but, in the end, he seemed more fascinated than upset.

“You know what he did, buddy,” I tell him.  “He jumped right up and bit me.  He bit me right here and here on my lip.  He split my lip open.  Look, you can still see the scars.”

As he peers at my face, a fanciful image comes to mind, a metaphor for this conversation that we’re having.  He’s like a shepherd boy, grazing his flock on the ruins of an ancient battlefield.  It’s a mysterious landscape, and he doesn’t realize that the hills are really the slumped remains of fortifications, or that the grass is so green because it’s been watered with the blood of soldiers.  But the place is haunted by a ghost that knows the past, knows the history of its pockmarks and mutilations, and, sensing the boy’s innate curiosity, begins to move its mouth in the underbrush.  It is my voice, speaking to him, whispering old secrets of spear points and the rearing of horses.

“And there I was,” I tell him, “standing right there in the middle of the room, in front of everybody, with my lip split wide open and bleeding.  And everyone was saying, ‘What happened?  What happened?’  And I heard somebody, I don’t remember who it was, maybe Grandpa Steve or Uncle Isaac or Jay, say, ‘Whiskey bit Ben!’”

But there’s always a danger that the ghost will not be gentle.  Sometimes an old wound is still alive and pulsing.  Some old ground only speaks its truth to children through the explosion of a forgotten mine.

There’s another scar on my head that he can name without being prompted.  It’s a lot more obvious.  Out of nowhere, he will turn to me sometimes and announce, as if it is a fresh discovery: “Abba, you are a bald!”  He may have figured this out on his own through simple comparison, noting that of all the residents of our house, I was the only one that didn’t have any hair.  I taught him a different word for it, too, which he’s learned to speak perfectly, with his preternatural diction.  In another of our recurring conversations, when he phrases his insight in the form of the question, “Abba, why are you a bald?” and I respond, “Why am I a bald?” he can answer himself in a proud singsong: “Alopecia.”

At these moments, I have to come to terms with the fact that this beautiful little boy of mine, with his long eyelashes, is speaking a phrase I have been cringing from since I was six years old: you are bald.  All these years later there is still the faintest tinge of vulnerability, the legacy of taunts and pity, and beyond either of these the basic raw exposure of incontrovertible difference.  Somewhere deep in my brain battle-hardened neurons are firing.  Are we there again, they ask?  Is it time to raise the defenses?  To strike back with the old munitions: the hostility, the humor, the indifference?  And I must remind them: no, this is my son.  He wants a story from me like he wants me to feed him when he is hungry, and it’s on me to usher him with tenderness into the mystery of myself.

“What happened?” he asks me.

“They had to take me to the hospital,” I tell him, “but I didn’t get to ride in an ambulance, I don’t think.  I don’t really remember how I got there, probably Grandpa Steve drove me there in his car.  I got to sit in a special room, the emergency room, because I had to wait a little while for the doctor.  But I got to watch television, and that was fun.  It was high up on the wall.  And I held something over my lip, like paper.  It’s called gauze, and it soaks up all the blood.  My lip felt really strange, covered up with that gauze, and I wondered what it looked like, but I never looked in the mirror so I don’t really know.  But I did take the gauze off, just once, because I wanted to feel the air on my lip, and I wondered if it was split all the way through.  But I covered it up again, because there were other people waiting in the same room, and I didn’t think they would want to see it.”

I wonder how much of this he comprehends.  He’s never been to an emergency room, and I must be using words that he doesn’t know yet.  How strange this must be for him.  And maybe it is just a little too gruesome, after all.  The scar on my face and the dog that bit me.  The complexity of a world that has history in addition to shape; that reverberates with memory and implication, blood, pain, and danger.  Encountering, in the malleability of his childhood, the inveterate scars of the adult personality.  But he listens thoughtfully, and I keep talking, noticing how with each retelling new details emerge, while others disappear, as this tale of mine inches toward a final, satisfying form.

I wonder, too, if he knows what differentiates the two types of stories he keeps wanting to hear, over and over again—the essential distinction between Long John Silver and this light -brown little Terrier.  Only one of them can’t be made nice through a simple flick of the imagination.  Only one of them still stirs the trace of a nervous reaction in the pulse and breath of his father.  He is still too young to be deliberately cruel—he simply has a thirst for stories, and as his awakening mind pushes its way forward, with more curiosity than tact, it unwittingly hauls up against the weakness of his storyteller.  And I forgive him, as I hope I will also do in the future when his cruelty becomes more deliberate.  But even more, I thank him, because when he stumbles on something painful in the landscape of my soul it is my opportunity to be tender from a place of hurt, which feels like a healing.

Because what can an old ghost possibly want except to tell its story and be known?

“And then the doctor came in,” I tell him.  “Do you remember what the doctor did?”

“What did he did?”

Ata vokhen kelayot v’lev, we say in the prayers of Yom Kippur.  You, oh God, probe our innermost being, our heart and our kidneys, the dark mysteries of the body, and in this awesome vision give us opportunity to repent and become something new.  But it’s really nothing so grand, this miraculous force.  It’s a stumbling innocent, a little shepherd boy in pajamas inviting us to retell the story of a wound.

“He took this special black thread, it looked like it was thin black plastic, or something, and he stitched me right up with a needle, like he was sewing.”  I pantomime a run of stiches across my lip, and then across his lip, as well.  “And when I went back to my new school that I had just started, with my black stiches and my story about how the dog bit me, they all thought I was really tough.  But really I wasn’t.  And then they came out.  And then I had a scar.  And here I am!

“And that’s the whiskey story, little man.”

He is quiet for a moment, and then he says, “Tell it again.”

“That’s enough for now,” I say, and I take him up in my arms.  “Let’s go and greet the day.”



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Rosh Hashanah Day One 5776/2015: The Honey Sermon

Of all the animals on my farm, only the bees cannot truly be called domesticated.  I don’t have to wear a protective suit when I milk the goats, or puff smoke at the chickens when I take eggs from the coop, but the bees are a different story.  They are resident wild creatures, and must be approached with a proper degree of respect and preparation.  Actually, when I first started beekeeping, I thought the garb–a white jacket with sleeves that Velcro-seal tightly at the wrist and a zippered hood with a mesh faceguard—would render me impervious, like a suit of armor.  It wouldn’t matter how gentle or subtle my technique, what kind of day it was, what mood they were in—I could pull out frames covered in clumped masses and brush them cavalierly aside, unconcerned by the obvious change in tone from buzz to scream.  And then, to my surprise…the sudden stick through my pant legs, through the double layer of cloth around my forearms, the barb and the throb of venom entering skin.

On a perfect day, I hop the fence into the goat pasture, where the three tall stacks of white boxes, the hives, are resting on piles of old wooden pallets.  I can see bees coming and going from the entry slots, flying out to forage on the goldenrod, the stand of buckwheat now flowering as a cover crop on the dugout potato beds, the last yellow cucumber flowers on the scraggly vines in the kitchen garden.  When I meet them out in the world they are indifferent to me.  I can even sit sometimes on an extra pallet beside the hives, unprotected, peering closely at the landing board as they return with hind legs caked in pollen.  But today I mean business.  My jacket is on, though I have not yet secured the zipper or tightened the wrist straps, or pulled on the rough canvas gloves, with sleeves that ride almost to the elbow, which lie in the cardboard box I carry, beside scraps of newspaper, a box of matches, and handfuls of dry straw.

The smoker billows like an incense offering.  Straw smothers the flames kindled at the bottom of the cylinder, and then receives their embers with each press of the bellows, sending gusts of thick white smoke through the spigot at the top.  It took several matches to light, in this breeze, and if I am out here long I will have to pause the operation and replenish the straw.  I hope it does not run out in some moment of need.  My hood is on now, and carefully zipped.  My skin is tingling with nervous anticipation.  Sometimes a slight brush of my ankle against a stalk of grass can make me jump though, in general, I have learned to breathe deeply and move slowly.

The box is heavy.  It must be almost full, which can mean over two and a half gallons that I will extract in the house after the last lingerers have been brushed away.  The frames are a human contrivance, even and rectangular, but often the bees will construct scurs of meandering comb, jutting away wildly from the line of the wood.  As I work one of these off it ruptures, smearing its contents against the flat end of my hive tool.  I pause in my work and raise it to eye level.  As the bees swirl around me, I stand contemplating the glistening amber of what, if I were to unzip my hood, remove a glove, and run a finger down the length of the metal, could be my first taste of autumn honey.


At his bar mitzvah this past summer, one of our young people spoke about how much he appreciated Judaism, because, he said, “every holiday is really just an excuse to eat food.”  He wasn’t wrong.  You’ve probably heard the old chestnut: all Jewish holidays can be explained with the formula, “They tried to kill us.  They failed.  Let’s eat.”  Even the big fast day coming up in about a week is bounded on either side by special meals.  Setting aside the prayers, ceremonies, and Torah readings, food itself is a cultural language, carrying something of the significance we seek to approach through our observances.

I consider some of our food practices to be strictly culinary, relating to dishes often served in conjunction with festivals, whether for reasons of seasonal availability, or familial and ethnic custom.  As a son of Ashkenaz, I think of brisket, tsimis, gefilte fish, chicken soup, though as a vegetarian Reconstructionist I’m learning to add quinoa and tofu to the list.  These are manifestations of folk tradition, kitchen Judaism, historically women’s Judaism, distinct from the dictates of mandated religious practice, though harmonious with them.

Another category, we might label sacramental foods—moments in our holiday cycle at which we are instructed to eat specific things as a mitzvah, a religious obligation.  Challah and Kiddush wine might fit the bill, but the real champion of this class is Passover, with its matzah, bitter herb, haroset, parsley, and salt water.  Halakha, Jewish law, tells us these are to be held on the palate, chewed, and swallowed not simply for savor, but so that a sacred essence, the journey from slavery to freedom, might penetrate our consciousness on a bodily level.  It’s kind of like communion, l’havdil, except we are not eating god—we’re tasting meaning.

Rosh Hashanah, in particular, introduces a third, intermediate category to the conversation, a blend of cuisine and sacrament, that I will call “auspicious food”—the notion that it might be mysteriously beneficial to eat certain things at this time.  The tradition is traced back to tractate Keritot of the Babylonian Talmud.  In the midst of a wide-ranging discussion of omens and portents, Rabbi Abbaye says to his associates: “Since you hold that signs are meaningful, here’s what I say to you.  Everyone should make it a habit to eat these things on Rosh Hashanah—squash, fenugreek, leeks, beets, and dates.”

Later commentators elaborate the meaning of Abbaye’s cryptic prescription.  He is making a series of puns, based on the names of these fruits and vegetables in Aramaic.  Squash is k’rah, which can also mean to call out or tear up.  As we prepare to eat it, we are instructed to proclaim, “Yehi ratzon, may it be your will, Oh God, that our merits be called out, and all harsh decrees against us torn up!”  Fenugreek, a savory annual indigenous to the Middle East, is rubia, which sounds like rov or lirbot—to increase.  “Yehi ratzon, may it be your will that our wealth and our merits increase!”  The remainder refer not to what we hope for ourselves, but rather what we wish upon others, particularly people we don’t like.  Leeks are karsi, linked to karet, cut off: may our enemies be cut off!  Beets are silka, like siluk or “removal”—may our adversaries be removed!  Dates, tamri, are connected to a word meaning consume or finish—yehi ratson, may it be your will that our enemies be finished!

After these details are explained, a basic problem still remains: what does Abbaye mean by all of this?  Is he having some light-hearted fun at the expense of more superstitious colleagues, or does he believe himself that the practices he describes have some efficacy, and if so of what kind?  Normative tradition teaches that only three things—repentance, prayer, and tzedaka—each of them intrinsic to what we might call moral or spiritual character, can influence the judgment of God, but here we are given the recipe for a kind of edible Plan B, a salad bar of sympathetic magic.

Before rushing to judgment, however, remember that we still do this ourselves, not necessarily with the original Talmudic inventory, but with the most popular of the later day auspicious food traditions that emerged in its wake.  We still feel that Rosh Hashanah is the right time to lift a special food to our lips and recite a yehi ratzon: May it be your will, Oh God, that you renew us for a year that is as good and as sweet as… honey.  The significant difference, however, is that the benefit we seek to derive from this act is not based on a quasi-mystical play of words, but a sensual experience. We are not casting a spell, but willing the sensation of honey on the tongue to transmit itself by association into a quality that will imbue our year, something that we call “sweetness.”


I find “sweet” to be a cloying word, overused and trite, especially in a society so ingenious in its creation of artificial sweeteners.  The Hebrew is matok, a sound that on its own exercises the throat and plays across the palate, unlike the English term, which remains at the gateway of the mouth on a narrow vowel.  We find it in the Bible in some evocative places, as a property of eros and revelation.  “I sat down under his shadow with great delight,” sings the poet of Shir HaShirim, “and his fruit was sweet to my taste.”  When God presents a message to the prophet Ezekiel, in the form of a scroll to be eaten, the prophet says, “Then I did eat it, and it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness.”

As we see in this verse, d’vash, honey, is often close to matok, sweet, in biblical phraseology, although the most famous deployment of the word d’vash in the Torah is probably misleading.  Scholars suggest that the expression eretz zavat chalav u’devash, “a land flowing with milk and honey”, is not actually referring to the product of bees but to a sweet paste made by pressing dates, analogous to olive oil; that is, a refined, agricultural substance.

The bible does know about bees, however, and when they make an appearance it is usually in a context that is decidedly unrefined, even bordering on savage.  “All the nations surrounded me,” the psalmist writes, “they surrounded me on every side.  They swarmed around me like bees.”  Samson, the wildman of the book of Judges slew a lion on his way to woo a woman, and when he came back along the same route, “he turned aside to see the carcass of the lion; and behold, there was a swarm of bees and honey in the carcass of the lion.”  In the book of Samuel, the starving army of Saul is wandering the countryside, when they come to a woodland.  “The honey dropped,” we read, “and Jonathan [the son of Saul] put forth the end of the rod that was in his hand and dipped it in a honeycomb, and put his hand to his mouth; and his eyes were enlightened.”

I question whether we really taste this mitikut, this primal sweetness—erotic, revelatory, dangerous, and raw, in the pale, ultra-pasteurized liquid squirted out of the nozzle-cap of a plastic bear.  While debates rage as to how healthy honey really is for us, there is no doubt that it is an ancient and remarkable fluid, a viscous cordial refined in the body of the bee itself from the effluvia of the living landscape—in the same abdomen that will rip itself apart to plant a poisoned barb in the skin of a thief.

Though now a poster child for our horrible tide of extinction, bees have been part of the human story since before time.  The Hazda, one of the last surviving hunter-gatherer cultures, still list honey as their favorite food, and it is mesmerizing to imagine our own primeval ancestors, their taste buds evolved to savor the rich sweetness of roasting fat, stumbling upon this unanticipated wonder, a humming labyrinth, a guarded wax palace sprouting in the cavities and crevices of the body of the world that, when cracked open, oozed with the nectar of the gods.


When I’m done, I place the smoker on the bricks of the front walkway, while it billows out the remainder of its contents.  A breeze carries the scent through the screen door, blending it with the musk of the hive box, now resting on the kitchen counter, and together they strike my nostrils with an aroma I associate with satisfaction.

I am preparing to extract.  The thin layer of capping wax must be shaved off both sides of each frame with a long, serrated knife, and then it will be placed in the basket of a centrifuge, and spun with a handcrank till the honey splatters out against the side walls and drips down to form a pool at the bottom.  Thick late season honey can take hours to pour through the filter, which removes the residue of wax and occasional dead bees, but the yield is an embarrassment of riches: an array of mason jars that gleam a deep gold when the light passes through them, and sticky fingers.

Sometimes a stray bee will follow me back from the hive, whining and thrusting in frustration, though this has never resulted in a sting.  A book I read suggested that, in the old days, the people of a particular village in Cypress knew to bar their windows for three days when the keepers went out to take honey.  The same author suggested it was a mistake to overly prize docility in bees; that we should learn to cope with their aggression because it was a life force that would enable them to survive in the world we had made.  She also said we shouldn’t be so glib with the word “sweet”, because real, raw honey had spice.  You would know its quality if it burned your throat a little going down, a venom of delight.


Soon we will take the little yellow apples from the tree out by the wood line, only a little bigger than crab apples, and slice them into quarters.  We will arrange them around the edges of the plate, and in the center will be the well, with its grooved wooden rod that will drizzle out our culinary sacrament.  Yehi ratzon, we will pray.  May it be your will, Oh God, at this auspicious time when I place upon my tongue what I would like to savor in the year to come, that I taste this honey and remember that your world is ancient, tenuous, wild, fiery, and sweet.





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Rosh Hashanah Day Two, 5775/2014

Rosh Hashanah Day Two 5775


Rabbi Benjamin Weiner

This story is based on Genesis Chapter 22:



Vayehi ahar had’varim ha’eleh…

(Genesis 22:1)

And it was after these things that Efraim woke up from his nap one Sunday afternoon.  I heard his voice through the monitor on the table, by the stove, where I was eating a late lunch, having just come in from the field.  And I thought: here I am, with two cherry trees still to plant this afternoon.  Elise is working in Springfield, and the voice of my son, my only son, whom I love, is calling to me.  I’ll have to go up and get him, and take him with me out into the field.

As I climbed the stairs, nearing the door of his room, I could hear him chattering to himself, without making out any particular words, but only the light singsong of his voice.  He was waking up sweetly.  When I poked my head through the doorway, hesitantly, so as not to startle him, he said, “Abba,” and greeted me with a coy smile.

With the shades drawn, his room was dark.  The north side of the house can be cool and night-like even when the sun is up in the sky.  Our second floor is cosmetically unfinished, but this one little room was redone—new sheetrock walls and ceiling, new paint and a large area rug—in the summer we were expecting him.  We salvaged most of the furniture—a crib and changing table, shelves now holding a growing library of board and picture books, a rocking chair in the corner where Elise nurses him in the morning and at night.  I sometimes sit there and rock him to sleep myself, singing Hank Williams ballads, finding the melancholy wail of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” to be a good lullaby.

A couple of small, framed photographs hang on the wall, of Elise as a little girl with her father.  They’re laughing in one, his arm around here as they lie back against a pillow.  In the other, he fixes her with a stern look of concentration as she practices the violin.  Above the rocking chair is a strange drawing my grandmother gave us, a page from an old-fashioned fairy tale about a woman who takes refuge in a secluded village from the giant who slew her family, where she lives off the produce of a small vegetable garden, which the picture shows her cultivating.  On either side of the room are images of Noah’s Ark, the one a painting behind glass in a green, wooden frame, and the other a cloth wall-hanging with many pockets, each holding a pair of little stuffed animals.  The room itself is a kind of ark, or refuge, a-hundred-and-fifty square feet set apart from the rest of the world, where a one-year-old child sleeps, and, on waking alone, is sheltered through his first moments of unguarded consciousness.

As I bent over the rail of the crib to lift him up, he pulled away from me, with a look of concern, and nestled back among his stuffed animals.

“What’s wrong, buddy?” I said.  “You wanna stay in the crib?”

“Imma coming?” he asked.

“Sorry, bud,” I said.  “Imma’s at work.  Abba’s here.”

He started to cry, sad shock puckering his face as the tears began to flow.

“It’s okay, bubby.  Abba’s here.  We’re gonna have fun.  We’re gonna go outside and plant a tree.  Two trees.”

“Imma coming,” he sobbed.

At these moments, in particular, he seems to shy away from me, as if the transition from crib to father is too abrupt, and he needs first the redolence of the body he knew from the inside, that knew him from the moment of conception, that has always fed him from itself; the warmth of the womb and the breast.  Abba is a world beyond, and that isn’t as safe.

I reached over the rail and lifted him up, a stuffed sheep still clenched in his right fist.  His onesy was damp on the left side of his body, from the hip up past his belly.

“Pup, we have to change your diaper,” I said, and laid him down on the changing table.  It didn’t take much to make him smile—a few silly faces, a nibble on the nose, puffing up my cheeks and letting him push the air out as I made a raspberry.  Laughter overtaking tears like the sun shining through a light shower, as immediate and genuine as his crying–animating the delicate bones of his naked little body like the breathing of a bird.  When he was changed, I put another onesy on him, and then dressed him in a pair of jeans and a warm long-sleeve shirt.

“Let’s get you some milk, bud,” I said, “and then we’re gonna go outside, while the sun’s still shining.”

“Outside,” he echoed.



It was mid-afternoon of an early spring day, the sky a chalky blue and the land still bearing an impression of the snowpack of winter, tamped down and drained of color.  Winter had been cold, a compelling portrayal of an old New England winter if you didn’t know the backstory—high pressure from the warming arctic shearing off a vortex of polar air and sending it south to freeze eastern North America, while temperatures in the rest of the hemisphere remained unusually high.  Still, I cherished the sights and the sensations, a lover of cold, of coming in with wind-reddened face to sit by the fire with some whiskey in my tea; of watching the snow fall steadily through the window, in the glare of the streetlight, and the hush and muffle it imposed on the state highway that runs past our front door.  But the adult mind, if it pays any attention, is always doing its dance between what is, was, and will be, between here and elsewhere.

Efraim stood still, where I had set him down on the front walkway.  Since he was a little baby, and I would carry him out to the porch in my arms, it has been possible to discern in him a different kind of attentiveness when he is outside, his ears perking to the rush of wind or the sound of a car whipping by on the road, his eyes widening.  He is a device for registering sensations that has not yet calibrated to a steady pattern, and so remains on alert, soft and curious, pliable.  He took a few steps, and stopped again.

“Moon?” he asked.  “Moon?”

I showed him the moon, hanging over the spindly white birch tree in the late day sky, on the wan from Passover, getting ready to preside over the evening.

“Moon,” he said, and stood looking at it while I walked toward the barn, and the tub of water where I was soaking the root balls of the trees.  Lowering his eyes, a moment later, he noticed I was no longer beside him, though only a few feet away, and he called out, “Abba.”

“Here I am, buddy,” I said, “Just over here.  Getting the trees ready.  You wanna come help abba plant the cherry trees?”

He hesitated, and I felt a slight twinge of impatience.

“Come on, buddy.  We’ve got to get this done before dark.  Can you walk over to, abba?”

He took a few steps and stopped again.

“Should I come get you?” I asked.

“Come get you,” he repeated.  I walked over and hoisted him up into my arms.

“Let’s go get the wagon,” I said.  “You wanna ride in the wagon?”

He brightened.  “Ride in the wagon.”

Leaving the trees soaking beside the barn, I carried him past the coop, where the chickens were scratching in the yard at the bare earth, and the kitchen garden still covered in its winter mulch of straw and leaves, toward the dilapidated greenhouse that I use as a storage shed for planks and fencing, and other useful things.  The wagon has two large rubber-tired wheels and a wide and deep carriage made of particleboard, with a sturdy aluminum pull-bar that sticks out a few feet from its body.  It was an investment I made after a couple of seasons taught me a simple plastic wheelbarrow would not suffice for carting out the mucky straw from stalls, or ferrying the implements and materials of planting back and forth from the deep reaches of the field.

Efraim was eager to ride in it.  I could feel the enthusiastic contraction of his body as we drew near, almost leaping out of my arms as I placed him down on the platform of the cart.

“Ride it,” he said.

“Okay, bud, sit down and we’ll go for a ride,” I told him.

He sat.  I grasped the pull bar and angled the cart upwards.  But I hadn’t counted on the reaction of his body to the angle of the cart.  He couldn’t balance against the steepness.  He was sitting in the middle of the cart, a considerable gap between his body and the backend, and when I tilted it up, he fell backwards, knocking his head against the platform.  He started to cry.

“Oh, sweetie,” I said, “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean it.”  I lifted him up.  He put his arms around my neck, and cried against my collarbone.  I could feel no anger in him, only startled confusion, and maybe a little pain.

“Kiss it,” he cried out, through his tears.  I kissed the back of his head, and he settled down.

“You wanna try again?” I asked him.

“Again,” he said.

“You’re my brave little boy,” I told him, and placed him back in the wagon, with his shoulders flush against the backend.

“Here we go,” I said.  There was a flicker of fear in his eyes as the wagon jolted upwards, but his body braced, and rested securely as I pulled him across the yard to the barn.  There, I took him out for a few minutes, as I loaded in the saplings, along with a plastic bucket of composted manure and another, covered tightly, full of water from the rain barrel.  Then I snugged Efraim back into the wagon, between the buckets, laid the shovel across his lap, and pulled him out to the field.


It’s been my experience that as soon as you become a landowner, you want more land. On the first day I walked this property, I was elated by how long it took me to stroll from the side door of the house, through the field, and out to the narrow creek just past the edge of the wood line.  It was such a large and varied space, and it was all at my disposal.  Every time I’ve walked it since, I’ve been surprised by how quickly I got where I was going.

But pulling a loaded cart made the journey seem longer.  As the wheels jiggled over the stubble and the uneven ground, the buckets shifted, and the slender trunks of the saplings, dangling over the edge of the wagon, rattled their few leaves.  I stopped every few paces, to turn and see how Efraim was doing.  There was no particular expression on his face, but neither was it vacant.  He seemed to be absorbed in the sensation of riding on the wagon, the noise and the strange rhythm of its movement.

“You okay, buddy?” I called back.  He didn’t answer.

The pasture fence was to our left.  Since the snow had melted, we’d been letting the goats back out.  There was nothing green for them to eat yet, but they had been stuck in the barn for months, and it had taken a toll.  My white Nigerian Dwarf, Buttercup, the first goat I ever bought, had miscarried in early February, probably because the larger does were bullying her.  She took to crawling under the feeder for safety, and I didn’t notice how thin she had become till it was too late.  I bundled her up, and carried her through the snow to the comfort of my workroom, pushed a warm concoction of honey-barley water down her parched throat, even set up a saline drip the vet had suggested as a last ditch remedy.  But she moaned once, and died before my eyes.

The other goats, attracted by our passage, came running over, thinking we had something to feed them.  Efraim couldn’t see over the edge of the wagon, so I stopped it again, careful to angle the trees so the goats couldn’t nibble at them, and lifted him out to say hello.  He was delighted, and when I set him down on the ground he reached his fingers through the fence to pet their noses, and called to them by name.

“Careful they don’t bite your fingers, bub,” I said to him.

As he played, I lifted up my eyes, and looked out to the back of the field, which had been tilled a few days earlier for our first planting.   Already, I had scattered a good amount of barley, and put in a few rows of potatoes, but still, from this vantage, the ground seemed only raw and exposed.   One of my teachers said that naked dirt is a wound on the body of the earth, but it seemed also like a blank canvas, beckoning the human imagination to impose its taste for geometry and symmetry, contrast and variety.  I remembered the winter yearning for planting season—a desire to begin marking my beds and gardens, bringing out the transplants, digging furrows, hilling the corn and squash, setting stakes for the pole beans.   This was the moment of highest fantasy, before the season had taught me its lessons: before the turkeys had come out of the woods or the groundhog from its burrow; before the voles had dug their way down to the sweet potato roots, or the weeds risen to choke the barley.  Before reality had shown me that the nourishment of my body would be meager compared to the feast of my imagination.

Efraim was still playing with the goats.  I looked past him, toward the pasture and the giant butternut tree standing in the midst of it.  Everyone who comes here remarks on that tree.  It’s so thick in the trunk that it seems like two trees joined together.  Its branches, almost trunks themselves, jut out at wild angles, spreading broadly across the pasture, and pushing high into the air.  It was still naked, but in previous summers it had grown lush with thick leaves, and set clusters of nuts that dropped heavily as fall came on.  I gathered many bucketsful, from where they had fallen into the undergrowth, feeling out the hard oval shapes with my feet when I couldn’t spot them with my eyes.  Many were left behind, some even finding their way underground and shooting up saplings in the spring.

The old man across the street, a friend of mine, used to live on this land.  He told me that his grandfather planted the tree.  I thought of the legend of the old man planting a carob tree he will never eat from, because he wanted to feed his grandchildren.  A beautiful, uncertain dream.  I looked at the saplings I had loaded into the wagon beside my son, and thought about how there have been mornings when I hesitate to go to him, because I can’t bear the light of his innocence in the heaviness of my knowing.

“Come on, bud,” I said.  “Let’s go.”


I bit into the earth with my shovel, and then drove it downward with the force of my boots.  The soil here, toward the back of the field, by the southern fence line, was heavy and still a bit cold.  I wasn’t sure it was suitable for the cherry saplings, but thought I would just plant them and see what happened.  In my mind’s eye, I could envision a row of fruit trees, spreading up above the dead wooden posts, following the lines of wire that were strung between them.

I had pulled the cart across the remnants of last year’s growth, jostling over ruts and hillocks, until we arrived at this place.  The house was at a distance, and the rush of traffic was fainter to the ear.  I had asked Efraim if he wanted to come plant the trees with me, but he chose to stay in the wagon, a few feet away.  As I worked, digging two holes at a distance of several yards, and mixing in compost to fertilize the soil, I kept casting my glance back toward him.

He was playing in and out of the wagon. He would crawl to the end of the carriage, and then slowly work his way over the edge until his feet touched the ground, walk a few steps within the embrace of the metal pull-bar, and then work his way back up.  I don’t think I had ever seen him do something so deliberate.  A child you see every day doesn’t change at all, but then one day he’s no longer a lump of infant crying on the hospital scale, but a toddler climbing in and out of a wagon, of his own volition.

And I thought: the day before he was born, someone said to me, “This is the last day of your life as you know it.”  But it wasn’t like that at all.  I never felt any wrenching change, more as if someone had installed a new magnetic pole inside of me, and slowly, day-by-day, my entire being reoriented toward a different north.

He grew tired of his game, after a while, and called out to me.  I came over and picked him up, and brought him to where I was working.

“Come on, buddy,” I said, “do you want to help abba plant the tree?”

I picked up one of the saplings and laid its roots down in the hole.  Then I back-filled from the pile of dirt I had shoveled out, and started to pat it down with my hands.

“Help abba pat the dirt,” I said.

“Pat the dirt.”

We sat there together with our hands in the dirt, he patting lightly and ineffectually with his little palms, and I pounding away with my fist to work out the air pockets.  I got up to go set in the other tree, but he stayed where he was, and began to play with a dry stalk of last year’s foxtail grass.  As I was finishing the work, he came over to me with the stalk in his hand. It had snapped in the middle, and one piece was dangling from the other.

“Fix it?” he asked me.

I took the stalk in my hand.

“Buddy,” I said, “I can’t fix this.  It’s broken.”

“Fix it?” he asked me again, and his voice seemed a little more urgent.

This is it, I thought.  How do you explain to a child that you’ve bound him to the altar of a world of things you can’t fix?  I fiddled the stalk in my hand, and pretended to make an effort to fix it, or maybe I wasn’t pretending.

“Fix it,” he was whimpering a little now.

“Efraim,” I said, and I hoped I could comfort him with the sound of my voice, even though I knew he wouldn’t understand what I was saying.  “There are just some things in life your abba can’t fix.  I love you.  I’m doing my best.”

I handed it back to him.  I went over to the wagon, lifted off the bucket of water, and poured half of its contents around the base of each sapling.  He was still staring at me, with the broken stalk in his hand, but he wasn’t crying.

“Look what we did, buddy,” I said.  “We planted these trees.”

I lifted him up, and brought him close, so he could play his hand through the sparse leaves.  The frail stem of trunk was sticking out askew from the ground, but I hoped it would straighten when the roots took hold.  And I thought: what is it, to plant a tree in this world?  A plea.  A prayer.  A self-delusion.  An offering.  A promise to my son that I’m always listening for the voice of the angel, even if I can’t always hear it.

“Come on, buddy,” I said.  “It’s getting late.  Let’s go back in.”

I loaded his body, brimming with life, back into the wagon.  As we set off for the journey home, I looked up and saw the broad, old, naked limbs spreading their shadow across the pasture.  “God willing,” I said, “we’re gonna gather a lot of butternuts this fall.  And we’ll roast them on the stove in winter.”









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Robert Friedman’s Mishpatim d’var Torah, in honor of Gale Friedman z”l

Here is the d’var Torah that Robbie Friedman offered this past Shabbat, to mark six months since the passing of his mother, Gale Friedman, of blessed memory.

D’var on Mishpatim by Robert Friedman | February 14, 2015

In honor of the six‐month yahrzeit of my mother, Gale Lee Friedman (Chasha Leah bat Eliahu)

Part One: Human Interaction

When I was six, I was playing outside my elementary school in Texas. I was in
kindergarten and it was recess. Working up a hardy sweat, I headed over to the outdoor
water fountains nearby the playground. I stood there for a few moments in line patiently
waiting for my turn.

Then, suddenly, another kid came along and cut right in front of me. I couldn’t believe it,such absolutely unacceptable behavior. Without thinking, I did what any sensible six-year old kid would do, and pushed him out of the way. The line for the water fountain had purpose; it provided a system of respect and order for thirsty kids everywhere. Without water fountain lines, what kind of chaotic world would this be?

Despite my defense for worldly order, the next thing I know I was being pulled from the
line by my teacher. She instructed me to sit on the bench near the other teachers.
Apparently, she saw me push this kid and now I was being punished.

I sat there distressed on the bench until my frustration got the best of me. Slowly, in
retaliation, I began unfolding the tall middle finger of right hand, and ever so discreetly, I
began pointing it towards the teacher who was punishing me. I thought my action was
subtle and quite inconspicuous — but apparently not. Another teacher noticed my impolite
gesticulation. Before I knew it, I was being escorted inside the school building and into the
principal’s office. I was soon picked up from there by my not-so-pleased mother.

Part Two: Being Free

Mishpatim, rules – that is our Torah portion this week. V’eleh ha-mishpatim asher tasim
leefnehem – the opening line – “And these are the rules you shall set before them.”
HaShem is speaking to Moses, who will speak to the Israelite people.

From the first sound of the first word of this first line, we find a contraction as poetic as it
is plain – “v’ ” – “and” – “v’eleh ha-mishpatim” – “And these are the rules…” We are to
assume that the beginning of this story falls somewhere in the middle of another one. The
ten holy utterances or commandments that we received last week at Sanai, in the pivotal
and revelatory parsha Yitro, are the ageless bedrock from which we are now stepping onto
the next layer of our formation, Mishpatim.

“V’ ” – “and.” And these are the rules. The pause between these two parshot is but a single
human breath.

We enter Mishpatim engulfed by the visceral fear of dying, the alarming sense of being
alive and free. We are standing at Mount Sanai, back and at distance, having just seen the
thunder and heard the lightening – the almighty smoke that was and is and always will be
HaShem swaddling Moses into Her great white bosom. At this moment, our faith in
HaShem is clear and full. We stand as a people open and ready to receive.

Why did we wait until after the third new moon since our freedom from Egypt to enter the
land of Sanai? Why did HaShem wait three months to begin to hand us the mitzvot for
living together as a free people in holiness? Why was it not like a surprise party, where upon leaving Mitzrahim we immediately opened the doors at Sanai to find HaShem, hiding atop the mountain peak, yelling, “SURPRISE! Happy Commandments!”?

Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev commented: “Had Israel received the Torah immediately after
the Exodus and the parting of the sea, it would have seemed that they accepted it out of
gratitude for the miracles God had wrought for them. Instead, God waited until the effect
of the miracles had worn off and they began to complain. Then their acceptance of the
Torah was a completely voluntary act of commitment.”

We were given time to adjust, to receive. The reality of existing outside Mitzrayim was
beginning to settle in. We were ready to receive our greatest gift – not freedom, but the
framework for a freedom worth living.

The Torah shifts in tone with Mishpatim. One commentary notes: “…up to this point, the
Torah has been a narrative, with occasional references to laws such as those regarding
circumcision and pesach. Now, the emphasis is reversed. From here on, the Torah will
present the rules by which the Israelites are to live, with occasional narrative breaks.”
With this shift, we enter Mishpatim, also known as Seifer HaBrit, Book of the Covenant. It
is said to be divided into four parts: the first three dealing with different areas of law: civil
and criminal, moral and humanitarian, religious and spiritual. The fourth section
culminates in a spiritual ratification of the laws for living.

On the surface these rules seem strange, specific, severe, and outdated. However, we must
consider the context. Many of these laws resemble those of other Near Eastern laws from this era. And rules must reflect the times. Second, as a free people, we needed, as one
teacher puts it, rules that get at the “nitty-gritty of daily life, the laws of slave and
slaveholder, the details of petty feuds, of accidental death and injury, of the goring ox, the
fires in the vineyard, and the thief in the night.”

That teacher, Dr. Barry Holtz of the Jewish Theological Seminary, argues how this parsha
is actually less about rules and regulations than it is about stories and narrative. That “If
ever there was a proof for the necessity of the Oral Torah, it lies in this week’s portion….
Things are not so clear here after all.”

For example, Exodus, Chapter 21, verse 12: “If you kill someone, you will be put to death.”

That is clear. Next verse, I paraphrase, “But if you did not mean to do it, then we’ll find
somewhere for you to hide out.”

But what if no one dies? What if two people fight and one of them hits the other one really
hard and he is in the hospital for several weeks? And after some time the guy in the
hospital is able to finally walk again. Well, says verse 18, the striker is not punished but
must pay for the victim’s “idleness and cure.” If that doesn’t sound like a ripe legal court
case in the making, I don’t know what does.

Or have you heard the one about the ox? If you own an ox and it gores me, for example,
well then that ox has got to go. But if it turns out that wasn’t the first time that your ox
gored someone, well, then your repeated negligence makes you equally responsible. Now
you and your ox have got to go.

These narrative vignettes comprise Mishpatim, the Book of the Covenant. We learn that
daily life is complex and intertwined with the actions of not just the natural and spiritual
world, but the human world. Having friends, families, neighbors, business partners, and
community is tough and requires an understanding of responsibility and accountability. It
requires layers and levels of compassion as it does consequence. It requires clear
reminders about how to care for each other and those less fortunate than us. Any of us
could be widows, any of us could have been orphans, any of us could one day be in need of
food or help, any of us could forget to slow down, relax, and refresh our bodies and minds.
Mishpatim defines the obvious, the mundane, and the holy. It defines how to live our days
justly and how to make-up for it when we don’t. Mishpatim is about living and interacting,
working and praying. It’s about being free each day. It’s about being alive.

Part Three: Standing at the Foot

This week marks six months since my mother passed away. It was the 16th day of August,
the 20th day in the Hebrew month of Av. It was Shabbes, the day of eternal rest. It was her
45th wedding anniversary to my father. It was also a week before she would turn 66.
We were home at her apartment in Dallas. A few years back, my parents sold the home in
which I grew up. They moved from Dallas to Houston for a few years, during which my
mother became sick, and then they moved back to Dallas a few months before she passed.

On that Shabbes day my whole family was present. Me, my two older brothers, our three
wives, five grandchildren, and two great-grandparents, who are my mother’s still living

At times during those last few days the juxtaposition of little kids running around as my
mother lay increasingly still in her bed seemed too much to me. But my father would not
have had it any other way – the kids, the noise, the laughter — and my mother undoubtedly would have agreed.

The night before that day was incredibly touching and sacred. It was like the many Friday
nights throughout my youth. Friday night Shabbat blessings led by mom. That night we
gathered in her bedroom across four generations, reciting and singing the blessings over
candles, wine, and challah.

My mother, who hadn’t eaten much for nearly six months by that point, was certainly not
consuming much in those last few days. But that Shabbes night, much to all of our
surprise, a bite of challah and a sip of wine passed through her chapped white lips.
I remember thinking in those last few days how remarkable it was that the pace of dying
accelerated so dramatically. My mother had been diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer
about three years before then.

She had trudged through intensive surgery and various rounds of chemotherapy and
radiation. Through it all, and through her pain, she kept looking forward, she kept
laughing at her three sons’ crude senses of humor. (My oldest brother Josh, for example, who always joked with her that I was her favorite son, brought to her the framed wedding photo that she kept in her apartment of me and Shema as she recovered in the hospital after surgery. If nothing else, surely that photo would cheer her up, he joked. And it did.)

By that Shabbes night the decades of her life no longer contained the potential for years or
months, those had quickly transformed into weeks and days and now hours. By that night,
each breath she took was distinct, an intimate, uneasy dance with God. Slow inhalation –
pause – slow exhalation – pause.

When she passed the next day, I stood there with my father and two older brothers,
somehow stunned, in awe, that her fate at last came true. Her chest no longer fell. Her
breath in endless pause. I lightly closed her eyes with my hand and gently kissed her
forehead goodnight.

It is fitting for me to recall my mother this week during a Torah portion dealing with
“rules.” Her rules stemmed from a few of her own clear absolutes: love family, work for
community, love Israel. Like many of our mothers, she did not have a rule book she would
refer to when one of her children acted out. Her law was clear and unwavering. It was
voiced passionately when it was tested; and carried consequence when it needed to. She
had my grandfather’s fiery temperament and my grandmother’s stubborness.

Part Four: Inside the Cloud

At the end of Mishpatim, Moses ascends the mountain to receive the inscribed words of
Torah. The people stand below and wait. And Moshe steps inside the cloud where he
remains on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.

What it must have been like for Moses inside that cloud! Such a direct, personal, and holy
encounter. What must it have been like for Moses to be embraced so passionately and
intimately by the all-powerful and all-giving Shechinah?

Moshe is held in the strength of HaShem’s arms, pressed against Her beating heart. And
through this timeless embrace the Book of the Covenant is transcribed for generations to

I have thought more about my mother in the past six months than I may ever have. She is
with me as I stroll down the street at night pushing the granddaughter whom she adored
and loved. Our daughter, Matanyah, was an extraordinary surprise in a family where three
dapper sons had thus far yielded four handsomer grandsons.

I think about the rules by which my own mother lived, the ones that defined her as a
daughter, a sister, a wife, and a mother – those that shaped my own evolving identity. For
example, what it must have been like for her in the 1970s to pick up and leave her Staten
Island, New York home, the bedrock of her family’s existence since Ellis Island, and move
with my father and two small children to a wild distant land called Texas!

Her bravery and foresight is, ironically, perhaps what has led me back to a part of the
country I now call home.

I think about how she was the working mother of three sons, and how much work and love
that must have required. I think about how for her, family started with her parents and
children, then quickly spread to embrace aunts and uncles, and the friends we value the most.

I think about her passion for Judaism and Israel. How she took me there when I was nine
with one of my brothers, and I have been back there several times since. A falafel on Ben
Yehuda Street and the winding alleyways of the Old City are a part of how I view the world.
My mother gave me identity, value, and purpose. She gave me high expectations, for
myself and my children. She gave me hell when I did not listen, and guilt trips as I got
older. She gave me more than I realize.

Na-aseh v’nishma, declare the Israelites upon hearing Moses recite the Book of the
Covenant. “We will do, and we will hear.” As I stand here today, this Shabbes, the clouds
breaking over my own mother’s teachings, I find myself beginning to truly hear them.
Shabbat Shalom.

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