The day I heard that I’d won a big literary prize, I was struggling to break in to the Yeshiva where I teach. I shouldn’t have had to break in. I have a key. I teach there every week. But somehow my key got misplaced, and no one was in the office, and so there I was, trying to pick the lock while frantically texting my colleagues to see if anyone was in the area, with the envelope I’d been carrying now clenched between my teeth so that I could have both my hands free. At least in theory.
I needed to break into the Yeshiva for reasons that were highly unliterary and undignified, and part of me was relieved that none of my colleagues were around to witness the sorry state I was in. A week earlier I had broken my toe while running down the hallway of our apartment to pick up my crying toddler in the middle of Shabbat dinner; my feet were unshod, and my toe broke when I inadvertently crashed into one of the chairs my kids had been using to make a “choo-choo train.” I knew right away that it was broken, since I’d fractured that very same bone tripping over a Fisher Price garage two summers ago on Tisha b’Av while rushing out to hear Eicha – that Tisha b’av was filled with more lamentation than I’d expected. I knew what the pain felt like, and I knew there was nothing to be done except to stay off it – a tall order for a runner, not to mention for a mother who walks her kids everywhere.
I couldn’t really stay off the toe, and so it continued to swell. At night I complained to my husband, who told me (rightly so!) to either take care of myself or get over it. But Daniel felt sorry for me, and three days later, on my fortieth birthday, he took me shopping for a bicycle. We figured that since lying in bed was completely unrealistic, the best way to stay off my toe was to start cycling instead of walking. And indeed, for a few days, it was glorious. I was like the guy who has a midlife crisis and buys himself a sports car to feel young again — I cycled all over town, cruising down the hills like Deborah Levy on her e-bike (I recently finished and loved her memoir, The Cost of Living), and hoisting myself up the hills with my own petard. (I don’t really understand that phrase. But when I saw how my body made the wheels turn, I began referring to the bike as my petard. Later I learned that a petard is actually a dangerous explosive device. If only I’d been more cautious.)
Just a few days later, I was on my way to the library when I flew off my bike and landed in the street. “How did it happen?” Daniel later asked me, and I really had no idea. One moment I was cycling around a bend in the road, and the next moment I was supporting my entire body weight with the bend of my elbow. Fortunately the bike wasn’t damaged, and so I brushed off my knees, straightened my arm as best I could, and hopped back on the bike.
I sat in the library for the rest of the morning proofreading the book I’d just finished translating. It hurt to type, but I tried to ignore the pain. A few hours later, I reached into my backpack to pull out the Tupperware container with my lunch. (Yes, I eat in libraries. Yes, it’s against the rules. It’s been part of my Al Chet tefillah for two decades.) I felt a sharp pain in my arm. I realized I couldn’t bend it all the way to my shoulder, nor could I properly extend it. This wasn’t looking good. I took out my phone and texted Daniel: “Can you pick up the kids today? I think I need an x-ray.”
I sat in the health clinic for three hours waiting to see an orthopedist who could refer me for an x-ray. While I was waiting, I couldn’t stop thinking about a midrash on this week’s parsha, Shelach Lecha, which tells of the spies sent to scout out the land of Israel. When ten of the spies came back with a negative report, “the whole community broke out into loud cries, and the people wept that night” (Bemidbar 14:1). The Talmud in Taanit (29a) relates that Rabbah said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan that this happened on the night of Tisha b’Av – it was one of the five calamities for which we fast. Rabbi Yohanan goes on to relate that God heard the Israelites’ weeping and responded to them sternly, “You are crying for nothing! I’m going to give you a real reason to cry, for generations to come!” And so Tisha b’Av became the day that both temples were destroyed, and the Bar Kochva revolt was suppressed, and Turnus Rufus plowed Jerusalem. (Often when the rabbis of the Talmud refer to Turnus Rufus, they follow his name with a curse that literally means, “may his bones be crushed.” I wouldn’t wish that pain on anyone.)
The x-ray confirmed that my elbow was fractured and I needed a cast, but first I wanted a second opinion from an orthopedist friend I trust. I had a disk with my x-rays, but I don’t own a computer with a disk drive – and so I went back to the Yeshiva in the hope that the secretary might let me upload the CD on her computer. On my way there I received the news of the book prize. “The prize committee wants to invest in you as a writer – we look forward to your next book!” I looked down at my swollen purple elbow. Would I ever write again?
The building was locked. I stood there forlorn, locked out of the Yeshiva, and immediately thought of Hillel. Hillel, too, was locked out of the Yeshiva – not because he had misplaced his key, but because he didn’t have enough money to pay the entrance fee and so the guard refused to let him in. That day was a terrible snowstorm—the Talmud tells us that it was during the winter month of Tevet—and Hillel climbed up on the roof and listened to words of Torah through the skylight, where he nearly froze to death. He was saved the next morning by the rabbis teaching in the yeshiva, Shamaya and Avtalyon, who noticed that the light was not coming in through the skylight and went up to the roof to see what was amiss. “It is worth desecrating Shabbat for a man like this,” they said as they removed the snow, bathed him, and sat him down by the fire.
That story appears on Yoma 35 – I first encountered it in on December 13, 2013, at the start of my second daf yomi cycle. It was the tenth of Tevet—another fast day on the Jewish calendar—and we were all holed up at home due to a record-breaking snowstorm that made international headlines. At one point I left the house to throw away a bag of smelly diapers, and I slipped on the icy driveway and broke my arm. Fortunately I was too excited by the coincidence of the snowstorm and the story of Hillel on the roof to be distressed about my injury, at least initially. Over time, I have come to associate that story with broken bones — I dreamed about Hillel falling off the roof and Shmaya and Avtalyon rushing outside when they heard the thud. As I stood outside of the Yeshiva clutching the envelope with my x-ray disk, it felt all too apt.
It didn’t seem like I’d be able to get into the building. On the one hand, I wanted to feel sorry for myself; like the midrash, I felt like I’d cried for naught and now I was being saddled with a real reason for tears. But on the other hand—the good hand that I had not broken—I had just learned that I’d won a major literary prize. How sorry could I really feel for myself?
On the other hand—because a mother of twins always needs a third hand—I was also somewhat panicked. Yes, the prize was a great honor and could theoretically allow me so much more time to write. But even if my arm healed and I were able to write again, what was I going to write about? The judges had made it clear that this was a prize to further my continued contributions to Jewish literature. Um, what contributions? I spent most of my days translating, teaching, and taking care of my kids. I never feel like a writer unless I’m writing, and I wasn’t writing anything of late. Now I was being given a very generous monetary prize to write – I felt like I had no excuse.
The story of Hillel comes up in tractate Yoma in the context of a Talmudic conversation about unsatisfactory excuses for neglecting to study Torah. If a person comes before the heavenly court at the end of his life and claims that he was too poor to allow for time to study, he will be told, “Could you possibly have been poorer than Hillel?” This is followed by the story of Hillel, who could not even find two coins to pay the guard at the entrance to the beit midrash. Being rich is also no excuse – such an individual will be asked, “Could you possibly have been richer than Rabbi Elazar ben Harsom,” who inherited a thousand villages and a thousand ships from his father, yet spent his life wandering from yeshiva to yeshiva with only a sac of flour on his back. For a long time I had said that I couldn’t write another book because “I’m not a writer, and anyway, I much prefer translating to writing.” Now it seems I had no excuse. Was that why I’d broken my bones? And was that why I was frustrated that I wasn’t managing to break in to the Yeshiva?
Ultimately I succeeded in uploading my x-rays in the office of the literary agency where I work. These days I spend most of my life walking—alas, no longer biking—from the literary agency to the yeshiva to my kids’ schools, and as I often lament, there’s never enough time to sit in front of the computer and write. But I’ve learned that crying in vain is never a good idea, and besides, thanks to Hillel and Rabbi Elazar ben Harsom, I really have no excuse. So tonight I’m taking my laptop up to the roof to write. It’s the middle of summer, so I don’t expect any snow. But maybe something will descend from the heavens nonetheless.