Elul Reflections: The First Week of School

It was the first week of school in Israel, and as I left my son’s preschool classroom, I could hear him calling after me tearfully through the window, “Don’t leave me, don’t go, Ima. Stay. Stay with me! Don’t go!” There were many other three-year-olds crying that morning – in his preschool, and in preschools nationwide, but as I exited the gate of the schoolyard with a heavy heart, it was his voice that continued to echo in my ears. I had walked less than a block down the busy Jerusalem street when suddenly I heard the long blast of the Shofar, the ram’s horn blown every morning throughout the Hebrew month of Elul and on the High Holidays that follow. The street light changed and the traffic slowed, and in the ensuing moment of stillness, I wasn’t sure what I was hearing – was it the echo of the Shofar, or the echo of my son’s cries?

The rabbis of the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 33b) draw an explicit analogy between the sound of the Shofar and the sound of crying, based on a verse from the Torah: “It shall be a day of sounding [Terua] for you” (Numbers 29:1). They explain the sound of the Terua by reference to another verse in the book of Judges, in which the mother of Sisera, the enemy general, looks out her window anxiously anticipating her son’s return from battle: “Through the window the mother of Sisera peered out and wailed: ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why so late, the clatter of his wheels?’” The Shofar, we are taught, is supposed to sound like the cries of Sisera’s mother pining for her son. I imagine my son still peering through the window and hoping I’ll come back, and it is as if every Shofar in the city is being sounded at once, in comfort and commiseration.

My son knows that I will come back to pick him up in the afternoon. I told him that over and over on our walk to school this morning, and countless times over the last week. I know he is internalizing my words because yesterday, I heard him playing on the floor with his wooden train set and repeating to himself, “I always come back. I always come back” – his own version of Freud’s Fort Da game, in which the child spools and unspools the threat to enact his mother’s absence and return. But perhaps he believes me only insofar as Isaac believed Abraham when he heard his father say to the lads who had accompanied them to Mount Moriah, “You stay here with the donkey, and I and the boy will go up and worship and then come back to you” (Genesis 22:5). Even Abraham couldn’t possibly have known with certainty that both he and Isaac would come back. In the liturgy of the penitential prayers for the high holidays, we refer repeatedly to Pachad Yitzchak – the fear of Isaac as he lay trembling on the altar, his father poised with the knife just before Abraham hears a voice that causes him to retract and come back. Is this the terror my son feels – the terror that perhaps I won’t come back after all?

According to the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16a), the shofar must come from the horn of a ram so as to remind God of the binding of Isaac. Just as Abraham was about to slaughter his son, a voice called out and told him to withdraw his arm, and then, at that very moment, a ram appeared in the thicket. The rabbis imagine God instructing the people, “Sound the Shofar made from a ram’s horn before me, so that I will remember the binding of Isaac, and I will ascribe it to you as if you had bound yourself before me.” In the morning, when I lead my son to preschool knowing that he will scream in protest when we get there, I try to distract him so he agrees to keep walking. “Look, I see a garbage truck up ahead, let’s go catch up with it,” I tell him, or, “Let’s race to the next bus stop.” But he is too smart for my tricks.

“Are we going to Gan?” he asks suspiciously, and I am reminded of Isaac’s question to Abraham on the walk to Mount Moriah: “Father, here are the firestone and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” (Genesis 22:7). My son, too, knows that something is amiss. As I replay those moments of duplicity later in the day, I tell myself that like Abraham, I am driven by the faith that I am doing the right thing after all, my son’s protestations notwithstanding. And yet my heart, like his, is so heavy. God does not need to ascribe it to us as if we had bound ourselves. It feels like we’ve actually done it.

That same penitential prayer in which we refer to the “fear of Isaac” also refers to “the stronghold of the mothers.” Each of these phrases is followed by a refrain – Aneinu, answer us. “Fear of Isaac, answer us. Stronghold of the mothers, answer us.” I realize that both my tearful son and his heavy-hearted mother are voicing the same prayer. Answer us. Please, God. Answer us. In this season of repentance and return, please God, come back.

Throughout the month of Elul, it is traditional to conclude our prayers with Psalm 27, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” The psalmist places trust in God when all alone in the world: “Though my father and mother have left me, the Lord will gather me up.” In the afternoon, when I come to pick up my son, he is no longer peering forlornly through the window, listening for the clatter of the stroller wheels. Instead he is playing on the carpet with plastic farm animals, and in his hand is a Fisher Price ram. When I kneel beside him, he is neither excited nor surprised to see me, because deep down, he knew it all along: I always come back.

Turning Over an Old Leaf

Around the time my daughter began studying the book of Genesis in preschool, my toddler son became obsessed with The Very Hungry Caterpillar. He goes through phases with books, and right now, this is the only book he wants to read, all day long – by the light of the moon or the light of the sun, when hungry or after a snack of two pears, when wrapped up in the cocoon of his favorite blanket at bedtime or when spreading his wings to flit about the park. “Hung-ee catapilla, hung-ee catapilla,” he insists, his appetite for the book insatiable.

Meanwhile, his sister is learning about the creation of the world – how God began with the earth unformed and void, and then filled the world with the sun, the moon, the trees and grasses, the fish and birds and cattle and human beings, before finally God rested. Shalvi wants me to read it all to her from the illustrated children’s Bible we have on our shelf. She takes down the book and thrusts it into my lap, on top of The Very Hungry Caterpillar in its board book version. “Hung-ee, hung-ee,” Yitzvi insists, dropping the illustrated Bible to the floor. He doesn’t know how to win out over his sister, but he delights in shutting her book and witnessing her frustration.

I look at Shalvi sympathetically. She’s going to have to read her book to herself, or wait patiently for one more Hungry Caterpillar rendition. She sighs with visible annoyance as I begin with the egg on the leaf on the book’s opening page. I am reading the book to my son – he is the one who points to all the pictures and determines the pace at which I turn the pages. But I’m trying, this time, to read The Very Hungry Caterpillar through my daughter’s eyes, as she holds the illustrated Bible in her lap and waits patiently for her world to begin.

At first the world is just darkness and potentiality – a tiny egg in a dark world illuminated only by moonlight. This is the darkness of the start of creation, when the world is still unformed and God creates light, but life has not yet emerged. And then there is a sun, and the first creepy crawly things appear, and “pop” – the caterpillar emerges. On each subsequent day, the caterpillar eats more than the day before, and the pages unfold as a series of flaps that grow wider and wider – one apple, two pears, three plums… Each day follows the same formula: The caterpillar eats, but he is still—I draw out the final “l,” then pause and look at Yitzvi. “Hung-ee,” he concludes. In the book of Genesis, each day of creation is narrated with the same repetitive formula: “God said ‘Let there be’… And it was so… God saw it was good… And there was evening and morning.” I can imagine a children’s Bible in which each day of creation appears as an increasingly wider flap: Narrow for the light and darkness, a bit wider for the firmament, wider for the creepy-crawly things, still wider for the sun and moon, nearly a whole page for all the animals. Each day, God creates more and more, but the world is still incomplete. The caterpillar is still hungry.

On the sixth day of the caterpillar’s life, his appetite peaks. Over the course of a full-color two-page spread, the caterpillar eats every kind of food – cake, ice cream, cheese, salami, candy, pie. This explosion of bounty has its parallel on the sixth day of creation, when God makes “every kind of living creature, cattle, creeping things, and wild beasts of every kind,” as well as man, created in God’s image. God charges the man and woman to be fertile and multiply and to fill the earth. But the tiny caterpillar in the bottom right-hand corner of the page is full already. He has a stomachache, and can’t possibly eat another bite.

Then comes a period of waiting, of dormancy, of sitting still and holding tight. God sees all that He has made, and finds it very good. And the heaven and earth are completed, in all their array. What is left for the seventh day of the week? The caterpillar builds his cocoon and remains inside for two weeks. It seems as if nothing is happening. The cocoon is large and brown and it fills the whole page – for the first time, we don’t see the caterpillar anymore, with his smile and big green eyes. This is a period of resting, of desisting from labor, of not doing anything at all. This is Shabbat, the day of rest, when we are supposed to imitate God and desist from the work of creation.

We think on Shabbat that nothing is happening. We think that when we stop creating, nothing new will emerge. What could possibly come of resting and staying put, holed up in the cocoons of our homes? Quite a lot, apparently. At the end of the book, when the caterpillar emerges from that cocoon, he is a beautiful butterfly, his dazzling multi-colored wings spread across two facing pages. All that time he was in that cocoon, when it seemed like nothing was happening, new cells were forming rapidly, increasingly and multiplying so that the butterfly might spread its wings and fill the earth.

“Again, again,” Yitzvi insists when we turn the final page, and I know he’s going to give me trouble if I try to read his sister’s book. “Yitzvi,” I say to him calmly, in my most assertive voice. “It’s Shalvi’s turn now. You can listen to her story, and then we’ll read the Hungry Caterpillar again.” He lowers himself to the floor and jumps up and down, preparing for a tantrum. But then Shalvi surprises me.

“It’s OK,” she says, and I can’t believe I’ve heard her correctly. “You can keep reading to Yitzvi. I can look at the pictures of my book for now, and then you can read to me later.” I have never known Shalvi to cede so graciously to her younger brother – usually she competes with him fiercely for my attention. Whence this newfound maturity? How did I miss this transformation? I notice that her brightly colored sweater is getting too small — this might be the last time she wears it. She flies off the couch and alights on the armchair beside me as her squirmy brother crawls back into my lap to hear his story again.
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Sometimes I think I can’t bear it anymore. How many times can I read the same story over and over again? I know The Very Hungry Caterpillar by heart, and Yitzvi can complete every line, so we read the book responsively. I chant the book in a tune that has become familiar to us both, pausing each time in the same places: “By the light of the—.” I pause, and Yitzvi bobs his head excitedly: “Moon!” I go on: “A little egg lay on a—.” Again, I pause, and Yitzvi immediately chimes in: “Leaf!” We read through the entire book as a call-and-response, as if I am the prayer leader and he is the congregation’s most vocal member.

Prayer has never come easy for me, and when I read the same picture books again and again, I begin to understand why. The traditional Jewish liturgy is largely fixed and unvarying, with the same prayers recited every day of the week, and additional prayers for the Sabbath. The challenge of prayer is to find meaning in reciting the same words day after day. Our prayers are not supposed to be rote; we are supposed to pray to God from the fullness of our hearts, bringing our fears and hopes to bear. How is this possible when each day we open to the same page and begin with the very same words thanking God for the gift of waking up in the morning: “I am grateful to You, O living and sustaining King, for restoring my soul to my body.”

I try to pay attention to how the words speak to me differently today, in this time, in this place. Why am I especially grateful to have woken up today of all days? Was there reason to think I might not have woken up on this particular morning? Ideally the liturgy becomes a script we act out, each time infusing the words with new resonance, new significance, a new emotional valence. “Lord, guard my lips from evil and my tongue from lies. Help me ignore those who slander me.” What are the evil lies I am concerned about speaking on this particular day? Who might wish to slander me, and why? The liturgy prompts the same questions in me day after day, but my responses are rarely the same.

And yet the purpose of prayer is not to arrive at the answers to these questions; our responses are just a means of forging a deeper connection with the One to whom we are praying. The rabbis of the Talmud (Berachot 26b) credit the forefathers in the book of Genesis –Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—with the establishment of the daily prayer services. Abraham instituted the morning prayer when he prayed on behalf of Sodom; Isaac instituted the afternoon prayer when he went out to the field in the late afternoon; and Jacob instituted the evening prayer when he dreamt of a ladder of angels. None of these individuals was reciting a of fixed liturgy; they were talking to God. In its most fundamental sense, prayer was, and is, a means of communication. The point is not the words spoken or the text recited, but the connection forged.

When I re-read the same board books and struggle not to get too bored, I challenge myself to view the fixed, unvarying text as a springboard for connection. I look into my son’s animated eyes as we come to his favorite page, on which the caterpillar eats the cake and the ice cream and the pickle, etc., and each time, unfailingly, “He was still hungry.” Yitzvi never gets bored. He is delighted each time anew. The phrase “His graciousness endures forever” repeats twenty-five times in Psalm 136, which is recited every morning. I marvel to think that God’s patience could be as enduring as God’s graciousness. Does God never tire of our prayers? Is God still hungry for more?

The Talmudic rabbis note that although grass was created on the third day of creation, it did not emerge from the earth until the sixth day, when we are told, at least initially, that “no shrub of the field was yet on the earth” (2:5). The rabbis explain that for three days, the grass stood poised beneath the surface of the earth, waiting to grow until Adam came and prayed for it to emerge. According to the Talmud, “God desires the prayers of the righteous” (Hullin 60b), and thus aspects of the creation of the world were contingent upon human prayer. Likewise, albeit more problematically, the Talmud teaches that the reason the patriarchs and matriarchs were infertile is because, again, “God desires the prayer of the righteous” (Yevamot 64a). God created an imperfect world so that human beings would have reason to reach out to God in prayer.

If only we could recite our prayers with the same eagerness and devotion with which God receives them. If only I could read to my child with the same excitement the words seem to awaken within him. “Again, again!” Yitzvi insists each time we turn the final page. No sooner has the caterpillar become a beautiful butterfly than Yitzvi wants to turn back time, starting all over with the egg on the leaf. I summon my patience and endurance and return to the first page, to the beginning of Genesis, creating the world anew.

The Blinding of Isaac: A Blessing in Disguise (Toldot)

In this week’s parashah an aging Isaac, now the patriarch of the family, bestows the blessing of the firstborn on Jacob instead of Esau when the former tricks him by disguising himself as his twin brother. The Torah suggests that the reason the twins’ father was unable to detect the ruse was because “Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see” (Genesis 27:1). A simple reading of the verse suggests that Isaac’s vision deteriorated on account of old age, but the midrash proposes additional reasons for Isaac’s blindness that offer us a way of thinking about the implications of our blind spots and our limited sight.

The midrash in Genesis Rabbah (65:10) teaches that God blinded the patriarch as a way of protecting him from seeing his son’s wickedness. The rabbis quote God as saying, “Isaac will go out to the marketplace and people will say: ‘This is the father of that evildoer!’ Therefore behold I will dim his sight and he will stay within his house.” God blinded Isaac so as to protect him from the shame of having such a wayward son. Along similar lines the midrash suggests that Abraham died five years early—Abraham died at the age of 175, as opposed to Isaac, who died at 180—so that he would not have to live to see Esau worship idols, sleep with betrothed maidens, and commit murder (Genesis Rabbah 63:12). Unlike Isaac, who merely lost his powers of sight, the candle of Abraham’s soul was snuffed out early so that he would not have to bear witness to his grandson’s depravity.

These midrashim suggest that sometimes we lose the ability to see our close relatives clearly because if we were to do so—if we were to see them for who they truly are—we would no longer be able to maintain the relationship. Spouses who become blind to each other’s faults can remain in love for decades, and parents who can turn a blind eye to their children’s misdemeanors can continue to welcome those children home. Isaac needed to become blind so that he could bestow any sort of blessing upon Esau; his blindness enabled him to maintain the family tie in spite of fierce disagreements and antithetical worldviews. So long as Isaac did not witness Esau sleeping with betrothed maidens, he could continue to allow Esau to sleep under his roof.

The midrash offers another explanation for Isaac’s blindness that is related not to the trauma of the present—not to the trauma of having an evil son—but to the traumas of the past. The rabbis pick up on the unusual turn of phrase used to describe Isaac’s blindness – the Torah literally states that Isaac’s eyes “became dim from seeing.” They link Isaac’s blindness to the trauma of the Akedah, where Isaac saw his father bind him on the altar and raise a knife to slaughter him. While Isaac was not ultimately pierced by his father’s sword, he was the victim of another piercing encounter, as the midrash relates: “When Abraham bound his son on the altar, the angels wept… and the tears dropped from their eyes into his eyes and were imprinted within his eyes till he became old and his eyes became dim” (Genesis Rabbah 65:10). Isaac realized that he was being forced to play a role in such a harsh and audacious drama that even the angels were moved to tears of outrage and compassion. A related midrash suggests that at that moment when he lay bound on the altar, Isaac looked straight up at God, and God responded by blinding him, because “No man may see me and live.” (Exodus 33:20). Both his father and God turn a blind eye to Isaac, and though Isaac’s body is lifted off the altar, a part of him never recovers from the trauma. The binding of Isaac becomes, according to this reading, the blinding of Isaac.

These midrashim about Isaac’s blindness continue with the rabbinic assertion that “seven things are concealed from humanity.” The rabbis go on to list these seven “blind spots”: 1. No one knows when he or she will die. 2. No one knows when the end-of-days will come. 3. No one can fathom the depth of divine judgement. 4. No one can predict what is going to succeed financially. 5. No one can intuit what another person is thinking in his heart. 6. No one knows what is happening inside a woman’s womb. 7. And no one knows when the evil kingdom of Rome will be toppled. This list is surprisingly relevant today, even in an age of stock market forecasters, ultrasound machines, and political pundits. Who among us can say with certainty which of our investments will succeed, or whether the baby we so eagerly expect will be fully healthy, or when the current political leader will be deposed?

The juxtaposition of this list of seven unknowables with the midrashim about Isaac’s blindness suggest that just as Isaac’s sight was dimmed, blindness is in fact integral to the human condition. As human beings, our sight is inherently limited; there are things we can never fully see or know. If we are fortunate, our blindness can become a blessing in disguise, enabling us to remain close to those we love in spite of our disagreements, and deepening our appreciation for life’s mysteries.

A Crown of Glory (Chayey Sarah)

Parashat Chayei Sarah describes the final years of Abraham’s life, following the death of his wife Sarah and culminating in Abraham’s own death. Towards the opening of the parashah, we are told that “Abraham was old, advanced in years, and God blessed Abraham with everything” (24:10). The rabbis of the Talmud and midrash note that this is the first time that anyone in the Bible is described as old. In reflecting on the significance of Abraham’s advanced age, they offer a surprising and valuable lesson about how we grow older, and the blessings that may come with age.

The Talmudic rabbis posit that the reason Abraham was the first Biblical figure to be described as old is because he was in fact the first person ever to age: “Until Abraham, there was no old age” (Bava Metzia 87a). And yet how could that be? Abraham died at the age of 175, which is far younger than many of the biblical figures whose lifespans were documented earlier in Genesis. Lemech lived 777 years, Metushelach—who had the longest lifespan in the Bible—died at 969, and even Noah lived to the ripe age of 950. Abraham seems like a spring chicken in comparison.

The rabbis go on to explain what they mean by relating an anecdote: It used to be that people were constantly confusing Abraham and Isaac; they so closely resembled one another that no one could tell them apart. Anyone who wanted to speak to Abraham would mistakenly speak to Isaac, and vice versa. Abraham was frustrated by this state of affairs, so he prayed to God for mercy; God answered his prayers by turning his hair gray and wrinkling his skin, so that everyone might know that he was the father and not the son. It seems, then, that although Abraham was not the first person to advance in years, he was the first person to bear the physical markings of age.

A parallel midrash in Genesis Rabbah (59:1) makes it clear that God was not punishing Abraham for his request; the signs of old age were a blessing bestowed upon the patriarch on account of his merits. After all, the verse that begins “And Abraham was old, advanced in years” continues with “and God blessed Abraham with everything.” The midrash relates a story about Rabbi Meir, who once visited the town of Mamla in the lower Galilee, where he saw that everyone was “black-haired” and no one had aged. He asks the residents if perhaps they are from the family of Eli the priest, who were cursed in the book of Samuel for their inappropriate behavior and told that “there shall never be an elder in your house” (I Samuel 2:33). The residents do not answer Rabbi Meir’s question, but simply plead with him, “Pray for us!” Rabbi Meir tells them that if they engage in righteousness, they will merit aging, citing a verse from Proverbs: “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is attained by the way of righteousness” (16:31). He tells them that this is a lesson they may learn from Abraham, who merited aging because he “did what is just and what is right” (Genesis 18:19).

As this midrash suggests, anyone may live long, but it is only the righteous who merit showing signs of age. In the Talmud the phrase hadrat panim – literally “the glory of the face” is used to refer to a beard (e.g. Shabbat 152a), which was considered a hallmark of age, as evidenced by the semantic connection between the Hebrew words zaken (elder) and zakan (beard). An elder is someone whose face is glorified with a beard, based on the biblical injunction, “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the elderly” (Leviticus 19:32). In this verse, the term for “aged” (שיבה) literally means “white-haired,” another indication that signs of age are an indicator of merit. No wonder, then, that when the eighteen-year-old Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya was offered to become the head of the Sanhedrin in a popular rabbinic story (Berakhot 28a), his wife told him it would be inappropriate because “you have no white hair.” The Talmud relates that a miracle transpired for him and he sprouted eighteen rows of white hair overnight, securing him the distinguished post.

The rabbinic focus on the outward signs of age seems to overlook many of the less appealing conditions that often accompany old age. It is all very well and good to glorify beards and white hair, but what about illness and suffering? The rabbis point out that illness afforded Jacob time to take proper leave of his family before he died, reminding us to number our days wisely (Bava Metzia 87a). They add that that until the time of the biblical prophet Elisha, everyone who fell ill went on to die; Elisha was the first person to fall ill and then heal. Thus illness in old age is not so much a signifier that death is in the wings as it is a reminder to use our time well.

In our own time we celebrate youth and vigor and fear aging as a curse. As people get older, they dye their hair to cover the gray, smooth their wrinkles with anti-aging cream, and sometimes resort to cosmetic surgery so that their faces look decades younger. And yet for the ancient rabbis, aging was a sign of blessing. The ultimate goal was not to look like one’s grandchildren, but to live long enough to meet that next generation. Ureh vanim l’vanecha – “May the Lord bless you from Zion, may you share the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life and live to see your children’s children” (Psalms 128:5-6).

In Frankenstein’s Monster’s Suitcase

We are traveling to America for a month-long visit to our parents, whom we haven’t seen in nearly two years on account of the pandemic. Daniel was insistent that we pack lightly. We wanted to take the bus to the train to the airport, and so we could only carry as many suitcases as we had kids to push them. But that meant a limit on books. I would have to choose selectively.

Once most of our clothes were packed, I examined our suitcases to see how much space remained. I stuffed a pile of paperback Hebrew historical novels for the kids–in case they strike and refuse to read in English–in between between balls of socks and my daughters’ assorted bathing suit tops and bottoms that I hope matched closely enough. But then I noticed that half the suitcase was taken up by Yitzvi’s soft blue furry blanket. It’s thick and warm, but he sleeps with it year-round, regardless of the weather. At night he tells us he is tired by tugging out the blanket from in between the wooden bars of his crib, folding it onto the floor into a bundle, and laying down on top like Harry the Dirty Dog curled atop his mattress. But the blanket is thick and bulky and I know we’re tight on space. Why does it make it into the suitcase when so much else does not?

I held up the blanket to Daniel, raising my eyebrows questioningly. “We really need this?” I asked him.

“So that Yitzvi will have something familiar with him, even though he’ll be sleeping in so many strange places – on the airplane. In the airport. In my mom’s house. In your parents’ house. This way, wherever he goes, he’ll have his blanket.”

I understood Daniel’s point. Yitzvi has never been attached to a doll or a stuffed animal – his security blanket is quite literally a blanket. There was no sense, now two days before our trip, in trying to help him grow attached to something that would take up less luggage space. But I was pretty sure I had a better idea.

Yitzvi has three books that we read almost every night before bed. I proposed to Daniel that we pack those instead. “This way, he’ll have something familiar, something that reminds him of home.” Daniel raised his eyebrows quizzically. “Don’t you think my mom has Good Night Moon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar? Bringing those books to America is like, well, carrying coals to Newcastle.”

“Bringing straw to Ofarim, you mean.” I’m convinced every language has a version of that phrase. The medieval commentator Rashi (Menachot 85a) contends that when Moshe demonstrated various signs and wonders to Pharaoh in an attempt to convince him that he was sent by God, Pharaoh responded dismissively, telling Moshe that bringing magic to Egypt was like bringing straw to Ofarim. Egypt was famous for its magic; it didn’t need foreign imports. Ofarim was apparently as famous for its straw as Newcastle was for its coal.

“Anyway, it’s not like that,” I insisted. “I mean, we could find these books in America, but we couldn’t find our copies.” I held up Goodnight Moon, with the missing spine and the waterlogged pages. This is actually the second copy we’ve owned – we had one for the first three kids, but at some point it split in half, and in spite of several attempts to cover the spine in masking tape and re-bind the first and second parts, the book continued to split, and inevitably I’d be rushing to get Shalvi into bed, unable to locate one of the halves, until finally I bought a new copy. We’ve kept the broken copy too, as a back-up, just in case we can’t locate its replacement. The rabbis of the Talmud teach that after Moshe shattered the first set of the Ten Commandments, they were placed in the ark alongside the new set. So many of our memories are bound up in our brokenness, like the stories with which we caption each of our bruises and scars.

Daniel consented to let me take Goodnight Moon, along with The Very Hungry Caterpillar and a Hebrew classic children’s book entitled A Tale of Five Balloons, by Miriam Roth. As I placed them in the suitcase, I was reminded of my favorite part of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, famous as a novel about a nineteenth-century scientist—the titular character—who creates a hideous monster and then flees from his creation. The monster leaves the laboratory and makes a home for himself in an abandoned structure in the wilderness. There he teaches himself to read using a satchel of books he stumbles upon. The books teach the monster not just how to read, but how to read the world: how to understand human emotions, and the human mind, and the complexity of the world he has been created into. Shelley—being a writer’s writer—tells us which books they are, and it’s clear she has selected them deliberately, with great care. They constitute her sense of a complete education, or the most complete education one could get from three works of literature alone.

Frankenstein’s monster reads Paradise Lost, the Sorrows of Young Werther, and Plutarch’s Lives. They are not books I could ever read to Yitzvi, not for at least another fifteen years, and I doubt I ever will. But in a sense each book I packed for Yitzvi has its equivalent in one of the books stumbled upon by Frankenstein’s Monster – they are, in a sense, the board book version.

Goodnight Moon is a Paradise Lost of sorts, an affecting poetic description of a fallen world. Unlike Milton, Margaret Wise Brown is not retelling the story of the creation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and their subsequent fall from grace. Hers is a repetitive bedtime story of a rabbit falling asleep in a large furnished bedroom with a window looking out to the starry sky. But when refracted through the Talmudic imagination, Goodnight Moon becomes a version of Paradise Lost. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 8a) teaches that when Adam saw that the days were growing shorter with the approach of the world’s first winter, he grew terribly frightened: “Perhaps because I sinned, the world is growing dark all around me, and will return to a state of chaos and disorder?” Adam, never having experienced winter, assumed that the whole world was an extension of himself and was being punished on his account. It was a sort of pathetic fallacy, a literary term for the attribution of human qualities to things found in nature that are not in fact human. With each shorter day, time seemed to be closing in on him, as if the newly-created world were soon to cease. Was the onset of darkness a sign that the world was coming to an end?

For a baby, every nightfall is a paradise lost. It marks the end of a wondrous Edenic daytime spent playing with abandon, delighting in one new discovery after another, and frolicking in an illuminated world. When night falls, the child is placed in a room, sometimes even all alone by himself; even if the little old lady whispering hush is in her rocking chair, she will not be there all night; she vanishes on the book’s final darkened page. The window is illuminated by moonlight and twinkling stars, but after the child takes its leave from all the items that are so delightful in daytime—the kittens and mittens, the toyhouse and mouse, the bears and the chairs—the lamp ceases to cast its glow. The baby falling asleep at night, like Adam in the antediluvian world, has not seen enough sunsets to understand that this just the way of the world, and that darkness will inevitably be followed by dawn. No wonder babies wail at night – how terrifying to fall asleep when it seems the world is drawing to a dark and frightful close.

Yitzvi can identify nearly every item in Goodnight Moon, though unlike Frankenstein’s monster, his three books are unlikely to teach him to read. He points to the comb and the brush, and even to nobody, and the mush. The only objects he confuses are the moon and the red balloon, which don’t look all that different – both are round, and they’re about the same size. The balloon is like a moon closer to home, still high above but accessible with the tug of a string. In spite of the disappointments of nightfall—the lost paradise of sunlight and daytime—at least the balloon in Goodnight Moon never pops. The same cannot be said for the other balloon book I read him every night.

A Tale of Five Balloons by Miriam Roth is arguably one of the most famous Israeli children’s books of all time. The five balloons—green, yellow, purple, blue, red—are the only color illustrations in the otherwise black-and-white pages. When the book opens, Ruti’s mother brings a present – five balloons, one for each delighted child. But joy is followed by a series of disappointments. Uri runs and jumps with his green balloon until it suddenly falls on a thornbush and is punctured. Ron’s yellow balloon is blown up so large that it pops. Sigalit’s balloon is torn apart by a cat’s claws. Ruti hugs her blue balloon so tightly that it rips and pops. “Don’t be sad,” each child is told in sing-song Hebrew rhyme. “That’s the fate of all balloons.” And yet each child is crushed by the loss. Uri places his head in his hands, Ron clings to his father’s legs for comfort, Sigalit leans down sorrowfully to pick up the broken pieces, Ruti peers upwards with lips pursed in grief and lamentation. This may be the fate of all balloons, but it doesn’t make it easier when it’s your balloon that pops.

A Tale of Five Balloons teaches that disappointment is an inevitable part of life, and that love carries with it the risk of loss. This is also the lesson of The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe’s eighteenth-century German classic about a passionate young man devastated by his unrequited love for Charlotte, who is engaged to another man. Werther cannot keep away from Charlotte and every encounter with the woman forbidden to him further deflates him, until ultimately he writes a note saying that he is going away on a journey, and takes his own life in desperation.

Instead of popping like all the others, the fifth balloon in Miriam Roth’s children’s book, the red one, goes on a journey. A strong wind suddenly blows it up, up to the clouds, as all the children watch and wave goodbye. For the first time, they are able to take their leave from one of the balloon, whose departure is less sudden than all the others. Loss is often deeply painful, and yet sometimes it is easier when we have the chance to say goodbye. The children do not relinquish the last balloon on their own terms, and yet this loss feels less like something that happens to them, and more like something they can take part in – analogous, perhaps, to young Werther’s decision to take his own life after he is unable to cope with all the disappointments that have befallen him.

“That’s the fate of all balloons,” the refrain in Miriam Roth’s balloon tale, is also the universal human refrain – we are all born, and at some point we all die. That’s the fate of all humanity, as dictated by God in the garden of Eden. Werther’s sorrows, like the punctured balloons, are all corollaries of a lost paradise.

In this sense, perhaps, the third book that Frankenstein’s monster reads to learn about the world is the opposite of the other two. Plutarch’s Lives is a series of biographies of famous Greek and Roman men, showcasing their virtues and their capacity for transformation. It is less a book about death than about how various great individuals embraced life at particular moments in history. I don’t read Yitzvi any biographies, but he does hear the story of a life transformed each time I read The Very Hungry Caterpillar – in which the little egg laying on the leaf eats more and more every day until he simply can’t eat anymore, and he builds himself a cocoon, from which he emerges transformed. Eating is an affirmation of life, and eating to grow larger and stronger is in large part the job of a baby or small child. “You have to eat so you can grow big and strong and do great things,” we tell Yitzvi. We want him to know that if he embraces life he will be able to transform himself, like a caterpillar turned into a butterfly, or a laboratory experiment turned into a sentient being.

Shelley writes that Frankenstein’s monster discovers the three books in a leathern portmanteau, which is essentially a large suitcase. I pack Yitzvi’s three books at the very top of our suitcase, so we can retrieve them as soon as we land in the evening and I try—in spite of the jet lag—to get him to bed. I hope that with each subsequent rereading, he internalizes their messages: Inevitably night falls, but it’s not the end of the world. All life is marked by disappointment. But if we embrace the time and opportunities we have been given, our lives can be as majestic and dazzling as the multi-colored butterfly whose wings span the final two pages. I hope that Yitzvi will learn these lessons from more sophisticated works of literature someday—from Milton, or Goethe, or Plutarch, perhaps. For the time being, though, I’m content to populate his imagination with colorful balloons, an egg on a leaf, and quiet old lady whose wisdom reverberates beneath the whisper of her hush.

Devarim: Not Just a Second Torah

With this week’s parashah we begin Sefer Devarim, the final book of the Torah and the one referred to by the Talmudic rabbis as Mishneh Torah – a second Torah (see, for instance, Berakhot 21b, based on Deut 17:18). The Tosafot explain that the book of Devarim is referred to as such because “it reviews and repeats what came previously” (Tosafot on Gittin 2a). Most of the book consists of Moshe’s summation of the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai, and the Israelites’ desert wanderings. And yet as our parashah demonstrates, Sefer Devarim is more of an interpretation than a repetition, raising questions about the extent to which all memory is selective, all repetition is commentary, and, as William Faulkner famously put it, “the past is never truly past.”

Moshe begins his final address to the people by reviewing several episodes from the previous three books of the Bible, including the appointment of magistrates to help Moshe judge the people, the sending of spies to scout out the land of Canaan, and the journey through the lands belonging to the Moabites and Amorites. In each case, Moshe offers a slightly different take on these events than the one found earlier in the Torah. For instance, while in the book of Numbers it is God who tells Moshe to send out spies, here in Deuteronomy, Moshe states that it was the Israelites who had the idea to send out spies, implying that the people were to blame for the crisis of confidence that followed the spies’ return. Here as elsewhere, Moshe refracts the events of the past through the lens of his own perspective, commenting and critiquing rather than just repeating and reviewing. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise, then, that in introducing Moshe’s address, the Torah explicitly describes it as commentary rather than repetition: “On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound (ba’er) this teaching” (1:5). Moshe is not merely chronicling all that came before, but “expounding” a teaching, interpreting the past so as to glean lessons and insights from it.

Invoking this verse, the Talmud in Sotah (35b) teaches that Moshe reviewed the Torah by inscribing its words on stones in the land of Moab so as to teach them to the people – sort of like writing on a giant blackboard for all the people to see and learn. The midrashic rabbis explain that Moshe told the people that he was near death, and so this was their chance to make sure they had learned the entire Torah. Anyone who had not mastered a particular verse, he told them, should come forward so that he might repeat that verse for them. To the extent that Moshe repeated the Torah in his final address, it was a repetition tailored to the specific needs of each individual, filling in the gaps in his or her memory. As these sources suggest, Moshe’s goal was not merely to repeat what had come before, but to ensure that the people had internalized the Torah’s lessons.

The rabbinic understanding of Sefer Devarim as Moshe’s attempt to teach and comment on Torah is also evident from the way the midrash reads the opening verses of the parashah. In the Sifrei, an early midrash from the first couple of centuries of the Common Era, the rabbis note the abundance of place names invoked in introducing Moshe’s address: “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan, through the wilderness in the Aravah near Suf, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazerot, and Di Zahav” (1:1-2). They explain that the Torah mentions all these places because Moshe, in his address, was rebuking the people for their behavior in each location: “In the desert” they sinned by complaining to Moshe that they wished they had returned to Egypt; “in the Aravah” they whored with Moabite women; “near Suf” they rebelled at the Red Sea; “between Paran and Tophel” they complained about the manna, etc. According to this understanding, Moshe, in reviewing the Israelites’ itinerary, was also critiquing the people for their behavior, suggesting that what seems to be a mere litany was in fact laced with commentary and critique.

The very first words Moshe speaks to the people in our parashah—the words with which he opens his final address—also indicate that Moshe was offering an account of the past that reflected his own preoccupations. We might have expected him to start at the very beginning, with the inauguration of his own prophetic career at the burning bush, or with the story of the flight from Egypt. But instead, Moshe seems to start in media res: “The Lord our God spoke to us at Horeb saying: ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Start out and make your way to the hill country” (1:7). Moshe begins his address by quoting God’s charge to the people to depart from Sinai, suggesting that this was a key moment in Moshe’s understanding of the events of the past. Perhaps for Moshe, the departure from Sinai represented the first time the people had to learn to take Torah with them. Having just received the Torah at Sinai, the people who traveled away from the mountain had to find a way to carry Torah inside of themselves and ensure that it became a part of them once the fiery experience of revelation was over. This is also the challenge that Moshe faces when he expounds on the Torah in Sefer Devarim: How can he review and teach Torah in a way that the people will remember it and will carry it around with them always?

As Moshe understood, when we interpret Torah from our perspective and through the lens of our experience, we ensure that it remains relevant and vital. When Moshe “expounds” on Torah in the book of Deuteronomy, he is not merely reviewing the past; he is also showing us how the past continues to shape us. As we learn from Moshe’s final address, the way we remember our history and the way we retell our stories determines the people we are today, and the people we will become.

Fainting is Romantic. Washing Dishes is Not.

In our reading of Anne of Green Gables, we keep encountering the word “romantic,” and each time the girls ask me to clarify what exactly it means. The only time we had come across the word before was in our reading of Sunrise, Sunset, a beautiful picture book adaptation of the song from Fiddler on the Roof which Daniel and I received as a baby gift when Matan was born. The text of the book is comprised of the words of the song, accompanied by illustrations of Tevye’s oldest daughter Tzeitel and the little boy, Motel, who starts out as her playmate and becomes first her lover, then her husband, and then the father of their beaming little baby. But there is one two-page spread that has no words. I know I ought to pause there and just let the kids take in the magnificent field of sunflowers where Tzeitel and Motel dance together in the joy of their blossoming young love, but instead each time I sigh and say, “So romantic.”

Back when I read this book to the twins, they were too young to realize that these pages actually don’t have any words, and that I was making them up. Back then, “romantic” was one of the many English words we encountered in literature that they didn’t understand, and they never bothered to ask me what it meant. But one time when we received the gift of a bouquet of sunflowers from a visiting houseguest, the girls were reminded of “Sunrise, Sunset” and pronounced that the flowers were “so romantic.” Our guest—a former student of Daniel’s who needed a place to stay overnight for a local celebration—was understandably puzzled. What had Daniel told the kids about faculty-student relations?

By now the girls know that “romantic” is not about sunflowers—or not necessarily about sunflowers, perhaps I should say—but they can’t figure out what exactly it means. Anne tells Marilla she wants to be called Cordelia because it’s such a more romantic name; Anne, she insists, is terribly unromantic. “Is Liav a romantic name?” my daughter asks me. For a moment I try to imagine Liav standing in a field of sunflowers with a young man holding her arms and gazing into her eyes lovingly, whispering, “Oh, Liav.” Falling in love and experiencing the joy of requited love while still young is one of the life’s greatest blessings, regardless of what ultimately comes of the relationship; I fervently pray that it happens for all my children. But Liav is eight years old, which is not what I mean by young. Is Liav a romantic name? Someday it might be, I hope.

“My life is a graveyard of buried hopes,” Anne tells Marilla when she realizes that she may not be allowed to stay at Green Gables after all. When Marilla objects to Anne’s description, Anne tells her that it’s the most romantic way she can think of to comfort herself. “Oh, so romantic means sad,” Tagel tells me. “Like when you’re really disappointed, that’s romantic. Is that right?” Liav tries to connect it to what we read the previous day. “So Anne is a sad name? Really?”

I appeal to Daniel, who is teaching a class on the British Romantics this semester. He tells me that that romantic “with a small r” means guided by sense rather than sensibility. Anne is romantic because she’s governed by her feelings and passions, unlike Marilla, who is primarily guided by reason and practicality. That makes sense, so to speak, and it accords with the dichotomy between Anne and Marilla throughout the book, but I’m not sure it’s something I can explain to Liav and Tagel, who are still years off from reading Sense and Sensibility, let alone the British Romantics. Besides, I’m forever telling them to think before they act, and not to lash out at their younger sister just because they’re frustrated. “Don’t let your emotions get the better of you,” I tell them. But how does that accord with Anne’s valorization of romanticism? Do we all become less romantic as we age? I don’t think I want to know the answer.

When Anne is in the depths of despair because Marilla has told her she can’t go to the school picnic, Anne declares she can’t eat dinner; as she tells Marilla, boiled pork and greens are so unromantic. No sooner do I finish the sentence than I rush to ward off the inevitable. “No,” I pre-empt the girls. “Unromantic does not mean it’s not kosher. I mean, yes, boiled pork is not kosher, that’s true. But it’s also a boring, ordinary food, and Anne wants to eat something unusual when her feelings are so….deep.” I tell them. I explain that’s also why she insists she can’t wash the dishes when she’s so excited about the prospect of a reunion with her best friend Diana; washing the dishes is so unromantic, as she tells Marilla. I try to explain to the girls that romantic is the opposite of the ordinary and the everyday; it’s about something special, idealized, and infused with great feeling.

The next day Daniel wakes up early to exercise on our porch, and then he heads straight to minyan, without drinking. He comes home and tells me he fainted during the silent Amidah prayer, and the other men revived him with a drink of water. “Anne says fainting is very romantic,” Liav informs us all knowingly, and it’s true; Anne tells Marilla that she wishes she could faint because it would be awfully romantic. (Later when she falls off the ridgepole and actually faints from the pain, she changes her mind.) Maybe the girls think that Daniel fainted because he was so overcome by powerful emotion when he was davening. In any case, they seem far less concerned than I am, which is not a bad thing.

I wonder whether the girls understand the connection between romance and love. Anne tells Marilla that Lover’s Lane—which is what she calls the Birch Path—is such a romantic name, and she declares that her classmate Ruby Gillis’ sister’s marriage proposal is insufficiently romantic. But Anne herself does not fall in love until the third book, when she receives marriage proposals from the right man, then the wrong man, and then the right man once again. I don’t plan to read that book to my girls for a while. When I read them All-of-a-Kind-Family two years ago, back when they were six, we stopped before the final book about Ella, because I decided they were too young to appreciate the romance between Ella and Jules. I feel the same way about the later books in the Anne series. We will read them. There will be romance in my girls’ future. But not yet.

Yitzvi Runs Away

Yitzvi, at age two, is increasingly light on his feet. He enjoys running around the house and hiding in closets and under tables, waiting for us to discover him and then squealing in visible delight when we do. “Where’s Yitzvi?” I’ll ask the twins while we are in the kitchen making pizza, spreading tomato sauce over the dough. The girls will shrug their shoulders, and I’ll run down the hall and discover him “cleaning” the toilet, one hand in the bowl and the other wielding a dripping toilet brush. “Oh Yitzvi,” I’ll sigh, my exasperation tinged with obvious amusement as I lift him up to wash and soap his hands. “What are we going to do with you?”

Usually at bedtime he will sit on Shalvi’s bed flipping through board books while I read Shalvi a story or two, but last night he had no interest in sitting still. I let him run off, assuming he would join Daniel, who was cleaning up dinner.
That night Shalvi wanted to read Alfie Runs Away, the story of a little boy about Shalvi’s age—five, maybe six—who informs his mother that he is going to run away after she tells him that she is giving away his favorite red shoes, which he has outgrown. His mother is wise enough to know not to stop him. She is wiser, for sure, than the mother of the Runaway Bunny, who follows her charge to streams and trees and hidden gardens. Instead of chasing him, or telling him not to run away—which would of course only encourage him further—she advises him to take the proper provisions: a water bottle in case he gets thirsty, a flashlight with extra batteries in case it gets dark, peanut butter and crackers in case he gets hungry, and a bag to carry it all. He also takes his stuffed Buddy Bear after his mother warns him that the bear might miss him, and three books, including one about a toad and a frog.

“Ima, we have that book,” Shalvi interrupts me. We squint to try to make out the picture of the book that Alfie stuffs in his back. Is it indeed a book from the same Frog and Toad series we love? I decide it must be, if only because we relish these moments of intertextual allusion, when we discover one beloved book hiding in the pages of another. It’s like discovering a familiar friend in an unexpected place, like the time we ran into one of Shalvi’s preschool classmates at the zoo. Who would have thought we’d stumble upon Frog and Toad in Alfie Runs Away?

Just before Alfie heads out the door, his unwieldy sac on his back, his mother offers to put a hug in the bag as well. Alfie tells her she is being silly, but he doesn’t resist. He steps onto the back porch, goes down the stairs, and decides his back is getting too heavy, so he camps out in the backyard with Buddy Bear. They stay there for a while, reading stories as the sun sinks lower in the sky.

Alfie never gets any further than the back yard. When he starts to get lonely, he looks for his mother’s hug in the bag, but of course it’s not there. Just then his mother—once again with her impeccable intuition—comes out to give Alfie a real hug and escort him home. And so the back yard functions as a safe space where Alfie can play at running away without any of the dangers that really doing so might entail. There are no streets to cross. There are no strangers to encounter. There is no getting lost. I am tempted to ask Shalvi if she’s ever wanted to run away, but I realize I don’t have to. The book can function, for Shalvi, like Alfie’s back yard – it is a safe space where she can imagine running away without actually having to do so. So I don’t ask, but I’m relieved when she tells me anyway that if she ever ran away, she would make sure to come home for dinner. “Thank goodness,” I tell her, taking my cues from Alfie’s mother. “If you ran away for longer than that, I would miss you too much.”

In the end of the book Alfie decides to put his old shoes on Buddy Bear, since they’ll never grow too small for the stuffed animal. Ironically once Alfie agrees to get new shoes, he’ll be able to run even faster and even further, and perhaps it was his ambivalence about that prospect that in part motivated his running away in the first place. The midrash on the book of Genesis teaches that after Joseph’s brothers threw Joseph into a pit, they sold him to Ishmaelite traders for the price of a pair of shoes, and I’ve always wondered if this was a testament to their own desire to walk away from the crime. Alfie wishes to walk away from his mother, but in order to do so, he’s going to need to agree to give up his old shoes and get new ones.

When Shalvi and I finish the story, I tell her it’s time to read to Yitzvi – except that Yitzvi is nowhere to be found. “Daniel, I’m coming to get Yitzvi,” I call down the hall, but alas, no.
“YItzvi’s with you, isn’t he?” Daniel calls back a bit louder than necessary, since I’m now in the kitchen next to him, and I can see that Yitzvi is nowhere in sight. “Did we lose Yitzvi?” I ask. The kids rally to the task, searching for him in all the likeliest places, but alas, no Yitzvi. I know there is no point in calling out his name, because that will only encourage him to play along. And sure enough, moments later, we discover a grinning Yitzvi perched on a chair on our porch wearing only a diaper and sandals. Who knew he could open the porch door all on his own? He has a pacifier in his mouth and two in his hand; with the other hand he’s strapping and unstrapping the Velcro on his sandals, as if contemplating how far they might take him someday. “Oh Yitzvi,” I sigh once again, and carry him off to bed. Next time I’ll be sure to read Alfie Runs Away to Yitzvi, too.

Why Should We Be Excluded? (Pinchas)

Our parashah introduces the five daughters of Tzlofchad, who petition Moshe to be allowed to inherit a portion in the land of Israel after their father died leaving no male heir. Moshe takes their case before God, who rules that “the plea of Tzlofchad’s daughters is indeed just” (Numbers 27:7), and they should receive a hereditary portion of land among their father’s clan. While the valor and eloquence these daughters demonstrate in the biblical text is laudable in its own right, the rabbis of the Talmud and midrash shower them in praise, offering them as a timeless example of what it means to speak out against injustice and stand up for ourselves.

The Talmud in Bava Batra, in the context of the laws of inheritance, declares that “the daughters of Tzlofchad are wise, they are interpreters of verses, and they are righteous” (Bava Batra 119b). The rabbis then proceed to demonstrate how the daughters displayed each of these virtues. First, they were wise in that they presented their case before Moshe at an auspicious time. They waited until Moshe, who was in the midst of teaching Torah to the people, came to the laws of levirate marriage, in which a man dies leaving no son to inherit him and his brother marries his widow to perpetuate the name of the deceased. It was then that they interjected, making their case about perpetuating their late father’s name. The daughters knew that to effect change, it is important to wait for the right moment to come forth and speak up; getting the timing wrong may mean losing the chance of being heard. And so they patiently waited until Moshe was most likely to be receptive to their plea. The daughters’ patience is also evident from the Talmud’s discussion of their righteousness, which the rabbis attribute to their willingness to wait to get married until they found suitable partners. According to the Talmud, none of the five daughters married before age forty, at which point they were blessed with many children; here, too, they recognized the value of waiting until the time was right.

As the daughters of Tzlofchad knew, successfully effecting change is not just about auspicious timing, but also about arming oneself with knowledge so as to make an informed case. The rabbis in Bava Batra, in explaining how the daughters were “interpreters of verses,” relate that they were sufficiently well-versed in the laws of inheritance that they could say to Moshe, “If our father had a son, we would not have spoken up.” They knew the law, and they knew how to make a reasoned argument invoking the language of the law. And they knew that if the law seemed unjust, then it ought to be questioned and reconsidered. According to an early midrash, the daughters, upon first learning the laws of inheritance, took counsel with one another, saying,

God’s compassion is not like that of flesh and blood. Flesh and blood creatures have greater compassion for males than for female. But the One Who spoke the world into being is not like that, rather, His mercy extends to all, to the males and the females, as it is said, ‘The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is upon His works’” (Psalms 145:9) (Sifrei Bemidbar 133).

Tzlofchad’s daughters recognized that while human beings living at particular historical moments may be guided by the prejudices of their era, the eternal God extends compassion to all creatures regardless of gender. This source, from the early centuries of the common era, seems almost anachronistic in its feminism. And while it is perhaps anachronistic, too, for the daughters to quote from the book of Psalms, this midrash further underscores their learnedness, as well as their faith that God’s law must be just.

The daughters of Tzlofchad also succeeded because they knew to root themselves in tradition. They were not the first to appeal to Moshe because they felt excluded by the law; earlier in the book of Numbers, a group of individuals who were impure and hence unable to offer the Pesach sacrifice approached Moshe to ask, “Why should we be excluded (nigra) from presenting the Lord’s offering at its time with the rest of the Israelites?” (Numbers 9:7). Here, too, Moshe appealed to God, resulting in the institution of Pesach Sheni one month later as a way of including those who could not bring the Pesach sacrifice in the month of Nisan. The daughters of Tzlofchad use the same term (yigara, 27:4) to ask why their father’s name should be excluded from his clan, perhaps as a way for these learned women to remind Moshe that there already existed a precedent for amending the law.

The daughters’ respect for tradition is evident, too, from their frequent invocation of their father’s name in petitioning Moshe. Their request is not about them, but about their veneration of their father, whom they reference repeatedly: “Our father died in the wilderness… Let not our father’s name be excluded from his clan… Give us a holding among the kinsman of our father (27:3-4). The midrash (Numbers Rabbah 21:10) states that the Torah’s account of their petition follows immediately on the heels of the Torah’s mention of the death of the generation of the spies at the end of chapter 26 to underscore the contrast between the men who did not want to enter the land and gain possession of it, and the women who demanded a portion in it. And so Tzlofchad’s daughters approached Moshe out of respect for tradition, respect for their father, and a deep love for the land of Israel.

The daughters of Tzlofchad, who appealed to Moshe out of concern for their father’s legacy, left an indelible legacy themselves. The Talmud (Bava Batra 119a) teaches that the portion of the Torah concerning the laws of inheritance was supposed to be written by Moshe, but on account of their appeal, the daughters merited to write this portion instead. They thus had a hand not just in shaping the Torah’s legislation, but also in recording that legislation in the Torah, where their names—Machla, Noa, Hogla, Milka and Tirza—are perpetuated. May we be guided by their example in our own efforts to ensure that those who might otherwise be excluded succeed in finding a place and a voice in our tradition.

Flawed Prophets (Balak)

In commenting on one of the final verses in the Torah—“never has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moshe” (Deuteronomy 34:10)—the midrash raises a surprising challenge from our parashah. While it is true that there has never been another Jewish prophet as great as Moshe, there has in fact been a gentile prophet who rivals him, and that is Balaam, who is summoned by the king of Moab to curse the Israelites during the final years of their desert wanderings (Bemidbar Rabbah 14). What was it that made Balaam so great, and why does the midrash regard him as Moshe’s counterpart? And what can a comparison between these two prophets teach us about what it means to serve as a conduit of the divine voice?

Although celebrated as great prophets, both Moshe and Balaam were imperfect individuals. Each lacked the confidence that they would be successful in their missions: Moshe told God at the burning bush that he was “not a man of words” and had “uncircumcised lips” (4:10) and was therefore reluctant to be a spokesperson for God. And Balaam, who initially resists King Balak’s entreaties to come curse the Israelites, warns the king that he is limited in what he can say: “I can utter only the word that God puts in my mouth” (22:38). As Avivah Zornberg points out in her book Bewilderments, both prophets suffer from speech impediments of sorts – they do not feel they have full command of their powers of speech, and therefore they question their ability to fulfill the mission with which they are charged.

Both prophets, too, suffer from an inability to control their anger. Moshe grows furious at the Israelites for worshipping the golden calf and shatters the first set of tablets; he then grows angry at the people when they complain about the lack of water at Marah, and strikes the rock rather than speaking to it. He also lashes out at the people: “Listen up you rebels, shall we get water from you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10). Balaam, too, resorts to violence when his ass, which he is riding en route to curse the Israelites, suddenly halts and pushes him against the wall; the Torah relates that “Balaam was furious and beat the ass with his stick” (22:27). Balaam, who cannot see the angel intercepting the path, lashes out at his ass verbally as well, telling his animal, “If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you” (22:28). Perhaps it is not unrelated to their speech impediments that both men speak harshly in moments of anger, and resort to violence when words do not seem to suffice.

God recognizes each prophet’s shortcomings, and as a result, neither man merits dying the way he desired. Moshe is not allowed to lead the people into the Promised Land, and is buried “in the valley of the land of Moab, near Bet Peor” (Deuteronomy 34:6) in the same country whose king summoned Balaam, and near the very hill of Peor where Balak brought Balaam to curse the Israelites. And Balaam, who declares in his prophecy, “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my end be like theirs” (Numbers 23:10), does not in fact come to a righteous end; the Talmud in Sanhedrin (90a) lists him among those who have no share in the world to come. Balaam is denied entry into the world to come just as Moshe is denied entry into the Promised Land; each leader is punished by being deprived of the ultimate fate he so fervently desires.

Although neither God, nor the Torah, nor the Talmudic rabbis gloss over their flaws, it is clear that both Moshe and Balaam have unique abilities to connect with God and intuit the divine will. Moshe alone was able to talk to God directly, as God asserts: “When a prophet of the Lord arises among you, I make Myself known to in a vision, I speak to him in a dream. Not so My servant Moshe…With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles” (Numbers 12:6-7). The Talmud (Yevamot 49b) explains that while all other prophets observed their prophecies through an obscured looking glass, Moshe’s prophecy was transmitted with total clarity– he directly perceived the divine will, undistorted by any ulterior motives which might twist the way he transmitted God’s word. Perhaps his insecurities furnished him with the humility to overlook his own personal needs and desires in favor of serving God’s people.

Balaam, on the other hand, was very much affected by his own motives and desires, so much so that he was unable to accept God’s injunction that he should not to go with Balak to curse the Israelites. And yet Balaam had another unique talent that distinguished his prophetic career – he knew how to intuit the exact moment of God’s wrath, and thus manipulate God’s anger. According to the Talmud (Berakhot 7a), God is angry for only a fraction of a second every day, and Balaam—like a lightning rod perfectly positioned to absorb the shock—knew how to calculate that moment and harness God’s wrath against others. Balaam knew how to manage God’s anger, even if he could not manage his own. Indeed, perhaps it was because of Balaam’s own struggles that he knew how to intuit and manipulate the moment of God’s wrath. He was so extraordinarily intimate with God’s anger that he knew what Balak refused to accept, namely that a prophet cannot curse anyone God deems worthy of blessing: “How can I damn whom God has not damned, and how can I doom who God has not doomed?” (Numbers 23:8).

A comparison of Moshe and Balaam suggests that perhaps it is not in spite of their flaws that each man is regarded as a great prophet, but rather on account of their flaws. God chooses to communicate through Moshe and Balaam not because they are perfect, but because each has a unique ability to convey God’s word. Moshe, in spite of uncircumcised lips, furnishes the people with the teachings they will need in order to create a society aligned with God’s will in the land God has promised. And Balaam, in spite of his lack of control of his own speech, delivers a blessing so eloquent that it becomes a part of the daily liturgy: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob” (Numbers 24:5). Their example reminds us that to channel God’s word, we need not rid ourself of our imperfections, but learn how to harness them to our advantage. Our struggles to speak can teach us to hear the words of others more clearly. Our difficulty overcoming our anger can ultimately make us more empathic. No one is perfect, but if we succeed in finding a calling which draws on both our strengths and our weaknesses, we may find that accepting our humanness affords us, like the prophets, the possibility of transformation.