Sinai in the Cranny of the Gym

When my twins told me about their upcoming Chumash ceremony, I at first did not believe them. “Ima, on Rosh Hodesh Kislev we have a Mesibat Chumash – everyone is going to receive their own copy of the Torah,” they told me excitedly. “Are you sure?” I asked them, knitting my brows in suspicion. The first of Kislev was only two days away. The school usually sent out calendar notifications weeks in advance. Even if it was just a Zoom link—which I assumed it would be—I expected that the teachers would have sent it by now. Prior to the revelation at Mount Sinai, God gave the Israelites three days’ notice, instructing Moses to “Go to the people and warn them to stay pure today and tomorrow. Let them wash their clothes. Let them be ready for the third day; for on the third day the Lord will come down, in the sight of all the people, on Mount Sinai” (Exodus 19:11). Why hadn’t we heard anything about this event?

I thought back to my son’s Chumash ceremony two years earlier, held in the spacious high-ceilinged sanctuary of a local synagogue because the school auditorium—also known as the lobby—was not large enough to contain all the parents, grandparents, and siblings who came to celebrate the occasion. The room was decorated with branches and flowers, as is customary on Shavuot as well, because of the tradition that Mount Sinai was carpeted with flowers and greenery during the revelation. The children sang and danced and paraded before us in their “festive dress” – white shirts and dark pants and skirts, and a paper crown with a pop-up of the Ten Commandments over their foreheads. One by one they were called up by the school rabbi, who shook their hands and handed them a certificate; then their teacher hugged each child and presented a Chumash. Afterwards the parents lingered to mingle and take more photos and only very slowly did the crowd disperse.

I knew that with the twins it would be different. The pandemic is far from over – the Chumash ceremony is generally held at the end of first grade, just when the kids begin learning Genesis, but now it’s already November of second grade. They finished Breishit and started Noah two weeks ago — just last night I clarified for Liav that no, Yephet was not a girl, but a boy like Shem and Ham. I wasn’t expecting to be invited—even at Sinai there were boundaries: “You shall set bounds for the people round about, saying, ‘Beware of going up the mountain or touching the border of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death’” (19:12). It was dangerous to draw too close to Sinai when God descended in a cloud to give the Torah, just as it was dangerous to congregate too closely in Corona times. But I would have thought that at the very least we’d receive a Zoom link so we could watch the ceremony from afar.

I almost forgot about the event until I receive a Whatsapp message from the teacher instructing us to dress the kids in “festive dress” the next day. Instead of the school uniform, a solid-colored shirt with the school logo, the girls went to school in their white shirts and black skirts—the same ones they had worn when they organized their own Siddur ceremony at home during the lockdown. But otherwise it felt like a regular day, at least for their parents. When I came to pick them up, they were waiting at the school gate clutching their new Chumashim to their chests, eager to show me the nameplates they had inscribed for themselves: “May I always learn new things in Torah”; “I hope I always find joy in learning from my Chumash.”

“How was the ceremony?” I asked them. “What happened?” They told me that each second grade class had been called to the gym at a different time to receive their Chumash from their teacher. The school rabbi played his guitar from the other side of the basketball court and sang a few songs, his mask lowered to his chin so he could project his voice; the students clapped along from the bleachers. There was a white tablecloth covering the folding table where the Chumashim were stacked, but other than that, the room was unadorned—Tagel told me that the floor mats were still out and she wished they had let her turn some cartwheels. The kids chanted a few verses from the opening of the Torah, and then filed back to their classroom to eat their lunches—the unexciting sandwiches and cucumber slices their parents packed every morning—at their desks.

We were still outside the school. I asked the girls to pose by the fence so I could take their pictures holding up their new Chumashim. They shrugged. “Ima, it wasn’t such a big deal,” Liav insisted. I was dismayed that the event did not seem more significant in their eyes. “Let’s have ice cream after lunch today,” I offered, hoping to make the day feel more special. But as they took off their shoes and washed their hands, I realized that something other than dairy dessert was in order to mark the giving of the Torah. There was something I needed to tell them.

“You know guys,” I told them, addressing my words to both Bnei Yisrael and Beit Yaakov. “Everyone thinks that Maamad Har Sinai happened at just one point in time. That Moshe went up to Mount Sinai, received the Torah, gave it to the people, and that was it.” Matan, who was sitting at the table with us, cut me off, convinced he knew where I was going with this. “Not true,” he said. “Moshe went up the mountain two times because he broke the first set.” That was true, I conceded, but I had something else in mind.

I told the kids about what happens after God gives Moses the Ten Commandments and after the golden calf episode, when Moses is all alone with God. Moses, having pleaded successfully with God to forgive the people, audaciously demands to see God’s glory. God responds, “You cannot see my face, because man cannot see Me and live” (33:20). However, God concedes that Moses may see His back. God instructs Moses, “Station yourself on the rock and as My Presence passes by, I will put you in the cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back, but My face must not be seen” (33:21-23). I explained to the kids that this was a sort of private revelation, for Moses alone.

I wanted the kids to understand that revelation was not just about the grand theophany at Sinai, when God came down in a cloud of fire with thunder and lightning, accompanied by shofar blasts as the mountain trembled violently. There was also a more subdued revelation that took place without the special effects, when Moses stood alone in the cranny of the rock and saw God from behind. I told them that their Chumash ceremony was sort of like that revelation in the cranny of the rock, since it took place not on the pulpit of a synagogue sanctuary decorated with greenery and crowded with family and friends, but in the bleachers of the otherwise empty school gym.

The rabbis teach in Pirkei Avot (3:6) that God is present wherever people sit and study Torah. Even if only one person is engaged in the solitary study of Torah, the divine presence rests upon that individual. I told the girls that every time they opened their Chumash to learn from it, the Shechina would be right there with them. It was a lesson I never would have thought to impart had my girls not received their Chumashim in the cranny of the school gym, their faces obscured by Corona masks.

That night, scrolling through my camera roll, I noticed that the photo I had taken of my girls holding their Chumashim on our way home from school was suffused with a radiant light. I noticed, too, that I had forgotten to ask the girls to take off their masks for the picture, and so I could not see their faces. I thought of Moses coming down the mountain with his skin all aglow – the people were blinded by his radiance and shrank from coming near him, so Moses put a veil over his face. Is a veil like a Corona mask? Is the light of the divine presence like the light in Jerusalem on a crisp autumn afternoon? Hard to know. But one thing is for certain. Though it was a revelation devoid of fireworks and fanfare—no thunder, no lightning, no mountain aflame—my girls in the gym at school had received the Torah.

Prayer as Pitchfork (Toldot)

This week’s parsha takes its name from the “generations” of Isaac, but in the opening verses, Isaac is forty and still childless. His wife Rebecca is barren, and Isaac pleads with God on her behalf. Only then does Rebecca conceive twins, ensuring that the generations of Isaac will continue. Isaac’s groundbreaking prayer, discussed in the Talmud, offers us a lesson in what it means to sow the seeds for a more flourishing future.

The Talmud considers Isaac’s prayer in the context of a discussion in tractate Yevamot (64a) about the case of a married couple who are unable to bear children. The Mishnah teaches that if a man remains married to a woman for ten years and she does not conceive, he is “not permitted to desist” from the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, and therefore must divorce her and/or marry an additional wife. The rabbis question whether ten years is really the limit, citing the example of Isaac, who married Rebecca at age forty (Gen. 25:20) but did not become a father until twenty years later (Gen. 25:26). They explain that Isaac is different, because he himself was infertile and therefore he knew there would be no point in divorcing his wife. With this example, the Talmud demonstrates that the law stipulated in the Mishnah is not as clear and absolute as it might seem – there are special cases and exceptions, especially when it comes to a matter so difficult and devastating.

In describing Isaac’s prayer for a child, the Torah uses an unusual term: “Isaac pleaded (va-ye’etar) with the Lord.” The Talmudic sage Rabbi Yitzchak, discussing his namesake, explains that this word comes from the same root as the word for “pitchfork” (eter): “Just as this pitchfork turns over the wheat from one place to another, so the prayer of the righteous turns over the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be He, from the attribute of rage to attribute of mercy.” Just as the pitchfork turns over the wheat, Isaac’s prayer turns over God—moves God, as it were – to make his wife fertile. Of course, as we now know better than ever before, in our modern age of science and technology, prayer is only one way of seeking to alleviate infertility. But the Talmudic rabbis use the case of Isaac to make an argument—provocative and controversial—about the power of petitionary prayers.

“Why were our forefathers infertile?” the Talmudic rabbis ask, and then go on to answer their own question: “Because God desires the prayers of the righteous.” How can God care more about eliciting prayer than about allaying human suffering? And yet perhaps it is the knowledge that God needs our prayers that can begin to allay our suffering. When confronted with situations that seem so painfully beyond our control, we feel our vulnerability and our dependence on God. In such moments, the Talmud teaches, it may be instructive to remember that God, too, is dependent on us – “because God desires the prayers of the righteous.”

This explanation comes up at only one other point in the Talmud, in the context of the fertility of the soil. The rabbis in tractate Hullin (60b) note that whereas the Torah relates on the third day of creation that “the earth brought forth grass” (Gen. 1:12), we are also told on the sixth day that “no shrub of the field was yet in the earth” (2:5). If the earth brought forth grass on the third day, how was there no vegetation three days later? Rav Asi explains that the grass emerged on the third day and stood poised at the opening of the ground, but did not grow until Adam came and prayed for it – which is meant to teach that “God desires the prayers of the righteous.” And so before Adam came along on the sixth day, there was indeed no “shrub of the field.”

The term used in the creation story for “shrub of the field” is siach ha-sadeh. The Torah employs a similar phrase later in Genesis when recounting that Isaac went out in the late afternoon “to meditate in the field” (la-suach basadeh) (Gen. 24:63) – a phrase the Talmudic rabbis understood as a reference to prayer (Berakhot 26b). Adam prays for the still-barren soil and Isaac prays in the fields and then for the alleviation of his wife’s barrenness. As the Talmud suggests, their prayers do not just nourish the natural world; they also, as it were, sustain and nourish God.

The connection between the growing blades of grass and the prayer of the human heart is captured beautifully in Shirat Ha-Asavim, a song by Naomi Shemer based on sources from Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav:

Know that each and every blade of grass has its own song…
How beautiful and pleasant to hear their song
It is very good to pray among them and to serve God in joy.

Isaac, who prayed among the blades of grass when he meditated in the field, ultimately succeeded in arousing divine mercy – his wife became pregnant with twins. Our parsha teaches that once Isaac became a father, he “sowed seeds in that land and reaped a hundredfold” (26:12). Issac the infertile patriarch is transformed not just into a father of multiples, but also into a sower of plentiful seeds. From the formerly impotent Isaac we learn about the potency of prayer to coax forth dormant potential – in the earth, and within ourselves.

Ivy, Bean & Clementine: A Series of Her Own

They say that twins ought to have separate identities. They should be allowed to cultivate different interests, and to have different friends. But for a long time we didn’t take this advice seriously. Our twins seemed to enjoy being in the same preschool and playing together with the same friends. The typical Israeli Gan resembles a one-room schoolhouse – it is big open room with a small kitchen area and bathroom off to the side, and a back door leading into a large yard with riding toys, a jungle gym, a wooden house where the kids can hide and play “Mishpacha,” family – known in English as “playing house.” During recess at Gan there were only two places to be – inside and outside. Liav always preferred the corner with the dolls, whereas Tagel wanted to be upside down on the monkey bars. At night I read them the same books simultaneously on Liav’s trundle bed which pulled out from Tagel’s; they slept just like they were positioned in the womb – twin A on the bottom, twin B on top. Liav sat on the side closer to her pillow; Tagel sat closer to the foot of the bed, and each girl snuggled up beside me. We were all inhabiting the same fictional world, whether it was the cottage where The Seven Silly Eaters were preparing Mrs. Peters’ birthday cake, or the zoo where the otters and leopards were Wild About Books, or the treehouse where The Berenstein Bears were watching Too Much TV. When I turned the last page of the last book in the stack on my lap, it was as if we were all on the same plane that had just landed with a thud, jolting us back from the cottage or the zoo or the treehouse to a darkened room lit by a reading lamp with the door closed and the girls beside me yawning and pleading for just one more story.

Now it is different. In our new house the girls sleep on opposite sides of the room, each on her own twin bed elevated off the floor by a box spring. Sometimes I read them both picture books, but more often they read to themselves. Ever since first grade their social lives have diverged – they are in separate classes, they play with different friends during different recess periods, and after school they have separate playdates. And at night in bed reading, they no longer inhabit the same social worlds either. Their beds are lined not just with stuffed animals but with a new assortment of fictional friends who come to visit every evening between bathtime and lights out.

At first I assumed the girls would just share books. We are allowed to take out eight books from the library at a time – I figured that meant that each girl would read her books and then exchange them with her sister. But for the most part Liav was uninterested in any book that Tagel had already read, and vice versa. Neither girl wanted to enter into a world with which her sister was already familiar. At first I didn’t notice, because in any case only Tagel would agree to read with me; Liav read voraciously in Hebrew but refused to read in English, especially as Tagel increasingly found her stride. I was reminded of an earlier stage of their development when Tagel had begun crawling but Liav refused to move anywhere; Tagel used to fetch anything Liav needed while Liav sat there regally. Each evening Tagel was delighted to lie next to me in her bed and take turns reading pages with me in Ivy & Bean, a series about two best friends living a few houses over from one another on a quiet cul-de-sac in a leafy American town. Tagel fell in love with both friends, perhaps because she saw elements of herself in each of them: She is athletic and spunky like Bean, but also bookish and self-reliant like Ivy. If I were to draw a caricature of Tagel, she’d be reading while standing on her head, legs shooting high up against the wall and face obscured by an upside-down paperback of Ivy & Bean. It sounds, come to think of it, like an illustration right out of an Ivy & Bean book.

The illustrations are part of the genius of this series, because they not just decorative but explanatory. Each black-and-white line drawing is perfectly accurate, capturing all the details in the text such that the young reader who does not understand a part of the story can look to the accompanying illustration for the clue. The illustrations are a sort of Rashi’s commentary, illuminating the text but also adding more details to fill in the missing parts of the picture. Rashi, who lived in eleventh-century France, was the preeminent commentator on the Bible and Talmud. Sometimes he merely explains what is meant by a given word or phrase, but often he will round out a story by adding details from the literary exegetical literature known as midrash. Tagel has been known to pore over the illustrations with the intensity of a scholar poring over the marginal notes in a sacred tome, teasing out every last detail, like the erasers. Ivy and Bean have a collection of them – 56 erasers in different shapes that they use to play Eraser Valley, in which the various eraser figurines battle hurricanes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters. Tagel spent at least ten minutes examining each eraser in the drawing, and she wouldn’t let me turn the page until we each picked our favorites. She wanted Liav to weigh in as well, but Liav refused to set foot in Eraser Valley. Ivy & Bean was Tagel’s domain, and Liav wanted no part of it.

Eventually Liav agreed to start reading with me, but it had to be her own series. Ivy & Bean was Tagel’s social world; Tagel had already befriended not just the titular characters, but also the family members and classmates who comprise a cast of supporting characters in each of the books. We had plenty of Ivy & Bean books on our shelves, but if Liav were to begin reading in English, she needed her own series. I was transported back to that moment when we’d decided to separate them for first grade. Liav needed her own friends – she wasn’t going to tag along with Dusit and Emma and Sophie S. and Sophie W. and Ivy and Bean’s other classmates. (Sophie S. and Sophie W.! I love the ingenious verisimilitude of two characters with the same first name distinguished by the first initials of their last names, though the author of course has the whole name dictionary at her disposal. It is so true: Nearly every elementary school classroom has at least two kids with twinned names who have to lug around the first initial of their last names in order to individuate.)

Liav knew that if she entered Ivy and Bean’s milieu, she would always be known as Tagel’s kid sister. Tagel would be books and chapters and pages ahead of her, and Liav would forever lag behind. Tagel would know just how to annoy her sister; she would pretend she could hardly hold herself back from spoiling the endings and wink at me above Liav’s head to show off what she and I already knew but Liav had not yet read. Literary scholars use the term dramatic irony to refer to a situation where the audience knows more than the characters; Tagel would always know more than Liav and would lord it over her sister, twisting dramatic irony into cruelty. Liav wanted none of it. And so I found her a series of her own.

Instead of the quiet cul-de-sac of Pancake Court, Liav and I found a home for ourselves in an apartment building in Boston, where eight-year-old Clementine—the well-intentioned but troublemaking heroine of the eponymous series by Sara Pennypacker—lives with her father, mother, and young brother. We befriended Clementine’s best friend Margaret, though we both agreed she was a bit stuck-up and obnoxious sometimes. We laughed together at Clementine’s antics and cheered her on when she managed to shine against all odds. We both agreed that the best book in the series was the one about the class talent show, in which spunky Clementine—convinced that she has no talent whatsoever and therefore can’t participate in the show—ends up helping the principal run the entire production, thereby proving that she has talent after all. We agreed, lying there in her bed together, that sometimes the best talent is just being yourself and finding the way that you can be most helpful. I told Liav that she had an extraordinary ability to connect with her young sister – often she was the only one who could understand what was upsetting Shalvi and calm her down. That too is a talent, we agreed. Liav has many talents in the conventional sense, but we both took away from the book an important lesson: Sometimes the art you create is not something you sketch or perform but the arc of the life you live by just trying to be your best self, day in and day out.

At night I alternated between reading Ivy & Bean with Tagel and Clementine with Liav. Sometimes I imagined their bedroom was divided down the center, midway between their beds – Tagel’s side of the room was lined with the potions Ivy had concocted in training to become a witch; Liav’s side was decorated with Clementine’s drawings. When we had ample time to read, I traveled from Boston to Pancake Court as I made my way from one bed to the other, sitting in on Ivy and Bean’s classroom and then on Clementine’s, joining in on one family dinner and then the other. I tried to keep their friends straight, but sometimes I’d get confused, and Tagel would look at me with a puzzled expression when I jokingly referred to baby Yitzvi as Mushroom, and then I would remember that it is Clementine—Liav’s friend!—who teasingly refers to her younger brother by various vegetable names.

I didn’t always make up the pages I’d missed when the girls read on their own, but I tried always to check in so I was up to date. “Did Clementine get sent to the principal again?” I’d ask Liav on our walk home from school, and it wouldn’t seem at all strange to her that I was asking about a fictional character and not a member of the class with whom she had just spent the morning. “This reminds me of the secret spot in Ivy’s backyard,” I’d comment to Tagel when we found a quiet corner of the park in which to change Yitzvi’s diaper. These comments, though seemingly offhand, became a way for me to connect with each twin individually – a sort of secret language that only we shared.

The two series of books are not all that different; they both feature annoying siblings, misunderstanding teachers, friends who show-off too much, and parents who seem at times unfairly strict. But then again, Liav’s school friends are not all that different from Tagel’s; they gravitate to the same kinds of girls, and occasionally they all end up playing all together in the yard after school, blurring the class boundaries. Inevitably there are arguments about who is allowed to play with whom, and who is considered a closer friend. These arguments are normal and perhaps even salutary. But at least when it comes to their fictional friends, there is a clear divide: Clementine will never play in the backyard at Pancake Court, and Ivy and Bean will never ride Clementine’s school bus. Sometimes the best talent is being yourself, which can be hard for all children, and especially twins. I’m grateful that Liav and Tagel each has her own fictional space—small enough to fit into her side of the bedroom, but large enough to fill the expanse of her imagination—in which to daydream, develop, and discover her talents.

Possession: A Romance (Hayey Sarah)

In the immediate aftermath of Sarah’s death, Abraham is consumed by the task of purchasing a plot of land in Canaan in which to bury his wife. At first the Hittim offer the land for free, and indeed we might think that Abraham would take them up on the offer – after all, God has just promised all the land of Canaan for him and his descendants. But in spite of the divine promise, Abraham insists on a financial deal that is fair and square, and he buys the land at full price for 400 shekels. This seems at first glance to be merely a dry account of an economic transaction, but when we dig deeper and look beneath the surface—this is, after all a story about burial—we see that for the rabbis of the Talmud, the burial of Sarah became the basis for several foundational discussions about marriage, ownership, and what it means for our love to outlive us.

On the first page of Masechet Kiddushin, the tractate of the Talmud that deals with betrothal, the rabbis draw explicitly on the story of Sarah’s burial to derive the law that a man may betroth a woman in any one of three ways – with money, with a document, or by means of sexual intercourse. The rabbis explain that the way we know that a woman may be betrothed by means of money is because of the story of Abraham’s burial of Sarah in our parsha. Just as the Torah uses the term “take” (kicha) to describe how a man marries a woman (“When a man takes a wife and possesses her,” Deuteronomy 24:1), so too does the Torah use this term to describe Abraham’s purchase of a burial plot (“Let me pay the price of the land, take it from me,” Gen. 23:13). And since we know that Abraham purchased the land with money, the rabbis conclude, we also know that a woman may be betrothed by means of money.

The notion of a woman being acquired by money—as if the woman is an object that can be owned—is antithetical if not outrageous to our modern sensibilities, especially since the transaction must always be the husband’s initiative. But as the analogy to Abraham’s purchase of a burial plot suggests, a woman is actually not like a commodity that can be transferred freely from one person to another, but rather like land, which is something else entirely. Throughout the Talmud the rabbis distinguish between moveable property (m’taltelin) and land (karka). Moveable property like a refrigerator or a bicycle can be owned fully. But as we know from the laws of the sabbatical year (Leviticus 25:23), the only one who truly owns the land is God; we humans are merely temporary custodians put on this earth to work it and to safeguard it. Land may belong to someone, just as one spouse may belong to another in marriage; but land, like a person, can never be truly owned.

And while the analogy between betrothal and burial may still seem unromantic, we must remember that it is not just any land that Abraham is buying – it is land in Canaan, the beloved homeland of the Jewish people, and the land that God has promised him. Abraham’s love for Sarah thus becomes a metaphor for the Jewish people’s love for the land of Israel. Our parsha suggests that theirs was quite a fierce love; when Sarah dies, Abraham weeps profoundly over her loss: “Sarah’s lifetime came to one hundred and twenty-seven years…and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her” (23:1-2). Regardless of how complex their marriage may have been—there was tension over the angels’ visit, tension over Hagar and Ishmael, and at least according to the midrash, tension over the Akedah—Abraham was devastated by Sarah’s death.

The Talmud in Bava Batra (58a) tells a story about a sage named Rabbi B’na’a whose job it was to mark burial sites so that people would not inadvertently step over them and contract impurity. When he came to the cave where Abraham and Sarah were buried, he discovered that Abraham was lying between Sarah’s arms, and she was caressing his head. It is a testament to the power of love to outlast even death, as articulated so beautifully in the Song of Songs (8:6): “For love is as fierce as death.” On account the force of his love for this woman to whom he promised himself in marriage, Abraham was determined to bury Sarah in the land promised to him by God. His “taking” of this land, like the “taking” of a woman in marriage, is not merely an economic transaction, but a model of what it means to be possessed by a love we can never truly own.

My Children and the Giant Peach

We are reading James and the Giant Peach and I’m not quite following this storyline. I’m reading aloud to the kids from my childhood copy, which is covered in red crayon scribblings. Even as a child it seems I didn’t care much for this book – I don’t remember being upset when a younger sister or brother defaced the back cover. I’ve never related much to animal stories, even when the animals are just stand-ins for human beings. In the same way that I can’t bring myself to follow the plot in animated films, I need real people in my books. I know it’s blasphemous to say so, but for me, Where the Wild Things Are is a book about a boy who gets in trouble, has an adventure, and then comes back home to find his supper still hot. My eyes glaze over the entire middle section, where Max becomes king of the Wild Things. I want to know what Max did wrong to deserve being sent to bed without supper, and whether his supper is still hot because his mother warmed it up again or whether we are supposed to conclude that he was away for no time at all because the wild things were in fact just a dream. I am far more preoccupied with the domestic drama than with where the wild things are.

This is my third time rolling down the garden slope inside the cavernous peach, and I still don’t remember much of the middle, where James meets the grasshopper and ladybug and centipede and all the other animals who have made their home inside the fully-furnished fruit. I’m caught up in the human story that begins, like so many of Dahl’s beloved tales, with a child in an unhappy family who gets lifted out of his misery by a fantastical turn of events that lands him in an entirely different and much-improved situation. James’ parents die in an accident that recalls the famous parenthetical at the beginning of Lolita, where Nabokov relates succinctly but suggestively that the narrator’s mother “died in a very freak accident (picnic, lightning)” – leaving us to imagine the rest. James’ parents “suddenly got eaten up (in full daylight, mind you, and on a crowded street) by an enormous angry rhinoceros which had escaped from the London Zoo.” I read that line quickly and looked up to see if the kids had followed. It’s a sentence that demands a pause when reading aloud – you don’t just go on breezily to the next paragraph after the main character’s parents get eaten by an escaped zoo animal, even if you’ve only known that character for two pages.

“Ima, keep reading, keep reading,” my son urged, as he does whenever I stop. I want to ask the kids if this reminds them of anything – of all the other books we’ve read in which the parents die or disappear on the opening pages. It’s every child’s fantasy and nightmare – to be liberated from their parents and to find adventure elsewhere, in a large country house with a secret garden or an enormous wardrobe leading to another realm. But my kids have already moved past the rhinoceros accident and want to know what it going to happen to James. So I read to them about the two horrible aunts who take him in, the fat, greedy Aunt Sponge and the bony, ghastly Aunt Spiker, who put James to work chopping wood. Until one day James meets an elfin old man, small and balding, who hands him a bag of magical green seeds, but James trips, and the seeds spill and fall into the earth – and we worry for a moment that this will be another devastating loss for recently-orphaned James. Except that instead it leads to all sorts of marvelous adventures involving the insects that ingest the seeds and the peach that grows magically bigger and bigger and eventually tramples the hideous aunts to death, so that for much of the book James is the only human character and the drama revolves around the centipede’s boots and the earthworm’s blindness and I keep reading but I’m not paying all that much attention anymore.

And yet my kids are riveted. They pore over every picture, trying to make out the finest details. They ask me questions about the intricacies of the plot – how exactly does James use the earthworm and the spider’s silken threads to bait the seagulls and rescue their sailing peach from the sharks threatening to eat it? I have to stop every few pages to remind them to take another bite of their sandwiches – we read during lunch, as soon as they come home from school and before they start their homework. They forget the food in front of them, their mouths gaping open I read of the giant peach that rises out of the water on seagulls’ wings.

Meanwhile I’m still focused on the elfin man and his bag of rustling green seeds, which transport James out of his wood-chopping drudgery into a world of magical creatures. School is not all that exciting for my kids, and nor is an afternoon of homework and violin practice and the unvarying evening triumvirate of bathtime, dinner, bed. We’re still in the midst of a pandemic, and they can’t invite friends over or attend birthday parties or play in the crowded playground. But the books we read are the magical seeds that lift the kids up, up and away from the fractions and the sandwiches and the violin scales. I feel fortunate that I get to be not just their parent—disciplining and demanding because daily devotion demands that too—but also the elfin man who bends down to proffer the magic. In a way I’m luckier – he scurries away leaving James with the bag of seeds, but I get to watch them grow and sprout. With every page we read together, our home reminds me more and more of the magical giant peach.

The Divine Marriage Counselor (Vayera)

When the angels visit Abraham to inform him that he will soon father a child, Sarah listens in from the sidelines. “Where is your wife Sarah?” (Gen. 18:9), the angels inquire, as if they are uncomfortable relaying news that will affect her so intimately—transforming not just her destiny but also her physical body—without at least knowing her whereabouts. The Torah relates that Sarah was listening from the entrance of the tent and Abraham was behind her, presumably unaware of her presence. When Sarah hears the news, she laughs b’kirbah, in that same inner space in which Rebecca would later feel the twins moving inside her (“and the boys struggled in her womb, b’kirbah,” [Gen. 25:22]). It is an instinctive laughter, one that is followed but not preceded by language: “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment – with my husband so old?” (18:12). Sarah may be laughing out of joy and wonder, but God gets angry at her seeming lack of faith and confides in Abraham – an exchange which the Talmud draws on to offer a lesson in the relative merits of truth and peace.

The Talmud in tractate Yevamot (65b) discusses this scene in an extended passage about the merit of preserving peace and harmony between individuals. The Talmud cites several instances in which biblical characters deviated from the truth or told a “white lie” in order to avoid causing offense. Following Jacob’s death, for instance, Joseph’s brothers told Joseph that their father had commanded them to tell him to pardon them (Gen. 50:16-17). Jacob never said any such thing, but his sons falsely attributed this statement to him in order to make peace with Joseph.

The Talmudic passage culminates with the assertion that even God deviated from the truth in order to make peace between individuals, citing a verse from our parsha: “Then the Lord said to Abraham: Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’ Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?” (18:14). This reads like a quote within a quote, but it is in fact a misquotation. Sarah actually expressed surprise at the news given her husband’s advanced age, but God omits all mention of Abraham. “Great is peace,” teaches the Talmud, since even God departed from the truth to preserve peace. God did not want Abraham to be angry at Sarah for laughing at his age, and so God stepped in as marriage counselor and emended Sarah’s words for the sake of peace.

The midrash in Leviticus Rabbah (9:9), picking up on this teaching, contains an extended discussion of the value of peace. Rabbi Yishmael points out that peace is so important that God was even willing to allow His great name to be blotted out in water for the sake of marital harmony. This is a reference to the Sotah ritual, in which a scroll containing God’s name is erased in water in a trial by ordeal conducted in the Temple to prove whether a woman suspected of adultery is guilty or not. According to the Talmud, God’s signature is truth (Shabbat 55a), and so when God’s name is dissolved in water, truth is erased for the sake of peace. Sometimes it is necessary to embellish or to change the details ever so slightly so as to avoid offending another person or mend a rift, and even God is not above dissolving truth for the sake of peace.

And yet perhaps the tension is not really between truth and peace, but between two different kinds of truth. There is the truth of what “really” happened – what we might call factual or objective truth. This is the truth that historians and scientists are beholden to, and it would be wrong if not criminal to willfully deviate from it. But there is also the truth of what we mean and what we feel at any given moment – what we might call emotional truth. This is the truth that poets and novelists seek to capture. Often a novelist will develop the germ of a character or scene from real-life people and events and then change the details while remaining true to the emotional reality – and, in so doing, offer deeper insight into how it feels to be a particular person, or to undergo a particular experience.

The factual or objective truth, based on what Sarah uttered, was that she was incredulous that her husband might bring her pleasure when he was so advanced in years: “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment – with my husband so old?” (18:12). But the emotional truth, which she could not even bring herself to say, is captured by her laughter and articulated by God: Sarah was astonished by the possibility of miraculously conceiving after so many years of hoping against hope. God, cognizant of what was happening b’kirbah—in her womb, and in her innermost self—reinterpreted her words so that they reflected this emotional truth and thus restored peace between Abraham and Sarah, who went on to name their long-awaited child for the laughter invoked by God to heal the rift.

Abraham the Astrologer (Lech Lecha)

From the moment he first encounters God, Abram is promised that he will become the progenitor of a great nation. Ultimately his name will be changed to reflect this destiny – Abram will become Abraham, meaning av hamon goyim, “a father of many nations” (Gen. 17:5). But for the duration of parshat Lech Lecha, Abraham remains childless, and even he—a man of such great faith that he uprooted his family in response to a divine call—begins to doubt God’s promise. Our parsha offers us a fascinating window into Abraham’s struggle with faith and doubt, offering us a way to navigate our own theological uncertainties.
As our parsha relates, following Abraham’s journey to Canaan, his descent to Egypt on account of famine, his subsequent return to Canaan, and his war against the four kings, Abraham finds himself in a crisis of faith: “O Lord God, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless” (15:2). In response, God takes him outside and instructs him to “look toward the heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them… so shall your offspring be” (15:5). The parsha book my children read beautifully illustrates this page with a dark sky filled with connect-the-dot constellations in the shape of little babies. And indeed, this sounds like a rather poetic promise—Abraham will have as many children as the stars in the sky—until we realize that Abraham was not just the first monotheist, but also an eminent astrologist.
Perhaps the most extensive treatment of astrology in the Talmud appears on the penultimate page of tractate Shabbat (156a), in which the sages debate whether the Jewish people have a mazal or not. (Mazal refers to a celestial body – when we say mazal tov, we are basically wishing that the stars should align.) The issue under discussion is whether astrological predictions apply to Jews, or whether divine providence overrides astrology. The third-century Babylonian sage Rav, who argues the latter, cites evidence from Abraham’s dialogue with God under the starry sky. According to Rav’s reading, Abraham expressed concern to God that his horoscope indicated that he would not have a son. God then took Abraham “outside” – not just outside into the night air, but also outside of his astrological mindset. God informed Abraham that while the planets control the fate of the Jewish people, God controls the movements of the planets. Even though Jupiter was situated in the west, God would move it to the east, thereby altering Abraham’s destiny and ensuring him an heir.
This is not the only Talmudic source that associates Abraham with astrology; after all, he came from the land of the Chaldeans, who were known for their astrological prowess. In tractate Bava Batra (16b), for instance, the Talmud interprets the verse “and God blessed Abraham with everything” (Gen. 24:1) as signifying that Abraham was so knowledgeable about astrology that all the kings of east and west would come to seek his wisdom. But it seems from Rav’s reading of the verses in our parsha that the true greatness of Abraham was not his skill at reading the stars, but rather his willingness to relinquish astrology in favor of faith in God.
The Torah relates that after God told Abraham to count the stars, Abraham “put his faith in God, and He reckoned it to His righteousness” (15:6). The Torah’s term for righteousness, tzedakah, is nearly synonymous with tzedek, the Hebrew name for Jupiter, which serves to explain why it is that particular planet that God had to shift. And indeed it took tremendous faith for Abraham to believe in God, especially when we consider that this exchange with God about counting the stars seems to have taken place not at night, but in broad daylight. This is apparent from the biblical verses that immediately follow God’s instruction to Abraham to count the stars. Abraham, commanded by God, takes a heifer, goat, ram, turtledove and bird and sacrifice them for the covenant of the pieces, and “as the sun was about to set, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a great dark dread descended upon him” (15:12). If the sun set during the covenant of the pieces, then God must have told Abraham to go outside when it was still day.
God told Abraham to count the stars at a time when there were in fact no stars visible in the sky, such that he could only imagine their presence. This kind of imagining is an affirmation of faith that recalls the anonymous inscription discovered in the wall of a German internment camp following World War II: “I believe in the sun even when it is not shining. I believe in love even when I feel it not. I believe in God even when He is silent.” Abraham had to count the stars even when he could not see them, and he had to believe in God’s promise even though the heavenly signs indicated otherwise. No wonder he serves as such a powerful religious model for us today, reminding us then even when God’s face is shrouded in darkness, we must nonetheless conjure forth points of light.

I Lost My Mother’s Watch

My baby, now ten months, has never had a bottle or a babysitter. He has spent most of his life at home with his parents and siblings – any time we are around someone else, he furrows his brow in suspicion and clings to us tight, and I think – פנים חדשות באו לכאן – a principle from the purity laws which literally means, “a new face has arrived here.” Yitzvi does not like new faces. Though he is often cared for by his father and siblings, he has never been apart from me for more than an hour since he was born – I leave him for early-morning runs and late-night walks and an occasional trip to browse in the bookstore, but otherwise he is always at my side.

Lately Daniel has noticed that any time I leave the room, Yitzvi begins to whimper, as if he is terrified that I am leaving him forever. In response, Daniel has begun throwing him a small plastic ball, which Yitzvi slithers on the floor to retrieve, shrieking with glee. Inevitably the ball will get away from him again, and Daniel will catch it, hold on to it, and look squarely at Yitzvi before throwing it again in his direction. In so doing, he is replicating a game that Freud observed in his infant grandson – the baby would throw a wooden reel attached to a piece of string so that it disappeared inside his crib, saying the word “fort” (go forth). Then he would pull the reel out of the crib by the string and say “da” (here). Freud understood that the baby was enacting the experience of the loss of the mother, playing out this loss as a way of training himself to tolerate absence. Each time Yitzvi catches the ball and then loses it again, he is learning to accept that Daniel and I will not always be at his side.

I commented to Daniel that if Yitzvi was training himself to tolerate loss, then he was essentially internalizing the lesson of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art,” a villanelle about the “art of losing.” The poet develops a catalogue of losses, beginning with the small things (“lost door keys, the hour badly spent”), then moving on to more significant and fantastical losses (“some realms I own, two rivers, a continent”), and culminating in the real loss that has motivated the writing of the poem – the loss of a loved one (“the joking voice, a gesture I love”). She tells herself to “practice losing farther, losing faster,” as if loss were a game that one could train oneself to get better at playing. Daniel reminded me that one of the first losses the poet chronicles is “my mother’s watch” – which we always understood to refer to a wristwatch, or perhaps a pocket watch, but certainly a time-keeping mechanism. Yet as Daniel brilliantly pointed out, “my mother’s watch” could also refer to the Bishop’s mother’s loving supervision in the sense of hashgacha – the constant presence of a parent watching over. Each time I walk out of the room, Yitzvi loses his mother’s watch, a loss he must practice time and time again.

Not long ago, in our study of tractate Shabbat in daf yomi, we learned in the Mishnah that “young boys may go out on Shabbat with knots” (66b) The Talmud asks about the nature of these knots, explaining that they relate to a case where “a son has longings for his father,” unable to separate from him. In such a situation, the father “takes a strap from the right shoe on ties it on the boy’s left arm.” These knots—the Hebrew word is kesher, meaning connection—are a way of binding father and son and helping the child overcome his longings. The Talmud goes on to relate the mnemonic for remembering which shoe and which arm is Tefillin, which are tied by the right hand on the left arm. As Mara Benjamin notes in The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity and Jewish Thought, Tefillin, like the strings linking father and son, function as transitional objects enabling us to train ourselves to cope with loss. Jews wear Tefillin to experience the force of our connection to God in spite of the distance – they are a reminder of God’s watch over each and every one of us, known in Jewish theology as hashgacha pratit.

In just over two weeks, Yitzvi is supposed to attend a small daycare for a few hours each day. We have no idea how it will work – how will the baby who refuses to drink from a bottle and is terrified of all new faces agree to lose his mother’s watch every morning? And how will we, as his parents, not wince in pain when he tugs at the taut strings binding us together even from a distance? I suppose we have no choice but to follow the commandment inscribed in the Tefillin we bind and unbind – to love him with all our heart and soul and might, and with the fierceness of that love, to let him go.

Rav Adin Steinsaltz, z”l

The weekend that Rav Adin Steinsaltz, zecher tzaddik li’vracha, passed away, I was in the middle of editing an article about Zoom shiurim for a friend, writing an Elul course proposal for a local Jerusalem yeshiva, and translating an essay for a collection of feminist midrashim. At every turn, I found myself consulting my well-thumbed volumes of Talmud or checking another source on Sefaria. Although I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, each of these projects brought me in contact with the teacher who made this entire world accessible to me.

Although I am surely not the only one to say this, I would never have become a student of Talmud if not for Rav Adin Steinsaltz. He is the teacher who opened the gates of Talmud Torah for me when I first began studying daf yomi fifteen years ago with a slim brown volume of Masechet Yoma, illuminated with commentaries by Rashi in one margin and Rav Steinsaltz in the other. On days that I had time to read only one of the marginal commentaries, I read Rav Steinsaltz over Rashi – he was closer to me in time and place. A Jerusalem native, Rav Steinsaltz’s center of Torah learning was just neighborhoods away on a small side street in Shaare Hesed that I often passed on the way to my son’s speech therapy. And yet I met him only once, nearly a decade ago, when I attended a lecture he gave at the Begin Center and waited in a long line to thank him personally for his profound impact on my life. To him I was surely one of thousands of people to acknowledge this debt of gratitude, and I’m not even sure he could hear me above the din of the crowded reception hall.

But above the din of hundreds of generations of Torah scholars, his voice joins a select chorus of major rabbinical figures who forever changed the face of Jewish learning. It was his Talmud that enabled me—and so many others—to make the Talmud my own. His marginal notes—on zoology, history, philology, medicine—inspired me to begin jotting down my own comments, which have now overrun the margins of my Steinsaltz Gemarot, leaving little space between his printed authoritative commentary and my scribbled reflections. You might say we have grown increasingly close over the years, and indeed, when people ask me who my daf yomi havruta is, I always answer – Rav Steinsaltz. I have spent every morning with him for the last fifteen years; for me he will forever be the Acharon who came first.

Tomorrow we will conclude Masechet Shabbat in daf yomi. As we learned on a recent daf – חכם שמת – הכל קרוביו. When a sage dies, all are close to him (105b). The Talmudic rabbis understand this to mean that all Jews are obligated to rend their garments and mourn when a great scholar passes away. Blessed is the generation to have merited such a towering teacher of Torah. Y’hi zichro baruch.

Where the Meanings Are — On Praying in the Park

This past Shabbat we davened in a minyan led and comprised by men – and yet I was surprised to discover that it offered me a glimpse of a uniquely feminist prayer space.

For the first few months of this pandemic, we did not go to shul at all. Daniel and I davened independently at home and the kids joined in when they saw fit. Some weeks they used our barstools to create an Amud and distributed aliyot so that we might have a “proper” Torah service. Each person was assigned multiple aliyot, including Yitzvi, who still hasn’t reached the age of thirteen months—let alone thirteen years. The kids used my silver Yad to follow along as I read from the Chumash, which they then dressed in one of Yitzvi’s baby gowns. At the conclusion of each week’s home-shul, they organized “kiddush,” which basically meant they could eat any junk we had in the house and spoil their appetites for lunch.

Around Shavuot, Daniel began davening with a minyan that met in the park outside our building, one of countless outdoor minyanim that have sprung up in recent months on the porches and parks all over the city. Sometimes the kids would join him, but there was always someone still sleeping who could not be left alone, so I’d daven on the porch and try to listen in – feeling somewhat like the Rebbetzin in Amy Gottlieb’s The Beautiful Possible, who hears Kol Nidre from her backyard. I thought of it as a temporary matter, just for the duration of the pandemic – but “a temporary matter” can lead to the revelation of deep truths, as I know from Jhumpha Lahiri’s eponymous short story about a grieving couple who finally open up to one other during a power outage. I realized distressingly that this was now the model we were presenting to the kids: Abba goes out to daven with a minyan, and Ima stays home. At that point I didn’t yet realize how much I missed shul; I was primarily concerned with the example we were setting.

This past Shabbat, we all made sure to daven with the minyan in the park, both in the evening and in the morning. I am generally loath to daven in all-male minyanim; the presence of women does not make me feel more comfortable if the women don’t count. And yet the minyan in the park was not quite what I expected. True, there were far fewer women than men, and the women stood on the periphery; but the daveners spaced themselves so far apart from one another that when I stood on the edge I did not feel marginalized. Some members of the minyan were standing near the playground at one end of the park; I stood at the foot of the slide, relieved that for once my stroller was not blocking an aisle. The kids ran over to me from time to time to help themselves to their water bottles or to the pretzels I kept under the stroller, and I would call their attention to the part of the davening we were up to. I imagine they heard as much of the davening as they hear in our regular shul, where they are constantly running in and out. In the outdoor minyan, though, we had no one begging us to leave and go out to the playground – they were there already.

The Talmud often assumes a dichotomy between the beit midrash and the shuk, the study house and the marketplace. The beit midrash is “inside”—it is where the elite scholars sit and study Torah, which is referred to as eternal life, חיי עולם. The shuk is “outside” – it is where the unlearned masses buy and sell and occupy themselves with the things of this temporal world, חיי שעה. When a scholar shares an inappropriate or incorrect teaching, his rabbi will sometimes tell him dismissively to go take his teaching to the shuk – implying that his words have no place in the sanctum of the beit midrash, where the scholars strive for truth. At other points in the Talmud, a scholar will offer a teaching that would be dangerous to share with the masses—such as a halakhic leniency that could lead to lapsed behavior—and his colleagues will tell him that he is correct, but he should not to teach his ruling in the marketplace. Various stories (Yoma 87a, Moed Katan 16a) pit the characters of rabbi and butcher against one another, not necessarily as antagonists but certainly as antitheses: One is learned and lofty, while the other is physical and fleshy. Shul and the playground seemed to be a similar dichotomy of inside and outside. But now that shul was outside, the boundaries had collapsed – I could daven maariv with a minyan while watching my kids play, and they could hear Kabbalat Shabbat while hanging from the monkey bars. Afterwards, Liav told me, “It was fun to go to shul in the playground. It’s nice that Hashem is everywhere.” The whole world, she understood, is filled with His glory.

And yet we feel that glory in some settings more than in others. I know many women who refuse to daven in any minyan that is not fully egalitarian. That was me for a long time, and someday perhaps it will be me again. But at this point in my life, my spiritual needs take precedence over my religious ideals, and I would rather daven in a non-egalitarian minyan than daven alone. The Talmud in Avodah Zarah (4b) warns that a person should never daven Musaf alone on Rosh Hashanah, lest he or she be the only person davening at that moment and God’s judgement be focused on that person entirely. Better that we should approach God as a community, with all our collective human foibles.

If it allows more parents to daven as part of a community, then I’m all in favor of playground minyanim. While prayer isn’t quite like swinging on a tire swing, perhaps it’s not all that different from running in a relay race, with the prayer leader setting the pace. There are times when you are running and times when you are just standing there waiting for someone to pass you the baton. I tend to daven quickly, and so when I daven with others, I spend a lot of time waiting. It is in those lulls between various blessings and psalms that I often figure out what it is that I am really trying to say to God. Like the pauses between the movements of a symphony or the white spaces between the stanzas of a poem, the interstices of prayer are—in the words of Emily Dickinson—where the meanings are. Often in those moments of waiting, the kids distract me – Liav needs water, Shalvi fell down, Yitzvi woke up suddenly from his nap. I am fortunate they are all there to fill the white spaces, cognizant that they, too, are part of my prayers.